SweetSpot: Anthony Rizzo

Firing Byrnes reflects Padres' expectations

June, 22, 2014
Jun 22
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Just like that, the San Diego Padres have canned Josh Byrnes, their general manager for less than three seasons. That’s noteworthy because honchos get handed their heads so infrequently these days. Byrnes is the first GM to be canned since the Houston Astros axed Ed Wade after the 2011 season.

But firing your general manager after less than three full seasons is especially extraordinary in this day and age because of how much gets invested in picking the right guy and then anticipating that he’ll have five or six years to show you something. Usually, the people who own and operate franchises can also afford to take the long view, and want to see what a GM has achieved on the player development side of the slate before you write him off altogether. And considering that the Padres ranked in the top 10 in Keith Law’s farm system rankings, you can’t really blame Byrnes for anything amiss on that front.

Instead, firing a guy inside of three seasons speaks to something else, something more than a fundamental disagreement over goals and means or something similarly antiseptic and corporate. It’s a “Boss” move taken from the pages of George Steinbrenner’s ugly 1980s because you expected big results fast. Or it’s a somewhat embarrassing public admission that you might have hired the wrong guy. Which would be incorrect: Byrnes was promoted from within when the Padres lost GM Jed Hoyer to the Cubs, having hired already Byrnes as assistant GM the year before. They knew who they had.

The question you have to ask yourself is what stakes Byrnes was playing for at the major league level, and what the people he was collecting paychecks from thought he might win. The Padres added nearly $23 million to their payroll this offseason, moving up to an effective tie with the Royals for the 21st-largest payroll in the game -- still in the bottom third, but obviously an expense made with a sense that, even in a division with the Dodgers and Giants in it, that extra wild-card slot might be in reach if a few things broke the Padres’ way. Byrnes spent $15.5 million on Joaquin Benoit -- money you spend on a set-up man if you think you’re going places. The Padres are paying people more money than the Rays or A’s are, but to less point. They're spending more than the Indians and Pirates are shelling out on their paydays, and those two teams both went to the postseason last year.

In the broadest strokes, you can see where Byrnes thought he might have been breaking that cycle of small goals narrowly missed, but that’s because there was usually some plausible amount of upside in many of his moves. Trading for Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross and even Andrew Cashner -- despite giving up Anthony Rizzo -- could all be understood at the time as bets that this was a young pitcher who could do better with a change of scenery. Then again, taking young, talented arms from other organizations and setting them loose in the best pitcher’s park in baseball often has a way of working out.

But in his days with the Pad people, Byrnes seemed to reliably lose on his biggest bets. Like banking on the idea that reliably fragile slugger Carlos Quentin was worthy of a four-year, $37 million deal. Or risking $8 million on the proposition that Josh Johnson would be healthy this year. And in the deal that he will perhaps never be allowed to forget in San Diego, two months into his tenure he dealt Mat Latos to the Reds for four guys who won’t add up to any amount of time spent employing Mat Latos -- equally disappointing prospects Yasmani Grandal and Yonder Alonso, reliever Brad Boxberger and Edinson Volquez. That wasn't a money-driven deal, but a bet that they'd added franchise-level talents. Instead, it wound up becoming a classic blunder to rank with going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line: Overvaluing other people's prospects.

On some level, you can sympathize with Byrnes. He was operating a franchise that hasn’t built up and fielded a real contender since the late ’90s, when they made their last World Series appearance (and got squashed by the Yankees in the most boring Series ever). The back-to-back division titles they eked out in 2005-06 were the product of a weak division, with the Padres making the most out of their limited talent and opportunity -- they played .500 baseball and earned the right to be somebody else’s first-round speed bump. Two short-season squashings later, and skipper Bruce Bochy skipped town to play for real money and real stakes in San Francisco.

For Byrnes’ sake, you can hope he’ll find better fortune elsewhere as well. But having already gotten opportunities with the Diamondbacks and the Padres, he may well join fellow former wunderkind GM Paul DePodesta on the list of smart guys in the game who don’t get another top job soon.

As for the Padres, the question they’ll have to confront is whether or not to double down on the expectations they came into this season with, or whether they’ll want to start from scratch. Having Omar Minaya in the mix in the search for finding a replacement strikes me as telling -- the same man who was a wheeler-dealer with the Expos and Mets might have an opportunity to pull the trigger on some of the same kinds of moves to fulfill those expectations in San Diego.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Early trends: Bruce, Fielder, Rizzo, Heyward

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:30
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We've reached the point in the season where the first calls are coming into sports-talk radio. You know the kind. The ones that say "Bench (fill in the blank), he's terrible" or "(fill in the blank) is finally going to be a star."

But there are usually explanations for these small-sample spikes or sputters, the most common of which is "It's early!"

Nonetheless, some trends are starting to emerge. We'll see how long-lasting these are.

Jay Bruce
Bruce has been a victim of infield shifts this season.

He's 0-for-9 when hitting a groundball against a defensive shift and you can see from his spray chart that he's already got a fair number of outfield ground outs.

Bruce is a good example of someone for whom shifts have contributed to frustration in a number of areas.

Over the last five seasons, his batting average on groundballs has sunk from .314 to .275 to .205 to .185 to its current 1-for-14. That's what happens when you pull 71 percent of your groundballs, as he has this season.

Prince Fielder
Fielder is also having trouble with shifts.

But his issue isn't with pulled balls, it's with getting the ball through the middle of the diamond.

Fielder is 3-for-18 when hitting a grounder or soft liner against shifts. He's 0-for-9 on the ground balls hit between where the second baseman and shortstop would typically play, as since they've shifted slightly, they're in ideal position to field his ground balls. Last season, on balls hit to those same locations he was 21-for-78 (.269).

Anthony Rizzo
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is off to a good start after a 2013 in which his numbers never reached anything near the expectation level the Cubs had for him.


Anthony Rizzo got a base hit on this pitch against the Pirates last week.
Rizzo is hitting .319 in his first 47 at-bats and he can thank his duck snorts for that start.

Rizzo is 10-for-33 on balls classified as either softly-hit or medium-hit after batting .156 when hitting those same types of balls last season.

The classic example of that is this -- Rizzo reached out and got a base hit on a pitch that was thrown to the spot noted in the image on the right. Those hits make a big difference in the numbers this early in the season.

Jason Heyward
Last season, Victor Martinez of the Tigers got off to a slow start. But there was reason to believe that Martinez's performance would eventually catch up with how often he was hitting the ball hard (a lot) and it did.

This year, it looks like Jason Heyward is headed down the Martinez path.




Heyward is hitting .160 and is 4-for-11 when hitting a ball that our video-tracking system classifies as hard hit. Over the previous two seasons, Heyward hit .746 and .718 on his hard-hit balls.

Heyward is 0-for-15 in 2014 when hitting a fly ball that doesn't go out of the ballpark. That includes a pair of well-muscled fly balls that found gloves against the New York Mets and Washington Nationals.

He's also 1-for-11 on his groundballs despite not being regularly shifted against and that might be a little misleading since he has reached base twice on errors (had those been scored hits, his batting average would have jumped 40 points).

Matt Wieters
At least for two weeks, Wieters has used the center of the field as his primary means for reaching base. From 2011 to 2013, Wieters pulled 43 percent of the balls he put in play and hit 28 percent of them to center field. This season, he’s reversed those numbers, pulling 29 percent and centering 41 percent.

The result of that has been more line drives. Last year, Wieters totaled 15 line drives to center field as a left-handed hitter. In the first two weeks of the season, he’s already got seven. The effort to pull the ball less often is a route that Torii Hunter went last season with modest success. We'll see if Wieters has made the adjustment or if it's just temporary results.

Rizzo-Cashner trade not settled yet

September, 17, 2013
9/17/13
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When the Cubs signed Anthony Rizzo to a seven-year, $41 million contract extension on May 13, he was hitting .280/.352/.538, and the deal looked like a huge bargain for the Cubs. Rizzo was a rising star, coming off a strong 87-game stint with the Cubs in 2012 and a great start in 2013. The January 2012 trade that sent hard-throwing Andrew Cashner to the Padres was looking one-sided in favor of the Cubs, with Cashner pitching just 46 innings with the Padres in 2012 and beginning 2013 in the bullpen after an offseason hunting accident.

Not so fast.

Since signing that contract, Rizzo has hit .212/.315/.377; meanwhile, Cashner showed Monday night that he still has electric stuff and top-of-the-rotation potential, firing a one-hitter against the Pirates while facing the minimum 27 batters and striking out seven. The Padres have never thrown a no-hitter and the Pirates' only hit was Jose Tabata's single just under the glove of a diving Tommy Medica at first base. Cashner was inches away from a perfect game. Most impressive, Cashner threw an efficient 97 pitches, keeping the ball down in the zone and not once going to a three-ball count.

It was one of the best performances ever by a Padres pitcher. Using the Game Score method, Cashner's score of 92 is tied for fourth in Padres history in a nine-inning game:

Andy Benes, July 3, 1994 versus Mets: 97 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 13 SO)
Kevin Brown, Aug. 16, 1998 versus Brewers: 94 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 11 SO)
• Clay Kirby, July 23, 1973 versus Braves: 93 (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 13 SO)
• Benes, Aug. 29, 1991 versus Cardinals: 92 (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 SO)

(The highest for any game belongs to Kirby, a 109 for his Herculean 15-inning, 15-strikeout effort against the Astros late in 1971. He was 23 years old at the time, one of the hardest throwers in the majors -- he ranked fourth in strikeouts and second in strikeouts per nine that year in the NL -- and went 15-13, 2.87 for an awful Padres team. He was done at 28, that 15-inning game likely contributing to his early demise.)

As for Rizzo, he has shown some power (22 home runs) and is tied for eighth in the majors with 74 walks (22nd in walk rate). Those are two positives, so it's really all about the .229 average dragging down his value. It's not an issue of strikeouts; his K rate is the same as Mike Trout and lower than guys such as Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt. It could be some bad luck: Among 141 qualified batters, he ranks 135th with a .251 average on balls in play. Extreme fly-ball hitters can also suffer from a low average on balls in play, but that's not an issue either, as Rizzo's fly-ball rate ranks 60th among qualifiers, basically the same rate as Miguel Cabrera or David Ortiz. His line-drive rate is fine. The more you examine, the more it appears Rizzo has hit into a lot of bad luck.

He also just turned 24, so I'm willing to believe he's going to be much better than a .229 hitter. But Cashner could be developing into a very good starter. His strikeout rate is still a little low for a No. 1 or No. 2 starter, but he does have that kind of stuff with his fastball/slider combo. I'd probably give the long-term edge to Rizzo -- the Cubs are still going to end up liking that contract -- but don't assume the Padres got fleeced on the deal.

In Tuesday's Franchise Player Draft, the only first baseman selected in the first round was Joey Votto, selected 10th overall. That makes sense, as first base isn't a premium position and the position has weakened the past couple of years with the declines of Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira, the move of Miguel Cabrera to third base, and the failure of prospects like Eric Hosmer and Justin Smoak to develop into stars.

My pal Eric Karabell says he would wait on drafting a first baseman in building a franchise -- that you can always find one. But I think you can make a good case that Votto won't be the only first baseman who could end up as one of baseball's top 30 players over the next five seasons. I see five good candidates:

Chris Davis, Orioles
2013 numbers: .355/.437/.744, 20 HR, 52 RBI, 29 BB, 55 SO
Age: 27

He's having a better offensive season than Miguel Cabrera, leading the majors in home runs, slugging, OPS, adjusted OPS and wOBA. His walk rate is up and his strikeouts are down, a strong indicator this could be more than just a two-month hot streak. He's tied for seventh in Baseball-Reference WAR among positions players and tied for second in FanGraphs WAR.

Prince Fielder, Tigers
2013 numbers: .283/.395/.519, 12 HR, 48 RBI, 35 BB, 48 SO
Age: 29

Old reliable. He never misses a game, gets on base (he leads the AL in walks) and has power. He's not going to help you in the field or on the bases, but you can plug him in for 160 games and know what you're going to get. In looking at a five-year window, his age isn't a huge concern to me considering his durability track record.

Freddie Freeman, Braves
2013 numbers: .311/.371/.480, 6 HR, 40 RBI, 16 BB, 40 SO
Age: 23

Freeman missed two weeks in April with a strained oblique but has driven in 40 runs in 45 games although his power totals don't match the others here. With him, the issues are whether you're buying the .311 average after he hit .259 a year ago, and how much you project him to improve considering he's still just 23 although already in his third major league season.

Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
2013 numbers: .335/.417/.599, 13 HR, 49 RBI, 31 BB, 53 SO
Age: 25

With Goldschmidt, throw in Gold Glove-caliber defense and the ability to swipe some bases (6 for 7 after stealing 18 last season). The big plus for Goldschmidt is that after a big platoon split in 2012, he's crushing right-handers as well this year -- .347 with eight home runs. He's also slugging .701 on the road. His wRC+ stat -- which adjusts his overall batting line for home park -- has him third-best in the majors, behind only Davis and Cabrera. He's a legit MVP candidate and just entering his prime seasons.

Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
2013 numbers: .257/.325/.491, 10 HR, 36 RBI, 19 BB, 46 SO
Age: 23

There's no denying the power potential, although he's been a streaky hitter so far, hitting eight homers in April but just one over his past 24 games. However, he does have eight doubles over that span. With 17 doubles on the season, you can see him converting some of those two-baggers into home runs as he gets more experience.

SportsNation

Who should be the second first baseman taken in a franchise player draft? (After Joey Votto.)

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    14%
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    27%
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    35%
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Discuss (Total votes: 1,686)

Who do you like? If I'm looking at a five-year window, I go:

1. Goldschmidt. Best all-around player of the five.

2. Davis. I'm buying the hot start and we're talking about his age 27-31 years, which should be relatively safe.

3. Fielder. Age is a little bit of an issue but the bat isn't.

4. Freeman. If he can consolidate hitting for average AND hitting for power, he'll be terrific.

5. Rizzo. More upside than Freeman with his 40-homer potential but needs more consistency.

In April, Jose Bautista had turned into a three true outcomes type of player: home run, walk or strikeout. He hit seven home runs and had a slugging percentage over .500, but was hitting just .200.

Was he just finding his stroke as he returned from last year's injury problems? Or was he no longer the MVP-caliber hitter of 2010 and 2011, when he hit 54 and 43 home runs, drew walks, and hit .260 and then .302?

He hit his first two home runs of May on Sunday in a 12-4 pasting of the Red Sox to raise his overall batting to .246/.360/.544 -- respectable, if not quite 2011-level Bautista. And the Blue Jays need 2011-level Bautista if they have any hope of recovering from their awful start.

I'm not quite sure he's there yet. While Bautista can crush any fastball -- he's hitting .333 with six home runs in 51 at-bats ending with a fastball this season -- it was his production against "soft" stuff that allowed him to hit above .300 in 2011. Check out these two charts on his batting average against soft stuff in 2011, and then the past two seasons:

Jose Bautista heat mapESPN Stats & InformationIn 2011, Bautista hit .291/.415/.591 with 16 home runs against soft stuff.

Jose Bautista heat map 2012-13ESPN Stats & Information Over the past two seasons, Bautista has hit just .180/.326/.365 against soft stuff.

As you can see, that's a lot of red (hot) in 2011 and a lot of blue (cold) since. This year, he's 7-for-51 (.137) with three home runs against soft stuff. He split his home runs on Sunday -- one came off a first-pitch Ryan Dempster fastball, the other off an 0-1 83 mph slider from Clayton Mortensen. Bautista is a dead pull hitter -- only one home run to center and one to right-center over the past two seasons -- which can leave him vulnerable to breaking stuff on the outside part of the plate.

I haven't seen enough evidence that he's going to punish those pitches like he did a couple years ago, so I would guess he'll be prone to ups and downs throughout the season. He's still a huge threat at the plate, but not the MVP bat of 2011.

REST OF THE WEEKEND

SportsNation

Who would you most want the rest of the season?

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Discuss (Total votes: 765)

Three stars
1. Shelby Miller, Cardinals. One hit. Twenty-seven down. In a 3-0 win over the Rockies on Friday, the St. Louis rookie became the fifth pitcher since 1961 to allow the first batter to reach base and then retire 27 in a row, joining John Lackey (2006 Angels), Jerry Reuss (1982 Dodgers), Jim Bibby (1981 Pirates) and Woodie Fryman (1966 Pirates). Miller had the Rockies guessing wrong -- or merely looking -- all night long, as he got 30 called strikes, the second-most by a starter this season. Eight of those closed out Miller's 13 strikeouts. Just a dominant performance. In fact, for all the attention given to Matt Harvey this year, compare the two young right-handers:

Miller: 5-2, 1.58 ERA, 45.2 IP, 29 H, 3 HR, 11 BB, 51 SO, .179 AVG
Harvey: 4-0, 1.44 ERA, 56.1 IP, 27 H, 3 HR, 14 BB, 62 SO, .142 AVG

2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals. Not to be outdone, Wainwright took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Saturday, finishing with a two-hit shutout in another 3-0 win for the Cards. Wainwright improved to 5-2 with a 2.30 ERA and had strong words about his rookie teammate: "You follow Roger Clemens a couple times like I have been, it makes you focus a little bit more," he said. "Once you see Shelby mow through a lineup like he has all year, you want to go out there and do it, too." Kudos also to Cards manager Mike Matheny for leaving in Miller to throw 113 pitches, and Wainwright to throw 120. In this day when managers are too willing to yank starters at 100 pitches, it is good to see a manager let his guys go the distance.

3. Chris Sale, White Sox, and Jon Lester, Red Sox. Two more one-hit shutouts, Lester on Friday, Sale on Sunday. Can't anyone here hit anymore? Lester got 12 ground-ball outs as he joined Pedro Martinez (2000), Hideo Nomo (2001), Curt Schilling (2007) and Josh Beckett (2011) as Red Sox pitchers to throw a one-hit, no-walk shutout in the live ball era. But Sale threw his wearing the so-ugly-they're-cool 1983 throwback uniforms.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Evan Longoria, for his two-out, two-run, bottom-of-the-ninth home run to give the Rays a dramatic 8-7 win over the Padres on Saturday. My favorite part: There's some sort of picnic area in left-center (yes, "picnic area" and "domed stadium" is kind of an oxymoron) where the ball landed, and it looks like half the fans out there didn't realize it was a game-winning home run.

First off, credit Ben Zobrist for a drawing the two-out walk on a 3-2 pitch from Huston Street, working back from a 1-2 count. Street knew that was the batter he had to get. "You get him 1-2, you've got to make a pitch," he said. "I'm frustrated about that just as much as leaving a pitch to Longoria in the middle of the plate." The Rays had led 6-2 before the Padres scored five in the seventh, leading Joe Maddon to say it would have been one of Tampa's worst three losses of the year. "But you can't go to the dance playing like that. When you get leads, you've got to put the other team away. I'm not happy with that. That's inappropriate. That's got to stop," he said.

The Rays finished the sweep on Sunday, however -- their fifth win in a row -- and clawed a game over .500.

Best game
Well, that Padres-Rays game was pretty good. Miller's game was mesmerizing. Toronto's win over Boston on Saturday featured Adam Lind's go-ahead home run in the ninth off Junichi Tazawa, after the Red Sox had tied it in the bottom of the eighth. But I'll go with Cleveland's 7-6 win over Justin Verlander and the Tigers on Saturday. Or Cleveland's 4-3 win on Sunday, in which the Indians tied it in the ninth and won it in the 10th, leading to this quote from Mark Reynolds, who delivered the go-ahead single: "With two strikes, I'm just trying to shorten up my swing and get something into play," he said. Wait ... since when does Reynolds shorten up his swing? Gotta love baseball.

The Indians took two of three from the Tigers to move into a first-place tie with Detroit.

Hitter on the rise: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
He had six home runs through April 21, but his average fell to .173 after a three-strikeout game on April 25. In 16 games, he's hit .419/.478/.694, with three more home runs, eight doubles and nearly as many walks (six) as strikeouts (eight). He has six three-hit games in that stretch, and he's showing he's more than just an all-or-nothing slugger. He's showing he's a guy who is going to be the Cubs' cleanup hitter for a long time.

Pitcher on the rise: Zach McAllister, Indians
Don't believe in the Indians? Don't believe in the rotation? McAllister is starting to look like another solid option alongside Justin Masterson. He didn't get a decision in Sunday's game but pitched a solid six innings. He's 3-3 with a 2.68 ERA and a decent 33/13 SO/BB ratio in 43.2 innings. He's a fly ball pitcher but has allowed just five home runs in seven starts. If he keeps the ball on the right side of the fence he has a chance to be successful.

Brandon Phillips play of the week
This one was pretty.

Happy Mother's Day
Pablo Sandoval uses his pink bat to launch one into McCovey Cove. Tim Lincecum backed up Sandoval with his best outing of the year as the Giants took the final three of four from the Braves. Tough stretch coming up for the Giants, however: 20 of their next 30 on the road, including series in Toronto, Colorado, St. Louis, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

Team on the rise: Indians
They're 12-2 over the past 14, hitting .305 with 24 home runs -- and that stretch does not include that 19-6 win over Houston earlier in the season. The pitching staff has a 2.98 ERA with 13 home runs allowed. The Indians lead the majors in home runs and OPS, and guys like Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall have room to do better.

Team on the fall: A's
Awful week, losing four to Cleveland and then two of three to Seattle. They scored more than three runs just once in seven games as injuries to outfielders Coco Crisp, Chris Young and Josh Reddick have left them playing Michael Taylor and Brandon Moss in the outfield (with Daric Barton or Nate Freiman replacing Moss at first base). Jarrod Parker is still scuffling (6.86 ERA, four walks in 6.1 innings on Saturday). The A's just need to get healthy, and they didn't hit their stride last year until July (they were 37-42 and 13 games out on July 1), so they may be down now, but hardly out.

 
We've had a brawl, we've had upsets, we've had dramatic late-inning rallies and, thanks to one big swing from David Wright, we now get a monumental showdown between bitter enemies Canada and the United States to stay alive in the World Baseball Classic.

OK, maybe it's not quite Sidney Crosby and the Canadians taking on Ryan Miller and the Americans in the 2010 gold-medal hockey game at the Vancouver Olympics, and maybe Canada and the U.S. aren't exactly enemies on the diamond, but Sunday's game at Chase Field in Phoenix is probably the biggest baseball game for Canadians since the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series in 1993.

Baseball fans in the U.S. are still warming up to the whole idea of this tournament, and while a major goal is to help increase popularity of the sport in countries such as Brazil and China and Italy and the Netherlands, don't be fooled: The organizers want U.S. fans to get as passionate about the World Baseball Classic as those in Japan and Latin America. In large part because second-round games will be held in Miami, with the semifinals and finals in San Francisco, and the organizers want sold-out ballparks -- something more likely to happen if the U.S. keeps advancing.

With that possibly in mind, the U.S. was given a soft pool. While the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico were all placed together in Pool C, the U.S. drew lighter-weights Mexico, Canada and Italy. But when Italy beat Mexico and Canada, and then Mexico upset the U.S. on Friday night, it suddenly put pressure on the U.S. to win its final two games of pool play. Joe Torre's squad was actually helped when Canada beat Mexico earlier Saturday -- a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl in the ninth inning -- meaning the Americans now controlled their destiny.

That destiny took a turn for the worse when the surprising Italians took a 2-0 lead against Ryan Vogelsong, who didn't have his usual excellent fastball command. Most of the Italian players are from the U.S., including big leaguers Anthony Rizzo, Chris Denorfia and Nick Punto, but cleanup hitter Alex Liddi of the Mariners was born and raised in Italy and 23-year-old starting pitcher Luca Panerati is an Italian who played a few years in the Reds system, topping out in A-ball. Panerati nevertheless shut down the U.S. with his 86 mph fastball and offspeed pitches, leaving after three scoreless innings; he can tell his grandkids someday about the time he shut down a lineup of major league All-Stars. But the U.S. rallied with five runs in the fifth inning, capped by Wright's two-out grand slam off Matt Torra, an American who pitched in Triple-A for Tampa Bay’s organization last year.

[+] EnlargeDavid Wright
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsDavid Wright turned one around from Italy's Matt Torra for the key fifth-inning grand slam.
That 6-2 win means U.S. versus Canada, winners move on to Miami, losers go home (or back to spring training). Considering the way this tournament has gone -- Italy advancing, Venezuela out after losing its first two games, 2009 runner-up South Korea failing to advance out of the first round, the Netherlands beating Cuba in a second-round game -- don't count out the Canadians.

First, their lineup has some guys you've heard of: Former MVPs Joey Votto and Justin Morneau. Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders went 4-for-4 in the 10-3 win over Mexico. The lineup was hurt by Brett Lawrie's injury in spring training and we’ll have to see if Pete Orr and Rene Tosoni, ejected after the brawl, will be suspended or not; the pitching is thin without guys such as Ryan Dempster, Scott Diamond and Erik Bedard participating. Still, Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon will start against the U.S., and while he hasn't reached the major leagues yet (he pitched in Double-A last year), he has major league stuff, ranking as Keith Law No. 20 preseason prospect. He's certainly capable of shutting down the U.S. lineup for his 65-pitch limit. After that, however, Canada's pitching thins out in a hurry, with Brewers closer John Axford and Phillies reliever Phillippe Aumont the two biggest names in the bullpen.

The U.S. will start Derek Holland, a good strategic move by Torre to get the lefty Holland in there to try to neutralize Votto, Morneau and Saunders. With Ross Detwiler throwing four scoreless innings of relief against Italy, that means the U.S. bullpen is well-rested. Look for Torre to use lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Glen Perkins against the middle of the lineup in the middle innings, and he still has Craig Kimbrel waiting to get some action.

The U.S. will be heavy favorite to advance. To use another Olympic hockey analogy, the Americans are the Soviets. Do the Canadians have a miracle in store? I'll be watching to find out. After all, it's about time we settle this border war with Canada.

Offseason report card: Padres

February, 13, 2013
2/13/13
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2012 in review
Record: 76-86 (75-87 Pythagorean)
651 runs scored (tied for 10th in National League)
710 runs allowed (11th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Acquired Tyson Ross from the A's for Andrew Werner and Andy Parrino. Re-signed free agent Jason Marquis. Signed free agent Freddy Garcia.

OK, it's the Padres. They're not sitting on a pile of money like their rivals to the north. Still, when retread veterans Jason Marquis and Freddy Garcia qualify as your big moves, that's an uninspiring offseason even if your projected payroll will be higher only than the Astros', Marlins' and Pirates'.

The Padres gave starts last season to Kip Wells, Jeff Suppan and Ross Ohlendorf after a slew of injuries wiped out much of their rotation, so adding starting pitching options was the offseason priority -- the only requirements being the pitchers be cheap and have a pulse.

Ross has long been an interesting arm, but he was never able to put it together with the A's (they won 94 games even though Ross went 2-11 with a 6.50 ERA). It's a gamble but didn't cost the Padres much.

Position Players

Here's an interesting fact: The Brewers led the NL in runs scored, but the Padres scored more runs on the road than the Brewers. With the Padres, you have to factor in the difficult hitting environment at Petco Park, especially in the power department. The Padres hit 74 home run on the road, but just 47 at home.

The offense starts with NL RBI leader Chase Headley, who drove in 115 runs -- even more impressive considering the Padres only had mediocre OBP numbers from their 1 and 2 hitters. Headley had that monster second half, of course, hitting .308/.386/.592 with 23 of his 31 home runs. He had a higher road OPS than Miguel Cabrera.

The rest of the lineup shapes up as a middle-of-the-pack offense. Carlos Quentin can hit when he actually plays (86 games last year) and Will Venable and Chris Denorfia make for an excellent platoon in right. Cameron Maybin turns 26 in April but it's probably time give up hope for a breakout season; at this point, it's safe to assume he's .250 with an OBP in the low .300s, but makes up for his mediocre offense with above-average defense in center field.

For the Padres to improve, they'll need more power from first baseman Yonder Alonso, who homered just nine times as a rookie. Petco or not, he'll have to slug higher than .393 or the Padres will be looking for a replacement. Catcher Yasmani Grandal impressed in a 60-game rookie season, but he's been suspended for 50 games for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs.

The Padres ranked 23rd in Defensive Runs Saved (minus-24), with the biggest liabilities being the statuesque Quentin in left field and Logan Forsythe at second. Rookie Jedd Gyorko has a career .319 average in the minors and hit 30 homers in 2012 (24 in Triple-A). A third baseman, the Padres tried him at second and he may have a chance to win the job there at some point.

Overall, the offense is probably a little better than the raw numbers indicate, although I'm dropping the grade a bit since Maybin is really the only plus defender.

Pitching Staff

Where to start? Staff ace Clayton Richard led the NL in hits and home runs allowed and struck out just 107 batters in 218.2 innings. No. 2 Edinson Volquez walked 105 batters. No. 3 Anthony Bass had a 6.35 ERA on the road. Marquis had been let go by the Twins after allowing 33 runs in 34 innings. Anyway ...

OK, so it's a bad rotation, its inadequacies masked somewhat by the Padres' forgiving home park. This isn't the rotation the Padres were hoping for a year ago. Cory Luebke and Joe Wieland both underwent Tommy John surgery. Top prospect Casey Kelly missed three months with a strained elbow ligament, although did return to make six late-season starts for the team. Andrew Cashner, acquired from the Cubs in the Anthony Rizzo trade, started in the bullpen before moving to the rotation to help conserve his innings, and made a couple starts before straining a lat. He then cut his thumb in an offseason hunting accident and will begin the season on the disabled list.

No, the future of the Padres doesn't rest on Bass and Marquis, but on those four guys and younger prospects like Max Fried, Matt Wisler and Joe Ross. It's not a good rotation now, but it should be better in 2014.

Heat Map to Watch
What explains Headley's second half in 2012? For one thing, he started destroying fastballs. As you can see from the heat map, there is a lot of red. After hitting .303 with four homers against fastballs in the first half, he hit .392 with 11 homers against fastballs in the second half. From the numbers, it's hard to see exactly what happened. His swing percentage and chase percentage (on pitches outside the zone) were basically the same, so he didn't become more or less aggressive. He did improve his contact rate -- swinging and missing about 4 percent less often -- but that doesn't explain everything. Maybe he just hit the ball harder. Maybe he just got a little lucky. We'll find out in 2013.

Headley HeatmapESPNThe switch-hitting Headley feasted on fastballs in the second half of 2012.
Overall Grade

SportsNation

How many games will the Padres win?

  •  
    11%
  •  
    22%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    29%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,264)

Some people view the Padres as a sleeper playoff candidate, but I have a hard time seeing it with the current makeup of the rotation. Even if some of the young guys return or suddenly mature, they need a lot of things to go right. The offense could be interesting if Alonso adds some power, Headley does his thing again, Maybin improves and Grandal returns and hits, but, again, that's a lot of ifs.

Factor in that the Diamondbacks have improved, the Dodgers have added Zack Greinke and get full seasons from last year's trade acquisitions, and I'm not sure I see the Padres cracking .500.

Thoughts?

What should Team USA look like?

January, 14, 2013
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The World Baseball Classic provisional rosters will be announced later this week and news is starting to slip out on who Joe Torre will be naming to the roster. Giancarlo Stanton has committed to playing for Team USA, but Mike Trout will not, instead sticking to a full spring training with the Angels. That's certainly understandable in Trout's case, since he battled an illness last spring that caused him to lose 20 pounds and begin the season in Triple-A. Other players who have committed include R.A. Dickey, Andy Pettitte, Craig Kimbrel, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Mark Teixeira.

In a perfect world where every player wants to play, who should be on the Team USA roster? Since the World Baseball Classic is to a large degree a marketing vehicle for the sport, you want a mix of the best players in the game and young stars. In the cases of Trout and Stanton, they would be easy inclusions: They're young and already among the game's elite players.

Here's my 30-man roster:

Catcher -- Buster Posey, Matt Wieters, Joe Mauer
Pretty easy choices here, especially with Brian McCann coming off a bad year and offseason shoulder surgery. One of the interesting story lines for 2013: Does Wieters have any offensive growth left in his game? After back-to-back years hitting .262 and .249 with 22 and 23 home runs, he may have maxed out his power, but if he can learn to hit for a little more average against right-handed pitchers (.223 in 2012) and improve his batting line to something like .280/.360/.500, then he's one of the most valuable players in the game, not just one of the most valuable catchers.

First Base -- Prince Fielder, Anthony Rizzo
Is first base the weakest position in the majors right now? Joey Votto missed 50 games and was still easily the most valuable first baseman in the majors. Prince is the obvious No. 1 choice but with guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Teixeira having down years, let's promote and up-and-coming star like Rizzo. Plus, it gives us a Cub.

Second Base -- Ben Zobrist, Dustin Pedroia
The switch-hitting, slick-fielding Zobrist would be the starter with Pedroia coming off the bench or playing against a left-hander. You can make cases for Aaron Hill (terrific season for Arizona) or the always reliable Brandon Phillips.

Third Base -- David Wright, Chase Headley
There's a lot of depth at third base in the majors right now, but not all of it is U.S.-born players. Wright and Headley were the two best in the majors in 2012 -- yes, arguably better than Miguel Cabera. On the road, Headley had more home runs and a higher OPS than Cabrera.

Shortstop -- Ian Desmond, Jimmy Rollins
With Troy Tulowitzki and Derek Jeter returning from injuries, it's an easy call to give our roster slots to Desmond and Rollins, who ranked 1-2 in FanGraphs WAR among all shortstops in 2012 (not counting Zobrist, who started there the last month and a half, but will move back to second with the acquisition of Yunel Escobar). Desmond will have to prove his power burst is for real -- from eight home runs to 25 -- but I'm a believer.

Outfield: Ryan Braun, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper, Jason Heyward, Austin Jackson
A good mix of MVP candidates (Braun, Trout, McCutchen) and future MVP candidates. The tough choice for Torre: Who do you start? An outfield of Braun in left, Trout in center and Stanton in right gives you three right-handed batters, so maybe you mix in Harper or Heyward against a right-hander.

Starting Pitchers: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain
You don't see many starting pitchers on the World Baseball Classic rosters, in part since they're limited by pitch counts and there aren't that many games to play anyway. But we'll pick five. Verlander and Kershaw are clearly the top two pitchers in baseball right now, as both could have easily picked up their second consecutive Cy Young Awards in 2012. Price and Dickey are the reigning Cy Young champions and are the type of players you want to expose in this kind of event. There are many defensible choices for the fifth spot but Cain gets my nod as the leader of the staff for the World Series champs and the kind of guy you want starting a big game.

Relief Pitchers: Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Sergio Romo, David Hernandez, Kris Medlen, Jake McGee, Sean Marshall, Charlie Furbush
For the bullpen, we're not too worried about just looking at the saves leaders. We want dominant arms in the pen but also the ability to match up late in games if needed. Kimbrel is obviously our closer -- and hopefully Torre will use him for more than three outs if needed, especially with a one-run lead! Papelbon had a couple big blown saves for the Phillies but had a dominant 92/18 strikeout/walk ratio. I'm not sure he's our top setup guy, however. That role may fall to Romo and his death-to-righties slider and the underrated Hernandez, who fanned 98 in 68.1 innings for the Diamondbacks.

Medlen has to be on our team after his dominant transition to the rotation last year -- 0.97 ERA in 12 games as a starter. Are you kidding? With his experience pitching in relief he can be our long guy. And then I went with three left-handers. Tampa Bay's McGee finally had the season long expected of him with his power arsenal. He had a 73/11 SO/BB ratio in 55.1 innings, but he's not just lefty killer as right-handers hit a .098 against him. Marshall has long been one of the best against lefties and Furbush is the new Marshall; with his fastball/slider combo, lefties hit just .147 off him, with just three doubles and no home runs in 75 at-bats.

That's my team. Who would be on yours?

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

August, 4, 2012
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Theme of the week: Late-game drama.

  • Sunday's Yankees/Red Sox tilt featured a 10th-inning go-ahead single by Pedro Ciriaco. There's been only one other go-ahead hit by a Bostonian, in extra innings, in the Bronx, over the past eight years: Jacoby Ellsbury's 14th-inning homer on Sept. 25. And it was the first non-home run version of such a hit since April 22, 2001, when Jason Varitek singled off Mariano Rivera in the 10th, driving in Trot Nixon from second.
  • Anthony Rizzo hit the Cubs' second walk-off homer of the season on Sunday to beat those hated Cardinals 4-2. It's the first time Chicago has defeated St. Louis via walk-off homer since Aramis Ramirez took Dennys Reyes deep in April 2009.
  • Milwaukee's Corey Hart homered in the bottom of the 10th against Washington on Sunday as well. His, unfortunately, was not a walk-off because the Nationals had scored twice in the top of the 10th. Hart finished 4-for-5, including an extra-inning homer, in a home game that his team still managed to lose (in this case, by an 11-10 score). He's the first player to do that since Sept. 7, 2004, when Corey Patterson of the Cubs launched his second homer of the game in the bottom of the 12th in a 7-6 loss to Montreal.It was a dubious first in Brewers franchise history.
  • [+] EnlargeOakland A's
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThe Athletics on Friday won their second 15-inning game in the span of five days.

  • Oakland is still very much in the walk-off business, securing their 12th of the season with a sacrifice fly by Jemile Weeks on Monday -- in the bottom of the 15th. By inning, it was the latest "sac-fly-off" since Raul Ibanez brought an end to that 19-inning game between the Phillies and Reds last season. It was Oakland's first walk-off sac fly since Rickey Henderson‘s 15th-inning winner to beat Toronto on May 23, 1981.
  • The Athletics played 15 more innings on Friday night against Toronto, and won on another sacrifice fly (by Coco Crisp) in the bottom of the 15th. Oakland leads the majors in walk-off wins with 13. The Nationals have eight. No team, by the way, has ever had two "sac-fly-offs" in the 15th or later in the same season.
  • After surrendering three runs in the top of the 10th on Wednesday, Texas walked off with an 11-10 victory over the Angels on Elvis Andrus' two-run single to cap a four-run rally. It was the most runs the Rangers had scored in an extra inning since May 5, 2009, when they put up a six-spot in the 10th at Seattle. Andrus hit the first walk-off single, with his team trailing in extras, of the season. And it was the first single to turn an extra-inning deficit into an extra-inning walk-off, in Rangers/Senators franchise history.
  • Justin Morneau (4-for-4, HBP) and Jamey Carroll (4-for-4, walk, go-ahead single in the 10th) both had "perfect" days at the plate for Minnesota. The Twins are the only team this season to have two players each record four-plus hits and a hit in every at-bat. Ben Revere and Ryan Doumit both did it on June 22 in Cincinnati.
Statistical support for this column provided by Baseball-Reference.com and the Elias Sports Bureau.
Keith Law and I returned from a brief Independence Day hiatus to discuss many pertinent matters on Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, including ...

1. Carlos Lee is now a Miami Marlin, but will he really make much of an impact on his new team? And what about the prospects headed to Houston?

2. Meanwhile, Cliff Lee wins his first game of the season, which is funny for quite a few reasons.

3. How do the Dodgers ever score runs these days? We discuss the lineup, which lost a key cog Wednesday. And why is Matt Kemp competing in the home run contest?

4. Today we gladly took your tweets instead of emails and it was a blast! We talked potential trades, Chris Sale, minor leaguers and much more!

5. Thursday’s schedule has one matchup of All-Stars in New York, but keep an eye on a battle of pitchers traded for each other in San Diego as well!

So download and listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast and get ready for Friday’s episode with me and Mark Simon! Then it’s on to Kansas City!
I'm worried for Anthony Rizzo: I fear that Cubs fans have built up their new first baseman as a savior in blue tights and red cape, the new Joey Votto or the next Mark Teixeira, a slugger supreme to build the next winning Cubs team around.

And maybe Rizzo will be that player. I certainly hope so. Not only does he have a great back story -- he missed most of 2008 while undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma -- but he has terrific minor league numbers (.342/.405/.696 with 23 home runs at Triple-A Iowa in 70- games) that foretells his potential to become a big-time hitter, and lord knows we need a few more big-time hitters right now. He doesn't turn 23 until August, so he's young enough to project a bright future as he settles in at Wrigley Field.

Still, I worry that the expectations are too high, that Cubs fans will be disappointed unless he does turn into an MVP candidate. Remember, he was terrible in a stint with the Padres last year, who were willing to trade him merely for hard-throwing reliever Andrew Cashner (yes, they plan to eventually convert him into a starter, but still).

There's also this scary list of Baseball America's top first-base prospects over the past five years, with the player's overall ranking among the top 100 prospects listed in parenthesis.

2012
Yonder Alonso (33)
Jonathan Singleton (34)
Anthony Rizzo (47)

2011
Eric Hosmer (8)
Brandon Belt (23)

2010
Justin Smoak (13)
Logan Morrison (20)
Brett Wallace (27)
Chris Carter (28)
Freddie Freeman (32)

2009
Lars Anderson (17)
Matt LaPorta (27)
Kyle Blanks (50)

2008
Chris Marrero (27)
Joey Votto (44)
Daric Barton (48)

As you can see, there must be some kind of curse on first-base prospects. Smoak? Wallace? LaPorta? Even Hosmer and Freeman are struggling this year compared to their outstanding rookie campaigns in 2011.

Anyway, of course just because these prospects haven't delivered doesn't mean Rizzo will. I don't believe any of them slugged .696 in Triple-A. It's merely a word of caution: Don't expect Votto. If it happens, enjoy the ride.

Rizzo is hitting third tonight as the Cubs host the Mets. Let's hope the kid gives Cubs fans something to cheer.
SweetSpot blogger Dave Schoenfield and I met in the bucolic Bristol studios to discuss the great game of baseball, with many ranging topics for Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast , including:

1. After hitting Marco Scutaro in the head with a pitch, was Stephen Strasburg afraid to pitch inside?
2. From fast and young to slow and ... well, you know, Jamie Moyer found work, again.
3. Wade Miley, NL All-Star? Yep!
4. Why do I want Derek Jeter to get more hits than Peter Edward Rose?
5. How are the fans doing for the AL All-Star voting?
6. What should we expect from Anthony Rizzo as he’s set for his Cubs debut?
7. David Ortiz, Hall of Famer? Other than in nickname, how does he compare with Edgar Martinez?
8. Ozzie Guillen catches a big mistake and still loses the game.
9. What does the future look like for Justin Smoak?
10. Are the Orioles playoff-bound?

It really was a packed Tuesday edition of the Baseball Today podcast, so download and enjoy. Dave and I will return Wednesday!

Clearing the bases: Milone, platoon fun

June, 26, 2012
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First: One might be the loneliest number and all that, but it was enough on the scoreboard to turn rookie Tommy Milone into an eight-game winner, as he combined with Grant Balfour and Ryan Cook to spin a shutout.

[+] EnlargeTommy Milone
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonTommy Milone pitched 190 innings last season, the most on the A's staff.
Now sure, you can kibitz over it being a shutout of the Mariners, or a shutout thrown in pitcher-friendly Safeco. And maybe that’s because it’s easy to pick on Milone because he’s one from that legion of lefties who "just" throws strikes, changes speeds (averaging just 87 mph in his case), and mixes in the odd curveball. And he’s a fly-ball guy. And in a world full of analysts happily harping on the virtues of power ground-ball pitchers, there’s not going to be a ton of love for a soft-tossing lefty armed with little more than the proverbial guts of a burglar.

But for all that, sometimes it’s worth remembering what a guy does and can do, and not treat player performance with cavalier disdain for less than perfection. Look at what Milone is, and there’s a lot to like: He’s bold when it comes to working inside despite his less-than-overpowering stuff; he attacks weaknesses aggressively, having learned to live low in the zone from three seasons pitching in USC’s rotation in college; and with his Bugs Bunny-like slowball delivery, his low-temp heat plays up.

Most importantly, Milone has given the A’s an innings-eater capable of pitching into the seventh inning or later, having done so in seven of his last nine turns. That’s especially handy in an A’s rotation that has lost Bartolo Colon to a strained oblique and Brandon McCarthy to his latest injury (a shoulder this time, for the second time this year, the fourth season he’s had shoulder woes in his run of seven straight seasons with DL service).

So A’s fans can thank their lucky stars for Tommy Milone, even if he’s “just” a finesse lefty whose FIP bleats regression. He may not reliably dent bread with his fastball, but if you wanted to assemble a list of key features for any pitcher’s success, Milone owns at least two: the ability to throw strikes and health. It’s something lots of teams like to work with.

Second: If you want a line score you won’t see every day, check out Alex Cobb’s eight-inning, eight-run disasterpiece against the Royals, the sort of game you might expect from the sports pages a century older. But the reasoning wasn’t that shabby: The Rays had played a Sunday doubleheader with a pen start led off by Cesar Ramos in the second. He’d thrown just 53 pitches through the first three frames despite being down 6-0, so why tax your ‘pen just then? It’s a losing cause and just one ballgame you can’t lose more than once no matter how bad it gets, so why not see if Cobb can give the relievers some rest? Cobb took a bullet for the team, but that's going to be worth something in the Rays' games to come this week.

Third: With Tuesday marking Anthony Rizzo Day in Wrigleyville, one thing that might have missed your attention unless you’re punishing yourself with Cubs boxscores first thing in the morning is how many platoons, strict or loose, that Dale Sveum’s running these days.

Bryan LaHair’s move out to right field to platoon with Reed Johnson already gave them a second outfield platoon, with David DeJesus moving over to form the lefty half of a center-field platoon with Joe Mather. OK, that’s semi-cool, but it was also semi-cool about the 1987 Cubs, who platooned Jerry Mumphrey and Brian Dayett in left while platooning Dave Martinez and Bob Dernier in center. (This did not lead to bigger and better things for any of them, but it was cool, even as it made for a busy scorecard.)

However, Rizzo is probably looking at the occasional day off against tough lefties so that Jeff Baker can fulfill the lefty-mashing role that has defined his career, so that’s a loose trio of platoons in a single lineup. Heck, maybe Sveum will use Steve Clevenger often enough behind the plate, spotting for Geovany Soto to make it four platoons.

That’s no easy feat in the age of seven-man bullpens. However, that’s Sveum’s bench in a nutshell: Everyone has his uses, even newly-minted fifth outfielder Tony Campana -- as a ready defensive replacement for DeJesus or LaHair.

Bringing it home: Our own Eric Karabell has the tweet of the night, on the subject of forgiveness when it comes to closers after the Marlins’ late-inning loss to the Cardinals …

The Cubs-Pads double-dare deal

January, 6, 2012
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Say good-bye to all those Prince Fielder rumors. The Cubs kept denying they were playing at that table, and by trading for Anthony Rizzo, they made it clear they were serious.

When you talk about "challenge trades" you’re usually referring to a straight-up swap of players at the same position, or maybe one established veteran for another. But much of what makes Friday’s trade between the Padres and Cubs so interesting is that it’s a challenge trade of top prospects who haven’t arrived yet. But with first baseman Rizzo eventually headed to Wrigleyville while hard-throwing Andrew Cashner treks to the pitching heaven that is Petco Park, this could be one double-dare that leaves both teams winners -- up to a point.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
Jody Gomez/US PresswireThe Cubs expect young first baseman Anthony Rizzo to develop into a power hitter in the near future.
Obviously, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and scouting and player development honcho Jason McLeod love Rizzo. They drafted him for Boston in 2007, and Hoyer and McLeod traded for him in San Diego. This reunion represents about as strong a reflection of management’s conviction that Rizzo will be something special as any one player could get from any front-office cadre. Rizzo is a 22-year-old thumper with a demonstrated track record for power after hammering 51 homers in the minors the past two years; you can see how that fuels expectations of more to come.

But for the Padres, Cashner is headed into the relief role people projected as his destiny since his days starring at TCU before getting tabbed with the 19th pick in the 2008 draft. Jim Hendry’s outfit invested a lot of time in seeing if Cashner could stick as a starter, but both the new Cubs’ crew and Padres GM Josh Byrnes are convinced his best role is in relief. There, he can chuck the changeup and get back to dealing high-90s heat to set up a sharp power slider.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see both Cashner and Rizzo on a National League All-Star squad in 2015. The real question isn’t why everyone could come out looking good, but why you make this deal at all if you’re the Padres. Isn’t a top offensive prospect worth more than a pitcher whose ultimate upside might be quality closer? Maybe Byrnes is much more sold on Yonder Alonso than Rizzo, a defensible choice, but is Cashner really all you want to get if you’re willing to part with one of the best power prospects in the minors?

It’s worth noting that both prospects come with wrinkles. Cashner is coming back from a season effectively lost to shoulder trouble, never a happy thing for a pitcher, but that perhaps contributes to the expectation that he’s going straight to the Pad ’pen.

The loudest warning bell on Rizzo is that he’s been accused of having a slow bat. Talking up his performance at Tucson last year (.331/.404/.652) might risk losing sight of the fact that Tucson’s Kino Stadium is one of the best places to hit in a hitter’s league. It’s impressive that he ripped the PCL as a 21-year-old, but Petco was not going to help him break through. Get too worked up over his Triple-A numbers, and you can expect to be disappointed, which his 2011 big-league cameo delivered (.523 OPS). If you’re chary over Red Sox prospects, you have cause: It wasn’t so very long ago people were gushing over Lars Anderson because he was young and people expected his power to blossom every bit as much as they do now for Rizzo.

However, perhaps what’s equally important about Rizzo is that he’s been seen as a good worker, a player with excellent value on defense as well as one who has worked hard to iron out kinks, like an early career problem against lefties. Rizzo’s due to start 2012 in Iowa, perhaps as much a matter of service-time manipulation as putting him through finishing school, with minor-league vet Bryan LaHair the likely placeholder at first base in the meantime.

As for the add-ons in this four-player trade, both teams again have cause to feel good about what they received. Zach Cates comes to the Cubs as a hard-throwing arm who struggled as a starter in the Midwest League last year. When the Pads made him a third-round pick in 2010, his fastball sat in the low 90s, but touched 96, and he’s credited with a good changeup. With 111 strikeouts in 118 innings last year for Fort Wayne, you can entertain some modest ambitions for his usefulness. In return, the Pads got one of the products of the Cubs’ aggressive scouting of the Far East, landing 20-year-old Korean speedster Kyung-Min Na. He stole 20 bases in 30 attempts last year while hitting .268/.358/.312 across four levels; if he sticks in center he’ll be worth following as he starts logging real time at more advanced levels. Neither are sure things to survive the jump to Double-A, but both are interesting in their own right.

It won’t be surprising if we see both Rizzo and Cashner starring for their new teams in the years to come, which might make this seem like a win-win deal. But at a time when it’s easier to find useful relievers than it is to land top-shelf power-hitting prospects, credit the Cubs with making the better bet on upside value.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
  • On his U.S.S. Mariner site, FanGraphs writer and ESPN contributor Dave Cameron suggests the Mariners should make a pitch for Anthony Rizzo, now that the Padres acquired Yonder Alonso in the Mat Latos deal. Dave suggests it could cost shortstop prospect Nick Franklin or pitching prospect James Paxton. Likewise, in his video review of the trade, Jim Bowden suggests Rizzo could be used to acquire Matt Garza from the Cubs. Here are three other possible landing spots for Rizzo:1. Rays: Tampa Bay needs a cheap, preferably left-handed bat, to play first base. Rizzo is cheap and left-handed. Wade Davis is signed to a team-friendly that could interest the Padres, although it would probably take more than Davis to pry away Rizzo.2. Orioles: The Orioles have Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis, which is kind of like have two screwdrivers when you need a hammer. Needless to say, the Orioles don't exactly have a lot to offer, as they need to keep Zach Britton and Brian Matusz is damaged goods after his tragically bad season. The Orioles do have two highly regarded shortstop prospects in Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, although both are a few years from the majors.3. Astros: Absorbing Wandy Rodriguez's salary doesn't make sense for the Padres, so unless the Astros are willing to part with Jordan Lyles or Bud Norris, probably not a good match here.
  • Here's a quick rundown on Latos' career to date.
  • Speaking of the Orioles, Camden Depot has a rundown on the big shakeup in Baltimore's scouting department.
  • It's the 12 Days of Baseballmas, from Mark Smith at The Platoon Advantage.
  • Nick Nelson writes that it's looking like more of the same from Twins: In other words, a pitching staff that can't strike anybody out.
  • Fun post from Stephanie Liscio on her irrational loves and hates. Yes, I would say loving Ronnie Belliard is a bit irrational. My hate of Jim Presley and Pete O'Brien? Completely justified, of course.
  • Mark Simon writes about Jimmy Rollins' defense. Is he on the decline?
  • Dwight Evans is a stathead favorite for his wide range of underrated skills. David Laurila of FanGraphs caught up with Evans to discuss The Catch, 1986 and his son's illness.
  • One of the Mariners' minority owners is in the middle of messy divorce. So how much is the club worth?
  • Finally, Grant Bisbee writes that the NL West should be sad that Mat Latos is leaving the division -- after all, he was so much fun to dislike.

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