SweetSpot: Toronto Blue Jays

The other day, SweetSpot TV co-host Eric Karabell said to me, "It seems like a third of managers are hitting their worst hitter first or second."

True or not? Well, here are some examples:
  • The impetus for our discussion was Tony Gwynn Jr., a career .245 hitter with no power who owns a career OPS+ of 75. After Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg benched Ben Revere for dropping two fly balls, Gywnn took over in center -- and took over Revere's leadoff spot for four games. Remember, Gwynn wasn't even in the majors last season.
  • When Toronto lost Maicer Izturis to an injury, the Jays called up Munenori Kawasaki. In his first game, he hit second, which sabermetricians will say is one of the spots you want your best hitter (second or fourth). So one day he's not good enough to be on the team, the next day manager John Gibbons hits him second. In over 400 career plate appearances, Kawasaki has hit .221/.307/.288. Instead of leaving Edwin Encarnacion batting fifth, why not just move everyone up? Jose Bautista second, Adam Lind third and Encarnacion fourth?
  • The Padres have hit Alexi Amarista second three times since Sunday. He hit a home run earlier in the season, but he's still a career .234 hitter with a .280 OBP and little power. On Monday, Amarista hit second, while Will Venable, a good hitter, batted eighth (against a right-hander, so no lefty in play for Venable). Venable is off to a bad start, but still ...
  • Xavier Nady hit cleanup for the Padres on Wednesday night, which maybe says more about the Padres than Bud Black. Nady was out of the majors last year after hitting .184 in 2012. The last time he had an OPS above league average was 2008. But, hey, lightning in a bottle or something, I guess.
  • B.J. Upton continues to hit second for the Braves, as Fredi Gonzalez pulls the opposite of Black and refuses to react to small sample sizes (Andrelton Simmons, off to a .333 start with no strikeouts, hit eighth Wednesday). Of course, there is last year's sample size for Upton to consider.
  • The Royals called up Johnny Giavotella last week for one game. He hit second.
  • Buck Showalter has hit Delmon Young second four times. Against a left-hander, I guess I could reluctantly accept that. But three of those games were against a right-hander. Young had a .293 OBP last year against righties. In 2012, it was .279. In 2011, it was .288. He also grounds into a fair number of double plays. But, hey, otherwise he's the perfect No. 2 hitter. (To be fair, Young probably isn't the worst hitter on the Orioles. Boy does that team have some OBP issues. They're third in the AL in batting average but 14th in OBP.)
  • When Michael Bourn started the year on the DL for Cleveland, Nyjer Morgan made the team. He hit leadoff seven games. He actually played well (.348), but when Bourn returned Morgan was sent down to the minors. Terry Francona did catch a little lightning there.
  • Bryan Price, of course, continues to hit Billy Hamilton leadoff. But he's not even the Reds' worst hitter right now: That's Zack Cozart and his .109 average. Plus, Price has moved Joey Votto up to the No. 2 spot, so he deserves credit for a solid sabermetric-approved decision there.
  • The Marlins have hit Adeiny Hechavarria first or second five times in 16 games.
  • Derek Jeter has hit leadoff once and second 10 times. (I kid, I kid!)

Look, it's early and these are just a few scattershot examples. If Upton continues to hit .180 and Simmons .300, Gonzalez will make a change soon enough. None of these are Alcides Escobar-type situations yet, when Ned Yost was still hitting Escobar second into July last season despite a sub-.280 OBP.

Still, with all the information that front offices use -- and some of that has filtered down to the field level (such as all the shifting that now takes place) -- it's still strange that managers continue to muck up the batting order or overreact to a few games. The odd thing is most managers probably obsess over this as much as any part of their job. I still think they're too beholden to the conventional approach of a fast guy hitting leadoff and then your two best hitters batting third and fourth. Because usually want a decent hitter following their two best hitters, that often leaves a mediocre guy batting second.

The other problem? There just aren't enough good hitters these days to fill out a perfect lineup card.

Needless to say, there are some kinks to be worked out in the replay system and the new rule about home plate collisions.

A complicated issue arose in Tuesday night's Astros-Blue Jays game. Here's the play in question: Eighth inning, L.J. Hoes on third, Dexter Fowler hits a trickler back to the pitcher, play at home plate.

OK, it's a bang-bang play and Hoes is called out. But did Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro block the plate before he had the ball? Rule 7.13 states "The catcher may not block the path of the runner attempting to score unless he has possession of the ball." The overhead camera angle clearly shows Navarro standing in front of the plate before he receives the throw from pitcher Brett Cecil. On the other hand, once Navarro did catch the ball, he does sort of sidestep out of the way and appears to give Hoes just enough of a lane to slide to a corner of the plate. But I can see this either way, since Hoes certainly didn't have a path to the entire width of the plate. Rule 7.13 also states that "all calls are based on the umpire's judgment."

Anyway, Astros manager Bo Porter came out to discuss the call, and this is where things apparently got even more confusing. According to Evan Drellich's blog at the Houston Chronicle, Porter asked that both the tag itself and Navarro blocking the plate be reviewed. But Porter said he didn't challenge the play:
"That wasn’t a challenge. It was after the sixth inning, so it was more to the umpires' discretion. One, I felt like [Navarro] blocked the plate before he had the ball. And two, I thought Hoes cut underneath the tag. I felt like he tagged him a little high. I thought his foot may have gotten in there.

"After the sixth inning, you know, it's to the umpires' discretion. They can decide to go look at it. Now, I asked them to go look at it, and because it's the seventh to the ninth inning, they decided that it's a close enough play that they should go look at it."

Except the umpires viewed it as Porter issuing a challenge, since he hadn't used his earlier in the game. And they reviewed only whether Hoes had scored before Navarro applied the tag -- not whether Navarro had blocked the plate.

Did the umpires make the correct call? Navarro did tag Hoes in time, which the replay confirmed. According to the rules, blocking the plate -- since it's a judgment call -- cannot be challenged by the manager. The umpires can check the replay on blocking the plate at their discretion but did not do so in this case. It appears they got the technical aspect of reviewing the play correct; it had to be considered an official challenge by Porter, and they didn't have to review the block since it was a judgment call.

In the end, this type of play at home plate remains a good old-fashioned judgment call by the umpires. There's a gray area that I think is ultimately unavoidable. There are going to be obvious cases of the catcher blocking the plate illegally at some point, but I don't think this was one, so I reluctantly say the umps got it right.
1. Tony Cingrani

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

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

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

Tony Cingrani ESPN Stats & Info
2. James Paxton

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

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

James Paxton ESPN Stats & Info
3. Mark Buehrle

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

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

Mark BuehrleESPN Stats & Info
Welcome back, Tim Hudson, even if you do look a little strange in that Giants uniform.

In a day and evening of masterful starting pitching performances, Hudson’s may have been the most important. Making his first regular-season start since that gruesome fractured ankle ended his season last July, Hudson’s debut with the Giants was brilliant, that great sinker of his dipping and diving and leaving the Diamondbacks flailing at air and pounding worm burners into the ground.

Hudson threw 103 pitches in his 7 2/3 innings, 74 strikes, and put a zero in the run column while allowing three hits and no walks as the Giants won 2-0. Fifteen of his outs were registered via a groundball (eight) or strikeout (seven). At 38 and coming off a serious injury, there had to be some question marks about what Hudson could bring a Giants rotation that struggled last season behind ace Madison Bumgarner. How good was he? His Game Score of 80 was Hudson’s highest since throwing eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts on Sept. 17, 2011.

Hudson went 8-7 with a 3.97 ERA in 21 starts for the Braves last year and the Giants need that kind of performance -- or something a little better. The Giants’ rotation last year was pretty much a disaster, despite its “We won two World Series” reputation. Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong took the brunt of the punishment, but Matt Cain struggled for two months and Tim Lincecum’s ERA was also over 4.00. As a group, the Giants ranked 22nd in rotation ERA and 27th in FanGraphs WAR -- worse than the Twins or Cubs.

For one game at least, it was vintage Hudson. And that’s a wonderful thing.

* * * *

Welcome back, Michael Wacha. Last year’s October rookie sensation picked up where he left off (well, we’ll ignore that final World Series start) with 6 2/3 scoreless innings, three hits allowed and seven K’s. Wacha's changeup was just as dominant as last season as the Reds went 0-for-10 against it with four strikeouts. He may not even have been the best pitcher in the game, however. Fellow sophomore Tony Cingrani, with his deceptive motion and array of high fastballs (75 of his 92 pitches were fastballs, almost all of them up in the zone), was sensational for the Reds, striking out nine while allowing two hits in his seven innings. The Reds finally scraped across a run in the bottom of the ninth, with Chris Heisey’s pinch-hit single off Carlos Martinez with bases loaded winnng it. With two 1-0 games already in the books, you get the feeling the Cardinals and Reds are going to play a lot of tense, low-scoring games against each other.

* * * *

What kind of night was it? Wacha and Cingrani may not have been the most impressive young pitchers on the evening. Seattle’s James Paxton, who impressed in four outings last September, looked wicked nasty in an 8-2 win over the Angels. He tossed seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and two hits, touching 98 on the radar gun, throwing 97 in the seventh inning and inducing several ugly looking swings from the Angels. Paxton’s command has always been the issue coming up with through minors but 64 of his 99 pitches were strikes. Not all of those were in the strike zone (42 percent were classified as in the zone), as he got the Angels chasing his two-seamer that often tailed out of the zone. His fastball really rides in on right-handed batters and he used his curveball as his out pitch -- five of his nine K’s came off his curve. The Mariners swept the Angels in impressive fashion.

* * * *

Then there was Mark Buehrle, who registered just the second double-digit strikeout game of his career with 11 Ks in Toronto's 3-0 win over the Rays -- one short of his career high set way back in 2005. Unlike Paxton, he did not reach 98 mph. In fact, his fastest pitch of the night was 83.8 mph. Like Paxton though, just 42 percent of the pitches he threw were actually in the strike zone. Paxton got hitters to chase due to his pure stuff; Buehrle got hitters to chase because he’s one smart, wily veteran who still knows how to pitch.

* * * *

P.S.: In a day game, Matt Garza and Aaron Harang both took no-hitters into the seventh.

P.P.S: I didn’t even mention Max Scherzer.

P.P.P.S: Closers, on the hand, were brutal. They blew six saves.

The Blue Jays started 10-18 last April and Jose Reyes' hamstring injury has Eric and myself wondering if they're doomed for another bad start.
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

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

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

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

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

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

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

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

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

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

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

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

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

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

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

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

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

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

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

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.
A few quick thoughts as we continue to count down to Opening Day ...
  • It's always fun to see 22-5 scores, even in spring training -- especially when the game happens in Florida and not Arizona. That was the Pirates beating the Blue Jays as they racked up 29 hits, including 21 in 5.2 innings against JA Happ and Esmil Rogers. Happ's poor spring -- he's allowed 21 hits and 16 runs in seven innings while walking more than he's struck out -- has opened up a rotation slot for Drew Hutchison, who was a promising rookie back in 2012 before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Like everyone else, I see the Jays' rotation as one big question mark: R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle both posted ERAs over 4.00 last year and will be 39 and 35; Brandon Morrow pitched 54 innings last year; Hutchison has yet to prove himself at the major league level; the fifth spot is from the likes of Dustin McGowan, Todd Redmond and Happ, as Ricky Romero still can't throw strikes. In the tough AL East, that group just doesn't any inspire much confidence to call the Jays a playoff contender.
  • The Rangers are in the news with a bunch of stuff: Yu Darvish's stiff neck means he'll miss his Opening Day start, which probably now goes to Martin Perez; former closer Neftali Feliz was optioned to Triple-A; Robbie Ross pitched scoreless innings on Tuesday against the Indians, perhaps paving the way for him to get some starts in April as the Rangers wait on Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis. Speaking of that rotation, Tanner Scheppers is the third starter behind Darvish and Perez. Joe Saunders is apparently the favorite for the fourth spot even though he currently has a tired arm. I have my doubts as Scheppers as a starter (and definitely on Saunders, strong arm or tired arm). Yes, Scheppers has that power arm and put up a 1.88 ERA in relief last year, but this is a guy who only started eight games in the minors and while the ERA was nice last year as a reliever, his strikeout rate was below average for a reliever (59 in 76.2 innings). I'm not sure he has the secondary pitches and command to pitch deep into games. Meanwhile, poor Alexi Ogando is back in the bullpen. I don't remember a pitcher who has been handled this way before. He started in 2011 and pitched well (3.51 ERA); he went to the bullpen in 2012 and pitched well (3.27 ERA); he was back starting primarily in 2013 and pitched well (3.11 ERA, although injuries limited him to 104 innings). He started this spring but didn't pitch well and now may serve as the setup guy to Joakim Soria.
  • The Pirates optioned first baseman/outfielder Andrew Lambo to Triple-A, clearing room for journeyman Travis Ishikawa to make the team as the platoon partner at first base with Gaby Sanchez. Lambo hit .095 this spring while Ishikawa has hit .333 with three home runs ... because good results in 24 at-bats means something. Ishikawa is regarded as a plus defender but owns a .260/.324/.398 career mark in the majors in 859 plate appearances. His one stint at regular playing time came with the Giants in 2009. He hit .290/.389/.465 in Triple-A last year, so he probably won't be a complete disaster but a team trying to upend the Cardinals isn't going to do that with Travis Ishikawa playing first base.
  • Assuming Francisco Liriano's tight groin allows him to start Opening Day, the Pirates' first-week rotation is also, with Liriano, Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez scheduled to pitch the first series against the Cubs, with Gerrit Cole and Edinson Volquez in the four and five spots. While it may seem a little strange to start Morton and Rodriguez ahead of Cole, putting Cole at No. 4 does allow him to start against the Cardinals in the second series. I'm not sure if that's Clint Hurdle's reasoning or if he's simply putting the veterans ahead of the second-year righty, but it's not the worst idea. Back in the day, managers users to manipulate their rotations more so their best starters pitched more often against the best teams. But it's all about a strict rotation these days (and has been for about three decades).
  • No, you don't need to get your eyes checked. That was Verlander pinch-running and playing right field for the Tigers on Tuesday -- Ben Verlander, younger brother of Justin. He was a 14th-round pick last June from Old Dominion but hit just .219 in the New York-Penn League.
  • The Nationals released Jamey Carroll. At 40, this may be it for him. He was a 14th-round pick of the Expos way back in 1996 and didn't reach the majors until he was 28. He hung around long enough to finish with 1,000 career hits, however, and it's fair to say that few players have gotten more out of their abilities than Carroll.
Some stuff to check out ...
  • With the season-ending injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, and the delayed start to Mike Minor's season, it was a little surprising the Braves cut Freddy Garcia, who you may remember actually started a playoff game last year for the Braves. He was a non-roster invite to camp but they instead decided to go with 25-year-old rookie Gus Schlosser, a 17th-round pick in 2011 who posted a 2.39 ERA in 25 starts in Double-A in 2013. Despite the impressive numbers in Double-A, Baseball America didn't rank him as one of the Braves' top 30 prospects, even though his fastball reaches the low 90s. He's a sidearmer so has to prove he has an out pitch against left-handers. Martin Gandy of Chop County has his thoughts on the decision.
  • Interesting little graphic from FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine on MLB's youth movement. Neil checked the percentage of overall MLB WAR contributed by players 25-and-younger each season since 1976. Neil writes: "In 2013, about 28 percent of all Wins Above Replacement were created by the under-25 set. That was the ninth-largest share for any season since 1976. Output from youngsters has been on the upswing since the mid-to-late 1990s, when the percentage of WAR from young players hit its nadir. That nadir happened to occur at the height of baseball’s so-called steroid era."
  • Last week, It's About the Money had a good series comparing the Yankees to their AL East rivals, reaching out to the other blogs on the SweetSpot network. Here's a look at Yankees-Red Sox, plus Yankees-Blue Jays, Yankees-Rays and Yankees-Orioles.
  • Mike Petriello of FanGraphs (and a contributor to ESPN Insider) with a good piece on Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who uses advanced data on pitch location to try and improve his pitch framing. Ellis admits his weakness has always been the low pitch but he likes the data, telling Mike, "The thing I like about the pitch framing stats, which I need some more information on how they determine what it is, at least it’s giving me a number, a bar, so I know where I’m at right now, and at the end of the year I can check and see, 'hey, did I get better?'" At the SABR Analytics conference two weeks ago in Arizona, Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy estimated 5 to 10 percent of major leaguers would know what FIP is. As Ellis shows, that number will only rise in the future.
  • Speaking of the SABR Analytics conference, Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus looks at the big questions to come out of the conference.
  • Richard Bergstrom of Rockies Zingers writes about Rockies co-GM Bill Geivett, who was on the GM's panel at the conference.
  • Grantland's Jonah Keri had a long conversation with A's general manager Billy Beane and owner Lew Wolff.
  • Chris Jones of ESPN The Magazine with a feature on Royals coach Mike Jirschele, who spent 36 years playing, coaching and managing in the minors. But spending so long in the bushes was hardly the toughest thing Jirschele had to deal with.
  • Ryan P. Morrison of Inside the 'Zona on the Diamondbacks' first two losses in Australia to the Dodgers.
  • Brandon Land of One Strike Away on the Rangers' spring injuries, including Jurickson Profar's shoulder issues.
  • Nick Kirby of Redleg Nation with Part 1 of a two-part NL Central preview. This part examines the lineups and pitching staff of all five clubs.
  • Marc W. at the U.S.S. Mariner has an involved look at James Paxton and his high groundball rates in his four starts last season for the Mariners -- despite pitching primarily up in the strike zone. It's sort of about Paxton but it's also about how pitching in general works.
  • Finally, can the Astros make the playoffs? Well ... Baseball Prospectus ran through 50,000 simulations of the 2014 season and the Astros won the AL West in 0.4 percent of them and made the playoffs 1.3 percent of the time. Sam Miller checks out at those "playoff" seasons, including season No. 33913 in which the Astros won 99 games. You never know!

Team over/unders: Best bets

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
Listed below is each team's over/under win total from Bovada.lv. For each group of five teams, I'll ask you to vote on which one is the best bet to exceed its win total. Wisdom of the crowds, right?

(By the way, if the win totals seem low, they're not. There are 2,430 major league games ... the win totals actually add up to 2,443; so if anything, they're a tiny bit too high.)


Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?


Discuss (Total votes: 15,858)

30. Astros: 62.5
29. Cubs: 69.5
28. Marlins: 69.5
27. Twins: 70.5
26. Mets: 73.5

I'm going with the Marlins here. The infield is a bit of train wreck on offense, but I think the young rotation with Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez and Jacob Turner could be very good. A full season from Christian Yelich and a healthier season from Giancarlo Stanton will help, and they've added a couple of bats in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Garrett Jones, who aren't great but are better than what they had last season.


Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?


Discuss (Total votes: 13,837)

25. White Sox: 75.5
24. Rockies: 76.5
23. Phillies: 76.5
22. Padres: 78.5
21. Brewers: 79.5

I'll reluctantly go with the Padres here. They don't have individual star power, but I think their 25-man depth should push them over .500. The White Sox could certainly be interesting if Jose Abreu proves to be the real deal, but 75.5 wins is still 12.5 more than 2013. The Brewers are tempting with the return of Ryan Braun and the addition of Matt Garza, but Jean Segura's second-half fade is a concern and I don't like the righty-heavy nature of the lineup.


Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?


Discuss (Total votes: 15,014)

20. Blue Jays: 79.5
19. Diamondbacks: 80.5
18. Orioles: 80.5
17. Indians: 80.5
16. Mariners: 81.5

You can make pretty good arguments for four of these teams. The Mariners? Not so much. I'm going with the Diamondbacks -- hey, maybe they can go 81-81 for the third season in a row! Arizona has a star in Paul Goldschmidt, two elite defenders in the outfield in Gerardo Parra and A.J. Pollock, a guy in Mark Trumbo who could hit 40 home runs and some players returning from injury. Rookie Archie Bradley could provide a nice midseason lift to the rotation, as well, and the bullpen looks deeper with the addition of Addison Reed.


Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?


Discuss (Total votes: 15,370)

15. Royals: 81.5
14. Pirates: 83.5
13. Reds: 84.5
12. Giants: 86.5
11. Angels: 86.5

The oddsmakers are projecting some regression from the Royals, Pirates and Reds. One note on the Royals: From June 1 on, they had the second-best record in the majors behind the Dodgers. They've made some minor additions with the likes of Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki to help improve an offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored. The concern: They allowed just 601 runs last year, the second-lowest total in the AL in the past two decades. They will likely allow more than that in 2014. Can the offense make up for it? I think so. I'll take the over for the Royals.


Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?


Discuss (Total votes: 16,627)

10. Yankees: 86.5
9. Rangers: 86.5
8. Braves: 87.5
7. Red Sox: 87.5
6. Nationals: 88.5

Hmm ... considering I have the Nationals winning the NL East, I'll go with them. They did win 86 games last season, so I can certainly see a three-win improvement (and more). On the other hand, it's not like any of the regulars had a terrible season, or that we should expect obvious improvement from somebody. But the bench was horrible last year and will be better. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon should play and are solid bets to improve. Doug Fister adds another quality arm to the rotation. I like them to win 90-plus games.


Which team is the best bet to exceed its over/under win total?


Discuss (Total votes: 16,376)

5. Rays: 88.5
4. A's: 88.5
3. Tigers: 89.5
2. Cardinals: 90.5
1. Dodgers: 92.5

Five playoff teams from last year. So we're essentially asking: Which team is the best bet to return to the playoffs? I'm going with the Cardinals here, since I do have them as my No. 1 overall team heading into the season. I like their depth across the board: Position players, rotation and bullpen. I like their youth. I think the Pirates and Reds are a little weaker than last season. St. Louis won 97 games last year and I wouldn't be shocked to see the Cardinals do it again.

Lineup discussion: AL East

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
In our continuing discussion of lineups, let's move over to the American League and the division with the deepest group of lineups in the majors.

Boston Red SoxBoston Red Sox

Key question: Who replaces Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot? The Red Sox scored 56 more runs than the Tigers to easily lead the majors in runs scored. With Ellsbury having a solid season, the Red Sox ranked fourth in leadoff on-base percentage. Who fills his shoes? For now, manager John Farrell has indicated Daniel Nava will lead off against right-handers (.390 career OBP versus righties) and Shane Victorino versus left-handers (.373 career OBP versus lefties).

Projected lineup
Daniel Nava, LF
Shane Victorino, RF
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
David Ortiz, DH
Mike Napoli, 1B
A.J. Pierzynski, C
Xander Bogaerts, SS
Will Middlebrooks, 3B
Jackie Bradley Jr., CF

Jonny Gomes is back to platoon with Nava in left field, and David Ross forms a perfect platoon partner for Pierzynski at catcher. Bogaerts has the ability to move up in the order if he shows the same patience and discipline he displayed in the playoffs. Don't be surprised if he's hitting second at some point in the season.

Suggestion: The switch-hitting Victorino has always been better from the right side. Last year, he was forced to hit exclusively from the right side down the stretch due to hamstring and back issues. And guess what? He hit .300/.386/.510 in 115 plate appearances hitting right-on-right. His grand slam in Game 6 of the ALCS came against a right-hander. His three-run double in Game 6 of the World Series came off righty Michael Wacha. Yes, it's only 100 at-bats, but it's much better than what Victorino has done from the left side in his career. He says he won't get away from switch-hitting, but maybe he should.

Tampa Bay RaysTampa Bay Rays

Key question: Where does Wil Myers hit? Joe Maddon moved his prized rookie all around the lineup in 2013 -- 25 times in the cleanup spot, 20 times in the fifth spot, 21 times batting sixth, plus 19 times batting second or third. In the postseason, he hit second, third and fourth. So your guess is as good as mine. Considering Maddon used 147 different lineups last year, we can probably expect a lot of moving around again.

Projected lineup
David DeJesus, LF
Ben Zobrist, 2B
Evan Longoria, 3B
Wil Myers, RF
Matt Joyce, DH
James Loney, 1B
Desmond Jennings, CF
Yunel Escobar, SS
Ryan Hanigan, C

I suspect the only guarantees here are that Zobrist, Longoria and Myers will fill three of the first four spots. DeJesus could lead off against right-handers, with Jennings or Zobrist moving up to the leadoff spot when DeJesus is benched against lefties. Hanigan and Jose Molina will share time behind the plate, but both hit right-handed, so it won't be a strict platoon (although Hanigan has a career .393 OBP against left-handers).

Suggestion: I don't think Maddon needs any suggestions.

Baltimore OriolesBaltimore Orioles

Key question: Who takes over the leadoff spot? Nate McLouth started there 108 times last year, but he left as a free agent. Nick Markakis seems to be the likely choice, but that points to some issues with the Baltimore lineup: Only Chris Davis had an OBP higher than .335 last season and McLouth (30 steals) and Adam Jones (14) were the only two with double-digit stolen base totals.


Which team has the best lineup in the AL East?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,954)

Projected lineup
Nick Markakis, RF
Manny Machado, 3B
Adam Jones, CF
Chris Davis, 1B
Matt Wieters, C
J.J. Hardy, SS
David Lough, LF
Designated hitter
Second baseman

The Orioles hit home runs -- 212 of them last year, 24 more than any other team. But they ranked just 10th in the AL in OBP and were thus fourth in the league in runs scored. Davis actually spent most of last season hitting fifth (101 starts there) before Buck Showalter finally realized you shouldn't have your best hitter batting fifth. He and Jones will hit third and fourth in some order (they could switch back and forth depending on the starting pitcher). The big problem is the fifth spot, as neither Wieters (.287 OBP) nor Hardy (.306 OBP) get on base much.

Suggestion: Take a few pitches. The Orioles were 14th in walks last season. Maybe that's not a surprise considering hitting coach Jim Presley wasn't exactly known for his patient approach at the plate during his big league days. Jones and Machado each drew fewer than 30 walks in 700 plate appearances, ranking third and ninth in lowest walk percentage among regulars. Jones is probably what he’s going to be at this point, but at least Machado is young enough to improve.

New York YankeesNew York Yankees

Key question: How many more runs can this lineup be expected to score? The Yankees scored 650 runs last year -- their lowest total since scoring 603 in 1990 (where have you gone, Oscar Azocar?). Baseball Prospectus projects the Yankees to score 716 runs, a total that would have ranked eighth in the AL in 2013.

Projected lineup
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Derek Jeter, SS
Carlos Beltran, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Brian McCann, C
Alfonso Soriano, DH
Brett Gardner, LF
Kelly Johnson, 3B
Brian Roberts, 2B

That looks a lot better than Lyle Overbay, Chris Stewart and Vernon Wells. But they're also missing one of the best hitters in the league with the departure of Robinson Cano. I suspect we'll see Gardner hitting first or second quite often -- when Ellsbury or Jeter gets a day, when Ellsbury gets hurt or if Jeter struggles. You'll see Beltran getting time at DH with Soriano playing a little outfield. With so many old guys and injury risks, the bench -- Brendan Ryan, Eduardo Nunez, Ichiro Suzuki -- will get plenty of playing time.

Suggestion: Jeter was great in 2012 -- he lead the league with 216 hits -- but in 2011 and 2010 he was pretty worthless against right-handed pitchers, hitting .261/.322/.326. Joe Giradi needs to manage the player and not the legend. If Jeter hits like that again -- and that's a more likely result than the .294/.346/.377 he put up against righties in 2012 -- Girardi shouldn't hesitate to move Jeter down against right-handers and move up Gardner or Beltran to the 2-hole.

Toronto Blue JaysToronto Blue Jays

Key question: Will they stay healthy? Only three guys played at least 120 games last year: Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia. Thankfully, Arencibia and his .227 OBP are gone (it was the second-lowest OBP since 1901 for a player with at least 475 plate appearances). With better health, you can expect the Jays to score more than 712 runs.

Projected lineup
Jose Reyes, SS
Melky Cabrera, LF
Jose Bautista, RF
Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
Adam Lind, DH
Colby Rasmus, CF
Brett Lawrie, 3B
Dioner Navarro, C
Ryan Goins, 2B

It will be interesting to see what John Gibbons does with the second slot. Cabrera started there last year but was moved down when he didn't hit. For most of May through late July, he hit Bautista second and Encarnacion third. Even though Lind was having a good year, Gibbons later went back to hitting those three guys 3-4-5 (at least until Bautista went down for the year in late August) and sort of punting the No. 2 spot.

Suggestion: If Cabrera doesn't hit closer to what he did in 2011 and 2012, how about Rasmus for the second spot? Yes, he strikes out a lot, but his .276/.338/.501 line would be nice higher up in the order.

AL East showdown: Red Sox vs. Blue Jays

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
The Boston Red Sox come into the 2014 season as the defending American League East champions. Not only do they have the World Series target on their backs, they also have four divisional foes trying to unseat them as champs. Over the next few days, we will compare the champs to each challenger within the division in a Tale of the Tape format. All listed player projections are from Dan Szymborski's ZiPS machine. First up, the Toronto Blue Jays.

2013 Final Record
  • Boston: 97-65
  • Toronto: 74-88
2014 Projected Standings from Baseball Prospectus
  • Boston: 89-73
  • Toronto: 80-82
Key Additions
  • Boston: A.J. Pierzynski, Grady Sizemore, Edward Mujica, Burke Badenhop
  • Toronto: Dioner Navarro
Key Losses
  • Boston: Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia
  • Toronto: J.P. Arencibia, Rajai Davis, Josh Johnson, Mark DeRosa, Darren Oliver
Boston decided to move on from Saltalamacchia and replaced him with Pierzynski (.312 wOBA). Pierzynski and David Ross (.288 wOBA) give the club a very experienced as well as aged duo at the position. Pierzysnki has played at least 125 games for 12 consecutive seasons and is coming off his best two-year run at the plate of his career. When he has been catching, opposing baserunners have converted 71 percent of their stolen base attempts, going 125 of 176.

Toronto decided to not tender Arencibia a contract and replaced him with Navarro (.319 wOBA). After Navarro's All-Star appearance in 2008, he has been granted free agency by Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and the Cubs, and released by the Dodgers. Navarro maximized his opportunities in limited playing time last season hitting 13 home runs in just 240 at-bats. That surprising total was a result of a career-best 18 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio and hitting nine of his 13 home runs at Wrigley Field. Navarro has not played more than 100 games at catcher since 2009. Josh Thole (.296 wOBA) remains to receive R.A. Dickey’s offerings every fifth day.

Advantage -- Boston

The strength of the Boston infield is on its right side. Mike Napoli (.350 wOBA) and Dustin Pedroia (.340 wOBA) combined for 25 runs saved defensively while providing above league-average production at their respective positions. The left side of the infield is a larger question mark as Boston let Stephen Drew leave via free agency and is entrusting the shortstop position to the talented yet inexperienced Xander Bogaerts (.333 wOBA). Bogaerts earned that role with an impressive showing late in the season and throughout the postseason. Will Middlebrooks (.312 wOBA) showed excellent power but struggled to get on base and cost the team eight runs defensively at third base.

Toronto returns most of its infield from last season that combined to save 20 runs on defense, most of which were by rookie second baseman Ryan Goins (.266 wOBA). The Jays are banking on his glove for his value, believing they have enough offense from other positions. Edwin Encarnacion (.377 wOBA) ended his season with wrist surgery in late September and updates on his recovery from it have been non-existent. Jose Reyes (.333 wOBA) hopes to avoid a serious injury in 2014 as last year's ankle injury prohibited him from exceeding 130 games played for the third time in the past five seasons. Brett Lawrie (.333 wOBA) played some of his best baseball in the second half.

Advantage -- even

Boston is asking a lot from Jackie Bradley Jr. (.308 wOBA) to fill Jacoby Ellsbury's shoes in center. Ellsbury, who was worth 9.1 and 5.8 wins above replacement in his two most recent full seasons, also saved 13 runs defensively last season. Manager John Farrell platooned Jonny Gomes (.327 wOBA) and Daniel Nava (.322 wOBA) as they managed the intricacies of playing left field in Fenway Park. Shane Victorino was everything the club expected and more in right field, fighting through injuries to save 24 runs in right field while providing above-average offensive production over 122 games. Reclamation project Grady Sizemore and Mike Carp offer depth from the bench.

The Toronto outfielders combined to save 15 runs, with Colby Rasmus (.334 wOBA) doing most of the work from center. Rasmus had his best offensive season since 2010 despite playing just 118 games. Like Rasmus, slugger Jose Bautista (.385 wOBA) was limited to 118 games, marking the fourth time in the past six seasons he has failed to play in at least 130 games. Melky Cabrera (.327 wOBA) returns from a myriad of health issues last season, including the removal of a benign tumor near his spine in September. Anthony Gose (.292 wOBA), Kevin Pillar (.289 wOBA), and Moises Sierra (.302 wOBA) round out the potential outfield depth chart that has been tested heavily in recent seasons.

Advantage -- Toronto


Which team will win more games?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,766)

Starting Rotation
Boston enjoys the rare luxury of being able to return its entire starting rotation a season after winning it all. Jon Lester (197.2 IP, 3.77 FIP), John Lackey (166 IP, 4.10 FIP), Clay Buchholz (128.2 IP, 3.89 FIP) and Jake Peavy (149.1 IP, 3.67 FIP) give the club a formidable foursome. There are a few names in play for the final spot such as Ryan Dempster (149 IP, 4.44 FIP), Felix Doubront (137.1 IP, 4.15 FIP) Brandon Workman (124 IP, 4.49 FIP) and Drake Britton (3.77 in the minors) in play. Boston enjoys depth at this position in the upper levels of the organization.

Toronto expects a better season from R.A. Dickey (195.2 IP, 4.28 FIP). Last season, he was dogged by an upper back issue that reduced the effectiveness of the knuckleball. A return to health in the second half saw his strikeout rate jump 5 percent. Mark Buehrle (168.2 IP, 4.37 FIP) was the only other starter who made more than 20 starts. The club needs Brandon Morrow (125.2 IP, 3.79 FIP) to make 30 starts, something that he has done just once in the past four seasons. JA Happ (125 IP, 4.52 FIP) should own the fourth spot in the rotation while the likes of Esmil Rogers (112 IP, 4.57 FIP), Todd Redmond (119.2 IP, 5.46 FIP) and Drew Hutchison (59.1 IP, 4.61 FIP in 2012) compete for the final spot.

Advantage -- Boston

The bullpen is anchored by Koji Uehara (52.1 IP, 2.10 FIP), who has had a 1.93 ERA over the past four seasons and has struck out 35 percent of the batters he has faced. The only concern with him is that he has yet to throw more than 50 innings in consecutive seasons. Perhaps that is why Boston signed Edward Mujica (63 IP, 3.54 FIP) to give them a strong insurance policy a season after watching both Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan go down with injuries. Junichi Tazawa (73.1 IP, 3.41 FIP) should again play an effective role out. Craig Breslow (57 IP, 4.01 FIP) and Burke Badenhop (63.2 IP, 3.63 FIP) give the club a strong left/right combination to use in matchup situations to help get the ball to Tazawa, Mujica and Uehara.

The bullpen was the one area in Toronto that excelled in 2013. Closer Casey Janssen (53.1 IP, 3.12 FIP) was quietly fantastic in the role while Brett Cecil (66 IP, 3.32 FIP) had a breakout year. He and Steve Delabar (62.1 IP, 4.12 FIP) each saw their efforts rewarded with a trip to the All-Star Game. Sergio Santos (32 IP, 3.02 FIP) made a successful return from injury and looked like his former dominating self in holding batters to a .131 average with a 28:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Jeremy Jeffress (52.2 IP, 4.54 FIP), Aaron Loup (72.2 IP, 3.61 FIP), Dustin McGowan (35.2 IP, 4.46 FIP), Chad Jenkins and Kyle Drabek are other potential options in the pen.

Advantage -- Boston

Toronto has been rather quiet this offseason as it lacked the flexibility on their 40-man roster and payroll to be a big player on the free agent market. They have been rumored to be in on the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, either of whom would be a welcome addition to a starting staff that has struggled with injuries in recent seasons. Boston has retooled their roster, and while it lacks the shine it had as the 2013 season closed, it is still a strong team on paper and will likely not be threatened by the Blue Jays in 2014.
Let's move on to the next six teams in my pre-spring training power rankings. We're getting into the area of "Hey, if things break right any of those teams could be the surprise team of 2014" territory.

Team rankings: Nos. 30-25 »

New York Mets
24. New York Mets

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 73 more runs, allow 72 fewer. Of course, allowing 72 fewer runs will be much more difficult without Matt Harvey.

Big offseason moves: Signed P Bartolo Colon, OF Curtis Granderson and OF Chris Young.

Most intriguing player: Zack Wheeler showcased electric stuff in his 17 starts as a rookie, although the command was shaky at times and the offspeed stuff inconsistent. With Harvey sidelined for the season, the spotlight turns to Wheeler. He has to keep his composure and not try to do too much, improve his curveball or changeup and throw more first-pitch strikes. He has ace potential, although his control may never reach the level needed to get there. The Mets will be happy if he develops into a No. 2 who can give you 200 innings.

Due for a better year: I'd say Ike Davis but he's always due for a better year and Lucas Duda is probably the better bet to win the first-base job with Davis dealt at the end of spring training. Ruben Tejada is the shortstop by default, barring a last-minute Stephen Drew signing and he should bounce back from a miserable .202/.259/.260 line. How quickly Mets fans forget that he hit .289/.333/.351 in 2012.

Due for a worse year: The Mets signed Colon to help chew up innings in the absence of Harvey, but no way will he repeat the 2.65 ERA he had with Oakland last season. He'll be 41 in May and doesn't appear to be keen on eating green leafy vegetables and protein shakes. Colon pumps fastball after fastball, getting just enough late movement to induce weak contact. Still, his peripherals didn't match the ERA -- he had a 3.43 ERA the year before with similar numbers -- so I expect a decline in both results and workload (he pitched his most innings -- 190.1 -- since 2005).


Will the Mets finish over .500 for the first time since 2008?


Discuss (Total votes: 15,593)

I'm just the messenger: While the Mets did dip into the free-agent market to sign Granderson and Young to help in the outfield, remember that in a best-case scenario Granderson really only replaces the production of Marlon Byrd, who hit .285/.330/.518. Granderson did hit 41 home runs in 2011 and 43 in 2012 and he's only 33, so it's not so much that I'm knocking him as pointing out that Byrd had a very good season going when he was traded to the Pirates in late August.

The final word: It's not so much that the Mets are horrible, but that I have trouble seeing a lot of upside here. You're relying on a fat, 41-year-old starter, a guy coming off an injury-riddled year in Granderson, a guy in Young who hit .200, a shortstop who hit .202 last season, a catcher in Travis d'Arnaud who has never been able to stay healthy and a bullpen that doesn't look that deep. Maybe things come together, but I just don't see enough star-level talent here to crack .500.

Prediction: 73-89

Colorado Rockies
23. Colorado Rockies

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 72 more runs, allow 71 fewer. The Rockies were second in the NL in runs scored, so they just need to improve the pitching, right? No, no and no. They need to score more runs as well, especially on the road, where the Rockies went 29-52. Colorado's problem has never been winning at Coors Field; it's been winning away from Coors Field.

Big offseason moves: 1B Todd Helton retired, signed 1B Justin Morneau, traded CF Dexter Fowler to the Astros for SP Jordan Lyles and OF Brandon Barnes, acquired SP Brett Anderson from the A's for P Drew Pomeranz, signed RP Boone Logan, acquired OF Drew Stubbs from the Indians for P Josh Outman.

Most intriguing players: Is this the year shortstop Troy Tulowitzki or outfielder Carlos Gonzalez win an MVP award? Tulo is entering his age-29 season and CarGo his age-28 season. You get the feeling it's now or never for these two to lead the Rockies back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Of course, you have to stay on the field to win an MVP trophy and the two combined to miss 88 games in 2013. And that was a good year for them.

Due for a better season: The back end of the rotation. If there's reason for optimism in Colorado, this is it. The Rockies gave 26 starts to Chad Bettis, Roy Oswalt, Jeff Manship, Collin McHugh and Pomeranz and they went a combined 0-19. They also gave 24 combined starts to Jon Garland (5.82 ERA) and Jeff Francis (6.27 ERA). So they just need the back of the rotation to be respectable.

Due for a worse season: Michael Cuddyer hit .331 to win the NL batting title at the age of 34. Considering he'd never hit .300 before and hit just .260 his first year with the Rockies, he became one of the unlikeliest players to ever win a batting championship.

I'm just the messenger: The Rockies shuffled a lot of deck chairs, but still failed to make two obvious moves. They need to upgrade second base, where DJ LeMahieu hit an empty .280. And with Helton retiring, they should have moved Cuddyer to first base and out of right field, where his range is a liability. Instead, they signed Morneau for two years and $12.5 million and traded Fowler for Lyles, a guy likely to struggle in Coors. Fowler doesn't make that much more than Morneau ($7.85 million in 2014 and then arbitration in 2015), so that transaction didn't make any sense.

Final word: LaTroy Hawkins is the closer. Need I say more? OK, I will. I can certainly envision a scenario where things work out considering how bad the fourth and fifth starters were a year ago. If Tulo and CarGo actually remain healthy for 145 games apiece, Nolan Arenado improves at the plate and Cuddyer repeats his monster season, the offense could be fine. But I just see too many ifs here with guys like Morneau and Anderson to see a playoff team.

Prediction: 74-88

Seattle Mariners
22. Seattle Mariners

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 99 more runs, allow 114 fewer. Robinson Cano ain't doing that all by himself.

Big offseason moves: Signed 2B Robinson Cano, 1B Corey Hart, acquired 1B/OF Logan Morrison from the Marlins for RP Carter Capps, re-signed OF Franklin Gutierrez, signed SP Scott Baker, lost OF Raul Ibanez. DH Kendrys Morales is still a free agent.

Most intriguing player: Cano. So many questions. How will he do away from the limelight of New York? Now that he has his huge contract, will he press? Will he give max effort when he's playing in front of 14,000 fans on a cold night in Seattle in April? Will he hit as well away from Yankee Stadium? Does he have the drive to prove himself as one of the game's greatest second baseman ever? Will he cry when he sees the rest of the lineup around him? Will Jay Z come to Mariners games? Will Cano buy a house next to Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos?

Due for a better year: Justin Smoak? Just kidding. The bullpen ranked 29th in the majors with a 4.58 ERA even though it ranked fourth in strikeout percentage. Strikeouts usually lead to success, so expect better results (the Mariners lost six games they led heading into the ninth inning and went 6-15 in extra innings).

Due for a worse year: Hisashi Iwakuma was a revelation, performing better than Felix Hernandez and finishing third in the AL Cy Young voting. He was as good as Hernandez, but there was some luck involved. Nineteen of the 25 home runs he allowed were solo home runs and he'll be hard-pressed to repeat the .184 average he allowed with runners in scoring position. In Japan, he also had a history of following up good years with years in which he battled injuries. His innings from 2008 through 2011 were 201, 169, 201 and 119. He threw 219.2 in 2013.

I'm just the messenger: According to Defensive Runs Saved, the Mariners were the second-worst defensive team in the majors at 99 runs below average (only the Phillies were worse). The eye test confirms this was the case. The major culprit was an outfield that was predictably horrid at minus-70 runs. Yes, that was what happens when you play Raul Ibanez and Mike Morse out there on a regular basis and move a second baseman to center field midseason. So what did the Mariners do in the offseason? They acquired two first basemen/outfielders with bad knees and are rumored to be interested in the slow-footed Nelson Cruz. Talk about not learning from your mistakes.

Final word: Yes, signing Cano will make the Mariners interesting at the start of the season. But ... well, what else is there? The Mariners are desperately counting on their young players -- Mike Zunino, Brad Miller, Dustin Ackley (is he still a young player?), Justin Smoak (ditto) and Michael Saunders (ditto) to improve -- and all have huge question marks. They're counting on two rookies in Taijuan Walker and James Paxton for the rotation. They hope Hart and Morrison are healthy, but even then they're basically replacing the production Morales provided last year. Cano should be great, but I'm having trouble seeing where the improvement is going to come from unless Walker and Paxton are much better than anticipated.

Prediction: 74-88

Milwaukee Brewers
21. Milwaukee Brewers

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 75 more runs, allow 54 fewer. Playing in Miller Park, which helps hitters, the Brewers have to score more than 640 runs. They scored 721 when they made the playoffs in 2011 and even scored 776 in 2012 when the bullpen imploded.

Big offseason moves: Signed SP Matt Garza, acquired P Will Smith from the Royals for RF Norichika Aoki, signed 1B Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay, Cecil Cooper, Franklin Stubbs and Greg Brock to minor league contracts.

Most intriguing player: Ryan Braun. No offense to Scooter Gennett.

Due for a better year: Braun. What to expect? I think he'll return to being one of the best players in the game, maybe even the 30-30 guy he was in 2011 and 2012 when he finished first and then second in the MVP voting.

Due for a worse year: Carlos Gomez. A revelation last year when he hit 24 home runs, stole 40 bases, hit a career-high .284 while winning a Gold Glove, it's hard to improve on a season in which you led all NL position players in Baseball-Reference WAR (at 8.4, just ahead of Andrew McCutchen's 8.2). But much of that value was tied up in his defense in center field, which by all accounts was tremendous. Gomez was credited with 38 Defensive Runs Saved, the most since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking DRS in 2003. Gomez's offense also tailed off a bit in the second half. He's a good player; I'm just not sure he's one of the top three or four players in the league.

I'm just the messenger: Brewers first basemen ranked last in the majors in OPS with a disgraceful .630 mark -- a figure so low that only three full-time position players were worse in 2013. So how do they attempt to fix this issue? Well, they signed the first baseman from the team with the 28th-worst OPS (Overbay).

Final word: I've been burned by the Brewers the past two seasons so I'm officially off the bandwagon. I see the same kind of team as last year -- top heavy with Braun, Gomez, Jean Segura and Jonathan Lucroy, too right-handed and one that has serious depth issues. Now that I'm picking against them, they'll probably win 90 games.

Prediction: 76-86

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20. San Francisco Giants

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 60 more runs, allow 81 fewer.

Big offseason moves: Re-signed RF Hunter Pence, SP Tim Lincecum and RP Javier Lopez, signed SP Tim Hudson, signed OF Mike Morse.

Most intriguing player: Buster Posey. Will 2012 be Posey's career year? After hitting .336/.408/.549 in 2012, he dropped to .294/.371/.450, not that there's anything wrong with that from a catcher. After playing 148 games two years in a row, Posey looked tired in the second half and hit just .244 with two home runs. He did start 16 games at first and five at DH, so Bruce Bochy did give him rest from squatting, but playing him at first also means sitting Brandon Belt, who had slightly better numbers than Posey.

Due for a better year: Matt Cain went 8-10, 4.00, a big drop from the 2.93 ERA over the previous four years. Cain struggled early on with the long ball, three times allowing three home runs in a game through his first nine starts. From June 7 on, however, he looked more like the old Matt Cain, with a 3.03 ERA. His days as a 220-inning workhorse may be over, but look for his ERA to decrease this season.


How many games will the Giants win?


Discuss (Total votes: 13,122)

Due for a worse year: Hunter Pence's totals of 27 home runs and 99 RBIs were boosted by a huge September in which he hit 11 home runs and drove in 32 runs. Pence is a solid, durable player, and the $90 million the Giants gave him wasn't absurd, but with 4.1 WAR, 2013 may prove to be his best season.

I'm just the messenger: People talk about all that went wrong with the Giants in 2013 -- Angel Pagan's injury, Vogelsong's injury, Barry Zito's general awfulness. But you know what? A lot actually went right. Six regulars played 140 or more games, three starters made 30 starts, Marco Scutaro played well at 37, Belt increased his power and the bullpen was pretty solid.

The final word: Nobody likes veterans more than Giants general manager Brian Sabean. He proved that again by signing free agents Hudson and Morse and bringing Lincecum back on a two-year, $35 million deal even though he's been worth -2.3 WAR over the past two seasons. The deals could work out, but the Giants are betting Hudson recovers from his broken ankle, Cain bounces back, Lincecum pitches like it's 2011 and Vogelsong staying healthy and pitching well. That's too many ifs for me.

Prediction: 78-84

Toronto Blue Jays
19. Toronto Blue Jays

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 51 more runs, allow 81 fewer runs.

Big offseason moves: None. Yet. Many expect the Blue Jays to sign one of the remaining free-agent pitchers. Signed C Dioner Navarro.

Most intriguing player: Jose Bautista. Does the slugger who finished fourth in the 2010 MVP vote and third in 2011 have another big season left in him? Bautista has played just 92 and 118 games the past two seasons, although he still swatted 55 home runs in that time. He still has 40-homer power in his bat but needs to stay healthy. And needs to quit his constant bickering with the umpires.

Due for a better season: The team medical staff. Compare that to what we just said about the Giants. The Blue Jays had just three players reach 120 games played, and unfortunately one of those was J.P. Arencibia, who had a .227 OBP.

Due for a worse season: Relievers Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar both made the All-Star team but struggled with injury issues and results in the second half, Cecil pitching 19 games with a 5.65 ERA, Delabar in 17 games with a 7.02 ERA. The Blue Jays may need some of the other bullpen arms -- like Sergio Santos -- to step up in case the All-Stars don't return to their first-half form.


Which of the following teams is the best bet to make the playoffs?


Discuss (Total votes: 17,944)

I'm just the messenger: The Blue Jays haven't ranked in the top half of the AL in runs allowed since 2008 (when they allowed the fewest). Guys like Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez aren't the perfect solutions, but Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has painted himself into a corner. With a win-now lineup of veterans like Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes and Adam Lind, the Jays need to build a rotation that can win now. And that means taking a chance on at least one free agent ... and not counting on Brandon Morrow to actually make 30 starts again.

The final word: It was just one year ago that the Blue Jays were World Series favorites (oh, how everyone got suckered by that deal with the Marlins), so there is clearly some level of talent here. But the Jays have a wide swing of possibilities considering all the injury issues of 2013 and a rotation that remains a mess behind Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. I'm taking the under but wouldn't be surprised on the over.

Prediction: 78-84
As we wait for Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett, Kendrys Morales and Nelson Cruz to sign, Buster Olney reminds us that there are still a lot of other interesting names out there in free agency, including Jason Hammel, Chris Capuano, Fernando Rodney, Oliver Perez, Tommy Hanson, Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, to name a few. Some of these guys will end up signing minor league contracts with incentives if they're healthy and make a major league roster, like the deal Scott Baker just signed with the Mariners.

With that in mind, let's take a quick scroll through the American League and check out some of the interesting non-roster invitees to spring training.

Boston Red Sox -- Tommy Layne.

The Red Sox list only two non-roster players as of now. Layne is a lefty reliever who used to be with the Padres, and is more of an insurance kind of arm behind Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller.

Tampa Bay Rays -- Jerry Sands, Jayson Nix, Mark Lowe.

Sands is a guy I used to like a bit. He came up with the Dodgers and was traded to the Pirates, and doesn't really have a position although he can be spotted in the outfield and at first base. He has a chance to stick as a right-handed bat off the bench, spelling Matt Joyce and David DeJesus against lefties. Lowe is the kind of arm the Rays always take a chance on.

Baltimore Orioles -- Alexi Casilla, Quintin Berry.

Either could make the team as a bench player.

New York Yankees -- Scott Sizemore.

They have a bunch of pitchers invited and the bullpen is pretty thin so one or two may actually make the team, but Sizemore is the interesting guy here. He missed all of 2012 and nearly all of 2013 after twice tearing his ACL. He hit .245/.342/.399 with the Tigers and A's in 2011, so he's a viable option at third if he can get rid of the rust. Here's more on the Yankees' other non-roster invites from It's About the Money.

Toronto Blue Jays -- Chris Getz, Munenori Kawasaki, Dan Johnson, Andy LaRoche, Tomo Ohka, Juan Perez.

Yes, that Tomo Ohka, who last pitched in the majors in 2009.

Detroit Tigers -- Robbie Ray, Danny Worth, Trevor Crowe.

Ray is the left-hander the Tigers acquired from the Nationals in the Doug Fister trade. He won't break camp with the team but a strong spring could put him in line in case one of the starters goes down.

Cleveland Indians -- Shaun Marcum, David Aardsma, Matt Capps, Scott Atchison, Tyler Cloyd, Jason Giambi, Jeff Francoeur, Elliot Johnson, Nyjer Morgan, Matt Carson, Matt Treanor, Francisco Lindor.

Hands down, the most interesting list of invites. I assume Giambi makes the team again, with Marcum maybe having a shot at the fifth starter slot. Francoeur, Carson and Morgan are possibly in a battle to be a fifth outfielder (edge to Francoeur, who could end up platooning with David Murphy).

Minnesota Twins -- Jason Kubel, Matt Guerrier, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton.

Sano and Buxton? Catch them early in spring training if you can.

Chicago White Sox -- Dylan Axelrod.

Axelrod lost his spot on the 40-man roster after struggling in the rotation in 2013. He'll get another shot and could stick as a long reliever/spot starter.

Oakland Athletics -- No announcements yet on non-roster players.

Texas Rangers -- Colby Lewis, Jose Contreras, Rafael Perez, Brent Lillibridge, Josh Wilson.

Lewis made seven starts in the minor leagues last year but never made it back to the Rangers. Derek Holland's injury opens up a slot in the rotation, with Lewis and Nick Tepesch the front-runners.

Los Angeles Angels -- Mark Mulder, Clay Rapada, Carlos Pena, Taylor Lindsey, Ian Stewart, Chad Tracy, Brennan Boesch.

The big name here is Mulder, the ESPN analyst who last pitched in the majors in 2008, making his the most intriguing comeback story of the season. Mulder had retired after two shoulder surgeries but decided to try a comeback after watching the delivery of Dodgers reliever Paco Rodriguez. He auditioned for several teams, was clocked at 89-90 mph and eventually signed with the Angels.

Seattle Mariners -- Scott Baker, Ramon Ramirez, Endy Chavez, Dominic Leone, Carson Smith.

After missing all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery, Baker was able to make just three starts last year with the Cubs. He'll try again with the Mariners. Leone and Smith are right-handed relievers who could break camp with the big team.

Houston Astros -- Mark Appel, Peter Moylan, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Delino DeShields Jr., J.D. Martinez

The Astros have invited some of their top prospects. Springer is the guy to watch. Will he make the team out of spring training or will the Astros send him down to Triple-A for a few weeks to save on his service time?
Jayson Stark has a piece today looking back at the reign of commissioner Bud Selig. One of the important legacies of Selig's tenure has been revenue sharing -- as Jayson points out, nearly $400 million exchanged hands last season, helping some of the less affluent clubs compete with the big boys.

But we know not all teams are created equally in terms of payroll, a point further hammered home when the Yankees outbid the likes of the Astros and Diamondbacks for the services of pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. I thought I'd look back at the past five seasons and review each franchise. We'll rank them from last to first based on total wins -- but also list their total payrolls in that span. (All payroll information is taken from Cot's Baseball Contracts and are drawn from estimated Opening Day payrolls each season.)

30. Houston Astros: 312 wins, $359.5 million in payroll (23rd)

The Astros and Mets were the only teams not to have at least one winning season in our five-year study. The Astros' $26.1 million Opening Day payroll in 2013 was also the lowest in the past five years. They've gone through the worst three-year span -- 106, 107 and 111 losses -- since the expansion Mets lost 120, 111 and 109 games. Of course, the recent struggles are the result of general manager Jeff Luhnow's complete tearing down of the organization and basically starting over.

They'll have the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft for the third year in a row, helping to reload a now highly rated farm system. And the payroll, after stripped to the bare minimum in 2013, will increase to an estimated $48 million after signing Scott Feldman and trading for Dexter Fowler. But when will they start winning and how difficult will it be to win the fans back?

An aside here on competitive balance. Let's get this out of the way. You still hear a lot of fans arguing that a salary cap -- a hard cap, I presume, and not a luxury tax threshold -- would make things "more fair." I guess by "fair" they usually mean "so the Yankees and now the Dodgers can't sign all of the best free agents."

A salary cap, however, doesn't necessarily create more competitive balance. Just look at the NFL. In the past five NFL seasons, six teams never made the playoffs or had a winning record. Two others haven't made the playoffs. That doesn't even include the Detroit Lions, who have had one winning season and playoff appearance in 13 years.

Baseball's system may not be fair, but there isn't evidence that another system would create more parity.

29. Chicago Cubs: 356 wins, $629.3 million (7th)

The Cubs certainly win honors for most mismanaged franchise of the past half-decade, at least in terms of dollars spent per win. From 2009 to 2011, they had payrolls of at least $134 million and topped out at 83 wins in 2009 (after winning division titles in 2007 and 2008). Don't blame Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer completely for the past two years, as they inherited bloated contracts like the ones of Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano. The payroll this year should sit at about $78 million, with a slew of top-rated prospects -- Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, C.J. Edwards -- starting to arrive perhaps by the end of the season.

28. Seattle Mariners: 359 wins, $453.7 million (15th)

The Mariners have stumbled and bumbled their way through a decade's worth of bad, boring teams and awful free-agent signings like Carlos Silva and Chone Figgins. Despite owning five top-five picks since 2005 (Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow, Dustin Ackley, Danny Hultzen, Mike Zunino) the Mariners' farm system has yielded little in the way of top-line talent since Felix Hernandez arrived in the big leagues. They signed Robinson Cano to the monster contract this offseason, but haven't done much else to provide him help other than to acquire Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, two guys with bad knees. The once fervent fan base has deteriorated and the entire city is wearing Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman jerseys. This is Jack Zduriencik's last gasp; a crushing exposé in the Seattle Times in December painted a picture of an organization without a clue.

27. Kansas City Royals: 361 wins, $329.7 million (25th)

They finally broke through in 2013 with their first winning season since 2003 and second since 1994. In 2011, the Royals had stripped the roster of veterans, and payroll was down to $38.2 million. As the young talent has started to mature, the payroll increased to $82 million in 2013 and looks to be another $10 million higher for 2014.

26. Pittsburgh Pirates: 364 wins, $248.5 million (30th)

After winning 94 games, Pirates fans are understandably frustrated at the club's offseason. While waiting for A.J. Burnett to retire or not retire, the Pirates have basically stood pat and done nothing. The future should be bright. Like the Astros and Cubs, they have a highly rated farm system oozing in talent. The advantage the Pirates have is the big league roster already includes an MVP in Andrew McCutchen and a potential future Cy Young Award winner in Gerrit Cole.

25. Miami Marlins: 370 wins, $294 million (28th)

The Marlins tried that whole fancy free-agent thing in 2012 and look what happened: 93 losses. Don't think we'll be seeing owner Jeffrey Loria going down that road again. The Marlins dropped from a $100 million payroll in 2012 to $50 million in 2013. Despite the influx of $26 million in additional national TV revenue for 2014, Miami's payroll may be even lower. Enjoy Jose Fernandez while you can, Marlins fans.

23. New York Mets: 374 wins (tie), $606.9 million (8th)

Matt Harvey's injury has allowed the Mets to sell 2014 as another rebuilding year, although they did sign free-agent outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young and starter Bartolo Colon. The Mets have one playoff appearance in the past 13 years. I'm guessing it will be one in 14.

23. Cleveland Indians: 374 wins (tie), $338.5 million (24th)

Right now, the Indians' payroll sits right about where it was last season ($82 million), making you wonder if they're hedging on Ubaldo Jimenez not finding a suitor and returning to Cleveland. In 2001, the Indians' payroll was ... $93 million. That was the year after Larry Dolan bought the team and the Indians made the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. Within three years, the payroll had been slashed to $34 million, attendance had fallen by 1.3 million and the Indians have been trying to build a consistent winner ever since. They won last year but the fans still haven't returned, as attendance was actually lower than the 94-loss team of 2012.

22. Minnesota Twins: 376 wins, $458.6 million (13th)

The Twins won six division titles from 2002 to 2010 -- a weak division in that era helped -- but fell apart overnight and have now lost 90-plus games three years in a row, despite three of the four highest payrolls in franchise history. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are two of the top-10 position players in the minors and could arrive sometime this season to help turn things around.

21. Baltimore Orioles: 377 wins, $404.1 million (20th)

Peter Angelos bought the Orioles for $173 million in 1993. For the first several years of his ownership, Camden Yards was packed, the Orioles were competitive (making the playoffs in 1996 and 1997) and they spent freely on payroll, topping $80 million in 1999 and 2000. But as the losing seasons mounted and attendance dwindled, the Orioles seemed unsure of what approach to take. They never committed to a rebuild, but also never committed more resources to payroll. The success of the past two seasons has brought more fans to the ballpark, although they're still well below the figures of the late '90s. Still, Angelos and his son John are reluctant to take a big plunge in free agency and increase payroll much beyond what the club was spending more than a decade ago. The Orioles are now valued at somewhere between $618 million (Forbes) and $1.1 billion (Bloomberg).

20. Colorado Rockies: 386 wins, $396.8 million (21st)

The Rockies made the playoffs in 2009, but have now suffered three straight losing seasons. Their payroll and attendance figures have remained about as consistent as any team in baseball in the past five years, which alludes to a business plan that the front office sticks to. Unfortunately, a solid business plan doesn't mean a solid team on the field. The big moves this offseason were taking chances on Justin Morneau and Brett Anderson and signing reliever Boone Logan to a three-year contract. Those three players likely will have little impact. General manager Dan O'Dowd has been in charge since 2000 and presided over four winning seasons in 14 years. Why does he still have a job?

18. Toronto Blue Jays: 388 wins (tie), $432.8 million (17th)

Hey, the Blue Jays tried to go big last year. While everything went right for the Red Sox, everything went wrong for the Blue Jays. Still, in the end, the Jays haven't made the playoffs now since winning the 1993 World Series. Only the Royals (1985) have gone longer without a postseason appearance.

18. San Diego Padres: 388 wins (tie), $251.3 million (29th)

Perhaps no team is ultimately limited by its geographic location more than the Padres -- blocked to the north by the Dodgers and Angels, to the west by the Pacific Ocean, to the east by a desert and to the south by Mexico. San Diego is still a bigger metro market than Tampa, St. Louis, Cincinnati or Cleveland, but even if they started winning, it's not like baseball fans in Pasadena are going to suddenly dump the Dodgers for the Padres. So the Padres are always operating within a tight budget, although that budget hasn't really grown in a decade.

You know what else has hurt the Padres? They've never really hit rock bottom. There is a potential long-term advantage to doing what the Astros have done -- sorry, I'll call it tanking, even if it was the smart thing to do. By getting those No. 1 picks, the Astros secured premium, sure-thing talent. The Padres have had five top-10 picks in the past decade, but only two in the top five. OK, they blew the first overall pick on Matt Bush in 2004, taking him over Justin Verlander. No excuse there, as Bush turned into the worst No. 1 pick ever. They took outfielder Donavan Tate third in 2009 in what proved to be a pretty weak draft and he hasn't developed. Until the Padres develop a hitter or two to build a lineup around, this team is going to stick to about a 76-86 record every season.

17. Arizona Diamondbacks: 391 wins, $367.2 million (22nd)

We've apparently entered the NL West portion of our rankings. They've finished 81-81 the past two years. Has any team ever finished .500 three years in a row? It doesn't appear so. The Padres won 81 games in 1982 and 1983 ... and then reached the World Series in 1984. So there you go, Diamondbacks fans.

16. Washington Nationals: 392 wins, $405.7 million (19th)

Case in point to my Astros/Padres argument: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The Indians came very close from 1979 to 1981, going 81-80, 79-81 and 52-51. The Nationals dropped from 98 to 86 wins, and those 86 wins resulted only after an 18-9 record in September. With the price of success has come an increased payroll: $92.5 million in 2012, $118.3 million last year and about $130 million this year.

Later today: The top 15 teams.
Let's finish up with the 14 players I consider strong Hall of Fame candidates. Of course, if I had a ballot, I could vote for only 10 ... well, that's another essay, my friends. Here is Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

The Hall of Famers

14. Tim Raines (69.1 career WAR, 52.2 percent of the vote last year) -- I’m a big supporter of Raines although it’s possible that the sabermetric crowd has overstated his case just a bit. Raines had a high peak from 1983 to 1987 while with the Expos -- his combined WAR ranks fourth among position players, behind Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson and Cal Ripken, meaning he was arguably the best player in the National League over that span. He was also an outstanding player in the 1981 strike season and again in 1992 with the White Sox. Other than those seven seasons, however, he was merely good instead of great and spent his late 30s as a part-time player.

Still, as others have written, as he’s a very close statistical comp to Tony Gwynn -- Raines just happened to replace Gwynn’s hits with walks. He’s one of the best basestealers in history and the WAR is right in line with recent Hall of Fame selections. The good news is that Raines’ case is building, from 22.6 percent to 30.4 to 37.5 to 48.7 to 52.2. If he can avoid a collapse this year because of the crowded ballot, his momentum appears strong enough to eventually see election.

13. Craig Biggio (64.9 WAR, 68.2 percent) -- Results from public ballots have Biggio just crossing over the 75 percent mark. Biggio reached the magical 3,000-hit barrier, meaning the only surprise was he didn’t get elected in his first year on the ballot. In the past, 3,000 hits meant you were a mortal lock for Cooperstown. Of the 28 players to reach 3,000 hits, only Biggio, Paul Waner and Rafael Palmeiro failed to get elected on the first ballot (not including Pete Rose and Derek Jeter).

Of course, to get there, Biggio wasn’t helping his club at the end. He picked up 265 hits his final two seasons while being valued at minus-1.7 WAR. He posted poor on-base percentages and had poor range at second base, not surprising considering he played in his age-40 and age-41 seasons. That's the flaw in focusing on round numbers. Biggio only got there by hanging on.

At his peak, however, Biggio was a tremendous offensive player as a second baseman, with power, speed, on-base skills and the ability to steal bases. From 1994 to 1998 he ranked third, third, second, 12th, third and second, in the NL in offensive WAR and was right up there with the best all-around players in the game.

12. Alan Trammell (70.3 WAR, 33.6 percent) -- To me, it’s clear that the BBWAA threw its support behind the wrong Detroit Tiger. Trammell is basically the same player as Barry Larkin (70.2 WAR), except he played in the same league as Cal Ripken and Larkin played in the same league as Shawon Dunston.

The weird thing about this is that I'm pretty sure Trammell was more famous while active than Larkin, at least on a national level. Larkin did win an MVP Award but Trammell's teams were in the playoff race for most of his career while the Reds were a small-market club that was up and down during Larkin's career. I think what happened is basically this: Say the 33 percent who vote for Trammell also voted for Larkin. That leaves the other two-thirds of the voting pool. Say one-third were NL beat guys and columnists and the other third were AL beat guys and columnists. All the NL guys voted for Larkin because he was the best shortstop in his league but didn't vote for Trammell. But the AL guys didn't vote for Trammell either because he wasn't Ripken -- and then after Trammell retired, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada and Nomar Garciaparra came along. Larkin gets the easy label -- best in his league -- that Trammell doesn't. Which is too bad. Trammell was a beautiful ballplayer who did everything well.

11. Mark McGwire (62.0 WAR, 16.9 percent) -- One of the things I’ll never forget as a baseball fan is watching McGwire take batting practice while covering a Cardinals-Tigers game at Tiger Stadium in 1999. Standing behind the batting cage as he launched ball after ball onto the roof or over the roof made me re-think the laws of physics (not that I know the laws of physics).

Why McGwire and not Sammy Sosa, when their career WAR isn't that dissimilar? Maybe it is a feel thing, a feeling that McGwire is one of the game's historic figures. I think that counts for something. He also has the best home run rate in history (higher than Babe Ruth).

10. Edgar Martinez (68.3 WAR, 35.9 percent) -- Bias alert! I wrote about Martinez back in 2009 and then again the other day. I rate him a little higher than the guys above because he had more high peak seasons -- five with 6-plus WAR, eight with 5.5-plus WAR and two more at 4.9 and 4.8. Simply, one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. Sadly, if the Mariners didn't waste three years of his career letting him unnecessarily rot in the minors, his case would be much stronger.

9. Mike Piazza (59.2 WAR, 57.8 percent) -- We'll learn a lot about Piazza's future Hall of Fame hopes this year. He achieved a strong showing in his first year. If that grows this year, it's a good sign. If it falls or remains the same, it could be that he's maxed out already due to PED concerns. About that WAR total: It's difficult for catchers to compile the same WAR as other positions, as they play fewer games and often have shortened careers. Piazza ranks sixth all time among catchers, behind Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, Ivan Rodriguez and Yogi Berra.

8. Mike Mussina (83.0 WAR, first year) -- As I wrote back in November, Mussina is eminently qualified for the Hall of Fame.

7. Frank Thomas (73.6 WAR, first year) -- I wrote about Thomas the other day. It looks like he'll get in on his first year on the ballot. Will Thomas' election help Martinez? Once Thomas is in, doesn't it mean you can't use the "but he was a DH" argument against Martinez? Probably not. That suggests a consistent and logical line of thinking from the BBWAA, which ... well, that's like expecting a Cardinals fan to be treated with kindness and respect while sitting in the Wrigley Field bleachers wearing a Matt Holliday jersey.

6. Tom Glavine (81.4 WAR, first year) -- Not much to add about Glavine that you don't already know. Durable, consistent, got the most out of his ability. Like Greg Maddux, an absolute joy to watch (unless you were a Mets fan). He owned the outside corner of the plate -- and maybe a few inches beyond -- with that changeup. I think Glavine and Maddux have a bit of an unfair reputation of not showing up in the postseason. Compare their results to those of Andy Pettitte, who does have a reputation as being extra-special clutch in October:

Glavine: 14-16, 3.30 ERA, 35 GS, 218 1/3 IP, 1.27 WHIP
Maddux: 11-14, 3.27 ERA, 30 GS, 198 IP, 1.24 WHIP
Pettitte: 19-11, 3.81 ERA, 44 GS, 276 2/3 IP, 1.30 WHIP

Their records aren't as good because they didn't get the same run support, not because they didn't pitch well.

5. Jeff Bagwell (79.5 WAR, 59.6 percent) -- Other than not playing an up-the-middle position, the perfect ballplayer: power, speed, on-base ability, terrific baserunner, durable (at least until a shoulder injury cut his career a few years short), excellent defender. Here's something I wrote on Bagwell last January.

There are those who refuse to vote for Bagwell under the assumption he used PEDs; Bagwell has strongly denied using PEDs, telling ESPN's Jerry Crasnick in 2010:

I never used [steroids], and I'll tell you exactly why: If I could hit between 30 and 40 home runs every year and drive in 120 runs, why did I need to do anything else? I was pretty happy with what I was doing, and that's the God's honest truth. All of a sudden guys were starting to hit 60 or 70 home runs and people were like, 'Dude, if you took [PEDs], you could do it too.' And I was like, 'I'm good where I'm at. I just want to do what I can do.'

There's nothing abnormal about Bagwell's career curve, other than his freakishly awesome 1994 MVP season when he hit .368. He didn't suddenly start posting career-best numbers in his mid-30s like McGwire or Barry Bonds. He was good as a rookie, got better, remained great and then slowly declined in his 30s.

4. Curt Schilling (79.7 WAR, 38.8 percent) -- Why Schilling over Glavine, even though Glavine won 305 games while Schilling won just 216 games? OK, here's why:

1. Wins are overrated.

2. More career pitching WAR (80.7 to 74.0).

3. Schilling had more high peak seasons -- eight 5-plus WAR seasons with three at 7.9 or higher compared to Glavine's four and one.

4. Postseason dominance.

In the end, I just feel Schilling had the bigger impact on the game's history -- the 2001 World Series triumph for the Diamondbacks, ending the Red Sox curse in 2004 and winning another title in 2007.

Glavine was more durable and lasted longer and maybe you prefer that type of career arc. But I'll take Schilling and his big seasons and go to war with him in October.

3. Greg Maddux (106.8, first year) -- The smartest pitcher who ever lived. At his 1994 and 1995 peak, maybe the best pitcher who ever lived.

2. Roger Clemens (140.3 WAR, 37.6 percent) -- Let's say Clemens started using PEDs in 1997, the year he went to Toronto and went 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA. The popular mythology is that Clemens was fat and washed up in Boston. Actually, he had ranked second among AL pitchers in WAR and led the league in strikeouts in 1996. But whatever. Anyway, through 1996 he was 192-111 with a 3.06 ERA, three Cy Young Awards and 81.3 career pitching WAR. That's more career WAR than Glavine or Schilling. After two big Cy Young seasons with the Blue Jays, he went to the Yankees. And you know what? He wasn't that great with them -- 77-36 but with a 3.99 ERA. He won a sixth Cy Young Award because he went 20-3, not because he was the best pitcher in the league. He won a seventh with the Astros because he went 18-4 (he was seventh among NL pitchers in WAR). Other than the 1.87 ERA in 2005 -- thanks to an absurdly low BABIP -- his late career basically matches what Nolan Ryan did in his 40s.

1. Barry Bonds (162.5 WAR, 36.2 percent) -- Somebody tweeted this on Tuesday night, Bonds hitting a mammoth home run at Yankee Stadium in 2002 -- a blast so impressive that even Yankees fans cheered in awe.

On a basic level, I understand the no votes: Cheaters shouldn't be honored. My colleague Christina Kahrl made a great point about how we view the PED guys: It's a litmus test that tells us what we want from the game. As she told me, we have to remember the past is plenty grimy, full of stories and people every bit as wonderful as we want them to be -- people who also happen to be human.

From 1988 to 1994, Bonds was second in the majors in home runs (to Fred McGriff) and first in OPS and sixth in stolen bases. His WAR was 13 wins higher than the No. 2 position player (Rickey Henderson). From 1988 to 1995, he was 14.5 wins better than the No. 2 guy (Cal Ripken). Ken Griffey Jr. joined the league in 1989. From '89 to '98, Bonds' WAR was 84.1, Griffey's 65.6 (and the No. 3 guy, Barry Larkin, way back at 51.1). Bonds was the most devastating force in the game before he allegedly started using PEDs sometime after McGwire and Sosa went all crazy in 1998.

Ray Ratto just wrote a brilliant Hall of Fame column and he had two great points about Bonds (and Clemens): "1. The player did things on the baseball field that few others did. ... 6. I DON’T WORK FOR BASEBALL, AND I DON’T CARE WHAT IT PURPORTS TO BE. I CARE WHAT IT IS, AND THIS IS PART OF IT."

Bonds is arguably the greatest player of all time, and, yes, a man with many flaws.

What do you want out of the game?