SweetSpot: Clay Buchholz

Whenever people say baseball is in trouble I point them to a game like Sunday's Yankees-Brewers contest in Milwaukee, a fun back-and-forth game played before a loud, soldout crowd of over 43,000 fans at Miller Park.

Yes, it was the Yankees and it was Mother's Day, but Milwaukee is the smallest market in the majors and all three games in the series drew 40,000-plus fans. If you put an exciting, quality product on the field you have the potential to bring in baseball-loving fans like the Brewers are doing.

The game came down to the ninth inning and Mark Teixeira tied it with a dramatic, two-out home run off Francisco Rodriguez, the first run K-Rod has allowed in 20 appearances this season. Against Adam Warren in the bottom of the ninth, however, Rickie Weeks doubled with one out. It looks like a line drive in the box score but it was actually a broken-bat chopper down the first-base line that skipped past Teixeira, who was playing off the line against the right-handed Weeks.

After a wild pitch, it appeared Warren might escape the inning when he struck out Lyle Overbay on a nice changeup, but Mark Reynolds grounded an 0-2 slider past a diving Yangervis Solarte at third base for the walk-off hit. Reynolds got the obligatory mob celebration at first base and Brewers fans went home happy.

It was the second straight one-run victory for the Brewers after Saturday's 6-5 win in which they scored off Alfredo Aceves in the seventh inning. They were two nice wins for Milwaukee, which had dropped seven of nine before the victories. If there's a baseball question off those games, it's this: Is the Yankees' middle relief a strength or a weakness?

The retirement of Mariano Rivera and promotion of David Robertson to closer left the rest of the Yankees bullpen a major unknown. So far, I'd give the pen a B-minus grade so far. It's 4-6 with a 3.91 ERA (19th in the majors), although it lost three games this week. The biggest positive is the pen ranks fourth in the majors in strikeout rate, behind only the Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks. The Yankees have received solid work so far from Warren (0.926 WHIP), one-time prospect Dellin Betances, who has 33 strikeouts in 20 innings, and Mariners cast-off Shawn Kelley, who picked up four saves when Robertson was injured and is now the primary setup guy.

It's kind of a no-name group other than Robertson, but it has the chance to be a surprising part of the Yankees' 2014 success. The pen will be tested a little more in the next two weeks with CC Sabathia landing on the DL with inflammation in his knee. Aceves will likely move into Sabathia's spot in a rotation that is without Ivan Nova for the year, Michael Pineda for another month and now Sabathia. With the rotation suddenly thin, the bullpen has to be good.

Here are five other issues to think about as we approach the quarter pole:

1. Can the Colorado Rockies hit -- and win -- on the road?

The Rockies lost twice in Cincinnati over the weekend, including 4-1 on Sunday as Homer Bailey shut them down. They did score 11 runs on Saturday but they're now 13-5 at home, 10-12 on the road. They're hitting .355/.401/.600 at home (!) and .258/.306/.426 on the road. That's the 12th-best wOBA on the road, a big improvement from last season when the Rockies ranked 25th in road wOBA.

You'll hear people talk about the Rockies' pitchers needing to come through, but I think their key will be scoring runs on the road. Over the past 10 seasons (2004-13), the Rockies have the biggest difference between home wins and road wins in the majors (113 more wins at home). Their problem hasn't been winning at Coors Field but winning on the road, and the statistics show their offense declines more away from Coors than their pitchers improve away from Coors.

2. How is Don Mattingly going to sort out this Dodgers outfield situation?

The presumption with that question, I suppose, is that the Dodgers' outfield has been a problem. Guess what? The Dodgers' outfield ranks third in the majors with a .352 wOBA, behind only the Rockies and Blue Jays. Yasiel Puig has been great, Matt Kemp has been OK and Scott Van Slyke has been terrific in limited action. Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford, however, both have an OPS under .700 and have combined for just three home runs, leading Dodgers fans to wonder if and when prospect Joc Pederson will eventually be given a chance.

Pederson is hitting .373/.481/.679 at Triple-A Alburquerque, with 11 home runs and 10 stolen bases entering Sunday. However, that is Alburquerque, which is a hitters' haven, and Pederson has 41 strikeouts in 35 games, so more time in the minors won't hurt. The other issue is that Kemp appears to be a major liability defensively in center, both by the defensive metrics (-5 defensive runs saved entering Sunday) and the eye test. Come September, it's possible the best Dodgers outfield will be Kemp in left, Pederson in center and Puig in right, with Van Slyke possibly platooning with Pederson (moving Kemp to center). I don't know where that leaves Ethier and Crawford, but GM Ned Colletti may eventually face the difficult dilemma of sitting two veterans (good luck trading either one) for a rookie who may be the better player.

3. Is there anything positive to say about the Rays right now?

Well, let's see: The rotation is 12th in the AL in ERA, the bullpen is 11th, the offense is seventh in wOBA, the defense is at -6 DRS entering Sunday, and Wil Myers and Evan Longoria haven't teed off yet. Oh, and the team's record is 16-22. I'm searching ... OK, Desmond Jennings is playing well. There have been some injuries in the rotation, but still some stuff I can't figure out. Take Chris Archer, Sunday's starter and loser after he allowed eight hits and four walks in five innings. Last year, his slider was one of the nastiest pitches in the game, as right-handers hit .195 with one extra-base hit against. This year, they're hitting .464 against the slider and already have three doubles and three home runs off it. Without that slider, Archer is mostly a two-pitch guy and his changeup isn't good enough yet.

I guess the point in all this: I'm very concerned about the Rays. They always put together a great run at some point during the season, but you have to wonder if the pitching is good enough to do that this season.

4. Which five position players should lose playing time?

OK, let's try these guys:

1. Dan Uggla, Braves (.184/.248/.272): Of course. Over a year of bad baseball now.

2. Pablo Sandoval, Giants (.189/.262/.295): The Giants are doing fine without Pablo producing, but this a team that now relies on its offense more than its rotation.

3. Brad Miller, Mariners (.165/.223/.281): I liked his bat coming into the season but he's been terrible at the plate and made some crucial errors in the field. Nick Franklin may not have the range to play shortstop but he's pounding the ball at Tacoma (.376/.459/.677 entering Sunday), and teammate Chris Taylor, more of a legitimate shortstop, is also hitting at Tacoma (.353/.395/.579). The Mariners are a game over .500 and need some offense.

4. Carlos Santana, Indians (.148/.319/.281): Surprisingly, his defense at third base has been OK, but what's happened to his batting? He's second in the majors in walks so he's still getting on base, but maybe he's taken the whole plate discipline thing a little too far.

5. Josh Reddick, A's (.214/.279/.286): He plays a mean right field but the bat has gone south since his 32-homer season in 2012. The A's are third in the AL in runs even though they're getting nothing from Reddick, their second basemen or part-time first baseman Daric Barton. Expect Craig Gentry to continue to get more time in right field if Reddick continues to struggle.

5. OK, how about five pitchers on the hot seat?

1. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (2-3, 6.44 ERA): His average fastball velocity is down 1 mph, but does that explain why his batting average allowed is .329? Maybe, as his fastball is getting tattooed at a .413 clip and he's averaging barely five innings per start.

2. Francisco Liriano, Pirates (0-3, 4.64 ERA): He's never been known for his consistency. It all came together last year, but wild Liriano is back with 21 walks in 42⅔ innings, part of the reason the Pirates' rotation is last in the majors in WAR.

3. Homer Bailey, Reds (3-2, 4.72 ERA): I'm not that worried about him and he rebounded with a strong effort against the Rockies on Sunday. Still, added pressure comes with that big contract and he'll be expected to get that ERA into the low-to-mid 3s sooner rather than later.

4. Tim Lincecum, Giants (2-2, 5.55 ERA): Fifty hits and six home runs in 35⅔ innings. Those who questioned the two-year, $35 million contract appear to be correct so far.

5. CC Sabathia, Yankees (3-4, 5.28): As mentioned, he just landed on the DL for at least two weeks. Can he still win with diminished velocity? We'll see.
PinedaTom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesIt appears Pineda had something on his palm during his first start of the year in Toronto.
It appears that Thursday night wasn't the first time Michael Pineda had apparently used some sort of foreign substance on his hand. As you can see in the photo above from his first start of the year in Toronto, there appears to be something that looks like pine tar on his palm.

Since that game was played inside at Toronto, Pineda can't even use cold weather as a potential excuse. A quick scroll back through photos from his Mariners days in 2011 doesn't reveal anything suspicious, so whatever Pineda may or may not be using appears to be something new.

"I don't use pine tar," Pineda said after the game. "It's dirt. I'm sweating on my hand too much in between innings." Sounds a little bit like the excuse Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz used last year when his forearm appeared a little extra shiny.

For reference, here's rule 8.02(A):
The pitcher shall not --

(4) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball

(6) deliver a ball altered in a manner prescribed by Rule 8.02(a)

Penalty: The pitcher shall be ejected immediately and suspended automatically.

[+] EnlargePineda
Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY SportsWhen Pineda was pitching for Seattle in 2011, it didn't appear that he had anything on his palm.
In 2012, Tampa Bay Rays reliever Joel Peralta was ejected from a game and suspended eight games after he was caught with pine tar in his glove. Red Sox starter Jon Lester had some strange-looking green-colored substance in his glove last October. Of course, Pineda wasn't ejected from the game, so it's unclear whether he would face a possible suspension.

As Buster Olney wrote today in his blog, that could be why the Red Sox didn't raise an issue about the suspicious-looking nature of Pineda's hand: Everybody is doing something to get a better grip on the baseball.

Pine tar is one way to get a better grip on the ball. So is sunscreen, which is what Buchholz was likely using last May when Blue Jays broadcaster Jack Morris accused him of throwing a spitball. In the wake of the Buchholz incident, Yahoo's Jeff Passan reported that, according to his sources, most pitchers use spray-on sunscreen.

Passan wrote:
Two veteran pitchers and one source close to the Red Sox told Yahoo! Sports that about 90 percent of major league pitchers use some form of spray-on sunscreen – almost always BullFrog brand – that when combined with powdered rosin gives them a far superior grip on the ball. …

… "I just don't get the difference between BullFrog and hitters using pine tar," the NL pitcher said. "No difference whatsoever. Pitcher needs better grip so he knows somewhat where it's going and doesn't hit the batter in the head.

"I've never heard of it affecting movement. Scuffs on the ball are the only thing that can do that."

Though the BullFrog concoction may not foster unnatural movement, the pitchers admitted that once they mastered its whims -- balls that are too sticky end up bouncing 5 feet in front of the plate, so it can take time to tame -- it unquestionably helped their stuff. The better grip a pitcher has, the more confident he is in unleashing his pitches. The longer a ball stays on his fingers, the better finish he gets on the pitch.

As for the quote about hitters, the pitcher is missing one obvious point: It's legal for a batter to use pine tar; it's illegal for a pitcher to use a foreign substance.

It makes you wonder a little bit: Has offense declined in recent years due to the proliferation of spray-on sunscreen? Is that one reason pitchers are dominating like we have seen in 25 years? Is BullFrog (or pine tar) to pitchers what steroids were to hitters?

As offense spirals downward, maybe it's time for Major League Baseball to crack down on another wave of substance abuse.

Another fun World Series game, with big hits, big decisions and a final score of Boston 4, St. Louis 2.

Hero: Jonny Gomes. Inserted into the lineup only as a replacement for Shane Victorino, who couldn't go because of lower back tightness, Gomes was chosen over Mike Carp, even though Cardinals starter Lance Lynn has a sizable platoon split, and has been much less effective against left-handed hitters. Gomes has sort of been John Farrell's hunch bet this postseason, even though he entered the game hitting just .152/.200/.212. In fact, his .125 career average in the postseason entering the game was the lowest of any active player with at least 40 plate appearances. When he grounded into a double play in the second inning, the second-guessers had a good laugh.

In the fifth, still facing Lynn after David Ortiz hit a leadoff double, Gomes fell behind 0-2 but worked a 10-pitch walk, with Ortiz eventually scoring the tying run on a sac fly.

In the sixth, Dustin Pedroia singled with two outs and Lynn gave Ortiz a four-pitch intentional unintentional walk. It was an interesting set of decisions by Mike Matheny that inning:

1. He could have brought in a lefty to face Ortiz. Remember, Ortiz hit a pedestrian .260/.315/.418 against left-handed pitchers in the regular season. Matheny was either (A) influenced by the fact that Ortiz had homered off Kevin Siegrist and singled off Randy Choate; (B) not wanting to pitch to Ortiz with anybody; or (C) factoring in that there were still at least three more innings and wanted to save his lefties for later in the game, especially with Carlos Martinez unlikely to pitch for the fourth time in five days.

2. Let Lynn pitch to Gomes.

3. Bring in a reliever to pitch to Gomes.

Lynn was at 89 pitches and had allowed five of the previous 10 batters to reach base. While it certainly seemed strange to pitch around Ortiz and then pull Lynn, I can understand the decision to go to Seth Maness, especially considering Gomes' tough at-bat against Lynn the previous inning.

Anyway, in came the rookie and his sinkerball pedigree. Maness threw a 2-2 sinker that didn't sink and Gomes crushed it into the left-field bullpen for a three-run homer and 4-1 lead.

Goat: Maness gave up the home run. Matt Holliday and Matt Adams went 0-for-8 in the third and fourth slots. But Kolten Wong, WHAT IN THE NAME OF LOU BROCK WERE YOU DOING? Pinch running in the ninth, Wong got picked off first base for the final out with Carlos Beltran up as the tying run. Carlos Beltran. One thing we've learned the past two nights: We can't predict the endings to these games. Why was Mike Napoli even holding him on with two outs?

Wasn't going to happen: There were some calls on Twitter to hit for Lynn in the bottom of the fourth with two runners on and two outs and the Cards up 1-0, the arguments being: (A) Lynn probably isn't going to go much deeper in the game; (B) it was a high-leverage pinch-hitting opportunity (maybe for Allen Craig); (C) the Cards have a deep bullpen.

I disagreed with the premise. First, no manager is going pinch hit there, considering Lynn had cruised through four innings facing the minimum. Second, I'm not sure the Cards' bullpen was that deep for this game. Consider that Martinez was probably unavailable, Matheny has little trust in Edward Mujica and Shelby Miller has barely pitched in a month and is clearly an emergency-only option. You would be asking for five innings from your relievers. Third, you'd be facing a mutiny from your starting pitchers if you pulled a guy pitching a one-hitter after 50 pitches. While there is a sabermetric case for hitting there, it's a hard one to transfer to a real-life situation.

Velocity isn't everything: With Clay Buchholz battling shoulder tightness, the Red Sox weren't exactly sure what they'd get out of him. In his two starts against the Tigers in the American League Championship Series he allowed just one run total in the first five innings of those games, but six runs in the sixth innings. So Farrell had to figure he'd get five innings at the most, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 pitches. Buchholz's velocity was down in the first inning, topping out at 89 mph when he's normally at 93-94 in the early frames. But he battled, and while his fastest pitch was 91 mph (his final one), he kept the ball down, making it through four innings and 66 pitches before being lifted for a pinch hitter. The only run he allowed was unearned, when Jacoby Ellsbury bobbled a hit to allow Matt Carpenter to get to second base. Maybe this performance wasn't quite Curt Schilling and his bloody sock, but it was a gritty effort.

At-bat of the night that wasn't a three-run homer: The Cardinals score a run in the seventh to cut the deficit it to 4-2, two runners on, Holliday up. Junichi Tazawa comes on. Holliday takes a called 93 mph fastball for a strike, what looked like a pretty hittable pitch. He then hits another fastball hard on the ground but right to Pedroia.

The bottom of the eighth: As my editor said, using Johnny Wholestaff in Game 4 of a seven-game series is a bit unusual. Even though Koji Uehara threw just three pitches in Game 3, Farrell went to Game 2 starter John Lackey. He pitched around a Xander Bogaerts two-base throwing error and a wild pitch to escape the jam (Jon Jay popped out with Yadier Molina on third and one out) to preserve Boston's 4-2 lead. Now ... just because it worked doesn't mean it was the right decision. I'm not saying it was the wrong move; certainly Farrell had a good idea of what Lackey could give him on two days' rest, but it was still a little bizarre that he didn't go to Uehara for six outs or five outs and even four outs.

Big, indeed: Ortiz went 3-for-3 with a walk and was involved in every Red Sox rally. At the point of his double in the fifth inning he had seven of Boston's 20 hits in the World Series. In four games, he's hitting .727/.750/1.364. The key in the final three games may be whether the Cardinals can figure out how to get him out.
Some random thoughts on a whole bunch of things as we wake up from Saturday evening's crazy, once-in-a-lifetime ending:
  • Everybody is talking about the obstruction call, of course, but as Jim Caple pointed out, Red Sox manager John Farrell is as much a goat as Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Will Middlebrooks. In the ninth inning, he let Brandon Workman bat with one out against Trevor Rosenthal -- Workman's first at-bat as a professional. Workman hit .481 as a senior at Bowie (Texas) High School, but never had an at-bat at the University of Texas. How many guys had their first professional at-bat come in the World Series? Not sure it's ever happened before, considering most American League starters will at least bat in interleague games and relievers rarely are allowed to hit in a postseason game.

    Farrell conceded that Workman facing Rosenthal was a mismatch, but said that he wanted to get an extra inning out of Workman with the game looking like it would go extra innings. But Farrell also basically admitted he screwed up, pointing out he could have double-switched when Workman entered, putting David Ross in for Saltalamacchia. It's interesting, whenever the World Series goes to the National League, everyone suggests the AL manager could be at a disadvantage. I don't know if anyone actually ever believes this -- I mean, how hard is it to double-switch? -- but it does appear as if Farrell's inexperience with the NL game caught up to him here. (To a certain extent he was also conceding they were unlikely to score off Rosenthal, but I'm pretty sure Red Sox fans would have liked to have seen Mike Napoli get an at-bat.)
  • With Clay Buchholz and Lance Lynn starting Game 4, there's a good chance both managers will have to dig deep into their relief corps. Buchholz's health is a question and he's unlikely to go deep into the game even if he's pitching well. Lynn has made four postseason starts the past two years and his longest outing was 5 1/3 innings in Game 4 of the NLCS against the Dodgers. In his other three starts he got knocked out before five complete innings. In the regular season, Lynn had a pretty large platoon split; he allowed a .299 OBP against right-handers but .361 against left-handers. Basically, his slider is more of a wipeout pitch against right-handers, but against left-handers he nibbles and ends up with more walks and fewer strikeouts.

    In the postseason, Lynn has changed his approach, throwing his curveball more -- a lot more. He increased his overall rate of curves from 10 percent of his pitches to 24 percent. With two strikes, he's increased from 11 percent curveballs to 39 percent. In the regular season, just 17 of his 198 strikeouts came via the curveball, but in the postseason it's been seven of 12. This doesn't mean the results have been better -- he's allowed a .304/.407/.457 batting line in 11 2/3 innings -- but it seems to suggest that he realizes his fastball/slider combo hasn't been that effective against left-handed batters.

    It gives Farrell some interesting lineup decisions. Stephen Drew is 4-for-44 with 17 strikeouts in the postseason, so Farrell could play Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and Middlebrooks at third. But do you sit Drew and his left-handed bat, losing something on defense in the process, or play him since he's a better matchup against Lynn, his current struggles notwithstanding? Likewise, Saltalamacchia is hitting .188 with 19 strikeouts in 35 PAs. Does Ross get the start over the switch-hitting Salty? Buster Olney wrote about Boston's possible lineup decisions, including the out-of-the-box idea of playing Napoli at third base. I have a hard time seeing that happening since Napoli has never played there in the majors and Buchholz gets a lot of ground balls. But stranger things have happened, right?
  • As for Buchholz, ESPN Stats & Information points out that he's been leaving his fastball and cutter up in the zone against left-handed batters in the postseason. In the regular season, lefties hit .165 off those pitches; in the postseason, they're 9-for-17 with a 43 percent line-drive rate. With that in mind, look for Daniel Descalso to get the start over Pete Kozma at shortstop. Farrell is in a more desperate situation than Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, so he'll have to have a shorter hook on Buchholz. Felix Doubront looked good in throwing two scoreless innings on Saturday; he threw 25 pitches so he should be available as a long man for a couple of innings. I can't imagine Farrell has much faith right now in Ryan Dempster, but he's the other option as a long man. Workman started in the minors but threw 30 pitches Saturday night, so he's probably in more of a last man out of the pen role for Game 4.
  • Aside from that, Farrell has to get Koji Uehara in the game. He's now let one lead slip away in the seventh inning and started the ninth inning of a tie game without his best reliever on the mound. Yes, he finally brought in Uehara in Game 3 after Workman allowed a base hit, but maybe all the craziness never happens if Uehara starts the inning. The point: Having a guy who had one of the most dominant relief seasons ever isn't a big weapon if you don't use him in the most critical situations. If the Red Sox are going to win this game I think they may need to get six outs from Uehara, even if that means using him in the seventh inning to get out of a jam.
  • Carlos Martinez has pitched three times in four days, which he had never done, and threw just nine of his 20 pitches for strikes Saturday night. In other words, he looked more like the 22-year-old who had a 5.08 ERA in the regular season than the setup guy who had been so good in the postseason. You have to think Matheny will be reluctant to use him in a fourth straight game, so look for somebody else to pitch in the eighth inning if the Cardinals are leading. Matheny still has plenty of weapons down there -- Kevin Siegrist, ground-ball maestro Seth Maness, former Brewers closer John Axford or even exiled closer Edward Mujica. I suspect Axford gets the eighth inning unless Maness is still available. The other question: Is Shelby Miller on the roster? The Cardinals are carrying 12 pitchers but Miller has pitched one inning the entire postseason. I have a feeling we'll see him at some point in Game 4.
  • David Ortiz is now 2-for-2 against the Cardinals' lefty specialists -- a home run off Siegrist in Game 1 and a single off Randy Choate in Game 3. Matheny shouldn't let those results affect his decision-making in Game 4. You still want left-handers facing Ortiz in high-leverage situations.
  • Can't wait for this one. We may not get the crazy ending again, but the matchups, lineup decisions and reliever usage should be fascinating.

This could turn into a fun little controversy. Check out Craig Calcaterra's post at Hardball Talk. There appears to be some pretty strong evidence that in Game 1 of the World Series, Red Sox starter Jon Lester was applying something to his fingertips in his victory over the Cardinals, probably to help get a better grip on the ball in the 45-degree weather.

You can see Lester wipe his fingertips inside his glove, where another photo reveals some sort of yellowish-green substance. I mean, it could just be a nervous tic and maybe an optical illusion of some sort. Right. And the Cubs will win the World Series next year.

A couple of tweets from former major league pitchers:

Jon Lester
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesDid Jon Lester have a yellowish-green foreign substance in his glove in Boston's 8-1 win in Game 1?
This isn't the first time this season a Red Sox pitcher has been accused of doing something nefarious to the baseball. Back in May, former All-Star pitcher Jack Morris accused Clay Buchholz of throwing a spitball when he was seen applying his fingertips to a rather sweaty-looking forearm. Buchholz and manager John Farrell denied the allegations. Farrell said it was rosin; Buchholz also claimed it was rosin, or a mixture of rosin, water and sweat.

The night after the Buchholz incident, Morris (a Blue Jays broadcaster) pointed out that Boston relief pitcher Junichi Tazawa was also touching his forearm, similar to what Buchholz was doing. "It looks to me like he’s got a little something on his forearm also," Morris said during the game. "I don't know if that's anything in the slippery point -- it might be some tacky stuff to get a feel, but it's obvious that he has gone to his forearm, too."

Back in May, Buchholz explained, "Put rosin on my arm throughout the game. Sweat, water, whatever. ... Sometimes I put a little thing of water on my hip just to get moisture on your hands. 'Cause sometimes the balls that they throw to you feel like cue balls off a pool table. Got to find a way to get grip. But yeah, I mean, definitely no foreign objects or substances on my arm."

OK, but that definitely wasn't sweat or water in Lester's glove, so it will be interesting to see what he says today when he gets assaulted by the media after arriving at Fenway Park.

Of course, there's also this issue: If Lester was so obvious about this and if such an advantage could be gained, why didn't the Cardinals protest? After all, back in 2007 the rules were changed to enforce tougher punishment on a pitcher caught scuffing or defacing a baseball. That rule change may have come, in part, because then-Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers got caught doing something in the 2006 World Series. Then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa did complain -- well, mildly protest -- to the umpires, and Rogers was told to wipe off the brown substance from the palm of his pitching hand.

As Nitkowski suggested, Lester wasn't necessarily doctoring the baseball, let alone scuffing it up, but merely trying to get a better grip. I think the issue is this: It's basically an accepted part of the game -- we won't check your guys if you don't check ours. As Jonah Keri wrote on Grantland last year:

A bigger factor is the reluctance of managers to call out a pitcher. [Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim] Hickey said he's talked more than once with Rays manager Joe Maddon about a pitcher they suspect might be cheating. But if Maddon asks an ump to inspect an opposing pitcher, he's inviting other teams to come back at his guys twice as hard. Even if James Shields or David Price or Matt Moore is found to be clean, getting frisked by an umpire in plain view of an entire stadium could break the pitcher's routine, maybe even leave him rattled. Not only that, "you don't want to be that unsportsmanlike guy who's calling people out," Hickey said.

My guess is nothing much happens and Lester will say it was nothing but a little rosin. Whether this will affect what he puts inside his glove in his next start is the biggest issue here.

Of course, there are two ways to eventually handle this. Give the umpires the directive to start cracking down on foreign substances -- a rule is a rule, after all. That makes sense, especially since the balance of the game is starting to sway in favor of the pitchers. Why give them another advantage?

The other solution: World Series day games. Warmer weather. Less need for pine tar or rosin or green goo. What do you say, MLB?
The Tampa Bay Rays staved off elimination on the final day of the regular season, in the tiebreaker win over the Rangers, in the wild-card victory over the Indians, and now they’ve remained alive in the most dramatic of fashions, blowing a ninth-inning lead only to see backup catcher Jose Lobaton crush a walk-off home run off Koji Uehara in the bottom of the ninth inning for a 5-4 win over the Red Sox.

Uehara had allowed just one run and 10 hits over his past 38 innings.

Lobaton had nine career home runs.

The ball landed in the Rays Tank in right-center, a literal splash of a home run.

It's crazy, this sport.

The Rays have had a grueling stretch. They ended the regular season last Sunday in Toronto. On Monday, they were in Texas for the tiebreaker game. On Wednesday, they were in Cleveland. On Friday, they were in Boston, and perhaps that travel schedule caught up to them in 12-2 and 7-4 losses. On Monday, they were back in Tampa/St. Pete for the first time since September 23, two weeks ago.

The fans saw an intense, hard-fought playoff game, with runners everywhere, a huge three-run, game-tying home run by Evan Longoria, Red Sox manager John Farrell oddly burning through his two best setup guys in the seventh inning, some mistakes, some bunts (yes, the sabermetrically-inclined Red Sox and Rays, both bunting!), the Rays taking the lead the eighth inning, Fernando Rodney giving it up -- it all reminded me of the Pete Rose quote from the famous Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, when he turned to Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk when batting in the 10th inning and said, "This is some kind of game, isn’t it?"

I'm not sure if Lobaton uttered those words to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but he could have: It was some kind of game. People like to say baseball is dying, that nobody cares anymore. I'm sure there will be headlines on Tuesday morning pointing out the Monday night NFL game between the Jets and Falcons drew higher TV ratings than any of the four baseball games on Monday.

To which I say: So what? You're missing great baseball if you're not watching.

We could dissect this game a lot of ways, but the big blow was Longoria's home run off Clay Buchholz in the fifth inning. Buchholz had battled through a 34-pitch fourth inning, and while he escaped any damage when he fanned Matt Joyce with the bases loaded, you're always worried about what happens after an inning like that with so many pitches.

It appeared as if that inning did take a little something out of Buchholz. He'd hit 94 mph on his four-seam fastball in the fourth, but only threw two fastballs over 91 in the fifth. He gave up an infield hit to Yunel Escobar and with one out David DeJesus doubled. He got Ben Zobrist to pop out for the second out, but he had fallen behind three of those four hitters.

So that brought up Longoria, no stranger to big home runs in his career. Buchholz revved up his first offering to Longoria at 92, but Longoria just missed it and fouled it off. Buchholz wasn't going to go fastball again; he came back with a changeup. It's been a money pitch for him this season; he throws it about 12 times a game and hitters had batted just .158 against without a home run. But this pitch didn't move it all; it stayed straight, low and in, and Longoria golfed it into the third row of the left-field seats. With a base open and rookie Wil Myers on deck, you can debate the wisdom of giving Longoria anything to hit there, but I'd surmise that Buchholz was already running on fumes and just wanted to get out of the inning without facing another hitter.

As for Lobaton, he was in the game after Joe Maddon had pinch hit for Jose Molina in the eighth (Delmon Young drove in the go-ahead run with an infield groundout). But Maddon had made an astute double switch: He'd lost his DH before the eighth inning after Myers left with leg cramps and moved Matt Joyce from DH to right field. Jake McGee, who pitched the eighth, had been hitting in Myers' spot in the order, so when Rodney and Lobaton entered in the ninth, Maddon put Lobaton in the fifth spot (due up third) and Rodney in the ninth spot.

Uehara's 0-1 pitch to Lobaton was his deadly splitter, on which he'd allowed just 13 hits in 146 at-bats all season. This one wasn't in a bad location -- right at the bottom of the knees -- but it didn't have a much sink to it and Lobaton crushed it.


See you on Tuesday.
Let's be honest: The American League wild-card "race" is more like two marathon runners stumbling to the finish line. As my colleague Jim Caple points out, over the past month the Rangers are 11-16, the Rays are 13-16, the Orioles are 14-15, the Yankees are 15-13, the Royals 16-14 and the Indians 16-12. The six wild-card contenders are a combined one game under .500 since Aug. 15. Not exactly gripping baseball going on here.

At-bat of the day: Justin Morneau hit the go-ahead single in the eighth inning of Pittsburgh's 3-2 win over the Cubs, but how about Josh Donaldson's first-inning, two-out homer to give the A's an early 2-0 lead over the Rangers. Oakland would go on to a 5-1 victory, completing the sweep and essentially wrapping up the division title. By the way, Baseball-Reference AL WAR leaders: Mike Trout 8.7, Donaldson 7.4, Robinson Cano 7.1, Chris Sale 6.9, Miguel Cabrera 6.8. FanGraphs: Trout 10.0, Cabrera 7.4, Donaldson 7.1. Sounds like Donaldson has some MVP arguments, at least based on WAR.

Pitching performance of the day: Clay Buchholz walked four in six innings but allowed just two hits and an unearned run in improving to 11-0 with a 1.51 ERA. Buchholz is at 95.1 innings. Pitchers since 1950 with a lower ERA, at least 100 innings: Bob Gibson, 1968 (1.12); Ted Abernathy, 1967 (1.27); Bruce Sutter, 1977 (1.34); Mel Rojas, 1992 (1.43); John Hiller, 1973 (1.44); Jesse Orosco, 1983 (1.47).

Most important win: The Indians waited out a long rain delay to beat the White Sox 7-1 and climb to a half-game behind the Rangers and Rays. Maybe it will be Cleveland's year: Matt Carson, who had appeared in nine games as a defensive replacement, made his first start and went 3-for-3 with a home run, two RBIs and a stolen base.

Most important loss: The Rays led 3-0 in the seventh when David Price tired and then 4-2 in the eighth when the Twins scored four runs -- all after two outs and nobody on. Ryan Doumit homered off Joel Peralta, Trevor Plouffe singled, Josh Willingham walked and then Josmil Pinto smacked a three-run homer, sending the Rays to a devastating defeat. The Rays' next 11 games: Rangers (4), Orioles (4), at Yankees (3).

Monday's best pitching matchup: Matt Garza versus Alex Cobb (Rangers at Rays, 7:10 ET). Good news here for the Indians, Orioles, Yankees and Royals: The two wild-card leaders will beat up on each other over the next four days, opening the door for games to be gained. Garza has a 5.16 ERA over his past eight starts -- with just one quality start. The "best" deadline trade acquisition has been a huge flop.

Player to watch: Johnny Cueto is making his first start since June 28. The Reds are 3.5 behind the Pirates and Cardinals, but are now just 4.5 ahead of the streaking Nationals, who have won eight of nine. It would still take a sizable collapse for the Reds to blow it, but stranger things have happened.
Some quick thoughts on Monday's results and a look forward to Tuesday.

Inning of the day: I wrote about Ned Yost's tactical errors in the ninth inning of the Royals' 4-3 loss to the Indians. According to coolstandings.com, the Royals' playoff odds are down to 5.2 percent. By the way ... the Indians are only four back of the Tigers in the loss column. They have no games remaining with the Tigers so that hurts their chances, but the AL Central isn't over quite yet.

Argument of the day: Buck Showalter and Joe Girardi had a nice little war of words, Girardi apparently upset that Orioles' third-base coach Bobby Dickerson was trying to steal signs from Yankees catcher Austin Romine. That little flare-up overshadowed the more important news of the night: The Orioles beat the Yankees 4-2 behind a strong effort from Chris Tillman, who improved to 16-5 with a 3.66 ERA. The one flaw on Tillman's season ledger is 29 home runs, but some of that is a Camden Yards effect -- he's allowed 22 home runs at home, just seven on the road, where his ERA is a run lower. If the Orioles get into the wild-card game and can line up their starter, you have to think it would be Tillman.

Pitching performance of the day: Gerrit Cole outdueled Yu Darvish 1-0, clinching a winning season for the Pirates and handing Darvish his third 1-0 loss of the season, the most since Orel Hershiser lost four such games in 1989. ESPN Stats & Info breaks down Cole's superb outing, the best of his rookie season.

Most important win: While the Pirates' win was big from a psychological standpoint after getting swept by the Cardinals over the weekend, the Indians and Orioles picked up an important half-game on the Rays.

Most important loss: The Royals. They're now 4 back of the Rays and 2.5 back of the Orioles and Indians. If 90 wins is the line to get into the playoffs, they have to go 15-3 the rest of the way.

Awards watch: Max Scherzer had his worst start of the season in a 5-1 loss to the White Sox and Chris Sale, pushing his ERA to 3.01, seventh-best in the AL. Scherzer is still the Cy Young favorite with his 19-3 record and league-leading WHIP and high strikeout total, although Sale now has a healthy lead in WAR (but an 11-12 record), 7.1 to 5.5.

Tuesday's best pitching matchup: Clay Buchholz versus David Price, Red Sox at Rays (7:10 ET). After missing three months, Buchholz returns to the Red Sox rotation. He was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA before going down, but looked shaky in a couple rehab starts. Price is coming off six-run and four-run outings on Tampa's recent road trip.

Player to watch: Francisco Liriano, Pirates. An interesting matchup here as well against Martin Perez. The Rangers are scuffling, having lost seven of 10. Liriano has run hot and cold of late, with four scoreless starts in his last nine, but a 10-run game and four-inning and three-inning outings mixed in.

Iwakuma heads crowded AL Cy Young race

June, 14, 2013

Last week, we went over the early contenders for the National League Cy Young Award. We still have a lot of season left, but there have been a few pitchers who have already separated themselves from the pack in the American League. Shockingly, only two players who received votes in last year's AL Cy Young balloting made the top five on my list through two and a half months. In fact, none of last year's top three -- David Price, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver -- made it.

Hisashi Iwakuma (7-1, 1.79 ERA, 95.1 IP, 64 H, 87 SO, 14 BB)
Iwakuma nudges out Clay Buchholz for No. 1 on my list for two reasons: He has made two more starts (and tossed 11 more innings) and has better defense-independent numbers, which make him a slightly better candidate going forward. Iwakuma has the second-best ERA at 1.79 and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio at 6.21. He is one of five starters across baseball with a walk rate below 4 percent. The only question with Iwakuma is if he can maintain a low BABIP, as he's currently at .222. As most pitchers tend to hover around .290 to .300, Iwakuma would have to have some abnormal batted-ball ability (such as Matt Cain’s ability to generate infield pop-ups) or play behind an elite defense to maintain it.

Clay Buchholz (9-0, 1.71 ERA, 84.1 IP, 57 H, 29 BB, 81 SO)
Buchholz is a perfect 9-0 and has baseball's best ERA at 1.71. By traditional measures, he's the no-brainer favorite right now, but we will dig a bit deeper. The one factor that has led to Buchholz's success most has been his ability to limit home runs. Over his career, one out of every 10 fly balls Buchholz allowed has left the yard, a normal rate. This year, though, it is only 3 percent despite inducing fly balls at the same rate. Last season, Gio Gonzalez had the lowest HR/FB rate among all starters at 5.8 percent.

Buchholz also has walked batters at more than twice the rate of Iwakuma, 9 percent to 4 percent. Both strike out hitters at the same rate, so Buchholz, simply, is allowing more baserunners. He is clearly a much better pitcher than he has been in the past (he increased his strikeout rate by about 50 percent), but he is just a shade behind Iwakuma thus far.

Anibal Sanchez (6-5, 2.65 ERA, 78 IP, 66 H, 19 BB, 98 SO)
Only two pitchers in baseball have tossed at least two games with a game score of 88 or better: NL Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright (89, 91) and Sanchez (88, 94). Sanchez's first was a 17-strikeout outing against the Braves on April 26, a start that officially put him on the map. The second was a no-hit bid May 24 against the Twins, broken up by Joe Mauer's one-out single up the middle in the ninth inning.

Sanchez, acquired by the Tigers last July from the Marlins and then re-signed as a free agent in the offseason, is a markedly better pitcher now, at the age of 29. His strikeout rate is a terrific 31 percent, the second-best rate among all starters. His previous career-high was 24 percent. He is also walking 6 percent of hitters faced, 2 percent below his career average. Like Buchholz, he has limited home runs at 5 percent of fly balls. Even if that rate regresses back to the mean, though, Sanchez should still be among the league leaders in ERA, which should pull in some of the more traditional-minded voters.


Who do you think will end up winning the AL Cy Young Award?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,919)

As with Buchholz, who has missed some time with a sore neck, keep an eye out for Sanchez's health. He missed his last start with shoulder stiffness.

Yu Darvish (7-2, 2.64 ERA, 95.1 IP, 61 H, 29 BB, 127 SO)
Darvish is the only pitcher this year to have at least five starts with at least 10 strikeouts. To say he has been impressive would be an understatement. Darvish has made improvements in his defense-independent metrics, increasing his strikeout rate over last year by 7 percent and cutting his walk rate by 3 percent.

Perhaps most stunning, he is on pace to strike out 267 batters over 200 innings. If he gets there, it would be the most strikeouts since Verlander's 269 in 2009, and he would be one of only four pitchers (Verlander, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia) to cross the 250-strikeout barrier since 2005. Strikeouts have been on the rise since 2005 (6.3 per game to 7.6), but innings pitched by starters have been on the decline. Darvish's array of pitches has turned him into the game's premier strikeout pitcher.

Compared to the other candidates, Darvish has actually been hurt by home runs, allowing nine in 88 innings. Despite that, he still has a 2.75 ERA, which ranks sixth in the AL.

Felix Hernandez (7-4, 2.49 ERA, 97.2 IP, 83 H, 19 BB, 102 SO)
We are looking at arguably the best King Felix we have seen to date. His 2.49 ERA ranks third in the AL, but he has bumped his strikeout rate to a career-high (27 percent) and his walk rate to a career-low (5 percent), giving him the third-best K/BB in the league, behind teammate Iwakuma and Doug Fister. Hernandez has done all of this while eating a ton of innings -- his 97.2 innings pitched is second-best in the league behind James Shields' 100. Hernandez had tossed at least 230 innings in each of the previous four seasons, so this is nothing new for him.

That Hernandez is only No. 5 on this list and that he may not be the favorite going forward should not diminish the tremendous improvement in his effectiveness this year. At just 27 years old, he will have plenty more opportunities to add a second Cy Young Award to his mantle as he stakes his claim as one of his generation's best arms.

Bill Baer writes about the Phillies at Crashburn Alley and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
The Franchise Player Draft has been completed, so it's time for Eric Karabell and myself to continue our tradition of doing the second round. All picks were made by Eric and myself, not the franchise "owners," so yell at us, not them. Eric made all the odd-numbered picks and I made the even-numbered picks.

And, no, I did not draft Eric Hosmer.

31. Keith Law (David Price): Oscar Taveras. KLaw knows a few things about prospects, and Taveras was his No. 2 guy entering the season, after the already chosen Jurickson Profar.

32. Manny Acta (Jose Bautista): Matt Moore. Bautista is a win-now type of building block, but so is Moore, a 24-year-old with terrific stuff, hasn't been overworked and has as good a chance as anybody to be the best pitcher in baseball over the next five years.

33. Eric Karabell (Andrelton Simmons). Carlos Gonzalez. Defense in Round 1, offense in Round 2. And even if this mythical team doesn't play its home games at Coors Field, note that CarGo is hitting better on the road this season.

34. Jonah Keri (Joe Mauer): Madison Bumgarner. Hard to believe that he doesn't turn 24 until August, but he already has two World Series rings and two 200-inning seasons. He's so efficient that he should be a 200-inning guy for years to come.

35. Scott Spratt (Felix Hernandez): Jean Segura. I'll admit I considered Segura late in Round 1, but instead opted for the elite defense of Simmons. Segura won't hit .350 all year, but he's not a bad pick at this spot.

36. Jim Bowden (Stephen Strasburg): Jordan Zimmermann. Hey, don't blame Strasburg and Zimmermann for the Nationals' problems this year! Jim was the Nationals' GM when the club selected him in the second round of the 2007, so he's happy to snag him again.

37. Paul Swydan (Jurickson Profar): Matt Wieters. Build teams up the middle! Wieters remains a building-block player, despite a slow start to 2013.


Who should be the first pick of the second round?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,661)

38. Curt Schilling (Shelby Miller): Paul Goldschmidt. Too early for a first baseman? Maybe, but Goldschmidt is more than just a slugger. He's an elite defender at first, swipes some bases, and at 25 is entering his prime years.

39. Mark Simon (David Wright): Zack Wheeler. Well, Mark is, after all, a Mets fan. And pretty soon Wheeler will have many fans.

40. Justin Havens (Ryan Braun): Prince Fielder. A relatively safe pick considering Fielder's durability and on-base skills. Plus, Justin can now watch that 2011 Brewers highlight DVD that has been collecting dust.

41. Orel Hershiser (Justin Upton): Adam Wainwright. OK, so maybe the Cardinals right-hander has never tossed 59 consecutive scoreless innings, but he's pretty good.

42. David Schoenfield (Troy Tulowitzki): Miguel Sano. Prospects are overrated! Plus, Sano is only in Class A ball, you say? Sure, but he'll be in Double-A soon, putting him on track for a midseason promotion to the Twins in 2014. And then my future third baseman will start winning home run titles.

43. Mike Greenberg (Matt Kemp): Chris Davis. Well, at least one of these sluggers is healthy and producing. And Davis does look legit.

44. Mike Golic (Dustin Pedroia): Elvis Andrus. With that double-play duo behind them, the pitchers on Golic's team will be very happy pitchers. Well, assuming the outfield doesn't consist of Raul Ibanez, Lucas Duda and Mike Morse.

45. Richard Durrett (Justin Verlander): Adam Jones. This elite center fielder looks even better than his breakout 2012.

46. Christina Kahrl (Jason Heyward): Xander Bogaerts. He probably doesn't stick at shortstop, but he's going to hit at whatever position he plays. Plus, his name starts with an X, and he'll be better than Xavier Nady.

47. Buster Olney (Robinson Cano): Clay Buchholz. Olney got a close-up look at Buchholz on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, and had to be impressed. Perhaps he can build an entire fake team with all Yankees and Red Sox.

48. Dan Szymborski (Yu Darvish): Carlos Santana. We're not privy to the super secret ZiPS projection system that Dan keeps stored in a bank vault somewhere in Maryland, but we have to think it likes a catcher with power and on-base skills.

49. Jon Sciambi (Giancarlo Stanton): Yasiel Puig. Could be 80 home runs from this duo in 2014. Or, we suppose, fewer.

50. Mike Petriello (Andrew McCutchen): Yadier Molina. Talk about building up the middle. Molina turns 31 in July and caught a lot of games before turning 30, so there's risk that he won't hold up. But he's the kind of guy you take a risk on.

51. C.J. Nitkowski (Joey Votto): Austin Jackson. Terrific center fielder and leadoff hitter could have gone in the first round. It's tougher to find an all-around center fielder than a first baseman.

52. Alex Cora (Miguel Cabrera): Chris Sale. Some believe he's an arm injury waiting to happen, but there's no denying he's one of the best starters in the game.

53. Tim Kurkjian (Matt Harvey): Wil Myers. One future Cy Young winner is set, and here comes the prototypical slugging right fielder to join him. If the Rays would just cooperate and promote him.

54. Jim Caple (Yoenis Cespedes): Matt Cain. We know Caple loves those West Coast guys, so let's give him Cain, who is still just 28. Don't overreact to his current 5+ ERA. He'll be fine.

55. Dave Cameron (Evan Longoria): Mike Zunino. Mariners fan gets the next great Mariner. Thought about giving him Dustin Ackley or Jesus Montero, picks from last season, but that seemed a bit unfair.

56. Molly Knight (Clayton Kershaw): Cole Hamels. What's wrong with Hamels? As with Cain, let's not overreact to two subpar months. A rotation with these two lefties would look pretty sweet.

57. Jayson Stark (Buster Posey): Jose Fernandez. Future ace has certainly impressed as a rushed rookie this season.

58. Aaron Boone (Manny Machado): Starling Marte. He's playing left field for the Pirates, but could easily move to center, giving Aaron two elite young defenders who have some ability at the plate as well.

59. Doug Glanville (Bryce Harper): Starlin Castro. What a fall from grace! A year ago the Chicago Cubs shortstop was the ninth overall selection in Round 1. Now he barely gets chosen at all. I have to admit, he doesn't seem to be growing at the plate or in the field, but Glanville probably has more patience.

60. Jerry Crasnick (Mike Trout): Mark Appel. Jerry loves Dylan Bundy, but he was just recently cleared to start throwing for the first time since late March. So let's go off the board and give him a guy who hasn't even started his professional career yet. Thanks us later, Jerry.

I love a good cheating accusation. I mean -- peanuts, hot dogs, hating the Yankees, pitching inside and cheating: Aren't they all a fundamental part of the game we love?

Blue Jays broadcaster Jack Morris thinks Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz is throwing a spitball, telling ESPNBoston's Gordon Edes:
"What do you think? Look at the pitches. Fastball at 94 that goes like that," Morris said, his hand darting swiftly down and away. "On a fastball?

"He's not the first guy to ever do it? You can get away with it. Gaylord [Perry] made a nice career out of it."

Blue Jays radio analyst Dirk Hayhurst, who pitched briefly in the majors, also said that Buchholz "absolutely" was cheating during Wednesday's start. First off, Morris has been around the block a few times, so I don't think we can simply dismiss the allegations as sour grapes from the Blue Jays' perspective. Does Morris strike you as the type who would crazily throw something like this out there? What does he have to gain by doing so?

Here are some highlights of Buchholz pitching from Wednesday's game. That's some mean stuff there. In particular, check out the fastball to Jose Bautista at the 1:00 mark. Ty Cobb couldn't hit that pitch.

You know what the pitch reminds of? Mike Scott in the 1986 playoffs, when the Astros right-hander blew away the Mets in two starts. If you're not familiar with Scott, he won the Cy Young Award that year using a high-powered fastball and lethal split-fingered pitch. A splitter that the Mets suggested was actually a scuffball. Check out the pitch to Gary Carter at the 1:07 mark. Don't show that video to Keith Hernandez.

[+] EnlargeClay Buchholz
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesClay Buchholz struck out eight and allowed just two hits in Wednesday's victory in Toronto.
Looks kind of like the Buchholz pitch, doesn't it?

Buchholz, who is 6-0 with a 1.01 ERA, says he's the same pitcher he's always been. Which obviously isn't the case. He's striking out 27.8 percent of the batters he's faced, well above the 16.1 percent rate of last season and his 18 percent career rate. So, let's check into some of the detailed movement on his pitches.

Horizontal break on fastball, 2013: minus-4.7 inches
Vertical break on fastball, 2013: 9.9 inches

Horizontal break on fastball, 2012: minus-4.8 inches
Vertical break on fastball, 2012: 9.1 inches

Those are average totals, of course, suggesting he's getting a little more downward movement on his fastball, but overall, the movement is similar to last season. But his ball was really moving on Wednesday night, averaging minus-5.5 inches of horizontal break. His 16 fastballs thrown with two strikes averaged minus-6.5 inches of horizontal break (although 7.1 inches of vertical break). Some of that variance comes with the different types of fastballs thrown -- two-seamers versus four-seamers -- but that pitch to Bautista was 96 mph, as hard as any pitch Buchholz threw all night. Four-seam fastballs are thrown harder but are also usually straighter than two-seamers.

By the way, there's nothing unusual about Buchholz's average movement on his pitches. He ranks 33rd in average vertical break on his fastball among 110 starters (Clayton Kershaw is No. 1). Still, that pitch to Bautista seemed almost unnatural.

Aside from whatever Buchholz is doing, or not doing, cheating is part of the fabric of the game's history. Baseball players will always look for that extra edge. Sometimes, they go a little too far, of course, and start making a mockery of the game (we mean you, Barry Bonds). Or in the 1950s, when the spitball was apparently so prevalent that commissioner Ford Frick actually lobbied to have the pitch re-legalized. Whitey Ford was the most famous practitioner; according to "The Baseball Codes" by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, Ford used a concoction of turpentine, baby oil and rosin that he stored on the dugout bench during games.

Pitchers from Don Sutton to Scott to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine have been accused of throwing spitballs or scuffing the ball. Perry, of course, went through his famous pre-pitch routine in which he may or may not have been applying a foreign substance to the ball. (Once, when asked by a writer what pitch her daddy threw, his young daughter said, "It's a hard slider.")

Turbow writes that Ozzie Guillen said, "Everyone cheats. If you don't get caught, you're a smart player. If you get caught, you're a cheater. It's been part of the game for a long time."

Indeed it has. Morris has simply stirred up an age-old controversy. I have no idea if Buchholz is doing anything illegal. But I'm glad we have something fun to argue about.
As a reminder:

Odds to win AL East, March 25 (Bovada.lv)
Blue Jays +160
Rays +250
Yankees +350
Red Sox +550
Orioles +750

AL East projected standings, March 26 (Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system)
Blue Jays -- 94-68
Rays -- 88-74
Red Sox -- 84-78
Yankees -- 83-79
Orioles -- 82-80

Picks to win AL East, March 30 (ESPN baseball contributors)
Blue Jays -- 20
Rays -- 20
Orioles -- 2
Yankees -- 1
Red Sox -- 0

Before the season began, everyone talked about how the AL East would be the crazy island of division races, but the consensus was the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays were the two best teams and the other three would be left fighting for wild-card scraps.

Only four of ESPN's 43 baseball contributors picked the Red Sox to even make the playoffs. I was one. As we close in on the end of April, the Red Sox own baseball's best record and are doing it in impressive fashion: 18-7, including 11-5 at home and 7-2 on the road; third in the AL in runs; third in fewest runs allowed; owners of the best run differential in the majors at +40.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Winslow Townson/USA TODAY SportsDavid Ortiz's return from the DL has sparked the Boston Red Sox to a hot April and baseball's best record.
Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have rightfully received a lot of the credit for going a combined 9-0 in 10 starts and allowing just 13 runs. Free agent Mike Napoli is second in the majors with 27 RBIs. Daniel Nava has hit himself into more playing time with a .310 average, four homers and 16 RBIs. Jacoby Ellsbury is healthy and providing energy at the top of order. John Lackey even won on Sunday, so you know things are going well.

But if one player best sums up Boston's April, it's David Ortiz, the heart and soul of the franchise. I imagine Big Papi will get old one of these years. Maybe the bat speed will suddenly slow and he'll turn into that most discouraging of sights: the aging slugger who can no longer hit. That's not going to happen in 2013. In eight games since returning from the DL, Papi has come back with a vengeance by hitting .516 with seven extra-base hits and 11 RBIs. Eight of his 16 hits have gone to left field as he has beat the shift teams usually put on against him. Most importantly, the Sox are 7-1 in those games. With Ortiz in the cleanup spot, the Red Sox lineup looks complete: Speed with Ellsbury, on-base skills with Nava and Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli in the middle. This lineup just beat the Astros four straight times at home.

It's the kind of lineup that can win a division, especially if Will Middlebrooks and Stephen Drew start inflicting some damage from the bottom of the order. As I hand out some April grades, the Red Sox and Big Papi both earn an A+ for their inspiring start.

Here are some more April grades for the American League (we'll do the National League on Monday night), starting with some other newsworthy mentions from the AL East.

New York Yankees: A. Explain this: No Curtis Granderson, no Mark Teixeira, no Alex Rodriguez, no Derek Jeter ... and the Yankees are 15-9 and lead the AL in home runs. Robinson Cano has seven but Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells, acquired off the scrap heap pile known as "former stars," have each hit six. Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera continue to drink from that special supply of Hudson River water fed into the Yankee Stadium home clubhouse fountain of youth. The Yankees are, dare we say, a good story.

Baltimore Orioles: A. The O's suffered a tough loss on Sunday, but they're 15-10, and there's no crazy record in one-run games going on this year; the Orioles are 4-5 in such contests. The Orioles also have played well through what looked like a tough early slate: six against the Rays plus series against the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers and Twins. The offense is second to Oakland in runs scored with Davis (and his 28 RBIs) and Adam Jones leading the way.

Chris Davis, Orioles: A+. Has a good case as the AL MVP for April, which is nice but merely means: Prove it over the next five months.

Toronto Blue Jays: F. Yes, Jose Reyes went down early, but that alone isn't an excuse for a team that has been outscored by 35 runs. They've been awful in every phase of the game, and last week there was a game where John Gibbons hit Rajai Davis and Munenori Kawasaki 1-2. Embarrassing. The Blue Jays are 9-17, a good reminder that April games matter just as much as games in September. The worst April record of last year's playoff teams was the A's at 11-13, so it's possible to recover from a slow start. But ask the Angels how hard it is to recover from a terrible start.

Melky Cabrera, Blue Jays: F. The Jays were hoping there were getting 2011-12 Melky. Instead, they're getting the Melky (no homers, OPS under .600 so far) that Braves fans booed out of town in 2010. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances here with Cabrera's positive PED test last August. Did the PEDs help that much? Is he pressing? Just a slow start? Stay tuned.

Arte Moreno's pocketbook: D. On the heels of last year's mixed-review signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson comes Josh Hamilton, who is hitting .219 with two home runs. The Angels just lost three of four to the dreadful Mariners and you can't just blame the rotation: They scored three runs in the three losses.

Mike Trout, Angels: C+. Trout is hitting .263/.330/.424 with two home runs, and people are already screaming sophomore slump. Come on. Look deeper and you'll see the strikeout and walk rates are basically the same as last year; he has eight doubles and his line-drive rate is higher. He'll be fine.

Yu Darvish, Rangers: A-. He had the near-perfect game and opponents are hitting just .165 off him with no home runs. So why only an A-? Well, he has faced the Mariners and Astros in three of his five starts (and the struggling Angels in his other two), so before declaring him the best pitcher in the AL, let's see him face some of the league's better offenses. I mean, he might be the best pitcher in AL, but I want to see him shut down the A's or the Red Sox or the Tigers before making that declaration.


Who has been the AL MVP for April?


Discuss (Total votes: 11,792)

Kansas City Royals: B+. The pitching has been outstanding with James Shields as advertised (although poor run support means he's just 1-2 despite his 3.09 ERA) and Ervin Santana (3-1, 2.00 ERA), with a nifty 31/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Yes, Royals fans have forgotten about Jonathan Sanchez and Will Smith. The bad news is Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas haven't hit (no home runs).

Rick Ankiel, Astros: C-. On one hand, he has five home runs and 11 RBIs. On the other, he had 29 strikeouts and one walk in 50 plate appearances, meaning he's fanned in nearly 60 percent of his PAs. Baseball in 2013, everyone!

Jeff Keppinger, White Sox: F. Owner of my favorite batting lines so far: He's hitting .202 but his on-base percentage is .198.

Vernon Wells, Yankees: A. Leads AL outfielders in WAR! Better WAR than Trout, Hamilton and Peter Bourjos combined! You can't predict baseball.

Matt Moore, Rays: A-. With Cy Young winner David Price struggling and just capturing his first win, Moore has held the Tampa staff together with his 5-0, 1.13 ERA mark. Opponents are hitting just .113, a figure obviously unsustainable, so I'd still like to see Moore cut his walk rate. But boy, is he fun to watch.

Weather: F. The Minnesota Twins might have to schedule some tripleheaders in July.

The Atlanta Braves sent a message this weekend: Don't forget about us.

We all know the Washington Nationals were prohibitive favorites to win the NL East -- 38 of 43 ESPN.com experts picked them -- and only five picked the Braves. I think the Braves' impressive sweep over the Nationals this weekend, culminating in Sunday's 9-0 shutout, did more to showcase the talents of the Braves than to expose any particular weaknesses in the Nationals.

"We know the Nationals are supposed to be pretty good, so it was good to make a statement early," Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons said after the club won its ninth game in a row. "Let them know we're going to be tough to beat."

Nationals manager Davey Johnson took the more experienced response of a manager who knows pennants aren't won in April: "We should have won the first one. We were right there on the second. We just got waffled today. I don't put too much stock in it."

The most impressive thing about the Braves is -- like the Nationals -- they're a team constructed not just for 2013 but for the long haul. What's really impressive is how the Braves have built this team. Astute draft picks, player development, great trades, obscure pickups and, rarely, an impact free-agent signing.

Unlike the Nationals, who benefited from years of losing records that resulted in high draft picks (especially lucky enough to own the No. 1 overall pick the years Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were in the draft), the Braves developed young talent without the benefit of all those high picks. In fact, in the past 20 years, they've had just two picks in the top 15 -- Mike Minor, No. 7 overall in 2009, and Jason Heyward, No. 14 overall in 2007. Minor was a polished college left-hander who some felt the Braves overdrafted; Heyward was a local high school kid who fell to 14th in part because he was pitched around so much as a senior that he had just 52 at-bats.

Credit the Braves scouting staff for not missing those guys. Roy Clark, the scouting director for the Braves when they drafted Heyward and Minor, is now the assistant general manager to Mike Rizzo in Washington. But beyond those first-rounders, the Braves have found talent later in the draft:
  • Simmons was a second-round pick out of Western Oklahoma State Junior College in 2010 and his meteoric rise to reach the majors was remarkable, considering few teams believed in his bat and some even projected him as a pitcher.
  • Closer Craig Kimbrel was a third-rounder in 2008, another junior college pick.
  • Starter Kris Medlen was a 10th-rounder, yet another junior college pick, and like Kimbrel is a short right-hander (both are under 6 feet tall).
  • First baseman Freddie Freeman, currently on the disabled list, was a second-round pick in 2007, and like Heyward reached the majors at age 20.
  • Brandon Beachy, also on the DL after last year's Tommy John surgery, was primarly a third baseman at Indiana Wesleyan and went undrafted. Braves scout Gene Kerns saw him pitching in relief in a college summer league and recommended the team sign him.
  • And then there's the quickly growing legend of Evan Gattis, who less than three years ago was a 23-year-old playing for the University of Texas-Permian Basin after having quit baseball for five years. The Braves drafted him in the 23rd round, and now he's a 26-year-old rookie catcher filling in for the injured Brian McCann, batting cleanup and hitting .324/.385/.724. Gattis, who knocked in two runs in Sunday's win, has 10 RBIs and four home runs in nine games this season.

All that young talent means the Braves had an Opening Day payroll just under $90 million -- 16th-highest in the majors and less than half of the Yankees and Dodgers.

Then, of course, there are the Upton brothers. Instead of re-signing speedster Michael Bourn, the Braves signed the younger B.J. Upton to add more power to the offense. Then came the blockbuster deal to acquire Justin Upton. All he's done is club seven homers -- his seventh came on Sunday off a Gio Gonzalez 2-2 curveball that Upton hit out to right-center.

Sunday's pitching star was veteran lefty Paul Maholm, another astute Braves pickup, acquired last summer from the Cubs for Arodys Vizcaino, a youngster who missed all of 2012 because of Tommy John surgery. Maholm is a cost-effective mid-rotation starter making $6.5 million this year, the kind of pitcher who is underrated because his stuff isn't overpowering. He'd had a good year with the Pirates in 2011 and was pitching well for the Cubs. He's added a slow curve to his repertoire this year and hasn't allowed a run in three starts.

Maholm will give up a run eventually and the Braves' winning streak will end soon. Right now they're playing the best of any team in baseball, a fun team to watch that does everything -- play defense, pitch, hit for power and then hand the ball to Kimbrel. And the scary thing: B.J. Upton is just finally starting to hit -- he had three on Sunday to raise his average to .163 -- and Heyward is hitting .103 with just two extra-base hits.

Consider the message received.



Which early disappointing team should be the most concerned?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,282)

Three stars
1. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox. Took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Sunday against the Rays, finishing with 11 K's over eight scoreless frames in Boston's 5-0 win. Buchholz had a dominant spring training and it's carried over into April as he's 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA.

2. Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners. Outpitched Yu Darvish in a 3-1 Seattle victory on Friday in a matchup that was certainly huge in Japan. Through three starts Iwakuma is 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA, .129 average allowed and 16/1 SO/BB ratio.

3. Matt Harvey, Mets. Can't avoid another pitcher, but Harvey was dominant once again on Saturday against the Twins, pitching through a start-time temperature of 35 degrees. In three starts he's 3-0 with two runs allowed and six hits in 22 innings.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Albert Pujols, Angels. Trailing the Astros 4-1 in the eighth inning on Saturday, and staring at an embarrassing 2-9 start, the Angels rallied for two in the eighth and then Pujols doubled home Luis Jimenez and Mike Trout with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. A win on Sunday pushed the Angels to 4-8; not good, but not yet a complete disaster.

Best game
Braves 6, Nationals 4, 10 innings (Friday). The Nationals led 4-0 after two innings and starter Ross Detwiler departed after seven innings with a 4-1 lead. But the Nationals bullpen struggled yet again, the Braves tied it in the ninth off Drew Storen, and then backup infielder Ramiro Pena hit a two-run homer off Craig Stammen in the 10th.

Hitter on the rise: Evan Gattis, Braves.
What does it say about the confidence Fredi Gonzalez has in Gattis to hit him cleanup after just a few games in the majors? If Gattis is this good, it's going to create a good kind of problem when McCann and Freeman return from the DL. What do you do with him? He's catching now and started one game at first, but you can't really hide him anywhere else.

Pitcher on the rise: Jose Fernandez, Marlins
The 20-year-old rookie had his second straight solid outing, with six scoreless innings against the Phillies on Saturday. That's two starts and one run allowed, although he hasn't earned the W yet.

Move I can't understand
Oh, Dusty Baker, how we love to analyze your moves. On Sunday, the Reds led the Pirates 6-4 entering the bottom of the eighth (and had led 5-0 entering the bottom of the seventh). Aroldis Chapman hadn't pitched in ... well, a week. Neither had setup man Jonathan Broxton, who came in and promptly gave up a walk and home run to Michael McKenry. And then after a groundout, another walk. But it wasn't a save situation so Chapman remained in the bullpen. Starling Marte then homered. Broxton then gave up a walk (to pitcher Jonathan Sanchez) and a single. And was still in there to give up a sac fly. (Baker blamed rust for Broxton's stuggles. OK.) Chapman was finally summoned from the pen. So Baker managed to go an entire week without getting Chapman into a meaningful situation. Meanwhile, Johnny Cueto left Saturday's game with right triceps pain and Shin-Soo Choo continues to hit but struggled defensively in center field.

Team on the rise: Pirates
The Pirates entered the weekend hitting .153 and had scored 21 runs in nine game. They swept the Reds to improve to 6-6, one game behind St. Louis in the NL Central.

Team on the fall: Twins
The Twins have lost five in a row and got snowed out on Sunday, which maybe was a good thing. Rookie center field Aaron Hicks may find a trip to Triple-A in his future, as after a big spring training he looks completely overmatched, hitting 3-for-43 (.047) with 20 strikeouts. And yet Ron Gardenhire continues to hit him leadoff.
Spring training consists of a lot of bunting practice and manufactured stories, false alarms and overhyped weight losses (or increases). But some news events and stories are potentially important. Here are the 25 biggest ones -- from on the field -- as camps finally wind down.

25. Scott Kazmir makes Indians rotation
The last time we saw Kazmir in the majors was in the fourth game of the season for the Angels in 2011. He gave up a home run, walked two batters, hit two more batters and got knocked out in the second inning. He was just 27 years old, but on the heels of a terrible 2010, his career appeared over. Even last year, pitching for Sugar Land in the Atlantic League, he went 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA. The Indians invited him to camp and Kazmir impressed by throwing in the low 90s and, more importantly, throwing strikes (one walk in 13 innings). Who knows if Kazmir will work out in the long run, but it's a great spring training story.

24. Don't worry about Albert Pujols unless you want to
The knee is apparently OK, but now he's been bothered by plantar fasciitis. He says it comes and goes. "It's nothing that's going to keep me out of the lineup," Pujols said recently, "because I've played with it the whole season before."

23. Aaron Hicks wins Twins' center field job
[+] EnlargeAaron Hicks
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAaron Hicks locked down the center-field job after a big spring.
The Twins traded Denard Span and Ben Revere in the offseason to acquire some pitching, but they could afford to do so because they have a promising crop of outfielders on the way. Hicks will be the first to arrive after winning the center-field job with a big spring (.379, four homers). And how refreshing for a team to promote a player because he's one of their best 25 guys and not worry about his service time. "The guy has earned it," GM Terry Ryan said. "I find it almost humorous that people are talking about service time, starting the clock. We didn't trade Span and Revere to stall the next guy."

22. Where there's fire there's Smoak
The Mariners haven't scored runs since George W. Bush was president. Well, they've scored runs, just precious few. Former top prospect Justin Smoak is on his last chance and after hitting well last September with a new swing has looked good again this spring, hitting .434 with four homers and eight doubles in 53 at-bats. Could it be that Smoak and newcomers Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse will actually give Mariners fans something to watch on days King Felix doesn't pitch?

21. Diamondbacks are banged up
Rookie of the Year candidate Adam Eaton is already out six to eight weeks with an elbow strain and Cody Ross will likely miss Opening Day with a calf sprain. Now comes word that Jason Kubel, Willie Bloomquist and Aaron Hill were all dinged up in Tuesday's game. The D-backs have depth and may need it.

20. Ricky Romero can't throw strikes
When the Blue Jays traded for three-fifths of a rotation this winter -- NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, plus Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle from the Marlins -- they were going to join holdovers Brandon Morrow and Romero to help deliver the Jays to their first playoff berth since 1993. After going 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA in 2011, Romero struggled last year with a 5.77 ERA and league-leading 105 walks. His control is still an issue -- 10 walks and eight K's in 13 innings -- leaving the possibility that J.A. Happ wins that fifth spot.

19. Brandon Belt bashes
The Giants first baseman is hitting .453 with seven home runs, tied for the spring high, leading to speculation this could be the year he finds his power stroke and has that breakout season everyone anticipated last year.

18. Looking for Moore
The Rays could afford to trade James Shields because of their starting pitch depth. Sophomore Matt Moore, coming off a strong second half, was expected by many to pass Jeremy Hellickson and become the team's No. 2 starter behind David Price. But he's had a rough March, with his velocity down and struggling with his command (13 walks in 17.1 innings). Maybe he'll turn it on when the season starts, or maybe there's a problem to pay attention to.

17. Angels bullpen looks like last year's bullpen, only worse
The Angels struggled in middle relief in 2012, so they brought in Ryan Madson to close (pushing Ernesto Frieri to a setup role) and signed Sean Burnett. Madson hasn't pitched yet as he still recovers from Tommy John surgery, Frieri has been terrible (12 hits, only three K's in eight innings), and Burnett has been terrible (eight hits in 3.2 innings). Small sample sizes, but something to watch when the real games begin.

16. Zack Greinke's elbow
He started his first major league spring game on Monday since March 1 and said he felt fine, although he did walk three straight batters in the fourth inning. For now, he's scheduled to start the Dodgers' fourth game. "I thought I felt good, but the results didn't imply that the last inning," Greinke said. "It tells me I've got some work to do and build up arm strength. I've got to fine-tune some off-speed stuff. If the arm strength is there, I can make it work. That's the No. 1 most important thing."

15. Jackie Bradley tears it up
A top prospect heading into his junior season at South Carolina in 2011, Bradley had a disappointing season and slipped to the Red Sox with the 40th pick in the draft. That looks like an absolute steal after Bradley had an impressive 2012 in the minors, earning the No. 40 spot on Keith Law's top 100 prospects list heading into spring training. He's played so well -- .444/.523/.667, excellent defense -- that he may crack Boston's Opening Day lineup even though he has just 61 games above Class A.

14. Tigers closer remains unsettled
Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski hoped rookie flamethrower Bruce Rondon -- he of the 100-mph fastball -- would make their decision easy, but Rondon has looked like the inexperienced reliever he is. In 11.2 innings, he has 18 punchouts, but he's also allowed 15 hits, two home runs and seven walks. For the Tigers, however, it doesn't matter who is closing in April, but who is closing in October.

13. Shelby Miller wins rotation spot
The Cardinals' pitching depth was on full display this spring. Even with Chris Carpenter going down for the season, they still had Miller and fellow youngsters Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly fighting for the No. 5 spot. In the end, Mike Matheny went with the kid with the biggest upside in Miller, sending Rosenthal and Kelly to the bullpen. Miller had a 4.74 ERA at Triple-A but seemed to put everything together late in the season, as he had 53/4 SO/BB ratio in 37.1 innings in August, earning a September cameo in the majors.

12. Hanley Ramirez loves and hates World Baseball Classic
[+] EnlargeHanley Ramirez
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeHanley Ramirez is expected to miss eight weeks after injuring his thumb in the World Baseball Classic.
Ramirez is out about eight weeks after injuring his thumb, leaving the Dodgers scrambling at shortstop and third base. If you think more playing time for Juan Uribe and Nick Punto is a good idea, raise your thumb.

11. Julio Teheran dominates
Maybe the most impressive pitcher of the spring -- at least statically -- is Braves rookie right-hander Teheran, who has held opponents to an .082 average while whiffing 35 in 26 innings. He's earned the No. 5 slot in the rotation with an exclamation point. This is where we remind you that it is spring training and that Teheran had a 5.08 ERA in Triple-A last year, causing him to slip from No. 5 to No. 44 on Baseball America's top prospect list. But if he can keep that changeup down in the zone ... watch out.

10. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz look good ... very good
Yes, yes, yes: Don't read too much into spring training. Did we say that already? But after lackluster performances in 2012, Boston's top two starters have both dominated this spring, with scouting reports to match the statistics. Both have ERAs under 1.00 and Lester has allowed just six hits in 20 innings, Buchholz 11 hits in 18.2 innings.

9. A's infield remains unsettled
That Oakland won 94 games last year was more than a minor miracle, in part because of the offense the A's received from three-quarters of their infield. Their second basemen hit .228/.303/.316 (27th in the majors in OPS), their third basemen hit .227/.280/.391 (27th in OPS) and their shortstops hit .203/.272/.313 (28th in OPS). Japanese free agent Hiroyuki Nakajima was signed to play shortstop, but he's looked so tentative in the field and so helpless at the plate that he's likely to start the year at Triple-A Sacramento. That probably means Jed Lowrie plays shortstop, Josh Donaldson returns to third and Scott Sizemore plays second. But Eric Sogard has hit .500 and Adam Rosales, who is out of options, had played well until landing on the DL with an intercostal strain. Jemile Weeks, last year's regular second baseman, has already been sent down. The infield may be unsettled, but the A's should still get more production across the board.

8. Brewers boost rotation
Slotting in Kyle Lohse behind Yovani Gallardo gives the Brewers what could be a sneaky good rotation along with Marco Estrada and some combo of Chris Narveson, Mike Fiers and hard-throwing rookie Wily Peralta. The Brewers led the NL in runs scored in 2012, so if the bullpen doesn't implode again, don't be surprised if the Brewers run with the Reds and Cardinals.

7. Yasiel Puig is Yoenis Cespedes, Bo Jackson and God wrapped into one
No player stirred up the masses this spring like Dodgers outfielder Puig, the Cuban signed to a controversial $42 million deal last year. The Dodgers optioned him to Double-A after he hit .526 with three home runs and four steals in 57 at-bats. But it was the smart move: Puig had 11 strikeouts and no walks, suggesting he could be exposed when the pitchers start trying harder.

6. Mike Trout is fat
And it doesn't matter. His spring training numbers (.373, more walks than strikeouts) suggest an encore performance is in order. And he still makes this look easy.

5. Bryce Harper will win an MVP Award some day ... maybe in 2013
IT'S SPRING TRAINING. IT DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING. NOTHING. DON'T GET SO EXCITED, SCHOENFIELD. I know, I know. Still, Harper is hitting .476, with three home runs and five steals. Can you say 30/30 and MVP candidate at age 20?

4. Aroldis Chapman goes back to the pen
Maybe he was going to be Randy Johnson 2.0. Now we'll never know. Hey, if Chapman didn't want to start, what option did the Reds really have?

3. Tim Lincecum cuts hair, doesn't perform heroic feats
Lincecum went for the reverse Samson but it hasn't rejuvenated his fastball. He's allowed 17 hits and seven walks in 10.2 "A" game innings and the reports are that he looks like the Lincecum of last year, still fighting command of the fastball. The Giants survived his rocky 2012 (10-15, 5.18 ERA), but the NL West may be a lot tougher in 2013.

2. Roy Halladay is human
Of even bigger concern may be Halladay's struggles in Phillies camp. He can't crack 90 with his fastball and recently pitched in a minor league game and retired just seven of the 18 batters he faced. Even for great pitchers, the end can sometimes come suddenly.

1. Yankees willingly trade for Vernon Wells
That pretty much sums up the Yankees' spring.

Red Sox haven't improved rotation enough

January, 5, 2013
The Boston Red Sox were baseball's most disappointing team in 2012, with the Miami Marlins finishing a close second. After finishing at 90-72 in 2011, the Sox added Kelly Shoppach, Nick Punto, Mark Melancon, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross before the season. They also added Marlon Byrd in April. However, with a 60-66 record on Aug. 25, they folded, sending Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Punto to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the biggest salary dump baseball had ever seen -- a tacit admission that they had made some poor decisions.

This offseason has seen the Sox sign a few hitters: David Ross, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino (and, potentially still, Mike Napoli). Their only addition to 2012's third-worst starting rotation in the American League -- in terms of ERA -- was Ryan Dempster, while Koji Uehara and Joel Hanrahan were added to the bullpen.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireJon Lester had a 3.33 ERA from 2008 through 2011, but that ballooned to 4.82 in 2012.
The 2013 rotation will include Jon Lester (4.82 ERA in 2012), Dempster (3.38; 5.09 in the American League with the Rangers), Clay Buchholz (4.56), Felix Doubront (4.86), and John Lackey (injured). They need help, and they need it badly, whether it's from adding a new arm via free agency or trade (at this point in the offseason, not much is left out there), or from improvement from the other four over last season.

For Sox fans, there may be good news: Lester and Doubront are expected to enjoy 2013 a lot more according to ERA estimators. ERA estimators such as xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) and SIERA (skill interactive earned run average) consider the factors a pitcher controls most -- strikeouts, walks and ground/fly balls -- to tell you what a pitcher's ERA should have been, which removes noise such as abnormal luck and extremely good or bad defense.

Lester's xFIP was 3.82 in 2012, exactly a full run lower than his ERA. I looked at pitchers who underperformed their xFIP by at least a full run going back to 2009. Twelve such pitchers were found; only three were worse the next year, while five improved by more than a full run. We would expect Lester to improve, but that doesn't mean there aren't concerns.

The lefty's strikeout rate has been in a three-year decline, from 27 percent in 2009 to 19 percent last year. More balls in play means more chances for hits and defensive miscues. To illustrate the difference, let's consider that last season, Lester faced 876 batters. The eight percent difference means 70 more balls put in play, and assuming his career average .301 BABIP, leads to 21 more hits. While ERA predictors take a pitcher's strikeout rate into account, Lester's decrease itself could signify a deeper issue.

As for Doubront, his first full season in 2012 featured some of the typical problems you'd expect of a player in his mid-20s in his inaugural run through the majors: too many walks and too many home runs. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings in 2012, Doubront's home run rate on a per-fly ball basis was the fifth-highest in baseball at nearly 16 percent (the league average is under 12 percent). His walk rate was the ninth-highest at 10 percent. Nevertheless, xFIP was more optimistic about his performance due to his prodigious ability to miss bats -- his 23 percent whiff rate ranked 21st out of 118 qualified starters.

While Lester and Doubront might regress towards their mean in a good way, and the addition of Dempster should help, the Sox shouldn't expect much from Buchholz and Lackey. Once viewed as a potential ace, Buchholz's profile leaves him as a bit of a Kyle Kendrick type: someone who is average in almost every possible way. And average isn't bad at the back of a rotation, but when you are praying for regression, you need more upside than one finds with Buchholz. Put another way, when you've just lost a big hand at poker and you're looking to win your money back, you're hoping for pocket kings, not pocket sixes.

As for Lackey, the veteran has had a tumultuous tenure with the Red Sox and will be entering 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery. While there is a track record of pitchers having success after TJ surgery, there are no guarantees, particularly for a 34-year-old such as Lackey. In 2011, his last full season, he posted a career-low strikeout rate (14.5 percent) and finished with a strikeout-to-walk ratio under two for the first time in his 10-year career. To expect anything better than replacement-level pitching from Lackey would be a fool's errand.

When you look at the Red Sox rotation in its entirety, you have two pitchers who you're hoping were only bitten by bad luck in 2012, a free agent who has only been slightly above-average in recent years, a youngster who may have already hit his ceiling, and a veteran surrounded by a thousand question marks. The Red Sox, who last year won fewer than 70 games for the first time since 1965 (excluding strike-shortened seasons), don't appear to have done enough to upgrade what was one of the worst starting rotations in the league.

Few choices remain in free agency, with most best categorized as veteran retreads, but there are a few that should catch Ben Cherington's eye: Shaun Marcum, Kyle Lohse and Jeff Karstens. Marcum is a bit of an injury risk as he suffered from elbow problems last year with the Milwaukee Brewers, but the upside is that he would fit in well around Lester at the top of the rotation. Lohse is a proven veteran who appears to have taken big strides in his last two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming incredibly stingy allowing walks. Karstens is an underrated right-hander, similar in many ways to Lohse, but would come at a much cheaper price.

If the Red Sox are done adding to their rotation between now and the start of the regular season, it doesn't appear like they will have nearly enough to compete with the restocked Toronto Blue Jays and the rest of the hyper-competitive AL East.