SweetSpot: Ben Zobrist

Over the next month, we're going to present 30 deals in 30 days: the best trade deadline deal ever made by each team.

THE TEAM: Tampa Bay Rays

THE YEAR: 2006

THE SITUATION: It was July 2006, and the Rays -- actually, still the Devil Rays then -- were well on their way to another losing season, their ninth in a row with at least 90 losses (it would become 101 that year) since the birth of the franchise. Aubrey Huff had hit .311 with 34 home runs for Tampa in 2003 and .297 with 29 home runs in 2004, but hadn't quite matched that production in 2005 and was hitting .283 with eight home runs in '06. As an impending free agent, it was time to deal.

The Astros had reached the World Series in 2005 but weren't getting much production from their outfield. At the All-Star break they were 43-46 but only six games out of first place in a weak NL Central. Roger Clemens had just rejoined the rotation, and they were looking for some offense.

THE TRADE: The Rays sent Huff to the Astros for two minor leaguers: pitcher Mitch Talbot and shortstop Ben Zobrist. Zobrist wasn't considered a top prospect -- Baseball America had ranked him 16th in the Houston system before the start of the season -- although he'd hit over .300 since being drafted in 2004. But he didn't have much power, with three home runs in Double-A at the time of the deal, and was already 25 years old. New Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman undoubtedly saw a player who had consistently posted high on-base percentages, however.

THE AFTERMATH: Huff played right field and third base for the Astros and did OK (.250/.341/.478, 13 HRs, 38 RBIs in 68 games) but the Astros fell 1½ games short of the Cardinals in the division race. Zobrist reached the majors with Tampa in 2006 but didn't contribute much until 2008 when the renamed Rays surprised everyone and won the AL East and reached the World Series. He has become one of baseball's most valuable assets in recent years, moving between second base and the outfield and even playing a little shortstop, while adding power that he never showed in the minors. Since 2009, Baseball-Reference ranks him as the third-most valuable position player in baseball with 29.6 WAR, behind only Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano and just ahead of teammate Evan Longoria.

I know, I know: You're tired of stat nerds professing their love for the Tampa Bay Rays, a franchise that hasn't even reached the World Series since 2008, let alone ever won one.

Why do we love the Rays? They compete despite usually ranking near the bottom in payroll. Why write about them on a night they lost 10-8 to the Boston Red Sox in 14 innings? They always find a way to compete, a credit to the front office's ability to build depth; a credit to the managerial genius of Joe Maddon and his coaching staff; a credit to the players, for their ability to adapt to situations that Maddon creates for them.

This year, the Rays are winning in a new way: They score runs. Cy Young winner David Price won just once in nine starts before landing on the disabled list; like Price, starters Jeremy Hellickson and Roberto Hernandez have ERAs of more than 5.00. In fact, of the 73 American League pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings, those three rank Nos. 54, 59 and 63 in ERA; that is decidedly un-Tampa like.

Instead, the Rays are averaging 4.97 runs per game, a sizable increase from last year's 4.30 per game. If they keep up that pace, that's a 107-run jump from 2012. After a 4-9 start in which the offense hit just .204 and averaged 3.0 runs per game, the Rays are 30-20 and have scored the most runs per game in the majors.

Yes, there's Evan Longoria, and he's hitting well, but one man does not make an offense. What Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman have done is construct a team of multi-position platoons. The Rays really have only four regulars: third baseman Longoria, shortstop Yunel Escobar, center fielder Desmond Jennings and first baseman James Loney, although even Loney sits against some left-handers.

Beyond that it's a bunch of interlocking parts that exploit the positional flexibility of the roster. Second baseman/right fielder Ben Zobrist has started 33 games at second and 21 in right (plus four at shortstop) and often changes positions within a game. How rare is his ability to do this? Well, he's the only player in more than 100 years to play at least 50 games at second and 50 games in right field in the same season, and he has done it three times. The only other player to do it was Danny Murphy, back in 1908.

It's so rare that even if you cut the games played down to 35 at each position, you find only four players since World War II to do it: Mark DeRosa in 2008, Tony Phillips in 1992, Bill Russell in 1971 and Billy Goodman in 1951. Basically, Zobrist is a freak, especially since he plays both positions well. But it also takes a manager to think outside the box, and it's easy to forget that Maddon basically created a new position for Zobrist, the hybrid right fielder/second baseman. Longoria is the most valuable player on the roster, but Zobrist is the fulcrum around which the roster operates. Matt Joyce plays right field and left field; Kelly Johnson has played left and second base; Sean Rodriguez has started at four different positions.

Aside from the versatility in the field, it's not an accident the Rays have found success at the plate. Loney was a disappointment with the Dodgers, a first baseman who never hit with the power he flashed early in his career. The Rays didn't see a disappointment, but a guy who could hit right-handers and carry a good glove. With a .327/.387/.519 line, Loney is certainly exceeding expectations, but he did hit a respectable .293/.358/.424 against right-handers from 2009 to 2011 before struggling in 2012. Kelly Johnson had 20-homer seasons in 2010 and 2011; the Rays saw those numbers instead of the guy who struggled in 2012.

There's also room for the offense to improve: Top prospect Wil Myers is heating up in Triple-A, hitting .380 with eight home runs and 27 RBIs over his past 16 games heading into Monday night. The headline on a Tampa Bay Times story on Monday read "Myers looks ready but has nowhere to play," which I don't quite agree with. Designated hitter Luke Scott is hitting .215/.320/.336 -- after not hitting last year -- so it may be time to give up on him. Maddon has somehow found 97 plate appearances for Sam Fuld and his .190 average. So there's pretty clearly room for Myers. Sure, it may mean making Zobrist a -- gasp! -- permanent second baseman, with Ryan Roberts not really contributing, and pushing Joyce or Johnson to the DH slot. Or maybe Zobrist plays more shortstop, like he did at the end of last season.

Either way, Myers should be up soon. I'm pretty sure Maddon can figure out a way to use everybody.

Now, about that pitching staff. ...

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

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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.
Quick thoughts on Monday's games ...
  • Did you see the final pitch of the Rangers' 5-4 victory over the Rays? Ump Marty Foster rung up Ben Zobrist on a 3-2 curveball low and off the outside corner, a call so bad that even Rangers closer Joe Nathan was seen mouthing, "Wow." "That call can't be made in a Major League Baseball game," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. Foster admitted after seeing the replay that he made a bad call. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs has an in-depth breakdown of the pitch, with one takeaway being that Foster does have a weak spot for that location.
  • Alexi Ogando had a solid second start in his return to the rotation, after blowing away the Astros in his first start. He walked three and fanned only two, but limited the hits and gave up just one run in 5.1 innings. Despite his strong performance as a starter in 2011, I was skeptical of Ogando matching the 3.51 ERA he put up that year. He was basically a two-pitch guy then and as a reliever, but he's added a changeup this year, which he's thrown 17 percent of the time and so far hitters are 1-for-6 on plate appearances ending on a change. It's early, of course, but if that pitch develops, Ogando could have a big year.
  • Watched the Roy Halladay-Matt Harvey showdown that wasn't much of a showdown. Not much to say, other than Phillies fans should be very worried and Mets fans should be very happy. Halladay was bad again -- he allowed five earned runs in back-to-back starts for the first time since 2007 -- and Harvey was very good again. Here, the "Baseball Tonight" guys break down the game. Halladay talked with reporters at length after the game and says he feels fine. "Ninety-five percent is mental," he said. "It's simplifying and getting back to basics and not trying to force things." Here's Adam Rubin on Harvey's performance.
  • The Reds erupted for nine runs against the Cardinals in the ninth inning to break open a tie game, with seven coming off Mitchell Boggs. The Reds scored their first four runs with only one hit out of the infield. Mike Matheny didn't help matters by issuing two intentional walks. Give away free passes and you do open yourself up for a big inning. Filling in for Jason Motte, Boggs now has a blown save and a loss in four appearances. But eighth-inning guy Trevor Rosenthal has blown two leads, so I don't think Matheny dumps Boggs just yet.
  • Justin Upton hit another home run -- that's six in seven games. Maybe he did need to get out of Arizona. ESPN Stats & Info reports that four of Upton's six home runs have come off fastballs. He may not see another one until May.
We've seen a lot of bunts in the World Baseball Classic. In an earlier game against Japan, Chinese Taipai twice attempted bunts with one out. On Sunday, Joe Torre had Adam Jones -- who hit 32 home runs last year -- bunt with two runners on in a tie game. Later, Ben Zobrist bunted with two on when the U.S. was trailing by two runs. (Zobrist reached on a fielding miscue and the U.S. scored twice that inning.)

I mentioned that Torre had bunted only 13 times in his career managing the Yankees when down by two runs, all by weak hitters other than two by Derek Jeter (both in 2004). Others have said you can't compare what Torre did in the regular season since these are more like postseason games, where you're more inclined to scratch and claw for one or two runs rather than wait for the big inning.

So I looked it up on the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index: In the past 10 postseasons, there have been 11 sacrifice bunts when trailing by two runs. Six of those were by pitchers -- including the biggest of those, Kyle Lohse pinch-hitting in the bottom of the 10th in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series -- and the others were by Willy Taveras, Nick Punto, Chone Figgins, Brooks Conrad and Freddy Sanchez. In the cases of Taveras and Figgins, you're also talking about two of the best bunters in recent years, guys with the speed to potentially beat out any bunt.

Still, while the decision to bunt in that down-by-two situation is certainly rare, it's not necessarily a move that's never used by managers.
Craig KimbrelMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsCraig Kimbrel worked a one-two-three ninth to secure the win over Team Canada.
They call this the World Baseball Classic and Sunday's United States-Canada game certainly qualifies as a classic, with a David-versus-Goliath storyline, several questionable lineup and managerial decisions made by Joe Torre, a late-inning rally and maybe some respect earned for this tournament.

The final score read 9-4 in favor of the United States, and the U.S. moves on to the second round next weekend in Miami. But the game was much more tense than the score indicated. Some quick thoughts:

  • Let's begin with Torre's lineup. He inserted Shane Victorino into left field and Ben Zobrist into right field, moving Ryan Braun to the DH spot, Joe Mauer to catcher and benching Giancarlo Stanton. While that added two switch-hitters to the Team USA lineup against Canadian right-hander Jameson Taillon, it meant sitting one of the game's premier sluggers for Victorino, who isn't the same presence in the lineup. I understand that Torre wanted to get Victorino into a game, but this isn't tee ball; there are no trophies and cookies handed out to the losing team for trying your best.
  • Torre then had a strange sacrifice bunt attempt in the second inning with two runners on and no outs after David Wright doubled and Canada third baseman Taylor Green dropped an infield pop-up. Instead of going for a big inning against a 21-year-old who has pitched three games above Class A, Torre had Adam Jones bunt. It made no sense to play little ball there instead of trying to blow the game open against a pitcher who didn't exactly dominate the Florida State League in 2012. The bunt worked but Taillon worked out of the jam without a run. Play for one, get none.
  • The U.S. fell behind when Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders continued his hot WBC streak with a two-run home run to right, yanking a terrible hanging slider from Derek Holland. Saunders had shown bunt on the first pitch, a ball in the dirt, then swung away. That's what can happen when you don't bunt.
  • Down 2-0 in the fourth, Torre then bunted again with two on and no outs. The bunt "worked" when Green hesitated on Zobrist's bunt down the third-base line and Zobrist beat the throw to first. How rare is a bunt when trailing by two runs? Torre managed the Yankees from 1996 to 2007 and the Yankees had 13 sacrifice bunts when down two runs -- one by a pitcher, three by Miguel Cairo and the others by weak hitters other than two by Derek Jeter in 2004. In other words, Torre almost never bunted in that situation. It's like Torre was watching all the small ball played by the Asian teams and forgot he has the best lineup in the tournament. If Green makes the play, the U.S. scores only one run that inning instead of two. Good outcome, but the wrong call.
  • In the eighth inning, after Jones delivered a big go-ahead double to give the U.S. the lead, Torre turned to Diamondbacks righty David Hernandez even though the heart of the Canada lineup -- Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Saunders, all left-handed hitters -- was due up. I can't quibble too much with that decision, even though lefty Jeremy Affeldt was available. I would have used Affeldt, as all three players had sizable platoon splits last year, but Hernandez was one of the game's best relievers in 2012 (although he held righties to a .145 average and lefties to a .240 mark). After Votto reached on an infield, Morneau struck out and Saunders laid down a perfect bunt single. Chris Robinson then singled to load the bases and Adam Loewen grounded out to make the score 5-4. Torre then brought in Marlins reliever Steve Cishek (of course, using Craig Kimbrel, the most dominant reliever in baseball with your tournament on the line was apparently out of the question) and had him intentionally walk Pete Orr (!) to load the bases. I never like that move, which gives a pitcher no room for error. Canadian manager Ernie Whitt also pinch-hit lefty Tim Smith to face the sidearmer. The intentional walk also guaranteed Votto would bat in the bottom of the ninth. Anyway, Cishek got Smith to ground out to second in what turned out to be the game's crucial at-bat.
  • The U.S. broke it open in the ninth, with Whitt waiting too long to bring in Brewers closer John Axford, who served up a three-run double to Eric Hosmer. In the end, the U.S. bullpen depth proved key, as many expected it would before the game.
  • One thing that needs to stop is the guarantees made to general managers that if their guy is selected to a squad, he needs to play. I'm not sure if Torre used Hernandez because he hadn't pitched in the previous two games -- and again, it wasn't that strange of a move, not like the two bunts -- and needed to get him some work. Same thing with Cishek. Or maybe Torre just wanted to get them into a game. But this isn't exactly an All-Star Game. It's not an easy job, but I'd like the U.S. managers to treat this a little more seriously and not guarantee playing time. It's easy enough for a reliever to throw on the side after a game and Victorino's season isn't going to be ruined by not playing for three days.
  • Part of the fun of the World Baseball Classic is rooting for guys from your team, no matter which country they're playing for. As a Mariners fan, it was exciting to see Saunders have another big game. It was a rough day for Brewers fans, however. Green went 0-for-5 and his two miscues in the field led to at least two U.S. runs, Jim Henderson couldn't hold the 4-3 lead in the eighth, and then Axford let the game get away in the ninth. Even Braun went a quiet 1-for-5.

OK, there's no Mike Trout or Buster Posey or Justin Verlander or Andrew McCutchen, but Team USA's provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic looks pretty strong. How about this lineup:

RF Ben Zobrist
C Joe Mauer
LF Ryan Braun
DH Giancarlo Stanton
3B David Wright
1B Mark Teixeira
CF Adam Jones
SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Brandon Phillips
P R.A. Dickey

You have on-base ability at the top of the lineup in Zobrist and Mauer, follow that up with two of the best power hitters in the game, have another good OBP guy in Wright hitting fifth, switch-hitting Teixeira in the 6-hole, a 30-homer guy batting seventh, and then speed and more power at the bottom of the lineup. On paper, it's a lineup that should score plenty of runs.

It seems a little better than the 2009 lineup that lost twice to Venezuela and once to Puerto Rico in pool play and then to Japan in the semifinals. Pitching and defense were the big culprits in the U.S. struggles. Puerto Rico beat up Jake Peavy in an 11-1 loss. In a 10-6 loss to Venezuela, Jeremy Guthrie allowed six runs in the second inning, with Adam Dunn -- playing first base -- making a crucial throwing error that led to four unearned runs. Still, Guthrie got knocked around by a Venezuelan team that included, yes, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez, but also Endy Chavez hitting leadoff, Cesar Izturis hitting second and Jose Lopez hitting third. In the semifinal loss to Japan, the lineup included Dunn in right field, Mark DeRosa at first base and Rollins hitting third (although he did go 4-for-4), but Roy Oswalt got knocked out in the fourth inning after giving up six runs, with Wright, Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts all making errors.

So that puts the pressure on the four U.S. starters named to the provisional roster: Dickey, Kris Medlen, Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland. Clearly, Dickey and Medlen line up as the top two guys, but the U.S. used four starters last tournament, so all four probably will get at least one game.

Starters are held to strict pitch counts in the tournament, so the pitching staff will include these nine relievers: Jeremy Affeldt, Mitchell Boggs, Steve Cishek, Tim Collins, Luke Gregerson, Craig Kimbrel, Chris Perez, Glen Perkins and Vinnie Pestano. That's a pretty strong group, with three lefties and some power arms at the back in Boggs and Pestano and with the game's best closer in Kimbrel ready to shut down any lead.

The bench includes Jonathan Lucroy, J.P. Arencibia, Shane Victorino and Willie Bloomquist.

What's interesting is that Team USA, to be managed by Joe Torre, announced just 27 players. Considering final rosters will include 28 players, it appears as if Torre and USA Baseball had trouble convincing enough players to join the fun. Or maybe they're leaving that final spot open ... you know, just in case, somebody wants to change his mind.

On paper, the U.S. should rate as the favorite with its power and a nice one-two punch in Dickey and Medlen. (Rosters for other countries will be announced at 4 p.m. ET.) But Japan won the first two World Baseball Classics, and the U.S. didn't even make the semifinals in the 2006 tournament, losing twice in Round 2. In fact, the U.S. history is pretty dismal. Look at its record:

Teams beaten: Mexico, South Africa, Japan, Canada, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico
Teams lost to: Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Japan

That's a 7-7 record, with three of the wins against noted baseball powers South Africa, Canada and the Netherlands.

The World Baseball Classic is a big deal everywhere but in the U.S., it seems. I like it, even if it is a little bit of a gimmick.

Gimmick or not, however, it's time for the U.S. team to do better.

What should Team USA look like?

January, 14, 2013
1/14/13
1:16
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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?

Who should win the AL wild cards?

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
1:48
AM ET


I sent an email to my pal Jim Caple, asking: Would you rather see the A’s or Angels in the playoffs?

I could also ask: Would you rather see the Orioles or the Rays?

All four teams won on Wednesday, which means good news for the Orioles and A’s -- one game closer to the playoffs! -- and bad news for the Rays and Angels, who need to keep winning and get some help.

My thought on the A’s is I want them to make it because they’re the ultimate underdog, Cinderella, small-market franchise, and it’s good for baseball for a team like that to make it to show success doesn’t depend solely on a high payroll. But I’d also like to see Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the postseason. And I’d like to see if the Orioles can keep their magical success in one-run games and extra-inning games going. And I’d like to see the Rays make it, because how can you not root for the Rays?

But only two of the four teams can win the wild cards (and we shouldn’t discount the Orioles’ chances of winning the American League East). Here’s the case for each on why we want them to make it.

SportsNation

Which of these teams do you most want to see in the playoffs?

  •  
    69%
  •  
    9%
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    16%
  •  
    6%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,309)

Baltimore Orioles: Because there are Orioles fans now in high school who haven't seen their team post a winning record. … Because they were once baseball’s premier franchise from the late 1960s to the early '80s (18 consecutive winning seasons, including 13 with 90-plus wins) and Baltimore was once a great baseball town, finishing first or second in the American League in attendance every year from 1992 to 2000. … Because we need to see if Adam Jones can hit another home run in extra innings. … Because we have no idea who Buck Showalter would start in the wild-card game. … Because we may see Cal Ripken throw out a first pitch. … Because they wear orange jerseys. … Because nobody believed in them when they won five in a row in New York and Boston in May -- including The Chris Davis Game -- to improve to 19-9, or when they tossed back-to-back shutouts in Atlanta in June to go to 39-27, and certainly not when they lost 17 of their next 24. … Because they’ve won 16 extra-inning games in a row. … Because they’ve brought back the tri-colored '80s hats. … Because they had the guts to call up 20-year-old shortstop Manny Machado and make him their starting third baseman down the stretch. … Because an Orioles-Nationals World Series would be pretty cool. … Because it’s time to exorcise the demons of that brat in the Yankees cap.

Tampa Bay Rays: Because they keep doing this every season despite one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and it’s time to see them go all the way. … Because we could see a David Price vs. Justin Verlander showdown at some point. … Because Evan Longoria is a stud and deserves some time on the big stage and 11 Yankees make more money than he does. … Because we want to see if Matt Moore can replicate that “Welcome to the big leagues, kid!” performance from last October, when he blanked the Rangers for seven innings on two hits in Game 1 of the Division Series. … Because Fernando Rodney has had a season for the ages (45 saves, 0.63 ERA) and nobody has paid much attention to it. … Because Joe Maddon had the guts to move Ben Zobrist to shortstop in August and the Rays have gone 27-18 since. … Because they have a 2.48 ERA over their past 63 games and if pitching is what takes you all the way then this team can go all the way. … Because we could get Jose Molina facing brother Yadier in the World Series. … Because at least it won’t be 38 degrees inside Tropicana Field.

Oakland A's: Because they were ranked No. 29 in the first week of the ESPN.com Power Rankings, one slot below the Orioles (hey, at least we got the Astros right). … Because it was just announced that Travis Blackley is officially a rookie, meaning the A’s are currently going with an all-rookie rotation -- and that is just awesome. … Because they signed Yoenis Cespedes and nobody else did. … Because Jarrod Parker's changeup is so good it can be compared with Felix Hernandez's and not make anyone think you’re crazy saying that. … Because Chris Carter has more power in one arm than many big leaguers have in two. … Because maybe we’ll get a wild-card game against the Orioles featuring yellow jerseys versus orange jerseys and we can pretend it’s the '70s all over again. … Because they have the sixth-best record since 2000 and four of the other five teams won a World Series (Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, Angels; the Braves being the exception). … Because they’ve used 18 different rookies. … Because Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Pedro Feliciano make more money combined than the entire A’s roster. … Because they have 13 walk-off wins, most in the majors, and is there anything sweeter than a walk-off win in the postseason? … Because we could see an A’s-Giants Bay Area World Series. … Because with Blackley and Grant Balfour, a World Series with the A’s in it would be HUGE in Australia.

Los Angeles Angels: Because America wants to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because America needs to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because we could get Albert Pujols going back to St. Louis and we can all spend three days wondering if Cardinals fans will boo him or cheer him. … Because Jered Weaver throws high fastballs in the upper 80s and gets away with it. … Because when he’s on, few pitchers are as fun to watch as Zack Greinke. … Because a World Series featuring Trout and Bryce Harper would remind us of the 1951 World Series that also featured two rookie center fielders named Mays and Mantle. … Because Mark Trumbo may hit one 500 feet. … Because maybe we’ll see C.J. Wilson face off against Yu Darvish and his ex-Rangers teammates. … Because you know a World Series game in Anaheim means we won’t see players wearing earflap caps and drinking coffee in the dugout while wearing ski gloves.

As for my question to Jim, what was his response? "I want them both to make it!"

Thanks, Jim. Way to take a stand.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Yadier MolinaTroy Taormina/US PresswireYadier Molina shows why he's incomparable when it comes to the rough dance around home plate.
Ben Zobrist has long been admired by Rays fans, Joe Maddon and baseball analysts for his ability to shift seamlessly between second base and right field and play well at both positions. You can add a new position to his résumé: He started three of Tampa Bay's past four games at shortstop, the first time he's played there since 2009.

"It gives us our best offensive lineup, no question," Maddon told MLB.com. "If we don't do that, I don't feel good about the offense."

Zobrist came up as a shortstop, so it's not like he's completely inexperienced playing there, although his defensive metrics when he played shortstop regularly from 2006 to 2008 weren't great (-15 Defensive Runs Saved in about 107 games worth of innings). With Evan Longoria back, Maddon made the move to get his best hitters in the lineup. Longoria has been the designated hitter, with Matt Joyce moving to right field. With a lefty on the hill for the Twins on Sunday, Joyce was on the bench with Zobrist back in right field and Sean Rodriguez at shortstop.

Maddon's lineup flexibility will increase even more when Longoria is ready to resume playing third base and Luke Scott returns from an oblique strain. It will be interesting to see how Maddon maneuvers everyone around once the Rays are back at full strength. Jeff Keppinger has hit well enough -- .323/.377/.445, including .429 versus left-handers -- to keep playing, at least in a platoon role. His range at second base is lacking, so against left-handers Maddon could keep Ryan Roberts there and use Keppinger at first base (in place of Carlos Pena) or DH, with Zobrist playing shortstop or right field. Against right-handers, you're likely to see Joyce in right and Scott at DH, with Zobrist at shortstop and Roberts or Keppinger at second base. Sam Fuld could also play left field in place of Desmond Jennings.

In this era of 13-man bullpens, teams rarely platoon at more than one position. But it's likely that Maddon enters September with only three players at set positions -- Longoria at third base, B.J. Upton in center field and either Pena at first base or Scott at DH. That flexibility is rare, but Zobrist allows Maddon to dig into his mad genius bag of tricks.

With the announcement that Joe Torre will manage Team USA in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, let's have a little fun and project who could form the 28-man squad in March.

Before we get to my suggested roster, a few notes and thoughts:

1. Rules require a minimum of 13 pitchers.

2. In reality, some of these guys won't want to play. The 2009 U.S. squad included John Grabow, Matt Lindstrom, Brad Ziegler and Chris Iannetta.

3. Like in 2009, we'll go heavy on relief pitchers. That squad included only four starting pitchers. One, that's all you need; and, two, teams don't want starters breaking up their normal spring training routine by pitching in relief in the WBC.

4. We want a balanced lineup. You don't want an entire lineup of right-handed batters.

5. I like the idea of going with younger players when possible. They're going to be enthusiastic about playing and it's good promotion for the sport to get new stars out there.

So here we go ...

Catchers: Buster Posey, Joe Mauer
Two positives here. One bats right-handed, one bats left-handed. Both can also play first base if needed. In case you've forgotten about Mauer, he has a .406 on-base percentage entering Thursday's game. This team will have plenty of power, so I'd prefer Mauer's on-base skills over the power of Matt Wieters or Brian McCann.

First base: Eric Hosmer, Prince Fielder
Yes, Hosmer is off to a slow start, but he's going to hit. I love the idea of putting him on the big stage, something he doesn't get to do playing for the Royals. Fielder gives us a left-handed power bat and we'll use him as our designated hitter in the tournament if he's not playing first base.

Second base: Dustin Pedroia, Ben Zobrist
Pedroia played on the 2009 squad and we'll be loyal to past participants whenever possible. Plus, he's the kind of high-energy guy you want for this kind of tournament. Zobrist gets the nod over Ian Kinsler for his positional flexibility. Like Mark DeRosa in 2009, he'll serve as our super utility guy and provides value as a switch-hitter and can run for Fielder if needed.

Third base: Evan Longoria, David Wright
Two more veterans from the 2009 we'll welcome back. Good sticks and good gloves.

Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki
Derek Jeter played on the first two WBC squads, but it's time to make room for Tulo.

Outfield: Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper
It pains me to leave Giancarlo Stanton off the team, but we need to get another left-handed batter on the team, so we'll give Harper the final spot. Besides having the talent worthy of deserving consideration, Trout and Harper fill our young stars requirement and have the ability to play all three outfield positions. And they won't complain if they're not in the starting lineup every game.

Here's how I'd play the lineups in a championship game:

versus right-hander
LF Braun
C Mauer
RF Hamilton
CF Kemp
DH Fielder
3B Longoria
SS Tulowitzki
1B Hosmer
2B Pedroia

You gotta love the idea of Ryan Braun hitting leadoff!

versus left-hander
CF McCutchen
3B Wright
LF Braun
RF Kemp
DH Hamilton
1B Fielder
C Posey
SS Tulowitzki
2B Pedroia

Wright starts over Longoria with his supreme on-base skills versus lefties and we'll move McCutchen into the lineup for Hosmer. Posey replaces Mauer. I don't think you want to pitch a lefty against this squad.

Starting pitchers: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Cain, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale
OK, there's probably no way the Nationals let Strasburg pitch, but we can dream, can't we? So many choices here, of course, with guys such as Cole Hamels, Jered Weaver, Cliff Lee and others. Kershaw and Sale give us two left-handers and Sale could also pitch out of the bullpen as a long guy if needed. Verlander is the guy we want starting the championship game, but Cain wouldn't be a bad option either. Remember his 2010 postseason run? One unearned run in three starts.

Bullpen: Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Vinnie Pestano, Jim Johnson, Joel Hanrahan, Sean Marshall, Sean Burnett
Since there are limitations on the number of pitches that starting pitchers can throw, you need a lot of relievers on the staff. Nathan (2006) and Hanrahan (2009) are veterans of previous WBC squads, and by the way Nathan looks as dominant as ever, with a 31/2 strikeout/walk ratio. Pestano destroys right-handers -- .115 in 2011, .136 in 2012; he's an easy selection to the squad. Marshall and Burnett are the two lefty killers, but they're good enough to get right-handed batters as well. Johnson is a valuable asset since he can go two innings in case we get into an extra innings situation. He gets the final spot over the underrated Sergio Romo.

That's our 28 guys. What do you think? The previous two U.S. squads both failed to reach the championship game. In 2006, after going 2-1 in the first round of pool play, they went 1-2 in the second round, losing 7-3 to South Korea and 2-1 to Mexico, failing to reach the semifinals. In 2009, they went 2-1 in each of the first rounds of pool play (losing both times to Venezuela) before losing 9-4 to Japan in the semis (Roy Oswalt got pounded).

And, as I'm sure you remember, Daisuke Matsuzaka was MVP of each of the first two World Baseball Classics.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Jordan PachecoDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesCan you tell that Jordan Pacheco and the Rockies have lost eight straight?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rays getting uncommon power boost

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
2:17
AM ET

Facing baseball’s top team in their ballpark Friday night, the Tampa Bay Rays brought home run power at the plate and strikeouts on the mound to put away the Texas Rangers, 8-4. This marked the sixth consecutive win for the Rays, who have seemingly righted themselves after sputtering to a 4-5 record to start the season.

The Rays have managed to go 9-2 since then, mainly due to a potent offense that is fourth in the American League in runs scored. Evan Longoria has hit like an MVP candidate, currently sporting a .319/.437/.569 line with four home runs, including a three-run shot Friday. Desmond Jennings owns a nine-game hitting streak, during which he's hit .324, and B.J. Upton has come off the disabled list with a vengeance with a .788 OPS.

Newly acquired bats Carlos Pena and Luke Scott have made Rays fans forget the short, though productive, stints in Tampa Bay of Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman. Pena and Scott have already combined for nine home runs, more than one-third of the amount that Damon and Kotchman produced all of last year. For reference, the Rays have played 12.3 percent of their games so far, so it looks like these one-year deals on the heels of letting Damon and Kotchman walk could provide excess value.

Interestingly, the Rays are not utilizing the stolen base as the catalyst to their offensive production. Last season the Rays finished second in the majors in stolen bases, marking the first time since 2007 that they did not lead the league in the category. Entering last night, the Rays ranked 16th with 12 total steals. The Rays do have stolen-base threats in Jennings and Upton, but the Rays have been generating offense in a different manner than they are accustomed to -- with power.

The Rays have hit 27 home runs this year, tied for fourth in the majors. Longoria, Pena, Scott, and Matt Joyce have hit at least four long balls apiece. Behind them, Jennings and Ben Zobrist have three each. Those hitters comprise the Rays' 1-5 hitters against right-handed pitchers, as Joyce sits against southpaws. The impressive patience and power displayed by the Rays has been evident over their current win streak in that they have hit at least one home run in each of the past five games.

In addition to their offense, which was on display against Rangers lefty Matt Harrison on Friday night, the Rays have gotten a lift from their pitching over their past 10 games. Allowing just 2.9 runs per game has been a huge part of their 8-2 record over that span. Their run prevention has not all been pitching, however, as their defensive shifts have also proven to be effective. Adam Berry of MLB.com has a great article on the Rays and their shifts, along with the index cards they pull out for each hitter. The Rays currently rank second in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved with 19, nine more than the third-place Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Rays pride themselves on taking as many small advantages as possible, which is a testament to the quality of their front office, scouting and management. Signing players like Scott to a $6 million, one-year deal and moving starter Wade Davis to a bullpen role rather than trading him, are just two decisions that appear to be solid. Davis currently has a 1.86 ERA along with eight strikeouts and two walks in 9.2 innings out of the bullpen and was able to get out of a bases-loaded jam unscathed in the eighth inning of Friday’s victory.

The Rays will have to pitch better overall, specifically in the bullpen, over the course of the season. With the type of talent they possess and their excellent defense, their over-4.00 ERA should continue to decrease. With their offense scoring plenty of runs, improved pitching may make them the best team in baseball. But for now, that designation belongs to the team that is in the opposite dugout this weekend: the Rangers.

Ben Duronio writes about the Braves at Capitol Avenue Club. Follow him on Twitter.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Derek JeterAP Photo/Bill KostrounFar from your typical ending, Derek Jeter scores the winning run on a passed ball as the Yankees topped the Tigers.

Rays missing more than Red Sox for now

April, 15, 2012
4/15/12
1:30
AM ET


Pitching, defense and three-run home runs? It’s a formula that has worked going back to the days of Earl Weaver and beyond. An inning into Saturday’s game, the Rays had all of that going for them: Designated hitter Luke Scott had already hammered a bomb off Boston's Clay Buchholz to plate a trio of runs, reigning Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson was on the mound, and nobody is more alertly creative and productive on defense than Joe Maddon’s ballclub.

Unfortunately, none of that mattered all that much in the next eight innings of action against the Red Sox. Boston’s bats hammered the Rays, hitting five home runs, and made their initial case for why they’ll still be able to score runs hand over fist without Carl Crawford or Jacoby Ellsbury. Rather than throw too much of a pity party for their life absent Ellsbury, just try to keep in mind that Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis provide an offensive platform that 29 other teams would be happy to work from. Counting out the Red Sox a week into the season or a half-inning into a ballgame is just silly; they’re still stacked.

What’s less silly is looking at the Rays’ challenges in the weeks and months to come. Tampa Bay's problem is that while the Red Sox opened up on offense, the Rays didn’t have the usual collection of moving parts to respond on offense or defense.

The Rays' pitching depth is the envy of the industry, but Joel Peralta has taken a series of beatings out of the bullpen en route to handing the closer’s job to Fernando Rodney. Maybe that will work out the way Kyle Farnsworth did last year, but Peralta’s not that far removed from his days as waiver bait, and Rodney’s reputation for flammability perhaps exceeds Farnsworth’s -- before last season.

The Rays being the Rays, they get a pass on running risks other teams might shrink from, but this year’s bullpen confection is still a soufflé with as much potential to flop as rise. Having one less body around proved expensive when a three-run game still in reach became a blowout in the eighth thanks to rookie Dane De La Rosa’s five-run debut against that Red Sox offense.

The other early issue in terms of reaping the downside of risk is that their offense is cranking less than most others in the early going, ranking just 10th in the American League in runs scored. That doesn’t mean that much in itself, because we’re still not even talking about two full weeks’ worth of action. It’s what you get when you wind up with Jeff Keppinger and Sean Rodriguez as everyday players.

That wasn’t part of any plan, but that’s the upshot of being without the flexibility of having Ben Zobrist moving around on the field to wherever he’s needed while Maddon plays matchup games on offense with bit parts like Rodriguez or Keppinger. They knew they wouldn’t get many runs out of Jose Molina or Jose Lobaton as their catchers, but that’s another slot you can’t count on in terms of offense, and another reason why the Rays have that much less margin for error in the early going. The Rays’ offense is the sort of high-flying act that can’t really afford to lose certain key regulars for a great length of time.

Which is why much will change for the better soon, once B.J. Upton comes back from the disabled list and returns to his spot in center field. The Rays won’t simply get the benefit of adding his bat to the everyday lineup or his glove to the defense. They’ll also reap the tactical in-game benefit of all of the situations in which Maddon will be able to use his valuable part-time contributors -- like Keppinger and Rodriguez -- to his advantage. Matt Joyce won’t have to face the left-handed pitchers he can’t hit. That’s not because of what Upton does and will do, but because of the multiple benefits the Rays get from having him healthy.

Taking a few chances on “extra guys” is not automatically bad -- far from it, especially when you’re dealing with budget handicaps as the Rays do. Taking a chance on Scott was an eminently worthwhile low-cost risk: After averaging 25 homers per season for three years for the Orioles, Scott’s injury-wracked 2011 brought him into the Rays’ orbit as far as his sale price as a free agent. If he gives the Rays’ lineup a third source of power from the left side beyond Carlos Pena and Joyce, you’ll have a lineup that gives opponents fits, just as it did in each of the past two years.

Add it up, and just like the bullpen, the Rays’ offense is a complicated proposition few other teams would risk. Handled as well as the Rays have and will, though, and it works … until you knock a key starter or two out of action for any great length of time. Expose their irregulars’ shortcomings, and the risk becomes one to the Rays’ bid for a postseason three-peat.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Paul KonerkoBrian Kersey/Getty ImagesPaul Konerko can afford to smile, at least as long as the White Sox are in first place.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
It takes a lot of ability and more than a little luck to win 24 games like Justin Verlander did in 2011, when he became only the third pitcher in 20 years to win that many games. You need the right combination of dominance, run support and bullpen help. He had all three a year ago, most notably from closer Jose Valverde, who didn't blow a save opportunity all season.

In his Opening Day start, Verlander left after eight shutout innings and a 2-0 lead, only to see Valverde cough it up. Wednesday afternoon in Detroit, Verlander was again unhittable. He took a one-hitter into the ninth against the Rays and had thrown only 81 pitches. Verlander had pitched at least eight innings 43 previous times in his career and only twice thrown fewer than 100 pitches. This was looking like one of the best -- and certainly most efficient outings -- of his career.

But this is baseball.

In a fascinating turn of events, the Rays turned a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 victory. Since 2009, the Tigers had been 229-1 when leading after eight innings. It began with a Jeff Keppinger two-strike single to center. Reid Brignac struck out but Desmond Jennings lined a 2-2 fastball to right for another base hit. Verlander got ahead of Carlos Pena 1-2 but threw three balls, bouncing ball four for a wild pitch to score Keppinger. Facing Evan Longoria, Verlander reared back like only he can. He threw a ball, a 99-mph heater that Longoria fouled off and then a 100-mph fastball that Longoria bounced past a diving Miguel Cabrera for a game-tying single.

Maybe a more agile third baseman would have made the play, but it seemed more like seeing-eye single right in the hole. That was it for Verlander after 23 pitches in the inning. Jim Leyland brought in wild lefty Daniel Schlereth to face Matt Joyce, but Joe Maddon hit Elliot Johnson, who worked a walk. Schlereth is ill-suited for a crucial role until he proves he can quit walking right-handers, who posted a .409 OBP off him last season. Maybe Leyland didn't think Maddon would hit for Joyce with the light-hitting Johnson. Whatever the thought process, only then was Valverde brought in and Ben Zobrist grounded a 3-2 fastball up the middle for a two-run single.

After Verlander's 81 pitches through eight innings, the Tigers threw 52 pitches in the ninth. It was ugly or beautiful, depending on your team of choice.

As for Verlander, batters are hitting .107 off him through two starts. And he's 0-1.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

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