SweetSpot: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Mike Trout hit a two-run game-tying home run in the ninth inning on Tuesday night.

A less dramatic play came in the 11th when Trout reached on an infield single and stole second base -- his first steal of the season. After Albert Pujols was intentionally walked -- yes, the A’s put the winning run on base -- Raul Ibanez and Howie Kendrick grounded out and the A’s won 10-9.

Back in spring training, Trout said he wanted to get back to stealing more bases, after he dropped from 49 in 2012 to 33 in 2013. "I thought my stolen bases were down last year," he said. "I have to take advantage of taking that extra base."

Tuesday’s stolen base was his first attempt of the year. While the lack of stolen bases is certainly frustrating to his fantasy owners, Trout’s baserunning has also been a significant part of his value. Over the past two seasons, Baseball-Reference rates his baserunning -- including stolen bases, caught stealing and advancing on hits or fly balls and so on -- as worth 12.9 runs above the average player. Jacoby Ellsbury, at 10.4, was the only other player above 10 runs.

Another way to examine this is by looking at potential stolen base opportunities. In 2012, he had 246 opportunities when he was on first base or second with the base ahead of him open. He attempted 54 steals (22 percent of the time). In 2013, he had 40 attempts out of 326 opportunities (12 percent). This year, he’s one of out 21.

Is Trout’s speed already declining at age 22? I wouldn’t go that far just yet. In 2012, he did take the extra base (more than one base on a single, more than two on double) 65 percent of the time and that was down to 59 percent in 2013. So far in 2014, that number is at 100 percent.

Trout has hit second and Pujols third in all 14 Angels games and I wonder if Trout has seen the stop sign from Mike Scioscia in order to not force Pujols to take pitches and get down in the count. A similar thing happened last year. Trout spent most of April hitting second in front of Pujols and had just one stolen base through his first 16 games. (A quick Google search didn’t find any revealing quotes from Trout on his lack of steals thus far.)

It could just be that Trout doesn’t like to run as much in April. Of course, when you’re hitting doubles (3), triples (1) and home runs (5) there’s not as much need to steal a bag anyway.

Albert Pujols pounds his 496th home run

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
2:56
AM ET


After pounding his 496th home run, you could feel a little bit of joy for Albert Pujols. Big money or no, the Los Angeles Angels slugger had taken quite a tumble from his days as the game’s best ballplayer. He’s apparently healed up completely from last year’s plantar fasciitis that “resolved” into a partial plantar fascia tear, ending his season two months early and sticking him with the worst numbers of his career: His highest ground-ball rate, his lowest power numbers (both in terms of slugging and Isolated Power). And it’s hard not to envision how a weaker Pujols wasn’t someone who was easier to get to make hit your pitch, contributing to a career-low walk rate and batting average on balls in play.

But that was last year, and his recent run of clouting four home runs in his past six games is a nice reminder of what Pujols can be when he can stand on two feet. And, more importantly, when he can dig in again and really use the lower-body strength that produced one of the best power hitters at any position, let alone first base.

Take a quick look at his heat maps between his injured 2013 and his 2014 season through Monday night’s game, and you’ll see a big difference between the guy who struggled to deliver last season and the guy whose ability to consistently mash stuff inside the zone will put him in Cooperstown, a skill that looks like it’s back in the early going:

Albert PujolsESPN Stats and Information


That’s great to see, because if you look at what Albert Pujols was, you’re seeing the guy the Angels thought they’d signed when they gave him $240 million. Pujols resembled that player in his first season with the Angels, ripping 80 extra base hits. But perhaps the real key to his dominance was Pujols’ complete dominance of pitches inside the strike zone. As Brooks Baseball’s data over at Baseball Prospectus reflects, from 2007-2012, pitchers might have tried to stay low and outside, but he consistently wouldn’t go fishing, offering on just 184 of 1,422 pitches (overwhelmingly the most pitches thrown to any zone against him). More often, that forced pitchers to come into the zone against him, where he’d just as reliably pound them. That 2013/2014 heat map contrast is a nice reminder of the Pujols of old.

That wasn’t the only bit of Phat Albert popping out of the wayback machine lately: He turned a 3-6-3 double play against the A’s on Monday, and whether you grew up thinking a young Eddie Murray or a clean Keith Hernandez was the acme of first-base play, you couldn’t help but love seeing that kind of footwork and anticipation around the bag from the former Gold Glover.

It might be too easy to say last year’s plantar fasciitis belongs to last year, but if Pujols has fended off for a few more years the move to DH that's expected to come at some point during his time as an Angels, so much the better. More importantly, when the Angels gave Pujols his 10-year deal, this is what they expected. Not forever, and not in the field, but they signed Pujols to be the kind of franchise-level bat who can carry them.

Remember, when the Angels signed him, how big Mike Trout was going to be was still a matter of speculation. If Pujols is not just some old indulgence Arte Moreno doesn’t have to apologize to his accountant for, but cranks out several seasons more like his American League initiation in 2012, that’s part of a lineup you can win with. With tough series against the A’s, Tigers, Nationals and Yankees to look forward to, the Halos can’t count on Trout being hot the entire time, lest they dig an early hole that endangers their relevance for months to come.

Most of all, the Angels need Pujols to age gracefully, to put Father Time on hold for another year, maybe four. They need his second act as an Angel of Anaheim to add luster to his Hall of Fame career, not tarnish it. In short, they need Albert Pujols. All it took was a hot streak like this to remind folks that they still have him.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
You may have seen that Major League Baseball will now be giving out annual Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year and Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year awards. Jim Caple poked a little fun at this, wondering what's next, "The Nick Punto Oscar for Best Supporting Player in a Utility Role"?

That got me to thinking: Who is the best utility infielder of all time? Should the award actually be named after Punto, or is there a more deserving player? How to even go about searching for an answer? Will I actually spend time doing this?

Of course I will! I am here to serve you, and this was a question that demanded an answer.

I reached out to Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information for help. I asked for the following parameters: most career plate appearances since 1900 while never batting 500 times in a season. I figured this would give us a starting point. Unfortunately, this eliminated Punto from consideration, since he twice batted more than 500 times, in 2006 and 2007 with the Twins. True, he played all over the place, but if you bat 500 times, you're more or less a regular. I want a guy who never moved past a backup role, even for a season.

That initial list mostly turned up catchers, which I should have realized would happen; the top seven guys were Rick Dempsey, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jerry Grote, Alan Ashby, Cliff Johnson, Andy Seminick and Don Slaught. The first non-catcher was Tom Paciorek, who played 18 seasons in the majors and never batted 500 times. The one season he was a regular (and made the All-Star team) was 1981, the strike season, so he didn't bat 500 times. Anyway, Paciorek was an outfielder/first baseman/DH, not what we're looking for.

So we did a second search that added 200 career games at shortstop as a qualifier. This gave us a better list:

Rance Mulliniks (4,089 plate appearances)
Bill Spiers (3,845)
Maicer Izturis (3,332)
Tom Foley (2,988)
Manny Lee (2,960)
Willie Bloomquist (2,929)
Juan Castro (2,849)
Abraham Nunez (2,804)
Larry Milbourne (2,671)
Brendan Ryan (2,645)
Denny Hocking (2,632)
Jeff Reboulet (2,607)
John McDonald (2,565)
Rocky Bridges (2,537)
Rafael Belliard (2,524)
Bob Lillis (2,492)

We can eliminate some of these guys. Mulliniks did come up as a shortstop but spent most of his career platooning at third base for the Blue Jays in the '80s. From 1983 to 1988 he hit .293/.374/.458 with a 124 OPS+. A good player, but not what we're after. Lee, Ryan, Belliard and Lillis also spent seasons as the primary starting shortstops for their teams, although they never batted 500 times. Spiers had some seasons as the Brewers' starting shortstop but couldn't stay healthy.

Here's the rest of the list again with each player's career WAR:

Maicer Izturis (11.0)
Tom Foley (5.8)
Willie Bloomquist (2.3)
Juan Castro (-5.2)
Abraham Nunez (0.9)
Larry Milbourne (-0.3)
Denny Hocking (-0.5)
Jeff Reboulet (10.2)
John McDonald (6.9)
Rocky Bridges (3.0)

It's possible there is somebody out there who had a shorter career and was a better player than these guys, but I don't think so. I did a quick scroll of all players who played at least 200 games at shortstop with between 10 and 25 career WAR and it gave us Mike Gallego and Jamey Carroll, but they both had seasons of 500 plate appearances (Carroll had three).

So it looks like it's a two-man debate for best utility guy ever: Maicer Izturis, now with the Blue Jays, versus former Twins/Orioles legend Jeff Reboulet.

Izturis is a classic tweener. He doesn't have the range to play shortstop on an every-day basis but doesn't have the power you want from a third baseman. He hits some doubles, draws some walks and probably could have been an every-day second baseman at some point, but the Angels had Adam Kennedy and then Howie Kendrick in front of him. The most games he ever started at one position in a season was 78 at third base for the Angels in 2006. He definitely fits our utility definition.

Reboulet came up through the Twins system and played with them from 1992 to 1996, was with the Orioles from 1997 to 1999 and finished up with the Royals, Dodgers and Pirates. He gets bonus points for jumping on the small-market merry-go-round by playing with bad Royals and Pirates clubs. They were probably looking for veteran leadership.

Anyway, while Izturis nearly missed our list by batting 494 times in 2011, Reboulet never came close, peaking at 299 PAs in his final season in 2003. The most games he ever started in a season was 62 at second base for those mighty 2003 Pirates, but he played nearly as many innings at shortstop in his career as second base. He even started 24 games at first base plus five in the outfield and played one inning at catcher.

Here's another bonus: Reboulet owned Randy Johnson, so to speak. He faced him more than any other pitcher in his career -- 66 times (he faced Chuck Finley 45 times, the only other pitcher he faced more than 26 times). He hit .273/.375/.436 against Johnson, with two of his 20 career home runs. In Game 4 of the 1997 division series, Orioles manager Davey Johnson benched Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar and inserted Reboulet into the lineup. He homered, and the Orioles won 3-1.

Izturis was the better hitter (91 OPS+ versus 72), Reboulet the better fielder (53 runs saved on defense versus -11). Pick your poison. I'm going with the Randy Johnson killer and slick glove. Congratulations, Jeff Reboulet, you're the best utility infielder of all time.

(And if you want to argue that I unfairly disqualified Punto, I guess I won't argue too vociferously. His career WAR of 14.5 is higher than Reboulet's.)
I don't know which stat is more amazing: After homering off Tim Lincecum last night, Paul Goldschmidt is now 13-for-24 with seven home runs off Lincecum; or, Goldschmidt's opposite-field home run was just the eighth by a right-handed batter at AT&T Park over the past eight seasons. (And you wonder why Giants pitchers often have big home/road splits.)

According to John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Info, Goldschmidt's six previous home runs off Lincecum had come on inside pitches; this one came on an outside fastball and Goldschmidt drilled it down the line for a first-inning, three-run shot. It was the first opposite-field home run Lincecum had ever allowed to a right-handed batter at AT&T.

Is Goldschmidt's dominance just a statistical quirk, one of those things that will happen when you play a game long enough? Or is Lincecum tipping his pitches in some way that Goldsdchmidt has picked up on? Not that Goldschmidt would give anything away, but he seems to be leaning to statistical quirk, telling MLB.com, "Obviously I've had success right now, but that can change in a hurry. There's plenty of guys that maybe you start off hot and then all of a sudden you don't get a hit. That's how baseball is -- or vice versa, maybe there's a guy you don't hit very well and then for some reason you get a few hits off him. We're talking a small sample size here."

You have to love a player who quotes small sample size.

Anyway, the home run jump-started the D-backs to a much-needed 7-3 win, with Josh Collmenter pitching the final four innings in relief of Bronson Arroyo.

Thoughts on other games ...
  • Should the Tigers be worried about new closer Joe Nathan? He got the "win" in a 7-6 victory over the Dodgers, but that was only after he allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to blow a 6-3 lead. Nathan has allowed six hits, four walks and five runs in 3.2 innings and has blown two saves chances (although the Tigers ended up winning both games). His fastball velocity has averaged just 90.6 mph -- granted, we're only talking about 35 pitches here -- down from 92.2 mph last season, which itself was down from 93.9 in 2012. Nathan had said on the radio earlier in the day that he'd been pitching through a dead arm; after the game, he said he felt better, just that his command was a little off. Maybe so, but when you're 39, any slump becomes more worrisome.
  • I think Masahiro Tanaka still has No. 1-starter upside. He gave up a two-out, three-run homer to Jonathan Schoop in the second inning, but was otherwise very effective, striking out 10 in seven innings. He induced 22 swings-and-misses, the second-most on the season (Felix Hernandez had 24 on Opening Day). Both his splitter and slider look like wipeout pitches, although Schoop blasted a hanging slider for a 407-foot home run. He sits in the low 90s with his fastball (he's maxed out at 94.7 mph) and pounds the outside corner to left-handed batters with that pitch (inside corner to righties). Obviously, he can't afford to give up a home run every start but he's going to be considered the Yankees ace by the end of the season.
  • With David Robertson on the DL, the back of the bullpen is scrambling, however, and the Orioles scored twice off Shawn Kelley in the ninth for the 5-4 win (a bottom-of-the-ninth rally against Tommy Hunter fell short). Hunter is hardly a lockdown closer himself, so when you factor in Nathan and Jim Johnson in Oakland, a lot of good teams are having issues in the ninth.
  • Also watched a lot of Garrett Richards' strong outing for the Angels in a 2-0 win over the Mariners. He's always had the great arm and he basically fired high fastballs all night -- he averaged 96.1 mph on his heater -- and the Mariners couldn't touch him, with just one hit in seven innings. I don't even recall any hard outs. I'm not going to suggest he's turned the corner -- on this night he was hitting his spots better than usual -- but the Angels desperately need him to turn into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Albert Pujols also homered for the second straight game, a two-run shot off a hanging changeup from Mariners rookie Roenis Elias.
  • After Jordan Zimmermann's first start, I wrote that all he has to do to potentially win a Cy Young Award is cut down on the blow-up outings he has a few times a year. Well, he had one of those on Wednesday, as the Marlins knocked him out in the second inning after he had allowed seven hits and five runs. The Nationals fought back, however, as Bryce Harper hit his first home run, a three-run shot, and then Jayson Werth won it with a grand slam off Carlos Marmol in the eighth, smashing an 0-1 fastball to left-center. Craig Stammen had the clutch long relief outing, tossing 3.1 scoreless innings. Tough one for the Marlins to take.
  • Finally, Andrelton Simmons with one of those plays only he can make. And Billy Hamilton tagging up on what was essentially a pop-up.



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Not to sound too dramatic here, but are the Los Angeles Angels in trouble? Josh Hamilton is out six to eight weeks after tearing a ligament in his thumb sliding headfirst into first base on Tuesday.

It comes at a particularly shaky time for the Angels considering: (A) Hamilton was off to a good start, hitting .400/.545/.741 and not chasing as many pitches out of the strike zone (27 percent versus 38 percent last season); (B) they're 3-5, with the three wins against the Astros; (C) they've had bad starts the past two Aprils that dug big holes (9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012); (D) Albert Pujols hasn't yet looked good enough to ease concerns that he's still slipping; (E) Raul Ibanez might finally be getting old.

OK, let's calm down for a second. We're only eight games into the season, so there's no need to panic. Even if Hamilton misses eight weeks -- about 45 to 50 games -- it's not an end-of-the season moment. Factoring in his start, ZiPS projected Hamilton being worth 3.3 WAR. The team called up J.B. Shuck, who will presumably platoon in left field with Collin Cowgill for the time being. Shuck was worth 0.5 WAR last year while playing 129 games but is projected as basically a replacement-level player (as is Cowgill). So replacing Hamilton with a replacement-level platoon for about a third of the season is worth about a win. Sure, one win of value could hit, but it's far from a devastating injury, assuming Hamilton comes back with no lingering effects.

The bigger issues with the Angels might be everything else, or at least everything else not named Mike Trout. Pujols is hitting .219/.286/.438, but again it's just eight games, and five of his seven hits have been for extra bases. Ibanez, 41, signed to serve as the DH, is hitting .192 with 10 strikeouts, but he's also a notoriously streaky hitter. Other guys are off to slow starts. Again: It's early. The pitching has also been shaky, although Tyler Skaggs did pitch well in his first start.

These next few weeks could be crucial, especially considering the upcoming schedule. After Wednesday's game against Seattle, the Angels do get the Mets for three games, but their next 21 games after that are all against teams that finished above .500 last season (A's, at Tigers, at Nationals, at Yankees, Indians, Rangers, Yankees). That takes the club through May 7. I'm thinking we'll have a pretty good idea where the Angels stand on that date and whether Trout has received much help from his lineup mates.

P.S.: Kendrys Morales?
For some reason, players just can’t help themselves.

Yasiel Puig has missed the past two Dodgers games after suffering a thumb injury while sliding headfirst into first base. On Tuesday night, Josh Hamilton slid headfirst into first base in the seventh inning and was removed in a crucial situation in the ninth inning because he injured his thumb.

The Angels trailed 5-3 but Fernando Rodney had walked the first two batters, bringing up Hamilton’s spot in the lineup. Mind you, this is a hot Hamilton, hitting .444 in the early going. Instead, Ian Stewart pinch hit and struck out, as did Howie Kendrick, and when Raul Ibanez flew out the Angels had lost for the fourth straight time this season to the Mariners.

Studies have shown runners do not get to first base faster by sliding headfirst, so runners, please stop.

Other thoughts on Tuesday’s games:
  • Hard-throwing 22-year-old Yordano Ventura had an impressive 2014 debut for the Royals with six strikeouts and no walks in six scoreless innings against the Rays. Impressively, four of his strikeouts came on his changeup, one on his curveball and one on his fastball. Fourteen of the 19 changeups he threw were strikes -- and if he’s commanding that pitch, he’s going to develop into a very good starter. His average fastball velocity was 97 mph and peaked at 100.8. Alas, the Royals loaded the bases three times and failed to score and the Rays beat Greg Holland with a run in the ninth. My concern about the Royals’ offense heading into the season was a lack of power, and they’re homerless through seven games. Mike Moustakas -- remember his hot spring? -- finally got his first hit. He’s only 25, so you don’t want to say there’s no chance of a breakout season for him, but I don’t see it, and a hot spring didn’t change my opinion.
  • The White Sox pounded the Rockies 15-3 as Jose Abreu hit his first two home runs -- two of the six HRs the White Sox hit Tuesday. Avisail Garcia added his first two homers, as well. Could the White Sox be a sleeper team? I’m skeptical that they can jump from 63 wins into playoff contention, but if Abreu is a star and lineup anchor, and Adam Eaton provides speed and on-base ability from the leadoff spot, and Garcia hits in his first full season, the White Sox will score a lot more runs than the 598 they scored last year. The Sox have one-of-a-kind starter Chris Sale and a solid No. 2, Jose Quintana, so perhaps the Sox can surprise if the Indians and Royals fall back a bit from 2013.
  • The Reds are 1-4 against the Cardinals after blowing an early 4-0 lead in a 7-5 loss; Homer Bailey gave up four runs in the second and the bullpen lost it in the sixth. The four losses have been by a total of six runs. The Cardinals went 11-8 against the Reds last year while outscoring them 102-77. The Reds are 2-6, Billy Hamilton is struggling from the leadoff spot (.091/.130/.136, no stolen bases), and the bullpen clearly misses Aroldis Chapman. The Reds have to be careful about digging an early hole. After Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Cards (Mike Leake versus Shelby Miller), Cincy's next five series are against the Rays, Pirates, Cubs, Pirates and Braves. Four of those are tough series that could leave the Reds well under .500 by the end of April.
  • Brandon Belt continues to rake, going 2-for-4 with his fifth home run as the Giants beat the Diamondbacks 7-3 (I wonder if that Arizona dugout bench is getting a little warm for Kirk Gibson). The interesting thing about Belt’s season numbers is that he has 10 strikeouts and no walks. It’s obviously a small sample size (only eight games), but I checked to see if he’s been chasing pitches out of the strike zone. He’s swung at 36 percent of pitches out of the zone, compared to 28 percent last year. His swing rate at pitches in the zone has increased from 46 to 52 percent. Too early to draw any conclusions, but it appears he may be taking a more aggressive approach. Of course, if he keeps hitting like this, he’ll start seeing a lot more pitches out of the zone.
  • Speaking of being more aggressive, Mike Trout said in spring training he’d be more aggressive this year on first pitches or when the count was in his favor. So far, he’s swung at four first pitches in 35 plate appearances (11.4 percent) resulting in two misses and two foul balls. Last season, he swung at the first pitch 12.4 percent of the time and at 2-0 pitches 30 percent of the time; this season, he has faced just two 2-0 counts and swung once.
  • Bartolo Colon pitched seven scoreless innings in the Mets’ 4-0 win over the Braves. He threw 101 pitches -- 88 fastballs. Of course, those 88 fastballs come in at different speeds and move, cut, dive, fade and run. What a unique, fun pitcher to watch. The Braves are 4-3 even though they’ve scored just 15 runs in seven games. Jason Heyward (.107), B.J. Upton (.138, 13 K’s, no walks), Justin Upton (.231, no extra-base hits) and Evan Gattis (.188, no walks) all continue to struggle. Freddie Freeman -- six walks and just two strikeouts -- isn’t going to see much to hit until the guys in front of him start getting on base.

1. Back in spring training, Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish admitted he was working on a few minor tweaks on his mechanics in an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the nerve problem in his lower back and buttocks area that arose last September. Whether that had anything to do with the stiff neck that had sidelined him since March 16 and forced him to miss his Opening Day assignment remains unknown, considering the dubious nature of the original rationale for the neck issue ("I slept on it wrong," Darvish said).

In the end, he missed just one start, which was still enough of a setback to put Rangers fans in a minor state of panic considering the opening week rotation was already without Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

Darvish returned Sunday after not having pitched in three weeks and looked a lot like the guy many predicted will win the Cy Young Award, undoubtedly calming at least a few nerves in the Rangers fan base and front office. He pitched seven innings of no-run baseball in a 3-0 win over the Rays, an efficient 89-pitch effort that included just one walk. He threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes and held the Rays to an 0-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.

He wasn't necessarily overpowering, averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball while maxing out at 95.1 mph, but maybe this is the new, strike-throwing Darvish, one looking to be a little more economical in his pitch counts to avoid walks and pitch consistently deeper into games.

"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes. I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn't feel anything unusual."

While Darvish recorded just six strikeouts, he showed what makes him so tough to hit -- the six K's came on two fastballs, two curveballs, a slider and a changeup to Wil Myers. It's that changeup that could be a new weapon for him: He threw 90 changeups all of last year, recording just four strikeouts. Just what batters want to hear, knowing it's hard enough already with two strikes gearing up for a curveball or slider.

The Rangers' rotation remains a little unsettled -- Colby Lewis may be close to returning and they may use six starters this week. The good news is the Rangers are 3-3 despite the makeshift rotation and having hit just one home run. They play the Red Sox and Astros this week but will need the rotation to come together sooner rather than later as they play the Mariners seven times and the A's six before the end of the month.

Darvish joked that he'd pitch great every time if he had three weeks between starts. The Rangers are hoping he'll pitch great every fifth day.

2. The most impressive result of the weekend was the Brewers going into Boston and sweeping the Red Sox by scores of 6-2, 7-6 (in 11 innings) and 4-0 on Sunday. The Red Sox were swept just once all last season -- in a three-game series in Texas -- and shut out just three times at Fenway Park in the regular season.

Yovani Gallardo struck out only three in 6 2/3 innings but issued no walks and got 11 ground balls outs compared to four in the air. He hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts. Gallardo struggled last year and while his velocity isn't up from last year at least he's throwing strikes early on.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCano seems to be embracing his role as a leader in Seattle.
The bad news for the Brewers, of course, is Ryan Braun's thumb injury, which he now says hasn't completely healed from last year when the injury sapped his power and eventually forced him to the disabled list (before his suspension). He had two singles on Sunday to raise his average to .150 but he doesn't have an extra-base hit in (the small sample size of) 21 plate appearances. Remember, when Braun was putting up monster numbers in 2012 the Brewers led the National League in runs scored. If they're going to contend for a playoff spot, they better hope this thumb issue doesn't linger.

3. I watched a lot of Mariners this week and there were a lot of positives to draw upon as they went 4-2 on the road: Two dominant starts from Felix Hernandez, one from James Paxton, good hitting from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Robinson Cano hit a quiet .391/.500/.478 as he's still looking for his first home run. He has drawn three intentional walks already as the Angels and A's elected to go after Smoak.

All three walks came in conventional IBB situations: Two outs, runners on second or second and third. Smoak went 1-for-3 with a bases-clearing double. Still, for now, it appears opponents will avoid Cano whenever possible. The biggest positive with Cano may have been his hustle double on Sunday when he singled to center and took advantage of Coco Crisp jogging after the ball. That's a Cano that New York writers like to say doesn't exist. It's one play, but perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.

4. Mark Trumbo homered for the fourth straight game Sunday in the Diamondbacks' 5-3 win over the Rockies, just their second victory in nine games as they currently sit with the majors' worst record. Even though Trumbo has five home runs and 13 RBIs and Paul Goldschmidt is mashing, the Arizona offense has mostly struggled, averaging fewer than four runs per game.

The Rockies intentionally walked Trumbo with a runner on third base and one out on Sunday to pitch to Miguel Montero, who promptly grounded into a double play against Brett Anderson. Montero's OPS fell from .820 and .829 in 2011 and 2012 to .662 in 2013. He and Gerardo Parra are the only regular lefties in the D-backs' lineup, and they need the old Montero not the 2013 version.

5. I watched the last few innings of Chris Tillman's gem to beat the Tigers, and he looked really good, allowing one run again as he did in his Opening Day start. He couldn't quite finish it off, getting one out in the ninth before being pulled for Tommy Hunter, but he challenged the Tigers -- 74 of his 113 pitches were fastballs -- and did a good job of moving the fastball around against left-handed batters (he pitches mostly to the outside corner with the fastball against righties).

Without sounding overdramatic here, it was a big win for the Orioles as 2-4 just sounds a lot better than 1-5. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the majors as just six of their first 27 games are against teams that finished under .500 last year and those six are against Toronto, no pushover, so they need to make sure they don't get buried before May.

6. This wasn't from Sunday, but I hope you didn't miss Giancarlo Stanton's mammoth home run on Friday off Eric Stults. The ESPN Home Run Tracker estimated the moon shot at 484 feet, 31 feet longer than the second-longest home run so far. The longest home run last year was Evan Gattis' 486-foot blast for the Braves on Sept. 8 off Cole Hamels.

The Marlins lost on Sunday, but they're off to a 5-2 start. Stanton is hitting .345/.406/.655, and for all those fears that he wouldn't get pitched to, he hasn't drawn an intentional walk

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter is now No. 8 on the all-time hits list, but the Yanks need power.
7. Derek Jeter passed Paul Molitor for the eighth place on the all-time hits list. In many ways, the two are identical matches as hitters, with short, compact swings and both loved to go to the opposite field. Jeter has a career line of .312/.381/.446 with 256 home runs while Molitor hit .306/.369/.448 with 234 home runs. Molitor's adjusted OPS is slightly higher, at 122 versus Jeter's 117. Molitor struck out 10.2 percent of the time against a league average of 14.7 percent during his career; Jeter has fanned 14.7 percent of the time against a league average of 17.4 percent.

Jeter has his most hits off Tim Wakefield (36) and among pitchers he faced at least 40 times, has the highest average against Bruce Chen (.429). (He also hit an impressive .413 against Johan Santana. Molitor got 33 hits off both Jack Morris and Roger Clemens (and hit above .300 against both) and killed Erik Hanson (.482) and Walt Terrell (.477).

8. The Yankees have one home run in six games, hit by Brett Gardner on Sunday's win over the Blue Jays. Could power actually be an issue for the Yankees? Mark Teixeira landed on the DL over the weekend, which means they're really going to have to rely on 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran for some pop. Leading the team in extra-base hits? Yangervis Solarte. Of course.

9. B.J. Upton: Hey, at least he didn't strike out in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Nationals. But he did go 0-for-4 and is off to a .120/.120/.140 start with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. So far, Fredi Gonzalez has hit him second in all six games. It's way too early to panic, but tell that to Braves fans.

10. Speaking of worrying, should the Angels be worried about Jered Weaver? In two starts, batters are slugging .600 against him and the Astros pounded four home runs off him on Sunday. The four home runs came on four different pitches: Jason Castro off a 3-1 changeup, Matt Dominguez off a 3-2 slider, Jesus Guzman on an 0-1 fastball and Alex Presley on an 0-1 curveball. His fastball velocity, such as it is, has averaged 86.0 mph, about the same as last year's 86.5.

As with all these first-week results, don't overreact, but if Weaver isn't a strong rotation anchor, the Angels are in trouble. They're 2-4, hoping to avoid the terrible April starts of the past two seasons.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could chalk it up to Trout, like another former AL West center fielder named Griffey, having a flair for Opening Day theatrics.

You could chalk it up to Trout being, you know, good at baseball.

Or you could chalk it up to Trout saying in spring training he was going to be more aggressive at the plate this season and then being more aggressive and hitting a laser beam off the King in the first inning for a two-run homer to left-center and an immediate exclamation point for his first game after signing a contract extension worth many piles of coins.

It’s the last of those statements that is the most interesting to examine. See, last season Trout swung at just 37 percent of the pitches he saw -- the lowest rate of 140 qualified regulars. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Trout led the American League with 110 walks. He swung at the first pitch just 12 percent of the time, which ranked 131st of those 140 regulars. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it can help Trout get into a lot of good hitter’s counts. He hit .347/.508/.571 after a 1-0 count.

But, and here’s the fine line between discipline and aggression, what if Trout swings at the right pitches earlier in the count? As he told MLB.com a couple weeks ago, "I think the biggest thing, for me, is being aggressive early. A lot of counts last year, I'd be taking, seeing pitches. But I'm going to be aggressive this year. Instead of just flipping one over for strike one, or 2-0 strike one, I'm going to be up there hacking. I'm going to be up there swinging."

Against Hernandez in the first, Trout took a fastball for ball one (patience!) and then foul tipped another fastball (aggressiveness!). The 1-1 pitch was a slider that maybe didn’t slide quite enough, and Trout crushed it. Now, the 1-1 pitch is often the make-or-break pitch in an at-bat, because what happens on a 1-2 count or 2-1 count is dramatically different -- the average major leaguer hit .255 after a 2-1 count but just .179 after a 1-2 count. Trout hit .321 after the count reached 2-1 and .245 after it reached 1-2.

So the smart hitter knows when to attack that 1-1 pitch. While the average major leaguer hit .331 when putting the 1-1 pitch into play, Trout hit .423 with seven home runs in 71 at-bats. It helps to be smart and talented.

Anyway, one at-bat and a spring training quote don’t mean Trout is necessarily going to start hacking like Vladimir Guerrero, even if you do sort of admire his bravado for declaring his strategic intentions to opposing pitchers. I talked to his teammate, David Freese, in spring training about Trout’s quote, and he said he wouldn’t expect Trout to really change all that much. "That’s not the kind of hitter he is," Freese said. "He’s going to wait for his pitch. He’s still going to get his walks."

Against Hernandez in the third, Trout again took ball one, took a 93 mph fastball on the inside corner for a strike and then flew out to right field. In the fifth, he took a high fastball for strike one, took a ball, swung through a good sinker and fouled off three pitches before finally striking out on a 3-2 sinking fastball. Facing Charlie Furbush in the seventh, he took strike one and then singled off Furbush’s leg. So, overall, the new, aggressive Mike Trout resembled the old, not-so-aggressive Trout. I think Freese is probably right: It's not so easy to change your natural style. Just as Joey Votto isn't going to expand his strike zone just because it's an RBI situation, Trout is going to work deep into the count.

Bottom line: This is something we'll keep an eye on. Trout is so smart and disciplined that the scary idea is if he does develop an even more perfect balance between patience and aggressiveness. He struck out 136 times last season. What if he maintains his walk rate but puts an extra 40 balls in play? He could hit .350 with 35 home runs.

Which, umm, would make the best player in baseball the even-better best player in baseball.
videoThere's nothing quite like Opening Day. As Pete Rose once said, "It's like Christmas except warmer." It's a reminder that for perhaps inexplicable reasons we still love this crazy game, that we're ready to devote way too many hours over the next seven months to watching games that will enthrall us and disgust us but bring us together. We'll laugh, we'll cry, we'll shout -- and that's just within one Starlin Castro at-bat. It's Opening Day. Enjoy.

Must-watch game of the day
If I could watch only one game on Opening Day -- which would pretty much qualify as cruel and unusual punishment if actually forced to such limits -- I'd go with St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). First, we get a heated division rivalry with two playoff teams from last season. We get a great pitching matchup with Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto. We get Billy Hamilton trying to get on base and then trying to run on Yadier Molina if he does get on. We get the new Reds lineup with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce hitting third and fourth. (Oh, how we miss you, Dusty.) Plus, there are potential cameos from Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, Pete Rose or Schottzie.

Best pitching matchup of the day
Considering the depth of starting pitching in the majors, you'd think we'd have more can't-miss pitching matchups of Cy Young contender facing Cy Young contender, but that isn't really the case on this day. But James Shields versus Justin Verlander is a great one (Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers, 1:08 p.m. ET).

Here's an interesting fact: The Tigers had all that great pitching last year, right? Well, the Royals allowed the fewest runs in the American League. Shields is making his sixth career Opening Day start while Verlander makes his seventh in a row. Verlander allowed zero runs his past two openers (although he pitched just five innings last year on a cold day in Minnesota). Royals fans must deal with no Jeff Francoeur in the opening lineup for the first time in four years. Hold those tears.

Pitcher you have to watch if you've never watched him
The Marlins rarely appear on national TV, so you may not have seen Jose Fernandez pitch as a rookie unless you're actually a Marlins fan or your team faced him. If you missed him, you made a mistake, so don't miss this one. No dinner break. No excuse that this may be your third game of the day. He starts against Jorge De La Rosa as the Colorado Rockies play the Miami Marlins (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN).

This is kind of a cool random factoid from ESPN Stats & Information: This is the first Opening Day matchup in the past 100 years of pitchers born in Cuba and Mexico. Fernandez will become the fourth-youngest Opening Day starter in the past 35 seasons behind Dwight Gooden (1985 and 1986 Mets), Fernando Valenzuela (1981 Dodgers) and Felix Hernandez (2007 Mariners).

The "Wait, he's starting on Opening Day?" award
This is always a fun one. One year the Pittsburgh Pirates started Ron Villone, who had posted a 5.89 ERA the year before -- primarily as a reliever. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays started Dewon Brazelton in 2005; he'd finish the season 1-8 with a 7.61 ERA. The Twins started Vance Worley a year ago. This year's most interesting surprise starter is Tanner Scheppers of the Rangers (Philadelphia Phillies at Texas Rangers, 2:05 p.m. ET) -- interesting because he has never started a major league game.

Since 1914, only three pitchers made their major league debuts starting on Opening Day: Lefty Grove of the A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the 1943 Phillies. Scheppers doesn't match their feat because he's pitched in relief, but he does match Valenzuela, whose first major league start came in that 1981 Opening Day start. Of course, to match Fernando, all Scheppers has to do is throw five shutouts and six complete games in his first seven starts.

Just thought I'd mention this
The Los Angeles Dodgers will pay reliever Brandon League more this season ($8.5 million) than the Pirates will pay National League MVP Andrew McCutchen ($7.458 million), who will rank 34th among outfielders in salary in 2014. Anyway, watch McCutchen's Pirates host the Chicago Cubs (1 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).

Another reason to love McCutchen, besides the fact that he's a talented artist, can imitate others' batting stances and helps old ladies cross the street: His WAR has increased each season of his career, 2.3 to 3.8 to 5.7 to 7.0 to 7.9.

Watch Robinson Cano in a new time zone
Cano makes his Mariners debut in a late game, Mariners at Angels (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). As a bonus, you get Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Abraham Almonte and Justin Smoak. The Mariners begin the season with a seven-game road trip and play 22 of their first 25 games against division opponents while trying to patch together a rotation missing Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker for a few weeks, so few teams will be under more pressure early on than Seattle. Enjoy the marine layer, Robby!

Player most likely to be booed on Opening Day
I was going to say Dan Uggla or Ryan Braun, but unfortunately the Atlanta Braves play at the Milwaukee Brewers (2:10 p.m. ET) instead of vice versa.

Player likely to get the biggest ovation
I'll go with Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, in what will be his final Opening Day -- although he's not guaranteed to start (Twins at White Sox, 4:10 p.m. ET). OK, Konerko or Ike Davis, I'm not sure.
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.
We're getting closer ...
  • Watched the Baltimore-Tampa Bay game on Wednesday night since it featured Opening Day starters Chris Tillman and David Price. Considering the teams are division rivals, both starters may have held back just a bit and neither pitcher went five innings. I think Price has a huge season coming, one reason I'm picking the Rays to win the AL East. Yu Darvish was going to be my Cy Young pick until his current stiff neck issue means he's going to miss the first week of the season and raises at least a little doubt over his season. I may shift now to Price -- or Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander -- as he became a strike-throwing machine when he returned from his DL stint last season, walking just 13 batters over his final 18 starts. When you can command your stuff like that and throw 95+ mph, a lot of good things are going to happen.
  • The Angels cut Joe Blanton even though he's owed $8.5 million on his contract. Teams still have a hard time admitting mistakes so give Angels GM Jerry DiPoto credit here for cutting bait. It was a bad deal at the time -- Blanton predictably got hammered in the AL after straddling the line of mediocrity in the NL -- and his poor performance (2-14, 6.04 ERA) was a major reason the Angels finished under .500. Blanton was worth -2.0 WAR last year, so even replacement-level pitching from the fifth spot will be an improvement.
  • Strong final start from Rockies Opening Day starter Jorge De La Rosa, with six shutout innings against the Giants with one walk and seven strikeouts. The Rockies will need Jhoulys Chacin to come back strong in May but I'm starting to think the Rockies could be that sleeper team to watch -- a team that finished below .500 in 2013 that could make the playoffs. A lot of that depends on the health of some injury-prone players -- Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Brett Anderson -- but if the back of the rotation holds up the Rockies could crack .500 and surprise.
  • The Mets still haven't decided between defensive whiz Juan Lagares and stolen-base dude Eric Young Jr. for a starting outfield slot. The Mets know Lagares can play center -- his great range and 15 assists allowed him to post 26 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013, the sixth-highest total of any fielder -- but also know the .281 OBP he posted may not get any better. OK, I get that he can't hit. But EYJR, who led the NL with 46 steals, had a .310 OBP with the Mets last year. Young has been worth 0.3 WAR in his major league career, Lagares valued at 3.5 WAR a year ago. Lagares doesn't have to improve with the bat to be a more valuable player than Young. Even if his defense slips a little (he may not get as many assists, for example), he's still the better player.
  • The Pirates locked up Starling Marte to a six-year, $31 million extension, buying out at least one year of free agency and owning options on two more. Looks like a great deal for the Pirates, exactly the kind of below-market rate they need to sign their young players to, and once Gregory Polanco reaches the majors at some point this year, you're going to see what could be one of the best defensive outfields in recent memory with Marte in left, Andrew McCutchen in center and Polanco in right.
  • Tanner Scheppers was named Opening Day starter for the Rangers, in what will be his first career start. I wonder how many pitchers have made their first career start on Opening Day? If I did the search right on Baseball-Reference, it looks like just three (at least since 1914): Lefty Grove of the Philadelphia A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the Phillies in 1943. So who were those three guys? Grove had been a star for years for Baltimore in the International League when the A's purchased him. Bagby, son of a former major leaguer, had gone 21-8 in the Class A New York-Penn League in 1937, enough for the Red Sox to start him against the Yankees as a 21-year-old rookie. Boston had been 80-72 in 1937, so starting a rookie seems a little odd. Gerheauser was a 26-year-old minor league vet who had pitched for Yankees' Triple-A club in Newark in 1942. The Phillies had lost 109 games in 1942, so probably were hoping some Yankee magic would rub off on them. (Actually ... that list looks like pitchers who made their major league debut as an Opening Day starter. Fernando Valenzuela's first career start -- after 10 relief appearances in 1980 -- came on Opening Day of 1981. He pitched a shutout and then reeled off seven more starts in a row of nine innings (one wasn't a complete game). He allowed four runs in those eight starts and we had Fernandomania.
  • So Randy Wolf was told he had made the Mariners' Opening Day rotation. And then got released. So ... what? Apparently, the Mariners asked Wolf to sign a 45-day advanced-consent relief form, which would mean the Mariners could release Wolf within 45 days and not have to pay his full season's salary. I didn't know such a possible contract existed, and I don't know how common such requests are, but Wolf refused to sign it and became a free agent. (Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times has the story here.) It's understandable why the Mariners would make the request -- Wolf didn't pitch in the majors last year and was last effective in 2011 and it's possible he would simply be holding a spot for a few starts until Taijuan Walker is ready, but considering Wolf was set to make just $1 million, it makes the Mariners look petty and cheap. It's already hard enough to get players to come to Seattle; this isn't going to help.



Eric Karabell and myself break down the BBTN 100's top left fielders. Left field was once the domain of sluggers like Greg Luzinski and Jim Rice and Manny Ramirez and it didn't matter if you played any defense as long as you hit 30 home runs and knocked in 100. The only regular left fielder to achieve those numbers in 2013 was ... Alfonso Soriano (who hit 32 homers and drove in 93 while playing left, with an additional two and eight coming as a DH). Maybe Carlos Gonzalez and Bryce Harper stay healthy enough to reach those figures this year. Maybe Yoenis Cespedes has a big season for the A's. Maybe Justin Upton improves in his second season in Atlanta. Maybe Josh Hamilton plays better for the Angels.

Pressure's on Josh Hamilton

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
2:27
PM ET
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Josh Hamilton takes batting practice like it's the last time he'll ever step in the cage. Every swing is ferocious and lightning quick, and he's apparently trying to crush every pitch 500 feet. This isn't Wade Boggs up there, hitting so many balls to left field, so many to center, so many to right and so many over the fence. For Hamilton, every BP is the Home Run Derby.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesJosh Hamilton batted just .250 with 21 home runs in 151 games last season in his first year with the Angels.
But hey, I doubt Babe Ruth worked on hitting singles to the opposite field.

After nursing a calf injury, Hamilton made his first spring training appearance on Monday and went 1-for-3, singling sharply off the glove of diving Giants first baseman Mark Minicozzi. Hamilton didn't show any effects of the injury, beating out a potential double play ball in the first inning and attempting a steal on a 3-2 pitch to David Freese in the fourth inning.

"He was running well and that's great to see," Angels manager Mike Scioscia told reporters after the game. "He's got to get out and play the outfield. We'll see how it goes, then. There are still some hurdles. We're not going to work too far ahead right now."

Hamilton had said on Sunday that he feels like he needs 45 to 55 at-bats to get ready for the season opener and that beginning the season on the disabled list isn't an option. After Monday's game he told reporters, "I got on base and I tried to steal and did the things I'm supposed to be doing." He's going to take Tuesday off.

Hamilton turns 33 in May, at that precarious age when skills often start to erode, when a player's ability to adapt and adjust become more important than ever. Even natural talent as explosive as Hamilton's fades at some point. As Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson told me on Monday, "You're always making adjustments. Adjust or you'll be out of the game."

Wilson was talking about himself and how spring training isn't just merely about getting his innings in, but the comment applies to Hamilton: Is he going to make adjustments? Is he willing to change his approach at the plate? Is that easy to say, harder to do?

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The knock against Hamilton, especially as his average dipped in the second half in 2012 and during his first season with the Angels, has been his overly aggressive approach and expanding the strike zone. After striking out 95 times in 2010 and 93 times in 2011, his strikeouts ramped up to 162 and 158 the past two seasons. He went from striking out once every 5.3 at-bats to once every 3.6 at-bats. That was undoubtedly one reason Hamilton hit a disappointing .250/.307/.432 for the Angels last season, numbers well below his career totals of .304/.363/.549 entering the season.

Against the Giants, Hamilton faced Tim Lincecum, who struggled all day with his fastball command and was constantly falling behind hitters. In the first, Hamilton took a fastball away and a pitch low before grounding out softly to second. Leading off the fourth, he swung at the first pitch and singled. In the fifth, he again swung at the first pitch and flew out on a high line drive to right field.

Obviously, it's one spring training game and you can't and shouldn't read anything into those swings. But swinging at first pitches -- especially first pitches that weren't over the plate -- is what hurt Hamilton in 2013.

He swung at the first pitch in 267 of his 636 plate appearances -- that's 42 percent of the time -- and put 90 of them in play. Swinging at the first pitch isn't necessarily a bad thing; the four players with more total swings on first pitches than Hamilton were Carlos Gomez, Freddie Freeman, Miguel Cabrera and Adam Jones, four hitters you may have heard of. Thing is, however, those four players did much more damage when putting a first pitch into play:

Hamilton: .281, 528 slugging, 6 HR in 89 at-bats
Gomez: .402, .738 slugging, 8 HR in 107 at-bats
Freeman: .455, .747 slugging, 6 HR in 99 at-bats
Cabrera: .448, .917 slugging, 14 HR in 96 at-bats
Jones: .385, .702 slugging, 8 HR in 104 at-bats

Here's a heat map that shows Hamilton's swings on the first pitch -- look how far outside the strike zone he's expanding his coverage. He's not going to do much damage on those pitches way off the plate.

 Josh Hamilton swing rateESPN Stats & InfoJosh Hamilton likes to swing at first pitches ... even those way off the plate.


Also, the other guys hit better after falling into an 0-1 count:

Hamilton: .210/.233/.357
Gomez: .238/.289/.447
Freeman: .267/.335/.403
Cabrera: .290/.349/.513
Jones: .243/.267/.394

Cabrera can get away with swinging at so many first pitches because his hand-eye coordination is freakishly off-the-charts and he has the ability to recover from 0-1 counts. Hamilton isn't Cabrera, at least not any longer, not when pitchers know they don't have to throw him strikes.

One player doesn't make a team, but there's no denying Hamilton's importance to the Angels (along with a healthy Albert Pujols). With the concerns over the starting rotation, the Angels' offense is going to have score runs to get the team back in the postseason for the first time since 2009. It makes Hamilton one of the most important and most intriguing players of 2014.

Will Hamilton bounce back with a stronger year? If it's all about adjustments, until the games begin for real, we won't know the answer.
From Alden Gonzalez's story at MLB.com:
Few guys have been in as many deep counts as Mike Trout these last two years. Only eight of them have had more plate appearances with a full count; only six have hit with two strikes more often. The approach is a credit to Trout's comfort with two strikes, but it's one that also leads to a lot of walks and strikeouts, limiting the star-studded outfielder's ability to drive in runs.

This year, it'll be different.

"I think the biggest thing, for me, is being aggressive early," Trout said. "A lot of counts last year, I'd be taking, seeing pitches. But I'm going to be aggressive this year. Instead of just flipping one over for strike one, or 2-0 strike one, I'm going to be up there hacking, I'm going to be up there swinging."


Trout saying he's going to be more aggressive doesn't mean he's necessarily going to be more aggressive and turn into Kirby Puckett. Trout was third in the majors with 110 walks and part of the reason he's hit .326 and .323 his first two full seasons is he waits for a pitch in his zone, and I suspect he's fully aware of that. Yes, hitting in deep counts is also a reason he struck out 136 times but it's also a reason he drew all the walks and led the American League in runs scored for a second straight season. As for the RBIs, Trout still managed to drive in 97 runs even while taking all those free passes. With a .432 on-base percentage, Trout got on base at a higher clip than everyone except Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto, one of just seven regulars to post an OBP over .400.

So while there's need for him to change, that doesn't mean Trout couldn't improve by being a little more aggressive. But should he be? That's hard to say. The batter-pitcher relationship is complex. Batters hit .354 and slugged .590 in 2013 when swinging at the first pitch, for example. Does that mean you should swing more often on the first pitch? Not necessarily. If you get too aggressive, pitchers will stop throwing you strikes and you'll start flailing at sliders off the plate.

Trout is right that he rarely swing at 2-0 pitches. But you know what? Most batters don't. Trout put just 15 2-0 pitches in play, but that's not all that unusual. Here are the majors' top 15 batters from 2013 in wOBA and how many times they put a 2-0 pitch in play:

Miguel Cabrera: 12
Mike Trout: 15
Chris Davis: 16
Joey Votto: 22
Jayson Werth: 9
Paul Goldschmidt: 16
Troy Tulowitzki: 12
David Ortiz: 17
Michael Cuddyer: 16
Shin-Soo Choo: 17
Andrew McCutchen: 22
Freddie Freeman: 15
Joe Mauer: 14
Edwin Encarnacion: 21
Josh Donaldson: 19

The reason Trout didn't swing at many 2-0 pitches is he probably didn't get many 2-0 meatballs to swing at. Nobody does. Only two hitters put even 30 2-0 pitches in play, Jed Lowrie (38) and Ian Kinsler (32).

What about those first-pitch strikes that Trout mentioned? Let's take those same 15 hitters and look at the percentage of 0-1 counts they faced (out of total plate appearances):

Miguel Cabrera: 45 percent
Mike Trout: 48 percent
Chris Davis: 45 percent
Joey Votto: 40 percent
Jayson Werth: 52 percent
Paul Goldschmidt: 46 percent
Troy Tulowitzki: 46 percent
David Ortiz: 42 percent
Michael Cuddyer: 49 percent
Shin-Soo Choo: 49 percent
Andrew McCutchen: 44 percent
Freddie Freeman: 42 percent
Joe Mauer: 50 percent
Edwin Encarnacion: 49 percent
Josh Donaldson: 47 percent

OK, nothing too unusual there. Trout, however, is right when he says he rarely swings at the first pitch. He only put 37 first pitches into play, or 6 percent of all his PAs. Only Joe Mauer -- who put just 15 first pitches in play -- swung less often among our group of 15, and all the others except Troy Tulowitzki were at 10 percent or higher.

Look at Miguel Cabrera for the potential value at swinging at the first pitch. He put 96 first pitches in play -- and hit .448 with 14 home runs. Chris Davis hit .438 with 14 home runs. Freddie Freeman swung most often at the 0-0 pitch and hit .455 with six home runs in 100 PAs.

This is actually what's so potentially scary about Trout, especially for opposing moundsmen: He's still figuring this game out. If he learns when to hack at the first offering, watch out. He just may get even better.

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