SweetSpot: Emilio Bonifacio

Braves need their lineup stars to step up

August, 9, 2014
8/09/14
4:30
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Maybe it’s a matter of sympathy for a team that lost much of its rotation to the surgeon before a pitch had been thrown. Maybe it’s because we all love prospects, and indulge them their shortcomings while anticipating their glorious futures. But with the Atlanta Braves, as we move into the season’s final third, it’s time to acknowledge that this isn’t much of a contender as teams go. If anything, it’s a team that should consider itself fortunate to be .500. The Braves are three games over now, with an expected record a game or two worse than that.

That might be enough to win the increasingly feeble NL East, but the question is where you might reasonably expect the Braves to improve, because it’s a club with a lot of areas for improvement -- especially in the lineup. Despite the presence of star slugger Justin Upton, the much-ballyhooed breakthrough of Evan Gattis, and the continuing development of young stars Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, the Braves rank 13th in the league in runs scored and -- adjusting for a pitcher-friendly home park -- 11th in OPS+. The only other contender trying to do as much with as little offense is Cincinnati, in fourth place in the NL Central but a direct threat to Atlanta’s chances should the Braves fail to win the NL East.

A big problem has been the team’s power outage: The Braves are tied for 10th in the National League in isolated power. The Cardinals’ slugging shortage has been a season-long talking point, but through Friday night’s action they had more extra-base hits than the Braves (293 to 290).

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
AP Photo/David GoldmanChris Johnson's impatience at the plate has hurt the Braves' offense this season.
Even swapping in Tommy La Stella for Dan Uggla (and Ramiro Pena, and Tyler Pastornicky) hasn’t been enough to compensate for the multiple empty slots in the Atlanta lineup. The teamwide OPS before that move was .681, but it’s .680 since La Stella got called up. That isn’t on La Stella but rather on the stack of guys not named Uggla who still aren’t contributing on offense.

In part, the Braves reap what they sow because they decided to rely on some fairly extreme hitters, extreme in that they’re guys who contribute entirely in some departments but not others: Andrelton Simmons, Gattis and Chris Johnson don’t walk and never have, and La Stella has no power and shouldn’t be expected to provide much. Although you can accept excuses for Simmons and Gattis because they’re at up-the-middle positions and -- at least in Simmons’ case -- provide “best in baseball”-grade defense, if you rely on too many extremes like that, you wind up with reasons why a lineup doesn’t function as a whole. Among every-day players, Upton and Simmons are in the bottom 10 in OPS among batting-title qualifiers; Johnson is just 11 points from sharing this “distinction.” The Braves are last in the league in WAR at third base and center field.

With this year’s disaster piled on top of his first season in Atlanta, B.J. Upton might represent the biggest disappointment in the history of Braves outfielders since Claudell Washington or Brad Komminsk. There is no reason for optimism. Upton’s strikeout rate is still north of 30 percent, and his walk rate is down from his career norms. Add in his mediocrity afield and he’s one of the least valuable players in the game before you even get into what the Braves are paying for the privilege of employing him. The decision to bat him leadoff most of the time in the past 40 games has helped undermine much of the value they received from adding La Stella, while giving the most at-bats to a guy who would be the worst starting player in most big league lineups.

If their worst player isn’t Upton, it’s Johnson. That might surprise you because last year he threatened to win a batting title. And when he’s hitting .320 and slugging .450, he’s an asset. But Johnson has been especially impatient at the plate this year, seeing his strikeout and swinging strike rates rise to their highest level since his rookie season while his pitches per plate appearance clip has dropped to its lowest since then, and his power production is at an all-time low (.109 ISO). This year, an even more aggressive approach has reduced a hitter whose signal virtue was that aggressiveness and plate coverage into the epitome of an empty batting average.

To make matters worse, the Braves’ bench has contributed next to nothing at the plate, and that’s as much a matter of design as accident considering the players Atlanta has. Losing Gattis for the better part of a month exposed career bench jockey Gerald Laird and an unready Christian Bethancourt behind the plate; Uggla’s implosion put Pena and Pastornicky on the spot. Ryan Doumit has struggled badly as the primary pinch hitter. This shortage of alternatives inspired the acquisition of Emilio Bonifacio from the Cubs. He doesn’t walk or bop, but he might nevertheless be a sporadic upgrade on B.J. Upton or Johnson.

Beyond their problems with their worst players, the Braves’ additional problem on offense is that most of their good players are generally just that -- good, but not great enough to compensate for some of the worst regulars in the game. Freeman and Heyward have to be called out for what they’ve been: solid regulars with plenty of upside. But despite years of hype, they’re not yet dominant players at their positions. Freeman’s WAR (2.2) lodges him among guys such as Matt Adams and Adam LaRoche, and well behind Paul Goldschmidt or Anthony Rizzo in terms of value at first base in the NL. Heyward gets rated highly in overall WAR because of his value on defense, but rank him for his offensive production (oWAR) at an offense-first position like right and he’s just sixth among NL right fielders. He ranks that high only because Ryan Braun has spent time on the DL.

It’s reasonable to hope Freeman and Heyward will break out, in the same way you want to bank on them in the long term. But although Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projected an OPS of .839 for Freeman in the second half at the All-Star break, Freeman has been at .708. More happily, Heyward’s been cranking at a 1.024 clip since the break (projected for .757); now, just imagine if that were back at the top of the order instead of B.J. Upton. Coming back from injury, Gattis has struggled (.620 OPS, projected for .808).

Barring a waiver-trade pickup or two, the Braves have little choice but to let it ride. What hope they should really harbor for a big stretch-run improvement on offense rests with Gattis, Freeman and Heyward finally cementing themselves as top players at their positions. As Szymborski projects, you can hope that’s the case, but there’s no time like the present.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.


Overreact after one series? Of course we're going to overreact! We're baseball fans. It's no fun if we just spout things like "small sample size" and "check back in two months." So, what have we learned after one series? Here are a few trends and things to watch, starting with Evan Longoria.

The Rays third baseman went 2-for-4 in Tampa's 7-2 win over Toronto, slugging a three-run homer for his first home run of 2014. So here's the deal with Longoria: If anyone is going to crack the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout stranglehold on the AL MVP Award, Longoria is the most likely candidate. Consider his merits:

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria, David DeJesus, Ben Zobrist
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIs this the year Evan Longoria puts it all together for the Rays?
1. He's off to a hot start! Our guy is hitting .400.

2. He's good. Not including 2012, when he played just 74 games, he's finished fifth, sixth, third and fourth in WAR among AL position players and has three top-10 MVP finishes.

3. The Rays are a good bet to make the postseason. MVP voters love that.

4. Longoria is an RBI guy, averaging 110 RBIs per 162 games over his career. MVP voters love themselves some RBIs.

5. He should knock in more than the 88 runs he did last year, when he hit .265 with just four home runs with runners in scoring position (22 of his 32 home runs came with the bases empty).

In truth, as good as Longoria has been, we've kind of been waiting for that monster season, haven't we? Maybe that's unfair to say about one of the best all-around players in the league (did you see the play he made the other night?), but Longoria hit .294 in 2010 and just .269 last season, when his strikeout rate increased to 23.4 percent, easily his highest rate since his rookie season. If he cuts down on the strikeouts, I can see that average climbing over .300 for the first time in his career and the RBIs climbing well over 100.

Other thoughts from many hours of baseball viewing over the past few days:

  • If they stay healthy, the Giants are going to have the best offense in the National League. On Thursday, they scored five runs in the eighth inning to beat the Diamondbacks 8-5. Angel Pagan is a solid leadoff hitter, and Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence provide a juicy meat of the order. I've mentioned Belt as a guy I like to have a big breakout season, and he hit his third home run. Pence seems to get better the higher he wears his pants legs. Posey won't slump like he did in the second half last year. Sandoval hits and eats and hits some more.
  • The Angels’ and Phillies’ bullpens look like disasters. The Mariners pounded every reliever the Angels tried in their series and the Angels are suddenly staring at another bad April start: 9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon looked like a shell of his former shelf in getting roughed up the other day.
  • [+] EnlargeJim Johnson, Bob Melvin
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesStruggling Jim Johnson might get hooked from his role as the A's closer.
  • How long do the A’s stick with closer Jim Johnson? OK, he led the AL in saves the past two seasons. He also led the AL last season in blown saves and was second in relief losses. He has two losses already, he’s not a strikeout pitcher and the A’s have other good relievers. It’s never too early to panic about your closer!
  • How many closers do you have complete confidence in right now anyway? With low-scoring games and tight pennant races, late-inning relief work is going to decide a division title or two. We had six blown saves on Wednesday. The D-Backs coughed up that game on Thursday. The Rockies blew an eighth-inning lead to the Marlins. And so on. Rough few days for the bullpens (in contrast to starters, who generally dominated).
  • A young pitcher who hasn’t yet made his mark to watch: Seattle’s James Paxton showcased electrifying stuff in his first start, striking out nine in seven and throwing 97 mph in his final inning.
  • With Clayton Kershaw missing a few starts, the new Cy Young favorite in the National League: Jose Fernandez. He’s must-watch TV, Pedro-in-his-prime eye candy. His run support will be an issue, but the stuff, poise and confidence are that of a wise veteran, not a 21-year-old kid.
  • In case you had doubts, Michael Wacha is most assuredly the real deal. His changeup is Pedro-in-his-prime nasty. The Reds went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts against it.
  • Veteran Alex Gonzalez is not going to last as the Tigers' shortstop. He simply doesn’t have the range to play there. Stephen Drew, come on down?
  • Manager on the hot seat: Kirk Gibson. The Diamondbacks are off to 1-5 start, and nine of their next 15 games are against the Dodgers (six) and Giants (three). If the D-backs can avoid digging a big hole over that stretch, the schedule does get a little easier starting April 21, when they play 19 consecutive games against teams that finished under .500 in 2013.
  • Tyro Zack Wheeler is not Matt Harvey. Hold down your expectations, Mets fans.
  • We’re going to see a lot more shifts this year. I haven’t checked the numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests infield shifts are way up. Expect batting averages to continue to plummet as a result.
  • Free-agent-to-be Max Scherzer is going to make a lot of money this offseason.
  • I hope B.J. Upton gets fixed, but I have my doubts. Six strikeouts in his first 12 plate appearances.
  • Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is going to have a high BABIP again. Great stroke to all fields, great balance between attacking fastballs early in the count and waiting for his pitch later in the count. He'll be an MVP candidate again.
  • Clearly, Emilio Bonifacio (11 hits in three games!) is the best player in the NL. OK, seriously: The Royals couldn’t find a spot for this guy on their roster? Ned Yost, everyone!
  • Rookie Xander Bogaerts is ready NOW. He’s hitting .556 with three walks and one strikeout in three games. Maybe the power takes a year or two to fully develop, but his mature, disciplined approach at the plate is going make a star right away.
  • Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggested this and it’s not outrageous: With Jose Reyes injured, Brad Miller might be the best shortstop in the AL. Or maybe Bogaerts. Could have been Bonifacio, if only the Royals had kept him!
  • Best team in baseball: The Mariners ... too early?
Quick thoughts on Thursday's action ...
  • One of the fun things about opening week is overreacting to just a few game results. Hey, we all do it. So when the Toronto Blue Jays lost their first two games and then saw the Cleveland Indians score three runs in the sixth Thursday to tie the game 6-6, I could see the panic in the faces of Jays fans all the way out here in Connecticut. Three losses at home to the Indians to begin the season? Not the way the baseball renaissance in Toronto was supposed to begin. Fortunately, they were facing Brett Myers, and Brett Myers wasn't good on this night. J.P. Arencibia homered off Myers (the fourth he allowed on the night) and then Colby Rasmus (maybe this is the year!) blasted a long run off reliever Cody Allen. An error led to a third run in the inning. The Indians did rally in the eighth, but two outstanding plays by second baseman Emilio Bonifacio protected a 9-8 lead. With two runners on, he dove to his right to keep the ball in the infield and prevent the tying run from scoring. Then he robbed Carlos Santana with a great play up the middle. Oh … Jose Bautista is back. Look out, American League.
  • Watched a lot of the Philadelphia Phillies-Atlanta Braves game, initially to check out Kris Medlen to see if we would see 2012 Medlen -- when he made 12 starts after moving to the rotation and allowed just 11 runs. Instead we saw vintage Cliff Lee: 8 innings, 2 hits, 0 runs, 0 hits, 8 strikeouts. Lee suffered one of the great hard-luck seasons ever last year, winning just six games in 30 starts despite a 3.16 ERA. He allowed two or fewer runs in 15 starts and won just those six games. He didn't get much run support in this game but didn't need it, throwing 78 of 106 pitches for strikes in Philadelphia's 2-0 victory. Here's Lee talking about his outing, which, considering the lineups each faced, was every bit as impressive as Yu Darvish's near-perfect game.
  • Chris Davis was one of the surprises for the Baltimore Orioles last year, hitting .270 and slugging 33 home runs. He's had about as good a three-game start as you can have, hitting .636 with three home runs and 11 RBIs. He homered and doubled to drive in four runs in a 6-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays to give the Orioles the series win. He's going to go through slumps because of his high strikeout rate, and you wish he'd walk a little more, but I think he can be a 30-homer guy again.
  • Interesting strategy in the ninth inning of the Los Angeles Angels-Cincinnati Reds game. Reds up 5-4, Mike Trout led off the ninth with a single off Aroldis Chapman. Instead of letting Trout run, Erick Aybar sacrificed him to second. So that means your next two guys have to hit .500 off Chapman to tie the game. Baserunners were 5-for-6 stealing against Chapman last year, so he's only so-so at holding guys on; I think you have to try the steal there instead of giving away the out. Trout -- remember he was 49-for-54 stealing in 2012 -- swipes second and then you can bunt him to third. Albert Pujols is a good contact guy (he ended up lining out to right) and then you don't need a hit to tie the game. Here's Chapman making Josh Hamilton look bad to end the game. (Keep an eye on Pujols' sore foot; he might be the designated hitter over the weekend after he was seen hobbling earlier in the game.)

Offseason report card: Blue Jays

February, 7, 2013
2/07/13
11:40
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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?

  •  
    33%
  •  
    49%
  •  
    15%
  •  
    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?


Baseball lore is full of great scouting stories, like the tale of the scout who was driving through rural Maryland one day and stopped to ask a kid working in a field for directions. The kid -- future Hall of Fame Jimmie Foxx -- raised his plow with one arm and pointed: "That way."

The scout, seeing the kid's raw strength, asked him the obvious question: "Do you play baseball?"

Who knows, maybe Brandon Beachy will become one of those stories.

Beachy played mostly third base and first base at Indiana Wesleyan and pitched a little, but went undrafted. A Braves area scout named Gene Kerns saw Beachy one July evening pitching in relief in the Virginia Valley League, a college summer league. He saw a kid with good size throwing in the low 90s.

After the game, he asked Beachy if he'd been drafted. (He wouldn't be allowed to talk to him if he had.) When Beachy said no, Kerns, as he relayed in a 2011 interview, then asked the obvious question: "Do you have an interest in professional baseball?"

Kerns convinced the club to sign him as a non-drafted free agent. Barely two years later, Beachy was in the major leagues. Now, after a sterling rookie season, Beachy is 5-1 after throwing his first major league complete game and shutout in a 7-0 victory over the Marlins. Beachy threw 122 pitches, struck out six, walked nobody, allowed four singles and one double and showcased why he leads the major leagues with a 1.33 ERA.

In less than four years he has gone from an undrafted college infielder to minor league reliever to maybe-he's-a-prospect to major league starter to ... well, what do we call him now? The most underrated pitcher in baseball? A possible All-Star? I'm not sure. For now, let's just call him very good.

Beachy isn't overpowering, usually settling in around 90-91 mph with his four-seamer, occasionally cranking it up to 94. He gets some running sink/cut on his fastball, although it's not a cutter. He tweeted earlier this season that "No, I don't throw a cutter. Just 4-seams and an occasional 2." He mixes in a changeup, a slow curve (72-74 mph) that he commands well and a slider. Yes, he relies to some extend on a deceptive delivery that makes it difficult for batters to pick up the ball, but he's excelling on more than deception; his stuff is better than advertised.

He was in control all game against the Marlins. They did get two runners on with two out in the fifth, but Jose Reyes lined out to right. In the seventh, Giancarlo Stanton doubled to lead off the inning and Chipper Jones made a nice diving stop on Gaby Sanchez for the first out. Beachy induced Emilio Bonifacio to ground out to second on a 94-mph four-seamer and then struck out Brett Hayes on a lovely changeup.

From there it was six up, six down and the shutout.

Last season, Baseball America ranked Beachy as Atlanta's No. 8 prospect, behind more heralded arms Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor and Arodys Vizcaino. But Beachy beat out Minor -- a former No. 1 pick -- for the No. 5 rotation slot out of spring training and never looked back. He made 25 starts and finished 7-3 with a 3.68 ERA, striking out 169 batters in 141.2 innings, the highest strikeout in the majors for pitchers with at least 100 innings.

His biggest issue as a rookie was an inability to pitch deep into games. The strikeouts were nice, but also meant he ran up his pitch counts, leading to early exits. He pitched seven innings just twice. Thursday was the fourth time in eight starts that he's gone at least seven. While his strikeout rate is down -- 6.5 Ks per nine -- he has been even more effective. His ground ball rate is up from 33.8 percent to 43.1 percent, he has allowed just one home run in 54 innings and his walks are down. There may be a little luck going on here --- the home run rate is absurdly low for a fly-ball pitcher and his .214 BABIP will surely rise -- but at this point you have to call him one of the best pitchers in the majors.

I asked Braves fans if they've been surprised by Beachy's sophomore campaign. A few responses:

  • "That dominant game from Beachy tonight is just a continuation of the good work he's been doing this year. Kid's got the goods." -- @jackson_todd
  • "Beachy has earned everything through hard work and dedication. I was surprised when he came up but not this year." -- @PaulGrey27
  • "Not surprised that he's been the Braves best pitcher. Very surprised that he's been THIS good." -- @JUnderwood9
  • "biggest surprise is continued ability to get swinging strikes on the fastball up, even when sitting 91-93. Huge asset." --@puckhoo
  • "so no, not too surprised. if he can stay efficient and get his K rate back up a little bit he will become a legit ace" --@telfo1
  • "Beachy reminds me so much of John Smoltz. His mechanics are simple which enables him to repeat pitches without stress." --@M823SL

Somewhere Gene Kerns was probably watching a baseball game tonight. I hope he got a chance to check out a few innings of Brandon Beachy. And if he wants to somehow involve a plow in future retellings of how he discovered Beachy, I think that sounds perfectly fine.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
OriolesEd Zurga/Getty ImagesWhen you're the Baltimore Orioles and in first place, you can celebrate any way you want.
Welcome to another Opening Day! SweetSpot blogger Dave Schoenfield and I joined forces for Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, talking not only about the Cardinals beating the Marlins, but looking ahead!

1. Wow, is that a big ballpark in Miami or what? Dave and I talk about Josh Johnson, Kyle Lohse and how the Marlins seem ill-fitted for their new stadium.

2. Another day, another bit of news concerning the Boston Red Sox closer situation. By the way, producer Jay Soderberg doesn’t like the team’s chances this year.

3. The Washington Nationals demoted John Lannan to the minors. While we applaud the move, do veteran players deserve a team’s loyalty?

4. Other email questions dealt with where Albert Pujols should bat in the order, Starlin Castro’s future contract, and an entirely new way to build pitching staffs.

5. We look ahead to Thursday’s action, with Clayton Kershaw facing off against a potentially rejuvenated right-hander in San Diego, and whether we should be worried about Matt Kemp's poor spring training.

So download and listen to Thursday’s excellent Baseball Today podcast, because baseball is awesome and you can’t get enough!

There are few events in baseball more exciting than Opening Day. Or Opening Night. Er … let’s just go directly to some observations from the Cardinals’ 4-1 victory over the Marlins, ushering in Marlins Park in disappointing fashion for the home crowd onlookers.

  • Kyle Lohse was brilliant, of course, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning and reminding everyone of Bob Feller's Opening Day no-hitter. Lohse said after the game that the no-hitter "probably did cross my mind after the fifth inning." He doesn’t throw hard, keeping hitters off-balance with a little slider and a changeup that he kept at the knees at night. Lohse had the best season of his career in 2011, although there was some luck built into it: He allowed a .269 average on balls in play, well below his career mark of .302. There’s nothing in the numbers that suggests he was doing something different -- his ground-ball rate matched his career and his line-drive rate was actually 1.1 percent higher than his career mark. Everyone expects some regression in 2012, but his first start was more 2011. No walks on the night and through six he threw a first-pitch strike to 13 of the 18 batters he faced. Hitters should know Lohse will come right after them when the bases are empty. He walked only 10 hitters last season in 469 plate appearances with nobody on; with runners, he walked 32 in 306 plate appearances.
  • Josh Johnson allowed 10 hits for only the second time in his career. While a few of the hits were bleeders and bloopers, he did leave some pitches over the middle of the plate. We can’t read too much into the start other than that he threw 91 pitches, avoided the blister issue that popped up in spring training and has his first start under his belt. Undoubtedly, he was pumped up pitching the first game in the club’s new park in his first start since last May. There's no reason not to expect better results moving forward.
  • There was miscommunication in the early innings between Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes as both pulled up on Carlos Beltran’s little trickler, allowing the ball to roll into left field. In the sixth inning with two runners on and Lohse up in a bunt situation, Johnson made sure to step off the mound and talk with Ramirez. That stuff will sort itself out, but the Marlins’ defense is an issue to keep an eye on. The Cardinals legged out two doubles to Logan Morrison in left field on balls that weren’t really even in the gaps. As Orel Hershiser said during the broadcast, "A lot of scouts are writing notes down about the arm of Logan Morrison." It doesn’t help that Morrison is still battling a sore knee that kept him out most of spring training, but he was a liability out there in 2011 even when healthy. According to the defensive runs saved metric, Morrison was 26 runs worse than the average left fielder -- the worst mark in the majors (only Raul Ibanez was in the same vicinity) and a whopping 46 runs worse than Brett Gardner’s majors-leading 23 DRS. There is a lot of ground to cover in deep left-center and center in the new park. In Emilio Bonifacio, the Marlins have an inexperienced center fielder (only 29 games started there in his career entering the season). Chris Coghlan, their other center fielder, rated minus-13 runs in 2011, the worst figure in the majors.
  • [+] EnlargeKyle Lohse
    AP Photo/Lynne SladkyOpening night of the 2012 season found Kyle Lohse (26) looking a lot like his 2011 self.

  • Giancarlo Stanton found out about those center-field dimensions, hitting two deep balls out there that were caught, a towering fly to the warning track in the fifth inning and a deep fly to right-center in the seventh that Jon Jay made a nice running catch on. It’s obviously too early to report on how the park will play, and it might play differently when the roof is open versus closed.
  • Jason Motte threw some 99 mph smokebombs to finish it off. A bit of a step up from Ryan Franklin.
  • For a while, Lohse had us thinking about the best Opening Day starts. Via Baseball-Reference.com, here are the best Game 1 starts since 1918:
    Walter Johnson, Senators, 1926: 111 (15 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 9 K)
    Lon Warneke, Cubs, 1934: 96 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 13 K)
    Bob Veale, Pirates, 1965: 95 (10 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K)
    Mel Harder, Indians, 1935: 95 (14 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 6 K)
    Johnny Vander Meer, Reds, 1943: 91 (11 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 3 K)

    Six pitchers scored a 90: Bob Feller twice (including his 1940 no-hitter in which he walked five and struck out eight), Tom Glavine, Bob Gibson, Clint Brown and Johnson again with a 13-inning effort in 1919. The best recent effort was Felix Hernandez striking out 12 in eight shutout innings in 2007. Camilo Pascual holds the Opening Day record with 15 strikeouts for the Twins in 1960. Randy Johnson twice fanned 14 for the Mariners.

  • Opening Night down. Opening Day up next. Good times have arrived.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
JohnsonRonald C. Modra/Getty ImagesAfter making just nine starts in 2011, the Marlins are hoping for a full season from ace Josh Johnson.
I like to do a rough estimate of a team's strength by starting off with their 2011 totals for runs scored and runs allowed, adding and subtracting for new players and projected performance, and see where we end up. Here is an estimate I a did a couple weeks ago on the Washington Nationals. With the Miami Marlins playing the Red Sox on ESPN this afternoon, and Tristan Cockcroft asking how Hanley Ramirez will bounce back , I thought I'd tackle the Marlins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

So we end up with:

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

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

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

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

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Baseball's bunting fiends

September, 22, 2011
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While doing research for today’s piece on Ron Roenicke, a few fun items came my way that weren’t Brewers- or postseason-centric. Thanks to Doug Kern and the gang at Stats & Info, I was given a leaderboard for which position players have been bunting the most, how many of them have led to base hits, and even who has the most sac bunt RBIs this season.

Keep in mind, this is sorted by bunt attempts, not successful sac bunts, so the nine guys who have attempted to bunt the most often are not always the same guys who lead the league in successful sac hits.

The other thing to remember is that the tally of plate appearances where a hitter has laid one down include bunting for base hits and bunting to advance runners, so when you see that Juan Pierre’s 16-for-32, that means he has 16 bunt singles, but doesn’t necessarily mean he was trying to bunt for a hit 32 times. And because this was fairly quick and dirty, we didn’t tease out ROE results. However gritty the info, it’s interesting for the sense it gives us of which players are dropping one down most frequently, and what this also tells us about the managers they play for.

Looking at the top nine of baseball’s bunting fiends, we lead off with the White Sox’s Pierre, just like they do. Looking at these totals, he’s clearly the class of the little man’s game when it comes to placing pitches up the lines and around the mound. It has always been a centerpiece of his game, with the attending results in base hits, runs driven in and what some refer to as productive outs.

It’s worth noting that Pierre doesn’t just lead all position players in sac bunts, but all the pitchers as well. You can take that as a reminder of one of those pesky facts that NL-brand fans don’t often care to cite -- that you’ll usually find AL managers bunting more often with the people who can actually hit for a living, and not just with pitchers because what else can you do with them? This year’s team that has gotten the most sac bunts from its hitters? Ned Yost’s Royals squad. Between his fellow former Brewer Alcides Escobar (with a remarkable 17 sacrifices in 21 attempts) and Getz, it’s enough to make you wonder if Yost misses managing in Milwaukee.

Between Pierre and Getz you’ve got a group of guys who actively attempt to bunt for base hits: The Marlins’ Emilio Bonifacio and the Angels’ infield assault duo of Eric Aybar and Peter Bourjos. You can probably also put the token Twin on the list, Alexi Casilla, in this category as well. Ron Gardenhire might not have Nick Punto, and whatever value designated bench bunter Matt Tolbert has seems to have dried up after 2009, but Gardenhire's past fascination with the bunt still found an outlet with Casilla this season.

The pair of playoff-bound bunters should get some additional attention, despite the tactic’s associations with White Sox and Royals and Twins. The Yankees’ Gardner isn’t just an OBP hero and everybody’s favorite underrated Yankee (if that isn’t automatically oxymoronic), he’s also someone equally adept at pushing bunts for base hits or to move runners up. That’s something he has in common with Rangers speedster Elvis Andrus; if you remember the impact Andrus had within last year’s ALCS on both sides of the ball, this is just one piece of his value as far as being able to push sac bunts and base hits and exploit his speed to good effect.

For the curious, the best bunting pitchers in terms of raw numbers are the Phillies’ Roy Halladay and the Nats’ Livan Hernandez. Where Doc’s really only had two years to work on his craft, he’s already come fairly far as a pitcher capable of helping his own cause, ripping his first two career extra-base hits when he isn’t laying one down. Livan owns a career .528 OPS as a hitter (probably good enough to put him in the Twins’ infield), but bunting’s just another component in his batsmanship.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
A colleague poses this question: Is Emilio Bonifacio the worst player to win a player of the month award?

By this, we don't mean the worst statistically for that month, but the worst player over the course of his career. Bonifacio had a terrific July to be named NL Player of the Month -- .380, 27 runs, 16 stolen bases and a 26-game hitting streak. But this is a guy with three career home runs and a .661 career OPS.

The National League started handing player of the month awards in 1958; fittingly, the first winners were Willie Mays and Stan Musial. The American League didn't begin until 1974. It's not that easy to win one of these things -- Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, for example, have won just once. Chipper Jones has never been a player of the month winner.

Eleven players have won at least six times: Barry Bonds (13), Alex Rodriguez (10), Frank Thomas (8), Albert Belle (7) and Albert Pujols, Jason Giambi, Vladimir Guerrero, Mark McGwire, George Brett, George Foster and Pete Rose with six.

So, back to our original question: Who are the worst player of the month winners?

The roll call ...

Runner-up: Glenallen Hill, 2000 Yankees. This is a weird one, as Hill only played two months with the Yankees and August of 2000 was literally his last month as a regular in the big leagues -- he'd play only 30 more games in his career. But he hit .411 with 10 homers and 19 RBIs.

3. Felix Jose, Cardinals. Jose was actually a decent player. He had a career line of .280/.334/.409, although the outfielder never lived up to his prospect hype and was a big league regular just five years. But what's amazing is he won TWO Player of the Month awards -- the same total as Ken Griffey Jr. In April of 1991, he hit .354 with two homers, nine doubles, 15 RBIs and 16 runs. He was an All-Star that year and hit .305. In May of 1992, he won again, hitting .346 with four homers and 25 RBIs.

2. Jim Hughes, 1975 Twins. I had to look this guy up. In '75, pitchers were still eligible for the award (they would later get their own). As a rookie with the Twins, Hughes went 6-0, 0.87 in May to win monthly honors. He allowed just 29 hits in 51 innings. I saw one newspaper story were Boog Powell said, "I don't know what he was throwing. ... It was some kind of trick pitch." Hughes never matched that success again and finished the year 16-14 with a 3.82 ERA, but walked 127 and struck out just 130. The next year he went 9-14 with a 4.98 ERA and continued control problems. After two games in 1977, his career was over. I couldn't find evidence of an injury, although that's certainly possible. Regardless, he had that one shining month.

1. Alfredo Griffin, 1979 Blue Jays. Now, Griffin had a long major league career, but he hit just 24 home runs in 18 seasons, hardly the kind of hitter who usually wins this award. His career OPS is .604 ... well below Bonifacio's. But in September of his rookie season in 1979, Griffin hit .347 ... with no home runs and six RBIs. OK, no, I'm not exactly sure how he was the best player in the AL that month.

The state of National League platooning

June, 4, 2011
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Brian McCann/David RossUS Presswire/Getty ImagesThe lefty/righty catching platoon of Brian McCann and David Ross has been the NL's best this season.

If the American League has very few stable platoons but a few identifiable platoon players getting work, is the National League any better off? Even with today’s bigger bullpens, the absence of a DH gives NL skippers and GMs a little more freedom to carry a player whose primary value is to platoon, since they have five reserves, so even if one is a catcher and another is someone who can play short, that still leaves space for the odd guy. Say, that journeyman who can knock a situational lefty right out of the box, or who can help put up a crooked number against that tiring right-handed starter in the fifth or sixth inning. And it doesn’t hurt that these kinds of guys are handy for double-switches.

As in the American League, you find a few catching platoons of convenience, in which the backup backstop bats from the other side and conveniently gets his starts on the days the starter needs a rest. The Braves’ setup with Brian McCann and David Ross is the best of the lot, but when Atlanta afforded itself Ross, it did so knowing it was getting more than a platoon player. The Mets’ young/old and lefty/righty combo of Josh Thole and Ronny Paulino has its virtues. Charlie Manuel has the benefit of a slight inversion of the paradigm when Brian Schneider is healthy -- a lefty-batting backup is a lot easier to spot when Carlos Ruiz really does need a rest, since most pitching is right-handed -- but he’s on the DL.

Stable platoons beyond those behind home plate are surprisingly limited in the Senior Circuit. I’d divide the current group of platoons in the league into three groups: committed, accidental and diffident, reflecting the level of planning and commitment that went into constructing them, and whether or not they’re going to last more than a couple weeks.

Among the few we’d call committed, Clint Hurdle’s stolidly running out his right-field combo of Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz. It isn’t hitting all that well, but that was the plan, and so far, they’re sticking with it. The Phillies anticipated a right-field platoon before the season, but Domonic Brown’s injury kept that from becoming a reliable feature of Manuel’s lineup cards until recently, pressing Ben Francisco back into an everyday role he handed back.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Lee
Troy Taormina/US PresswireThe Astros are 10-8 against lefties this season, which could be partly because that matchup allows them to move Carlos Lee out of left field.
In the infield, San Diego manager Bud Black has been reliably sticking with Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu as his first-base arrangement, but there’s only so much Can’tu at the plate that even the Padres can endure. The rare multi-position platoon that’s a matter of design, but also a certain diffidence is found in Houston, where Brad Mills is moving Carlos Lee between left and first base, but not every time out. Brett Wallace sits against a few lefties, Jason Michaels plays left and Lee moves to first and keeps getting to play every day. The ‘Stros might have a 10-8 record vs. lefties, but getting Michaels into the lineup isn’t the reason why. But re-potting the increasingly immobile Lee someplace other than left field might be a contributing factor.

Alone among their NL brethren, the Marlins have stuck with an infield platoon someplace other than first base, and they platoon at third without actually finding a set right-handed half of the platoon. Edwin Rodriguez has damned the defensive torpedoes to run Greg Dobbs out there every day against right-handers, while leaving his partner du jour as a matter of mystery -- sometimes it’s Wes Helms, sometimes it was Donnie Murphy, and now sometimes it’s the roving Emilio Bonifacio. Those happy few who root for the Teal Deal are no doubt on their seat’s edge when their Fish face a lefty.

Among the accidental platoons, three NL West teams have setups they didn’t necessarily expect. To the credit of both Bruce Bochy and Black, they’ve proven reliably willing to platoon, and they’re assembling new ones on the fly after their initial designs broke down. Black got plenty of mileage out of his outfield platooning last year, but Will Venable flopped this spring, handing back his half of the right-field job. In his desperation, Black is pairing Eric Patterson with Chris Denorfia, which isn’t helping matters.

While Bochy isn’t trying anything quite as inspired as last year’s mid-season lineup platoon between Travis Ishikawa and Aaron Rowand -- with Aubrey Huff moving to the outfield against righties and returning to first base against lefties -- he has been aggressive in getting Nate Schierholtz into the lineup against right-handers while playing Cody Ross daily. Rowand is getting platoon time with Andres Torres in center, but Pat Burrell hasn’t been entirely reduced to Schierholtz’s platoon partner.

Then their is the Dodgers’ Don Mattingly. Some combination involving Jay Gibbons in left field was probably going to be part of the program at the outset, but Gibbons’ spotty health, a passing interest in Tony Gwynn’s speed, and Marcus Thames’ breakdown opened up an opportunity for first baseman Jerry Sands to win the job. But like so many other thundersticks from Albuquerque in Dodgers history, his stick fell still in Chavez Ravine, and now Sands is in an accidental platoon with Gibbons until they decide there’s a better alternative.

Injury created the Braves’ temporary replacement platoon setup for Jason Heyward, as the Eric Hinske/Joe Mather platoon is working out nicely -- but it’s also clear that pair will head back to pine time as soon as Heyward’s healthy. In contrast, some managers look like they’d like to platoon more, but injuries have gotten in the way. The Brewers’ Ron Roenicke appears committed to a Nyjer Morgan/Carlos Gomez platoon in center because of the speed ’n defense combo it provides, but Morgan’s injury got in the way at the outset. If it sticks, that’s the circuit’s lone platoon arrangement up the middle someplace other than catcher.

The Pirates’ loose platoon at the infield corners reflect what I mean by “diffident platooning.” In contrast with his greater faith in his right field platoon, at the infield corners Clint Hurdle’s sort of futzing around with Steven Pearce at both first and third vs. lefties to give him something to do, and sometimes Brandon Wood gets time at third. But it isn’t an everyday sort of devotion, and has as much to do with Pedro Alvarez’s career-stunting slow start and Lyle Overbay’s offensive indifference than any abiding faith in Pearce or Wood.

I’d also chuck Kirk Gibson’s first-base set-up into this category as well -- Xavier Nady and Juan Miranda are platooning, sort of, but Gibson isn’t exactly being a stickler about it. Since neither are hitting the people they’re supposed to, and since neither plays first base all that well, it’s more first base by coin toss at gunpoint than a straight platoon.

Platooning isn't automatically a good idea, after all, and if as Casey Stengel put it, "I could'na dunnit widdout the players," that's just as true today -- skippers can only use what they've got, no matter how clever they might be in how they employ it.

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

Are Marlins trying to win?

July, 21, 2009
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From SunSentinel.com's Juan C. Rodriguez, breaking news about the Marlins:
    After Monday's 3-2 win over the Padres, the Marlins optioned left-hander Andrew Miller to Triple-A New Orleans.

    Albeit with the All-Star break in between, Miller put together back-to-back starts of 2 2/3 innings, allowing 10 runs (six earned) on 11 hits, seven walks and no strikeouts over the two games.

    Rick VandenHurk, who on Monday earned his first major league win since last July 22 after allowing two runs over six innings, will assume Miller's rotation spot. The Marlins don't need a fifth starter until July 31 at the earliest.

    --snip--

    Miller becomes the second member of the Marlins' ballyhooed season-opening rotation to require a trip to the minors because of performance issues. Ricky Nolasco spent two weeks in New Orleans starting in late May and made two starts before retuning and regaining his form.

    No word yet on who will replace Miller on the roster. Manager Fredi Gonzalez wouldn't specific whether it would be a pitcher or position player, but it's likely the latter considering the Marlins are down a bench guy. Ideally, they need a reserve infielder but they can't bring back Andy Gonzalez for 10 days.

Now we do have word on Miller's roster replacement: according to the Miami Herald's Clark Spencer, infield prospect Gaby Sanchez has gotten the call. More on him in a moment. First I want to discuss the Marlins' rotation, which essentially has been two different squads this season.

The first squad -- composed of Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, and Ricky Nolasco -- has issued 2.4 walks per nine innings, with each member posting solid (or better) strikeout numbers.

The second squad -- Miller, Sean West, and Anibal Sanchez -- has issued 4.5 walks per nine innings, with all the corresponding struggles that you might expect.

So it's a good thing they don't need five starters until July 31 (at the earliest), because right now they've got only three reliable starters. Fortunately, VandenHurk's got a chance to become a fourth, at least if his Triple-A career (8-2, 2.99 ERA) is any guide.

It's all moot, I fear. I just don't think the Marlins are serious about winning. I won't think they're serious until they get Emilio Bonifacio out of the lineup; I suspect Sanchez will not be givin Boni's job. And I won't think they're serious until they get bring Cameron Maybin back to the majors and give him an every-day job in the outfield. He's been in New Orleans for more than two months, he's hitting .343/.425/.500 while the big club's corner outfielders are struggling, and you leave him down there ... why, exactly?

Like I said, talk to me when you're serious about winning.

Still wondering about Boni

June, 30, 2009
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Juan C. Rodriguez asks a question
 
  Al Bello/Getty Images
  Marlins third baseman Emilio Bonifacio is struggling this season.
I thought we'd already answered: "Can the Marlins win with Emilio Bonifacio at third base?"
    ... for all the buzz about Gaby Sanchez moving from first to third at Triple-A New Orleans, it's looking less and less likely Bonifacio is going anywhere. Are the overall numbers still disappointing? Yes. Even aftera 1-for-3 performance with a triple and sacrifice fly that knocked in the deciding run in the eighth, Bonifacio's OPS remains .601. His on-base percentage (.298) has been south of .300 since May 22. He's been error-prone at third, a position he hadn't played before this spring.

    Yet for all that, I thought manager Fredi Gonzalez had a telling quote about him after the game: "Boni, even through all the stuff he's been going through, at the beginning of the year and hitting .900 and people expecting him to hit .970, he comes every day to work and he's getting better. He's got a nice little hitting streak going. He's hitting a little over .300 from the right side ... He's doing fine. He's one of those guys you characterize as a winner because he'll find something to do during the course of a game to help you win a ballgame."

    --snip--

    Would the Marlins be a better team with Mark DeRosa starting at third every day? Probably, but this notion that the only reason Bonifacio is still here is so the Marlins can justify the trade that sent Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham to the Nationals is absurd. If that was the case, why isn't Cameron Maybin here to justify the Miguel Cabrera trade? Come on.

    I know Bonifacio's fan base has dwindled to next to nothing since his flashy first week, but if I were a Marlin fan I'd get used to him being in lineup in some capacity. It doesn't look like he's going anywhere.

I wouldn't get used to him being there. Not in the lineup regularly, anyway. I don't know if Bonifacio's still in there because the Marlins are trying to justify a trade, or because someone's got a serious blind spot, or because of something else. I don't want to suggest that management is foolish; it's just that management is behaving foolishly in this particular case. Hey, everybody makes mistakes. Usually they're not so glaring as this one, but someone has to be No. 1, right?

Regarding Fredi Gonzalez, either he really believes that claptrap he's spouting or he's just saying something nice because he has to. If it's the latter, I feel sorry for Marlins fans.

Regarding Gaby Sanchez, I'm not sure why his switch to third base isn't considered more newsworthy. The Marlins moved him a few weeks ago, and he's now got nearly as many games at third base as first. This, after he was voted the best defensive first baseman in the Southern League last year; the Marlins wouldn't have moved him back to third -- where he played quite a bit early in his pro career, and then again last season -- if they didn't think that position might be in his immediate future (and it's not like they have a powerhouse first baseman ahead of him).

Just one problem: Sanchez has been moved off third base twice in his pro career already, simply because he wasn't much good at it; in 126 games there, he's got a .917 fielding percentage, and that just won't play in the majors. So this is probably his last shot. If he doesn't start making the plays, he'll go back to first base for good. And the early returns are not good: four errors in 19 games.

If Sanchez can't play third base, can someone else? Sure. Right now the Marlins often have three second basemen in the lineup: Bonifacio (at third), Dan Uggla (at second) and rookie Chris Coghlan (in left field).

Coghlan hits like a second baseman, Uggla hits like a third baseman, and Bonifacio hits like a surprise call-up from Class AA.

Coghlan used to play third base, in the minors. Uggla's been playing second base like a third baseman for years. Bonifacio's glovework (which is shoddy) is irrelevant because you could justify playing him regularly only if he were a Gold Glove shortstop (which he is not).

Depending on how you measure such things, the Marlins have one, two, or three players who are capable of assuming Bonifacio's duties, and the only catch is that they might have to find a new left fielder. Which -- as I noted just a few days ago -- shouldn't be all that hard, considering that top prospect Cameron Maybin has a .410 on-base percentage with New Orleans this season.

And yes, it was just a few days ago. Sue me. In Blogging for Idiots, right there on Page 37, it says to keep hammering the same point until the suits do what you've told them to do. It also says on Page 37 that when that happens, you get to take credit. So, you can understand my fixation on this matter.

(H/T: BTF's Newsstand)

Contending Marlins confound at 3B

June, 26, 2009
6/26/09
12:52
PM ET
As David Pinto notes, the Marlins and the Mariners have both balanced their streaks this season to sit around .500 and are actually contending in their weak divisions. I've already given my prescription for the M's -- get Mike Carp and Michael Saunders into the lineup, stat -- but what about the Marlins?

R.J. Anderson suggests that maybe it's Maybin Time:

    Cameron Maybin's stay in the minors could be coming to an end soon. The Marlins' collective centerfielders aren't getting the job done, ranking in the bottom third of the league in offensive and defensive contributions. Meanwhile, Maybin has scorched Triple-A in his second month at the level. Overall, Maybin is hitting .323/.404/.452 with a homerun, four stolen bags, and a passable BB/K ratio.

    --snip--

    There's also the question of whether Maybin is indeed ready for major league action. Given a limited sample size of just under 200 plate appearances, Maybin has hit a pedestrian .242/.309/.345; although, the incumbent group of centerfielders is not doing much better, with a combined line of .272/.321/.443. If Maybin is able to make contact better than 70% of the time, he could do a lot better.

Anderson is selling the Marlins' center fielders short, because lately center field has been manned solely by Cody Ross, and Ross' hitting stats would place him in the upper third of the league's center fielders. While it's true that his fielding stats this season aren't good, career-wise he's been fine.

The question really isn't whether Maybin's better than Ross. The question is whether Maybin's better than rookie left fielder Chris Coghlan or right fielder Jeremy Hermida, both of whom have been less than brilliant. And the question might even be whether Maybin's better than backup outfielders Alfredo Amezaga and Alejandro De Aza, both of whom haven't ever hit (or ever will).

In a close-run thing, the only way to win is to get your talent on the field. Maybin's struggled during two of his major league trials, but he's pretty clearly more talented right now than the Marlins' fourth and fifth outfielders. I suppose they don't want him sitting on the bench and wasting developmental (and service) time, but they probably should find a place for him.

All that said, though -- and I hate to keep harping on this, but the Marlins leave me no choice -- the real problem isn't in the outfield; it's at third base, where Emilio Bonifacio just keeps sucking up plate appearances, game after game after game after game.

Which Marlin has the lowest on-base percentage? Emilio Bonifacio.

Which Marlin has the lowest slugging percentage? Emilio Bonifacio.

Which Marlin has the most plate appearances? Emilio Bonifacio. Naturally.

And you know what the kicker is? He's not even a good third baseman.

If Marlins management were a doctor, the fans could sue for malpractice. I love an underdog, but any team that believes Emilio Bonifacio is an every-day third baseman simply doesn't deserve to win.

Marlins (still) need new 3B

June, 15, 2009
6/15/09
3:56
PM ET
Buried near the bottom of Barry Jackson's mostly-NBA notes column is this:
    Gaby Sanchez (.318) is playing third base for at least a week at Triple A (he's in the middle of that stretch) in case the Marlins decide to replace Emilio Bonifacio.
In case?

I heard Rich Waltz talking about this -- though somewhat less specifically -- last week during a Marlins game, and meant to follow up then but didn't. But Bonifacio's still playing third base for the Marlins and Sanchez is still in Triple-A, which means this subject is still (as we say) "evergreen."

It's probably been a few weeks since I've mentioned this, so here goes again: Bonifacio has been an absolute disaster. Among the 23 third basemen with enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title (so far), Bonifacio ranks 21st in on-base percentage, 23rd in slugging percentage, and 23rd in OPS. He does have 11 steals ... but he's been caught trying four times and his defensive stats are lousy.

Bonifacio might not be the worst every-day player in the majors right now, but he's definitely in the conversation. And if you've got a guy in the conversation, don't you have to seriously consider getting him out of the conversation?

Meanwhile, Baseball America rated Sanchez as the Marlins' eighth-best prospect this spring, concluding with this:

    Having reached the majors for a brief look last September, Sanchez heads to spring training with an excellent shot at winning the starting first-base job. The Marlins dealt incumbent Mike Jacobs to the Royals in a salary-related move, but they also did so knowing Sanchez was ready to break through.
But Sanchez never really got a shot in spring training, batting .194 with zero homers while getting significantly fewer plate appearances than Bonifacio. That might have been because the Marlins -- temporarily, as it turns out -- had previously given up on Sanchez as a third baseman, and decided to go with Jorge Cantu and Ross Gload at first base.

Whatever. Sanchez turns 26 in September. His time is now. Thanks to Hanley Ramirez and a lineup full of average National League hitters -- Bonifacio being the lone exception -- the Marlins are fourth in the league in scoring and just a game under .500. Which is sort of interesting, since (as you might recall) it was the club's young pitching that was supposed to carry them (but hasn't). Every day with Bonifacio in the lineup and Sanchez in the minors is just another day that the Marlins seem to care little about winning.

(H/T: BTF's Newsstand)

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