There are many paths a team can travel to October. But in case you hadn’t noticed, there are a few juggernauts out there trying to sneak into this postseason in ways almost no one has before them.

So who would those juggernauts be? Thanks for asking. Here they come:

THE ROYAL POWER OUTAGE

RoyalsThe good news is, we know now that the Royals are going to outhomer Nelson Cruz this season. There were times a couple of months ago we weren’t so sure.

But the bad news is, the Royals are still on pace to hit a mere 99.8 home runs this season. So maybe they finish with 100 homers. Maybe they don’t. But if they don’t, you should know that playoff teams that don’t hit 100 home runs are almost as rare as a day without a Kardashian headline.

Ready for the complete list of American League teams that have reached the postseason without hitting 100 home runs in a 162-game season? Here goes:

" Amos Otis’ 1978 Royals – 98
" Freddie Patek’s 1976 Royals – 65

That’s the entire list. And perhaps you’ll notice a common theme there. By which we mean “Royalty.”

This is obviously either a Royals thing or a Royals/Kauffman Stadium thing, because the last American League team to appear in the postseason without A) playing in Kansas City or B) hitting 100 homers in a full season was Nellie Fox’s 1959 Chicago White Sox. And they’re the only AL team to fit those criteria since Roy Cullenbine’s 1945 Tigers.

Will these Royals join that club? Well, if it means anything, they’ve actually outhomered the Angels (22-18) since the All-Star break, and outhomered all but three teams in the American League during their sizzling August. But is this what they really are? Amos Otis and Freddie Patek eagerly await the answer to that question!

And one more thing: One additional amazing Royals note, passed along by Grantland’s Rany Jazayerli: Twice this year, the Royals have fallen 7 games behind in the AL Central -- and twice made up all seven games of that gap to take undisputed possession of first place. And only one other team in history has ever roared from at least 7 games behind to occupy first place all by itself two different times in the same season: Dustan Mohr’s 2003 Twins (who caught -- who else? - the Royals).

OBP-LESS IN SEATTLE

MarinersThen there are the Mariners, one of the most offensively challenged contenders of modern times.

If the postseason had started Wednesday, they’d have been playing in it, as the second wild-card team in the AL. But if you’ve watched them swing the bat this year, we’re betting it definitely wouldn’t come as a shock to hear that teams like this almost never show up on anybody’s TV screen in October.

Here are just some of their offensive claims to “fame”:

" Their .302 team on-base percentage entering Wednesday would be the third lowest by any team in postseason history. The only AL team with a lower OBP on that list -- Jiggs Donahue’s 1906 White Sox (.301) -- played in the dead-ball era. And the only NL team in this exclusive club -- Julian Javier’s 1968 Cardinals (.298) -- did it in a season in which the major league OBP was under .300 (.299). Amazing.

" The Mariners also were on pace to score just 643 runs this season. The last AL team to score that few runs, over a full season, and reach the postseason: Skeeter Webb’s 1945 Tigers (633, in a 154-game season).

" But let’s get away from the raw numbers and consider where the Mariners rank in their league. They’re dead last in OPS (.677). And how many teams in history have ever finished last in their league in OPS and made it to the postseason? Exactly one, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: Todd Hollandsworth’s 1996 Dodgers (.701). Which means, obviously, that no AL team has ever done that.

" Finally, the Mariners also ranked last in the league in on-base percentage. Elias reports that just one AL team in history has ever done that and gotten to the postseason: Steve Balboni’s 1985 Royals (.313).

Then again, that Royals team went on to win the World Series. So just because the Mariners may be trying to do this the hard way doesn’t mean they’re not allowed to dream. Right?

VIVA LA DIFFERENTIAL IN THE BRONX

YankeesBut we sure can’t overlook the Yankees. They’re trying to take a route to the postseason that we’re pretty sure Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey and even Scott Brosius would probably have had a hard time comprehending.

The 1927 Yankees once scored 376 more runs than they allowed. The 1936 Yankees scored 334 more runs than they allowed. The 1998 Yankees scored 309 runs more than they allowed.

The 2014 Yankees on the other hand? They’ve given up 40 more runs than they’ve scored. And if you’re thinking you haven’t seen a lot of teams with minus-40 run differentials playing October baseball, uh, good thinking.

According to Elias, exactly one team in history has ever had a run differential that out of whack and reached the postseason. That would be Ryan Klesko’s 2005 Padres (at minus-42). So no AL team has ever done this.

And just for the record, the worst run differential by any Yankees team that played in the postseason was plus-57, by the 2000 Yankees. Hmmm. Mr. Steinbrenner, Mr. Torre and Mr. Berra, your thoughts?

IN OTHER NEWS ...

" The Rangers may not be heading for October, but they’re heading for one of the most incredible achievements in pitching history. They’re last in the American League in ERA -- but they’re first in the league in shutouts (or at least tied with the Rays for first, anyway). So how many teams have ever led their league in shutouts (or tied for the lead) in a season in which they also had the worst ERA in their league? None, of course, according to Elias.

" The Rockies stopped dreaming of contending many weeks ago. But they’ve never stopped finding new starting pitchers to send to the mound. They’re already up to 15 different pitchers who have started a game this season, from Christian Friedrich to Jair Jurrjens to Yohan Flande. And if they can find three more, they can tie the record for most starters trotted out there by any team in the division-play era. That prestigious mark, of 18, is shared by Rich Loiselle’s 1996 Pirates and Jason Grimsley’s 1993 Indians.

" And one more classic feat by a last-place team: The Red Sox may be last in the AL in runs scored. But they still have the league leader in RBIs, in David Ortiz. Which understandably prompted loyal reader Rick Malwitz to ask: Is that unprecedented? And the answer, according to Elias, is: Not quite -- but almost. The only other team ever to pull that off? Wally Berger’s 1935 Boston Braves. Big Papi had knocked in nearly 20 percent of the Red Sox’s runs this season (92 of 480). But what Berger did in 1935 was even more incredible. He drove in 22.6 percent of the runs scored (130 of 575) by a team that lost 103 games. And that, friends, is a lot of Bergers to go.
Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, 300-win teammates, will enter the Hall of Fame together Sunday. And as cool Cooperstown scenes go, you can’t beat that one. But it's also a scene that might cause you to ask:

Who are the next Maddux and Glavine?

Hmmm. Good question.

And it's one I've been thinking about for weeks, ever since a veteran player asked me earlier this season: "Are there any starting pitchers in the game right now who you think are already Hall of Famers?"

And the honest answer, shockingly, is no. Am I missing anyone or anything?

It may be the Age of the Pitcher. And the planet may be as populated as it's ever been by pitchers with spectacular stuff and picturesque ERAs. But are any of them Hall of Famers right now?

I don't see it. Do you?

If we'd asked this question a year ago, there would have been an easy answer: Roy Halladay. Ten consecutive years of domination. Two Cy Youngs. Two no-hitters. Case closed.

And Andy Pettitte was at least in the argument. Eighteen seasons. Not a single losing season. Those 256 wins. And all those Octobers. An excellent candidate, although one with a high ERA (3.85) and an HGH asterisk.

But without those two around to debate, is there a single active pitcher who has done enough, won enough, dominated enough to carve a plaque in Cooperstown?

Tim Hudson? Mark Buehrle? CC Sabathia? Johan Santana (if we can even define him as "active")?

I don't think so. No telling how that might change if CC bounces back or Hudson keeps on doing his thing deep into his 40s. But are they Hall of Famers right now? Sorry. Not for me.

And since the Hall opened its doors nearly 80 years ago, there can't have been more than a handful of times when we could ever have said that.

But that doesn't mean there aren't pitchers in our midst right now who are headed for Cooperstown. They're just not there yet. So here's how I'd rank the guys with the best shot:

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsClayton Kershaw currently leads the majors with a 1.92 ERA.

1) Clayton Kershaw


It wasn't easy trying to figure out whether to place Kershaw or Felix Hernandez first on this list. But it's hard to go wrong ranking the Best Pitcher in Baseball at No. 1 on any list. So if you don't believe this guy is on a Hall of Fame track, um, you've been watching too many NFL training camp two-a-days.

Two Cy Youngs. Probably should have won a third. And very possibly headed for another one this year, which would give him four top-two finishes in a row. Kershaw also had ripped off six straight seasons with an Adjusted ERA over 130 before he'd even turned 26. Which made him just the third starter with that many seasons that dominating (30 percent better than league average), at that age, in modern history. You may have heard of the other two: Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson.

Bill James' Hall of Fame tracker gives Kershaw 27 HOF points already, through age 25. That's more points than any active player that young (or younger) at any position -- and also as many as Felix, who is two years older. Sounds like a fine tie-breaker to me.

2) Felix Hernandez


Still only 28 years old, with one Cy Young trophy in his den, a second in his sights this year, two more top-four Cy Young finishes and 121 wins, while pitching every season of his career for non-playoff teams.

Felix obviously isn't there yet. And playing for one of the most offensively challenged teams in history over the last few years is going to hurt him with the win-centric crowd. But he ranks third among all active pitchers in ERA (3.11), third in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and fourth in Adjusted ERA (130).

You can also make an argument he's pitching better now than he's ever pitched. So his arrow keeps pointing upward, if he can just stay healthy. Did you know that going into this year, he'd already accumulated more of those Bill James HOF points (27) than Buehrle (25), a man with 196 wins?

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander has pitched 200 or more innings in each of the past seven seasons.

3) Justin Verlander


Guess who entered this season with more of those Bill James HOF points than any active starter? Verlander's the man, with 50. And James has written often that it takes 70 to get a guy into the Hall of Fame argument and 100 to make him a lock. So when any player reaches 50 points by age 30, as Verlander had, he's well on his way.

I think Verlander has all the hardware he needs already -- an MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year award to call his own, plus three other top-five Cy Young finishes and six All-Star appearances already. So he's put himself in perfect position -- as long as this season turns into just a blip on his radar screen.

If it turns out to be an indicator he's already in his decline phase, on the other hand, it's been a fun ride. Just not one that's leading him to upstate New York.

4) CC Sabathia


If CC's deteriorating knee cartilage is going to make it impossible for him to ever be the same again, it's hard to see how he makes it onto that Cooperstown stage -- even with 208 wins, a Cy Young, four more top-five Cy Young finishes and 13 straight seasons of incredible durability and dependability.

He came into the season with 43 HOF points. He's 34 years old. And he probably needed only two or three more good to excellent seasons to seal his case. But does he have any good seasons left? Only his orthopedist knows for sure.

5) Tim Hudson


I'm including Hudson on this list because I admire his body of work and the tenacious way he's gone about competing and reinventing himself through the years. He's also your official Active Wins Leader (213). And he's 95 games over .500 (213-118), which places him in the top 10 in winning percentage (.638) among all 100-game winners in the last half-century.

There are still voters who weigh stuff like that heavily. Unfortunately, if you look beyond that won-lost column, you have a guy who has never won a Cy Young (but did finish second once), has made just four All-Star teams in 16 seasons, and whose 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings don't allow him to fit the modern definition of "domination."

Bill James had awarded Hudson 33 HOF points coming into this season. And that ranked him fourth among active pitchers (behind Verlander's 50, CC's 43 and Cliff Lee's 36). At age 39, there's almost no shot he can climb high enough to reach the Cooperstown stars. But neither can Lee, who is a few weeks away from turning 36. And Hudson actually has a significantly higher Adjused ERA (124) than Lee does (118). So he at least ought to land in the top five.

My Next Five


6) Cliff Lee

7) Adam Wainwright
8) David Price
9) Tim Lincecum
10) Chris Sale

Want to make your case for Buehrle, Zack Greinke or even Jose Fernandez? Go ahead. Disagree with any of this? Tweet at me. Email me. Curse at me. That's the fun of debates like this. Especially on weekends like this one, when we get to type that magical dateline, COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.
Once again this season, it hasn’t been safe to make a sandwich. Or walk past a parked car. Or get caught outside in a hailstorm. And you know what that means ...

It’s time to “honor” the most creative baseball injuries of the half-year that was. So keep your health insurance cards handy. Here we go:

Fifth prize: Pablo Sandoval, Giants

This was a Pablo Sandoval mishap that’s been waiting to happen. He just missed two games (July 6 and 7) because of a swollen left elbow. OK, that could happen to anybody. Ah, but how did his elbow get so swollen? He got hit in the elbow by a pitch. And obviously, that could happen to anybody. But here’s where this starts getting more Panda-esque: He got hit in the elbow by a pitch that he swung at. And that’s the creative, hack-a-matic Sandovalian flair that earned him a place on this distinguished list.

But wait. There’s one final twist to this saga. As loyal reader Raven Deerwater made sure to pass along, Sandoval wasn’t even awarded first base for getting hit by this pitch. His prize was -- what else? -- a strike. Because he swung. Then, even more spectacularly, Brandon Belt got thrown out trying to steal second on the next pitch to end the top of the first inning, whereupon Sandoval left the game. So here’s how we’d sum up this little calamity: he managed to get hit by a pitch, but not record a plate appearance, meaning he got hurt appearing in a game he technically never appeared in. Or something like that. Now that’s what you call a creative injury.

Fourth prize: Drew Pomeranz, Athletics

Man meets chair. Man punches chair. Chair wins by unanimous decision. We’ve heard that one before, right? Well, the latest guy to get sucked into the old man-punches-chair scam is A’s pitcher Drew Pomeranz. He wasn’t feeling really upbeat -- for good reason -- after the Rangers bombarded him with eight runs in 3 2/3 innings June 16. So on his way back to the clubhouse, he came upon a seemingly innocent wooden chair, just sitting there, inviting him to release his frustrations. His brain (or whatever emotions were overriding his brain at the time) said: “Show that chair what you’re made of.” Then his right hand, which was assigned to inflict that damage, said: “Ouuuucccchhhh,” possibly because he’d just fractured it. Next thing Pomeranz knew ... (A) he was on the disabled list, (B) the A’s were going out and acquiring his temporary replacement (Brad Mills) for a buck, (C) the A’s were going out and acquiring his more permanent replacement (Jeff Samardzija) in the official "trade of the year" and (D) he had a distinct feeling they weren’t leaving a light on for him when he got healthy. So Chair 1, Human 0. Lifetime record of all chairs punched in stadium runways: Undefeated. Still.

Third prize: A.J. Ellis, Dodgers

[+] EnlargeJosh Beckett
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesIf we could only turn back the hands of time: A.J., watch out for that catcher's mask on the ground!
No-hitters are always a cause for celebration. Getting hurt while expressing that jubilation? Never a cause for celebration. And the most recent player who could tell you all about it is Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis. He was a darned happy guy, for a few moments there, after Josh Beckett’s no-hitter May 25, even though he didn’t happen to catch that gem (since it fell on his day off). But that happiness turned out to be fleeting, we regret to report. After the final out, he was just following the standard post-no-hitter playbook by sprinting toward the infield with his teammates and leaping into the air (which was the only thing available to leap into). But then he made a big mistake -- by coming back to earth. Where he landed on a catcher’s mask. And not even his own. It was the mask of Drew Butera, who caught Beckett that day and fired his mask into -- you guessed it -- the air after the final out. But the mask also returned to earth, where it waited for Ellis to land on it. And one sprained ankle later, Ellis was heading for a big ice pack ..'. and then the disabled list ... and then this exalted injuries of the half-year list. Oops.

Second prize: Felix Doubront, Red Sox

Last year it was Clay Buchholz, forcing his way onto this list by cradling his 2-year-old daughter in his arms, then falling asleep and irritating the AC joint near his collarbone. This year’s mandatory Bizarre Red Sox Pitcher Mishap might or might not top it, depending on whether you’re a joy-of-parenthood person or a car person. But you decide. In May, Felix Doubront headed for the disabled list with a strained left shoulder. And how’d that happen? No, not from throwing those 965 pitches he’s launched this season. That would never earn a guy a spot in a column like this. The culprit, according to manager John Farrell, was a car door, no doubt planted in Doubront’s path by a bunch of Yankees fans, which he then bumped into and bruised his pitching shoulder. Later that day, Doubront tried pitching against the Blue Jays, didn’t have his usual stuff and then fessed up about his earlier little automotive malfunction. He spent the next month on the disabled list. No word on what charges were filed against the car.

First prize: Matt Cain, Giants

Would it even be possible to write these rollicking injury of the year (or half-year) columns, season after season, without the Giants? They’ve turned inventive injuries into a true art form -- led by two-time "Injury of the Year" champ Jeremy Affeldt, whose misadventures while barbecuing and hugging his son have been well documented in this space. But luckily, Affeldt inspires his teammates, even in seasons when he doesn’t make this list himself. So it’s time to salute this year’s most innovative injury (so far) -- the ham and cheese sandwich that attacked Matt Cain. All right, to be technical, it wasn’t the ham, the cheese or the sandwich itself that assaulted Cain. It was the knife he was using to finish off that sandwich. Cain told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Henry Schulman that he’s managed to successfully make sandwiches, and cut them with a knife, many times. But with this one, he “went to cut it, to make it fancy in triangles.” And, alas, the knife cut more than his fancy this time. He was slicing away when he dropped the knife, tried to catch it and learned an important lesson: Knives are sharp. That’s why they’re used to cut fancy triangles in sandwiches instead of, say, fingers. Or sledgehammers. The bad news is: Cain wound up on the disabled list. The good news is: Hey, he won first prize!

Special minor league citation: Jesse Biddle, Reading Phillies

The 22-year-old left-hander had to miss a start in May because of headaches. From getting hit in the head by an ice pellet. During a hailstorm. We are not making this up. And we can prove it -- without even calling Jim Cantore to the stand to testify. Luckily, Jesse Biddle tweeted about it!



Now really, wouldn’t this injury be more believable if it happened to, ohhhhhh, David Freese?
So what do you think: Is a player with this set of credentials a Hall of Famer?

We're talking about an active player who is (or will be):

• His franchise's career hits leader.
• The owner of the second-most Gold Gloves of any active player at his position.
• The only active player at his position who has won an MVP award.
• About to crack the top five for most extra-base hits in history by someone who plays his position.
• A man with a unique set of offensive and defensive credentials that is unprecedented in the history of his position.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Rollins
AP Photo/Kim Johnson FlodinJimmy Rollins, 35, is playing in his 15th season with the Phillies.
So, let's ask again. Is a player like that a Hall of Famer?

Well, that player is Jimmy Rollins, and the answer is no. Or at least not yet.

But the point is, this is a guy we're going to have to give some thought to -- any day now, in fact, when he passes Mike Schmidt and becomes the career hits leader in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies. (He's now just four away.)

And that'll be a fun discussion, too, because Jimmy Rollins has had a fascinating career. Fascinating.

For a decade and a half now, the town he plays in has spent almost as much time focusing on all the stuff he hasn't done -- doesn't walk enough, doesn't keep the ball on the ground, doesn't always run as hard as Chase Utley, yada-yada-yada -- as all the incredible stuff he has done. But this just in:

I've looked at the careers of everyone who has ever played shortstop in the major leagues -- and we've never seen a player quite like this man. Ever.

So what exactly has made Rollins so different? Let's take a look:

The 400 SB/200 HR Club


Rollins' totals: 433 stolen bases (and an 83 percent success rate), 207 homers.

So what other shortstops will you find in that 400/200 club? Um, you won't find any. Not unless Derek Jeter (349 SB, 257 HR) has 51 stolen bases in him over the next four months, anyway.

And I find that kind of amazing. Not that there's anything defining about the 400/200 club. But it does show us that Rollins has brought a power/speed package to his position you very rarely see. Right?

The 200 HR/2,000 Hits Club


Rollins' totals: 207 homers, 2,231 hits.

Only 36 men in history whose primary position was shortstop hung around long enough to get 2,000 hits, according to Baseball-reference.com. But when you add in the power to make 200 home run trots, you get a much more exclusive group:



Cal Ripken Jr. is a Hall of Famer, Jeter can start writing his 2019 speech and not only is Rollins going to blow past Miguel Tejada's numbers, he has brought speed and leatherwork to the table at a level Tejada never did -- and without any performance-enhancing drug stains.

So, while I don't believe in any magic Hall of Fame numbers, if Rollins is in a group with only Jeter and Ripken, he's in tremendous company.

The 2,000 Hit/4 Gold Glove Club


Rollins' totals: 2,231 hits, four Gold Gloves.

Ready for the shortstops who are on this list? There are only six:



Two players in that group -- Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio -- are already in the Hall of Fame, with Jeter right over the horizon. Many, many people think Alan Trammell ought to join them, and Omar Vizquel may not get there, but he has a heck of a case.

And then, there's Rollins.

The offensive quality he has in common with Smith, Vizquel and Aparicio is that they could all flat out steal a base. But here's what they don't share: Those three hit fewer home runs combined (191) than Rollins has hit by himself.

So the only two really similar players to Rollins on this list are Jeter and Trammell. I don't think anyone would argue Rollins has had a better career than either of them. But here we go again: He's hanging with special players, no matter what combination of stats you want to use to measure him.

The Whole Package


OK, now let's add this all up. You can find shortstops who have more hits than Rollins and shortstops who have piled up more homers and extra-base hits.

You can find shortstops who have swiped more bases and shortstops who have won more Gold Gloves. But …

You won't find a single shortstop in the history of this sport who has done all the stuff he's done:

An MVP trophy … and four Gold Gloves … and more than 2,200 hits … and more than 200 homers … and nearly 800 extra-base hits … and closing in on the most hits in the history of his franchise. (The only other active players who can say they hold that last distinction, on their current clubs, by the way, are Jeter and David Wright.)

And we haven't even mentioned that this is a man who has also strung together the longest hitting streak (38 games) of the last quarter-century … is one of four players who ever lived with a 20-homer, 20-steal, 20-double, 20-triple season … has stayed healthy enough to play at least 140 games at short in 11 different seasons, a total reached in the last 30 years by only Derek Jeter, Omar Vizquel and Cal Ripken … has started an All Star Game … and has led his league in runs, steals and triples.

Not a single other shortstop who ever played baseball has done all of that. Not one. So what are we supposed to make of that?

Now, being a unique player doesn't make you a Hall of Famer. That's for sure. And Rollins' wins above replacement (WAR) totals (43.2) certainly don't scream "Hall of Famer" at you, even though four HOF shortstops (hey there, Phil Rizzuto) had fewer.

And, as I've already made clear, I no longer believe there is any set of magic numbers that makes any player an automatic Hall of Famer. Him included.

But the most fun part about all monumental baseball milestones is they give us a reason to stop and reflect, to think and argue, to assess what we think matters and what we think doesn't.

So when you look up and find a player like this ascending to the top of the hit list of a franchise that has been around for 132 seasons, it's an excellent reason to launch the conversation.

Well, I don't think Rollins would be a Hall of Famer if he retires tomorrow, but if you want to talk about it, aw, what the heck. Bring it on. And bring all these amazing numbers along with you.
I'm still trying to figure out how Yasiel Puig lasted until the fifth pick in our Franchise Player Draft. Unless we're now deducting points for speeding tickets, the lowest he should have gone, in a sane world, was second.

But that was out of my control. I picked 27th. What is within my control is being able to document that this man's first year in the big leagues was unlike pretty much anything we've witnessed in our lifetimes.

And I can actually prove that -- with Five Astounding Yasiel Puig Anniversary Facts:

• 1. This is Puig's stat line over the first calendar year (and 157 games) of his big league career:

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillYasiel Puig leads the Dodgers in nearly all the major statistical categories this season.
.326/.405/.559/.964/30 HR/71 XBH/191 hits/16 SB

Wow.

I've looked at every player who debuted in the past 50 years. Nobody matched or beat every number on that line over his first 157 games. Yep, I said nobody. Not Mike Trout or Albert Pujols or Ryan Braun or Miguel Cabrera. Nobody. So we'll have to break up this comparison into sections.

• 2. If we drop stolen bases from the criteria, the only hitter in the past half-century to match or better Puig was that Pujols guy. His first 157:

.333/.408/.621/1.029/37 HR/87 XBH/191 hits

So it's Puig and Albert. Pretty good group.

• 3. If we forget the whole slash-line concept, the only hitter in the past half-century who even piled up 30 homers, 71 extra-base hits and 16 steals in his first 157 games was Braun (with 47 HR, 94 XBH and 16 SB).

What about Trout, you ask? He had the homers (32) and the steals (48). But he didn't get to 71 extra-base hits (67). And oh by the way, Trout also didn't match any number on Puig's slash line (.309/.374/.535/.909).

• 4. OK, let's simplify this even further. You know how many other players in the history of baseball have even reached 191 hits and 30 homers (regardless of any other numbers) in their first calendar year in the big leagues? Only four, according to the Dodgers. Another stellar group:

Chuck Klein 1928-29 (232 H, 42 HR)

Hal Trosky 1933-34 (193 H, 33 HR)

Pujols 2001-02 (196 H, 37 HR)

Braun 2007-08 (204 H, 47 HR)

• 5. And, finally, let's just zap the whole concept of First Year in the Big Leagues. Whaddaya say? And let's compare Puig to everybody in baseball over the past calendar year. Here's what you'll find:

Precisely one other player in the entire sport has put up a .326/.405/.559/.964/30 HR line since Puig arrived in the big leagues. You've heard of him.

That would be Cabrera:

.330/.414/.590/1.004/37 HR

And Trout just misses -- at .324/.437/.559/.996/28 HR.

So how great has Yasiel Puig been? Oh, only historically great. And MVP great. And can't-take-your-eyes-off-him great.

In other words … I just wish I'd have had that No. 2 pick!

Appreciating Albert Pujols

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
9:11
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There may be 25 other members of the 500 Homer Club. But there's only one Albert Pujols. Just because Sir Albert had two rough, injury-riddled seasons after arriving in scenic Orange County, did we all get amnesia or something? How did we somehow seem to forget what an amazing and historic career this man has had?

Well, that's the best part of what happened Tuesday night in Washington. It's the best part about round numbers like 500 home runs because they remind us to stop and pay attention. They remind us to take stock of the man who just met the milestone. And when we take stock of Pujols and the path that led him to home run No. 500, you know what we find?

We find a guy who did so much more than just make home run trots. That's what.

How does Pujols compare with the rest of that 500 Homer Club? It's an incredible thing to behold. Let's take a look:

The .300/.400/500/.600 Club


This is one of my favorite sets of numbers because it provides us with one of the most exalted groups of hitters who ever lived. You need:
  • .300 batting average or better.
  • .400 on-base percentage or better.
  • 500 home runs or more.
  • .600 slugging percentage or better.


Here are the three men in history who get to hang out in this clubhouse:
  • Ted Williams .344/.482/521/.634
  • Babe Ruth .342/.474/714/.690
  • Jimmie Foxx .325/.428/534/.609


And that's all, folks. Ever heard of them?

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesPujols took a curtain call after hitting No. 500.
Well, the truth is that Pujols doesn't quite make that cut. But by only one-thousandth of a percentage point. Here's his personal slash line: .321/.409/500/.599.

Uh, that'll still work. Because here's the thing: Even if we lowered the slugging percentage cutoff to below .600, to whatever The Pujols Line is at any given moment, there would still just be those three men and Pujols.

So maybe the .300/.400/500/.599 Club doesn't have quite the same ring to it as .300/.400/.500/.600. But it's just as rarefied a group.

Now one more thing: I understand that Williams, Ruth and Foxx all had those numbers at the end of their careers, not in the middle. But I've taken a look at the entire 500 Homer Club. And nobody except those three had Pujols' slash line at the time of his 500th. Not even Barry Bonds, who finished his career at .298/.444/762/.607.

So the moral of this story remains the same: Lots of men have hit baseballs over many, many fences. Only the greatest hitters who ever lived have been the all-around offensive forces that Pujols has been. And that's a fact.

Not Your Average 500-HR Man


But suppose we take all those other numbers out of this and focus just on batting average -- which isn't a measure of power at all but merely of a man's ability to hit baseballs where nobody with a glove is standing.

At .321, Pujols has the fourth-highest average in the entire 500 Homer Club -- trailing only those same three men from the previous list: Williams (.344), Ruth (.342) and Foxx (.325).

And just to answer the next logical question, that ranking doesn't change, even if we take final career average out of the equation. He still owns the fourth-best batting average, at the time of his 500th homer, in history. The next-highest, according to Baseball-Reference.com, is .314 -- by Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Manny Ramirez.

So is it safe to say there's nothing "average" about Pujols' average, except that word itself?

The Most Striking Stat Of All


Wait. We almost "missed" the coolest stat in Pujols' entire collection. And that's that this man has hardly "missed" at all, especially compared with the rest of his generation: 500 home runs -- but only 843 strikeouts.

In an age when strikeouts have become more common than the seventh-inning stretch, how astonishing is that stat? Well, let's tell you exactly how astonishing. That comes to 1.69 strikeouts for every home run. And you know how many members of the 500 Homer Club can beat that? Exactly one: Ted Williams (1.36).

Now we know that Ted, of course, was a freak. But if we invite in the rest of that 500-homer group, from across the eras, we'd still find only three others with ratios better than two strikeouts per homer. Here's that top five, which, I'm guessing again, won't require you to Google any names:


Whoa. But what do you say, just for further perspective, that we compare Pujols with the other big sluggers of his time. The next man down on the active career homer list is a fellow named Adam Dunn. This isn't fair. But for amusement purposes only, here's how Dunn stacks up against Pujols:


Heh-heh-heh. Get the picture? But even if we take Dunn and the suspended-in-animation Alex Rodriguez (3.17) out of the conversation, Pujols is still whiffing about half as much as the other active members of the 400 Homer Club -- if that:


So in a world where every other masher roaming the planet is shopping at Kmart two or three times a day, Pujols remains a mind-warping anomaly. He still has never struck out 100 times in a season in his career -- 500 homers later.

Five More Fun Pujols 500-HR Facts


• At 34 years, 96 days old, Pujols is the third-youngest player in history to reach 500 homers, trailing only A-Rod (32 years, 8 days) and Foxx (32 years, 337 days).

• Just seven men in history reached 500 homers in fewer at-bats than the 7,390 it took Pujols: Mark McGwire (5,487), Ruth (5,801), Harmon Killebrew (6,671), Sammy Sosa (7,036), Foxx (7,074), Mickey Mantle (7,300) and Mike Schmidt (7,331).

• Only six other hitters whose primary position was first base have hit 500 homers: McGwire, Foxx, Willie McCovey, Rafael Palmeiro, Eddie Murray and Jim Thome.

• Pujols is the 14th right-handed hitter to join the 500 Home Run Club. He needs 34 more to crash the top 10.

• The pitcher who has allowed the most home runs to Pujols? That would be Ryan Dempster (eight). The pitcher who has faced him the most times without serving up a homer? That would be Bud Norris (*41*). The Cy Young who had nightmares about him? That would be Randy Johnson, against whom Pujols hit .452, with six homers. And the active pitcher who should never be allowed to face Pujols again? That would be Kevin Slowey (two plate appearances, two homers).

Jose Fernandez, one of a kind

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
11:31
AM ET

The latest episode of baseball's most entertaining reality show -- the Amazing Ace, starring the one, the only, the relentlessly effervescent Jose Fernandez -- will roll into Atlanta on Tuesday night.

If you have a dish, a cable box, a laptop, an iPhone or some other mobile device that can reel in this must-see slice of baseball life, here’s our advice: Carve out the time and watch this guy do his thing.

There's nothing like it -- because there’s no one quite like Jose Fernandez appearing on any big league mound in North America these days.

"He's probably the best pitcher I've ever seen," said his Marlins teammate, closer Steve Cishek. "The most competitive, for sure. He's a lot of fun to watch."

We should probably mention that the opposition doesn't always agree with the "fun" part of that review. You can ask Brian McCann all about it some day. But when the rest of us lay eyes on the Marlins' mesmerizing, 21-year-old ace, here's what we see:

Energy. Confidence. An irrepressible joy in doing what he does. And, ohbytheway, maybe the best stuff in baseball.

So we asked the men around him to tell us their favorite stories of a guy who, just 32 starts into his career, already has ripped off 26 starts allowing two earned runs or fewer (including 13 in a row at one point). And 27 starts allowing five hits or fewer (including 17 in a row). And five double-figure strikeout games (including back-to-back 13-K and 14-K games last summer).

Here are some of those tales:

[+] EnlargeJose Fernandez
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesLook out, LeBron. Jose Fernandez is becoming a beloved figure in South Florida.
Jose the base stealer

After Fernandez reached base in a recent start against the Brewers, Marlins manager Mike Redmond saw his ace dancing off second, acting like a guy ready to burst into a Billy Hamilton impression any minute.

"He was on second, and he started to fake like he was going to steal third," Redmond said. "And I said, 'Wait. When a guy's hitting, you've got to stay put out there.' And he was like, 'Well, I was going to steal third. They're giving it to me, and I'm just going to take it.' And this was with two outs. So I said, 'That's not your job. You're not a base stealer.' And this is like in the middle of the game. We're sitting on the bench, and we're having this conversation, and I'm just laughing."

Is that an indication, we asked, that Fernandez thinks there's nothing he can’t do?

"You have to be careful when you talk to him and say, 'You can't do something,'" Redmond chuckled, "because if you tell him, 'Hey, you can't throw this guy a changeup because he's really good at hitting a changeup,' he's going to want to throw him nothing but changeups to try and get him out, just to show you that he can really get him out with changeups.

"When we played the Rockies, we talked about not throwing [Justin] Morneau a lot of changeups. And he ended up throwing about six or seven changeups to him. … So you have to be careful of what you say he can't do."

The 92 mph changeup

When most guys throw a pitch 92 miles per hour, it’s their fastball. Possibly their best fastball. When Jose Fernandez hits 92 on the gun, that’s an off-speed pitch.

"There was one pitch," said his catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, "where he was facing [Chase Headley] and he threw a changeup. And Headley went, 'Damn, that was a nasty sinker.' And I didn't want to tell him it was a changeup."

The more Saltalamacchia thought about that exchange, the funnier it got. But he still isn't sure whether he should be happy a hitter was that confused about that pitch or worried that his ace was throwing his changeup way too hard.

"I didn't know how to take that," Saltalamacchia admitted, "whether it was a compliment or a bad thing."

But either way, it did fit right in with Fernandez's whole approach to pitching -- and life.

"From the get-go, the guy is pedal on the metal, and he doesn’t let up," Saltalamacchia said. "He's excited. You know how between innings, the umpires give you 2 minutes and 30 seconds [before resuming play]? Well, he's on the mound with like a minute and a half left. You're thinking, like, 'Take your time.' But he hits the gas pedal and he's going. You can't slow him down. You don't want to slow him down. It's just his tempo, and how he works."

The home run off a tee

And then there was the day that Fernandez sucked in a bunch of Marlins position players with a friendly wager -- that turned out to be (what else?) a giant setup.

"He kind of hustled some guys last year … betting them that he could hit a home run from home plate off a tee," Cishek said. "And everyone was like, 'There’s no shot.' That's pretty tough to do, right? Now I don't know. I'm not a hitter. But I would imagine it's really hard to do, because all the hitters were like, 'There's no chance.'

"So he got people to jump in on it. And sure enough. First swing. Hit one out of our big park. We all just went nuts. Little did they know that he was practicing all day. … It was hilarious just watching him. I was watching him practicing, trying to figure out the angle and everything. So then, when he went in the locker room, to try and get people on board and they bit, it was great."

And what, we asked, was the moral to that story?

"Don't trust anything Jose says," Cishek said, laughing uproariously. "If he says he can do something, take his word for it."

The pregame show

When most pitchers are gearing up to start a game, they withdraw to their own silent planet. Not Jose Fernandez.

"He's unique," Redmond said. "He's not the kind of guy where you come in and he's sitting at his locker with his game face on and you can't talk to him. I mean, he's hitting in the cage, he's bunting in the cage, he's in my office, he's sitting on the couch, he's talking to me about a couple of hitters. Then he's out, and he's back in. He's joking with the guys. He's all over the place. So he's unique. I never played with a guy like that, man. And that's how he is every day. … Just that day that he gets the ball, he can't wait. He just really loves to pitch."

But when Fernandez pops into the manager's office before a start, Redmond confessed, he often isn't in there to talk about pitching.

"It could be about hitting," Redmond said. "He'll want to swing at the first pitch all the time, because he thinks that's the pitch that he should be hitting every time. So he'll be like, 'Come on, Red. You've got to turn me loose first pitch.'"

For the record, Fernandez has come to the plate eight times this year -- and swung at the first pitch in half those trips. He has put none of those hacks in play.

The award

Last January, Fernandez was invited to attend the New York baseball writers' dinner, to accept his NL Rookie of the Year award. So naturally, a delegation from the Marlins' front office went with him, and occupied a large table in the ballroom.

So as general manager Dan Jennings recalls it, after Fernandez accepted his award at the podium, he returned to his team's table and told everyone around him: "I want to be up there again next year, too."

And that, of course, could have meant only one thing. He was planning to win the Cy Young this time around. Right?

"Well, I don't think he'll be rookie of the year again," Jennings deadpanned. "He's got that box checked."

The fire

We tried to get a report on what opposing hitters say to their buddies on the Marlins after they reach base against Fernandez. But that turned out to be tougher than we'd envisioned.

"Every once in a while, somebody will say something like, 'That's the best stuff I've ever seen,'" said Greg Dobbs, who started 47 games at first for the Marlins last year. "But there haven't been many [of those conversations] -- because there weren't very many guys who got over there. He doesn't give up many hits, you know."

Yeah, good point. Fernandez actually had a higher batting average last season (.220) than the hitters who faced him (.182). But as that shouting match with McCann last year illustrated, Fernandez's flamboyance has been known to light an occasional fire in the other dugout. So his teammates often have some explaining to do -- that their ace doesn't mean any harm. He merely has only one speed on his transmission.

"I don't want to change who he is or what he's doing, but he's young," Saltalamacchia said. "You can see that in the way he handles certain things. He wants to be great. There's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes you've got to understand what the situation is, and when to back off, and when to kind of get going. But right now, he's just kind of got that 100 miles an hour [pace]. And I can't say that's not a good thing, because it obviously works for him."

Cishek echoed that, shaking his head as he said: "Man, he's just in your face. The way he acts out there, he's really not trying to show people up. He just really wants to shut every single [hitter] he sees down. When he gives up a hit, he's mad at himself. For goodness sakes, if we're shagging in BP, he likes to power-shag out there. If he drops a ball, he's screaming at himself and everything. He's just a perfectionist."

So this is not a guy who even realizes he's firing up the opposition. He's just so talented, so confident and so driven, he expects to strike out about 20 every night.

"Oh, he definitely thinks he could," Cishek said. "I'm telling you. If he gives up a hit, say in the first inning, he's just blown away. He's like, 'Man, I can't believe I just gave up a hit.' That’s what it seems like anyways."

You can understand, then, why he might rub a few hitters the wrong way. But he's becoming a more beloved figure in South Florida every time he goes out there. Look out, LeBron.

"My kids have been around him, this is the second year now," Redmond said. "And my boys woke up Opening Day and they were like, 'Dad, we can't wait to watch Jose pitch tonight.' We’re talking about 13- and 11-year-old kids. And they couldn't wait.

"He's got a lot of people that love him. You see that when he pitches in Miami. The crowds are electric. A lot of people come out to watch him. Like I said last year, he brought a lot of excitement to Miami when we really needed it. And we still need that."

And one thing they've learned about Jose Fernandez in his first 32 trips to a big league mound: If it's excitement you're in need of, he's just the man you’re looking for.
"If he stays healthy, I don't see any reason why he can't be the best hitter of all time."

-- Justin Verlander, on Miguel Cabrera


The Best Hitter of All Time, huh?

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
AP Photo/Paul SancyaMiguel Cabrera, who has 2,002 hits and 366 career homers, is playing in his 12th season in the majors.
Justin Verlander uttered those words 10 days ago, on the day Miguel Cabrera signed the biggest contract in the history of North American professional sports -- and only a week before Cabrera joined the prestigious 2,000 Hit Club.

At the age of (gulp) 30.

So let's think about this, seriously. Is it actually possible that Miguel Cabrera could wind up some day as The Best Hitter of All Time?

Well, there are a bunch of ways to look at that, obviously. So let's consider a few.

Can he catch Pete Rose?


That was Torii Hunter's prediction on the day Cabrera signed that contract: "Pete Rose? He can definitely get there -- and with power," Hunter said.

Uh, wait a second. Miggy turns 31 in a week and a half, and he isn't even halfway to Rose yet, you know. He'd still need another 2,254 hits to get to 4,256. And you don't exactly need both hands and both feet to count up the men who have gotten that many hits after reaching Cabrera's age.

That list contains precisely three names: Rose, Sam Rice and 19th-century hit factory Cap Anson. Miggy already has outhomered the three of them combined.

Here, according to baseball-reference.com's awesome Play Index, is your leaderboard in that department -- Most Career Hits, Starting With Age 31 Season:

1. Rose (1972-86), 2,532
2. Rice (1921-34), 2,350
3. Anson (1883-97), 2,272
4. Honus Wagner (1905-17), 2,043
5. Paul Molitor (1988-98), 1,988

Rose and Anson played to age 45. Rice hung around to age 44. Wagner stuck with it through age 43. Is Cabrera going to do that? Is he going to be healthy enough to do that? Is he going to be motivated enough to do that? Get back to us in a decade, OK?

Incidentally, here are the only six men in the division-play era to get within 500 hits of 2,200 after reaching Cabrera's age: Molitor, Ichiro Suzuki (1,824), Omar Vizquel (1,805), Craig Biggio (1,781), Carl Yastrzemski (1,716) and Dave Winfield (1,711).

Can he catch Barry Bonds?


For the record, Cabrera (366 homers) isn't even halfway to Bonds' home run total (762), or even halfway to Hank Aaron's 755, for that matter. Miggy would need 396 to catch Bonds, 389 to tie Aaron. You think that's happening? I don't.

Here are the only three men to hit 389 home runs or more starting with their age-31 season, according to the Play Index. You may have heard of them.

Bonds, 470
Babe Ruth, 405
Aaron, 389

What's interesting here is that the three greatest home run hitters of all time had about the same number of home runs at this age that Cabrera has -- or fewer. Aaron had exactly 366 through his age-30 season. Ruth had 309. Bonds had 308. So clearly, this isn't out of the question. But I'd still take the under. How 'bout you?

Can he catch Hank Aaron?


One more Cabrera prediction from Torii Hunter: "You're talking about a guy [who can get] 4,000 hits and 600-plus home runs. I mean, who does that? Is he human?"

So who does that? Nobody does that. Thanks for asking.

The only two members of the 4,000 Hit Club -- Rose and Ty Cobb -- hit 277 home runs put together. So the gold standard in the Lots and Lots of Hits and Homers Club is Aaron, naturally. You were expecting maybe Juan Pierre?

Aaron is the only player in history to finish with more than 3,500 hits (3,771) and more than 500 homers (755). And Stan Musial (3,630/475) and Yastrzemski (3,419/452) are the only other men to come close.

So here's the deal: To finish with Aaron's career numbers, Cabrera would need another 1,769 hits and another 389 home runs. Think that's easy enough? Guess again.

You know how many hitters have accumulated that many hits and homers after reaching Miggy's age? Not a one. Here's the 1,500-Hit/300-Homer From Age 31 On Club:


And that's that. Close calls: Bonds (1,499/470) and Andres Galarraga (1,503/293).

So what Cabrera would need to do, when you get right down to it, is to basically replicate the second half of Aaron's career -- only better. But in case you never noticed before, the first half of Cabera's career has been eerily similar to the first half of Aaron's career, if you pick the right columns on the old stat sheet anyway.

Check out their numbers, through their age-30 seasons (meaning Cabrera's stats this season aren't included, because he'll play most of this year at 31):


So is Miguel Cabrera really going to wind up as The Best Hitter of All Time? Don't bet the beach house on it. But the more you look at those Hank Aaron numbers, the more you think that fun little Justin Verlander prediction isn't as out of whack as you might have thought the first time you read it. Now is it?

Wild Pitches


Fun stuff from Week 1:

• "Injury" of the Week: Carlos Gonzalez had to leave the Rockies' game Wednesday in the sixth inning, after, um, swallowing his wad of chewing tobacco and, um, not feeling so hot. Just one more reason not to chew, kids.

• Special K of the Week: Yu Darvish became the fastest pitcher ever to reach 500 career strikeouts Sunday (doing it in 401.2 innings, in just his 62nd start). Best I can tell, the slowest, among all starters in the expansion era, was Vern Ruhle (1,405 innings, over 188 starts and 325 total trips to the mound).

• Box Score Symmetry of the Week: As loyal reader Brian Pollina pointed out, all eight Red Sox who played the full game Sunday went exactly 1 for 4. How cool was that? It's just the eighth time in the last 100 years any team has done that, by the way.

• Home Run Machine of the Week: The Diamondbacks are going to get hot and mess up this note. But just so you know, nobody has ever hit 50 home runs for a team that didn't win 50. But Mark Trumbo has five homers. And the Diamondbacks have two wins. Just sayin'.

• On the other hand … Wade Miley had a three-hit game for the D-backs on Sunday. He's a pitcher. Allen Craig has two hits all year (in 22 at-bats). He's one of the best hitters alive. Just sayin'.

• RBI Machine of the Week: Chris Colabello drove in six runs in a game. Chipper Jones never drove in six runs in a game. Ever.

• Hit Machine of the Week: Emilio Bonifacio had accumulated exactly one four-hit game since the 2009 All-Star break. He had a four-hit game and a five-hit game just in the first two games of this season. Baseball is awesome. Isn't it?

• Off the Hook Note of the Week: Felix Hernandez punched out 11 Angels in six innings on Opening Day, but was in line to be the losing pitcher when he departed. Then the Mariners did something miraculous: They scored two runs in the top of the seventh and turned him into the winning pitcher. Just so you know how tough it's been being Felix, he hadn't made a single start in which he left trailing and got a win out of it since Sept. 18, 2009. That was 136 starts ago, if you're counting.

• E-pidemic of the Week: As loyal reader Tom Wilson reports, the Rays' Brandon Guyer inspired a two-for-the-price-of-one sale Friday. Two swings. Two Rangers errors. In one at-bat. Here's how: First, he hit a foul popup that Prince Fielder dropped. That was one E. Then Guyer hit a chopper to third. Adrian Beltre bobbled it and threw late. That was E No. 2. Two errors on two swings. In one AB. You don't see that much.

• Ya Never Know Notes of the Week: OK, who saw this coming: The first multihomer game of the season came from Alejandro De Aza. … Gio Gonzalez hit a home run before the Yankees hit one. … And Victor Martinez stole a base before Billy Hamilton stole one. Gotta love baseball.

• Sprint Champ of the Week: Finally, scouts at Thursday's Mets-Nationals game clocked Bartolo Colon at 7.8 seconds "running" down the first-base line after a ground ball to short. And history was made. "Slowest time I've ever gotten since I've been doing this," said one scout. "But it really wouldn't shock me if he broke that record again before the season's over.”

Jose Reyes injured -- again

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
9:59
PM ET

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Jose Reyes’ brand-new healthy season was fun while it lasted.

All one-half inning of it.

Not only did he not make it through the first game, not only did he not make it through the first inning, he didn't even make it all 90 feet up the first-base line in his first at-bat of the season Monday.

I want to be there and help my ball club. I want to help my ball club for 150 games, or even 162 games. So it's painful, and disappointing for me, because I put in so much work in the offseason. And now, I feel like I don't do anything.

-- Jose Reyes
Reyes fired a sinking line drive to center (which was about to be turned into a spectacular out by the Rays’ Desmond Jennings). He started to accelerate. And then his left hamstring had other ideas.

So here we go again.

For Jose Reyes. And for a Blue Jays team that has been waiting for more than a year now for him to turn the key in their ignition and lead them to the kind of AL East glory that has eluded them for two decades now.

Reyes can’t stay healthy. They can’t stay healthy. And it is starting to wear on both of them.

“Last year, I only played 93 games,” a distraught Reyes said Monday night. “I want to be there and help my ball club. I want to help my ball club for 150 games, or even 162 games. So it’s painful, and disappointing for me, because I put in so much work in the offseason.

“And now,” he said, almost in disbelief at what had just happened to him, “I feel like I don’t do anything.”

He had tweaked this same hamstring with a week left in spring training. At the time, he said it was no big deal. And when his manager, John Gibbons, was asked back then what his level of concern was about his leadoff man, Gibbons replied: “Zero.”

But by Monday evening, the manager wasn’t at ground zero anymore.

“We said last year he was the one guy we couldn’t afford to lose,” Gibbons said. “And then sure enough, bam.”

The big “bam” arrived last year just two weeks into the season, when Reyes severely sprained his ankle on an awkward slide into second base. But “bam” time arrived a lot quicker this year. One at-bat. One trip up the line. Bam.

[+] EnlargeJose Reyes
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioJose Reyes injured the same hamstring in the final week of spring training.
Reyes missed the Blue Jays’ final five games in Florida, came back and played five cautious innings in each of the two games in Montreal, then reinjured the hamstring in the same place Monday. Now he’ll be shut down, and told not to do anything, for at least a week. And then he’ll start over, trying to build himself back to health.

Sound familiar?

This is Reyes’ ninth trip to disabled list in his career. It is his fifth just because of hamstring issues alone, although his first since 2011. He knows the drill. And he’s tired of it.

“God give me this talent to run,” he said. “And that’s the worst thing that you can get, is to pull a hammy.”

So even when he returns, will the real Jose Reyes return with him? After he came back from last year’s injury debacle, he was thrown out six times in only 13 attempts to steal second base. Two years ago in Miami, he once went more than a month without trying to steal because his legs didn’t feel right.

So what now? Uh, we’ll get back to you on that. But this isn’t good.

And then there’s that Blue Jays team he plays for. They had so many health disasters to deal with last year that they managed to put their projected lineup on the field for only three games all season. They didn’t even make it through the first inning of the first game this season.

“I mean, that’s baseball, man,” Gibbons said. “The train keeps rolling. You’ve just got to deal with it.”

But the AL East madhouse kicked in on Opening Day. And for the Blue Jays, it couldn’t have gone worse. They walked eight batters, hit two more, threw a wild pitch, committed two errors on one play and got manhandled by David Price and the Rays 9-2.

None of that was Reyes’ fault. At least they noticed that.

“Look, we have to find a way to win,” said Opening Day starter R.A. Dickey, after walking six hitters for only the second time in his career. “Without him, without Jose, without whoever else goes down throughout the year, you’ve got to find a way to win. It starts on the mound, and, Jose in the game or not, I didn’t give us a chance to win. That has nothing to do with Jose.”

But that here-we-go-again feeling is one they know all too well. And fighting that feeling -- while navigating the insane minefield of the AL East -- seems a lot harder now than it had felt 24 hours earlier.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Gibbons said. “But it’s never easy. … So we’ll find out how good we are. That’s what it comes down to.”
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It’s hard to remember now that when spring training started, we actually doubted Justin Verlander.

Bad idea.

He was coming off the dreaded “core surgery.” He was behind the rest of the pitching staff. We wondered if he’d be ready for Opening Day. We wondered if he’d be the same guy.

Bad idea.

How could we ever have doubted? How could we ever have wondered? What were we thinking?

The Tigers’ ace went to the mound Wednesday for his fourth start of spring training. It looked a lot like the other three. By which we mean: domination.

One soft hit allowed in 6 1/3 innings. Zero runs. One walk. Seven strikeouts. What else is new?

So in those four starts he made this spring, he never did get around to allowing a run. Not a one. In only one of the four starts did he even give up more than one hit.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsJustin Verlander, Detroit's Opening Day starter, didn't allow a single run in 20 innings this spring.
All told, he pitched 20 innings. He gave up eight hits. He struck out 17. Those poor, defenseless humans who had to bat against him hit .127.

So what would he have said, we asked him, if we’d told him going into spring training that he’d do all that this spring?

“Good,” he said with a laugh.

So that was really what he expected of himself, even coming off surgery?

“It’s what I always expect,” he said simply.

Even after surgery, he never, ever doubted he could be the same guy?

“I don't think you can allow yourself to doubt,” he said. “When doubt creeps in your mind, that leads to failure. You have to look on the optimistic side of things.”

Do those words sum up the greatness of Justin Verlander, or what? Doubt and failure are incomprehensible to him. And unacceptable. It’s what he is. It’s who he is.

He’s 31 now. He has a Cy Young award and MVP trophy in his hardware shop. He is in the second year of the second-largest contract ever awarded to a major league pitcher (seven years, $180 million). And he’s determined to live up to it. This year. Every year.

When someone suggested Wednesday that for the Tigers to be great, he has to be what he’s always been, Verlander made it obvious he never considered not being what he’s always been.

“I don’t think you go into the season with doubt,” he said. “That’s why I worked so hard. After surgery, I worked my butt off to get back. And this spring has been encouraging.”

Encouraging? It’s been amazing. He may not be whooshing the baseball up there at 100 mph anymore. But his command of everything in his repertoire has been ridiculous. He rolled up five of his seven strikeouts on off-speed stuff Wednesday. And he’s been a strike-throwing machine all spring.

So if there were questions six weeks ago about whether surgery would limit him in any way, you don’t hear those questions anymore. Not from Verlander. Not from his manager, Brad Ausmus, either.

“I don’t think the surgery is going to have a major impact on his ability to pitch,” Ausmus said. “I know I’ve spoken to him about it, and he’s completely comfortable about it. He says he doesn’t even think about it anymore. At one point, I was concerned about him making a pickoff throw to second. And I asked him about it. And he said, 'Oh, I’m fine.’ He said, 'I don’t even think about it.’ ... Just the way he had to turn, I was concerned. But my concerns were immediately laid to rest.”

A month ago, Ausmus had said he was convinced that if Verlander could just build up his pitch count this spring, he could “will himself to be Justin Verlander.” And now, it’s clear. That’s exactly what he did.

Asked Wednesday about the strength of that will, Verlander smiled.

“I’m very competitive,” he said. “I’m determined to pitch to my capability.”

Well, 20 scoreless spring innings later, it’s time to ask ourselves again: Why did we ever doubt him?

Three 'real' stars of spring

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
5:45
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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Jeff Keppinger hit .412 last year in spring training. Philip Humber had a 1.73 ERA. You can file both of those under: "It's Only Spring Training."

But here are three star players whose spectacular springs have caught the attention of scouts and belong in another file: "The Real Deal."

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Jose Bautista, OF | Toronto Blue Jays

He's your Grapefruit League home run leader (with five). He came into Monday leading the Grapefruit League in slugging (at .778). He's smoking every pitch he sees, at the rate of .356/.455/.778. And the more you see it, the more real it looks. That's great news for a guy whose 2013 season was marred by a hip injury.

"He's been locked in from day one," said one scout Monday, with zero hesitation, when the conversation turned to the Blue Jays' masher.

But by "locked in," we're not just talking about those baseballs Bautista has been pounding into the palm trees. We're talking about a return to the approach that made him one of baseball's most feared hitters in 2010-11, when he was whomping 97 home runs, with more walks (232) than strikeouts (227) and a 173 OPS+.

Over the past two years, as the strikeouts have inched upward and the walks have inched downward, Bautista has found himself seeing more junk and chasing it. So this spring, he's gone to work on fixing that glitch.

"Just working on staying on the ball a little bit longer," said his new hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer. "Sometimes, he can get vulnerable to the breaking stuff. He's a tremendous fastball hitter. So we're trying to make a few adjustments with his approach, to give him a little bit better chance, especially with two strikes. That's really the biggest time, when you don't want to just sell out to a fastball, to where you're vulnerable on the secondary stuff."

So what has stood out all spring is that Bautista has put up a series of tough at-bats, and has seemed intent on taking more pitches the other way when the right side of the infield is open, as it so often is in this shift-aholic age he now lives in.

"He's working on it right now," Seitzer said. "I told him, 'There are going to be points in time in the game where you've got that shift on, and we've got a guy on second base with two outs, and as good as you are at handling the bat and shooting that thing that way, just do it. It's a freebie right there.'"

And how conscious has Bautista been of perfecting that approach? In a game Saturday against the Tigers, he reached base four times -- on two walks and two singles to right. If he keeps that up, his hitting coach thinks he's headed for a tremendous year.

"He's very mentally tough," Seitzer said. "He's disciplined. He's put up these numbers before. And I don't see why he can't do it again."

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Cliff Lee, LHP | Philadelphia Phillies

On the way to his first Opening Day start since he was in Cleveland, the Phillies left-hander has unfurled five excellent starts, including 11 eye-popping innings (allowing just six hits) against the Red Sox in his past two trips to the mound. Lee is also tied with Lance Lynn for the NL lead in spring strikeouts, with 19 in 19 2/3 innings.

Now it isn't exactly we-interrupt-this-program news that Cliff Lee can pitch a little. But again, this isn't about numbers. This is about approach, and some scouts and Phillies coaches worried that Lee was becoming too reliant on his fastball last season, despite his gaudy stats. That hasn’t been the case this spring.

"He’s back to mixing all his pitches, the way he needs to," said one scout. "He’d gotten too predictable. It was fastball, fastball, fastball, cutter, fastball, fastball. He’s got to use his curve and his changeup more, and he can do it. Otherwise, his fastball is in the strike zone too much, and it gets hit."

"He's really used his change well this spring," said another scout. "I've seen that change a lot, and it's an important pitch for him."

Actually, according to FanGraphs, Lee threw that change on 15.9 percent of all pitches he tossed up there last season, the second-highest percentage of his career. But his curveball use has declined from nearly 11 percent in 2011 to just 7.8 percent last year.

Not coincidentally, Lee's success with that pitch has also declined. It was his best pitch in 2011, when opponents hit just .133/.165/.162 against it, with no homers allowed on any of the 367 curves he threw. But that opponent average has increased the past two seasons, to .193 in 2012 and .236 in 2013.

So this spring, says Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, Lee has been "fairly deliberate about using his curveball a little bit more, depending on how it's feeling for him that day."

McClure said he and Lee "have talked about the perception the hitters have, of using that pitch as part of his arsenal. But the thing about the curveball is, it's a feel pitch. So I think if you throw a few early, you have it later in the game. So he's been mixing it in pretty well."

But McClure wants to make one other thing clear: Cliff Lee isn't broken. So nobody is trying to fix him.

"You look at his stats," McClure said with a laugh, "and it's hard to say to him, 'Hey, you need to completely change.' Are you kidding? But he might be able to use this pitch to offset [all those fastballs] a little bit, depending on the feel for it that he has that game."

Well, we've seen Lee do that before, with Cy Young results. So if he commits to it this year, it could lead him right back to that Cy Young conversation. And whether the Phillies are in a race or in July "sell" mode, a Cliff Lee Cy Young bid would be fine with them.

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Jose Fernandez, RHP | Miami Marlins

All the Marlins' favorite phenom has done this spring is remind us how incredibly dominating he was last year, as a 20-year-old jumping all the way to the big leagues from the Class A Florida State League. So how dominating was he? Here's a little refresher course:

• Fernandez had a season last year that ranked No. 1 among all rookies in the live ball era, in adjusted ERA (177), opponent average (.182), opponent slugging (.265) and opponent OPS (.533). And yes, we said all rookies. Over the past nine decades. Yikes.

• Another way to look at it: His team went 18-10 when he pitched -- and a terrifying 44-90 when anyone else started.

• He was the first rookie starter with a WHIP under 1.00 (0.98) since baseball lowered the mound in 1969. Yeah, the first.

• And here's the topper: He actually had a higher batting average (.220) than the other teams' hitters had against him (.182). Ridiculous.

Well, nothing much has changed for Fernandez this spring. Opponents are hitting .196 against him. He's struck out 16 in 15 2/3 innings. And other than a three-run, four-hit fifth inning the Cardinals put together against him in his most recent start, he's allowed seven hits to the other 56 hitters he's faced, punching out 15 of them.

So what are we seeing here? We're seeing one of baseball's shooting stars ascend to a level very few pitchers ever reach. And he's 21 years old.

Clayton Kershaw may have established himself as baseball's best starter. But is he the favorite to win yet another Cy Young this year? Not when he's pitching in the same league as Jose Fernandez.

When we casually observed to one scout who covers the Marlins that it wouldn't surprise us if Fernandez made a run at the Cy Young this season, the scout replied, just as casually: "I expect him to."

Wait, we asked. How can anyone expect Fernandez to win the Cy Young, when Clayton Kershaw is still alive and well?

"Look, Kershaw is what he is," the scout said. "He's great. But this kid is special."

Special enough that here's one thing we know for sure: His brilliant spring isn't a mirage. It's a portent of more awesome things to come.

Tigers searching for answers

March, 22, 2014
Mar 22
4:02
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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The latest blow was Bruce Rondon, now headed for a Tommy John surgery operating room near you and done for the season.

Before that was Jose Iglesias and those pesky stress fractures in both shins, which have put his 2014 season in peril.

And lest we forget, even before that was left fielder Andy Dirks, out for several months following back surgery last month.

Down they’ve all gone this spring for those injury-ravaged Detroit Tigers, one after another, all before their new manager, Brad Ausmus, got to manage a single game that counts.

It’s left the Tigers calling around, hunting for last-minute reinforcements at all three spots. And it’s creating doubts around the sport about the Tigers’ seemingly perennial status as favorites in the AL Central.

But one thing it hasn’t done, in case you’re wondering, is cause the manager to wonder why he thought taking this managing job was such a great idea last winter.

[+] EnlargeBruce Rondon
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesReliever Bruce Rondon (Tommy John surgery) is the latest significant injury for the Tigers.
"No. No. No. Not at all," Ausmus said Saturday. "It’s part of the game. You’ve got to roll with the punches a little bit. If I bury my head in my hands, it’s not going to make Rondon or Iglesias come back any sooner. We’ve got to find a way to get through it. And, hopefully, we find some guys who step up and fill the voids."

That’s what any manager would say at a time like this, of course, but finding actual answers to these questions is the hard part. And even with the season nine days away, Ausmus admits this is still a team that doesn’t have those answers. So how big a concern are these latest injuries? Let’s take a look:

Bottom of the order: Two years ago, Alex Avila was the Tigers’ primary No. 8 hitter. Jhonny Peralta was their most frequent No. 7 hitter. But the days when this team had that sort of lineup depth are over -- at least for now.

Barring a late trade or free-agent addition, the Tigers appear to be looking at a lower half of the order that includes some combination of Avila and Austin Jackson in the 5-6 slots, rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos in the No. 7 hole, followed by their left fielder (likely a Rajai Davis/Don Kelly/Tyler Collins combo plate for the moment) and the shortstop (tentatively looking like a hodgepodge of just acquired Andrew Romine, splitting time with either Danny Worth or Hernan Perez).

While Ausmus says that injuries haven’t had a major impact on that lineup depth, "because Iglesias was going to hit ninth anyway," lineup depth "could be" a concern, he admitted.

Asked if he’d at least settled on Jackson and Avila mostly hitting fifth and sixth in some order, Ausmus replied: "That area of the lineup is probably the most in flux, really. There may be a situation where it changes, depending on who the opponent starter is. I would prefer that be a situation where someone hits in that spot, or those spots, and excels and we can leave them there. But they’re not etched in stone."

Jackson has had a big spring (.442/.478/.767, with only four strikeouts in 46 plate appearances), but it’s Avila (.263/.364/.316) whom Ausmus singled out as being a pivotal figure in the construction of this lineup.

"We’d like to see Alex bounce back," the manager said. "I think he’s a much better hitter than he showed last year. … He’s had some good at-bats [this spring]. He’s had some normal spring training at-bats. He’s had some good at-bats against left-handed hitters, which is good to see. I’m hoping that Alex bounces back."

One bright spot in that mix is Castellanos, who has hit. 373, with seven doubles and two home runs in 51 at-bats, and has had scouts raving all spring about his quick bat and polished approach. The hope was that the Tigers could hit him down in the order and keep the pressure off him offensively. But it wouldn’t be a shock if they rewrote that script in a hurry if Castellanos keeps hitting.

The bullpen: The Tigers were already poking around for bullpen help --– particularly an upgrade on Phil Coke as the primary situational left-hander -- even before Rondon went down. But other teams say they’ve stepped up that hunt in recent days, since Rondon blew out his elbow ligament with no warning whatsoever.

For the moment, the seventh and eighth innings would now appear to fall into the hands of Al Alburquerque (11 strikeouts and just one run in six innings this spring) and that ghost of Yankees past, Joba Chamberlain (3.00 ERA, but with a 1.83 WHIP and still-diminished velocity) this spring. But Ausmus says that will be a work in progress early on.

"You just deal with it," the manager said. "You can’t dwell on it. You’ve got to find another solution. And the truth is, we’re going to need someone to step up to fill the role, and we’re not sure who that person is going to be. … It’s like the 5- or 6-hole in the lineup: I hope someone grabs it and runs with it."

One name to watch: 28-year-old right-hander Evan Reed, claimed off waivers from the Miami Marlins last April, who has hit 97 miles per hour and racked up 12 strikeouts, while allowing just three hits in 11⅓ innings this spring.

But the real good news has come from Joe Nathan, who hasn’t allowed a run all spring and is being depended on more than ever to put an end to the Tigers’ ninth-inning dramatics of the past couple of seasons.

So at least this team isn’t looking for a closer anymore. But they’re as likely to make some other addition -- a left-handed-hitting outfielder, another bullpen arm and possibly even shortstop Stephen Drew -- as any contender in baseball over this last week of spring training.
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- If you just scanned headlines and listened to talk shows, you’d think the Phillies’ biggest issue -- and possibly only issue -- this spring was their shortstop.

But here’s a news bulletin from outside the bubble:

On the list of major Phillies spring training troubles, the furor, or whatever it is, over Jimmy Rollins’ positive energy level wouldn’t crack the top five.

“Most disappointing team I’ve seen all spring,” said one longtime scout.

“Their whole spring has been a train wreck,” said another.

“It’s painful to watch that team,” said a third. “That’s an old team, and it plays like an old team.”

Three weeks and 20 games into spring training, the Phillies had won five games (5-13-2) going into Thursday. They were hitting .215 as a team, with a .299 on-base percentage and 23 fewer extra-base hits than they’d allowed. It’s only spring training, but there’s nothing pretty about any of those numbers.

On the one hand, their manager said Thursday, he’s “less concerned” than people probably think, only because this is “a veteran group” that “knows what it needs to do to get ready.”

On the other hand, Ryne Sandberg said, “I think spring training is a time to set the tone for the season, and play the game the right way, and do things that would help you win a baseball game. And we’ve been on the slower end of accomplishing that side of it.”

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarRyan Howard had 15 strikeouts, three walks and one home run in his first 40 at-bats this spring.
He’s hoping (with good reason) they’re about to pick up that pace before they head north a week from now. But there’s a lot that needs to be cleaned up on that front. So what are the Phillies’ biggest issues? Here you go:

Ryan Howard: The first baseman went into Thursday with 15 strikeouts and three walks in 40 at-bats, with one home run. The good news is, he’d raised his batting average to .275 with four singles in his past six at-bats. And Sandberg was upbeat about how Howard had shown “improvement over the last three or four games, with increased bat speed and more aggressiveness on balls in the strike zone.”

But scouts and executives who have seen him aren’t anywhere near that positive. The troubling reviews from those on the outside: “Just a guy who’s out there flailing away,” said one exec. … “A lot of at-bats, it looks like he’s swinging in case he hits it,” said a scout. … “Can’t sit on his back leg to drive anything anymore,” said another. … “Doesn’t have any sense of what’s a strike or what’s a ball,” said an NL exec. … Whew. Get the picture?

Jonathan Papelbon: The closer has allowed seven runs in his past three outings, and that isn’t even the worrisome part, according to scouts who have watched him.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but it looks like he doesn’t want to be out there,” one scout said. “His fastball is 89-90 [mph]. His split does nothing. He’s got no out-pitch. I know it’s spring training, and maybe he’s just trying to get ready. But his body language is awful. He’s got no energy at all out there.”

But Papelbon is only one worry in a bullpen with “not one guy you can really depend on,” another scout said. So what would the Phillies do -- and where would they turn -- if Papelbon doesn’t pick it up and take charge of the ninth inning? “I think that’s actually likely, the way he’s throwing,” one scout said. “He doesn’t have one above-average pitch right now.”

Domonic Brown: Brown was the Phillies’ only position-player All-Star last year in a breakthrough, 27-homer season. But he has hit .171, with one extra-base hit and a .229 slugging percentage, this spring.

Even Sandberg admits that Brown has “had inconsistencies -- one week pretty good and the next week cooled off a little bit.” The manager makes it clear that, on a team with five every-day players 34 or older, this team needs Brown’s “energy and young legs.”

But one concern is that Wally Joyner, the hitting coach who connected best with Brown last year, is in Detroit now. And one scout who noted that says: “I’m starting to worry that that first half last year was an aberration, and the real Domonic Brown is the confused guy we’ve seen this spring.”

Chase Utley: On one hand, Utley is clearly healthy. On the other, it took him until Thursday to finally thump an extra-base hit, in his 37th at-bat of the spring. He was hitting .167/.189/.167 before doubling off Toronto’s Esmil Rogers in his first at-bat.

Of all the Phillies’ slumpees, Utley concerns Sandberg the least -- not surprisingly. He’s just a guy who’s “still searching for his timing at home plate,” the manager said. “But he’s feeling good, and he’s healthy.”

One scout’s view: “He’s still their best player. But the Chase Utley of 2006, '07, '08, '09 -- we’re not going to see that guy again.”

Cole Hamels: The highest-paid pitcher (and overall player) in franchise history still hasn’t gotten into a game, and won’t before the Phillies break camp. And at this point, he isn’t likely to enter the rotation until the first week of May, if all goes well. Except that all hasn’t gone well since November, when Hamels had to shut down his offseason throwing program because of shoulder tendinitis, and again for a week and a half after another flare-up nearly three weeks ago.

Things are finally trending better for Hamels, though, after three pain-free bullpen sessions in a row. He’s scheduled to throw to hitters in live batting practice Saturday. And he could pitch in a first minor league or extended spring-training game in a week or so. “Things are going in a positive direction for Cole,” Sandberg said. “And that’s good.” But the Phillies still don’t have a good feel for whom they’ll plug into the April rotation to replace him -- and that’s not so good.

Jimmy Rollins: How about we put aside all of the debate about Rollins’ leadership, spring energy level and tradability. As he made clear Wednesday, he isn’t going anywhere, because he isn’t interested in going anywhere, and it’s his call. So all that really matters is whether he can still be a productive player at age 35.

Well, he finally broke an 0-for-23 funk Wednesday, with his first hit since March 1. But as much as the manager has stressed hitting “line drives and ground balls and keeping a good stroke,” Rollins hasn’t been able to locate that stroke this spring at any point. “I’ve got him with 14 straight balls in the air,” one scout said Thursday. “He’s a popup machine.”

But as for Rollins’ issues with the manager, “too much has been made of that, in some regards,” Sandberg said. “But I understand why it was. … What I wish I would have done [instead of no-commenting a question about Rollins’ leadership qualities] was to highlight my expectations of Jimmy, and what he brings to this team, and the things that he needs to do to help us this year.”

Well, believe it or not, no matter how much talk-show fodder the two of them have drummed up, spring training is never a reliable gauge of whether Rollins is going to do those things during the next six months. For that matter, we don’t know for sure what it’s telling us about where his team is going this year, either.

But we do know this: If April, May, June, July, August and September look anything like February and March for the 2014 Phillies, “it’s going to be a long, long year,” said one scout.

Joe Kelly's three-hit day

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15
5:42
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Joe Kelly hit 98 miles per hour on the radar gun Saturday. Nobody wanted to talk about that.

He also became the first Cardinals starter to pitch into the sixth inning this spring, an important development for a guy competing to win the fifth starter’s job . But even that became kind of a subplot to his day.

And why was that, you ask? Because Joe Kelly did something pitchers aren’t supposed to do. Not in spring training, anyway. And not in April, May, June, July, August or September, either, for that matter.

He had himself a cool little 3-for-3 game at the plate Saturday, in a 6-2 win over the Braves. And according to the Cardinals, that made him the first pitcher on any team to get three hits in a spring training game in four years -- since Chris Volstad had one for the Marlins on March 30, 2010.

It also gave him more hits this spring, just in one day, than a group of hitting luminaries that included Josh Willingham (1-for-20), Corey Hart (2-for-21) and Jason Kubel (2-for-21). Just to name a few.

“That,” Kelly said afterward, “was pretty fun.”

Over the past 25 seasons, just seven Cardinals pitchers have gotten three hits in a regular-season game. And the only one of those seven who is active is Adam Wainwright, who owns three of them (two just last year).

Coincidentally enough (or not), it’s Wainwright who has challenged his fellow pitchers this spring to improve their hitting, after a season in which they finished 11th in the league (among pitching staffs) in batting average (.126), and came within one whiff of tying for the league lead in strikeouts.

So they’ve been working diligently with assistant hitting coach Mike Aldrete this spring on shortening their strokes. And as Kelly proved Saturday, he’s been paying excellent attention.

“We’ve all kind of been working on short swings, and hitting the ball over the second baseman’s head, for the past two weeks,” Kelly said. “Just something we’re all trying to take pride in. I mean, last year, you heard those numbers. We didn’t bunt. We didn’t hit. We were second to last in almost everything. That’s something that Waino wanted us to all take pride in, in actually trying to help win ball games for yourself.”

Asked Saturday what he’d say to Wainwright when he saw him Sunday morning, Kelly smiled and replied: “I won’t say anything. I’ll see if he says something to me. I’m not going to go boasting. ... And if he asks me, I’ll give all the credit to Mike Aldrete.”

Kelly admitted he did win a little “Monopoly money” last season in a friendly wager with fellow pitcher Shelby Miller over who would get the most hits. And while he revealed that, unfortunately for him, the pitching staff has no hitting wagers going yet this year, he also was pretty sure “there probably will be.”

Those three-hit spring training games can provide ideal opportunities for trash-talking. But Kelly said he had no plans to do any of that -- unless one of his fellow teammates just, by some miracle, might happen to mention it.

“They’ll look up the stats and say something, I’m sure,” he deadpanned.

So he thinks it might just come up?

“Maybe.”

Possibly because someone like, well, us might write about it?

“Maybe.”

Well, no more maybes about it. If a pitcher gets three hits in a spring training game, we’ll do our part and make sure the word gets out. So the trash-talking can begin in 3 ... 2 ... 1.

The mighty Giancarlo Stanton

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
2:04
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LAKELAND, Fla. -- Giancarlo Stanton's manager has never set out to lead the league in dramatic quotations. But when the subject turned to his right fielder, all of these blockbusters came out of Mike Redmond’s mouth in a span of like 20 seconds:

“This guy really hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he’s going to be yet,” the Marlins manager said of Stanton at one point Thursday.

“Giancarlo is going to have a big year,” Redmond said a few sentences later.

And then there was this pronouncement, which kind of got our attention:

“This guy can be the best hitter in baseball,” Redmond said, with an I’m not kidding, pal tone in his voice. “I know people talk about Miggy [Cabrera], and how he puts the ball in play and moves the ball around. But I’m telling you. This guy is going to have a big year this year. Big.”

OK then. Can we start those fantasy drafts immediately, please?

Oh. And one more thing. You might want to know that what the manager sees in Giancarlo Stanton, his general manager also sees.

“We know he’s got power,” Dan Jennings said. “But this year ... with the focus he’s brought this spring, the approach, I think you’re going to see the whole package. He’s high-energy and locked in.”

Hmmm. The total package, huh? From a guy who is still only 24 years old, has already led his league in slugging (in 2012) and last season became just the ninth player in history to hit 100 home runs in the first 400 games of his career? Whew.

But now we interrupt this euphoria for this important message from a scout who ranks as one of Stanton’s biggest fans and who has seen a lot of him this spring:

“I see what they see,” the scout said. “I also think he might walk 200 times.”

Unless the guys behind him rake up a storm, that is.

And those guys behind him, in case you’re curious, would be two fellows who have joined the Marlins to witness the Giancarlo Stanton Show up close for the first time this spring -- ex-Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones and former Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Or at least that’s the order the manager is leaning toward at the moment.

“We’re messing around with it,” Redmond said. “But that’s kind of how I envision it right now. I like it. It gives us a little depth behind Stanton. And it gives him a couple of other guys behind him who can put the ball in the seats.”

On one hand, Jones and Saltalamacchia would be the first to tell you they’re not going to be confused with, say, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli in those 4-5 slots. On the other hand, Jones did bop 27 homers and slug .516 as recently as two years ago. And Saltalamacchia did make 25 trots in only 405 at-bats himself in 2012.

So at the very least, they’re an upgrade, theoretically, over Logan Morrison and Justin Ruggiano, the Marlins’ most frequent occupants of the two spots behind Stanton last year. Wouldn’t you think?

But then again, Jones and Saltalamacchia are also the latest, greatest reason to ask a question that goes kind of like this:

Can anyone “protect” Giancarlo Stanton? Really?

Sure, said another scout: “Miguel Cabrera could protect him maybe.”

Right. Maybe. Even if you believe the whole concept of protection is a myth, Stanton feels like baseball’s biggest exception -- anecdotally if not statistically, anyway.

Asked if any hitter in baseball could truly protect a guy with bigger power than anyone in the sport, who plays on a team that scored 340 fewer runs than the Red Sox last year and occupies the toughest park on earth in which to hit a home run, Jennings replied:

“I don’t know how to answer that. If you look at last year, he only got five intentional passes. And I think that if you’d gone to him last year and asked him, he thought he was going to get pitched around a lot and he wouldn’t get pitches to hit. But that wasn’t the case.”

Wait. But maybe it was. According to FanGraphs, Stanton was thrown fewer pitches in the strike zone last season (just 38.2 percent) than he’d seen at any time in his career. And only that perpetually hacking Pablo Sandoval (33.9 percent) saw a lower percentage among all hitters in either league, for that matter.

Stanton also chased fewer non-strikes (just 30.5 percent) than he had at any time in his career, and drew a career high 69 unintentional walks -- nearly twice as many as the year before (37).

So obviously, the Marlins needed some sort of veteran presence in back of him. And the two men they brought in are totally cool with taking on that responsibility.

“I’ve been in those situations where I’ve hit behind Big Papi,” Saltalamacchia said. “I’ve hit behind a couple of pretty good hitters. And one thing those guys always told me to focus on was to just do what you can do, control what you can control, don’t try to do too much. As a hitter, they know who’s behind them. You should know, because that’s how you’re going to get pitched.”

“He’s definitely as powerful as they come,” said Jones. “He’s a huge threat, and he scares a lot of people. So to get the opportunity to hit behind him, I’ve got to make them regret pitching around him if they do.”

Now we should probably mention here that Jones is hitting .125/.160/.250 this spring, with nine strikeouts and only three hits in 24 at-bats. And that Saltalamacchia’s slash line isn’t much better, at .158/.238/.316. But those numbers come with the standard it’s-only-spring-training disclaimer.

Stanton, on the other hand, is a dazzling .375/.423/.708, with more extra-base hits (four) than strikeouts (three). And the other day in Port St. Lucie, he hit one of spring training’s most insane homers, a shot so mammoth, it clanked halfway up the batter’s eye -- of the field behind the one he was playing on.

“He’s got the most power I’ve ever seen,” Jones said. “His hands, for as big as he is, he’s got a short, quick bat, and the ball just kind of explodes off his bat, like nobody I’ve ever seen. It almost makes you go, like, oh man. … I don’t want to say it’s intimidating, but it’s pretty exciting to watch. You can try to compete with him, but it’s pretty much impossible.”

Uh, he’s got that right. Fortunately, the Marlins aren’t asking Jones to compete with the man hitting in front of him. All they ask is for him to do enough just to make the other team think about throwing The Mighty Giancarlo a strike every once in a while.

And if not, well, at least it could mean Garrett Jones will have a shot to drive in, oh, about 200 runs this year.

“There you go,” Jones laughed. “If I could drive in 200, that would be awesome, too.”

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