SweetSpot: Chicago Cubs

1. A big night in the AL Central.

The Royals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Twins 6-1 ... which came a couple hours after David Price allowed -- not a typo -- nine consecutive hits in the third inning as the Yankees scored eight runs. Most of the hits were not cheapies, either. The inning went:

Single, double, single, double, single, single, single, infield single, single. Four of the hits were ground balls but only two of those were soft. Price became the first pitcher since Bob Forsch in 1989 to allow nine hits in a row. As our friend Jonah Keri tweeted, the Yankees scored more runs that inning than Drew Smyly has allowed in his five starts with Tampa Bay since being traded for Price.

As for the Royals, here's a stat: Before Tuesday, the Twins had lost just two games all season they led heading into the eighth inning. The Royals rallied two nights in a row in the ninth and eighth innings.

2. Speaking of Smyly ... he's good.

You don't want to overreact to five starts, but in those five starts Smyly has allowed just six runs. In beating the Orioles on Wednesday and allowing just two hits in seven innings, he became the second Rays pitcher to pitch at least seven innings and allow two hits or fewer in consecutive starts. Bottom line: For those who think the Rays didn't get enough in return for Price, think again; Smyly is more than just a back-end starter.

We all loved this trade for the Tigers because we overfocused for the Tigers, but it's fair to ask: How much is Dave Dombrowski sweating right now?



3. The Cubs are worth watching down the stretch.

I mentioned Javier Baez in non-pennant race news on Tuesday, and now we discuss Jorge Soler, the dynamic Cuban right fielder who debuted for the Cubs on Wednesday ... and promptly slammed a Mat Latos fastball for a home run in his first at-bat. Soler is the same physical presence as Baez but his minor numbers suggest a swing with a little more control: He struck out 48 times in 200 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A (hitting .340/.432/.700) compared to Baez's 130 K's in 388 at-bats. That's still a high strikeout rate, so he may face the same initial struggles as Baez. Soler's biggest issue has been staying healthy: He had a fractured tibia last year and had injuries to both hamstrings that forced him to miss most of April and May this year. But with 15 home runs in 62 minor-league games, the power potential resembles Baez's.

Now ... let's hope the Cubs call up Kris Bryant. I don't want to hear about service time and all that. He's ready for the big leagues.

4. Eric O'Flaherty, A's closer, for now.

Oakland's first save opportunity since Sean Doolittle went to the former Braves lefty, who has pitched well in limited action for the A's so far. He gave up a run to the Astros but preserved the 5-4 win. (The A's scored three off Chad Qualls in the top of the ninth, with Sam Fuld hitting a tiebreaking two-run homer.)

Also note: Drew Pomeranz, good outing. Pomeranz didn't replace Jason Hammel in the rotation, but was taking a start to give Sonny Gray an extra day of rest. But he pitched well enough if that Bob Melvin may give him another one.

5. Give these guys Gold Gloves.

1. Alex Gordon.
2. Juan Lagares.
3. Andrelton Simmons.

Maybe the three best defensive players in the game.
1. Madison Bumgarner says, "Don't you forget about the Giants."

Strange question from my chat session on Tuesday: "Time to blow up the Giants? Keep Posey, Bumgarner and start over?" I mean ... the Giants are holding one of the wild cards and at five games behind the Dodgers remain in shouting distance of the division title.

Anyway, while Clayton Kershaw has owned all the publicity allowed for left-handers on the West Coast, Bumgarner has quietly put together another Bumgarner season. It seems like he must be 30 years old already, but he just turned 25 earlier this month. He's young enough that if you were to bet on one active pitcher to win 300 games, you'd probably bet on Bumgarner; him or Felix Hernandez, I guess.

[+] EnlargeBumgarner
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesMadison Bumgarner mowed down the Rockies with his characteristic pitch efficiency.
All that is a way of getting to Tuesday's game. It may not have been Bumgarner's most impressive performance of his career -- he did, after all, pitch eight shutout innings of three-hit baseball in Game 4 of the 2010 World Series as a 21-year-old rookie -- but it was certainly was the most dominant from a pure statistical point of view. Bumgarner took a perfect game against the Rockies into the eighth inning (with help from a great catch in left field by Gregor Blanco and a close call at first base that the Rockies didn't challenge), ruined when Justin Morneau lined a leadoff double into the right-field corner on a 1-2 curveball. It was actually a pretty good pitch, down below the knees, but Morneau managed to hook it just fair with sort of a half swing.

Bumgarner's final line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 K's. Similar to Kershaw's no-hitter against the Rockies in which he struck out 15 with just the one runner reaching via error. Bumgarner's Game Score of 98 is second-best in the majors behind Kershaw's 102; unfortunately for Bumgarner, that's kind of par for the course for him -- just behind Kershaw. Although I'm sure Kershaw wouldn't mind owning Bumgarner's two World Series rings.

Bumgarner threw just 103 pitches against the Rockies, never more than 15 in one inning; that's his trademark, efficiency. He's usually able to pitch to deep into games without running up big pitch counts, although Bruce Bochy has taken the reins off a little this season and Bumgarner should sail past his career high of 208.1 innings in 2012. He was able to dominate the Rockies primarily with his fastball -- 30 two-seamers and 42 four-seamers, 57 of those 72 pitches for strikes. Nothing fancy going on here. It was really pitching at its most basic: Move your fastball around all quadrants of the zone, throwing nothing down the middle, mixing in a few offspeed pitches (although eight of his 13 K's came on fastballs).

While the Dodgers remain the heavy favorite to win the West, the Giants do have six games remaining against their rivals from Southern California. Certainly, the Giants' rotation is in scramble mode with Matt Cain out for the season and Tim Lincecum demoted to the bullpen -- at least for one start -- but one hot stretch by the Giants will make late September very interesting.

2. Alex Gordon: Sleeper MVP candidate.

Gordon had the biggest hit of the night in a night of big hits -- a two-run walk-off home run to give the Royals the 2-1 win over the Twins. Our pal Mark Simon writes that Gordon has the combination of offensive and defensive numbers to warrant MVP consideration.

Realistically, of course, Gordon has no shot. As good as he is in left field, the voters aren't going to give that a lot of emphasis. He ranks 18th in the AL in OBP, 21st in slugging, 19th in runs and 29th in RBIs. As we saw the past two years with Miguel Cabrera, the MVP Award is an offensive award ... although if the Royals make the playoffs, that will certainly help him finish in the top five.

3. Pennant fever slow to catch on in Kansas City and Baltimore.

The Royals and Orioles are in first place and played at home on Tuesday. The Astros outdrew both teams.

4. Javier Baez has a lot of growing to do.

In non-pennant race news, the heralded Cubs rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in the Cubs' 3-0 win over Johnny Cueto (Anthony Rizzo with his 30th home run). Baez has seven home runs in 21 games, but has also struck out an astounding 40 times in 90 plate appearances and already has four four-strikeout games. He's hitting .198 with just four walks. The talent is enormous and he's very young, but there's a chance he's more Dave Kingman in the long run or, as a reader compared on Twitter, a second-base version of the Astros' Chris Carter (which would be a valuable player, just not a huge star).

5. Put the fork in the Blue Jays.

Seven runs in the 11th inning? Ouch. The Jays lost 11-7 to Red Sox (they made it interesting with four runs of their own) to fall to .500. They're now 6.5 out of the second wild card with four teams ahead of them. Too many games, too many teams. The promise of early June -- they led the division by six games on June 6 -- is long gone.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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With a little more than a month left in the season and many division races still not settled, it's not too early to talk about what might have been, what might still could be, and what kinda is what we thought it kinda is ... or was ... or whatever. Just within the last week, we've had two new division leaders and a slew of injuries to reshuffle expectations. Did I mention that the waiver wire deadline hasn’t passed yet? Yup, it's a changing landscape, and whoever's doing the painting is keeping the 2014 baseball season a little squiggly.

Feel free to chime in on what you think might happen in the comments section below.

And without further ado -- because if we wait too long, these thoughts might go out of date faster than the Tulowitzki-to-Yankees rumors – on to the best of the SweetSpot Network contributing sites from the past week.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Roundup: Jackson Trade, Lessons from Saber Seminar: Ryan P. Morrison examines the D-backs' trade for Brett Jackson and discusses a dozen or so nuggets of cutting-edge sabermetrics wisdom from last weekend's Saber Seminar in Boston. Follow on Twitter: @InsidetheZona

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Jon Shepherd takes the Ice Bucket Challenge: Jon Shepherd, whose family has been impacted by ALS, has his take, but highlights the need to secure more long-term funding beyond episodic viral campaigns. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Should the Cubs Pass on Signing an Ace this Offseason?: As we get closer and closer to the offseason, Joe Aiello wonders whether the Cubs should be looking at a nontraditional route when it comes to building their rotation for next season. Follow on Twitter: @vftb

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced Lajaway
The Evolution (or Devolution) of the Indians Pitching Staff: Stephanie Liscio takes a humorous month-by-month look at the fans' confidence level in the Tribe's starters. Follow on Twitter: @StephanieLiscio

Don't Give Up on Tomlin: Ryan McCrystal analyzes how Josh Tomlin has been a victim of bad defense and bad luck in recent weeks. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Honoring Todd Helton: The Colorado Rockies retired Todd Helton's jersey number, the first Rockies player afforded such an honor. Richard Bergstrom reminisces on his career.

Rockies Bloggers Panel Recording 8/16/14: It was one of the most anticipated panels of the year, filled with bloggers flying into town to commemorate Todd Helton's retirement and a special guest. Members of Rockies Zingers, Purple Row, Rockies Review and Mile High Sports discuss the Rockies injuries and trainers/coaches along with the potential offseason moves. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers


New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Brian McCann's Crazy Reverse Platoon Split: Brad Vietrogoski attempts to explain the flip-flop of Brian McCann's production against right- and left-handed pitching this season. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS

What If: The 1994 World Series: Domenic Lanza looked at how the '94 Fall Classic could have played out if the Yanks and Expos had stayed on track as the best teams in baseball that year. Follow on Twitter: @DomenicLanza

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Cardinals walk off via hit-by-pitch for second time this season: Jon Jay helped the Cardinals win their second straight game in their final at-bat Tuesday night when he drew a bases-loaded plunking from Reds reliever J.J. Hoover. The Cardinals hadn’t had a walk-off hit-by-pitch in more than 25 years, but now -- including Greg Garcia back on May 13 -- they’ve had two in 2014. Pip lists all of the walk-off HBPs over the last 25 years. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes

San Francisco Giants, West Coast Bias
Giants pursuing Rusney Castillo: Tim Kennedy delves into the Giants' dealings with Cuban player Rusney Castillo. With the possibility of being a contributor to a major league team in 2014, he could certainly help out a Giants ball club fighting for its life. Follow on Twitter: @giantsbaseball

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The Replacements: Brandon Land takes a look at the current roster for the Rangers, and why it's unreasonable to have high expectations in a season so rife with injury. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away
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This could just be the circles I hang out in or the articles I read, but doesn't it seem like we've heard more about Javier Baez and Kris Bryant this year than Anthony Rizzo?

I mean, I get that we love prospects, we love the hype, we love to build these kids up as the next great thing. That's fun, it's even natural; after all, we're often bored with mediocrity and we can grow to detest lousy players.

The minor league exploits of Baez and Bryant -- and the recent major league exploits of Baez -- have certainly been enjoyable to follow, but their futures are unknown. Maybe they'll be great, maybe not; hype doesn't guarantee anything.

But the Chicago Cubs already have a great young player in Rizzo, who just turned 25 last week, and we seem to have widely ignored him, at least on a national level. OK, he hasn't been completely ignored -- he did make the All-Star team, after all -- but consider what he's done this year:
  • Second in the National League with 27 home runs. Maybe he doesn't hit them 800 feet like Giancarlo Stanton, but Rizzo has only four fewer home runs. I feel like I've seen every Stanton home run on the highlight reels but very few of Rizzo's.
  • He's seventh in the NL in on-base percentage and sixth in walks -- and walks are good. (Take note, Javier!)
  • He's third among major league first basemen in WAR, behind only Paul Goldschmidt and Jose Abreu, which means he ranks higher than Miguel Cabrera and Freddie Freeman.


I bring up Baez and Bryant because I think what happened with Rizzo flying under the radar this season is that after hitting .233 last year -- in his first full season in the majors, mind you -- fans sort of wrote Rizzo off to some extent. This is what happens with young players projected as potential stars; the expectations are high and the expectations are immediate. Will the same thing happen to Baez and Bryant if they don't hit 30 home runs in their first seasons?

Anyway, Rizzo still had a lot of positives in 2013: 23 home runs, 40 doubles, 76 walks. Those are all good things, even if they were lost in the .233 average. But he also may have been the unluckiest hitter in the majors last year. He had one of the lowest averages on balls in play (.258) in the majors, even though his "hard-hit" percentage ranked 24th among qualified batters. His line-drive percentage was league average. So there were no obvious pointers (like excessive infield popups) that explained the .258 BABIP.

He wasn't bad -- just unlucky. He still had the same skills that had impressed everyone during his partial season in 2012. This year, his BABIP is up (.297), his line-drive rate is up 2 percent and a higher percentage of his fly balls have cleared the fence instead of landing just short.

The exciting thing is he's still young enough to improve. Maybe you've moved on to Baez and Bryant. But the best Cubs hitter for the next six years? Don't be surprised if it's Rizzo.

Watch out for these spoilers

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
1:11
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Let's take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to discuss some of the teams on the fringes of the playoff races or those that have already made their October reservations at their favorite golf courses.

These teams are usually known as spoilers, but in this Year of Parity it's probable that one of them will actually go into the final week of the season with a chance to win a wild card. These are five teams currently under .500 that I expect to play well down the stretch.

1. Miami Marlins
[+] EnlargeGiancarlo Stanton
AP Photo/Joe SkipperGiancarlo Stanton is a big reason why contenders won't want to face the Marlins down the stretch.

We saw what can make them so dangerous on Tuesday, when they beat Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals 3-0 behind new acquisition Jarred Cosart, who pitched seven innings of three-hit baseball. Cosart has a good arm and throws a hard sinking fastball that generates a lot of ground balls -- when he can throw it for strikes as he did against the Cardinals with just one walk. The Astros were willing to punt on him after he had four straight bad starts in July and some perceived attitude problems that he didn't take well to instruction didn't help. Maybe a change of scenery will help; he's just 24 with 32 career starts now, young enough for things to click.

The Marlins are 59-60, and while they're mediocre, they're a young team incentivized to win and they have one of the No. 1 guys in the game who can beat you, Giancarlo Stanton. Witness Monday night, when his two bombs powered the Marlins to a 6-5 win over the Cardinals. They're just 3.5 games out of the second wild card -- thank you, National League -- so they certainly aren't out of the playoff picture. But until All-Star Henderson Alvarez returns, the rotation is shaky enough that veteran Brad Penny started the other day and won his first game since 2011.

Watch out: Braves (six games remaining) and Nationals (eight games).

2. Tampa Bay Rays

Like the Marlins, they're hanging in there at 5.5 games out of the second wild card, although they'd have to pass five teams to secure that position. Still, even without David Price, this could be a team that reels off nine wins in 10 games and suddenly gets right back in the thick of things.

Guess which team has the allowed the fewest runs per game since the All-Star break? That's why you can't count out the Rays just yet.

Plus, Evan Longoria has a big hot streak in him, right?

Watch out: Yankees (nine games), Blue Jays (nine games), Orioles (seven games).

3. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are out of it, but they've arguably been better than their 51-67 record indicates. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at FanGraphs the other day, the Cubs and Royals have basically the same BaseRuns record. What the heck does that mean? Just more sabermetric gobbledy gook? BaseRuns calculates how many runs a team "should" have scored or allowed, given a team's component statistics. Basically, the difference is that the Royals have been clutch and the Cubs have not.

What's that mean over the final weeks? Clutch isn't viewed in sabermetric circles as a predictable and repeatable skill, so it's possible the Cubs clutch up down the stretch and improve their hitting and pitching with runners on base or in close games or what have you.

Plus, the Cubs have some weapons that can beat you. Kyle Hendricks continues to look good in the rotation, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 3-0 on Tuesday. Anthony Rizzo is a power bat in the middle of the lineup -- he hit his 26th home run -- and young guys such as Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara could be intriguing down the stretch. Jake Arrieta had the one blowup start last week but has otherwise been pitching like a No. 1; you don't want to face him. Plus, we may see Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler called up as well.

Watch out: Brewers (eight games), Cardinals (seven games), Pirates (six games).

4. San Diego Padres

The Padres? The team that hit .171 in June? Yes, the Padres. But they can pitch and have gone 14-8 since the All-Star break. In particular, you don't want to run into Tyson Ross, who hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his past nine starts.

Watch out: Dodgers (nine games), Giants (seven games), Cardinals (four games).

5. Houston Astros

Well, I don't know about the Astros, but Chris Carter can single-handedly beat you with one three-run homer. He homered again on Tuesday and leads the majors with 15 big ones since the beginning of July -- five more than Stanton, the No. 2 guy. With 36 RBIs in 33 games, he has delivered a lot of damage lately. The pitching hasn't been very good of late, but the Astros have played well at times this year. Once George Springer returns to join Carter and Jose Altuve in the lineup, there may be just enough offense here to scare up some wins.

Watch out: A's (six games), Mariners (six games), Angels (five games).
After hitting the winning home run in his major league debut, Javier Baez followed up with two home runs in his third game. Not a bad start for the 21-year-old regarded as one of the top prospects in the game. Here's the report from ESPNChicago. He's just the fourth Chicago Cubs player to have a two-homer game at age 21 or younger and Cubs fans can only dream that he'll turn out as well as Ron Santo.

The two comparisons I see most often for Baez are Gary Sheffield and Manny Ramirez. Like Sheffield, Baez has sick bat speed and a similar pre-swing wiggle and bat wrap. His stance and follow-through echo Ramirez, who worked with him at Triple-A Iowa and has received credit for helping Baez turn it on after a miserable first six weeks to the season when he was hitting well under .200. Like both of those guys, Baez produces big power and that rare "crack" when he connects just right. I saw him hit two home runs in spring training, both mammoth shots where the sound of the blast thundered through the ballpark.

Let's make it clear, however: Sheffield and Ramirez were special hitters, two of the best right-handed hitters ever. The big difference between them and Baez is those two combined bat speed and power with excellent plate discipline, and in Sheffield's case, supreme contact skills. Baez hasn't shown near the same ability to control the strike zone.

In his career, Sheffield finished with a 13.5 percent walk rate and 10.7 percent strikeout rate. Even adjusting for the higher strikeout rates now, that's phenomenal hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition. Sheffield had this ability from the moment he turned pro. As a 19-year-old in Double-A and Triple-A, he had 56 walks and 63 strikeouts in 587 plate appearances. He walked more than he struck out as a 21-year-old for the Brewers. In his first season in the majors at 22, Ramirez had 42 walks and 72 strikeouts in 336 plate appearances and the next year he walked 75 times. At Iowa, Baez had 130 strikeouts and 34 walks in 434 plate appearances.

The good news for Baez is the strikeout-to-walk ratios improved slightly during the season:

April: 22/4
May: 41/8
June: 34/11
July/August: 36/11

There's a chance he ends up more like Alfonso Soriano: Lots of home runs, but with good-not-great averages and high strikeout rates and low walk rates that drag down his OBP. That's still a valuable contributor, especially since Baez should contribute more value defensively than Sheffield, Ramirez or Soriano if he can stick in the infield. But Baez is just 21; there's time to learn and improve. Even if the strikeout rates remain high, the hope is he'll eventually learn to take more walks.

There will likely be some growing pains as he adjusts to big league pitching. And Cubs fans should prepare themselves that Baez isn't guaranteed to be a star, let alone a hitter at the Sheffield-Ramirez level. But the talent is amazing and I expect in the long run he's going to be a very good player, a .260-ish hitter with 30-35 home run power (and maybe more).

ICYMI: SweetSpot trade deadline roundup

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
11:32
AM ET
Catch your breath yet? What a crazy few days across baseball. Winners and losers at the trade deadline? We've got all of that covered. Let's dive in and see what the local SweetSpot Network writers had to say about the deals that impacted their teams as well as the new landscape for the rest of the 2014 season and beyond.



New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Why Stephen Drew can help the Yankees: Katie Sharp dives deeper than the superficial season-to-date results posted by Drew and shows how he can provide a boost to the Yanks. Spoiler alerts: Bumps in hard-hit rates and a superior defender than the now-departed Brian Roberts (two ABs short of a bonus). Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Trade deadline thoughts and afterthoughts: The Yankees got four proven major leaguers in the middle-to-late parts of their primes for two cheap minor league signings, an injured spare bench part, and two low-probability prospects. Not bad. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS



Boston Red Sox: Firebrand of the AL
Yoenis Cespedes, Red Sox outfielder: Many have arrived in Boston only to be beat down by Fenway and the Green Monster. Brett Cowett looks at how Cespedes could possibly master Fenway Park. Follow on Twitter: @firebrandal.

Allen Craig and Joe Kelly: Who are they, and how do they fit in?: Shawn McFarland takes a quick look at the St. Louis duo, and how they can be major cogs in the Red Sox machine for years to come.



Detroit Tigers: Walkoff Woodward
The Price is right: Tigers land Rays ace: Alexandra Simon looks at the Tigers' acquisition of David Price and examines some of the fallout after the deal.

The present and future of the Tigers with Price: Grey Papke outlines what the Price trade means for the Tigers both immediately and in the coming seasons -- including Max Scherzer's Tigers future. Follow on Twitter: @walkoffwoodward.



Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
Brewers trade for Parra: The Brewers made their big move of the non-waiver deadline, acquiring outfielder Gerardo Parra from the Diamondbacks in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers. Ryan Topp reviews the trade, including concerns about a slip in Parra's defense. Follow on Twitter: @RDTopp.



New York Mets: Mets Today
Stephen Drew finally heads to New York -- and other deadline news: Joe Janish does a lap around the deals that made the 2014 trade deadline so exciting.



Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The Rangers Stand Pat: Brandon Land takes a look at what ended up being a rather uneventful deadline for Texas when compared to recent years. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away



Cincinnati Reds: Redleg Nation
Early trade deadline thoughts: More swings and misses: In recent years, the Reds have repeatedly swung and missed at the trade deadline. Last season they were the only major league team that didn’t make a single move in July or August. Other general managers come up with ideas that worked for each other and their owners. Steve Mancuso wonders if this indicates a failure of market evaluation. Follow on Twitter: @redlegnation.



St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Cardinals improve, but is it enough? In separate trades, the Cardinals supplemented their starting rotation, acquiring right-handers Justin Masterson and John Lackey. The moves were quintessentially Mozeliakian, as the GM followed his typical script by accurately identifying needs then fulfilling those needs with solid but not blockbuster (or bank-busting) transactions. The only question will be whether they’re enough. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.



Chicago Cubs: View From The BleachersAn ode to Darwin Barney: Luke Jett sends off fan favorite Darwin Barney with one last look back. Follow on Twitter: @lukejett.



Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Twins sign Suzuki to an extension: All-Star Kurt Suzuki was the Twins' best deadline trade chip, but instead of shipping him out they elected to extend his contract. John Bonnes takes a look at the move. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.


Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Indians ship Justin Masterson to Cardinals: Adam Hintz takes a look at the Masterson trade, new acquisition James Ramsey, and how the organizational outfield depth chart now shapes up. Follow on Twitter: @Palagoon.

Wrapping up Masterson's Tribe Ccreer: Ryan McCrystal looks back on the roller coaster ride that was Masterson's time in Cleveland, comparing him to not-so-great past Indians such as Roberto Hernandez and Dave Burba. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC.



Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Orioles gave up too much for Andrew Miller: Typically, prospects who are traded are over-ranked. That said, handing out a top 100 prospect in LHP Eduardo Rodriguez for a pitcher who will contribute at most 20 innings the rest of the season does not seem like the most sensible thing to do. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.



Los Angeles Angels: Halos Daily
What the big deadline deals mean for the Angels: Despite sitting the dance out, the Halos will still feel ripples from some of the deadline's biggest moves. Andrew Karcher takes a look at which trades could affect the club most down the stretch. Follow on Twitter: @andrewkarcher.


And some of the other non-trade deadline-related items from around the SweetSpot Network:


Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Are traded prospects worth less? Yes, they are, but there is a twist. Matt Perez looks at how the difference between prospect rank and value have changed over the years for players in trades. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot



Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
Frank Thomas memories: In the wake of his emotional induction into the Hall of Fame, the entire writing staff kicked in their favorite memories of the greatest hitter to ever put on a White Sox uniform. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.



Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Rockies bloggers panel 7/26/14: Listen to representatives from Rockies blogs talk about what's gone right and wrong for the Rockies team and the front office in 2014. Featured are Rockies Zingers writers Richard Bergstrom, Ryan Hammon and Adam Peterson; Drew Creasman from Purple Row; Michelle Stalnaker from RoxPile; and Zach Marburger from Mile High Sports. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.



New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Chase Headley more than a rental: Matt Bove examines the idea of Chase Headley being a legitimate long-term option for the Yankees at third base. Follow on Twitter: @rayrobert9.



St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Patience pays off for Carpenter: This year, Matt Carpenter is seeing pitches at a career-high rate. If he continues at this pace, he’ll finish the season with the team’s highest pitches-per-plate-appearance since the stat began being tracked in 1988. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.



Los Angeles Angels: Halos Daily
The real value of the league's "worst" prospects: For two years running now, the Angels farm system has been classified as the worst in the game. Nathan Aderhold investigates what kind of tangible value the club has derived from its farm hands the last two seasons. Follow on Twitter: @adrastusperkins.


Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
5:34
PM ET
We honored some new Hall of Famers on Sunday (Why just one, Braves?), including the unique and powerful Frank Thomas. The Hall also announced that the eligibility period will be decreased, which can hurt some players and could be a mistake. Meanwhile, the Hall of Very Good remembers Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva). Let's recap the best of the week that was here at the SweetSpot Network, as well as the best from our member sites.

Oh, and the trade season is upon us (Jake Peavy to the Giants; Kendrys Morales to the Mariners) and plenty of other chatter as the deadline is fast approaching and the Rays won't lose.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Prado once again finds patience is a virtue: Martin Prado is an unusual contact hitter in that he typically has one of the lowest swing rates in the majors. Jeffrey Bellone checks in on Prado's recent success. Follow on Twitter: @JeffreyBellone.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Who is the real Travis Wood? Noah Eisner takes a look at the performance of Wood compared to what we saw last year. Follow on Twitter: @Noah_Eisner.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The AL Central in 2015: With the White Sox far out of contention, Nick Schaefer looks ahead to how the division race will look next year. You won't believe this: The White Sox team blog is optimistic about their team's future. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Indians' best defender is ... Carlos Santana? Ryan McCrystal evaluates Santana's performance at first base, and how he's evolved into one of the more reliable defensive players on an otherwise shaky defensive squad.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Rockies Zingers first-half highlights: From Doctor Who parodies and Hologram John Denver, to swing mechanics and breaking unwritten rules, Rockies Zingers recaps the analysis and silliness from the first half, with features such as Denver comic Adam Cayton-Holland's experience throwing out the first pitch, Jason Hirsh discussing arm care and Maury Brown's opinion on whether the Rockies should be scared of the Dodgers' payroll. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Appreciating the amazing David Robertson: Katie Sharp breaks down just how dominant D-Rob has been this year in his first season manning the Yankee closer throne. Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Cashman deserves props for recent moves: Brad Vietrogoski examines the recent trades made by the Yankees and gives Brian Cashman credit for bringing in solid-to-very good value without giving up much in return. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Outfield offensive production rather shabby: Cardinals outfielders haven't produced much at the plate, and to make matters worse, they waste chances when they do actually reach base through poor base running. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
New Phil Hughes meets old Danks theory: The Rays continued their winning ways in the second half by using an unconventional lineup against the Twins' Phil Hughes as Tommy Rancel explains. Follow on Twitter: @TRancel.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.
OK, we're already a couple of days into the second half of the season, which actually begins well past the actual halfway point of the season, but here are the key players to watch for each National League team.

Atlanta Braves: Mike Minor
Well, we know it's not Dan Uggla. Minor began the season on the DL after a sore shoulder in spring training, and he hasn't been the same pitcher he was last season. The differences are small, but his stuff and command just haven't played up as well -- his swing-and-miss rate is down more than three percent and his overall strike rate is down 2 percent, and as a result his batting average allowed has increased from .232 to .295. The Braves are hoping that's simply tied to a high BABIP -- .348, seventh-worst among 124 pitchers with at least 75 innings -- but he's allowed 14 home runs in 83.1 innings.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper
He's hit .150 since coming off the DL and had two home runs in 123 at-bats at the All-Star break. Is the thumb healed? Is he still too young to be The Man in the Nationals' lineup? It will be intriguing to see what happens here.

New York Mets: Travis d'Arnaud
The Mets are counting on the rookie catcher as a big foundation piece for their future. He had trouble staying healthy in his minor league career and struggled at the plate early on, although hit well in his final 16 games before the All-Star break (.295/.338/.525), following a stint in Triple-A. He's proven he can hit in Las Vegas, but everyone can hit in Vegas. The question is if he can hit at the major league level.

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton
Must-see TV. The Marlins aren't going anywhere, so all eyes will be focused on Stanton. Could he win an MVP award if the Marlins don't even finish .500? Probably not. But I'm still watching.

Philadelphia Phillies: Domonic Brown
The focus on the Phillies will be on their veteran assets and whether general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will (or can) trade the likes of Marlon Byrd and others. But this might also be the most important two months of Brown's career. A year ago, Brown was an All-Star after hitting 23 home runs in the first half. In 2014, he was one of the worst players of the first half, with six home runs, a .279 OBP and poor defense -- a combination worth -1.4 WAR. Ouch. Can Brown salvage his season and give hope that he's part of the Phillies' future?

Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun
After dominating the NL Central for most of the first half, the Brewers left the All-Star break with a slim, one-game lead over the Cardinals. They've been all over the place with hot months and cold months and have probably settled near their true talent. In going through their roster, there aren't any obvious "over his head" candidates or "should play better" candidates. The one guy who has the capability of ripping it up for the next 60 games, however, is Braun. He had a good first half but not near his 41-homer level of 2012. Yes, you can assume and conclude whatever you want, but Braun could easily go out and hit 20 home runs the second half and carry the Brewers to a division title.

St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Holliday
Two numbers tell the tale of the Cardinals -- or rather, two sets of numbers:

2013 runs per game: 4.83 (first in NL)
2014 runs per game at the break: 3.75 (14th in NL)

2013 average with RISP: .330
2014 average with RISP: .248

The point: David Price would certainly be nice, but the Cardinals are more likely to rely on improvement from within. Holliday, who homered Friday, is one guy who could improve his offense after hitting .265 with six home runs in the first half. Cardinals fans will remember that Holliday had a monster second half last year -- .348/.442/.552.

Cincinnati Reds: Jay Bruce
Joey Votto's injury issues have left him less than 100 percent and a question mark as he sits on the DL. That leaves Bruce as the guy who needs to power a Reds lineup that is also missing Brandon Phillips as the second half kicks off. At 27, Bruce is at the age that many players have their peak season; instead, after hitting 30-plus homers the past three seasons, he's struggling through his worst year, hitting .229 with 10 home runs at the break. Bruce's main problem is simple: He hasn't been getting the ball in the air. His fly ball rate is down 15 percent from his average since 2009. More grounders equals fewer homers and, against shift, not enough base hits to compensate.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Francisco Liriano
This one's easy. A year ago, Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and then won the wild-card game. This year, he's 1-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 16 starts after allowing an unearned run in five innings on Friday. The difference in performance is clear when looking at his year-by-year walks per nine innings:

2014: 5.1
2013: 3.5
2012: 5.0
2011: 5.0

Yes, wins are team dependent to some degree, but the Pirates need Liriano to pitch closer to the ace he was a year ago.

Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant
Maybe it says something about the Cubs that the guy we care most about right now is in Triple-A. Then again, he entered the weekend hitting .350 with 32 home runs in the minors. Will we see him in September? He needs a higher league to give him a more difficult test.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp
Kemp began the second half with his agent Dave Stewart proclaiming that Kemp just wants to play every day and "his hope at some point is to get back to center." That's not going to happen, as the Dodgers finally realized Kemp's bad routes lead to too many bad plays in the outfield (he had the worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in the first half at any position). So that means Kemp will have to hit -- and play left field. He had a solid June, hitting .317/.375/.525. The Dodgers will happily take that at this point.

San Francisco Giants: Matt Cain
The fact that Cain is starting the Giants' fifth game after the break tells where he now sits in the San Francisco rotation. He has to do better than a 2-7 record and 4.15 ERA if the Giants are going to catch the Dodgers.

San Diego Padres: Andrew Cashner
Cashner is important because the Padres need him healthy for 2015. He's currently on the DL with a sore shoulder and is supposed to start playing catch again. It's not so much what he does the rest of the season, but that he returns at some point and proves the shoulder is sound.

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
Another lost season for the Rockies has turned ugly, as owner Dick Monfort told a disgruntled fan that "if it is that upsetting, don't come to the games," and then, when asked who was responsible for the Rockies' poor first half, said, "You would have to say it’s [assistant general manager] Bill Geivett. He’s responsible for the major league team." In the midst of this mess is Tulo, who is having an MVP-caliber season for a lousy team.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
3:59
PM ET
The ceremonial first half of the season is now behind us, and it's getting late early around here. The All-Star Game and accompanying goings-on were varying degrees of exciting and, umm, something less so, but that doesn't mean all of us at the SweetSpot weren't busy. Below are some of the best reading material from this past week. With no additional Derek Jeter mentions, promise.

Oh, and great googly moogly, Giancarlo Stanton. I don't care if you didn't win; that home run was worth sitting through a rain delay!

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Ziegler's extremely high value, and why he shouldn't be traded: Brad Ziegler leads all relievers in "soft hit average" and groundball percentage for the past three seasons. Ryan P. Morrison explains how Ziegler's groundball tendencies have value that traditional statistics don't capture. Follow on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.

Atlanta Braves: Chop County
Braves 2014 midseason top 25 prospects: Check out the latest ranking of top prospects in the Braves' system. Follow Chop County on Twitter @gondeee.

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Orioles' projected second half: Jon Shepherd takes a look at how projection models project the Orioles' second half. He finds that in the games remaining the team is expected to have the worst record in the division while also remaining in first place. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.

Chicago Cubs: View From the Bleachers
Grading the Cubs at the All-Star Break: Chris Neitzel takes a look at how the individual players and coaches grade out so far. Follow on Twitter: @bbcg105reasons.

What to do with Edwin Jackson: Noah Eisner examines a question that has been puzzling Cubs fans since the day the Cubs signed him. Follow on Twitter: @Noah_Eisner.

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Greatest Indians who were never All-Stars: Ryan McCrystal counts down the 10 greatest Indians of the All-Star Game era who were never selected to participate in the Midsummer Classic. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC.

CC Sabathia trade and the evolution of Michael Brantley: Stephanie Liscio takes a look at how Michael Brantley evolved from a player to be named later to All-Star outfielder. Follow on Twitter: @StephanieLiscio.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Dick and Dan and accountability at 20th and Blake: Dick Monfort believes Dan O'Dowd is one of the best general managers in baseball and does not want the Rockies' culture to change. Ryan Hammon evaluates O'Dowd's record and the criticism Monfort has received of late from the fans. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Trade candidate: Kurt Suzuki: Will the Twins make their All-Star catcher available to contenders at the deadline? Who might be interested? Seth Stohs digs in. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
The IIATMS/TYA 'At the Break' Awards: Domenic Lanza and the writers at IIATMS make their midseason picks for MLB's major awards plus their picks for the Yankees who have shined so far. Follow on Twitter: @DomenicLanza.

Has McCann broken out of his slump?: Brian McCann hasn't had a good debut in Pinstripes but has improved in recent weeks. Katie Sharp wonders if this trend will continue. Follow on Twitter @ktsharp.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
4:08
PM ET
Quite a week, eh? We've seen a massive "go for it" trade that paid quick dividends for the A's, some unfortunate DL news for the Yanks' Masahiro Tanaka and the Reds' Joey Votto, and a couple of disappointing vets were DFA'd. Although Carlos Beltran's facial fractures off a BP ricochet off his own bat and the screen takes the "freak injury" award this week.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
D-backs' slap-hitter offense decent but unusual: Though good overall, the Diamondbacks offense is among the worst in the majors in walks and "hard-hit average." Ryan P. Morrison draws from a quote from Bill James in wondering whether slap hitters are an inefficiency Arizona could exploit. Follow on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.

Wade Miley is the canary in the coal mine: The D-backs are sellers, but their moves so far have been short-term oriented. Jeff Wiser looks at Miley's value as a trade chip, and makes the case that what the team decides to do with Miley will tell us a lot. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24.

Atlanta Braves: Chop County
Mississippi Braves game report from 6/24/14: Photos and scouting reports on several of the Braves top prospects, including speedy second baseman Jose Peraza. Follow on Twitter: @gondeee.

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Examining Steve Pearce's fantastic, unexpected first half: Matt Kremnitzer dives into the play of Pearce, who has been a major reason why the Orioles currently reside in first place in the AL East. His season has been a wild ride of being designated for assignment as well as delivering outstanding play at the plate. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.

Boston Red Sox: Fire Brand of the American League
It's time for the Red Sox to sell: Alex Skillin writes that the Red Sox need to consider trading players such as Jake Peavy, Jonny Gomes and Koji Uehara to allow the team an opportunity to evaluate its younger talent, like Jackie Bradley Jr, Mookie Betts, and others who could benefit from full-time work. Follow on Twitter: @firebrandal.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Why you should be in favor of the big trade: Joe Aiello talks about the weekend deal that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland and why Cubs fans should be happy with the result. Follow on Twitter: @vftb.

What the Samardzija and Hammel trade means for the rebuild: Noah Eisner breaks down the deal further and looks at what it means going forward for the Cubs' farm system. Follow on Twitter: @Noah_Eisner.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The White Sox are not a bullpen away from being contenders: The White Sox bullpen is terrible, yet the team floats around near .500; would they be contenders if they could get some relievers? James Fegan says no. Follow on Twitter @TheCatbird_Seat.


Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
The 2014 Colorado Rockies: What went wrong?: Eric Garcia McKinley looks at the Rockies' first-half performance so far and discusses why the Rockies are doing so badly. It turns out that they weren't that good in the first place. Follow on Twitter: @garcia_mckinley.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
The real Brandon McCarthy: Katie Sharp gives Yankee fans on primer on their newest starting pitcher. Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Power-hitting Brett Gardner: Katie examines how Gardner's game has changed and power has become a part of it. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Matt Adams' secret: Better strike-zone discipline?: Since returning from the disabled list, Adams has been beating the shift and pretty much everything else that opposing teams have thrown at him. He credits improved strike-zone discipline. But is that really the case? Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The case for trading Alex Rios: Brandon Land examines the possibility of the Rangers trading Rios to retool for 2015 or 2016. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

An early theme of the 2014 season was parity: Through the first two months, just about every team could still sell themselves on a potential playoff chase. But the last month changed all that, especially in the National League, which has sorted itself into contenders and bad teams. A lot of bad teams.

The two groups:

Contenders: Brewers, Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, Giants, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates.

The bad teams: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs, Phillies, Padres, Mets.

That leaves only the Marlins in the mediocrity of the middle.

Some of those bad teams are likely to get worse. The Cubs just traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Diamondbacks lost Bronson Arroyo and traded Brandon McCarthy. The Rockies' pitching staff has been decimated with injuries. The Phillies are some form of unwatchable wretchedness right now.

All this means the remaining schedule for the playoff contenders could play a vital role in who wins the divisions and who wins the wild cards. So let's see how many games each of the contenders has remaining against our six bad teams.

Nationals (33) -- Mets (13), Phillies (13), Rockies (3), Padres (4).
Braves (27) -- Mets (8), Phillies (9), Cubs (3), Padres (7). They also have three against AL weakling Texas.

Brewers (19) -- Mets (4), Phillies (2), Cubs (10), Padres (3).
Cardinals (26) -- Phillies (3), Cubs (10), Padres (7), Rockies (3), Diamondbacks (3).
Reds (18) -- Mets (3), Cubs (8), Rockies (4), Diamondbacks (3).
Pirates (23) -- Phillies (4), Cubs (6), Padres (3), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (4).

Dodgers (31) -- Cubs (7), Padres (13), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (5).
Giants (37) -- Mets (4), Phillies (7), Cubs (3), Padres (7), Rockies (7), Diamondbacks (9).

Strength of schedule can be overrated, but you can clearly see the potential ramifications here. With four good teams, the NL Central teams have much tougher remaining schedules than the Nationals/Braves and Dodgers/Giants. The NL Central teams may beat up on each other, opening the door for the two wild cards to come from the NL East and NL West.

Digging deeper into the NL Central, here's how many games each has remaining against the other three contenders:

Brewers (28) -- Cardinals (13), Reds (9), Pirates (6).
Cardinals (31) -- Brewers (13), Reds (10), Pirates (8).
Reds (28) -- Brewers (9), Cardinals (10), Pirates (9).
Pirates (23) -- Brewers (6), Cardinals (8), Reds (9).

Something tells me those 13 remaining Brewers-Cardinals games will go a long ways towards deciding the division title.
Random thoughts for a Monday morning ...

1. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade just ramped up the cost for David Price. If the Cardinals want him, they better start with Oscar Taveras. If the Dodgers want him, they’re going to have to start with Joc Pederon or Corey Seager.

2. Joey Votto has basically been playing on one leg, so it’s no surprise that it appears he’s heading to the DL. I’ve been saying I still expect a four-team race in the NL Central, but with Votto struggling and Jay Bruce still yet to get untracked (he just snapped an 0-for-26 skid), the Reds are looking like the fourth-best team in that division.

3. Always love the All-Star controversies this time of year. Many deserving players got left off the AL roster -- Chris Sale, part of the final player vote, is one of the top five or six starters in the game. I can’t believe the players actually think Mark Buehrle and Scott Kazmir are better pitchers and have to think they failed to vote for Sale only because of his time on the DL.

4. If Giancarlo Stanton ends up starting at DH for the NL, the backup outfield pool will be pretty weak -- Hunter Pence, Charlie Blackmon and utility man Josh Harrison could end up deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. Of course, Mike Matheny could just play Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez the entire game.

5. That’s one of the incongruous things about Matheny selecting Harrison, Tony Watson and Pat Neshek: He clearly selected them for late-game matchup and versatility, to give the NL a better chance of winning. I certain understand that reasoning. But if winning is so important, then play some of your best players the entire game. Why bench Troy Tulowitzki just to get Starlin Castro a couple of at-bats if you're trying to win the game?

6. While Sale is the guy I’d give my final player vote to in the AL, I hope Garrett Richards eventually finds his way on to the team. He had another great outing on Sunday against the Astros with 11 strikeouts while averaging a career-high 97.3 mph with his fastball. He’s 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA since June 1. That sounds like an All-Star to me.

7. Of course, he faced the strikeout-prone Astros. Rookies George Springer and Jonathan Singleton went a combined 0-for-8 with seven K’s. Singleton is hitting .168 with 46 strikeouts in his first 32 games. Springer’s contact issues have been well documented. Domingo Santana was sent down after whiffing 11 times in his first 13 at-bats. As promising as those three guys are, and while strikeouts aren’t necessarily a bad thing for hitters, you do wonder if you can have too many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup. We’ll see how these guys develop and whether it becomes a long-term issue for Houston.

8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

9. Love the idea of Justin Morneau returning to Minnesota, but Anthony Rendon or Anthony Rizzo are clearly better players and more deserving of final player honors in the NL.

10. Now trending on Twitter: “LeBron James,” “Cleveland” and “Cavs.” How awesome would that be? But it’s not really going to happen, is it?

11. Andrew McCutchen: Making another run at MVP honors. Since June 1, he’s hit .364 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

12. Fun to watch play defense: Adam Eaton. Still can’t believe the Diamondbacks traded him and now they’re playing somebody named Ender Inciarte in center field.

13. Fun to watch hit: Jose Abreu. Loved the Abreu-King Felix showdown on Saturday. King Felix won as Abreu went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

14. It’s starting to look like CC Sabathia will miss the rest of the season. Joe Girardi is usually an optimistic guy so if he’s saying Sabathia is done he’s probably done. So here’s a question: What if Sabathia is also finished as a quality pitcher? Hall of Famer? He’s 208-119 in his career with a 3.63 ERA and 54.1 WAR. He can stick around and add some wins and a little bit of WAR, but his winning percentage likely goes down and his ERA likely goes up. He’s close now and while improving his win total with otherwise mediocre pitching shouldn’t be the difference in making him a Hall of Famer at this point, he probably needs to get another 25-30 wins for serious consideration.

15. The Yankees also designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, no surprise considering his struggles. I’m guessing somebody will give him a chance but with 71 strikeouts and just six walks his free-swinging approach finally got the best of him. Hell of a career though: 412 home runs, 289 stolen bases, seven-time All-Star. He was far from the perfect player but he delivered for a lot of years.

16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

17. Edwin Encarnacion’s injury should open a spot for Seager or Ian Kinsler to make the All-Star Game.

18. Better than I thought he’d be: Scooter Gennett.

19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

20. Mike Trout needs to be in the Home Run Derby.

21. The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 59 runs. The Padres have been outscored by 51 runs. Both teams have one All-Star.

22. That was a terrific Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, right up there with the famous Federer-Rafael Nadal final. Federer won his first grand slam tournament in 2003 and is still competing for titles 11 years later. Amazing athlete.

23. Among qualified starters, toughest fastball to hit this year: Johnny Cueto, .164 average, .439 OPS.

24. Easiest fastball to hit: Ricky Nolasco has allowed a .364/.422/.618 line against his fastball. No surprise to Twins fans.

25. Easier fastball to hit than you would think: Batters are hitting .337/.381/.516 against Stephen Strasburg’s fastball.

26. Best curveball so far: Corey Kluber has held opponents to an .080 average and .219 OPS. (For comparison, batters have hit .156 against Adam Wainwright’s curve and .173 against Clayton Kershaw’s curve.)

27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

28. Toughest slider so far: Johnny Cueto, again. Batters are hitting .176 with a .509 OPS against it.

29. Toughest changeup: In 178 plate appearances ending with a changeup, opponents are hitting .110/.136/.151 against Felix Hernandez.

30. I’m not counting the Rays out just yet.

31. Cool All-Star factoid: For the first time in American League history, the eight starting position players will come from eight different teams. Of course, Nelson Cruz is starting at DH, so there will be two Orioles in the starting nine.

32. For all the David Price to the Cardinals rumors, they need to start scoring runs and that’s going to have to happen from within as there just aren’t big impact bats out there (Marlon Byrd?). The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in runs and last in home runs. Trouble is, where’s the power going to come from? Matt Holliday has only five home runs, so he’s the logical answer, but there’s no reason to expect Matt Adams (nine) or Allen Craig (seven) to suddenly start blasting more home runs.

33. I like what I’ve seen from this Eugenio Suarez kid at shortstop for the Tigers. Not sure about his defensive chops yet but he’s been a positive at the plate.

34. The Blue Jays just got their butts kicked in Oakland and you have to wonder if this team already peaked. They were six games up on June 6 and now trail the Orioles by two games, having gone 9-19 in 28 games since that high-water mark. And don’t blame the pitching: The offense, which scored four runs in the four-game sweep to the A’s, has hit .235/.302/.366 since June 6.

35. Better than I thought he'd be: Dallas Keuchel.

36. Fun to watch: The Mariners bullpen has been lights out for two months. It has the best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 2.02 ERA since May 1 and 1.52 since June 1. Brandon Maurer, the failed starter, is the latest weapon down there, throwing smoke 97-mph smoke since he's been moved to relief.

37. Fun to listen to: My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft on the Fantasy Focus podcast. Here's today’s show, including ramifications of the Samardzija trade, the Votto and Encarnacion injuries and the Brandon McCarthy trade to the Yankees.

38. Hard to say if Tim Lincecum has improved or just benefited from facing some weak lineups of late. He does have a 1.75 ERA over his past five starts but two of those starts came against the Padres and one against the Cardinals. He has 25 strikeouts in 35 innings, so he hasn’t ramped up the K rate or anything. I’m not convinced he’s turned the corner just yet.

39. Not getting any recognition for a solid season: Justin Upton.

40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

41. Pat Neshek is a great story, a minor league invite to spring training for the Cardinals and now an All-Star. I got into a debate on Twitter last night about All-Star relievers -- people were asking why guys like Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara and others didn't make it despite great numbers. I pointed out that lots of relievers are having great seasons. It's just not that special to have 35 great innings out of the bullpen. As a point of reference, just look at some of last year's All-Star relievers: Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Edward Mujica, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain. That said, if you're going to pick relievers, Neshek has been as good as any in the game so far.

42. Unique: Henderson Alvarez. He doesn't rack up strikeouts (70 in 115 innings) but that hard sinking fastball is hard to get into the air (five home runs allowed) and he's walked just 22 batters. I believe he's the real deal, which only reinforces the huge blow to the Marlins when Jose Fernandez went down.

43. Bryce Harper is 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts and two walks since coming off the DL. One Nationals fan tweeted me that he doesn't look completely healthy and has had some awkward swings. I don't the think the Nationals would have activated him if he wasn't healthy, but there's no doubt that Harper put added pressure on himself with his comments about how the Nationals' lineup should look. It's OK to say that if you're producing but not if you're striking out twice a game.

44. Remember that season of parity we were having? Things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. In fact, we suddenly have a fair share of bad teams instead of mediocre teams -- Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Twins, maybe even the Red Sox. The Cubs will probably fade even more after Samardzija-Hammel trade. The Mets may or may not be bad instead of mediocre.

45. Which leads to: Tanking! That should be fun in the second half. Remember, it pays to finish with one of the worst 10 records.

46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

47. Loving Gregory Polanco. I was admittedly a little skeptical, in part because I didn't want to fall prey to prospect hype. I've been most impressed with his approach at the plate -- 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 25 games, nice to see after walking just 25 times in 62 games in Triple-A. If that kind of discipline continues, I like his ability to hit for a decent average and get on base. Then maybe next year comes the power.

48. Things I didn’t see coming: Jeff Locke. Now 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and he’s pitched seven-plus innings in five of those games.

49. Must-see TV on Friday: Jeff Samardzija versus Felix Hernandez.

50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.


I wonder who was more nervous on Sunday afternoon: Jeff Samardzija or Billy Beane?

Beane is notorious for not actually watching Oakland's games, but I would guess he paid a little more attention to this one. Samardzija made his A's debut against the Blue Jays. And while it was just one start of 16 or so he'll make for Oakland this season -- and hopefully a few more in October -- it was an important one. Samardzija obviously wanted to get off to a good start for his new teammates, and Beane, not that he cares what the pundits say about the deal, certainly has a lot riding on Samardzija's performance.

Samardzija was terrific, allowing five hits and one run in seven innings as the A's beat the Blue Jays 4-2. Pumping it up to 97 mph on the radar gun, Samardzija flashed the big right arm that turned him into one of the National League's best pitchers with the Cubs (he had been voted on to the NL All-Star team by the players despite his 2-7 record). But the 29-year-old had something to prove as well: After posting a 1.68 ERA through May, he'd had two rough outings in June that pushed his ERA to 5.45 for the month and 2.83 for the season. Beane is betting those starts were an aberration and that he just traded for a guy who can join Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray for a 1-2-3 combo that lines up nicely in a playoff series in some order (with Jason Hammel, also acquired in Friday night's big trade, in the mix as a fourth starter).

Samardzija threw 57 fastballs, and while he didn't record any strikeouts with it, he did get eight groundballs. That's been a key to his improvement this year: After allowing 20 home runs in 2012 and 25 in 2013, he's allowed just seven this year as his groundball rate has risen from 45 percent two years ago to 54 percent. Four of his five strikeouts came on his splitter, and that pitch and his slider give him two wipeout weapons when he gets to two strikes. Batters are hitting .111 against the splitter and .206 against the slider, with just two home runs combined in 131 at-bats ending with those pitches. With his four-seamer, two-seam sinking fastball and cutter, he's developed into a five-pitch guy, all arguably above-average pitches.

[+] EnlargeSamardzija
AP Photo/Ben MargotJeff Samardzija pitched like an All-Star in his seven-inning debut with the A's.
"First impressions are always important," Samardzija said after the game. He also seemed to gain a quick appreciation for his new offense after being staked to an early lead. "The way [the A's] take at-bats is outstanding." No knock against the Cubs or anything.

"He was pretty unbelievable today," A's catcher Derek Norris told MLB.com. "It was even better than I anticipated. Definitely had some adrenaline going through his veins, and you could tell the passion and the excitement in his body language."

That attitude was one reason Beane was willing to mortgage what was supposed to be a big part of Oakland's future -- 20-year-old Double-A shortstop Addison Russell, widely considered as one of the game's top 10 prospects. Trading Russell led to a lot of criticism of the deal, that Beane gave up too much in Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney (the team's 2013 first-round pick) and pitcher Dan Straily for Samardzija, who is under team control for one more season, and Hammel, an impending free agent.

That criticism is a reflection of how prospects are valued these days -- maybe overvalued. There is no guarantee that Russell will develop into a star, as promising as he looks right now. Do I really need to list other recent top prospects? Jesus Montero? Domonic Brown? Dustin Ackley? Mike Moustakas? Those were can't-miss guys.

So you never know. But Beane knows he acquired an All-Star-quality starter and another solid starter in Hammel. Yes, it's possible that both just pitched the best three months of their careers, but the Oakland rotation was in need of some new blood and depth. After a hot April, its ERA had increased in May and then again in June. With the division suddenly in jeopardy with the Angels and Mariners looking tough, it was risky for the A's to continue betting on Jesse Chavez and Tommy Milone and Brad Mills to carry too much of the load.

As much as anything, that's why Beane needed to make the trade. There's obviously huge importance to winning the division and avoiding the wild-card game. Just listen to A's players after the trade was made, from Jane Lee's article at MLB.com:

Norris: "It's a monster trade. When you trade two recent first-rounders, it speaks volumes of what we're trying to do here. We're trying to take this good start we've gotten off to and make a good second-half push. I think it just takes us to a new level where, one through five, we have proven arms coming in and out."

Brandon Moss: "They just got rid of their top two prospects. Not very many organizations do that, regardless of contending or not. Usually when there are teams doing that, it's because they feel like they have an extremely special group that has a chance to do special things. It says a lot about the faith they have in us in this clubhouse, and it says a lot about the faith in the guys that they acquired, and obviously it took a lot to get them."

Sean Doolittle: "The goal is to win the division and get to the playoffs. Once you're there, anything can happen. We think we were built to make a little bit of a run, but none of that is even possible if we don't win the division."

Of course, many will grade this trade on one aspect: Whether or not the A's win (or at least reach) the World Series. I don't think that's quite fair; as Doolittle said, anything can happen in the playoffs. If Samardzija and Hammel pitch well and the A's win the division title, that justifies the risk Beane has taken. Yes, Russell may blossom with the Cubs. But I suppose Beane's response is that there a different ways to win a trade. Especially for a small-market club like the A's that has a group it won't be able to keep intact much longer.

I do agree with something Joe Sheehan wrote after the trade, however; this deal will be a critical part of the legacies for both Beane and Cubs team president Theo Epstein (Jed Hoyer is the Cubs GM, but Epstein, as Joe wrote, is still the face of the front office). Beane probably doesn't care much about his legacy either. He cares about that elusive World Series trip.

As Samardzija showed on Sunday, he can help the A's get there.

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