SweetSpot: Ervin Santana

PHILADELPHIA -- After beating up on the Washington Nationals all weekend, the Atlanta Braves reached a point Monday night where they appeared to be rolling toward a nice, methodical win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Then the momentum began whipsawing in umpteen different directions and vertigo took hold in the dugout, and it was the kind of game when bald managers make jokes about how they’re glad they don’t have any hair to turn gray.

“It was almost like two different games out there tonight,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.

[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
Brian Garfinkel/Getty ImagesDan Uggla admires his second home run of the night -- and of the season.

Atlanta’s second most reliable reliever, Luis Avilan, morphed into a human line-drive dispenser in the eighth inning to turn a 5-1 lead into a 6-5 deficit. Then Dan Uggla, a power hitter who entered Monday night with a .195 average and zero homers in his first 41 at-bats this season, lofted a grand slam into the left-field seats in the top of the ninth to give the Braves a 9-6 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

And then, when the bullpen gates swung open and everyone expected All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel to come jogging out to nail it down, out came David Carpenter, who was pressed into service because Kimbrel has a sore right shoulder. (Nothing serious, Kimbrel insists. But he still might require a “few days” of rest and maintenance to get back on the mound.)

It’s hard to tell precisely what lesson to draw from the aforementioned sequence of events. But if you begin with the premise that resilience is paramount during a 162-game season, that’s a pretty good start.

“That’s baseball,” Uggla said. “A comfortable win turns into an uncomfortable loss sometimes -- or an uncomfortable win. It’s just the way the game is. You can never think that things are going to work out a certain way.”

If anyone can grasp that concept, it’s the Braves, who have to be feeling pretty good about themselves with their 9-4 start, given the numerous unsightly alternatives.

Think back a little more than a month ago, when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy learned they would need Tommy John surgery and the Atlanta rotation bordered on wrecked beyond repair. A pessimist might have described the projected Opening Day rotation as “Teheran and Wood, and not very good.”

Things have fallen into place quite nicely since then. Aaron Harang, picked up by Atlanta in late March after he was released by Cleveland, has been terrific, with a 0.96 ERA and a .145 batting average against in three starts. Reinforcements are on the way, with Mike Minor close to returning from a shoulder issue and Gavin Floyd (recovering from his own Tommy John surgery) not far behind. And the Braves just might have found themselves a new ace in Ervin Santana, who is giving Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales a primer on how an unemployed free agent can cut his losses and make the best of a bad situation.

Like Morales and Drew, Santana was trapped in free-agent compensation hell before downsizing his expectations and signing a one-year, $14.1 million deal with Atlanta on March 12. Two starts into his tenure with the Braves, he has a 0.64 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings, and he’s showing that a full complement of spring training innings can be highly overrated.

[+] EnlargeErvin Santana
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsErvin Santana has settled in quickly as a rotation solution for the Braves.

Santana was lights-out in his National League debut with eight scoreless innings against the Mets, and was almost as formidable against the Phillies. He struck out 11 batters in six innings, with every one coming on a swing and miss. Santana complemented a mid-90s fastball with an effective slider and changeup that induced an abundance of tentative, awkward swings.

“He has three plus pitches and he attacks hitters,” said a scout who watched Santana at Citizens Bank Park on Monday. “A lot of swings and misses. We all wondered how he stayed out there on the market that long. Money, I guess. But he’s pretty good.”

Santana insists he doesn’t have any extra motivation after a winter of anxious unemployment. But it’s clear he made the right decision to take the plunge and go back on the market when he did.

“I don’t have to prove anything,” Santana said. “Just be me and pitch every time I take the mound. It was tough for me to get a job with the draft compensation being part of the deal. I don’t want anything bad for anybody. But injuries happen. That’s part of the game. When [the Braves] reached out to me I said, 'OK, let’s do it.’”

Gonzalez knew Santana would be a good fit in Atlanta when Kansas City GM Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost, two old friends, both called him and raved about Santana as a person, a professional and a competitor from his days with the Royals. If Gonzalez is surprised about anything to this point, it’s that a pitcher as slight as Santana can summon so much life from that right arm. The dreadlocks merely add to Santana's aura.

“If you took a poll of people who didn’t know baseball and said, ‘What does that guy do for a living?’ I think baseball would be the last thing they’d think,” Gonzalez said. “They’d probably say this guy is an artist or a singer.”

Santana is 1-0 through two starts, and Atlanta’s supporting cast showed enough signs of life to bode well for him and the rest of the Atlanta staff moving forward:

Evan Gattis, who hit two home runs Monday, is a career 4-for-20 at Citizens Bank Park. All four of those hits are home runs.

Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta’s all-world defensive shortstop, went 3-for-5 and is now hitting .341 this season. He has yet to strike out in 41 at-bats.

• Uggla committed a throwing error, but he made two sensational plays in the field and sent two balls into the seats. If the Braves plan on maintaining their early momentum, they need Uggla, Gattis and the rest of the lineup to give Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton some help over the coming weeks and months.

“We have a lot of guys who can change the game with one swing,” Uggla said.

For now, the Braves are just happy to be in “weathered-the-storm” mode. After hitting rock bottom in spring training, they're fully prepared for the wild emotional swings that a baseball season brings. Some nights that trait comes in handier than others.

The Atlanta Braves might have signed Ervin Santana out of dire straits when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy both went down in spring training with season-ending Tommy John surgeries, but this wasn’t a typical desperate act of digging around in cemeteries to find some retread veteran who had been good four or five years previous.

No, this was a guy who ranked ninth in the American League with his 3.24 ERA with the Royals in 2013. Santana has been inconsistent throughout his career, with three seasons where his ERA was over 5.00, three seasons where he pitched over 200 innings with an ERA under 3.50, and some other seasons in between. That pattern, plus the fact that a team would lose a draft pick for signing him, led to lukewarm interest in Santana’s free agency this winter. He didn’t sign until March 12 and had to settle for a one-year, $14.1 million contract; Atlanta also forfeited its first-round pick in the June draft.

[+] EnlargeErvin Santana
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesErvin Santana might find the NL very agreeable, even ripping a single in his first Braves start.
Since he began his spring training late, Santana didn’t make his 2014 debut until Wednesday, and the first returns were overwhelmingly positive, as he tossed eight scoreless innings with just three hits allowed, six strikeouts and no walks as the Braves beat the Mets 4-3 (although the Mets nearly pulled off a ninth-inning comeback against Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel).

Yes, this came against the Mets, a team hitting .190 and leading the majors in strikeout percentage, but it’s also fair to point out Santana threw an efficient 88 pitches, starting off 20 of the 27 batters he faced with a strike. His first 20 pitches of the game were strikes and he threw just one ball in the first three innings. You command your fastball like that and good results often follow.

"In the bullpen I was all over the place," Santana said. "I just stepped over the line and focused and threw strikes."

Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Info noted that Santana became the third pitcher with at least eight scoreless innings in his first game with the Braves since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966. The others to do this were Greg Maddux in 1993 and Derek Lowe in 2009.

There’s nothing fancy about Santana. He throws a lot of four-seam fastballs up in the zone and a lot of sliders, mixing in about five to 10 changeups per game. In 2012, the slider lost some of its bite, he hung a lot of them and he gave up 39 home runs with the Angels in just 178 innings. He regained the feel of the pitch last year and his home runs dropped to 26 in 211 innings and he was a big reason for Kansas City’s first winning season in a decade.

One of the fascinating aspects of his repertoire is that he succeeds despite getting few swings-and-misses with his fastball. Against the Mets, he registered just two in 31 swings (out of 57 total fastballs thrown), but that’s not that unusual for him, as he had just 84 swing-and-misses on his fastball all last season.

When Santana was still available in March, the Blue Jays also made a push to get him, but Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters that Santana’s agent said, "he wanted to pitch in the NL. ... It wasn't money. It wasn't years. He had a strong desire to pitch in the NL, and there was no way to compete with that."

Signing with the Braves could prove to be a smart move for Santana. He’s pitched his entire career in good pitchers’ parks -- eight years in Anaheim, one in Kansas City -- and now moves to another park that helps fly ball pitchers like himself, not to mention the advantage of getting to face the pitcher in the lineup instead of a designated hitter. Add a strong defensive outfield with the likes of Jason Heyward and the Upton brothers (although Jordan Schafer played center for the struggling B.J. Upton on Wednesday) and Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, and you have a pitcher who could post an ERA well under 3.00 and turn into a sleeper Cy Young candidate.

Of course, Cy Young candidates usually need run support to help in the ol' win column, and the Braves’ offense has been a nightmare so far, with just 19 runs in eight games. The Braves have managed to go 5-3 despite the offensive struggles because the starters have allowed eight runs, a deadball-era 1.37 ERA.

Considering staff ace Mike Minor is still out as well, that's a nice start for an unheralded group of starters.

BravesESPN Stats and InformationBraves starting pitchers have been dominant in 2014.
It's one month to the official start date of spring training (the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will start a week earlier due to their opening two games in Australia). It has been quiet the past few weeks as everybody waits for Masahiro Tanaka to sign. But the quiet means there are still many questions to consider over the next month. Here are 14:

1. Can the Dodgers afford both Clayton Kershaw and Masahiro Tanaka?

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonDodgers ace Clayton Kershaw led the majors with a 1.83 ERA last season.
Well, I suppose they could considering the Dodgers seem to have enough money to fill all the swimming pools in Malibu. But let's say Kershaw eventually signs a $300 million contract and Tanaka goes for $120 million. Throw in the $102 million still owed Zack Greinke and you would be talking over $500 million just for three pitchers -- on top of the $129 million owed Matt Kemp and $110 million owed Adrian Gonzalez. They're three great pitchers, but they're still pitchers with all the inherent injury risks that pitchers have. But unless Kershaw gets done in the next week, the Dodgers have a decision to make before the Jan. 24 deadline to sign Tanaka: All-in on both or just one?

2. Will the Yankees look to make a move at third base?

At this point, I doubt it. Their options include Kelly Johnson, Scott Sizemore (just signed to a minor league deal), Eduardo Nunez and minor league vet Dean Anna, a left-handed bat who hit .331/.410/.482 for Triple-A Tucson (a Padres affiliate). The free-agent options are down to Placido Polanco and Michael Young, not exactly inspiring options. The Yankees probably will roll the dice with the guys they have and focus on signing Tanaka and making some additions to the bullpen rather than trading for somebody like Chase Headley.

3. Will the Rangers try to replace Derek Holland?

Holland injured his knee tripping over his dog at home and will miss at least half the season. The good news for the Rangers is that the pitching staff was the strength of the team in 2013. While closer Joe Nathan departed as a free agent, there is still plenty of depth in the bullpen, plus Matt Harrison should return after back surgery limited him to two starts. Without Holland, the rotation shapes up as Yu Darvish, Harrison, Martin Perez, Alexi Ogando and Nick Tepesch. That still looks like an above-average rotation if Harrison is healthy, but there aren't solid backup options, so the Rangers could still go after one of the remaining free-agent starters. They've already lost their first-round pick for signing Shin-Soo Choo, so signing Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana means they'd surrender only a second-rounder. It's not money the Rangers planned on spending, but they're desperate to get back into the postseason.

4. Are the Mariners done?

I find it hard to believe the Mariners are quitting after signing Robinson Cano and the injury gambles on Corey Hart, Logan Morrison and Franklin Gutierrez. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the Mariners' estimated payroll right now for 2014 is $81.6 million -- less than last year's $84.9 million. Where can they upgrade? Well, how about offense, rotation and bullpen? The Mariners were 12th in the American League in runs scored, and while Cano is about a 50-run upgrade over the production the Mariners got from their second basemen in 2013, Hart and Morrison essentially replace Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez. The rotation behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma would be Erasmo Ramirez and rookies Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. The bullpen had a 4.58 ERA, better than only the Astros. The Mariners are undoubtedly in on Tanaka but if they don't get him, another starting pitcher has to be a priority. And don't be surprised if Morales ends up back in Seattle.

5. Is Gaby Sanchez really the Pirates' regular first baseman?

[+] EnlargeGaby Sanchez
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGaby Sanchez batted .254 with just seven home runs in 136 games for the Pirates in 2013.
I hope not. As the Pirates wait on A.J. Burnett's retirement decision, the biggest issue the club faces isn't replacing Burnett but getting more offense from first base. Sanchez is a platoon bat at best. He's hit .234/.306/.368 against right-handers the past three seasons; that's barely acceptable for a shortstop let alone a first baseman. They signed minor league veteran Chris McGuiness, who played briefly with the Rangers in 2013, but he hit .246 with 11 home runs in 362 at-bats in Triple-A. Morales is out there, but the Pirates don't want to surrender their first-round pick to sign him. They could try minor league slugger Andrew Lambo (32 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A) there. Ike Davis remains a trade rumor. But right now first base looks like a nightmare for a team that needs to score more runs.

6. Where does Stephen Drew land?

You'd think there would be more interest in a solid defensive shortstop who hit .253/.333/.443 -- that's a .777 OPS and only two teams (the Rockies and Dodgers) received a higher OPS from their shortstops in 2013. Only 12 teams even topped .700. So why is Drew still out there? He could be asking for too much; he does have an injury history; most teams are set at shortstop, even if it's a young, glove-first guy like Alcides Escobar in Kansas City, Pedro Florimon in Minnesota or Adeiny Hechavarria in Miami. The obvious fit for Drew would seem to be the Yankees, but they seem content to rely on some guy who played in only 17 games a season ago, hit .190 and turns 40 in June.

7. Where does Ubaldo Jimenez land?

As with Santana, Bronson Arroyo and Matt Garza, it's a waiting game until after Tanaka signs. Bottom line: Teams are clearly reluctant to pay big money and surrender a first-round pick for Jimenez (That signals a return to Cleveland or signing with a team whose first-round pick is protected -- Seattle or Toronto being the best bets).

8. Are the Indians really moving Carlos Santana to third base?

A couple of position switches paid huge dividends last year, most notably the Cardinals moving Matt Carpenter to second base. Indians third basemen hit 20 home runs, but batted just .218 with a .274 OBP. With the emergence of Yan Gomes behind the plate and not wanting to bet once again on Lonnie Chisenhall, Santana has been playing third base in winter ball. Catchers have moved to third base before -- Joe Torre, Todd Zeile -- so it isn't unprecedented, plus Santana played some third base early in his minor league career. The Indians understandably don't want to turn Santana into a full-time DH at his age, but that's always an option if he doesn't take to third base.

9. Are the Royals done?

The Royals have made some solid moves to upgrade an offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs -- they signed Omar Infante to play second base, acquired Norichika Aoki to play right field, and picked up Danny Valencia to platoon with Mike Moustakas at third base. None of those were sexy moves like their rumored quest for Carlos Beltran, but all should help the team score more runs. But will it be enough? The Royals won 85 games thanks to their run prevention -- they allowed the fewest runs in the AL -- but they're expecting Jason Vargas to replace Ervin Santana and Danny Duffy and Wade Davis/Yordano Ventura to step in the fourth and fifth spots. James Shields is a solid No. 1, but Jeremy Guthrie and Vargas don't seem to fit as a playoff threesome. While there are rumors of Santana returning to Kansas City, that seems unlikely considering the team's payroll is already an estimated $11 million higher than last year. It seems to me that any increase in runs will be canceled out by an increase in runs allowed unless a young guy -- Eric Hosmer, Ventura? -- takes a big leap forward.

10. So who signs Santana?

[+] EnlargeErvin Santana
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesErvin Santana posted a career best 3.24 ERA while making 32 starts for the Royals last season.
Santana is a fly ball pitcher so he's a good fit for the Mariners or Angels, a bad fit for the White Sox, Rangers or Blue Jays. But how about Arizona? The Diamondbacks are reportedly interested in Tanaka, but it seems unlikely they'd win that bidding war. Santana would give Arizona a needed workhorse to slot in behind Patrick Corbin and Wade Miley.

11. Which team has had the best offseason?

Until we know where Tanaka lands, this question is still open. I like what the White Sox have done, acquiring Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson from the Diamondbacks, two young guys who should step into the starting lineup, and signing high-upside Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. But how about the Angels? They traded the powerful but overrated Mark Trumbo to get Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, two pitchers who should help shore up their rotation. They traded a spare part in Peter Bourjos for David Freese (the Angels were 29th in home runs from third basemen with eight last season). They signed a valuable bullpen arm in Joe Smith. The biggest questions remain Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, but the Angels look better on paper. (Of course, they looked better on paper the past two years …)

12. Which is the biggest hole still to be filled?

Besides first base in Pittsburgh? Among potential contending teams, here are five:

1. Second base in Toronto. The Blue Jays received the worst production from second base in the majors last year at .216/.258/.297. Rookie Ryan Goins has a plus glove, but doesn't bring much with the bat. Maybe veteran Maicer Izturis bounces back.

2. Designated hitter in Baltimore. If David Lough is penciled in as the regular left fielder, that pushes Nolan Reimold into a DH battle with Henry Urrutia. Reimold can't stay healthy although Urrutia, to be fair, has some potential. The 27-year-old (in February) Cuban did hit .365 in Double-A and .316 in Triple-A with nine home runs in 314 at-bats. In 58 PAs with the Orioles, however, he had no extra-base hits and no walks. We'll see. Morales is a good fit if the Orioles are willing to punt their first-round draft pick.

3. Closer in Tampa Bay. This looks like a spring training battle between Heath Bell, Jake McGee and Joel Peralta. Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney are still free agents, but don't expect the Rays to pony up the cash. (The Orioles still need a closer after backing out of a deal with Balfour, but for now they'll let Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day duke it out. Likewise in Texas with Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria and Tanner Scheppers.)

4. Yankees fourth/fifth starters. Once you get past CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova, it's wide open: David Phelps, Michael Pineda (good luck after missing two full seasons), Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno. Thus the interest in not just Tanaka, but other starters. Don't be surprised if Bronson Arroyo ends up here.

5. Phillies rotation. Wait, the Phillies are contenders?

13. Will anybody get traded before spring training?

It's the same names that we've been talking about: David Price, Andre Ethier, Nick Franklin. But you don't usually see trades between now and the start of spring training. So I'd bet that Price remains in Tampa … which I think is the right move for the Rays. Yes, this is the perpetual cycle they have to stay in to remain cost efficient, but at the same time their chances of winning the World Series are going to be much higher with Price in their rotation than with any trade they make.

14. Which team wins the World Series?

The Cardinals look strongest on paper, although their lack of power could prove to be an issue. The Red Sox bring just about everybody back, but will be relying on three young players -- Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks -- to provide offense. The Tigers are trying something new: defense. The Rangers brought in Choo and Prince Fielder. The Nationals should be stronger after last year's disappointment. If the Dodgers land Tanaka, they may head into the season as the preseason favorite.

But there will be a team that will come out of nowhere, the Red Sox or Pirates of 2013. The magic of the unknown still exists in baseball. In a month, it all begins. I can't wait.
As Buster Olney wrote in his Sunday blog, "a lot of the winter work was done" as general managers caught flights out of Orlando. But some big free agents are still out there -- most notably Shin-Soo Choo but also some quality starting pitchers in Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo and Ervin Santana.

Buster listed seven teams that could still have a big move left -- the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Rangers, Tigers, Mariners and Diamondbacks. With that in mind, here are 10 predictions on what will happen the rest of the offseason.

1. The Rangers sign Shin-Soo Choo.


Which team will Shin-Soo Choo sign with?


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The Rangers could go the less expensive route and bring back Nelson Cruz without forfeiting the first-round pick they'd lose for signing Choo, but Texas had a mediocre offense last year with Cruz. Why go down that road again? Choo gets on base more and would give the team another table-setter in front of Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder.

The Tigers signed Rajai Davis and appear willing to move forward with a Davis-Andy Dirks platoon in left field. Don't count out the Mariners -- the outfield is still a mess with the likes of Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley and possibly Corey Hart or Logan Morrison, although the latter two are best suited for first base or DH duties.

2. The Rays trade David Price to the Mariners.


Which team will David Price be pitching for in 2014?


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The Mariners can't stop with Robinson Cano and two guys coming off injuries. For better or worse, general manager Jack Zduriencik is all in. Cano's best season in a Mariners uniform is likely to be 2014 and not 2016 or 2017, so there is pressure to upgrade the current roster right now.

To get Price, the Mariners will trade Taijuan Walker despite proclamations from Zduriencik that that won't happen. "I don't have intentions of trading Taijuan," he said during the winter meetings. "You listen to any opportunities that present themselves and you go into discussions with a lot of people. And his name will come up. Why wouldn't it? As do a lot of our guys, quite frankly. But Taijuan is high-profile because he's rated our top prospect."

3. The Angels sign Matt Garza.


What team will sign Matt Garza?


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The Mark Trumbo trade gave the Angels some rotation depth with Hector Santiago from the White Sox and young lefty Tyler Skaggs from the Diamondbacks. Those two would slot in behind Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards, but the Angels may not be done looking for a starter. As they learned last year, you can never have enough pitching depth, plus it wouldn't hurt to give the 22-year-old Skaggs more time in the minors to help rediscover the form that made him one of the top prospects in the game in 2012.

Can Garza fit in the payroll? Right now, Baseball-Reference estimates it at about $144 million, up from last year's $129 million. The new national TV money is coming in, but signing Garza means the Angels may need to clear some payroll. Leading to this ...

4. The Angels trade Howie Kendrick to the Braves.


Will the Braves acquire a second baseman to replace Dan Uggla?


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The Braves have been oddly quiet this offseason while losing Brian McCann and Tim Hudson via free agency. No, signing Gavin Floyd -- he's not expected back until at least May after Tommy John surgery -- doesn't qualify as a major move.

Remember, despite winning 96 games, this team still batted Evan Gattis cleanup in a playoff game and started Freddy Garcia with its season on the line. The obvious position to upgrade is second base, where Dan Uggla posted a minus-1.3 WAR and was left off the postseason roster in favor of Elliot Johnson. Uggla is due $13 million each of the next two seasons, but the Braves have to decide whether they want to count on a guy who may be washed up or whether they want to pay $22 million for two second basemen.

Kendrick is signed for two more years and would cost a couple of prospects, but maybe the Braves could toss in Uggla while picking up the majority of his salary.

5. The Reds re-sign Bronson Arroyo.


Which team will sign Bronson Arroyo?


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Several teams have expressed interest in Arroyo, not only because of his durability but also because Cincinnati didn't give him a qualifying offer, so you don't lose a draft pick if you sign him. The Reds seemed focused on trying to sign Homer Bailey to a long-term extension, but that hasn't happened. So they may shift their priorities back to Arroyo, who has been with them since 2006.

Even though the Twins have signed Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey, they reportedly still want to sign one more guy as they revamp their rotation. Arroyo is a classic Twins-type pitcher: control over velocity. He's looking for a three-year contract, which may price out the Pirates, but Arroyo would be a nice fit to replace A.J. Burnett if he doesn't return to Pittsburgh.

6. The Dodgers do not trade Matt Kemp.


Do the Dodgers end up trading an outfielder?


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After two injury-plagued seasons, it's easy to understand the desire to trade him. But ESPN Insider Dave Cameron wrote this week that we shouldn't assume Kemp's days as an elite-level player are over:
There's some good news for Kemp and the Dodgers, however; age-28 regressions are actually pretty common, even for good young players who had established themselves as high-quality players at a young age. In most of the cases, the guys who took a year off from hitting well bounced back to perform at a high level again.

Selling now on Kemp means selling low. Yes, he has that monster contract, but the Dodgers would be wiser to hold on to Kemp and hope he rebounds and gives them a huge middle of the order with Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez. There is the concern that he shouldn't be playing center field, but it's not like Andre Ethier is that all much better out there. Puig is probably the best option for center if the Dodgers want to move him.

As for Ethier, maybe a trade market develops for him once Choo and Cruz sign. The Dodgers can afford to be patient.

7. The Mariners sign Nelson Cruz.


Which team signs Nelson Cruz?


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The Rangers gave Cruz a qualifying offer, so the market for a guy who will turn 34 in July, has posted mediocre OBPs in recent years and has little defensive value will be slim. But, hey, the Mariners have developed a fetish for this type of player, and their first-round pick is protected. Looks like a three-year marriage in the making.

What would the Mariners look like with Cruz and Price? Something like this:

SS Brad Miller
LF/1B Corey Hart
2B Robinson Cano
RF Nelson Cruz
3B Kyle Seager
DH Logan Morrison
1B Justin Smoak
C Mike Zunino
CF Michael Saunders/Dustin Ackley

SP Felix Hernandez
SP David Price
SP Hisashi Iwakuma
SP James Paxton
SP Erasmo Ramirez

8. The Orioles sign Grant Balfour.


Which team signs Grant Balfour?


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The Orioles have a hole at closer after trading Jim Johnson, a hole in left field after losing Nate McLouth, and no obvious candidate to take most of the DH at-bats. It appears they are most concerned with finding a closer.

Several teams still need (or desire) a closer, but it could come to AL East rivals. While the Yankees can ultimately just put David Robertson in the ninth-inning role, the Orioles' top relievers (Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz) all have platoon issues. Balfour will turn 36 later this month but is seeking a three-year contract. My bet is the Orioles give it to him.

9. The Dodgers sign Ervin Santana.


Which team signs Ervin Santana?


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The Dodgers have been rumored to be involved in David Price trade rumors, and they would certainly be in on Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka if he's posted. But they also don't want to deplete their farm system, and the Rakuten Golden Eagles may just decide to keep Tanaka.

Even if the Eagles do post Tanaka -- he's an unrestricted free agent in two years, so they may just decide to cash in regardless -- the Dodgers also have to sign Clayton Kershaw to a long-term contract. With Zack Greinke and eventually Kershaw, do they want three starters being paid mega-millions? Probably not. So look for them to seek a cheaper alternative like Santana, who would fill out the rotation as a durable No. 4-type starter.

10.The Cubs will keep Jeff Samardzija.


Which team will Jeff Samardzija be pitching for in 2014?


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Are you as tired of Samardzija trade rumors as I am? At this point, he's been tied to nearly every team in one rumor or another. The Blue Jays are the latest possible destination, but the Cubs reportedly asked for two top prospects plus a third player. Samardzija has two seasons left until free agency, and while he struck out 214 in 213 2/3 innings, his ERA was also 4.34, and 4.72 in the second half.

So maybe he just remains with the Cubs because of the high asking price. And then the Cubs will hopefully sign him to a 10-year extension so we don't have to go listen to all these rumors again in July.

SweetSpot TV: Offseason rapid fire!

November, 21, 2013

Eric and I roll through some of the hot topics of the offseason (we taped this before the big Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler trade) -- Robinson Cano, Ervin Santana and Matt Garza, Paul Konerko's possible return to the White Sox, Eric's beloved but aging Phillies, Carlos Beltran, Stephen Drew and Ubaldo Jimenez.

No surprises in qualifying offers

November, 4, 2013
Thirteen free agents received one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offers from their previous team, meaning those players will have now a choice: See what the market bears or return to their team for that one-year offer (or negotiate a new contract with that club).

Those 13 players:

Stephen Drew, Red Sox
Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Mike Napoli, Red Sox
Robinson Cano, Yankees
Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
Ervin Santana, Royals
Nelson Cruz, Rangers
Kendrys Morales, Mariners
Brian McCann, Braves
Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
Shin-Soo Choo, Reds

These players are now tied to first-round compensation picks if the team that signs them doesn't own one of the top 10 picks (Astros, Marlins, White Sox, Cubs, Twins, Mariners, Phillies, Rockies, Blue Jays, Mets). Those 10 teams would have to sacrifice a second-round pick for signing one of those 13 guys.

In the case of a highly sought free agent suc as Cano, Ellsbury or Choo, this will likely have little effect on contract offers they receive. However, for several of the players on the list this could drastically reduce their demand. We saw this happen last year with several players, most notably Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (who both ended up signing with Cleveland, which owned a protected top-10 pick), Kyle Lohse (who didn't sign with the Brewers until spring training was under way), and Adam LaRoche (who declined the Nationals' $13.3 million qualifying offer before eventually returning to Washington on a two-year, $24 million deal).

For example, considering Beltran's age, he was probably looking at a two-year contract. Would a contending team be willing to give up a first-round pick for two seasons of him? Perhaps. With Cruz coming off his PED suspension and given that he'll turn 34 next July, he's another guy who will now see limited demand. In both cases, it wouldn't surprise me if it pushes both players back to their original team, unless one of the bottom 10 teams come calling in hot pursuit (such as the Phillies). Coming off an injury, Curtis Granderson also could be headed back to the Yankees.

For Morales, this almost guarantees he returns to Seattle. The market for designated hitters has been slow in recent seasons and it's unlikely any team will give him $14.1 million, even on a one-year deal, and certainly not at the cost of a first-round pick. He'll probably go back to Seattle, maybe negotiating a deal similar to what LaRoche signed with the Nationals last year.

The most interesting guy could be Drew. He was a free agent a year ago and signed a one-year deal with Boston that paid him $9.5 million. After missing time in 2011 and 2012 with injuries, he had his best season at the plate since 2010. Considering he's the only top shortstop on the market, interest in him was expected to be high. But if you're, say, the Cardinals and wishing to replace Pete Kozma, do you want to give Drew a multi-year contract for tens of millions and lose that first-round pick? That's a tougher call.

Wins now buy Royals meaningful games

September, 15, 2013

A 1-0 win for the Royals to stay alive in the AL wild-card race? With Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez all playing starring roles? With Ervin Santana throwing zeroes and Greg Holland getting the save? In the broad strokes you almost couldn’t script it any better than that if you were Dayton Moore and you were willing to risk derision and go back to talking about “the process.”

Look at what the Royals are doing, here and now, and there’s a lot to like. Santana deals into the seventh before handing off a lead to one of the best bullpens in baseball. One run usually won’t get it done, but it did tonight thanks to Gordon.

Take this one play: Gordon fielding Omar Infante’s double in the left-field corner with two outs and the tying run on base in the ninth. Maybe other left fielders make that play as well, and maybe it’s easier to throw out a baserunner when it’s Prince Fielder. But in a situation that admits no mistakes on a team that has to buy meaning for every tomorrow by winning today, Gordon delivered a perfect peg to the cutoff man. It was an instant demonstration for why he earned a Gold Glove last year, whether you use advanced defensive metrics or not, and it was as decisive a bit of execution as Saturday’s games provided us.
[+] EnlargeAlex Gordon
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsWins like Saturday's got some of the Royals dancing, but not all of them.

No matter how grumpy we all might still be over last winter’s deal to get James Shields, set aside the snark and save it for winter -- it’ll keep. In the meantime, enjoy what this ballclub is. There’s that bullpen. And there’s one of the best defenses in the league, with a .694 Defensive Efficiency, fourth in the league, thanks in part to classic good-glove shortstop Alcides Escobar.

There’s also redemption, at least as far as top prospects are concerned. Hosmer has redeemed his blue-chip rep by hitting .333/.398/.484 since the All-Star break. Perez is the best young all-around catcher in the league, contributing above-average offense -- certainly better than Matt Wieters, since he’s producing almost 50 points more of OPS while also throwing out 35 percent of stolen-base attempts he hasn’t helped intimidate out of existence (second only to Wieters’ Orioles).

It’s also a team of odd and improbable combinations, providing proof that there’s more than one way to win. Because of his power, Gordon might be nobody’s idea of a conventional leadoff man, but his .330 OBP is still above league average at leadoff (.324). And which team is tied with the Red Sox for second in the AL in quality starts? The Royals, even having to resort to a season-saving switch to Bruce Chen -- you read that right, and who’d have guessed it, even among the half-dozen of us who are Bruce Chen fans? -- in the last slot of the rotation.

So the Royals are in this thing, even three back, even with just 14 games left to play, even with their odds running from long to slim day by day. Starting next week against the Indians puts only so much of their own fate in their own hands. Doing so while the Rays and Rangers go head-to-head to see who’s more determined to put the back of the pack back in the AL wild-card race means that every day, every win, no matter how narrow or how happenstance, buys them one more meaningful tomorrow.

As far as Moore is concerned, the future isn’t only now. Embarrassing as it might be if Wil Myers wins the AL Rookie of the Year vote, there’s still one more year to run on Shields’ clock via a $12 million team option for 2014 before Moore’s gamble is truly played out. When it does, Moore will still be able to say that the price paid in blood and treasure to bring Royals fans their most exciting season since 1989 or 1985.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t charmed those fans enough to put fannies in the seats -- this year’s per-game average attendance (21,415) is lower than last year’s, and the Royals haven’t drawn two million fans in a season since 1991. The hope is that they will, if they win something, if they win anything, even if it’s just an invitation to the one-and-done wild card in a few short weeks.

That's because even a near-miss might help attract free agents to a venue that might not seem quite so hopeless anymore. Circumstances certainly seem better now than they were when they threw Gil Meche $55 million dollars in 2007, and while you can argue they overpaid to keep Jeremy Guthrie around, that and Gordon’s extension reflects a willingness to talk eight-figure average annual values on multiyear contracts and be a player on the market. Maybe that’s part of Moore’s process: Don’t hate the player, hate the game he’s playing.

As for the Tigers losing, it would be easy to overreact and say this wasn’t Jim Leyland’s best game. If you’re rooting for the Orioles or Yankees or any of the other teams surviving day-to-day and game-to-game, you can kvetch that it’s a bit laissez faire to have Fielder on the bases in that situation instead of, say, Hernan Perez (28-for-35 on steals in the minors this year).

But in Leyland’s defense, his team isn’t in do-or-die territory; as far as this race is concerned, the Tigers already did, and with a few more wins they’ll be entirely done, at least with the AL Central. Some managers might hook their cleanup hitter for a pinch runner after a leadoff walk, just as some managers would play for the tying run in that situation. But with Holland on the mound, you’re facing the reliever with the best strikeout rate in the league among relievers with 40 or more innings; you can’t really blame Leyland for deciding to let it ride instead of counting on being able to dink his way to a win.

And besides, wouldn’t you rather take your chances and face the Royals in the postseason rather than the Yankees, or the Rays, or the Orioles? Maybe you would. It’ll be up to the Royals to change people’s minds. Wins like Saturday’s might just help do that.

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

The baseball season is a lot more interesting in Kansas City than it was two weeks ago, when general manager Dayton Moore assessed the limited options at his disposal and turned Kauffman Stadium into a news-free zone at the trade deadline.

Sure, the Royals made a minor deal on July 31 to acquire outfielder Justin Maxwell from Houston for minor league pitcher Kyle Smith. More notably, they decided not to trade away starter Ervin Santana, who will be eligible for free agency in November. Santana could have fetched a prospect or two in return, but moving him would have sent a signal that the Royals were ready to punt on the 2013 season. With no directive to shed salary from Royals owner David Glass, Moore simply wasn’t ready to make that step.

And that's a good thing for Royals fans: Contending for a playoff berth is far more entertaining than the alternatives -- like obsessing over the 30th anniversary of the Pine Tar Game, keeping a daily vigil to monitor manager Ned Yost’s job security or busting out in tears every time Wil Myers’ name appears in a Tampa Bay Rays box score.
[+] EnlargeEric Hosmer
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty ImagesEric Hosmer is one of the homegrown hitters leading the charge for the Royals.

While the Pittsburgh Pirates are bound for the playoffs despite a rough weekend in Colorado, the Royals are suddenly crafting their own upbeat, small-market narrative in the American League Central. They’ve won 18 of 23 since the All-Star Game, and they made a major statement over the weekend by taking three of four from the Boston Red Sox.

Although one of the games at Kauffman Stadium was a sellout, the Royals averaged 25,180 for the other three -- a sign that the locals are not yet ready to go full-fledged bonkers over their team. At 61-54, the Royals are 4½ games out in the wild-card race and have a 22 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to coolstandings.com. The next few weeks will determine if they’re a team coming of age at the optimal time or just a temporary diversion from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Max Scherzer and Alex Rodriguez’s Biogenesis suspension appeal.

Regardless of the duration, Kansas City’s recent run has to be gratifying to Moore, who bet big on this team when he sent Myers and Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay in that daring December trade for James Shields. And it has to be heartening for prospect watchers who root for young, homegrown players to overcome obstacles and become fantasy-league heroes.

You can cite a lot of reasons for the Royals’ surge. Closer Greg Holland has converted 25 straight save opportunities and is averaging 14.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and Kansas City’s other relievers come at opponents in hard-throwing waves. Shields, Santana, Jeremy Guthrie and Kansas City’s starters go deep enough into games that the Royals bullpen has logged a mere 320 innings, the lightest workload in the majors.

But the Royals wouldn’t be here if not for a welcome revival by their young, marquee position players. First baseman Eric Hosmer ranks second to Yasiel Puig among major league hitters with 84 hits since June 1 and resembles the confident prospect who finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting at age 21. After George Brett resigned as Kansas City’s interim hitting coach three weeks ago, he downplayed his acumen as a Mr. Fix-it type. But Brett and assistant hitting coach Pedro Grifol apparently did a nice job ingraining more confidence in Hosmer, who slugged .465 in 2011 before slipping to a Yuniesky Betancourt-like .359 in his second season.

“He’s getting back to the swing he had two years ago,” an AL scout said of Hosmer. “He was using that inside-out approach, and he had gotten so contact-conscious, and now, he’s back to letting the bathead go and driving balls.”

Third baseman Mike Moustakas is also back among the living. He’s raised his average from .177 to .231 since June 9, although Royals people say he's still fighting a penchant to be overly hard on himself and take bad days to heart.

Yost takes his share of dings in Kansas City -- and occasionally invites criticism when he’s in a mood to tangle with the media -- but he and the Royals deserve credit for running the kids out there day after day until they figured things out. Major league teams have to determine if their young players are mentally strong enough to handle failure on the biggest stage, and Hosmer and Moustakas are trying to pass the same test that Alex Gordon passed on his way to becoming an All-Star at age 29.

Lo and behold, the seemingly minor trade that Moore swung at the deadline has had a positive impact; Maxwell has three homers and a .900 slugging percentage in his first eight games with Kansas City. And when you look around the field, the Royals are doing it precisely the way major league teams should. In Sunday’s game against Boston, seven of the nine players in Yost’s batting order were drafted and developed by Kansas City. The only exceptions were shortstop Alcides Escobar and second baseman Elliot Johnson, both of whom came over in trades.

The Royals took another step forward in an eventful week for the division. When last week began, the Cleveland Indians stood three games behind the Detroit Tigers with a four-game series on the docket at Progressive Field. Chris Perez blew a ninth-inning lead Monday, and the Indians dropped six straight before rallying to salvage the finale of their homestand with a 6-5 win against the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday.

It’s not going to be easy for either Cleveland or Kansas City to make a playoff push with Detroit so far ahead in the AL Central, the Texas Rangers and Oakland A's both playing well in the West and Boston, Tampa Bay and Baltimore all sporting better records in the East.

But, as the Indians begin a monster nine-game trip to Minnesota, Oakland and Anaheim on Monday and the Royals take on Miami in a three-game series Tuesday, Detroit's two pursuers are both still part of the conversation. Moore even made a trade Sunday, acquiring veteran infielder and strong character guy Jamey Carroll in a deal with the Twins.

The Royals have to feel good being a buyer in August, regardless of the magnitude of the transaction. After nine straight losing seasons, it’s nice just to be relevant.

Here's how bad the Kansas City Royals have been during the wild-card era: They would need to win 430 consecutive games just get back to .500 since 1995.

Yes, it's easy to dismiss the Royals considering that laughing-stock track record of nearly 20 years, and many did that heading into the final days of the trade deadline, when it was suggested general manager Dayton Moore call it quits on the season and trade starting pitcher Ervin Santana. That's what the Royals are supposed to do at the deadline: Dump any player not in the team's long-range plans for prospects who may one day be able to help.

I thought it smacked a little of East Coast/West Coast snobbishness: "Kansas City? Eh, is that in Missouri or Kansas? Do they even know what sushi is there?" Trade Santana to the Red Sox or Orioles or Braves because that's what the Royals are, a farm system for the rest of baseball.

On July 31, the Royals were a game over .500, in the midst of a seven-game winning streak that had left them seven games behind the Tigers in the AL Central and five games out of the wild card. A postseason long shot? Sure, catching the Tigers would be unlikely and, yes, there were four teams between them and the second wild-card spot. But the Royals were playing their best baseball of the season and -- however small the chance -- winning that second wild card would be the best thing to happen to Royals baseball since Bret Saberhagen leaped into George Brett's arms in 1985 (not including Hal McRae's tirade and definitely not including Tony Pena Jr. bobblehead night).
[+] EnlargeErvin Santana
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsErvin Santana's still in K.C., but will he still deliver on the mound?

General manager Dayton Moore kept Santana and instead made a minor move to acquire Justin Maxwell. He was criticized for not moving Santana and criticized for giving up a marginal fifth-starter-type prospect in Class-A pitcher Kyle Smith to acquire Maxwell. Granted, Moore hasn't exactly done much to merit a benefit of the doubt, but a GM shouldn't punt when you're five games out of the playoffs, especially a franchise that is dying for any type of important baseball this time of year.

As if to prove the skeptics wrong, the Royals have continued to win, winning on July 31 and Aug. 1 to run their streak to nine and then taking two of three this weekend from the Mets. Santana got the win in Sunday's 6-2 victory, allowing one run in six innings, his fourth straight excellent start. He's now 8-6 with a 2.97 ERA and .628 opponents OPS -- that's the eight-best OPS among AL starters, just behind Felix Hernandez's .626 mark and better than Bartolo Colon, Hisashi Iwakuma, Matt Moore or David Price.

So the Royals have an 11-1 record since July 23; unfortunately, the Tigers have gone 10-1 and the second-place Indians have gone 10-2 since then so they haven't made up much ground in the AL Central. They are, however, now 4½ behind the Indians for the second wild card, tied with the Yankees.

Do the Royals have it in them? Here are three reasons they can win a wild card ... and three reasons they won't:

1. Pitching, pitching, pitching: The Royals have allowed the fewest runs in the American League. The last time that happened? 1986. The last time the Royals even finished in the top half of the AL in runs allowed was 1996. This is exactly what Moore set out to do in the offseason when he traded for Santana and James Shields and re-signed Jeremy Guthrie. Skeptics would point out that the Royals are just ninth in the league in strikeout percentage and fifth in OPS allowed, but their .294 average on balls in play is right at the league average, so there's nothing that screams fluke there.

Part of the credit for the team's run prevention goes to the defense. The Royals rank first in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved at +74 runs entering Sunday's games. Leading the way has been Gold Glove candidate Lorenzo Cain in center field with +18 runs saved; David Lough has been +12 in the outfield and Salvador Perez +9 behind the plate.
[+] EnlargeEric Hosmer
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesEric Hosmer is finally delivering on his promise at the plate.
2. Eric Hosmer is hitting: When the Royals hired George Brett as temporary batting coach on May 30, a primary reason was the struggles of Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. At the time, Hosmer was hitting .262 with one home run; since then Hosmer is hitting .308/.342/.496 with 10 home runs. Maybe not MVP material but at least he gives the Royals a solid middle of the order bat.

Look, I can't sugarcoat that this is still a bad offensive team (only the Yankees and Astros have scored fewer runs in the AL). But if Hosmer keeps hitting and Alex Gordon and Billy Butler improve to a something more like they hit last year, which is not out an impossibility, the offense could at least be respectable the rest of the way.

3. Schedule: The Royals have 54 games remaining, with only 25 of those against teams currently over .500. Eleven of those are against the Tigers and six against the Indians. The Royals also have 30 home games and 24 road games. If the AL East teams beat up on each other, that opens the door for the the second wild card coming from the Central.

OK, three issues to be concerned about:

1. Santana won't continue to pitch this well: There are some red flags in Santana's numbers, starting with a .259 BABIP. That's seventh-lowest among AL starters and could be ripe for some regression. His FIP -- Fielding Independent Pitching -- is 3.65, another sign that he has possibly outpitched his peripherals. As good as he has been, Santana is a pitcher plagued by inconsistency throughout his career. He's pitching confidently right now and relying on his defense. We'll see if that continues.

2. Back of the rotation: The fourth and fifth spots have been unproductive most of the season, although Bruce Chen has been solid since moving into the rotation a few weeks ago. But Wade Davis has been one of the league's worst starters all season -- 5-9, 5.42 ERA, 144 hits allowed in 109.2 innings. He may miss his next start due to a family emergency, but otherwise still remains in the rotation. Moore got hammered for not upgrading at second base but his failure to upgrade on Davis may haunt him even more.

3. Schedule: On the other hand, check out the remaining games against over-.500 teams for all the wild-card contenders:

Indians: 22
Rangers: 16
Orioles: 32
Royals: 25
Yankees: 26

The Rangers, currently four games up on the Royals, have an even softer slate of games remaining, including 10 against the Astros and 10 against the likely-to-fold Angels.

That's what's going to make things difficult for the Royals. They can catch Cleveland and they can catch Baltimore. But the Rangers' schedule will help boost them to a strong finish.

So I'm predicting the Red Sox or Rays and the Rangers to win the wild cards. But hoping the Royals give us some fun baseball down the stretch and a reason for Royals fans to watch some big games in September.
The good news for the Philadelphia Phillies: They're still in second place! Or at least tied for second place. In fact, they've gone 14-16 since June 19 … and haven't lost a game in the standings, still sitting eight games behind the Braves in the NL Least.

The bad news: Pretty much everything else.

Pretty much everything much else means this: The Phillies aren't a good team. They lost 3-1 to the Cardinals on Thursday night, mustering six singles and a double and drawing four walks but going 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position. Delmon Young hit cleanup against a right-handed pitcher for the second game in a row, and if that sounds like a cleanup hitter on a playoff team then I've got some nice oceanfront property in Saskatchewan to sell you. The Phillies are 49-53 and have been outscored by 59 runs, a total exceeded in the wrong direction by just four other teams in the majors. The schedule isn't necessarily kind the rest of the way either as they've played the Marlins and Mets 25 times so far, but the Braves and Nationals just 16 times.

Still … second place is second place and the Braves have basically played .500 baseball since the first two weeks, plus Tim Hudson is out for the season now after breaking his ankle Wednesday. If you're Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., it's pretty easy to delude yourself into thinking your team is a contender and with a few breaks, Cole Hamels shutdown performances the rest of the way and a big deal at the trade deadline, the Phillies could turn into one of those miracle teams that surge out of nowhere, like the 2007 Rockies or 2011 Cardinals and Rays.

The key word, however, is delude: Those teams didn't have a minus-59 run differential after 102 games. As mediocre as the Braves have been, mediocre is much better than what the Phillies are right now.

So, sure, the Phillies should be looking to sell, but it's not that easy. For one thing, Amaro really has only one valuable asset that would bring much in return, second baseman Chase Utley, who has been worth 3.2 WAR and would certainly look nice in an A's or Dodgers uniform. Plus, as Buster Olney wrote Thursday, there are other factors to consider besides on-field performance. Teams are also businesses, and it can be bad business to admit defeat before August. "The chief officers of those franchises must assess what surrendering in July would signal to the fan bases," Buster wrote, "because once the Royals trade Ervin Santana, or the Mariners trade Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales, that means they're telling their fans that they're willing to give up any chance of a comeback, and they'll see the evidence in the attendance."

The Phillies' situation with impending free agent Utley is further complicated by his standing with the club. While he has battled injuries in recent seasons, he's still aging much better than one-time franchise cornerstones Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. Nonetheless, he turns 35 in December and would be a risky investment, no matter his 2013 WAR. The Phillies aren't going to win with a lineup built around those three players and other patchwork pieces such as Delmon Young and Michael Young. There's also the sense that Phillies fans understand this; this group of players had their run, and some sort of semi-rebuild is in order. Utley would be one of the most valuable players available on the market and while most trades at the deadline never amount to much, Utley could bring a legitimate prospect in return.

Amaro probably doesn't want to admit the Phillies can't rally and win the East, but it's time to trade Utley.

For other pseudo-contenders, however, the decisions aren't quite as obvious.

Kansas City Royals
Record: 48-51, 7 games behind Detroit, 7 games out of the wild card, minus-8 run differential
Top trade assets: Ervin Santana, Greg Holland, James Shields

The Royals sold themselves as contenders after the Wil Myers-Shields and Santana trades over the winter, but Wade Davis (5.92 ERA) has been brutal as the No. 4 starter, Luis Mendoza (5.21 ERA) wasn't much better until he recently got the boot and the offense has one player (Eric Hosmer) with at least 10 home runs, and he has 11. Attendance is up only about 500 fans per game over last season, although that's still below 2009 levels, but there is the feeling the Royals are gaining some positive vibes in the community. Shields would bring a nice return because he has another year left on his contract before free agency, but when they acquired him the Royals basically made a two-year commitment; he's not going anywhere. And considering the lack of depth in this rotation, trading him for younger guys would just push the timeline back another couple of years. Santana has pitched well and would bring a couple of midlevel prospects. But for a team that hasn't finished above .500 since 2003, achieving that goal isn't completely meaningless.

The guy they should trade is Holland, who has a 1.89 ERA, 25 saves and 62 strikeouts in 38 innings. But relievers are fungible assets and very few have long, dominant runs as closers. As Joe Sheehan recently wrote, closers have a high burnout rate:
Relief pitchers are overvalued as a class because the skills they possess are, as baseball skills go, fairly common. The subset of those relievers dubbed "closers" are even more overrated because of the practice of assuming that the role they fill requires special talent. And within that class, young, hard-throwing closers are perhaps the most overrated of all, because we get blinded by their dominance and project a future for them that, history shows, simply doesn't exist.

The Royals have other potential options in the bullpen; heck, failed starter Luke Hochevar has a 1.95 ERA and even Davis was dominant in relief last year with Tampa Bay. Holland is exactly the type of player a team like the Royals should be flipping.

Seattle Mariners
Record: 48-53, 11 games behind Oakland, 8 games out of the wild card, minus-50 run differential.
Top trade assets: Hisashi Iwakuma, Kendrys Morales, Oliver Perez, Raul Ibanez

The Mariners just reeled off an eight-game winning streak to suddenly look respectable. They have some interesting players who could be had as they try to build around Felix Hernandez and a young infield of Kyle Seager, Nick Franklin and Brad Miller (plus catcher Mike Zunino) that looks promising. They need outfielders and starting pitchers -- precisely why they're unlikely to trade Iwakuma, who is signed to a team-friendly deal that includes a 2015 club option. The rotation isn't good beyond Hernandez and Iwakuma and while Taijuan Walker may be ready next year, that still leaves some holes. They're unlikely to trade fan favorite Ibanez, but Perez is the kind of reliever riding a hot streak who should be dealt.

The tough guy to decide on is Morales. Jesus Montero's failure to develop means the team does need Morales' bat next year (although Ibanez could be a DH option, not that you want to count on him doing this again). Morales is a free agent, but the Mariners could make him a qualifying offer and bring him back on a one-year deal or take the compensation pick if he signs elsewhere. Verdict: I'd keep him. Considering there hasn't been much of a market for DH types in recent years, there is a good chance Morales has little choice but to accept the qualifying offer and sign a team-friendly two- or three-year contract.

Los Angeles Angels
Record: 47-52, 11 games behind Oakland, 8 games out of the wild card, minus-12 run differential
Top trade assets: Mike Trout (kidding)

Other than a seven-game winning streak in late June, it has been continued mediocrity for the Angels. They aren't going anywhere, but nothing they have is going to bring much in return. It's pretty much play out the string and hope Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton rebound next year. (And find somebody better than Joe Blanton.)

San Francisco Giants
Record: 46-55, 7.5 games behind Los Angeles, 11.5 games out of the wild card, minus-59 run differential
Top trade assets: Hunter Pence, Sergio Romo

Wait … Jeff Francoeur wasn't the fix?!?

The Giants are in the same position as the Phillies: Because of the weakness of their division, they're still "in" the race, but you look at the run differential and realize they're just not a good team. The Giants have built up enough goodwill with their fans that they don't face the same pressures the Royals and Mariners do to win as many games as possible. And giving up two months of Pence isn't exactly punting a lot of wins anyway. Unless they're willing to make Pence a qualifying offer to potentially bring him back next year, the Giants should look to trade him. Romo has another year before free agency, but again … relievers. Trade 'em while you can.

Guthrie rewards Royals' win-now needs

May, 5, 2013

After beating the Chicago White Sox 2-0 with a complete-game shutout Saturday, Jeremy Guthrie is now 9-3 as a Kansas City Royal, and that’s at a time when it hasn’t been easy to do anything of the sort wearing a Royals uniform, even with the vagaries of run support and how much a win-loss record for any one starting pitcher can amount to a series of coin tosses.

From disappointing high expectations as a top prospect in Cleveland, to being stuck as an innings-eater in Oriole irrelevance, to the brief horrors of a mile-high exile as a Rockie, Guthrie has paid his dues and deserves a good turn. That he’s given the Royals more than one in kind is one of those happy developments. With the additions of James Shields and Ervin Santana to the rotation, Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore can reasonably brag that he’s managed to cobble together a better-than-average rotation in short order despite limited supply and limited cash. Thanks to their rotation, the Royals are in that gaggle of teams fighting for bragging rights to be second in the American League to the Detroit Tigers in quality-start percentage so far -- just a tick or two below 60 percent -- even as they fight to keep up with the heavily favored Motor City Kitties in the AL Central.

One thing to always keep in mind is the separation between “how things would be if everything goes our way,” and how things are. That’s worth keeping in mind because while the Royals are 16-10, the really interesting thing about the team at this point of the season is the number of things that haven’t gone entirely its way -- and yet Kansas City is competing just the same. Anybody can win when everything you thought would happen, does, but the Royals haven’t been nearly that fortunate.

The biggest problems are to be found in the lineup, which has a number of bats that have gone MIA so far -- and for far longer than a mere month. Starting third baseman Mike Moustakas is on the wrong side of the Fermin line for OPS (which is .600, since I just made it up; Felix Fermin’s career mark was .608). If the Royals had an alternative, a punitive trip to Omaha would have been long since earned. Former Brave Jeff Francoeur, briefly a source of bragging rights for an organization run by a former Braves exec, is now a month into a second season of brag-unworthiness as an outfield regular. Catcher Salvador Perez has yet to really get on track. Overhyped wunderkind Eric Hosmer is slugging a whopping .350, which would be considered terrible if he hadn’t already slugged just .359 last year. In his age-23 season, Hosmer obviously has nowhere to go but up, but that’s just because he’s dug himself a hole; he needs to prove he isn’t merely the Midwest variation on an unslugly Justin Smoak theme for massive first-base disappointments of his generation. And after four years of ghastly production at second base, it’s time for the franchise to be honest with itself: It (Chris "Getz") better? No, no it does not, at least not for this guy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Guthrie
AP Photo/Colin E. BraleyJeremy Guthrie gets an early shower after his shutout of Chicago, leaving him 4-0 and the Royals right on Detroit's heels in the AL Central.
Admittedly, this kind of caustic snapshot of an offense is easy in the season’s fifth week. If or when most of these guys start hitting -- and once the team replaces Getz with Johnny Giavotella, a move that’s at least a year overdue -- they could propel the Royals’ offense toward the top of the AL in runs scored per game, which would mean cashing in many more great games from Shields, Guthrie and Santana for wins. But Francoeur, Hosmer and Moustakas all need to rebound sooner rather than later if the Royals are going to keep alive their case for either unseating the Tigers or making a run at one of the two wild-card slots.

In the meantime, barring any major moves to fix these problems on offense, it’s going to be up to the Royals’ rotation to make sure the team can survive until its fixed, which makes for narrow margins to work with and tight games. More big games like Guthrie’s will help, but how well the rotation lasts over the next five months is an open question. After all, Wade Davis has one quality start in five turns, Santana broke hearts all over Anaheim, and fifth starter Luis Mendoza is a cipher at best or a placeholder due to be bumped at worst. Maybe Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar will have to swing back to starting, and maybe that would merely lead to more of the same after counting on them as rotation regulars the previous three seasons.*

In the big picture, it’s important to keep in mind how transient this window of opportunity being bought by Kansas City's rotation might be. Santana is a free agent at season’s end, while Shields is here for one more year if the Royals spring for his option ($13.5 million). Santana was available in part because he has been so reliably maddening; Shields was available because, like much of the Rays’ statistical thaumaturgy, not everyone believed they could reproduce the same success in their own home laboratory. The Royals were sufficiently desperate to take a chance.

Which is where the Royals are now: Desperate to deliver, and deliver now. Young talents like Hosmer and Moustakas have plenty of time to develop, but it remains to be seen if the Royals’ leadership can afford the time it will take for them to fulfill their promise. Clearly, they couldn’t wait on Wil Myers, having dealt him away to land Shields (and Davis).

The Shields trade is a reflection of win-now desperation, but one armed by the knowledge that it has never been easier to make the postseason. If the Royals finally do make it to October and buy Moore more time to deliver on whatever master plan he might have beyond self-preservation, he’ll have bought himself continued opportunity to try to make people forget that he traded away a stud prospect to land just two seasons of Shields at near-market pricing.

With so many of their remaining top talents struggling even as the Royals get off to a good start, the Shields deal might sound like a defensible exchange, but just as you can’t judge the Royals on the basis of their getting off to a good start now, it remains to be seen if the full potential benefits of trying to win now will be realized. If the Royals get more than a boost in ticket sales in June and July, good on them. If they get to sell tickets in October, good on Dayton Moore -- he’ll have bought himself another several seasons worth of tomorrrows in the Royals’ front office. The odd thing is, that might add up to hope and faith in KC for many loss-addled Royals fans after decades of irrelevance, even as it frustrates those who’d rather still have Myers and the promise of an even better tomorrow.

* Yes, the Royals have at least four guys on this staff you’d call swingmen, if you count Mendoza and Davis as well as Chen and Hochevar. But hey, if you want to stick with the current fashion and pretend nobody’s employing swingmen, by all means, keep playing make-believe.
As a reminder:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Who has been the AL MVP for April?


Discuss (Total votes: 11,792)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason report card: Angels

February, 13, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 89-73 (88-74 Pythagorean)
767 runs scored (3rd in American League)
699 runs allowed (7th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agent Josh Hamilton to five-year, $125 million contract. Traded Kendrys Morales to Mariners for Jason Vargas. Traded Jordan Walden to Braves for Tommy Hanson. Signed free agents Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett and Joe Blanton. Traded Ervin Santana to Royals. Lost Torii Hunter, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Maicer Izturis, LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen.

What to make of general manager Jerry Dipoto's busy offseason? In some ways, it's just a reshuffling of the deck chairs.

Hunter: 5.5 WAR, 88 runs created in 584 PAs
Hamilton: 3.4 WAR, 115 runs created in 636 PAs

At quick glance, Hamilton looks like the far superior hitter in 2012, creating 27 more runs in a few more plate appearances. Once you adjust for home-park environment, Hunter edges a little closer, then when you factor in Hunter's superior defense (Hunter plus-15 defense runs saved, Hamilton minus-9 DRS), you can see why Hunter moves ahead in wins above replacement. That doesn't mean Hamilton was a bad signing; Hunter was unlikely to repeat his season -- at the plate or in the field -- and Hamilton might have a better year. In terms of 2012 value versus 2013 value, however, this looks pretty even.

Vargas and Hanson: 2.8 WAR and minus-0.9 WAR (392 IP)
Haren and Santana: minus-0.6 WAR and minus-1.6 WAR (354.2 IP)

Haren and Santana were pretty bad last year, posting high ERAs despite playing in a pitchers' park and with a good defense behind them. Hanson remains an injury risk, but Vargas has developed into a solid innings-eater and should put up good numbers in Angel Stadium with Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos running down fly balls behind him. This should be an upgrade of a few wins over 2012 performance. However, some of that is given back with the Blanton signing, given that he's unlikely to replicate the Greinke/Jerome Williams rotation slot. So unless Hanson is healthy and pitches better than last year, this looks like a minor upgrade -- maybe a win or two.

Morales out, Bourjos in.

Bourjos won't produce as much offense as Morales, but adding his elite glove back to the outfield on a regular basis is a big plus. Still, if Morales is 20 runs better at the plate than Bourjos and Bourjos is 20 runs better than Mark Trumbo in the outfield, that's another equal tradeoff.

The bullpen should be better, although Madson -- returning from Tommy John surgery -- has already been shut down with a sore elbow.

In the end, I can't give the Angels' offseason that high of a grade, especially given that they didn't get the guy they really wanted: Greinke. But at least give Dipoto credit for adjusting to not getting Greinke by signing Hamilton and trading for Vargas.

Position Players

The Angels have the best player in baseball, a 40-homer guy, one of the greatest players of all time who is still pretty good even if he's in decline, a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, a 32-homer designated hitter and two middle infielders who hit pretty well for middle infielders. The catcher hits OK for a catcher, and the third baseman at least puts up a decent OBP.

That's a lineup without a glaring weakness. It's a lineup that will be as fun to watch as any in the game. Is it a great lineup, however, or just very good?

Aside from Trout's sophomore campaign and Hamilton's transition across the AL West, Albert Pujols is the guy to pay attention to. Take away his homerless April and he hit .297/.357/.553. His days as a .400 OBP machine are long gone thanks to the continued deterioration in his walk rate, but a lot of teams would still like Pujols anchoring their lineup.

The one problem area? Depth. There is none (no, Vernon Wells doesn't count). The Angels do have some players with injury histories, so we'll see whether that comes into play.

Pitching Staff

A year ago, we were talking about the possibility of the Angels having four 220-inning starters. Instead, C.J. Wilson led the staff with 202.1 innings.

Jered Weaver, Wilson and Vargas should be a solid top three, although Wilson had his elbow cleaned out in the offseason. His first season with the Angels was a bit of disappointment -- 3.83 ERA after a 3.14 ERA with the Rangers over the previous two seasons -- and if his walk rate remains at 4.0 per nine innings, it's going to be difficult to get that ERA under 3.50.

Blanton is a bit of wild card in the fifth spot. He's the opposite of Wilson -- a guy who basically throws strikes and hopes his defense helps him out. He had a 4.79 ERA in the National League over the past three seasons, so there's a good chance he won't last the season in the rotation.

The Angels' bullpen had a 3.97 ERA last year, ranking ahead of only Cleveland and Toronto in the AL. But it was arguably even more problematic than that. Only the Yankees' pen threw fewer innings, so Mike Scioscia was able to concentrate his innings in his best relievers. Although Ernesto Frieri did an excellent job as the closer after coming over from the Padres, it was the middle relief that hurt the club. The Angels lost 12 games when they led heading into the seventh inning -- 3.5 more than the major league average. Madson was supposed to help out there (or assume closer duties, with Frieri sliding to the seventh and eighth) but is a big question mark. The one thing the Angels do have is three good lefties in Burnett, Scott Downs and rookie Nick Maronde, if he's kept on the big league roster as a reliever instead of starting in the minors.

Heat Map to Watch
With a quick glance at Trout's heat map, you can see he punished low pitches. On pitches in the lower half of the zone, he hit .360/.396/.608 -- the best OPS in the majors against pitches down in the zone. Does that mean pitchers should attack Trout up high this year? Possibly. But if you attack up in the zone, that means doing it with the fastball. Trout hit .297/.397/.509 in plate appearances ending in fastballs. Which is actually kind of scary: He already has shown he can cream the off-speed stuff. Good luck, pitchers.

Mike Trout heat mapESPN Stats & InformationWhere do you pitch Mike Trout? Working him low in the zone didn't pay off in 2012.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Angels win?


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The Angels might be the best team in the American League. With Trout, Pujols and Hamilton, they might have the best offensive trio of any team in baseball. In Weaver, they have a legitimate No. 1. That makes them one of the top World Series favorites, at least according to the latest odds in Vegas.

But they were in that position last year and failed to make the playoffs despite Trout's monster rookie season. I worry about the lack of depth behind the starting nine and the back end of the rotation. I don't think Pujols will put up better numbers than last year, and I don't think Hamilton will hit 43 home runs again. The Angels will surely be in the playoff chase, but I don't expect them to run away with the division -- and they might not win it.

What do you think?

How the Royals can win the AL Central

December, 11, 2012
Mike Moustakas/Eric HosmerJamie Squire/Getty ImagesImprovement from Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, right, could lift the Royals into contention.

What would it take for the Kansas City Royals to unseat the Detroit Tigers, overtake the Chicago White Sox and hold off the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins to win the American Central in 2013?

Over the past three seasons, the AL Central champions finished the season with a roster totaling about 38 wins above replacement.

The 2012 Royals finished the season 25 wins above replacement, so there is a gap to be closed. We’re going to see if we can come up with the combination of numbers to close it.

Position players
The chart on the right shows MLBdepthcharts.com's projected Royals lineup for 2013 along with 2012 WAR total for those players.

Let’s take the youngest players in that group and give them some room to grow. Let’s bump Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez up an average of half a win each. And let’s work off the idea that Alex Gordon and the Chris Getz/Johnny Giavotella platoon will match in 2013 what they did in 2012.

Then, let’s make two leaps of faith.

1. That Jeff Francoeur goes from being the lowest-valued position player in baseball (minus-2.7 WAR) to borderline-replacement level (minus-0.7 WAR) by getting his defensive game back to something reasonable and by improving slightly as a hitter and baserunner (remember, he’ll be only 29 when the season starts).

2. That Eric Hosmer fixes what ailed him during his sophomore slump and gains back the WAR that he lost from 2011 to 2012, pushing him back up to 1.3 for 2013.

If all of that was to happen for the Royals, that lineup would be worth a collective 22.8 WAR, up 6.5 wins from what it was worth in 2012.

The Royals are not projected to have a strong bench in 2013, and most of their top-prospect position players are projected to start the season in Double-A or below.

So we’re going to presume that when they do go to reserves, they are hurt by replacement-level-or-less players more often than they are helped by Jarrod Dyson and Irving Falu.

Let’s subtract 2.0 WAR over the course of the season for the time seen by the bench.

That gives the Royals a position-player group worth 20.8 WAR.

The Royals basically have a No. 2 starter (James Shields) filling a No. 1 role, a No. 3 starter (Jeremy Guthrie) filling a No. 2 role, and a No. 4 starter (Ervin Santana) filling a No. 3 role. They have Wade Davis as their No. 4, which seems about right, and Bruce Chen as the No. 5.

Again, remember that we’re creating a scenario in which the Royals win the AL Central. So let’s take a rosy view of this fivesome and hand them 140 starts.

Let’s peg Shields as a 4-WAR pitcher, Guthrie as a 3-WAR pitcher and Santana as a 2-WAR pitcher.

That’s not a horrendous reach. Those numbers would rate as the third-, fourth- and fifth-best seasons for those pitchers, respectively.

Davis was a 1.1-WAR starter in 2010, so let’s plug him in for 1.0 in 2013.

With Chen set to turn 36 in June and trending downward, we’ll drop him from -0.2 to -1.2.

We’ll split up the remaining 22 starts among Luis Mendoza, Luke Hochevar, Guillermo Moscoso, Will Smith, Tommy John-recoverees Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy and whichever prospects (and they still have a few) emerge from the minors.

The big thing here is that if those top five Royals starters are healthy, their fill-ins can’t do too much damage. We’ll subtract 1.0 WAR for their work.

Now to the bullpen -- and we know that relief pitching is volatile. But again, we’re trying to establish what the Royals need to win, not what they will do.

Among Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins, two will probably struggle to duplicate their 2012 numbers, and maybe one of the others gets hurt.

As a group, those five guys were worth 6.8 WAR last season. That’s pretty good and strikes us as hard to duplicate. But again, this is a young group, so maybe the drop-off isn’t so great.

Let’s give them 5.0 WAR this time around and take away 1.0 WAR for anyone else who fills in for a time (the starters listed above, and Everett Teaford get the first crack).

Let’s add it all together. The lineup has a value of 20.8 WAR. The starting rotation is worth 8.0 WAR and the bullpen is worth 5.0 WAR.

That gets us to almost 34 wins above replacement.

Our target was 38.

So we still have four wins to make up.

How do we do that? We change a few numbers.

Let’s add a win to Shields and make him a 5-WAR pitcher, something he has done once before in his career. That means he should be getting some Cy Young votes.

Let’s make Guthrie a 3.5-WAR pitcher, meaning he basically does what he did in 91 innings for the Royals in 2012 for 200 innings in 2013.

Let’s make Davis a 1.5-WAR pitcher, which is better than he has done before, but he's young enough to improve.

That takes care of half of the win gap. Now we need to find two more wins among the position players.

There are a number of ways to do this, such as adding 0.2 WAR to every regular (boring), taking a couple regulars and making them a bit better (also boring), making Francoeur into an almost-average player (meh) or hand all of that WAR to one player (fun!).

I like the last option, even though it’s a bit reckless.

I’m going to give those 2 WAR to Hosmer and make him a 3.3 for 2013.

Hosmer rated 26th in WAR among the 30 players with 300 at-bats who played at least half their games at first base last season. Bumping him to a 3.3 would jump him 20 spots, to the point of being viewed among the better first basemen in the game.

So, Royals fans, that’s what you’re looking at. Unrealistic? Probably.

But here’s the key point: No one said this was going to be easy.

Restocking the Angels' rotation

November, 12, 2012
Entering 2012, the Angels’ rotation looked like it would be a winning weapon. At the top, Jered Weaver was coming off a Cy Young-caliber season, and Dan Haren and Ervin Santana were poised to repeat their solid campaigns. Jerry Dipoto has inked C.J. Wilson to a long-term deal to give the Angels a very strong four-man crew. Jerome Williams or Garrett Richards would be the fifth starter, and both seemed like they would be pretty decent in such a role.

Santana imploded, came on strong, imploded again, then came on strong to finish. His final body of work was well below average, and the Angels had little interest in bringing him back at a $13 million salary. Haren struggled to stay healthy, and he wasn’t able to command the strike zone like he had in 2011. The Angels opted to decline Haren’s $15.5 million option, making him a free agent after two-plus years wearing Halo red.

Weaver had another fantastic season. Wilson was great for a while, then regressed into the mid-rotation arm that he is. Williams and Richards put together underwhelming performances, but in June the Angels turned prospects Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena and Jean Segura into two months of Zack Greinke. Greinke’s arrival encouraged championship expectations; the rotation was supposed to be stable and healthy down the stretch. It wasn’t.

With the end of the season came a world of uncertainty. Weaver and Wilson are the only locks to return, and the Angels have 60 percent of a rotation to fill this winter. Who are some of their better options to restock the staff?

1. Zach Greinke. Greinke is the prize of this offseason. He’s been viewed as an ace ever since his incredible 2009 season with the Royals, in which he posted a 2.33 FIP across just under 230 innings. He’s clearly the best pitcher available on the free agent market, and the Angels have a good amount of money coming off the books, with Haren, Santana and Torii Hunter all off the payroll.

However, while the Angels will aggressively pursue Greinke, but there are several other viable options on the market. Over at Halos Daily, we’ve taken a few different looks at how some of the top arms might fit in SoCal, especially how it relates to Greinke’s value this winter.

2. Anibal Sanchez. Andrew Karcher examined Sanchez, finding that “[he] and his agent will probably bide their time before signing somewhere… letting Greinke set the market and create a bidding war for [Sanchez’s] services.” Sanchez might be a good option as a fallback option if Greinke is out of reach; he isn’t Greinke, but he’s a very consistent, viable piece that any rotation would love to have. If the Angels can’t nab Greinke, Sanchez is a clear fit.

3. Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda could also be a good fit for the Halos. He isn’t young, so it looks like he’s content with a short-term deal without a huge commitment. Regardless of whether the Angels have paid Greinke funny money, Kuroda could be a fit and could make the rotation one of the best in baseball, much like it looked like he would when he originally signed with the Yankees prior to 2012.

At Halos Daily, Jesse Crall points out that Kuroda is “someone whose xFIP is always around 3.50, someone who keeps his ground-ball rate around 50 percent, someone who strikes out just enough batters to succeed, and someone whose fastball has the same low 90’s velocity it did when he broke in with the Dodgers.” Kuroda is the same pitcher that's been above-average for several years now, and he might decide that he wants to go back to SoCal, but that he also looks better in red.

4. Brandon McCarthy. The next attractive option is McCarthy. Whispers that his personal connection is a bit too strong might be true, but money talks, and McCarthy might be willing to leave Oakland given the right situation and a mansion with the proper square footage. The A’s rotation is also pretty deep, so they may decide that getting into a bidding war for McCarthy isn’t worth their time and resources.

McCarthy hasn’t stayed healthy for a long stretch of time, and 2012 wasn't an amazing season for him. His strikeout rate took a dip and he walked a few more batters than he had in 2011. But his stuff was the same, and assuming a clean bill of health, there’s no reason to assume he can’t return to being the No. 2 starter he looked like in 2011. Halos Daily’s Nathan Aderhold thinks “McCarthy can [probably] be had for something around two years and $20 million, which would likely leave $12-$15 million or so on the table to sign another pitcher like Hiroki Kuroda or Shaun Marcum.”

5. Shaun Marcum. Another solid option, Marcum could stabilize the middle of the Angels’ rotation. He’ll probably be looking for some long-term security, and the Angels could roll the dice and give him a three-year deal.

Marcum has been consistent throughout his time in the majors, but elbow soreness sidelined him for over two months in 2012. He returned strong (at least in terms of peripherals), but he turns 31 in December, so his clock is ticking.

Marcum could wait out the offseason for the highest and last bidder, and he may end up settling for an expensive one-year deal that he can use to prove his worth for potential employers in a year. Given that Marcum had the highest strikeout rate of his career in 2012, the Angels would be well advised to jump on such a deal.

The Angels need to fill three spots. Greinke is the flashy name, and one Greinke might mean more than one Sanchez and one Marcum combined if you need him in Game 1 of the postseason, but the Angels are trying to get back to the playoffs first. Rotational depth is a need, and with the club having locked up so much talent long-term last season, they might be best to invest a lot of short-term money in guys who can fill spots for them and perform well, even if they aren’t elite.

Hudson Belinsky is a contributor to Halos Dailey, the SweetSpot network affiliate dedicated to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.