SweetSpot: Eric Thames



"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.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Javier Lopez Jake Roth/US PresswireJavier Lopez is sending a message to Mark Kotsay: Tag, you're out!
If you've seen the video of the controversial triple play from the Padres-Dodgers game on Sunday, you'll see umpire Dale Scott initially raise his hands indicating a foul ball on Jesus Guzman's bunt attempt. As the ball then rolled fair, Scott reversed his call and Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis proceeded to start a triple play, snuffing a potential rally in the ninth inning of a tie game.

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs breaks down the play and calls for the game to be replayed from the point of Guzman's at-bat, his argument being that Padres' couldn't have been expected to run once Scott raised his arms, and also pointing out that one game in the expanded playoff system could be the deciding game on one team making the playoffs and another missing them.

At issue: Judgment calls cannot be protested (and thus overturned). Was this just a bad judgment by Scott -- reversing his call in the middle of a play -- or do the Padres have a right to protest based on a rules interpretation (that the play should have been ruled dead once Scott raised his arms)? To confuse matters, it was a fair ball. As reader Dave Alden wrote on FanGraphs, "Letting it stand is unfair to the Padres. Pretending it never happened would be unfair to the Dodgers. There is no perfect solution."

There is about zero chance that if the Padres do end up protesting that the call would be reversed and the game replayed from that point on (as what happened with the famous George Brett pine-tar home run game). But Dave raises an interesting point, and if the Dodgers sneak into the playoffs by a game, maybe they can give a playoff share to Mr. Scott.
This looks like the pitching line of a dominant closer:

88.2 IP, 49 H, 15 R, 14 ER, 27 BB, 77 SO, 2 HR, 1.44 ERA

That's the collective work of Thursday's 14 starting pitchers. Eleven of the 14 allowed one run or zero runs. Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay affirmed their status as baseball's top pitchers with eight scoreless innings each. Justin Masterson and Ryan Dempster each struck out 10. Clayton Kershaw, with his own claim as baseball's best, started despite a bad case of the flu and still pitched three scoreless innings before exiting. Johnny Cueto shut down the Marlins on three hits over seven innings.

Starting pitchers: Dominant.

Hitters: Still working on their timing.

The bullpens weren't quite as effective, leading to an exciting ninth inning in Detroit as Jose Valverde, a perfect 49-for-49 in save opportunites in 2011, blew a 2-0 lead; Kerry Wood couldn't hold a 1-0 lead for the Cubs, walking three consecutive batters; and Cleveland's Chris Perez collapsed in a flurry of walks and hits to surrender a 4-1 lead. That blown save eventually led to Toronto's 7-4 victory in 16 innings, the longest Opening Day game in history.

Baseball, welcome back.

If anything, the dominant form of the pitchers raises the obvious question: Will offense decline again in 2012? Check out the runs-per-game totals in recent seasons:

[+] EnlargeOmar Vizquel
AP Photo/Amy SancettaIn an unusual move, Omar Vizquel, age 44, made just his second-ever outfield appearance.
2007: 9.6
2008: 9.3
2009: 9.2
2010: 8.8
2011: 8.6

Of course, one day -- especially when guys named Verlander, Halladay, Kershaw and Jon Lester are pitching -- doesn't signify anything. Still we had three shutouts and nearly had two others. That isn't necessarily unusual, as there were many days in 2011 with three shutouts and May 14 with six such games. Still, three of the seven games were shutouts and we nearly had four 1-0 games.

* * * *

Fun fact of the day: In the bottom of the 12th inning the Indians put runners at the corners with one out. Blue Jays manager John Farrell brought in Omar Vizquel as a fifth infielder. Technically, since he replaced Eric Thames, Vizquel was listed as a left fielder, just his second major league appearance as an outfielder. The first one came in a remarkable game in 1999. The Indians scored 10 runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, capped by Richie Sexson's three-run homer off Troy Percival, to take a 14-12 lead against the Angels. Due to various moves in that inning, Vizquel moved from shortstop to right field in the ninth inning.

Fun fact No. 2: There were two previous 15-inning games on Opening Day. The Tigers beat the Indians 4-2 in 1960 and in 1926 Walter Johnson outdueled Eddie Rommel 1-0. That's right, both pitchers went the distance.

Hero of the day: How about Toronto reliever Luis Perez? He got out of that first-and-third jam with a double play and went on to pitch four hitless innings.

Good sight of the day: Johan Santana back on the mound for the Mets, throwing five scoreless innings.

Spring-training-doesn't-matter note of the day: Matt Kemp looked horrible all spring for the Dodgers, finishing with 26 strikeouts and two walks. He went 2-for-5 with a two-run home run and no whiffs.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Player No. 467 in our ESPN 500 ranking of baseball's best players: Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Eric Thames.

Player No. 467 when our NBA section did their 500 last fall: A certain point guard named Jeremy Lin. You may have heard of him.

Are the two comparable? In one sense, no. In the NBA, No. 467 means you're barely hanging around for a paycheck. NBA teams can carry up to 15 players; with 30 teams that means 450 jobs. Indeed, after playing sparingly as a rookie with the Golden State Warriors, Lin was cut in training camp, signed by Houston, cut again, and signed with the Knicks.

In baseball, No. 467 means you can earn a nice chunk of change. If you consider each team has 16 "starters" -- eight position players, five starting pitchers, a closer and two middle relievers -- that's 480 starting players before we start filling out the bench and the rest of the pitching staff.

But in another aspect, there are similarities. Lin was undrafted out of Harvard. Thames hit .407 his junior season at Pepperdine but a torn quadriceps muscle late that spring made him fall to the seventh round. In baseball terms, not a lot of major leaguers came from that draft.

Thames began his pro career in 2009 and hit .310 but was limited to 52 games due to more issues with his quadriceps. He adjusted his offseason workout routine before 2010, doing more yoga and less weightlifting to improve his flexibility. It paid off with a big season at Double-A, hitting .288 with 27 home runs. Despite those numbers, Baseball America ranked him just 12th among Blue Jays prospects. He was a prospect, but not a top prospect. Much like Lin getting overlooked perhaps because of his Ivy League pedigree, Thames was underrated due to his original draft status, injury history and concerns about his defense in left field.

But like Lin getting a chance to play due to injuries, circumstances opened up for Thames in 2011. Travis Snider was supposed to be the Blue Jays' left fielder. He didn't hit. Veteran Juan Rivera was given a chance. He didn't hit. Corey Patterson got some games out there. He's Corey Patterson.

Finally, Thames was given the regular job. From June 24 though July 29, he hit .313/.342/.571, providing a surprising boost to the Blue Jays offense. Sound familiar?

Thames slowed down after that but finished with a decent rookie season line of .262/.313/.456. Like Lin, he has plenty of room for improvement; he needs to draw a few more walks, hit left-handers better and improve his defense.

He is going to explode on the scene this season like Lin did? No, but the hitting skill is for real and he'll provide an underrated bat behind Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie. And if the Blue Jays' pitching comes together ... well, don't be surprised if we get a small dosage of Thamesanity. Well, at least in Toronto.

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