The Milwaukee Brewers looked so out-of-sync and vulnerable in losing four straight games to the Philadelphia Phillies at home this week, it's only natural that St. Louis and Cincinnati would aspire to reach the All-Star break in first place.

They're certainly not going to arrive in one piece.

Injuries have a way of mucking up the storyline and altering the conventional wisdom in sports, but Thursday unfolded in an especially chaotic way in the National League Central. The carnage began when the Cardinals lost catcher Yadier Molina for 8-12 weeks with a torn ligament in his right thumb. Shortly thereafter, the Reds announced that second baseman Brandon Phillips will miss six weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Phillips' absence, coupled with the loss of Joey Votto to the DL, will put an additional crimp in a Reds offense that has had trouble getting much traction. Even though his .701 OPS this season is the lowest of his 8 -year run with Cincinnati, Phillips has hit second, third and fourth in the Reds' lineup and made a cameo appearance in the fifth spot. He's averaged 150 games a season since his arrival in Cincinnati in 2006, and he's a four-time Gold Glove Award winner with an aggregate defensive runs saved of plus-55 since 2007.

But the loss of Phillips still pales in comparison to the impact and potential fallout of Molina's injury in St. Louis.

The numbers and Molina's settling influence behind the plate combine to place him near the top of baseball's "most indispensible player" list. Since 2011, Molina leads big-league catchers in WAR (17.5) and batting average (.309) and ranks second to Buster Posey with an .827 OPS. During that span, the Cardinals have a 275-203 record (for a .575 winning percentage) when he starts and a 50-51 mark (.495) when he doesn't.

As the Elias Sports Bureau notes, the Cardinals have a staff ERA of 3.53 with Molina and 3.81 without him over the past five seasons. They've erased 40.9 percent of opposing base stealers during that time frame, compared to 31.9 percent with all their non-Molina catchers.

So when Molina stood at his locker at Busch Stadium on Thursday and told reporters that he "almost cried" when he learned the extent of his injury, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, his teammates and the front office all could relate.

"It's the equivalent of losing Adam Wainwright," said an American League scout. "Yadi is one guy in the lineup, but this affects 12 guys on the pitching staff. Tony Cruz is a great backup and I guarantee you he's learned a ton from Yadi just by osmosis. But there's no way he can replace Yadi offensively, and Yadi is by far the best defensive catcher in all of baseball. It's going to be a challenge."

Like several of his front-office peers, St. Louis GM John Mozeliak is aiming at a moving target in his quest to make upgrades by the July 31 deadline. There was an on-line frenzy this week over the possibility of a Jake Peavy-to-St. Louis trade. But the reality is, the Cardinals' rotation is second in the National League with a 3.20 ERA and a .238 batting average against, and Joe Kelly should give the team a lift when he returns from a hamstring injury Friday against the Brewers. The Cardinals will also have a better handle after the All-Star break whether Michael Wacha can return from a stress reaction in his right shoulder and help them in August and September.

Of late, Mozeliak has given just as much thought to upgrading an offense that ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored. But where do the Cardinals make changes? They're awash in outfielders, and first baseman Matt Adams and shortstop Jhonny Peralta aren't going anywhere. One possible scenario involves shifting Matt Carpenter to second base and making a run at, say, Chase Headley, to play third. The Cardinals could also leave Carpenter at third and try to add a second baseman. But Kolten Wong is 6-for-14 with three homers since his return from the disabled list last weekend, so maybe he's part of the solution at second.

Asked about the team's next course of action in an email exchange, Mozeliak replied, "We have time to determine our next step." But Mozeliak will almost certainly be on the lookout for a veteran catcher to help take some pressure off Cruz. There aren't an abundance of options.

A.J. Pierzynski, just designated for assignment by Boston, is not on the Cardinals' radar, according to a baseball source. Although the Red Sox probably aren't keen on the idea of moving David Ross after dumping Pierzynski (and irritating free-agent-to-be Jon Lester in the process), one NL scout thinks Ross would be an ideal fit in St. Louis.

"He won't hit much and he can't catch every day, but he handles pitchers as good as anybody in the major leagues," the scout said. "That's who I would go after in a heartbeat."

John Buck, cut loose by Seattle earlier this week, is a possibility. Carlos Ruiz is on the disabled list with a concussion and has more than $20 million left on his contract with the Phillies, so he's not an option. Kurt Suzuki would be a wonderful fit, but one baseball source said the Twins aren't ready to trade him "just yet." Suzuki is also an American League All-Star who's hitting .303 with a 2.1 WAR this season, so it wouldn't be out of line for the Twins to ask for a Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk from St. Louis' ample supply of outfield prospects. Good luck with that.

The Cardinals aren't the only NL Central team in shopping mode. Cincinnati was already in need of a left-field upgrade before Votto and Phillips went down and further weakened the lineup. Pittsburgh could use a veteran starter, and Milwaukee made the decision Thursday to shift Marco Estrada to the bullpen and summon top prospect Jimmy Nelson from Triple-A Nashville, where he was 10-2 with a 1.46 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 111 innings. Brewers GM Doug Melvin has maintained that he has no plans to trade for another starter, but he's likely to at least try and fortify the bullpen for the stretch run.

That's where things stand at the moment. But in a tightly-bunched Central, the four contenders know they're just an awkward slide, a pulled hamstring or an achy elbow away from seeing their best-laid plans altered. For the division's general managers, the three weeks leading up to the trade deadline will be a waiting game and a chess match. For the players, it's a war of attrition.
The St. Louis Cardinals won at least 86 games each season from 2008 through last year. They haven't made the playoffs every season, but they've been competitive every season. The one constant in those years, of course, has been All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. He's now out 8-12 weeks with a thumb injury that will require surgery.

How much will this hurt the Cardinals?

Well, the easy answer is: We don't know. Maybe the Cardinals were due to play better anyway. Maybe backup catcher Tony Cruz will play well. Maybe they'll sign A.J. Pierzynski, just designated for assignment by the Red Sox, and he'll hit for two months.

There's another way to examine this: How have the Cardinals fared in games Molina has started versus games he hasn't started? Here are the team's yearly records since 2008:

Molina starts: 62-54
Molina doesn't start: 24-22

Molina starts: 79-57
Molina doesn't start: 12-14

Molina starts: 72-58
Molina doesn't start: 14-18

Molina starts: 72-60
Molina doesn't start: 18-12

Molina starts: 76-57
Molina doesn't start: 12-17

Molina starts: 83-48
Molina doesn't start: 14-17

Molina starts: 44-38
Molina doesn't start: 6-4

Molina starts: 488-372 (.567 winning percentage)
Molina doesn't start: 100-104 (.490 winning percentage)

There are various factors that could cause this, besides Molina being much better than his backups. Maybe he caught most of Adam Wainwright's starts or Chris Carpenter's starts, for example.

Still, that's a big discrepancy, and you can understand why Molina is so revered in St. Louis. He has started 130-136 games each year since the start of the 2009 season. The difference between a .567 winning percentage and a .490 winning percentage is about 10 wins over 135 games. Of course, Molina isn't missing 135 games. If he misses 10 weeks, we're talking through about a Sept. 18 return, or 60 games on St. Louis' schedule.

The difference between a .567 winning percentage and .490 over 60 games is about 4.5 wins.

Of course, the Cardinals haven't been a .567 team this year, even with Molina. They've played .537 ball when he starts. The difference between that level and .490 is three wins over 60 games.

That sounds about right to me -- anywhere from three to five wins if he misses those 10 weeks. The Cardinals may not be punished quite that much in some of the projection systems, but clearly Molina provides value that doesn't show up in all the numbers those systems can measure, things like calling pitches or pitch framing or just the confidence he gives to pitchers. We know Cruz or call-up Audry Perez won't hit like Molina (Cruz is pretty much the definition of replacement level, with a minus-0.8 WAR in his career). What's more difficult to measure is Molina's impact behind the plate.

It's a huge loss for the Cardinals, and it likely will have a big impact on what should be a tight four-team race in the NL Central. The Brewers lead the division, but many still considered the Cardinals the favorite to win it. I'm not sure that's the case now.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
Quite a week, eh? We've seen a massive "go for it" trade that paid quick dividends for the A's, some unfortunate DL news for the Yanks' Masahiro Tanaka and the Reds' Joey Votto, and a couple of disappointing vets were DFA'd. Although Carlos Beltran's facial fractures off a BP ricochet off his own bat and the screen takes the "freak injury" award this week.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
D-backs' slap-hitter offense decent but unusual: Though good overall, the Diamondbacks offense is among the worst in the majors in walks and "hard-hit average." Ryan P. Morrison draws from a quote from Bill James in wondering whether slap hitters are an inefficiency Arizona could exploit. Follow on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.

Wade Miley is the canary in the coal mine: The D-backs are sellers, but their moves so far have been short-term oriented. Jeff Wiser looks at Miley's value as a trade chip, and makes the case that what the team decides to do with Miley will tell us a lot. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24.

Atlanta Braves: Chop County
Mississippi Braves game report from 6/24/14: Photos and scouting reports on several of the Braves top prospects, including speedy second baseman Jose Peraza. Follow on Twitter: @gondeee.

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Examining Steve Pearce's fantastic, unexpected first half: Matt Kremnitzer dives into the play of Pearce, who has been a major reason why the Orioles currently reside in first place in the AL East. His season has been a wild ride of being designated for assignment as well as delivering outstanding play at the plate. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.

Boston Red Sox: Fire Brand of the American League
It's time for the Red Sox to sell: Alex Skillin writes that the Red Sox need to consider trading players such as Jake Peavy, Jonny Gomes and Koji Uehara to allow the team an opportunity to evaluate its younger talent, like Jackie Bradley Jr, Mookie Betts, and others who could benefit from full-time work. Follow on Twitter: @firebrandal.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Why you should be in favor of the big trade: Joe Aiello talks about the weekend deal that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland and why Cubs fans should be happy with the result. Follow on Twitter: @vftb.

What the Samardzija and Hammel trade means for the rebuild: Noah Eisner breaks down the deal further and looks at what it means going forward for the Cubs' farm system. Follow on Twitter: @Noah_Eisner.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The White Sox are not a bullpen away from being contenders: The White Sox bullpen is terrible, yet the team floats around near .500; would they be contenders if they could get some relievers? James Fegan says no. Follow on Twitter @TheCatbird_Seat.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
The 2014 Colorado Rockies: What went wrong?: Eric Garcia McKinley looks at the Rockies' first-half performance so far and discusses why the Rockies are doing so badly. It turns out that they weren't that good in the first place. Follow on Twitter: @garcia_mckinley.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
The real Brandon McCarthy: Katie Sharp gives Yankee fans on primer on their newest starting pitcher. Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Power-hitting Brett Gardner: Katie examines how Gardner's game has changed and power has become a part of it. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Matt Adams' secret: Better strike-zone discipline?: Since returning from the disabled list, Adams has been beating the shift and pretty much everything else that opposing teams have thrown at him. He credits improved strike-zone discipline. But is that really the case? Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The case for trading Alex Rios: Brandon Land examines the possibility of the Rangers trading Rios to retool for 2015 or 2016. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

Corey Kluber can take another step forward

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
"He's legit," assessed Randy Smith, the Padres' director of player development at the time, following the three-team trade on July 31, 2010, that sent unknown minor league pitcher Corey Kluber eastward to Cleveland. "His slider is a strikeout pitch. He could be a middle guy or at the back end of the rotation."

Kluber, a fourth-round pick out of Stetson University who never cracked either organization's top 20 prospects, is now one of the players on the American League's final player ballot for the All-Star team after going 8-6 with a 2.78 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 125.2 innings so far. He keeps some other rarefied company: Among pitchers with at least 270 innings since the beginning of 2013, Kluber is one of just four to post a strikeout rate of at least 9.0 K's per nine innings and a walk rate below 2.2 BB/9. The others? Arguably the top three starting pitchers on the planet -- Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, who have a combined 11 All-Star appearances and nine top-10 finishes for the Cy Young Award (including three winners).

Or how about this? Only Stephen Strasburg, David Price and the Tribe's budding ace have averaged at least 9.8 K/9 and fewer than 2.2 BB/9 this season. Kluber, by the way, leads the three with his 2.86 ERA and a 2.65 FIP (fielding independent pitching).

The 6-foot-4 right-hander's meteoric rise is something the Indians did not see coming; the club left him off its Opening Day roster last season, only to recall him after a Ubaldo Jimenez implosion sapped the pitching staff.

So how did Kluber go from obscurity to an All-Star-worthy pitcher? Well, as Smith predicted following the trade, a lot of it has to do with his secondary offerings, but it's not just his slider. It's been the development of his third pitch, a lethal curveball, that's pushed him skyward.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the opposition has hit .080/.112/.107 against his curveball while striking out 57.3 percent of the time against the pitch. To put that into perspective, hitters have a .146/.169/.222 triple-slash line against Adam Wainwright’s curve, largely recognized as one of the best in baseball.

The pitch also has the largest amount of horizontal movement of any curveball in the game -- a staggering 10.9 inches (Wainwright's averages 8.8 inches). And then there's the aforementioned slider. Opponents are hitting just .231/.265/.323 against it this season, while swinging and missing 33.7 percent of the time. Of Kluber’s 137 strikeouts, 103 of them have come via the curve or slider.

And here's where it gets a little ... weird.

His fastball, despite averaging 92.9 mph (tied for 21st highest among 95 qualified starters), has been hit to the tune of .345/.397/.518, basically the same line that won Ernie "the Schnozz" Lombardi the NL MVP in 1938. The trend, however, has existed throughout Kluber's career: Hitters have a .348/.405/.542 triple-slash line against his fastball since his debut in 2011.

As for the problem, it appears he's rather predictable against southpaws, who have hit .374 against Kluber's fastball in 2014 with 16 extra-base hits in 107 at-bats. Here are his fastballs against left-handed batters:

Corey Kluber heat map ESPN Stats & Info

The overwhelming majority of Kluber's fastballs to left-handers have been low and away, or away and off the plate. The difference in production is quite noticeable when he does pitch inside, however: Left-handers are hitting .189/.338/.358 against him on inside fastballs since 2013.

Kluber's terrific numbers -- 125.2 IP, 3.4 fWAR, 26.6 percent K rate and 5.8 percent walk rate -- earned him consideration for the All-Star Game. He's been one of the best pitchers in the league. The question: Would he be even better if he were challenging left-handers more on the inner part of the plate? That's the unknown. A lot of pitchers have made a good living by living on the outside corner to lefties, so you can't automatically fault that approach. Maybe Kluber isn't comfortable pitching inside. Maybe his fastball lacks the proper deception and late movement.

Pitching inside more is something to consider though -- and a scary thought for opponents that Kluber has room for improvement.

Joseph Werner writes for the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" blog on the Indians.

Pirates' Harrison has proven he’s legit

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
Josh HarrisonAP Photo/Keith SrakocicJosh Harrison has made a lot of folks happy this season and his reward is an All-Star appearance.

You may think that Pittsburgh Pirates infielder/outfielder Josh Harrison is on the All-Star team simply because of his versatility in the field.

But there's a pretty good case to be made that Harrison belongs on merit regardless of where he plays. As Dejan Kovacevic wrote in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last week, Harrison is the kind of player that everyone can like, and that's particularly true if you're into advanced statistics.

Harrison is going to play more this season than any other season in his career, and that's because both the numbers and the eye test show that he can do just about everything well. He has been worth 2.2 Wins Above Replacement this season. The Pirates are 30-21 when he starts and 17-23 when he doesn't.

He can hit
"Every at-bat is different, because of the count, the number of outs and the pitcher, but nothing really changes for you," Harrison said by phone on Wednesday. "Your objective is to have a good at-bat."

And what's a good at-bat for Harrison?

"Hard contact," he said.

Harrison has had a lot of that this season. ESPN uses a service that reviews video of every at-bat and rates balls as hard-hit, medium-hit and soft-hit based on velocity, distance and sweet-spot contact.

Harrison ranks 15th in the major leagues in the percentage of at-bats that have ended with hard-hit contact (22.5 percent). That's ahead of players like Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton and not far behind teammate Andrew McCutchen.

It's not the first time Harrison has put up good hard-hit numbers. His hard-hit rate was 22 percent two seasons ago in a year when good results didn't come with the hard-hit balls (a .233 batting average).

"Maybe some of the people [who chart that] are surprised, because they hadn't seen me hit before," Harrison said. "But this is what I've been doing all my life. I've always had a pretty good idea of what I want to hit."

Harrison is hitting .391 (18-for-46) with runners in scoring position, and has gotten his share of clutch hits (including a recent walk-off double against the New York Mets). He's also hitting .382 the second and third times he faces a starting pitcher (34-for-89), perhaps indicative that he's winning the battle of adjustments.

"The more familiar you are with a guy, the more you see his arm angle and see his pitches, the higher the probability of hitting the ball harder," he said.

Harrison doesn't profess to have a thinking-intensive approach, but it's clear he knows what he’s doing. The image below shows he covers both halves of the plate well:

Josh Harrison heat mapESPN Stats & Information

"He trusts himself, he trusts his ability and he stays committed to his plan," said Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson.

He can field
That Harrison ranks among the top 20 players in Defensive Runs Saved is amazing, considering he hasn't made more than 24 starts at any one position.

But he's been good everywhere he's played, combining for nine Defensive Runs Saved.

"I feel like I've always been able to play defense," Harrison said. "It's just a matter of getting the opportunity. I feel comfortable everywhere except pitcher and catcher." (When reminded that he did pitch once in a mop-up role, he added, "I don't know if 72 miles per hour is gonna cut it.")

The Pirates are an active team as far as defensive positioning is concerned. But they give their players leeway to adjust.

"At the end of the day, our job is to get to the ball," Harrison said. "They say if you see a guy doing something, feel free to move a step or two. I do that a lot. I wouldn’t say it's thinking. It's trusting my instincts."

He can run
The play you most likely know Harrison for is him eluding a rundown with what he calls his "stop, drop and roll" move.

"I have two older brothers who I was always trying to escape from, growing up," Harrison said with a laugh. "I'm pretty sure at one point [when I was little], I tried to blackmail them with 'I'm gonna tell mom and dad that you wouldn't let me play.' They'd chase me and I'd try to escape."

That aside, Harrison gets the job done on the basepaths. He's 9-for-12 on steal attempts and has scored from first base five times in six opportunities in which he was on base when a double was hit.

The package
A scout who has followed Harrison’s entire pro career (which started as a sixth-round pick by the Cubs out of the University of Cincinnati) offered this take: "Josh has some punch in his bat, good plate coverage for a smaller guy and is a good bad-ball hitter, which is very tough to achieve at the major league level. He has the athleticism to play all over. But a lot of guys possess those physical skills. He's got the plus makeup, where it doesn't faze him where he's playing in the field, and whether he's coming off the bench or starting. He brings the same great energy regardless."

Sounds All-Star worthy to me.

The San Francisco Giants needed this one. Matt Cain certainly needed it. The Giants, mired in a bad stretch that had seen them go 7-20 since June 9 and slide from a 9.5-game lead in the NL West to a one-game deficit, had already lost the first two games of a three-game series to Bay Area rival Oakland. Cain entered with a 1-7 record and 4.27 ERA in 14 starts.

The Giants were floundering. Cain is being paid $20 million to do a whole lot better than 1-7.

Even if we all know pitcher wins don't always tell the whole story, that isn't supposed to be the record of a $20 million pitcher. So it was a big game, at least as big as a game in early July can be considered.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cain
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsIt hasn't been Matt Cain's year, but could he change that in the second half?
Cain -- who knows a thing or two about big-game performances -- was solid, certainly not spectacular. He worked through 105 pitches in six innings, gave up five hits and two runs, including a long home run to Stephen Vogt in the fourth inning. His biggest pitch was probably his final one. Leading 3-2, having just given up an RBI single, he faced All-Star catcher Derek Norris with two runners on. He got ahead with a curveball and threw the signature Matt Cain: A 92 mph two-seamer with late action. Norris grounded out to shortstop.

The Giants went on to win 5-2, moved back into a first-place tie with the Dodgers and Cain got the W, his first since May 15. After the game, Hunter Pence admitted it was "a pretty intense series."

OK. Let's dig into some big-picture questions for the Giants.

1. How good are the Giants? Not as good as their 42-21 start and not as bad as they've been the past month. They're probably about where they should be, on pace for 89 wins. That's about where most people had them projected before the season.

2. Sure, but they lost Angel Pagan on June 15. Right about when the slide started. No coincidence, right? His injury has hurt but one guy doesn't make a lineup. Pagan was having a nice season -- .307/.356/.411 -- but that's not exactly Willie Mays. It is true, however, that Giants center fielders have been a disaster since Pagan went down, hitting .145/.193/.205 since June 15 entering Wednesday's game.

A bigger factor for the offense has been the decline in home runs. Through June 8, they were second in the National League and fourth in the majors with 69 home runs, a great pace for a team that was next-to-last in home runs in the NL in 2013 and last in 2012.

Since June 9, however, the Giants have hit 14 home runs -- the lowest total in the majors. Pence homered on Wednesday. They need more of that.

3. OK, what's been wrong with Cain? I'm not sure anything is wrong. I've been going through his numbers, slicing and dicing and digging deep and there's nothing obvious that explains why he had a 2.93 ERA from 2009 through 2012 and 4.06 the past two seasons. His fastball velocity is the same. Things like swing-and-miss rate and strike percentage and batting average on balls in play are all stable.

But his walk rate is up slightly, especially this year, and he's given up a few more home runs (his home run per fly ball rate is up, although his actual rate of fly balls has been lower the past two seasons than before). That's enough to raise that ERA just a bit.

Why that's happening, I'm not sure. Maybe he's falling behind a little more often. Early last season, he was certainly grooving a few many pitches. This year, he has missed a few starts and twice landed on the disabled list -- first, with a cut on his right index finger suffered while cutting a sandwich and then a hamstring pull. So that could have had an effect. Overall, however, I see no reason why Cain can't be better the rest of the season.

4. What about the rest of the rotation? That's why Cain really needs to step it up. The rotation was bad last year and even this year it's not as good as its reputation. Look, Madison Bumgarner is a terrific pitcher, but he's not Clayton Kershaw and I'd be hard-pressed to say he's better than Zack Greinke. Tim Lincecum is pretty good against the Padres and pretty good at home, but has a 5.82 ERA on the road. Tim Hudson was the savior the first two months and Ryan Vogelsong has been much better than last season. Entering Wednesday, the Giants ranked 21st in starters' WAR via FanGraphs.

5. Didn't you say Brandon Belt could contend for the batting title? Next question.

6. What do they need to do to stay with the Dodgers? Well, if Pagan's back issue is a long-term problem, they'll need to address center field. Without Marco Scutaro, second base has been a problem, with rookie Joe Panik currently being given the opportunity. You know Brian Sabean will make a move; he always does, one of the few GMs that is always willing to trade his prospects for that veteran spare part. Second base is one position that will potentially be easiest to fill -- guys like Aaron Hill, Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and Gordon Beckham could be available.

7. The bullpen ... Yes, they're fifth in the majors in bullpen ERA overall... but they're 28th since June 9. Their true value is probably somewhere between those two rankings. Obviously, Sergio Romo's gopherball issues have been a big problem, leading to his demotion from closer and I'd worry about the ages here -- their top six relievers are all older than 30 -- but the pen should OK moving forward.

8. Last one. What's the best news with the Giants? They play in the NL West.

On June 10, the Tampa Bay Rays lost 1-0 to the Cardinals, their third straight game getting shut out. They dropped to 24-42, the worst record in baseball, 15 games out of first place in the AL East.

The David Price trade rumors heated up. The Rays were going nowhere. Price is a free agent after 2015 and the Rays won't be able to afford him. They would obviously trade him in the midst of this lost season.

Then the Rays started playing better, going 18-9 entering Wednesday night and, as the Blue Jays collapsed, found themselves nine games back of the Orioles. Just close enough that trading Price can't be assumed as a foregone conclusion if the Rays continue to shrink that deficit before the July 31 trade deadline. Hey, the Rays are known for their hot stretches of play -- they went 21-5 last July, for example -- and this is franchise that was caught the Red Sox for the wild card back in 2011 after being 8.5 games behind in September.

So the eternally optimistic Joe Maddon keeps saying the Rays aren't out of it. That he believes in his team. The odds are slim and the Rays know this. Entering Wednesday, FanGraphs' playoff odds gave the Rays a 3.1 percent chance of winning the division and 4.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. Clay Davenport's site gave the Rays a 7 percent chance of winning the division and 14 percent chance of making the playoffs.

The Rays have run their numbers. Maybe their own internal odds are more optimistic or more pessimistic. But I would guess the Rays have a number on where they have to be on July 31: Maybe it's five games back or six or seven. If they're at that number, they keep Price; if they're not there, they trade him.

So one win could be huge. Not just for the Rays, but the rest of baseball, or at least the rest of baseball interested in acquiring Price.

The Orioles had already lost when the Rays took a 4-2 lead into the ninth inning against Kansas City, three outs from trimming that lead to eight games. Alex Cobb had pitched 6 2/3 innings and Maddon then burned through Grant Balfour, Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger to get the next four outs. Maddon has been a little flexible with his bullpen of late. McGee had gotten the last three saves, but Boxberger and Balfour also have a save this month.

Anyway, McGee had thrown 26 pitches on Tuesday so he was pulled in the eighth after giving up two hits. Boxberger threw 10 pitches to get out of the inning. Maddon went to Joel Peralta for the save. But he gave up a single and a one-out walk to Eric Hosmer, and Maddon turned to a pitcher named Kirby Yates, a 27-year-old right-hander with 10 appearances in the majors.

I know nothing about Kirby Yates. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He'd been the closer the past two years at Triple-A Durham and turned himself into a prospect with some dominating numbers: He'd allowed one run in 25 innings there this year and had pitched well enough in his 10 games with the Rays, 15 strikeouts and three walks. Maddon had used him as mop-up guy; only one of his appearances had come in anything resembling a close game.

But he here was trying to get his first career save. As I said, Maddon is an optimist. He'll trust anyone on his 25-man roster. He gave the ball to Yates to face All-Star catcher Salvador Perez. Yates threw an 0-1, 91 mph four-seam fastball that Perez lofted into the left-field corner and just over the glove of a leaping Brandon Guyer and just over the wall for a three-run homer. Royals win 5-4. Big win for Kansas City.

So here's my point: One win could be the deciding factor on what the Rays decide to do on July 31. The Rays are an organization that studies the numbers. The numbers -- the standings and the playoff odds -- will determine their decision.

It's possible that Salvador Perez just changed the entire David Price trade dynamic. Which in turn could influence the entire season, depending on where Price goes and what he does.

Keep that in mind -- and remember Kirby Yates -- if Price is pitching for the Cardinals or the Dodgers or some other team in October.
Longtime reader/chatter Tarek asked the following question in Tuesday's chat: How many of this year's All-Stars will have a better career than Derek Jeter?

Now, that's a bit of a layered question when you start factoring in things like World Series titles and legacy, two areas where it's difficult to trump Jeter. So let's keep it simple: How many will finish with a higher career Wins Above Replacement than Jeter?

Jeter's current career WAR, via, is 72.1. That's fourth among active players, behind Alex Rodriguez (116.0), Albert Pujols (95.0) and Adrian Beltre (74.0).

Does Beltre, who made this year's All-Star Game, ranking so high surprise you? He's not really considered a slam-dunk Hall of Famer right now, in part because a large percentage of that value is tied into his defense. His career batting line has a much different arc than Jeter's:

Beltre: .284/.335/.480
Jeter: .311/.379/.443

Jeter has the better on-base percentage but Beltre has more power. Who has been the more valuable hitter? Beltre has created an estimated 1,410 runs in 9,704 career plate appearances -- 5.6 runs per 27 outs. Jeter has created 1,887 runs in 12,315 PAs -- 6.3 runs per 27 outs. Those are not park-adjusted figures; Beltre spent a large portion of his career in Dodger Stadium and Safeco Field, two pitcher's parks, so that draws him a little closer. But getting on base is more important than slugging and B-R estimates Jeter has been 362 runs better than the average hitter while Beltre has been 193.

But Beltre makes up for that with his good fielding and Jeter's poor fielding. The fielding metrics Baseball-Reference uses has Beltre at 183 runs above average on defense and Jeter at 240 runs below average. So that's how Beltre ends up higher than Jeter in career WAR.

Here are the five remaining 2014 All-Stars with the highest career WAR:

Chase Utley: 60.8
Mark Buehrle: 57.9
Miguel Cabrera: 57.6
Robinson Cano: 48.1
Felix Hernandez: 42.9

A quick and dirty way to see how these guys compare to Jeter is to check his career WAR when he was their age.


Which of this year's All-Stars will end up with the highest career WAR?


Discuss (Total votes: 994)

Utley (age-35 season) -- Jeter was at 67.3
Utley rates so well due to more high-peak seasons than Jeter. He was arguably the second-best all-around player in the game from 2005 through 2009 when he averaged 7.9 WAR per season (only Pujols was better). Even while missing time with injuries in recent seasons, Utley has reached at least 3.0 WAR the past three seasons and is already at 2.9 this year. So he's behind Jeter but Jeter didn't do much after turning 36. Could be close.

Buehrle (age-35 season) -- Jeter was 67.3
He's headed for his 14th consecutive season of 200-plus innings. He's never been a big star but he's still accumulating value and with his style of pitching could easily remain effective until 40. Can he pile up 16 more WAR before he's done? He was probably over his head in the first half -- 4.0 WAR compared to 2.1 all of 2013 -- so I say he comes up short.

Cabrera (age-31 season) -- Jeter was at 48.4
Even though he doesn't earn much value with his defense or position, Cabrera is well ahead of Jeter at the same age. His offensive numbers are down from the past few seasons but he's still hitting .312, leading the league with 32 doubles and has been worth 3.0 WAR. He should soar past Jeter and approach at least 80 career WAR.

Cano (age-31 season) -- Jeter was at 48.4
So these two are just about dead even at the same age, although Cano will move ahead by the end of the season. Jeter had two of his better seasons at 32 (5.5 WAR) and 35 (6.5). With his decline in power so far, Cano is at 2.9 WAR, well below the 7.4 he averaged the previous four seasons. He's been one of the most durable players in the game (as was Jeter until his injury in the 2012 playoffs). Yankees fan will never put Cano on the same pedestal as Jeter -- in part because of Cano's dismal .222 postseason average -- but through the same age it's hard to argue he hasn't been as valuable in the regular season.

Hernandez (age-28 season) -- Jeter was at 36.8
King Felix is ahead of Jeter's pace. Of course, most pitchers don't remain as durable as Buehrle. Hernandez is in the midst of his best season yet and there's no reason he won't stay dominant for many more years if his elbow and shoulder remain intact.

What about the younger guys? Well, Mike Trout only needs five more 10-win seasons to pass The Captain.
I once heard John Mozeliak, the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, say that perhaps the most important thing an organization can do is to properly evaluate its own talent.

The Cardinals have done this extraordinarily well in recent seasons. Back in 2011, they were comfortable trading Colby Rasmus because they believed Jon Jay could hold down center field defensively and hit enough to justify a regular spot in the lineup. They were right, they got hot in October and won the World Series. They let Albert Pujols walk as a free agent, believing in Allen Craig. He drove in over 90 runs each of the past two seasons. Last year, they tried the unorthodox move of switching Matt Carpenter from third base to second base, trusting in his work ethic and that his athleticism was better than advertised. It worked out perfectly, and the Cardinals reached another World Series. They trusted rookies Michael Wacha in the rotation and Carlos Martinez for late-inning relief work.

The Cardinals are reaching a similar crossroads right now. Injuries to Wacha and Jaime Garcia and Shelby Miller's struggles have left the rotation a little thin behind Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright and workhorse Lance Lynn. They've been front-runners in the David Price trade rumors, which of course is different than being front-runners to actually acquire him.

My ESPN colleague Jim Bowden just proposed a blockbuster trade idea: The Cardinals acquire Price, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and Joel Peralta from the Tampa Bay Rays for Martinez, Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong and Peter Bourjos.

We can debate the merits of that deal (Jim suggested St. Louis would only do it contingent upon Price signing an extension), but even if such a trade discussion were to happen, the key element is how the Cardinals view Martinez, Taveras and Wong. Are these three young players -- two rookies and Martinez, who barely exceeded his rookie eligibility last season -- building blocks for the next generation of Cardinals teams?

It all comes down to proper evaluation. The core of the Cardinals, while not necessarily old, is getting older. Matt Holliday is 34 but is headed to the worst season of his career, hitting .260 with five home runs; Yadier Molina turns 32 next week and has a lot of mileage behind the plate; Craig turns 30 in a few days and is having a bad season; shortstop Jhonny Peralta is 32.

That's an offensive group that could be ripe for collapse in the near future; in fact, it hasn't been good this year as is. The Cardinals are 14th in the National League in runs per game and, despite walk-off home runs the past two days, last in the league in home runs. Even the Padres have more power.

So while there is concern about the rotation, isn't the offense the bigger problem? That's certainly why Jim suggested a huge deal involving Zobrist and Jennings, but those two aren't impact players like Price and wouldn't drive the offense back to the heights of 2013.

The Cardinals' best chances for improving in the second half isn't in making a big trade but simply getting better production from the guys they already have. Holliday and Molina need to hit better, and Craig and Wong need to hit a lot better. If those guys don't improve, Price isn't going to carry this team to the top. If those guys start hitting, the Cardinals have a good chance of winning the division without trading their young (and inexpensive) players.

But that circles back to evaluation. If the offensive core is starting to age, the Cardinals will need a new wave of talent. Matt Adams continues to make his mark at first base, although I still don't like the 56-to-8 strikeout/walk ratio. If Mozeliak and company believe Taveras will live up to his hype and Wong will develop into a solid contributor, then the Cardinals need to keep those guys to supplement the aging veterans.

To me, the Cardinals are in a different position than the Oakland Athletics. Billy Beane doesn't know when the A's will be this good again; that gave him added incentive to make the "all-in" trade for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel while trading away a potential star in Addison Russell. But the Cardinals are about consistent excellence. Their recent World Series titles in 2006 and 2011 also give the club a little more leeway, less need to risk the future for the present. Their market and payrolls allows them to add free agents, like Peralta, that the A's can't afford.

Plus, with Joe Kelly expected to be activated on Friday, the rotation will get another solid starter back. A Wainwright/Lynn/Kelly/Martinez/Miller group is still pretty good, and that doesn't include Wacha, who remains an uncertainty with his shoulder (he hasn't been cleared to start throwing yet).

Then there's this: The Cardinals have 13 games remaining with the Brewers.

Yes, David Price would make the Cardinals better. But I think their smartest solution is patience and relying on the guys they have already. There is enough talent already here to win the division.
An early theme of the 2014 season was parity: Through the first two months, just about every team could still sell themselves on a potential playoff chase. But the last month changed all that, especially in the National League, which has sorted itself into contenders and bad teams. A lot of bad teams.

The two groups:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, there's no need to panic just yet if you're a New York Yankees fan. I mean, even Bob Gibson allowed five runs in a game two times and six runs once back in 1968, the year that he posted a 1.12 ERA. Sandy Koufax won 27 games with a 1.73 ERA in 1966 but he allowed six runs in two innings to the lowly Mets in one start that year.

So great pitchers do have bad games.

But Masahiro Tanaka has looked a little less spectacular his past couple outings. On Tuesday, the Cleveland Indians got him for 10 hits and five runs, including two home runs, in 6 2/3 innings. The start before this one, against the Minnesota Twins, he allowed four runs and nine hits in seven innings with a season-low three strikeouts.

[+] EnlargeMasahiro Tanaka
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsIf Masahiro Tanaka is a mere mortal, what does that make the Yankees?
It's probably just two mediocre starts in the middle of a great season, but this is New York we're talking about so we have to examine pitch data, analyze results and maybe question the meaning of life ... or at least ask: Is the league figuring out Tanaka?

And that is an important question for an obvious reason. The Yankees having been riding Tanaka all season long. Even after Tuesday's loss, they're 13-5 in games he starts and seven games under .500 when he doesn't start. If the Yankees are going to climb out of mediocrity they need Tanaka to keep pitching like the Cy Young candidate he has been and nothing less.

Cleveland's 10 hits in their 5-3 victory included five ground balls, three line drives, and line-drive home runs by Michael Brantley line-drive home run and Nick Swisher. To be fair, not everything was hit hard and Tanaka's other numbers lined up with his season totals. For example, he had a swing-and-miss rate of 28.6 percent, which is right at his season total of 29 percent. The Indians swung at 50 percent of his offerings, right at his season rate of 51 percent.

Digging deeper, however, we see that although he walked just one batter he had his third-worst strike rate (64.7 percent) and his lowest rate of pitches that were actually in the strike zone (36.4 percent compared to a season rate of 44.6 percent).

Those are a lot of numbers, but one thing in particular interests me. I had noticed the other day that hitters have been effective against Tanaka's fastball. For the season, they're hitting .318/.369/.551 in plate appearances ending in his fastball; of 91 qualified starters that's the 84th highest slugging percentage allowed on fastballs, and he has allowed 11 home runs on fastballs. Only five starters have allowed more -- Bartolo Colon, Chris Young, Wade Miley, Wei-Yin Chen and Marco Estrada. Not exactly the cream of the crop there.

Compare those 11 home runs to Felix Hernandez, who will likely start the All-Star Game now over Tanaka since Tanaka will pitch Sunday and thus be ineligible to pitch: Felix has thrown 893 fastballs and hasn't allowed a home run on any of them.

That's all to get to this point: Tanaka's fastball has been hittable. Which gets to the second point: Are hitters going to adjust and start attacking Tanaka earlier in the count, trying to avoid that deadly two-strike splitter? It does appear that is already starting to happen. Tanaka's lowest average pitches per plate appearance have come in his past two starts, an indicator that batters are swinging earlier in the count.

Interestingly, both home runs on Tuesday came while Tanaka was ahead in the count: Swisher hit a 1-2 slider in the sixth inning and Brantley connected on an 0-1 fastball in the seventh.

All of this suggests that the next step would be for Tanaka to make some adjustments. He appeared to do this against Cleveland, as he threw his lowest percentage of fastballs in any start, 31.3 percent compared to his season average of 43.6 percent. He also threw his highest percentage of cutters at 14.1 percent, way above his season average of 3.4 percent.

Remember, as our ESPN colleague Curt Schilling likes to point out, the key to good pitching is all about fastball command. Get ahead with the fastball and then you can put hitters away with your off-speed pitches. Tanaka's fastball is vulnerable to the long ball, hitters are apparently starting to look for it earlier in the count, so he threw more cutters. This is the cat-and-mouse game at the heart of baseball.

The other issue to keep in mind with Tanaka: In Japan, he basically pitched once a week rather than once every five days. Here's his 2013 game log. He didn't start once all season on four days' rest and usually had six days between starts, so he has to adjust to a different kind of schedule and workload.

Ultimately, I think he will. His style of pitching, including the splitter, is similar to Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, who has excelled since joining the Mariners' rotation in July of 2012. Tanaka seemed to show Tuesday that he understands the importance of changing up his pattern a bit. That's part of what makes guys like Hernandez or Adam Wainwright so effective. Hitters expect Hernandez's changeup with two strikes, but there are games in which he'll focus on the fastball more with two strikes. Wainwright threw his season-high percentage of curveballs in his most recent start; the outing before he threw a season-high percentage of fastballs. Cat and mouse.

As for the Yankees, it's pretty clear why they need Tanaka to have a monster season. They're not a very good team without him. Brian McCann has been a disaster as a free-agent signing, which shouldn't have been that big of a surprise given his decline in recent seasons. Carlos Beltran has been awful but this is what can happen to 37-year-olds. Same with the recently departed Alfonso Soriano. There is no easy solution to fixing this offense.

Which puts a huge amount of importance on Tanaka. Maybe he's not quite the pitcher who had a 1.99 ERA through June 17, but he has the stuff to post a sub-3.00 ERA. So I'm just reading this as a blip; he'll be fine.

But I can't say that about the rest of the team. For the second straight season -- and the first time since 1992-1993 -- the Yankees will miss the playoffs.
Here's the link to Tuesday's chat wrap. Among the items of discussion: Best rotation to never win the World Series. Sounds like a future blog post!

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers play an intriguing two-game series Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit, with Hyun-Jin Ryu versus Justin Verlander on Tuesday and Zack Greinke versus Max Scherzer on Wednesday afternoon. The clubs split a two-game series in the second week of the season, with both games going 10 innings.

Is this a World Series preview? Well, it obviously has World Series potential. Based on the playoff odds from FanGraphs that we use at, however, neither team is quite the favorite in its league to advance to the World Series.

American League odds to advance to the World Series:


Which team is more likely to reach the World Series?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,037)

A's: 28.0 percent
Tigers: 25.2 percent
Angels: 15.6 percent
Orioles: 8.2 percent
Blue Jays: 6.6 percent

National League odds to advance to the World Series:

Nationals: 28.4 percent
Dodgers: 24.8 percent
Giants: 11.0 percent
Braves: 10.6 percent
Cardinals: 8.8 percent

Those odds factor in what has happened so far, projected results from the current roster, the remaining schedule, injuries and so on. The additions of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel certainly make the A's stronger on paper. One thing that helps the Tigers' odds is that they are projected as an easy winner in the AL Central; their 84.0 percent odds of winning the division is the highest of any of the six divisions. Win the division and miss the wild-card game and your odds of reaching the World Series increase.

The belief in the Dodgers and Tigers rests on the strength of their rotations. But does either team really have the best rotation in its league? The Dodgers' rotation is fifth in the NL in runs allowed per nine innings -- although the top seven staffs are bunched between 3.47 and 3.67 runs per nine innings. In terms of FanGraphs WAR, the Dodgers are also fifth. Meanwhile, the Detroit rotation has been nowhere near as dominant as last year, when it recorded the highest WAR for a rotation in the past decade. The Tigers have allowed 4.35 runs per nine -- below the AL average of 4.26. The starters do, however, rank first in FanGraphs WAR.

It's certainly not decisive that either team has the best rotation in its league.

Even if that were the case, is that any kind of playoff guarantee? Hardly. I looked back at the past 10 years and checked the team rotation leaders in FanGraphs WAR and fewest runs allowed per nine innings in each league. This gave us 38 staffs, as the leaders in those categories usually didn't match up.

Three of those teams won the World Series -- the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox and the 2005 White Sox. Four others reached the World Series. Eighteen missed the playoffs altogether. So of the 20 teams that did make the playoffs, seven reached the World Series (35 percent). Including the wild-card teams of the past two years, 84 teams have made the playoffs in the past 10 years, so the random odds of reaching the World Series is basically 1 in 4. So having the best rotation would appear to slightly improve a team's chances of making the World Series (of course, the differences between best and second-best and third-best are often minimal).

So, Dodgers-Tigers? If I had to pick today, I'll stick with the Dodgers, my preseason pick. I would change from the Rays to the A's in the AL. What do you think?

Here are the complete results of the past 10 years:

AL WAR: Tigers (25.3) -- Lost ALCS
NL WAR: Dodgers (13.9) -- Lost NLCS
AL R/9: Royals (3.71) -- Missed playoffs
NL R/9: Braves (3.38) -- Lost NLDS

AL WAR: Tigers (20.6) -- Lost World Series
NL WAR: Nationals (16.7) -- Lost NLDS
AL R/9: Rays (3.56) -- Missed playoffs
NL R/9: Reds (3.63) -- Lost NLDS

AL WAR: White Sox (19.7) -- Missed playoffs
NL WAR: Phillies (24.7) -- Lost NLDS
AL R/9: Rays (3.79) -- Lost ALDS
NL R/9: Phillies

AL WAR: Red Sox (18.5) -- Missed playoffs
NL WAR: Rockies (19.4) -- Missed playoffs
AL R/9: A's (3.86) -- Missed playoffs
NL R/9: Padres (3.59) -- Missed playoffs

AL WAR: Red Sox (18.8) -- Lost ALDS
NL WAR: Rockies (17.9) -- Lost NLDS
AL R/9: Mariners (4.27) -- Missed playoffs
NL R/9: Giants/Dodgers (3.77 ) -- Missed playoffs/Lost NLCS

AL WAR: Blue Jays (20.3) -- Missed playoffs
NL WAR: Diamondbacks (19.9) -- Missed playoffs
AL R/9: Blue Jays (3.77)
NL R/9: Dodgers (4.00) -- Lost NLCS

AL WAR: Red Sox (19.0) -- Won World Series
NL WAR: Giants (13.0) -- Missed playoffs
AL R/9: Red Sox (4.06)
NL R/9: Padres (4.09) -- Missed playoffs

AL WAR: Angels (18.2) -- Missed playoffs
NL WAR: Rockies (16.0) -- Missed playoffs
AL R/9: Tigers (4.17) -- Lost World Series
NL R/9: Padres (4.19) -- Lost NLDS

AL WAR: White Sox (18.8) -- Won World Series
NL WAR: Marlins (17.4) -- Missed playoffs
AL R/9: Indians (3.96) -- Missed playoffs
NL R/9: Astros (3.74) -- Lost World Series

AL WAR: Red Sox (22.3) -- Won World Series
NL WAR: Cubs (17.2) -- Missed playoffs
AL R/9: Twins (4.41) -- Lost ALDS
NL R/9: Cardinals (4.07) -- Lost World Series

It's the award-winning Rapid Fire! Today, Eric and I discuss the Angels' rotation, more replay confusion, Jose Altuve's chances of winning the batting, Manny Machado and the Orioles and whether Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young Award and more!

This is the lineup the Baltimore Orioles dreamed about back in spring training: Manny Machado spraying hits all over the field, Chris Davis hitting big bombs, J.J. Hardy providing power from shortstop.

And of course, Nelson Cruz doing Nelson Cruz types of things. You know: .294 average, 28 home runs, 73 RBIs. That's a pretty typical Cruz season; maybe a little high with the batting average since he has hit between .260 and .266 each of the past three seasons, but sometimes you just have one of those seasons when the bloopers fall and the ground balls have eyes.

Yep, a pretty typical Cruz kind of season. Except the Orioles have played 89 games and Cruz is on pace for 51 home runs and 133 RBIs. He played a big part in the Orioles' 8-2 win over the Nationals in 11 innings on Monday. His two-run home run in the fourth inning off Stephen Strasburg provided the team's offense until a six-run explosion in the 11th -- a rally Cruz started with a broken-bat infield single.

[+] EnlargeNelson Cruz
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesNelson Cruz ripped his 28th homer for the Orioles, but where would they be if he'd signed elsewhere?
Cruz homered off a 1-0 95 mph fastball from Strasburg, waist-high and too much near the middle of the plate, the kind of pitch Cruz hasn't been missing this season. It's also the kind of pitch that has gotten Strasburg into trouble all season. Despite his premium velocity, his fastball has been one of the least effective in the majors, as opponents are hitting .328/.371/.510 against it. Fall behind Cruz, and he loves to sit on those heaters -- 19 of his 28 home runs have come off fastballs.

You know, back in the old days -- like, I don't know, five years ago -- Cruz would probably be the AL MVP favorite right now. For decades, the guy who led the league in RBIs was usually on the short list for MVP candidates. If you also led the league in home runs (Cruz leads in both) and your team made the playoffs or were close to making it, you were pretty much a lock to win the award. See: Ryan Howard, Juan Gonzalez, George Bell and so on. Things like defense and position didn't really matter.

(We could bring up Mike Trout here, but Miguel Cabrera was a better candidate than guys such as Gonzalez and Bell, but I digress).

We all know Trout is the best all-around player in the American League and that Cruz's WAR doesn't compare -- entering Monday, Trout led Cruz in bWAR 5.0 to 2.7 and in fWAR 5.5 to 2.5 -- but it is fair to ask where the Orioles would be without Cruz.

Machado had five hits on Monday, including a double and home run, but that raised his season line to only .261/.308/.404. Davis got over .200 with his go-ahead home run that followed Cruz's infield single. Hardy's tacked-on home run in the 11th was just his third of the year, after averaging 26 the past three seasons. Chris Tillman pitched well on Monday, but he and Ubaldo Jimenez have generally been awful.

Despite that, the Orioles are 49-40 -- 14-4 in their past 18 games -- and they're in first place. Cruz has helped overshadow Machado's immaturity, Davis' struggles and the issues in the rotation.

I'm not actually advocating Cruz as AL MVP. It's clearly Trout. But Cruz has been the big bat the Orioles have needed.

* * * *

One thing sabermetricians haven't been able to quantify: How much of a team's success in a season is dumb luck?

I mean, there are ways to quantify it, but I'm getting at things like the Cruz signing or Steve Pearce. The Orioles basically lucked into Cruz. They got him because he didn't get the free-agent money he wanted, teams decided to spend their money on players other than Cruz, so the Orioles were kind of the last team standing with a little extra cash. They signed Cruz on Feb. 24, after spring training had already started.

Then there's Pearce, who is hitting .324/.379/.578 in a part-time role. In terms of bWAR, he actually has been the Orioles' second-most valuable player -- behind Adam Jones and ahead of Cruz. That's a hard sell, but there's no doubt he has been huge.

And there's luck involved there as well. Pearce is a journeyman who has bounced around Triple-A and the majors for several years. The O's had him in 2012, and waived him during the season. They brought him back later that season and he came off the bench last year. He opened the season with Baltimore but was released on April 27, having played just three games. Then Davis got injured, Pearce was re-signed and he's been on fire ever since.

Dumb luck? I'd say so. Or some element of it.

Nobody could have expected Cruz to put up numbers like he has or Pearce to hit like this. Yes, it remains to be seen whether both players can keep this up, but Monday's game showcases why the Orioles don't have to rely just on those two moving forward: There's talent in this lineup ready to break out. I think Machado and Davis will have better second halves, and that's why the AL East is the Orioles' division to lose.