SweetSpot: Carlos Zambrano

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

July, 28, 2012

  • Three players this week -- Brett Lawrie on Sunday, Desmond Jennings on Wednesday and Starling Marte on Thursday -- took the very first pitch of the game out of the yard. Five players have now done that this season. Derek Jeter and Zack Cozart both pulled off the feat in June.
    In Marte’s case, it was his first major league at-bat, making him the first Pirate to homer in his debut since Don Leppert on June 18, 1961.
  • In Friday's game at Wrigley Field, Matt Holliday started the Cardinals' scoring with a solo homer in the first inning. Yadier Molina promptly went deep in the second; Lance Berkman in the third; Matt Carpenter in the fourth; and Allen Craig in the fifth. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cardinals are the first team to homer in each of the first five innings since the Astros did it on the final weekend of the 2004 season against the Rockies (Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, Biggio again, Eric Bruntlett and Kent again). And it was a first in Cardinals team history.
  • [+] EnlargeTravis Wood
    AP Photo/Paul BeatyChicago's Travis Wood became the first starter ever to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
    Travis Wood gave up all five of those homers, making him the fifth pitcher in Cubs history to surrender five long balls in a game (Carlos Zambrano did it last season), and according to Elias, the first starter ever -- for any team -- to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
  • Jim Johnson of the Orioles had a fairly rough Friday night. He started the ninth inning with his team clinging to a 9-8 lead. After a leadoff groundout, he gave up five singles and a walk in succession. All six runners would score, and Oakland rallied for a 14-9 win. Johnson is just the second pitcher this year to surrender six or more runs in a save situation. Brett Myers did it for Houston on June 28, although only one of his six runs ended up being earned. Since saves became official in 1969, only two other Orioles have done it -- Jim Hoey in 2006 and Doug Jones in 1995 -- and neither of them entered in the ninth.
  • Matt Harvey made his major league debut for the Mets on Thursday night, and promptly mowed down 11 Diamondbacks -- nine of them swinging -- in the process. It's been nearly two years since a pitcher hit double-digit strikeouts in his debut. Nope, not Stephen Strasburg (he did do it in 2010, but he's not the last). That would be Thomas Diamond of the Cubs, who struck out 10 Brewers on Aug. 3 of that season, but also gave up three runs and took the loss. Harvey, however, earned himself an even better distinction by getting a two-out double and a two-out single in his two plate appearances. Elias says that makes Harvey the first player in modern baseball history (since 1900) to strike out 10-plus batters and get two hits in his major league debut.
  • Chris Johnson had three hits for the Astros on Friday night -- a homer, a triple and a double. He never got the "elusive" single, striking out in his final at-bat. Johnson did walk in the game, but alas, this is not 1887 (the year when walks counted as base hits). That means Johnson became only the fifth player this season to miss the cycle by a single. Paul Goldschmidt (June 23) was the most recent. By comparison, 32 players have needed the homer, 11 the double and 149 the triple.
  • Couldn't let this week end without one leftover Kernel from last Saturday. The Cardinals sent 17 batters to the plate in a 12-run seventh inning against the Cubs. Allen Craig was up third, pinch hitting in the pitcher's spot. He doubled and scored. As the inning continued, Craig came up again as the 12th batter. He doubled and scored again -- thus becoming the first "pinch hitter" to have two doubles before taking the field since Bobby Kielty of the Twins did likewise on June 4, 2002.
    St. Louis went on to hit seven doubles in that inning, a feat accomplished only once before, by the 1936 Boston Bees (the five-year experimental rebranding of the Braves).
    As for the 12 runs in that inning, that turned out to be the only scoring in the game. The Cardinals shut out Chicago 12-0. And that had also happened only once before in MLB history. The Indians scored all 12 runs in the fourth inning to shut out the Yankees on July 2, 1943.
Statistical support for this story provided by Baseball-Reference.com and the Elias Sports Bureau.

The comeback of Carlos Zambrano

May, 29, 2012
Carlos ZambranoSteve Mitchell/US PresswireCarlos Zambrano's proof you can't keep a big man down.

On Memorial Day, Carlos Zambrano spun his eighth quality start in his 10th turn as a Marlin. In all of the stories of happy comebacks, this one may not get all that much play. But seeing him pitch effectively for the Marlins, for a manager getting his own second chance -- or so -- it’s a bet made, and so far, won by the Marlins’ front office and by Ozzie Guillen. They were correct in their assessment that the Venezuelan workhorse could still help carry a club as a capital-A asset instead of being a… quadruped’s keister.

There’s nothing especially funky to why Zambrano has been more effective this season. Maybe you can call it a case of getting a change of scenery, as long as you don’t ascribe Zambrano’s comeback to his new home park: If you’re already convinced that Marlins Park will be a pitching haven, Zambrano hasn’t been starting any more often in Miami, splitting his 10 starts evenly between home and road. He’s walking more people than your average bear, posting a strikeout rate just a little bit over league average, 18.4 percent to 17.9 percent, nothing to shrug off from a starting pitcher.

For Big Z, this has been equal parts reinvention and renewal. The beefy right-hander’s fastball has lost yet another tick, sitting around 89 instead of 90, and as much as you can place faith in Pitch F/X’s ability to properly pigeon-hole off-speed offering, it looks like he’s relying on his splitter more now than he did in his days in Wrigleyville.

Perhaps more significantly, his ratio of ground balls to fly balls is higher than it’s been since 2003, something a lot more important for his future than a nice dip in his ratio of home runs to fly balls: If he allows fewer fly balls in the first place, it’s going to be harder for more people to hit home runs at all. Regression monkeys will no doubt despair over an FIP or xFIP a run higher than his current ERA, fearing what that portends for the future, but I’d suggest that if, two months ago, you’d get an ERA anywhere between 3.80 and 4.00 from Zambrano every fifth day, the Fish would still be down with this deal.

So he isn’t the power pitcher he was back in his heyday, back when he was the best Venezuelan import among the Cubs’ highly-touted power arms in the early Aughties. But he is the guy who has actually delivered while the other, more famous guys like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood tried and failed and broke down. He’s the one who’s still here, having pitched 500 more innings than the now-retired Wood, or 1,200 more than Prior, the man with the so-called “perfect mechanics.” He’s the guy from the 2003 Cubs with the most career WAR, though that might be seen as a case of setting the bar low.

He isn’t even the most famous ex-Chicago pitcher on the staff, taking a back seat on that score to Mark Buehrle… while throwing one more quality start than the former White Sox stalwart. Instead, Zambrano’s tied with Anibal Sanchez with a team-leading eight, and just two of those have been the bare-minimum six-inning, three-run jobs. Not bad for a guy slotted as his new team’s fifth starter at the outset, and certainly better than Chris Volstad, the guy he was dealt for when the Cubs’ new regime dumped Z. Volstad’s now yet another one of the Cubs’ children in the corn, laboring in ignominy for Iowa.

Maybe the problem with touting this particular comeback is that Zambrano’s relationship with the media might be best described as "fickle." After all of the meltdowns, and perhaps especially all of the overreactions to his overreactions, there might be something quaint about the notion that the Big Z is simply news for how he’s pitching, not what he’s saying or doing.

How much any of that really matters in terms of having any impact on Zambrano’s career would be guesswork at best, and how much that matters in terms of his return to usefulness probably means even less. But Zambrano’s back. I say we enjoy the ride as long as it lasts.
Spring stats mean nothing! But they're fun to look at. A few highlights ... and lowlights (stats from major league games only):
  • Some people haven't bought in on Paul Goldschmidt as they worry about the strikeouts, but one reason I do like him is he'll draw some walks to go with the power: He's hitting .265 with three homers, but with 12 walks (and 13 strikeouts).
  • Josh Collmenter hasn't pitched well for Arizona: Five walks and just four strikeouts in 12 innings. He'll start in the rotation but you wonder how soon before we see Trevor Bauer.
  • Braves prospect Julio Teheran has somehow allowed nine home runs in 13 innings.
  • Jeff Samardzija earned a spot in the Cubs' rotation by showing good stuff but just as impressively has walked just one batter in 20 innings. This from a guy who averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings in relief in 2011.
  • Not good news for the Cubs: First baseman Bryan LaHair has 16 strikeouts and one walk. Is the 29-year-old Triple-A vet pressing now that he's been given a chance to start after hitting .331 at Iowa? His SO/BB ratio at Triple-A was 111/60.
  • Joey Votto is hitting .214 without a home run. I like how people will make a big deal when somebody does well ... but not a big deal when a star player doesn't do well. Again, spring stats ... for entertainment purposes only!
  • Dexter Fowler has had a miserable spring for the Rockies, hitting .118 in 51 at-bats with 16 strikeouts.
  • Clemens has pitched five scoreless innings for the Astros. Paul Clemens, that is.
  • Matt Kemp says he wants to go 50-50. He's not going to do it swinging like this: 21 strikeouts and one walk. Ouch.
  • Carlos Zambrano has 14 walks in 17.2 innings. But 18 strikeouts. So ... I think it's safe to say nobody knows what to expect from Big Z.
  • Zack Greinke has perhaps been the most impressive pitcher this spring with a 28/2 strikeout/walk ratio and no home runs allowed. That's pretty tough to do in Arizona, where the ball flies.
  • Sticking with the Brewers, Jonathan Lucroy is hitting .513 (20-for-39). This has nothing to do with that .513 average, but I like Lucroy as a breakout candidate.
  • Jason Bay hasn't homered or driven in a run for the Mets and has petitioned to move in the spring training fences.
  • Roy Halladay has allowed six home runs in 20 innings. He gave up 10 in 233.2 innings last season.
  • Is this the year Pedro Alvarez breaks out? Umm ... well, with 20 K's and one walk I guess we can be positive and make a Matt Kemp comparison.
  • One of my sleeper relievers of the year is Brad Brach of the Padres; he's looked good with a 14/2 K/BB ratio.
  • What will the Giants do with Brandon Belt? He's hitting .407 with seven doubles and three homers in 59 at-bats.
  • Adam Wainwright has a 1.45 ERA for the Cardinals but just nine strikeouts (and six walks) in 18.2 innings.
  • Davey Johnson says he wants to bat Ian Desmond leadoff. He has 18 strikeouts and two walks while hitting .299.
JohnsonRonald C. Modra/Getty ImagesAfter making just nine starts in 2011, the Marlins are hoping for a full season from ace Josh Johnson.
I like to do a rough estimate of a team's strength by starting off with their 2011 totals for runs scored and runs allowed, adding and subtracting for new players and projected performance, and see where we end up. Here is an estimate I a did a couple weeks ago on the Washington Nationals. With the Miami Marlins playing the Red Sox on ESPN this afternoon, and Tristan Cockcroft asking how Hanley Ramirez will bounce back , I thought I'd tackle the Marlins.

For all the hype around the Marlins, they won just 72 games a season ago. They scored 625 runs and allowed 702, which creates an estimated win-loss record of ... 72-90. Obviously, the Marlins move into a new park this year. Some believe it will be a better hitter's park than the old place. We haven't factored this into the numbers below.

Catcher: John Buck, Brett Hayes
Buck carried one of the heaviest workloads of any catcher in 2011, starting 129 games. I'd suggest the heat and humidity of the Florida summer caught up to him, but he hit just as poorly in the first half as the second half, and his .687 OPS was a fry cry from the .802 OPS he posted with the Blue Jays in 2010, when he made the AL All-Star team. Of course, 2010 was his career-year, his OPS+ of 87 essentially matches his career mark of 89. In other words, expect more of 2011, not 2010. No change.

First base: Gaby Sanchez
Sanchez made the 2011 NL All-Star team, which I think says more about the state of first base in the National League than Sanchez's abilities. He did hit .293 in the first half, but slumped to .225 in the second half, leaving his overall numbers pretty similar to what he posted as a rookie in 2010. While you might normally project growth for a third-year player, Sanchez is already 28; he's not likely to get better. He is what he is. No change.

Second base: Omar Infante
After hitting .309 from 2008 to 2010 in part-time role with the Braves, Infante was exposed a bit as an everyday player and hit just .276. He played a good second base, and I do believe he can do a little better with the bat as his BABIP was .298, down from .343 over the previous three seasons. Let's give an extra five runs here.

Third base: Hanley Ramirez
Marlins third basemen weren't a complete disaster in 2011, hitting .260/.315/.347, but with just six home runs and 44 RBIs. Believe it or not, that OPS was 12th in the NL. Anyway, a healthy Ramirez will obviously be a huge upgrade. For all the concern about Ramirez handling the move to third base, the other part of the equation is Ramirez has fallen off the plate the past few seasons, from .342 to .300 to .243. Most of the projection systems have Ramirez creating 90 to 100 runs, about what he produced in 2010 (97), but fewer than 2009 (122). Let's give 100 runs created here. Last season, Marlins third basemen created about 69 runs, so that's a 31-run improvement.

Shortstop: Jose Reyes
While Ramirez struggled at the plate in 2011, Emilio Bonifacio did a nice job filling in when Ramirez was injured. Marlins shortstops created about 87 runs. Reyes created about 105 runs a year ago -- in 126 games. Of course, he hit a career-best .337, which led to career-bests in on-base percentage and slugging percentage as well. The projection systems estimate Reyes around 80 to 85 runs created in a similar amount of playing time -- hitting about .300 with a .350 OBP. Let's give him 85 runs created and a few more for his substitute, giving 105 overall, an 18-run improvement. Certainly, that's probably conservative. Maybe Reyes stays healthy for 150 games and creates 115 runs.

Left field: Logan Morrison
Marlins left fielders (mostly Morrison) created 92 runs in 2011. Morrison is certainly capable of improving upon his .247/.330/.468 line, especially in the on-base department. I'm looking for a 15-run improvement.

Center field: Emilio Bonifacio
Chris Coghlan, Mike Cameron and Bryan Petersen each started at least 35 games in center a season ago. None exactly tore it up, and Marlins center fielders posted a collective .317 OBP with 14 home runs, worth about 76 runs created. Bonifacio, serving as a full-time utility guy, hit .296/.360/.393 and swiped 40 bases. He doesn't have any power, and the .360 OBP might be a little over his head, so the projections systems are a little down on him. All told, some combination of Benifacio, Coghlan and Petersen should do a little better. I'll call for an additional nine runs.

Right field: Giancarlo Stanton
Stanton hit .262/.356/.537 with 34 home runs as a 21-year-old. He could explode on the league this year (in fact, I like him as a sleeper MVP selection). I'm going plus-13 runs, and I believe that's a safe prediction.

Leaving aside pinch-hitting and pitchers' hitting, that adds up to a 91-run improvement. That would take the Marlins up from 625 runs (11th in the NL) to 716 runs (seventh in the NL, based on 2011 figures, but just 19 behind No. 2 Cincinnati and Colorado).

Now to the pitching. In 2011, Marlins starters allowed 486 runs in 944.1 innings or 4.6 per nine. Ace Josh Johnson went down after nine starts, but the Marlins received 29-plus starts from four other pitchers. Let's break down the rotation into five slots:

And here's how the rotation stacks up for 2012, using estimates based on various projection systems:

Old guys: 162 starts, 944.1 IP, 486 runs
New guys: 154 starts, 958 IP, 430 runs

Now, you can argue that's too optimistic, getting 154 starts from five pitchers -- after all, Johnson made 33 starts in 2009, but just 37 over the past two seasons, and Zambrano's durability is also an issue -- but that's what we're going with for now. Obviously, you can do your own adjustments if you don't believe Johnson will make 30 starts. Anyway, add in eight more starts at 40 innings and 25 runs (a low estimate of 5.6 runs per nine) and you end up with 998 innings and 455 runs allowed, a 31-run improvement.

The Marlins bullpen was pretty effective in 2011, allowing a 3.44 ERA, sixth in the NL. The big addition was bringing in Heath Bell as the closer to replace Juan Oviedo, currently on the restricted list after it was discovered he wasn't Leo Nunez. I view this as a minor upgrade; Bell has been one of the game's best closers the past three seasons, but he's also a flyball pitcher who benefited from the deep dimensions of Petco Park. His strikeout rate also took a serious plunge in 2011 (11.1 per nine to 7.3), so that's another red flag. I like some other Marlins relievers -- Steve Cishek is a sidearming groundball machine who was effective against both sides of the plate; Michael Dunn is a power lefty; Edward Mujica is a control guy who throws strikes, but can give up some home runs. If Oviedo returns, it should be a pretty deep pen. Overall, I'm going to project the Marlins' pen as being the same as 2011, when it pitched 515 innings and allowed 216 runs. Since we project more innings from the starters, we'll take some away from the bullpen, leaving it with 461 innings and 195 runs -- 21 fewer runs.

So we end up with:

Offense: +91 runs, for new total of 716 runs
Pitching: +52 runs, for new total of 650 runs

We haven't factored in defense, where the major changes will be Reyes replacing Ramirez at shortstop, and Ramirez replacing Greg Dobbs and others at third base. Baseball Info Solutions rated Marlins shortstops at minus-16 runs a year ago; Reyes rated minus-11 and hasn't rated above average on defense since 2007. At third base, the Marlins rated minus-10; we don't know how Ramirez will show at third, but I have to think he has a chance at improving on that. In center, the Marlins could also show a slight improvement, as Coghlan got the most innings out there in 2011 and he's a below-average center fielder. Overall, the Marlins could see slight improvement from their defense. Let's say 15 runs, knocking their runs allowed down to 635 runs.

This gives them an expected winning percentage of .530 -- or 86 wins.

Note: I screwed up the math in the original piece. 716 runs scored and 635 runs allowed translates to a winning percentage of .555, or 90 wins.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Some good stuff from around the SweetSpot network ...
Mike Stanton/Hunter Pence/Jason HeywardGetty Images/US PresswireThe best right fielder in the NL East? Mike Stanton, Hunter Pence and Jason Heyward have their fans.
This is back-of-the-napkin stuff ... but fun back-of-the-napkin stuff. As we wait to see if Prince Fielder does land in Washington, let's check out the state of the NL East. We'll go position by position and rank the players. Then we'll come up with a final tally (five points for first, four for second, etc.)

1. Brian McCann, Braves
2. Wilson Ramos, Nationals
3. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies
4. Josh Thole, Mets
5. John Buck, Marlins

Phillies fans will storm the bastille over this one and say I'm underestimating Ruiz's ability to call a game, but I think Wilson Ramos has a chance to be something special. He hit .267/.334/.445 as a rookie, spending most of the season at just 23 years old. The thing that bodes well is that his walk rate improved from 4 percent in Triple-A in 2010 to 8.7 percent last season. And to think they got him from the Twins for Matt Capps. Ruiz is an underrated player -- he's posted a .376 OBP the past three seasons -- but Ramos' power and potential for improvement put him at No. 2 behind McCann.

First base
1. Freddie Freeman, Braves
2. Ryan Howard/Jim Thome, Phillies
3. Ike Davis, Mets
4. Gaby Sanchez, Marlins
5. Adam LaRoche, Nationals

Yes, there's huge value for the Nationals in signing Prince Fielder. With Davis and LaRoche coming off serious injuries and Howard out for at least a couple months, I have to give the top nod to Freeman. Sure, maybe he'll succumb to the dreaded sophomore jinx, but baseball history also tells us that players often make a huge leap from age 21 to age 22. If Davis hits like he did in the 36 games he played last year (.302/.383/.543) then he's an All-Star candidate, but while he says he's "good to go" for spring training, we'll have to wait to see how his ankle responds. As for Sanchez, he's a lukewarm cup of coffee on a 32-degree day.

Second base
1. Chase Utley, Phillies
2. Danny Espinosa, Nationals
3. Dan Uggla, Braves
4. Daniel Murphy, Mets
5. Omar Infante, Marlins

I put Utley first with some hesitation: His OPS totals since 2007 read .976, .915, .905, .832 and .769. Still, that .769 figure is better than Uggla or Espinosa produced in 2011, and Utley still carries a good glove. It's defense and predicted second-season improvement that pushes Espinosa over Uggla. Murphy doesn't hit many home runs or draw many walks, so most of his offensive value resides in his batting average. If he hits .320 again, he's a good player. If he hits .290, then he's still better than Infante.

Third base
1. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals
2. David Wright, Mets
3. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
4. Chipper Jones, Braves
5. Placido Polanco, Phillies

If healthy, Zimmerman is one of the best players in the league. Ramirez and Wright were once part of that discussion, but no longer. Both players had the worst years of their careers in 2011. Will Wright rebound with the fences moved in at Citi Field? Will Ramirez bounce back and handle the transition to third base? Your guess is as good as mine. Chipper is aging gracefully, playing through injuries but still putting up respectable numbers. If this is his last season, I hope he goes out in style.

1. Jose Reyes, Marlins
2. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
3. Ruben Tejada, Mets
4. Ian Desmond, Nationals
5. Tyler Pastornicky, Braves

Not much debate here. Tejada posted a .360 OBP in 2011 as a 21-year-old. He doesn't have any power, but I believe the Mets are in good hands at shortstop. The same can't be said about Desmond, who must improve his defense (23 errors) and approach at the plate (139/35 SO/BB ratio). Pastornicky hit .314 in the minors last year, including .365 in 27 games in Triple-A. He puts the ball in play and has some speed, but won't hit for much power or draw many walks, so he'll need to hit for a good average to hold the job.

Left field
1. Michael Morse, Nationals
2. Martin Prado, Braves
3. Logan Morrison, Marlins
4. Domonic Brown/John Mayberry, Phillies
5. Jason Bay, Mets

We have to consider Morse the real deal by now, don't we? Although he comes with a few caveats: That 126/36 SO/BB ratio is a concern; so is his .344 average on balls in play, which ranked 15th in the majors (can he repeat that figure?); and finally, he plays left field a bit like a fire hydrant. By the way, how bad is this group defensively? Morrison may have even less range than Morse, Brown looked terrible in right field with the Phillies last year and Bay isn't getting paid $16 million because he's adept at running down balls in the gap. Actually, I'm not sure what he's getting paid for.

Center field
1. Shane Victorino, Phillies
2. Michael Bourn, Braves
3. Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins
4. Andres Torres, Mets
5. Roger Bernadina, Nationals

This seems pretty straightforward other than the ongoing raging debate between Andres Torres fans and Roger Bernadina fans.

Right field
1. Mike Stanton, Marlins
2. Hunter Pence, Phillies
3. Jason Heyward, Braves
4. Jayson Werth, Nationals
5. Lucas Duda, Mets

Mike Stanton ... 2012 National League MVP? Too soon? I'm just saying don't be surprised if it happens.

No. 1 starter
1. Roy Halladay, Phillies
2. Josh Johnson, Marlins
3. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
4. Tim Hudson, Braves
5. Johan Santana, Mets

Is there a more important player in the majors in 2012 than Johnson? The Marlins fancy themselves contenders but they need a healthy Johnson headlining the rotation. After leading the NL with a 2.30 ERA in 2010, he had posted a 1.64 ERA through 10 starts in 2011 before shoulder tendinitis shelved him for the season. He's been throwing and long tossing and is expected to be 100 percent for spring training. Strasburg has the ability to be just as dominant as Halladay and Johnson, but the Nationals will likely monitor his innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

No. 2 starter
1. Cliff Lee, Phillies
2. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
3. Mark Buehrle, Marlins
4. Tommy Hanson, Braves
5. R.A. Dickey, Mets

This is a terrific group of No. 2 starters, as even the knuckleballer Dickey posted a 3.28 ERA in 2011 (and 3.08 ERA over the past two seasons). Hanson has Cy Young ability, but his own shoulder issues from late last season raise a red flag.

No. 3 starter
1. Cole Hamels, Phillies
2. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
3. Anibal Sanchez, Marlins
4. Jair Jurrjens, Braves
5. Mike Pelfrey, Mets

Zimmermann is the sleeping giant in the Nationals rotation. His strikeout/walk ratio of 4.0 ranked 11th-best among starters in 2011 and another year beyond his own TJ surgery should help him develop the stamina to improve on his second-half numbers (2.66 ERA before the All-Star break, 4.47 after). I'm not a big Jurrjens fan; he's a good pitcher, but he's now battled injuries two seasons in a row and his strikeout rate took a big dip last season.

No. 4 starter
1. Brandon Beachy, Braves
2. Vance Worley, Phillies
3. John Lannan, Nationals
4. Jonathon Niese, Mets
5. Ricky Nolasco, Marlins

You could draw this list out of a hat. Beachy and Worley surprised many with their exceptional rookie seasons; I believe both are for real, as both seemed to deliver better-than-advertised fastballs. Now they just have to prove they can become seven-inning pitchers instead of five or six. Niese is an excellent breakout candidate in 2012: He throws hard enough for a lefty (90-91), gets strikeouts, doesn't walk too many, gets groundballs. In fact, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) was 3.36 compared to his actual ERA of 4.40. It wouldn't surprise me to see him win 15 games with a 3.40 ERA. It would surprise me if Nolasco does that; 2008 is starting to look further and further in the rear-view mirror.

No. 5 starter
1. Mike Minor, Braves
2. Carlos Zambrano, Marlins
3. Dillon Gee, Mets
4. Chien-Ming Wang, Nationals
5. Joe Blanton/Kyle Kendrick, Phillies

If you're talking depth, the big edge here goes to the Braves, who also have prospects Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino ready to step in. Big Z is a nice gamble by the Marlins as a No. 5 starter, you could do worse.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
2. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
3. Drew Storen, Nationals
4. Heath Bell, Marlins
5. Frank Francisco, Mets

As dominant as Kimbrel was in winning Rookie of the Year honors (14.8 K's per nine), he did blow eight saves. But Papelbon is just one season removed from his own season of eight blown saves. Factor in Kimbrel's K rate and slightly heavier workload, and I'll give him the slight nod. Bell will have to prove himself away from the friendly confines of Petco Park, so Storen rates the clear No. 3 here.

1. Braves -- Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro
2. Marlins -- Steve Cishek, Edward Mujica, Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb, Randy Choate
3. Nationals -- Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, Ryan Perry, Tom Gorzelanny
4. Phillies -- Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Dontrelle Willis, David Herndon, Jose Contreras
5. Mets -- Bobby Parnell, Jon Rauch, Pedro Beato, Tim Byrdak, Manny Acosta

The top four teams all project to have solid-to-excellent pens. Venters and Clippard are arguably the two best set-up guys in baseball. Cishek is the rare sidearmer who can get lefties out as well as righties and he allowed just one home run in 54 innings as a rookie. The Phillies don't need many innings from their pen and while Willis could be a terrific lefty killer (lefties hit .127 off him in 2011), Bastardo must rebound from his late-season fatigue.

1. Marlins
2. Phillies
3. Braves
4. Nationals
5. Mets

New stadium, new free agents, new manager, new uniforms -- I view all of that as a plus for the Marlins. The playoffs left a sour taste for the Phillies' veteran-heavy squad and those guys will want nothing more than to win a sixth straight division title. The Braves have plenty of incentive after their late-season collapse. The Nationals are young but have no chip on their shoulder. But if they sign Prince ...

The final tally
1. Phillies, 58 points
2. Braves, 56 points
3. Marlins, 49 points
4. Nationals, 48 points
5. Mets, 29 points

And the napkin says the Phillies are still the division favorite. What, you want to bet against Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels?
Carlos Zambrano Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesWhen it comes to Carlos Zambrano, is the Marlins' biggest concern his attitude or declining velocity?
Well, if you're a believer in the importance of clubhouse chemistry, the potential powder keg that could be the Miami Marlins will be an entertaining exercise. We have Hanley Ramirez, unhappy about his move to third base; we have Twitter master Logan Morrison and a front office that tried to put the clamps on him; we have never tongue-tied Ozzie Guillen running the ship; and now the Marlins have added Carlos Zambrano to the mix, acquiring him from the Cubs for Chris Volstad.

The problem with analyzing clubhouse chemistry is that's usually done ex post facto. If a team loses, bad clubhouse karma can be blamed (see the 2011 Red Sox). If a team wins, it's never an issue (see the 2004 Red Sox). The only concern with Zambrano is that his controversial exit from the Cubs last summer makes it an issue before the season begins.

That said, his personality won't be a reason the Marlins win or don't win. Certainly, it wasn't a problem when the Cubs won division titles in 2003, 2007 and 2008 with Zambrano in the rotation. And Zambrano's outbursts were hardly the only reason the Cubs lost 91 games last year. So the only question that should matter: Does he have anything left?

Let's forget the notion that Zambrano will ever return to his peak form: From 2003 to 2006, he compiled a 3.14 ERA while averaging over 200 innings and 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings. He was primarily a fastball/slider guy, and while he was a bit wild, he was tough to hit and generated a lot of groundballs. Those workhorse days appear over, however. He hasn't pitched 200 innings since 2007 and his average fastball velocity has dipped from 92-93 mph to 90.2 mph in 2011. He's tried to counteract the loss in firepower by throwing more cut fastballs, but his groundball rate -- once as high as 55 percent -- fell to 42.4 percent in 2011. That led to a career-worst home run rate (he allowed 19 in 145.2 innings) and also a career-low strikeout rate of 6.2 per nine.

Zambrano is still young enough (he'll turn 31 in June) that maybe he's just going through a transitional phase from power pitcher to finesse pitcher. My fear is that he threw too many innings and too many pitches in his early 20s and that what we saw of Big Z in 2011 is what we'll see in 2012.

That doesn't make it a bad risk for the Marlins. Volstad has now spent three-plus seasons in the rotation and just hasn't become the effective major league starter many scouts projected. He allows a lot of hits, doesn't strike out enough batters, hasn't pitched deep into games and for a guy whose best pitch is supposed to be a hard sinking fastball, he gives up too many home runs. There are some things to like here: He's just 25, throws strikes, has been injury-free and he's still 6-foot-8.

He's certainly a worthy gamble for the Cubs. Maybe a change of scenery and new pitching coach will help him get over the hump from fringe major leaguer to No. 3 or 4 starter. And at the least, he's unlikely to beat up his catcher.

Zambrano reviving career in Venezuela

December, 18, 2011
Carlos Zambrano, who was hit in the head by a line drive earlier in the winter season, returned to action with the Caribes de Anzoátegui in the Venezuelan League. After three shaky starts, the embattled Chicago Cubs hurler finally came to form this week, pitching five hitless innings against the Aragua Tigres before yielding to the bullpen to complete an 11-0 shutout.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Zambrano
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireCarlos Zambrano recently pitched five hitless innings in Venezuela.
In four starts, Zambrano has a 2.55 ERA in 17.1 innings while recording 13 strikeouts. However, he has been susceptible to the long ball as he gave up six home runs in his first 12 innings of work this winter. It was precisely his leaving the breaking ball up in the zone which led to Zambrano’s problems in Chicago. He was placed on the disqualified list by the Cubs on Aug. 12 after giving up five home runs in a game against the Atlanta Braves. After being ejected for throwing behind Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, Zambrano cleaned out his locker and left Wrigley Field. He has since met with new Cubs president Theo Epstein and they’re working on a way for Zambrano to get back on the Cubs’ active roster.

The Caribes, managed by Julio Franco and trailing the La Guaira Tiburones by two and a half games heading into the final stages of the regular season, have relied on Renyel Pinto to be their ace as he has compiled a 6-0 mark with a 1.27 ERA in 10 outings and striking out 64 in 60 innings. Pinto, who pitched parts of five seasons with the Florida Marlins, was last seen in the majors in 2010 and was eventually released by the St. Louis Cardinals.

In another Venezuelan league note, former New York Yankees outfielder Hensley Meulens took over as manager of the last-place Margarita Bravos after the firing of Don Baylor.

Caribbean Interleague play

A contingent of All-Stars from the Dominican and Venezuelan leagues faced off this week in the Caribbean Interleague All-Star game in which Luis Jimenez shined with two home runs in Venezuela’s 4-0 victory in Caracas.

Jimenez, a first baseman who has spent the past two seasons in the Seattle Mariners organization after playing a year with Japan’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, has anchored the Lara Cardenales’ offense, hitting .298 with nine homers and 28 RBIs and is among the Venezuelan League leaders in average, hits, home runs, RBI, total bases, on-base percentage and OPS.

Minor league veteran Dwayne Pollock, who has had a solid winter with the Zulia Aguilas, recorded the win for Venezuela while Lorenzo Barcelo was saddled with the loss.

Ayala’s milestone in Mexico

Luis Ayala, a sought-after reliever in MLB’s free agent market, reached a milestone as he became the seventh pitcher in Mexican Pacific League history to record 60 saves. Pitching for the Ciudad Obregon Yaquis, Ayala is perfect in eight save opportunities, yielding one earned run in 14.1 innings.

Ayala, who was used by the Yankees in middle relief last season, is reported to be hearing offers from six MLB teams for 2012, including the Yankees, New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox.

Elsewhere in the MPL, former major league first baseman Jorge Cantu has had an immediate impact as he returned to action with the Hermosillo Naranjeros. In his first 17 games, Cantu is batting .328 with seven homers, 16 RBIs and a 1.102 OPS to help Hermosillo back into playoff contention.

Released last July 30 by the San Diego Padres after batting .194 in 57 games, Cantu signed a minor league contract with the Rockies but did not return to the majors and was granted free agency in November. At 29, Cantu has played eight seasons in the majors with Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Florida, Texas and San Diego.

Rivera to return to Carolina’s roster

The Minnesota Twins granted catcher Rene Rivera permission to return to the Carolina Gigantes of the Puerto Rico Baseball League a day after signing a new minor league deal that includes an invitation to spring training.

The Twins announced Rivera’s signing on Dec. 13 along with the signing of Sean Burroughs, who revived his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011.

Rivera, who was Joe Mauer’s substitute for 46 games last season, impressed with his defense as he threw out 40 percent of would-be stealers. In five games with Carolina thus far, he has four singles and a triple in 15 at-bats.

Burroughs, meanwhile, has been active in the Venezuelan League with the Bravos de Margarita, batting .326 in 35 games.

NL Central: Three fixes for each team

November, 30, 2011
Now in its last-ever season as Bud Selig’s six-team division, the NL Central gave us the league’s pennant contenders, and figures to give us one of the most interesting offseasons of any division in baseball. Not least because the challenges confronting the Brewers and Cardinals are so very similar.

Milwaukee Brewers

1. First base: Open. (Prince Fielder, free agent)

Losing a batter of Fielder's quality and stature really shouldn't be the way the Brewers send off their 2011 season, but it remains to be seen whether they can afford to go dollar for dollar with the other teams that want him. If they fail to bring him back, they'll be hoping that the sporadically touted Mat Gamel finally breaks through. Gamel has spent most of the past three years at Triple-A Nashville, hitting .301/.374/.512 as a lefty power source -- or what figures to be a drop at the big league level from Fielder.

Likely solution: It's fairly straightforward. If they lose Fielder, they'll probably bank on Gamel, because he's a better choice than hauling in one of the second-tier free agents.

2. Shortstop: Open. (Yuniesky Betancourt, free agent)

The Brewers' situation is much like the Cardinals' in that if they don't keep their All-Star slugger at first, their highest priority won't be signing another first baseman, it'll be getting a shortstop. They've flirted with the best budget option, Rafael Furcal, but there's also been talk that they'd settle for bringing back Betancourt.

Likely solution: After Fielder signs elsewhere, it won't be surprising if getting a deal with Furcal done happens in short order. If they somehow manage to re-sign Fielder, bringing back Betancourt for much less than Furcal would cost becomes fairly likely.

3. Bullpen depth.

With Francisco Rodriguez and LaTroy Hawkins both on the move as free agents, finding adequate set-up help for closer John Axford becomes a significant item on GM Doug Melvin's shopping list. While you can hope that power lefty Zach Braddock will be back in the mix, after last season's problems they might also be interested in adding a veteran lefty.

Likely solution: They'll sign at least two veterans, but it won't be for huge money or longer for two years or year-plus-option deals.

St. Louis Cardinals

1. First base: Open. (Albert Pujols, free agent)

The blowback if the Cards fail to sign Pujols will be significant but survivable -- they did just win a World Series, after all. And if Pujols does leave, they're set to replace him on the field with Lance Berkman and in the lineup with Allen Craig (taking Berkman's place in right). If they keep Pujols, they'd certainly have a bargaining chip in Craig, which they might use to address their other issues, but it's likely they'd nevertheless keep him.

Likely solution: If they don't sign Pujols, they won't sign a first baseman.

2. Shortstop: Open. (Rafael Furcal, free agent)

Just like their division rivals in Milwaukee, the Cards' top priority if they don't land their superstar is to find a shortstop. While you might expect that a team throwing around the kind of money it will cost to keep Pujols could easily re-employ it to sign Jose Reyes, that doesn't seem likely, as the Cards really only seem committed to opening the wallet to keep their homegrown franchise player.

Likely solution: They beat the Brewers' bid for Furcal if they want to, or make Jimmy Rollins a happy man if they decide to make a longer-term commitment.

3. Second base: Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot, Daniel Descalso

The Schumaker-Theriot platoon down the stretch was nice, but Schumaker still plays second base like a converted outfielder, while Theriot's last year before free agency might be an arbitration-inflated expense that GM John Mozeliak decides he'd rather not afford. Add in Descalso's line-drive pop and plus defense at the hot corner, and you've got a number of useful alternatives.

Likely solution: It depends how comfortable new manager Mike Matheny is with the fluid roster situations that Tony La Russa exploited with relish. Theriot can serve as the backup shortstop, Schumaker the chief reserve in center, while Descalso can be David Freese's defensive replacement and spotter at third. If Matheny's adaptive enough to exploit all of that, second base isn't a problem.

Cincinnati Reds

1. Sorting out the rotation.

After not really resolving the situation over 2011, the Reds are still confronted with tough choices from among six plausible alternatives for four rotation slots. (Thanks to still owing Bronson Arroyo $28.5 million, they're stuck with him in the other slot for two more years.) However, GM Walt Jocketty's choice seems to involve a lot of “none of the above,” given rumors that his offseason interests are focused on even more young starters, with Jair Jurrjens of the Braves or John Danks or Gavin Floyd of the White Sox getting mentioned.

Probable solution: Assuming that where there's smoke there's fire, expect the Reds to deal from offensive depth to land a starting pitcher, with some of the overflow splashing over into the bullpen.

2. Closer: Open (Francisco Cordero, free agent)

With the market already overstocked with closers, Jocketty sensibly ditched Cordero's $12 million option for 2012 to explore his alternatives. Then the early-acting Phillies prompted a small run on that market segment with their signing of Jonathan Papelbon, and with Joe Nathan and Jonathan Broxton already signed, the best fit for the Reds' homer-happy park might be ... Cordero, because Heath Bell is out of their price range, while Brad Lidge or Matt Capps would be a bit combustible.

Probable solution: Getting Cordero to come back for a multiyear deal for a lower average annual value on the deal ought to work for the two parties, but if cost is still an object, Jocketty could reach for a mid-market right-hander like Octavio Dotel or Frank Francisco as a placeholder, and groom Cuban flamethrower Aroldis Chapman for the role of save generator.

3. Lineup choices.

The fun challenge for the Reds will be seeing how they integrate the talent they have coming up. Devin Mesoraco should win a share of the catching duties, while Zack Cozart will give them a solid two-way player at short. Juan Francisco and Yonder Alonso could both slug their way into taking playing time from Chris Heisey in left, but Francisco could also start nabbing starts from Scott Rolen at third base.

Probable solution: Dusty Baker has built job-sharing set-ups in the past, so this mini youth movement won't get nipped in the bud. However, Alonso is getting dangled in trade talks; if he's dealt for a starting pitcher, that would at least kill those Joey Votto trade rumors deader than Elvis.

Pittsburgh Pirates

1. Third base: Pedro Alvarez.

Because the Pirates have already signed Rod Barajas to catch and Clint Barmes to play shortstop, their best hope for significant offensive improvement from baseball's worst in 2011, according to Baseball Prospectus' True Average, is going to be for Alvarez to turn into the guy they thought they were getting when they made him the second overall selection of the 2008 draft. A .561 OPS with bad defense simply isn't going to fly, but the danger for the Bucs is that they'll quit on Alvarez too soon -- he's already approaching club options for 2013 and 2014.

Likely solution: Other than working with Alvarez, there isn't one. If he continues to struggle, they can use Josh Harrison for singles and steals.

2. Offense from the corners.

They've already offered Derrek Lee arbitration, which would staff first base while keeping Garrett Jones in right field. But they also have Jose Tabata and Alex Presley to employ in the outfield corners. That doesn't really add up to great power from these three power slots, even if they keep Lee. A Jones-Lee platoon might sound great in the abstract, but you can bet that Lee wouldn't care for it, while Tabata's power is still mostly a matter of anticipation that he'll eventually have some. If Lee walks, platooning Jones with the recently signed Nick Evans is a cheap solution -- but still leaves the Bucs light on power.

Likely solution: Again, there isn't one. The farm system doesn't have the next Willie Stargell on tap.

3. Take stock.

For a team whose upside might scrape 80 wins, the Pirates already have a fairly settled lineup, rotation and bullpen. Shopping closer Joel Hanrahan might have made sense most winters, but with the closer market overstocked with options, there are few guarantees that GM Neal Huntington could add the kind of prospects to make it worthwhile. Gunning for ending the 19-season losing streak might be worthwhile, but if that's this team's upside, how excited about that should anyone really be?

Chicago Cubs

Not trying to be Zen-like about this, but the Cubs' issues transcend single positions and demand expansive solutions ...

1. Achieve closure. (Carlos Zambrano)

Before moving on to new business, the Cubs' new brain trust needs to be sure that it's finished up with the most noisome bit of old business. To get even a middling prospect, the Cubs would need to eat just about all of the $18 million that Zambrano's due and get him to waive his no-trade clause.

As tense as Big Z's relationship with his employers has been, you can understand some of his frustration -- moving him to the bullpen in 2010 was genuinely stupid, and who wouldn't get exasperated with being a Cub? Whether the choice is to clean the slate or make a deal, it's worthwhile to choose and move on.

Likely outcome: Unless the Marlins' idea of getting him to defer salary goes anywhere, get used to the idea that Zambrano will be with the Cubs in camp when pitchers and catchers report.

2. Acquire patience and power (6.9 percent walk rate, 29th in MLB)

This isn't just the fault of veterans Alfonso Soriano (5.3 percent walk rate in 2011) and Marlon Byrd (5.2); kids like Starlin Castro (4.9) and Darwin Barney (3.9) don't work their way aboard either. It's hard to sustain any kind of offense without baserunners, and right now the only regular with a walk rate better than league average is Geovany Soto. And with Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez vacating the infield corners, the Cubs are losing two of their best power sources.

Likely outcome: Top prospect Brett Jackson (73 walks in 512 PAs in the minors) will make the team at some point, likely replacing Byrd in center (if he's dealt). The Cubs just signed David DeJesus for right field, but short of re-signing Pena or landing either Pujols or Fielder to man first base, it's going to take some pretty creative wheeling and dealing to significantly improve matters in Year 1 of the Theo Epstein era.

3. Improve the defense (.699 Defensive Efficiency, 26th in MLB)

The new crew in charge talks about defense a bit, and it's easy to understand why, given the weak performance afield of the group it's inheriting. In particular, it's no secret that Castro's brand of shortstop play didn't do the Cubs any favors, as he ranked last among big league shortstops in Total Zone and BIS' Defensive Runs Saved.

Likely outcome: The upside of having a young star at short will mean a lot of extra infield practice for Castro in February, and Jackson will improve the outfield once he's up. But if Castro's footwork doesn't improve, moving him to third and the much more slick Barney to short (where his bat would profile better) could eventually be part of the solution.

Houston Astros

1. Picking a GM.

This is it, the wellspring from which everything else will flow, and hiring Ed Wade for the pointless kamikaze run of 2008 represents what you get when you choose the bitter dregs. The good news is that Jim Crane's gang certainly seems to have the right names on its short list, with GM Andrew Friedman of the Rays and Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine at the top. Guys like AGM Rick Hahn of the White Sox, DeJon Watson or Logan White from the Dodgers, former Royals GM Allard Baird or former D-backs AGM Peter Woodfork might also turn up. As many people as opted out of the Orioles' front-office gig may want in on Houston's.

Likely solution: It's entirely dependent on who gets interviewed and who makes the right impression, but it already looks like they've got the right people in mind. If they were only picking between Friedman and Levine, there wouldn't be a wrong answer.

2. Shortstop: Open (Barmes, departed to Pittsburgh as a free agent)

Barmes provided plus defense and modest offense, but cashed in on that already, leaving Houston with Angel Sanchez atop the depth chart. Sanchez's poor range translates into ugly defensive numbers. With the rotation representing one of the few assets the Astros can brag about, they'd do well to provide the men on the mound with an assist afield with a defensive upgrade.

Likely solution: The interim until they pick a GM could hamstring their efforts to get someone like Alex Gonzalez signed to help maintain the starting pitchers' value and hold the fort until Jon Villar or Jiovanni Mier is ready.

3. Outfield: Open.

“Open” not in the sense that the Astros are losing anybody of note, but in that the new GM is going to have to decide if some combination of Brian Bogusevic, J.D. Martinez, Jason Bourgeois and Jordan Schafer is really what he wants out there, with Carlos Lee to plant in left whenever he isn't at first base.

Likely solution: Don't be surprised if a cheap veteran who can play all three slots -- say, a guy like Fred Lewis -- gets added to the mix.

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

Trading problems to help Cubs, Mariners

November, 9, 2011
This time of year, there are the fun contracts, the ones that involve oodles of cash and must-have free agents coming to your team. It’s Christmas coming early to fans already thinking about next season with optimism. But there are also those other kinds of money matters, the ones you would really rather forget. We’re a couple weeks away from Thanksgiving, but you know what I’m talking about: Turkeys, those big-ticket expenses that nobody remembers fondly, with a heaping side of regret producing so much payroll flab that even the most reliably sensible GM can’t make it go away fast enough.

There’s a cure for being stuck with too much turkey, though. Call it a case of exchanging my ulcer for your headache, but teams can and do make yesterday’s bad ideas go away. A change of scenery can help a player get his career back on track; at the very least, it removes the odium associated with his predecessor.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Zambrano
AP Photo/Paul BeatyCould trading Carlos Zambrano to the Mariners for Chone Figgins solve problems for both teams?
No doubt we’ll see a few of these somewhere along the line, with the GM and owners’ meetings next week in Milwaukee, non-tender decisions at the end of the month, then the Winter Meetings in Dallas, and then things really pick up. A trade of this nature might be as ticky-tack as when the Reds swapped Willy Taveras (plus Adam Rosales) for Aaron Miles of the A’s, or as big as the Cubs dealing away Milton Bradley to the Mariners for Carlos Silva.

Aiming big, here’s my insane notion of an exchange of bad contracts: Let’s say Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners aren’t suffering from “once bitten, twice shy,” and will pick up the phone when the Cubs call. (Besides, it’s a new guy on the phone, as you might have heard.) The Cubs need a third baseman; they also need a leadoff hitter. And laying there, smack-dab on the Mariners’ bottom line, is a seemingly lifeless Chone Figgins, due $17 million for the next two seasons.

What do they have to offer? Carlos Zambrano’s 2012 season, for which Big Z’s due $18 million.

So right there, the money’s close, although there are complications. Figgins has a 2014 option for $9 million, which reportedly vests if he reaches 600 plate appearances in 2013, but if he’s good enough for Theo Epstein’s outfit to earn that kind of playing time, he’d probably be worth the money. And Zambrano has a no-trade clause, not to mention a 2013 vesting option worth $19.25 million -- it apparently vests if he’s healthy and he finishes in the top four in Cy Young voting, two possibilities you can probably afford to discount, or haggle over should they come to pass. But even with arbitration-related payroll inflation, the Mariners’ 2012 payroll is already being lightened by $21 million now that Bradley, Jack Wilson and Jack Cust are off the books.

However, assuming Zambrano’s amenable to getting dealt, there’s still the big question of why both teams would want to make this trade.

For the Cubs, the upside is that maybe, liberated from the pitcher-friendly expanses of Safeco Field, Figgins gets back to being a useful OBP source on offense while providing value in the field at third base, where he’s an asset. He’d also add a switch-hitter to a Cubs’ lineup with a right-wards lean. Josh Vitters may eventually be ready, but 21 walks in 488 PAs in Double-A suggests it won't be in 2012. And perhaps most conveniently, as a matter of money management, the expense of employing Figgins gets spread across a couple of seasons, making it that much easier to mound up major money to sign that first-base demigod to be named later.

For the Mariners, it’s a matter of getting dead wood out of the way in the infield. Dustin Ackley’s their second baseman, and at third base they can look forward to Alex Liddi taking his shot at being either something good or the new Jim Presley.

Would Zambrano be useful? Conceivably, because after Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, it isn’t like the rotation boasts much to get excited about. Jason Vargas can be written into one slot, and then you get into how worked up you want to be over the immediate futures of Blake Beavan or Charlie Furbush. Their best starting pitcher prospects -- Danny Hultzen and James Paxton -- won’t be rushed but could both be ready to stick by season’s end, so they’ll be kicking the tires on a retread or two in the meantime.

So why not Zambrano, working with the benefit of a big park? He’s a big, troubled man, but pitching coach Carl Willis has experience from his days with the Indians working with the big (CC Sabathia) and the troubled (Cliff Lee). If Zambrano works out, the Mariners buy themselves time in the rotation the first four or five months, while opening up a roster spot and lineup slot for Liddi by making Figgins disappear. If Big Z combusts, he’s gone in a few months anyway, and the Mariners can look forward to a 2012-13 offseason when they’ll have just two major financial commitments, to Felix Hernandez and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez.

OK, this is all crazy talk, but while we wait for the offseason to unfold, I’m just tossing this out there to see what other suggestions folks might have. For this winter, what’s your favorite possible exchange of problem players or crippling contracts?

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

The Chicago Cubs can be fixed. Just don’t be fooled by their recent stretch of 14 wins in 19 games. This isn’t a good team and probably won’t be a good team in 2012. Crack an egg, mix in some butter and start from scratch.

Bring in an experienced general manager.
Buster Olney reported Sunday that three possibilities to replace Jim Hendry are Yankees GM Brian Cashman (his contract expires at the end of the season), Billy Beane of the A’s and Tampa’s Andrew Friedman. While the trendy thing might to hire a young 33-year-old Ivy League grad, the smart move is to hire one the three guys above, who are not only fluent in advanced metrics but would come with the job security and patience required to rebuild the franchise.

Pay big bucks for the best scouting director, scouts and player development people you can hire.
The revolving door of signing mediocre veterans hasn’t worked. Giving playing time to guys like Xavier Nady or Carlos Pena aren't solutions; they’re caulking on a broken dam. The Cubs need to start thinking like the Red Sox and Yankees, which means: Develop your own talent and, if you sign a free agent, make sure he’s a star.

The last Cubs' first-rounder to develop into a star was Mark Prior, drafted in 2001. The Cubs had three other top-10 picks since 2000 and drafted high school hitters Luis Montanez, Ryan Harvey and Josh Vitters, none of whom developed as expected. (Vitters still has time; as he’s currently in Double-A, hitting .283 with 12 home runs, but just 17 walks). The last first-round hitter that developed into a solid major leaguer was Doug Glanville, drafted in 1991. The Cubs’ player development system has been broken for a long time. Compare that to the Red Sox, who developed Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and now Josh Reddick this decade. The Cubs have spent 20 years drafting athletes; the Red Sox have spent a decade drafting baseball players.

Realize that you’re stuck with Alfonso Soriano, but that you need a real left fielder.
Soriano is making $19 million each of the next three seasons. That money is spent, a sunk cost regardless of whether Soriano gets 600 at-bats or 60. Next season, that total should be closer to 60, not 600, as Soriano is now a one-dimensional player who pops the occasional home run but brings nothing else to the table, most notably the ability to get on base -- among 188 major league players with at least 350 plate appearances, Soriano’s .281 on-base percentage ranks 171st. That’s unacceptable for a left fielder.

Go after Prince Fielder, not Albert Pujols.
Fielder is four years younger, provides the left-handed power bat the Cubs need, and despite his girth is one of the most durable players in baseball, having missed just 12 games in six seasons. He may not be quite as good as Pujols, but he won’t cost as much and is arguably less of a long-term risk. Put it this way: I’d rather have Fielder for seven years and $154 million than Pujols for eight years and $225 million.

Recognize that Starlin Castro is a good player, but maybe not a franchise hitter … and maybe not a shortstop.
By that, I mean a hitter who will grow into his power and move down to third or fourth in the order, as many project for the 21-year-old. On the bright side, of 18 hitters since 1980 to accumulate at least 800 plate appearances through their age-21 season, Castro ranks behind only Alex Rodriguez with his .304 batting average. But with just 10 home runs in 992 at-bats, his power numbers are near the bottom of the list. That doesn’t mean the power won’t come -- it just means we don’t know if Castro is more likely to develop like Edgar Renteria or Gary Sheffield. More problematic has been his play at shortstop. I’d give Castro another year there, but down the road the Cubs may be better off moving Castro to second base and finding a better glove for shortstop.

Trade Marlon Byrd.
Byrd is a nice player who has hit .295 since 2007, but he’s not a big star and he turns 34 later this month. Byrd is signed for $6.5 million for 2012, making him an attractive trade option for a team in need of a center fielder. Byrd is unlikely to be around when the Cubs are good again, so getting something for him before his aging curve kicks in is vital. Give prospect Brett Jackson, currently tearing it up in Triple-A, a September audition and then the center-field job next season.

Yes, Darwin Barney is scrappy and “Kunane” is one of his two middle names. But don’t love him too much.
Cubs fans like Barney, but he’s the kind of disposable middle infielder that second-division clubs give starting jobs to, not championship teams. Even if he hits .296 again -- and that is unlikely -- Barney has no power and doesn’t draw enough walks for a guy with no power. He’s OK as a stopgap, but it’s a big mistake if he’s still the starting second baseman in three years.

Dump Carlos Zambrano.
Like Soriano, the money is a sunk cost. At this point, Zambrano just isn’t good enough to warrant the headaches he creates. Put him in on waivers the day the season ends and just eat the money.

Be patient.
Don’t try to fix this in one season. The Cubs have been patching it together year by year for too long. It did all come together with a 97-win season in 2008, but that type of scenario is rare. Jim Hendry was never willing to bite the bullet and rebuild, but it’s time. Be patient, give the new GM the same resources as Hendry, and there’s no reason the Cubs shouldn’t turn into a consistent winner like the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies or Cardinals.

Oh, and quit blaming the *&*(#!@ goat.

Andrew McCutchenCharles LeClaire/US PresswireAndrew McCutchen couldn't get the baseball, but at least he found the ketchup.

Some positive things happened under Jim Hendry's tenure: In his first season as Chicago Cubs general manager in 2003, the club won 88 games and reached the NLCS. The Cubs won another NL Central division title in 2007 and in 2008 won 97 games, the most for the Cubs since 1945. Unfortunately, both seasons ended in depressing sweeps in the first round of the postseason and were then followed by three disappointing seasons with bloated payrolls. In the end, Hendry followed the same path as Andy MacPhail and Ed Lynch and Jim Frey and Dallas Green and Bob Kennedy and Salty Saltwell and John Holland: He failed to get the Cubs to a World Series.

It was time for the Cubs to fire Hendry. Although you can give him credit for building the 2008 team that won the most games in the National League, it was his failure to understand how that team was a house of cards ready to collapse and how that led to the current situation: The Cubs have the sixth-highest payroll in the majors and are 54-70, sitting in fifth place in a weak division. Last season, the Cubs had the third-highest payroll and finished 75-87. No GM is going to keep his job with high payrolls and losing records, but to make matters worse, the Cubs are a boring, old team without an obvious bright future. The only regulars younger than 28 are Matt Garza, Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney, and Barney is not a championship-level player long-term. Even signing Albert Pujols this offseason wouldn't fix the Cubs.

[+] EnlargeJim Hendry
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Cubs fired GM Jim Hendry on July 22, but he wanted to help the team by staying on through the July 31 trading deadline.
How did the Cubs get here? Let's turn back to 2007. That was the year Hendry signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million contract. Soriano had been terrific with the Nationals in 2006, posting the best season of his career with 46 home runs, 41 steals and a .277/.351/.560 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) line. But he was also a player who had posted a .316 OBP the previous two years in Texas and came with a mediocre glove. There was no way to justify that kind of contract; simply put, Soriano was not an elite player. No player who fails to get on base 35 percent of the time can be paid like one of the best players in baseball. Although Soriano helped the Cubs in 2007 and 2008, the contract is now an albatross bigger than the hole in Soriano's swing -- he'll make $19 million per season through 2014. With a .283 OBP, it's difficult to justify a bench position for him, let alone a starting job.

In 2007, Hendry signed Carlos Zambrano to a contract extension in August. "His best years are ahead of him, and the Cubs know that we have one of the top pitchers in baseball for a long time," Hendry said at the news conference. One of the top pitchers in baseball? Really? Zambrano had posted a 3.41 ERA in 2006 and led the major leagues in walks with 115. At the time of his signing he had a 3.86 ERA, on his way to again leading the league in walks. But Hendry made him one of the highest-paid pitchers in baseball -- and this despite Zambrano complaining all season about his contract and getting into a brawl earlier in the season with teammate Michael Barrett. Considering his hothead reputation and the number of innings he pitched at a young age, Zambrano's decline into mediocrity and knucklehead reactions were all too entirely predictable. Everybody saw it except Hendry.

Six of the eight regulars on the 2008 roster were older than 30, with only 25-year-old Geovany Soto and 28-year-old shortstop Ryan Theriot on the "young" side. Yet the only addition Hendry made for 2009 was to add ... Milton Bradley. Yes, that one didn't work too well. The Cubs have been too right-handed at the plate for years, a problem Hendry was unable to fix. He traded Ted Lilly and got nothing but Blake DeWitt, who couldn't beat out Barney. He failed to build any pitching depth in Triple-A, meaning the Cubs had to resort to guys like Casey Coleman and Doug Davis in the rotation this year, guys who predictably got hammered. The minor league system hasn't been productive.

So, yes, it was time for Hendry to go. He's well-liked in baseball circles, and I'm sure he'll get a job with another organization. As for the Cubs, it's back to the drawing board. Assistant GM Randy Bush takes over for now, but I'm sure owner Tom Ricketts will go outside the organization for a new GM. I wish the guy a lot of luck ... after all, the Cubs are already paying $65 million next season just for Soriano, Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Marlon Byrd and Carlos Marmol.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Podcast: Is the NL West race over?

August, 17, 2011
I thank SweetSpot writer/editor David Schoenfield for joining me on Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast, as we had a blast discussing many topics, including these:

1. Former GM Jim Bowden stopped by to break down the pennant races, talk about players that shouldn’t be given up on and how he would react if Carlos Zambrano was on his team. Very interesting debate!

2. The Arizona Diamondbacks just keep on winning, while the defending champs keep ... well, you know. Is the NL West -- as well as the NL Central and AL West -- still a race anymore?

3. The Detroit Tigers are holding on in the AL Central, and things generally go well when the amazing Justin Verlander is on the mound, but an emailer wonders if it will be enough to hold off the Indians and White Sox.

4. Alex Rodriguez gets booed while in Triple-A. Find out why and whether it was deserved. Really, do people need a reason?

5. While we often rip traditional statistics such as wins and RBIs, that doesn’t mean they can’t matter some, does it?

Plus: Excellent emails, what I had for dinner Tuesday, how the Phillies blew the ninth inning Tuesday, a closer look at Wednesday’s schedule and so much more on a packed Wednesday Baseball Today podcast!
Unlike Dan Uggla's memorable hitting streak, Baseball Today continues onward and upward for a Monday edition ripe with topics that Mark Simon and I discussed, including:

1. We congratulate the Atlanta second baseman for his unlikely accomplishment, while also praising his Chicago Cubs foe that stopped it.

2. We do not congratulate Chicago Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano if this was indeed the last time he will pitch this season, but we offer thoughts on his future team.

3. Prince Fielder and the Brewers are rolling along, but as Mark points out, the team’s -- and individual’s -- work at home is carrying the day.

4. If it’s Monday, it’s time for Power Rankings, and the Brewers move up in mine. Check out the interesting back of the top 10 for each of us.

5. Many seem unhappy that Florida Marlins outfielder/master tweeter Logan Morrison was demoted to the minors. Why did it happen?

Plus: Excellent emails, the excellent Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen, the excellent Peter Bourjos, the Curtis Granderson kryptonite, ejections, A.J. Burnett and much more on Monday’s Baseball Today podcast!
So, Thomas Neumann of Page 2 sent me this picture of a Sports Illustrated cover, listing all the millionaire players from 1985. I think Thomas was working on a career retrospective of John Denny or something, I'm not sure. (OK, he actually interviewed Mike Schmidt.) Anyway, it got me thinking: What if we compare the highest-paid players from 1985 to the highest-paid players of 2011 ... and find out if teams are smarter than they were in 1985. After all, front offices know much more than they used to, right? With all the advanced metrics out there, all the Ivy League dudes making the decisions and so on, you'd expect smarter moves being made by front offices.

Let's take the top 25 players from that 1985 cover, the top 25 highest-paid players of 2011 and check their Wins Above Replacement level (WAR) from Baseball-Reference.com. For 2011, we'll using their current WAR prorated to the entire season.

1985 Top 25 Highest-Paid Players
1. Mike Schmidt ($2.1M): 5.3 WAR
2. Jim Rice ($2.1M): 1.1 WAR
3. George Foster ($1.9M): 1.5 WAR
4. Dave Winfield ($1.7M): 2.8 WAR
5. Gary Carter ($1.7M): 6.7 WAR
6. Dale Murphy ($1.6M): 5.3 WAR
7. Bob Horner ($1.5M): 1.8 WAR
8. Rickey Henderson ($1.5M): 10.0 WAR
9. Eddie Murray ($1.4M): 6.0 WAR
10. Bruce Sutter ($1.3M): -0.1 WAR
11. Ozzie Smith ($1.3M): 5.7 WAR
12. Jack Clark ($1.3M): 3.3 WAR
13. Robin Yount ($1.3M): 1.7 WAR
14. Pedro Guerrero ($1.3M): 7.8 WAR
15. Rick Sucliffe ($1.3M): 2.8 WAR
16. Fernando Valenzuela ($1.2M): 5.6 WAR
17. Goose Gossage ($1.2M): 2.6 WAR
18. Tim Raines ($1.2M): 7.5 WAR
19. Steve Kemp ($1.2M): -0.2 WAR
20. Steve Carlton ($1.2M): 1.2 WAR
21. Andre Dawson ($1.1M): 2.0 WAR
22. Keith Hernandez ($1.1M): 4.9 WAR
23. Mario Soto ($1.1M): 3.6 WAR
24. Andre Thornton ($1.1M): 0.0 WAR
25. Fred Lynn ($1.1M): 2.0 WAR

Total salary: $34.8 million.
Total major payroll in 1985: About $264.7 million.
Percentage of total payroll: 13.1 percent.
Total WAR: 90.9.

2011 Top 25 Highest-Paid Players
1. Alex Rodriguez ($32.0M): 5.3 WAR
2. Vernon Wells ($26.2M): -1.4 WAR
3. CC Sabathia ($24.3M): 4.6 WAR
4. Mark Teixeira ($23.1M): 3.9 WAR
5. Joe Mauer ($23.0M): -0.5 WAR
6. Johan Santana ($21.6M): Injured
7. Todd Helton ($20.3M): 3.9 WAR
8. Miguel Cabrera ($20.0M): 6.7 WAR
9. Roy Halladay ($20.0M): 9.2 WAR
10. Ryan Howard ($20.0M): 2.5 WAR
11. Carlos Beltran ($19.3M): 5.1 WAR
12. Carlos Lee ($19.0M): 3.0 WAR
13. Alfonso Soriano ($19.0M): 1.2 WAR
14. Carlos Zambrano ($18.9M): 2.8 WAR
15. Torii Hunter ($18.5M): -0.7 WAR
16. Barry Zito ($18.5M): -0.5 WAR
17. Jason Bay ($18.1M): 0.0 WAR
18. Ichiro Suzuki ($18.0M): 0.5 WAR
19. Josh Beckett ($17.0M): 9.2 WAR
20. A.J. Burnett ($16.5M): 2.3 WAR
21. Matt Holliday ($16.3M): 5.1 WAR
22. Michael Young ($16.1M): 1.8 WAR
23. Roy Oswalt ($16.0M): 3.7 WAR
24. Jake Peavy ($16.0M): 0.7 WAR
25. John Lackey ($15.9M): -2.5 WAR

Total salary: $493.6 million.
Total major payroll in 2011: About $2.786 billion.
Percentage of total payroll: 17.7 percent.
Total prorated WAR: 65.9.


Major league owners in 2011 are paying a higher percentage of their total payroll to the top 25 players and receiving far less production. Even if you account for better seasons the rest of the way from the likes of Joe Mauer and Ichiro Suzuki and Torii Hunter and John Lackey, the 2011 group wouldn't come close to matching the 1985 group in total WAR.

What's amazing is to look at the 2011 list and realize how many of those guys were never superstar players: Vernon Wells? Carlos Lee? Torii Hunter? Michael Young? A.J. Burnett? Barry Zito? Please. Good players at one point, never superstars.

Another way to look at it: Of the top 25 position players in B-R's WAR in 2011, only ONE (Miguel Cabrera) is one of the top-25 highest-paid players. In 1985, nine of the top 25 position players were among the 25 highest-paid players.

Also, in 2011, 10 of the top-25 highest-paid players are pitchers -- who inherently are more risky. Of those 11, five have spent time on the DL this season.

So, nice job major league owners and general managers! You're collectively, umm ... well, let's just say that Vernon Wells isn't worth $26.2 million.

Follow Dave on Twitter @dschoenfield and check out the SweetSpot Facebook page.