SweetSpot: Seattle Mariners

Don't sleep on Henderson Alvarez

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
11:20
PM ET
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The two best things about the Miami Marlins the past two seasons have been Giancarlo Stanton's prodigious power and the rapid emergence of Jose Fernandez as a true ace. Then you add in Nate Eovaldi, who possessed the highest average fastball velocity of any pitcher who threw 100 innings last season and has a 23:3 K:BB ratio this season. Center fielder Christian Yelich is building upon his good rookie season, improving his OPS by more than 50 points in the early part of the season. Adeiny Hechavarria is making strides at the plate, lowering his strikeout percentage for the second season in a row and batting a surprising .319. One could almost be excused for overlooking a 24-year-old pitcher who yielded only two homers in 102 innings last season and capped 2013 off with a no-hitter on the last day of the regular season.

Henderson Alvarez twirled that no-no against the Detroit Tigers. But he’s got a comparatively lackluster strikeout rate (4.5 per nine through 2013) and a brilliant, but unsexy, 55.3 percent career ground ball percentage. On a staff full of power arms, he can get lost in the shuffle, especially given the way he started 2014. In his first three starts, he yielded 25 hits and seven walks against only 10 strikeouts in 14⅔ innings. He didn’t make it past the sixth inning in any outing.

[+] EnlargeHenderson Alvarez
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesThe Marlins' Henderson Alvarez lost his bid for a perfect game Saturday against the Mariners in the sixth inning on Dustin Ackley's leadoff single.
Furthermore, Saturday night, he was facing a Seattle Mariners team with five players in the lineup that had batted a collective .353 against him.

But something clicked for Alvarez against Seattle. Perhaps it was the presence of manager Lloyd McClendon in the opposing dugout. McClendon happened to be the hitting coach for the Tigers for that no-hitter in 2013. Perhaps it was time for regression to the mean from Alvarez’s .444 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) this season (it was .285 through 2013). Despite the familiarity of some of the opposing batters, the Mariners' impatient approach and lack of good contact (26th in walk percentage, 25th in line drive percentage and tied for 23rd with 3.77 pitches seen per plate appearance going into the game) might have helped. Whatever the case, he was wickedly efficient and brilliant in a 90-pitch, two-hit, complete-game 7-0 shutout of Seattle at Marlins Park.

Alvarez was perfect through the first five innings, needing only 53 pitches and allowing only one fly ball. He kept the Mariners at bay with a four-seam fastball that touched 95 mph, a power sinker that topped 92 most of the night and a smattering of changeups and sliders. Meanwhile, the Marlins pieced together single runs in the third and fourth.

With a 2-0 lead heading into the sixth, Alvarez yielded a solid leadoff single to center by Dustin Ackley and then promptly induced Mike Zunino into a 5-4-3 double play, part of the 16 ground ball outs he tallied on the night.

The Marlins blew the game open in the sixth, capped off by Marcell Ozuna’s three-run homer off a tiring Roenis Elias.

Alvarez’s only other blemish on the night came on a double just over the third-base bag by Zunino with one out in the ninth. Two more infield groundouts, and he had his third career complete game and a shutout.

His BABIP for the season is now down to a more reasonable .329, and he’s now allowed only two hits in his past 18 innings with McClendon in the same building. Perhaps he should carry Lloyd’s baseball card in his back pocket from now on.

Diane Firstman writes for Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot Network blog.


We don’t see these matchups as often you may expect, ace versus ace, best in the game versus best in the game. For the third time in their careers, Felix Hernandez faced Yu Darvish. The first two battles, both in 2012, went to King Felix: He allowed one run in eight innings and then pitched a three-hit, 12-strikeout gem, as Darvish struggled in both outings.

Let's follow along with a running diary of the Texas Rangers’ 3-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners.

First inning

You certainly have to expect a low-scoring game. Darvish hasn’t allowed a run in his first two starts and faces a Seattle lineup that has been shut out in three of its past six games. Hernandez has allowed six runs in his three starts with an impressive 30-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
AP Photo/Brandon Wade
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a perfect pitcher’s build, but if I could sculpt a pitcher out of Italian marble, he would look like Darvish -- tall and lean with a regal appearance, his uniform tailored perfectly. It’s a small data sample, but Darvish may be making one major change to his approach from last season, throwing more four-seam fastballs and fewer cutters. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Darvish threw 35 percent fastballs last year and 16 percent cutters. Through his first two starts, those numbers were 61 and 4. This makes sense; the cutter was his weakest pitch last year as opponents hit .271/.357/.500 against it. If he can command the four-seamer, he can ditch the cutter considering he still has his slider and curveball as wipeout pitches (plus an occasional splitter and even a big slow curve).

After a scoreless top of the inning, Hernandez takes the mound, top two buttons undone, pants legs down over the top of his shoelaces, his upper lip unshaven and a scraggly fluff of hair sprouting from his chin. Hernandez’s best weapon has been his changeup; batters are 2-for-27 against it with 18 strikeouts. It has been so good that he’s thrown it 28 percent of the time, up from 19 percent in 2013.

* * * *

Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal faced each other just four times, which seems odd to me. Marichal and Koufax were both starters from 1961 to 1966 and the Dodgers and Giants played each other 18 times a season back then, so you’d think they would have matched up more often. You’d maybe even expect the managers to purposely arrange their rotations for their aces to square off. Koufax pitched 26 times against the Giants over those six seasons and Marichal faced the Dodgers 30 times (remarkably, he never allowed more than four runs in those starts), so odds were they should have faced each other a few more times.

In the four games they did pitch against each other, Marichal didn’t even get an official plate appearance in two of them. Once, Koufax got knocked out in the first inning before Marichal hit. Another game -- the last time the two started against each other -- was Aug. 22, 1965, the infamous game when Marichal attacked Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro.

Koufax faced Bob Gibson five times, and they had some great duels. Twice, Koufax beat Gibson 1-0. He pitched a third shutout in another game.

Second inning

Nick Franklin, just called up from Tacoma, lines a first-pitch cutter into right-center for a one-out triple. Darvish strikes out Justin Smoak on a 1-2 fastball out of the strike zone but then works carefully to Dustin Ackley, walking him to face the right-handed Mike Zunino. Darvish starts out with a 94-mph fastball that Zunino takes for a strike, but the 0-1 pitch is a hanging slider in the middle of the plate and Zunino lines a soft single to center. Right pitch, bad execution. Abraham Almonte then plates Ackley, lining a 1-1 fastball into left field to make it 2-0.

Fourth inning

While Hernandez is sailing along through three innings (he started eight of the first nine batters with strikes), Darvish finds himself in a jam, thanks to some shaky defense. Justin Smoak singles past the statuesque Prince Fielder and then Zunino reaches when outfielders Leonys Martin and Shin-Soo Choo miscommunicate on a fly ball. Almonte strikes out. Brad Miller gets ahead in the count 2-1, Darvish gets a gift call on a 2-1 curve that looks outside and then appears to strike out Miller on a good heater on the inside corner. But plate ump Ted Barrett calls it a ball to the displeasure of Darvish. The 3-2 pitch is a slider that Miller sends routinely to right field.

* * * *

Roger Clemens reached the majors in 1984, Randy Johnson in 1988. They were both in the American League through 1998 and in the National League in 2004, but they faced each other only twice, in 1992 and 1994. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez started just three times against each other, once in 1994 and twice in 1995, during Maddux’s apex. He tossed shutouts in two of those games.

According to research by RetroSheet researcher Tom Ruane, the two pitchers who faced off most often in their careers were Jim McCormick and Mickey Welch, who battled 40 times between 1880 and 1887. Since 1900, the most common matchup was between Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Three-Finger Brown, with 23. Brown’s Cubs beat Mathewson’s Giants 12 times to 11. Since World War II, it’s Warren Spahn and Bob Friend, with 21 games.

Two other Hall of Famers who pitched regularly against each other were Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, with 17 duels between 1970 and 1983. And duel they did. On Sept. 24, 1972 -- the year Carlton went 27-10 with an awful Phillies team -- Seaver beat Carlton 2-1, the game decided in the eighth on an unearned run. On Opening Day 1973, Seaver won 3-0 with 7 2/3 scoreless innings. On Opening Day 1975, Seaver beat him 2-1, the winning scoring in the bottom of the ninth. In September of 1976, Seaver won 1-0 with a four-hit shutout.

If you’re getting the idea that Seaver had Carlton’s number, it’s kind of true. Or he had the Phillies’ number. The first nine times they faced each other, Seaver went 8-0 with a no-decision. Carlton always pitched well, but Seaver seemed to bring his best stuff. Carlton did finally beat him three times, but overall Seaver went 11-3 with a 2.74 ERA while Carlton went 3-12 with a 2.77 ERA (Seaver had two blow-up starts that raised his ERA). The last time they met was Opening Day 1983. Seaver had returned to the Mets after his exile to Cincinnati, where he had gone 5-13 with a 5.50 ERA in 1982. But the game was at Shea Stadium. Of course Seaver had to start. He tossed six scoreless innings. The Mets won 2-0.

Sixth inning

Darvish has settled down after some early issues with baserunners but he also ran up his pitch count. Meanwhile, the King is dealing, with eight strikeouts and three hits through six. While Darvish has thrown 98 pitches through six, Felix is at 79 (55 for strikes).

If you want a good lesson on what makes Hernandez so good -- and especially so good early on this year -- is that he can throw all four of his pitches on any count. So what has Hernandez done Wednesday night? All eight of his strikeouts have come on fastballs, at least according to MLB.com -- five four-seamers and three two-seamers. The guy is amazing.

(The MLB GameDay system I’m checking could be misidentifying some of his changeups as two-seam sinkers -- you know, because who else throws a changeup that’s only a couple miles per hour slower than his fastball. Readers on Twitter say several of the strikeouts were changeups, which is probably the case. We'll see what the data says after the game.)

Seventh inning

In what’s probably his final inning, Darvish cruises with a 1-2-3 frame, including his eighth strikeout. Solid effort for Darvish on a night he didn’t appear to have his A stuff. The one pitch he’d like to have back was that slider to Zunino.

Hernandez racks up his ninth strikeout, getting Kevin Kouzmanoff on another fastball, although at 88 mph it may have been another changeup.

Eighth inning

Darvish is done, and so is Hernandez after giving up a leadoff triple to Martin. I’m a little surprised at the hook since Hernandez is only at 96 pitches and has kept the Rangers off-balance all night. Felix did not look too happy when Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon took the ball from him, that’s for sure. You know this is the kind of game he at least wants to get the ball into the hands of closer Fernando Rodney.

The Rangers score a run on a sacrifice fly but Charlie Furbush and Yoervis Medina escape without further damage.

* * * *

In 1959, Lew Burdette and Robin Roberts faced off seven times, the last time two pitchers started that many times against each other in one season. Only one of them was much of a deal, Roberts winning 2-1 on July 4 as he scattered eight hits in a complete game. Another fun piece of data from Tom Ruane: Babe Ruth faced Walter Johnson five times in 1916. There were just 18 runs scored in those five games. How would you like to find a time machine and go watch one those matchups?

Ninth inning

Stop reading, Mariners fans. Rodney on for the save. Two quick outs. Kouzmanoff with a grounder to Miller's left that he dives for but can't corral it. He was shaded way in the hole and had a long ways to go, so it was not an easy play. Rodney falls behind Mitch Moreland with two balls, sending McClendon out to the mound (probably telling him to be careful with Moreland since light-hitting Josh Wilson is on deck). Moreland walks on a 3-2 pitch. Donnie Murphy bats for Wilson and hits a routine grounder right to Miller, who tosses the ball high to Robinson Cano at second base, pulling him off the bag. Everybody safe. Wild pitch. Game tied. Martin with a soft single to left. Game over.

What can I say? In what should have been a final sentence exclaiming the brilliance of Felix Hernandez we're instead left saying poor Felix.


We have a good one tonight: Felix Hernandez versus Yu Darvish in Texas. With that matchup in mind, Eric and myself discuss the pitching matchups we'd most like to see.

Hernandez and Darvish have met just twice, both in 2012, and King Felix dominated both times. On May 21, he allowed one run in eight innings while Darvish exited early after walking six batters in four innings. On July 14, Hernandez shut out the Rangers 7-0 with a three-hit, 12-strikeout performance. That's the second-highest Game Score of Hernandez's career, behind only his perfect game against Tampa Bay later that season.

Considering the way both pitchers are going right now -- Hernandez has allowed six runs in three starts and owns a 30-2 strikeout/walk ratio and Darvish hasn't allowed a run in two starts -- and the fact that the Mariners have been shut out three times in their past six games and the Rangers have scored one run in three of their past five, we should expect a low-scoring game.

Which means, of course, we'll probably have an 8-7 final.
Official Rules: 2.00 Definition of Terms

A CATCH is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession. It is not a catch, however, if simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, he collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball. It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball which then hits a member of the offensive team or an umpire and then is caught by another defensive player. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.


Italics are mine. You think you know what a catch is? Here's a play from Monday night, with Rangers catcher J.P. Arencibia trying to turn a 1-2-3 double play. He appears to catch the ball and then drop it while making the transfer to his throwing hand. Home plate umpire Paul Schreiber initially called the baserunner out. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon appealed the play and after a four-minute instant replay delay, the call was overturned and Dustin Ackley ruled safe. Rangers manager Ron Washington came out to argue and was ejected.

The new definition of a catch emphasizes secure possession. A fielder must display secure possession when transferring the ball to his throwing hand. In the past, when a fielder dropped the ball after making a catch or turning a double play, it was almost always ruled an out. Last season, there's no doubt Arencibia's play would have been ruled as an out at home, as Schreiber initially called it. The controversy here isn't just that instant replay changed the call but that umpires -- and players and managers -- are still trying to adjust to this new definition of a catch.

Here's a play from a Mariners game Saturday, as Ackley drops the ball while making the transfer. Here's another one from the same game: Ackley appears to make a diving catch in left-center only to again drop the ball on the transfer.

Here's where things got really confusing, however: By the new emphasis of secure possession, neither play was a catch. On both plays, however, an A's baserunner was called out because of the confusion over whether a catch was made. On the first one, the batter, Yoenis Cespedes, left the field thinking Ackley had made the catch. On the second, the runner on first, Josh Donaldson, wasn't sure what happened and returned to first base. While it was ruled that Ackley hadn't made the catch, Brandon Moss, the batter, was called out for passing Donaldson on the basepath.

The secure possession rule was invoked for infielders turning double plays or even the Arencibia type of play at home. But Donaldson explained to MLB.com's Jane Lee why the outfield catch creates havoc for baserunners:
"You have to go halfway, and you're going to have to watch it the entire time, and you might see guys get thrown out at the leading base because they can't get too far away from the other bag for the sheer fact they have to watch it the entire time. And some of these outfielders have really good arms, so them throwing it 120 feet is no problem."


This leads to another potential problem, as Dave Cameron wrote Monday on FanGraphs: Outfielders could possibly gain an advantage by purposely "dropping" the ball while making the transfer:
Under 2014 rules, when given a chance to do that again, Mark Trumbo should immediately stand up and take a step or two towards the infield with the ball in his glove. The only reasonable decision the runners can make at that point is to return to their prior base, because any further hesitation will result in a sure double play. Once Trumbo sees the runners retreating, he should immediately drop the ball on the transfer, pick the ball up, and throw it in to a shortstop positioned close enough to the second base bag to tag the runner on second once he realizes he now has to try and advance, and then easily flip the ball to the second baseman covering the bag to force out the runner from first trying to move up for a second time in the same play.


A crafty left fielder could potentially turn a routine fly ball into a double play. Now, it may not be that easy to pull off the play Dave describes with Trumbo. The definition of a rule states, "In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional." In other words, if dropping the ball on the transfer looks intentional, it's still a catch.

But that doesn't help the baserunner who is caught in no man's land. Instant replay only adds to the possible confusing outcome of a play.

It seems that baseball is going to have to address the outfield catch/transfer play. It may be that the ruling on the field has to stand and is not subject to review -- this at least gives the baserunner a chance to see what the umpire has called, thus avoiding plays like the Donaldson/Moss mess.
1. Back in spring training, Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish admitted he was working on a few minor tweaks on his mechanics in an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the nerve problem in his lower back and buttocks area that arose last September. Whether that had anything to do with the stiff neck that had sidelined him since March 16 and forced him to miss his Opening Day assignment remains unknown, considering the dubious nature of the original rationale for the neck issue ("I slept on it wrong," Darvish said).

In the end, he missed just one start, which was still enough of a setback to put Rangers fans in a minor state of panic considering the opening week rotation was already without Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

Darvish returned Sunday after not having pitched in three weeks and looked a lot like the guy many predicted will win the Cy Young Award, undoubtedly calming at least a few nerves in the Rangers fan base and front office. He pitched seven innings of no-run baseball in a 3-0 win over the Rays, an efficient 89-pitch effort that included just one walk. He threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes and held the Rays to an 0-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.

He wasn't necessarily overpowering, averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball while maxing out at 95.1 mph, but maybe this is the new, strike-throwing Darvish, one looking to be a little more economical in his pitch counts to avoid walks and pitch consistently deeper into games.

"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes. I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn't feel anything unusual."

While Darvish recorded just six strikeouts, he showed what makes him so tough to hit -- the six K's came on two fastballs, two curveballs, a slider and a changeup to Wil Myers. It's that changeup that could be a new weapon for him: He threw 90 changeups all of last year, recording just four strikeouts. Just what batters want to hear, knowing it's hard enough already with two strikes gearing up for a curveball or slider.

The Rangers' rotation remains a little unsettled -- Colby Lewis may be close to returning and they may use six starters this week. The good news is the Rangers are 3-3 despite the makeshift rotation and having hit just one home run. They play the Red Sox and Astros this week but will need the rotation to come together sooner rather than later as they play the Mariners seven times and the A's six before the end of the month.

Darvish joked that he'd pitch great every time if he had three weeks between starts. The Rangers are hoping he'll pitch great every fifth day.

2. The most impressive result of the weekend was the Brewers going into Boston and sweeping the Red Sox by scores of 6-2, 7-6 (in 11 innings) and 4-0 on Sunday. The Red Sox were swept just once all last season -- in a three-game series in Texas -- and shut out just three times at Fenway Park in the regular season.

Yovani Gallardo struck out only three in 6 2/3 innings but issued no walks and got 11 ground balls outs compared to four in the air. He hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts. Gallardo struggled last year and while his velocity isn't up from last year at least he's throwing strikes early on.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCano seems to be embracing his role as a leader in Seattle.
The bad news for the Brewers, of course, is Ryan Braun's thumb injury, which he now says hasn't completely healed from last year when the injury sapped his power and eventually forced him to the disabled list (before his suspension). He had two singles on Sunday to raise his average to .150 but he doesn't have an extra-base hit in (the small sample size of) 21 plate appearances. Remember, when Braun was putting up monster numbers in 2012 the Brewers led the National League in runs scored. If they're going to contend for a playoff spot, they better hope this thumb issue doesn't linger.

3. I watched a lot of Mariners this week and there were a lot of positives to draw upon as they went 4-2 on the road: Two dominant starts from Felix Hernandez, one from James Paxton, good hitting from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Robinson Cano hit a quiet .391/.500/.478 as he's still looking for his first home run. He has drawn three intentional walks already as the Angels and A's elected to go after Smoak.

All three walks came in conventional IBB situations: Two outs, runners on second or second and third. Smoak went 1-for-3 with a bases-clearing double. Still, for now, it appears opponents will avoid Cano whenever possible. The biggest positive with Cano may have been his hustle double on Sunday when he singled to center and took advantage of Coco Crisp jogging after the ball. That's a Cano that New York writers like to say doesn't exist. It's one play, but perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.

4. Mark Trumbo homered for the fourth straight game Sunday in the Diamondbacks' 5-3 win over the Rockies, just their second victory in nine games as they currently sit with the majors' worst record. Even though Trumbo has five home runs and 13 RBIs and Paul Goldschmidt is mashing, the Arizona offense has mostly struggled, averaging fewer than four runs per game.

The Rockies intentionally walked Trumbo with a runner on third base and one out on Sunday to pitch to Miguel Montero, who promptly grounded into a double play against Brett Anderson. Montero's OPS fell from .820 and .829 in 2011 and 2012 to .662 in 2013. He and Gerardo Parra are the only regular lefties in the D-backs' lineup, and they need the old Montero not the 2013 version.

5. I watched the last few innings of Chris Tillman's gem to beat the Tigers, and he looked really good, allowing one run again as he did in his Opening Day start. He couldn't quite finish it off, getting one out in the ninth before being pulled for Tommy Hunter, but he challenged the Tigers -- 74 of his 113 pitches were fastballs -- and did a good job of moving the fastball around against left-handed batters (he pitches mostly to the outside corner with the fastball against righties).

Without sounding overdramatic here, it was a big win for the Orioles as 2-4 just sounds a lot better than 1-5. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the majors as just six of their first 27 games are against teams that finished under .500 last year and those six are against Toronto, no pushover, so they need to make sure they don't get buried before May.

6. This wasn't from Sunday, but I hope you didn't miss Giancarlo Stanton's mammoth home run on Friday off Eric Stults. The ESPN Home Run Tracker estimated the moon shot at 484 feet, 31 feet longer than the second-longest home run so far. The longest home run last year was Evan Gattis' 486-foot blast for the Braves on Sept. 8 off Cole Hamels.

The Marlins lost on Sunday, but they're off to a 5-2 start. Stanton is hitting .345/.406/.655, and for all those fears that he wouldn't get pitched to, he hasn't drawn an intentional walk

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter is now No. 8 on the all-time hits list, but the Yanks need power.
7. Derek Jeter passed Paul Molitor for the eighth place on the all-time hits list. In many ways, the two are identical matches as hitters, with short, compact swings and both loved to go to the opposite field. Jeter has a career line of .312/.381/.446 with 256 home runs while Molitor hit .306/.369/.448 with 234 home runs. Molitor's adjusted OPS is slightly higher, at 122 versus Jeter's 117. Molitor struck out 10.2 percent of the time against a league average of 14.7 percent during his career; Jeter has fanned 14.7 percent of the time against a league average of 17.4 percent.

Jeter has his most hits off Tim Wakefield (36) and among pitchers he faced at least 40 times, has the highest average against Bruce Chen (.429). (He also hit an impressive .413 against Johan Santana. Molitor got 33 hits off both Jack Morris and Roger Clemens (and hit above .300 against both) and killed Erik Hanson (.482) and Walt Terrell (.477).

8. The Yankees have one home run in six games, hit by Brett Gardner on Sunday's win over the Blue Jays. Could power actually be an issue for the Yankees? Mark Teixeira landed on the DL over the weekend, which means they're really going to have to rely on 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran for some pop. Leading the team in extra-base hits? Yangervis Solarte. Of course.

9. B.J. Upton: Hey, at least he didn't strike out in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Nationals. But he did go 0-for-4 and is off to a .120/.120/.140 start with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. So far, Fredi Gonzalez has hit him second in all six games. It's way too early to panic, but tell that to Braves fans.

10. Speaking of worrying, should the Angels be worried about Jered Weaver? In two starts, batters are slugging .600 against him and the Astros pounded four home runs off him on Sunday. The four home runs came on four different pitches: Jason Castro off a 3-1 changeup, Matt Dominguez off a 3-2 slider, Jesus Guzman on an 0-1 fastball and Alex Presley on an 0-1 curveball. His fastball velocity, such as it is, has averaged 86.0 mph, about the same as last year's 86.5.

As with all these first-week results, don't overreact, but if Weaver isn't a strong rotation anchor, the Angels are in trouble. They're 2-4, hoping to avoid the terrible April starts of the past two seasons.

Tales of Saturday's aces

April, 5, 2014
Apr 5
11:53
PM ET
They say one badge of a true ace is finding a way to succeed when you don’t bring your premium stuff or pinpoint location to the mound.

In the case of Jose Fernandez, the stuff is always premium, with a fastball that touches the upper 90s when he pumps it up, a slider that makes right-handed batters weep in torment and a sharp curveball that he’s not afraid to throw on any count. He’ll even drop in an occasional changeup, just to turn batters' brains to mush worrying about a fourth pitch.

[+] EnlargeJose Fernandez
AP Photo/Alan DiazMiami's Jose Fernandez (2-0) lowered his ERA to 0.71 with Saturday's win against the Padres.
The Padres’ approach in Fernandez’s second start of 2014 appeared to be: Wait him out, hope he’s a bit wild, maybe draw some walks and get a couple of timely hits to push across some runs or at least run up his pitch count and get to the Marlins’ bullpen early. Of the first 11 batters, only Jedd Gyorko and pitcher Andrew Cashner swung at the first pitch. The patient approach sort of worked, as Fernandez didn’t have the command he had an Opening Day, when 73 of his 94 pitches were strikes. Through the first three innings Saturday, Fernandez had thrown 56 pitches and walked two batters in the third inning that loaded the bases with one out. It looked like a short night was in order.

But his pitch to Seth Smith shows why Fernandez is a pitcher who relies on more than just stuff. The 21-year-old knows how to pitch. He usually throws a four-seam fastball, but against Smith he threw a first-pitch, 89 mph sinker that Smith pounded into the ground for a 4-6-3 double play.

That was pretty much it for the Padres. Fernandez regrouped, found his command and threw seven pitches in the fourth, 10 in the fifth and 14 in the sixth, allowing him to pitch into the seventh inning. He left with two outs in the seventh, after striking out Alexi Amarista (who reached when the curveball got away from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia). Fernandez’s final line in the Marlins’ 4-0 victory looked like another dominating gem: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 SO. But this is one of those games in which an ace overcame a shaky beginning.

Through two starts now, Fernandez has allowed one run and eight hits in 12.2 innings with 17 strikeouts. Going back to last season, he’s allowed more two runs just twice in 20 starts, and those two times he allowed three runs.

Fernandez, who weighed as much as 260 pounds in high school (perhaps a reason he fell to the 14th pick in 2011), spent the offseason biking as much as 600 miles per week on his $9,000 Specialized S-Works Venge bike. Listed at 240 pounds as a rookie, Fernandez is now a svelte but still powerful 220 pounds. He’s poised, confident, in terrific shape and developing the mind of an ace to go with his all-world right arm. Two starts in and he looks like a guy who will be the best pitcher in baseball in 2014.

* * * *

Stephen Strasburg is still trying to find the consistency that Fernandez seems to have found. He struck out 10 batters in six innings on Opening Day but still gave up four runs, as three of the five hits he allowed to the Mets came in the first inning, including a three-run homer.

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In his second start, against the Braves at home, his final line looked like a pitcher who got shelled -- eight hits, three walks and six runs in 4.2 innings. To be fair, his defense let him down, as two errors led to three of the runs being unearned, and there were some soft hits in there. But while Fernandez was able to get that double-play ball, Strasburg couldn’t escape a jam in the fifth inning, when the Braves scored four runs. After Freddie Freeman walked, Strasburg gave up two soft liners and a ground single to load the bases. He started Dan Uggla with a curveball in the dirt and then came back with another curve that Uggla grounded sharply into left field for a two-run single. Bryce Harper’s throwing error allowed the runners to move up to second and third for Ryan Doumit.

Strasburg is a strikeout pitcher and needed one here, with the Nationals down 4-2. Against the switch-hitting Doumit, he fired six fastballs in a row -- ball, called strike, foul, ball, ball, foul. It was a curious pitch selection, especially after he got the count to 1-2, because against left-handed batters in 2013, Strasburg’s fastball wasn’t a great strikeout pitch. In 223 plate appearances against lefties ending in fastballs, he struck out just 23 batters (and walked 28). Of 416 swings on his fastball by lefties, just 56 were missed. So Doumit hung in there. Strasburg did finally come in with a 3-2 curveball, but Doumit looked like he was sitting on it and lined it over a drawn-in infield for an RBI single. The sixth run came on a sac fly after Strasburg had been yanked.

In comparing Fernandez to Strasburg, the big difference comes with runners on base. Last year, Strasburg allowed a .184 average with the bases empty compared to .245 with men on. Fernandez was .176 with the bases empty and .191 with runners on.

Saturday night's games showcased that difference. Fernandez got out of his jam and settled down; Strasburg didn't. If the two entered the season regarded essentially as equals as Cy Young contenders, it's Fernandez's poise and pitchability that right now makes him the better ace.

* * * *

Felix Hernandez once had a fastball that matched Fernandez and Strasburg. But those days are in the past. He's now a wily veteran who turns 28 on Tuesday (can he really be that old already?) and his fastest pitch against the A's on Saturday was clocked at 92.3 mph. But Hernandez spots that fastball, usually on the black, and backs it up with one of the most devastating pitches in the game, a hard changeup that comes in at the knees and seems to take a 90-degree turn straight down at the last split-second.

Hernandez threw 23 changeups against the A's with an average velocity of 88.6 mph, not that much slower than his fastball, which makes it doubly tough for hitters to pick up. The A's did nothing against it: 15 swings, five misses, eight foul balls, one ground ball out and one fly ball out. The effectiveness of that fastball/changeup combo can be seen in the two jams Hernandez worked through.

In the fourth inning, the game still 0-0, Jed Lowrie singled with two outs and Brandon Moss doubled on a pop fly that shortstop Brad Miller lost in the sun. That brought up Yoenis Cespedes. Hernandez went 89 mph fastball right on the outsider corner, a slider off the plate that Cespedes missed, then another fastball right at the knees that Cespedes, perhaps looking for that changeup, swung through. In the sixth, Coco Crisp tripled with one out, bringing up Josh Donaldson. Slider for a strike, a foul tip on a changeup, a 92 mph fastball inside. With the count 1-2, Donaldson probably expected the changeup -- he had struck out earlier in the game on one. He got one that fell off a table. Swing and a miss, Donaldson nearly screwing himself into the ground. Hernandez then got Lowrie to pop up -- changeup, curveball.

Hernandez lost his shutout on Lowrie's home run in the ninth, but this game exemplified the King at his best: four pitches that he'll throw on any count, with precision and a plan and deception. It's a beautiful thing.


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?
1. Tony Cingrani

Michael Wacha was the more-hyped sophomore in Wednesday's matchup, but Cingrani had a stellar rookie season in his own right, going 7-4 with a 2.92 ERA in 104.2 innings with 120 strikeouts. While Wacha is a more conventional pitcher with a four-pitch repertoire, Cingrani throws primarily fastballs. Last season, among pitchers with at least 100 innings, only Bartolo Colon threw a higher percentage of fastballs than Cingrani's 81.7 percent. What makes Cingrani even more unique and wonderful is that he isn't overpowering; he throws hard enough but his average fastball velocity of 91.8 mph is hardly Randy Johnson territory.

He pitches up in the strike zone, with a deceptive delivery that hides the ball well. Batters seem to have a hard time reading the pitch for some reason, leading to a high strikeout rate so far in his career.

Against the Cardinals, 75 of his 92 pitches were fastballs, nearly all of them high fastballs -- only eight of those 75 fastballs were in the lower third of the strike zone or below. His average velocity of 92.7 mph was a tick higher than last year. But it works. He gets batters out. He pitched seven scoreless innings.

Tony Cingrani ESPN Stats & Info
2. James Paxton

Mariners left-hander Paxton was making his fifth career major league start. He looked great in four September starts last year (3-0, 1.50 ERA), but that was on the heels of a mediocre, up-and-down season at Triple-A Tacoma (4.45 ERA). Against the Angels on Wednesday, he threw seven shutout innings, allowing just two hits, two walks and nine strikeouts. His final fastball of the game was clocked at 97 mph.

Like Cingrani, Paxton relies a lot on that fastball -- 56 of his 99 pitches were fastballs. But he mixed in 35 curveballs and sliders and those two pitches registered seven of his nine strikeouts: Locate the fastball, put hitters away with the offspeed stuff. On this day, it's clear what Paxton's game plan was and he executed if perfectly: Spot that fastball low and away to lefties, down and in to righties. The heat map shows that he pounded that corner:

James Paxton ESPN Stats & Info
3. Mark Buehrle

Our third lefty of the night is the veteran Buehrle. His 187th career victory in the Blue Jays' win over the Rays was one of his best -- with 11 strikeouts, he registered double-digit whiffs for just the second time in his career. His Game Score of 86 ranks seventh on his career list (his no-hitter in 2007 and perfect game in 2009 rank 1-2). Not bad for a guy whose fastest pitch of the night was 83.8 mph. If he was pitching in high school with that kind of velocity he wouldn't even get drafted.

How does he do it? Smarts, command, deception, control, brains, location, smarts, command, deception ... He threw 108 pitches -- 39 "fast" balls, 22 changeups, 20 sliders, 18 curveballs and nine cutters. Five different pitches but he attacks the same general area: A completely different approach than Paxton or Cingrani. Sixty-two percent of his pitches were strikes even though only 42 percent were actually in the strike zone; Buehrle has made a lot of money getting batters to chase pitches just off the plate. (Interestingly, Paxton had the same 42 percent of pitches in the strike zone.)

Mark BuehrleESPN Stats & Info
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.
videoHere's the deal: It's distinctly possible I am inherently biased. After all, as most of you know, I am a Mariners fan since the days of Ruppert Jones and Danny Meyer and as this recent article at Baseball Prospectus argued, we all tend to overrate our favorite teams heading into the season, even those of us who study all the statistics and projections.

But if you're looking for a surprise team for 2014 -- this year's Pirates or Indians -- the Mariners may very well be your best bet. By surprise team, I mean a team that finished below .500 the year before; I'd suggest expanding that to all that finished under .500 in each of the past two seasons. That eliminates teams such as the Giants or Angels who were pretty good in 2012 (the Giants won the World Series, of course) and wouldn't exactly be a surprise if they contended.

That leaves the Cubs (nope), White Sox (don't actually fit our criteria but don't see them contending), Rockies (maybe), Astros (not yet), Marlins (unlikely), Mets (less likely), Twins (bad team), Phillies (don't meet our criteria but they're awful), Padres (possible) or Blue Jays (tough division).

So, that leaves the Mariners. Here's why:

1. The AL West could be ripe for the taking. The Rangers have more injuries than a Civil War regiment, the A's lost their top two starters from last year, the Angels have pitching questions and the Astros are three years away. Even if the Mariners don't win the division, if the AL West isn't as strong as it has been the past couple of years that would bode well in the wild-card race.

2. They have a superstar pitcher in Felix Hernandez and now have a superstar hitter in Robinson Cano. The Cano upgrade will be huge -- Mariners second basemen hit .214/.289/.330 last season. He gives the Mariners their first legit middle-of-the-order bat in years and helps extend the lineup one spot deeper than a season ago.

[+] EnlargeMariners
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesJustin Smoak's six RBIs have helped the Mariners to a 2-0 start.
3. Their core hitters are all at the ages when players generally peak. Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders are in their age-27 seasons while Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley and Logan Morrison are 26. It's not that those guys are great players, but considering their ages and experience there's a good chance they improve collectively as a group and a good chance one of those guys breaks out with a big season.

4. Brad Miller can hit. I like this kid. His defense at shortstop is an issue but he had a solid rookie season (.265/.318/.418), a huge spring, can run (although he's not necessarily a big base stealer) and looks as if he'll enjoy hitting in front of Cano. I can see him hitting .285 with 15 home runs and a bunch of doubles and triples.

5. The defense will be better. It's still a concern -- Miller booted a routine grounder Tuesday, Ackley failed to run down a catchable fly ball in left Monday -- but the defense was so bad last year (minus-99 defensive runs saved, 29th in the majors), it has nowhere to go but up. Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and Michael Morse are no longer around with their statuesque efforts in the outfield, so it's more addition by subtraction as much as anything.

There is the scary possibility that we'll see Morrison and Corey Hart too much in the corners, although hopefully they'll just ending up sharing time at designated hitter. It's not a good defense, but shaving even 40 runs would be worth an extra four wins.

6. There is potential improvement in the rotation. Yes, Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker began the season on the disabled list, but they hopefully should be ready in a few weeks. The Mariners will have to weather April -- and 22 of their first 25 games are against division opponents -- but if Iwakuma comes back strong (remember, he was third in the Cy Young voting last season), the Mariners will have one of the best one-two punches in the league.

They just need the rest of the guys to step up -- Erasmo Ramirez looked good in his debut, James Paxton starts Wednesday night, veteran Chris Young will try to stay healthy for more than three weeks and rookie Roenis Elias will start the year in the rotation. Again, it's addition by subtraction as Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang and Brandon Maurer combined for 68 starts and a 5.60 ERA in 2013. Shaving even a run off that ERA would be worth about 40 runs with room for even more gains.

7. The bullpen will be better. The Mariners ranked 29th in the majors with a 4.58 bullpen ERA -- but they ranked fourth in strikeout percentage, a sign that there are some good arms down there. They signed Fernando Rodney to be the closer and while he has to prove he can succeed away from Tampa Bay, the Mariners should be better in the late innings (they lost six games they led heading into the ninth and were 6-15 in extra innings).

8. Nick Franklin is good trade bait. If they wish to upgrade center field or find a starter down the road, Franklin could bring some help.

9. The projection systems see a close AL West race. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection has the top four teams between 87 and 80 wins. FanGraphs now has the top four teams all between 85 and 83 wins.

10. You never know.
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.






videoThere's nothing quite like Opening Day. As Pete Rose once said, "It's like Christmas except warmer." It's a reminder that for perhaps inexplicable reasons we still love this crazy game, that we're ready to devote way too many hours over the next seven months to watching games that will enthrall us and disgust us but bring us together. We'll laugh, we'll cry, we'll shout -- and that's just within one Starlin Castro at-bat. It's Opening Day. Enjoy.

Must-watch game of the day
If I could watch only one game on Opening Day -- which would pretty much qualify as cruel and unusual punishment if actually forced to such limits -- I'd go with St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). First, we get a heated division rivalry with two playoff teams from last season. We get a great pitching matchup with Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto. We get Billy Hamilton trying to get on base and then trying to run on Yadier Molina if he does get on. We get the new Reds lineup with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce hitting third and fourth. (Oh, how we miss you, Dusty.) Plus, there are potential cameos from Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, Pete Rose or Schottzie.

Best pitching matchup of the day
Considering the depth of starting pitching in the majors, you'd think we'd have more can't-miss pitching matchups of Cy Young contender facing Cy Young contender, but that isn't really the case on this day. But James Shields versus Justin Verlander is a great one (Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers, 1:08 p.m. ET).

Here's an interesting fact: The Tigers had all that great pitching last year, right? Well, the Royals allowed the fewest runs in the American League. Shields is making his sixth career Opening Day start while Verlander makes his seventh in a row. Verlander allowed zero runs his past two openers (although he pitched just five innings last year on a cold day in Minnesota). Royals fans must deal with no Jeff Francoeur in the opening lineup for the first time in four years. Hold those tears.

Pitcher you have to watch if you've never watched him
The Marlins rarely appear on national TV, so you may not have seen Jose Fernandez pitch as a rookie unless you're actually a Marlins fan or your team faced him. If you missed him, you made a mistake, so don't miss this one. No dinner break. No excuse that this may be your third game of the day. He starts against Jorge De La Rosa as the Colorado Rockies play the Miami Marlins (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN).

This is kind of a cool random factoid from ESPN Stats & Information: This is the first Opening Day matchup in the past 100 years of pitchers born in Cuba and Mexico. Fernandez will become the fourth-youngest Opening Day starter in the past 35 seasons behind Dwight Gooden (1985 and 1986 Mets), Fernando Valenzuela (1981 Dodgers) and Felix Hernandez (2007 Mariners).

The "Wait, he's starting on Opening Day?" award
This is always a fun one. One year the Pittsburgh Pirates started Ron Villone, who had posted a 5.89 ERA the year before -- primarily as a reliever. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays started Dewon Brazelton in 2005; he'd finish the season 1-8 with a 7.61 ERA. The Twins started Vance Worley a year ago. This year's most interesting surprise starter is Tanner Scheppers of the Rangers (Philadelphia Phillies at Texas Rangers, 2:05 p.m. ET) -- interesting because he has never started a major league game.

Since 1914, only three pitchers made their major league debuts starting on Opening Day: Lefty Grove of the A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the 1943 Phillies. Scheppers doesn't match their feat because he's pitched in relief, but he does match Valenzuela, whose first major league start came in that 1981 Opening Day start. Of course, to match Fernando, all Scheppers has to do is throw five shutouts and six complete games in his first seven starts.

Just thought I'd mention this
The Los Angeles Dodgers will pay reliever Brandon League more this season ($8.5 million) than the Pirates will pay National League MVP Andrew McCutchen ($7.458 million), who will rank 34th among outfielders in salary in 2014. Anyway, watch McCutchen's Pirates host the Chicago Cubs (1 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).

Another reason to love McCutchen, besides the fact that he's a talented artist, can imitate others' batting stances and helps old ladies cross the street: His WAR has increased each season of his career, 2.3 to 3.8 to 5.7 to 7.0 to 7.9.

Watch Robinson Cano in a new time zone
Cano makes his Mariners debut in a late game, Mariners at Angels (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). As a bonus, you get Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Abraham Almonte and Justin Smoak. The Mariners begin the season with a seven-game road trip and play 22 of their first 25 games against division opponents while trying to patch together a rotation missing Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker for a few weeks, so few teams will be under more pressure early on than Seattle. Enjoy the marine layer, Robby!

Player most likely to be booed on Opening Day
I was going to say Dan Uggla or Ryan Braun, but unfortunately the Atlanta Braves play at the Milwaukee Brewers (2:10 p.m. ET) instead of vice versa.

Player likely to get the biggest ovation
I'll go with Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, in what will be his final Opening Day -- although he's not guaranteed to start (Twins at White Sox, 4:10 p.m. ET). OK, Konerko or Ike Davis, I'm not sure.
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

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

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

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

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

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

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

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

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

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

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

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

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

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

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

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

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

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

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

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other stuff ...
  • Righty Jordan Zimmermann tossed five scoreless innings for the Nationals against the Mets in his final spring tune-up. He's been as good as any pitcher this spring, allowing one run in 18 innings with just one walk. Clayton Kershaw -- sore back and all (he'll miss his start on Sunday night) -- is clearly the Cy Young favorite in the National League, but Zimmermann is a solid sleeper choice if Kershaw falters. Compare Zimmermann over the past two seasons to his more-hyped teammate, Stephen Strasburg. Zimmermann is 31-17 with a 3.10 ERA and 409 innings; Strasburg is 23-15 with a 3.08 ERA and 342 1/3 innings. You may look at Zimmermann's strikeout rate (161 in 213 1/3 innings) and think he doesn't throw hard, but that's not the case. His fastball averaged 93.9 mph last season. Even though he pitches up in the zone with it he induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls thanks to good movement. He mixes in a slider, curve and occasional change. The one thing he has to improve on to go to the next level is limit the blow-up outings; he had games last year with eight, seven, seven and six runs allowed, giving up 10 of his 19 home runs in those four starts.
  • Even with the injury to Patrick Corbin, the Diamondbacks sent down Archie Bradley, the hard-throwing right-hander many rank as the top pitching prospect in the minors. I think it's the right decision. Bradley still has to improve his fastball command -- he walked 59 batters in 123 1/3 innings in Double-A -- to succeed consistently at the major league level. A month or two in the minors won't hurt, although it won't surprise me if he's back sooner than that if somebody in the Arizona rotation falters or gets injured.
  • The A's and Giants are playing a three-game Bay Bridge series back home and the A's had to be happy to see Scott Kazmir toss 5 1/3 scoreless innings. He did walk three with four strikeouts but allowed only two hits. With the loss of Bartolo Colon as a free agent and Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery, the A's have to find nearly 400 new innings in the rotation. Kazmir threw 150 last year for Cleveland. Josh Reddick homered for the A's. While the rotation may take a hit, the Oakland offense should be better if Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes rebound from mediocre seasons. Remember, the A's were third in the AL in runs even though Reddick posted a .307 OBP in 441 PAs, Cespedes a .294 OBP in 574 PAs and the departed Chris Young a .280 OBP in 375 PAs. It wouldn't surprise me if the A's have the best offense in the AL, leaping over the Tigers and Red Sox.
  • Speedster Billy Hamilton went 3-for-4 with two triples for the Reds and is hitting .327/.381/.527 in 55 spring at-bats. There are still a lot of doubts on whether he'll hit at the major league level and his lack of power means he'll see a lot of hard stuff inside, but there have been positive signs this spring, including the willingness to take some pitches and draw a few walks (six in 18 games). He walked a lot in Double-A, not nearly enough in Triple-A, but that needs to become a bigger element of his game. I do like his chances to hit just enough -- say .250 with a .310 OBP -- to keep his job in center field and swipe 60-plus bases.
  • The Phillies released 40-year-old vet Bobby Abreu and if you can't make the Phillies ... Abreu didn't play in the majors last year and looked pretty done in 2012 (he posted a .350 OBP but with little power). Twenty-five years ago there would be room for Abreu somewhere as a pinch-hitter/DH/very occasional outfielder, but teams don't carry those guys any more on rosters stocked with so many relievers. The guy had a great career and was a very underrated player during his prime years with the Phillies, hitting .305/.416/.513 from 1998 to 2006 while averaging 29 steals and 5.4 WAR per season. His timing wasn't quite right; he left the Phillies before they become a perennial playoff team and he left the Yankees the year before they won a World Series in 2009. With 60.5 career WAR via Baseball-Reference, he compares in value to other outfielders like Billy Williams (63.6), Richie Asbhurn (63.4), Zack Wheat (60.2), Jim Edmonds (60.3), Gary Sheffield (60.2), Vladimir Guerrero (59.3) and Sammy Sosa (58.4).
  • So the Mariners didn't want to pay Randy Wolf a guaranteed $1 million but then gave a guaranteed $1.25 million contract to Chris Young (the pitcher, not the outfielder). Go figure. Young had been in camp with the Nationals but couldn't crack their rotation. Reports, however, had him throwing 88 and healthy, much better than the 83-85 he was throwing when he was last in the majors in 2012. You can argue that the Mariners made a baseball decision here and that Young is a better bet to perform than Wolf, but that's not really what happened. Wolf had made the team before they decided to screw him with a 45-day contract offer, which Wolf turned down, leaving the Mariners with no option but to give Young a guaranteed deal even though he's hardly a sure thing to last all season in the rotation.
We're getting closer ...
  • Watched the Baltimore-Tampa Bay game on Wednesday night since it featured Opening Day starters Chris Tillman and David Price. Considering the teams are division rivals, both starters may have held back just a bit and neither pitcher went five innings. I think Price has a huge season coming, one reason I'm picking the Rays to win the AL East. Yu Darvish was going to be my Cy Young pick until his current stiff neck issue means he's going to miss the first week of the season and raises at least a little doubt over his season. I may shift now to Price -- or Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander -- as he became a strike-throwing machine when he returned from his DL stint last season, walking just 13 batters over his final 18 starts. When you can command your stuff like that and throw 95+ mph, a lot of good things are going to happen.
  • The Angels cut Joe Blanton even though he's owed $8.5 million on his contract. Teams still have a hard time admitting mistakes so give Angels GM Jerry DiPoto credit here for cutting bait. It was a bad deal at the time -- Blanton predictably got hammered in the AL after straddling the line of mediocrity in the NL -- and his poor performance (2-14, 6.04 ERA) was a major reason the Angels finished under .500. Blanton was worth -2.0 WAR last year, so even replacement-level pitching from the fifth spot will be an improvement.
  • Strong final start from Rockies Opening Day starter Jorge De La Rosa, with six shutout innings against the Giants with one walk and seven strikeouts. The Rockies will need Jhoulys Chacin to come back strong in May but I'm starting to think the Rockies could be that sleeper team to watch -- a team that finished below .500 in 2013 that could make the playoffs. A lot of that depends on the health of some injury-prone players -- Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Brett Anderson -- but if the back of the rotation holds up the Rockies could crack .500 and surprise.
  • The Mets still haven't decided between defensive whiz Juan Lagares and stolen-base dude Eric Young Jr. for a starting outfield slot. The Mets know Lagares can play center -- his great range and 15 assists allowed him to post 26 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013, the sixth-highest total of any fielder -- but also know the .281 OBP he posted may not get any better. OK, I get that he can't hit. But EYJR, who led the NL with 46 steals, had a .310 OBP with the Mets last year. Young has been worth 0.3 WAR in his major league career, Lagares valued at 3.5 WAR a year ago. Lagares doesn't have to improve with the bat to be a more valuable player than Young. Even if his defense slips a little (he may not get as many assists, for example), he's still the better player.
  • The Pirates locked up Starling Marte to a six-year, $31 million extension, buying out at least one year of free agency and owning options on two more. Looks like a great deal for the Pirates, exactly the kind of below-market rate they need to sign their young players to, and once Gregory Polanco reaches the majors at some point this year, you're going to see what could be one of the best defensive outfields in recent memory with Marte in left, Andrew McCutchen in center and Polanco in right.
  • Tanner Scheppers was named Opening Day starter for the Rangers, in what will be his first career start. I wonder how many pitchers have made their first career start on Opening Day? If I did the search right on Baseball-Reference, it looks like just three (at least since 1914): Lefty Grove of the Philadelphia A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the Phillies in 1943. So who were those three guys? Grove had been a star for years for Baltimore in the International League when the A's purchased him. Bagby, son of a former major leaguer, had gone 21-8 in the Class A New York-Penn League in 1937, enough for the Red Sox to start him against the Yankees as a 21-year-old rookie. Boston had been 80-72 in 1937, so starting a rookie seems a little odd. Gerheauser was a 26-year-old minor league vet who had pitched for Yankees' Triple-A club in Newark in 1942. The Phillies had lost 109 games in 1942, so probably were hoping some Yankee magic would rub off on them. (Actually ... that list looks like pitchers who made their major league debut as an Opening Day starter. Fernando Valenzuela's first career start -- after 10 relief appearances in 1980 -- came on Opening Day of 1981. He pitched a shutout and then reeled off seven more starts in a row of nine innings (one wasn't a complete game). He allowed four runs in those eight starts and we had Fernandomania.
  • So Randy Wolf was told he had made the Mariners' Opening Day rotation. And then got released. So ... what? Apparently, the Mariners asked Wolf to sign a 45-day advanced-consent relief form, which would mean the Mariners could release Wolf within 45 days and not have to pay his full season's salary. I didn't know such a possible contract existed, and I don't know how common such requests are, but Wolf refused to sign it and became a free agent. (Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times has the story here.) It's understandable why the Mariners would make the request -- Wolf didn't pitch in the majors last year and was last effective in 2011 and it's possible he would simply be holding a spot for a few starts until Taijuan Walker is ready, but considering Wolf was set to make just $1 million, it makes the Mariners look petty and cheap. It's already hard enough to get players to come to Seattle; this isn't going to help.

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