SweetSpot: Edwin Encarnacion


The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.

Sizzling Blue Jays won't just streak and fade

June, 23, 2013
6/23/13
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Now that the Blue Jays have rattled off a 10-game win streak, we’re almost back to what I think we all expected in the American League East when the season started: a five-team race where nobody -- nobody -- should be considered the automatic favorite. After all, isn’t that what the Baltimore Orioles taught us last year, after months of confident, thoughtful assertions that they would regress, retreat or recoil short of the postseason?

SportsNation

Which team will win the AL East?

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    20%
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    18%
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    7%
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    49%
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    6%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,391)

What’s interesting about the Jays clambering past .500 to get back into the thick of things in baseball’s drama division isn’t that they’ve done it; more than a few people pegged this team to win as confidently as they did the Nationals before Opening Day, after all. What’s interesting is how they’re doing it, and who they’re doing it with.

  • After years of disappointment as a homegrown, big-ticket investment, Adam Lind is delivering for the first time in years, slugging almost .700 for the month of June. Spotted with care, he’s even hitting those lefties he remains in the lineup to face (OPS 1.030) after years of having problems hitting against them (.626 career).
  • Lind is far from the only surprise hero in the lineup. Colby Rasmus has put up an .861 OPS over the past 30 days, providing a nice reminder that it wasn’t very long ago that he was considered one of the best prospects in the game (including third overall before the 2009 season on Baseball America’s top prospect list). He’s still just 26 years old this season, and after a two-year hiccup, it isn’t inconceivable that his year is for real. An even bigger surprise has been Munenori Kawasaki going from scrap-heap sub at shortstop -- stepping in for Jose Reyes, no less -- to someone providing a .347 OBP.
  • The rotation has been made a shambles by ineffectiveness (R.A. Dickey has just one quality start in the past month), injuries (fragile young gun Josh Johnson has already missed nine starts) or, in the case of the maddeningly promising Brandon Morrow, both. But setbacks for some create opportunities for others. Chien-Ming Wang has provided innings and winnable games and converted shortstop Esmil Rogers has had a couple of good starts. More significantly, Johnson is back in action and Mark Buehrle is already turned around after a slow start, rattling off quality starts in six of his last eight turns.
  • [+] EnlargeMark Buehrle
    AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Frank GunnMark Buehrle, part of the Jays' big offseason deal with Miami, has come on after a bumpy start.
    But perhaps the most impressive element of the Blue Jays’ run back to relevance has been their bullpen. On the year, its numbers aren’t amazing, allowing 3.5 runs scored per nine and a decidedly average 32 percent of inherited runners to score. But over the past 30 days, the Toronto relievers have gotten tremendous work from a no-name crew fronted by closer Casey Janssen. In that time, skipper John Gibbons’ most frequently used quintet (Janssen, Steve Delabar and Neil Wagner, plus lefties Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup) have pitched 52 times, tossing 58.1 innings while giving up just 1.4 runs per nine. They’ve delivered a 65:16 strikeout:walk ratio in that time. Cecil’s been especially effective, allowing just four baserunners in 16 innings against 20 whiffs. And as much trouble as the Jays’ rotation has been, the bullpen has had to pitch an MLB-leading 267.1 innings, so while its overall RA/9 or Fair Run Average (4.41 according to Baseball Prospectus) hasn’t been earth-shattering, it’s the volume of useful innings plus the pen's recent performance that has been crucial to the Jays' success. As much as any bullpen can be a crapshoot in terms of making too much of small sample sizes, it would be fair to say the Jays’ pen has been a lovely surprise in a moment of need for innings, and Gibbons seems to be getting a lot more mileage out of his unit than other, more famous skippers are getting out of other, more famous (or expensive) assemblages of relief talent.

All of which might lead you to make assertions every bit as confident as last year’s about the Orioles, that surely the Jays can’t keep this up. It would be easy to infer that these are all just the symptoms of victory. And that’s sensible: Keeping your expectations low for guys like Rogers or Wang or Kawasaki is entirely reasonable, and based on an awful lot of direct observation. Is Lind going to slug .700 from here on out? Of course not; who do you think he is -- Chris Davis? These are the guys the regression fairy is liable to clobber with a two-by-four.

But what has helped get the Jays this far doesn’t have to be what leverages the Jays even further into the AL East race. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are bashing -- and they should. In the rotation, Johnson is already back, and Morrow might be before the All-Star break; that could lighten the load on the pen, while keeping more games in reach for the Jays’ homer-happy lineup. The feeble production the Jays have gotten from most of their infield slots will almost certainly improve once Reyes and Brett Lawrie come back in a week or so.

In short, what has gotten the Blue Jays this far doesn’t have to be what they win with in the second half. They can thank their surprise heroes for helping get them back into this thing, but the Jays have a tremendous opportunity to build off this run once they’re back at full strength. In many respects, you can look at the Jays’ slow 13-24 start this year as being very much like what happened to them in 1989, when they started out 12-24 -- and nevertheless came back to win the AL East with 89 wins. In a division where it looks like everybody is going to knock everyone else down, keeping all five teams in the race, that sounds very familiar indeed.

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

OK, let's stir up some arguing and yelling again. Yesterday, I ranked the top five pitching duos. Today, let's do the majors' best hitting duos.

Ranking the pitchers was difficult because there were so many excellent pairs to choose. Ranking the hitters is difficult because of a lack of obvious candidates. But here goes. Angry comments can be posted below!

1. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, Tigers
They seem like the pretty clear choice for No. 1 to me. You have the best hitter in baseball in Cabrera and a power-hitting, on-base machine in Fielder. One bats right-handed, the other hits lefty. They never miss a game and the fact that they can't run is but a minor inconvenience. Right, Cabrera ranks first in wOBA and Fielder 21st. Last year they ranked first and sixth.

2. Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, Reds
They've been the best pair so, ranking third and fourth in wOBA (Baltimore's Chris Davis is second). They've also combined to create the most runs of any pair -- Votto is second in the majors and Choo third in runs created, behind only Cabrera. As good as they've been, I can't put them No. 1 for a couple of reasons. First, Choo is unlikely to sustain this level of play (after hitting .337 in April, he's hitting .250 in May, albeit with power and walks). But it's hard to rate this duo as the best when Choo is also completely helpless against left-handers -- .146/.317/.188. He hit .199 against them last year, so you can pretty easily argue that he should be platooned.

3. Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, Giants
The Giants are no longer fueled by their starting rotation but by this pair. Their raw stats may not blow you away, but some of their effectiveness is masked by playing half their games in AT&T Park. Last year, for example, Posey hit 17 of his 24 home runs on the road (although this year he's hitting .367 at home and .227 on the road). Sandoval has been inconsistent throughout his career -- his year-by-year OPS totals since 2009 are .943, .732, .909, .789 and .832 so far in 2013 -- but after breaking a bone in each hand the past two seasons, looks poised for a big season. And we mean big. He's the ultimate bad-ball, bad-body hitter, and while I wished he walked more, he and Posey have developed into a lethal combo. Put them in a different park and their numbers would be even better.

4. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
Both started a little slow but have still combined for 21 home runs. Each has the ability to hit 40 home runs (Encarnacion hit 42 last year, Bautista passed the 40 mark in 2010 and 2011). Both are hitting under .260 right now, but they draw walks so they will post solid-to-excellent on-base percentages. If Bautista ends up hitting closer to the .302 mark he posted in 2011 and Encarnacion hits .280 as he did last year instead of his current .256, they could end up challenging Cabrera and Fielder for the top spot.

5. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Angels
Oh, yeah, Trout is now hitting .293/.373/.558, including .343/.434/.757 in May, and provides added offensive value with his speed. The question: What does Pujols bring to the table? He has scuffled so far with a .247/.318/.420 line, including a league-leading 10 double plays. The foot is clearly bothering him and maybe it doesn't get better. Maybe Pujols doesn't get better even if the foot does. But I'm not quite ready to write him off just yet.

SportsNation

OK, after Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, who is the best hitting duo in the majors?

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    37%
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    14%
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    8%
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    10%
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    31%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,803)

OK, I know I'm going to hear it from Rockies fans about not including Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez -- but I'm going to include them in the poll instead of Trout and Pujols. For the first time in his career, CarGo is actually hitting on the road, a robust .325/.407/.625. His walk rate is up as well, so we could be seeing an improved Gonzalez this year. If CarGo does keep hitting on the road, then I'll move them into the top five.

Worth mentioning:

Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez/Jean Segura, Brewers. Gomez and Segura are off to great starts, but let's wait a bit to see if they're this good.

Carlos Santana and Mark Reynolds, Indians. Two reasons the Indians have scored a lot of runs.

David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox. Ortiz has 29 RBIs in 27 games since returning from the DL and Pedroia has a .420 OBP.

Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp, Dodgers. If Kemp gets going.

• Chris Davis and Manny Machado/Adam Jones, Orioles. Machado falls into the Gomez/Segura camp: Let's see him do it for bit longer period of time.
Quick thoughts on a Tuesday night that featured a lot of home runs across this great land ...

  • Look, Pablo Sandoval is fat. I'm about 99.7 percent sure if that if he lost 10 or 50 pounds that he'd be a better player. But, hey, he is who he is and right now the Giants don't care if can't tuck in his jersey as long as he keeps hitting like this. He crushed an 0-1 fastball from J.J. Putz for a two-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Giants a dramatic 2-1 win over the Diamondbacks. He's 11-for-18 in his past four games, but the best thing about his home run: He sort of called it. Andrew Baggarly of CSN tweeted, "Sandoval told Pence on his way to the plate that he was 'gonna click one.' So he called his shot? 'Pretty much.'" For Putz, that's already four blown saves (although the D-backs managed to win the first three of those games) and you wonder if Kirk Gibson will consider moving David Hernandez or even Heath Bell into the role.
  • [+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Pablo Sandoval
    Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsPablo Sandoval's two-run home run in the ninth gave the Giants a win over the Diamondbacks.
    Watched a lot of the Rays-Royals game to see James Shields battle against his old pals. Alex Cobb was dominant through five innings, leading 2-0 and going to two balls on just two hitters. The Royals broadcast showed a cool split screen showing the similar deliveries of Shields and Cobb; Shields has that little Tiant-esque twist and Cobb has maybe a little more deliberation, but the two are very similar. Cobb even credits Shields with showing him the spike curveball that he now uses with his fastball/changeup combo. Suddenly with two outs and nobody on in the sixth, the Royals got to Cobb with an Eric Hosmer double, Lorenzo Cain single, Mike Moustakas home run to right (his first of the year), Jeff Francoeur double and Salvador Perez single. Meanwhile, Shields served up a two-run homer to Matt Joyce in the first, but settled down and delivered another quality start. He's only 2-2 as the Royals have struggled to score runs, but he has a 3.00 ERA and 39/10 SO/BB ratio. He's been everything the Royals wanted.
  • The reports of Roy Halladay's demise may have been exaggerated, but the reports of his return may also have been a bit premature. The Indians tagged him for three home runs, nine hits and eight runs in 3.2 innings. Cleveland then added four more off the Philly bullpen -- with Ryan Raburn hitting two for the second game in a row -- in a 14-2 win. The Indians have scored 33 runs in their past three games. Oh, Carlos Santana is good: .389/.476/.722. I'll have to check in on the Indians one of these nights.
  • Ian Kinsler is quietly having a great season for the Rangers -- two more hits in a 10-6 win over the White Sox to raise his line to .317/.395/.525, along with outstanding defense at second.
  • Fun back-and-forth game in Toronto as the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox 9-7 after David Ortiz had given Boston a 7-6 lead with a three-run double in the seventh. Big win to snap a four-game skid. Edwin Encarnacion hit two home runs, including the go-ahead two-run shot off the very tough Junichi Tazawa, and this ginormous shot off Jon Lester into the fourth deck, just the 14th player to hit one there. Melky Cabrera continues to struggle but Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are starting to heat up. Still, as Dan Szymborski wrote, the Jays' slow start has hurt their playoff odds big time. Insider
  • Yuniesky Betancourt, you are awesome.
  • This happened at Dodger Stadium tonight.

 
If you're younger than 28 or so, you don't remember when the Toronto Blue Jays were the preeminent franchise in Major League Baseball, unless you're Canadian and weaned on sports history other than Paul Henderson. They won American League East titles in 1985, 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1993 and World Series titles in '92 and '93. They had a gleaming new modern stadium that was the envy of other teams, packed every night (the Jays drew more than 4 million fans each season from 1991-93, averaging better than 50,000 per game in 1993), and had a team of stars -- Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter and Jack Morris and Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield and homegrown talent like John Olerud, Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen, and were bold enough to pick up rental players like David Cone and Rickey Henderson during their championship runs.

After 20 years, the Blue Jays are back. Baseball hasn't died in Toronto -- the Jays have certainly been competitive -- but it has been dormant. But watching R.A. Dickey pitch the team's opener before a sold-out Rogers Centre -- backed by the likes of Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and last year's 42-homer man, Edwin Encarnacion -- is a reminder of those halcyon days when Toronto was the baseball capital of the world.

The game didn't go Toronto's way, as Dickey struggled a bit with commanding the knuckleball, walking four (give credit to Cleveland's hitters for showing a lot of patience) as the Indians won, 4-1. Dickey walked four in a game just twice during his 2012 Cy Young campaign with the Mets, but if there's consolation for Jays fans, one of those came in the season opener. Let's not read too much into Dickey's outing and overanalyze things like pitching indoors or moving to the American League or whatever. It just wasn't his night and I'm chalking it up as nothing more.

[+] EnlargeR.A. Dickey
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesR.A. Dickey, left, allowed four walks in his Blue Jays debut -- something he did in his 2012 opener, too.
Asdrubal Cabrera golfed out what looked like a pretty good low tumbler for a two-run homer in the fifth and also made the key play of the game, stopping Adam Lind's hard smash with the bases loaded and none out in the third to start a nifty double play. Justin Masterson settled down after that and survived his own four-walk opener.

The main thing I liked about Toronto's offseason is that -- like Pat Gillick back in the day when he traded Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff for Alomar and Carter or acquired Cone and Henderson -- general manager Alex Anthopoulos made the bold moves to acquire Dickey, sign Melky Cabrera and pull off the blockbuster deal with the Marlins. Considering the Tommy John surgeries handed out to young starters Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, and the struggles of Ricky Romero, it could have been easy to say 2013 would be a holding pattern as the Jays waited for the next wave of youngsters to arrive.

After all, isn't that what you're supposed to do these days? Develop your own talent, and if you're lucky enough to have them turn into Justin Verlander or Buster Posey, break the bank to sign them to long-term deals. But the Jays seized advantage of a market opportunity to acquire proven big league stars! Imagine that.

It's just one night, so let's not overreact here, but as much as I like the top four of the Jays' lineup -- Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Encarnacion -- I do see potential on-base issues in the bottom of the lineup. Brett Lawrie is out another couple weeks and he'll hold down the five-hole when he returns, but it's not like he tore it up in 2012 (.273/.324/.405). Though, he's only 23 and a good bet to improve. With him sidelined, the Jays had Lind (.314 OBP in 2012), J.P. Arencibia (.275 OBP) and Colby Rasmus (.289 OBP) hitting fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. That's simply just not a championship-quality 5-6-7 trio unless they improve.

But I'll still buy into Toronto's potential to run away with the AL East if everything breaks right. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson could be as good as any top four in the league, and Bautista and Encarnacion could combine for 85 home runs with Reyes easily leading the league in runs. Opening Day is a day to believe, and one loss doesn't change that. I suspect we'll see a few more sellouts at the Rogers Centre.
No, the World Baseball Classic isn't the World Series or the World Cup, and it doesn't really prove which country has the best baseball talent. But it's a fun event, the players participating want to win, and there are fans across the globe -- mostly outside of the United States -- who care passionately about the results.

Is the event perfect? Of course not. Thursday's much-anticipated Pool C game between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in Puerto Rico should have featured Felix Hernandez starting against Johnny Cueto instead of Anibal Sanchez against Edinson Volquez, but I didn't have a problem getting pumped up to watch a Dominican lineup that featured Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion, Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Santana, and a Venezuelan lineup that went nine deep with the likes of Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Pablo Sandoval, Miguel Montero and Martin Prado.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRobinson Cano drove in three of the Dominican's nine runs in the opener against Venezuela.
Managers Tony Pena of the Dominican and Luis Sojo of Venezuela were forced to scramble when a first-inning rain delay led to the early exits of Volquez and Sanchez. But the Dominican had already jumped on Sanchez for three first-inning runs -- Cano doubled in two -- and a contingent of Dominican relievers, some minor league no-names and some major leaguers with big fastballs held the explosive Venezuelans to just six hits in a 9-3 victory. The game slogged along, reminiscent of a Red Sox-Yankees affair from the mid-2000s, but that just showed what the game means to the players: They weren't going through the motions like you might see in a spring-training game in Arizona in early March.

The win puts the Dominicans in the driver's seat to win Pool C and help escape the embarrassment of 2009, when they lost twice to the Netherlands in pool play and failed to advance (scoring just three runs in those two games despite a lineup that included Cano, Reyes, Ramirez, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada). Venezuela entered the tournament as a favorite alongside the U.S. Even minus Hernandez, it seemed to have more pitching depth than the Dominican, especially among the starters.

But in pool play, it's all about bullpen depth. Pitchers are limited to 65 pitches per outing and if they throw at least 30, they can't pitch the following day. If you pitch two days in a row, you can't pitch a third day in a row. But the Dominican bullpen rolled out Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera, he of the average fastball velocity of 97 mph last year, veteran Octavio Dotel, Pedro Strop of the Orioles and Rays closer Fernando Rodney. Strop had the key appearance on Thursday, pitching 1.2 hitless innings in the middle of the game when the score was 5-3. Command has always been the issue for Strop, but he threw an efficient 20 pitches, 14 for strikes. With a day off on Friday, Pena had no reservations about running all his relievers out there.

The Dominicans can attack you in different ways. They have the speed of Reyes, Erick Aybar and Alejandro De Aza; the power of Cano and Encarnacion; the patience of Santana, who drew four walks on Thursday. The team is also hoping to add Adrian Beltre in the second round. With that lineup and that crew of hard-throwing relievers, the Dominicans certainly have the ability to win it all.

The U.S. is still the favorite on paper (it plays its opener on Friday against Mexico). Even without starters Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, it has the most pitching depth. After Volquez, the Dominicans have to rely on guys such as Wandy Rodriguez and probably Samuel Deduno to start.

And don't sleep on Venezuela. Its Saturday game against Puerto Rico likely becomes the key game now in Pool C. I wouldn't bet against a lineup where Marco Scutaro is batting ninth.
ESPN Insider Dave Cameron wrote last week about speed being the Toronto Blue Jays' secret weapon. Their not-so-secret weapons are the 1-2 punch of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in the middle of the batting order.

SportsNation

Over or under on Edwin Encarnacion hitting 33.5 home runs?

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    61%
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    39%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,089)

Encarnacion had a breakout season in 2012. He changed his hitting approach (keeping both hands on the bat through his swing) and did a better job laying off pitches outside the strike zone, leading to a career-high 42 home runs.

The power wasn't a complete fluke; Encarnacion had hit 26 home runs with the Reds back in 2008 and 21 with the Blue Jays in 2010 in just 332 at-bats. he can turn on any fastball and is primarily a pull hitter: Only three of his 42 home runs went to right field or right-center.

But how much of Encarnacion's power surge was the new approach at the plate and how much of it was luck? His home run percentage on flyballs was a career-high 18.7 percent, but only 3.6 percent higher than in 2010. Projections systems have Encarnacion at around 30 home runs, but the systems factor in only the numbers, not the mechanisms for achieving those numbers. In Encarnacion's case, the improvement may be real.

What do you think? I'll be a little more optimistic and set the over/under at 33.5 home runs.

SportsNation

Over or under on Jose Bautista hitting 36.5 home runs?

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    78%
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    22%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,990)

As for Bautista, his production for 2013 is a question of health. He hit 54 home runs in 2010, 43 in 2011 and 27 in 92 games in 2012 before undergoing surgery on his left wrist (check out Stephania Bell's injury analysis on Bautista here). Stephania writes:
Any wrist injury is always a cause for concern with a power hitter, but not all wrist injuries are created equal. The key to retaining power is regaining adequate motion through the wrist to allow the hitter to maintain his normal swing. ... Bautista's injury was not to the tendon itself, but rather to the protective sheath around it. After the original injury last year, the torn tissue would aggravate his wrist as he attempted his batting motion. Repairing the tissue removes the source of the problem. If he has been able to recover the motion to swing the bat freely -- by the sounds of things, he has -- then the potential for him to return to his prior level of play is high.

Entering his age-32 season, the projection systems range from 31 to 39 home runs for Bautista. His home run percentage on flyballs was 20 percent last year -- not far off his 2010 and 2011 percentages of 21.7 and 22.5. What did drop a little last year was his walk rate -- from 20.2 percent in 2011 to 14.8 percent. (With more help around him in the lineup, Bautista's intentional walks fell from 24 to 2; hitting .241 instead of .302 also led to fewer free passes.)

Let's split the middle on the projection systems and put Bautista's over/under at 36.5 home runs. Too low?

I'm inclined to take the over on both. Which means it could be a very good year in Toronto.

Offseason report card: Blue Jays

February, 7, 2013
2/07/13
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2012 in review
Record: 73-89 (74-88 Pythagorean)
716 runs scored (7th in AL)
784 runs allowed (11th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Traded Henderson Alvarez, Yunel Escobar, Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jeff Mathis and Anthony DeSclafani to the Marlins for Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck. Traded Buck, Travis d'Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard and Wuilmer Becerra to the Mets for R.A. Dickey, Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas. Signed free agents Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis. Picked up option on Darren Oliver. Lost free agent Kelly Johnson. Acquired Mike Aviles from the Red Sox (for manager John Farrell and David Carpenter) and traded Aviles and Yan Gomes to the Indians for Esmil Rogers. Signed Dickey to a two-year extension with 2016 club option. Named John Gibbons manager.

That's what I call an exciting offseason. It may even have pushed the Maple Leafs off the front page of the sports section for a few days. GM Alex Anthopoulos picked up the NL Cy Young winner, a guy who has pitched 200-plus innings 12 seasons in a row, a guy coming off a season in which he hit .346 (and, yes, got suspended for a positive PED test), a shortstop who has compiled the third-most wins above replacement at the position over the past two seasons (or most, depending which version of WAR you prefer), a starter who led the NL in ERA in 2010, and a solid utility guy who has swiped 73 bases the past two years.

What did he give up? Of the prospects traded, d'Arnaud (14), Nicolino (62), Marisnick (82) and Syndergaard (97) ranked in Keith Law's top 100 prospects Insider. The Blue Jays' farm system, which would have been ranked in the top five, now ranks 24th. In this era when general managers don't want to make that fatal mistake, kudos to AA for pulling off the deals (and ownership for approving the salary influx, which should increase Toronto's payroll by an estimated $30 million or so).

Position Players

Despite Edwin Encarnacion's monster 42-homer breakout season, the Blue Jays' offense was a big disappointment in 2012, and not just because Jose Bautista played only 92 games. Brett Lawrie was OK in his first full season but underperformed expectations. Adam Lind had another underwhelming season. Overall, the main problem was getting on base -- the Blue Jays' .309 OBP ranked 13th of 14 teams in the AL. Some of those guys are gone, but Colby Rasmus (.289), J.P. Arencibia (.275) and Lind (.314) are still projected as regulars.

How many more runs can we expect the Jays to score? Here are some quick back-of-the-napkins numbers for the new guys in the lineup:

Cabrera replaces Rajai Davis/others: 85 runs created versus 65; +20 runs.
Reyes replaces Escobar: 86 runs created versus 53; +33 runs.
Izturis/Bonifacio replaces Johnson/others: 70 runs created versus 68; +2 runs.


Total: +55 runs.

That's about five wins, not factoring in defense. Defensive runs saved rated Escobar at plus-14 runs in 2012, Reyes at minus-16 (he hasn't had a positive DRS since 2007). So it's possible the Jays are giving back a couple of those wins on defense at shortstop. Of course, the Jays are hoping for a full season from Bautista, improvement from Lawrie and Rasmus, and another big year from Encarnacion.

I think it's a good lineup but not a great one. I still see some OBP holes, and Cabrera and Encarnacion will be hard-pressed to repeat their 2012 numbers. If Lawrie and Rasmus take a leap -- much more likely in Lawrie's case -- it could be a great offense, but I'm holding back for now.


Pitching Staff

I expect the Jays to make bigger gains on the pitching end of things. After a 2012 season that saw Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison all miss time (Tommy John surgery in the cases of Drabek and Hutchison) and staff ace Ricky Romero struggle through a miserable 5.77 ERA, the Jays could end up with the best rotation in the majors after posting a 4.82 team ERA last year.

Although there is A-plus upside to this group, there are obvious reservations, primarily in the health and durability of Morrow and Johnson. Morrow had a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts -- after years of underperforming his peripherals -- but he never has pitched 180 innings in a season. Johnson did make 31 starts for the Marlins after missing most of 2011, although he wasn't quite the dominant pitcher he had been in 2010. Dickey takes his knuckleball back to the American League, and, although he might have had his career season, maybe he hasn't. Romero will get another shot, but J.A. Happ pitched well after coming over from the Astros and is a solid No. 6 guy.

Toronto's bullpen had the worst ERA in the AL last year. It won't be the worst this year. Casey Janssen has a solid track, and Sergio Santos returns from his injury to compete for the closer role. Rookie Aaron Loup (21-2 SO-BB ratio) looked very good late in the season, and Anthopoulos might have stolen hard-throwing Steve Delabar from the Mariners. He curbed his home run problems after coming over and struck out 46 in 29 1/3 innings with the Jays. He could emerge as an important late-inning weapon.

Heat Map to Watch
Was Encarnacion's season a fluke? At age 29, he hit 42 home runs and 110 RBIs, after never having hit more than 26 before. But the Jays apparently did a couple of things with Encarnacion's approach, most notably having him keep both hands on the bat throughout the swing. As this article points out, he also did a better job laying off pitches out of the strike zone. And he did a better job attacking fastballs, hitting .315/.411/.633 against them after hitting .289/.370/.482 in 2011. As the heat map shows, he likes those high fastballs.

Edwin EncarnacionESPN Stats & InformationWarning to pitchers: Edwin Encarnacion likes those high fastballs.
Overall Grade

SportsNation

How many games will the Blue Jays win?

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    33%
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    49%
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    15%
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    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,030)

There's no doubting the upside of this club. Should the Jays be the World Series favorites, as one Vegas book has them? I don't know about that. Still, if Bautista and Encarnacion become the first pair of teammates to hit 40 home runs since Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome with the 2006 White Sox, and if Gibbons gets 60 starts from Morrow and Johnson, I can see a 95-win club.

What we don't know is how tough the AL East will be. On paper, it could be five teams all beating the snot out of each other. Or maybe one will rise above the rest. What do you think?

Your 2012 MLB All-Star team

November, 5, 2012
11/05/12
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I've always thought Major League Baseball should announce an official end-of-season All-Star team. You could have different voting components -- 25 percent computer, 25 percent fans, 25 percent players and managers, 25 percent media, something like that. Make a big production out of it, get a sponsor, get the players to show up, televise it during one of the off days of the World Series and drum up some publicity for the game's best players. What a concept!

So make it happen. There are end-of-year All-Star teams named, of course -- I think The Associated Press still names one and some individual publications will name their own. So in the interest of fun, here's mine. I factor in the entire season, which means the postseason counts. Also: Who's your player of the year?

C: Buster Posey, Giants (.336/.408/.549, 24 HR, 103 RBI, 7.2 WAR)
Yadier Molina had a terrific season as well, but since we're factoring in the postseason, the Giants' World Series pushes Posey over the top. According to Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement, the only three catchers since 1980 with better seasons were Mike Piazza in 1997, Gary Carter in 1982 and Joe Mauer in 2009. Posey should become the first catcher to win the NL MVP Award since Johnny Bench in 1972.

1B: Prince Fielder, Tigers (.313/.412/.529, 30 HR, 103 RBI, 4.4 WAR
By WAR, Joey Votto was the best first baseman in the majors, but Fielder played all 162 games while Votto missed 51 games. It was a pretty weak year for first basemen -- only Votto, Pujols, Fielder and Adam LaRoche reached 4.0 Wins Above Replacement. Fielder has now posted four straight seasons with an OBP over .400, he's missed one game in those four seasons and he walked more than he struck out for the second straight season. He may have the body of a slugger, but Fielder is a hitter.

2B: Robinson Cano, Yankees (.313/.379/.550), 33 HR, 94 RBI, 8.2 WAR
He got criticized for his production with runners in scoring position (he hit .268, .207 with two outs), but that's nitpicking a fantastic player who had another terrific all-around season. He did hit .316 with men on base and .286 in "late and close" situations, so he wasn't a zero in the clutch. He hit 22 of his 33 home runs at home, but hit more doubles with more walks and a slightly higher average on the road, so his overall production was actually pretty similar. It was his best season, an MVP-worthy campaign in many seasons.

3B: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (.330/.393/.606, 44 HR, 139 RBI, 6.9 WAR
Cabrera had a fantastic season, of course, winning the Triple Crown, but his season at the plate wasn't really any more valuable than 2010 or 2011. In fact, his wRC+ and OPS were higher both seasons. His walks did drop from 108 to 66 (intentional walks from 22 to 17), perhaps a result of Fielder hitting behind him. His home runs did increase from 30 to 44, and while you can argue that was because Fielder was protecting him, it's worth noting that Cabrera led the majors with 16 "just enough" home runs, according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker. By the way, isn't it time to start listing the Tigers' acquisition of Cabrera from the Marlins as one of the greatest heists of all time?

SS: Ian Desmond, Nationals (.292/.335/.511, 25 HR, 73 RBI, 3.2 WAR)
There was no standout shortstop this year -- and, yes, I didn't forget about Derek Jeter, who had a great season at the plate with a .316 average and major league-leading 216 hits. Erick Aybar had the highest WAR at 4.0, but I'm going with Desmond, the only regular shortstop to slug .500. The defense is a bit erratic at times, but he has a strong arm, the power numbers were big and he swiped 21 bases in 27 tries. His improvement was a big reason the Nationals owned the best record in the majors.

OF: Mike Trout, Angels (.326/.399/.564, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 49 SB, 10.7 WAR)
What do you do for an encore after a season like this in which you turned 21?

OF: Ryan Braun, Brewers (.319/.391/.595, 41 HR, 112 RBI, 30 SB, 6.8 WAR)
Nearly identical numbers to his MVP season of 2011, although I suspect he'll finish out of the top-five in the balloting. Led the NL in home runs, runs, OPS and total bases. The affects of not having Fielder behind him? Pretty minimal, other than his intentional walks increasing from two to 15. The Brewers, by the way, scored more runs in 2012 than 2011.

OF: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.327/.400/.553, 31 HR, 96 RBI, 7.0 WAR)
Now, get this man some help. Pirates outfielder with 7-win seasons: Roberto Clemente (5), Barry Bonds (4), Ralph Kiner (3), Willie Stargell (2), Dave Parker (1). And now McCutchen.

SportsNation

Who is your major league player of the year?

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    55%
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    5%
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    11%
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    23%
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    6%

Discuss (Total votes: 54,794)

DH: Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (.280/.384/.557, 42 HR, 110 RBI, 4.2 WAR)
It's not like he hadn't showed power before -- 26 home runs with the Reds in 2008, 38 over the past two seasons in part-time roles -- but I don't think anybody saw this coming. He did start 66 games at first base and that could be his full-time destination in 2013. Regardless of where he plays, expect big numbers again.

SP: Justin Verlander, Tigers (17-8, 2.64 ERA, 238.1 IP, 60 BB, 239 SO, 7.6 WAR)
I'm sure he'd like that final game, a disappointing end to an otherwise dominant season. It will be interesting to see if the Tigers back off him a little next season, making sure you have all your bullets left in October.

SP: David Price, Rays (20-5, 2.56 ERA, 211 IP, 59 BB, 205 SO, 6.4 WAR)
My guess is he edges out Verlander for the Cy Young Award, given the similar ERA but better W-L record. I think Verlander's 27-inning edge and performance in front of an inferior defense gives him the edge, but Price's 20 wins will likely sway the voters.

SP: R.A. Dickey, Mets (20-6, 2.73 ERA, 233.2 IP, 54 BB, 230 SO, 5.6 WAR)
Led the NL in innings, strikeouts, batters faced, complete games and shutouts. A wonderful year, a wonderful story.

SP: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (14-9, 2.53 ERA, 227.2 IP, 63 BB, 220 SO, 6.2 WAR
Nobody talked about him all season, but he once again ended up with dominant numbers. Don't be fooled by the 14 wins: He was every bit as good as last year. Don't blame him for the Dodgers not beating out the Giants: In five starts against San Francisco, he allowed seven runs, walked seven and struck out 40. Alas, he went just 2-3.

SP: Matt Cain, Giants (16-5, 2.79 ERA, 219.1 IP, 51 BB, 193 SO, 3.5 WAR)
In a year with so many strong starting pitching candidates, I'm giving Cain the fifth spot. His WAR isn't as impressive as some of the other candidates, but he became the ace of the rotation that won it all. Sounds like a good tiebreaker to me.

RP: Craig Kimbrel, Braves (3-1, 1.01 ERA, 42 SV, 62.2 IP, 27 H, 116 SO, 3.2 WAR)
With that unhittable slider, opposing batters hit just .126 off him and Kimbrel struck out over half the batters he faced. A season that ranks alongside Eric Gagne's 2003 Cy Young season and Dennis Eckersley's 1990 as best ever by a closer in the past 25 years.
The Toronto Blue Jays showed they believe in Edwin Encarnacion and his new swing by signing him to a three-year, $27 million extension.

Encarnacion, an impending free agent, had been mentioned in trade rumors, but now gives the Jays a long-term solution at first base or designated hitter.

Much like teammate Jose Bautista a couple years ago, or Andrew McCutchen this past offseason, Encarnacion changed his mechanics this offseason. Previously, his top hand came off the bat; now both hands stay on, helping his swing stay shorter. He felt his swing had become too long.

"That’s what I thought, and the guy I worked with in the offseason told me that, too, that I had my swing too long," he told the Canadian Press this season. "The ball on the outside corner I had been pulling a lot. I now try to stay more to the middle and get my swing shorter with my two hands."

There's no doubt he's been much more effective handling pitches on the outside part of the plate. Compare his heat maps of his Isolated Power over the past two seasons:

Edwin Encarnacion Heat MapESPN Stats & Information


The raw numbers: In 2011, he hit five home runs and .264 in 246 at-bats on those pitches; this year, he's hitting .273 -- but with 11 home runs in 132 at-bats.

Considering their history with Bautista, it's understandable that the Jays believe Encarnacion's new approach is for real, and not a first-half fluke. They also now have the middle of the order locked up for a combined salary of $23 million per year from 2013 through 2015. Throw in the fact that Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus won't be making big money for a few years, outfield prospect Anthony Gose is near major-league ready, catcher Travis d'Arnaud was just named Keith Law's No. 6 prospect in his midseason update (although he's currently injured) and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria is a solid prospect, and the Jays won't be paying a lot for what should be a solid offense over the next several years.

Of course, it's possible Encarnacion regresses or the wrist issues he's battled in the past return, but I like the odds of this working out for the Jays.
So, the All-Star break has passed and the second half of the MLB season starts Friday, so what am I going to do on Thursday night without the greatest game? Well, perhaps I will again listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast with me, Keith Law and a very special guest!

1. Ben Gibbard from the band Death Cab For Cutie is a baseball fan and listener of our show, so we thought we’d ask him about music and baseball and other things.

2. We go division by division with insight on which teams will make it the playoffs, and which teams will not. And I apparently think we’ll get a few must-win tiebreaker games as well!

3. We take your tweets on anything and everything, including analysis of the new Edwin Encarnacion contract in Toronto.

4. After Troy Tulowitzki, who is the best shortstop in baseball? And does it have to be a big leaguer?

5. Keith’s updated prospect rankings are posted, and he gives us a hint of what to expect and who might not be signing a contract before Friday’s deadline.

So download and listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, because all of us need our baseball fix on this off-day. Later on, maybe I’ll watch a movie ... or a replay of the 1980 World Series.


"Show us some respect," yell Baltimore Orioles fans. Or maybe they're politely demanding. But I've seen the complaints in the Power Rankings comments, read the emails sent to "Baseball Today," been asked the question in my chats: Why doesn't anyone believe in the Orioles?

The Orioles traveled to Fenway Park this week in a precarious situation. They've lost two of three in Tampa. They've been swept in Toronto. They've lost two of three at home to Kansas City. They've lost two of three at home to Boston. They haven't won a series since the big weekend showdown in Washington from May 18-20.

So, yes, the concerns all of us "experts" had been raising -- it's a long season, let's see what happens to the rotation, let's find out if some of the hitters can keep up their hot starts, the bullpen can't keep its ERA under 2.00 all season -- were proving true. The O's were 27-14 after winning the second against the Nationals but had gone 3-10 since, with the staff posting a 4.95 ERA while the offense scored 3.5 runs per game.

These were the Orioles we all expected. And then they beat the Red Sox in extra innings on Tuesday. And then they beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday behind a solid effort from Wei-Yin Chen and scoreless innings from Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. They're 5-0 at Fenway in 2012 and Chen is now 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA. The key moments came in the seventh inning after the Red Sox threatened with a pair of singles to start the frame. But after a sacrifice bunt, Chen struck out Marlon Byrd and induced Mike Aviles to pop out to first base.

Normally, Buck Showalter might have turned to his stellar bullpen, but after Tuesday's victory, in which the bullpen threw five innings, he left Chen to escape the jam. He set up Byrd with three fastballs and then got him swinging on a beautiful changeup. He threw three more fastballs to Aviles that he couldn't get around on. Don't underestimate Chen. His stuff plays up big, with his four-seamer reaching 94 mph. His last pitch to Aviles was clocked at 93. In 11 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs seven times and I think this outing will give Showalter more confidence to stretch Chen a little deeper into games.

So the Orioles remain in first place for another day, half a game ahead of the Yankees. Is it time to show them a little respect, to give Orioles fans what they crave? Let's do some position-by-position rankings to help sort out this tightly packed division. Rankings are simply listed in order of who I would want the rest of the season.

(Season-to-date Wins Above Replacement from Baseball-Reference.com, before Wednesday's games, listed in parenthesis.)

Catcher
1. Matt Wieters, Orioles (1.6 WAR)
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Kelly Shoppach, Red Sox (1.6)
3. Russell Martin, Yankees (0.7)
4. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays (0.2)
5. Jose Molina, Rays (0.1)

There is a case to be made that Boston's duo is more valuable since they've combined for 14 home runs and an OPS over .900. But Wieters brings elite defensive skills and I also don't believe Salty is going to slug .583 all season. For the second consecutive season, the Rays are essentially punting offense at catcher. Rays catchers have the worst OPS in the majors.

First base
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox (0.8)
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees (0.6)
3. Mark Reynolds, Orioles (-0.6)
4. Carlos Pena, Rays (0.4)
5. David Cooper/others, Blue Jays (incomplete)

Gonzalez is still struggling to get his stroke going, but he's the best of a weak group. Yes, I just called Mark Teixeira weak, but at this point he's a low-average guy who pops a few long balls, doesn't draw as many walks as he once did and isn't as great on defense as Yankee fans believe. But in this group that's good enough to rank second. Reynolds has a low WAR but he's missed time and that includes his bad defense at third base, a position we've hopefully seen the last of him playing. The Jays, meanwhile, need to quit fooling around at first base and find a legitimate hitter, or move Edwin Encarnacion there and find a designated hitter. You hate to waste a potential playoff season because you can't find a first baseman who can hit. (No, David Cooper is not the answer, although he's hit well so far in 11 games.)

Second base
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.1)
2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (1.8)
3. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays (2.1)
4. Ben Zobrist, Rays (0.7)
5. Robert Andino, Orioles (0.6)

I love Ben Zobrist almost as much as two scoops of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's, but a .199 average isn't going to cut it in this group, even if you are on pace to draw 100-plus walks. Zobrist has actually play more right field so far, but should be back at second on a regular basis with Desmond Jennings back.

Third base
1. Evan Longoria, Rays (1.4)
2. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays (3.1)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1.2)
4. Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Wilson Betemit/Steve Tolleson, Orioles (-0.1)

Lawrie's WAR is boosted by defensive metrics that treat him like he's the second coming of Brooks Robinson. He's a good player but don't I think he's been the second-best position player in the American League. Longoria hopes to return at the end of the Rays' current road trip. As for A-Rod, his health is always a question at this stage of his career, but Youkilis has health questions and I'm not a believer in Middlebrooks' ability to hit .321 with power all season. His 29/4 strikeout/walk ratio is something pitchers should learn to exploit. As for the Orioles ... third base is an obvious concern. But don't expect a rare intra-division trade to acquire Youkilis.

Shortstop
1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles (2.1)
2. Mike Aviles, Red Sox (2.2)
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees (0.9)
4. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays (1.9)
5. Sean Rodriguez, Rays (1.9)

Wait ... Jeter has been the least valuable of this group so far? The other four all rate as excellent fielders -- in fact, Baseball-Reference rates them all in the top 13 fielders in the AL. Jeter, meanwhile, ranks 310th in the AL on defense -- out of 313 players.

Left field
1. Desmond Jennings, Rays (1.2)
2. Daniel Nava/Carl Crawford, Red Sox (1.7)
3. Brett Gardner/Raul Ibanez, Yankees (0.3)
4. Eric Thames/Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (-0.1)
5. Endy Chavez/Xavier Avery/Nolan Reimold, Orioles (-0.3)

Not to keep picking on the Orioles, but this is another problem position, especially if Reimold's disc problems lingers all season. Nava has quietly been a huge savior for the Red Sox, batting .305 with a .438 OBP. He's drawing walks at a crazy rate. He should slide some but he's provided the kind of depth the Orioles don't have.

Center field
1. Adam Jones, Orioles (2.5)
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees (1.3)
3. B.J. Upton Rays (0.9)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury/Scott Podsednik/Marlon Byrd, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (1.3)

Ellsbury might be the biggest wild card in this race, because the Red Sox can't survive much longer with the Podsednik/Byrd platoon. When will he return? How will he hit? He just started throwing and could return by the end of the month. I've conservatively put him fourth, which seems fair considering the unknown. And please note, Orioles fans, that I believe in Mr. Jones.

Right field
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (0.9)
2. Matt Joyce, Rays (2.2)
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees (-0.1)
4. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox (1.6)
5. Nick Markakis/others, Orioles (0.3)

Markakis is out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, an injury that once again reflects Baltimore's lack of depth. But all five teams are solid in right field. Ross is about to return from his broken foot; we'll see if he pounds the ball like he was before the injury (.534 slugging).

Designated hitter
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox (1.4)
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (1.6)
3. Revolving Door, Yankees
4. Chris Davis, Orioles (0.3)
5. Luke Scott, Rays (0.0)

No respect for Davis? OK, he's hitting .295/.333/.494. And he has 53 strikeouts and eight walks. Sorry, call me skeptical, O's fans. Yankee designated hitters have actually fared well, hitting a combined .279/.354/.467 with 10 home runs.

No. 1 starter
1. David Price, Rays (2.2)
2. CC Sabathia, Yankees (1.9)
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (0.3)
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Jason Hammel, Orioles (1.9)

Look, Hammel has been terrific so far thanks to a career-high strikeout rate and a career-high ground-ball rate. But this is tough group and the question is who is going to be best moving forward? My biggest concern is that Hammel has never pitched 180 innings in a season. Can he pitched the 210 to 220 that you need from a No. 1?

No. 2 starter
1. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (1.1)
2. James Shields, Rays (-0.4)
3. Andy Pettitte, Yankees (1.5)
4. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles (0.7)
5. Jon Lester, Red Sox (-0.4)

I like Chen. Heck, right now I like him better than Jon Lester, which tells you how much I like him. But he averaged just 172 innings in Japan over the past three seasons. Can he hold up over 32 starts?

No. 3 starter
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.0)
2. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees (1.4)
3. Felix Doubront, Red Sox (0.4)
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles (0.2)
5. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays (0.4)

Matusz is holding his own at 5-5, 4.41, but he's still walking a few too many, allowing a few too many hits, a few too many home runs. The velocity is solid, averaging 91 on his fastball. We're talking minor upgrades needed in his command, getting the ball down in the zone more often to get more groundballs. If the Orioles are to have any chance, Matusz's improvement may be the single most important aspect.

No. 4 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays (-0.6)
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees (0.3)
3. Jake Arrieta, Orioles (-0.4)
4. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (-1.2)
5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (-0.1)

Five pitchers who have struggled, but Arrieta's peripheral numbers are actually pretty solid. Like Matusz, there is hope for improvement. On the other hand, he's been awful since pitching eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, giving up 29 runs in 31.2 innings. His BABIP was .243 through May 2; it's .361 since. The truth is probably right in the middle, leaving Arrieta third on our list of fourth starters.

No. 5 starter
1. Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann, Rays (0.3)
2. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (0.1)
3. Phil Hughes, Yankees (0.2)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook/Daniel Bard, Red Sox (-0.3)
5. Tommy Hunter, Orioles (-0.5)

Hunter isn't really a major league starter, but I'm not sure Jamie Moyer -- just signed to a minor league contract -- is exactly a solution. The Orioles need to upgrade here.

Bullpen
1. Yankees (2.76 ERA)
2. Orioles (2.48 ERA)
3. Red Sox (3.66 ERA)
4. Rays (3.43 ERA)
5. Blue Jays (4.39 ERA)

If you watched Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson close out Wednesday's win, you'll realize the back of the Orioles' end has two guys with filthy stuff. Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala are strike-throwing machines and Troy Patton is a lefty who isn't a LOOGY. It's a good pen and it's deep. But the reliability of the pen ties into the rotation's inability to pitch deep into games -- Orioles relievers have already thrown 39 more innings than Yankees relievers, for example.

OK, let’s add it up … one point for ranking first, five points for ranking fifth. Hey, this isn’t meant to be scientific, so don’t overanalyze this too much. The totals:

Yankees: 36 points
Rays: 40 points
Red Sox: 45 points
Blue Jays: 51 points
Orioles: 53 points

Not the respect Orioles fans are seeking. Sorry about that; it’s nothing personal. Look, I don’t think the Orioles are going to fade away anytime soon. I worry about the rotation’s ability to hold up all summer and the bullpen’s workload. They lack depth on offense and have a couple of obvious holes. Hey, you never know, and the Orioles are certainly due for a winning season. I would love to see it happen.

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Javier Lopez Jake Roth/US PresswireJavier Lopez is sending a message to Mark Kotsay: Tag, you're out!

Resilient Jays can bounce back

May, 27, 2012
5/27/12
2:02
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Josh Hamilton flipped the bat back and jogged around the bases with his eyes fixed to the ground. There was no fist-pump, no pointing at the dugout, not even a wave to the fans. That’s not how you react when you expect to win games, and Hamilton and the Texas Rangers certainly expect to do that every time they take the field. Boasting the best run differential in the American League, Texas certainly deserves the respect it's being given this year.

But look just two ticks below them in the run-differential standings, and you’ll see a team that may surprise you: The Toronto Blue Jays, the very team that Hamilton beat with his walk-off home run on Saturday afternoon.

Toronto certainly had some hype coming into the season. With the two-time defending home-run king, Jose Bautista, to build around, things up north were only getting better. Add in a full season of emerging superstar Brett Lawrie, who looked like a legitimate All-Star during his brief time in the majors last year, and there seemed to be no reason why the Blue Jays couldn’t find themselves playing October baseball, especially once Bud Selig announced the addition of a second wild-card team in each league.

Well, two months later Bautista is hitting only .234, Lawrie has a meek .672 OPS, and the man who protected Bautista in the lineup over the past two years, Adam Lind, isn’t even on the major league team. Knowing those three facts alone, one would predict that the season hasn’t exactly gone as general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell imagined. Yet even after Saturday’s heartbreaking 13-inning loss to the Rangers, Toronto sits only 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot with a 24-23 record.

Like almost anything else in baseball, success starts with the starting pitching. Toronto’s top four of Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez all have ERAs of 3.86 or lower, with at least five quality starts apiece. That type of production will keep any team afloat.

Morrow in particular has been brilliant. The ex-Mariner was always plagued with command issues that limited his success as a starter. His 8 percent walk rate this year is a full 3 percent lower than his career mark, and would seem to indicate that he has finally gotten a grip commanding his stuff.

Unfortunately for Toronto, each of these four pitchers has a higher FIP than ERA, indicating that all of them are probably due for some regression as the season continues. Don’t be surprised to see the Jays in on any starters who might become available as the trade deadline gets closer, with Zack Greinke as the ultimate prize.

Although Bautista has been struggling, Edwin Encarnacion has been a revelation for the Jays. He has already jacked 15 home runs, only two fewer than he did all of last year, with a robust .929 OPS. That being said, his power is likely to slide off a bit over the coming weeks. His current HR/FB rate of 18.8 percent is much higher than his 12.4 career mark.

Bautista, on the other hand, hasn’t gotten any breaks this season. His .211 BABIP means his average will bounce back soon enough, and it’s not like he’s experiencing a power outage -- he has 12 homers on the year. On top of that, his fly-ball and ground-ball rates are right around his career averages, reflecting that he hasn’t changed anything fundamental with his swing. Just give him time, and there’s every reason to believe Bautista will return to form.

At the moment, the Blue Jays have two big problems besides Bautista’s struggles. The first is their bullpen, something that was supposed to be a strength coming into the season. When Anthopoulos acquired Sergio Santos from the White Sox over the winter, many believed that the Blue Jays had finally found a consistent closer, a position that had been in flux over the past few years. Instead, Santos blew the first two save opportunities he had before being placed on the disabled list with an injured shoulder. The man Anthopoulos acquired to be Santos’ setup man, Francisco Cordero, took over; he was even worse. Casey Janssen has since assumed the role and has done remarkably, not allowing a run since being named the closer. Still, the Jays’ bullpen has almost no depth, with the ageless Darren Oliver as the only other consistent option. This is another area that Toronto will be looking to fix come the end of July if it wants to contend.

The other main obstacle Toronto faces right now is, of course, the division it plays in. The AL East is easily the best division in baseball, if not all of sports. Having to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees every year is tough enough, but now that Tampa Bay is a legitimate power and Baltimore is looking better and better every day (and in first place), there are five legitimate playoff contenders vying for three spots. Toronto is 7-12 against teams in its division, and 17-11 against everyone else. The fact that the Jays have to play 18 games every year against four teams with so much talent is almost unfair.

With a fourth of the season done, Toronto is still very much in the playoff race. Farrell would surely tell you that this team can do better, and the numbers would back him up. Although the Jays saw a sure victory turn into a mirage in the Texas heat Saturday, their future is still bright.

If Toronto acquires an ace and some bullpen depth at the deadline, it should have more than just playoff aspirations. That sort of reinforced Jays club could have championship aspirations. Blue jays traditionally start heading south when the October winds blow in, but this just might be the year where those traditions begin to change.

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Dayan ViciedoDavid Banks/US PresswireSox fans don't interfere, they just let left fielder Dayan Viciedo do his thing.
Alex Convery writes for Fire Brand of the American League, a SweetSpot network affiliate. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Is it possible Vladimir Guerrero has enough left in his creaky knees to help the Toronto Blue Jays? Hey, it doesn't hurt to find out, so the Jays signed him to a minor league contract.

Vlad hit .290/.317/.416 last season for Baltimore, hardly inspiring numbers for a designated hitter, especially when you factor in the 23 double plays he grounded into.

The most realistic expectation is that Guerrero could provide a platoon bat at DH and a pinch-hitter off the bench. While his splits were pretty even in 2011, he did hit .338/.395/.536 against left-handers in 2010 when he was with Texas.

So far, however, the Jays have actually hit better against lefties than righties:

Blue Jays versus RHP: .232/.305/.387
Blue Jays versus LHP: .248/.330/.432

That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement, most obviously by benching Adam Lind permanently against lefties. Lind is a career .217/.263/.345 hitter against left-handers. Basically, he should never start against a southpaw. If Guerrero shows he has something left, Edwin Encarnacion could move to first base with Guerrero moving into the DH slot. In fact, the Jays should think about permanently replacing Lind against all pitchers. He looked like a future star after his monster .932 OPS season in 2009, but he now has a .290 on-base percentage since and is off to .198/.283/.347 start. While he has popped 49 home runs the past two seasons (and three in 2012), you need more production from your first baseman.

If Guerrero is eventually added to the Blue Jays roster, the odd man out would probably be outfielder Ben Francisco. He and Rajai Davis both hit right-handed but Davis provides more speed and better defense. It seems unlikely the club would punt on Lind, who is making $5 million this year and $5 million next (with club options through 2016).

Wild-card races: What did we learn?

September, 22, 2011
9/22/11
11:55
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With a low screaming liner down the left-field line that just cleared the fence, Edwin Encarnacion sent the Blue Jays home as winners in the 12th inning and sent the Angels packing ... perhaps for the season. It’s certainly no way a team wants to suffer one of its toughest defeats, with a rookie reliever (7.56 ERA) pitching on the road with no margin for error.

But that, of course, is one of the beautiful aspects of baseball: You can’t always have your best pitchers or best hitters on the mound or at the plate in the most crucial situations. There are 25 guys on your roster -- more in September -- and at some point they all have to come through. We saw this on Thursday, as teams in the wild-card chase scrapped and clawed to stay alive. With their season in desperate straits, the Rays gave a 22-year-old his first big league start. The Cardinals used 22 players, but three relievers couldn’t hold a 6-2 lead in the ninth.

And tied in the bottom of the 11th, Angels manager Mike Scioscia gave the ball to Garrett Richards, a hard-throwing right-hander with just five big league appearances. He got MVP candidate Jose Bautista to pop out and blew away Adam Lind. Richards returned to the mound in the 12th, and Encarnacion worked the count to 2-2, fouled off a pitch, took ball three. The rookie didn’t want to walk the leadoff guy.

He didn’t.

Seemingly out of nowhere, with the Red Sox slumping and the Rays unable to capitalize, the Angels had clawed back into the wild-card race. But Thursday’s loss puts the Angels three games behind the Red Sox and one game behind the Rays, and with just six games to play, overcoming two teams will be too much for them to achieve.

In the end, this game was a microcosm of the Angels’ season: Not enough offense. Starter Ervin Santana did take a 3-1 lead into the seventh, but he hasn’t been sharp this month with 21 walks in five games. Maybe Scioscia left him in one batter too long, as Toronto’s Eric Thames homered to make it 3-2. Bobby Cassevah couldn’t hold the one-run lead, but worse yet the Angels couldn’t touch the Toronto bullpen and didn’t get a hit the final four innings.

So the Angels are all but out of it. That’s one thing we learned on Thursday. Here are a few other things:

  • Maybe Matt Moore should have been up earlier. Yes, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and Brett Gardner didn’t play, but the heralded Rays rookie looked absolutely awesome in his first major league start, striking 11 Yankees in five innings and throwing 59 of his 84 pitches for strikes. Considering his domination in Double-A (2.20 ERA, 131 strikeouts in 102 1/3 IP) and then Triple-A (1.37 ERA in nine starts), it seems clear that Moore could have helped the Rays. The rotation has been solid (although Wade Davis has a 4.98 ERA since the All-Star break) so maybe there wasn’t a clear opening, but Moore certainly could have helped in the bullpen. In the end, the Rays may be second-guessing themselves for waiting to call up Moore and Desmond Jennings.
  • The Cardinals played with fire all season and got burned. In retrospect, the biggest blunder of the season for manager Tony La Russa was the decision to leave spring training with Ryan Franklin as his team’s closer. Franklin blew a save on Opening Day and then blew three more save chances in the club’s first 16 games; St. Louis lost all four of those games. The thing is: Considering Franklin’s home run tendencies, low strikeout rates and increasing age, it was risky to trust him for another year. Once Franklin was removed as closer, the bullpen actually fared pretty well. Here are the Cardinals’ records when leading entering the seventh, eighth and ninth innings and the National League as a whole:
    Seventh: 65-10, .867 win percentage (NL average entering Thursday: .860)
    Eighth: 66-9, .880 (NL average: .895)
    Ninth: 74-7, .914 (NL average: .955)

    Of course, one of those seven losses came in Thursday’s devastating loss as Jason Motte walked three batters trying to protect a 6-2 lead, Rafael Furcal made an error and Marc Rzepczynski and Fernando Salas failed to stop the bleeding.

    The knife cut sharp with that loss. It’s the one Cardinals fans will remember if the team falls a game short of the playoffs, but it’s really those losses in April that hurt the most.
  • Bartolo Colon’s chances at joining the Yankees' postseason rotation took a big hit. The Yankees’ Triple-A staff shut down the Rays on Wednesday, but Tampa Bay lit up Colon on Thursday. With two straight bad starts from Colon, manager Joe Girardi is more confused than ever about his options. Don’t count out A.J. Burnett!
  • The Braves would like to offer some high-fives to the Mets. A two-game lead with six to go instead of one? Yes, they’ll take that, thank you.
  • Phillies fans are still confident and not at all nervous about their team. They would never boo their boys over a little six-game losing streak, would they? Not after this great season. No way. Right?
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Jack HannahanEric P. Mull/US PresswireThe Indians might be out of it, but Jack Hannahan's still giving it his all at the hot corner.

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