SweetSpot: Pittsburgh Pirates

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I'm not sure it was the Pittsburgh Pirates' biggest win of the season, but watching from afar it sure felt like it. It may not even have been Ike Davis' biggest pinch-hit home run of the season -- back on April 5, he hit a walk-off grand slam to beat the Reds -- but considering the opponent, the time of the season and how the game unfolded before Davis crushed a three-run shot to center field in the eighth inning to break a 2-2 tie and deliver the Pirates a 5-2 win over the Cardinals, it was one of the blows to remember if this season turns to roses for Pittsburgh.

A few small-picture and big-picture thoughts off this game. ...

1. Andrew McCutchen departed in the sixth inning with discomfort in his left rib, the injury that forced him to recently miss two weeks. He left two innings after making a leaping grab against the wall that preserved the no-hitter Gerrit Cole was working on at the time. He batted one more time after the catch, striking out. Obviously, the MVP candidate isn't at full strength, although he did homer on Monday. Hopefully, this was more precautionary and not a severe re-aggravation. Despite missing the two weeks of action, McCutchen stands a good chance of winning back-to-back MVP honors, especially with a big September that pushes the Pirates into the postseason.

[+] EnlargeGerrit Cole
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesGerrit Cole flirted with no-hitting the Cardinals, the latest proof he's the Pirates' indispensable starting pitcher.
2. Gerrit Cole looked terrific. In his second start since returning from a six-week stint on the DL with soreness in his right lat (he also missed three weeks in June with a sore shoulder), the hard-throwing second-year righty was dominant, with a no-hit bid until Kolten Wong doubled with two outs in the sixth. He averaged 95.7 mph on his fastball, maintaining the velocity he had in his last start, a good sign that he's healthy.

Leading 2-0 in the seventh, Clint Hurdle let Cole start the inning against Matt Adams, the Cardinals' lefty masher. Cole was at 105 pitches entering the inning, so it was a curious decision in this day in which pitchers rarely go much past 110. Why not bring in a lefty to face Adams to start the inning? By the time Adams doubled and Jhonny Peralta singled, the Pirates were in trouble. Tony Watson couldn't escape the inning as the Cards hit a sac fly and soft looper to center -- reminiscent of Monday's rally when a few seeing-eye singles gave the Cards a late comeback.

3. Ex-Mets great Davis to the rescue. With Pirates fans sensing doom and gloom after McCutchen's departure and the blown lead, Davis entered for Watson with two outs against righty Seth Maness and hit a 2-2 change to deep center -- a definite no-doubter that Davis watched and admired for a split second. Considering Davis is hitting .100 against lefties this year (granted, that's in just 32 plate appearances), it was a little surprising Mike Matheny didn't bring in Randy Choate, although maybe he suspected Hurdle would have countered with a right-handed bat. But considering McCutchen and also Pedro Alvarez (foot injury) had left the game, the Pirates' bench was already thin by then; I doubt Hurdle would have wasted Davis in a tie game.

Anyway, the other option would have been to have Pat Neskek and his 0.86 ERA pitch the eighth instead of Maness, but Matheny figured Maness could get through the bottom of the Pittsburgh order. Maness is certainly a serviceable middle guy, he just hasn't pitched at Neshek's level. You hate to lose games like this without getting your best guys in there. (Neshek had thrown 18 pitches on Monday, didn't pitch on Sunday, threw 16 pitches on Saturday but hadn't pitched in four days before then, so he appeared to be rested enough.)

4. First base and right field. As for Davis, he hasn't provided a ton of power in his platoon role at first but at least he has been getting on base with a .352 OBP. Last year, first base and right field were offensive problems for the Pirates (rectified somewhat late in the year with the additions of Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd) and Davis was supposed to help that production as was rookie midseason call-up Gregory Polanco.

Their first basemen have a .232/.320/.376 line this year versus .264/.346/.422 last year (Garret Jones hit when he played first but not right field); their right fielders are hitting .247/.305/.345 compared to .242/.299/.385 last year and Polanco was just sent down to the minors.

The Pirates are scoring more runs this year (4.24 runs per games compared to 3.91), but it's not because they've upgraded their production from those two spots. Most of that credit goes to Josh Harrison and Russell Martin and a bench that has been more productive (in part because of Harrison).

5. Oscar Taveras needs to start hitting for the Cardinals. Part of the reason for trading Allen Craig in the John Lackey deal was the Cards' faith in their rookie right fielder, but Taveras is still muddling along at .233/.272/.306 with two home runs in 180 at-bats. Considering the Cards are still last in the NL in home runs, they desperately Taveras -- or somebody -- to start popping a few home runs.

Anyway, good game. It's not September yet, but it certainly had that September feel to it. The best part: Same two teams Wednesday afternoon, Adam Wainwright versus Jeff Locke, as Wainwright tries to turn around his second-half slump. The Pirates are 3.5 behind the Cards in the wild-card race, so it's a bigger game for them. Let's hope McCutchen is out there in center field.
1. The Angels need Bartolo Colon.

Journeyman left-hander Wade LeBlanc, replacing injured ace Garrett Richards in the rotation, was shelled in a 7-1 loss to the Marlins, giving up six runs and getting knocked out in the fourth inning. Do the Angels give him another start? Trouble is, that would come this weekend against the A's. Other internal options don't look much better than LeBlanc: Randy Wolf? Chris Volstad? Triple-A Salt Lake is 57-80, so you know there isn't much help down there. That brings the Angels to Colon. According to reports, Colon cleared waivers, meaning the Mets can trade him to any team. But if the Mets didn't trade Colon at the non-waiver deadline, are they going to be any more interested now?

2. Giancarlo Stanton is still in the MVP race.

He launched a long three-run home run off Cory Rasmus, his NL-leading 33rd -- and became just the 12th player to reach 150 career home runs before turning 25 (seven of the first 11 are in the Hall of Fame and the other four are Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Albert Pujols). He also leads the NL in RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and tops NL position players in WAR. MVP voters historically don't go for players on non-playoff teams, but in a year where the leading candidate may be a pitcher who missed an entire month of action, Stanton needs to be heavily considered.

3. Michael Pineda looked good.

Here's the scary thing about the Yankees: If they do somehow get to the postseason, don't underestimate them. Pineda hasn't been healthy enough to make many starts this year, but when he's been out there, he's been effective. He beat the Royals, allowing one run, five hits and no walks in 6.1 innings, the one mistake a Mike Moustakas home run. In 37 innings, he has a 1.95 ERA. Against the Royals, Pineda averaged 93.9 mph with his fastball (2.6 mph faster than his final start in April before he went on the DL), and in his three starts since coming off the DL he's thrown more 70 percent strikes all three outings. He's not the flamethrower with sometimes shaky command he was as a rookie in Seattle but has turned into a guy who can spot his fastball, with just four walks in those 37 innings. If Masahiro Tanaka returns at 100 percent and with the way Brandon McCarthy has pitched since coming over from Arizona, that trio suddenly looks playoff-caliber.

4. The Pirates suffered a tough loss.

John Lackey allowed just one run in seven innings, but the Pirates actually hit him pretty hard, with seven hits and several hard-hit outs. But the Cardinals turned four double plays behind Lackey (give him credit for inducing the groundballs), turning what could have been another shaky outing into a solid line in the box score. Meanwhile, after Francisco Liriano tossed six scoreless innings, the Cardinals scraped together three runs in the seventh off Jared Hughes, with a walk and some seeing-eye singles. Andrew McCutchen's home run in the ninth made the final score 3-2, but it's one of those games you lose a little sleep over if you're a Pirates fan.

5. The Mariners' punishing travel schedule may have affected them.

No team will travel more miles this year than Seattle and after playing in Boston on Sunday, they had to fly across the country to host the Rangers. They got shut down by Miles Mikolas, who entered with a 7.48 ERA and tossed eight scoreless innings. This is the kind of series the Mariners have to win against the worst-in-baseball Rangers, so the pressure is on these next two games, and the Mariners already announced that Felix Hernandez will be pushed back from Wednesday to Friday against the Nationals (Wednesday's starter is undecided, although it will likely be Erasmo Ramirez). The long plane ride isn't the only reason they lost 2-0, but it's one obstacle East Coast teams don't have to face nearly as often.

Pirates must rely on big reinforcements

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
12:29
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This is a big week for the Pittsburgh Pirates, perhaps even a defining week. Monday night’s loss to the Atlanta Braves was their sixth straight. They’re now two games back in the wild-card standings, with the Braves between them and the Cardinals and Giants.

The big factor that people no doubt worry about is that they’ve gone 5-9 since the grudging acknowledgment that reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen had to go to the disabled list. Add in that second baseman Neil Walker has been healthy enough to make just five starts in August in what had been his best season since his rookie year, and the Pirates have had to get by a whole lot of Jayson Nix and Michael Martinez. Some of those losses have been especially tough, including getting swept over the weekend in a trio of one-run losses to the Nationals, and losing four one-run games during McCutchen’s absence. Operating without their best hitter, as well as their best starting pitcher -- Gerrit Cole -- and those margins are that much tighter.

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With Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole returning this week, will the Pirates make the playoffs?

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    9%
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    58%
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    33%

Discuss (Total votes: 41,332)

I’d argue that the absences of Cole and Charlie Morton have been every bit as critical as the losses in the lineup. Since the break, the Pirates have averaged 4.6 runs per game, and even 4.1 with McCutchen on the DL, slightly above league-average for the NL. But on the pitching side, since the All-Star break the Pirates have seen some things unfold that they have to have anticipated: Jeff Locke’s transient magic once again fading with repeated exposure to National League lineups that have cranked out a 1.60 WHIP in his last six starts, while Edinson Volquez has been looking very much like nothing more than a No. 5 while allowing 4.9 runs per nine in his six turns in that time. These are not the guys you’re going to win a division with; they’re whom you get by with when Cole and Morton are out. The happier news is that Vance Worley looks like a keeper, but we’ll see if he pushes past Volquez to enter postseason rotation consideration.

One of the things you can consider a lesson learned is that the enthusiasm for the Pirates’ young outfield is still mostly deserved. Starling Marte has been excellent since the All-Star break, with an 1.132 OPS. Gregory Polanco, not so much (.632 OPS), but it’s too soon to see if he’s going to have to join Pedro Alvarez on the team’s growing pile of disappointing superstars-to-be (or not). But another happy surprise is that Josh Harrison seems as ready as Omar Infante was to make people eat those “that guy’s an All-Star?” taunts, hitting .331/.369/.570 since the break.

The weeks to come are going to provide all sorts of interesting questions for Clint Hurdle and company as they try to get back on top, because the Pirates and Hurdle have proven themselves reliably creative when it comes to lineup solutions in particular. I think it’s fascinating to see them play Harrison at shortstop these last four games. Breaking out a rare “small sample-size” caveat this late in the season, it hasn’t been lovely (the first three games were at a minus-38 Defensive Runs Saved level for a full season), but if by some chance he proves that he can play short as a regular, that creates an expanded range of options in the lineup. It might even provide Alvarez a chance at redemption at third base, at least against right-handed pitching -- if the choice is between Jordy Mercer (.656 OPS, career) or Clint Barmes and Alvarez (.790 OPS) against a righty. I’d like to see a loose Alvarez-Mercer platoon in the lineup. Maybe Harrison is only affordable at shortstop on days when Cole pitches (because of his large number of strikeouts) or Worley (because he’s a fly ball-out guy), but it’s interesting to see Hurdle and the sabermetrically savvy Pirates experiment, even at this point of the season.

And that’s because, with 37 games left, everything is still possible. The good news is that they’ll get McCutchen back from the DL on Tuesday, and Cole should make his return from the DL on Wednesday, in time to face these Braves. Sometime around Sept. 1, they should have Morton back to start for them as well.

As long as the Pirates are within a game or two, when you’re talking about adding that kind of talent, you’re talking about a team with a chance. Last year’s playoff appearance should not be a one-time thing. And after what Pirates fans endured for two decades, you have to hope it wasn’t.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Let's look at some of the fallout from the trade deadline -- things people said -- and then make some predictions for what happens the rest of the way.

1. The acquisition of Jon Lester makes the Oakland A's the favorite in the AL West.

Prediction: The A's win the West.

The trade for Lester didn't actually upgrade the A's odds to beat the Los Angeles Angels all that much -- using player projection totals and remaining schedule, Baseball Prospectus says the trade increased Oakland's chances a mere 2 percent. The Angels won on Sunday, thanks to a five-run first inning, while the A's were shut down by James Shields in a 4-2 loss to the Royals, so Oakland's lead is one game. Still, I like Oakland's rotation depth. C.J. Wilson's return on Saturday after missing a month was a disaster as he got knocked out in the second inning, Tyler Skaggs just landed on the DL with a shoulder issue and you wonder how the Angels' rotation will hold up after Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver.

2. With John Lackey and Justin Masterson, the St. Louis Cardinals are the team to beat in the NL Central.

Prediction: The Pirates win the Central.

The Cardinals remain the favorite, according to our playoffs odds, and Lackey pitched seven strong innings on Sunday to win his Cardinals debut, but I'm going with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here's the thing about Lackey and Masterson: The Cardinals' rotation was pretty good before the trades; Lackey and Masterson may be upgrades over what Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez would have done the rest of the season, making the trades important, but they aren't necessarily an improvement over what the Cardinals had received so far from their various starters in those slots. The Cardinals are eighth in the majors with a 3.47 rotation ERA, and I don't expect them to do much better than that moving forward.

The St. Louis offense, meanwhile, is still next to last in the NL in runs scored. In what should be a three-team race down to the wire, the Pirates are my pick. One major reason: Francisco Liriano. In four starts since coming off the DL, he has a 1.96 ERA. He's looking more like the guy who was so good last year. If they can get Gerrit Cole back from his lat strain -- he was scratched from his Saturday start and instead threw a bullpen session -- even better. Note: If the injury to Andrew McCutchen's side that forced him out of Sunday's game proves serious, all bets are off.

3. Even with David Price, Max Scherzer is still the Detroit Tigers' ace.

Prediction: Price starts Game 1 of the division series.

This may be most important decision Brad Ausmus has to make all postseason: Which guy do you line up for two potential starts in the first round? The past two years against the A's, it has been Justin Verlander, and he rewarded Jim Leyland with two dominant efforts. But it won't be Verlander this year. My bet is on Price, who has been more consistent this season than Scherzer and has a 2.03 ERA over his past two starts. The Tigers may play the Orioles and the O's have an OPS of .732 against righties and .695 against lefties, another reason to slot Price in the first game.

4. The Los Angeles Dodgers made a mistake by not getting Lester or Price.

Prediction: The Dodgers win the NL West.

Josh Beckett didn't do anything to boost the confidence of Dodgers fans with another poor effort on Sunday; he got knocked out after scuffling through 94 pitches in four-plus innings. In three starts since the All-Star break, he has gone 3.2, 4.1 and 4 innings, respectively. Dan Haren has been even worse, with a 10.03 ERA over his past five starts.

Still, I agree with the decision to hold on to Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. At some point, you need to infuse some youth, and with Pederson heating up again at Triple-A, he may be in the Dodgers' outfield sooner rather than later. The Dodgers will win the West thanks to the best top three in the NL in Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

5. The Baltimore Orioles should have added a starting pitcher.

Prediction: The Orioles win the AL East.

Maybe the Orioles lack an ace in the mold of Price or Lester, but good luck getting those guys from a division rival. Plus, there's this: Since June 9, the Orioles have the third-best ERA in the majors and second-best rotation ERA in the American League (3.05). Chris Tillman outdueled Hisashi Iwakuma 1-0 on Sunday in the latest strong effort from a Baltimore starter.

The question: Is there some smoke and mirrors going on here? Since June 9, Orioles starters are 29th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings and 28th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. That does make you wonder; on the other hand, the Orioles are a very good defensive teams (fifth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved) so they do turn more batted balls into outs than most teams. The O's may like to have an ace for the postseason, but they can get there without one.

6. The Seattle Mariners are better after acquiring some bats.

Prediction: The Mariners still don't have enough offense to win the wild card.

Since the All-Star break they've allowed the second fewest runs per game in the majors -- 2.88. And they're 6-10. They lost 2-1 on Friday and 1-0 on Sunday. Kendrys Morales has looked terrible since coming over from the Twins, where he also looked terrible. Austin Jackson was a much-needed move for center field, but he and Chris Denorfia aren't game-changers on offense, even above and beyond what the Mariners had. And they can't count on Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma giving up just one or two runs every time out.

7. Stephen Strasburg isn't an ace yet.

Prediction: The Washington Nationals win the NL East ... and Strasburg starts Game 1 of the playoffs.

Wait, did somebody write that about Strasburg? He sure looked like one on Sunday, striking out 10 in seven scoreless innings against the Phillies. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves lost their sixth in a row, creating a 3.5-game lead for Washington, its biggest since holding a 3.5-game on June 1.


8. The San Francisco Giants should have picked up a second baseman.

Prediction: They'll get one in August.

Even with a nine-run outburst on Sunday, over the past month the Giants are hitting .231/.290/.342, the second-lowest OPS in the majors (ahead of only the Mariners). A second baseman isn't going to cure this, but Brandon Belt returned on Saturday and that should help. Buster Posey may be heating up, hitting .352 over the past two weeks and that will help. Brian Sabean has made waiver pickups before, so don't count him from getting somebody -- maybe a guy like Luis Valbuena from the Chicago Cubs. As the offense improves, the Giants should solidify their place in the wild-card standings (playing the Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks will help a lot also).

9. The Cleveland Indians punted the season in trading Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera.

Prediction: Not necessarily ...

The Indians won their third in a row on Sunday on Michael Brantley's 12th-inning home run, and they're just three games back for the second wild card. I'm not predicting them to win it (I'll go with the Toronto Blue Jays), but I'm predicting them to hang in there.

10. The A's are now World Series favorites.

Prediction: OK, I'll go with that. Aren't the A's overdue for some October magic?

So, my post-deadline picks:

AL wild card: Angels over Blue Jays
NL wild card: Giants over Brewers

ALDS: Tigers over Orioles
ALDS: A's over Angels

NLDS: Dodgers over Giants
NLDS: Nationals over Pirates

ALCS: A's over Tigers
NLCS: Dodgers over Nationals

World Series: A's over Dodgers ... Jon Lester wins Game 7 and then signs a $175 million contract with the Dodgers in the offseason. Sam Fuld wins World Series MVP honors. Billy Beane announces retirement and says, "I was never really into this sabermetrics stuff anyway."
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All I can say is I hope we get a Tigers-A's postseason series. What a great deadline day, full of intrigue, interesting trades, trades to discuss and argue about, happy fans and dejected fans. The sight of Austin Jackson being pulled from center field in the middle of a game sums up the trade deadline: Anything can happen. We just had two of the best left-handers in the game traded in David Price and Jon Lester -- from two teams that were in the playoffs a year ago. Last year's World Series champ traded two starters from last year's rotation, on top of trading Jake Peavy last week.

Usually, I say the impact of the trade deadline is overhyped and overrated. Not this year.

OK, some winners and losers of this year's trade deadline ...

WINNERS

[+] EnlargeDavid Price
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWith the acquisition of left-hander David Price, the Tigers now have three Cy Young winners in their starting rotation.
Detroit Tigers: With Price, the Tigers now have a rotation with three Cy Young winners, plus they were last year's American League Central champs. Heck, Justin Verlander is clearly the fifth-best starter on the Tigers at the moment. Yes, Detroit is on the hook for whatever Price will earn in arbitration for next year -- $19-20 million or so -- but I don't think Tigers owner Mike Ilitch cares too much about that. The Tigers get an ace starter for Austin Jackson (free agent after 2015), midrotation lefty Drew Smyly (3.77 ERA) and a minor league shortstop. I'll take that deal. Rajai Davis can slide over to center field, and while the outfield defense will be poor with Torii Hunter and J.D. Martinez in the outfield corners, you can run out a playoff rotation of Price, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Verlander (or Rick Porcello). The Tigers will be in the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. This may be the year.

Oakland Athletics: I love the Lester trade like I loved Edgar Martinez driving the ball into the right-field corner or Ken Griffey Jr. turning on a 2-0 fastball. It's a beautiful thing Billy Beane pulled off. There is a huge premium to winning the division and avoiding what Joe Sheehan labels the Coin Flip Game, and Lester gives the A's a better chance of doing that, especially when factoring in Jason Hammel's struggles since coming over from the Cubs, and Jesse Chavez hitting a wall as he soars past his professional high in innings pitched. Can the A's replace Yoenis Cespedes' production? Not quite, but the offense doesn't take a huge hit with a Jonny Gomes-Sam Fuld platoon, the two other players the A's acquired Thursday:

Cespedes versus LHP, 2013-2014: .262/.347/.492
Gomes versus LHP, 2013-2014: .264/.370/.440

Cespedes versus RHP, 2013-2014: .241/.278/.436
Fuld versus RHP, 2014: .250/.343/.340

I cheated a little bit there, since Fuld was terrible in 2013. The A's lose power but pick up better on-base guys. It's actually a pretty even tradeoff, assuming Gomes and Fuld play at that level. The A's have other options, as well: Against right-handers, they could put Derek Norris behind the plate, DH John Jaso and play Stephen Vogt in the outfield instead of Fuld. The A's still have lineup flexibility to replace Cespedes, and they picked up one of the hottest starters in the game.

Plus, consider that under Beane, the A's have played 13 postseason games that would have won a playoff series -- and lost 12 of them. Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder started two of those games, but other starters included Gil Heredia, Cory Lidle, Ted Lilly, Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily. Now, depending on how the rotation lines up, it could be Lester, Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija or Scott Kazmir, all with ERAs below 3.00 on the season (Samardzija has a 3.19 ERA with the A's). Oakland's future is always going to be uncertain, so why not put all your chips on the table and hope you finally get the lucky card?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester4
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsThe Jon Lester trade gives the Athletics a rotation that's built for October.
Boston Red Sox: Usually, trading a guy like Lester brings in prospects, but the Red Sox have plenty of prospects and young players, so why not bring in a proven commodity such as Cespedes to help in 2015? The John Lackey trade for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly is less certain, given Craig's poor season and Kelly's uncertainty as a starter. But Craig just turned 30 and hit above .300 in 2012 and 2013, so he's a good bounce-back candidate. Kelly isn't a big strikeout guy, but he does have a power two-seam fastball that induces a lot of ground balls. Maybe he ends up in the bullpen, but he'll get a chance to start. The other benefit: The Red Sox currently have the seventh-worst record in the majors, so they'll likely finish with one of the 10 worst records, which means they can sign a free agent this offseason (think Max Scherzer) and not lose their first-round pick.

St. Louis Cardinals: They picked up Lackey and Masterson without giving up prized outfielder Oscar Taveras or Carlos Martinez. Sure, David Price would have been a sexier pickup to line up behind Adam Wainwright in a potential playoff rotation, but Lackey/Masterson is a solid Plan B. Still, the Cardinals have had pretty good results all season from the rotation (fifth-best ERA in the majors), but they weren't sure what they were going to get from Kelly, Martinez or Shelby Miller moving forward. These deals didn't address the offense -- they're next to last in the NL in runs -- but with 10 games left against the Brewers, the division is still theirs for the taking.

Cleveland Indians: I like both trades. They dumped two impending free agents having poor seasons in Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera and got two players who should turn into major leaguers. James Ramsey and Zach Walters won't be stars, but they could be starters or useful bench players. Ramsey was a first-round pick in 2012, can play center field and is having a fine season in Double-A, although he's repeating the level. Walters, hitting .300/.358/.603 at Triple-A Syracuse, looks like a super utility kind of a guy as he's played all three infield positions and the outfield.

Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees: The Orioles and Blue Jays each have six games remaining against the Red Sox, while the Yankees have nine and now won't have to face Lester or Lackey in any of those games.

Seattle Mariners: They added Jackson and Chris Denorfia, much-needed right-handed bats, but Denorfia has been terrible this year, and Jackson is hardly an impact offensive player. It's not that the Franklin-for-Jackson deal is a bad trade, but it could backfire as Jackson has just one more year before free agency. On the other hand, less Endy Chavez is a good thing.

LOSERS

Tampa Bay Rays: They were only 5.5 out of the wild card. Yes, they had to jump over five teams to get into the second wild-card spot, but it was possible. I guess in the end, the Rays simply wouldn't be able to afford Price's contract next year and felt they had to trade him now. I'm just not sure Smyly and Nick Franklin are going to be long-term difference-makers. The perpetual recycling continues, but eventually the trades aren't going to all work out, and the Rays will have to start producing their own talent again.

Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates had the prospects to potentially work out a deal for Lester or Price, but Neal Huntington couldn't pull the trigger. It's a club that doesn't have any gaping holes, but the Pirates missed the opportunity to get an ace. They can still win the Central, but if they fall short ... well, I guess there's always 2015 or 2016 or whenever all the prospects mature.

Los Angeles Angels: They had already shored up the bullpen with Huston Street, Jason Grilli and Joe Thatcher, but now they have to try to catch the A's with a rotation that includes Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs. The Angels aren't worse than they were yesterday, but the A's are better, and the second-best team in the majors may be relegated to the wild-card game.

The rest of the AL Central: Scherzer is likely gone as a free agent, but now the Tigers will have Price in 2015.

San Francisco Giants: They needed a second baseman but didn't get one. The earlier trade for Peavy isn't as inspiring as the Cardinals getting Lackey. The Dodgers still look like the favorite in the NL West.

Philadelphia Phillies: And ... nothing. Enjoy 2015, Phillies fans!
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?

Count on seeing a great battle in NL Central

July, 19, 2014
Jul 19
12:26
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For years, the American League East has been considered the class of Major League Baseball. While that might have been true in the late '90s into the early 2000s, the past few seasons are proving to be a different story. While the AL East appears to be a shell of its former self (the top three teams entered play on Friday a combined 11 games above .500), the National League Central -- the only division that sent three teams to the postseason in 2013 -- may now be baseball's best group.

This year's version of the Central has four teams over .500 within a handful of games of each other. Currently, the division is paced by the Milwaukee Brewers, but the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals are a game behind, while the next two teams -- the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates -- are a good week away from climbing to the top.

The Brewers top the division thanks to a potent offense. Led by Ryan Braun, the Brew Crew entered the second half of the season with the second-most runs scored in the NL. Braun is the star, but the club has six players with an OPS above .780, including four above .800. The bullpen is anchored by the resurgent Francisco Rodriguez but is also getting fine performances by left-handers Will Smith and Zach Duke.

Kyle Lohse has steadied the rotation, while prospect Jimmy Nelson will look to provide a late-season jolt. Top to bottom, the Brewers look to be the most complete team in the division.

If the Cardinals are to overcome Milwaukee, they will need to do the bulk of the work without All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. A torn ligament in his right thumb will shelve the backstop for the foreseeable future, leaving the heavy lifting to a trio of Matts: Holliday, Carpenter and Adams. NL All-Star starter Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in the league, while Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez are two of the best young hurlers. The Cardinals have two more starters on the disabled list in Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, who will miss the rest of the season.

Former starter Trevor Rosenthal has control of the ninth inning, while All-Star setup man Pat Neshek has revived his once-stagnant career. The Cardinals have the resources to fill holes at second base and in the rotation, should they choose to, but may let young players like Kolten Wong and Marco Gonzalez cut their teeth in a pennant race. When healthy, the Cards are the most talented team in the division, but if and when they can get healthy is their biggest question mark.

The Reds opened the second half with a loss to the New York Yankees and without the right side of their infield as Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips sit on the disabled list. Still, the club has Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco --both All-Stars this year -- and Billy Hamilton, who appears to be improving every day. They also have a three-headed monster at the top of their rotation with Johnny Cueto and his 2.13 ERA as the ace.

At the back end of their bullpen, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton have allowed a combined 11 runs in more than 60 innings of work. Mat Latos has made just six starts this season and could be the spark needed to make a move even without Votto and Phillips.

The Pirates needed two separate comebacks on Friday night in order to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Of the contenders in the Central, the Pirates need the most help. Ace Gerrit Cole sits on the disabled list, and the lineup has several holes, none more glaring than first base, which was all but ignored this past winter. General manager Neal Huntington has the chips to make a deal but might be reluctant to sacrifice the future on a team that's just four games above .500.

On the other hand, Andrew McCutchen is in the prime of his career, and stud prospect Gregory Polanco is now fronting the lineup.

Each contender to the Central's crown has flaws. At the same time, each has something on which to stake their claim to the throne.

The Brewers' rotation has underperformed in spots, but the lineup has outscored every non-Rockies team in the Senior Circuit. The Cardinals' staff has been infected with the injury bug and the offense is without its best player, but they have a guy named Wainwright, a bunch of live arms and a talented group of hitters, even in the wake of Molina's injury. Cincinnati is also missing its best player; however, it owns a quality rotation, a few mashers remaining and speed on the bases and in the bullpen. The Pirates might be the least talented group. Meanwhile, they have the best player in McCutchen and the system to make moves.

Milwaukee -- with the division lead -- appears to have the best shot, but this race is shaping up to be the best of them all.

Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report blog on the Rays and contributes to GammonsDaily.com.

The Milwaukee Brewers looked so out-of-sync and vulnerable in losing four straight games to the Philadelphia Phillies at home this week, it's only natural that St. Louis and Cincinnati would aspire to reach the All-Star break in first place.

They're certainly not going to arrive in one piece.

Injuries have a way of mucking up the storyline and altering the conventional wisdom in sports, but Thursday unfolded in an especially chaotic way in the National League Central. The carnage began when the Cardinals lost catcher Yadier Molina for 8-12 weeks with a torn ligament in his right thumb. Shortly thereafter, the Reds announced that second baseman Brandon Phillips will miss six weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Phillips' absence, coupled with the loss of Joey Votto to the DL, will put an additional crimp in a Reds offense that has had trouble getting much traction. Even though his .701 OPS this season is the lowest of his 8 -year run with Cincinnati, Phillips has hit second, third and fourth in the Reds' lineup and made a cameo appearance in the fifth spot. He's averaged 150 games a season since his arrival in Cincinnati in 2006, and he's a four-time Gold Glove Award winner with an aggregate defensive runs saved of plus-55 since 2007.

But the loss of Phillips still pales in comparison to the impact and potential fallout of Molina's injury in St. Louis.

The numbers and Molina's settling influence behind the plate combine to place him near the top of baseball's "most indispensible player" list. Since 2011, Molina leads big-league catchers in WAR (17.5) and batting average (.309) and ranks second to Buster Posey with an .827 OPS. During that span, the Cardinals have a 275-203 record (for a .575 winning percentage) when he starts and a 50-51 mark (.495) when he doesn't.

As the Elias Sports Bureau notes, the Cardinals have a staff ERA of 3.53 with Molina and 3.81 without him over the past five seasons. They've erased 40.9 percent of opposing base stealers during that time frame, compared to 31.9 percent with all their non-Molina catchers.

So when Molina stood at his locker at Busch Stadium on Thursday and told reporters that he "almost cried" when he learned the extent of his injury, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, his teammates and the front office all could relate.

"It's the equivalent of losing Adam Wainwright," said an American League scout. "Yadi is one guy in the lineup, but this affects 12 guys on the pitching staff. Tony Cruz is a great backup and I guarantee you he's learned a ton from Yadi just by osmosis. But there's no way he can replace Yadi offensively, and Yadi is by far the best defensive catcher in all of baseball. It's going to be a challenge."

Like several of his front-office peers, St. Louis GM John Mozeliak is aiming at a moving target in his quest to make upgrades by the July 31 deadline. There was an on-line frenzy this week over the possibility of a Jake Peavy-to-St. Louis trade. But the reality is, the Cardinals' rotation is second in the National League with a 3.20 ERA and a .238 batting average against, and Joe Kelly should give the team a lift when he returns from a hamstring injury Friday against the Brewers. The Cardinals will also have a better handle after the All-Star break whether Michael Wacha can return from a stress reaction in his right shoulder and help them in August and September.

Of late, Mozeliak has given just as much thought to upgrading an offense that ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored. But where do the Cardinals make changes? They're awash in outfielders, and first baseman Matt Adams and shortstop Jhonny Peralta aren't going anywhere. One possible scenario involves shifting Matt Carpenter to second base and making a run at, say, Chase Headley, to play third. The Cardinals could also leave Carpenter at third and try to add a second baseman. But Kolten Wong is 6-for-14 with three homers since his return from the disabled list last weekend, so maybe he's part of the solution at second.

Asked about the team's next course of action in an email exchange, Mozeliak replied, "We have time to determine our next step." But Mozeliak will almost certainly be on the lookout for a veteran catcher to help take some pressure off Cruz. There aren't an abundance of options.

A.J. Pierzynski, just designated for assignment by Boston, is not on the Cardinals' radar, according to a baseball source. Although the Red Sox probably aren't keen on the idea of moving David Ross after dumping Pierzynski (and irritating free-agent-to-be Jon Lester in the process), one NL scout thinks Ross would be an ideal fit in St. Louis.

"He won't hit much and he can't catch every day, but he handles pitchers as good as anybody in the major leagues," the scout said. "That's who I would go after in a heartbeat."

John Buck, cut loose by Seattle earlier this week, is a possibility. Carlos Ruiz is on the disabled list with a concussion and has more than $20 million left on his contract with the Phillies, so he's not an option. Kurt Suzuki would be a wonderful fit, but one baseball source said the Twins aren't ready to trade him "just yet." Suzuki is also an American League All-Star who's hitting .303 with a 2.1 WAR this season, so it wouldn't be out of line for the Twins to ask for a Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk from St. Louis' ample supply of outfield prospects. Good luck with that.

The Cardinals aren't the only NL Central team in shopping mode. Cincinnati was already in need of a left-field upgrade before Votto and Phillips went down and further weakened the lineup. Pittsburgh could use a veteran starter, and Milwaukee made the decision Thursday to shift Marco Estrada to the bullpen and summon top prospect Jimmy Nelson from Triple-A Nashville, where he was 10-2 with a 1.46 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 111 innings. Brewers GM Doug Melvin has maintained that he has no plans to trade for another starter, but he's likely to at least try and fortify the bullpen for the stretch run.

That's where things stand at the moment. But in a tightly-bunched Central, the four contenders know they're just an awkward slide, a pulled hamstring or an achy elbow away from seeing their best-laid plans altered. For the division's general managers, the three weeks leading up to the trade deadline will be a waiting game and a chess match. For the players, it's a war of attrition.

Pirates' Harrison has proven he’s legit

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
11:30
AM ET
Josh HarrisonAP Photo/Keith SrakocicJosh Harrison has made a lot of folks happy this season and his reward is an All-Star appearance.


You may think that Pittsburgh Pirates infielder/outfielder Josh Harrison is on the All-Star team simply because of his versatility in the field.

But there's a pretty good case to be made that Harrison belongs on merit regardless of where he plays. As Dejan Kovacevic wrote in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last week, Harrison is the kind of player that everyone can like, and that's particularly true if you're into advanced statistics.

Harrison is going to play more this season than any other season in his career, and that's because both the numbers and the eye test show that he can do just about everything well. He has been worth 2.2 Wins Above Replacement this season. The Pirates are 30-21 when he starts and 17-23 when he doesn't.

He can hit
"Every at-bat is different, because of the count, the number of outs and the pitcher, but nothing really changes for you," Harrison said by phone on Wednesday. "Your objective is to have a good at-bat."

And what's a good at-bat for Harrison?

"Hard contact," he said.

Harrison has had a lot of that this season. ESPN uses a service that reviews video of every at-bat and rates balls as hard-hit, medium-hit and soft-hit based on velocity, distance and sweet-spot contact.

Harrison ranks 15th in the major leagues in the percentage of at-bats that have ended with hard-hit contact (22.5 percent). That's ahead of players like Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton and not far behind teammate Andrew McCutchen.

It's not the first time Harrison has put up good hard-hit numbers. His hard-hit rate was 22 percent two seasons ago in a year when good results didn't come with the hard-hit balls (a .233 batting average).

"Maybe some of the people [who chart that] are surprised, because they hadn't seen me hit before," Harrison said. "But this is what I've been doing all my life. I've always had a pretty good idea of what I want to hit."

Harrison is hitting .391 (18-for-46) with runners in scoring position, and has gotten his share of clutch hits (including a recent walk-off double against the New York Mets). He's also hitting .382 the second and third times he faces a starting pitcher (34-for-89), perhaps indicative that he's winning the battle of adjustments.

"The more familiar you are with a guy, the more you see his arm angle and see his pitches, the higher the probability of hitting the ball harder," he said.

Harrison doesn't profess to have a thinking-intensive approach, but it's clear he knows what he’s doing. The image below shows he covers both halves of the plate well:

Josh Harrison heat mapESPN Stats & Information


"He trusts himself, he trusts his ability and he stays committed to his plan," said Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson.

He can field
That Harrison ranks among the top 20 players in Defensive Runs Saved is amazing, considering he hasn't made more than 24 starts at any one position.

But he's been good everywhere he's played, combining for nine Defensive Runs Saved.

"I feel like I've always been able to play defense," Harrison said. "It's just a matter of getting the opportunity. I feel comfortable everywhere except pitcher and catcher." (When reminded that he did pitch once in a mop-up role, he added, "I don't know if 72 miles per hour is gonna cut it.")

The Pirates are an active team as far as defensive positioning is concerned. But they give their players leeway to adjust.

"At the end of the day, our job is to get to the ball," Harrison said. "They say if you see a guy doing something, feel free to move a step or two. I do that a lot. I wouldn’t say it's thinking. It's trusting my instincts."

He can run
The play you most likely know Harrison for is him eluding a rundown with what he calls his "stop, drop and roll" move.

"I have two older brothers who I was always trying to escape from, growing up," Harrison said with a laugh. "I'm pretty sure at one point [when I was little], I tried to blackmail them with 'I'm gonna tell mom and dad that you wouldn't let me play.' They'd chase me and I'd try to escape."

That aside, Harrison gets the job done on the basepaths. He's 9-for-12 on steal attempts and has scored from first base five times in six opportunities in which he was on base when a double was hit.

The package
A scout who has followed Harrison’s entire pro career (which started as a sixth-round pick by the Cubs out of the University of Cincinnati) offered this take: "Josh has some punch in his bat, good plate coverage for a smaller guy and is a good bad-ball hitter, which is very tough to achieve at the major league level. He has the athleticism to play all over. But a lot of guys possess those physical skills. He's got the plus makeup, where it doesn't faze him where he's playing in the field, and whether he's coming off the bench or starting. He brings the same great energy regardless."

Sounds All-Star worthy to me.
An early theme of the 2014 season was parity: Through the first two months, just about every team could still sell themselves on a potential playoff chase. But the last month changed all that, especially in the National League, which has sorted itself into contenders and bad teams. A lot of bad teams.

The two groups:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

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

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

19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

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

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

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

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

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

46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

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

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

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

50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.

We've reached the most fun part of the All-Star Game: Arguing about the final rosters.

The starters and reserves were named on Sunday and it was interesting to note the different philosophies of managers John Farrell and Mike Matheny in filling out their rosters. As expected, some worthy American League players were excluded and there were a couple surprising choices in the National League.

Some quick thoughts:

Worst American League starter: Derek Jeter, Yankees. While I actually don't have that big of an issue with Jeter starting -- there is no Troy Tulowitzki in the AL that he's keeping out of the lineup -- he's probably the worst starter we've had in a long time, hitting an empty .273 with mediocre defense and no power, worth 0.5 WAR so far. Matt Wieters was inexplicably voted in by the fans at catcher, but since he's out for the season, Salvador Perez will rightfully start in his place.

Worst National League starter: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers. Cincinnati's Todd Frazier is clearly the deserving starter at third base based on 2014 numbers while Ramirez is hitting .287 with 11 home runs. Considering Frazier, Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals and Anthony Rendon of the Nationals are better all-around players than Ramirez, his selection cost somebody an All-Star spot (Rendon is on the final player ballot).

Best ballot stuffing: Orioles and Brewers fans. Who says you need to play for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers to have an edge in fan balloting? Adam Jones was never in the top three among outfielders until passing Yoenis Cespedes at the wire. He's a fine selection, however, and has come on strong after a slow April. Orioles fans also voted in Wieters and Nelson Cruz in that crowded DH slot that included Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Moss and David Ortiz. Likewise, Carlos Gomez passed Giancarlo Stanton for the third outfield spot in the NL behind Yasiel Puig and Andrew McCutchen. Stanton clearly should be starting but Gomez is arguably one of the top three outfielders in the NL. Brewers fans, however, couldn't get Jonathan Lucroy voted in over Yadier Molina, so Lucroy will be the backup.

National League DH should be: Stanton. Pretty each choice here for Matheny. Heck, start him and let him play the entire game. A nation that never watches Marlins games should see this guy get four at-bats.

Jeff Samardzija, almost an All-Star. The players had actually voted for Samardzija as one of the five best starters in the NL, along with Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Samardzija had a 1.68 ERA through May, so you can see why he fared well in the balloting. His ERA had since climbed to 2.83 with some bad outings and he was replaced by Julio Teheran of the Braves.

Worst player selection: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies. The players actually did a much better job than they usually do and Blackmon's selection was the only dubious choice, a guy who had a monster April but is down to .295/.341/.463, mediocre numbers for a guy who plays in Colorado. To be fair, the NL lacked obvious choices for the fifth and sixth outfielders, but they somehow came up with a player ranked 21st among NL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR. Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Billy Hamilton or even Rockies teammate Corey Dickerson (hitting .340) would have been better selections.

The AL crunch: Farrell had some tough choices in filling out his squad. His manager selections were Jon Lester (deserving and the only Red Sox rep), David Price (deserving and the only Rays rep), Glen Perkins of the Twins, Max Scherzer of the Tigers, Kurt Suzuki of the Twins (a third catcher), Encarnacion and Moss. I guess you have to carry three catchers and I don't have a problem with the Scherzer selection. Encarnacion was a lock with his big numbers so the final choice probably came down to Moss or another player.

Biggest snubs: Ian Kinsler, Tigers; Kyle Seager, Mariners. And that led to Kinser and Seager being this year's biggest snubs. Entering Sunday, Kinsler ranked third among AL position players in fWAR and Seager seventh. In Baseball-Reference WAR, they ranked third and sixth, so by either measure two of the AL's top 10 players didn't make it. It's not that an undeserving player made it -- the players voted in Jose Altuve and Adrian Beltre as the backups at second and third -- just that there were too many good players and not enough spots (unless you want to knock out a third catcher). You can debate the Moss selection, but I can see the desire to have the left-handed power off the bench if needed late in the game. (Remember, it counts!)

Matt Carpenter and Pat Neshek are good selections: Matheny picked two of his own players -- third baseman Carpenter and righty reliever Neshek. I'm sure both picks will be criticized but when you dig into the numbers, both are worthy choices. Carpenter isn't having as good a season as last year, but he's still 10th among NL position players in fWAR and 15th in bWAR. Please, I don't want to hear that Casey McGehee is more deserving.

As for Neshek, his numbers are outstanding: 0.78 ERA, 35 strikeouts, four walks and a .134 average allowed. He has been as dominant as any reliever in the game, even if he's not a closer. He's also a great story, once one of the game's top set-up guys with the Twins in 2007 but suffering years of injuries since. On the day the A's clinched the AL West on the final day of the 2012 season, his infant son died after just 23 hours. The Cardinals signed him in February to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, so Neshek certainly qualifies as this year's most improbable All-Star (along with Dellin Betances of the Yankees).

I suspect Matheny also picked Neshek for late-game strategic purposes -- his sidearm delivery is killer on right-handed batters (although he has been just as effective against lefties this year), so you can see him matching up against Encarnacion or Jose Abreu if there's a big moment late in the game. Similarly, Matheny picked Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson, a good strategic move since he had only three other lefties on the team.

Strangest selection: That picking reserves for strategic reasons also led to the selection of Pirates utility man Josh Harrison. I get it: He's having a nice season and can play multiple positions, but it's a little odd to pick a guy who doesn't even start regularly for his own team (reminiscent of the Omar Infante choice a few years ago). Rendon -- who has played second and third -- is the better player and Matheny already had versatility with Carpenter and Dee Gordon.

Best AL final man: Chris Sale, White Sox. Farrell went with five pitchers -- Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards and Rick Porcello. I wrote the other day that four of these guys would be battling for a spot or two (along with Scott Kazmir, who got voted on by the players). All are worthy but the best choice is pretty easy since Sale is one of the top starters in the game and would have otherwise already made the team if not missing some time with an injury.

Best NL final man: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. Torn here between Rizzo and Rendon, but since Matheny has already loaded up with third basemen and second basemen, let's go with Rizzo in case you need to swing for the fences late in the game.

Suggested AL lineup: Jeter better hit ninth. Mike Trout, CF; Robinson Cano, 2B; Jose Bautista, RF; Miguel Cabrera, 1B; Nelson Cruz, DH; Adam Jones, LF; Josh Donaldson, 3B; Salvador Perez, C; Derek Jeter, SS. With Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Suggested NL lineup. Yasiel Puig, RF; Andrew McCutchen, CF; Troy Tulowitzki, SS; Giancarlo Stanton, DH; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B; Carlos Gomez, LF; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Chase Utley, 2B; Yadier Molina, C. With Clayton Kershaw on the bump.
We're going division by division to look at what each team needs to do at the trade deadline and what may actually happen. As always, you can keep up with the latest trade talk at Rumor Central.


Chicago Cubs

Status: Moving parts to build the farm. Friday night's trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A's removed two of the biggest names that were available.

Biggest needs: Right now the Cubs have enjoyed some recent success, sporting a four-game win streak that included a sweep over the defending champion Boston Red Sox. However, it’s important to remember where this team is in the rebuilding process. Right now their biggest need is minor league talent, regardless of position, but with an emphasis on near major league-ready starting pitching. They didn't get that with Addison Russell, the 20-year-old shortstop in Double-A, but he was too talented to pass up.

Other possible trade chips: With the blockbuster deal with the A's, the Cubs' available pieces have been considerably depleted. There are still names on the roster that can be had, but they aren't impact players. Guys like Nate Schierholtz, Darwin Barney and Carlos Villanueva are all available, but all figure to be role players designed to help a team fill out the back part of a roster.

The future: The Cubs now have a logjam in the infield, with Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Russell all capable of playing shortstop. You can eventually move one to second base and one to third, but Kris Bryant is also there at third. Since being drafted with the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Bryant has been a freak of nature with the bat and has accelerated quickly through the system. The rise has been so fast and the success so big (.357, 29 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A) that a lot of Cub fans have begun to wonder if Bryant could see Wrigley this season. It will be interesting to see how all this works itself out and if Baez or Castro will eventually be used to acquire pitching.

-- Joe Aiello, The View from the Bleachers



Cincinnati Reds

Status: Bargain shoppers.

Biggest needs: The Reds are tenth in the National League in runs scored, so upgrading the offense should be the first priority for GM Walt Jocketty. Shortstop has been the least productive position, but at least Zack Cozart has been playing elite defense. Cincinnati would be better served trying to land a left fielder to replace the three-headed Ryan Ludwick/ Chris Heisey/ Skip Schumaker combination. The Reds also need to find an effective relief pitcher or two, as the bullpen has been one of the worst in the league, by almost any measure.

Possible trade targets: OF Seth Smith, OF Matt Joyce; a seventh-inning-type bullpen arm.

That prospect everyone will want but the Reds won’t want to trade: RHP Ben Lively tore through the California League before his promotion to Double-A Pensacola, posting a 10-1 record with a 2.28 ERA, 95 strikeouts, and only 16 walks in 13 starts. He has a live arm, and stands a good chance of competing for a spot in Cincinnati's rotation at some point in 2015.

Likely scenario: Seth Smith, an impending free agent, would look good in red and white, but it has been a long time since Jocketty took any direct action to improve the Reds by bringing in real talent from outside the organization. The most likely scenario, frankly, is that budget constraints and lack of trade bait cause him to continue sitting on his hands. Look for the Reds to seek to land a set-up reliever, possibly a lefty in light of Sean Marshall's continuing injury problems.

-- Chad Dotson, Redleg Nation



Milwaukee Brewers

Status: Trying to lock up the NL Central.

Biggest needs: The Brewers opened play on Saturday with a four-game lead over the Cardinals in the NL Central, which was tied for the largest lead in any division. They've done it by getting contributions from up and down the roster, so there really aren't a lot of big holes to fill here. The main areas of need are the bench, specifically a left-handed power bat who can play first base or a corner outfield spot and a utility infielder who can play short and third. They could also possibly use a right-handed reliever for setup.

Possible trade targets: OF Nate Schierholtz; 1B Adam Dunn; IF Kelly Johnson; RP Koji Uehara.

The untouchables: The Brewers' much-maligned farm system has taken a significant step forward this year, headlined by the breakout performance of starter Jimmy Nelson in Triple-A. Down in A-ball, OF Tyrone Taylor, SS Orlando Arcia and C Clint Coulter are having the kinds of seasons that would make them attractive players to ask for in trade. That being said, it's hard to imagine them giving up any of these players to fill these second- and third-tier needs the team has to fill.

What probably won't happen ... but might: Brewers owner Mark Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin haven't been shy about making big, splashy moves when contending in the past, so we shouldn't completely rule out the earth-shattering blockbuster. The Brewers did send a scout to watch a recent David Price start, and he would give them the obvious ace that their more balanced rotation lacks. It's not likely because they could easily be outbid by teams with better systems and they don't really need to do it, but don't rule it out.

What probably will happen: Melvin has talked quite a bit in the local media about his desire to add a right-handed reliever who can pitch late in games, so unless either Tyler Thornburg or Jim Henderson get healthy over the next month something will probably happen on this front. Despite some recent protestations from Melvin that they don't have big needs for bats, it's hard to see them standing completely pat without adding at least one player who can hit off the bench.

-- Ryan Topp, Disciples of Uecker



Pittsburgh Pirates

Status: After a slow start, they're back in it. Since May, the Pirates are tied with the A's for the best record in the majors.

Biggest needs: Starting rotation. The rotation has been better since May 2, but even then the 3.90 ERA is just ninth in the National League. Among position players, first base remains the biggest hole, as Pirates first basemen (mostly Ike Davis) have been worth 1.4 wins below average. They already made the Jason Grilli-Ernesto Frieri trade but could use another bullpen arm for depth.

Possible trade targets: SP A.J. Burnett ($15 million mutual option or $7.5 million player option for 2015); 1B Justin Morneau ($6.75 million in 2015); SP Jon Lester (free agent); SP David Price (under team control for one more season); RP Chad Qualls ($3 million in 2015); RP Tony Sipp.

Likely scenario: Jeff Locke and Vance Worley have helped solidify the rotation of late with Francisco Liriano on the DL, but you probably can't rely on those two to keep this up (although Locke's walk rate has been much improved from last season). The rotation is OK enough that it makes sense for the Pirates to only go after one of the big guns -- which means Price or Lester, now that the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Pirates have pitching prospects like Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow that are certainly interesting, but the Pirates have to get closer to the Brewers before management would consider such a big trade and added salary. As for first base, maybe Clint Hurdle should see if super utility guy Josh Harrison could handle the position to at least platoon with Davis.

In the end, the Pirates probably stick with what they have and hope Liriano and Gerrit Cole have better second halves and that one of Locke or Worley manages to hold his own.

-- David Schoenfield



St. Louis Cardinals

Status: Chasing the Brewers while in the thick of the wild-card race.

Biggest needs: It's easy to point to the rotation now that Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia are on the disabled list, but the offense is just 13th in the NL in runs while ranking last in home runs. Second base has been a disaster, with a combined line of .201/.268/.260.

Possible trade targets: SP David Price; SP Jon Lester; 2B Aaron Hill ($12 million per year in 2015 and 2016); 2B/OF Ben Zobrist ($7.5 million in 2015); 3B Martin Prado ($11 million in 2015 and 2016).

The big chip: OF Oscar Taveras remains one of baseball's top prospects, despite a lackluster .196 mark in 15 games with the Cardinals earlier this season (he's hit .318/.370/.502 in Triple-A).

Likely scenario: The Cardinals and Dodgers remain the two teams most often tied to Price, largely because they have quality and depth in the farm system to deal from. A lot depends on the prognosis of Wacha; if he can't come back, the Cardinals are more likely to go after Price or maybe Lester if he becomes available. That said, Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis haven't produced at second and that could be filled much easier (Matt Carpenter can always move back there if they go after a third baseman like Prado). Either way, considering the ages of guys like Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Allen Craig, there's some imperative for St. Louis to make a deal this year.

--David Schoenfield


Jim Bowden, Jerry Crasnick, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and myself presented our 34-man All-Star rosters today. Here are our National League selections and here are our American League selections. Of course, our choices aren't affected by fan balloting or the players choosing the wrong backup (although we did stick to the rule of requiring one rep from each team), so the real rosters will likely include some names that none of us included.

I thought I'd explain my selections in a little more detail.

National League

I thought the NL selections were much easier than the AL. In fact, I struggled to find obvious candidates for the final couple of spots.

Starters
C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
1B -- Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
2B -- Chase Utley, Phillies
3B -- Todd Frazier, Reds
SS -- Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
LF -- Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
CF -- Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
RF -- Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
DH -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
SP -- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

I thought this was pretty straightforward, with the only debate being Puig or Carlos Gomez for the third outfield spot. I settled it this way: Who would I rather see? And that tiebreaker goes to Puig. I could have made Gomez the DH, but the NL was lacking in other outfield candidates, so I cleared some of the logjam at first base by making Freeman the DH and bringing Gomez off the bench. Sorry, Carlos.

Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright certainly have strong arguments to start and if you want to disagree with Kershaw, I won't put up much of a fight. Yes, he missed a month, but he's back, he's dominating and he's the best pitcher in the game.

Reserves
C -- Yadier Molina, Cardinals
C -- Devin Mesoraco, Reds
C -- Buster Posey, Giants
1B -- Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
2B -- Daniel Murphy, Mets
2B -- Dee Gordon, Dodgers
3B -- Anthony Rendon, Nationals
3B -- Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
SS -- Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
OF -- Carlos Gomez, Brewers
OF -- Ryan Braun, Brewers
OF -- Justin Upton, Braves

I went three catchers because all are deserving. Molina and Posey maybe aren't having their typical seasons but they're two of the biggest stars in the game and Mesoraco makes it over the injured Evan Gattis for his monster first half. Rizzo was an easy call over Adam LaRoche and Justin Morneau, as nice a story as it would be to see Morneau go back to Minnesota (I have a feeling that he'll somehow make the real All-Star team). Murphy makes it as my lone Mets' rep and I took Hanley over Starlin Castro and Jhonny Peralta, although any of three are justifiable. Rendon is a rising star and second among NL third basemen in WAR. Carpenter isn't having the year he had last year but still has a .378 OBP and 53 runs scored. He's a better player than Aramis Ramirez or Casey McGehee, plus he can play second if needed (the game counts after all!)

After Gomez, the outfield choices were more difficult. In the end, I went with Braun and Upton over Hunter Pence, Jason Heyward's defense and rookie speedster Billy Hamilton. I was the only one to pick Braun, but he's hitting .293/.342/.515 and, like him or not, it's called the All-STAR Game and Braun is a star. My final choice was one of tactics: It came down to Gordon or Hamilton over Pence, to have a pinch-running option late in a close game if needed. Gordon has the better success rate (and has been a little better at the plate), so he gets the nod.

Pitching staff
SP -- Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
SP -- Johnny Cueto, Reds
SP -- Julio Teheran, Braves
SP -- Zack Greinke, Dodgers
SP -- Madison Bumgarner, Giants
SP -- Tim Hudson, Giants
SP -- Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
SP -- Jake Arrieta, Cubs
RP -- Craig Kimbrel, Braves
RP -- Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers
RP -- Huston Street, Padres
RP -- Aroldis Chapman, Reds

We had to pick four relievers and these four were pretty clear. Street gives me a Padres rep and Chapman, while missing time after his spring training line drive to the head, is one of the game's star relievers and has struck out 46 batters in 23.2 innings. For the starters, the first six listed above were pretty clear selections. I went with Zimmermann over teammate Stephen Strasburg and then Arrieta for the final spot. Maybe that's dubious choice since he's really had just the one dominant month, but he is 5-1 with a 1.81 ERA and has terrific periphals. If you want to go with Strasburg or his Cubs teammate Jason Hammel instead, that's fine with me.

The one concern here is that with Kershaw starting, there are only two lefties in the pen in Bumgarner and Chapman. For that reason, I did consider Cole Hamels, who has been great even if his 2-5 record isn't. The actual roster will likely include a couple replacements like it always does, so I could see a lefty setup guy like Tony Watson (0.93 ERA) of the Pirates eventually making it.

Just missed: Hamilton, Pence, Strasburg, Hammel, Henderson Alvarez.

American League

C -- Salvador Perez, Royals
1B -- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2B -- Robinson Cano, Mariners
3B -- Josh Donaldson, A's
SS -- Derek Jeter, Yankees
LF -- Michael Brantley, Indians
CF -- Mike Trout, Angels
RF -- Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
DH -- Victor Martienez, Tigers
SP -- Felix Hernandez, Mariners

Derek Jeter? OK, Derek Jeter. Of course he doesn't deserve to make the team on his 2014 merit, but in lieu of a Tulowitzki or even half of a Tulowitzki in the AL, he's the guy I want to see start. At third, you could go Donaldson, Adrian Beltre or Kyle Seager. Donaldson holds a slight edge over Seager in FanGraphs WAR and a bigger one on Baseball-Reference, with Beltre well behind on both, so Donaldson gets my nod. Left field could be Brantley or Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes or Nelson Cruz, who is listed on the ballot as a DH although has started 38 games in left. I went with Brantley but, really, any of the four are reasonable selections. DH was just as tough with Martinez, Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion. Again, any of three work. Maybe we can just play Encarnacion at shortstop and hope nobody hits the ball to him.

OK, King Felix versus Masahiro Tanaka. Tough call since their numbers are about identical. Flip a coin. Yes, I'm a Mariners fan, but the difference for me was Hernandez has allowed four home runs and Tanaka 13. I know Tanaka is a great story but Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers for many years now and has never started the All-Star Game. Hey, there's also the chance that Tanaka could turn into a Jack Armstrong pumpkin (just kidding, Yankees fans).

Reserves
C -- Derek Norris, A's
1B -- Jose Abreu, White Sox
1B/DH -- Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
2B -- Jose Altuve, Astros
2B -- Ian Kinsler, Tigers
3B -- Adrian Beltre, Rangers
3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
SS -- Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
OF -- Alex Gordon, Royals
OF -- Adam Jones, Orioles
OF/DH -- Nelson Cruz, Orioles
OF/1B -- Brandon Moss, A's

It will be interesting to see how the real AL roster shakes out. I assume since Cruz and Moss were listed as DHs on the ballot that they weren't considered outfielders for the player vote. So, assuming Cespedes holds on to the fan lead for the third spot, your minimum of three backup outfielders will come from the Brantley/Gordon/Jones group -- except Jones got off to a terrible start and Brantley isn't a big name, so the players may instead vote in guys like Jacoby Ellsbury and Melky Cabrera (who got off to a strong start). If Brantley then makes it as the Indians rep and David Ortiz fares well in the player vote, it's possible that Martinez and Encarnacion both get squeezed off the roster (Cruz is leading the fan voting at DH).

As for the other backup, I actually cheated by including just one backup catcher when we told to include two. (Sorry, boss.) So three catchers from a weak AL group would further squeeze a deserving player off the team. I would have loved to have found room for hometown Twins second baseman Brian Dozier to make it, but I can't justify his selection over Altuve or Kinsler. The second shortstop could be Ramirez, Erick Aybar or Alcides Escobar; I don't really care which one. My final spot came down to Moss or teammate Cespedes. In part, this is a strategic move: Having that big lefty bat off the bench could be important (not that managers actually manage strategically in the game).

Pitching staff
SP -- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
SP -- Yu Darvish, Rangers
SP -- David Price, Rays
SP -- Jon Lester, Red Sox
SP -- Chris Sale, White Sox
SP -- Max Scherzer, Tigers
SP -- Garrett Richards, Angels
SP -- Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays
RP -- Greg Holland, Royals
RP -- Glen Perkins, Twins
RP -- Koji Uehara, Red Sox
RP -- Sean Doolittle, A's

Love this staff. Great righty/lefty balance. My automatic selections were Tanaka, Darvish, Price, Lester and Sale, with Scherzer next in line even if his ERA is a little high. Richards and Buehrle got the edge over a strong pool of candidates that included Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir, Rick Porcello, Dallas Keuchel, Anibal Sanchez and even Phil Hughes. Like I said, a lot more difficult calls in the AL.

For the bullpen, Perkins makes it on merit, not just as the Twins rep. He does have a 3.41 ERA but has a 46/7 strikeout/walk ratio and just two home runs allowed and has been very good for four years now. Doolittle is a second lefty and you know his crazy numbers: 57 strikeouts and two walks. Apologies here to Yankees setup man Dellin Betances and his dominant strikeout rate. I'm guessing he finds his way on to the actual roster.

Just missed: Cespedes, Dozier, Kluber, Keuchel, Betances.

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