SweetSpot: Chicago Cubs

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
6:01
PM ET
While driving home from work Thursday night, I was listening to the Rays' feed of the Yankees-Rays game when Derek Jeter made a "diving" play. The broadcasters chuckled at Jeter's lack of range and his natural succumbing to Father Time, saying something along the lines of "That's Jeter's range; however he can fall to his right and however he can fall to his left." An inning or so later, the maligned Yanks infield turned a triple play, so there you go. Without further ado, the best from around the SweetSpot Network, week 3:

Boston RedSox: FireBrand of the AL
A large cup of coffee: Jeff Polman catches up with former Red Sox starting pitcher Dana Kiecker. Who’s Dana Kiecker, you ask? He’s just the pitcher who followed Roger Clemens in the 1990 ALCS by starting Game 2. Follow on Twitter: @jpballnut.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Which pitchers have nasty stuff? If you missed the 10-strikeout performance put up on Wednesday afternoon by Masahiro Tanaka, it showed off his nasty stuff. Joe Aiello takes a look at what other pitchers have "nasty" stuff. Follow on Twitter: @vftb

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The art of patience: Collin Whitchurch examines the White Sox offense's hot start as a product of a new organizational emphasis on plate discipline. Follow on Twitter: @cowhitchurch


Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
What are the keys for pitching at Coors? and ¿Cuáles son la claves para lanzar en Coors Field? The debut of Sabermetrics in Spanish, Juan Pablo Zubillaga compares Rockies pitchers with non-Rockies pitchers and analyzes which metrics can indicate success for Rockies pitchers.

Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
The Brewers' line-driving frenzy: Jonathan Judge looks at the value and sustainability of the Brewers' high line-drive rate so far. Follow on Twitter: @bachlaw

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
How good could the 2015 infield really be? Matt Seybold wonders how the Yankees will go about filling the holes they will have in the 2015 infield. Follow on Twitter: @Sport_Hippeaux

How did the "pine tar" affect Pineda's performance? Michael Eder takes a look at what affects, if any, that mysterious blob of goo on Michael Pineda's hand had during his start against Boston. Follow on Twitter: @edermik

Philadelphia Phillies: Crashburn Alley
Phillies showing tremendous plate discipline: The Phillies are drawing plenty of walks, something they haven't done in a few years.

Some fun trivia on Cliff Lee's start against the Braves: Cliff Lee got the tough-luck loss on Wednesday but it made for some interesting trivia. Follow on Twitter: @CrashburnAlley

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
Offense, Myers struggling: Jason Collette shows how 2014 looks a lot like 2011 in the early going for the Tampa Bay offense and why Wil Myers is struggling at the plate. Follow on Twitter: @processreport

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.

Early trends: Bruce, Fielder, Rizzo, Heyward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prince Fielder
Fielder is also having trouble with shifts.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
1:47
PM ET
Two weeks into the season and things are beginning to take shape, injuries are mounting and confusion about the new home plate no-collision rule is obvious. Let's take a quick spin around the SweetSpot Network for the best of Week 2:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Velocity Report: D-backs pitchers examined. After Rod Ghods uncovered how J.J. Putz has maintained K rates despite a big decline in velocity, Jeff Wiser examines the early-season velocity of all pitchers on the D-backs staff, noting that early-season velocity is highly predictive. Follow on Twitter

Boston Red Sox: FireBrand of the AL
The Red Sox and hitting with runners in scoring position: Should fans be concerned about the Red Sox' inability to hit with runners in scoring position? Nope. It's early, and the lineup will be just fine.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Six things I learned this week from the Cubs: Week 1 is in the books and Joe Aiello would like to open his notebook and share with the class what he learned from watching the Cubs. Follow on Twitter

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
Robin Ventura wants you to know he'd take used-up Chris Sale over his entire bullpen: Ventura's stated preference for using Sale on his fourth time through the order in a close game seems illogical, but James Fegan shows its more a sad statement on the current state of the White Sox bullpen.

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced Lajaway
Tony Plush's new approach at the plate: Ryan McCrystal takes a look at how Nyjer Morgan's improved patience at the dish has led to his hot start in 2014. Follow on Twitter.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Interview with Maury Brown: Richard Bergstrom interviews BizOfBaseball's Maury Brown about the Colorado Rockies ownership and business challenges. Topics include market size, competing with the Dodgers and the Broncos, free agency, concessions and stadium improvements.

Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
POPing the productive out myth: Adam Wieser revisits an old system for measuring "productive outs." Follow on Twitter.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Why is Joe Mauer such a lightning rod? Why are Twins fans so hard on Mauer, one of the best hitters in baseball? Nick Nelson examines this perplexing subject in a piece that has
generated quite a bit of discussion.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Examining Tanaka's initial PITCHf/x data: Michael Eder takes an in-depth look at Masahiro Tanaka's first start in Toronto. Follow on Twitter.

McCann's slow start could be due to lack of selectivity: Brad Vietrogoski examines Brian McCann's start and wonders if he's just swinging too much. Follow on Twitter.

Philadelphia Phillies: Crashburn Alley
An early look at Jesse Biddle: Eric Longenhagen scouts Phillies top prospect Jesse Biddle. Follow on Twitter.

San Francisco Giants: West Coast BiasQuick hits March 30 - April 8: Andrew Tweed takes a look at recent baseball articles from around the country to keep you up to date on anything you might have missed. Follow on Twitter Andrew; Connor.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
Calling Prince Fielder: Brandon Land takes a look at Fielder's early struggles and identifies a disturbing trend by looking back at 2009-2013. Follow on Twitter.

&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.

video

Does new Cubs manager Rick Renteria have the toughest job in baseball? Eric and I discuss.


Overreact after one series? Of course we're going to overreact! We're baseball fans. It's no fun if we just spout things like "small sample size" and "check back in two months." So, what have we learned after one series? Here are a few trends and things to watch, starting with Evan Longoria.

The Rays third baseman went 2-for-4 in Tampa's 7-2 win over Toronto, slugging a three-run homer for his first home run of 2014. So here's the deal with Longoria: If anyone is going to crack the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout stranglehold on the AL MVP Award, Longoria is the most likely candidate. Consider his merits:

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria, David DeJesus, Ben Zobrist
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIs this the year Evan Longoria puts it all together for the Rays?
1. He's off to a hot start! Our guy is hitting .400.

2. He's good. Not including 2012, when he played just 74 games, he's finished fifth, sixth, third and fourth in WAR among AL position players and has three top-10 MVP finishes.

3. The Rays are a good bet to make the postseason. MVP voters love that.

4. Longoria is an RBI guy, averaging 110 RBIs per 162 games over his career. MVP voters love themselves some RBIs.

5. He should knock in more than the 88 runs he did last year, when he hit .265 with just four home runs with runners in scoring position (22 of his 32 home runs came with the bases empty).

In truth, as good as Longoria has been, we've kind of been waiting for that monster season, haven't we? Maybe that's unfair to say about one of the best all-around players in the league (did you see the play he made the other night?), but Longoria hit .294 in 2010 and just .269 last season, when his strikeout rate increased to 23.4 percent, easily his highest rate since his rookie season. If he cuts down on the strikeouts, I can see that average climbing over .300 for the first time in his career and the RBIs climbing well over 100.

Other thoughts from many hours of baseball viewing over the past few days:

  • If they stay healthy, the Giants are going to have the best offense in the National League. On Thursday, they scored five runs in the eighth inning to beat the Diamondbacks 8-5. Angel Pagan is a solid leadoff hitter, and Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence provide a juicy meat of the order. I've mentioned Belt as a guy I like to have a big breakout season, and he hit his third home run. Pence seems to get better the higher he wears his pants legs. Posey won't slump like he did in the second half last year. Sandoval hits and eats and hits some more.
  • The Angels’ and Phillies’ bullpens look like disasters. The Mariners pounded every reliever the Angels tried in their series and the Angels are suddenly staring at another bad April start: 9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon looked like a shell of his former shelf in getting roughed up the other day.
  • [+] EnlargeJim Johnson, Bob Melvin
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesStruggling Jim Johnson might get hooked from his role as the A's closer.
  • How long do the A’s stick with closer Jim Johnson? OK, he led the AL in saves the past two seasons. He also led the AL last season in blown saves and was second in relief losses. He has two losses already, he’s not a strikeout pitcher and the A’s have other good relievers. It’s never too early to panic about your closer!
  • How many closers do you have complete confidence in right now anyway? With low-scoring games and tight pennant races, late-inning relief work is going to decide a division title or two. We had six blown saves on Wednesday. The D-Backs coughed up that game on Thursday. The Rockies blew an eighth-inning lead to the Marlins. And so on. Rough few days for the bullpens (in contrast to starters, who generally dominated).
  • A young pitcher who hasn’t yet made his mark to watch: Seattle’s James Paxton showcased electrifying stuff in his first start, striking out nine in seven and throwing 97 mph in his final inning.
  • With Clayton Kershaw missing a few starts, the new Cy Young favorite in the National League: Jose Fernandez. He’s must-watch TV, Pedro-in-his-prime eye candy. His run support will be an issue, but the stuff, poise and confidence are that of a wise veteran, not a 21-year-old kid.
  • In case you had doubts, Michael Wacha is most assuredly the real deal. His changeup is Pedro-in-his-prime nasty. The Reds went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts against it.
  • Veteran Alex Gonzalez is not going to last as the Tigers' shortstop. He simply doesn’t have the range to play there. Stephen Drew, come on down?
  • Manager on the hot seat: Kirk Gibson. The Diamondbacks are off to 1-5 start, and nine of their next 15 games are against the Dodgers (six) and Giants (three). If the D-backs can avoid digging a big hole over that stretch, the schedule does get a little easier starting April 21, when they play 19 consecutive games against teams that finished under .500 in 2013.
  • Tyro Zack Wheeler is not Matt Harvey. Hold down your expectations, Mets fans.
  • We’re going to see a lot more shifts this year. I haven’t checked the numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests infield shifts are way up. Expect batting averages to continue to plummet as a result.
  • Free-agent-to-be Max Scherzer is going to make a lot of money this offseason.
  • I hope B.J. Upton gets fixed, but I have my doubts. Six strikeouts in his first 12 plate appearances.
  • Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is going to have a high BABIP again. Great stroke to all fields, great balance between attacking fastballs early in the count and waiting for his pitch later in the count. He'll be an MVP candidate again.
  • Clearly, Emilio Bonifacio (11 hits in three games!) is the best player in the NL. OK, seriously: The Royals couldn’t find a spot for this guy on their roster? Ned Yost, everyone!
  • Rookie Xander Bogaerts is ready NOW. He’s hitting .556 with three walks and one strikeout in three games. Maybe the power takes a year or two to fully develop, but his mature, disciplined approach at the plate is going make a star right away.
  • Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggested this and it’s not outrageous: With Jose Reyes injured, Brad Miller might be the best shortstop in the AL. Or maybe Bogaerts. Could have been Bonifacio, if only the Royals had kept him!
  • Best team in baseball: The Mariners ... too early?
videoWe’re four days into expanded instant replay and I feel like I just ran into the brick wall at Wrigley Field before the ivy was planted.

My head hurts trying to understand some of the new rules and ramifications. We’re getting more calls correct -- and that’s admirable and necessary -- but we’re still seeing controversy and confusion. Trouble is, last year we could simply blame the umpires, and what’s more American than that? (Sorry, umps.) Who do we yell at now? The umpires? The umpires reviewing the plays in New York? The manager of your team for wasting his challenge on a correct call? The camera guys for not getting the exact perfect angle to review a play? Joe Torre? Alex Rodriguez?

Be careful what you wish for. We should have known from watching the NFL that instant replay wasn’t going to be a panacea. That doesn’t mean these first few days haven’t been frustrating.

On Wednesday, the Pirates led the Cubs 2-0 in the eighth inning as the Cubs loaded the bases with one out. Nate Schierholtz grounded to second baseman Neil Walker and the Pirates turned a 6-4-3 double play. Pirates pitcher Mark Melancon pumped his fist, believing he’d escaped the jam.

Except Walker’s throw to shortstop Jordy Mercer was wide of the second-base bag and replays clearly showed Mercer hadn’t touched the bag. Cubs manager Rick Renteria came out to question the call. The umpires went to the replay center and the call was overturned, giving the Cubs their first run of the game.

Simple enough, right? Not so fast. The instant replay rules state that the neighborhood play at second -- when an infielder may leave the bag a fraction of a second early in order to avoid getting drilled by the oncoming baserunner -- is not reviewable. On the other hand, a force play is reviewable. The two contradict each other since a neighborhood play is also a force play.

I would argue in this case that the umpires got the call correct. Mercer failed to touch the bag not because he was avoiding a runner but because Walker gave him a bad feed. That made it a force play, not a neighborhood play. The ruling ended up impacting the game as the Cubs scored a second run in the ninth to tie the game, sending it into extra innings (the Pirates eventually won in 16).

Torre, MLB’s executive vice president of Operations, would agree with that assessment. In an interview last week with ESPN he said, "There is a play at second base that is known as the neighborhood play, which is really a second baseman or shortstop getting the throw on a double play that may not touch the base at the same time that he has the ball. This is a negotiation with the players' association so a lot of the infielders don’t have to stay there and maybe get hurt on a slide in. So it’s not something where somebody is reaching for a ball. That would be replayed -- any kind of high throw that may have pulled him off the bag."

So overturning the call was definitely correct. Still, there was a minor feeding frenzy on Twitter about a neighborhood play being reviewed. There was also another controversy earlier in the day when White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton caught or dropped a routine fly ball while exchanging it to his throwing hand. The play was originally ruled a catch but changed to an error upon review, even though replays didn’t seem to provide irrefutable evidence that he never had control of the ball. Trevor Plouffe, the runner on first base, was awarded second base, even though he had returned to first base.

All this on top of the play at home plate from Tuesday’s Giants-Diamondbacks game when Bruce Bochy couldn’t challenge the call since he’d already challenged an earlier play, or the difficult-to-call bang-bang play at home plate, where runners can no longer lower their shoulder and plow through the catcher but catchers aren’t supposed to intentionally block the plate. Good luck trying to rule on some of those plays (although college baseball has managed to play seamlessly without allowing home-plate collisions).

So we’re learning that replay is not going to be a perfect system. The delays, while usually short, do seem to provide an unnatural pause to a game, but considering this is a sport in which Josh Beckett can take 30-plus seconds between pitches or batters can step up out of the batter’s box and recite Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” while adjusting their batting gloves, we shouldn’t complain too much.

I do, however, already miss managers yelling at the men in blue, even if that will soon seem like a relic of baseball’s past, like ivy-free walls at Wrigley.
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

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

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

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

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

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

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

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

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

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

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

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

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

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

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

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

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

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

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

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.

ICYMI: SweetSpot Hits

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29
10:28
AM ET
Greetings, fellow seamheads. This is our first weekly installment of "ICYMI: SweetSpot Hits," a fly-by from some of the various sites that comprise ESPN's SweetSpot Network. Our goal is to bring you the best from each of our sites each week, allowing you a closer look at your favorite (or not so favorite) teams.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Rod Ghods breaks down the Australia series that saw the D-backs lose two games to the Dodgers at the Sydney Cricket Ground -- three, if you count an awful performance against Team Australia.

Chicago Cubs: View From the Bleachers
Why Cubs’ Fans Can’t Compare Current Prospects with Gary Scott and Felix Pie: There are many out there who will say "We’ve seen this before" when it comes to Cubs prospects. Chris Neitzel addresses that concern and examines whether that feeling is warranted with this new crop of prospects in the system.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The 2014 White Sox: Win Predictions and Chaos: Nick Schaefer examines the wide range of possibilities for the 2014 White Sox through the lense of a few of their particularly boom-or-bust players.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
A Fowler Front Office? Dexter Fowler's grit was publicly questioned by general manager Dan O'Dowd, leading to Fowler firing off his own response. Richard Bergstrom looks at both sides of the argument and whether O'Dowd should have started the argument in the first place.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Put Him in Coach? Aaron Hicks is Ready for Center Field: Parker Hageman, reporting on location in Fort Myers, explains why Hicks is ready to pull it together after a miserable rookie season.

New York Yankees: It's About the Money
Does Pitch Framing Make Brian McCann the Yankees' MVP? EJ Fagan delves into McCann's ability to pitch-frame and how well he's done it from 2008-2013.
Also from IIATMS: It's About The 2014 Predictions. Stacey Gotsulias compiled the entire writing staff's predictions (division and wild-card winners, award winners) for the upcoming season, including a bold prediction from each writer.

San Francisco Giants: West Coast Bias
2014 NL West Preview. In what could prove to be one of the most intriguing divisions in baseball, Connor Grossman and Andrew Tweedy break down the best- and worst-case scenarios for each NL West team.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
2014 NL Preview: An in-depth look at the NL Central teams, as well as Pip's picks in the ESPN SweetSpot poll.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The End is the Beginning: As spring training has come to a close, Brandon Land takes a look at some of the positives to come out of an injury-riddled camp.

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.

Cubs letting Castro be himself?

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
9:30
AM ET
Starlin CastroAP Photo/Matt YorkStarlin Castro is working his way back from a right hamstring strain.


MESA, Ariz. -- The single biggest question the Cubs confront isn't where they're going. Expectations have already been set appropriately low at the same time that anticipation grows as their bumper crop of blue-chip talent down on the farm nears readiness. But until that harvest comes in, the question for them is who among the current Cubs is someone they'll be able to build around. And that question is more important to ask about shortstop Starlin Castro than anyone else.

That's because the Cubs are fully invested in Castro. Sometimes the algorithm-and-formula set can get a bit formulaic. Take the Cubs locking in Castro for $60 million through 2019 (with a 2020 option for $16 million) back in August 2012. You want to lock in your young star talent long-term. Castro is young, he's talented, he was a two-time All-Star and he was nearing arbitration. Of course you sign him to a multiyear deal, using the same relentless, reductionist logic that informed the underpants gnomes of "South Park": Use the leverage of club control to sign talent to below-market prices … which equals profit.

Profit, if the guy keeps his value or gets better up through the age of 29, the way that young players do. And that's where last year comes in, because Castro didn't get better, and his value didn't go up. He tumbled, from a .761 OPS in his first three seasons down to .631 in 2013. It was the sort of epic collapse that might recall those of other touted shortstop prospects, such as Angel Berroa with the Royals a decade ago (falling from a .789 OPS as AL Rookie of the Year in 2003 to out of a job in 2007). Tom Tresh of the '60s Yankees and Wil Cordero of the '90s Expos rank high among the guys Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system identifies as similar talents to Castro, which is a bit ominous. Both were considered can't-miss young stars, and like Berroa they didn't live up to the billing. Is Castro the latest model, a shortstop prospect who peaks in his early 20s and turns into something less than advertised?

A big part of the problem was that the Cubs tried very directly to make Castro into something he is not and consciously mold him into a more patient hitter. In the abstract, it's easy to understand why: Sure, Castro's great as-is, but imagine how much better he would be if he drew 60 walks instead of 30! It's classic and aspirational, a case of not accepting who the player is, but wish-casting who you want him to be.

Castro tried to comply in 2013. He watched a lot more first pitches go by, and he reached a career-high 3.9 pitches per plate appearance. The problem is that he became a much more passive hitter. As the heat map from Stats & Info's Mark Simon reflects, this increased focus on waiting for his pitch made him less effective hitting balls in the zone last year.

Starlin Castro heat mapMark Simon, ESPN Stats & InfoWith a more patient approach, Castro's ability to do damage got worse inside the zone as well as out.


This attempt to make him that much more zone-conscious also cost him his ability to cream the occasional bad ball, one of the side benefits of his ability to make good contact as an all-fields spray hitter. Castro wasn't George Bell or Vladimir Guerrero, but if you look at his previous-season PitchF/X data over at Baseball Prospectus, you had a guy who could cover the outside of the plate effectively; in 2013, he lost that. And getting into deeper counts just meant he wound up striking out swinging a career-high 110 times.

That isn't who Castro was supposed to be. It isn't the player the Cubs handed $60 million to. And it wasn't who he wanted to be, either.

"That's what I try to be -- be me," Castro said. "The kind of player that I was when I made the big leagues the first time, that's the thing I don't want to change. That's the kind of player that I am."

So this year, the Cubs have pointedly decided to accentuate the positive and start with a clean slate, easier to do with new manager Rick Renteria, new batting coach Bill Mueller, and seemingly a new willingness to let Starlin Castro be Starlin Castro. As Renteria observed last week, "I'm not too worried about Starlin, to be honest with you. His demeanor is pretty positive, pretty upbeat."

Castro adds, "It's completely positive. The only thing that we talk about in here is how we're going to prepare, and how we're going to compete."

Getting Castro back on track figures to be one of Mueller's most important responsibilities in 2014, something he took on aggressively with his new charge. "We've rehashed the past," he said, "but [Starlin] is just a gifted guy who can make some really good contact and do a lot of things well. We just want to make sure we can get consistency across a full major league season."

But what's been critical in achieving that consistency has been putting in time in the cage with Mueller, and keeping it personal instead of diagnostic. "We're working a lot. In the very beginning, he came out the first day, he worked me out pretty good," Castro said.

Mueller observed, "It's about establishing a relationship [with Castro] in the cage. He's more about feel in the cage than anything videowise. That could change as we get into the season. Sometimes, we might have to pinpoint something in a still photo or stop-motion video, just so that he can see it, but that all evolves. But right now, it's about the cage and the relationship. Hopefully some of the things we're talking about with him with his hitting setup, that could help him too with seeing and reading pitches, evolving in that way so that he's not getting out of his zone as much. And just cleaning up minor little things with him, because he is so talented."

Which suits Castro just fine: "I'm more natural. Working and thinking, I know when I'm good, and I know when I'm not good. The only thing that I think is to try to keep my mind clean. I don't want to try and put pressure on myself -- I know that I can be a good hitter, and I don't want to mess up an at-bat, I don't want to get frustrated with myself or something like that, that can happen to anybody. I just want to keep my mind, my approach clean, and get it consistent."

Will the power of positive thinking get Castro back into that consistency, and make him so solid a part of the Cubs' future that top prospect Javier Baez has to get used to this spring's experimental move to second base? If the Cubs can accept Castro for what he was, you can still see the possibility for what he'll be, the same possibility that made him a $60 million man. If a positive approach is what it takes, then, yes, profit.

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

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

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

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




Which franchise will be the one to beat in five years? We published our Future Power Rankings today, and while Eric Karabell weren't on the committee for those rankings, we do have something to say about them, including which team should be No. 1, wondering if the Cubs should have been ranked higher than the Red Sox and whether our beloved Phillies and Mariners are properly ranked.
PEORIA, AZ -- I arrived in Arizona on Wednesday night just in time to catch a few innings of the Cubs-Mariners night game in Peoria. The Mariners ran out what could very well be their Opening Day lineup, minus Felix Hernandez and Corey Hart:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team over/unders: Best bets

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

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

SportsNation

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

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    15%
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    17%
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    17%
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    25%
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    26%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,858)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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    17%
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    21%
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    25%
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    18%
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    19%

Discuss (Total votes: 13,837)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    15%
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    20%
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    38%
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    17%
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    10%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,014)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    29%
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    23%
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    20%
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    12%
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    16%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,370)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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    19%
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    16%
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    21%
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    22%
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    22%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,627)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    14%
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    13%
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    27%
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    31%
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    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,376)

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

Five playoff teams from last year. So we're essentially asking: Which team is the best bet to return to the playoffs? I'm going with the Cardinals here, since I do have them as my No. 1 overall team heading into the season. I like their depth across the board: Position players, rotation and bullpen. I like their youth. I think the Pirates and Reds are a little weaker than last season. St. Louis won 97 games last year and I wouldn't be shocked to see the Cardinals do it again.

Happy Birthday, Monte Irvin

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
9:49
PM ET
Another day with two Hall of Famers: Monte Irvin and Ron Santo. Plus a guy who looked like a sure bet for the Hall of Fame in his early 20s, a guy who kicked a water cooler or two and a guy who starred for the last Cubs team to play in a World Series.

Monte Irvin: Born 1919

Irvin was born in Haleburg, Alabama, in 1919, although he grew up in New Jersey, where he was a four-sport star in high school. Here's something that may blow you away: Irvin was born the same year as Jackie Robinson (Branch Rickey had wanted to sign Irvin along with Robinson when Irvin got out of the service in World War II but Irvin elected to play in the Negro Leagues before eventually signing a few years later with the New York Giants). This is the blow-you-away part: Irvin is still alive, 95 years old; Robinson, sadly, has been deceased 41 years.

How good was Irvin? He was 30 before he reached the major leagues, 31 in his first full season. From 1950 to 1953, when he was 31 to 34 years old, he hit .314/.403/.511 -- ranking eighth in the majors in OPS over that span. Considering he was probably already slightly past his peak, that tells you what kind of hitter he was before reaching the major leagues. He also mentored Willie Mays when Mays was called up in 1951. The Giants, of course, rallied to beat the Dodgers to win the pennant and Irvin led the league in RBIs and finished third in the MVP voting.

In 1973, Irvin became the fourth Negro Leagues player elected to Cooperstown, following Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. Was he the fourth-greatest Negro Leagues player? No, he wasn't. Oscar Charleston was certainly the better all-around player, a center fielder many compared to Willie Mays (Buck O'Neil said Charleston was better). Pop Lloyd was a shortstop Connie Mack said was the equal of Honus Wagner. A few others. But Irvin was clearly highly regarded, although I'm guessing it helped that he played a few years in the majors for a prominent franchise and remained in the game (he was working for the commissioner's office when elected).

Here's a video clip with a few highlights of Irvin playing for the Giants.

Andy Pafko: Born 1921

Pafko just passed away last October at the age of 92, so maybe Feb. 25 is a good day to be born to live a long life. Pafko had a 17-year career and played in four World Series with three different franchises. He was a good player with two outstanding peak seasons in 1948 (6.2 WAR) and 1950 (6.6 WAR) and finished with 36.7 career WAR. His SABR bio points out that he played in the last World Series the Cubs reached in 1945, was in left field for the Dodgers when Bobby Thomson's home run soared into the stands over his head and returned to his home state of Wisconsin to play for the Braves when they moved from Boston (he was the right fielder before Henry Aaron). Known for his strong arm, Pafko hit as many as 36 home runs in a season and three times hit .300.

In many ways, Pafko was a symbol of his generation of Americans. His parents immigrated from Czechoslovakia (two older sibling were born there) to Wisconsin, where they owned a 200-acre diary farm. Pafko grew up milking cows ... and playing baseball. He started out playing in local amateur leagues before signing with Eau Claire of the Northern League in 1940 and eventually getting purchased by the Cubs. After nine years with the Cubs, fans were crushed when he was traded to the Dodgers.

Ron Santo: Born 1940

I'm sure you know the Santo story. Long a controversial Hall of Fame candidate -- arguably the best player not in the Hall of Fame for many years, until he was finally elected a year after he passed away in 2010. Here's what Nick Pietruszkiewicz wrote on the SweetSpot blog when Santo was finally elected.

Cesar Cedeno: Born 1951

Most Wins Above Replacement through age-23, position players: Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, Al Kaline, Arky Vaughan, Rogers Hornsby, Andruw Jones, Eddie Mathews, Jimmie Foxx, Cesar Cedeno.

Paul O'Neill: Born 1956

A good player for the Reds, the Yankees got him for Roberto Kelly in what was essentially a challenge trade. With the Yankees, O'Neill quit trying to hit everything out of the park (Lou Piniella wanted him to hit home runs) and settled into being a line-drive hitter with 20-homer power. A .259 hitter with the Reds, O'Neill hit .300 his first six years with the Yankees, including a .359 mark in 1994 to win the batting title. Here's a trivia question: How many players set their career high in stolen bases in their final season? O'Neill stole 22 bases in 2001, when he was 38.

(I don't if anyone else did it. Where's ESPN Stats & Info when you need those guys?)





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