SweetSpot: Philadelphia Phillies

One of the craziest games of recent years took place on Monday, when the Phillies scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth to take a 6-5 lead, only to blow it in the ninth when Dan Uggla hit a grand slam for the Braves off Jake Diekman.

One reason it turned into a crazy game was Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon was unavailable, having pitched the three previous days, saving a 6-3 game, pitching an inning in a tie game and then saving a 4-3 lead on Sunday.

Ryne Sandberg certainly isn't unique in not using his closer for a fourth day in a row. Last season, only one relief pitchers pitched five days in a row -- Tanner Scheppers of the Rangers, on the final four days of the regular season and the tiebreaker game against the Rays. A reliever pitched four days in a row just 33 times and most of them weren't closers. The only closers to do it more than once were Edward Mujica and Joe Nathan.

Anyway, what I wonder: Is this something new, not using your closer four days in a row? Maybe not. The Captain's Blog tweeted this on Monday after I tweeted that Goose Gossage would have pitched four days in a row:



The Captain wasn't quite right. Gossage also pitched four days in a row, Sept. 5-8, 1980. Of course, as Gossage himself would be quick to point out, closers didn't just pitch the ninth inning back then. Gossage pitched two innings four times in those eight appearances (and in 1978 even had a seven-inning relief appearance).

Mike Marshall was another 1970s reliever. In 1974 he won the National League Cy Young Award for the Dodgers, pitching in 106 games and 208.1 innings. From May 17 through 24 that year he appeared eight days in a row, pitching a total of 14.2 innings. OK, Marshall was sort of a freak. So let's check a few other guys to see how often they pitched at least four days in a row:

Rollie Fingers: 7 (most: 6)
Bruce Sutter: 5 (most: 6)
Dan Quisenberry: 12 (most: 4)
Lee Smith: 12 (most: 6)
Dennis Ecksersley: 1 (most: 4)
Billy Wagner: 6 (most: 4)
Trevor Hoffman: 10 (most: 4)
Mariano Rivera: 4 (most: 4)
Jonathan Papelbon: 0

No real surprises here. Since total appearances for closers hasn't really changed much in 30 years it's not a big surprise that the '70s and '80s guys didn't pitch all that often four days in a row. Eckersley was clearly handled very carefully and as you can see, Papelbon has never done it (and, in fact, has appeared three days in a row just 19 times).

I think what has changed in recent seasons is managers announcing before a game that a reliever isn't available. I guess they want to stop the second-guessing before it can begin.

By the way, the record for most consecutive days (not games) pitched is Kent Tekulve, who pitched nine days in a row for the Phillies in 1987, giving up one run in 9.1 innings. He pitched in 90 games that year, totaling 105 innings. That wasn't even the biggest workload of his career. In 1978-79 with the Pirates, he pitched in 91 and 94 games and 135.1 and 134.1 innings.
The other day, SweetSpot TV co-host Eric Karabell said to me, "It seems like a third of managers are hitting their worst hitter first or second."

True or not? Well, here are some examples:
  • The impetus for our discussion was Tony Gwynn Jr., a career .245 hitter with no power who owns a career OPS+ of 75. After Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg benched Ben Revere for dropping two fly balls, Gywnn took over in center -- and took over Revere's leadoff spot for four games. Remember, Gwynn wasn't even in the majors last season.
  • When Toronto lost Maicer Izturis to an injury, the Jays called up Munenori Kawasaki. In his first game, he hit second, which sabermetricians will say is one of the spots you want your best hitter (second or fourth). So one day he's not good enough to be on the team, the next day manager John Gibbons hits him second. In over 400 career plate appearances, Kawasaki has hit .221/.307/.288. Instead of leaving Edwin Encarnacion batting fifth, why not just move everyone up? Jose Bautista second, Adam Lind third and Encarnacion fourth?
  • The Padres have hit Alexi Amarista second three times since Sunday. He hit a home run earlier in the season, but he's still a career .234 hitter with a .280 OBP and little power. On Monday, Amarista hit second, while Will Venable, a good hitter, batted eighth (against a right-hander, so no lefty in play for Venable). Venable is off to a bad start, but still ...
  • Xavier Nady hit cleanup for the Padres on Wednesday night, which maybe says more about the Padres than Bud Black. Nady was out of the majors last year after hitting .184 in 2012. The last time he had an OPS above league average was 2008. But, hey, lightning in a bottle or something, I guess.
  • B.J. Upton continues to hit second for the Braves, as Fredi Gonzalez pulls the opposite of Black and refuses to react to small sample sizes (Andrelton Simmons, off to a .333 start with no strikeouts, hit eighth Wednesday). Of course, there is last year's sample size for Upton to consider.
  • The Royals called up Johnny Giavotella last week for one game. He hit second.
  • Buck Showalter has hit Delmon Young second four times. Against a left-hander, I guess I could reluctantly accept that. But three of those games were against a right-hander. Young had a .293 OBP last year against righties. In 2012, it was .279. In 2011, it was .288. He also grounds into a fair number of double plays. But, hey, otherwise he's the perfect No. 2 hitter. (To be fair, Young probably isn't the worst hitter on the Orioles. Boy does that team have some OBP issues. They're third in the AL in batting average but 14th in OBP.)
  • When Michael Bourn started the year on the DL for Cleveland, Nyjer Morgan made the team. He hit leadoff seven games. He actually played well (.348), but when Bourn returned Morgan was sent down to the minors. Terry Francona did catch a little lightning there.
  • Bryan Price, of course, continues to hit Billy Hamilton leadoff. But he's not even the Reds' worst hitter right now: That's Zack Cozart and his .109 average. Plus, Price has moved Joey Votto up to the No. 2 spot, so he deserves credit for a solid sabermetric-approved decision there.
  • The Marlins have hit Adeiny Hechavarria first or second five times in 16 games.
  • Derek Jeter has hit leadoff once and second 10 times. (I kid, I kid!)


Look, it's early and these are just a few scattershot examples. If Upton continues to hit .180 and Simmons .300, Gonzalez will make a change soon enough. None of these are Alcides Escobar-type situations yet, when Ned Yost was still hitting Escobar second into July last season despite a sub-.280 OBP.

Still, with all the information that front offices use -- and some of that has filtered down to the field level (such as all the shifting that now takes place) -- it's still strange that managers continue to muck up the batting order or overreact to a few games. The odd thing is most managers probably obsess over this as much as any part of their job. I still think they're too beholden to the conventional approach of a fast guy hitting leadoff and then your two best hitters batting third and fourth. Because usually want a decent hitter following their two best hitters, that often leaves a mediocre guy batting second.

The other problem? There just aren't enough good hitters these days to fill out a perfect lineup card.
You may have missed it. I did, until Eric Karabell told me over a fine lunch at the ESPN cafeteria: Joe Blanton is going to retire, according to Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register. Look, I get it: Blanton became a bit of a punch line in recent years, starting with when the Phillies brought out all their starting pitchers for that news conference one year. You had two pitchers who had won Cy Young Awards in Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, and two more who had contended for them in Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Then you had Blanton, the fifth "ace." Everybody seemed uncomfortable.

Then the Angels signed him as a free agent last year and he was terrible, 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA. Mike Scioscia kept running him out there, for 20 starts. Everybody definitely seemed uncomfortable with that.

The Angels released Blanton in spring training. He signed on with the A's and had made two starts for Triple-A Sacramento.

So it's easy to make fun of Blanton. But you know what? The guy had a pretty decent career: 85-89, 4.51 ERA, 9.6 WAR, 10 years in the bigs, 248 career starts, made a lot of money. That might not seem like much, but only 429 pitchers started 248 games in their major league careers -- out of the 8,001 players who have pitched in the big leagues. That places Blanton in the top 3 percent of all pitchers for games started.

As Eric reminded me, Phillies fans will always hold a fond place in their hearts for Blanton. In Game 4 of the 2008 World Series, the Phillies leading 2 games to 1, Blanton allowed two runs in six innings and hit a home run as the Phillies beat the Rays 10-2. It was the only home run of his career.

The Phillies never won a World Series with their four aces. They did, however, win one with Joe Blanton and Jamie Moyer in the rotation.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
1:47
PM ET
Two weeks into the season and things are beginning to take shape, injuries are mounting and confusion about the new home plate no-collision rule is obvious. Let's take a quick spin around the SweetSpot Network for the best of Week 2:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Velocity Report: D-backs pitchers examined. After Rod Ghods uncovered how J.J. Putz has maintained K rates despite a big decline in velocity, Jeff Wiser examines the early-season velocity of all pitchers on the D-backs staff, noting that early-season velocity is highly predictive. Follow on Twitter

Boston Red Sox: FireBrand of the AL
The Red Sox and hitting with runners in scoring position: Should fans be concerned about the Red Sox' inability to hit with runners in scoring position? Nope. It's early, and the lineup will be just fine.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Six things I learned this week from the Cubs: Week 1 is in the books and Joe Aiello would like to open his notebook and share with the class what he learned from watching the Cubs. Follow on Twitter

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
Robin Ventura wants you to know he'd take used-up Chris Sale over his entire bullpen: Ventura's stated preference for using Sale on his fourth time through the order in a close game seems illogical, but James Fegan shows its more a sad statement on the current state of the White Sox bullpen.

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced Lajaway
Tony Plush's new approach at the plate: Ryan McCrystal takes a look at how Nyjer Morgan's improved patience at the dish has led to his hot start in 2014. Follow on Twitter.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Interview with Maury Brown: Richard Bergstrom interviews BizOfBaseball's Maury Brown about the Colorado Rockies ownership and business challenges. Topics include market size, competing with the Dodgers and the Broncos, free agency, concessions and stadium improvements.

Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
POPing the productive out myth: Adam Wieser revisits an old system for measuring "productive outs." Follow on Twitter.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Why is Joe Mauer such a lightning rod? Why are Twins fans so hard on Mauer, one of the best hitters in baseball? Nick Nelson examines this perplexing subject in a piece that has
generated quite a bit of discussion.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Examining Tanaka's initial PITCHf/x data: Michael Eder takes an in-depth look at Masahiro Tanaka's first start in Toronto. Follow on Twitter.

McCann's slow start could be due to lack of selectivity: Brad Vietrogoski examines Brian McCann's start and wonders if he's just swinging too much. Follow on Twitter.

Philadelphia Phillies: Crashburn Alley
An early look at Jesse Biddle: Eric Longenhagen scouts Phillies top prospect Jesse Biddle. Follow on Twitter.

San Francisco Giants: West Coast BiasQuick hits March 30 - April 8: Andrew Tweed takes a look at recent baseball articles from around the country to keep you up to date on anything you might have missed. Follow on Twitter Andrew; Connor.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
Calling Prince Fielder: Brandon Land takes a look at Fielder's early struggles and identifies a disturbing trend by looking back at 2009-2013. Follow on Twitter.

&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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Here's something you probably didn't know: Marlins right-hander Nathan Eovaldi had the highest fastball velocity last season of any pitcher who threw 100 innings. His 96.2 mph average fastball topped the 96.0 mph of the Pirates' Gerrit Cole. Now, we all know velocity isn't everything if you don't have movement and location, but it does speak to Eovaldi's good arm and his potential. What he needs is to refine his command and develop an offspeed speed as a better strikeout weapon (his slider is OK, the curveball needs work). He had a strong 2014 debut, allowing two runs in six innings against the Rockies with one walk and six strikeouts. He still relied a lot on his fastball -- 65 of his 95 pitches were heaters (average: 95.8 mph) -- but he's a guy to keep an eye on.
  • For some reason, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez decided to bat B.J. Upton second after he hit .184 last year. Two games in and Upton is 0-for-8 with four strikeouts. How long will Gonzalez's show of confidence in Upton last? Will moving him back down after three or four games create even more damage? Are Braves fans already in an uproar?
  • Yasiel Puig did this, taking a 93-mph fastball from Ian Kennedy that was high and inside and out of the strike zone and crushing it to left. Bat speed, my friends, bat speed. The Dodgers won but it wasn't all good news as the team announced Clayton Kershaw will be out two to three more weeks.
  • Erasmo Ramirez looked very good for the Mariners, throwing 93 pitches in an efficient seven innings as the Mariners beat the Angels. His one mistake was a first-pitch two-seamer that Raul Ibanez smacked for a two-run homer. The location actually wasn't bad -- low and outside corner -- but the pitch didn't run away as much as Ramirez would have liked. He's not overpowering so relies on location and movement and an excellent changeup. Ramirez was the guy who pitched well in eight starts at the end of 2012 but battled a strained triceps last season and struggled in 13 major league starts (4.98). He's a much different pitcher than Eovaldi but he's another guy with a little experience who could break out. Here's a heat map of Ramirez's night and you can see he tries to run that two-seamer away from lefties and into righties:
Ramirez HeatmapESPNRamirez struck out six and had no walks in his 2014 debut.

  • The Phillies lost 3-2 to the Rangers as Ryne Sandberg brought in reliever Mario Hollands for his major league debut with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth. It didn't go well. Bill Baer writes that the new boss looks a lot like the old boss.
  • CC Sabathia is skinnier but struggled (average fastball velocity: 89.0 mph) and the Astros beat the Yankees 6-2. Stacey Gotsulias wraps up the good and bad for the Bronx Bombers and says the defense already looks bad.
  • The Giants jumped on D-backs starter Wade Miley with a four-run first inning, including a three-run homer from 2014 NL batting champ Brandon Belt, but Miley settled down and ended up going seven innings and getting the win when the Diamondbacks scored twice in the sixth off Giants reliever Juan Gutierrez (also known as J.C. Gutierrez). I'm a little concerned about the Giants bullpen behind closer Sergio Romo. They've milked a lot of years and innings out of the likes of Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt (currently on the DL). Gutierrez is a 30-year-old journeyman with a 4.65 ERA, pitched for the Royals and Angels last season. Matt Cain scuffled through five innings (99 pitches) so Bruce Bochy had to go early to his pen. (As Buster Olney writes, that game also had a replay controversy when Bochy used up his challenge and then the umps missed a call on a play at the plate that couldn't be challenged because it happened before the seventh inning.
  • Finally, bad news for Wilson Ramos and the Nationals as he'll miss one to two months. The good news is that Jose Lobaton, who was with the Rays last year, is one of the better backup catchers in the majors.






1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

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

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

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

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

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

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

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

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

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

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

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

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

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

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

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

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

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

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

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.
Christina Kahrl, Buster Olney and Jim Bowden covered the Miguel Cabrera contract, so there isn't really much more to add. The timing is definitely odd with Cabrera two years from free agency, the money seems extreme and who knows how Cabrera will age once he get into his mid-30s. On the other hand, it's not our money and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 84 years old and probably not too worried about about what happens in seven or eight years.

Other stuff ...
  • Righty Jordan Zimmermann tossed five scoreless innings for the Nationals against the Mets in his final spring tune-up. He's been as good as any pitcher this spring, allowing one run in 18 innings with just one walk. Clayton Kershaw -- sore back and all (he'll miss his start on Sunday night) -- is clearly the Cy Young favorite in the National League, but Zimmermann is a solid sleeper choice if Kershaw falters. Compare Zimmermann over the past two seasons to his more-hyped teammate, Stephen Strasburg. Zimmermann is 31-17 with a 3.10 ERA and 409 innings; Strasburg is 23-15 with a 3.08 ERA and 342 1/3 innings. You may look at Zimmermann's strikeout rate (161 in 213 1/3 innings) and think he doesn't throw hard, but that's not the case. His fastball averaged 93.9 mph last season. Even though he pitches up in the zone with it he induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls thanks to good movement. He mixes in a slider, curve and occasional change. The one thing he has to improve on to go to the next level is limit the blow-up outings; he had games last year with eight, seven, seven and six runs allowed, giving up 10 of his 19 home runs in those four starts.
  • Even with the injury to Patrick Corbin, the Diamondbacks sent down Archie Bradley, the hard-throwing right-hander many rank as the top pitching prospect in the minors. I think it's the right decision. Bradley still has to improve his fastball command -- he walked 59 batters in 123 1/3 innings in Double-A -- to succeed consistently at the major league level. A month or two in the minors won't hurt, although it won't surprise me if he's back sooner than that if somebody in the Arizona rotation falters or gets injured.
  • The A's and Giants are playing a three-game Bay Bridge series back home and the A's had to be happy to see Scott Kazmir toss 5 1/3 scoreless innings. He did walk three with four strikeouts but allowed only two hits. With the loss of Bartolo Colon as a free agent and Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery, the A's have to find nearly 400 new innings in the rotation. Kazmir threw 150 last year for Cleveland. Josh Reddick homered for the A's. While the rotation may take a hit, the Oakland offense should be better if Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes rebound from mediocre seasons. Remember, the A's were third in the AL in runs even though Reddick posted a .307 OBP in 441 PAs, Cespedes a .294 OBP in 574 PAs and the departed Chris Young a .280 OBP in 375 PAs. It wouldn't surprise me if the A's have the best offense in the AL, leaping over the Tigers and Red Sox.
  • Speedster Billy Hamilton went 3-for-4 with two triples for the Reds and is hitting .327/.381/.527 in 55 spring at-bats. There are still a lot of doubts on whether he'll hit at the major league level and his lack of power means he'll see a lot of hard stuff inside, but there have been positive signs this spring, including the willingness to take some pitches and draw a few walks (six in 18 games). He walked a lot in Double-A, not nearly enough in Triple-A, but that needs to become a bigger element of his game. I do like his chances to hit just enough -- say .250 with a .310 OBP -- to keep his job in center field and swipe 60-plus bases.
  • The Phillies released 40-year-old vet Bobby Abreu and if you can't make the Phillies ... Abreu didn't play in the majors last year and looked pretty done in 2012 (he posted a .350 OBP but with little power). Twenty-five years ago there would be room for Abreu somewhere as a pinch-hitter/DH/very occasional outfielder, but teams don't carry those guys any more on rosters stocked with so many relievers. The guy had a great career and was a very underrated player during his prime years with the Phillies, hitting .305/.416/.513 from 1998 to 2006 while averaging 29 steals and 5.4 WAR per season. His timing wasn't quite right; he left the Phillies before they become a perennial playoff team and he left the Yankees the year before they won a World Series in 2009. With 60.5 career WAR via Baseball-Reference, he compares in value to other outfielders like Billy Williams (63.6), Richie Asbhurn (63.4), Zack Wheat (60.2), Jim Edmonds (60.3), Gary Sheffield (60.2), Vladimir Guerrero (59.3) and Sammy Sosa (58.4).
  • So the Mariners didn't want to pay Randy Wolf a guaranteed $1 million but then gave a guaranteed $1.25 million contract to Chris Young (the pitcher, not the outfielder). Go figure. Young had been in camp with the Nationals but couldn't crack their rotation. Reports, however, had him throwing 88 and healthy, much better than the 83-85 he was throwing when he was last in the majors in 2012. You can argue that the Mariners made a baseball decision here and that Young is a better bet to perform than Wolf, but that's not really what happened. Wolf had made the team before they decided to screw him with a 45-day contract offer, which Wolf turned down, leaving the Mariners with no option but to give Young a guaranteed deal even though he's hardly a sure thing to last all season in the rotation.


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

Hamels sits, but no panic yet in Philly

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
3:13
PM ET
Phillies fans were already cautiously approaching a new baseball season when spring training began in mid-February. They know, as the pundits have repeatedly pointed out, that the team is old and worn down with its best days in the rear-view mirror. According to Bovada, the Phillies are tied with the Blue Jays at 33-to-1 to win the World Series. PECOTA, from Baseball Prospectus, projects the Phillies to win 77 games. Fans are just hoping for good health and competitive baseball; they don't expect a championship.

One shoe dropped early in the spring when we learned that starter Cole Hamels wouldn't be ready for Opening Day due to biceps tendinitis. Reports estimated Hamels would miss one or two starts to begin the regular season, but it wasn't a huge deal for the Phillies as they could hide his absence by using a four-man rotation with off days on April 3 and 8.

The other shoe dropped Thursday: Hamels' arm is fatigued and as a result the team won't have him throw off a mound for another week. This puts him even further behind schedule and he likely won't make his 2014 debut until May. Missing one or two starts is no big deal, but four or five -- or more -- is a big blow to a team already thin on starting pitching depth.

Thankfully, the Phillies signed A.J. Burnett in February to a one-year, $15 million deal with two different options for 2015 -- a $7.5 million player option or a $15 million mutual option. Burnett turned his career around with the Pirates over the last two seasons thanks to his rediscovery of a two-seam fastball to induce more groundballs, and the Pirates using batted-ball data to optimally shift their defense. If his time in Pittsburgh is any indication, he'll be just fine in the No. 2 slot behind Cliff Lee.

It's what’s behind Lee and Burnett, and Kyle Kendrick, that is the real concern for the Phillies. GM Ruben Amaro signed Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona) to a one-year, $4.5 million deal after he posted a 4.89 ERA with the Rays last season. Amaro recently credited his new analytics department for the signing, which ostensibly looked at his 3.60 xFIP and 21 percent home run rate on fly balls and suggested improvement is likely. But Hernandez has a career 4.67 ERA and he has had only one great season (2007) and one good season (2010) in his career.

Hernandez would have fit in the No. 5 spot, but with Hamels gone, he moves up. The fifth spot is now a complete wild card. It might eventually go to Jonathan Pettibone, who is battling shoulder inflammation. He hopes to be ready by Opening Day, or at least once the Phillies move back to a five-man rotation, but nothing is guaranteed. The fifth spot could go to recent international signee Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, but the Phillies have been less than enthused with what they have seen from him thus far. New pitching coach Bob McClure recently said of Gonzalez's progress, "This may take a few months, I'm not really sure yet."

The more likely scenario is that the Phillies round out their rotation picking from a pool of non-roster invitees: David Buchanan, Jeff Manship, Sean O’Sullivan and Mario Hollands.

Buchanan is a 24-year-old right-hander who spent last season between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He posted an aggregate 4.40 ERA with an unimpressive 5.7 K/9. Manship, a former Twin and Rockie, has a career 6.42 ERA with a career 5.7 K/9 and a 3.4 BB/9, which makes him much too reliable on his defense. O'Sullivan has a career 5.89 ERA with an even worse 4.2 K/9 and a 3.6 BB/9.

Hollands may be the most intriguing candidate of the bunch. Now 25, the lefty spent the past season between Single-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading, finishing with a 2.86 ERA with a 7.8 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9. The strikeout rate would fall against major league competition, but he has the best control of the group.

It would be shocking if the Phillies decided to further extend their franchise record-high payroll -- and give up a draft pick -- to sign free agent Ervin Santana, but Amaro has given every indication he built his roster to be competitive, not to tank for draft-pick position next season. While the likelihood is small that Santana ends up in Phillies red, it isn't at zero percent.

No matter what option the Phillies choose, though, it will taste bad going down. Few pitchers can step into Hamels' shoes. Phillies fans are used to the taste, though, of watching a key player succumb to the injury bug. If there is a silver lining, it's that Hamels' latest setback is fatigue and not something structural. The best-case scenario is that Hamels uses the extra time to get back to 100 percent and reclaims his title as one of the game's five best left-handed starters. That would make the Phillies, who signed him to a six-year, $144 million contract extension in 2012, breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Team over/unders: Best bets

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

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

SportsNation

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

  •  
    15%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    25%
  •  
    26%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,858)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    17%
  •  
    21%
  •  
    25%
  •  
    18%
  •  
    19%

Discuss (Total votes: 13,837)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    15%
  •  
    20%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    10%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,014)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    29%
  •  
    23%
  •  
    20%
  •  
    12%
  •  
    16%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,370)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    19%
  •  
    16%
  •  
    21%
  •  
    22%
  •  
    22%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,627)

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

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


SportsNation

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

  •  
    14%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    27%
  •  
    31%
  •  
    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,376)

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

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

Lineup discussion: NL East

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

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

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

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

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

Atlanta BravesAtlanta Braves

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

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

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

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

Washington NationalsWashington Nationals

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

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

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

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

New York MetsNew York Mets

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

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

SportsNation

Which team has the best lineup in the NL East?

  •  
    48%
  •  
    32%
  •  
    12%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    2%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,451)

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

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

Philadelphia PhilliesPhiladelphia Phillies

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

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

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

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

Miami MarlinsMiami Marlins

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

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

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

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

Burnett may miss those defensive shifts

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
10:33
AM ET
The Philadelphia Phillies and free-agent starter A.J. Burnett agreed on Wednesday to one-year contract worth $16 million. The agreement ends an odd offseason for Burnett that began with rumors that the right-hander would either pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he spent the last two seasons, or retire. It was assumed that because of this scenario the Pirates did not extend a qualifying offer to Burnett. Now that he has joined the cross-state Phillies, Pittsburgh will not receive draft-pick compensation.

Despite the way things ended, Burnett enjoyed a revival in Pittsburgh after three disappointing seasons as a member of the New York Yankees. As staff anchor of the Bucs, he posted a 3.41 ERA in just under 400 innings. He struck out nearly a quarter of the batters he faced, walked less than three hitters per nine innings, and did a fantastic job of keeping the ball on the ground and in the yard.

A low-to-mid 90s fastball and a knee-knocking, slow curveball were chiefly responsible for Burnett keeping his balls in play low to the ground, but a progressive approach in defensive philosophy helped convert those grounders into outs.

As noted often during their run to the playoffs, Pittsburgh was among the most aggressive teams in regards to infield shifts. Burnett is on record as being opposed to the shift; however, since 2012 the Pirates' staff batting average allowed on groundballs is .216 -- second lowest in the majors. Burnett's personal average since joining the club is .214. The league average for the same time frame is .231. Over the last two years, Burnett was the pitcher of record for 1,135 outs. Of those, 41 percent have come on the ground.

The biggest improvement in Burnett's low average has come against right-handed batters. Same-siders posted a .269 average on groundballs against Burnett from 2009-2011 (insert "past a diving Derek Jeter" joke here), but have hit just .201 over the past two seasons. Left-handers have seen their average drop from .251 down to .227.

Burnett's new employers, however, have been slow to embrace the shift. The Phillies shifted just 45 times last season according to Baseball Info Solutions -- the second fewest in the major leagues. This was the case even after new manager Ryne Sandberg took over in late August. Philadelphia finished with a groundball average of .248 -- the fourth-worst average in the league -- despite solid play up the middle from 30-somethings Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Considering Burnett's recent success against right-handed batters pulling groundballs for outs, Rollins and Cody Asche could be especially key pieces to the puzzle.

Earlier in the offseason, the Phillies hired Scott Freedman to manage an internal analytics department. In addition to Burnett, Philadelphia has also signed groundball specialist Roberto Hernandez to fill the back end of the rotation. Perhaps the hiring of Freedman, and the subsequent signings of groundball-heavy starters, represents a shift, for lack of a better word, in organizational philosophy regarding moving infielders around.

The shift alone is not responsible for Burnett's success in Pittsburgh, but it cannot be ignored either. If Philadephia does not embrace a similar strategy, he may be wishing he stayed with the shifty Pirates.

Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Rays, and contributes to GammonsDaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @TRancel.
The Phillies have agreed to a one-year deal with A.J. Burnett, which seems like an odd destination if he wants to play for a postseason contender.

I recently ranked the Phillies 29th in my pre-spring training power rankings. While this move may slide them up a few slots, I still don't see them finishing over .500. Of course, everything could break right and a top three of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Burnett is a strong foundation for a rotation.

But what does this mean for the Pirates, for whom Burnett was 26-21 over the past two seasons? The knee-jerk reaction could be:

SportsNation

At one year and $16 million, should the Pirates have re-signed A.J. Burnett?

  •  
    34%
  •  
    66%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,939)

1. By refusing to increase payroll, Pittsburgh is risking taking a step backward after last year's success.

2. Burnett led the team with 191 innings in 2013 (nobody else had more than 166), so now they have to replace those innings.

3. There's no such thing as a bad one-year deal, so why weren't the Pirates more interested?

The first one is pretty simple, I think. Pirates owner Bob Nutting has been accused in the past of being too cheap, and it's difficult to argue against that label after the team’s nondescript offseason. In September, Nutting spoke with the Pittsburgh Business Times about the 2014 payroll, saying, "It is too early to pick a specific number. But my expectation is, just as we have each of the last several years, that we’re going to be able to push that number upward. I would anticipate next year to be no different. Again, there will always be limitations. But continuing to move forward, I believe, gives us room inside of the payroll we have to put a very competitive club on the field. The goal has always been not to create a short-term spike but create a talent flow into the organization that makes possible a sustainable level of success."

The Pirates' payroll in 2013 was an estimated $79 million, according to the PBT (about $66 million on Opening Day). Baseball Reference projects a Pirates payroll of $70 million; Cot's Baseball Contracts estimates $66 million. So despite an increase in ticket prices, a likely jump in attendance and a $25 million increase in national TV money, the Pirates' payroll will apparently remain stagnant, even allowing for in-season trades.

I do believe the innings issue is the biggest obstacle in replacing Burnett. Pirates starters ranked 24th in the majors in innings in 2013 -- 78 fewer than the Reds, 65 fewer than the Braves and 60 fewer than the Cardinals. That may not seem like a lot, but that's basically the workload of one full-time reliever, so it's not insignificant either. The Pittsburgh bullpen was outstanding last season. Without Burnett, it might have to shoulder a similar or even heavier burden, even accounting for more innings from Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole.

That said, Baseball Reference valued Burnett at only 1.7 WAR last year. Why so low? A few things. Burnett's park factor favored pitchers, not just PNC Park but the road parks he pitched in. The lineups he faced averaged 4.14 runs per nine innings; Burnett allowed 3.72 runs per nine innings, about what an average pitcher would be expected to allow against those lineups. Finally, Pittsburgh's defense was very good. So while Burnett's 3.30 ERA looks impressive, he was really about average. (To be fair, FanGraphs' method of evaluating pitchers liked Burnett a lot more at 4.0 WAR, valuing the fact that he struck out 209 batters in 191 innings.)

We don't know what the Pirates' internal evaluation of Burnett was, but I'm guessing they believe they can replace Burnett's production, in part because they believe their defense will be outstanding again. (With Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte in particular, it should be very good at least.) Still, there's some risk as they are counting on Liriano to repeat his strong year; Cole to ramp up his innings as a sophomore; Charlie Morton, who has pitched more than 116 innings only once in the major leagues, to be the No. 3 starter; Wandy Rodriguez to bounce back from his ailments; and Jeff Locke or Edinson Volquez to produce in the fifth spot. They also have rookie Jameson Taillon, who could be ready at some point.

So I can see why the Pirates ultimately punted on Burnett, believing in their depth and defense and maintaining payroll flexibility to make a move during the season. I still believe the Pirates are ripe for a decline, but I would have said that even if Burnett had re-signed with them.

Happy Birthday, Ruben Amaro Jr.

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12
9:52
AM ET
A fun day for birthdays. A quick rundown of some of the interesting names ...

Chick Hafey: Born 1903

Hafey was a big league regular for only six seasons -- in spite of which the Veterans Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame in a weak moment in 1971. Hafey wore big, thick glasses and probably played most of his career with something less than 20-20 vision. His SABR bio reports that he had sinus surgery after the 1926 season and his eyesight may have been affected as a result of that. Others have suggested an infected tooth caused his vision problems. Hafey himself said, "Sinus surgery helped, and so did glasses, but often I’d have double vision. Bright days bothered me. The cold climate, after coming up from Florida every spring, made the first month particularly tough and painful." He still hit .318 in his career (which isn't as impressive as it sounds for the era he played in) and won the batting title with the Cardinals in 1931. Here's a factoid that will win you a bar bet: Who hit cleanup for the National League in the first All-Star Game? Chick Hafey.

Dom DiMaggio: Born 1917
About two years younger than his Hall of Fame brother, Dom was a heck of a ballplayer as well even though he looked more like your high school math teacher than a Red Sox center fielder (his nickname was "The Little Professor"). He was a seven-time All-Star, a plus defender in center (many regarded him a better center fielder than Joe), hit .298 in his career and drew as many as 101 walks in a season, pushing his career on-base percentage to .383.

Pat Dobson: Born 1942
One of four members of the 1971 Orioles to win 20 games, along with Dave McNally, Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar. The next year, Dobson lowered his ERA by 0.25 and led the league in losses. After winning 122 games in the majors, Dobson served as the pitching coach for the Brewers, Padres, Royals and Orioles and scouted for other teams. He passed away from leukemia in 2006.

Don Wilson: Born 1945
A hard-throwing right-hander for the Astros from 1966 to 1974, Wilson pitched two no-hitters and went 104-92 in his career, which came to a tragic end in January 1975 when he was found dead in his car with the engine running in the garage. His 5-year-old son also died. (You often hear Wilson's death reported as a suicide, but the official cause of death was ruled accidental.) Here's the obit of Wilson's death. The article points out that Wilson was born in Monroe, La., on the same as day as basketball great Bill Russell (although both graduated from high school in California, Wilson in Los Angeles, Russell in Oakland).

Enzo Hernandez: Born 1949
Part of the trade that brought Dobson to the Orioles from the Padres, Hernandez is famous for one of the most futile seasons at the plate in major league history: In 1971, he batted 618 times for the Padres and drove in 12 runs.

Lenny Randle: Born 1949
One of the great moments in Mariners history.

Don Stanhouse: Born 1951
Stanhouse hung around the big leagues for 10 seasons, gaining his most fame as the closer for the Orioles in 1978 and 1979. He was a fastball/slider guy, known for being maybe the slowest-working pitcher of his era, and also known for his two nicknames: "Stan the Man Unusual" and "Full Pack," a name given to him by Earl Weaver as Weaver joked he nervously smoked a complete pack of cigarettes when Stanhouse would close out a game. In looking at his statistics, you can see why Weaver was never exactly comfortable handing the ball to Stanhouse: Over those two seasons, he saved 45 games with a 2.87 ERA but walked 103 batters in 147.1 innings while striking out just 76. He made the All-Star team in '79 even though he had 34 walks and 20 strikeouts at the break. Yes, times have changed. Stanhouse signed a big five-year, $2.1 million contract (no sabermetric analysis back then!) as a free agent with the Dodgers, but hurt his shoulder. Here's a good bio of Stanhouse.

Chet Lemon: Born 1955
The center fielder on the 1984 World Series champion Tigers, Lemon was a very underrated player, a guy who hit as high as .318, hit as many as 24 home runs, drew as many as 71 walks and played a good center field. He never did all those in the same season; otherwise, he'd be in the Hall of Fame. But he was a valuable player for a lot of years. He recorded 509 putouts in center field in 1977 with the White Sox, a total Baseball-Reference lists as the third highest for a center fielder.

Ruben Amaro Jr.: Born 1965
Still the general manager of the Phillies.

SPONSORED HEADLINES