SweetSpot: Washington Nationals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?
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So Washington third baseman Anthony Rendon says baseball is too long and boring to watch on television and that he prefers to watch the History Channel. Good thing for Rendon that the History Channel does not own the broadcast rights to past seasons.

"Next on the History Channel: The 2009 Washington Nationals strike out 13 times and suffer their 96th loss of the season in a five-hour, 14-inning game against the San Diego Padres."

Rendon is just one of those unrelenting voices that baseball always hears on this subject. Someone has always been complaining about the length of baseball games since before Jack Norworth wrote the lyrics “I don’t care if I never get back" in 1908. They still do this even though most baseball games are shorter than football games –- and the majority of football games are spent with 11 men standing around in a conference meeting.

Could baseball games be shorter? Of course. The easiest way to tighten games would be to require hitters like Rendon to stay in the batter’s box -– or step back in more quickly -- to resume their at-bats rather than standing outside tightening their batting gloves, staring at the third-base coach for signs, or scanning the stands for pretty women. The same applies to pitchers who take too long between pitches. Just get on with it, guys.

Failing that, how could baseball games be more interesting on TV? A couple suggestions:

Microphone the players –- but don’t tell them: That will provide us with viral-ready video as we eavesdrop on players and hear what they really think about their teammates and opponents. "I like Bryce [Harper], but I wish the guy would stop instructing Matt Williams on his WAR numbers and more about the latest World War II broadcast on the History Channel."

Sexy shots: Football broadcasters fill their many breaks in the action by showing long, sensuous shots of cheerleaders kicking their legs and jiggling their breasts while wearing tight, skimpy tops and shorts. They can’t do this in baseball because the game doesn’t have cheerleaders. But perhaps broadcasters could instead show the players’ girlfriends, wives and, most provocatively, their mistresses. Why, Derek Jeter’s girlfriends could fill all four hours and 23 minutes of the average Red Sox-Yankees marathon.

Amazing non-pennant races: Television viewers flock to reality shows. Take advantage of this by duplicating the “Amazing Race" with a competition in which pairs of teammates must make their own way to the next city on a road trip. Then show snippets of this competition throughout the season. "Rendon and Harper are out of the starting lineup once again because their flight out of Denver was cancelled and they decided to take Greyhound instead. Here they are complaining about how long last night's game took while watching it on TV in the Chattanooga bus station."

And finally ...

Show historic footage while hitters are stepping out of the box: Well, this might appeal to Rendon.

Or better yet, to make broadcasts more appealing, perhaps Rendon should start dating a Kardashian.
Crash Davis: You be cocky and arrogant, even when you're getting beat. That's the secret. You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Right. Fear and ignorance.

Crash Davis: No. You hayseed. It's arrogance not "ignorance."


Yes, it's that time of year to start playing with fear and arrogance. Time to let it all out on the field. Time to start looking at the scoreboard. Pennant races will start to build in intensity. It's the second half, and we open with four great series between playoff contenders. (Pay special attention to that Saturday night Mariners-Angels matchup.)

Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals
Friday: Kyle Lohse (9-4, 3.26) versus Stephen Strasburg (7-6, 3.46)
Saturday: Matt Garza (6-6, 3.69) versus Gio Gonzalez (6-5, 3.56)
Sunday: Yovani Gallardo (5-5, 3.68) versus Doug Fister (8-2, 2.90)

Are we going to see the good Brewers or the bad Brewers? The Brewers have had wide swings all season -- they were 20-7 through April 27, went 10-15 through May 26, then had a 21-10 stretch before going 2-11 heading into the All-Star break, including a brutal four-game sweep at home to the Phillies. They had held sole possession of first place from April 9 until the Cardinals caught them July 12. A victory in the final game before the break put the Brewers back in first, but a one-game lead is disappointing, considering they had a 6-game lead on July 1.

Three Brewers questions:

1. Jonathan Lucroy leads all major league catchers in plate appearances. How will he hold up after an MVP-caliber first half?

2. Will Jimmy Nelson be an improvement over Marco Estrada in the rotation? (Well, he'll certainly allow fewer home runs.)

3. Does Ryan Braun have a monster second half in him?

On paper, the Nationals are the team to beat in the NL East -- FanGraphs' projected playoff odds gives the Nationals an 81 percent chance to win the division and the Braves a 19 percent chance. This irritates Braves fans to no end, who believe everyone keeps overrating the Nationals and underrating the Braves. And maybe they're right. The Nationals have their lineup back and healthy, so no excuses the rest of the season.

Three Nationals questions:

1. Bryce Harper has hit .150 with one home run and two RBIs in 40 at-bats since his return from the DL. What's he going to do?

2. Jordan Zimmermann left his previous start with biceps tendinitis. Will there by any lingering issues in the second half?

3. Strasburg's ERA in the first half was 3.46. But his FIP was 2.72 and his xFIP 2.48. In other words, his base numbers suggest a guy who should have an ERA a run lower. Can he do that the final two-plus months?

Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals
Friday: Dan Haren (8-6, 4.23) versus Lance Lynn (10-6, 3.14)
Saturday: Zack Greinke (11-5, 2.73) versus Joe Kelly (1-1, 3.44)
Sunday: Clayton Kershaw (11-2, 1.78) versus Carlos Martinez (2-4, 4.43)

Interesting that manager Don Mattingly will wait until Sunday to pitch Kershaw, who last started on July 10. He did pitch one inning in the All-Star Game, but this means he'll have nine days between starts. Compare that to manager Bruce Bochy's approach with Madison Bumgarner, who started on Sunday and will start the Giants' second-half opener. The Dodgers took 3 of 4 from the Cardinals in late June, shutting them out twice and holding them to one run in the third win.

Three Dodgers questions:

1. Where has Yasiel Puig's power gone? Since May 29, he has hit .269 with one home run in 42 games.

2. With Carl Crawford back the DL, who gets the playing time in the outfield and will prospect Joc Pederson eventually be part of that picture?

3. Will David Price move to the West Coast?

Everybody keeps wondering if the Cardinals will pony up for Price and I keep pointing out that the Cardinals need to score more runs. They're 14th in the NL in runs scored and Price isn't going to help that. They also now have to contend with the thumb injury to Yadier Molina that will leave him sidelined eight to 12 weeks; it's no surprise that they've been a much better club when Molina has started in recent years.

Three Cardinals questions:

1. Without Molina, will the Cardinals pursue a guy like Kurt Suzuki of the Twins?

2. Who steps it up on offense?

3. Will Michael Wacha return to the rotation at some point?

Baltimore Orioles at Oakland Athletics
Friday: Chris Tillman (7-5, 4.11) versus Jeff Samardzija (3-8, 2.78)
Saturday: Wei-Yin Chen (9-3, 4.15) versus Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.01)
Sunday: Kevin Gausman (4-2, 3.29) versus Sonny Gray (10-3, 2.79)

The Orioles have played excellent baseball since May 31, going 26-15 and outscoring their opponents by 40 runs. A lot went right in the first half -- see Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce -- but a lot went wrong with the season-ending injury to Matt Wieters, the struggles of Chris Davis and Manny Machado and the disappointing numbers from Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez. But the O's also seem to have some of that 2012 magic -- they're 9-3 in extra innings.

Three Orioles questions:

1. Will they finally leave Gausman alone and let him stay in the rotation?

2. Davis won't hit .199 in the second half ... right?

3. What happens if Cruz and Pearce slow down?

A's general manager Billy Beane already made what may be the season's blockbuster trade in acquiring Samardzija and Hammel (the team won one of the three games those two have started). They were acquired in large part to help hold off the Angels but that division lead is down to 1 games. On the bright side: After this series, their next nine games are against the Astros and Rangers.

Three A's questions:

1. How will Gray (first full season) and Scott Kazmir (hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007) hold up?

2. Will they make a move to get more offense at second base?

3. Can Sean Doolittle cut down on the wildness and walk one batter instead of two in the second half?


Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels
Friday: Hisashi Iwakuma (8-4, 2.98) versus Jered Weaver (10-6, 3.45)
Saturday: Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) versus Garrett Richards (11-2, 2.55)
Sunday: Chris Young (8-6, 3.15) versus Tyler Skaggs (5-5, 4.50)

How good is the Hernandez-Richards showdown on Saturday? The Mariners aren't as good as the A's or Angels, so realistically their playoff race is really with the Royals, Indians and the AL East runner-ups for the second wild-card spot. Obviously, they'll be looking to add a hitter or two -- All-Stars Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager and the currently disabled Michael Saunders have been the only above-average hitters and they've been relying on ancient Endy Chavez as the leadoff hitter.

Three Mariners questions:

1. Marlon Byrd? Josh Willingham? They've got to do something to improve a league-worst .300 OBP and get some offense in the outfield and/or DH or first base.

2. With Roenis Elias suddenly struggling and Taijuan Walker unproven, will the fourth and fifth rotation spots be a problem?

3. The bullpen led the majors with a 2.39 first-half ERA. Can it hold it together for another 68 games?

Is it just me, or have the Angels been too widely ignored this year? There's a strong case to be made that they're the second-best team in the majors right now, and that's even with some concerns in the rotation and the bullpen. Of course, it helps to have the best player in the game and a deep lineup that led the AL in runs scored in the first half. But they've gone 19-4 since June 20 and they open the second half with a 10-game home stand -- and they're 32-15 at home.

Three Angels questions:

1. Can Richards repeat in the second half? Well, if anything, he seems to be getting better. In his past eight starts, he's 7-0 with a 1.27 ERA and .163 average allowed.

2. Does Jason Grilli establish himself as the setup guy for closer Joe Smith?

3. Will Josh Hamilton deliver more power? He has three home runs in 38 games since coming off the DL.

There you go. We also get Reds-Yankees and Indians-Tigers and others to whet your appetite. We've had four days without a game that matters. It's been too long.
An early theme of the 2014 season was parity: Through the first two months, just about every team could still sell themselves on a potential playoff chase. But the last month changed all that, especially in the National League, which has sorted itself into contenders and bad teams. A lot of bad teams.

The two groups:

Contenders: Brewers, Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, Giants, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates.

The bad teams: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs, Phillies, Padres, Mets.

That leaves only the Marlins in the mediocrity of the middle.

Some of those bad teams are likely to get worse. The Cubs just traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Diamondbacks lost Bronson Arroyo and traded Brandon McCarthy. The Rockies' pitching staff has been decimated with injuries. The Phillies are some form of unwatchable wretchedness right now.

All this means the remaining schedule for the playoff contenders could play a vital role in who wins the divisions and who wins the wild cards. So let's see how many games each of the contenders has remaining against our six bad teams.

Nationals (33) -- Mets (13), Phillies (13), Rockies (3), Padres (4).
Braves (27) -- Mets (8), Phillies (9), Cubs (3), Padres (7). They also have three against AL weakling Texas.

Brewers (19) -- Mets (4), Phillies (2), Cubs (10), Padres (3).
Cardinals (26) -- Phillies (3), Cubs (10), Padres (7), Rockies (3), Diamondbacks (3).
Reds (18) -- Mets (3), Cubs (8), Rockies (4), Diamondbacks (3).
Pirates (23) -- Phillies (4), Cubs (6), Padres (3), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (4).

Dodgers (31) -- Cubs (7), Padres (13), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (5).
Giants (37) -- Mets (4), Phillies (7), Cubs (3), Padres (7), Rockies (7), Diamondbacks (9).

Strength of schedule can be overrated, but you can clearly see the potential ramifications here. With four good teams, the NL Central teams have much tougher remaining schedules than the Nationals/Braves and Dodgers/Giants. The NL Central teams may beat up on each other, opening the door for the two wild cards to come from the NL East and NL West.

Digging deeper into the NL Central, here's how many games each has remaining against the other three contenders:

Brewers (28) -- Cardinals (13), Reds (9), Pirates (6).
Cardinals (31) -- Brewers (13), Reds (10), Pirates (8).
Reds (28) -- Brewers (9), Cardinals (10), Pirates (9).
Pirates (23) -- Brewers (6), Cardinals (8), Reds (9).

Something tells me those 13 remaining Brewers-Cardinals games will go a long ways towards deciding the division title.
Random thoughts for a Monday morning ...

1. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade just ramped up the cost for David Price. If the Cardinals want him, they better start with Oscar Taveras. If the Dodgers want him, they’re going to have to start with Joc Pederon or Corey Seager.

2. Joey Votto has basically been playing on one leg, so it’s no surprise that it appears he’s heading to the DL. I’ve been saying I still expect a four-team race in the NL Central, but with Votto struggling and Jay Bruce still yet to get untracked (he just snapped an 0-for-26 skid), the Reds are looking like the fourth-best team in that division.

3. Always love the All-Star controversies this time of year. Many deserving players got left off the AL roster -- Chris Sale, part of the final player vote, is one of the top five or six starters in the game. I can’t believe the players actually think Mark Buehrle and Scott Kazmir are better pitchers and have to think they failed to vote for Sale only because of his time on the DL.

4. If Giancarlo Stanton ends up starting at DH for the NL, the backup outfield pool will be pretty weak -- Hunter Pence, Charlie Blackmon and utility man Josh Harrison could end up deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. Of course, Mike Matheny could just play Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez the entire game.

5. That’s one of the incongruous things about Matheny selecting Harrison, Tony Watson and Pat Neshek: He clearly selected them for late-game matchup and versatility, to give the NL a better chance of winning. I certain understand that reasoning. But if winning is so important, then play some of your best players the entire game. Why bench Troy Tulowitzki just to get Starlin Castro a couple of at-bats if you're trying to win the game?

6. While Sale is the guy I’d give my final player vote to in the AL, I hope Garrett Richards eventually finds his way on to the team. He had another great outing on Sunday against the Astros with 11 strikeouts while averaging a career-high 97.3 mph with his fastball. He’s 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA since June 1. That sounds like an All-Star to me.

7. Of course, he faced the strikeout-prone Astros. Rookies George Springer and Jonathan Singleton went a combined 0-for-8 with seven K’s. Singleton is hitting .168 with 46 strikeouts in his first 32 games. Springer’s contact issues have been well documented. Domingo Santana was sent down after whiffing 11 times in his first 13 at-bats. As promising as those three guys are, and while strikeouts aren’t necessarily a bad thing for hitters, you do wonder if you can have too many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup. We’ll see how these guys develop and whether it becomes a long-term issue for Houston.

8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

9. Love the idea of Justin Morneau returning to Minnesota, but Anthony Rendon or Anthony Rizzo are clearly better players and more deserving of final player honors in the NL.

10. Now trending on Twitter: “LeBron James,” “Cleveland” and “Cavs.” How awesome would that be? But it’s not really going to happen, is it?

11. Andrew McCutchen: Making another run at MVP honors. Since June 1, he’s hit .364 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

12. Fun to watch play defense: Adam Eaton. Still can’t believe the Diamondbacks traded him and now they’re playing somebody named Ender Inciarte in center field.

13. Fun to watch hit: Jose Abreu. Loved the Abreu-King Felix showdown on Saturday. King Felix won as Abreu went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

14. It’s starting to look like CC Sabathia will miss the rest of the season. Joe Girardi is usually an optimistic guy so if he’s saying Sabathia is done he’s probably done. So here’s a question: What if Sabathia is also finished as a quality pitcher? Hall of Famer? He’s 208-119 in his career with a 3.63 ERA and 54.1 WAR. He can stick around and add some wins and a little bit of WAR, but his winning percentage likely goes down and his ERA likely goes up. He’s close now and while improving his win total with otherwise mediocre pitching shouldn’t be the difference in making him a Hall of Famer at this point, he probably needs to get another 25-30 wins for serious consideration.

15. The Yankees also designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, no surprise considering his struggles. I’m guessing somebody will give him a chance but with 71 strikeouts and just six walks his free-swinging approach finally got the best of him. Hell of a career though: 412 home runs, 289 stolen bases, seven-time All-Star. He was far from the perfect player but he delivered for a lot of years.

16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

17. Edwin Encarnacion’s injury should open a spot for Seager or Ian Kinsler to make the All-Star Game.

18. Better than I thought he’d be: Scooter Gennett.

19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

20. Mike Trout needs to be in the Home Run Derby.

21. The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 59 runs. The Padres have been outscored by 51 runs. Both teams have one All-Star.

22. That was a terrific Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, right up there with the famous Federer-Rafael Nadal final. Federer won his first grand slam tournament in 2003 and is still competing for titles 11 years later. Amazing athlete.

23. Among qualified starters, toughest fastball to hit this year: Johnny Cueto, .164 average, .439 OPS.

24. Easiest fastball to hit: Ricky Nolasco has allowed a .364/.422/.618 line against his fastball. No surprise to Twins fans.

25. Easier fastball to hit than you would think: Batters are hitting .337/.381/.516 against Stephen Strasburg’s fastball.

26. Best curveball so far: Corey Kluber has held opponents to an .080 average and .219 OPS. (For comparison, batters have hit .156 against Adam Wainwright’s curve and .173 against Clayton Kershaw’s curve.)

27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

28. Toughest slider so far: Johnny Cueto, again. Batters are hitting .176 with a .509 OPS against it.

29. Toughest changeup: In 178 plate appearances ending with a changeup, opponents are hitting .110/.136/.151 against Felix Hernandez.

30. I’m not counting the Rays out just yet.

31. Cool All-Star factoid: For the first time in American League history, the eight starting position players will come from eight different teams. Of course, Nelson Cruz is starting at DH, so there will be two Orioles in the starting nine.

32. For all the David Price to the Cardinals rumors, they need to start scoring runs and that’s going to have to happen from within as there just aren’t big impact bats out there (Marlon Byrd?). The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in runs and last in home runs. Trouble is, where’s the power going to come from? Matt Holliday has only five home runs, so he’s the logical answer, but there’s no reason to expect Matt Adams (nine) or Allen Craig (seven) to suddenly start blasting more home runs.

33. I like what I’ve seen from this Eugenio Suarez kid at shortstop for the Tigers. Not sure about his defensive chops yet but he’s been a positive at the plate.

34. The Blue Jays just got their butts kicked in Oakland and you have to wonder if this team already peaked. They were six games up on June 6 and now trail the Orioles by two games, having gone 9-19 in 28 games since that high-water mark. And don’t blame the pitching: The offense, which scored four runs in the four-game sweep to the A’s, has hit .235/.302/.366 since June 6.

35. Better than I thought he'd be: Dallas Keuchel.

36. Fun to watch: The Mariners bullpen has been lights out for two months. It has the best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 2.02 ERA since May 1 and 1.52 since June 1. Brandon Maurer, the failed starter, is the latest weapon down there, throwing smoke 97-mph smoke since he's been moved to relief.

37. Fun to listen to: My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft on the Fantasy Focus podcast. Here's today’s show, including ramifications of the Samardzija trade, the Votto and Encarnacion injuries and the Brandon McCarthy trade to the Yankees.

38. Hard to say if Tim Lincecum has improved or just benefited from facing some weak lineups of late. He does have a 1.75 ERA over his past five starts but two of those starts came against the Padres and one against the Cardinals. He has 25 strikeouts in 35 innings, so he hasn’t ramped up the K rate or anything. I’m not convinced he’s turned the corner just yet.

39. Not getting any recognition for a solid season: Justin Upton.

40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

41. Pat Neshek is a great story, a minor league invite to spring training for the Cardinals and now an All-Star. I got into a debate on Twitter last night about All-Star relievers -- people were asking why guys like Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara and others didn't make it despite great numbers. I pointed out that lots of relievers are having great seasons. It's just not that special to have 35 great innings out of the bullpen. As a point of reference, just look at some of last year's All-Star relievers: Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Edward Mujica, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain. That said, if you're going to pick relievers, Neshek has been as good as any in the game so far.

42. Unique: Henderson Alvarez. He doesn't rack up strikeouts (70 in 115 innings) but that hard sinking fastball is hard to get into the air (five home runs allowed) and he's walked just 22 batters. I believe he's the real deal, which only reinforces the huge blow to the Marlins when Jose Fernandez went down.

43. Bryce Harper is 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts and two walks since coming off the DL. One Nationals fan tweeted me that he doesn't look completely healthy and has had some awkward swings. I don't the think the Nationals would have activated him if he wasn't healthy, but there's no doubt that Harper put added pressure on himself with his comments about how the Nationals' lineup should look. It's OK to say that if you're producing but not if you're striking out twice a game.

44. Remember that season of parity we were having? Things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. In fact, we suddenly have a fair share of bad teams instead of mediocre teams -- Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Twins, maybe even the Red Sox. The Cubs will probably fade even more after Samardzija-Hammel trade. The Mets may or may not be bad instead of mediocre.

45. Which leads to: Tanking! That should be fun in the second half. Remember, it pays to finish with one of the worst 10 records.

46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

47. Loving Gregory Polanco. I was admittedly a little skeptical, in part because I didn't want to fall prey to prospect hype. I've been most impressed with his approach at the plate -- 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 25 games, nice to see after walking just 25 times in 62 games in Triple-A. If that kind of discipline continues, I like his ability to hit for a decent average and get on base. Then maybe next year comes the power.

48. Things I didn’t see coming: Jeff Locke. Now 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and he’s pitched seven-plus innings in five of those games.

49. Must-see TV on Friday: Jeff Samardzija versus Felix Hernandez.

50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.

Rooting for Rendon, Crisp to be All-Stars

July, 5, 2014
Jul 5
8:27
PM ET


With the All-Star rosters being named Sunday night, I’m sure we all have guys we’d like to see make it and our different reasons, as fans or as analysts, for wanting them to get in. It’s easy to be excited for guys such as Andrew McCutchen or Josh Donaldson or Yasiel Puig, guys we expect to be there who are just flat-out fun to watch play the game.

But beyond those kinds of selections, there are two players I’d like to see make it to the All-Star team this year, as recognition of what they’ve delivered. One is a rising star in the National League who will have multiple chances in the years to come; the other is an American League long shot making his last, best case for inclusion. I’d like to see both on the foul lines on July 15 at Target Field when they make the full-team introductions.

In the NL, I’m not being especially sentimental in stating that I think Anthony Rendon of the Nationals flat-out belongs. He’s knocking around with Puig and Hunter Pence in terms of WAR, just outside the league’s top 10. Puig and Pence are both likely to make it; Rendon might not.

In part that’s because Rendon was on the ballot as a second baseman, where Chase Utley should have won the fan vote handily in recognition of past greatness and present goodness. It probably didn’t help Rendon’s case that he's had to split his playing time this season between the keystone and the hot corner because of Ryan Zimmerman’s injury. If you consider him a third baseman, Rendon suffers because whomever the fans vote in between Aramis Ramirez and David Wright, Todd Frazier is the first choice for who should be selected to sit behind the starter.

But it has been a pretty weak season for second basemen around the senior circuit: Neil Walker got hurt, while Brandon Phillips has gotten old; Rickie Weeks has slipped back into a platoon role, while Matt Carpenter moved to third base to stay. Utley is clearly the league’s best, but after that, who’s the obvious reserve at second base? There really isn't one.

However, Rendon has made himself into a good second baseman after last year’s midseason live-fire conversion. I figure between his reliability at the plate and flexibility around the diamond, he has been the glue that has held both the Nationals’ offense and their infield together during a bumpy first half. While all of their more famous and expensive people have broken down or provided one form of disappointment or another, Rendon has been the Nats’ first-half MVP. It should be the first of many All-Star invitations for him.
[+] Enlarge Coco Crisp
Jason O. Watson/Getty ImagesHere's hoping Coco Crisp is at least this excited if he's named to the American League All-Star team.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, in the AL the guy I’m rooting for is Coco Crisp. This might surprise you because the A’s player who comes up after Josh Donaldson in this context is usually Brandon Moss. And I agree with the proposition that Moss would be a worthy selection, for many of the same reasons: If you want to honor a broad, deep Athletics lineup, you couldn’t do much better for a “Moneyball 2.0” poster boy than Moss, a 30-year-old journeyman who washed out with the Pirates and put in a season in Triple-A for the Phillies before resurrecting his career with the A’s in 2012.

But my case for Crisp relies on a couple of considerations. I can start off with a subjective argument that he’s just flat-out fun to watch play, not that that means much -- most All-Stars are, and they should be. This would also be a way of recognizing his critical impact on the contending A’s in the past year and a half, because after last year’s 22-homer, 4.3-WAR season helped propel him to a 15th-place finish in the AL MVP voting, this year he’s made it clear that his bigger impact on the A’s offense isn’t a one-year phenomenon. Crisp never merited mention for an All-Star invitation earlier in his career, but his late-career surge deserves notice.

The thing to recognize about Crisp’s impact at the plate is that he’s something of a sorting-stat victim this season. Crisp’s overall WAR this year of 1.9 doesn’t sound especially awesome, and it isn’t. But it suffers because various defensive metrics aren’t wild about his contributions in the field, which reflects a long-standing problem -- while WAR relies on the offensive value we can measure so well, it relies on less-certain data when it comes to evaluating defense. WAR is like a good fruit punch on that score: You mix your apples and oranges and they might seem great together, but one is recognizably better than the other.

In this instance, I’d argue that it’s undermining Crisp’s perceived value. While he’s just 41st overall in the American League in WAR, he’s in the AL top 10 in the more reliable offensive component of WAR with 3.0 oWAR, effectively tied with Baltimore’s Adam Jones as the second-best bat in center after some kid named Trout, and that’s a tie only because Crisp lost time to the DL earlier this year. It’s also a higher mark than Moss (2.5 oWAR), again in much less playing time. Crisp is 13th in the AL in OPS; Jones is 14th.

All of which makes for an interesting argument about who the second-best center fielder in the league might be. But whereas Jones has been an All-Star three times before, Crisp has never made it. At 34 years old, this might be his last chance to merit an All-Star conversation. So, between his bat and his never having earned the honor before, and because he’s become a fan favorite in the East Bay in recent years, here’s hoping that Crisp gets to go to Target Field to play for the American League.


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


Jim Bowden, Jerry Crasnick, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and myself presented our 34-man All-Star rosters today. Here are our National League selections and here are our American League selections. Of course, our choices aren't affected by fan balloting or the players choosing the wrong backup (although we did stick to the rule of requiring one rep from each team), so the real rosters will likely include some names that none of us included.

I thought I'd explain my selections in a little more detail.

National League

I thought the NL selections were much easier than the AL. In fact, I struggled to find obvious candidates for the final couple of spots.

Starters
C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
1B -- Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
2B -- Chase Utley, Phillies
3B -- Todd Frazier, Reds
SS -- Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
LF -- Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
CF -- Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
RF -- Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
DH -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
SP -- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

I thought this was pretty straightforward, with the only debate being Puig or Carlos Gomez for the third outfield spot. I settled it this way: Who would I rather see? And that tiebreaker goes to Puig. I could have made Gomez the DH, but the NL was lacking in other outfield candidates, so I cleared some of the logjam at first base by making Freeman the DH and bringing Gomez off the bench. Sorry, Carlos.

Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright certainly have strong arguments to start and if you want to disagree with Kershaw, I won't put up much of a fight. Yes, he missed a month, but he's back, he's dominating and he's the best pitcher in the game.

Reserves
C -- Yadier Molina, Cardinals
C -- Devin Mesoraco, Reds
C -- Buster Posey, Giants
1B -- Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
2B -- Daniel Murphy, Mets
2B -- Dee Gordon, Dodgers
3B -- Anthony Rendon, Nationals
3B -- Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
SS -- Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
OF -- Carlos Gomez, Brewers
OF -- Ryan Braun, Brewers
OF -- Justin Upton, Braves

I went three catchers because all are deserving. Molina and Posey maybe aren't having their typical seasons but they're two of the biggest stars in the game and Mesoraco makes it over the injured Evan Gattis for his monster first half. Rizzo was an easy call over Adam LaRoche and Justin Morneau, as nice a story as it would be to see Morneau go back to Minnesota (I have a feeling that he'll somehow make the real All-Star team). Murphy makes it as my lone Mets' rep and I took Hanley over Starlin Castro and Jhonny Peralta, although any of three are justifiable. Rendon is a rising star and second among NL third basemen in WAR. Carpenter isn't having the year he had last year but still has a .378 OBP and 53 runs scored. He's a better player than Aramis Ramirez or Casey McGehee, plus he can play second if needed (the game counts after all!)

After Gomez, the outfield choices were more difficult. In the end, I went with Braun and Upton over Hunter Pence, Jason Heyward's defense and rookie speedster Billy Hamilton. I was the only one to pick Braun, but he's hitting .293/.342/.515 and, like him or not, it's called the All-STAR Game and Braun is a star. My final choice was one of tactics: It came down to Gordon or Hamilton over Pence, to have a pinch-running option late in a close game if needed. Gordon has the better success rate (and has been a little better at the plate), so he gets the nod.

Pitching staff
SP -- Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
SP -- Johnny Cueto, Reds
SP -- Julio Teheran, Braves
SP -- Zack Greinke, Dodgers
SP -- Madison Bumgarner, Giants
SP -- Tim Hudson, Giants
SP -- Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
SP -- Jake Arrieta, Cubs
RP -- Craig Kimbrel, Braves
RP -- Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers
RP -- Huston Street, Padres
RP -- Aroldis Chapman, Reds

We had to pick four relievers and these four were pretty clear. Street gives me a Padres rep and Chapman, while missing time after his spring training line drive to the head, is one of the game's star relievers and has struck out 46 batters in 23.2 innings. For the starters, the first six listed above were pretty clear selections. I went with Zimmermann over teammate Stephen Strasburg and then Arrieta for the final spot. Maybe that's dubious choice since he's really had just the one dominant month, but he is 5-1 with a 1.81 ERA and has terrific periphals. If you want to go with Strasburg or his Cubs teammate Jason Hammel instead, that's fine with me.

The one concern here is that with Kershaw starting, there are only two lefties in the pen in Bumgarner and Chapman. For that reason, I did consider Cole Hamels, who has been great even if his 2-5 record isn't. The actual roster will likely include a couple replacements like it always does, so I could see a lefty setup guy like Tony Watson (0.93 ERA) of the Pirates eventually making it.

Just missed: Hamilton, Pence, Strasburg, Hammel, Henderson Alvarez.

American League

C -- Salvador Perez, Royals
1B -- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2B -- Robinson Cano, Mariners
3B -- Josh Donaldson, A's
SS -- Derek Jeter, Yankees
LF -- Michael Brantley, Indians
CF -- Mike Trout, Angels
RF -- Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
DH -- Victor Martienez, Tigers
SP -- Felix Hernandez, Mariners

Derek Jeter? OK, Derek Jeter. Of course he doesn't deserve to make the team on his 2014 merit, but in lieu of a Tulowitzki or even half of a Tulowitzki in the AL, he's the guy I want to see start. At third, you could go Donaldson, Adrian Beltre or Kyle Seager. Donaldson holds a slight edge over Seager in FanGraphs WAR and a bigger one on Baseball-Reference, with Beltre well behind on both, so Donaldson gets my nod. Left field could be Brantley or Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes or Nelson Cruz, who is listed on the ballot as a DH although has started 38 games in left. I went with Brantley but, really, any of the four are reasonable selections. DH was just as tough with Martinez, Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion. Again, any of three work. Maybe we can just play Encarnacion at shortstop and hope nobody hits the ball to him.

OK, King Felix versus Masahiro Tanaka. Tough call since their numbers are about identical. Flip a coin. Yes, I'm a Mariners fan, but the difference for me was Hernandez has allowed four home runs and Tanaka 13. I know Tanaka is a great story but Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers for many years now and has never started the All-Star Game. Hey, there's also the chance that Tanaka could turn into a Jack Armstrong pumpkin (just kidding, Yankees fans).

Reserves
C -- Derek Norris, A's
1B -- Jose Abreu, White Sox
1B/DH -- Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
2B -- Jose Altuve, Astros
2B -- Ian Kinsler, Tigers
3B -- Adrian Beltre, Rangers
3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
SS -- Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
OF -- Alex Gordon, Royals
OF -- Adam Jones, Orioles
OF/DH -- Nelson Cruz, Orioles
OF/1B -- Brandon Moss, A's

It will be interesting to see how the real AL roster shakes out. I assume since Cruz and Moss were listed as DHs on the ballot that they weren't considered outfielders for the player vote. So, assuming Cespedes holds on to the fan lead for the third spot, your minimum of three backup outfielders will come from the Brantley/Gordon/Jones group -- except Jones got off to a terrible start and Brantley isn't a big name, so the players may instead vote in guys like Jacoby Ellsbury and Melky Cabrera (who got off to a strong start). If Brantley then makes it as the Indians rep and David Ortiz fares well in the player vote, it's possible that Martinez and Encarnacion both get squeezed off the roster (Cruz is leading the fan voting at DH).

As for the other backup, I actually cheated by including just one backup catcher when we told to include two. (Sorry, boss.) So three catchers from a weak AL group would further squeeze a deserving player off the team. I would have loved to have found room for hometown Twins second baseman Brian Dozier to make it, but I can't justify his selection over Altuve or Kinsler. The second shortstop could be Ramirez, Erick Aybar or Alcides Escobar; I don't really care which one. My final spot came down to Moss or teammate Cespedes. In part, this is a strategic move: Having that big lefty bat off the bench could be important (not that managers actually manage strategically in the game).

Pitching staff
SP -- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
SP -- Yu Darvish, Rangers
SP -- David Price, Rays
SP -- Jon Lester, Red Sox
SP -- Chris Sale, White Sox
SP -- Max Scherzer, Tigers
SP -- Garrett Richards, Angels
SP -- Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays
RP -- Greg Holland, Royals
RP -- Glen Perkins, Twins
RP -- Koji Uehara, Red Sox
RP -- Sean Doolittle, A's

Love this staff. Great righty/lefty balance. My automatic selections were Tanaka, Darvish, Price, Lester and Sale, with Scherzer next in line even if his ERA is a little high. Richards and Buehrle got the edge over a strong pool of candidates that included Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir, Rick Porcello, Dallas Keuchel, Anibal Sanchez and even Phil Hughes. Like I said, a lot more difficult calls in the AL.

For the bullpen, Perkins makes it on merit, not just as the Twins rep. He does have a 3.41 ERA but has a 46/7 strikeout/walk ratio and just two home runs allowed and has been very good for four years now. Doolittle is a second lefty and you know his crazy numbers: 57 strikeouts and two walks. Apologies here to Yankees setup man Dellin Betances and his dominant strikeout rate. I'm guessing he finds his way on to the actual roster.

Just missed: Cespedes, Dozier, Kluber, Keuchel, Betances.
We're going division by division to look at what each team needs to do at the trade deadline and what may actually happen. As always, you can keep up with the latest trade talk at Rumor Central.


Atlanta Braves

Status: Adding role players, bench and bullpen.

Biggest needs: The Braves' biggest need is to get rid of Dan Uggla's salary (due $13 million next year), but that's not happening. Atlanta is set in the starting lineup and rotation, but will look to add another setup man in the bullpen for Craig Kimbrel. The Braves also will look to improve what has been a weak bench (.193 pinch-hitting average).

Possible trade targets: David Price and Jeff Samardzija are most likely out of the Braves' prospect price range. Atlanta's system doesn't have enough depth to pull off a major trade, while still leaving some top guys for the home team. Look for small trades with minor prospects involved.

The prospect everyone will want but the Braves won't trade: Jose Peraza is hitting .341/.369/.454, and is 40-for-49 in stolen base attempts. He was just promoted to Double-A, and hasn't slowed down at the plate or on the bases. For a team like the Braves that needs a leadoff man with speed, they won't be trading the best one who has come through their system in more than a decade.

Likely scenario: The Braves will add a reliever and a pinch hitter. To make room on the bench they will finally release Uggla and eat the rest of his salary.

--Martin Gandy, Chop County


Miami Marlins

Status: Sitting tight, mostly. At 41-43, the Marlins aren't out of the playoff race but seem unlikely to make a run.

Biggest needs: If they do hang in there, they'll need to upgrade a rotation still suffering from the loss of Jose Fernandez. They've given a combined 22 starts to the likes of Jacob Turner, Anthony DeSclafani, Randy Wolf, Brad Hand and Kevin Slowey, all of whom have ERAs over 5.00. Top prospect Andrew Heaney may help, although he has a 5.17 ERA through his first three major league starts. They're fine at the back end of the bullpen with Steve Cishek, but could add some depth there.

If they fall back over the next month, they could try to cash in on Casey McGehee, who has a .312 average and 49 RBIs but just one home run. He'd make a nice bench player for a contending team. Cishek is a remote possibility to be traded as he has entered his arbitration years and will start to get expensive next year (he's making $3.8 million this year). With teams such as the Tigers and Giants possibly seeking a closer, he could bring a nice return, but the Marlins would likely wait until the offseason.

Possible trade targets/chips: The back of the rotation has been so bad that even a mediocre back-end starter would be an upgrade. For example, a pitcher such as Philadelphia's Roberto Hernandez, who is making just $4.5 million and signed through this year, making him a perfect Marlins rental. Seattle needs a right-handed bat and could use McGehee to play first base or DH. Nick Franklin has worn out his welcome in Seattle; the Mariners probably wouldn't do that straight up but the Marlins could toss in a minor leaguer.

Likely scenario: Probably not much happens here. They won't be close enough to make a significant deal and won't be far enough behind to start selling. McGehee could be an August deal.

--David Schoenfield


New York Mets

Team status: Aiming towards the cellar.
Fans status: Bye-ers.

Biggest needs: Cash. Shake Shack restaurant patrons. A young, promising shortstop might be nice. Minor league hitting prospects, at any position.

Possibly coveted goods: AARP card-carrying members Bartolo Colon and Bobby Abreu are two veterans having steady years who could be of value to a pennant-contending team. But what can they fetch in return? A Class A reliever? Projectable 20-year-old outfielder? The Mets would love to have someone take Chris Young off their hands, but he's below the Mendoza Line and has a $7.25 million salary. Jonathon Niese and Daniel Murphy are two players in the midst of perhaps their best seasons, but may be worth more to the Mets than other teams. Murphy is due a raise in the winter and could be on the block, at the risk of a fan revolt.

Likely scenario: Mets stand pat. After talking in March about a 90-win season, the Mets can't be sellers. But at 11 games below .500, they can't be buyers, either. They're paralyzed by enormous debt, dwindling attendance, and placating an impatient New York fan base. In the Catch-22 position of needing fans for revenue and not having enough money to take on more payroll, any trade they make will be driven by either cutting salary or making a big, newsy splash to remain relevant in minds of fans looking forward to preseason football. Bet on inertia.

--Joe Janish, MetsToday.com, @metstoday on Twitter


Philadelphia Phillies

Status: Should be selling, but the front office hasn't yet admitted that a complete overhaul needs to begin.

Biggest needs: Young talent. Prospects. Pitching. Outfielders. Middle infielders under 35. A catcher and first baseman.

Possible trade chips: If this is going to be an interesting trade deadline season, a lot will revolve around what the Phillies decide to do. Of course, keep in mind that if they had a lot of great players they wouldn't be 12 games under .500, so the trade value of players other than Cole Hamels (not going anywhere) and Cliff Lee (maybe, once he comes of the DL and proves he's healthy) is pretty minimal.

Chase Utley is signed through next season with vesting options that run through 2019. Teams will ask about him but Utley has indicated he will not waive his 10-and-5 rights to approve a trade. So he's not going anywhere.

Jimmy Rollins will likely meet his 2015 vesting option, which means he'll earn $11 million next year. He had a .288 OBP in June and probably wouldn't bring much in return anyway. Besides, which contenders even need a shortstop? Eugenio Suarez has played well since his call-up for the Tigers, Brad Miller has been hitting for the Mariners after a terrible first two months and the Yankees aren't going to displace Derek Jeter. Would the Dodgers want Rollins and slide Hanley Ramirez over to third? Not likely.

The two Phillies most likely to be traded are right fielder Marlon Byrd (.267/.320/.491 and signed through 2015 with a 2016 vesting option for $8 million) and Roberto Hernandez. Byrd is a perfect fit for Seattle, which needs a right-handed corner outfielder. Hernandez isn't great but would be a cheap option for a team that may eventually need a fifth starter (Oakland, Seattle, Baltimore, Miami, Cleveland). A.J. Burnett could be flipped -- back to Pittsburgh? -- but has been inconsistent so probably wouldn't bring more than a couple of Class A prospects.

Likely scenario: Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't know what to do and holds on to everything, save Hernandez. He'll want too much for Lee and won't find a taker for Rollins. He should try to deal Byrd and Burnett and at least start the restocking of the farm system, but the Phillies have made it clear that they fear losing fans if they start selling. But they're already losing fans: Attendance is down 14,000 per game from just two years ago.

-- David Schoenfield


Washington Nationals

Status: Holding.

Biggest needs: With the return of Bryce Harper, the Nationals are finally fielding their projected starting lineup for the first time since Opening Day, when catcher Wilson Ramos broke his hand. The Nationals are fifth in the majors in rotation ERA (but have a 2.60 ERA since June 1), second in bullpen ERA and the lineup is healthy. There isn't much for them to do. They may look to add a bench player/pinch-hitter type as neither Nate McLouth nor Kevin Frandsen have produced much, but that's a minor priority. The bullpen has been terrific, although lefty Jerry Blevins hasn't been effective (16 walks in 29 2/3 innings).

Likely scenario: Unless a starting pitcher gets hurt, don't expect the Nationals to do much except maybe look for a lefty reliever.

--David Schoenfield
OK, my apologies: We ran out of time today before taping the Rapid Fire video, so I'll make it a written post instead.

From @JoshLumley: Bruce Harper could make better lineups than Matt Williams.

Answer: True. Hey, Harper shouldn't have essentially thrown Denard Span under the bus like he did with his comments about wanting to play center field, but isn't it time Matt Williams at least gives up on the idea of hitting his worst regular in the leadoff spot? Span isn't terrible but his .312 OBP is hardly what you want from a leadoff guy. Meanwhile, Harper hit sixth in his return to the lineup. I'm seeing a lot of grumbling from Nationals fans that Williams is in over his head.

From @neal_kendrick: Jake Arrieta is the best pitcher on the Cubs roster.

Answer: I'm going false for now, if only because one great month (Arrieta finished with a 0.92 ERA in June after taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Monday) isn't yet enough to leap Arrieta ahead of Jeff Samardzija. But I do believe Arrieta is the real deal, with improved command and a nasty cutter that dives down like a slider. After the game on Monday, he told MLB Network that a big key has been "just being confident and comfortable with my routine throughout the week." I have to think getting away from Camden Yards has probably helped that confidence -- he doesn't have to worry about every mistake leaving the ballpark. Eric Karabell says "Put Arrieta on the All-Star team!" (Here's more of Eric and Tristan Cockcroft discussing Arrieta on the Fantasy Focus podcast.)

From @Venturecaps: Raul Ibanez gets a start for the Royals this week.

Answer: True. Ned Yost said he'd use Ibanez in the outfield, at first base and DH. Plus he called him a "professional hitter." I love Ned Yost. Look, Ibanez is probably done and in the end he won't do much more than pinch-hit, but it's at least worth a look to see if he has anything left.

From @Papa_Clarke: Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson will be the manager and general manager of the Mets on Opening Day 2015.

Answer: True. Eric agrees. No need here to clean house. The Mets' problems begin with ownership, not the front office and manager.

From @Orioles_Fever: The Orioles will trade for a second baseman.

Answer: False. I think they're more likely to go for pitching and hope for offensive improvement from Chris Davis and Manny Machado in the second half. Eric has another idea: Give Dan Uggla a shot. The Orioles do love power and you can get him for an order of crab cakes. Aaron Hill would also fit nicely if Arizona picks up some of his salary.

From @TheDeliMan1: Dee Gordon will have a career as a starting second baseman.

Answer: True. He slumped in May after his hot April but rebounded with a solid June (.303/.358/.475). With his speed and average-ish defense, he's good enough to start on a championship team.

From @darinself: The current division leaders will still be there at the end of September.

Answer: False. Eric and I agree on the two most vulnerable teams: the Braves (0.5-game lead over the Nationals) and Blue Jays (one game over the Orioles, 2.5 over the Yankees). I like the Nationals in the NL East and the Orioles in the AL East.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield took your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

It was a fun night of baseball and I haven't done this in awhile, so some quick thoughts on the night's action ...
  • The Nationals and Brewers played a 16-inning game, tying the Cubs-Pirates game from April 2 for longest of the season. Washington's bullpen was outstanding in the 4-2 win, tossing 10 innings of scoreless baseball with just four hits allowed against a good offense in a good hitter's park. Ross Detwiler had my favorite stat of the night: In his four innings he threw 42 pitches -- all fastballs. Matt Williams made an interesting decision in the 15th, having Tyler Clippard intentionally walk Jonathan Lucroy with two outs and a runner on second to pitch to Carlos Gomez (who popped out). Ryan Zimmerman then homered and made a diving catch in left field in the 16th. The Nats have the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors and this game showcased the depth they have out there.
  • The Indians and Diamondbacks played an even crazier extra-inning game, with Arizona winning 9-8 in 14 innings. Both teams scored twice in the 11th (with John Axford keeping the tie intact by striking out Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Montero with the bases loaded). In the 13th, Jason Kipnis was out at home trying to stretch a two-out triple into an inside-the-park homer. Aaron Hill finally delivered the walk-off hit; since 2009, he's tied for the MLB lead with eight walk-off hits (tied with Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Melky Cabrera). Besides the loss, the bad news for Cleveland is Justin Masterson had another poor outing and saw his ERA rise to 5.03. In four of his past eight innings he hasn't even managed to go five innings. If the Indians don't get back in the race, Masterson would presumably be trade bait since he's a free agent but the way he's pitching doesn't make him too attractive right now.
  • Justin and B.J. Upton both homered in the Braves' 3-2 win, the fourth time they've both homered in the same game (joining Jason and Jeremy Giambi and Vladimir and Wilton Guerrero to do that four times as brothers). For the third straight game, Fredi Gonzalez hit Justin Upton sixth -- while batting B.J. and Tommy La Stella in the first two spots. Why would you want to give an extra at-bat to those two players instead of Justin? Makes no sense. Gonzalez basically admitted he's kind of grasping at straws for the struggling Braves' offense, saying, "I've got a good feeling about it. We're just trying to find a sparkplug in the first couple of spots there." OK. But here's an idea: Just hit your best hitters at the top of the lineup. How about going Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis?
  • The Pirates held on for a 6-5 win as the Rays scored twice off new closer Mark Melancon and had the tying run on base before Evan Longoria flied out. The Pirates are 27-18 since May 6, the best record in the NL. They moved over .500 at 39-38. With the Pirates and Reds both playing better now the NL Central could potentially morph into a four-team race. I wonder if the division will beat up on each other, however, allowing the wild cards to come from the East (Braves or Nationals) and West (Dodgers or Giants).
  • Speaking of the Reds, Devin Mesoraco homered for the fifth straight game, the fourth Reds player to do that in 50 years (joining Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., Johnny Bench), and is now hitting .320/.387/.667 with 14 home runs and 40 RBIs. Don't you have to find room for this guy on the All-Star team? Trouble is, you also have Yadier Molina and Jonathan Lucroy and Gattis, plus there's Buster Posey. Good luck to Mike Matheny in sorting that out.
  • The Mariners keep rolling and the Red Sox keep scuffling as Seattle won 8-2. Kyle Seager hit a big three-run homer off Jake Peavy (who looked terrible) in the fifth to break open a 3-2 game. Seager does his best hitting with men on base: .322/.383/.622 and he's one guy who hasn't been affected by Safeco Field, at least this year, as he's hitting .328 at home with 10 of his 11 home runs. Erasmo Ramirez once again struggled with his control (five walks in 4.1 innings) and while his scoreless streak had gone to 20 innings before Boston scored twice in the fourth, he's been living on the edge. Give credit to Lloyd McClendon for the quick hook and turning the game over to his bullpen. Taijuan Walker had been struggling at Tacoma but tossed a complete game shutout on Tuesday, so you know the speculation will start building that he'll be up soon.
  • George Springer has what they call easy power. This home run went an estimated 465 feet.
  • Anthony Rizzo went 3-for-4 and the next Joey Votto is now outhitting Votto -- .288/.404/.532 versus .263/.403/.426.
  • Speaking of the Cubs, third-base prospect Kris Bryant homered again for Iowa. He's played six games at Triple-A and has five home runs. Cubs fans are dreaming big thoughts ...
  • Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann hit 5-6-7 for the Yankees. All have OBPs under .285 and Beltran has the best slugging percentage at .400. Maybe they'll turn it around. Or maybe they're old.

Braves take over lead in wide open NL East

June, 21, 2014
Jun 21
1:00
AM ET
Nine innings were not enough to decide first place in the National League East. Facing off in the nation's capital, the division-leading Washington Nationals hosted the Atlanta Braves in the second game of a four-game set with a half-game separating the two clubs.

In Friday's game, Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg took the mound opposite Braves left-hander Mike Minor. The Braves jumped on the board quickly as slugger Freddie Freeman took a two-strike, two-out pitch deep to right field to give his club an early 1-0 lead after one inning. The Nationals answered back an inning later when Ian Desmond belted his own two-out, solo shot to pull the teams even.

The score remained tied until the fourth when Andrelton Simmons laced an RBI single up the middle to give Atlanta a 2-1 lead. They tacked on two more runs an inning later on another two-strike, two-out hit. A two-run double off the bat of Jason Heyward gave the Braves a 4-1 lead.

Strasburg worked six innings, surrendering a season-high nine hits. He gave up more than three earned runs (four) for only the third time this season (16 starts). He did, however, strike out eight batters and walked none.

His counterpart, however, was phenomenal. Making his 10th start after starting the season on the disabled list because of injured shoulder, Minor held the Nats to two runs and seven hits in seven innings of work. He reached double-digit strikeouts for the fourth time in his career and second time this season. The 11 punchouts he generated were one off his personal best set back in August 2010.

Though Minor was stellar, and left the game with a two-run lead, he settled for a no-decision. Shut down closer Craig Kimbrel entered the game in the bottom of the ninth inning looking to preserve the 4-2 lead in search of his 22nd save of the season. Nate McLouth led off the inning with a walk following a lengthy battle with the All-Star reliever. Kimbrel retired the next two batters with ease before falling behind Anthony Rendon. With the count at 2-1, Kimbrel hurled a 98-mph heater only to see Rendon crush the offering to left-center field. Initially ruled a double, a quick review showed Rendon cleared the fence and tied the score at 4-4. It was Kimbrel's fourth blown save of the season, matching his total from last season, and the fourth career save he has blown against Washington. It was also the first home run he gave up this season.

[+] EnlargeJordan Walden, Evan Gattis
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsJordan Walden, right, recorded the final three outs for the Braves in their 6-4 win over the Nationals in 13 innings on Friday night.
Much like their place in the standings, the two teams stayed evenly matched for the next three innings. Washington used veterans Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Jerry Blevins to cover innings 10-12 while Atlanta countered with a trio of youngsters: Luis Avilan, Juan Jaime and Ryan Buchter; the latter two making their major-league debuts. Despite the gap in experience, each team posted zeros in the three extra frames. Jaime, a former Nationals' farmhand, was particularly impressive, flashing a 98-mph fastball to go along with a mid-70s, loopy curve.

Blevins, a left-hander, began the 13th inning against B.J. Upton. For all his struggles since joining the Braves, Upton can still reach bases against left-handed pitching. He did so once again after Blevins temporarily lost the strike zone and issued a five-pitch walk. Freeman then stepped into the batter's box.

Although he is left-handed himself, the franchise first baseman has posted reverse splits this season. Entering play Friday, he had hit .302/.371/.581 in 97 plate appearances against his fellow lefties. Freeman worked the count full before pulling a single to right field and moving Upton to third with no outs.

Having already burned the top four right-handers in his bullpen, Nationals' manager Matt Williams decided to leave the left-handed Blevins in the game rather than turning to right-hander Aaron Barrett to face Evan Gattis, one of the premier hitters against lefties in the league. Gattis has crushed southpaws to the tune of .395/.425/.789 this season. Williams' decision backfired quickly as Gattis smacked a single to left field, scoring Upton and putting the Braves on top once again. They tacked on another run for good measure.

Braves' reliever Jordan Walden closed out the bottom of the 13th inning to complete the 6-4 win.

The win pushed Atlanta to the top of the National League East and dropped Washington into second place. Meanwhile, Friday's victory by the upstart Miami Marlins leaves the Nationals as close to first place (a half-game) as they are to third. And don't look now, but just 3 1/2 games out of first sit the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of five straight and eight of their last 10.

If Friday's contest between the Braves and Nationals proved anything, it's that the race in the East is wide open.

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

New-look Lance Lynn dominates Nationals

June, 13, 2014
Jun 13
11:53
PM ET
On Friday night, Lance Lynn took the ball against the Washington Nationals and added another gem to his streak of quality performances this season. The St. Louis Cardinals right-hander no-hit the Nationals into the sixth inning, and ultimately pitched eight shutout innings with eight strikeouts, no walks and just two hits allowed. The victory against Jordan Zimmermann's own remarkable start came after Lynn held a red-hot Toronto Blue Jays lineup to two runs in his last start.

Lynn now owns a 3.16 ERA on the season with a 3.39 FIP that indicates there is little to no luck involved with his first 14 starts of 2014. With Shelby Miller somewhat struggling after his strong 2013 season, and early-season shoulder problems for Jaime Garcia, Lynn has grown into an important part of the Cardinals' rotation. With eyes on him, Lynn has performed remarkably well, and if he wasn't pitching in one of the strongest rotations in baseball, he could be in consideration for the elusive "top-of-the-rotation pitcher" title.

But over the last couple of seasons, Lynn can only be described as a solid starter. He was far from an ace-type starter, and it's been easy for him to fly under the radar playing alongside teammates Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Miller and Michael Wacha. One could call Lynn underrated, but the fact is that fan expectations rarely had him as more than a mid-rotation starter.

Lynn wanted to change those expectations this offseason, and he showed up to spring training looking like a strikingly different and leaner pitcher. He lost a lot of weight and it was difficult to even recognize who he was at first sight.

Every February and March, dozens of players show up to camp claiming they're in the best shape of their lives, and occasionally a new diet or workout regimen will contribute to a player's performance on the field. CC Sabathia made headlines the last few spring trainings by showing up significantly slimmer. Hopes for Sabathia were high, but the southpaw ultimately had the worst season of his career in 2013 and his velocity has continued to drop while his command has wavered.

Sabathia is one example to other players that you shouldn't fix what's not broken, but Lynn now exudes the opposite message.

Similar to Sabathia, Lynn showed up to camp this offseason much lighter. On recommendation of the Cardinals' chef, Lynn has changed his dieting habits and cut out refined carbohydrates and fats. In March, Lynn's fastball wasn't necessarily any harder, his command didn't significantly improve, but the pitcher clearly looked healthier and leaner.

Lynn's new fitness may not show up on a velocity gun, but it's showing up in his numbers. In fact, his success dieting could be an inspiration for many other teams to follow-up with their own nutritional guidelines for players. Most importantly for the thinner and healthier Lynn, Cardinals fans certainly knew who was on the mound Friday night.

Michael Eder writes for It's About the Money, a blog on the New York Yankees.
Two weeks ago, the Washington Nationals were 25-27. Now they've won nine of 11, are 34-29 and riding some amazing starting pitching. The pitching staff as a whole has allowed more than two runs just twice in those 11 games -- four runs both times -- and the starters have allowed more than two runs just once (and two of those four runs that Stephen Strasburg allowed on June 4 were unearned).

Here's the collective line for the rotation over those 11 games:

77 IP, 55 H, 14 R, 10 ER, 73 SO, 6 BB, 3 HR, 1.17 ERA

Focus on that walk column. When Doug Fister walked Brandon Hicks leading off the seventh inning on Tuesday, it snapped a streak of 51 consecutive innings Nationals starters had pitched without issuing a walk. Sure, the first part of this stretch came against the Phillies and Padres, but they also just beat the Giants 9-2 and 2-1 with two games left in the series (followed by another big series in St. Louis).

Fister has quietly been effective. After allowing seven runs in his first start returning from the DL on May 9, he's gone 5-0 with a 1.83 ERA. Strasburg has a 2.04 ERA since April 20 (although that's helped by seven unearned runs). Jordan Zimmermann scuffled early but is coming off back-to-back dominant, scoreless outings, including a 12-strikeout shutout against the Padres in which he registered nine of the K's with his fastball.

Oh ... and the bullpen leads the majors with a 2.20 ERA.

Remember that the Nationals have suffered through their share of injuries to position players. On Opening Day, the lineup featured Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche. That's the only time all four have played. Three of the four have played together just 15 times ... and Ramos left Tuesday's game with tightness in his right hamstring.

Injuries certainly aren't an excuse, especially considering Ramos, Zimmerman and Harper also battled injury issues last season, but it's fair to point out that Nationals haven't been operating on all cylinders yet. The bench hasn't been the disaster it was last season, but backup outfielder Nate McLouth, signed to a $5 million contract to provide depth has hit .179 with one home in 106 at-bats and Jose Lobaton and Kevin Frandsen have given sub-.300 on-base percentages.

Bryce Harper -- who may play center field when he returns from his handy injury with Zimmerman in left -- is expected back in late June or early June. He told the Washington Post a few days ago that he'd like to play center when he returns:
I really have no idea what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it. I think everyone knows I love center field. That’s where I like to be. My numbers are a lot better in center field. I feel good there. But you know, of course we have Denard Span, who’s one of the best center fielders in the game, if not the best.


As that article points out, Harper's defensive metrics were actually very good in center when he played there as a rookie in 2012, while being below-average in left. Span rates about average in center over the past two seasons. Considering the uncertainty of Zimmerman's ability to play third due to his shoulder, I would say the Nationals' best team features Zimmerman in left and Harper in center. Span can rotate in as needed, with Zimmerman also playing some first base for LaRoche against lefties.

Getting Harper back shouldn't be viewed as a problem. Have more flexibility will be a good thing for manager Matt Williams. I don't view the switch from Harper to Span as hurting the defense and, if anything, it allows the Nationals to be stronger defensively at three positions (Danny Espinosa at second over Anthony Rendon; Rendon over Zimmerman at third; and Harper over Span).

And a better defense could make the starters even better.

Not good news for the rest of the NL East.

Here's the funny thing about great throws: How many do you remember? Specific throws, I mean? Of course, there's the Bo Jackson throw to nail Harold Reynolds and the Ichiro Suzuki throw early in his first season in Seattle that helped establish his reputation for having a great arm.

But do many others pop into your head? Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline are known for their legendary arms, but did either one have a signature throw? Certainly, Pirates or Tigers fans of a certain age may remember a specific throw, but from the days before widespread TV broadcasts, visual evidence is spotty. If for some reason you think maybe Clemente's arm strength has been exaggerated through the years ... you're wrong. Here's one example, from the 1971 World Series, late in his career. It didn't catch a runner but held one at third and provides pretty solid evidence of his cannon.

Well, I'm thinking the throw from left field made by Yoenis Cespedes on Tuesday night is one we'll remember for a long time. I was watching the end of the Yankees-Mariners game when Twitter exploded -- this time, with good reason. It was definitely an all-timer.

The best throw I ever saw in person was back in the '80s, sitting in the right-field stands at the Kingdome. Somebody hit a ball into the right-field corner and attempted to stretch the hit into a triple. Jesse Barfield fired a laser all the way to third to get the runner. I had a perfect, direct line right behind Barfield to view the throw. Amazing. Barfield was known as having the best arm in the game in the '80s. Although there's no video of that throw (at least that I could find), here he is throwing out Chili Davis at third base. And here he is throwing out Mariners catcher Matt Sinatro on a base hit -- only a big deal because Sinatro was on third base to start the play.

As a kid, I watched the 1979 All-Star Game in Seattle, in which strong-armed Dave Parker threw out two runners. That second one ... wow. Also: Bring back those all-yellow Pirates jerseys!

Another outfielder of that era known for his powerful arm was Ellis Valentine of the Expos. Here he is with the Mets throwing out Pete Rose and Dale Murphy. Another strong-armed -- but also famously wild at times -- Expos right fielder was Vladimir Guerrero. But when he was on target, he did things like this.

One throw that some of you may remember from 1998 was from another Pirates right fielder. Jose Guillen's throw from the warning track was impressive enough that MLB Network named it the most unbelievable throw of all time.

Former pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel was known for his terrific arm. Here's a fly ball to medium-deep center in which the runner decides not to tag up -- probably a good decision. Here's a pretty good one to catch a runner at third from deep right-center.

Of course, in his short time in the majors, Yasiel Puig has developed a reputation for his great arm. Here are four from his rookie season.

Here's one from 2010 that Yankees fans will remember: Backup outfielder Greg Golson throws out speedy Carl Crawford at third base for the final out of an 8-7 victory.

Here's one I just learned about: Joe Ferguson cutting down Sal Bando at the plate in the 1974 World Series. The Dodgers played Ferguson, a catcher, in the outfield at times because they had Steve Yeager.

The most famous throw in World Series history may be George Foster getting Denny Doyle in the iconic Game 6 of 1975. Mets fans would like to forget Derek Jeter's relay throw to nail Timo Perez in Game 1 of the 2000 World Series.

Anyway, we could go on and on. I didn't even mention guys like Carl Furillo, Dwight Evans, Larry Walker or Raul Mondesi. Greatest throw ever? Maybe it is Cespedes or Guillen. It's definitely none of these.

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