SweetSpot: Houston Astros

David Schoenfield and Eric Karabell took your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

Write it up: Collin McHugh's success story

May, 2, 2014
May 2
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesCollin McHugh has been in some kind of zone in his first two starts of 2014.
Houston Astros pitcher Collin McHugh is one of the most interesting pitchers in baseball, and not just because he’s 2-0 with an 0.59 ERA in two starts for a team that has dropped 100 games in each of the last three seasons.

McHugh has kept a blog throughout his pro career, called "A Day Older, A Day Wiser," and the entries are well-thought-out and very articulate. He noted some things in his posts this past offseason that seemed to foreshadow his 2014 success.

One post noted that the signing with the Astros came on his wife’s birthday, which proved to be a good omen.

Another touched on watching Russell Wilson’s “Why Not Us?” comments during the Super Bowl and relating that to his own experience trying to stick in the major leagues despite failures in his previous experiences.

"I’ve looked at my career five years down the road and said 'Why not me?'" McHugh said. "Why couldn’t I get to stick with someone and put down some roots? It’s refreshing to see someone like Russell Wilson get a chance and do something with it. I’ve had so much encouragement from my friends, my family, from the three organizations that gave me a chance. You just hope it breaks [right] eventually."

Another addressed the value of hearing the words “You belong” from Astros manager Bo Porter at their first meeting in spring training.

That took a little while to fully sink in, as McHugh allowed nine runs and 12 hits in 5 2/3 innings in the spring, which is why he started the season in Triple-A rather than the majors. But he is taking advantage of the opportunity created when the Astros' best starter, Scott Feldman, went on the disabled list.

A fan has taken those two words and plugged them into the sponsor’s section on McHugh’s page on Baseball-Reference.com. He proved he belonged in these first two dominant starts with his third team (the Mets and Rockies were the other two) in three seasons.

“I don’t know if I could have pictured how it would go,” McHugh said of this start to the season. “But if I did, it would have gone like this. This time around, it's different [than when he debuted with seven scoreless innings for the 2012 Mets]. I'm more comfortable and a little bit more prepared.”

Great start

McHugh has already made a memorable statistical impression.

In his first start against the Mariners (whom he'll face again Sunday), he became the first Astros pitcher with a 12-strikeout, no-walk, scoreless start since Randy Johnson in 1998. The full list is McHugh and a collection of former All-Stars: J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott, Pete Harnisch and Johnson.

In his second start against the Athletics last Sunday, McHugh went 8 2/3 innings and allowed only two hits. He was part of a record-setting day in which 10 starters went at least seven innings and allowed three hits or fewer.

“His performance speaks for itself,” Porter said after that game. “He’s earned the right to get the ball for his next turn.”

McHugh is one of three Astros pitchers to win his first two starts, allowing one run or fewer and three hits or fewer in each one. The other two are Roger Clemens and (coincidentally) Feldman.

In each of the two games, McHugh has pitched with determination, visible a few times in the locked-in look on his face when he came off the mound after dotting the outside corner for an inning-ending strikeout or inducing a weakly hit out.

"I feel confident now," McHugh said. "I feel if I can get a guy to two strikes, he's out in my mind. Strikeouts are accidental. But when you get a guy to make soft contact and hit the ball where the defense is playing, and when you feel you have guys eating out of your hand, you just want to ride that out as long as possible."

How he’s winning

What is McHugh doing differently on the mound?

He noted the tinkering to his pitching as minor, but we picked up a few things. Brooks Baseball charts him as having gone away from his two-seam fastball, using exclusively a four-seamer. Astros pitching coach Brent Strom told McHugh he had a “sneaky” fastball that could be put to better use. McHugh has abided.

He’s also changed his first-pitch approach, in a manner similar to what James Shields did with much success a few years ago.

McHugh's put-away pitches have been well-placed.
McHugh threw 65 percent first-pitch fastballs with the Mets and Rockies the last two seasons; but in each of his two starts in 2014, fewer than half of his first pitches have been fastballs.

McHugh is now ‘"pitching backwards," noted when I asked former major league pitcher Brian Bannister for his thoughts on Twitter. That means he’s using his off-speed pitches (curve, slider and changeup) to set up his fastball, rather than the other way around.

It’s made him more unpredictable.

McHugh went to his slider against lefties much more often these two starts than he did the previous two seasons, and for good reason.

Lefties were 34-for-84 with six home runs against him in 2012 and 2013. Both the Athletics and Mariners loaded their lineups with lefties against McHugh, but those hitters were 4-for-42 against him.

"Our catchers are doing a really good job at mixing things up and reading the lineup the second time through," McHugh said. "For me, it's about having the confidence that I can throw each of my pitches for a strike. [As for hitting the corners], some days it's there and some days it's not. It goes back to focus. We've been doing it long enough. Sometimes your body just needs that extra second for a little more focus."

The next chapter

McHugh hasn't written a blog entry since being recalled. He and his wife did feel good enough about his two starts to settle into an apartment rather than staying at the team hotel. But this is a story that still has a lot left to play out.

"I try to wait until I'm super-motivated to write," McHugh said. "I want to wait until I have some more perspective."
Astros rookie George Springer has five errors, which is pretty remarkable considering he’s a right fielder and he’s played only 14 games. This is worth checking out ...

April 17 -- Norichika Aoki doubles over the first-base bag and the ball bounds down into where the stands jut out along the right-field line in Houston. As Springer reaches down for the ball, it takes a bad hop over his glove, allowing Aoki to get to third base. Mostly bad luck here on the strange, high bounce.

April 24 -- Coco Crisp bloops a single into right-center with runners at the corners. Springer lazily lobs the ball back into the infield over Jose Altuve's head, allowing Crisp to head to second. Luckily it didn't hurt the Astros; Jed Lowrie lined out to end the inning.

April 25 -- Ninth inning, bases loaded, game tied, no outs, infield in for the Astros. Oakland’s Daric Barton singles off the glove of Altuve to score two runs. Springer overruns the ball, which was barely moving, and Craig Gentry comes all the way around from first base to score a third run.

(Quick aside: The Astros are a lousy defensive team, as they were last year. They're second worst in the majors with minus-21 Defensive Runs Saved, better only than Cleveland's minus-24. Just in watching these few videos, I've seen Jonathan Villar bobble a routine double-play ball that extended an inning; Josh Fields bobble a bunt in the inning above that loaded the bases; and Altuve fail to make a play you have to make.)

April 29 -- Adam LaRoche singles to right field in front of Springer, who bobbles the ball to allow Jayson Werth to move from second to third.

April 30 -- Denard Span triples into right-center. Springer twice drops the ball as he tries to pick it up, and Span circles the bases.

OK, four of the errors involved his hands, and one was a lazy throw. They look more like errors of effort and concentration than anything, a guy trying to move too fast. Springer had only three errors in his minor league career, so I don’t think we’re talking about a guy with bad hands or a Vlad Guerrero-like arm where the ball may land anywhere within a 100-foot radius.

Still, five errors in 14 games is unacceptable. Springer is obviously a talented athlete, maybe a little too eager to impress. He’s hitting .182 with no home runs and 19 strikeouts (not necessarily a surprise, given his high strikeout rates in the minors), and is 3-for-22 with 10 K's against "soft" stuff. He clearly needs to relax and let the game come to him.

Easy to say, of course. Baseball is a hard game.
New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy isn't what I'd call fast. I mean, he's not a catcher or a plodding first baseman, but he won't ever be mistaken for a burner. He has maybe average-ish speed. He was never much of a base stealer. He topped out at 14 stolen bases in the minors. In 2011, he was 5-for-10 with the Mets while playing 109 games. In 2012, he was 10-for-12 in playing 156 games. Through June 8 of last season, he was 1-for-4. He was 28 years old. Players don't get faster as they approach 30.

Then, a weird thing happened. Murphy started picking his spots and running more often. He stole eight bases in June, three in July, six in August and four in September. He wasn't caught. He's 6-for-6 this season and has now swiped 28 in a row, the second-longest streak in Mets history behind the 33 in a row Kevin McReynolds stole in 1987-89. Murphy is proving basestealing is as much the art of reading pitchers and knowing when to steal as it is a skill that relies purely on speed (Billy Hamilton is 10-for-15, meaning Murphy has provided more value from stealing bases than Hamilton has).

Hall of Famer Lou Brock, the great base stealer, was certainly fast but not considered fast. He described stealing bases this way: "Baserunning arrogance is just like pitching arrogance or hitting arrogance. You are a force, and you have to instill that you are a force to the opposition. You have to have utter confidence."

Murphy's streak got me thinking of guys who were good base stealers without having a lot of speed, guys with that confidence to steal based on their smarts. There's no sure way to measure this, not without having a database of home-to-first times. Jeff Bagwell is a guy who jumps to mind. A first baseman with average-at-best speed, Bagwell was a terrific baserunner due to great instincts and twice stole 30-plus bases with decent success rates (31-for-41 in 1997 and 30-for-41 in 1999). He finished with 202 career steals. Bagwell hit 32 triples in his career, giving him a stolen base/triples ratio of 6.3 to 1.

Triples are generally a good way to measure speed, so is this a good way to measure slow base stealers? Not necessarily. The top two guys since 1901 by steals/triples ratio are Otis Nixon and Rickey Henderson, two fast guys. Nixon had so little power that he rarely hit triples (27 in his career); Rickey has a high ratio because he stole so many bases although, surprisingly, hit only 66 triples. That's sort of interesting in itself: Rickey never hit more than seven in a season, and, while right-handed batters don't hit as many triples as left-handed batters, that still seems low. Juan Samuel, for example, had seasons with 19, 15, 13 and 12 triples. Chuck Knoblauch had seasons with 14 and 10. Robin Yount hit 98 triples in his career.

Anyway, just scrolling down the list, I do bump into some guys who weren't noted for plus-plus speed:

Jose Canseco: 200 steals, 14 triples
Canseco famously became baseball's first 40-homer/40-steal player in 1988. He might have had above-average speed back then but quickly lost it as he beefed up (he was 40-for-56 stealing bases in '88). Canseco was 26-for-32 in 1991 but battled injuries the next two seasons and basically quit running, except for 1998, when he went 29-for-46 as a 33-year-old DH for the Toronto Blue Jays. (Tim Johnson, of faux-Vietnam veteran infamy, was the manager that season, and he apparently loved to run. The Jays led the AL in steals and runners caught stealing.)

Gary Sheffield: 253 steals, 27 triples
Sheffield never hit more than five triples in a season and was a career 71 percent base stealer -- about the break-even point. He stole 25 bases at age 21 and then went 22-for-27 as a 38-year-old with the Detroit Tigers.

Alfonso Soriano: 288 steals, 31 triples
Would you describe the younger Soriano as a speedster? I'm not sure I would, but he stole 40 bases three times. He was 18-for-27 last season, almost as many steals as he had the four previous seasons combined (20).

Carney Lansford: 224 steals, 40 triples
I don't remember Lansford being fast, but maybe it was the glasses that made him seem slow. Baseball-Reference.com rates him at plus-17 baserunning runs for his career (factoring in stolen bases, advancing on hits, etc.), so maybe he was sneaky fast. What's interesting is that he quit running midcareer -- he was a dismal 3-for-11 in 1983 and swiped just two bases in 1985 -- but from 1987 to 1989, ages 30 to 32, he stole 27, 29 and 37 bases. I can't imagine many players have their career high in steals at 32.

I did another search for most stolen bases in a season without hitting triple, but that didn't reveal much (record: Miguel Dilone, 50 in 1978). Bagwell and Canseco show up high on this list as well. How about Don Baylor? I remember him in the '80s, when he was a big, burly DH with the Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Oakland A's, but he ran a lot early in his career -- 285 career steals, including 52 for the A's in 1976 (that team holds the major league record with 341 steals). Baylor hit just 28 triples in his career, including one in 1976 and none in both 1977 and 1978, in which he stole a combined 48 bases.

There are also guys like the aforementioned McReynolds, who had one or two seasons in which he decided to run. McReynolds was 21-for-21 in 1988 but had just 93 steals in his career. Or opportunistic runners like Chase Utley, who went 23-for-23 in 2009 and is 129-for-146 in his career.

Anyway, Murphy seems pretty unique. It will be interesting to see if pitchers start paying a little more attention to him while he's on the basepaths now.
David Schoenfield and Eric Karabell took your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

Is that such an outlandish headline? I'm not sure it is. Wood did it all in Monday's 5-1 win over the hapless Diamondbacks, pitching seven innings with nine strikeouts and no walks and going 2-for-3 with a double and three-run homer. Here's a fun tweet:

Wood hit .222 with three home runs last year, and while we won't quite declare him the new Mike Hampton yet, there are similarities in that both are/were smallish lefties who could hit (Hampton hit seven home runs for the Rockies in 2001 and hit .344 the next season with three home runs).

More importantly, Wood is off to a great start on the mound (2.52 ERA), so far proving his 2013 breakout wasn't a fluke. In 25 innings, he has 28 K's and four walks and two home runs allowed. That's a big boost in his strikeout rate from 2013 -- 17.5 percent to 25.7 percent -- and if this is a real improvement then it's time to start thinking of him as an elite starter.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, while Wood and Jeff Samardzija have allowed just 14 runs in their eight starts, those two are a combined 1-4 as the Cubs are next-to-last in the NL in runs.

Other quick thoughts from Monday's action:
  • New Pirates first baseman Ike Davis hit a grand slam and then the Pirates scored runs in the eighth and ninth to beat the Reds 6-5. The Reds have an MLB-worst 5.77 bullpen ERA with an atrocious 1.72 WHIP. J.J. Hoover and Manny Parra have really struggled, so even Aroldis Chapman's return isn't an automatic fix. As for Davis, he's been plagued by inconsistency in his career, but we're not that far removed from the second half of 2012 when he hit .255/.346/.542 with 20 home runs. Who knows if it will work out, but it was a good risk by the Pirates to get him. Sure, you worry about all the strikeouts and low average you're going to get from Davis and Pedro Alvarez but they may also combine for 65 home runs.
  • Some sweet fielding plays on Monday. Loved this double play by Ruben Tejeda and Daniel Murphy for the Mets and this slick bare-handed play by Albert Pujols. Tejeda made another diving stop and out as the Mets blanked the Cardinals 2-0 behind Jenrry Mejia's 6.2 scoreless innings and Kyle Farnsworth's first save.
  • Nice 4-3 win for the Rangers over the A's on a night Yu Darvish didn't have a dominant outing, with eight hits and four walks in six innings. Fun fact: Prince Fielder has already been intentionally walked nine times, the most ever for an AL player in April. He's hitting just .205 but opposing managers still want to get a righty-righty matchup when possible.
  • Fielder's old teammate in Detroit, some guy named Miguel Cabrera, continues to struggle with a .206/.275/.333 line and one home run. It's gone relatively unnoticed because he's Miguel Cabrera and we expect him to heat up soon enough -- and the Tigers are still 9-7 after losing to John Danks on Monday -- but this is a guy who never has a bad month (last September, when he was injured, being the exception). He only has one opposite-field hit all season. Last year, 55 of his 193 hits went to right.
  • Keep an eye on Corey Dickerson, who gets a chance to play for the Rockies with Michael Cuddyer on the DL. He can hit and went 3-for-4 with one of the five home runs the Rockies hit against the Giants.
  • Things are turning ugly in Seattle. The Mariners returned home to face the Astros with Felix Hernandez pitching and put up a stinkbomb of a game for their seventh straight loss. An error by Kyle Seager in the sixth inning led to four unearned runs as Hernandez gave up three run-scoring hits with two outs. Dustin Ackley was moved up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup and promptly went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Justin Smoak is hitting .170 after his big opening series against the Angels. Seager and Brad Miller are hitting under .200. Leadoff hitter Abraham Almonte has 28 strikeouts in 19 games. Looks like the same old Mariners.
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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, this type of play at home plate remains a good old-fashioned judgment call by the umpires. There's a gray area that I think is ultimately unavoidable. There are going to be obvious cases of the catcher blocking the plate illegally at some point, but I don't think this was one, so I reluctantly say the umps got it right.
Houston Astros manager Bo Porter hit Jose Altuve cleanup the past two games, which certainly makes him one of the more unique cleanup hitters in history. Altuve is listed at 5-foot-6, which may be generous an inch or two, and has just 14 career home runs in over 1,500 plate appearances.

Porter explained his thinking to MLB.com reporter Brian McTaggart on Wednesday: "Obviously, Altuve and [Jason] Castro are arguably our two best hitters, and having (Dexter) Fowler and (Robbie) Grossman at the top, those two guys are switch-hitters who can get on base. When you hit Castro third and a right-hander is pitching, you're basically making sure the left-hander gets the extra at-bat given the matchup scenario."

I like that Porter at least had a sound reason for his thinking, unlike the explanation Nationals manager Matt Williams gave for hitting Bryce Harper sixth the other day: Williams said he wanted to take some pressure off the 21-year-old left fielder. Castro is a better hitter than Altuve, so Porter wanted to give him an extra at-bat, if it came to that. Reasonable enough. Most managers would then hit Chris Carter in the cleanup spot, and while Carter did hit 29 home runs last year, it also came at the expense of a .223 average and 212 strikeouts, hardly what you'd prefer from a cleanup hitter.

Anyway, I asked on Twitter if Altuve was the shortest cleanup hitter ever. Several readers immediately responded with Hack Wilson, who hit 56 home runs and drove in a record 191 runs for the Cubs in 1930. Wilson was also listed at 5-foot-6, a short but obviously immensely powerful man. Here's a photo of him when he played for Brooklyn and here's one with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Another reader pointed out Rabbit Maranville, like Wilson a Hall of Famer. But Maranville got there because of his glove at shortstop, not his bat. Listed at 5-foot-5, Maranville played in the majors from 1912 to 1935 and hit .258 with 28 career home runs. His OPS+ was above the league average in just two full seasons, in 1917 and 1919.

Yet he regularly hit cleanup for one of the more famous teams of the first half of the 20th century, the 1914 Boston Braves.

A little history: In the 1890s, the Boston franchise in the National League -- then called the Beaneaters -- was a powerhouse, winning five pennants between 1891 and 1898. But from 1903 through 1913 the team finished under .500 every season, usually in last place, and had four straight seasons of 100-plus losses from 1909 to 1912. Under new manager George Stallings, they were a little better in 1913, going 69-82, but there certainly weren't high expectations for 1914.

The Braves had made one big offseason acquisition, acquiring second baseman Johnny Evers from the Cubs. Maranville was entering his second full season, as were pitchers Bill James and Dick Rudolph, so there was some youth to build upon.

Maranville started the season hitting first with Evers second, but Stallings soon reversed them in the order and they hit 1-2 through May and into June. On June 9, however, Stallings put Evers back in the second spot, moved cleanup hitter Larry Gilbert to leadoff and Maranville to the cleanup spot. The Braves were 13-28, in last place and already 12.5 games out of first place. The Braves were still in last place on July 18, still 11 games out with a 35-43 record.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came one of the great stretch drives in major league history. The Braves went 59-16 the rest of the way. From July 7, on, James went 15-1 and Rudolph 13-1. Lefty Tyler threw five shutouts. The team also acquired three outfielders, Possum Whitted (yes, the Braves had a Rabbit and a Possum), Josh Devore and, in late August, Herbie Moran from the Reds. Stallings began platooning at all three outfield spots. While a little platooning had been done before this, it had never been done before on that scale. It worked; the Braves averaged 3.8 runs per game in the first half and 4.8 in the second. They won the pennant by 10.5 games, finished second in the league in runs scored and became known as the Miracle Braves.

Maranville would remain the team's cleanup hitter through late August. When Moran came over, he usually hit leadoff, moving Gilbert or Whitted to the cleanup spot. Maranville was moved down to seventh. Still, he would start 73 games in the cleanup spot (he hit there only three other times in his career) and led the team with 78 RBIs, even though he batted just .246. The Braves swept the Philadelphia A's in the World Series, leading to Connie Mack ripping apart his team and sending the A's into a decade of futility. (Some have suggested Mack believed his team had thrown the World Series.)

It was short-lived success for the Braves. The following season, Evers got hurt and James, who had gone 26-7, hurt his shoulder (he was never again effective). They were back under .500 by 1917 -- where they would spend 14 of the next 15 seasons. They wouldn't win another pennant until 1948.
The Houston Astros are kind of like some small band you’ve never heard of that a guy praises while ripping Springsteen. Or some hole-in-the-wall favorite of foodies that serves bacon-wrapped quail and gives you one bite of bacon and two bites of quail for $28.

In the corner of the Internet that I roam around in -- that subset of baseball lovers who also love sabermetrics -- the Astros are widely praised. It doesn't matter that they lost 111 games last year and 107 the year before and 106 the year before that; the Astros are the nerdy-yet-cool kids turning baseball upside down with their revolutionary approach to rebuilding and hiring front office personnel. They tore everything apart and essentially started from scratch. They hired Sig Mejdal -- a guy with two engineering degrees and advanced degrees in operations research and cognitive psychology/human factors -- to the title of director of decision sciences. They hired Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein as director of pro scouting. Mike Fast, who wrote a seminal study on pitch framing for Baseball Prospectus, was hired as an analyst. Even Jeff Luhnow, the Astros' general manager who had been the scouting director for the St. Louis Cardinals, has a unique background, with degrees in economics and engineering from Penn, a guy who spent years in the business world before joining the Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Springer
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioGeorge Springer, one of the Astros' top prospects, will begin this season in the minor leagues.
The fans in the club admiring the band have become the band.

Of course the sabermetrics crowd loves the Astros. Their friends, of sorts, are running the team.

Don't get me wrong. It's terrific that baseball has gone this route, that the entire sport has embraced the sabermetric revolution, more than 30 years after Bill James first started publishing his books. These are smart people working for the Astros, intent on studying the game and its processes for every edge possible, in a sport where even the smallest of advantages can show up in the win column.

But while the Astros are commended, let's ask ourselves this: Are they really all that different from the Miami Marlins? You know, the franchise everyone rips, the team that dumps talent, that tried to win one year and quickly gave up and sold off all of its veterans, with its art-dealer owner who built the funny-looking ballpark.

The Marlins are criticized for essentially not trying to win, for keeping their payrolls at the bottom of the league (except for 2012). Isn't that what the Astros have done the past three years? There's no other way to put it: They tried, on purpose, not to build the best team possible and as a result ended up with the worst string of seasons since the expansion Mets. Astros fans may understand the long-term goals in place, but Astros fans have also quit going to the park as much or watching as often on television.

The plan: Stockpile young, inexpensive talent, especially first-round picks, and especially high first-round picks. In fact, one study suggested the biggest drop-off in talent in MLB draft history has been from the first overall pick to the second overall pick (Ken Griffey Jr. over Mark Merchant, Alex Rodriguez over Darren Dreifort, Stephen Strasburg over Dustin Ackley). The Astros had the past two top picks (Carlos Correa and Mark Appel), will draft first overall again this June and it certainly wouldn't be surprising to see them drafting first overall again in 2015.

If the Astros do eventually turn things around, will it be because of all the smart guys in the front office or because of benefiting from all these lousy teams? It's sort of how the Washington Nationals developed into playoff contenders: They drafted Strasburg and Bryce Harper first overall in 2009 and 2010, on top of getting Ryan Zimmerman fourth overall in 2005 and Anthony Rendon sixth overall in 2011.

But let's compare the Astros to the Nationals. Do they have their Harper? Not yet. Maybe you point to George Springer; but he's three years older than Harper and yet to play in the majors. Will Springer even be as good as Jayson Werth? Werth hit .318/.392/.532 last year. Maybe Correa becomes that franchise cornerstone. But will he be as good as Ian Desmond, a fellow shortstop who hit .286/.333/.480 the past two seasons? Maybe Appel develops into the Astros' Strasburg; OK, but do they have a Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister in the pipeline, as well? Maybe they do, but young pitching is notoriously risky. Would you rather have Zimmerman and Rendon or Matt Dominguez and Jose Altuve?

Maybe the Astros did what they had to do; you can certainly argue that winning 75 games and drafting seventh is a worse place to be than winning 60 games and drafting first. The Astros believe they’re on the right track, even if they’re staring at another 100-loss season. But if the Astros are to turn into a winner, this much is also clear: The smart guys will eventually have to make some good trades, maybe sign some free agents (if any good ones will even be out there) and rely on that old baseball axiom: A little luck.
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

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

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

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

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

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

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

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

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

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

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

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

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

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

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

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

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

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

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

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.
Some stuff to check out ...
  • With the season-ending injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, and the delayed start to Mike Minor's season, it was a little surprising the Braves cut Freddy Garcia, who you may remember actually started a playoff game last year for the Braves. He was a non-roster invite to camp but they instead decided to go with 25-year-old rookie Gus Schlosser, a 17th-round pick in 2011 who posted a 2.39 ERA in 25 starts in Double-A in 2013. Despite the impressive numbers in Double-A, Baseball America didn't rank him as one of the Braves' top 30 prospects, even though his fastball reaches the low 90s. He's a sidearmer so has to prove he has an out pitch against left-handers. Martin Gandy of Chop County has his thoughts on the decision.
  • Interesting little graphic from FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine on MLB's youth movement. Neil checked the percentage of overall MLB WAR contributed by players 25-and-younger each season since 1976. Neil writes: "In 2013, about 28 percent of all Wins Above Replacement were created by the under-25 set. That was the ninth-largest share for any season since 1976. Output from youngsters has been on the upswing since the mid-to-late 1990s, when the percentage of WAR from young players hit its nadir. That nadir happened to occur at the height of baseball’s so-called steroid era."
  • Last week, It's About the Money had a good series comparing the Yankees to their AL East rivals, reaching out to the other blogs on the SweetSpot network. Here's a look at Yankees-Red Sox, plus Yankees-Blue Jays, Yankees-Rays and Yankees-Orioles.
  • Mike Petriello of FanGraphs (and a contributor to ESPN Insider) with a good piece on Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who uses advanced data on pitch location to try and improve his pitch framing. Ellis admits his weakness has always been the low pitch but he likes the data, telling Mike, "The thing I like about the pitch framing stats, which I need some more information on how they determine what it is, at least it’s giving me a number, a bar, so I know where I’m at right now, and at the end of the year I can check and see, 'hey, did I get better?'" At the SABR Analytics conference two weeks ago in Arizona, Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy estimated 5 to 10 percent of major leaguers would know what FIP is. As Ellis shows, that number will only rise in the future.
  • Speaking of the SABR Analytics conference, Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus looks at the big questions to come out of the conference.
  • Richard Bergstrom of Rockies Zingers writes about Rockies co-GM Bill Geivett, who was on the GM's panel at the conference.
  • Grantland's Jonah Keri had a long conversation with A's general manager Billy Beane and owner Lew Wolff.
  • Chris Jones of ESPN The Magazine with a feature on Royals coach Mike Jirschele, who spent 36 years playing, coaching and managing in the minors. But spending so long in the bushes was hardly the toughest thing Jirschele had to deal with.
  • Ryan P. Morrison of Inside the 'Zona on the Diamondbacks' first two losses in Australia to the Dodgers.
  • Brandon Land of One Strike Away on the Rangers' spring injuries, including Jurickson Profar's shoulder issues.
  • Nick Kirby of Redleg Nation with Part 1 of a two-part NL Central preview. This part examines the lineups and pitching staff of all five clubs.
  • Marc W. at the U.S.S. Mariner has an involved look at James Paxton and his high groundball rates in his four starts last season for the Mariners -- despite pitching primarily up in the strike zone. It's sort of about Paxton but it's also about how pitching in general works.
  • Finally, can the Astros make the playoffs? Well ... Baseball Prospectus ran through 50,000 simulations of the 2014 season and the Astros won the AL West in 0.4 percent of them and made the playoffs 1.3 percent of the time. Sam Miller checks out at those "playoff" seasons, including season No. 33913 in which the Astros won 99 games. You never know!

AL West rotations hurting

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15
PHOENIX -- Colby Lewis last pitched in the majors on July 18, 2012, and his comeback from his rare hip-resurfacing surgery took a turn for the worse in Saturday's pounding against the Athletics.

Making his third spring training start, Lewis didn't fool anyone. Staked to a 2-0 lead, Coco Crisp lined a hard single to center, and John Jaso walked. After a fly out, Josh Donaldson lined out 400 feet to deep center to score a run. Brandon Moss then killed a 2-0 pitch to right-center field, a screaming liner that seemed to be still rising as it smashed off the advertising signs above the fence. On the next pitch, Josh Reddick hit one onto the practice diamond beyond the right-field fence. Lewis didn't even look.

The second inning wasn't much better. A single, walk, hard double down the right-field line and an intentional walk plated another run and loaded the bases. Lewis then hit Donaldson, drawing a bit of a stare from the A's third baseman, ending Lewis' day.

It's just one start in the thin air of Arizona, but it was about as bad as a pitcher could look and probably means Lewis will eventually be ticketed for time in the minors before getting another shot with the Rangers. It also means the Rangers' season-opening rotation could now include Joe Saunders, who had a 5.26 ERA with the Mariners last season (imagine how that will translate to Texas), and Tommy Hanson, coming off a bad, injury-plagued season with the Angels. The Rangers are hoping Matt Harrison will be ready a few weeks into the season, but for now, the Rangers are scrambling to fill slots behind Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando.

As a reader named Jon Dogma tweeted to me, "I wonder if Derek Holland's dog knows the damage he's done."

Holland, if you remember, tripped over his dog Wrigley in the offseason, requiring knee surgery that will likely keep him out until at least the All-Star break. He said it could have been worse: "He was running up the stairs and clipped me. I hit my knee on the step, and if it wasn't for me grabbing the rail, I might have fallen all the way down the stairs and cracked my head open."

The Rangers aren't the only AL West team with issues in its rotation, however. The A's announced Friday that starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin will start the season on the disabled list, Parker with forearm tightness and soreness, Griffin with a muscle strain that will require rest for now, but not surgery.

The A's have Tommy Milone, who won 25 games the past two seasons while in the rotation, and Jesse Chavez, who had a 3.92 ERA in 35 appearances in relief last year but has pitched well while starting this spring, as the likely replacements.

Donaldson said Saturday he hadn't heard the news when he left the ballpark Friday, but preferred to take an optimistic view for now. "It’s one of those things that could end up being a blessing in disguise. Give them a little bit of rest and they’ll be ready when we need them the most at the end of the season," he said.

The A's are already minus Bartolo Colon, their top winner from 2013, who signed with the Mets as a free agent. Sonny Gray, with just 10 career regular-season starts, became the de facto No. 1, followed by Scott Kazmir and Dan Straily.

The Mariners, meanwhile, have seen Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker go down with a finger injury and shoulder tightness, respectively. Neither has pitched this spring, leaving guys such as Scott Baker, Randy Wolf (who has allowed four home runs in nine innings) and Blake Beavan in the rotation mix behind Felix Hernandez, Erasmo Ramirez and rookie James Paxton.

Then there are the Angels and Astros, who ranked 23rd and 25th, respectively, in starting pitcher WAR last season, per FanGraphs. The Angels' rotation projects as Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards and offseason acquisitions Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, with veteran Joe Blanton (2-14, 6.04 ERA) the No. 6 starter Angels fans would rather not see. The Astros' projected rotation includes free agent Scott Feldman alongside some combo of Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Brad Peacock, Lucas Harrell, Dallas Keuchel and Jerome Williams, which could be mildly interesting if the young guys develop -- although hardly reminiscent of Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan and Bob Knepper.

None of the guys injured in spring may miss a lot of time, but they are going to miss some time. Rotation depth already looks as though it's going to play a key factor in the AL West race, so pay attention to how those Nos. 6, 7 and 8 starters are performing these final two-plus weeks of spring training.

Which franchise will be the one to beat in five years? We published our Future Power Rankings today, and while Eric Karabell weren't on the committee for those rankings, we do have something to say about them, including which team should be No. 1, wondering if the Cubs should have been ranked higher than the Red Sox and whether our beloved Phillies and Mariners are properly ranked.

Team over/unders: Best bets

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

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


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


Discuss (Total votes: 15,858)

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

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


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


Discuss (Total votes: 13,837)

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

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


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


Discuss (Total votes: 15,014)

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

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


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


Discuss (Total votes: 15,370)

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

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


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


Discuss (Total votes: 16,627)

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

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


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


Discuss (Total votes: 16,376)

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

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