SweetSpot: New York Mets

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.
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Discuss (Total votes: 2,784)

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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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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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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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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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%
  •  
    14%
  •  
    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.
Let's move on to the next six teams in my pre-spring training power rankings. We're getting into the area of "Hey, if things break right any of those teams could be the surprise team of 2014" territory.

Team rankings: Nos. 30-25 »

New York Mets
24. New York Mets

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 73 more runs, allow 72 fewer. Of course, allowing 72 fewer runs will be much more difficult without Matt Harvey.

Big offseason moves: Signed P Bartolo Colon, OF Curtis Granderson and OF Chris Young.

Most intriguing player: Zack Wheeler showcased electric stuff in his 17 starts as a rookie, although the command was shaky at times and the offspeed stuff inconsistent. With Harvey sidelined for the season, the spotlight turns to Wheeler. He has to keep his composure and not try to do too much, improve his curveball or changeup and throw more first-pitch strikes. He has ace potential, although his control may never reach the level needed to get there. The Mets will be happy if he develops into a No. 2 who can give you 200 innings.

Due for a better year: I'd say Ike Davis but he's always due for a better year and Lucas Duda is probably the better bet to win the first-base job with Davis dealt at the end of spring training. Ruben Tejada is the shortstop by default, barring a last-minute Stephen Drew signing and he should bounce back from a miserable .202/.259/.260 line. How quickly Mets fans forget that he hit .289/.333/.351 in 2012.

Due for a worse year: The Mets signed Colon to help chew up innings in the absence of Harvey, but no way will he repeat the 2.65 ERA he had with Oakland last season. He'll be 41 in May and doesn't appear to be keen on eating green leafy vegetables and protein shakes. Colon pumps fastball after fastball, getting just enough late movement to induce weak contact. Still, his peripherals didn't match the ERA -- he had a 3.43 ERA the year before with similar numbers -- so I expect a decline in both results and workload (he pitched his most innings -- 190.1 -- since 2005).

SportsNation

Will the Mets finish over .500 for the first time since 2008?

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    38%
  •  
    62%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,593)

I'm just the messenger: While the Mets did dip into the free-agent market to sign Granderson and Young to help in the outfield, remember that in a best-case scenario Granderson really only replaces the production of Marlon Byrd, who hit .285/.330/.518. Granderson did hit 41 home runs in 2011 and 43 in 2012 and he's only 33, so it's not so much that I'm knocking him as pointing out that Byrd had a very good season going when he was traded to the Pirates in late August.

The final word: It's not so much that the Mets are horrible, but that I have trouble seeing a lot of upside here. You're relying on a fat, 41-year-old starter, a guy coming off an injury-riddled year in Granderson, a guy in Young who hit .200, a shortstop who hit .202 last season, a catcher in Travis d'Arnaud who has never been able to stay healthy and a bullpen that doesn't look that deep. Maybe things come together, but I just don't see enough star-level talent here to crack .500.

Prediction: 73-89

Colorado Rockies
23. Colorado Rockies

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 72 more runs, allow 71 fewer. The Rockies were second in the NL in runs scored, so they just need to improve the pitching, right? No, no and no. They need to score more runs as well, especially on the road, where the Rockies went 29-52. Colorado's problem has never been winning at Coors Field; it's been winning away from Coors Field.

Big offseason moves: 1B Todd Helton retired, signed 1B Justin Morneau, traded CF Dexter Fowler to the Astros for SP Jordan Lyles and OF Brandon Barnes, acquired SP Brett Anderson from the A's for P Drew Pomeranz, signed RP Boone Logan, acquired OF Drew Stubbs from the Indians for P Josh Outman.

Most intriguing players: Is this the year shortstop Troy Tulowitzki or outfielder Carlos Gonzalez win an MVP award? Tulo is entering his age-29 season and CarGo his age-28 season. You get the feeling it's now or never for these two to lead the Rockies back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Of course, you have to stay on the field to win an MVP trophy and the two combined to miss 88 games in 2013. And that was a good year for them.

Due for a better season: The back end of the rotation. If there's reason for optimism in Colorado, this is it. The Rockies gave 26 starts to Chad Bettis, Roy Oswalt, Jeff Manship, Collin McHugh and Pomeranz and they went a combined 0-19. They also gave 24 combined starts to Jon Garland (5.82 ERA) and Jeff Francis (6.27 ERA). So they just need the back of the rotation to be respectable.

Due for a worse season: Michael Cuddyer hit .331 to win the NL batting title at the age of 34. Considering he'd never hit .300 before and hit just .260 his first year with the Rockies, he became one of the unlikeliest players to ever win a batting championship.

I'm just the messenger: The Rockies shuffled a lot of deck chairs, but still failed to make two obvious moves. They need to upgrade second base, where DJ LeMahieu hit an empty .280. And with Helton retiring, they should have moved Cuddyer to first base and out of right field, where his range is a liability. Instead, they signed Morneau for two years and $12.5 million and traded Fowler for Lyles, a guy likely to struggle in Coors. Fowler doesn't make that much more than Morneau ($7.85 million in 2014 and then arbitration in 2015), so that transaction didn't make any sense.

Final word: LaTroy Hawkins is the closer. Need I say more? OK, I will. I can certainly envision a scenario where things work out considering how bad the fourth and fifth starters were a year ago. If Tulo and CarGo actually remain healthy for 145 games apiece, Nolan Arenado improves at the plate and Cuddyer repeats his monster season, the offense could be fine. But I just see too many ifs here with guys like Morneau and Anderson to see a playoff team.

Prediction: 74-88

Seattle Mariners
22. Seattle Mariners

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 99 more runs, allow 114 fewer. Robinson Cano ain't doing that all by himself.

Big offseason moves: Signed 2B Robinson Cano, 1B Corey Hart, acquired 1B/OF Logan Morrison from the Marlins for RP Carter Capps, re-signed OF Franklin Gutierrez, signed SP Scott Baker, lost OF Raul Ibanez. DH Kendrys Morales is still a free agent.

Most intriguing player: Cano. So many questions. How will he do away from the limelight of New York? Now that he has his huge contract, will he press? Will he give max effort when he's playing in front of 14,000 fans on a cold night in Seattle in April? Will he hit as well away from Yankee Stadium? Does he have the drive to prove himself as one of the game's greatest second baseman ever? Will he cry when he sees the rest of the lineup around him? Will Jay Z come to Mariners games? Will Cano buy a house next to Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos?

Due for a better year: Justin Smoak? Just kidding. The bullpen ranked 29th in the majors with a 4.58 ERA even though it ranked fourth in strikeout percentage. Strikeouts usually lead to success, so expect better results (the Mariners lost six games they led heading into the ninth inning and went 6-15 in extra innings).

Due for a worse year: Hisashi Iwakuma was a revelation, performing better than Felix Hernandez and finishing third in the AL Cy Young voting. He was as good as Hernandez, but there was some luck involved. Nineteen of the 25 home runs he allowed were solo home runs and he'll be hard-pressed to repeat the .184 average he allowed with runners in scoring position. In Japan, he also had a history of following up good years with years in which he battled injuries. His innings from 2008 through 2011 were 201, 169, 201 and 119. He threw 219.2 in 2013.

I'm just the messenger: According to Defensive Runs Saved, the Mariners were the second-worst defensive team in the majors at 99 runs below average (only the Phillies were worse). The eye test confirms this was the case. The major culprit was an outfield that was predictably horrid at minus-70 runs. Yes, that was what happens when you play Raul Ibanez and Mike Morse out there on a regular basis and move a second baseman to center field midseason. So what did the Mariners do in the offseason? They acquired two first basemen/outfielders with bad knees and are rumored to be interested in the slow-footed Nelson Cruz. Talk about not learning from your mistakes.

Final word: Yes, signing Cano will make the Mariners interesting at the start of the season. But ... well, what else is there? The Mariners are desperately counting on their young players -- Mike Zunino, Brad Miller, Dustin Ackley (is he still a young player?), Justin Smoak (ditto) and Michael Saunders (ditto) to improve -- and all have huge question marks. They're counting on two rookies in Taijuan Walker and James Paxton for the rotation. They hope Hart and Morrison are healthy, but even then they're basically replacing the production Morales provided last year. Cano should be great, but I'm having trouble seeing where the improvement is going to come from unless Walker and Paxton are much better than anticipated.

Prediction: 74-88

Milwaukee Brewers
21. Milwaukee Brewers

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 75 more runs, allow 54 fewer. Playing in Miller Park, which helps hitters, the Brewers have to score more than 640 runs. They scored 721 when they made the playoffs in 2011 and even scored 776 in 2012 when the bullpen imploded.

Big offseason moves: Signed SP Matt Garza, acquired P Will Smith from the Royals for RF Norichika Aoki, signed 1B Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay, Cecil Cooper, Franklin Stubbs and Greg Brock to minor league contracts.

Most intriguing player: Ryan Braun. No offense to Scooter Gennett.

Due for a better year: Braun. What to expect? I think he'll return to being one of the best players in the game, maybe even the 30-30 guy he was in 2011 and 2012 when he finished first and then second in the MVP voting.

Due for a worse year: Carlos Gomez. A revelation last year when he hit 24 home runs, stole 40 bases, hit a career-high .284 while winning a Gold Glove, it's hard to improve on a season in which you led all NL position players in Baseball-Reference WAR (at 8.4, just ahead of Andrew McCutchen's 8.2). But much of that value was tied up in his defense in center field, which by all accounts was tremendous. Gomez was credited with 38 Defensive Runs Saved, the most since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking DRS in 2003. Gomez's offense also tailed off a bit in the second half. He's a good player; I'm just not sure he's one of the top three or four players in the league.

I'm just the messenger: Brewers first basemen ranked last in the majors in OPS with a disgraceful .630 mark -- a figure so low that only three full-time position players were worse in 2013. So how do they attempt to fix this issue? Well, they signed the first baseman from the team with the 28th-worst OPS (Overbay).

Final word: I've been burned by the Brewers the past two seasons so I'm officially off the bandwagon. I see the same kind of team as last year -- top heavy with Braun, Gomez, Jean Segura and Jonathan Lucroy, too right-handed and one that has serious depth issues. Now that I'm picking against them, they'll probably win 90 games.

Prediction: 76-86

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20. San Francisco Giants

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 60 more runs, allow 81 fewer.

Big offseason moves: Re-signed RF Hunter Pence, SP Tim Lincecum and RP Javier Lopez, signed SP Tim Hudson, signed OF Mike Morse.

Most intriguing player: Buster Posey. Will 2012 be Posey's career year? After hitting .336/.408/.549 in 2012, he dropped to .294/.371/.450, not that there's anything wrong with that from a catcher. After playing 148 games two years in a row, Posey looked tired in the second half and hit just .244 with two home runs. He did start 16 games at first and five at DH, so Bruce Bochy did give him rest from squatting, but playing him at first also means sitting Brandon Belt, who had slightly better numbers than Posey.

Due for a better year: Matt Cain went 8-10, 4.00, a big drop from the 2.93 ERA over the previous four years. Cain struggled early on with the long ball, three times allowing three home runs in a game through his first nine starts. From June 7 on, however, he looked more like the old Matt Cain, with a 3.03 ERA. His days as a 220-inning workhorse may be over, but look for his ERA to decrease this season.

SportsNation

How many games will the Giants win?

  •  
    22%
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    32%
  •  
    30%
  •  
    16%

Discuss (Total votes: 13,122)

Due for a worse year: Hunter Pence's totals of 27 home runs and 99 RBIs were boosted by a huge September in which he hit 11 home runs and drove in 32 runs. Pence is a solid, durable player, and the $90 million the Giants gave him wasn't absurd, but with 4.1 WAR, 2013 may prove to be his best season.

I'm just the messenger: People talk about all that went wrong with the Giants in 2013 -- Angel Pagan's injury, Vogelsong's injury, Barry Zito's general awfulness. But you know what? A lot actually went right. Six regulars played 140 or more games, three starters made 30 starts, Marco Scutaro played well at 37, Belt increased his power and the bullpen was pretty solid.

The final word: Nobody likes veterans more than Giants general manager Brian Sabean. He proved that again by signing free agents Hudson and Morse and bringing Lincecum back on a two-year, $35 million deal even though he's been worth -2.3 WAR over the past two seasons. The deals could work out, but the Giants are betting Hudson recovers from his broken ankle, Cain bounces back, Lincecum pitches like it's 2011 and Vogelsong staying healthy and pitching well. That's too many ifs for me.

Prediction: 78-84

Toronto Blue Jays
19. Toronto Blue Jays

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 51 more runs, allow 81 fewer runs.

Big offseason moves: None. Yet. Many expect the Blue Jays to sign one of the remaining free-agent pitchers. Signed C Dioner Navarro.

Most intriguing player: Jose Bautista. Does the slugger who finished fourth in the 2010 MVP vote and third in 2011 have another big season left in him? Bautista has played just 92 and 118 games the past two seasons, although he still swatted 55 home runs in that time. He still has 40-homer power in his bat but needs to stay healthy. And needs to quit his constant bickering with the umpires.

Due for a better season: The team medical staff. Compare that to what we just said about the Giants. The Blue Jays had just three players reach 120 games played, and unfortunately one of those was J.P. Arencibia, who had a .227 OBP.

Due for a worse season: Relievers Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar both made the All-Star team but struggled with injury issues and results in the second half, Cecil pitching 19 games with a 5.65 ERA, Delabar in 17 games with a 7.02 ERA. The Blue Jays may need some of the other bullpen arms -- like Sergio Santos -- to step up in case the All-Stars don't return to their first-half form.

SportsNation

Which of the following teams is the best bet to make the playoffs?

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    9%
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    14%
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    11%
  •  
    45%
  •  
    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 17,944)

I'm just the messenger: The Blue Jays haven't ranked in the top half of the AL in runs allowed since 2008 (when they allowed the fewest). Guys like Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez aren't the perfect solutions, but Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has painted himself into a corner. With a win-now lineup of veterans like Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes and Adam Lind, the Jays need to build a rotation that can win now. And that means taking a chance on at least one free agent ... and not counting on Brandon Morrow to actually make 30 starts again.

The final word: It was just one year ago that the Blue Jays were World Series favorites (oh, how everyone got suckered by that deal with the Marlins), so there is clearly some level of talent here. But the Jays have a wide swing of possibilities considering all the injury issues of 2013 and a rotation that remains a mess behind Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. I'm taking the under but wouldn't be surprised on the over.

Prediction: 78-84
Here's a look at some of the interesting non-roster invites to National League camps. OK, mildly interesting. Even if these players don't crack the big league roster out of spring training, many will wind up as Triple-A insurance during the season.

Atlanta Braves -- Mat Gamel, Tyler Greene.

Gamel and Greene are the only invites with much of a major league resume.

Washington Nationals -- Chris Young, Jamey Carroll, Chris Snyder, Mike Fontenot.

That's Chris Young the pitcher, who was last seen making 20 starts for the Mets in 2012. Depending on what happens with Danny Espinosa, Carroll may have a shot at making the team as the utility infielder, although his .211 average in 2013 suggests he may be done.

New York Mets -- Daisuke Matsuzaka, Taylor Teagarden.

Those are the only two the Mets list for now. If activated, Dice-K is a good tanking piece who should help the Mets to again secure a bottom-10 finish.

Philadelphia Phillies -- Jesse Biddle, Chad Gaudin, Shawn Camp, Lou Marson, Ronny Cedeno, Reid Brignac, Maikel Franco, Tony Gwynn, Bobby Abreu.

Bobby Abreu? Former Phillies legend Bobby Abreu? That's right. He's still around, trying to fill the ceremonial Jason Giambi pinch-hitting role in which Giambi served last year for Cleveland. The guys to watch, however, are Biddle and Franco, the team's top two prospects who should show up sometime this summer.

Miami Marlins -- Kevin Slowey, Ty Wigginton, Reed Johnson, Colin Moran.

Casey McGehee gets a major league deal while Wigginton is stuck with a non-roster invite. Life just isn't fair.

St. Louis Cardinals -- Marco Gonzalez, Tim Cooney, Stephen Piscotty, James Ramsey.

These four are all prospects, the next line of young Cardinals who should reach the majors. Gonzalez was the club's first-round pick in 2013 out of Gonzaga, a polished lefty who is expected to move quickly even if he doesn't have a high ceiling. Cooney is another southpaw, a third-round pick out of Wake Forest in 2012 who reached Double-A last season. Piscotty was ranked No. 57 overall on Keith Law's top 100, an outfielder from Stanford. Ramsey is another outfielder, a first-rounder in 2012 from Florida State. Notice a trend? All college players from top baseball conferences.

Pittsburgh Pirates -- Jameson Taillon, Cody Eppley, Daniel Schlereth, Kyle McPherson, Robert Andino, Chris Dickerson.

Taillon, No. 27 on Keith's top 100, should show up sometime during the season. Maybe sooner rather than later as Jeff Locke and/or Edinson Volquez are questionable in the No. 5 slot in the rotation. I don't see veterans Andino or Dickerson making the roster; they look like Triple-A injury replacements if needed.

Cincinnati Reds -- Chien-Ming Wang, Jeff Francis, Robert Stephenson, Corky Miller, Chris Nelson, Ramon Santiago, Roger Bernadina

There may be room for one bench player, with Santiago having a decent shot to make the squad since the Reds don't really have a backup shortstop behind Zack Cozart. Good to see Miller still hanging. He surfaced for 17 games last year with the Reds and could do so again.

Milwaukee Brewers -- Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay, Taylor Green, Irving Falu, Zach Duke.

Reynolds is pretty much a lock to make the team as a platoon first baseman. Presumably, that will be with Juan Francisco, but Overbay is here as well. I can't see the Brewers keeping three first baseman; but Reynolds and Francisco do have experience at third base, so maybe they find room for all three.

Chicago Cubs -- Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Ryan Roberts, Chris Coghlan, Ryan Kalish, Casper Wells, Darnell McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Tsuyoshi Wada.

There are two groups. There is Baez, Bryant and Almora, the three guys Cubs fans care about. Then there is the group that is actually fighting for a roster spot. There is probably room for an outfielder behind Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, Justin Ruggiano and Junior Lake. My lord, Almora and Jorge Soler can't arrive soon enough.

Los Angeles Dodgers -- Chone Figgins.

Hahahahaha.

Arizona Diamondbacks -- Daniel Hudson, Archie Bradley, Andy Marte, Henry Blanco.

Hudson was a huge part of Arizona's 2011 division champs when he went 16-12 with a 3.49 ERA. But he blew out his elbow in 2012 and is still trying to come back. Bradley is the No. 9 prospect on Keith's top 100; and after posting a 1.97 ERA in Double-A, there will be those who want to see him make the team out of spring training. He doesn't have Jose Fernandez's polish, but the stuff is there and the D-backs rotation could have an opening. Andy Marte? The one-time top-10 overall prospect? Hey, he's 30, in the prime of his career.

San Francisco Giants -- Kameron Loe, Brett Bochy, Kyle Crick Andrew Susac.

Bochy is the son of Bruce. He's a legit player, a 2010 draft pick out of Kansas who pitched in Triple-A last season, posting a 3.99 ERA with 57 strikeouts and 16 walks in 56.1 innings. Now, that doesn't make him a great prospect. He's probably a Grade C prospect at best, a fastball/slider guy who throws in the lows 90s but doesn't project to much more than a back-end bullpen guy. Sometimes, those types can surprise you, and I'm guessing having his dad as manager won't hurt his potential for a call-up at some point.

San Diego Padres -- Xavier Nady, Matt Wisler.

A bunch of other prospects are on their invite list, but Wisler is the one to watch. Very polished, pitched well in Double-A at age 20.

Colorado Rockies -- Michael McKenry.

He's the only guy the Rockies list. The only backup catcher on the roster is Jordan Pacheco, so McKenry has a shot to make the team, considering Pacheco didn't hit last season and isn't really much of a catcher.

Happy Birthday, Davey Johnson

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
9:15
PM ET
All-Stars born on Jan. 30 -- Davey Johnson, Charley Neal, Brooks Lawrence, Walt Dropo and Mickey Harris. Also born on this day: 19th century star Tony Mullane, 1955 World Series hero Sandy Amoros and 1970s pinch-runner extraordinaire Matt Alexander.

Davey Johnson: Born 1943

You probably know about Davey Johnson the manager. Or maybe you don't, at least outside of his recent tenure with the Nationals, since before the Nationals hired him to replace Jim Riggleman during the 2011 season he hadn't managed in the majors since 2000. Part of that was Johnson's fault. When he managed the Orioles he got into several public spats with owner Peter Angelos. After making the playoffs in 1996 and 1997, Johnson faxed a demand to Angelos, asking for an extension or a buyout. Angelos accepted Johnson's resignation the day he was named Manager of the Year. Before that, he managed the Reds to first-place finishes in 1994 and 1995 ... and Marge Schott promptly fired him. So Johnson developed a reputation and after two years managing the Dodgers; he didn't get another job for 11 years.

Anyway, Johnson's record as a manager is close to the level of a Hall of Famer. He managed one of the most famous teams of all time, the 1986 Mets. He took four different teams to the playoffs, a feat matched only by Billy Martin. He was one of the first managers to use computers. His strength as a manager was a belief in young players -- best exemplified by his insistence on promoting Dwight Gooden from Class A to the majors in 1984 and that Bryce Harper was ready for the majors as a 19-year-old. He's 28th on the all-time wins list (19 of the managers ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame) and he has a higher career winning percentage than Bobby Cox, Joe Torre or Tony La Russa.

OK, Johnson the player. For some reason, the Hall of Fame seems to consider individuals only as players or managers, but not both. If Johnson's record as a manager gets him to the front door, should his playing record let him enter? I've always thought it was a reasonable argument.

Johnson played two years of baseball and basketball at Texas A&M before signing with the Orioles for $25,000, in the days before the draft. Originally a shortstop, he moved to second base in Triple-A and reached the majors at the end of the 1965. He was a rookie second baseman for the 1966 club that won the pennant and swept the Dodgers in the World Series. Jim Palmer, Wally Bunker and Dave McNally spun consecutive shutouts in the final three games, two of them 1-0 wins. The Orioles' farm system was spitting out good young players in those days like Lenny Dykstra used to spit out his chew on Johnson's '86 Mets. Palmer, Bunker and McNally were all 23 or younger. Five regulars in the lineup were 24 or younger.

With all that youth, it's not surprising that the Orioles built a dynasty that would last into the early '80s. They were built around defense and pitching. It took a couple of years for that '66 team to consolidate -- Palmer got hurt and missed almost two years and Bunker was already damaged goods. But the team acquired Mike Cuellar, replaced Hank Bauer as manager with Earl Weaver and won three straight pennants from 1969 to 1971 winning 109, 108 and 101 games. They twice got upset in the World Series, otherwise they'd be more fairly remembered as one of the greatest teams ever.

Johnson was a big part of their success. He was an All-Star in '68, '69 and '70 and won three Gold Glove Awards, drew some walks and usually hit around .280. With Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair and Johnson leading the way, it was one of the best defensive squads ever assembled.

Even then, Johnson was always thinking. He took classes at Trinity College in San Antonio and his SABR bio reports that in 1969 he fed various Baltimore lineups into a computer to determine the optimal order. I'm sure Weaver responded loved that. In 1972, Johnson had shoulder and back injuries and hit just .221. Bobby Grich was ready to take over, so the Orioles traded him after the season to the Braves.

Johnson responded with one of the greatest fluke home run seasons ever, hitting 43 -- his previous career high had been 18. Johnson credited Hank Aaron, but the balls must have been juiced in Atlanta that year as Johnson, Aaron and Darrell Evans became the first trio of teammates to hit 40 home runs. (The 1996 and 1997 Rockies later matched the feat.) The Braves hit 118 home runs at home that year, 88 on the road, and led the league in runs. Unfortately, Braves pitchers also led the league in runs and the Braves finished 76-85.

That what was about it for Johnson has an effective player. He'd made 30 errors in 1973, so he played a lot of first base in 1974. He dropped back to 16 home runs. In 1975, he played one game with the Braves and then signed with the Yomiuri Giants, becoming one of the first Americans to play in Japan. He played there two years before returning for two final seasons in the majors.

Johnson may not have always gotten along with his owners, but he was probably always smarter then they were. His long absence from the diamond seemed to have mellowed him during his two-plus years with the Nationals. He retired after the 2013 season, and is now 71 years old, a reminder of how long ago 1986 now seems.

I'm left pondering this: What if Stephen Strasburg had pitched in the 2012 playoffs? You know Johnson wanted him out there. If he has Strasburg on his team, maybe the Nationals win it all. And a second World Series title might have made Johnson a Hall of Famer.

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