SweetSpot: Chicago Cubs

video

We have games! Real games! Well, real spring training games, which are better than games against college teams and much better than reports about a pitcher who looked good throwing batting practice. We start the spring training schedule with five games between major league teams Tuesday, a few more Wednesday and then a full slate Thursday, complete with box scores and highlights and Class A players we've never heard of.

Here are 10 things I'm watching this spring training ... I mean, I'm just listing these 10. I could have listed more. But this is a start.

Matt Harvey's return
Back in 2013, Harvey wasn't simply a product of New York hype, but the absolute real deal. He made 26 starts before injuring his elbow and check out his triple-slash line compared to the game's other top starters that year:

Clayton Kershaw: .195/.244/.277
Jose Fernandez: .182/.257/.265
Matt Harvey: .209/.248/.282
Madison Bumgarner: .203/.270/.307
Max Scherzer: .198/.254/.329

[+] EnlargeMatt Harvey
Adam Rubin/ESPNNewYork.comMatt Harvey is scheduled to make his spring debut Friday.
Only Kershaw allowed a lower on-base percentage and no starter allowed a lower isolated power figure than Harvey, who gave up just seven home runs in 178.1 innings. The Mets fancy themselves wild-card contenders on the strength of their rotation and because Harvey's Tommy John surgery occurred in October 2013, he's had more rehab time than most starters returning from the surgery, leading to optimism that Harvey could throw 200 innings. Pitching coach Dan Warthen said Monday that 180 to 190 innings is more realistic.

We also got this news Monday: His curveball looks even better than it did prior to the injury. From Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork:
During his major league career, Harvey has thrown his curveball 12.4 percent of the time. It was a pitch he used more frequently while at UNC to complement his fastball. Harvey has found it very sharp of late, especially during Monday’s session when he was using it to get batters to chase down in the zone while simulating two-strike counts.

"I don’t know if I figured out something in my mechanics or it just magically appeared, but it’s nice having that and it felt good out there," Harvey said.


Harvey's spring debut is Friday, when he's expected to throw 35 pitches.

Giancarlo Stanton back in the batter's box
Let's face it: Until Stanton cracks that first 450-foot home run, we're going to be wondering about any psychological effects from his gruesome broken jaw and how he reacts after seeing something high and tight. I wrote about his ability to punish inside fastballs and the expectation that pitchers will test him there early on, even in spring training.

Shortstop battle in Seattle
Tristan Cockcroft wrote about some intriguing position battles here, but this might be the most important one to watch with the Mariners coming off an 87-win season. In theory, Brad Miller and Chris Taylor would make for a perfect platoon with Miller against right-handers and Taylor against left-handers, but how many playoff teams can you think of that platooned at shortstop? What makes it tricky is both shortstops have upside -- Miller as a shortstop with double-digit home run power and above-average offense, Taylor as a high-average hitter with better defense -- but neither is a guarantee to reach that potential. As Tristan pointed out, Miller hit .410 and slugged .836 in spring training a year ago; if he hits like that again, it will be hard for Lloyd McClendon to pass him over.

Bryce Harper swinging hard
I know, I know ... but HE'S STILL JUST 22. But doesn't that postseason performance in a losing effort get you pumped up? He missed 62 games with a thumb injury a year ago. Healthy, this should be his 30-homer breakout season. "After losing [Adam] LaRoche, I have to step up a little bit," he told MLB.com the other day. I believe he will, starting in spring training.

Corey Kluber and that Cleveland rotation
The reigning American League Cy Young winner will have to prove that it's one thing to perform but another thing to perform with high expectations. He ended 2014 on a dominant roll -- a 1.73 ERA over his final 14 starts -- so let's see where he picks up. His rotation mates also finished strong, as the rotation had a 2.68 ERA over the final two months. Carlos Carrasco had a 1.30 ERA in 10 starts, T.J. House a 2.25 ERA in nine starts and Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer have big arms. It's an exciting young group that now has experience to go with talent.

The Cubs' kids
Kris Bryant ... Jorge Soler ... Javier Baez ... Addison Russell. And don't sleep on Arismendy Alcantara. Oh, and it's easy to forget that Anthony Rizzo is just 25.

New Cubans and old Cubans
[+] EnlargeYasmany Tomas
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe Diamondbacks signed Yasmany Tomas to a six-year deal this offseason.
We saw Red Sox center fielder Rusney Castillo debut at the end of 2014, one of nine players born in Cuba to debut in 2014, the first season we've had at least eight Cubans debut since 1955. This will be our first extended look at him in game action. We'll also get our first look at some of the new Cubans, headlined by Diamondbacks outfielder/third baseman Yasmany Tomas and Red Sox infielder Yoan Moncada (although you'll likely to have to check out the back diamonds to see him). If you get bored with the new guys, you can just check in on Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes, now sharing a lineup with Miguel Cabrera.

Speaking of: Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander
Miggy had offseason surgery on his right foot and ankle, injuries that help explain why he dropped from 44 home runs in both 2012 and 2013 to 25. Verlander, who had surgery on his core after the 2013 season that may have affected his 2014 performance, came to camp with added muscle and manager Brad Ausmus is already excited about what he's seeing. "That's the best I've seen Ver stuff-wise, off the mound, since I've gotten this job," he said following Sunday's batting practice session. Verlander makes his spring debut Saturday. Don't close the window just yet on this group of Tigers.

Mike Trout doing Mike Trout stuff
But I also want to see the adjustments he makes against those high fastballs he struggled against in 2014.

The Padres' new outfield
We expect Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers to produce at the plate, but the key thing to watch in spring training will be Myers' adjustment to center field. The Padres are playing some high-stakes poker in believing he'll have the range to play the position.

Mookie Betts
OK, that's 11 things. But I want to see Mookie as well ... and Madison Bumgarner ... and Clayton Kershaw ... and Felix Hernandez ... and Andrew McCutchen ... and Adam Wainwright ... and George Springer ... and Josh Donaldson ... and Joey Votto ...
We continue our scroll through some of the interesting non-roster names invited to spring training. In case you missed 'em, here are the AL East, AL Central, AL West and NL East.

CubsChicago Cubs

Kris Bryant will be added to the 40-man roster once he gets called up, probably a few weeks into April to save a season on his service time. ... Addison Russell reached Double-A last year, so don't be surprised if he also surfaces this season, especially if he plays well and Javier Baez struggles again. ... Daniel Bard has ties to Theo Epstein going back to their Red Sox days, but this is kind of a sad story. Bard pitched two-thirds of an inning in the minors last year and walked nine guys and hit seven (that's not a misprint). ... Reliever Gonzalez Germen was with the Mets the past two seasons. ... Pierce Johnson is another good prospect, lower on the radar than Bryant and Russell. The right-hander allowed just 60 hits in 91.2 innings in Double-A. He needs to improve his control to get a chance at a call-up. ... Outfielder Mike Baxter looks like Triple-A insurance.


RedsCincinnati Reds

Jason Marquis is still pitching? Yes he is. He had 72 strikeouts and 68 walks when he was last in the majors with the Padres in 2013. That ratio barely cut it in 1975, let alone 2015. ... Kevin Gregg is still pitching? Yes he is. He threw nine innings with the Marlins last year. He somehow has racked up 177 career saves despite never having an ERA below 3.40 in a full season. ... Neftali Soto was once a prospect of some note after hitting 30 homers at Double-A in 2011 at age 22, but now he's down to non-roster status. ... Outfielder Brennan Boesch raked at Salt Lake last season. ... Felix Perez is a Cuban outfielder you've never heard of. He hit .280/.325/.450 at Louisville. ... Hard-throwing Robert Stephenson is the club's top prospect and could surface in the rotation later in the season if he starts throwing more strikes.


BrewersMilwaukee Brewers

It has been nine years since Dontrelle Willis was last an effective major league pitcher but he's still hanging around, playing the sport he loves. He was last seen in the majors in 2011. ... Chris Perez has gone from All-Star closer to non-roster status in just a couple of years. He had a 4.27 ERA with the Dodgers in 2014 and has been plagued with home run issues in recent seasons. The lack of depth in the Milwaukee pen gives him a chance to make the team. ... Hunter Morris is a first baseman who hit 28 home runs in Double-A in 2012 and 24 in Triple-A in 2013, but just 11 last year in 330 at-bats. He also doesn't walk much or hit for a high enough average. Where have all the first-base prospects gone? ... The Dodgers acquired outfielder/second baseman/third baseman Matt Long from the Angels and then traded him to the Brewers. He hit .249/.340/.384 between Double-A and Triple-A and he's 28, so I'm not quite sure what the attraction is other than the positional flexibility.


PiratesPittsburgh Pirates

Remember when the Pirates signed Jose Tabata to that long-term extension? They're still on the hook for $4 million this year and $4.5 million next year. He's theoretically fighting Corey Hart for a job as a right-handed bat off the bench, but Hart is on the 40-man roster so he'll probably win the job out of spring training. ... Tyler Glasnow is one of the top pitching prospects in the minors. He's only 21, hasn't pitched yet above Class A and the Pirates don't like to rush their pitchers -- but the rotation depth isn't all that great so don't be shocked to see him reach the majors if he dominates Double-A. ... Clayton Richard twice won 14 games for the Padres. ... Steve Lombardozzi got a lot of playing time with the Nationals in 2012-13 but didn't hit much at Norfolk in 2014.



CardinalsSt. Louis Cardinals

Carlos Villanueva hasn't had an ERA under 4.00 since ... 2007. He's the only major leaguer who can claim that feat while pitching in each of the past seven seasons. ... Stephen Piscotty is regarded as a top-100 prospect, but he looks like a fourth outfielder to me. He does make good contact but doesn't do much with it, hitting .288 with nine home runs at Triple-A. ... Minor league vet Scott Moore is now 31 and didn't hit much at Memphis in 2014. I always thought he deserved a better chance, but he's too old now. ... Lefty Tim Cooney is a back-end rotation candidate but could stick in the bullpen as well.

Pitchers helped by new catchers

February, 18, 2015
Feb 18
12:50
PM ET
Everybody's talking about pitch framing these days. Last week on Grantland, Ben Lindbergh had an interesting piece on the art of framing that detailed his internship with the Yankees several years ago and the internal discussion of catching Jorge Posada versus Jose Molina. Posada was a poor receiver, Molina a superb one. Ben also discussed framing with Tigers manager Brad Ausmus -- one of the best in his days -- and pointed out that while statistical analysts at the time criticized Ausmus for continuing to get playing time despite his poor bat, we now have tools that can better estimate the value of a good pitch-framing catcher.

Those studies examine pitch data and location to arrive at a runs saved value. For example, the researchers will assign a value for framing a 1-1 pitch that would normally be called a ball. Hitters have dramatically different expected results based on a 2-1 count versus a 1-2 count. Multiply those various scenarios times thousands of pitches received over a full season for a full-time catcher and you can arrive at an estimated total of runs saved.

There is some disagreement on how many runs are actually saved, with the high being about 40 runs over a season for the best framers. Others argue that it's not that high. Certainly, major league teams aren't paying huge dollars yet for catchers who can frame at that level, otherwise Russell Martin may have received a $164 million contract instead of $82 million and Jonathan Lucroy would be in line to become the game's highest-paid player.

But teams with an analytical bent are certainly making decisions based on a catcher's ability to frame pitchers. Look at the offseason moves from some of the teams most recognized for front offices that emphasize analytics:

Dodgers: Acquired Yasmani Grandal, a better framer than A.J. Ellis.

Cubs: Acquired Miguel Montero, who led the majors in runs saved in 2014 via framing, according to StatCorner.com, which has the only publicly available rating of framing that I'm aware of. He replaces Welington Castillo, who rated second worst in the majors. Signed David Ross as well.

Astros: Acquired Hank Conger, who rated the best on a per-game basis.

Rays: With Molina out of the picture, they traded Ryan Hanigan (generally regarded as an above-average framer) but acquired Rene Rivera, who ranked fifth overall on StatCorner's list for 2014.

Pirates: They lost Martin as a free agent but quickly traded for Francisco Cervelli, who has rated well.

It's no coincidence these teams went after these catchers. They regard framing as an important skill. (This isn't anything new, of course; there's a reason a guy like Ausmus played forever. Teams have always emphasized good defensive catchers, much more than the analysts did. In a sense, the analysts are only now catching up to the old-school beliefs, albeit with an attempt to accurately assess the value of framing.)

With that in mind, let's look at some pitchers who may benefit from a new catcher.

Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays: Martin replaces Dioner Navarro, who did not rate well in 2014, as the Jays' starter. Hutchison tends to throw his fastball up in the zone, but Martin could really help his slider on that low outside corner against right-handed batter. Stroman already displayed pretty good command as a rookie; he's a good bet to have a good sophomore season as Martin gets him a few more called strikes.

Jon Lester, Cubs: Well, all Cubs pitchers. Lester changed his approach a bit last year -- more cutters, fewer changeups -- but also wasn't pitching to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who usually rates poorly as a framer. Expect another strong season from him with help from Montero. Ditto for Jake Arrieta.

Zack Greinke, Dodgers: Greinke doesn't walk many batters, but his rate of called strikes on takes was actually less than the MLB average -- which is a little surprising given his command. That could be by design but Grandal should be an asset here for Greinke and ... well, it's scary to think Clayton Kershaw can get much better.

Rick Porcello, Tigers: He goes from Alex Avila, who didn't rate well in 2014 (although was better in 2013), to Christian Vazquez, who rated well in a smaller sample size as a rookie, and Hanigan.

Brad Peacock, Astros: Jason Castro actually rated decently last year, although not as well in the past. If Conger ends up catching regularly, it could help Peacock curb some of his control issues (4.8 walks per nine), as well as help Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh maintain their 2014 breakout performances.

J.A. Happ, Mariners: He moves from Navarro to Mike Zunino, No. 2 on StatCorner's list for 2014.

Mind you, these gains may not be huge. If a good catching tandem saves 40 runs at the max level, a 200-inning pitcher may only be getting five or six runs "saved" per year. But every little bit counts and maybe there are ripple effects (more confidence to throw a particular pitch, for example) that can't be measured.

Ranking the teams: 18 through 13

February, 11, 2015
Feb 11
11:28
AM ET
video

It's the third day of pre-spring training power rankings! We're getting to the serious playoff contenders now, teams that have more depth and few question marks. But I know fans of a couple of the teams below aren't going to agree with the ranking. But that's why we do this. Get those debates going.

Team rankings: Nos. 30-25
Team rankings: Nos. 24-19

A's18. Oakland Athletics

Big offseason moves: I'm trying to remember if the A's made any transactions ... traded 3B Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for 3B Brett Lawrie, LHP Sean Nolin, RHP Kendall Graveman and SS Franklin Barreto; acquired 1B Ike Davis from the Pirates; traded RHP Jeff Samardzija and RHP Michael Ynoa to the White Sox for SS Marcus Semien, RHP Chris Bassitt, C Josh Phegley and 1B Rangel Ravelo; signed DH Billy Butler; traded 1B/OF Brandon Moss to the Indians for 2B Joe Wendle; acquired RHP Jesse Hahn and RHP R.J. Alvarez from the Padres for C Derek Norris and RHP Seth Streich; acquired 2B Ben Zobrist and SS Yunel Escobar from the Rays for SS Daniel Robertson, C/DH John Jaso and OF Boog Powell; traded Escobar to the Nationals for RHP Tyler Clippard; lost Jon Lester, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, Jason Hammel, Jonny Gomes and Geovany Soto via free agency; released Nick Punto, which probably doesn't qualify as a big offseason move.

Most intriguing player: Billy Beane certainly remains the most intriguing player in this organization after that frenetic offseason makeover.

Due for a better year: The A's traded for Lawrie certainly hoping he has a better year. The third baseman hasn't been able to stay healthy in his three seasons in the majors, going from 125 games played to 105 to 70. It's worth noting that he has hit much better in Toronto in his career than on the road -- .815 OPS versus .683.

Due for a worse year: Scott Kazmir went 15-9 with a 3.55 ERA in pitching his most innings since 2007, but also faded down the stretch. Can he stay healthy and remain productive again for 30-plus starts?

I'm just the messenger: The A's traded away their most valuable player in Donaldson and have lost essentially one ace-level of production in Lester and Samardzija (who made 27 starts for the A's). Their top three home run hitters from 2014 -- Donaldson, Moss and Yoenis Cespedes -- are gone and they hit 71 of the team's 146 home runs. A's catchers also ranked third in the majors in wOBA in 2014 and now they're counting on Stephen Vogt, who underwent foot surgery in the offseason, and Phegley, who was blown away at the major league level in 2013. The Butler signing was curious, especially because he was bad last season. On the other hand, Zobrist is a definite upgrade over Eric Sogard.

The final word: I touched on the A's last week when I wrote my A's-Giants comparison. The projection systems are actually pretty optimistic about the A's and while they do have nice depth across their 40-man roster, I worry about the power and run scoring and the rotation if Kazmir doesn't have a strong season. I'm predicting a record under .500 in a tough AL West, although it wouldn't surprise me if A's surprise us. They usually do.

Prediction: 79-83


A's17. Kansas City Royals

Big offseason moves: Lost RHP James Shields, DH Billy Butler and OF Norichika Aoki via free agency; signed RHP Edinson Volquez; signed DH Kendrys Morales; signed RF Alex Rios; re-signed RHPs Jason Frasor and Luke Hochevar; traded RHP Aaron Crow to the Marlins; signed RHP Kris Medlen.

Most intriguing player: Yordano Ventura. Now that Shields has departed, Ventura assumes the role of staff ace. How he fares after a pretty sizable workload as a rookie will be a big test.

Due for a better year: Eric Hosmer. He hit .351/.439/.544 in 16 postseason games, looking like the star everyone projected after his strong rookie season in 2011. Did he simply get hot for a few games? After all, he had just two doubles and no home runs over his final 11 postseason games. Anyway, he had just nine home runs in 2014. He's at least capable of rebounding to his 2013 numbers when he hit .302/.353/.448.

Due for a worse year: Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera will once again be a formidable trio, but do they go 14-8 with a 1.28 ERA and just three home runs allowed in 204.3 innings?

I'm just the messenger: Yes, the Royals struck out the fewest times in the American League. They also hit the fewest home runs and drew the fewest walks and managed to finish ninth in runs scored. Yes, the speed and baserunning helped a bit there, but it's tough to have a consistent offense that's built around batting average. The Royals will need real improvement from some position players to avoid an offensive decline.

The final word: No team had a less stimulating offseason than the Royals. They lost Shields and replaced him with Volquez, who was worth 2.5 WAR for the Pirates last year but minus-2.5 WAR from 2010 through 2013. They lost fan favorite Butler because they didn't want to pick up his $12.5 million option but then signed Morales -- who was even worse than Butler in 2014 -- for $17 million over two years. They lost Aoki but signed Rios -- who was awful in 2014. Is this any way to follow up your first playoff trip in 29 years? Shame on you, David Glass.

Prediction: 80-82

Padres16. San Diego Padres

Big offseason moves: Named A.J. Preller general manager; acquired OF Matt Kemp and C Tim Federowicz from the Dodgers C Yasmani Grandal, RHP Joe Wieland and RHP Zach Eflin; acquired OF Justin Upton from the Braves for four minor leaguers; signed RHP James Shields; acquired OF Wil Myers, C Ryan Hanigan and two minor leaguers from the Rays for C Rene Rivera, RHP Joe Ross, RHP Burch Smith and 1B Jake Bauers as part of a three-team deal; acquired C Derek Norris and RHP Seth Streich from the A's for RHP Jesse Hahn and RHP R.J. Alvarez; traded Hanigan to the Red Sox for 3B Will Middlebrooks; traded OF Seth Smith to the Mariners for RHP Brandon Maurer; signed RHPs Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow; signed SS Clint Barmes; the only thing they didn't do was bring back the old brown uniforms.

Most intriguing player: I'm going with Kemp. Was his strong second-half performance with the Dodgers a sign that he's finally healthy from shoulder, foot and ankle injuries? Will he be extra motivated after getting traded to a division rival? Will he hit in Petco Park (he actually has a higher career OPS there than at Dodger Stadium)? How will he do on defense?

Due for a better year: Myers. He was hurt and unproductive as a sophomore, hitting a woeful .222/.294/.320. The Padres will be expecting at least 50 more points of OBP and 150 points of slugging.

Due for a worse year: I'll take the over on Joaquin Benoit posting a 1.49 ERA and I'd be wary about Tyson Ross posting a 2.81 over 195 innings again.

I'm just the messenger: A quick little study. The projected outfield of Upton, Myers and Kemp is going to be shaky defensively unless Myers adapts to center and Kemp finds his 25-year-old legs. How the teams with the five worst defensive outfields (via defensive runs saved) have fared over the past three seasons:

2014
Twins (-50) -- 70-92
Indians (-37) -- 85-77
Tigers (-33) -- 90-72
Phillies (-27) -- 73-89
Dodgers (-25) -- 94-68
Cubs (-25) -- 73-89

2013
Mariners (-70) -- 71-91
Phillies (-46) -- 73-89
Twins (-35) -- 66-96
Astros (-32) -- 51-111
Rockies (-30) -- 74-88

2012
Mets (-35) -- 74-88
Orioles (-23) -- 93-69
Marlins (-21) -- 69-93
Nationals (-20) -- 98-64
Cubs (-19) -- 61-101

Average record: 76-86.

SportsNation

How many games do the Padres win?

  •  
    6%
  •  
    16%
  •  
    35%
  •  
    31%
  •  
    12%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,751)

This isn't proof of anything. For one thing, we don't know if the Padres' outfield will be bad defensively, although there certainly are reasons to expect it will be bad as opposed to good. Plus, a quarter of the 16 teams did win 90 games, so outfield defense is hardly the defining force to a team's win-loss record. But it can be an important element and it's a reason to be concerned.

The final word: Everybody's excited about the Padres. I'm excited about the Padres. That's good and I hope they're in the playoff race all season. The Shields signing was big, giving them an innings eater and extending the depth of the rotation. But right now the infield looks like a mess, even if Jedd Gyorko bounces back, and you have to worry about the injury histories of Ross and Andrew Cashner. My prediction is certainly on the low end but if the rotation stays healthy or they get surprise contributions from guys such as Morrow or Johnson, 90 wins is certainly possible.

Prediction: 80-82


Astros15. Houston Astros

Big offseason moves: Hired A.J. Hinch as manager; signed SS Jed Lowrie and RHPs Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek; acquired 3B Luis Valbuena and RHP Dan Straily from the Cubs for CF Dexter Fowler; acquired C Evan Gattis and RHP James Hoyt from the Braves for RHP Michael Foltynewicz, 3B Rio Ruiz and RHP Andrew Thurman; signed OF Colby Rasmus.

Most intriguing player: George Springer. I had him in this spot last year and put him here again. Breakout potential remains large. Note: Most fun player remains Jose Altuve.

Due for a better year: The bullpen. Gregerson and Neshek should help a pen that had the worst ERA in the majors and the second-most blown saves.

Due for a worse year: Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh are the logical candidates, although I like both pitchers to come close to their 2014 results.

I'm just the messenger: There's an obvious concern here: It's Altuve and a Costco warehouse of strikeouts. Springer, Chris Carter and Gattis may combine for 90 home runs and nearly 600 strikeouts, which could push the lineup into prolonged slumps of whiffs and scoreless innings.

The final word: I like the Astros more than most -- calling them the surprise team of 2015 -- and pointed out that they had the worst production in the majors last year at first base, third base and left field. So improvement at those positions will be vital. Yes, a lot is riding on Keuchel and McHugh to be very good again but I believe they will be. The Astros' plan is coming together, augmented with some free-agent signings, and they're going to be competitive for the first time in years.

Prediction: 83-79


Tigers14. Detroit Tigers

Big offseason moves: Lost RHP Max Scherzer via free agency; re-signed DH Victor Martinez; acquired OF Yoenis Cespedes from the Red Sox for RHP Rick Porcello; acquired RHP Alfredo Simon from the Reds for SS Eugenio Suarez and RHP Jonathon Crawford; acquired CF Anthony Gose from the Blue Jays for 2B Devon Travis; acquired RHP Shane Greene from the Yankees.

Most intriguing player: Justin Verlander. There were 149 pitchers in 2014 who threw at least 100 innings; Verlander ranked 126th in ERA. Career crisis or just a bad season after surgery on his core muscles last offseason? While he had a 4.54 ERA, he had a 3.74 FIP, suggesting his peripherals were still solid, if not Verlander-esque. On the other hand, his strikeout rate was way down and he was 135th out of those 149 pitches in OPS allowed in hitters' counts. Does the stuff come back?

Due for a better year: Well, Jose Iglesias is penciled in as the starting shortstop after missing all of 2014. The Tigers were last in the majors in wOBA from their shortstops, so as long he plays good defense the Tigers will be happy.

Due for a worse year: Victor Martinez had the best season of his career with a .974 OPS -- just the second time he's topped .900. At 36, he wasn't a good bet to hit .335 with 32 home runs again, and that was before the knee injury he suffered last week.

I'm just the messenger: Well ... 27th in bullpen ERA in 2014; 24th in bullpen ERA in 2013; 18th in bullpen ERA in 2012; 25th in bullpen ERA in 2011. "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it." Edmund Burke. Or was that Dave Dombrowski? I forget.

SportsNation

How many games do the Tigers win?

  •  
    8%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    28%
  •  
    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,927)

The final word: The Tigers have won four straight AL Central titles and they'll be the favorites to capture a fifth. It's easy to see the arguments: David Price essentially replaces Scherzer, Verlander bounces back, Cespedes adds even more power, Simon replaces Porcello, even Miguel Cabrera is capable of better numbers. OK, the bullpen is shaky, but that hasn't prevented the Tigers from winning the division in the past. This is still a team that will score runs and have a good-to-great rotation. Maybe ... but I see the Tigers' window starting to close this year. There's more competition in the division, I have some doubts about Verlander and now Martinez, Simon isn't as good as Porcello was last year and the bullpen will hurt the team. At least, that's what I'm predicting.

Prediction: 83-79

Cubs13. Chicago Cubs

Big offseason moves: Hired Joe Maddon as manager; signed free-agent LHP Jon Lester; signed RHP Jason Hammel; acquired C Miguel Montero from the Diamondbacks for RHP Jeferson Mejia and RHP Zack Godley; traded OF Justin Ruggiano to the Mariners for RHP Matt Brazis; acquired CF Dexter Fowler from the Astros for 3B Luis Valbuena and RHP Dan Straily; signed OF Chris Denorfia.

Most intriguing player: Rookie third baseman Kris Bryant likely spends a few weeks in the minors to save the Cubs on service time, but there's a reason he's the No. 1 prospect in baseball. He and Anthony Rizzo are going to be a dominant 3-4 combination for years to come ... and maybe as soon as 2015.

Due for a better year: Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara both struggled in their rookie seasons, Baez with a .227 OBP and a season's worth of strikeouts in 52 games and Alcantara with a .254 OBP and a strikeout rate nearly as absurd. Alcantara was slated to be the Cubs' utility guy, playing both outfield and infield, but the acquisition of Fowler means he could battle Baez for the starting job at second base.

Due for a worse year: Kyle Hendricks went 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts down the stretch. He doesn't throw hard or strike out a lot of batters as he relies on an upper-80s sinker. The projection systems see a guy with an ERA around 4.00 -- that low K rate -- and while I like him, it's likely his ERA rises a run or so.

SportsNation

Do the Cubs make the playoffs?

  •  
    54%
  •  
    34%
  •  
    12%

Discuss (Total votes: 30,292)

I'm just the messenger: Just pointing out that Lester had a 4.82 ERA in 2012 and 3.75 in 2013. Yes, big 2014, new league, no DH and more cutters instead of four-seamers and he could be even better. But you never know. He may not be as good as he was last year. And then there's Jake Arrieta, former faded prospect turned rotation anchor. He looks like the real deal but ... again ... you never know. Hey, I'm trying. I like the Cubs! I have them ranked 13th!

The final word: If I had more guts I'd predict them to win the division, but they have two strong clubs ahead of them and even the Brewers or Reds are capable of 90 wins. The Cubs are still sorting a few things out and waiting for some of the young guys to mature. Sometimes, teams do break through right away; if Bryant and Jorge Soler are 3-4 win players as rookies and Lester and Arrieta throw 400-plus innings of great baseball, the Cubs could be the big surprise of 2015.

Prediction: 84-78
Last week, Christina Kahrl -- you see her byline here on a regular basis -- was in town and while at dinner one night she mentioned the worst play she ever saw, when Ryne Sandberg threw the ball to first base ... as the winning run scored from third.

That led to a little discussion about Sandberg's defense. Christina thought Sandberg's defense was overrated; yes, he won nine straight Gold Gloves from 1983 to 1991, a key reason he got into the Hall of Fame without much difficulty. His defensive metrics on Baseball-Reference are certainly solid, with +60 fielding runs above average, which ranks 23rd among second basemen. Christina's argument was that Sandberg wasn't good at turning the double play, that, in fact, Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston was often irritated because Sandberg often took the force play and stepped towards left field rather than trying to complete the double play.

I'd never heard that before, but this was pre-Internet, so unless you lived in Chicago it was a little detail you wouldn't have necessarily heard about. Certainly, Sandberg's defensive reputation remained strong throughout his career to my memory.

So, having just heard about this, I was reading one of the latest installments on defense that Bill James is posting at Bill James Online. (It's pay content but go spend the $3 monthly fee just to read this ongoing series of articles.) Bill is doing a historical overview of defense, having developing a new rating system; he started with catcher and is now up to second base. Under this system, he credits Sandberg with zero Gold Gloves. He doesn't rate him as a bad second baseman, just not the best in any single year.

And the reason why? Double plays. Bill writes,
My system figures "expected double plays" on the team level, and then credits the second basemen on the team if the team turns more double plays than expected. The number of expected double plays for a team is

The estimated number of Runners on First Base Against the Team,

Times the league percentage of Double Plays as a Percentage of Runners on First Base,

Modified by the team’s Assists per Innings Pitched (the assists being a near-perfect stand-in for the ground ball rate.)


Under this methodology, Sandberg rates as the second-worst double play guy over a career at -122 DPs below expectations, behind somebody named Ralph Young who played from 1915 to 1922. "That's the reason my system doesn't see Sandberg as deserving of the Gold Glove(s)," James writes. (H)is DP numbers are poor. Otherwise he looks great, but his teams underachieved in Double Play performance every year from 1981 to 1992."

From 1983 to 1992, Sandberg's years as a regular -- he played 150-plus games every year except one in that span -- here are the Cubs rankings in the NL in double plays by second basemen:

1983: 1st
1984: 7th
1985: 6th
1986: 9th
1987: 4th
1988: 10th
1989: 9th
1990: 5th
1991: 12th
1992: 5th

Remember, the raw number of double plays is influenced by the numbers of baserunners and Cubs pitchers were usually allowing a lot of baserunning in these years, so the Cubs may rank even lower if you examined total opportunities. It appears Sandberg was pretty good in 1983 -- the Cubs tied for the league lead in 6-4-3 double plays -- but at some point it does appear he made the decision to not risk injury by trying to turn two and getting upended by the runner. Instead, he simply got out of the way.

With a quick search, I couldn't find a Dunston quote talking about his double play partner, but the evidence certainly backs up Christina's memory. Of course, you can debate the merits of Sandberg's decision; according to James' method, he cost the Cubs about 10 double plays a year but he was also amazingly durable, averaging 154 games played over a 10-year span while playing second base. Maybe Sandberg made the right decision by minimizing his injury risk. Overall, Baseball-Reference docks Sandberg only 14 runs over his career for his double play ability.

Now, about Roberto Alomar ...
Two of the most interesting offseasons in baseball belonged to the White Sox and Cubs. The White Sox made the big trade for Jeff Samardzija and signed free agents Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche and David Robertson. The Cubs signed Jon Lester and Jason Hammel and traded for Dexter Fowler to join their group of developing youngsters.

Both clubs finished 73-89 a year ago, and both could be popular sleeper picks to make the postseason in 2015. Which is the better team? Let's go position by position.

Catcher: Tyler Flowers vs. Miguel Montero

Montero was an All-Star with the Diamondbacks in 2014, but his offensive production has regressed from 2011 and 2012, when he hit .284/.372/.454. He has been worked heavily in recent years, starting 130-plus games in three of the past four seasons, and he can't hit left-handers (.198 in 2014), so the Cubs would be smart to give him a few more off days, probably in a strict platoon with David Ross or Welington Castillo. But they picked Montero up as much for his defense as his bat, as he is a better pitch-framer than Castillo. Flowers has power (15 home runs) but owns a .287 career OBP. He is about league average at throwing out base stealers but doesn't have the same overall defensive reputation as Montero.

Edge: Cubs.

First base: Jose Abreu vs. Anthony Rizzo

LaRoche is a better defensive first baseman than Abreu, but the White Sox will probably end up in a time-share with the two between first base and DH. For this little discussion, we'll just compare Abreu and Rizzo. It's certainly a fun debate, as both players could be MVP candidates in 2015.

SportsNation

Who is the better player in 2015?

  •  
    50%
  •  
    50%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,134)

One interesting thing to watch in 2015 will be how Abreu consolidates his talents. In the first half of last season, he hit .292 and slugged .630 after swatting 29 home runs; in the second half, he hit .350 but slugged .513 as he just seven home runs. Abreu did not see more off-speed stuff in the second half even though he destroyed fastballs (hit .372 on the season against them), but pitchers seemed to challenge him less and his walk rate improved while he struck out less often. Imagine if he combines his first-half power with his second-half batting average ...

Anyway, the Steamer projection system has Abreu hitting .285/.358/.537 with 35 home runs and Rizzo hitting .271/.360/.503 with 32 home runs. Similar numbers, but Rizzo picks up points on defense and projects to a 4.7 WAR compared with Abreu's 4.0. I'll take the over on both guys as I think Abreu will hit over .300 and Rizzo will approach a .400 OBP again.

Edge: White Sox. Really, this is a coin flip. Rizzo is the better defender, which is valuable, but Abreu's bat could be Cabrera-like special with a year of experience under his belt.

Second base: Emilio Bonifacio vs. Javier Baez

Really, both positions are open. The White Sox just signed Gordon Beckham to battle Bonifacio and Carlos Sanchez for the starting job. Following Baez's woeful debut in 2014, the Cubs acquired Tommy La Stella from the Braves as a backup in case Baez has to return to Triple-A.

Edge: Cubs. Baez may strike out 200 times but could hit 30 home runs. We know Bonifacio and Beckham aren't that good.

Third base: Conor Gillaspie vs. Kris Bryant

Bryant, Keith Law's No. 1 MLB prospect, will likely spend a few weeks in the minors at the start of the season to save on his service-time clock, but he should start mashing as soon as he gets called up. Gillaspie is a platoon third baseman who rode a hot first half to a decent season, but he lacks power and hit just .228 after the All-Star break.

Edge: Cubs. This could be a problematic position for the White Sox.

Shortstop: Alexei Ramirez vs. Starlin Castro

The underrated Ramirez plays every day -- 158 games in each of the past four seasons -- and while he's not a high OBP guy, he did pound 52 extra-base hits in 2014. Castro rebounded from a rough 2013, a season in which he hit into a lot of bad luck when you dig into the numbers, to bat .292 with 48 extra-base hits. Defensively, the metrics back up the belief that Castro is a below-average shortstop. Ramirez has a good reputation, but he's 33 and the stats suggest that he has lost a step the past couple of years.

Edge: Cubs. Another coin flip, but Ramirez's defensive edge has diminished and Castro has the slight edge at the plate.

Left field: Melky Cabrera vs. Chris Coghlan

The White Sox surprised everyone by signing Cabrera as a free agent in December, coming off his .301/.351/.458 season with Toronto. Coghlan will be the strong side of a platoon in left, likely with Chris Denorfia, and is coming off his first good season since winning rookie of the year honors way back in 2009 with the Marlins. I wouldn't bet on a repeat.

Edge: White Sox.

Center field: Adam Eaton vs. Dexter Fowler

Eaton hit only one home run last season and has had durability issues, but I love his game. He gets on base and plays an excellent center field. Fowler transitioned well from Colorado to Houston, maintaining his offensive numbers. His defensive metrics have consistently been below average, both by defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating. Like Eaton, Fowler has had issues staying on the field, missing more than 80 games the past two seasons.

Edge: White Sox. I'll go with Eaton's defense over Fowler's power advantage.

Right field: Avisail Garcia vs. Jorge Soler

Two young guys trying to prove themselves. I've never been a big fan of Garcia's profile; he doesn't walk, isn't a plus defender and doesn't have the power to overcome his mediocre on-base skills. Soler's upside is much higher if he can stay healthy, which he had problems doing in the minors.

Edge: Cubs.

Bench

The White Sox have LaRoche for DH duties and Bonifacio as the super utility guy if he's not playing regularly at second base, but there's no power and no obvious fourth outfielder of value. The Cubs will use Arismendy Alcantara in center and as a second-base option if Baez flops. Castillo becomes one of the better backup catchers in the game. The Cubs have Denorfia and Ryan Sweeney as seasoned backups in the outfield.

Edge: Cubs, although neither team is real strong here.

No. 1 starter: Chris Sale vs. Jon Lester

SportsNation

Who will be better in 2015?

  •  
    43%
  •  
    57%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,930)

Over the past three seasons, Sale was 40-26 with a 2.79 ERA/3.03 FIP while pitching in a hitters' park and averaged 6.5 WAR per season. Lester went 40-33 with a 3.65 ERA/3.49 FIP, averaging 2.8 WAR per season. Lester has been more durable, is coming off his best season and could see his numbers spike as he moves to the National League. Even while emphasizing Lester's improvement in 2014, I'll go with Sale, probably my American League Cy Young pick.

Edge: White Sox.

No. 2 starter: Jose Quintana vs. Jake Arrieta

You can quibble over whether Quintana or Samardzija will be the No. 2 guy for the White Sox, but the underrated Quintana has been the more consistent performer. After years of potential but poor performance in Baltimore, Arrieta put everything together with the Cubs in 2014, posting a 2.53 ERA with 167 strikeouts and just 114 hits allowed in 156 2/3 innings. Arrieta reportedly added a cutter -- although he calls it a hard slider and the data systems also deem it a slider. Either way, he threw that hard slider a lot more often in 2014 and with great success, as batters hit .184 against it. In 2012, when he had a 6.20 ERA in 114 2/3 innings with the Orioles, batters hit .297 and slugged over .600 against it. Factor in his improved fastball command and a wipeout curveball and Arrieta's total arsenal was ace-like.

Edge: Cubs. Arrieta has to prove he can do all that for 200 innings, but I think he's the real deal.

No. 3 starter: Jeff Samardzija vs. Jason Hammel

The Cubs re-signed Hammel after trading him to the A's along with Samardzija, a nice under-the-radar signing. Hammel had a terrific half-season with the Cubs, a much better performance than anything he ever did in the AL. Was it just a hot three months, or did he benefit that much from pitching in the NL? I'm inclined to think he was a little over his head. Not that you should judge pitchers by their win-loss records, but Samardzija has gone 9-13, 8-13 and 7-13 the past three seasons. I don't expect him to go 6-13 in 2015.

Edge: White Sox.

No. 4/5 starters: John Danks/Hector Noesi vs. Kyle Hendricks/Travis Wood/Tsuyoshi Wada/Edwin Jackson

Not only are Danks and Noesi not very good, but the White Sox also don't have much behind those two. James Shields would be a great fit, but there's probably no more room in White Sox GM Rick Hahn's budget. Hendricks is a ground ball specialist who doesn't throw hard and doesn't strike out a lot of guys but throws strikes and has always put up excellent results, including a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts as a rookie. His FIP was 3.32, which is more in line with what to expect in 2015, but I like him as a back-end guy.

Edge: Cubs. Much more depth here.

Bullpen

The White Sox signed free-agent closer Robertson to help a bullpen that ranked 28th in the majors in ERA in 2014. The rest of the crew returns -- and it includes some good arms -- but the White Sox had the worst walk rate in the majors. The Cubs quietly came up with a solid one-two-three punch in Hector Rondon, Neil Ramirez and Pedro Strop, giving them their best bullpen in years.

Edge: Cubs.

SportsNation

Which team wins more games in 2015?

  •  
    60%
  •  
    40%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,279)

Overall, I like the Cubs to post a better record. The White Sox have potential holes at second base, third base and the back of the rotation. Yes, the Cubs are counting on young guys like Baez, Bryant and Soler, but two of those are good bets to be productive major leaguers in 2015. Lester and Arrieta could be a dynamite one-two punch. The Cubs probably have the tougher division, where they will have to battle the Cardinals and Pirates, but I like them to win 85 games or so. I see the White Sox more around .500.

What do you think?
With Keith Law unveiling his top 100 prospects this week, I thought it would be fun to look back at the top prospects from 2005. Has it already been 10 years since 2005? Yes it has! We'll use Baseball America's list and, as always, we're not criticizing the list. Evaluating prospects is part art, part science and a lot of unknown.

The Top 10
1. Joe Mauer, Twins
2. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
3. Delmon Young, Devil Rays
4. Ian Stewart, Rockies
5. Joel Guzman, Dodgers
6. Casey Kotchman, Angels
7. Scott Kazmir, Devil Rays
8. Rickie Weeks, Brewers
9. Andy Marte, Braves
10. Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox

Just a reminder: Not all top-10 players become All-Stars, let alone future Hall of Famers, and many don't develop at all. Young, who rose to the No. 1 overall prospect in 2006, has had a long major league career but at barely replacement level (2.5 career WAR), making him one of the most disappointing prospects of the past decade. His aggressive approach that existed in the minors has proven to be a fatal flaw in the majors, but he's also been a poor defender and his athleticism declined rapidly.

Stewart was coming off a 30-homer season in low A ball at age 19 in which he also hit .319 with some walks and he certainly looked like a future star. He did have a 25-homer season with the Rockies in 2009 but has never been able to make enough contact or hit left-handers. Guzman was a big, 6-foot-7 shortstop who wasn't likely to stay there but had put up good numbers as a 19-year-old, albeit with a poor strikeout-to-walk rate. It was really the only season he hit like a top prospect in the minors and he made the majors for just 24 games.

Kotchman was a much different hitter than Young, Stewart or Guzman, a sweet-swinging first baseman who walked more than he struck out and projected to hit for a high average, but he never should have been a top-10 prospect. He had been injury-prone in the minors and didn't hit for much power and first basemen without power aren't top-10 overall prospects. In the majors, he was injury-prone and didn't hit for much power.

Weeks was that rare second-base prospect to crack the top 10. He's been worth 12.3 career WAR even though he has power and patience as he's only hit .249 despite his quick bat and his defense has been historically awful. At the time, Baseball America admitted he "had a lot of work to do with the glove." Ten years later, the defense never did improve and he can't find a job this offseason because of that liability.

Then there's Marte, one of the more famous prospect flops in recent years. "His potential as an all-around impact player is unquestioned," wrote Baseball America. Even though he was described as mature for his age in the BA scouting report, Marte's work ethic was later questioned and he added some weight, a concern cited even in 2005. He's hit .218 in 308 career major league games and is still scuffling around, appearing in six games for the Diamondbacks last year.

Nos. 11-25
11. Lastings Milledge, Mets
12. Dallas McPherson, Angels
13. Matt Cain, Giants
14. Jeff Francoeur, Braves
15. Prince Fielder, Brewers
16. Adam Miller, Indians
17. Jason Kubel, Twins
18. Jeremy Hermida, Marlins
19. Chad Billingsley, Dodgers
20. Jeff Niemann, Devil Rays
21. Brian Dopirak, Cubs
22. Carlos Quentin, Diamondbacks
23. Jeff Francis, Rockies
24. Nick Swisher, Athletics
25. Jose Capellan, Brewers

Three hits with Cain, Fielder and Swisher and a half-hit with Billingsley, who is trying to rebound from two years of injuries and just signed with the Phillies. Kubel was a hit-first prospect who ranked 17th on the list even though he had torn up his knee in the Arizona Fall League, after reaching the majors at the end of 2004. Already considered slow in the outfield before the injury, he had some good years at the plate in the majors but was best suited to DH, and it's possible he was never the same player after the injury. Quentin has also seen his career interrupted by various injuries through the years.

The interesting guy here is Hermida, who rose to the No. 4 overall prospect in 2006. He was supposed to be a can't-miss hitter, due to excellent plate discipline and a nice lefty stroke with medium-range power and good makeup. He had a good year for the Marlins in 2007, hitting .296/.369/.501 but the bat went downhill from there. There were some nagging injuries and a trade to Boston, a collision with Adrian Beltre and then a bunch of years as a 4-A player. He's spent all of the two past years in Triple-A.

Nos. 26-50
Best hits: No. 27 Ryan Howard, No. 28 J.J. Hardy, No. 30 Edwin Jackson, No. 35 Gavin Floyd, No. 39 Erick Aybar, No. 44 Brian McCann, No. 48 Homer Bailey, No. 49 Brandon McCarthy.

And by "best hits" I mean only hits. Well, there's Yusmeiro Petit and Zach Duke and Ryan Sweeney and Anthony Reyes had that one good start for the Cardinals in the World Series.

Nos. 51-75
Best hits: No. 51 Shin-Soo Choo, No. 54 Franklin Gutierrez, No. 56 Edwin Encarnacion, No. 57 Curtis Granderson, No. 59 John Danks, No. 62 James Loney, No. 64 Aaron Hill, No. 65 Nick Markakis, No. 71 Cole Hamels, No. 72 Brandon Moss, No. 75 Billy Butler.

Even with Mauer and Hernandez, it looks like this block of 25 has produced more value than the top 25.

Nos. 76-100
Best hits: No. 76 Kendrys Morales, No. 81 Neil Walker, No. 82 Ubaldo Jimenez, No. 91 Jonathan Papelbon, No. 97 Huston Street, No. 98 Ian Kinsler.

Kinsler had a monster year in the minors in 2004, hitting .345 with 20 home runs, 51 doubles, 23 steals and good contract rates. I'm guessing he was ranked so low because he had been just a 17th-round pick the year before and caught everyone by surprise (although Baseball America mentioned an offseason strength training program and hitting instruction from Rangers coaches that led to the breakout performance).

Ten best prospects not in the top 100
Here are the top guys by career WAR not included in the top 100

1. Robinson Cano (51.5) -- Baseball America did rate him as the Yankees' No. 2 prospect (behind Eric Duncan) but had concerns about his ability to hit left-handers, his speed and his range at second. He'd hit .283/.339/.457 between Double-A and Triple-A at age 21 and obviously continued to get better.

2. Dustin Pedroia (43.2) -- He'd been a second-round pick in June of 2004 and hit .357 in the low minors. He'd crack the top 100 the next year at No. 77.

3. Adrian Gonzalez (38.4) -- He had a cup of coffee with the Rangers in 2004 and even though the Marlins had made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2000, was left out of the top 100 after hitting .304/.364/457 at Triple-A at age 22. The power started developing more in 2005, although the Rangers traded him after that season to the Padres.

4. Ben Zobrist (36.6) -- He certainly wouldn't have been on anyone's prospect radar after being a sixth-round pick out of Dallas Baptist in June of 2004, although he'd hit .339/.438/.463 with more walks than strikeouts in the New York-Penn League. The Rays got him from the Astros in 2006 and he reached the majors that season.

5. Jon Lester (32.6) -- Lester had been a second-round pick in 2002 but had ho-hum numbers in the Florida State League, with a 4.28 ERA and 97 strikeouts and 37 walks in 90 innings. The scouting report was positive: 92-93 mph and hitting 96, with Baseball America noting his secondary stuff needed refinement. He had also missed some time with shoulder tightness. Still, considering the size and arm strength, a little surprising he didn't crack the top 100.

6. Adam Wainwright (32.5) -- This one made more sense. He made just 12 starts in Triple-A because of an elbow strain and posted a 5.37 ERA. Baseball America did note that his "curveball may be his best pitch." Yeah, maybe.

7. Shane Victorino (30.2) -- He'd actually been a Rule 5 pick by the Padres from the Dodgers in 2003 and had 73 plate appearances in the majors before the Padres returned him. The Phillies then made him a Rule 5 pick again after the 2004 season. Despite his plus speed and a solid season in Double-A in 2004, he was listed as just the 19th-best prospect for the Phillies.

8. Russell Martin (30.1) -- He'd hit .250 with 15 home runs in Class A and had been catching for just two years, although he had positive reviews for his defense. He wasn't overlooked -- No. 6 among Dodgers prospects -- and it's noteworthy that he did have a good hitting approach even then, with 72 walks against 54 strikeouts.

9. Jose Bautista (29.6) -- He was easy to miss because he'd spent 2004 as a Rule 5 pick, going from the Pirates to the Orioles to the Devil Rays (off waivers) to the Royals (sold) to the Mets (for Justin Huber) and then back to the Pirates in another trade. All told, he batted just 88 times. And that was after playing sparingly in 2003 after breaking his hand punching a garbage can. Baseball America did note his athleticism and ability to play third base or outfield in naming him Pittsburgh's No. 12 prospect.

10. James Shields (28.7) -- He was really just an organizational player at this point in the minors, a 16th-round pick who wasn't listed among Tampa Bay's top 30 prospects or even in a longer depth chart of right-handed pitchers. He'd had a 4.72 ERA between Class A and Double-A with 106 strikeouts in 135 innings.


Who's better, Freeman or Rizzo?

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
11:58
AM ET
Keith Law came out with his top 100 prospects Thursday, and the list lacks impact first basemen (the highest-ranking first baseman is D.J. Peterson of the Mariners at No. 61, and he's actually played mostly third in the minors), continuing a trend of declining offense from a position that is supposed to provide it. Since 2009, the overall wOBA (weighted on-base average) in MLB has declined 20 points to .305 from .325, but the wOBA for first basemen has declined 34 points to .328 from .362.

Luckily, we do have two outstanding young first basemen in the National League to appreciate: Freddie Freeman of the Braves and Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs. We talked briefly about these two in Tuesday's chat, but let's put it to a vote: Who do you like better for 2015? Both are entering their age-25 seasons and coming off excellent seasons. Freeman has a longer track record of success, but Rizzo took a big leap forward in 2014.

Some quick numbers:

Freeman
2014: .288/.386/.461, 18 HR, 2.9 bWAR, 4.2 fWAR
2015 Steamer projection: .284/.375/.480, 24 HR, 4.1 WAR

Rizzo
2014: .286/.386/.527, 32 HR, 4.9 bWAR, 5.6 fWAR
2015 Steamer projection: .271/.360/.503, 32 HR, 4.7 WAR

By the advanced metrics, Rizzo had the better season with a 2-win edge in Baseball-Reference WAR and 1.4-win advantage in FanGraphs WAR. Rizzo's power advantage certainly helped there, but he also rated as the much better defensive first baseman. That's particularly interesting because Freeman is viewed as a good first baseman, especially by Braves fans.

[+] EnlargeFreddie Freeman hit chart
ESPN Stats & Info
Using defensive runs saved, Freeman rated at minus-7 runs and Rizzo at plus-6; that 13-run difference is worth more than a win in Baseball-Reference's version of WAR, which uses defensive runs saved for its defense evaluation. Rizzo has rated well throughout his career via DRS, but 2014 may simply have been an aberration for Freeman, as he was plus-7 in 2013 and plus-3 in 2012.

In looking at the data from Baseball Info Solutions, the two were similar in their ratio of "good fielding plays" and "misplays" with Rizzo at 63 and 20 (plus nine errors) and Freeman at 57 and 20 (plus five errors). The difference comes in the evaluation of range, with Freeman rated particularly poorly going to his left (minus-7 runs). For what it's worth, FanGraphs uses ultimate zone rating, which rated Rizzo six runs better in 2014.

Anyway, first basemen are paid to hit, not for their defense. The big difference between the two at the plate was their power: Rizzo hit 32 home runs in 524 at-bats last season, Freeman 18 in 607 at-bats (Freeman had nearly 100 more plate appearances as Rizzo missed 20 games while Freeman played all 162). Freeman did hit more doubles but that wasn't enough to make up for Rizzo's advantage in knocking the ball over the fence. Both showed excellent walk rates, with Rizzo at 11.9 percent and Freeman at 12.7 percent, both ranking in the top 20 among all qualified hitters.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
ESPN Stats & Info
Braves fans will point out two things: Freeman is young enough to still have a power spike (he hit 23 home runs in both 2012 and 2013) and he hit .319 in 2013. A power spike is certainly possible, but I wonder if Freeman would have to change his swing and start pulling the ball more. Compare his hit chart to Rizzo's: Freeman sprays the ball around the field, while Rizzo has the more classic power hitter's pull approach.

As for that .319 average in 2013, Freeman had a very high .371 average on balls in play. Even though he had a higher rate of line drives in 2014 (31 percent compared to 25 percent), his BABIP dropped to .351. To hit .300, Freeman would have to cut down on his strikeouts (145 in 2014). His strikeout rate was 20.5 percent; 69 regulars struck out at least 18 percent of the time in 2014 and Jose Abreu was the only one to hit .300. It's difficult to hit .300 consistently when you strike out as much as Freeman does, even when you're as adept at moving the ball around the field like he is.

SportsNation

Who will have the better season in 2015?

  •  
    32%
  •  
    68%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,575)

I've made the John Olerud comparison with Freeman before; both are tall first basemen, more line-drive hitters than power guys, couldn't run. Olerud never had that power spike but was able to hit around .300 while drawing a lot of walks. But he struck out less than the league average for his time. If Freeman is going to get better on offense, he's going to have to add power, which could come at the expense of his batting average, or improve his average by striking out less, which probably means we won't see that 30-homer season materialize.

If all this is pointing to me saying I think Rizzo is the better player, you're right. I believe in last year's improvement and wouldn't be shocked if there are a few more home runs to unlock. He has good patience and his strikeout rate was actually lower than Freeman's. If the Cubs are the surprise contenders that many believe they can be, Rizzo could be your sleeper National League MVP candidate for 2015.

Fine print, my friends, read the fine print. I only considered teams that won three World Series in a five-year span, so the 1975-76 Reds weren't included.

Obviously, the three-in-five scenario was used to include the Giants and also to limit the number of teams in the discussion. By doing that, we eliminated some teams that certainly deserve the label of dynasty:
  • 1991-2005 Braves: They won 14 consecutive division titles -- not including the 1994 strike year, when the Expos led when the season was canceled -- and reached five World Series in a nine-year span. They also played in nine of the 10 NLCS between 1991 and 2001, an absolutely remarkable run. But they won just one World Series, in 1995.
  • 1989-1993 Blue Jays: Toronto won four division titles in five years and then back-to-back World Series title in 1992 and 1993.
  • 1988-1992 A's: Oakland won four division titles in five years and won 103 and 104 games in 1988 and 1990 -- but lost the World Series both those years, sandwiched around a championship in 1989.
  • 1970-1976 Reds: The Reds won five division titles in seven years (and won 98 games one year they didn't win the division). They lost World Series in 1970 and 1972 before winning back-to-back in 1975 and 1976. The '76 squad had the most balanced offense of all time, leading the NL in runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, steals and walks (and also in strikeouts, interestingly enough).
  • 1966-1971 Orioles: The O's won the World Series in 1966 and 1970 but lost in 1969 and 1971. Really, the Orioles' dominance stretched even longer. From 1964-83, they won 90-plus games 16 times in 20 seasons and two of the seasons they didn't win 90 were strike-shortened seasons.
  • 1964-1968 Cardinals: Appeared in three World Series in five years but lost the third one in 1968.
  • 1959-1966 Dodgers: Advanced to four World Series in eight years and won three, but not three in five years. These were the Koufax/Drysdale Dodgers. Before that, of course, the Dodgers had a long run of success in the late '40s and '50s (the 1959 club was kind of a hangover from that dynasty; it was actually one of the weakest World Series winners ever).
  • 1928-1932 A's: The 1929-31 A's were among baseball's great teams, winning three straight AL pennants with records of 104-46, 102-52 and 107-45. They won two World Series but lost in 1931 in seven games.
  • 1921-1928 Yankees: The Bronx Bombers of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig won back-to-back World Series in 1927 and 1928 -- sweeping both times -- but lost in 1926. Before Gehrig arrived, they played in three in a row from 1921-23, winning the third one.
  • 1921-1924 Giants: Won four consecutive NL pennants and two World Series.
  • 1906-1910 Cubs: Captured four NL pennants in five years and won two World Series. The 1906 team went 116-36 but lost to the "Hitless Wonder" White Sox in one of the biggest upsets in World Series history.


All these franchises had great runs of five years (or longer). And there's no doubt that, at their best, these teams arguably were better within their era than any of the recent Giants squads. But they didn't win three titles in five years.

It's all on how you want to weigh things. Do World Series titles trump all? The sport is different now than when pennant winners advanced directly to the World Series. Does having to go through three rounds (plus a wild-card game in 2014) make the Giants' titles more impressive? Maybe. You certainly have to give them credit for that 34-14 record in the postseason. On the other hand, maybe not. The Giants also have benefited from the new system; they were a wild-card team this year and they've also played weaker World Series opponents since the best team from the other league doesn't always advance.

Keep in mind that we also have more parity now. It's more difficult to build those 100-win teams that were more frequent in decades past -- let alone to sustain them.

The great thing about this: There's no "correct" answer. So we can keep arguing. All I know, as Giants fans like to point out, is that they have three rings to wear.
Bud Selig thinks so. Sunday evening he spoke at the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association and said "I visit all 30 cities and you are the best baseball city."

Talk about going out with a bang. Now, proclaiming St. Louis as the best baseball city isn't exactly a reach, although it will certainly tweak those who like to mock the whole "best fans in baseball" idea that Cardinals fans love to proclaim about themselves.

But Cardinals fans are pretty justified in that proclamation:
  • The Cardinals ranked second in the majors in attendance in 2014 behind only the Dodgers, averaging 43,712 fans per game.
  • They had the highest local TV ratings in 2014, edging out the Tigers and Pirates.
  • They've averaged 40,000-plus fans every year except one since 2005 and have ranked in the top four in attendance in the National League every year except one since 1996. (Oddly, that one year was 2004, when the team won 105 games and finished sixth in the NL in attendance.
  • All that despite playing in a metro market with a smaller population than San Diego or Tampa Bay.


Of course, the Cardinals have a lot going to keep up fan interest. They've had one losing season in the past 15 years and have made the playoffs 11 times in that span, winning two World Series. The franchise has a long and successful history that has bred generations of baseball fans. That tends to keep the fans coming back to the ballpark, as long as you keep winning.

That doesn't necessarily mean Cardinals fans will blindly support a loser. In the mid-'90s, after a several-season playoff drought and seeing mediocre clubs on the field, the Cardinals ranked sixth, eighth and seventh in the NL in attendance from 1993 to 1995. In the 1970s, a decade without a playoff trip, the Cardinals cracked the top three NL attendance just once.

It's kind of fun to go through the attendance histories of different clubs. The truth is, most clubs see the support for the team ebb and flow with its success. A few notes:

Red Sox: Fenway Park's small size makes direct attendance comparisons problematic as the Red Sox haven't led the AL in attendance since 1975. But they've averaged 30,000-plus every year since 1999 and 20,000-plus every year since 1975 (and nearly every year since 1967). That was really the year Red Sox fandom grew to a new level, when the Impossible Dream team won the AL pennant: In 1966, the team had averaged barely 10,000 fans per game. Of course, like the Cardinals they have put out consistently strong teams ever since 1967, with just eight losing seasons in 48 years.

Yankees: The Yankees have led the AL in attendance the past 12 seasons, although it will be interesting to see if that happens again in the post-Derek Jeter era. What's remarkable is the Yankees never led the AL in attendance from 1996 to 2002, even though they won four World Series titles. In their first title run in that span in 1996 they ranked just seventh in the AL. In 1991 and 1992, when the team was under .500, it ranked 11th in the AL. In the 1980s, the Mets often outdrew the Yankees.

Dodgers: The Dodgers have had the highest NL figure seven times since 2004 and led the majors many times since moving to Los Angeles. In 1978, they become the first team to draw 3 million fans in a season.

Cubs: The idea that the Cubs are the lovable losers and draw no matter what isn't historically true. The Cubs have essentially drawn well ever since the 1984 team came out of nowhere to win the NL East. Prior to that, the Cubs were usually near the bottom in attendance and even finished last in the NL in 1962 and 1966. Still, attendance has fallen about 8,000 per game since 2008 after a string of losing seasons.

Indians: Despite good teams in recent years, including a wild card in 2013, the Indians just haven't drawn well. Coming off that playoff appearance and winning 85 games, Cleveland still finished last in the majors in attendance in 2014. But that wasn't always the case. When they were a powerhouse team in the late '90s, they drew over 39,000-plus every year from 1994 to 2001, leading the majors in 2000.

Orioles: A similar story to Cleveland. The O's ranked first in the AL in attendance each year from 1995 to 1998 but haven't cracked the top five since 2005. Again, a string of losing seasons depleted the fan base and the recent success hasn't yet brought them back (and they may have lost some fans to the Nationals).

Giants: You can't get a Giants ticket these days as the Giants claim a 327-game sellout streak. Baseball wasn't always so successful in San Francisco, however. From 1970 to 1986, they ranked 10th, 10th, 12th (last), 10th, 12th, 12th, 12th, 12th, 4th, 9th, 11th, 8th, 11th, 9th, 11th, 11th and 9th in NL attendance. Yes, Candlestick was often cold and windy but so was the club: It made the playoffs just once (1971) in those years. No wonder the club nearly moved to Toronto in 1976 and to Tampa in 1992 (owner Bob Lurie had agreed to sell the team but the other NL owners vetoed the sale).

SportsNation

Which is the best baseball city?

  •  
    12%
  •  
    3%
  •  
    11%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    61%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,128)

Tigers: Detroit had the second-highest local TV ratings in 2014 and I believe own the longest streak of drawing 1 million fans -- every year since 1965. They've never had the lowest attendance in the AL, even in 2003 when they went 43-119.

Angels: You never hear about the Angels having great fans and yes they play in a big market but they also share it with the popular Dodgers. But they've drawn over 3 million fans the past 12 seasons. Again: They've been a consistent winner/playoff threat.

Brewers: My vote for most underrated fans/baseball city. They've drawn over 31,000-plus each year since 2008, including three seasons over 3 million fans, despite just two playoff trips in that span and a small market.

Anyway, is St. Louis the best baseball city? I'd say St. Louis or Boston. But again, those two clubs and the Yankees have been the most consistently successful franchises over the past 50 years and you can't underestimate how that keeps the fan base coming to the park or watching on TV year after year.

What do you think? Do you agree with Bud?
Jordan ZimmermanEvan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsJordan Zimmerman will be a free agent following the 2015 season. Will he end up on the trade block?
We’re a month away from the official start of spring training, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some unresolved issues and potential news items still out there in baseball land. Here are 30 things to keep an eye on:

1. Now that the Nationals have signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year contract, will the Nats look to trade impending free agent Jordan Zimmermann? A rotation of Scherzer, Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez certainly has the ability to be one of the best we’ve seen in recent years, and that doesn’t even include Tanner Roark, who quietly went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA last year.

2. If the Nationals do look to move Zimmermann (or Fister, also a free agent at season’s end), will they use that trade to help restock the farm system or acquire depth in the bullpen? The pen looks a little thin after they traded setup man extraordinaire Tyler Clippard and lost Rafael Soriano to free agency.

3. Where will James Shields go? The one difference-making free agent who is still unsigned, Shields reportedly turned down $110 million from a team he apparently didn’t want to play for. Or maybe that was just posturing to try to ramp up the offers.

4. Will the Marlins trade Dan Haren? The veteran right-hander, set to make $10 million, had threatened to retire if he wasn’t traded back to a California team. But the Dodgers just traded him to the Marlins and don’t have room in their rotation, and the Los Angels also added rotation depth in the offseason. The Dodgers gave the Marlins $10 million to offset Haren’s salary, which they keep even if Haren doesn’t play. It looks like the ball may be in Haren’s court, as you know Jeffrey Loria would be more than happy to keep the cash.

5. Is Billy Beane done wheeling and dealing? It’s been a whirlwind offseason for the Oakland A's general manager, who has traded away Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Derek Norris, John Jaso and others, while acquiring Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, Clippard and other young players and prospects. Yunel Escobar was even acquired from the Rays and quickly dealt to the Nationals for Clippard.

6. Are Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer done wheeling and dealing for the Cubs? They just picked up Dexter Fowler from the Astros, giving the club a more legitimate center fielder than converted infielder Arismendy Alcantara. With the addition of Fowler, the Cubs' lineup could look like this:

Fowler CF
Starlin Castro SS
Jorge Soler RF
Anthony Rizzo 1B
Kris Bryant 3B
Miguel Montero C
Chris Coghlan LF
Javier Baez 2B

That lineup has potential, and it's backed up with a rotation featuring Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood. But with Fowler signed only through 2015, maybe the Cubs will make one more big move to draw closer on paper to the Cardinals and Pirates. Maybe Shields, to bolster the rotation even more?

[+] EnlargeJohnny Cueto
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto was second in the National League in 2014 with a 2.25 ERA.
7. Will the Reds sign Johnny Cueto to a long-term contract? Cueto will be expensive to sign, and while he may not command Scherzer money due Cueto's injury history, he’s coming off a season that would have won the Cy Young Award in most years. The long-term commitments the Reds have already made to Joey Votto and Homer Bailey may mean that a third $100 million-plus player doesn’t fit into their budget.

8. Will the Reds sign Aroldis Chapman to a long-term contract? Like Cueto, Chapman is a free agent after 2015. The Reds are hosting the 2015 All-Star Game, so don’t expect them to trade either player -- at least until after the All-Star Game and only if the Reds are well out of the pennant race.

9. Are the Cardinals satisfied with their rotation? They had been rumored to be interested in signing Scherzer or maybe acquiring David Price from the Tigers, but Price is certainly unavailable now -- not that he was in the first place -- with Scherzer out of the Detroit picture. The Cardinals did sign Lance Lynn to a three-year extension. But the health concerns of Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia and the uncertainty of young arms such as Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzalez means the Cardinals have question marks within their depth.

10. Are the Braves really committed to keeping Craig Kimbrel? After trading away Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, the Braves have all but admitted they’re building for 2017 when they open their new park. General manager John Hart insists the club can still compete in 2015, but the projection systems argue otherwise and say the Braves will be one of the worst teams in the majors. The smart move would be to cash in Kimbrel now.

11. Speaking of ... are the Tigers going to do anything about the bullpen?

12. Speaking of ... Francisco Rodriguez is still a free agent. And probably with good reason, considering he led all relievers in home runs allowed in 2014. Still, he posted a 3.04 ERA and recorded 44 saves for the Brewers, so some team may be willing to give him a shot at closing. Especially a team that had major issues up and down the bullpen last year, including in the postseason.

13. Will the Mets acquire a shortstop? I think we’re all a bit tired of this story by now. Mets fans seem to want a new shortstop. The New York media definitely believes the team needs a shortstop. Sandy Alderson would probably like a new shortstop. Troy Tulowitzki may want to become the new Mets shortstop. Meanwhile, the Wilpons are probably too busy watching old films of the Brooklyn Dodgers to care.

14. Will the Diamondbacks trade Mark Trumbo? This is probably more of a spring training decision, depending on whether Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas can handle third base. If he can’t, he'll move to left field and the D-backs have to shop Trumbo.

15. Will Dave Stewart give us more quotes about "real" baseball teams and those apparently fake teams that worry too much about analytics?

16. Will the Mariners acquire a right-handed bat? Right now, the M’s have Nelson Cruz penciled in at DH, Logan Morrison at first base, and a right-field platoon of Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano (with lefty-swinging Dustin Ackley in left field). Jesus Montero is still around, but a right-handed bat who can play first base or DH against southpaws (with Cruz moving to the outfield) would create more balance in the lineup.

17. Will the Phillies release Ryan Howard? At this point, it’s probably best for all if Ruben Amaro just puts Howard on waivers. Nobody is going to trade for Howard, but that doesn’t mean you need to create a negative distraction by inviting him to spring training. It’s a sunk cost. Let it sink and see if any team wants to give Howard a shot to DH.

18. Who will be the first columnist to point out Howard’s RBI total from last year? Like, in a good way.

19. Will the Red Sox make a move for their rotation? While the Red Sox actually project to have a decent rotation, according to some projections, it’s also difficult to buy completely into Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Joe Kelly and Justin Masterson.

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
AP Photo/Alex BrandonCole Hamels was in the top 10 in the National League last season in ERA (2.46) and strikeouts (198).
20. Will Cole Hamels be traded? Hamels may be worth more at the trade deadline than he is now, so don’t be surprised if Hamels is starting on Opening Day for the Phillies. But if he does get traded, the Red Sox and Padres still seem likely destinations; the Red Sox have a slew of prospects and the Padres have catching prospect Austin Hedges.

21. What’s going on with Dan Duquette? The only noise the Orioles’ president has made this offseason has been with the rumors that he’s leaving Baltimore to take over the presidency of the Blue Jays. If this was going to happen, it should have been resolved by now, as Duquette’s lack of activity in Baltimore could have the appearance of a conflict of interest.

22. Will the Orioles bring in a right fielder? Colby Rasmus is the best free agent out there and would be the easiest option, if inelegant. There are also unappealing trade options such as Andre Ethier or Carlos Quentin.

23. Which young star will get locked up by a long-term extension? Small-market teams have been able to remain competitive in recent years in part by signing their young stars to team-friendly extensions -- think Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh or Evan Longoria in Tampa Bay -- but as premium free agents continue to get $100-million plus contracts, there’s going to be less incentive for young players to potentially leave tens of millions on the table.

24. Where will the other free-agent relievers sign? Casey Janssen and Soriano are two relievers out there with closing experience. Soriano averaged 39 saves the past three seasons but lost his closer job with the Nationals late last season, while Janssen missed time with a back injury and saw his strikeout rate decline. Besides the Tigers, the Dodgers are seeking relief help.

25. Are the World Series champs done? The Giants just signed Norichika Aoki, although he and Gregor Blanco don’t make for a traditional platoon since both hit left-handed. They struck out on signing Jon Lester and Pablo Sandoval and trading for Justin Upton. The Giants could still be in on Shields, or could bring back Ryan Vogelsong for rotation depth.

26. Back to the Nationals: Could they trade shortstop Ian Desmond? It seems unlikely, but Desmond is a free agent after 2015 and reportedly turned down a $100 million extension. And the club did trade for Yunel Escobar, although moving him to shortstop would create a hole at second base. The team perhaps most desperate for a shortstop is the Mets, but they’re a division rival.

27. Arbitration tracker: Who’s left? While a lot of players have already signed, the most interesting remaining unsigned players are those who are still several years from free agency and who could potentially negotiate multiyear deals (similar to the one Lynn signed with the Cardinals). This group includes Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays; Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford of the Giants; Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain of the Royals; Devin Mesoraco of the Reds; and Garrett Richards of the Angels.

28. What will happen with highly touted Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada? The 19-year-old switch-hitter is projected as a power-speed combo who will likely end up at second or third base. The Giants recently held a private workout with him, and the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Nationals and Marlins are among those teams reported to have strong interest and financial means. MLB has declared Moncada a free agent, but he needs to be cleared by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control before he’s eligible to sign.

29. Who will join Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs in guaranteeing his team will win a division title?

30. Who will be the first player to report early to spring training in the best shape of his life?



The current all-underrated team

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
12:31
PM ET
Ben ZobristKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBen Zobrist has hit 99 homers over the past six seasons.
There isn't really a scientific way to determine an all-underrated team. Certainly, if you own five fantasy teams, you know all about these guys, but my perception is these players are better than widely believed or haven't yet received the kind of attention you would expect given their value. For some, maybe they have had only one big year; for others, maybe it's because they play in a small market. Regardless, I expect all these guys to be productive regulars again in 2015.

C: Rene Rivera, Rays
You can bet if Tampa Bay trades for a player that he's probably underrated. Rivera has played with the Mariners, Twins and Padres in the majors and spent time in the minors with the Dodgers, Mets and Yankees. Not surprisingly, Rivera is an excellent pitch-framer -- hence, Tampa Bay's desire to get him from the Padres in the Wil Myers trade -- and he hit .252/.319/.432 with San Diego in 2014, good numbers for Petco Park. The question is if the bat was a fluke since it was just 329 plate appearances and Rivera hadn't hit much before that. But catchers are sometimes late bloomers at the plate.

1B: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
Rizzo is probably the biggest name here, but I would suggest that many fans don't realize how good he was in 2014. He had a higher OBP and slugging percentage than Miguel Cabrera. He had a higher FanGraphs WAR than Jose Abreu of the crosstown White Sox but certainly didn't get the same level of national attention. He finished behind Adrian Gonzalez in the MVP voting because he didn't drive in as many runs. He has more power than Freddie Freeman, a young first baseman who gets more recognition. The best part: He's just 25.

2B: Brian Dozier, Twins
Dozier came up as a shortstop in 2012 but has moved over to second base and gets lost among all the quality second basemen in the American League (playing on the Twins doesn't help), but what a season he had: 23 home runs, 57 extra-base hits, 89 walks, 21 stolen bases, solid defense and 112 runs scored, second in the majors behind Mike Trout. Dozier will continue to be underrated in part because he hit just .242, but he still had a higher OBP than Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler.

3B: Kyle Seager, Mariners
Seager was never a highly rated prospect coming up through the Mariners system -- projected as a utility infielder -- so sometimes it takes a few years for everyone to buy into a player like that. Well, the Mariners have bought in, giving Seager a seven-year, $100 million contract extension. He made his first All-Star team in 2014 and won a Gold Glove, and his 25 home runs and 96 RBIs are even more impressive considering the difficult hitting environments of the AL West.

[+] EnlargeJhonny Peralta
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsJhonny Peralta was second among NL shortstops last season with 21 homers.
SS: Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals
It's odd for a veteran like Peralta to make a list like this, but he has always been underappreciated -- although I did sense a little more, "Oh, yeah, that guy's pretty good," in 2014 as he even picked up some down-the-ballot MVP votes for the first time in his career. Maybe playing for the Cardinals helped. He led all major league shortstops in WAR in 2014, ranking 15th among all position players on Baseball Reference and 17th on FanGraphs. The key is that Peralta has always been viewed as a shortstop without a lot of range, but the metrics have consistently rated him about average (and a little above in 2014). He has a strong arm and makes few mistakes.

LF: Corey Dickerson, Rockies
Charlie Blackmon was the Rockies outfielder who made the All-Star team in 2014, but Dickerson is the one to watch moving forward. He hit .312/.364/.567 with 24 home runs in 478 plate appearances, and that's not just a Coors-inflated line. He is slated to play left field this year with Carlos Gonzalez moving over to right. The Rockies platooned Dickerson last year, but he deserves the chance to see if he can hold his own against left-handers.

CF: Juan Lagares, Mets
Lagares has certainly received recognition as perhaps the best defensive center fielder in the majors -- winning his first Gold Glove in 2014 -- but because he's not a big basher at the plate, he still seems undervalued overall. And he's not a zero on offense. He hit .281/.321/.382, nothing great, but that makes him about a league average hitter. Baseball Info Solutions credited him with 28 defensive runs saved in 2014, and some speculated that maybe he's not that good. Willie Mays, for example, peaked (under a different system for evaluating) at 21 runs, according to Baseball Reference. Consider this, however: Lagares made 2.85 plays per nine innings in 2014, compared to the league average of 2.48 for center fielders. That's 0.37 more plays per game, which adds up to 49 additional outs over 1,200 innings; Mays' career-best was 0.27 more plays per game.

RF: Kole Calhoun, Angels
Like others on this list, Calhoun was never a top prospect. But all he has done is hit. In his first full season, he hit .272/.325/.450 with 17 home runs and 31 doubles while scoring 90 runs in 127 games. He should have another strong year as the Angels' leadoff hitter.

UT: Ben Zobrist, A's
If there's a captain on the all-underrated team, this guy is it. He does all those things that maybe aren't flashy. He draws walks, hits for some power, plays good defense (at multiple positions) and is durable. Since his breakout season in 2009, he is third among position players in Baseball Reference WAR behind Robinson Cano and Cabrera (second behind Cabrera on FanGraphs).

SP: Doug Fister, Nationals
I've written about Fister enough that maybe he's no longer underrated. He doesn't get a lot of attention pitching in the same rotation as Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, but he's nearly their equal.

SP: Dallas Keuchel, Astros
After getting punched around his first two seasons in the majors, Keuchel looked like a lefty without enough fastball to succeed at the big league level. But he put everything together in 2014, going 12-9 with a 2.93 ERA. I don't think it was a fluke.

SP: Jose Quintana, White Sox
The White Sox rotation goes deeper than Chris Sale and now Jeff Samardzija. Quintana has been one of the best starters in the AL the past two seasons, throwing 200 innings both years with ERAs of 3.51 and 3.32 in a park where fly balls really fly. There's nothing too fancy about Quintana, but he has a complete repertoire of pitches with a curveball, changeup and slider and knows how to pitch.

[+] EnlargeRyu
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonHyun-jin Ryu is 28-15 with a 3.17 ERA in two seasons with the Dodgers.
SP: Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers
Similar to Quintana, Ryu is another lefty with a full arsenal of pitches. Ryu throws strikes and limits home runs -- just 23 in 344 career innings in the majors. He missed some time late last year but returned to throw a strong game in the division series. The next step for him is to get up to 200 innings and prove he can be more of a workhorse behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

SP: Alex Cobb, Rays
With David Price gone, Cobb is now the undisputed ace of the Tampa Bay staff. Like Ryu, he just needs to remain healthy, as he has made 22 and 27 starts the past two seasons, although he posted a sub-3.00 ERA both years. With Cobb leading the way, Tampa Bay's young rotation is a good reason why the Rays could be the sleeper team to watch in 2015.

RP: Steve Cishek, Marlins
The sidearmer doesn't blow you away like many closers, but there's no questioning his effectiveness. In four seasons in the majors he owns a 2.65 ERA and has allowed just 10 home runs in 257 2/3 innings as he rarely throws anything above the knees.

RP: Tony Watson, Pirates
Our lefty reliever has put together back-to-back solid seasons with the Pirates, going 10-2 with a 1.63 ERA in 2014 (and making the All-Star team). Lacking command when he first reached the majors, Watson walked just 1.7 batters per nine innings last season while setting a career high in strikeout rate. With a fastball that averages 94 mph, he's a power lefty who could end up a closer someday.
The recent Hall of Fame elections serve two important purposes. One, it's a chance to recognize the superstars of the recent past and how many memories Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio provided us. But the elections also serve as a reminder to remember those underappreciated players of the past, those who deserved better support in Hall of Fame voting.

So here's my all-time all-underrated team. It skews toward more recent decades, but these are the decades that players have failed to fairly represent in Cooperstown.

C: Ted Simmons (1968-1988)
Stats: .285/.348/.437, 248 HR, 1,389 RBI, 2,472 H
Career WAR: 50.1
Higher WAR than ... Ernie Lombardi, Roy Campanella, Ray Schalk

The Hall of Fame voters and Veterans Committee has drawn its line at Simmons. He ranks 10th in WAR among catchers; seven of the guys ahead of him are Hall of Famers and the other two are Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza. Only Yogi Berra drove in more runs. Simmons was a big name when he played -- he was an eight-time All-Star -- but a couple of factors worked against his historical standing: Johnny Bench was his contemporary and Simmons loses that comparison; he wasn't regarded as a strong defensive catcher while active although his career caught stealing rate of 34 percent is actually league average.

Runner-up: Bill Freehan. Perennial All-Star for the Tigers in the '60s.

1B: John Olerud (1989-2005)
Stats: .295/.398/.465, 255 HR, 1,230 RBI, 2,239 H
Career WAR: 58.0
Higher WAR than ... Bill Terry, Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda

For all the talk this past week about Fred McGriff and Carlos Delgado, Olerud was a better all-around player than either of those two, at least according to the advanced metrics. But first basemen are judged by power, and Olerud's 20 home runs per season and 255 career home runs didn't match up to the power numbers some of his contemporaries in the steroids era put up.

He made up for that with consistently high on-base percentages (six times over .400) and excellent defense (Baseball-Reference has him with the third-most fielding runs ever at first base, behind only Albert Pujols and Keith Hernandez). Olerud also had two monster MVP-caliber seasons with the Blue Jays in 1993 when he hit .363 and won the batting title and with the Mets in 1998 when he hit .354.

Runner-up: Will Clark. He could have hung around a few more years to build a stronger Hall of Fame case -- he hit .319/.418/.546 in his final season -- but instead retired. Of course, he was a pretty big star while active. But, like Olerud, he got booted off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year.

2B: Lou Whitaker (1977-1995)
Stats: .276/.363/.426, 244 HR, 1,084 RBI, 2,369 H
Career WAR: 74.9
Higher WAR than ... Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio

Whitaker's one-and-done status on the Hall of Fame ballot was pretty surprising considering his career numbers are very similar to Sandberg's, his 1980s National League counterpart who was elected on his third try. Whitaker didn't hit quite as many home runs as Sandberg but had a higher on-base percentage and was no slouch on defense, winning three Gold Gloves.

Whitaker has the highest career WAR of any player not in the Hall of Fame who isn't still on the ballot, not yet eligible, didn't bet on baseball and didn't play in the 1800s. So why the lack of respect? Well, the things Whitaker did are those things that make most of these players underrated: He drew walks, he played good defense, he had medium-range power (although pretty good for a second baseman).

Sandberg, by comparison, was certainly flashier than Whitaker -- more home runs, more steals, a better defensive reputation. And to be fair, Sandberg at his peak was better than Whitaker at his peak. Whitaker then had some very strong seasons at the end of his career when he was used as a platoon player, but nobody realized how good he still was because (A) he was being platooned, which held down some of his counting numbers; (B) the Tigers were terrible by then; and (C) Alomar had arrived and was the widely acclaimed new best second baseman in baseball.

Whitaker has yet to appear on a Veterans Committee ballot. I suspect he'll remain a hard sell even then, since his consistent excellence is easy to overlook.

Runner-up: Bobby Grich. Put up excellent offensive numbers in the 1970s and early '80s -- walks, medium-range power -- when most middle infielders were inept at the plate. While not completely overlooked while active -- he made six All-Star teams and had two top-10 MVP finishes -- the fact that he didn't hit for a higher average in an era when that's what people paid attention to certainly made him underrated at the time.

3B: Graig Nettles (1967-1988)
Stats: .248/.329/.421, 390 HR, 1,314 RBI, 2,225 H
Career WAR: 68.0
Higher WAR than ... Home Run Baker, Pie Traynor, George Kell

As with Simmons, Nettles ranks 10th all time at his position in career WAR. Nettles was a superb defensive third baseman who played a long time and hit some home runs. Voters have always had trouble figuring out what to do with third basemen. Ron Santo had to get in the Hall of Fame through the back door. It will be interesting what happens with Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen, both in the top 10 in career WAR among third basemen, when they become eligible.

Nettles never had a chance at the Hall of Fame. Brooks Robinson had already secured the legacy of best defensive third baseman of all time, so it didn't matter how good Nettles was. He was actually Robinson's equal as an offensive player, just with a different scope: more power but a lower average. I'm not sure I'd advocate Nettles as a Hall of Famer -- he'd have lined up behind Rolen, Beltre and maybe Ken Boyer -- but he certainly had some Hall of Fame-caliber seasons.

Runner-up: Boyer. He peaked at 25 percent on the BBWAA ballot. He was on the recent Veterans Committee ballot but received fewer than three of the 16 votes -- fewer than Jim Kaat or Maury Wills, even though Boyer was a better player than either one.

[+] EnlargeAlan Trammell
USA TODAY Sports Alan Trammell played 20 years in the majors and had a career .352 on base percentage.
SS: Alan Trammell (1977-1996)
Stats: .285/.352/.415, 185 HR, 1,003 RBI, 2,365 H
Career WAR: 70.4
Higher WAR than ... Barry Larkin, Joe Cronin, Luis Aparicio

Whitaker's long-time teammate is probably the stronger Hall of Fame candidate due to a higher peak level of play. I touched a bit on Trammell here. Trammell is eighth all time in WAR among shortstops, sandwiched between Derek Jeter and Larkin. The comparison to Larkin explains why Trammell is underrated: He had nearly exact career numbers but Larkin was elected to the Hall of Fame his third time on the ballot while Trammell has languished for 14 years. The weird thing is while Cal Ripken was certainly the star American League shortstop of the 1980s, it's not like Trammell wasn't recognized as one of the best players in the game at the time. But as soon as he retired, people forgot about him.

Runner-up: Arky Vaughan. He's actually in the Hall of Fame but this 1930s star remains one of the most unknown great players in the game's history.

LF: Jose Cruz Sr. (1970-1988)
Stats: .284/.354/.420, 165 HR, 1,077 RBI, 2,251 H
Career WAR: 54.2
Higher WAR than ... Ralph Kiner, Jim Rice, Lou Brock

Yes, Tim Raines could go here as well, but it wouldn't surprise me to see him finally get elected to Cooperstown in his final two years on the ballot. As for Cruz, it took a while for his career to get going -- he didn't have his breakout season until he was 28 -- but he was a tremendous player for a long time with the Astros. It was impossible to hit home runs in the Astrodome back then -- one year, Cruz hit 12 home runs on the road and none at home -- so Cruz didn't have big power numbers. But he hit .300 six times, drew walks and stole as many as 44 bases in a season (1977). He had three top-eight MVP votes, but if he'd come up in the 1990s instead of the '70s and played in a different park, he could have been a 3,000-hit guy.

Runner-up: Minnie Minoso. He should be in the Hall of Fame.

CF: Kenny Lofton (1991-2007)
Stats: .299/.372/.423, 622 SB, 1,528 R, 2,428 H
Career WAR: 68.2
Higher WAR than ... Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn, Kirby Puckett

Here's something that may shock you: Among players who played at least 50 percent of their career games in center field since 1901, Lofton ranks seventh in all-time WAR, behind only the legends -- Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Joe DiMaggio. But he was one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot. I'd say that makes him underrated.

Runner-up: Bernie Williams? Hard for a Yankee to be underrated, but the crowded ballot bumped him off on his second try in 2013. Borderline Hall of Famer at best, but usually players on great teams have a better shot at getting elected.

RF: Dwight Evans (1972-1991)
Stats: .272/.370/.470, 385 HR, 1,384 RBI, 2,446 H
Career WAR: 66.9
Higher WAR than ... Andre Dawson, Dave Winfield, Vladimir Guerrero

And certainly higher than Rice, his Red Sox teammate. He was better in his 30s than in his 20s and, like others here, was good at some of the unrecognized things like getting on base and drawing walks. He hit more home runs than Rice and his OBP is 18 points higher even though Rice hit .298 versus Evans' .272. Would love to see him get on a Veterans Committee ballot one of these years.

Runner-up: Bobby Bonds. Not as good as his son, Barry, and not quite a Hall of Famer, but his career WAR is in the top 20 all time among right fielders.

P: Kevin Brown (1986-2005)
Stats: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 3,256 IP, 3,079 H, 2,397 SO
Career WAR: 68.5
Higher WAR than ... Jim Palmer, Carl Hubbell, John Smoltz

But he didn't spend three years as a closer! From 1996 through 2001, in the midst of the steroid era, Brown posted a 2.53 ERA. And he had a 2.39 ERA in 2003. And a 21-win season in 1992. He certainly deserved to get more of a hearing from the voters than one ballot.

Runner-up: Rick Reuschel. Played for a lot of bad and mediocre Cubs teams in the '70s, otherwise would have won more than 214 games.
Jason KipnisOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJason Kipnis is posed for a big rebound -- and, barring injuries, could be an All-Star in 2015.
It's been a slow few weeks in the world of baseball. So here are some random thoughts going through my mind as we wait for Max Scherzer to sign ... and wait ... and wait ...

1. I still don't understand the lack of support that Mike Mussina has received in the Hall of Fame voting. Well, I do understand: The majority of voters aren't analyzing their ballots much beyond a certain level of gut instinct. If they did, they'd realize Mussina should be a no-brainer Hall of Famer. He isn't in the Tommy John/Jim Kaat class.

2. Heard Chris "Mad Dog" Russo arguing that Jeff Kent was clearly better than Craig Biggio. I mean, sure, if you ignore little things like defense, baserunning and getting on base.

3. That said, I expect Kent's case to start picking up momentum. Biggio's election probably helps Kent because voters can argue that Kent was the better hitter, plus he has more than 1,500 RBIs and more home runs (377) than any other second baseman.

4. I like what St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote about the Hall of Fame: "I don't like the idea that MLB and the Hall of Fame has left it up to the ball writers to serve as the police force on PEDs. Among other things, it's a conflict of interest. We're supposed to be covering the industry as an independent group of journalists. We're not supposed to be establishing the baseball industry's standards for morality."

5. Congrats to Randy Johnson on his election to the Hall. My favorite Johnson memory is Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series, but I'll always remember this home run he served up to Mark McGwire. Steroids or not, good lord.

6. I miss Dave Niehaus.

7. That home run gives me an excuse to link to the video of this home run that Glenallen Hill hit onto a rooftop beyond Wrigley Field. "It's gotta be the shoes!" Well, that or maybe something else.

8. I've always wondered whether the balls weren't just a bit juiced in that era. After all, how do you explain runs per game going from 4.12 in 1992 to 4.60 in 1993 to 4.92 in 1994? Yes, there was expansion in 1993, but that hardly explains that much of an increase. So unless you believe everybody started using steroids at once, there were other factors in play beyond PEDs.

9. Back to the present. Loved the Ben Zobrist/Yunel Escobar acquisition by the A's. GM Billy Beane has now given manager Bob Melvin the most flexible lineup of hitters in the league. Zobrist can move back and forth between the infield and outfield, Marcus Semien can fill in anywhere in the infield, and Oakland has several platoon options.

10. Speaking of Zobrist, I’ll write about my all-time all-underrated team on Monday and my current all-underrated team on Tuesday. Zobrist fits the classic profile of an underrated player: draws walks, is a good defender, is durable, has medium-range power. He’s been one of baseball’s best players the past six years.

11. Two keys for the A's: Brett Lawrie has to stay healthy and have a solid season at third base, and Escobar has to bounce back from 2014, when some minor injuries may have contributed to his poor defensive metrics.

12. Outfielder Josh Reddick, initially critical of the Josh Donaldson trade, has apparently jumped back on the Beane bandwagon. He can't wait for the season to start. Me, neither.

13. How about those Seahawks?!?!

14. With their win over the Panthers on Saturday, the Seahawks became the first defending Super Bowl champ since the 2005 Patriots to win a playoff game. Doesn't that seem a little weird? Does it mean that winning the Super Bowl, like winning the World Series, involves a certain amount of luck in the playoffs?

15. With all due respect to the great Kenny Easley, I don't think he was the same kind of force on defense as Kam Chancellor. Yes, that's an old Seahawks reference.

16. I'm not ready to jump on the Padres' bandwagon.

17. I mean, I love the boldness of new general manager A.J. Preller, but I don't like the idea of Wil Myers playing center; Will Middlebrooks just isn't that good. Plus, San Diego's first baseman has no power, and shortstop is an issue.

18. But the Padres are going to be interesting, which is certainly more than has been said about this team in years.

19. There's no reason not to believe in Matt Shoemaker, other than he wasn't good before 2014. But there's nothing that says "fluke" in his numbers: good strikeout rate, excellent control and that great changeup/splitter.

20. Chris Davis will have a much better season in 2015.

21. I'm not so sure about Josh Hamilton, however.

22. Signing Scherzer to a mega-contract doesn't seem like a Cardinals type of move, but they do have to be a little worried about the health of Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.

23. I don't quite get the rumors about David Price. Shouldn't the Tigers just keep him and maybe sign Scherzer and put out their best team for 2015? How many more great years are they going to get from Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez? Detroit's window is now.

24. Of course, I get that they don't want to cash in so many chips and then turn into the Phillies. But, at age 85, does Tigers owner Mike Ilitch really care about 2019?

25. Jayson Stark wrote about Carlos Delgado getting bumped off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year. I don't see Delgado as a Hall of Famer, and while he did have some monster seasons, he's also way down my list of first basemen with possible Hall of Fame cases. You have Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, Rafael Palmeiro, John Olerud, Keith Hernandez and Will Clark to consider before you get to Delgado.

26. Juan Lagares made 2.85 outs per nine innings in 2014; the average center fielder made 2.48. That's .37 more plays per game. Willie Mays' career best was .24 plays above the MLB average per nine innings.

27. Let's hope Matt Harvey returns as the same pitcher we saw in 2013.

28. The Braves are going to be terrible. No Jayson Heyward, no Justin Upton. Having Evan Gattis in the outfield and Alberto Callaspo at second base will severely weaken the defense.

29. It's almost like John Hart was a general manager from a different era when he didn't have defensive metrics to examine.

30. If the Braves are indeed just building for 2017 and their new ballpark, why not look to trade Craig Kimbrel?

31. Go see "Selma." It's an important American film with a lesson that still resonates in many ways today.

32. King Felix's changeup makes me smile even in the middle of winter.

33. I've been meaning to write a Mookie Betts/Javier Baez piece, but FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan beat me to it.

34. The answer: Mookie.

35. Your 2015 American League home run champ: Chris Carter.

36. Speaking of the Astros, I predict a huge breakout season for George Springer. Get him on your fantasy team if you can.

37. Your 2015 National League home run champ: Giancarlo Stanton. I know, too easy.

38. I wonder if the Giants will be conservative with Madison Bumgarner's innings, at least in the first couple of months of the season. He ended up throwing 270 innings between the regular season and playoffs, well above the 223 he threw in 2012, when the Giants also won the World Series.

39. If I were to bet on the Yankees either winning the AL East or imploding, I'd go with the implosion.

40. Still, there are enough big names on their roster, and if the rotation stays healthy, it wouldn't shock me if the Yankees did win the division.

41. A young pitcher who could make a big leap forward this year: Drew Hutchison of the Blue Jays.

42. Weren't the Rangers supposed to be in the middle of an AL West dynasty by now?

43. Wish the Indians would make one more move for a bat, but unfortunately they have a lot of bad money invested in Nick Swisher, David Murphy and Michael Bourn.

44. Yes, Corey Kluber will contend for another Cy Young Award.

45. Barry Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times in 2004. That's still maybe the most impressive stat in baseball history.

46. Brandon McCarthy, everyone's favorite smart major league pitcher, thinks PED users should be admitted to Cooperstown. Give that man a vote!

47. Still don't quite understand why the Dodgers gave McCarthy $48 million, however -- considering that he's made more than 25 starts in a season just once during his career.

48. You know, Zobrist would have been a nice acquisition for the Nationals. Maybe they can pry Chase Utley away from the Phillies.

49. I think Yasiel Puig's power will bounce back this year. He might hit 25 home runs -- which would make him a very strong MVP candidate.

50. An important man in 2015: Red Sox outfield coach Arnie Beyeler, who will work with Hanley Ramirez and our man Mookie.

51. I have the March in Paris on TV in the background. Amazing.

52. You can never watch too many videos of puppies playing in snow.

53. A quiet offseason move that could pay nice dividends: Toronto getting Michael Saunders from Seattle. I'll be curious to see how his numbers increase as he escapes the AL West.

54. Of course, he has to stay healthy.

55. A trade that still makes sense: Mark Trumbo to the Mariners. Even if Yasmany Tomas proves he can handle third base for the Diamondbacks, we know Trumbo can't really play left field. The Mariners could still use another right-handed bat, and Trumbo would give them the flexibility to sit Logan Morrison against left-handers and use Nelson Cruz in the outfield at times.

56. I love watching Jonathan Schoop play defense. He can really turn two. It wouldn't surprise me to see him win a Gold Glove this year.

57. Will Stephen Strasburg take a leap forward this year?

58. I think Bryce Harper will make The Leap.

59. If you've never read "Ball Four," why not?

60. I'm enjoying Dan Epstein's "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76."

61. That was the first year I remember watching baseball, and as Epstein's book shows, although it's not remembered as a classic season -- mostly because the World Series was a four-game sweep -- it was a widely entertaining year and an important one. The reserve clause was struck, Charlie Finley fought with Bowie Kuhn, the Yankees fought with the Red Sox, and Bill Veeck had his White Sox players wear shorts.

62. Plus, Mark Fidrych.

63. Here's a good piece on how the Phillies reached this sorry state of affairs.

64. I predict that Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera will each give up at least one home run this season.

65. If you're bored, go watch some highlights of Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Jarrod Dyson playing defense.

66. I know everybody is down on the Reds, but if Joey Votto is healthy, Jay Bruce returns to being Jay Bruce and Billy Hamilton improves at the plate, it's not impossible to dream about them being competitive.

67. No, Tim Lincecum isn't going to be better. He's been below replacement level for three seasons now. There is no reason to expect him to turn things around. His road ERA is 5.55 over the past three years. Take him out of AT&T Park, and he's exposed.

68. Casey McGehee won't be the answer at third base for the Giants.

69. Would you take Clayton Kershaw or the field for NL Cy Young?

70. Another fun note about 1976: Joe Morgan led the NL with 1.020 OPS. No other hitter was within 100 points. And he played a key defensive position and won a Gold Glove. He also stole 60 bases in 69 attempts. You can argue that Morgan's level of play that year was as high as any position player's ever. The only knock against him is he missed 21 games.

71. I can't wait to see what Jorge Soler can do over a full season.

72. Also: Rusney Castillo.

73. Kolten Wong or Joe Panik moving forward? I'll take Wong.

74. If I'm drawing up a list of the most important players for 2015, I might start with Justin Verlander.

75. I'm going "Selma" over "Boyhood," "The Imitation Game" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" for best picture of 2015. Haven't seen "American Sniper" yet, although that could factor in the running as well.

76. Hollywood needs to make more movies about strong and courageous women. Is there a girl version of "Boyhood"? Why not?

77. I have the Pirates even with the Cardinals right now. Not sure why it seems like St. Louis is such a consensus favorite.

78. A signing that isn't going to work out: Torii Hunter and the Twins.

79. Joe Mauer will be better. Right?

80. An interesting thing to watch: How will Mike Trout adjust to all those high fastballs?

81. As that article points out, even as Trout started seeing more high fastballs as the season progressed, he still slugged .502 in the second half. But he also hit just .257 with a .347 OBP.

82. I hope you read Mark Simon's defensive storylines to watch for the National League and American League.

83. If you like spy novels, I recommend Alan Furst's work. Just discovered him last year. He writes hyper-realistic novels set in Europe in the days before World War II. You feel like you're in Paris or Warsaw with war looming.

84. Another guy I can't wait to see: Joc Pederson.

85. A waistline I can't wait to see: Bartolo Colon's.

86. How can you not love Jose Altuve?

87. I'm up to No 87 and haven't even mentioned James Shields yet. So I just did. No idea where he's going to sign. Giants? Red Sox? Cardinals?

88. Guy who will rebound in 2015: Jason Kipnis. He played through some injuries in 2014, so if he's healthy, I wouldn't be surprised to see him back in the All-Star Game.

89. That said, he's up against a tough field of second basemen in the AL: Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Altuve, underrated Brian Dozier, Ian Kinsler, Zobrist. At least Howie Kendrick got shipped over to the NL.

90. I'd like the Marlins better if Jose Fernandez were going to be ready at the start of the season.

91. A Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl would be the revenge of Pete Carroll. I want Bill Simmons to write a 25,000-word preview if we get this matchup.

92. I'd take Pedro in his prime over Koufax in his prime and not even hesitate about it.

93. I had the Rays as the sleeper team of 2015 before the Zobrist trade, but losing him is a big blow to the 2015 offense.

94. Chris Archer could be a breakout pitcher, however. If he can cut his walks just a bit, he's ready to become an elite starter.

95. Corey Dickerson > Charlie Blackmon.

96. Yes, the White Sox wore shorts for a game in 1976. How can you not love 1976?

97. Yes, I'll watch the final season of "Mad Men." I'm guessing Don Draper will drink a lot and not much will happen.

98. I rate the Dodgers as the favorites in the NL West, but they are relying on a lot of old players and injury-prone pitchers: Juan Uribe will be 36; Jimmy Rollins is 36; Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are 33; Howie Kendrick is 31; and McCarthy and Brett Anderson haven't been the picture of health. The Dodgers do have depth on the roster, but there's a good chance they'll need it.

99. Pirates' outfield or Marlins' outfield: Which do you like more?

100. Edgar Martinez is a deserving Hall of Famer. Come on, I've managed to work Edgar into just about everything else I've written lately! I promise this will be my last Edgar reference for ... well, OK, I don't want to make a guarantee I can't keep. Just check out his Baseball-Reference page.

Players talk about belief in clutch hitting

January, 10, 2015
Jan 10
12:43
PM ET
Over the course of 16 seasons in the majors, the worst moment in Mark Grace’s career came in 1998 as he watched 35,000 pictures of his face fall from the sky.

"It was Mark Grace poster day at Wrigley field," Grace told ESPN.com. "Every single person got a 6-foot-2 growth chart of Mark Grace with a milk mustache holding a carton of milk."

The Chicago Cubs were playing the San Francisco Giants. In the bottom of the ninth, with the tying run on third base, all Grace had to do was hit a sacrifice fly.

"Everybody's waving their posters," said Grace, recently named assistant hitting coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. "Everybody's yelling 'Mark Grace' and I hit a double play to end the ballgame. Thirty-five thousand posters came flying out onto the field. So yes, it was possibly the most down moment I had in my career."

In contrast, as Grace talked about the most memorable hit of his career, he remembers being nervous as he waited to face Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.

"The world's full of guys that will tell you, 'I'm a refuse-to-lose guy,' or 'You got to be tougher mentally than the pitcher,'" Grace said. "That's all bulls---. What it is more than anything is the lack of fear. I'd be a liar if I [said] in those situations I wasn't nervous. Of course I was nervous; we're all human beings."

By 2001 Grace had learned to love the spotlight.

As he put it, "Baseball and confidence can be taught, I think it can. I think you can take a kid that shies away from the big moment and I think you can help him accept that moment more."

So, when he was at the plate facing Rivera to lead off the inning with the Diamondbacks trailing the Yankees 2-1, Grace had learned how to channel his nervousness into excitement.

"I just remember my attitude going into the box was 'By hook or by crook, I’ve got to get on base,'" Grace said. "Whether it's a base hit, or whether it's a walk, or if I have to stick my head in front of one and get hit -- you know, you get over a concussion in time -- that was my attitude: My job is to get on base."

Grace singled to center field, his only career hit off Rivera. His hit began the historic ninth-inning comeback for the Diamondbacks as they scored two runs and won the World Series. "That’s the funny thing about history," he said. "History kind of remembers its own path. That hit is kind of a historic hit for me, for the Diamondbacks, and for one of the greatest World Series ever played."

Throughout baseball history, a clutch hit, like Grace’s in the 2001 World Series, turns a player into a hero, turns teams into champions and propels franchises into baseball history.

Identifying clutch hitting ability is tricky. Statistical analysts argue that clutch hits exist, but clutch hitters don't. Players, past and present, say clutch hitting is a skill. They believe some players have the ability to hit better in clutch situations than in normal situations. Or maybe clutch hitting is simply not succumbing to the pressure of a big moment.

"If you're a clutch player, you're going to win games for teams. If you're not, it's going to be hard for you," Reds third baseman Todd Frazier said this past season. "So having runners in scoring position, I think that's probably the biggest stat that players should worry about."

One way to gauge clutch hits is by using leverage index (LI), which measures the intensity of a batting event: The higher the probability for one plate appearance to change the outcome of the game, the higher the leverage index. In 2014 Frazier had the most home runs in the majors (12) in high-leverage situations.

According to many major leaguers, part of the clutch-hitting skill is the ability to handle pressure.

"There's two ways to channel nervousness," said Grace, who batted .303 in his career while hitting .323 in high-leverage situations, which often come against a team's best late-inning relievers. "You can channel into fear, or you can channel it into excitement."

Jay Bruce described a similar approach: "I think that people who are able to slow the game down the most probably are more apt to be more successful in that situation; in higher-pressure situations a lot of times your heart starts racing a little bit, your adrenaline gets going a little more."

Matt Holliday, who batted .372 in high-leverage situations this year while batting .272 overall, said clutch hitting is not luck.

"There's an intensity level when you're in a big spot that kicks in," Holliday said. “An adrenaline that kicks in. It shouldn't be much different than every other at-bat, but you just can't help that naturally you are much more intense in a big situation."

Holliday said players are not immune to the atmosphere at the ballpark.

"There's definitely different adrenaline when the crowd's into it in a big spot," said Holliday. "You channel it into concentration. I've got to mentally bear down in my approach and make sure I get the pitch that I want."

What does "looking for my pitch" mean?

"It means you see [the ball] early out of the pitcher's hand," Ben Zobrist explained. "You know what the pitch is quickly. It's not like fastballs are getting on you before you are ready to swing."

Good swing mechanics play a part as well.

"It's just a matter of those mechanics being all put together at the right time when the ball is released," Zobrist said. "If those aren't right, a lot of times you have extra thoughts going on in your brain and you are thinking, 'Well, my hands need to get here and there or whatever,' and then you are not just focusing on the ball."

The right focus can also mean good plate discipline. Let's look at the plate discipline of players who had the best batting averages in high-leverage situations in 2014 (minimum 100 plate appearances):



In broad terms, these are good contact hitters. All of these top-10 guys were above the major league average in the percentage of pitches they made contact with inside the strike zone when swinging.

Zobrist talked about plate discipline. "It kind of ebbs and flows at times," he said. "When you are feeling well at the plate and you are seeing the ball, you are going to swing at the better pitches. When you are not, instead of backing off, you tend to swing at more stuff."

Jonathan Lucroy, who has been told by a psychologist that he has the ability to hyper-focus, said guys get into trouble when they try to do too much in clutch situations. "It's all mental," said the Brewers catcher. "This game is really more mental than anything. It’s amazing how mental this game can get."

As Grace discovered more than a decade ago, the ability to hit in a clutch situation comes down to confidence.

"In baseball, you’ve got a lot of people in the game that will tell you, 'You can't do this or you can't do that,'" Grace said. "I was a 24th-round draft pick. I wasn't supposed to do anything. I came up through the system with so many people telling me the things I couldn't do well enough to be a major league player."

But Grace knew that getting in the batter's box and facing the pitcher in clutch situations was fun for him. "If you don't believe in yourself, who's going to believe in you?" Grace said. "That wasn’t pressure, that was fun. I enjoyed it."

SPONSORED HEADLINES