SweetSpot: Houston Astros

There were 15 games played Wednesday. One-third of those games featured a shutout. Teams hit a collective .220 and averaged 2.8 runs per game. The Cubs played a doubleheader and didn't score a run, the first time that has happened since 1962 (the Cubs lost 103 games that year). Felix Hernandez allowed one run and didn't win, the 17th time since 2010 he's pitched at least seven innings, allowed one run or fewer and didn't get the W. Cliff Lee allowed one run and fanned 13 and didn't win. The highest-scoring games featured just 10 runs and both went extra innings, and one was decided when a utility infielder had to pitch.

So, yes, just another day of baseball. Quick thoughts ...
  • The Red Sox beat the White Sox 6-4, scoring twice in the 14th inning off infielder Leury Garcia. I'd say the 14th inning is a little early to run out of relievers, especially when your starter goes six innings. The White Sox were nursing a 4-2 lead in the eighth, but manager Robin Ventura burned through four relievers in getting just three outs as Boston scored once in the eighth and once in the ninth. Ventura was trying to match up and brought in lefties Scott Downs and Donnie Veal to face one batter, which led to a thin bullpen in extra innings. Rather than try to get a fourth inning out of Daniel Webb (who had thrown 59 pitches) or use a starter in relief, Ventura used Garcia. The White Sox bullpen has an MLB-worst 6.38 ERA and the bullpen walked 11 batters in this game. It was a concern heading into the season, and Doug Padilla writes that changes could be in order.
  • Julio Teheran continues to impress despite low strikeout totals. He beat Lee 1-0 with a three-hit shutout with just four strikeouts. Teheran threw 23 changeups (22 to left-handers), after having thrown only 15 in his first three starts. It worked as the Phillies went 0-for-6 against it. Teheran has only 13 strikeouts in 28 innings, but has allowed only four extra-base hits and walked six. The impressive thing about Wednesday's effort was going back out there in the ninth with a 1-0 lead. With Craig Kimbrel still day to day with a sore shoulder, Fredi Gonzalez even left Teheran in to face Chase Utley after Jimmy Rollins had singled (and stole second with two outs). Utley grounded a 3-1 sinker to second, Teheran's 115th pitch. Compare that to Lloyd McClendon, who pulled Hernandez in the eighth inning after 96 pitches and saw his bullpen and defense lose it in the ninth.
  • It's only three starts, but Masahiro Tanaka looks like a No. 1 to me. OK, it was the Cubs. And the Cubs can't hit (Michael Pineda & Co. shut them out in the nightcap). Still, that splitter is a wipeout pitch. Maybe hitters will learn to lay off it, but as Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara showed last season, hitters can't lay off it, even when they know it's coming. Tanaka has 28 strikeouts through three starts. Since 1900, only Stephen Strasburg and J.R. Richard had more strikeouts in their first three career starts.
  • Johnny Cueto had a brilliant three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout for the Reds over the Pirates, giving Cincinnati its first series win of 2014. Keep an eye on Pirates left fielder Starling Marte, however. Clint Hurdle didn't start him as he had struck out three times in each of the previous two games and now has 24 in 68 plate appearances (35 percent strikeout rate). He's hitting .250/.338/.383, but all the K's are becoming a concern. The Pirates need him to be more than just a great defensive left fielder; they need him to hit or this offense is really going to struggle to score runs.
  • Jose Fernandez, after getting roughed up and struggling with his command in his last start, was cruising along into the sixth inning against the Nationals with a 3-0 lead, having allowed only one hit with six punchouts. Jose Lobaton led off with a double and then Jarrod Saltalamacchia made a terrible play with pitcher Tanner Roark bunting. The bunt was short and in front of the plate and while Salty had a possible play at third, with a 3-0 lead you just take the out at first. He threw wildly and everyone was safe. After a strikeout and infield pop out, Fernandez should have been out of the inning. Instead, Jayson Werth did this, lining an 0-1 fastball down the middle just over the fence in right-center (the review confirmed it was a home run). Fernandez ended up with 10 K's in seven innings, but the Nationals won it with three in the eighth.
  • Big win for the Angels to avoid a sweep to the A's. A night after tying it in the ninth but losing in extra innings, the Angels again tied it in the bottom of the ninth and this time won in extra innings, on Chris Iannetta's 12th-inning walk-off homer against Drew Pomeranz. Mike Trout, who homered Tuesday to tie it, got the tying rally started with a base hit. Losing leads in the ninth is always wrenching, but especially so against a division rival. The Mariners lost to the Rangers in similar fashion (Jeff Sullivan writes it as only a Mariners fan can: Baseball's back).
  • Buster Olney wrote on George Springer's major league debut for the Astros. Springer went 1-for-5 with a dribbler for a base hit, a walk and two strikeouts in the Astros' 6-4 loss to the Royals in 11 innings. He also got picked off (one of two Astros to get picked off). The Royals won despite making four errors. Some game there. The Astros, by the way, are hitting .189.
  • Injury watch: Cardinals starter Joe Kelly is likely headed to the DL after pulling his hamstring trying to beat out an infield hit; Hanley Ramirez left the game after getting hit on his hand, but X-rays were negative and he's day-to-day; Kole Calhoun is out 4-6 weeks for the Angels after spraining a ligament in his ankle (J.B. Shuck hit leadoff in his place last night).
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Needless to say, there are some kinks to be worked out in the replay system and the new rule about home plate collisions.

A complicated issue arose in Tuesday night's Astros-Blue Jays game. Here's the play in question: Eighth inning, L.J. Hoes on third, Dexter Fowler hits a trickler back to the pitcher, play at home plate.

OK, it's a bang-bang play and Hoes is called out. But did Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro block the plate before he had the ball? Rule 7.13 states "The catcher may not block the path of the runner attempting to score unless he has possession of the ball." The overhead camera angle clearly shows Navarro standing in front of the plate before he receives the throw from pitcher Brett Cecil. On the other hand, once Navarro did catch the ball, he does sort of sidestep out of the way and appears to give Hoes just enough of a lane to slide to a corner of the plate. But I can see this either way, since Hoes certainly didn't have a path to the entire width of the plate. Rule 7.13 also states that "all calls are based on the umpire's judgment."

Anyway, Astros manager Bo Porter came out to discuss the call, and this is where things apparently got even more confusing. According to Evan Drellich's blog at the Houston Chronicle, Porter asked that both the tag itself and Navarro blocking the plate be reviewed. But Porter said he didn't challenge the play:
"That wasn’t a challenge. It was after the sixth inning, so it was more to the umpires' discretion. One, I felt like [Navarro] blocked the plate before he had the ball. And two, I thought Hoes cut underneath the tag. I felt like he tagged him a little high. I thought his foot may have gotten in there.

"After the sixth inning, you know, it's to the umpires' discretion. They can decide to go look at it. Now, I asked them to go look at it, and because it's the seventh to the ninth inning, they decided that it's a close enough play that they should go look at it."


Except the umpires viewed it as Porter issuing a challenge, since he hadn't used his earlier in the game. And they reviewed only whether Hoes had scored before Navarro applied the tag -- not whether Navarro had blocked the plate.

Did the umpires make the correct call? Navarro did tag Hoes in time, which the replay confirmed. According to the rules, blocking the plate -- since it's a judgment call -- cannot be challenged by the manager. The umpires can check the replay on blocking the plate at their discretion but did not do so in this case. It appears they got the technical aspect of reviewing the play correct; it had to be considered an official challenge by Porter, and they didn't have to review the block since it was a judgment call.

In the end, this type of play at home plate remains a good old-fashioned judgment call by the umpires. There's a gray area that I think is ultimately unavoidable. There are going to be obvious cases of the catcher blocking the plate illegally at some point, but I don't think this was one, so I reluctantly say the umps got it right.
Houston Astros manager Bo Porter hit Jose Altuve cleanup the past two games, which certainly makes him one of the more unique cleanup hitters in history. Altuve is listed at 5-foot-6, which may be generous an inch or two, and has just 14 career home runs in over 1,500 plate appearances.

Porter explained his thinking to MLB.com reporter Brian McTaggart on Wednesday: "Obviously, Altuve and [Jason] Castro are arguably our two best hitters, and having (Dexter) Fowler and (Robbie) Grossman at the top, those two guys are switch-hitters who can get on base. When you hit Castro third and a right-hander is pitching, you're basically making sure the left-hander gets the extra at-bat given the matchup scenario."

I like that Porter at least had a sound reason for his thinking, unlike the explanation Nationals manager Matt Williams gave for hitting Bryce Harper sixth the other day: Williams said he wanted to take some pressure off the 21-year-old left fielder. Castro is a better hitter than Altuve, so Porter wanted to give him an extra at-bat, if it came to that. Reasonable enough. Most managers would then hit Chris Carter in the cleanup spot, and while Carter did hit 29 home runs last year, it also came at the expense of a .223 average and 212 strikeouts, hardly what you'd prefer from a cleanup hitter.

Anyway, I asked on Twitter if Altuve was the shortest cleanup hitter ever. Several readers immediately responded with Hack Wilson, who hit 56 home runs and drove in a record 191 runs for the Cubs in 1930. Wilson was also listed at 5-foot-6, a short but obviously immensely powerful man. Here's a photo of him when he played for Brooklyn and here's one with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Another reader pointed out Rabbit Maranville, like Wilson a Hall of Famer. But Maranville got there because of his glove at shortstop, not his bat. Listed at 5-foot-5, Maranville played in the majors from 1912 to 1935 and hit .258 with 28 career home runs. His OPS+ was above the league average in just two full seasons, in 1917 and 1919.

Yet he regularly hit cleanup for one of the more famous teams of the first half of the 20th century, the 1914 Boston Braves.

A little history: In the 1890s, the Boston franchise in the National League -- then called the Beaneaters -- was a powerhouse, winning five pennants between 1891 and 1898. But from 1903 through 1913 the team finished under .500 every season, usually in last place, and had four straight seasons of 100-plus losses from 1909 to 1912. Under new manager George Stallings, they were a little better in 1913, going 69-82, but there certainly weren't high expectations for 1914.

The Braves had made one big offseason acquisition, acquiring second baseman Johnny Evers from the Cubs. Maranville was entering his second full season, as were pitchers Bill James and Dick Rudolph, so there was some youth to build upon.

Maranville started the season hitting first with Evers second, but Stallings soon reversed them in the order and they hit 1-2 through May and into June. On June 9, however, Stallings put Evers back in the second spot, moved cleanup hitter Larry Gilbert to leadoff and Maranville to the cleanup spot. The Braves were 13-28, in last place and already 12.5 games out of first place. The Braves were still in last place on July 18, still 11 games out with a 35-43 record.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came one of the great stretch drives in major league history. The Braves went 59-16 the rest of the way. From July 7, on, James went 15-1 and Rudolph 13-1. Lefty Tyler threw five shutouts. The team also acquired three outfielders, Possum Whitted (yes, the Braves had a Rabbit and a Possum), Josh Devore and, in late August, Herbie Moran from the Reds. Stallings began platooning at all three outfield spots. While a little platooning had been done before this, it had never been done before on that scale. It worked; the Braves averaged 3.8 runs per game in the first half and 4.8 in the second. They won the pennant by 10.5 games, finished second in the league in runs scored and became known as the Miracle Braves.

Maranville would remain the team's cleanup hitter through late August. When Moran came over, he usually hit leadoff, moving Gilbert or Whitted to the cleanup spot. Maranville was moved down to seventh. Still, he would start 73 games in the cleanup spot (he hit there only three other times in his career) and led the team with 78 RBIs, even though he batted just .246. The Braves swept the Philadelphia A's in the World Series, leading to Connie Mack ripping apart his team and sending the A's into a decade of futility. (Some have suggested Mack believed his team had thrown the World Series.)

It was short-lived success for the Braves. The following season, Evers got hurt and James, who had gone 26-7, hurt his shoulder (he was never again effective). They were back under .500 by 1917 -- where they would spend 14 of the next 15 seasons. They wouldn't win another pennant until 1948.
The Houston Astros are kind of like some small band you’ve never heard of that a guy praises while ripping Springsteen. Or some hole-in-the-wall favorite of foodies that serves bacon-wrapped quail and gives you one bite of bacon and two bites of quail for $28.

In the corner of the Internet that I roam around in -- that subset of baseball lovers who also love sabermetrics -- the Astros are widely praised. It doesn't matter that they lost 111 games last year and 107 the year before and 106 the year before that; the Astros are the nerdy-yet-cool kids turning baseball upside down with their revolutionary approach to rebuilding and hiring front office personnel. They tore everything apart and essentially started from scratch. They hired Sig Mejdal -- a guy with two engineering degrees and advanced degrees in operations research and cognitive psychology/human factors -- to the title of director of decision sciences. They hired Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein as director of pro scouting. Mike Fast, who wrote a seminal study on pitch framing for Baseball Prospectus, was hired as an analyst. Even Jeff Luhnow, the Astros' general manager who had been the scouting director for the St. Louis Cardinals, has a unique background, with degrees in economics and engineering from Penn, a guy who spent years in the business world before joining the Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Springer
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioGeorge Springer, one of the Astros' top prospects, will begin this season in the minor leagues.
The fans in the club admiring the band have become the band.

Of course the sabermetrics crowd loves the Astros. Their friends, of sorts, are running the team.

Don't get me wrong. It's terrific that baseball has gone this route, that the entire sport has embraced the sabermetric revolution, more than 30 years after Bill James first started publishing his books. These are smart people working for the Astros, intent on studying the game and its processes for every edge possible, in a sport where even the smallest of advantages can show up in the win column.

But while the Astros are commended, let's ask ourselves this: Are they really all that different from the Miami Marlins? You know, the franchise everyone rips, the team that dumps talent, that tried to win one year and quickly gave up and sold off all of its veterans, with its art-dealer owner who built the funny-looking ballpark.

The Marlins are criticized for essentially not trying to win, for keeping their payrolls at the bottom of the league (except for 2012). Isn't that what the Astros have done the past three years? There's no other way to put it: They tried, on purpose, not to build the best team possible and as a result ended up with the worst string of seasons since the expansion Mets. Astros fans may understand the long-term goals in place, but Astros fans have also quit going to the park as much or watching as often on television.

The plan: Stockpile young, inexpensive talent, especially first-round picks, and especially high first-round picks. In fact, one study suggested the biggest drop-off in talent in MLB draft history has been from the first overall pick to the second overall pick (Ken Griffey Jr. over Mark Merchant, Alex Rodriguez over Darren Dreifort, Stephen Strasburg over Dustin Ackley). The Astros had the past two top picks (Carlos Correa and Mark Appel), will draft first overall again this June and it certainly wouldn't be surprising to see them drafting first overall again in 2015.

If the Astros do eventually turn things around, will it be because of all the smart guys in the front office or because of benefiting from all these lousy teams? It's sort of how the Washington Nationals developed into playoff contenders: They drafted Strasburg and Bryce Harper first overall in 2009 and 2010, on top of getting Ryan Zimmerman fourth overall in 2005 and Anthony Rendon sixth overall in 2011.

But let's compare the Astros to the Nationals. Do they have their Harper? Not yet. Maybe you point to George Springer; but he's three years older than Harper and yet to play in the majors. Will Springer even be as good as Jayson Werth? Werth hit .318/.392/.532 last year. Maybe Correa becomes that franchise cornerstone. But will he be as good as Ian Desmond, a fellow shortstop who hit .286/.333/.480 the past two seasons? Maybe Appel develops into the Astros' Strasburg; OK, but do they have a Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister in the pipeline, as well? Maybe they do, but young pitching is notoriously risky. Would you rather have Zimmerman and Rendon or Matt Dominguez and Jose Altuve?

Maybe the Astros did what they had to do; you can certainly argue that winning 75 games and drafting seventh is a worse place to be than winning 60 games and drafting first. The Astros believe they’re on the right track, even if they’re staring at another 100-loss season. But if the Astros are to turn into a winner, this much is also clear: The smart guys will eventually have to make some good trades, maybe sign some free agents (if any good ones will even be out there) and rely on that old baseball axiom: A little luck.
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

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

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

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

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

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

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

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

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

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

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

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

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

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

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

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

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

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

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

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AL West rotations hurting

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15
6:11
PM ET
PHOENIX -- Colby Lewis last pitched in the majors on July 18, 2012, and his comeback from his rare hip-resurfacing surgery took a turn for the worse in Saturday's pounding against the Athletics.

Making his third spring training start, Lewis didn't fool anyone. Staked to a 2-0 lead, Coco Crisp lined a hard single to center, and John Jaso walked. After a fly out, Josh Donaldson lined out 400 feet to deep center to score a run. Brandon Moss then killed a 2-0 pitch to right-center field, a screaming liner that seemed to be still rising as it smashed off the advertising signs above the fence. On the next pitch, Josh Reddick hit one onto the practice diamond beyond the right-field fence. Lewis didn't even look.

The second inning wasn't much better. A single, walk, hard double down the right-field line and an intentional walk plated another run and loaded the bases. Lewis then hit Donaldson, drawing a bit of a stare from the A's third baseman, ending Lewis' day.

It's just one start in the thin air of Arizona, but it was about as bad as a pitcher could look and probably means Lewis will eventually be ticketed for time in the minors before getting another shot with the Rangers. It also means the Rangers' season-opening rotation could now include Joe Saunders, who had a 5.26 ERA with the Mariners last season (imagine how that will translate to Texas), and Tommy Hanson, coming off a bad, injury-plagued season with the Angels. The Rangers are hoping Matt Harrison will be ready a few weeks into the season, but for now, the Rangers are scrambling to fill slots behind Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando.

As a reader named Jon Dogma tweeted to me, "I wonder if Derek Holland's dog knows the damage he's done."

Holland, if you remember, tripped over his dog Wrigley in the offseason, requiring knee surgery that will likely keep him out until at least the All-Star break. He said it could have been worse: "He was running up the stairs and clipped me. I hit my knee on the step, and if it wasn't for me grabbing the rail, I might have fallen all the way down the stairs and cracked my head open."

The Rangers aren't the only AL West team with issues in its rotation, however. The A's announced Friday that starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin will start the season on the disabled list, Parker with forearm tightness and soreness, Griffin with a muscle strain that will require rest for now, but not surgery.

The A's have Tommy Milone, who won 25 games the past two seasons while in the rotation, and Jesse Chavez, who had a 3.92 ERA in 35 appearances in relief last year but has pitched well while starting this spring, as the likely replacements.

Donaldson said Saturday he hadn't heard the news when he left the ballpark Friday, but preferred to take an optimistic view for now. "It’s one of those things that could end up being a blessing in disguise. Give them a little bit of rest and they’ll be ready when we need them the most at the end of the season," he said.

The A's are already minus Bartolo Colon, their top winner from 2013, who signed with the Mets as a free agent. Sonny Gray, with just 10 career regular-season starts, became the de facto No. 1, followed by Scott Kazmir and Dan Straily.

The Mariners, meanwhile, have seen Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker go down with a finger injury and shoulder tightness, respectively. Neither has pitched this spring, leaving guys such as Scott Baker, Randy Wolf (who has allowed four home runs in nine innings) and Blake Beavan in the rotation mix behind Felix Hernandez, Erasmo Ramirez and rookie James Paxton.

Then there are the Angels and Astros, who ranked 23rd and 25th, respectively, in starting pitcher WAR last season, per FanGraphs. The Angels' rotation projects as Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards and offseason acquisitions Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, with veteran Joe Blanton (2-14, 6.04 ERA) the No. 6 starter Angels fans would rather not see. The Astros' projected rotation includes free agent Scott Feldman alongside some combo of Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Brad Peacock, Lucas Harrell, Dallas Keuchel and Jerome Williams, which could be mildly interesting if the young guys develop -- although hardly reminiscent of Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan and Bob Knepper.

None of the guys injured in spring may miss a lot of time, but they are going to miss some time. Rotation depth already looks as though it's going to play a key factor in the AL West race, so pay attention to how those Nos. 6, 7 and 8 starters are performing these final two-plus weeks of spring training.


Which franchise will be the one to beat in five years? We published our Future Power Rankings today, and while Eric Karabell weren't on the committee for those rankings, we do have something to say about them, including which team should be No. 1, wondering if the Cubs should have been ranked higher than the Red Sox and whether our beloved Phillies and Mariners are properly ranked.

Team over/unders: Best bets

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

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

SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 15,858)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 13,837)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 15,014)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 15,370)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 16,627)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 16,376)

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

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

Happy Birthday, Monte Irvin

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

Monte Irvin: Born 1919

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

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

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

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

Andy Pafko: Born 1921

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

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

Ron Santo: Born 1940

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

Cesar Cedeno: Born 1951

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

Paul O'Neill: Born 1956

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

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





Lineup discussion: AL West

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
6:00
PM ET
Here is our final division as we examine the lineups of each team. Or potential lineups. We talk a lot about lineups even though they change on almost a daily basis.

The Rangers made the flashy offseason additions, but do they have the best lineup in the West? Read and vote!

AthleticsOakland Athletics

Key question: Will Billy Beane's stuff work in the playoffs?
The A's scored the third-most runs in the American League in 2013, scoring 54 more than they did in 2012 even though Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick both declined significantly.

Projected lineup
Coco Crisp, CF
Josh Donaldson, 3B
Jed Lowrie, SS
Brandon Moss, 1B
Yoenis Cespedes, LF
John Jaso, DH
Josh Reddick, RF
Derek Norris, C
Eric Sogard, 2B

The A's ranked third in the AL in home runs and third in walks -- hey, kind of an old-school Billy Beane offense. Donaldson had an MVP-caliber season while Moss pounded 30 home runs in just 505 plate appearances. Bob Melvin liked to flip Donaldson and Lowrie between the 2 and 3 spots depending on the pitcher. There are depth/platoon opportunities with Craig Gentry in the outfield, Nate Freiman at first base and Nick Punto and Alberto Callaspo in the infield. Melvin used 133 lineups, and the only player to start at least half the games in one spot was Crisp, who had 127 starts in the leadoff position. Expect more of the same.

Suggestion: If the A's carry 12 pitchers, that means four bench guys. I just listed four, but that doesn't include a backup catcher. If Jaso ends up being the DH a lot -- and with a .391 OBP over the past two seasons, he's a valuable bat -- the A's may want to consider carrying Stephen Vogt as a third catcher. That likely means sending Freiman down and giving Moss a chance to play against left-handers or cutting one of the infielders. Of course, these things have a way of working themselves out with injuries. Or the A's could carry 11 pitchers (yeah, right).

RangersTexas Rangers

Key question: Who should hit second?
Shin-Soo Choo replaces Ian Kinsler in the leadoff spot, but indications are that Ron Washington will stick with Elvis Andrus as the No. 2 hitter, Andrus' primary position in the lineup the past three seasons. He is coming off a career-low .328 OBP and had just 25 extra-base hits. He did have his best year on the bases, swiping 42 of 50. Washington likes him there because he's a good bunter; Andrus has led the AL three times in the past four years in sacrifice bunts.

Projected lineup
Shin-Soo Choo, LF
Elvis Andrus, SS
Prince Fielder, 1B/DH
Adrian Beltre, 3B
Alex Rios, RF
Mitch Moreland, DH/1B
Jurickson Profar, 2B
Geovany Soto, C
Leonys Martin, CF

Washington has said he intends to bat Fielder third and Beltre cleanup. It probably makes a little more sense to go the other way, especially if Fielder rebounds to his usual .400-plus OBP. You're better off having the higher OBP guy hitting fourth, but it's not a big deal. Rios is the logical No. 5 hitter, so Washington will have the luxury of penciling in the same five on a regular basis.

Suggestion: ZiPS sees Profar hitting .261/.330/.406, but many think he's capable of doing better than that. If so, he would be an improvement on Andrus in the No. 2 spot and give Washington more reason to play for a big inning rather than giving outs away.

AngelsLos Angeles Angels

Key question: Where will Mike Trout hit?
Mike Scioscia has indicated he wants Trout hitting in front of Albert Pujols, meaning a 2-3-4 combo of Trout, Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Kudos to Scioscia for not simply hitting Trout third because that's where you're supposed to bat your best hitter.

SportsNation

Which team has the best lineup in the AL West?

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Discuss (Total votes: 3,548)

Projected lineup
Kole Calhoun, RF
Mike Trout, CF
Albert Pujols, 1B
Josh Hamilton, LF
David Freese, 3B
Howie Kendrick, 2B
Raul Ibanez, DH
Chris Iannetta, C
Erick Aybar, SS

Remember when the Angels were known for their baserunning? Trout stole 33 bases last year, but Aybar was second with only 12. That's why Calhoun may hit leadoff even though he's not a big speed threat. With a .301 OBP, Aybar is no longer worthy of hitting first or second like he did much of last season. Freese probably gets first shot at the fifth spot, although he hit just .262 with nine home runs in 138 games with St. Louis.

Suggestion: I like the idea of hitting Calhoun leadoff and Trout second. By hitting Trout second, he's in a position that's both a run-scoring slot and, particularly in the AL, an RBI slot. Now if Pujols can stay healthy and Hamilton rebounds ...

MarinersSeattle Mariners

Key question: Who will protect Robinson Cano?
Nelson Cruz, come on down!

Projected lineup
Brad Miller, SS
Kyle Seager, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Corey Hart, DH
Logan Morrison, "RF"
Justin Smoak, 1B
Michael Saunders, CF
Mike Zunino, C
Dustin Ackley, LF

I have no idea how this will work out other than that Cano will hit third. Miller showed some potential leadoff skills last season, so he probably gets first shot there over Ackley, while Seager moves up from third to second. Did you know the Mariners hit the second-most home runs in the majors last year? They also ranked seventh in the AL in walks. What they didn't do was hit doubles (13th in the AL) or hit for average (.237, last in the AL) and thus ranked 12th in the AL in runs.

Suggestion: The lineup is very lefty-heavy with Miller, Seager, Cano, Morrison, Saunders and Ackley. Cruz isn't a great player, but he would be a better fit in right than Morrison, whose natural position is DH. (Note the quote marks around his spot in the projected lineup.) Just don't overpay or give Cruz more than two years.

AstrosHouston Astros

Key question: Will George Springer start on Opening Day?
Here's a quote from GM Jeff Luhnow in late January: "I think George Springer will be a starting outfielder in Houston this year. Whether it happens Opening Day or sometime during the season, he's a special talent." That sounds like a guy headed back to Triple-A in April. For one thing, it saves on his service time. Also, if Dexter Fowler is the center fielder, Springer will get some game action in right before heading to the majors.

Projected lineup
Dexter Fowler, CF
Jose Altuve, 2B
Jason Castro, C
Chris Carter, DH
George Springer, RF
Jesus Guzman, 1B
L.J. Hoes, LF
Matt Dominguez, 3B
Jonathan Villar, SS

The rebuilding continues. Along with Springer, expect to see first baseman Jonathan Singleton and outfielder Domingo Santana at some point. The Astros were 14th in the AL in runs scored and haven't ranked higher than 11th in their league since 2004. Astros fans have forgotten what a good offense looks like.

Suggestion: Um, don't lose 111 games again?

Happy Birthday, Ruben Amaro Jr.

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12
9:52
AM ET
A fun day for birthdays. A quick rundown of some of the interesting names ...

Chick Hafey: Born 1903

Hafey was a big league regular for only six seasons -- in spite of which the Veterans Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame in a weak moment in 1971. Hafey wore big, thick glasses and probably played most of his career with something less than 20-20 vision. His SABR bio reports that he had sinus surgery after the 1926 season and his eyesight may have been affected as a result of that. Others have suggested an infected tooth caused his vision problems. Hafey himself said, "Sinus surgery helped, and so did glasses, but often I’d have double vision. Bright days bothered me. The cold climate, after coming up from Florida every spring, made the first month particularly tough and painful." He still hit .318 in his career (which isn't as impressive as it sounds for the era he played in) and won the batting title with the Cardinals in 1931. Here's a factoid that will win you a bar bet: Who hit cleanup for the National League in the first All-Star Game? Chick Hafey.

Dom DiMaggio: Born 1917
About two years younger than his Hall of Fame brother, Dom was a heck of a ballplayer as well even though he looked more like your high school math teacher than a Red Sox center fielder (his nickname was "The Little Professor"). He was a seven-time All-Star, a plus defender in center (many regarded him a better center fielder than Joe), hit .298 in his career and drew as many as 101 walks in a season, pushing his career on-base percentage to .383.

Pat Dobson: Born 1942
One of four members of the 1971 Orioles to win 20 games, along with Dave McNally, Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar. The next year, Dobson lowered his ERA by 0.25 and led the league in losses. After winning 122 games in the majors, Dobson served as the pitching coach for the Brewers, Padres, Royals and Orioles and scouted for other teams. He passed away from leukemia in 2006.

Don Wilson: Born 1945
A hard-throwing right-hander for the Astros from 1966 to 1974, Wilson pitched two no-hitters and went 104-92 in his career, which came to a tragic end in January 1975 when he was found dead in his car with the engine running in the garage. His 5-year-old son also died. (You often hear Wilson's death reported as a suicide, but the official cause of death was ruled accidental.) Here's the obit of Wilson's death. The article points out that Wilson was born in Monroe, La., on the same as day as basketball great Bill Russell (although both graduated from high school in California, Wilson in Los Angeles, Russell in Oakland).

Enzo Hernandez: Born 1949
Part of the trade that brought Dobson to the Orioles from the Padres, Hernandez is famous for one of the most futile seasons at the plate in major league history: In 1971, he batted 618 times for the Padres and drove in 12 runs.

Lenny Randle: Born 1949
One of the great moments in Mariners history.

Don Stanhouse: Born 1951
Stanhouse hung around the big leagues for 10 seasons, gaining his most fame as the closer for the Orioles in 1978 and 1979. He was a fastball/slider guy, known for being maybe the slowest-working pitcher of his era, and also known for his two nicknames: "Stan the Man Unusual" and "Full Pack," a name given to him by Earl Weaver as Weaver joked he nervously smoked a complete pack of cigarettes when Stanhouse would close out a game. In looking at his statistics, you can see why Weaver was never exactly comfortable handing the ball to Stanhouse: Over those two seasons, he saved 45 games with a 2.87 ERA but walked 103 batters in 147.1 innings while striking out just 76. He made the All-Star team in '79 even though he had 34 walks and 20 strikeouts at the break. Yes, times have changed. Stanhouse signed a big five-year, $2.1 million contract (no sabermetric analysis back then!) as a free agent with the Dodgers, but hurt his shoulder. Here's a good bio of Stanhouse.

Chet Lemon: Born 1955
The center fielder on the 1984 World Series champion Tigers, Lemon was a very underrated player, a guy who hit as high as .318, hit as many as 24 home runs, drew as many as 71 walks and played a good center field. He never did all those in the same season; otherwise, he'd be in the Hall of Fame. But he was a valuable player for a lot of years. He recorded 509 putouts in center field in 1977 with the White Sox, a total Baseball-Reference lists as the third highest for a center fielder.

Ruben Amaro Jr.: Born 1965
Still the general manager of the Phillies.
I want to say that Roy Oswalt always seemed underrated but I'm not sure that's exactly true. He finished in the top five of the Cy Young race five times, so it's hard to argue he was completely ignored. He was certainly respected and admired within the game, in which he was known as a fierce competitor and a guy you wanted to have the ball in a big game. On the other hand, he made just three All-Star teams and always seemed overshadowed in Houston by Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio or even Roger Clemens during his Texas sojourn.

So maybe he was underrated or at least not fully appreciated. Or maybe he was appreciated, certainly by Houston Astros fans. Either way, he was one of the best pitchers of his generation. Oswalt retired on Tuesday, no surprise considering his struggles with the Texas Rangers in 2012 and the Colorado Rockies in 2013. He finishes with a 163-102 career record, 3.36 ERA and 49.9 career WAR that leaves him in the Hall-of-the-Very-Good discussion.

Oswalt was always one of my favorite pitchers to watch. In this era of hulking 6-foot-5 starters, Oswalt was listed at 6-foot-even, small for a starting pitcher. But his fastball was certainly fast enough and he sliced up opponents with a four-pitch arsenal. More than anything, he always believed in his stuff and ability. "If Babe Ruth were resurrected and in the batter's box, Roy Oswalt would believe he could get him out," his catcher with the Astros, Brad Ausmus, once said.

Bill James recently came up with a formula to rank the best "big game" pitchers since 1952. His No. 1 guy? Oswalt, ranked just ahead of Bob Gibson. Oswalt was 5-2 with a 3.73 ERA in the postseason (his one World Series start with the Astros in 2005 was less successful as he allowed five runs in six innings). James' study looked at regular-season results, factoring in things such as the time of season, the standings and the opponent. James wrote:
Gibson’s won-lost record in regular-season Big Games was 36-14; Oswalt's is 37-9. Gibson's teams were 40-17; Oswalt's were 46-12. Think about it: 46-12 in Big Games. Gibson's ERA was 2.26; Oswalt's was 2.63. When you adjust for context, I suspect that Oswalt wins that one. Oswalt pitched 80 fewer innings than Gibson, but struck out almost as many batters (341 to 352) and walked half as many (73 to 144).

In certain ways, we are not as good at making myths now as we were a generation ago. The Wild Card system DOES create more Big Games, I believe, but sometimes it creates Big Games for second-place and third-place teams. The story lacks the clarity and symmetry of a pennant race; it is a harder story to tell.

Roy Oswalt won a tremendous number of Big Games for the Astros in the mid-2000s, but when there are six pennant races to follow and two Wild Cards, things get lost in the shuffle. Oswalt's constant drumbeat of Big Wins late in the season didn't have the impact of Bob Gibson winning 7 games in September of '64. But ... just the facts. Oswalt has won 80% of his Big Games. Wow.


No wonder Bagwell once said of him, "I would never compare him to Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling, but when he's starting, we feel like we've got the win."

Through his peak years of 2001 to 2011, only Roy Halladay -- briefly his teammate with the Phillies -- earned more WAR. It's a reminder of how quickly even the best can fade away. The 2011 Phillies won 102 games and with Halladay and Oswalt in the rotation allowed the fewest runs of any team since 1989. Less than three years later, the Roys have both headed off into the sunset. For Oswalt, I'm sure that means he'll spend a lot of time riding his bulldozer back home in Mississippi.

Random thoughts for Monday

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
6:37
PM ET
As the headline says, random thoughts for Monday ...
  • If you read the blog last week you saw my preseason rankings of all 30 teams. The team I admit that I'm most likely to miss on is the Giants, whom I ranked 20th. If they get positive production from the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, a big bounce back is certainly possible. Anyway, Connor Grossman of West Coast Bias responds to my Giants prediction.
  • Which team is most likely to go from under .500 to the playoffs, as the Indians and Pirates did last year? I'd mention the Giants and Blue Jays although neither would be considered a huge surprise if that happened. The Angels also finished under .500. If we're talking about a surprise team, I'd throw out the Padres (kind of like the A's, they're hoping 25-man depth will override their lack of star power). The Mariners have boom or bust potential depending on the growth of their young players.
  • Playoff team most likely to sink? I'd say the Pirates, who failed to add offense to a lineup that needed it, lost A.J. Burnett from the rotation and had a remarkable year from the bullpen.
  • The shortstop battle in Arizona between Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings will be intriguing. I'm probably in the minority in liking Gregorius better, as he has a chance to be a plus defender and showed more with that bat than expected as a rookie. Owings hit .330 at Triple-A Reno and while he did cut way down on his strikeouts from 2012, I'm skeptical of any numbers put up in Reno (or Las Vegas or any of the other high-altitude PCL cities). He doesn't walk much, so he needs to hit for a high average. ZiPS projects Owings at 2.2 WAR, Gregorius at 2.0, so it could be a case of best spring wins even if that's a lousy way to decide a job situation.
  • The Rangers have agreed to a minor league deal with Tommy Hanson pending a physical. It's a low-risk move for the Rangers but Hanson's fastball velocity has dropped from averaging 92.6 mph in 2010 to 89.6 with the Angels in 2013, with resulting decreases in effectiveness in recent seasons. Even if his shoulder is sound it's probably a long shot that he'll be able to contribute much.
  • Good piece on George Springer from Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs. Springer, of course, went 30-30 (37 home runs and 45 steals to be exact) in the minors but also went 30-30-150, as in strikeouts. ZiPS is positive on Springer, projecting him to 3.3 WAR with Mike Cameron as his No. 1 comp. Even if Springer does turn into Cameron as a power-speed-strikeouts-defense combo, there may be some growing pains along the way.
  • Some Q&A about the Nationals from our Nationals Baseball blog, including thoughts on new manager Matt Williams. The interesting thing about new managers is that everyone will focus on the strategy, but for the most part everyone manages the in-game stuff pretty much the same way these days, give or take a few bunts or what you do with the No. 2 hitter. It's not like Williams is going let Stephen Strasburg throw 130 pitches a game. The important stuff is more likely to be the stuff we don't see or can't evaluate with numbers. Williams also inherits a pretty set roster, with the only major issue being when to work Nate McLouth into the lineup.
  • A look at Orioles prospects from Camden Depot. Dylan Bundy, we haven't forgotten about you.
  • Daniel Poarch looks at the projections for the Red Sox offensive core of hitters. The most interesting guy here is Daniel Nava, quietly a huge part of Boston's division title last year as he hit .303/.385/.445.
  • It's About the Money asks if we should be tempering expectations for Masahiro Tanaka. We probably should but it's a lot more fun if we don't.
  • Bill Baer on why the Phillies should platoon Ryan Howard. Good idea, of course, but I don't see Ryne Sandberg doing it.
  • Nelson Cruz to the Mariners rumors are still hot. Let's wait and see the terms of such a deal before us Mariners fans get upset thinking of Mike Morse Part II, Revenge of the Slow-Moving Outfielder Whose Power Won't Play Well at Safeco Field.
  • Nick Nelson asks if the Twins moved too aggressively in signing Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. It's possible, considering Hughes was signed for three years and $24 million while the comparable -- if not better -- Paul Maholm just signed for $1.5 million with the Dodgers.
  • Two pieces from the great Tim Keown worth checking out: What's next for Yasiel Puig? That, of course, may be the most interesting question of the 2014 season. And how come baseball teams don't train the brain more?



The Super Bowl is behind us (best Super Bowl ever!) so it's time to officially start thinking of spring training. In fact, the Diamondbacks and Dodgers will report at the end of this week to get an early jump since they have to make the trip to Australia to begin the season on March 22. I'm going to do quick capsule summaries of all 30 teams, a look at how I view each team heading into spring training. I'll rank them from worst to best, six teams a day through Friday.

For each team, I include how much they need to improve in terms of scoring runs and preventing runs to get to 90 wins, using the Pythagorean theory of winning percentage. The numbers I present are just one way to get there, of course, since it's a sliding scale. Ninety wins doesn't guarantee a playoff spot -- the Rangers and Rays tied for the second wild card in the AL with 91 wins last year and the Rays won 90 in 2012 and missed the playoffs -- but it'll put you in the race.

Houston Astros
30. Houston Astros

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 130 more runs, allow 193 fewer. The Astros have managed to lose 100-plus games three years in a row … and get worse each season. Needless to say, they remain a long way from being competitive.

Big offseason moves: Acquired CF Dexter Fowler from the Rockies for SP Jordan Lyles, signed SP Scott Feldman, RP Jesse Crain, RP Matt Albers, RP Chad Qualls.

Most intriguing player: George Springer. The Astros should finally start seeing the fruits of a farm system Keith Law just rated the best in the majors, starting with Springer, the 11th overall pick in 2011 out of Connecticut who soared up the prospect lists with a monster season in the high minors in which he hit 37 home runs and stole 45 bases. The strikeouts -- 161 in 135 games -- are the big concern, but Springer still hit .303 because he makes such hard contact. He has the range to push Fowler out of center field. He may spend a few weeks in Triple-A to save on his service time, but he’ll be up before long.

Due for a better year: Ummm ... the entire team? The Astros became the first team since the expansion Mets to lose 100 games three seasons in a row. Those Mets actually did it four in a row and five out of six.

Due for a worse year: Jarred Cosart posted a superficially impressive 1.95 ERA in 10 starts even though he walked more batters (35) than he struck out (33). That’s the lowest ERA since World War II for a pitcher who made at least 10 starts and had more walks than strikeouts. The stuff is good with a plus fastball that sits 93 to 96 mph and he generated a high rate of ground balls, which helped limit batters to three home runs in 60 innings. Still, his BABIP ran very low for a ground-ball pitcher (.246), who usually allow more hits than fly ball pitchers. He may be good, but he’s going to have to improve that strikeout-to-walk ratio.

I'm just the messenger: When Jeff Luhnow took over as general manager, the Astros set up a long-term plan that gutted the entire organization and basically started over as an expansion team. It's led to three miserable seasons on the field but has helped the team rebuild its farm system. The Astros will make North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon their third straight No. 1 overall pick this June (assuming Rodon stays healthy) following Carlos Correa and Mark Appel. It wouldn't shock me to see them make it four in a row next June. Here's the issue: Should a team be rewarded for essentially trying not to win at the major league level?

SportsNation

Will the Astros lose 100 games again?

  •  
    65%
  •  
    35%

Discuss (Total votes: 26,644)

The final word: Hey, at least Astros fans can dream of this lineup in a few years:

LF Delino Deshields Jr.
SS Carlos Correa
CF George Springer
1B Jonathan Singleton
RF Domingo Santana
DH Rio Ruiz
C Jason Castro
3B Matt Dominguez
2B Jose Altuve

SP Carlos Rodon
SP Mark Appel
SP Mike Foltynewicz
SP Jarred Cosart
SP Vincent Velazquez
CL Lance McCullers Jr.

Prediction: 61-101

Philadelphia Phillies
29. Philadelphia Phillies

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 75 more runs, allow 142 fewer. The Phillies were awful last year. They bring back the same aging core. Yes, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are a great 1-2 combo. But doesn't that point to how bad this team is? Lee and Hamels were terrific in 2013, and the Phillies still lost 89 games.

Big offseason moves: Signed RF Marlon Byrd, signed Cuban RHP Miguel Gonzalez, re-signed C Carlos Ruiz.

Most intriguing player: Domonic Brown. He finally had his breakout season, hitting .272 with 27 home runs and making the All-Star team. It wasn't a great season, as his defense was below average and he didn't walk a whole lot. At 26, will he improve? He hit 12 home runs in May -- without drawing a single walk. He hit just four home runs in the second half, but also missed time in September with an Achilles' tendon injury. What is he, exactly? We'll find out in 2014.

Due for a better season: Well, that's kind of the problem, isn't it? There isn't an obvious guy you should expect to play better. OK, maybe Ryan Howard plays more than 80 games and hits more than 11 home runs, but even then, how much value does he offer? He hasn't slugged .500 since 2010.

Due for a worse season: Byrd washed out of the majors in 2012, but he hit .291/.336/.511 in 2013 with a career-high 24 home runs last season. But he's 36 and even if the changes he made to his swing helped, he's unlikely to come close to those totals again. Chase Utley is coming off a season in which he had his highest games played, home runs, batting average and slugging percentage since 2009.

SportsNation

How many games will the Phillies win in 2014?

  •  
    5%
  •  
    15%
  •  
    32%
  •  
    34%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 20,584)

I'm just the messenger: With Ruiz, Howard, Byrd, Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies are counting on five regulars in their age-34 seasons or older. Only four teams have had five position players that old bat 400-plus times in a season -- the 1945 White Sox, 1985 Angels and 2002 and 2007 Giants. Hey, it worked for the 2002 Giants, who went to the World Series. But these Phillies don't have Barry Bonds in the middle of the lineup.

The final word: I can see a scenario where the Phillies could win 85-87 games and sneak into the wild-card picture, but a lot has to go right for that to happen. Brown improves, the old guys stay healthy and Howard has a big comeback season, and Gonzalez has a big year as the No. 3 starter. More likely, however, this is an old team that has gone from 102 wins to 81 to 73 to ... well, something lower. The core group of Utley, Rollins and Howard was once a dynamic trio that helped create a glorious era of Phillies baseball. The Phillies doubled down on those guys and bet wrong. This looks like a bad team with two ace pitchers. Don't be surprised if Cliff Lee is in another uniform come Aug. 1.

Prediction: 66-96

Minnesota Twins
28. Minnesota Twins

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 125 more runs, allow 133 fewer. The Twins spent an offseason attempting to upgrade a rotation that had the worst ERA in the majors, but consider that the average AL team scored and allowed 702 runs. The Twins were 88 runs below that on offense and 86 runs above that on defense. In other words, they were equally awful on both sides of the ball.

Big offseason moves: Signed SP Ricky Nolasco, SP Phil Hughes, C Kurt Suzuki, OF Jason Kubel, re-signed SP Mike Pelfrey, traded C-DH Ryan Doumit to the Braves for P Sean Gilmartin.

Most intriguing player: Joe Mauer. The All-Star catcher moves to first base to clear room behind the plate for rookie Josmil Pinto. It's the right move for the Twins. As valuable as Mauer is catching, he's of no value when he's not playing, and he hasn't started in even half the games in any of the past three seasons anyway. As a first baseman, the Twins should be able to keep his bat in the lineup for 150-plus games and put that .400 OBP to more use.

Due for a better year: The Twins signed Hughes to a three-year contract and while the $8 million per season isn't outrageous, it was a bit surprising after Hughes went 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA for the Yankees. The feeling is that getting Hughes out of Yankee Stadium will help a pitcher who has been prone to home runs (24 in 145.2 innings in 2013). Others believe Hughes is destined for the bullpen no matter his home park.

Due for a worse year: Reliever Caleb Thielbar allowed just 24 hits in 49 innings while posting a 1.76 ERA -- part of a good Twins bullpen that ranked fifth in the AL in ERA. With closer Glen Perkins having a dominant season, the Twins were 55-1 when leading after the eighth inning. Thielbar (the first major leaguer from South Dakota since Vean Gregg a hundred years ago) is a lefty without big-time stuff who throws a lot of fastballs up in the strike zone, so you have to wonder about a repeat performance. Perkins should be very good again, but it will difficult for the Twins to match that ninth-inning performance.

I'm just the messenger: How bad was Minnesota's rotation in 2013? It struck out just 477 batters -- even Astros starters fanned 666. But that's nothing new for the Twins. They were last in the AL starters' strikeouts in 2012 and next-to-last in 2011. No wonder they've lost 96, 96 and 99 games the past three seasons. Nolasco and Hughes will at least help a little in that regard as the Twins' front office slowly tries to develop a rotation that includes more than finesse strike-throwers. They're still a ways from developing that kind of group -- most of their top prospects are on the hitting side of the ball -- but at least they've grasped the errors of their ways.

The final word: Everyone knows the Twins are waiting for center fielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano to arrive, two players who could be hitting 3-4 in the Twins' lineup in a couple of years. Sano may arrive midseason and Buxton in September. That doesn't make this season unimportant. The Twins will learn a lot about Hughes and Nolasco and whether they can be rotation anchors in 2015 and beyond. They'll learn more about outfielder Oswaldo Arcia, who showed promise as a rookie, and whether Pinto's glove will catch up to his bat. The future looks good even if 2014 doesn't.

Prediction: 67-95

Chicago Cubs
27. Chicago Cubs

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 101 more runs, allow 67 fewer.

Big offseason moves: Acquired OF Justin Ruggiano from the Marlins for OF Brian Bogusevic. An old-fashioned challenge trade!

Most intriguing player: Starlin Castro. Once deemed one of the game's rising stars (remember that Sports Illustrated cover?), Castro hit just .245/.284/.347 in 2013 and reminded Cubs fans more of Mick Kelleher than of a franchise building block. He may have run into a lot of bad luck -- his line drive rate was consistent with his previous seasons -- and he's still just 24. But with prospect Javier Baez soon to be ready, this looms as an important year for Castro and his future with the Cubs.

Due for a better year: Joining Castro in the bad luck department was first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who posted a low .258 average on balls in play despite a solid 20.6 percent line drive rate. Rizzo still managed 65 extra-base hits even though he hit just .233. Look for a big uptick in his triple-slash numbers.

Due for a worse year: Travis Wood was the big surprise, going 9-12 but with a 3.11 ERA while pitching 200 innings. Wood is pretty unique among major league starters: a smallish lefty without an overpowering fastball who pitches up in the zone. But he mixes his 88-90 mph fastball with a cutter that rides in on right-handed batters, plus a changeup and occasional slider, and rarely, a curveball. He's any extreme fly ball pitcher -- only A.J. Griffin and Max Scherzer allowed a higher percentage of fly balls among starters -- which can lead to (A) a lower BABIP (which Wood had) and home runs (which weren't a problem in 2013 as Wood allowed just 18). I believe Wood is for real -- his cutter helps generate a lot of infield popups, for example -- but odds are a few more balls will leave the ballpark this year and the ERA rises.

I'm just the messenger: The Cubs scored their fewest runs per game since 1981 and finished 14th in the NL in runs scored for the second straight season. In Wrigley Field, that's unacceptable. But this continues a long string of bad Cubs offenses. Since winning 90 games in 1998, the Cubs have ranked higher than seventh in the NL in runs just once -- in 2008, when they ranked first and won 97 games. That's also the only season since 1998 the Cubs have reached 90 wins. Luckily, there appears to be help soon on the way with Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora, the team's past three No. 1 picks, plus outfielder Jorge Soler and second baseman Arismendy Alcantara.

The final word: Like the Astros, the Cubs have benefited in building up their farm system by essentially accepting that losing is OK. The Cubs could improve with a more effective bullpen -- they lost 14 games they led heading into the seventh inning and eight they led heading into the eighth -- but I still see a team with holes in the rotation past Wood, Jeff Samardzija (who could get traded) and the mediocre Edwin Jackson and a lineup counting on big improvements from Castro and Rizzo. But wait 'til next year, Cubs fans ... wait 'til next year.

Prediction: 68-94

Chicago White Sox
26. Chicago White Sox

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 169 more runs, allow 44 fewer. I put more emphasis on scoring runs because the White Sox's pitching wasn't that bad -- they allowed 21 more runs than average, but factoring in U.S. Cellular Field, that's a pretty good performance. They need to find runs and lots of them.

Big offseason moves: Signed Cuban 1B Jose Abreu, acquired CF Adam Eaton and 3B Matt Davidson from the Diamondbacks for SP Hector Santiago and RP Addison Reed (Santiago then went to the Angels), re-signed 1B Paul Konerko, signed RPs Ronald Belisario and Scott Downs.

Most intriguing player: Abreu. He has top-of-the-line power potential, but some question his bat speed and whether he'll be tied up on inside pitches. His defense isn't a plus and we'll see what kind of plate discipline he has. One thing is for sure: I can't wait to see if he's the real deal. The White Sox bet $68 million that he is.

SportsNation

Which team will win more games in 2014?

  •  
    38%
  •  
    62%

Discuss (Total votes: 19,554)

Due for a better year: I love the pickup of Eaton, heralded as a rookie of the year favorite heading into 2013, but he injured his elbow in spring training and played just 66 games, hitting .252. He can produce better than that and he'll be a defensive upgrade over Alejandro De Aza in center field. More importantly, he'll add some speed and athleticism to a lineup that desperately needs it.

Due for a worse year: De Aza hit a career-high 17 home runs, but made an even bigger mark when the game was one the line. In "late and close" situations, he hit six home runs and knocked in 23 runs. Only Chris Davis had more RBIs (33) in late and close.

I'm just the messenger: There are some interesting parts here, starting with ace starter Chris Sale (an underrated star) and the new additions like Abreu, Eaton and right fielder Avisail Garcia, acquired last summer for Jake Peavy. But I still see a lineup with big OBP issues: Alex Rios led the team with a .328 OBP in 2013 and he's now on the Rangers. Bringing back Konerko didn't make a lot of sense, even if it's just to platoon with Adam Dunn at DH. Garcia led the team in OPS+ at 106 and that was in 168 plate appearances. The only others who were even league average were Rios and Dunn. Maybe Abreu is a monster and maybe Eaton gets on base, but the White Sox were last in the AL in walks and until they improve in that category the offense won't score enough runs.

The final word: The White Sox have alternated good years with bad years since winning 99 games (and the World Series) in 2005 and 90 in 2006: 72, 89, 79, 88, 79, 85, 63. It took 99 losses in 2013, but the front office finally realized it's time to turn away from an offense that is expecting Konerko and Dunn to be the leaders. The farm system, for years one of the weakest in the majors, is showing a few signs of life, with Erik Johnson expected to join the rotation. Still, this is a team counting heavily on Abreu to be a big star. I could see a .500 season, but will predict something less.

Prediction: 71-91

Miami Marlins
25. Miami Marlins

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 136 more runs, allow 71 fewer.

Big offseason moves: Signed C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 1B Garrett Jones, IF Rafael Furcal, 3B Casey McGehee.

Most intriguing player: Jose Fernandez. The Marlins surprised everyone by promoting the 20-year-old from Class A to the majors to begin last season, but he proved to be the real deal -- and then some, going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA and finishing third in the NL Cy Young vote while beating out Yasiel Puig for rookie honors. He led the majors in lowest batting average allowed by a starter (.182) and gave up just 29 extra-base hits in 28 starts. Baseball gods, keep this kid healthy.

Due for a better year: Giancarlo Stanton. He's still just 24. He just needs to play 150 games, and he'll hit 45 bombs.

Due for a worse year: Fernandez. It will be hard to match or improve on that ERA. Since 1980, only three starters have had more than one season with an ERA below 2.20: Greg Maddux (four), Pedro Martinez (three) and Roger Clemens (three). Now, Fernandez may end being more valuable simply by increasing his innings from 172.2 to something closer to 200 and keeping that ERA in the mid-2s. And if he improves his command just a bit ... wait, maybe he will be better.

I'm just the messenger: Last year it was Juan Pierre and Placido Polanco; this year it's Furcal and McGehee. I realize you need somebody at all eight positions in the field, but why do the Marlins insist on signing these over-the-hill veterans who haven't been any good in years? The last time McGehee was in the majors in 2012 (he played in Japan last year), he hit .217. The year before that he hit .223. He doesn't have a nickname like Human Vacuum Cleaner to suggest his glove carries his bat.

The final word: The Marlins are my deep sleeper, a team that could win 85 games and maybe sneak into the wild-card picture. Young teams can mature in a hurry and the Marlins have two potential top-10-in-the-game players in Fernandez and Stanton, promising outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna and a young rotation that could take big steps. Winning 80-plus games probably won't happen this season, as I don't see enough offense from the infield, but it wouldn't shock me.

Prediction: 73-89

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