SweetSpot: 2014 spring training

Christina Kahrl, Buster Olney and Jim Bowden covered the Miguel Cabrera contract, so there isn't really much more to add. The timing is definitely odd with Cabrera two years from free agency, the money seems extreme and who knows how Cabrera will age once he get into his mid-30s. On the other hand, it's not our money and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 84 years old and probably not too worried about about what happens in seven or eight years.

Other stuff ...
  • Righty Jordan Zimmermann tossed five scoreless innings for the Nationals against the Mets in his final spring tune-up. He's been as good as any pitcher this spring, allowing one run in 18 innings with just one walk. Clayton Kershaw -- sore back and all (he'll miss his start on Sunday night) -- is clearly the Cy Young favorite in the National League, but Zimmermann is a solid sleeper choice if Kershaw falters. Compare Zimmermann over the past two seasons to his more-hyped teammate, Stephen Strasburg. Zimmermann is 31-17 with a 3.10 ERA and 409 innings; Strasburg is 23-15 with a 3.08 ERA and 342 1/3 innings. You may look at Zimmermann's strikeout rate (161 in 213 1/3 innings) and think he doesn't throw hard, but that's not the case. His fastball averaged 93.9 mph last season. Even though he pitches up in the zone with it he induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls thanks to good movement. He mixes in a slider, curve and occasional change. The one thing he has to improve on to go to the next level is limit the blow-up outings; he had games last year with eight, seven, seven and six runs allowed, giving up 10 of his 19 home runs in those four starts.
  • Even with the injury to Patrick Corbin, the Diamondbacks sent down Archie Bradley, the hard-throwing right-hander many rank as the top pitching prospect in the minors. I think it's the right decision. Bradley still has to improve his fastball command -- he walked 59 batters in 123 1/3 innings in Double-A -- to succeed consistently at the major league level. A month or two in the minors won't hurt, although it won't surprise me if he's back sooner than that if somebody in the Arizona rotation falters or gets injured.
  • The A's and Giants are playing a three-game Bay Bridge series back home and the A's had to be happy to see Scott Kazmir toss 5 1/3 scoreless innings. He did walk three with four strikeouts but allowed only two hits. With the loss of Bartolo Colon as a free agent and Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery, the A's have to find nearly 400 new innings in the rotation. Kazmir threw 150 last year for Cleveland. Josh Reddick homered for the A's. While the rotation may take a hit, the Oakland offense should be better if Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes rebound from mediocre seasons. Remember, the A's were third in the AL in runs even though Reddick posted a .307 OBP in 441 PAs, Cespedes a .294 OBP in 574 PAs and the departed Chris Young a .280 OBP in 375 PAs. It wouldn't surprise me if the A's have the best offense in the AL, leaping over the Tigers and Red Sox.
  • Speedster Billy Hamilton went 3-for-4 with two triples for the Reds and is hitting .327/.381/.527 in 55 spring at-bats. There are still a lot of doubts on whether he'll hit at the major league level and his lack of power means he'll see a lot of hard stuff inside, but there have been positive signs this spring, including the willingness to take some pitches and draw a few walks (six in 18 games). He walked a lot in Double-A, not nearly enough in Triple-A, but that needs to become a bigger element of his game. I do like his chances to hit just enough -- say .250 with a .310 OBP -- to keep his job in center field and swipe 60-plus bases.
  • The Phillies released 40-year-old vet Bobby Abreu and if you can't make the Phillies ... Abreu didn't play in the majors last year and looked pretty done in 2012 (he posted a .350 OBP but with little power). Twenty-five years ago there would be room for Abreu somewhere as a pinch-hitter/DH/very occasional outfielder, but teams don't carry those guys any more on rosters stocked with so many relievers. The guy had a great career and was a very underrated player during his prime years with the Phillies, hitting .305/.416/.513 from 1998 to 2006 while averaging 29 steals and 5.4 WAR per season. His timing wasn't quite right; he left the Phillies before they become a perennial playoff team and he left the Yankees the year before they won a World Series in 2009. With 60.5 career WAR via Baseball-Reference, he compares in value to other outfielders like Billy Williams (63.6), Richie Asbhurn (63.4), Zack Wheat (60.2), Jim Edmonds (60.3), Gary Sheffield (60.2), Vladimir Guerrero (59.3) and Sammy Sosa (58.4).
  • So the Mariners didn't want to pay Randy Wolf a guaranteed $1 million but then gave a guaranteed $1.25 million contract to Chris Young (the pitcher, not the outfielder). Go figure. Young had been in camp with the Nationals but couldn't crack their rotation. Reports, however, had him throwing 88 and healthy, much better than the 83-85 he was throwing when he was last in the majors in 2012. You can argue that the Mariners made a baseball decision here and that Young is a better bet to perform than Wolf, but that's not really what happened. Wolf had made the team before they decided to screw him with a 45-day contract offer, which Wolf turned down, leaving the Mariners with no option but to give Young a guaranteed deal even though he's hardly a sure thing to last all season in the rotation.
We're getting closer ...
  • Watched the Baltimore-Tampa Bay game on Wednesday night since it featured Opening Day starters Chris Tillman and David Price. Considering the teams are division rivals, both starters may have held back just a bit and neither pitcher went five innings. I think Price has a huge season coming, one reason I'm picking the Rays to win the AL East. Yu Darvish was going to be my Cy Young pick until his current stiff neck issue means he's going to miss the first week of the season and raises at least a little doubt over his season. I may shift now to Price -- or Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander -- as he became a strike-throwing machine when he returned from his DL stint last season, walking just 13 batters over his final 18 starts. When you can command your stuff like that and throw 95+ mph, a lot of good things are going to happen.
  • The Angels cut Joe Blanton even though he's owed $8.5 million on his contract. Teams still have a hard time admitting mistakes so give Angels GM Jerry DiPoto credit here for cutting bait. It was a bad deal at the time -- Blanton predictably got hammered in the AL after straddling the line of mediocrity in the NL -- and his poor performance (2-14, 6.04 ERA) was a major reason the Angels finished under .500. Blanton was worth -2.0 WAR last year, so even replacement-level pitching from the fifth spot will be an improvement.
  • Strong final start from Rockies Opening Day starter Jorge De La Rosa, with six shutout innings against the Giants with one walk and seven strikeouts. The Rockies will need Jhoulys Chacin to come back strong in May but I'm starting to think the Rockies could be that sleeper team to watch -- a team that finished below .500 in 2013 that could make the playoffs. A lot of that depends on the health of some injury-prone players -- Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Brett Anderson -- but if the back of the rotation holds up the Rockies could crack .500 and surprise.
  • The Mets still haven't decided between defensive whiz Juan Lagares and stolen-base dude Eric Young Jr. for a starting outfield slot. The Mets know Lagares can play center -- his great range and 15 assists allowed him to post 26 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013, the sixth-highest total of any fielder -- but also know the .281 OBP he posted may not get any better. OK, I get that he can't hit. But EYJR, who led the NL with 46 steals, had a .310 OBP with the Mets last year. Young has been worth 0.3 WAR in his major league career, Lagares valued at 3.5 WAR a year ago. Lagares doesn't have to improve with the bat to be a more valuable player than Young. Even if his defense slips a little (he may not get as many assists, for example), he's still the better player.
  • The Pirates locked up Starling Marte to a six-year, $31 million extension, buying out at least one year of free agency and owning options on two more. Looks like a great deal for the Pirates, exactly the kind of below-market rate they need to sign their young players to, and once Gregory Polanco reaches the majors at some point this year, you're going to see what could be one of the best defensive outfields in recent memory with Marte in left, Andrew McCutchen in center and Polanco in right.
  • Tanner Scheppers was named Opening Day starter for the Rangers, in what will be his first career start. I wonder how many pitchers have made their first career start on Opening Day? If I did the search right on Baseball-Reference, it looks like just three (at least since 1914): Lefty Grove of the Philadelphia A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the Phillies in 1943. So who were those three guys? Grove had been a star for years for Baltimore in the International League when the A's purchased him. Bagby, son of a former major leaguer, had gone 21-8 in the Class A New York-Penn League in 1937, enough for the Red Sox to start him against the Yankees as a 21-year-old rookie. Boston had been 80-72 in 1937, so starting a rookie seems a little odd. Gerheauser was a 26-year-old minor league vet who had pitched for Yankees' Triple-A club in Newark in 1942. The Phillies had lost 109 games in 1942, so probably were hoping some Yankee magic would rub off on them. (Actually ... that list looks like pitchers who made their major league debut as an Opening Day starter. Fernando Valenzuela's first career start -- after 10 relief appearances in 1980 -- came on Opening Day of 1981. He pitched a shutout and then reeled off seven more starts in a row of nine innings (one wasn't a complete game). He allowed four runs in those eight starts and we had Fernandomania.
  • So Randy Wolf was told he had made the Mariners' Opening Day rotation. And then got released. So ... what? Apparently, the Mariners asked Wolf to sign a 45-day advanced-consent relief form, which would mean the Mariners could release Wolf within 45 days and not have to pay his full season's salary. I didn't know such a possible contract existed, and I don't know how common such requests are, but Wolf refused to sign it and became a free agent. (Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times has the story here.) It's understandable why the Mariners would make the request -- Wolf didn't pitch in the majors last year and was last effective in 2011 and it's possible he would simply be holding a spot for a few starts until Taijuan Walker is ready, but considering Wolf was set to make just $1 million, it makes the Mariners look petty and cheap. It's already hard enough to get players to come to Seattle; this isn't going to help.

Have there been more injuries than usual this spring? I don't know. We probably say that every year. Eric and myself discuss the five most critical injuries of spring training and how they could affect the pennant races. In one case, it's led Eric to picking a different division winner than he otherwise would have.
Let's catch up on a few things ...
  • I enjoyed the two games from Australia, even getting up at 4 a.m. to watch the opener. Clayton Kershaw didn't really have his best stuff in that game, with his fastball velocity way down, averaging 88.3 mph. Remember, he struggled all spring with fastball command and had allowed 15 runs in 14 2/3 innings, but when the big lights went on he was able to adjust and allowed just one run in 6 2/3 innings while striking out seven. In the second game, the Dodgers tried to blow a 7-1 lead as Don Mattingly got a little cute with his bullpen, running through seven relievers over the final four innings. The Diamondbacks scored four runs in the ninth as Jose Dominguez walked two batters and gave up a two-run single and Mark Trumbo blasted a two-run homer off Kenley Jansen. I still expect the Dodgers bullpen to be one of the best in the league.
  • After going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in the opener, Yasiel Puig had three hits in the second game but was up to his usual shenanigans on the bases, getting thrown out trying to advance to second after a single and then getting throwing out trying to advance to third on a pitch in the dirt. Neither play was close. He then didn't come out for the bottom of the ninth inning, clearly irritating Mattingly, who after the game said, "Shoulder yesterday, back today, so I'm not sure if they're going to get him tests or get him to the MRI Monday or a bone scan on Tuesday, maybe. I'm not quite sure what we'll do. We may not do anything. I'm not sure." Here's Mark Saxon's report.
  • Joe Kelly beat out Carlos Martinez for the Cardinals No. 5 starter slot and you can't argue with that too much. Is Kelly as good as the 2.69 ERA he posted last year? Probably not, as that ERA was helped by a high strand rate that included a .161 average allowed with runners in scoring position. Critics point to his low strikeout rate (79 in 124 innings) but Kelly's best pitch is a 95 mph fastball with sink that doesn't necessarily register strikeouts but does get ground balls (he gave up just one home run off his fastball in 2013). As for Martinez, he returns to the eighth-inning role we saw him in during the playoffs, when he averaged 97.8 mph on his fastball and reached 100 pmh on the gun. I don't think this means the Cardinals are giving up on him as a starter, but some projected he would eventually end up in the bullpen anyway. Don't write him off as a starter, but we also know -- see his teammate, Trevor Rosenthal -- that once you turn into a dominant late-inning force managers will be reluctant to move you back to the rotation.
  • The Rangers announced second baseman Jurickson Profar is out 10-12 weeks with a torn muscle in his shoulder. He won't need surgery but won't be able to resume a throwing program for six weeks or so. The Rangers' backup infielders on the 40-man roster are Adam Rosales, Andy Parrino and Luis Sardinas, none of whom have shown much ability with the bat. The Rangers could scuffle along with Rosales or Parrino, but it's certainly a minor blow. An obvious trade candidate would be the Cubs' Darwin Barney, as the Cubs have prospect Arismendy Alcantara ready for the near future, not to mention that shortstop prospect Javier Baez played some second base this spring. Even if they didn't want to rush Alcantara or Baez, they could plug in Donnie Murphy at second on a short-term basis.
  • One of the most encouraging results this spring has been the solid performance of Yankees starter Michael Pineda, trying to return after missing two seasons (he did pitch in the minors last year). Pineda had another good effort on Sunday, allowing three runs (two earned) in six innings while walking nobody. Pineda is throwing 90-92, not the upper 90s heat he flashed as a rookie with the Mariners, so the concern is that there won't be enough of a velocity difference between his fastball and slider, and without the big fastball the slider alone may not be enough to be effective against left-handers. As a rookie back in 2011, he did flash on occasional changeup (162 of them in 28 starts) so that may have to become a more important pitch for him.
  • With hard-throwing Yordano Ventura winning a spot in the rotation, the Royals optioned Danny Duffy to the minors. No surprise there since Duffy has had a rough spring (15 runs and six home runs allowed in 11 innings). Even with Luke Hochevar's injury the Royals have plenty of depth in the bullpen, so it makes sense to send Duffy to the minors and keep him stretched out as a starter.
  • It hasn't been announced, but Brad Miller will be the Mariners' starting shortstop over Nick Franklin, as expected. Miller has been one of the most exciting players in the Cactus League, hitting .438/.491/.938 with four doubles, four triples and four home runs. With Willie Bloomquist signed as the team's utility infielder, Franklin may start the year in Triple-A. You can bet the Mariners are still receiving calls from teams asking about Franklin.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One last game in Arizona before heading back to Connecticut ... no jokes about the weather back home, please.

Salt River Fields is the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, a beautiful $100 million complex that opened in 2011. It includes an 11,000-seat stadium surrounded by 12 practice fields and the grass on the diamonds was baseball-green perfect, immaculately maintained and smelled like spring. A building beyond the right-field fence and seating area houses the Rockies' executive offices and clubhouse (the Diamondbacks are down the left-field line). The lobby looked like you were walking into a Fortune 500 company and the clubhouse opulence matched anything you'd see in a major league ballpark. On this night, attendance was announced at over 12,000, including the fans sitting on the grassy hill in the outfield.

I'm not sure the facility actually makes the Rockies or Diamondbacks any better but it's a great place to watch spring training baseball.

A few thoughts on the game ...
  • The highlight came when Cubs prospect Javier Baez slammed his fifth home run of the spring, a titanic shot to center field in the eighth inning off Rob Scahill, a right-handed reliever who appeared in 23 games for the Rockies in 2013. ESPN Stats & Information estimated the blast at 452 feet as it landed in the second row of bushes, about 30 feet above the top of the fence. That doesn't even begin to explain the impressiveness of the blast. The crowd had thinned out by the eighth inning so it was quiet when Baez connected, sending a resounding "CRACK!" echoing throughout the stadium and drawing audible gasps from some of us in the press box (similar to the home run Baez hit off Randy Wolf last week). You don't hear sounds like that in big league ballparks because there is usually too much noise or you're too far away, but when they say "it just sounds different when he hits it" about certain players, in this case that was absolutely true.
  • The most impressive part of the at-bat was that Baez had flailed at two breaking pitches -- presumably sliders since Scahill throws a lot of sliders -- pulling off both pitches. The count was 2-2 but based on the earlier swings I was sure Scahill would ring up Baez with another slider. So give the 21-year-old credit for adjusting within the at-bat. Baez told ESPNChicago's Jesse Rogers it was the longest home run he'd ever hit.
  • Baez is slated to start at Triple-A, where he'll play some second base along with his usual position of shortstop. Baez is far from polished as a hitter -- while he's hitting .308 with five home runs and three doubles in 39 at-bats, he's also struck out 12 times without a walk -- but his performance indicates he's probably not that far away from the majors. You wonder if Darwin Barney becomes trade bait a couple months into the season. Barney doesn't provide much at the plate, but he's a plus defender and a team like Baltimore that may not get much offense from second base anyway could be interested.
  • Both teams ran out what will essentially be their Opening Day starting lineups, minus Starlin Castro for the Cubs, who is still resting a hamstring injury, so it was a good test for starters Carlos Villanueva and Franklin Morales. Villanueva, fighting for a rotation slot (he'll pitch in relief if he's not starting), struck out eight in four innings, making one mistake that Carlos Gonzalez hit for a three-run homer. Morales could win a rotation slot with Jhoulys Chacin out until May with shoulder soreness. He missed a lot with his fastball and walked three batters in his four innings but gave up just one hit and an unearned run. He's the same Morales, with a high-effort delivery that leads to control problems. Morales, of course, came up with the Rockies during their World Series season of 2007 and made two postseason starts that year after starting just eight times in the regular season. But injuries and inconsistency have plagued him throughout his career and he's never started more than nine games in a season in the majors, doing that with Boston in 2012. He's had a good spring, however, and it appears he'll start the season in the Rockies' rotation.
  • The Rockies lineup will run Michael Cuddyer, Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Justin Morneau, Wilin Rosario and Nolan Arenado in the second through seven spots. The leadoff position will change depending on who plays center field -- Charlie Blackmon, Drew Stubbs and Corey Dickerson are all candidates. Dickerson is the best hitter but regarded as the weakest fielder. Stubbs can't hit right-handers, so maybe it ends up as a Dickerson-Stubbs platoon. It also will be interesting to see if manager platoons Morneau at first base against lefties (Cuddyer could slide to first with one of the outfielders moving to right). Morneau hit .207/.247/.278 against left-handers in 2013 and .232/.271/.298 against left-handers in 2012. The Rockies may want to "justify" the Morneau signing by playing him every day but it's pretty clear he's useless against lefties these days.
  • Mike Olt entered late in the game as a pinch-hitter and drew a walk. He's hit well this spring but hasn't been able to play the field because of a shoulder injury. He's slated to make his first start at third base today. If he proves the shoulder is OK don't be surprised if he makes the Opening Day roster.

Reds closer Aroldis Chapman was hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Salvador Perez in Wednesday night's spring training game in Surprise, Ariz. Chapman was carted off the field and the game ended in the sixth inning. Here's the sad scene as concerned Reds and Royals players looked on:

According to reporters on site, Reds manager Bryan Price said Chapman suffered a laceration and a contusion above his left eye but never lost consciousness. (Update: Tests indicated fractures about the left eye and nose.)

Price and Royals manager Ned Yost met with the umpires after a 12-minute delay and agreed to stop game. "The fun goes out of it all," Yost told MLB.com. "It's just not a productive atmosphere after that to continue the game. You're just not going to get anything out of it. And we all play this game but nobody wants to see anybody get hurt ever."

Obviously, you hope Chapman will be OK to pitch as soon as possible, but your immediate thoughts go to those pitchers hit in the head by line drives. Last August, Toronto lefty J.A. Happ had his skull fractured by a line drive; in September of 2012, A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy suffered a skull fracture, epidural hemorrhage and a brain contusion that required surgery and six days in the hospital. Rays pitcher Alex Cobb also was hospitalized last year after getting hit by a 102 mph line drive.

Happ and Cobb both returned later in the season. McCarthy returned to pitch last season with the Diamondbacks. One of the more famous cases of a pitcher getting hit was Herb Score, a hard-throwing Indians left-hander in the 1950s who led the American League in strikeouts his first two seasons. The Yankees' Gil McDougald hit Score in the face with a line drive early in the 1957 season and he missed the rest of the year. While some speculated that Score changed his motion when he finally returned in 1958 and got injured, Score said he tore a tendon in his arm in a game against the Senators. (Indeed, Score had made five starts in April of 1958, missed all of May, and then returned for a June 14 start against the Senators in which he left after three innings.)

The injuries to McCarthy, Cobb and Happ were one reason Major League Baseball gave pitchers the option of wearing a padded cap this year, although McCarthy, who had been a proponent of such protective cap, has declined to wear one this spring, telling ESPN.com's Jayson Stark in late January that "I won't wear it in its current form."

This incident is the latest news to affect the Reds pitching staff. Earlier in the day, the Reds announced Homer Bailey's Friday start would be pushed back because of a strained right groin, maybe until Sunday.

"We just don't feel at this time that it's worth risking," Price said. "We could push it back a couple of days and he can be ready for the regular season without having to start on the [disabled list]."

Fellow starter Mat Latos had minor knee surgery at the beginning of spring training and made his first spring appearance on Wednesday, pitching two innings in a minor league game.

If Chapman is unable to go at the start of the season, Jonathan Broxton becomes the likely closer for the Reds. J.J. Hoover would be another possibility after a strong season in 2013, but he's struggled in spring training with five walks and one strikeout.
PHOENIX -- The Brewers' spring training ballpark technically owns a Phoenix address, but everyone refers to the neighborhood as Maryvale, part of West Phoenix developed in the 1950s and '60s. Phoenix divides itself into areas called urban villages, with Maryvale one of those 15 urban villages, although with Phoenix's grid layout, it's hard to know you driving from one village into another unless you happen to see the street sign.

Tickets to Brewers games are much less expensive than you'd find for the Giants, Cubs or Angels, but plenty of good seats were available. If you're just looking to watch a spring training game with a seat as close to the field as possible, I'd recommend checking out Maryvale. Plus, you can buy a souvenir beer or soda in a Seattle Pilots cup, which is worth the trip all by itself.

A few random thoughts on a game that featured an interesting pitching matchup between the Rangers' Martin Perez and the Brewers' Marco Estrada.
  • Perez's final line didn't look so good -- five runs in five innings -- but he pitched well enough, keeping the ball down in the zone and flashing some plus sliders to go along with his very good changeup. He was perfect through three innings with an efficient 32 pitches before the Brewers scored four runs in the fifth with the help of a fly ball lost in the sun. The one guy Perez couldn't figure out was Carlos Gomez, who swatted a long three-run homer to left in the fifth and doubled hard down the third-base line in the fourth. Perez now lines up as the Rangers' No. 2 starter behind Yu Darvish and the big test will be if he can increase his workload from 167.2 innings last season to closer to 200.
  • Estrada, facing a split-squad lineup of Shin-Soo Choo, Leonys Martin and minor leaguers, cruised through six scoreless innings, showing his usual strike-throwing ability. Estrada's pure stuff will always grade below average thanks to an 88-90 fastball, but he commands the strike zone and the little hesitation in his delivery -- he pauses briefly right as he brings his leg up and pushes towards home plate -- seems to work in his favor as its a bit of an unusual motion. He does pitch up in the zone, which leads to home runs, but on this day the Rangers minor leaguers hit a bunch of harmless fly balls. Estrada has a 3.75 ERA over the past two seasons while ranking behind only Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright in strikeout/walk ratio (250 innings minimum). He's part of a Brewers rotation that needs to improve. Matt Garza will help and reports were that Yovani Gallardo was throwing 94 in his last start, a good sign after his velocity dipped into the low 90s last season.
  • Mark Reynolds hit a grand slam off Michael Kirkman that bounced off the top of the fence in center (it was upheld via replay), his first homer of the spring. After hitting .301 with eight home runs in April for the Indians, Reynolds eventually hit his way out of Cleveland, batting .202 the rest of the season between the Indians and Yankees. I'm doubtful he can help much but it appears the Brewers will go with a first-base platoon of Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, as Ron Roenicke goes with defense over Juan Francisco's bat (not that his bat is all that noteworthy). It's likely the Brewers end up with among the worst first-base production in the majors.
  • Speaking of defense, Rickie Weeks dropped a foul pop. Weeks is still fighting Scooter Gennett for the second base job. That could end up as another platoon as Gennett bats left-handed.
  • One area of concern for the Rangers is the bench. While Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar will play nearly every day in the infield, if one goes down with an injury the Rangers could have issues. Andy Parrino, Adam Rosales and Luis Sardinas are on the 40-man roster but none can hit. Brent Lillibridge and Josh Wilson are non-roster guys with major league experience who played in this game, but they can't hit either. The outfield depth includes Michael Choice, who will make the team as the fourth outfielder, and not much else. Engel Beltre was once a top-100 prospect but his bat is a question mark.
  • Ronald Guzman is a lanky, 6-5 first baseman for the Rangers, signed for $3.45 million in 2011 as one of the top hitting prospects in Latin American. He's just 19 and played last year in Class A, although missed a lot of time with a broken hand. He showed off his smooth stroke with this home run in the ninth inning, his second in three games with the big boys, although he misplayed a potential double play at first base (dropping a throw from left fielder Brad Snyder that would have doubled off Weeks). A name to watch this year to see if he grows into his power potential.

From Alden Gonzalez's story at MLB.com:
Few guys have been in as many deep counts as Mike Trout these last two years. Only eight of them have had more plate appearances with a full count; only six have hit with two strikes more often. The approach is a credit to Trout's comfort with two strikes, but it's one that also leads to a lot of walks and strikeouts, limiting the star-studded outfielder's ability to drive in runs.

This year, it'll be different.

"I think the biggest thing, for me, is being aggressive early," Trout said. "A lot of counts last year, I'd be taking, seeing pitches. But I'm going to be aggressive this year. Instead of just flipping one over for strike one, or 2-0 strike one, I'm going to be up there hacking, I'm going to be up there swinging."

Trout saying he's going to be more aggressive doesn't mean he's necessarily going to be more aggressive and turn into Kirby Puckett. Trout was third in the majors with 110 walks and part of the reason he's hit .326 and .323 his first two full seasons is he waits for a pitch in his zone, and I suspect he's fully aware of that. Yes, hitting in deep counts is also a reason he struck out 136 times but it's also a reason he drew all the walks and led the American League in runs scored for a second straight season. As for the RBIs, Trout still managed to drive in 97 runs even while taking all those free passes. With a .432 on-base percentage, Trout got on base at a higher clip than everyone except Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto, one of just seven regulars to post an OBP over .400.

So while there's need for him to change, that doesn't mean Trout couldn't improve by being a little more aggressive. But should he be? That's hard to say. The batter-pitcher relationship is complex. Batters hit .354 and slugged .590 in 2013 when swinging at the first pitch, for example. Does that mean you should swing more often on the first pitch? Not necessarily. If you get too aggressive, pitchers will stop throwing you strikes and you'll start flailing at sliders off the plate.

Trout is right that he rarely swing at 2-0 pitches. But you know what? Most batters don't. Trout put just 15 2-0 pitches in play, but that's not all that unusual. Here are the majors' top 15 batters from 2013 in wOBA and how many times they put a 2-0 pitch in play:

Miguel Cabrera: 12
Mike Trout: 15
Chris Davis: 16
Joey Votto: 22
Jayson Werth: 9
Paul Goldschmidt: 16
Troy Tulowitzki: 12
David Ortiz: 17
Michael Cuddyer: 16
Shin-Soo Choo: 17
Andrew McCutchen: 22
Freddie Freeman: 15
Joe Mauer: 14
Edwin Encarnacion: 21
Josh Donaldson: 19

The reason Trout didn't swing at many 2-0 pitches is he probably didn't get many 2-0 meatballs to swing at. Nobody does. Only two hitters put even 30 2-0 pitches in play, Jed Lowrie (38) and Ian Kinsler (32).

What about those first-pitch strikes that Trout mentioned? Let's take those same 15 hitters and look at the percentage of 0-1 counts they faced (out of total plate appearances):

Miguel Cabrera: 45 percent
Mike Trout: 48 percent
Chris Davis: 45 percent
Joey Votto: 40 percent
Jayson Werth: 52 percent
Paul Goldschmidt: 46 percent
Troy Tulowitzki: 46 percent
David Ortiz: 42 percent
Michael Cuddyer: 49 percent
Shin-Soo Choo: 49 percent
Andrew McCutchen: 44 percent
Freddie Freeman: 42 percent
Joe Mauer: 50 percent
Edwin Encarnacion: 49 percent
Josh Donaldson: 47 percent

OK, nothing too unusual there. Trout, however, is right when he says he rarely swings at the first pitch. He only put 37 first pitches into play, or 6 percent of all his PAs. Only Joe Mauer -- who put just 15 first pitches in play -- swung less often among our group of 15, and all the others except Troy Tulowitzki were at 10 percent or higher.

Look at Miguel Cabrera for the potential value at swinging at the first pitch. He put 96 first pitches in play -- and hit .448 with 14 home runs. Chris Davis hit .438 with 14 home runs. Freddie Freeman swung most often at the 0-0 pitch and hit .455 with six home runs in 100 PAs.

This is actually what's so potentially scary about Trout, especially for opposing moundsmen: He's still figuring this game out. If he learns when to hack at the first offering, watch out. He just may get even better.
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- One thing you can say about Yu Darvish: He isn't just a thrower, a guy with a million-dollar arm and five-cent head.

After struggling with command and location in Sunday's spring training game against the White Sox, Darvish went down to the bullpen to work a bit on his mechanics.

"I threw so many cutters that I felt a little off, so I wanted to make sure my delivery was OK," he said after the game through his translator.

Darvish through 84 pitches, just 48 for strikes, including 16 cutters. That's not really all that different from the percentage of cutters he threw last season -- 16 out of 84 is 19 percent while he threw 16 percent cutters last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information data -- but it at least sounded like a plausible explanation for his mediocre performance.

Darvish did say he was working specifically on his cutter and two-seam fastball in this game. A member of the Japanese media also noticed Darvish was working more often from the first-base side of the rubber. Darvish said that was the case, that he "wanted to see the reaction of the hitters to that style of pitching."

Even though he went 13-9 with a 2.83 ERA last season while leading the major leagues in strikeouts (277) and strikeout rate (32.9 percent) and ranking second in batting average allowed (.194), Darvish is still tinkering and looking to improve. The one thing he didn't come close to leading the league in, however, was control. He walked 80 batters, and while that was an improvement from 2012, his 9.5 percent walk rate ranked 76th of 81 qualified starters.

He's talked about improving his fastball command this year, but he's also apparently working through some mechanical adjustments, as he pitched through a nerve issue in his lower back down the stretch in 2013, a problem that caused some numbness in his right leg. "Obviously, I'm changing my delivery a little so there are many little adjustments to make," he said.


Over or under on Yu Darvish posting a 2.83 ERA?


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On Sunday, he failed to reach his goal of 15 pitches per inning as he walked three batters in 4.2 innings. A 17-pitch first inning included one fastball launched to the backstop and he threw 23 pitches in the fourth, when the White Sox scored their two runs off him. "It wasn't very good," Darvish said of his game, "but I was able to grind it out."

It's noteworthy that Darvish said he was working on his cutter because that was his least effective pitch in 2013, at least when the pitch was put in play. Batters hit .271/.357/.500 in 112 plate appearances ending in the cutter, with 11 walks and just five strikeouts. It's not necessarily fair to suggest he junk the pitch just because it's not a strikeout pitch. He uses the cutter more early in the count, relying on his slider or curveball for most of his punchouts (244 of his 277 strikeouts came on those two pitches, as batters hit just .151 against them), or when he's behind in the count and doesn't want to lay in a fastball down the middle.

The cutter was more effective for Darvish in 2012, when batters hit just .198 against it (albeit with just 11 strikeouts in 126 plate appearances). That gets back to better fastball command: If he can better locate his two-seam fastball -- he threw 22 of them on Sunday -- maybe he doesn't need to throw so many cutters. Just a thought.

Regardless, Darvish is still on the short list for AL Cy Young favorite -- maybe the favorite. Few pitchers can match his stuff and variety of pitches. He only threw one curveball on Sunday and while he doesn't throw many, usually about 10 per game, it's one a vicious weapon as batters went 6-for-90 against it last year.

"I feel more comfortable this year," he said, answering questions in his gray Rangers T-shirt inside a stuffy tent outside the Rangers clubhouse after the game. "My first year, I felt like an outsider, but not on this team." That comfort level has to help to some degree. He's also used to dealing with the dozen or so members of the Japanese media who cover him on a daily basis.

The pressure on Darvish to perform may be even greater this year. Not because he's the new guy from Japan with the big contract anymore but because he's the proven guy. With Derek Holland out, Matt Harrison not ready for Opening Day and guys like Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando needing to show they can handle a heavier workload, the burden will be on Darvish to save the bullpen every fifth day.

He didn't look like that pitcher on Sunday, but I'm not worried. He's the guy I'd bet my Cy Young prediction cash on.
PHOENIX -- Here's the thing about Josh Donaldson: He looks like an athlete. Indeed, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane called him the best athlete on the team; considering Yoenis Cespedes is patrolling the outfield, that's praise of a high order.

Watch Donaldson at the plate -- one wrist band just below the right elbow, another on his left wrist, pants legs pulled down loosely over the tops of those white A's cleats, the sandy blonde hair spilling out from underneath the back of his batting helmet, his bat waving in hyperactive motion just above his shoulder as he readies for the pitch -- and he looks all fast-twitch baseball player up there, not like a squatty former catcher moved to third base out of some sense of desperation.

[+] EnlargeJosh Donaldson
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesJosh Donaldson was second in the American League with a 8.0 WAR last season.
In the fourth inning of Saturday's Cactus League game against the Texas Rangers, Donaldson flared a hit down the right-field line. It was an easy double, but Donaldson glided into second base with surprising speed. He was a defensive back and wide receiver when he played high school football and he runs effortlessly. He may have been a former catcher, but he doesn't run like one.

That athleticism is one reason his transition from minor league catcher to full-time major league third baseman worked out so well. It comes into play in Oakland, where the third baseman has to run down pop-ups in the immense foul territory at the O.co Coliseum. It's one reason that, after some inconsistent years in the minors and initial struggles in the majors, everything came together for Donaldson in 2013, when he hit .301 with 24 home runs, 93 RBIs and finished a worthy fourth in the American League MVP balloting.

* * * *

Everyone is doing the "Can Josh Donaldson do it again?" story this spring.

"It’s been a little different, coming to spring training and being the guy everyone wants to talk to," he admitted. It's a role he understands, however, and is part of being the responsibility of the guy who is now viewed as the best player on the team.

He was apologetic about having to cut short a previous interview when he had to do some stretching work in the trainer's room before a recent game, thanking me for coming back a couple days later. As we talked in front of his locker, he politely turned off the clubhouse stereo nearby.

After last year's big season, he said it was important to take a break from baseball, physically and mentally. He went back home to Alabama, where he finished high school and played college baseball at Auburn. "I have a group of old friends I hang with back home. Outside of that, I don't stray too far," he said.

He started cranking back up with baseball activities at the end of November and started lifting about that time as well. He knows one MVP-caliber season is just that: one MVP-caliber season.

Donaldson's transformation really began at the end of 2012. He had started the season as Oakland's third baseman, but struggled early and was sent back to Triple-A in mid-April. He returned in May, but struggled some more. Through June 13 he was hitting .153 and was returned to Sacramento. But when Brandon Inge got injured, Donaldson got another call on Aug. 14. He hit .290 with eight home runs over the final 47 games, a key reason the A's surged to the AL West title.

"It was definitely one of those things where I felt better coming into the year than I had before," he said. "I think what was the biggest confidence booster about finishing strong was there was only one time throughout that stretch where I didn't have a hit within two games, so I knew I was on the right track as far as having a right approach at the plate."

That approach includes a good eye at the plate -- he ranked seventh in the American League with 76 walks -- and, at least in 2013, the ability to raise his game when runners were on base. He hit .252/.326/.444 when the bases were empty, but .364/.454/.572 with runners on. The heat maps below showcase his batting average in different zones in those situations.

Josh DonaldsonESPN Stats & InformationDonaldson hit 12 home runs in 250 at-bats with runners on base.
Josh DonaldsonESPN Stats & InformationDonaldson hit 12 home runs in 329 at-bats with the bases empty.

"I feel like I'm better with guys on the base," Donaldson said. "If you're in the middle of the lineup somewhere, you're going to have guys on base, so I feel that allows me to have success.

"You narrow it down. When guys are on, you're just trying to get that guy in. As a pitcher, he's trying even harder to execute so the run doesn't score and sometimes when you're trying harder they're more apt to make mistakes."

Like 2013, when he started at least 23 times in five different spots in the batting order, expect Donaldson to move around the lineup. He has hit second, third and fourth in spring training so far. "I haven't really talked about it yet with [manager Bob] Melvin. They like to change the lineup around on any given day. As long as I'm in there, I don't mind."

* * * *

Donaldson had originally been drafted by the Chicago Cubs, the 48th overall pick in 2007 after hitting .349 with 11 home runs his junior season at Auburn. The A's were high on him at the time and disappointed when he didn't fall to the 59th pick. Donaldson mashed in rookie ball in 2007, but when he was hitting .217 while catching at Class A Peoria the following season, Beane was able to get Donaldson as part of trade that sent Rich Harden to the Cubs.

He mostly remained behind the plate through 2011, although he did mix in some time at third. Donaldson said the permanent move to third base was beneficial to his offensive game. "When you're catching, especially the starting catcher, your focus is more on the pitchers than yourself, so I didn't have the time to space out things and focus on myself like I can now. I can spend 30 or 40 minutes in the cage and not worry about anything else. I don't have to worry about who's throwing, the game plan, or anything like that."

Donaldson is 28 now, but while he may have a few years on some of his teammates, like most of them he still lacks the years in the majors to make huge money. The A's recently renewed his salary for $500,000 this season.

"I think you're going have guys in this locker room who are going to be $20 million ballplayers. They may not be making $20 million right now, but there's definitely potential for guys to make that money," he said. "There's a bunch of guys here with less than three years of service so we have guys still trying to make their mark. That's the great thing about baseball: You get a chance every time you step on the field to prove yourself. And if you prove yourself, you'll get paid."

Maybe that's what makes the A's better collectively than what they may appear on paper. They've won the past two division titles yet many view the Rangers as the favorite to win the AL West. They lost Bartolo Colon to the New York Mets as a free agent and starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin will miss the start of the season with injuries, but that focus on pitching ignores that the A's have become a team built around their offense. They ranked third in the AL in runs scored last year, and considering some of the defections and likely regression from the Red Sox, and the Tigers losing a couple key offensive players, the A's may have the best offense in the league.

"We know. If nobody else knows, we know we have the ability to put up runs," Donaldson said. "We don't have huge names, the Miggys or the Trouts or Pujols or those guys that have the numbers over a long tenure. But look at a guy like Brandon Moss, putting up 30 bombs; hitting in Oakland, that's a lot of home runs. That's a lot of home runs anywhere, but when you're playing in Oakland and doing that, you're doing something."

Maybe the A's don't have huge names. Maybe the average fan doesn't know Donaldson finished fourth in the MVP voting or that Moss hit 30 home runs. That's OK. The A's have been overlooked in the past. Maybe it's time to stop overlooking them.

AL West rotations hurting

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15
PHOENIX -- Colby Lewis last pitched in the majors on July 18, 2012, and his comeback from his rare hip-resurfacing surgery took a turn for the worse in Saturday's pounding against the Athletics.

Making his third spring training start, Lewis didn't fool anyone. Staked to a 2-0 lead, Coco Crisp lined a hard single to center, and John Jaso walked. After a fly out, Josh Donaldson lined out 400 feet to deep center to score a run. Brandon Moss then killed a 2-0 pitch to right-center field, a screaming liner that seemed to be still rising as it smashed off the advertising signs above the fence. On the next pitch, Josh Reddick hit one onto the practice diamond beyond the right-field fence. Lewis didn't even look.

The second inning wasn't much better. A single, walk, hard double down the right-field line and an intentional walk plated another run and loaded the bases. Lewis then hit Donaldson, drawing a bit of a stare from the A's third baseman, ending Lewis' day.

It's just one start in the thin air of Arizona, but it was about as bad as a pitcher could look and probably means Lewis will eventually be ticketed for time in the minors before getting another shot with the Rangers. It also means the Rangers' season-opening rotation could now include Joe Saunders, who had a 5.26 ERA with the Mariners last season (imagine how that will translate to Texas), and Tommy Hanson, coming off a bad, injury-plagued season with the Angels. The Rangers are hoping Matt Harrison will be ready a few weeks into the season, but for now, the Rangers are scrambling to fill slots behind Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando.

As a reader named Jon Dogma tweeted to me, "I wonder if Derek Holland's dog knows the damage he's done."

Holland, if you remember, tripped over his dog Wrigley in the offseason, requiring knee surgery that will likely keep him out until at least the All-Star break. He said it could have been worse: "He was running up the stairs and clipped me. I hit my knee on the step, and if it wasn't for me grabbing the rail, I might have fallen all the way down the stairs and cracked my head open."

The Rangers aren't the only AL West team with issues in its rotation, however. The A's announced Friday that starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin will start the season on the disabled list, Parker with forearm tightness and soreness, Griffin with a muscle strain that will require rest for now, but not surgery.

The A's have Tommy Milone, who won 25 games the past two seasons while in the rotation, and Jesse Chavez, who had a 3.92 ERA in 35 appearances in relief last year but has pitched well while starting this spring, as the likely replacements.

Donaldson said Saturday he hadn't heard the news when he left the ballpark Friday, but preferred to take an optimistic view for now. "It’s one of those things that could end up being a blessing in disguise. Give them a little bit of rest and they’ll be ready when we need them the most at the end of the season," he said.

The A's are already minus Bartolo Colon, their top winner from 2013, who signed with the Mets as a free agent. Sonny Gray, with just 10 career regular-season starts, became the de facto No. 1, followed by Scott Kazmir and Dan Straily.

The Mariners, meanwhile, have seen Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker go down with a finger injury and shoulder tightness, respectively. Neither has pitched this spring, leaving guys such as Scott Baker, Randy Wolf (who has allowed four home runs in nine innings) and Blake Beavan in the rotation mix behind Felix Hernandez, Erasmo Ramirez and rookie James Paxton.

Then there are the Angels and Astros, who ranked 23rd and 25th, respectively, in starting pitcher WAR last season, per FanGraphs. The Angels' rotation projects as Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards and offseason acquisitions Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, with veteran Joe Blanton (2-14, 6.04 ERA) the No. 6 starter Angels fans would rather not see. The Astros' projected rotation includes free agent Scott Feldman alongside some combo of Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Brad Peacock, Lucas Harrell, Dallas Keuchel and Jerome Williams, which could be mildly interesting if the young guys develop -- although hardly reminiscent of Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan and Bob Knepper.

None of the guys injured in spring may miss a lot of time, but they are going to miss some time. Rotation depth already looks as though it's going to play a key factor in the AL West race, so pay attention to how those Nos. 6, 7 and 8 starters are performing these final two-plus weeks of spring training.
PHOENIX -- Addison Russell sits in front of his locker in the cramped Oakland Athletics clubhouse at old Phoenix Municipal Stadium, eating a sandwich before a recent spring training game, keeping to himself while the older players eat and play cards at two small round tables. While the Dodgers’ clubhouse in Glendale, Ariz., is vast enough to include a pingpong table with enough room to return one of Clayton Kershaw’s forehand smashes, the A’s barely have space for the clubhouse DJ to connect an iPod to the stereo sitting on an equipment bin in the middle of the room.

Russell is a 20-year-old minor leaguer in major league camp, a player scouts rave about, and fans and front offices dream upon. After acquiring and munching down a second sandwich, he eventually sits at one of the two small round tables and joins a card game.

"It’s my second year back and I feel more comfortable," he said. "I feel like I’m starting to get a good understanding of what’s going on here at camp, and I’m excited, having fun. I can’t wait for the season to begin -- seems like it’s going to start out on a good note."

Russell is an athletic, 205-pound shortstop with a polished defensive game, and a bat that projects to hit for average and some power. The 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft, Russell in on a quick path to the majors, projected to start the season in Double-A after hitting .275/.377/.507 at Class A Stockton as a 19-year-old. Keith Law rated him the No. 3 prospect in the minors. It’s possible Russell could be ready for the majors at some point this season, although the A's are well-stocked in the middle infield with Jed Lowrie, Eric Sogard, Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto, and may not wish to start Russell's service time unless there's a rash of injuries.

Still, Russell is aware of the rankings and how he’s viewed. "Of course, you’re going to see that," Russell said, mentioning all the feedback he receives on Twitter. But he says it can be a dangerous thing if you swallow too much of the hype.

"As ballplayers, if we try to play up to the expectations, I think we may not play up to those expectations. Just play the game like we've been doing since we were 4 or 5 years old and have fun. That’s the kind of atmosphere that I think you perform your best in."

As for his major league timetable, he’s not worried about that. "I’m just going to go out there and perform and have fun and show people what I can bring to the table and to Oakland," he said. "There’s no rush; when that moment comes, I’ll be ready."

Third baseman Josh Donaldson’s locker is a couple spots down from Russell. "He’s athletic. Defensively, he looks pretty sound. Offensively, everything looks pretty good. His ability will only take him so far, but what I like the most about him is I seem him out there every day, working and he’s grinding and trying to get better. With that, I feel the future is very bright for him."

The last great generation of shortstops came up in the mid-'90s, when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada all arrived between 1994 and 1997. Those four have combined for 1,446 home runs, more than 5,000 RBIs, more than 10,000 hits, 39 All-Star appearances and 25 top-10 MVP finishes.

Russell is part of a new group of shortstops who have the potential to once again stir up those heated debates we used to have about which player is the best. In his top 100 prospect rankings, Keith had Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox ranked second, Russell third, Carlos Correa of the Astros fourth, Francisco Lindor of the Indians sixth and Javier Baez of the Cubs seventh. While Baez has opened eyes with some monster home runs this spring, and Lindor is viewed as a defensive whiz, Russell has the all-around game that may eventually elevate him past the others. Entering Saturday's action, he's hitting .280 with three extra-base hits in 25 spring at-bats.

Russell’s bat exploded as the season progressed at Stockton, and he hit .319 and slugged .578 over his final 299 plate appearances.

"I like to work early in the count, but I also like to work deep in the count," he said. "Really, for me, it’s see ball, hit ball. I know that’s a cliché or whatever, but in my mind, I want to get something straight, but if I have to resort to hitting a curveball or changeup, then I’ll do what I have to do.

"I’m looking more for a location than a certain pitch. If I’m looking for a certain pitch, it could be that pitch but it could be in a different location, and I’ll take a bad swing."

In his write-up on Russell, Keith wrote about Russell’s aptitude for the game, and you can hear that in talking to him. He talks about his defensive positioning based on the count or the pitch, cheating one step this way or that, and watching the ball out of the pitcher’s hand to anticipate the location. Not bad for a player who had bulked up so much at Pace (Fla.) High School that he was playing third base.

"As a junior, I put more mass on," he admitted. "It was good weight, but I was too young to carry that amount of weight at that time." Russell scaled back down to 195 as a senior and showed scouts he could stick at shortstop.

There are no doubts now that he can stick there. The question now is when he'll be wearing green and gold in a game that counts.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The game changes in small, incremental directions, actions and movements and strategies slowly evolving. Go back to the 1930s and 1940s and into the ‘50s and most pitchers used that old two-handed windmill wind-up, the pitcher’s arms swinging behind him and then back forward above his head, often accompanied by the front leg kicking madly out to the side. Compare Bob Feller's motion to the smooth, compact deliveries you mostly see today; they're efficient and seemingly effortless. Who decided the windmill motion didn’t actually generate more power or arm speed? That a big leg kick made it more difficult for a pitcher to repeat his delivery? Who was the last guy to pitch like that?

Things are changing even now. They were about 5,000 more defensive shifts in 2013 than in 2011 and we’ll see even more this year. Catchers like A.J. Ellis are not only aware of the value of pitch framing but will study video and data to learn where their strengths and weaknesses are in that skill. Managers bunt less often than they used to.

The game changes, but some traditions still hold out. They’ve become truths. For example, the batting order: fast guy hits first, bat-control artist or "professional" hitter type bats second, high-average guy hits third and power dude in the cleanup spot. There are always exceptions, of course, but that’s still a general rule that’s been followed since the days of John McGraw and Joe McCarthy.

That’s why the Dodgers’ decision to try power-hitting Yasiel Puig in the leadoff spot is so intriguing. It flies against the notion of batting a fast guy who may lack power in that spot. Puig is fast, but his type of power is usually seen lower in the order.

"The thought process was the number of guys you want getting the extra at-bat," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He’s a guy who hasn’t really showed us yet that he’s going to drive in runs and we have a number of guys who do that, so get him that extra at-bat and a chance to pop a ball when the lineup turns over."
It’s an argument statistical analysts have made for decades -- there’s run-producing value in simply getting your best hitters more plate appearances, even if it means hitting them in non-conventional spots in the order. Fred Haney, when he managed the Milwaukee Braves, always toyed with the idea of batting Henry Aaron leadoff to get him more at-bats, but never followed through with it. Giants manager Bill Rigney started Willie Mays 45 times in the No. 2 hole in 1959 but Mays eventually returned to his usual No. 3 spot.

Considering the Dodgers don’t have an obvious leadoff candidate -- Dee Gordon is one of the fastest players in the majors but hasn’t shown he’ll hit and Carl Crawford’s on-base percentage has been a mediocre .308 over the past three seasons -- putting Puig there could prove a wise move. Hey, a solo home run is still a run scored, and the Dodgers still have big bats like Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp lower in the order. Hitting Puig leadoff also presents righty-lefty balance if the Dodgers go Puig, Crawford, Ramirez, Gonzalez and Kemp.

Puig hit 19 home runs in 104 games in 2013; prorate that to 150 games and you get 27 home runs. Factor in the potential for even more power and you’re looking at a leadoff hitter who could hit 30 home runs. That’s been done just 14 times -- including four times by Alfonso Soriano, who holds the single-season record with 39 home runs from the leadoff spot in 2006. Only five leadoff hitters have reached 25 home runs more than once: Soriano five times, Bobby Bonds three, and Rickey Henderson, Jimmy Rollins and Grady Sizemore twice each.

Chone Figgins, battling to make the Dodgers’ roster as a utility player, was once one of the top leadoff hitters in the game. He fit the more conventional mode of the little guy with speed who battles the pitcher, takes pitches and draws walks. He doesn’t think every leadoff hitter has to fit that stereotype. That fact that Puig may be a more aggressive hitter (although Puig’s walk rate did improve throughout his rookie season) isn’t necessarily something teammates would frown upon, he says.

"The teammates behind you don’t really care. They’re watching the pitcher anyway," Figgins said. "It’s more of an organizational thing on what kind of hitter they’re looking for. Some teams may like a guy like Grady Sizemore when he was with Cleveland, a guy with more power who is going to steal 20 bases. Then you had Seattle with Ichi [Ichiro Suzuki], and he swings, where I’m going to take a lot of pitches. Juan Pierre was sort of in-between Ichi and myself. It comes down to what kind of team it is and whatever players are behind the leadoff hitter."


Which projected leadoff hitter would you most want for your team?


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Figgins pointed out that he had a strong lineup behind him with the Angels, so getting on base was paramount. But working the count was always his game as a hitter; he wasn't going to hit home runs anyway. He hasn't given any advice to Puig -- "I'm not even on the team," he said -- but he believes a hitter shouldn't change his own style of hitting based on where he hits.

While it may be viewed as an easy decision by Mattingly to hit Puig leadoff considering his options, few managers look for big power from the leadoff spot. Only the A’s (27), Mariners (21) and Reds (21) received 20 home runs from the leadoff spot in 2013 and eight teams had fewer than 10. Only three teams had 20-plus home runs from the leadoff spot in 2012. There were eight teams that reached 20-plus in 2011, including the Red Sox with Jacoby Ellsbury, the Rangers with Ian Kinsler and the Brewers with Rickie Weeks all topping 30, but that season was the recent exception.

The major league average has been 13 home runs from the leadoff spot the past two seasons, 14 in 2011, 12 in 2010. Even back in 2001, in the heyday of the steroid era, when seemingly everyone was hitting home runs, the major league average from the leadoff spot was still 13.

As for Puig, Mattingly has liked what he’s seen this spring, even if Puig is hitting just .152 in the early going. "He continues to grow up, and I don’t mean that in a bad way," Mattingly said. "He’s more mature. His outfield play has been really good as far as keeping the ball down and throwing the ball to the right place. His at-bats have been OK this spring."

Of course, just because the initial plans are for Puig to hit leadoff that doesn’t mean he'll remain there. As much as managers and fans obsess over lineups and who bats where, injuries and slumps force managers to be flexible. Most teams use well over 100 different lineups in a season and multiple leadoff hitters. And maybe Puig hits his way back down the lineup or Crawford hits his way back into the leadoff spot (although he was always most comfortable batting second in his Tampa Bay days).

Or maybe Puig hits 30 home runs, scores 120 runs, the Dodgers win the World Series and he becomes that evolutionary figure and 10 years from now every team will be wanting more power from the leadoff position. After all, it's always nice to jump out to a 1-0 lead.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Chone Figgins has been at the top of the baseball world, a reserve on the 2002 World Series champion Angels, a guy who twice scored 100 runs and signed a big free-agent contract. He's been at the bottom of the baseball world, bottoming out in Seattle when he hit .188 in 2011 and .181 in 2012. Cut by the Marlins in spring training last year, the Dodgers invited him to spring training in what's likely the last gasp of his baseball career.

You probably couldn't find a more similar player physically to Figgins than Dee Gordon. They're both short and thinner than a Fashion Week runway model, with games built on speed and energy. Both are infielders by trade. Figgins was once one of the fastest players in the game; Gordon, with the younger legs, is maybe the fastest player this side of Billy Hamilton. But he, too, is perhaps on his last chance of sorts, the final opportunity to prove to the Dodgers that he can start in the major leagues.

They're battling for the starting second-base job with the Dodgers in what is perhaps one of the more intriguing position battles of spring training (Cuban free agent Alex Guerrero is almost assuredly going to start the season in Triple-A).

"I think I have 29 at-bats and have nine walks," Figgins said before Thursday's game against the Reds. "Some people are looking at it like he's not getting hits, but I look at like I may have only five hits but I have nine walks and that's 14 times on base in 29 at-bats. That's always been my goal, getting on base."

Figgins, the wise veteran, nailed his stats. Hey, every walk matters when you're fighting for a job. He's hitting just .172, but does have a .368 on-base percentage and his versatility -- he can play second, third and the outfield -- could land him a job as a utility guy, or at least a trip to Australia to start the season when the Dodgers play two games there against the Diamondbacks on March 22-23.

"It's been good here," he said. "Don's [manager Don Mattingly] been fair and giving me a chance. He knows I'm going to battle, try to get my pitch to hit. I'm not going to swing at a fastball inside because I'm not going to do much with that pitch. I'll look for something over the plate or low and away.

"It's interesting. Teams are always looking for guys who can see a lot of pitches and get on and after getting released from the Marlins, I was like 'Hello?'"

After the Marlins cut him, Figgins didn't play any baseball or even take any swings. He didn't want to go to the minors because he wouldn't have been assured of getting back to the majors. He's returned to his old swing, with his hands lower, resting on his shoulder. He said after he began struggling in Seattle he raised his hands higher, which he now says he probably shouldn't have done.

"Don and the hitting coaches looked at the video and said that's not the way you used to hit. They said just do what's most comfortable," he said.

While Figgins sat out all of 2013, Gordon spent most of the year at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he hit .298/.385/.390 with 49 steals. Once viewed as the Dodgers' future at shortstop, he's now learning second base, which he played a bit last year at Triple-A.

"The biggest thing I've had to learn is the angles, taking different angles on certain balls," Gordon said. "It's all about the reps, just getting more reps," he said, believing his footwork on the double play has improved.

Gordon knows the baseball life. He's the son of former major leaguer Tom Gordon, so despite his prospect pedigree he knows nothing is guaranteed. "I'm just trying to open some eyes. You have to prove yourself. I feel I've done that so far."

Gordon got most enthusiastic when asked about his younger brother, Nick, maybe the top shortstop prospect in this year's draft. "I talk to him all the time, almost every day," he said. Talking to your younger brother can help take the pressure off trying impress the big league brass.

While veterans often give out advice, Figgins said he's mostly remained quiet this spring. "I don't really say too much right now since I'm not on the team," he said.

Both players were in Thursday's lineup, Gordon hitting leadoff and playing second base, Figgins batting second and playing center field. As I write this in the third inning, Gordon hits a ground ball single to left off Alfredo Simon. Figgins then works the count to 2-1, gets a pitch up in the zone and lines a hard single to right just past second baseman Skip Schumaker.

It occurs to me: Gordon's grounder could have gone right to an infielder instead of finding a hole. If Brandon Phillips is playing second base instead of Schumaker, maybe he makes the play on Figgins' hit. Figgins would tell you the little things matter, especially in the limited sample size that spring training presents. But a few at-bats is all Figgins has. He got his sixth hit of the spring and that extra hit or two could make all the difference in making the team.
PEORIA, AZ -- I arrived in Arizona on Wednesday night just in time to catch a few innings of the Cubs-Mariners night game in Peoria. The Mariners ran out what could very well be their Opening Day lineup, minus Felix Hernandez and Corey Hart:

Abraham Almonte, CF
Kyle Seager, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Justin Smoak, 1B
Logan Morrison, DH
Dustin Ackley, LF
Michael Saunders, RF
Mike Zunino, C
Brad Miller, SS

Cubs starter James McDonald, trying to find some semblance of the pitcher he was in the first half of 2012 with the Pirates when he went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA, struggled to throw strikes with just 26 strikes in 64 pitches, walking five batters in 2.2 innings. Cano went 2-for-2 and turned a sweet double play. Miller homered off Cubs lefty James Russell, his third of the spring. Jesus Montero came in the game and made two errors at first base.

The Cubs sent a lineup of reserves and minor leaguers and they provided the most interesting results of the night, however. Mike Olt, the former Rangers prospect acquired in the Matt Garza trade last summer, homered twice, including a deep blast to center off Mariners starter Randy Wolf. Olt battled vision problems last year and struggled in the minors but says those issues have been cleared up.

But the most impressive blast came from Javier Baez, who did this against Wolf in the fourth inning for his third spring home run, drawing gasps of admiration in the press box and from the fans as well his Cubs teammates in the dugout.

It was a terrific at-bat, as Baez fell behind on two slow curveballs that were called strikes. The biggest knock against Baez so far in the minors has been an approach that is overly aggressive at times, but he laid off two inside cutters and then crushed the 2-2 slider. Baez's bat speed has been compared to Gary Sheffield's and he used that to hit 37 home runs in the minors. It came at the expense of 147 strikeouts against just 40 walks, but if he puts at-bats together like the one against Wolf, you're going to see the spread in the ratio decrease and Baez become even more dangerous.

The Sheffield comparison isn't exactly perfect -- Sheffield had great hand-eye coordination and strike-zone judgment to go along with that bat speed (his career high in strikeouts in the majors was 83 and that was late in his career and he walked more than he struck out. Like Baez, Sheffield was a minor league shortstop, although he moved to third base and then the outfield. Baez has a better chance of sticking at shortstop and he's expected to start there in Triple-A, although some scouts believe he'll eventually end up at third base. The Cubs have said he'll get some time at second base in the Cactus League as well to improve his versatility.

Anyway, a good start to a week in Arizona. Should be fun.