SweetSpot: Minnesota Twins

Defensive notes: Rockies, Heyward, Hunter

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
Perhaps you caught regular Insider contributor Mike Petriello’s article on the Indians defensive struggles on FanGraphs.

It's worth a read (and a watching of the videos within the piece) and it also served as inspiration for a look at some of the season's early defensive notes.

Many people say it's dangerous to make observations from a small sample of defensive data, but I think there are some things that can be gleaned already. Here are a few thoughts.

Tulo and Arenado look like best in the business
A healthy Troy Tulowitzki could have a big impact on the left side of the infield for the Rockies in tandem with one of the the most impressive rookie defenders from 2013, Nolan Arenado.

The Rockies are converting groundballs hit to the left of the second base bag into outs at the highest rate in baseball (78 percent). Tulowitzki has six Defensive Runs Saved already. He's had as many as 31 in a season and his presence could make a big difference for Rockies pitchers. (Eric Garcia McKinley has a piece on the Rockies' infield shifting -- or rather, the lack of it.)

Yankees/Twins have it right
In terms of right sides of infields, the ones doing best at converting groundballs hit to the right of second base into outs are the Yankees and Twins, both doing so at about an 83 percent rate.

The story here is that the Yankees haven't missed a beat with the departure of Robinson Cano and temporary absence of Mark Teixeira (and perhaps the increase in shifting has something to do with it), and Joe Mauer's move to first base hasn't yet set off any alarms for the Twins.

Heyward not taking his offensive struggles into the field
Jason Heyward isn't hitting yet (we've written about that already), but he's making up for it with defense.

Heyward already has 10 Defensive Runs Saved, the most among right fielders.

The Braves have the third-most outs recorded on balls hit to right and right center by our computing (76, using a pre-designed field grid), and have allowed the fewest fly ball/line drive doubles and triples (eight).

The Braves outfield defense is off to a great start this season, with a combined 19 Defensive Runs Saved.

Torii Hunter may be getting old
If you thought that Torii Hunter’s Defensive Runs Saved total from last season (he cost his team 10 runs) was a fluke, given that he'd ranked second and third in that stat the previous two years, you might reconsider.

Hunter is already a worst-in-baseball -7 Defensive Runs Saved in right field for the Tigers.

The Tigers have the fewest outs recorded on fly balls and line drives hit to right field and right-center (38), but are tied for eighth in most doubles and fly ball/line-drive triples allowed to that same area (18).

White Sox shift their stance
What team has most shifted positions with regards to the shift? How about the Chicago White Sox, who have already shifted more times this season (84 shifts on balls in play) than they did all of 2013 (73).

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the White Sox lead the majors in "Out of Zone plays," a stat charted at FanGraphs.com that measures how often players are converting outs on balls outside of the areas in which they typically turn batted balls into outs.

Of course, given that the team's ERA is hovering around 5, we'll see how patient Robin Ventura and his pitching staff are with this new philosophy.

Is anyone worthy of a reverse shift?
Lastly, one thing I've been wondering about with the emphasis on shifting is whether any players would be worthy of a "reverse shift" -- in other words, a right-handed hitter for whom the defense tilts its infield to the right, rather than the left.

Derek Jeter took his opposite-field hitting to extremes earlier this season.

There was a hitter who was worthy of this for a bit, but he's since balanced things out a little.

Derek Jeter leads the majors in percentage of groundballs hit to the opposite field.

It's not quite as extreme now as it was in the image on the right (he's pulled five of 29 ground balls), which comes from the first two weeks of the season, but it's still notable.

Maybe Joe Maddon will have the guts to try something like a reverse shift on Jeter. Stay tuned.
Joe Posnanski is ranking the 100 best baseball players of all time and the other day he wrote about Sandy Koufax, his No. 46 guy.

Koufax is one of the most difficult players to rank in a list like this due to his short career. His case raises the problems of factoring in peak value versus career value, not to mention postseason performance. Even Koufax's peak -- five great seasons, three of which were pantheon-level seasons -- is relatively short. Plus, he benefited from his time and place: A pitcher's era in a pitcher's park.

Joe writes:

At Dodger Stadium, on that Everest of a mound, Koufax was both literally and figuratively on an even higher level.

– in 1963, at Dodger Stadium, he went 11-1 with a 1.38 ERA and batters hit .164 against him.
– In 1964, the one year he did not manage 300 innings, he went 12-2 with an 0.85 ERA at home.
– In 1965, the league hit .152 against Koufax in LA, and he went 14-3 with a 1.38 ERA. On the road that year, he was a much more human 12-5 with a 2.72 ERA.
– In 1966, he was was more or less the same dominant pitcher at home and on the road. His 1.52 ERA at home was not very different from his 1.96 ERA on the road.

So what do all these advantages mean for Koufax’s legacy? Well, I’m a numbers guy at heart but I have to say … it doesn’t mean much to me. Koufax, like all of us, was a man of his time and place. He was given a big strike zone and a high mound and, with the wind at his back, he became indelible, unforgettable, the greatest and most thrilling pitcher many would ever see in their lifetime. No, of course the numbers do not compare fairly with pitchers of other eras — you can’t say Koufax was better than Lefty Grove or Roger Clemens just because his ERA was lower — but those numbers offer a nice display of his dominance and, more, the way people looked at him. He still had a 1.86 ERA over four seasons. He still struck out 382 batters in a season.

Overall, in his three monster seasons in 1963, 1965 and 1966 Koufax went 25-5, 1.88; 26-8, 2.04; and 27-9, 1.73.

Now, in retrospect we know Koufax gained a big advantage from Dodger Stadium. They probably knew that on some level at the time, but nobody really kept track of the numbers. What I always found interesting is that other pitchers were putting up big numbers in the same era, and yet it's Koufax whose legacy grew the largest. For example:
  • Juan Marichal went 25-8 in 1963, 25-6 in 1966 and 26-9 in 1968.
  • Bob Gibson had his 1.12 ERA in 1968.
  • Dean Chance went 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA in 1964.
  • Tom Seaver went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA in 1969 (after the mound was lowered) and 20-10 with a 1.76 ERA in 1971.
  • Koufax struck out 300 batters three times; Sam McDowell did it twice and even had a season with a 1.81 ERA.
  • Denny McLain won 55 games in 1968-69, two more than Koufax won in 1965-66.

The point: Other guys were doing Koufax-like things at the same time. So why Koufax? (Not that Seaver, Gibson and Marichal are disrespected but I'm guessing more casual fans would be inclined to call Koufax the greatest pitcher ever over those three.) Maybe it's the two World Series titles in 1963 and 1965, including a Game 7 shutout in 1965, when the World Series still meant everything. Maybe it was pitching in Los Angeles. Maybe retiring early added to his aura; nobody saw Koufax grow old.

A recent article by Bill James on Bill James Online titled "Climbing the Stairway to Sandy Koufax" finally made my understand why. Bill wrote:
Since 1900 there have been only three seasons by a pitcher in which the pitcher had 25 wins, 300 strikeouts, an ERA under 2.50 and a winning percentage of .750. Those three seasons were by Sandy Koufax, 1963, Sandy Koufax, 1965, and Sandy Koufax, 1966.

So there you go. Those other guys came close and maybe did two of those things, but only Koufax has had a Koufax season. Vida Blue came close in 1971; if he'd gone 25-8 instead of 24-8, he would have had a Koufax season. If Steve Carlton goes 27-9 instead of 27-10 in 1972, it's a Koufax season. Randy Johnson came close.

The rest of the article is a fun look at isolating the best pitching seasons ever, or as Bill wrote, "trying to develop a protocol to make a list of the seasons worthy of the Sandy Koufax label."

A few other things to check out:
  • John Dewan writes that shifts are still on the rise. Teams are on pace for more than 12,000, more than 4,000 more than last season. The Astros lead the majors with 176 shifts; the Yankees are second with 98. The White Sox are fourth with 61 -- just 12 fewer than they had all of last season.
  • Be sure to check out the ESPN The Magazine story by Scott Eden on Yasiel Puig's defection from Cuba if you missed it last week.
  • Via Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk, the respected Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post drops a few hints as to why Matt Williams may have pulled Bryce Harper from Saturday's game after Harper failed to run out a little tapper to the mound.
  • Harper Gordek of Nationals Baseball writes about Bryce and Boswell.
  • On the same subject, in his newsletter, Joe Sheehan writes, "The problem isn't that Matt Williams benched Bryce Harper for some perceived lack of effort. The problem is the antediluvian mindset that even makes that an option. Modern baseball players aren't wide-eyed farm boys being herded from the saloons to the ballyard and back, they're highly-trained professionals recruited, trained and deployed in a nine-billion-dollar industry. You do nothing for the Washington Nationals by treating them, collectively or individually, like something less."
  • Adam Wieser of Disciplines of Uecker writes about Carlos Gomez -- and his "crazy" swing. (That's his bat, not his jab.)
  • Michael Eder of It's About the Money on who will replace Ivan Nova for the Yankees.
  • The Twins are actually scoring some runs this year, but they're still looking for some offense at shortstop and center field, writes Nick Nelson of Twins Daily.
  • Brandon Land of One Strike Away on the curious case of J.P. Arencibia and his play so far with the Rangers.
  • The Mets are calling up Bobby Abreu. Must need some veteran leadership.
  • Domonic Brown is still struggling, writes Bill Baer.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(And if you want to argue that I unfairly disqualified Punto, I guess I won't argue too vociferously. His career WAR of 14.5 is higher than Reboulet's.)
Chris Colabello wasn't drafted out of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., which isn't necessarily surprising since nobody from Assumption had ever played in the major leagues. No major league team signed him as a free agent to give him a chance in the minors. So he stayed in Worcester and played for the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Can-Am League. That was in 2005. Oil Can Boyd played in the league that year. He was 45 years old.

Colabello remained in the Can-Am League for six more seasons, never quitting the game, always keeping alive his dream that he could play at a higher level.

Parker Hageman of Twins Daily has the story of Colabello's improbable rise to reaching the major leagues last season at the age of 29 -- a journey that nearly ended this past offseason when the Twins wanted to sell him to a Korean team after Colabello hit .194 in 55 games for Minnesota:
For seven years, Colabello toiled in the Cam-Am League, bouncing between Worcester and Nashua. Toiled might be putting it lightly. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire joked that the slugger came from the beer leagues, and he’s not far off. Nashua, the team Colabello played for 43 games in 2007, had Olympic skier, Bode Miller, play one home game each year from 2006 to 2008. While Miller had six at-bats and five strikeouts, the New Hampshire native and baseball sideshow failed to generate interest. The team was eventually evicted from their stadium in 2009 for failing to pay rent.

Meanwhile, Worcester, whose nickname came from a tornado which ravaged the community in the early 1950s and the team Colabello had played with for his 540 other games in the league, folded for unceremonious reasons similar to the Nashua team. In 2012, the season after the Twins plucked (or was it saved?) Colabello from the Massachusetts town team, the Worcester Tornadoes had their charter revoked for being unable to pay for uniform cleaning.

From those humble beginnings, Colabello reached the majors. He remained on the Twins' roster over the winter and made the club out of spring training. While he struggled last season, Colabello's big first week earned him American League player of the week honors along with Josh Hamilton and he enters Tuesday hitting .370 with one home run and 11 RBIs in seven games.

Is he for real? He did hit .352/.427/.639 for Triple-A Rochester last year. Maybe there's still an ending yet to be told in his story.

ICYMI: SweetSpot Hits

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29
Greetings, fellow seamheads. This is our first weekly installment of "ICYMI: SweetSpot Hits," a fly-by from some of the various sites that comprise ESPN's SweetSpot Network. Our goal is to bring you the best from each of our sites each week, allowing you a closer look at your favorite (or not so favorite) teams.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Rod Ghods breaks down the Australia series that saw the D-backs lose two games to the Dodgers at the Sydney Cricket Ground -- three, if you count an awful performance against Team Australia.

Chicago Cubs: View From the Bleachers
Why Cubs’ Fans Can’t Compare Current Prospects with Gary Scott and Felix Pie: There are many out there who will say "We’ve seen this before" when it comes to Cubs prospects. Chris Neitzel addresses that concern and examines whether that feeling is warranted with this new crop of prospects in the system.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The 2014 White Sox: Win Predictions and Chaos: Nick Schaefer examines the wide range of possibilities for the 2014 White Sox through the lense of a few of their particularly boom-or-bust players.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
A Fowler Front Office? Dexter Fowler's grit was publicly questioned by general manager Dan O'Dowd, leading to Fowler firing off his own response. Richard Bergstrom looks at both sides of the argument and whether O'Dowd should have started the argument in the first place.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Put Him in Coach? Aaron Hicks is Ready for Center Field: Parker Hageman, reporting on location in Fort Myers, explains why Hicks is ready to pull it together after a miserable rookie season.

New York Yankees: It's About the Money
Does Pitch Framing Make Brian McCann the Yankees' MVP? EJ Fagan delves into McCann's ability to pitch-frame and how well he's done it from 2008-2013.
Also from IIATMS: It's About The 2014 Predictions. Stacey Gotsulias compiled the entire writing staff's predictions (division and wild-card winners, award winners) for the upcoming season, including a bold prediction from each writer.

San Francisco Giants: West Coast Bias
2014 NL West Preview. In what could prove to be one of the most intriguing divisions in baseball, Connor Grossman and Andrew Tweedy break down the best- and worst-case scenarios for each NL West team.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
2014 NL Preview: An in-depth look at the NL Central teams, as well as Pip's picks in the ESPN SweetSpot poll.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The End is the Beginning: As spring training has come to a close, Brandon Land takes a look at some of the positives to come out of an injury-riddled camp.

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.

First base regained some luster last season as Chris Davis and Paul Goldschmidt had monster years that put them in the MVP discussions in their leagues and Freddie Freeman had a breakout year for the Braves. The position gets even stronger this year as Miguel Cabrera moves back over from third base, Joe Mauer moves from catcher to first on a full-time basis and Jose Abreu looks to make a big impact for the White Sox. Who are the top 10 first basemen? Eric Karabell and myself discuss the BBTN 100 rankings.
OK, I'm back from vacation, all rested up for the next eight months of non-stop blogging and baseball watching.

Jayson Stark has a piece up on Joe Mauer and his move to first base, a move the Twins made in the hope it will get Mauer's bat in the lineup 150 games every season and minimize the time he misses with injuries or days off needed from catching.


Over or under on Joe Mauer hitting .315?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,179)

The other potential benefit: Will Mauer hit better not having to squat behind the plate or focus as much on working with the pitching staff? Mauer is a three-time batting champion, although his last title came in 2009, his MVP season in which he hit .365. He hit .324 in 2013, when he finished second to Miguel Cabrera's .348 mark in the American League.

It appears as if catching hasn't had much negative effect on his batting averages, however. Mauer hit .330 when catching last season, .312 when not catching (he started 37 games at DH or first base). In 2012, he hit .365 when catching and .273 when not catching, when he split time between catcher and first base/DH. If we include his entire career, he's hit .328 when catching and .307 when not catching (971 at-bats). The data certainly suggests that we shouldn't expect Mauer to hit better just because he's relieved of his catching duties.

The projection systems don't foresee Mauer hitting .324 again. ZiPS has him at .294, Steamer at .300. I assume the systems still read him as a catcher and he's at the age when catchers often start declining. So in one sense, maybe Mauer will hit better because of the position move. I'm going a little higher and will set the over/under at .315.

Sano's injury hurts Twins fans, too

March, 1, 2014
Mar 1
This early, whatever team you’re rooting for, the last thing you want is some major buzzkill to change how you feel about the season to come. So if you can spare a moment, give Minnesota Twins fans some pity, because the news that top third-base prospect Miguel Sano is going to miss the season after Tommy John surgery on his elbow just deleted one of the best reasons to look forward to the 2014 season from their picture.

Let’s face it: Year round, everybody loves prospects. It’s our anticipation of the new and unknown wrapped around the promise of something better, but in cleats. How good was the outlook? Insider’s Dan Szymborski projected Sano as capable of pounding 30 home runs and slugging .471 as a 21-year-old rookie. Who wouldn’t want a slice of that to spice up your season at Target Field?

[+] EnlargeMiguel Sano
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesTop prospect Miguel Sano ripped 35 home runs between Class A and Double-A in 2013.
ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell offers some reassurance to Twins fans. "He should be able to recover fully from this," she stressed. "The return time varies, just as it does with pitchers, but it’s typically shorter for a position player -- roughly 8-12 months, but, again, that can vary. For those wondering why he didn't have Tommy John right away when [he] first sprained his elbow last fall, this is consistent with how the injury is managed. Rehab is often the first course, especially since some players can play for a period of time with the injury. Also, the athlete has to buy into an extensive surgery/recovery process."

Anticipating Sano was part of my own four pack of reasons Twins fans could look forward to this season; now, that sort of expectation has to be ratcheted back down to waiting for catcher Josmil Pinto and hoping that center fielder Aaron Hicks recovers from a horrendous rookie season. That’s still worth looking forward to, but Sano’s power would have done much to make the Twins a much more dangerous lineup.

In the meantime, it isn’t like the man Sano was expected to replace at some point this season is chopped liver. Trevor Plouffe isn’t going to set the world on fire, but the wrist injury that hampered him last season has healed up, so his swing from an OPS around .700 back up towards .750 might seem relatively likely. The guy did belt 24 home runs in 2012 (albeit with an unlikely-to-be-repeated 14.5 percent clip of home runs on fly balls), and he’s heading into his age-28 season, still well within a traditional player’s peak, arcing from 25 to 29. Maybe the healed wrist helps keep him from being eaten up by fastballs up and in. Projected by Szymborski to deliver a .719 OPS, Plouffe is playable on offense -- the average OPS for third basemen last season was .735. But reports suggesting that Plouffe has bulked up enough to become an increasing defensive liability at the hot corner might send Twins fans on an unwanted return down memory lane with visions of infamously immobile Ron Coomer dancing in their head.

Now, sure, Sano will be back, and Twins fans can look forward to seeing him eventually take over at third base. But if spring is supposed to be a time of optimism and renewal, getting this sort of news this early on can only renew a sense that it’ll be another case of "wait 'til next season" in the Twin Cities.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN; you can follow her on Twitter.

Team over/unders: Best bets

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
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.)


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


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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


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.

Lineup discussion: AL Central

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
Our series looking at major league lineups moves over to the AL Central, home of Miguel Cabrera ... and a bunch other hitters that aren't as good.

TigersDetroit Tigers

Key question: How do they replace Prince Fielder's production and presence?

Let's look at it this way. The Tigers have basically replaced Fielder and Omar Infante with rookie Nick Castellanos and Ian Kinsler. The Steamer projection system has Kinsler creating 86 runs (in 146 games) and Castellanos creating 59 (in 130 games). Fielder created about 103 runs last year (he played every game) and Infante 64 (in 118 games). So we're talking about a similar number of total games. We can expect Kinsler/Castellanos to roughly produce about 20 to 25 runs less. The Tigers are hoping the improved defense will make up the difference.

Projected lineup
Austin Jackson, CF
Ian Kinsler, 2B
Miguel Cabrera, 1B
Victor Martinez, DH
Torii Hunter, RF
Andy Dirks, LF
Nick Castellanos, 3B
Alex Avila, C
Jose Iglesias, SS

New manager Brad Ausmus has some options here. Hunter thrived in front of Cabrera last season, so even though he's 38 (39 in July) and has lost a couple of steps on the bases, Ausmus may keep him in the second slot. Kinsler will have to prove he can hit away from Texas, however; his career OPS is .898 in Arlington and just .710 on the road. Dirks will platoon in left with Rajai Davis.

Suggestion: Cabrera hit third in front of Fielder the past two seasons; but back in 2011, he hit cleanup. I'd move him back there as your two best hitters should hit second and fourth. Hitting fourth, he'll get more runners on base or lead off the second inning, making it harder to get pitched around.

IndiansCleveland Indians

Key question: Is this Carlos Santana move to third base really going to happen?

We'll see. But it's not as if the Indians have a full-time DH and thus need to fit Santana's bat somewhere in the lineup. My guess is he gets most of his at-bats as a DH while filling in at third, first and maybe catcher. You don't want to turn him into a straight DH at his age, but that's probably his best position.

Projected lineup
Michael Bourn, CF
Nick Swisher, 1B
Jason Kipnis, 2B
Carlos Santana, DH
Michael Brantley, LF
Yan Gomes, C
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
David Murphy, RF
Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B

The Indians tied for fourth in the AL in runs scored mostly on the strength of lineup depth, as Kipnis led the team with 84 RBIs and Swisher led with 22 home runs. They also had a lot of timely hitting as they ranked fifth in on-base percentage and eighth in slugging. Not listed above is Ryan Raburn, who had a huge season off the bench. He'll play against left-handers, probably in a platoon with Murphy.

Suggestion: Francisco Lindor hasn't played much above Class A ball but he may be ready to take over at shortstop sooner rather than later. ZiPS projects him to hit .245/.307/.329 in the majors -- which would be a drop from Cabrera's .242/.299/.402. But Lindor would likely provide better D; and if the bat comes along, the Indians shouldn't hesitate to call him up and trade Cabrera.

RoyalsKansas City Royals

Key question: Who hits first? Who hits second?

In 2013, Royals leadoff hitters ranked 25th in OBP; their No. 2 hitters were a little better, ranking 15th in OBP although with just 11 home runs. Ned Yost was either so confused or so clueless that he actually hit the inept Alcides Escobar -- he had the worst OPS among all regulars -- 69 times in the two-hole. Alex Gordon was hitting leadoff by the end of the season and that's as good an idea as any, although former Brewers leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki is another candidate.


Which team has the best lineup in the AL Central


Discuss (Total votes: 3,664)

Projected lineup
Norichika Aoki, RF
Alex Gordon, LF
Eric Hosmer, 1B
Billy Butler, DH
Salvador Perez, C
Omar Infante, 2B
Mike Moustakas, 3B
Lorenzo Cain, CF
Alcides Escobar, SS

The Royals were fifth in the AL in batting average but 13th in walks and last in home runs. Aoki and Infante aren't going to help the power numbers but should be upgrades, nonetheless. The top three guys above are all left-handed, so maybe Infante slips into the second spot. (I can see Yost liking his contact skills and ignoring that 2013 was probably a fluke as Infante had a .315 OBP in 2011 and .300 in 2012.) Against left-handers, you'll see Justin Maxwell and Danny Valencia in the lineup.

Suggestion: Just don't hit Escobar at the top of the lineup.

TwinsMinnesota Twins

Key question: Who hits leadoff?

OK, maybe the key question is when Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton will arrive. Among other problems, the Twins struggled all season to find a leadoff hitter. Dozier hit there most often (74 games); but collectively, the leadoff hitters hit .225 with a .286 OBP. Alex Presley was hitting there by the end of the season, but he's hardly a guarantee to hold on to his job -- let alone hit leadoff.

Projected lineup
Alex Presley, CF
Brian Dozier, 2B
Joe Mauer, 1B
Josh Willingham, LF
Oswaldo Arcia, RF
Jason Kubel, DH
Josmil Pinto, C
Trevor Plouffe, 3B
Pedro Florimon, SS

You have any better ideas? Kurt Suzuki is on hand to share catching duties with the rookie Pinto. Kubel is a non-roster invite but should make the team; he did hit 30 home runs two years ago for Arizona. But other than Mauer and probably Arcia, none of these guys have a lock on job security into the future, considering Sano, Buxton and Eddie Rosario are on their way.

Suggestion: Mauer actually hit second more than third last year -- 87 times to 23 times -- and that's where he should hit. His on-base skills are more valuable in that spot in the lineup.

White SoxChicago White Sox

Key question: Will the lineup be any better?

Most likely. Last year, the White Sox ranked 29th in the majors in wRC+ (a park-adjust stat), ahead of only the sorry Marlins. Of course, somebody has to rank 29th; and if Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton don't hit, they're going to struggle to score runs again.

Projected lineup
Adam Eaton, CF
Alejandro De Aza, LF
Jose Abreu, 1B
Adam Dunn, DH
Avisail Garcia, RF
Alexei Ramirez, SS
Gordon Beckham, 2B
Matt Davidson, 3B
Josh Phegley, C

The White Sox brought back Paul Konerko for one final season, and Dayan Viciedo is around. Congrats, White Sox, you have three designated hitters. The keys here will be the two players they acquired from Arizona (Eaton and Davidson) and Garcia. Will they be pieces to build around as the White Sox look to the future? Getting something out of catcher would be a bonus as well.

Suggestion: There's much you can do when nobody on the team posted an OBP higher than .328. And that was Alex Rios, who was traded. Even if Abreu proves to be the real deal, the White Sox will need the young guys to come up big.

Random thoughts for Monday

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

Key position switches for 2014

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
A year ago, the St. Louis Cardinals tried the unorthodox move of switching third baseman Matt Carpenter to second base, a position he had played just 18 innings previously in the majors and never in the minors. Players rarely move up the defensive spectrum, but the risk paid off for the Cardinals as Carpenter played a solid second base -- he rated as league average via defensive runs saved (DSR) -- and had a big year at the plate, hitting .318 and leading the National League in runs, hits and doubles.

Carpenter will move back to third base in 2014, clearing room for rookie second baseman Kolten Wong. That will allow the Cardinals to upgrade defensively at two spots: Carpenter over David Freese at third base and Wong, considered a plus defender, over Carpenter.

With teams opening up camps later this week, here are some other key position changes to watch in spring training:

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJoe Mauer played eight games at first base last season.
Joe Mauer, Twins: Catcher to first base
Mauer has started 54 games at first base in his career, but it appears his catching days are over as he takes over for the departed Justin Morneau. It's the right move by the Twins. It appears that rookie catcher Josmil Pinto will be a solid major league regular, and the move will help keep Mauer healthy and his bat in the lineup more often. Plus, he hasn't really been a regular catcher in recent seasons anyway: The past two seasons, he started 73 and 72 games behind the plate. Mauer may not provide the prototypical power you'd like from a first baseman, but his .400 on-base percentage plays anywhere. He's a good enough athlete to be decent with the glove (he's plus-1 DRS at first base in his limited time there).

Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies: Left field to center field
Like the Carpenter move, this one involves a player shifting to a more demanding position. Gonzalez hasn't played any center field the past two seasons, but did play there earlier in his career (187 games started). This one is interesting because Gonzalez's defensive metrics in left field have been all over the place: plus-8 in 2011, minus-13 in 2012, plus-10 in 2013. Gonzalez, who missed time with a finger injury in 2013, underwent emergency appendectomy surgery in January but is expected to be fully ready for spring training. The Rockies did acquire Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes in the offseason, two guys who can play center if Gonzalez is deemed lacking in range.

Ryan Braun, Brewers: Left field to right field
All 817 of Braun's games in the outfield have come in left, but he'll move to right as the weaker-armed Khris Davis takes over in left. DRS has rated Braun as a plus fielder over the years in left -- plus-28 runs -- but his arm has rated slightly below average at minus-10 runs. Still, he should be to handle right field, although opposing baserunners will surely test his arm early on.

Carlos Santana, Indians: Catcher to third base
By far the most intriguing position change, this one isn't written in stone, but Santana has played some third base this winter. With Yan Gomes emerging as a plus defensive catcher, the Indians want to keep Santana's bat in the lineup and Lonnie Chisenhall may be out of chances at third base. Santana was originally an infielder in the low minors before switching to catcher, so moving to third base won't be completely foreign to him. Still, the catcher-to-third move is a rare one midcareer, most notably done by Joe Torre, Todd Zeile and Brandon Inge (who had been a shortstop in college). Most likely, Santana settles in as a super-utility guy, filling in at third and first if he's not the full-time DH.

Alex Guerrero, Dodgers: Shortstop to second base
This is the most common position change as shortstops without quite enough arm are shifted to second. In Guerrero's case, he played shortstop in Cuba and will move because Hanley Ramirez is entrenched at short. The Dodgers sent Guerrero to the Dominican Winter League, but early reports on his defense were not good, with stiff hands being the big issue. He played only a few games there, however, so spring training will be a crash course at second base. The Dodgers are banking heavily on Guerrero since the backup appears to be Dee Gordon, who has struggled at the plate the past two years.

Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers: Center field to left field
Choo had been a right fielder with the Indians and then played center for the Reds. He had a huge year offensively but showed a lack of range in center. The Rangers will wisely move him back to a corner slot, with Leonys Martin in center. Even then, Choo may prove to be a below-average defender as his metrics in right field in 2012 were not good (minus-12 DRS).

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: Third base to first base
The Tigers will have new infielders at all four positions, certainly an interesting twist for a likely playoff team. But they have arguably upgraded defensively at all four spots: Cabrera over Prince Fielder at first, Nick Castellanos over Cabrera at third, Ian Kinsler over Omar Infante at second, and Jose Iglesias over Jhonny Peralta at shortstop. Cabrera isn't a great first baseman, no matter what people try to tell you; he has good hands, but he still moves about as well as a redwood tree.

Rafael Furcal, Marlins: Shortstop to second base
After missing all of 2013, Furcal is hoping to hang on with the Marlins. He hit .264 AVG/.325 OBP/.346 SLG with the Cardinals in 2012, which would be only a minor improvement over the .235/.292/.349 mark the Marlins got from their second basemen in 2013.
The Super Bowl is behind us (best Super Bowl ever!) so it's time to officially start thinking of spring training. In fact, the Diamondbacks and Dodgers will report at the end of this week to get an early jump since they have to make the trip to Australia to begin the season on March 22. I'm going to do quick capsule summaries of all 30 teams, a look at how I view each team heading into spring training. I'll rank them from worst to best, six teams a day through Friday.

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

Houston Astros
30. Houston Astros

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

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

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

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

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

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


Will the Astros lose 100 games again?


Discuss (Total votes: 26,644)

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

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

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

Prediction: 61-101

Philadelphia Phillies
29. Philadelphia Phillies

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

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

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

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

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


How many games will the Phillies win in 2014?


Discuss (Total votes: 20,584)

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

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

Prediction: 66-96

Minnesota Twins
28. Minnesota Twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 67-95

Chicago Cubs
27. Chicago Cubs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 68-94

Chicago White Sox
26. Chicago White Sox

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

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

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


Which team will win more games in 2014?


Discuss (Total votes: 19,554)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 71-91

Miami Marlins
25. Miami Marlins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 73-89
As we wait for Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett, Kendrys Morales and Nelson Cruz to sign, Buster Olney reminds us that there are still a lot of other interesting names out there in free agency, including Jason Hammel, Chris Capuano, Fernando Rodney, Oliver Perez, Tommy Hanson, Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, to name a few. Some of these guys will end up signing minor league contracts with incentives if they're healthy and make a major league roster, like the deal Scott Baker just signed with the Mariners.

With that in mind, let's take a quick scroll through the American League and check out some of the interesting non-roster invitees to spring training.

Boston Red Sox -- Tommy Layne.

The Red Sox list only two non-roster players as of now. Layne is a lefty reliever who used to be with the Padres, and is more of an insurance kind of arm behind Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller.

Tampa Bay Rays -- Jerry Sands, Jayson Nix, Mark Lowe.

Sands is a guy I used to like a bit. He came up with the Dodgers and was traded to the Pirates, and doesn't really have a position although he can be spotted in the outfield and at first base. He has a chance to stick as a right-handed bat off the bench, spelling Matt Joyce and David DeJesus against lefties. Lowe is the kind of arm the Rays always take a chance on.

Baltimore Orioles -- Alexi Casilla, Quintin Berry.

Either could make the team as a bench player.

New York Yankees -- Scott Sizemore.

They have a bunch of pitchers invited and the bullpen is pretty thin so one or two may actually make the team, but Sizemore is the interesting guy here. He missed all of 2012 and nearly all of 2013 after twice tearing his ACL. He hit .245/.342/.399 with the Tigers and A's in 2011, so he's a viable option at third if he can get rid of the rust. Here's more on the Yankees' other non-roster invites from It's About the Money.

Toronto Blue Jays -- Chris Getz, Munenori Kawasaki, Dan Johnson, Andy LaRoche, Tomo Ohka, Juan Perez.

Yes, that Tomo Ohka, who last pitched in the majors in 2009.

Detroit Tigers -- Robbie Ray, Danny Worth, Trevor Crowe.

Ray is the left-hander the Tigers acquired from the Nationals in the Doug Fister trade. He won't break camp with the team but a strong spring could put him in line in case one of the starters goes down.

Cleveland Indians -- Shaun Marcum, David Aardsma, Matt Capps, Scott Atchison, Tyler Cloyd, Jason Giambi, Jeff Francoeur, Elliot Johnson, Nyjer Morgan, Matt Carson, Matt Treanor, Francisco Lindor.

Hands down, the most interesting list of invites. I assume Giambi makes the team again, with Marcum maybe having a shot at the fifth starter slot. Francoeur, Carson and Morgan are possibly in a battle to be a fifth outfielder (edge to Francoeur, who could end up platooning with David Murphy).

Minnesota Twins -- Jason Kubel, Matt Guerrier, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton.

Sano and Buxton? Catch them early in spring training if you can.

Chicago White Sox -- Dylan Axelrod.

Axelrod lost his spot on the 40-man roster after struggling in the rotation in 2013. He'll get another shot and could stick as a long reliever/spot starter.

Oakland Athletics -- No announcements yet on non-roster players.

Texas Rangers -- Colby Lewis, Jose Contreras, Rafael Perez, Brent Lillibridge, Josh Wilson.

Lewis made seven starts in the minor leagues last year but never made it back to the Rangers. Derek Holland's injury opens up a slot in the rotation, with Lewis and Nick Tepesch the front-runners.

Los Angeles Angels -- Mark Mulder, Clay Rapada, Carlos Pena, Taylor Lindsey, Ian Stewart, Chad Tracy, Brennan Boesch.

The big name here is Mulder, the ESPN analyst who last pitched in the majors in 2008, making his the most intriguing comeback story of the season. Mulder had retired after two shoulder surgeries but decided to try a comeback after watching the delivery of Dodgers reliever Paco Rodriguez. He auditioned for several teams, was clocked at 89-90 mph and eventually signed with the Angels.

Seattle Mariners -- Scott Baker, Ramon Ramirez, Endy Chavez, Dominic Leone, Carson Smith.

After missing all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery, Baker was able to make just three starts last year with the Cubs. He'll try again with the Mariners. Leone and Smith are right-handed relievers who could break camp with the big team.

Houston Astros -- Mark Appel, Peter Moylan, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Delino DeShields Jr., J.D. Martinez

The Astros have invited some of their top prospects. Springer is the guy to watch. Will he make the team out of spring training or will the Astros send him down to Triple-A for a few weeks to save on his service time?