SweetSpot: Atlanta Braves

A lot of stuff out there about Justin Upton. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and Mark Bowman of MLB.com report that the Padres are still hot for Upton. Rosenthal writes:
The Braves, according to major-league sources, want more for Upton than they did for Jason Heyward, whom they traded to the Cardinals with reliever Jordan Walden for right-handers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.

For the Padres, that seemingly would translate to a controllable starter -- say, righty Tyson Ross -- and a prospect. But the Pads, now that they’re acquiring Kemp, do not want to trade Ross, Ian Kennedy or Andrew Cashner, sources say.

Perhaps the Braves, following the Howie Kendrick-for-Andrew Heaney template, would take a top prospect such as catcher Austin Hedges or right-hander Matt Wisler. The Pads then could get a draft pick for Upton if they made him a qualifying offer at the end of the season.

The Padres also don't want to trade Ross or Cashner for Upton because those guys are good, under team control for more than one season and less expensive than Upton, who will make $14.5 million in 2015. Similarly, the Mariners don't want to give up Taijuan Walker or James Paxton. The Braves would like Walker or Paxton, but if the Mariners were willing to give them up, a trade would have already happened.

The idea that Upton is worth more than Heyward, as the Braves reportedly believe, is silly. Here is each player's Baseball-Reference (left column) and FanGraphs WAR the past three seasons:

Heyward: 6.3, 5.1
Upton: 3.3, 3.9

Heyward: 3.4, 3.4
Upton: 2.4, 3.1

Heyward: 5.8, 6.3
Upton: 2.5, 2.1

True, Upton was an MVP candidate in 2011, when he was valued at 6.1/6.1 WAR. And true, maybe WAR is overrating Heyward's defense and underrating Upton's lineup presence or fear factor or something. But Upton hasn't slugged .500 since 2011 and the evidence suggests he's a good player, not a superstar. He's been durable, has power, plays an adequate corner outfield. He's not worth more than Heyward, however, and he isn't going to bring the Braves a top young pitcher like Ross or Walker, which is why Jim Bowden's list of five trade possibilities for Upton (Padres, Mariners, Rangers, Royals and Giants) includes lesser prospects.

Maybe John Hart decides to roll the dice and just keep Upton and hope the Braves rediscover their offense. As Mike Petriello of FanGraphs writes, it's not really in the Braves' best interest to make a Yoenis Cespedes-like trade for a one-year stopgap for the rotation. If Upton is traded, it will be for players/prospects the Braves will have under team control for at least several years (like Shelby Miller, acquired in the Heyward trade).


Should the Braves trade Justin Upton?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,889)

It's amazing how much can change in one year. In 2013, the Braves allowed 540 runs; that's the second-lowest total since 1990 in a non-strike season, behind only the 2011 Phillies. Now, they seem desperate for pitching. But the offense was worse than the pitching staff in 2014. Are they desperate to trade Upton, and content to move Evan Gattis to left field?

With their current roster, I don't see the Braves as likely contenders. But I can see Hart just keeping Upton and playing out the season. You can always deal him at the deadline if you're not in the race (although he probably returns less value then) or keep him and at least get a draft pick if he signs elsewhere.

What do you think? Should the Braves trade Upton, knowing the market for him may be thinner than the Braves would like?

A year ago, Ervin Santana entered free agency coming off a 9-10 season with the Royals, but with a 3.24 ERA and 211 innings pitched. He reportedly asked for big money, scared teams away with those demands and had to settle for a one-year, $14.1 million contract from the Braves.

MLB Free Agency: Half-Full, Half-Empty Logo
Once again, he enters free agency attached to a qualifying offer, so the team that signs him will lose either its first-round pick (unless it's a top-10 protected pick) or a later pick. That will lessen the enthusiasm for Santana, who went 14-10 with the Braves but with a so-so 3.95 ERA.

Jim Bowden predicts a three-year, $42 million contract for Santana. Consider him a much less expensive and not as good option behind guys like Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or Cole Hamels.

Let's do our half-full, half-empty look at Santana.


Are you getting a Cy Young candidate in Santana? No. But you're getting a pitcher who has made 30-plus starts the past five seasons, making him a reliable 200-inning midrotation workhorse. He's averaged 1.7 WAR over those five seasons, but that includes a terrible 2012 season when he posted a 5.16 ERA. Otherwise, he's averaged 2.5 WAR in the other four seasons, which prices him at about $16 million per season in this market.

Santana's bread-and-butter pitch is a slider that generates a good number of swings-and-misses. Santana had the fifth-best strikeout percentage of any starter in the majors with his slider and the fourth-best swing-and-miss percentage behind only Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw and C.J. Wilson.

Overall, batters hit .176/.225/.300 against it with 120 strikeouts in 268 plate appearances. When he's on, he's locating that slider on the corner or just off the corner. Batters know it's coming and still can't hit it.

ESPN Stats & Info

Santana's four-seam fastball averages 92.3 mph, still above-average for a right-handed starter, and he also started using his changeup more often in 2014 against left-handers, with good results. If that pitch continues to develop, that helps neutralize some of the problems Santana has had against left-handed batters in the past. Overall, with the slider and above-average velocity, there's no reason to expect a sudden downturn in performance if he signs a three-year contract.

While Santana's ERA was higher than the year before, his peripherals were actually better, with a 3.39 FIP compared to 3.93 in 2013. His strikeout rate increased to his highest rate since 2008 and he cut his home runs from 26 to 16 in large part because his fly-ball percentage was the best of his career. This may actually be a pitcher maturing as he hits his 30s. The only reason his numbers weren't better was a .326 average on balls in play, much higher than the .285 mark he's had overall since 2009.


Well, sure, Santana's peripheral numbers got better -- he went from the American League to the National League; it's nice getting to face the opposing pitcher a couple of times a game. Santana also pitched in the NL East, a division that had some terrible offenses in 2014. Against No. 8 and No. 9 batters, he had 46 strikeouts and 10 walks and just one home run allowed. If he goes back to the AL, he won't have the same luxury of building up some fancy stats against the bottom of the lineup.

Plus, be careful about reading too much into one-year home run numbers. This is a guy who gave up 26 home runs in 2013 pitching in a tough home run park in Kansas City and 39 pitching in a tough home run park in Anaheim in 2012. Atlanta has been more neutral, but the bigger point: He's benefited his entire career by pitching in friendly ballparks. Don't buy high on those 16 home runs being a new level of talent.


What's your view on Ervin Santana as a free agent?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,132)

You also can't just ignore that 2012 season. It happened and it could happen again. As good as his slider is, his fastball just isn't a great weapon and it makes Santana hittable when he doesn't get into slider counts. Batters hit .322 against his fastball in 2014, which ranked 84th out of 88 qualified starters.

Keep in mind that he's also pitched in front of good defensive teams -- the 2012 Angels ranked second in the majors in defensive runs saved, the 2013 Royals ranked first and the 2014 Braves ranked 11th. Again: New park, worse defense, a few more hanging sliders and you're looking at a back-of-the-rotation guy who will be getting paid like a front-of-the-rotation starter.

There's a reason Santana didn't get big money last year. He's a difficult guy to buy completely into at eight figures per season. He may get a three-year contract, but if he's asking for $50 million he's going to be left hanging again like last year.

What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?
Randy JohnsonRich Pilling/Getty ImagesRandy Johnson should be a unanimous selection in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Hall of Fame season is kind of like Christmas season: It brings gifts and memories but also a lot of acrimony and stress, and it lasts way too long. Hall of Fame ballots were mailed out Monday to eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which means the next six weeks will feature many Hall of Fame columns, debates, analyses and other assorted name-calling and belligerence.

Here are 10 main questions of conversation this Hall of Fame season:

1. Who are the new names on the ballot?

Last year's star-studded ballot that featured the election of first-timers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas is followed by another long list of intriguing newcomers: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Gary Sheffield and Carlos Delgado are the top names.

2. How many of those guys get in?

Johnson should be a unanimous selection with his 303 career wins, five Cy Young Awards, four ERA titles, nine strikeout titles and six 300-strikeout seasons, but 16 of the 571 voters last year failed to vote for Maddux, so Johnson likely awaits the same slight and will get 95-plus percent of the vote but not 100 percent.

Martinez would certainly appear to be a lock to get the required 75 percent, but Hall voters tend to emphasize wins at the expense of everything else for starting pitchers and Martinez has just 219, so you never know. The BBWAA hasn't elected a starter with that few wins since Don Drysdale, who had 209, in 1984. Still, with the second-best winning percentage since 1900 of any pitcher with at least 150 wins (behind only Whitey Ford), three Cy Young Awards, five ERA titles and the best adjusted ERA for any starting pitcher in history, Pedro should cruise to Cooperstown at well above the 75 percent line. Really, like the Unit, there is no reason not to vote for him.

Smoltz has a little more complicated case and may suffer in comparison to being on the same ballot with Johnson and Martinez. While Pedro was 219-100 with a 2.93 ERA, Smoltz was 213-155 with a 3.33 ERA. He did pick up 154 saves while serving as a closer for three-plus seasons and maybe that will resonate with voters. Smoltz also has a great postseason record -- 15-4, 2.67 ERA -- but similar postseason dominance didn't help Curt Schilling last year when he received just 29 percent of the votes. I believe Smoltz does much better than that, but I don't see why Schilling -- 216-146, 3.46 in his career with 79.9 WAR compared to Smoltz's 69.5 -- would receive just 29 percent and Smoltz 75 percent.

Sheffield, with the PED allegations, has no chance despite 509 career home runs and over 1,600 RBIs and runs. Delgado put up big numbers in an era when a lot of guys were putting up big numbers, and his 473 career home runs with 1,512 RBIs may not be enough to even keep him on the ballot (you need to receive 5 percent to remain on).

3. Does Craig Biggio get in this year?

He fell just two votes short last year on his second time on the ballot, so you have to think at least two voters will add him, assuming some of the holdovers don't change their minds. Biggio's Hall of Fame case is kind of ironic in that he was probably one of the more underrated players in the league while active. He finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting three times (10th, fifth, fourth), but the same writers who once dismissed him as an MVP candidate will now be putting him in the Hall of Fame. He's a deserving candidate, but if he hadn't played that final season when he was terrible and cleared 3,000 career hits, you wonder if he'd be even this close. Voters love their round numbers.

4. What's the new 10-year rule?

Candidates will now be allowed to remain on the ballot for only 10 years instead of 15. Three current candidates -- Don Mattingly (in his 15th season), Alan Trammell (14th) and Lee Smith (13th) were allowed to remain on the ballot.

For the first time, the names of all voters will also be made public, although neither the Hall of Fame nor BBWAA will not reveal an individual's ballot.

5. Who will be most affected by this?

Well, all the steroids guys, obviously. Mark McGwire, for example, is on the ballot for his ninth year, not enough time in case voter attitudes toward PEDs starts reversing course. Aside from that group, Tim Raines is on the ballot for the eighth year. He received 46 percent of the vote last year; that was actually a drop from the 52 percent he had in 2013. Historically, nearly every player who received 50 percent of the vote from the BBWAA eventually got elected, but now Raines has just three years left and was affected by the crowded ballot last year.

6. But the ballot is still crowded, right?

Yep. Remember, voters are allowed to vote for up to 10 players -- although most ballots don't get to 10, so the "crowded" ballot is somewhat of an overrated issue. Still, it's there, and several players saw their vote totals decrease last year. Anyway, I would argue there are as many as 22 or 23 players who have some semblance of a Hall of Fame case based on historical precedent. In order of career Baseball-Reference WAR: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Schilling, Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker, Trammell, Smoltz, Raines, Edgar Martinez, Biggio, McGwire, Sheffield, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Kent, Fred McGriff, Delgado, Lee Smith. Plus arguably Nomar Garciaparra and Mattingly, who had high peak levels of performance but short careers.

Anyway, those who believe in a big ballot will once again have to make some tough choices on whom to leave off.

7. For which players is this an important year?

Raines needs a big increase this year, but it's starting to look slim for him. That makes Bagwell and Piazza two of the more interesting names. Piazza was at 62 percent last year on his second year, a 4.4 percent increase from 2013. If he sees another vote increase, we can assume he's on his way to election; but if he holds at the same percentage, we can probably assume there are enough voters who put him in the PED category and are thus keeping him permanently under that 75 percent threshold. Similar issue with Bagwell; he was 54 percent last year, actually down from 59.6 percent in 2013. If he gets back up over 60 percent, he may be back on a Cooperstown trek.

8. Hey, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling look like pretty good candidates.

That's not a question, but, yes, yes they are. Mussina (270 wins, 82.6 WAR) and Schilling are overwhelmingly qualified by Hall of Fame standards, even by BBWAA-only standards, especially when factoring in Schilling's postseason success. That both received fewer than 30 percent of the vote in their first year on the ballot was a little shocking and definitely disappointing.

9. What about the steroids guys?

No changes -- or progress, if you prefer -- here. Clemens (35.4 percent) and Bonds (34.7 percent) both received fewer votes than the year before. Rafael Palmeiro already fell off the ballot, and I suspect Sosa (7.2 percent) falls off this time.

10. What about Jack Morris?

Mercifully, Morris is no longer on the ballot so we don't have to spend all December arguing his case yet again. His candidacy goes over to the Expansion Era committee, which will next vote in 2016. I suspect Morris gets in then.
Now that the Atlanta Braves have sent the message that they're rebuilding, they'll probably trade Justin Upton, who is a free agent after the 2015 season.

Two offseasons ago, the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks had agreed to a trade built around Upton and pitching prospect Taijuan Walker, only to have Upton veto the trade when he invoked his limited no-trade clause.

[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesJustin Upton, who has one year left on his current contract, is a player the Braves could trade in the weeks ahead.

Well, two years later, the Mariners still need a right-handed-hitting outfielder and Upton has reportedly removed the Mariners from his no-trade list.

So maybe general manager Jack Zduriencik re-kindles the Walker-for-Upton idea. Clearly, the Braves are looking for cost-controlled young players, as evidenced by the Jason Heyward trade. The Mariners wouldn't trade Walker for Upton at this point, considering Walker is under team control for six seasons versus one for Upton, so the trade would have to be expanded.

The Braves need a second baseman. The Mariners happen to have two shortstops in Brad Miller and Chris Taylor but are rumored to be interested in Hanley Ramirez. So here's an idea: Walker and one of the shortstops for Upton and Evan Gattis (the Mariners also need a designated hitter). The Mariners then sign Ramirez to play shortstop. With a hole in the rotation, they sign a second-tier starter like Chris Young or Jason Hammel, or splurge a little more on Ervin Santana.

Seattle's lineup would then look something like this:

CF Austin Jackson
3B Kyle Seager
2B Robinson Cano
RF Justin Upton
SS Hanley Ramirez
1B Logan Morrison
DH Evan Gattis
C Mike Zunino
LF Dustin Ackley

That's a pretty deep lineup in this era and the Mariners fix their righty-lefty imbalance that plagued them last year by bringing in three good right-handed hitters.

The rotation would have Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Roenis Elias and the veteran starter. The bullpen, one of the best and deepest in the majors in 2014, returns everybody except free agent Joe Beimel (who could re-sign). That rotation is a little thin, so the Mariners could shop Michael Saunders -- a solid-if-injury-prone outfielder and not a favorite of Zduriencik or manager Lloyd McClendon -- for another back-of-the-rotation type.

Does all that fit into Seattle's payroll? Baseball-Reference estimates the Mariners' payroll right now at $100.5 million (almost half of that for Cano and Hernandez), including estimates for arbitration-eligible players. Upton makes $14.5 million. Ramirez may require an average annual salary of $18 million or so, but the Mariners could backload that and pay him, say, $14 million in 2015. A pitcher like Young or Hammel would cost about $6 million to $8 million on a one-year deal. Gattis isn't even arbitration-eligible until 2016, so he's still making less than a million.

You'd be looking at a $135 million payroll or so, after sitting at about $90 million in 2014. That's a big hike but considering Cano and Hernandez aren't going to get any better, and considering the American League hasn't been so wide open in years, the Mariners' window to strike may be right now.

It's amazing how quickly things can turn in baseball. In 2013, the Atlanta Braves won 96 games. They were built around a young core of players that included Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor. None was older than 25. It looked like the Braves would be playoff contenders for the foreseeable future. Instead, the team fell to 79 wins in 2014, and now with the trade of Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals, new president of baseball operations John Hart has started what looks to be an overhaul of the franchise.

With Heyward gone, Upton is likely the next to go. Like Heyward, Upton will be a free agent after the 2015 season, so there's no reason to keep him on the roster unless you sign him to a long-term extension (or if you think you're a playoff contender, but the Heyward trade signifies that the Braves don't view themselves as contenders in 2015). If Hart can get another young, cost-controlled player like Shelby Miller (here's Keith Law's analysis of the trade), he'll deal Upton. He might even look to trade Evan Gattis while his stock is high. With Christian Bethancourt ready to take over at catcher, the Heyward trade pushes Gattis to left field, where he becomes the classic overrated player: a slugger with terrible defense and a mediocre on-base skills. Gattis' power bat is certainly a plus and he's a fan favorite in Atlanta, but his defense in left on a regular basis would be a scary sight.

The other reason to trade Gattis is that the Braves have taken a step back with the Heyward trade. Heyward was their best player in 2014, although he seems to be often viewed under the lens of a disappointment ("Where's the power?") instead of a Gold Glove right fielder who has an above-average OBP. Maybe he never turned into that middle-of-the-order cleanup hitter he was once envisioned to become, but he's still a good guy to have at the top of the lineup and his defensive metrics have always been outstanding. Anyway, he's gone. You probably trade Upton; you still have B.J. Upton and Chris Johnson soaking up plate appearances; and second base is now in the hands of Philip Gosselin, who did hit .344 at Triple-A in 2014 but doesn't have much power and never hit in the minors before this past season.


Should the Braves trade Justin Upton and/or Evan Gattis?


Discuss (Total votes: 8,592)

Meanwhile, the rotation has added Miller, who is overrated at this point in his career, but is currently without free agents Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, who made a combined 64 starts for the Braves in 2014. Yes, maybe they'll get Kris Medlen and/or Brandon Beachy back at some point after they both had Tommy John surgery, but those two will be question marks heading into 2015. As for Miller, his 3.74 ERA with the Cardinals ranked 45th among 73 National League pitchers who pitched at least 100 innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked 70th out of those 73 pitchers. Miller did finish strong with a 2.92 ERA and .201 batting average allowed in the second half, so maybe he made some adjustments that led to the improvement. (He threw his two-seam fastball a lot more in the second half after rarely using it before the break, so maybe that will be a big difference-maker for him, but a .215 BABIP suggests there was some good luck involved as well.)

So it looks like the Braves will be building for 2017, when they move into their new park in suburban Cobb County. Freeman is signed through 2021, Simmons through 2020 and Teheran through at least 2019, so that is the foundation. The Braves could even consider trading Kimbrel, who is signed through 2017 with a 2018 club option. You don't need an elite closer on a bad or mediocre team, and Kimbrel has been the game's most dominant reliever for four years. Trading him could bring back a nice haul of young talent to help restock a weak farm system.

Add it up, factor in that the Nationals, Mets and possibly the Marlins should be strong playoff contenders in 2015, and the Braves could go from 96 wins in 2013 to 90 losses in 2015.
A few new things and a few old things I wanted to get out there.
  • Jeremy Collins with a piece titled "Thirteen ways of looking at Greg Maddux," a heartfelt memoir of what the pitcher meant to Jeremy and his friend Jason. Read it.
  • We ran this piece during the playoffs. Maybe you missed it while updating your fantasy football team. Steve Fainaru's story of the friendship between Giants broadcasters Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper is about much more than two baseball announcers.
  • This is pretty awesome, via Ryan McCrystal of It's Pronounced "Lajaway": How the Indians turned Jerry Dybzinski into Cy Young winner Corey Kluber.
  • Joe Posnanski writes about Bill James, 40 years after he first started writing about baseball but still thinking about the game. This quote from James is certainly interesting:
    Here is Bill James on Wins Above Replacement, perhaps the hottest advanced statistic in the game right now:

    "Well, my math skills are limited and my data-processing skills are essentially nonexistent. The younger guys are way, way beyond me in those areas. I’m fine with that, and I don’t struggle against it, and I hope that I don’t deny them credit for what they can do that I can’t.

    "But because that is true, I ASSUMED that these were complex, nuanced, sophisticated systems. I never really looked; I just assumed that the details were out of my depth. But sometime in the last year I was doing some research that relied on these WAR systems, so I took a look at them, and ... they’re not very impressive. They’re not well thought through; they haven’t made a convincing effort to address many of the inherent difficulties that the undertaking presents. They tend to get so far into the data, throw up their arms and make a wild guess. I don’t know if I’m going to get the time to do better of it, or if it will be left to others, but ... we’re not at anything like an end point here. I assumed that these systems were a lot better than they actually are."

    Posnanski doesn't elaborate more on the details, so we're just left with the idea Bill James isn't a big fan of WAR.
  • Speaking of James, he had a fascinating study on BillJamesonline (pay). He went back to the 1950s and studied consecutive starts made by starting pitchers. As he writes, it's not a perfect study because of factors that couldn't be completely adjusted for; for example, a rainout can create a gap between starts that's not actually meant to be a gap, or maybe a starter makes a relief appearance between starts. Anyway, he tracked the ongoing leaderboards for consecutive starts made under the rules he set up. He writes:

    But here is the point I wanted to make ... now that I made you read 25 pages of lead up just to make this point, but ... people talk about injuries to pitchers as if this were a new phenomenon; more and more pitchers every year are getting hurt. Well, maybe.

    But this study shows that the number of pitchers staying in rotation for years and years without any injury or interruption is clearly higher than it has ever been. A record was set in 2012, broken in 2013, broken in 2014. I don’t want to make too much out of that; the record is based on just ten pitchers out of a population of 150. But there is certainly some indication that injuries to starting pitchers may not, in fact, be increasing.

    I would go far as to suggest that an additional reason for the decline in run scoring isn't just the increased size of the strike zone but pitchers staying healthier than a generation ago. Healthier pitchers are better pitchers. (Yes, even with the long list of Tommy John surgeries this season.)
  • We remember Madison Bumgarner's heroic Game 7 performance, but he had help from the defensive positioning behind him.
  • Brad Johnson of The Hardball Times with 10 forgotten plays from the postseason.
  • Alex Remington looks back at the Giants' World Series titles -- include those while they were in New York.
  • Great piece by Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs on the player who attempted to bunt for a hit most often in 2014: Padres pitcher Andrew Cashner.
  • Yoan Moncada is a 19-year-old Cuban with big skills. He'll soon be very rich. Kiley McDaniel tells us about Moncada's unique background.
  • Rob Neyer says writers are still too obsessed with RBIs when it comes to MVP voting. Agreed.
  • Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus examines some of the reasons for the decline in scoring and whether this is just a "down" cycle. He says it's not:

    After looking at the evidence, I think the conclusion to be drawn is that baseball is not in the middle of a mild cyclical hitting drought. There'ôs a real structural change about how the game is being played and it'ôs bringing scoring down.
  • The writers at It's About the Money discuss the Yankees of 2015 and optimism versus pessimism. I'd lean towards pessimism right now. The Yankees haven't finished under .500 since 1992. This may finally be the year. Maybe.
  • Eric Reining of One Strike Away wonders if there's a way the Rangers can trade for Cole Hamels.
  • Maury Brown reports on the high local TV ratings throughout the sport during the regular season.
Buster Olney takes a good look at the saturated market for DH types and writes this about Ryan Howard:
He is being pushed hard in the market by the Phillies. Rival executives perceive the Phillies will do whatever it takes to dump him, up to and including eating the vast majority of his salary.

Howard is owed $25 million in 2015 and 2016 and has a $10 million buyout for 2017, so that's $60 million for two years of his service.

The question: Is Howard worth a gamble even if the Phillies eat his entire salary other than the $500,000 major league minimum?

After all, Howard hit 23 home runs and drove in 95 runs in 2014. He ranked fourth in the National League in RBIs! So he must have some value, right? Maybe?

Here's another stat to consider. Fewest RBIs from the DH spot, American League teams:

    Seattle 50
    Kansas City 59
    Tampa Bay 61
    New York 63
    Oakland 70
    Cleveland 77
    Texas 78

Only four teams -- Boston, Detroit, Minnesota and the Angels -- received at least 95 RBIs from their DHs.

So maybe the Phillies can find a taker for an "RBI guy" like Howard?

Not so far. We know RBIs are context-driven. Howard hit cleanup in 137 of his 146 starts. He had guys getting on base in front of him. In fact, guess who led the major leagues in plate appearances with runners on base? Yep, Ryan Howard. He batted 345 times with at least one runner on and ranked third overall behind Casey McGehee and Justin Upton in total number of runners on base while batting.

No, the RBIs don't tell the story of Howard's value as a hitter. The more important stat is Howard's .223/.310/.380 batting line. That's good for a wOBA of .302 (weighted on-base average, not park-adjusted). Baseball-Reference estimates that Howard created five runs fewer than the average hitter given his plate appearances.

Now, we're still left with five AL teams that received worse production from their DH position: Seattle (.254 wOBA), Oakland (.281), Kansas City (.288), New York (.291) and Texas (.300). The Yankees will presumably have to rotate Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez through the DH position. The Rangers will have Prince Fielder back, presumably to share time at DH and first base with Mitch Moreland, although it may be time to punt on Moreland. The A's have John Jaso, but Howard is a possible fit. The Royals have to decide on re-signing Billy Butler. The Mariners are hot for Victor Martinez.

And as Olney wrote, there are many potential DH guys out there, including Martinez, Butler, Mike Morse, Kendrys Morales and, as a trade possibility, Evan Gattis.

The lure in Howard is that he would be cheap if the Phillies pick up $55 million-plus of that $60 million. He's not good and definitely should not be considered for first base, but the state of DH production in 2014 was so poor that it wouldn't shock me if an AL team took a chance on him. Still, it seems unlikely in an era in which most teams prefer to rotation their other position players through the DH spot.

* * *

Then there's Braves center fielder B.J. Upton, still owed $46 million over the next three seasons. David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution writes:
The Braves would like to get out from under at least part of the approximate $46 million they owe Upton over the next three seasons by including him in a deal for a player that other teams want, such as slugger Evan Gattis. A scout from one American League said Tuesday that his team would love to have Gattis but wouldn’t consider taking on B.J. Upton or any part of his contract.

In two seasons with the Braves, Upton has hit .198 with 21 homers, 61 RBIs, a .279 OBP and a .593 OPS, and had a franchise-record 173 strikeouts in 519 at-bats in 2014.

"It’s been a complete collapse offensively," said John Hart, the Braves’ new president of baseball operations.

Do you think Ryan Howard or B.J. Upton gets traded this offseason?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,703)

Upton has been worth minus-1.3 WAR and minus-0.3 WAR the past two seasons. Factor in that his defensive metrics in center field have never been good (minus-7, minus-4, plus-1 and minus-7 defensive runs saved since 2011) and he doesn't even have value as glove-only center fielder. Does that sound like a player you want to take on?

Some have mentioned the possibility of trading one bad contract for another, such as Edwin Jackson of the Cubs. But Jackson is owed only $22 million over the next two seasons, less than half of Upton's total.

Upton is only 30. But if he's going to turn things around, you have to think it has to come in Atlanta. I just can't see another team trading for him and thinking he's going to be their center fielder.

What do you think? Is there any chance Howard and Upton get traded this winter?

Defensive player of year: Andrelton Simmons

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
Mike Zarrilli/AP PhotosThere's nobody better on defense than Andrelton Simmons.

Our selection for Defensive Player of the Year for 2014 is the same as our pick for 2013.

And if we were guessing right now, Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons could win this award every year through the end of the decade.

It was a close vote among our 11-person voting panel (which included ESPN.com writers and "Baseball Tonight" analyst Doug Glanville), but Simmons edged out his teammate, right fielder Jason Heyward for the top spot.

Simmons received four first-place votes and 35 points (voting was a 5-3-1 system for the top three spots). Heyward got three first-place votes and 29 points.

Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy finished third, ahead of Mets center fielder Juan Lagares, Royals left fielder Alex Gordon and Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

Throughout the season, I received comments on Twitter from followers who thought that the shortstop they follow is better than Simmons. I am here to tell them it's not true.

We've written a lot about Simmons' glovework in this space, so we'll keep the details on his success brief, other than to say that the comparisons to Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel still seem legit.

Simmons led all shortstops with 28 Defensive Runs Saved, nine more than the player with the next most at the position (Zack Cozart of the Reds). Using Baseball-Reference.com’s conversion methods, that equates to 3.9 Defensive Wins above Replacement, the most for any player in the major leagues.

Over the last two seasons, Simmons has 9.3 Defensive Wins Above Replacement. The next-closest is Lagares at 6.9.

As good as Simmons was in 2013, and even though his overall Defensive Runs Saved total declined from 41 to 28, there were some areas in which he actually improved in 2014.

Simmons still excelled at fielding balls in the shortstop-third base hole, with a prowess unmatched by anyone else. His conversion rate on double-play opportunities (as either fielder or relay man) jumped from 62 percent to 75 percent.

Simmons also stood out on video review, by Baseball Info Solutions’ system of tracking Good Fielding Plays (30 categories) and Defensive Misplays & Errors (nearly 60 categories). His ratio of Good Plays to Bad Plays went from 1.9 (76 to 39) to 2.5 (69 to 28). Only two shortstops -- Alexi Amarista (2.6) and Troy Tulowitzki (2.5) -- had a better ratio and both played fewer games at the position than Simmons.

Heyward was a very worthy runner-up. He led all major leaguers in Defensive Runs Saved with 32. But we're willing to bet that even he would acknowledge that Simmons is the best in the business and will be for quite some time.
It's awards season, and this week we'll get the big ones, with the Cy Young winners announced on Wednesday and the MVPs on Thursday.

The Internet Baseball Writers Association of America also votes on awards, and it's always interesting to see how the IBWAA vote compares to the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) vote. The IBWAA voters -- I'm one of them -- are probably a little more sabermetrics-minded than their counterparts in the BBWAA (some writers are members of both groups, myself included), leading to some differences in opinion as a result.

Anyway, the first IBWAA vote is one that the BBWAA doesn't have: relievers of the year. Here are the winners:

National League Hoyt Wilhelm Relief Pitcher of the Year Award
1st -- Craig Kimbrel, Braves
2nd -- Aroldis Chapman, Reds
3rd -- Kenley Jansen, Dodgers

American League Hoyt Wilhelm Relief Pitcher of the Year Award
1st -- Greg Holland, Royals
2nd -- Dellin Betances, Yankees
3rd -- Wade Davis, Royals

The interesting thing about the voting is that two setup guys finished second and third in the American League -- and deservedly so, given the success Betances and Davis had. In fact, considering Betances pitched 90 innings while going 5-0 with a 1.40 ERA, you can make an argument that he was the most valuable reliever in the majors. He and Davis tied for the major league lead in Baseball-Reference.com's WAR among relievers at 3.7, while Betances led in FanGraphs WAR, 3.2 to 3.1.

Yankees closer David Robertson will decide today whether to accept the Yankees' qualifying offer or hit the free-agent market. Considering his 90-inning workload and usage patterns -- Betances actually led all AL pitchers in win probability added, a stat that factors in game situation and score -- Betances is likely more valuable to the Yankees pitching the seventh and eighth innings than serving as the closer. If he were the closer, his innings total would likely see a decline to 70 or so, with many of those coming to get saves while up by two or three runs.

Of course, Yankees manager Joe Girardi may plan to use Betances fewer innings next year anyway since relievers rarely top 80 innings anymore, but he's so strong that he should be able to handle 90 innings without too much trouble.

Stayed tuned for the IBWAA awards all week.

End-of-season Haiku for every team

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7
Congrats to the Giants on their World Series victory. Let's look back at the year on the diamond for all 30 teams, in regular season win total order, through traditional Japanese verse:

Trout league's best player?
Shoemaker pleasant surprise
Yet steamrolled by Royals

Stoic Showalter
Lost Manny, Matt, Chris but still
Ran away with East

Fateful decision
In playoffs shouldn't dampen
League's best rotation

The Bison is back
But Clayton couldn't kill Cards
Donnie gets last chance?

Death of Taveras
Casts pall on terrific year
Still class of Central

Flammable bullpen
Undermined starting pitching
Now replace V-Mart

Who needs walks, homers?
An "abundance" of bunting
Outfield defense ... whoa!

Cespedes got dealt
Team's offense dried up with it
Beane's "stuff" didn’t work

Three titles -- five years
Bumgarner otherworldly
Can they keep Panda?

Burning Cole last game
Trying for division tie
Might have cost Play-In

Cano did his thing
Felix, Hisashi duo
Not quite good enough

Kluber conquered all
But rest of staff slogged through year
Michael Brantley ... star!

Jeter’s farewell tour
Now A-Rod longest-tenured
Not your dad's Yankees

All five starters had
Double-digit wins, but four
Had ten-plus losses

Led till late August
Won nine all of September
Lucroy's framing tops

Shutout 16 times
NL's next to last runs scored
Let's just watch Kimbrel

DeGrom great story
Wheeler looked good, stayed healthy
Harvey's back, Big 3!

Last in all slash stats
No-hit by Timmy ... again
Front office rebuilt

Stayed competitive
Despite losing Fernandez
Can they sign Stanton?

Friedman, Maddon gone
Price dealt for cheaper prospects
Has their window closed?

Votto hardly seen
But Mesoraco burst out
Cueto stayed healthy

Abreu? Real deal
Chris Sale's elbow still attached?
Thank you, Konerko!

Top prospects galore
Renteria won't see them
Maddon works magic?

Vets went untraded
Amaro kept job somehow
Get used to last place

Bradley, Bogaerts ... meh
Buckholz saw ERA triple
Lester will be missed

Altuve a star
If only they could have signed
1st rounder Aiken

Hughes K'd 1-8-6
Is that allowed on their staff?
Mauer's bat slumping

Given multitude of hurts
Washington bowed out

League-worst ERA
Tulo missed 70 games
Fast start, then crash, burn

Gibson, Towers done
Can Hale, Stewart make team rise
Like a phoenix? Eh!

Diane Firstman runs the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
As the offseason speeds ahead into full rumor mill hysteria, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to look at each team’s biggest weakness in 2014 (excluding pitchers). This gives us a start on which positions teams might be most desperate to fill or should be desperate to fill in the upcoming months, although it doesn't include potential holes such as the Giants needing a third baseman if Pablo Sandoval doesn't re-sign or the Dodgers needing a shortstop if Hanley Ramirez departs.

For a quick assessment of value at each position, I used wins below average, via Baseball-Reference.com, which includes both offense and defensive value at the position.

1. Detroit Tigers 3B: 3.7 wins below average

This might surprise you since Nick Castellanos had a solid rookie season at the plate, hitting .259 with 46 extra-base hits. But solid isn't the same as good, as the Tigers ranked 18th in the majors in wOBA at third base. But the biggest liability here was Castellanos' defense: His -30 defensive runs saved ranked worst in the majors -- at any position.

Fix for 2015: It's still Castellanos' job. The Tigers have to hope for improvement in all areas.

2. Houston Astros 3B: 3.5 wins below average

Matt Dominguez started 147 games here, but the Astros ranked last in the majors with a .255 OBP and .252 wOBA at third base as Dominguez hit just .215 with 29 walks. He comes with a better defensive reputation than Castellanos, but grades out about average with the glove. First base wasn't much better for the Astros -- 3.4 wins below average as their first basemen hit .168 (!).

Fix for 2015: Dominguez is just 25, but his sophomore season showed decline instead of improvement. There is no obvious internal fix other than giving Dominguez one more shot. Could the Astros be a dark horse to sign Pablo Sandoval or Chase Headley? If only they had drafted Kris Bryant in 2013 instead of Mark Appel.

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Alex BrandonLooks like the Phillies might be stuck with Ryan Howard again in 2015.
3. Philadelphia Phillies 1B: 3.3 wins below average

No surprise here: Ryan Howard is awful, even if he did drive in 95 runs. He had a .302 wOBA -- the same as Alcides Escobar. The Phillies slugged .392 at first base -- 22nd in the majors -- and backed that up with Howard's poor defense and baserunning.

Fix for 2015: Howard will make $50 million the next two years. No, I can't see a scenario where he gets traded.

4. Cincinnati Reds RF: 3.3 wins below average

If there's an award for Most Disappointing Player of 2014, it probably goes to Jay Bruce, who hit .217 with a .281 OBP and 18 home runs. Bruce had knee surgery in early May, came back quickly and simply never got going. The knee might have played a role as he actually homered just as often on fly balls as in 2013, but his fly ball rate dropped 10 percent.

Fix for 2015: Bruce turns 28 in April, so he's certainly a good bet to bounce back.

5. Tampa Bay Rays C: 3.1 wins below average

The Rays love the defense Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan provide, but it's hard to overcome a .191/.274/.250 batting line.

Fix for 2015: Both are under contract for 2015, and Curt Casali is the only other catcher on the 40-man roster. Molina looks done as a hitter so the Rays are going to need Hanigan to catch more.

6. Atlanta Braves 3B: 3.1 wins below average

Chris Johnson and his .292 OBP and below-average defense helped this position score worst overall, but the Braves also scored lowest in the majors at center field (-2.6 wins) and second base (-2.8 wins).

Fix for 2015: The Braves foolishly signed Johnson to a long-term deal after his BABIP-driven .321 season in 2013. While the salaries aren't prohibitive, the deal also means Johnson probably returns in 2015. Phil Gosselin, who hit .344 without power at Triple-A, might get an opportunity, although he hasn't played much third in his career.

7. St. Louis Cardinals RF: 3.1 wins below average

Cardinals right fielders ranked last in the majors in wOBA.

Fix for 2015: The death of Oscar Taveras means the Cardinals will probably look for a right fielder, as Randal Grichuk isn't primed for full-time duty. They could move Jon Jay back there and give Peter Bourjos more time in center; but considering the Cardinals' lack of power in 2014, look for them to seek a right fielder with some ability to hit the ball over the fence -- maybe Nelson Cruz, if they're willing to take the hit on defense, or maybe Carlos Gonzalez in a trade with the Rockies.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
AP Photo/David GoldmanWhat were the Braves thinking with that long-term deal for Chris Johnson?
8. Cleveland Indians RF: 3.0 wins below average

This was mostly David Murphy, who put up lukewarm numbers at the plate while seeing his defensive metrics slide (-16 defensive runs saved). The Indians also had -2.2 wins from DH (Nick Swisher had the most PAs there with 143), so if they can improve these two positions, they're a good sleeper playoff pick for 2015.

Fix for 2015: Murphy is still under contract, but he's 33; I wouldn't bet on a better year. The DH problem can be solved by just putting Carlos Santana there and maybe there's room in the budget for a first baseman like Adam LaRoche, leaving Swisher to share time in right, first base and DH.

9. Chicago Cubs LF: 2.9 wins below average

Cubs left fielders -- Chris Coghlan had the most playing time out there with 394 PAs -- actually ranked 11th in the majors in wOBA, but they were a collective -19 defensive runs saved.

Fix for 2015: Outfield prospects Billy McKinney and Albert Almora are still two to three years away from the majors, so it could be more Coghlan and Junior Lake unless the Cubs make a trade or sign a veteran free agent.

10. Miami Marlins 1B: 2.9 wins below average

Their first basemen (mostly Garrett Jones) hit .258/.313/.403, putting them 19th in the majors in wOBA, and mixed in below-average defense and a lack of speed.

Fix for 2015: Jeff Baker is still around as a potential platoon mate against LHP. Jones is signed for $5 million; so while LaRoche would also make a nice fit here, that contract might mean the Marlins stick with Jones.

11. Texas Rangers 1B: 2.8 wins below average

Obviously, Prince Fielder's neck injury was the story here as Texas first basemen hit just .216 with 16 home runs.

Fix for 2015: Hope for Fielder's return to health.

12. Chicago White Sox RF: 2.8 wins below average

Avisail Garcia was supposed to be the solution here, but he hurt his shoulder in early April and Dayan Viciedo ended up getting most of the time in right. He combined a below-average OBP with terrible defense.

Fix for 2015: Garcia returned in August and hit .244/.305/.413; he’ll get another shot. He should be an upgrade, but he's another guy who might struggle to post a league-average OBP.

13. San Diego Padres 2B: 2.8 wins below average

Jedd Gyorko would rate right behind Bruce in that most disappointing category. After signing a six-year, $35 million extension in April following his 23-homer rookie season in 2013, Gyorko collapsed and hit .210 with 11 home runs in 111 games, missing time with plantar fasciitis. He went on the DL in early June with reports saying he injured his foot in late May. He wasn't hitting before then, so it's possible he tried to play through the injury or maybe the pressure of the contract got to him or maybe he just didn't hit. Anyway, when he returned in late July, he hit .260/.347/.398 the rest of the way. (Just three home runs, however.)

Fix for 2015: Like Bruce, Gyorko is a good bounce-back candidate.

[+] EnlargeWill Middlebrooks
AP Photo/Chris BernacchiHow much longer can the Red Sox afford to wait on Will Middlebrooks?
14. Los Angeles Dodgers C: 2.7 wins below average

Dodgers catchers hit .181/.283/.261 as A.J. Ellis got on base (.322) but didn't hit otherwise, and the backups were even worse. Dodgers pitchers like throwing to Ellis, but the defensive metrics have never rated him as a good pitch-framer.

Fix for 2015: Speculation suggests the Dodgers could go after free agent Russell Martin.

15. Boston Red Sox 3B: 2.7 wins below average

Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts and Brock Holt got the majority of playing time here and Holt was the best of the three. He isn’t the 2015 solution, however. Overall, Boston's third basemen hit .211 with just 10 home runs.

Fix for 2015: With Bogaerts likely moving back to shortstop and Middlebrooks just about out of chances, the Red Sox could give Garin Cecchini, a career .298 hitter in the minors, a shot, although he has just 21 home runs in four minor league seasons. There are several third basemen out there in free agency: Sandoval, Headley, Hanley Ramirez (if you want to move him off shortstop) and Jed Lowrie (ditto). Seems Boston is likely to go after one of those guys.

OK, we'll do Part 2 of the list on Thursday.

Simmons best defender of September

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
Amazingly, we almost got through a full season without naming Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons our Defensive Player of the Month.

Alas, Simmons finally won our vote for September. He won on the strength of five Defensive Runs Saved, which trailed only Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants among shortstops. Crawford had seven Defensive Runs Saved, but Simmons garnered more favor for having nine Good Fielding Plays and only two Misplays and Errors compared to Crawford’s 10 and 7 for the month.

After a slow start, Simmons finished the season with 28 Defensive Runs Saved and should be a lock to win the National League Gold Glove at shortstop.

Simmons didn't lead the league in Defensive Runs Saved. His teammate Jason Heyward did, finishing with 32. Simmons placed tied for second with New York Mets outfielder Juan Lagares, who won this award in August.

Simmons had 14 Defensive Runs Saved in his first 109 games, than had 14 in his last 37 games of the season (helped by plays like this one).

At one point in mid-August, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart had a seven-run advantage over Simmons for the most of any shortstop. He finished nine runs behind Simmons for the season.

So even though the Braves offense may have gone in the tank at the end of the season, at least one defender was playing pretty hard and pretty well on the defensive end.

* * * *

Alexi Amarista
I also want to give a salute to San Diego Padres utility man Alexi Amarista, who finished as the runner-up in our voting. Amarista had only one Defensive Run Saved for the month, but was credited with 25 Good Fielding Plays by the video trackers at Baseball Info Solutions, by far the most of anyone for September.

Examples of the handiwork by the player known as "Superninja" to the Padres broadcast crew can be seen here, here and here.

Amarista played five different positions this season. Shortstop was his best, the one at which he got seven of his 10 Defensive Runs Saved.

If you adhere to the quaint notion that winning records and job security go hand-in-hand, Frank Wren deserved a whole lot better than he got from the Atlanta Braves.

In the first five years of Wren's tenure as general manager, the Braves won 86, 91, 89, 94 and 96 games. During that same span, the franchise ranked 11th, 15th, 15th, 16th and 18th in Opening Day payroll among the 30 Major League Baseball clubs. So under the most fundamental of accounting measures, Wren helped the team improve in the standings even as his bottom line was progressively being squeezed.

But the Braves failed to win a playoff series and ended this season with a cringe-worthy collapse, and upper management didn't hesitate to make the general manager the first of what could be several fall guys for a disappointing narrative. The new world order in Atlanta became official Monday morning with the news that Wren has been dismissed, special assistant John Hart will replace him on an interim basis and the team will immediately begin a search for a permanent general manager.

Fair? Not hardly. But there's a reason Wren isn't the only baseball general manager with silver hair. The stress of the job is enough to make a man grow old before his time.

Speculation around Wren's future had been swirling since Aug. 23, when Braves CEO Terry McGuirk told Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "everyone is accountable" for the team's performance. If McGuirk was looking to provide stability or inspiration, the message failed to resonate. The Braves had just won seven of eight games when McGuirk gave his state of the team address. Since then, they've gone 8-18 and averaged a feeble 2.31 runs per game on the road to elimination.

Amid the Braves' sorry performance, it's hard to ignore the undercurrent of discord in the organization. When Bobby Cox gave his Hall of Fame induction speech in Cooperstown in late July and pointedly omitted Wren's name on the list of people he wanted to thank, it publicly substantiated the notion that the relationship between the two men was beyond strained.

Cox, whose personal biography appears on Page 179 of the Braves' media guide, has maintained a low profile in his capacity as special assistant to the general manager. But his presence on a three-man transition team with club president John Schuerholz and Hart lends credence to the rumors that he's bored with his current role and would like a more prominent voice moving forward.

Where do the Braves go from here? They have a ready-made internal candidate to replace Wren in assistant GM John Coppolella, a bright young executive with experience on both the scouting and analytical sides. Coppolella worked for the Yankees before coming to Atlanta, so he's eminently familiar with the rigors of life in a demanding market.

Other candidates are sure to surface in, oh, five minutes. On Sunday, Mark Bowman of MLB.com floated the name of Royals GM Dayton Moore, who grew up in the Atlanta organization before leaving for Kansas City in 2006.

As Wren relinquishes his Turner Field parking space, it's clear that his missteps in the free-agent realm paved the way for his demise. The Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami signings failed to pan out, and Dan Uggla gave the Braves two years of Uggla-caliber production before going south. He's gone now, but every painful swing and miss by B.J. Upton reminds Braves fans that the $46 million left on his contract are a sunk cost.

Amid those high-profile whiffs, Wren clicked on trades for Michael Bourn and Javier Vazquez, pilfered Justin Upton from Arizona and made a number of astute low- to moderate-level acquisitions. This year, the Atlanta rotation was decimated by spring training Tommy John surgeries for Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen and Gavin Floyd's season-ending elbow injury in June. The Braves also suffered a major body blow in February when Jim Fregosi, a charismatic presence and in many ways the glue of the front office hierarchy, died from complications after suffering multiple strokes. It left a bigger void in the Braves' leadership team than anyone can imagine.

Wren has never been one to mince words or dance around difficult decisions, and his personal style is perceived as abrupt by some people within and beyond the Atlanta organization. But he's a stand-up guy who was always "accountable," as McGuirk might put it, and he's going to make another team's front office better by joining it.

In the meantime, the Braves have a course to chart that extends well beyond Wren's replacement. How do they fix that pathetic offense in time for the 2015 season? And do they stick with manager Fredi Gonzalez, who's a bigger lightning rod for social media discontent than Wren could ever dream of being? Even if Gonzalez survives, it's a given that his coaching staff will have a markedly different composition next season.

It might give Braves fans a nice, warm feeling to see proven winners Cox, Schuerholz and Hart overseeing the bridge to a new regime. But the three wise men better make some prudent decisions moving forward, or it won't be long before the scrutiny begins to land on them. It's all about gratification in baseball. And even legends and Hall of Famers don't get a pass.

Ten questions for the stretch run

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
Two weeks to go. Two weeks of gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing, pacing-in-front-of-the-TV baseball if you're a Kansas City Royals fan, hoping to see your team make the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

Two weeks of wondering when Robinson Cano is due up again if you're a Seattle Mariners fan, hoping to see your team in the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Two weeks for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants to trade blows in the quest for the National League West title. Two weeks for the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals to prove the cream always rises. Two weeks for the Oakland A's to avoid a historic collapse.

Two weeks to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because there is still time for something outrageous to happen in this 2014 season. Here are 10 questions on my mind.

1. Are the A's safe now?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJon Lester improved his record to 4-3 with the A's.
I think so. Consider where Oakland stood early in Saturday's game, having lost to the Mariners on Friday and then trailing Felix Hernandez 1-0 in the sixth inning. If Seattle holds on to win that game, they would have passed the A's in the wild-card standings. Instead, Oakland won 3-2 in 10 innings as Sonny Gray matched up with King Felix (even going an inning deeper) and then Fernando Rodney walked four batters in the 10th. On Sunday, Jon Lester survived four walks to pitch six shutout innings and the Mariners went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position as the A's won 4-0.

Wild-card lead: 1.5 over the Royals (who, keep in mind, are losing that suspended game in the 10th inning to Cleveland) and 2.5 over the Mariners.

Remaining schedule: The Rangers, Phillies and Angels at home and then a four-game finale in Texas. That should get them in.

2. Can the Mariners score enough runs to get in?

Look, Lloyd McClendon doesn't have a lot of great options once he gets past Cano and Kyle Seager, especially with the somewhat hot Dustin Ackley out with a sprained ankle. But why was he hitting Seager sixth Sunday? OK, Jon Lester, lefty-lefty matchup, I see that. Seager is still one of his better hitters against left-handers (not that he's great with a .255/.306/.385 line). Plus, Lester is actually a reverse platoon, so batting Chris Denorfia (.203 with the Mariners) and Corey Hart (.201 on the season) in the second and fifth spots and moving Seager down is one of worst decisions I've seen all season. There is zero logic behind it. None.

Sure enough, it came back to haunt the Mariners. In the seventh, after Lester had departed with a 2-0 lead, Seattle had runners at second and third with no outs. Austin Jackson -- he has been awful with the Mariners, by the way, hitting .239/.275/.289 with no home runs, eight walks and 45 strikeouts -- grounded out and pinch hitter Michael Saunders fanned. With Cano up, A's manager Bob Melvin put Cano on to pitch to Kendrys Morales, who predictably flew out (he has been awful as well, hitting .210 with a .272 OBP with Seattle).

Of course, Morales has been hitting cleanup ahead of Seager anyway, so maybe it didn't matter. But wouldn't it have been nice to have Seager on deck behind Cano? Does Melvin walk Cano if that's the case? Wouldn't it be nice to bat your second-best hitter in a terrible lineup higher in the order?

3. Did the Royals' season take a final wrong turn when Daniel Nava hit that grand slam?


Will the Royals make the playoffs?


Discuss (Total votes: 21,913)

The Royals will definitely get their mental toughness tested after losing three of four to the struggling Boston Red Sox. The Royals led the Red Sox 4-3 on Sunday when manager Ned Yost turned to his bullpen to relieve Jason Vargas in the sixth inning with runners at second and third and one out. Did Yost turn to one of his dominant relievers here? OF COURSE NOT. Those guys pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. YOU HAVE TO STICK TO THE PLAN AT ALL COSTS. Hey, there are only 14 games left. Your franchise hasn't made the playoffs in 30 years. It's a huge, potentially game-deciding situation and you have two relievers who average more than 13 K's per nine and a third who hasn't allowed a home run all season. But don't deviate. Just another game, right? So bring in the guy who has allowed nine home runs and has 31 strikeouts in 56 innings. That's Aaron Crow. He walked Yoenis Cespedes and then Nava hit the salami. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland (who returned Friday) never got in the game. Job well done, Ned Yost.

4. Are the Atlanta Braves dead?

Probably, after an embarrassing three-game sweep to the terrible Texas Rangers, losing 2-1, 3-2 and then 10-3 on Sunday. They're four behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second wild card. Look, nobody should be surprised that Braves are only a game over .500. They weren't going to match last year's run prevention -- they allowed fewer runs than any Braves team that featured Greg Maddux, John Smoltz or Tom Glavine -- especially after the injuries in spring training to the starting rotation. The lineup has done pretty much what you would have expected, with no player really outperforming or underperforming expectations by all that much. The Braves were in the playoff race this long only because it's not a great playoff race.

5. Will Clayton Kershaw win 20?

Yep. After handcuffing the Giants for eight innings in a 4-2 win Sunday, he's 19-3. His next start should come Friday at Wrigley Field and then he should get one more the final week. The amazing thing is he should get to 20 wins in just 27 starts. Only one pitcher since 1901 has won 20 games in so few appearances -- Jesse Tannehill of the 1902 Pirates, who went 20-6 in 26 games.

6. Will the Orioles miss Chris Davis?

You know? Not that much. Yes, he had popped 26 home runs, but he's mostly made a lot of outs this year, with his .196 average and .300 OBP. Since Aug. 1, he had hit .189/.273/.439, so it's not as though he was doing much besides an occasional home run. After Manny Machado went down, Davis had mostly played third base. Now, Baltimore will make Steve Pearce the regular first baseman and use a Kelly Johnson/Jimmy Paredes platoon at third, it appears. That's not great but Johnson is hitting .219/.304/.373 on the season, not much worse than Davis' line, and Paredes has been hot. The defense is probably a step better without Davis as well.

7. Key injury to watch this week?

Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, who left Friday's start and will have an MRI on his shoulder Monday. It appears rookie Carlos Frias will start in Ryu's place Wednesday in Colorado. Even minus Ryu, the Dodgers should win the NL West now that they've increased their lead to three over the Giants, but it would be a blow if he's unable to go the rest of the season or in the division series.

8. Biggest series to watch this week?

Here are three:

  • Mariners at Angels, Monday-Thursday: Mariners are 42-28 on the road, so maybe the road trip to Anaheim, Houston and Toronto is a good thing.
  • Tigers at Royals, Friday-Sunday: Right now, matchups are Kyle Lobstein-Jeremy Guthrie, Justin Verlander-Vargas, Max Scherzer-James Shields. Yeah, might want to tune into that Sunday game.
  • Brewers at Pirates, Friday-Sunday: Big week for the Brewers with a road trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
9. Biggest series to watch next week?

Three more for the final week:

  • Giants at Dodgers, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): Kershaw should start the series finale.
  • Royals at Indians, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): The teams will finish the bottom of the 10th inning of that suspended game that Cleveland leads 4-2 and then play their three-game series. Cleveland's hopes just about ended with the sweep to the Tigers this weekend, so they probably need a sweep against the Royals to have any shot at the wild card. And the Royals will only be staring 30 years of misery in the face.
  • Yankees at Red Sox, Friday-Sunday (Sept. 26-28): Will Derek Jeter have anything to play for?
10. So ... are we supposed to get excited about this wild-card stuff?

Well, that's up to you. Three divisions are all wrapped up and you have to like where the Cardinals and Tigers are sitting right now, even if their leads are only 3.5 and 1.5 games. It's possible that the final week is really going to be about a bunch of mediocre teams fighting for the fifth playoff spot in each league. It's not exactly Dodgers-Giants 1951, is it? I don't even know how excited the fans are. Yes, Mariners fans responded with a sellout crowd Saturday with Felix pitching, but that was down to 28,925 on a beautiful Sunday in Seattle. I guess fans were more interested in sitting home and watching the Seahawks. Royals fans are so pumped up about this division race that they drew 19,191 on Friday, 26,627 on Saturday and 19,065 on Sunday. Hardly playoff-sized crowds for games everyone says are essentially playoff games.

Maybe I shouldn't be so critical. The good news is long-suffering teams such as the Royals and Mariners matter. The Pirates could be heading back to the playoffs for the second straight season, the A's for a third straight year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are awful. The Phillies are bad. The Cubs aren't relevant. The Yankees probably won't make it again. Bud Selig will go out with this legacy: He has his parity. The small-market teams can compete, year after year.

I guess that's something to get excited about.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10

Don't forget to check out the Hunt for October for standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

1. Don't go burying the Oakland A's just yet.

Ahh, America: We love to jump on a bandwagon and then crush it as soon as we can. Witness the A's. Remember back on June 21? That was when they beat the Red Sox 2-1 in 10 innings. It was an exciting walk-off victory. They were 47-28 after that win, the best record in the majors, on pace for 102 wins. They had a six-game lead over the Angels and were still weeks from acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. We all loved the A's back then, praising this team that had overcome injuries to two-fifths of its projected rotation, writing our "Billy Beane has done it again" stories.

Then came the trades. Then came the losses. Then came the Angels and the loss of the division lead. Then came those two defeats on Sunday and Monday -- blowing leads in the ninth inning -- and even though the A's were still in the wild-card lead, we were ready to put them 6 feet under. Enter Jon Lester on Tuesday against the White Sox. Considering the somewhat dire straits of the bullpen, the A's needed a big game from their new ace and Lester delivered with eight innings of two-run baseball. The A's piled on seven runs over the final three innings to turn it into an 11-2 laugher, but Lester was the key guy in this one.

Lester has been as good as any pitcher in the American League this year not named Felix Hernandez or Chris Sale. And considering Hernandez has been shaky of late, Lester might be the best starter going right now on any of the playoff contenders in the AL. Meaning: The A's might have blown the division, but if they can hold on to win the wild card and have Lester ready to go, he's still a good bet to get them into the next round.

Of course, one game doesn't mean the A's have suddenly turned things around, but it has to feel good after the previous two defeats (and knowing Sale is on deck to start against them on Thursday). The A's are still in the wild-card lead with 18 games left in the regular season. You can jump back on the bandwagon if you wish. No hard feelings.

2. Drew Storen pretty much locks down the closer job for the Nationals.

A few days ago, following the recent struggles of Rafael Soriano, Matt Williams announced he'd go with a closer by committee. Well, Storen has pitched the past three games, faced nine batters, retired all of them and picked up three saves. He has a 1.29 ERA. See you in the seventh inning, Rafael. Oh, and with two straight wins over the Braves, the Nationals not only got that "unable to beat the Braves" monkey off their backs a little, but pretty much wrapped up the NL East title with a nine-game lead now.

3. Yusmeiro Petit keeps Tim Lincecum in the bullpen.

Petit threw 84 pitches in a complete-game, 5-1 win over the Diamondbacks. How efficient was he?

Oh ... the Dodgers lost, so their lead is back down to 2.5 games.

4. Not so soon, Michael Wacha.

You don't want to read too much into Wacha's rough outing -- six runs, four extra-base hits and three walks in four innings in a 9-5 loss to the Reds -- since he's barely pitched after coming back from the stress fracture in his shoulder. Still, it suggests the Cardinals' playoff rotation -- yes, I'm assuming they win the division -- isn't settled yet, with Wacha and Shelby Miller presumably battling for the fourth spot behind Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and John Lackey.

5. Brewers, Braves ... still alive!

The Brewers lost again, 6-3 to the Marlins, as closer Francisco Rodriguez served up a two-run homer and then a solo shot with two outs in the ninth. Brewers fans were not happy. They've lost 13 of 14. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. The Braves have lost seven of their past 10 and have hit .193 and average two runs per game during that span. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. I mean ... even the Marlins are only 3.5 behind the Pirates.

Yay, wild card?