SweetSpot: Tampa Bay Rays

And we're off! Spring training is here, pitchers and catchers will be doing pitching and catching kind of activities, and we're all breathlessly waiting to see who has reported in the best shape of his life.

One of my favorite things to do on the first day of spring training is see which players not on a 40-man roster have been invited to spring training. This includes a team's top prospects, some extra catchers to help with the catching activities, veterans on their last gasp, guys returning from injuries, and maybe another player or two who actually has a chance at making the team.

Let's look at some of the interesting non-roster names, starting with the American League East.

OriolesBaltimore Orioles

Mark Hendrickson is 40 years old, last pitched in the majors in 2011, and has a 5.03 career ERA. So why is here? He's become a sidearmer and posted a 1.54 ERA in 52.2 innings in the Atlantic League in 2014. ... J.P. Arencibia hit .189 over the past two seasons and draws a walk about once every full moon. Even if Matt Wieters can't catch at the start of the season, the O's have Caleb Joseph and Steve Clevenger, so Arencibia probably won't make the team (O's fans should hope not). But he'll probably pop up somewhere in the majors at some point because that's what catchers do. ... Nolan Reimold and Chris Parmelee were once prospects, or prospects who were once supposed to be something. I don't see room for them on the 25-man roster, but they could be good Triple-A fodder.

Red SoxBoston Red Sox

Some fun names here. Remember Bryan LaHair, an All-Star for the Cubs in 2012 when he hit a few home runs in April? He played in Japan in 2013 and in the minors last year. ... Jemile Weeks hit .303 as a rookie for the A's in 2011 and then stopped hitting. He did post a .392 OBP in Triple-A last year, but there's already a crowded picture here for position players. ... Mitchell Boggs had some decent seasons in relief for the Cardinals before getting injured, but he's way down the bullpen depth chart. ... The two to watch closely are minor league lefties Henry Owens and Brian Johnson; each has a good chance of surfacing in the majors at some point.

YankeesNew York Yankees

The Yankees primarily stayed away from the retread veteran route, although Scott Baker (5.47 ERA for the Rangers) provides some insurance rotation. ... Lefty reliever Jacob Lindgren, a second-round pick last June out of Mississippi State, could crack the bullpen -- thanks to his power stuff, which produced 48 strikeouts in 24.2 minor league innings. ... Andrew Bailey was a two-time All-Star. We last saw him in the majors with Boston in 2013.

RaysTampa Bay Rays

Juan Francisco hit 16 home runs with the Blue Jays in a part-time role in 2014, but his best position is DH and the Rays traded for John Jaso to fill the left-handed platoon side there. ... Outfielder Boog Powell -- no relation to the former Oriole -- is worth mentioning just to get his name listed here. He came over from the A's and hit .343/.451/.435 in Class A but has no power and was just 16-for-31 as a base stealer, so I'm not sure if he's fast either. ... Brandon Gomes or Ronald Belisario could earn a spot in the bullpen.

Blue JaysToronto Blue Jays

Ramon Santiago, Andy Dirks, Ezequiel Carrera: It's like a Detroit Tigers reunion. Dirks or Carrera could make the squad, as the Jays list just four outfielders on their 40-man roster and there's always the chance they could send Dalton Pompey to Triple-A to start the season. ... Fan favorite Munenori Kawasaki is back to battle for the utility infielder slot. ... Daric Barton will always have that year (2010) when he led the AL in walks. ... Devon Travis came over from the Tigers and could be the regular second baseman by midseason. ... Veteran lefty Jeff Francis keeps getting chances but hasn't had an ERA under 4.80 since 2007.

Pitchers helped by new catchers

February, 18, 2015
Feb 18
12:50
PM ET
Everybody's talking about pitch framing these days. Last week on Grantland, Ben Lindbergh had an interesting piece on the art of framing that detailed his internship with the Yankees several years ago and the internal discussion of catching Jorge Posada versus Jose Molina. Posada was a poor receiver, Molina a superb one. Ben also discussed framing with Tigers manager Brad Ausmus -- one of the best in his days -- and pointed out that while statistical analysts at the time criticized Ausmus for continuing to get playing time despite his poor bat, we now have tools that can better estimate the value of a good pitch-framing catcher.

Those studies examine pitch data and location to arrive at a runs saved value. For example, the researchers will assign a value for framing a 1-1 pitch that would normally be called a ball. Hitters have dramatically different expected results based on a 2-1 count versus a 1-2 count. Multiply those various scenarios times thousands of pitches received over a full season for a full-time catcher and you can arrive at an estimated total of runs saved.

There is some disagreement on how many runs are actually saved, with the high being about 40 runs over a season for the best framers. Others argue that it's not that high. Certainly, major league teams aren't paying huge dollars yet for catchers who can frame at that level, otherwise Russell Martin may have received a $164 million contract instead of $82 million and Jonathan Lucroy would be in line to become the game's highest-paid player.

But teams with an analytical bent are certainly making decisions based on a catcher's ability to frame pitchers. Look at the offseason moves from some of the teams most recognized for front offices that emphasize analytics:

Dodgers: Acquired Yasmani Grandal, a better framer than A.J. Ellis.

Cubs: Acquired Miguel Montero, who led the majors in runs saved in 2014 via framing, according to StatCorner.com, which has the only publicly available rating of framing that I'm aware of. He replaces Welington Castillo, who rated second worst in the majors. Signed David Ross as well.

Astros: Acquired Hank Conger, who rated the best on a per-game basis.

Rays: With Molina out of the picture, they traded Ryan Hanigan (generally regarded as an above-average framer) but acquired Rene Rivera, who ranked fifth overall on StatCorner's list for 2014.

Pirates: They lost Martin as a free agent but quickly traded for Francisco Cervelli, who has rated well.

It's no coincidence these teams went after these catchers. They regard framing as an important skill. (This isn't anything new, of course; there's a reason a guy like Ausmus played forever. Teams have always emphasized good defensive catchers, much more than the analysts did. In a sense, the analysts are only now catching up to the old-school beliefs, albeit with an attempt to accurately assess the value of framing.)

With that in mind, let's look at some pitchers who may benefit from a new catcher.

Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays: Martin replaces Dioner Navarro, who did not rate well in 2014, as the Jays' starter. Hutchison tends to throw his fastball up in the zone, but Martin could really help his slider on that low outside corner against right-handed batter. Stroman already displayed pretty good command as a rookie; he's a good bet to have a good sophomore season as Martin gets him a few more called strikes.

Jon Lester, Cubs: Well, all Cubs pitchers. Lester changed his approach a bit last year -- more cutters, fewer changeups -- but also wasn't pitching to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who usually rates poorly as a framer. Expect another strong season from him with help from Montero. Ditto for Jake Arrieta.

Zack Greinke, Dodgers: Greinke doesn't walk many batters, but his rate of called strikes on takes was actually less than the MLB average -- which is a little surprising given his command. That could be by design but Grandal should be an asset here for Greinke and ... well, it's scary to think Clayton Kershaw can get much better.

Rick Porcello, Tigers: He goes from Alex Avila, who didn't rate well in 2014 (although was better in 2013), to Christian Vazquez, who rated well in a smaller sample size as a rookie, and Hanigan.

Brad Peacock, Astros: Jason Castro actually rated decently last year, although not as well in the past. If Conger ends up catching regularly, it could help Peacock curb some of his control issues (4.8 walks per nine), as well as help Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh maintain their 2014 breakout performances.

J.A. Happ, Mariners: He moves from Navarro to Mike Zunino, No. 2 on StatCorner's list for 2014.

Mind you, these gains may not be huge. If a good catching tandem saves 40 runs at the max level, a 200-inning pitcher may only be getting five or six runs "saved" per year. But every little bit counts and maybe there are ripple effects (more confidence to throw a particular pitch, for example) that can't be measured.
Drew SmylyJohn E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SportsDrew Smyly, 25, had a 1.70 ERA in seven starts for the Rays last season.
Who is this year's Corey Kluber, the pitcher who kind of comes out of nowhere to win the Cy Young Award or at least enter the discussion?

I give you Drew Smyly.

Smyly isn't quite the anonymous pitcher Kluber was entering 2014. He reached the majors with the Tigers in 2012 and pitched pretty well as a rookie starter (3.99 ERA, 94 strikeouts in 99 1/3 innings), and then he had an excellent year in relief in 2013. Moved back to the rotation in 2014, he was good but not great with Detroit (3.93 ERA) and then traded to Tampa Bay as part of the David Price deal.

In Tampa, everything came together for the young left-hander. In seven starts with the Rays, he posted a 1.70 ERA with 44 strikeouts, 11 walks and just 25 hits allowed in 47 2/3 innings. He was shut down in early September, having pitched a career-high 153 innings. Was this just a hot streak or a real change in performance, similar to Kluber posting a 2.63 ERA over nine starts down the stretch in 2013?

Based on Smyly's splits with Detroit and Tampa Bay, it looks kind of like a batting average on balls in play issue, which is often attributed to good fortune:

Detroit: 20.0% K rate, 7.0% BB rate, .313 BABIP
Tampa Bay: 25.4% K rate, 6.4% BB rate, .186 BABIP

His strikeout rate did increase, but his hit rate was insane. No starter allows a .186 BABIP over more than a few starts, let alone a full season. So just a small-sample fluke, right?

Not necessarily. A few days ago, I came across this article by Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs, talking about how the Rays like pitchers who throw high fastballs. Jeff wrote that 14 of the 17 pitchers on the Tampa Bay depth chart throw four-seam fastballs with more vertical movement than average -- aka a "rising" fastball.

I looked up Smyly's fastballs before and after the trade (as it turns out, Jeff and others had written about this in September, so I'm behind the curve). Sure enough, he threw more high fastballs with the Rays. Here are his heat maps:

Drew SmylyESPN
Drew SmylyESPN
The red areas are similar but not the same. At ESPN, we chart pitch location as up, middle or down. Here are his fastball locations (Smyly throws a four-seamer almost exclusively) with Detroit and Tampa Bay:

Detroit
Up: 34.1 percent
Middle: 34.1 percent
Down: 31.7 percent

Tampa Bay
Up: 52.1 percent
Middle: 33.2 percent
Down: 14.6 percent

More high fastballs, fewer low fastballs. With the Tigers, opponents hit .296/.363/.436 against his fastball and right-handed batters hit .331. With the Rays, opponents hit .194/.247/.333 against his fastball and right-handed batters hit .222. There was a fundamental change in approach, and it worked. Smyly has always crushed lefties (.192 average allowed), so if the improvement against right-handed batters is real, he can take his game to the next level.

Are high fastballs a new market inefficiency? Pitchers today are trained to keep the ball at the bottom of the strike zone -- not only is the bottom of the strike zone increasing in size but those pitches are harder to elevate -- but batters actually hit worse against high fastballs. Data from 2014:

Up: .216/.331/.344
Middle: .299/.322/.474
Down: .283/.387/.409

Throwing up in the zone results in fewer hits (fly balls are outs more often than ground balls) and more strikeouts. The isolated power figures were nearly identical as well (.128 on high fastballs, .127 on low fastballs). Of course, this can be a little misleading. Pitchers with better velocity are going to be more willing to throw up in the zone, and pitchers who throw harder tend to be better pitchers.

As Jeff wrote, this is the Tampa Bay philosophy. As a team, the Rays led the majors with 39.2 percent of their fastballs up in the zone. And the Rays usually have good pitching, so this philosophy seems to be working.

The interesting thing about Smyly is that he doesn't throw exceptionally hard. His average fastball velocity was 89.8 mph, ranking 117th out of 148 pitchers with at least 100 innings.

I'm not suggesting Smyly is going to post a sub-2.00 ERA. He certainly had some good luck with his hits allowed. Maybe hitters will figure out that he has changed his approach and start looking for more high fastballs. But the early indicators are that the new approach has made Smyly a better pitcher. If you want a good pickup for your fantasy team, he's your guy.
video

It's the second day of our pre-spring training power rankings. Did I mention that parity makes it really difficult to do these rankings with a high degree of confidence? I did? OK, let's move on and say this about this group of teams: All of these teams have playoff potential; I think they're all significantly stronger than Monday's six teams (Nos. 30-25). But all of them have what I believe will be a fatal flaw.

So read on, debate, argue and be glad you're not shoveling snow at the moment.

Team rankings: Nos. 30-25

Reds24. Cincinnati Reds

Big offseason moves: Acquired OF Marlon Byrd from the Phillies for RHP Ben Lively; traded RHP Mat Latos to the Marlins for RHP Anthony DeSclafani; traded RHP Alfredo Simon to the Tigers for SS Eugenio Suarez and RHP Jonathan Crawford; signed LHP Paul Maholm; signed RHP Burke Badenhop; signed C Devin Mesoraco to a four-year, $28 million extension.

Most intriguing player: Johnny Cueto had a monster 2014, going 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA while leading the National League in innings and strikeouts and the majors in lowest opponents' batting average. But the right-hander, 29 later this month, is a free agent after 2015 and if the Reds don't sign him he becomes possible trade bait during the season depending on the Reds' status in the pennant race.

Due for a better year: Jay Bruce had knee surgery in early May, returned less than three weeks later and proceeded to hit .217/.281/.373. His value declined from 4.9 WAR to minus-1.1 WAR. The knee was presumably a factor as his fly ball rate dropped 10 percent from the year before, resulting in a big power decline. But keep in mind that the 2013 WAR figure was a career high, propped up by a high defensive rating that he has otherwise not matched in recent seasons.

Due for a worse year: The Reds traded Simon, the converted reliever who had a big first half and made the All-Star team and then predictably declined in the second half. He would have been the easy choice here, but let's go with catcher Mesoraco, who had a breakout season as he slugged .534. The list of catchers who have had a season at the plate at his level is short and odds are we see some regression.

SportsNation

How many games do the Reds win?

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    18%
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    32%
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    28%
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    14%
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    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 11,961)

I'm just the messenger: It's easy to envision how the Reds climb back into the NL Central race: Bruce bounces back, Joey Votto stays healthy and returns to being one of baseball's premier hitters, Byrd adds better production to left field, Billy Hamilton improves at the plate, Cueto comes close to his 2014 numbers and Homer Bailey makes 34 starts instead of 23. That could all happen and maybe we see a fun season in Cincy as the Reds host the All-Star Game and then make it to the postseason. But that's a lot of ifs. For every guy who may improve, there's a Cueto, Mesoraco or Todd Frazier who may decline a bit. And while trading Simon was a good idea, you still have to replace the 15 wins and 196 innings he provided last season.

The final word: The Reds have two major issues: rotation depth and getting on base. Only the two biggest keys to winning baseball games. Outside of Votto, nobody on this team draws many walks; the Reds were 13th in the NL in walks and 14th in on-base percentage. Certainly, getting 150 games from Votto will help but they still have too many low-OBP guys such as Hamilton, Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart to run out a consistent offense. If Mesoraco and Frazier decline, the offense will still be one of the worst in the league. The rotation is now reliant on a comeback season from Tony Cingrani and a fifth starter to emerge from a group of mediocre candidates -- and that's aside from Cueto and Bailey both staying healthy.

Prediction: 75-87


White Sox23. Chicago White Sox

Big offseason moves: Acquired RHP Jeff Samardzija from the A's for IF Marcus Semien, C Josh Phegley and two others; signed OF Melky Cabrera; signed 1B/DH Adam LaRoche; signed RHP David Robertson; signed LHP Zach Duke; released OF Dayan Viciedo; signed 2B Gordon Beckham.

Most intriguing player: Jose Abreu exceeded expectations by hitting .317 with 36 home runs, leading the AL in slugging percentage and finishing fourth in the MVP voting. What will he do for an encore? The ZiPS projection has him at .292/.371/.544.

Due for a better year: Right fielder Avisail Garcia played just 46 games with the White Sox after he tore his labrum early in the season. I'm not sure he's much better than the .244/.305/.413 line from 2014, but he'll get a chance to play every day and, considering he doesn't turn 24 until June, is young enough to make a leap forward.

Due for a worse year: Abreu is an obvious candidate, especially after his power declined dramatically in the second half, but some of that was a fatigue factor in his first season in the majors. I wouldn't bet against him. LaRoche is coming off a good season with the Nationals, hitting 26 home runs and drawing 82 walks, but he's 35, moving to a new league and wasn't as good in 2013.

I'm just the messenger: I feel like I'm raining a bit on the parade here as the White Sox had an intriguing offseason in making five major acquisitions without giving up any significant contributors from the 2014 squad. They've fortified a shaky bullpen with Robertson and Duke, who changed his slot and had a big season with the Brewers. Samardzija gives them a strong 1-2-3 with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Still ... there are holes at catcher, third base, second base and the back of the rotation with John Danks and Hector Noesi; I see OBP issues in the lineup and rotation issues unless rookie Carlos Rodon, the third pick in last June's draft, is ready for a quick rise to the majors.

The final word: There are a lot of things to like here, especially if Sale can stay healthy and post another Cy Young-caliber season. Maybe somebody emerges from the second base candidates to have a good season. Maybe Tyler Flowers surprises and has a good season. Maybe Noesi puts everything together and wins 14 games. I'm taking the under .500 due to what I perceive as a lack of quality depth on the back end of the roster. But it wouldn't shock me if everything came together and the White Sox won 90 games.

Prediction: 77-85

Brewers22. Milwaukee Brewers

Big offseason moves: Traded RHP Yovani Gallardo to the Rangers for SS Luis Sardinas, RHP Corey Knebel and RHP Marcos Diplan; acquired 1B Adam Lind from the Blue Jays for RHP Marco Estrada; signed LHP Neal Cotts; lost LHP Zach Duke, RHP Francisco Rodriguez and 1B/3B Mark Reynolds to free agency; Bernie Brewer engaged in offseason fight with Los Angeles Kings mascot Bailey to see who could get the most Twitter followers. Yes, it was a slow offseason for the most part.

Most intriguing player: After battling a thumb injury in 2013 and 2014, plus a PED suspension in 2013, Ryan Braun had surgery in late September to help deaden the nerves around his thumb, which should help him grip the bat without pain. The Brewers are hopeful the surgery worked but until Braun starts playing every day in spring training, we won't know for sure.

Due for a better year: Besides Braun, shortstop Jean Segura has too much ability to hit .246/.289/.326 again, a line that included just 25 extra-base hits in 513 at-bats. If Segura doesn't return to his first-half form of 2013, Sardinas is a defensive whiz who could end up stealing playing time as the Brewers await for the arrival of top prospect Orlando Arcia.

Due for a worse year: If the Brewers had hung on to win the NL Central, Jonathan Lucroy may have won MVP honors. He finished fourth in the voting after hitting .301 with a league-leading 53 doubles, nearly as many walks as strikeouts, all while playing 153 games, 133 as the starting catcher. His OPS fell from .879 in the first half to .780, which you can credit to a hot first half or second-half fatigue. Either way, it's asking a lot for him to put up another 6.7-WAR season.

I'm just the messenger: The Brewers led the division for 150 days in 2014 before collapsing in September with a 9-17 record and finishing eight games behind the Cardinals. Overall, the Brewers faded to 29-37 in the second half primarily due to the cratering of the offense, which scored just 3.4 runs per game. But the Brewers addressed that in the offseason only by bringing in Lind, and will instead rely on Braun's comeback, Segura's improvement and Aramis Ramirez, who turns 37 in June.

The final word: The Brewers look like a classic .500 team to me -- no glaring holes but no outstanding strengths. Lucroy joined Carlos Gomez as a star and maybe Braun returns to being one, but the rotation clearly lacks a No. 1 or 2-type ace unless Mike Fiers can somehow replicate that 2.13 ERA he put up in 71 innings. Minus Gallardo there is now little depth behind No. 5 starter Jimmy Nelson and that's a concern. Like the Reds, it's easy to envision how things can go Milwaukee's way but I don't think the rotation is strong enough to get them into the postseason.

Prediction: 78-84



Yankees21. New York Yankees

Big offseason moves: Signed LHP Andrew Miller; re-signed free agent 3B Chase Headley and 2B/SS Stephen Drew; acquired SS Didi Gregorius from the Diamondbacks in a three-way trade for RHP Shane Greene; acquired RHP Nathan Eovaldi and 1B/OF Garrett Jones from the Marlins for IF Martin Prado and RHP David Phelps; acquired RHP David Carpenter from the Braves; acquired LHP Justin Wilson from the Pirates for C Francisco Cervelli; re-signed OF Chris Young; re-signed LHP Chris Capuano; lost RHPs David Robertson and Brandon McCarthy via free agency; traded RHP Shawn Kelley; RHP Hiroki Kuroda signed with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp; Derek Jeter retired; Alex Rodriguez was reinstated. Whew.

Most intriguing player: You won't hear me say too often that a relief pitcher is a team's most intriguing player, but I'm fascinated to see what happens with Dellin Betances in 2015. Major league hitters are the best in the world and he treated them like that Little Leaguer who is already shaving pitching against kids who haven't hit a growth spurt. Batters hit .149 against him and he struck out 135 in 90 innings. Does he take over from Robertson as closer and, maybe more important, does Joe Girardi run him out there for 90 innings again in an era when relievers usually top out around 70?

Due for a better year: Rodriguez? CC Sabathia? Carlos Beltran? Take your old, injured veteran and project better numbers. And then go buy a lottery ticket.

Due for a worse year: Did Miller turn the corner in 2014? After averaging 5.3 walks per nine innings over his career, he lowered that to 2.5 while striking out a dominant 14.9 per nine. The Yankees forked over a lot of money to get the big lefty and now he and Betances could make for the best one-two relief punch in the majors if Miller replicates his 2014 success.

SportsNation

Do the Yankees have their first losing record since 1992?

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    51%
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    49%

Discuss (Total votes: 23,123)

I'm just the messenger: Can the Yankees get 90 starts from Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda? Those three combined for just 41 last season, although Tanaka and Pineda pitched some sweet baseball when healthy. All are major health risks, of course, but keep this in mind as well: The Yankees are losing some quality starts from 2014. Kuroda, McCarthy, Greene and Phelps combined for 77 starts and a solid 3.68 ERA. Even if those guys stay healthy they may not be any better than that rate of production.

The final word: The Yankees have been outscored each of the past two years, although they managed to finish over .500 both seasons. While a lot of people are pointing to a healthier rotation and better seasons from some of the veterans as reasons the Yankees will contend this year, I turn that around and say: Who's a good bet to improve? The only thing I'm sure of is the Yankees will have better defense at shortstop. I'm taking the under .500 -- for the first time since 1992.

Prediction: 78-84


Marlins20. Miami Marlins

Big offseason moves: Signed Giancarlo Stanton to a $325 million extension that is heavily backloaded and allows Stanton to opt out after six seasons; acquired 3B Martin Prado and RHP David Phelps from the Yankees for RHP Nathan Eovaldi and 1B/OF Garrett Jones; acquired 2B Dee Gordon, RHP Dan Haren and SS Miguel Rojas from the Dodgers for LHP Andrew Heaney, RHP Chris Hatcher, 2B Enrique Hernandez and C Austin Barnes; acquired RHP Mat Latos from the Reds for RHP Anthony DeSclafani and C Chad Wallach; signed 1B Mike Morse; traded 3B Casey McGehee to the Giants for two minor leaguers; acquired RHP Aaron Crow from the Royals; signed OF Ichiro Suzuki.

Most intriguing player: Stanton. The contract. The power. The comeback from his late-season beaning.

Due for a better year: Christian Yelich. In 2014, he showed the ability to hit for average and take his walks. This year he adds some power.

Due for a worse year: Henderson Alvarez drives analysts crazy because he went 12-7 with a 2.65 ERA despite a strikeout rate that ranked 83rd among 88 qualified starters. Alvarez does get ground balls -- eighth in ground ball rate -- but he also held batters to a .209 average and just one home run with runners in scoring position. Here's betting that ERA climbs over 3.00.

SportsNation

Your prediction for the Marlins?

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    7%
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    25%
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    47%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 11,712)

I'm just the messenger: The Marlins made a lot of moves and acquired some big names ... but did they really do anything but reshuffle the deck chairs? Gordon led the NL in steals and triples but also struggled to get on base in the second half. Haren has stated his preference to pitch for a California team and he hasn't had an ERA under 4.00 since 2011, so is he really an upgrade over Eovaldi? Latos had bone chips removed after 2013, had knee surgery in spring training, had a strained flexor mass in his elbow, eventually made 16 starts but his strikeout rate and velocity were down and then was scratched down the stretch with a bone bruise in his elbow. Going out on a limb, but he's not a good bet to give the Marlins 30 starts.

The final word: OK, I love the outfield: Stanton, Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. Stanton is the oldest of the trio at 25 and all three have All-Star potential. I love Jose Fernandez, but he's not going to be back until late June or so and we don't if he'll be back at full throttle. I think there's a good chance they get very little out of Latos and Haren. The middle infield defense is more flash than substance, at least according to the metrics. The depth is worrisome. Young teams can take big leaps in a hurry but I wonder if the Marlins need another year to consolidate the talent.

Prediction: 79-83


Rays19. Tampa Bay Rays

Big offseason moves: Lost manager Joe Maddon to the Cubs, named Kevin Cash manager; lost general manager Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers, promoted Matthew Silverman to president of baseball operations; traded 2B Ben Zobrist and SS Yunel Escobar to the A's for C/DH John Jaso, minor league SS Daniel Robertson and minor league OF Boog Powell; signed SS Asdrubal Cabrera; acquired OF Steven Souza, C Rene Rivera, RHP Burch Smith and 1B Jake Bauers in a three-way trade for OF Wil Myers, C Ryan Hanigan and two minor leaguers; acquired RHP Kevin Jepsen from the Angels for OF Matt Joyce; acquired RHP Greg Harris and RHP Jose Dominguez from the Dodgers for LHP Adam Liberatore and RHP Joel Peralta; did not get a new ballpark.

Most intriguing player: Drew Smyly came over from the Tigers in the David Price trade and posted a 1.70 ERA in seven starts, allowing just 25 hits in 47.2 innings. He's certainly not that good; that's Clayton Kershaw kind of good. But he did make one minor change after the trade: He threw more fastballs up in the zone. The Rays love high fastballs. So maybe there's something going on here. It certainly makes him intriguing.

Due for a better year: Evan Longoria. He hit .253/.320/.404. Steamer projects .256/.334/.446. ZiPS projects .255/.330/.441. So better. But not a whole lot, top-10 MVP kind of better.

Due for a worse year: Rivera was acquired from the Padres because the Rays emphasize pitch framing in their catchers (see Jose Molina) and Rivera is a very good framer. But he also hit well in 2014, which he had never done before on the major league level. Then again, he'd never played regularly in the majors before, so you never know.

I'm just the messenger: The Rays scored 88 fewer runs than in 2013 ... and traded away their two players with the highest OBPs, Zobrist and Joyce. So ... umm ... that's my message.

The final word: I'll be honest. I wanted to pick the Rays as my surprise team of 2015. Everyone is down on them after their first losing season since 2007. They'd won 90-plus games in five of the previous six seasons, traded David Price, lost Joe Maddon and their big addition on offense is a 26-year-old rookie outfielder (granted, Souza did have monster numbers in Triple-A). The reason I wanted to pick them is the rotation has huge, huge potential. We talked about Smyly. Alex Cobb is close to a No. 1 if he can pitch 200 innings. Chris Archer had a solid first full season and I love his arm. Jake Odorizzi had a 4.13 ERA as a rookie but showed potential with 174 K's in 167 innings. Maybe they get Matt Moore back at some point. So the rotation could be terrific. In the end, though, I'm going with the more boring prediction. I may be wrong.

Prediction: 79-83
With Keith Law unveiling his top 100 prospects this week, I thought it would be fun to look back at the top prospects from 2005. Has it already been 10 years since 2005? Yes it has! We'll use Baseball America's list and, as always, we're not criticizing the list. Evaluating prospects is part art, part science and a lot of unknown.

The Top 10
1. Joe Mauer, Twins
2. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
3. Delmon Young, Devil Rays
4. Ian Stewart, Rockies
5. Joel Guzman, Dodgers
6. Casey Kotchman, Angels
7. Scott Kazmir, Devil Rays
8. Rickie Weeks, Brewers
9. Andy Marte, Braves
10. Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox

Just a reminder: Not all top-10 players become All-Stars, let alone future Hall of Famers, and many don't develop at all. Young, who rose to the No. 1 overall prospect in 2006, has had a long major league career but at barely replacement level (2.5 career WAR), making him one of the most disappointing prospects of the past decade. His aggressive approach that existed in the minors has proven to be a fatal flaw in the majors, but he's also been a poor defender and his athleticism declined rapidly.

Stewart was coming off a 30-homer season in low A ball at age 19 in which he also hit .319 with some walks and he certainly looked like a future star. He did have a 25-homer season with the Rockies in 2009 but has never been able to make enough contact or hit left-handers. Guzman was a big, 6-foot-7 shortstop who wasn't likely to stay there but had put up good numbers as a 19-year-old, albeit with a poor strikeout-to-walk rate. It was really the only season he hit like a top prospect in the minors and he made the majors for just 24 games.

Kotchman was a much different hitter than Young, Stewart or Guzman, a sweet-swinging first baseman who walked more than he struck out and projected to hit for a high average, but he never should have been a top-10 prospect. He had been injury-prone in the minors and didn't hit for much power and first basemen without power aren't top-10 overall prospects. In the majors, he was injury-prone and didn't hit for much power.

Weeks was that rare second-base prospect to crack the top 10. He's been worth 12.3 career WAR even though he has power and patience as he's only hit .249 despite his quick bat and his defense has been historically awful. At the time, Baseball America admitted he "had a lot of work to do with the glove." Ten years later, the defense never did improve and he can't find a job this offseason because of that liability.

Then there's Marte, one of the more famous prospect flops in recent years. "His potential as an all-around impact player is unquestioned," wrote Baseball America. Even though he was described as mature for his age in the BA scouting report, Marte's work ethic was later questioned and he added some weight, a concern cited even in 2005. He's hit .218 in 308 career major league games and is still scuffling around, appearing in six games for the Diamondbacks last year.

Nos. 11-25
11. Lastings Milledge, Mets
12. Dallas McPherson, Angels
13. Matt Cain, Giants
14. Jeff Francoeur, Braves
15. Prince Fielder, Brewers
16. Adam Miller, Indians
17. Jason Kubel, Twins
18. Jeremy Hermida, Marlins
19. Chad Billingsley, Dodgers
20. Jeff Niemann, Devil Rays
21. Brian Dopirak, Cubs
22. Carlos Quentin, Diamondbacks
23. Jeff Francis, Rockies
24. Nick Swisher, Athletics
25. Jose Capellan, Brewers

Three hits with Cain, Fielder and Swisher and a half-hit with Billingsley, who is trying to rebound from two years of injuries and just signed with the Phillies. Kubel was a hit-first prospect who ranked 17th on the list even though he had torn up his knee in the Arizona Fall League, after reaching the majors at the end of 2004. Already considered slow in the outfield before the injury, he had some good years at the plate in the majors but was best suited to DH, and it's possible he was never the same player after the injury. Quentin has also seen his career interrupted by various injuries through the years.

The interesting guy here is Hermida, who rose to the No. 4 overall prospect in 2006. He was supposed to be a can't-miss hitter, due to excellent plate discipline and a nice lefty stroke with medium-range power and good makeup. He had a good year for the Marlins in 2007, hitting .296/.369/.501 but the bat went downhill from there. There were some nagging injuries and a trade to Boston, a collision with Adrian Beltre and then a bunch of years as a 4-A player. He's spent all of the two past years in Triple-A.

Nos. 26-50
Best hits: No. 27 Ryan Howard, No. 28 J.J. Hardy, No. 30 Edwin Jackson, No. 35 Gavin Floyd, No. 39 Erick Aybar, No. 44 Brian McCann, No. 48 Homer Bailey, No. 49 Brandon McCarthy.

And by "best hits" I mean only hits. Well, there's Yusmeiro Petit and Zach Duke and Ryan Sweeney and Anthony Reyes had that one good start for the Cardinals in the World Series.

Nos. 51-75
Best hits: No. 51 Shin-Soo Choo, No. 54 Franklin Gutierrez, No. 56 Edwin Encarnacion, No. 57 Curtis Granderson, No. 59 John Danks, No. 62 James Loney, No. 64 Aaron Hill, No. 65 Nick Markakis, No. 71 Cole Hamels, No. 72 Brandon Moss, No. 75 Billy Butler.

Even with Mauer and Hernandez, it looks like this block of 25 has produced more value than the top 25.

Nos. 76-100
Best hits: No. 76 Kendrys Morales, No. 81 Neil Walker, No. 82 Ubaldo Jimenez, No. 91 Jonathan Papelbon, No. 97 Huston Street, No. 98 Ian Kinsler.

Kinsler had a monster year in the minors in 2004, hitting .345 with 20 home runs, 51 doubles, 23 steals and good contract rates. I'm guessing he was ranked so low because he had been just a 17th-round pick the year before and caught everyone by surprise (although Baseball America mentioned an offseason strength training program and hitting instruction from Rangers coaches that led to the breakout performance).

Ten best prospects not in the top 100
Here are the top guys by career WAR not included in the top 100

1. Robinson Cano (51.5) -- Baseball America did rate him as the Yankees' No. 2 prospect (behind Eric Duncan) but had concerns about his ability to hit left-handers, his speed and his range at second. He'd hit .283/.339/.457 between Double-A and Triple-A at age 21 and obviously continued to get better.

2. Dustin Pedroia (43.2) -- He'd been a second-round pick in June of 2004 and hit .357 in the low minors. He'd crack the top 100 the next year at No. 77.

3. Adrian Gonzalez (38.4) -- He had a cup of coffee with the Rangers in 2004 and even though the Marlins had made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2000, was left out of the top 100 after hitting .304/.364/457 at Triple-A at age 22. The power started developing more in 2005, although the Rangers traded him after that season to the Padres.

4. Ben Zobrist (36.6) -- He certainly wouldn't have been on anyone's prospect radar after being a sixth-round pick out of Dallas Baptist in June of 2004, although he'd hit .339/.438/.463 with more walks than strikeouts in the New York-Penn League. The Rays got him from the Astros in 2006 and he reached the majors that season.

5. Jon Lester (32.6) -- Lester had been a second-round pick in 2002 but had ho-hum numbers in the Florida State League, with a 4.28 ERA and 97 strikeouts and 37 walks in 90 innings. The scouting report was positive: 92-93 mph and hitting 96, with Baseball America noting his secondary stuff needed refinement. He had also missed some time with shoulder tightness. Still, considering the size and arm strength, a little surprising he didn't crack the top 100.

6. Adam Wainwright (32.5) -- This one made more sense. He made just 12 starts in Triple-A because of an elbow strain and posted a 5.37 ERA. Baseball America did note that his "curveball may be his best pitch." Yeah, maybe.

7. Shane Victorino (30.2) -- He'd actually been a Rule 5 pick by the Padres from the Dodgers in 2003 and had 73 plate appearances in the majors before the Padres returned him. The Phillies then made him a Rule 5 pick again after the 2004 season. Despite his plus speed and a solid season in Double-A in 2004, he was listed as just the 19th-best prospect for the Phillies.

8. Russell Martin (30.1) -- He'd hit .250 with 15 home runs in Class A and had been catching for just two years, although he had positive reviews for his defense. He wasn't overlooked -- No. 6 among Dodgers prospects -- and it's noteworthy that he did have a good hitting approach even then, with 72 walks against 54 strikeouts.

9. Jose Bautista (29.6) -- He was easy to miss because he'd spent 2004 as a Rule 5 pick, going from the Pirates to the Orioles to the Devil Rays (off waivers) to the Royals (sold) to the Mets (for Justin Huber) and then back to the Pirates in another trade. All told, he batted just 88 times. And that was after playing sparingly in 2003 after breaking his hand punching a garbage can. Baseball America did note his athleticism and ability to play third base or outfield in naming him Pittsburgh's No. 12 prospect.

10. James Shields (28.7) -- He was really just an organizational player at this point in the minors, a 16th-round pick who wasn't listed among Tampa Bay's top 30 prospects or even in a longer depth chart of right-handed pitchers. He'd had a 4.72 ERA between Class A and Double-A with 106 strikeouts in 135 innings.


The current all-underrated team

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
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Ben ZobristKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBen Zobrist has hit 99 homers over the past six seasons.
There isn't really a scientific way to determine an all-underrated team. Certainly, if you own five fantasy teams, you know all about these guys, but my perception is these players are better than widely believed or haven't yet received the kind of attention you would expect given their value. For some, maybe they have had only one big year; for others, maybe it's because they play in a small market. Regardless, I expect all these guys to be productive regulars again in 2015.

C: Rene Rivera, Rays
You can bet if Tampa Bay trades for a player that he's probably underrated. Rivera has played with the Mariners, Twins and Padres in the majors and spent time in the minors with the Dodgers, Mets and Yankees. Not surprisingly, Rivera is an excellent pitch-framer -- hence, Tampa Bay's desire to get him from the Padres in the Wil Myers trade -- and he hit .252/.319/.432 with San Diego in 2014, good numbers for Petco Park. The question is if the bat was a fluke since it was just 329 plate appearances and Rivera hadn't hit much before that. But catchers are sometimes late bloomers at the plate.

1B: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
Rizzo is probably the biggest name here, but I would suggest that many fans don't realize how good he was in 2014. He had a higher OBP and slugging percentage than Miguel Cabrera. He had a higher FanGraphs WAR than Jose Abreu of the crosstown White Sox but certainly didn't get the same level of national attention. He finished behind Adrian Gonzalez in the MVP voting because he didn't drive in as many runs. He has more power than Freddie Freeman, a young first baseman who gets more recognition. The best part: He's just 25.

2B: Brian Dozier, Twins
Dozier came up as a shortstop in 2012 but has moved over to second base and gets lost among all the quality second basemen in the American League (playing on the Twins doesn't help), but what a season he had: 23 home runs, 57 extra-base hits, 89 walks, 21 stolen bases, solid defense and 112 runs scored, second in the majors behind Mike Trout. Dozier will continue to be underrated in part because he hit just .242, but he still had a higher OBP than Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler.

3B: Kyle Seager, Mariners
Seager was never a highly rated prospect coming up through the Mariners system -- projected as a utility infielder -- so sometimes it takes a few years for everyone to buy into a player like that. Well, the Mariners have bought in, giving Seager a seven-year, $100 million contract extension. He made his first All-Star team in 2014 and won a Gold Glove, and his 25 home runs and 96 RBIs are even more impressive considering the difficult hitting environments of the AL West.

[+] EnlargeJhonny Peralta
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsJhonny Peralta was second among NL shortstops last season with 21 homers.
SS: Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals
It's odd for a veteran like Peralta to make a list like this, but he has always been underappreciated -- although I did sense a little more, "Oh, yeah, that guy's pretty good," in 2014 as he even picked up some down-the-ballot MVP votes for the first time in his career. Maybe playing for the Cardinals helped. He led all major league shortstops in WAR in 2014, ranking 15th among all position players on Baseball Reference and 17th on FanGraphs. The key is that Peralta has always been viewed as a shortstop without a lot of range, but the metrics have consistently rated him about average (and a little above in 2014). He has a strong arm and makes few mistakes.

LF: Corey Dickerson, Rockies
Charlie Blackmon was the Rockies outfielder who made the All-Star team in 2014, but Dickerson is the one to watch moving forward. He hit .312/.364/.567 with 24 home runs in 478 plate appearances, and that's not just a Coors-inflated line. He is slated to play left field this year with Carlos Gonzalez moving over to right. The Rockies platooned Dickerson last year, but he deserves the chance to see if he can hold his own against left-handers.

CF: Juan Lagares, Mets
Lagares has certainly received recognition as perhaps the best defensive center fielder in the majors -- winning his first Gold Glove in 2014 -- but because he's not a big basher at the plate, he still seems undervalued overall. And he's not a zero on offense. He hit .281/.321/.382, nothing great, but that makes him about a league average hitter. Baseball Info Solutions credited him with 28 defensive runs saved in 2014, and some speculated that maybe he's not that good. Willie Mays, for example, peaked (under a different system for evaluating) at 21 runs, according to Baseball Reference. Consider this, however: Lagares made 2.85 plays per nine innings in 2014, compared to the league average of 2.48 for center fielders. That's 0.37 more plays per game, which adds up to 49 additional outs over 1,200 innings; Mays' career-best was 0.27 more plays per game.

RF: Kole Calhoun, Angels
Like others on this list, Calhoun was never a top prospect. But all he has done is hit. In his first full season, he hit .272/.325/.450 with 17 home runs and 31 doubles while scoring 90 runs in 127 games. He should have another strong year as the Angels' leadoff hitter.

UT: Ben Zobrist, A's
If there's a captain on the all-underrated team, this guy is it. He does all those things that maybe aren't flashy. He draws walks, hits for some power, plays good defense (at multiple positions) and is durable. Since his breakout season in 2009, he is third among position players in Baseball Reference WAR behind Robinson Cano and Cabrera (second behind Cabrera on FanGraphs).

SP: Doug Fister, Nationals
I've written about Fister enough that maybe he's no longer underrated. He doesn't get a lot of attention pitching in the same rotation as Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, but he's nearly their equal.

SP: Dallas Keuchel, Astros
After getting punched around his first two seasons in the majors, Keuchel looked like a lefty without enough fastball to succeed at the big league level. But he put everything together in 2014, going 12-9 with a 2.93 ERA. I don't think it was a fluke.

SP: Jose Quintana, White Sox
The White Sox rotation goes deeper than Chris Sale and now Jeff Samardzija. Quintana has been one of the best starters in the AL the past two seasons, throwing 200 innings both years with ERAs of 3.51 and 3.32 in a park where fly balls really fly. There's nothing too fancy about Quintana, but he has a complete repertoire of pitches with a curveball, changeup and slider and knows how to pitch.

[+] EnlargeRyu
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonHyun-jin Ryu is 28-15 with a 3.17 ERA in two seasons with the Dodgers.
SP: Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers
Similar to Quintana, Ryu is another lefty with a full arsenal of pitches. Ryu throws strikes and limits home runs -- just 23 in 344 career innings in the majors. He missed some time late last year but returned to throw a strong game in the division series. The next step for him is to get up to 200 innings and prove he can be more of a workhorse behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

SP: Alex Cobb, Rays
With David Price gone, Cobb is now the undisputed ace of the Tampa Bay staff. Like Ryu, he just needs to remain healthy, as he has made 22 and 27 starts the past two seasons, although he posted a sub-3.00 ERA both years. With Cobb leading the way, Tampa Bay's young rotation is a good reason why the Rays could be the sleeper team to watch in 2015.

RP: Steve Cishek, Marlins
The sidearmer doesn't blow you away like many closers, but there's no questioning his effectiveness. In four seasons in the majors he owns a 2.65 ERA and has allowed just 10 home runs in 257 2/3 innings as he rarely throws anything above the knees.

RP: Tony Watson, Pirates
Our lefty reliever has put together back-to-back solid seasons with the Pirates, going 10-2 with a 1.63 ERA in 2014 (and making the All-Star team). Lacking command when he first reached the majors, Watson walked just 1.7 batters per nine innings last season while setting a career high in strikeout rate. With a fastball that averages 94 mph, he's a power lefty who could end up a closer someday.
Jason KipnisOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJason Kipnis is posed for a big rebound -- and, barring injuries, could be an All-Star in 2015.
It's been a slow few weeks in the world of baseball. So here are some random thoughts going through my mind as we wait for Max Scherzer to sign ... and wait ... and wait ...

1. I still don't understand the lack of support that Mike Mussina has received in the Hall of Fame voting. Well, I do understand: The majority of voters aren't analyzing their ballots much beyond a certain level of gut instinct. If they did, they'd realize Mussina should be a no-brainer Hall of Famer. He isn't in the Tommy John/Jim Kaat class.

2. Heard Chris "Mad Dog" Russo arguing that Jeff Kent was clearly better than Craig Biggio. I mean, sure, if you ignore little things like defense, baserunning and getting on base.

3. That said, I expect Kent's case to start picking up momentum. Biggio's election probably helps Kent because voters can argue that Kent was the better hitter, plus he has more than 1,500 RBIs and more home runs (377) than any other second baseman.

4. I like what St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote about the Hall of Fame: "I don't like the idea that MLB and the Hall of Fame has left it up to the ball writers to serve as the police force on PEDs. Among other things, it's a conflict of interest. We're supposed to be covering the industry as an independent group of journalists. We're not supposed to be establishing the baseball industry's standards for morality."

5. Congrats to Randy Johnson on his election to the Hall. My favorite Johnson memory is Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series, but I'll always remember this home run he served up to Mark McGwire. Steroids or not, good lord.

6. I miss Dave Niehaus.

7. That home run gives me an excuse to link to the video of this home run that Glenallen Hill hit onto a rooftop beyond Wrigley Field. "It's gotta be the shoes!" Well, that or maybe something else.

8. I've always wondered whether the balls weren't just a bit juiced in that era. After all, how do you explain runs per game going from 4.12 in 1992 to 4.60 in 1993 to 4.92 in 1994? Yes, there was expansion in 1993, but that hardly explains that much of an increase. So unless you believe everybody started using steroids at once, there were other factors in play beyond PEDs.

9. Back to the present. Loved the Ben Zobrist/Yunel Escobar acquisition by the A's. GM Billy Beane has now given manager Bob Melvin the most flexible lineup of hitters in the league. Zobrist can move back and forth between the infield and outfield, Marcus Semien can fill in anywhere in the infield, and Oakland has several platoon options.

10. Speaking of Zobrist, I’ll write about my all-time all-underrated team on Monday and my current all-underrated team on Tuesday. Zobrist fits the classic profile of an underrated player: draws walks, is a good defender, is durable, has medium-range power. He’s been one of baseball’s best players the past six years.

11. Two keys for the A's: Brett Lawrie has to stay healthy and have a solid season at third base, and Escobar has to bounce back from 2014, when some minor injuries may have contributed to his poor defensive metrics.

12. Outfielder Josh Reddick, initially critical of the Josh Donaldson trade, has apparently jumped back on the Beane bandwagon. He can't wait for the season to start. Me, neither.

13. How about those Seahawks?!?!

14. With their win over the Panthers on Saturday, the Seahawks became the first defending Super Bowl champ since the 2005 Patriots to win a playoff game. Doesn't that seem a little weird? Does it mean that winning the Super Bowl, like winning the World Series, involves a certain amount of luck in the playoffs?

15. With all due respect to the great Kenny Easley, I don't think he was the same kind of force on defense as Kam Chancellor. Yes, that's an old Seahawks reference.

16. I'm not ready to jump on the Padres' bandwagon.

17. I mean, I love the boldness of new general manager A.J. Preller, but I don't like the idea of Wil Myers playing center; Will Middlebrooks just isn't that good. Plus, San Diego's first baseman has no power, and shortstop is an issue.

18. But the Padres are going to be interesting, which is certainly more than has been said about this team in years.

19. There's no reason not to believe in Matt Shoemaker, other than he wasn't good before 2014. But there's nothing that says "fluke" in his numbers: good strikeout rate, excellent control and that great changeup/splitter.

20. Chris Davis will have a much better season in 2015.

21. I'm not so sure about Josh Hamilton, however.

22. Signing Scherzer to a mega-contract doesn't seem like a Cardinals type of move, but they do have to be a little worried about the health of Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.

23. I don't quite get the rumors about David Price. Shouldn't the Tigers just keep him and maybe sign Scherzer and put out their best team for 2015? How many more great years are they going to get from Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez? Detroit's window is now.

24. Of course, I get that they don't want to cash in so many chips and then turn into the Phillies. But, at age 85, does Tigers owner Mike Ilitch really care about 2019?

25. Jayson Stark wrote about Carlos Delgado getting bumped off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year. I don't see Delgado as a Hall of Famer, and while he did have some monster seasons, he's also way down my list of first basemen with possible Hall of Fame cases. You have Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, Rafael Palmeiro, John Olerud, Keith Hernandez and Will Clark to consider before you get to Delgado.

26. Juan Lagares made 2.85 outs per nine innings in 2014; the average center fielder made 2.48. That's .37 more plays per game. Willie Mays' career best was .24 plays above the MLB average per nine innings.

27. Let's hope Matt Harvey returns as the same pitcher we saw in 2013.

28. The Braves are going to be terrible. No Jayson Heyward, no Justin Upton. Having Evan Gattis in the outfield and Alberto Callaspo at second base will severely weaken the defense.

29. It's almost like John Hart was a general manager from a different era when he didn't have defensive metrics to examine.

30. If the Braves are indeed just building for 2017 and their new ballpark, why not look to trade Craig Kimbrel?

31. Go see "Selma." It's an important American film with a lesson that still resonates in many ways today.

32. King Felix's changeup makes me smile even in the middle of winter.

33. I've been meaning to write a Mookie Betts/Javier Baez piece, but FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan beat me to it.

34. The answer: Mookie.

35. Your 2015 American League home run champ: Chris Carter.

36. Speaking of the Astros, I predict a huge breakout season for George Springer. Get him on your fantasy team if you can.

37. Your 2015 National League home run champ: Giancarlo Stanton. I know, too easy.

38. I wonder if the Giants will be conservative with Madison Bumgarner's innings, at least in the first couple of months of the season. He ended up throwing 270 innings between the regular season and playoffs, well above the 223 he threw in 2012, when the Giants also won the World Series.

39. If I were to bet on the Yankees either winning the AL East or imploding, I'd go with the implosion.

40. Still, there are enough big names on their roster, and if the rotation stays healthy, it wouldn't shock me if the Yankees did win the division.

41. A young pitcher who could make a big leap forward this year: Drew Hutchison of the Blue Jays.

42. Weren't the Rangers supposed to be in the middle of an AL West dynasty by now?

43. Wish the Indians would make one more move for a bat, but unfortunately they have a lot of bad money invested in Nick Swisher, David Murphy and Michael Bourn.

44. Yes, Corey Kluber will contend for another Cy Young Award.

45. Barry Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times in 2004. That's still maybe the most impressive stat in baseball history.

46. Brandon McCarthy, everyone's favorite smart major league pitcher, thinks PED users should be admitted to Cooperstown. Give that man a vote!

47. Still don't quite understand why the Dodgers gave McCarthy $48 million, however -- considering that he's made more than 25 starts in a season just once during his career.

48. You know, Zobrist would have been a nice acquisition for the Nationals. Maybe they can pry Chase Utley away from the Phillies.

49. I think Yasiel Puig's power will bounce back this year. He might hit 25 home runs -- which would make him a very strong MVP candidate.

50. An important man in 2015: Red Sox outfield coach Arnie Beyeler, who will work with Hanley Ramirez and our man Mookie.

51. I have the March in Paris on TV in the background. Amazing.

52. You can never watch too many videos of puppies playing in snow.

53. A quiet offseason move that could pay nice dividends: Toronto getting Michael Saunders from Seattle. I'll be curious to see how his numbers increase as he escapes the AL West.

54. Of course, he has to stay healthy.

55. A trade that still makes sense: Mark Trumbo to the Mariners. Even if Yasmany Tomas proves he can handle third base for the Diamondbacks, we know Trumbo can't really play left field. The Mariners could still use another right-handed bat, and Trumbo would give them the flexibility to sit Logan Morrison against left-handers and use Nelson Cruz in the outfield at times.

56. I love watching Jonathan Schoop play defense. He can really turn two. It wouldn't surprise me to see him win a Gold Glove this year.

57. Will Stephen Strasburg take a leap forward this year?

58. I think Bryce Harper will make The Leap.

59. If you've never read "Ball Four," why not?

60. I'm enjoying Dan Epstein's "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76."

61. That was the first year I remember watching baseball, and as Epstein's book shows, although it's not remembered as a classic season -- mostly because the World Series was a four-game sweep -- it was a widely entertaining year and an important one. The reserve clause was struck, Charlie Finley fought with Bowie Kuhn, the Yankees fought with the Red Sox, and Bill Veeck had his White Sox players wear shorts.

62. Plus, Mark Fidrych.

63. Here's a good piece on how the Phillies reached this sorry state of affairs.

64. I predict that Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera will each give up at least one home run this season.

65. If you're bored, go watch some highlights of Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Jarrod Dyson playing defense.

66. I know everybody is down on the Reds, but if Joey Votto is healthy, Jay Bruce returns to being Jay Bruce and Billy Hamilton improves at the plate, it's not impossible to dream about them being competitive.

67. No, Tim Lincecum isn't going to be better. He's been below replacement level for three seasons now. There is no reason to expect him to turn things around. His road ERA is 5.55 over the past three years. Take him out of AT&T Park, and he's exposed.

68. Casey McGehee won't be the answer at third base for the Giants.

69. Would you take Clayton Kershaw or the field for NL Cy Young?

70. Another fun note about 1976: Joe Morgan led the NL with 1.020 OPS. No other hitter was within 100 points. And he played a key defensive position and won a Gold Glove. He also stole 60 bases in 69 attempts. You can argue that Morgan's level of play that year was as high as any position player's ever. The only knock against him is he missed 21 games.

71. I can't wait to see what Jorge Soler can do over a full season.

72. Also: Rusney Castillo.

73. Kolten Wong or Joe Panik moving forward? I'll take Wong.

74. If I'm drawing up a list of the most important players for 2015, I might start with Justin Verlander.

75. I'm going "Selma" over "Boyhood," "The Imitation Game" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" for best picture of 2015. Haven't seen "American Sniper" yet, although that could factor in the running as well.

76. Hollywood needs to make more movies about strong and courageous women. Is there a girl version of "Boyhood"? Why not?

77. I have the Pirates even with the Cardinals right now. Not sure why it seems like St. Louis is such a consensus favorite.

78. A signing that isn't going to work out: Torii Hunter and the Twins.

79. Joe Mauer will be better. Right?

80. An interesting thing to watch: How will Mike Trout adjust to all those high fastballs?

81. As that article points out, even as Trout started seeing more high fastballs as the season progressed, he still slugged .502 in the second half. But he also hit just .257 with a .347 OBP.

82. I hope you read Mark Simon's defensive storylines to watch for the National League and American League.

83. If you like spy novels, I recommend Alan Furst's work. Just discovered him last year. He writes hyper-realistic novels set in Europe in the days before World War II. You feel like you're in Paris or Warsaw with war looming.

84. Another guy I can't wait to see: Joc Pederson.

85. A waistline I can't wait to see: Bartolo Colon's.

86. How can you not love Jose Altuve?

87. I'm up to No 87 and haven't even mentioned James Shields yet. So I just did. No idea where he's going to sign. Giants? Red Sox? Cardinals?

88. Guy who will rebound in 2015: Jason Kipnis. He played through some injuries in 2014, so if he's healthy, I wouldn't be surprised to see him back in the All-Star Game.

89. That said, he's up against a tough field of second basemen in the AL: Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Altuve, underrated Brian Dozier, Ian Kinsler, Zobrist. At least Howie Kendrick got shipped over to the NL.

90. I'd like the Marlins better if Jose Fernandez were going to be ready at the start of the season.

91. A Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl would be the revenge of Pete Carroll. I want Bill Simmons to write a 25,000-word preview if we get this matchup.

92. I'd take Pedro in his prime over Koufax in his prime and not even hesitate about it.

93. I had the Rays as the sleeper team of 2015 before the Zobrist trade, but losing him is a big blow to the 2015 offense.

94. Chris Archer could be a breakout pitcher, however. If he can cut his walks just a bit, he's ready to become an elite starter.

95. Corey Dickerson > Charlie Blackmon.

96. Yes, the White Sox wore shorts for a game in 1976. How can you not love 1976?

97. Yes, I'll watch the final season of "Mad Men." I'm guessing Don Draper will drink a lot and not much will happen.

98. I rate the Dodgers as the favorites in the NL West, but they are relying on a lot of old players and injury-prone pitchers: Juan Uribe will be 36; Jimmy Rollins is 36; Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are 33; Howie Kendrick is 31; and McCarthy and Brett Anderson haven't been the picture of health. The Dodgers do have depth on the roster, but there's a good chance they'll need it.

99. Pirates' outfield or Marlins' outfield: Which do you like more?

100. Edgar Martinez is a deserving Hall of Famer. Come on, I've managed to work Edgar into just about everything else I've written lately! I promise this will be my last Edgar reference for ... well, OK, I don't want to make a guarantee I can't keep. Just check out his Baseball-Reference page.

Players talk about belief in clutch hitting

January, 10, 2015
Jan 10
12:43
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Over the course of 16 seasons in the majors, the worst moment in Mark Grace’s career came in 1998 as he watched 35,000 pictures of his face fall from the sky.

"It was Mark Grace poster day at Wrigley field," Grace told ESPN.com. "Every single person got a 6-foot-2 growth chart of Mark Grace with a milk mustache holding a carton of milk."

The Chicago Cubs were playing the San Francisco Giants. In the bottom of the ninth, with the tying run on third base, all Grace had to do was hit a sacrifice fly.

"Everybody's waving their posters," said Grace, recently named assistant hitting coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. "Everybody's yelling 'Mark Grace' and I hit a double play to end the ballgame. Thirty-five thousand posters came flying out onto the field. So yes, it was possibly the most down moment I had in my career."

In contrast, as Grace talked about the most memorable hit of his career, he remembers being nervous as he waited to face Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.

"The world's full of guys that will tell you, 'I'm a refuse-to-lose guy,' or 'You got to be tougher mentally than the pitcher,'" Grace said. "That's all bulls---. What it is more than anything is the lack of fear. I'd be a liar if I [said] in those situations I wasn't nervous. Of course I was nervous; we're all human beings."

By 2001 Grace had learned to love the spotlight.

As he put it, "Baseball and confidence can be taught, I think it can. I think you can take a kid that shies away from the big moment and I think you can help him accept that moment more."

So, when he was at the plate facing Rivera to lead off the inning with the Diamondbacks trailing the Yankees 2-1, Grace had learned how to channel his nervousness into excitement.

"I just remember my attitude going into the box was 'By hook or by crook, I’ve got to get on base,'" Grace said. "Whether it's a base hit, or whether it's a walk, or if I have to stick my head in front of one and get hit -- you know, you get over a concussion in time -- that was my attitude: My job is to get on base."

Grace singled to center field, his only career hit off Rivera. His hit began the historic ninth-inning comeback for the Diamondbacks as they scored two runs and won the World Series. "That’s the funny thing about history," he said. "History kind of remembers its own path. That hit is kind of a historic hit for me, for the Diamondbacks, and for one of the greatest World Series ever played."

Throughout baseball history, a clutch hit, like Grace’s in the 2001 World Series, turns a player into a hero, turns teams into champions and propels franchises into baseball history.

Identifying clutch hitting ability is tricky. Statistical analysts argue that clutch hits exist, but clutch hitters don't. Players, past and present, say clutch hitting is a skill. They believe some players have the ability to hit better in clutch situations than in normal situations. Or maybe clutch hitting is simply not succumbing to the pressure of a big moment.

"If you're a clutch player, you're going to win games for teams. If you're not, it's going to be hard for you," Reds third baseman Todd Frazier said this past season. "So having runners in scoring position, I think that's probably the biggest stat that players should worry about."

One way to gauge clutch hits is by using leverage index (LI), which measures the intensity of a batting event: The higher the probability for one plate appearance to change the outcome of the game, the higher the leverage index. In 2014 Frazier had the most home runs in the majors (12) in high-leverage situations.

According to many major leaguers, part of the clutch-hitting skill is the ability to handle pressure.

"There's two ways to channel nervousness," said Grace, who batted .303 in his career while hitting .323 in high-leverage situations, which often come against a team's best late-inning relievers. "You can channel into fear, or you can channel it into excitement."

Jay Bruce described a similar approach: "I think that people who are able to slow the game down the most probably are more apt to be more successful in that situation; in higher-pressure situations a lot of times your heart starts racing a little bit, your adrenaline gets going a little more."

Matt Holliday, who batted .372 in high-leverage situations this year while batting .272 overall, said clutch hitting is not luck.

"There's an intensity level when you're in a big spot that kicks in," Holliday said. “An adrenaline that kicks in. It shouldn't be much different than every other at-bat, but you just can't help that naturally you are much more intense in a big situation."

Holliday said players are not immune to the atmosphere at the ballpark.

"There's definitely different adrenaline when the crowd's into it in a big spot," said Holliday. "You channel it into concentration. I've got to mentally bear down in my approach and make sure I get the pitch that I want."

What does "looking for my pitch" mean?

"It means you see [the ball] early out of the pitcher's hand," Ben Zobrist explained. "You know what the pitch is quickly. It's not like fastballs are getting on you before you are ready to swing."

Good swing mechanics play a part as well.

"It's just a matter of those mechanics being all put together at the right time when the ball is released," Zobrist said. "If those aren't right, a lot of times you have extra thoughts going on in your brain and you are thinking, 'Well, my hands need to get here and there or whatever,' and then you are not just focusing on the ball."

The right focus can also mean good plate discipline. Let's look at the plate discipline of players who had the best batting averages in high-leverage situations in 2014 (minimum 100 plate appearances):



In broad terms, these are good contact hitters. All of these top-10 guys were above the major league average in the percentage of pitches they made contact with inside the strike zone when swinging.

Zobrist talked about plate discipline. "It kind of ebbs and flows at times," he said. "When you are feeling well at the plate and you are seeing the ball, you are going to swing at the better pitches. When you are not, instead of backing off, you tend to swing at more stuff."

Jonathan Lucroy, who has been told by a psychologist that he has the ability to hyper-focus, said guys get into trouble when they try to do too much in clutch situations. "It's all mental," said the Brewers catcher. "This game is really more mental than anything. It’s amazing how mental this game can get."

As Grace discovered more than a decade ago, the ability to hit in a clutch situation comes down to confidence.

"In baseball, you’ve got a lot of people in the game that will tell you, 'You can't do this or you can't do that,'" Grace said. "I was a 24th-round draft pick. I wasn't supposed to do anything. I came up through the system with so many people telling me the things I couldn't do well enough to be a major league player."

But Grace knew that getting in the batter's box and facing the pitcher in clutch situations was fun for him. "If you don't believe in yourself, who's going to believe in you?" Grace said. "That wasn’t pressure, that was fun. I enjoyed it."

Defensive storylines of the offseason: AL

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
10:10
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Getty ImagesRussell Martin, Didi Gregorius and Yoenis Cespedes are notable defense-minded acquisitions.

The major-league baseball offseason still has a ways to go, but we thought we’d take a look at how teams have changed defensively heading into 2015. Here’s our look at the American League:

 

AL EAST

Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles lost Gold Glove right fielder Nick Markakis, but there have been questions as to just how effective he is defensively, as the metrics (-13 Runs Saved in right field the past three seasons) never matched the eye test.

Baltimore should be better with the return of Manny Machado at third base and Matt Wieters behind the plate, though they're already formidable in the latter spot with Caleb Joseph. Baltimore ranked first in Defensive Runs Saved as a team in 2014 and with those two back and the re-signing of J.J. Hardy, they could be just as good again in 2015.

Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox changed the look of their pitching staff such that it’s very groundball friendly. That works given what Boston has at first base, second base and third base, with Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia and newly signed Pablo Sandoval (four Runs Saved last season). But Boston's biggest goal should be to do what it can to develop Xander Bogaerts, who had -10 Runs Saved at shortstop last season.

Hanley Ramirez in left field will be an interesting adventure and the first few times he plays a ball off the Green Monster will be worth watching. The Red Sox still have some decisions to make with Shane Victorino, Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo and Daniel Nava among those fighting for the other two outfield spots.

Behind the plate, they expect big things from Christian Vazquez, who possesses an excellent throwing arm and showed himself to be a solid pitch framer in his 54 games behind the plate. He'll be further mentored by another solid defensive catcher in new acquisition Ryan Hanigan.

Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays significantly boosted the offense they'll get out of the catching spot with the departures of Hanigan and Jose Molina and the addition of Rene Rivera and they won't lose anything defensively because Rivera rates as Molina's equal in terms of pitch framing and is a more effective basestealing deterrent.

It's not fair to judge Steven Souza by one miraculous catch to end a no-hitter, but if he's that good in the outfield, the Rays will catch a lot of fly balls that others won't, so long as Desmond Jennings stays healthy and Kevin Kiermaier hits enough to stay in the lineup. The defense won't miss Wil Myers and his -11 Runs Saved in two seasons in right field.

New York Yankees
Didi Gregorius is no Derek Jeter, but Jeter is no Gregorius when it comes to defensive play. The Yankees finished with -12 Defensive Runs Saved last season and we'd expect them to improve by at least 10 runs there, especially given the full-time presence stellar-fielding Chase Headley, who was terrific after his acquisition from the Padres.

The big question mark will be at second base where scouts have concerns about Rob Refsnyder, the leading candidate to be the everyday guy there, which is why the Yankees agreed to a deal with Stephen Drew.

Toronto Blue Jays
So long as Russell Martin can handle R.A. Dickey's knuckleball, the Blue Jays made a huge upgrade at catcher both offensively and defensively. Martin, judged by some to be the game's best pitch framer, is the type of catcher who can lower a staff's ERA by himself (so long as he's healthy).

At third base, Josh Donaldson covers a tremendous amount of ground. Donaldson has been better than the guy he's replacing, Brett Lawrie, though at their best, there probably isn't as big of a gap as last year's numbers might indicate, given Donaldson's adventurous throwing arm.

The big question will be who plays center field. Right now, it's slated to be rookie Dalton Pompey, who had a couple of Web Gems in a brief stint. If he rates major-league average, that'll be an upgrade from what the Blue Jays got from Colby Rasmus and company last season.

 

AL CENTRAL

Chicago White Sox
The White Sox made big moves to upgrade their team, though defense wasn't their center of attention. Melky Cabrera is a below-average left fielder (-5 Runs Saved each of the last two seasons). Adam LaRoche may end up DHing, but if the White Sox want to put the best defensive team out there, they'd play him at first base and let Jose Abreu just hit. There is a considerable difference between the two.

The White Sox should also have Avisail Garcia every day in right field. He still has something to learn based on the -10 Runs Saved he accumulated in 400 innings there last season (due mostly to his failure to catch balls hit to the deepest parts of the park).

Cleveland Indians
The departure of Asdrubal Cabrera clears the way for a better shortstop (Cabrera's flash was terrific … the rest of his defensive work didn't match up statistically). Jose Ramirez already showed he's more than adequate there (four Runs Saved in just under 500 innings) but he may just be keeping the position warm for Francisco Lindor.

There may also be a surprise upgrade in the outfield if the Indians decide not to DH Brandon Moss, as he's shown a modest amount of success in past tries in right field.

Kansas City Royals
The Royals haven't done much to their lineup this offseason, other than swap out Nori Aoki for Alex Rios and there's little difference between the two stat-wise. Expect to see lots of Jarrod Dyson serving as Rios' late-game caddy.

Detroit Tigers
The Tigers should be better defensively having let Torii Hunter walk while acquiring Yoenis Cespedes in trade from the Red Sox. Austin Jackson had amazing numbers for his first two seasons, but then his defense became rather ordinary, according to the metrics. Anthony Gose figures to be the new center fielder and he rates about average from what the numbers have shown so far.

The return of Jose Iglesias could do wonders to the Tigers infield, given his penchant for Web Gem-caliber plays. This is a big one to keep an eye out for.

The Tigers have also committed to using more shifts, particularly against right-handed hitters, considering they got great value from their (not-often used) shifting in 2014.

Minnesota Twins
General manager Terry Ryan is adamant that Torii Hunter is still capable of playing a good right field. The defensive metrics (-28 Runs Saved the last two seasons) beg to differ. That could lead to some interesting decisions for new manager Paul Molitor and his staff.

 

AL WEST

Houston Astros
One of the offseason's earliest acquisitions was the Astros netting Hank Conger in trade from the Angels and there was definitely a defensive motivation behind that. By our calculations, Conger netted more called strikes above average than any other catcher in baseball last season (in other words, he's really good at framing pitches).

The acquisition of Jed Lowrie was a case of prioritizing offense over defense at shortstop. Lowrie has totaled -28 Runs Saved at shortstop the past two seasons.

Lastly, it will be interesting to see where the Astros slot Jake Marisnick, who could end up in left field, though a case could be made for moving him to center. Marisnick has 16 career Runs Saved in just over 500 innings in center field. Current Astros center fielder Dexter Fowler had -20 Defensive Runs Saved last season.

Los Angeles Angels
The Angels shipped reliable second baseman Howie Kendrick across town to the Dodgers, and could go with either Josh Rutledge or Grant Green there. Both probably won't fare as well as Kendrick did.

The acquisition of Matt Joyce from the Rays may have a positive defensive effect if it slides Josh Hamilton (-9 Runs Saved in the outfield last season) into an everyday DH spot.

Oakland Athletics
The Athletics infield underwent a major makeover this offseason, with the new look featuring Brett Lawrie at third base, Marcus Semien at shortstop and Ike Davis at first base (with holdover Eric Sogard at second).

Lawrie could be as good as Josh Donaldson if he stays healthy, which has been a challenge. Davis rated above average as a rookie but has been average to below average since then. Semien is a question mark.

Seattle Mariners
The Mariners haven't done much to alter their defense from last season, the one adjustment being the addition of Seth Smith, who rates decently (a combined six Defensive Runs Saved in 2014) but doesn't necessarily wow.

Texas Rangers
Prince Fielder returns though it's worth wondering if the Rangers would be better off making him a full-time DH since he has always rated poorly in the field and Mitch Moreland at least represents an average first baseman.

Elvis Andrus hit an odd bump in the road last season, as his defensive numbers, which had been top-10 caliber at shortstop from 2011 to 2013 fell to bottom-5 (-13 Runs Saved) in 2014. That was probably just a fluke, but 2015 will go a ways in determining if Andrus has slipped.

Rays add Cabrera; is a Zobrist trade next?

December, 30, 2014
12/30/14
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Seeing the Rays reportedly sign Asdrubal Cabrera to a one-year deal (pending a physical) might make you wonder about them. That’s because while Cabrera was once a hitting star for a middle infielder, he reached free agency having lost much of his luster. He’s headed into the tail end of his 20s after having hit .241/.303/.394 over the last two years, a big tumble from where he had been in 2011-12 (.272/.335/.443). That said, the Rays didn’t get dumb after GM Andrew Friedman left; Matthew Silverman’s front-office crew still boasts some of the smartest people in the game. And when you look at Cabrera’s performance record at the plate, there’s something obviously wrong -- something that the Rays might be ready to fix.

Let’s start by looking at the breakdowns within Cabrera’s track record at the plate between that peak in his age-25 and -26 seasons and his drop-off when he was 27 and 28:
2011-12: .302 BABIP, .171 ISO, 7.5% walk rate, 17% K rate, 3.7 pitches per plate appearance

2013-14: .277 BABIP, .153 ISO, 7.1% walk rate, 19% K rate, 3.8 pitches per plate appearance

The biggest difference you’ll notice is in the results on his balls in play, which you might describe as luck looking at just that number -- but I wouldn’t call it that. That big drop on balls in play is an outcome of what Cabrera was doing, which is hitting a lot more fly-ball outs. At his peak, he had a ratio of groundouts to fly outs of 1.06; in the last two years, that number went down to 0.77 as he started hitting a lot more catchable fly balls. And his strikeout rate is up in part because he’s reaching for more balls outside the zone. That isn’t “luck,” those are symptoms of problems with approach and execution.

If there’s one team that has done a good job of getting guys turned around at the plate recently, I’d argue it’s the Rays, because they got good results taking a chance on and milking good years out of other good-contact, medium-power hitters like Casey Kotchman (2011) and James Loney (2013). I’d credit them with seeing some turnaround potential here as well. If they get a one-year bump from Cabrera at the plate the way they did with Kotchman and Loney (in his first year), both they and Cabrera win. If not, it’s just a one-year deal, an experiment worth trying.

The other thing about this move that might have you scratching your head is Cabrera’s glove work. After starting off as a flashy shortstop earlier in his career, Cabrera’s numbers have declined badly, from a guy who would be in the black via metrics like Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive runs saved to minus-16 at shortstop in 2013 and minus-7 last year before his trade to the Nationals. But with Yunel Escobar signed for the next two years (plus a club option for 2017), it doesn’t seem as if Cabrera’s going anywhere but second base. As smart as the Rays always have been, especially on defense, the publicly available data also doesn’t smile on Cabrera’s virtues at second base -- while he was at plus-11 at the keystone for the Indians back in 2008, his third of a season in Washington was graded at minus-10. Maybe that number goes up with the Rays, but before suggesting they have a magic bullet on that score, it’s worth noting that Escobar’s DRS numbers at shortstop dropped in both years since he joined the Rays, going from plus-15 to plus-4 to minus-24 last year.

But what signing Cabrera really gets me to wondering is whether or not this anticipates a trade involving superutilityman Ben Zobrist. The majority of the middle-infield at-bats should belong to Cabrera and Escobar, and the Rays’ outfield already has Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier, David DeJesus, Steven Souza and Brandon Guyer in it (plus prospect Mike Mahtook on the way). That isn’t to say Zobrist is being crowded out of the lineup -- far from it -- although we still have to see if new manager Kevin Cash likes to employ as many moving parts as Joe Maddon did. But Zobrist’s OPS has slipped into the .750 range the last two years. That's still good, but he’s clearly not the slugging star he once was, he’s a year removed from free agency and he’s entering his age-34 season.

Putting all that together, the Rays might think they’re better off dealing Zobrist, anticipating that they’re not going to re-sign him or risk an arbitration offer. The question then would be whether they can get a better offer now or in July, but signing Cabrera first certainly makes a Zobrist deal that much easier to make in the next six weeks.

A last thought? I guess this also says something about when the Rays think once-touted middle-infield prospects Hak-Ju Lee and Tim Beckham will be ready: not soon. But if Cabrera’s deal is just for one year as reported, they’ll have another year to get there.


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

Picks to click: Breakout pitchers

December, 28, 2014
12/28/14
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Danny SalazarFrank Victores/USA TODAY SportsDanny Salazar's dominating stuff should set the stage for a breakout season in 2015.
Sticking with Saturday's theme of picking hitters who could break out in 2015, today we turn to the moundsmen. Remember, no rookies, so don’t wonder why Andrew Heaney or Alex Sanchez aren’t here. And to compare and contrast past performance with future potential, we’ll use career runs allowed per nine innings compared to what ACTA’s Bill James and FanGraphs’ Steamer project for ERAs in 2015.

1. Danny Salazar, Indians: 4.17 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.61 ERA, Steamer 3.63

Corey Kluber isn’t going to be the last bit of good news in the Indians’ rotation. While you could pick Carlos Carrasco or Trevor Bauer for this list as well (especially if we took it beyond 10 pitchers), Salazar should be the best of the Tribe’s gaggle of up-and-comers. There’s no question about his mid-90s heat, his slider generates lots of ground-ball opportunities, and he has added a good swing-and-miss change of pace to give himself a three-pitch arsenal. But even a guy whiffing 10 men per nine needs a little help from his friends. After earning an early demotion, upon his return Salazar got a big benefit from the Indians’ in-season improvements on defense after a historically awful start on D. Assuming the Indians are done stress-testing the limits of defensive possibility, Salazar should be able to settle in and do his thing over a full season as one of the best young starters in the league.

2. Michael Pineda, Yankees: 3.42 RA9 career | 2015 James 2.74 ERA, Steamer 3.91

It may be even easier to nominate Pineda for this list than it was to name Machado among the hitters, but before you cry foul, think on this: Newly minted teammate Nathan Eovaldi is a year younger and already has nearly twice as many career big league starts (79) as Pineda does (41). Pineda has pitched only in parts of two seasons in the majors -- most of 2011 for the Mariners and his 13 starts last year as a Yankee; I don’t know if we’ve talked this much about a guy who hasn’t pitched all that much since Joe Magrane 25 years ago. We can’t just chalk it up to New York navel-gazing. As Pineda promptly proved, the talent is there, reflected in last year’s 8-1 K-BB ratio. So let’s skip over last year’s suspension and the years lost to injury and focus on the idea that his first 30-start season is going to be something special.

3. Zack Wheeler, Mets: 4.08 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.57 ERA, Steamer 3.90

He doesn’t have Jake deGrom’s hair or Matt Harvey’s panache, but the Mets will happily “settle” for another top-shelf starting pitcher in what might quickly develop into the best rotation in the division within the next year or two. (Yes, including the Nationals. Or the Marlins’ rotation of the moment, assuming everyone’s healthy.) In the second half, Wheeler really came into his own, goosing his whiff rate beyond one per inning, and he generates a lot of ground-ball outs on his hard slider, curve and four-seam fastball (you read that right). If the Mets had a premium glove at shortstop (not least to compensate for Daniel Murphy’s shortcomings at second), Wheeler would be a quick, easy bet for dominance. In the meantime, count on better run support in 2015 to help him generate a better record as he comes into his own.

4. Drew Smyly, Rays: 3.45 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.30 ERA, Steamer 3.47

He’s the immediate payoff for putting David Price in Detroit, and the timing could not be better for the Rays, as they will control the next four years of Smyly’s time just as he hits the age range when he’s primed for regular rotation work. With a nice fastball/cutter mix, he generates a lot of swinging strikes, and working in front of the intensely defense-minded Rays, he shone down the stretch before being shut down. The brass may have scrammed from Tampa Bay, but with Smyly joining a rotation stocked with Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and eventually Matt Moore, there’s still plenty of gold on the roster.

5. Danny Duffy, Royals: 3.99 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.67, Steamer 4.00

The Royals may never have to face the kind of second-guessing the Nationals did over shutting down Stephen Strasburg in 2012, but you can’t tell me Duffy wouldn’t have been a better choice to start a postseason game than Jeremy Guthrie, even allowing for questions about his health after he missed most of September. That’s because southpaw starters with heat that sits at 94 mph don’t grow on trees, and pairing that with Duffy’s biting curve is just tasty for everyone who doesn’t have to face him. Last year was Duffy’s first shot at a full-time rotation gig since 2011 after losing much of 2012 and 2013 to Tommy John surgery and recovery, but the league didn’t catch up to him down the stretch, eking out a .602 second-half OPS after putting up a .607 OPS in the first half. Armed with any kind of run support, he’ll have a big year.

6. Kevin Gausman, Orioles: 4.36 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.69 ERA, Steamer 4.19

You can argue with me over whether Chris Tillman has already had his big breakthrough, but after an awesome stretch run from him, I’m looking forward to the next breakout in Baltimore. Like Salazar, Gausman cooks with gas, throwing mid-90s heat while mixing in a sweet splitter as a swing-and-miss pitch. Pulled in and out of the rotation on an as-needed basis, Gausman was adaptable, but I’m giving him some benefit of the doubt that, handed a regular role instead of being skipped or shipped out, he’ll break out in his age-24 season.

SportsNation

Which pitcher will have the biggest breakout in 2015?

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    38%
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    12%
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Discuss (Total votes: 6,503)

7. Tony Cingrani, Reds: 3.69 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.46 ERA, Steamer 3.75

The Reds traded from their rotation depth this winter, and while some of that was frustration that their formula for success hadn’t generated that much of it, the knowledge that they would be getting Homer Bailey back from the DL and had Cingrani ready to step into a full-time gig didn’t hurt. Pitching in the homer-happy Gap, the venue will never be the lefty Cingrani’s friend, not unless he improves his ground-ball rate. But he has the tools to help himself: consistent low-90s heat and a slider hitters pound into the ground. The hope is that reps will help him improve his touch and separation on his changeup, because he could use better depth in his off-speed arsenal to upset hitters’ timing.

8. Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays: 3.86 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.28, Steamer 3.75

This is going to be fun. Just standing there, Stroman is not the sort of guy whom prospect mavens drool over. Righties standing 5-foot-9 almost automatically get written off as relievers-to-be, not rotation regulars. But between good velocity (fastball sits around 93-94 mph) and a solid five-pitch assortment, he fills the bottom half of the zone with strikes and brings the game down to his level, posting a 4-1 K-BB ratio. You can add in that his already excellent debut season could have been even better with stronger defensive support (2.84 FIP), while ESPN Stats & Information’s Mark Simon reports that Stroman posted the third-lowest hard-hit rate in the majors among pitchers who threw 100 innings last season, just 10.9 percent. Back in the day, a lot of people said that Tim Lincecum was too short, and while there’s only one Freak, we may end up saying there’s only one Marcus Stroman too.

9. Kyle Gibson, Twins: 5.04 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.99 ERA, Steamer 4.55

This may not be as easy a case to make, but he is a prime example of what has become an organizational type for the Twins, a huge strike-thrower who pounds away low and outside and keeps his infield busy, sort of a bigger version of Scott Erickson with even better command. As ESPN Stats & Info’s Mark Simon tweeted earlier this month, Gibson kept some pretty extraordinary company last year, tying for second in the majors in starts with seven or more innings pitched and no runs allowed with six. If the Twins’ infield defense jells this year, he’ll stay on that list.

10. Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees: 4.38 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.65 ERA, Steamer 4.44

Eovaldi is already in his third organization before he has even faced his first spin with arbitration, which to keep the cup half-full says something about his desirability. It’s easy to love someone with a high-70s curve, high-80s slider and high-90s fastball, but as Keith Law has pointed out, despite a good amount of experience he’s still very much a work in progress, looking to gain touch on his curve and change. He faded badly down the stretch after carrying a heavy first-half workload, but per FanGraphs he was also let down by his defense, ranking seventh in the majors in differential between his FIP and ERA in 2014. Pitching in New York against tough American League East lineups with the DH won’t make matters any easier, but handled with care, he could blossom into a workhorse.

Relievers to mention because they’re people too: Neil Ramirez of the Cubs and Carter Capps of the Marlins. Yes, high-90s heat is always going to turn heads, and yes, they might be one injury away from racking up big saves totals for those of you who worry about that sort of thing.

Finally, I really want to put Tyler Matzek of the Rockies on this list because of his talent, but in the history of formulas for frustration, say you start with a top-shelf young pitching prospect, add Coors Field and you get ... well, here’s hoping things turn out better than they have so far for Jhoulys Chacin. They are both on the list of guys all non-Rockies baseball fans would probably love to see pitching anywhere else but Denver.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
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
11/07/14
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.

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