SweetSpot: Offseason report cards

In my previous post, I ran down the American League poll results from the offseason report cards. Here are the National League results.

As in the AL, fans are optimistic cross the board. For those who argue baseball lacks parity, tell that to baseball fans. According to our poll results, 22 of 30 teams are expected to finish over .500 by the majority of fans. (The exceptions being the Indians, Twins, Astros, Marlins, Mets, Cubs, Rockies and Padres.)

The most optimistic fans among NL teams: Diamondbacks and Nationals fans both polled at 18 percent higher than the national average for the highest win category. (I used Virginia for Nationals fans.) Least optimistic: Cubs fans, as Illinois polled just 1 percent higher than the national average in the highest win category.

Atlanta Braves
95+: 61%
90-94: 35%
85-89: 4%
Fewer than 85: 1%

In Georgia: 72, 26, 3, 0

Miami Marlins
75+: 5%
70-74: 11%
65-69: 30%
Fewer than 65: 53%

In Florida: 15, 14, 27, 44

New York Mets
85+: 10%
80-84: 29%
75-79: 41%
Fewer than 75: 20%

In New York: 12, 33, 38, 18

Philadelphia Phillies
90+: 37%
85-89: 37%
80-84: 20%
Fewer than 80: 6%

In Pennsylvania: 49, 38, 11, 3

Washington Nationals
100+: 46%
95-99: 39%
90-94: 11%
85-89: 5%

In Virginia: 64, 27, 7, 2

Chicago Cubs
80+: 16%
75-79: 32%
70-74: 39%
Fewer than 70: 14%

In Illinois: 17, 32, 37, 14

Cincinnati Reds
95+: 53%
90-94: 38%
85-89: 7%
Fewer than 85: 2&

In Ohio: 66, 30, 3, 0

Milwaukee Brewers
90+: 18%
85-89: 43%
80-84: 29%
Fewer than 80: 10%

In Wisconsin: 25, 51, 19, 4

Pittsburgh Pirates
85+: 20%
80-84: 45%
75-79: 24%
Fewer than 75: 12%

In Pennsylvania: 23, 46, 19, 12

St. Louis Cardinals
95+: 17%
90-94: 54%
85-89: 23%
Fewer than 85: 5%

In Missouri: 24, 60, 15, 1

Arizona Diamondbacks
90+: 22%
85-89: 40%
80-84 29%
Fewer than 80: 9%

In Arizona: 40, 42, 11, 7

Colorado Rockies
80+: 12%
75-79: 12%
70-74: 36%
Fewer than 70: 40%

In Colorado: 25, 15, 30, 29

Los Angeles Dodgers
95+: 36%
90-94: 42%
85-89: 17%
Fewer than 85: 5%

In California: 41, 40, 14, 5

San Diego Padres
85+: 11%
80-84: 22%
75-79: 38%
Fewer than 75: 29%

In California: 15, 28, 35, 22

San Francisco Giants
95+: 20%
90-94: 52%
85-89: 24%
Fewer than 85: 4%

In California: 26, 58, 13, 3
I've been meaning to run the final poll results from all the offseason report cards we published before and early in spring training. Here are the American League tallies. Keep in mind that the polls were conducted before some recent developments took place -- in the case of the Yankees, for example, before Mark Teixeira's injury or before we knew Derek Jeter will likely be unavailable on Opening Day.

It's probably not too surprising that in all cases except one, voters from the team's home state were more optimistic than the national average on the team's high win total. That team: The Red Sox; 20 percent nationally picked the Red Sox to 90+ games, but just 16 percent of the voters in Massachusetts predicted so.

Most optimistic: Royals fans; 29 percent nationally picked the Royals to win 85+, but 45 percent of voters from Missouri did so.

Baltimore Orioles
90+: 21%
85-89: 38%
80-84: 29%
Fewer than 80: 12%

In Maryland: 37, 38, 20, 6

Boston Red Sox
90+: 20%
85-89: 40%
80-84: 31%
Fewer than 80: 10%

In Massaschusetts: 16, 52, 27, 6

New York Yankees
95+: 14%
90-94: 41%
85-89: 32%
80-84: 13%

In New York: 17, 52, 24, 7

Tampa Bay Rays
95+: 19%
90-94: 54%
85-89: 24%
Fewer than 85: 3%

In Florida: 33, 54, 12, 1

Toronto Blue Jays
95+: 33%
90-94: 49%
85-89: 15%
Fewer than 85: 3%

International: 40, 49, 9, 2

Chicago White Sox
90+: 15%
85-89: 35%
80-84: 35%
Fewer than 80: 16%

In Illinois: 23, 42, 25, 10

Cleveland Indians
80+: 44%
75-79: 29%
70-74: 21%
Fewer than 70: 6%

In Ohio: 59, 24, 13, 4

Detroit Tigers
95+: 40%
90-94: 51%
85-89: 8%
Fewer than 85: 2%

In Michigan: 47, 50, 3, 0

Kansas City Royals
85+: 29%
80-84: 40%
75-79: 23%
Fewer than 75: 7%

In Missouri: 45, 43, 10, 3

Minnesota Twins
80+: 12%
75-79: 13%
70-74: 33%
Fewer than 70: 42%

In Minnesota: 16, 15, 31, 38

Houston Astros
70+: 7%
60-69: 17%
53-59: 36%
Fewer than 53: 41%

In Texas: 13, 26, 32, 29

Los Angeles Angels
95+: 38%
90-94: 45%
85-89: 13%
Fewer than 85: 3%

In California: 47, 43, 8, 2

Oakland A's
95+: 21%
90-94: 46%
85-89: 26%
Fewer than 85: 7%

In California: 27, 51, 19, 4

Seattle Mariners
85+: 29%
80-84: 45%
75-79: 20%
Fewer than 75: 6%

In Washington: 36, 49, 12, 3

Texas Rangers
95+: 9%
90-94: 47%
85-89: 39%
Fewer than 84: 6%

In Texas: 17, 54, 25, 0
OK, now that I've finished all 30 offseason report cards, we can essentially use my final grades to give us Power Rankings (you can get all the report cards at the bottom of this page).


Which team that received an A- or better is overrated?


Discuss (Total votes: 10,072)

Washington Nationals: A
Atlanta Braves: A-
Cincinnati Reds: A-
Detroit Tigers: A-
Oakland A's: A-
St. Louis Cardinals: A-
Tampa Bay Rays: A-
Toronto Blue Jays: A-

Arizona Diamondbacks: B+
Los Angeles Angels: B+
Los Angeles Dodgers: B+
New York Yankees: B+
San Francisco Giants: B+
Texas Rangers: B+
Boston Red Sox: B
Philadelphia Phillies: B
Baltimore Orioles: B-
Milwaukee Brewers: B-
Seattle Mariners: B-


Which team that received less than a B+ is underrated?


Discuss (Total votes: 7,838)

Chicago White Sox: C+
Kansas City Royals: C+
New York Mets: C+
Chicago Cubs: C
Cleveland Indians: C
Pittsburgh Pirates: C
San Diego Padres: C

Colorado Rockies: D+
Miami Marlins: D+
Minnesota Twins: D
Houston Astros: F

I wrote the Indians' report before they signed Michael Bourn, so you can probably increase their grade to a C+.

No big surprises here, although after eyeballing it I think I'm maybe half-grade too high on the Cardinals and half-grade too low on the Brewers. (As a I wrote yesterday, I think Milwaukee's rotation is better than people think.)

One thing is clear, however: Baseball continues to have better parity than it did a decade ago, improvement brought on just not by revenue sharing and manipulating the free-agent rules (the small-market Indians beating out the big-market Mets for Bourn's services), but by smarter front offices as well. Check out the average win totals for the top 10 teams since the last expansion in 1998:

1998 95.6
1999 96.4
2000 92.1
2001 94.8
2002 97.6
2003 94.2
2004 95.1
2005 93.2
2006 92.0
2007 91.4
2008 92.6
2009 92.8
2010 92.5
2011 94.0
2012 93.7

Compare 2002 to 2012, with a spread of about four wins on average, we're talking about re-distributing 40 wins from the best teams to other teams. If 88 or 89 wins can get you into the playoffs -- like it did last year for the Tigers and Cardinals -- there is added incentive to turn your 75-win club into an 80- or 85-win club and hope you catch a few breaks and sneak in. That's what we saw the Royals do this offseason; on paper, maybe they're a .500 club, but with a little luck (God knows they're due) maybe they're a playoff team.

Offseason report card: Rangers

February, 20, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 93-69 (91-71 Pythagorean)
808 runs scored (1st in AL)
707 runs allowed (9th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Lost free agents Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Mike Adams, Scott Feldman, Ryan Dempster, Roy Oswalt and Koji Uehara. Signed free agents A.J. Pierzynski, Lance Berkman and Joakim Soria. Traded Michael Young to the Phillies for Josh Lindblom and Lisalverto Bonilla. Signed Matt Harrison to a five-year, $55 million extension.

Of course, it's the two moves -- or one move -- the Rangers failed to make that defined their offseason: the failure to sign Zack Greinke, combined with the seemingly half-hearted attempt to bring back Hamilton.

This is what happens when you build a good team: It starts getting expensive. When the Rangers reached the World Series in 2010, their payroll was about $65 million. Last year, it had climbed to about $120 million; this year, it should be around that figure again, maybe a million or two higher. There was certainly room to go higher -- for the right guy. Instead, the Rangers had to go to backup plans: Berkman, coming off a season in which he played just 32 games, and Soria, the former Kansas City closer coming back from Tommy John surgery.

Berkman is an interesting gamble in that the Rangers need him to assume a prominent role in the lineup. Two years ago, he finished seventh in the NL MVP voting for St. Louis, hitting .301/.412/.547, although that was his best OPS since 2008.

In the end, though, the Rangers didn't get the pitcher they wanted, they lost a 43-homer guy, they lost a productive player in Napoli, and they lost depth on their pitching staff.

Position Players

Fun fact No. 1: Tampa Bay and Seattle scored more runs on the road than Texas.

Fun fact No. 2: In his two seasons with the Rangers, Adrian Beltre has hit 43 home runs at home, 25 on the road.

Fun fact No. 3: For all the talk about playing rookie Jurickson Profar at second base and moving Ian Kinsler to first, Mitch Moreland had a higher wOBA than Kinsler in 2012.

Fun fact No. 4: Maybe there's a reason Nelson Cruz's name was in the Biogenesis case. His OPS has gone from .950 to .821 to .779. On the bright side, he did play 159 games last year after missing 38 and 54 the previous two seasons, respectively.

Fun fact No. 5: Pierzysnki hit a career-high 27 home runs for the White Sox, after hitting just 17 the previous two seasons combined.

OK, what do we have here? A team with terrific infield defense in Elvis Andrus, Kinsler and Beltre, plus the center field platoon of Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin. But it's also a lineup relying on aging hitters pegged for the middle of the order: Berkman (37), Cruz (32), Beltre (34) and Pierzynski (36). On the other hand, the team has purged itself of Young, who was awful in 2012 in eating up 651 plate appearances, and youngsters Profar and Mike Olt are ready to step in when and if needed.

I think the lineup is overrated, as it benefits from playing at hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark. The Rangers will miss Hamilton's presence and production, I don't know what to expect from Berkman and Pierzynski, and Beltre and David Murphy might regress some from 2012. I'm giving this group a B-plus, in part because of the defense, but that could be a half-grade too high.

Pitching Staff

Just like the lineup is maybe a bit overrated, I think the Rangers' pitching staffs have been underrated during their three-year playoff run. Yu Darvish and Harrison are an excellent 1-2, and I expect Darvish to be even better in his second year in the States. Alexi Ogando returns to the rotation, where he went 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA in 2011. There are some concerns that year was a BABIP-driven fluke (.267 BABIP) and his ERA was 4.48 in the second half, but remember that was his first season starting. I think he'll be fine.

The key to the rotation in my mind is Derek Holland. His dominant run in the second half of 2011 and a couple of strong playoff starts led to high expectations last year, but he went 12-7 with a 4.67 ERA. His biggest problem was the long ball: 32 home runs allowed in 27 starts. Thirty of those came against right-handed batters, so he needs to improve the consistency of his curve or changeup to go with his fastball/slider combo.

The fifth spot is wide open between Martin Perez (whom some still believe in), Justin Grimm and Robbie Ross, although the team hopes Colby Lewis can return sometime after the All-Star break after Tommy John surgery.

The bullpen loses its top two setup guys in Ogando and Adams, and Soria isn't expected to be ready until May. If Soria isn't the same guy he was with the Royals, there could be some issues here behind closer Joe Nathan unless one of the one guys such as Tanner Scheppers, Wilmer Font or Michael Kirkman steps up. As with Lewis, the Rangers also hope former closer Neftali Feliz returns in July or August from his Tommy John surgery.

Heat Map to Watch
At times, Darvish was spectacular; at times, he was frustrating when he nibbled and failed to command his fastball. But there was no doubt his stuff met expectations, as he fanned 221 batters in 191.1 innings and opponents hit just .220 off him. His big wipeout pitch was his slider: Opponents hit .148 off it and fanned 71 times in 157 plate appearances.

DarvishESPN Stats & InformationYu Darvish went 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA in his first season in the U.S.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Rangers win?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,224)

Two years ago, the Rangers outscored their opponents by 178 runs; last year, it was down to 101. Now, maybe that run differential increases slightly thanks to 19 games against the Astros, but I'm having trouble figuring out how the Rangers will be better than last year.

Their strength is a lack of weaknesses, and I'd be projecting fewer wins if not for the Astros joining the division. The Rangers also have flexibility to make some in-season moves thanks to the depth of their farm system, and Profar and Olt provide injury insurance at multiple positions. As much as Rangers fans soured on Hamilton by the end of last season, this was still a guy who hit 43 home runs, slugged .577 and drove in 130 runs. I think they're a 90-win club, but that might be good enough for only third in the AL West.

Offseason report card: Rockies

February, 19, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 68-94 (69-93 Pythagorean)
758 runs scored (3rd in NL)
890 runs allowed (16th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Acquired Wilton Lopez from Astros for Alex White and Alex Gillingham. Acquired Ryan Wheeler from Diamondbacks for Matt Reynolds. Re-signed free agent Jeff Francis. Lost free agent Jason Giambi. Accepted Jim Tracy's "resignation." Hired Walt Weiss as manager.

Here's the problem with the Rockies: What, exactly, is the plan here? Where do they perceive themselves in the cycle of competitiveness? A year ago, they signed Michael Cuddyer and Ramon Hernandez, traded for Marco Scutaro and Jeremy Guthrie, gave Todd Helton a two-year extension and brought in Jamie Moyer.

Certainly, they perceived themselves as contenders, although signing a bunch of mostly mediocre old guys to a team that had lost 89 games shockingly didn't work. This year, the front office decided to do nothing, so they'll go with the young guys -- although they're still stuck with some of the old guys and doing silly things like signing Francis and giving away a good arm in Alex White for a relief pitcher. It's no surprise this franchise is a complete mess right now, considering they essentially have two general managers. Longtime GM Dan O'Dowd oversees the minor leagues and player development and Bill Geivett reports to O'Dowd but oversees the daily operations of the major league club.

To make matters worse, a franchise that has long looked to acquire guys with "character" and "integrity" saw longtime star Helton recently arrested for a DUI.

I'm not giving this an "F," if only because they at least hired a new manager.

Position Players

For the years, the Rockies have complained that playing at altitude makes it difficult to build a pitching staff. The Rockies have become so obsessive about it that when things turned sour last year, they tried the radical approach of a four-man rotation, but limiting pitch counts to 75 pitches.

"Number one, I don't want to make us appear that we are making excuses," O'Dowd told the Denver Post. "Number 2, I don't want to make it sound like an insurmountable problem. I don't want to convey a sense of hopelessness. That's not how I feel."

Well, of course it's not insurmountable. The Rockies reached the World Series in 2007 and made the playoffs again in 2009. But for all the worrying about building pitching staffs, I wonder if building an offense is just as problematic. Playing at Coors Field makes it difficult to properly evaluate your hitters. After all, the Rockies were third in the NL in runs scored last year, so they must have a decent offense, right? But they were tied for last in runs scored on the road. Is Carlos Gonzalez (.303/.371/.510) a star or a product of Coors? (He hit .368 at home but .234 on the road.) The Rockies actually have historically played better at home (indeed, last year they won six more games at home than on the road), so the problems aren't so much winning at Coors Field, but transitioning back to sea level, which ultimately might be an impossible problem to solve.

Anyway, as for the offense, instead of focusing on runs, batting average and home runs, let's look at the two things less affected by altitude: walk and strikeout rates. The Rockies were last in the NL in walk percentage and 12th in strikeout percentage. So even though the Rockies led the NL in batting average, I don't believe this is a good offense. Obviously, keeping Troy Tulowitzki healthy will add several wins to the ledger. Dexter Fowler had his best year at the plate and Gonzalez can certainly mash at home, but it's still a free-swinging club with defensive issues at third base (Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco combined for minus-31 Defensive Runs Saved), right field (Michael Cuddyer), catcher (from what I can gather, Wilin Rosario had the most passed balls by a catcher who didn't have to catch a knuckleballer since Benito Santiago in 1987) and maybe left field (Gonzalez won a Gold Glove but his defensive metrics were poor).

Pitching Staff

Again, how to factor in Coors Field? Here's a fun fact for you: The Giants had a 4.29 road ERA in 2012, the Rockies 4.41.

Now, I'm not saying Colorado's staff was nearly as good as San Francisco's (and the Rockies' road ERA still ranked just 12th in the NL), but it again proves the difficulty of evaluation. Maybe Drew Pomeranz is as good as Madison Bumgarner. Maybe Jhoulys Chacin, back healthy again, can get back to his 2010-2011 level, when he had a 3.48 ERA. Maybe Christian Friedrich won't get spooked by Coors and turn into a good major league starter.

There are a lot of ifs there, and it's hard to give a staff a good grade when the top returning guy is Francis and his 113 innings. The bullpen has three pretty good weapons in Rafael Betancourt, underrated Matt Belisle and hard-throwing lefty Rex Brothers, so the Rockies should be strong at the end of games.

I'm giving the staff a low grade, with the caveat that there is some upside here IF the young guys can stay healthy AND not let Coors destroy their confidence.

Heat Map to Watch
Gonzalez can hit at home. He's struggled on the road. Last year, he really struggled on the road against left-handers, hitting just .159/.202/.284. Over the past three years, he's hit .229/.271/.378 against left-handers on the road in 280 PAs. Maybe the Rockies need to be more creative with their batting lineups instead of their pitching rotation.

GonzalezESPN Stats & InformationCarlos Gonzalez struggled against left-handers in 2012, especially on the road.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Rockies win?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,102)

I'm not a big fan of where the Rockies are right now. Tulowitzki is an MVP-caliber player if he can stay healthy, but he's missed 40, 19 and 115 games the past three seasons. Gonzalez has missed 35 and 27 the past two seasons. The Rockies are still counting on Helton, but after hitting .238 last year and playing just 69 games, the finish line may finally be here for him.

The rotation needs to sort itself out, three-quarters of the infield is unsettled and they don't draw walks. At least Jim Tracy is no longer here.

I see a last-place club. Thoughts?

Offseason report card: Braves

February, 18, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 94-68 (92-70 Pythagorean)
700 runs scored (7th in NL)
600 runs allowed (4th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Acquired Justin Upton and Chris Johnson from Arizona for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and three minor leaguers. Signed free agents B.J. Upton and Gerald Laird. Traded Tommy Hanson to the Angels for Jordan Walden. Re-signed Reed Johnson. Lost Michael Bourn, David Ross and Jair Jurrjens. Chipper Jones retired. Introduced a potentially racist spring training cap and then scrapped it.

The brothers Upton are in tow, giving the Braves a dynamic outfield trio of Upton, Upton and Jason Heyward. But the big question: Will Justin and B.J. be any better than what the Braves got from Prado and Bourn?

There are two ways to evaluate those moves. Long term, the Braves got younger and added much more power. But what about in the short term? Based off 2012 WAR, the Braves may not have improved much, especially given the superb defensive ratings attributed to Prado and Bourn:

Bourn: 6.0
Prado: 5.4
B.J. Upton: 2.6
Justin Upton: 2.1

However, if we look back to 2011, we get a different story:

Bourn: 3.0
Prado: 1.8
B.J Upton: 2.8
Justin Upton: 5.7

And moving forward, Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections for 2013:

Bourn: 4.0
Prado: 3.3
B.J. Upton: 3.0
Justin Upton: 3.5

Anyway, that's a long way of saying I like the trades but I don't think they transform a 94-win club into anything better than a 94-win club. But maintaining excellence can be just as difficult as building it. Acquiring B.J. Upton is certainly better than losing Bourn and not replacing him, and trading Hanson freed up some payroll to go after Justin Upton. The Braves got younger, more exciting, added power and didn't spike their payroll. Works for me.

Position Players

The Braves were seventh in the NL in runs -- 76 runs behind league-leading Milwaukee but only 31 runs behind NL East rival Washington. The Braves led the league in walks but they weren't strong in any other category: home runs (ninth), batting average (11th), isolated power (ninth) and so on. They were seventh in OBP but are losing Chipper Jones (first on the team in OBP), Prado (second) and Bourn (tied with Dan Uggla for third at .348).

B.J. Upton may not help here, coming off a .298 OBP with Tampa Bay, although he averaged .322 over the previous three seasons. Justin Upton was at .355 last year and .369 in his 2011. The big issue isn't so much the change in the outfield but the loss of Chipper, the guy who always worked the count and gave quality at-bats. Chris Johnson had 132 K's and just 31 walks last season; Juan Francisco was just as bad at 70/11.

In fact, Braves fans have raised questions about the potential strikeout concerns in the lineup. Yes, between Johnson/Francisco, Uggla (168 K's), B.J. Upton (169 K's) and Heyward (152 K's), that's a lot of strikeouts. But everyone strikes out a lot these days. The A's set the all-time record last year and made the playoffs. It is something to watch since things can snowball if all the strikeout guys are slumping at the same time, but overall it's not a big concern if the Braves are drawing their walks and hitting home runs.

Defensively, the Braves should still be very good, even without Bourn running down everything in center. Andrelton Simmons may already be the best defensive shortstop in the majors and Heyward was a deserving Gold Glove winner in right. The interesting guy is B.J. Upton; scouts have always liked his D but he has never rated that well in defensive runs saved, averaging minus-10 runs over the past three seasons.

To wrap, this could be an A lineup if (A) Heyward has the monster breakout season; (B) Justin Upton hits like he did in 2011 and B.J. Upton adds some OBP; (C) Freddie Freeman -- like Heyward, just 23 -- improves over his first two seasons (OPS marks of .795 and .796) and Simmons proves his rookie batting line wasn't a fluke (.289/.335/.416); (D) Brian McCann, who will probably miss the first couple weeks of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery, bounces back after a bad 2012.

OK, I think enough of those things do happen (how about Heyward as a sleeper MVP choice?) that I give this group a B+ rating. And that may be conservative.

Pitching Staff

Five thoughts:

1. Kris Medlen is for real. Not crazy, best-pitcher-on-the-planet real like he was the final two months, but I agree with the projections that see his ERA around the 2.80-3.00 range.

2. Respect Tim Hudson. I know he'll lose it one of these years and his strikeout percentage dipped a bit last year, but he still gets ground balls, chews up innings and does the job.

3. Mike Minor had a big second half. I wrote last September how his changeup location had improved. I believe he's a solid No. 3 moving forward.

4. Brandon Beachy was leading the NL in ERA when he went down with Tommy John. If he returns in the second half, he could provide a huge lift.

5. Craig Kimbrel & Co. The Braves had a 2.76 bullpen ERA last year, second in the NL to the Reds' 2.76 (and a half-run better than the No. 3 team). Good luck rallying in the ninth.

I'm downgrading because of concerns about depth. Remember, the Braves had depth heading into last year and had to resort to pulling Ben Sheets out of retirement and trading for Paul Maholm.

Heat Map to Watch
Pitchers dream of perfecting a pitch like Medlen did a year ago with his changeup. Just look at the location against left-handed batters and you can see why they hit .091 in 82 plate appearances ending in a changeup.

Kris Medlen heat mapESPN Stats & Information After moving into the rotation, Kris Medlen went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Braves win?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,244)

I think the Nationals and Braves are the two best teams in the NL. The Nationals are more of a sure thing in my book, but the thing to love about the Braves is their youth: Heyward, Freeman, Simmons and both Uptons are all in their primes or still improving. They have the best closer in the game, a deep bullpen and a good rotation with a potential ace in Medlen.

Look, there are potential flaws here: The strikeouts could cascade and lead to OBP issues; maybe Medlen isn't an ace or can't pitch 200-plus innings; maybe Julio Teheran is terrible and Beachy doesn't return at midseason and the back of the rotation is a problem. If you believe in leadership, maybe the Braves will miss Chipper in the clubhouse.

But I clearly like this team. I think the Braves win 90-plus games ... although that will be only good enough for the wild card.

Offseason report card: Red Sox

February, 18, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 69-93 (74-88 Pythagorean)
734 runs scored (5th in AL)
806 runs allowed (12th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agents Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Koji Uehara and David Ross. Re-signed free agent David Ortiz. Acquired Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt from Pirates for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus and Stolmy Pimentel. Lost Cody Ross, Daisuke Matsuzaka and James Loney.

After suffering their first losing season since 1997 and their worst record since losing 100 games in 1965, the Red Sox rebuilt the old-fashioned way: They spent money. Oh, they didn't hand out $100 million contracts like they did two years ago to Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, but they did commit $126.5 million to sign eight free agents, including $26 million for two years to bring back Ortiz. (Napoli can earn an additional $8 million if he stays healthy.)

According to Baseball-Reference, Boston's estimated payroll for 2013 comes at just over $151 million, which ranks fourth behind the Dodgers, Yankees and Phillies. Still, that's less than last year's $175 Opening Day payroll and less than 2010 and 2011. The Red Sox hope that spending money across the 25-man roster will give them the depth needed to get back into the playoff race.

As for the moves, I like most of them. They acquired Hanrahan without giving up much in value, and while he's a bit risky after having some control issues with Pittsburgh last year, he has saved 76 games in 84 chances the past two years. Uehara is a good risk at $4.5 million; over the past three seasons he has 183 strikeouts and just 17 walks. He does give up a few home runs and pitched just 36 innings last year, but he gives depth to the bullpen.

The Dempster signing came with mixed reviews. He's been a solid innings-eater for the Cubs in recent years, although he posted a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts with the Rangers after a late-season trade. Projection systems have his ERA around 4.00, which would be a huge improvement over, well, everybody from last year's rotation.

The only questionable move was giving $39 million to Victorino over three years (the only one of the free agents signed for more than two years). Considering Cleveland ended up signing Nick Swisher at $14 million per season, giving Victorino $13 million per after coming off a mediocre .255/.321/.383 year seems an overpay, although he does provide center-field insurance in case Jacoby Ellsbury is injured again.

Position Players

I wouldn't be surprised to see the Red Sox lead the league in runs scored. They finished fifth a year ago and did that even though they played mostly a Triple-A lineup the final two months. It's possible they'll have league-average or better performance at every position ... assuming everyone stays healthy. Ortiz, Ellsbury, Drew and Will Middlebrooks all missed significant time last year, and Napoli's contract had to be restructured because of potential issues with his hip.

This lineup will destroy left-handed pitching, however, with Pedroia, Napoli, Gomes, Victorino (much better from the right side) and Middlebrooks. Against right-handers, that puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Ellsbury to hit somewhere closer to the .321/.376/.552 line of his MVP runner-up season of 2011 as opposed to the .271/.313/.370 line of 2012, as well as the 37-year-old Ortiz to hit like he did last year before he went down with an Achilles injury. He has said he's not 100 percent yet but expects to be by Opening Day.

Surprisingly, the Red Sox ranked fourth in the majors in 2012 with 43 Defensive Runs Saved. But they've lost the two players who rated highest -- shortstop Mike Aviles (plus-14) and Gonzalez (plus-13). Drew has been about an average defender at shortstop over his career, although rated minus-7 runs last year as he returned from a broken ankle. While the only liabilities would be Gomes in left field and Napoli at first, I don't see the Red Sox repeating that plus-43 DRS.

Overall, it's a group that should produce offense. I'm downgrading just a bit because of injury history and concerns about how they'll hit right-handed pitching.

Pitching Staff

Believe it or not, the Red Sox didn't finish with the worst rotation ERA in the AL -- Cleveland and Minnesota were worse. But Red Sox starters went 48-72 with a 5.19 ERA and the lowest ERA of anyone who started a game was Franklin Morales, who had a 4.14 mark in nine starts.

To have any hope at the postseason, the Red Sox will need a bounce-back campaign from Jon Lester. On Sept. 6, 2011, his record was 15-6 with a 2.93 ERA. But in 37 starts since he's gone 9-18 with a 5.12 ERA. There was nothing wrong with his fastball velocity last year (92.6 mph, down from 92.8 in 2011), so all signs are that he's healthy and just had a bad season.

There's also reason to be optimistic about Clay Buchholz. Through nine starts a season ago his ERA was 7.84, a stretch that included a five-homer meltdown against the Yankees. But over his final 20 starts, he went 7-6 with a 3.41 ERA and 102-37 strikeout-walk ratio. Don't expect him to have a 2.33 ERA again like he did in 2010, when he was extremely hit lucky, but he's a good bet to improve on his overall 2012 numbers.

Felix Doubront impressed at times last year in his first season in the rotation, striking out 167 in 161 innings. He has the stuff to win at the major league level, but walks and home runs were a big problem last year. And then there's John Lackey, coming back from Tommy John surgery. He's lost a lot of weight, but his last good season was 2009 (before he came to Boston), so I'm not expecting a big comeback here.

The Red Sox bullpen tied with the Angels for the most blown saves at 22 and Boston lost eight games when leading after eight innings. On paper, the 'pen could be dynamite. The Red Sox have a new closer and maybe they'll get a full year out of Andrew Bailey. But it's the depth that should make this one of the best 'pens in the league. I mentioned Uehara, but another sleeper is Junichi Tazawa, who had a 1.43 ERA in 44 innings, striking out 45, walking just five and allowing only one home run. If his splitter is as vicious as it was last year -- and reports from spring training are already saying it is -- he could assume an even more prominent role.

Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller provide quality left-handed help -- Breslow has a 3.20 ERA over the past four seasons and is more than just a LOOGY -- and Daniel Bard will head back to the bullpen and attempt to rediscover the fastball/slider combo that made him one of the game's top power relievers before his career went off the rails last year when he attempted to convert to the rotation. The bullpen depth is good enough that John Farrell doesn't need a lot of innings from his rotation. If he can successfully manipulate the 'pen and get a bounce-back year from Lester, the staff should be much improved.

Heat Map to Watch
Lester's fastball velocity was OK, but the results weren't. Right-handers hit .313/.388/.539 off his fastball in 2012, with 34 walks and 27 strikeouts in 298 PAs ending with a fastball. Compare that to 2010, when he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting: Righties hit .285/.390/.445, but Lester also had 60 punchouts in 325 PAs. His swing-and-miss percentage against all batters on his fastball has dropped from 18 percent to 14 percent in two years. He used to throw the pitch more often up in the zone, whereas the heat map shows he tried to focus on that outside corner in 2012. Maybe he needs to go back to more variance of location on the pitch.

LesterESPN Stats & InformationJon Lester went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 2012.
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If everything clicks, I can easily see the Red Sox winning 90-plus games and bouncing back from 69 wins to a division title.

Of course, everything rarely clicks, so you have to weigh the potential downside here. With Boston, I expect the offense to be productive and the bullpen to be terrific, so it's all about the starting pitching. While I like Lester's potential to have a better year, it's no guarantee. Same thing with Buchholz and Doubront. Still, I'm pretty sure the rotation won't have an ERA of over 5.00 again.

I would predict maybe 85-87 wins. I think I like the Red Sox better than most, as I'm chalking up 2012 to the Valentine's Day Massacre and expect the Red Sox to once again be in the thick of things.

Offseason report card: Mariners

February, 17, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 75-87 (77-85 Pythagorean)
619 runs scored (14th in AL)
651 runs allowed (3rd in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed Felix Hernandez to seven-year, $175 million contract. In three-way trade, acquired Mike Morse from Nationals and sent John Jaso to the A's. Traded Jason Vargas to the Angels for Kendrys Morales. Signed free agents Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay. Re-signed Oliver Perez. Released Chone Figgins.

The Mariners' offseason was panned for acquiring a group of players -- Morse, Morales, Ibanez and Bay -- most suited to DH duties, made all the more curious since that appears to be Jesus Montero's eventual destination once 2012 No. 1 pick Mike Zunino arrives to take over the catching duties.

To be fair to GM Jack Zduriencik, his top priorities at the onset of the offseason probably weren't bringing back Ibanez and Morse to Seattle. He pursued Josh Hamilton. He made a deal with Arizona to acquire Justin Upton, only to have Upton veto the trade. He had to go to Plan B. You can argue whether the backup plan was a good idea, but consider how bad Seattle's production from first base, left field and DH were a year ago:

1B: .228/.300/.369, lowest OPS in AL
LF: .207/.277/.377, second-lowest OPS in AL
DH: .214/.287/.310, lowest OPS in AL

So, yes, maybe Morse's .303, 31-homer 2011 season was a fluke and maybe Morales doesn't inspire fear with his good-not-great line of .273/.320/.467 and maybe Ibanez is washed up. But there Mariners should get a lot more production at 1B/LF/DH this year.

Oh ... yeah. King Felix will be around for seven more seasons.

Position Players

How bad has Seattle's offense been in recent seasons? The Mariners scored 106 more runs in 2012 than they did in 2010 ... and still finished last in the AL in runs scored.

After finishing last in the AL in scoring the past four seasons -- remarkably posting a team on-base percentage under .300 each of the past three seasons -- the Mariners decided the best way to "fix" their offense was to move in the fences at Safeco Field. We'll see what kind of impact that has, but there's no doubt Safeco had turned into a cold, damp dungeon the past few years. The Mariners actually finished fifth in the AL in runs scored on the road in 2012 -- outscoring Texas, Detroit and Baltimore, among others. But while they hit 93 homers on the road, they hit just 56 at home. A .221 batting average at Safeco didn't help; in fact, while they outscored the Rangers on the road (by one run), the Rangers outscored the Mariners by 190 runs at home.

Anyway, for the Mariners' offense to succeed, they'll have to hit a lot of home runs, because they could have OBP problems. Manager Eric Wedge will also have to maximize some of his platoon opportunities. For example, Casper Wells should play against left-handed pitching, Morse can move back and forth between left field and first base, Morales should sit against lefties (with Kelly Shoppach catching and Montero DHing) and Michael Saunders playing some center field in place of Franklin Gutierrez.

Defensively, the Mariners are strong up the middle with Brendan Ryan and Dustin Ackley and Gutierrez, if he can stay healthy. And for all the moaning about bringing in four DH-types, the only defensive liabilities will be left field (Morse and Ibanez) and catcher (Montero). Overall, Seattle should once again be an above-average defensive team.

Pitching Staff

There's a reason the Mariners gave Hernandez that kind of money: He's worth it. Over the past four years, he's gone 59-40 with a 2.81 ERA, finishing second, first and fourth in the Cy Young voting. Some might point to a small decline in his velocity, but he actually posted career-best strikeout and walk rates in 2012. He remains one of the handful of best pitchers in the game.

After that, things get a little dicey in the rotation. After spending much of the first half in the bullpen, Hisashi Iwakuma had a 2.50 ERA after the All-Star break, second in the AL only to Cy Young winner David Price. The big concern is whether he can hold up for 30-plus starts and whether his 17 percent home run rate on fly balls -- fifth-worst in the majors -- is an issue that gets uglier with the closer fences.

Joe Saunders is sort of a replica of Jason Vargas, a soft-tossing fly ball left-hander who chews up 200 innings. Vargas had been effective at Safeco Field, but, again, with the fences moving in, we'll see how Saunders fares. Erasmo Ramirez is a young righty with a good sinker who looked impressive down the stretch. He had an excellent SO/BB ratio of 4-to-1. If you play fantasy, he's a great sleeper candidate for you.

The fifth spot is a battle between Blake Beavan (doesn't miss enough bats), Hector Noesi (2-12, 5.82 in 2012) and retread injury reclamation projects Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman. Waiting in the wings: Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker.

The bullpen has huge upside, with three guys at the back end throwing 95-plus in Tom Wilhelmsen, Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor. Charlie Furbush developed into one of the better lefty relievers last year (.147 against left-handed batters, .198 against right-handers) and Oliver Perez, Josh Kinney and Lucas Luetge provide depth.

Mariners pitchers have certainly been helped in recent years by Safeco Field, just as the hitters have been hurt. This year will be a good test to see just how much those pitchers have been helped.

Heat Map to Watch
Hernandez's average fastball velocity was over 95 mph his first three years but was down to 92.1 last year (and that was down from 93.3 in 2011). But he's a four-pitch pitcher who knows how to pitch. And his killer changeup has become one of the best weapons in the game. Batters hit just .189 off it with seven extra-base hits in 204 plate appearances. From the heat map, you can see why hitters don't do much damage against it.

Felix Hernandez HeatmapESPNLeft-handers hit .206 with a .479 OPS against Hernandez's changeup.
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My pal Eric Karabell believes the Mariners can be this year's surprise team, the A's or Orioles of 2013. As a Mariners fan, I hope he's right. Seattle fans didn't get the offseason they wanted -- no Upton, no Hamilton, not even Nick Swisher -- but at least they did add some bats and, on the bright side, they've kept those young arms.

Still, the key to their offense isn't so much Morales and Morse, but seeing big improvement from Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero and continued improvement from Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders. A deep bullpen should help reinforce a rotation with some question marks.

I don't know if Karabell is right, especially playing in a division with three other strong teams. But the Mariners do get those extra games against the Astros and, remember, they did win 75 games last year with some of the worst players in baseball getting significant playing time -- Figgins, Noesi and Miguel Olivo. I think they break .500.

Offseason report card: Mets

February, 16, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 74-88 (74-88 Pythagorean)
650 runs scored (12th in NL)
709 runs allowed (10th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed David Wright to eight-year, $138 million contract extension. Traded R.A. Dickey, Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas to Toronto for Travis d'Arnaud, John Buck, Noah Syndergaard and Wuilmer Becerra. Signed free agent Shaun Marcum. Acquired Collin Cowgill from Oakland. Released Jason Bay. Lost free agents Scott Hairston, Mike Pelfrey, Andres Torres and Chris Young. Did not sign Michael Bourn.

Aside from signing Wright, The Mets' offseason featured one big move -- trading away the NL Cy Young winner -- and one move not made, signing a center fielder to plug the big hole there.

In the Dickey trade, the Mets acquired d'Arnaud, No. 14 on Keith Law's top-100 prospects list, and Syndergaard, No. 97. D'Arnaud has been included in packages for Roy Halladay and Dickey, so expectations are that he'll grow into a power-hitting catcher with good defense. He hit .333/.380/.595 at Triple-A Las Vegas, a nice line, for sure, but remember that Vegas is a hitters' paradise. Current Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia posted similar numbers there, and he can't break a .300 OBP in the majors. D'Arnaud doesn't walk much and has had some injuries, so he could start the season in Triple-A to help refine his approach at the plate.

As for not signing Bourn, in the end, the Mets determined they didn't want to lose the 11th pick in the draft. You can debate the merits of that decision, but wouldn't Bourn and Nick Swisher look better in the Mets' outfield than Lucas Duda and Kirk Nieuwenhuis?

The Mets also didn't do much to bolster a bad bullpen, but throwing away money on veteran relievers is the last thing the small-market Mets should be doing.

Position Players

Five random thoughts on the Mets' offense:

1. The outfield might not be as horrible as everyone thinks. Mike Baxter doesn't have the power you want from a right fielder, but if he can post a .365 OBP, as he did last year (in part-time duty), he'll at least be useful. Considering his lack of range, Duda has to hit better than .239/.329/.389 to keep a starting job. I think he will. Nieuwenhuis is probably a fourth outfielder; he's not without some skills, but he has to cut down on his strikeouts (98 in 314 PAs). Plus ... not having Jason Bay soaking up 215 PAs with a .237 OBP is addition by subtraction.

2. Will we see first-half or second-half David Wright? He was .351/.441/.563 versus .258/.334/.416. The second half is cause for concern, if only because his strikeout/walk rate deteriorated from 47/50 to 65/31.

3. Ike Davis could have a big season. He quietly hit 32 home runs last year, but a .227 average held down his overall productivity. There was some bad luck here -- a .246 average on balls in play that was second-lowest among qualified regulars -- and he did hit .255/.346/.542 in the second half. Don't be surprised if his 2013 line resembles that 2012 second half.

4. The Mets draw walks. They were fifth in the NL in 2012 and first in 2011.

5. They'll get more from catcher. Mets catchers hit .218 with five home runs and an NL-worst .567 OPS. They created about 41 runs. This could easily be a 25-run upgrade with d'Arnaud.

So there you go. I can see the Mets scoring 50 more runs even with their bad outfield.

Pitching Staff

Quick, who has the better ERA over the past three seasons, $147 million man Zack Greinke or $4 million man Shaun Marcum?

Yep ... it's Marcum, with a 3.62 ERA compared with Greinke's 3.83 mark. OK, I'm not saying Marcum is the better pitcher. He's not as durable and is coming off a 124-inning season with the Brewers, but he could be a bargain at $4 million plus incentives.

Johan Santana is the No. 1 name on this staff, but Matt Harvey is the best pitcher. He exploded onto the scene in his 10 starts as a rookie, posting a 2.73 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings. He's the real deal. Behind him are underrated Jonathon Niese (155/49 SO/BB ratio), Dillon Gee (who was pitching well until sidelined by a blood clot) and then Zack Wheeler in the minors.

Marcum and Santana are obviously huge injury risks, but if the Mets can get 50 starts from them, if Gee is healthy and if Wheeler isn't held back too long in Triple-A, this group could improve upon the 3.83 rotation ERA that ranked eighth in the NL in 2012.

And then there's the bullpen. Shall we move on?

I'd give the rotation a B and the bullpen a D. The Mets had the second-worst bullpen ERA last season, and signing Brandon Lyon isn't going to help much.

Heat Map to Watch

What happened to Wright in the second half? For starters, he simply swung and missed more often -- 16 percent in the first half, 20 percent in the second. Before the break, he punished anything over the middle zones of the plate, hitting .465. In the second half, just .279 in those zones.

David Wright Heat mapESPN Stats & InformationAfter an MVP-caliber first half, Wright fell off in the second half.
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How many games will the Mets win?


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By my report card, I'm giving the Mets a decent chance to be a .500 club. The keys are Santana and Marcum staying healthy, two of three projected starting outfielders playing well, and the bullpen not self-destructing like a year ago.

It almost makes you think the Mets should have given up the first-round pick and signed Bourn to give the team the leadoff hitter and center fielder it needs.

Instead, the Mets will be looking up at the Nationals, the Braves and maybe the Phillies and punting on a chance to go after the wild card.

Offseason report card: Pirates

February, 15, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 79-83 (78-84 Pythagorean)
651 runs scored (10th in NL)
674 runs allowed (7th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agents Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Re-signed free agent Jason Grilli. Traded Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to Boston for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus and Stolmy Pimentel. Acquired Clint Robinson and Vin Mazzaro from the Royals. Lost free agents Kevin Correia and Rod Barajas.

What, you expected the Pirates to sign Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and Kyle Lohse? The Neal Huntington regime began in late September 2007. The GM took over a club that won 68 games and has won 67, 62, 57, 72 and 79 games. I guess that's progress. The club he inherited wasn't completely without talent, at least on offense:

--Jose Bautista: Traded in 2008 for Robinzon Diaz.
--Jason Bay: Traded in 2008 in a three-way deal. Pirates got Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris. Also known as the poo-poo platter (although Moss resurfaced with Oakland last year and played well).
--Adam LaRoche: Traded in 2009 for Hunter Strickland and Argenis Diaz.
--Freddy Sanchez: Traded in 2009 for Tim Alderson.
--Jack Wilson: Hit .296 in '07. Traded in 2009 with Ian Snell for Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno and two minor leaguers.

Look, Huntington took over a wreck of a franchise. The farm system did have Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, but not much else. But Huntington had five players with some value (six if you include Xavier Nady, who had a decent 2007), traded all of them, and got nothing in return. That's one reason the Pirates are still where they're at today.

Huntington's first draft pick was Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick in 2008. It took longer than expected, but he finally produced a decent season with 30 home runs in 2012. Still, he's hardly a star, hitting .244 last year with mediocre defense and no value on the bases. Buster Posey went a couple picks later. The Pirates selected catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick in 2009, a choice widely panned at the time. He hasn't hit much in the minors (.268 AVG/.365 OBP/.403 SLG). With the second pick in 2010, the Pirates selected pitcher Jameson Taillon, who looks good, although Manny Machado was the next pick. Gerrit Cole was the first overall pick in 2011 and should reach the majors this year. Behind those two upside arms, Keith Law ranked the Pirates' system seventh overall Insider.

Will that be enough to save the Huntington regime? After contending into July the past two seasons only to collapse over the final two months, this may be a make-or-break season for him.

As for the offseason moves, it was smart to trade Hanrahan while his value was high, although I don't think the Pirates got much back. Melancon is just another relief pitcher and Sands has a chance to stick as a platoon outfielder. Martin is an upgrade over Barajas, although backup catcher Michael McKenry actually had better numbers than Martin, and Liriano has had an ERA over 5.00 in three of the past four seasons, so good luck with that. (And now he'll miss the start of the season after breaking his arm in a freak Christmas accident, the day before he was to fly to Pittsburgh for his physical. Only the Pirates.)

Position Players

Well, McCutchen is pretty good. He may have won the MVP Award if he had better teammates.

The Pirates had four regulars with an OBP under .300 last year, but only shortstop Clint Barmes is back in his starting role, and he's there for his glove. Young outfielders Jose Tabata and Alex Presley flopped, so this year's flavors of the month appear to be Blue Jays former top prospect/washout Travis Snider and homegrown Starling Marte.

Marte is a 24-year-old with tools, but in his first exposure to major league pitching he struck out 50 times in 167 at-bats and walked just eight times. That approach isn't going to lead to a long and fruitful career, that's for sure. His career walk rate in the minors was abysmal, so I don't see much -- if any -- star potential here. More time in the minors may be needed, giving Tabata another chance at full-time duty.

That approach is Pittsburgh's overall problem on offense: They were fourth in the NL in homers but last in walks drawn, leading to a .304 OBP. Walks are good.

Defensively, the Pirates ranked 24th in the majors at minus-25 defensive runs saved, with Barmes being the only real plus defender. Barajas was terrible throwing out runners a year ago: 93 steals and only six caught stealing (not a misprint).

Pitching Staff

There is some potential here for an above-average rotation if Burnett repeats, James McDonald figures out what went wrong in the second half (9-3, 2.57 before the break, 3-5, 7.52 after), Wandy Rodriguez pitches like Wandy Rodriguez, and Cole makes a rapid ascension into the big league rotation. Even Jeff Karstens isn't a bad No. 5 starter, a soft-tosser who at least doesn't beat himself.

On the other hand, it's still A.J. Burnett, McDonald's first half may have been a fluke, Rodriguez could be ripe for a decline, and Karstens isn't really that good. You know things are going bad if free-agent reclamation project Jonathan Sanchez appears in the rotation.

The bullpen had a solid 3.36 ERA in 2012, seventh in the NL, but I'm skeptical about a repeat performance. Hanrahan wasn't always dominant, but he blew just four saves each of the past two seasons. Veteran Jason Grilli came out of nowhere to fan 90 in 58.2 innings, so if he pitches like that again he'll be fine as the closer. But guys like Jared Hughes and Tony Watson are good bets for regression, and I don't see much depth.

Heat Map to Watch

What's amazing about McCutchen's final numbers -- .327 average, 31 home runs -- is that it's easy to forget he didn't hit a home run in April. He did fall off the final two months, hitting .252 in August and .254 in September, as maybe the weight of 24 teammates on his shoulders wore him down. He tinkered with his swing mechanics last offseason and it paid off, especially against fastballs. He hit .363/.423/.676 against fastballs, with 22 of his 31 homers. He had hit .280 off fastballs in 2011. The new revamped swing allowed him to do much more damage on inside pitches.

Andrew McCutchenESPN Stats & InformationAndrew McCutchen feasted on fastballs in 2012, especially those on the inner half of the plate.
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How many games will the Pirates win?


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Is this the year? Can the Pirates finish over .500 for the first time since 1992?

I'd like to say yes. I'd like to say that Pedro Alvarez will hit .275 with 40 bombs, and both Travis Snider and Starling Marte will hit .280 (and combine for 40 home runs), and McCutchen will have another MVP-caliber year, and Burnett and McDonald and Rodriguez will win 15 games apiece, and Cole will come up from the minors in May and go 12-5 with a 3.27 ERA.

But I don't see it. The Astros aren't much competition (Pittsburgh went 12-5 against Houston) and the Reds and Cardinals look pretty tough again. But I hope I'm wrong.

Offseason report card: Yankees

February, 15, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 95-67 (95-67 Pythagorean)
804 runs scored (2nd in AL)
668 runs allowed (4th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Re-signed free agents Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Ichiro Suzuki. Signed free agents Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner. Lost free agents Nick Swisher, Rafael Soriano, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez. Acquired Shawn Kelley from Mariners for Abraham Almonte. Placed Alex Rodriguez on 60-day disabled list.

For all the talk that the Yankees "did nothing" this winter, that's clearly not the case. Sure, maybe signing Pettitte and Rivera were foregone conclusions, but bringing back Kuroda and Ichiro weren't, and the Rodriguez injury meant the club had to spend money on a third baseman instead of potentially elsewhere. Swisher's offense -- at least during the regular season -- will be missed, but the return of Gardner plus a full season of Ichiro should replace the value Swisher and Ibanez provided; a different kind of value (defense and speed), but still value.

The one the Yankees didn't replace was Martin, who hit only .211 last year, but with his power (21 home runs), a few walks (.311 OBP) and OK defense he was still about a 2-win player (WAR). Is he a huge loss? No, but veteran Chris Stewart is a no-hit, good glove type, and Francisco Cervelli will slap a few base hits but that's about it. Both are replacement-level players.

I'm not going to chalk this up as a terrible offseason, even if Yankees fans would have preferred seeing a few big-name free agents signed. But Yankees fans always expect the team to keep spending. The goal to get under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold in order to restart their potential tax payments at a lower rate makes sense. Save now and maybe spend later.

Position Players

Let's not forget that the Yankees did win the most games in the American League and did have the best run differential in the major leagues in 2012. The team that hit .211 against the Orioles in the playoffs and .157 against the Tigers wasn't the same team we saw all season.

Yes, the Yankees' power game plays better at Yankee Stadium with that short porch in right -- they were seven wins better at home -- but that's not all that unusual. The Tigers were plus-12 at home, the Rangers plus-7, and the A's plus-6. It will be interesting to see how Ichiro does with a full season in pinstripes: Did that short porch help rejuvenate his batting (.322 AVG/.340 OBP/.454 SLG with the Yankees) or will he regress to being the washed-up singles hitter he was with the Mariners (.261/.288/.353)?

Anyway, a main reason the Yankees' offense should score plenty of runs -- even with aging players like Ichiro, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Youkilis -- is Robinson Cano. Here's how good he is: Yankees second basemen (Cano started 150 games there) had a .911 OPS. The only other team with second basemen over .800 was Arizona, where Aaron Hill had a big year. Sixteen teams were under .700. Yankees second basemen had a .372 OBP; only Arizona (.355) and the Dodgers (.341) were also over .340. In looking at runs created, Cano was at 125 and Hill at 112, and then you go down to Ian Kinsler at 91 and Marco Scutaro at 90. Those totals aren't park-adjusted, but you get the basic idea: With Cano, the Yankees are starting with at least a 30-run advantage over nearly every other team. (That edge over other second basemen is a big reason Cano's WAR ranked second in the AL to Mike Trout.)

Yes, there is risk here. Jeter turns 39 in June, has to recover from the broken ankle, and was coming off his best season since 2009. Curtis Granderson hit 43 home runs, but also hit just .232 with a .319 OBP; his SO/BB ratio declined from 99/50 in the first half to 96/25 in the second half, so that's something to watch. Youkilis is injury-prone these days, and I guess I don't need to point out Teixeira's declining OPS totals from 2007 to '12: .963, .962, .948, .846, .835, .807. (OK, I did point them out.)

Quickly, on the defense: The Yankees were at minus-22 defensive runs saved in 2012, 22nd in the majors. Jeter was at minus-18 and Granderson at minus-10 in center. The Yankees would be better off playing Gardner in center and moving Granderson to left.

Overall, I still like this group. They're old and not without a lot of risk, so I have to downgrade for that. But they'll hit home runs, and Cano might finally have that MVP season.

Pitching Staff

For all the attention being paid to the Detroit rotation, and the love being given to David Price & Co. in Tampa, I view the Yankees' rotation as being just as good: Remember, they have to pitch at Yankee Stadium, so they're going to give up some home runs. Put them in a neutral park and it's possible they'd have the best numbers of any group in the league.

As with the lineup, there are age and health questions. CC Sabathia missed a few starts last year, although he did manage to throw 200 innings for the sixth straight season. He still as good as ever, however, posting the best strikeout and walk rates of his Yankees career (his SO/BB ratio was the best in the AL). All he did was give up a few extra home runs. He's still an ace in my book. Hiroki Kuroda was marvelous, going 16-11 with a 3.32 and throwing a career-high 219.2 innings. He's 38 so you never know, but I expect another good year. Andy Pettitte returns, and he'll turn 41 in June; but he also was a very good pitcher in his 12 starts (2.87). He missed time with a broken ankle, but his arm is sound and his head knows what to do with a baseball.

That's a good top three, but what the Yankees possess is depth: Phil Hughes (needs to curb the home runs), Ivan Nova (bounce-back season?), David Phelps (underrated) and Michael Pineda (could return in June or July). The bullpen should be solid with the 1-2 punch of some guy named Rivera and David Robertson. Boone Logan and Clay Rapada are solid lefties, and Joba Chamberlain was throwing well at the end of the season. He's even made peace with former enemy Youkilis.

I can't give this group an A because of its age, but I love the depth in the rotation.

Heat Map to Watch

Kuroda came over from the Dodgers and surprised everyone. Maybe it shouldn't have been such a big surprise. This is a pitcher who pounds the strike zone and has a four-pitch arsenal, although he's mostly fastball/slider/split. His fastball is better than many realize -- 91.8 mph average velocity -- and he knows what to do with it. As the heat map tells us, he likes that outside corner to lefties/inside corner to righties. That helps set up his slider and splitter.

Kuroda Heat map ESPN Stats & InformationKuroda ranked eighth in the AL in ERA in 2012 and fifth in WAR (5.2) among pitchers.
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Yes, the collapse will probably happen one of these years. I spelled out a lot of those ages above: Rivera is 43, Pettitte 41, Jeter 39, Suzuki 39, Kuroda 38, A-Rod 37, Hafner 36, Youkilis 34, Teixeira 33, Sabathia 32. Needless to say, that's a lot of age.

I think they have one more season in them. The rotation should keep them in the playoff hunt, and if Jeter, Granderson and Teixeira come close to what they did a year ago, the offense will score enough runs.

I've been waiting for the downfall of the empire for a few years now; until it actually happens, I'm going to keep predicting the Yankees will win 90 games.

Offseason report card: Phillies

February, 14, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 81-81 (81-81 Pythagorean)
684 runs scored (8th in NL)
680 runs allowed (8th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Traded Vance Worley and Trevor May to Minnesota for Ben Revere. Acquired Michael Young from Texas for Josh Lindblom and Lisalverto Bonilla. Signed free agents Mike Adams, John Lannan and Delmon Young. Lost Placido Polanco, Juan Pierre, Ty Wigginton and Nate Schierholtz.

The Phillies entered the offseason with a gaping hole or three in the outfield and many expected them to land one of the big free-agent center fielders, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton or Michael Bourn. Instead, they played it fiscally conservative and traded for Twins speedster Ben Revere, who brings, well, speed and defense. He has no power and doesn't walk much (29 freebies in 553 plate appearances), so he has to hit close to .300 to have any offensive value. He hit .294 with the Twins and Baseball-Reference.com rated his WAR at 2.4. That looks like a good deal for the Phillies, given May's wildness in the minors.

The other deals are more questionable. Michael Young is coming off an awful season with the Rangers, hitting an empty .277 BA/.312 OBP/.370 SLG. He did hit a fluky .338 two years ago, so maybe there's something left in the bat. His defensive metrics have been awful for years now, so the Phillies will definitely miss Placido Polanco's glove at third.

At least you can see hope in that Young. The other Young is just a bad player. Delmon Young can hit lefties a little, but he's a terrible defender, can't run, doesn't draw walks and doesn't have enough power for a player with his limited skill set. Hard to believe this is the guy who was once considered the top prospect in the game. He cost the Phillies only $750,000 plus incentives, but when those incentives include a weight bonus, it's probably not a good sign.

Lannan got pushed out of the Nationals' rotation a year ago. He's a finesse lefty who needs a good infield defense behind him; he's not going to get that in Young and Ryan Howard, and who knows how much range Chase Utley still has left after all his injuries. Adams had been one of baseball's premier setup guys but had a mediocre year with the Rangers.

In the end, it's a mixed series of moves by Ruben Amaro. I like the Revere trade to bring some young legs to the outfield, but the Youngs are more likely to be a disaster than a positive.

Position Players

In winning five straight NL East titles, Charlie Manuel had the luxury of running out a lineup that included Howard and Jimmy Rollins, two MVP winners, and Utley, the best player of the three. Now they're all on the wrong side of 30 and not the players they once were.

Let's start with Rollins. At least he played 156 games. He still has good pop -- 23 home runs, 33 doubles -- and stole 30 bases in 35 attempts. Maybe he has lost a step on defense (ignore the Gold Glove he won; he's not the best defensive shortstop in the NL) and he was never a great OBP guy anyway, but he's the best bet of the three to stay healthy and have a good season.

Utley, like Rollins, is 34, but he hasn't played more than 115 games since 2009. He still produces when he's out there -- .256/.365/.429 and good defensive metrics -- if he can just stay healthy.

Howard is the biggest question mark. He has been in slight decline for years now and when he returned from that torn Achilles tendon suffered in the 2011 postseason, he struggled, hitting just .219. The unknown is whether that was residue from rust and the injury, or whether he's going to be a .230 hitter now. Even when healthy in 2011, he created about 97 runs; a decent total but a far cry from the 134 he averaged from 2006 to 2009.

Carlos Ruiz was the guy who carried the Phillies' offense much of the year. He'll miss the first 25 games after being suspended for using the ADHD drug Adderall.

The glass-half-full theory points out the Phillies finished eighth in runs even though Howard and Utley combined to miss more than half their games. Get those back -- even if they're not the Howard and Utley of a few years ago -- and the Phillies should move up in the runs column. The glass-half-empty theory points out that Ruiz is due for a regression, Delmon Young is a big downgrade from Hunter Pence and Michael Young may not provide any more offense than Polanco gave last year.

I am worried about the defense. The Phillies will be dreadful at four positions -- first, third, left and right. The Phillies were 19th in defensive runs saved a year ago with minus-8. I'll be surprised if they fare that well again.

Overall, I can't give this group anything better than a C. Too many age and health issues and too many Youngs.

Pitching Staff

Luckily the Phillies still have three guys named Hamels, Lee and Halladay.

Cole Hamels has a big new contract and essentially now carries the title of staff ace after Halladay's 4.49 ERA season. Hamels owns a 2.95 ERA over the past three seasons -- 11th among all pitchers with at least 500 innings. But the gap from No. 4 -- teammate Cliff Lee at 2.89 -- to Hamels is insignificant. He has made 30-plus starts the past five seasons and he should once again be a Cy Young contender.

Lee had one of the strangest seasons a starter has ever had, winning just six games despite making 30 starts and posting a 3.16 ERA. We hopped into the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index to see how many pitchers had pitched at least 200 innings, had an ERA under 3.25 and won six or fewer games. There were 11 guys, but eight from 1917 or earlier. Besides Lee, the other two were Bob Knepper of the 1983 Astros (6-13, 3.19) and Joey Hamilton of the 1995 Padres (6-9, 3.08). Anyway, Lee is still a phenomenal pitcher, leading the NL in fewest walks per nine and strikeout/walk ratio. Expect a lot more than six wins this year.

The key to the rotation -- and perhaps the Phillies' season -- is Halladay. After finishing in the top five of the Cy Young voting the previous six seasons, he made just 25 starts while battling nagging injuries. As Jayson Stark wrote on Wednesday, it's a defining season in his Hall of Fame career. His peripherals last year were still excellent. Yes, he turns 36 in May. Too old for another big season? I don't think so.

Lannan and Kyle Kendrick are decent 4-5 types (especially when your top three are Hamels, Lee and Halladay), and while you don't expect big things from them, I do expect big things from a bullpen that could be one of the best in the league. The 'pen was a disaster early on for Philly, in part because of some blowups, in part because of Manuel's poor use of his resources. But the bullpen was much better in the second half as guys like Jeremy Horst (1.15 ERA, 40 K's in 31.1 innings) and Jacob Diekman (3.95 ERA, 35 K's in 27.1 innings) showed promise. In the end, the 'pen finished with the best strikeout rate in the NL. Add in a solid closer in Papelbon, Adams, Antonio Bastardo, Raul Valdes (35/5 strikeout/walk ratio) and some other intriguing arms and the bullpen should be a big positive.

Overall, I'm knocking the staff down half a grade only because of concern about Halladay's return to supreme form. But it's a staff that could make the Phillies contenders.

Heat Map to Watch

Every hitter knows Hamels has one of the best changeups around. They still have trouble hitting it. It's his big strikeout pitch against right-handers and you can see he puts it low and away. Righties hit .236 with 76 strikeouts in 221 PAs ending with the changeup. It's the pitch that got Hamels a $144 million contract.

Cole Hamels Heat MapESPN Stats & InformationHamels won a career-high 17 games in 2012.
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After they watched their team drop from 102 wins to 81 and then saw an uninspiring offseason, there seems to be a bit of angst in the air around Phillies fans. Like Red Sox fans, they've learned that once you've won you expect to win every year.

It's not that easy, of course. There certainly is upside here with the starting pitching trio, but even an improved Halladay won't be worth 10 wins by himself. The Phillies will need to get better production from several other players to get to 90 wins. It could happen; maybe Utley plays 140 games and maybe Howard slams 35 home runs and maybe Michael Young hits .300. I'm not sure I see it. I think the Phillies win 85 to 87 games, leaving them trailing the Nationals and Braves in the NL East.

Offseason report card: Astros

February, 14, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 55-107 (59-103 Pythagorean)
583 runs scored (16th in NL)
794 runs allowed (15th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Moved to the AL West. Named Bo Porter manager. Traded Jed Lowrie and Fernando Rodriguez to Oakland for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi. Traded Wilton Lopez to the Rockies for Alex White. Signed free agents Carlos Pena, Erik Bedard, Jose Veras and Rick Ankiel.

You have evaluate Houston's offseason in the context of general manager Jeff Luhnow's plan: Start over. That's what the Astros have been doing over the past year and Luhnow has now traded away every player making significant money. In fact, the player receiving the highest paycheck from the Astros will be Wandy Rodriguez, who will receive $5 million from Houston while pitching for Pittsburgh. The payroll will be around $25 million with Bud Norris' $3 million salary the highest on the 25-man roster.

As for the moves, Luhnow turned an injury-prone infielder and erratic reliever into a potential middle-of-the-order bat in Carter and potential rotation guy in Peacock. He traded another reliever for White, a former first-round pick. He claimed reliever Josh Fields -- another former first-round pick -- off waivers. He signed a few cheap vets so he can actually field a team. Look, odds are slim that Peacock and White actually turn into anything, considering how Peacock was hit around in Triple-A and White's struggles with the Rockies. But you never know. Collect some good arms and hope you get lucky.

As for the switch to the American League, Astros fans are still bitter about the forced exile.

Position Players

Considering the Astros scored the fewest runs in the National League and don't get to face Cubs pitching 15 times in 2013 but will have to play road games in Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim, it could be ugly watching this team struggle to score.

Don't print that lineup on stone. Porter will be mixing, matching and trying different guys all season. It's possible Jose Altuve ends up as the only guy with 500 at-bats. Look for Wallace -- probably his last chance to prove himself as a major league starter -- to play some first and third, look for Carter to play some first and left field when he's not DHing, and look for Tyler Greene and Marwin Gonzalez to both get a shot at shortstop. And who knows who will be in the outfield by September.

Altuve, Matt Dominguez and catcher Jason Castro are the best bets to still be starting here a couple years down the road, but the Astros hope at least one of the others -- Wallace, Carter, J.D. Martinez, Fernando Martinez -- takes advantage of a shot to play regularly and develops into a solid big-leaguer.

Pitching Staff

Norris and Lucas Harrell at least give the Astros two major league starters. They're both entering their age-28 seasons. Yet Norris has yet to pitch 200 innings in a season and there's a chance that Harrell's 3.76 ERA season was a fluke, considering his relatively low K rate, a problem he had in his minor league career.

After that, things get even dicier. Jordan Lyles is just 22, so it's too early to make a final judgment on him, but after 40 major league starts he has a 5.20 ERA. He's never going to be a strikeout pitcher, so like Harrell he needs to limit the home runs and get help from his defense. Philip Humber and Bedard are the veteran gambles here. If either or both pitch well, they could be trade bait come July. Of course, both have to stay healthy to even get into the hopeful position.

The interesting arm here is White, the 15th pick of the 2009 draft and one of the guys Cleveland sent to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade. His pro career has been a disappointment, including a DUI arrest last spring training. Getting out of Colorado should help give him some confidence, but some believe his stuff has declined since his college days at North Carolina.

On the horizon is Jarred Cosart, who should get the recall at some point if things go well at Triple-A.

The bullpen? It had a 4.46 ERA last year and allowed the highest batting average in the NL. It doesn't appear to be any better this year.

Heat Map to Watch

Norris' go-to pitch with two strikes is his slider and it's been an effective weapon against righties and lefties. Lefties hit .202 with a .612 OPS against it and righties hit .185 with a .500 OPS. The problem for Norris has been getting to the point where he can use that pitch: Batters hit .305/.406/.523 off his fastball. Unless that fastball command improves, he'll remain a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

Bud NorrisESPN Stats & Information
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After the Astros lost 107 games in the NL Central, many are understandably predicting 110-plus losses in the AL West, maybe even challenge the 119 losses of the '03 Tigers for recent futility. (Poor Pena played on that team as well.)

I'll be optimistic here and take the under on 110 losses. There are enough young players here that at least some of them should play better than last year. If Bedard and/or Humber can give some mediocre innings, that will help as well. I mean, I'm not that optimistic; I still see a 100-loss club here.

What's interesting about all this is that no team has really torn its entire franchise apart to the extent Astros have, discarding every useful player they once had. The Marlins sort of did the same thing after last year's spending spree backfired and were heavily criticized for it; the Astros have received a lot of praise for their forward-thinking approach. Of course, the difference is Luhnow and owner Jim Crane inherited a franchise that had hit rock bottom due to incompetence from the previous regime; the Marlins seem to create their own messes.

Whether this plan will work, only time will tell. And it may take a lot of time.

Offseason report card: Padres

February, 13, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 76-86 (75-87 Pythagorean)
651 runs scored (tied for 10th in National League)
710 runs allowed (11th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Acquired Tyson Ross from the A's for Andrew Werner and Andy Parrino. Re-signed free agent Jason Marquis. Signed free agent Freddy Garcia.

OK, it's the Padres. They're not sitting on a pile of money like their rivals to the north. Still, when retread veterans Jason Marquis and Freddy Garcia qualify as your big moves, that's an uninspiring offseason even if your projected payroll will be higher only than the Astros', Marlins' and Pirates'.

The Padres gave starts last season to Kip Wells, Jeff Suppan and Ross Ohlendorf after a slew of injuries wiped out much of their rotation, so adding starting pitching options was the offseason priority -- the only requirements being the pitchers be cheap and have a pulse.

Ross has long been an interesting arm, but he was never able to put it together with the A's (they won 94 games even though Ross went 2-11 with a 6.50 ERA). It's a gamble but didn't cost the Padres much.

Position Players

Here's an interesting fact: The Brewers led the NL in runs scored, but the Padres scored more runs on the road than the Brewers. With the Padres, you have to factor in the difficult hitting environment at Petco Park, especially in the power department. The Padres hit 74 home run on the road, but just 47 at home.

The offense starts with NL RBI leader Chase Headley, who drove in 115 runs -- even more impressive considering the Padres only had mediocre OBP numbers from their 1 and 2 hitters. Headley had that monster second half, of course, hitting .308/.386/.592 with 23 of his 31 home runs. He had a higher road OPS than Miguel Cabrera.

The rest of the lineup shapes up as a middle-of-the-pack offense. Carlos Quentin can hit when he actually plays (86 games last year) and Will Venable and Chris Denorfia make for an excellent platoon in right. Cameron Maybin turns 26 in April but it's probably time give up hope for a breakout season; at this point, it's safe to assume he's .250 with an OBP in the low .300s, but makes up for his mediocre offense with above-average defense in center field.

For the Padres to improve, they'll need more power from first baseman Yonder Alonso, who homered just nine times as a rookie. Petco or not, he'll have to slug higher than .393 or the Padres will be looking for a replacement. Catcher Yasmani Grandal impressed in a 60-game rookie season, but he's been suspended for 50 games for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs.

The Padres ranked 23rd in Defensive Runs Saved (minus-24), with the biggest liabilities being the statuesque Quentin in left field and Logan Forsythe at second. Rookie Jedd Gyorko has a career .319 average in the minors and hit 30 homers in 2012 (24 in Triple-A). A third baseman, the Padres tried him at second and he may have a chance to win the job there at some point.

Overall, the offense is probably a little better than the raw numbers indicate, although I'm dropping the grade a bit since Maybin is really the only plus defender.

Pitching Staff

Where to start? Staff ace Clayton Richard led the NL in hits and home runs allowed and struck out just 107 batters in 218.2 innings. No. 2 Edinson Volquez walked 105 batters. No. 3 Anthony Bass had a 6.35 ERA on the road. Marquis had been let go by the Twins after allowing 33 runs in 34 innings. Anyway ...

OK, so it's a bad rotation, its inadequacies masked somewhat by the Padres' forgiving home park. This isn't the rotation the Padres were hoping for a year ago. Cory Luebke and Joe Wieland both underwent Tommy John surgery. Top prospect Casey Kelly missed three months with a strained elbow ligament, although did return to make six late-season starts for the team. Andrew Cashner, acquired from the Cubs in the Anthony Rizzo trade, started in the bullpen before moving to the rotation to help conserve his innings, and made a couple starts before straining a lat. He then cut his thumb in an offseason hunting accident and will begin the season on the disabled list.

No, the future of the Padres doesn't rest on Bass and Marquis, but on those four guys and younger prospects like Max Fried, Matt Wisler and Joe Ross. It's not a good rotation now, but it should be better in 2014.

Heat Map to Watch
What explains Headley's second half in 2012? For one thing, he started destroying fastballs. As you can see from the heat map, there is a lot of red. After hitting .303 with four homers against fastballs in the first half, he hit .392 with 11 homers against fastballs in the second half. From the numbers, it's hard to see exactly what happened. His swing percentage and chase percentage (on pitches outside the zone) were basically the same, so he didn't become more or less aggressive. He did improve his contact rate -- swinging and missing about 4 percent less often -- but that doesn't explain everything. Maybe he just hit the ball harder. Maybe he just got a little lucky. We'll find out in 2013.

Headley HeatmapESPNThe switch-hitting Headley feasted on fastballs in the second half of 2012.
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Some people view the Padres as a sleeper playoff candidate, but I have a hard time seeing it with the current makeup of the rotation. Even if some of the young guys return or suddenly mature, they need a lot of things to go right. The offense could be interesting if Alonso adds some power, Headley does his thing again, Maybin improves and Grandal returns and hits, but, again, that's a lot of ifs.

Factor in that the Diamondbacks have improved, the Dodgers have added Zack Greinke and get full seasons from last year's trade acquisitions, and I'm not sure I see the Padres cracking .500.


Offseason report card: Angels

February, 13, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 89-73 (88-74 Pythagorean)
767 runs scored (3rd in American League)
699 runs allowed (7th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agent Josh Hamilton to five-year, $125 million contract. Traded Kendrys Morales to Mariners for Jason Vargas. Traded Jordan Walden to Braves for Tommy Hanson. Signed free agents Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett and Joe Blanton. Traded Ervin Santana to Royals. Lost Torii Hunter, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Maicer Izturis, LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen.

What to make of general manager Jerry Dipoto's busy offseason? In some ways, it's just a reshuffling of the deck chairs.

Hunter: 5.5 WAR, 88 runs created in 584 PAs
Hamilton: 3.4 WAR, 115 runs created in 636 PAs

At quick glance, Hamilton looks like the far superior hitter in 2012, creating 27 more runs in a few more plate appearances. Once you adjust for home-park environment, Hunter edges a little closer, then when you factor in Hunter's superior defense (Hunter plus-15 defense runs saved, Hamilton minus-9 DRS), you can see why Hunter moves ahead in wins above replacement. That doesn't mean Hamilton was a bad signing; Hunter was unlikely to repeat his season -- at the plate or in the field -- and Hamilton might have a better year. In terms of 2012 value versus 2013 value, however, this looks pretty even.

Vargas and Hanson: 2.8 WAR and minus-0.9 WAR (392 IP)
Haren and Santana: minus-0.6 WAR and minus-1.6 WAR (354.2 IP)

Haren and Santana were pretty bad last year, posting high ERAs despite playing in a pitchers' park and with a good defense behind them. Hanson remains an injury risk, but Vargas has developed into a solid innings-eater and should put up good numbers in Angel Stadium with Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos running down fly balls behind him. This should be an upgrade of a few wins over 2012 performance. However, some of that is given back with the Blanton signing, given that he's unlikely to replicate the Greinke/Jerome Williams rotation slot. So unless Hanson is healthy and pitches better than last year, this looks like a minor upgrade -- maybe a win or two.

Morales out, Bourjos in.

Bourjos won't produce as much offense as Morales, but adding his elite glove back to the outfield on a regular basis is a big plus. Still, if Morales is 20 runs better at the plate than Bourjos and Bourjos is 20 runs better than Mark Trumbo in the outfield, that's another equal tradeoff.

The bullpen should be better, although Madson -- returning from Tommy John surgery -- has already been shut down with a sore elbow.

In the end, I can't give the Angels' offseason that high of a grade, especially given that they didn't get the guy they really wanted: Greinke. But at least give Dipoto credit for adjusting to not getting Greinke by signing Hamilton and trading for Vargas.

Position Players

The Angels have the best player in baseball, a 40-homer guy, one of the greatest players of all time who is still pretty good even if he's in decline, a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, a 32-homer designated hitter and two middle infielders who hit pretty well for middle infielders. The catcher hits OK for a catcher, and the third baseman at least puts up a decent OBP.

That's a lineup without a glaring weakness. It's a lineup that will be as fun to watch as any in the game. Is it a great lineup, however, or just very good?

Aside from Trout's sophomore campaign and Hamilton's transition across the AL West, Albert Pujols is the guy to pay attention to. Take away his homerless April and he hit .297/.357/.553. His days as a .400 OBP machine are long gone thanks to the continued deterioration in his walk rate, but a lot of teams would still like Pujols anchoring their lineup.

The one problem area? Depth. There is none (no, Vernon Wells doesn't count). The Angels do have some players with injury histories, so we'll see whether that comes into play.

Pitching Staff

A year ago, we were talking about the possibility of the Angels having four 220-inning starters. Instead, C.J. Wilson led the staff with 202.1 innings.

Jered Weaver, Wilson and Vargas should be a solid top three, although Wilson had his elbow cleaned out in the offseason. His first season with the Angels was a bit of disappointment -- 3.83 ERA after a 3.14 ERA with the Rangers over the previous two seasons -- and if his walk rate remains at 4.0 per nine innings, it's going to be difficult to get that ERA under 3.50.

Blanton is a bit of wild card in the fifth spot. He's the opposite of Wilson -- a guy who basically throws strikes and hopes his defense helps him out. He had a 4.79 ERA in the National League over the past three seasons, so there's a good chance he won't last the season in the rotation.

The Angels' bullpen had a 3.97 ERA last year, ranking ahead of only Cleveland and Toronto in the AL. But it was arguably even more problematic than that. Only the Yankees' pen threw fewer innings, so Mike Scioscia was able to concentrate his innings in his best relievers. Although Ernesto Frieri did an excellent job as the closer after coming over from the Padres, it was the middle relief that hurt the club. The Angels lost 12 games when they led heading into the seventh inning -- 3.5 more than the major league average. Madson was supposed to help out there (or assume closer duties, with Frieri sliding to the seventh and eighth) but is a big question mark. The one thing the Angels do have is three good lefties in Burnett, Scott Downs and rookie Nick Maronde, if he's kept on the big league roster as a reliever instead of starting in the minors.

Heat Map to Watch
With a quick glance at Trout's heat map, you can see he punished low pitches. On pitches in the lower half of the zone, he hit .360/.396/.608 -- the best OPS in the majors against pitches down in the zone. Does that mean pitchers should attack Trout up high this year? Possibly. But if you attack up in the zone, that means doing it with the fastball. Trout hit .297/.397/.509 in plate appearances ending in fastballs. Which is actually kind of scary: He already has shown he can cream the off-speed stuff. Good luck, pitchers.

Mike Trout heat mapESPN Stats & InformationWhere do you pitch Mike Trout? Working him low in the zone didn't pay off in 2012.
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The Angels might be the best team in the American League. With Trout, Pujols and Hamilton, they might have the best offensive trio of any team in baseball. In Weaver, they have a legitimate No. 1. That makes them one of the top World Series favorites, at least according to the latest odds in Vegas.

But they were in that position last year and failed to make the playoffs despite Trout's monster rookie season. I worry about the lack of depth behind the starting nine and the back end of the rotation. I don't think Pujols will put up better numbers than last year, and I don't think Hamilton will hit 43 home runs again. The Angels will surely be in the playoff chase, but I don't expect them to run away with the division -- and they might not win it.

What do you think?