Cubs letting Castro be himself?

March, 27, 2014
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Starlin CastroAP Photo/Matt YorkStarlin Castro is working his way back from a right hamstring strain.


MESA, Ariz. -- The single biggest question the Cubs confront isn't where they're going. Expectations have already been set appropriately low at the same time that anticipation grows as their bumper crop of blue-chip talent down on the farm nears readiness. But until that harvest comes in, the question for them is who among the current Cubs is someone they'll be able to build around. And that question is more important to ask about shortstop Starlin Castro than anyone else.

That's because the Cubs are fully invested in Castro. Sometimes the algorithm-and-formula set can get a bit formulaic. Take the Cubs locking in Castro for $60 million through 2019 (with a 2020 option for $16 million) back in August 2012. You want to lock in your young star talent long-term. Castro is young, he's talented, he was a two-time All-Star and he was nearing arbitration. Of course you sign him to a multiyear deal, using the same relentless, reductionist logic that informed the underpants gnomes of "South Park": Use the leverage of club control to sign talent to below-market prices … which equals profit.

Profit, if the guy keeps his value or gets better up through the age of 29, the way that young players do. And that's where last year comes in, because Castro didn't get better, and his value didn't go up. He tumbled, from a .761 OPS in his first three seasons down to .631 in 2013. It was the sort of epic collapse that might recall those of other touted shortstop prospects, such as Angel Berroa with the Royals a decade ago (falling from a .789 OPS as AL Rookie of the Year in 2003 to out of a job in 2007). Tom Tresh of the '60s Yankees and Wil Cordero of the '90s Expos rank high among the guys Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system identifies as similar talents to Castro, which is a bit ominous. Both were considered can't-miss young stars, and like Berroa they didn't live up to the billing. Is Castro the latest model, a shortstop prospect who peaks in his early 20s and turns into something less than advertised?

A big part of the problem was that the Cubs tried very directly to make Castro into something he is not and consciously mold him into a more patient hitter. In the abstract, it's easy to understand why: Sure, Castro's great as-is, but imagine how much better he would be if he drew 60 walks instead of 30! It's classic and aspirational, a case of not accepting who the player is, but wish-casting who you want him to be.

Castro tried to comply in 2013. He watched a lot more first pitches go by, and he reached a career-high 3.9 pitches per plate appearance. The problem is that he became a much more passive hitter. As the heat map from Stats & Info's Mark Simon reflects, this increased focus on waiting for his pitch made him less effective hitting balls in the zone last year.

Starlin Castro heat mapMark Simon, ESPN Stats & InfoWith a more patient approach, Castro's ability to do damage got worse inside the zone as well as out.


This attempt to make him that much more zone-conscious also cost him his ability to cream the occasional bad ball, one of the side benefits of his ability to make good contact as an all-fields spray hitter. Castro wasn't George Bell or Vladimir Guerrero, but if you look at his previous-season PitchF/X data over at Baseball Prospectus, you had a guy who could cover the outside of the plate effectively; in 2013, he lost that. And getting into deeper counts just meant he wound up striking out swinging a career-high 110 times.

That isn't who Castro was supposed to be. It isn't the player the Cubs handed $60 million to. And it wasn't who he wanted to be, either.

"That's what I try to be -- be me," Castro said. "The kind of player that I was when I made the big leagues the first time, that's the thing I don't want to change. That's the kind of player that I am."

So this year, the Cubs have pointedly decided to accentuate the positive and start with a clean slate, easier to do with new manager Rick Renteria, new batting coach Bill Mueller, and seemingly a new willingness to let Starlin Castro be Starlin Castro. As Renteria observed last week, "I'm not too worried about Starlin, to be honest with you. His demeanor is pretty positive, pretty upbeat."

Castro adds, "It's completely positive. The only thing that we talk about in here is how we're going to prepare, and how we're going to compete."

Getting Castro back on track figures to be one of Mueller's most important responsibilities in 2014, something he took on aggressively with his new charge. "We've rehashed the past," he said, "but [Starlin] is just a gifted guy who can make some really good contact and do a lot of things well. We just want to make sure we can get consistency across a full major league season."

But what's been critical in achieving that consistency has been putting in time in the cage with Mueller, and keeping it personal instead of diagnostic. "We're working a lot. In the very beginning, he came out the first day, he worked me out pretty good," Castro said.

Mueller observed, "It's about establishing a relationship [with Castro] in the cage. He's more about feel in the cage than anything videowise. That could change as we get into the season. Sometimes, we might have to pinpoint something in a still photo or stop-motion video, just so that he can see it, but that all evolves. But right now, it's about the cage and the relationship. Hopefully some of the things we're talking about with him with his hitting setup, that could help him too with seeing and reading pitches, evolving in that way so that he's not getting out of his zone as much. And just cleaning up minor little things with him, because he is so talented."

Which suits Castro just fine: "I'm more natural. Working and thinking, I know when I'm good, and I know when I'm not good. The only thing that I think is to try to keep my mind clean. I don't want to try and put pressure on myself -- I know that I can be a good hitter, and I don't want to mess up an at-bat, I don't want to get frustrated with myself or something like that, that can happen to anybody. I just want to keep my mind, my approach clean, and get it consistent."

Will the power of positive thinking get Castro back into that consistency, and make him so solid a part of the Cubs' future that top prospect Javier Baez has to get used to this spring's experimental move to second base? If the Cubs can accept Castro for what he was, you can still see the possibility for what he'll be, the same possibility that made him a $60 million man. If a positive approach is what it takes, then, yes, profit.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
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?

Marlins have sleeper potential

March, 25, 2014
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JUPITER, Fla. -- The Miami Marlins’ spring training camp began on a rough note when team president David Samson was the first contestant to be voted off the island on "Survivor." It’s been all uphill from there.

The Marlins have a National League-best 16-10 record in spring training. Although Grapefruit and Cactus League records are deceptive and are meaningless in the overall scheme of things, the vibe is decidedly positive at the complex the Marlins share with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins' best player, is relaxed, healthy and hitting rockets all over Roger Dean Stadium. Outfielder Christian Yelich and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria seem ready to assert themselves, and the Marlins assembled a more competent support system for their young players with the addition of veterans Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Rafael Furcal, Casey McGehee and Reed Johnson in the offseason.

[+] EnlargeGiancarlo Stanton
AP Photo/David GoldmanA healthy Giancarlo Stanton could be a real difference-maker for the Marlins.
And, oh, that pitching. Throughout the starting rotation and the bullpen, the Marlins are stacked with hard throwers who are going to produce some very uncomfortable at-bats.

"I heard a lot of things about the pitching staff before I got here," said Saltalamacchia, the catcher on the Boston Red Sox’s 2013 championship club. "I was expecting some good arms, but you never really know until you see for yourself. When I got into camp and caught these guys, it was definitely as advertised."

It all begins with Jose Fernandez, the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year and third-place finisher in Cy Young Award balloting. Nate Eovaldi, acquired from the Dodgers in the Hanley Ramirez trade, averaged 96.2 mph on the radar gun last season, and Henderson Alvarez threw a no-hitter against Detroit on the final day of the season.

No. 4 starter Jacob Turner has something to prove after an awful second half (0-7, 4.92 ERA, and a 1.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio), but he's only 22 years old. The Marlins also have options: Brad Hand and Tom Koehler, who arrived in camp as likely competitors for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, have a combined 2.38 ERA in 34 Grapefruit League innings. The Marlins have another future-ace-in-the-making in lefty Andrew Heaney, who will begin the season in the minors, and some other pitching prospects (Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani, to name two) who aren't far from contributing.

"Pure stuff wise, I haven’t seen anything like this," McGehee said. "You do the math and see some guys who aren’t going to make the team and you say, 'Oh my goodness.'"

The Marlins went 24-35 in one-run games last season and lost 55 games by two or fewer runs, and they’re hoping attentiveness to detail can make a difference this season. They were a dreadful baserunning team in 2013, so they added Brett Butler to the coaching staff to work with the players on bunting and running the bases more efficiently. They also added Seattle’s Carter Capps to a bullpen filled with power arms in front of closer Steve Cishek.

In light of how this spring has gone for the rest of the NL East, a team can make positive strides just by avoiding bad news. At Atlanta’s camp, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy have gone down with elbow reconstructions. Cole Hamels will begin the season on the disabled list in Philadelphia, and the Phillies’ camp has been dominated by news of discord between manager Ryne Sandberg and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. It hasn’t been much better at Mets camp, where Jon Niese gave the team a scare with some elbow discomfort, Matt Harvey is questioning the course of his rehab, Ruben Tejada is hitting .216 with four errors and the Ike Davis-Lucas Duda competition at first base was slow to materialize because of injuries.

Miami's setbacks, in contrast, have been relatively minor. Furcal has missed time with a hamstring injury; infielder Derek Dietrich suffered a fractured nose on a bad-hop ground ball; and it’s been a tough spring for Marcell Ozuna, the team’s projected center fielder. Scouts are also withholding judgment on whether Jones, Saltalamacchia and McGehee will significantly upgrade Miami’s 2013 batting order. Given that Placido Polanco hit cleanup on Opening Day and the Marlins ranked last in the majors in runs (513) and OPS (.627), it won’t take much.

Put it all together, and it's no wonder talent evaluators, writers, opponents, front-office people and the Miami players think this team has dark-horse/sleeper potential. Although the Marlins are probably a year from playoff contention, they can take heart in the examples set by the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, 2013 Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals and other recent clubs that made a pronounced jump in the standings ahead of expectations.

"They're trending upwards. With the pitching they already have and what's on the way, I'd be very encouraged," said an American League scout who has followed the Marlins throughout spring training.

"It reminds me a lot of the San Francisco days when they weren’t scoring too many runs but they were pretty strong from the starting pitchers down to the back end of the bullpen," Johnson said. "If a team like that is winning the World Series with the offensive production they had, I don’t see why we can’t be that team. If we can figure out a way to average more than four runs a game, I think our pitching can definitely hold up."

The big question for the players is this: How wholeheartedly should they embrace the "sleeper" designation? The Marlins have gone 72-90, 69-93 and 62-100 in Stanton's first three full seasons, so he's not buying into the spring training euphoria just yet.

"We're better together here [in camp]," Stanton said. "We're playing solid on the field, but we need to bring it into the season, too. There’s no sleeper or Cinderella stuff. Save it. If we want to do it, we’re going to do it. That’s it."

Saltalamacchia, the starting catcher on a Boston team that began the season with modest expectations and then won a World Series, is a bit less reticent about sharing his expectations for public consumption.

"I’ve been a part of those teams where they count you out and put you third or fifth [place in your division]," he said. "That’s just projections, and we all know how projections go. We’re going to turn some heads this year."

Three 'real' stars of spring

March, 24, 2014
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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.
JUPITER, Fla. -- When Peter Bourjos was playing for the Los Angeles Angels, Torii Hunter and some other teammates would occasionally debate how he might fare in a footrace against Mike Trout. The consensus was that Trout would win from home plate to first, but the longer the race, the more the odds would shift in Bourjos' favor.

During Bourjos' first month in St. Louis Cardinals camp, no one has shown much interest in challenging him to a head-to-head sprint.

[+] EnlargePeter Bourjos
AP Photo/David GoldmanPeter Bourjos, acquired by the Cardinals from the Angels this past offseason, is among the fastest players in the majors.
"No," said fellow outfielder Matt Holliday. "But I have played him in ping-pong."

The Cardinals acquired Bourjos from the Angels in November in the David Freese trade with the idea that he would give them speed on the bases and a gifted outfielder to bridge the gap between Holliday in left and Allen Craig in right. Everything he's shown in the Grapefruit League confirms that he's the man for the job.

Nevertheless, Bourjos also wants to avoid being typecast as all wheels and glove and iffy with the bat. He has a personal mandate to do a better job of working counts, drawing walks, reducing his strikeouts and finding ways to introduce the Cardinals to his hitter-ish side.

Offense was a mixed bag during Bourjos' tenure in Anaheim. He hit .271 with 22 stolen bases and an AL-high 11 triples in 2011, but Trout's emergence put a crimp in his playing time two seasons ago, and a fractured wrist cut short his season last August.

"The last few years have been tough," Bourjos said. "I may not be a .330 hitter, but I'm definitely better than people give me credit for. One of your buddies will show you an article, and it's really nice about the defensive stuff and not so much the offensive stuff. It's one thing I've been striving for, to become a better hitter and prove people wrong."

Jon Jay, St. Louis' incumbent center fielder, graded out poorly with the glove last season and helped open the door by hitting .192 (10-for-52) in the playoffs. Although manager Mike Matheny has consistently declined to handicap the center-field competition, Bourjos is in line to collect the bulk of the at-bats, provided he doesn't flounder offensively.

As a speed player who once stole 50 bases in the minors, Bourjos loves the thought of playing in the National League. He's also high on the prospect of playing in St. Louis. Albert Pujols, his former Angels teammate, told him he would enjoy being a Cardinal, and Bourjos has quickly come to understand the tradition surrounding the team and the professional atmosphere that's ingrained in St. Louis' players.

Bourjos spent some time early in camp working on bunting with former Cardinal Willie McGee, and he's still hoping to carve out time to get a few base-stealing tips from Lou Brock in Jupiter. Most telling, Jay has been friendly and supportive even though Bourjos might eat into his playing time considerably.

"He's been awesome," Bourjos said. "I've talked to him quite a bit and he's been great. I don't know how the playing time is going to shape up this year. Whatever it is, I'll be fine with it and I'll be pulling for him. That's the environment they create here. At the end of the day it's about winning. It doesn't matter what role you have."

Peralta key to Cards' makeover

March, 23, 2014
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JUPITER, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals threatened to break the outrage meter when they signed Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million contract in November. Critics, including big-league pitchers Brad Ziegler and David Aardsma, rushed to Twitter to share their objections to the idea of a player fresh off a PED suspension cleaning up on the open market. In the time it took the commissioner's office to email a news release, Peralta went from a respected teammate and solid pro to the poster boy for "rewarding cheaters."

[+] EnlargeJhonny Peralta
AP Photo/David GoldmanJhonny Peralta is entering the first season of a four-year, $53 million contract with the Cardinals.
Eventually, it came time to move beyond the moral debate and assess the impact on the field. The Cardinals officially reached that point the moment Peralta began turning double plays with Mark Ellis, Daniel Descalso and Kolten Wong on a back field at Roger Dean Stadium in February.

At first glance, the Peralta acquisition seemed right in line with St. Louis' approach to building a lineup. Left fielder Matt Holliday, who's in the middle of a seven-year, $120 million contract extension, is a six-time All-Star with a career defensive WAR of minus-9.0, according to Baseball-reference.com. The Cardinals spent $26 million on a two-year deal for Carlos Beltran, whose bat remained productive even as his knees and advancing age limited him in the outfield. In 2011, they even took a flyer on resurrecting Lance Berkman as an outfielder, and he hit 31 homers and made the All-Star team while making do in right.

Peralta, 31, fits the profile of a bat-first type of player. He has hit 20 or more homers and logged an OPS of .800-plus four times in nine full seasons as a regular, and his .457 slugging percentage in 107 games last season was second highest among MLB shortstops behind Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki. Even if Peralta is a magnet for skepticism because of his links to Biogenesis, he has a track record for putting up numbers. The length of his deal also brings St. Louis stability at shortstop, where Cesar Izturis, Brendan Ryan, Ryan Theriot, Rafael Furcal and Pete Kozma have alternately held down the starting role since David Eckstein's departure.

But it might be an oversimplification to suggest this is just a case of history repeating itself, for two reasons:

• The Peralta acquisition was part of a significant offseason makeover for the defending National League champions. Matt Carpenter is moving from second base to third. Wong and Peralta will make up a new double-play combination. Allen Craig takes over for Beltran in right field, and Matt Adams moves in for Craig at first base. Throw in center fielder Peter Bourjos, who came over from the Angels in the David Freese trade, and that's six new players at the eight positions on the field.

All told, those changes will help address the biggest weakness of a St. Louis team that won 97 games and had a run differential of plus-187, second best in the majors.

Carpenter should be a significant defensive upgrade over Freese, who posted a minus-14 in Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved calculations. Bourjos, who's likely to receive the bulk of the center field at-bats if he can hit enough to justify staying in the lineup, should also be an improvement over Jon Jay, who had a DRS of minus-8 in 2013.

• Peralta is probably a better defender than his reputation suggests. Over the past three seasons, he ranks fifth among MLB shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating. And he was exactly league average in Defensive Runs Saved in 2012 and 2013 in Detroit. Surprisingly, the metrics suggest he'll be a wash in the field over the Kozma-Descalso combination that held down the shortstop position for St. Louis a year ago.

The Cardinals are well aware of Peralta's reputation as a reliable-yet-range-bound infielder who won't cover massive chunks of ground, but he has looked good in Jupiter. In a 3-1 win over Minnesota on Wednesday, Peralta turned two double plays with Wong and showed some smooth footwork at short.

"I'm not going to completely compare him to Carlos [Beltran]," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "But there were times when Carlos was moving a whole lot better than people think, and I think the same thing can be said about Jhonny. We haven't seen his range tested to the extent that we will over the long haul. But right now he's moving pretty good and makes it look pretty easy. He's got great hands. There's no question about that."

The sure hands club


St. Louis' offseason moves were testament to the evolution of quantifying defensive performance. Do teams completely buy into the assessments of services that employ scouts who pass judgment on whether defenders should or shouldn't have been able to make a play, and then assess a rating compared to the league average? Or do they subscribe more to the "eye test," as Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and some other skeptics prefer to do?

New-age defensive analysis isn't kind to the Cardinals. They finished 21st in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency rankings last season, and were 14th among 15 National League clubs in Defensive Runs Saved with a minus-39. In contrast, the more time-honored measures are more charitable to the Cards. They led the majors with 177 double plays, committed a franchise record-low 75 errors to tie Arizona for fewest in the NL, and established a new franchise fielding percentage record of .988.

Although statistical advances might make fielding percentage seem quaint, outmoded and only slightly more relevant than Gold Gloves in evaluating defense, the paucity of errors is a point of pride among the St. Louis players.

Mike MathenyWe haven't seen his range tested to the extent that we will over the long haul. But right now he's moving pretty good and makes it look pretty easy. He's got great hands. There's no question about that.

-- Mike Matheny, Cardinals
manager, on Jhonny Peralta
"What our coaching staff always preaches is making the routine play and doing it every single time," Carpenter said. "If you grade on that, we were as good as anybody. What good is it to have a guy who can get to all these balls and have this crazy range and his Defensive Runs Saved is really good, but when the ball is hit at him and the game is on the line, he drops it?"

In the big picture, the concept of defense-as-collaborative effort can't be overlooked. Positioning is obviously huge. Matheny talks about Peralta being in sync with catcher Yadier Molina to gain a step in either direction before the pitcher delivers the ball. The Cardinals are also exploring the idea of using more defensive shifts this season, but only if everyone is on board with the idea.

"We're going to prepare for it, but the pitcher and pitching coach will make the decision to do it or not," Cardinals infield coach Jose Oquendo said. "If they feel comfortable, we'll do it. If not, we'll figure out something else. We might play a strong pull, but not a shift."

Although the St. Louis staff ranked fifth in the NL with 1,254 strikeouts last season, several Cardinals pitchers have repertoires that will keep the infielders busy. Last year, according to FanGraphs, St. Louis' pitchers threw ground balls 48.5 percent of the time, second most to Pittsburgh among major league staffs.

Staying at short?


The long-term picture in St. Louis might take a while to come into focus. Even if Peralta is a serviceable shortstop for the next year or two, can he maintain that level of performance late into his contract? Or will he eventually have to accept the idea of moving somewhere else on the field?

"It's hard to say," Peralta said. "It depends on how I'm doing and who else they have in the field. In the future, maybe I'll play third base or left field or whatever. But right now I'm thinking about shortstop."

If the Cardinals eventually want to unload Peralta, his contract should help make it more palatable for another club. His deal is significantly front-loaded, with $30.5 million owned him over the next two years compared to $22.5 million in 2016-17.

The Cardinals signed Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz to an $8 million contract earlier this month, but some personnel people think he can't play the position in the big leagues and will gravitate to second base or third sooner rather than later.

In the first month of camp, Carpenter has been busy re-acclimating himself to the unique challenges of third base. Descalso is moving around the infield, as usual. Ellis is dealing with a case of tendinitis in his knee that forced him to miss more than a week. And Peralta and Wong are spending time together on feeds, flips and double play pivots in an attempt to build chemistry for the regular season.

"If you hit Jhonny the ball, you're out," Wong said. "People say his range is really limited, but I don't believe it. He's an amazing player. I've seen him get to a lot of balls, and I feel like he'll make some plays for us."

Said Carpenter: "I think he fits in perfectly with what we do here. Every time I've seen the guy get a ball hit to him that he should field, he fields it."

Amid debates over defensive metrics and PED fallout, life goes on in St. Louis, where the players have a way of keeping things simple even as the world around them grows more complex.

Tigers searching for answers

March, 22, 2014
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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.

A comeback for Vizquel?

March, 22, 2014
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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- What kind of spring has it been for the Tigers? This ought to sum it up.

When we asked their manager, Brad Ausmus, Saturday morning if he'd given any thought to an Omar Vizquel comeback, Ausmus actually uttered these four words:

"We talked about it."

OK, so they've mostly joked about it. Mostly. But in a spring in which the Tigers have suffered injuries that will cost them their shortstop (Jose Iglesias), primary set-up man (Bruce Rondon) and platoon left fielder (Andy Dirks) for all or most of the season, just about nothing is off the table anymore.

Even a comeback by their 46-year-old first-base coach, who last played 85 games in a season at short in 2007.

"He probably could do it part-time," Ausmus said of Vizquel, who finally retired after the 2012 season, after 24 seasons in the big leagues. "But then I'd have to go find a first-base coach."

The manager laughed. And you would have thought that was the end of this discussion. Except Ausmus then picked it up again, musing out loud that Vizquel "could probably handle it. I don't know if he could play 150 games. But he could probably be a platoon shortstop if he got himself in shape. He certainly still has the hands."

And they know that's true, because he has taken ground balls off and on all spring, just to help provide hands-on instruction (literally) to the Tigers' young infielders. And Vizquel still has the best hands of any of them.

But let's make this clear, all right? This is not going to happen. The Tigers just traded for the Andrew Romine. They haven't completely slammed the door on Stephen Drew if it's a one-year deal. They still are looking hard at Danny Worth, Hernan Perez and Eugenio Suarez, all of whom made the trip to Dunedin on Saturday.

So they're not going to be activating any members of their coaching staff any time soon -- even one of the great defensive shortstops in the history of baseball. But not only have they chuckled about the idea of Vizquel being their "Plan B" at short, "we're still joking about it," Ausmus said.

"He was stretching today with the players," the manager reported. "And we told him, 'Relax, we got Romine.' "

But which of those two would they run out there on Opening Day if they seriously had to make that choice? The answer might actually be the 46-year-old first-base coach.
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.

Astros' future could be bright

March, 19, 2014
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JUPITER, Fla. -- Outfielder Dexter Fowler has joined the Houston Astros, starting pitcher Scott Feldman signed a $30 million contract in December and relievers Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and Jesse Crain add experience and depth to a bullpen that ranked last in the majors with a 4.92 ERA in 2013.

The addition of those players should help make the Astros incrementally better than the team that went 51-111 a year ago. But general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Bo Porter know that fan interest revolves more around the players who are on the way than the ones who will appear on the team's Opening Day roster.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Springer
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioAccording to Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, George Springer, the team's first-round pick in the 2011 draft, could reach the majors at some point this summer.
Houston's minor league system is stacked, and several top prospects began the spring in big league camp and are still appearing in Grapefruit League games. Shortstop Carlos Correa, first baseman Jonathan Singleton, outfielders George Springer and Delino DeShields Jr. and pitcher Mike Foltynewicz are getting abundant opportunities to show what they can do, while former No. 1 pick Mark Appel continues to work his way back from an appendectomy.

The numbers for the kids aren't especially pretty. While Foltynewicz has a 2.16 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP in four appearances, Correa is batting .214 and Singleton, Springer and DeShields are well below .200. But the Houston brass thinks they can benefit from their time in the big leagues regardless of the struggles they encounter.

"It was really important to get those guys in camp and be able to evaluate them against major league players," Porter said. "We wanted to get them around the major league atmosphere and give them an opportunity to be around our veteran players. A lot of the conversations that take place in the clubhouse, on the bench and on the bus go a long way toward speeding up the maturity of a young player."

Correa, the first pick in the 2012 draft, is earning raves from scouts and the Astros' personnel people for his talent, maturity and professional approach to the game. He's a Derek Jeter disciple, and it shows in his work ethic and devotion to his craft. Correa probably will begin the season with Lancaster in the high-A California League. But that's a hitter's league, and it shouldn't be long before he earns a promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi.

Luhnow characterized Springer and Singleton as "close," and expects both of them to arrive in Houston at some point this summer. Springer's biggest challenge at the moment is adjusting to right field to accommodate Fowler in center field.

Singleton, 22, came to Houston from Philadelphia in the Hunter Pence trade in 2011. He hit .230 with 11 home runs in 90 minor league games last season after serving a 50-game suspension for a second failed drug test.

Singleton recently made news by sharing his struggles with marijuana and alcohol in an interview with the Associated Press. The Astros were initially caught off guard by the interview, but quickly issued a statement of support for Singleton.

"It was a relief and he got it off his chest, and he put it behind him and now he can focus on baseball," Luhnow said. "That's what we need him to do -- focus on the baseball side.

"My reaction at first was, 'Oh my goodness,' but after I reflected on it, it didn't take long for me to realize this is a good thing. We're providing him with all the resources that he needs. As anybody who's gone through addiction knows, you're never out of the woods. You have to stay completely on top of it. We have experts working with him. We're making sure he knows he has the support, and we're encouraging him to utilize it."
PALM CITY, Fla. -- Nolan Ryan is 23 years removed from his seventh career no-hitter, and it has been 18 years since he pitched his pain reliever of choice in a television commercial. But he still has enough cachet to make news in Texas' two most prominent sports markets without setting foot on a mound.

[+] EnlargeNolan Ryan
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesNolan Ryan, 67, is currently an executive adviser to Astros owner Jim Crane.
The Houston Astros pulled off a coup five weeks ago when Ryan joined the organization as an executive adviser to owner Jim Crane. He's returning to the franchise where he passed Sandy Koufax with his fifth no-hitter, broke Walter Johnson's career strikeout record and worked as a special assistant to former general manager Tim Purpura 10 years ago.

Through no fault of his own, Ryan's recent break from the Texas Rangers isn't entirely in the past tense. Two weeks ago, before Torii Hunter puckered up to an alligator and Barry Bonds rolled into Giants camp, Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler added some spice to spring training with some words he later appeared to regret. In a provocative ESPN The Magazine story, Kinsler called Texas general manager Jon Daniels a disparaging name, expressed hope that the Rangers would go 0-162 and blamed Daniels for running the beloved Ryan out of town.

Ryan, for his part, heard Kinsler's remarks and immediately looked past their harshness into the heart of a fellow ballplayer. He suspects that Kinsler was still smarting from the news that the Rangers had traded him to Detroit for Prince Fielder.

"I told my wife, Ruth, 'People are going to miss the point of that article,'" Ryan said. "The real point of the article was that Ian was hurt by the trade. He was mad, and he just vented, but he was truly in his heart a Texas Ranger and he wanted to retire as a Ranger. I understand reactions like that because I played for the Astros and I wanted to retire in Houston and wasn't looking to leave. You say things when you're mad that you regret later."

And what about the highly publicized power struggle with Daniels? Ryan refuses to paint Daniels as a villain in what was clearly an uncomfortable arrangement. Instead, he suggests they were part of a dynamic that was set up to fail.

"I haven't really commented on that," Ryan said. "But when I came into that situation, I was dropped in J.D.'s sandbox. He had his organization and his group of people, and all of a sudden -- boom! -- Nolan Ryan was there. It was a dimension they didn't anticipate. It probably wasn't handled properly with my coming in."

As much as Ryan might prefer to change some things and invent a more gratifying conclusion to his run as Rangers president and CEO, it's all about looking forward to the salvage job that awaits in Houston. The Astros have their share of problems, but sandbox turf wars won't be one of them.

Monumental task


Ryan is in more of a consultant's role now than a prime decision-making spot. When he's not serving as a sounding board for Crane, he'll be dispensing advice to his son Reid, the Astros' president of business operations.

It's an understatement to say the Ryans, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Bo Porter have a big challenge in front of them. Last year the Astros became the first team since the 2004-2006 Kansas City Royals to lose 100 or more games in three straight seasons. They ranked 27th in the majors in attendance with 1.65 million fans (compared to the franchise record of 3.1 million set in 2004), and their efforts to reach a broader audience have been stymied by their TV deal with Comcast, which limits them to about 40 percent of their potential market and is now hung up in the court system. If you're an Astros fan in Louisiana, feel free to enjoy the radio broadcasts.

Nevertheless, this is an exciting time for Houston baseball fans with long-term horizons. The Astros' farm system is the best in baseball according to ESPN.com, and is ranked No. 5 in the game by Baseball America. Six of the organization's minor league affiliates made the playoffs last season, and the Astros have a chance to add another elite prospect in the Mark Appel-Carlos Correa mode with the top pick in the June first-year player draft.

The Ryans, father and son, sat down for a 30-minute interview with ESPN.com on Tuesday at the Floridian, the private golf course that Crane bought from former Miami Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga in 2010. They shared their mutual passion for baseball, their distaste for losing and their vision for the franchise with typical down-home candor. Reid Ryan readily concedes the team has work to do to regain the trust of the fan base.

"Sometimes you don't know what you're getting into until you get there," Reid said. "I took the job last May and as I started going around town, I saw there's a pride with the Astros. People are tired of losing. We had a stretch where we swept the Angels last year and you would have thought we won the World Series. As this group of young guys comes up, there will be a lot of folks who come out of the woodwork and bust out the orange and blue and start following the Astros. It can't get here soon enough for the fans."

He has such a breadth of knowledge, he asks really good questions and tells us ways he's seen it done in the past. It's not, 'This is the way you should do it.' It's more. 'Have you guys thought about this or that?' It's been very eye-opening and beneficial to us.

-- Jeff Luhnow, Astros
GM, on Nolan Ryan
Reid Ryan, 43, pitched for Texas Christian University before running the family's minor league teams in Corpus Christi and Round Rock, Texas. During his 10 months with the Astros, he has won high marks for his attention to detail, lack of ego and communications skills. He has fostered a more inclusive, upbeat environment than his predecessor, George Postolos, who was known more for his business acumen than his people skills.

Nolan Ryan, 67, is a man of fewer words, but approaches baseball with a curiosity and a sharp intellect that allow him to see the big picture. While stories abound about him scaring the bejeezus out of opposing hitters during his playing days, he's about as approachable as a man who received 98.79 percent of the Hall of Fame vote can get.

For those who wonder if Ryan and Luhnow can find a harmony that eluded Ryan and Daniels, the two men talked everything through with Crane before the Astros brought The Express on board. "I was very comfortable with the value added that Nolan could provide and he was very comfortable with the approach that we were taking," Luhnow said. "So far it's been a wonderful fit. I can't see any downside to it, to be honest."

Since Ryan joined the team in spring training, he has sat in on meetings and received primers on the way Luhnow's regime approaches everything from amateur scouting to player development to salary arbitration. "He has such a breadth of knowledge, he asks really good questions and tells us ways he's seen it done in the past," Luhnow said. "It's not, 'This is the way you should do it.' It's more. 'Have you guys thought about this or that?' It's been very eye-opening and beneficial to us."

If Ryan feels ill at ease with some of the more novel ideas expressed by Luhnow, Astros director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal or anyone else in the team's hierarchy, he hasn't shown it. As he points out, he was open-minded enough to embrace the innovative methods of pitching coach Tom House before they came fashionable. It helped him reach the Hall of Fame.

"I'm open to suggestions," Ryan said. “"If something can help us, I'm all for it."

Mentoring the kids


Like a utility infielder, Ryan will fill any number of roles with the Astros. If they want him to have dinner with a potential sponsor or speak to season-ticket holders, he's game. And if they'd like his opinion on a potential No. 1 pick, he'll be happy to provide it.

In Kissimmee, Ryan watches the big league team at Osceola County Stadium and checks out the minor leaguers when the big leaguers are on the road. The Astros expect him to gravitate toward some of the younger pitchers who he thinks he can help. Two of them -- former first-round pick Mike Foltynewicz and 2013 second-round pick Andrew Thurman -- already have caught his eye.

The Astros are making a conscientious effort to stress tradition and continuity these days. Roger Clemens and Craig Biggio, both special assistants to Luhnow, have spent time in camp this spring. While Clemens is more comfortable speaking to large groups of players, Ryan prefers the more personal, one-on-one approach. For such a tough old cuss, he has a natural human touch that can put a young player at ease almost instantly.

Reliever Matt Albers, a Houston native who broke into pro ball with the Astros in 2001, remembers Ryan giving a talk to the minor leaguers 10 years ago and telling them how the addition of a changeup late in his career helped prolong his shelf life. It was a revelation to Albers at the time, and stuck with him in the six years he spent with other organizations before rejoining the Astros as a free agent in December.

"It's really priceless for young guys when he talks to you and watches your bullpen and he cares," said Albers, who adds that Ryan "is pretty much a god in Texas."

A full 15 years after his induction to Cooperstown, Nolan Ryan has reached the point where he'd rather spend time at his ranch or playing with his grandchildren than being involved in every single organizational decision. He'll help give the vehicle a push when it gets stuck, but someone else will be driving.

"As his son, I know he doesn't want to work every day," Reid said. "Having this job now, I have a lot more respect and appreciation for what he did with the Rangers. There's somebody that wants something all the time, and it pulls at your time. I talked to him and said, 'We want you to come here in any capacity you want. You can have fun, enjoy the game of baseball and contribute. That's all any of us want, is to feel valued and feel like we're contributing."

A few more wins would be nice, but it took a while for the Astros to get into this mess, and it will take a while to get out of it. Note to Houston baseball fans: The Ryans don't enjoy losing any more than you do. Rest assured they're working on it.

Pressure's on Josh Hamilton

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
2:27
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Josh Hamilton takes batting practice like it's the last time he'll ever step in the cage. Every swing is ferocious and lightning quick, and he's apparently trying to crush every pitch 500 feet. This isn't Wade Boggs up there, hitting so many balls to left field, so many to center, so many to right and so many over the fence. For Hamilton, every BP is the Home Run Derby.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesJosh Hamilton batted just .250 with 21 home runs in 151 games last season in his first year with the Angels.
But hey, I doubt Babe Ruth worked on hitting singles to the opposite field.

After nursing a calf injury, Hamilton made his first spring training appearance on Monday and went 1-for-3, singling sharply off the glove of diving Giants first baseman Mark Minicozzi. Hamilton didn't show any effects of the injury, beating out a potential double play ball in the first inning and attempting a steal on a 3-2 pitch to David Freese in the fourth inning.

"He was running well and that's great to see," Angels manager Mike Scioscia told reporters after the game. "He's got to get out and play the outfield. We'll see how it goes, then. There are still some hurdles. We're not going to work too far ahead right now."

Hamilton had said on Sunday that he feels like he needs 45 to 55 at-bats to get ready for the season opener and that beginning the season on the disabled list isn't an option. After Monday's game he told reporters, "I got on base and I tried to steal and did the things I'm supposed to be doing." He's going to take Tuesday off.

Hamilton turns 33 in May, at that precarious age when skills often start to erode, when a player's ability to adapt and adjust become more important than ever. Even natural talent as explosive as Hamilton's fades at some point. As Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson told me on Monday, "You're always making adjustments. Adjust or you'll be out of the game."

Wilson was talking about himself and how spring training isn't just merely about getting his innings in, but the comment applies to Hamilton: Is he going to make adjustments? Is he willing to change his approach at the plate? Is that easy to say, harder to do?

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The knock against Hamilton, especially as his average dipped in the second half in 2012 and during his first season with the Angels, has been his overly aggressive approach and expanding the strike zone. After striking out 95 times in 2010 and 93 times in 2011, his strikeouts ramped up to 162 and 158 the past two seasons. He went from striking out once every 5.3 at-bats to once every 3.6 at-bats. That was undoubtedly one reason Hamilton hit a disappointing .250/.307/.432 for the Angels last season, numbers well below his career totals of .304/.363/.549 entering the season.

Against the Giants, Hamilton faced Tim Lincecum, who struggled all day with his fastball command and was constantly falling behind hitters. In the first, Hamilton took a fastball away and a pitch low before grounding out softly to second. Leading off the fourth, he swung at the first pitch and singled. In the fifth, he again swung at the first pitch and flew out on a high line drive to right field.

Obviously, it's one spring training game and you can't and shouldn't read anything into those swings. But swinging at first pitches -- especially first pitches that weren't over the plate -- is what hurt Hamilton in 2013.

He swung at the first pitch in 267 of his 636 plate appearances -- that's 42 percent of the time -- and put 90 of them in play. Swinging at the first pitch isn't necessarily a bad thing; the four players with more total swings on first pitches than Hamilton were Carlos Gomez, Freddie Freeman, Miguel Cabrera and Adam Jones, four hitters you may have heard of. Thing is, however, those four players did much more damage when putting a first pitch into play:

Hamilton: .281, 528 slugging, 6 HR in 89 at-bats
Gomez: .402, .738 slugging, 8 HR in 107 at-bats
Freeman: .455, .747 slugging, 6 HR in 99 at-bats
Cabrera: .448, .917 slugging, 14 HR in 96 at-bats
Jones: .385, .702 slugging, 8 HR in 104 at-bats

Here's a heat map that shows Hamilton's swings on the first pitch -- look how far outside the strike zone he's expanding his coverage. He's not going to do much damage on those pitches way off the plate.

 Josh Hamilton swing rateESPN Stats & InfoJosh Hamilton likes to swing at first pitches ... even those way off the plate.


Also, the other guys hit better after falling into an 0-1 count:

Hamilton: .210/.233/.357
Gomez: .238/.289/.447
Freeman: .267/.335/.403
Cabrera: .290/.349/.513
Jones: .243/.267/.394

Cabrera can get away with swinging at so many first pitches because his hand-eye coordination is freakishly off-the-charts and he has the ability to recover from 0-1 counts. Hamilton isn't Cabrera, at least not any longer, not when pitchers know they don't have to throw him strikes.

One player doesn't make a team, but there's no denying Hamilton's importance to the Angels (along with a healthy Albert Pujols). With the concerns over the starting rotation, the Angels' offense is going to have score runs to get the team back in the postseason for the first time since 2009. It makes Hamilton one of the most important and most intriguing players of 2014.

Will Hamilton bounce back with a stronger year? If it's all about adjustments, until the games begin for real, we won't know the answer.

Miller takes pride being a backup

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
11:13
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Corky Miller. It is the perfect name for who he is and what he is, a backup catcher. This spring, Miller is with the Reds. Most baseball reference books list his first name as Abraham. Some teammates have called him that, but his real first name is actually Corky. His parents named him after a relative named Clark, who went by Corky.

"My mom used to tell me if I ever became the president of the United States, I would go by C. Abraham Phillip Miller," Miller said with a laugh. "But I haven't come close to becoming the president."

[+] EnlargeCorky Miller
Rob Tringali/Getty ImagesCorky Miller, 38, is hoping to make the Reds' Opening Day roster as their backup catcher.
If there were such a thing, he would be the president of the Backup Catchers Club. It's a unique fraternity of guys who have been backup catchers their whole careers. They bounce from team to team, from bullpen to bullpen, warming up pitchers, giving the starting catcher a rest, then warm up a few more pitchers. They are catching lifers, they play for a different team virtually every year, they just don't play very much: Henry Blanco, Chris Stewart, Chris Snyder, Koyie Hill, Brett Hayes, Yorvit Torrealba, Gerald Laird, to name a few.

"I saw Matt Treanor [now with the Indians] the other day," Miller said. "When you see one of us, you just kind of nod and smile at them. I looked at Matt, nodded, smiled and said, 'Still grinding it out, huh?' He smiled back at me with that look of, 'Here we go again.'"

Some of the backup catchers have played every day for brief stretches in their careers, such as Laird and John Baker, now with the Cubs. David Ross, one of the best backups in the game, not only got a World Series ring last year with the Red Sox, but he started a few games in the 2013 postseason. Miller is 37 years old, he made his major league debut in 2001, and he has played 216 games for the Reds, Twins, Red Sox, Braves and White Sox. And yet, despite all those years, he has never played as much as 40 games in a season. He is the only non-pitcher in history to play that many games without playing 40 in any season.

"My job is to make sure the starting pitcher is prepared and ready to go, I take care of the pitchers, even if I play once a week," Miller said. "One year in Atlanta [2008], backing up Brian McCann, I played once every 16 days. When you haven't caught in two weeks, it can get a little crazy. But when you do play, you have to hide your emotions. You are there to give the starter catcher a breather. You can't get p---ed off, and get kicked out of a game."

Miller, 38, has had 100 at-bats in a season once in his career (114 in 2002), his season high for hits is 29, for home runs is three, for RBIs is 15.

"That year in Atlanta, I had 60 at-bats in 51/2 months," he said. "That was tough for me, but it was so much fun backing up Brian, who was a young guy learning the game. That was the most fun I've ever had. I have always wondered, 'What would happen if I ever got a chance to play?' But I also wonder if I'd gotten one year to play, then I might have been done playing after that one season."

“There are a lot of guys that I've played with over the years, and a lot of them aren't playing any more, and I still am," he said. “I have been wondering since all the way back to 2005-06, 'How much longer am I going to play?' And here it is, seven years later, and here I still am. I go back and forth on this: 'Do I start coaching or managing now, and start to build that career, or do I keep playing?' I've been a third catcher or a backup or an emergency catcher for Reds since 2009. When I didn't get called up to the big leagues in 2011 and '12, I thought that might be it. But here I am again."

Miller is, at best, a third catcher for the Reds this spring. He might or might not make the team.

"I still get up at 6 a.m. every day, get in the hot tub and get ready to catch every day," Miller said. "It's something that I still want to do. And it's something that they want me to do."

His name is Corky, he has been called Abraham, but with all he has done, he is Mr. President.

Baez could find home at 2B

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
12:41
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MESA, Ariz. -- The significance of Chicago Cubs top prospect Javier Baez playing second base on Monday against the Oakland A's extends beyond just one game. When he takes the field it will be the first time he has played second since his freshman year of high school, but it probably won't be the last.

"If somebody gets hurt ... I can come up and play another position if I have to," Baez said Monday morning.

Baez has played shortstop his entire pro career and will do so again once he's sent to Triple-A Iowa to start this season. But the Cubs have deemed him near ready for the major leagues, so with Starlin Castro already locked in at short with a long-term contract, Baez will have to find playing time elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeJavier Baez
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonCubs top prospect Javier Baez has three home runs this spring.
"It makes sense for us to move him around," manager Rick Renteria said. "He's been working on pivots and things of that nature. The biggest concern is the pivot. Making sure you're in and out of there on the turns. ... It's not an easier position by any means, it has its own nuances."

There's some irony in Baez playing second base on Monday as his double play partner is the Cubs' incumbent Gold Glove second baseman, Darwin Barney, who is one of the Cubs' leaders on the field. He'll be implicitly asked to groom his possible replacement.

"I'm pretty sure he's going to help me and tell me how to play it," Baez said.

Barney won a Gold Glove in 2012 but Baez has the bat that everyone in baseball is waiting to see in the big leagues. He's matured over the last year both on and off the field. It's one reason the Cubs believe he is ready for a potential position change.

"We'll give him a couple days, back-to-back at second base, some starts and we'll go from there," Renteria said.

Baez will also get a chance at third base, according to Renteria. That way, when he comes up from the minors -- potentially later this season -- he'll have some experience at several positions.

They will seemingly do anything to get his bat in the lineup.

Baez is hitting .276 with three home runs this spring after a huge minor league season in 2013 in which he hit 37 home runs and drove in 111 runs. Scouts salivate at his bat speed, often compared to Gary Sheffield.

He loves shortstop but like any prospect he'll do whatever it takes to play.

"I'm just trying to get there [to the big leagues] and be in the lineup," Baez said.

And he's gotten even better this spring. Two of his home runs have been to right field, and his pitch selection has improved as much as could be expected of a free swinger. Then there was his first hit to left field, a bomb last Wednesday off Seattle Mariners starter Randy Wolf that went well over 400 feet.

"Fast to the zone and long through it," is how one veteran scout described his swing recently.

Every so often there is a sign that the Cubs' rebuilding plan is moving forward. When Baez takes the field at second base -- even in a spring game -- it's another sign.

They're preparing for his arrival at Wrigley Field.
VIERA, Fla. -- Scan the Washington Nationals' lineup card, and it's hard to imagine their offense being such a wasteland of subpar numbers and missed opportunities for so much of the 2013 season. But the statistics bear it out: At the All-Star break, the Nationals were tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for 13th in the National League in runs scored and also ranked 13th with a .686 team on base percentage.

The Nationals were 16 games out of first place on Aug. 19, and the gratification of a 26-12 finish didn't do much for their spirits when they were sitting at home in October.

[+] EnlargeRyan Zimmerman
AP Photo/Alex BrandonRyan Zimmerman is entering his 10th season in the majors, all with the Nationals.
"The last two months we played great and scored a ton of runs," Ryan Zimmerman said. "Unfortunately, it took us four months to get to that point. We got off to a slow start and some of us maybe tried to do too much to make up for all the expectations. It was a learning experience for all of us. I think we'll be better this year because of it."

The Nationals should be better primarily because they have too much talent and balance to flounder again. After giving Danny Espinosa two months to work his way out of his mega-funk and losing Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and catcher Wilson Ramos for significant periods because of injury last season, they're also relying on a return to good health.

It all begins with leadoff man Denard Span, who went on a second-half tear with the help of new hitting coach Rick Schu and reeled off a 29-game hitting streak in August and September. Span refrained from taking batting practice for the final month and a half, choosing to do cage work with Schu and take it directly into the games.

"Toward the end of the season, I just let it go and started having fun," Span said. "Rick and I definitely have a connection. We're on the same page and eye to eye. He knows my personality and what I like to do."

Ian Desmond hit 20 homers last season and ranked second to Troy Tulowitzki among shortstops with a .453 slugging percentage. Werth finished 13th in National League MVP voting. Harper should be better now that he's recovered from knee and hip injuries, and Zimmerman ranks third among major-league third basemen in hits (1,243) and doubles (266) since 2006. Add Ramos, Adam LaRoche and former No. 1 pick Anthony Rendon to the equation, and it's a lineup without a noticeable weak spot.

New manager Matt Williams said some elements of the lineup are "flip-floppable." He can plug Rendon into the leadoff spot in place of Span against some left-handed pitchers, and also bat him second, seventh or eighth. Werth can hit anywhere from second through fifth. Harper, Zimmerman, Ramos and LaRoche will also move up or down in the main run-producing spots depending on how they're swinging and the identity of the opposing pitcher on a given day.

Regardless of who hits where, the Nationals expect a drastic improvement over the middle-of-the-pack group that was a drag on their ambitions in 2013.

"I think they all showed at the end of the season what kind of team was here," Williams said. "We expect the same. We've got some really talented guys with a lot of ability, and a potent lineup. I like what I see, for sure."

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