SweetSpot: Angel Pagan

Absent star performances, Giants struggle

July, 1, 2013

The defending world champs are taking a tumble of late. Between a 10-17 June and an MLB-low 16 wins since May 14 (tied with the Brewers), the San Francisco Giants are falling fast at a time when the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and perhaps even the Padres all seem to have gotten their acts together.

There’s no magic bullet to sift out of the data to suggest that they’re going to turn themselves around all that easily. It isn’t like the pen’s a problem or they’ve been unlucky in tight games. No, the Giants’ real problem is a more demoralizing combination of two factors that aren’t easily fixed.

First, there’s the flat-out poor performance from the rotation that was half of their formula for success (Buster Posey + Pitching = Profit). The Giants’ road ERA of 5.30 ranks 28th in the league. Matt Cain’s five straight quality starts suggests that at least he might be getting back to pitching like himself, but with Ryan Vogelsong down and Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito now reliably unreliable, it’s hard to see how the Giants get back to boasting one of baseball’s best rotations. Moving The Freak to the pen might get better value out of him, but it doesn’t answer whom they would get innings and winnable ballgames from for the next half-season.

That might suggest that lefty Mike Kickham, Monday’s starter, could be part of the cure to what ails them, but Kickham is in danger of being a symptom of the Giants’ other problem: depth.

That’s because once you get past the bold-print signal successes by Giants player development, guys like Madison Bumgarner and Posey, you don’t find a lot of homegrown goodness ready to step in once their veterans struggle or break down. Fortunate as they were to run into a scrap-heap find like Vogelsong, without him the Giants are learning how the other half lives when it comes to conjuring up quality pitching -- and not the half that can call up a Gerrit Cole or Michael Wacha or Tyler Skaggs in their moments of need. Kickham has a nice arm and he rates well within the Giants organization. But that isn’t the same thing as having a top-shelf prospect who is going to help you stay in a game or in a race, or fix your organization.

That lack of depth also crops up when you take note of the rest of the roster. They’ve had to do without third baseman Pablo Sandoval for weeks at a time, and center fielder Angel Pagan might be gone until September.

While you might fret that the recent absence of Kung Fu Panda is the problem, you’d be wrong, because this goes beyond him. The Giants went 8-11 in the games Sandoval has had to miss so far, scoring just 4.06 runs per game -- which isn’t very different from the 4.11 runs they’re averaging on the year. They’re just a .500 team with Sandoval, and a little less than that without him. Maybe some of that can be blamed on bloat; of expectations of what Panda’s capable of, or of the Panda himself. But much like the rotation, the problem has been less one of absence and more one of flat-out mediocrity or worse when Sandoval is playing.

On the other hand, if you really want to play this “How bad are they without Player X?” game, the missing man you really want to talk about might be Pagan. The Giants are 12-20 since Pagan went on the DL, and they’re scoring just 3.5 runs per game in that span. Maybe that would fly when the Giants had the best rotation in baseball, but that’s no longer the case. Pagan might not be Rickey Henderson or Tim Raines at the top of the order, but on a roster already winging it with waiver-bait journeymen like Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres to cover left field, losing Pagan was a hit the Giants’ offense could ill afford. What runs the Giants automatically pick up on the competition because of Posey behind the plate, they’ve handed back because of a low-powered outfield beyond Hunter Pence.

Keep in mind, the Giants have more than a few guys hitting about as well as you might have expected from them coming into the year. Pence is putting up an .809 OPS; his career mark is .813. Marco Scutaro might have come down from last year’s epic stretch performance, but he’s delivering his highest OPS since the 2009 campaign that represented a career best at the time. Brandon Belt isn’t hitting much less than projected. Heck, even Brandon Crawford is having a career year by his own (admittedly modest) standards. These Giants are doing about as well as you could reasonably expect -- and it isn’t enough to carry a club while the stars struggle.

Last week’s revelation that Pagan needed surgery that will keep him out until at least early September doesn’t help matters, because the farm system doesn’t have anything close to resembling a ready alternative.

This is not to pick on the Giants’ farm system. Posey and Bumgarner are the sort of studs any player-development team would want to hang its hats on. It isn’t like they’re already out of an NL West race that any of the five teams could yet win. But without ready-now talent to call up or already-rostered veterans worth turning to, the Giants’ bid depends on their stars to step up. Posey already is, Bumgarner is and Cain seems back, too.

But as the deadline approaches, the question should be less whether Brian Sabean pulls a deadline-day rabbit or two out of his hat, but whether even that would give the Giants enough to overcome a roster that isn’t deep enough to sustain getting anything less than excellence from any of their stars.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

This whole closer thing is a tough business. Perfection isn't just expected; it's demanded. Slip up once and it's a headline; slip up twice and fans are ready to trade you to Topeka. Slip up three times and your manager usually starts questioning your intestinal fortitude. As the late, great Dan Quisenberry once said, "A manager uses a relief pitcher like a six-shooter: He fires until it's empty then takes the gun and throws it at the villain."

The trouble with closers, and the decisions managers have to make when they start to struggle: When do you know if the chamber is empty?

Three playoff contenders suffered wrenching defeats this weekend when their closers blew multirun leads. Blown saves in one-run games are bad enough; blowing leads of two or three runs is generally unacceptable. The victims, or saboteurs if you prefer: Jim Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles, Chris Perez of the Cleveland Indians, and Fernando Rodney of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Here's what happened:
  • The Orioles led the Blue Jays 5-2 on Sunday entering the bottom of the ninth, but Edwin Encarnacion doubled, Adam Lind grounded a single up the middle and J.P. Arencibia lined a base hit to right. A fly out, walk and fielder's choice made it 5-4 with runners at the corners and two outs. Light-hitting Munenori Kawasaki was at the plate. Johnson threw Kawasaki six consecutive fastballs -- six of his signature mid-90s sinker -- but the sixth one didn't sink much. The pitch hung out over the middle of the plate, and Kawasaki lined it into left center for a game-winning two-run double. The Orioles lost just one game last season they led heading into the ninth inning; they already have five such defeats in 2013. Johnson has lost three of those, and he has two other defeats, as well.
  • The Indians also led 5-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, ready to salvage a split of a four-game series at Fenway Park. Dustin Pedroia walked to lead off, and, as you can probably guess, bad things happen when you walk the leadoff batter with a three-run lead. David Ortiz doubled. A groundout scored a run, Ortiz stole third and then another groundout made it 5-4. But now the bases were empty and Perez had two outs. He walked Jonny Gomes, who is hitting .200 without a homer against right-handed pitchers; Stephen Drew lined a base hit to right; and Perez walked light-hitting Jose Iglesias. Terry Francona had finally had enough and brought in Joe Smith to face Jacoby Ellsbury, who won it with a double to left center. It was the first game Cleveland lost entering the ninth inning and just the second loss for the bullpen, but Perez has been shaky of late. Last week, he blew a two-run lead in the ninth to Seattle only to get the win, and two days later, he gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth only to be rescued again as Cleveland won in extra innings. That's seven runs his past three outings.
  • Rodney blew his fifth save on Saturday night, a 3-1 lead against the Yankees, who won in 11 innings. The Rays have now lost three games they led entering the ninth (and five they led entering the eighth). Last season, when Rodney allowed just nine runs all season and the entire pen was stellar, those figures were two and three.

So that's the play-by-play of disaster. That all three are struggling isn't necessarily a big surprise. Their Proven Closer labels were a little dubious entering the season, especially for Johnson and Rodney, who each had just one full season as a closer under the belt. In fact, it's time we take the magic out of the whole "closer mystique" nonsense that everybody likes to pretend exists. The fact that guys like Jason Grilli of the Pirates and Edward Mujica of the Cardinals are doing just fine is another indication that closers are often lucked into, not made.

There are few great ones -- Mariano Rivera, of course, and Craig Kimbrel (although even he has three blown saves) -- but the truth is that for most of these guys there's a slender margin between invincibility and Tom Niedenfuer. That's exactly what we're seeing with Johnson, Rodney and Perez this season.

Johnson is a pitch-to-contact closer whom sabermetric analysts predicted would be hard-pressed to match his big 2012 campaign when he saved 51 games. His strikeout rate is up, but that's because he's throwing more pitches up in the zone; a sinker up in the zone is a bad pitch. Last season, Johnson's ground ball rate was 62 percent; this season, it's 42 percent. Thus, he's getting hit more.

Perez was an All-Star the past two seasons, but his 3.45 ERA during that span is hardly elite material for a closer. He's always been a guy who lives on the edge, a decent reliever who got the ninth-inning role. His heat map shows a lot more pitches up in the zone this season, as well -- he's already allowed five doubles, four home runs and 10 walks in 16⅔ innings.

Rodney's implosion is probably the least surprising of the three. From 2007 to 2011, his ERA was more than 4.00 each season. Last season, he suddenly developed the perfect feel for his changeup to go along with fastball command, and batters hit .071 off it with 55 Ks and five walks. This season, the fastball command hasn't been there, and neither has the dominance on the changeup. He's already walked 18 batters (including 10 on changeups) after walking 15 all of last season. After giving up four extra-base hits in 2012, that total is already at nine. In other words, instead of getting Dennis Eckersley in his prime, the Rays are back to getting Fernando Rodney.

The managers of these clubs have some difficult decisions. Because all three have the Proven Closer label, how many chances do they get? And just shuffling them into the eighth-inning role and promoting the setup guy to closer doesn't necessarily solve anything; they can blow games just as easily in the eighth as in the ninth. Orioles manager Buck Showalter has the best options, as relievers Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day and Brian Matusz have all pitched well.

"We should be getting on the plane with three wins here, but I can't hang my head too long," Johnson said after the game. "It's going to hurt for a little bit, and it should."

For now, it appears Johnson will keep his job despite four blown saves in his past five appearances. But no matter what happens the rest of the season, the ninth inning has already been a disaster for the Orioles. Last season, the average team lost 3.7 games it lead heading into the ninth. As mentioned, that's already five such defeats for the O's this season. And each one has hurt a little bit.



Which closer should lose his job?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,919)

Three stars

1. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers. Sanchez lost his no-hit bid on Friday when Joe Mauer singled with one out in the ninth. After Detroit acquired Sanchez from the Marlins last season, his strong performance in the playoffs led the Tigers to sign him to an $80 million contract that seemed a little ambitious considering his 3.65 career ERA and the fact that he'd never pitched 200 innings in a season. So far, however, Sanchez has been much better than a midrotation starter, as he's increased his strikeout rate from 20.4 percent a season ago to 30.6 percent now. While he's getting more strikeouts with all four of his pitches, the biggest increase has been with his fastball, which had a strikeout rate of 13.8 percent on plate appearances ending with the pitch in 2012 but 28 percent this season. The command of his fastball -- especially on the outside corner to righties -- has made his other pitches even more effective.

2. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals. For a guy who is "struggling," Strasburg has looked pretty good of late. He allowed just one run in eight innings against the Phillies on Sunday. In his past three starts, he's allowed four runs and just 13 hits in 23 innings. He's recorded 39 groundouts and 15 fly outs over those three starts. He's still seeking his first double-digit strikeout game of the season but still has 71 Ks in 72⅓ innings. While his ERA of 2.49 is a little misleading -- he's allowed nine unearned runs -- his recent outings should alleviate the minor concerns about his early performance.

3. Pete Kozma, Cardinals. How to beat Clayton Kershaw? The Cardinals shortstop went 4-for-4 on Sunday with three doubles; three of those hits came off Kershaw, including a three-run double and rally-starting two-base hit, as the Cardinals won 5-3.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Of our many walk-off heroes, how about Chris Young of the A's? The A's trailed the Astros 5-3 on Friday. Jose Veras walked John Jaso and Coco Crisp on 3-2 pitches, setting the stage for Young with two outs. Young did this on a 1-1 curveball. The A's are now five games over .500 -- thanks in large part to a 9-0 record against the Astros, who they've outscored 68 to 31. Hey, if they go 19-0 against the Astros, it's going to be hard to deny them another trip to the playoffs.

Best game
The Giants fell behind 4-0 to the Rockies on Saturday but chipped away and tied the game in the seventh. Manager Bruce Bochy got ejected in the eighth when Marco Scutaro was thrown out at third base, and the Giants escaped a two-on, nobody-out jam in the ninth. Troy Tulowitzki homered off a Sergio Romo slider in the 10th. But then, after the usually steady Rafael Betancourt walked Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan lofted a deep fly to right center that kicked off the wall … and, well, Pagan ran 360 feet around the bases, helped a bit by a lazy relay throw from Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler.

Hitter on the rise: Matt Dominguez, Astros
When the Astros acquired Dominguez last season from the Marlins for Carlos Lee, everyone knew he had a major league caliber glove at third base. After going homerless in his first 33 games, doubts began increasing about his bat. Dominguez, however, has now popped seven homers in his past 13 games. His season line still needs some work, especially in the on-base department (.279), but he's starting to look like a positive in this dismal Astros season.

Pitcher on the rise: Jason Vargas, Angels
Don't look now, but the Angels have won eight in a row and are a respectable 23-27. Did they start too late, just like last season? Vargas is 4-0 with a 2.25 ERA in May, allowing nine runs in five starts. The Angels' next 10 games are against the Dodgers, Astros and Cubs. If they're a couple games over .500 at the end of those 10 games, they'll be back in the wild-card race.

Team on the rise: White Sox
Besides the Angels and Pirates (last week's team on the rise), the hottest club is the White Sox. We keep wanting to count out the South Siders, but, somehow, they find a way to hang in there. They don't score much, but they've won nine of 12 the old-fashioned way: with starting pitching. The starters have a 3.25 ERA over those 12 games, and that despite ace Chris Sale missing his last start with mild tendinitis in his shoulder. He's scheduled to start Tuesday against the Cubs.

Team on the fall: Mariners
They pulled out an extra-inning victory over the Rangers on Sunday, but that ended an eight-game losing streak. Starters not named Hernandez or Iwakuma have combined for a 6.78 ERA, which essentially means three-fifths of the Seattle rotation is below replacement level. The Jesus Montero catching experiment was finally, mercifully, brought to an end as he was demoted to Triple-A to see if he can rediscover the supposed hitting prowess that once made him a top-10 prospect (and play some first base). Dustin Ackley continues to be awful and Michael Saunders is three for his past 37. Things are so bad that Mariners fans are excited about Justin Smoak and his .698 OPS.

What does it mean to win 94 games?

December, 18, 2012
One of the fun aspects of what I do is the ongoing dialogue we can engage in. When I posted my top-10 power rankings on Sunday, and then a follow-up on why I didn't include the Giants, I heard it loud and clear from Giants fans on Twitter and in the comments section. OK, OK, I get it: I didn't show your team enough respect. The two major gripes were: (A) The Giants are not only the defending World Series champions, but have won two in three years; (B) They won 94 games in 2012.

[+] EnlargeTim Lincecum
H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY SportsTim Lincecum starred for the Giants' 2010 Series winners, but worked mostly from the pen in the 2012 postseason.
Starting with the first one, I'd argue what happened in 2010 is completely irrelevant to what may happen in 2013, especially since the 2012 Giants only had one starting position player who was the same in both postseasons, (Buster Posey, as Pablo Sandoval was benched for much of the 2010 playoffs). The 2010 playoff rotation didn't include Barry Zito (not on the roster) and the 2012 rotation didn't include Tim Lincecum (demoted to the bullpen), except for one start. So the two teams really weren't the same team (which is a credit to the front office). As for the 2012 results, I understand the desire to give credit to the team that just won it all, but I also don't think it's accurate to give too much credit for predicting 2013 based on what happened in 2012 -- and, specifically, placing too much emphasis, for example, for beating the Reds in a five-game series that swung on Brandon Phillips' baserunning play in Game 3 and Johnny Cueto's injury.

But that paragraph won't win over Giants fans. This next section might not either, but here goes. What does winning 94 games mean exactly? Now, one of my arguments in leaving the Giants out of the top 10 was that I believe their true talent level is lower than that of a 94-win team. But even leaving that aside, let's say 94 wins is 94 wins, regardless of how a team got there. What happens the next season? I looked at all teams in the wild-card era to win 94 games -- and, to get a larger sample size, all teams that won 93 or 95 games as well. This gave us 31 teams, not including 2012. The results:

  • Those 31 teams declined by an average of seven wins the following season.
  • Eight teams did improve, by an average of four wins per season.
  • Two teams had the same record.
  • That means 21 of the 31 teams declined -- by an average of nine wins per season.

Look, when you win 94 games -- when any team wins 94 games -- that means a lot of things probably went right: The rotation stayed healthy or somebody had a monster season or the bullpen came together or the team did particularly well in one-run games. That's not always the case, of course; a talented team can win 94 games based on depth alone, even without career seasons. But, as you can see from the numbers above and the table below, 94-win teams decline. As Bill James outlined in his early writings, there are six "indicators" that can be used to predict a team's improvement or decline the following season. Let's run each through for the Giants.

1. Pythagorean record. Teams that outperform their Pythagorean record tend to improve the following season. The Giants outperformed theirs by six wins. So this may not be the strike against the Giants that I indicated.

2. The Plexiglass Principle. Teams that improve one season tend to decline the next, and vice versa. The Giants improved from 2011, so this would suggest a decline in 2013.

3. The Law of Competitive Balance. All teams tend to drift toward a .500 record, which is known as regression to the mean. This would also suggest a decline.

4. Age. Not surprising, young teams tend to improve and old teams to decline. The Giants are a mixed bag here -- their weighted age for batters was eighth-youngest in the majors, but their weighted age for pitchers was fifth-oldest. The Giants' big moves have been to re-sign Angel Pagan (who turns 32 next season) and Marco Scutaro (who turned 37 in October).

5. Late-season performance. Teams which play better in the second half tend to improve the following season. The Giants played better in the second half -- 48-28 versus 46-40 -- so another positive sign (especially since Melky Cabrera missed much of the second half).

6. Performance of Triple-A team. This speaks to organizational depth. Fresno was 74-70 (and Double-A Richmond 70-71), so this seems like neither a positive nor a negative.

Anyway, I don't know if all these indicators still hold true. The game is always evolving and changing and we can always conduct new studies of old ideas. One final note: Of the teams that did improve below, you'll note that several made major offseason acquisitions -- the 2009-10 Phillies traded for Roy Halladay, the 2005-06 Yankees added Johnny Damon, the 2003-04 Red Sox added Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, the 2001-02 Yankees signed Jason Giambi and David Wells.

The Giants have elected to stand pat (for now). Hey, I could be wrong. Buster Olney put them No. 1 in his power rankings. As great as the October run was by the Giants, that run is over. Flags fly forever, but they don't predict the future.

How could I leave the defending World Series champions out of my top 10 offseason power rankings? Giants fans weren't happy. One of my editors wasn't happy. So here you go. Ten reasons I didn't have the Giants in my top 10:

1. The Giants in 2012 scored 718 runs and allowed 649. This would normally result in a record of 88-74, meaning the Giants exceeded their expected record -- based on those runs scored and allowed totals -- by six wins. That was tied with the Reds for the second-highest positive differential in the league, behind the Orioles' historically anomalous plus-11. To me, this means the Giants' true talent level is closer to that of an 88-win team than a 94-win team.

2. Now, Giants fans will argue this is because of their good bullpen or the team's ability to "play the game the right way." The Giants did have a good record in one-run games: 30-20, the fifth-best percentage in the majors (although it's worth noting that the Indians had the third-best such percentage). It's also true that the Giants exceeded their projected record by six wins in 2011, tied for the highest differential in the majors. In 2010, however, they underperformed by two wins. While there is some correlation between a good bullpen and a team's record in one-run games, that isn't always the case. Tampa Bay had an outstanding bullpen in 2012, led by Fernando Rodney, but was 21-27 in one-run games. The Yankees were 22-25 in one-run games but the Marlins were 26-26. I'm not suggesting the Giants don't play the "right way," but we're trying to quantify talent here.

3. You can also argue that the Giants exceeded their runs scored totals based on their offensive components. For example, the Giants and Reds posted an identical .314 wOBA, yet the Giants scored 49 more runs than the Reds. The Giants hit .269/.327/.397 while the Diamondbacks hit .259/.328/.418, yet Arizona scored just 16 more runs. The Giants raised their game with men on base, hitting .276/.341/.412, and hit even better in "high leverage" situations at .293/.358/.443. This ability to produce in what we'll call clutch situations isn't necessarily a repeatable skill.

4. Melky Cabrera was awesome in 2012, hitting .346/.390/.516 in 501 plate appearances prior to his season-ending suspension. Right now, the Giants haven't replaced that, as Gregor Blanco -- certainly an adequate fourth outfielder -- would be the regular left fielder. Cabrera created about 93 runs in his 501 PAs; Blanco created about 52 in 453; prorated over 501 PAs, that's still a 35-run drop from Cabrera.

5. Possible regression from Buster Posey and Angel Pagan. MVP winner Posey hit .336/.408/.549, but much of that damage was built up against left-handers, off whom he hit .433 with a .793 slugging percentage. Against right-handers he hit .292 with a more pedestrian .440 slugging. Posey also hit .368 on balls in play -- the sixth-best mark in the majors. It's entirely possible that's a real skill, but if I had to predict, I would predict Posey doesn't hit .336 again. Pagan had an inspired season in 2012 and is one of the more underrated players in baseball. He's also one year removed from a poor season with the Mets and has to show he can put back-to-back seasons together.

6. Hunter Pence. Overrated.

7. Marco Scutaro hit .362 for the Giants. Marco Scutaro is not a .362 hitter.

8. The rotation didn't miss a start in 2012, as the top five guys started 160 of 162 games (Eric Hacker made one start because of a doubleheader and Yusmeiro Petit made one late-season start). Can Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito all stay healthy again? They'll need to as there isn't much depth on the 40-man roster -- Petit, who owns a 5.54 career ERA in the majors -- would be the apparent fill-in guy right now. It just seems to me that odds of all five guys not missing any time two straight years is pretty slim.

9. Tim Lincecum. As good as he pitched out of the bullpen in the playoffs, let's not forget he was one of the worst starters in the majors last season, with a 5.18 ERA, including a 6.43 ERA away from the friendly confines of AT&T Park. Now there are some positive signs here: He was better in the second half (3.83 ERA) and his FIP of 4.18 suggests better peripherals than his actual ERA. But I don't think we can assume he's still the elite pitcher he was until we see better results.

10. The NL West looks tougher. The Dodgers should be better, the Diamondbacks should be better and the young Padres could be better. The Giants played .625 ball against the NL West last year, .544 against everyone else, so a tougher division could eat into their overall win-loss record.

Now, OF COURSE I COULD BE WRONG. The Giants surprised us in 2010 and then went on their unlikely postseason run in 2012 after losing their first two games to the Reds in the Division Series. The Giants are certainly a good club. But there are a lot of good clubs right now, and I just don't see the Giants as a great club. If the rotation stays healthy and Lincecum bounces back, the Giants will be right there once again. And maybe win their third title in four years.
Assuming the Giants weren't interested in the big-dollar free-agent outfielders -- Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher -- re-signing Angel Pagan to a four-year, $40 million deal appears to be a solid deal, even if the Giants ended up going to a fourth season they would have preferred not doing.

Still, let's be honest here: $10 million a year for a 31-year-old outfielder who has had two good seasons as a full-time player (2010 and 2012) is obviously not risk-free ... and certainly a sign of the money available in the game right now. Since 2009 Pagan has hit .285/.337/.427, which makes him a slightly above average offensive performer, especially for a center fielder. In 2012, he hit .289 and slugged .483 away from AT&T Park (seven of his eight home runs came on the road). Having a player comfortable with hitting at AT&T -- and not getting frustrated when a long fly ball is caught deep in the gap -- had to be an important consideration for the Giants.

The questions: How good is Pagan defensively, and how long will he stick in center field? His Defensive Runs Saved the past three seasons:

2010: +21
2011: -8
2012: -6

Certainly, the Giants like his ability to play center, or at least believe that he can cover all that ground in San Francisco well enough. But what are the odds he sticks in center field for the next four seasons? Next year is technically his age-31 season (he turns 32 on July 2), so this deal takes him through his age-34 season. Here are the number of full-time center fielders (500 plate appearances, at least half their games played in center) by age over the past five seasons:

Age 31: 8
Age 32: 5
Age 33: 1 (Torii Hunter in 2009)
Age 34: 1 (Hunter in 2010)

That's not per season. That's total. Center field is a young man's position. The only regular out there at age 33 and 34 was Torii Hunter.

Hmm ... this makes the deal appear a lot more questionable, doesn't it? Pagan may already be losing a step in center from just a couple years ago, so he's very unlikely to still be out there in three or four seasons. For the short term, this contract should be fine; but in the final two years, Pagan is unlikely to have the speed and range to play a quality center field, and his bat could be questionable for a corner outfield spot.

Hey, if Pagan can help the Giants win another World Series in 2013 or 2014, they probably won't care too much if he's a $10 million fourth outfielder in 2016.

What the Phillies need to do for 2013

December, 1, 2012
The Phillies are in an interesting and unfamiliar position this offseason. Finishing at 81-81, they watched the playoffs from home for the first time since 2006, a result of a rash of injuries and under-performing players, particularly the young arms in the bullpen. With one of baseball's largest payrolls, they have the capacity to quickly bounce back from yesterday's mistakes by acquiring premier talent via free agency.

It isn't as simple as paying the most money for the best players, however. Some players come with risks, some aren't worth the money they are requesting, and some aren't very likely to be as productive going forward. That is why the Phillies, eager to reclaim the NL East throne from the Washington Nationals, need to be cautious and studious this winter. Here are five strategies the Phillies should utilize for a more successful 2013 season.

5. Avoid Josh Hamilton

Hamilton is reported to be expecting Prince Fielder money. That is, a contract in excess of $200 million. Back in January, Fielder signed with the Tigers on a nine-year, $214 million contract. Hamilton won't get anything close to nine years because he turns 32 in May, but as one of baseball's best hitters, he can put the onus on other teams to prove how much they need his bat.

The Phillies don't need to think very hard to come up with a contract given to a player older than 30 that hasn't turned out very well. In April 2010, GM Ruben Amaro agreed to a five-year, $125 million contract extension with first baseman Ryan Howard that covers his age 32-36 seasons. Lauded at the time, it has since turned out to be the signature blunder of the Amaro era, hamstringing the Phillies in many ways.

It isn't as if Hamilton is an outlier older player worthy of the risk. His injury history is long and mysterious. Just in the past two years, he has missed time because of your standard foot and groin injuries, but also sinus problems and migraines. Older players don't become more durable, even with today's era of incredible medical knowledge and technology. Signing Hamilton to a long-term deal not only has problems at the end of the road, but right at the start as well.

4. Embrace the platoon

When you think of platoons, you probably think of the 2012 Oakland Athletics, utilizing platoons at catcher, first base, second base and designated hitter. Sometimes it is borne of necessity; other times of luxury. The Phillies are somewhere in between in that they don't have players thought of as ideal for the situation, but neither do they have players so bad in one matchup that they would be shooting themselves in the foot otherwise.

Third base is one position where they should platoon, simply because there aren't any reasonable full-time options available in free agency and their internal options are less than stellar. The Phillies re-signed Kevin Frandsen, who had a breakout year in 2012 in just over 200 plate appearances. However, Frandsen had a .980 OPS against left-handed pitchers compared to just .762 against right-handers. Eric Chavez, a left-handed hitter who faced mostly right-handers with the Yankees in 2012, would be a cheap, non-risky platoon partner with Frandsen. Chavez posted a .908 OPS against right-handers and a shockingly low .382 mark against lefties.

[+] EnlargePhiladelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard
Andrew Woolley/Four Seam Images via AP ImagesDespite his hefty salary, it's time to bench Ryan Howard against left-handed starters.
With Domonic Brown in one corner, the Phillies should use a platoon in the other, sandwiching a newcomer in center. Nate Schierholtz and John Mayberry would be an easy in-house pairing. Last year, Schierholtz tagged RHP for an .826 OPS and lefties just .444 while Mayberry was at .626 and .811 respectively. Schierholz was non-tendered, but could still be brought back.

Here's a controversial one for you: The Phillies should platoon Howard at first base. It would never happen, as it would be admitting in the second year of Howard's five-year deal that they made a grievous error, but Howard has been subpar against lefties for a few years now, and he is only trending downward. Since 2010, his OPS against southpaws has gone .826, .634, .604. If the Phillies don't utilize Mayberry in an outfield platoon, they could pair him up with Howard at first base. Otherwise, they could find someone in free agency or give breakout prospect Darin Ruf a shot. Ruf posted a 1.593 OPS against lefties in the minors and 1.326 in 22 chances at the major league level in September.

3. Rely on young bullpen arms

This strategy backfired early in the season for the Phillies, but in fairness, so, too, did their reliance on veteran arms such as Jose Contreras and Chad Qualls. Antonio Bastardo did not follow up a breakout 2011 with similar results, while Michael Schwimer disappointed, and Mike Stutes and David Herndon succumbed to season-ending injuries. The only consistently bright light was closer Jonathan Papelbon, who finished with 38 saves and a 2.44 ERA in his first season after signing a four-year, $50 million contract with the Phillies last offseason.

There was reason to believe that several of the young arms were simply victims of bad timing and bad luck. Bastardo might have had a 4.33 ERA, but his strikeout rate improved and his walk rate didn't change. Pitchers have a lot of control over strikeouts and walks, whereas they tend not to have much control over the conversion of batted balls into outs. His SIERA -- Skill Interactive ERA, which is a "retrodictor," telling you what a pitcher's ERA should have been based on factors in his control -- was 2.47, almost two full runs per nine innings lower than his ERA. So there is plenty of reason to think Bastardo will rebound in 2013.

Jeremy Horst, Phillippe Aumont, and Jake Diekman are three more who finished with a SIERA below 4.00, creating reason for optimism going forward. The Phillies were reported to have traded for Astros reliever Wilton Lopez, but it reached a snag because of his elbow. If the trade does fall through, the Phillies shouldn't scramble to find someone else such as Mike Adams; they should be content to roll into the next season relying on a group of young arms that have as much talent and potential as anyone else out there.

2. Get Angel Pagan

Three of the six leaders in WAR (per Baseball Reference) among center fielders since 2009 are free agents this offseason: Michael Bourn (1st, 19.0 WAR), Pagan (t-5th, 13.9 WAR), and Shane Victorino (t-5th, 13.9 WAR). Why, then, is Pagan preferable to Bourn and Victorino? As you may have heard, Bourn is expected to take home quite a hefty contract on the heels of an extremely productive 2012 season with the Atlanta Braves. As for Victorino, he should be utilized as a platoon player as I noted on Twitter recently:


Pagan is viewed as the Plan A for smaller market teams, and the fallback option for teams that miss out on the likes of B.J. Upton, Hamilton, and Bourn. Pagan should get a three- or four-year deal in the $50 million range, so the Phillies would save themselves a bit of money and commit less to a player who will put up similar production.

Pagan fits in well with the Phillies, too. He would make for a great leadoff hitter as his .338 OBP was nearly 30 points better than the league average, and he stole 29 bases in 36 attempts as well (81 percent). They have been using Jimmy Rollins in the leadoff spot, but his on-base percentage has left a lot to be desired in recent years. Additionally, Pagan would provide power they wouldn't get from Bourn -- 35 percent of Pagan's hits went for extra bases in 2012, compared to Bourn's 26 percent.

1. Give Chase Utley and Howard scheduled days off

In each of the past two years, the Phillies expressed the desire to give their franchise cornerstones more scheduled days off given their advancing age and injury histories, but it never happened. Last year in particular, the Phillies called Utley's presumptive schedule "two on, one off" but it ended up being more like "two on, two more on, two more on, two more on ..." You get the picture. Utley made his his season debut on June 27. Starting on July 6, he would play in 35 consecutive games. He returned on August 20, then played in another 41 consecutive games. Utley is the breed of ballplayer who gives 110 percent every second he's on the baseball field, so he is not someone who can be trusted to pace himself; the Phillies need to intervene on his behalf and tell him to take a breather.

It was painful to watch Howard run the bases when he returned from an Achilles injury in July. Once-routine doubles required too much effort and he went first-to-third less often than he did when he was healthy (which wasn't much). Despite looking less-than-100 percent and hitting like it, too, Howard was in the lineup most days, starting in 66 of the 77 games in which he appeared. Howard didn't improve with time, either, as he posted a .601 OPS in 104 plate appearances in September and early October.

Depending on what the Phillies do at third base, Freddy Galvis will likely be on the bench most days, so he would be a suitable stand-in for Utley once a week. He doesn't have a major league-ready bat and might never, but his defense is already among the best at the position. The Phillies wouldn't lose too much relying on Galvis for 25 starts at second base during the season. And, as mentioned, Howard hasn't handled left-handed pitching well over the years, so sitting him against a tough lefty starter (such as Gio Gonzalez) in favor of Mayberry or Ruf has the two-sided benefit of giving Howard rest and getting a more productive player in the lineup.

Bill Baer runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.

Phillies to set sights on Michael Bourn?

November, 29, 2012
Michael BournDaniel Shirey/US PresswireWhat Michael Bourn lacks in power, he makes up for with elite speed and solid defense.

Center fielder B.J. Upton and the Atlanta Braves agreed to a five-year, $75.25 million deal on Wednesday night, marking the first big free-agent move of the offseason. The Philadelphia Phillies, who earlier in the day made some noise by making a trade with the Houston Astros, were also rumored to be very interested in attaining the 28-year-old's services, but now they and several other teams in pursuit of a center fielder will have to search elsewhere.

The center field market is ripe, so Upton's move north from Tampa to Atlanta will cause tremors that affect other players, namely Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan and Shane Victorino. Hamilton is perceived as the jewel of this offseason's free-agent crop among position players. However, due to his age (31), mystifying injury history, and concerns off the field, some teams may be reticent to commit to him for a large sum of money over many years.

With Upton off the board, there is obviously one fewer suitor in play for the remaining batch of center fielders, meaning they have less leverage with which to bargain. For Hamilton, he has even less leverage with which to argue that he deserves more than Upton's five years since Upton is significantly younger, has a more diverse set of skills, and isn't as risky outside of the actual production. Had Hamilton been the first center fielder to sign, it is very likely he would have gotten his nine figures in total and that coveted fifth year, but he may have to settle for four years to get the kind of money he wants. Buster Olney reports the Brewers, Rangers, Red Sox, Mariners and Orioles being among the most likely destinations for the RBI machine.

Not much will change with Michael Bourn. Teams that were interested in Upton are, for the most part, also interested in Bourn because both possess great speed and steal bases effectively. Bourn doesn't have anything close to Upton's power, but has nonetheless been the better player in recent years. Since Bourn doesn't have Upton's reputation for lack of hustle and plays, by all accounts, better defense, teams will be willing to look past his light bat to bring him aboard on a four- or even five-year deal. Hamilton striking a rich deal soon would give Bourn more leverage in asking for more money than what Upton received from Atlanta. Philadelphia in particular will quickly shift their focus from Upton to Bourn while keeping the others within their purview, especially since they lack a legitimate leadoff hitter.

If one had broken the center field free-agent class into tiers, the first class would have included Hamilton, Upton and Bourn. Others, like Pagan and Victorino, would be in the second tier since they will likely go to teams that are either too poor or too patient to jump into the first-class frenzy.

Pagan may end up being the most underrated and underpaid of the bunch, having posted a total of nearly 14 WAR in the last four years according to Baseball-Reference, and that includes a terrible 1-WAR year in 2011 with the New York Mets. By comparison, Bourn has posted just over 14 WAR. Pagan may be the beneficiary of teams that miss out on the first-class bidding against each other so as not to go home without a center fielder. The Giants would love to bring Pagan back, but the same teams that had their sights on Upton and Bourn will have Pagan on file as well, so they will not be alone in their pursuit. Due to his shorter résumé than the others, Pagan could also scare some teams away by insisting on four or five years. Ken Rosenthal reports that he could sign before the winter meetings, which is smart because there are several center fielders who may be made available via trade at the winter meetings, such as Denard Span.

Victorino is particularly interesting because he has become in effect a platoon outfielder, but it goes unnoticed because he is a switch-hitter. Last season with the Phillies and Dodgers, Victorino tagged left-handed pitchers for a .906 OPS while posting an unimpressive .629 against right-handers. This is not a new thing, as he had similar splits dating back to 2010. Due to the likelihood of signing last out of the five, Victorino will also likely take home the lightest contract both in terms of years and total money. Jon Heyman reported recently that the Indians, Rangers, Yankees, Giants, Rays, Red Sox and Reds have all shown interest in Victorino, but don't count out the Phillies either if they are still left alone at the center fielder dance a month or so from now.

Every signing will have an effect on the signings that occur afterward, so this is still speculative at this point. Upton has set the standard for now, but the remaining players and their suitors will continue to act as dominoes setting up and getting knocked down until none are left standing. Center field is certainly the most interesting position to watch this offseason. By comparison, the free-agent market at third base includes such names as Placido Polanco, Eric Chavez and Jose Lopez. Grab a seat and keep a watchful eye on the center fielders as they are plucked off the board one by one.

Bill Baer runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.

Five crazy free-agent ideas

November, 3, 2012
Keith Law unveiled his list of the top 50 free agents and, as you can see, it filters out pretty quickly. Truth is teams are doing a good job these days of locking up their young stars to long-term contracts, so you just don't see the number of premium free agents like you once did. Next year's potential free-agent class looks even thinner than this year's, so considering national TV revenue more than doubles to $50 million per team starting in 2014, I expect this year's crop of free agents to receive some generous deals that will surprise us in their outlays.

As the saying goes, it only takes one.

With that said ... let's have a little fun. Here's a list of potential free-agent signings that are off the radar -- but actually make sense.

1. Zack Greinke and Nick Swisher to the Mariners.

The Mariners have only Felix Hernandez signed beyond 2013, so they have a young team with considerable payroll flexibility. They have a farm system with several highly rated prospects who could debut sometime in 2013 -- pitchers Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, catcher Mike Zunino and shortstop Nick Franklin. They have a local TV contract that pays $45 million a year but which they can opt out of after 2015 and probably get another $25 million or so. What they don't have right now is a team worth watching, let alone one that can contend with the Rangers, Angels and A's.

The Mariners aren't Kansas City or Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay -- this is a franchise that has spent in the past and drawn large crowds when successful. Ownership needs to makes some impact signings. It needs to make this team interesting and give fans hope. Spend and spend big. The rotation is thin behind Hernandez and Jason Vargas. The Mariners need an outfielder and first baseman. Greinke fits in perfectly behind Hernandez, in a media market more to his suiting and without the pressure of being a No. 1. Swisher provides some power and on-base skills and can play right field or first base. Plus, if you sign Greinke and re-sign Hisashi Iwakuma, maybe you trade one of those pitching prospects for another bat. And keep Greinke away from the Angels or Rangers.

2. Kyle Lohse and Anibal Sanchez to the Twins.

The Twins had a historically awful rotation in 2012, one that posted a 5.40 ERA that, when adjusted for the league average, made it one of the worst of all time. The offense has a solid foundation with Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau, Ryan Doumit, Denard Span, Ben Revere and Trevor Plouffe. What they need, of course, is some pitching and Lohse and Sanchez fit the bill. Lohse is a former Twin who fits the classic Twins pitcher profile -- a guy who throws strikes. Sanchez's control took a big leap forward in 2012 and he showed he can succeed in the American League.

Remember, these are not the Twins of a decade ago. They spent $113 million on payroll in 2011 and $100 million in 2012. They drew more than 3 million fans in 2010 and 2011 and 2.7 million in 2012. And despite the $23 million per season owed to Mauer through 2018, the payroll is in decent shape, especially once Morneau's $15 million is off the books after 2013.

[+] EnlargeAngel Pagan
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAngel Pagan could fill gaps in the Reds' offense and defense ... and the Giants could fill the outfield hole with Josh Hamilton.
3. Angel Pagan to the Reds.

The Reds would like to re-sign left fielder Ryan Ludwick, but the outfielder they need to pursue is Pagan. Dusty Baker loves Drew Stubbs' defense in center field, but Stubbs has become so ineffective against right-handed pitching that he's really nothing more than a platoon guy now.

Pagan fills the three primary holes for the Reds: a better center fielder, a leadoff hitter and a left-handed/switch-hitter to help balance all the right-handed bats in the Cincinnati lineup. The Reds have to give Joey Votto a $7.5 million increase in 2013, but his $19 million drops back to $12 million in 2014 (before rising again). But they've axed $14 million worth of Scott Rolen and Ryan Madson. It's a tight squeeze, but this is a team that can win it all with just a move or two. Pagan should be that move.

4. Josh Hamilton to the Giants.

Who will spend the money on Hamilton? Why not the defending champs? If any hitter can hit the ball out of AT&T Park, it's Hamilton. With Pagan heading over to the Reds and Hunter Pence a non-tender possibility, the Giants will need an outfielder. Hamilton fits perfectly, especially since the Giants can let Gregor Blanco play center field and put Hamilton in a corner. Remember, this team had huge production from Melky Cabrera that it will need to replace.

Money? Shouldn't be a problem. This is a team that ranked second in the National League in attendance the past two years and has drawn 3 million all but two years since moving into AT&T Park in 2000. Long-term contract issues aren't a problem, especially with Barry Zito's deal down to one year and Tim Lincecum signed only through 2013. That's $40 million off the books by 2014. You can give Hamilton a lower salary in 2013 and then have it escalate. Plus: A 3-4-5 of Hamilton, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval would look awfully sweet.

5. Melky Cabrera to the Rangers.

With Hamilton possibly on his way out and Nelson Cruz in decline, the Rangers need to rearm in the outfield, although moving Ian Kinsler there is a possibility with infield prospect Jurickson Profar ready for the majors. The Rangers could take advantage of what will likely be an underrated asset because of his suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs and sign Cabrera to a one-year deal with a club option for 2014.

Signing Cabrera would allow the Rangers to play defensive whiz Craig Gentry more regularly in center and let David Murphy handle regular designated-hitter duties in place of the Veteran Formerly Known As Michael Young. It's a win-win situation for both parties.
Tim LincecumKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesHaving a weapon like Tim Lincecum was a huge advantage for the Giants in the postseason.

The offseason is already in full swing, but I wanted to put a bow of sorts on the 2012 season. Let's take one final look at the 2012 postseason and see what we learned ... if anything.

1. Starting rotation depth is vital. The Giants' rotation depth was certainly a huge factor in their World Series run. Tim Lincecum pitched most of the postseason out of the bullpen, but he did make one start in the NLCS; that allowed Bruce Bochy to skip Madison Bumgarner and when Bumgarner made his World Series start on 10 days of rest, he pitched much better after looking fatigued in previous outings. Having five quality starters gives a manager flexibility -- whether using one of those pitchers out of the bullpen or to rest a tired or struggling starter. One of the key games of the postseason was Game 4 of the Division Series, when Barry Zito got knocked out in the third inning. Bochy could afford a quick hook because he had Lincecum, who pitched 4.1 innings of one-run relief.

Of course, every team wants rotation depth. The Nationals had five good ones, but squandered that advantage by electing not to use Stephen Strasburg. The Reds had four good starters, but had to use No. 5 starter Mike Leake once Johnny Cueto was injured. The Cards were able to bounce 18-game winner Lance Lynn from the bullpen back to the rotation after Jaime Garcia was injured (although Lynn pitched poorly). The 2009 Yankees used only three starters in the postseason, but they're the only team to do so since the 1991 Twins. I don't think we'll see that again, and we're more likely to see five-man rotations moving forward, as managers account for the long grind of the regular season and the high-intensity efforts required to get through playoff games.

Matt Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner were all first-round picks -- Cain the 25th pick in 2002, Lincecum the 10th pick in 2006 and Bumgarner the 10th pick in 2007. Those three -- along with Buster Posey (another first-round pick) and Pablo Sandoval (an amateur signing out of Venezuela) -- are the heart of the Giants. In his excellent wrap of the World Series, Joe Sheehan wrote in his newsletter:
    The trend is clear. If you want to build a championship team, you have to do it through the draft and through success in international signings. The 2009 Yankees, who signed three of the top four free agents the previous winter, laying out $400 million in contract commitments, may go down in history as the last team to win a championship by buying up the available talent. The economics of the game are such that you can't plan to get ten wins better in the free-agent market; you might do so with good fortune, but there won't be enough high-quality free agents available to make that something you can plan.

The catch: It's not so easy to draft a rotation of All-Stars.

Here's one way to look at that. In the past three seasons, 71 different starting pitchers have accumulated at least one season with 3.0 WAR (via Baseball-Reference.com). Only 24 of those 71 had at least two 3-WAR seasons. Only 13 of those 24 compiled both (or all three) seasons with the team that originally drafted or signed them -- Justin Verlander (3), Clayton Kershaw (3), Jered Weaver (3), Cole Hamels (3), Felix Hernandez (3), Cain (3), Mark Buehrle (3, two with the White Sox), Cueto (2), C.J. Wilson (2, both with the Rangers), David Price (2), Lincecum (2), Jon Lester (2) and Josh Johnson (2).

You see where I've gone here: It's difficult to draft a homegrown rotation. In Cain and Lincecum, the Giants have two of 13 of a rare breed. Plus they have Bumgarner, who has compiled 3.9 WAR over the past two seasons, but 8.7 WAR via FanGraphs' calculations.

Building a homegrown rotation might be the goal, but the reality is the Giants are the exception. Most teams will have to piece together a rotation via all the means possible -- finding a Ryan Vogelsong off the scrap heap, acquiring an undervalued talent like Doug Fister, trading prospects for a young rotation anchor like Gio Gonzalez, or signing a veteran free agent.

2. Lineup depth matters. As Dave Cameron wrote on FanGraphs:
    From 1-6, the Tigers are probably the best team in baseball. From 7-25, however, there isn’t a team in baseball better than San Francisco, and those 19 players were the guys who made the difference for the Giants in their playoff run.

When Victor Martinez tore up his knee in an offseason workout, the Tigers elected to give $23 million in 2012 to Prince Fielder. His bat went cold in the playoffs, but Fielder pretty much performed as expected during the regular season. The Tigers, however, had glaring holes throughout the lineup, holes that were obvious on paper heading into the season -- second base, designated hitter, corner outfield. The Giants certainly had some wasted payroll ($16 million spent on Aubrey Huff and Freddy Sanchez), but they essentially used their Fielder money on Melky Cabrera ($6 million), Angel Pagan ($4.85 million) and portions of the Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro contracts.

As Dave wrote, "The Giants simply didn’t ask any bad players to play vital roles in October. What they lacked at the top end of the roster, they made up for at the back-end. Despite the fact that it’s an overused cliche, the Giants really did win through a team effort. And they won because the roster was smartly constructed to avoid pitfalls."

If there's one thing to be learned from the Giants' roster construction, it's that $23 million can be wisely spent on depth as opposed to one star player. Fielder was worth 4.4 WAR to the Tigers; Cabrera, Pagan, Pence and Scutaro provided 10.9 WAR to the Giants.

3. Not striking out is the new on-base percentage. The Giants famously finished last in the NL in home runs -- last in the majors, for that matter. Some of that power outage is attributable to their home park, and to the fact that they play a large percentage of their road games in San Diego and Los Angeles, two more pitcher's parks. But the Giants hit doubles and triples (they led the majors in three-baggers), they run the bases well, were decent at drawing walks, and ranked third in the NL in batting average.

In fact, their home park masked what was actually an excellent offensive team. While the Giants ranked just sixth in the NL in runs scored overall, they scored 46 more runs on the road than any other NL team. Remarkably, only the Angels scored more runs on the road. We saw throughout the postseason how they were able to do this: They battle, put the ball in play and put pressure on the defense to make plays. Only the Phillies had fewer strikeouts among NL teams.

If there's one trend that develops from this postseason, this might be it. Not striking out doesn't necessarily make you a productive a hitter, however. For the Giants, it was a means to their productivity. The three teams that struck out the fewest times in the majors were the Royals, Twins and Indians (which maybe implies the lack of quality pitching in the AL Central more than anything else) and they finished 12th, 10th and 13th in the AL in runs scored.

4. Winning the division is paramount. There's no doubt the second wild card played out as baseball officials intended: Force teams to win the division title. Just ask the Rangers.

5. Bullpen depth. Nothing new here. Of course, more important than bullpen depth is having a hot bullpen. The Cardinals' pen struggled much of 2011, but put it together at the right time. The Giants ranked eighth in the NL in bullpen ERA during the season, but their top five relievers -- Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez plus Lincecum -- allowed four runs (three earned) in 44 innings in the postseason. One major key was having Affeldt, a lefty who isn't strictly a LOOGY. Having a left-hander you're not afraid to use against right-handed batters is a huge weapon, as it allows you to stretch out the back end of the pen a little more without worrying so much about specific matchups.

6. Hope for all teams. The Giants weren't a great team. They ranked sixth in runs scored and sixth in runs allowed in the NL. They had the 10th-best run differential in the majors. They won 94 games despite Lincecum's terrible regular season, injuries to closer Brian Wilson and Sandoval, plus Melky Cabrera's suspension. Other than Cabrera (and possibly Posey), nobody had a career season. Scutaro did hit an otherworldly .362 after joining the team. The point is this: You don't need to build a super team full of high-priced free agents to win the World Series. Don't get me wrong -- the Giants did spend at least $10 million on four players (Zito, Lincecum, Cain and Huff), but those four provided only 1.3 WAR during the regular season (Zito and Lincecum obviously stepped up in the playoffs).

But what the Giants did should provide hope for all teams out there. With good draft picks, smart trades, a lucky signing or two (like Ryan Vogelsong) and the willingness to pick up a little extra payroll during the season, any organization can build a World Series contender, even if you can't afford the high-priced free agents.

7. Luck is maybe the biggest factor of all. In the end, all you have to do is get into the postseason. From there, play well, get hot and hope you catch some breaks. Think of all the breaks the Giants got along the way to their title: Cueto's injury, Brandon Phillips' base-running gaffe, Scott Rolen's error, the Nationals not using Strasburg (which could have turned the Nats-Cardinals series), even facing a mediocre Tigers team (seventh-best record in the AL) in the World Series.

Each of the first four Division Series could have gone the other way but for a single play here and there. Pagan said as much after one World Series game, saying the Giants might not even be here if not for Rolen's error. But it's also true that good teams take advantage of opportunities given to them. The Giants did that and are World Series champs for the second time in three seasons.
DETROIT -- A year ago, Gregor Blanco was playing winter ball. He was looking for a job after spending all of 2011 in Triple-A and became a minor league free agent after the Washington Nationals let him go.

A year later, he stood next to a large bin half-full of champagne bottles with "Giants World Series Champions" labels on them, soaked in the sweet scent of victory.

"I was just waiting on an opportunity to see if somebody can pick me up," he said after the San Francisco Giants swept the Detroit Tigers to win their second World Series in three years. "I was playing amazing, amazing winter ball. The Giants offered [a contract], saw all my games. I talked to my agent, 'What do you think?' ... I said to myself you have to be with a winning team. They were the 2010 World Series champions and that’s where you want to be."

[+] EnlargeGregor Blanco
H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY SportsGregor Blanco fit the mold the Giants were seeking: an athlete who could play defense.
Late in the season the Giants made the decision to leave Melky Cabrera, suspended for a positive PED test, off their playoff roster, even though the outfielder who hit .346 would have been eligible to return in the National League Championship Series. It was a controversial decision, especially given that the roster included the twice-suspended Guillermo Mota, a decision that would conceivably hurt the Giants’ chances to win the World Series.

Instead, they put their faith in Blanco, the speedy 28-year-old outfielder most noted for his spectacular catch earlier in the season to help preserve Matt Cain's perfect game.

"I always believe in myself," Blanco said about replacing Cabrera. "Always, always. They said just play your game, you’re a good player. I was able to fill that spot. Play defense. And the opportunity took care of itself."

Signing Blanco was just one of several moves Giants general manager Brian Sabean made heading back to last offseason that shaped this club into the World Series champion. Blanco was certainly an under-the-radar move, but he fit a mold the Giants had sought in recent years: An athletic player who could play defense. He had struggled in Triple-A in 2011, hitting .201, but the Giants knew he’d at least bring speed and a good glove.

Manager Bruce Bochy addressed this mindset prior to Sunday's Game 4, talking about when he first took the Giants job in 2007. "They were more of a power club, slugging club," Bochy said. "In our division with the bigger ballparks, that we would be better off going with pitching and defense and try to get more athletic. So that was the plan, and Brian has done a great job with it. As you well know, our outfield, we’re faster, more athletic out there."

Sabean’s big heist of the offseason was swapping outfielder Andres Torres and reliever Ramon Ramirez to the Mets for center fielder Angel Pagan. Torres had been a big part of the 2010 title team, a guy Sabean had once picked up off the scrap heap, but had hit .221 in 2011. Pagan was three years younger and the Mets had soured on him after some nagging injuries slowed him in 2011. Sabean threw in Ramirez, dealing from the team’s bullpen depth, to upgrade center field.

The team also trusted second-year shortstop Brandon Crawford with the starting job, even though Crawford had hit just .204 in 66 games as a rookie. Again, a defense-first decision, but in watching Crawford every day during the playoffs, you saw why the Giants were willing to live with his offense (which proved to be much better than his rookie campaign).

Sabean made his final touches during the season, acquiring Hunter Pence from the Phillies and Marco Scutaro from the Rockies. Pence was deemed the bigger acquisition at the time, but it was Scutaro who ended up paying the big dividends. He hit .362 after coming over from Colorado, giving the team a terrific No. 2 hitter in front of Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey in the absence of Cabrera. His terrific postseason was capped off by the game-winning RBI in Game 4.

In a crowded tunnel outside the Giants' clubhouse after the game, Sabean quietly deflected the attention away from himself, giving credit to the entire organization and to "all the great players who have played here through the years." He mentioned how many former players remain close to the organization. Pitching coach Dave Righetti is a former Giants player. Former All-Star first baseman Will Clark was in uniform, holding court after playoff games.

Sabean is a guy who sabermetric analysts have never given his full due, saying he rode Barry Bonds to a lot of success in his early years as the Giants' general manager. Maybe so, but you can’t deny two World Series titles in three seasons. He’s one of the few GMs out there who will trade for sort-of-expensive veterans such as Pence and Scutaro to help provide upgrades; these guys aren’t stars (although Scutaro played like one), but they are good role players, similar to the Cody Ross and Pat Burrell pickups in 2010.

In the end, the players have to produce, of course. It's a team built around its starting rotation and catcher Buster Posey. But Bochy and Sabean believed in Blanco, and the left fielder came through. He hit .286 against the Reds, including a home run in Game 4 of that series. He hit just .182 against the Cardinals, but drew six walks and scored six runs. In the World Series, he made two key diving catches in Game 1, and tripled in a run and scored and made another big catch in Game 3.

A year ago, he didn’t have a job. Now he’s a World Series champion.
SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco Giants have played textbook baseball in their past five games, baseball so beautiful that John McGraw is probably up in baseball heaven telling Ty Cobb, "That's Giants baseball. That's how you play the game."

That bunt Gregor Blanco dropped in Game 2? It’s not complete luck the ball rolled to a stop on the dirt between the grass and the foul line. He said he practices 10 to 15 bunts a day during batting practice.

“Although maybe never one that perfect,” he said with a laugh after the game.

The relay throw that Marco Scutaro cut off to nail Prince Fielder at home -- after Blanco had overthrown Brandon Crawford? That wasn’t by accident. Asked about the play, Crawford looked like he’d been asked if he’d been abducted by aliens.

"We practice it in spring training," he said. "It’s kind of routine for us."

The fact that Doug Fister threw 114 pitches in six-plus innings while Madison Bumgarner threw just 86 in seven innings in Game 2? That’s all part of the plan as well -- grind out at-bats, work the count, put pressure on the defense.

[+] Enlargeangel pagan
Kelley L Cox/USA Today SportsThe plate discipline of Angel Pagan has proved to be valuable to the Giants during the World Series.
"Oh yeah, Angel [Pagan], Marco and myself, we know we’re not power hitters, so we try to make the pitcher work out there," Blanco said. "Marco has been really helpful, telling me what kind of pitches to expect from pitchers in certain situations. He’s a veteran and knows a lot, and his leadership has helped us."

Practicing bunts, relay throws and working the count isn’t enough. You still have to execute. That’s what the Giants have done for five games, outscoring the Cardinals and Tigers 30-4 over that span.

"We know what kind of team we are," Pagan said. "Pitching and defense."

Pagan may be selling his teammates a little short on their offense, actually. The Giants don’t hit home runs -- finishing last in the major leagues in that department -- but they do score runs. While they’re seemingly built for the spacious alleys of AT&T Park, they score a lot of runs on the road, leading the NL in runs scored away from home during the season (and only the Angels scored more in the majors).

What the Giants don’t do is rely on the long ball to generate offense. Pagan and Scutaro have been terrific at setting the table. Even if they’re not getting on base, they’re making the opposing pitcher throw a lot of pitches. Pagan saw 25 pitches in Game 1 and 20 in Game 2. Scutaro saw 18 and 19. Compare that to Detroit’s big sluggers, Miguel Cabrera and Fielder, who combined to see just 41 pitches in the first two games.

There’s an art to that kind of execution, just like there’s an art to even a routine play like Blanco’s bunt. On that play, Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta was playing close to second, trying to hold Hunter Pence as close as possible. With third baseman Cabrera playing in, that meant there was a big hole Blanco could attempt to slap the ball through. Blanco said he has the green light to do that, but in this case it was "a bunt all the way. Cabrera actually wasn’t charging all that hard."

While the bunt was so good that catcher Gerald Laird and pitcher Drew Smyly had no choice but to hope it rolled foul, it reflects an important aspect about this series: defense.

"We know their defense isn’t that good," Pagan said. "You get a bunt down there, and you never know what might happen."

The Tigers’ defense hasn’t been a liability, although Delmon Young’s throw home in Game 1 was laughably horrible, but the Giants’ defense has made some key plays, most notably Scutaro’s relay to gun down Fielder. Blanco made two diving catches in left field to rob Cabrera and Fielder of hits in Game 1, and Pablo Sandoval made a nice snag of Cabrera’s line-drive screamer in Game 2.

As the series heads to Detroit, maybe that’s something the Tigers can turn to. Cabrera and Fielder are due for some long-ball action, having combined for just two home runs, or even just for some of those line drives to fall. Fielder was hit by the first pitch in one plate appearance in Game 2, but in his other six PAs, he has seen just 16 pitches, appearing a little overanxious at the plate. In 11 postseason games, Fielder is hitting .205/.271/.273 with just one extra-base hit and three walks. Cabrera has stung the ball a couple of times, but he also has just one home run. In the end, the Tigers are still a team that essentially rides the brute force of its starting rotation and its No. 3 and 4 hitters.

The Giants realize that postseason baseball can turn on a dime. Pagan said as much when he mentioned after Game 2 that the Giants “may not even be here except for an error” in the Reds series, alluding to Scott Rolen’s bobble in extra innings of Game 3 that kept that series alive. They know the Tigers were a much better team at home during the regular season -- 50-31 versus 38-43 on the road. Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer are quality starters, and if you win one of two, Justin Verlander will be ready for Game 5.

But right now the Giants are making the plays and doing the little things. Do that for two more games and they'll be World Series champions for the second time in three years.

They call him Kung Fu Panda. Now they can call him a World Series legend.

Pablo Sandoval, a batter who rarely sees a pitch he doesn’t like, found three pitches he loved in the World Series opener and entered his name alongside three of the biggest names in the history of the game.

Ruth. Reggie. Pujols. Pablo. The only four players to hit three home runs in a World Series game.

Here’s the thing: The first three guys didn’t hit two homers off the reigning best pitcher in the world. The San Francisco Giants beat Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers 8-3 but the score was secondary to one of the great individual performances in World Series history (Sandoval would later add a line-drive single to finish 4-for-4). His trip into the record books:

Home run No. 1: An 0-2 95-mph fastball that Verlander tried to elevate but Sandoval jacked to dead center, a 421-foot rocket of a line drive with two out in the first. It wasn’t necessarily a bad pitch -- eye level -- but Sandoval has the hand-eye coordination to extend the strike zone like few batters. In that regard, he’s similar to two great World Series performers of the past, Yogi Berra and Kirby Puckett, notorious bad-ball hitters. And at least in Puckett’s case, even the similar stocky build.

How unlikely was the home run? Not surprisingly, Verlander hadn’t served up an 0-2 home run all season and only four in his career.

Home run No. 2: After Angel Pagan had doubled off the third-base bag with two out in the third and scored on Marco Scutaro’s sharp single up the middle, Verlander threw Sandoval two changeups in the dirt, prompting a quick visit from pitching coach Jeff Jones. The next pitch was a 95-mph fastball on the outside corner that Sandoval drove to left field, just clearing the fence for a two-run homer. Again, not a terrible pitch, just a terrific swing. Of Sandoval’s 12 regular-season home runs, just two went to left field or left-center, but he hit nine in that direction in 2011, so he has legit opposite-field power.

[+] EnlargePablo Sandoval, Angel Pagan
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAngel Pagan, who went 2-for-4 himself, salutes Pablo Sandoval after his first homer as Giants manager Bruce Bochy looks on.
Home run No. 3: Now facing reliever Al Alburquerque in the fifth, Sandoval golfed a 1-1 slider that was barely off the ground into a long, beautiful arc over the center-field fence, sending Giants fans into a communal roar of joy. Is there a better sound than a ballpark erupting?

The amazing thing: None of the three pitches was grooved. Two were outside the strike zone. It was simply three swings for the ages for Kung Fu Panda.

* * * *

It’s easy to say after the fact that Verlander didn’t have it, but the first two batters of the game were an indication this would be tougher going than when he faced the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees. Verlander required six pitches to retire Pagan, who fouled off three fastballs before finally grounding out on a curve. Scutaro grounded out on a 2-1 slider, laying off a tough 1-1 curveball.

The Giants have a completely different approach than the two teams Verlander faced in the American League playoffs. The A’s are a swing-from-the-heels team that set a league record for strikeouts. The Yankees clearly were in midst of a team-wide offensive meltdown. But the Giants play in a tough home run park -- fewer home runs were hit at AT&T this season than any other park -- and play a style that suits their home stadium. Only the Phillies struck out fewer times in the National League, as the Giants work the count, put the ball in play and make the opposing defense make plays.

As dominant as Verlander was in his three previous playoff starts, and even though he was working with plenty of rest, it’s worth noting he was worked hard down the stretch. He has had 12 games of 120-plus pitches this year, including the postseason, and six of those came on Aug. 28 or later. His three starts against the A’s and Yankees featured pitch counts of 121, 122 and 132.

I’m not saying that’s the reason he struggled; give credit to the Giants for a lot of quality at-bats. Pagan and Scutaro are locked in right now and the Tigers will have to figure out a way to keep those two off the bases. Maybe Verlander was also too amped-up, as he was in the All-Star Game. In fact, only twice in the past two years has Verlander failed to pitch at least five innings (other than the rain-delayed playoff game against the Yankees a year ago): Game 1 of the 2012 World Series and Game 1 of the 2011 American League Championship Series. Questions about his ability to stay focused and in the right frame of mind will be there out until his next start.

* * * *

Defense could still play a major factor in this series. Pagan’s double off the bag wasn’t Miguel Cabrera’s fault, although even if he fields that ball I’m not sure he throws out Pagan. Delmon Young was playing left field pretty much over in Oakland, even for weaker hitters such as Gregor Blanco, which made no sense. It didn’t really come into play in this game, although he may have had a chance to throw out Brandon Belt at home plate on Barry Zito’s RBI single in the fourth. Instead, he chunked one of the worst throws you’ll ever see. With Madison Bumgarner starting Game 2, I'm sure we'll see Young out there again. Beware, Tigers fans, beware. Meanwhile, Blanco made two diving catches in left field, an example of the Giants' edge at several positions.

* * * *

Finally, Zito did what he had to do. Bruce Bochy got him out of the game as soon as he got into trouble in the sixth, with Tim Lincecum again looking like a guy who can be a big weapon out of the bullpen. The winners of Game 1 have won eight of the past nine World Series and 13 of 15. But as Wednesday night showed, those are just numbers. We have no idea what is going to happen.

You never want a series to turn on the health of a team’s ace, but here we are: The Cincinnati Reds, up 2 games to 0 and going home for three games, will need a Game 5 victory to advance to the NLCS.

With Johnny Cueto unavailable after his first-inning injury in Game 1, the Reds activated fifth starter Mike Leake to start on Wednesday. Leake was ineffective, Tim Lincecum delivered a huge performance in relief for the Giants, the Reds missed some early scoring opportunities, the Cincy bullpen was unable to hold the score close and we get one more game of baseball as the Giants won 8-3.

Quick thoughts:

  • [+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Tim Lincecum
    Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIRETim Lincecum pitched 4 1/3 innings of relief, striking out six and allowing just one run.
    Barry Zito started for the Giants, in part, according to Bochy, because the Giants had won the past 11 games he started. Zito’s ERA over those 11 games was 3.92, not much better than his season ERA of 4.15. He was better over his final five starts: 5-0, 2.35 ERA, 30.2 IP, 32 H, 9 BB, 23 SO, 1 HR. Zito had also allowed two just runs over two starts against the Reds, although he survived one of those despite six walks. That said, there were clear reasons why starting Zito over Lincecum was risky: The Reds hit left-handers much better and Zito had a huge platoon split this year: .823 OPS against right-handers (.281 average), .559 against left-handers (.209 average). Zito’s .468 slugging percentage allowed against right-handers was sixth-worst in the majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings. Anyway, when Zito predictably struggled, Brucy Bochy didn’t hesitate to go to the pen. When Dioner Navarro walked with two outs in the third, Bochy brought in George Kontos to face No. 8 hitter Drew Stubbs. Zito had only allowed two runs, but four hits and four walks, so he didn’t have anything working. Stubbs actually hit lefties OK but can’t hit righties at all, so good move to bring in Kontos, who got Stubbs to foul out. Keep in mind that Mike Leake is one of the best-hitting pitchers in the game, so it wouldn’t have made to walk Stubbs and have Zito face the pitcher.
  • More kudos to Bochy in the fourth inning when Kontos ran into trouble when Leake singled and Zack Cozart singled with one out. He brought in lefty Jose Mijares to face Joey Votto, who struck out, then brought in Lincecum. That move included a double-switch. When’s the last time we saw a LOOGY and a double-switch in the fourth inning? Lincecum faced Ryan Ludwick, fell behind 2-0, got a foul ball off a fastball, and then threw two vintage, nasty Lincecum changeups to strike him out.
  • Yes, Lincecum didn’t have a good year, but he came through when the Giants most needed him, pitching 4.1 innings, allowing one run with six strikeouts and no walks. When the Giants scored three in the top of the seventh, it gave Bochy an easy decision to extend Lincecum through the eighth and not be forced to burn through his entire bullpen.
  • Dusty Baker’s lineup choices ended up hurting him in this game. First, Ryan Hanigan should have started behind the plate. Hanigan had a .455 OBP against left-handers this season, and owns a career .405 OBP against lefties. How can he not be in this lineup? Sure enough, in the first inning, Navarro struck out with the bases loaded to end the threat after Zito had walked the bases full.
  • Angel Pagan had great at-bats all day for the Giants. He led the game off with a line shot home run on an 0-1 cutter. He walked in the second (although was caught stealing). He doubled in a run in the fifth. He lined out to deep right-center in the seventh, to move Joaquin Arias from second to third. One of the best trades of the offseason ended up being the Giants stealing Pagan from the Mets for Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez.
  • Questions for Game 5: Will Brandon Belt be back at first base for the Giants? Considering Stubbs hit .186 against righties, with Matt Cain starting, does Baker play Chris Heisey in center field? Heisey hit .262 against righties, although much power or walks. Stubbs probably has a little better chance of accidentally running into a fastball. Presumably, Hanigan and Scott Rolen will be back for the Reds. Will Baker extend Aroldis Chapman past three outs? How aggressively will Bochy use his left-handers in the bullpen to face Votto and Jay Bruce? Mat Latos is a good pitcher, so it should be a low-scoring game. Managerial moves and bullpen usage will likely play a key role in this game. I can’t wait.
  • There is no momentum in baseball.
That was one of the more entertaining games of the postseason, a classic pitching duel of sorts, with some interesting strategic decisions and some missed opportunities. The Cincinnati Reds will be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of one of the best-pitched games in Reds postseason history and the San Francisco Giants will be wondering how they’re still alive in a game where they got three hits in 10 innings and struck out 16 times. For the rest of us, we’ll get more baseball!

Some thoughts on the Giants’ 2-1 victory:

  • As dominant as Aroldis Chapman was in the ninth inning, getting two strikeouts while throwing just 15 pitches, I was a little surprised he didn’t come back out for the 10th inning. Chapman pitched more than one inning eight times this season, but only twice after becoming the closer, a 1.2-inning save May 27 and a four-out save Aug. 10. Factoring in the shoulder fatigue that sidelined Chapman for 11 days in September, maybe Reds manager Dusty Baker is wary about using Chapman for more than an inning. The trouble is it’s a big drop-off from Chapman to Jonathan Broxton. Of course, it’s a big drop from Chapman to just about any reliever not named Craig Kimbrel.
  • As is, despite giving up two singles to start the inning, Broxton would have escaped the 10th if not for shoddy Reds defense. After he struck out Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady, Ryan Hanigan's passed ball allowed the runners to move up and then Scott Rolen mishandled Joaquin Arias' chopper to third base. The sloppy defense in this postseason continues. Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a couple interesting choices that inning: He let Belt swing away with two on and no out. I would say most managers would have bunted there about 99 percent of the time. I didn’t mind the call. Belt has never had a sacrifice bunt in his brief career and he was the Giants' best chance to deliver a hit. Bochy then let pitcher Sergio Romo hit with runners at first and second. Again, I liked the call. Romo is the Giants’ best reliever; Bochy had used the other relievers you might want to use. Plus, Bochy had used up his bench; only backup catcher Hector Sanchez was left.
  • Xavier Nady and Xavier Paul. Discuss. Or not. Man, these two benches are horrible.
  • Keith Law and Eric Karabell talked about an interesting point on the Baseball Today podcast today, wondering if the Yankees aren’t better off moving up Robinson Cano in the order. He hit cleanup on Monday, and was left in the on-deck circle as Alex Rodriguez made the final out. Keith’s point is that batting lineups don’t matter all that much, but one obvious benefit of stacking your best hitters at the top is you may get them one more plate appearance. That’s the problem with the Reds batting Zack Cozart and his .288 OBP second. He made the final out, leaving Joey Votto on deck.
  • Not to bury Homer Bailey's awesome start. You can see why he pitched a no-hitter two starts ago as he took a no-hitter to two outs in the sixth (although the Giants had scored on a hit-by-pitch, walk and two sacrifices). The walk to No. 8 Brandon Crawford proved especially painful and kudos to pitcher Ryan Vogelsong for a good bunt and Angel Pagan for delivering the sac fly. Considering Bailey had thrown just 88 pitches, you can argue that Baker took him out too early. I can't fault Baker for handing the game to the best bullpen in baseball, but the Giants couldn't touch Bailey on this night.
  • Bailey’s game score of 80 was the fourth highest in Reds postseason history, behind Hod Eller’s 89 in Game 5 of the 1919 World Series against a team that wasn’t trying to win (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 SO) and Ross Grimsley’s 84 in Game 4 of the 1972 NLCS (9 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 SO). Jose Rijo’s win to clinch the sweep of the A’s in the 1990 World Series (8.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 9 SO) scores a 91. And, yes, this was just an excuse to mention Hod Eller.
  • Brandon Phillips' hustle effort in the first inning when he got thrown out at third base is one of those plays described as a “baserunning error” if you don’t make it but “heads-up baseball” if you do. The argument against trying to get the extra base is that with zero outs there is a little reward if you do make it (you’re already in scoring position) but a huge penalty if you get caught. As it turned out, Vogelsong labored through a 30-pitch inning and Phillips’ hustle cost the Reds a potential big inning.
  • Vogelsong did a nice job of settling down after that inning. He walked Votto and Ryan Ludwick in the third, but got Jay Bruce on a fly to left. Bruce swung at the first pitch, which isn’t necessarily the worst idea if he thinks a pitcher is going to groove something after two walks. Bochy hit for Vogelsong leading off the sixth, again not a bad idea considering the circumstances. Vogelsong had thrown 95 pitches, the Reds had Votto and Bruce due up the next inning and the Giants were still hitless at the time. It was the one opportunity Bochy knew he could use Aubrey Huff against a right-hander, without the possibility of the Reds bringing in Sean Marshall or Chapman. Huff just isn’t a big weapon right now.
  • As I write this, the Reds haven’t announced their Game 4 starter. It could be Johnny Cueto, but that seems unlikely. It could be Mat Latos, three days after throwing 57 pitches in Game 1. It could be Mike Leake, but to activate him they’d have to replace Cueto, which would make him ineligible for the National League Championship Series, should the Reds advance. If they go with Latos, that would likely mean starting Bronson Arroyo on three days’ rest in a potential Game 5. No easy calls here, but I’d probably go Latos and Arroyo, and rely on the deepest bullpen in the league. The Giants counter with Barry Zito -- and you know Bochy will have a quick hook. The Reds had a .770 OPS against left-handers compared to .710 versus righties, so if Zito struggles early don’t be surprised to see Tim Lincecum again in relief. Should be a good chess match yet again.

First base: Carl Crawford out, Red Sox on a roll. On a day where sources indicated the Red Sox left fielder will miss another three months (a timetable Crawford denied), Boston pounded out 12 hits and 10 runs in roughing up Philip Humber for its fourth straight victory. Suddenly, that lineup is looking imposing, as only the Rangers have scored more runs. Even without Crawford, without Jacoby Ellsbury, and with Kevin Youkilis still struggling, the Red Sox are hitting .293/.346/.490. But Youkilis went 3-for-4 Thursday, including his second home run. David Ortiz is still hitting over .400, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia is slugging .587. This team won't be going away so quietly.

Second base: Marshall law broken. Big win for the Giants as Angel Pagan hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the ninth inning off Reds closer Sean Marshall. Pagan homered off a curveball, and you can't fault Marshall for throwing the pitch: Pagan hadn't homered off a curveball the past four seasons, and had one extra-base hit off a curve all last season. And for members of the Brandon Belt fan club: He went 2-for-4 and is now hitting .273, although he did strike out twice.

Third base: Tigers release Brandon Inge. I guess the Tigers needed somebody to blame after getting swept by the Mariners at home. Inge was 2-for-20 this season and after hitting .197 last season, the leash was short on the 34-year-old veteran. I suppose some team could give him a shot as a utility guy, but it's also possible Inge's 12-year-career -- all with the Tigers -- is over. He came up as a catcher and played for those miserable 2002 and 2003 clubs that lost 106 and 119 games, respectively. He moved to third base and became a terrific defensive third baseman, even making the All-Star team in 2009.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. Humber wasn't quite as good in his first start since his perfect game.