SweetSpot: Brian Wilson

Take a deep breath. If Tuesday's slew of transactions is any sign of what will happen at next week's winter meetings, then be prepared for a great week of rumors, deals and signings. As for Tuesday, so much happened that I'm starting to believe the Robinson Cano-to-the-Mariners rumors.

Let's start with the Astros acquiring Dexter Fowler from the Rockies. The Rockies have seemingly been shopping Fowler for years, but apparently the market for him was more lukewarm than a three-day-old cup of Starbucks. Jordan Lyles is still young and throws strikes but has been hit hard at the major league level (5.35 career ERA with 65 starts) and doesn't possess a quality strikeout pitch; he's the kind of pitcher who will get absolutely destroyed at Coors Field.

Even if the Rockies will put a better defense behind Lyles than the Astros did -- Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado will help in that department -- Lyles appears to be a long shot to succeed. Brandon Barnes was a 27-year-old rookie center fielder who posted a .289 on-base percentage, struck out 127 times while walking just 21 times, and was 11-for-22 in stealing bases, a package that made him one of the worst percentage players in the majors. His defense is OK but he looks like a fourth outfielder at best.

What did the Astros get? A player with two years remaining until free agency who has averaged a consistent 2.4 WAR over the past three seasons. He's a good player whom the Rockies always expected more from, perhaps creating a poor read of his actual value. There is the possibility that his numbers will crater outside of Coors Field -- he's hit .298 there in his career, .241 on the road -- but as a guy who takes his walks I like his chances to produce once he gets away from the Coors effect. Kudos to the Astros for acquiring some talent without giving up much in return. With prospect George Springer presumably ready to take over center, I wouldn't be surprised to see Fowler move to left field; his bat won't play as well there but he'll improve the Astros' defense dramatically over the statue-like Chris Carter.

What were the Rockies thinking? Who knows. The Rockies and Mariners seem like the two franchises without any semblance of a game plan right now. Are the Rockies trying to win now? Are they trying to rebuild? Were they merely dumping a salary (Fowler will make $7.35 million in 2014, a relative bargain for a 2-WAR player)? Are they trying to improve the rotation or the offense? If I had to guess, the Rockies see this as a salary dump to clear space to sign a free-agent pitcher. Last year, Roy Oswalt, Jeff Manship, Drew Pomeranz, Collin McHugh and Chad Bettis combined to go 0-19 in 26 starts with a 7.42 ERA. Can't wait to see the Rockies sign Ervin Santana and be shocked when he gives up 40 home runs.

But there was more that happened on Tuesday ... much more!
  • The A's traded for Orioles closer Jim Johnson. The Rays traded for Diamondbacks closer-by-default Heath Bell. What's going on here? Are the A's and Rays, the beloved darlings of the sabermetric guild, admitting they believe in Proven Closers? Well ... yes and no. The A's aren't going to pay big bucks for a closer with a long-term deal, so with Grant Balfour leaving as a free agent they picked up Johnson, who has one year remaining before free agency. It's a rental without giving up anything of value (no, Jemile Weeks doesn't count as "value"). The A's may have gone with Ryan Cook as their closer, but he struggled down the stretch with his command last year so Billy Beane undoubtedly wanted more of a sure thing. Now they just need Johnson not to blow nine saves like he did for the Orioles. As for Bell, I don't quite see what the Rays see in him (he gave up 12 home runs in 2013), but they turned Fernando Rodney into a top closer, so Bell will probably go out and record 45 saves with a 2.50 ERA. Bell is due to make $9 million, but the Marlins are paying $4 million of that, so the Rays get a potential closer for the tidy sum of $5 million.
  • The A's added further depth to their bullpen by acquiring Luke Gregerson from the Padres for Seth Smith. The A's get another one-year rental, but Gregerson has been one of the majors' most consistent relievers the past few seasons. He held batters to a .203 average in 2013, .226 over the past three years. Yes, Gregerson pitched in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, but he moves to another pitchers' park and his sinker means he's pretty good at preventing home runs anyway. The A's gave up outfielder/DH Smith, who didn't really hit like a corner outfielder/designated hitter needs to hit. Score this as a win for the A's.
  • Have I mentioned that I love Billy Beane? To replace Smith and the departed Chris Young, he picked up Craig Gentry from the division rival Rangers for Michael Choice. Gentry is the perfect fourth outfielder, a plus defender in center who can hit left-handed pitching. He doesn't have power but has a .391 OBP the past three years against lefties. He's a terrific platoon-slash-role player. The Rangers get Michael Choice, a former top prospect who hit .302 with 14 home runs at Triple-A. The Rangers get some potential upside here in the former 10th overall pick, but outside of a big year in the California League, his power potential hasn't completely materialized. A worthwhile gamble by the Rangers, however.
  • The Tigers are apparently close to signing Joe Nathan -- the move everyone has been predicting all offseason. Clearly the Doug Fister trade was made to clear some salary space. Is there another move in the works? Do the Tigers still bring back Joaquin Benoit to set up Nathan? Is there another big signing -- Shin-Soo Choo? -- coming? Stay tuned!
  • The Red Sox signed A.J. Pierzynski. Makes sense. One-year deal, leaving the possibility of Blake Swihart or Christian Vazquez to take over at catcher in 2015. Love what the Red Sox are doing here. They could have an extremely young core of Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Swihart in a couple years ... leaving plenty of payroll to spend on David Price when he becomes a free agent after 2015. It's good to be a Red Sox fan right now.
  • What else? The Rays acquired Ryan Hanigan. Interesting because they just signed Jose Molina. That gives them two of the best defensive catchers in the game. Brian Wilson looks like he's returning to the Dodgers. Makes sense for the Dodgers; surprising only because everyone thought Wilson wanted to close. Oh, yeah ... the Mariners have emerged as major players in the Robinson Cano sweepstakes, according to an ESPN New York report. The Mariners have money; they want to spend money; Cano wants money. Who knows, maybe it actually will happen. And then don't be shocked when the Mariners also sign Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ubaldo Jimenez. Of course, that could just be my head spinning after this crazy day.

Value to be found in non-tendered players

December, 1, 2012
This time of year baseball news is very sluggish. Scratch that -- extremely sluggish. Outside of a few early signings, there isn't much happening in the game. However, with the non-tender deadline passing on Friday night, baseball gets a brief jolt of activity before we head to the winter meetings.

Non-tender means just that -- a team chooses not to tender a player a contract and, in turn, the player becomes a free agent, able to sign with any team. Teams will non-tender players for a multitude of reasons -- injury, cost, and roster crunches are among the most popular -- but savvy teams will be able to cruise this new pool of free agents to find value. And make no mistake, there is value to be had among the recent crop of non-tendered players.

Let's take a look:

[+] EnlargeBrian Wilson
Chris Humphreys/US PresswireIf Brian Wilson wants to close again, it likely won't be in San Francisco.
Brian Wilson, P -- Probably the biggest and most widely recognized non-tender, Wilson's days as a Giant appear to be all but over. The team can still negotiate a contract with the bearded Wilson, but most reports indicate that Wilson is unlikely to remain. Wilson -- rehabbing from his second Tommy John surgery -- looks to find a new team to call home. As a two-time TJ survivor, Wilson carries significant risk, but if there was anyone who could overcome those odds, it would be Wilson. From 2009-2011, Wilson ranked as the fourth-best reliever in the majors by FanGraphs' WAR (5.6), throwing 202 innings with a 2.50 ERA. He'll most likely have to settle for a lower base salary with performance incentives. The talent is there. The big question is: Is the health?

Mark Reynolds, 1B/DH -- Rather than paying him about $9 million through arbitration, the Orioles decided to let the home run masher and strikeout accumulator walk. Over the past three years, Reynolds ranks 14th in the majors in home runs at 92. (That's more than Matt Kemp, Robinson Cano or David Ortiz.) But while Reynolds' power is prodigious, it comes at a great cost: strikeouts. Piles and piles of strikeouts. Only Adam Dunn has whiffed more over the past three seasons, and while Reynolds is still an asset with the bat, he's a complete liability at third base (although he was acceptable at first when the Orioles moved him there). He'll find work -- guys that can launch 30 home runs annually almost always do -- but he should stick in the American League where his defensive issues can be minimized.

Nate Schierholtz, RF -- This might seem to be Giants-centric, but Schierholtz, another ex-Giant, profiles as a fringe starter on lower-tiered teams and a fine fourth outfielder on higher-tiered teams. You can boil Schierholtz down to the following: slightly below average bat, great glove, good baserunner. Schierholtz owns a career batting line of .270/.319/.409 while playing half his games in a park (AT&T Park) that's mighty tough on left-handed batters. The advanced fielding metrics, such as Ultimate Zone Rating, peg him as about a half-win net on defense each year, and it's hard to imagine anyone playing a better right field. And he's shown himself to be an adept baserunner. When you add everything up, it's a nice package that will attract a few teams needing outfield depth.

Tom Gorzelanny, P -- Pitching his first year as purely a reliever, Gorzelanny found success in Washington in 2012. Gorzelanny tossed 72 innings with adequate peripherals (20.1 percent strikeout rate; 9.8 walk rate) to pair with a 2.88 ERA. Being a left-handed pitcher, he's naturally been tough on left-handed batters, holding them to a career line of .227/.295/.367. He profiles as a middle reliever, or lefty specialist. It's possible that a team hurting for starting depth might take a look at him as a starter.

Jeff Karstens, P -- Jeff Karstens was limited to just 15 starts in 2012 because of shoulder inflammation. He doesn't throw exceptionally hard, strike out scads of batters, or look like an ace pitcher. What he does, however, is throw strikes (career 6.1 walk percentage). He'd be great filler for a rotation that might need a little extra time for prospects to develop, or for a rotation (or bullpen) that needs more depth. Over the past two seasons, Karstens has posted the following numbers: 3.59 ERA, 253 IP, 252 H, 101 ER, 48 BB, 162 SO. That's pretty much the definition of a fungible starter.

Andres Torres, OF -- Torres is clearly no longer the batter that he was with the Giants from 2009-2010 when he hit .269/.343/.492 over 740 plate appearances; since then, Torres has batted a meager .226/.320/.334 in 832 PAs. The decline in Torres' bat moves him from a starting role to a bench role. The good news for Torres is that despite some health issues, he still profiles as an above-average defender in center field and an above-average baserunner. Every team needs a guy like Torres on its bench.

None of the players listed above -- outside of Brian Wilson, maybe -- will draw the sort of attention that the marquee free agents will receive. And rightfully so. However, teams looking to fill certain needs would be smart to check in on some of the recently non-tendered players. If used properly, there's value to be had in this year's crop of non-tendered players.
Cabrera/RomoAP PhotosHow closer Sergio Romo, right, and the Giants staff deal with Miguel Cabrera could be a Series key.

It has been a long season. Remember when the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners began in Japan way back in March? OK, you probably don't. But you've made it this far. Don't quit now. We have at least four more games left and hopefully seven. Here's why I'm watching what should be an exciting World Series between two of the game's storied franchises -- and even though this is the San Francisco Giants' 19th World Series trip and the Detroit Tigers' 11th, they've never met before.

1. Miguel Cabrera. The best hitter on the planet on the game's biggest stage: Yeah, that's a pretty good place to start. I can’t wait to see how the Giants attack him. He has been kept under wraps for the most part this postseason, hitting .278 with one home run in nine games, so he has to be careful not to press if the Giants don’t give him much to hit. But I have the feeling Cabrera may show us why he won the Triple Crown.

2. Justin Verlander. He might not win the AL Cy Young Award this season, but Verlander is the game’s best starting pitcher with the game’s most dominating stuff. After mediocre results in his first two postseasons in 2006 (his rookie season) and 2011, he has been lights-out so far, with three wins in three starts. No starting pitcher has ever won five games in a single postseason, but because he’ll start Game 1, he could have the opportunity to start twice. One thing to watch: The A’s led the league in strikeouts; the Yankees were clearly in an offensive slump of historic proportions. The Giants are a contact team against whom the strikeouts won’t come quite so easily. That means more balls in play and more pressure on the Detroit's suspect defense. We’ll see how Verlander responds to this tougher assignment.

3. Jim Leyland's and Bruce Bochy’s place in history. It’s amazing to realize that when Leyland won the World Series with the Marlins in 1997 he was only 52 years old. Wasn’t he kind of portrayed as the slightly cranky baseball lifer even then? He's now 67 and trying to win another title. He and Bochy are two of the best managers of the past quarter-century and both are going for their second championship. Neither has managed in the major media markets of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston, although Leyland has certainly received more media attention through the years than Bochy. The winner of this series may have something bigger at stake than media attention, however: a place in the Hall of Fame. Not every manager with two titles is in (Cito Gaston, Tom Kelly to name two), but Leyland is 15th on the all-time win list and Bochy is 23rd. This Series could cement their legacy.

4. Marco Scutaro. One of the best things about the postseason is how a player like Scutaro -- a good player, although certainly more role player than star -- can become the most important guy for a team for a couple weeks. It doesn’t have to be a team’s No. 3 or 4 hitter who does all the damage, and Scutaro enters on a roll after knocking out 14 hits in the National League Championship Series. The Giants had an obvious parallel two years ago in Cody Ross, another late-season acquisition who came up big in October. Admire Scutaro for his old-school approach at the plate: He puts the ball in play with his superior contact skills, a trait lost amid this generation’s incessant desire for power.

5. Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner. They may not all get a World Series start -- Bumgarner’s velocity and stuff have been down in recent starts -- but this trio has the chance to make its mark with a second World Series title. Think how difficult that is: Not even the Greg Maddux-Tom Glavine-John Smoltz trio was able to do that. Lincecum, of course, didn’t have a good season, but that doesn’t matter now. All the Giants need from him is one -- or maybe two -- good starts.

6. Intentional walks and sacrifice bunts. Remember last year’s World Series when Ron Washington and Tony La Russa went crazy with ill-advised free passes and odd bunts? It was a second-guesser’s dream. I don’t expect to see the same slew of erratic decisions from Leyland and Bochy, but the World Series can turn even the most level-headed of managers into chemists with a room full of potions. In the National League Championship Series, we saw how Mike Matheny’s free pass to No. 8 hitter Brandon Crawford in Game 6 led to a big inning. Last year, Washington’s intentional walk to Albert Pujols in Game 6 was a key decision in the Rangers’ eventual defeat. In a tight series, managerial decisions can be a decisive factor.

7. Prince Fielder. Many in the industry were not pleased when the Tigers coughed up $214 million to sign Fielder. Hey, imagine that: Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 83 years old and wants to win a World Series. OK, so Fielder isn’t riding the exercise bike after games. Despite his girth, Fielder is actually one of the most gifted hitters in the game. He seemed a little overanxious at times in the first two rounds, hitting .211 with two unintentional walks, but maybe he’ll be more relaxed as he plays in his first World Series.

8. Sergio Romo. Who says you need a closer who throws 98 mph? Romo is a guy who barely cracks 90 but has a deadly slider that hitters have trouble picking up. He’s another great story, a guy the Giants never seemed to fully believe in until they were forced to use him as the closer after Brian Wilson was injured and Santiago Casilla struggled. Bochy had primarily used Romo as a right-handed relief specialist in recent seasons (last year he pitched just 48 innings in 65 appearances), but now he has earned Bochy's confidence to face all swingers -- as he should, after holding lefties to a .167 average this season. At some point, he’ll probably need to protect a one-run lead against two guys named Cabrera and Fielder and that's going to be some kind of wonderful.

9. Cold weather. Because it’s always fun watch players wearing layers, ear muffs and hand warmers. Oh, wait, no it’s not. The weather in Detroit this weekend may dip into the high 30s, so cold that Leyland might be given special dispensation to smoke in the dugout. But the dark, not-so-secret aspect of cold weather is the realization that the season’s most important games can be played in weather more suitable for creating ice sculptures than baseball art. Let's hope foul weather isn't a factor.

10. Who will have Darrell Evans throw out the first pitch? Yes, I’ve termed this the Darrell Evans World Series. You know, like if it had been the Reds versus the Tigers, we would have had the Sparky Anderson World Series. Or the Cardinals-Tigers would have been the Rematch of 1968 World Series, with highlight reels of Bob Gibson and Mickey Lolich. Instead, we get the Darrell Evans World Series, the underrated star of the '70s and '80s who played for both franchises (he was part of Detroit’s 1984 World Series champs). Make it happen! We need a Darrell Evans sighting.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A year later, Buster Posey's back in action

May, 26, 2012

Exactly one year ago, Buster Posey went from sure thing to question mark. It wasn’t because of anything he failed to do, it wasn’t because he hadn’t fulfilled every expectation for his greatness. If anything, it was a matter of professional hazard: He was a catcher protecting home plate, and when Scott Cousins took his shot at scoring, Posey was there, trying to make a play. Instants later, Posey went from the best young catcher in baseball to a young man in agony at home plate.

Giants fans were understandably devastated. Posey was the best thing to happen to catcher offense since Mike Piazza. His rookie-season performance -- hitting .305/.357/.505 with 18 home runs, gunning down 29 percent of stolen-base attempts and winning the National League Rookie of the Year award -- created a heightened expectation of what was to come. He was the new bright light on a defending champion; a first-rounder who hadn’t just lived up to his promise, he’d taken the Giants to the promised land. And then, one play at the plate later, Posey was dealing with a case of career, interrupted.

Now, one year later, we can say that interruption, however avoidable, however unfortunate, has cost Posey little in terms of what he’s able to do. One year later, and he’s hitting like the same kid catcher who provided so much joy in 2010: .297/.364/.473, not very different from the .297/.366/.479 line that ESPN Insider’s Dan Szymborski projected for him via ZiPS before the season. Posey is fourth in OPS+ and OBP among regular receivers, sixth in slugging, seventh in homers. Quibblers might note that Posey is throwing out just 22 percent of stolen-base attempts, but when people are testing you scarcely more often (0.77 attempts per nine innings) than they do Yadier Molina (0.69), that’s a sign of respect of what Posey is to this day: A big-league catcher.

Losing sight of Posey’s comeback might be easy, especially after the Dodgers’ torrid start. The Giants have had more than their share of problems beyond that: Brian Wilson’s broken beyond repair this season and Pablo Sandoval’s out with a broken hand for a few more weeks yet. Tim Lincecum has delivered just one quality start in 10 this season, and took another beating at the hands of the Fish Friday night. The long-standing Aubrey Huff versus Brandon Belt debate over who should be playing first base has been fairly pointless with both men’s bats missing in action.

But in the big picture, Posey is just the leading example of how much is going right for the Giants already. He joins Melky Cabrera’s crazy-good start, and Posey’s handling a pitching staff that, outside of Lincecum’s woes, may very well be the league’s best. In the two wild-card-team era, that’s something any skipper could work and win with.

You can consider me an interested party as an observer to Posey’s misfortune because, this time last year, I’d selected Posey in ESPN’s franchise player draft. I’d picked Posey before he suffered the injury, but the horror of this play at the plate came before we went to press. In an act of generosity, I was asked if I wanted to change my pick from Posey, taking anyone left on the board. I thought about it … and I said no.

I said no because I believed, or because I wanted to believe, not just in Posey’s promise of what could be, of what was supposed to be, but because I wanted to believe that he’d be back, that he would be every bit the player he’d already been and was always meant to be. I believed because I’m a fan, and in the way that every fan wants to see players play, I wanted to see Posey play again. Call it faith if you want, faith in a player, faith in the miracle of modern orthopedics, but I believed Posey would be back.

It wasn’t simple fandom on my part, and I don’t think any of us kid ourselves over the amount of work that went into his getting back on the field. Frankly, as a Northern Californian and an A’s fan in the late ’70s, I grew up hating the Giants, resenting the affection they received from a fawning press still buzzing off a contact high from Willie Mays, where Charley Finley’s franchise received -- and deserved -- derision. No, if I was a fan of anything, it was Posey’s game, a fan of what baseball deserves, of what he deserves.

So, seeing Posey take the field in Florida to face the Marlins on this unhappy anniversary, you can consider me guilty of a contact high of my own, one that comes from getting to say that this is one of those happy non-news stories: That Buster Posey remains the player he’s supposed to be. And whether you root for the Giants or against them, that’s a beautiful thing, all by itself.

Hunter PenceJeff Curry/US PresswireHunter Pence does a little dance with Shane Victorino, but nobody was the worse for wear.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Podcast: Power rankings debate

April, 16, 2012
Monday’s Baseball Today podcast was taped with the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays playing a morning game in the background, but the big story in Beantown wasn’t the game, as Mark Simon and I discussed.

1. What was Bobby Valentine thinking calling out Kevin Youkilis? You know, I still can’t figure it out, but it doesn’t bode well for the future. Plus, we analyze the Jacoby Ellsbury injury and Cody Ross filling in. Can the Red Sox overcome?

2. It’s Power Rankings day! Are the Red Sox in the top 10? Are the Phillies? And where will Mark jump the streaking Los Angeles Dodgers?

3. How can the San Francisco Giants lose an All-Star closer and still be contenders? We explain, but we believe.

4. Mark gets us going with the first Leaderboard of the Week segment discussing an unlikely power source pacing the league in well-hit average.

5. Our emailers want to talk about the best announcers, Miguel Cabrera and the chalk line, and intentional walks!

So download and listen to Monday’s excellent Baseball Today podcast, and get ready for another fine show on Tuesday!

Without Wilson, what will Bochy do?

April, 14, 2012

The news that the San Francisco Giants could lose Brian Wilson for the balance of the season sounds grim. It isn’t as if there weren’t warning signs coming into the season: Declining velocity and an increasing reliance on his slider made it clear he wasn’t the same pitcher whose late-game endurance and power helped propel the Giants to a 2010 World Series win.

We’ll have to see what the second or third opinions the Giants are seeking will reveal. But in the meantime, what will the Giants do with their late-game leads?

If manager Bruce Bochy follows up with his initial comment that he’ll go with a bullpen by committee, it should mean save opportunities will go to righties Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo, with lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt possibly in the mix as well. Bochy and the Giants have been here before, of course, if just for a month last season. That was when Wilson broke down in August with a strained elbow, and made it back in time for only the last 10 days of the season. Casilla notched most of the save opportunities in Wilson’s absence, although since Romo was also on the disabled list that August, you can’t automatically chalk this up to simple preference for Casilla.

[+] EnlargeBruce Bochy, Brian Wilson
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezBruce Bochy says he'll go closer-by-committee without Brian Wilson, right, but will he really?
Will we really see a closer-by-committee in action? In Bochy’s long experience as a major league manager, he hasn’t exactly had much chance or demonstrated any willingness to experiment with his team’s save opportunities in this way. Bochy has a well-established track record of relying heavily on one designated closer, but that’s largely a function of opportunity. During his 12 years managing the Padres, Bochy almost always had Trevor Hoffman to close for him.

That was true in every one of Bochy’s seasons skippering the Padres save one: 2003, when Hoffman was out with shoulder surgery for most of the year. And that time around, Bochy really did compensate for the lack of a closer with a bullpen by committee, at least initially. For two months, journeymen Brandon Villafuerte, Jay Witasick, Jaret Wright, Matt Herges and Jesse Orosco all notched saves, including the last two of Orosco’s long career. But even on a team going nowhere (the Pads would lose 98 games), nobody liked this solution much. Rather than stick with it, the Padres signed Rod Beck in June, and got 20 saves from the Shooter over the next three months.

That wasn’t the only time Bochy has had to change gears with his closer in-season, though. In 2007, Bochy’s first year managing the Giants, he once again wound up in a “manager’s choice” scenario. Two months into that season, the Giants dealt Armando Benitez in the wake of a lot of public recriminations over Benitez’s performance. In the absence of anyone even remotely resembling an established closer, Bochy might have gone with a committee. He didn’t, making utility pitcher Brad Hennessey his stopper. Hennessey had all of one career save beforehand, but he notched 19 more before getting replaced by Wilson toward the end of the season. Wilson went on to fame, a ring and Taco Bell commercials; Hennessey never got another save in the major leagues.

So, in both of these situations, Bochy basically reverted to convention, whether that was identifying a designated temporary closer in the case of Hennessey in 2007, or having one brought in as Beck was in 2003.

What does that mean going forward? Last season, during Wilson’s monthlong absence, Bochy split save opportunities between Casilla and Ramon Ramirez. He wound up favoring Casilla, but as I said, Romo was hurt and out of the running for part of that time. We’ll see how much more than polite, for-public-consumption consideration for his top relievers Bochy’s comments about a committee wind up being. But if you want to bet on what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks if Wilson really is out for the year, bet on Bochy picking one pitcher to close.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
First base: Time to ditch The Beard? Giants closer Brian Wilson struggled in a 32-pitch ninth inning, allowing three hits and walking in a run. He also twisted his ankle during one pitch on his final batter faced, although stayed in to record his first save. After throwing 24 pitches in Wednesday's blowout loss, Wilson will be unavailable on Friday. Remember, after his monster 2010 when he was a key figure in the Giants' World Series run, Wilson wasn't that good in 2011, in part as he pitched through some elbow issues. His strikeouts were down and his walks were up. He saved 36 of 41 games, but his peripherals were terrible. Something to watch ... along with Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey's shingles.

Second base: Fenway is a dump (says Luke Scott). Ahh, Luke Scott, he's so lovable and cuddly. The Rays play the Red Sox this weekend and Scott isn't looking forward to the cramped confines of the ol' ballpark. "As a baseball player, going there to work, it's a dump," Scott told MLB.com. Scott does have a point, saying it's hard for players to get their work in, that visiting players have to share a weight room with the Red Sox, and so on. Still, should make for a fun pregame introduction during Friday's home opener.

Third base: Ground Marlin. Jose Reyes is off to a slow start for the 2-5 Marlins, hitting .233 with no walks and as many caught stealings (2) as stolen bases. ESPN Stats & Information reports on something to watch: He got off to a hot start in 2011 because he was getting hits and groundballs from the left side of the plate. He hit .354 (35-for-99) in the first half on grounders batting left-handed ... but just .203 (12-for-59) in the second half. Early on, he's 1-for-9 in 2012.

Home plate: Tweet of the day.

As a little follow-up to Wednesday's post on Ryan Madson being a risky signing, I wanted to add a few more comments. It's important to note that the Phillies, with an aging roster, have a more urgent need to win now. Thus, if they believe Madson to be an integral key to their chances of winning the World Series, they should be more willing to take on the long-term risk for an immediate return. And it may be a necessary evil to overpay to secure Madson's services.

The question then becomes: Do they need Madson? The two parts to that question: (A) Is there an obvious internal solution if Madson leaves? (B) Do you need a great closer to win the World Series?

For the first part, the answer is probably no, although Antonio Bastardo was dominant in a set-up role for most of last season before tiring down the stretch and Michael Stutes showed potential as a solid middle guy. Either could probably do a passable job as the closer, but maybe not enough to make Charlie Manuel comfortable (although don't forget the Phillies reached the World Series in 2009 despite Brad Lidge going 0-7 with an ERA over 7.00).

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMariano Rivera aside, a great closer doesn't necessarily produce great results in the postseason.
For the second part, I want to begin with a somewhat arbitrary list of the best closers over the past 15 seasons -- those who did it year after year, the kind of closer you'd be theoritically comfortable giving a long-term contract of around $40 million:

1. Mariano Rivera: Four World Series titles (plus one as a set-up guy).
2. Trevor Hoffman: Reached one World Series (lost).
3. Billy Wagner: Never reached World Series.
4. Joe Nathan: Never reached World Series.
5. Francisco Rodriguez: Won one World Series (as a set-up guy).
6. Jonathan Papelbon: Won one World Series.
7. Francisco Cordero: Never reached World Series (in fact, has never appeared in a postseason game).
8. Robb Nen: Reached two World Series, won one.
9. Troy Percival: Won one World Series (only year in postseason).
10. Armando Benitez: Reached one World Series (lost).

Leaving Rivera aside for a moment due to his one-of-a-kind status (and keep in mind he blew potential series-closing saves against the Indians in 1997, the Diamondbacks in 2001 and the Red Sox in 2004), here's the postseason record of the other nine guys: 40 saves, 25 blown saves. Even removing Benitez (a couple of his blown saves came as a set-up guy), you get 36 saves and 19 blown saves. In other words -- even the best closers have failed a third of the time in the postseason. There's no guarantee Madson would be any different from this group.

Now ... that doesn't mean you don't need or want a good closer to win a World Series. If we combine the regular-season statistics of the past 10 World Series champion closers, we get a 2.12 ERA with 261 saves and 25 blown saves. In the postseason, the 10 relievers went a combined 4-1, with a 1.26 ERA and 49 saves in 56 opportunities. This group of relievers were terrific during the regular season and pretty dominant in the postseason.

BUT ... the list includes two rookies, a midseason trade acquisition, a 24th-round draft pick and two converted minor league catchers. Closers can come from anywhere and World Series closers tend to be guys on a hot streak as much as a proven commodity. Here's the list of those 10:

2011 Cardinals: Jason Motte. Converted minor-league catcher. Became the team's third closer of the season in late August. Stats: 5-2, 2.25 ERA, 9 saves.

2010 Giants: Brian Wilson. A 24th-round draft pick who spent two years in middle relief and held on to his closer's job despite a 4.62 ERA in his first year in the position in 2008. Stats: 3-3, 1.81 ERA, 48 saves.

2009 Yankees: Mariano Rivera. The greatest closer of all time. Stats: 3-3, 1.76 ERA, 44 saves.

2008 Phillies: Brad Lidge. Acquired from Astros for prospect Michael Bourn. Stats: 2-0, 1.95 ERA, 41 saves.

2007 Red Sox: Jonathan Papelbon. Fourth-round pick, became the team's closer his first full season. Stats: 1-3, 1.85 ERA, 37 saves.

2006 Cardinals: Adam Wainwright. A rookie reliever pressed into closing games when veteran Jason Isringhausen became unavailable due to injury. Stats: 2-1, 3.12 ERA, 3 saves.

2005 White Sox: Bobby Jenks. Another rookie, he had six saves during the regular season after Dustin Hermanson was injured. Stats: 1-1, 2.75 ERA, 6 saves.

2004 Red Sox: Keith Foulke. A free-agent signing in 2004 after saving 43 games with the A's in 2003. Stats: 5-3, 2.17 ERA, 32 saves.

2003 Marlins: Ugueth Urbina. A midseason trade acquistion from the Rangers for a prospect named ... Adrian Gonzalez. Stats: 3-0, 1.41 ERA, 6 saves (with Marlins).

2002 Angels: Troy Percival. Veteran closer had converted from catcher in the minor leagues. Stats: 4-1, 1.92 ERA, 40 saves.

Does this mean the Phillies shouldn't sign Madson or the Red Sox shouldn't sign Papelbon? Not necessarily; I think the question is more: Is the money that would be spent for a good closer worth it? You need a good closer to win a World Series, but there's no guarantee your good closer will actually push you to a World Series title, if that makes sense. It's a little bit of a luck thing to a certain extent -- hope you get lucky and that a rookie steps up at the right time (Wainwright, Jenks) or that your good middle reliever elevates his game in October (Motte) or that your GM can make a deal if necessary (Urbina). Sometimes it's merely hoping that a guy who is consistent has the season of his life (Lidge).

Me? If money is an issue, I'd try and spend the $40 million in other places.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Baseball issues positive and negative were certainly on display for Keith Law and me as we enjoyed Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast. Here are some of the topics:

1. It was a Giant win in Atlanta, but can the defending champs overcome the bullpen injuries? Speaking of the Braves, their rotation depth is discussed.

2. Look, not every outing for the great Stephen Strasburg will be dominating, but KLaw tries to put expectations in check.

3. The Kansas City Royals have decided on their right fielder for the next few seasons, but is Jeff Francoeur the right choice?

4. The Cardinals may or may not be contenders still, but their catcher and former center fielder are topics for the emailers.

5. It’s a somewhat limited Thursday schedule, but it’s full of aces. So naturally we turned our attention to a young pitcher with ace upside and his innings limit.

Plus: Excellent emails, rooting for Dustin McGowan, the strange case of Mike Jacobs, more RBIs and runs talk -- we can’t get enough! -- and a ton more on a packed Thursday Baseball Today. Download now!

Next-gen fandom via Twitter

August, 13, 2011
The creators of Twitter intended for their product to revolutionize communication. News could be consumed seconds after it broke; the article was cast aside in favor of the headline. Twitter would be a stream of pure information doubling as both a news source and a social network.

[+] EnlargeDavid Price
Kim Klement/US PresswireRays left-hander David Price, who is nearly two decades younger than Tim Wakefield, will try to bring his team within two games of Boston in the wild-card chase.
The creators of Twitter, however, did not intend for their product to serve as a potent connection between fans and the athletes they alternately adore and despise.

Fans are constantly trying to connect with athletes. We are curious to discover the man behind the .270 batting average. For a long time, the fan had only two methods of connection: She might ask for an autograph at a game, or she might hope for a chance encounter outside of the ballpark. The former entails a clipped, impersonal exchange while the latter is very unlikely to happen. By no means do athletes intentionally shy away from contact with fans; it’s just that contact with fans can be really impractical. [A Sports Illustrated article claimed that Joe Mauer responded to every fan letter he received, but I can’t imagine that he actually did.]

Professional athletes frequently have places to be and things to do that preclude them from reaching out to their faithful. The remedy, as Jason Mraz astutely points out, is a dangerous liaison. If somehow, someway, athletes could publicly convey semi-personal information in a quick and easy manner, the fan’s appetite for connection might be satiated.

Enter Twitter, and the connection is made. Using this technology, we can reply to and pass judgment on David Aardsma’s updates. We can find out where Jason Heyward’s political affiliations lie. We discover marital problems, anecdotes and religious convictions. All David Price has to do to satisfy the Rays’ faithful is type in anything along the lines of, “So I was just asked since I'm left handed do I drive with my left foot....???” The comment isn’t especially funny in itself, but it gains something from being attached to David Price’s name.

In a way, athlete’s tweets are no different from the “Celebrities: they’re just like us” section of any gossip magazine. We could logically assume that Nick Swisher drinks Starbucks coffee, but the Twitter-delivered confirmation makes us all giddy for some reason. Nick Swisher drinks Starbucks coffee? So do I! That’s exciting!

But Twitter doesn’t just connect fans to their favorite players. It fosters a phenomenon that can be loosely termed “irrational affection.” Ryan Rowland-Smith pitched incredibly poorly for the Mariners in 2010, but the fan base adored him for his earnest tweets and unyielding optimism. As someone who covers baseball without interacting directly with the men who play the game, I am frequently tempted to rant about the players who don’t do their jobs particularly well. But I could never bring myself to badmouth the Aussie, despite his sky-high ERA. More recently, A’s righty Brandon McCarthy has shown his personality to be a lovely mixture of clever and cynical through his amusing tweets; I find myself rooting for him despite my full-fledged allegiance to the Mariners. From a purely logical standpoint, this doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone favor a mediocre player (in the case of Rowland-Smith) over a good player? Why would droll 140-character updates from a member of my team’s division rivals make me like him?

Twitter has given fans a vehicle to root for players as human beings rather than as characterless objects, numerical fractions of a team. It’s easier to relate to an athlete when you know he guzzles Red Bull en masse. Twitter might not truly connect fans and their heroes in an intellectually meaningful way, but it’s a big first step. And, feasibly, there might not be a bigger step possible.

I think Brian Wilson put it best when he tweeted, “The Tux. Made of reproduced underwater sea lion-platypus hybrid DNA. Just keeping it classy! #fearthespandex”. That might not have anything to do with the rest of this article, but it makes me happy that Brian Wilson is a bizarre, fascinating human being as well as a great closer. That is the power of Twitter.

Taylor Halperin contributes to Pro Ball NW, the Mariners' corner of the SweetSpot network.
Prince FielderMark J. Rebilas/US PresswirePrince Fielder's home run in the fourth inning gave the National League the lead for good.
Despite everything that is so wrong about it, I still like the All-Star Game. Maybe it’s the fan in me that still remembers the 1987 game, when Seattle’s Mark Langston came on and pitched two perfect innings with three strikeouts, causing Vin Scully to exclaim something like, “This kid is something else!”

Every fan of every team has a memory like that. Maybe it’s Hank Blalock ruining Eric Gagne's perfect season in 2003 with his pinch-hit, go-ahead two-run homer in the eighth inning. Or George Sherrill's 2 1/3 scoreless innings for the AL in the 15-inning marathon in 2008. Or Carl Crawford's defense in 2009 that snared him MVP honors.

Is it a glorified exhibition game? Or a game that is supposed to matter? It’s both, of course, and while that isn’t a clear answer, it’s what we have.

I do know this: I’m going to do a running diary of the game.

Pregame introductions

Random notes from the most underrated part of the All-Star broadcast -- the opportunity to see who is the Royals representative this year.

  • Nice ovations for White Sox Paul Konerko, from Scottsdale, and Carlos Quentin, who began his career with the Diamondbacks. And you thought Diamondbacks fans don’t know their baseball.
  • Cliff Lee manages to not smile during pregame warmups. This is just slightly less shocking than Derek Jeter sending out a Tweet that says, “Actually, I just wanted to spend a few days in Atlantic City.”
  • The Dodgers are so irrelevant, the fans can’t even muster up the energy to boo a division rival. The Giants players get booed loudly, however, although not as loudly as the Yankees players.
  • Tyler Clippard? Who let my accountant into the All-star Game?!?
  • I’m happy for AL starter Jered Weaver, who has been underrated throughout his career, had a great season last year that went largely unrecognized and has arguably outpitched Justin Verlander this year only to see Verlander get much of the attention.
First inning

Roy Halladay
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesStarter Roy Halladay pitched two innings of shutout ball and didn't allow a hit while striking out one.
Asdrubal Cabrera goes down on strikes. Jeter could have done that and it would have been more controversial!

Fox shows Brian Wilson introducing some of the NL lineup. For Carlos Beltran, he mentions trade rumors involving the Giants and the Mets right fielder. “Come on over,” Wilson says. I think he just got fined $100,000 for tampering.

Second inning

Jose Bautista swings at the first pitch and pops out to shallow center field. Josh Hamilton grounds softly to third base. Joe Buck goes back to Bautista and points out that Bautista was with five organizations in June of 2004. Adrian Beltre flies to deep right on a 2-2 pitch. Roy Halladay's half innings don’t last as long as the commercial breaks.

Red Sox Nation just had a collective heart attack when Buck announced Josh Beckett was supposed to enter in the bottom of the second inning but tweaked his knee warming up. AL skipper Ron Washington is forced to bring in Yankees reliever David Robertson.

My question: Why couldn’t Weaver go two innings? Back in the day, All-Star starters were MEN and pitched THREE innings. I blame the parents.

With one out, Lance Berkman singles sharply up the middle. I’m enjoying Berkman’s bounce-back season. (“Comeback” doesn’t seem quite like the right word.) Berkman’s been a terrific player for a long time, never quite recognized as a superstar by the mainstream media, even though he was on that level. He seems to be getting more attention this year than ever before. Funny how baseball works sometimes.

Tim McCarver just tried to compare Robertson to Mariano Rivera.

Matt Holliday takes a 3-2 fastball down the middle and Berkman slides off the bag on a stolen base attempt for a double play. You know there isn’t much offense anymore in baseball when Berkman is running in an All-Star Game. He had zero steals on the season. Robertson has one of the best K rates in the majors, so either Bruce Bochy just made one of the worst decisions in All-Star history or Berkman decided to go on his own. I’m 99 percent sure Berkman is probably to blame.

Third inning

After Lee cruises through a 1-2-3 third, Michael Pineda comes on. Not sure it’s a good sign for the AL that its second and third pitchers used are guys who weren’t on the roster. (Not that Robertson and Pineda are slouches. By the way … I wonder if Rafael Soriano is watching the game.) As a Mariners fan, this is where you hope your guy isn’t the one to blow it. For most of the country, I’m sure it’s the time they’re seeing the big rookie pitch. He’s calm and cool, and blows away Scott Rolen and Rickie Weeks with nasty sliders. As Vin Scully might say, “This kid is something else!”

Fourth inning

Hunter Pence and Justin Upton enter. Glad to see Holliday and Berkman made it through three innings. Maybe Bochy is a little ticked at that botched hit-and-run.

Adrian Gonzalez breaks up the NL’s perfect game with a two-out home run to right-center. That equals the number of runs Lee allowed all of June. After Prince Fielder misplays Bautista’s pop-up into a single, Hamilton singles to center. Bochy goes to the pen to bring in Nationals reliever Clippard to face Beltre. This could be one of the key at-bats of the game. So Buck decides he needs to thank Brad Pitt for narrating the opening of the broadcast.

Beltre lines a sharp single to left, Pence rifles a perfect throw to nail Bautista easily at the plate. Pence, by the way, has never played left field in the majors. Cheer proudly, Astros fans. I’d make a joke how that could be the highlight of their season, but I don’t think that’s really a joke.

[+] EnlargeCJ Wilson
AP Photo/David J. PhillipC.J. Wilson is the losing pitcher after giving up a three-run blast to Prince Fielder.
C.J. Wilson enters for the AL. I think Washington should try and get two innings out of one of these starters. His watered-down pitching isn’t as deep on paper as the NL staff and the more pitchers he uses the more likely one of them will blow up.

Beltran reaches on an infield hit to Cabrera and Matt Kemp lines a single to left to put two on with no outs for Fielder and Brian McCann. Wilson is tough on lefties, so he’s still a good bet to escape the jam. Yes, that’s a prediction.

Well, I was wrong. Prince blasts a home run off the top of the wall in left-center. I think his free-agent contract this winter just went up another $5 million. Wilson had allowed two home runs to left-hander in 253 at-bats over the past two years. Credit for Prince for a terrific at-bat. No offense to Wilson, who is a good pitcher, but the “Sunday rule” needs to go. No Verlander, no CC Sabathia, no Felix Hernandez, no James Shields for the AL. But the game counts!

Fifth inning

Angels rookie Jordan Walden gives up a run on Andre Ethier's RBI single. NL takes a 4-1 lead. It’s going to be tough for the AL to come back in this one. Since Bochy was actually trying to, you know, win the game, he used Halladay and Lee for 11 outs. He has Clayton Kershaw and then Jair Jurrjens for the fifth and sixth innings and then he’ll be able to mix and match his relievers over the final three innings as needed to get the best matchups. Big strategic edge in this one to Bochy, although to be fair he had more horses to work with than Washington.

Sixth inning

Jurrjens sails through the top of the sixth. In the bottom of the frame, Yadier Molina hits a two-out double off his former battery mate, Chris Perez. Now that’s the All-Star matchup fans were waiting to see.

Seventh inning

Bochy still has Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel, Heath Bell, Joel Hanrahan and Wilson available to him, with starters Tim Lincecum, Kevin Correia and Ryan Vogelsong available if the game goes extra innings. It will be interesting to see if Bochy saves his own guy Wilson for the ninth, considering his struggles of late -- he’s allowed runs in four of his past six appearances.

Bochy ends up leaving Jurrjens in for a second inning, with Braves teammate Kimbrel warming up. Love Bochy’s handling of his staff in this game. After Kevin Youkilis singles with two outs, Konerko is announced as the pinch-hitter for David Ortiz. Bochy goes to the pen to bring in Kimbrel. Of course, it would actually make more sense to leave in Ortiz to face Jurrjens or Kimbrel, both righties. But of course, Washington is more concerned with getting everybody in the game instead of winning. At least it’s just a glorified exhibition game.

Commerical airs for the “Moneyball” movie out in September. I can’t wait to see who plays Jeremy Giambi.

Kimbrel walks Konerko on a 3-2 slider. You’re up three runs. You throw 98. Hmm. Kendrick up as the tying run. Good thing Robinson Cano isn’t in the game anymore. Kendrick fouls off a couple two-strike pitches before bouncing out to second.

Here’s what I hate about the way managers manage the All-Star Game these days. They have the starters and then the backup at each position. The starters get their two at-bats and then in come the backups. I’d leave the starters in longer, giving you more pinch-hitting options in the late innings. Yes, that may actually mean some of the players may not get into the game. Gonzalez and Bautista should get at least three at-bats -- if not more. They’re the best hitters in the American League.

Brandon League is pitching and I'm getting bored. I look up the slowest player to ever steal a base in an All-Star Game. You won't believe this: It may be Berkman! He stole a base in 2002. He may not actually be the slowest; he does have 82 career steals after all. It could be Robert Fick, who stole a base in 2002 as well. And, yes, I just wanted to get Robert Fick into this writeup.

Eighth inning

I’m not sure if this string of AL pitchers is the least exciting group in All-Star history. In 1996, the AL used just five guys, but they were Charles Nagy, Chuck Finley, Roger Pavlik, Troy Percival and Roberto Hernandez. As a kid, I attended the 1979 contest in Seattle. The AL started Nolan Ryan, but then used Bob Stanley, Mark Clear, Jim Kern and Ron Guidry (for one out). By the way, the only other pitchers on that AL squad were Tommy John, Dave Lemanczyk, Sid Monge and Don Stanhouse. Wow, that has to be the worst All-Star pitching staff ever assembled.

Ninth inning

Brian Wilson
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe American League threatened in the top of the ninth, but Brian Wilson came on for a two-out save.
Pirates reliever Joel Hanrahan in to close it out for the NL. He’s 26-for-26 this season. Not bad for a guy once released by the Dodgers. Of course, Gagne was perfect in 2003! You never know! OK, I’m trying to act excited. Michael Young strikes out. Starlin Castro just bounces a throw in the dirt, allowing Quentin to reach base. Yes, that sums up the Cubs season pretty well. Matt Joyce singles to right on a 3-1 pitch, the NL throws the ball around like a bunch of Little Leaguers ... and Bochy goes to the mound! In comes The Beard!

Did I mention Wilson has allowed runs in four of his past six appearances? Yes I did! AL needs one runner to bring the tying to the plate. Of course, Michael Cuddyer then swings at the first pitch and flies to right field. Two outs. Konerko takes a strikes, misses a slider away, works the count to 2-2, fouls off a pitch and then grounds out to Castro, who makes the throw this time.

Yay, Cubs. Yay, Fielder, the obvious MVP. Yay, National League. Home-field advantage is yours. Let's hope we actually get a seven-game World Series this year.

And Clippard gets the win. Without retiring a batter. Put that one in the record books of the weird.

As always, plenty to talk about in the wonderful world of baseball. Topics ranged from Adrian Gonzalez to Jair Jurrjens to Josh Tomlin to Jose Bautista to Brandon Belt to baseball's best closers. The question came up in relation to Atlanta rookie closer Craig Kimbrel. I suggested he might be a top-3 closer already ... and I'll stick to that. Here are my top five closers right now:

1. Mariano Rivera, Yankees: Had a couple hiccups, but still has a WHIP under 1.00 and hasn't allowed a home run.

2. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox: He struggled with location last season, but he seems back on his game with a 21/2 SO/BB ratio in 16 2/3 innings.

3. Craig Kimbrel, Braves: With 34 K's in 20 2/3 innings, his strikeout rate leads closers (even better than Carlos Marmol). The control isn't precise (10 walks), but he's dominating right now.

4. Drew Storen, Nationals: He looks like the real deal with a 0.71 WHIP, 1 HR in 23 innings and a 19/5 SO/BB ratio.

5. Neftali Feliz, Rangers: Injured earlier and a little rusty coming back, but should be fine once he gets in gear.

Worth considering: Brian Wilson, Giants (not as dominant this year, but worked very heavily last season); Heath Bell, Padres (benefits from home park); Joakim Soria, Royals (hasn't been as overpowering so far); Marmol, Cubs (unhittable, but still wild); Ryan Madson, Phillies (looking good so far).
Top five reasons why Thursday's Baseball Today podcast , hosted by myself and the energetic Mark Simon, is a can't-miss:

1. The played some of a baseball game in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, but it didn't count. But stuff did happen! Which players should be happy ... and sad?

2. Not a bad season debut for Chicago White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy. We discuss some of the players we're rooting for, including Peavy.

3. Which current pitcher would be the best at darts? OK, I'm serious. Simon's got the answer.

4. Eric Hosmer wasn't the only impressive Kansas City Royals player at Yankee Stadium Wednesday, and the Yankees did something they had never done in their history in that game.

5. Who are the best hitters on fastballs of varying speeds ... some interesting names top the list.

Also: Excellent emails, discussing sample sizes and closers getting wins; Simon says Bill Gallo impacted his youth; we discuss shortstop defense, a very famous Yankee turns 86 and the immortal Kenny Greer, all on Thursday's Baseball Today!
The Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox battled for 11 innings on Monday night, and in the end, Carl Crawford’s double high off the Green Monster plated Jose Iglesias with the winning run in a 2-1 victory.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, apparently waiting to take the lead before using closer Matt Capps, and not wanting to use Joe Nathan on back-to-back days, was left with somebody named Jim Hoey on the mound. With one out, Hoey walked Jed Lowrie -- not necessarily a surprise since Hoey walked 34 in 52 2/3 innings in the minors last season. Iglesias came in as a pinch-runner and Crawford hit a 3-2 pitch off the wall.

We’re going to see a lot of games like that this season: low-scoring affairs decided in the late innings. With scoring down, games will be tight, and with close games, late-inning bullpen work may be more important than ever. And if you’re relying on Jim Hoey in tie games, chances are you may be 12-21.

Let’s do a quick overview of the state of 'pens around baseball.

Three best bullpens on contenders

1. San Francisco Giants: The unheralded secret weapon of last year’s champs, the bullpen has picked up where it left off, with Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Ramon Ramirez and Guillermo Mota throwing lights-out. Closer Brian Wilson blew his first save chance but has since converted 11 in a row, despite a little wildness. The team has lefty-righty balance, with lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Dan Runzler adding solid depth.

2. Florida Marlins: Several arms were added to the Marlins' 'pen after last season’s shaky performance and so far they have a 2.59 relief ERA, second only to San Diego’s. I believe in this group, although stellar setup man Clay Hensley was just placed on the DL with a bruised rib. Closer Leo Nunez appeared in 17 of the team’s first 32 games, so watch his usage carefully.

3. New York Yankees: Yes, Mariano Rivera had that little burp, but he’s back on track. Setup man Rafael Soriano has struggled, but I project he’ll turn it around. Joba Chamberlain is throwing better than he has in years, and underrated David Robertson has one of the nastiest curves you’ll see. The 'pen has allowed just five home runs in 95 innings. The big question is whether Boone Logan will prove to be a reliable lefty in the absence of Pedro Feliciano.

Bullpen doing it with smoke and mirrors right now

Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays have a 2.69 bullpen ERA, third-best in the majors, and have allowed opponents a .203 batting average. They’ve allowed just 61 hits in 87 innings despite a poor 51/34 strikeout/walk ratio. Some of that is attributable to their defense, but the low strikeout rate means that .203 average will be difficult to maintain. And maybe you believe in Kyle Farnsworth more than I do.

Three bullpens I’m worried about

1. Texas Rangers: The Rangers will be fine at closer once Neftali Feliz returns, but the rest of the ‘pen looks shaky, as it has allowed 16 home runs in just 94 innings and has a poor 66/43 strikeout/walk ratio. Forty-somethings Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes are looking more their age and have surrendered three home runs apiece, and Darren O'Day is on the 60-day DL with a torn labrum in his hip.

2. Detroit Tigers: The team’s best reliever has been Al Alburquerque, and with a name like that, he'd better be good, because we want him to last a long time. Closer Jose Valverde is always a tightrope, but the rest of the setup crew, including high-priced free agent Joaquin Benoit, has looked inconsistent.

3. Milwaukee Brewers: Brewers relievers already have nine defeats. They have a few good arms in closer John Axford and Zach Braddock and Brandon Kintzler, but control issues have been a problem so far and lack of depth could be an issue.

Two awesome bullpens if you only need two guys

1. Atlanta Braves: Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are dominant (and Eric O'Flaherty provides a nice third guy). We’ll have to see whether Venters holds up after pitching 79 games and 83 innings last year, but so far he’s been even better than he was in 2010, with a 0.70 WHIP.

2. Boston Red Sox: Daniel Bard’s raw numbers are great (well, except that 0-3 record, which is not exactly a non-important notation). Jonathan Papelbon is back with an 18/2 strikeout/walk ratio. But new acquisitions Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler have been disastrous, leaving a gaping hole after the top two.

Bullpen that may actually be OK

St. Louis Cardinals: The Cards are tied with the Brewers with nine bullpen losses, three by deposed closer Ryan Franklin. And while the team may not have a set closer (Fernando Salas has the role for now), there are some good arms here. Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs and rookie Eduardo Sanchez all average more than 93 mph with their fastballs, and Salas throws strikes. Mix in LOOGYs Trever Miller and Brian Tallet, and I think Tony La Russa will figure out roles that turn this into one of the better 'pens in the NL.

Jay BruceThomas Campbell/US PresswireStretch! Jay Bruce reached as high as he could, but no dice. That one's gone.