SweetSpot: Chicago Cubs

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.
We've reached the most fun part of the All-Star Game: Arguing about the final rosters.

The starters and reserves were named on Sunday and it was interesting to note the different philosophies of managers John Farrell and Mike Matheny in filling out their rosters. As expected, some worthy American League players were excluded and there were a couple surprising choices in the National League.

Some quick thoughts:

Worst American League starter: Derek Jeter, Yankees. While I actually don't have that big of an issue with Jeter starting -- there is no Troy Tulowitzki in the AL that he's keeping out of the lineup -- he's probably the worst starter we've had in a long time, hitting an empty .273 with mediocre defense and no power, worth 0.5 WAR so far. Matt Wieters was inexplicably voted in by the fans at catcher, but since he's out for the season, Salvador Perez will rightfully start in his place.

Worst National League starter: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers. Cincinnati's Todd Frazier is clearly the deserving starter at third base based on 2014 numbers while Ramirez is hitting .287 with 11 home runs. Considering Frazier, Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals and Anthony Rendon of the Nationals are better all-around players than Ramirez, his selection cost somebody an All-Star spot (Rendon is on the final player ballot).

Best ballot stuffing: Orioles and Brewers fans. Who says you need to play for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers to have an edge in fan balloting? Adam Jones was never in the top three among outfielders until passing Yoenis Cespedes at the wire. He's a fine selection, however, and has come on strong after a slow April. Orioles fans also voted in Wieters and Nelson Cruz in that crowded DH slot that included Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Moss and David Ortiz. Likewise, Carlos Gomez passed Giancarlo Stanton for the third outfield spot in the NL behind Yasiel Puig and Andrew McCutchen. Stanton clearly should be starting but Gomez is arguably one of the top three outfielders in the NL. Brewers fans, however, couldn't get Jonathan Lucroy voted in over Yadier Molina, so Lucroy will be the backup.

National League DH should be: Stanton. Pretty each choice here for Matheny. Heck, start him and let him play the entire game. A nation that never watches Marlins games should see this guy get four at-bats.

Jeff Samardzija, almost an All-Star. The players had actually voted for Samardzija as one of the five best starters in the NL, along with Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Samardzija had a 1.68 ERA through May, so you can see why he fared well in the balloting. His ERA had since climbed to 2.83 with some bad outings and he was replaced by Julio Teheran of the Braves.

Worst player selection: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies. The players actually did a much better job than they usually do and Blackmon's selection was the only dubious choice, a guy who had a monster April but is down to .295/.341/.463, mediocre numbers for a guy who plays in Colorado. To be fair, the NL lacked obvious choices for the fifth and sixth outfielders, but they somehow came up with a player ranked 21st among NL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR. Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Billy Hamilton or even Rockies teammate Corey Dickerson (hitting .340) would have been better selections.

The AL crunch: Farrell had some tough choices in filling out his squad. His manager selections were Jon Lester (deserving and the only Red Sox rep), David Price (deserving and the only Rays rep), Glen Perkins of the Twins, Max Scherzer of the Tigers, Kurt Suzuki of the Twins (a third catcher), Encarnacion and Moss. I guess you have to carry three catchers and I don't have a problem with the Scherzer selection. Encarnacion was a lock with his big numbers so the final choice probably came down to Moss or another player.

Biggest snubs: Ian Kinsler, Tigers; Kyle Seager, Mariners. And that led to Kinser and Seager being this year's biggest snubs. Entering Sunday, Kinsler ranked third among AL position players in fWAR and Seager seventh. In Baseball-Reference WAR, they ranked third and sixth, so by either measure two of the AL's top 10 players didn't make it. It's not that an undeserving player made it -- the players voted in Jose Altuve and Adrian Beltre as the backups at second and third -- just that there were too many good players and not enough spots (unless you want to knock out a third catcher). You can debate the Moss selection, but I can see the desire to have the left-handed power off the bench if needed late in the game. (Remember, it counts!)

Matt Carpenter and Pat Neshek are good selections: Matheny picked two of his own players -- third baseman Carpenter and righty reliever Neshek. I'm sure both picks will be criticized but when you dig into the numbers, both are worthy choices. Carpenter isn't having as good a season as last year, but he's still 10th among NL position players in fWAR and 15th in bWAR. Please, I don't want to hear that Casey McGehee is more deserving.

As for Neshek, his numbers are outstanding: 0.78 ERA, 35 strikeouts, four walks and a .134 average allowed. He has been as dominant as any reliever in the game, even if he's not a closer. He's also a great story, once one of the game's top set-up guys with the Twins in 2007 but suffering years of injuries since. On the day the A's clinched the AL West on the final day of the 2012 season, his infant son died after just 23 hours. The Cardinals signed him in February to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, so Neshek certainly qualifies as this year's most improbable All-Star (along with Dellin Betances of the Yankees).

I suspect Matheny also picked Neshek for late-game strategic purposes -- his sidearm delivery is killer on right-handed batters (although he has been just as effective against lefties this year), so you can see him matching up against Encarnacion or Jose Abreu if there's a big moment late in the game. Similarly, Matheny picked Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson, a good strategic move since he had only three other lefties on the team.

Strangest selection: That picking reserves for strategic reasons also led to the selection of Pirates utility man Josh Harrison. I get it: He's having a nice season and can play multiple positions, but it's a little odd to pick a guy who doesn't even start regularly for his own team (reminiscent of the Omar Infante choice a few years ago). Rendon -- who has played second and third -- is the better player and Matheny already had versatility with Carpenter and Dee Gordon.

Best AL final man: Chris Sale, White Sox. Farrell went with five pitchers -- Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards and Rick Porcello. I wrote the other day that four of these guys would be battling for a spot or two (along with Scott Kazmir, who got voted on by the players). All are worthy but the best choice is pretty easy since Sale is one of the top starters in the game and would have otherwise already made the team if not missing some time with an injury.

Best NL final man: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. Torn here between Rizzo and Rendon, but since Matheny has already loaded up with third basemen and second basemen, let's go with Rizzo in case you need to swing for the fences late in the game.

Suggested AL lineup: Jeter better hit ninth. Mike Trout, CF; Robinson Cano, 2B; Jose Bautista, RF; Miguel Cabrera, 1B; Nelson Cruz, DH; Adam Jones, LF; Josh Donaldson, 3B; Salvador Perez, C; Derek Jeter, SS. With Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Suggested NL lineup. Yasiel Puig, RF; Andrew McCutchen, CF; Troy Tulowitzki, SS; Giancarlo Stanton, DH; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B; Carlos Gomez, LF; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Chase Utley, 2B; Yadier Molina, C. With Clayton Kershaw on the bump.
We're going division by division to look at what each team needs to do at the trade deadline and what may actually happen. As always, you can keep up with the latest trade talk at Rumor Central.


Chicago Cubs

Status: Moving parts to build the farm. Friday night's trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A's removed two of the biggest names that were available.

Biggest needs: Right now the Cubs have enjoyed some recent success, sporting a four-game win streak that included a sweep over the defending champion Boston Red Sox. However, it’s important to remember where this team is in the rebuilding process. Right now their biggest need is minor league talent, regardless of position, but with an emphasis on near major league-ready starting pitching. They didn't get that with Addison Russell, the 20-year-old shortstop in Double-A, but he was too talented to pass up.

Other possible trade chips: With the blockbuster deal with the A's, the Cubs' available pieces have been considerably depleted. There are still names on the roster that can be had, but they aren't impact players. Guys like Nate Schierholtz, Darwin Barney and Carlos Villanueva are all available, but all figure to be role players designed to help a team fill out the back part of a roster.

The future: The Cubs now have a logjam in the infield, with Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Russell all capable of playing shortstop. You can eventually move one to second base and one to third, but Kris Bryant is also there at third. Since being drafted with the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Bryant has been a freak of nature with the bat and has accelerated quickly through the system. The rise has been so fast and the success so big (.357, 29 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A) that a lot of Cub fans have begun to wonder if Bryant could see Wrigley this season. It will be interesting to see how all this works itself out and if Baez or Castro will eventually be used to acquire pitching.

-- Joe Aiello, The View from the Bleachers



Cincinnati Reds

Status: Bargain shoppers.

Biggest needs: The Reds are tenth in the National League in runs scored, so upgrading the offense should be the first priority for GM Walt Jocketty. Shortstop has been the least productive position, but at least Zack Cozart has been playing elite defense. Cincinnati would be better served trying to land a left fielder to replace the three-headed Ryan Ludwick/ Chris Heisey/ Skip Schumaker combination. The Reds also need to find an effective relief pitcher or two, as the bullpen has been one of the worst in the league, by almost any measure.

Possible trade targets: OF Seth Smith, OF Matt Joyce; a seventh-inning-type bullpen arm.

That prospect everyone will want but the Reds won’t want to trade: RHP Ben Lively tore through the California League before his promotion to Double-A Pensacola, posting a 10-1 record with a 2.28 ERA, 95 strikeouts, and only 16 walks in 13 starts. He has a live arm, and stands a good chance of competing for a spot in Cincinnati's rotation at some point in 2015.

Likely scenario: Seth Smith, an impending free agent, would look good in red and white, but it has been a long time since Jocketty took any direct action to improve the Reds by bringing in real talent from outside the organization. The most likely scenario, frankly, is that budget constraints and lack of trade bait cause him to continue sitting on his hands. Look for the Reds to seek to land a set-up reliever, possibly a lefty in light of Sean Marshall's continuing injury problems.

-- Chad Dotson, Redleg Nation



Milwaukee Brewers

Status: Trying to lock up the NL Central.

Biggest needs: The Brewers opened play on Saturday with a four-game lead over the Cardinals in the NL Central, which was tied for the largest lead in any division. They've done it by getting contributions from up and down the roster, so there really aren't a lot of big holes to fill here. The main areas of need are the bench, specifically a left-handed power bat who can play first base or a corner outfield spot and a utility infielder who can play short and third. They could also possibly use a right-handed reliever for setup.

Possible trade targets: OF Nate Schierholtz; 1B Adam Dunn; IF Kelly Johnson; RP Koji Uehara.

The untouchables: The Brewers' much-maligned farm system has taken a significant step forward this year, headlined by the breakout performance of starter Jimmy Nelson in Triple-A. Down in A-ball, OF Tyrone Taylor, SS Orlando Arcia and C Clint Coulter are having the kinds of seasons that would make them attractive players to ask for in trade. That being said, it's hard to imagine them giving up any of these players to fill these second- and third-tier needs the team has to fill.

What probably won't happen ... but might: Brewers owner Mark Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin haven't been shy about making big, splashy moves when contending in the past, so we shouldn't completely rule out the earth-shattering blockbuster. The Brewers did send a scout to watch a recent David Price start, and he would give them the obvious ace that their more balanced rotation lacks. It's not likely because they could easily be outbid by teams with better systems and they don't really need to do it, but don't rule it out.

What probably will happen: Melvin has talked quite a bit in the local media about his desire to add a right-handed reliever who can pitch late in games, so unless either Tyler Thornburg or Jim Henderson get healthy over the next month something will probably happen on this front. Despite some recent protestations from Melvin that they don't have big needs for bats, it's hard to see them standing completely pat without adding at least one player who can hit off the bench.

-- Ryan Topp, Disciples of Uecker



Pittsburgh Pirates

Status: After a slow start, they're back in it. Since May, the Pirates are tied with the A's for the best record in the majors.

Biggest needs: Starting rotation. The rotation has been better since May 2, but even then the 3.90 ERA is just ninth in the National League. Among position players, first base remains the biggest hole, as Pirates first basemen (mostly Ike Davis) have been worth 1.4 wins below average. They already made the Jason Grilli-Ernesto Frieri trade but could use another bullpen arm for depth.

Possible trade targets: SP A.J. Burnett ($15 million mutual option or $7.5 million player option for 2015); 1B Justin Morneau ($6.75 million in 2015); SP Jon Lester (free agent); SP David Price (under team control for one more season); RP Chad Qualls ($3 million in 2015); RP Tony Sipp.

Likely scenario: Jeff Locke and Vance Worley have helped solidify the rotation of late with Francisco Liriano on the DL, but you probably can't rely on those two to keep this up (although Locke's walk rate has been much improved from last season). The rotation is OK enough that it makes sense for the Pirates to only go after one of the big guns -- which means Price or Lester, now that the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Pirates have pitching prospects like Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow that are certainly interesting, but the Pirates have to get closer to the Brewers before management would consider such a big trade and added salary. As for first base, maybe Clint Hurdle should see if super utility guy Josh Harrison could handle the position to at least platoon with Davis.

In the end, the Pirates probably stick with what they have and hope Liriano and Gerrit Cole have better second halves and that one of Locke or Worley manages to hold his own.

-- David Schoenfield



St. Louis Cardinals

Status: Chasing the Brewers while in the thick of the wild-card race.

Biggest needs: It's easy to point to the rotation now that Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia are on the disabled list, but the offense is just 13th in the NL in runs while ranking last in home runs. Second base has been a disaster, with a combined line of .201/.268/.260.

Possible trade targets: SP David Price; SP Jon Lester; 2B Aaron Hill ($12 million per year in 2015 and 2016); 2B/OF Ben Zobrist ($7.5 million in 2015); 3B Martin Prado ($11 million in 2015 and 2016).

The big chip: OF Oscar Taveras remains one of baseball's top prospects, despite a lackluster .196 mark in 15 games with the Cardinals earlier this season (he's hit .318/.370/.502 in Triple-A).

Likely scenario: The Cardinals and Dodgers remain the two teams most often tied to Price, largely because they have quality and depth in the farm system to deal from. A lot depends on the prognosis of Wacha; if he can't come back, the Cardinals are more likely to go after Price or maybe Lester if he becomes available. That said, Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis haven't produced at second and that could be filled much easier (Matt Carpenter can always move back there if they go after a third baseman like Prado). Either way, considering the ages of guys like Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Allen Craig, there's some imperative for St. Louis to make a deal this year.

--David Schoenfield
Billy Beane had to make this trade.

The Oakland A's might not be in this position a year from now, let alone three years or five or 10. The A's have been the best team in baseball in this season of parity, a season without a clear title favorite. But the A's had a flaw -- or the potential for one -- and Beane couldn't afford to let his team whither as the rotation slowly disintegrated.

So give him credit for having the guts to trade 20-year-old Double-A shortstop Addison Russell and Class A outfielder Billy McKinney to the Cubs for two-fifths of a championship rotation in Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Those two will join Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray and whoever holds down the fifth spot to now give the A's maybe the best rotation in the American League to go with what has been the league's most potent offense.

The rotation leads the AL in ERA, a surprising development given the season-ending injuries to Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin in spring training, but has been progressively worse each month since a blistering April. Given that Gray and Jesse Chavez have never pitched a full season in a big league rotation and Kazmir hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2008, there was also concern about the rotation wearing down.

Now Beane has added two guys currently sporting ERAs under 3.00 with excellent peripherals. Yes, trading a cheap, team-controlled potential star such as Russell, a top-10 prospect entering the season, is antithetical to what small-market teams with limited resources normally do, but consider that Beane might not be able to keep this core together much longer.

Josh Donaldson will start to get expensive next year, and Brandon Moss will be due for a big raise. Jed Lowrie will a free agent after this season, and perhaps most problematic, Yoenis Cespedes will be a free agent after the 2015 season.

So, yes, I love the move to go for it now. Interestingly, I had proposed on Twitter on Thursday night the idea of trading Russell for David Price. Reaction was split, though I'd say a small majority favored the A's keeping Russell.

Such is the world we live in, where prospects are coveted like gold. Russell will likely develop into a nice player; when I talked to him in spring training he came across as a quiet but confident kid with a good head on his shoulders. Donaldson praised not just Russell's talent but also his work ethic. It certainly wasn't easy for Beane to trade his shortstop of the future.

But Beane is eyeing his own gold -- the kind you put in a World Series ring. And this trade clearly makes the A's the World Series favorite.


Jim Bowden, Jerry Crasnick, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and myself presented our 34-man All-Star rosters today. Here are our National League selections and here are our American League selections. Of course, our choices aren't affected by fan balloting or the players choosing the wrong backup (although we did stick to the rule of requiring one rep from each team), so the real rosters will likely include some names that none of us included.

I thought I'd explain my selections in a little more detail.

National League

I thought the NL selections were much easier than the AL. In fact, I struggled to find obvious candidates for the final couple of spots.

Starters
C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
1B -- Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
2B -- Chase Utley, Phillies
3B -- Todd Frazier, Reds
SS -- Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
LF -- Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
CF -- Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
RF -- Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
DH -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
SP -- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

I thought this was pretty straightforward, with the only debate being Puig or Carlos Gomez for the third outfield spot. I settled it this way: Who would I rather see? And that tiebreaker goes to Puig. I could have made Gomez the DH, but the NL was lacking in other outfield candidates, so I cleared some of the logjam at first base by making Freeman the DH and bringing Gomez off the bench. Sorry, Carlos.

Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright certainly have strong arguments to start and if you want to disagree with Kershaw, I won't put up much of a fight. Yes, he missed a month, but he's back, he's dominating and he's the best pitcher in the game.

Reserves
C -- Yadier Molina, Cardinals
C -- Devin Mesoraco, Reds
C -- Buster Posey, Giants
1B -- Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
2B -- Daniel Murphy, Mets
2B -- Dee Gordon, Dodgers
3B -- Anthony Rendon, Nationals
3B -- Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
SS -- Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
OF -- Carlos Gomez, Brewers
OF -- Ryan Braun, Brewers
OF -- Justin Upton, Braves

I went three catchers because all are deserving. Molina and Posey maybe aren't having their typical seasons but they're two of the biggest stars in the game and Mesoraco makes it over the injured Evan Gattis for his monster first half. Rizzo was an easy call over Adam LaRoche and Justin Morneau, as nice a story as it would be to see Morneau go back to Minnesota (I have a feeling that he'll somehow make the real All-Star team). Murphy makes it as my lone Mets' rep and I took Hanley over Starlin Castro and Jhonny Peralta, although any of three are justifiable. Rendon is a rising star and second among NL third basemen in WAR. Carpenter isn't having the year he had last year but still has a .378 OBP and 53 runs scored. He's a better player than Aramis Ramirez or Casey McGehee, plus he can play second if needed (the game counts after all!)

After Gomez, the outfield choices were more difficult. In the end, I went with Braun and Upton over Hunter Pence, Jason Heyward's defense and rookie speedster Billy Hamilton. I was the only one to pick Braun, but he's hitting .293/.342/.515 and, like him or not, it's called the All-STAR Game and Braun is a star. My final choice was one of tactics: It came down to Gordon or Hamilton over Pence, to have a pinch-running option late in a close game if needed. Gordon has the better success rate (and has been a little better at the plate), so he gets the nod.

Pitching staff
SP -- Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
SP -- Johnny Cueto, Reds
SP -- Julio Teheran, Braves
SP -- Zack Greinke, Dodgers
SP -- Madison Bumgarner, Giants
SP -- Tim Hudson, Giants
SP -- Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
SP -- Jake Arrieta, Cubs
RP -- Craig Kimbrel, Braves
RP -- Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers
RP -- Huston Street, Padres
RP -- Aroldis Chapman, Reds

We had to pick four relievers and these four were pretty clear. Street gives me a Padres rep and Chapman, while missing time after his spring training line drive to the head, is one of the game's star relievers and has struck out 46 batters in 23.2 innings. For the starters, the first six listed above were pretty clear selections. I went with Zimmermann over teammate Stephen Strasburg and then Arrieta for the final spot. Maybe that's dubious choice since he's really had just the one dominant month, but he is 5-1 with a 1.81 ERA and has terrific periphals. If you want to go with Strasburg or his Cubs teammate Jason Hammel instead, that's fine with me.

The one concern here is that with Kershaw starting, there are only two lefties in the pen in Bumgarner and Chapman. For that reason, I did consider Cole Hamels, who has been great even if his 2-5 record isn't. The actual roster will likely include a couple replacements like it always does, so I could see a lefty setup guy like Tony Watson (0.93 ERA) of the Pirates eventually making it.

Just missed: Hamilton, Pence, Strasburg, Hammel, Henderson Alvarez.

American League

C -- Salvador Perez, Royals
1B -- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2B -- Robinson Cano, Mariners
3B -- Josh Donaldson, A's
SS -- Derek Jeter, Yankees
LF -- Michael Brantley, Indians
CF -- Mike Trout, Angels
RF -- Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
DH -- Victor Martienez, Tigers
SP -- Felix Hernandez, Mariners

Derek Jeter? OK, Derek Jeter. Of course he doesn't deserve to make the team on his 2014 merit, but in lieu of a Tulowitzki or even half of a Tulowitzki in the AL, he's the guy I want to see start. At third, you could go Donaldson, Adrian Beltre or Kyle Seager. Donaldson holds a slight edge over Seager in FanGraphs WAR and a bigger one on Baseball-Reference, with Beltre well behind on both, so Donaldson gets my nod. Left field could be Brantley or Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes or Nelson Cruz, who is listed on the ballot as a DH although has started 38 games in left. I went with Brantley but, really, any of the four are reasonable selections. DH was just as tough with Martinez, Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion. Again, any of three work. Maybe we can just play Encarnacion at shortstop and hope nobody hits the ball to him.

OK, King Felix versus Masahiro Tanaka. Tough call since their numbers are about identical. Flip a coin. Yes, I'm a Mariners fan, but the difference for me was Hernandez has allowed four home runs and Tanaka 13. I know Tanaka is a great story but Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers for many years now and has never started the All-Star Game. Hey, there's also the chance that Tanaka could turn into a Jack Armstrong pumpkin (just kidding, Yankees fans).

Reserves
C -- Derek Norris, A's
1B -- Jose Abreu, White Sox
1B/DH -- Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
2B -- Jose Altuve, Astros
2B -- Ian Kinsler, Tigers
3B -- Adrian Beltre, Rangers
3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
SS -- Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
OF -- Alex Gordon, Royals
OF -- Adam Jones, Orioles
OF/DH -- Nelson Cruz, Orioles
OF/1B -- Brandon Moss, A's

It will be interesting to see how the real AL roster shakes out. I assume since Cruz and Moss were listed as DHs on the ballot that they weren't considered outfielders for the player vote. So, assuming Cespedes holds on to the fan lead for the third spot, your minimum of three backup outfielders will come from the Brantley/Gordon/Jones group -- except Jones got off to a terrible start and Brantley isn't a big name, so the players may instead vote in guys like Jacoby Ellsbury and Melky Cabrera (who got off to a strong start). If Brantley then makes it as the Indians rep and David Ortiz fares well in the player vote, it's possible that Martinez and Encarnacion both get squeezed off the roster (Cruz is leading the fan voting at DH).

As for the other backup, I actually cheated by including just one backup catcher when we told to include two. (Sorry, boss.) So three catchers from a weak AL group would further squeeze a deserving player off the team. I would have loved to have found room for hometown Twins second baseman Brian Dozier to make it, but I can't justify his selection over Altuve or Kinsler. The second shortstop could be Ramirez, Erick Aybar or Alcides Escobar; I don't really care which one. My final spot came down to Moss or teammate Cespedes. In part, this is a strategic move: Having that big lefty bat off the bench could be important (not that managers actually manage strategically in the game).

Pitching staff
SP -- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
SP -- Yu Darvish, Rangers
SP -- David Price, Rays
SP -- Jon Lester, Red Sox
SP -- Chris Sale, White Sox
SP -- Max Scherzer, Tigers
SP -- Garrett Richards, Angels
SP -- Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays
RP -- Greg Holland, Royals
RP -- Glen Perkins, Twins
RP -- Koji Uehara, Red Sox
RP -- Sean Doolittle, A's

Love this staff. Great righty/lefty balance. My automatic selections were Tanaka, Darvish, Price, Lester and Sale, with Scherzer next in line even if his ERA is a little high. Richards and Buehrle got the edge over a strong pool of candidates that included Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir, Rick Porcello, Dallas Keuchel, Anibal Sanchez and even Phil Hughes. Like I said, a lot more difficult calls in the AL.

For the bullpen, Perkins makes it on merit, not just as the Twins rep. He does have a 3.41 ERA but has a 46/7 strikeout/walk ratio and just two home runs allowed and has been very good for four years now. Doolittle is a second lefty and you know his crazy numbers: 57 strikeouts and two walks. Apologies here to Yankees setup man Dellin Betances and his dominant strikeout rate. I'm guessing he finds his way on to the actual roster.

Just missed: Cespedes, Dozier, Kluber, Keuchel, Betances.
OK, my apologies: We ran out of time today before taping the Rapid Fire video, so I'll make it a written post instead.

From @JoshLumley: Bruce Harper could make better lineups than Matt Williams.

Answer: True. Hey, Harper shouldn't have essentially thrown Denard Span under the bus like he did with his comments about wanting to play center field, but isn't it time Matt Williams at least gives up on the idea of hitting his worst regular in the leadoff spot? Span isn't terrible but his .312 OBP is hardly what you want from a leadoff guy. Meanwhile, Harper hit sixth in his return to the lineup. I'm seeing a lot of grumbling from Nationals fans that Williams is in over his head.

From @neal_kendrick: Jake Arrieta is the best pitcher on the Cubs roster.

Answer: I'm going false for now, if only because one great month (Arrieta finished with a 0.92 ERA in June after taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Monday) isn't yet enough to leap Arrieta ahead of Jeff Samardzija. But I do believe Arrieta is the real deal, with improved command and a nasty cutter that dives down like a slider. After the game on Monday, he told MLB Network that a big key has been "just being confident and comfortable with my routine throughout the week." I have to think getting away from Camden Yards has probably helped that confidence -- he doesn't have to worry about every mistake leaving the ballpark. Eric Karabell says "Put Arrieta on the All-Star team!" (Here's more of Eric and Tristan Cockcroft discussing Arrieta on the Fantasy Focus podcast.)

From @Venturecaps: Raul Ibanez gets a start for the Royals this week.

Answer: True. Ned Yost said he'd use Ibanez in the outfield, at first base and DH. Plus he called him a "professional hitter." I love Ned Yost. Look, Ibanez is probably done and in the end he won't do much more than pinch-hit, but it's at least worth a look to see if he has anything left.

From @Papa_Clarke: Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson will be the manager and general manager of the Mets on Opening Day 2015.

Answer: True. Eric agrees. No need here to clean house. The Mets' problems begin with ownership, not the front office and manager.

From @Orioles_Fever: The Orioles will trade for a second baseman.

Answer: False. I think they're more likely to go for pitching and hope for offensive improvement from Chris Davis and Manny Machado in the second half. Eric has another idea: Give Dan Uggla a shot. The Orioles do love power and you can get him for an order of crab cakes. Aaron Hill would also fit nicely if Arizona picks up some of his salary.

From @TheDeliMan1: Dee Gordon will have a career as a starting second baseman.

Answer: True. He slumped in May after his hot April but rebounded with a solid June (.303/.358/.475). With his speed and average-ish defense, he's good enough to start on a championship team.

From @darinself: The current division leaders will still be there at the end of September.

Answer: False. Eric and I agree on the two most vulnerable teams: the Braves (0.5-game lead over the Nationals) and Blue Jays (one game over the Orioles, 2.5 over the Yankees). I like the Nationals in the NL East and the Orioles in the AL East.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield took your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

It was a fun night of baseball and I haven't done this in awhile, so some quick thoughts on the night's action ...
  • The Nationals and Brewers played a 16-inning game, tying the Cubs-Pirates game from April 2 for longest of the season. Washington's bullpen was outstanding in the 4-2 win, tossing 10 innings of scoreless baseball with just four hits allowed against a good offense in a good hitter's park. Ross Detwiler had my favorite stat of the night: In his four innings he threw 42 pitches -- all fastballs. Matt Williams made an interesting decision in the 15th, having Tyler Clippard intentionally walk Jonathan Lucroy with two outs and a runner on second to pitch to Carlos Gomez (who popped out). Ryan Zimmerman then homered and made a diving catch in left field in the 16th. The Nats have the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors and this game showcased the depth they have out there.
  • The Indians and Diamondbacks played an even crazier extra-inning game, with Arizona winning 9-8 in 14 innings. Both teams scored twice in the 11th (with John Axford keeping the tie intact by striking out Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Montero with the bases loaded). In the 13th, Jason Kipnis was out at home trying to stretch a two-out triple into an inside-the-park homer. Aaron Hill finally delivered the walk-off hit; since 2009, he's tied for the MLB lead with eight walk-off hits (tied with Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Melky Cabrera). Besides the loss, the bad news for Cleveland is Justin Masterson had another poor outing and saw his ERA rise to 5.03. In four of his past eight innings he hasn't even managed to go five innings. If the Indians don't get back in the race, Masterson would presumably be trade bait since he's a free agent but the way he's pitching doesn't make him too attractive right now.
  • Justin and B.J. Upton both homered in the Braves' 3-2 win, the fourth time they've both homered in the same game (joining Jason and Jeremy Giambi and Vladimir and Wilton Guerrero to do that four times as brothers). For the third straight game, Fredi Gonzalez hit Justin Upton sixth -- while batting B.J. and Tommy La Stella in the first two spots. Why would you want to give an extra at-bat to those two players instead of Justin? Makes no sense. Gonzalez basically admitted he's kind of grasping at straws for the struggling Braves' offense, saying, "I've got a good feeling about it. We're just trying to find a sparkplug in the first couple of spots there." OK. But here's an idea: Just hit your best hitters at the top of the lineup. How about going Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis?
  • The Pirates held on for a 6-5 win as the Rays scored twice off new closer Mark Melancon and had the tying run on base before Evan Longoria flied out. The Pirates are 27-18 since May 6, the best record in the NL. They moved over .500 at 39-38. With the Pirates and Reds both playing better now the NL Central could potentially morph into a four-team race. I wonder if the division will beat up on each other, however, allowing the wild cards to come from the East (Braves or Nationals) and West (Dodgers or Giants).
  • Speaking of the Reds, Devin Mesoraco homered for the fifth straight game, the fourth Reds player to do that in 50 years (joining Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., Johnny Bench), and is now hitting .320/.387/.667 with 14 home runs and 40 RBIs. Don't you have to find room for this guy on the All-Star team? Trouble is, you also have Yadier Molina and Jonathan Lucroy and Gattis, plus there's Buster Posey. Good luck to Mike Matheny in sorting that out.
  • The Mariners keep rolling and the Red Sox keep scuffling as Seattle won 8-2. Kyle Seager hit a big three-run homer off Jake Peavy (who looked terrible) in the fifth to break open a 3-2 game. Seager does his best hitting with men on base: .322/.383/.622 and he's one guy who hasn't been affected by Safeco Field, at least this year, as he's hitting .328 at home with 10 of his 11 home runs. Erasmo Ramirez once again struggled with his control (five walks in 4.1 innings) and while his scoreless streak had gone to 20 innings before Boston scored twice in the fourth, he's been living on the edge. Give credit to Lloyd McClendon for the quick hook and turning the game over to his bullpen. Taijuan Walker had been struggling at Tacoma but tossed a complete game shutout on Tuesday, so you know the speculation will start building that he'll be up soon.
  • George Springer has what they call easy power. This home run went an estimated 465 feet.
  • Anthony Rizzo went 3-for-4 and the next Joey Votto is now outhitting Votto -- .288/.404/.532 versus .263/.403/.426.
  • Speaking of the Cubs, third-base prospect Kris Bryant homered again for Iowa. He's played six games at Triple-A and has five home runs. Cubs fans are dreaming big thoughts ...
  • Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann hit 5-6-7 for the Yankees. All have OBPs under .285 and Beltran has the best slugging percentage at .400. Maybe they'll turn it around. Or maybe they're old.
Cubs fans of a certain age know the game I'm talking about: June 23, 1984. The day Ryne Sandberg turned into a Hall of Famer.

Other fans may remember the game as well. It was the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week, back when that was a big deal, with Bob Costas and Tony Kubek calling the action. Actually, I wonder if it was the backup game, because Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola were NBC's A team that year. Or maybe they had the week off. I remember watching it and it turned into a breakout performance in the national spotlight for the Cubs' third-year second baseman and the most memorable game of the year for the Cubs as they went on to win the NL East title.

The Cubs rallied from 7-1 and 9-3 deficits as Sandberg went 5-for-6 with two home runs and seven RBIs -- with both home runs coming off Cardinals closer and future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter. But what I just learned as I looked up the box score on Baseball-Reference with Eric Karabell: Sandberg's second home run didn't the win the game.

Here's what happened. Wrigley Field was packed as the surprising Cubs entered with a 36-31 record, in third place but just 1.5 games behind the Mets. Bottom of the ninth, Cardinals up 9-8, Sandberg hit a leadoff homer off Sutter to tie it. The Cardinals scored twice in the top of the 10th to take a 11-9 lead. Sutter returned for his third inning of work. With two outs, Bob Dernier drew a walk. Sandberg homered again to tie it.

"That's the real Roy Hobbs because this can't be happening!" an excited Costas proclaimed. "We're sitting here, and it doesn't make any difference if it's 1984 or '54 -- just freeze this and don't change a thing!" Cubs announcer Harry Caray: "There's a drive, way back! Might be outta here! It is! It is! He did it again! He did it again! The game is tied! The game is tied! Holy cow! Listen to this crowd, everybody's gone bananas! What would the odds be if I told you that twice Sandberg would hit home runs off Bruce Sutter?"

I'm guessing even most Cubs fans think Sandberg's second homer won the game. Instead, the Cubs won in the 11th on a pinch-hit single from backup infielder Dave Owen, one of 10 RBIs he had that season.

Still, there's a reason they call it The Sandberg Game and not the Dave Owen Game.





A glance through Sunday's results and some quick thoughts ... at least one for every team!
  • A's 11, Orioles 1: I wrote about Manny Machado's embarrassing episode here. How much of this is frustration by Machado? While he has had four two-hit games since May 31, his season line is a mediocre .235/.291/.346. Last June 30, he was hitting .321/.350/.489 with 35 doubles (remember when he was on a record pace for doubles in a season?). Since then he's hit .238/.278/.360 with 16 doubles in 107 games. Pitchers have been able to tie him up inside (.204 on inside pitches) and get him with primarily offspeed stuff outside (.236). For the first time, Machado is learning that baseball is hard. He needs to make those adjustments at the plate. ... The fielding metrics love Josh Donaldson's fielding and he passes the eye test with great plays like this one. If I'm voting today, he's my AL MVP.
  • Mariners 5, Rays 0: Felix Hernandez had one of the best games of his career on Sunday, with a career-high 15 K's in just seven innings. Remember when we were all worried about that no-strikeout game a few weeks ago? Since then he's 5-0 in six starts (he didn't get the win on Sunday since Seattle didn't score until a two-out, five-run rally in the ninth) with a 1.99 ERA. Jeff Sullivan suggests one reason for his success is Mike Zunino's ability to frame those pitches low in the strike zone. ... I love when managers do this: Ten days ago Endy Chavez wasn't good enough to be on the team and now Lloyd McClendon is batting him first or second. ... David Price, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer are all underperforming their FIP. I don't think that gives any solace to Rays fans.
  • Angels 4, White Sox 2: Interesting move by Mike Scioscia to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Adam Dunn in the ninth to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. But the batter was backup catcher Adrian Nieto, who had entered earlier for Tyler Flowers, so the White Sox had to let him hit. ... Any doubt that the AL West is the best division in baseball right now? ... Robin Ventura had used Nieto to run for Flowers in the eighth after a leadoff walk. That didn't really make sense since the score was 4-0 at the time. ... Tough sweep for the White Sox since Sunday's loss came on the heels of leading 5-0 in the eighth on Saturday with Chris Sale pitching.
  • Astros 14, Twins 5: With George Springer, Jose Altuve and now Jon Singleton, the Astros have been interesting to watch for the first time in years. They're 16-9 since May 13 and have averaged 4.7 runs per game. ... How about Springer for the All-Star Game? Hitting .251/.346/.497 with 12 home runs and that's come after a slow start. With just one steal, hasn't flashed the stolen base part of that 30/30 potential, however. ... Don't exactly understand the Kendrys Morales signing for the Twins. The Twins are 29-32 and while that puts them in the wild-card race, it also means they're not that good. Morales isn't really a difference-maker. Wonder if he becomes trade bait in July if the Twins fall out if it.
  • Red Sox 5, Tigers 3: If anyone can stop a Red Sox losing streak, it's Joba Chamberlain. ... Big Papi doesn't miss 83-mph hanging sliders. ... I have mixed opinions on the Tigers right now. They're 33-26, but have outscored opponents by just nine runs. I wonder what Justin Verlander is right now and the late-inning relief has been shaky, although to be fair Joba had done a decent job before Sunday's ninth-inning blow-up. The offense looks mediocre beyond the awesome 1-2 punch of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. It still seems like they should run away with the AL Central, but maybe we'll get a race like the past two seasons.
  • Indians 3, Rangers 2: The Indians are fifth in the AL in runs and while Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall have been great, I think there's still more upside from this group, especially from Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana. ... This is one team that could really use David Price. He'd look pretty nice alongside Corey Kluber and Justin Masterson, but not sure the Indians have the prospects to get a deal done (they're not trading Francisco Lindor). ... Just not going to be the Rangers' year. Now Mitch Moreland, not that he was hitting great, is out for maybe the rest of the season after he had ankle surgery, and second baseman Rougned Odor had to leave Sunday's game with a sprained shoulder.
  • Royals 2, Yankees 1: The other day, I heard Yankees announcer John Sterling say the Yankees can only play better the rest of the season. Is that really true, however? This looks like a classic .500 team to me. ... Gotta love Ned Yost. He's hitting the players with the two highest OBPs on the team (Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain) fifth and seventh for the most part.
  • Cardinals 5, Blue Jays 0: Impressive back-to-back shutouts for the Cards in Toronto. ... Amazingly, the Cards have now homered in back-to-back games for the first time since May 7-9, snapping a 26-game stretch without homering in consecutive games. ... That lack of power remains one of the most important issues in the National League moving forward. ... You do wonder how the Blue Jays' rotation will hold up. Mark Buehrle is due to slide (he lost Saturday) and Sunday starter Drew Hutchison has been inconsistent and is coming off Tommy John surgery so you wonder about fatigue later in the season with him.
  • Giants 6, Mets 4: Hard to find a flaw right now with the Giants. Tim Lincecum wasn't great on Sunday -- allowing three runs in six innings -- but when he's the weakest link on the club that's how you can have the best record in baseball. ... Brandon Crawford remains an unsung member of the team, very good at shortstop and contributes with the bat. ... As bad as the Mets lineup looked on Sunday, the Mets are averaging 4.0 runs per game, right at the NL average. I hear the lineup being criticized a lot as being awful, but it's not, it's actually mediocre.
  • Dodgers 6, Rockies 1: On Sunday, the most expensive payroll in the majors rolled out a lineup that had Chone Figgins leading off, Scott Van Slyke batting fifth and playing center field, somebody named Jamie Romak batting sixth and playing right field, somebody named Miguel Rojas batting seventh and weak-hitting Drew Butera hitting eighth. And they won! ... Charlie Blackmon since May 1: .246/.289/.405. ... The Rockies are 2-11 their past 13 and their next 27 games are all against teams currently with a winning record. They may be 10 games under .500 by the end of that stretch. It was fun for awhile.
  • Diamondbacks 6, Braves 5: I think it's too late, but the D-backs are 20-15 since April 30. ... Chase Anderson is 5-0 in five starts. Is he this good? Probably not. His FIP is 4.54 but his ERA is 3.14. He had a 5.73 ERA last year at Triple-A Reno. He doesn't throw hard (average fastball is 90 mph) but has thrown strikes so far and hasn't hurt himself. ... Not sure how much longer the Braves can ride the Aaron Harang bandwagon (six walks on Monday). ... Tommy La Stella has hit .400 in nine games although with no extra-base hits. That's what he is, a guy who can hit for average and put the ball in play. He won't be a huge offensive contributor since it will be an empty average, but he should still be an upgrade over what they got from Dan Uggla the past year-plus (including defensively).
  • Brewers 1, Pirates 0: Yovani Gallardo had his best start of the season. I think he's a huge key to the Brewers winning the NL Central. ... If I'm filling out my All-Star ballot today, Jonathan Lucroy gets my vote as starting catcher. ... Is this what Starling Marte is, a .230 hitter? With 68 strikeouts and just 16 walks, he clearly has holes in his swing and areas he can be pitched to.
  • Nationals 6, Padres 0: You rarely see a pitcher dominate with just his fastball, but that's essentially what Jordan Zimmermann did, with nine of his 12 K's coming on his fastball. ... Zimmermann has lowered his ERA from 4.07 to 3.17 with two scoreless starts. Is he back to the guy who dominated in the first half of last year? We'll see, but those two starts came against the Phillies and Padres. ... The Nationals have the best ERA in the majors since May 1 at 2.87. ... This upcoming road trip to St. Louis and San Francisco will be an interesting test for the Nationals to make a statement that they're more than just a .500-ish team. ... Chase Headley will always have that second half of 2012. Will he go down as the least likely season RBI leader ever?
  • Marlins 4, Cubs 3: The Marlins continue to hang in there, although let's see if Henderson Alvarez's injury is serious (he left in the sixth with a hip strain after his scoreless streak ended at 26 innings). ... Next 16 games are against teams with losing records, so an important stretch to play well. ... Lineup is still more than just Giancarlo Stanton -- seven of the eight regulars have an OPS+ better than league average. ... In general, I still like this club and expect them to hang around in the NL East. ... Have the Cubs found a starter in Jake Arrieta? In 16 starts with them, he has a 3.18 ERA. Maybe leaving Camden Yards helped his confidence or maybe at 28 he's finally figuring a few things out. He's also being limited to 5-6 innings per outing. There are some gray areas in the numbers but he does have a 2.58 FIP this year to go with his 2.50 ERA, primarily because he's allowed just one home run. I'm still a little skeptical, as home runs have always been a big problem for him.
  • Reds 4, Phillies 1: Speaking of bad lineups, maybe it's time Bryan Price demotes Brandon Phillips and his .305 OBP out of the third spot? Not that Price has a lot of good options. He's hit Todd Frazier, the team's best hitter this season, in the second spot quite a bit recently, but he was hitting sixth on Sunday. So Price hit his hottest hitter sixth in order to lead off his lineup with three guys with OBPs of .288, .267 and .305. ... As for the Phillies, don't even get me going on Ben Revere, who drew a walk leading off a game for the first time in his career. He's hitting .282 ... with a robust .298 OBP. It's National League baseball, 2014 style!

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