SweetSpot: Tampa Bay Rays

The offseason of fun continued Wednesday night with an 11-player deal between the Padres, Rays and Nationals. Keith Law has his analysis here (he likes the Nationals' end of it), but here are a few more thoughts:

1. You have to give new Padres general manager A.J. Preller credit: He's come into the job swinging for the fences. With a team in such mediocre shape as the Padres, what do you have to lose? First, he gets Matt Kemp (although that deal is awaiting official approval pending Kemp's physical); now he gets Wil Myers. The Padres were last in the majors in runs, hit just .226 and only the Royals and Cardinals hit fewer home runs. So Kemp and Myers will certainly help if they're healthy and combine to hit 50 or so home runs.

The question, however: What is their overall value? Steamer projects Kemp to be worth 2.1 WAR, Myers to be worth 2.4. Those are hardly star numbers, but they would still be an improvement over what the Padres received in 2014, when their entire outfield was valued at 3.9 fWAR (2.6 of that from Seth Smith). Dave Cameron of FanGraphs/Fox posted a piece before the trade detailing some of the issues with Myers: That his good rookie season was the product, in part, of a high BABIP and not big power numbers, and that he wasn't hitting for much power even before his wrist injury in 2014. In other words, there's a good chance that Myers is merely an average hitter who strikes out a little too much and doesn't have the 25- to 30-homer power once projected of him.

Plus, if the Padres plan on running out a regular outfield of Smith in left, Myers in center and Kemp in right ... dear lord, that's going to be ugly.

2. It could lead to a trade for the Padres, who now have a glut of backup outfielders, although when they signed Smith to an extension last summer it came with the promise that he wouldn't be traded. Of course, that was different management regime and Smith's agent didn't actually secure a no-trade clause. The other possibility is to move Smith to first base, a position he's never played in the majors, with Cameron Maybin and Will Venable playing center. Carlos Quentin is also around; he's best suited for DH duties in the American League and considering what players are going for in free agency, his $8 million salary for 2015 (with a $10 million mutual option or $3 million buyout for 2016) isn't prohibitive, even given his usual stint on the disabled list.

3. Clearly, the Rays soured on Myers, whether because of his work habits (Myers has admitted he didn't come into 2014 with the best preparation and frame of mind) or because their metrics suggest he's just not going to be as good as everyone thinks. But they also believe Steven Souza is as good as Myers -- and he may be. He's older than Myers, a late bloomer who crushed the International League in 2014. I like him a lot. Minor league numbers are informative and they suggest he can play. Plus, as Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs points out, Souza is one of just three players that Steamer projects to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases (along with Carlos Gomez and Joc Pederson):
Consider: over the 10-year period between 2004 and -13, 96 players recorded both 20 home runs and also 20 stolen bases in the same season. (Or, that is to say, there were 96 such player-seasons during that interval. Some players were responsible for more than one of them.) The average WAR figure among those player-seasons? 5.0, exactly. The number of those players to record worse than a 2.0 WAR (i.e. an average season)? Just four.


4. While there wasn't room for Souza to start in the Bryce Harper-Denard Span-Jayson Werth outfield, the Nationals do lose what could have been a very valuable bench player. Considering their bench has been a weakness the past two seasons, trading Souza could be an issue given Harper's injuries the past two seasons and Werth's age. The Nationals do have another top outfield prospect in Michael Taylor, who hit .313/.396/.539 at Double-A, but he also struck out 130 times in 98 games there and needs time in Triple-A. Nate McLouth and Kevin Frandsen are around, but both were terrible last season.

5. The Rays did get a nice sleeper prospect in the deal. First baseman Jake Bauers was drafted at 17 and played all of 2014 at age 18 in the Midwest League (one of just two 18-year-olds in the league), more than holding his own with a .296/.376/.414 line when most of his peers were still in high school. Scouts wonder if there's power to develop as he's already physically developed, but he looks like a kid who can swing the bat to me.

6. Keith sort of dismissed Rene Rivera, but he's a Tampa kind of catcher: He excels at pitch framing. He also threw out 36 percent of opposing base stealers. Yes, he's been a backup until earning the first extended playing time of his career in 2014, but he hit .252/.319/.432 in over 300 plate appearances. Maybe that offense was a complete fluke, but Rivera should still be a nice upgrade over Jose Molina, who hit .178 with no home runs (overall, Tampa's catchers had the lowest wOBA in the majors).

In the end, I like the trade for all three teams. Souza is going to be a nice surprise for the Rays, Burch Smith could be a power arm out of the pen and I like Bauers' potential. The Nationals get two good prospects in Trea Turner and Joe Ross. The Padres get, at least, a lineup that fans can start to dream a bit on.
Interesting little trade here: The Angels trade reliever Kevin Jepsen to the Rays for outfielder Matt Joyce, a trade conceived in part with the news that Tampa Bay closer Jake McGee had surgery on his elbow and will start the season on the disabled list.

For the Rays, they add Jepsen, coming off his best year, and also clear Joyce's estimated $5 million salary from their payroll. Joyce's numbers have fallen each season since he made the All-Star team in 2011 with a big first half and he hit .254/.349/.383 in 2014. Still, he posted a .365 OBP against right-handers and general manager Jerry Dipoto suggested Joyce will be the team's primary designated hitter in 2015. More likely, he makes for a good platoon with young slugger C.J. Cron.

But Joyce also serves as an insurance policy for Josh Hamilton. The team lacked another left-handed hitting outfielder behind Hamilton and Kole Calhoun, so if Hamilton is injured, Joyce can move into a left field platoon with Collin Cowgill.

It's a small deal but it adds to the Angels' depth and should help make up for some of the offense lost with the trade of Howie Kendrick.

For Tampa, the McGee injury is big news as the power lefty has posted a 2.61 ERA over the past three seasons, including a 1.89 mark in 2014 in a career-high 71 innings. He had Tommy John surgery while in the minors so while this surgery was arthroscopic, it has to make the Rays more than a little nervous. Minus Joyce, the Rays probably line up with Kevin Kiermaier, Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers in the outfield, with David DeJesus and Brandon Guyer serving as the backups and DHs.

End-of-season Haiku for every team

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7
10:35
AM ET
Congrats to the Giants on their World Series victory. Let's look back at the year on the diamond for all 30 teams, in regular season win total order, through traditional Japanese verse:

ANGELS
Trout league's best player?
Shoemaker pleasant surprise
Yet steamrolled by Royals

ORIOLES
Stoic Showalter
Lost Manny, Matt, Chris but still
Ran away with East

NATIONALS
Fateful decision
In playoffs shouldn't dampen
League's best rotation

DODGERS
The Bison is back
But Clayton couldn't kill Cards
Donnie gets last chance?

CARDINALS
Death of Taveras
Casts pall on terrific year
Still class of Central

TIGERS
Flammable bullpen
Undermined starting pitching
Now replace V-Mart

ROYALS
Who needs walks, homers?
An "abundance" of bunting
Outfield defense ... whoa!

ATHLETICS
Cespedes got dealt
Team's offense dried up with it
Beane's "stuff" didn’t work

GIANTS
Three titles -- five years
Bumgarner otherworldly
Can they keep Panda?

PIRATES
Burning Cole last game
Trying for division tie
Might have cost Play-In

MARINERS
Cano did his thing
Felix, Hisashi duo
Not quite good enough

INDIANS
Kluber conquered all
But rest of staff slogged through year
Michael Brantley ... star!

YANKEES
Jeter’s farewell tour
Now A-Rod longest-tenured
Not your dad's Yankees

BLUE JAYS
All five starters had
Double-digit wins, but four
Had ten-plus losses

BREWERS
Led till late August
Won nine all of September
Lucroy's framing tops

BRAVES
Shutout 16 times
NL's next to last runs scored
Let's just watch Kimbrel

METS
DeGrom great story
Wheeler looked good, stayed healthy
Harvey's back, Big 3!

PADRES
Last in all slash stats
No-hit by Timmy ... again
Front office rebuilt

MARLINS
Stayed competitive
Despite losing Fernandez
Can they sign Stanton?

RAYS
Friedman, Maddon gone
Price dealt for cheaper prospects
Has their window closed?

REDS
Votto hardly seen
But Mesoraco burst out
Cueto stayed healthy

WHITE SOX
Abreu? Real deal
Chris Sale's elbow still attached?
Thank you, Konerko!

CUBS
Top prospects galore
Renteria won't see them
Maddon works magic?

PHILLIES
Vets went untraded
Amaro kept job somehow
Get used to last place

RED SOX
Bradley, Bogaerts ... meh
Buckholz saw ERA triple
Lester will be missed

ASTROS
Altuve a star
If only they could have signed
1st rounder Aiken

TWINS
Hughes K'd 1-8-6
Is that allowed on their staff?
Mauer's bat slumping

RANGERS
Pro-Obamacare
Given multitude of hurts
Washington bowed out

ROCKIES
League-worst ERA
Tulo missed 70 games
Fast start, then crash, burn

DIAMONDBACKS
Gibson, Towers done
Can Hale, Stewart make team rise
Like a phoenix? Eh!

Diane Firstman runs the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
As the offseason speeds ahead into full rumor mill hysteria, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to look at each team’s biggest weakness in 2014 (excluding pitchers). This gives us a start on which positions teams might be most desperate to fill or should be desperate to fill in the upcoming months, although it doesn't include potential holes such as the Giants needing a third baseman if Pablo Sandoval doesn't re-sign or the Dodgers needing a shortstop if Hanley Ramirez departs.

For a quick assessment of value at each position, I used wins below average, via Baseball-Reference.com, which includes both offense and defensive value at the position.

1. Detroit Tigers 3B: 3.7 wins below average

This might surprise you since Nick Castellanos had a solid rookie season at the plate, hitting .259 with 46 extra-base hits. But solid isn't the same as good, as the Tigers ranked 18th in the majors in wOBA at third base. But the biggest liability here was Castellanos' defense: His -30 defensive runs saved ranked worst in the majors -- at any position.

Fix for 2015: It's still Castellanos' job. The Tigers have to hope for improvement in all areas.


2. Houston Astros 3B: 3.5 wins below average

Matt Dominguez started 147 games here, but the Astros ranked last in the majors with a .255 OBP and .252 wOBA at third base as Dominguez hit just .215 with 29 walks. He comes with a better defensive reputation than Castellanos, but grades out about average with the glove. First base wasn't much better for the Astros -- 3.4 wins below average as their first basemen hit .168 (!).

Fix for 2015: Dominguez is just 25, but his sophomore season showed decline instead of improvement. There is no obvious internal fix other than giving Dominguez one more shot. Could the Astros be a dark horse to sign Pablo Sandoval or Chase Headley? If only they had drafted Kris Bryant in 2013 instead of Mark Appel.

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Alex BrandonLooks like the Phillies might be stuck with Ryan Howard again in 2015.
3. Philadelphia Phillies 1B: 3.3 wins below average

No surprise here: Ryan Howard is awful, even if he did drive in 95 runs. He had a .302 wOBA -- the same as Alcides Escobar. The Phillies slugged .392 at first base -- 22nd in the majors -- and backed that up with Howard's poor defense and baserunning.

Fix for 2015: Howard will make $50 million the next two years. No, I can't see a scenario where he gets traded.


4. Cincinnati Reds RF: 3.3 wins below average

If there's an award for Most Disappointing Player of 2014, it probably goes to Jay Bruce, who hit .217 with a .281 OBP and 18 home runs. Bruce had knee surgery in early May, came back quickly and simply never got going. The knee might have played a role as he actually homered just as often on fly balls as in 2013, but his fly ball rate dropped 10 percent.

Fix for 2015: Bruce turns 28 in April, so he's certainly a good bet to bounce back.


5. Tampa Bay Rays C: 3.1 wins below average

The Rays love the defense Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan provide, but it's hard to overcome a .191/.274/.250 batting line.

Fix for 2015: Both are under contract for 2015, and Curt Casali is the only other catcher on the 40-man roster. Molina looks done as a hitter so the Rays are going to need Hanigan to catch more.


6. Atlanta Braves 3B: 3.1 wins below average

Chris Johnson and his .292 OBP and below-average defense helped this position score worst overall, but the Braves also scored lowest in the majors at center field (-2.6 wins) and second base (-2.8 wins).

Fix for 2015: The Braves foolishly signed Johnson to a long-term deal after his BABIP-driven .321 season in 2013. While the salaries aren't prohibitive, the deal also means Johnson probably returns in 2015. Phil Gosselin, who hit .344 without power at Triple-A, might get an opportunity, although he hasn't played much third in his career.


7. St. Louis Cardinals RF: 3.1 wins below average

Cardinals right fielders ranked last in the majors in wOBA.

Fix for 2015: The death of Oscar Taveras means the Cardinals will probably look for a right fielder, as Randal Grichuk isn't primed for full-time duty. They could move Jon Jay back there and give Peter Bourjos more time in center; but considering the Cardinals' lack of power in 2014, look for them to seek a right fielder with some ability to hit the ball over the fence -- maybe Nelson Cruz, if they're willing to take the hit on defense, or maybe Carlos Gonzalez in a trade with the Rockies.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
AP Photo/David GoldmanWhat were the Braves thinking with that long-term deal for Chris Johnson?
8. Cleveland Indians RF: 3.0 wins below average

This was mostly David Murphy, who put up lukewarm numbers at the plate while seeing his defensive metrics slide (-16 defensive runs saved). The Indians also had -2.2 wins from DH (Nick Swisher had the most PAs there with 143), so if they can improve these two positions, they're a good sleeper playoff pick for 2015.

Fix for 2015: Murphy is still under contract, but he's 33; I wouldn't bet on a better year. The DH problem can be solved by just putting Carlos Santana there and maybe there's room in the budget for a first baseman like Adam LaRoche, leaving Swisher to share time in right, first base and DH.


9. Chicago Cubs LF: 2.9 wins below average

Cubs left fielders -- Chris Coghlan had the most playing time out there with 394 PAs -- actually ranked 11th in the majors in wOBA, but they were a collective -19 defensive runs saved.

Fix for 2015: Outfield prospects Billy McKinney and Albert Almora are still two to three years away from the majors, so it could be more Coghlan and Junior Lake unless the Cubs make a trade or sign a veteran free agent.


10. Miami Marlins 1B: 2.9 wins below average

Their first basemen (mostly Garrett Jones) hit .258/.313/.403, putting them 19th in the majors in wOBA, and mixed in below-average defense and a lack of speed.

Fix for 2015: Jeff Baker is still around as a potential platoon mate against LHP. Jones is signed for $5 million; so while LaRoche would also make a nice fit here, that contract might mean the Marlins stick with Jones.


11. Texas Rangers 1B: 2.8 wins below average

Obviously, Prince Fielder's neck injury was the story here as Texas first basemen hit just .216 with 16 home runs.

Fix for 2015: Hope for Fielder's return to health.


12. Chicago White Sox RF: 2.8 wins below average

Avisail Garcia was supposed to be the solution here, but he hurt his shoulder in early April and Dayan Viciedo ended up getting most of the time in right. He combined a below-average OBP with terrible defense.

Fix for 2015: Garcia returned in August and hit .244/.305/.413; he’ll get another shot. He should be an upgrade, but he's another guy who might struggle to post a league-average OBP.


13. San Diego Padres 2B: 2.8 wins below average

Jedd Gyorko would rate right behind Bruce in that most disappointing category. After signing a six-year, $35 million extension in April following his 23-homer rookie season in 2013, Gyorko collapsed and hit .210 with 11 home runs in 111 games, missing time with plantar fasciitis. He went on the DL in early June with reports saying he injured his foot in late May. He wasn't hitting before then, so it's possible he tried to play through the injury or maybe the pressure of the contract got to him or maybe he just didn't hit. Anyway, when he returned in late July, he hit .260/.347/.398 the rest of the way. (Just three home runs, however.)

Fix for 2015: Like Bruce, Gyorko is a good bounce-back candidate.

[+] EnlargeWill Middlebrooks
AP Photo/Chris BernacchiHow much longer can the Red Sox afford to wait on Will Middlebrooks?
14. Los Angeles Dodgers C: 2.7 wins below average

Dodgers catchers hit .181/.283/.261 as A.J. Ellis got on base (.322) but didn't hit otherwise, and the backups were even worse. Dodgers pitchers like throwing to Ellis, but the defensive metrics have never rated him as a good pitch-framer.

Fix for 2015: Speculation suggests the Dodgers could go after free agent Russell Martin.


15. Boston Red Sox 3B: 2.7 wins below average

Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts and Brock Holt got the majority of playing time here and Holt was the best of the three. He isn’t the 2015 solution, however. Overall, Boston's third basemen hit .211 with just 10 home runs.

Fix for 2015: With Bogaerts likely moving back to shortstop and Middlebrooks just about out of chances, the Red Sox could give Garin Cecchini, a career .298 hitter in the minors, a shot, although he has just 21 home runs in four minor league seasons. There are several third basemen out there in free agency: Sandoval, Headley, Hanley Ramirez (if you want to move him off shortstop) and Jed Lowrie (ditto). Seems Boston is likely to go after one of those guys.

OK, we'll do Part 2 of the list on Thursday.
With the news that Jacob deGrom has been shut down by the New York Mets and after watching Yordano Ventura deliver another impressive performance Tuesday night for the Kansas City Royals, it seems like a good time to review the 2014 rookie class. Here's my all-rookie team, based on 2014 performance, not future value.

Catcher: Travis d'Arnaud, Mets (.242/.302/.416, 0.4 WAR)
His overall batting numbers aren't great, but he flashed some of the potential prospect analysts had long seen at the plate, including a .265/.313/.474 line in the second half. More importantly, he stayed relatively healthy, always a problem for him in the minors. The defense is still an issue: His 19 percent caught stealing rate is well below league average -- teammate Anthony Recker was at 41 percent -- and he allowed 12 passed balls and 39 wild pitches, also well above Recker's rates. D'Arnaud is 25, so I'm not sure how much growth there is in him, but if he can match his second-half production over a full season and clean up the defense, he is going to be a solid role player.

Others: Caleb Joseph, Orioles; Christian Vazquez, Red Sox; Christian Bethancourt, Braves; Josmil Pinto, Twins. Joseph has been a huge bonus for the Orioles, filling in for Matt Wieters. Vazquez and Bethancourt are defense-first guys with questionable bats. Pinto allowed 19 steals in 19 attempts and ended up going back to Triple-A for a couple months.

First base: Jose Abreu, White Sox (.316/.382/.582, 5.3 WAR)
Yeah, he can hit big league pitching. Abreu is leading the American League in slugging percentage and ranks sixth in on-base percentage. He's not the MVP of the league -- that's Mike Trout -- but he should finish high in the voting even though he doesn't have much value on defense. Here's one thing I love most about his season: In the first half, Abreu hit .292 with 29 home runs but had an 82-22 strikeout-walk ratio. In the second half, he has hit .352 with six home runs and has a 45-27 strikeout-walk ratio. Should we be concerned about the drop in power? I don't think so. His fly ball rate has dropped about 5 percent from the first half, which could be some fatigue or pitchers just working him a little more carefully, but I like that he has improved his control of the strike zone, showing he's a hitter and not just a slugger.

Others: Jonathan Singleton of the Astros has hit .168 in 356 plate appearances with 133 strikeouts. He walks, has shown power and just turned 23, but .168 is .168.

SportsNation

Which position player would you most want for the next six years?

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    15%
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    20%
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    18%
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    32%
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    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 850)

Second base: Kolten Wong, Cardinals (.252/.295/.396, 2.1 WAR)
The most impressive season, however, may be from Rougned Odor of the Rangers, who has essentially the same batting line as Wong but is three years younger. Wong rates higher due to better defense and baserunning, but Odor is the guy I'd take for the future.

Others: Javier Baez, Cubs; Jonathan Schoop, Orioles; Joe Panik, Giants; Tommy La Stella, Braves. Would you rather have Baez or Odor? Baez is a year older and has hit .164. Odor was rushed to the majors due to all the injuries in Texas with just 62 games above Class A, whereas Baez had 158 games above Class A. Like Baez, Odor is an aggressive swinger at the plate, although with better contact skills. It will be interesting to see how these two develop.

Third base: Nick Castellanos, Tigers (.264/.310/.397, -1.5 WAR)
Wait, negative WAR? That's because he has rated as the worst defensive player in the majors via defensive runs saved, with minus-31. In looking at the numbers from Baseball Info Solutions, Castellanos has been credited with 30 good fielding plays and 37 defensive misplays and errors. The misplays and errors aren't out of line with the best defenders, but the good plays are near the bottom of the list. Josh Donaldson, for example, leads with 75. Castellanos' raw range factor is half a play per game lower than league average. It just looks a guy who doesn't have the range and reaction time to be a good defensive third baseman (not that he can't improve). Anyway, the bat hasn't been anything special, but he's just 22 and has popped 45 extra-base hits.

Others: Yangervis Solarte, Padres; Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks. Lamb should retain rookie eligibility for next season if he sits a couple more games this final week.

Shortstop: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox (.237/.297/.362, 0.3 WAR)
He didn't have the year everyone expected, but he's going to be an excellent player.

Outfield: Billy Hamilton, Reds (.251/.293/.357, 2.5 WAR); George Springer, Astros (.231/.336/,468, 2.0 WAR); Danny Santana, Twins (.314/.351/.469, 3.5 WAR)
Hamilton has plummeted to a .202/.256/.259 line in the second half after showing some surprising pop in the first half. His base stealing hasn't been that electric as he has 56 stolen bases but has a league-leading 23 caught stealings. There have been reports he has had some leg issues, but regardless, he is going to have to improve that percentage and get stronger to get through an entire season. Springer's season was cut short by injury while Santana has been the big surprise as he never hit like this in the minors.

Others: Gregory Polanco, Pirates; Oscar Taveras, Cardinals; Mookie Betts, Red Sox; Arismendy Alcantara, Cubs; Ender Inciarte, Diamondbacks; Kevin Kiermaier, Rays. Those players all used up their rookie eligibility, with mixed results. Inciarte has the highest WAR of any rookie outfielder at 3.6 thanks to a terrific defensive rating.

SP: Collin McHugh, Astros (11-9, 2.73 ERA, 4.3 WAR); Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees (13-4, 2.47 ERA, 4.0 WAR); Yordano Ventura, Royals (14-10, 3.07 ERA, 3.5 WAR); Jacob deGrom, Mets (9-6, 2.63 ERA, 3.0 WAR); Matt Shoemaker, Angels (16-4, 3.04 ERA, 2.3 WAR)
It's an interesting group. McHugh was plucked off waivers from the Rockies; Shoemaker was basically a nonprospect who got a chance due to injuries in the Angels' rotation; deGrom was a second-tier prospect, but nobody expected this; Ventura was a highly rated prospect due to that explosive fastball; and Tanaka, of course, was the prized free agent from Japan. Lesson: Good pitchers can come from anywhere.

Others: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs; Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays; Jake Odorizzi, Rays; Tyler Matzek, Rockies; James Paxton, Mariners; Trevor Bauer, Indians; Shane Greene, Yankees; Roenis Elias, Mariners; Kevin Gausman, Orioles. Many others, of course, but those are some I like.

Reliever: Dellin Betances, Yankees (5-0, 1.40 ERA, 3.7 WAR)
With 135 strikeouts and just 46 hits allowed in 90 innings, he's had maybe the best relief season of any pitcher in the majors -- tied with Wade Davis of the Royals in WAR. With David Robertson a free agent, it will be interesting to see what the Yankees do. Betances is probably more valuable as a 90-inning setup guy than a 70-inning closer.

Overall, I'd rate this rookie class as average in production -- good on the pitching side, weak on the hitting side once you get past Abreu -- but with the potential to be better over the long haul with guys like Bogaerts, Polanco, Taveras, Baez, Odor and Springer having star potential.

My rookies of the year: Jose Abreu and Jacob deGrom.

The Rays' next ace: Alex Cobb

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
7:10
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Alex CobbAP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Rays' Alex Cobb has been among the best pitchers in baseball this month.

To describe Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb’s unusual windup, his pitching coach Jim Hickey has to actually go through the motion as he talks on the phone from his hotel room in Baltimore.

“He has a lot of quirky things going on,” Hickey said with a laugh.

Quirky, but ultimately extremely effective for the repertoire Cobb possesses.

The Tampa Bay starting rotation has jointly teamed to fill the void left by the departure of David Price.

Cobb has come up big almost every time he has taken the ball of late. He’s 9-6 this season, but he is 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA and no home runs allowed in his last seven starts heading into Sunday’s start against the Red Sox. The Rays might be out of the postseason race, but he has the look of someone who is taking his game to a higher level.

Cobb is at or near the top of the list in two notable, important statistics that go hand in hand with his success.

FanGraphs.com tracks a “run value” statistic to measure the effectiveness of the various pitch types. Positive results (strikes and outs) add to the value number. Negative results subtract from it. The more important the game situation, the bigger the reward or debit for each pitch.

Cobb’s changeup, for example, has accumulated 20 runs of value, meaning it is a pitch that has gotten significantly better than average results. The only pitcher with a changeup whose value is greater than Cobb’s is Felix Hernandez (22 runs).

“He can throw the changeup in any count,” said "Baseball Tonight" analyst Eduardo Perez, who had to prep his team for Cobb while coaching the Marlins and Astros. “It’s his go-to pitch. He has the ability to pitch backwards in one start [throwing a lot of changeups early in counts], then in the next start, he pitches off his fastball and keeps hitters off balance.”

Pitchers with elite changeups are hard to hit, and Cobb rates best in another stat -- hard-hit rate. Inside Edge, a video-tracking service that provides data to teams and media, charts every batted ball, rating each as hit soft, medium or hard.

Cobb has the lowest hard-hit rate of anyone with at least 80 innings pitched this season. He has allowed hard-hit balls in only 9 percent of the at-bats against him.

In Cobb’s past three starts, he has allowed a total of one hard-hit ball and passed White Sox ace Chris Sale for the hard-hit rate lead.

Pitching is an evolving process, and Cobb has discovered that what works best for him is different from what works for most other pitchers. His windup includes a pause point midwindup and a leg kick that would be best described as nontraditional.

If he hits his checkpoints (as Hickey referred to them), he’s in good position to throw any one of three pitches (fastball, curveball and the changeup) that have a similar spin.

“Most people do a leg kick where they bend their knee 45-degree angle to third base,” Cobb said earlier this week. “I try to reach to the catcher by squeezing my hip. That’s where the pause comes into play. It’s not to distract the hitter. I just want my arm to catch up to the rest of my body. A lot of people have told me that the pause messes with hitters. That’s just a bonus.”

“When he’s at his highest, he needs to be over the rubber,” Hickey said. “His arm is almost forming a C, it needs to feel like his arm is right over his head.

“That translates into a downhill plane. When he’s doing that regularly, you know he’s going to have a good day. You can usually tell from his first pitch or two in the bullpen.”

But getting to this point of 2014 wasn’t easy.

An oblique injury three starts into the season cost him six weeks and was one of several things that vexed the Rays early on.

When Cobb came back, he had a couple of good starts but also had a few in which he got pummeled, and there was a three-start span in which he lasted five innings in each.

“I hit a stretch where I was lost and I had to learn how to pitch all over again,” Cobb said. “Trying to do that while getting out major league hitters is not easy. At the All-Star break, I sat back, but I was still lost, wasn’t comfortable, was still all over the place, and I felt like I had exerted all the different types of problem-solving to try to fix it.

"I was talking with Hickey and Chris Archer, and they said I was too rotational, that the ball was sailing up and over the plate, rather than at a downward angle. I was playing catch before a game in St. Louis and the first ball I threw, it clicked; I threw seven scoreless innings.

"Besides the results, it was a relief to figure out the mechanics again. Now, I feel comfortable. When I throw, if I miss, I know why I miss. I get instant feedback.”

More often than not, Cobb has been right on. His changeup (which he throws more often than any other starting pitcher in baseball) drops similar to a split-fingered fastball, thanks to a grip that is a hybrid of the two pitches, and averages 87 mph (a drop of only 4-5 mph off his fastball). The amount of break on his curveball ranks among the top five in the game (it’s identical to that of Hernandez).

“If you’re a hitter, you can’t see the spin and say, 'That’s a changeup,'" Hickey said in explaining the success of the pitch. "It’s camouflaged. It really bottoms out. With the curveball, it’s the bite -- it has no hump. It comes out on the same plane as his fastball.”

With the Rays having traded Price and James Shields over the past two seasons, the team is ushering in a new era of pitching in which leadership is a tandem effort.

Cobb, Archer, Jeremy Hellickson and currently injured Matt Moore all have taken on important roles. They’ve welcomed in the new guys -- Jake Odorizzi (obtained in the Shields trade) and Drew Smyly (acquired in the Price deal), both of whom have fit in seamlessly.

“Our group adopted the Shields and Price attitude,” Cobb said. “I don’t think we’ve missed a beat because of what those two guys did when they were here. We knew it would be a tough transition.

"We all came up together," Cobb said of Hellickson, Archer, Moore and himself, "so I think it would be odd if one of us said, ‘I’m the leader of the staff now.’ When we have a new guy like Smyly come in, we collectively help him get comfortable.”

Cobb said that the idea of being an ace is more a tag for fans and media to latch on to. The way he has pitched lately, Cobb might hear more talk of that down the road.

“He has the makeup of a leader of a staff,” said one longtime major league scout. “His stuff and velocity won’t wow you, but his pitchability will. Does he have the stuff of Shields or Price? Not yet. But he has the other intangibles to get to that point. I’m a fan of his. He’s definitely going in the right direction.”
1. A big night in the AL Central.

The Royals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Twins 6-1 ... which came a couple hours after David Price allowed -- not a typo -- nine consecutive hits in the third inning as the Yankees scored eight runs. Most of the hits were not cheapies, either. The inning went:

Single, double, single, double, single, single, single, infield single, single. Four of the hits were ground balls but only two of those were soft. Price became the first pitcher since Bob Forsch in 1989 to allow nine hits in a row. As our friend Jonah Keri tweeted, the Yankees scored more runs that inning than Drew Smyly has allowed in his five starts with Tampa Bay since being traded for Price.

As for the Royals, here's a stat: Before Tuesday, the Twins had lost just two games all season they led heading into the eighth inning. The Royals rallied two nights in a row in the ninth and eighth innings.

2. Speaking of Smyly ... he's good.

You don't want to overreact to five starts, but in those five starts Smyly has allowed just six runs. In beating the Orioles on Wednesday and allowing just two hits in seven innings, he became the second Rays pitcher to pitch at least seven innings and allow two hits or fewer in consecutive starts. Bottom line: For those who think the Rays didn't get enough in return for Price, think again; Smyly is more than just a back-end starter.

We all loved this trade for the Tigers because we overfocused for the Tigers, but it's fair to ask: How much is Dave Dombrowski sweating right now?



3. The Cubs are worth watching down the stretch.

I mentioned Javier Baez in non-pennant race news on Tuesday, and now we discuss Jorge Soler, the dynamic Cuban right fielder who debuted for the Cubs on Wednesday ... and promptly slammed a Mat Latos fastball for a home run in his first at-bat. Soler is the same physical presence as Baez but his minor numbers suggest a swing with a little more control: He struck out 48 times in 200 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A (hitting .340/.432/.700) compared to Baez's 130 K's in 388 at-bats. That's still a high strikeout rate, so he may face the same initial struggles as Baez. Soler's biggest issue has been staying healthy: He had a fractured tibia last year and had injuries to both hamstrings that forced him to miss most of April and May this year. But with 15 home runs in 62 minor-league games, the power potential resembles Baez's.

Now ... let's hope the Cubs call up Kris Bryant. I don't want to hear about service time and all that. He's ready for the big leagues.

4. Eric O'Flaherty, A's closer, for now.

Oakland's first save opportunity since Sean Doolittle went to the former Braves lefty, who has pitched well in limited action for the A's so far. He gave up a run to the Astros but preserved the 5-4 win. (The A's scored three off Chad Qualls in the top of the ninth, with Sam Fuld hitting a tiebreaking two-run homer.)

Also note: Drew Pomeranz, good outing. Pomeranz didn't replace Jason Hammel in the rotation, but was taking a start to give Sonny Gray an extra day of rest. But he pitched well enough if that Bob Melvin may give him another one.

5. Give these guys Gold Gloves.

1. Alex Gordon.
2. Juan Lagares.
3. Andrelton Simmons.

Maybe the three best defensive players in the game.

Watch out for these spoilers

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
1:11
AM ET


Let's take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to discuss some of the teams on the fringes of the playoff races or those that have already made their October reservations at their favorite golf courses.

These teams are usually known as spoilers, but in this Year of Parity it's probable that one of them will actually go into the final week of the season with a chance to win a wild card. These are five teams currently under .500 that I expect to play well down the stretch.

1. Miami Marlins
[+] EnlargeGiancarlo Stanton
AP Photo/Joe SkipperGiancarlo Stanton is a big reason why contenders won't want to face the Marlins down the stretch.

We saw what can make them so dangerous on Tuesday, when they beat Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals 3-0 behind new acquisition Jarred Cosart, who pitched seven innings of three-hit baseball. Cosart has a good arm and throws a hard sinking fastball that generates a lot of ground balls -- when he can throw it for strikes as he did against the Cardinals with just one walk. The Astros were willing to punt on him after he had four straight bad starts in July and some perceived attitude problems that he didn't take well to instruction didn't help. Maybe a change of scenery will help; he's just 24 with 32 career starts now, young enough for things to click.

The Marlins are 59-60, and while they're mediocre, they're a young team incentivized to win and they have one of the No. 1 guys in the game who can beat you, Giancarlo Stanton. Witness Monday night, when his two bombs powered the Marlins to a 6-5 win over the Cardinals. They're just 3.5 games out of the second wild card -- thank you, National League -- so they certainly aren't out of the playoff picture. But until All-Star Henderson Alvarez returns, the rotation is shaky enough that veteran Brad Penny started the other day and won his first game since 2011.

Watch out: Braves (six games remaining) and Nationals (eight games).

2. Tampa Bay Rays

Like the Marlins, they're hanging in there at 5.5 games out of the second wild card, although they'd have to pass five teams to secure that position. Still, even without David Price, this could be a team that reels off nine wins in 10 games and suddenly gets right back in the thick of things.

Guess which team has the allowed the fewest runs per game since the All-Star break? That's why you can't count out the Rays just yet.

Plus, Evan Longoria has a big hot streak in him, right?

Watch out: Yankees (nine games), Blue Jays (nine games), Orioles (seven games).

3. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are out of it, but they've arguably been better than their 51-67 record indicates. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at FanGraphs the other day, the Cubs and Royals have basically the same BaseRuns record. What the heck does that mean? Just more sabermetric gobbledy gook? BaseRuns calculates how many runs a team "should" have scored or allowed, given a team's component statistics. Basically, the difference is that the Royals have been clutch and the Cubs have not.

What's that mean over the final weeks? Clutch isn't viewed in sabermetric circles as a predictable and repeatable skill, so it's possible the Cubs clutch up down the stretch and improve their hitting and pitching with runners on base or in close games or what have you.

Plus, the Cubs have some weapons that can beat you. Kyle Hendricks continues to look good in the rotation, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 3-0 on Tuesday. Anthony Rizzo is a power bat in the middle of the lineup -- he hit his 26th home run -- and young guys such as Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara could be intriguing down the stretch. Jake Arrieta had the one blowup start last week but has otherwise been pitching like a No. 1; you don't want to face him. Plus, we may see Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler called up as well.

Watch out: Brewers (eight games), Cardinals (seven games), Pirates (six games).

4. San Diego Padres

The Padres? The team that hit .171 in June? Yes, the Padres. But they can pitch and have gone 14-8 since the All-Star break. In particular, you don't want to run into Tyson Ross, who hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his past nine starts.

Watch out: Dodgers (nine games), Giants (seven games), Cardinals (four games).

5. Houston Astros

Well, I don't know about the Astros, but Chris Carter can single-handedly beat you with one three-run homer. He homered again on Tuesday and leads the majors with 15 big ones since the beginning of July -- five more than Stanton, the No. 2 guy. With 36 RBIs in 33 games, he has delivered a lot of damage lately. The pitching hasn't been very good of late, but the Astros have played well at times this year. Once George Springer returns to join Carter and Jose Altuve in the lineup, there may be just enough offense here to scare up some wins.

Watch out: A's (six games), Mariners (six games), Angels (five games).

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.
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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    45%

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.


This is the Tampa Bay Rays team I predicted before the season would win the World Series. Oh, they're still missing a few key parts -- Matt Moore is out for the season and Wil Myers is still on the disabled list until mid-August or so after breaking his wrist -- but we're finally seeing the Rays play like the team we've grown to appreciate since 2008.

You know what those teams have been about: starting pitching, defense and enough offense to win 90 games in five of the past six seasons.

For much of the season, the Rays' rotation struggled, beginning with Moore's Tommy John surgery. In early June, the Rays had the worst record in the majors. They were 24-42 on June 10, had lost 14 of 15 and Rays fans must have had visions of Dewon Brazelton and Doug Waechter. On that date, the Rays ranked 22nd in the majors with a 4.10 ERA; the starters ranked 20th with a 4.08 ERA.

Since then, however, the Rays have gone 29-12, including 11 wins in their past 12 games. The pitching staff ranks third in the majors since June 10 with a 2.85 ERA and the starters own a 2.90 ERA, second only to the Padres.

Alex Cobb pitched the latest gem in Tuesday's 5-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers: 8 IP, 3 hits, 1 run, 2 walks, 12 strikeouts, 101 efficient pitches in dominating a solid lineup. Cobb was a key to Tampa's playoff run last year, going 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA, his season interrupted by a concussion after getting hit by a line drive. This year, he missed six weeks with a strained oblique, but in his past two starts (10 strikeouts and no runs in his previous outing) his changeup has been dancing and diving again like 2013.

[+] EnlargeAlex Cobb
Brian Blanco/Getty ImagesAlex Cobb's in-season turnaround has helped the Rays recover their ambitions for this season -- and next.
Against the Brewers, eight of his 12 strikeouts came with his changeup. He threw the pitch 44 times, will throw it on any count and the Brewers went 1-for-9 against it. It dives away from left-handers and in to righties and it's a wipeout pitch -- batters are hitting .167 against it this season.

With Cobb back in a groove, the Rays now feature a rotation of David Price, Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, with Jeremy Hellickson, who has made two starts after missing most of the season, back as the fifth guy. Right now, I'd argue it's as good a group as any in the majors.

And it should remain that way. In other words, the Rays need to keep Price.

I get it. We've been talking about Price getting traded ever since the Rays hit rock bottom. They were 15 games out of first place; we should have been talking about Price being traded. We know how the Rays operate; they have to constantly churn their best players for younger, cheaper players. Price is a free agent after 2015, they won't be able to afford him, so they have to trade him. Or so everyone says.

Then they got hot. Now it's clear: They're in the playoff hunt. When the night began, the FanGraphs/Coolstandings playoffs odds that we also run here at ESPN gave the Rays a 7 percent chance of winning the AL East and a 14.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. Those aren't great odds, but those odds are good enough to warrant keeping Price and giving your team a chance. In 1914, we had the Miracle Boston Braves, who went from last place on July 18 to a World Series title. In 2014, why not the Miracle Tampa Bay Rays?

I'd even suggest this: Keep Price -- and Ben Zobrist, another free agent after 2015 -- for next season as well. I think of it this way: What gives the Rays the best chance of winning a World Series this year and next? A team with two of their three best players or a team without two of their three best players? Pretty obvious.

"But the future."

To which I say: Worry about the future when the future arrives. Plus, the Rays are kind of in a unique situation anyway. It's not as if winning 90 games every season has driven their attendance to new levels; they're last in the majors in average attendance this year, they were last in 2013 and they were last in 2012. The Rays don't depend on winning for revenue as much as they rely on revenue sharing, which will come whether the team is good or bad.

The perpetual churn is necessary to keep winning and Joe Maddon and the front office have the pride to stay competitive every year, but does the turnover give the Rays the best chance at winning? Not in 2014 and not in 2015. Plus, there's no guarantee a Price trade will work out or that the Rays won't fall apart in three years regardless of what happens to Price.

It reminds me of when the Twins traded Johan Santana when he had one year left before free agency. That trade ended up not helping the Twins, and in 2008, minus Santana, they lost the AL Central to the White Sox in a tiebreaker game. If they had kept Santana, they probably would've won the division and maybe would have ridden Santana to a World Series title.

The Rays can do that with Price and the other young pitchers behind him in the rotation. Go for it. Try to win now. Imagine that.
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.

Uncertain future for both Price and Lester

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
12:01
AM ET

The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays entered the opener of their three-game series Friday night at Tropicana Field with similar stories: season-long struggles along with questions about how to handle the contracts of their ace starting pitchers.

Boston's honeymoon with its third World Series triumph in 10 seasons quickly waned as they coped with replacing Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew (he re-signed with the Red Sox in late May), as well as dealing with the oft-injured Shane Victorino. Xander Bogaerts (.665 OPS) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (.622) have each experienced growing pains in their first full seasons. The offense, as a whole, has been wretched for most of the year, batting a collective .248 with only 79 homers before Friday (both figures 12th best in the American League).

On the mound, the Red Sox's rotation has been wildly uneven as Jake Peavy has seen a return of his gopheritis (AL-worst 20 homers allowed) and Clay Buchholz has yielded nearly 11 hits per nine innings. However, John Lackey has continued his career revival with a 3.47 FIP (his lowest since 2005) and Rubby De La Rosa has shown flashes of promise. Staff ace Jon Lester entered Friday's game with a career-high 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a .238 opponents' batting average and a .638 opponents' OPS.

But Lester is also in the final season of a six-year, $43 million deal, and talks regarding a new contract have now been set aside until the end of the season, at Lester’s request. While he appears willing (and wanting) to remain with the Red Sox, even with a small "hometown discount," the Red Sox's reported four-year, $70 million offer in spring training was likely far lower than what Lester had in mind. So now, with Boston having lost three of four to the Toronto Blue Jays, the Sox sat at 47-55, 6½ games out of the second wild card and 9½ games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles. Their playoff odds were at 2.4 percent as of Friday. As such, Lester could be entering the final two months of his Red Sox career, or he might even be traded by the July 31 trade deadline.

On the other side of the field, the Rays came off their fourth consecutive 90-win season with reason for optimism. They'd have a full season of Wil Myers to build on his .831 OPS. Matt Moore, off a 150-inning campaign, would have his innings cap loosened. They would count on growth from Chris Archer, who acquitted himself well over 23 starts, finishing third in the AL rookie of the year vote. Evan Longoria would be his usual self. The division certainly appeared winnable.

However, Longoria has posted a career-low .396 slugging percentage and .728 OPS to this point in 2014. Myers was hitting only .227 when he landed on the disabled list in early June with a wrist fracture. Moore succumbed to Tommy John surgery in April, and Alex Cobb spent the first six weeks of the season out with a side injury. Jeremy Hellickson had elbow surgery in January and just made it back to Tampa three weeks ago. The catchers were hitting a combined .200 (68-for-340) with only 13 extra-base hits for the season. The team hit its nadir June 10 at 24-42 and 15 games out of first place.

It was looking more and more likely that David Price, due for perhaps a $20 million arbitration salary in 2015 before hitting free agency that November, would be dealt sooner rather than later. If so, it would be a bitter pill for Rays fans, as Price is having perhaps his best season ever (career bests of 1.04 WHIP, 8.2 strikeout-to-walk rate, 10 K's and 1.2 walks per nine innings, 3.01 FIP).

Then, the Rays righted themselves and won 25 of their next 36, leaving them at 49-53 and only 4½ games out of the second wild card. Their playoff odds were still only 10.2 percent, but given their track record -- and the mediocrity of the division -- who would count them out? As a result, seemingly the most tradable front-line starter on the market might be staying put a while longer … or Friday night might still possibly be his last start in a Rays uniform.

If it was to be each ace's last start for his respective club, each left a terrific impression on the 23,136 fans in attendance, as well as scouts from no less than 17 teams (as reported by Gordon Edes early in the evening). The Rays went on to beat the Red Sox 6-4 as Price was the crisper and more efficient of the two, mixing fastballs from 92 to 95 miles per hour with changeups and curves that nipped the corners all night long. He did make a mistake in the second inning, leaving a pitch over the plate for Victorino to knock into the left-field stands for only his second homer of the season. Aside from that, he breezed through the first five innings in 60 pitches, yielding only three hits while striking out six without a walk.

Lester nursed that slim lead through four innings before getting touched for a two-run homer by Desmond Jennings with two outs in the fifth. He yielded a single and a walk after that but got Longoria to fly out to left field to escape further damage. He needed 35 pitches to get through the inning, bringing him to 98 on the night.

The Sox got to Price for two runs in the sixth on a double and three singles, but he managed to retire Bogaerts on a fly ball to center with runners on the corners to keep the deficit at one. After Lester finished the sixth at 110 pitches and with a 3-2 lead, Red Sox manager John Farrell turned to the pen. Andrew Miller hit Jose Molina with a pitch to start the seventh, then struck out Logan Forsythe. Miller was relieved by Junichi Tazawa, who hadn't pitched since Sunday. Tazawa faced six batters. The first four of those went walk, run-scoring single, walk, bases-clearing double by Longoria. So much for the pitchers' duel.

Price thus took the mound in the eighth with a 6-3 lead and capped off his final inning of work with the last two of his 10 strikeouts on the night. In all, he threw 114 pitches, 80 of which were strikes. This was his 12th straight outing of seven or more innings, and he's pitched to a 1.07 ERA in his past eight games.

It now seems rather unlikely the Rays will part with Price before next Thursday's deadline. While their offense isn't a juggernaut, the pitching has been good enough, and they're starting to get some of their walking wounded back. The Orioles might still lead the division, but their remaining schedule is tough (only 13 games against sub-.500 teams). Hence, the AL East is still within reach for the Rays, and if they don't win the division, they'd be a tough out in the wild-card play-in game.

As for the Red Sox, their climb back to relevancy in the playoff race seems to have petered out. The bullpen has been shaky (their collective .700 OPS is eighth worst in the majors) and the offense just isn't steady enough, even with the return of Victorino. If a playoff contender asks about Lester, and the Sox feel unwilling to commit to "near-market value" on him long term, the Sox might just listen, and retool for 2015.

Diane Firstman writes the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

Rays focused on winning, not deadline

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
3:55
PM ET

ST. LOUIS -- Even with all the trade rumors surrounding David Price, Rays manager Joe Maddon hasn’t pulled Price aside to talk to him about how he should handle the approaching trade deadline.

“I’m really not into that stuff,” said Maddon. “I could only probably hurt that, whatever they are thinking. Furthermore, I’m not the GM. So anytime I’m speaking like that, I’m speaking for a GM, which I’m not that guy.”

The Rays' left-hander (10-7, 3.06) has been the center of trade talks for the past month. With the July 31 trade deadline a week away, Maddon said that instead of getting caught up in all the trade discussion, he’s preparing for each game like it is September baseball.

“Honestly, if you don’t attack it one day at a time, you can get into a lot of trouble,” Maddon said.

Tampa Bay's 3-0 win against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch stadium on Wednesday night marks the team's seventh straight win, matching a seven-game streak in September 2013. If the Rays believe they have a chance to get to the postseason, the landscape of the trade deadline could change.

This is where Maddon’s experience, personality and management style benefit the Rays, because when it comes to a team finding its way into the postseason, he has seen it all.

“I was involved in two really weird moments,” Maddon said.

In 1995 Maddon was the first-base coach for the Angels. On Aug. 1, 1995, the Angels had an 11-game lead in the American League West. What followed was the biggest September collapse in major league history, and the Angels ended up losing a one-game playoff against the Mariners.

“That’s wild,” Maddon recalled about the 1995 season. “A few years ago, [the Rays] were down by nine [games back] and then get there. So I’ve seen it from both sides.”

This year, however, Maddon said the Rays got “into such a horrible hole” early in the season. On June 10, the Rays were 24-42 and last in the AL East.

“It was really weird to watch because we weren’t playing well,” said Maddon, who has managed the Rays to four postseason appearances in eight seasons. “Things were just constantly working against us. We couldn’t hit, we couldn’t make a pitch, our defense wasn’t [good], and everything was just not normal. Why? I have no idea. I can’t say much other than the fact that it is called baseball.”

Then, all of a sudden, Maddon said the team started turning it around and playing better.

“We started playing a more familiar game; hitters started to click, the guys got their swagger back,” Maddon said. “There’s a lot of time left, man. A lot of time.”

What the Rays need most is time. Because being 7.5 games back in the AL East isn’t as big of a challenge as being behind three teams: the Orioles, Yankees and Blue Jays.

A key to how the Rays' season plays out is Price. What can the 28-year-old hurler do, besides not being traded, to help the Rays get into the postseason?

“Everybody needs to continue to do what [they've] been doing,” said Price, who has a 1.72 ERA in his last 10 starts. “Nobody needs to change a thing."

Maddon says Price is a much more mature pitcher right now; he’s pitching better than ever, and he is a big factor in why the Rays' pitching staff has allowed the second-fewest runs (411) in the AL East. Since the Rays' winning streak began on July 12, their pitching staff leads the majors with a 1.33 ERA.

“The difference is he knows what he has and he’s utilizing it better,” Maddon said about the change in Price. “He’s a better pitcher. He’s more self-aware. He knows what he’s got and how to utilize it.”

If the Rays keep winning, they might play their way into making a trade impossible for executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. The remaining schedule provides lots of room for hope. From Aug. 26 to Sept. 17, the Rays have 26 straight games against AL East opponents.

Is a trade now impossible? “My job is only to look at one side of it, and I’m paid to win,” Maddon said. “The bigger picture for me is October, it’s not 2015. So I really -- again, we’ve talked about this -- it’s my job to do my job only.”

Maddon wants the players to do their jobs, and the front office members to do theirs, and he will do his.

“What you are saying is true,” Maddon acknowledged to the media, though. “The more we win, [there is] less probability of a trade occurring.”

Instead of being sellers, maybe the Rays have turned into buyers at the trade deadline.

“I like our team,” Maddon said, recognizing that when David DeJesus, Ryan Hanigan and Wil Myers come off the disabled list, along with the young talent they already have, the Rays will be much stronger. “I’m forced to say the same thing every year at this time: I like our names.

“We have plenty to get this done with what we have on the field. We just have to get everybody playing to their abilities. I think sometimes, people are fooled by all that, having to go out and get something at the trade deadline in order to make them a contender. Sometimes, you’ve got the answers from within and just aren’t getting people the proper opportunity. So we gave our guys opportunity; that’s what we have to do. So I’m here to tell you, man, with the guys we have here, I’m plenty happy.”

Even more than being happy about the makeup of the team, Maddon, who has managed more than half the games in Rays’ history, likes how the team has turned things around.

“Everybody knows I think we can do this,” Maddon said. “I’ve been saying that for a while. I believe we can do this. I really do. I’m not just trying to make it a feel-good story. We can do this. We’ve come from a lot farther back. … So why not us? We’ve done a lot of firsts around here. Why can’t we do another one this year? I firmly believe we are in this, and everybody in our front office knows how I feel. I’m more optimistic than ever right now.”

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