SweetSpot: St. Louis Cardinals



It’s always a treat watching two hot young pitchers square off, even in the slop that passes for baseball weather in April. But with Jarrod Parker, Patrick Corbin and Matt Harvey all rehabbing from elbow reconstructions, Mike Minor and Taijuan Walker delayed by shoulder issues and Clayton Kershaw on hiatus with a back injury, the pickings are a little slimmer than they ought to be.

St. Louis and Cincinnati, those perennial National League Central rivals, are doing their share to pick up the slack. They’ve played four times in a span of eight days, and Michael Wacha and Tony Cingrani have squared off twice already. In the first installment, Cingrani dominated the Cardinals over seven innings for a 1-0 victory at Great American Ball Park. In a mucky, gloomy rematch at Busch Stadium, Wacha returned the favor, going six strong innings in a 5-3 St. Louis win.

This won’t be the last time we see the two young counterparts go at it. Adam Wainwright has the big shoulders to carry the St. Louis staff and Homer Bailey is Cincinnati’s $105 million man, but the two kids have compelling stories to share and contrasting styles to enjoy.
[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsMichael Wacha should benefit from better defensive support in his second big league season.

Cingrani, the quiet lefty from Rice, is a bundle of kinetic energy, tilting his cap in the air, wiggling his shoulders, eyeballing the baseball as he holds it like a Faberge egg, and taking strolls around the mound in those high red socks. When he finally stares in for the sign, he assumes a look of such rapt intensity, hardcore Reds-watchers have taken to calling it the #CingraniFace.

When a guy’s competitive scowl merits its own hashtag, you know it has potential.

Wacha, the big Texas A&M Aggie, is long on power and stoicism and reliability. As his 4-1 record and 2.64 postseason ERA showed, he already has the unflappable, poker-faced-demeanor thing down pat. The moment is never too big for him, as the scouts like to say. And the more humble he appears, the harder St. Louis fans are falling for him. His jersey sales have taken off in the city, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story in February about a diehard Cardinals fan who adopted a rescue dog and named it “Wacha.”

Jose Fernandez notwithstanding, young pitchers (even Texas college guys) don’t arrive in the big leagues as finished products with four-pitch assortments, and the NL Central tandem helps substantiate that point. Cingrani brings to mind the classic quote by Reggie Jackson, who once responded to a question about Nolan Ryan by conceding that he’s fond of fastballs in the same way that he enjoys ice cream. “But you don’t like it when someone’s stuffing it into you by the gallon,” Jackson said.

Cingrani is a one-man Baskin-Robbins franchise. Last year, according to FanGraphs, he threw his fastball 81.5 percent of the time -- a figure surpassed only by Bartolo Colon’s 85.5 percent. In Cingrani’s first start this season, 73 of his 92 pitches were four-seamers.

Cingrani hides his fastball so deftly that he’s elicited some comparisons to Sid Fernandez, who had the benefit of a lot more girth to help create deception. Hitters pick up the ball so late out of his arm slot, he can make 93 mph look more like 97 or 98.

To this point in his career, Cingrani has done a lot more than just get by on one pitch. His four-inning appearance Monday marked the record 20th straight time in his career that he has started a game and allowed five or fewer hits. True, several of those starts have lasted five innings or fewer. But when you consider that righties are batting .193 against Cingrani and he has averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings in the majors, he has long since passed the point of being regarded as a fluke or curiosity.

Perhaps because Cingrani was seeing the Cardinals for the second time in a week, he varied his repertoire a bit. According to Brooks Baseball, he threw 57 fastballs and 31 sliders and changeups against St. Louis -- well above his average allotment of offspeed stuff. But his four-seamer checked in just a tick more than 90 mph, and Yadier Molina clocked one of those fastballs into the gap for a three-run double in the first inning.

Cingrani threw only 46 of 88 pitches for strikes, and a mere 13 of his 31 offspeed pitches for strikes. That’s just not going to cut it against a lineup as formidable as the one St. Louis runs out there. Confidence in the fastball is a great thing. But as Cardinals broadcaster Rick Horton pointed out during Monday’s broadcast, it helps a pitcher to have a “Plan B” when the heater isn’t obliging.

Wacha, like Cingrani, is working diligently to expand his repertoire. After throwing his fastball and changeup about 92 percent of the time as a rookie, he’s making more liberal use of his curveball so far this season. If he can’t learn the curve from Wainwright, his new mentor, he’s not going to learn it from anybody.

If Monday’s game is any indication, Wacha and the entire St. Louis staff might benefit from a more proficient defense this year. Peter Bourjos will make a difference in center field, Matt Carpenter is an upgrade over David Freese at third, and Kolten Wong looks pretty sharp for a kid who was once considered just an adequate defender. Wong turned two impressive double plays against Cincinnati on Monday, and barely had to move to field a hot shot by Jay Bruce in short right field in the sixth inning. The Cardinals, one of baseball’s most shift-averse teams in past years, are finding they might learn to embrace the shift.

Both these teams have yet to find their stride offensively. The Cardinals, who hit .330 with runners in scoring position last season, got off to a .143 start this year (6-for-42), and Allen Craig, Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos are a combined 7-for-68 (.103). The Reds aren’t exactly mashing the ball themselves. Billy Hamilton is 1-for-17 out of the gate, and he might find himself in a big hole very quickly if the Reds aren’t careful.

But pitching cures a lots of ills, and promising young pitching is a sight to behold. Cincinnati and St. Louis provided a double dose of it in the Cardinals’ home opener. With the possible exception of watching a 39-year-old shortstop take some bows in the Bronx, there’s nothing better on a baseball Monday in April.


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.


The first rule of Opening Day: Don't overreact to Opening Day. So these are merely observations from flipping around watching a bunch of different games.

1. At one point during the Cardinals-Reds opener, Adam Wainwright looked a little perturbed, presumably at the strike zone of plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. After all, Wainwright walked three guys unintentionally in his seven innings (plus another intentional walk). This was a guy who walked just 35 batters in 34 starts last year, just once walking three guys in a game. So he may have been unhappy with the balls and strikes … and yet still threw seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just three hits allowed in the Cards’ 1-0 victory. Whenever the Reds threatened, Wainwright got the big outs -- a Joey Votto double play on a 2-2 fastball in the third and Zack Cozart on a tapper in front of the plate with two runners on to end the sixth. He threw 105 pitches, including 22 of his famous curveball -- the Reds went 0-for-6 with a walk against the curve, including Cozart’s out. Here’s the thing about the Cardinals: While I (and others) have spent a lot of time discussing their depth and versatility, they also have two of the best players in the game: Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Their lone run off Johnny Cueto: Molina’s home run in the seventh off a 0-0 cutter that didn’t cut.

2. I don’t know if Billy Hamilton will hit, but I know he can’t hit Wainwright. The Reds’ rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Wainwright to register the dreaded golden sombrero -- the 17th player since 1914 to go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Opening Day. The potential bigger picture: If Hamilton and Brandon Phillips don’t get on base enough -- a distinct possibility -- Votto is going to draw 100-plus walks no matter if he has Jay Bruce, Johnny Bench or Frank Robinson hitting behind him. Which will lead to the haters complaining about Votto’s RBI total.

3. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-3 thanks to a big day from emergency shortstop acquisition Alex Gonzalez, who tripled in the tying run in the seventh and singled in the winning run in the ninth. Justin Verlander scuffled through his six innings, giving up six hits and three walks with just two strikeouts, but that’s not my initial concern. The concern is that Opening Day roster, which includes Gonzalez, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holaday, Tyler Collins, Don Kelly, Ian Krol and Evan Reed. Besides Krol and Reed, the bullpen includes Phil Coke (1.6 WHIP over the past two seasons), Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. In other words: The final 10 spots on the roster could be a disaster. It could work out -- Chamberlain and Alburquerque will probably be OK if they stay healthy, for example -- but the lack of depth on this team could be an issue. Detroit's star players -- Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer -- have been very durable, but a lengthy injury to any of those three or Anibal Sanchez, Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler could be crushing.

4. The Pirates picked up with the kind of game they won last year, beating the Cubs 1-0 on Neil Walker’s walk-off home run in the 10th inning. The Pirates won five 1-0 games last year (there were only 48 such games in the majors last season, so the Pirates had over 10 percent of all 1-0 victories). The major league average when scoring one run, two runs or three runs was a .270 winning percentage; the Pirates were 25-39 (.390) when scoring one to three runs, so they won a lot of low-scoring games. The big positive besides the bullpen throwing four scoreless innings was the six dominant innings from Francisco Liriano, who tied a Pirates club record with 10 strikeouts on Opening Day. With the loss of A.J. Burnett, the pressure is on Liriano to repeat his 2013 performance.

5. Showing early confidence in B.J. Upton, who hit .184 last year while striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hit his center fielder second while moving Justin Upton down to fifth (Chris Johnson hit cleanup). I can’t say that’s the lineup I’d go with -- Justin Upton seems the logical choice to bat second behind leadoff hitter Jason Heyward -- but no matter what order Gonzalez chooses there are going to be some OBP issues if B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis don’t get on base more often. Yovani Gallardo kept the Braves in check with six shutout innings -- a good sign for the Brewers considering Gallardo’s inconsistency and drop in velocity last year -- while Francisco Rodriguez was called on for the save in the Brewers’ 2-0 victory.

6. One reason I’m a little wary about the Orioles is new closer Tommy Hunter’s struggles against left-handed batters -- he gave up 12 home runs last year, which is way too many for a reliever to begin with, and all 12 were against lefties. He scraped through the save in the O’s 2-1 win over the Red Sox, hitting Will Middlebrooks with a pitch and giving up a one-out single to Dustin Pedroia, but he got ahead of David Ortiz 0-2 before getting him to fly out to medium-deep left center, and then struck out Jackie Bradley looking on a fastball at the belt. (Bradley was hitting after pinch running for Mike Napoli in the eighth).

7. I was dubious about Tanner Scheppers as a starter and his performance in the Rangers’ 14-10 loss to the Phillies didn’t alleviate any of those concerns. His fastball averaged 96.3 mph last year as a reliever but 93.3 on Monday as a starter. His strikeout rate as a reliever didn’t scream “try this guy as a starter” and he fanned just two in his four innings, which required 93 pitches to get through. It's just one start and considering it was his first in the major leagues and on Opening Day -- a strange choice by Ron Washington -- let’s give him a pass and keep an eye on his next outing.

8. Tough loss for the Mets, blowing leads in the seventh and ninth innings and then losing in 10 to the Nationals. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen said after Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer off John Lannan in the 10th, “What an atrocious day by the Mets' bullpen.” Something Mets fans have witnessed all too often in recent seasons.

9. While flipping through the various games, it’s pretty clear we're going to see even more defensive shifting. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the number of shifts has increased from 2,358 in 2011 to 4,577 in 2012 to 8,134 in 2013.

10. Jose Fernandez. He looked brilliant in his six innings, throwing 73 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and smiling when Carlos Gonzalez homered in the sixth off his one mistake. I think I may watch 33 Marlins games this year.
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.

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.
One of the great unanswered questions of sabermetrics is how much value a manager brings to a team. Maybe it's ultimately something that can't be properly evaluated, since aside from on-field strategic moves, much of what a manager does is difficult or impossible to measure, like communicating with players and staff, keeping a positive clubhouse or dealing with the front office and the media.

But we all agree that a good manager has value. How responsible was John Farrell for the Red Sox winning the World Series? How much credit do we give Mike Matheny? If Joe Maddon is worth four extra wins a season for the Rays, should he be getting paid $20 million per year instead of an estimated $2 million? When teams are currently paying free agents about $6.5 million per win on the open market, what's a good manager worth? Joe Girardi, probably the highest-paid manager, gets $4 million per season, so you could make the argument that the Yankees aren't placing much value at all on Girardi's abilities. (Not that managers should be paid on the same scale as players, but isn't a win a win, no matter where it comes from?)

Anyway, Jon Shepherd of Camden Depot conducted a study to at least give us to a starting point on evaluating managers. He compared projected records to actual records for every team since 2003 and figured out how many wins each manager was above or below the preseason projection. (He used Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections for 2003-09, Marcel for 2010-11 and ZiPS for 2012-13.) It's far from perfect -- if Clayton Kershaw blows out his shoulder, that reflects on Don Mattingly's record even though it's no fault of his own -- but it gives us some results to consider.

For managers who have managed at least three seasons, Jon's top five in wins added per 162 games were Farrell (+5.7), Fredi Gonzalez (+5.5), Tony La Russa (+5.0), Mattingly (+4.7) and Ron Washington (+4.4). You can get the rest of the top 10 by clicking the link above. Interesting that Gonzalez, Mattingly and Washington, three managers the stats guys love to criticize, fared very well in this study. It's also worth noting that Farrell, Gonzalez, Mattingly and Washington are regarded as good communicators with their players.

The bottom five (there were 42 managers in all who had managed three seasons) were Manny Acta (-8.1), John Russell (-7.7), Jerry Manuel (-5.9), Bob Geren (-4.7) and Alan Trammell (-3.0), none of whom are managing now. Eric Wedge was next on the list and he's not managing either. The much-maligned Dusty Baker ranked 36th.

The one guy I was surprised to see not in the top 10 was Maddon, the guy I consider the best manager in the game. His year-by-year totals courtesy of Jon:

2006: -8 (61 actual wins versus 69 projected wins)
2007: -12 (66 actual wins versus 78 projected)
2008: +8 (97 actual wins versus 89 projected)
2009: -7 (84 actual wins versus 91 projected)
2010: +6 (96 actual wins versus 90 projected)
2011: +6 (91 actual wins versus 85 projected)
2012: -3 (90 actual wins versus 93 projected)
2013: +4 (92 actual wins versus 88 projected)

Total: -6.

Of course, take away those first two seasons and Maddon fares much better. Still, the projection systems are usually high on the Rays, so the perception that Maddon is extracting tons of extra value out of a roster of mediocre talent may not really be true. Even the 2008 team that came out of nowhere was projected to do well, at least by Baseball Prospectus. Of course, you can argue that some of the players project well because Maddon uses them in the right situations (he doesn't play Sean Rodriguez much against right-handed pitchers, for example). And the Rays have mostly kept their starting pitchers healthy, which is a credit to Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey.

Maddon is still my No. 1 manager ... and I'd pay him more than $2 million per season.


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.
Some stuff to check out ...
  • With the season-ending injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, and the delayed start to Mike Minor's season, it was a little surprising the Braves cut Freddy Garcia, who you may remember actually started a playoff game last year for the Braves. He was a non-roster invite to camp but they instead decided to go with 25-year-old rookie Gus Schlosser, a 17th-round pick in 2011 who posted a 2.39 ERA in 25 starts in Double-A in 2013. Despite the impressive numbers in Double-A, Baseball America didn't rank him as one of the Braves' top 30 prospects, even though his fastball reaches the low 90s. He's a sidearmer so has to prove he has an out pitch against left-handers. Martin Gandy of Chop County has his thoughts on the decision.
  • Interesting little graphic from FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine on MLB's youth movement. Neil checked the percentage of overall MLB WAR contributed by players 25-and-younger each season since 1976. Neil writes: "In 2013, about 28 percent of all Wins Above Replacement were created by the under-25 set. That was the ninth-largest share for any season since 1976. Output from youngsters has been on the upswing since the mid-to-late 1990s, when the percentage of WAR from young players hit its nadir. That nadir happened to occur at the height of baseball’s so-called steroid era."
  • Last week, It's About the Money had a good series comparing the Yankees to their AL East rivals, reaching out to the other blogs on the SweetSpot network. Here's a look at Yankees-Red Sox, plus Yankees-Blue Jays, Yankees-Rays and Yankees-Orioles.
  • Mike Petriello of FanGraphs (and a contributor to ESPN Insider) with a good piece on Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who uses advanced data on pitch location to try and improve his pitch framing. Ellis admits his weakness has always been the low pitch but he likes the data, telling Mike, "The thing I like about the pitch framing stats, which I need some more information on how they determine what it is, at least it’s giving me a number, a bar, so I know where I’m at right now, and at the end of the year I can check and see, 'hey, did I get better?'" At the SABR Analytics conference two weeks ago in Arizona, Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy estimated 5 to 10 percent of major leaguers would know what FIP is. As Ellis shows, that number will only rise in the future.
  • Speaking of the SABR Analytics conference, Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus looks at the big questions to come out of the conference.
  • Richard Bergstrom of Rockies Zingers writes about Rockies co-GM Bill Geivett, who was on the GM's panel at the conference.
  • Grantland's Jonah Keri had a long conversation with A's general manager Billy Beane and owner Lew Wolff.
  • Chris Jones of ESPN The Magazine with a feature on Royals coach Mike Jirschele, who spent 36 years playing, coaching and managing in the minors. But spending so long in the bushes was hardly the toughest thing Jirschele had to deal with.
  • Ryan P. Morrison of Inside the 'Zona on the Diamondbacks' first two losses in Australia to the Dodgers.
  • Brandon Land of One Strike Away on the Rangers' spring injuries, including Jurickson Profar's shoulder issues.
  • Nick Kirby of Redleg Nation with Part 1 of a two-part NL Central preview. This part examines the lineups and pitching staff of all five clubs.
  • Marc W. at the U.S.S. Mariner has an involved look at James Paxton and his high groundball rates in his four starts last season for the Mariners -- despite pitching primarily up in the strike zone. It's sort of about Paxton but it's also about how pitching in general works.
  • Finally, can the Astros make the playoffs? Well ... Baseball Prospectus ran through 50,000 simulations of the 2014 season and the Astros won the AL West in 0.4 percent of them and made the playoffs 1.3 percent of the time. Sam Miller checks out at those "playoff" seasons, including season No. 33913 in which the Astros won 99 games. You never know!
Let's catch up on a few things ...
  • I enjoyed the two games from Australia, even getting up at 4 a.m. to watch the opener. Clayton Kershaw didn't really have his best stuff in that game, with his fastball velocity way down, averaging 88.3 mph. Remember, he struggled all spring with fastball command and had allowed 15 runs in 14 2/3 innings, but when the big lights went on he was able to adjust and allowed just one run in 6 2/3 innings while striking out seven. In the second game, the Dodgers tried to blow a 7-1 lead as Don Mattingly got a little cute with his bullpen, running through seven relievers over the final four innings. The Diamondbacks scored four runs in the ninth as Jose Dominguez walked two batters and gave up a two-run single and Mark Trumbo blasted a two-run homer off Kenley Jansen. I still expect the Dodgers bullpen to be one of the best in the league.
  • After going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in the opener, Yasiel Puig had three hits in the second game but was up to his usual shenanigans on the bases, getting thrown out trying to advance to second after a single and then getting throwing out trying to advance to third on a pitch in the dirt. Neither play was close. He then didn't come out for the bottom of the ninth inning, clearly irritating Mattingly, who after the game said, "Shoulder yesterday, back today, so I'm not sure if they're going to get him tests or get him to the MRI Monday or a bone scan on Tuesday, maybe. I'm not quite sure what we'll do. We may not do anything. I'm not sure." Here's Mark Saxon's report.
  • Joe Kelly beat out Carlos Martinez for the Cardinals No. 5 starter slot and you can't argue with that too much. Is Kelly as good as the 2.69 ERA he posted last year? Probably not, as that ERA was helped by a high strand rate that included a .161 average allowed with runners in scoring position. Critics point to his low strikeout rate (79 in 124 innings) but Kelly's best pitch is a 95 mph fastball with sink that doesn't necessarily register strikeouts but does get ground balls (he gave up just one home run off his fastball in 2013). As for Martinez, he returns to the eighth-inning role we saw him in during the playoffs, when he averaged 97.8 mph on his fastball and reached 100 pmh on the gun. I don't think this means the Cardinals are giving up on him as a starter, but some projected he would eventually end up in the bullpen anyway. Don't write him off as a starter, but we also know -- see his teammate, Trevor Rosenthal -- that once you turn into a dominant late-inning force managers will be reluctant to move you back to the rotation.
  • The Rangers announced second baseman Jurickson Profar is out 10-12 weeks with a torn muscle in his shoulder. He won't need surgery but won't be able to resume a throwing program for six weeks or so. The Rangers' backup infielders on the 40-man roster are Adam Rosales, Andy Parrino and Luis Sardinas, none of whom have shown much ability with the bat. The Rangers could scuffle along with Rosales or Parrino, but it's certainly a minor blow. An obvious trade candidate would be the Cubs' Darwin Barney, as the Cubs have prospect Arismendy Alcantara ready for the near future, not to mention that shortstop prospect Javier Baez played some second base this spring. Even if they didn't want to rush Alcantara or Baez, they could plug in Donnie Murphy at second on a short-term basis.
  • One of the most encouraging results this spring has been the solid performance of Yankees starter Michael Pineda, trying to return after missing two seasons (he did pitch in the minors last year). Pineda had another good effort on Sunday, allowing three runs (two earned) in six innings while walking nobody. Pineda is throwing 90-92, not the upper 90s heat he flashed as a rookie with the Mariners, so the concern is that there won't be enough of a velocity difference between his fastball and slider, and without the big fastball the slider alone may not be enough to be effective against left-handers. As a rookie back in 2011, he did flash on occasional changeup (162 of them in 28 starts) so that may have to become a more important pitch for him.
  • With hard-throwing Yordano Ventura winning a spot in the rotation, the Royals optioned Danny Duffy to the minors. No surprise there since Duffy has had a rough spring (15 runs and six home runs allowed in 11 innings). Even with Luke Hochevar's injury the Royals have plenty of depth in the bullpen, so it makes sense to send Duffy to the minors and keep him stretched out as a starter.
  • It hasn't been announced, but Brad Miller will be the Mariners' starting shortstop over Nick Franklin, as expected. Miller has been one of the most exciting players in the Cactus League, hitting .438/.491/.938 with four doubles, four triples and four home runs. With Willie Bloomquist signed as the team's utility infielder, Franklin may start the year in Triple-A. You can bet the Mariners are still receiving calls from teams asking about Franklin.
Ramirez and PuigJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesWatch out, NL: The Dodgers will be getting a full season from Puig and Ramirez.
Are star players important?

You're an idiot, Schoenfield. Of course they're important. Go back to your day job.

OK, maybe there's a better way to rephrase that question. Which team has the best five core players? And is that a good indicator for reaching the postseason?

Let's do this. Using Baseball-Reference WAR as our baseline for determining a team's five best players, here are the top 10 teams in 2013 ranked by the combined WAR of their core five:

1. Detroit Tigers: 28.9
Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister

2. Boston Red Sox: 27.2
Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Clay Buchholz

3. Los Angeles Dodgers: 26.3
Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Juan Uribe, Adrian Gonzalez

4. Pittsburgh Pirates: 25.1
Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Russell Martin, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez

5. St. Louis Cardinals: 24.6
Matt Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Shelby Miller, Matt Holliday

6. Colorado Rockies: 24.2
Jhoulys Chacin, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Jorge De La Rosa, Nolan Arenado

7. Texas Rangers: 24.1
Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Craig Gentry

8. Cincinnati Reds: 22.6
Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey

9. Atlanta Braves: 22.4
Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen

10. Oakland Athletics: 22.2
Josh Donaldson, Bartolo Colon, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie

Maybe it's not too surprising that eight of those 10 teams made the playoffs. You don't make the playoffs without a solid core of excellent players. The two playoff teams not in the top 10 were the Rays, with 21.6 WAR from their top five guys (13th), and the Indians with 21.5 (14th). So, yes, stars are important.

However, it's also worth noting that most teams rated very similarly in the combined WAR from their best five players, at least in 2013: 17 teams ranked between the 22.6 WAR of the Reds and the 18.8 of the Orioles. That’s less than a four-win difference, not that four wins isn't important, but also a signal that roster spots six through 25 are often the difference between making the playoffs or heading on a fishing trip in October.

Another way to spin that is to look at the teams that received highest percentage of their overall team WAR from their five best players:

1. Astros: 153 percent
2. Phillies: 110 percent
3. Mets: 95 percent
4. Mariners: 90 percent
5. White Sox: 86 percent
6. Marlins: 84 percent
7. Brewers: 78 percent
8. Twins: 74 percent
9. Diamondbacks: 73 percent
10. Rockies: 72 percent

Yes, you're reading that correctly: The Astros and Phillies received more value from their top five players than they did from their entire rosters -- meaning, the rest of their rosters behind their core five were below replacement.

The main thing to take away from these "imbalanced" teams: None of them had a winning record (the Diamondbacks finished .500). The rest of the roster matters. Take a team like the Mariners. Led by Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez, the 21.1 WAR from their top five players was on par with Rays, Indians; the rest of the roster was, collectively, horrible. Robinson Cano brings more star power to Seattle but doesn't solve the team's biggest issue, the lack of quality depth.

What about 2014? Here are my top 10 core fives heading into the season:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez


This group could be even better than it was in 2013 with full seasons from Ramirez and Puig. Greinke was so dominant over his final 16 starts (1.57 ERA) that he’s a reasonable Cy Young candidate behind his best-starter-in-baseball teammate. The fifth player on the list could be Gonzalez or Matt Kemp or even third starter Hyun-Jin Ryu.

2. Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Ian Kinsler


You have the reigning two-time MVP and then two Cy Young winners and then last year's American League ERA champ in Sanchez. Kinsler will have to prove that his offensive game translates from Texas to Detroit, but his all-around game has been valuable in recent seasons.

3. Texas Rangers
Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder


A little bit of everything: An ace pitcher, power and defense from Beltre, slick defense and speed from Andrus and two left-handed batters who get on base. The additions of Choo and Fielder help bring some lefty balance to the Rangers lineup and lead to more runs for a lineup that slipped a bit last season.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates
Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Russell Martin, Pedro Alvarez


My underrated core five. I like McCutchen to repeat his MVP season (in numbers, at least, if not in hardware), Marte and Martin to excel on defense and do just enough at the plate, Alvarez to slam 30-something homers again and Cole to become a breakout star in his sophomore season.

5. St. Louis Cardinals
Adam Wainwright, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Michael Wacha, Matt Holliday

What makes the Cardinals impressive is that this core could also include Shelby Miller or Allen Craig.

6. Tampa Bay Rays
Evan Longoria, David Price, Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, Alex Cobb


Price, Myers and Cobb didn't spend the entire season on the active roster (Price and Cobb missed time with minor injuries while Myers began the year in Triple-A), so odds are strong this group could outperform last year, especially if Myers blossoms in his sophomore campaign.

7. Washington Nationals
Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman


If you want slightly off-the-radar awards picks, how about Harper for MVP and Zimmermann for Cy Young?

8. Atlanta Braves
Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel


Kimbrel, who turns 26 in May, is the oldest player in the group.

9. Milwaukee Brewers
Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, Jean Segura, Yovani Gallardo


A little weak in the pitching department, but Braun should return to his MVP-caliber play and Gomez was MVP-caliber in 2013. Lucroy produces at the plate and is one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Segura is an exciting plug who has to prove his second-half slump in 2013 was simply fatigue.

10. Boston Red Sox
Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Shane Victorino


A good bet to regress, as a large portion of Victorino's value came from his outstanding defense and Big Papi will get old one of these years.


Which franchise will be the one to beat in five years? We published our Future Power Rankings today, and while Eric Karabell weren't on the committee for those rankings, we do have something to say about them, including which team should be No. 1, wondering if the Cubs should have been ranked higher than the Red Sox and whether our beloved Phillies and Mariners are properly ranked.
Matt Carpenter has signed a $52 million extension with the Cardinals. If Carpenter comes close to his 2013 numbers -- he led the National League in hits (199), runs (126) and doubles (55) -- it's going to be a bargain contract for the Cardinals.

Carpenter hit .318, played a solid second base (he'll move back to third base in 2014), made the All-Star team and finished fourth in the MVP voting. Not bad for a former 13th-round pick in his first year as a full-time starter.

What will happen this season? The projection systems don't forecast Carpenter hitting .318 again, which isn't too surprising since he never hit .318 in the minors (let alone bash out 55 doubles). ZiPS is very pessimistic, predicting a .272 average for Carpenter. Steamer has him at .284. Carpenter hit .321 in the first half, .313 in the second half and his rate of doubles actually went up, so he was pretty consistent throughout the season (though he did drop from nine home runs to two).

Do you believe in Carpenter having another big season? Let's set the over/under on his batting average at .295.

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%
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    25%
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    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%
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    18%
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    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%
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    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%
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    23%
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    20%
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    12%
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    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%
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    16%
  •  
    21%
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    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%
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    13%
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    27%
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    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.

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