SweetSpot: National League

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
10:25
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Well, what a week for baseball! From Albert Pujols entering the 500-home run club to Jose Fernandez redefining brilliant pitching to Michael Pineda being suspended 10 games for possessing a foreign substance on his person, baseball fans have seen it all. Here’s the best from the SweetSpot network's contributing blogs, bringing you in-depth analysis of Week 4 from around MLB.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Why a starter-by-committee approach may work for the D-backs: With the pitching staff struggling, the D-backs have installed two pitchers best suited as relievers into the rotation, pushing Trevor Cahill and Randall Delgado to the bullpen. Ryan P. Morrison explains the merits and drawbacks of a rotation of relievers, and how the D-backs could partially implement that approach. Follow on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Three reasons the Cubs should drop the third-base platoon: Joe Aiello makes the case that the Cubs should stop platooning Mike Olt and Luis Valbuena and just play them both at the same time. Follow on Twitter: @VFTB.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
Chris Sale is going to the disabled list. Repent. James Fegan reacts to the Chris Sale news and reminds everyone how initial reports of pitcher arm issues can mean very little. Follow on Twitter: @JRFegan.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Nolan Arenado and the monster at the end of this book: Richard Bergstrom breaks down the young third baseman and discusses the current market trend where baseball teams sign young players to long-term contracts. Follow on Twitter: @rockieszingers .

Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
Brewers pitchers avoiding hard contact: Ryan Topp uses ESPN's WHAV statistic to evaluate the Brewers' pitchers early ability to avoid giving up hard-hit balls. Follow on Twitter: @RDTopp.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Things you need to know about Joe Mauer: Parker Hageman digs deep into the data for an analytical view at Joe Mauer's shockingly slow start.

New York Yankees: It's About the Money
The good and bad of Tanaka in four at-bats: Brad Vietrogoski examines four at-bats during Masahiro Tanaka's first start in Fenway Park. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

History by the fours: William Tasker looks at every Yankee season that ends with a "4" and presents the best pitcher and batter of that particular season. Follow on Twitter: @FlagrantFan.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Michael Wacha needs no fielders: Matt Philip reviews Michael Wacha's start against the Mets, in which he struck out or walked an amazing 75 percent of the batters he faced. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

West Coast Bias: San Francisco Giants.
Stop blaming Pablo: Andrew Tweedy discusses why Pablo Sandoval does not deserve to be the poster boy of the Giants' offensive woes so far in 2014, and presents what might be a more ideal lineup for San Francisco.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
Archer goes left versus Yankees: Tommy Rancel takes a look at Chris Archer's evolution against the platoon split, culminating in a strong effort versus a left-handed-heavy Yankees' lineup. Follow on Twitter: @TRancel.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
Martin Perez is a valuable commodity: Brandon Land takes a look at Martin Perez and his exceptional value given his team-friendly contract. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away.

Cliff Lee for Jorge Alfaro, who says no? Eric Reining speculates on how a hypothetical trade might work out or be turned down. Follow on Twitter: @ericreining.

Every number tells a story!

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
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Back in 1916, the Cleveland Indians became the first team to experiment with wearing numbers on its uniforms, specifically on the left sleeve. The experiment quickly died. The St. Louis Cardinals tried the same thing in 1923, again with limited success. It wasn’t until 1929, when the Indians and New York Yankees wore numbers on the backs of their uniforms that the modification took hold. By the mid-1930s, all teams wore numbered unis.

Using Baseball Reference as my source, I created a database of uniform numbers, noting the year, player and team for each and every number ever worn. Dicing and slicing through that database, I discovered some interesting “records.”

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER RECORDS:

Most different numbers worn, one season, playing for more than one team: Six, by four players: Chuck Hartenstein in 1970 (Nos. 20, 22, 23, 26, 42, 50) split across the Red Sox, Pirates and Cardinals. Gerry Staley in 1961 (Nos. 20, 21, 24, 38, 44, 66) split across the Athletics, White Sox and Tigers. Jack Lamabe in 1967 (Nos. 23, 28, 34, 36, 45, 47) split across the White Sox, Cardinals and Mets. Juan Pizarro in 1969 (Nos. 11, 24, 26, 42, 43, 49) split across the Red Sox, Indians and Athletics.

Most different numbers worn, one season, playing for one team: Four, by many players. Most recently: Chris Britton in 2008 (Nos. 38, 39, 47, 63) for the Yankees and Jesse Carlson in 2008 (Nos. 39, 43, 48, 59) for the Blue Jays.

Most different numbers worn, career: 15, George Brunet 1956-7, 1959-1971 (Nos. 4, 9, 22, 23, 27, 28, 30, 31, 33, 34, 38, 39, 43, 53, 57) for nine different teams.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Hough
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesCharlie Hough wore good ol' No. 49 for … well, it seemed like forever.
Most years wearing one specific number (wearing at least one other number during career): 25, Charlie Hough (No. 49).

Most years wearing only one number, playing for more than one team, career: 24, Pete Rose (No. 14).

Most years wearing only one number, playing for one team, career: 23, Carl Yastrzemski (No. 8).

Most different teams, wearing same number, career: 10, Terry Mulholland (No. 45). Livan Hernandez (No. 61) wore the same number for 10 different teams, but only nine franchises (Montreal/Washington).

TEAM RECORDS:

Most different numbers worn, team history: 80, Boston Red Sox.

Most different numbers worn, season: 53, Cincinnati (2003).

Fewest different numbers worn, team history: 55, Tampa Bay Rays.

Fewest different numbers worn, season: 29, by five teams. Most recently: Cincinnati (1975). Montreal had 28 different numbers in 1972, when they played 156 games in a strike-shortened season. Similarly, Cincinnati had 29 different numbers that same year, when they played 154 games.

Most different players wearing same number, team history: 67, New York Yankees (No. 26).

Most different players wearing same number, season: Seven, New York Yankees (No. 28) in 1989 (worn by Al Leiter, Dale Mohorcic, Dave Eiland, Hal Morris, Hensley Meulens, Jesse Barfield, Marcus Lawton). Note: Excludes the 197 players leaguewide (who joined Mariano Rivera) wearing No. 42 on April 15, 2007, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut.

LEAGUE RECORDS:

Most instances of same number being worn in season: 35, 2000 (No. 23, worn by 34 players, with Matt Mieske wearing it for two different teams). Note: This, too, excludes the 197 players leaguewide (who joined Mariano Rivera) wearing No. 42 on April 15, 2007.

Most different players wearing same number in season: 34, 2000 (No. 23), 2007 (No. 28). Note: And again, excluding Jackie Robinson Day.

Most different numbers worn by players, season: 83, 2013.

UNIFORM NUMBER MINUTIA:

Numbers never worn: 80, 86, 89, 90, 92.

Numbers worn by only one player in history: 82 (Johnny Lazor, 1943 Red Sox), 84 (J.T. Snow, 2006 Red Sox), 87 (Dan Otero, 2012 Giants), 95 (Takahito Nomura, 2002 Brewers), 98 (Onelki Garcia, 2013 Dodgers).

Three most popular uniform numbers, by number of different players to wear them: No. 22 (846), No. 27 (812), No. 26 (806).

“Roulette Wheel” player (wore both “0” and “00” in his career): Kerry Robinson (wore No. 00 for Reds in 1999, and No. 0 for Cardinals in 2002-03).

Wainwright, Freese deliver big answers

September, 7, 2013
9/07/13
11:50
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In September, five months into the long season, you don’t want to be asking questions. You want to know what you’ve got and what you’ll get from your players. But going into this weekend’s series against the Pirates, the Cardinals had a pretty big question mark to deal with as far as the recent struggles of staff ace Adam Wainwright. After Saturday night’s well-spun start to blow away the Bucs, that’s one question the Cardinals won’t have to entertain after all.

Wainwright spun a masterpiece to pitch his team past the Pirates in the NL Central for a night. Allowing just four Pirates on base in seven shutout innings with eight whiffs, Wainwright was back to dealing the way he’s expected to, a huge source of relief after he had taken back-to-back drubbings at the hands of the Reds. Overpowering the Pirates makes it look like the question over whether or not Wainwright had begun tipping his pitches has been fixed.
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Which team will win the NL Central?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,483)


It might be easy to overstate these kinds of problems when everything involving these three teams running neck-and-neck in the NL Central is under the microscope. Fretting over Wainwright walking more men in half as many starts since the All-Star break as he did before reflects how incredible his season has been: Wainwright’s post-break 4-to-1 K:BB ratio in the second half is tremendous, but it’s less than half of the 9-to-1 ratio he put up before the break. But as good as he looked against the Pirates, it doesn’t look like he has a problem.

Of course, it’s always possible that the Reds may have picked up something more than tipping his pitches, setting up some potential for extra wild-card drama if the Reds and Redbirds have to face one another in the play-in game. Of course, the Cardinals would rather skip that exercise and just win the division outright, eliminating some questions as they answer others.

That’s because Wainwright isn’t the only Cardinal question mark this time of the year. David Freese going yard for the second time in three games was perhaps another proof of one of those kinks to the Cardinals’ master plan getting ironed out. Freese’s combined July and August performance was woeful: .649 OPS, plus a lone home run. Freese’s value is pretty much tied up in his bat, with his defense generally getting low marks; that’s reflected in evaluative defensive metrics like BIS’s Defensive Runs Saved, where Freese’s minus-13 is worse than everyone at third base not named Michael Young or Miguel Cabrera.
[+] EnlargeDavid Freese
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonDavid Freese's home run was his second blast in three games.

Hitting that badly in an organization as deep as the Cardinals’, Freese had endangered his claim to everyday play, creating an opening for second baseman Kolten Wong in the infield (with Matt Carpenter rotating over to the hot corner), allowing Mike Matheny to get another left-handed bat into his lineup. In the abstract, it’s a nice problem to have when you’re the Cardinals. Unfortunately, Wong hasn’t done anything at the plate since his call-up, leaving the Cardinals with another body but the same problem.

Again, these are the kinds of problems that crop up that provide a reminder that baseball is hard, hard even when you’re among the best players on the planet. Wainwright might be the pitcher you pick to start a must-win game, but his talent isn’t enough to armor him against opponents picking up the slightest bad habit. Like every other player in the game, one of its best is forced to continually adapt and adjust, to his opponents and to the changes in his game over time.

Freese may have been the terror of the Rangers for one magical week, but that doesn’t buy him job security less than two years later in the Show-Me State: He has to keep showing something. As Jimmy Dugan said in "A League of Their Own": “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

For the time being, this is the sort of happy in-season resolution that the Cardinals will take. It joins a lengthening list of things that are working out for them in-season, like how their bullpen has started to gel with Seth Maness and Randy Choate setting up Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica, or Joe Kelly’s pitching down the stretch. They’ll still need to see whether or not they get Allen Craig back in fully operating order in time for October, but it reflects the organization’s strength that even that question had an excellent fall-back answer in Matt Adams.

So now, with the three teams in the division fighting to earn that bye from the wild card and sudden death within two games of one another. Instead, for the next three weeks, we’ll be focused on the big question: “Who wins the NL Central?” That one’s going to be fun for you and me to kick around for the rest of the month, but for the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds, it’s one all three teams would rather have answered already: “Us.”

We’ll see who pulls it off. We’re already getting a race to remember. But if Adam Wainwright has his ace’s wings back, the Birds could take flight and put the NL Central away the way people have expected them to for months. And if he’s getting extra run support because David Freese is back, so much the better for them.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

It's time for NL to adopt the DH

April, 4, 2013
4/04/13
11:00
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So here we are: Two days from Ron Blomberg Day, the anniversary of baseball's partial adoption of an overdue innovation, the designated hitter. Forty years on, and we still have the two leagues playing by different rules. Imagine the NBA with one conference playing without the 3-point shot -- sounds silly, right? Well, that's what we've got for the time being, but we'll get to that.

As originally envisioned, the DH was supposed to be a role that kept great aging players -- identifiable brand names, even, like Hank Aaron or Harmon Killebrew or Rusty Staub -- in the game. Consider the impetus equal parts economic and offensive: The American League needed more runs, and baseball didn't want to lose stars to old age when they might still be able to hit.

[+] EnlargeRon Blomberg
Louis Requena/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesRon Blomberg was equally stiff afield, making him the perfect choice for baseball's first DH.
Forty years on, how are teams using the DH today? Not so much as the "golden years" power-and-profits mashup, that much is certain. Guys like Harold Baines or Edgar Martinez or Paul Molitor weren't gloried players in their golden years when they became full-time DHs, they were men who simply could not stay healthy playing the field. You could argue that they became more famous as DHs than they ever were beforehand. But even that has now changed.

Despite the obvious goal of using it to employ a guy who helps you put runs on the board, you might think teams aren't doing a great job of finding them. In the past 12 years, out of a possible 168 player-seasons for the guys we'll call full-time DHs -- say, those who spent at least 75 percent of their playing time in a given year batting as a DH -- there have been just 47 regular DH seasons worth a win or more via Baseball-Reference.com's Batting Runs stat. Nine of those belong to David Ortiz in Big Papi's 10 years with the Red Sox, which puts the rest of the American League at just a 23 percent return on getting even a modest win's worth of value out of their regular DHs. Beyond Ortiz, just three players have notched as many as five one-win seasons as a DH in the past dozen campaigns: Travis Hafner, the near-done Jim Thome and the long-since-retired Frank Thomas.

So taken in the aggregate, the DH today might seem like it's giving us more Blomberg than Baines. But I say this not to bury the designated hitter, but to praise it, because the contrast isn't between those very few -- and today, fewer still -- who deserve the epithet of "DH" and those who don't, it's between the travesty of letting pitchers hit versus the adaptive way that AL teams are using the DH to give us a better brand of baseball.

Simply put, American League teams aren't using the slot to just employ a full-time DH. Three players qualified for the batting title last year while playing as much as three-quarters of their games at DH -- Delmon Young of the Tigers, Billy Butler of the Royals and Kendrys Morales for the Angels. That tally isn't unusually low; in the last dozen seasons, on average just four guys qualified for the batting title while DHing 75 percent of the time.

Sure, there are plenty guys who are employed as a club's primary DH -- say, Adam Dunn with the White Sox. But that's the thing: Guys like that aren't just regular DHs for their teams. Witness that Dunn started 56 games at first base or in left for the White Sox last year. If anything, a team's DH is more like a guy doing what Chris Davis did for the Orioles, starting 38 games at first and another 39 in the outfield corners when he wasn't DHing. He was a moving part employed to provide power; sometimes that was as a DH, but that wasn't his sole role.

Cases like Dunn and Davis are examples of how the 12-man pitching staff forces teams to employ DHs who have to be ready to play the field as well. Almost gone are the days when the 1983 White Sox had to ask whether they could put the Bull, Greg Luzinski (138 DH starts, two at first base), in the field if they reached the World Series. Papi's the only guy we've had to worry about on that score any more.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsLet's celebrate David Ortiz, one of the last true regular DHs.
This isn't to say some players haven't lost job security to the larger pitching staffs of the present. Guys like Travis Ishikawa or Tony Gwynn Jr. don't have the same opportunities Greg Gross or Dave Bergman had back in the day. And while some of us might miss seeing guys like Bergman hanging around, it means that today's DH is generally forced to be more of a complete baseball player ... and not just a DH.

With year-round interleague play putting 10 games in National League parks on every AL team's schedule, that kind of flexibility is that much more important. That's what has Jim Leyland talking about putting Victor Martinez back behind the plate for a few games; it's that sort of flexibility that means the Tigers are the rare team that has three catchers, even in the age of the 12-man pitching staff. It's the sort of thing that allows the Twins using nominal regular DH Ryan Doumit as Joe Mauer's caddy behind the plate in the early going, at least when Doumit isn't snagging another 20 starts or so in the outfield corners.

Last year's Yankees were a good example of how a club can completely skip having anything like a regular DH. Without peeking, who do you think was the Yankees' most frequent DH in 2012? Who was their second-most-used DH? If you thought Raul Ibanez was either, you'd be wrong; he was third, with just 23 starts at the gloveless task. Joe Girardi's most frequent DHs were Alex Rodriguez (38 times) and Derek Jeter (25) -- the left side of his infield.

Which brings us to a major advantage that employing the DH gives the American League: In free agency. While AL teams must employ a ninth starting player on the payroll, they're not spending that money on the oldest players to play out the end of their careers, they're adding it to top-dollar offers to sign the best players on the market to long-term deals, knowing that they can rotate those guys in and out of the DH slot as needed later in their careers. Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder may never become an out-and-out full-time DH the way Ortiz is, but the AL teams taking the big-money risk know if a star player becomes fragile late in his career, they have the DH slot to protect him as well as their investment within. Having the DH even expands a team's options in terms of who they might draft, as Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow noted back in February.

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Discuss (Total votes: 32,628)

So enjoy the Papis and the Pronks while you can. Certainly, here's hoping we get to see Thome signed by somebody, not least so that he can pass Reggie Jackson for the all-time career strikeouts total -- Reggie only got there thanks to the DH, after all, and Thome will only be able to beat him because of it. But as things now stand, we stand to see less of their like, and more of teams rotating their position players through the slot, much as the A's are with their quintet of starting-quality outfielders, or the Angels with Mark Trumbo picking up Pujols or Josh Hamilton or Mike Trout.

So as multi-faceted and flexible as the DH has become, why do we still have the two leagues playing different brands of baseball? You probably know the checklist by heart.

There's the tradition argument, to leave things as they are because that's the way they've been. But really, how far does that go? Bud Selig added a third division per league, two wild cards, realignment and All-Star Games that "count." Tradition clearly ain't what it used to be, and to make a buck, the game is clearly more than happy to set it aside, just as it did in adding the DH to the AL in the first place.

Then there's the honest if incorrect conviction that the pitcher having to bat invites more strategy, though you'll see more elective bunting with position players in the AL than you do in the NL with the pitcher having to automatically bunt when he isn't whiffing almost 40 percent of the time. Me, I like to watch major league pitchers throwing to major league hitters, quality against quality, and let that drive strategy and tactics.

The DH gives us that, just as it gives us increasingly flexible definitions of what a DH is. It gives us one less way for pitchers to unnecessarily risk injury doing something most aren't even remotely good at. Considering the money shelled out to starters, you know that's a fairly massive incentive right there. And if National League owners want to avoid seeing the best free-agent hitters taking American League offers, you can bet they'll eventually come to terms with cashing in this element of tradition as well.

Here's hoping the NL sees the light before the 50th anniversary of Ron Blomberg Day. Here's hoping that we see the day when the DH isn't employed in just half of the games, but all of them.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Bryce HarperAndrew Innerarity/ReutersCan Bryce Harper make the jump to MVP in just his second year in the league?
It's that time of year when everyone is starting to make their predictions: division winners, playoff teams, World Series champion, number of wins under .500 for the Yankees.

Of course, we're also making Most Valuable Player picks. I sent in my selections to our editors the other day and went with Mike Trout (AL) and Joey Votto (NL). Not exactly going out on a limb there. I suspect most picks you'll see will be similar, players culled from the game's recognized elite: Past winners like Miguel Cabrera, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Votto, or stars like Trout, Matt Kemp, Robinson Cano, Andrew McCutchen, Prince Fielder and so on.

It wouldn't be a surprise if any of those players ultimately takes home MVP honors in 2013. What may surprise you, however, is how often the MVP winner is a surprise, at least when looking back at prediction time in March.

Since 1980, there have been 66 MVP winners -- 19 of them were players who had never previously finished in the top 15 in MVP voting. That's 29 percent. Twelve of those 19 had never received any MVP points, not even a 10th-place vote. That means there's a pretty good chance one of this year's MVP winners will be a choice nobody really expects right now.

I'm going to present my top-five stealth MVP candidates in each league. First, however, keep in mind two primary de facto rules for MVP voting:

1. Your team has to reach the postseason. Nearly every MVP winner in recent years has come from a playoff team. In cases where two players have a solid claim, the award always goes to the guy heading to the postseason (Cabrera over Trout in 2012, Braun over Kemp in 2011, Votto over Pujols in 2010, etc.).

2. It helps to be an RBI guy. Voters still love RBIs.

OK, let's review the previous 19 surprise MVP winners since 1980 to see what we can learn (with each player's previous high in MVP voting listed):

  • Joey Votto, 2010 NL (22nd in 2009) -- Added power, Reds made the playoffs.
  • Dustin Pedroia, 2008 AL (none) -- Led league in runs, hits and doubles.
  • Ryan Howard, 2006 NL (none) -- Led league in home runs, RBIs.
  • Justin Morneau, 2006 AL (none) -- RBI guy (130) in weak group of candidates.
  • Miguel Tejada, 2002 AL (16th in 2000) -- RBI guy (131) on team that won 103 games.
  • Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 AL (none) -- Led league in hits, steals, average (.350).
  • Ken Caminiti, 1996, NL (none) -- Veteran had all-time fluke season.
  • Mo Vaughn, 1995 AL (17th in 1994) -- Led league in RBIs.
  • Jeff Bagwell, 1994 NL (19th in 1992) -- Led league in runs, RBIs, slugging, hit .368.
  • Terry Pendleton, 1991 NL (none) -- Veteran had career year at the plate, leadership.
  • Barry Bonds, 1990 NL (none) -- Young player who took big leap.
  • Kevin Mitchell, 1989 NL (none) -- Led league in home runs, RBIs.
  • Jose Canseco, 1988 AL (20th in 1986) -- Led league in home runs, RBIs.
  • Roger Clemens, 1986 AL (none) -- Went 24-4 in first full season.
  • Willie McGee, 1985 NL (none) -- Hit .353, only year to receive MVP votes.
  • Ryne Sandberg, 1984 NL (none) -- Future Hall of Famer in breakout season.
  • Willie Hernandez, 1984 AL (none) -- Reliever was one of unlikeliest MVPs ever.
  • Cal Ripken, 1983 AL (30th in 1982) -- Second-year shortstop led O's to World Series.
  • Robin Yount, 1982 -- (17th in 1980, 1981) -- Got better and Brewers won division.

What are the lessons here? Not surprisingly, 18 of the 19 were on playoff teams, the exception being Howard on the 2006 Phillies. As you can see from the notes, many of them were RBI leaders or guys like Morneau, Tejada and Caminiti, who each drove in at least 130. There are younger players (Pedroia and Ripken were in their second seasons, while Votto, Morneau, Canseco, Clemens and Sandberg were in their third). There are younger veterans hitting their peaks (Tejada, Bagwell, Bonds, Yount). There are complete surprises (Caminiti, Pendleton, McGee, Hernandez). And Ichiro, who is kind of in his own category.

With that in mind, I'm going to focus on younger players on playoff contenders. Thus, no Giancarlo Stanton, Starlin Castro or Anthony Rizzo, since the Marlins and Cubs are unlikely playoff contenders. So here are five stealth MVP candidates for the National League, guys who have never finished in the top 15 of the MVP voting.

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Who is the best NL stealth MVP candidate?

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    18%
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    40%
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    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,909)

5. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves. Best MVP finish: 20th in 2010. Heyward's all-around game is beloved by sabermetricians, and at 23 he could be ready for that monster season after hitting .269 with 27 home runs last year while winning a Gold Glove. The key may be that batting average: Since 1990, the only non-pitcher MVP not to hit .300 was Jimmy Rollins in 2007 (he hit .296).

4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals. Best MVP finish: 16th in 2010. Admittedly, this doesn't feel much like a stealth selection since Zimmerman finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2006 and has been an outstanding player since. But he's never placed high in the MVP voting, so he qualifies as a sleeper. He's had some injury issues in the past, but in the second half of last year he hit .319 AVG/.381 OBP/.564 SLG with 17 home runs. Do that over a full season on a team that could be the best in baseball, and you're in the MVP debate.

3. Allen Craig, 1B, Cardinals. Best MVP finish: 19th in 2012. Craig fits a lot of the parameters above. While he's entering his age-28 season, he's also had just one full season in the majors (and even then, he played just 119 games last year). He can hit -- .307/.354/.522 in 2012 -- and drove in 92 runs in those 119 games. That prorates to 116 over 150 games. His biggest obstacles are that the Cardinals could have other MVP candidates, such as Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday, and Craig has to stay healthy.

2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks. Best MVP finish: None. Go through the checklist. Young player who could make the leap? Check. (He's entering his second full season.) On a playoff contender? Check. (I like Arizona's chances to win the West.) RBI guy? Check. (Hitting in the middle of the Arizona order, he drove in 82 last year.) Obviously, he'll have to improve on his .286/.359/.490 line, but if he turns some of his 43 doubles into home runs and raises that average 20-25 points, he could drive in 120. Plus, he stole 18 bases in 21 attempts and plays a solid first base. Teammate Miguel Montero is another sleeper, but Goldschmidt is the better bet for a breakout season.

1. Bryce Harper, LF, Nationals. Best MVP finish: 30th in 2012. Too young? Maybe so, but he hit .270/.340/.477 as a 19-year-old rookie, improving down the stretch, and young players can show huge year-to-year improvement. Consider also that Pedroia, Howard and Ripken went from Rookie of the Year to MVP in their sophomore seasons (Canseco and Sandberg did it in their third years), so there's precedent there as well. Harper hit 22 home runs and swiped 18 bases last year in 139 games; 30-30 isn't out of reach. As with Heyward, Harper will have to show improvement in his batting average, and his RBI total will depend on a large degree to where he hits in the Nationals order, but if he does end up hitting third, I won't be surprised if he puts up the numbers to impress the MVP voters.

You may think the following players are stealth, but they've finished in the top 15 of the MVP voting: Chase Headley, Pablo Sandoval, Clayton Kershaw, Martin Prado, Jay Bruce, Justin Upton.
In our previous post we looked at the longest All-Star positional drought for each American League team. The longest: Oakland second base, where Phil Garner in 1976 was the last All-Star.

Let's move on to the National League ... where we have to go all the back to 1969 for one club. (Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for making this little task manageable!)

National League East
Atlanta Braves: LF (Ron Gant, 1992). The Braves have had 75 All-Star selections since 1992, but none by a left fielder (Chipper Jones wasn't selected the two years he played out there). Maybe Justin Upton ends the streak this year.

Miami Marlins: CF (none). In 20 seasons, the Marlins have had 39 All-Stars, just under two per season on average. None were center fielders. Preston Wilson has played the most games out there, Juan Pierre and Devon White were the center fielders on their two World Series winners, but they've had six different regulars in the past seven seasons, none of them All-Star candidates.

New York Mets: LF (Cleon Jones, 1969). The Mets also have to go back to Keith Hernandez in 1987 for first base. But 43 years without an All-Star left fielder? Yes, and not really many good choices. They've had just four 4+ WAR seasons: Bernard Gilkey (7.8 in 1996), Cliff Floyd (4.4 in 2005), Jones (4.4 in 1971) and Kevin McReynolds (4.2 in 1988). McReynolds has the most career WAR as a Mets left fielder, 14.3, so it's mostly been a revolving door of players, some good, some mediocre and one Vince Coleman.

Philadelphia Phillies: SS (Jimmy Rollins, 2005). Rollins didn't even make the All-Star team the year he won the MVP Award in 2007.

Washington Nationals: C (Darrin Fletcher, 1994). Ahh, 1994, the year that wasn't.

National League Central
Chicago Cubs: 2B (Ryne Sandberg, 1993). The starters at second since Sandberg retired after 1997: Mickey Morandini (two years), Eric Young (two years), Mark Bellhorn (one year), Mark Grudzielanek (one year), Todd Walker (two years), Neifi Perez (one year, yuck), Mark DeRosa (two years), Mike Fontenot (one year), Ryan Theriot (one year), Darwin Barney (two years). Mostly short-term veterans, but some decent seasons in there. Barney should keep the job for several years thanks to his defense, but is an unlikely All-Star.

Cincinnati Reds: C (Bo Diaz, 1987). Sadly, we didn't quite make it all the way back to Johnny Bench.

Milwaukee Brewers: 3B (Jeff Cirillo, 1997). Since Cirillo departed after 1999, the Brewers have had an interesting group of hot corner guys: Tyler Houston, Wes Helms, Russell Branyan, Corey Koskie, Ryan Braun (wisely moved to left field before he hurt himself at third base), Bill Hall, Casey McGehee and Aramis Ramirez.

Pittsburgh Pirates: 1B (Jason Thompson, 1982). Thompson made his first All-Star appearance with the Tigers in 1977 at age 22. In 1982, he was 27 and hit .284 with 31 home runs, 101 RBIs and 101 walks. And then? That was kind of it. He kept his eye at the plate (84 walks and 58 strikeouts in 1985), but his power and average diminished, and after hitting .196 in 30 games with the Expos in '86 he was done. Not sure what happened there. Anyway, yes, Pirates first basemen since 1982. Not an impressive lot. There were the Sid Bream years, the Orlando Merced years, slow Brian Hunter for a season, somebody named Mark Johnson who wasn't the catcher and I have no recollection of but started for two seasons, the three-years-too-long Kevin Young period, Daryle Ward, Sean Casey, Adam LaRoche, Garrett Jones, Lyle Overbay and, last year, Casey McGehee (oddly, earning his second mention in as many paragraphs). Baseball-Reference rates just two seasons since 1982 at 3+ WAR: Young's 5.3 in 1999 (.298/.387/.522) and Jeff King's 3.0 in 1996 (when he actually only started 76 games at first base). This is another piece altogether, but I wonder if this has collectively been the worst position in the majors over the past 30 years.

St. Louis Cardinals: 2B (Tom Herr, 1985). This is a fun one because you wouldn't expect a consistently excellent organization like St. Louis to have a dead spot. Geronimo Pena, where have you gone?

National League West
Arizona Diamondbacks: SS (none). Best season by WAR: Stephen Drew's 3.7 in 2010. Will Didi Gregorius break down the door?

Colorado Rockies: C (none). The Rockies have been around since 1993, so this is starting to be a sizable dry spell. Wilin Rosario hit 28 home runs as a rookie last year, so he has a good chance to become the first All-Star Rockies catcher.

Los Angeles Dodgers: 3B (Pedro Guerrero, 1983). Guerrero wasn't really a third baseman, but Tommy Lasorda played him there for two seasons before he finally tired of the experiment. Anyway, Luis Cruz is sort of symbolic of the Dodgers' revolving door here. Other than the Adrian Beltre years (oddly, he didn't make the All-Star team the year he hit 48 home runs and finished second in the NL MVP vote), it's been guys like Blake DeWitt and Casey Blake and Wilson Betemit and Oscar Robles and Mike Blowers and Tim Wallach and Mickey Hatcher even played there for a year. (Beltre, FYI, was hitting .315 with 22 home runs at the break in 2004. Scott Rolen was the starter and Mike Lowell the only backup. But Lowell was hitting .305 with 20 home runs, so wasn't a bad selection.)

San Diego Padres: C and SS (Benito Santiago and Tony Fernandez, 1992). Neither were really that good that year. Santiago had a .287 OBP and was worth 1.1 WAR. Fernandez slugged .359, had 20 steals and 20 caught stealing, and was worth 1.0 WAR. The Padres have only four shortstop seasons since '92 that rank above 1.5 WAR: Three by Khalil Greene and one by Damian Jackson. Everth Cabrera, beware the curse.

San Francisco Giants: CF (Chili Davis, 1984). The great thing here is Davis is both the last center fielder and right fielder (1986) to make the All-Star team for the Giants. Davis is the only Giants center field All-Star since Willie Mays in 1971. Luckily, they had a pretty good left fielder for a spell.

Johnny Cueto was jobbed

November, 8, 2012
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Johnny CuetoDustin Bradford/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto is out of the running for the NL Cy Young Award despite outperforming the finalists in several metrics.

Last night, MLB announced the finalists for the major awards. This generated a predictable amount of snark on Twitter (then again, what doesn’t?). But beyond filling time during a slow news week, the exercise did two things: It not only told us who might win next week, it definitely told us who won’t. And that, my friends, is cause for disappointment, not derision, because where the NL Cy Young is concerned we now know that the Reds’ Johnny Cueto has no shot.

That’s not a slam on the three finalists: R.A. Dickey, Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez. All had superb seasons. But you can understand how Reds fans might be a bit annoyed to see their guy already left on the outside looking in.

My dog in this fight? Skip his not getting the honor of being a finalist -- there’s a case that maybe Cueto should be the guy taking home the trophy. First off, he’s pitching in the Great American Ballpark, which is a significantly more difficult place to pitch than Dodger Stadium or Citifield, particularly because homers fly out of the park. And when it comes to dealing with the differences between the competition they had to face, if you use Baseball Prospectus’ metrics measuring opponent quality (opponents’ True Average in this case, which incorporates park factors), Cueto is well ahead of Gio and Dickey, although he still trails Kershaw.

So Cueto already has to work at a disadvantage as far as counting stats because of where he’s pitching and who he had to face. And he nevertheless ranks up there with the leaders in the basic counting stats -- third in wins in the National League, third in ERA. Nice, but not exactly what it takes to bring home the trophy. But take it up a notch and turn to Baseball-Reference.com for some interpretive data, and you’ll find that Cueto led the NL in ERA+ (beating Kershaw 152-150), and rates slightly behind in Wins Above Replacement (5.8 to 6.2), and Wins Above Average (4.4 to 4.7).

So it really ought to be Kershaw vs. Cueto, because they’re the guys who are Nos. 1 and 2 in stats that tell you what they did, with Gonzalez and Dickey never getting in between them. Why should they? They weren’t as good on the basis of the things they could control. But Dickey and Gonzalez did finish first and second in wins, ahead of Cueto and Kershaw. And that’s because they were fortunate their teammates gave them almost a full run or more of run support than Cueto (4.1 per 27 outs) or Kershaw (4.0) -- Dickey got 4.8 runs, Gio 5.5. Of course they wound up with more wins. They pitched well, just not as well, but their teammates did more to get them those W's that still seem to draw voters’ eyes.

This really should be an argument between Kershaw and Cueto, but Cueto’s already been excused from the competition. Cueto faced tougher opponents than two of the finalists, pitching in the toughest park of any of them, and generated the most value. Set aside why he isn’t a finalist -- why didn’t he win? And the answer to that will no doubt be as varied as the 32 voters themselves. Maybe they’ll have picked Kershaw, which would be a great selection. But if anybody was going to unseat the big Dodgers lefty and win the award this year, it should have been Cueto.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

2012 predictions you couldn't predict?

February, 18, 2012
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Last year, You Can't Predict Baseball came up with bold predictions for the year. We had a lot of fun coming up with them, and then laughing at how hilariously wrong they were at the end of the year. This year, we're bringing these predictions to SweetSpot, along with explanations for some of them. Keep in mind, these predictions are supposed to be bold, but not insane -- even we know the Orioles aren't going to the playoffs in 2012.

Los Angeles Angels: Kendrys Morales stays healthy all year.

Houston Astros: Bud Norris is top five in K/9 in the NL. We figured something good had to happen to the Astros, right? Norris actually has a pretty nice career K/9.

Oakland Athletics: Yoenis Cespedes is their starting center fielder by Memorial Day.

Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow makes the jump to elite starting pitcher. He's struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings two years running, though his ERAs have remained ugly. We think this is the year his results finally match the stuff, especially considering his declining walk rate.

Atlanta Braves: Julio Teheran has more wins than Tim Hudson.

[+] EnlargeRickie Weeks
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith Prince Fielder gone to Detroit and Ryan Braun facing possible disciplinary action, Rickie Weeks could lead the Milwaukee Brewers in home runs in 2012.
Milwaukee Brewers: Rickie Weeks leads the team in home runs. He was fourth on the team last year, with 20. In front of him were Corey Hart with 26, Ryan Braun with 33, and Prince Fielder with 38. Fielder is gone, and for this prediction we'll assume Braun will miss a third of the year due to a suspension. It's not too bold to think Weeks could pass Hart in 2012.

St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Beltran outproduces Albert Pujols from last year. Albert Pujols was great last year, but not quite best-player-of-his-generation Albert Pujols. If healthy, it's not absurd to think of Beltran outproducing Pujols' 5.1 WAR in 2011.

Chicago Cubs: Matt Garza isn't their best pitcher. It'll be Ryan Dempster, who had great peripherals but bad results last year.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Aaron Hill will be good again. He was great with them in limited time, and Arizona's park is quite hitter-friendly.

Los Angeles Dodgers: James Loney will be a top-three first baseman in the National League. Many thanks to Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness for somewhat alerting us to this one. We just decided to take it semi-absurdly far.

San Francisco Giants: Madison Bumgarner is their best pitcher. In terms of ERA, he already wasn't very far behind Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and his K/BB ratio eclipsed theirs by quite a bit.

Cleveland Indians: They'll have the best pitching in the American League Central. We're banking on Ubaldo Jimenez, making a major comeback to something closer to what he was in 2010, and the rest of the staff displaying the good that they did in 2011. We're also counting on the Tigers' starters not being very impressive behind Justin Verlander, which is bold but not quite insane, and the pitching of the White Sox, Twins and Royals not being able to keep up with Cleveland's.

Seattle Mariners: Jesus Montero catches 100-plus games. The Mariners probably aren't going to compete, so why not try and play him where he'll accrue the most value?

Miami Marlins: Despite all their new acquisitions and the hype, they still finish fourth in the NL East. When you think about it, this one isn't so crazy. If Josh Johnson isn't healthy and maybe even if he is their pitching still trails that of Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta; even with Heath Bell, we don't think their bullpen is as good, either. Their offense might be better than some of those teams', but the Marlins were quite a bit below league average offensively last year and we're not sure how much Jose Reyes is going to make up for that.

New York Mets: Mike Pelfrey is the worst starter in the NL. Pelfrey's been pretty terrible two of the past three years, and now they're moving the fences in at Citi Field. He was far better in his huge home stadium, but we're guessing with the moved-in walls he'll be significantly worse at Citi. Here at YCPB, we actually don't think the Mets are going to be quite as dire as many are saying, even if they do come in last place in the NL East - but Pelfrey won't be a bright spot.

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg has a 17-strikeout game.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters is the best catcher in the AL. A lot of people are so obsessed with Wieters not matching the hype that they didn't notice he became a plus offensive performer last year, to go along with very good defense. His taking the next step isn't that bold as predictions go, especially if Joe Mauer has to move off catcher.

San Diego Padres: Luke Gregerson is a top-three closer in the NL.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cole Hamels is their best starter. And this isn't meant to be a slight to Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but considering their ages and the fact that Hamels is pretty darn good himself, plus a possible boost from a contract year...

Pittsburgh Pirates: Charlie Morton is their All-Star.

Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish isn't their best starter -- but he's still good. And we think he'll be pretty good, we just think Derek Holland will become more consistently good, or Matt Harrison will put up numbers like his 2011.

Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields will have no complete games. Predicting someone to have no complete games might not seem bold, but it is when it's a guy who was known as "Complete Game James" last season. Shields did have 11 complete games in 2011, an almost unheard-of number these days, but he had no complete games in 2009 or 2010.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter none in either 2009 or 10, James Shields pitched 11 complete games for Tampa Bay in 2011.
Boston Red Sox: No one hits 30 home runs. This might seem crazy when you consider their great offensive numbers last year, but only one player on their team hit 30 home runs and it was Jacoby Ellsbury with 32.

Cincinnati Reds: Brandon Phillips is the best second baseman in the NL.

Colorado Rockies: Jamie Moyer will have the best HR/9 on the staff.

Kansas City Royals: They reach .500. While their pitching won't be great, their offense will take a big step forward this year. Combined with the rest of their division being the Tigers and some dumpster fires, it's not that difficult to see it happening.

Detroit Tigers: They score fewer runs than they did in 2011. Yes, that’s even with Fielder. It's not improbable that Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Delmon Young regress quite a bit from their numbers with Detroit last year, and that Prince Fielder's production "only" makes up for the offensive loss of Victor Martinez in 2012. They'll still have a very good offense, though.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer hits 15 home runs.

Chicago White Sox: Robin Ventura gets ejected more times than Ozzie Guillen. Look at the state of the White Sox. We'd get ejected too.

New York Yankees: Hiroki Kuroda leads the team in ERA.

You Can't Predict Baseball is an affiliate of the SweetSpot network.

SweetSpot's NL players to see

February, 17, 2012
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First the SweetSpot network took on the AL teams. Now they look at the NL. Which players are bloggers most excited to watch this season, and why?

Arizona Diamondbacks: Justin Upton
Diamondbacks
Upton was finally healthy for an entire season in 2011, and met all the lofty expectations placed on him in the second year of a six-year, $51.25 million contract signed when he was 22. He set career highs in homers (31), RBI (88) and stolen bases (21, caught nine times), while compiling a .289/.369/.529 line. Through their age-23 season, there have been only four others to match Upton’s 91 homers, 62 stolen bases and 119 OPS+: Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco, Ken Griffey Jr. and Orlando Cepeda. Pretty elite company, and Upton still has time to mature as a player and team leader. I’m looking forward to watching this multifaceted young man do his thing again in 2012. -- Diane Firstman, Value Over Replacement Grit

Atlanta Braves: Jason Heyward
Braves
A healthy Heyward has to be the player Braves fans are most excited to see this season. Through injuries, bad habits developed while playing injured and benchings, just about everything that could have gone wrong for such a talent did go wrong last year. Despite all of that, Heyward never hung his head or complained and actually managed to produce slightly above-league-average value in right field. Heyward has reportedly straightened his swing out this offseason and has really worked hard to get his game back on track. If Heyward can get a little more elevation on his swing, while maintaining the other aspects of his rookie performance, Braves fans could once again witness a once-in-a-generation talent leading the team to a successful season. -- Franklin Rabon, Capitol Avenue Club

Chicago Cubs: Travis Wood
Cubs
In 2010, Wood made his big league debut for the Reds in an outing against the Cubs. He was brought in this offseason as part of the deal that sent Sean Marshall packing. For some, that was a disappointment considering Wood’s ERA last year was 4.84, but if we look beyond that we see that Wood posted a FIP ERA of 4.06, and Bill James projects him for an ERA of 3.75 in 2012. Also factor in that Great American Ballpark is a tough place to pitch; Wood had a 5.30 in the Gap vs. 3.58 on the road. Wrigley is not the hitters’ park we’ve all been told it is, primarily due to the wind blowing in often early in the year. The move from Cincinnati should do a lot toward boosting Wood’s production and confidence. -- Joe Aiello, View From the Bleachers

Cincinnati Reds: Mat Latos
Reds
Anticipation is building steadily for Latos' debut in a Cincinnati uniform. At 24 years of age and with a couple of excellent seasons already under his belt, the sky is the limit for him. For Reds fans, there is the hope that the club will have a legitimate ace at the top of the rotation for the first time in a couple of decades. Yes, there is reason for legitimate excitement in the Queen City. -- Chad Dotson, Redleg Nation

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
Rockies
It’s a debate in my mind between Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Both have tremendous gloves, bats and arms. Tulo trained this offseason with Jason Giambi in Las Vegas, and one could extrapolate some motivation from Dan O'Dowd's offseason acquisitions and trades. (O'Dowd believes the team needs leaders and better clubhouse guys, so what does that say about Tulo who plays the most important position on the field, is signed through 2020 and the face of the franchise?). What will Tulo do this year? I think 30 homers, Gold Glove-level defense and solidifying his place as the best player in baseball is a sure bet. Are the playoffs a sure bet for the Rockies? MVP for Tulo? I can't wait to see! -- Travis Lay, Blake Street Bulletin

Houston Astros: Jordan Lyles
Astros
With all of the changes, everyone seems to have forgotten that Lyles was recently the Astros’ top prospect. How quickly a young player that showed real promise last year has become overlooked in Houston. He's only 21 years old and had a number of very promising starts last year, posting a fair 4.41 ERA through July before running out of gas and getting shelled in August and September. He clearly needs to continue to build his stamina and strengthen himself to last the entire season. I'm interested to see how he continues to progress and if we can see him grow into the kind of player that can withstand the rigors of an entire major league season. I don't know how the Astros faithful have forgotten about Lyles so fast, but I think they'll be quickly and pleasantly reminded why he was considered a top prospect. -- Austin Swafford, Austin’s Astros 290 Blog

Los Angeles Dodgers: Kemp and Kershaw
Dodgers
Heaven knows it's hard not to be excited about the return of Juan Uribe or the potential of having Juan Rivera for a full season. But even so, there's a small, small part of me that is intrigued by these fellas named Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. They made a bit of an impression last year, and I can't say I'm not going to be, well ... OK, hanging on their every swing and pitch. But to avoid being too reliant on last year's stars, the new Dodger Roadrunner, Dee Gordon, will also be an exciting player to watch. -- Jon Weisman, Dodger Thoughts

Miami Marlins: Logan Morrison
Marlins
The player I'm truly most excited to see don a Marlins uniform this season is Logan Morrison. Following a splendid sophomore season in 2011, Morrison enters the new season as one of the game's top outfielders in the National League. With a solid approach and some power, a full season from Morrison could result in at least five additional wins for the Fish -- assuming Morrison can remain healthy. -- David Gershman, Marlins Daily

Milwaukee Brewers: Zack Greinke
Brewers
Last season, the Brewers didn't even get to see their prized acquisition participate in spring training, as Greinke broke a rib playing pickup basketball and missed all of spring and the first month of the season. This season, no basketball for the former Cy Young award winner. He'll be there through spring training and Brewer fans hope to avoid the slow start he suffered through last season. Greinke posted just a 5.63 ERA despite an 80:12 K:BB ratio in May and June last season (mostly thanks to eight home runs) before calming down in the second half. Greinke finished strong, posting a 2.80 ERA thanks to a .233/.293/.373 line allowed in July, August and September. -- Jack Moore, Disciples of Uecker

New York Mets: David Wright
Mets
After a winter of discontent for Mets fans, it’s hard to be excited about anyone in particular. The team is in desperate financial straits, is slashing payroll at record rates, and appears destined to finish in last place. Wright, the one player for whom I reserve excitement, may not even be on the team after July 31. Still, I’m highly anticipating his 2012 performance, because after two disappointing seasons I’m convinced that Wright has too much pride to have a third. For the first time in his career, the Mets are “his” team -- he’s the de facto leader, the man who sets the example for everyone else. Chances are, Wright is determined to have a career year, and will pound opposing pitching with a savage vengeance -- all in the name of leading the Mets to a less-than-90-loss season. -- Joe Janish, Mets Today

Philadelphia Phillies: Antonio Bastardo
Phillies
It was easy to be impressed by the sustained excellence of Atlanta's Jonny Venters last season, but Bastardo was quietly in the same neighborhood. Bastardo had a monster 2011 in which he struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings and held opponents to a .524 OPS. If he can even approach his 2011 performance, Bastardo, along with Jonathan Papelbon and the Phillies' army of young guys who throw hard (Mike Stutes, Justin De Fratus, David Herndon and so on), gives the Phillies' bullpen the potential to be one of the best in the National League. -- Michael Baumann, Crashburn Alley

Pittsburgh Pirates: Pedro Alvarez
Pirates
While Andrew McCutchen remains eminently exciting, we have a firm grasp on his star-level capabilities. I’m more excited to see whether Alvarez can rebound from his terrible sophomore season and get back to where his debut left off. The Pirates have a chance at a bright future, but all of their elite prospects are several years away. If there is any hope to be a competitive team in 2012, Alvarez has to give McCutchen and Neil Walker some help offensively. He has barely played a full season of games (169), and there is still time for him to meet the expectations that come as a No. 2 overall pick. Hey, Alex Gordon finally did. -- Paul Sporer, Pitt Plank

St. Louis Cardinals: Adam Wainwright
Cardinals
Despite losing everyone's perennial favorite player to watch to free agency, the defending champs have several captivating players in 2012. Partly because fans haven't seen him in a year and partly because he throws one of the most entertaining curveballs in the game, Wainwright will be a sight for sore eyes as he comes back from Tommy John surgery. But the player with whom Wainwright will forever be linked in fans' memories, Carlos Beltran, also figures to be a pivotal and exciting addition to the post-Pujols roster. -- Matt Philip, Fungoes

San Diego Padres: Carlos Quentin
Padres
The acquisition of Quentin brings energy, excitement and more total bases (210 in 2011 with the White Sox) and home runs (24) than any Padres player had last year. The Padres now employ two hitting coaches -- a model just a few MLB teams use -- as Phil Plantier and Alonzo Powell help with the workload hitting instruction requires. Quentin plays hard and he will help change the dynamics in the clubhouse. With the Padres' deep farm system and strong pitching, Quentin just might be the player to add the much needed spark of power in the middle of the order. -- Anna McDonald

San Francisco Giants: Buster Posey
Giants
I think I can speak for Giants fans everywhere when I say the player that I'm most excited to see play this season is Posey, and it's not even close. His injury in 2011 was a black mark on a year that we'd all like to forget. Beyond the numbers, Posey has quickly become the face of the Giants. He's young, energetic, talented and -- for us fans -- we hope healthy. Regardless of what happens, I'll be happy to see him back on the field in 2012. -- Chris Quick, Bay City Ball

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg
Nationals
How could it be anyone but Strasburg? When healthy, the most hyped pitching prospect in over a decade has delivered some fabulous pitching performances, and yet it feels like he is just scratching the surface of what he can do. He's as equally likely to blow guys away for a double-digit K performance as he is to shut a team down and let just two guys reach first over eight innings. He looked so good at the end of last year that the feeling is the only thing that can stop him in 2012 are the limits imposed by his own team to protect his recovering arm. -- Harper Gordek, Nationals Baseball

NL East: Three fixes for each team

November, 28, 2011
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Sure, every team would love to plug its shortstop hole with Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins. Albert Pujols would look terrific in any uniform. Have a spare $40 million sitting around? Sure, Ryan Madson is an underrated closer.

But let's be realistic here: Those can't be solutions for every team. So let's identify three key areas of importance for each team and determine a more likely action plan as the offseason wheeling and dealing starts to heat up. We'll start with the National League East. (Check back all week for the other divisions.)

Philadelphia Phillies

1. Shortstop: Empty (Jimmy Rollins, free agent)

Rollins just turned 33, but the Phillies would like to bring him back -- on a four-year contract, while Rollins is reportedly looking for a five-year deal that would take him through his age-37 season. While Rollins isn’t the hitter he was in his 2007 MVP season, Phillies shortstops still ranked ninth in the majors in OPS, tied for second in runs scored and tied for sixth in RBIs. Rollins is the obvious candidate here, but if it takes five years, why not go after the younger Jose Reyes?

Likely solution: Rollins. The big question: Was his 2011 season a fluke, or will he regress back to his subpar numbers of 2009 and 2010 (.248 average, .306 OBP)? It’s also worth mentioning that Rollins hasn’t been a good postseason player. He has a career .686 OPS in 46 postseason games, and he’s homerless in his past 140 postseason at-bats.

2. Left field: Empty (Raul Ibanez, free agent)

Stats you may not believe: Despite Ibanez’s .298 on-base percentage, Phillies left fielders ranked 16th in the majors in OPS and tied for fourth with 95 RBIs. Remember when left fielders owned big bats? Those days are gone. Still, considering Ibanez’s lack of defensive value, it should be easy for the Phillies to upgrade the overall production with Domonic Brown and John Mayberry Jr. Oddly, the Phillies offered Ibanez arbitration, meaning they’re risking Ibanez accepting and earning a likely payout of $12-14 million. (As Buster Olney writes, there could be a gentleman’s agreement between the two sides to not accept the offer, although Ibanez must know he won’t get anything close to that on the open market.)

Likely solution: Brown/Mayberry Jr. platoon. It’s time to give Brown 450 at-bats to see what he can do. Mayberry can play against lefties (and also fill in at first base until Ryan Howard returns). Even if Ibanez DOES return, the Phillies should stick with the youngsters.

3. Third base: 22nd in majors with .665 OPS

Here’s incumbent third baseman Placido Polanco's year-by-year WAR (wins above replacement) since 2007, via Baseball-Reference: 5.0, 3.7, 2.5, 2.0, 1.8. He still carries an excellent glove, but this is a player in decline. Factor in that he’s missed 70 games the past two seasons and he’s an even bigger question mark.

Likely solution: Polanco will return, but the Phillies would be wise to have a solid alternative. Unfortunately, recent acquisition Ty Wigginton is not the answer, as he's been a below-average hitter each of the past three seasons, despite having a little pop. As the Phillies are learning with Polanco, and will learn with Howard, giving long-term contracts to guys past 30 can be a very risky proposition.

Atlanta Braves

1. Shortstop: Empty (Alex Gonzalez, free agent)

The Braves didn’t even offer arbitration to Gonzalez, a solid fielder with a little pop, but also the owner of an abysmal .270 OBP. Atlanta has a couple of good shortstop prospects in Andrelton Simmons (.311 in Class A) and Tyler Pastornicky (who hit .314 between Double-A and Triple-A). They may believe Pastornicky is ready to handle the job or maybe they’ll enter the Rollins/Reyes sweepstakes.

Likely solution: Considering the state of shortstops, the Braves' best option could be to dangle one of their talented young starting pitchers in a trade. But good luck finding a team with an extra shortstop -- maybe Boston’s Jed Lowrie, with the Red Sox looking for a rotation arm. Short of that, maybe the Braves bring Rafael Furcal back to Atlanta.

2. Left field: Upgrade Martin Prado

One hot rumor was the Braves trading Prado for Delmon Young, a “big” right-handed bat the Braves need. Here’s the problem with that rumor: Young isn’t a big bat. Prado had a .687 OPS in 2011 while battling a staph infection, but Young’s OPS was just .695. Over the past three years, Prado’s OPS is .771, Young’s .758. And Young is a lousy left fielder. Anyway, that rumor was quickly shot down for those obvious reasons, but it does point to the larger issue of trying to upgrade left field: If Young is considered a big bat, maybe you’re better off sticking with Prado and hoping for a bounce-back season.

Likely solution: Prado. Why not see if he hits better; if not, you can always seek an in-season fix. Or what about a trade for Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier? The Braves could keep Prado as Chipper Jones insurance, and trade a young pitcher for Ethier, who the Dodgers may not want to pay after inking Matt Kemp to a $160 million deal.

3. Right field: More production from Jason Heyward

In reality, the best hope for more offense for the Braves rests in improvement from Heyward and sophomore first baseman Freddie Freeman. With Heyward hitting just .227/.319/.389, Braves right fielders ranked just 26th in the majors in OPS, 29th in runs and 27th in RBIs.

Likely solution: Heyward is just 22. I think he's going to have a big season.

Washington Nationals

1. Rotation: Find a power starter

Washington’s rotation actually posted a respectable 3.80 ERA, seventh in the NL, but did so despite averaging just 5.67 K’s per nine innings, 15th in the NL. That's a difficult equation to maintain. With Jordan Zimmermann the only good bet to repeat his 2011 production, the Nats shouldn’t simply rely on a healthy Stephen Strasburg to bolster the rotation.

Likely solution: C.J. Wilson. While some expect the Nats to bid for Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, why not spend around half the money and go after Wilson? He’s not a classic power pitcher in the sense of fastball velocity but he’s racked up 376 strikeouts the past two years. His adjusted ERA over the past two seasons is seventh best among all starters. If you can pitch in Texas, you could dominate in the NL. And with Strasburg around, he won’t have to shoulder the pressure of staff ace.

2. Center field: Vacant (Rick Ankiel, free agent)

Nationals center fielders posted a .691 OPS, 23rd in baseball. They’ve reportedly inquired about one of the Twins’ glove wizards, Denard Span or Ben Revere. But rather than trade away a good prospect for a marginal player like Span or Revere (neither would offer much with the bat), why not play Jayson Werth there? He’d be an adequate defensive center fielder, at least for a couple of years, and clear room for Bryce Harper in right field, who may be ready by the All-Star break. The Nats will also have to find room in a year or so for 2011 top pick Anthony Rendon, a third baseman in college who will have to move positions with Ryan Zimmerman around. Rendon could end up in left field.

Likely solution: Move Werth to center, sign a short-term corner outfielder like Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel or Cody Ross (Michael Morse could also play left if Adam LaRoche returns healthy, but is best suited for first base).

3. Manager: Is Davey Johnson the long-term answer?

Considering he’ll be 69 in January and hadn’t managed in the majors since 2000, Johnson was an interesting choice to replace Jim Riggleman. Following an 80-win season and with a slew of talented prospects close to the majors -- Harper, Rendon, pitcher Brad Peacock, catcher Derek Norris -- this is a team on the verge of becoming a playoff contender. Maybe not in 2011, but soon. Johnson built a young team in the Mets, but also had veterans Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez as clubhouse leaders. He won in Baltimore, but with a veteran team. Is he the right guy to trust the youngsters as they gain big league experience? I believe he is.

New York Mets

1. Shortstop: If not Reyes, who?

Likely solution: Sign Reyes, or give the job to Ruben Tejada. He’s never going to hit with any power, but he posted a .360 OBP last season at age 21 (in 376 plate appearances). How rare is that? Since 1980, only three other middle infielders had at least 300 plate appearances at age 21 and posted an OBP of at least .350 -- Alex Rodriguez, Delino DeShields and Jerry Browne. If Tejada can handle short, maybe the Mets are better off spending their money elsewhere.

2. Bullpen: Who closes?

Only the Cubs, Rockies and Astros had a worse bullpen ERA than the Mets in 2011, and none of them had the luxury of pitching their home games in Citi Field. While the Mets could certainly use an ace for the rotation (only the most hopeful will believe in Johan Santana's comeback), building a bullpen can be cheap and easy.

Likely solution: Ryan Madson? No, he’s too expensive. If the Mets don’t trust a guy like Bobby Parnell, how about a second-tier closer like Frank Francisco, who would cost about $30 million less than Madson? I’d also consider adding a second reliever like righty killer Octavio Dotel or veteran Takashi Saito. Hopefully the Mets learned their lesson with Francisco Rodriguez: Bullpen depth is more important than an overrated $15 million closer.

3. Power in the outfield

With Carlos Beltran gone, Jason Bay a shell and Angel Pagan apparently returning to play center, the Mets may be struggling to get power from the outfield.

Solution: Move in the fences! (Wait, this will help the other team as well?) OK: Don't discount Lucas Duda, who presumably moves into a regular spot in right field, with the return of Ike Davis to first. Duda hit an impressive .292/.370/.482. His park-adjusted OPS was higher than Troy Tulowitzki, Howard, Shane Victorino or Carlos Gonzalez.

Miami Marlins

1. Third base: Empty

Since the Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers, they’ve had four different regular third basemen in four seasons. In 2011, Marlins third basemen ranked 23rd in the majors in OPS and only the Mariners received fewer home runs and RBIs. Certainly, signing Jose Reyes to play shortstop and moving Hanley Ramirez to the hot corner makes perfect sense, especially since Reyes would be a defensive upgrade and maybe moving Ramirez would get his bat back to his 2007-2009 level. Prospect Matt Dominguez, who received a September cameo, carries a superb glove but questionable stick (.258/.312/.431 in Triple-A). He’s still just 22, though.

Likely solution: In a year with so few top free agents, the odds are slim the Marlins will be the top bidder for Reyes, new ballpark or not. It’s a nice smoke screen in an attempt to sell a few season tickets. The most realistic option is to give the job to Dominguez, or if management feels that he needs another year in Triple-A, go the stopgap approach and sign a guy like Wilson Betemit. If the Marlins are determined to spend money, they could go after Aramis Ramirez, although a Ramirez-Ramirez left side of the infield is a little scary defensively. (The other option would be to slide Emilio Bonifacio back to third base, but that would mean more Chris Coghlan in center field, and nobody wants that.)

2. Find a quality starter

For all the talk about Reyes and Albert Pujols, the Marlins have some problems in the rotation. Their 4.23 ERA ranked 12th in the NL, and that’s despite a pretty good home park to pitch in. Javier Vazquez, who rebounded with a strong second half (2.15), is also a free agent, leaving a current rotation of Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and the eternally disappointing Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad. Brad Hand, who turns 22 in March, is in the mix, but his minor league track record is mixed, and more seasoning in Triple-A to improve his command appears necessary.

Likely solution: Re-sign Vazquez and go after a high-risk, lower-cost starter like Erik Bedard. Look, Volstad has made 102 starts in the majors; while he’s still young, it’s time to maybe face the fact he just isn’t that good. He doesn’t miss bats and for a guy who is supposed to be a ground ball pitcher, he gives up way too many home runs (23 in just 165.2 innings). Mark Buehrle would be a nice addition, but Bedard is the more realistic signing. If Johnson returns healthy and Bedard comes up big, the Marlins could suddenly have a strong rotation.

3. Be realistic about appraising your players

Volstad isn’t that good. Coghlan hasn’t hit in two years. Gaby Sanchez is OK, but hardly a star -- 20 teams had a better slugging percentage from their first basemen than Sanchez’s .427 mark. (And at 28, he’s unlikely to get better.) Logan Morrison is better suited to first base, not left field, where he's a big defensive liability.

Likely solution: Yes, a lineup of Reyes, Bonifacio, Ramirez, Pujols, Mike Stanton, Morrison, John Buck and Omar Infante and would look pretty impressive ... even adding a guy like Aramis Ramirez would plug a hole in the middle of the lineup. Despite their 72-90 record, I don’t think the Marlins are that far away, but I have doubts they’ll be able to lure any of the big free agents. But at least the pitches to guys like Pujols and Reyes indicates the Marlins may be aware that Sanchez isn't a star or that Ramirez's days at shortstop may be numbered. Those are good signs.

Fifth-place teams put 'wild' in Wild Card

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
10:00
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You probably have not forgotten baseball’s best night ever. Within 90 incredible minutes of action, September 28, 2011 gave us the spectacle of the Cardinals, Rays, Red Sox and Braves playing four different games and determining their destinies on the final day of the season.

The way things are going, we’ll never see its like ever again. At the NLCS, Bud Selig stressed that a night like September 28 would not affect his desire to add a second wild-card team to each league’s slate. He’s proven to be as good as his word, and as a result, finishing in third place isn’t the end of the line for anybody. That might get the Blue Jays and Orioles to stop squawking about their lot in the AL East, but at what cost?

Consider what this would have meant last season: The Red Sox and Braves’ infamous meltdowns would have been far less agonizing. Maybe they would have lasted one more day, with the Sox playing the Rays and the Braves taking their shot at the Cardinals. Maybe either one of the Sox and Braves would have advanced, but given how banged-up both teams were, how much of a scare would either have thrown into their LDS opponents? Would this really have made for an even better postseason than the one we just watched?

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria
Kim Klement/US PresswireCelebrations like this one by the Rays would not have happened under Bud Selig's new playoff idea.
Instead, this new scheme creates a new, genuinely unhappy spectacle: Some especially crummy teams getting wild-card bids for glory. Say the Red Sox and Yankees go toe-to-toe for the AL East crown next season, all the way until their final series against one another. Say the two are tied with 99 wins on October 3, the Yankees lose, having used CC Sabathia to gun for the wild-card “round” bye, so they get squared off against ... an 85-win White Sox team that was cruising comfortably with the fifth-best record in the league, and with their rotation queued up to toss their best starter in this must-win game. The Yankees get punished for trying to win, while the White Sox just need one game to advance after six months of mediocrity. How does that scenario make sense?

If you look at the fifth-place finishers during the 17 years of the wild-card era, starting with 1995 you get just seven 90-win teams into the postseason in the AL, and five in the NL. Assuming for a moment that the different stakes don’t lead to different results in the standings, we’d also have seen three one-game tie-breaker matchups to determine who the second wild card is… to play another one-game playoff to determine who’s in the League Division Series. That would have occurred in 1997 (between the Mets and Dodgers in the NL), in 2002 (between the Red Sox and Mariners) and 2007 (between the Tigers and Mariners).

What about the 22 “playoff” teams with less than 90 wins during the wild-card era, those exciting squads of yore America deserved to see more of? Among the less spectacular:

  • The 2001 Twins, 85-77: While the A’s were waltzing to the wild card with 102 wins, the Twins were finishing up their season with a meaningless series against the White Sox. Those three games would have been significant if there were two wild cards -- a game separated the Sox and Twins at the start of the series. Maybe with something at stake, the White Sox care a little more about the outcome, and win two of three, giving us another exciting one-game play-in between Jerry Manuel’s White Sox and the Twins. You can take that daisy chain of interdependent events in all sorts of unhappy directions. Maybe David Ortiz’s first postseason heroics happen in a Twins uniform, keeping him from ever getting cut loose to go to Boston. Maybe Ozzie Guillen never gets a job on the South Side because Jerry Manuel just skippered the first back-to-back playoff appearances in White Sox franchise history. Neat, huh? Paging Harry Turtledove.
  • The 1997 Angels, 84-78: The Yankees (96-66) won the wild card, then lost the 86-win Indians team in the first round. Maybe the Yankees don’t get even that far after finishing two games behind the Orioles in the AL East, because they’d have to get through the Angels first, with either Doc Gooden (4.91 ERA) or Kenny Rogers (5.65) taking on Anaheim’s big deadline-deal pickup, Ken Hill. Maybe America was ready to see Gary Disarcina and Chad Kreuter in the postseason, and just never knew it. (Neither man ever did play in one.)
  • The 2006 Phillies, 85-77: This was the team that Pat Gillick gave up on at the deadline when 11 different squads, the Phillies among them, were bunched up within six wins of one another. Gillick gave up, dumping Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle on the Yankees for four suspects and payroll relief, only to notice three weeks later that his team was still in the actual wild-card race. He hurriedly added Jamie Moyer, Jeff Conine and Jose Hernandez and came up short of catching the Dodgers and Padres. Of course, since the Pads and Dodgers both won 88 games, L.A. would have had to to play Philadelphia because the lost their season series to San Diego, costing them the NL West division title. The Dodgers would at least have had their rotation queued up, with Derek Lowe facing rookie Cole Hamels.
  • The 1996 AL Mess: The Mariners, White Sox and Red Sox all won 85 games to tie for the fifth-highest tally in the league. Maybe Seattle spares us that mess by winning a makeup date with the Angels, and maybe we get a three-way tie for the fifth-best record in the league anyway after they lose that game. How’s that supposed to work out? Back-to-back one-game tie-breakers to determine which of those three teams plays a “deciding” wild-card contest with the 88-win Orioles?

Now, I’m sure folks will be excited about this new playoff setup for all sorts of reasons. Just think, A’s fans, Moneyball would have arrived in the postseason a year earlier, because the Oakland A’s of 1999 would have made it to the playoffs. (For a game, which they should have lost, otherwise Bud Selig’s original “hope and faith” speech might never happen.) More appearances, more chances to get excited about the season... we all know where Bud's coming from.

Unfortunately, the inevitability of seeing one-game tie-breakers between two or more teams just to determine who gets to play in a one-game wild-card showdown, and before we even get to the actual League Division Series? As noted, that’s a logistical and scheduling nightmare we’ll be sure to see in the years to come.

And what about the possibility that a division-winning team winds up not with one of the five best records in its league? How about not even five from the top six or nine, but the 11th-best? That was what we were in danger of seeing happen in 1994 with the Rangers, and we've been fortunate not to see that happen again. What happens five-team playoffs don't even manage to give us the teams with the five best records in each league? Fiddle with the system to find a way to get it right on yet another pass?

We'll see if a presumably unbalanced schedule with year-round interleague play can make it unlikely, but this is the kind of "excitement" that baseball really could do without.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Wild pitches affect NL wild-card race

September, 25, 2011
9/25/11
1:55
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It’s days like this that can get you upset with the sheer injustice of it all. Six months, 162 games, and it all might come down to ... a missed pitch or two? Whether you want to blame the pitcher or the catcher or both on a ball that comes loose and lets runners advance, well, that’s something best left to the official scorer, usually to nobody’s satisfaction. But on Saturday, the Braves and Cardinals, the two teams locked in a race to the finish for the National League wild-card slot, experienced each side of this simple misplay, by taking turns regretting or celebrating pitches that didn’t get caught. And now, because of that, the outcome of the race remains a concern with just four games to play.

The Cardinals benefited from more than a few errant deliveries from baseball’s reigning wild man, Cubs closer Carlos Marmol. Marmol is the man on the mound most capable of deciding everything at home plate, just not always in a good way, between his walking or hitting batters when he isn’t striking them out, giving up a gopher ball, or seeing the occasional offering hop away, through or off his backstop.

[+] EnlargeCardinals' Adron Chambers
Scott Rovak/US PRESSWIRECardinals pinch runner Adron Chambers (56) scores the winning run as Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Carlos Marmol (not pictured) throws a bases loaded wild pitch.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, Marmol failed in his fireman duties, instead delivering a hair-on-fire special that Wrigleyville has only become too familiar with, even with two outs and a one-run lead. But getting hung up on this kind of one-game reprieve distracts from the two things really worth keeping in mind about the Cardinals right now. First, Kyle Lohse followed Chris Carpenter’s Friday night gem with a great game of his own, which is easy to fix on, but these games are a perfect example of how good Cardinals starting pitching has been this month. If you define a quality start by runs allowed and not unearned runs -- you know, by paying attention to the scoreboard rather than the official scorer’s opinion of balls that didn’t get fielded -- the Cards’ front five starters have pitched six innings or more and allowed three runs or less in 15 of 21 games, which goes a long way toward explaining why the Redbirds are 15-7 this month.

The second thing worth keeping in mind is that while the Cardinals failed to scratch out a run against the immortal Rodrigo Lopez, you can be 100 percent certain they won’t have to see him on the mound in this or any October. One game’s just proof that, even with MVP talent in the lineup and a Hall of Fame manager in the dugout, sometimes you really just can’t predict baseball. Other than waning enthusiasm for Skip Schumaker that’s only a year or so overdue, there isn’t much you can complain about with the Cards’ offense down the stretch; it's cranked out 4.5 runs per game in September.

Atlanta’s ballgame was similar, in that the Braves also had to endure the indignity of taking a tough loss at the hands of a far-from-dominant retread, Chien-Ming Wang. But the outcome hinged so much on Brandon Beachy and Brian McCann missing on two pitches in the fourth inning that, if you’re a Braves fan, you have to be agonizing over them still. The second was the more damaging, since it moved both baserunners into scoring position, creating the situation in which both could score on Danny Espinosa’s soft single to left-center. That set up Espinosa’s steal, which set up Ivan Rodriguez’s two out intentional walk -- ordered up by Mr. IBB himself, Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez -- a daisy chain of interdependent events that ended with the indignity of Wang’s RBI single to put the Nats up by four. Football might claim to be the game of inches, but for Beachy’s missing McCann’s glove just barely, it was baseball’s turn to see a team live and die in one game by the narrowest of margins.

These plays, the slightest of mistakes at even the best of times, get magnified because they happened now, when the sense of what’s at stake gets talked up and magnified. Because for one happy team there’s an invitation to a League Division Series at the end of the rainbow, getting to games that mean something, games that mean everything. For the other club, what awaits is a winter’s worth of hunting and club caravans, speaking engagements or -- heaven help them -- golf. These narrowest of margins are the difference between a shot at achieving history versus getting a couple of weeks' head start on the hobbies you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting.

Four games left, and two to make up. The Cardinals might still seem a long shot to make up the difference, but sometimes it’s only the odd inch or two or one man’s bad ballgame that makes all the difference. While the Braves take on the Phillies while hoping for some small measure of mercy from a division rival, the Cardinals have three games to play against the Astros after finishing their series against the Cubs on Sunday. Clearly, it ain’t over until it’s over.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Not much of a race left in NL

September, 24, 2011
9/24/11
12:19
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A few weeks ago, it seemed as though the last week of the baseball season was going to be a long, unbearable slog to the beginning of the postseason. The wild cards in both leagues seemed all but settled, and the only division that looked truly competitive was the AL East, but the loser of that race was going to get into the playoffs as the wild-card team anyway. Most observers would worry it would turn into a repeat of 2010, when the Yankees and Rays both played as though the division crown were a hot potato.

That seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? In the interim, the wild-card races in both leagues have gotten competitive. The American League race has gotten the most attention, both because we saw several head-to-head games between the Red Sox and the Rays last week, and because the Red Sox are in the midst of a historically bad month of September. Things have been so bad in Boston that it's actually hard to remember they're currently holding a 2.5-game lead in the race after Tampa Bay's loss to Toronto on Friday night.

The National League race has been equally intriguing, as the Cardinals, once left for dead in the wake of the red-hot Brewers, clawed their way back into the conversation, entering play on Friday just two games behind the Braves. Atlanta once seemed as much of a lock for the NL wild card as the Red Sox/Yankees did in the junior circuit. To make things even more intriguing, the Cardinals were at home to face the woeful Cubs while the Braves were in Washington, staring down Stephen Strasburg. And wouldn't you know it, the Braves drove Strasburg from the game after four innings and beat Washington 7-4. Meanwhile, the Cardinals lost to the Cubs 5-1 after Chris Carpenter had to leave after just 93 pitches after he was pinch-hit for to lead off the bottom of the seventh as Tony La Russa tried to conjure up some offense.

The loss was especially frustrating for St. Louis, because they seemed to be controlling the game until the fateful eighth inning. Carpenter allowed just one run on five hits and two walks while striking out five in seven innings. After Carpenter was removed for that pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh, Jon Jay singled, but was thrown out stealing before Nick Punto singled as well. Albert Pujols popped out to end the inning, and that was basically it. They went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring positions and left 10 men on base. Kyle McClellan would give up a one-out, three-run home run to Alfonso Soriano, and the Cardinals found themselves in a steep hole, both in the game and in the standings.

The Braves now find themselves with a choke hold on the wild card, with their magic number down to three with just five games to go. However, if there's any reason for hope left for St. Louis, it's in the schedule. After finishing their home season with the Cubs this weekend, the Cardinals will finish the regular season in Houston, facing the worst team in the majors. In contrast, once the Braves are done in Washington they will go home to play a three-game set with the Phillies, owners of the majors' best record.

A comeback at this point remains a tall order for Tony La Russa's team, which now pretty much has to win all five of their remaining games, and even then will need Atlanta to go no better than 2-3 to finish the 2011 season -- and that’s just in order for the Cardinals to get a one-game playoff. Friday night was an important night for both teams, and the Braves rose to the challenge on the road, while the Cardinals simply couldn't get the job done against the Cubs. The National League wild-card race isn't officially over yet, but the Cardinals just need far too much to go their way at this point. It's probably safe to go back to wondering if the Red Sox will ever win again.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Jim ThomeDavid Richard/US PresswireJim Thome gives fans their due in response to the standing O they gave him in Cleveland.
Brien Jackson writes for It's About the Money Stupid!, a Sweetspot Network affiliate. You can follow him on Twitter, and follow IIATMS on Twitter and Facebook.

All-time NL Hispanic greats

September, 16, 2011
9/16/11
6:29
PM ET
Roberto ClementeLouis Requena/ MLB Photos via Getty ImagesRoberto Clemente became the first Latin player to win the NL MVP, doing it with the Pirates in 1966.

Yesterday, in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we talked about one person's list -- mine alone -- for the AL team's all-time greats of Hispanic heritage, so naturally enough, let's turn to the senior circuit and look at the best of the National League's teams.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Although a recent expansion addition to the circuit, the Snakes have a clear favorite in Luis Gonzalez, who as recently as the All-Star break was inducted into the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame. Gonzo's also the man who beat Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 2001 World Series, a postseason feat unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.

Atlanta Braves: If you make the mistake of thinking this is about Latin America versus what is or isn't culturally Hispanic, you might count Andruw Jones, but the Netherlands Antilles aren't culturally Spanish or Portuguese. Among the Braves' Hispanic players, the choices boil down to Dominican bopper Rico Carty or catcher Javy Lopez of Puerto Rico. While the 'Beeg Boy' won the 1970 batting title, I'll go with Lopez for his playing a key role on the great teams of the Braves' recent dynasty.

Chicago Cubs: Arguments over how he got there will go on for as long as we're willing to debate the impact of PEDs on performance, but Dominican Sammy Sosa's easily the most productive player to call Wrigley Field home. His 545 homers top all Cubs ever, and his .569 SLG as a Cub is second only to Hack Wilson.

Cincinnati Reds: You can make arguments for either of two great Latin players who were key players for the Big Red Machine: first baseman Tony Perez of Cuba, or Venezuelan shortstop Davey Concepcion. Concepcion was a career Red, so 19 years in the Queen City puts the nimble defender high up on the Reds' al-time counting stats, while “Big Doggie” moved around a bit, but was mostly, essentially, a Red. Per WAR, it'd Perez's place, but I'd also cite Joe Posnanski's fine The Machine, which helps remind us today how important Perez was then to a team stuffed with stars.

[+] EnlargeFernando Valenzuela
Icon SMIFernando Valenzuela won the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in 1981.
Colorado Rockies: The Rockies have never had a shortage of great Latin players, but perhaps surprisingly, none of them have had long careers in Denver. Ubaldo Jimenez would have been an easy choice if he hadn't already been traded away, while Mexico's Vinny Castilla mashed 239 homers in nine seasons manning the hot corner. However, let's use this as an opportunity to give well-traveled Andres Galarraga some love, because the Big Cat was the team's first star by winning the batting title in the franchise's inaugural season in 1993.

Florida Marlins: Between going by teams and the near-impossibility of anyone sticking around as a Fish for any great length of time, it makes for a short list, but Dominican Hanley Ramirez makes for a relatively easy selection, although you can offer honorable mentions to Luis Castillo, Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez and Livan Hernandez for their contributions to the Marlins' strange, episodic history.

Houston Astros: Given a choice between Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz, you could easily pick either player and have good reason to. Cedeno was a wonderful center fielder and may well be the least well-remembered great player of the '70s, while Cruz was the gifted all-around hitter hurt badly by a career almost entirely spent shackled by the Astrodome. I'm slightly biased towards Cruz (a personal favorite back in the day), but for purposes of this sort of exercise, it's easy to leave this as a tie.

Los Angeles Dodgers: While you could concoct an argument for Pedro Guerrero because he was one of the best bats of the '80s, this is a slam dunk: Fernandomania, baby! Fernando Valenzuela's breakthrough was a national phenomenon, as the Mexican southpaw provided both peerless pitching early in his career -- winning the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Awards in 1981 – with unprecedented box-office and media value in Los Angeles. His unique delivery and nifty screwball are things you had to see to believe, putting him on a short list of pitchers you never forgot after watching him work.

Milwaukee Brewers: It isn't a strong field, but it wasn't Teddy Higuera's fault that his career flamed out early, as injuries sapped the Mexican hurler's career early on. He still ranks third all-time in wins for the team while handily leading their pitchers in career WAR as a Brewer, not too shabby for what was essentially a six-year run spent in relative obscurity.

New York Mets: Carlos Beltran wins via WAR, but he's also been tabbed as the Royals' best, while better health from Johan Santana would have made him worth choosing. So let's use the opportunity to cite Jesse Orosco, who holds the all-time record for games pitched on a career.

Philadelphia Phillies: It's perhaps characteristic of the franchise and city that its greatest Latin player, Venezuelan Bobby Abreu, was dumped on the Yankees at the deadline in 2006 -- for nothing, effectively -- but Abreu's brand of patience and power made him an offensive keystone for nine years, hitting .303/.416/.513.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Roberto Clemente, the easiest great to note in a wide field of greats, and the first Latin to win an MVP award in 1966.

St. Louis Cardinals: Albert Pujols has become as easy a selection as Clemente, but with a career that's still going strong, the question best asked might be whether or not the man who will unseat Lou Gehrig on all-time lists walks and plays among us.

San Diego Padres: Strangely enough, the border town franchise doesn't have a storied history where its Latin talent is concerned, but native son Adrian Gonzalez makes for a good fit, even with his recent shuffle to Boston.

San Francisco Giants: There's a fun debate to be had over whether this ought to be the Baby Bull, Orlando Cepeda or their Dominican ace of the '60s, Juan Marichal. Much like Galarraga and Perez, Cepeda was a hard-hitting first baseman who got around -- he immediately followed Clemente as the NL MVP in 1967, for the Cardinals, but started out winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1958 (second in this as well, as Luis Aparicio was the first to win in 1956 with the White Sox). Against that, Marichal had six 20-win seasons and 238 victories for San Francisco while contributing the highest Giants WAR pitching tally since Christy Mathewson. Whether as a matter of career value or peak value as a Giant, I think you have to go with Marichal.

Washington Nationals: Vladi Guerrero has already gotten credit as an Angel, but since this is the franchise stolen from Montreal, stealing the Impaler from their list might seem an additional injustice. However, doing so opens the field to tab Nicaragua's greatest player, El Presidente. In a 23-year career, Dennis Martinez won 100 or more games with both the Orioles and Expos, pitched the only perfect game thrown by a Latin pitcher, and nearly helped deliver Cleveland a long-awaited championship as a 40-year-old workhorse in 1995.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Podcast: Fenway Park drama

August, 31, 2011
8/31/11
3:14
PM ET
On Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast with Keith Law and I, there were many kitten noises heard and a lot of good, opinionated baseball talk. Here are some of the issues discussed:

1. The benches empty on yet another late night at Fenway Park, but was it really necessary? Does anyone enjoy seeing relief pitchers run on the field? Oh, and there was a game.

2. NL East leaders pick up some outfield/pinch-hitting help for the postseason, and there could be more moves to come. Is this an indictment on Jason Heyward?

3. Javier Vazquez has been quite the strikeout pitcher in his career, but perhaps you didn’t realize just how good.

4. Angels outfielder Mike Trout will not win top rookie honors this season, but in the big picture does that really matter?

5. Does Keith Law have emotions? OK, discuss.

Plus: Excellent emails, valuing runs scored and being a switch hitter, Ryan Braun’s MVP chances and a closer look at today’s schedule, on a packed edition of Baseball Today! Download now!

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