SweetSpot: Baltimore Orioles

The other day, SweetSpot TV co-host Eric Karabell said to me, "It seems like a third of managers are hitting their worst hitter first or second."

True or not? Well, here are some examples:
  • The impetus for our discussion was Tony Gwynn Jr., a career .245 hitter with no power who owns a career OPS+ of 75. After Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg benched Ben Revere for dropping two fly balls, Gywnn took over in center -- and took over Revere's leadoff spot for four games. Remember, Gwynn wasn't even in the majors last season.
  • When Toronto lost Maicer Izturis to an injury, the Jays called up Munenori Kawasaki. In his first game, he hit second, which sabermetricians will say is one of the spots you want your best hitter (second or fourth). So one day he's not good enough to be on the team, the next day manager John Gibbons hits him second. In over 400 career plate appearances, Kawasaki has hit .221/.307/.288. Instead of leaving Edwin Encarnacion batting fifth, why not just move everyone up? Jose Bautista second, Adam Lind third and Encarnacion fourth?
  • The Padres have hit Alexi Amarista second three times since Sunday. He hit a home run earlier in the season, but he's still a career .234 hitter with a .280 OBP and little power. On Monday, Amarista hit second, while Will Venable, a good hitter, batted eighth (against a right-hander, so no lefty in play for Venable). Venable is off to a bad start, but still ...
  • Xavier Nady hit cleanup for the Padres on Wednesday night, which maybe says more about the Padres than Bud Black. Nady was out of the majors last year after hitting .184 in 2012. The last time he had an OPS above league average was 2008. But, hey, lightning in a bottle or something, I guess.
  • B.J. Upton continues to hit second for the Braves, as Fredi Gonzalez pulls the opposite of Black and refuses to react to small sample sizes (Andrelton Simmons, off to a .333 start with no strikeouts, hit eighth Wednesday). Of course, there is last year's sample size for Upton to consider.
  • The Royals called up Johnny Giavotella last week for one game. He hit second.
  • Buck Showalter has hit Delmon Young second four times. Against a left-hander, I guess I could reluctantly accept that. But three of those games were against a right-hander. Young had a .293 OBP last year against righties. In 2012, it was .279. In 2011, it was .288. He also grounds into a fair number of double plays. But, hey, otherwise he's the perfect No. 2 hitter. (To be fair, Young probably isn't the worst hitter on the Orioles. Boy does that team have some OBP issues. They're third in the AL in batting average but 14th in OBP.)
  • When Michael Bourn started the year on the DL for Cleveland, Nyjer Morgan made the team. He hit leadoff seven games. He actually played well (.348), but when Bourn returned Morgan was sent down to the minors. Terry Francona did catch a little lightning there.
  • Bryan Price, of course, continues to hit Billy Hamilton leadoff. But he's not even the Reds' worst hitter right now: That's Zack Cozart and his .109 average. Plus, Price has moved Joey Votto up to the No. 2 spot, so he deserves credit for a solid sabermetric-approved decision there.
  • The Marlins have hit Adeiny Hechavarria first or second five times in 16 games.
  • Derek Jeter has hit leadoff once and second 10 times. (I kid, I kid!)


Look, it's early and these are just a few scattershot examples. If Upton continues to hit .180 and Simmons .300, Gonzalez will make a change soon enough. None of these are Alcides Escobar-type situations yet, when Ned Yost was still hitting Escobar second into July last season despite a sub-.280 OBP.

Still, with all the information that front offices use -- and some of that has filtered down to the field level (such as all the shifting that now takes place) -- it's still strange that managers continue to muck up the batting order or overreact to a few games. The odd thing is most managers probably obsess over this as much as any part of their job. I still think they're too beholden to the conventional approach of a fast guy hitting leadoff and then your two best hitters batting third and fourth. Because usually want a decent hitter following their two best hitters, that often leaves a mediocre guy batting second.

The other problem? There just aren't enough good hitters these days to fill out a perfect lineup card.

Early trends: Bruce, Fielder, Rizzo, Heyward

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:30
PM ET
We've reached the point in the season where the first calls are coming into sports-talk radio. You know the kind. The ones that say "Bench (fill in the blank), he's terrible" or "(fill in the blank) is finally going to be a star."

But there are usually explanations for these small-sample spikes or sputters, the most common of which is "It's early!"

Nonetheless, some trends are starting to emerge. We'll see how long-lasting these are.

Jay Bruce
Bruce has been a victim of infield shifts this season.

He's 0-for-9 when hitting a groundball against a defensive shift and you can see from his spray chart that he's already got a fair number of outfield ground outs.

Bruce is a good example of someone for whom shifts have contributed to frustration in a number of areas.

Over the last five seasons, his batting average on groundballs has sunk from .314 to .275 to .205 to .185 to its current 1-for-14. That's what happens when you pull 71 percent of your groundballs, as he has this season.

Prince Fielder
Fielder is also having trouble with shifts.

But his issue isn't with pulled balls, it's with getting the ball through the middle of the diamond.

Fielder is 3-for-18 when hitting a grounder or soft liner against shifts. He's 0-for-9 on the ground balls hit between where the second baseman and shortstop would typically play, as since they've shifted slightly, they're in ideal position to field his ground balls. Last season, on balls hit to those same locations he was 21-for-78 (.269).

Anthony Rizzo
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is off to a good start after a 2013 in which his numbers never reached anything near the expectation level the Cubs had for him.


Anthony Rizzo got a base hit on this pitch against the Pirates last week.
Rizzo is hitting .319 in his first 47 at-bats and he can thank his duck snorts for that start.

Rizzo is 10-for-33 on balls classified as either softly-hit or medium-hit after batting .156 when hitting those same types of balls last season.

The classic example of that is this -- Rizzo reached out and got a base hit on a pitch that was thrown to the spot noted in the image on the right. Those hits make a big difference in the numbers this early in the season.

Jason Heyward
Last season, Victor Martinez of the Tigers got off to a slow start. But there was reason to believe that Martinez's performance would eventually catch up with how often he was hitting the ball hard (a lot) and it did.

This year, it looks like Jason Heyward is headed down the Martinez path.




Heyward is hitting .160 and is 4-for-11 when hitting a ball that our video-tracking system classifies as hard hit. Over the previous two seasons, Heyward hit .746 and .718 on his hard-hit balls.

Heyward is 0-for-15 in 2014 when hitting a fly ball that doesn't go out of the ballpark. That includes a pair of well-muscled fly balls that found gloves against the New York Mets and Washington Nationals.

He's also 1-for-11 on his groundballs despite not being regularly shifted against and that might be a little misleading since he has reached base twice on errors (had those been scored hits, his batting average would have jumped 40 points).

Matt Wieters
At least for two weeks, Wieters has used the center of the field as his primary means for reaching base. From 2011 to 2013, Wieters pulled 43 percent of the balls he put in play and hit 28 percent of them to center field. This season, he’s reversed those numbers, pulling 29 percent and centering 41 percent.

The result of that has been more line drives. Last year, Wieters totaled 15 line drives to center field as a left-handed hitter. In the first two weeks of the season, he’s already got seven. The effort to pull the ball less often is a route that Torii Hunter went last season with modest success. We'll see if Wieters has made the adjustment or if it's just temporary results.

You may have seen that Major League Baseball will now be giving out annual Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year and Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year awards. Jim Caple poked a little fun at this, wondering what's next, "The Nick Punto Oscar for Best Supporting Player in a Utility Role"?

That got me to thinking: Who is the best utility infielder of all time? Should the award actually be named after Punto, or is there a more deserving player? How to even go about searching for an answer? Will I actually spend time doing this?

Of course I will! I am here to serve you, and this was a question that demanded an answer.

I reached out to Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information for help. I asked for the following parameters: most career plate appearances since 1900 while never batting 500 times in a season. I figured this would give us a starting point. Unfortunately, this eliminated Punto from consideration, since he twice batted more than 500 times, in 2006 and 2007 with the Twins. True, he played all over the place, but if you bat 500 times, you're more or less a regular. I want a guy who never moved past a backup role, even for a season.

That initial list mostly turned up catchers, which I should have realized would happen; the top seven guys were Rick Dempsey, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jerry Grote, Alan Ashby, Cliff Johnson, Andy Seminick and Don Slaught. The first non-catcher was Tom Paciorek, who played 18 seasons in the majors and never batted 500 times. The one season he was a regular (and made the All-Star team) was 1981, the strike season, so he didn't bat 500 times. Anyway, Paciorek was an outfielder/first baseman/DH, not what we're looking for.

So we did a second search that added 200 career games at shortstop as a qualifier. This gave us a better list:

Rance Mulliniks (4,089 plate appearances)
Bill Spiers (3,845)
Maicer Izturis (3,332)
Tom Foley (2,988)
Manny Lee (2,960)
Willie Bloomquist (2,929)
Juan Castro (2,849)
Abraham Nunez (2,804)
Larry Milbourne (2,671)
Brendan Ryan (2,645)
Denny Hocking (2,632)
Jeff Reboulet (2,607)
John McDonald (2,565)
Rocky Bridges (2,537)
Rafael Belliard (2,524)
Bob Lillis (2,492)

We can eliminate some of these guys. Mulliniks did come up as a shortstop but spent most of his career platooning at third base for the Blue Jays in the '80s. From 1983 to 1988 he hit .293/.374/.458 with a 124 OPS+. A good player, but not what we're after. Lee, Ryan, Belliard and Lillis also spent seasons as the primary starting shortstops for their teams, although they never batted 500 times. Spiers had some seasons as the Brewers' starting shortstop but couldn't stay healthy.

Here's the rest of the list again with each player's career WAR:

Maicer Izturis (11.0)
Tom Foley (5.8)
Willie Bloomquist (2.3)
Juan Castro (-5.2)
Abraham Nunez (0.9)
Larry Milbourne (-0.3)
Denny Hocking (-0.5)
Jeff Reboulet (10.2)
John McDonald (6.9)
Rocky Bridges (3.0)

It's possible there is somebody out there who had a shorter career and was a better player than these guys, but I don't think so. I did a quick scroll of all players who played at least 200 games at shortstop with between 10 and 25 career WAR and it gave us Mike Gallego and Jamey Carroll, but they both had seasons of 500 plate appearances (Carroll had three).

So it looks like it's a two-man debate for best utility guy ever: Maicer Izturis, now with the Blue Jays, versus former Twins/Orioles legend Jeff Reboulet.

Izturis is a classic tweener. He doesn't have the range to play shortstop on an every-day basis but doesn't have the power you want from a third baseman. He hits some doubles, draws some walks and probably could have been an every-day second baseman at some point, but the Angels had Adam Kennedy and then Howie Kendrick in front of him. The most games he ever started at one position in a season was 78 at third base for the Angels in 2006. He definitely fits our utility definition.

Reboulet came up through the Twins system and played with them from 1992 to 1996, was with the Orioles from 1997 to 1999 and finished up with the Royals, Dodgers and Pirates. He gets bonus points for jumping on the small-market merry-go-round by playing with bad Royals and Pirates clubs. They were probably looking for veteran leadership.

Anyway, while Izturis nearly missed our list by batting 494 times in 2011, Reboulet never came close, peaking at 299 PAs in his final season in 2003. The most games he ever started in a season was 62 at second base for those mighty 2003 Pirates, but he played nearly as many innings at shortstop in his career as second base. He even started 24 games at first base plus five in the outfield and played one inning at catcher.

Here's another bonus: Reboulet owned Randy Johnson, so to speak. He faced him more than any other pitcher in his career -- 66 times (he faced Chuck Finley 45 times, the only other pitcher he faced more than 26 times). He hit .273/.375/.436 against Johnson, with two of his 20 career home runs. In Game 4 of the 1997 division series, Orioles manager Davey Johnson benched Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar and inserted Reboulet into the lineup. He homered, and the Orioles won 3-1.

Izturis was the better hitter (91 OPS+ versus 72), Reboulet the better fielder (53 runs saved on defense versus -11). Pick your poison. I'm going with the Randy Johnson killer and slick glove. Congratulations, Jeff Reboulet, you're the best utility infielder of all time.

(And if you want to argue that I unfairly disqualified Punto, I guess I won't argue too vociferously. His career WAR of 14.5 is higher than Reboulet's.)
You know, I don't really blame Adam Jones all that much. Here he is, a three-time All-Star, a terrific all-around player -- he, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout are the only three players to score 100 runs each of the past two seasons and he's ninth in home runs over the past two seasons -- and he's probably tired of questions about the Yankees or Red Sox after all these years playing in the American League East.

The man just wants a little credit. He doesn't want to talk about Masahiro Tanaka.

On Tuesday, he told Newsday writer Steve Marcus, "Why don't you ask Tanaka about me? I'm the one who's been over here in the major leagues for a while. Congratulations, he did it over there. Don't make it like he's the dirtiest guy in the world. He was 24-0 -- in Japan."

He didn't hold back even after striking out twice (and singling) against Tanaka on Wednesday, telling Newsday's Anthony Rieber, "Am I (supposed) to go home and say I faced Tanaka tonight? Just go throw a party that I faced Tanaka? It's another pitcher. Another pitcher in the rotation. Nothing special to me. It's just another guy that we have to go through to get to where we want to be."

Is what he said so bad? He's right, isn't he? Tanaka is just another pitcher the Orioles are trying to beat. Maybe he'll be a really good one, but to a major leaguer like Jones, what Tanaka did in Japan is irrelevant; he has to prove himself here. Maybe Jones was a little too dismissive of Tanaka's record in Japan or the quality of competition over there, but succeeding in the major leagues is about the constant demand to perform, day after day, start after start, year after year.

That mindset explains why Bryce Harper was recently named the most overrated player in the majors in a survey of players by ESPN The Magazine. Even though Harper plays the game hard and by all accounts has handled himself with poise and maturity, the players clearly don't like the hype that has been given to a guy who in their minds hasn't yet done enough to warrant that kind of recognition.

That's how they're going to view Tanaka, even if that splitter he throws is clearly one nasty pitch. Two starts isn't proof of anything, $155 million contract or not (Jones signed an $85 million extension in 2012, so maybe that's in the back of his mind as well). Heck, when Tanaka signed, even Yu Darvish said, "I don't know too much about the new posting system but I think the Yankees gave him too much."

Above all, though, I like the competitive nature of Jones' quotes, sort of a I'm not going to say anything nice about our enemy type of thing. A little healthy dislike for your rivals is a good thing and certainly makes the games more fun for us fans.

This is in contrast to say, a Mr. Nice Guy approach like that of Paul Goldschmidt. The Diamondbacks first baseman absolutely owns Tim Lincecum, with seven home runs against him 24 career at-bats. After hitting another one off Lincecum last night, he said Lincecum is a good pitcher and that the home runs are just small sample size results. Even if Goldschmidt is right, wouldn't you have loved to have him say something more toxic? He can't get me out and he knows it. I'm in his head. Fastball, changeup, it doesn't matter what he throws me. I wish I could face him every game.

So, thank you, Adam, for your honesty. I'll certainly be watching the next time you face Tanaka.
1. Back in spring training, Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish admitted he was working on a few minor tweaks on his mechanics in an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the nerve problem in his lower back and buttocks area that arose last September. Whether that had anything to do with the stiff neck that had sidelined him since March 16 and forced him to miss his Opening Day assignment remains unknown, considering the dubious nature of the original rationale for the neck issue ("I slept on it wrong," Darvish said).

In the end, he missed just one start, which was still enough of a setback to put Rangers fans in a minor state of panic considering the opening week rotation was already without Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

Darvish returned Sunday after not having pitched in three weeks and looked a lot like the guy many predicted will win the Cy Young Award, undoubtedly calming at least a few nerves in the Rangers fan base and front office. He pitched seven innings of no-run baseball in a 3-0 win over the Rays, an efficient 89-pitch effort that included just one walk. He threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes and held the Rays to an 0-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.

He wasn't necessarily overpowering, averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball while maxing out at 95.1 mph, but maybe this is the new, strike-throwing Darvish, one looking to be a little more economical in his pitch counts to avoid walks and pitch consistently deeper into games.

"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes. I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn't feel anything unusual."

While Darvish recorded just six strikeouts, he showed what makes him so tough to hit -- the six K's came on two fastballs, two curveballs, a slider and a changeup to Wil Myers. It's that changeup that could be a new weapon for him: He threw 90 changeups all of last year, recording just four strikeouts. Just what batters want to hear, knowing it's hard enough already with two strikes gearing up for a curveball or slider.

The Rangers' rotation remains a little unsettled -- Colby Lewis may be close to returning and they may use six starters this week. The good news is the Rangers are 3-3 despite the makeshift rotation and having hit just one home run. They play the Red Sox and Astros this week but will need the rotation to come together sooner rather than later as they play the Mariners seven times and the A's six before the end of the month.

Darvish joked that he'd pitch great every time if he had three weeks between starts. The Rangers are hoping he'll pitch great every fifth day.

2. The most impressive result of the weekend was the Brewers going into Boston and sweeping the Red Sox by scores of 6-2, 7-6 (in 11 innings) and 4-0 on Sunday. The Red Sox were swept just once all last season -- in a three-game series in Texas -- and shut out just three times at Fenway Park in the regular season.

Yovani Gallardo struck out only three in 6 2/3 innings but issued no walks and got 11 ground balls outs compared to four in the air. He hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts. Gallardo struggled last year and while his velocity isn't up from last year at least he's throwing strikes early on.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCano seems to be embracing his role as a leader in Seattle.
The bad news for the Brewers, of course, is Ryan Braun's thumb injury, which he now says hasn't completely healed from last year when the injury sapped his power and eventually forced him to the disabled list (before his suspension). He had two singles on Sunday to raise his average to .150 but he doesn't have an extra-base hit in (the small sample size of) 21 plate appearances. Remember, when Braun was putting up monster numbers in 2012 the Brewers led the National League in runs scored. If they're going to contend for a playoff spot, they better hope this thumb issue doesn't linger.

3. I watched a lot of Mariners this week and there were a lot of positives to draw upon as they went 4-2 on the road: Two dominant starts from Felix Hernandez, one from James Paxton, good hitting from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Robinson Cano hit a quiet .391/.500/.478 as he's still looking for his first home run. He has drawn three intentional walks already as the Angels and A's elected to go after Smoak.

All three walks came in conventional IBB situations: Two outs, runners on second or second and third. Smoak went 1-for-3 with a bases-clearing double. Still, for now, it appears opponents will avoid Cano whenever possible. The biggest positive with Cano may have been his hustle double on Sunday when he singled to center and took advantage of Coco Crisp jogging after the ball. That's a Cano that New York writers like to say doesn't exist. It's one play, but perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.

4. Mark Trumbo homered for the fourth straight game Sunday in the Diamondbacks' 5-3 win over the Rockies, just their second victory in nine games as they currently sit with the majors' worst record. Even though Trumbo has five home runs and 13 RBIs and Paul Goldschmidt is mashing, the Arizona offense has mostly struggled, averaging fewer than four runs per game.

The Rockies intentionally walked Trumbo with a runner on third base and one out on Sunday to pitch to Miguel Montero, who promptly grounded into a double play against Brett Anderson. Montero's OPS fell from .820 and .829 in 2011 and 2012 to .662 in 2013. He and Gerardo Parra are the only regular lefties in the D-backs' lineup, and they need the old Montero not the 2013 version.

5. I watched the last few innings of Chris Tillman's gem to beat the Tigers, and he looked really good, allowing one run again as he did in his Opening Day start. He couldn't quite finish it off, getting one out in the ninth before being pulled for Tommy Hunter, but he challenged the Tigers -- 74 of his 113 pitches were fastballs -- and did a good job of moving the fastball around against left-handed batters (he pitches mostly to the outside corner with the fastball against righties).

Without sounding overdramatic here, it was a big win for the Orioles as 2-4 just sounds a lot better than 1-5. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the majors as just six of their first 27 games are against teams that finished under .500 last year and those six are against Toronto, no pushover, so they need to make sure they don't get buried before May.

6. This wasn't from Sunday, but I hope you didn't miss Giancarlo Stanton's mammoth home run on Friday off Eric Stults. The ESPN Home Run Tracker estimated the moon shot at 484 feet, 31 feet longer than the second-longest home run so far. The longest home run last year was Evan Gattis' 486-foot blast for the Braves on Sept. 8 off Cole Hamels.

The Marlins lost on Sunday, but they're off to a 5-2 start. Stanton is hitting .345/.406/.655, and for all those fears that he wouldn't get pitched to, he hasn't drawn an intentional walk

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter is now No. 8 on the all-time hits list, but the Yanks need power.
7. Derek Jeter passed Paul Molitor for the eighth place on the all-time hits list. In many ways, the two are identical matches as hitters, with short, compact swings and both loved to go to the opposite field. Jeter has a career line of .312/.381/.446 with 256 home runs while Molitor hit .306/.369/.448 with 234 home runs. Molitor's adjusted OPS is slightly higher, at 122 versus Jeter's 117. Molitor struck out 10.2 percent of the time against a league average of 14.7 percent during his career; Jeter has fanned 14.7 percent of the time against a league average of 17.4 percent.

Jeter has his most hits off Tim Wakefield (36) and among pitchers he faced at least 40 times, has the highest average against Bruce Chen (.429). (He also hit an impressive .413 against Johan Santana. Molitor got 33 hits off both Jack Morris and Roger Clemens (and hit above .300 against both) and killed Erik Hanson (.482) and Walt Terrell (.477).

8. The Yankees have one home run in six games, hit by Brett Gardner on Sunday's win over the Blue Jays. Could power actually be an issue for the Yankees? Mark Teixeira landed on the DL over the weekend, which means they're really going to have to rely on 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran for some pop. Leading the team in extra-base hits? Yangervis Solarte. Of course.

9. B.J. Upton: Hey, at least he didn't strike out in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Nationals. But he did go 0-for-4 and is off to a .120/.120/.140 start with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. So far, Fredi Gonzalez has hit him second in all six games. It's way too early to panic, but tell that to Braves fans.

10. Speaking of worrying, should the Angels be worried about Jered Weaver? In two starts, batters are slugging .600 against him and the Astros pounded four home runs off him on Sunday. The four home runs came on four different pitches: Jason Castro off a 3-1 changeup, Matt Dominguez off a 3-2 slider, Jesus Guzman on an 0-1 fastball and Alex Presley on an 0-1 curveball. His fastball velocity, such as it is, has averaged 86.0 mph, about the same as last year's 86.5.

As with all these first-week results, don't overreact, but if Weaver isn't a strong rotation anchor, the Angels are in trouble. They're 2-4, hoping to avoid the terrible April starts of the past two seasons.


The first rule of Opening Day: Don't overreact to Opening Day. So these are merely observations from flipping around watching a bunch of different games.

1. At one point during the Cardinals-Reds opener, Adam Wainwright looked a little perturbed, presumably at the strike zone of plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. After all, Wainwright walked three guys unintentionally in his seven innings (plus another intentional walk). This was a guy who walked just 35 batters in 34 starts last year, just once walking three guys in a game. So he may have been unhappy with the balls and strikes … and yet still threw seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just three hits allowed in the Cards’ 1-0 victory. Whenever the Reds threatened, Wainwright got the big outs -- a Joey Votto double play on a 2-2 fastball in the third and Zack Cozart on a tapper in front of the plate with two runners on to end the sixth. He threw 105 pitches, including 22 of his famous curveball -- the Reds went 0-for-6 with a walk against the curve, including Cozart’s out. Here’s the thing about the Cardinals: While I (and others) have spent a lot of time discussing their depth and versatility, they also have two of the best players in the game: Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Their lone run off Johnny Cueto: Molina’s home run in the seventh off a 0-0 cutter that didn’t cut.

2. I don’t know if Billy Hamilton will hit, but I know he can’t hit Wainwright. The Reds’ rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Wainwright to register the dreaded golden sombrero -- the 17th player since 1914 to go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Opening Day. The potential bigger picture: If Hamilton and Brandon Phillips don’t get on base enough -- a distinct possibility -- Votto is going to draw 100-plus walks no matter if he has Jay Bruce, Johnny Bench or Frank Robinson hitting behind him. Which will lead to the haters complaining about Votto’s RBI total.

3. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-3 thanks to a big day from emergency shortstop acquisition Alex Gonzalez, who tripled in the tying run in the seventh and singled in the winning run in the ninth. Justin Verlander scuffled through his six innings, giving up six hits and three walks with just two strikeouts, but that’s not my initial concern. The concern is that Opening Day roster, which includes Gonzalez, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holaday, Tyler Collins, Don Kelly, Ian Krol and Evan Reed. Besides Krol and Reed, the bullpen includes Phil Coke (1.6 WHIP over the past two seasons), Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. In other words: The final 10 spots on the roster could be a disaster. It could work out -- Chamberlain and Alburquerque will probably be OK if they stay healthy, for example -- but the lack of depth on this team could be an issue. Detroit's star players -- Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer -- have been very durable, but a lengthy injury to any of those three or Anibal Sanchez, Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler could be crushing.

4. The Pirates picked up with the kind of game they won last year, beating the Cubs 1-0 on Neil Walker’s walk-off home run in the 10th inning. The Pirates won five 1-0 games last year (there were only 48 such games in the majors last season, so the Pirates had over 10 percent of all 1-0 victories). The major league average when scoring one run, two runs or three runs was a .270 winning percentage; the Pirates were 25-39 (.390) when scoring one to three runs, so they won a lot of low-scoring games. The big positive besides the bullpen throwing four scoreless innings was the six dominant innings from Francisco Liriano, who tied a Pirates club record with 10 strikeouts on Opening Day. With the loss of A.J. Burnett, the pressure is on Liriano to repeat his 2013 performance.

5. Showing early confidence in B.J. Upton, who hit .184 last year while striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hit his center fielder second while moving Justin Upton down to fifth (Chris Johnson hit cleanup). I can’t say that’s the lineup I’d go with -- Justin Upton seems the logical choice to bat second behind leadoff hitter Jason Heyward -- but no matter what order Gonzalez chooses there are going to be some OBP issues if B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis don’t get on base more often. Yovani Gallardo kept the Braves in check with six shutout innings -- a good sign for the Brewers considering Gallardo’s inconsistency and drop in velocity last year -- while Francisco Rodriguez was called on for the save in the Brewers’ 2-0 victory.

6. One reason I’m a little wary about the Orioles is new closer Tommy Hunter’s struggles against left-handed batters -- he gave up 12 home runs last year, which is way too many for a reliever to begin with, and all 12 were against lefties. He scraped through the save in the O’s 2-1 win over the Red Sox, hitting Will Middlebrooks with a pitch and giving up a one-out single to Dustin Pedroia, but he got ahead of David Ortiz 0-2 before getting him to fly out to medium-deep left center, and then struck out Jackie Bradley looking on a fastball at the belt. (Bradley was hitting after pinch running for Mike Napoli in the eighth).

7. I was dubious about Tanner Scheppers as a starter and his performance in the Rangers’ 14-10 loss to the Phillies didn’t alleviate any of those concerns. His fastball averaged 96.3 mph last year as a reliever but 93.3 on Monday as a starter. His strikeout rate as a reliever didn’t scream “try this guy as a starter” and he fanned just two in his four innings, which required 93 pitches to get through. It's just one start and considering it was his first in the major leagues and on Opening Day -- a strange choice by Ron Washington -- let’s give him a pass and keep an eye on his next outing.

8. Tough loss for the Mets, blowing leads in the seventh and ninth innings and then losing in 10 to the Nationals. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen said after Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer off John Lannan in the 10th, “What an atrocious day by the Mets' bullpen.” Something Mets fans have witnessed all too often in recent seasons.

9. While flipping through the various games, it’s pretty clear we're going to see even more defensive shifting. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the number of shifts has increased from 2,358 in 2011 to 4,577 in 2012 to 8,134 in 2013.

10. Jose Fernandez. He looked brilliant in his six innings, throwing 73 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and smiling when Carlos Gonzalez homered in the sixth off his one mistake. I think I may watch 33 Marlins games this year.
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

It's the third installment of the epic Mike Trout-Miguel Cabrera trilogy, made even more intriguing by the mammoth contracts the two players just signed. While you can come up with a dozen legitimate MVP candidates in the National League, AL honors will almost surely go to Trout or Cabrera, barring a miracle Mariners run to the AL West title or something like that. Even though Cabrera has dominated the voting the past two seasons -- he received 45 first-place votes to just 11 for Trout -- I'm leaning toward Trout winning in 2014 for the following reasons:

(1) I think he's going to take a small step forward. It's hard to imagine him playing better, but Trout's suggestion that's he going to be more aggressive swinging early in the count could actually be a good thing. Among 140 qualified regulars last season, Trout ranked 140th in swing rate (37 percent). He ranked 131st in swing rate on first pitches. Trout is too disciplined to start hacking at pitches out of the zone, so zeroing in on certain pitches early in the count could lead to more production without sacrificing his walk rate all that much.

(2) Cabrera will be hard-pressed to match the past two seasons. That's not a knock, just an awareness of how good he's been (including a sick .397/.529/.782 line with runners in scoring position last year). Last September's injury issues -- he hit .278 with one home run -- show that Cabrera is human even when his body fails him. He says he's fine after offseason surgery, but it still raises a small question heading into the season.

(3) Only one player -- Barry Bonds from 2001 to 2004 -- has won three consecutive MVP awards. Voters don't like to give it to the same player every year. In fact, Cabrera was just the second AL player in 40 years to win back-to-back MVP honors (Frank Thomas was the last in 1993-94). If the numbers are close, that works in Trout's favor this time around.

(4) More awareness that Trout is the better all-around player. Cabrera has been worth 7.2 and 7.5 WAR (Baseball-Reference) the past two seasons, Trout 10.8 and 8.9. Polls of general managers have indicated they think Trout is the better player. Again, that's not a knock on Cabrera, the best hitter in the game.

(5) The Angels should be better. The biggest roadblock to Trout winning the past two seasons was the Angels missing the playoffs. In recent years, voters have almost exclusively given the MVP Award to a guy on a playoff team. The Tigers are still the better bet for the postseason, so that could ultimately swing the award back to Cabrera for a third straight year.

2. Who is this year's Josh Donaldson or Matt Carpenter?

Historically, these guys had pretty amazing and unique seasons. Donaldson was 27, in his first full season as a starter, and he surprised everyone by finishing fourth in the AL MVP vote. Carpenter, also 27 and playing every day for the first time, finished fourth in the NL MVP vote. And then there was Chris Davis -- also 27 -- who mashed 53 home runs and knocked in 138 runs. He had a little more of a résumé than Donaldson or Carpenter, having hit 33 home runs the year before, but nobody had him as a preseason MVP candidate.

Odds are slim that we'll see even one of those types of performances, let alone three, but since 27 seemed to be the magical age, here are some guys playing their age-27 seasons in 2014: Pedro Alvarez, Jay Bruce, Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis, Justin Smoak, Jason Kipnis, Pablo Sandoval, Desmond Jennings, Josh Reddick, Ike Davis, Michael Saunders, Yonder Alonso. Hmm ... Alvarez certainly could go all Chris Davis on us (he hit 36 home runs in 2013), but I don't see a Donaldson or Carpenter in there; then again, we didn't see a Donaldson or Carpenter coming last year. (Guys such as Bruce, Kipnis and Sandoval are already pretty accomplished players.)

If we go down to age-26 players, I see a few more interesting candidates: Brandon Belt (I've written about him), Kyle Seager, Khris Davis, Kole Calhoun, Dustin Ackley. So there you go: Kole Calhoun, MVP candidate!

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

C -- Brian McCann (30 years old)
1B -- Mark Teixeira (34)
2B -- Brian Roberts (36)
3B -- Kelly Johnson (32)
SS -- Derek Jeter (40)
LF -- Brett Gardner (30)
CF -- Jacoby Ellsbury (30)
RF -- Carlos Beltran (37)
DH -- Alfonso Soriano (38)

The top subs are Ichiro Suzuki (40) and Brendan Ryan (32). If those guys ending up staying reasonably healthy, the Yankees won't have one regular younger than 30. I wonder if that's ever happened before. The rotation features 33-year-old CC Sabathia and 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda.

And yet ... the Yankees may be better than we expect. I have them at 84 wins, which is right where the projection systems have them (FanGraphs at 83 wins, Baseball Prospectus also at 83), and I'm beginning to wonder if that's too conservative. Masahiro Tanaka looked terrific this spring and maybe he does match the 2.59 ERA projected by the Oliver system as opposed to the 3.68 of ZiPS or 3.87 of Steamer. Michael Pineda could provide a huge boost to the rotation. The offense is going to score a lot more runs than last year. Yes, age and injuries will be the deciding factor, but the Yankees have defied Father Time in the past.

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

I'm going with explode -- in a good way. That doesn't mean he isn't going to give Don Mattingly headaches or miss the cutoff guy every now and then or get a little exuberant on the base paths on occasion or incite columnists to write about the good ol' days when Mickey Mantle always showed up to the ballpark on time. But the positives will outweigh the negatives, he'll provide tons of energy to the Dodgers, he'll be one of the most exciting players in the game and he's going to have a big, big season.

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

For a team that won 96 games, the Braves enter the season with a surprising range of outcomes. Minus Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Kris Medlen, this won't be the same team as last year. But maybe that's a good thing if Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton don't hit .179 and .184 again. The Braves allowed fewer runs in 2013 than any of the Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz teams, so they were going to be hard-pressed to match that run prevention anyway. Implode or explode? I'm going somewhere in the middle, with 86 wins -- which may be just enough to capture a wild card.

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

The first 10 names that pop into my head, without analysis or explanation (other than to say these are players with a great deal of potential volatility in their performance or a high degree injury risk):

1. Derek Jeter, Yankees
2. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
3. Tim Lincecum, Giants
4. Billy Hamilton, Reds
5. Francisco Liriano, Pirates
6. Scott Kazmir, A's
7. Albert Pujols, Angels
8. Michael Wacha, Cardinals
9. B.J. Upton, Braves
10. Ubaldo Jimenez, Orioles

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

I'm going with the Astros, although it wouldn't surprise me to see the Phillies plummet to the bottom. Or the Twins. If you want a dark horse team, how about the Blue Jays? The rotation could be a disaster and if even Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and/or Edwin Encarnacion suffer lengthy injuries, the offense could collapse, as well.

8. Is offense going to decrease across the league again?

Considering there's going to be even more drug testing this year, I'll say it drops a tiny bit. Here are the runs per game totals in recent seasons:

2006: 4.86
2007: 4.80
2008: 4.65
2009: 4.61
2010: 4.38
2011: 4.28
2012: 4.32
2013: 4.17

The increased use of defensive shifts will continue to make it harder to hit singles, and the pitching just seems to get better and better. Yes, we had several guys go down with season-ending injuries in spring training -- most notably Medlen, Jarrod Parker and Patrick Corbin -- but we've added Tanaka, we'll get full seasons from the likes of Wacha and Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray and Chris Archer and Tony Cingrani, and other young guns such as Taijuan Walker, Eddie Butler, Jonathan Gray, Archie Bradley and Jameson Taillon could make major impacts. Plus, Joe Blanton won't be in the Angels' rotation.

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

By "this year's Pirates," we mean a team that finishes under .500 the year before and unexpectedly soars into the playoffs. We actually had three such teams make the playoffs last year: the Pirates, Red Sox and Indians. In 2012, we had the Orioles, A's, Reds and Nationals. In 2011, we had the Brewers and Diamondbacks. In 2010, we had the Reds.

The Royals don't count because they won 86 games last year, so improving a few wins and reaching the playoffs wouldn't be a surprise.

Technically, the Giants fit since they were below .500, but they would hardly be a surprise team just two years after winning the World Series.

Who does that leave? I see three choices in each league:

Blue Jays, Mariners, Angels -- The Blue Jays need their rotation to produce in a tough division, the Mariners maybe can take advantage of injuries to the A's and Rangers. The Angels were below .500, but they've been perennial playoff contenders, so they hardly fit the "surprise" definition.

Padres, Rockies, Brewers -- I'd be most inclined to go with the Rockies here, as they have two stars in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez and just need better production from the back of the rotation (although the early injury to Jhoulys Chacin doesn't help). I've been on the Brewers' bandwagon the past two years and refuse to jump on this year (which means they're probably headed to the World Series).

10. Who are five rookies who will impact the pennant races?

1. Masahiro Tanaka, P, Yankees. Don't be surprised if he's a Cy Young contender.

2. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox. We saw his already-polished game in the postseason last October.

3. Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds. The speed is Cool Papa Bell turn-of-the-light-switch-and-be-in-bed-before-the-room-goes-dark kind of speed. The defense should be above average, but will he hit?

4. Gregory Polanco, RF, and Jameson Taillon, P, Pirates. They won't be up to start the season but will eventually be part of Pittsburgh's playoff drive.

5. Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers. With Cabrera moving over to first, he takes over at third base with potential to produce with the bat.

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

I'm going with the AL West, which should be a three-team race between the A's, Rangers and Angels, with the Mariners possibly making it a four-team race. Or maybe the AL East, which could be a titanic struggle between the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and Orioles. Or the NL West, which could be a five-team race if the Dodgers fall back to the pack. Or the NL Central, if the Cardinals aren't as dominant as I believe they will be. Or the AL Central, which the Tigers won by only a game last year. Or the NL East ... which, well, I can't see this as anything but a two-team race. (Sorry, Mets, Marlins and Phillies fans.)

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

AL MVP
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Evan Longoria
4. Adrian Beltre
5. Dustin Pedroia

AL Cy Young
1. David Price
2. Yu Darvish
3. Max Scherzer
4. Justin Verlander
5. Felix Hernandez

AL Rookie
1. Masahiro Tanaka
2. Xander Bogaerts
3. Nick Castellanos

AL home run champ
1. Chris Davis
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Edwin Encarnacion

AL batting champ
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Joe Mauer

NL MVP
1. Yadier Molina
2. Joey Votto
3. Andrew McCutchen
4. Hanley Ramirez
5. Ryan Braun

NL Cy Young
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Jordan Zimmermann
3. Jose Fernandez
4. Zack Greinke
5. Adam Wainwright

NL Rookie
1. Billy Hamilton
2. Chris Owings
3. Travis d'Arnaud

NL home run champ
1. Giancarlo Stanton
2. Pedro Alvarez
3. Paul Goldschmidt

NL batting champ
1. Joey Votto
2. Andrew McCutchen
3. Yadier Molina

13. Do the Red Sox win it all?
No, but they do make the playoffs. My final standings:

AL East
Tampa Bay: 93-69
Boston: 91-71
New York: 84-78
Baltimore: 84-78
Toronto: 78-84

AL Central
Detroit: 91-71
Kansas City: 82-80
Cleveland: 79-83
Chicago: 71-91
Minnesota: 67-95

AL West
Texas: 88-74
Oakland: 87-75
Los Angeles: 83-79
Seattle: 76-86
Houston: 61-101

NL East
Washington: 93-69
Atlanta: 86-76
New York: 73-89
Miami: 73-89
Philadelphia: 65-97

NL Central
St. Louis: 95-67
Cincinnati: 85-77
Pittsburgh: 84-78
Milwaukee: 79-83
Chicago: 70-92

NL West
Los Angeles: 94-68
San Francisco: 82-80
San Diego: 80-82
Colorado: 79-83
Arizona: 78-84

14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.
Some stuff to check out ...
  • With the season-ending injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, and the delayed start to Mike Minor's season, it was a little surprising the Braves cut Freddy Garcia, who you may remember actually started a playoff game last year for the Braves. He was a non-roster invite to camp but they instead decided to go with 25-year-old rookie Gus Schlosser, a 17th-round pick in 2011 who posted a 2.39 ERA in 25 starts in Double-A in 2013. Despite the impressive numbers in Double-A, Baseball America didn't rank him as one of the Braves' top 30 prospects, even though his fastball reaches the low 90s. He's a sidearmer so has to prove he has an out pitch against left-handers. Martin Gandy of Chop County has his thoughts on the decision.
  • Interesting little graphic from FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine on MLB's youth movement. Neil checked the percentage of overall MLB WAR contributed by players 25-and-younger each season since 1976. Neil writes: "In 2013, about 28 percent of all Wins Above Replacement were created by the under-25 set. That was the ninth-largest share for any season since 1976. Output from youngsters has been on the upswing since the mid-to-late 1990s, when the percentage of WAR from young players hit its nadir. That nadir happened to occur at the height of baseball’s so-called steroid era."
  • Last week, It's About the Money had a good series comparing the Yankees to their AL East rivals, reaching out to the other blogs on the SweetSpot network. Here's a look at Yankees-Red Sox, plus Yankees-Blue Jays, Yankees-Rays and Yankees-Orioles.
  • Mike Petriello of FanGraphs (and a contributor to ESPN Insider) with a good piece on Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who uses advanced data on pitch location to try and improve his pitch framing. Ellis admits his weakness has always been the low pitch but he likes the data, telling Mike, "The thing I like about the pitch framing stats, which I need some more information on how they determine what it is, at least it’s giving me a number, a bar, so I know where I’m at right now, and at the end of the year I can check and see, 'hey, did I get better?'" At the SABR Analytics conference two weeks ago in Arizona, Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy estimated 5 to 10 percent of major leaguers would know what FIP is. As Ellis shows, that number will only rise in the future.
  • Speaking of the SABR Analytics conference, Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus looks at the big questions to come out of the conference.
  • Richard Bergstrom of Rockies Zingers writes about Rockies co-GM Bill Geivett, who was on the GM's panel at the conference.
  • Grantland's Jonah Keri had a long conversation with A's general manager Billy Beane and owner Lew Wolff.
  • Chris Jones of ESPN The Magazine with a feature on Royals coach Mike Jirschele, who spent 36 years playing, coaching and managing in the minors. But spending so long in the bushes was hardly the toughest thing Jirschele had to deal with.
  • Ryan P. Morrison of Inside the 'Zona on the Diamondbacks' first two losses in Australia to the Dodgers.
  • Brandon Land of One Strike Away on the Rangers' spring injuries, including Jurickson Profar's shoulder issues.
  • Nick Kirby of Redleg Nation with Part 1 of a two-part NL Central preview. This part examines the lineups and pitching staff of all five clubs.
  • Marc W. at the U.S.S. Mariner has an involved look at James Paxton and his high groundball rates in his four starts last season for the Mariners -- despite pitching primarily up in the strike zone. It's sort of about Paxton but it's also about how pitching in general works.
  • Finally, can the Astros make the playoffs? Well ... Baseball Prospectus ran through 50,000 simulations of the 2014 season and the Astros won the AL West in 0.4 percent of them and made the playoffs 1.3 percent of the time. Sam Miller checks out at those "playoff" seasons, including season No. 33913 in which the Astros won 99 games. You never know!


It's safe to say that the Detroit Tigers didn't really have a backup plan at shortstop in case Jose Iglesias suffered a long-term injury. Yes, general manager Dave Dombrowski had acquired Steve Lombardozzi from the Nationals in the Doug Fister trade during the offseason and penciled him in as the team's utility infielder, but Lombardozzi has played just 18 innings at shortstop in the majors and just 20 games there in the minors. As the Tigers undoubtedly learned this spring, Lombardozzi doesn't have the range or arm to play there on a regular basis.

So, with Iglesias out with stress fractures in both shins, the Tigers acquired Andrew Romine over the weekend from the Angels for Jose Alvarez and now reportedly acquired veteran Alex Gonzalez from the Orioles for Lombardozzi. Gonzalez, who played sparingly the past two seasons with the Brewers (67 games) because of his own injury problems, had been in Orioles camp as a non-roster invite. In case you're confused, this is the Alex Gonzalez who came up with the Marlins, made the All-Star team at age 22, hit a walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 4 of the 2003 World Series, has drifted around in recent seasons and is now 37 years old. It's not the Alex Gonzalez who came up with the Blue Jays, made that crucial error for the Cubs in the 2003 NLCS and last played in the majors in 2006.

It's hard to say which guy is the better bet to take over the shortstop job for the Tigers. Romine is a regarded as a good fielder but has spent most of the past three seasons at Triple-A Salt Lake, hitting .281, .285 and .287 but with limited power (four home runs each season). In 189 innings at shortstop in the majors, spread out over four seasons, he's been rated at minus-3 defensive runs saved, so it's possible he projects as an average defender at shortstop. Gonzalez, hitting .429 this spring with two home runs, last played shortstop regularly for the Braves in 2011 and hit .241/.270/.372 with a plus-9 DRS. It's possible they work into a platoon because Gonzalez bats right-handed and Romine is a switch-hitter.

For the Orioles, they pick up a free body for a guy who probably wasn't going to make their roster. With Manny Machado beginning the year on the disabled list, Lombardozzi can fill in at third base and then join the fray at second base that includes Ryan Flaherty and Jemile Weeks. Flaherty has had the best spring, hitting .310 with a couple of homers, while Weeks has struggled to a .143 average in 35 at-bats. This could end up being another platoon situation with Flaherty against right-handers and Lombardozzi against left-handers.

Anyway, it adds up to a minor trade that could help both teams, but give Orioles GM Dan Duquette credit for adding depth at his weakest position and not being content with Weeks merely because he was acquired for closer Jim Johnson.
We all know what Chris Davis did last year: 53 home runs and 138 RBIs, both best in the majors.

The impressive thing about Davis' monster season was his ability to go the other way -- 16 of his home runs went to left field or left-center and he hit .442 when going the opposite way. He hit .272 with 12 home runs on outside pitches in 2012 but .291 with 23 home runs on outside pitches in 2013, letting his easy raw power do the work.

So, can he do it again? We remember that he started off crushing everything. Here are his monthly totals:

SportsNation

Over or under on Chris Davis hitting 40.5 home runs?

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    64%
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    36%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,634)

April: .348, 9 HR
May: .364, 10 HR
June: .290, 12 HR
July: .211, 7 HR
August: .287, 9 HR
September: .216, 6 HR

In the first two months, his contact rate was the best of his career; he had 29 walks and 50 strikeouts. That ratio fell apart in June and July as he had 14 walks and 82 strikeouts. With the swing-and-miss aspect of his game (199 strikeouts in 2013) he's always going to be a streaky hitter.

What will he do for an encore? He hit 33 home runs in 2012 -- but that was in 111 fewer plate appearances than 2013. ZiPS projects him at 41 home runs, Steamer at 37. Let's put the over/under at 40.5.

Would adding Johan Santana help O's?

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
4:30
PM ET
This is getting talked up on Twitter as very close to happening: Johan Santana could be an Oriole.

If so, I love it. I love it even if it subsequently turns out that he has nothing left and that his towering stack of injuries has robbed him of his ability to pitch effectively for any length of time. I love it because you won’t know that for sure until you check him out. If the O’s take that chance, more power to them.

For most of the last month, Santana has been promoting and throwing bullpen sessions to advertise both that he’s still alive -- after missing all of 2013 and 2011, as well as a big chunk of 2012, people start to wonder -- and that his arm is sound. Since he has been touching only 80 on the gun, it’s hard to say he’s all the way back.

Even so, the Orioles are one of the teams that can’t just afford to take a flyer on him. They have to if they want to take themselves seriously. Not because of what Santana is now, but because of what he might be if he can come back to some fraction of his former self. Think of it as a latter-day John Tudor play: If he’s healthy enough to pitch, chances are he’ll be good enough to help you win.
SportsNation

Does Johan Santana have anything left?

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    51%
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    49%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,258)


Why does that matter for the O’s? Because after you get past Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman, Baltimore has lunch-bucket types, guys who might make a nice No. 4 in anybody’s rotation: Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris at the least, plus Zach Britton and Brian Matusz, if you’re feeling generous. Top prospect Kevin Gausman will eventually pitch his way past that crowd of mediocrity. But over 162 games and especially early on, that mediocrity and depth will have value, keeping games in reach for Chris Davis & Co. while giving Buck Showalter enough talent to work with until Santana and Gausman are ready to contribute.

Why them, and why later? Because in a perfect-world, blue-sky scenario where the Orioles contend, you don’t want to wind up in the postseason having to start Norris. Gausman might give the Orioles a key front-end starter down the stretch, perhaps playing as large a role for them as Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole did for their teams last year. Running up some combination of Santana and Gausman, Jimenez and Tillman? Now we’re talking, not just about a team that might get to the one-game wild-card play-in but a team that might have the starting pitching to win a division series.

So credit the Orioles if they’re willing to roll the dice. It isn’t like Peter Angelos can take all of his tobacco lawsuit money with him, and for the O’s -- and their fans -- there’s no time like the present.

If Santana gives us some fraction of that world-beating pitcher who won two Cy Youngs, just call me greedy, because it’ll be fun to watch.

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

Team over/unders: Best bets

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
11:56
AM ET
Listed below is each team's over/under win total from Bovada.lv. For each group of five teams, I'll ask you to vote on which one is the best bet to exceed its win total. Wisdom of the crowds, right?

(By the way, if the win totals seem low, they're not. There are 2,430 major league games ... the win totals actually add up to 2,443; so if anything, they're a tiny bit too high.)

SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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    15%
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    17%
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    17%
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    25%
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    26%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,858)

30. Astros: 62.5
29. Cubs: 69.5
28. Marlins: 69.5
27. Twins: 70.5
26. Mets: 73.5

I'm going with the Marlins here. The infield is a bit of train wreck on offense, but I think the young rotation with Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez and Jacob Turner could be very good. A full season from Christian Yelich and a healthier season from Giancarlo Stanton will help, and they've added a couple of bats in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Garrett Jones, who aren't great but are better than what they had last season.


SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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    17%
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    21%
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    25%
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    18%
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    19%

Discuss (Total votes: 13,837)

25. White Sox: 75.5
24. Rockies: 76.5
23. Phillies: 76.5
22. Padres: 78.5
21. Brewers: 79.5

I'll reluctantly go with the Padres here. They don't have individual star power, but I think their 25-man depth should push them over .500. The White Sox could certainly be interesting if Jose Abreu proves to be the real deal, but 75.5 wins is still 12.5 more than 2013. The Brewers are tempting with the return of Ryan Braun and the addition of Matt Garza, but Jean Segura's second-half fade is a concern and I don't like the righty-heavy nature of the lineup.


SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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    15%
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    20%
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    38%
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    17%
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    10%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,014)

20. Blue Jays: 79.5
19. Diamondbacks: 80.5
18. Orioles: 80.5
17. Indians: 80.5
16. Mariners: 81.5

You can make pretty good arguments for four of these teams. The Mariners? Not so much. I'm going with the Diamondbacks -- hey, maybe they can go 81-81 for the third season in a row! Arizona has a star in Paul Goldschmidt, two elite defenders in the outfield in Gerardo Parra and A.J. Pollock, a guy in Mark Trumbo who could hit 40 home runs and some players returning from injury. Rookie Archie Bradley could provide a nice midseason lift to the rotation, as well, and the bullpen looks deeper with the addition of Addison Reed.


SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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    29%
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    23%
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    20%
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    12%
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    16%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,370)

15. Royals: 81.5
14. Pirates: 83.5
13. Reds: 84.5
12. Giants: 86.5
11. Angels: 86.5

The oddsmakers are projecting some regression from the Royals, Pirates and Reds. One note on the Royals: From June 1 on, they had the second-best record in the majors behind the Dodgers. They've made some minor additions with the likes of Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki to help improve an offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored. The concern: They allowed just 601 runs last year, the second-lowest total in the AL in the past two decades. They will likely allow more than that in 2014. Can the offense make up for it? I think so. I'll take the over for the Royals.


SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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    19%
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    16%
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    21%
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    22%
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    22%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,627)

10. Yankees: 86.5
9. Rangers: 86.5
8. Braves: 87.5
7. Red Sox: 87.5
6. Nationals: 88.5

Hmm ... considering I have the Nationals winning the NL East, I'll go with them. They did win 86 games last season, so I can certainly see a three-win improvement (and more). On the other hand, it's not like any of the regulars had a terrible season, or that we should expect obvious improvement from somebody. But the bench was horrible last year and will be better. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon should play and are solid bets to improve. Doug Fister adds another quality arm to the rotation. I like them to win 90-plus games.


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Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?

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    13%
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    27%
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    31%
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    15%

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5. Rays: 88.5
4. A's: 88.5
3. Tigers: 89.5
2. Cardinals: 90.5
1. Dodgers: 92.5

Five playoff teams from last year. So we're essentially asking: Which team is the best bet to return to the playoffs? I'm going with the Cardinals here, since I do have them as my No. 1 overall team heading into the season. I like their depth across the board: Position players, rotation and bullpen. I like their youth. I think the Pirates and Reds are a little weaker than last season. St. Louis won 97 games last year and I wouldn't be shocked to see the Cardinals do it again.
A pretty good pair of birthdays for Feb. 24, plus a 200-game winner (Wilbur Cooper), a four-time All-Star (Mike Lowell), a guy nicknamed "Suitcase" because he was traded so often (Bob Seeds) and guys named Steamboat, Bugs, Stubby, Bubba and Pinky.

Honus Wagner: Born 1874

In the first Hall of Fame election in 1936, Wagner received the same number of votes as Babe Ruth. The eligibility rules weren't well defined then (Ruth had played in 1935), but I suspect the vote totals tell how much the writers of the time respected Wagner. These days, Wagner is almost as famous for the rare T206 baseball card he appeared on -- one sold last year for $2.1 million -- as for being the greatest shortstop of all time.

How great was Wagner? Earlier today, I ran a list of Derek Jeter's annual rankings among all major league shortstops via WAR; Jeter ranked No. 1 in one season and in the top three in three other years. Cal Ripken, by way of comparison, ranked as the best shortstop in five seasons and in the top three in five other seasons. Wagner? Here are is annual rankings among all position players, not just shortstops, beginning with 1899, when he played for Louisville (he moved to the Pirates in 1900 when the Louisville franchise was folded):

1899: 5.8 WAR, 4th
1900: 6.5 WAR, 1st
1901: 7.1 WAR, 3rd
1902: 7.2 WAR, 1st
1903: 7.6 WAR, 2nd
1904: 8.2 WAR, 2nd
1905: 10.1 WAR, 1st
1906: 9.3 WAR, 3rd
1907: 8.9 WAR, 1st
1908: 11.5 WAR, 1st
1909: 9.1 WAR, 3rd
1910: 5.2 WAR, 8th
1911: 6.6 WAR, 3rd
1912: 8.1 WAR, 6th

Wagner fell out of the top 10 in 1913 and 1914 and ranked ninth in 1915 -- of course, he was 41 years old then. That's one of the most amazing things about Wagner's career; he was one of the greatest old players ever. In his first year in organized baseball in 1895 he was already 21 years old and played for five different teams in three different leagues. Ed Barrow, a former newspaper reporter, was part-owner of the Wheeling (W. Va.) franchise in the Interstate League that year, one of the leagues Wagner played in, and saw Wagner play. When Barrow and a partner bought the Paterson team of the Atlantic League for 1896, he signed Wagner and thus is often credited with "discovering" Wagner. Barrow would later gain fame for managing the Red Sox to the World Series title in 1918 and turning Ruth into a full-time position player. He left the Red Sox after 1920 and became the business manager of the Yankees (or the general manager as we would now label the position), helping build their dynasty of the 1920s and '30s and eventually get elected to Hall of Fame.

Anyway, Barrow would sell Wagner to the Louisville Colonels of the National League in 1897. Wagner looked awkward, with his heavily muscled upper torso and bowed legs, but he was a tremendous athlete. His first year big season with Louisville came when he was 25 and he didn't become a full-time shortstop until 1903, when he was 29. Nonetheless, in his 30s he averaged 8.0 WAR per season. Like Ty Cobb, he hit with hands split apart, a conventional style of the day. He led the NL eight times in batting average, four times in on-base percentage, six times in slugging percentage, five times in RBIs and five times in stolen bases. Imagine a player today who was the best hitter in the league, the best baserunner and played a good shortstop. I think Hans would make a pretty good living.

Wagner's best season was 1908, when he towered over the rest of the National League. In a season dominated by pitchers, he hit .354; only four others hit .300. He had a .542 slugging percentage; the No. 2 guy was .452 and only three others reached .400. He led with 109 RBIs; the No. 4 was already all the way down to 71. He led the league in hits, doubles, triples, total bases and stolen bases. It's on the short list of best seasons ever.

According to his SABR bio, Wagner had "retired" after the 1907 season, saying he had made enough money and was happy hunting, fishing, raising chickens and opening an automobile garage where he loved tinkering with the engines. But Wagner also hated spring training, often holding out or reporting late. Maybe it was just a ruse to get a larger salary; if so, it worked. (He signed for $10,000, becoming the highest-paid player in the game.)

Wagner's biggest moment probably was the 1909 World Series, when the Pirates faced the Tigers and their young star Cobb. Wagner hit .333, drove in six runs and stole six bases while Cobb hit .231 and stole only two bases. The Pirates won in seven games.

In the SABR bio of Wagner, Jan Finkel writes,
Honus Wagner was no angel or saint. Some opponents thought him a fine fellow off the diamond but overly rough on it. Most umpires thought he "kicked" too much. He affected to dislike formal affairs, but he really hated the next morning. Yet he also embodied the American dream as the son of immigrants who rose from humble roots to greatness. Frailties aside, he was one of baseball's first heroes, a basically gentle, hard-working man, a loyal friend and teammate who treated young players kindly.


I sometimes get asked, "Who would you like to see play that you didn't?" I'm not sure Wagner is No. 1 on my list but he'd be right up there.

Eddie Murray: Born 1956

My favorite fun Eddie Murray fact: He was a teammate at Locke High School in Los Angeles of Ozzie Smith. I'd say that was a pretty high school infield.

So my friend Victor doesn't think Murray is a Hall of Famer. His argument has always been, "Did you ever pay money to go see Murray play?" I try to tell him for a few years there Murray was one of the best -- and dare I say, feared -- hitters in the league. From 1980 to 1985, Murray finished sixth, fifth, second, second, fourth and fifth in the MVP voting with the Orioles. He also finished fifth in the 1990 NL vote while with the Dodgers (it's easy to forget those Dodgers years ... or those Mets years).

Was Murray a star? I thought I'd run the Jeter test on Murray as well, and see where he ranked among all major first basemen and the overall leader that year:

1977: 3.2 WAR, 8th (Rod Carew: 9.7)
1978: 4.3 WAR, 6th (Jason Thompson: 5.6)
1979: 4.9 WAR, 3rd (Keith Hernandez: 7.9)
1980: 4.4 WAR, 3rd (Cecil Cooper: 6.8)
1981: 3.8 WAR, 3rd (Hernandez and Cooper: 4.2)
1982: 5.2 WAR, 2nd (Cooper: 5.6)
1983: 6.6 WAR, 1st
1984: 7.0 WAR, 1st
1985: 5.6 WAR, 2nd (Don Mattingly: 6.4)
1986: 4.1 WAR, 6th (Mattingly: 7.2)
1987: 3.8 WAR, 9th (Jack Clark: 5.4)
1988: 3.2 WAR, 9th (Will Clark: 6.6)
1989: 2.0 WAR, 16th (Will Clark: 8.6)
1990: 5.1 WAR, 4th (Cecil Fielder: 6.6)

That was it for Murray as a top-10 first baseman. He did have one last big year in 1995 while DHing for the Indians, hitting .323. Still, that 1979-1985 run was a pretty solid peak.

Truth be told though, Murray was a bit of a compiler. His triple-slash line of .287/.359/.476 is basically the same, for example, as Kent Hrbek's .282/.367/.481. But Murray hung around long enough to get 3,000 hits and punch out 504 home runs and drive in over 1,900 runs. He was a plus with the glove and, like Jeter, remarkably durable, playing 150-plus in 15 of his first 17 seasons.

They called him "Steady Eddie" and that fit perfectly.




Brett Gardner versus Nelson Cruz

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
10:27
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I heard a couple of radio guys -- one of them a former major league pitcher -- on Sunday discussing the Brett Gardner contract, and they were a little incredulous that Gardner could get a four-year, $52 million contract from the Yankees while Nelson Cruz signed for one year and $8 million with the Orioles. They couldn't get past the idea that Cruz hits a lot more home runs and drives in a lot more runs.

Indeed, over the past three seasons, Cruz has averaged 34 home runs and 105 RBIs per 162 games played, while Gardner has averaged eight and 47 per 162 games.

Now, there are other issues involved in those signings:
  • Because Cruz had been extended a qualifying offer from the Rangers, the team signing him would lose a draft pick. In the Orioles' case, this means losing a second-round pick because they already had lost their first-round pick for signing Ubaldo Jimenez.
  • In looking ahead to free-agent outfielders next offseason, it's very slim pickings: Gardner, Colby Rasmus, Michael Cuddyer and Cruz would have been the biggest names, not including those with club options. The Yankees now know they won't be scrambling to fill left field.
  • Age. Gardner's extension takes him from 2015 through 2018 (with a club option for 2019), his age-31 through age-34 seasons. Cruz's 2014 season is his age-33 season. In general, fast players age better than slow players.
  • Cruz is coming off a PED suspension, which can't be ignored.
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But even aside from those factors, there's this: Gardner is the better player. Comparing Cruz and Gardner is a classic sabermetric argument: The RBI guy versus the guy who does a little bit of everything.

A few points:

1. First off, while Cruz has averaged 34 home runs and 105 RBIs per 162 games, he's never actually achieved either figure. He has hit 30 home runs once, back in 2009. His career high in RBIs is 90. Some of that is because he has played more than 128 games only once. Gardner did miss nearly all of 2012 with an elbow injury but played 150, 159 and 145 games in his other three seasons as a regular.

2. Despite Cruz's power advantage, they're closer offensively than you might realize. Cruz had a .353 wOBA in 2013; Gardner .331. In terms of Runs Created, Cruz created 5.5 runs per 27 outs; Gardner 5.2. Sure, Cruz outhomered Gardner 27 to 8, but Gardner had more doubles (33 to 18), more triples (10 to 0), more walks (52 to 35) and more stolen bases (27 to 5). Now, Gardner played more games. Here are their totals prorated to 145 games:

Gardner: 33 2B, 10 3B, 8 HR, 52 BB, 24 SB, .273/.344/.416
Cruz: 24 2B, 0 3B, 36 HR, 47 BB, 7 SB, .266/.327/.506

Cruz hit more home runs; Gardner got on base more and made up for most of the difference in home runs with doubles, triples and running the bases. (I didn't mention runs scored, which also can be lineup-dependent like RBIs, but Gardner scored 81 and Cruz 49.)

3. Then there's defense. Cruz graded at minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved, his best showing since 2010. Gardner, playing center field, graded out at plus-6 Defensive Runs Saved. Gardner will move to left field, where his defensive numbers in 2010 and 2011 were terrific (plus-34 and plus-22 DRS). Even if he has lost a step since then, he projects above-average defensively in left field. But the numbers align with the general consensus: Gardner is a plus defender while Cruz is not.

Add it all up, and Baseball-Reference crunches the numbers like this:

Cruz
2011: 1.3 WAR
2012: 0.4 WAR
2013: 2.0 WAR

Gardner
2011: 3.9 WAR
2012: 0.2 WAR
2013: 4.2 WAR

Look, for one year and $8 million, Cruz should be a good deal for the Orioles. He moves from one good home run park to another, and there's no such thing as a bad one-year contract (other than the risk of losing that draft pick). But Gardner got $52 million because he's the better all-around player.

Lineup discussion: AL East

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
11:06
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In our continuing discussion of lineups, let's move over to the American League and the division with the deepest group of lineups in the majors.


Boston Red SoxBoston Red Sox

Key question: Who replaces Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot? The Red Sox scored 56 more runs than the Tigers to easily lead the majors in runs scored. With Ellsbury having a solid season, the Red Sox ranked fourth in leadoff on-base percentage. Who fills his shoes? For now, manager John Farrell has indicated Daniel Nava will lead off against right-handers (.390 career OBP versus righties) and Shane Victorino versus left-handers (.373 career OBP versus lefties).

Projected lineup
Daniel Nava, LF
Shane Victorino, RF
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
David Ortiz, DH
Mike Napoli, 1B
A.J. Pierzynski, C
Xander Bogaerts, SS
Will Middlebrooks, 3B
Jackie Bradley Jr., CF

Jonny Gomes is back to platoon with Nava in left field, and David Ross forms a perfect platoon partner for Pierzynski at catcher. Bogaerts has the ability to move up in the order if he shows the same patience and discipline he displayed in the playoffs. Don't be surprised if he's hitting second at some point in the season.

Suggestion: The switch-hitting Victorino has always been better from the right side. Last year, he was forced to hit exclusively from the right side down the stretch due to hamstring and back issues. And guess what? He hit .300/.386/.510 in 115 plate appearances hitting right-on-right. His grand slam in Game 6 of the ALCS came against a right-hander. His three-run double in Game 6 of the World Series came off righty Michael Wacha. Yes, it's only 100 at-bats, but it's much better than what Victorino has done from the left side in his career. He says he won't get away from switch-hitting, but maybe he should.

Tampa Bay RaysTampa Bay Rays

Key question: Where does Wil Myers hit? Joe Maddon moved his prized rookie all around the lineup in 2013 -- 25 times in the cleanup spot, 20 times in the fifth spot, 21 times batting sixth, plus 19 times batting second or third. In the postseason, he hit second, third and fourth. So your guess is as good as mine. Considering Maddon used 147 different lineups last year, we can probably expect a lot of moving around again.

Projected lineup
David DeJesus, LF
Ben Zobrist, 2B
Evan Longoria, 3B
Wil Myers, RF
Matt Joyce, DH
James Loney, 1B
Desmond Jennings, CF
Yunel Escobar, SS
Ryan Hanigan, C

I suspect the only guarantees here are that Zobrist, Longoria and Myers will fill three of the first four spots. DeJesus could lead off against right-handers, with Jennings or Zobrist moving up to the leadoff spot when DeJesus is benched against lefties. Hanigan and Jose Molina will share time behind the plate, but both hit right-handed, so it won't be a strict platoon (although Hanigan has a career .393 OBP against left-handers).

Suggestion: I don't think Maddon needs any suggestions.

Baltimore OriolesBaltimore Orioles

Key question: Who takes over the leadoff spot? Nate McLouth started there 108 times last year, but he left as a free agent. Nick Markakis seems to be the likely choice, but that points to some issues with the Baltimore lineup: Only Chris Davis had an OBP higher than .335 last season and McLouth (30 steals) and Adam Jones (14) were the only two with double-digit stolen base totals.

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Which team has the best lineup in the AL East?

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    22%
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    28%
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Projected lineup
Nick Markakis, RF
Manny Machado, 3B
Adam Jones, CF
Chris Davis, 1B
Matt Wieters, C
J.J. Hardy, SS
David Lough, LF
Designated hitter
Second baseman

The Orioles hit home runs -- 212 of them last year, 24 more than any other team. But they ranked just 10th in the AL in OBP and were thus fourth in the league in runs scored. Davis actually spent most of last season hitting fifth (101 starts there) before Buck Showalter finally realized you shouldn't have your best hitter batting fifth. He and Jones will hit third and fourth in some order (they could switch back and forth depending on the starting pitcher). The big problem is the fifth spot, as neither Wieters (.287 OBP) nor Hardy (.306 OBP) get on base much.

Suggestion: Take a few pitches. The Orioles were 14th in walks last season. Maybe that's not a surprise considering hitting coach Jim Presley wasn't exactly known for his patient approach at the plate during his big league days. Jones and Machado each drew fewer than 30 walks in 700 plate appearances, ranking third and ninth in lowest walk percentage among regulars. Jones is probably what he’s going to be at this point, but at least Machado is young enough to improve.

New York YankeesNew York Yankees

Key question: How many more runs can this lineup be expected to score? The Yankees scored 650 runs last year -- their lowest total since scoring 603 in 1990 (where have you gone, Oscar Azocar?). Baseball Prospectus projects the Yankees to score 716 runs, a total that would have ranked eighth in the AL in 2013.

Projected lineup
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Derek Jeter, SS
Carlos Beltran, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Brian McCann, C
Alfonso Soriano, DH
Brett Gardner, LF
Kelly Johnson, 3B
Brian Roberts, 2B

That looks a lot better than Lyle Overbay, Chris Stewart and Vernon Wells. But they're also missing one of the best hitters in the league with the departure of Robinson Cano. I suspect we'll see Gardner hitting first or second quite often -- when Ellsbury or Jeter gets a day, when Ellsbury gets hurt or if Jeter struggles. You'll see Beltran getting time at DH with Soriano playing a little outfield. With so many old guys and injury risks, the bench -- Brendan Ryan, Eduardo Nunez, Ichiro Suzuki -- will get plenty of playing time.

Suggestion: Jeter was great in 2012 -- he lead the league with 216 hits -- but in 2011 and 2010 he was pretty worthless against right-handed pitchers, hitting .261/.322/.326. Joe Giradi needs to manage the player and not the legend. If Jeter hits like that again -- and that's a more likely result than the .294/.346/.377 he put up against righties in 2012 -- Girardi shouldn't hesitate to move Jeter down against right-handers and move up Gardner or Beltran to the 2-hole.

Toronto Blue JaysToronto Blue Jays

Key question: Will they stay healthy? Only three guys played at least 120 games last year: Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia. Thankfully, Arencibia and his .227 OBP are gone (it was the second-lowest OBP since 1901 for a player with at least 475 plate appearances). With better health, you can expect the Jays to score more than 712 runs.

Projected lineup
Jose Reyes, SS
Melky Cabrera, LF
Jose Bautista, RF
Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
Adam Lind, DH
Colby Rasmus, CF
Brett Lawrie, 3B
Dioner Navarro, C
Ryan Goins, 2B

It will be interesting to see what John Gibbons does with the second slot. Cabrera started there last year but was moved down when he didn't hit. For most of May through late July, he hit Bautista second and Encarnacion third. Even though Lind was having a good year, Gibbons later went back to hitting those three guys 3-4-5 (at least until Bautista went down for the year in late August) and sort of punting the No. 2 spot.

Suggestion: If Cabrera doesn't hit closer to what he did in 2011 and 2012, how about Rasmus for the second spot? Yes, he strikes out a lot, but his .276/.338/.501 line would be nice higher up in the order.

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