SweetSpot: New York Mets

Justin Turner, Dodgers' secret weapon

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
1:55
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Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw looks like he's going to win an MVP award with one of the most epic seasons by a National League pitcher in recent memory.

Justin Turner
Turner
But when you consider who the Dodgers' most valuable position player is, there's an extremely unlikely candidate to put into the mix.

Utility man Justin Turner is having a terrific season, one that's been arguably as valuable as that of Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez or any others among the team's notable names. He's among those responsible for the team holding the No. 4 spot in ESPN.com’s MLB Power Rankings.

A recent blog post critiquing Wins Above Replacement used Turner as its punchline for the reason to knock the stat. He was tied for the Dodgers lead in that stat a few days ago (with 3.3 WAR), though he's since been slightly surpassed by Puig and Gonzalez after not playing the last two days.

But when you consider that WAR is a tool designed to objectively evaluate a player's performance over a specific time period and then look at Turner's numbers, his value makes much more sense.

In a time in which offensive numbers are in significant decline, Turner's .326/.393/.449 slash line is impressive. If we lower the batting-title qualifier to 250 plate appearances, Turner ranks second in the NL in batting average and sixth in on-base percentage.

Turner had a rep as an at-bat battler in his time with the Mets. This year, he's winning a lot more of those battles. He ranks sixth in the NL in pitches per plate appearance and is slash-lining .330/.476/.433 in plate appearances lasting five pitches or longer, all way better than the major-league norms.

Good fortune has definitely played a role in some of this (his .396 batting average on balls in play is the highest in the majors). After hitting only .194 on ground balls for the Mets from 2011 to 2013, Turner is hitting .333 (36 for 108) on grounders this season.

But even if we removed a dozen groundball hits from his ledger to even things out, he’d still be hitting a solid .280 and we'd be ignoring his spike in line-drive rate from one usually in the low 20s to a solid 26 percent (he ranks 33rd in the NL, but is hitting them at a better rate than, among others, Buster Posey).

Turner has also handled one of the game's toughest jobs, pinch-hitting, with success, netting 10 hits and seven RBIs in 26 pinch-hit at-bats. That's one reason he rates first on the team in Win Probability Added, which measures context-based performance.

He's performed best in close games, hitting .331 in 139 at-bats in which the teams were tied or within one run of each other. His six go-ahead or game-tying hits in the seventh inning or later lead the team. Kershaw can thank him for the two-run eighth-inning homer he hit that gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead over the Padres, netting Kershaw his 15th win of the season.

Turner's batting value is supplemented by his doing other things just a little better than average, and a little can go a long way statistically over a long enough time period.

Turner is 6 for 7 stealing bases, takes extra bases at a modest rate, and avoids baserunning mishaps and hitting into double plays. He rates as the Dodgers fourth-best baserunner this season behind speedsters Dee Gordon, Carl Crawford and Chone Figgins.

Turner is also fielding a little above average, most notably when filling in for Juan Uribe. He has five Defensive Runs Saved in 393 innings at third base, which doesn't quite match Uribe’s contributions, but it is close enough so the drop off is small.

The Dodgers didn't play Turner in their last two wins over the Giants and he may be a bit of a forgotten man as the season winds down. But his season shouldn't be. He may not be as valuable as Kershaw, but he's exceeded expectations as much as anyone in the game.



Five things we learned Friday

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
2:03
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The Pirates won to move to 13-4 against the Cubs this season, and the Brewers won their third straight, walking off versus the Reds, as both teams kept pressure on the National League Central-leading Cardinals.

Check out the Hunt for October page for standings, playoff odds and the upcoming schedule. Here's what else went on Friday night:

1. The Mariners beat the slumping A's.

The A's got closer Sean Doolittle back, but that did little to stop their slide: When Doolittle went on the disabled list with an intercostal strain on Aug. 23, the A's were 76-52 and tied for first in the American League West. They had already lost eight of their prior 12 games and had relinquished a four-game lead on the Angels. With Doolittle shelved, the A's lost 13 of their next 18, which included six blown saves.

What was once a lead-pipe cinch for a playoff spot has become quite precarious, with Oakland now only a half-game ahead of the Mariners for the first wild-card spot. Doolittle returned just in time to help his team battle Seattle in the first of a three-game series at Safeco Field. However, he never got in the game, as Seattle hit three solo homers and the A's went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position in a 4-2 Mariners win.

Going forward, the A's have the vastly easier schedule, but can they restart their offense in time to hold off Seattle?

2. The Dodgers and Giants will go right down to the wire in the roller-coaster NL West.

On June 8, the Giants (43-21) led the Dodgers (33-31) by 10 full games in the division. The teams then swapped momentum, as Los Angeles won 36 of their next 57 and San Francisco lost 36 of their next 56. The Dodgers were up by 5.5 games on Aug. 12, a 15.5 game swing in just over two months. The Giants had trimmed that lead down to two games as they headed into a three-game series at AT&T Park that started on Friday. Matt Kemp came into the game hitting .333/.400/.635 in his past 17 games, while Buster Posey was an obscene .463/.477/.838 in his past 19.

Posey contributed an RBI double in the first inning as the Giants touched up Hyun-Jin Ryu for four runs en route to a 9-0 victory, cutting the Dodgers' lead in the division to one game. Ryu left after that first inning with a recurrence of shoulder irritation that had shelved him for three weeks earlier in the season, and it remains to be seen if he'll be available for his next start. Even after this weekend, these two teams still have a three-game set in Los Angeles that begins on Sept. 22.

3. Royals' infield defense let them down again, and Tigers retook AL Central lead.

On Thursday, Kansas City made three errors on the infield, which led to two unearned runs in a 6-3 loss to the Red Sox. Those three miscues brought the total errors by Royals infielders (including 21 by their pitchers) to 76 this season. On Friday, Mike Moustakas made his second error in as many nights, and Yordano Ventura threw a wild pitch to allow the Red Sox to score another run.

Eric Hosmer provided the only offense with a two-run homer, and Kansas City dropped a 4-2 decision. Meanwhile, David Price tossed 7 2/3 innings of one-run, eight-hit ball as the Tigers routed the Indians 7-2. Detroit is now back in the AL Central lead for only the second time since Aug. 10. Given the Royals' ordinary offense, they have a smaller margin for error (all puns intended) and can't afford to be giving runs (and games) away so easily.

4. The Orioles can take a punch, and then some.

The Orioles had their All-Star third baseman (Manny Machado) for a mere 82 games before losing him in early August for the rest of the season to a knee injury. Their No. 1 catcher (Matt Wieters), off to a career-best start at the plate, went down and needed Tommy John surgery in May. Their starting first baseman (Chris Davis), who despite slumping to a sub-.200 average had still hit 26 homers, just got suspended for 25 games for testing positive for amphetamines. With all this, Baltimore continued its surge toward the AL East title, sweeping a day/night doubleheader from the Yankees in which they yielded only one run over 20 innings.

The sweep pushed the Orioles' AL East lead to 11.5 games and moved them within 3.5 games of the best record in the AL. Since being only one game over .500 after 69 games, they've won 53 of their past 78. Coming into Friday, the O's had used only seven different starters pitchers (fewest in the AL), with five of those amassing at least 20 starts (second-most in the AL). It's not that the starting pitching has been superb all year, as they rank in the middle of the pack in most categories. However, they have pitched much better as a whole since the All-Star break: a 34-17 record with a 3.03 ERA prior to Friday, versus 52-42 with a 3.84 ERA in the first half of the season. The staff's good health has meant they haven't had to rely upon untested, not-ready-for-The Show talent.

5. The Mets finally said "no more hospitality" to the Nationals in Queens.

If the Nationals manage to secure the best record in the NL (they currently lead by a half-game), they can credit their league-best .622 winning percentage at home, as well as their "home-field" advantage in Queens, New York. Coming into Friday, Washington had won 12 straight (and 26 of its prior 30 games) at Citi Field. This season, it had won all four contests in New York, by a combined score of 20-6.

The Mets got off that schneid by jumping on Gio Gonzalez for three first-inning runs and outlasting the Nats 4-3. The Nationals still have two more games at Citi Field this weekend, with Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann scheduled to start.

Diane Firstman writes the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
Such a dirty word: Tanking. But there's no nice way to put it. For teams at the bottom of the standings, it's important to lose enough games to finish with one of the 10 worst records in the majors.

As Joe Sheehan wrote in his newsletter today (subscribe here):
We've talked a lot about the incentives to tank built into the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, how they've driven the way the Astros and, to a lesser extent, the Cubs have managed their organizations the past few years. If you lose more games you get higher draft picks and, in an important change from historical precedent, you're allowed to spend more money in the draft and in signing international amateurs. It's a terrible system, but you can't blame teams for playing by the rules as written.

The Cubs aren't in much danger of finishing last in MLB; they are, however, in a race to avoid triggering another CBA clause that would have a deleterious effect on their future. The teams that finish with the ten worst records in baseball have their first-round picks protected from being forfeited should they sign a free agent who has received a qualifying offer. Such teams forfeit their second-highest pick instead.


As Joe points out, it's a tight race for that 10th spot. The Phillies, with the ninth-worst record, are 66-77. The Rays and Mets, tied for the 12th-worst record, are 69-75. In between are the Padres and Reds. Now, maybe teams like the Rays, Padres and Reds aren't going to be going after the big free agents like Max Scherzer, Pablo Sandoval, Victor Martinez and James Shields, but the Phillies and Mets might. The Red Sox (fifth-worst record) and the Cubs (seventh-worst) certainly will be in the bidding Scherzer. But neither club wants to sign Scherzer and lose that first-round pick and the extra money allocated for the draft.

Last year, I wrote up "Tank of the night" pieces. I won't be doing that this year. But as you watch the top of the standings, keep an eye on the bottom of the standings as well.

Lagares wins Defensive Player of August

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
10:00
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AP Photo/John MinchilloThe eyes of Mets fans have been on the great glove of Juan Lagares.

To assess the defensive abilities of New York Mets center fielder Juan Lagares, we called upon a former major leaguer whose defensive skills were also top-notch.

“Juan Lagares’ ability to be in the right place makes me think we need a stat to measure teleportation accuracy,” said "Baseball Tonight" analyst and former outfielder Doug Glanville.

Unfortunately, we can’t quite provide what Doug is looking for. But we can try to do Lagares’ month justice in words, numbers and pictures. Lagares won the voting for our Defensive Player of the Month for August on the strength of his major league-leading 13 Defensive Runs Saved. It’s the second consecutive August in which Lagares copped the award, this time beating out Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and Astros outfielder Jake Marisnick.

Lagares entered September with 30 Defensive Runs Saved for the season. He’s the first outfielder to post back-to-back seasons of 25 Defensive Runs Saved since 2003, when Baseball Info Solutions (a data-tracking service for teams and media) began tallying the stat.

Click on these three plays for a few demonstrations of Lagares’ skills.

AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIOne of many nice plays this month.

Aug. 2: Lagares makes a sprinting, leaping catch in left center field to rob Brandon Belt of an extra-base hit. Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) calculates that balls hit to that spot with that hang time are hits 76 percent of the time over the past calendar year.

Aug. 5: Lagares charges in to make a diving catch and take a hit away from Denard Span.

BIS has this charted as falling in for a hit 80 percent of the time.

Aug. 26: Lagares comes in and makes another diving catch of a hard-hit line drive by Braves pitcher Alex Wood. BIS has this as being a hit 98 percent of the time, though Lagares did have the advantage of playing shallow with the pitcher up. Regardless, it was a pretty tough play.

We didn’t even reference Lagares’ arm, which last season garnered 15 assists. This season, he only has four, but that’s largely because there is a reluctance to test his throwing arm. Last season, opponents took an extra base (went first to third or second to home on a single, or went first to home on a double) on 42 percent of hits that Lagares fielded. This season, that number dropped to 35 percent. In August, he held runners to a 24 percent extra-base advancement rate.

Case in point came in the Mets' most recent series against the Philadelphia Phillies when Ben Revere (who entered September with 40 steals) held at third on a Lagares-fielded hit. We’d venture to say Revere would have tested any other center fielder in the game.

Mets manager Terry Collins has frequently compared Lagares to former Gold Glove winner Devon White. Mets first base coach Tom Goodwin had another name in mind while talking with ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin, one who actually tormented the Mets with great plays with his glove and arm regularly while playing for the Braves -- Andruw Jones.

“He gives himself an opportunity to make the plays that he needs to make," Goodwin said of Lagares. “And then when you throw his arm in there as well -- and he plays shallow, he knows when to come in -- he’s going to have a pretty good chance of throwing somebody out at home. It makes him that kind of dual- or triple-threat outfielder.

“He gets good jumps. And a lot of guys have to slow down when they’re coming up to the ball in order to catch it. He’s one of those guys who can maintain his speed and still be under control enough to make an accurate throw. Those things are hard to do. I had enough trouble myself, when I was playing, just trying to catch it. So I always had to slow down. And then I’d have to try to pick up my momentum. But he seems to be able to maintain that speed while he’s coming up to catch the ball and he maintains it all the way through.”

It’s not just those on Lagares’ team who feel this way. "I saw him last year, and he was impressive,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said at Citi Field last week. “I said to my coaches, he might be the best center fielder in the National League. Now, a year later, there's no doubt about it.”

Five things we learned Friday

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
12:05
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1. Another Friday, another no-hit bid against the Cincinnati Reds

Last week Atlanta Braves starter Mike Minor tossed 7 2/3 innings before the Reds put a hit on the board. Friday, it was Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Edinson Volquez who kept Cincinnati hitless for the first six frames. Volquez, a former 17-game winner with the Reds, was picked up off the scrap heap by Pittsburgh this winter and has been a pleasant surprise. Although his peripheral statistics don't necessarily support his 3.45 ERA, he is unlikely to turn into a pumpkin down the stretch after nearly 160 innings of work this season.

Volquez tied a season high with 114 pitches Friday. He was charged with one earned run on three hits and three walks. He struck out six. He pounded the ground with 10 ground-ball outs. Although he has done a lot of work close to the earth, it is his work in the air that has been the big key in 2014. Last year, opposing batters had a .310 average on fly balls against Volquez. This season, that mark sits at .172. Advanced metrics place the Pirates' outfield in a negative light, but someone is converting those fly balls into outs on a consistent basis.

Despite the lack of knocks, the Reds were able to keep both games close, losing in the 12th inning last Friday and briefly taking a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning Friday before conceding the lead and the game soon after. The wins were important to Atlanta and Pittsburgh as both are still chasing the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League wild-card race. In fact, the Pirates' three-game winning streak has them sneaking back into contention in the NL Central as well.

For those interested, the Reds host the New York Mets next Friday at the Great American Ballpark.

2. DeGrom continues strong season

The Mets are in the midst of another lost season, but once again a trio of young arms gives the organization and its fans some hope. They lack the cool nickname of "Generation K," but Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom may be the foundation of a rotation that gets New York's other baseball team back to the postseason. DeGrom, the only active member of the trio, was on the bump Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Without the hype of Harvey or Syndergaard, deGrom has snuck up on most people this season. The lanky right-hander tossed seven strong innings against the Phillies, allowing just one unearned run. Of his 18 starts, deGrom has gone at least six innings in 14 of them. He has allowed three runs or fewer in 13 of those contests.

The rookie boasts a full arsenal of pitches, but Friday night's game plan centered around a mid-90s fastball that he commanded well. It accounted for nearly 75 percent of his pitches thrown Friday, as deGrom honed in on the lower half of the zone to his arm side. The heater was the weapon of choice on 16 of the 22 outs he recorded.

It's been said before, but "maybe next year" for the Mets.

3. Orioles continue to pound away

After taking three of four from the Tampa Bay Rays, the American League East-leading Baltimore Orioles were back at it Friday night, blowing out the Minnesota Twins 9-1. Baltimore's pitching staff has been largely mediocre this season, but its offense packs a powerful enough punch to push the O's past the opposition on most nights. The club's .163 ISO -- isolated power measures the ability to hit for extra bases by stripping singles from slugging percentage -- is tops in the AL, trailing only the Colorado Rockies in the majors.

Chris Davis is having a disappointing season after his breakout 2013 campaign, but he hit another home run -- this one a grand slam -- on Friday that gives him seven in August and 24 on the season. While that is a far cry from last year's pace, Davis appears to be getting a bit more into the swing of things even if his average sits below .200.

In Davis' void, Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce have picked up the offensive slack. Cruz signed a one-year deal with Baltimore after a difficult time finding work on the open market. His 34 home runs lead the majors. Pearce was once a top prospect in the Pirates' system, but has spent most of his career shuttling between the majors and minors. This season, he has broken out in a big way with an OPS approaching .900 and 16 homers in limited action. He left Friday's game with an abdominal strain. Considering Manny Machado's injury, the team can ill afford to lose Pearce, as crazy as that may sound.

4. Verlander better versus White Sox

The Detroit Tigers have one of the game's top pitchers (Max Scherzer) and traded for another one (David Price) on July 31. Meanwhile, the team's former top hurler was on the mound Friday night, looking to close the gap in the highly contested AL Central race.

Justin Verlander has been off his game for most of this season. His ERA is approaching 5.00 and he has allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2006. Friday's effort was not vintage Verlander; however, it was still encouraging since he is no longer considered the team's top gun.

Facing the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, Verlander worked seven innings, allowing one run on nine hits and two walks. He struck out seven batters, throwing 77 strikes in 116 pitches. It was the first time since April 17 that he allowed one run or none in a start.

Despite a recent run of inconsistency, the Tigers are within arm's reach of the division lead. With Anibal Sanchez's future in doubt, Verlander once again becomes a key figure in Detroit's rotation. If he can be just part of what he once was, it may go a long way in the club's quest for a fourth straight division title.

5. Young Cubs on the prowl

The Houston Astros have been painted by some as the poster boys of "process." Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs have also been in rebuild mode and, unlike Houston, which may have some sour grapes among its bunch, their organizational tree is starting to bear fruit at the highest level.

Javier Baez was first to capture the nation's attention this summer with his risk-versus-reward approach at the plate. His big swings have left nearly an equal amount of oohs and ughs depending on whether he made contact or not. This week, the club promoted Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler to the big leagues. That decision is already paying dividends.

Though he is just three games into his major league career, the 22-year-old Soler has seven hits in his first 12 plate appearances. On Friday, he recorded his first multi-home run game, belting a pair of homers against the St. Louis Cardinals. Soler's first homer was a solo shot in the seventh inning that tied the game at 2-2. Baez put the Cubs ahead 4-2 with an RBI double the next inning, but the big blast came once again from Soler, who smacked a two-run homer to left field. Two innings, two at-bats and two home runs that covered 858 feet. Not bad for the third night on the job.

As exciting as the win was for the Cubs, it was equally devastating for a Cardinals team that is clinging to an NL wild-card spot by the slimmest of margins.

Tommy Rancel blogs about the Tampa Bay Rays at the SweetSpot network affiliate The Process Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @TRancel.
1. A big night in the AL Central.

The Royals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Twins 6-1 ... which came a couple hours after David Price allowed -- not a typo -- nine consecutive hits in the third inning as the Yankees scored eight runs. Most of the hits were not cheapies, either. The inning went:

Single, double, single, double, single, single, single, infield single, single. Four of the hits were ground balls but only two of those were soft. Price became the first pitcher since Bob Forsch in 1989 to allow nine hits in a row. As our friend Jonah Keri tweeted, the Yankees scored more runs that inning than Drew Smyly has allowed in his five starts with Tampa Bay since being traded for Price.

As for the Royals, here's a stat: Before Tuesday, the Twins had lost just two games all season they led heading into the eighth inning. The Royals rallied two nights in a row in the ninth and eighth innings.

2. Speaking of Smyly ... he's good.

You don't want to overreact to five starts, but in those five starts Smyly has allowed just six runs. In beating the Orioles on Wednesday and allowing just two hits in seven innings, he became the second Rays pitcher to pitch at least seven innings and allow two hits or fewer in consecutive starts. Bottom line: For those who think the Rays didn't get enough in return for Price, think again; Smyly is more than just a back-end starter.

We all loved this trade for the Tigers because we overfocused for the Tigers, but it's fair to ask: How much is Dave Dombrowski sweating right now?



3. The Cubs are worth watching down the stretch.

I mentioned Javier Baez in non-pennant race news on Tuesday, and now we discuss Jorge Soler, the dynamic Cuban right fielder who debuted for the Cubs on Wednesday ... and promptly slammed a Mat Latos fastball for a home run in his first at-bat. Soler is the same physical presence as Baez but his minor numbers suggest a swing with a little more control: He struck out 48 times in 200 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A (hitting .340/.432/.700) compared to Baez's 130 K's in 388 at-bats. That's still a high strikeout rate, so he may face the same initial struggles as Baez. Soler's biggest issue has been staying healthy: He had a fractured tibia last year and had injuries to both hamstrings that forced him to miss most of April and May this year. But with 15 home runs in 62 minor-league games, the power potential resembles Baez's.

Now ... let's hope the Cubs call up Kris Bryant. I don't want to hear about service time and all that. He's ready for the big leagues.

4. Eric O'Flaherty, A's closer, for now.

Oakland's first save opportunity since Sean Doolittle went to the former Braves lefty, who has pitched well in limited action for the A's so far. He gave up a run to the Astros but preserved the 5-4 win. (The A's scored three off Chad Qualls in the top of the ninth, with Sam Fuld hitting a tiebreaking two-run homer.)

Also note: Drew Pomeranz, good outing. Pomeranz didn't replace Jason Hammel in the rotation, but was taking a start to give Sonny Gray an extra day of rest. But he pitched well enough if that Bob Melvin may give him another one.

5. Give these guys Gold Gloves.

1. Alex Gordon.
2. Juan Lagares.
3. Andrelton Simmons.

Maybe the three best defensive players in the game.


One of the byproducts of sabermetrics has been the change in how we view managers. For starters, general managers are now the off-the-field face of the organization. There was a time when Earl Weaver had a big role in determining his 25-man roster or Davey Johnson could tell Frank Cashen he wanted a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden on his team. Now the general manager pretty much says, "Here are the players I'm giving you." As a result, we discuss general managers and roster building and the like as much as we discuss in-game decisions. Where we used to rail against managers, we demand that GMs be fired.

Think about this also: We talk about managers in terms of, well, managing. How they manage players and their egos. How they manage the bullpen. How they manage pitch counts. How they manage a young player. How they manage the media.

Less often, we talk about them in terms of strategy and tactics. This picks up in the postseason, of course, as we scrutinize every pitching change and sacrifice bunt and realize nothing Ron Washington does seems to make sense, but the regular season is dissected and analyzed more in a big-picture mindset.

Then sabermetrics piles on and says a lot of the decisions managers make aren't really all that important: Lineup order doesn't matter all that much, one-run strategies are overrated. Even all the shifting we see these days? That's coming from the front offices and the stat nerds, not the manager on the bench.

But then we get games like Wednesday night's at Citi Field between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, a reminder that the big picture consists of 162 little pictures, and some of those little pictures depend on a key decision from the manager. Score a big 3-2 win here for the Braves in their battle for the wild card, with a big tip of the cap to skipper Fredi Gonzalez.

Here's what happened. After Andrelton Simmons made perhaps the defensive play of the season to save a run in the bottom of the eighth, the Braves took that 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
[+] EnlargeCraig Kimbrel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsCraig Kimbrel might be money in the ninth, but a little bit of tactical chicanery didn't hurt the Braves' chances on Wednesday night.

All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel came on and showed some of the wildness that has made him a little less dominant this season (his ERA entering the game was all the way up to 1.76, and he'd blown four saves). Eric Campbell singled sharply to right field on a 3-2 fastball. Matt den Dekker got ahead 3-0 and eventually walked on a 3-2 fastball.

Due up for the Mets: Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada and the pitcher, Flores hitting .224 and Tejada .228. With David Wright and Daniel Murphy both apparently unavailable with injuries, the Mets' bench was thin, so manager Terry Collins didn't really have any pinch-hitting options since he had to save a hitter for the pitcher.

Collins elected to bunt with Flores. That itself is debatable. I would have swung away, my theory being that getting the tying run to third base against Kimbrel is less valuable than against most pitchers because Kimbrel's strikeout rate is so high. Plus, he had just walked a batter and has been wild all season, so who knows what happens if you don't give him an out. I'd rather hope to go 1-for-3 than 1-for-2.

Flores got the bunt down and both runners moved up, bringing up the light-hitting Tejada, who has just 12 extra-base hits in over 300 at-bats. Gonzalez faced a tough decision: Bring the infield in to cut off the tying run but increase the probability of a grounder or line drive going through the infield and winning the game for the Mets, or keep the infield back to at least preserve a better chance of keeping the game tied and sending it into extra innings.

This is a situation in which the numbers can't provide a "right" answer. You could attempt to analyze the probability of Tejada hitting a ground ball (41 percent of the time when he puts the ball in play) against Kimbrel, who allows grounders on 43 percent of his balls in play. But then you have to factor in that Kimbrel didn't look sharp. And you'd have to factor in the odds of Tejada hitting a hard grounder or a slow grounder, let alone a line drive.

Oh, and you have about 10 seconds to make your decision. Good luck consulting the charts there.

Gonzalez had to make a snap decision. Maybe it wasn't that difficult; after all, with Kimbrel you have a good chance of a strikeout anyway, even against a solid contact hitter like Tejada. But it's one with enormous risk, no? Most managers are going to play it safe there; managers, by nature, are risk-averse. If Tejada hits a seeing-eye single through the drawn-in infield, the Braves lose and Gonzalez is vilified by the fans and the media.

I'm guessing that Gonzalez's primary consideration was that Tejada doesn't hit the ball hard. With that in mind, he brought the infield in.

It worked. Tejada hit a slow-roller to third base and the Braves got the out at home plate. Kimbrel then got pinch hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis to fly out to shallow left and the Braves were a win closer in the wild-card standings, one game behind the Cardinals.

Sabermetricians often talk about the "process" -- stick to the right process and things will eventually go in your favor. Sometimes a right decision will backfire and a wrong decision will work. But it's the process that matters.

Well, sometimes it's the result that matters. Fredi Gonzalez went for the win and got it.
video

It's another edition of Rapid Fire ... except this time I ask Eric the questions.

We had two plays at home plate on Wednesday, nearly identical in nature, with completely different outcomes and thus apparently different interpretations of Rule 7.13 (2), or as it's better known, the "Home Plate Collision Rule," aka "The Buster Posey Rule," aka "Baseball Used To Be Much Easier To Understand."

The first play came in the White Sox-Giants matchup. White Sox leading 1-0 in the seventh; the Giants have runners at the corners with one out when this play happened. Gregor Blanco is out by, what, six feet? No doubt he's out, right? The ball beat him, White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers slaps the tag on him. Two outs.

Home plate ump Chris Segal called Blanco out. But Giants manager Bruce Bochy threw his imaginary red flag and the call was eventually overturned. The game was tied, White Sox skipper Robin Ventura was ejected, there was still one out and the Giants went on to score seven runs in the inning. The game arguably turned on that call.

The second play came in the Nationals-Mets game, with the Nationals leading 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Eric Campbell bounced to shortstop Ian Desmond, who threw out Matt den Dekker at the plate, with Wilson Ramos applying the tag. Mets manager Terry Collins appealed the call without success, and Rafael Soriano got the next batter to seal the win for the Nationals.

[+] EnlargeTyler Flowers, Gregor Blanco
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY SportsGregor Blanco was tagged out at home plate -- until the call was overturned five minutes later and he was credited with scoring the Giants' first run.

Like Flowers, Ramos set up in front of the plate, his left foot straddling the foul line. Rule 7.13 (2) reads as such:
Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher without possession of the ball blocks the pathway of the runner, the Umpire shall call or signal the runner safe. Notwithstanding the above, it shall not be considered a violation of this Rule 7.13 if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in order to field a throw, and the Umpire determines that the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner and that contact with the runner was unavoidable.


Both catchers had possession of the ball. The rest of the rule is as murky as the fog that sometimes envelops San Francisco. I'm not sure either baserunner had a clear path, but it's not like either catcher had planted their entire body in front of the plate either. And the rule seems to suggest that if the catcher does have possession of the ball, he can block the pathway of the runner anyway.

Yet two similar plays, two different rulings. In the White Sox-Giants game, it took 4 minutes, 55 seconds to finally overturn the call. Sounds like a fun time. Ventura understandably went nuts, with his best Lou Pinella reaction.

"It's a vague rule and it obviously went against us today," Ventura said. "You look at the spirit of the rule of what they're trying to do and what it's actually doing, and it's a joke."

Ventura isn't the first one to call the rule a joke. Just do a Google search. On Twitter, Roberto Guerrero replied to me, "Saw it live and as a Giants fan ... even I was shocked! No bueno."

Not good, indeed. We're over two-thirds of the way into the season and the umpires, the review crews in New York, the players, the managers and us fans have no idea how to view these plays at the plate.

It's a joke. But nobody is laughing.

Remember, the rule was created to eliminate home plate collisions -- the impetus being the Scott Cousins-Posey collision in May of 2011. Watch that play again. Posey wasn't sitting in front of the plate; Cousins went out of his way to lower his shoulder and plow through Posey. The first part of rule 7.13 does prevent runners from doing that; that's a good thing.

The rule could have stopped there; just make the rule, as in college baseball, that runners have to slide. Maybe that gives the advantage to the catcher, but if the idea to prevent collisions and injuries, that's the trade-off.

End of issue? Not necessarily. Because you don't want to allow situations like this one, the most famous home plate collision in history: Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game. Fosse was standing several feet down the third-base line as he waited for the throw. Rose had nowhere to go. We want to prevent catchers from doing that. (To be fair, that kind of play, with the catcher so obviously blocking the path of the runner even without possession of the ball, was fairly standard practice for catchers in the 1970s and '80s but has mostly died away in the past 20 years.)

Is there a solution? Or do we just throw up our arms and admit it's always going to be a gray area, like charging in basketball or holding in football?

But it seems like there's a pretty clear way to sort all this out: (A) the runner has to slide and (B) the catcher has to set up in front of the plate, but if in receiving the throw his momentum takes his foot into the runner's path, that's OK. You have to allow a catcher to make a play without forcing him to be Baryshnikov. Of course, I think I just wrote rule 7.13 (2). So why was Blanco called safe?

It is a mess. We're stuck with five-minute delays, controversial decisions and important games being decided in ways that make nobody happy.

Just wait until this happens in the postseason.

ICYMI: SweetSpot trade deadline roundup

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
11:32
AM ET
Catch your breath yet? What a crazy few days across baseball. Winners and losers at the trade deadline? We've got all of that covered. Let's dive in and see what the local SweetSpot Network writers had to say about the deals that impacted their teams as well as the new landscape for the rest of the 2014 season and beyond.



New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Why Stephen Drew can help the Yankees: Katie Sharp dives deeper than the superficial season-to-date results posted by Drew and shows how he can provide a boost to the Yanks. Spoiler alerts: Bumps in hard-hit rates and a superior defender than the now-departed Brian Roberts (two ABs short of a bonus). Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Trade deadline thoughts and afterthoughts: The Yankees got four proven major leaguers in the middle-to-late parts of their primes for two cheap minor league signings, an injured spare bench part, and two low-probability prospects. Not bad. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS



Boston Red Sox: Firebrand of the AL
Yoenis Cespedes, Red Sox outfielder: Many have arrived in Boston only to be beat down by Fenway and the Green Monster. Brett Cowett looks at how Cespedes could possibly master Fenway Park. Follow on Twitter: @firebrandal.

Allen Craig and Joe Kelly: Who are they, and how do they fit in?: Shawn McFarland takes a quick look at the St. Louis duo, and how they can be major cogs in the Red Sox machine for years to come.



Detroit Tigers: Walkoff Woodward
The Price is right: Tigers land Rays ace: Alexandra Simon looks at the Tigers' acquisition of David Price and examines some of the fallout after the deal.

The present and future of the Tigers with Price: Grey Papke outlines what the Price trade means for the Tigers both immediately and in the coming seasons -- including Max Scherzer's Tigers future. Follow on Twitter: @walkoffwoodward.



Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
Brewers trade for Parra: The Brewers made their big move of the non-waiver deadline, acquiring outfielder Gerardo Parra from the Diamondbacks in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers. Ryan Topp reviews the trade, including concerns about a slip in Parra's defense. Follow on Twitter: @RDTopp.



New York Mets: Mets Today
Stephen Drew finally heads to New York -- and other deadline news: Joe Janish does a lap around the deals that made the 2014 trade deadline so exciting.



Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The Rangers Stand Pat: Brandon Land takes a look at what ended up being a rather uneventful deadline for Texas when compared to recent years. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away



Cincinnati Reds: Redleg Nation
Early trade deadline thoughts: More swings and misses: In recent years, the Reds have repeatedly swung and missed at the trade deadline. Last season they were the only major league team that didn’t make a single move in July or August. Other general managers come up with ideas that worked for each other and their owners. Steve Mancuso wonders if this indicates a failure of market evaluation. Follow on Twitter: @redlegnation.



St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Cardinals improve, but is it enough? In separate trades, the Cardinals supplemented their starting rotation, acquiring right-handers Justin Masterson and John Lackey. The moves were quintessentially Mozeliakian, as the GM followed his typical script by accurately identifying needs then fulfilling those needs with solid but not blockbuster (or bank-busting) transactions. The only question will be whether they’re enough. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.



Chicago Cubs: View From The BleachersAn ode to Darwin Barney: Luke Jett sends off fan favorite Darwin Barney with one last look back. Follow on Twitter: @lukejett.



Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Twins sign Suzuki to an extension: All-Star Kurt Suzuki was the Twins' best deadline trade chip, but instead of shipping him out they elected to extend his contract. John Bonnes takes a look at the move. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.


Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Indians ship Justin Masterson to Cardinals: Adam Hintz takes a look at the Masterson trade, new acquisition James Ramsey, and how the organizational outfield depth chart now shapes up. Follow on Twitter: @Palagoon.

Wrapping up Masterson's Tribe Ccreer: Ryan McCrystal looks back on the roller coaster ride that was Masterson's time in Cleveland, comparing him to not-so-great past Indians such as Roberto Hernandez and Dave Burba. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC.



Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Orioles gave up too much for Andrew Miller: Typically, prospects who are traded are over-ranked. That said, handing out a top 100 prospect in LHP Eduardo Rodriguez for a pitcher who will contribute at most 20 innings the rest of the season does not seem like the most sensible thing to do. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.



Los Angeles Angels: Halos Daily
What the big deadline deals mean for the Angels: Despite sitting the dance out, the Halos will still feel ripples from some of the deadline's biggest moves. Andrew Karcher takes a look at which trades could affect the club most down the stretch. Follow on Twitter: @andrewkarcher.


And some of the other non-trade deadline-related items from around the SweetSpot Network:


Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Are traded prospects worth less? Yes, they are, but there is a twist. Matt Perez looks at how the difference between prospect rank and value have changed over the years for players in trades. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot



Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
Frank Thomas memories: In the wake of his emotional induction into the Hall of Fame, the entire writing staff kicked in their favorite memories of the greatest hitter to ever put on a White Sox uniform. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.



Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Rockies bloggers panel 7/26/14: Listen to representatives from Rockies blogs talk about what's gone right and wrong for the Rockies team and the front office in 2014. Featured are Rockies Zingers writers Richard Bergstrom, Ryan Hammon and Adam Peterson; Drew Creasman from Purple Row; Michelle Stalnaker from RoxPile; and Zach Marburger from Mile High Sports. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.



New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Chase Headley more than a rental: Matt Bove examines the idea of Chase Headley being a legitimate long-term option for the Yankees at third base. Follow on Twitter: @rayrobert9.



St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Patience pays off for Carpenter: This year, Matt Carpenter is seeing pitches at a career-high rate. If he continues at this pace, he’ll finish the season with the team’s highest pitches-per-plate-appearance since the stat began being tracked in 1988. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.



Los Angeles Angels: Halos Daily
The real value of the league's "worst" prospects: For two years running now, the Angels farm system has been classified as the worst in the game. Nathan Aderhold investigates what kind of tangible value the club has derived from its farm hands the last two seasons. Follow on Twitter: @adrastusperkins.


Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

OK, we're already a couple of days into the second half of the season, which actually begins well past the actual halfway point of the season, but here are the key players to watch for each National League team.

Atlanta Braves: Mike Minor
Well, we know it's not Dan Uggla. Minor began the season on the DL after a sore shoulder in spring training, and he hasn't been the same pitcher he was last season. The differences are small, but his stuff and command just haven't played up as well -- his swing-and-miss rate is down more than three percent and his overall strike rate is down 2 percent, and as a result his batting average allowed has increased from .232 to .295. The Braves are hoping that's simply tied to a high BABIP -- .348, seventh-worst among 124 pitchers with at least 75 innings -- but he's allowed 14 home runs in 83.1 innings.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper
He's hit .150 since coming off the DL and had two home runs in 123 at-bats at the All-Star break. Is the thumb healed? Is he still too young to be The Man in the Nationals' lineup? It will be intriguing to see what happens here.

New York Mets: Travis d'Arnaud
The Mets are counting on the rookie catcher as a big foundation piece for their future. He had trouble staying healthy in his minor league career and struggled at the plate early on, although hit well in his final 16 games before the All-Star break (.295/.338/.525), following a stint in Triple-A. He's proven he can hit in Las Vegas, but everyone can hit in Vegas. The question is if he can hit at the major league level.

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton
Must-see TV. The Marlins aren't going anywhere, so all eyes will be focused on Stanton. Could he win an MVP award if the Marlins don't even finish .500? Probably not. But I'm still watching.

Philadelphia Phillies: Domonic Brown
The focus on the Phillies will be on their veteran assets and whether general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will (or can) trade the likes of Marlon Byrd and others. But this might also be the most important two months of Brown's career. A year ago, Brown was an All-Star after hitting 23 home runs in the first half. In 2014, he was one of the worst players of the first half, with six home runs, a .279 OBP and poor defense -- a combination worth -1.4 WAR. Ouch. Can Brown salvage his season and give hope that he's part of the Phillies' future?

Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun
After dominating the NL Central for most of the first half, the Brewers left the All-Star break with a slim, one-game lead over the Cardinals. They've been all over the place with hot months and cold months and have probably settled near their true talent. In going through their roster, there aren't any obvious "over his head" candidates or "should play better" candidates. The one guy who has the capability of ripping it up for the next 60 games, however, is Braun. He had a good first half but not near his 41-homer level of 2012. Yes, you can assume and conclude whatever you want, but Braun could easily go out and hit 20 home runs the second half and carry the Brewers to a division title.

St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Holliday
Two numbers tell the tale of the Cardinals -- or rather, two sets of numbers:

2013 runs per game: 4.83 (first in NL)
2014 runs per game at the break: 3.75 (14th in NL)

2013 average with RISP: .330
2014 average with RISP: .248

The point: David Price would certainly be nice, but the Cardinals are more likely to rely on improvement from within. Holliday, who homered Friday, is one guy who could improve his offense after hitting .265 with six home runs in the first half. Cardinals fans will remember that Holliday had a monster second half last year -- .348/.442/.552.

Cincinnati Reds: Jay Bruce
Joey Votto's injury issues have left him less than 100 percent and a question mark as he sits on the DL. That leaves Bruce as the guy who needs to power a Reds lineup that is also missing Brandon Phillips as the second half kicks off. At 27, Bruce is at the age that many players have their peak season; instead, after hitting 30-plus homers the past three seasons, he's struggling through his worst year, hitting .229 with 10 home runs at the break. Bruce's main problem is simple: He hasn't been getting the ball in the air. His fly ball rate is down 15 percent from his average since 2009. More grounders equals fewer homers and, against shift, not enough base hits to compensate.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Francisco Liriano
This one's easy. A year ago, Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and then won the wild-card game. This year, he's 1-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 16 starts after allowing an unearned run in five innings on Friday. The difference in performance is clear when looking at his year-by-year walks per nine innings:

2014: 5.1
2013: 3.5
2012: 5.0
2011: 5.0

Yes, wins are team dependent to some degree, but the Pirates need Liriano to pitch closer to the ace he was a year ago.

Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant
Maybe it says something about the Cubs that the guy we care most about right now is in Triple-A. Then again, he entered the weekend hitting .350 with 32 home runs in the minors. Will we see him in September? He needs a higher league to give him a more difficult test.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp
Kemp began the second half with his agent Dave Stewart proclaiming that Kemp just wants to play every day and "his hope at some point is to get back to center." That's not going to happen, as the Dodgers finally realized Kemp's bad routes lead to too many bad plays in the outfield (he had the worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in the first half at any position). So that means Kemp will have to hit -- and play left field. He had a solid June, hitting .317/.375/.525. The Dodgers will happily take that at this point.

San Francisco Giants: Matt Cain
The fact that Cain is starting the Giants' fifth game after the break tells where he now sits in the San Francisco rotation. He has to do better than a 2-7 record and 4.15 ERA if the Giants are going to catch the Dodgers.

San Diego Padres: Andrew Cashner
Cashner is important because the Padres need him healthy for 2015. He's currently on the DL with a sore shoulder and is supposed to start playing catch again. It's not so much what he does the rest of the season, but that he returns at some point and proves the shoulder is sound.

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
Another lost season for the Rockies has turned ugly, as owner Dick Monfort told a disgruntled fan that "if it is that upsetting, don't come to the games," and then, when asked who was responsible for the Rockies' poor first half, said, "You would have to say it’s [assistant general manager] Bill Geivett. He’s responsible for the major league team." In the midst of this mess is Tulo, who is having an MVP-caliber season for a lousy team.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?
An early theme of the 2014 season was parity: Through the first two months, just about every team could still sell themselves on a potential playoff chase. But the last month changed all that, especially in the National League, which has sorted itself into contenders and bad teams. A lot of bad teams.

The two groups:

Contenders: Brewers, Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, Giants, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates.

The bad teams: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs, Phillies, Padres, Mets.

That leaves only the Marlins in the mediocrity of the middle.

Some of those bad teams are likely to get worse. The Cubs just traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Diamondbacks lost Bronson Arroyo and traded Brandon McCarthy. The Rockies' pitching staff has been decimated with injuries. The Phillies are some form of unwatchable wretchedness right now.

All this means the remaining schedule for the playoff contenders could play a vital role in who wins the divisions and who wins the wild cards. So let's see how many games each of the contenders has remaining against our six bad teams.

Nationals (33) -- Mets (13), Phillies (13), Rockies (3), Padres (4).
Braves (27) -- Mets (8), Phillies (9), Cubs (3), Padres (7). They also have three against AL weakling Texas.

Brewers (19) -- Mets (4), Phillies (2), Cubs (10), Padres (3).
Cardinals (26) -- Phillies (3), Cubs (10), Padres (7), Rockies (3), Diamondbacks (3).
Reds (18) -- Mets (3), Cubs (8), Rockies (4), Diamondbacks (3).
Pirates (23) -- Phillies (4), Cubs (6), Padres (3), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (4).

Dodgers (31) -- Cubs (7), Padres (13), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (5).
Giants (37) -- Mets (4), Phillies (7), Cubs (3), Padres (7), Rockies (7), Diamondbacks (9).

Strength of schedule can be overrated, but you can clearly see the potential ramifications here. With four good teams, the NL Central teams have much tougher remaining schedules than the Nationals/Braves and Dodgers/Giants. The NL Central teams may beat up on each other, opening the door for the two wild cards to come from the NL East and NL West.

Digging deeper into the NL Central, here's how many games each has remaining against the other three contenders:

Brewers (28) -- Cardinals (13), Reds (9), Pirates (6).
Cardinals (31) -- Brewers (13), Reds (10), Pirates (8).
Reds (28) -- Brewers (9), Cardinals (10), Pirates (9).
Pirates (23) -- Brewers (6), Cardinals (8), Reds (9).

Something tells me those 13 remaining Brewers-Cardinals games will go a long ways towards deciding the division title.


It's the award-winning Rapid Fire! Today, Eric and I discuss the Angels' rotation, more replay confusion, Jose Altuve's chances of winning the batting, Manny Machado and the Orioles and whether Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young Award and more!
Random thoughts for a Monday morning ...

1. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade just ramped up the cost for David Price. If the Cardinals want him, they better start with Oscar Taveras. If the Dodgers want him, they’re going to have to start with Joc Pederon or Corey Seager.

2. Joey Votto has basically been playing on one leg, so it’s no surprise that it appears he’s heading to the DL. I’ve been saying I still expect a four-team race in the NL Central, but with Votto struggling and Jay Bruce still yet to get untracked (he just snapped an 0-for-26 skid), the Reds are looking like the fourth-best team in that division.

3. Always love the All-Star controversies this time of year. Many deserving players got left off the AL roster -- Chris Sale, part of the final player vote, is one of the top five or six starters in the game. I can’t believe the players actually think Mark Buehrle and Scott Kazmir are better pitchers and have to think they failed to vote for Sale only because of his time on the DL.

4. If Giancarlo Stanton ends up starting at DH for the NL, the backup outfield pool will be pretty weak -- Hunter Pence, Charlie Blackmon and utility man Josh Harrison could end up deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. Of course, Mike Matheny could just play Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez the entire game.

5. That’s one of the incongruous things about Matheny selecting Harrison, Tony Watson and Pat Neshek: He clearly selected them for late-game matchup and versatility, to give the NL a better chance of winning. I certain understand that reasoning. But if winning is so important, then play some of your best players the entire game. Why bench Troy Tulowitzki just to get Starlin Castro a couple of at-bats if you're trying to win the game?

6. While Sale is the guy I’d give my final player vote to in the AL, I hope Garrett Richards eventually finds his way on to the team. He had another great outing on Sunday against the Astros with 11 strikeouts while averaging a career-high 97.3 mph with his fastball. He’s 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA since June 1. That sounds like an All-Star to me.

7. Of course, he faced the strikeout-prone Astros. Rookies George Springer and Jonathan Singleton went a combined 0-for-8 with seven K’s. Singleton is hitting .168 with 46 strikeouts in his first 32 games. Springer’s contact issues have been well documented. Domingo Santana was sent down after whiffing 11 times in his first 13 at-bats. As promising as those three guys are, and while strikeouts aren’t necessarily a bad thing for hitters, you do wonder if you can have too many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup. We’ll see how these guys develop and whether it becomes a long-term issue for Houston.

8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

9. Love the idea of Justin Morneau returning to Minnesota, but Anthony Rendon or Anthony Rizzo are clearly better players and more deserving of final player honors in the NL.

10. Now trending on Twitter: “LeBron James,” “Cleveland” and “Cavs.” How awesome would that be? But it’s not really going to happen, is it?

11. Andrew McCutchen: Making another run at MVP honors. Since June 1, he’s hit .364 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

12. Fun to watch play defense: Adam Eaton. Still can’t believe the Diamondbacks traded him and now they’re playing somebody named Ender Inciarte in center field.

13. Fun to watch hit: Jose Abreu. Loved the Abreu-King Felix showdown on Saturday. King Felix won as Abreu went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

14. It’s starting to look like CC Sabathia will miss the rest of the season. Joe Girardi is usually an optimistic guy so if he’s saying Sabathia is done he’s probably done. So here’s a question: What if Sabathia is also finished as a quality pitcher? Hall of Famer? He’s 208-119 in his career with a 3.63 ERA and 54.1 WAR. He can stick around and add some wins and a little bit of WAR, but his winning percentage likely goes down and his ERA likely goes up. He’s close now and while improving his win total with otherwise mediocre pitching shouldn’t be the difference in making him a Hall of Famer at this point, he probably needs to get another 25-30 wins for serious consideration.

15. The Yankees also designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, no surprise considering his struggles. I’m guessing somebody will give him a chance but with 71 strikeouts and just six walks his free-swinging approach finally got the best of him. Hell of a career though: 412 home runs, 289 stolen bases, seven-time All-Star. He was far from the perfect player but he delivered for a lot of years.

16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

17. Edwin Encarnacion’s injury should open a spot for Seager or Ian Kinsler to make the All-Star Game.

18. Better than I thought he’d be: Scooter Gennett.

19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

20. Mike Trout needs to be in the Home Run Derby.

21. The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 59 runs. The Padres have been outscored by 51 runs. Both teams have one All-Star.

22. That was a terrific Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, right up there with the famous Federer-Rafael Nadal final. Federer won his first grand slam tournament in 2003 and is still competing for titles 11 years later. Amazing athlete.

23. Among qualified starters, toughest fastball to hit this year: Johnny Cueto, .164 average, .439 OPS.

24. Easiest fastball to hit: Ricky Nolasco has allowed a .364/.422/.618 line against his fastball. No surprise to Twins fans.

25. Easier fastball to hit than you would think: Batters are hitting .337/.381/.516 against Stephen Strasburg’s fastball.

26. Best curveball so far: Corey Kluber has held opponents to an .080 average and .219 OPS. (For comparison, batters have hit .156 against Adam Wainwright’s curve and .173 against Clayton Kershaw’s curve.)

27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

28. Toughest slider so far: Johnny Cueto, again. Batters are hitting .176 with a .509 OPS against it.

29. Toughest changeup: In 178 plate appearances ending with a changeup, opponents are hitting .110/.136/.151 against Felix Hernandez.

30. I’m not counting the Rays out just yet.

31. Cool All-Star factoid: For the first time in American League history, the eight starting position players will come from eight different teams. Of course, Nelson Cruz is starting at DH, so there will be two Orioles in the starting nine.

32. For all the David Price to the Cardinals rumors, they need to start scoring runs and that’s going to have to happen from within as there just aren’t big impact bats out there (Marlon Byrd?). The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in runs and last in home runs. Trouble is, where’s the power going to come from? Matt Holliday has only five home runs, so he’s the logical answer, but there’s no reason to expect Matt Adams (nine) or Allen Craig (seven) to suddenly start blasting more home runs.

33. I like what I’ve seen from this Eugenio Suarez kid at shortstop for the Tigers. Not sure about his defensive chops yet but he’s been a positive at the plate.

34. The Blue Jays just got their butts kicked in Oakland and you have to wonder if this team already peaked. They were six games up on June 6 and now trail the Orioles by two games, having gone 9-19 in 28 games since that high-water mark. And don’t blame the pitching: The offense, which scored four runs in the four-game sweep to the A’s, has hit .235/.302/.366 since June 6.

35. Better than I thought he'd be: Dallas Keuchel.

36. Fun to watch: The Mariners bullpen has been lights out for two months. It has the best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 2.02 ERA since May 1 and 1.52 since June 1. Brandon Maurer, the failed starter, is the latest weapon down there, throwing smoke 97-mph smoke since he's been moved to relief.

37. Fun to listen to: My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft on the Fantasy Focus podcast. Here's today’s show, including ramifications of the Samardzija trade, the Votto and Encarnacion injuries and the Brandon McCarthy trade to the Yankees.

38. Hard to say if Tim Lincecum has improved or just benefited from facing some weak lineups of late. He does have a 1.75 ERA over his past five starts but two of those starts came against the Padres and one against the Cardinals. He has 25 strikeouts in 35 innings, so he hasn’t ramped up the K rate or anything. I’m not convinced he’s turned the corner just yet.

39. Not getting any recognition for a solid season: Justin Upton.

40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

41. Pat Neshek is a great story, a minor league invite to spring training for the Cardinals and now an All-Star. I got into a debate on Twitter last night about All-Star relievers -- people were asking why guys like Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara and others didn't make it despite great numbers. I pointed out that lots of relievers are having great seasons. It's just not that special to have 35 great innings out of the bullpen. As a point of reference, just look at some of last year's All-Star relievers: Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Edward Mujica, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain. That said, if you're going to pick relievers, Neshek has been as good as any in the game so far.

42. Unique: Henderson Alvarez. He doesn't rack up strikeouts (70 in 115 innings) but that hard sinking fastball is hard to get into the air (five home runs allowed) and he's walked just 22 batters. I believe he's the real deal, which only reinforces the huge blow to the Marlins when Jose Fernandez went down.

43. Bryce Harper is 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts and two walks since coming off the DL. One Nationals fan tweeted me that he doesn't look completely healthy and has had some awkward swings. I don't the think the Nationals would have activated him if he wasn't healthy, but there's no doubt that Harper put added pressure on himself with his comments about how the Nationals' lineup should look. It's OK to say that if you're producing but not if you're striking out twice a game.

44. Remember that season of parity we were having? Things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. In fact, we suddenly have a fair share of bad teams instead of mediocre teams -- Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Twins, maybe even the Red Sox. The Cubs will probably fade even more after Samardzija-Hammel trade. The Mets may or may not be bad instead of mediocre.

45. Which leads to: Tanking! That should be fun in the second half. Remember, it pays to finish with one of the worst 10 records.

46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

47. Loving Gregory Polanco. I was admittedly a little skeptical, in part because I didn't want to fall prey to prospect hype. I've been most impressed with his approach at the plate -- 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 25 games, nice to see after walking just 25 times in 62 games in Triple-A. If that kind of discipline continues, I like his ability to hit for a decent average and get on base. Then maybe next year comes the power.

48. Things I didn’t see coming: Jeff Locke. Now 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and he’s pitched seven-plus innings in five of those games.

49. Must-see TV on Friday: Jeff Samardzija versus Felix Hernandez.

50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.

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