SweetSpot: Carl Crawford

Everyone expects the Dodgers to trade an outfielder this winter. Most likely Andre Ethier. Maybe Matt Kemp. Probably not Carl Crawford since nobody really wants Carl Crawford. And definitely not Yasiel Puig, because he's Yasiel Puig. With highly regarded prospect Joc Pederson, who hit .278/.381/.497 with 31 steals at Double-A, soon ready for the majors, the Dodgers will have five outfielders and you can't play them all at once.

Mike Petriello of FanGraphs examines the six options the Dodgers have -- trading one of the five or trading none of them. The most interesting scenario involves Kemp, who has been plagued by injuries the past two seasons following his MVP-caliber 2011:
When Kemp’s 8/$160m extension was announced in the wake of his 2011 MVP quality season, it seemed like a good deal as others like Prince Fielder & Joey Votto were getting north of $200m. Since, he’s played only 179 games in two seasons amid a never-ending litany of injuries to his shoulder, hamstrings, and ankle. After a brutal start to 2013, Kemp did hit .333/.400/.630 from July 1 on… except that he did it in only 60 plate appearances interrupted by two different injuries.

The good news is that Kemp is only headed into his age-29 season, and while a .290/.352/.482 line in 2012-13 is less than you’d expect from him, it’s hardly been a Josh Hamilton-level disaster. Still, it’s that sweet spot between “too talented to dump” and “too expensive to get much return on” that makes him tough to move, unless the Dodgers ate an obscene amount of money or did so in exchange for another big contract, like an Elvis Andrus.


The Andrus idea is interesting. Andrus is owed at least $124 million through 2022. The Rangers could play Jurickson Profar at shortstop and then pursue Robinson Cano to play second base. A middle of the order with Cano, Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder and a healthy Kemp would be pretty imposing. For the Dodgers, Andrus would allow Hanley Ramirez to move over to third base, and improve the team's defense up the middle but at the risk of moving Ramirez off the position he wants to play.

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Which outfielder should the Dodgers trade, factoring in what each could bring in return?

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Anyway, as Mike suggests, trading Kemp is unlikely. He's a fan favorite and there are doubts Ethier can play center field (although it will be interesting to see if Don Mattingly tries Puig out there next season considering Kemp's defensive metrics are poor). Mike also points out that "If you had too many quality outfielders, then the 2013 Dodgers wouldn't have had to give 99 starts to a group of Scott Van Slyke, Skip Schumaker, Jerry Hairston, Chili Buss, Alex Castellanos, and Elian Herrera, along with five more to Schumaker in the playoffs when neither Ethier or Kemp could answer the bell."

What do you think? How would you solve the Dodgers' outfield logjam? I'll leave Puig out of the poll but give you the five other options.

Jacoby Ellsbury versus Carl Crawford

November, 11, 2013
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Came across this quote this morning, from Scott Boras, agent for Jacoby Ellsbury, back in September to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports:

"Two things separate Ellsbury [from Crawford]. Carl Crawford was never proven as a leadoff hitter, and Carl Crawford is not a center fielder. They are two different animals. It's not a consideration because he's a corner outfielder. Just think if Carl Crawford could play center field."


Now, Boras isn't lying here; he's not really even stretching the truth. Crawford primarily hit second for the Tampa Bay Rays before he became a free agent and he played left field, not center field. Ellsbury hits leadoff and plays center field.

The thing I love about Boras, however, is that he's the ultimate car salesman who thinks all his clients care about is the paint color. Baseball teams are smart enough to check under the hood, however. Check out another quote from the piece, when he says Ellsbury's ceilings of 30 home runs and 70 steals are "unheard of."

Well ... close. Ellsbury has hit 32 home runs (in 2011) and stolen 70 bases (in 2009), so he's right about that. But Ellsbury is not the only player to do so, so it's not unheard of; Tommy Harper and Eric Davis also did it. (Rickey Henderson and Juan Samuel came close, topping out at 28 home runs.) Still, it's a short list.

Essentially, Boras is trying to spin that his client is more Rickey than Samuel and definitely not Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox in 2011.

Of course, Ellsbury has stolen 70 bases just the one time, his second-highest total being the 52 he swiped in 2013. Of course, Ellsbury has never hit more than nine home runs in any other season. Of course he's not Carl Crawford. He won't be a $142 million free-agent bust.

On the other hand we have this, Ellsbury versus Crawford in their final three seasons before free agency:

Ellsbury, 2011-2013: .303/.356/.469, 15 HR, 35 SB, 4.9 WAR
Crawford, 2008-2010: .297/.349/.454, 14 HR, 44 2B, 4.8 WAR

Crawford was a year younger when he hit free agency but it's hard to find two more closely matched players than that -- no, they don't play the same position, but they are exactly same kind of player: Speed, a little power, good defensive players, don't walk a whole lot. Ellsbury's totals are bolstered by his 2011 season, although dragged down by his injury-marred 2012 season (on top of an injury-marred 2010).

Boras can try to spin Ellsbury any way he wants but Ellsbury is Crawford, with all the same risks of signing a 30-year-old player whose value rests to a large degree on his legs. Crawford has been worth an average of 0.8 WAR per season since he signed with the Red Sox and subsequently traded to the Dodgers. He's battled injuries, including Tommy John surgery, and hasn't been the same player, as he's stopped running and his defense, so good with Tampa, has noticeably slipped.

That doesn't mean the same thing will happen to Ellsbury. But Boras' argument is apparently that if Crawford received $142 million then Ellsbury deserves more.

Maybe Ellsbury will get that kind of contract; I don't think he will, but teams are flush in cash with about $25 million in new national TV money getting added to the books in 2014. One thing does seem likely, however: That the Red Sox, with the Crawford experience fresh in their minds, will let Ellsbury leave. And as a friend wrote me, that could mean that if Ellsbury goes West (to, say, Seattle), like Freddie Lynn he'll disappear into the sunset.
Well, not every rookie starter can be expected to deliver a performance like Gerrit Cole did for the Pirates or Sonny Gray did for the A's.

There isn't a whole lot to say about the Dodgers' 13-6 pounding of the Braves in Game 3 of their NL Division Series, other than to say the Dodgers hit well, the Braves pitched and fielded poorly and Hanley Ramirez might be on his way to one of those legendary Octobers.

The turning point, if there was one, came with Fredi Gonzalez's slow hook on rookie starter Julio Teheran. Teheran had allowed four runs in the second inning during a rally capped by Carl Crawford's three-run homer to right field with two outs. OK, he'd been one strike away from getting out of the inning with one run -- Crawford jumped on a 2-2 slider -- but in the bottom of the third, after the Braves had scored twice to tie the game, Gonzalez let Teheran allow four more hits and two runs before finally pulling him.

It was too late. Considering the importance of this game -- the winner of Game 3 has won 14 of the past 15 Division Series that were tied at one game -- you can't leave the starter in that long. What's the point of carrying seven relievers for a five-game series that has two off days if you can't be more flexible than how you would manage in the regular season?

[+] EnlargeJulio Teheran
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJulio Teheran wasn't the only rookie hurler who didn't bring his best game to this October Sunday.
It's an issue I have with most managers in the postseason, the unwillingness to change how they manage in October from how they manage in July, the inability to be more creative. Over 162 games, you have to worry about burning out your bullpen, and you have to let Teheran learn how to pitch out of jams. But you can't wait in the postseason. There is an urgency to every game, and one inning can change an entire series.

Compare Gonzalez's slow hook to what Don Mattingly did. Donnie Manager made some questionable moves in Game 2, but he didn't hesitate in this game. After the Dodgers took that 6-4 lead, Hyun-Jin Ryu was due up with two outs. He's actually a good batter -- he hit a sac fly earlier in the game and hit .203 with four extra-base hits in the regular season -- but Mattingly sensed an opportunity to (A) get more runs and (B) not gamble by keeping Ryu in there after he'd struggled through three innings.

Again, in the regular season with a 6-4 lead, you let Ryu go back out there with that lead, hoping that you can squeeze a couple more innings out of him. So I liked the decision to yank him and go to Chris Capuano, who responded with three scoreless innings.

One more minor nitpick on Gonzalez. When Capuano walked the first better he faced, No. 8 hitter Elliot Johnson, I thought Gonzalez should have hit for pitcher Alex Wood, who had replaced Teheran. Yes, Wood is a guy who started in the regular season and can give the Braves multiple innings out of the pen, but the leadoff walk presented the possibility of a big inning. Again, series tied, trailing in Game 3, there is no time for patience. Wood sacrificed and Capuano settled down, but bring in a position player to hit off Capuano and who knows what could have happened.

As for Ramirez, the dude is ripping line drives all over the place. After going 3-for-4, he's 7-for-13 in the series with six RBIs and six extra-base hits. He could be headed for one of those Reggie Jackson/David Ortiz/David Freese postseasons. Ramirez was the best player in 2013 on a per-game basis, and he's showing why he hit .345 with 20 home runs in 86 games. The Braves have 24 hours to figure out how to get him out.

Freddy Garcia -- yep, Freddy Garcia, who first appeared in the postseason way back in 2000 with the Mariners -- is the starter the Braves are trusting in Game 4 to do that. Garcia had 27 good innings with the Braves (1.65 ERA), which proves nothing but was enough to convince Gonzalez to start him. Hey, he had a 5.77 ERA for the Orioles in 53 innings, but who cares. Johnson got released by the Royals, but had 100 good at-bats with the Braves, so let's make him the starting second baseman. Evan Gattis isn't a left fielder, and his failure to get to a fairly routine fly ball in the second inning helped set up that four-run inning, and he later failed to back up a Ramirez triple that bounced off the wall, but, whatever., Let's keep sending him out there.

Look, this kind of decision-making doesn't kill you against the Phillies, the Mets or the Marlins. It does against a good team. Dodgers wrap this one up in four.

Hanley Ramirez delivers again

July, 21, 2013
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Hanley delivers, Dodgers win? I know it’s only something we’ve been hearing about for the last six weeks or so, but give credit where it’s due: The dude has made that every bit as much an everyday event as Yasiel Puig made feats of strength just so much sports wallpaper during the kid’s magical first month.

Now I know, I know: As Mike Petriello rightly noted, they can’t keep this up. Baseball is not like basketball; you don’t win with Twin Towers and a grab bag of on-field witnesses. Except that Ramirez did just that, again, as the Dodgers beat the Nationals, an equally desperate expected contender, again.

But that's the thing: Hanley Ramirez has been here before, while Puig just got here. We connect them because they've both been hot, but where Puig still has plenty to prove, Hanley Ramirez is a legitimate MVP-caliber ballplayer. The arguments for why Ramirez can’t stay at an MVP level of production might be couched in relative terms; he’s produced at an MVP level for multiple seasons at a stretch. If he does so again for four months in the limelight of L.A. and a pennant race, as much as those things aren’t supposed to matter to those who reduce all ballgames to equal value, it will be the defining moment in one player’s career in a way that no feat of Marlindom ever could be.

On Saturday night, it was up to Zack Greinke and Ramirez to make their star turns, Greinke to keep the game in reach on a night that Gio Gonzalez brought his A-game, and HanRam to provide the winning margin in the 10th. To satisfy the skeptics, Puig settled for adding a trio of K's to the proceedings, but for those who want to give team-wide props to those who earned them, six relievers combined for four innings’ worth of scoreless cameos to cue HanRam’s decisive double in the 10th. That gave rookie Chris Withrow a win that, if not earned equally by everyone, was nevertheless earned collectively as the Dodgers picked up another game on the Diamondbacks.

Like so many Angelenos, Greinke has walked the well-worn path from small-stage hero to big-market hired gun, the man whose 2009 season as a Royal might still be the single best season on the mound in the new millennium. And just as he did a week ago with a complete-game shutout, he kept his infield busy this Saturday night. Say what you will about whether or not former right-field regular Andre Ethier can really handle playing center field in the major leagues, but when somebody’s pitching like this it generally doesn’t matter who’s planted in the middle pasture -- Ethier, Jimmy Hoffa, or a palm tree.

But the star gone dark lately for fans seeking instant gratification is Puig, 0-for-9 since the break with five whiffs, which is meaningless in any serious baseball context but is nevertheless sure to simultaneously set off alarms among doubting statheads and scare-mongering radio jabberati. Certainly, Puig may never replicate his magic month. Maybe he is “just” the new Vladimir Guerrero with speed; spare the Dodgers your crocodile tears if that is so.

In part, the Dodgers’ star turns reflect the basic unfairness of geography and cash distribution and expectations. While the Dodgers may play in Chavez Ravine, face it, they’re totally Hollywood. Where the silver screen might give us Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve or Thirteen, the expectation is that if the Dodgers want their own big-budget happy ending the diamond, at some point they’ll have to give us the Dodgers Twenty-Five.

And just as any ensemble cast blockbuster provides a vehicle for single scenes where one guy or another might show you why they’re a star, that’s what the Dodgers do for baseball fans, night after night. Withrow gets a win, but Hanley Ramirez and Zack Greinke made it possible more than anyone else. Not all 25 boys in blue are performing or will; that’s just flashing a command of the obvious, like noticing that there’s a big difference between Brad Pitt or George Clooney and Scott Caan or Eddie Jemison. But it’s only oh-so-Hollywood that the Dodgers have their share of men missing at this moment who might step in to be the hero in a scene TBNL, either starting now (Carl Crawford), next month (Matt Kemp?) or next year (Josh Beckett, anyone?).

We’ll see where the Dodgers’ roller-coaster season ends, but make no mistake, these Dodgers are in the race, and Hanley Ramirez is going to be a big part of the reason why, in September as much as he was in June. And while it would be too soon to talk sequel in Hollywood -- where they want you to show them the money first -- in the sports world every team gets a sequel, every year. The Dodgers have definitely shown us the money; now, let’s see if their stars shine all the way down the stretch.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, I suspect Mattingly may not make it through the end of May. That would be the easy way out for Colletti and Kasten. But, hey, who knows, maybe they know a manager out there who has some good trick plays.

    "I don't think I ever got proper credit about being smart about the game." -- Rickey Henderson

When was the golden age for leadoff hitters?

Well, 1965 was pretty good. Joe Morgan was a rookie that year and hit his way into the leadoff spot, where he posted a .943 OPS. Felipe Alou started 108 games in the leadoff position and hit .303 with 20 home runs. Zoilo Versalles was the American League MVP, started 155 games there for the Twins and led the league in runs, doubles, triples and total bases. Pete Rose and Lou Brock started large chunks of games there. Maury Wills stole 92 bases.

How about 1975? Rose, Ken Singleton and Bobby Bonds each had more than 400 plate appearances from the top spot and on-base percentages over .400. Davey Lopes stole 72 bases, and Brock swiped 56. Guys such as Bernie Carbo, Roy White, Don Money and Al Bumbry were productive when hitting there.

There was 1987, with Henderson, Tim Raines, Paul Molitor, a second-year kid named Barry Bonds, Brett Butler, Brian Downing and Lou Whitaker. Remember Kal Daniels? He started 74 games for the Reds as the leadoff hitter that year and hit .337 with 22 home runs.

And 2004 seems like a good season. Ichiro Suzuki hit .377 with 251 hits as a leadoff guy. Johnny Damon scored 123 runs and drove in 94. Other leadoff success stories were Ray Durham, Jimmy Rollins, some Derek Jeter, .336-hitting Juan Pierre and Rafael Furcal. Craig Biggio hit .281 with 23 home runs and 46 doubles leading off. Pretty stellar group.

Good years all. Maybe you grew up in the '80s, when it seems half the teams had leadoff hitters who could swipe 50-plus bases -- Vince Coleman, Juan Samuel, Willie Wilson, Omar Moreno. Maybe that feels like the best era for leadoff hitters.

It isn't. The golden age is now.

I checked every season since 1950 and compared the production of leadoff hitters to the overall major league batting totals. Granted, it's only early May, but at their current rate, leadoff hitters have never hit better when compared to their peers. Here's a table listing the top 10 seasons by leadoff hitters (since 1950), using OPS compared to league OPS. Also included are the league-average runs per game and the number of stolen bases and runs scored per 650 PAs.


Using OPS is an imperfect method, because it doesn't factor in speed and stealing bases. That's why I included the totals for steals and runs per 650 PAs. Stolen bases don't really have a large effect on run scoring. Compare 2013 to 1990; the run-scoring environments were essentially the same (4.3 runs per game), and while the 1990 guys swiped 10 more bases per 650 PAs, they scored fewer runs. Stolen bases are down a bit in 2013, and certainly injuries to big stolen-base guys such as Jose Reyes and Michael Bourn have dragged down those steal totals a bit.

If there was a golden era before 2013, it looks like that 1990-1992 period, which featured leadoff hitters such as Henderson, Molitor, Lenny Dykstra, Wade Boggs, Tony Phillips, Bip Roberts, Butler, Delino DeShields, Raines, Biggio, Brady Anderson and Devon White.

But never before have we seen the depth in quality leadoff hitters that we're seeing this year. Yes, some of this is a result of the readjustment of offensive levels in recent years. From 1993 to 2006, leadoff hitters never posted OPS totals above the MLB average; as offensive totals boomed, leadoff hitters looked worse compared to their peers. The decline in offensive numbers has brought the rest of the pack back closer to leadoff hitters, but even the raw OPS total for 2013 of .759 is tied for the fourth highest behind 1987 (.764), 2006 (.762) and 2007 (.760).

Look at the best leadoff hitters in the game right now -- a group that doesn't even include Mike Trout, who has started only eight games in the leadoff spot, or the injured Reyes: Shin-Soo Choo (leading the majors in OBP), Austin Jackson (31 runs in 31 games), the underrated Alex Gordon, Ian Kinsler off to big start, Carl Crawford looking healthy and good again, Jacoby Ellsbury, the emerging Dexter Fowler, unsung Norichika Aoki and Starling Marte, perhaps a star in the making in Pittsburgh. Baltimore's Nate McLouth is a platoon player but has a .423 OBP hitting leadoff.

But what really makes 2013 a golden age is the quality behind those players. Others who have hit regularly there include Coco Crisp, Jose Altuve, Denard Span, Angel Pagan, Gerardo Parra, Michael Brantley, David DeJesus and Brett Gardner, all of whom have provided solid production.

One thing managers have wised up on -- for the most part -- is that batting a speedy guy leadoff isn't worth it if his OBP is under .300. Coleman had 670 PAs and stole 107 bases with the Cardinals in 1986 but still scored only 94 runs. The days of guys like Brian Hunter (.282 OBP in 1999 while starting 102 games with the Mariners in the leadoff position) burning up 500 PAs are gone. Managers won't stick with a guy that long anymore. (Well, Dusty Baker might, but Walt Jocketty acquired Choo for him this year.)

So, no, maybe there isn't one player the equal of a Henderson (of course not, that's like saying there's nobody who can hit like Babe Ruth) or Raines, or a 1993 Dykstra or in-his-prime Ichiro, but appreciate the guys out there: There's a lot of quality.
With Mike Trout currently batting second for the Angels, Eric Karabell wondered: Who is the game's best leadoff hitter right now? Time for a quick debate!

Eric: Austin Jackson
I'll go with Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson. He's not off to the flashiest start, not like Shin-Soo Choo, Jose Altuve or Carl Crawford, but Jackson has the brightest future, as he does just fine getting on base, running a bit, scoring many runs. Leaving out the part about Jackson's elite ability defensively, at the plate he brings speed, power and durability to the leadoff role, but what I like best is he continues to grow as a hitter. Last season Jackson cut quite a bit into his strikeout rate and walked more, and while it didn't get noticed because of what Trout accomplished, Jackson was probably the second-best leadoff option in the game. Now that Trout is hitting second in the lineup, Jackson is first. He's 26 and getting better.

SportsNation

Who is the game's best leadoff hitter right now?

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Dave: Shin-Soo Choo
The Cincinnati Reds center fielder is off to a stunning start, getting on base more than Joey Votto (his .521 OBP leads the majors, thanks in part to an amazing nine hit by pitches already) and adding some power (three homers, six doubles). It's no fluke, of course: Choo has a career .385 OBP and he thrived after moving to the leadoff spot last year in Cleveland. And while he's not known as a burner, he's averaged 19 steals over the past four seasons. The question with him is how he does against left-handers. So far, so good (OBP over .400), but last year he had just a .318 OBP. If we're talking all-around game, sure, I'll take Jackson and his terrific glove over Choo and his questionable range. But for pure leadoff skills, Choo is my guy.

What do you think?
Dodgers fans: Quit reading now. This article is going to be painful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Which team will win the NL West?

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    5%

Discuss (Total votes: 60,539)

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

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

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

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

20. Don Mattingly: What if things turn sour? Mattingly is certainly more of the quiet leader from that top step, and he has two years of experience now, but expectations are high. If the Dodgers get off to a slow start, the pressure will mount in a hurry. And he has a core group of guys who -- fair or not -- couldn't handle that kind of pressure last year in Boston and were happily run out of town.

Forget-me-nots for the missing men of 2012

December, 27, 2012
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Say you’re a team that has a problem, like losing an everyday player to free agency. Market solutions tend to be expensive, whether in cash spent or prospects dealt. But some teams already have potential solutions for their seeming offseason needs on hand, thanks to the return of players who missed most or all of 2012. As a result, they haven’t had to lift a finger to fix what might have appeared to be a problem.

Consider the Cardinals’ lot with Kyle Lohse headed to parts unknown for whatever the market will bear. Their rotation isn’t simply going to be fine, it could be better because former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter should be firing on all cylinders this season. If the Cardinals decide to hold onto fellow Cy-worthy ace Adam Wainwright, they’ll have that tandem together again for the first time since 2010, a daunting prospect for any NL Central challenger.

So, with a hat-tip to Simple Minds’ song, “Don’t You Forget About Me,” here’s a non-comprehensive list of guys who missed most of 2012 who you shouldn’t forget will be back in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDelmon Young
Harry How/Getty ImagesIn 2013, the Tigers will swap the at-bats of Delmon Young for those of Victor Martinez.
It wasn’t that long ago that Victor Martinez ranked as a premium producer as a catcher, first baseman and DH for the Indians and Red Sox. Certainly, that’s what the Tigers signed him up for when they gave him a four-year, $50 million deal after 2010. But after just one season (and an .850 OPS), Martinez missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL in his knee. Torii Hunter's addition might have commanded the early-winter headlines, but V-Mart may be the biggest (re)addition to the lineup, filling the at-bat gap left by the unlamented departure of Delmon Young while providing an upgrade on offense. If V-Mart and Prince split the playing time across first base and the DH slot, the Tigers would also spare themselves’ Prince’s leaden glovework as an everyday disaster. Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projects Victor Martinez to produce a .770 OPS; not great, but a big improvement on Young’s .707 in 2012.

Carl Crawford is a bit of a gimme for that name outfielder you don’t want to forget about. (As if.) Having injured and reinjured himself in Boston trying to make up for an ugly first season with the Red Sox, he was dealt to the Dodgers after already getting shut down. He’s expecting to be ready in time for Opening Day. Could he yet prove to be worth the $20 million per year so many sabermetricians confidently accepted as his value when he signed his monster deal with the Red Sox? Well, that’s a bit much, especially if he lives up -- or more appropriately down -- to his ZiPS-projected .746 OPS.

Behind the plate, the guy I’m most interested in seeing back in action after a too-long absence is Wilson Ramos of the Nationals. His .779 OPS in 2011 makes a great basis for projecting him to be an All-Star catcher. The Nats are publicly going through the rigmarole of saying Ramos will have to come back from his torn ACL and fight Kurt Suzuki for playing time, but that’s one of those low-threshold challenges -- Ramos should win, and soon thereafter, he’ll be a star.

Top prospects on the mend also deserve some mention here, because their absence in 2012 doesn’t mean their teams forgot about them for 2013. Joe Benson missed most of the season with injuries to his wrist and knee, but he’ll head into spring training with a shot at winning the Twins’ center-field job outright in head-to-head competition with Aaron Hicks. The Rays’ Brandon Guyer missed most of 2012 with a shoulder injury, but the rose-colored view of his power and contact-hitting skills might make you think he could hit upwards towards .300 and slug in the high .400s from an outfield corner or the DH slot, making it that much easier to leave Wil Myers in Durham to keep the service-time clock of the former top Royals prospect acquired for James Shields at zero.

[+] EnlargeIan Stewart, Bryan LaHair
David Banks/US PresswireEven an average season from Ian Stewart, right, would give the Cubs a slash-line bump at third.
Among relievers, Mariano Rivera gets pride of place, but there’s been plenty said about him already; it isn’t like the future Hall of Famer slipped off anyone’s radar after a season spent on the shelf. Instead, I’m thinking we shouldn’t forget Sergio Santos and his importance to the Blue Jays. Santos is expected to be 100 percent by Opening Day in his recovery from surgery on his labrum, and that’s a big part of the reason why the hyperactive Jays have yet to make any major moves to repair their ’pen this winter.

I’m also curious about Nick Masset of the Reds, and if he can return to be a solid set-up man. Worth a win per year out of the pen in 2009 and 2010, Masset started to melt down in 2011 before getting his torn right shoulder capsule repaired after missing all of 2012. If he’s back at full strength, he might be the perfect right-handed foil to Sean Marshall for handing off save opportunities to Jonathan Broxton. It certainly wouldn’t hurt their latest attempt at keeping Aroldis Chapman in the rotation.

As I touched on last year when Theo Epstein signed him, Ian Stewart wasn’t necessarily a great bet to thrive at the plate by moving closer to sea level as an ex-Rockie. That said, Stewart’s wrist surgery ended his season more than three months early, contributing to the Cubs’ woeful .201/.289/.322 cumulative line from their third basemen. Even a dead-cat bounce from Stewart would be better than that. What was good enough to try in 2012 seems worth dialing up a do-over for 2013.

At second base, Brian Roberts of the Orioles might seem the name to know: A premium leadoff hitter with career .356 OBP in the top slot, and someone playing at an up-the-middle position? This sounds exactly like the guy the O’s need considering the .293 OBP they got from the top two slots in 2012. Unfortunately, Roberts hasn’t played a full season since 2009, and between his 2011 concussion and his 2012 surgery to repair the labrum in his hip, he’s going to be tough to count on. So instead, let’s peg Scott Sizemore of the Athletics as the second baseman you shouldn’t forget about. He’s coming back from a torn ACL, once he escaped the Tigers his combination of power and patience produced at .778 OPS for Oakland in 2011, and he’s reportedly moving back to the keystone this spring.

Honorable mentions are legion, especially among pitchers: Japan’s Tsuyoshi Wada might finally make his Orioles debut and win a rotation slot after missing his rookie season with Tommy John surgery; John Lackey will have plenty to prove after an ugly 2011 intro to Red Sox Nation (6.41 ERA), but if more closely resembles the mid-rotation workhorse he was with the Angels, their shot at keeping up in the AL East looks much more realistic. And from among the arms expected back for the second half, Michael Pineda for the Yankees, Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz for the Rangers, Daniel Hudson for the D-backs and the Braves’ Brandon Beachy should all make an impact on the postseason picture.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Howard KendrickRick Osentoski/US PresswireHoward Kendrick's dive back to the bag reflects an Angels team that isn't advancing.
Is your team still in the race? Mark Simon claims his team is out of it! Anyway, Mark and I gathered for Monday's Baseball Today podcast, talking about the weekend results both good and bad for certain teams and much more!

1. Are the Mets and Diamondbacks done? Mark and I disagree on what sample size means, but this also affects buyers and sellers.

2. This all leads to our Power Rankings. Mark says I cannot make a case for the Rays over the Pirates ... well, I just did!

3. What is the worst way to lose a game? The Dodgers found out on Saturday, and we share stories and thoughts.

4. What is Ozzie Guillen doing messing with the great Bryce Harper? OK, seriously, what is Ozzie doing?

5. Monday is a big night at Fenway Park as not only does Kevin Youkilis return, but so does a certain former Rays outfielder!

Plus your emails, even the ridiculous kind! So download and listen to Monday's Baseball Today Podcast, because there's some really good debate today and it's all in good fun!


"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!


We drown in numbers and statistics these days, but here's one that sums up the crumbling state of the Boston Red Sox quite eloquently: Following Josh Beckett's implosion on Thursday night, Red Sox starters have now allowed five-plus runs in 14 starts; Nationals starters have done so once.

Here's another way. Fifty-three American League starting pitchers are qualified for the AL ERA title. Here's where Boston's five starters rank:

32. Jon Lester (4.29)
38. Daniel Bard (4.83)
46. Felix Doubront (5.29)
51. Josh Beckett (5.97)
53. Clay Buchholz (9.09)

OK, ERA can be a little misleading early in the season. Here's where those five guys rank among AL starters in strikeout/walk ratio:

27. Beckett
32. Doubront
41. Lester
48. Bard
51. Buchholz

The Red Sox are 12-19 for a lot of reasons: injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford and Andrew Bailey; a slow start from Adrian Gonzalez; a couple bullpen implosions; Bobby Valentine using outfielder Darnell McDonald to pitch in a tie game.

Those are all factors, but despite the injuries on offense, the Red Sox are still second in the AL in runs scored; the bullpen has five losses, but 14 teams have more; and Valentine is more lightning rod than explanation.

No, the responsibility rests with the starting rotation. Bard and Doubront have perhaps predictably been mediocre, but they've actually been improvements over Tim Wakefield and John Lackey, so the blame falls on the supposed big three of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz.

Beckett started in Fenway against Cleveland on Thursday, his first start since April 29 and first since the infamous "he cares more about golfing than pitching" story leaked to the media. Beckett actually had pitched pretty well since his five-homer disaster in his first start, posting a 2.93 ERA over his next four starts. While I'm happy to report that I didn't see any greasy fried chicken stains on his jersey, his evening was yet another May disaster for the Sox.

In the top of the second, with one run already in, Jack Hannahan hit a 2-2 changeup to right field for a two-out home run. Not surprisingly, the Fenway faithful let go with more than a few loud boos. In third inning, Jason Kipnis crushed a 3-2 cutter over the bullpen in right-center. After Asdrubal Cabrera singled, Beckett got ahead of Travis Hafner with two strikes but then threw four consecutive balls. Shin-Soo Choo doubled to right on a 2-0, four-seam fastball to score Cabrera. Michael Brantley fell behind two strikes, then lined a double into the gap in left-center on a 1-2 curveball, scoring two more runs and knocking Beckett from the bump in what would be an 8-3 Indians victory.

You can see the issues here: Even when he got ahead of batters, Beckett was unable to put them away. He used the whole tool box -- changeups, four-seamers, cutters, curveballs; the Indians hit them all. Six of the seven hits off Beckett went for extra bases.

I blurted out on Thursday's Baseball Today podcast that Beckett is the most overrated pitcher of the past decade. That's probably unfair to a pitcher who has been good for a lot of years, a guy who had dominant postseason runs in 2003 and 2007 in leading the Marlins and Red Sox to World Series titles. Those playoff performances did inflate his reputation a bit, as his regular-season performances haven't been consistently at that level. He has received Cy Young votes just twice in his career (finishing second in 2007 and ninth in 2011). He hasn't exactly been CC Sabathia when it comes to durability, reaching 200 innings just three times and never topping 215. With the Red Sox, he's had two seasons of ERAs over 5.00.

Maybe 2012 is going to be one of those down years; Red Sox fans who saw Beckett and Lester collapse down the stretch expected leadership from Beckett, not reports on his golf swing.

Speaking of Lester, what has happened to the dominant left-hander of a few seasons ago? In 2009, he averaged 10.0 strikeout per nine innings, but that figure has dipped to 6.0 this season. His walks are up more than one per nine innings since 2009. His velocity is still fine; as Curt Schilling has pointed out, his command isn't, with Lester especially struggling in pitching to the outside corner against right-handed batters. Going back to his final 11 starts of 2011, Lester has a 4.16 ERA and a poor strikeout/walk ratio of 86/50. The stuff is still there, but we're going on 18 starts now of mediocre pitching.

Buchholz is an even bigger disaster, the worst starter in the majors so far. Unable to get the ball down in the zone, Buchholz has been pounded like a punching bag. Opponents are hitting .343 and slugging .613 off him. Essentially, the average hitter against Buchholz is David Ortiz. The Red Sox can't afford to keep sending him out there; he probably has one more start before a demotion to Triple-A or stint on the disabled list is necessary.

Eric Karabell made a good argument on the podcast: the Red Sox were 14-17 a year ago and only a historical collapse prevented them from reaching the playoffs. They're only two games worse now, he would suggest, so rationally they're far from out of it. Eric could also point out that Detroit and Arizona were both 14-17 after 31 games a year ago and won 95 and 94 games, respectively.

Eric is right, of course. The Red Sox aren't dead.

But with a 1-8 record in May and a starting rotation in shambles, they certainly look it.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Ron GardenhireHannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDoes this look like the manager of the worst team in baseball? Yes it does.
Keith Law and I ended this final full week of April on the Baseball Today podcast with intelligent discussion about American League outfielders in the news, a weekend preview, and much more!

1. Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young is in the news for all the wrong reasons, leading us to wonder if the Tigers will deem his role on the team worth keeping around.

2. One guy that won’t be around for a while is Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford. Will this guy ever be the same?

3. We’ve seen Phil Humber be very good and very bad in a span of one week. What should we expect moving ahead from him, as well as struggling Miami closer Heath Bell?

4. Our emailers have questions about pitchers using their legs, Justin Smoak’s development and what the Cardinals will do with Lance Lynn.

5. Plenty of good baseball will be played this weekend, and we examine the series we’ll be watching and why pitcher wins don’t always tell a complete story.

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

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

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

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

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