SweetSpot: St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals' chef helps team eat healthy

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
10:03
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ST. LOUIS -- Chef Simon Lusky strolled through a supermarket just outside of Philipsburg, Pa., with St. Louis Cardinals slugger Matt Adams and his parents. The country store looked like a slice of Americana and they were looking for a lean piece of meat.

They found a small butcher shop in the store with fresh venison for sale. It was December of 2012, snow was on the ground, baseball was a few months away and Adams’ eating habits were about to change.

The Cardinals organization had just begun a groundbreaking endeavor. In 2012 the club hired Lusky to prepare healthy food. With a team effort from the medical staff, clubhouse staff, strength staff and coaches, food has become a source of fuel for the players instead of empty calories. Manager Mike Matheny played a big part in Lusky getting hired but the push also came from the front office.
[+] EnlargeSimon Lusky
St. Louis CardinalsSimon Lusky makes sure the Cardinals get something good to eat.

"John Mozeliak, he's really into health and eating right and working out," Lusky said of the team's general manager. "He's all about it too, so organizationally everybody is on board with it."

To really make an impact though, Lusky had to help Adams become self-sufficient with his food choices in the offseason.

"He flew in for a couple of days and took us out to eat, and taught us what to look for on the menu out at a restaurant -- healthy options," said Adams, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound first baseman who weighed a few pounds more that winter. "Then we went to the grocery store and went through all the aisles."

Adams, who debuted in the majors in 2012, was living with his parents; both are busy, hard-working people. So Lusky, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Johnson and Wales, put an emphasis on showing them quick and healthy meals.

"A piece of salmon takes just as long to cook as it does to heat up a Stouffers lasagna," Lusky said.

Adams and his whole family watched and helped prepare the food as Lusky taught them how to cook healthy. "His mom, his dad, his uncle, his aunt, a cousin, they were all like, 'What’s kale?'" Lusky said. "They never had asparagus or brussels sprouts."

Adams lost 25 pounds after the 2012 season, then another 20 pounds after the 2013 season; his dad lost 30 pounds and now enjoys healthy eating so much he maintains his own vegetable garden.

Adams said he is seeing results on the field. His body is not breaking down. "I’m feeling strong and waking up with energy and ready to go on a daily basis," he said.


From doughnuts to gator jerkey

Before Lusky was hired as the team chef everything in the clubhouse was catered. The players were getting a wide variety of foods but it was not the right food.

"There was a big emphasis on pastas and cream sauces," Lusky said. “Fattier meats, not leaner cuts. Maybe a lack of vegetables with some certain meals."

He helped them make a cultural change in how they viewed food.

"Before, they said they'd go through four or five dozen doughnuts throughout the course of the game," Lusky said.

Now, the clubhouse walls are lined with dispensers of all different kinds of nuts. The most popular in-game snack is a protein bar homemade by a childhood friend of St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. The team focuses on nutrient-dense foods with a lot of good calories. This helps their muscles and their recovery time.

"A handful of nuts can be as high as 400 or 500 calories depending on the nuts," Lusky said. "I tell the guys to snack on nuts constantly, constantly. Any time you are feeling just a little hungry grab a handful of nuts."

Fruit is also always available.

"The whole fridge is full of nectarines, apples, and oranges and bananas, kiwis," Lusky said. "We have every type of jerky; we use a company that specializes in wild game jerky -- pheasant, gator, elk -- every sort of animal you can imagine in jerky form, a bunch of different flavors.”

Besides healthy snacks, the meal he prepares for the club every home game consists of lean proteins like chicken breast and turkey, but no fried meats.

"Red meat is fine, we eat a lot of red meat," Lusky said. "It's a clubhouse full of guys so if we took red meat away my head would be on a stick. The biggest thing I do as a chef is I vary the protein." Besides red met, he'll have pork, lamb, wild boar, shrimp and different types of fish.

Lusky has a very simple motto: green, clean and lean.

"I always tell the guys get some green vegetables on your plate, get some clean carbs -- a clean carb is quinoa, sweet potatoes, something that's not going to be a white rice or a white pasta -- those are things we don't have. If we're going to have a pasta, it's going to be gluten-free or whole wheat."

When the team is on the road, Lusky also ships food to about half the team -- about 120 pounds to every destination, at a cost of about $1,000.

Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, like many players, struggles to keep weight on during the season, or he'll run out of energy during the game.

"Now we have a little routine where I do a smoothie for him," Lusky said. "I don’t say anything. I just go at the end of the third [inning] and I make him a smoothie and I put it where the bats are underneath the dugout and just leave it there, and he goes at it."

"Diet is one of the things you don’t think about," infielder Daniel Descalso said. "You think about working out, you think about taking batting practice and ground balls, but diet is a huge part of what goes into maintaining your health and well-being through the entire season."

Change in baseball isn't always easy, however.

"A guy when I first met him who I thought would never want to get on the healthy board was Randy Choate," Lusky said of the veteran reliever. "He was like, 'I eat doughnuts and Coke for breakfast, and I love fried chicken and McDonald's.' He was an uphill climb from the first day. He was outspoken about it."

This past offseason, Choate and his wife had Lusky come to their house to teach them how to eat healthier.

"To say it hasn't made any difference would be a lie," Choate said. "I definitely came in this year with less body fat and it had a lot to do with the things he showed us at our house, to help us cook healthier."

Still, baseball players have their superstitions.

"On day games, it's called the doughnut diet," Choate said. "I have one doughnut, and that's just my theory for a sinker -- you've got to eat one to throw one."

Beyond baseball

The crux of Lusky's influence is worrying more about the person than the ballplayer.

"Anything [teams] can do to help keep these guys healthier and on the field, you are going to see the Matt Hollidays playing another year, longer careers, happier fans, happier players and healthier lives when the game is done," Lusky said.

In Lance Lynn’s car, driving to the airport, Lusky saw a light click in Lynn's eyes as they talked.

Lusky had just spent the week with Lynn and his wife. "He taught us what to look for on the back of the box, and all the way to how to prepare it," said Lynn, who has lost 70 pounds.

Lusky told Lynn he wanted to see him succeed and get a huge contract one day. "But I was like, 'Really, you are going to play baseball for 10 years, let's be honest, you'll be 35 by then. You'll have a lot of your life left. If you keep eating, and doing what you are doing right now, it's not healthy. You can shave years off of your life, and that's less time with your family.'"

This was the moment where Lynn understood: Not eating well is not only bad for baseball, but it's not good for life.

With long games, a difficult schedule and the demands of baseball on the body, Lusky wants to see baseball do more for the players.

"You can change baseball," Lusky said. "We're not only helping our team right now, but we are making the game a healthier game."

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
8:01
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So how's that deadline deal working out for your team? Got buyer's remorse yet? Injuries continue to be the underlying ripcurrent across the MLB ocean and this week saw some unfortunate ones, as Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew McCutcheon were both hurt (really, Tony?), and the already injured Cliff Lee was officially shelved for the season. Lesser names -- but still big impact to their teams -- like David Phelps and the newly acquired Allen Craig -- also hit the DL. By the way, what happened to preseason MVP candidate Bryce Harper?

Speaking of bad news, pseudo-doctor Tony Bosch surrendered and plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids. I don't much care to hear any more names. Having just read "Blood Sport" about Bosch and Biogenesis and the infiltration of PEDs throughout baseball, the need for more dirt to be thrown on this great game isn't there for me.

But at least Cubbies fans get their latest peek at their future, with the call-up of Javier Baez. And there's always the feel-good stories like Jose Abreu, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout to bring you back. Lastly, a hearty congrats to A.J. Preller, the new GM of the San Diego Padres. You hirin', bro?

On to the best of the SweetSpot Network this week, touching on some of these issues:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Operation Beanball is the newest embarrassment: After Paul Goldschmidt's hand was broken last Friday, the D-backs, from Miguel Montero up to Tony La Russa, were outspoken about retaliation. As Jeff Wiser explains, the club's conduct is adding insult to injury. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24.

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Caleb Joseph is an All-Star: Jon Shepherd delves into the surprising season Caleb Joseph has had, going from unprotected in the Rule 5 draft to, perhaps, being one of the best catchers in baseball. Of course, you know, small sample size. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Zingers in da clubhouse: What's it like to have media access for the first time? Richard Bergstrom literally walks through the Rockies clubhouse, dugout and press box and even talks to a player or two without goofing up too much. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Will Alex Meyer pitch in the majors this year? Twins fans have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the top pitching prospect, but Nick Nelson explains why they may be waiting until 2015. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.

New York Yankees: It's About the Money
Whither the 2015 rotation: Domenic Lanza looks ahead to the Yankees' options for the 2015 rotation. All told, it's not that bad if they can make the moves to land some of the available arms. Follow on Twitter: @DomenicLanza.

McCarthy mixes fastballs brilliantly to tame the Tigers: Brandon McCarthy has pitched well since joining the Yankees in July. Brad Vietrogoski examined his latest start against the Tigers and illustrates just how good he was at mixing his pitches. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
With trade, both Cardinals and Red Sox may have relied on availability heuristic: Let’s take another look at the deadline trade involving John Lackey, Corey Littrell, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly. What made the teams’ respective GMs pull the trigger on this particular package of players? Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
Watching Nick Franklin: R.J. Anderson breaks down the strengths and weakness of the new Rays infielder. Follow on Twitter: @R_J_Anderson.

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.

Shelby Miller remains a work in progress

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
1:51
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ST. LOUIS -- Doing his own laundry, that was difficult. There were also times when he was homesick. Shelby Miller was away from his family and in a totally different environment.

Miller, taken 19th overall by the St. Louis Cardinals in the June 2009 draft, went straight from Brownwood High School in Brownwood, Texas, to the minor leagues. He was a phenom who threw four no-hitters in high school. And he didn't have much time to figure out who he was or how to live on his own before he started his professional career.

"It's shocking," Miller recalled of those first days in the minor leagues as an 18-year-old. "You have to adapt quick, because obviously this is our profession. This is what we are here to do. I guess at first I was maybe a little shocked at how it was, just kind of how it all ran, and then you adapt to it. You make friends, and it's just completely different than high school baseball."

One of the friends he made in the minor leagues was Joe Kelly, who will make his debut for the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday pitching against Miller. Miller and Kelly grew up together -- learning the baseball life -- in a Cardinals minor league system awash with young pitching talent.

[+] EnlargeShelby Miller
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesShelby Miller is 8-8 with a 4.14 ERA in 22 outings (21 starts) this season.
Miller made his major-league debut at 21 on Sept. 5, 2012. The expectation for Miller has always been that he's destined to be a front-line starter, but the unfolding question is how to get him there.

There's no arguing his talent: No. 1 prospect in the Cardinals' organization by Baseball America in 2010 and 2011; Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2010 and 2011; finished third in the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year voting; and on May 10 of last season, he became the only pitcher in Cardinals history to retire 27 straight batters in a game.

But 2014 hasn't been as smooth. Relying primarily on his 94 mph four-seam fastball, Miller is 8-8 with a 4.14 ERA. His strikeouts are down and his walks are up from 2013.

"The pitch I need to work on the most is probably my fastball, my command to each side of the plate," he said. "The velocity is there, but the command isn't exactly where I want it to be."

His curveball remains his primary offspeed pitch, although its velocity has dipped from an average of 79.4 mph in 2013 to 77 mph, and batters are hitting .323 against it, compared to .219 last year.

"My curveball, I feel like it's a sharp pitch and I have it where I need it and want it to be," Miller said. "But it's just executing at certain times. You know, I threw a good one the other night to Dee Gordon (who hit a line drive double to left field on July 20)."

It could be a little bit of bad luck, Miller said, when he makes a good pitch but is still giving up hits. "For the most part, I felt like it's been a good pitch for me this year," he said.

Highly regarded pitching prospects such as Miller are under more scrutiny than ever because the hype begins when they're still in the minors. We forget the context of how pitchers like John Smoltz and Tom Glavine started their careers. Glavine had a 4.29 ERA in more than 400 innings from age 21 to 23. Smoltz averaged 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings in his first full season in 1989, but slid to 5.8 by 1991.

"The evolution of learning how to pitch starts in the minor leagues and ends up developing in the major leagues," said Smoltz, now an MLB Network analyst. "If you look at the early parts of mine or Tom Glavine's career, I wasn't celebrated like a high-drafter or a phenom coming on to the scene. I was able to pitch 21 years. No one has come back to ask any of us what we did to be successful. No high-ranking official that I know of has ever come and picked our brain and said, 'How did you do it?' No one has even attempted to find out."

Teams are making their own way, trying to figure out how to best handle a young pitcher like Miller. The Cardinals are no exception. Every team has a different formula, and Miller, moved to the bullpen the last two weeks of July (he made one relief appearance), has been there twice during his career, having pitched in relief during last year's postseason.

"I'm told it's for rest and stuff," Miller said.

Manager Mike Matheny put the bullpen stint this way: "I've told Shelby a number of times, I've told everyone else, a number of times, but no one wants to believe it, but we're trying to get Shelby rest. Nothing more than that."

The Cardinals, when they refer to "rest," think of it in two ways. One is simply no pitching. With the second, they may move someone into the bullpen so they can take a breather from starting. In Miller's case, they wanted to lower his total innings pitched, as well as give him a break from starting.

With the cautious and careful way the Cardinals are handling him, the hope is Miller has every opportunity for a long and successful career. That strikeout percentage is down from 23.4 percent to 15.6 while his walk percentage has increased from 7.9 percent to 10.6. His overall rate of strikes is down from 65.9 percent to 62.5.

"The biggest thing is taking it game by game and not worrying about what you did last week, or last month, or the first half," Miller said. "It's more just figuring out a way to help the team win."

If he ever needed a reminder the Cardinals are committed to him, he has to look no farther than across the diamond Wednesday at his good friend pitching for the Red Sox. Miller says he's grateful to have been drafted by a good organization.

"We've got guys around here, veteran leadership, and guys who through the minor leagues could just pour that attitude into our blood, just kind of brainwash you to win," he said. "I mean, everybody wants to win, but there's something pretty special about this organization, the manager, and just how the organization is run. … I wouldn't want to be a part of any other place."
Last week, after Corey Kluber dominated the Mariners with an 85-pitch shutout, I rashly tweeted that Kluber is one of the best 10 starting pitchers in the game. That seemed to stir things up a bit on Twitter, and Giants fans were especially angered when I suggested Kluber is better than Madison Bumgarner. Kluber came back on Monday with another solid effort, allowing one run while striking out seven in 7.1 innings, improving his record to 12-6 with a 2.55 ERA.

But is he one of baseball's top 10 starters right now?

[+] EnlargeCorey Kluber
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHe's been very, very good. But is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in baseball right now?
How do you even measure such a thing? We can take the easy way out and just look at wins above replacement for the season.

FanGraphs
1. Felix Hernandez: 5.8
2. Corey Kluber: 5.0
3. Jon Lester: 4.7
4. Clayton Kershaw: 4.5
5. Chris Sale: 4.2

Baseball-Reference
1. Felix Hernandez: 5.5
2. Clayton Kershaw: 5.2
3. Corey Kluber: 4.7
4. Johnny Cueto: 4.6
5. Chris Sale/Max Scherzer: 4.5

By WAR, Kluber isn't just a top-10 starter, but a top-five starter. Even ignoring how much you believe in WAR, the question is: Do you buy into Kluber's four-month streak as a true breakout performance? How much emphasis do we place on history? Zack Greinke won a Cy Young Award in 2009. Should that matter as to how we evaluate him now? Scherzer won the Cy Young Award last year when he was arguably the best pitcher in the American League. How much should that matter as to how we evaluate him in August 2014?

Bill James actually devised a method to answer this question a couple of years ago. He wrote:
Everybody starts out with a ranking of 300.0, and you can’t go lower than 300, even if you pitch badly. If you’re at 300, you’re unranked; you’re only actually on the list if you have a current score higher than 300. There would typically be 150 to 180 pitchers who are, at the moment, ranked. Pitchers never actually pitch badly enough that they would rank below 300 (if it were possible to do so) for more than two or three starts, because if you pitch that badly, you lose your position in the rotation.

When a pitcher makes a start, we:

a) Mark down his previous ranking by 3%, and

b) Add 30% of his Game Score for the start.

We base the rankings on Game Scores, which means that we ignore wins and losses, but give weight to innings pitched, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, walks and strikeouts.


James also adjusted for park effects, inactivity (if a pitcher doesn't pitch, his overall rating goes down) and postseason play, which he factored in. Anyway, his site unfortunately doesn't update the rankings, so I don't know how Kluber would rank. So I'll just wing my own top 10.

1. Clayton Kershaw

The best pitcher in baseball, and I don't think anybody is really arguing this. Hernandez ranks higher on the WAR lists because Kershaw missed April, so he doesn't have as many innings.

2. Felix Hernandez

3. Adam Wainwright

Similar in many ways -- veteran right-handers (it seems weird to call Felix a "veteran," but he has been around a long time) having their best seasons.

4. Chris Sale

He's 10-1 with a 2.09 ERA with 129 strikeouts and 20 walks in 116 innings. Incredible numbers. He has cut his home run rate from last year, even though he pitches in a good home run park. I'm not knocking Wainwright when I say this: Sale is better. But he did miss time earlier this year and I think we have to give Wainwright extra credit for his durability.

5. Yu Darvish

6. David Price

SportsNation

Is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in the game?

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    55%
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Discuss (Total votes: 2,346)

I'm not completely comfortable ranking Price this high -- he's ninth in FanGraphs WAR and 25th in B-R WAR. He has 189 strikeouts and just 23 walks but has allowed 20 home runs, and he goes from a good pitcher's park with a good Rays defense behind him to a better hitter's park with a below-average Tigers defense behind him. It's possible that change will reveal that he did benefit from pitching in Tampa. Or it may not reveal anything. But Price has been good a pitcher for five years, and his new approach of pounding the strike zone has basically turned him into a harder-throwing version of Cliff Lee.

OK, now things get a little murky. Let's start with Kluber versus Bumgarner, because that got a lot of feedback on Twitter.

I know Bumgarner has been a solid pitcher for several years. He has come up big in the postseason. But in comparing 2014: Kluber has the better ERA, the better FIP, the better strikeout rate, a lower walk rate, a lower home run rate, a higher ground ball rate, the lower batting average and OPS allowed, has pitched more innings and has done it in a DH league while pitching in a tougher park with a lousy defense behind him. I can't rate Bumgarner ahead of Kluber.

(By the way, Bumgarner's career high bWAR is 3.8, achieved last year. A lot of that is park effects. Giants fans will point out that Bumgarner has a better ERA on the road in his career than at home, but that's not the way park effects work. Bumgarner still has the advantage of pitching half his games in a pitcher's park.)

Jon Lester? Hmm. Lester is a No. 2 starter having a No. 1-level season. But he had a 3.75 ERA last year and 4.82 the year before. FanGraphs and B-R differ on his value -- FanGraphs ranks him third overall while B-R ranks him 22nd. Kluber, by the way, had a 3.85 ERA last year with excellent peripherals. If you give Lester a little extra credit for his postseason last year, I'll reluctantly give him the nod, although I think his track record works against him just as much as Kluber's lack of track record works against him.

Scherzer is similar to Lester, except his No. 1 season came last year. He's been nearly as good this year, even though his BABIP has once again bounced up:

2011: .314
2012: .333
2013: .259
2014: .316

One reason Scherzer's BABIP is usually high is that he does pitch up in the strike zone, unlike a lot of pitchers who pound the zone at the knees. Of course, the other reason is the lousy Tigers defense. (Take note, Mr. Price.)

Johnny Cueto? I'm not quite sure what to do with Cueto, giving his history of injuries. But we're talking best starters right now, and Cueto has been healthy and effective all season and he has always been effective even when he has missed time.

Garrett Richards is another young starter having a breakout season. While Kluber relies on command and a wipeout curve, Richards has upper 90s heat and a deadly slider. Their numbers:

Kluber: 2.55 ERA, .233/.277/.341, 26.7 percent K rate
Richards: 2.58 ERA, .195/.267/.259, 24.7 percent K rate

Kluber rates a little higher in WAR because he has pitched 12 more innings and Richards benefits from a pitcher's park. Tough call here. Like Kluber, Richards doesn't have much of a track record before this season. There's no denying his stuff. Richards has the fourth-lowest BABIP allowed among starters at .258 (Kluber's is .309) and a low rate of home runs per fly ball (third-lowest among starters). I think those numbers indicate Richards has pitched in more good luck than Kluber this season. But I could be wrong; his stuff is nasty.

OK, where does that leave us? With apologies to Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Hisashi Iwakuma, the injured Masahiro Tanaka and maybe a couple of others, the top 10 starters in the majors RIGHT NOW:

1. Kershaw
2. Hernandez
3. Wainwright
4. Sale
5. Darvish
6. Price
7. Cueto
8. Lester
9. Kluber
10. Scherzer

Including Richards, you could rank the final four guys in any order, really. If you want a longer track record, go with Lester and Scherzer. If you like raw, unhittable stuff, go with Richards. If you think postseason history matters, go with Lester. If you like 28-year-olds out of nowhere with curveballs that make major league hitters weep in frustration, go with our man Corey Kluber -- one of the 10 best starters in the game.

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

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

Prediction: The A's win the West.

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

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

Prediction: The Pirates win the Central.

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

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

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

Prediction: Price starts Game 1 of the division series.

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

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

Prediction: The Dodgers win the NL West.

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

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

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

Prediction: The Orioles win the AL East.

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

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

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

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

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

7. Stephen Strasburg isn't an ace yet.

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

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


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

Prediction: They'll get one in August.

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

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

Prediction: Not necessarily ...

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

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

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

So, my post-deadline picks:

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

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

NLDS: Dodgers over Giants
NLDS: Nationals over Pirates

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

World Series: A's over Dodgers ... Jon Lester wins Game 7 and then signs a $175 million contract with the Dodgers in the offseason. Sam Fuld wins World Series MVP honors. Billy Beane announces retirement and says, "I was never really into this sabermetrics stuff anyway."

Brewers bomb Wainwright, and win again

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
12:23
AM ET

One day after the trade deadline, St. Louis trailed Milwaukee by two games in the ever-competitive National League Central division. The Cardinals, of course, were the preseason favorites in the Central, after advancing all the way to the World Series last October. The Brewers, however, grabbed first place on April 5, and they have surprised most observers by remaining in first ever since. OK, maybe I'm the only observer who is baffled by Milwaukee's success, but that counts for something, right?

Anyway, the Cardinals have tied for the Central lead on a couple of occasions, most recently on July 20, but they've never been able to overtake Milwaukee completely. This, of course, was an unacceptable situation in the eyes of St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, who went to work at the trade deadline, acquiring pitchers John Lackey and Justin Masterson to shore up a rotation that has been OK but has suffered somewhat due to Michael Wacha's bum shoulder.

The Brewers countered with a deadline deal that essentially bet on Gerardo Parra returning to form (which was not a bad bet), but after the flurry of deadline trade activity, St. Louis saw its playoff odds increase more than any team in baseball. These teams have been fighting all season, and there's every reason to believe they will continue that fight over the last two months of the season (with the Pirates trying to get in on the action, as well).

Right on cue, the Cards and Brew Crew began a pivotal three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night. With one of the NL's best, Adam Wainwright, on the mound and an improved roster, it was only a matter of time before the Cardinals began their march to the division title, right?

Not so fast, my friend. With a 7-4 win before a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium, the Brewers made a statement Friday. No, the public relations department didn't literally issue a statement, but Milwaukee did serve notice on the Cardinals that they aren't planning to go away any time soon.

Milwaukee scored early and often against Wainwright, eventually driving him from the game with a four-run sixth that blew the game wide open. Up to this point in the season, Wainwright has been among the contenders for best pitcher in the world (Non-Clayton Kershaw Divison). After giving up seven runs, nine hits and three walks in 5 1/3 innings Friday, however, Wainwright saw his ERA jump from 1.92 to 2.26, and he permitted the Brewers to further increase their lead in the division.

On the other side of the ledger, Milwaukee starter Wily Peralta came into Friday's contest with a 12-6 record and an ERA of 3.56. While he wasn't at his best, Peralta pitched an effective 6 2/3 innings, giving up two runs and five hits to win his 13th game, which ties for the National League lead (along with Wainwright and Kershaw, appropriately enough).

A Brewers offense that is second in the National League in runs scored didn't miss a beat, either. Aramis Ramirez was 3-for-5 with a double, homer (his 13th of the season) and two RBIs. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy continued to mash the baseball, with two hits, including a bases-clearing double that drove in three runs and sent Wainwright to the showers in the sixth inning. Ryan Braun had two doubles and two RBIs, as well. If you haven't noticed, these guys can hit.

In the end, St. Louis remains a solid bet to win the NL Central. The pitching should be slightly better the rest of the way, after the trade-deadline acquisitions of Lackey and Masterson. The offense probably will improve as well, thanks to the subtraction of Allen Craig, who has been simply dismal this season, hitting a pathetic .237/.291/.346 with seven homers (.286 wOBA and 81 wRC+; that's bad). It will be interesting to watch young Oscar Taveras as he gets regular playing time for the first time as a big leaguer. If nothing else, he surely won't be worse than Craig has been.

Don't bet against these Brewers, though. I keep waiting for them to falter, but they hit the ball hard, they score runs and they keep defying expectations. That's precisely why we love baseball. With nine more games still to be played between these teams, you should dig in: This could be a fun couple of months in the National League Central.

(And don't forget about the Pirates!)

Chad Dotson writes for Redleg Nation on the SweetSpot Network.

ICYMI: SweetSpot trade deadline roundup

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
11:32
AM ET
Catch your breath yet? What a crazy few days across baseball. Winners and losers at the trade deadline? We've got all of that covered. Let's dive in and see what the local SweetSpot Network writers had to say about the deals that impacted their teams as well as the new landscape for the rest of the 2014 season and beyond.



New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Why Stephen Drew can help the Yankees: Katie Sharp dives deeper than the superficial season-to-date results posted by Drew and shows how he can provide a boost to the Yanks. Spoiler alerts: Bumps in hard-hit rates and a superior defender than the now-departed Brian Roberts (two ABs short of a bonus). Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Trade deadline thoughts and afterthoughts: The Yankees got four proven major leaguers in the middle-to-late parts of their primes for two cheap minor league signings, an injured spare bench part, and two low-probability prospects. Not bad. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS



Boston Red Sox: Firebrand of the AL
Yoenis Cespedes, Red Sox outfielder: Many have arrived in Boston only to be beat down by Fenway and the Green Monster. Brett Cowett looks at how Cespedes could possibly master Fenway Park. Follow on Twitter: @firebrandal.

Allen Craig and Joe Kelly: Who are they, and how do they fit in?: Shawn McFarland takes a quick look at the St. Louis duo, and how they can be major cogs in the Red Sox machine for years to come.



Detroit Tigers: Walkoff Woodward
The Price is right: Tigers land Rays ace: Alexandra Simon looks at the Tigers' acquisition of David Price and examines some of the fallout after the deal.

The present and future of the Tigers with Price: Grey Papke outlines what the Price trade means for the Tigers both immediately and in the coming seasons -- including Max Scherzer's Tigers future. Follow on Twitter: @walkoffwoodward.



Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
Brewers trade for Parra: The Brewers made their big move of the non-waiver deadline, acquiring outfielder Gerardo Parra from the Diamondbacks in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers. Ryan Topp reviews the trade, including concerns about a slip in Parra's defense. Follow on Twitter: @RDTopp.



New York Mets: Mets Today
Stephen Drew finally heads to New York -- and other deadline news: Joe Janish does a lap around the deals that made the 2014 trade deadline so exciting.



Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The Rangers Stand Pat: Brandon Land takes a look at what ended up being a rather uneventful deadline for Texas when compared to recent years. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away



Cincinnati Reds: Redleg Nation
Early trade deadline thoughts: More swings and misses: In recent years, the Reds have repeatedly swung and missed at the trade deadline. Last season they were the only major league team that didn’t make a single move in July or August. Other general managers come up with ideas that worked for each other and their owners. Steve Mancuso wonders if this indicates a failure of market evaluation. Follow on Twitter: @redlegnation.



St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Cardinals improve, but is it enough? In separate trades, the Cardinals supplemented their starting rotation, acquiring right-handers Justin Masterson and John Lackey. The moves were quintessentially Mozeliakian, as the GM followed his typical script by accurately identifying needs then fulfilling those needs with solid but not blockbuster (or bank-busting) transactions. The only question will be whether they’re enough. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.



Chicago Cubs: View From The BleachersAn ode to Darwin Barney: Luke Jett sends off fan favorite Darwin Barney with one last look back. Follow on Twitter: @lukejett.



Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Twins sign Suzuki to an extension: All-Star Kurt Suzuki was the Twins' best deadline trade chip, but instead of shipping him out they elected to extend his contract. John Bonnes takes a look at the move. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.


Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Indians ship Justin Masterson to Cardinals: Adam Hintz takes a look at the Masterson trade, new acquisition James Ramsey, and how the organizational outfield depth chart now shapes up. Follow on Twitter: @Palagoon.

Wrapping up Masterson's Tribe Ccreer: Ryan McCrystal looks back on the roller coaster ride that was Masterson's time in Cleveland, comparing him to not-so-great past Indians such as Roberto Hernandez and Dave Burba. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC.



Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Orioles gave up too much for Andrew Miller: Typically, prospects who are traded are over-ranked. That said, handing out a top 100 prospect in LHP Eduardo Rodriguez for a pitcher who will contribute at most 20 innings the rest of the season does not seem like the most sensible thing to do. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.



Los Angeles Angels: Halos Daily
What the big deadline deals mean for the Angels: Despite sitting the dance out, the Halos will still feel ripples from some of the deadline's biggest moves. Andrew Karcher takes a look at which trades could affect the club most down the stretch. Follow on Twitter: @andrewkarcher.


And some of the other non-trade deadline-related items from around the SweetSpot Network:


Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Are traded prospects worth less? Yes, they are, but there is a twist. Matt Perez looks at how the difference between prospect rank and value have changed over the years for players in trades. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot



Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
Frank Thomas memories: In the wake of his emotional induction into the Hall of Fame, the entire writing staff kicked in their favorite memories of the greatest hitter to ever put on a White Sox uniform. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.



Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Rockies bloggers panel 7/26/14: Listen to representatives from Rockies blogs talk about what's gone right and wrong for the Rockies team and the front office in 2014. Featured are Rockies Zingers writers Richard Bergstrom, Ryan Hammon and Adam Peterson; Drew Creasman from Purple Row; Michelle Stalnaker from RoxPile; and Zach Marburger from Mile High Sports. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.



New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Chase Headley more than a rental: Matt Bove examines the idea of Chase Headley being a legitimate long-term option for the Yankees at third base. Follow on Twitter: @rayrobert9.



St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Patience pays off for Carpenter: This year, Matt Carpenter is seeing pitches at a career-high rate. If he continues at this pace, he’ll finish the season with the team’s highest pitches-per-plate-appearance since the stat began being tracked in 1988. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.



Los Angeles Angels: Halos Daily
The real value of the league's "worst" prospects: For two years running now, the Angels farm system has been classified as the worst in the game. Nathan Aderhold investigates what kind of tangible value the club has derived from its farm hands the last two seasons. Follow on Twitter: @adrastusperkins.


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.
The St. Louis Cardinals' acquisition of right-handed starter Justin Masterson from the Cleveland Indians proves one thing: You can never have too much starting pitching. Remember back in spring training when the Cardinals had seven or eight viable candidates for the rotation?

Now, Jaime Garcia is out for the season; Michael Wacha is out until at least September due to his shoulder stress reaction; Shelby Miller has seen his strikeout rate plummet in his sophomore campaign; Joe Kelly has had two bad starts in three appearances since returning from a two-month stint on the DL.

The Cardinals do have the fifth-best rotation ERA in the majors despite all those issues, but they had enough concerns about the group behind Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn to trade Double-A outfielder James Ramsey for Masterson.

It's a move for depth, not a move that gives the Cardinals a front-line guy. It's a hedge against Wacha not returning at all, or Carlos Martinez being shut down or moved back to the bullpen because of an innings limit, or Miller not figuring things out. Masterson, who has been on the DL himself since July 7 with right knee inflammation, will make his Cardinals debut on Saturday against the Brewers.

That's actually a key reason the Cardinals got Masterson: The Brewers have a right-handed-heavy lineup and Masterson has always been tough on right-handers, as he relies almost exclusively on a hard sinker and slider. Righties have hit .214 with one home run against him this season while lefties have banged him around for a .330/.416/.519 line. Masterson had his best season in 2013 in part because he held lefties to a .248 average, but the year before they hit .296 off him. Without a changeup or curve, he just lacks a good out pitch against southpaw swingers.

Anyway, Masterson has pitched better than his 5.51 ERA would indicate. His fielding independent pitching mark is 4.06 as he's maintained the higher strikeout rate he improved on during last season. Still, the velocity on his sinker, which he throws about 65 percent of the time, had dipped from 91.3 mph last year to 90.0 this season. That may be related to the knee problem, but probably factored into the Indians backing off from talking a long-term extension for the impending free agent.

One thing the Cardinals are banking on is improved infield defense to help the ground-ball specialist. The Indians have had one of the worst infield defenses in the majors with -39 defensive runs saved; the Cardinals have had one of the best, with +35 DRS.

While Masterson's ultimate performance is unpredictable, especially given his knee issue, he's probably not a big upgrade over what the Cardinals have received so far from their back-end guys. The risk for St. Louis was continuing to rely on Miller or Martinez; Masterson should at least provide a little more certainty than those two offered.

The Cardinals have three series remaining against the Brewers and three against the Reds, another team that leans to the right side (particularly with Joey Votto out). Two of those series are back-to-back, so Masterson won't necessarily get three starts against each team, but it gives Mike Matheny the opportunity to get Masterson the best possible matchups.

The Indians acquired Ramsey, a 24-year-old left-handed-hitting center fielder batting .300/.389/.527 at Springfield of the Texas League. He's not young for Double-A and is repeating the level as well, but he was a first-round pick (23rd overall) in 2012 out of Florida State, so has the first-round tools package and talent. Baseball America had Ramsey as the Cardinals' No. 7 prospect in its midseason update, so he projects as a possible major league starter due to his ability to play center.

I like the trade for both teams. The Cardinals acquired rotation depth -- yes, Jon Lester or David Price would have been nice, but considering the offense is next-to-last in the NL in runs scored, trading top prospect Oscar Taveras would have fixed one problem while creating a hole in next year's lineup -- while dealing from their depth of minor league outfielders. The Indians traded away a guy who has been inconsistent and would have been too expensive to sign while getting a guy who could start for them as soon as 2015.
Two statistical nuggets:
  • Felix Hernandez tied Tom Seaver's major league record with 13 consecutive starts pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer.
  • Adam Wainwright has allowed zero runs in 10 starts this season, three more than any other starter.


So, which feat is more impressive?

To put Wainwright's nugget in context, since 1980 only three pitchers have had more than 10 no-run starts, all with 11: Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985 and Cliff Lee in 2011. Eight other times a pitcher matched Wainwright's total of 10: Roger Clemens (1997 and 2005); Pedro Martinez (2000 and 2002); Clayton Kershaw (2011 and 2013); Greg Maddux (2002); and Chris Young (2007).

(The Baseball-Reference Play Index goes back to 1914 and five other times a pitcher topped 11: Pete Alexander in 1916 with 16, all complete game shutouts; Sandy Koufax in 1963, Dean Chance in 1964 and Bob Gibson in 1968, all with 13; and Alexander again in 1915 with 12.)

SportsNation

Which feat is more impressive?

  •  
    51%
  •  
    49%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,228)

Anyway, in a way it's a question of consistent dominance versus dominance mixed in with a few bad or mediocre starts. Which is more valuable? But in evaluating the context of each pitcher's individual performance, you could conceivably factor in things like the strength of the opponent, the park and the pitcher's performance (strikeouts, walks, hits). Bill James actually just had a long series of articles on this where he examined every start of a pitcher's season for each of those areas (plus the run context of the season). Each start was then graded on a scale from 0 to 10. You can then use the data to break down each pitcher's season in total. It would be fun to compare Hernandez and Wainwright, but the numbers aren't publicly available.

Baseball Prospectus used to have a stat called support-neutral win-loss record, which assessed each pitcher's projected win-loss record given his innings and runs for each outing and average run support, but I don't see that on their site. (Felix has won just seven of his 13 starts, no fault of his.)

Interestingly, Hernandez has just two zero-run starts this season. But he's allowed more than four runs just once -- six against Houston on April 21 (and just two of those were earned) -- whereas Wainwright has had games of seven, six and six runs.

For the season, we can use a stat like to WAR evaluate each pitcher's overall performance. Felix leads Wainwright in FanGraphs WAR, 5.5 to 3.5, while Wainwright leads in Baseball-Reference WAR, 5.3 to 5.0. Felix leads in Baseball Prospectus' WARP, 4.0 to 3.3.

So which feat is more impressive? One thing about allowing zero runs: You're almost guaranteed to win the game. And, indeed, the Cardinals are 10-0 in those 10 games.

On the other hand, Felix has a chance to do something no pitcher has ever done -- 14 consecutive great starts.

What do you think? I'd probably give the slight edge to Wainwright's 10 scoreless games ... although the edge to Felix for the better overall season.




Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
5:34
PM ET
We honored some new Hall of Famers on Sunday (Why just one, Braves?), including the unique and powerful Frank Thomas. The Hall also announced that the eligibility period will be decreased, which can hurt some players and could be a mistake. Meanwhile, the Hall of Very Good remembers Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva). Let's recap the best of the week that was here at the SweetSpot Network, as well as the best from our member sites.

Oh, and the trade season is upon us (Jake Peavy to the Giants; Kendrys Morales to the Mariners) and plenty of other chatter as the deadline is fast approaching and the Rays won't lose.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Prado once again finds patience is a virtue: Martin Prado is an unusual contact hitter in that he typically has one of the lowest swing rates in the majors. Jeffrey Bellone checks in on Prado's recent success. Follow on Twitter: @JeffreyBellone.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Who is the real Travis Wood? Noah Eisner takes a look at the performance of Wood compared to what we saw last year. Follow on Twitter: @Noah_Eisner.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The AL Central in 2015: With the White Sox far out of contention, Nick Schaefer looks ahead to how the division race will look next year. You won't believe this: The White Sox team blog is optimistic about their team's future. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Indians' best defender is ... Carlos Santana? Ryan McCrystal evaluates Santana's performance at first base, and how he's evolved into one of the more reliable defensive players on an otherwise shaky defensive squad.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Rockies Zingers first-half highlights: From Doctor Who parodies and Hologram John Denver, to swing mechanics and breaking unwritten rules, Rockies Zingers recaps the analysis and silliness from the first half, with features such as Denver comic Adam Cayton-Holland's experience throwing out the first pitch, Jason Hirsh discussing arm care and Maury Brown's opinion on whether the Rockies should be scared of the Dodgers' payroll. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Appreciating the amazing David Robertson: Katie Sharp breaks down just how dominant D-Rob has been this year in his first season manning the Yankee closer throne. Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Cashman deserves props for recent moves: Brad Vietrogoski examines the recent trades made by the Yankees and gives Brian Cashman credit for bringing in solid-to-very good value without giving up much in return. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Outfield offensive production rather shabby: Cardinals outfielders haven't produced much at the plate, and to make matters worse, they waste chances when they do actually reach base through poor base running. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
New Phil Hughes meets old Danks theory: The Rays continued their winning ways in the second half by using an unconventional lineup against the Twins' Phil Hughes as Tommy Rancel explains. Follow on Twitter: @TRancel.

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.

Cards patch catching hole with Pierzynski

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
3:11
PM ET
With Yadier Molina out until the end of the season, you knew the Cardinals had to do something. Even if he can heal up in time for the back end of September, Molina probably won’t have the benefit of getting any rehab games in against live competition, because the minor leagues will have long since wrapped up their seasons. So the Cards had to make a move, and exploited one fun and obvious fix thanks to the Red Sox’s decision to release A.J. Pierzynski on July 16, signing the veteran for the remainder of the season.

Will Pierzynski meet the Cardinals’ need during Yadi’s absence? I suppose it depends on what you anticipate. AJP has been nothing if not durable, averaging 133 games played over the previous 12 seasons while catching and losing every conceivable popularity contest with opponents, who thus might have more than a little extra reason to take an extra shot at him on plays at the plate or when he’s on the bases. That either speaks to the superb state of sportsmanship in the game, or it might mean that Pierzynski is as reliably nimble as he is ornery, but if you don’t think it’s going to add a little bit of extra tension in those Cardinals-Reds or Cardinals-Brewers games down the stretch, guess again.

But the important thing is that he’s been sturdy and serviceable, and that’s a valuable commodity in itself, but perhaps even more so for catchers. Especially when the alternative is bench jockey Tony Cruz and his career .595 OPS -- whatever else you might say in Cruz’s defense, that’s something you don’t want more of.

As for the bat, Pierzynski will be useful. He may have been handed his walking papers by a Red Sox team deciding that it’s just as well to go young if they’re going to get anything down this season, but he was hitting .282/.319/.400 against right-handed pitching this season, and a team can use that, especially from a left-handed catcher with a long track record for providing some measure of offense. No, he doesn’t walk, but this isn’t a discussion of what he can’t do; he can provide some line-drive pop and a bat from the left side. Let’s not get too upset and look a gift horse in the mouth, just because he isn’t Mike Piazza.

The big question, especially with the Cardinals’ young staff in mind, is whether Pierzynski has a lot left behind the plate, not just at it. His throwing numbers are down again this year (pegging just 19 percent of would-be base stealers), although you can blame some of that on having to catch John Lackey (who’s allowed 15 of 16 stealers to get away with it) and Felix Doubront (a perfect 9-for-9), two guys who don’t do a great job of holding runners close. On this score, the one guy on the Cardinals who might have a problem forming a battery with Pierzynski is probably Shelby Miller, the one guy who’s been slow enough to inspire a number of attempts before Yadi broke down, but we’ll see how it goes in Pierzynski’s debut on Saturday. As for Pierzynski’s receiving skills, using Baseball Prospectus’ measures for evaluating catcher framing, he isn’t great, rating 75th among the 89 men who have caught this year as far as Fielding Runs added by count -- better than Jarrod Saltalamacchia or A.J. Ellis, and about as good (or bad) as Derek Norris. In other words, nothing so epically awful as to deter you from using him, especially when he was a receiver for a lot of young starters with the White Sox.

All in all, a nice pickup, even better because it effectively comes cost-free for the Cardinals. Add in how Pierzynski might help amp up the drama in the NL Central down the stretch, and I like it that much better for what it is: A useful patch to solve a multi-month problem on a contender that can’t afford to let a position add bupkis at bat.


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

Rays' long-odds comeback adds latest win

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
11:54
PM ET


On June 9, the Tampa Bay Rays entered play with a record of 24-40. Earlier that day the team's eccentric manager, Joe Maddon, unleashed Bobby Henry, a Seminole medicine man who throws turtles in the air hoping to anger the gods into making it rain, on Tropicana Field in an effort to chase away the bad vibes. Shortly after Henry was done, the Rays lost to the Seattle Mariners 3-0. They lost the next night too, this time 1-0 to the St. Louis Cardinals. It was their 14th loss in 15 games.


Sitting at 24-42 on June 11, the Rays were 15 games behind in the American League East and 11 games out of the second wild-card slot. That evening they fell behind the Cardinals 3-0 and appeared to be on the fast track to another loss.


Perhaps baseball gods are slower to react than the ones who bring rain, but something awoke the Rays’ bats in the bottom of the fourth inning. The offense put together four runs on four hits and two walks to take the lead. They would add on two more runs en route to a 6-3 victory.


Since then, the Rays have been one of the best teams in baseball, with a 24-11 record since June 11. The run has taken them from the worst team in baseball to 4 1/2 games behind the Seattle Mariners in the wild-card chase. The much-maligned offense has produced the third-best team OPS over the stretch without much in the way of star power. Reigning American League Rookie of the Year Wil Myers has been sidelined with a fractured wrist while their franchise player, Evan Longoria, is having his worst season at the plate. In their stead have been players like Logan Forsythe -- traded for this offseason -- and Kevin Kiermaier, a 31st-round pick in the 2010 draft. The latter has been particularly impressive, hitting .306/.360/.553 in 53 games.


The Rays' pitching staff also has picked it up, holding teams to around three runs a game while striking out more batters than any other club in baseball. David Price, the subject of constant trade rumors, has been the tip of the spear. The ace has allowed just three earned run in 31 2/3 innings this month. Any plans to trade Price and/or Ben Zobrist have been put on hold, at least temporarily.

[+] EnlargeAlex Cobb
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesAlex Cobb's performance on the mound could be a big part of the Rays' second-half comeback.


On Wednesday night, the Rays met the same Cardinals team they faced when they started to turn things around. This time, Tampa Bay entered the game on a six-game winning streak and winners of 15 of their last 18, including a 7-2 victory over St. Louis on Tuesday.

Alex Cobb has been one of the Rays' best pitchers since joining the rotation full-time in 2013, but oddly enough, he has not been much of a factor during the team's resurgence. In his last five starts coming into Wednesday's game, he carried an ERA above 5.00 and was averaging less than six innings per start.


Locking horns with Lance Lynn, Cobb turned a much better performance on Wednesday. He tossed seven shutout innings while scattering five hits and striking out 10 batters without issuing a walk. The 26-year-old used his fastball and curveball to get ahead of the Cardinals' hitters before turning to his off-speed pitch to end plate appearances. The split-change was responsible for 14 of the 20 outs he recorded (a caught stealing was the 21st), including seven of the 10 strikeouts. St. Louis swung at the pitch a combined 33 times and came up empty on 13 of those swings.


Pitching in a National League park, Cobb was afforded the rare opportunity to contribute offensively. With Yunel Escobar on second base in the second inning, the right-handed pitcher lined an RBI double down the right-field line. It was his first career hit and run batted in. It also turned out to be the game winner.


Cobb was hit by a pitch on his right elbow in his second at-bat. After crumbling to the ground in pain and a lengthy check by team trainer Ron Porterfield, he remained in the game. He took the mound in the bottom half of the fourth inning and didn't miss a beat.

Brad Boxberger relieved Cobb in the eighth inning before passing the baton to the club's new-but-not-officially closer Jake McGee. The righty-lefty tandem affectionately known as "Jake in the Box" has become one of the most potent bullpen duos over the past month. No reliever in the AL posted a higher percentage of strikeouts than Boxberger over the past six weeks (47.1 percent); he added two more punchouts Wednesday. Not far behind him is McGee, the owner of a 99 mph fastball that he commands with ease, who struck out the side in the ninth inning to preserve the shutout.


Even with the current run, the Rays' odds of making the playoffs are long. Aside from still being four games under .500, they are in heavy competition for a postseason spot in a crowded middle of the pack with upwards of six teams vying for one of two spots not held by the Oakland A's, Los Angeles Angels or Detroit Tigers.


But after a clean 5-0 road trip to start the second half of the season, Tampa Bay returns home this weekend for a three-game set with a wild-card competitor and division rival: the Boston Red Sox. Although all of the games will be played under the cover of Tropicana Field's roof, perhaps another visit from the rain man is in order.

Tommy Rancel blogs about the Tampa Bay Rays at the SweetSpot network affiliate The Process Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @TRancel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Count on seeing a great battle in NL Central

July, 19, 2014
Jul 19
12:26
AM ET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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