SweetSpot: Cincinnati Reds

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.



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.
The Reds and catcher Devin Mesoraco have agreed to a four-year, $28 million deal. Like a lot of these multiyear deals with young players, it buys out one year of free agency.

[+] EnlargeDevin Mesoraco
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDevin Mesoraco led all catchers in home runs (25) last season.

Mesoraco had been a highly rated prospect, although he struggled in his first full season in 2013. He broke out in 2014, hitting .273/.359/.534 with 25 home runs, leading all catchers in home runs and slugging percentage. He wasn't just taking advantage of Great American Ballpark either, as 11 of his 25 home runs came on the road and he posted nearly identical OPS splits (.896 at home, .890 on the road). Using the ballpark-adjusted wRC+ (weighted runs created), Mesoraco ranked as the best-hitting catcher in the majors with a 147 wRC+, just ahead of Buster Posey and Russell Martin.

Is there anything in the numbers that says fluke season? Not that I can see. He hit right-handers (a big improvement from 2013) and left-handers nearly equally as well. Among players with at least 250 plate appearances, he did rank seventh in the majors in his percentage of home runs per fly ball. Is the power legit or did he luck into a few extra home runs? Mesoraco's average home run distance of 390 feet isn't anything special but according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, his total of "just enough" home runs was five, which is way below the league leaders in that category.

Mesoraco didn't have many "just enoughs" because nearly every home run he hit was pulled -- he hit one homer to center field; the other 24 went to left or left-center, including 14 to the "far left," making him one of the most extreme dead pull hitters in the majors. Mesoraco wasn't shifted much in 2014, but I suspect that will change in 2015, although that shouldn't affect his power output.

That doesn't answer the question of whether it was a fluke season. I thought it would be instructive to see how many catchers even had a year like Mesoraco, so I found all catchers with at least 400 plate appearances since 1969 who posted a wRC+ of 140 or higher (via FanGraphs). We get a list of 51 seasons from 29 catchers. Ten of those 29 posted more than one 140 wRC+ season, led by Mike Piazza's seven. Of the other 19 catchers, I'd say five could be classified as flukes:

Dick Dietz, 1970 Giants: .300/.426/.515, 152 RC+. It wasn't a completely fluke season, as Dietz posted a 132 wRC+ in 1971, although his average fell from .300 to .252. Dietz's story gets even more interesting. Even though he was one of the best-hitting catchers in the majors and even though the Giants had won the NL West in 1971, the Giants placed him on waivers three days before the start of the 1972 season. Why? Dietz was the Giants' player rep and the players had gone on strike during spring training, delaying the start of the season. The Dodgers picked up Dietz, he broke his wrist and then played well in a part-time role with the Braves in 1973 (.474 OBP in 191 PAs), but the Braves cut him the next spring and nobody picked him up. Bruce Markusen has the story of the possible blackballing of Dietz here.

Rick Wilkins, 1993 Cubs: .303/.376/.561, 144 wRC+. A stone-cold fluke. Hit 30 home runs but never posted a 100 wRC+ the rest of his career.

Paul Lo Duca, 2001 Dodgers: .320/.374/.543, 140 wRC+. A lot of silly things happened around this time. Lo Duca's season was one of those as he hit 25 home runs, 12 more than he hit in any other season. Later cited in the Mitchell report as a user of steroids and human growth hormone.

Alex Avila, 2011 Tigers: .295/.389/.506, 140 wRC+. Driven by a .366 BABIP, he hasn't come close to hitting like this again as his BABIP normalized and his strikeout rates increased.

Carlos Ruiz, 2012 Phillies: .325/.394/.540, 152 wRC+. The second-best mark of his career is a 127 wRC+ the season before, but he added more power in 2012 to his on-base skills. After the season, he tested positive for amphetamines and was suspended 25 games for 2013.

I don't believe Mesoraco is another Wilkins or Avila, but it's also likely he won't produce the same triple-slash line again (in part, because he may get an extra 100 PAs or so, which could create some fatigue). I'm guessing he'll have to make some adjustments as pitchers change their patterns against him. He hit .313/.460/.687 on inside pitches as opposed to .191/.271/.312 on pitches on the outer third or off the plate.

As for the contract, it should be a good deal for the Reds. Mesoraco is entering his age-27 season so the Reds will get him through his prime years and if he hits anything like he did in 2014, he's going to be a bargain the last couple of seasons of the deal.

Reds fans may have wanted to see a deal for Johnny Cueto, but they should happy about this one.
During my chats this offseason, one question that always comes up: Who do you like as a breakout performer? There are certainly obvious candidates to that question. The harder part is coming up with guys like Josh Donaldson or Josh Harrison or Dallas Keuchel or Collin McHugh.

I'm not even sure what a breakout candidate means. Do you consider Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich breakout candidates? I certainly think they'll be better in 2015, but the young Marlins outfielders were already pretty good in 2014. So I'm not sure I'd include them here. Maybe a general rule of thumb would be a player capable of improving his WAR by at least 2.5 wins.

So here's a list of breakout candidates, broken into three categories, with 2014 WAR listed. Rookies were not considered.

Obvious young players

These are essentially the players everyone should have on their list of breakout candidates, so it's mostly a confirmation that I like these guys as well.

Mookie Betts, Red Sox (2.0 WAR) -- This isn't so much a prediction as an endorsement that Betts will, at the minimum, sustain his 2014 performance when he hit .291/.368/.444 in 213 plate appearances with the Red Sox. Considering he's just 22 with outstanding contact skills -- he had more walks than whiffs in the minors -- I suspect he'll improve. The home run power is the only question mark, but he did hit 16 between the minors and majors so I believe he can be a 15-homer guy.

Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox (0.1 WAR) -- A highly touted rookie last year, Bogaerts hit well in April and May and then collapsed for three months, right about the time the Red Sox moved him from shortstop to third base. That's probably too easy an explanation for his struggles, but he'll be back at shortstop and a good September (.313, four home runs) at least meant he ended the season on a positive note. Like Betts, he's just 22, young enough to make a big leap forward.

Gerrit Cole, Pirates (1.2 WAR) -- He has 41 big league starts now with a 3.45 ERA, but there's ace potential in the former No. 1 overall pick. Armed with one of the best fastballs in the business, it's a matter of mastering his other pitches as his fastball can be a little straight at times. If his changeup develops -- he threw it just 111 times last year -- watch out. He also needs to remain healthy, missing time last year with a lat strain.

Kevin Gausman, Orioles (1.2 WAR) -- We saw his arm strength in the postseason, when he looked so good pitching out of the bullpen. After bouncing back and forth last year between the Orioles and Triple-A, making 20 starts in the majors, Gausman is ready to spend the entire year in Baltimore. He has developed into primarily a fastball/splitter guy, mixing in his slider and a few changeups, so while he may not rack up the strikeouts like Cole, he should do a good job keeping the ball in the park, which of course is essential for success in Camden Yards.

James Paxton, Mariners (1.5 WAR) -- For Paxton, a lefty with electric stuff (his four-seamer averaged 94.7 mph last season), it's all about staying healthy. He made just 13 starts in 2014 (posting a 3.04 ERA), missing a large chunk of time with a strained lat and then shoulder inflammation that developed while rehabbing the first injury. But he returned in August and made 11 starts down the stretch. Paxton also missed time while in the minors, so the injury history goes back several years.

George Springer, Astros (2.3 WAR) -- The strikeout rates are cringe-worthy (114 in 345 PAs), but when the University of Connecticut product connects, the ball goes far. Even with all the strikeouts, he hit .231/.336/.468 as a rookie with 20 home run in 78 games. He has 40-homer potential and while he didn't run much last year (five steals), he swiped 45 in the minors in 2013, giving him 30-30 potential. Or 40-30 potential. Or lots of potential, no matter how you slice it.

Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays (1.8 WAR) -- Everybody says the Blue Jays lack an ace, but maybe they don't. The short right-hander may not have the physical presence of your typical No. 1 starter, but he has the stuff and went 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA as a rookie. Those numbers included two terrible relief appearances in his first month in the majors (nine runs in three innings), but Stroman didn't let those outings get to him and when moved to the rotation.

Kolten Wong, Cardinals (2.1 WAR) -- He had a solid rookie season, showing a broad range of skills with some power, speed, solid defense and then a big postseason. He needs to improve his .249 average and .292 OBP. If he does that, he could be an All-Star second baseman.

Wild cards

This group has a few more flaws in their game and thus are less likely to emerge than the first group, but all have talent and several were once regarded as top prospects.

Trevor Bauer, Indians (1.1 WAR) -- The Diamondbacks didn't like Bauer's idiosyncratic approach to pitching and quickly traded him away. The third pick overall pick by Arizona in 2011 has had his ups and downs in his two years in Cleveland, but he's just 24 and still has a good arm. He needs to cut down on his walks -- some have suggested that backing off his six- or seven-pitch repertoire would help -- to lower his 4.18 ERA, but he's ready for his first full season in the majors and could make a big leap.

Brandon Belt, Giants (0.9 WAR) -- Belt was pretty good back in 2013 but battled a broken thumb and concussion in 2014, playing in just 61 games. He'll be 27 so I think he's primed for a big season, even better than 2013 when he hit .289 with 17 home runs.

Travis d'Arnaud, Mets (0.2 WAR) -- He gets lost with all the attention given the Mets' young starters and their search for a shortstop, but the young catcher had a solid rookie season, rebounding to hit .242 after scuffling to a .205 mark through June. He needs to improve his defense (just a 19 percent caught stealing rate and a league-leading 12 passed balls) and he was injury-prone in the minors, but there's All-Star potential in the bat.

Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees (0.7 WAR) -- He's got a big fastball and walked just 1.9 batters per nine with the Marlins, but he also led the National League in hits allowed. You worry about that short right-field porch and what it can do to a right-handed pitcher (see Phil Hughes). I wouldn't bet on a big season, but if Eovaldi can learn a new trick or two, he has the talent to make the Yankees look very smart.

Shane Greene, Tigers (0.6 WAR) -- Never regarded as much of a prospect coming up with the Yankees, Greene added a cutter and looked good in 14 starts (3.78 ERA, good strikeout rate) before getting traded to the Tigers in the offseason. He'll have to win a rotation spot and he's not Max Scherzer, but he's a guy I like.

Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (1.3 WAR) -- He came back from Tommy John surgery and made 32 starts with a 4.48 ERA and even better peripherals. Hutchison needs to improve against left-handers, who slugged .477 against him.

Carlos Martinez, Cardinals (0.2 WAR) -- I'm not actually a big fan since he hasn't dominated in relief, so I'm not exactly sure why people think he can transition to the rotation. But he has that explosive heater and many do like his potential as a starter.

Brad Miller, Mariners (1.5 WAR) -- He's athletic with some pop in his bat but frustratingly inconsistent, botching routine plays at shortstop and hitting just .204 in the first half last year. There's a lot of upside here if he puts it all together, and he's just 25 with two seasons of experience now.

Rougned Odor, Rangers (0.1 WAR) -- Rushed to the majors at 20 when the entire Texas lineup landed on the DL, he held his own. It may be a year early for a breakout season, but there's a lot of potential in the bat.

Danny Salazar, Indians (0.5 WAR) -- He had 120 strikeouts and 35 walks in 110 innings but also posted a mediocre 4.25 ERA and was sent to the minors for a spell. Oddly, he's struggled more against right-handers than lefties. That seems like a fixable solution if he can tighten up his slider.

Jonathan Schoop, Orioles (1.5 WAR) -- He's already a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman with a tremendous double-play pivot thanks to his strong arm. But will there be value in the bat? He has power but had a horrific 122 strikeout/walk ratio, leading to a .209 average and unacceptable .244 OBP. He could improve or the poor approach could end up sending him back to the minors or to the bench.

Guys I'll call long shots
How do you even go about predicting the next Donaldson or Keuchel? You can't. Luckily, some things in the sport remain unpredictable.

Tony Cingrani, Reds (-0.1 WAR) -- He was impressive as a rookie in 2013 with his unique arsenal of high fastballs from the left side but battled a sore shoulder in 2014. I'm not sure the delivery and lack of secondary pitches will play out in the long run, but you never know.

Khris Davis, Brewers (2.7 WAR) -- He hit 22 home runs and 37 doubles in his first full season and his defense was better than advertised, but he also posted a .299 OBP. If he can add 50 points of OBP -- good luck -- he's a star.

Rubby De La Rosa, Diamondbacks (0.8 WAR) -- Acquired from Boston in the Wade Miley trade, he's had Tommy John surgery but has a live arm; he averaged 93.9 mph on his fastball while touching 99. Sometimes these guys put it together, and moving to the National League will help as well.

Avisail Garcia, White Sox (-0.3 WAR) -- I've always felt he's been overhyped since coming up with Detroit. He's never walked and that poor approach will likely limit his numbers, but scouts have always liked his swing and power potential.

Eric Hosmer, Royals (0.7 WAR) -- Wait, hasn't he been around too long for this? Well, he wasn't that good last year except for October and he's still just 25, so maybe he finally learns to tap into his power. He's a much better bet than teammate Mike Moustakas to turn into a star.

Brandon Maurer, Padres (-0.4 WAR) -- He got hammered as a starter in Seattle in 2013 and 2014 but moved to the bullpen and was suddenly throwing in the upper 90s and posted a 2.17 ERA with a 38/5 SO/BB ratio. I'd keep him in relief, but the Padres may try to give him one more chance at starting.

Brad Peacock, Astros (-0.3 WAR) -- He has a 4.90 ERA in two seasons with Houston with way too many walks (4.8 per nine innings last year). But hey, Keuchel looked like this a year ago.

Eugenio Suarez, Reds (0.3 WAR) -- He came up with Detroit last year and I liked the swing and approach and think there's a little power there for a middle infielder. He may not have a regular gig with the Reds, but if they tire of Zack Cozart's lack of offense then Suarez could get a chance to play.
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?



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."

Defensive storylines of the offseason: NL

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
10:15
AM ET
Getty ImagesJason Heyward, Miguel Montero and Howie Kendrick are notable defense-minded acquisitions.

The major league baseball offseason still has a way to go, but I thought I'd take a look at how teams have changed defensively heading into 2015.

Here's a look at the National League:

 

NL East

Atlanta Braves
Every move the Braves made this offseason weakened them considerably defensively.

First they traded the best defensive right fielder in baseball in Jason Heyward to the Cardinals (for fear of losing him in free agency next offseason) and signed Nick Markakis (now recovering from neck surgery) to replace him. The difference defensively may be a couple of wins alone (just for all the balls that Heyward chased down in the right-field corner that others don't reach).

They also traded Justin Upton with the intent of plugging the hole in left field with Evan Gattis. That could be dicey, given that Gattis chalked up -10 runs saved in 48 games in left field in 2013.

They signed Alberto Callaspo to play second base. He's accumulated -28 defensive runs saved there in the past six seasons.

And lastly, to mentor Christian Bethancourt, they signed A.J. Pierzynski. All Pierzynski did was rank 34th in defensive runs saved among the 35 catchers with the most innings played last season (-11).

Miami Marlins
The Marlins remade their infield, though not in a great way with Michael Morse penned in at first base (-5 career runs saved there) and Dee Gordon at second (-5 runs saved). Gordon at least looked comfortable at the position and there's potential for improvement there. Martin Prado was a good get from the Yankees. He has 24 runs saved at third base dating back to the start of the 2010 season and is definitely an improvement over Casey McGehee.

New York Mets
The Mets don't necessarily have their shortstop yet, and who that is could go a long way in determining their level of offseason success. It could end up being Wilmer Flores by default. Flores had minimal range in a tryout there last season, but proved skilled at converting outs on balls hit at him and at turning double plays.

The corner outfield also could be a bit shaky. Michael Cuddyer typically rates among the worst defensive outfielders in baseball and his and Curtis Granderson's aging legs in right and left field respectively could create a lot of extra ground for amazing center fielder Juan Lagares to cover.

Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies need to find some defensive skill among their young players, as they traded two of the few players on their roster who were decent defensively in Marlon Byrd and Jimmy Rollins. Looks like we'll find out if Freddy Galvis can play shortstop full-time. In 41 games there, he's at -4 defensive runs saved.

Washington Nationals
The much anticipated move of Ryan Zimmerman to first base will finally come to fruition now that Adam LaRoche has signed with the White Sox. Zimmerman, a former Web Gem champ at third, hasn't been the same since he hurt his right shoulder, limiting his throwing ability.

The Nationals also signed Dan Uggla to a minor league deal. His usage should anything happen to Danny Espinosa could be problematic. Twice in the past four seasons, Uggla has ranked last among second basemen in defensive runs saved. Perhaps he could get a look at first base as well.

 

NL Central

Chicago Cubs
The Cubs' most visible defensive overhaul comes behind the plate, where Miguel Montero and David Ross, both excellent in the pitch-framing department, replace Welington Castillo, who ranked among the worst in that area.

"Framing is something [Montero] does well, especially in the low part of the zone which is important for us," said Cubs president Theo Epstein. "We have a lot of guys that pitch down there. He had outstanding framing numbers last season which jibes with the narrative of Henry Blanco working with him [in Arizona]. They really focused on that. It's a nice thing to have. He can steal a couple strikes here and there for your pitching staff."

Cincinnati Reds
The Reds had done little this offseason that tinkered with their defense until trading for Marlon Byrd.

Byrd should be a nice fit in left field for a year, though he's played only two games there in the past five seasons. He's been credited with 18 defensive runs saved the past two seasons in right field, which is currently occupied by Jay Bruce.

Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers finally found a first baseman to replace Prince Fielder by trading for Adam Lind, but he's a shaky defender there (-13 career runs saved). There is an addition by subtraction element with the departure of second baseman Rickie Weeks, but Scooter Gennett needs to improve, lest he'll give the team below average production at that position. In short, this could be a very shaky infield. But at least the Brewers have Carlos Gomez and (at least sometimes) Gerardo Parra in the outfield to make up for it.

Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates couldn't afford Russell Martin, so they went back to the well that yielded him and Chris Stewart by trading for another good pitch framer (though one likely not in Martin's class) in Francisco Cervelli. The Stewart/Cervelli platoon will make for an interesting experiment.

Pittsburgh also will have a new first baseman with the move of Pedro Alvarez there and Corey Hart as his backup. Sean Rodriguez, in his jack-of-all-trades role, could also see time there, as he's someone capable of filling in defensively just about anywhere.

St. Louis Cardinals
The team with the most defensive runs saved in baseball last season just got better with the outstanding Jason Heyward patrolling right field. His defense could add a couple of wins by itself, considering Cardinals outfielders combined for -4 runs saved there last season.

 

NL West

Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks face two questions regarding their defense heading into spring training.

Can Yasmany Tomas handle third base?

Who is going to catch with the trade of Miguel Montero to the Cubs?

The answer to each is unknown. What is known is that Mark Trumbo is not a great fit in such a spacious outfield (to his credit, he is a good first baseman), but he'll be given another shot in left field.

Colorado Rockies
It sounds like the Rockies are going to try to see if former Gold Glove winner Carlos Gonzalez can shift to right field full-time, with Corey Dickerson now in left. The sample size on Gonzalez is less than 1,000 career innings there, but the results are decent (9 runs saved).

Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers will look very different on the defensive side with a new double-play combination in Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick (described by team president Andrew Friedman as "dynamic players on both sides of the ball"), rookie Joc Pederson in center and a stellar pitch framer in Yasmani Grandal behind the plate.

"There's no question we're going to be significantly better defensively. I think it's going to help on the run-prevention side quite a bit," Friedman said earlier this offseason.

San Diego Padres
The Padres have an all-new outfield with some combination of Matt Kemp (most likely in right), Wil Myers (most likely in center) and Justin Upton (most likely in left).

The hope will have to be that they hit more than they let in. Kemp doesn't rate well at any of the three outfield spots, so it's a matter of finding where he'll do the least damage. Myers is basically stuck playing center by default, but given that he was at -11 runs saved over two seasons in right field, who knows how that will go.

Upton is great at getting to balls, but there's only so far he can go playing left field, and his throwing arm tends to spray balls all over the place.

The one thing the Padres do have going for them is that they can put a better defensive team on the field late in games, with Cameron Maybin and newly acquired infielder Clint Barmes serving a useful role on the bench.

San Francisco Giants
The big thing to watch will be how much the Giants miss the presence of Pablo Sandoval, who was actually a very good defensive third baseman when he was in good shape (such as last season). Casey McGehee has never rated particularly well at the position and we'll see how big a drop-off he represents.

Joe Panik rated about average at second base in a 70-game look in 2014, though he looked better than that in the postseason. He should get a full-time look there in 2015.

Byrd heads to Reds, but is Hamels next?

December, 31, 2014
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Marlon ByrdAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMarlon Byrd will bring the Reds some thunder with his lumber from the right side.


The easiest thing to say about the Reds getting Marlon Byrd is that it’s good for the Reds and good for Marlon Byrd.

To really belabor the obvious, Byrd is a right-handed outfielder with power going to a ballpark that rewards right-handed batters with power. The Reds have been pretty unfamiliar with that kind of guy lately. As ESPN Stats & Info relates, the Reds’ righty outfield bats hit an NL-low 25 home runs despite playing in Great American Ballpark, which, according to Baseball Info Solutions, is tied for the highest park index for right-handed homers (133) in the major leagues over the last three years. (To anticipate the question if you haven’t already picked up your copy of the new Bill James Handbook -- and why haven’t you? -- the Gap is tied with Miller Park.)

So Byrd addresses an obvious need. Given his career .308/.353/.508 line when he has visited the Gap, he should be set up nicely for two good years over the remainder of his contract if the Reds pick up an $8 million club option for 2016. Sure, it will be park-aided, but that’s because Byrd has the ability to exploit the ballpark’s homer-happy features. And it will contribute to Byrd’s ongoing late-career renaissance. While most players peak in their late 20s, Byrd has slugged 51 points higher in his 30s (.445) than he did in his 20s (.394).

You can credit a lot of factors for that unusual development: his work with Rangers and later Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo; a good ballpark or two; but perhaps most of all, the hard work he put in, taking better care of himself than perhaps he had at the start of his career. Byrd’s a great example of what a ballplayer can control and change about himself at the pro level. He’s a great fit for the Reds, providing an excellent bookend in an outfield that already features Jay Bruce’s lefty power and last year’s breakout rookie, Billy Hamilton, in center.

But what do I really love about this deal? Not that the Phillies got prospect Ben Lively, the Reds’ minor league player of the year; a good arm is a good thing, and Lively’s mix of low-90s heat with good command and promising off-speed stuff will be sure to put him close to the top of the Phillies’ prospect possibilities. That’s a decent haul for a team that’s rebuilding. And I’m not at all excited about the payroll savings the Phillies will realize, even as they ate a small cash salad on the side to put Byrd in Cincinnati.

No, what I really love about this deal is that it opens an outfield slot for the Phillies. A slot where Padre-of-the-moment Wil Myers might fit very nicely should the Cole Hamels-to-San Diego rumor heat up again. Add in the Padres’ acquisition Tuesday of live-armed Mariners hurler Brandon Maurer, and you can see how Padres GM A.J. Preller is building a mound of talent from other people’s organizations that might provide an excellent package for the Phillies in return for Hamels -- while also perhaps being able to hold on to the Padres’ top prospects, like Matt Wisler or Hunter Renfroe. Because if there’s one thing we seem to have learned about Preller in short order: Like a baseball Godfather, he’ll find a way to make you an offer you can’t refuse.


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

Picks to click: Breakout pitchers

December, 28, 2014
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Danny SalazarFrank Victores/USA TODAY SportsDanny Salazar's dominating stuff should set the stage for a breakout season in 2015.
Sticking with Saturday's theme of picking hitters who could break out in 2015, today we turn to the moundsmen. Remember, no rookies, so don’t wonder why Andrew Heaney or Alex Sanchez aren’t here. And to compare and contrast past performance with future potential, we’ll use career runs allowed per nine innings compared to what ACTA’s Bill James and FanGraphs’ Steamer project for ERAs in 2015.

1. Danny Salazar, Indians: 4.17 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.61 ERA, Steamer 3.63

Corey Kluber isn’t going to be the last bit of good news in the Indians’ rotation. While you could pick Carlos Carrasco or Trevor Bauer for this list as well (especially if we took it beyond 10 pitchers), Salazar should be the best of the Tribe’s gaggle of up-and-comers. There’s no question about his mid-90s heat, his slider generates lots of ground-ball opportunities, and he has added a good swing-and-miss change of pace to give himself a three-pitch arsenal. But even a guy whiffing 10 men per nine needs a little help from his friends. After earning an early demotion, upon his return Salazar got a big benefit from the Indians’ in-season improvements on defense after a historically awful start on D. Assuming the Indians are done stress-testing the limits of defensive possibility, Salazar should be able to settle in and do his thing over a full season as one of the best young starters in the league.

2. Michael Pineda, Yankees: 3.42 RA9 career | 2015 James 2.74 ERA, Steamer 3.91

It may be even easier to nominate Pineda for this list than it was to name Machado among the hitters, but before you cry foul, think on this: Newly minted teammate Nathan Eovaldi is a year younger and already has nearly twice as many career big league starts (79) as Pineda does (41). Pineda has pitched only in parts of two seasons in the majors -- most of 2011 for the Mariners and his 13 starts last year as a Yankee; I don’t know if we’ve talked this much about a guy who hasn’t pitched all that much since Joe Magrane 25 years ago. We can’t just chalk it up to New York navel-gazing. As Pineda promptly proved, the talent is there, reflected in last year’s 8-1 K-BB ratio. So let’s skip over last year’s suspension and the years lost to injury and focus on the idea that his first 30-start season is going to be something special.

3. Zack Wheeler, Mets: 4.08 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.57 ERA, Steamer 3.90

He doesn’t have Jake deGrom’s hair or Matt Harvey’s panache, but the Mets will happily “settle” for another top-shelf starting pitcher in what might quickly develop into the best rotation in the division within the next year or two. (Yes, including the Nationals. Or the Marlins’ rotation of the moment, assuming everyone’s healthy.) In the second half, Wheeler really came into his own, goosing his whiff rate beyond one per inning, and he generates a lot of ground-ball outs on his hard slider, curve and four-seam fastball (you read that right). If the Mets had a premium glove at shortstop (not least to compensate for Daniel Murphy’s shortcomings at second), Wheeler would be a quick, easy bet for dominance. In the meantime, count on better run support in 2015 to help him generate a better record as he comes into his own.

4. Drew Smyly, Rays: 3.45 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.30 ERA, Steamer 3.47

He’s the immediate payoff for putting David Price in Detroit, and the timing could not be better for the Rays, as they will control the next four years of Smyly’s time just as he hits the age range when he’s primed for regular rotation work. With a nice fastball/cutter mix, he generates a lot of swinging strikes, and working in front of the intensely defense-minded Rays, he shone down the stretch before being shut down. The brass may have scrammed from Tampa Bay, but with Smyly joining a rotation stocked with Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and eventually Matt Moore, there’s still plenty of gold on the roster.

5. Danny Duffy, Royals: 3.99 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.67, Steamer 4.00

The Royals may never have to face the kind of second-guessing the Nationals did over shutting down Stephen Strasburg in 2012, but you can’t tell me Duffy wouldn’t have been a better choice to start a postseason game than Jeremy Guthrie, even allowing for questions about his health after he missed most of September. That’s because southpaw starters with heat that sits at 94 mph don’t grow on trees, and pairing that with Duffy’s biting curve is just tasty for everyone who doesn’t have to face him. Last year was Duffy’s first shot at a full-time rotation gig since 2011 after losing much of 2012 and 2013 to Tommy John surgery and recovery, but the league didn’t catch up to him down the stretch, eking out a .602 second-half OPS after putting up a .607 OPS in the first half. Armed with any kind of run support, he’ll have a big year.

6. Kevin Gausman, Orioles: 4.36 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.69 ERA, Steamer 4.19

You can argue with me over whether Chris Tillman has already had his big breakthrough, but after an awesome stretch run from him, I’m looking forward to the next breakout in Baltimore. Like Salazar, Gausman cooks with gas, throwing mid-90s heat while mixing in a sweet splitter as a swing-and-miss pitch. Pulled in and out of the rotation on an as-needed basis, Gausman was adaptable, but I’m giving him some benefit of the doubt that, handed a regular role instead of being skipped or shipped out, he’ll break out in his age-24 season.

SportsNation

Which pitcher will have the biggest breakout in 2015?

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Discuss (Total votes: 6,503)

7. Tony Cingrani, Reds: 3.69 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.46 ERA, Steamer 3.75

The Reds traded from their rotation depth this winter, and while some of that was frustration that their formula for success hadn’t generated that much of it, the knowledge that they would be getting Homer Bailey back from the DL and had Cingrani ready to step into a full-time gig didn’t hurt. Pitching in the homer-happy Gap, the venue will never be the lefty Cingrani’s friend, not unless he improves his ground-ball rate. But he has the tools to help himself: consistent low-90s heat and a slider hitters pound into the ground. The hope is that reps will help him improve his touch and separation on his changeup, because he could use better depth in his off-speed arsenal to upset hitters’ timing.

8. Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays: 3.86 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.28, Steamer 3.75

This is going to be fun. Just standing there, Stroman is not the sort of guy whom prospect mavens drool over. Righties standing 5-foot-9 almost automatically get written off as relievers-to-be, not rotation regulars. But between good velocity (fastball sits around 93-94 mph) and a solid five-pitch assortment, he fills the bottom half of the zone with strikes and brings the game down to his level, posting a 4-1 K-BB ratio. You can add in that his already excellent debut season could have been even better with stronger defensive support (2.84 FIP), while ESPN Stats & Information’s Mark Simon reports that Stroman posted the third-lowest hard-hit rate in the majors among pitchers who threw 100 innings last season, just 10.9 percent. Back in the day, a lot of people said that Tim Lincecum was too short, and while there’s only one Freak, we may end up saying there’s only one Marcus Stroman too.

9. Kyle Gibson, Twins: 5.04 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.99 ERA, Steamer 4.55

This may not be as easy a case to make, but he is a prime example of what has become an organizational type for the Twins, a huge strike-thrower who pounds away low and outside and keeps his infield busy, sort of a bigger version of Scott Erickson with even better command. As ESPN Stats & Info’s Mark Simon tweeted earlier this month, Gibson kept some pretty extraordinary company last year, tying for second in the majors in starts with seven or more innings pitched and no runs allowed with six. If the Twins’ infield defense jells this year, he’ll stay on that list.

10. Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees: 4.38 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.65 ERA, Steamer 4.44

Eovaldi is already in his third organization before he has even faced his first spin with arbitration, which to keep the cup half-full says something about his desirability. It’s easy to love someone with a high-70s curve, high-80s slider and high-90s fastball, but as Keith Law has pointed out, despite a good amount of experience he’s still very much a work in progress, looking to gain touch on his curve and change. He faded badly down the stretch after carrying a heavy first-half workload, but per FanGraphs he was also let down by his defense, ranking seventh in the majors in differential between his FIP and ERA in 2014. Pitching in New York against tough American League East lineups with the DH won’t make matters any easier, but handled with care, he could blossom into a workhorse.

Relievers to mention because they’re people too: Neil Ramirez of the Cubs and Carter Capps of the Marlins. Yes, high-90s heat is always going to turn heads, and yes, they might be one injury away from racking up big saves totals for those of you who worry about that sort of thing.

Finally, I really want to put Tyler Matzek of the Rockies on this list because of his talent, but in the history of formulas for frustration, say you start with a top-shelf young pitching prospect, add Coors Field and you get ... well, here’s hoping things turn out better than they have so far for Jhoulys Chacin. They are both on the list of guys all non-Rockies baseball fans would probably love to see pitching anywhere else but Denver.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Looking for a Christmas gift for the baseball fan in your life? Or maybe a little something for yourself? I recommend "The Bill James Handbook" from Baseball Info Solutions (available here).

Yes, you can get all the basic stats you need and many more at sites like Baseball-Reference.com, but sometimes it's much easier to flip through a book than to type in "Adeiny Hechavarria" or "Jarrod Saltalamacchia." Plus, the book includes much more than a player's basic year-by-year stats. It's loaded with fun stuff like Bill James' starting pitching rankings for each month (Clayton Kershaw started the season at No. 1 and remained there all season), average velocity through the years for pitchers, individual and team baserunning data, pitchers' repertoires, manager tendencies, leaderboards, left/right data, 2015 projections, Bill James specialties like Win Shares and his Hall of Fame monitor, and much more.

Here are 10 random things I learned from flipping through the book:

1. The Kansas City Royals were only the 10th-best baserunning team in the majors.

BIS uses extra bases taken (such as first to third on a single), outs made while advancing, times doubled off, double plays grounded into and stolen base gain to arrive at an overall "net gain" of bases. The Nationals were No. 1 at +113 while the Royals were +52. Kansas City did rank No. 1 in stolen base gain at +81, but were -29 on the bases otherwise, thanks in large part to Billy Butler. At -31 bases, he ranked tied with Alex Avila as the worst baserunner in the majors. (Butler went first to third on a single once all season.) The best? Ben Revere of the Phillies had a net gain of +54, followed by Leonys Martin of the Rangers at +42.

2. Two starting pitchers didn't allow a single stolen base: Hisashi Iwakuma and Doug Fister.

Baserunners were 0-for-8 stealing Iwakuma and just 0-for-1 against Fister. Scott Feldman of the Astros allowed the most stolen bases with 35. He allowed 30 the year before when he was with the Cubs and Orioles, so it wasn't just an Astros catchers couldn't throw out runners type of deal.

3. There were 33 home run robberies in 2014.

Jay Bruce and J.D. Martinez each had two. Johnny Cueto and Bartolo Colon both benefited from two robberies. And poor Rene Rivera was the only hitter to lose two would-be home runs.

4. Brock Holt led the American League with a .349 average in "close and late" situations.

And Munenori Kawasaki was second at .346.


5. Josh Tomlin had the AL's best start of the year.

Against Seattle on June 28, the Cleveland right-hander allowed one hit with 11 K's and no walks for a Game Score of 96. Clayton Kershaw's 15-strikeout no-hitter scored 102 (the second-best nine-inning Game Score ever, behind Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout one-hitter).

6. Nathan Eovaldi led the NL in hits allowed .. and percentage of pitches in the strike zone.

Related? Perhaps.

7. Nolan Arenado hit 18 home runs -- 16 at home.

That's certainly one of the biggest home/road splits I've ever seen.

8. The Nationals went 15-4 against the Mets.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers did the same against the Diamondbacks, for the most wins one team had over another.

9. Giancarlo Stanton is projected to hit 40 home runs.

Jose Abreu is projected to lead the AL with 38 ... along with George Springer.

10. Terry Francona led the majors in intentional walks that backfired.

BIS kept track of all intentional walks and labeled them as good and not good, with the "not goods" further broken down into "bombs" -- when multiple runs scored after the IW. Francona led the majors with 51 intentional walks, 22 not goods and 13 bombs. Compare that to Ned Yost, who issued just 14 intentional walks.

Anyway, that's the kind of fun stuff you can find in the book. Check it out.
Jimmy RollinsMitchell Layton/Getty Images

It was quite the exciting winter meetings. A few thoughts on some of those recent transactions ...

1. Dodgers trade Matt Kemp and Dee Gordon, acquire Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins and Yasmani Grandal.

It's risky blowing up a 94-win team, and although trading Kemp certainly helps clear some of the logjam in the outfield and gives the Dodgers additional money to play with, this series of transactions doesn't have as much to do with improving clubhouse chemistry or making manager Don Mattingly's life any easier as it does with something far less complicated: improving the team's defense.

New team president Andrew Friedman came from Tampa Bay, where the Rays turned their franchise around in 2008 by improving the team's defense and emphasizing it ever since. General manager Farhan Zaidi came from Oakland, where the A's had also made defense a bigger priority in recent seasons.

The Dodgers arguably ended up improving their defense at five positions:

Shortstop: Rollins > Hanley Ramirez
Second base: Kendrick > Gordon
Center field: Pederson > Yasiel Puig
Right field: Puig > Kemp
Catcher: Grandal > A.J. Ellis

Look at the upgrades, based on 2014 defensive runs saved per 1,200 innings:

SS: +16 runs
2B: +11 runs
CF: Puig rated as average here; Pederson projects as average or slightly above.
RF: +10 runs
C: Friedman loves pitch framing, and Grandal rates very well here while Ellis rates as one of the worst in the majors. Grandal isn't a great overall defensive catcher -- he had trouble throwing out runners -- but you have to believe the Dodgers' internal metrics rate Grandal has a sizable upgrade.

Yes, the Dodgers have lost two guys from the middle of the order, but Rollins (17 home runs in 2014) could replace much of Ramirez's power, Pederson projects as a 20-homer guy if he plays every day, and Kendrick is an offensive upgrade over Gordon. The Dodgers also replaced two injury-prone players in Ramirez and Kemp.

Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke predictably ripped the Kemp trade, but when you view the big picture, it looks like a terrific series of moves to me (not even factoring in the Brandon McCarthy signing).

2. Padres acquire Kemp.

My friend Ted the Mariners fan emailed me after hearing about this trade, saying, "We couldn't beat this?"

It may look like a low return for Kemp, but Kemp's reputation exceeds his actual value by a large factor. You're not just trading for Kemp; you're also getting his contract. He's a 30-year-old outfielder who played below-average defense even in right field and had injury issues the past three seasons. FanGraphs valued him at just 4.6 WAR total over the past three seasons and just 1.8 in 2014 despite hitting .287/.346/.506. If Kemp can stay healthy and match his second-half production over the next several years, the Padres won't regret the deal. But Kemp isn't the superstar some fans think he is.

3. Tigers acquire Yoenis Cespedes and Alfredo Simon, trade away Rick Porcello and Eugenio Suarez.

Overall, I'd say the Tigers are just spinning their wheels in the mud so far if you factor in the loss of Torii Hunter and the assumed departure of Max Scherzer. (GM Dave Dombrowski said the club will no longer negotiate with Scherzer and agent Scott Boras.) Cespedes is certainly a defensive upgrade over Hunter, and if he can spike his OBP back over .300, the Tigers will certainly roll out what should be one of the better offenses in the league:

2B Ian Kinsler
RF J.D. Martinez
1B Miguel Cabrera
DH Victor Martinez
LF Cespedes
3B Nick Castellanos
C Alex Avila
CF Anthony Gose/Rajai Davis
SS Jose Iglesias

Even then, the lineup could have OBP issues once you get past Cabrera and Victor Martinez, especially if J.D. Martinez doesn't maintain his 2014 level of play.

I don't like the Simon trade, in which Detroit gave up Suarez for one year of a pitcher who has had half of a good season in the rotation ... and that half was fueled by a low BABIP. The downgrade from Porcello to Simon could be significant, and I think Suarez is going to be the better player than Iglesias.

4. Red Sox add Porcello, Justin Masterson and Wade Miley (trade pending) to the rotation.

Boston had better have good infield defense with this group. Throw in Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly and the Red Sox should have the staff that will throw the most ground balls in the majors, probably by a large margin. (Paul Swydan of FanGraphs has a piece on Boston's ground ball fetish.)

How good is it, however? The Steamer projection system actually projects Boston to have the sixth-best rotation in the majors via WAR -- but the fifth-worst ERA. Seems like there's a wide range of potential outcomes here based on those figures and some park adjustments going on that help those WAR numbers. Everyone seems to think the Red Sox will still make another move, either signing James Shields or trading for Cole Hamels. I'm not as sure about that. Considering the lack of top starters across the AL East, the Red Sox may just stick with this group, keep all those young starters they have and see if Henry Owens, Matt Barnes or Eduardo Rodriguez develop enough to help out later in the season.

5. Marlins acquire Gordon, Mat Latos and Dan Haren -- if he doesn't retire.

The Marlins' second basemen hit .236/.303/.334 in 2014, compared with Gordon's .289/.326/.378, so it looks like a small offensive upgrade, especially when you factor in Gordon's speed. But Gordon had just a .300 OBP in the second half (when he drew only four walks). He does, however, provide dynamic speed -- an element the Marlins lacked -- and if Gordon can learn to draw a few more walks, the top of the lineup has potential:

SportsNation

Which moves from the winter meetings did you like best?

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Discuss (Total votes: 1,719)

2B Gordon
LF Christian Yelich
RF Giancarlo Stanton
3B Casey McGehee
CF Marcell Ozuna
1B To be acquired?
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
SS Adeiny Hechavarria

OK, the Marlins need a better cleanup hitter. Latos is a big gamble coming off a season during which his velocity declined nearly 2 mph as he battled bone chips in his elbow and eventually had surgery. A rotation of Latos, Henderson Alvarez, Nathan Eovaldi, Jarred Cosart, Tom Koehler, Haren and eventually Jose Fernandez, who is expected to return at midseason, has potential -- especially if youngsters Eovaldi and Cosart develop consistency. But it could also feature a bunch of No. 4s. Call me lukewarm on the Marlins' moves so far.

6. Angels acquire Andrew Heaney for Kendrick.

It's hard to fault the Angels for making this move, in which they picked up Heaney and his potential, plus six years of team control for Kendrick, who hits free agency after the season. But losing Kendrick without a clear replacement on hand could be a huge blow. Kendrick was the club's second-most-valuable player last season behind Mike Trout. I'll be curious to see what happens at second base, as Josh Rutledge, acquired from the Rockies, projects as about a one-win player, if that. That's a four-win decline from what Kendrick provided in 2014, and if Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker regress, the Angels will face in a tough battle for the playoffs a year after racking up the most wins in the majors in 2014.

7. White Sox acquire Jeff Samardzija, sign David Robertson and Adam LaRoche.

You have to love the job Rick Hahn has done the past two offseasons, signing Jose Abreu and stealing Adam Eaton from the Diamondbacks last year, and now landing Samardzija, Robertson and LaRoche. I'd still pick the White Sox to finish fourth in the AL Central, but if they add another starter or outfielder it could be a great four-team race.

8. Cubs sign Jon Lester, trade for Miguel Montero.

Did you know Doug Fister has a lower career ERA (3.34) than Lester (3.58) and roughly the same postseason ERA (2.57 for Lester vs. 2.60 for Fister)?

9. Twins sign Ervin Santana.

Hey, he could be the new Ricky Nolasco! (Sorry, Twins fans.) OK, Santana is probably better than Nolasco, but $54 million seems like a lot for a guy who just posted a 3.95 ERA in the National League and whose best season of the past three came in Kansas City, where he played in a good pitcher's park in front of a terrific defense that complemented his fly ball tendencies.

10. Pirates re-sign Francisco Liriano.

At three years and $39 million, this was a good deal for Pittsburgh, which got a solid starter who didn't break the payroll. You always worry about his health and the potential that he'll lose his command at any time, but he's had two good seasons now -- and pitching coach Ray Searage seems to get the most out of his starters.

11. Cardinals sign Mark Reynolds.

St. Louis definitely needed a right-handed power bat, either to platoon with Matt Adams or to come off the bench. We saw the Giants' lefty relievers exploit the Cardinals in the NLCS. Reynolds can fill in at first and third, and for $2 million, he's an inexpensive pickup who could pay small dividends.

12. A's do a bunch of stuff.

More to come on this in a separate post later today.

13. Royals sign Kendrys Morales for two years, $17 million.

What?!?!?!?

Half-full, half-empty: Melky Cabrera

November, 28, 2014
11/28/14
12:08
PM ET


Let's do one more half-full, half-empty look: left fielder Melky Cabrera, who hit .301/.351/.458 with 16 home runs in 139 games with the Blue Jays.

MLB Free Agency: Half-Full, Half-Empty Logo
The switch-hitting Cabrera enters free agency for his age-30 season. Buster Olney reports that while the Blue Jays are interested in bringing Cabrera back and Cabrera has interest in returning to Toronto, he would prefer to go elsewhere so half his games aren't played on turf. That could lead him to sign with another team that needs an outfielder: Baltimore, Seattle, Cincinnati, Detroit and Texas could be among the possible fits.

Jim Bowden predicts a four-year, $64 million deal for Cabrera.

Let's see if he'd be worth it.

HALF-FULL

Cabrera can hit, simple as that. Over the past four seasons, he's hit .309 and topped .300 in three different seasons. The one year he didn't hit .300 was 2013, when he battled a knee injury and his season ended early when he had surgery to remove a benign tumor from his back. You try hitting .300 with a tumor in your back.

In this age of batters striking out with increasing frequency, Cabrera is a solid contact hitter who had the 12th-lowest strikeout rate in the majors in 2014. In some regards, he's like Pablo Sandoval in that Cabrera is a switch-hitter with an aggressive approach, but he's not the same free swinger that Sandoval is. While Sandoval led the majors with a chase percentage on pitches outside the strike zone of 43.5, Cabrera's chase rate of 30.7 percent ranked 45th, the same as Victor Martinez. In other words, Cabrera isn't a hacker up there.

So while Cabrera doesn't draw a lot of walks, he doesn't get himself out a lot, either. That's why he's a .300 hitter and projects to continue hitting around .300 into the future. As you can see from the heat map, he's also one of the best high-ball hitters in the majors:

Melky CabreraESPN


Cabrera hit .386 on pitches up in the zone in 2014 -- best in the majors. His 1.178 OPS ranked second behind only Jose Abreu. Not surprisingly, Cabrera is a good fastball hitter -- .315 in 2014, .326 over the past four years. But he's also hit .290 against "soft" stuff, so there is no easy pattern to get Cabrera out with. Again, this suggests a good pure hitter who should age well into his 30s.

In case you still have doubts about the bat, Cabrera ranked fourth among American League outfielders in OPS (or fifth if you want to include Nelson Cruz). Unlike Sandoval, Cabrera is also equally effective from both sides of the plate, with an .827 OPS versus left-handers and an .802 versus right-handers over the past four seasons. That makes him a valuable asset if you want to plug him between two hitters of the same side.

Cabrera's range isn't great in left field, but he's relatively error-free and had 13 assists in 2014, second among AL left fielders.

HALF-EMPTY

Sure, Cabrera can hit for average, and while that's a nice trick, he's kind of a one-trick pony. He doesn't hit for a ton of power; he's never hit 20 home runs in a season. He doesn't draw many walks, is a below-average defender and a below-average baserunner, and has a PED suspension in his past. Plus, his body is more body by Pablo than body by Jake.

That means a lot of Cabrera's value is tied up in his batting average. So if he hits .279, as he did in 2013, he doesn't really bring a lot to the table except some singles and a few extra-base hits. If you give him $15-16 million a season, you're expecting him to continue to hit .300 over the length of the contract.

And that defense ... it's already below average (minus-6 defensive runs saved in each of the past two seasons). What's it going to be in two years, let alone four? And you have to worry about a player's knees if he's suggesting he doesn't want to play on turf. While he slots in as a top-of-the-order hitter, he's a below-average runner on the bases; you'd certainly prefer more speed from your No. 1 or 2 hitter.

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Let's also not gloss over that PED suspension with the Giants back in 2012. He hit .346/.390/.516 that year; take that season out of the equation, and his four-year numbers look a lot more pedestrian.

Cabrera was worth 3.1 WAR in 2014. Sure, if he can maintain that, $16 million sounds about right. But it's difficult to envision him putting up bigger numbers -- unless you're buying into that 2012 season -- and it's more likely that he'll regress over the life of a long-term contract, making a three- or four-year contract a bit of a gamble.

What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?
Don't you love stuff like this: Stan Musial was born Nov. 21, 1920 in Donora, Pa.; Ken Griffey Jr. was born Nov. 21, 1969 ... in Donora, Pa.

As Bill James once wrote, Griffey Jr. is the second-best left-handed-hitting outfielder ever from Donora, Pa. (Griffey Sr. was also born in Donora, alas, on April 10.)

Of course, for those of us of a certain age, it's even more shocking that Griffey is 45 years old. It seems not that long ago I was driving home from college in 1989 and rushing out to a Mariners game to see the 19-year-old phenom in person for the first time. He didn't start that game I went to, but he pinch-hit in the eighth inning of a tie game against the Brewers ... and hit a two-run home run off Bill Wegman. Here's the box score.

Back in August, Jayson Stark wrote a "What if" piece on Griffey, asking how home runs he would hit had he stayed healthy. He hit 630; Jayson estimated he probably gets to 730-755. In retrospect, it's amazing and sad that Griffey received MVP votes just once after turning 30 -- and that was a 24th-place finish in 2005.

Because of that lack of production in his 30s, it's hard to argue that Griffey had the more valuable career than Musial, who hit .325/.415/.560 while averaging 26 home runs per season in his 30s. Musial played 150 games six times in his 30s, Griffey topped out at 145. Their career WAR isn't close, Musial at 128.1, Griffey at 83.6.

Still, there's no shame in being the second-best player ever from the small town 20 miles south of Pittsburgh. Happy birthday, Junior.



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There wasn't going to be any drama in the National League Cy Young voting; the only question was whether Clayton Kershaw would be the unanimous winner after going 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA and striking out 239 batters in 198.1 innings. He did, indeed, sweep the voting for his third Cy Young Award in four seasons.

The American League was a different case, however, as everyone figured the voting between Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber would be close -- and it was. Kluber received 17 of 30 first-place votes to Hernandez's 13.

What was the difference in such a close vote? In the end, I wonder if Kluber's advantage in wins trumped Hernandez's advantage in ERA. Wins aren't as important to voters as they were even just a few years ago, but in an otherwise close analysis, I would suggest Kluber's three-win edge may have played a factor.

Did the voters get the right guy? I've been saying all along that it's a coin flip; really, they couldn't go wrong with either guy (and if Chris Sale had pitched a few more innings, he might have been the guy).

Here, their basic stats:

    Hernandez: 15-6, 2.14 ERA, 236 IP, 170 H, 46 BB, 248 SO, 16 HR
    Kluber: 18-9, 2.44 ERA, 235.2 IP, 207 H, 51 BB, 269 SO, 14 HR


Not much to separate there, right down to the innings pitched. Hernandez had the lower ERA; Kluber had more strikeouts. Neither pitcher benefited from a high total of unearned runs. Hernandez allowed 72 runs and Kluber 68.

We get some different numbers if we dig a little deeper, however. Most notably, Kluber led Hernandez in both Baseball-Reference WAR and FanGraphs WAR:

    Kluber: 7.4 bWAR, 7.3 fWAR
    Hernandez: 6.8 bWAR, 6.2 fWAR


The differences here come via ballpark effects, defensive support and, in FanGraphs' version of WAR, Kluber's slight advantage in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), 2.35 to 2.56.

Basically, Hernandez pitched in Safeco Field, a good pitcher's park, while Kluber had to toil with a worse defense behind him (the Indians had minus-75 Defensive Runs Saved, worst in the majors; the Mariners were minus-11). So Hernandez gets docked for Safeco and Kluber gets value added because of the Indians' poor defense. It should be pointed out, however, that Hernandez had a 2.07 ERA at home and 2.21 on the road, so it's not like he morphed into a lesser pitcher away from Safeco.

Anyway, in part because of those advantages, Hernandez allowed 37 fewer hits and thus had a much better opponents' batting line:

    Hernandez: .200/.243/.303
    Kluber: .233/.279/.345


Hernandez allowed a .260 average on balls in play, Kluber a .318 mark. That's what caused the 37-hit difference. What's more difficult to decipher: How much of that was because of the defense behind Kluber? Maybe not as much as we think.

[+] EnlargeKluber
Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesThe Indians' Corey Kluber received 17 of 30 first-place AL Cy Young votes, narrowly beating Seattle's Felix Hernandez.
For example, Kluber had a somewhat sizable platoon split: .687 OPS allowed against left-handers versus .553 against right-handers. In hitter's counts, lefties destroyed him: .455/.566/.788 in 83 plate appearances. Hernandez, meanwhile, actually had a reverse platoon split -- we can chalk that up to that great changeup -- with a .519 OPS against lefties and .584 against righties. Against right-handers in hitter's count, Hernandez allowed a .422/.471/.667; not good, but not as bad as Kluber's line against left-handers, and Hernandez had just 52 such plate appearances. Basically, when Kluber falls behind lefties he pays the price, so I would argue that it wasn't all bad Cleveland defense that caused that 37-hit difference.

Indeed, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs addressed this issue:
Thankfully, a month and a half ago, Tony Blengino tackled the assignment. Blengino broke down all the batted balls in incredible detail, using data we don’t have access to, and you should read that if you didn’t, or if you forgot about it. After making all necessary adjustments, Blengino calculated that Felix had a "true" ERA of 2.29, while Kluber had a "true" ERA of 2.45. That works out to a difference of just over four runs ...


Jeff goes into more detail with things like catcher framing -- slight edge to Hernandez there, where Mike Zunino graded out better than Yan Gomes. But how much of catcher framing is created by the pitcher? Maybe Hernandez gets a few calls because he's Hernandez, not because of Zunino. It's complicated.

Anyway, Hernandez made his mark during the season when he set an all-time record with 16 consecutive starts pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer. That's pretty cool; you pitch seven innings and allow two runs and you should win. Overall, Hernandez had 22 such starts (plus two more where he allowed zero runs but didn't pitch seven innings). Kluber had 19 such starts (plus one more where he allowed zero runs in six innings).

How much do you factor in that Kluber had a big September -- when five of his six starts came against the Twins, Astros, Rays and White Sox, five teams out of the race and playing their share of September call-ups. How much do you factor that in arguably the biggest start of Hernandez's career, in the final week in Toronto, he got bombed and gave up eight runs?

So who should have won? I think Mariners and Indians fans have their decisive answers. But the rest of us ... flip a coin.

* * *


As for Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright -- better luck next year, guys. Cueto cemented himself as one of the top starters in the majors; this was his fourth straight year with an ERA under 3.00 and he increased his strikeout rate for the third season in a row.

Cueto had that great run at the start of the season, when he allowed only 10 runs in his first nine starts but won just four of those games. With a little more luck, he could have won 24 or 25 games, and while voters didn't focus on wins like they once did, that many wins may have made for an interesting debate. As it is, Cueto became just the sixth NL pitcher since 1972 to finish with a 2.25 ERA and 240 strikeouts; the previous five won the Cy Young Award.

Wainwright went 20-9 with a career-low 2.38 ERA and posted his fourth season of at least 6.0 WAR. He has finished in the top three in voting for the fourth time but has yet to win. The only other two pitchers who have endured a similar fate are Mariano Rivera and Dan Quisenberry, both of whom had four top-three finishes without winning.

But it was Kershaw's year. Well, at least until October, when it became Madison Bumgarner's year.video

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