SweetSpot: Pittsburgh Pirates

A.J. Burnett turned down a $12.75 million player option with the Phillies to enter free agency and agreed to a one-year deal with the Pirates for $8.5 million. How bad are the Phillies? Well, Burnett gave up $4.25 million not to play for them.

Anyway, after two solid seasons with the Pirates in 2012 and 2013 -- he went 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA -- Burnett signed with the Phillies and went 8-18 with a 4.59 ERA. The Phillies' defense certainly didn't help, but Burnett also walked 96 batters as his walk rate increased from 7.8 percent in 2012-13 to 10.3 percent in 2014.

[+] EnlargeBurnett
AP Photo/Matt SlocumVeteran right-hander A.J. Burnett returns to Pittsburgh on a one-year, $8.5 million deal.
Burnett's success in Pittsburgh can be attributed to a couple of factors:

1. His ground-ball rate with the Pirates was 58 percent both seasons. With the Yankees in 2011, it was 51 percent; with the Phillies last season, it was 53. So those extra ground balls probably helped, in particular because the Pirates became one of the biggest proponents of shifting in 2013. (Although it should be noted that Burnett's BABIP was .310 in 2013 and .307 in 2014.)

2. The park. PNC Park is a much better pitchers' park -- especially in limiting home runs -- than Citizens Bank Park. Burnett allowed 11 home runs in 2013, 20 in 2014.

3. Russell Martin. He caught Burnett for only one year, but Martin is considered an excellent game caller and pitch framer. Burnett's strikeout rate spiked in 2013 with Martin behind the plate.

4. Low-pressure environment. Burnett never thrived in New York, and Philly wasn't a much better media situation. In Pittsburgh, he won't be expected to carry the rotation.

At $8.5 million, the Pirates would be expecting Burnett to produce about 1.5 WAR of value -- about what he did in 2013 (1.7). He turns 38 in January but has made 30-plus starts in each of the past seven seasons, so he's as good a bet as you can make on an older pitcher.

He seems like a reasonable replacement for Edinson Volquez (or Francisco Liriano, both free agents). Remember, Volquez had been the worst regular starter in the majors in 2013 with a 5.71 ERA. The Pirates signed him and he posted a 3.04 ERA. Liriano's story was similar. The Pirates have certainly worked wonders the past two seasons with those reclamation projects; Burnett isn't quite in the same category, but if anyone will get the best out of him it's pitching coach Ray Searage.

The Pittsburgh rotation would now line up as Gerrit Cole, Vance Worley, Burnett, Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton (who had hip surgery in September and is likely to miss part of the regular season), with Brandon Cumpton in reserve. It's a pretty thin group, relying on Worley to prove his 2014 season wasn't a fluke and Locke to put together two good halves. You have to think the Pirates will still be looking to sign one more starter, whether it's Liriano, Volquez or somebody else.
Most Valuable Player voting is often about the narrative that develops during the long march of the season as much as the numbers -- in some cases the narrative may be more important than the numbers. In the American League, there was really only one narrative to consider this season: Mike Trout. He was the obvious choice and the voters made him just the 18th unanimous MVP winner and the first in the AL since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997.

In the National League, there were season-long debates between Clayton Kershaw and Giancarlo Stanton and then Andrew McCutchen -- who made a late push, hitting .347 with five home runs in September as the Pirates surged into the playoffs. There were those in the analytical regions of the Internet pushing for Jonathan Lucroy, who had a terrific offensive season as a catcher for the Brewers while getting recognition as one of the best pitch framers in the business.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesDodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has now won three Cy Youngs and an MVP award, and he's only 26.
But, really, those other narratives never took off. Stanton had the big power numbers, but it wasn't enough to separate him from McCutchen or Lucroy as the clear top candidate among position players. Even if Stanton hadn't been hit in the face and missed the final two weeks of the season, I don't think he would've won, as no player from a losing team has won an MVP award since Alex Rodriguez in 2003. McCutchen had slightly better offensive numbers than 2013; he improved his slugging percentage from .508 to .542 -- but the Pirates weren't the same surprise story as 2013 and McCutchen's 25 home runs and 83 RBIs don't jump out.

Stanton and McCutchen were great; just not great enough. Kershaw collected 18 of the 30 first-place votes, placed second on nine other ballots and easily outdistanced the runner-up, Stanton.

It's easy to see why. Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. At one point, the Dodgers had won 20 of 21 games he started. He was the best pitcher in the majors in 2013 and he got better in 2014, improving his strikeout/walk ratio from 4.46 to 7.71. After his one bad outing of the season -- he gave up seven runs in 1.2 innings to Arizona on May 17 -- he posted a 1.43 ERA over his final 23 regular-season outings. That start against the D-backs was his only one all season in which he allowed more than three runs. The numbers were so juicy that even though he pitched just 198 innings in 27 starts, the voters couldn't deny him MVP honors.

The debate heading into the MVP vote was whether Kershaw could overcome the pitcher bias existent in MVP balloting; no NL pitcher had won MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968, and Justin Verlander's win in 2011 was the first for a starting pitcher in the AL since Roger Clemens in 1986 and just the second since 1971.

The advanced metrics tell us Kershaw was the most valuable player in the NL in 2014. He led the NL in Baseball-Reference WAR at 8.0, topping Cole Hamels (6.9), Lucroy (6.7), Stanton (6.5) and Anthony Rendon (6.5). He led in FanGraphs WAR at 7.6, topping McCutchen (6.8), Rendon (6.6), Lucroy (6.3) and Stanton (6.1).

But Kershaw didn't win because of those metrics. He won because of the narrative. He won because he went 21-3. (He actually had a higher WAR in 2013 but finished seventh in the voting as he went just 16-9.) He won because he was clearly the most dominant player in the league.

Even if he was a pitcher.

* * *

The past two American League MVP races were hotly contested debates between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout -- well, hotly contested in cyberspace. When the voters in the Baseball Writers' Association actually got around to turning in their ballots the results weren't close at all: Cabrera received 22 of 28 first-place votes in 2012 and 23 of 30 in 2013.

Trout's obvious advantages in advanced metrics, defense and baserunning were trumped by Cabrera's Triple Crown and RBIs and the fact that Cabrera's Tigers made the playoffs and Trout's Angels didn't (although Trout's team actually won more games in 2012).

Anyway, in 2014, Cabrera didn't put up the monster offensive numbers, the Angels had the best record in the majors and Trout led the league in both runs scored and RBIs. The writers couldn't mess it up this year.

The ironic part of Trout's win -- he became the third Angels player to win after Don Baylor in 1979 and Vladimir Guerrero in 2004 -- is that by the advanced metrics that us stat guys love, Trout had his worst season:

2012: 10.8 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.1 FanGraphs WAR
2013: 8.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.5 FanGraphs WAR
2014: 7.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 7.8 FanGraphs WAR

Now, that 7.9 WAR was still the best in the league, making Trout the obvious choice on top of his conventional numbers. The main reason for the decline in WAR was a drop in defensive and baserunning value. In 2012, he was credited with 21 defensive runs saved (which Baseball-Reference uses) while that figure has been -9 the past two seasons. He's also declined in FanGraphs' defensive metric, ultimate zone rating (-8.4 runs). His steals have dropped from 49 to 33 to 16.

Of course, Trout didn't win because of advanced metrics. The fact that Victor Martinez -- who started 116 games at designated hitter -- finished second in the voting shows the voters still place an emphasis on offensive numbers while essentially ignoring the value of things like defense, position and baserunning. Martinez had a terrific season, but he wasn't the second-best player in the AL. On the other hand, it was nice that the voters recognized the great season that Michael Brantley had by putting him third in the voting even though the Indians didn't reach the playoffs.

Otherwise, it was scattershot results in the voting, as expected. Martinez did receive 16 second-place votes, but seven different players were placed there on the ballot. Ten different players received third-place votes.

Anyway, I have the feeling this won't be Mike Trout's only MVP award.video

SweetSpot TV: MVP preview

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13

Eric and I discuss the MVP races in both leagues. Mike Trout appears to be a lock in the AL but what will happen in the NL?

End-of-season Haiku for every team

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7
Congrats to the Giants on their World Series victory. Let's look back at the year on the diamond for all 30 teams, in regular season win total order, through traditional Japanese verse:

Trout league's best player?
Shoemaker pleasant surprise
Yet steamrolled by Royals

Stoic Showalter
Lost Manny, Matt, Chris but still
Ran away with East

Fateful decision
In playoffs shouldn't dampen
League's best rotation

The Bison is back
But Clayton couldn't kill Cards
Donnie gets last chance?

Death of Taveras
Casts pall on terrific year
Still class of Central

Flammable bullpen
Undermined starting pitching
Now replace V-Mart

Who needs walks, homers?
An "abundance" of bunting
Outfield defense ... whoa!

Cespedes got dealt
Team's offense dried up with it
Beane's "stuff" didn’t work

Three titles -- five years
Bumgarner otherworldly
Can they keep Panda?

Burning Cole last game
Trying for division tie
Might have cost Play-In

Cano did his thing
Felix, Hisashi duo
Not quite good enough

Kluber conquered all
But rest of staff slogged through year
Michael Brantley ... star!

Jeter’s farewell tour
Now A-Rod longest-tenured
Not your dad's Yankees

All five starters had
Double-digit wins, but four
Had ten-plus losses

Led till late August
Won nine all of September
Lucroy's framing tops

Shutout 16 times
NL's next to last runs scored
Let's just watch Kimbrel

DeGrom great story
Wheeler looked good, stayed healthy
Harvey's back, Big 3!

Last in all slash stats
No-hit by Timmy ... again
Front office rebuilt

Stayed competitive
Despite losing Fernandez
Can they sign Stanton?

Friedman, Maddon gone
Price dealt for cheaper prospects
Has their window closed?

Votto hardly seen
But Mesoraco burst out
Cueto stayed healthy

Abreu? Real deal
Chris Sale's elbow still attached?
Thank you, Konerko!

Top prospects galore
Renteria won't see them
Maddon works magic?

Vets went untraded
Amaro kept job somehow
Get used to last place

Bradley, Bogaerts ... meh
Buckholz saw ERA triple
Lester will be missed

Altuve a star
If only they could have signed
1st rounder Aiken

Hughes K'd 1-8-6
Is that allowed on their staff?
Mauer's bat slumping

Given multitude of hurts
Washington bowed out

League-worst ERA
Tulo missed 70 games
Fast start, then crash, burn

Gibson, Towers done
Can Hale, Stewart make team rise
Like a phoenix? Eh!

Diane Firstman runs the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
Here's the first part of our ranking of each team's worst position in 2014. We conclude with our final 15 teams and positions that might be looking to upgrade during the offseason.

16. Minnesota Twins LF/RF: 2.6 wins below average

Yes, Byron Buxton can't get here soon enough, although he'll eventually slot into center field, not a corner. Twins left fielders ranked 21st in wOBA -- they hit .238/.331/.332 -- but were dragged down by an MLB-worst minus-25 defensive runs saved. That shouldn't be a surprise as 11 different players got time out there with lead-footed Jason Kubel and Josh Willingham getting the most innings. Oswaldo Arcia got 399 PAs in right field; and while the Twins collectively ranked 15th among right fielders in wOBA, they also ranked worst in the majors in defensive runs saved, at minus-23. Arcia was minus-10 in his time there, while Chris Colabello and Chris Parmelee, in about half the playing time, were a combined minus-12. Twins pitchers weren't getting a lot of help from their outfield’s corners.

Fix for 2015: Minnesota can't continue to give so many innings to converted first basemen and DHs. Arcia will be the regular right fielder, but left and center are still wide open. Danny Santana finished the year in center, and he's a natural shortstop ... and Eduardo Escobar was OK there in 2014. Anyway, Jordan Schafer and Aaron Hicks are on the 40-man roster but aren't good starting options. Maybe Hicks gets one more chance to prove himself.

17. New York Yankees SS: 2.5 wins below average

Yes, that 2.5 ranked worst in the majors. It was time.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Elsa/Getty ImagesGreat career. But a not-so-great 2014 season. The numbers don't lie.

Fix for 2015: Brendan Ryan and Jose Pirela are on the 40-man roster; but Ryan can't hit and Pirela, .305/.351/.441 in Triple-A, didn't play much shortstop (eight games) at Scranton. So the replacement could come from the free agent ranks: Hanley Ramirez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew or Jed Lowrie. Drew hit .162 after missing the first two-plus months last year but is the best defensively and could probably be had on a one-year deal.

18. Kansas City Royals DH: 2.5 wins below average

The Royals declined the $12.5 million option on Billy Butler, who hit .271/.323/.379 as his power numbers continued to drop (nine home runs).

Fix for 2015: They'll probably try to bring Butler back, but on more team-friendly terms. A guy like Rickie Weeks may make sense as well, as he can hit lefties while also providing insurance at second base. Guys like Nelson Cruz and Victor Martinez are likely out of the Royals' price range.

19. Seattle Mariners DH: 2.4 wins below average

Seattle DHs hit a pathetic .189/.266/.302. In 2012, they hit .214/.286/.311. In 2011, they hit .225/.316/.333. In 2010, they hit .195/.270/.342. So, umm ... it's been an ongoing problem.

Fix for 2015: Is there a more perfect free-agent fit than Victor Martinez going to the Mariners? Otherwise, there's Cruz, another try with Kendrys Morales, a return of Mike Morse (the Mariners do need a right-handed batter) or finding a first baseman and moving Logan Morrison here.

20. Pittsburgh Pirates 1B: 2.4 wins below average

Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez formed an ineffective platoon. Davis at least had a decent .341 OBP; but overall, the Pirates' first sackers hit .226 with 17 home runs and below-average defense.

Fix for 2015: With supersub Josh Harrison emerging in 2014, the Pirates could give him the full-time job at third base and slide Pedro Alvarez over to first.

21. Arizona Diamondbacks 2B: 2.2 wins below average

Aaron Hill's OPS dropped 164 points from 2013. The Diamondbacks would probably like to trade him, but he's making $12 million each of the next two seasons.

Fix for 2015: Hill likely returns for his age-33 season. Or the D-backs give the job to one of the young shortstops, Chris Owings or Didi Gregorius. More likely, it's Hill at second with GM Dave Stewart looking to trade one of the shortstops for pitching or outfield help.

[+] EnlargeMorse
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsMichael Morse had some big postseason hits. Too bad he had to play the outfield some.
22. San Francisco Giants LF: 2.0 wins below average

This is a reflection of Mike Morse's statue-caliber defense, as Giants left fielders hit a respectable .257/.327/.440.

Fix for 2015: Morse is a free agent after signing a one-year, $6 million deal. He did slug .511 against lefties, and that right-handed bat was a nice fit lower in the order. Gregor Blanco is still around as a fourth outfielder and defensive caddy, or they could go the all-defense route with Blanco and Juan Perez and Travis Ishikawa filling in.

23. Los Angeles Angels 3B: 1.9 wins below average

David Freese had a tough year, as Angels third basemen ranked 24th in the majors in wOBA and 29th in defensive runs saved.

Fix for 2015: Freese still has one more season before free agency, so the job is his, with Gordon Beckham around as the backup.

24. Milwaukee Brewers SS: 1.7 wins below average

Who is the real Jean Segura?

First half, 2013: .325/.363/.487
Second half, 2013: .241/.268/.315
First half, 2014: .232/.266/.315
Second half, 2014: .271/.330/.345

Fix for 2015: Hope Segura is at least the player of the second half of 2015 and closer to the All-Star of the first half of 2013.

25. New York Mets C: 1.5 wins below average

Mets fans are probably shocked that left field, right field or shortstop didn't show up here. But while those positions were also all below-average, catcher was the worst. Mets catchers hit .226 with a sub-.300 OBP, but a big liability was Travis d'Arnaud's defense, which Baseball Info Solutions rated as the worst in the majors (minus-15 defensive runs saved).

Fix for 2015: D'Arnaud had a nice second half at the plate (.265/.313/.474) but threw out just 19 percent of base-stealers and led the NL with 12 passed balls. He does rate better on pitch framing. Anyway, he's the catcher, so the Mets will undoubtedly be looking to upgrade left field (.219/.306/.308) and shortstop.

26. Oakland Athletics 2B: 1.4 wins below average

Eric Sogard got the most time here with Nick Punto and Alberto Callaspo filling in. They ranked 29th in the majors in wOBA.

Fix for 2015: The A's have a bigger hole to worry about at shortstop with Lowrie a free agent, so they may be forced to go again with Sogard and Punto, who at least provide solid-average defense.

27. Washington Nationals 2B: 1.2 wins below average

Danny Espinosa didn't hit. Then Asdrubal Cabrera came over, but his defensive metrics were terrible. The ranking would be even lower if Anthony Rendon hadn't played 28 games here.

[+] EnlargeAsdrubal Cabrera
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAsdrubal Cabrera joined the Nats at the trading deadline, but he didn't solve their defensive problems at second base.

Fix for 2015: With Ryan Zimmerman presumably moving over to first base to replace free agent Adam LaRoche and Rendon slotting in at third, where he's a plus defender, the Nationals could: (A) give Espinosa one more chance; (B) find a better contact guy; or (C) try to trade a pitcher for a second baseman. (One rumor you'll see is Howie Kendrick, who has one year until free agency.) Personally, I'd try to keep the pitching depth, especially with Jordan Zimmermann a free agent after 2015. If Espinosa doesn't do the job, you can always look for a trade deadline replacement.

28. Baltimore Orioles 2B: 0.9 wins below average

There were a lot of black holes at second on offense across the majors in 2014. The Orioles (primarily, rookie Jonathan Schoop) hit .216 here with an awful .259 OBP.

Fix for 2015: Schoop has power (16 home runs), his defense was outstanding (he has a shortstop's arm) and he was rushed a bit to the majors. He might never give you the good plate discipline, but the O's can live with 20-homer power and Gold Glove-caliber defense if he boosts that OBP a bit.

29. Colorado Rockies 2B: 0.9 wins below average

As bad as the Rockies were, it's surprising their biggest position weakness didn't rate worse. DJ LeMahieu is one of the worst hitters in the majors -- his park-adjusted RC+ ranked 143rd out of 146 regulars -- but was a deserving winner of the Gold Glove.

Fix for 2015: Considering his defense, LeMahieu will be back as the Rockies try to plug holes on their pitching staff. On the other hand, they need to realize his empty .267 average is of little value in Coors Field.

30. Toronto Blue Jays C: 0.6 wins below average

Congrats, Blue Jays fans: You had the best worst position in the majors! This was actually a big upgrade from 2013, when J.P. Arencibia led the Jays to 2.6 wins below average at catcher. Blue Jays catchers ranked 19th in wOBA with average-ish defense.

Fix for 2015: Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole will return.

Hey, we weren't going to top the American League wild-card game. But we certainly hoped for a more exciting game than this one. Here are five things to think about in the San Francisco Giants' 8-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

1. Madison Bumgarner: Ace.

He was dominant, efficient and in complete control from the first inning on. He finished with a four-hit shutout and 10 strikeouts, 109 pitches of excellence. The only pitcher in Giants history with a higher Game Score in a postseason game was Tim Lincecum in 2010, when he pitched a two-hit, 14-strikeout gem against the Atlanta Braves in the division series.

OK, that's pretty sweet.

2. Brandon Crawford's fourth-inning home run.

Brandon CrawfordJason Miller/Getty Images

As I wrote here, Crawford's grand slam off Edinson Volquez was preceded by an excellent plate appearance by Brandon Belt, taking a 2-2 curveball below the knees and then walking on a 3-2 fastball. Volquez had allowed a .136 average on 1-2 counts on the season; he just made a terrible pitch to Crawford, a curveball up in the zone that catcher Russell Martin wanted down and in, where Crawford would swing over the top of it.

Crawford's home run was the first grand slam by a shortstop in postseason history, which is kind of random but also kind of cool. It was just the fifth grand slam in a win-or-die game, joining Bill Skowron (Yankees, 1956 World Series), Troy O'Leary (Red Sox, 1999 division series), Johnny Damon (Red Sox, 2004 ALCS) and teammate Buster Posey (2012 division series).

3. Pirates decide to pitch Gerrit Cole on Sunday.

It may not have made a difference with the way Bumgarner pitched, but in some fashion this game turned when the Pirates made the decision to start Cole on Sunday, even though they had a slim chance of winning the division (they needed to beat Johnny Cueto and the Reds, hope the last-place Diamondbacks beat Adam Wainwright and then beat the Cardinals on Monday in a one-game playoff). It's understandable why the Pirates made the decision -- it's hard to turn away from giving your best effort to win a division -- and you can even argue that Volquez was every bit as good as Cole right now considering Volquez's 1.85 ERA over his final 17 starts and consecutive scoreless outings to end the season.

Despite that ERA, Volquez's peripherals aren't great, although his hard sinker is more of a ground-ball pitch than a strikeout pitch. Still, not many out there consider Volquez a better pitcher than Cole, as he's still prone to command issues. As our colleague Curt Schilling tweeted before the game:

That's exactly what happened on the pitch to Crawford. He missed big.

Of course, on the other hand, maybe this game showed why the Pirates were smart to go all-out in trying to win the division and avoid facing Bumgarner.

4. Panda's catch.

Just because.

5. The night's other big winner: The Nationals

OK, there weren't a lot of big moments in this game, so let's consider this: The Giants will now travel to Washington for the division series. I actually thought the Pirates would have provided a good test for the Nationals if they had won this game, given their deep lineup and that Cole would have been ready to start Game 1. Instead, the Nationals draw a depleted Giants lineup that is missing Angel Pagan and Mike Morse and Bumgarner will get only one start in the series. Big advantage to the Nationals. I am not saying the Giants don't have a chance, just that the series certainly lines up as well as possible for the Nationals.
Through three innings, Edinson Volquez and Madison Bumgarner were dealing, with Curt Schilling praising both pitchers on Twitter. Volquez had thrown 38 pitches, 27 for strikes, although the Giants had helped him by swinging at a few pitches outside the strike zone.

The top of the fourth began innocently enough. Pablo Sandoval lined a 2-2 curve into right field for a base hit. Hunter Pence grounded an 0-1 fastball into left field. Brandon Belt worked the count full, checking his swing on a tough 2-2 curve below the knees, setting up a crucial pitch. Volquez gets a strikeout and he has a chance to work out of the jam. Give up something else and he's in serious trouble.

Volquez threw a terrible fastball, up and way out of strike zone to load the bases.

That brought up shortstop Brandon Crawford, who has some surprising pop at times -- 10 home runs and 10 triples, and that's in San Francisco, a tough home run park for left-handed hitters. The count went to 1-2: changeup away, fastball for a called strike, a curveball at the knees that was foul tipped. Volquez threw another curveball, Russell Martin wanting it low and inside again, but the pitch was up and ...

It was a bad pitch and Crawford didn't miss. Batters hit .136 against Volquez on 1-2 counts and he'd allowed only two home runs all season on that count. But one mistake can cost you the season. With Bumgarner dealing at 45 pitches through four innings, a comeback looks unlikely for the Pirates.

But that's what we said last night.
Can we top the American League wild-card game? Unlikely, but PNC Park promises to be one of the best atmospheres you'll see all postseason, just like last year when the Pirates beat the Reds in the wild-card game.

Giants lineup
CF Gregor Blanco
2B Joe Panik
C Buster Posey
3B Pablo Sandoval
RF Hunter Pence
1B Brandon Belt
SS Brandon Crawford
LF Travis Ishikawa
P Madison Bumgarner

The late-season injuries to Angel Pagan (back) and Mike Morse (oblique) have weakened the San Francisco outfield to the point where Bruce Bochy will start Travis Ishikawa in left field -- where he's started three games in his major league career, the first time in Game 159. He has played some outfield in the minors (25 games in left, 50 in right) but his lack of experience out there could be a big factor as the Pirates load their lineup with right-handed batters against Bumgarner.

While Panik has hit .305, it's a soft .305 with one home run in 269 at-bats. The Giants would have been better off leaving Hunter Pence in the No. 2 hole, where he's more likely to get an extra at-bat late in the game. Expect the Pirates to pitch carefully to Posey, who hit .354/.403/.575 in the second half. And don't forget that Bumgarner is a threat at the plate after mashing four home runs and hitting .258. He actually had a higher OPS than Blanco, Panik, Sandoval, Crawford or Ishikawa and the same as Belt.

On the bench
Position players -- C Andrew Susac, C Guillermo Quiroz, 1B/3B Adam Duvall, IF Joaquin Arias, IF Matt Duffy, OF Gary Brown, OF Juan Perez

Pitchers -- Jake Peavy (R), Yusmeiro Petit (R), Tim Lincecum (R), Hunter Strickland (R), Jean Machi (R), Sergio Romo (R), Jeremy Affeldt (L), Javier Lopez (L), Santiago Casilla (R)

The Giants elected to go with 10 pitchers. Maybe they watched last night's game. That's a pretty weak bench, a reflection of the injuries to Pagan and Morse. The top pinch-hitting options are probably Duffy and Susac, thus the need to carry a third catcher in Quiroz. Brown is a pinch-running option while Perez would be a defensive replacement in the outfield for Ishikawa. The lack of pinch-hitting options should allow the Pirates to match up as desired, as Bochy is unlikely to hit for any of the top seven guys in the order.

Peavy started on Saturday, so he could be the long man if Bumgarner gets hurt early or knocked out, although that role could fall to either Petit or Lincecum. Lincecum threw just eight innings in September and he's probably more of an emergency guy, although remember that he pitched well out of the bullpen in the 2012 postseason. Bochy will mix and match with the rest of his relievers. Lopez is more of a true LOOGY while Affeldt can pitch to righties if needed. Romo lost his closer job to Casilla, who converted 19 of 20 save opportunities after taking over. Keep an eye on Strickland, the rookie with a 97-99 mph fastball who threw seven scoreless innings down the stretch with nine K's and no walks. Will Bochy trust him in a big situation?

Pirates lineup
3B Josh Harrison
SS Jordy Mercer
CF Andrew McCutchen
C Russell Martin
LF Starling Marte
2B Neil Walker
1B Gaby Sanchez
RF Travis Snider
P Edinson Volquez

Clint Hurdle lines up right-handed batters in his first five spots to counter Bumgarner, moving Walker and Snider down in the lineup. Martin has been battling a hamstring injury and missed the final two games of the regular season. Volquez is coming off back-to-back scoreless outings and had generally better results down the stretch than in the first half. But he's still prone to control issues, so it will be interesting to see how long of a leash he's given.

On the bench

Position players -- C Chris Stewart, C Tony Sanchez, 1B Ike Davis, IF Clint Barmes, IF Brent Morel, OF Gregory Polanco, OF Jose Tabata, OF Andrew Lambo

Pitchers -- Vance Worley (R), Jeff Locke (L), John Holdzkom (R), Bobby LaFromboise (L), Jared Hughes (R), Justin Wilson (L), Tony Watson (L), Mark Melancon (R)

The Pirates went with nine pitches, with starters Worley and Locke backing up Volquez. Worley is on full rest so is probably the long man ahead of Locke. In the bullpen, Hurdle would love to bridge the gap to Watson and Melancon, as there has to be some concerns with the rest of the group. Holdzkom is a hard-throwing rookie who began the year begging for a job in independent ball and rose to pitching important innings in September.

Davis platoons at first base with Gaby Sanchez, so expect to see him if the Giants have a right-hander pitching with Sanchez up (although Bochy has Affeldt and Lopez in the pen to counteract if necessary). Polanco has the best wheels off the bench and Tony Sanchez gives the club a third catcher if Martin's hammy proves problematic.

After last night's results, predictions are a foolish thing, but I'll go Giants 4, Pirates 3, as Volquez gives up some runs early and Bumgarner pitches deep into the game and maybe even delivers and a crucial RBI hit.

You can't fault the way Gerrit Cole pitched Sunday for the Pittsburgh Pirates: Seven innings, four hits, one run, 12 strikeouts. But it wasn't enough as Johnny Cueto throttled the Pirates' lineup, and the Reds scored three runs in the eighth off the Pittsburgh bullpen, giving the NL Central title to the St. Louis Cardinals.

So the question: Should the Pirates have started Cole? Three things had to happen for the Pirates to win the division:

[+] EnlargeGerrit Cole
AP Photo/Al BehrmanGerrit Cole had his good stuff on Sunday, but it went to waste against the Reds' Johnny Cueto.

--The Pirates had to beat Cueto, one of the top starters in the majors, and a guy you figured would bring his A-game as he aimed for his 20th victory.

--They would need the Diamondbacks to beat the Cardinals, with Adam Wainwright the scheduled starter for St. Louis.

--They would then have to beat the Cardinals on Monday, with the struggling Jeff Locke the likely starter.

If all those things didn't happen, that meant the Pirates would have to dig deeper into their rotation for their starter in the wild-card game, either Vance Worley or Edinson Volquez.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said it was an easy decision to go with Cole. Hurdle said everyone in the organization was on the same page -- general manager Neal Huntington, team president Frank Coonelly and chairman Bob Nutting. "We tried to play the logical game," Hurdle said before the game. "At the end of the day, after every conversation with every player, the coaching staff, Neal, Bob, Frank -- no way we walk away from an opportunity to win our division."

It's easy to second-guess the decision after the fact, but I had raised the issue before this game. Clearly, the math was against it working: You had to rate the Reds the slight favorite Sunday with Cueto starting, and the Cardinals the big favorite against the Diamondbacks with Wainwright starting, and if it got to Monday, the edge to the Cardinals with Locke starting and the Pirates on the road, where they don't play as well.

But it's also easy to understand why the Pirates started Cole. "To pitch [Stolmy] Pimentel or [Casey] Sadler after 161 games of grit and fight and battle ... We're trying to make history here," Hurdle said. "There is no guarantee of how to cut this thing up. So you do what you believe in, and we'll attack it this way."

Plus, you can look at the wild-card game two ways: You have to win that to advance, so you want your best possible starter in that game; or, you can view it as just one step along the way, and since it's essentially a coin-flip game anyway, having your best setup for the division series is important, and by starting Cole on Sunday, he'll now be available (along with Francisco Liriano) to start Game 1 of the division series Friday if the Pirates get there.


Who would you start for the Pirates in the wild-card game?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,127)

My first thought was that I would not have started Cole and saved him for Wednesday. But after reading Hurdle's quote, I think maybe he's right: You can't tell your players you're not giving them the best effort to win the division.

Plus, all of that undersells Worley, who is 8-4 with a 2.85 ERA in 17 starts (and one relief appearance) ... except all indications are Volquez will start Wednesday. But Volquez is coming off back-to-back scoreless starts and has allowed just seven runs over his past six starts. His control can still be shaky, and his 10-strikeout game in his last turn came against the hapless Braves, so you don't want to overrate that, but he is pitching his best baseball of the season.

And Hurdle will have the luxury of Worley in the bullpen if needed in long relief and a deep bullpen. You would expect Volquez to be on a short leash if he starts walking guys.

Still, if I'm the San Francisco Giants, I'm happy about how Sunday unfolded. As Cole showed, he's capable of a dominant effort every time out with his big-time stuff. The Giants will have Madison Bumgarner going against Volquez, and even though the game is in Pittsburgh, the Giants have to like that matchup.

The implications of Game No. 162

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28

We began Saturday with six teams playing for something: Trying to win a division title, trying stay alive for a division title, trying to clinch a wild card, or, in the case of the Seattle Mariners, just trying to keep alive the faintest of hopes that the final game of the regular season on Sunday might mean something.

It will. After the Texas Rangers held on to defeat the Oakland Athletics 5-4, the Mariners needed a win against the Angels to avoid elimination. They tied the game 1-1 in the seventh and had a runner on third with one but couldn’t score. They loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth and couldn’t score. They got a leadoff single in the 10th but couldn’t score. In the 11th, Brad Miller doubled with one out and Chris Taylor blooped a single to center, but Miller had to hold up and didn’t score, even after center fielder Tony Campana bobbled the ball. The Mariners had just one walk-off win on the season -- every other team has at least four -- and it looked like Miller’s hesitation might haunt the Mariners.

With five infielders in for the Angels, Austin Jackson -- who failed to come through in the seventh and ninth, bounced a two-hopper to second baseman Grant
Green, who paused briefly before finally deciding to turn two instead of throwing home. The flip was slow and Jackson beat the relay. That led to my favorite moment of a strange day of baseball, when none of our other five teams had won: Felix Hernandez, celebrating on the field with his teammates, his hat off, his hair looking like he just crawled out of bed, with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on his face.

You see, Felix is going to start on Sunday. It will be the most important start of his career, a chance for redemption after he lost his last in Toronto with his worst outing of the season.

Felix is the biggest winner of the day. Here are some other winners and losers as we set up Sunday’s slate of action when, once again, we’ll have six games that mean something.

Loser: The Oakland A’s. They have to be feeling the pressure now, don’t they? A little bit? After owning the best record in the majors at the All-Star break they’ve now lost 20 of 29 games and have to win Game No. 162 to clinch a wild card. They’ll send Sonny Gray to the mound against Nick Martinez of the Rangers, so they have the starting pitcher advantage on paper. But the Rangers have now beaten them five out of six times this month.

Winner: Josh Donaldson. He hurt his ankle Friday and despite looking a little hobbled went 3-for-4 with a home run in Saturday’s losing effort.

Winner: David Price. He’ll get the chance to show everyone why the Tigers acquired him. Throw a gem on Sunday and those rocky outings will be forgotten. Win and the Tigers clinch the AL Central. Lose and the Royals will have opportunity to tie with a win of their own.

Winner: The Kansas City Royals. They’re still alive and they have a good matchup with Yordano Ventura going against Chris Bassitt in a battle of rookies. Ventura has allowed more than three runs just once in his past 10 starts and has a 2.08 ERA and .195 average allowed over that span.

Winner: The Minnesota Twins, for being a thorn in the side all season to the Tigers. They’re 10-8 against Detroit and have averaged over six runs per game, including outbursts of 20, 12 twice and 11. In other words, it’s no guarantee that Price shuts them down.

Loser: Clint Hurdle. The Pirates manager faces a tough decision. Do you start Gerrit Cole as scheduled on Sunday, knowing the Cardinals will be starting 20-game winner Adam Wainwright later in the day in Arizona, and thus eliminate Cole as a possible starter in Wednesday’s wild-card game?

While winning the division is important, think of all that has to go right for the Pirates for that to happen: You have to beat Johnny Cueto, who is going for his 20th win; you have to hope the Diamondbacks somehow beat Wainwright; then you have to beat the Cardinals on Monday with Jeff Locke starting.

Hurdle didn’t make an announcement on Saturday, since the Pirates played in the afternoon before the Cardinals result was in. But I have to think he’ll scratch Cole to line up the guy generally considered the No. 1 or 2 guy on the Pittsburgh staff (behind or ahead of Francisco Liriano) in the wild-card game. Put it this way: You’re probably more likely to beat the Reds without Cole than you are to beat the Giants with Edinson Volquez.

Loser: Liriano. He’s supposed to be the Pirates’ ace, but he walked five in five innings against a Reds lineup that didn’t exactly resembled the ’75 Big Red Machine. That’s 14 walks for Liriano in his past three games; he avoided damage his past two starts but the walks haunted him on Saturday. No matter what happens to the Pirates in the division race, if they reach the Division Series, Liriano would be the guy to start Game 1. He needs to rediscover the strike zone if the Pirates advance that far.

Winner: The Giants. If Cole ends up starting on Sunday.

Potential loser: The St. Louis Cardinals, if they blow Sunday’s game and the Pirates win. Luckily, they do have Wainwright going, but if they have to play a tiebreaker game on Monday, neither of their top two starters will be available since Lance Lynn pitched Saturday. And neither would presumably be available for the wild-card game on Wednesday if they lose on Monday.

Winner: Bud Selig. Isn’t this what Bud dreamed of with the wild card and then the second wild card? Teams battling to the final day to win division titles, more teams with meaningful games down the stretch, small-market teams like the Pirates and Royals in the playoffs. You can debate the merits of calling the wild-card game a postseason game, and two of these teams we’ve been paying so much attention to lately will be gone from the playoffs after a few hours of baseball, but there’s no denying Selig’s version has made September baseball more interesting.

Winner: The fans in Arizona and Texas. Their teams entered the night with the worst records in baseball but give them credit for creating playoff atmospheres in those parks. They haven’t had much to cheer about but it was nice to see them on their feet in the ninth, cheering like it was the Diamondbacks and Rangers playing for a division title or wild card.

Winner: Sunday baseball. We could have had no meaningful baseball on Sunday, instead of six games with potential playoff implications.

Potential winner: Monday baseball. If the Pirates win, Cardinals lose, Royals win, Tigers lose, Mariners win and A’s lose, we get three Game No. 163s. We can dream, can’t we?

Five things we learned Friday

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27

The big news of the night was the Kansas City Royals clinching their first postseason berth since 1985, ending the longest playoff drought in the majors. (That honor now belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays, last in the playoffs in 1993, when they won the World Series on Joe Carter's home run.) Doug Padilla was on the scene for the Royals' win over the White Sox, so he has that covered, but one quick note about the Royals before we get to five other things we learned on Friday.

The Royals don't have the best starting rotation in the American League -- they're fourth in ERA and that's playing in a pitcher's park with perhaps the league's best defense behind them. But it's a good rotation that has done a nice job of pitching deep into games. Only the Tigers have received more innings from their starters among AL teams. Now, the gap between the Royals and the bottom teams isn't large -- 80 innings -- but they've also thrown nearly 100 innings more than two years ago, before they acquired James Shields. When the Royals made that controversial deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, trading away top prospect Wil Myers, this is exactly why general manager Dayton Moore thought it necessary to add a guy like Shields. He's not the best pitcher in the league, not a Cy Young contender, but he's a durable workhorse who annually ranks among the leaders in innings. He led the AL last year with 228⅔ innings and has thrown 227 this year. He's been exactly what the Royals desired, and maybe it doesn't show up in the sabermetric evaluations, but you have to believe having a staff leader like him has had some effect.

So, congrats, Royals. The wild-card game isn't necessarily much of a reward if you go one and done, but there's always this: The Tigers lost. You're only one game from tying them for the division lead.

1. The Pirates win but suffer a potentially big loss.

The Pirates broke a 1-1 tie in the eighth with the Reds when Jay Bruce misplayed a line drive into a run-scoring, go-ahead double for Travis Snider, but their 17th win in 21 games came with potentially bad news when Russell Martin left the game after drawing a seventh-inning walk, his lingering battle with a sore hamstring getting the better of him. Martin didn't discuss the issue after the game but manager Clint Hurdle said, "Some days are better than others, and today it just seemed to be tougher for him to get loose." Chris Stewart will start Saturday afternoon. For a spell, it looked like the Pirates would tie the Cardinals for the NL Central lead when Arizona led early and almost rallied late, but …

2. The Cardinals win in extra innings to keep their one-game lead.

St. Louis caught a huge, huge break in this one. Leading 6-3 in the eighth, Pat Neshek couldn't hold the lead, and the Diamondbacks appeared to take the lead when Ender Inciarte hit a double over left fielder Jon Jay's head, which would have scored Arizona's seventh run … except the ball bounced into the stands and Didi Gregorius had to return to third base. Neshek got the next batter and Jhonny Peralta eventually delivered the go-ahead single in the 10th. (By the way, Peralta is a worthy top-10 guy on the NL MVP ballot.)

Michael Wacha had another mixed review. He gave up two runs in the first and then nothing else, leaving after 98 pitches and a leadoff single in the sixth, but he still walked three in his five-plus innings. If the Pirates do end up catching the Cardinals to force a one-game playoff, Wacha could potentially be in line to start the wild-card game. Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright will go on Saturday and Sunday.

3. The Oakland A's magic number is down to one.

Scott Kazmir has been the one Oakland starter struggling -- the first-half All-Star has a 5.42 ERA in the second half and owned an 8.58 ERA over his six previous starts entering Friday's game -- but he came up big in a 6-2 win over the Rangers, going seven innings and allowing four hits and just one earned run. Kazmir threw 72 percent strikes, his highest percentage since Aug. 8 and fourth highest of the year, throwing more cutters and fewer sliders than he had recently. "It's been a long time coming it feels like. Just feels good," Kazmir said. Keep an eye on Josh Donaldson's knee. He tweaked it in the third inning and played the rest of the game (he went 2-for-4) but looked hobbled and took it slow on the bases.

The Mariners held on to beat the Angels 4-3 as Fernando Rodney allowed a run in the ninth but recorded his 48th save in 51 opportunities, so Seattle needs two wins and two Oakland losses to force a Monday tiebreaker game.

4. Doug Fister might be the real ace of the Nationals.

Fister threw a brilliant, three-hit shutout in the first game of a doubleheader against the Marlins, clinching the NL's best record for the Nationals and a Division Series date against the wild-card winner. Fister improved to 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA. While Fister fanned a season-high nine in this game, he's an anomaly in this age of strikeouts: He has just 98 in 164 innings, but he also has just 24 walks in 26 starts and induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls even though he tends to pitch up in the zone, a testament to the movement he gets on his two-seam fastball and ability to change speeds. Fister isn't starting Game 1 of the Division Series, but he has a 2.98 career postseason ERA in 48⅓ innings.

5. Corey Kluber couldn't keep the Indians alive but did help his Cy Young case.

Kluber finished his season with another dominant effort: 8 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 11 SO. When Cody Allen closed out the 1-0 win, the Indians were still alive, but they were officially eliminated once the A's won. But Kluber's three-start finish -- 39 K's, including becoming the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2004 with back-to-back games of 14 strikeouts -- might have pushed him past Felix Hernandez as the Cy Young favorite. The final opposing-batter stats against Kluber's curveball: .091 (19-for-209), with no home runs, 126 strikeouts and five walks. Wow.

What are odds of Monday baseball?

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
Heading into the weekend, we have the slim possibility of three potential tiebreaker games Monday. This wouldn't be unusual in the wild-card era. We had one last season between the Rays and Rangers (the Rays won 5-2 behind David Price's complete game) and we have had six others since 1995: Mariners over Angels in 1995, Cubs over Giants in 1999, Mets over Reds in 1999, Rockies over Padres in 13 innings in 2007, White Sox over Twins in 2008, Twins over Tigers in 12 innings in 2009.

The possible Monday games:

--Oakland at Seattle for a wild-card berth.

--Kansas City at Detroit for the AL Central title.

--Pittsburgh at St. Louis for the NL Central title.

There are actually two permutations on the first one. Kansas City, Oakland and Seattle could each end up with 87 wins if the Royals go 0-3, the A's go 1-2 and the Mariners go 3-0 over the weekend, creating a three-teams-for-two-spots scenario. The A's, Mariners and Indians could also each end up with 86 wins if the A's go 0-3, the Mariners go 2-1 and the Indians go 3-0, creating a three-for-one scenario. (Here are the rules for those tiebreakers, in case you believe in the impossible.)

While acknowledging either of those things could happen, they probably won't. Baseball Prospectus gives the Indians the worst playoff odds at 0.7 percent. I'm not sure if that's just reaching a Game No. 163, or winning the tiebreaker and making the wild-card game. Either way, it's a long shot.

Anyway, sticking to three scenarios above, let's review.

A's two games up on the Mariners
A's at Rangers: Scott Kazmir vs. Nick Tepesch; Jeff Samardzija vs. Derek Holland; Sonny Gray vs. Nick Martinez.

The Rangers have won four in a row over the A's in the past two weeks and have improbably won 12 of their past 13 games. Which either means they're really hot or they’re due for some losses.

Angels at Mariners: Jered Weaver vs. Hisashi Iwakuma; Cory Rasmus vs. James Paxton; C.J. Wilson vs. Felix Hernandez.

Iwakuma, Paxton and Hernandez are all coming off horrible outings, and Iwakuma has been bad over his past five starts. The Mariners also aren't a good home team, with a 38-40 record at Safeco. One possible advantage is that the Angels probably won't ask their starters to go deep into these games as they gear up for the playoffs. You may also see some of the regular position players rest a game (although, since the Angels won't play again until Thursday, I don't think you'll see too much sitting.) Seattle has to hope it can at least get to Sunday with Felix in play.

What needs to happen for a tie: Mariners sweep the Angels and the Rangers beat the A's two of three, or Seattle takes two of three and the Rangers sweep. FanGraphs gives the Mariners a 4.1 percent chance at the wild card, but Baseball Prospectus is at just 0.5 percent. That doesn't make sense to me: Why would the Indians, with one fewer victory than the Mariners, have better odds? (I assume because they've played better lately.)

Most likely scenario: The A's beat the Rangers two of three, and the Mariners win just one from the Angels.

Monday matchup if there is a tie: Probably Jon Lester vs. Taijuan Walker.

Tigers two games up on the Royals
Twins at Tigers: Anthony Swarzak vs. Rick Porcello; Ricky Nolasco vs. Kyle Lobstein; Kyle Gibson vs. David Price.

Sorry, Royals fans, but none of those pitching matchups favor the Twins. The Twins have, however, split 16 games so far with the Tigers.

Royals at White Sox: Jeremy Guthrie vs. Hector Noesi; Danny Duffy vs. John Danks; Yordano Ventura vs. Chris Bassitt.

While the Royals are on the road, the good news is no Chris Sale or Jose Quintana for the White Sox in these final three games, so they have the starting pitching edge on paper in each matchup. The Royals are 11-5 against the White Sox.

What needs to happen for a tie: Considering a Twins sweep is unlikely, the Royals need to sweep the White Sox and hope the Twins take two of three.

Most likely scenario: Both the Tigers and Royals win two of three and the Royals host the wild-card game. FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus both give the Royals about a 4 percent chance of winning the division.

Monday matchup if there is a tie: Justin Verlander vs. Jason Vargas. (Max Scherzer and James Shields would be going on three days' rest.)


Prediction for this weekend?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,720)

Cardinals one game up on Pirates
Cardinals at Diamondbacks: Michael Wacha vs. Trevor Cahill; Lance Lynn vs. Wade Miley; Adam Wainwright vs. Josh Collmenter.

The Diamondbacks are 6-17 in September and have the worst record in baseball. The Cardinals do have a losing record on the road, however.

Pirates at Reds: Vance Worley vs. Mike Leake; Francisco Liriano vs. Alfredo Simon; Gerrit Cole vs. Johnny Cueto.

The Reds are 8-14 in September, but the Cueto game will be the tough one for the Pirates as he goes for his 20th win.

What needs to happen for a tie: You have to think the Cardinals will take at least two from Arizona, so the Pirates will need to sweep. Still, since there is just one game separating the two, this is certainly the race most likely of the three to end in a tie. If so, I wrote earlier about what that means for the Pirates and Cardinals rotations.

Most likely scenario: Cardinals and Pirates both win two of three, giving the Cardinals the division.

Monday matchup if there is a tie: Jeff Locke vs. Shelby Miller or John Lackey.

Prediction? Well, I guess I'd say none of three races will end up in a tie. But the Mariners fan in me holds out hope ...
The playoff teams are set in the National League, but we don't yet know the order. Three things are still in play:

1. The Cardinals lead the Pirates by one game in the NL Central.

2. The Pirates lead the Giants by one game in the wild-card race, although this is effectively a two-game lead because the Pirates own the tiebreaker advantage over the Giants. Considering the Pirates have the biggest home/road split in the majors, if they can't win the division, holding off the Giants is important.

3. The Nationals hold a 2.5-game lead over the Dodgers for best record. (And also hold the tiebreaker, so it's effectively a 3.5-game lead.)

Let's address those first two items, in particular the state of the Pirates' rotation. Right now, their scheduled starters against the Reds this weekend are Vance Worley on Friday, Francisco Liriano on Saturday and Gerrit Cole on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeGerrit Cole
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsThe Pirates want Gerrit Cole pitching in important games. But how to ensure that next week?

A lot can happen between now and Cole's start Sunday. The Cardinals could clinch the division. The Pirates could clinch the first wild card. If those scenarios both happen, I would expect the Pirates to hold back Cole and start him in the wild-card game Wednesday. Otherwise, however, things get tricky. Remember, the Saturday game will be in play no matter what happens Friday (the Pirates have a day game while the Cardinals play at night), so Liriano will start. As Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports:
That means the only way the Pirates would be able to use Liriano in a potential wild card game is on three day's rest, which is often ill-advised. ...

The scenario in which the Pirates play a tiebreak 163rd game on Monday in St. Louis, the only pitcher on regular rest would be Jeff Locke; and as we saw Wednesday, he is by far the club's shakiest starting option. Locke pitching on the road in St. Louis will be quite a challenge.

But if the Pirates win that game, they would be in great shape to set up their rotation for the NLDS.

1. Liriano
2. Cole
3. (Edinson) Volquez
4. Worley

(vs. WAS or LAD)

If they lost such a game, they couldn't use Cole in the Wednesday wild card game and Liriano would be on three days' rest ... and well, that spells trouble. Or does it? Maybe Volquez can extend his scoreless innings streak.

Got that? If the Pirates do end up tied with the Cardinals, it appears Locke would have to start the tiebreaker game. If they lost that, the options in the wild-card game would be: (A) Volquez on five days' rest; (B) Worley on four days' rest; (C) Liriano on three days' rest.

Interesting choice there for Clint Hurdle. Considering teams will set up their rotations for the stretch as early as late August, the Pirates had to have foreseen this possibility (or maybe not, considering a division title seemed unlikely back in early September). I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Liriano starting on three days' rest, because as Sawchik implied, Edinson Volquez would make me very nervous.

As for the Cardinals, their weekend starters in Arizona will be Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright.

The Division Series doesn't start until Friday, so even if they need Wainwright to clinch the division Sunday, he'd still be ready to start Game 1 of that series on regular rest.

Where things take a complicated turn for St. Louis is if the Pirates catch them for the division. Wainwright and Lynn, their two best starters, wouldn't be available for Monday's division tiebreaker. That game would go to either Shelby Miller, who started Tuesday, or John Lackey, who started Wednesday. Miller has been better than Lackey of late, although he got knocked out in the fifth inning in that last outing.

If the Cardinals lose the tiebreaker, the wild-card start Wednesday could go to either Wacha on four days' rest or Miller or Lackey. Wacha has yet to deliver a confidence-inspiring performance since his return from the DL, so I think that start would be predicated on his Friday performance. Lynn would have to go on three days' rest, probably unlikely.

The odds still favor the Cardinals -- FanGraphs gives them an 80 percent chance of winning the division compared to 20 percent for the Pirates. But all that needs to happen is for the Pirates to sweep the Reds and the Cardinals to go 2-1 and suddenly we'll have a crazy few days in the National League.

(As for the Giants, Madison Bumgarner will start the wild-card game. It's possible that not being in a division race will end up being to their advantage, as they'll get to pitch their ace while the Pirates or Cardinals may end up having to use their No. 4 or 5 starter.)

Five things we learned Thursday

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
What did we learn Thursday night other than Derek Jeter has lived the most charmed baseball life any of us could imagine? (Not that we needed confirmation.) We learned that we'll have weekend baseball that still matters. Playoff spots remain unclinched and two divisions are still up for grabs.

1. The A's continue to find unique ways to lose. A friend of mine who is an A’s fan sent me an email in the ninth inning of the A's-Rangers game that read, "Coco Crisp has reached base FIVE times tonight ... and has not scored! Unbelievably bad." Quickly followed up with, "Awful. Just awful. The A's deserve to lose this game. Colby Lewis? C'mon." A few moments later Adrian Beltre hit an 0-1 slider from Luke Gregerson out to right field and the Rangers had a 2-1 victory, the fourth straight win for the Rangers over the A's in the past two weeks. The A's left 10 runners on base and went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. The leadoff man reached base in five innings and scored just once -- and that came on Geovany Soto's safety squeeze in the sixth inning. Poor Jason Hammel: The A's have scored two runs or fewer in 11 of his 12 starts.

The A's are 8-15 in September and nine of those losses have been by one run. The only thing keeping them in a wild-card position has been the poor play of the Mariners, who had lost five in a row and 11 of 15 before finally beating the Blue Jays earlier in the day. Out of starters with Roenis Elias injured and Chris Young benched for the season, M's manager Lloyd McClendon used nine relief pitchers and saw Logan Morrison hit two home runs in the 7-5 win.

So the A's lead the Mariners by two games with three to go, putting their magic number at two. The A's have Scott Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija and Sonny Gray lined up against the Rangers while the Mariners have Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton and Felix Hernandez facing the Angels. The A's should hold on as a Mariners sweep seems unlikely, but this is baseball and stranger things have happened. If the teams do end up tied, the tiebreaker on Monday would likely feature Jon Lester against rookie Taijuan Walker.

2. The Royals are this close to clinching their first playoff spot since 1985. Trailing the White Sox 3-1 through four innings, the Royals tied it up with a run in the fifth and then Eric Hosmer's homer off Jose Quintana in the sixth, just his second off a left-hander this season. The Royals rallied for two more in the eighth off Quintana -- Hosmer added a big single -- and the Chicago bullpen. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland pitched the final three innings for the win, hold and save. Kansas City's magic number over Seattle is one and they're also effectively two games ahead of the A's for home-field advantage in the wild-card game since they hold the tiebreaker edge if they finish with the same record.

However, the Royals remained two games behind the Tigers in the AL Central as ...

3. Detroit's bullpen pitches well! Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera homered to stake the Tigers to a lead and Max Scherzer survived four walks, five hits and 116 pitches in six shaky innings to leave with a 3-2 lead against the Twins. But the story for the Tigers was Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan retired all nine batters they faced. It's just one game, but Tigers fans will take it as a positive sign. (Although my favorite line of the night came from MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac saying that may have been Nathan's cleanest inning since the All-Star break. Maybe it's not a good sign if that's what people are saying about your closer.) Rick Porcello, Kyle Lobstein and David Price will try and wrap up the division title over the weekend.

4. Pirates keep the pressure on the Cardinals. The 10-1 win over the Braves put Pittsburgh one game back of the idle Cardinals. Josh Harrison led the way with three hits (raising his average to a league-leading .319). The odds obviously favor the Cardinals -- they get the worst-in-baseball Diamondbacks in Arizona -- but the Pirates are rolling and the Reds are running on fumes right now. Remember, if the Cardinals and Pirates tie for the division, they will then play a tiebreaker game. So both teams will be going all-out this weekend and not resting up for the playoffs.

5. Nationals get closer to clinching NL's best record. After Washington lost the opener of a doubleheader to the Mets, Gio Gonzalez pitched the Nationals to a 3-0 win in the nightcap -- and maybe solidified his spot in the postseason rotation over Tanner Roark. The Nationals are also one win (or Dodgers loss) from securing home-field advantage in the NLCS, should they advance. Ryan Zimmerman played seven innings in left field in the first game and pinch-hit in the nightcap. "I can't really go 100 percent yet," Zimmerman said. "I'm sort of learning what I have, what I don't have, and the only way to do that is to go out and play." He played seven innings on Saturday, but had pinch-hit just once since then. Both his appearances in the field have come in left, so watch this weekend to see if he plays third base, in case that's a possibility for the postseason (with Anthony Rendon sliding over to second).

5A. The Giants clinch a wild card. It was anticlimactic, as they clinched while driving to the ballpark when the Brewers lost.

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25

It was a night of missed opportunities. The Cardinals lost but the Pirates couldn't take advantage. The Royals led the Indians but couldn't hold on and dropped further behind the Tigers. The A's and Royals lost. Taijuan Walker finally gave the Mariners a strong pitching effort on a night when their offense couldn't score, and the already desperate Mariners are down to their final breaths. The Giants had their chances against Clayton Kershaw but couldn't capitalize. Here's the Hunt for October page with playoffs odds and each team's remaining schedule.

1. The Pirates were due for a loss. Hey, you can't them win all, which is seemingly what the Pirates had been doing the past two-plus weeks in winning 15 of 18 before a 6-2 loss to the Braves. It still stings considering Jake Arrieta was dominating the Cardinals, meaning a Pittsburgh win would have drawn the Pirates to a half-game behind the St. Louis. A tie isn't out of the question: If the Pirates win three of their final four, they need the Diamondbacks to beat the Cardinals two of three in Arizona. A Diamondbacks team that has lost eight of nine and 15 of 19. Jeff Locke struggled, and if the Pirates do win the division or make it past the wild-card game, he’s a shaky postseason starter. In his past seven starts, he's had two five-walk games (including Wednesday) and a six-walk game. It's possible Edinson Volquez has passed him in the Pirates' pecking order.

2. The Cardinals offense is still a concern. I saw a tweet: The Cardinals are on pace to score 620 runs, which would be the lowest for a playoff team in a nonstrike season since the '73 Mets scored 608. Arrieta crushed the Cardinals, holding them to two hits and an unearned run while striking out 10 in seven innings. John Lackey didn’t inspire confidence after walking four in 6⅔ innings (one intentional). Anyway, that St. Louis offense. It was better in August but has struggled again in September. The month-by-month totals:

April: .246/.314/.368, 3.6 runs per game
May: .266/.333/.367, 4.2 runs per game
June: .236/.301/.361, 3.3 runs per game
July: .255/.318/.389, 3.6 runs per game
August: .268/.341/.384, 4.4 runs per game
September: .248/.317/.358, 3.8 runs per game

They've averaged 3.8 runs, and that's after hitting a robust .297/.364/.474 with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals can win it all, but to do so, it looks like they're going to have to win a lot of low-scoring games. However, this just doesn't look like a championship-caliber offense.

3. The Royals appear headed for the wild-card game. After the Tigers beat the White Sox in an afternoon game -- they got to the Chicago bullpen once Chris Sale departed after six innings -- the Royals led 4-3 in the fifth inning but couldn't hold the lead. Give manager Ned Yost credit for at least having a quick hook with Jason Vargas. After Vargas hit Michael Bourn to lead off the bottom of the fifth, Yost turned to rookie reliever Brandon Finnegan, who had been great in five appearances. But he gave up an RBI double, an infield hit and a run-scoring fielder's choice. So the Royals are two games behind the Tigers with four to play (while remaining tied with the A’s for the wild card; the Royals hold the tiebreaker edge, having won the season series 5-2).

I think the interesting question to consider is how Yost will manage the wild-card game if that's where the Royals end up. He obviously trusts his late-game trio of relievers -- Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland -- but the rest of the bullpen isn't so trustworthy, with the possible exception of Finnegan. But will he try and ride ace James Shields? If there's a big situation in the fourth or fifth inning and Shields is struggling, will he leave in the veteran? Does he bring in one of his best bullpen arms earlier than normal? Does he use Finnegan or Aaron Crow and risk losing the game in the middle innings before even getting to Davis or Holland?

4. We’re going to have a home-plate controversy in October that will make a lot of people angry and lead to columnists writing this is just another reason baseball is dying. The A’s lost 5-4 to the Angels, but this play happened in the fourth inning, not so important at the time but important by the end of the game. Was Josh Donaldson safe or out? Did Chris Iannetta actually apply the tag? Did Donaldson have a path to the plate before Iannetta had the ball? (Oh, Donaldson was eventually called out after a long review.)

5. The Dodgers wrap up the NL West and Clayton Kershaw wraps up the MVP. The Dodgers have won 20 of the past 21 games that Kershaw started and 23 of the 27 he started overall. Kershaw is 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. He even tripled in a run while striking out 11 in a 9-1 win over the Giants (the Giants led 1-0 before Kershaw's tying triple in the fifth). Let's not make the MVP debate more complicated than it needs: Clayton Kershaw is the best, and most valuable, player in the National League. There shouldn't really need to be a debate.