SweetSpot: Washington Nationals

videoSo there are your 12-inning games and then your 12-inning games featuring a pitcher playing left field and Bryce Harper getting himself into more hot water.

San Diego Padres at Washington Nationals, a sleepy game on a 62-degree night in the national's capital. Let's fast-forward to the 11th inning. Padres left fielder Seth Smith grounds out to start the inning, but injures his groin and is unable to remain in the game for the bottom of the 11th. Padres manager Bud Black is down to two bench players: Tommy Medica, a first baseman/left fielder, although really a first baseman; and backup catcher Rene Rivera. Like most teams, the Padres don't have many reserves because 12 of the 25 guys on the roster are pitchers. That's another story.

So Black obviously has to put Medica into the game in left (and he has started four games there, so it's not like you're putting David Ortiz out there), but this puts the Padres in a bad spot. The pitcher's spot would be due up third for the Padres in the 12th, a spot Medica would have been used as a pinch-hitter. Black could use Rivera there but you hate to burn your final bench player, especially your backup catcher, unless absolutely necessary.

Black could double-switch, taking out reliever Tim Stauffer and putting in Alex Torres in Smith's spot, but he wanted Stauffer to remain in the game to face righty-hitting Jayson Werth. The light bulb goes on in Black's head: Put starting pitcher Andrew Cashner in left field for one batter, so Stauffer can stay in to face Werth, and hope the ball isn't hit to him.

It wasn't. Werth lined out back to the mound. Then Black made the double-switch, bringing in the lefty Torres to face lefty-swinging Adam LaRoche, and putting Medica in left field in Stauffer's spot in the batting order.

Torres gets out of the 11th. The Padres score in the 12th (Medica struck out but Xavier Nady singled in Jedd Gyorko with two outs).

We go to the bottom of the 12th and Harper leads off with a routine fly ball to left against Padres closer Huston Street. Except Medica, who was playing on the warning track, slips and the ball drops in and Harper hustles in for a double. Padres fans start screaming about some kind of curse of Ray Kroc or the San Diego Chicken or whatever reason it is the Padres have never won a World Series.

Tyler Moore strikes out. Then Jose Lobatan smashes a liner in the hole toward shortstop, Harper breaks for third looking to score the tying run ... and shortstop Everth Cabrera snares the ball and doubles off Harper. Game over. Padres happy, Matt Williams sends Harper to his room without dinner.

The Nationals went 0-for-16 with runners in scoring position and left 14 runners on base, but I'll take a wild guess that young Mr. Harper will be blamed for the loss.

Weird ending, strange game, but Bud Black: I praise you for your creativity and making our Thursday evening a little more interesting.

SweetSpot TV: Rapid fire

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
12:58
PM ET
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It's another edition of rapid fire, featuring Masahiro Tanaka, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Jesse Chavez, Chase Utley, Mike Moustakas, the Mets and the Mariners.
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Baseball is a different animal than other sports, so those of us in the media who keep playing the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird card regarding Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are overlooking an inconvenient truth: The pitcher is the guy with the baseball in his hand, so he controls the vast majority of what takes place on a given night.


The first big league meeting ever between Trout and Harper featured two starting pitchers who aren’t going to adorn a season-ticket brochure anytime soon. The Los Angeles AngelsGarrett Richards, a former Oklahoma Sooner with a 98-mph fastball and occasionally wandering control, stifled the Washington Nationals on one hit through six innings Monday night. His Washington counterpart, Tanner Roark, countered with 6 2/3 shutout innings before leaving to some well-deserved applause in the seventh.


The attendance at Nationals Park was 24,371, or 58.7 percent of capacity, which goes to show that even the novelty of two wunderkinds in the same venue can fill only so many seats on a clear April night in the nation’s capital.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesIt turned out that Mike Trout had more to celebrate on Monday night.


Harper went 0-for-3 with a walk in four plate appearances. Trout contributed two singles in five at-bats, and a pair of double-play takeout slides that were hard enough to leave a mark. But at the end of the night, they both stepped aside as their elders put their stamp on the proceedings. Albert Pujols started an eighth-inning rally with an infield squibber and a stolen base, and old war horse Raul Ibanez came off the bench and lined a three-run double into the gap to propel the Angels to a 4-2 win in the opener of a three-game series.


On a night that revolved around baseball’s long-term future, the winning rally could have been sponsored by Lipitor. But the game was still a ringing endorsement for interleague play, and the notion that MLB does right by customers by giving them snippets of something they really want between the inevitable filler in the schedule.


Heaven knows, that quirky 15-15 configuration has left us with some early matchups that are less than riveting. That rain-induced day-night doubleheader between Cleveland and San Diego at Progressive Field in early April comes to mind. And the recent Seattle-Miami matchup certainly didn’t look like much on paper, although Giancarlo Stanton gave it an injection of oomph with a game-winning grand slam.


Washington and Los Angeles, in contrast, provided some “must see” April interleague viewing because it’s the first time Harper and Trout have taken the field together since they were teammates with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League in 2011. The double-bill was sufficiently hype-worthy that Nationals broadcast team Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo devoted almost their entire pregame setup to the occasion. They changed course only at the end, when Carpenter offered up the “footnote” that Pujols has 498 career homers and could be making history any day now.


Seeing Trout and Harper on the same field together lent context to their respective paths and the attributes that link and distinguish them. Harper has been the designated golden boy since age 16, while Trout somehow lasted until the 25th pick in the 2009. Trout, who turns 23 in August, is 14 months older than Harper. But they arrived from the minors together on April 28, 2012, instantly looking as if they belonged.


Their disparate styles have helped fuel the “rivalry” narrative, even though they’re friends who enjoy texting one another. Harper burns with an intensity that scouts love and fans either embrace or find off-putting. Trout leaps fences and comes away with the ball in his glove and a disarming smile on his face. Harper has more raw power and a better arm, while Trout runs faster, controls the strike zone better and plays superior defense in the outfield. They’re also in different financial neighborhoods now that Trout has agreed to a six-year, $144.5 million extension and Harper has to muddle along with that measly $6.25 million signing bonus as the first pick in 2010.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsBryce Harper didn't shine in the first game, but give him time.


All uber-prospects, no matter how highly acclaimed, have to proceed at their own pace. Ken Griffey Jr. hit .264 in his first season with Seattle, while Barry Bonds batted .223 and .261 in his first two years with Pittsburgh. Harper won a Rookie of the Year award at age 19, but he hasn’t had much margin for error breaking in alongside Trout, whose idea of “struggling” is finishing second to Miguel Cabrera twice in the American League MVP balloting.


In some ways, Harper’s occasional travails and missteps make him the more compelling human story. He has gone from the cocky, eyeblack-smeared junior college Bryce to the wall-banging, bull-in-a-china-shop rookie to the Bryce who’s ready to take on a more expansive leadership role in Washington. One day he’s in a 3-for-21 funk with 10 strikeouts and proclaiming himself “pretty lost right now.” A week later, you look up and he has raised his average from .192 to .412.


Over the weekend, Harper became the poster boy for new manager Matt Williams’ quest to put a stamp on the team when he jogged out a ground ball, peeled off toward the dugout and received an instant benching. Oddly enough, the Nationals’ TV feed still features a promotional spot for Harper with the caption “Nothing But Hustle.”


A National League scout who was in town for the weekend series with St. Louis, and the infamous jog, thinks Harper could stand to relax a little. After a slow start last season, the Nationals were hoping to bust out with authority this year. But they lead the majors in errors, Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos are on the disabled list, and they’re muddling along at 11-9.


“It’s almost like he’s trying to do too much right now,” the scout said. “He started the year and his timing was horrible. Then he got real hot. Now I think he’s trying to throw that whole team on his shoulders because they didn’t win last year and Zimmerman is out. He doesn’t have to do that.”


If one player secretly burns to outdo the other in the Trout-Harper “rivalry,” the conventional wisdom is that it’s Harper -- no matter how much they both downplay any semblance of competition with their public comments.


“I’m sure he’s like a caged lion,” the scout said of Harper before Monday’s game. “I’d probably throw him a changeup the first pitch, and bounce a breaking ball the second pitch and see if I can feed off all the energy he has going.”


Richards strayed from that script, pumping five straight fastballs on his way to striking Harper out swinging. It was that kind of night.


The good news is that the Angels and Nationals will meet again Tuesday, with Tyler Skaggs on the mound for Los Angeles and Taylor Jordan pitching for Washington in the second of three installments of April appointment baseball. If you’re a Mickey Mantle fan, you’re probably partial to Trout. If you prefer something more edgy -- say, in the Pete Rose mold -- you probably like Harper.


And if you love baseball, you just relish the thought of them sharing the same field, as the quintessential endorsement for interleague play.

Joe Posnanski is ranking the 100 best baseball players of all time and the other day he wrote about Sandy Koufax, his No. 46 guy.

Koufax is one of the most difficult players to rank in a list like this due to his short career. His case raises the problems of factoring in peak value versus career value, not to mention postseason performance. Even Koufax's peak -- five great seasons, three of which were pantheon-level seasons -- is relatively short. Plus, he benefited from his time and place: A pitcher's era in a pitcher's park.

Joe writes:

At Dodger Stadium, on that Everest of a mound, Koufax was both literally and figuratively on an even higher level.

– in 1963, at Dodger Stadium, he went 11-1 with a 1.38 ERA and batters hit .164 against him.
– In 1964, the one year he did not manage 300 innings, he went 12-2 with an 0.85 ERA at home.
– In 1965, the league hit .152 against Koufax in LA, and he went 14-3 with a 1.38 ERA. On the road that year, he was a much more human 12-5 with a 2.72 ERA.
– In 1966, he was was more or less the same dominant pitcher at home and on the road. His 1.52 ERA at home was not very different from his 1.96 ERA on the road.

So what do all these advantages mean for Koufax’s legacy? Well, I’m a numbers guy at heart but I have to say … it doesn’t mean much to me. Koufax, like all of us, was a man of his time and place. He was given a big strike zone and a high mound and, with the wind at his back, he became indelible, unforgettable, the greatest and most thrilling pitcher many would ever see in their lifetime. No, of course the numbers do not compare fairly with pitchers of other eras — you can’t say Koufax was better than Lefty Grove or Roger Clemens just because his ERA was lower — but those numbers offer a nice display of his dominance and, more, the way people looked at him. He still had a 1.86 ERA over four seasons. He still struck out 382 batters in a season.


Overall, in his three monster seasons in 1963, 1965 and 1966 Koufax went 25-5, 1.88; 26-8, 2.04; and 27-9, 1.73.

Now, in retrospect we know Koufax gained a big advantage from Dodger Stadium. They probably knew that on some level at the time, but nobody really kept track of the numbers. What I always found interesting is that other pitchers were putting up big numbers in the same era, and yet it's Koufax whose legacy grew the largest. For example:
  • Juan Marichal went 25-8 in 1963, 25-6 in 1966 and 26-9 in 1968.
  • Bob Gibson had his 1.12 ERA in 1968.
  • Dean Chance went 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA in 1964.
  • Tom Seaver went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA in 1969 (after the mound was lowered) and 20-10 with a 1.76 ERA in 1971.
  • Koufax struck out 300 batters three times; Sam McDowell did it twice and even had a season with a 1.81 ERA.
  • Denny McLain won 55 games in 1968-69, two more than Koufax won in 1965-66.




The point: Other guys were doing Koufax-like things at the same time. So why Koufax? (Not that Seaver, Gibson and Marichal are disrespected but I'm guessing more casual fans would be inclined to call Koufax the greatest pitcher ever over those three.) Maybe it's the two World Series titles in 1963 and 1965, including a Game 7 shutout in 1965, when the World Series still meant everything. Maybe it was pitching in Los Angeles. Maybe retiring early added to his aura; nobody saw Koufax grow old.

A recent article by Bill James on Bill James Online titled "Climbing the Stairway to Sandy Koufax" finally made my understand why. Bill wrote:
Since 1900 there have been only three seasons by a pitcher in which the pitcher had 25 wins, 300 strikeouts, an ERA under 2.50 and a winning percentage of .750. Those three seasons were by Sandy Koufax, 1963, Sandy Koufax, 1965, and Sandy Koufax, 1966.


So there you go. Those other guys came close and maybe did two of those things, but only Koufax has had a Koufax season. Vida Blue came close in 1971; if he'd gone 25-8 instead of 24-8, he would have had a Koufax season. If Steve Carlton goes 27-9 instead of 27-10 in 1972, it's a Koufax season. Randy Johnson came close.

The rest of the article is a fun look at isolating the best pitching seasons ever, or as Bill wrote, "trying to develop a protocol to make a list of the seasons worthy of the Sandy Koufax label."

A few other things to check out:
  • John Dewan writes that shifts are still on the rise. Teams are on pace for more than 12,000, more than 4,000 more than last season. The Astros lead the majors with 176 shifts; the Yankees are second with 98. The White Sox are fourth with 61 -- just 12 fewer than they had all of last season.
  • Be sure to check out the ESPN The Magazine story by Scott Eden on Yasiel Puig's defection from Cuba if you missed it last week.
  • Via Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk, the respected Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post drops a few hints as to why Matt Williams may have pulled Bryce Harper from Saturday's game after Harper failed to run out a little tapper to the mound.
  • Harper Gordek of Nationals Baseball writes about Bryce and Boswell.
  • On the same subject, in his newsletter, Joe Sheehan writes, "The problem isn't that Matt Williams benched Bryce Harper for some perceived lack of effort. The problem is the antediluvian mindset that even makes that an option. Modern baseball players aren't wide-eyed farm boys being herded from the saloons to the ballyard and back, they're highly-trained professionals recruited, trained and deployed in a nine-billion-dollar industry. You do nothing for the Washington Nationals by treating them, collectively or individually, like something less."
  • Adam Wieser of Disciplines of Uecker writes about Carlos Gomez -- and his "crazy" swing. (That's his bat, not his jab.)
  • Michael Eder of It's About the Money on who will replace Ivan Nova for the Yankees.
  • The Twins are actually scoring some runs this year, but they're still looking for some offense at shortstop and center field, writes Nick Nelson of Twins Daily.
  • Brandon Land of One Strike Away on the curious case of J.P. Arencibia and his play so far with the Rangers.
  • The Mets are calling up Bobby Abreu. Must need some veteran leadership.
  • Domonic Brown is still struggling, writes Bill Baer.
Mike Trout and Bryce Harper will forever be linked after they burst on to the scene in 2012, Trout as an MVP candidate as a 20-year-old, Harper with maybe the best season ever by a 19-year-old position player. As much as we've talked about them the past two-plus seasons, Monday's game in Washington will be the first head-to-head meeting between the two.

While Trout's star ascended in 2013 with another MVP runner-up finish, Harper got off to a hot start in April before injuries took their toll and he finished with similar numbers to his rookie season. It's easy to forget that Harper may have been the best player in baseball last April, when he hit .344/.430/.720 with nine home runs, six doubles, 18 RBIs and nearly as many walks (14) as strikeouts (16). A year ago, the Trout-versus-Harper debate was still legitimately raging.

On May 13, however, Harper crashed chin-first into the wall at Dodger Stadium. He missed one game and listed what was sore the day after the collision: "Both legs, [left] shoulder, ribs, hand, wrist, chin of course."

Whether that collision was the direct cause or not, Harper wasn't the same player the rest of the season and would undergo knee surgery in the offseason. Check out his hit chart last year through May 13 and how it looks since:

Harper hit chartESPN Stats & InformationBryce Harper hasn't pulled the ball with the same authority as early last season.


Of those 10 early home runs, he had pulled seven of them to right field, and six of the 10 came on inside pitches. Since the collision, he's hit 11 home runs -- and only pulled two to right field (the one home run he's hit in 2014 doesn't show up on the hit chart above, but it was yanked over the right-field foul pole).

Again, it's hard to say how much the knee bothered him last year, and his opposite-field home runs showcased his raw power, but home run hitters still make a living pulling the majority of their home runs. During that hot start, Harper hit .344/.417/.938 on inside pitches; since then he's .265/.452/.426 on inside pitches.

Through May 13 last year, 25.7 percent of pitches Harper saw were classified as inside -- the inner third of the plate or in and off the plate. Since then, that number is 23.6 percent, although it's only 19.3 percent in 2014. Pitchers are certainly challenging Harper less often inside, but when he does get inside pitches he's not doing much damage.

Some of this frustration may have reached a boiling point Saturday -- for Harper and manager Matt Williams, when Harper was removed from the game after not running out a tapper back to the pitcher's mound. When factoring in that Williams batted Harper as low as seventh earlier in the season (he's been moved back up to second in the past five games), it's clear that the Nationals' skipper is trying to teach his young star some lessons. To me, it seems the biggest lesson is one Williams can't help: Harper is still learning to adjust to major league pitching.

Trout has had no issues adjusting to whatever adjustments pitchers have tried to make to him, although he did go 0-for-4 on Saturday with four strikeouts. But he enters Monday's game hitting .307 and leading the American League with a .613 slugging percentage, and already atop the AL leaderboard for WAR.

As I've touched upon here before, back in spring training Trout said he wanted to be more aggressive this year on first pitches or when ahead in the count. His overall swing rate is up 3 percent over 2013, but his chase percentage -- the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that he's swung at -- is up from 21 percent to 27 percent. Perhaps as a result, his strikeouts are up and his walks are down so far from 2013; he's on pace for 198 strikeouts and 63 walks after going 136 and 110 a year ago. That hasn't hurt his productivity yet, and I suspect those walk and strikeout numbers will eventually fall back closer to a 1-1 ratio, in part because Trout has killed fastballs so far (.378, four of his five home runs). If he gets fed more off-speed pitches, expect the walk rate to go back up.

While we'll all be watching the Trout-Harper showdown, this is a big road trip for the Angels -- six games against the Nationals and then six against the Yankees. Despite the strong start from Trout (and Albert Pujols, who has six home runs to give him 498 for his career), the Angels are 8-10, hoping to avoid a third straight awful April.

SweetSpot TV: Power rankings

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
12:05
PM ET
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Eric and myself fill on the weekly Power Rankings video and wonder why the Oakland A's aren't ranked higher and if AL East teams are being unfairly dinged.

Harper disciplined by yesteryear's phenom

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
7:10
PM ET
Bryce Harper’s latest bit of drama hit the news: pulled from a close game Saturday and benched for lack of hustle running to first base. Nationals manager Matt Williams was pretty up-front about the reason why, stressing Harper’s obligation to his teammates when he said, “He and I made an agreement, this team made an agreement, that when we play the game, that we hustle at all times.” Harper’s postgame comments seem to indicate he took it in the right way, or was at least ready to give the right answers, so we can forget about any postgame drama.

It’s times like these that you have to remember that, while it might seem as if Harper has already been around a while, he’s nevertheless just 21 years old, yet in his third season in the majors already. I think we all remember what we were like at 21, and whether or not you were ready to be a perfect employee in any workplace, let alone one with few days off and the rigors of a grinding travel schedule. Which is why, even for a player as good as Harper, even for a player who has been relentlessly conditioned and prepared to be a big league ballplayer, as he was, you can extend some small measure of understanding for him. On the other hand, as the son of an ironworker, he has lauded his father’s example as the inspiration for his work ethic.

The microscope that Harper has to work under is no easy thing for anybody, with or without the clown questions. Less than two weeks ago, he was talking about how lost he was at the plate and taking a day off. Then he rattled off an eight-game hitting streak while hitting .483/.545/.759, so I guess you can say he found himself.

That’s what is worth the headaches, even as you accept that, third-year pro or no, Harper is still a very young man. Which is why you can simultaneously respect Williams for exercising his responsibility to his team so quickly. Williams may be a rookie skipper, but he’s also a guy who had his share of huge touts back in the day as the third overall pick of the 1986 draft for the San Francisco Giants. He was in the majors nine months later, just 21 years old with even fewer games as a pro under his belt in the minors than Harper had when he was called up (less than 80, to 134 for Harper).

So Williams knows more than a little about these kinds of pressures, as well as his own experience as a singular talent. Maybe that means he’s less inclined to spare the rod, so to speak. We’ll have to see how Harper, having been chastened, responds to the message in the days to come.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
There's certainly no shame in losing to Adam Wainwright. When he's commanding his fastball to the corners and dropping in that big curveball, the 1927 Yankees with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig would have trouble beating him.

It's one thing to lose to an ace like Wainwright, but it's another to go down like the Washington Nationals did on Thursday night: one lone infield hit to Wainwright until there were two outs in the ninth; four errors, to add to their league-leading total; 192 pitches thrown; one wild pitch, one hit batter and a whole bunch of fans who left Nationals Park early.

This is supposed to be one of the best teams in baseball? The Nationals looked like the '62 Mets in this one. By the seventh inning, I expected to see Marv Throneberry triple into a double play.

Of course, every team has a game like this at some point during the season. There are more than a few teams who would like to own the Nationals' 9-7 record. Still, this game exposed some concerns about the Nationals, namely, their defense, their arguably overrated rotation and their inability to beat good teams.

[+] EnlargeDanny Espinosa
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsDanny Espinosa made one of four errors by the Nationals in their loss to the Cardinals on Thursday.
Yes, the Nats are 9-7, but they’re 3-0 against the Mets (who, granted, are off to an 8-7 start) and 5-1 against the Miami Marlins, but 1-5 against the Atlanta Braves and now 0-1 against the St. Louis Cardinals. In those seven games against the Braves and Cardinals, they've been outscored 40 to 16.

If that sounds familiar, I take you back to 2013, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 0-6 against the Cardinals. Against the five National League playoff teams, they went 14-31 while being outscored 181-125. The Nationals went 86-76 only because they beat up on the hapless Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Marlins, and they did much of that damage in September, once those three clubs had long since packed it in. If we're supposed to take the Nationals seriously, don't they need to start beating the good teams?

That vaunted Nationals rotation. It had a 3.60 ERA last season. That's good. I mean, it was only sixth best in the NL, barely better than the Mets (3.68) and only a little better than the Marlins (3.87). Of course, the Mets didn't get to face the Mets and the Marlins didn't get to face the historically awful Marlins offense, but 3.60 is pretty solid. Many thought it would be even better this season: They brought in Doug Fister to replace Dan Haren, and Stephen Strasburg should be better and Jordan Zimmermann just needs to do what he did in the first half last season (12-4, 2.58 ERA) over a full season.

That hasn't happened early on. Fister hasn't pitched yet; the depth from Taylor Jordan, who started Thursday, and Tanner Roark hasn't materialized; Strasburg has struggled with runners on base; Zimmermann had a blow-up start. The Nationals have a 5.21 rotation ERA, second worst in the majors.

It's probably good news that the Nationals are 9-7 when the rotation has struggled to this degree. Sure, there's undoubtedly some bad luck in there -- the .348 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) the starters have allowed is also second worst in the majors -- but they're also 28th in average innings per start and 25th in walks per nine innings. They're also first in strikeouts per nine, but strikeouts are nicer when they come with run prevention.

OK, most of us still believe in the rotation. And they'll have a lot of games against the Marlins and Phillies to look good against.

The defense, however, has been the biggest disaster of all. On Thursday, shortstop Ian Desmond made a fielding error and a throwing error, raising his season total to seven; second baseman Danny Espinosa dropped a throw from Desmond; right fielder Jayson Werth dropped a fly ball. That's 20 errors in 16 games. Ugly.



OK, errors aren't everything. You can make up for errors with good range. But they look bad, and, sometimes, sloppy baseball feeds off itself. The pitchers have to throw more pitches and work out of more jams. That leads to earlier exits and puts more strain on the bullpen.

Again, one game. In September, it will be forgotten. Heck, it might be forgotten by next week. But I won't forget until I start seeing the Nationals do some damage against better teams. Ask yourself this: How would we view this team if it played in the NL Central instead of the NL East?
There were 15 games played Wednesday. One-third of those games featured a shutout. Teams hit a collective .220 and averaged 2.8 runs per game. The Cubs played a doubleheader and didn't score a run, the first time that has happened since 1962 (the Cubs lost 103 games that year). Felix Hernandez allowed one run and didn't win, the 17th time since 2010 he's pitched at least seven innings, allowed one run or fewer and didn't get the W. Cliff Lee allowed one run and fanned 13 and didn't win. The highest-scoring games featured just 10 runs and both went extra innings, and one was decided when a utility infielder had to pitch.

So, yes, just another day of baseball. Quick thoughts ...
  • The Red Sox beat the White Sox 6-4, scoring twice in the 14th inning off infielder Leury Garcia. I'd say the 14th inning is a little early to run out of relievers, especially when your starter goes six innings. The White Sox were nursing a 4-2 lead in the eighth, but manager Robin Ventura burned through four relievers in getting just three outs as Boston scored once in the eighth and once in the ninth. Ventura was trying to match up and brought in lefties Scott Downs and Donnie Veal to face one batter, which led to a thin bullpen in extra innings. Rather than try to get a fourth inning out of Daniel Webb (who had thrown 59 pitches) or use a starter in relief, Ventura used Garcia. The White Sox bullpen has an MLB-worst 6.38 ERA and the bullpen walked 11 batters in this game. It was a concern heading into the season, and Doug Padilla writes that changes could be in order.
  • Julio Teheran continues to impress despite low strikeout totals. He beat Lee 1-0 with a three-hit shutout with just four strikeouts. Teheran threw 23 changeups (22 to left-handers), after having thrown only 15 in his first three starts. It worked as the Phillies went 0-for-6 against it. Teheran has only 13 strikeouts in 28 innings, but has allowed only four extra-base hits and walked six. The impressive thing about Wednesday's effort was going back out there in the ninth with a 1-0 lead. With Craig Kimbrel still day to day with a sore shoulder, Fredi Gonzalez even left Teheran in to face Chase Utley after Jimmy Rollins had singled (and stole second with two outs). Utley grounded a 3-1 sinker to second, Teheran's 115th pitch. Compare that to Lloyd McClendon, who pulled Hernandez in the eighth inning after 96 pitches and saw his bullpen and defense lose it in the ninth.
  • It's only three starts, but Masahiro Tanaka looks like a No. 1 to me. OK, it was the Cubs. And the Cubs can't hit (Michael Pineda & Co. shut them out in the nightcap). Still, that splitter is a wipeout pitch. Maybe hitters will learn to lay off it, but as Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara showed last season, hitters can't lay off it, even when they know it's coming. Tanaka has 28 strikeouts through three starts. Since 1900, only Stephen Strasburg and J.R. Richard had more strikeouts in their first three career starts.
  • Johnny Cueto had a brilliant three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout for the Reds over the Pirates, giving Cincinnati its first series win of 2014. Keep an eye on Pirates left fielder Starling Marte, however. Clint Hurdle didn't start him as he had struck out three times in each of the previous two games and now has 24 in 68 plate appearances (35 percent strikeout rate). He's hitting .250/.338/.383, but all the K's are becoming a concern. The Pirates need him to be more than just a great defensive left fielder; they need him to hit or this offense is really going to struggle to score runs.
  • Jose Fernandez, after getting roughed up and struggling with his command in his last start, was cruising along into the sixth inning against the Nationals with a 3-0 lead, having allowed only one hit with six punchouts. Jose Lobaton led off with a double and then Jarrod Saltalamacchia made a terrible play with pitcher Tanner Roark bunting. The bunt was short and in front of the plate and while Salty had a possible play at third, with a 3-0 lead you just take the out at first. He threw wildly and everyone was safe. After a strikeout and infield pop out, Fernandez should have been out of the inning. Instead, Jayson Werth did this, lining an 0-1 fastball down the middle just over the fence in right-center (the review confirmed it was a home run). Fernandez ended up with 10 K's in seven innings, but the Nationals won it with three in the eighth.
  • Big win for the Angels to avoid a sweep to the A's. A night after tying it in the ninth but losing in extra innings, the Angels again tied it in the bottom of the ninth and this time won in extra innings, on Chris Iannetta's 12th-inning walk-off homer against Drew Pomeranz. Mike Trout, who homered Tuesday to tie it, got the tying rally started with a base hit. Losing leads in the ninth is always wrenching, but especially so against a division rival. The Mariners lost to the Rangers in similar fashion (Jeff Sullivan writes it as only a Mariners fan can: Baseball's back).
  • Buster Olney wrote on George Springer's major league debut for the Astros. Springer went 1-for-5 with a dribbler for a base hit, a walk and two strikeouts in the Astros' 6-4 loss to the Royals in 11 innings. He also got picked off (one of two Astros to get picked off). The Royals won despite making four errors. Some game there. The Astros, by the way, are hitting .189.
  • Injury watch: Cardinals starter Joe Kelly is likely headed to the DL after pulling his hamstring trying to beat out an infield hit; Hanley Ramirez left the game after getting hit on his hand, but X-rays were negative and he's day-to-day; Kole Calhoun is out 4-6 weeks for the Angels after spraining a ligament in his ankle (J.B. Shuck hit leadoff in his place last night).

Nationals' injuries will cost in NL East race

April, 13, 2014
Apr 13
1:39
AM ET


Remember 2012, when a Nationals-Braves series was a baseball jamboree to be highlighted in yellow weeks in advance? When the teams combined for 192 wins? When each went to the playoffs? The future was bright then, and full of stars. You’d see Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel suit up for Atlanta, or see Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann for the Nationals.


The bright future past gave way to a somewhat mediocre 2013. Zimmermann and Gonzalez experienced slight regression while Strasburg and Harper were merely excellent rather than otherworldly -- with Harper missing 40-plus games to boot -- leading to a disappointing 86 Nats wins, four games back of even the second wild-card slot. The Braves did everything right and ran away with the division by 10 games, but it wasn't the same, at least for nonpartisans, as a fully competitive, hard-fought division.


Then, before 2014 really got going, the baseball gods found some excuse to punish the Braves, sending Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen to Tommy John surgery while afflicting Mike Minor with shoulder tendinitis. Suddenly, with a back end of their rotation made up of Alex Wood, David Hale, and Aaron Harang, the team was going to have to overcome the free-agency loss of Brian McCann through the sheer force of will of Justin Upton and Heyward. Good as they are, neither guy is Barry Bonds, capable of bearing alone the burden of elevating mediocrity to respectability.


So the hoped-for two-team division race was down, realistically, to just the Nats ... except for those pesky baseball gods, who apparently want to see the Marlins make the playoffs with 82 wins and therefore decided to strike down the Nationals’ big winter trade acquisition, Doug Fister, and snakebit catcher Wilson Ramos, each of whom has star-level talent and mediocre backups (Tanner Roark/Taylor Jordan and Jose Lobaton, respectively).

[+] EnlargeSandy Leon, Anthony Varvaro, Evan Gattis
AP Photo/Jason GetzAbsent Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats' hit-or-miss offense might become that much more miss.


Worse yet, Saturday's pregame announcements featured the news that Denard Span had to head to the disabled list with a concussion suffered in a weird collision with Dan Uggla. Concussions being what they are, Span could be back in a week or a month or not at all. This leaves Nate McLouth in the Nationals’ outfield, which is something other than a disaster, McLouth having experienced an unpredictable renaissance over the last two years, hitting .252/.324/.393. That line plays fine in this low-offense era, but the likely two-position defensive drop, from Span to Harper in center and from Harper to McLouth in left, won't make many Nationals hurlers happy. Strasburg and Gonzalez don't have much to worry about, both being strikeout pitchers with solid-to-good ground-ball rates, but pitchers less apt to miss bats may find themselves frustrated by doubles in the gap that Span would have run down.


All of this, bad as it is, could be overcome, except that suddenly, as of the fifth inning of Saturday's loss to the Braves, Washington finds itself without Zimmerman for the next four to six weeks after the third baseman broke his thumb diving back into second base on a pickoff. (He was out, adding insult to literal injury.) The Nats' depth was sorely tested last year, with “tested” serving as a euphemism for the fact that the non-regulars were completely awful. Danny Espinosa, a handy example because he will have to cover second base in Zimmerman's absence while Anthony Rendon shifts back over to his original position at third, somehow hit .158/.193/.272 in 2013. Sure, Espinosa probably isn’t that bad, as he broke his wrist early in 2013 after managing a low-contact, high-power .242/.319/.408 line from 2011 to 2012. Combine that with good defense and Espinosa was once and might still be a nice above-average player. The possibility remains, however, that he is exactly as bad as he looked last season.


If the 2011-12 Espinosa is who the Nationals get in their lineup now, and if Zimmerman returns in the time expected, and if Fister recovers in good order from his lat strain, and if Ramos can come back at full strength after hamate bone surgery, and if Span makes a complete recovery from his concussion, and, as long as we're here, if Harper's wall-smashing approach to the sport doesn't result in his missing any time, then the Nationals should be fine. Indeed, given the maladies faced by their competition, Washington should still be the favorite in the NL East even if only half of that list works out.


But that's a lot of ifs, ones that this team isn't built to deal with, ones that, should the Nats wend their way through the darkness and despair of an injury-riddled season, could before we know it lead to the Dinger Machine in Miami lighting up the October skies after a series-winning 480-foot walk-off homer by newly minted playoff hero Giancarlo Stanton. The prudent fan will begin preparing mentally and emotionally for this possibility posthaste.

Jason Wojciechowski blogs for Beaneball, the SweetSpot network's affiliate dedicated to covering the Oakland Athletics.

I don't know which stat is more amazing: After homering off Tim Lincecum last night, Paul Goldschmidt is now 13-for-24 with seven home runs off Lincecum; or, Goldschmidt's opposite-field home run was just the eighth by a right-handed batter at AT&T Park over the past eight seasons. (And you wonder why Giants pitchers often have big home/road splits.)

According to John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Info, Goldschmidt's six previous home runs off Lincecum had come on inside pitches; this one came on an outside fastball and Goldschmidt drilled it down the line for a first-inning, three-run shot. It was the first opposite-field home run Lincecum had ever allowed to a right-handed batter at AT&T.

Is Goldschmidt's dominance just a statistical quirk, one of those things that will happen when you play a game long enough? Or is Lincecum tipping his pitches in some way that Goldsdchmidt has picked up on? Not that Goldschmidt would give anything away, but he seems to be leaning to statistical quirk, telling MLB.com, "Obviously I've had success right now, but that can change in a hurry. There's plenty of guys that maybe you start off hot and then all of a sudden you don't get a hit. That's how baseball is -- or vice versa, maybe there's a guy you don't hit very well and then for some reason you get a few hits off him. We're talking a small sample size here."

You have to love a player who quotes small sample size.

Anyway, the home run jump-started the D-backs to a much-needed 7-3 win, with Josh Collmenter pitching the final four innings in relief of Bronson Arroyo.

Thoughts on other games ...
  • Should the Tigers be worried about new closer Joe Nathan? He got the "win" in a 7-6 victory over the Dodgers, but that was only after he allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to blow a 6-3 lead. Nathan has allowed six hits, four walks and five runs in 3.2 innings and has blown two saves chances (although the Tigers ended up winning both games). His fastball velocity has averaged just 90.6 mph -- granted, we're only talking about 35 pitches here -- down from 92.2 mph last season, which itself was down from 93.9 in 2012. Nathan had said on the radio earlier in the day that he'd been pitching through a dead arm; after the game, he said he felt better, just that his command was a little off. Maybe so, but when you're 39, any slump becomes more worrisome.
  • I think Masahiro Tanaka still has No. 1-starter upside. He gave up a two-out, three-run homer to Jonathan Schoop in the second inning, but was otherwise very effective, striking out 10 in seven innings. He induced 22 swings-and-misses, the second-most on the season (Felix Hernandez had 24 on Opening Day). Both his splitter and slider look like wipeout pitches, although Schoop blasted a hanging slider for a 407-foot home run. He sits in the low 90s with his fastball (he's maxed out at 94.7 mph) and pounds the outside corner to left-handed batters with that pitch (inside corner to righties). Obviously, he can't afford to give up a home run every start but he's going to be considered the Yankees ace by the end of the season.
  • With David Robertson on the DL, the back of the bullpen is scrambling, however, and the Orioles scored twice off Shawn Kelley in the ninth for the 5-4 win (a bottom-of-the-ninth rally against Tommy Hunter fell short). Hunter is hardly a lockdown closer himself, so when you factor in Nathan and Jim Johnson in Oakland, a lot of good teams are having issues in the ninth.
  • Also watched a lot of Garrett Richards' strong outing for the Angels in a 2-0 win over the Mariners. He's always had the great arm and he basically fired high fastballs all night -- he averaged 96.1 mph on his heater -- and the Mariners couldn't touch him, with just one hit in seven innings. I don't even recall any hard outs. I'm not going to suggest he's turned the corner -- on this night he was hitting his spots better than usual -- but the Angels desperately need him to turn into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Albert Pujols also homered for the second straight game, a two-run shot off a hanging changeup from Mariners rookie Roenis Elias.
  • After Jordan Zimmermann's first start, I wrote that all he has to do to potentially win a Cy Young Award is cut down on the blow-up outings he has a few times a year. Well, he had one of those on Wednesday, as the Marlins knocked him out in the second inning after he had allowed seven hits and five runs. The Nationals fought back, however, as Bryce Harper hit his first home run, a three-run shot, and then Jayson Werth won it with a grand slam off Carlos Marmol in the eighth, smashing an 0-1 fastball to left-center. Craig Stammen had the clutch long relief outing, tossing 3.1 scoreless innings. Tough one for the Marlins to take.
  • Finally, Andrelton Simmons with one of those plays only he can make. And Billy Hamilton tagging up on what was essentially a pop-up.



video

Eric and myself discuss Ryan Zimmerman's sore shoulder and what it could mean for the Washington Nationals.

Tales of Saturday's aces

April, 5, 2014
Apr 5
11:53
PM ET
They say one badge of a true ace is finding a way to succeed when you don’t bring your premium stuff or pinpoint location to the mound.

In the case of Jose Fernandez, the stuff is always premium, with a fastball that touches the upper 90s when he pumps it up, a slider that makes right-handed batters weep in torment and a sharp curveball that he’s not afraid to throw on any count. He’ll even drop in an occasional changeup, just to turn batters' brains to mush worrying about a fourth pitch.

[+] EnlargeJose Fernandez
AP Photo/Alan DiazMiami's Jose Fernandez (2-0) lowered his ERA to 0.71 with Saturday's win against the Padres.
The Padres’ approach in Fernandez’s second start of 2014 appeared to be: Wait him out, hope he’s a bit wild, maybe draw some walks and get a couple of timely hits to push across some runs or at least run up his pitch count and get to the Marlins’ bullpen early. Of the first 11 batters, only Jedd Gyorko and pitcher Andrew Cashner swung at the first pitch. The patient approach sort of worked, as Fernandez didn’t have the command he had an Opening Day, when 73 of his 94 pitches were strikes. Through the first three innings Saturday, Fernandez had thrown 56 pitches and walked two batters in the third inning that loaded the bases with one out. It looked like a short night was in order.

But his pitch to Seth Smith shows why Fernandez is a pitcher who relies on more than just stuff. The 21-year-old knows how to pitch. He usually throws a four-seam fastball, but against Smith he threw a first-pitch, 89 mph sinker that Smith pounded into the ground for a 4-6-3 double play.

That was pretty much it for the Padres. Fernandez regrouped, found his command and threw seven pitches in the fourth, 10 in the fifth and 14 in the sixth, allowing him to pitch into the seventh inning. He left with two outs in the seventh, after striking out Alexi Amarista (who reached when the curveball got away from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia). Fernandez’s final line in the Marlins’ 4-0 victory looked like another dominating gem: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 SO. But this is one of those games in which an ace overcame a shaky beginning.

Through two starts now, Fernandez has allowed one run and eight hits in 12.2 innings with 17 strikeouts. Going back to last season, he’s allowed more two runs just twice in 20 starts, and those two times he allowed three runs.

Fernandez, who weighed as much as 260 pounds in high school (perhaps a reason he fell to the 14th pick in 2011), spent the offseason biking as much as 600 miles per week on his $9,000 Specialized S-Works Venge bike. Listed at 240 pounds as a rookie, Fernandez is now a svelte but still powerful 220 pounds. He’s poised, confident, in terrific shape and developing the mind of an ace to go with his all-world right arm. Two starts in and he looks like a guy who will be the best pitcher in baseball in 2014.

* * * *

Stephen Strasburg is still trying to find the consistency that Fernandez seems to have found. He struck out 10 batters in six innings on Opening Day but still gave up four runs, as three of the five hits he allowed to the Mets came in the first inning, including a three-run homer.

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In his second start, against the Braves at home, his final line looked like a pitcher who got shelled -- eight hits, three walks and six runs in 4.2 innings. To be fair, his defense let him down, as two errors led to three of the runs being unearned, and there were some soft hits in there. But while Fernandez was able to get that double-play ball, Strasburg couldn’t escape a jam in the fifth inning, when the Braves scored four runs. After Freddie Freeman walked, Strasburg gave up two soft liners and a ground single to load the bases. He started Dan Uggla with a curveball in the dirt and then came back with another curve that Uggla grounded sharply into left field for a two-run single. Bryce Harper’s throwing error allowed the runners to move up to second and third for Ryan Doumit.

Strasburg is a strikeout pitcher and needed one here, with the Nationals down 4-2. Against the switch-hitting Doumit, he fired six fastballs in a row -- ball, called strike, foul, ball, ball, foul. It was a curious pitch selection, especially after he got the count to 1-2, because against left-handed batters in 2013, Strasburg’s fastball wasn’t a great strikeout pitch. In 223 plate appearances against lefties ending in fastballs, he struck out just 23 batters (and walked 28). Of 416 swings on his fastball by lefties, just 56 were missed. So Doumit hung in there. Strasburg did finally come in with a 3-2 curveball, but Doumit looked like he was sitting on it and lined it over a drawn-in infield for an RBI single. The sixth run came on a sac fly after Strasburg had been yanked.

In comparing Fernandez to Strasburg, the big difference comes with runners on base. Last year, Strasburg allowed a .184 average with the bases empty compared to .245 with men on. Fernandez was .176 with the bases empty and .191 with runners on.

Saturday night's games showcased that difference. Fernandez got out of his jam and settled down; Strasburg didn't. If the two entered the season regarded essentially as equals as Cy Young contenders, it's Fernandez's poise and pitchability that right now makes him the better ace.

* * * *

Felix Hernandez once had a fastball that matched Fernandez and Strasburg. But those days are in the past. He's now a wily veteran who turns 28 on Tuesday (can he really be that old already?) and his fastest pitch against the A's on Saturday was clocked at 92.3 mph. But Hernandez spots that fastball, usually on the black, and backs it up with one of the most devastating pitches in the game, a hard changeup that comes in at the knees and seems to take a 90-degree turn straight down at the last split-second.

Hernandez threw 23 changeups against the A's with an average velocity of 88.6 mph, not that much slower than his fastball, which makes it doubly tough for hitters to pick up. The A's did nothing against it: 15 swings, five misses, eight foul balls, one ground ball out and one fly ball out. The effectiveness of that fastball/changeup combo can be seen in the two jams Hernandez worked through.

In the fourth inning, the game still 0-0, Jed Lowrie singled with two outs and Brandon Moss doubled on a pop fly that shortstop Brad Miller lost in the sun. That brought up Yoenis Cespedes. Hernandez went 89 mph fastball right on the outsider corner, a slider off the plate that Cespedes missed, then another fastball right at the knees that Cespedes, perhaps looking for that changeup, swung through. In the sixth, Coco Crisp tripled with one out, bringing up Josh Donaldson. Slider for a strike, a foul tip on a changeup, a 92 mph fastball inside. With the count 1-2, Donaldson probably expected the changeup -- he had struck out earlier in the game on one. He got one that fell off a table. Swing and a miss, Donaldson nearly screwing himself into the ground. Hernandez then got Lowrie to pop up -- changeup, curveball.

Hernandez lost his shutout on Lowrie's home run in the ninth, but this game exemplified the King at his best: four pitches that he'll throw on any count, with precision and a plan and deception. It's a beautiful thing.
Using wOBA from 2013, here is the ranking of the Washington Nationals' hitters in the lineup manager Matt Williams used on Wednesday:

1. Jayson Werth (R)
2. Bryce Harper (L)
3. Ryan Zimmerman (R)
4. Ian Desmond (R)
5. Adam LaRoche (L)
6. Anthony Rendon (R)
7. Jose Lobaton (S)
8. Denard Span (L)

OK, 2013 is ancient history. Here are those players ranked by 2014 projected wOBA from ZiPS:

1. Bryce Harper (L)
2. Jayson Werth (R)
3. Ryan Zimmerman (R)
4. Anthony Rendon (R)
5. Ian Desmond (R)
6. Adam LaRoche (L)
7. Denard Span (L)
8. Jose Lobaton (S)

By any way you measure it, Bryce Harper is one of the best hitters on the Nationals; it's hard to argue against that. Even while playing through some injuries last season he had a better on-base percentage and slugging percentage than Zimmerman. It wasn't a huge advantage (23 points in on-base, 21 points in slugging) but it was still an advantage. Plus he's faster than Zimmerman, which isn't accounted for in wOBA. So either he or Werth would logically be considered the best hitter on the team.

Here was the lineup Williams ran out there against Mets starter Bartolo Colon:

1. Denard Span (L)
2. Anthony Rendon (R)
3. Jayson Werth (R)
4. Adam LaRoche (L)
5. Ryan Zimmerman (R)
6. Bryce Harper (L)
7. Ian Desmond (R)
8. Jose Lobaton (S)

From Adam Kilgore's story in the Washington Post on why Harper hit sixth:
"We want to continue to open Bryce’s game up," he said. When asked about what that meant, and why Harper needs to hit lower in the lineup in order open up his game, Williams expanded on his reasoning.

"One, I think it takes a little bit of pressure off of Bryce," Williams said. "It allows him to use his legs, and I think that’s important, when he wants to use his legs. Now, we look at tonight as an example. [Mets starter Bartolo Colon] is really quick to the plate, so will there be opportunities to do that? You never know. But we want to give him the option to do. ...

"Now, from a managers’ perspective you say 'If I hit him second or third in front of Jayson [Werth] and [Ryan Zimmerman], do I really want him trying to steal second when we're one swing away from a two-run homer or a three-run homer?' That's the logic. Most of all, I want him to be free and play and not have those boundaries on him. And I think, for me, over the long run he will drive in big runs for us."


OK, so from that we gather that Williams hit Harper sixth to take pressure off him and to possibly allow him to steal a base. Harper hit fifth on Opening Day, when the lineup went Span-Zimmerman-Werth-Wilson Ramos-Harper-Desmond-LaRoche-Rendon (also against a right-hander).

Look, managers obsess over lineups -- probably too much. But they are a little important, even if the gains from a statistically optimal lineup are small. Studies show that an optimal lineup would have your best hitters batting second and fourth. Williams hit his two best hitters sixth and third. Some of that could have been matchups. Maybe he thought LaRoche was a good matchup for Colon, or that LaRoche will bounce back from a bad 2013 (although he hit him seventh on Opening Day). It's possible that Williams wanted to go left-right-left, although he hit three righties in a row against Dillon Gee. Maybe he really does think a stolen base from the No. 6 batter is more important than having Harper get more plate appearances than Span. Maybe he thinks Harper doesn't "deserve" to hit third or fourth, in deference to his more veteran teammates.

The biggest flaw here is that Span is hitting leadoff and he's clearly one of the weakest hitters on the team. He's not terrible, so it's far from the worst lineups we've seen, but he doesn't bring a high enough on-base percentage to offset his lack of power (.279/.327/.380) and he's not a big enough base thief to create many extra runs that way (20 steals in 2013). He is, however, probably the fastest guy on the team and that's why he's hitting leadoff. So Williams has elected -- for now -- to give an inferior hitter more plate appearances.

For all the sabermetric advances in the game, such as the increased use of infield shifts, a lot of managers still use sub-optimal batting orders, failing to realize you're better off getting one of your best hitters higher in the order instead of worrying about having an RBI guy batting fifth or sixth. It's early, so I don't want to bash Williams too much here. Other than hitting Span first and Werth third, it appears he's going to move guys around. Harper is batting second in Thursday's game, although that may simply be because Danny Espinosa is playing instead of Rendon.

And bottom line: If Harper hits like most of us expect him to, he'll move up in the order. (I think.)
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:

AL MVP
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

NL MVP
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.

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