SweetSpot: Milwaukee Brewers

So you may have seen Brewers manager Ron Roenicke go off on umpire Mark Ripperger after the Brewers' 3-2 loss to the Padres on Wednesday. Roenicke said the Brewers have had Ripperger before "and he is terrible behind home plate" and admitted he probably should have been tossed from the game in the second inning. Roenicke was ejected after Rene Rivera tied the game with a home run in the ninth.

"He calls pitches that aren't even close," Roenicke said. "The catcher sets up six inches off the plate and he calls them strikes."

What apparently upset Roenicke were the first two pitches to Rivera from Francisco Rodriguez -- both significantly outside, both called balls, setting up a 2-0 fastball that Rodriguez threw down the middle. Roenicke's issue, I suppose, was that those pitches were called strikes earlier in the game.

According to our data at ESPN Stats & Information, Ripperger is actually pretty good at calling strikes -- with a "correct call" percentage of 89.5 on the season, he ranks above the overall average of 88.4. He didn't have his best game on Wednesday, with a correct call rate of 87.2 percent, although I doubt Roenicke could determine such a small number sitting on the bench. Here's the Brooks Baseball plot of Ripperger's called strikes.

Doesn't look like that bad of a game.

I'd add two things:

--Even if Ripperger had made some bad calls earlier, two wrongs don't necessarily make a right, although the one thing players and managers want from an umpire is consistency.

--If there's one team that shouldn't complain about the strike zone, it's probably the Brewers. Thanks to the pitch-framing abilities of Jonathan Lucroy (and backup Martin Maldonado, who is also very good), the Brewers probably benefit from more pitches out of the strike zone called strikes than any other team.

OK, let's go to the data on that one. According to the Baseball Savant web site, which parses PITCHf/x data, the Brewers are fifth in the majors in pitches out of the strike zone that are called strikes -- behind the Padres, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees.

In other words, Roenicke better not hope we get robot umps while he still has Lucroy behind the plate. In the end, the Brewers are going to catch more breaks from the umps than their opponents.

Chalk this one up to a manager overreacting after a tough loss.
With the pennant races heating up, I'm thinking of trying this each morning the rest of the season: Sort of a quick-hitting look at some key results from the previous night and what may mean or not mean. Let's see how it goes.

1. Oakland's rotation isn't carrying the A's.

Scott Kazmir got bombed on Sunday night (10 hits and seven runs), although the A's still won the series from the Angels, winning two of three and getting better results from Sonny Gray on Friday and Jon Lester on Saturday. Jeff Samardzija made his first start for the A's on July 6 and Billy Beane later added Jon Lester; nonetheless, the A's are just 22-20 since Samardzija's debut. Don't point fingers just at the offense; the rotation has a 4.00 ERA since then, 17th in the majors and just ninth in the American League. The offense, meanwhile, is fourth in the AL in runs scored since July 6, averaging 4.38 runs per game. True, that's down from 5.0 runs per game through July 5, but good enough if the starting pitching was performing better.

2. Brewers' rotation depth is paying off.

Who would have thought that it would be Milwaukee's depth in the rotation compared to St. Louis' that could pay off in the long run? Mike Fiers allowed two hits and two runs in seven innings in a 4-3 win over Pittsburgh and is 4-0 with a 1.29 ERA in four starts filling in for Matt Garza. His success isn't unprecedented; remember, he had a solid rookie season in 2012 before collapsing last year. But he had pitched well in Triple-A (2.55 ERA, great peripherals), suggesting he had turned things around. Analysts have had a hard time believing in him due to his lack of fastball velocity but he keep hitters off-balance and has a deceptive delivery. Rookie Jimmy Nelson has been solid in his eight starts (4.15) as well. Meanwhile ...

3. Cardinals may have to reconsider Justin Masterson's rotation slot.

Masterson had another bad start for St. Louis, lasting just three innings in a 7-1 loss to Philly. He's 2-2 with a 7.53 in five starts with the Cardinals (and John Lackey hasn't been great either, with a 5.40 ERA). Among 124 pitchers with at least 100 innings, Masterson is 124th in OBP allowed -- .388. Considering that Adam Wainwright's second-half ERA has risen from 1.83 to 4.70, with a corresponding decline in strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.26 to 1.76, and it's amazing the Cardinals remain just 1.5 games behind the Brewers. The Cardinals may have to stick with Masterson, as there isn't a clear option to replace him unless they want to give Carlos Martinez another shot (unlikely) or rookie Marco Gonzalez, who struggled with his control in three earlier starts.

4. The Nationals are the best team in baseball right now.

I had Washington No. 1 in this week's Power Rankings, over the A's and Angels (who lost ace Garrett Richards for the season). They pounded the Giants 14-6 to win that series. Earlier in the week, they completed a stretch of five walk-off wins in six games and they're 17-5 since Aug. 2. All season, we've been waiting for the Nationals to click; they're finally clicking. If there's minor cause for concern, it's the continued inconsistency of Stephen Strasburg. Coming off back-to-back one-run outings, the Giants knocked him out after four innings and five runs. If you're Matt Williams, how do you line up your playoff rotation? I have to think Strasburg, at best, goes after Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann.

5. The Yankees aren't dead yet.

Brian McCann delivered a dramatic two-out, full-count, pinch-hit three-run homer in the 10th inning to give the Yankees their second walk-off win in three days and their fourth win in a row. The Yankees continue to play above .500 ball despite getting outscored; they're minus-34 runs on the season and they're 12-9 in August while getting outscored 81-77. They have a chance to become the first team ever to finish above .500 in consecutive seasons while getting outscored both years. We can analyze that any number of ways, but the Yankees keep finding ways to win; in shorthand, they win the close games (21-16 in one-run games) and lose the blowouts (10-18 in games decided by five or more runs). This week will be interesting: A seven-game road trip against playoff contenders Kansas City (one game), Detroit (three) and Toronto (three). The playoff odds for the Yankees remain slim -- 8.8 percent to win the division, just 3.3 to win the wild card, so the analytics suggest their best path to the postseason is a Baltimore collapse.

I don't see that happening, but we've all learned never to count out the Yankees when the lineup card suggests they're not very good.

Mike Morse hit a foul ball in Thursday's game in Milwaukee and then this happened: Many arms reach up for the ball, there's a mad scramble, teenagers come crashing down the aisle ... but check out who ends up with the ball.
I admit this one kind of snuck up on me: Wily Peralta became the majors' first 14-game winner in the Brewers' 3-1 victory over the Giants on Thursday (Adam Wainwright later matched him). Peralta has won his past five starts and has pitched well in that span -- 1.64 ERA, .203 average allowed. He fanned a season-high nine batters against the Giants, inducing a season-high 15 swings-and-misses and 25 swings on pitches outside the strike zone.

It seems like a good time for a little Q&A about Peralta.

Who is Wily Peralta?

Signed way back in 2005, we heard about Peralta and his monster fastball for years and the big-boned right-hander finally arrived last year for his first full season, pitching with mixed results (11-15, 4.37 ERA, 183.1 IP, 187 H, 73 BB, 129 SO). The strikeout rate was a little disappointing for a guy who averaged 94.8 mph with his fastball and touched 99, but he made all 32 starts and showed signs that he could develop into a durable middle-of-the-rotation workhorse. He's now 14-6 with a 3.42 ERA in 2014.

How come his strikeout rate is mediocre?
Peralta has 108 K's in 144.2 innings, with a strikeout rate of 17.8 percent that ranks 64th among 92 qualified starters. His average fastball velocity of 95.6 mph is tied for third among starters with Nathan Eovaldi of the Marlins, behind only Yordano Ventura and Garrett Richards. So why not more strikeouts? Well, for starters, strikeouts more often come from breaking balls or changeups, not fastballs. Peralta is a fastball/slider guy with a changeup he throws about 5 percent of the time. One reason his K rate isn't higher is that along with his upper 90s four-seam fastball he throws a hard two-seam sinking fastball, a pitch that doesn't necessarily register a lot of strikeouts but does generate groundballs. He's seventh among starters with his 56.5 percent groundball rate.

Against the Giants, he got five strikeouts with his slider, showing good downward tilt. That's the closest thing he has to a wipeout pitch.

Is he better than his peripherals suggest?
His FIP -- Fielding Independent Pitching -- is 4.19, in part because the strikeout rate isn't higher. But he does make up for that with that excellent groundball rate. He has held batters to a .197 average with runners in scoring position compared to .258 overall, however, so it's possible that number could eventually fall in line with his overall hit rate and his left on base percentage decreases and his runs allowed increases. On the other hand, his rate of home runs per fly ball is fourth-worst among starters, which could be a product of bad luck and pitching in Milwaukee, or a product of pitching up in the zone with his four-seamer. In short: I guess we don't really know if he's better than his peripherals, as we see numbers in both directions. That makes Peralta hard to evaluate simply on the numbers: He's a groundball pitcher who also gives up home runs.

But does he know how to win?
I heard one analyst on Thursday describing Wainwright as a "guy who knows how to win." Well, Wainwright wins a lot of games because he's been a terrific pitcher who pitches deep into games and has a good team supporting him.

As for Peralta and his 14 wins, it comes down to some decent pitching and good fortune.

The old definition of a quality start -- at least six innings and three runs or fewer -- doesn't necessarily hold up as well in this day of lower scoring. I also like to look at we'll call a Felix, in honor of Felix Hernandez's record-setting stretch of such starts: Seven innings or more and two runs or less.

Here's how often major league pitchers get wins in those situations this season:

6+ innings, 3 runs: 33 percent
7+ innings, 2 runs or fewer: 65 percent

Peralta has thrown five "Felixes" this year -- and won four of those. He's won two of the three games where he pitched at least six innings and allowed exactly three runs. But where he's been most fortunate is when he hasn't had a good game: He's won three times when allowing four runs; only Madison Bumgarner and Hiroki Kuroda can match that total.

So does Peralta know how to win? I think you already know the answer to that. He's a young pitcher having a good year with some good luck and it's certainly fun to see him name atop the leaderboard. At least we've come a long way in recent years to understand that just because he's leading the league in wins he's not necessarily a Cy Young contender.

The Giants and Brewers are playing an interesting and important series in Milwaukee. The perception, I suppose, is that both teams are scuffling after playing their best baseball early in the season, and there's definitely truth to that perception. The Giants led the NL West by 9½ games back on June 8 but had gone 19-31 since then entering Wednesday's game. The Brewers peaked with a 20-7 start, meaning they've played under .500 since the end of April. Further, both teams have been hit by rotation injuries: As expected, the Giants announced Matt Cain would undergo season-ending surgery for bone chips; Matt Garza just landed on the disabled list with an oblique strain.

The Brewers won the opening game of the series, setting up a Ryan Vogelsong-Yovani Gallardo matchup for the second game. On paper and computer screens, the matchup favored the Brewers as Vogelsong, while he's had a nice comeback from a disastrous 2013 campaign, has a sizable home/road split with the road numbers including a 4.70 ERA and eight of the nine home runs he's allowed. Gallardo, meanwhile, was coming off two straight scoreless starts.

Of course, this is baseball, so that's not the way it worked out. Some random notes and thoughts on the Giants' 7-4 victory …

  • Arguably the game's biggest hit came in the top of the first in the form of Michael Morse's two-out RBI single on a broken-bat grounder up the middle that gave the Giants a 3-0 lead. The Brewers had a shift on but the ball still scooted just past second baseman Scooter Gennett. Morse was a key reason the Giants were so hot early on, as he hit .295/.351/.574 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs through May. He has just four homers since, however, and if he's not hitting home runs, he's not providing a whole lot of value considering his lack of range in left field. The Giants were actually fifth in the majors with 63 home runs the first two months but rank 28th since June 1. More power from Morse will be helpful in catching the Dodgers.
  • Remember when Gallardo had that great start against the Diamondbacks in Game 1 of the 2011 Division Series? He went eight innings that day, allowed one run and struck out nine. One of his best weapons that day was a big curve that he threw 21 times. In 2011, opponents hit .200 against Gallardo's curve, and the pitch looked like it would develop into a huge weapon for him -- he had a strikeout rate of 42 percent with the pitch that year. But he lost some feel for the pitch the past couple years, and it hasn't been quite as effective. This year, that strikeout rate with the curve is down to 29 percent, although opponents are hitting just .198 against it. He still throws the pitch but uses it more often earlier in the count as a change of pace from his four-seamer and two-seam sinker (a pitch he rarely used back in 2011). He didn't have a great game on this night, but he has been a solid starter all season.
  • [+] EnlargePablo Sandoval
    AP Photo/Morry GashSomebody is going to want to sign Pablo Sandoval to add the big guy's big swing this winter.

  • Pablo Sandoval had a big game, going 3-for-5 with a double and a two-run homer in the eighth, adding another diving stop in the field. Mark Simon just wrote about Sandoval's terrific defense in July. Sandoval is a free agent, and it makes you think: Don't the Giants have to sign this guy? Yes, there are flaws in his game and you're always going to worry about the weight, but -- while we've quit dreaming on him repeating that monster .330/.387/.556 season in 2009 -- he's settled into a solid, consistent player. I suspect there will be a lot of interest in him: The Yankees, Diamondbacks, Angels and Royals are among the teams likely to be in the market for a third baseman. You don't want to give him six years, but, considering he'll be only 28, a three- or four-year deal seems like a reasonable risk.
  • The Brewers wanted to add a right-handed reliever at the trade deadline, and general manager Doug Melvin said they tried to get Joaquin Benoit from the Padres, and Wednesday's game revealed their lack of a top righty setup guy in front of Francisco Rodriguez, as Brandon Kintzler entered in the eighth inning with a 4-3 deficit and gave up three hits. Sandoval then hit his home run off Tom Gorzelanny. Kintzler has allowed a .307 average; among 164 relievers with at least 30 innings pitched, that ranks 162nd.
  • Brandon Belt had an awful game, going 0-for-5 with four strikeouts. You might remember I predicted that he would contend for the NL batting crown, buying into his scorching-hot second half of last season. OK, so he's had some injuries. If he's the guy hitting behind Buster Posey and Sandoval, he's going to be a key RBI guy. Time to hit.
  • One reason Bruce Bochy is one of the best managers in the game: When Angel Pagan went down, the Giants lacked an obvious choice for a leadoff hitter. Eventually, Bochy settled on Hunter Pence. Instead of trying to find a guy who looks like a leadoff hitter -- see the Braves' Fredi Gonzalez and B.J. Upton -- Bochy simply put a good hitter there. By doing so, Bochy is giving his best hitter an extra plate appearance. I'm sure when Pagan returns -- he had a rehab start with Fresno on Wednesday and may be in the lineup on Thursday -- he'll be back in the leadoff spot, but Bochy would be wise to keep Pence at the top. A lineup that goes Pagan, Pence, Posey, Sandoval, Belt and Morse isn't too bad in this day and age.
  • Jonathan Lucroy, still in the MVP hunt. In fact, if Andrew McCutchen's rib injury keeps him out several weeks, Lucroy may end up as the leading position player candidate ahead of Cutch, Troy Tulowitzki (also injured) and Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins likely not playoff contenders by September).

Let's look at some of the fallout from the trade deadline -- things people said -- and then make some predictions for what happens the rest of the way.

1. The acquisition of Jon Lester makes the Oakland A's the favorite in the AL West.

Prediction: The A's win the West.

The trade for Lester didn't actually upgrade the A's odds to beat the Los Angeles Angels all that much -- using player projection totals and remaining schedule, Baseball Prospectus says the trade increased Oakland's chances a mere 2 percent. The Angels won on Sunday, thanks to a five-run first inning, while the A's were shut down by James Shields in a 4-2 loss to the Royals, so Oakland's lead is one game. Still, I like Oakland's rotation depth. C.J. Wilson's return on Saturday after missing a month was a disaster as he got knocked out in the second inning, Tyler Skaggs just landed on the DL with a shoulder issue and you wonder how the Angels' rotation will hold up after Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver.

2. With John Lackey and Justin Masterson, the St. Louis Cardinals are the team to beat in the NL Central.

Prediction: The Pirates win the Central.

The Cardinals remain the favorite, according to our playoffs odds, and Lackey pitched seven strong innings on Sunday to win his Cardinals debut, but I'm going with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here's the thing about Lackey and Masterson: The Cardinals' rotation was pretty good before the trades; Lackey and Masterson may be upgrades over what Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez would have done the rest of the season, making the trades important, but they aren't necessarily an improvement over what the Cardinals had received so far from their various starters in those slots. The Cardinals are eighth in the majors with a 3.47 rotation ERA, and I don't expect them to do much better than that moving forward.

The St. Louis offense, meanwhile, is still next to last in the NL in runs scored. In what should be a three-team race down to the wire, the Pirates are my pick. One major reason: Francisco Liriano. In four starts since coming off the DL, he has a 1.96 ERA. He's looking more like the guy who was so good last year. If they can get Gerrit Cole back from his lat strain -- he was scratched from his Saturday start and instead threw a bullpen session -- even better. Note: If the injury to Andrew McCutchen's side that forced him out of Sunday's game proves serious, all bets are off.

3. Even with David Price, Max Scherzer is still the Detroit Tigers' ace.

Prediction: Price starts Game 1 of the division series.

This may be most important decision Brad Ausmus has to make all postseason: Which guy do you line up for two potential starts in the first round? The past two years against the A's, it has been Justin Verlander, and he rewarded Jim Leyland with two dominant efforts. But it won't be Verlander this year. My bet is on Price, who has been more consistent this season than Scherzer and has a 2.03 ERA over his past two starts. The Tigers may play the Orioles and the O's have an OPS of .732 against righties and .695 against lefties, another reason to slot Price in the first game.

4. The Los Angeles Dodgers made a mistake by not getting Lester or Price.

Prediction: The Dodgers win the NL West.

Josh Beckett didn't do anything to boost the confidence of Dodgers fans with another poor effort on Sunday; he got knocked out after scuffling through 94 pitches in four-plus innings. In three starts since the All-Star break, he has gone 3.2, 4.1 and 4 innings, respectively. Dan Haren has been even worse, with a 10.03 ERA over his past five starts.

Still, I agree with the decision to hold on to Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. At some point, you need to infuse some youth, and with Pederson heating up again at Triple-A, he may be in the Dodgers' outfield sooner rather than later. The Dodgers will win the West thanks to the best top three in the NL in Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

5. The Baltimore Orioles should have added a starting pitcher.

Prediction: The Orioles win the AL East.

Maybe the Orioles lack an ace in the mold of Price or Lester, but good luck getting those guys from a division rival. Plus, there's this: Since June 9, the Orioles have the third-best ERA in the majors and second-best rotation ERA in the American League (3.05). Chris Tillman outdueled Hisashi Iwakuma 1-0 on Sunday in the latest strong effort from a Baltimore starter.

The question: Is there some smoke and mirrors going on here? Since June 9, Orioles starters are 29th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings and 28th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. That does make you wonder; on the other hand, the Orioles are a very good defensive teams (fifth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved) so they do turn more batted balls into outs than most teams. The O's may like to have an ace for the postseason, but they can get there without one.

6. The Seattle Mariners are better after acquiring some bats.

Prediction: The Mariners still don't have enough offense to win the wild card.

Since the All-Star break they've allowed the second fewest runs per game in the majors -- 2.88. And they're 6-10. They lost 2-1 on Friday and 1-0 on Sunday. Kendrys Morales has looked terrible since coming over from the Twins, where he also looked terrible. Austin Jackson was a much-needed move for center field, but he and Chris Denorfia aren't game-changers on offense, even above and beyond what the Mariners had. And they can't count on Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma giving up just one or two runs every time out.

7. Stephen Strasburg isn't an ace yet.

Prediction: The Washington Nationals win the NL East ... and Strasburg starts Game 1 of the playoffs.

Wait, did somebody write that about Strasburg? He sure looked like one on Sunday, striking out 10 in seven scoreless innings against the Phillies. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves lost their sixth in a row, creating a 3.5-game lead for Washington, its biggest since holding a 3.5-game on June 1.

8. The San Francisco Giants should have picked up a second baseman.

Prediction: They'll get one in August.

Even with a nine-run outburst on Sunday, over the past month the Giants are hitting .231/.290/.342, the second-lowest OPS in the majors (ahead of only the Mariners). A second baseman isn't going to cure this, but Brandon Belt returned on Saturday and that should help. Buster Posey may be heating up, hitting .352 over the past two weeks and that will help. Brian Sabean has made waiver pickups before, so don't count him from getting somebody -- maybe a guy like Luis Valbuena from the Chicago Cubs. As the offense improves, the Giants should solidify their place in the wild-card standings (playing the Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks will help a lot also).

9. The Cleveland Indians punted the season in trading Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera.

Prediction: Not necessarily ...

The Indians won their third in a row on Sunday on Michael Brantley's 12th-inning home run, and they're just three games back for the second wild card. I'm not predicting them to win it (I'll go with the Toronto Blue Jays), but I'm predicting them to hang in there.

10. The A's are now World Series favorites.

Prediction: OK, I'll go with that. Aren't the A's overdue for some October magic?

So, my post-deadline picks:

AL wild card: Angels over Blue Jays
NL wild card: Giants over Brewers

ALDS: Tigers over Orioles
ALDS: A's over Angels

NLDS: Dodgers over Giants
NLDS: Nationals over Pirates

ALCS: A's over Tigers
NLCS: Dodgers over Nationals

World Series: A's over Dodgers ... Jon Lester wins Game 7 and then signs a $175 million contract with the Dodgers in the offseason. Sam Fuld wins World Series MVP honors. Billy Beane announces retirement and says, "I was never really into this sabermetrics stuff anyway."

Brewers bomb Wainwright, and win again

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2

One day after the trade deadline, St. Louis trailed Milwaukee by two games in the ever-competitive National League Central division. The Cardinals, of course, were the preseason favorites in the Central, after advancing all the way to the World Series last October. The Brewers, however, grabbed first place on April 5, and they have surprised most observers by remaining in first ever since. OK, maybe I'm the only observer who is baffled by Milwaukee's success, but that counts for something, right?

Anyway, the Cardinals have tied for the Central lead on a couple of occasions, most recently on July 20, but they've never been able to overtake Milwaukee completely. This, of course, was an unacceptable situation in the eyes of St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, who went to work at the trade deadline, acquiring pitchers John Lackey and Justin Masterson to shore up a rotation that has been OK but has suffered somewhat due to Michael Wacha's bum shoulder.

The Brewers countered with a deadline deal that essentially bet on Gerardo Parra returning to form (which was not a bad bet), but after the flurry of deadline trade activity, St. Louis saw its playoff odds increase more than any team in baseball. These teams have been fighting all season, and there's every reason to believe they will continue that fight over the last two months of the season (with the Pirates trying to get in on the action, as well).

Right on cue, the Cards and Brew Crew began a pivotal three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night. With one of the NL's best, Adam Wainwright, on the mound and an improved roster, it was only a matter of time before the Cardinals began their march to the division title, right?

Not so fast, my friend. With a 7-4 win before a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium, the Brewers made a statement Friday. No, the public relations department didn't literally issue a statement, but Milwaukee did serve notice on the Cardinals that they aren't planning to go away any time soon.

Milwaukee scored early and often against Wainwright, eventually driving him from the game with a four-run sixth that blew the game wide open. Up to this point in the season, Wainwright has been among the contenders for best pitcher in the world (Non-Clayton Kershaw Divison). After giving up seven runs, nine hits and three walks in 5 1/3 innings Friday, however, Wainwright saw his ERA jump from 1.92 to 2.26, and he permitted the Brewers to further increase their lead in the division.

On the other side of the ledger, Milwaukee starter Wily Peralta came into Friday's contest with a 12-6 record and an ERA of 3.56. While he wasn't at his best, Peralta pitched an effective 6 2/3 innings, giving up two runs and five hits to win his 13th game, which ties for the National League lead (along with Wainwright and Kershaw, appropriately enough).

A Brewers offense that is second in the National League in runs scored didn't miss a beat, either. Aramis Ramirez was 3-for-5 with a double, homer (his 13th of the season) and two RBIs. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy continued to mash the baseball, with two hits, including a bases-clearing double that drove in three runs and sent Wainwright to the showers in the sixth inning. Ryan Braun had two doubles and two RBIs, as well. If you haven't noticed, these guys can hit.

In the end, St. Louis remains a solid bet to win the NL Central. The pitching should be slightly better the rest of the way, after the trade-deadline acquisitions of Lackey and Masterson. The offense probably will improve as well, thanks to the subtraction of Allen Craig, who has been simply dismal this season, hitting a pathetic .237/.291/.346 with seven homers (.286 wOBA and 81 wRC+; that's bad). It will be interesting to watch young Oscar Taveras as he gets regular playing time for the first time as a big leaguer. If nothing else, he surely won't be worse than Craig has been.

Don't bet against these Brewers, though. I keep waiting for them to falter, but they hit the ball hard, they score runs and they keep defying expectations. That's precisely why we love baseball. With nine more games still to be played between these teams, you should dig in: This could be a fun couple of months in the National League Central.

(And don't forget about the Pirates!)

Chad Dotson writes for Redleg Nation on the SweetSpot Network.

ICYMI: SweetSpot trade deadline roundup

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
Catch your breath yet? What a crazy few days across baseball. Winners and losers at the trade deadline? We've got all of that covered. Let's dive in and see what the local SweetSpot Network writers had to say about the deals that impacted their teams as well as the new landscape for the rest of the 2014 season and beyond.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Why Stephen Drew can help the Yankees: Katie Sharp dives deeper than the superficial season-to-date results posted by Drew and shows how he can provide a boost to the Yanks. Spoiler alerts: Bumps in hard-hit rates and a superior defender than the now-departed Brian Roberts (two ABs short of a bonus). Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Trade deadline thoughts and afterthoughts: The Yankees got four proven major leaguers in the middle-to-late parts of their primes for two cheap minor league signings, an injured spare bench part, and two low-probability prospects. Not bad. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS

Boston Red Sox: Firebrand of the AL
Yoenis Cespedes, Red Sox outfielder: Many have arrived in Boston only to be beat down by Fenway and the Green Monster. Brett Cowett looks at how Cespedes could possibly master Fenway Park. Follow on Twitter: @firebrandal.

Allen Craig and Joe Kelly: Who are they, and how do they fit in?: Shawn McFarland takes a quick look at the St. Louis duo, and how they can be major cogs in the Red Sox machine for years to come.

Detroit Tigers: Walkoff Woodward
The Price is right: Tigers land Rays ace: Alexandra Simon looks at the Tigers' acquisition of David Price and examines some of the fallout after the deal.

The present and future of the Tigers with Price: Grey Papke outlines what the Price trade means for the Tigers both immediately and in the coming seasons -- including Max Scherzer's Tigers future. Follow on Twitter: @walkoffwoodward.

Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
Brewers trade for Parra: The Brewers made their big move of the non-waiver deadline, acquiring outfielder Gerardo Parra from the Diamondbacks in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers. Ryan Topp reviews the trade, including concerns about a slip in Parra's defense. Follow on Twitter: @RDTopp.

New York Mets: Mets Today
Stephen Drew finally heads to New York -- and other deadline news: Joe Janish does a lap around the deals that made the 2014 trade deadline so exciting.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The Rangers Stand Pat: Brandon Land takes a look at what ended up being a rather uneventful deadline for Texas when compared to recent years. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away

Cincinnati Reds: Redleg Nation
Early trade deadline thoughts: More swings and misses: In recent years, the Reds have repeatedly swung and missed at the trade deadline. Last season they were the only major league team that didn’t make a single move in July or August. Other general managers come up with ideas that worked for each other and their owners. Steve Mancuso wonders if this indicates a failure of market evaluation. Follow on Twitter: @redlegnation.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Cardinals improve, but is it enough? In separate trades, the Cardinals supplemented their starting rotation, acquiring right-handers Justin Masterson and John Lackey. The moves were quintessentially Mozeliakian, as the GM followed his typical script by accurately identifying needs then fulfilling those needs with solid but not blockbuster (or bank-busting) transactions. The only question will be whether they’re enough. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Chicago Cubs: View From The BleachersAn ode to Darwin Barney: Luke Jett sends off fan favorite Darwin Barney with one last look back. Follow on Twitter: @lukejett.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Twins sign Suzuki to an extension: All-Star Kurt Suzuki was the Twins' best deadline trade chip, but instead of shipping him out they elected to extend his contract. John Bonnes takes a look at the move. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Indians ship Justin Masterson to Cardinals: Adam Hintz takes a look at the Masterson trade, new acquisition James Ramsey, and how the organizational outfield depth chart now shapes up. Follow on Twitter: @Palagoon.

Wrapping up Masterson's Tribe Ccreer: Ryan McCrystal looks back on the roller coaster ride that was Masterson's time in Cleveland, comparing him to not-so-great past Indians such as Roberto Hernandez and Dave Burba. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC.

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Orioles gave up too much for Andrew Miller: Typically, prospects who are traded are over-ranked. That said, handing out a top 100 prospect in LHP Eduardo Rodriguez for a pitcher who will contribute at most 20 innings the rest of the season does not seem like the most sensible thing to do. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.

Los Angeles Angels: Halos Daily
What the big deadline deals mean for the Angels: Despite sitting the dance out, the Halos will still feel ripples from some of the deadline's biggest moves. Andrew Karcher takes a look at which trades could affect the club most down the stretch. Follow on Twitter: @andrewkarcher.

And some of the other non-trade deadline-related items from around the SweetSpot Network:

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Are traded prospects worth less? Yes, they are, but there is a twist. Matt Perez looks at how the difference between prospect rank and value have changed over the years for players in trades. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
Frank Thomas memories: In the wake of his emotional induction into the Hall of Fame, the entire writing staff kicked in their favorite memories of the greatest hitter to ever put on a White Sox uniform. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Rockies bloggers panel 7/26/14: Listen to representatives from Rockies blogs talk about what's gone right and wrong for the Rockies team and the front office in 2014. Featured are Rockies Zingers writers Richard Bergstrom, Ryan Hammon and Adam Peterson; Drew Creasman from Purple Row; Michelle Stalnaker from RoxPile; and Zach Marburger from Mile High Sports. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Chase Headley more than a rental: Matt Bove examines the idea of Chase Headley being a legitimate long-term option for the Yankees at third base. Follow on Twitter: @rayrobert9.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Patience pays off for Carpenter: This year, Matt Carpenter is seeing pitches at a career-high rate. If he continues at this pace, he’ll finish the season with the team’s highest pitches-per-plate-appearance since the stat began being tracked in 1988. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Los Angeles Angels: Halos Daily
The real value of the league's "worst" prospects: For two years running now, the Angels farm system has been classified as the worst in the game. Nathan Aderhold investigates what kind of tangible value the club has derived from its farm hands the last two seasons. Follow on Twitter: @adrastusperkins.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.


The Brewers produced a fun video before the All-Star Game, a light-hearted “attack ad” encouraging fans to vote catcher Jonathan Lucroy into the National League starting lineup ahead of Yadier Molina. The video emphasized that Lucroy not only was the best catcher in baseball, but “most importantly, he is not a St. Louis Cardinal.”

Lucroy fell roughly a half-million votes short on the National League ballot (those St. Louis fans get out the vote), but he wound up starting anyway when Molina got hurt. He deserved to be the starter even if Molina had been healthy, though. For once, a political ad actually was accurate -- Lucroy, who was undrafted out of high school, is having the best season of any catcher in baseball this season (he also had two doubles and drove in two runs in place of Molina at the All-Star Game).

[+] EnlargeJonathan Lucroy
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJonathan Lucroy's breakthrough as a star catcher could be the difference for the Brewers this year.

Among all major league catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, only Atlanta’s Evan Gattis has a higher OPS than Lucroy, and just barely (.884 to .881, and also with 100-some fewer plate appearances than Lucroy). Only Minnesota’s Kurt Suzuki has a higher batting average, and again, just barely (.312 to .310). Only Miguel Montero and Buster Posey have more RBIs. Only three catchers have more home runs than Lucroy’s 11. No other catcher has scored more runs (48). No other catcher has anywhere near as many doubles (33). No other catcher has as many hits. No other catcher has a higher WAR (4.2 according to Baseball-Reference.com, with Kansas City’s Salvador Perez the only other catcher above 2.9). He has almost as many walks as strikeouts.

He’s also very good behind the plate in addition to beside it, with exceptional skill in framing pitchers.

Lucroy had been in a slump in recent weeks, hitting just .200 in his previous 25 games, going 3 for his previous 30 at-bats and dropping his average from .341 to .308, but he had a big night Tuesday. He homered twice, including a game-winning shot in the bottom of the ninth off Cincinnati’s Sam LeCure that gave Milwaukee a 4-3 victory over the Reds. The victory edged the Brewers up to 1 1/2 games in first place, a spot they have held alone or in a tie every day since April 5. It also handed the Reds their fifth consecutive loss, just when it appeared Cincinnati was finally on track in the National League Central.

“Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come,” Lucroy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If we can keep playing this good, if guys keep pitching this good and we keep getting big ABs, we’ll get the job done.”

Milwaukee got off to a great start this season, surprising everyone by winning 20 of its first 27 games to take a 6 1/2-game lead in the NL Central in April. The Brewers went roughly .500 in May as the Cardinals crept closer. Then they got hot again in June, pushing their record 51-32 with a 6 1/2-game lead. And then they started tumbling in July -- while Lucroy was slumping -- losing seven in a row just before the break as the Cardinals briefly tied them for first.

But every time I start to write them off, here the Brewers come again. There are many reasons for this. Carlos Gomez is having another excellent, under-the-radar season (.304/.369/.504/.873 and 18 stolen bases). Ryan Braun’s power might be down a bit as Buster Olney wrote Tuesday, but he, too, is producing, as is most of the lineup -- Milwaukee is second in the National League in runs. Kyle Lohse (10-4, 3.16 ERA), and Wily Peralta (11-6, 3.58 ERA) have been solid in the rotation while Zach Duke has been great out of the bullpen.

Can they hold up over the final two months? We’ll see but if Lucroy keeps playing the way he has this season, I wouldn’t be surprised. The Brewers probably won’t feature him in any political ads this November, but it would be refreshing to see Milwaukee's superb catcher get some national air time in October.

OK, we're already a couple of days into the second half of the season, which actually begins well past the actual halfway point of the season, but here are the key players to watch for each National League team.

Atlanta Braves: Mike Minor
Well, we know it's not Dan Uggla. Minor began the season on the DL after a sore shoulder in spring training, and he hasn't been the same pitcher he was last season. The differences are small, but his stuff and command just haven't played up as well -- his swing-and-miss rate is down more than three percent and his overall strike rate is down 2 percent, and as a result his batting average allowed has increased from .232 to .295. The Braves are hoping that's simply tied to a high BABIP -- .348, seventh-worst among 124 pitchers with at least 75 innings -- but he's allowed 14 home runs in 83.1 innings.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper
He's hit .150 since coming off the DL and had two home runs in 123 at-bats at the All-Star break. Is the thumb healed? Is he still too young to be The Man in the Nationals' lineup? It will be intriguing to see what happens here.

New York Mets: Travis d'Arnaud
The Mets are counting on the rookie catcher as a big foundation piece for their future. He had trouble staying healthy in his minor league career and struggled at the plate early on, although hit well in his final 16 games before the All-Star break (.295/.338/.525), following a stint in Triple-A. He's proven he can hit in Las Vegas, but everyone can hit in Vegas. The question is if he can hit at the major league level.

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton
Must-see TV. The Marlins aren't going anywhere, so all eyes will be focused on Stanton. Could he win an MVP award if the Marlins don't even finish .500? Probably not. But I'm still watching.

Philadelphia Phillies: Domonic Brown
The focus on the Phillies will be on their veteran assets and whether general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will (or can) trade the likes of Marlon Byrd and others. But this might also be the most important two months of Brown's career. A year ago, Brown was an All-Star after hitting 23 home runs in the first half. In 2014, he was one of the worst players of the first half, with six home runs, a .279 OBP and poor defense -- a combination worth -1.4 WAR. Ouch. Can Brown salvage his season and give hope that he's part of the Phillies' future?

Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun
After dominating the NL Central for most of the first half, the Brewers left the All-Star break with a slim, one-game lead over the Cardinals. They've been all over the place with hot months and cold months and have probably settled near their true talent. In going through their roster, there aren't any obvious "over his head" candidates or "should play better" candidates. The one guy who has the capability of ripping it up for the next 60 games, however, is Braun. He had a good first half but not near his 41-homer level of 2012. Yes, you can assume and conclude whatever you want, but Braun could easily go out and hit 20 home runs the second half and carry the Brewers to a division title.

St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Holliday
Two numbers tell the tale of the Cardinals -- or rather, two sets of numbers:

2013 runs per game: 4.83 (first in NL)
2014 runs per game at the break: 3.75 (14th in NL)

2013 average with RISP: .330
2014 average with RISP: .248

The point: David Price would certainly be nice, but the Cardinals are more likely to rely on improvement from within. Holliday, who homered Friday, is one guy who could improve his offense after hitting .265 with six home runs in the first half. Cardinals fans will remember that Holliday had a monster second half last year -- .348/.442/.552.

Cincinnati Reds: Jay Bruce
Joey Votto's injury issues have left him less than 100 percent and a question mark as he sits on the DL. That leaves Bruce as the guy who needs to power a Reds lineup that is also missing Brandon Phillips as the second half kicks off. At 27, Bruce is at the age that many players have their peak season; instead, after hitting 30-plus homers the past three seasons, he's struggling through his worst year, hitting .229 with 10 home runs at the break. Bruce's main problem is simple: He hasn't been getting the ball in the air. His fly ball rate is down 15 percent from his average since 2009. More grounders equals fewer homers and, against shift, not enough base hits to compensate.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Francisco Liriano
This one's easy. A year ago, Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and then won the wild-card game. This year, he's 1-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 16 starts after allowing an unearned run in five innings on Friday. The difference in performance is clear when looking at his year-by-year walks per nine innings:

2014: 5.1
2013: 3.5
2012: 5.0
2011: 5.0

Yes, wins are team dependent to some degree, but the Pirates need Liriano to pitch closer to the ace he was a year ago.

Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant
Maybe it says something about the Cubs that the guy we care most about right now is in Triple-A. Then again, he entered the weekend hitting .350 with 32 home runs in the minors. Will we see him in September? He needs a higher league to give him a more difficult test.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp
Kemp began the second half with his agent Dave Stewart proclaiming that Kemp just wants to play every day and "his hope at some point is to get back to center." That's not going to happen, as the Dodgers finally realized Kemp's bad routes lead to too many bad plays in the outfield (he had the worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in the first half at any position). So that means Kemp will have to hit -- and play left field. He had a solid June, hitting .317/.375/.525. The Dodgers will happily take that at this point.

San Francisco Giants: Matt Cain
The fact that Cain is starting the Giants' fifth game after the break tells where he now sits in the San Francisco rotation. He has to do better than a 2-7 record and 4.15 ERA if the Giants are going to catch the Dodgers.

San Diego Padres: Andrew Cashner
Cashner is important because the Padres need him healthy for 2015. He's currently on the DL with a sore shoulder and is supposed to start playing catch again. It's not so much what he does the rest of the season, but that he returns at some point and proves the shoulder is sound.

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
Another lost season for the Rockies has turned ugly, as owner Dick Monfort told a disgruntled fan that "if it is that upsetting, don't come to the games," and then, when asked who was responsible for the Rockies' poor first half, said, "You would have to say it’s [assistant general manager] Bill Geivett. He’s responsible for the major league team." In the midst of this mess is Tulo, who is having an MVP-caliber season for a lousy team.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?

Count on seeing a great battle in NL Central

July, 19, 2014
Jul 19

For years, the American League East has been considered the class of Major League Baseball. While that might have been true in the late '90s into the early 2000s, the past few seasons are proving to be a different story. While the AL East appears to be a shell of its former self (the top three teams entered play on Friday a combined 11 games above .500), the National League Central -- the only division that sent three teams to the postseason in 2013 -- may now be baseball's best group.

This year's version of the Central has four teams over .500 within a handful of games of each other. Currently, the division is paced by the Milwaukee Brewers, but the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals are a game behind, while the next two teams -- the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates -- are a good week away from climbing to the top.

The Brewers top the division thanks to a potent offense. Led by Ryan Braun, the Brew Crew entered the second half of the season with the second-most runs scored in the NL. Braun is the star, but the club has six players with an OPS above .780, including four above .800. The bullpen is anchored by the resurgent Francisco Rodriguez but is also getting fine performances by left-handers Will Smith and Zach Duke.

Kyle Lohse has steadied the rotation, while prospect Jimmy Nelson will look to provide a late-season jolt. Top to bottom, the Brewers look to be the most complete team in the division.

If the Cardinals are to overcome Milwaukee, they will need to do the bulk of the work without All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. A torn ligament in his right thumb will shelve the backstop for the foreseeable future, leaving the heavy lifting to a trio of Matts: Holliday, Carpenter and Adams. NL All-Star starter Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in the league, while Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez are two of the best young hurlers. The Cardinals have two more starters on the disabled list in Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, who will miss the rest of the season.

Former starter Trevor Rosenthal has control of the ninth inning, while All-Star setup man Pat Neshek has revived his once-stagnant career. The Cardinals have the resources to fill holes at second base and in the rotation, should they choose to, but may let young players like Kolten Wong and Marco Gonzalez cut their teeth in a pennant race. When healthy, the Cards are the most talented team in the division, but if and when they can get healthy is their biggest question mark.

The Reds opened the second half with a loss to the New York Yankees and without the right side of their infield as Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips sit on the disabled list. Still, the club has Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco --both All-Stars this year -- and Billy Hamilton, who appears to be improving every day. They also have a three-headed monster at the top of their rotation with Johnny Cueto and his 2.13 ERA as the ace.

At the back end of their bullpen, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton have allowed a combined 11 runs in more than 60 innings of work. Mat Latos has made just six starts this season and could be the spark needed to make a move even without Votto and Phillips.

The Pirates needed two separate comebacks on Friday night in order to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Of the contenders in the Central, the Pirates need the most help. Ace Gerrit Cole sits on the disabled list, and the lineup has several holes, none more glaring than first base, which was all but ignored this past winter. General manager Neal Huntington has the chips to make a deal but might be reluctant to sacrifice the future on a team that's just four games above .500.

On the other hand, Andrew McCutchen is in the prime of his career, and stud prospect Gregory Polanco is now fronting the lineup.

Each contender to the Central's crown has flaws. At the same time, each has something on which to stake their claim to the throne.

The Brewers' rotation has underperformed in spots, but the lineup has outscored every non-Rockies team in the Senior Circuit. The Cardinals' staff has been infected with the injury bug and the offense is without its best player, but they have a guy named Wainwright, a bunch of live arms and a talented group of hitters, even in the wake of Molina's injury. Cincinnati is also missing its best player; however, it owns a quality rotation, a few mashers remaining and speed on the bases and in the bullpen. The Pirates might be the least talented group. Meanwhile, they have the best player in McCutchen and the system to make moves.

Milwaukee -- with the division lead -- appears to have the best shot, but this race is shaping up to be the best of them all.

Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report blog on the Rays and contributes to GammonsDaily.com.
Crash Davis: You be cocky and arrogant, even when you're getting beat. That's the secret. You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Right. Fear and ignorance.

Crash Davis: No. You hayseed. It's arrogance not "ignorance."

Yes, it's that time of year to start playing with fear and arrogance. Time to let it all out on the field. Time to start looking at the scoreboard. Pennant races will start to build in intensity. It's the second half, and we open with four great series between playoff contenders. (Pay special attention to that Saturday night Mariners-Angels matchup.)

Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals
Friday: Kyle Lohse (9-4, 3.26) versus Stephen Strasburg (7-6, 3.46)
Saturday: Matt Garza (6-6, 3.69) versus Gio Gonzalez (6-5, 3.56)
Sunday: Yovani Gallardo (5-5, 3.68) versus Doug Fister (8-2, 2.90)

Are we going to see the good Brewers or the bad Brewers? The Brewers have had wide swings all season -- they were 20-7 through April 27, went 10-15 through May 26, then had a 21-10 stretch before going 2-11 heading into the All-Star break, including a brutal four-game sweep at home to the Phillies. They had held sole possession of first place from April 9 until the Cardinals caught them July 12. A victory in the final game before the break put the Brewers back in first, but a one-game lead is disappointing, considering they had a 6-game lead on July 1.

Three Brewers questions:

1. Jonathan Lucroy leads all major league catchers in plate appearances. How will he hold up after an MVP-caliber first half?

2. Will Jimmy Nelson be an improvement over Marco Estrada in the rotation? (Well, he'll certainly allow fewer home runs.)

3. Does Ryan Braun have a monster second half in him?

On paper, the Nationals are the team to beat in the NL East -- FanGraphs' projected playoff odds gives the Nationals an 81 percent chance to win the division and the Braves a 19 percent chance. This irritates Braves fans to no end, who believe everyone keeps overrating the Nationals and underrating the Braves. And maybe they're right. The Nationals have their lineup back and healthy, so no excuses the rest of the season.

Three Nationals questions:

1. Bryce Harper has hit .150 with one home run and two RBIs in 40 at-bats since his return from the DL. What's he going to do?

2. Jordan Zimmermann left his previous start with biceps tendinitis. Will there by any lingering issues in the second half?

3. Strasburg's ERA in the first half was 3.46. But his FIP was 2.72 and his xFIP 2.48. In other words, his base numbers suggest a guy who should have an ERA a run lower. Can he do that the final two-plus months?

Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals
Friday: Dan Haren (8-6, 4.23) versus Lance Lynn (10-6, 3.14)
Saturday: Zack Greinke (11-5, 2.73) versus Joe Kelly (1-1, 3.44)
Sunday: Clayton Kershaw (11-2, 1.78) versus Carlos Martinez (2-4, 4.43)

Interesting that manager Don Mattingly will wait until Sunday to pitch Kershaw, who last started on July 10. He did pitch one inning in the All-Star Game, but this means he'll have nine days between starts. Compare that to manager Bruce Bochy's approach with Madison Bumgarner, who started on Sunday and will start the Giants' second-half opener. The Dodgers took 3 of 4 from the Cardinals in late June, shutting them out twice and holding them to one run in the third win.

Three Dodgers questions:

1. Where has Yasiel Puig's power gone? Since May 29, he has hit .269 with one home run in 42 games.

2. With Carl Crawford back the DL, who gets the playing time in the outfield and will prospect Joc Pederson eventually be part of that picture?

3. Will David Price move to the West Coast?

Everybody keeps wondering if the Cardinals will pony up for Price and I keep pointing out that the Cardinals need to score more runs. They're 14th in the NL in runs scored and Price isn't going to help that. They also now have to contend with the thumb injury to Yadier Molina that will leave him sidelined eight to 12 weeks; it's no surprise that they've been a much better club when Molina has started in recent years.

Three Cardinals questions:

1. Without Molina, will the Cardinals pursue a guy like Kurt Suzuki of the Twins?

2. Who steps it up on offense?

3. Will Michael Wacha return to the rotation at some point?

Baltimore Orioles at Oakland Athletics
Friday: Chris Tillman (7-5, 4.11) versus Jeff Samardzija (3-8, 2.78)
Saturday: Wei-Yin Chen (9-3, 4.15) versus Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.01)
Sunday: Kevin Gausman (4-2, 3.29) versus Sonny Gray (10-3, 2.79)

The Orioles have played excellent baseball since May 31, going 26-15 and outscoring their opponents by 40 runs. A lot went right in the first half -- see Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce -- but a lot went wrong with the season-ending injury to Matt Wieters, the struggles of Chris Davis and Manny Machado and the disappointing numbers from Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez. But the O's also seem to have some of that 2012 magic -- they're 9-3 in extra innings.

Three Orioles questions:

1. Will they finally leave Gausman alone and let him stay in the rotation?

2. Davis won't hit .199 in the second half ... right?

3. What happens if Cruz and Pearce slow down?

A's general manager Billy Beane already made what may be the season's blockbuster trade in acquiring Samardzija and Hammel (the team won one of the three games those two have started). They were acquired in large part to help hold off the Angels but that division lead is down to 1 games. On the bright side: After this series, their next nine games are against the Astros and Rangers.

Three A's questions:

1. How will Gray (first full season) and Scott Kazmir (hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007) hold up?

2. Will they make a move to get more offense at second base?

3. Can Sean Doolittle cut down on the wildness and walk one batter instead of two in the second half?

Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels
Friday: Hisashi Iwakuma (8-4, 2.98) versus Jered Weaver (10-6, 3.45)
Saturday: Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) versus Garrett Richards (11-2, 2.55)
Sunday: Chris Young (8-6, 3.15) versus Tyler Skaggs (5-5, 4.50)

How good is the Hernandez-Richards showdown on Saturday? The Mariners aren't as good as the A's or Angels, so realistically their playoff race is really with the Royals, Indians and the AL East runner-ups for the second wild-card spot. Obviously, they'll be looking to add a hitter or two -- All-Stars Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager and the currently disabled Michael Saunders have been the only above-average hitters and they've been relying on ancient Endy Chavez as the leadoff hitter.

Three Mariners questions:

1. Marlon Byrd? Josh Willingham? They've got to do something to improve a league-worst .300 OBP and get some offense in the outfield and/or DH or first base.

2. With Roenis Elias suddenly struggling and Taijuan Walker unproven, will the fourth and fifth rotation spots be a problem?

3. The bullpen led the majors with a 2.39 first-half ERA. Can it hold it together for another 68 games?

Is it just me, or have the Angels been too widely ignored this year? There's a strong case to be made that they're the second-best team in the majors right now, and that's even with some concerns in the rotation and the bullpen. Of course, it helps to have the best player in the game and a deep lineup that led the AL in runs scored in the first half. But they've gone 19-4 since June 20 and they open the second half with a 10-game home stand -- and they're 32-15 at home.

Three Angels questions:

1. Can Richards repeat in the second half? Well, if anything, he seems to be getting better. In his past eight starts, he's 7-0 with a 1.27 ERA and .163 average allowed.

2. Does Jason Grilli establish himself as the setup guy for closer Joe Smith?

3. Will Josh Hamilton deliver more power? He has three home runs in 38 games since coming off the DL.

There you go. We also get Reds-Yankees and Indians-Tigers and others to whet your appetite. We've had four days without a game that matters. It's been too long.
Robin Yount was a great player: A two-time MVP, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, over 3,000 hits. Yet he made just three All-Star teams in his career.

Here are the fewest All-Star selections for position players who debuted after 1933, the year of the first All-Star Game:

Robin Yount: 3
Phil Rizzuto: 5
Frank Thomas: 5
Richie Ashburn: 6
Lou Brock: 6
Willie McCovey: 6
Willie Stargell: 6

(Monte Irvin made just one All-Star Game but had a short major league career after he started in the Negro Leagues.)

All-Star selections are certainly an imperfect process, but it's still odd that a player of Yount's caliber made it just three times. I mean, Paul Lo Duca was a four-time All-Star. So were John Stearns, Manny Trillo and Dante Bichette. Carlos Guillen and Ozzie Guillen made as many All-Star teams as Yount.

So what was the deal? Let's dig what happened.

1974-1979: Yount came up as an 18-year-old rookie and took a few years to establish himself. He was a good player from '77 to '79 but was bypassed as a reserve each season. He was worth 5.0 WAR in 1978, but it's easy to see why he didn't make it: He hit .281 with one home run and 25 RBIs in the first half but .301 with eight home runs and 46 RBIs in the second half.

1980: His first All-Star appearance, selected as a reserve along with Alan Trammell behind starter Bucky Dent.

1981: Didn't make it as Dent was again voted the starter and Rick Burleson selected as the backup. (Burleson was a four-time All-Star.)

1982: Yount had one of the great seasons ever for a shortstop, winning MVP honors while hitting .331 and leading the league in slugging percentage, and the fans recognized it by voting him in as the starter.

1983: Yount's final appearance, again voted in as the starter (over eventual MVP Cal Ripken).

1984: Yount was hitting .299/.370/.431 at the break with eight home runs and 42 RBIs. He had spent the previous week or so DHing for the Brewers because of a sore shoulder -- which would force a move to the outfield in 1985 -- so maybe that's why he wasn't selected. Ripken was voted as the starter and Trammell (.307, 8 HR, 44 RBI) the backup. When Trammell was unavailable to play, Alfredo Griffin was added to the roster -- mainly because he was already in town. (Griffin, hitting .241 with 19 RBIs, thus became one of the worst All-Stars ever.)

Keep in mind rosters were smaller than -- only 29 guys were on the AL squad as opposed to the 40 or so who eventually become official All-Stars these days.

1985 -- Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield and Jim Rice started in the outfield, with Harold Baines, Phil Bradley, Tom Brunansky and Gary Ward the outfield reserves. Bradley, Brunansky and Ward were their teams' only rep and Yount didn't tear it up in the first half (.275, 7 HR, 39 RBIs).

1986 -- Kirby Puckett, Henderson and Winfield started with Rice, Baines, Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield and Jose Canseco the outfield reserves. Yount was hitting .330 at the break but with just three home runs and 20 RBIs.

1987 -- Henderson, Winfield and George Bell started and Puckett and Dwight Evans were the backups. The AL squad included three backup first basemen and two DHs. Winfield played the entire 13-inning game. Yount was hitting .301 with 11 home runs and 45 RBIs at the break, but got pushed out by Baines (.301, 12, 49, White Sox only rep), Pat Tabler (.301, 7, 48, Indians rep) and Larry Parrish (.274, 20, 60, Rangers rep).

1988 -- Henderson, Canseco and Winfield started with Puckett and Mike Greenwell (who would finish second in the MVP voting that year) the backups. Johnny Ray and Harold Reynolds both made it as backup second basemen but were their teams' only rep. Yount was hitting .304, 8, 46 at the break.

1989 -- This was Yount's second MVP season, when he edged out Ruben Sierra. He was hitting .299 with 10 home runs and 49 RBIs at the break and then hit .339 in the second half. The All-Star starters were Sierra, Puckett and Bo Jackson, with Greenwell (.300, 10, 55), Canseco (he must have been voted in as a starter because he had missed the entire first half) and Devon White (.259, 9, 39) the reserves. White was the Angels' only All-Star.

So you can what happened here. The fans never voted Yount in after he moved off shortstop, his numbers were rarely "automatic" quality and he got squeezed a couple times by teams needing their token All-Star.

1990-1993: He fell off after his MVP season and was no longer All-Star-quality.

It's interesting, Yount's career WAR is 77.0 -- higher than Derek Jeter's, even though the two had similar careers, minus Yount's position change. Yount had the awesome 1982 season and was worth 7.2 WAR in 1983 and 7.1 in 1980 and had five other seasons at 4.9 or higher. That's eight seasons of 4.9 WAR or higher compared to six for Jeter.

They're players of near identical offensive ability -- Jeter has a 116 career OPS+ and Yount 115. Their career plate appearances are currently within 100 of each other. Jeter, however, is appearing in his 14th All-Star Game. One player will be remembered as a legend and the other is remembered for his great '80s 'stache.

I'm not trying to knock Jeter when I say this: The difference between the two is really in their quality of their teammates and the city they played in. Yount, once that 1982 Brewers World Series team quickly faded, spent the rest of his career playing for mostly mediocre Brewers teams. He simply never caught the public's fascination like Jeter or even other players of his era like Henderson, Puckett, Canseco and, even briefly, Jackson.

Making case for Brewers to win NL Central

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
You can forgive people if they've been waiting for the other shoe to drop concerning the Milwaukee Brewers. They weren't expected to win the National League Central, after all, let alone threaten to own the circuit's best record at the All-Star break. And they've been in a bit of a slump in July, contributing to the sense that maybe this is one of those half-season mirages that burns off in the heat of summer. The Brewers are 1-9 in their past 10 and just suffered the indignity of a four-game series sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies. The St. Louis Cardinals are supposed to win the Central, after all, and with the Brewers taking on the Cards in the final weekend before the break, that supposedly inevitable outcome is something more than a few folks might expect to take shape, starting now.

But for all that, every team has its ups and downs over 162 games, and you shouldn't get too down on the Brewers. Instead, there are a bunch of reasons to count on them to come out on top and win the division, not because of whatever else is going on with the other teams but because of what the Brewers themselves bring to the table.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Gomez
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesCarlos Gomez leads the Brewers in runs scored (53) and is tied for the team lead in home runs (14).

Where to start? Why not with the starters.

1. Depth in the rotation. The Brewers might not have a Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright, but what they lack in star power, they're making up for in depth and health. The Brewers' front four of Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza and Wily Peralta have cranked out quality starts in more than two-thirds of their turns. The Brewers rank fourth in the league in quality starts behind three other contenders' rotations -- the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers. And only one start has been made by a hurler outside of the Brewers' regular five-man rotation.

What is perhaps equally noteworthy is that nobody is massively over- or underperforming in terms of expectations relative to FIP. While you can always hope that Gallardo or Garza turns into the ace some expected each of them to be at some point in their careers, or that Peralta's electric stuff starts translating into even better results, the key is that the Brewers have depth, health and talent, and over the season's long weeks, that matters, producing lots of winnable ballgames well within reach of a team armed with a lineup that's scoring 4.4 runs per game (second-best in the NL).

Speaking of which, that's our second reason the Brewers will win: Legit star power in the lineup.

Carlos Gomez might have been everybody's favorite undermentioned star player after last year, but this year he's joined by Jonathan Lucroy. And both join Ryan Braun among the top 20 players in the NL ranked by OPS and OPS+ (which adjusts for park effects). Nobody else has more than two of those guys, and while Braun and Gomez are accepted as players this good, some still might question Lucroy. You shouldn't. Lucroy might have really only hit national radars this season, but his rate stats over the past three seasons are .304/.363/.487, which suggests that this year's breakout is more just part of a normal crest of a young star who, at 28 years old, is simply a guy in his prime.

Which is another thing to bring up about this Brewers team: Lucroy and Gomez are in their primes now, within that 25-to-29 range where you can expect the best. Braun at 30 isn't far outside it. And with veteran Aramis Ramirez, plus homegrown goodies Scooter Gennett slugging close to .480 (in an excellent second-base platoon with Rickie Weeks) and Khris Davis (providing a .220 Isolated Power clip from left field), this is a lineup firing on at least six cylinders. The Brewers are failing to get offense from just two slots: first base (with a .677 OPS) and shortstop. Which brings us to our next point ...

They have an impact player due for a big second half. Jean Segura had a huge year for Milwaukee in 2013, hitting .294/.329/.423 with 20 doubles, 10 triples and a dozen homers while stealing 44 bases. This year, he's posting an OPS south of .600, with significantly less thump (almost a 50-point drop in isolated power). A big part of the problem is shorter at-bats: Segura is seeing 3.4 pitches per plate appearance, the third-worst mark in the league for impatience behind Adeiny Hechavarria (3.2) and Andrelton Simmons (3.3). The other problem is that he's getting lousy results in those short at-bats, generating the second-worst batting average on balls in play in the league (.257), a huge drop from the .326 BABIP he generated last year.

Now, let's skip jabbering about regression, like it was an immutable law of physics that will drag his performance back toward league average. Different kinds of hitters create different levels of expectations; Segura puts a lot of balls in play, but he's not just some slappy speedster. That said, he clearly has work to do in terms of managing his at-bats. But with a season as big as last year's on his résumé, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that he can be that player again. Which contributes to another of their virtues ...

An offense with the virtues we still associate with a Ron Roenicke lineup. As ever, Roenicke likes to push his baserunners, and the risks the Brewers take on the bases pay off, as they rank second in base running runs according to Baseball Prospectus and fourth in FanGraphs' ultimate baserunning. And surprising nobody, they're one of the few teams to have pulled off a couple of successful squeeze plays this year. It's all part and parcel with a tactical playbook that maximizes opportunities instead of waiting on them, something that Roenicke helped deliver as a coach with the aggressive World Series-winning Angels of 2002 as well as when he skippered the division-winning Brewers of 2011.

This all accentuates the positive, but what about the negatives? They're there, but there's even a silver lining on this score. Why is that?

The Brewers have correctable flaws: What is it that the Brewers really lack, if they have stars, an offense that cranks and rotation depth?
  • A quality lefty bat at first base, because after years of reproving it, Lyle Overbay is still done, and still auditioning for a remake of "Re-Animator";
  • In the bullpen, they could use a quality righty setup man to put in front of Francisco Rodriguez;
  • While the rotation is deep, it lacks the obvious No. 1 with whom you want to lead off a postseason series.

And those are reasonable targets to shoot for, even in a deadline market where buyers will outnumber sellers. For first base, they might try to get Justin Morneau from the Rockies, Adam Dunn from the White Sox or Kendrys Morales from the Twins, or even Padres third baseman Chase Headley (moving Ramirez to first base, and still using Mark Reynolds in the corners against lefties). There are always veteran right-handed relievers available on noncontenders every July. And getting that No. 1? Well, that isn't as easy, but when is it ever?

Which brings us to what might be the Brewers' final virtue for why I think they'll win the NL Central: their track record of paying the price when there's a chance of winning. This is the team and the GM who traded for CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke when the opportunities were there.

Unfortunately, general manager Doug Melvin doesn't have a lot to work with, considering that before the season Keith Law ranked the Brewers' farm system 30th in baseball. That isn't good news. But at the same time that it suggests that they don't have any other option than to win now, it also doesn't mean they lack a negotiating position.

That's because money -- and the willingness to spend it -- is another critical form of leverage. With a payroll that rates 16th in baseball (lower than both the Reds and Cardinals), if the Brewers have negotiating strength in any department, it might have to be owner Mark Attanasio's pocketbook. That, plus a willingness to absorb the tail end of contracts of free-agents-to-be, can buy them a pennant.

So going out and getting Morneau or Dunn or Morales, or a right-handed reliever? Doable. Getting David Price or Cliff Lee? Probably impossible, although I would never bet against Melvin trying. Getting A.J. Burnett or Jake Peavy as an upgrade from Estrada in the rotation is probably within reach.

That might not bring the Brewers a top gun, but every little bit of improvement helps, because the difference between winning the division and settling for a one-game wild-card play-in game is huge. Here's thinking that the Brewers have the right stuff to do just that.