Which rookies are the guys to go after in fantasy baseball? Chris Crawford of ESPN Insider ranks his top 50 prospects for 2015. Three of his top four rookies are Cubans: Rusney Castillo (No. 1), Jorge Soler (No. 2) and Yasmany Tomas (No. 4). Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, who likely will spend a few weeks in Triple-A to start the season, is ranked No. 3.

Once you get past Bryant and the Cubs, however, there are few guaranteed impact players. I think Joc Pederson (No. 5) will be fine with the Dodgers but there is some risk due to his high strikeout rate at Triple-A, plus concern that his power was Albuquerque inflation. The Dodgers may also platoon him with Chris Heisey, so while Pederson has 20 homer-20 steal potential, playing time limits may results in 15-15.

I do like Andrew Heaney (No. 10) as a safe bet. He should win a spot in the Angels rotation, looks pretty polished after a good season in the minors, and will be helped a generous home park.

Overall, the state of hitting in the upper minors is reflected in these rankings. Thirteen of the top 25 players are pitchers and three of the 12 position players are older foreign free agents (Castillo, Tomas and Korean shortstop Jung Ho Kang of the Pirates). .

To be fair, New York Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler isn't the first pitcher to complain about infield shifts.

Back in September of 2013, A.J. Burnett exchanged words with shortstop Clint Barmes but told the assembled media the next day, "Listen, I did not have a problem with Clint! I do not have a problem with Clint! I had a problem with the ******* shift! We play people in the wrong spot!"

Burnett had a 3.41 ERA in his two seasons with the Pirates, went to the Phillies in 2014 and posted a 4.59 ERA. The Pirates shifted 500 times on balls in play in 2013 while the Phillies shifted 291 times last year on balls in play (all shift data from Baseball Info Solutions). Maybe Burnett doesn't mind the shifting after all; he re-signed with the Pirates.

In August of 2013, manager Mike Matheny of the Cardinals actually cut back on shifts, telling MLB.com, "Last year there were times when we were shifting and I knew [the pitchers] weren't real comfortable with it. No matter what I believe, we can talk to guys about the importance and show them the statistics, but if they don't feel comfortable with how the defense is aligned behind them, we're wasting our time."

The Cardinals changed course in 2014, however, increasing their shifts from 107 to 348 (ranking 16th in the majors).

Back to Wheeler. Over the weekend, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson spoke at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference and mentioned a pitcher on his staff wasn't happy when shifts were employed. On Monday, Wheeler admitted he was the guy, telling NJ.com, "I don't want to piss anybody off but, honestly, I don't like it. Teams are starting to be more analytical these days. ... I don't like analytics all that much, but I'm not the boss here. I really can't control it. They know where I stand on that."

Part of Wheeler's belief is that the shift doesn't account for his arsenal of pitches, although the only specific example in the article was throwing a slider with a runner on third base -- the apparent suggestion being the runner could take a bigger lead if the third baseman is way off the bag, thus making it easier to score on a ball in the dirt.

For the record, Wheeler threw his slider 17 percent of the time when he had a runner on third base ... compared to 14.8 percent overall. So he actually threw it more often, despite his reservations, although that doesn't mean he wouldn't have thrown it even more.

Almost all shifts are done against left-handed batters. Is there something in Wheeler's pitching that would create more groundballs to the opposite field? Here's his pitch location to lefties in 2014 when the ball in play resulted in a grounder:

Zack Wheeler hit chart ESPN Stats & Info


You may think that pitch location would results in a lot of opposite-field grounders. But it doesn't. Check out his hit location charts on grounders in the graphic below.

[+] EnlargeZack Wheeler heat map
ESPN Stats & Info
Most groundballs are still pulled, even when the location is down and away. Overall, Wheeler induced 113 grounders from left-handed batters. Here is his breakdown on groundball location compared to the MLB average for all right-handed pitchers versus left-handed batters:

Wheeler
Left: 20 percent
Center: 29 percent
Right: 50 percent

MLB average
Left: 13 percent
Center: 33 percent
Right: 54 percent

Wheeler allowed 79 percent of his grounders to go up the middle or to the right side compared to the MLB average of 87 percent. So maybe he does allow a few more balls in play to the left side because of his "stuff." Although keep in mind we're talking about a small sample size here. Out of 113 groundballs, the difference between 79 and 87 percent is nine grounders; out of the 23 grounders hit to the left side against Wheeler, batters hit .435 (10-for-23). I don't have the breakdown on how many of those hits came with the shift on, but the Mets only had 221 total shifts with a ball in play, so it couldn't have been more than a few hits at the most. But Wheeler surely remembers all three or five or whatever of those that may have otherwise been turned into outs.

So should the Mets leave off the shift for Wheeler? It's an important question when you realize Wheeler is a somewhat extreme groundball pitcher -- he ranked sixth in the National League in groundball-to-flyball ratio. Pretty impressive considering Wheeler also averaged a strikeout an inning.

One more thing. In our right-handed pitcher versus left-handed batter collective, let's compare Wheeler versus his Mets teammates on batting average allowed on groundball location:

Left: .435 (.385)
Center: .303 (.317)
Right: .193 (.143)

Wheeler's average allowed on grounders to right field was quite a bit higher than his teammates. But, again, we're only talking about 57 grounders all season. The difference between .193 and .143 on 57 grounders? Three hits.

(None of this factors in infield line drives. According to ESPN data, Wheeler allowed three infield line drives to left-handed batters and all three were caught.)

Getting back to what Matheny said, if Wheeler is more comfortable pitching without the shift, it's probably best just to leave it off. It may cost him a few hits during the season, but probably isn't worth doing if it gets into his head.
They played baseball games on Tuesday. The games don't mean anything. But it was the first day of spring training games so it's fun to pretend they meant something. Quick thoughts ...

A's 9, Giants 4
Madison Bumgarner got rocked and already everybody is working up a sweat over the career-high 270 innings he threw last year and how that will affect him this year. Christina Kahrl has the full report here but Bumgarner didn't seem too concerned (of course, I'm not sure he's too concerned about anything): "I'm trying to locate them, and I want to get them there and I want to get guys out. But that's not the main concern right now. Obviously, it will be before long. Right now, it's just about getting your arm in shape and getting to make pitches."

The A's did throw out what could be a reasonable approximation of their starting lineup against a left-hander, minus Coco Crisp, so we got an early idea of what Bob Melvin is thinking for his batting order: Craig Gentry, Marcus Semien, Ben Zobrist, Billy Butler, Brett Lawrie, Nate Freiman, Mark Canha, Josh Phegley, Sam Fuld.

Tigers 15, Orioles 2
Ubaldo Jimenez is batting for a rotation spot and looked like ... well, kind of like Ubaldo Jimenez, as he allowed six runs runs in 1.1 innings. He threw 24 of 42 pitches for strikes, walking two and hitting two more. "I don't want to say I lost control, because I had pretty good command of the fastball," Jimenez said. OK. Jimenez probably enters spring sixth on the Baltimore depth chart so will have to pitch his way into the rotation.

Phillies 5, Yankees 5
Did Alex Rodriguez play? No? Let's move on. Actually, one takeaway: Jacoby Ellsbury hit leadoff and Brett Gardner hit second. Last year, Gardner hit leadoff 107 games and Ellsbury 49, so Joe Girardi may be thinking of using Ellsbury more in the leadoff spot. At least Derek Jeter isn't around to muck things up in the No. 2 spot.

Pirates 8, Blue Jays 7
One of the more interesting players to watch in spring training is Korean shortstop Jung Ho Kang, and he homered in his Pirates debut. Jordy Mercer had a solid 2014 so Kang will really have to impress to win the starting job. Aaron Sanchez started for Toronto and gave up a three-run homer to Pedro Alvarez. The Jays are stretching him out as a starter but I still think he ends up in the bullpen.

Reds 10, Indians 0
Yan Gomes hit second for Cleveland, which could be an interesting experiment for Terry Francona. Indians' No. 2 hitters ranked 23rd in the majors in OPS last season, posting a less-than-stellar .294 OBP. Gomes started 88 games in the seventh, eighth or nine spots and while his OBP was .313 he did hit .278 and slugged 21 home runs, ranking fourth on the team in wOBA behind Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana and Lonnie Chisenhall. He may not hit second but he should move up into a higher spot on a regular basis.

Diamondbacks 4, Arizona State 0
Yasmany Tomas went 1-for-2 and played third base. The D-backs seemed determined to try and make that work but most scouts remain skeptical he has the ability to remain there.

Red Sox win twice!
They beat Northeastern 2-1 and Boston College 1-0. Who says there are concerns about the rotation?




video

We have games! Real games! Well, real spring training games, which are better than games against college teams and much better than reports about a pitcher who looked good throwing batting practice. We start the spring training schedule with five games between major league teams Tuesday, a few more Wednesday and then a full slate Thursday, complete with box scores and highlights and Class A players we've never heard of.

Here are 10 things I'm watching this spring training ... I mean, I'm just listing these 10. I could have listed more. But this is a start.

Matt Harvey's return
Back in 2013, Harvey wasn't simply a product of New York hype, but the absolute real deal. He made 26 starts before injuring his elbow and check out his triple-slash line compared to the game's other top starters that year:

Clayton Kershaw: .195/.244/.277
Jose Fernandez: .182/.257/.265
Matt Harvey: .209/.248/.282
Madison Bumgarner: .203/.270/.307
Max Scherzer: .198/.254/.329

[+] EnlargeMatt Harvey
Adam Rubin/ESPNNewYork.comMatt Harvey is scheduled to make his spring debut Friday.
Only Kershaw allowed a lower on-base percentage and no starter allowed a lower isolated power figure than Harvey, who gave up just seven home runs in 178.1 innings. The Mets fancy themselves wild-card contenders on the strength of their rotation and because Harvey's Tommy John surgery occurred in October 2013, he's had more rehab time than most starters returning from the surgery, leading to optimism that Harvey could throw 200 innings. Pitching coach Dan Warthen said Monday that 180 to 190 innings is more realistic.

We also got this news Monday: His curveball looks even better than it did prior to the injury. From Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork:
During his major league career, Harvey has thrown his curveball 12.4 percent of the time. It was a pitch he used more frequently while at UNC to complement his fastball. Harvey has found it very sharp of late, especially during Monday’s session when he was using it to get batters to chase down in the zone while simulating two-strike counts.

"I don’t know if I figured out something in my mechanics or it just magically appeared, but it’s nice having that and it felt good out there," Harvey said.


Harvey's spring debut is Friday, when he's expected to throw 35 pitches.

Giancarlo Stanton back in the batter's box
Let's face it: Until Stanton cracks that first 450-foot home run, we're going to be wondering about any psychological effects from his gruesome broken jaw and how he reacts after seeing something high and tight. I wrote about his ability to punish inside fastballs and the expectation that pitchers will test him there early on, even in spring training.

Shortstop battle in Seattle
Tristan Cockcroft wrote about some intriguing position battles here, but this might be the most important one to watch with the Mariners coming off an 87-win season. In theory, Brad Miller and Chris Taylor would make for a perfect platoon with Miller against right-handers and Taylor against left-handers, but how many playoff teams can you think of that platooned at shortstop? What makes it tricky is both shortstops have upside -- Miller as a shortstop with double-digit home run power and above-average offense, Taylor as a high-average hitter with better defense -- but neither is a guarantee to reach that potential. As Tristan pointed out, Miller hit .410 and slugged .836 in spring training a year ago; if he hits like that again, it will be hard for Lloyd McClendon to pass him over.

Bryce Harper swinging hard
I know, I know ... but HE'S STILL JUST 22. But doesn't that postseason performance in a losing effort get you pumped up? He missed 62 games with a thumb injury a year ago. Healthy, this should be his 30-homer breakout season. "After losing [Adam] LaRoche, I have to step up a little bit," he told MLB.com the other day. I believe he will, starting in spring training.

Corey Kluber and that Cleveland rotation
The reigning American League Cy Young winner will have to prove that it's one thing to perform but another thing to perform with high expectations. He ended 2014 on a dominant roll -- a 1.73 ERA over his final 14 starts -- so let's see where he picks up. His rotation mates also finished strong, as the rotation had a 2.68 ERA over the final two months. Carlos Carrasco had a 1.30 ERA in 10 starts, T.J. House a 2.25 ERA in nine starts and Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer have big arms. It's an exciting young group that now has experience to go with talent.

The Cubs' kids
Kris Bryant ... Jorge Soler ... Javier Baez ... Addison Russell. And don't sleep on Arismendy Alcantara. Oh, and it's easy to forget that Anthony Rizzo is just 25.

New Cubans and old Cubans
[+] EnlargeYasmany Tomas
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe Diamondbacks signed Yasmany Tomas to a six-year deal this offseason.
We saw Red Sox center fielder Rusney Castillo debut at the end of 2014, one of nine players born in Cuba to debut in 2014, the first season we've had at least eight Cubans debut since 1955. This will be our first extended look at him in game action. We'll also get our first look at some of the new Cubans, headlined by Diamondbacks outfielder/third baseman Yasmany Tomas and Red Sox infielder Yoan Moncada (although you'll likely to have to check out the back diamonds to see him). If you get bored with the new guys, you can just check in on Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes, now sharing a lineup with Miguel Cabrera.

Speaking of: Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander
Miggy had offseason surgery on his right foot and ankle, injuries that help explain why he dropped from 44 home runs in both 2012 and 2013 to 25. Verlander, who had surgery on his core after the 2013 season that may have affected his 2014 performance, came to camp with added muscle and manager Brad Ausmus is already excited about what he's seeing. "That's the best I've seen Ver stuff-wise, off the mound, since I've gotten this job," he said following Sunday's batting practice session. Verlander makes his spring debut Saturday. Don't close the window just yet on this group of Tigers.

Mike Trout doing Mike Trout stuff
But I also want to see the adjustments he makes against those high fastballs he struggled against in 2014.

The Padres' new outfield
We expect Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers to produce at the plate, but the key thing to watch in spring training will be Myers' adjustment to center field. The Padres are playing some high-stakes poker in believing he'll have the range to play the position.

Mookie Betts
OK, that's 11 things. But I want to see Mookie as well ... and Madison Bumgarner ... and Clayton Kershaw ... and Felix Hernandez ... and Andrew McCutchen ... and Adam Wainwright ... and George Springer ... and Josh Donaldson ... and Joey Votto ...
The first unofficial game of spring training took place on Sunday, with the Phillies losing 6-2 to Tampa. That's the University of Tampa, a Division II program, not the Tampa that's in the major leagues. When I first saw the score I assumed that the Phillies had just sent a bunch of Class A kids out there or somethingm but that wasn't the case. Of the 14 position players who got into the game for Philadelphia, 12 have appeared in the majors. The reliever who allowed four runs and lost the game was Nefi Ogando, who is on the Phillies' 40-man roster even though he sported a 6.27 ERA in Double-A last year.

OK, so most of these players won't be on the Phillies' Opening Day roster. It's still an embarrassment. And Twitter reacted appropriately.


On Friday, we looked at the state of leadoff hitters in the American League. Now let's move to the National League. Last season, the average OBP for leadoff hitters was .326, a tick above the overall MLB average for non-pitchers of .318. Still, only two teams -- St. Louis and Houston -- received an OBP over .350 from their table setters. In other words, we're not exactly in the glory days of leadoff hitters.

NL EAST

Atlanta Braves
2014 totals: .314 OBP (24th in majors), 86 runs (24th)

Jason Heyward was fine in this role in 2014, but after Fredi Gonzalez moved him down in the order in mid-June, Melvin Upton Jr. and Emilio Bonifacio were terrible at the top of the lineup. Heyward eventually went back to the leadoff spot. Of course, he's gone this year, so now what? Maybe Nick Markakis, who hit leadoff with the Orioles but doesn't steal bases and took the extra base just 18 percent of the time compared to the MLB average of 40 percent (that's all baserunners, not just leadoff hitters). Rookie second baseman Jose Peraza -- who had 60 steals in the minors -- could slot here if he makes the jump from Double-A.

Miami Marlins
2014 totals: .346 OBP (fourth), 104 runs (ninth)

Christian Yelich started 139 games here and provided very good production. So of course, the Marlins went out and acquired a worse leadoff hitter in Dee Gordon, who is one of the fastest players in the majors but posted a mediocre .326 OBP (and just .300 in the second half) in 2014. If Gordon can learn to draw a few more walks and get his OBP back into the .340 to .350 range, he'll be an asset here, with Yelich likely moving to the No. 2 hole.

New York Mets
2014 totals: .308 OBP (26th), 92 runs (19th)

Eric Young Jr. and Curtis Granderson got the most time here -- with 53 and 52 games, respectively -- but combined for a sub-.300 OBP. The Mets don't have a good solution but may go with Juan Lagares against left-handers and Daniel Murphy or Granderson against right-handers.

Philadelphia Phillies
2014 totals: .335 OBP (10th), 91 runs (20th)

Ben Revere drew 13 walks in 626 plate appearances -- not exactly the kind of eye you want from your leadoff hitter -- but he did hit .306 and was an efficient 49-for-57 stealing bases. He had a .332 OBP while batting leadoff, which was still above the MLB average, so he's not terrible as long as he keeps that batting average over .300 and steals bases as effectively as he did last year.

Washington Nationals
2014 totals: .347 OBP (third), 101 runs (12th)

Denard Span will be back after a solid 2014 in which he posted a .355 OBP overall, hit 39 doubles and stole 31 bases in 38 attempts. That was his highest OBP since 2009, however, so I would expect a little regression. The guys behind him didn't do a particularly good job of driving him in either, even though Span's rate of taking the extra base was 52 percent.

NL CENTRAL

Chicago Cubs
2014 totals: .303 OBP (27th), 85 runs (25th)

The leadoff spot was a big problem a year ago, but new center fielder Dexter Fowler and his career .366 OBP should help plug this hole. Fowler left the Rockies and still put up a .375 OBP with the Astros (he split his time hitting first, second, third and cleanup), but if he's the regular leadoff guy the Cubs will improve on that 85 runs scored ... and Anthony Rizzo will drive in a lot more runs.

Cincinnati Reds
2014 totals: .298 OBP (28th), 90 runs (22nd)

Billy Hamilton didn't do a good job of getting on base -- and also led the majors by getting caught stealing 23 times -- giving the Reds subpar production despite his blazing speed. He'll get another chance in 2015, but he's clearly more Vince Coleman than Tim Raines.

Milwaukee Brewers
2014 totals: .339 OBP (sixth), 115 runs (second)

This production wasn't all Carlos Gomez's, but he did bat here for 106 games and hit 20 home runs, helping the Brewers to an MLB-leading 26 homers from their leadoff hitters. Ron Roenicke tried some other guys at the top of the lineup around midseason before putting Gomez back there. Scooter Gennett or Jean Segura could conceivably get an opportunity here, but there's nothing wrong with power in the leadoff spot, especially since the Brewers still have some pop coming up behind Gomez in Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Khris Davis.

Pittsburgh Pirates
2014 totals: .332 OBP (12th), 110 runs (fourth)

Josh Harrison eventually took over this spot last season and will presumably return this year. We'll see if he can come close to repeating his .315/.347/.490 batting line. Starling Marte is another possibility, although Clint Hurdle seemed to like him lower in the order.

St. Louis Cardinals
2014 totals: .369 OBP (first), 102 runs (11th)

Matt Carpenter is your unconventional leadoff hitter because of his lack of speed, but he has scored the most runs in the majors the past two seasons. The Cardinals struggled to get good production from a variety of No. 2 hitters in 2014, however, so it's possible Mike Matheny will move Carpenter there and try Kolten Wong or Jon Jay (.372 OBP in 2014) in the leadoff spot. Wong has the best speed but had just a .292 OBP as a rookie, so I'd hit him lower in the lineup to start the season and make him earn his way up to one of the first two spots.

NL WEST

Arizona Diamondbacks
2014 totals: .331 OBP (13th), 99 runs (13th)

Ender Inciarte got the most time here -- 76 games -- and posted a .725 OPS when hitting leadoff, much higher than his overall OPS of .677. He's probably a bench player in 2015, so maybe A.J. Pollock (.352 OBP) will slide in here. I certainly wouldn't recommend Chris Owings and his .300 OBP.

Colorado Rockies
2014 totals: .325 OBP (19th), 93 runs (18th)

Charlie Blackmon hit here for 137 games last season and posted a .291/.335/.446 line while batting leadoff. He struggled mightily on the road, however, and didn't hit lefties that well. Drew Stubbs has his flaws, but he can still pound left-handers, so if they end up platooning in center, it makes sense to platoon them in the leadoff spot as well.

Los Angeles Dodgers
2014 totals: .333 OBP (11th), 109 runs (fifth)

Minus Gordon, the Dodgers lack an obvious candidate. Jimmy Rollins spent most of his career with the Phillies as a leadoff hitter, of course, but he's had an OBP above .325 only once since 2008. Don Mattingly has said he's not committed yet to using Rollins at the top of the order. Carl Crawford has never liked hitting leadoff, although he did it regularly in 2013. Howie Kendrick is coming off a .347 OBP with the Angels, matching his career high as he saw his walk rate spike, but he's never been a leadoff hitter. Yasiel Puig is another option, considering his .382 OBP from 2014. Of course, Puig is also the team's best No. 2 hitter, best No. 3 hitter and best No. 4 hitter. Mattingly will probably want to split his lefty-righty hitters, so I could see something like Kendrick, Crawford, Puig and Adrian Gonzalez in the first four spots, or maybe Crawford-Puig-Gonzalez-Kendrick. No reason to hit Rollins up there when he's not one of your best hitters.

San Diego Padres
2014 totals: .292 OBP (29th), 71 runs (29th)

They were terrible here in 2014 and didn't find a solution in the offseason, so Bud Black would be wise to think outside the box rather than do something dumb like use Alexi Amarista (career OBP of .279) just because he runs well. I'd suggest Wil Myers or Jedd Gyorko (who had a .347 OBP in the second half last year as he walked more and struck out less).

San Francisco Giants
2014 totals: .314 OBP (23rd), 96 runs (16th)

If Angel Pagan's back holds up, he's the guy. I actually liked the 30-game experiment Bruce Bochy had with Hunter Pence hitting leadoff, but he'll be back in the middle of the order. I'd be more worried about Joe Panik hitting second, wasting an important lineup spot with a guy who has no power and a mediocre-at-best OBP.
Spring training games start this week. It's baseball, and that's a good thing, even if it's not baseball that is all that important. But there are things to watch for, and at the top of that list is the return of Giancarlo Stanton, now with a funky new helmet with a face guard to help protect his jaw that was broken in September.

You have to believe one thing pitchers will do is test Stanton with inside fastballs to see if there is any residual effects from the beaning. Fair warning to pitchers who try this: Be careful.

Check out the heat map with Stanton's slugging percentage against fastballs in 2014:

Giancarlo Stanton heat mapESPN Stats & Info
Conventional wisdom suggests big sluggers like Stanton like to get their arms extended, so you try to tie them up inside. In Stanton's case, however, he's so quick through the strike zone that he destroys inside fastballs.

Of course, Stanton destroys fastballs in general, hitting .329/.437/.612 against them in 2014. Only Jose Abreu had a higher wOBA against fastballs:

1. Jose Abreu, White Sox: .454
2. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins: .446
3. Victor Martinez, Tigers: .440
4. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates, .434
5 (tie). Nelson Cruz, Orioles: .433
5 (tie). Jayson Werth, Nationals, .433

That doesn't mean Stanton isn't vulnerable inside. Check the heat map again. If you pitch him in with fastballs, you have to come in off the plate. Let's break down his results on inside fastballs that were actually in the strike zone versus those outside the strike zone.

In the zone: .521/.520/1.083 (25-for-48, eight home runs)
Out of the zone: .211/.375/.246 (12-for-57, zero home runs)

So Stanton can be tied up with inside heat, but the pitcher has to get Stanton to chase pitches out of the zone.

Should you throw him more outside fastballs? Not necessarily. Stanton is less likely to chase out of the zone on pitches off the plate, so while his isolated power on contact wasn't as high on outside fastballs, his overall rate of production was actually a little better since he drew more walks:

Inside fastballs: .352/.434/.629 (.451 wOBA, 11th in majors)
Outside fastballs: .339/.513/.571 (.473 wOBA, fifth in majors)

Stanton's biggest weakness? Sliders. He hit .184 (27-for-147) against them, although nine of those 27 hits were home runs. With two strikes, he hit .126 against sliders. So there you go. All you have to do is get ahead of him and throw him a good slider low and away.

And how do pitchers usually get ahead in the count? With fastballs. Yeah, there's a reason Stanton is good.

Anyway, I still think once the regular season begins we'll see Stanton tested more inside. The good news: He's already been hit and says he's fine.
I don't know if this is a bad era for leadoff hitters or not, or simply a reflection of the pitching-dominant era we're in right now. There are fewer good hitters overall thus it reasons that we'd have fewer good leadoff hitters.

It strikes me that a lot of teams are missing a good and/or obvious candidate to be their leadoff guy. What do you want in a leadoff hitter? Above all, you want a guy who gets on base. The MLB average on-base percentage in 2014 was .314, .318 for non-pitchers. Your leadoff guy should get on base better than the league average; last year, leadoff hitters posted a .326 OBP. Secondarily, you want speed -- stealing bases is nice but being able to take that extra base is important as well. Many managers still think speed is more important than getting on base; it's not. Third is power; there's nothing wrong if your leadoff guy can pop a few home runs or get himself into scoring position with a double.

Let's look at how each team stands as spring training begins, starting with the American League.

AL EAST

Baltimore Orioles
2014 totals: .336 OBP (ninth in majors), 87 runs (23rd)

Nick Markakis started here 148 games and while his OBP was fine he didn't score many runs. Part of that was the makeup of the Orioles' lineup but Markakis' lack of speed did hurt some -- only four steals and his percentage of extra bases taken was terrible (just 17 percent, well below his career average of 34). I don't if he lost his speed or was cautions or what. Anyway, he's gone and the O's don't have a logical candidate. Maybe Manny Machado, although his career OBP is just .313.

Boston Red Sox
2014 totals: .330 OBP (14th), 109 runs (fifth)

Mookie Betts projects as one of the best leadoff guys in the game. He'll get on base, work the count, steal some bases and has some pop. Yes, John Farrell announced that, if healthy, Shane Victorino is his starting right fielder. Don't worry, there's plenty of playing time for Mookie and he'll hit his way into a regular spot in the lineup.

New York Yankees
2014 totals: .321 OBP (20th), 102 runs (10th)

This was mostly Brett Gardner (107 games) and Jacoby Ellsbury (49 games). Gardner should be the full-time leadoff guy this year, although he's coming off a .327 OBP, his lowest since his rookie season.

Tampa Bay Rays
2014 totals: .316 OBP (21st), 84 runs (26th)

Desmond Jennings had the most time here but posted just a .301 OBP when hitting leadoff (.319 overall). There's not really another good candidate on the roster so he'll get another chance.

Toronto Blue Jays
2014 totals: .325 OBP (18th), 107 runs (seventh)

Early in his career, it looked liked Jose Reyes had the ability to become one of the game's all-time great leadoff men. He didn't quite get there due to inconsistent OBP totals. He still runs well (30 for 32 in steals) but his walk rate dropped last year and his OBP was a mediocre .328. He's capable of better.

AL CENTRAL

Chicago White Sox
2014 totals: .337 OBP (eighth), 98 runs (14th)

Adam Eaton certainly fits the old-school profile with a .362 OBP and some speed. He doesn't possess over-the-fence power but did hit 26 doubles and 10 triples. He should also be capable of stealing 30-plus bases over a full season if he stays healthy (a big issue as he missed time last year and in the minors).

Cleveland Indians
2014 totals: .308 OBP (25th), 90 runs (21st)

Michael Bourn was supposed to be the solution here when the Indians signed him a couple years ago but he's had some injuries and hasn't been that good, with just 10 steals last year in 106 games. If he's not running, there's no point to hitting him leadoff. Maybe Jason Kipnis gets a shot.

Detroit Tigers
2014 totals: .327 OBP (17th), 106 runs (eighth)

Ian Kinsler played 83 games here and presumably is back in a full-time role. He's a little unconventional as his OBP dropped to a career-low .307 in 2014, although he makes up for that to some degree with added power (61 extra-base hits) and excellent baserunning.

Kansas City Royals
2014 totals: .339 OBP (seventh), 82 runs (27th)

This was mostly Norichika Aoki a year ago, with some Alcides Escobar, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain mixed in. Escobar actually had a .397 OBP in 16 games but with Aoki gone, putting him there would be a mistake considering his .299 career OBP. I wouldn't be opposed to moving Alex Gordon back here. Let's see how creative Ned Yost gets.

Minnesota Twins
2014 totals: .328 OBP (16th), 118 runs (first)

Bet you didn't have the Twins as the team that scored the most leadoff runs in the majors, did you? Danny Santana and Brian Dozier split time here and combined for 19 of the 21 home runs the Twins received from their leadoff hitters. Santana probably gets first crack but his .319 average as a rookie was driven by a fluke .405 BABIP.

AL WEST

Houston Astros
2014 totals: .353 OBP (second), 95 runs (17th)

Jose Altuve actually only hit here 78 games but he'll be the guy every day this year. He may not win the batting title again but he projects as one of the best leadoff guys in the majors after hitting .341, stealing 56 bases and pounding out 47 doubles.

Los Angeles Angels
2014 totals: .316 OBP (22nd), 111 runs (third)

They scored a lot of runs with the help of Mike Trout hitting second, but Kole Calhoun was a pretty effective leadoff guy, hitting .281/.336/.471, with 17 home runs in 109 games. He didn't steal many bases (five steals overall) but his other baserunning metrics are very good and he's capable of a higher OBP with a full season now under his belt.

Oakland Athletics
2014 totals: .329 OBP (15th), 97 runs (15th)

Coco Crisp is presumably the main guy here again. He's good-not-great.

Seattle Mariners
2014 totals: .287 OBP (30th), 71 runs (29th)

A complete disaster. As much as Seattle needed to add a right-handed power bat, the Mariners also need to figure out the leadoff spot. Austin Jackson probably gets the nod, even though he was brutal after coming over from Detroit. Assuming Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz hit 3-4, Lloyd McClendon would be better off hitting Kyle Seager first or second and getting him more at-bats (and on base in front of Cano and Cruz) rather than hitting him fifth. The potential shortstop platoon of Brad Miller and Chris Taylor could present another leadoff option, or maybe the less conventional Seth Smith/Justin Ruggiano right-field platoon.

Texas Rangers
2014 totals: .345 OBP (fifth), 81 runs (28th)

Fifth in OBP but just 28th in runs? Yes, the Rangers missed Prince Fielder. Shin-Soo Choo was brought in to be the leadoff hitter a year ago, although Leonys Martin hit well here as well. Either way, the Rangers have good options. Assuming new manager Jeff Banister is smart enough not to go with Elvis Andrus (and get him out of the No. 2 spot while you're at it).

A sabermetric stats primer

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
1:11
PM ET
If you're new to this blog or new to advanced metrics, you may see statistics referenced that you're not familiar with. ESPN fantasy baseball writer Tristan Cockcroft has a good primer here on understanding some of those metrics like WAR, FIP, xFIP, BABIP, hard-hit average and wOBA.
Pittsburgh Pirates superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen is signed to one of the most team-friendly contracts in the game, a six-year, $51 million deal that has four years remaining (including a 2018 option). If McCutchen hadn't signed that contract, he'd be a free agent after 2015 and likely receive a deal that would pay him $25-$30 million per season. Instead, he'll earn "just" $41.75 million from 2016 through 2018.

Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review had a column reporting that the Pirates would be willing to consider a big extension for McCutchen:
"Andrew's been a critical part of the team," owner Bob Nutting said Wednesday. "I love having him in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, and I hope he (wears it) for a long, long time." ...

There are no active talks at this time. However, industry sources said that if the Pirates decide to open talks, they are willing to go to great lengths to keep McCutchen in Pittsburgh, even if the numbers approach the current salary stratosphere of $25 million-plus per year.

"If that happens, that will be something we'll talk about," McCutchen said. "Right now, I'm not too worried about it. It's nothing that I'm thinking about, really. If it happens, that would be great. I look forward to it if they do that."


OK, Nutting didn't exactly say the Pirates were looking to start talking about an extension with McCutchen. And, really, the Pirates are in a great position. They have one of the best players in the game signed up through his prime years at what will be an incredible discount, barring injuries. In 2018, McCutchen will be 31 years old. Maybe he would still have a couple peak years after that, maybe not. The early 30s are often the time when players -- even stars -- begin to decline. The risk-free move for the Pirates would be to simply play out the contract and get McCutchen's best seasons.

But there are reasons to consider an extension. He's the focal point of the team, a potential Hall of Famer and all-time great Pirates player. He and his wife are part of the community with their charities and bought a house in Pittsburgh. The fans love of him. He's a true role model. That stuff has some value although, as always, winning games is the paramount ingredient in keeping fans interested. Anyway, here are three potential ways the Pirates could approach this, the first being to do nothing (dollars listed in millions, in case you forgot how much major leaguers make these days):



As mentioned, Option A is the risk-free approach. McCutchen enters free agency for his age-32 season and maybe gets a $200 million deal. Robinson Cano hit free agency for his age-31 season and got $240 million from the Mariners. But that deal wouldn't be coming from the Pirates. They're not going to get into a situation like the Reds have with Joey Votto, where an aging player in his 30s would be eating up a large percentage of the payroll.

Option B is keeping the current contract and adding on four years at $30 million per year at the end, kind of a make good for the Pirates knowing they have McCutchen at a steal right now. There's some risk here but McCutchen should at least remain a solid player through 35 and he gets a big payday and gets to remain in Pittsburgh. But if McCutchen wants to maximize is earnings, there's not much reason for him to take this deal as he'd get a longer, larger contract in free agency.

Option C tears up the current contract and signs McCutchen to an $11-year, $247 million extension. It's not Giancarlo Stanton money, but remember that McCutchen is a few years older and the Pirates aren't going to do something crazy. (That's without getting into the particulars of Stanton's deal, which is heavily backloaded and includes an out clause.) There's obviously more risk here for the Pirates with more total dollars committed but the average annual value of $22.5 million shouldn't break the payroll and McCutchen basically becomes a Pirate for Life.

Obviously, the Pirates don't have to do anything now. McCutchen is happy and he's not the type to do anything except play hard for the next four seasons. What would you do if you're the Pirates?

I admit: I've been predicting the demise of Francisco Rodriguez for years.

Remember when he set the single-season record with 62 saves for the Angels back in 2008 and then signed with the Mets in 2009 as a free agent? He had 35 saves for the Mets but a 3.71 ERA. His strikeout rate was in decline from his flame-throwing days with the Angels, he walked five batters per nine innings and his fastball was losing some zip. But he rebounded in 2010 with a solid 2.20 ERA and he improved his control. Still, his fastball velocity was down to 91 mph and he was relying now on deception more than power. How long could that last?

In 2011, he wasn't pitching that well for the Mets (a 3.16 ERA but more than a hit per inning), got traded to the Brewers and excelled for them as a setup guy down the stretch as they reached the playoffs. In 2012, the Brewers brought him back and he was an expensive setup guy who posted a 4.38 ERA with mediocre peripherals and I was sure he was just about done. He was a free agent and the Brewers re-signed him again for 2013, although they traded him to Baltimore. But they couldn't quit K-Rod and re-signed him for 2014 and he became the team's closer, saving 44 games, his first 30-save season since 2009.

And now for the fourth time, he's signed as a free agent with the Brewers. That has to be some kind of record. At least this time they reportedly gave him a two-year contract.

How much does he have left? His fastball velocity averaged just 90.6 mph in 2014 but according to Brooksbaseball.net, for the first time in his career he threw his two-seam sinking fastball more often than his four-seamer. His changeup remains a deadly two-strike weapon as batters hit just .157 against it -- the highest average he's allowed against that pitch going back to 2009. His walk rate was a career low and while batters hit just .198 against him overall, there was one big red flag: 14 home runs allowed.

That's the most home runs any reliever in baseball allowed. Over the past three seasons, only Ernesto Frieri has allowed more home runs among relievers. Luckily for K-Rod, 12 of the home runs were solo shots; still, of the 14 home runs, three of them were game-tying home runs, two came with the score tied and one relinquished a lead.

You can argue that K-Rod was simply a little unlucky since 29 percent of the fly balls he allowed landed on the wrong side of the fence, much higher than his overall rate of 12.2 percent since 2009. But ... that percentage has increased each season since 2009. Seems like the Brewers are playing with fire in expecting him to go 44-for-49 again in save opportunities.

It was pretty clear that no other team wanted Rodriguez as its closer, which is how he ended up back in Milwaukee. We'll see who's right but I'll predict K-Rod doesn't last the season as the Brewers' closer.
The best part about the first few days of spring training is that the players are feeling good, they're happy to be back on the baseball field, they're full of confidence and optimism and many of them are in the best shape of their lives. They also forget to turn the filter on, giving us some of the best quotes of the year. For example, take San Diego Padres outfielder Matt Kemp. MLB.com columnist Lyle Spencer writes:
"Who," (Kemp) said, "do you think has the best outfield in the game now?"

The visitor gave it some thought before nominating the American League champion Royals for defensive purposes and the Pirates or Marlins for all-around excellence.

Kemp shook his head. "No," he said firmly. "It's right here. Right here in San Diego. You can write it down -- and print it."


Now, Kemp could turn out to be correct. Certainly the combination of his offensive potential, plus that of Justin Upton and Wil Myers, is as good as any in the game. Here are the top teams in outfield production in 2014, ranked by wOBA (weighted on-base average):

1. Dodgers: .354
2. Pirates: .351
3. Marlins: .347
4. Rockies: .344
5. Blue Jays: .339

After that you had the Orioles, Nationals, Angels, Brewers and Tigers. The Dodgers have lost Kemp, replacing him with rookie Joc Pederson. The Pirates will have a full season from Gregory Polanco to go with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. The Marlins' trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich remains intact; the Rockies' numbers are boosted by Coors Field (they ranked 29th in road wOBA).

The Blue Jays had a productive outfield led by Jose Bautista, but lost Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus, and trade acquisition Michael Saunders just hurt his knee and is likely out until the All-Star break. The Orioles lost Nick Markakis and part-time outfielder Nelson Cruz.

So yes, maybe Kemp isn't being ridiculous. In 2014, he had a .362 wOBA and Upton had a .357 wOBA, both ranking in the top 30 in the majors (keep in mind that wOBA isn't park-adjusted). Myers was hurt but as a rookie in 2013 posted a .354 wOBA. So you're looking at three guys who all have the potential to be top-25 hitters in the majors.

Of course, hitting is only part of the equation. Defensively, the Upton-Myers-Kemp trio doesn't compare to the Pirates or the Marlins, even if you're optimistic about Myers' ability to play center and Kemp's ability to reverse his declining defensive metrics. Let's turn to FanGraphs for projected WAR. Here's where it ranks each of the Padres' outfield positions (factoring in some bench time after the projected playing time for the starters):

Left field: sixth in the majors
Center field: 21st
Right field: 16th

Does that look like the best outfield in the majors? Based on overall WAR projections, the top 10 outfields:

SportsNation

Which team has the best outfield in the majors?

  •  
    10%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    22%
  •  
    15%
  •  
    40%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,444)

1. Angels, 13.4 (includes 1.4 WAR from Josh Hamilton)
2. Marlins, 12.0
3. Pirates, 10.7
4. Cardinals, 10.3
5. Red Sox, 9.7
(tie) Nationals, 9.7
(tie) Dodgers, 9.7
8. Royals, 9.1
9. Yankees, 8.7
10. Brewers, 8.2

The Padres come in 15th, at 7.1.

What do you think? Do the Padres have the best outfield in the game? I say no. I'd probably go Marlins, Pirates and Angels as my top three (even if Hamilton gets suspended, Matt Joyce would be fine in left field and maybe better). If Bryce Harper breaks out, then the Nationals would have a superstar outfielder to go with Jayson Werth and Denard Span and they could crack the top three as well. Same with the Brewers if Ryan Braun bounces back from two years of injuries.

Not the best outfield: Braves and Phillies.

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