SweetSpot: Carlos Pena

Congratulations, Ned Yost, you just managed the worst inning of the season.

The situation: The Kansas City Royals trailed the Cleveland Indians 4-3 entering the top of the ninth. The Indians summoned closer Chris Perez from the bullpen, a guy who has been awful of late. In his previous 13 appearances Perez had faced 60 batters and allowed 18 hits -- including four home runs -- and four walks. In September, he'd pitched four innings and allowed eight hits.

Salvador Perez led off with a base hit to left field. Mike Moustakas walked on four pitches. Pinch-runners for both were on base. Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Alcides Escobar -- the bottom of the order -- were due up. You have a struggling pitcher who just walked a batter on four pitches. What do you do?

[+] EnlargeJimenez
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesUbaldo Jimenez stepped up and dealt at a time when the Tribe needed him to.
Here's what you don't do: Give Perez an out.

David Lough pinch-hit for Cain and sacrificed. Didn't take a pitch. Didn't make Perez throw at least one strike. He bunted the first pitch.

Look, it's not just the sabermetric crowd who is anti-bunt. Managers have become anti-bunt, not sacrificing nearly as often as they used to. It's a one-run strategy with minimal payoff in a world where more hitters than ever can drive the ball for extra bases or out of the park. A bunt may slightly increase your chance to score one run but it also decreases your chance for multiple runs. It's a strategy from an era when singles were more common, but in this age of increasing strikeouts and declining batting averages, singles are less likely than ever to occur.

In this specific instance, though, why give an out to a pitcher who has been a train wreck of late? Why make him get only two outs in an inning instead of three?

Yost then trumped that decision with an even worse one: He pinch-hit Carlos Pena for Dyson. That's .208-hitting Carlos Pena. That's Carlos Pena, with two major league plate appearances since July 20. That's Carlos Pena, the owner of one of the highest strikeout rates in the majors (28 percent of his PAs this year). So with the Royals' season on the line -- well, maybe not quite the entire season, although it sure felt like it to Royals fans -- Yost sent up a guy who doesn't hit singles and had a 1-in-3 chance of striking out.

Maybe he was hoping for a sacrifice fly, playing for the tie rather than the win. Go for the knockout blow there when you have a chance. (You can argue that he should have saved Lough to hit for Dyson, since he's a much better contact guy than Pena.)

Pena saw six pitches. Didn't move the bat off his shoulder. Called out on strikes. An awful at-bat by a veteran who knew he was sent up there to put the ball in play. Then again, that's what Pena does: He strikes out. After George Kottares, yet another pinch-hitter, skillfully coaxed a walk off Perez, Alex Gordon flew out to shallow center. Game over. Season over?

Yost, you may remember, was the manager the Milwaukee Brewers fired with 12 games remaining in the 2008 season -- they were battling for the playoffs but had just lost six of seven. Dale Sveum replaced him and went 7-5 over the final 12 games and the Brewers won the wild card. Who fires their manager with 12 games left in a playoff season? I mean, outside of the NHL? A front office that felt it could do better.

So ... this was a huge win for the Indians, and a huge start again for Ubaldo Jimenez, who allowed one unearned in seven innings, with 10 strikeouts and no walks. It was his second walk-less start of the season, but also his second in three starts: He had a 10-K, no-walk start against Atlanta on Aug. 29. In fact, since July 22, Jimenez has a 1.95 ERA in nine starts, with 63 strikeouts, 22 walks and three home runs in 55 2/3 innings. It's his best run of pitching since that great start he had for the Rockies in 2010.

The Indians need him to keep doing this with Justin Masterson possibly out the rest of the season. With the Rays idle, the Indians (and victorious Orioles) moved to 1.5 games behind Tampa for the second wild card. The Royals dropped down to 4 back. In a most painful way.
Quick thoughts on Thursday's games ...
  • Down 7-0 to Felix Hernandez, the Angels pulled off the comeback of the season to win 10-9. Needless to say, this kind of thing doesn't happen every day. Hernandez had been given a seven-run lead 17 previous times in his career and never lost. It was just the sixth time in Angels franchise history that they trailed by seven runs and won. Hernandez had never allowed seven hits in an inning before and the Angels got seven in a row against him in the fifth. Baseball is amazing sometimes. One game won't turn around the Angels' season, but if they go on a run we can all point to this game. Trouble is, 12 of their next 15 games are against the Pirates, Tigers, Cardinals and Red Sox. We'll know after that 15 games if the Angels are still breathing ... or dead.
  • As for the Mariners, they're only four games ahead of the Astros and it wouldn't be a surprise to see them finish in last place. According to Defensive Runs Saved, they've been the second-worst defensive team in the league (minus-42 runs, better only than the Angels). Their offense, once again, is last in the league in runs per game. The bullpen has the second-worst ERA in the league (just head of Houston). It's a bad team, a bad product for Mariners fan to have to watch.
  • Speaking of the Astros, Carlos Pena launched this long home run to give the Astros a 7-4 win over the Brewers in 10 innings.
  • Watched some of Roy Oswalt's debut for the Rockies, and it was a strange outing. He obviouslyy showed he has something left in his right arm, striking out 11 (and walking nobody) in just five innings, often just blowing it by the Nationals. He touched 94 with his fastball, which he threw on 80 of his 101 pitches, recording 10 of his 11 strikeouts. But he also gave up nine hits and the Nats won 5-1. Here's Oswalt on his performance. Overall, I think he'll help if his health holds up; could end up being one of those great sleeper pickups.
  • Yasiel Puig continues to amaze in many ways -- he hit his sixth home run in a 6-3 loss the Padres but also struck out three times while going 1-for-5. He's yet to draw an unintentional walk in 16 games but is hitting .452. The scary thing about his hot start is he's doing this on talent alone. While he's not a wild hacker up there as you may think from the lack of walks, discipline is clearly not yet one of his strengths. If he develops that aspect of his game -- and there's no guarantee he will -- watch out. Puig is 12-for-14 when putting the first pitch in play (including four home runs, most in the majors since his recall). You'd think pitchers would stop challenging him on the first pitch. By the way: Let's put him in the Home Run Derby. Get it done, MLB.
  • Catch of the day: Twins ball boy snags a foul ball with a leaping grab. Even cooler: He's Paul Neshek, younger brother of A's reliever Pat Neshek, who had a couple tweets about the play:

Why Astros GM likes move to the AL

February, 14, 2013
Brett Wallace AP Photo/David J. PhillipBrett Wallace will likely see some at-bats as the designated hitter this season.
The Astros are already in the business of doing things their own way. They've made that clear from the outset, going back to 2011 when they tabbed talent guru Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals' front office to be their new general manager. They made the move knowing their franchise would eventually have to move from the NL Central to the AL West in the latest bit of embroidery to Bud Selig's grand design for Major League Baseball.

And not to put too fine a point on it, the leap means moving to the designated hitter league and all that goes with the territory: mainly, employing another hitter. An extra expense? Maybe, but with a budget under $30 million, that's no big deal. More importantly, it means more playing time to develop their younger hitters. It's just like these Astros to see it as an opportunity for a franchise on the rebound.

Luhnow is very upfront about the benefits having the designated hitter affords the Astros. “I like it," he said. "It's an opportunity to find a particular kind of player, a hitter who may be more limited defensively. In the National League, you can get such a pileup at first base or left field.”

Looking ahead, Luhnow also sees this as an opportunity to take a few chances on bats. “While I don't think it'll change how we develop our hitters or our approach to how you teach hitting as an organization, in the AL -- with the DH -- you might go out and draft somebody you might not without it.”

With four first-base types on hand in Brett Wallace, veteran Carlos Pena, and now Chris Carter from the Athletics and Rule 5 pick Nate Freiman from the Padres, it might seem like they already have those players on hand.

So who is going to be the Astros' inaugural DH? It reflects the organization's adaptability that the answer will be "nobody." Because, like many teams these days, the Astros aren't going to give the majority of their DH starts to one player. Having the DH to spread at-bats around gives the Astros the opportunity to take a few chances on defense and play matchup games that keep their best and most promising hitters active.

[+] EnlargeIan Kinsler
Jim Cowsert/US PresswireFirst baseman Chris Carter may also spend some time in left field for the Astros.
“We're fortunate -- Carlos Pena is a very good first baseman. We're going to see if Chris Carter can play some left field. And while [trading for] Matt Dominguez changed things at third base, Brett Wallace is going to get some more looks at third,” Luhnow said. “And [Rule 5 pick] Nate Freiman, he'll get some at-bats; we'll see if he hits.”

That might sound daring when you consider that neither Wallace or Carter has been seen as anything other than a first base/DH in the big picture. Carter's playing experience in the outfield amounts to 85 games across eight seasons as a pro, and none in the majors since 2010, when he was fairly brutal in left for the A's. And the bulky Wallace's best position ever since he was drafted in 2008 -- by Luhnow and the Cardinals -- was always “hitter.” Although Luhnow cited last year's five-start experiment with Wallace at the hot corner as an indication he will be able to handle the position in 2013.

Speaking about that flexibility and the likelihood that manager Bo Porter will be free to play daily matchups across several positions, Luhnow said, “Bo would consider using Jose Altuve at DH to give him a day off [from second base]. We have seen teams that use the slot more creatively, not just to get a lumbering power hitter into the lineup, but to spread playing time around and give some of those at-bats to a speed guy.”

One of the reasons Luhnow appears confident about spreading around those at-bats is because of the challenge that DH'ing represents for young players. Where someone like Eddie Murray could win rookie of the year as a 21-year-old DH in 1977, the more recent example of “can't-miss” offensive prospect Jesus Montero flopping badly as a 22-year-old DH in 2012 demonstrates that it might take a special player to make the adjustment.

As Luhnow notes, “It's not an easy transition. As an organization, you have to be extremely cautious with that. And as a hitter, you need to be more involved, more disciplined. It's definitely a change for a player used to going back out on the field every half-inning.”

Does that challenge rise to the level of a mental block? One major league scout who evaluates the AL West recalled one wrinkle to the previous winter's hot stove: “Remember when Prince Fielder was a free agent, and he was adamant that he wasn't going to sign anywhere as a DH? That might be fine for now, but at some point it's a bridge he's probably going to have to cross, and I wonder if that statement, given how mental hitting is, puts a pre-emptive mental block in his head.”

In short, the mental challenge of DH'ing is something that affects different players differently, and can make an impact on personnel decisions. As the scout notes, “Making it even more odd, it seems to happen with the greatest of great hitters. Albert Pujols had an OPS 164 points lower at DH than at first base last year. Granted, it was his first year with any extensive time doing it, but if it happens again, it really could affect how a club values him towards the end of that contract.”

Regardless, for 2013 and for the time being, Luhnow stresses that “Giving somebody 120 starts at DH doesn't make sense for our club. We're going to have a lot of people going up and down from [Triple-A affiliate] Oklahoma City this year. For example, take our rotation -- we'll choose our best five to start, but I expect we'll see some of our next-best five at some point during the season.”

In short, guys will be challenged to earn their keep or their walking papers. After years of unglovely work in the field toiling in the minors, Carter might be a defensive disaster in left field. But thanks to the playing time available with the DH slot, he'll get regular at-bats spread out between left, first and DH. If Wallace picks up all of the starts at third that Dominguez doesn't draw when he isn't in the first base/DH mix, so much the better to see what he can do.

If they're bad, is there really that much difference if the Astros lose 105 games or 110? Not really; not compared to what they'll get to learn about the talent they have on hand.

If Carter can play an acceptable left and Wallace an adequate third 30-40 times a season, the flexibility will give Porter options a lineup-card maestro like Rays skipper Joe Maddon might admire. It also assures Carter, Wallace, Dominguez and left fielder J.D. Martinez the at-bats to show the organization whether they get to stay -- or go.

Of course, there is one other downside of employing a DH: taking the bat out of your pitchers' hands when they might actually enjoy hitting. From where he sits, Luhnow doesn't seem to mind that much, noting that it will help prevent injuries to his pitchers while batting or running the bases.

But he also recalls, “When I was with the Cardinals, we had some pitchers who really loved to hit.” Pausing to chuckle, “And Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris do fancy themselves hitters.”

Which, even after the Astros have moved to the DH league, sounds a lot like Selig's other big fiat as czar -- interleague play -- will always have a built-in constituency.

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

"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.)

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.

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.

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.

Javier Lopez Jake Roth/US PresswireJavier Lopez is sending a message to Mark Kotsay: Tag, you're out!
My special co-host for Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast was ESPN writer and former GM Jim Bowden, and let’s just say neither of us held back in what was an entertaining, honest and lively show.

1. The Red Sox are apparently cool with Adrian Gonzalez playing right field, but for how long? How easy will it be for the team to trade Kevin Youkilis? And should the Red Sox and Phillies be sellers?

2. Jim shares his thoughts on his players that will be traded before July 31, leading with a former Cy Young winner plying his trade for a team that can’t afford him.

3. Ah, here’s a topic we never get to: closers. Jim and I debate the human effect for fellows like Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall.

4. When Tampa’s Joe Maddon makes unconventional decisions, we praise him. Is that fair? What if a manager not known for his good moves would have led Carlos Pena off?

5. Finally, we look at Wednesday’s schedule, which includes Cole Hamels versus Bryce Harper. The Nationals are clearly getting the last laugh on their I-95 rivals.

So download and listen to a fun Baseball Today podcast, because it’s boring when everyone agrees. And on this show, that just wasn’t the case!
Leave it to Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays to find another unconventional way to play baseball: Carlos Pena is hitting leadoff in tonight's game against Toronto.

Yes, the first baseman with one stolen base and a .209 batting average. Last week, in a 2-1 victory over the Red Sox, Maddon had second baseman Jeff Keppinger and third baseman Sean Rodriguez shift positions for the final batter, left-handed hitter Daniel Nava. Rodriguez has more range than Keppinger, so Maddon moved him to second. Sure enough, Nava grounded out to Rodriguez for the final out.

Now, it's possible that Maddon is looking at Pena's .353 on-base percentage (.372 against right-handed pitchers) and thinking Pena is the team's best leadoff option right now with Desmond Jennings on the disabled list. It's possible he's trying to help Pena snap out of a big slump -- he's hitting .116 in May -- like a year ago when he moved Evan Longoria into the leadoff spot for three games. Either way, how many managers would hit their slow-footed first baseman first?

There's a bigger issue concerning Pena, however. Since April 18, he's hitting .143/.302/.223 with two home runs in 112 at-bats. He's tied for second in the majors in most strikeouts. With two strikes, he's useless: .110 on the season, and just 3-for-60 (.050) with 42 strikeouts since April 18. His skill set right now is essentially the ability to draw walks. Considering he can't hit left-handers, you can't keep a guy like that in the middle of the order.

I remember way back when Bill James asked if Mickey Tettleton had taken the whole walks/strikeouts approach too far. It's possible we can ask the same question for Pena. Maddon has shown a lot of patience with Pena, starting him in 42 of Tampa's 43 games. It's also clear that he needs to be platooned, but in this day of 12-man pitching staffs it's difficult to platoon at first base. It makes you wonder if this leadoff thing doesn't work if the Rays will be searching for a new first baseman.

Rays still doing things their way

April, 29, 2012

The Rangers are giving notice to the rest of the American League that they’re not just a two-time pennant winner, they’re a club settling into ruling the roost -- the ascendant franchise in the circuit. From among the old standbys, it doesn’t hurt that the Yankees are dealing with rotation drama, the Angels have Pujols’ homer-lessness and the Red Sox have a miasma of self-inflicted dysfunction.

But there’s always the Rays, even with that double whammy Texas handed Tampa Bay in consecutive October showdowns. Ever mutating, transmogrifying and adapting, buying low and selling high, the Rays’ annual remix should always leave you wondering if they’re about to become something even more. Some of that is the usual enthusiasm over prospects, which the Rays crank out as if they held the patent: From David Price to Jeremy Hellickson to Matt Moore, they’ve produced one top pitching prospect after another.

They can and do get full credit for their acumen on player development, but it’s sort of like watching the winners on a futures market in which the payoff is guaranteed: Step 1, plant the seeds for success. Step 2, the crops come in. Step 3? Profit. Add in James Shields, and a can’t-lose choice between Hellickson and Wade Davis, and you’ve got a starting pitching platform that allows for a lot of freedom of action everywhere else.

Perhaps the more interesting aspect of the Rays’ ability to stay in the running year after year is how they use the adaptability that rotation affords them. In the lineup and in the bullpen, they’re comfortable with moving parts where other contenders crave stability. Starting from the huge bullpen turnover from 2007 to 2008 that contributed so much to their big worst-to-first turnaround and a pennant, the Rays have had a different leader in saves every season. And if Fernando Rodney winds up with more saves than Kyle Farnsworth, that’ll be a five-year streak.

By avoiding any truly expensive or lasting commitments in the bullpen, they were free to grab Rafael Soriano when the Braves were temporarily embarrassed by his acceptance of their arbitration offer. They were disappointed by off-speed reliever Joe Nelson in 2009, but that didn’t frighten them away from adding Joel Peralta last winter after he broke through with a slo-mo splitter. It also didn't stop them from getting sinkerballer Burke Badenhop from the Marlins despite rarely cracking 90. The Rays treat relievers like cheap upside bets -- snarfing them up, riding those who pay off and dumping those who don’t.

In the lineup, that same flexibility has rewarded them. Certainly, they have their major star in Evan Longoria, but how they’ve assembled a cast around him is a playbook every club should follow. First baseman Carlos Pena went away for a year, but the Rays loaded up on single-season alternatives -- Dan Johnson, Casey Kotchman, a crash-test dummy TBNL -- while letting Pena bank $10 million in Cubs cash. Then they brought him back at their price after the market’s biggest bidders had used up their cash chasing Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and the like. Pena’s current $7.2 million salary, adjusted for inflation, is only $400,000 more than what he was making in 2008, when salary arbitration first started pumping up the price of employing him.

Pena’s not the only offensive pillar back in place, though. The Rays’ recent 6-2 run owes plenty to their getting B.J. Upton back from the DL and into the lineup. Now maybe Upton is the organization’s example of a disappointing homegrown product. But if you can step back from the expectations game, and set aside those daydreams that every year Upton would hit .300, slug .500, draw 90 walks and steal 40 bases ... you might notice that he has done all of those things, just never at the same time, and so what? If a nameless center fielder was belting 20 homers and stealing 30 bases for your team, you’d probably like the sound of that. It’s certainly something you can build around.

But because the expectation has always been that Upton will do more, be more, you might think too much of what he hasn’t done and lose sight of his value. Even his defense can leave you frustrated; as the new edition of John Dewan’s Fielding Bible notes, he’s among the leaders in both what Baseball Info Solutions terms good plays and misplays. That’s proof positive he’s exasperating in all phases of the game -- and still immensely valuable.

The trickle-down effects of Upton’s return are legion. Desmond Jennings moves to left. Having him in place means that all of the working parts that Joe Maddon uses to gain an advantage are back to moving around. Luke Scott and Matt Joyce can scare the bejeezus out of right-handed pitching, Ben Zobrist can start at second base and move wherever else, and the Rays can keep cranking out runs at a clip (4.8 runs per game) that puts them among the game’s elite -- behind just the Yankees, Rangers and Red Sox. That’s despite the absence of a single eight-figure salary.

The way the Rays are playing of late, they don’t need one, because money isn’t the measure of success, winning is. With a lineup that’s coming together and a rotation that will deliver winnable ballgames night after night, the Rays, once again -- and without the drama associated with the other AL powerhouses -- will be there come October, as they were last year.

Jon JayAP Photo/Jeff RobersonWith a nice stretch, Jon Jay beats out Aramis Ramirez's throw.

Rays getting uncommon power boost

April, 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rays missing more than Red Sox for now

April, 15, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul KonerkoBrian Kersey/Getty ImagesPaul Konerko can afford to smile, at least as long as the White Sox are in first place.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
MetsAP Photo/Frank Franklin IIThe Mets are off to a 3-0 start after sweeping the Atlanta Braves to start the season.
Hey, it's only one weekend but for one weekend New York Mets fans can rejoice in a simple statement of fact: the New York Yankees are 0-3 and the Mets are 3-0.

The Tampa Bay Rays' sweep of the Yankees was an important statement for the Rays, a team that has a brutal April schedule. The Rays follow up their series against the Yankees with a nine-game road trip to Detroit, Boston and Toronto, series at home against the Twins and Angels and then a three-game series in Texas. Not until they travel to Seattle and Oakland from April 30 through May 6 do they get an "easy" week. The Rays started 1-8 a year ago and managed to quickly dig out of that hole (they were 15-12 by the end of April), but this April schedule is a stiff challenge.

Jeremy Hellickson, everybody's favorite pitcher to regress to the mean in 2012, did exactly what he did in 2011: Limit hits even though he didn't strike out many batters. Pitching on his 26th birthday, Hellickson took a three-hit, 3-0 lead into the ninth. After walking Nick Swisher on a 3-2 pitch with two outs -- his 118th pitch of the game -- Joe Maddon finally brought in Fernando Rodney for the final out. Hellickson walked four and struck out four but the top three hitters in the Yankees lineup (Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano) went 0-for-11). As somebody wrote on Twitter, "Nobody induces more line-drive outs than Hellickson."

That was a knock against Hellickson's low average on balls in play in 2011 -- his .224 average was the lowest by a starting pitcher since 1988. But it's also a credit to Maddon and the Rays' defensive alignments. No team shifts and moves more on the defense than the Rays. You saw this result in several outs over the weekend, whether it was Mark Teixeira lining a ball to the second baseman playing in shallow right field or Alex Rodriguez grounding a ball over the second-base bag only to have the second baseman perfectly positioned.

Maddon will also move his players all over the batting order. Outside of Desmond Jennings in the leadoff spot and Evan Longoria in the three-hole, you never know how they'll line up. Carlos Pena hit second on Sunday and hit a third-inning home run off Phil Hughes. The Rays' lineup looks much stronger against right-handed pitching with southpaw power bats in Pena, Matt Joyce and Luke Scott. Teams would be wise to try and line up their left-handed starters against them.

Meanwhile, Joe Girardi looked like a kindergartner trying to take the SAT compared to Maddon. His intentional walk to Sean Rodriguez on Friday backfired when Pena hit a grand slam. He played Eduardo Nunez at shortstop on Saturday and his first-inning error led to two unearned runs. Look, Jeter will have to take days off throughout season and while you can understand the desire to sit him on turf, it's also just the second game of the season. Shouldn't Jeter be sitting against the Twins or Mariners or Orioles and not the Rays? And keep in mind that Nunez isn't any better on defense than Jeter; his Defensive Runs Saved in 2011 was minus-8 in 386 innings; Jeter's total was minus-14 in 1047 innings.

With Swisher battling a sensitive hammy, Girardi also put Raul Ibanez in right field on Sunday. This is akin to playing a fire hydrant out there. With two outs in the first Joyce blooped a ball to right field that should have been caught. Ibanez misplayed it into a triple, allowing Longoria to score the game's first run.

The Yankees travel to Baltimore on Monday, with Ivan Nova facing Brian Matusz. Nova had a rough spring, giving up 31 hits and five home runs in 22.1 innings, although he did have a 17/3 SO/BB ratio. The Yankees are 0-3 and while it's fun to pretend they are panicking, that's not really the case. This series was more about Tampa Bay doing everything right. But it is the Yankees, and when they start 0-3 that's not how most fans will view it.

* * * *

As for the Mets, they completed their sweep of the Braves as Jonathon Niese took a no-hitter into the seventh. The Mets nearly blew a 7-0 lead but held on for the 7-5 victory as Frank Francisco picked up his third save.

I watched a few innings of this game and one thing the Mets' hitters do is work the count very well. Atlanta starter Mike Minor threw 104 pitches in just five innings. On Saturday, Jair Jurrjens threw 102 pitches and didn't get out of the fifth. Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy may not have a lot of power at the top of the order but they're pesky, make you throw strikes and should go a nice job of getting on base. On Saturday, each saw 23 pitches in five plate appearances; on Sunday, they saw a combined 40 pitches as Tejada went 4-for-5 and Murphy 2-for-5.

It's easy to forget, but the Mets did lead the NL East in runs scored in 2011 -- despite playing in Citi Field. They did this with a lot of a patience as they led the NL in walks drawn. Yes, Jose Reyes is gone and Carlos Beltran was part of that production, but the Mets don't have any easy outs in the lineup. All eight regulars (Andres Torres landed on the DL with a calf injury after the season opener) are capable of posting a .340 OBP and that means the Mets could once again end up leading the division in runs.

Like the Rays, the Mets face a tough April: Washington, at Philly, at Atlanta, San Francisco, Miami, at Colorado, at Houston. Let's not overreact to three games and declare the Mets contenders, but I don't believe they're the 95-loss team that many fans believe. The Mets drew 27,855 on Easter Sunday, 14,000 short of capacity. It will take more than a 3-0 start to turns Mets fans into believers, but at least they can spend a few days having fun at the Yankees' expense.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Welcome back, Carlos Pena

April, 6, 2012
If my math is correct, the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees still have 17 games against each other. The Rays and Boston Red Sox have 18 games against each other. The Red Sox and Yankees have 18 games against each other. And all three teams have 18 against the Toronto Blue Jays.

That's 107 more games of American League East mini-wars, in which every game will be treated as the one that may win -- or lose -- a division championship.

Friday's game at the Trop was as interesting as a regular-season game can be, with a hundred little moves worth discussing and dissecting. Rays manager Joe Maddon was already in midseason form, calling for a squeeze bunt, pinch-hitters and lefty/righty matchups out of the bullpen. Yankees counterpart Joe Girardi went to his trusty binder in the bottom of the first inning and got burned. And the greatest closer of all time failed to do his job. Yes, I'll take more, thank you very much.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Pena
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackCarlos Pena's game-winning hit was his first ever off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
A few quick highlights about a game you could write 3,000 words about:

  • With two out in the first and runners on second and third, Girardi had CC Sabathia walk Sean Rodriguez to pitch to Carlos Pena. Girardi has a bit of unusual obsession with the intentional walk. Sabathia, for example, issued 17 IBBs over the previous three seasons. Compare that to guys like Justin Verlander (0), Cliff Lee (3), Roy Halladay (5) or Jon Lester (0). Anyway, while it's true Pena struggles against left-handers (.133 in 2011, .179 in 2010), it's also true that he's a very patient hitter willing to take a walk. Juicing the bases forces Sabathia to throw a strike. Pena worked the count to 3-2 and drilled a fastball for a grand slam. An intentional walk on Opening Day with two out in the first inning? Just ... well, wow.
  • Down 6-5, the Rays had a great chance to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth when they put runners on the corners with no outs against David Robertson. Maddon sent Stephen Vogt in to hit for Elliot Johnson, Vogt's first major league at-bat. Robertson struck him out on four pitches -- two 92 mph cutters and a fastball up sandwiched around a curveball in the dirt. With Jose Molina up and a 1-1 count, Maddon sent the runners ... except Molina missed the squeeze sign and instead fouled off the pitch. Maddon, with the proverbial guts of a cat burglar, went right back to the squeeze, but Molina fouled it off for strike three. Robertson than fanned Matt Joyce to escape the jam.
  • Mariano Rivera entered to close out it out. Desmond Jennings singled to right-center and Ben Zobrist tripled to deeper right-center. Girardi -- remember, he loves the intentional walk -- gave free passes to Evan Longoria and Luke Scott to load the bases. Once again, Girardi left his pitcher with no margin for error. Rivera fell behind 3-1 to Rodriguez but came back to strike him out, bringing up Pena. He got the count to 1-2 and the strikeout-prone Pena looked like a dead duck. Instead, Rivera threw a meaty pitch over the middle of the plate and Pena lofted a deep fly off the base of the wall in left-center. Game over. His first hit ever off Rivera. "Oh, yeah. [I was] very aware of it," Pena said. "His ball moves so much that your eyes deceive you." But Pena's eyes mapped this Rivera cutter, giving him a three-hit, five-RBI day. And as Pena did a postgame on-field interview, B.J. Upton delivered a shaving cream pie in the face that tasted just right.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Tampa Bay RaysKim Klement/US PresswireThe Rays made the playoffs for the third time in four seasons with a dramatic last-game comeback.
In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays won 91 games, with that 91st win serving as one of the more memorable in baseball history.

They scored 707 runs and allowed 614, which projects to ... 91 wins. So they hit that win-loss record on the head. What can we project for 2012? Let's do a position-by-position analysis.

Catcher: Jose Molina
John Jaso, Kelly Shoppach and assorted backups hit .194/.274/.333 in 2011, so of course the Rays brought in Jose Molina -- for his defense. Molina turns 37 in June and has never batted 300 times in a season, so how much he actually ends up playing remains to be seen. Robinson Chirinos, Jose Labatan and Stephen Vogt are battling for the backup. Offensively, this crew may not be much of an improvement; I'll say an additional seven runs over the 45 runs created a year ago. More on Molina's defense later.

First base: Carlos Pena
Casey Kotchman didn't score or drive in many runs but did get on base (.378) so at least he wasn't a rally killer. Rays first basemen created about 83 runs. Carlos Pena takes over and even hitting .225 with the Cubs he created about 86 runs. Projection systems are calling for a slight decline for Pena as he moves to Tampa. Give him 75 runs plus a few more from his backups and I'll call this one a wash.

Second base: Ben Zobrist
In his three seasons as a regular, Zobrist has been all over the place: a .948 OPS in 2009, .699 in 2010, .822 in 2011. He created about 100 runs in 2011. With weight given to that 2010 performance he's projected to decline a bit. Minus nine runs.

Third base: Evan Longoria
Longoria missed most of April with an oblique strain and then posted a career-low .850 OPS despite mashing 31 home runs in 483 at-bats. Rays third basemen created about 95 runs (85 by Longoria). With an expected spike in his BABIP (.239 in 2011), Longoria's numbers should improve across the board. Plus 15 runs.

Shortstop: Sean Rodriguez/Reid Brignac/Elliot Johnson
Another position where the Rays received little production: A collective .193/.256/.282, good for 35 runs created. Amazing that Tampa made the playoffs with two positions hitting under .200. The production can only improve, although how much depends on who gets the playing time. Brignac has the best glove so will get another chance. ZiPS projects a .239/.281/.338 batting line. Not great, but still better. Overall, let's say an improvement of 12 runs.

Left field; Desmond Jennings
This was supposed to be Johnny Damon's position a year ago but he ended up as the DH after Manny Ramirez flunked out. Sam Fuld got most of the playing time early on before yielding to Jennings. Overall, the Rays got 85 runs from left field. ZiPS is pessimistic about Jennings, projecting a .259/.339/.392 line, which is about 83 runs over 670 plate appearances. Other systems project slightly better numbers. Let's give the Rays five additional runs.

Center field: B.J. Upton
He could improve, I suppose, but logic dictates more of the same. No change.

Right field: Matt Joyce
It will be interesting to see if Joe Maddon gives Joyce a chance to play full-time against left-handers this year or if he'll run Zobrist out to right field against southpaws. Joyce cooled off after his All-Star first half. He should put up similar overall numbers. No change.

Designated hitter: Luke Scott
Damon and assorted friends produced about 87 runs. If Scott matches his 2010 numbers with the Orioles (.284/.368/.535) he'll be a big step up. But those were also his career-best numbers and he'll be 34 in June. I see only a slight improvement of three runs.

Let's compare the 2011 rotation to projected numbers for 2012, cribbed from various projection systems.

2011: 162 starts, 1058 innings, 438 runs
2012: 155 starts, 995 innings, 430 runs

We'll add in the seven missing starts at 42 innings and 20 runs allowed (4.3 per nine innings), bringing the 2012 totals to 1037 innings and 450 runs allowed. That's 20 runs more than 2011 in slightly fewer innings. Is that fair? The projection systems are understandably not completely bullish on James Shields. While he had a 2.82 ERA in 2011, he's also a pitcher with a 3.96 career ERA. His .258 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was eighth-lowest among starters; and while Tampa's defense was arguably the best in baseball, they've had a good defense in previous seasons and Shields' BABIPs didn't approach .258. I'm a little surprised the systems don't foresee a better year from Price. In 2010, he had a 2.72 ERA and 3.42 FIP (fielding independent ERA); in 2011, a 3.49 ERA and 3.32 FIP, albeit with a much better SO/BB ratio. Bill Baer wrote about Hellickson and the reason he's projected to not match the sterling 2.95 ERA he posted as a rookie. As for Moore, the projection systems are conservative by nature so they're not going to match the lofty expectation fans have. It certainly wouldn't be shocking to see Moore post a sub-3.00 ERA over 30 starts. It's also not fair to expect that.

One other issue: Jeff Niemann is actually projected to be better than Wade Davis. I would suggest that if Davis does allow 4.7 runs per nine innings -- not awful, mind you -- Niemann will get a shot at some point. In other words, I think the Davis slot will be slightly better, either because he pitches better or Niemann gets some starts. So I do think it's fair to knock a few runs off the overall total. For now, let's say the rotation allows 15 more runs than a year ago. But more on that in a minute.

The Tampa bullpen in 2011 only had to pitch 391 innings, fewest in the AL. It posted a 3.73 ERA ERA, sixth in the league, allowing 176 runs. I'm slightly skeptical the pen will be as good, but they do have a variety of options, including using Davis or Niemann in a prominent role. I'm going to say no change for the bullpen, other than adding an additional 21 innings and nine additional runs allowed.

So that brings the totals to:

Offense: +33 runs scored, for a new total of 740 runs scored
Pitching: +24 runs allowed, for a new total of 638 runs allowed

We mentioned Jose Molina's defense earlier. Overall, the 2011 Rays easily rated as baseball's best defensive squad, 25 runs better than the No. 2 team, according to Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved. The major changes are Pena for Kotchman at first (both rated about league average) and Molina at catcher. Molina's added value comes in his ability to frame pitches, which studies indicate he's one of the best in the majors at -- maybe as much as 15 to 20 runs over an average catcher. We'll be conservative and subtract 10 runs off the defensive ledger. The rest of the defense should be similar.

So we now get:

Offense: 740 runs scored
Defense: 628 runs allowed

That creates an expected winning percentage of .575 -- or 93 wins.

OK, back to the pitching for a final word. Let's be slightly more optimistic. Let's take 10 runs off the totals for Shields, Price, Hellickson and Moore -- an additional 40 fewer runs allowed. It's certainly a reasonable proposition. This now gives the Rays 588 runs allowed and .604 winning percentage.

Which translates to 98 wins.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. This little analysis doesn't factor in everything -- the change in the quality of divisional opponents, for example. But one reason I like the Rays to beat their Vegas over/under line of 87.5 wins is that as a young team they're a pretty safe team to project. Injuries shouldn't be a major factor. They have depth in the rotation if somebody does go down. Yes, there is a little uncertainty in the bullpen and catcher and shortstop could still end up as offensive black holes, but this looks like a playoff team to me.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
The Cleveland Indians once traded CC Sabathia to acquire Matt LaPorta.

They picked up Russ Canzler for cash.

When the 2012 season opens, it's likely that Canzler will be the team's starting first baseman ahead of LaPorta.

Canzler is a soon-to-be 26-year-old minor league vet who lacks the prospect pedigree of LaPorta, but he's turned himself into a guy who should be able to contribute at the big league level after hitting .314/.401/.530 at Triple-A Durham. Among International League players with 200 plate appearances, only Trevor Plouffe and Ryan Lavarnway had a higher OPS. Canzler played first, third, left and right for Durham, although his fielding percentage indicates he's stretched at third base. But with LaPorta coming off another disappointing season (.247/.299/.412), I would guess Canzler will be given the opportunity to win the first-base job. (A platoon isn't really feasible since both hit right-handed.)

I actually thought Canzler would be a nice platoon with Carlos Pena in Tampa, considering Pena hit .133 against left-handers in 2011. But the Jeff Keppinger signing made it tough to find room for Canzler on the roster.

Assuming the Rays go with 12 pitchers, their 13 position players probably look like this:

C: Jose Molina (R), Jose Lobaton (S) or Robinson Chirinos (R)
1B: Carlos Pena (L)
2B: Ben Zobrist (S), Jeff Keppinger (R)
3B: Evan Longoria (R)
SS: Sean Rodriguez (R), Reid Brignac (L) or Elliot Johnson (S)
OF: Matt Joyce (L), B.J. Upton (R), Desmond Jennings (R), Luke Scott (L), Sam Fuld (L) or Brandon Guyer (R)

If Joe Maddon wants to platoon with Joyce, he can slide Zobrist to right field and play Keppinger at second. That would probably give Fuld the edge over Guyer for the fourth outfield position, since he could spell Jennings against tough right-handers. The other option would be keep Guyer as a possible platoon partner for Joyce (or Scott at DH) and use Keppinger at first base against right-handers. And yet another option is to see if Brignac can win the starting shortstop job on a full-time basis, with Rodriguez serving as the starter at shortstop or first base against left-handers (over his career, he's hit .260/.360/.422 against left-handers but just .212/.278/.377 against righties). Brignac and Johnson are both regarded as superior fielders to Rodriguez, so if Brignac can at least hit like he did in 2010 (.256/.307/.385), the job will be his to win.

Anyway, as always Maddon has roster flexibility. I don't like the idea of Pena as a full-time first baseman, but it looks like the Rays will have options to ensure that he doesn't have to play every day against left-handers.

The Tampa Bay Rays dug through their pockets for spare nickels, took their metal detector to the Florida beaches, maybe auctioned off Dan Johnson's home run ball and somehow came up with $7.5 million to sign free-agent first baseman Carlos Pena.

I love it.

Pena brings a power bat to the middle of the Tampa Bay order and while he doesn't come without risk, the addition of a guy who can hit 25 to 30 home runs, draw 90 walks and play a good first base helps solidify a lineup that needed another big bat. Here's a look at what Tampa's lineup may look like:

LF Desmond Jennings
CF B.J. Upton
2B Ben Zobrist
3B Evan Longoria
RF Matt Joyce/Brandon Guyer
1B Carlos Pena/Russ Canzler
DH Luke Scott
SS Sean Rodriguez/Reid Brignac
C Jose Molina

Other bench options include Sam Fuld, Elliot Johnson, Justin Ruggiano plus a backup catcher. I included Guyer and Canzler in the lineups because I believe Joe Maddon will have to maximize the versatility to get the most out of this roster.

With Pena, that includes the suggestion that he become a platoon player. His overall line in 2011 was dragged down by an anemic .133 average against left-handed pitching. But he hit .255/.388/.504 against right-handers. Even with the poor splits against his lefties, his overall .357 on-base percentage would have ranked second on the Rays in 2011, behind only the now-departed first baseman Casey Kotchman. Minor league veteran Canzler would be a nice, cheap platoon for Pena. He hit .314/.401/.530 at Triple-A Durham, but the key is he's not just a first baseman: He played third, right, left and first for the Bulls. In other words, a perfect Maddon bench player.

Like Pena, Joyce probably needs to be platooned; he has an .867 career OPS against righties but .601 against lefties (.657 in 2011 in 101 plate appearances). But Guyer provides another nice platoon option. Like Canzler, he's an older minor leaguer, but he can hit, .312/.384/.521 at Durham, including .346 against lefties. Most managers are averse to using platoons these days because their benches are already limited due to the desire to carry 12 or 13 pitchers. But Maddon has been using multi-position platoons for years in Tampa; it's just another reason he's the best manager in the game today.

There is a risk with Pena. He hit 28 home runs in 2011 playing in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field; he'll move to a tougher home run park at the Trop. Pena, however, did hit much better on the road in 2011 (.855 OPS versus .780) and if you look at his home run distances at Hit Tracker Online, Pena doesn't hit many cheap home runs. When he connects it's going out of just about any ballpark. Of his 28 bombs, only two were classified as "just enough."

As for Kotchman, I would think he'll find a job somewhere after hitting .306 with a .378 OBP. But that's no guarantee; despite those numbers, Rays first basemen (Kotchman played 146 games) finished last in the majors in both runs scored (52) and RBIs (51). The Indians remain the only team with an obvious first-base opening as they don't appear committed to Matt LaPorta; maybe the Yankees or Tigers consider him for a DH role.

The Rays may have been waiting to see if Pena or Kotchman fell to them, but I think they signed the better player. If Pena and Scott can combine for 45 to 50 home runs (the Rays got just 28 out of first base and DH in 2011) this is a lineup that will outscore last season's total of 707 runs.
This is not the kind of January news we want to read about: Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez tore his ACL during offseason workouts and may be lost for the season.

After signing Martinez to a four-year, $50 million contract before the 2011 season, the emergence of Alex Avila meant Martinez spent most of the season as the team's designated hitter as opposed to catching (he started 26 games behind the plate). The Tigers may have overpaid slightly for a DH, but Martinez at least delivered an excellent season, hitting .330/.380/.470, ranking fourth in the AL in batting average and eighth in on-base percentage.

Importantly, the switch-hitting Martinez provided a lefty bat in a lineup that swung too much to the right side with Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Delmon Young, Austin Jackson, Magglio Ordonez and Ryan Raburn.

If there's good news for the Tigers, there are at least several decent options out there in free agency. One-time Tigers first baseman Carlos Pena could provide a nice alternative, even improving the team's defense if Jim Leyland is willing to shift Cabrera to DH. Pena needs a platoon partner, but did have a .388 OBP and .504 slugging percentage against righties in 2011. Johnny Damon, another ex-Tiger, would also fit in nicely at DH.

The other option is to move Young to his best position -- DH. Getting his glove off the field would be addition by subtraction, and the Tigers could play an outfield of Jackson in center, Brennan Boesch in right, and Raburn and Andy Dirks or Clete Thomas platooning in left. Leyland is one of the best at moving players around the diamond and in and out of the lineup, so if anybody can adapt to a revolving lineup of starters, it's Leyland. Cuban free agent Yoennis Cespedes is another -- more expensive -- possibility. The Tigers have been linked to him from the beginning and they could certainly use more athleticism in the lineup. With Jackson entrenched in center, Cespedes (another right-handed bat) could play right with Boesch handling left.

Still, it's a blow for the Tigers -- although as the Cardinals proved in 2011 with Adam Wainwright, there is no such thing as a lethal blow. I do wonder if this makes it even more likely they'll swing a trade for another starting pitcher, as has been rumored. Matt Garza, anyone?