SweetSpot: San Francisco Giants

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

&Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

I don't know which stat is more amazing: After homering off Tim Lincecum last night, Paul Goldschmidt is now 13-for-24 with seven home runs off Lincecum; or, Goldschmidt's opposite-field home run was just the eighth by a right-handed batter at AT&T Park over the past eight seasons. (And you wonder why Giants pitchers often have big home/road splits.)

According to John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Info, Goldschmidt's six previous home runs off Lincecum had come on inside pitches; this one came on an outside fastball and Goldschmidt drilled it down the line for a first-inning, three-run shot. It was the first opposite-field home run Lincecum had ever allowed to a right-handed batter at AT&T.

Is Goldschmidt's dominance just a statistical quirk, one of those things that will happen when you play a game long enough? Or is Lincecum tipping his pitches in some way that Goldsdchmidt has picked up on? Not that Goldschmidt would give anything away, but he seems to be leaning to statistical quirk, telling MLB.com, "Obviously I've had success right now, but that can change in a hurry. There's plenty of guys that maybe you start off hot and then all of a sudden you don't get a hit. That's how baseball is -- or vice versa, maybe there's a guy you don't hit very well and then for some reason you get a few hits off him. We're talking a small sample size here."

You have to love a player who quotes small sample size.

Anyway, the home run jump-started the D-backs to a much-needed 7-3 win, with Josh Collmenter pitching the final four innings in relief of Bronson Arroyo.

Thoughts on other games ...
  • Should the Tigers be worried about new closer Joe Nathan? He got the "win" in a 7-6 victory over the Dodgers, but that was only after he allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to blow a 6-3 lead. Nathan has allowed six hits, four walks and five runs in 3.2 innings and has blown two saves chances (although the Tigers ended up winning both games). His fastball velocity has averaged just 90.6 mph -- granted, we're only talking about 35 pitches here -- down from 92.2 mph last season, which itself was down from 93.9 in 2012. Nathan had said on the radio earlier in the day that he'd been pitching through a dead arm; after the game, he said he felt better, just that his command was a little off. Maybe so, but when you're 39, any slump becomes more worrisome.
  • I think Masahiro Tanaka still has No. 1-starter upside. He gave up a two-out, three-run homer to Jonathan Schoop in the second inning, but was otherwise very effective, striking out 10 in seven innings. He induced 22 swings-and-misses, the second-most on the season (Felix Hernandez had 24 on Opening Day). Both his splitter and slider look like wipeout pitches, although Schoop blasted a hanging slider for a 407-foot home run. He sits in the low 90s with his fastball (he's maxed out at 94.7 mph) and pounds the outside corner to left-handed batters with that pitch (inside corner to righties). Obviously, he can't afford to give up a home run every start but he's going to be considered the Yankees ace by the end of the season.
  • With David Robertson on the DL, the back of the bullpen is scrambling, however, and the Orioles scored twice off Shawn Kelley in the ninth for the 5-4 win (a bottom-of-the-ninth rally against Tommy Hunter fell short). Hunter is hardly a lockdown closer himself, so when you factor in Nathan and Jim Johnson in Oakland, a lot of good teams are having issues in the ninth.
  • Also watched a lot of Garrett Richards' strong outing for the Angels in a 2-0 win over the Mariners. He's always had the great arm and he basically fired high fastballs all night -- he averaged 96.1 mph on his heater -- and the Mariners couldn't touch him, with just one hit in seven innings. I don't even recall any hard outs. I'm not going to suggest he's turned the corner -- on this night he was hitting his spots better than usual -- but the Angels desperately need him to turn into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Albert Pujols also homered for the second straight game, a two-run shot off a hanging changeup from Mariners rookie Roenis Elias.
  • After Jordan Zimmermann's first start, I wrote that all he has to do to potentially win a Cy Young Award is cut down on the blow-up outings he has a few times a year. Well, he had one of those on Wednesday, as the Marlins knocked him out in the second inning after he had allowed seven hits and five runs. The Nationals fought back, however, as Bryce Harper hit his first home run, a three-run shot, and then Jayson Werth won it with a grand slam off Carlos Marmol in the eighth, smashing an 0-1 fastball to left-center. Craig Stammen had the clutch long relief outing, tossing 3.1 scoreless innings. Tough one for the Marlins to take.
  • Finally, Andrelton Simmons with one of those plays only he can make. And Billy Hamilton tagging up on what was essentially a pop-up.



For some reason, players just can’t help themselves.

Yasiel Puig has missed the past two Dodgers games after suffering a thumb injury while sliding headfirst into first base. On Tuesday night, Josh Hamilton slid headfirst into first base in the seventh inning and was removed in a crucial situation in the ninth inning because he injured his thumb.

The Angels trailed 5-3 but Fernando Rodney had walked the first two batters, bringing up Hamilton’s spot in the lineup. Mind you, this is a hot Hamilton, hitting .444 in the early going. Instead, Ian Stewart pinch hit and struck out, as did Howie Kendrick, and when Raul Ibanez flew out the Angels had lost for the fourth straight time this season to the Mariners.

Studies have shown runners do not get to first base faster by sliding headfirst, so runners, please stop.

Other thoughts on Tuesday’s games:
  • Hard-throwing 22-year-old Yordano Ventura had an impressive 2014 debut for the Royals with six strikeouts and no walks in six scoreless innings against the Rays. Impressively, four of his strikeouts came on his changeup, one on his curveball and one on his fastball. Fourteen of the 19 changeups he threw were strikes -- and if he’s commanding that pitch, he’s going to develop into a very good starter. His average fastball velocity was 97 mph and peaked at 100.8. Alas, the Royals loaded the bases three times and failed to score and the Rays beat Greg Holland with a run in the ninth. My concern about the Royals’ offense heading into the season was a lack of power, and they’re homerless through seven games. Mike Moustakas -- remember his hot spring? -- finally got his first hit. He’s only 25, so you don’t want to say there’s no chance of a breakout season for him, but I don’t see it, and a hot spring didn’t change my opinion.
  • The White Sox pounded the Rockies 15-3 as Jose Abreu hit his first two home runs -- two of the six HRs the White Sox hit Tuesday. Avisail Garcia added his first two homers, as well. Could the White Sox be a sleeper team? I’m skeptical that they can jump from 63 wins into playoff contention, but if Abreu is a star and lineup anchor, and Adam Eaton provides speed and on-base ability from the leadoff spot, and Garcia hits in his first full season, the White Sox will score a lot more runs than the 598 they scored last year. The Sox have one-of-a-kind starter Chris Sale and a solid No. 2, Jose Quintana, so perhaps the Sox can surprise if the Indians and Royals fall back a bit from 2013.
  • The Reds are 1-4 against the Cardinals after blowing an early 4-0 lead in a 7-5 loss; Homer Bailey gave up four runs in the second and the bullpen lost it in the sixth. The four losses have been by a total of six runs. The Cardinals went 11-8 against the Reds last year while outscoring them 102-77. The Reds are 2-6, Billy Hamilton is struggling from the leadoff spot (.091/.130/.136, no stolen bases), and the bullpen clearly misses Aroldis Chapman. The Reds have to be careful about digging an early hole. After Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Cards (Mike Leake versus Shelby Miller), Cincy's next five series are against the Rays, Pirates, Cubs, Pirates and Braves. Four of those are tough series that could leave the Reds well under .500 by the end of April.
  • Brandon Belt continues to rake, going 2-for-4 with his fifth home run as the Giants beat the Diamondbacks 7-3 (I wonder if that Arizona dugout bench is getting a little warm for Kirk Gibson). The interesting thing about Belt’s season numbers is that he has 10 strikeouts and no walks. It’s obviously a small sample size (only eight games), but I checked to see if he’s been chasing pitches out of the strike zone. He’s swung at 36 percent of pitches out of the zone, compared to 28 percent last year. His swing rate at pitches in the zone has increased from 46 to 52 percent. Too early to draw any conclusions, but it appears he may be taking a more aggressive approach. Of course, if he keeps hitting like this, he’ll start seeing a lot more pitches out of the zone.
  • Speaking of being more aggressive, Mike Trout said in spring training he’d be more aggressive this year on first pitches or when the count was in his favor. So far, he’s swung at four first pitches in 35 plate appearances (11.4 percent) resulting in two misses and two foul balls. Last season, he swung at the first pitch 12.4 percent of the time and at 2-0 pitches 30 percent of the time; this season, he has faced just two 2-0 counts and swung once.
  • Bartolo Colon pitched seven scoreless innings in the Mets’ 4-0 win over the Braves. He threw 101 pitches -- 88 fastballs. Of course, those 88 fastballs come in at different speeds and move, cut, dive, fade and run. What a unique, fun pitcher to watch. The Braves are 4-3 even though they’ve scored just 15 runs in seven games. Jason Heyward (.107), B.J. Upton (.138, 13 K’s, no walks), Justin Upton (.231, no extra-base hits) and Evan Gattis (.188, no walks) all continue to struggle. Freddie Freeman -- six walks and just two strikeouts -- isn’t going to see much to hit until the guys in front of him start getting on base.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a day and evening of masterful starting pitching performances, Hudson’s may have been the most important. Making his first regular-season start since that gruesome fractured ankle ended his season last July, Hudson’s debut with the Giants was brilliant, that great sinker of his dipping and diving and leaving the Diamondbacks flailing at air and pounding worm burners into the ground.

Hudson threw 103 pitches in his 7 2/3 innings, 74 strikes, and put a zero in the run column while allowing three hits and no walks as the Giants won 2-0. Fifteen of his outs were registered via a groundball (eight) or strikeout (seven). At 38 and coming off a serious injury, there had to be some question marks about what Hudson could bring a Giants rotation that struggled last season behind ace Madison Bumgarner. How good was he? His Game Score of 80 was Hudson’s highest since throwing eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts on Sept. 17, 2011.

Hudson went 8-7 with a 3.97 ERA in 21 starts for the Braves last year and the Giants need that kind of performance -- or something a little better. The Giants’ rotation last year was pretty much a disaster, despite its “We won two World Series” reputation. Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong took the brunt of the punishment, but Matt Cain struggled for two months and Tim Lincecum’s ERA was also over 4.00. As a group, the Giants ranked 22nd in rotation ERA and 27th in FanGraphs WAR -- worse than the Twins or Cubs.

For one game at least, it was vintage Hudson. And that’s a wonderful thing.

* * * *

Welcome back, Michael Wacha. Last year’s October rookie sensation picked up where he left off (well, we’ll ignore that final World Series start) with 6 2/3 scoreless innings, three hits allowed and seven K’s. Wacha's changeup was just as dominant as last season as the Reds went 0-for-10 against it with four strikeouts. He may not even have been the best pitcher in the game, however. Fellow sophomore Tony Cingrani, with his deceptive motion and array of high fastballs (75 of his 92 pitches were fastballs, almost all of them up in the zone), was sensational for the Reds, striking out nine while allowing two hits in his seven innings. The Reds finally scraped across a run in the bottom of the ninth, with Chris Heisey’s pinch-hit single off Carlos Martinez with bases loaded winnng it. With two 1-0 games already in the books, you get the feeling the Cardinals and Reds are going to play a lot of tense, low-scoring games against each other.

* * * *

What kind of night was it? Wacha and Cingrani may not have been the most impressive young pitchers on the evening. Seattle’s James Paxton, who impressed in four outings last September, looked wicked nasty in an 8-2 win over the Angels. He tossed seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and two hits, touching 98 on the radar gun, throwing 97 in the seventh inning and inducing several ugly looking swings from the Angels. Paxton’s command has always been the issue coming up with through minors but 64 of his 99 pitches were strikes. Not all of those were in the strike zone (42 percent were classified as in the zone), as he got the Angels chasing his two-seamer that often tailed out of the zone. His fastball really rides in on right-handed batters and he used his curveball as his out pitch -- five of his nine K’s came off his curve. The Mariners swept the Angels in impressive fashion.

* * * *

Then there was Mark Buehrle, who registered just the second double-digit strikeout game of his career with 11 Ks in Toronto's 3-0 win over the Rays -- one short of his career high set way back in 2005. Unlike Paxton, he did not reach 98 mph. In fact, his fastest pitch of the night was 83.8 mph. Like Paxton though, just 42 percent of the pitches he threw were actually in the strike zone. Paxton got hitters to chase due to his pure stuff; Buehrle got hitters to chase because he’s one smart, wily veteran who still knows how to pitch.

* * * *

P.S.: In a day game, Matt Garza and Aaron Harang both took no-hitters into the seventh.

P.P.S: I didn’t even mention Max Scherzer.

P.P.P.S: Closers, on the hand, were brutal. They blew six saves.
Some quick thoughts on Tuesday's games and news ...

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

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

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

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

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

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

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

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

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

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

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

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

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

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

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

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

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

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

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

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.

ICYMI: SweetSpot Hits

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29
10:28
AM ET
Greetings, fellow seamheads. This is our first weekly installment of "ICYMI: SweetSpot Hits," a fly-by from some of the various sites that comprise ESPN's SweetSpot Network. Our goal is to bring you the best from each of our sites each week, allowing you a closer look at your favorite (or not so favorite) teams.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Rod Ghods breaks down the Australia series that saw the D-backs lose two games to the Dodgers at the Sydney Cricket Ground -- three, if you count an awful performance against Team Australia.

Chicago Cubs: View From the Bleachers
Why Cubs’ Fans Can’t Compare Current Prospects with Gary Scott and Felix Pie: There are many out there who will say "We’ve seen this before" when it comes to Cubs prospects. Chris Neitzel addresses that concern and examines whether that feeling is warranted with this new crop of prospects in the system.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The 2014 White Sox: Win Predictions and Chaos: Nick Schaefer examines the wide range of possibilities for the 2014 White Sox through the lense of a few of their particularly boom-or-bust players.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
A Fowler Front Office? Dexter Fowler's grit was publicly questioned by general manager Dan O'Dowd, leading to Fowler firing off his own response. Richard Bergstrom looks at both sides of the argument and whether O'Dowd should have started the argument in the first place.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Put Him in Coach? Aaron Hicks is Ready for Center Field: Parker Hageman, reporting on location in Fort Myers, explains why Hicks is ready to pull it together after a miserable rookie season.

New York Yankees: It's About the Money
Does Pitch Framing Make Brian McCann the Yankees' MVP? EJ Fagan delves into McCann's ability to pitch-frame and how well he's done it from 2008-2013.
Also from IIATMS: It's About The 2014 Predictions. Stacey Gotsulias compiled the entire writing staff's predictions (division and wild-card winners, award winners) for the upcoming season, including a bold prediction from each writer.

San Francisco Giants: West Coast Bias
2014 NL West Preview. In what could prove to be one of the most intriguing divisions in baseball, Connor Grossman and Andrew Tweedy break down the best- and worst-case scenarios for each NL West team.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
2014 NL Preview: An in-depth look at the NL Central teams, as well as Pip's picks in the ESPN SweetSpot poll.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The End is the Beginning: As spring training has come to a close, Brandon Land takes a look at some of the positives to come out of an injury-riddled camp.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.
Quick thoughts ...
  • With Max Scherzer ending negotiations with the Tigers until after the season, it appears he (and agent Scott Boras) will head into free agency. Reports indicated Scherzer was offered less than teammate Justin Verlander, who signed an extension last spring that averages $25.7 million per season over seven years. If Scherzer was offered a deal at $24 million per year, we'd be looking at a six-year, $144 million. Even if Scherzer repeats his Cy Young season, I'm not sure he'd get much more than that on the free agent market. He's not to going to get the $30.7 million AAV that Clayton Kershaw received from the Dodgers because (A) He's not Clayton Kershaw; and (B) Scherzer is four years older. Scherzer has had one great season; while it wouldn't shock me to see him have a similar season, even a little regression back to his career norms means he's unlikely to get a $24-25 million AAV contract. You do have to like his confidence and belief in himself, however, to have another big year.
  • How big of a loss is Geovany Soto to the Rangers? It could have bigger impact than you might expect at first glance. You really don't want to play J.P. Arencibia on a regular basis considering he hit .194 with a .227 OBP last season. Over the past two seasons he's struck out 256 times while drawing just 36 walks, making him one of the least disciplined hitters in major league history. He has 11 strikeouts and one walk in spring training. Even with his decent defense, that made him a replacement-level player. Robinson Chirinos is hitting .444 this spring and he had a big year with the bat in the minors in 2010, but he hit a lukewarm .257/.356/.400 at Triple-A Round Rock last year. Still, don't be surprised if he ends up at least splitting time with Arencibia until Soto returns. Say this about last year's catcher, A.J. Pierzynski: He's never great but he is durable.
  • The Mariners released Scott Baker, as they had to notify him by today whether or not made the big league roster. This means Randy Wolf will almost certainly be in the Opening day rotation, which will probably turn out as bad as it sounds. He's given up six home runs in 19 spring innings with just nine strikeouts. Good luck.
  • I found this interesting: Dexter Fowler sort of criticized the Rockies for trading him to the Astros, saying "I don’t even know who’s the GM. I think everybody over there is still wondering who really is the GM," referring to Dan O'Dowd and Bill Geivett, who split GM duties in Colorado. I agree with Fowler: The Rockies basically traded Fowler to free up money to sign Justin Morneau and Morneau is a worse player than Fowler. It leaves the Rockies without an everyday center fielder -- Corey Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, Charlie Blackmon and Brandon Barnes will share the job in some format -- and they could have moved slow-footed right fielder Michael Cuddyer to first base.
  • You never want to read too much into spring training stats, but the Giants have to be concerned about the spring performances of starters Ryan Vogelsong (33 hits in 19 innings, 12 strikeouts) and Tim Lincecum (25 hits and 14 runs in 19 1/3 innings, just 11 strikeouts). Yes, the ball tends to fly in those Arizona spring parks but you're also not facing a full slate of major league hitters.


First base regained some luster last season as Chris Davis and Paul Goldschmidt had monster years that put them in the MVP discussions in their leagues and Freddie Freeman had a breakout year for the Braves. The position gets even stronger this year as Miguel Cabrera moves back over from third base, Joe Mauer moves from catcher to first on a full-time basis and Jose Abreu looks to make a big impact for the White Sox. Who are the top 10 first basemen? Eric Karabell and myself discuss the BBTN 100 rankings.
Jim Bowden has an ESPN Insider piece up today on 10 players scouts are raving about so far in spring training. Look, I'm sure you could go back and check similar pieces from previous years and find a host of players who looked great in March and returned to their usual level of production once the season began, so these things aren't meant as gospel. But they're fun reading and I was especially interested to see one guy Jim included on his list: Giants first baseman Brandon Belt.

Jim wrote:
Around the trade deadline last July, Belt made some significant changes at the plate. He moved back from the front of the batter's box to the back and more important tweaked his grip on the bat. The results in the second half were incredible, as he put up a .326/.390/.525 line. With a year of maturity and the club's confidence that he's their long-term solution at first base, he should finally have a full breakout season.


I heard an interview with Belt a few weeks ago about this change in hitting mechanics and he said it helped him to go more to the opposite field. Here's his hit chart from 2013, broken into two segments, through July 31 and then over the final two months, when he raked:

Brandon BeltESPN Stats & InformationIn the final two months, Belt hit .373 on outside pitches.


Remember, the hit chart on the left is two months' worth of hits; the one on the right is four months of hits. He hit 22 doubles in those first four months but 17 in the final two, including several down the left-field line.

Another way to look at how Belt's adjustments worked is his production on pitches on the outside part of the plate. Through July 31 he hit .191/.321/.267 on outside pitches; from Aug. 1 on he hit .373/.424/.542.

SportsNation

Over or under on Brandon Belt hitting .295?

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    71%
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    29%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,284)

The numbers confirm what the scouts see: This is an improved hitter. Belt is 26 years old, entering his third full season in the majors, a prime time for a peak season. He's appeared to have made the adjustments that make him a better hitter. I believe the production in those final two months wasn't a fluke, that he did improve and that he's going to have a big 2014. We can pay too much attention to late-season numbers, when September pitching in particular is often watered down, but in Belt's case his numbers are backed up with other evidence.

He may not be 30-homer guy, but I can foresee a .300 season with 20 to 25 home runs, making him one of the game's best first basemen and a key cog in the middle of the San Francisco lineup.

What do you think? The projection systems aren't big on Belt. Of course, they're looking at his overall numbers (.289/.360/.481) and not that two-month surge. ZiPS is especially pessimistic at .264/.349/.441 while Steamer has him at .272. I'm not exactly sure why they don't like him, but they probably see a first baseman with middling power who hasn't yet hit .300 and those types of players don't usually improve a whole lot.

I think he'll easily hit higher than .272 and would rank him as a good dark horse candidate for the batting title (you heard it hear first!). Let's give him an over/under of .295.
I'd like to officially welcome aboard three new members of the SweetSpot network: West Coast Bias, One Strike Away and Rockies Zingers.

Some introductions ...

West Coast Bias (San Francisco Giants)

West Coast Bias is run by Connor Grossman (@GiantsBaseball), a Giants fan from the Bay Area attending Syracuse University where he's majoring in broadcast and digital journalism, and Andrew Treedy (@nyy_baseball), a Yankees fan from San Francisco (what?) attending Southern Cal and also studying broadcast and digital journalism. Maybe we'll see them co-anchoring SportsCenter some day. For now, they enthusiastically write about the Giants.

Here's a recent piece from Connor and Andrew where they analyze the Giants' offseason. They write:
Connor: As touched upon in a previous piece, I think the Giants come into 2014 with more “lineup presence,” than even the defending World Champions last year. Assuming (a grave assumption, at that) that there are no major injuries during Spring Training that would affect the Opening Day lineup, they do have a lineup of that of a contending team. The rotation was fortified by the Tim Hudson signing, effectively replacing Barry Zito. Ryan Vogelsong will look to bounce-back (story of the Giants for the last few years, huh?) from his injury-plagued 2013 to hold his own in presumably the fifth spot of the rotation.

Andrew: While the current Giants lineup appears to have the potential to contend in 2014, I still see some major issues with this team. As much as I am worried about how much stock San Francisco is putting into Michael Morse and Pablo Sandoval, my main concern with this team is depth. A quick look at the Giants projected bench for 2014 reads as follows: Joaquin Arias, Gregor Blanco, Hector Sanchez, and Tony Abreu.
One Strike Away (Texas Rangers)

Brandon Land runs One Strike Away. You can follow him on Twitter @one_strike_away). He just wrote a post on why the pitching situation for the Rangers isn't all bad even with the injury to Derek Holland and the likelihood that Matt Harrison won't be ready for Opening Day. Brandon writes:
More than anything, I believe that scheduling and the presence of Yu Darvish will allow the Rangers to succeed despite some holes in the rotation at the beginning of the season.

In Darvish, the Rangers are the favorite to win every fifth day. While we all know that doesn't directly translate to wins -- just ask Seattle how that translates with Felix Hernandez -- having an anchor at the front of the rotation is something every team in Major League Baseball wants.

After opening the season with a 3-game series at home against Philadelphia, the Rangers go on the road for 6 games against the Rays and Red Sox. Those games figure to be tougher, but following that, the Rangers will have a 10-game homestand in which they will host the Astros, Mariners, and White Sox. Those should all be winnable games no matter who is on the mound for Texas. By that point, it's expected that Matt Harrison will be ready to go, at which point the club will need to choose between Colby Lewis, Joe Saunders, Tommy Hanson, Nick Tepesch, Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers, Michael Kirkman, and Jose Contreras -- all to fill one spot in the rotation.
Rockies Zingers (Colorado Rockies)

Richard Bergstrom, a Rockies fan since 2004, has launched Rockies Zingers. He promises analysis, silliness and, yes, some compliments. Speaking of compliments, here's a recent piece on four things Dan O'Dowd does well. Richard writes:


#2 The Rockies value defense.

Unlike, say, Seattle, where they have shifted second basemen to the outfield to be flanked by two firstbasemen playing in the corners, the Rockies have generally placed a value on defense. Perhaps it was the emergence of Troy Tulowitzki and the many articles about the Rockies defense that came from the Rocktober run to the World Series in 2007, but the Rockies have kept to that mantra. Helton, Tulowitzki and Gonzalez were all signed to long contracts, in part, because they were seen as good with the glove. Maybe O’Dowd realized that it was one of the things at altitude that he could control. It does seem that, for the most part, any middle infielders that the Rockies call up can at least flash the leather. Sometimes, however, the Rockies love defense almost to a fault as certain players get demoted (Iannetta, Fowler) or discarded (Atkins, Hawpe, Smith, Young, Fowler?) for perceived faults in the field.


Welcome aboard to the new blogs!

Team over/unders: Best bets

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

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

SportsNation

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

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

Discuss (Total votes: 15,858)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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

Discuss (Total votes: 13,837)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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

Discuss (Total votes: 15,014)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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

Discuss (Total votes: 15,370)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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

Discuss (Total votes: 16,627)

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

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


SportsNation

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

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

Discuss (Total votes: 16,376)

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

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

Lineup discussion: NL West

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
7:01
PM ET
Welcome to the land of pretty ocean sunsets, marine layer and thin air. Three of the teams in the National League West play in pitcher's parks while the other two play in two of the best hitter's parks. Factor that in when you vote for best lineup in the division.

Los Angeles DodgersLos Angeles Dodgers

Key question: Is Don Mattingly going to have Yasiel Puig hit leadoff?
It appears so. He hinted as much earlier in February. Puig did have the better on-base percentage than Carl Crawford, and Crawford also can't hit left-handers anymore (.206/.261/.290). Considering Crawford's days of stealing 50 bases are also long past, his value as a leadoff hitter has diminished. Moving Puig there would be a creative idea, although I suspect if he turns into a 30-homer monster he'll move back down in the order.

Projected lineup:
Yasiel Puig, RF
Carl Crawford, LF
Hanley Ramirez, SS
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
Matt Kemp/Andre Ethier, CF
Juan Uribe, 3B
A.J. Ellis, C
Alex Guerrero, 2B

But should Crawford hit second? Certainly not against-left-handers. Mattingly wants to maintain left-right balance, but managers obsess too much over that. For example, say Kemp starts the season on the DL and Ethier is in center. Against right-handers, Ethier should be higher in the order than Uribe, even if that means finishing the lineup with three straight right-handed batters. Why? Because Ethier is a better hitter than Uribe. Worry about beating the starting pitcher, not matchups that may happen in the late innings.

Suggestion:
For all the talk about the crowded outfield situation, nobody really mentions that Crawford and Ethier should both be benched against left-handers. Ethier hit .221/.275/.338 against left-handers in 2013, and that's about what he's done for several years now. You can argue that Scott Van Slyke deserves to start against lefties at least in place of Crawford. But with all the big egos I'm not sure Mattingly is ready to make it five guys for three positions just yet.

Arizona DiamondbacksArizona Diamondbacks

Key question: Where does Mark Trumbo hit?
With his ability to hit 35 to 40 home runs, the inclination is to bat him cleanup behind MVP runner-up Paul Goldschmidt. That's not really the best use of resources, as Trumbo's sub-.300 OBP means he's better suited for a lower spot in the order.

Projected lineup:
Gerardo Parra, RF
Martin Prado, 3B
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
Mark Trumbo, LF
Aaron Hill, 2B
Miguel Montero, C
A.J. Pollock, CF
Didi Gregorius/Chris Owings, SS

Kirk Gibson has a lot of flexibility here. Parra could lead off against right-handers with Pollock assuming that role against lefties, with Cody Ross perhaps getting time in right field. Prado or Hill could hit second. Gregorius and Owings could platoon at shortstop. The D-backs do need a bounce-back year from Montero to provide a little more left-handed power.

Suggestion:
With all the various injuries last year, the Diamondbacks used 138 different lineups (not including pitchers). They may do that again, but hopefully because Gibson will maximize his creative possibilities. He has the ability to form some positive platoons and keep everyone rested. And don't bat Trumbo cleanup.

San Francisco GiantsSan Francisco Giants

Key question: If Buster Posey repeats his first half in both halves and if Brandon Belt repeats his second half in both halves, how good will the Giants' offense be?
Much better, that's for sure. Posey hit .325 with a .931 OPS in the first half, .244 and .643 in the second. Belt hit .260 with a .784 OPS in the first half, .326 and .915 in the second.

SportsNation

Which team has the best lineup in the NL West?

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    23%
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    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,283)

Projected lineup:
Angel Pagan, CF
Marco Scutaro, 2B
Brandon Belt, 1B
Buster Posey, C
Hunter Pence, RF
Pablo Sandoval, 3B
Gregor Blanco, LF
Brandon Crawford, SS

By the end of the year, Bruce Bochy was going Belt-Posey-Pence-Sandoval in the three through six spots so that's what I listed here. I also listed Blanco in left field ahead of Morse because when things are all said and done I'll predict he plays out there more often. It could end up being a good platoon: Blanco with defense and decent OBP against righties, Morse with power against lefties (if he actually stays healthy).

Suggestion:
Scutaro had another good year at the plate, hitting .297 with a .357 OBP and more walks than strikeouts. He's not a bad No. 2 hitter, but he's not a great one either since he has little power (two home runs) and he's now 38. He does, however, fit the old-fashioned image of a second-place hitter with bat control. However, in 2014 you want more power from that spot in the lineup. I'd probably go Belt-Pence-Posey-Sandoval in the two-through-five spots.

San Diego PadresSan Diego Padres

Key question: Will they score 700 runs for the first time since 2007?
Petco Park doesn't help, but the Padres haven't finished higher than 10th in the NL in runs scored since ranking ninth in 2007. They haven't ranked in the top half of the league since ranking eighth in 2004.

Projected lineup:
Everth Cabrera, SS
Will Venable, RF
Chase Headley, 3B
Carlos Quentin, LF
Jedd Gyorko, 2B
Yonder Alonso, 1B
Nick Hundley, C
Cameron Maybin, CF

Considering the Padres ran out 145 different lineups in 2013, it's almost pointless to project their batting order considering they also have Chris Denorfia and Seth Smith, who should see a lot of time in the outfield, with Smith perhaps battling Alonso for time at first base as well. There is potential here: Can Headley produce stats closer to his 2012 numbers? Can Gyorko improve upon a solid rookie season? Will Yasmani Grandal get a shot at catcher? Will Quentin stay healthy?

Suggestion:
The Padres are hoping for an A's-like success story in the lineup. Maybe there isn't one big star here, but there are no glaring weaknesses. You do wonder if it's time to punt on Maybin. He missed most of 2013 with wrist and knee injuries and his career batting line is now .248/.311/.370 in nearly 1,800 plate appearances. They may be better off giving center field to Venable and Denorfia and working Smith and Kyle Blanks into right.

Colorado RockiesColorado Rockies

Key question: Who is going to hit leadoff?
Well, that's not exactly clear yet. Walt Weiss has basically outlined his lineup by announcing Michael Cuddyer will hit second, followed by Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Justin Morneau and Wilin Rosario. Gotta maintain that right-left-right thing at all costs!

Projected lineup:
Cast of thousands, LF/CF
Michael Cuddyer, RF
Carlos Gonzalez, CF/LF
Troy Tulowitzki, SS
Justin Morneau, 1B
Wilin Rosario, C
Nolan Arenado, 3B
DJ LeMahieu/Josh Rutledge, 2B

Gonzalez could end up in left or center, or both, depending on what happens between Charlie Blackmon, Drew Stubbs, Corey Dickerson and Brandon Barnes in spring training. The lineup could also change against left-handers, with Cuddyer moving to first base and one of the backup outfielders moving to right. At least, that's what should happen, since Morneau hasn't hit lefties in recent years.

Suggestion:
I can't really argue against that lineup too strongly, even with the leadoff spot unsettled. Blackmon, Stubbs and Dickerson all have their pluses (and negatives) so Weiss may able to mix and match. Stubbs has the longest track record and continues to struggle against righties, so he looks like an obvious platoon bat, maybe with Dickerson, who has hit at every level of the minors. Blackmon had 49 strikeouts and seven walks with the Rockies. Don't be fooled by that .309 average; he's not that good.
A reader pointed out this fact in my latest chat: The past five World Series champions each missed the playoffs the previous season. Here they are:

2013 Red Sox: 97-65 (69-93 the year before, last postseason in 2009)

2012 Giants: 94-68 (86-76 the year before, last postseason in 2010)

2011 Cardinals: 90-72 (86-76 the year before, last postseason in 2009)

2010 Giants: 92-70 (88-74 the year before, last postseason in 2003)

2009 Yankees: 103-59 (89-73 the year before, last postseason in 2007)

In one regard, this should give hope to every non-playoff team from 2013. On the other hand, four of the five teams had won at least 86 games the year before, so only the Red Sox could be described as a team that came out of nowhere, and even that description is a bit of stretch since 2012 was an aberration for the franchise -- its only losing season since 1997.

ESPN Insider Mike Petriello just wrote a story over the weekend, predicting which three non-playoff teams from 2013 would reach the postseason in 2014. He picked the Rangers, Nationals and Padres. Certainly, the Rangers and Nationals fit the pattern of being successful but just short of the playoffs the year before. The Rangers won 91 games (losing a wild-card tiebreaker game to the Rays) last year while the Nationals won 86; and both teams made the playoffs in 2012. The Padres would be the surprise, a team with three straight losing seasons.

Did the Rangers and Nationals do enough to improve? Let's see what those five World Series-winning teams did.

2009 Yankees
After missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993, the Yankees retooled by spending big, signing free agents CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher and A.J. Burnett. They also benefited from the return of Jorge Posada, who had missed two-thirds of the 2008 season.

2010 Giants
The two big additions everyone remembers were the in-season call-ups of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, but even though the Giants had won 88 games in 2009 this team had a much different look as only two position players had the most games at those positions both years (Pablo Sandoval and Aaron Rowand, and Rowand was on the bench by the postseason). The Giants benefited from signing free agent Aubrey Huff, who went from hitting .189 with two home runs with Detroit in 2009 to finishing seventh in the NL MVP vote, and the career year of Andres Torres, a bench player the year before who hit .268 with 67 extra-base hits. They also bolstered their outfield offense with the in-season acquisitions of Pat Burrell and Cody Ross.

2011 Cardinals
The in-season trade of Colby Rasmus to the Blue Jays for Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski added depth to the pitching staff, but the biggest move was free agent Lance Berkman, who hit .301/.412/.547 and finished seventh in the NL MVP vote.

2012 Giants
The Giants missed the playoffs in 2011 in part because of Posey's season-ending injury, but also because they didn't get the same production from 2010's surprise performers like Huff and Torres. So they retooled their lineup for 2012, trading Torres for Angel Pagan, promoting Brandon Belt to first base and acquiring Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence during the season. Melky Cabrera, acquired for Jonathan Sanchez, hit .346/.390/.516 before getting suspended in August for a positive PED test. He didn't play in the postseason, but the Giants may not have gotten there without him.

2013 Red Sox
After the Valentine's Year Massacre, the Red Sox dipped feverishly into the free-agent market -- signing Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara and Stephen Drew. John Lackey had a great year after missing all of 2012. Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz were healthy after missing significant time in 2012.

You don't want to put too much analysis into what those five teams did because winning the World Series is mostly about getting hot at the right time. But we can see these teams benefited from (A) free agents; (B) surprise seasons (Huff, Torres, Berkman, Cabrera, Lackey); and (C) injury comebacks.

If that's a template, the Rangers probably align more closely with those teams than the Nationals. They traded for Prince Fielder and made a big free-agent signing in Shin-Soo Choo. They're hoping they get Matt Harrison back after he made just two starts in 2013 (although losing Derek Holland for part of the season will hurt). The Nationals traded for Doug Fister and signed fourth outfielder Nate McLouth, but otherwise are going with the same core of players.

Perhaps the third team that could make the playoffs isn't the Padres, but rather the Royals. They won 86 games last year and were right on the brink of making the postseason. Their offseason moves weren't big, but sort of follow the pattern of what GM Brian Sabean does with the Giants: Find the right veterans. The Royals signed Omar Infante and Jason Vargas and traded for Norichika Aoki and Danny Valencia. Like those Giants teams they have a deep bullpen (Kansas City's bullpen is actually probably better and deeper). What they need is their Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres or Melky Cabrera.

Lorenzo Cain, are you listening?

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