SweetSpot: Adrian Gonzalez

Throughout July, we're presenting 30 deals in 30 days: the best trade-deadline deal ever made by each team. We wrap up with the NL West.

THE TEAM: San Diego Padres

THE YEAR: 1993

THE SITUATION: The Padres were in the middle of a fire sale thanks to majority owner Tom Werner's slash-and-burn policy after the Padres had posted winning seasons in 1991 and 1992 (finishing in third place both years) but apparently not returning enough of profit to please the 14 co-owners. Craig Lefferts was traded near the end of the 1992 season, Tony Fernandez was traded in the offseason, Benito Santiago and Randy Myers departed as free agents and in June of 1993, rising star Gary Sheffield was traded to the Marlins, a deal that at least produced long-time closer Trevor Hoffman. On July 18, the Padres traded Fred McGriff to the Braves for three prospects who didn't pan out.

The Padres still had veteran pitchers Bruce Hurst (who had made just two starts but had won 14 games in 1992) and Greg Harris (10-9, 3.67 ERA) available and the expansion Colorado Rockies were looking for some pitching help for the future (they were 30 games out at the time of the trade).



THE TRADE: The Padres traded Hurst and Harris for pitchers Andy Ashby and Doug Bochtler and catcher Brad Ausmus.

THE AFTERMATH: Ashby, who the Rockies had acquired from the Phillies in the expansion draft, would win 70 games for San Diego, helping the Padres to division titles in 1996 (9-5, 3.23 ERA) and 1998 (17-9, 3.34 ERA) and a World Series trip in '98. The ripple effect of Ashby has continued to help the Padres to this day, however. In 2000, Ashby was traded to the Phillies in a deal that brought Adam Eaton. Eaton was later dealt to the Rangers in a deal that brought over Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young. Ashby, Bochtler, Ausmus, Eaton, Gonzalez and Young would combine to earn 59.6 WAR for the Padres -- a figure that will continue to grow if the players acquired for Gonzalez ever do anything.

Not bad considering Hurst would win just two more games in his career (for the Rangers, not the Rockies) and Harris just four (he would go 4-20 with a 6.60 ERA in his Rockies career).

As for Werner, the Padres ownership group he headed sold an 80 percent stake in the club to John Moores in December of 1994. Werner retained a 10 percent stake in the team until 2007 -- even though by then he had become part-owner of the Red Sox.


The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.

Maybe Don Mattingly is a good manager. Maybe he's a bad manager. Maybe, like his mentor Joe Torre, he's just four jobs away from the job that will turn him into a Hall of Famer. (The headline in the New York Daily News when the Yankees hired Torre: "CLUELESS JOE.")

Right now, Mattingly is taking his share of the blame for the Los Angeles Dodgers' 18-25 start, but blame is spread around to every corner of the clubhouse when you have a veteran roster of famous names, the highest payroll in baseball and playoff expectations and a lousy record. I suspect, however, the Dodgers would be something close to 18-25 regardless who was managing. "It ain't like football. You can't make up no trick plays," Yogi Berra once said.

After getting a vote of confidence from the front office -- Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said Mattingly is "doing fine" -- Mattingly looked like a genius on Monday. But any manager can look like a genius when he hands the ball to Clayton Kershaw. The current Best Pitcher on Planet Earth tossed a three-hit complete game in a 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. While Kershaw was his usual dominant self in lowering his ERA to 1.35, we saw the two people who can ultimately save Mattingly's job (well, besides, Colletti and team president Stan Kasten): Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.

The two guys in the middle of the lineup, who make nearly $34 million between them this year, both homered, but it was only Kemp's second and Ethier's fourth of the season. The Dodgers rank 29th in the majors in runs scored, and while you can blame Hanley Ramirez's injury, or the poor production from Luis Cruz, a large portion of that blame falls on Kemp and Ethier. Heck, Kershaw has one home run. Nick Punto has a home run. Kemp is now tied with those two guys. He's hitting .267/.315/.358 with 16 RBIs, and maybe the offseason shoulder surgery has affected him or maybe we're just waiting for a patented Kemp hot streak to kick in.

[+] EnlargeDodgers' Don Mattingly
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsAt 18-25, Don Mattingly's Dodgers are in last place in the NL West.
Ethier tripled and homered, raising his triple-slash line to .262/.345/.407. The problem here isn't as obvious as Kemp's power struggles; this may be exactly who Ethier is now at age 31, a good player beginning the decline phase of his career. That line isn't so different from the .292/.368/.421 Ethier put up in 2011, for example (although he played through some knee issues that year).

But even when hitting .284 with 20 home runs like he did last year, Either is more solid contributor than star. In fact, it's the money being paid to Kemp and Ethier that sums up some of the Dodgers' current and long-term problems. This may be their team … not just for 2013, but for the foreseeable future. Consider their primary payroll obligations right now:

Kemp: $149.5 million through 2019 (34 years old)
Ethier: $85 million through 2017 (35 years old, could vest for 2018)
Carl Crawford: $106.7 million through 2017 (35 years old)
Adrian Gonzalez: $132.1 million through 2018 (36 years old)
Zack Greinke: $147 million through 2018 (34 years old)

That doesn't include Josh Beckett and Ramirez (signed through 2014) or some of the throwaway contracts, such as those of Chad Billingsley (signed through 2014 but out until sometime next year following Tommy John surgery), Juan Uribe and Brandon League. And it doesn't include whatever it will cost to retain Kershaw's services past 2014. Can you say $30 million per year?

If we assume Kershaw makes $20 million next year and then signs a long-term deal for $30 million per season, those five players plus Kershaw will be making an average of about $134 million per season through 2017. The problem isn't so much whether or not the Dodgers can afford that -- by all accounts the ownership group has bottomless pockets and doesn't care much about exceeding luxury tax thresholds (at least for now) -- but what are the Dodgers affording?

That core doesn't look like a core that's going to win in 2013, let alone five seasons from now. That group is akin to the Phillies signing guys such as Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley into their early and mid-30s, then watching them age and the team decline from World Series champs to contenders to mediocrity. Except at least the Phillies won something and dominated for years. What has this group done besides put Mattingly's head in the guillotine?

To be fair, the season is far from over and writing off the Dodgers now could be fateful words. Kemp may heat up, Greinke is back in the rotation, Ramirez will return from the disabled list, the bullpen may stop blowing late leads and Kershaw may win every start the rest of the season.

Still, I suspect Mattingly may not make it through the end of May. That would be the easy way out for Colletti and Kasten. But, hey, who knows, maybe they know a manager out there who has some good trick plays.
Dodgers fans: Quit reading now. This article is going to be painful.

Here's the deal: The Dodgers could be awesome. Of course they could. They have the best pitcher in the National League in Clayton Kershaw, and the guy who probably should have won the MVP Award in 2011 in Matt Kemp, and they have Zack Greinke and Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier and too many starting pitchers to know what to do with. That's a lot of star power.

So, yes, they could be World Series champions. But the Titanic was supposedly unsinkable. This team could also be a bust on the scale of the 2012 Red Sox. Every regular player has a legitimate issue or concern heading into the season. Sure, you could do this with every team ("Mike Trout could turn into Luis Polonia!"), but in the Dodgers' case, the potential questions are more than fair to raise.

So, in the order they have Dodgers fans waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweats, here are 20 questions:

1. Zack Greinke: What's going on the with the elbow? He has inflammation and missed his start this week. Hopefully it's just a little spring training tendinitis.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
AP Photo/Reed SaxonHow Matt Kemp recovers from offseason shoulder surgery is among the questions facing the Dodgers this spring.
2. Carl Crawford: Were the past two seasons just an aberration or can he return to the All-Star level he was with Tampa Bay? He'll miss the start of the season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, he didn't do much with Boston, his defensive metrics fell off the table and his strikeout/walk ratio deteriorated. Otherwise ...

3. Hanley Ramirez: How many runs he will he give away defensively at shortstop? Can he return to being a .300 hitter?

4. Chad Billingsley: Will the elbow hold up? There were concerns he would need Tommy John surgery after missing the end of last season with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. So far, so good, but it's a wait-and-see issue.

5. Adrian Gonzalez: Is he good or Adrian Gonzalez Good? He was a star first baseman from 2008 to 2011, but dropped off last year. After walking 119 times in 2009, he drew just 42 last year, leading to a big decline in his on-base percentage.

6. Matt Kemp: How's the shoulder? Kemp had surgery in October to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff damage in his left shoulder (Gonzalez had similar surgery two years ago).

7. Luis Cruz: Big league regular or 4-A player? The 29-year-old minor league vet surprised last year, hitting .297/.322/.431 in 78 games, but there are doubts he can repeat those as the starting third baseman.

8. Clayton Kershaw: How's the hip? It bothered him at the end of last season, and while it's not an issue now, the Dodgers can't afford to have it pop back up.

9. A.J. Ellis: Is he for real? At the age of 31, the catcher became a starter for the first time and posted an impressive .373 OBP. But he also hit a less impressive .252/.336/.401 in the second half.

10. Josh Beckett: What does he have left? He turns 33 in May and has battled back problems in recent years, averaging 26 starts over the past three seasons. In those three years, he had a terrible one, a great one and a mediocre one. Which Beckett will show up in 2013?

11. Brandon League: Is he a legit closer? He was an All-Star with Seattle in 2011, but lost his job last year as his walk rate jumped from 1.5 per nine innings to 4.1. His strikeout rates have always been subpar for a closer, although he did allow just one home run in 2012. The Dodgers traded for him and then signed him to a three-year deal with a vesting option, an investment most analysts questioned.

12. Hyun-Jin Ryu: Is he any good? The Dodgers gave the Korean lefty $36 million with the belief he's ready to jump into their rotation, but he hasn't impressed this spring, and some have questioned his routine of not throwing between starts.

13. Mark Ellis: Can he stay healthy? He's had 500 plate appearances just once in the past four seasons.

14. Chris Capuano: Can he repeat his 2012 numbers? Capuano went 12-12 with a career-low 3.72 ERA, but was 3-8 with a 4.76 ERA in the second half.

15. Kenley Jansen: How's his health? He's held hitters to a .148 average in his three major league seasons, but missed three weeks last year with an irregular heartbeat and underwent surgery in the offseason. He's under no restrictions and the Dodgers' gentle giant should be fine, but they can't afford to lose their best reliever for any lengthy period of time.

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Which team will win the NL West?

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16. Andre Ethier: Will Don Mattingly finally platoon him against left-handers? Because Ethier can't hit them, .222/.276/.330 last year, .220/.258/.305 in 2011. And with Ethier, Gonzalez and Crawford, the Dodgers are likely to see a lot of southpaws.

17. Ronald Belisario: Can he do that again? Belisario was quietly dominating in 2012, going 8-1 with a 2.54 ERA and holding opponents to a .187 average.

18. Dee Gordon: What if he has to play shortstop? Once a rising star, Gordon's terrible 2012 (-1.3 WAR) means he'll start back in Triple-A. But if Ramirez can't handle short, is Gordon ready to step back in?

19. J.P. Howell: Can he handle the lefty bullpen role? Unless one of the starters (Ryu, Capuano, Ted Lilly) ends up down here, Howell might be the only lefty in the pen. After missing all of 2010 and pitching poorly in 2011, he was OK with the Rays last year (3.04 ERA in 50 innings). But how will he pitch away from his comfort zone of Tampa?

20. Don Mattingly: What if things turn sour? Mattingly is certainly more of the quiet leader from that top step, and he has two years of experience now, but expectations are high. If the Dodgers get off to a slow start, the pressure will mount in a hurry. And he has a core group of guys who -- fair or not -- couldn't handle that kind of pressure last year in Boston and were happily run out of town.
Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout aren't on the United States roster, and their absence means a lot of fans don't care about the World Baseball Classic -- certainly not enough to spend a Friday evening in early March watching a baseball game between a largely no-name Mexico team and a still-star-laden U.S. team.

But this tournament isn't for fans who so willingly dismiss it. It's not even so much for fans in the United States, who are more focused on their professional teams or the impending NCAA basketball tournament. Earlier in the day, MLB reported that one-third of all television sets in Japan had watched the first-round games involving the Japanese team. I'm sure its dramatic comeback win over Taiwan on Friday morning rated even higher. Fans in Puerto Rico cheered on their team to a victory over Spain. Fans in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic care intensely about how their teams fare.

And Chase Field in Phoenix was nearly full for Friday's Mexico-U.S. game -- with maybe half that crowd rooting for Mexico. Those fans certainly cared that Mexico pulled off the huge 5-2 upset victory, essentially avoiding elimination after Thursday's heartbreaking ninth-inning loss to Italy. The players on the Mexican team certainly cared.

The Mexico lineup is pretty weak outside of Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Jorge Cantu hit fifth and he spent all of last year in Triple-A. Karim Garcia is still around and he hasn't played in the majors since 2004. But R.A. Dickey's knuckleball wasn't effective, a leadoff bloop single led to two runs in the first inning and Gonzalez torched a 73 mph knuckler to center field for a two-run homer in the third.

Other thoughts:
  • Pool D is really interesting now. It could all come down to run differential to see which two teams advance to the second round. If we assume the U.S. beats Italy on Saturday, and the U.S. and Mexico both beat Canada, then Italy, the U.S. and Mexico all finish 2-1. But Italy mercy-ruled Canada in a 14-4 victory, putting pressure on the U.S. lineup to do some damage in its next two games. The eighth inning could prove a key for the U.S., as Tim Collins and Steve Cishek worked out of a second-and-third, nobody-out jam.
  • After Dickey's performance, fans will be crying that Verlander or Kershaw or David Price aren't here. First off, Dickey wanted to be here and those guys didn't. Second, Dickey earned his invite as much as those guys would have, coming off his National League Cy Young Award. He just didn't have a good night. That's what happens in a tournament, not much different than what happens in the postseason: Anything can happen.
  • Joe Torre’s lineup left a little to be desired. He hit Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Phillips 1-2, because they're fast and they hit at the top of the order for their regular teams. He hit Eric Hosmer sixth, pushing Giancarlo Stanton -- who only led the NL in slugging percentage -- all the way down to seventh, and Adam Jones, he of the 32 home runs last year, batting eighth. Stanton and Jones are better hitters than Rollins, Phillips and Hosmer. Torre might have been playing the hot hand with Hosmer, who had hit .391 in spring training with the Royals, and maybe he wanted to spread out his three left-handed hitters (switch-hitter Rollins, Joe Mauer and Hosmer). Still, a little more creativity would have had something like David Wright, Mauer, Ryan Braun, Stanton, Jones, Rollins, Phillips, Hosmer and catcher J.P. Arencibia.
  • Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz had two key at-bats for Mexico. In the first inning, he delivered a sacrifice fly that was also deep enough to move Ramiro Pena to third, and Pena scored on Gonzalez's sac fly. In the fifth, after Eduardo Arredondo slapped an Ichiro-like double down the left-field line off Twins closer Glen Perkins and was bunted to third, Cruz delivered another sac fly.
  • Pitchers are allowed a maximum of 65 pitches in first-round games, but Yovani Gallardo was on a 50-pitch limit for Mexico. He looked sharp, allowing two hits and striking out four in 3.1 innings, but that meant Mexico had to rely on its bullpen, a day after using four relievers in that 6-5 loss to Italy. Royals righty Luis Mendoza escaped a jam in the fifth after walking the first two batters, striking out Arencibia on a nice 0-2 slider and then retiring Rollins and Phillips on ground balls. Oliver Perez got a key out in the sixth and Oscar Villareal pitched a scoreless seventh. The U.S. scored once off Cardinals reliever Fernando Salas in the eighth, and Giants closer Sergio Romo closed it out.
  • The Giants were undoubtedly nervous seeing Romo come in. They had apparently requested that Romo not appear in consecutive games, and manager Bruce Bochy has always been very cautious with his use of Romo. He threw 26 pitches Thursday, but this was a must-win game for Mexico. Saving him for Saturday's game against Canada doesn't make any sense if you lose this game. A reliever can't appear three consecutive days, so Romo is unavailable now for Canada.
  • Ryan Vogelsong starts for the U.S. against Italy, and while the Italian team is mostly comprised of U.S.-born players -- including several major leaguers -- they will start an actual pitcher from Italy: Luca Panerati, a left-hander who was in the Reds' system from 2008-11, never advancing past Class A. Last year, he pitched in the Italian Baseball League. Now he gets to face a team of the best players in the world. This is what the World Baseball Classic is all about.
One of the key players of 2013 is Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. After ranking 13th in the National League in runs in 2012, the Dodgers are looking for Gonzalez to provide that second big bat alongside Matt Kemp.

But who is Adrian Gonzalez right now?

During his peak years with the Padres, he combined power and walks to put up numbers that made him one of the best hitters in baseball. He ranked 26th in the majors in wRC+ in 2008, fourth in 2009 and 13th in 2010. After a trade to the Red Sox in 2011, he had another big season, hitting a career-best .338 and ranking ninth in the majors in wRC+.

Buried in that terrific season, however, were a few red flags. That year was fueled by a .380 average on balls in play -- tied with Kemp for the highest mark in the majors and well above Gonzalez's previous career best of .340. His home runs had dropped from 40 in 2009 to 27 and his walk rate declined from 17.5 percent in '09 to 10.3 percent.

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Over or under on Adrian Gonzalez hitting 25.5 home runs?

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Those red flags came to light in 2012. His home runs fell to 18, his walk rate plummeted to 6.1 percent and Gonzalez ranked 59th in wRC+ -- still a good season but not a great one.

So what to expect from Gonzalez in 2013? He still hit .299 in 2012 with 47 doubles. If he gets his walks back up, his OBP will climb back closer to .375 instead of below .350. But what about his power? The projection systems are predicting a few more home runs, but not above 30.

Let's set the over/under at 25.5. What do you think? Does Kemp have a big guy hitting behind him in the Dodgers' lineup?

Power rankings: All 30 teams!

December, 22, 2012
12/22/12
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Last weekend, I presented the top 10 teams in my personal power rankings. That was before the Blue Jays officially acquired R.A. Dickey, so I updated my top 10 after that trade, and, to spur on more debate, now present the rest of my rankings. Agree or disagree, but I do think this is the most parity we've seen in a long time. It's why the Orioles and A's were able to surprise this past season and why we will undoubtedly see another surprise team in 2013. It's a great time to be a baseball fan.

1. Nationals
Most talented rotation in the majors, deep lineup, depth. Re-signing Adam LaRoche to add another lefty power bat will help.

2. Reds
Superb rotation could be better if the Aroldis Chapman transition works, bullpen is deep enough to absorb his loss and Shin-Soo Choo provides a needed leadoff hitter.

3. Yankees
I think they can stretch things out more season with a deep rotation, excellent bullpen and power. Remember, they had the largest run differential in the American League last season.

4. Tigers
Deep rotation, great 1-2 punch with Miggy and Prince, and Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez should improve the lineup.

5. Braves
Left-handed power, power bullpen and a young team that could improve from last year's 94 wins.

6. Blue Jays
Addition of Dickey adds a needed No. 1 to a rotation that could be dominant if Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow remain healthy.

7. A's
Young teams that show big improvement are usually for real, and this team has a solid rotation, a strong outfield and power arms in the bullpen.

8. Dodgers
Have to love the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke combo and an offense with big upside if Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez come close to 2011 levels.

9. Rangers
I think the rotation is playoff-caliber with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Martin Perez and Colby Lewis.

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10. Cardinals
Have to replace Kyle Lohse, but they'll score plenty of runs as long as Carlos Beltran (36 years old in April) and Matt Holliday (33 in January) keep producing.

11. Rays
Still some holes in the lineup, and replacing James Shields' 220-plus innings won't be that easy, but underestimate the Rays at your own risk.

12. Angels
Oddsmaker Bovada.lv has the Angels with the second-best odds to win the World Series (behind the Blue Jays), but I see a rotation with a lot of question marks behind Jered Weaver, and Josh Hamilton only replaces Hunter, who was terrific in 2012.

13. Giants
I discussed my issues with the Giants here. I could be wrong, although our friends at Bovada only put the Giants tied for ninth in their World Series odds.

14. Diamondbacks
Their run differential wasn't much different than the Giants last year, and they've added Brandon McCarthy, infield depth and still have Justin Upton.

15. Phillies
I want to say we're all underestimating a team that includes Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, but then I see an outfield of Darin Ruf, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown, and an infield defense that includes Michael Young and Ryan Howard and 30-somethings Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.

16. Brewers
They can score runs -- most in the National League last season -- and if the bullpen regroups after 2012's gruesome late-inning efforts, this team could surprise.

17. Red Sox
There will be no expectations after the disaster in 2012 (the franchise's worst record since 1965), but I see a big rebound coming.

18. Royals
I'll buy -- but I'm not buying a playoff spot. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have to take huge leaps forward ... or the Royals could be headed for another rebuild.

19. Orioles
Last season's 93-win playoff team provided a beautiful ride, but the Orioles haven't added that big bat they need.

20. Padres
Young team is moving in the right direction after winning 76 games in 2012. Can rotation improve to push Pads over .500?

21. Mariners
Mariners have pursued a big bat all offseason but were only able to pick up Kendrys Morales, and he cost them Jason Vargas, opening up a 200-inning hole in the rotation. Looks like 2014 before Mariners can make a push in the tough AL West.

22. Pirates
Still no No. 1 or even No. 2 starter (sorry, A.J. Burnett is a No. 3 at best) and not enough support for Andrew McCutchen. One of these years, Pirates fans, one of these years.

23. White Sox
No A.J. Pierzynski, a declining Paul Konerko, good year/off year Alex Rios due for an off year. Then again, White Sox had a bigger run differential in 2012 than the Tigers.

24. Cubs
Rotation of Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman could be competitive, but offense won't be.

25. Mets
At least Mets fans can dream of a future rotation that includes Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese and Noah Syndergaard. Unfortunately, the 2013 version still includes Frank Francisco and a bunch of fourth outfielders.

26. Marlins
Giancarlo Stanton still makes this team worth watching on a daily basis.

27. Indians
Getting Trevor Bauer in the Choo deal added a much-needed starting pitcher prospect. Unfortunately, much of the rest of rotation remains suspect.

28. Twins
Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey ... what, Rich Robertson and Sean Bergman weren't available?

29. Rockies
At least the Twins have a direction as they wait for young position players to reach the majors. I have no clue what the Rockies are doing, intend to do, want to do, wish to do or hope to achieve.

30. Astros
Welcome to the AL West, boys.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
9:07
PM ET
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield

Dodgers still living on the edge

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
1:23
AM ET

    "I mean, guys, I know how to hit. I promise you, I know how to hit. It’s just right now, it’s been pretty tough."
    -- Matt Kemp to reporters a few days ago

Kemp has not had a good September. He's been mired in such a terrible slump that Cardinals manager Mike Matheny intentionally walked Andre Ethier the other day with runners at second and third and two out in the bottom of the 10th inning. And it worked. Kemp flied out, and the Cardinals eventually won the game in 12 innings.

The 2011 MVP runner-up entered Wednesday's doubleheader in Washington hitting .122 in September, with one walk and 14 strikeouts, an approach conjuring up memories of Kemp's lackluster 2010 season. Going back to Aug. 10, he had one home run and 12 RBIs in 31 games. "The Bison"? This was more like "T-Bone" Shelby.

Kemp went 1-for-4 in the first game as the Nationals won 3-1, dropping the Dodgers to 9-17 since an Aug. 19 victory had left them a half-game up on the Giants in the National League West. They were now two games behind the Cardinals in the crawl to the second wild-card spot. I wouldn't quite label the nightcap a must-win game, but there was at least a certain urgency.

How did this happen? How did the Dodgers get here? On Aug. 20, they lost to the Giants, when Madison Bumgarner outdueled Clayton Kershaw 2-1 (both starters went eight innings, and combined for 20 strikeouts and no walks). The Giants won the next day and the next. A sweep at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers then had an off day, and general manager Ned Colletti spent it finalizing the blockbuster deal to acquire Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett. This would right the ship. It would be a battle to the end against their hated rivals, and in a perfect alignment of the schedule, the teams would finish the season against each other at Dodger Stadium.

Instead, the blockbuster became blockbusted. Gonzalez has been awful since joining the Dodgers, and his batting line stood at .233/.286/.378 (BA/OBP/SLG). Those would be described in the greater L.A. area as "James Loney numbers." Beckett had been inconsistent in four starts with the Dodgers, posting a 3.38 ERA but allowing 27 hits in 24 innings. He'd start the second game.

* * * *

The Dodgers scored three runs in the third inning. Kemp and Gonzalez drew key walks, and Hanley Ramirez and Ethier knocked in runs. They scored three more in the fourth. Kemp had an RBI single. He later scored a controversial run (replays showed he hadn't crossed the plate before a tag was made on Gonzalez). It was just the second time the Dodgers had scored at least six runs in 18 games. They'd scored two or fewer in nine of those games.

* * * *

The Nationals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth. The home crowd went crazy.

* * * *

The Dodgers were staring down the barrel of one of the season's most bitter defeats that any team had suffered, an absolutely crushing blow considering the timing and circumstances.

Kemp led off the ninth against Nationals closer Tyler Clippard, and fell behind on a called strike for a cutter and two foul balls on a changeup and fastball. Kemp had entered the day hitting .200 on 0-2 counts, with 32 strikeouts in 63 plate appearances. Over the past three seasons, batters were hitting .128 off Clippard when he reached an 0-2 count.

Clippard wanted to elevate a fastball; he didn't elevate enough. Kemp belted a towering fly ball to center field that reached the third row of bleachers. Brandon League had an easy, 12-pitch bottom of the ninth, and the Dodgers had the win 7-6. If the Dodgers somehow find a way to gather up some steam and catch the Cardinals to make the postseason, this will be the game Dodgers fans remember. From nearly falling off the edge of the cliff to catching a branch on the way down. Still hanging in there.

* * * *

This isn't a good team right now, not with Kemp and Gonzalez struggling at the plate. Not with Kershaw indefinitely sidelined -- maybe for the rest of the season -- with his sore hip. The Dodgers haven't been good since that amazing 30-13 start. In truth, the Dodgers' season peaked May 22, when Ivan DeJesus Jr. doubled in two runs in the ninth inning to give the Dodgers an 8-7 victory over the Diamondbacks. They seemed unstoppable at that time, a miracle season in the works. Cue highlights of Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson on the big screen.

The Gonzalez trade was a sign of desperation, a sign of a new ownership group with deep pockets being played the fool. Take on our fading stars! Take on these mammoth contracts! Win back your fans! It will work out for you, trust us!

You know, the funny thing about the Frank McCourt era is that the Dodgers made the playoffs four times in his eight seasons as owner. They even won their first two playoff series since 1988.

I have a feeling they will be 0-for-1 in the Magic Johnson era.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Matt KempHarry E. Walker/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp gets his due for taking the pressure off everyone else with his winning homer in the nightcap.
Adrian Gonzalez AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillThe Dodgers threw all fiscal caution to the wind in acquiring Adrian Gonzalez and others in a blockbuster deal with the Red Sox.

Must read of the day: Grantland's Jonah Keri breaks down the Red Sox-Dodgers blockbuster with excellent insight:

Most important, they did it because no one in the Dodgers front office, at any point this season, has ever uttered the words "opportunity cost." If there's no limit to how much you can and will spend on salaries, then you needn't worry about the $260 million you just absorbed, nor feel the need to turn down other buying opportunities. If what (Stan) Kasten is saying is true, and ownership doesn't care at all about luxury-tax implications or really capping spending in any way, then what the hell, why not go nuts? (Clayton) Kershaw wants a monster deal to top Matt Cain's five-year, $112.5 million pact? Give it to him. Zack Greinke's the best pitcher on the coming free-agent market? Pay the man. Want still more pitching? Raid your farm system again and try to trade for Josh Johnson. ... But there's no reason to declare any of those other options off-limits when your budget is roughly infinity dollars.


Jonah raises the interesting point that fellow rich clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox have played by the rules of the luxury tax threshold -- "in which even teams as loaded as the Red Sox tie their own hands in the name of greater profit and keeping up the illusion of fiscal parity." The luxury tax creates an excuse for owners to cap their payroll when they don't actually have to. The Yankees, for example, have paid out over $200 million in luxury tax penalties since 2003, as Jayson Stark reported earlier this year. Sure, penalties will start getting harsher in 2014 if a team exceeds the $189 million threshold over consecutive years, but what's few million to teams like the Red Sox or Yankees? Or, now, the Dodgers.

If the Dodgers made one mistake in this deal, it's the failure to grasp that Adrian Gonzalez and company essentially provide marginal upgrades at best, especially for the team's chances of winning a World Series. As the Yankees have learned about the crapshoot nature of baseball's postseason, it's basically impossible to build a team so good that you're guaranteed a World Series trophy. Despite all those luxury tax payments, the Yankees have just one title since 2003. Maybe Gonzalez helps the Dodgers get to the World Series this year, maybe even win it. But this isn't the Lakers acquiring Dwight Howard. There's no guarantee Gonzalez even gets the Dodgers a wild-card spot. Stan Kasten and Ned Colletti probably understand that; I have no idea if Magic Johnson does.

As for the future of the Dodgers, ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski explains why the deal could be a long-term disaster for the Dodgers.

* * * *

Jonah also addresses Gonzalez's value and why even his current ability must be questioned: He's certainly a good player, but is he still a superstar slugger? After posting a .940 OPS from 2009 to 2011, it's at .817 right now, a mark bolstered of late after a slow start. With 16 home runs, he won't come close to the 40 he hit with the Padres in 2009 and his unintentional walk rate has plummeted from 14.7 percent in 2009 to 5.3 percent this year. Including intentional walks, Gonzalez had the highest walk rate in the majors in 2009, which allowed him to post a .407 OBP; this season he ranks 110th in walk rate and his OBP has dropped to .345. A declining walk rate in a veteran player is often an indicator of declining bat speed; the hitter "cheats" to catch up to fastballs. (It's also possible that Gonzalez walked a lot in San Diego merely because opponents pitched around him; however, Gonzalez's percentage of swings at pitches outside the strike zone has increased from 23 percent in '09 to 37 percent.)

Here's a comparison that may make you laugh, cry, cringe or chuckle, if only because it gives me an excuse to conjure my old Mariner favorite, Alvin Davis. From 1988 to 1990, Davis posted a 142 OPS+. That made Davis one of the best hitters in baseball over that span -- 11th in OPS+ (minimum 1500 plate appearances). Gonzalez is better than Davis -- his OPS+ from 2009 to 2011 ranked fourth in baseball. Davis also wasn't the fielder Gonzalez is, and even slower on the basepaths if you can imagine that. Davis began to lose it in 1990, when his OPS+ fell to 129 at age 29. At age 30, it fell to 76. At age 31, he was finished. I'm not saying Gonzalez is going to be washed up by 2014, but the point is that considering his age and "old player" skill-set, there are some red flags with him.


I just returned from vacation and spent a portion of the weekend catching up on the HBO series "The Newsroom." The show has been a little uneven -- what's with all the personal discussions and arguments taking place right in the middle of the newsroom, in front of everyone? -- but a recent episode did present an interesting dilemma.

The theme of the show's first season has been the challenges the newscast faces as it transitions to broadcasting more legitimate news and less fluff. Set in 2011, when the newscast doesn't initially cover the Casey Anthony trial the ratings drop dramatically, so the producers have to decide: Do you give more air time to the trial or to the more important debt-crisis debate going on in Congress?

Well, the Boston Red Sox are Casey Anthony. The Los Angeles Angels are the debt crisis. It's a sexier issue to talk about Josh Beckett's golf outings than Ervin Santana's hanging sliders. It's a lot more fun to break down Bobby Valentine's personality conflicts -- misunderstood genius or funny-nose-and-glasses nutty? -- than to break down Mike Scioscia's bullpen usage. Tabloid headlines about chemistry issues and unhappy players will bring in more readers than stories about Dan Haren's earned run average.

So the dark clouds that hovered over the Red Sox all season had been the car crash we couldn't keep our eyes off. Like it or not, the Red Sox bring in the ratings. While the Red Sox finally, mercifully, died when general manager Ben Cherington seduced the Dodgers with Saturday's big trade, dangling Adrian Gonzalez in order to purge the contracts of Beckett and Carl Crawford, in the end the Red Sox story was more fluff than substance, beginning with this: The Angels, not the Red Sox, have been the season's most disappointing team.

Not that expectations weren't high for the Red Sox, of course, but consider the preseason predictions for the Angels:

  • Of 50 people who voted on ESPN.com's preseason predictions list, 25 picked the Angels to win the American League West and 21 picked them to win a wild card. Only four predicted they would miss the playoffs.
  • Of those 50 voters, only one picked the Red Sox to win the AL East and 15 picked them to win a wild card. Thirty-four picked them to miss the playoffs.
  • The Angels were also the overwhelming consensus World Series pick -- remarkably, 18 of the 50 voters picked them to win it all, 10 more than other team (eight chose the Rangers). Only one person picked the Red Sox.
So on a national level, the Angels were the big story heading into the 2012 season, not the Red Sox. According to the vast majority of ESPN's baseball contributors, the Red Sox weren't even supposed to be a playoff team. (Before Angels fans jump all over me, it's obviously too early to write off the Angels just yet. They're 66-62 after losing 5-2 to the Tigers on Sunday, four games behind the wild-card leading trio of Tampa Bay, Oakland and Baltimore, and also 3.5 games behind Detroit. So they have 34 games left to pass at least three teams and claim one of the two wild-card spots.)

But a one-game coin-flip affair is not what the Angels expected after signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson in the offseason and then acquiring Zack Greinke at the trade deadline. Remember when the spring-training storyline was how the Angels-Rangers rivalry was going to develop into baseball's best? Well, wake me up when it begins. The Angels are 9.5 games behind the Rangers, closer in the standings to the Mariners than to the Rangers.

What's remarkable about the Angels is they're in this position despite the unexpected MVP-caliber season from Mike Trout and improvement from Mark Trumbo. And Pujols, even with his homerless April, is essentially on pace to match his 2011 numbers with the Cardinals. Unlike the Red Sox, the Angels don't even have the injury excuse to fall back on. The only significant injury has been to catcher Chris Iannetta. Reliever Jordan Walden missed most of July and half of August and set-up man Scott Downs missed a couple of weeks, but even there the Angels caught lightning in a bottle with Ernesto Frieri.

Trout's monster season, of course, has served to obscure the Angels' inability to stay close to Texas. He has deservedly been the most intriguing individual player story of the season. I think everyone kept expecting the Angels to go on a big streak; it hasn't happened. And now it's getting late.

While Trout's rise to stardom wasn't expected -- at least, not this quick and not at this level -- the Red Sox's collapse fit neatly into the spring-training angst that the media stirred up: chicken, beer, Bobby Valentine, a meddling ownership and so on. While there were obvious issues inside the Boston clubhouse, those stories served to detract attention from the real reasons the Red Sox are 61-67: Beckett, Jon Lester and late-game bullpen issues.

Even with all the missed time from Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz and Crawford, the Red Sox are second in the American League in runs scored. If Beckett (5.23 ERA) and Lester (4.98 ERA) had allowed even one run fewer per nine innings, we're talking about a 32-run improvement -- or about three wins. If they were 1.5 runs better per nine innings, we're talking a 48-run improvement -- or about five wins. Add five wins, and the Red Sox are 66-62 ... the same as the Angels. The Red Sox have lost 12 games they've led entering the seventh inning; cut that down to a more normal total of six and the Red Sox have 72 wins -- just two fewer than the Yankees. You can blame clubhouse chemistry; I'll blame the team's two aces and a lousy bullpen.

So the Red Sox are now irrelevant; they won on Sunday but nobody cares. The Angels lost again and it's time to start analyzing why. And asking the obvious follow-up question: Are there chemistry issues in the Angels' clubhouse?

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Howard KendrickRick Osentoski/US PresswireHoward Kendrick's dive back to the bag reflects an Angels team that isn't advancing.


You have to love August baseball. This is when the grind of the long season settles in, when depth becomes even more important, when pitchers have to pitch through fatigue and soreness and maybe a little pain. It's when we find out if the pretenders are contenders and whether the favorites really do have the firepower.

August is time for scoreboard-watching. August is time for your ace to go on a five-win hot streak. August is time for the MVP candidates to shine. August is time for big wins, like the one the Giants had on Sunday at home, when they scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Trade-deadline acquisition Hunter Pence had the decisive blow, a three-run home run, his first since joining the Giants. Pence is hitting just .137 with the Giants, but his homer off Rafael Betancourt capped a rally started when Brandon Crawford's leadoff pop fly fell for a single.

Beginning with the Giants, here are 10 important things you need to know as August rolls on.

1. The Giants have an offense.

Since the All-Star break, the Giants are second in the National League in runs scored to the Nationals, hitting .270 with a .339 on-base percentage, also second in the league. Buster Posey, of course, has been on fire, hitting .443 with nine home runs and 32 RBIs since the break. Only Boston's Adrian Gonzalez has more post-break RBIs (35). Melky Cabrera hasn't slowed down either; his .918 second-half OPS matches his .910 of the first half. If Pence can get going to provide another power threat, the Giants' offense looks even better.

2. Remember Jayson Werth.

Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Mike Morse have combined for 23 home runs since the break to power the Nationals, who had their eight-game winning streak snapped Sunday, but Werth provides something the offense has needed all season: A leadoff hitter. Since his return from a broken wrist, Werth has hit .400 with a .500 OBP. On the season, Nationals leadoff hitters rank just 13th in the National League in OBP. "I am totally surprised how my wrist is doing, how I’ve recovered," Werth told the Washington Post a couple days ago. "When I look down at my wrist and I see that scar, it almost reminds me. Like, 'Oh, yeah.' I almost forget about it until I see the hatchet wound." Werth won't ever live up to the $126 million contract, but he's a a huge key as the Nats push for a division title.

3. Who will step up for the Angels behind Jered Weaver?

Can we stop declaring that the Angels are guaranteed to secure one of the AL wild cards? They're 3-8 over the past 11 games after Jason Vargas outdueled Weaver on Sunday and have slipped 8 games behind the Rangers in the West, and to fifth in the wild-card race behind the Rays, Orioles, A's and Tigers. Dan Haren has allowed at least one home run in nine consecutive starts, Ervin Santana continues to pitch like a ticking time bomb and has allowed the most home runs in the majors, Zack Greinke has been terrible in two of his three starts with the Angels, including the fifth five-plus walk game of his career, and even C.J. Wilson has allowed 27 runs in 29.2 innings over his past five starts. With the starters getting knocked early, the overtaxed Angels bullpen has also been an issue. For all the Mike Trout love, the Angels have a good chance of becoming the season's most disappointing -- yes, even more disappointing than the Red Sox.

4. The Rays are scorching hot on the mound.

If pitchers feed off each other, the Rays are like a pack of hungry wolves right now. Tampa Bay owns a 2.33 ERA since the All-Star break and has held opponents to a .200 average in going 17-11. The Rays swept the Twins by scoring four runs in the top of the 10th and have won eight of 11 to surge into the wild-card lead with the Orioles. Next up on this road: Trips to Seattle and Anaheim. That four-game series against the Angels looms large and David Price and James Shields will start the first two games.

5. Jim Leyland is right ... sort of.

The Tigers manager started a minor firestorm when he referred to Mike Trout as "Wonderboy" in suggesting his own Miguel Cabrera is deserving of the AL MVP Award so far. Leyland's comments really weren't derogatory, as he was simply referring to the potential of voters getting caught up in Trout's storyline. Hey, he's right in that regard; voters do love a good storyline. It's why Ichiro Suzuki won in 2001 over Jason Giambi and teammate Bret Boone. Or why Miguel Tejada won over Alex Rodriguez in 2002. Interestingly, the last "Wonderboy" to challenge for an MVP trophy was A-Rod in 1996, and he finished second to Juan Gonzalez in one of the worst MVP votes of all time.

That's because what MVP voters really like is a player who makes the playoffs. It's why Ryan Braun beat out Matt Kemp in 2011 or why Joey Votto collected 31 of 32 first-place over Albert Pujols in 2010 despite basically identical numbers. Of the 34 MVP trophies handed out during the wild-card era, only six have gone to players whose teams didn't reach the playoffs: Pujols (2008), Ryan Howard (2006), Barry Bonds (2004 and 2001), A-Rod (2003) and Larry Walker (1997). So maybe Trout is the MVP favorite right now, but that all changes if the Angels don't reach the playoffs (the same, of course, can be said for Cabrera).

6. The Cardinals have the same record through 115 games as 2011.

Just like a season ago, the Cardinals are 62-53. However, in 2011 they were just 3 games behind the Brewers and 4 behind wild-card leader Atlanta. While they're 7 behind the Reds in the National League Central, they trail the Braves and Pirates by just 2.5. Like a year ago, the bullpen is struggling -- on Sunday, St. Louis blew a three-run lead in the eighth to the Phillies and lost in 11 innings. Of course, we know the bullpen buttoned down last year.

7. The best trade deadline pickup may have been ... Paul Maholm?

Maybe the Braves got the best Cubs pitcher being shopped around. Maholm's record since June 29: Eight starts, eight runs allowed. He's pitched in obscurity for years in Pittsburgh, often with some terrible defensive teams behind him. He doesn't light up the radar gun but his strikeout rate has ticked up a notch this year, perhaps because he's throwing his slider with greater frequency. Oh, another note: Mike Minor, much-maligned by Braves fans in the first half, has a 1.99 ERA over his past five starts.

8. Manny Machado is here to stay.

Can a rookie lead the Orioles to the first playoff berth since 1997? In four games since his surprise call-up from Double-A, all the 20-year-old rookie has done is hit three home runs, a double and a triple, scored five runs and knocked in seven. Maybe we have a second Wonderboy.

9. The Yankees are 26-22 since June 18. A-Rod is on the DL. CC Sabathia is again on the DL ...

Since reeling off that 10-game winning streak in mid-June, the Yankees have played just above .500 baseball. They're actually 14-14 over the past 28 games. Phil Hughes, having looked better, has returned to being Phil Hughes his past two starts. Ivan Nova lives and dies on whether his curveball and slider have enough bite on any given start. Sabathia has a tender elbow. Andy Pettitte had a setback. And then there's the offense. Curtis Granderson is turning into an extreme all-or-nothing hitter. He has seven homers since the break, but is hitting .218 with a 39/9 SO/BB ratio. Ichiro Suzuki has a sub-.300 OBP since joining the Yankees. And ... the Yankees are still up 5 games in the East.

10. We don't know anything.

Nine teams in the AL are within 5.5 games of a playoff spot. Seven teams are within 5 games of a playoff spot in the NL. That means more than half the teams have legitimate playoff hopes. There is no clear-cut No. 1 team in baseball. We have parity, we have excitement, we have fans filling ballparks (well, at least some of them) and we have a crazy, unpredictable finish ahead of us. Why is that important? Because it gives all of us reason to do plenty of scoreboard-watching.
Among the many issues with the Boston Red Sox, one that received little attention was the struggles of Adrian Gonzalez. An MVP candidate in 2011 when he hit .338/.410/.548 and hit 27 home runs while leading the American League with 213 hits, Gonzalez was hitting .263 with a .722 OPS and just six home runs through June 25.

As ESPN Stats & Information points out, he's looked more like the 2011 A-Gone since then, hitting .407 with three home runs and a .977 OPS. One big difference has been a key in his strikeout -- 18.3 percent through June 25, 9.3 percent since.

While he's known for his ability to go to the opposite field, he's also been pulling the ball with more effectiveness. Through June 25, he had just 22 pull hits and was hitting .265; since, he has 13 pull hits while batting .406. You can see the difference in his hit chart:

Adrian GonzalezESPN Stats & InformationGonzalez has been much effective pulling the ball in recent weeks.


Overall, Gonzalez has pulled five of his nine home runs. Last year, he hit 13 of his 27 home runs to right field. The power production is still way down from 2011, but it appears his swing is finally coming around. The question for the Red Sox: Is it too late?

Thank you for showing up, Boston Red Sox.

There are mini tests throughout a baseball season -- a series that maybe in the big picture is just another three games of 162, but hold revelations about a ballclub.

The Red Sox entered their weekend showdown with the Washington Nationals facing a challenging test against the three best starters on the best pitching staff in the National League. They were 29-28 and while they were in fifth place in the AL East, they were just three games out of first place. Despite the slew of injuries to hit their lineup, the Red Sox had scored the third-most runs in the majors.

Behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals left Fenway with a sweep as the Red Sox hit .208, struck out 30 times and went 3-for-26 with runners in scoring position. The frustrating weekend concluded with Bobby Valentine getting ejected in the top of the ninth inning after Roger Bernadina had doubled home Bryce Harper with two outs for the winning run. (Harper, in case you haven't noticed, goes first-to-home like a lightning bolt.) Valentine felt Bernadina should have been called out on a 2-2 pitch.

"Good umpires had a real bad series this series -- a real bad series -- and it went one way," Valentine said after the game. "There should be a review."

Valentine is staring at a fine after those comments. Even worse, he's now staring at a six-game deficit as the first-place Tampa Bay Rays swept the Miami Marlins in the battle of Florida.

The Marlins failed in their own test in front of their home fans, as the Rays outscored them 22-7 in the sweep, hitting .302 and drawing 14 walks. This is not the way to get more fans out to the new park. After clawing back from 8-14 to start to reach 31-23, the Marlins have now lost six in a row, are five games behind the Nationals and have a season run differential of minus-28 that is tied for fourth-worst in the National League.

It makes the series starting on Monday between the Red Sox and Marlins the most intriguing series of the week. It's time for the Red Sox to stop blaming the umps and start pitching better; it's time for the Marlins to start hitting and playing with more consistency.

A few things to watch in the series:

1. Boston's defensive alignments.

David Ortiz played first base in two games in Boston's only previous road interleague series this year in Philadelphia, so presumably he'll be back there. But a defense with Ortiz at first, Adrian Gonzalez in right, Kevin Youkilis and third and Scott Podsednik or Ryan Sweeney in center is a liability, especially with all the space in Miami's outfield. The Red Sox entered Sunday ranked second in the American League in defensive runs saved at plus-35 (second in the majors to the Blue Jays), although they rank just 19th in defensive efficiency (percentage of balls in play turned into outs). Either way, a Ortiz/Gonzalez alignment makes them a much worse defensive team.

2. Marlins at the plate.

The Marlins are 12th in the NL in runs scored and 12th in OPS -- and it's not all because their new park is a difficult place to hit. In fact, that has nothing to do with it. The Marlins are last in the NL in road OPS. The main culprits? Marlins catchers are hitting .188, their first basemen (Gaby Sanchez returned Sunday after a 19-game demotion to the minors) are hitting .197, their center fielders have a .346 OBP but a .312 slugging percentage. Sanchez needs to hit but the other middle-of-the-order bat struggling is Logan Morrison, with a .227/.315/.349 line. Benched Friday and Saturday for a mental break, Morrison returned to the lineup on Sunday and went 3-for-4 with two doubles. He has battled a bad knee all season, but the Marlins may have to make a decision soon on Sanchez and Morrison. You can't afford to keep punting offense at first base and left field.

3. Josh Johnson.

The Marlins' ace draws the start in Monday's ESPN telecast against Josh Beckett. After getting knocked out in the third inning on May 4 against the San Diego Padres, Johnson's ERA stood at 6.61 and opponents were batting .359 against him. In six starts since, he has 2.95 ERA and .252 average allowed, with his BABIP dropping from an extreme .448 to a more normalized .302. It wasn't just bad luck early on, however; he was getting hit. His season line-drive percentage is still 26 percent, which ranks second-worst among major league starters to Mike Leake.

Anyway, key for Johnson is his fastball location versus left-handed batters. Check out 2012 versus 2011, when he dominated for nine starts before landing on the disabled list.

Josh Johnson heat mapESPN Stats & InformationJohnson has been hit hard by left-handed batters in 2012. The heat map shows why.
There's a reason he has been hit hard this year: He's not hitting that outside corner like he did previously. He held lefties to a .209 average in 2011 (.258 BABIP) but they're hitting .331 off him in 2012 (.405 BABIP). Johnson's stuff is close to what it was; he overpowered the Braves at times in his most recent start with some high heat. But what do they say? Location, location, location. It's been better lately; let's see how he does against the Boston left-handed hitters on Monday night.

4. Is Clay Buchholz back?

Buchholz starts Tuesday versus Mark Buehrle and he has been terrific his past three starts, giving up four runs in 24 innings, including a four-hit shutout against Baltimore in his most recent start. He has a 19/4 strikeout/walk ratio after struggling with a 27/27 ratio through his first nine starts. The key to Buchholz's resurgence has been his changeup. "My grip was a little off," he told the media after his win over the Baltimore Orioles. "I was able to free that up a little bit. It’s been a pitch that we tried to work on for a long time and I noticed it wasn’t the same grip I had in past years and it’s coming back."

Indeed, over his first nine starts, batters hit .375 off his changeup; in the three starts since, he has thrown the pitch 69 times and batters are 1-for-10 with five strikeouts.

So watch Buchholz's changeup and watch this crucial mid-June series. Maybe it's just another three games. Maybe it's a big three games.

My bet? The Red Sox don't have to face Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann in this series. Beckett and Buchholz, who can be prone to the home run, should enjoy Marlins Park. The Red Sox take two of three as the AL East continues to show its superiority over the NL East (it went 9-6 this past weekend without any help from the Red Sox) and the Marlins will have to head to Tampa Bay next weekend with another big test to face.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Martin MaldonadoBenny Sieu/US PresswireMartin Maldonado thoughts on called K's? Where there's a whiff, there's a win.


"Show us some respect," yell Baltimore Orioles fans. Or maybe they're politely demanding. But I've seen the complaints in the Power Rankings comments, read the emails sent to "Baseball Today," been asked the question in my chats: Why doesn't anyone believe in the Orioles?

The Orioles traveled to Fenway Park this week in a precarious situation. They've lost two of three in Tampa. They've been swept in Toronto. They've lost two of three at home to Kansas City. They've lost two of three at home to Boston. They haven't won a series since the big weekend showdown in Washington from May 18-20.

So, yes, the concerns all of us "experts" had been raising -- it's a long season, let's see what happens to the rotation, let's find out if some of the hitters can keep up their hot starts, the bullpen can't keep its ERA under 2.00 all season -- were proving true. The O's were 27-14 after winning the second against the Nationals but had gone 3-10 since, with the staff posting a 4.95 ERA while the offense scored 3.5 runs per game.

These were the Orioles we all expected. And then they beat the Red Sox in extra innings on Tuesday. And then they beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday behind a solid effort from Wei-Yin Chen and scoreless innings from Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. They're 5-0 at Fenway in 2012 and Chen is now 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA. The key moments came in the seventh inning after the Red Sox threatened with a pair of singles to start the frame. But after a sacrifice bunt, Chen struck out Marlon Byrd and induced Mike Aviles to pop out to first base.

Normally, Buck Showalter might have turned to his stellar bullpen, but after Tuesday's victory, in which the bullpen threw five innings, he left Chen to escape the jam. He set up Byrd with three fastballs and then got him swinging on a beautiful changeup. He threw three more fastballs to Aviles that he couldn't get around on. Don't underestimate Chen. His stuff plays up big, with his four-seamer reaching 94 mph. His last pitch to Aviles was clocked at 93. In 11 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs seven times and I think this outing will give Showalter more confidence to stretch Chen a little deeper into games.

So the Orioles remain in first place for another day, half a game ahead of the Yankees. Is it time to show them a little respect, to give Orioles fans what they crave? Let's do some position-by-position rankings to help sort out this tightly packed division. Rankings are simply listed in order of who I would want the rest of the season.

(Season-to-date Wins Above Replacement from Baseball-Reference.com, before Wednesday's games, listed in parenthesis.)

Catcher
1. Matt Wieters, Orioles (1.6 WAR)
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Kelly Shoppach, Red Sox (1.6)
3. Russell Martin, Yankees (0.7)
4. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays (0.2)
5. Jose Molina, Rays (0.1)

There is a case to be made that Boston's duo is more valuable since they've combined for 14 home runs and an OPS over .900. But Wieters brings elite defensive skills and I also don't believe Salty is going to slug .583 all season. For the second consecutive season, the Rays are essentially punting offense at catcher. Rays catchers have the worst OPS in the majors.

First base
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox (0.8)
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees (0.6)
3. Mark Reynolds, Orioles (-0.6)
4. Carlos Pena, Rays (0.4)
5. David Cooper/others, Blue Jays (incomplete)

Gonzalez is still struggling to get his stroke going, but he's the best of a weak group. Yes, I just called Mark Teixeira weak, but at this point he's a low-average guy who pops a few long balls, doesn't draw as many walks as he once did and isn't as great on defense as Yankee fans believe. But in this group that's good enough to rank second. Reynolds has a low WAR but he's missed time and that includes his bad defense at third base, a position we've hopefully seen the last of him playing. The Jays, meanwhile, need to quit fooling around at first base and find a legitimate hitter, or move Edwin Encarnacion there and find a designated hitter. You hate to waste a potential playoff season because you can't find a first baseman who can hit. (No, David Cooper is not the answer, although he's hit well so far in 11 games.)

Second base
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.1)
2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (1.8)
3. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays (2.1)
4. Ben Zobrist, Rays (0.7)
5. Robert Andino, Orioles (0.6)

I love Ben Zobrist almost as much as two scoops of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's, but a .199 average isn't going to cut it in this group, even if you are on pace to draw 100-plus walks. Zobrist has actually play more right field so far, but should be back at second on a regular basis with Desmond Jennings back.

Third base
1. Evan Longoria, Rays (1.4)
2. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays (3.1)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1.2)
4. Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Wilson Betemit/Steve Tolleson, Orioles (-0.1)

Lawrie's WAR is boosted by defensive metrics that treat him like he's the second coming of Brooks Robinson. He's a good player but don't I think he's been the second-best position player in the American League. Longoria hopes to return at the end of the Rays' current road trip. As for A-Rod, his health is always a question at this stage of his career, but Youkilis has health questions and I'm not a believer in Middlebrooks' ability to hit .321 with power all season. His 29/4 strikeout/walk ratio is something pitchers should learn to exploit. As for the Orioles ... third base is an obvious concern. But don't expect a rare intra-division trade to acquire Youkilis.

Shortstop
1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles (2.1)
2. Mike Aviles, Red Sox (2.2)
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees (0.9)
4. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays (1.9)
5. Sean Rodriguez, Rays (1.9)

Wait ... Jeter has been the least valuable of this group so far? The other four all rate as excellent fielders -- in fact, Baseball-Reference rates them all in the top 13 fielders in the AL. Jeter, meanwhile, ranks 310th in the AL on defense -- out of 313 players.

Left field
1. Desmond Jennings, Rays (1.2)
2. Daniel Nava/Carl Crawford, Red Sox (1.7)
3. Brett Gardner/Raul Ibanez, Yankees (0.3)
4. Eric Thames/Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (-0.1)
5. Endy Chavez/Xavier Avery/Nolan Reimold, Orioles (-0.3)

Not to keep picking on the Orioles, but this is another problem position, especially if Reimold's disc problems lingers all season. Nava has quietly been a huge savior for the Red Sox, batting .305 with a .438 OBP. He's drawing walks at a crazy rate. He should slide some but he's provided the kind of depth the Orioles don't have.

Center field
1. Adam Jones, Orioles (2.5)
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees (1.3)
3. B.J. Upton Rays (0.9)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury/Scott Podsednik/Marlon Byrd, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (1.3)

Ellsbury might be the biggest wild card in this race, because the Red Sox can't survive much longer with the Podsednik/Byrd platoon. When will he return? How will he hit? He just started throwing and could return by the end of the month. I've conservatively put him fourth, which seems fair considering the unknown. And please note, Orioles fans, that I believe in Mr. Jones.

Right field
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (0.9)
2. Matt Joyce, Rays (2.2)
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees (-0.1)
4. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox (1.6)
5. Nick Markakis/others, Orioles (0.3)

Markakis is out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, an injury that once again reflects Baltimore's lack of depth. But all five teams are solid in right field. Ross is about to return from his broken foot; we'll see if he pounds the ball like he was before the injury (.534 slugging).

Designated hitter
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox (1.4)
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (1.6)
3. Revolving Door, Yankees
4. Chris Davis, Orioles (0.3)
5. Luke Scott, Rays (0.0)

No respect for Davis? OK, he's hitting .295/.333/.494. And he has 53 strikeouts and eight walks. Sorry, call me skeptical, O's fans. Yankee designated hitters have actually fared well, hitting a combined .279/.354/.467 with 10 home runs.

No. 1 starter
1. David Price, Rays (2.2)
2. CC Sabathia, Yankees (1.9)
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (0.3)
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Jason Hammel, Orioles (1.9)

Look, Hammel has been terrific so far thanks to a career-high strikeout rate and a career-high ground-ball rate. But this is tough group and the question is who is going to be best moving forward? My biggest concern is that Hammel has never pitched 180 innings in a season. Can he pitched the 210 to 220 that you need from a No. 1?

No. 2 starter
1. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (1.1)
2. James Shields, Rays (-0.4)
3. Andy Pettitte, Yankees (1.5)
4. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles (0.7)
5. Jon Lester, Red Sox (-0.4)

I like Chen. Heck, right now I like him better than Jon Lester, which tells you how much I like him. But he averaged just 172 innings in Japan over the past three seasons. Can he hold up over 32 starts?

No. 3 starter
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.0)
2. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees (1.4)
3. Felix Doubront, Red Sox (0.4)
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles (0.2)
5. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays (0.4)

Matusz is holding his own at 5-5, 4.41, but he's still walking a few too many, allowing a few too many hits, a few too many home runs. The velocity is solid, averaging 91 on his fastball. We're talking minor upgrades needed in his command, getting the ball down in the zone more often to get more groundballs. If the Orioles are to have any chance, Matusz's improvement may be the single most important aspect.

No. 4 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays (-0.6)
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees (0.3)
3. Jake Arrieta, Orioles (-0.4)
4. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (-1.2)
5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (-0.1)

Five pitchers who have struggled, but Arrieta's peripheral numbers are actually pretty solid. Like Matusz, there is hope for improvement. On the other hand, he's been awful since pitching eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, giving up 29 runs in 31.2 innings. His BABIP was .243 through May 2; it's .361 since. The truth is probably right in the middle, leaving Arrieta third on our list of fourth starters.

No. 5 starter
1. Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann, Rays (0.3)
2. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (0.1)
3. Phil Hughes, Yankees (0.2)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook/Daniel Bard, Red Sox (-0.3)
5. Tommy Hunter, Orioles (-0.5)

Hunter isn't really a major league starter, but I'm not sure Jamie Moyer -- just signed to a minor league contract -- is exactly a solution. The Orioles need to upgrade here.

Bullpen
1. Yankees (2.76 ERA)
2. Orioles (2.48 ERA)
3. Red Sox (3.66 ERA)
4. Rays (3.43 ERA)
5. Blue Jays (4.39 ERA)

If you watched Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson close out Wednesday's win, you'll realize the back of the Orioles' end has two guys with filthy stuff. Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala are strike-throwing machines and Troy Patton is a lefty who isn't a LOOGY. It's a good pen and it's deep. But the reliability of the pen ties into the rotation's inability to pitch deep into games -- Orioles relievers have already thrown 39 more innings than Yankees relievers, for example.

OK, let’s add it up … one point for ranking first, five points for ranking fifth. Hey, this isn’t meant to be scientific, so don’t overanalyze this too much. The totals:

Yankees: 36 points
Rays: 40 points
Red Sox: 45 points
Blue Jays: 51 points
Orioles: 53 points

Not the respect Orioles fans are seeking. Sorry about that; it’s nothing personal. Look, I don’t think the Orioles are going to fade away anytime soon. I worry about the rotation’s ability to hold up all summer and the bullpen’s workload. They lack depth on offense and have a couple of obvious holes. Hey, you never know, and the Orioles are certainly due for a winning season. I would love to see it happen.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Javier Lopez Jake Roth/US PresswireJavier Lopez is sending a message to Mark Kotsay: Tag, you're out!

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