SweetSpot: New York Mets

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Which of these three birthday boys should go into the Hall of Fame?

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    25%
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    27%
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    17%
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    29%
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    2%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,281)

Happy birthday to Chipper Jones, Omar Vizquel and the still-active Carlos Beltran.

Today's question: How many of those three should make the Hall of Fame?

OK, Chipper is an obvious Hall of Famer, Vizquel and Beltran less so.

Some quick numbers for Vizquel: Most games ever at shortstop; 2,877 career hits; 1,445 runs; .272 average; 11 Gold Gloves; three-time All-Star; career WAR of 45.3.

Beltran: 363 home runs; 1,340 RBIs; 1,356 runs; three Gold Gloves; eight-time All-Star; 308 stolen bases; .333, 16 HR in 51 postseason games; 68.3 career WAR.

SweetSpot TV: Rapid fire

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
12:58
PM ET
video

It's another edition of rapid fire, featuring Masahiro Tanaka, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Jesse Chavez, Chase Utley, Mike Moustakas, the Mets and the Mariners.
Joe Posnanski is ranking the 100 best baseball players of all time and the other day he wrote about Sandy Koufax, his No. 46 guy.

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

Joe writes:

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

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

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


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

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




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

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


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

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

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

Yasiel Puig has missed the past two Dodgers games after suffering a thumb injury while sliding headfirst into first base. On Tuesday night, Josh Hamilton slid headfirst into first base in the seventh inning and was removed in a crucial situation in the ninth inning because he injured his thumb.

The Angels trailed 5-3 but Fernando Rodney had walked the first two batters, bringing up Hamilton’s spot in the lineup. Mind you, this is a hot Hamilton, hitting .444 in the early going. Instead, Ian Stewart pinch hit and struck out, as did Howie Kendrick, and when Raul Ibanez flew out the Angels had lost for the fourth straight time this season to the Mariners.

Studies have shown runners do not get to first base faster by sliding headfirst, so runners, please stop.

Other thoughts on Tuesday’s games:
  • Hard-throwing 22-year-old Yordano Ventura had an impressive 2014 debut for the Royals with six strikeouts and no walks in six scoreless innings against the Rays. Impressively, four of his strikeouts came on his changeup, one on his curveball and one on his fastball. Fourteen of the 19 changeups he threw were strikes -- and if he’s commanding that pitch, he’s going to develop into a very good starter. His average fastball velocity was 97 mph and peaked at 100.8. Alas, the Royals loaded the bases three times and failed to score and the Rays beat Greg Holland with a run in the ninth. My concern about the Royals’ offense heading into the season was a lack of power, and they’re homerless through seven games. Mike Moustakas -- remember his hot spring? -- finally got his first hit. He’s only 25, so you don’t want to say there’s no chance of a breakout season for him, but I don’t see it, and a hot spring didn’t change my opinion.
  • The White Sox pounded the Rockies 15-3 as Jose Abreu hit his first two home runs -- two of the six HRs the White Sox hit Tuesday. Avisail Garcia added his first two homers, as well. Could the White Sox be a sleeper team? I’m skeptical that they can jump from 63 wins into playoff contention, but if Abreu is a star and lineup anchor, and Adam Eaton provides speed and on-base ability from the leadoff spot, and Garcia hits in his first full season, the White Sox will score a lot more runs than the 598 they scored last year. The Sox have one-of-a-kind starter Chris Sale and a solid No. 2, Jose Quintana, so perhaps the Sox can surprise if the Indians and Royals fall back a bit from 2013.
  • The Reds are 1-4 against the Cardinals after blowing an early 4-0 lead in a 7-5 loss; Homer Bailey gave up four runs in the second and the bullpen lost it in the sixth. The four losses have been by a total of six runs. The Cardinals went 11-8 against the Reds last year while outscoring them 102-77. The Reds are 2-6, Billy Hamilton is struggling from the leadoff spot (.091/.130/.136, no stolen bases), and the bullpen clearly misses Aroldis Chapman. The Reds have to be careful about digging an early hole. After Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Cards (Mike Leake versus Shelby Miller), Cincy's next five series are against the Rays, Pirates, Cubs, Pirates and Braves. Four of those are tough series that could leave the Reds well under .500 by the end of April.
  • Brandon Belt continues to rake, going 2-for-4 with his fifth home run as the Giants beat the Diamondbacks 7-3 (I wonder if that Arizona dugout bench is getting a little warm for Kirk Gibson). The interesting thing about Belt’s season numbers is that he has 10 strikeouts and no walks. It’s obviously a small sample size (only eight games), but I checked to see if he’s been chasing pitches out of the strike zone. He’s swung at 36 percent of pitches out of the zone, compared to 28 percent last year. His swing rate at pitches in the zone has increased from 46 to 52 percent. Too early to draw any conclusions, but it appears he may be taking a more aggressive approach. Of course, if he keeps hitting like this, he’ll start seeing a lot more pitches out of the zone.
  • Speaking of being more aggressive, Mike Trout said in spring training he’d be more aggressive this year on first pitches or when the count was in his favor. So far, he’s swung at four first pitches in 35 plate appearances (11.4 percent) resulting in two misses and two foul balls. Last season, he swung at the first pitch 12.4 percent of the time and at 2-0 pitches 30 percent of the time; this season, he has faced just two 2-0 counts and swung once.
  • Bartolo Colon pitched seven scoreless innings in the Mets’ 4-0 win over the Braves. He threw 101 pitches -- 88 fastballs. Of course, those 88 fastballs come in at different speeds and move, cut, dive, fade and run. What a unique, fun pitcher to watch. The Braves are 4-3 even though they’ve scored just 15 runs in seven games. Jason Heyward (.107), B.J. Upton (.138, 13 K’s, no walks), Justin Upton (.231, no extra-base hits) and Evan Gattis (.188, no walks) all continue to struggle. Freddie Freeman -- six walks and just two strikeouts -- isn’t going to see much to hit until the guys in front of him start getting on base.



Overreact after one series? Of course we're going to overreact! We're baseball fans. It's no fun if we just spout things like "small sample size" and "check back in two months." So, what have we learned after one series? Here are a few trends and things to watch, starting with Evan Longoria.

The Rays third baseman went 2-for-4 in Tampa's 7-2 win over Toronto, slugging a three-run homer for his first home run of 2014. So here's the deal with Longoria: If anyone is going to crack the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout stranglehold on the AL MVP Award, Longoria is the most likely candidate. Consider his merits:

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria, David DeJesus, Ben Zobrist
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIs this the year Evan Longoria puts it all together for the Rays?
1. He's off to a hot start! Our guy is hitting .400.

2. He's good. Not including 2012, when he played just 74 games, he's finished fifth, sixth, third and fourth in WAR among AL position players and has three top-10 MVP finishes.

3. The Rays are a good bet to make the postseason. MVP voters love that.

4. Longoria is an RBI guy, averaging 110 RBIs per 162 games over his career. MVP voters love themselves some RBIs.

5. He should knock in more than the 88 runs he did last year, when he hit .265 with just four home runs with runners in scoring position (22 of his 32 home runs came with the bases empty).

In truth, as good as Longoria has been, we've kind of been waiting for that monster season, haven't we? Maybe that's unfair to say about one of the best all-around players in the league (did you see the play he made the other night?), but Longoria hit .294 in 2010 and just .269 last season, when his strikeout rate increased to 23.4 percent, easily his highest rate since his rookie season. If he cuts down on the strikeouts, I can see that average climbing over .300 for the first time in his career and the RBIs climbing well over 100.

Other thoughts from many hours of baseball viewing over the past few days:

  • If they stay healthy, the Giants are going to have the best offense in the National League. On Thursday, they scored five runs in the eighth inning to beat the Diamondbacks 8-5. Angel Pagan is a solid leadoff hitter, and Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence provide a juicy meat of the order. I've mentioned Belt as a guy I like to have a big breakout season, and he hit his third home run. Pence seems to get better the higher he wears his pants legs. Posey won't slump like he did in the second half last year. Sandoval hits and eats and hits some more.
  • The Angels’ and Phillies’ bullpens look like disasters. The Mariners pounded every reliever the Angels tried in their series and the Angels are suddenly staring at another bad April start: 9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon looked like a shell of his former shelf in getting roughed up the other day.
  • [+] EnlargeJim Johnson, Bob Melvin
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesStruggling Jim Johnson might get hooked from his role as the A's closer.
  • How long do the A’s stick with closer Jim Johnson? OK, he led the AL in saves the past two seasons. He also led the AL last season in blown saves and was second in relief losses. He has two losses already, he’s not a strikeout pitcher and the A’s have other good relievers. It’s never too early to panic about your closer!
  • How many closers do you have complete confidence in right now anyway? With low-scoring games and tight pennant races, late-inning relief work is going to decide a division title or two. We had six blown saves on Wednesday. The D-Backs coughed up that game on Thursday. The Rockies blew an eighth-inning lead to the Marlins. And so on. Rough few days for the bullpens (in contrast to starters, who generally dominated).
  • A young pitcher who hasn’t yet made his mark to watch: Seattle’s James Paxton showcased electrifying stuff in his first start, striking out nine in seven and throwing 97 mph in his final inning.
  • With Clayton Kershaw missing a few starts, the new Cy Young favorite in the National League: Jose Fernandez. He’s must-watch TV, Pedro-in-his-prime eye candy. His run support will be an issue, but the stuff, poise and confidence are that of a wise veteran, not a 21-year-old kid.
  • In case you had doubts, Michael Wacha is most assuredly the real deal. His changeup is Pedro-in-his-prime nasty. The Reds went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts against it.
  • Veteran Alex Gonzalez is not going to last as the Tigers' shortstop. He simply doesn’t have the range to play there. Stephen Drew, come on down?
  • Manager on the hot seat: Kirk Gibson. The Diamondbacks are off to 1-5 start, and nine of their next 15 games are against the Dodgers (six) and Giants (three). If the D-backs can avoid digging a big hole over that stretch, the schedule does get a little easier starting April 21, when they play 19 consecutive games against teams that finished under .500 in 2013.
  • Tyro Zack Wheeler is not Matt Harvey. Hold down your expectations, Mets fans.
  • We’re going to see a lot more shifts this year. I haven’t checked the numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests infield shifts are way up. Expect batting averages to continue to plummet as a result.
  • Free-agent-to-be Max Scherzer is going to make a lot of money this offseason.
  • I hope B.J. Upton gets fixed, but I have my doubts. Six strikeouts in his first 12 plate appearances.
  • Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is going to have a high BABIP again. Great stroke to all fields, great balance between attacking fastballs early in the count and waiting for his pitch later in the count. He'll be an MVP candidate again.
  • Clearly, Emilio Bonifacio (11 hits in three games!) is the best player in the NL. OK, seriously: The Royals couldn’t find a spot for this guy on their roster? Ned Yost, everyone!
  • Rookie Xander Bogaerts is ready NOW. He’s hitting .556 with three walks and one strikeout in three games. Maybe the power takes a year or two to fully develop, but his mature, disciplined approach at the plate is going make a star right away.
  • Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggested this and it’s not outrageous: With Jose Reyes injured, Brad Miller might be the best shortstop in the AL. Or maybe Bogaerts. Could have been Bonifacio, if only the Royals had kept him!
  • Best team in baseball: The Mariners ... too early?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Jose Fernandez. He looked brilliant in his six innings, throwing 73 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and smiling when Carlos Gonzalez homered in the sixth off his one mistake. I think I may watch 33 Marlins games this year.
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

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

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

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

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

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

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

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

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

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

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

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

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

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

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

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

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

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

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

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Which franchise will be the one to beat in five years? We published our Future Power Rankings today, and while Eric Karabell weren't on the committee for those rankings, we do have something to say about them, including which team should be No. 1, wondering if the Cubs should have been ranked higher than the Red Sox and whether our beloved Phillies and Mariners are properly ranked.
SportsNation

Over or under on Curtis Granderson hitting 27.5 home runs?

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As a quick follow-up to my last post, let's do the over/under on Curtis Granderson's home runs.

The projection systems aren't as optimistic as I am. ZiPS see more injury issues coming and projects Granderson playing 113 games and hitting 20 home runs. Steamer projects 133 games and 23 home runs.

The fear that moving to Citi Field will hurt Granderson is somewhat warranted. He hit 47 home runs at home and 37 on the road over 2011-12, so he certainly enjoyed the short wall at Yankee Stadium. But Citi Field isn't the Death Valley it was before the fences were moved in. There are some tough pitchers in the NL East, but there were a lot of good pitchers in the AL East, too.

I'm going to set the over/under at 27.5. I'll be taking the over.
You want a sleeper prediction. I'll give you one: Curtis Granderson will lead the National League in home runs.

In baseball, we tend to have very short memories. A guy blows three saves in two weeks and the manager panics and installs a new closer. A guy has 40 good at-bats in spring training and suddenly he's given significant playing time even if his track record is lousy. A guy has one bad year and we forget about him.

The Curtis Granderson signing seemed to fly under the radar this offseason, which seems strange since it involved a player moving from one New York franchise to the other. I guess everyone was so caught up in Robinson Cano and Masahiro Tanaka and complaining about the Mets not signing Stephen Drew that it was easy to ignore Granderson, who suffered through two injuries in 2013 and hit just seven home runs as the Yankees missed the playoffs.

Maybe it's because it was the Mets who signed Granderson. Nothing much the Mets have done in recent years has worked out, so we just saw this as a desperation move: The Mets signing another past-his-prime player on the decline. That could certainly happen. But I don't believe it will.

SportsNation

Who is the best bet to lead the NL in home runs?

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First off, Granderson's injuries in 2013 were both fluky incidents. He was hit by a pitch in spring training and broke his forearm. Then, just eight games after returning to the lineup, was hit by another pitch and broke a finger. He played just 61 games. Before those two pitches, however, Granderson had been a durable player, averaging 153 games per season since becoming a regular for the Tigers in 2006. There's no reason to anticipate him being prone to injuries in 2014.

Granderson hit 41 home runs in 2011 and 43 in 2012. No player in the majors hit more home runs than he did in those two seasons; in fact, nobody else was all that close -- Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera were tied for second with 74. Granderson's approach at the plate did become more one-dimensional in those two seasons with the Yankees. Or, I should say, three-dimensional: He hit home runs, struck out a ton and drew walks. He hit just .247; and the guy who had hit as many as 38 doubles and 23 triples with the Tigers averaged just 22 doubles and seven triples. You can debate the merits of his approach, but it certainly produced home runs.

Granderson did benefit a bit from the short porch at Yankee Stadium. He hit 47 home runs at home, 37 on the road in 2011-12. That was still the third-most home runs on the road over those two seasons, behind the 39 hit by Jose Bautista and Giancarlo Stanton. Citi Field has a reputation as a tough home run park, but that's not really the case after the Mets moved in the fences. It actually slightly favored home runs in 2013 for left-handed batters. Granderson's power should translate just fine.

I also don't see age being a huge factor. He turns 33 in a few days, so there's no reason to expect a dramatic downturn in his production. The strikeouts can get annoying, and you have to look beyond the low batting average and understand that Granderson compensates for that somewhat by waiting for his pitch and drawing 70-plus walks a season. He is a smart hitter with a good work ethic. He's in good shape, and I suspect he has something to prove after the Yankees let him walk. I expect a big season.

And, yes, he could lead the NL in home runs. Consider some of the top candidates. Paul Goldschmidt tied for the NL lead with 36 last year, a 16-homer improvement from 2012. Is that power spike for real or will it prove to be more of a one-year aberration, like Joey Votto in 2010? Pedro Alvarez is an all-or-nothing slugger prone to long slumps. Stanton is injury-prone and plays in a tough park for home runs. Braun has a lot to prove as he returns. Jay Bruce joined Goldschmidt and Alvarez as the only other National Leaguer to hit 30, but his career high is just 34. Mark Trumbo is another all-or-nothing slugger who hit 34 for the Angels.

Granderson is as good a bet as any of them. Don't be surprised if he hits 40 and beats them all.

Would adding Johan Santana help O's?

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
4:30
PM ET
This is getting talked up on Twitter as very close to happening: Johan Santana could be an Oriole.

If so, I love it. I love it even if it subsequently turns out that he has nothing left and that his towering stack of injuries has robbed him of his ability to pitch effectively for any length of time. I love it because you won’t know that for sure until you check him out. If the O’s take that chance, more power to them.

For most of the last month, Santana has been promoting and throwing bullpen sessions to advertise both that he’s still alive -- after missing all of 2013 and 2011, as well as a big chunk of 2012, people start to wonder -- and that his arm is sound. Since he has been touching only 80 on the gun, it’s hard to say he’s all the way back.

Even so, the Orioles are one of the teams that can’t just afford to take a flyer on him. They have to if they want to take themselves seriously. Not because of what Santana is now, but because of what he might be if he can come back to some fraction of his former self. Think of it as a latter-day John Tudor play: If he’s healthy enough to pitch, chances are he’ll be good enough to help you win.
SportsNation

Does Johan Santana have anything left?

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Why does that matter for the O’s? Because after you get past Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman, Baltimore has lunch-bucket types, guys who might make a nice No. 4 in anybody’s rotation: Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris at the least, plus Zach Britton and Brian Matusz, if you’re feeling generous. Top prospect Kevin Gausman will eventually pitch his way past that crowd of mediocrity. But over 162 games and especially early on, that mediocrity and depth will have value, keeping games in reach for Chris Davis & Co. while giving Buck Showalter enough talent to work with until Santana and Gausman are ready to contribute.

Why them, and why later? Because in a perfect-world, blue-sky scenario where the Orioles contend, you don’t want to wind up in the postseason having to start Norris. Gausman might give the Orioles a key front-end starter down the stretch, perhaps playing as large a role for them as Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole did for their teams last year. Running up some combination of Santana and Gausman, Jimenez and Tillman? Now we’re talking, not just about a team that might get to the one-game wild-card play-in but a team that might have the starting pitching to win a division series.

So credit the Orioles if they’re willing to roll the dice. It isn’t like Peter Angelos can take all of his tobacco lawsuit money with him, and for the O’s -- and their fans -- there’s no time like the present.

If Santana gives us some fraction of that world-beating pitcher who won two Cy Youngs, just call me greedy, because it’ll be fun to watch.

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

Indians should trade Cabrera to Mets

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
2:30
PM ET
So, you think Cleveland Indians shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor might be ready for the show, do you? Paul Swydan makes a great case for why the Tribe should turn to one of the game's top 10 prospects, not just to reap defensive benefits but to follow a time-honored tradition of fast-tracking a top-shelf shortstop prospect.

The question is, who needs one year of Asdrubal Cabrera? He's a free agent after 2014, so if you get him, you get him because you need a shortstop now, because you have big expectations for your team in 2014 and maybe because you think you can sign him next winter.

[+] EnlargeAsdrubal Cabrera
AP Photo/Paul SancyaAsdrubal Cabrera might be more than happy to step into a high-profile gig like playing short for the Mets.
Who fits all of those criteria? I think just one team, the "we'll win 90 now" New York Mets.

What can the Mets give up to get him? Stuff the Indians need, and dealing from depth: First base/LF type Lucas Duda, third-base prospect Wilmer Flores and right-hander Michael Fulmer.

The Mets' gains are pretty obvious, especially if you accept projections of Cabrera rebounding in 2014, whether Baseball Prospectus' .734 OPS, Dan Szymborski's ZiPS (.736 OPS, 17 home runs) or the Bill James Handbook's projecting a .746 OPS. That's a 100-point jump from what's generally expected from incumbent Ruben Tejada at the plate. Like Cabrera (minus-16 in BIS' plus-minus last year), Tejada's defense wasn't an asset last year (rating minus-9 in almost a third of a season); unlike Cabrera, there's no past track record to suggest that he can do better. And why Duda and not Ike Davis? Well, if you're drinking the Kool-Aid that says 90 wins is possible for this team now, I have to believe Davis' .954 OPS in the second half last year is a big part of the reason. And trading for Cabrera means you're drinking pretty deeply from that pitcher of Kool-Aid.

Why does this work for the Indians? Because it gives them help now and upside. Starting with the least valuable player first, Duda would give Cleveland a lefty bat to mix in at first, DH and the outfield, another moving part with platoon punch to fit within Terry Francona's lineup-card shifts. Duda's career numbers against right-handers (.255/.356/.456) will come in handy, especially if David Murphy's awful 2013 season (.656 OPS) was his career's death rattle, leaving the Tribe without a good answer for lefty at-bats at first or in right.

Moving to the long shot with upside, Fulmer is the injury-prone arm in the Mets' stack of talented arms who might reach a middle slot in a big league rotation. Between shoulder and knee problems last year, he didn't log much time on the mound after making his full-season debut in low Class A in 2012, and his bulk combined with the knee injury and the general fragility suggests he might wind up as "just" a bullpen asset. But with a plus fastball/slider combo that he throws with command, and heat that can hit the mid-90s in a bullpen role, he's an upside guy who wouldn't be on the 40-man roster and who could move up fast from high Class A in the next few years if he's healthy.

Which brings us to the top-shelf prospect, which is something you have to give up to get something of value. The question isn't the big league value the Indians would get in the deal. By starting with Duda to help out at first base, DH and the outfield corners, they're getting three years of adequacy. And they already have Mike Aviles around as an insurance policy at short if Lindor stalls, gets hurt or even just needs that initial month in the minors. But what moves the dial for the Tribe is a prospect, especially since trading Cabrera means giving up their own shot at compensation picks. They need a quality prospect, and the Mets, thanks to the sixth-best farm system in baseball according to ESPN Insider's Keith Law, have something to offer.

[+] EnlargeWilmer Flores
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonWilmer Flores' upside at the plate could eventually bring the Indians a .500 slugger at third base.
The easy thing would be to ask for a first-round-quality talent, either a high-OBP tweener like Brandon Nimmo or a ready-now option for third base like Flores. But I don't see the Mets giving up Nimmo, while Flores is blocked by David Wright and his new deal. And frankly, third base is where the Indians have a need, now and into the immediate future. They're already forced to ask themselves how good Lonnie Chisenhall is ultimately going to be, either as a lineup regular (since a .300 OBP or a .700 OPS aren't automatic for him) or as an everyday defender at third base. Chisenhall's shortcomings have already inspired this spring's experiment with putting starting catcher Carlos Santana at third base, a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul the Tribe should forgo so that they can keep Santana behind the plate or at first and DH.

So they get Flores in the Cabrera trade. He's just 22, but is about as ready as he's ever going to be after an .888 OPS in Triple-A last year and .855 at Double-A the year before that. He has a quick bat and good power to all fields, and he comes with .500 slugging potential. Like Chisenhall, he's already projected to produce around a .700 OPS in the majors, but his youth suggests higher eventual upside. Assuming the Indians aren't permanently scarred from the Andy Marte experience -- the last time they traded for another organization's top touted hot-corner prospect -- Flores is a perfect fit.

Finally, remember, the Mets wouldn't be trading for Cabrera to have and to hold forever after -- they're just renting him for a year. But once you have him, you also have a season to make a sales pitch on why he should stick around. If you're the Mets, wouldn't you want to be able to exploit that window, before free agency? Because the other thing to consider is that if the Mets don't trade for Cabrera now, they may well be in the exact same situation in nine months: Making him a multiyear pitch paying eight figures per year, but while competing against every other team on the market. Why not take your chance now, gain that brief, exclusive negotiating window in the offseason?

There are also side benefits come draft day. Let's say getting Cabrera is already something the Mets are thinking about for next winter. By getting Cabrera now they don't just protect their own future first-round pick that they might lose by signing him in December (if they wind up outside the 10 protected picks), they potentially gain one if they instead lose him to free agency. As one former governor of Illinois put it, that's a frickin' valuable thing.

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

Team over/unders: Best bets

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

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

SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 15,858)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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

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


SportsNation

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

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

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


SportsNation

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

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

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


SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 16,627)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 16,376)

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

Five playoff teams from last year. So we're essentially asking: Which team is the best bet to return to the playoffs? I'm going with the Cardinals here, since I do have them as my No. 1 overall team heading into the season. I like their depth across the board: Position players, rotation and bullpen. I like their youth. I think the Pirates and Reds are a little weaker than last season. St. Louis won 97 games last year and I wouldn't be shocked to see the Cardinals do it again.

Lineup discussion: NL East

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
11:45
AM ET
Let's spend the next two days examining lineups. We spend a lot of time debating and arguing about lineups, more so because it's fun than important. Not important? Well, sure, there's some importance to setting an optimal lineup, but statistical studies show there isn't a big difference in expected runs scored between the most optimal lineups and slightly less optimal ones. Of course, there is a much bigger difference between the best possible and worst possible lineup, but no manager runs out his worst lineup -- hitting Mike Trout ninth or batting pitchers leadoff, for example.

Still, we obsess over batting orders even though most teams run out many lineups in a season. The Red Sox used 126 lineups last year. The Cardinals used 89 (not including pitchers), which is actually pretty stable. We talk a lot about "protection" even though studies show hitters don't generally perform better based on the caliber of hitter coming up behind them. If anything, it's the caliber of hitter in front that may be more important; if there are runners on base, it's more difficult for the pitcher to pitch around a hitter.

Managers still make some common mistakes, however. Studies show you should put your best hitter in the No. 2 spot in the order, but no manager does that; too many still think they need to put a contact/slap hitter there. Managers will focus on speed from the leadoff spot at the expense of on-base percentage, the result being that eight teams finished with an OBP below .320 from the leadoff spot last season. Only the Braves of those eight teams made the playoffs. In fact, of the teams with the 12 lowest OBPs from the leadoff spot, only two finished with a winning record, the Braves and Royals.

A trend in recent years has been to "split" your left-handed hitters -- Dusty Baker hit Shin-Soo Choo first, Joey Votto third and Jay Bruce fifth, for example. In worrying about the possibility of letting a lefty reliever face Votto and Bruce back-to-back, Baker ultimately sacrificed at-bats from Bruce for worse hitters. He would have been better off moving Bruce up in the lineup (at least against right-handed starters).

Anyway, let's look at each division, starting with the National League East.

Atlanta BravesAtlanta Braves

Key question: Who hits leadoff?
As seen above, the Braves struggled with production from the leadoff spot much of last season before manager Fredi Gonzalez finally settled on Jason Heyward. I'm sure Gonzalez would love to see B.J. Upton or Andrelton Simmons take ownership of that role, but Upton will have to prove himself after last year's stink bomb and Simmons had a sub-.300 OBP.

Projected lineup:
Jason Heyward, RF
Justin Upton, LF
Freddie Freeman, 1B
Evan Gattis, C
Chris Johnson, 3B
Andrelton Simmons, SS
Dan Uggla, 2B
B.J. Upton, CF

For a team that won 96 games, the Braves have several issues, including the likelihood that Gattis isn't a cleanup hitter and Johnson regresses. If Johnson proves to be a .300 hitter again, you're likely to see him move up in the order, perhaps hitting second with Justin Upton sliding down to the cleanup spot (or Freeman, who hit cleanup the first half of 2013).

Suggestion:
If B.J. Upton struggles again, I wouldn't hesitate to move Heyward over to center field and give Ryan Doumit regular time in right field.

Washington NationalsWashington Nationals

Key question: Where does Bryce Harper hit?
Former manager Davey Johnson started Harper in five different spots in the order: Third (71 times), fourth (18 times), first (16 times), second (eight times) and fifth (once). He began the season hitting third and had that torrid April before crashing into a wall in early May. Over the final two weeks he hit cleanup, with Jayson Werth in the third spot.

Projected lineup:
Denard Span, CF
Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
Jayson Werth, RF
Bryce Harper, LF
Ian Desmond, SS
Adam LaRoche, 1B
Anthony Rendon, 2B
Wilson Ramos, C

The Nationals have a lot of flexibility here. If Rendon improves as a sophomore he could eventually work his way up in the order. Harper and Werth had the two best OBPs last year and my inclination would be to hit them second and fourth and move Desmond up to the third spot.

Suggestion:
Span had the lowest OPS of these eight guys. While he best fits the conventional idea of a leadoff hitter, he's also the worst hitter in the group. So why give him more plate appearances? Rendon is a good bet to improve on his .329 OBP. Move him up to the leadoff spot and Span down to eighth.

New York MetsNew York Mets

Key question: Is Terry Collins really going to hit Eric Young Jr. leadoff?
Last month, Collins told ESPN New York's Adam Rubin that Young is his primary leadoff candidate. The Mets ranked 28th in the majors in leadoff OBP (.293), so they need to improve there. Young led the NL with 46 steals, so leadoff hitter! Except two things: Young's OBP was just .310, and if he plays every day, that could mean benching Juan Lagares, who hit just .242/.281/.352 but played tremendous defense in center field and was worth 3.7 WAR.

Projected lineup:
Eric Young Jr., LF
Daniel Murphy, 2B
David Wright, 3B
Curtis Granderson, RF
Lucas Duda, 1B
Chris Young, CF
Travis d'Arnaud, C
Ruben Tejada, SS

SportsNation

Which team has the best lineup in the NL East?

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    48%
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    32%
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    12%
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    6%
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    2%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,451)

That's assuming Collins is determined to play Eric Young every day. Chris Young didn't hit with the A's last year so he's no guarantee to produce, but I suspect the Mets will want to give him an opportunity. Also, the Mets know their metrics. They know Lagares is a superb center fielder (but Young was very good in his Arizona days). I could be wrong; maybe they view Chris Young as a fourth outfielder and Lagares as the starter.

Suggestion:
Collins needs to show a lot of flexibility. As one example, Murphy shouldn't hit second against left-handers -- .273/.292/.324 last year. In fact, with his subpar range at second base, he probably shouldn't even start against lefties (EYJR could play there). I also wouldn't hit EYJR leadoff on a regular basis -- the steals just don't cover the poor OBP and lack of power. Why not hit Murphy leadoff against righties? He was 23 for 26 on steals last year and you could slide Granderson up to second, for a Murphy-Granderson-Wright-Duda top four.

Philadelphia PhilliesPhiladelphia Phillies

Key question: Who hits at the top of the order?
The Phillies used four different leadoff hitters for 20-plus games last year and four No. 2 hitters for at least 16 games. The results were a .313 OBP from the leadoff spot and .315 from the No. 2 hole.

Projected lineup:
Ben Revere, CF
Chase Utley, 2B
Marlon Byrd, RF
Ryan Howard, 1B
Domonic Brown, LF
Jimmy Rollins, SS
Carlos Ruiz, C
Cody Asche, 3B

That's a more conventional approach, but first impressions on new manager Ryne Sandberg are that he's going to be pretty conventional. In fact, when he took over last season from Charlie Manuel, he most often hit Rollins second and Utley third, so he may stick with that (even though Utley is in some ways comparable to Sandberg, who hit second much of his career).

Suggestion:
Revere is fast, but his complete lack of power and mediocre OBP means he should hit eighth not leadoff. Rollins is coming off the worst year of his career and no longer profiles as a top-of-the-order bat. Why not just put your best on-base guys at the top and go Utley-Brown-Byrd?

Miami MarlinsMiami Marlins

Key question: They scored 89 fewer runs than any other NL team last year.
OK, that's a statement, not a question. But there's nowhere to go but up since they scored just 513 runs, tied with the 2010 Mariners for the lowest total in a non-strike season since 1972.

Projected lineup:
Rafael Furcal, 2B
Christian Yelich, LF
Giancarlo Stanton, RF
Garrett Jones, 1B
Marcell Ozuna, CF
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
Casey McGehee, 3B
Adeiny Hechavarria, SS

I'm doubtful about McGehee, who did hit 27 home runs in Japan last season, but for now he projects as the starting third baseman. Likewise with Furcal, who missed all of 2013. Back in December, manager Mike Redmond said his initial thoughts were to go with Furcal, Yelich and Stanton, with Jones or Salty batting fourth and sixth, split by the right-handed Ozuna. Two days ago he reiterated his plans to hit Furcal and Yelich 1-2.

Suggestion:
Nothing really. It's difficult to make filet mignon out of ground chuck. With Yelich, Jones and Salty, the Marlins could be decent against right-handed pitching.

What's the best the Mets can be?

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
12:30
PM ET
Both David Schoenfield and Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA have projected the New York Mets to finish in about the same place they finished last season. They are attempting to be realistic in their assessments.

We’re going to try another approach -- attempting to be optimistic.

As spring training opens, it feels like a good time to ask: What’s the best-case scenario for the 2014 Mets?

Let’s work off the presumption that a lot goes right. If that’s the case, how good can the Mets be?

We’ve conjured one scenario in which the Mets take their 74-88 record and flip it around to 88-74. That would make them a borderline playoff contender, which in a division with the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves seems like an ambitious outlook.

What needs to happen for the Mets to win 88 games? In the world of advanced statistics, that translates to their players combining for about 36 wins above replacement. (The reasoning on that can be found here.)

We devised a way by which the Mets get there and noted it in the chart below. Here are some of the highlights:

David Wright plays like an MVP ... and he stays healthy
The Mets are not going to be an offensive juggernaut. They’re going to strike out a lot. They’re going to hit for a low batting average. They’re probably going to be very frustrating.

To be a contender, the Mets are going to have to get maximum production out of their best hitter, and that means David Wright is going to have to contend for the MVP Award.

Let’s remember that Wright is 31 and is near the end of his prime. But in a best-case scenario, he has at least one more year of greatness in him. If Wright can replicate what he did in 2012 and 2013, and stay as healthy as he did in 2012, he can be a 7-WAR player.

Bouncebacks
For the Mets to even be a .500 team this season, they’re going to need some players who haven’t been good in recent seasons to return to some form of respectability.

In a best-case scenario, that means that at least three players from this group -- Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, Ruben Tejada, Curtis Granderson and Chris Young -- turn back the clock a couple of years.

Tejada was a 2-WAR player in 2012. It seems reasonable, if we’re in hopeful mode, to give him 1.5 WAR in a bounce-back year.

Granderson averaged 4.3 WAR from 2005 to 2012. Let’s be optimistic and put him at 3 WAR. Young was a 5-WAR player in 2010 and 2011 because of a nice combo of power and defense. If he’s worth half that in 2014, the Mets made out all right with him.

You can change those around a bit if you like. Maybe you think Davis or Duda has some value and Young doesn’t. The idea is the same. If the Mets can get about 7-WAR from this quintet (and the other things on this list break right), they’ve done pretty well.

Zack Wheeler finds his groove
One of the things the Mets have going for them is that their starting rotation could be pretty good, even without Matt Harvey.

Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee closed the year strong. Bartolo Colon’s history is good, even if his age and girth are not. There are a couple of promising youngsters waiting their turns. In other words, there’s hope.

The biggest hope from that is the pitcher Buster Olney labeled the Mets’ linchpin, Zack Wheeler.

A rosy view of Wheeler’s 2013 season is that his lack of strike-zone command at times was the result of the jitters that come the first time through the major leagues.

We’ve seen four projection systems (Bill James, PECOTA, Steamer and Oliver) that give Wheeler a 2014 ERA between 3.50 and 4.12. But we remember similar sentiments on Harvey at this time a year ago.

We get that Wheeler’s not Harvey, but 80 percent of Harvey would be pretty good. Let’s give him that for 2014 -- 4 WAR.

Rafael Montero is a Rookie of the Year candidate
It sounds like the Mets are going to give Rafael Montero a shot to be in their starting rotation, whether it be at the start of the season or not long thereafter.

Montero had a 2.51 ERA, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 5-to-1, and a homer allowed every 22 innings in 64 career minor-league appearances. He’ll likely be capped at 190 innings, given the Mets' shutdown history, but let’s work off the idea that he pitches 150 really good innings in the major leagues. When we say really good, we’re thinking 12 wins and a 3.00 ERA. Best-case, that would make him a 3-WAR pitcher.

The bullpen comes together well
Terry Collins spoke of having a bullpen in which he could unleash multiple hard throwers in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings with the likes of Gonzalez Germen, Vic Black and Bobby Parnell, a la the 2013 Cardinals.

In fairness, there are no Carlos Martinez’s or Trevor Rosenthal’s in this mix. (Perhaps that would change if the Mets were willing to plug Noah Syndergaard into the role of eighth-inning guy, but that’s another subject for another time.) But let’s work off the idea that the Mets' bullpen fares well, or at least considerably better than the one that ranked 15th, 15th and 12th in the NL in ERA over the past three seasons.

SportsNation

How many games can the Mets hope to win this season?

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    21%
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    23%
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    33%
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    14%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,148)

In a best-case scenario, Parnell is fully healthy and Black progresses to the point of being a poor man’s David Robertson. Kyle Farnsworth channels the success that LaTroy Hawkins had in 2013, Carlos Torres picks up where he left off, and Scott Rice and Josh Edgin learn from their mistakes to become competent specialists.

The rest of the bullpen, with fill-ins such as Jeff Walters and Jeurys Familia, contribute a little here and a little there without causing too much damage. The entirety of the relief corps nets 4-WAR.

What are the chances? You tell us
One of the great things about spring training is the optimism that comes with the belief that this could be a good year for your team.

But we haven’t found that many believers heading into 2014.

Do you buy into our best-case scenario? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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