SweetSpot: Milwaukee Brewers

SweetSpot TV: Rapid fire!

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

1. The biggest story of the first two weeks has to be the Milwaukee Brewers, winners of nine in a row and at 10-2, two wins better than any other team in the early going. The big surprise is the Brewers have allowed just 29 runs, fewest in the majors. They swept Pittsburgh over the weekend by out-Pirating the Pirates, winning 4-2, 3-2 and 4-1.

Kyle Lohse was dominant in Sunday’s win, falling one out short of a complete game when manager Ron Roenicke removed him after Andrew McCutchen singled with two outs (Roenicke was greeted with a smattering of boos from the home crowd but was vindicated when Will Smith fanned Pedro Alvarez on three pitches to end it).

The Brewers are a difficult team to analyze. They’ve drawn just 25 walks, fourth fewest in the majors, so they love to swing the bats and you wonder if this aggressive approach will be exploited as the season rolls on. They have a 1.80 ERA and it hasn’t been just smoke and mirrors -- they’re fourth in the majors in strikeout percentage and tied for sixth in lowest walk percentage. The unknown at this point is whether the staff is really shaping up as one of the best in the majors. A year ago it ranked 27th in strikeout percentage and 11th in walk percentage.

Anyway, without overanalyzing two weeks of results, what I wanted to know about Milwaukee is this: Does a long winning streak mean good things are ahead for the Brewers? There are a lot of nine-game winning streaks in a season, so searching for any nine-game winning streak might not tell us much. I thought I’d check nine-game streaks in April to see if that correlates to season-long success. For example, last season the Braves and A’s both had nine-game winning streaks in April and went on to division titles.

But you know who else had a nine-game winning streak in April? The Milwaukee Brewers. Of course, they had started 2-8 before reeling off nine a row from April 14 through April 23, so that put them at 11-8. They were 14-11 through April 30 but then went 6-22 in May and the season was over.

Another way to look at the Brewers’ hot start is to look at teams that began 10-2 or better to start the season. Here are the teams since 1996 to do that:

2013 Braves: 11-1 (96-66, division title)
2012 Rangers: 10-2 (93-69, wild card)
2011 Rockies: 10-2 (73-89, missed playoffs)
2009 Marlins: 11-1 (87-75, missed playoffs)
2006 Mets: 10-2 (97-65, division title)
2005 Dodgers: 10-2 (71-91, missed playoffs)
2003 Giants: 11-1 (100-61, division title)
2003 Royals: 11-1 (83-79, missed playoffs)
2003 Yankees: 10-2 (101-61, division title)
2002 Indians: 11-1 (74-88, missed playoffs)
1999 Indians: 10-2 (97-65, division champ)
1998 Indians: 10-2 (89-73, division champ)
1998 Padres: 10-2 (98-64, division champ)
1998 Orioles: 10-2 (79-83, missed playoffs)
1996 Orioles: 10-2 (88-74, wild card)

The tally: The 15 teams went an average of 88-74 with nine of them making the playoffs. So a hot start isn’t a guarantee of reaching the postseason. The 2005 Dodgers started 10-2 and went 15-8 in April, but that proved to be their only winning month. Still, a 10-2 stretch is a sign of something. In the tough NL Central, it means we could be seeing a four-team race this year.

2. We’ll have more Braves coverage Monday to preview the Braves-Phillies game on ESPN, so just a couple of quick thoughts on the Braves’ impressive weekend sweep of the Nationals. Justin Upton, who is 11-for-14 over his past four games with four home runs, two doubles and 8 RBIs, is in one of his patented hot streaks. But we've seen this before, most notably last April. I still don’t expect Upton to suddenly morph into anything different from what he was last year, but it's fun to watch when he gets in a groove.

The Nationals are 6-0 against the Mets and Marlins, 1-5 against the Braves ... which sounds a lot like 2013, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 80-63 against everyone else. Until they prove they can beat the Braves, I’m going to withdraw my preseason evaluation of the Nationals as one of the three best teams in baseball.

Finally, Freddie Freeman: No hitter has looked more impressive through two weeks than Freeman, who is hitting .442/.519/.814. He hit his fourth home run Sunday -- a towering fly ball to right field (about as high as you’ll see any home run hit). Most impressive to me is he’s struck out just four times in 52 plate appearances -- a 7.7 percent strikeout rate compared to 19.2 percent in 2013. If this K-rate is a sign of a new and improved Freeman, he’s going to win the batting title.

3. Mark Buehrle is one of those players you don’t properly appreciate until you take the time to properly appreciate him. The fastest pitch he’s thrown this season is 86.0 mph and after a sterling seven-inning effort in Toronto’s 11-3 pounding of the Orioles he’s 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA.

He has as many swings and misses in his three starts (24) as Felix Hernandez got on Opening Day, but he pounds that outside corner to right-handed batters and they often pounded it into the ground. When they say velocity doesn't matter, what they really mean, "Well, no, not if you can paint the corners like Mark Buehrle." Since Buehrle debuted in 2000, the only pitchers with more than his 189 wins are CC Sabathia (206), Tim Hudson (196) and Roy Halladay (194).


4. In that game, Ubaldo Jimenez had his third shaky outing, giving up 10 hits and five runs, including two home runs. He’s 0-3 and has allowed 13 runs in 16 innings, with a 13-10 strikeout-walk ratio and four home runs. Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie tagged him Sunday, Rasmus on a 3-2, 92 mph low fastball over the middle of the plate and Lawrie on a 2-1 splitter that was pretty much down the middle. Obviously, both were pitches in bad locations.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDon't worry about Chris Davis -- he'll still hit a bunch of home runs this year.
Compared to last year, Jimenez’s velocity on his fastball is down a bit (91.7 to 90.0) and while his overall percentage of strikes is about the same, he’s throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (50 percent to 46 percent) and inducing about 4 percent fewer swings and misses. We don’t want to consign this to the bad signings bin after three outings, but so far Jimenez hasn’t resembled the pitcher who had a 1.82 ERA over his final 13 starts last season for Cleveland.

5. More Orioles: Chris Davis, last year’s 53-homer monster, finally hit his first of 2014, a 433-foot bash to straightaway center. The good news here is that Davis hasn’t actually been "slumping" like he's prone to do; he’s still hitting .279/.353/.419, so at least he has been contributing even without the home runs. I'm not worried about the slow power output so far and still see him as a 38-to-40 homer guy. I thought I’d check to see which players who hit 50-plus home runs had the biggest decrease the following season. Here are those who fell by 25 or more home runs:

Hack Wilson, 1930-31: -43 (56 to 13)
Mark McGwire, 1999-2000: -33 (65 to 32)
Brady Anderson, 1996-97: -32 (50 to 18)
Luis Gonzalez, 2001-02: -29 (57 to 28)
Roger Maris, 1961-62: -28 (61 to 33)
Barry Bonds, 2001-02: -27 (73 to 46)
Hank Greenberg, 1938-39: -25 (58 to 33)

Of the 42 previous players to hit 50, they dropped on average from 55.7 home runs to 43.6 the following season, which puts Davis right around 40.

6. After tearing apart the Angels in their opening series, the Mariners' offense is starting to look a lot like ... the Mariners' offense. In four of their five losses since that 3-0 start they’ve allowed three runs or fewer, so the pitching staff has done its job even with Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker on the disabled list.

The A’s beat the Mariners 3-1 Saturday and shut them out 3-0 Sunday behind Scott Kazmir (looking good early on) and some late runs. Suddenly, the Mariners are hitting .225 and rank 27th in the majors in batting average and on-base percentage. Robinson Cano is hitting .333 but hasn’t homered and some disturbing numbers have come from Kyle Seager (.121), Brad Miller (17 strikeouts, one walk), Mike Zunino (12 strikeouts, no walks) and Corey Hart (nine strikeouts, one walk).

7. Here’s a double play you rarely see: 6-2-4-3-2 as the Rays recorded two outs at home plate. It didn't matter in the end as the Reds won 12-4, but the Rays still won the series after winning 2-1 and 1-0 in the first two games behind David Price and Alex Cobb. Cesar Ramos started Sunday in place of the injured Matt Moore in what was essentially a bullpen game -- Tampa Bay used six pitchers, none for more than two innings. For all the attention given to Billy Hamilton’s slow start, shortstop Zack Cozart is hitting even worse (.114/.162/.171). The more you look at this Reds lineup, the more you wonder where the runs are going to come from.

8. Continuing on our struggling offenses theme, we bring you the Kansas City Royals, who have one home run in 11 games. They suffered a three-game sweep in Minnesota, getting outscored 21-5. Sunday’s 4-3 loss was especially dispiriting as the Royals had scored three runs in the top of the eighth to take a 3-2 lead on a 42-degree day in Minneapolis. But Aaron Crow walked the first two batters of the eighth, bringing on Wade Davis, who struck out Joe Mauer but then loaded the bases with another walk.

He induced a tapper back to the mound for what could have been a 1-2-3 inning-ending double play but instead threw wildly to catcher Salvador Perez. One major reason for the Royals’ 86-76 record last year was beating up on the hapless Twins -- they went 15-4 with a plus-47 scoring margin (exactly their scoring margin for the season). We give the two-week caveat, but this game showcased my concern with the Royals heading into the season: a lack of power and a bullpen that probably wasn’t going to repeat last year’s AL-leading 2.55 ERA.

9. Two general takeaways from the first weeks: There is a lot of parity in the American League this season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see two or even three playoff teams from the AL win fewer than 90 games. The only AL playoff teams in the past decade to win fewer than 90 were the 2012 Tigers (88), 2009 Twins (87) and 2008 White Sox (89).

Second, offense is puttering along at about the same pace as last year, when batters hit .253/.318/.396, the lowest major league average of the DH era (since 1973). This year, we’re off to a .247/.316/.393 start heading into the Sunday night Red Sox-Yankees game. And, no, offense doesn’t always pick up when the weather heats up.

Last year, the OPS per month ranged from .706 (July and September) to .722 (May). In 2012, hitters were "cold" in April with .711 OPS and increased that to .730 and .731 in May, June and July. In 2011, the OPS ranged from .708 (June) to .740 (August).

10. Adrian Gonzalez homered Sunday for the fourth straight game and Giancarlo Stanton hit another mammoth bomb Saturday, a 469-foot blast that now gives him the first- and third-longest home runs of 2014. But the biggest home run news of the week came Wednesday when David Ortiz took 32.91 seconds to round the bases after his home run -- the slowest trot yet recorded on Larry Granillo’s Tater Trot leaderboard.

Brewers hitting all the right notes

April, 12, 2014
Apr 12
12:18
AM ET
When our panel of experts published its team predictions for the 2014 season, not one listed the Milwaukee Brewers as their pick. It is hard to blame the panel, as Milwaukee's offseason was rather quiet outside of the surprise signing of Matt Garza coming off the heels of a 74-88 season, which saw Carlos Gomez break out while Ryan Braun broke down physically and the hounds of justice closed in on him and ended his season with a 65-game performance-enhancing drugs suspension.

The rest of the Brewers offseason involved shopping in the free-agent bargain bin as they brought in Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay and proceeded to trade Norichika Aoki to the Kansas City Royals to acquire Will Smith to give them someone who could work in the bullpen as well as the rotation while freeing up a starting role for Khris Davis. The Fangraphs projected standings believed Milwaukee to be a .500 team at 81-81. The PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus had the club one game worse than Fangraphs at 80-82.

Ten games into the season, Milwaukee has an early two-game lead in the National League Central and the best record in all of baseball after defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates for the team's seventh straight win. That winning streak includes a perfect 6-0 record on the road with stops in Boston and Philadelphia and Friday night's win to pull them even at 2-2 at Miller Park.

[+] EnlargeAramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsAramis Ramirez's two-run homer in the fourth inning on Friday gave the Brewers a lead they never relinquished.
It sounds cliché, but it is truly an all-around team effort that has Milwaukee off to a hot start.

The success begins with the pitching staff. Heading into play Friday night, Milwaukee pitchers had a league-best 1.95 team ERA and had held opposing batters to a .205 batting average. The starting pitchers had a collective 2.44 ERA while holding opposing batters to a .227 batting average. Wily Peralta went seven innings in the victory Friday, marking the seventh time in 10 contests this season that a Brewers pitcher worked at least six complete innings in a start. Last season, Milwaukee was in the bottom third of baseball in that area as starters worked at least six innings just 93 of 162 times.

The bullpen has been even more amazing as that group now has a 0.91 ERA with the two shutdown innings provided Friday by Jim Henderson and Rodriguez. The bullpen has permitted just three earned runs in 29⅔ innings of work. One reason Rodriguez has the closer role instead of Henderson is that the club was concerned with Henderson's velocity and life on his pitches coming out of spring training. Henderson answered some of that concern Friday by touching 96 mph on the radar gun while working a perfect eighth inning. Getting the ball to Henderson and Rodriguez has been the surprising youthful combination of Smith and Tyler Thornburg. The duo has combined to face 50 batters; 11 have reached base, one has scored and 17 have struck out.

Offensively, Milwaukee has been more aggressive on the basepaths to help generate runs. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the league average for teams taking an extra base is 40 percent. Last season, Milwaukee was well below the league average at 35 percent. That was the lowest total in the National League and nearly all of baseball. Heading into play Friday, Milwaukee is well above that league average and has taken the extra base a league-leading 61 percent of the time.

The top six spots of the Brewers lineup have also not been an easy matchup for opposing pitchers. The red-hot Gomez has set the table, while the equally hot Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucroy have cleaned it up. Only the Colorado Rockies have a higher team batting average and OPS in the National League, and the only team to hold the lineup in check this season has been the strong pitching efforts of the Atlanta Braves.

The hot start that Milwaukee is off to can be viewed as a precarious one for a couple of reasons. Primarily, the fluid status of Braun's thumb issue is going to be a situation that will most likely linger for the rest of the season. If he does have to take an extended period of time off, it exposes the other issue with the team in its lack of depth. However, the surprising start gives them an early leg up in a division that does have a clear favorite in the St. Louis CardinalsSt. Louis Cardinals but no clear second. Injury issues to favorite postseason candidates in the other divisions have left a crack open in the door for Milwaukee to kick in and perhaps surprise pundits, just as the Baltimore Orioles did in 2012.

Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays, and also contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
1:47
PM ET
Two weeks into the season and things are beginning to take shape, injuries are mounting and confusion about the new home plate no-collision rule is obvious. Let's take a quick spin around the SweetSpot Network for the best of Week 2:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Velocity Report: D-backs pitchers examined. After Rod Ghods uncovered how J.J. Putz has maintained K rates despite a big decline in velocity, Jeff Wiser examines the early-season velocity of all pitchers on the D-backs staff, noting that early-season velocity is highly predictive. Follow on Twitter

Boston Red Sox: FireBrand of the AL
The Red Sox and hitting with runners in scoring position: Should fans be concerned about the Red Sox' inability to hit with runners in scoring position? Nope. It's early, and the lineup will be just fine.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Six things I learned this week from the Cubs: Week 1 is in the books and Joe Aiello would like to open his notebook and share with the class what he learned from watching the Cubs. Follow on Twitter

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
Robin Ventura wants you to know he'd take used-up Chris Sale over his entire bullpen: Ventura's stated preference for using Sale on his fourth time through the order in a close game seems illogical, but James Fegan shows its more a sad statement on the current state of the White Sox bullpen.

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced Lajaway
Tony Plush's new approach at the plate: Ryan McCrystal takes a look at how Nyjer Morgan's improved patience at the dish has led to his hot start in 2014. Follow on Twitter.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Interview with Maury Brown: Richard Bergstrom interviews BizOfBaseball's Maury Brown about the Colorado Rockies ownership and business challenges. Topics include market size, competing with the Dodgers and the Broncos, free agency, concessions and stadium improvements.

Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
POPing the productive out myth: Adam Wieser revisits an old system for measuring "productive outs." Follow on Twitter.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Why is Joe Mauer such a lightning rod? Why are Twins fans so hard on Mauer, one of the best hitters in baseball? Nick Nelson examines this perplexing subject in a piece that has
generated quite a bit of discussion.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Examining Tanaka's initial PITCHf/x data: Michael Eder takes an in-depth look at Masahiro Tanaka's first start in Toronto. Follow on Twitter.

McCann's slow start could be due to lack of selectivity: Brad Vietrogoski examines Brian McCann's start and wonders if he's just swinging too much. Follow on Twitter.

Philadelphia Phillies: Crashburn Alley
An early look at Jesse Biddle: Eric Longenhagen scouts Phillies top prospect Jesse Biddle. Follow on Twitter.

San Francisco Giants: West Coast BiasQuick hits March 30 - April 8: Andrew Tweed takes a look at recent baseball articles from around the country to keep you up to date on anything you might have missed. Follow on Twitter Andrew; Connor.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
Calling Prince Fielder: Brandon Land takes a look at Fielder's early struggles and identifies a disturbing trend by looking back at 2009-2013. Follow on Twitter.

&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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The first rule of Opening Day: Don't overreact to Opening Day. So these are merely observations from flipping around watching a bunch of different games.

1. At one point during the Cardinals-Reds opener, Adam Wainwright looked a little perturbed, presumably at the strike zone of plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. After all, Wainwright walked three guys unintentionally in his seven innings (plus another intentional walk). This was a guy who walked just 35 batters in 34 starts last year, just once walking three guys in a game. So he may have been unhappy with the balls and strikes … and yet still threw seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just three hits allowed in the Cards’ 1-0 victory. Whenever the Reds threatened, Wainwright got the big outs -- a Joey Votto double play on a 2-2 fastball in the third and Zack Cozart on a tapper in front of the plate with two runners on to end the sixth. He threw 105 pitches, including 22 of his famous curveball -- the Reds went 0-for-6 with a walk against the curve, including Cozart’s out. Here’s the thing about the Cardinals: While I (and others) have spent a lot of time discussing their depth and versatility, they also have two of the best players in the game: Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Their lone run off Johnny Cueto: Molina’s home run in the seventh off a 0-0 cutter that didn’t cut.

2. I don’t know if Billy Hamilton will hit, but I know he can’t hit Wainwright. The Reds’ rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Wainwright to register the dreaded golden sombrero -- the 17th player since 1914 to go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Opening Day. The potential bigger picture: If Hamilton and Brandon Phillips don’t get on base enough -- a distinct possibility -- Votto is going to draw 100-plus walks no matter if he has Jay Bruce, Johnny Bench or Frank Robinson hitting behind him. Which will lead to the haters complaining about Votto’s RBI total.

3. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-3 thanks to a big day from emergency shortstop acquisition Alex Gonzalez, who tripled in the tying run in the seventh and singled in the winning run in the ninth. Justin Verlander scuffled through his six innings, giving up six hits and three walks with just two strikeouts, but that’s not my initial concern. The concern is that Opening Day roster, which includes Gonzalez, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holaday, Tyler Collins, Don Kelly, Ian Krol and Evan Reed. Besides Krol and Reed, the bullpen includes Phil Coke (1.6 WHIP over the past two seasons), Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. In other words: The final 10 spots on the roster could be a disaster. It could work out -- Chamberlain and Alburquerque will probably be OK if they stay healthy, for example -- but the lack of depth on this team could be an issue. Detroit's star players -- Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer -- have been very durable, but a lengthy injury to any of those three or Anibal Sanchez, Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler could be crushing.

4. The Pirates picked up with the kind of game they won last year, beating the Cubs 1-0 on Neil Walker’s walk-off home run in the 10th inning. The Pirates won five 1-0 games last year (there were only 48 such games in the majors last season, so the Pirates had over 10 percent of all 1-0 victories). The major league average when scoring one run, two runs or three runs was a .270 winning percentage; the Pirates were 25-39 (.390) when scoring one to three runs, so they won a lot of low-scoring games. The big positive besides the bullpen throwing four scoreless innings was the six dominant innings from Francisco Liriano, who tied a Pirates club record with 10 strikeouts on Opening Day. With the loss of A.J. Burnett, the pressure is on Liriano to repeat his 2013 performance.

5. Showing early confidence in B.J. Upton, who hit .184 last year while striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hit his center fielder second while moving Justin Upton down to fifth (Chris Johnson hit cleanup). I can’t say that’s the lineup I’d go with -- Justin Upton seems the logical choice to bat second behind leadoff hitter Jason Heyward -- but no matter what order Gonzalez chooses there are going to be some OBP issues if B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis don’t get on base more often. Yovani Gallardo kept the Braves in check with six shutout innings -- a good sign for the Brewers considering Gallardo’s inconsistency and drop in velocity last year -- while Francisco Rodriguez was called on for the save in the Brewers’ 2-0 victory.

6. One reason I’m a little wary about the Orioles is new closer Tommy Hunter’s struggles against left-handed batters -- he gave up 12 home runs last year, which is way too many for a reliever to begin with, and all 12 were against lefties. He scraped through the save in the O’s 2-1 win over the Red Sox, hitting Will Middlebrooks with a pitch and giving up a one-out single to Dustin Pedroia, but he got ahead of David Ortiz 0-2 before getting him to fly out to medium-deep left center, and then struck out Jackie Bradley looking on a fastball at the belt. (Bradley was hitting after pinch running for Mike Napoli in the eighth).

7. I was dubious about Tanner Scheppers as a starter and his performance in the Rangers’ 14-10 loss to the Phillies didn’t alleviate any of those concerns. His fastball averaged 96.3 mph last year as a reliever but 93.3 on Monday as a starter. His strikeout rate as a reliever didn’t scream “try this guy as a starter” and he fanned just two in his four innings, which required 93 pitches to get through. It's just one start and considering it was his first in the major leagues and on Opening Day -- a strange choice by Ron Washington -- let’s give him a pass and keep an eye on his next outing.

8. Tough loss for the Mets, blowing leads in the seventh and ninth innings and then losing in 10 to the Nationals. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen said after Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer off John Lannan in the 10th, “What an atrocious day by the Mets' bullpen.” Something Mets fans have witnessed all too often in recent seasons.

9. While flipping through the various games, it’s pretty clear we're going to see even more defensive shifting. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the number of shifts has increased from 2,358 in 2011 to 4,577 in 2012 to 8,134 in 2013.

10. Jose Fernandez. He looked brilliant in his six innings, throwing 73 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and smiling when Carlos Gonzalez homered in the sixth off his one mistake. I think I may watch 33 Marlins games this year.
videoThere's nothing quite like Opening Day. As Pete Rose once said, "It's like Christmas except warmer." It's a reminder that for perhaps inexplicable reasons we still love this crazy game, that we're ready to devote way too many hours over the next seven months to watching games that will enthrall us and disgust us but bring us together. We'll laugh, we'll cry, we'll shout -- and that's just within one Starlin Castro at-bat. It's Opening Day. Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player likely to get the biggest ovation
I'll go with Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, in what will be his final Opening Day -- although he's not guaranteed to start (Twins at White Sox, 4:10 p.m. ET). OK, Konerko or Ike Davis, I'm not sure.
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

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

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

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

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

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

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

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

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

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

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

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

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

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

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

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

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

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

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

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.
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!


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?
PHOENIX -- The Brewers' spring training ballpark technically owns a Phoenix address, but everyone refers to the neighborhood as Maryvale, part of West Phoenix developed in the 1950s and '60s. Phoenix divides itself into areas called urban villages, with Maryvale one of those 15 urban villages, although with Phoenix's grid layout, it's hard to know you driving from one village into another unless you happen to see the street sign.

Tickets to Brewers games are much less expensive than you'd find for the Giants, Cubs or Angels, but plenty of good seats were available. If you're just looking to watch a spring training game with a seat as close to the field as possible, I'd recommend checking out Maryvale. Plus, you can buy a souvenir beer or soda in a Seattle Pilots cup, which is worth the trip all by itself.

A few random thoughts on a game that featured an interesting pitching matchup between the Rangers' Martin Perez and the Brewers' Marco Estrada.
  • Perez's final line didn't look so good -- five runs in five innings -- but he pitched well enough, keeping the ball down in the zone and flashing some plus sliders to go along with his very good changeup. He was perfect through three innings with an efficient 32 pitches before the Brewers scored four runs in the fifth with the help of a fly ball lost in the sun. The one guy Perez couldn't figure out was Carlos Gomez, who swatted a long three-run homer to left in the fifth and doubled hard down the third-base line in the fourth. Perez now lines up as the Rangers' No. 2 starter behind Yu Darvish and the big test will be if he can increase his workload from 167.2 innings last season to closer to 200.
  • Estrada, facing a split-squad lineup of Shin-Soo Choo, Leonys Martin and minor leaguers, cruised through six scoreless innings, showing his usual strike-throwing ability. Estrada's pure stuff will always grade below average thanks to an 88-90 fastball, but he commands the strike zone and the little hesitation in his delivery -- he pauses briefly right as he brings his leg up and pushes towards home plate -- seems to work in his favor as its a bit of an unusual motion. He does pitch up in the zone, which leads to home runs, but on this day the Rangers minor leaguers hit a bunch of harmless fly balls. Estrada has a 3.75 ERA over the past two seasons while ranking behind only Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright in strikeout/walk ratio (250 innings minimum). He's part of a Brewers rotation that needs to improve. Matt Garza will help and reports were that Yovani Gallardo was throwing 94 in his last start, a good sign after his velocity dipped into the low 90s last season.
  • Mark Reynolds hit a grand slam off Michael Kirkman that bounced off the top of the fence in center (it was upheld via replay), his first homer of the spring. After hitting .301 with eight home runs in April for the Indians, Reynolds eventually hit his way out of Cleveland, batting .202 the rest of the season between the Indians and Yankees. I'm doubtful he can help much but it appears the Brewers will go with a first-base platoon of Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, as Ron Roenicke goes with defense over Juan Francisco's bat (not that his bat is all that noteworthy). It's likely the Brewers end up with among the worst first-base production in the majors.
  • Speaking of defense, Rickie Weeks dropped a foul pop. Weeks is still fighting Scooter Gennett for the second base job. That could end up as another platoon as Gennett bats left-handed.
  • One area of concern for the Rangers is the bench. While Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar will play nearly every day in the infield, if one goes down with an injury the Rangers could have issues. Andy Parrino, Adam Rosales and Luis Sardinas are on the 40-man roster but none can hit. Brent Lillibridge and Josh Wilson are non-roster guys with major league experience who played in this game, but they can't hit either. The outfield depth includes Michael Choice, who will make the team as the fourth outfielder, and not much else. Engel Beltre was once a top-100 prospect but his bat is a question mark.
  • Ronald Guzman is a lanky, 6-5 first baseman for the Rangers, signed for $3.45 million in 2011 as one of the top hitting prospects in Latin American. He's just 19 and played last year in Class A, although missed a lot of time with a broken hand. He showed off his smooth stroke with this home run in the ninth inning, his second in three games with the big boys, although he misplayed a potential double play at first base (dropping a throw from left fielder Brad Snyder that would have doubled off Weeks). A name to watch this year to see if he grows into his power potential.




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.

Team over/unders: Best bets

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

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

SportsNation

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

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    15%
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    17%
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    17%
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    25%
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    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?

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    17%
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    21%
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    25%
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    18%
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    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?

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    15%
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    20%
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    38%
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    17%
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    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?

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    29%
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    23%
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    20%
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    12%
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    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?

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    19%
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    16%
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    21%
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    22%
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    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?

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    14%
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    13%
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    27%
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    31%
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    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.
Since Ryan Braun was in the news yesterday, reporting to Brewers camp and facing the onslaught of questions while not saying a whole lot, let's do him today.

SportsNation

Over or under on Ryan Braun hitting 32.5 home runs?

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    46%
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    54%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,972)

How many home runs will he hit?

Do you think he was a product of PEDs? Do you think the effects of sports drugs are overstated? When did he use them and how often?

Braun hit 33 home runs in 2011, 41 in 2012 and nine last year in 61 games, when he played through a thumb injury that affected his swing and eventually put him on the DL before his suspension. (In changing his swing, Braun hit a much higher percentage of groundballs in 2013 than in previous seasons.)

The projection systems range from 25 home runs to 33, with ZiPS being the most optimistic. I'm more in line with ZiPS, so let's set the over/under at 32.5 home runs.
Ryan Braun has served his punishment. He's spoken to his teammates. He's apologized, maybe not with the words we wanted and details of drugs ingested or injected, but he has apologized. Reporting to camp on Thursday he met the media throng wearing a gray Brewers T-shirt and said, again, that "I made a mistake." What, you were expecting him to produce his personal diary? Sept. 4, 2011: Took the special red pill again tonight. Hit a home run off Wandy Rodriguez. Crushed it. Will maybe take the pill again tomorrow.

"I took responsibility for the mistake that I made and for me my focus is on this year and moving forward and learning a new position and getting ready for the season," Braun said (or deflected). "The best answer I can give you is I made a mistake," he said. "I've said multiple times that I wish I had the ability to go back and change things, do things differently. Unfortunately, I don't have that opportunity. I embrace the challenge that lies ahead. I know it won't be easy but I intend to do everything in my power to continue to be the best person and player I can be."

You know what? I'm fine with Braun not divulging anything else or wiping away tears in a heartfelt, emotional purging. Braun is under no obligation to spill all the details of what did and when he did it. Just because he's a public figure doesn't mean he's required to say what we want him to say.

So it's time to move on and let the guy do his job. Let him play baseball.

My prediction: Braun will again be one of the best players in the sport, the player who won the NL MVP Award in 2011 and finished second in the voting in 2012. Pencil in a .300 average, 30 home runs and a lot more runs scored for his Milwaukee Brewers.

Critics will point out that he hit just nine home runs in the 61 games he played last season, well below the rate of the 41 he hit in 2012 or 33 in 2011. But remember that he played through a thumb injury for several weeks before finally going on the disabled list in June. That injury was painful enough that he tweaked his swing to reduce the strain on his right hand. So, no, his lack of power wasn't because he was off the juice.

How much do the Brewers believe in Braun? He's still the face of the franchise and they've smartly included him in their local TV commercials. And why not? I expect Brewers fans have forgiven their All-Star outfielder -- Braun will move from left to right field this season -- and will have no issues spending their hard-earned cash to watch him play.

Yes, there will be pressure on Braun, to "prove" that he wasn't great because of PEDs, to perform to the levels the Brewers expect for the $10 million they're paying him this season and more than $100 million left on his contract.

He'll be fine. Once he steps between the lines there is no media firing questions at him. He just gets to play the game he's played since he was a kid.

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