SweetSpot: Los Angeles Dodgers

SweetSpot TV: Rapid fire!

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
1:05
PM ET
video

We're back with the always popular rapid fire edition of SweetSpot TV, where Eric and myself take a quick trip through the majors. Today's topics include the Brewers, Freddie Freeman, the A's one-two punch, Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, the first manager to be fired, Red Sox injuries and Jose Abreu.

video

Eric and myself discuss the ramifications of Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis being sidelined at least a month with a torn meniscus.
Some quick thoughts on Tuesday's games and news ...

  • Here's something you probably didn't know: Marlins right-hander Nathan Eovaldi had the highest fastball velocity last season of any pitcher who threw 100 innings. His 96.2 mph average fastball topped the 96.0 mph of the Pirates' Gerrit Cole. Now, we all know velocity isn't everything if you don't have movement and location, but it does speak to Eovaldi's good arm and his potential. What he needs is to refine his command and develop an offspeed speed as a better strikeout weapon (his slider is OK, the curveball needs work). He had a strong 2014 debut, allowing two runs in six innings against the Rockies with one walk and six strikeouts. He still relied a lot on his fastball -- 65 of his 95 pitches were heaters (average: 95.8 mph) -- but he's a guy to keep an eye on.
  • For some reason, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez decided to bat B.J. Upton second after he hit .184 last year. Two games in and Upton is 0-for-8 with four strikeouts. How long will Gonzalez's show of confidence in Upton last? Will moving him back down after three or four games create even more damage? Are Braves fans already in an uproar?
  • Yasiel Puig did this, taking a 93-mph fastball from Ian Kennedy that was high and inside and out of the strike zone and crushing it to left. Bat speed, my friends, bat speed. The Dodgers won but it wasn't all good news as the team announced Clayton Kershaw will be out two to three more weeks.
  • Erasmo Ramirez looked very good for the Mariners, throwing 93 pitches in an efficient seven innings as the Mariners beat the Angels. His one mistake was a first-pitch two-seamer that Raul Ibanez smacked for a two-run homer. The location actually wasn't bad -- low and outside corner -- but the pitch didn't run away as much as Ramirez would have liked. He's not overpowering so relies on location and movement and an excellent changeup. Ramirez was the guy who pitched well in eight starts at the end of 2012 but battled a strained triceps last season and struggled in 13 major league starts (4.98). He's a much different pitcher than Eovaldi but he's another guy with a little experience who could break out. Here's a heat map of Ramirez's night and you can see he tries to run that two-seamer away from lefties and into righties:
Ramirez HeatmapESPNRamirez struck out six and had no walks in his 2014 debut.

  • The Phillies lost 3-2 to the Rangers as Ryne Sandberg brought in reliever Mario Hollands for his major league debut with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth. It didn't go well. Bill Baer writes that the new boss looks a lot like the old boss.
  • CC Sabathia is skinnier but struggled (average fastball velocity: 89.0 mph) and the Astros beat the Yankees 6-2. Stacey Gotsulias wraps up the good and bad for the Bronx Bombers and says the defense already looks bad.
  • The Giants jumped on D-backs starter Wade Miley with a four-run first inning, including a three-run homer from 2014 NL batting champ Brandon Belt, but Miley settled down and ended up going seven innings and getting the win when the Diamondbacks scored twice in the sixth off Giants reliever Juan Gutierrez (also known as J.C. Gutierrez). I'm a little concerned about the Giants bullpen behind closer Sergio Romo. They've milked a lot of years and innings out of the likes of Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt (currently on the DL). Gutierrez is a 30-year-old journeyman with a 4.65 ERA, pitched for the Royals and Angels last season. Matt Cain scuffled through five innings (99 pitches) so Bruce Bochy had to go early to his pen. (As Buster Olney writes, that game also had a replay controversy when Bochy used up his challenge and then the umps missed a call on a play at the plate that couldn't be challenged because it happened before the seventh inning.
  • Finally, bad news for Wilson Ramos and the Nationals as he'll miss one to two months. The good news is that Jose Lobaton, who was with the Rays last year, is one of the better backup catchers in the majors.






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!
Let's catch up on a few things ...
  • I enjoyed the two games from Australia, even getting up at 4 a.m. to watch the opener. Clayton Kershaw didn't really have his best stuff in that game, with his fastball velocity way down, averaging 88.3 mph. Remember, he struggled all spring with fastball command and had allowed 15 runs in 14 2/3 innings, but when the big lights went on he was able to adjust and allowed just one run in 6 2/3 innings while striking out seven. In the second game, the Dodgers tried to blow a 7-1 lead as Don Mattingly got a little cute with his bullpen, running through seven relievers over the final four innings. The Diamondbacks scored four runs in the ninth as Jose Dominguez walked two batters and gave up a two-run single and Mark Trumbo blasted a two-run homer off Kenley Jansen. I still expect the Dodgers bullpen to be one of the best in the league.
  • After going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in the opener, Yasiel Puig had three hits in the second game but was up to his usual shenanigans on the bases, getting thrown out trying to advance to second after a single and then getting throwing out trying to advance to third on a pitch in the dirt. Neither play was close. He then didn't come out for the bottom of the ninth inning, clearly irritating Mattingly, who after the game said, "Shoulder yesterday, back today, so I'm not sure if they're going to get him tests or get him to the MRI Monday or a bone scan on Tuesday, maybe. I'm not quite sure what we'll do. We may not do anything. I'm not sure." Here's Mark Saxon's report.
  • Joe Kelly beat out Carlos Martinez for the Cardinals No. 5 starter slot and you can't argue with that too much. Is Kelly as good as the 2.69 ERA he posted last year? Probably not, as that ERA was helped by a high strand rate that included a .161 average allowed with runners in scoring position. Critics point to his low strikeout rate (79 in 124 innings) but Kelly's best pitch is a 95 mph fastball with sink that doesn't necessarily register strikeouts but does get ground balls (he gave up just one home run off his fastball in 2013). As for Martinez, he returns to the eighth-inning role we saw him in during the playoffs, when he averaged 97.8 mph on his fastball and reached 100 pmh on the gun. I don't think this means the Cardinals are giving up on him as a starter, but some projected he would eventually end up in the bullpen anyway. Don't write him off as a starter, but we also know -- see his teammate, Trevor Rosenthal -- that once you turn into a dominant late-inning force managers will be reluctant to move you back to the rotation.
  • The Rangers announced second baseman Jurickson Profar is out 10-12 weeks with a torn muscle in his shoulder. He won't need surgery but won't be able to resume a throwing program for six weeks or so. The Rangers' backup infielders on the 40-man roster are Adam Rosales, Andy Parrino and Luis Sardinas, none of whom have shown much ability with the bat. The Rangers could scuffle along with Rosales or Parrino, but it's certainly a minor blow. An obvious trade candidate would be the Cubs' Darwin Barney, as the Cubs have prospect Arismendy Alcantara ready for the near future, not to mention that shortstop prospect Javier Baez played some second base this spring. Even if they didn't want to rush Alcantara or Baez, they could plug in Donnie Murphy at second on a short-term basis.
  • One of the most encouraging results this spring has been the solid performance of Yankees starter Michael Pineda, trying to return after missing two seasons (he did pitch in the minors last year). Pineda had another good effort on Sunday, allowing three runs (two earned) in six innings while walking nobody. Pineda is throwing 90-92, not the upper 90s heat he flashed as a rookie with the Mariners, so the concern is that there won't be enough of a velocity difference between his fastball and slider, and without the big fastball the slider alone may not be enough to be effective against left-handers. As a rookie back in 2011, he did flash on occasional changeup (162 of them in 28 starts) so that may have to become a more important pitch for him.
  • With hard-throwing Yordano Ventura winning a spot in the rotation, the Royals optioned Danny Duffy to the minors. No surprise there since Duffy has had a rough spring (15 runs and six home runs allowed in 11 innings). Even with Luke Hochevar's injury the Royals have plenty of depth in the bullpen, so it makes sense to send Duffy to the minors and keep him stretched out as a starter.
  • It hasn't been announced, but Brad Miller will be the Mariners' starting shortstop over Nick Franklin, as expected. Miller has been one of the most exciting players in the Cactus League, hitting .438/.491/.938 with four doubles, four triples and four home runs. With Willie Bloomquist signed as the team's utility infielder, Franklin may start the year in Triple-A. You can bet the Mariners are still receiving calls from teams asking about Franklin.

Welcome to baseball in Australia. MLB’s opening series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks at the ancient Sydney Cricket Ground, also known as Zack Greinke’s least favorite international baseball venue.

It’s the first game of the regular season, which seems reason enough to crawl out of bed at 4 a.m. to write a running diary.

Pregame
After a rain delay of nearly an hour, we get to the introductions of the players. Unfortunately, it appears the Diamondbacks' PA announcer is reading off the names instead of Crocodile Dundee. The Dodgers look as if they’re lined up for a funeral instead of a baseball game as nobody smiles and only veteran pitcher Jamey Wright waves to the crowd. I wonder whether Greinke is up watching in Arizona (he didn’t make the trip).

Although each team had to activate 25 players, the teams were allowed to exempt three players who will be eligible to be activated for openers back in the U.S. The Dodgers exempted Greinke, Dan Haren and Brandon League. And with Matt Kemp on the disabled list and Carl Crawford on the paternity list, the Dodgers’ roster includes Alex Guerrero, Chone Figgins and Mike Baxter. Hold your excitement, Dodgers fans. Both teams decided to go with 12 pitchers and 13 position players, which means 10 relievers for two games. That seems a little excessive, but maybe understandable considering starters Clayton Kershaw and Wade Miley might not be quite ready to go deep into the game.

First inning
Miley, going with the full beard and long hair, coasts through a 1-2-3 inning, including striking out leadoff hitter Yasiel Puig on an 0-2 slider in the dirt. It will be interesting to see how pitchers attack Puig this season. He hit .409 on inside pitches in 2013, but Miley started him off with an inside fastball Puig took for a strike. The Dodgers’ lineup includes ex-Met Justin Turner batting second. Your most expensive team in baseball, everyone!

[+] EnlargeDodgers and Diamondbacks
Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw was brilliant in his first start of 2014, allowing one run in 6 2/3 innings.
Kershaw works out of a two-on jam, getting Mark Trumbo to ground out to shortstop on a 2-1 inside fastball. The Diamondbacks went Paul Goldschmidt-Martin Prado-Trumbo in the 3-4-5 spots, mildly interesting in that power-hitting Trumbo is hitting fifth behind Prado. Although Prado is hardly your conventional cleanup hitter, it makes sense to hit Trumbo fifth because of his low OBP.

Second inning
Adrian Gonzalez walks on four pitches and then Scott Van Slyke crushes a pitch to deep left field that Trumbo climbs the fence in an attempt to haul in. Good effort … except the ball lands about six feet to his right and at the base of the fence. I mean, it isn't hard to tell Trumbo is really a first baseman the D-backs are force-feeding into left field. Van Slyke gets a double to move Gonzalez to third. After Juan Uribe strikes out, Gonzalez scores on Andre Ethier’s grounder to second for the season’s first run. I half expected a referee to come out and do this. (OK, that’s Australian Rules Football, not cricket.)

Miley gets A.J. Ellis to fly out, so limiting the Dodgers to just one run after runners were at second and third with no outs is a positive. Of course, with Kershaw pitching and the Dodgers having a dynamite bullpen, one run might be all they need, especially when you factor in that the Australian national team just blanked the D-backs 5-0 in their final tuneup game.

Third inning
Kershaw struggled with his fastball command in his spring training appearances and allowed 15 runs in 14⅔ innings while giving up 20 hits and three home runs. He’s a little sharper today, although he takes nine pitches to finally retire Miley and has 48 pitches through three innings, so he’s not going to get a 94-pitch complete-game shutout on Opening Day the way he did a year ago.

Fourth inning
Scott Van Slyke, have a day! After just missing a home run in his first at-bat, he lines a 1-1 pitch just over the fence and just inside the right-field foul pole for a two-run homer. Van Slyke is in the lineup only because Kemp and Crawford aren’t here, but his two hits do point out that Don Mattingly’s outfield dilemma will -- or should -- actually go beyond just the Kemp/Crawford/Ethier playing time issue. Considering Crawford and Ethier can’t really hit left-handers, you can make the argument that Van Slyke is the best option to start against lefties. We'll see how much playing time he gets when everyone is healthy.

As the MLB Network announcers (Matt Vasgersian and John Smoltz) discuss, another reason Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball: Only nine stolen bases were attempted against him last year, and he picked off seven runners, second most in the National League. Oh, he also drove in 10 runs in 92 plate appearances. Chris Owings grounds out with a runner on first to end the inning. Kershaw is at 65 pitches, 41 strikes, with seven ground balls and three strikeouts. I think Dodgers fans can rest easy about those awful spring training numbers.

Fifth inning
Puig strikes out for the second time. Speaking of spring training struggles, Puig had hit .122 in Arizona, 5-for-41, with just one walk (although also with just five strikeouts). He did homer against an Australian league All-Star team Thursday.

Quick aside: The first Australian in the major leagues was a 19th-century second baseman named Joe Quinn, who played 17 seasons and collected 1,800 hits. Quinn was also the unfortunate player-manager for most of the season for the worst team in history, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, a team that went 20-134 (12-104 under Quinn, including a 1-40 stretch to finish the season). Quinn’s family moved to Iowa when he was about 10 years old, so many consider infielder Craig Shipley, who debuted in 1986 and played 11 seasons, the true Australian trailblazer in MLB. Here's a profile of Quinn, and here's a bio on Shipley, who works in the front office for the Diamondbacks.

Sixth inning
Well, Kershaw won't finish with a 0.00 ERA this season. Goldschmidt doubles to lead off the inning and scores on two groundouts to make the score 3-1.

Seventh inning
Will Harris tosses two scoreless frames to keep the Diamondbacks close. Meanwhile, Kershaw comes out for the bottom of the seventh at 91 pitches. Can't imagine he'd go much above 100 this early on. Indeed, the TV cameras flash to Chris Perez and J.P. Howell warming up in the Dodgers' bullpen. With one out, Gerardo Parra reaches when Turner bobbles his slow chopper for an error, bringing up pinch hitter Eric Chavez. This isn’t a great matchup for the D-backs, considering Chavez hasn't homered off a lefty since 2007, but I guess Kirk Gibson is hoping Chavez will get lucky and run into something. He doesn’t; Kershaw quickly disposes of him in three pitches. That ends Kershaw’s night at 102 pitches. Perez comes in and gets A.J. Pollock to fly out to right.

Eighth inning
With two outs, Gonzalez lifts a fly ball to left field that Trumbo "races" after and doesn't get to with a belly flop. Let's put it this way: At least the Diamondbacks are strong defensively in center and right with Pollock and Parra. Brad Ziegler gets out of the inning without any damage.

In the bottom half, Brian Wilson cruises through a 1-2-3 inning, striking out Aaron Hill and Prado. This Dodgers bullpen is going to be a dominant weapon.

Ninth inning
Puig, 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, swings against J.J. Putz, makes loud contact, drops his bat as if the ball is going far … and watches Pollock make the catch in reasonably deep right-center. The wind apparently knocked it down, but Puig is going to draw flak for acting as if he had hit one out.

Kenley Jansen, who fanned 111 in 76⅔ innings last year, comes on for the save. He fans Trumbo on three pitches, Trumbo waving helplessly at an 0-2 high fastball. Miguel Montero fists a grounder to shortstop, but Owings walks on a 3-2 pitch that dips low, bringing up Parra as the tying run. But he taps back to the mound and the Dodgers have the first win of 2014.

I guess the script went pretty much as you would have expected: The best pitcher on the planet was very good, and what could be the best bullpen in the majors tossed 2⅓ hitless innings.

The best part: We have another game later today at 10 p.m. ET. You up for a doubleheader?
It's Clayton Kershaw Day at ESPN.com as Buster Olney profiles the Dodgers' dominant left-hander and the BBTN 100 turns to the top 10 left-handed starters and ranks Kershaw No. 1.

SportsNation

Over or under on Clayton Kershaw posting a 2.26 ERA?

  •  
    57%
  •  
    43%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,735)

Kershaw is in the midst of one of the greatest stretches ever for any left-hander. He's won three straight ERA titles and is 51-23 with a 2.21 ERA over the past three seasons, finishing first, second and first in the Cy Young voting. If the Dodgers had given him a little better run support in 2012, when he won 14 games, he'd probably be going for a fourth straight Cy Young Award.

What can Kershaw do for an encore after posting a 1.83 ERA in 2013? After holding batters to an .080 average with 80 strikeouts and no walks and no extra-base hits against his curveball? (Batters were 14-for-146 against it.) After allowing no runs or one run in 16 of his 33 regular-season starts?

The projection systems have his ERA right around 2.25 or so. ZiPS has it at 2.26 so let's make that our over/under.


Eric Karabell and myself discuss the top 10 right fielders in the BBTN100. Let's just say this is probably the most loaded position in the majors. Also, I have a debate with Christina Kahrl: Who would you prefer as a franchise player, Giancarlo Stanton or Yasiel Puig?
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The game changes in small, incremental directions, actions and movements and strategies slowly evolving. Go back to the 1930s and 1940s and into the ‘50s and most pitchers used that old two-handed windmill wind-up, the pitcher’s arms swinging behind him and then back forward above his head, often accompanied by the front leg kicking madly out to the side. Compare Bob Feller's motion to the smooth, compact deliveries you mostly see today; they're efficient and seemingly effortless. Who decided the windmill motion didn’t actually generate more power or arm speed? That a big leg kick made it more difficult for a pitcher to repeat his delivery? Who was the last guy to pitch like that?

Things are changing even now. They were about 5,000 more defensive shifts in 2013 than in 2011 and we’ll see even more this year. Catchers like A.J. Ellis are not only aware of the value of pitch framing but will study video and data to learn where their strengths and weaknesses are in that skill. Managers bunt less often than they used to.

The game changes, but some traditions still hold out. They’ve become truths. For example, the batting order: fast guy hits first, bat-control artist or "professional" hitter type bats second, high-average guy hits third and power dude in the cleanup spot. There are always exceptions, of course, but that’s still a general rule that’s been followed since the days of John McGraw and Joe McCarthy.

That’s why the Dodgers’ decision to try power-hitting Yasiel Puig in the leadoff spot is so intriguing. It flies against the notion of batting a fast guy who may lack power in that spot. Puig is fast, but his type of power is usually seen lower in the order.

"The thought process was the number of guys you want getting the extra at-bat," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He’s a guy who hasn’t really showed us yet that he’s going to drive in runs and we have a number of guys who do that, so get him that extra at-bat and a chance to pop a ball when the lineup turns over."
It’s an argument statistical analysts have made for decades -- there’s run-producing value in simply getting your best hitters more plate appearances, even if it means hitting them in non-conventional spots in the order. Fred Haney, when he managed the Milwaukee Braves, always toyed with the idea of batting Henry Aaron leadoff to get him more at-bats, but never followed through with it. Giants manager Bill Rigney started Willie Mays 45 times in the No. 2 hole in 1959 but Mays eventually returned to his usual No. 3 spot.

Considering the Dodgers don’t have an obvious leadoff candidate -- Dee Gordon is one of the fastest players in the majors but hasn’t shown he’ll hit and Carl Crawford’s on-base percentage has been a mediocre .308 over the past three seasons -- putting Puig there could prove a wise move. Hey, a solo home run is still a run scored, and the Dodgers still have big bats like Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp lower in the order. Hitting Puig leadoff also presents righty-lefty balance if the Dodgers go Puig, Crawford, Ramirez, Gonzalez and Kemp.

Puig hit 19 home runs in 104 games in 2013; prorate that to 150 games and you get 27 home runs. Factor in the potential for even more power and you’re looking at a leadoff hitter who could hit 30 home runs. That’s been done just 14 times -- including four times by Alfonso Soriano, who holds the single-season record with 39 home runs from the leadoff spot in 2006. Only five leadoff hitters have reached 25 home runs more than once: Soriano five times, Bobby Bonds three, and Rickey Henderson, Jimmy Rollins and Grady Sizemore twice each.

Chone Figgins, battling to make the Dodgers’ roster as a utility player, was once one of the top leadoff hitters in the game. He fit the more conventional mode of the little guy with speed who battles the pitcher, takes pitches and draws walks. He doesn’t think every leadoff hitter has to fit that stereotype. That fact that Puig may be a more aggressive hitter (although Puig’s walk rate did improve throughout his rookie season) isn’t necessarily something teammates would frown upon, he says.

"The teammates behind you don’t really care. They’re watching the pitcher anyway," Figgins said. "It’s more of an organizational thing on what kind of hitter they’re looking for. Some teams may like a guy like Grady Sizemore when he was with Cleveland, a guy with more power who is going to steal 20 bases. Then you had Seattle with Ichi [Ichiro Suzuki], and he swings, where I’m going to take a lot of pitches. Juan Pierre was sort of in-between Ichi and myself. It comes down to what kind of team it is and whatever players are behind the leadoff hitter."

SportsNation

Which projected leadoff hitter would you most want for your team?

  •  
    20%
  •  
    14%
  •  
    28%
  •  
    12%
  •  
    26%

Discuss (Total votes: 24,594)

Figgins pointed out that he had a strong lineup behind him with the Angels, so getting on base was paramount. But working the count was always his game as a hitter; he wasn't going to hit home runs anyway. He hasn't given any advice to Puig -- "I'm not even on the team," he said -- but he believes a hitter shouldn't change his own style of hitting based on where he hits.

While it may be viewed as an easy decision by Mattingly to hit Puig leadoff considering his options, few managers look for big power from the leadoff spot. Only the A’s (27), Mariners (21) and Reds (21) received 20 home runs from the leadoff spot in 2013 and eight teams had fewer than 10. Only three teams had 20-plus home runs from the leadoff spot in 2012. There were eight teams that reached 20-plus in 2011, including the Red Sox with Jacoby Ellsbury, the Rangers with Ian Kinsler and the Brewers with Rickie Weeks all topping 30, but that season was the recent exception.

The major league average has been 13 home runs from the leadoff spot the past two seasons, 14 in 2011, 12 in 2010. Even back in 2001, in the heyday of the steroid era, when seemingly everyone was hitting home runs, the major league average from the leadoff spot was still 13.

As for Puig, Mattingly has liked what he’s seen this spring, even if Puig is hitting just .152 in the early going. "He continues to grow up, and I don’t mean that in a bad way," Mattingly said. "He’s more mature. His outfield play has been really good as far as keeping the ball down and throwing the ball to the right place. His at-bats have been OK this spring."

Of course, just because the initial plans are for Puig to hit leadoff that doesn’t mean he'll remain there. As much as managers and fans obsess over lineups and who bats where, injuries and slumps force managers to be flexible. Most teams use well over 100 different lineups in a season and multiple leadoff hitters. And maybe Puig hits his way back down the lineup or Crawford hits his way back into the leadoff spot (although he was always most comfortable batting second in his Tampa Bay days).

Or maybe Puig hits 30 home runs, scores 120 runs, the Dodgers win the World Series and he becomes that evolutionary figure and 10 years from now every team will be wanting more power from the leadoff position. After all, it's always nice to jump out to a 1-0 lead.
Ramirez and PuigJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesWatch out, NL: The Dodgers will be getting a full season from Puig and Ramirez.
Are star players important?

You're an idiot, Schoenfield. Of course they're important. Go back to your day job.

OK, maybe there's a better way to rephrase that question. Which team has the best five core players? And is that a good indicator for reaching the postseason?

Let's do this. Using Baseball-Reference WAR as our baseline for determining a team's five best players, here are the top 10 teams in 2013 ranked by the combined WAR of their core five:

1. Detroit Tigers: 28.9
Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister

2. Boston Red Sox: 27.2
Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Clay Buchholz

3. Los Angeles Dodgers: 26.3
Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Juan Uribe, Adrian Gonzalez

4. Pittsburgh Pirates: 25.1
Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Russell Martin, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez

5. St. Louis Cardinals: 24.6
Matt Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Shelby Miller, Matt Holliday

6. Colorado Rockies: 24.2
Jhoulys Chacin, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Jorge De La Rosa, Nolan Arenado

7. Texas Rangers: 24.1
Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Craig Gentry

8. Cincinnati Reds: 22.6
Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey

9. Atlanta Braves: 22.4
Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen

10. Oakland Athletics: 22.2
Josh Donaldson, Bartolo Colon, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie

Maybe it's not too surprising that eight of those 10 teams made the playoffs. You don't make the playoffs without a solid core of excellent players. The two playoff teams not in the top 10 were the Rays, with 21.6 WAR from their top five guys (13th), and the Indians with 21.5 (14th). So, yes, stars are important.

However, it's also worth noting that most teams rated very similarly in the combined WAR from their best five players, at least in 2013: 17 teams ranked between the 22.6 WAR of the Reds and the 18.8 of the Orioles. That’s less than a four-win difference, not that four wins isn't important, but also a signal that roster spots six through 25 are often the difference between making the playoffs or heading on a fishing trip in October.

Another way to spin that is to look at the teams that received highest percentage of their overall team WAR from their five best players:

1. Astros: 153 percent
2. Phillies: 110 percent
3. Mets: 95 percent
4. Mariners: 90 percent
5. White Sox: 86 percent
6. Marlins: 84 percent
7. Brewers: 78 percent
8. Twins: 74 percent
9. Diamondbacks: 73 percent
10. Rockies: 72 percent

Yes, you're reading that correctly: The Astros and Phillies received more value from their top five players than they did from their entire rosters -- meaning, the rest of their rosters behind their core five were below replacement.

The main thing to take away from these "imbalanced" teams: None of them had a winning record (the Diamondbacks finished .500). The rest of the roster matters. Take a team like the Mariners. Led by Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez, the 21.1 WAR from their top five players was on par with Rays, Indians; the rest of the roster was, collectively, horrible. Robinson Cano brings more star power to Seattle but doesn't solve the team's biggest issue, the lack of quality depth.

What about 2014? Here are my top 10 core fives heading into the season:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez


This group could be even better than it was in 2013 with full seasons from Ramirez and Puig. Greinke was so dominant over his final 16 starts (1.57 ERA) that he’s a reasonable Cy Young candidate behind his best-starter-in-baseball teammate. The fifth player on the list could be Gonzalez or Matt Kemp or even third starter Hyun-Jin Ryu.

2. Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Ian Kinsler


You have the reigning two-time MVP and then two Cy Young winners and then last year's American League ERA champ in Sanchez. Kinsler will have to prove that his offensive game translates from Texas to Detroit, but his all-around game has been valuable in recent seasons.

3. Texas Rangers
Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder


A little bit of everything: An ace pitcher, power and defense from Beltre, slick defense and speed from Andrus and two left-handed batters who get on base. The additions of Choo and Fielder help bring some lefty balance to the Rangers lineup and lead to more runs for a lineup that slipped a bit last season.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates
Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Russell Martin, Pedro Alvarez


My underrated core five. I like McCutchen to repeat his MVP season (in numbers, at least, if not in hardware), Marte and Martin to excel on defense and do just enough at the plate, Alvarez to slam 30-something homers again and Cole to become a breakout star in his sophomore season.

5. St. Louis Cardinals
Adam Wainwright, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Michael Wacha, Matt Holliday

What makes the Cardinals impressive is that this core could also include Shelby Miller or Allen Craig.

6. Tampa Bay Rays
Evan Longoria, David Price, Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, Alex Cobb


Price, Myers and Cobb didn't spend the entire season on the active roster (Price and Cobb missed time with minor injuries while Myers began the year in Triple-A), so odds are strong this group could outperform last year, especially if Myers blossoms in his sophomore campaign.

7. Washington Nationals
Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman


If you want slightly off-the-radar awards picks, how about Harper for MVP and Zimmermann for Cy Young?

8. Atlanta Braves
Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel


Kimbrel, who turns 26 in May, is the oldest player in the group.

9. Milwaukee Brewers
Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, Jean Segura, Yovani Gallardo


A little weak in the pitching department, but Braun should return to his MVP-caliber play and Gomez was MVP-caliber in 2013. Lucroy produces at the plate and is one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Segura is an exciting plug who has to prove his second-half slump in 2013 was simply fatigue.

10. Boston Red Sox
Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Shane Victorino


A good bet to regress, as a large portion of Victorino's value came from his outstanding defense and Big Papi will get old one of these years.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Chone Figgins has been at the top of the baseball world, a reserve on the 2002 World Series champion Angels, a guy who twice scored 100 runs and signed a big free-agent contract. He's been at the bottom of the baseball world, bottoming out in Seattle when he hit .188 in 2011 and .181 in 2012. Cut by the Marlins in spring training last year, the Dodgers invited him to spring training in what's likely the last gasp of his baseball career.

You probably couldn't find a more similar player physically to Figgins than Dee Gordon. They're both short and thinner than a Fashion Week runway model, with games built on speed and energy. Both are infielders by trade. Figgins was once one of the fastest players in the game; Gordon, with the younger legs, is maybe the fastest player this side of Billy Hamilton. But he, too, is perhaps on his last chance of sorts, the final opportunity to prove to the Dodgers that he can start in the major leagues.

They're battling for the starting second-base job with the Dodgers in what is perhaps one of the more intriguing position battles of spring training (Cuban free agent Alex Guerrero is almost assuredly going to start the season in Triple-A).

"I think I have 29 at-bats and have nine walks," Figgins said before Thursday's game against the Reds. "Some people are looking at it like he's not getting hits, but I look at like I may have only five hits but I have nine walks and that's 14 times on base in 29 at-bats. That's always been my goal, getting on base."

Figgins, the wise veteran, nailed his stats. Hey, every walk matters when you're fighting for a job. He's hitting just .172, but does have a .368 on-base percentage and his versatility -- he can play second, third and the outfield -- could land him a job as a utility guy, or at least a trip to Australia to start the season when the Dodgers play two games there against the Diamondbacks on March 22-23.

"It's been good here," he said. "Don's [manager Don Mattingly] been fair and giving me a chance. He knows I'm going to battle, try to get my pitch to hit. I'm not going to swing at a fastball inside because I'm not going to do much with that pitch. I'll look for something over the plate or low and away.

"It's interesting. Teams are always looking for guys who can see a lot of pitches and get on and after getting released from the Marlins, I was like 'Hello?'"

After the Marlins cut him, Figgins didn't play any baseball or even take any swings. He didn't want to go to the minors because he wouldn't have been assured of getting back to the majors. He's returned to his old swing, with his hands lower, resting on his shoulder. He said after he began struggling in Seattle he raised his hands higher, which he now says he probably shouldn't have done.

"Don and the hitting coaches looked at the video and said that's not the way you used to hit. They said just do what's most comfortable," he said.

While Figgins sat out all of 2013, Gordon spent most of the year at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he hit .298/.385/.390 with 49 steals. Once viewed as the Dodgers' future at shortstop, he's now learning second base, which he played a bit last year at Triple-A.

"The biggest thing I've had to learn is the angles, taking different angles on certain balls," Gordon said. "It's all about the reps, just getting more reps," he said, believing his footwork on the double play has improved.

Gordon knows the baseball life. He's the son of former major leaguer Tom Gordon, so despite his prospect pedigree he knows nothing is guaranteed. "I'm just trying to open some eyes. You have to prove yourself. I feel I've done that so far."

Gordon got most enthusiastic when asked about his younger brother, Nick, maybe the top shortstop prospect in this year's draft. "I talk to him all the time, almost every day," he said. Talking to your younger brother can help take the pressure off trying impress the big league brass.

While veterans often give out advice, Figgins said he's mostly remained quiet this spring. "I don't really say too much right now since I'm not on the team," he said.



Both players were in Thursday's lineup, Gordon hitting leadoff and playing second base, Figgins batting second and playing center field. As I write this in the third inning, Gordon hits a ground ball single to left off Alfredo Simon. Figgins then works the count to 2-1, gets a pitch up in the zone and lines a hard single to right just past second baseman Skip Schumaker.

It occurs to me: Gordon's grounder could have gone right to an infielder instead of finding a hole. If Brandon Phillips is playing second base instead of Schumaker, maybe he makes the play on Figgins' hit. Figgins would tell you the little things matter, especially in the limited sample size that spring training presents. But a few at-bats is all Figgins has. He got his sixth hit of the spring and that extra hit or two could make all the difference in making the team.

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?

  •  
    15%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    25%
  •  
    26%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,858)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    17%
  •  
    21%
  •  
    25%
  •  
    18%
  •  
    19%

Discuss (Total votes: 13,837)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    15%
  •  
    20%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    10%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,014)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    29%
  •  
    23%
  •  
    20%
  •  
    12%
  •  
    16%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,370)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    19%
  •  
    16%
  •  
    21%
  •  
    22%
  •  
    22%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,627)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    14%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    27%
  •  
    31%
  •  
    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,376)

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

Five playoff teams from last year. So we're essentially asking: Which team is the best bet to return to the playoffs? I'm going with the Cardinals here, since I do have them as my No. 1 overall team heading into the season. I like their depth across the board: Position players, rotation and bullpen. I like their youth. I think the Pirates and Reds are a little weaker than last season. St. Louis won 97 games last year and I wouldn't be shocked to see the Cardinals do it again.
Through his first 27 major league games, Yasiel Puig hit .443, a figure fueled by an unsustainable .513 batting average on balls in play. Once the bloops and tricklers stopped finding holes, his average regressed and he hit .272 the rest of the way.

SportsNation

Over or under on Yasiel Puig hitting .290?

  •  
    57%
  •  
    43%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,065)

His final batting line read .319/.391/.534, still impressive for a player with only 40 games in Double-A. Will he hit .300 again in his sophomore season?

I addressed some of Puig's strengths in this piece, pointing out that he showed more patience as his rookie season progressed. Control the strike zone and you get yourself out less often. He finished 2013 with a .383 BABIP -- tied for second-highest in the majors with Joe Mauer, behind Chris Johnson (minimum 300 plate appearances), so you would normally expect regression from a figure so high.

Still, you have to factor in that with his speed Puig is going to get a lot of infield hits -- he had 17 last year. That's helps the old BABIP.

So what do you think? The ZiPS projection system has him hitting .284. Others are at .290 and .292. Let's set the over/under at .290. (I'm taking the over.)
video
In the video above, Eric Karabell and I debate whether the Dodgers are the biggest lock in baseball. Eric's argument is there's no such thing as a lock and he presents some valid issues facing the Dodgers. The discussion was sparked by Baseball Prospectus' projected standings, which have the Dodgers as the only team winning as many as 90 games -- and 98 at that.

I don't necessarily have the Dodgers as my No. 1 team, but here are five reasons they are the biggest lock to win their division.

1. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke

My dad's generation got to watch Sandy Koufax. We get to watch Clayton Kershaw. He's led the National League in ERA the past three seasons, on his way to matching Koufax's 1962-66 run of five consecutive ERA titles. He's the best pitcher in baseball and owner of perhaps the best pitch -- a curveball that is almost unhittable. Batters hit .096 against it in 2013, with zero extra-base hits, zero walks and 80 strikeouts. They called Dwight Gooden's curve Lord Charles, and Vin Scully once dubbed Kershaw's breaker Public Enemy No. 1, though it hasn't caught on the way it should.

Then there's Greinke, who quietly went 15-4 with a 2.63 ERA in his first year with the Dodgers. After missing a few starts in April and early May with a fractured collarbone, Greinke hit his stride once he was healthy and went 9-2 with a 1.57 ERA over his final 16 starts. Think about that: The Dodgers may have a Cy Young winner in 2014 and there's a decent chance it won't be Kershaw.

2. Yasiel Puig is going to have a monster season

I get it. Puig is unpredictable off the field and thus unpredictable on it. He could hit .300 with 30 home runs or hit .240 with 15. I lean to the former and expect Puig to be one of the leading MVP candidates in the National League. Here's one I reason I believe in Puig:

First 52 games: 6.3 percent walk rate, 23.9 percent strikeout rate
Second 52 games: 10.5 percent walk rate, 20.9 percent strikeout rate

The great hitters control the strike zone and Puig showed drastic improvement in this regard as his rookie season progressed. And remember, this was after drawing no walks in 58 at-bats in spring training. Another reason I like him is he can hit to the opposite field -- five of his 19 home runs went to right-center or right field and he hit .348 when going to the opposite field.

Here's another way to look at it: Puig's heat map on batting average for 2013. Where do you pitch him? He kills the inside pitch, in part because he stands off the plate. You can go outside, but he's good at going to the opposite field -- and getting better at laying off pitches off the plate. Good luck, pitchers.

PuigESPN Stats & InfoPitchers have nowhere to hide against Puig.
3. Four good outfielders isn't a bad thing

Everyone seems worried about the crowded outfield picture. Matt Kemp's relatively harmless "I'm not a fourth outfielder" comment stirred the media into a minor frenzy. Here's the deal: Yes, it probably won't be easy for Don Mattingly to deal with four egos if Puig, Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford are all healthy. But these things usually work themselves out, via trade, injury or subpar performance. Depth is a strength, not a problem.

4. A dominant bullpen

I love this bullpen, one that I think will be the best in the game, with apologies to the Braves, Royals, Pirates and other strong units. You start with Kenley Jansen, who struck out 38 percent of the hitters he faced last year. Brian Wilson is back after a strong performance down the stretch and in the postseason. You have Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell from the left side; they combined to hold opposing hitters to a .180 average. Chris Withrow is the sleeper guy out there, a guy with a good arm who never put it together as a starter in the minors, moved to the bullpen and saw his fastball tick up to 96 mph on average, a reason batters hit .165 off him. You have Jose Dominguez who made nine big league appearances last year; he's been clocked at 100 mph.

After all that, you still have veterans Jamey Wright and Chris Perez, who saved 123 games for the Indians the past four seasons.

5. The most winnable division

While there are reasons to believe in the Diamondbacks, Giants, Padres and even the Rockies, the Dodgers would appear to have the biggest gap over their division rivals than the other division favorites.

The Red Sox have to battle the Rays and Yankees. The Tigers finished just one game ahead of the Indians last year and the Royals weren't much further behind. The A's and Rangers should be locked up in another duel. The Braves and Nationals will be co-favorites in the NL East. And while the Cardinals will be the heavy favorite in the NL Central, you don't have to stretch your imagination for storylines in which the Reds or Pirates take the division.

Those reasons make the Dodgers the easiest lock of any division.

And I didn't even mention Hanley Ramirez.

SPONSORED HEADLINES