SweetSpot: Francisco Rodriguez

Brewers hitting all the right notes

April, 12, 2014
When our panel of experts published its team predictions for the 2014 season, not one listed the Milwaukee Brewers as their pick. It is hard to blame the panel, as Milwaukee's offseason was rather quiet outside of the surprise signing of Matt Garza coming off the heels of a 74-88 season, which saw Carlos Gomez break out while Ryan Braun broke down physically and the hounds of justice closed in on him and ended his season with a 65-game performance-enhancing drugs suspension.

The rest of the Brewers offseason involved shopping in the free-agent bargain bin as they brought in Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay and proceeded to trade Norichika Aoki to the Kansas City Royals to acquire Will Smith to give them someone who could work in the bullpen as well as the rotation while freeing up a starting role for Khris Davis. The Fangraphs projected standings believed Milwaukee to be a .500 team at 81-81. The PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus had the club one game worse than Fangraphs at 80-82.

Ten games into the season, Milwaukee has an early two-game lead in the National League Central and the best record in all of baseball after defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates for the team's seventh straight win. That winning streak includes a perfect 6-0 record on the road with stops in Boston and Philadelphia and Friday night's win to pull them even at 2-2 at Miller Park.

[+] EnlargeAramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsAramis Ramirez's two-run homer in the fourth inning on Friday gave the Brewers a lead they never relinquished.
It sounds cliché, but it is truly an all-around team effort that has Milwaukee off to a hot start.

The success begins with the pitching staff. Heading into play Friday night, Milwaukee pitchers had a league-best 1.95 team ERA and had held opposing batters to a .205 batting average. The starting pitchers had a collective 2.44 ERA while holding opposing batters to a .227 batting average. Wily Peralta went seven innings in the victory Friday, marking the seventh time in 10 contests this season that a Brewers pitcher worked at least six complete innings in a start. Last season, Milwaukee was in the bottom third of baseball in that area as starters worked at least six innings just 93 of 162 times.

The bullpen has been even more amazing as that group now has a 0.91 ERA with the two shutdown innings provided Friday by Jim Henderson and Rodriguez. The bullpen has permitted just three earned runs in 29⅔ innings of work. One reason Rodriguez has the closer role instead of Henderson is that the club was concerned with Henderson's velocity and life on his pitches coming out of spring training. Henderson answered some of that concern Friday by touching 96 mph on the radar gun while working a perfect eighth inning. Getting the ball to Henderson and Rodriguez has been the surprising youthful combination of Smith and Tyler Thornburg. The duo has combined to face 50 batters; 11 have reached base, one has scored and 17 have struck out.

Offensively, Milwaukee has been more aggressive on the basepaths to help generate runs. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the league average for teams taking an extra base is 40 percent. Last season, Milwaukee was well below the league average at 35 percent. That was the lowest total in the National League and nearly all of baseball. Heading into play Friday, Milwaukee is well above that league average and has taken the extra base a league-leading 61 percent of the time.

The top six spots of the Brewers lineup have also not been an easy matchup for opposing pitchers. The red-hot Gomez has set the table, while the equally hot Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucroy have cleaned it up. Only the Colorado Rockies have a higher team batting average and OPS in the National League, and the only team to hold the lineup in check this season has been the strong pitching efforts of the Atlanta Braves.

The hot start that Milwaukee is off to can be viewed as a precarious one for a couple of reasons. Primarily, the fluid status of Braun's thumb issue is going to be a situation that will most likely linger for the rest of the season. If he does have to take an extended period of time off, it exposes the other issue with the team in its lack of depth. However, the surprising start gives them an early leg up in a division that does have a clear favorite in the St. Louis CardinalsSt. Louis Cardinals but no clear second. Injury issues to favorite postseason candidates in the other divisions have left a crack open in the door for Milwaukee to kick in and perhaps surprise pundits, just as the Baltimore Orioles did in 2012.

Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays, and also contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.

The second wild card is a goofy, ridiculous idea that goes against everything baseball history stands for: That the regular season is the ultimate test of a team's ability, strength and toughness. To get to the playoffs, you have to prove yourself over 162 games; and to get there, baseball requires a higher standard of excellence than other sports.

Which is one reason I didn't like the second wild card; it lowers that bar. And once you're there after playing 162 games, you get one game, do-or-die, to remain alive?

I still have my doubts, but in 2012, I'll admit: The second wild card has added an extra layer of fun.

I'm pretty sure the Milwaukee Brewers would agree. I'm not exactly sure when the Brewers hit their low point. Maybe it was when Rickie Weeks swung at this pitch, but more likely it was July 23, 24 and 25, when they lost three games in Philadelphia by identical 7-6 scores, all in the late innings. In the first game, Francisco Rodriguez allowed four runs in the bottom of the ninth. The next day, the Phillies scored six runs in the eighth inning. The day after that, the Brewers scored a run in the 10th but gave up two in the bottom of the inning. Two days later, Zack Greinke was traded.

And why not? The Brewers were 45-54, 10 games out of the second wild card, the magic of 2011's playoff run a distant memory.

Yet here we are, 44 games later, and the Brewers are three games behind the suddenly plummeting St. Louis Cardinals for that suddenly enticing second wild card. On Wednesday, the Brewers completed a three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves thanks to an eight-run explosion in the fifth inning, all the runs in Milwaukee's 8-2 victory. The Brewers are 18-5 over their past 23 games, hitting .289 with 36 home runs and 32 stolen bases while averaging 6.1 runs per game. The pitching has been impressive, of course, with a 3.33 ERA and 220 strikeouts in 208 innings.

The fifth inning came from nowhere. Paul Maholm, who has been so solid for Atlanta since coming over from the Cubs, was sailing along with just three hits allowed through four innings. The inning began with a Chipper Jones fielding error, Yovani Gallardo's sacrifice and Norichika Aoki's infield single that Jones made a diving stop on but couldn't make a throw. Up stepped Weeks, the 2011 All-Star whose averaged had sunk to .158 on June 10 and remained under .200 through July 24. Since then, however, he's hit .308, slugged over .500 and he hit a 2-1 fastball from Maholm into the bullpen in right-center for his sixth home run of September.

The Brewers weren't done. Ryan Braun -- can we finally start talking about him as an MVP candidate? -- singled. Aramis Ramirez reached on another infield single that Jones couldn't handle, Jonathan Lucroy singled just past a diving Paul Janish at shortstop, Logan Schafer walked and Travis Ishikawa cleared the bases with a double over the head of Jason Heyward on a pretty good low-and-away slider from Maholm. That brought in Cristhian Martinez and Gallardo finished off the inning with an RBI double.

Hey, it was one of those innings -- two infield hits, a single just past Janish, a double just out of Heyward's reach. It's one of those innings that when they happen in September you start believing in things like luck, karma and chasing down the Cardinals.

Gallardo, in the absence of Greinke, has stepped up since that trade. Other than one bad seven-run outing against the Pirates, he's been terrific over nine starts, giving up two runs or fewer in seven of those starts and three in the eighth. The Brewers have won all nine of those games. And here's a stat that may surprise: Gallardo leads the majors with 24 quality starts, one more than R.A. Dickey and Clayton Kershaw. Does that make him a Cy Young candidate? No, but he's provided that one consistent presence from an Opening Day rotation that saw Chris Narveson go down after two starts, Randy Wolf pitch his way out of town with a 5.69 ERA, Shaun Marcum miss time and Greinke get traded. The Brewers even had their own less-publicized Operation Shutdown when rookie Mark Rogers, who went 3-1 with a 3.92 in seven starts after his recall from the minors, was shut down after his Aug. 31 start.

* * * *

OK, maybe this is where I admit I picked the Brewers to reach the World Series. It was an admittedly left-field prediction, but going out on a limb with at least one pick is part of the fun of spring-training prognosticating. But one reason I believed in them was I did think their offense would be fine, even minus Prince Fielder. Indeed, the Brewers have scored the most runs in the National League and one big reason has been Ramirez, who essentially replaced Fielder in the lineup. Compare their numbers:

Fielder, 2011: .299/.415/.566, 38 home runs, 36 doubles
Ramirez, 2012: .296/.361/.529, 23 home runs, 44 doubles

Pretty close, and considering Ramirez plays third base, you can actually argue that Ramirez has been more valuable than Fielder (Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement: Fielder 4.3 in 2011, Ramirez 4.7 so far.)

What I didn't account for was Wolf pitching so poorly and the bullpen duo of Rodriguez and John Axford developing severe cases of pyromania. The Brewers have blown 10 games they led entering the ninth inning. That's terrible beyond words: Entering Wednesday's games, all 30 MLB teams were a collective 1842-91 when leading after nine innings. That's an average of three such losses per team; the Brewers had 10 percent of those defeats all by themselves.

So the Brewers can score. They have an ace. Axford has shaved off his 1890s 'stache, reclaimed his closer role and allowed one hit over his past nine appearances that resulted in eight saves and a win.

Are the Brewers a great team? No, they're 72-71. But this goofy race for the second wild card makes them playoff contenders. Their next six games are against the Mets and slumping Pirates.

Like I said: I dislike the second wild card. And yet I love it.

Now, about those Phillies ...

Nori AokiBenny Sieu/US PresswireNori Aoki's legging out an infield hit is the Brewers' case in point: They're not out yet.
No, seriously, don't laugh. You can't write off the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers just yet. Both teams are 69-71 and six games behind the Cardinals for the second wild card (with the Dodgers and Pirates also ahead of them), but didn't we learn last year that crazy, ridiculous things can happen in September?

Is it possible for either team to catch the Cardinals? Sure. Consider:

St. Louis is 75-65. If they go 10-12 the rest of the way, they finish 85-77. And they're 4-8 over their past 12 games.

That means the Phillies or Brewers have to go 17-5 to win 86 games or 16-6 to tie (and assume the Dodgers and Pirates slide as well). The Phillies are 12-4 over the past 16 and the Brewers are 15-5 over the past 20.

The Phillies also have a pretty favorable schedule the rest of the way: Miami (3), at Houston (4), at the Mets (3), Atlanta (3), Washington (3), at Miami (3), at Washington (3). They do have a tough series against the Braves and two against the Nationals, but Washington will likely be resting its best pitchers in the final series. If the Phillies go 9-1 or 8-2 over these next 10 games, you never know. The Brewers have a little tougher slate: Atlanta (3), Mets (3), at Pittsburgh (3), at Washington (4), at Cincinnati (3), Houston (3), San Diego (3).

In the end, both teams will likely fall a few games short and will reflect back on bullpens gone awry. The Brewers lead the NL with 31 bullpen losses and have lost 10 games when leading heading into the ninth inning, most in the majors in a category where most teams have only a few such defeats (the Pirates have none, the Orioles one). The Phillies are 58-2 when leading after eight innings, but they've lost 11 games when leading after seven. While their bullpen has pitched the fewest innings in the NL, it's tied for second with 23 bullpen losses. Jonathan Papelbon, the $50 million closer, has six losses by himself.

Both teams, of course, expected to be stellar at the back, but Papelbon and setup man Antonio Bastardo have each allowed seven home runs. For the Brewers, John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez have also each allowed seven home runs and have combined for 15 blown saves and 14 losses. With just average performance from those two guys, the Brewers would have an additional five or six wins ... and be right there with the Cardinals instead of six games back.
The dumbest move of the offseason was when the Milwaukee Brewers offered arbitration to relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez. The Brewers simply misread the market; they had expected Rodriguez to sign elsewhere, regaining the closer role he held with the Mets before his trade to Milwaukee. Instead, with the market for closers was essentially non-existent (Ryan Madson signed a one-year contract with the Reds, for example), Rodriguez accepted the Brewers' arbitration offer and the sides eventually agreed on a one-year, $8 million contract.

The Brewers were stuck with a pitcher they didn't want, a guy who had lived a bit of high-wire in 2011 anyway, surviving more on his deceptive, arms-and-legs, falling-down delivery and changing speeds than on the high-powered stuff he once possessed.

So not only did the Brewers spend $8 million on a relief pitcher with a dubious future instead of elsewhere to help the club, Rodriguez proceeded to stink it up. Among relief pitchers with at least 35 innings, Rodriguez has the fifth-highest on-base percentage allowed. The latest blow-up came Sunday afternoon when K-Rod and fellow arsonist John Axford combined to allow six runs as the Nationals beat the Brewers 11-10 in 11 innings.

Of course, the Brewers solved their bullpen problems today by firing bullpen coach Stan Kyles.

Look, there's always more to story than we know, but on the surface this certainly appears to be the Brewers looking for a scapegoat. Rodriguez has six losses and a 5.36 ERA; Axford has six losses, a 5.11 ERA and seven blown saves. Jose Veras has been terrible. The team resorted to pick up Livan Hernandez. As Jack Moore of Disciples of Uecker pointed out, the Brewers have outscored their opponents by 30 runs in innings 1-6, but have been outscored by 48 runs in innings 7 and later.

"We feel very good about having him and Axford, and having them the whole year," general manager Doug Melvin said back when Rodriguez agreed to terms.

It's been a lost season for the Brewers, the white flag officially waived with the Zack Greinke trade. But the losing began back with an ill-fated decision that never should have been made.

Aguilas clinch Dominican regular season

December, 24, 2011
Led by Joaquin Arias, Wilin Rosario and Shane Youman, the Aguilas Cibaeñas wrapped up first place as the Dominican League’s regular season drew to a close with a four-team semifinal round-robin set to begin on Dec. 26.

Arias’ .387 average was enough to earn him the regular-season batting title while Rosario led the league with 26 RBIs in 43 games.

The surprise of the season for the Aguilas, however, was Youman, who ended up leading the league with a 0.88 ERA and a 5-1 record in 41.0 innings. Youman, who last saw action in the majors in 2007 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, combined in the starting rotation with veteran Lorenzo Barcelo and journeyman minor leaguer Angel Castro for 16 of the Aguilas’ 30 victories.

The Aguilas will take on the Licey Tigres, Escogido Leones and Cibao Gigantes, who reinforced their rotation with Edinson Volquez, in the semifinal round-robin.

Binick leading Navojoa’s playoff run
Kraig Binick, the Baltimore Orioles’ 27th-round draft pick in the June 2007 draft, has been leading the Navojoa Mayos’ unexpected charge into the Mexican Pacific League’s playoffs, which are set to begin on Jan. 2.

Binick, an outfielder who has yet to make his big league debut, is batting .366 in 49 games with Navojoa with an OPS of .901. The Mayos have counted on Binick and fellow minor league veteran Steve Moss, who has a .330 average in 37 games, for the bulk of their offense to slip into the final playoff berth.

Meanwhile, former Cuban national team first baseman Barbaro Canizares continues to punish opposing pitchers as he belted his 19th homer to take the league lead in that department to help the Ciudad Obregon Yaquis clinch a playoff berth.

Elsewhere in the MPL, Los Mochis Cañeros first baseman Sandy Madera continues to impress with his .364 average in 52 games with 42 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 25 tries. Madera, an 11-year minor league veteran with the Oakland Athletics, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies organizations, has spent the past two summers between the Mexican summer league and the top tier independent leagues in the United States in hopes of landing a steady gig.

K-Rod back in action
Milwaukee Brewers set-up man Francisco Rodriguez made his debut in the Venezuelan league this week with the La Guaira Tiburones and has been perfect in two outings thus far, recording four strikeouts in two innings pitched and his first Venezuelan League save in two years.

Rodríguez, who had been one of the most intriguing stories in MLB’s free agent market this offseason, instead accepted an arbitration offer from the Brewers rather pushing his value in the market.

The addition of Rodriguez has only helped the first-place Tiburones as they head into the playoffs with the league’s leading hitter in Gregor Blanco, who is batting .353 in 54 games, and Oscar Salazar, who leads the Venezuelan league in RBI with 40.

Meanwhile, the Zulia Aguilas inched into the playoffs late Friday with a victory over the Lara Cardenales thanks in part to an eight-inning outing from Dwayne Pollok, a former Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers farmhand who has had a particularly solid winter in the Venezuelan League. Teaming up with Chicago Cubs minor leaguer Austin Biebens-Dirkx, the duo is 12-5 with a combined ERA of 2.63, making them the most efficient starters in the league.

Caguas sails into regular season title
The defending champion Caguas Criollos in the Puerto Rican Winter League have clinched the regular-season title and will now have to wait to see who they will face in the finals as the Mayaguez Indios and Ponce Leones duke it out for a berth in the finals.

The Criollos, led by Jorge Padilla’s .410 average and Saul Rivera’s seven saves, were the runner-ups in the 2011 Caribbean Series, which was won by Mexico’s Ciudad Obregon Yaquis.

Brewers still short at shortstop

December, 8, 2011
Heartbreak in Dallas didn’t entirely belong to the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans. The Milwaukee Brewers, their direct rivals in the National League and for the 2011 pennant, had to endure their own series of setbacks. Between the disappointments of finding out that Francisco Rodriguez had accepted their offer of arbitration -- guaranteeing that they’ll be paying eight figures for John Axford’s setup man -- and the associated likelihood that Prince Fielder is now well out of their price range, it wasn’t general manager Doug Melvin’s best week.

The Brewers weren’t entirely inert, though. Perhaps as a matter of expense, they chose to be one of the losers in this winter’s shortstop shuffle by reportedly coming to terms with shortstop Alex Gonzalez on a one-year deal with a vesting option for 2013.

[+] EnlargeAlex Gonzalez
AP Photo/J Pat CarterAlex Gonzalez certainly won't cure a Brewers offense ailing from the loss of Prince Fielder.
The most generous way to look at the Brewers adding Gonzalez is that this is an upgrade. However, “upgrade” is a relative term, and you basically have to chalk that up to the anticipated difference between Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt on defense. While Betancourt had his best season with the glove in years via interpretive metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating and Plus/Minus, he was still in the negative. As far as you can accept the conclusions of any or all of them, the picture on Gonzalez is reliably better, but from year to year, there isn’t a lot of consensus: Gonzalez’s DRS and Plus/Minus marks have been excellent in the past two seasons, but his usually solid UZR marks veered into the negative in 2011.

Make of that what you will. Besides serving as a reminder that no one of these metrics should be taken as the final answer on a guy’s glove, what this means for the Brewers is that while you can be relatively sure Gonzalez is an improvement as far as their defense, it isn’t like they’ve just brought in Ozzie Smith.

The even more joyless side of the exercise is on offense, which is effectively a push. In 2011, Betancourt had a .652 OPS to Gonzalez’s .642, marks consistent with career clips that are sub-.700 for both. Both pop up prodigiously (Gonzalez finished in the top 10 among batting-title qualifiers with popups in 12.6 percent of his at-bats), while Gonzalez strikes out nearly twice as often. So joyless at-bats and relatively easy outs are routine for both. Both have a little bit of sock, and Gonzalez cranked out 68 extra-base hits in 2010. He’s also five years older than Betancourt, so you can reasonably expect him to lose ground to Father Time, while Betancourt might simply remain at this level of execrable production for a while yet.

And that’s really the problem. The Brewers have been slumming when it comes to shortstops for a while now since giving up on J.J. Hardy after 2009. Dealing the last two years Hardy was under contractual control might have seemed affordable because they were making room for top prospect Alcides Escobar and getting the talented Carlos Gomez from the Twins. But Gomez was as disappointing as a regular for the Brewers as he had been with the Twins, and Escobar gave them a .614 OPS and inconsistent defense. So Melvin dealt Escobar in the package that landed Zack Greinke (no shame in that) while having to accept Betancourt. Betancourt’s improvement in the field aside, he remained what he was as a Mariner and Royal -- one of the most disappointing, overhyped Cuban imports ever, no mean feat given the amount of money burned on that group.

From Hardy to Escobar to Betancourt to Gonzalez, Melvin’s worked his way from prospects past and present down to the real temps. Switching to Gonzalez is effectively more of the same. If this was a team that needed just a placeholder at the position to do no harm on a contender, maybe this works -- not that it did for the Braves with Gonzalez this season, or the Brewers with Betancourt. Absent Fielder, an offensive zero like Gonzalez becomes that much less affordable for an offense.

In essence, this all goes back to Melvin’s major miscalculation in offering K-Rod arbitration. As a result, the Brewers are stuck with affordability as the key criterion in selecting a shortstop, instead of making a play for Rafael Furcal, let alone Jimmy Rollins or Jose Reyes. Punting a lineup slot -- again -- while they’re losing Fielder certainly isn’t going to help them score runs, let alone defend their division title. If you thought the winter couldn’t get any colder in Milwaukee, guess again.

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

Arbitration the choice for three free agents

December, 8, 2011
With Wednesday night’s deadline for free-agent players to accept arbitration offers from their teams, it’s interesting to see that three accepted: Designated hitter David Ortiz with the Red Sox (via the story Gordon Edes broke for ESPNBoston.com), reliever Francisco Rodriguez with the Brewers and second baseman Kelly Johnson with the Blue Jays.

You may wonder why, but keep in mind that all of the players who have accepted these offers will get raises from their 2011 pay via arbitration. The last player to go through arbitration with even the threat of a pay cut was Steve Avery in 1996; he won and got a raise despite a weak season. Also, all of them will have made this choice with a realistic expectation that they’ll make more this way than they would have through the free market.

Looking case-by-case, consider the choices involved:

Ortiz: As a DH, Papi’s problem is that there are just 14 jobs he could be considered for and not all of AL clubs are willing to spend top dollar on a 36-year-old. Obvious big spenders like the Yankees, Angels and Rangers weren’t in the mix, so the supply of teams willing to pay him a salary similar to the one he got last year was down to one: The Red Sox. Using last year’s $12.5 million salary as a starting point provides the basis for future haggling, with the Sox hoping to get a lower AAV in exchange for probably providing him with a multiyear deal. In the unlikely event they can’t sort this out, there’s always the arbitration panel -- which will give Papi a raise, incentivizing the Sox to make him happy beforehand.

Johnson: With two mediocre (or worse) seasons in his last three, you can understand why the market wasn’t clamoring to give Johnson multiyear security, let alone a raise from his 2010 pay ($5.85 million). Worse yet, his one big year in 2010 owed a lot to being able to call Phoenix home (.976 OPS in Chase Field, .754 on the road). He topped HR/FB rates of 10 percent or higher as a D-back -- something he couldn’t match as a Brave or Blue Jay. And various public defensive metrics don’t do him any favors.

So he was already a risky choice to spend major money on. Accepting arbitration sticks the Jays with giving Johnson a raise from $5.85 million, and participation in the process gives him leverage to get multiyear security. Either way, he buys time to try to put up his first good year outside of Arizona since 2008 and score a larger deal -- or settle for the fact that the market’s less profitable for him. As is, he’s more expensive than what Arizona will be paying Aaron Hill the next two years ($5.5 million per year for the next two).

K-Rod: This is just one player’s bright response to the laws of supply and demand. This winter’s overstock on established closers makes for a worse shot at getting major money, especially after many reliever-hungry teams struck early. Rather than deal with the frustrations of not being one of the top free agents this winter, K-Rod can use last year’s base ($12 million) as a starting point to make a deal. He can then head into next winter’s market with a better shot at a multiyear deal, because he’ll be competing with fewer other designated save-generators for bids. (We’ll save the madness of mistaking saves for ability for another conversation.)

For the Red Sox and Ortiz, this may not have been a perfect way to renew their relationship, but you can expect both are happy. Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin made a massively expensive mistake, pure and simple. He failed to anticipate the possibilities of what might come from this winter’s stopper-chocked market and crippled his club’s financial flexibility as a result. And the Blue Jays were undoubtedly handicapped a little bit by the fluid situation of the CBA and Type A free-agent compensation, but also by the fact that Johnson’s become a bit overrated after one big year in a bandbox.

Christina Kahl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Reports out of Philadelphia have the Phillies considering re-signing closer Ryan Madson to a four-year, $44 million deal.

Since converting to relief full-time in 2007, Madson has been one of the game's most underrated relievers, posting a 2.89 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, relying on a 93-95 mph fastball and terrific changeup. In his first full season as Phillies closer he was 32-for-34 in save opportunities and allowed just two home runs in 60.2 innings. While Madson has missed time each of the past two seasons, neither injury was to his arm -- a hand injury in 2011 when hit by a groundball and a self-inflicted toe injury in 2010.

He's just 31, so maybe it seems like a relatively safe bet by the Phillies. Except it isn't.

I took a look at the 10 largest multi-year contracts given to relievers (according to Cot's Baseball Contracts) and compared the numbers for the 10 relievers before the contract and after the contract, using the same number of seasons as the length of the contract (so if a guy signed a three-year deal, I used his three previous seasons). Here's what we get:

    [+] EnlargeRyan Madson
    Howard Smith/US PresswireIs Ryan Madson worth a four-year, $40 million deal?
  • In the 32 combined seasons before signing their deals, the 10 relievers accumulated 71.4 WAR (wins above replacement, from Baseball-Reference.com) and pitched 2,152.1 innings.
  • In the 32 combined seasons after signing their deals, the relievers accumulated 42.7 WAR and pitched 1,676 innings.
  • That's an overall decrease in value of 40 percent and a decrease in innings of 22 percent.
  • Only two of the 10 had an increase in value (Mariano Rivera and Jose Valverde) and only two threw more innings (Kerry Wood and Valverde, both on two-year deals).

Here's a closer look at each of those 10 relievers.

1. Mariano Rivera, Yankees, 2008-10, $15 million

2005-07: 9.6 WAR, 2.08 ERA, 107 saves, 224.2 IP
2008-10: 10.1 WAR, 1.64 ERA, 116 saves, 197 IP

Despite pitching 27 fewer innings, Rivera maintained his value with three more excellent seasons. His 2011 season, the first of another two-year deal that also pays him $15 million per season, was another good one. But Mariano is obviously one of a kind.

2. Brad Lidge, Phillies, 2009-11, $12.5 million

2006-08: 2.3 WAR, 3.58 ERA, 92 saves, 211.1 IP
2009-11: -1.3 WAR, 4.73 ERA, 59 saves, 123.2 IP

The Phillies re-signed Lidge after his remarkable 2008 when he didn't blow a save all season, including a 7-for-7 mark in the postseason as the Phillies won the World Series. Even then, however, Lidge should have come with a big warning sign tattooed to his forehead: His 4.5 walks per nine innings in 2008 indicated a pitcher who always lived on the edge. He fell off it in 2009 with one of the worst relief seasons of all time (0-8, 7.21 ERA) and battled injuries the past two seasons.

3. Francisco Rodriguez, Mets, 2009-11, $12.33 million

2006-08: 9.9 WAR, 2.24 ERA, 149 saves, 208.2 IP
2009-11: 4.7 WAR, 2.88 ERA, 83 saves, 197 IP

Like the Phillies, the Mets bought high on K-Rod, signing him after his record-breaking 62-save season with the Angels in 2008. Despite those 62 saves, K-Rod's strikeout rate had declined from previous years and his control had always been spotty. He posted a 2.88 ERA in the three seasons of the deal, but was hardly the dominant closer expected for a $12.3 million salary.

4. Joe Nathan, Twins, 2008-11, $11.75 million

2004-07: 13.0 WAR, 1.94 ERA, 160 saves, 282.1 IP
2008-11: 6.8 WAR, 2.49 ERA, 100 saves, 181 IP

Only Trevor Hoffman recorded more saves than Nathan from 2004 through 2007. Over those four years Nathan allowed a lower OPS than Rivera. Entering his age-33 season, the Twins gave him a big four-year deal. He was terrific for two seasons before tearing a ligament in spring training in 2010 and undergoing Tommy John surgery.

5. Francisco Cordero, Reds, 2008-11, $11.5 million

2004-07: 10.1 WAR, 3.06 ERA, 152 saves, 279.1 IP
2008-11: 6.2 WAR, 2.96 ERA, 150 saves, 279.1 IP

Cordero was exactly as advertised: A durable closer who makes you gnaw your fingernails on a nightly basis. He blew 24 saves over his four-year deal with the Reds, giving him a save percentage of 86 percent. In other words, the Reds paid top dollar for a guy who was essentially a league-average closer.

6. Billy Wagner, Mets, 2006-09, $10.75 million

2002-05: 10.8 WAR, 2.01 ERA, 138 saves, 287 IP
2006-09: 5.2 WAR, 2.35 ERA, 101 saves, 203.1 IP

It's hard to say this signing turned out well for the Mets, although Wagner posted good numbers when healthy. In 2006, he blew a 1-0 lead in Game 2 of the NLCS. By Game 7, Willie Randolph had lost confidence in Wagner and left in Aaron Heilman in the ninth inning of a tie game; Yadier Molina homered. In 2007, Wagner blew fives saves, but two of those came in late August and the final one came in late September, in the middle of the Mets' horrific collapse (he allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to the Marlins, who would win in 10 innings). In 2008, he missed the final two months as the Mets blew another division lead in September. That led to the club signing Rodriguez for 2009, which meant the Mets paid over $20 million for two relievers. They lost 92 games.

7. Kerry Wood, Indians, 2009-10, $10.25 million

2007-08: 2.1 WAR, 3.28 ERA, 34 saves, 90.2 IP
2009-10: 1.2 WAR, 3.74 ERA, 28 saves, 101 IP

After a solid 34-save season with the Cubs in 2008, the Indians took a chance on the injury-prone right-hander. He had a 4.80 ERA in 81 games with Cleveland, before getting traded to the Yankees at the trade deadline in 2010.

8. B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays, 2006-10, $9.4 million

2001-05: 7.5 WAR, 3.25 ERA, 42 saves, 318.1 IP
2006-10: 4.5 WAR, 2.95 ERA, 75 saves, 155.1 IP

Ryan had emerged as a dominant reliever with the Orioles in 2004 and 2005 (he averaged 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings those two seasons), leading then-Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi to sign Ryan to mega-deal worth $47 million. The Jays got a great 2006 out of him (38 saves, 1.37 ERA), but then Ryan hurt his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery.

9. Brian Fuentes, Angels, 2009-10, $8.75 million

2007-08: 2.8 WAR, 2.90 ERA, 50 saves, 124 IP
2009-10: 1.5 WAR, 3.41 ERA, 72 saves, 103 IP

Fuentes posted solid numbers with the Rockies, relying on his deceptive left-handed delivery to fool hitters. While he saved 48 games for the Angels in 2009, his big platoon split made his overall numbers mediocre and Mike Scioscia limited him to just 55 innings. The next year, he was traded to the Twins in August.

10. Jose Valverde, Tigers, 2010-11, $7 million

2008-09: 3.3 WAR, 2.93 ERA, 69 saves, 126 IP
2010-11: 3.8 WAR, 2.59 ERA, 75 saves, 135.1 IP

After going 52-for-52 in save opportunities in 2011 (he did lose five games, however, including one in the postseason), the Tigers exercised a $9 million club option for 2012. Needless to say, Papa Grande will be hard-pressed to match his 2011 numbers.

Madson is a good pitcher, but predicting good health for a reliever -- especially a 30-something one -- is clearly a dicey proposition. The Phillies are now of baseball's big-market monsters, so they can afford a $40 million gamble more than most teams, but that's what signing Madson would be -- a very big gamble.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Five free agents to follow

November, 3, 2011
Javier VazquezAP Photo/Paul BeatyFree agent right-hander Javier Vazquez could be a hot commodity this winter.
Hot Stove season’s already fired up, and we know that the big-name guys are going to get top dollar. However, the vast majority of players aren’t going to get contracts longer than a year or year plus an option, and when the arbitration-eligible players who get non-tendered hit the market later this month, GMs will have an even wider selection of free agents. That expanded supply of free agents won’t help the mid-market talents in their quest for security in terms of contract length and top dollar.

With that in mind, here are five players from baseball’s expanding “middle class” of free agents who will be interesting to follow -- with reasons why -- in the weeks and months to come as the market shapes up.

1. Javier Vazquez, starter. When the top starters on the market include Edwin Jackson, C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle, you understand why those with the deepest pockets are interested in Yu Darvish. Beyond them, the market features a huge group of veterans in various states of repair or recovery; Roy Oswalt and Erik Bedard represent the high end in terms of upside.

And then there’s the sporadically ace-worthy but often exasperating Vazquez. Two Bronx blowups and a lot of Windy City frustration suggest he’s not a great fit for homer-happy bandboxes, the DH league in general, and perhaps the AL East in particular. Limiting his market further still, he’s famously unwilling to go to teams out west. But for teams in the NL East or Central looking to get bang for their bucks, it’s worth remembering that over his past 24 starts in 2011, Vazquez posted a 2.70 ERA while holding opponents to .222/.257/.366 and striking out 24 percent of all batters. The tension between his track record for high-profile failure, his geographical wish list, and the shortage of starters on the market make his destination -- for how long and how much -- my most interesting plot to follow this winter.

2. Francisco Rodriguez, closer. The relief market’s packed with alternatives, so single-season saves record or no, K-Rod’s not likely to garner the same attention he got when the Mets handed him a three-year, $37 million deal. Add in his complaints about not closing as a Brewer or the incidents in New York that got him into legal trouble, and there will be some organizations who figure a poor citizenship grade’s going to keep him off their shopping list. But between the opportunity to make a fresh start, still-useful stuff, and his relative youth -- he turns 30 in January -- where he goes and for how much makes him particularly worth following. Much will depend on his willingness to settle sooner rather than later in a market where the best opportunities to rack up saves could dry up fast after Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell make their decisions.

3. Jim Thome, DH. Papi’s the big name in the DH free-agent market, and there are just four clearly open DH jobs out there: The job in Boston he’s potentially leaving, plus the Yankees’, Twins’ and Athletics’ DH gigs. The Blue Jays, Mariners, Orioles and Rays might all be in the market, but they don’t have to be if they don’t want to be, creating a very short list of possible venues for veteran batsmen like Vladimir Guerrero, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada. For several guys, the specter of unwilling retirement or a spin in Japan or the Atlantic League looms, but Thome’s choices are limited to one of the very few DH gigs available or getting his clock for Cooperstown ticking.

4. Alex Gonzalez, SS. Say you’re one of the teams who doesn’t get Jose Reyes, Rafael Furcal or Jimmy Rollins. That trio’s already priced out of many teams’ reach, leaving you with… antacid tablets, a review of your farm system’s ability to crank out an alternative, and short-term patches. Gonzalez isn’t going to be this winter’s Marco Scutaro, but if you were looking for a short-term patch to provide defense -- Gonzalez led major league shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved -- and modest sock from the bottom of the order, you could do worse. (Yuniesky Betancourt, anyone?)

5. Grady Sizemore, OF. It wasn’t that long ago that Sizemore was anticipated to be as big a factor in this winter’s market as people named Prince or Pujols. The Indians chucked him into the free-agent pool after deciding that his $9 million option was a bad risk, but the opportunity to see what he could do as a corner outfielder and playing with a creative deal built around his availability to play makes him a fascinating risk to run. The potential that he far outperforms that $9 million valuation is awfully tempting, but everyone knows that -- how far they’re willing to go on guaranteed money, vesting options, or across multiple seasons is what will make Sizemore’s spread of offers perhaps the most variegated of any free agent’s this winter.

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

Podcast: What's going on in Milwaukee?

September, 15, 2011
We went off the field for much of the talk on Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, as Keith Law, producer Jay Soderberg and yours truly discussed some interesting topics, including:

1. Nice job by a few Milwaukee Brewers in focusing not on their on-field struggles of late, but on their futures. Good timing! (Sarcasm reigns.)

2. Clayton Kershaw gets an early exit in Wednesday’s game, but he had a good reason. Or did he?

3. Tampa Bay lost an opportunity to get closer to the Red Sox, as Matt Moore and Matt Wieters was a one-sided matchup. If the Rays don’t win Thursday’s game, what does that mean?

4. More about the "Moneyball" movie -- and the book -- as KLaw discusses both and defends himself from a very interesting personal attack.

5. A Pod Trooper -- don’t ask -- delivers a memorable email, and we also answer questions about manufactured home-field advantage and the save stat. Again.

Tune in Thursday for a terrific edition of the Baseball Today podcast ...

Brewers create drama at odd time

September, 15, 2011

MILWAUKEE -- Tony Plush’s tweet war! K-Rod crabs about role! Prince says this is probably final year in Milwaukee! National League Central lead shrinks by five games in eight days! With headlines like these, you’d think everyone’s hair was on fire. Is this the Bronx Zoo or the Brewers?

Following a sloppy 6-2 loss to the Rockies on Wednesday that, combined with the Cardinals’ recent hot streak, has at least made things interesting again down the stretch, the Brewers' players were fairly copacetic.

After helping stir this particular pot with his comments before the game about his time in Milwaukee perhaps being in its final days, Prince Fielder was fairly even-keeled about the club’s recent slump, observing, “It just is how it is. Unfortunately we hit a little bump.”

Nyjer Morgan reassured everybody with a ready smile and an equally ready comment, that now was, “No time to panic, just something we have to overcome.” Rickie Weeks added the observation that there’s, “No panic, no concern. Just come back ready to play.”

So much for player panic in front of the media. Asked about the mood in the clubhouse and whether manager Ron Roenicke had anything to say afterward, Fielder chuckled and noted, “There isn’t nothing really to say. This isn’t 'Hoosiers.' Just to try to go out and win games.”

Pressed about his pregame comments to TBS about his imminent departure as a free agent this offseason, Fielder was frank about how this didn’t really seem like a current events revelation to him: “You guys said it last year. It is what it is. It’s the same thing I’ve been saying.”

That much is true, and where the bidding goes on Fielder and the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols this winter figures to make first-base spending the fulcrum around which the entire free-agent market will revolve. It’s almost certainly better that Fielder has been reliably frank about it, rather than suddenly playing coy and pretending it’s ever been any other way. It’s easy to see how, if he said anything else, it might create false hope and subsequent acrimony among fans in Milwaukee.

It’s just the timing of all this that might seem strange -- heck, it is strange. After last week’s Morgan mayhem, followed by the anticlimax of the Brewers' "showdown series" with the Phillies -- Philadelphia won the first three of four games -- and then Wednesday's comments from Fielder and K-Rod, you almost wonder whether the Brewers aren’t just trying to get all this stuff said and out of the way before October comes around. But if you thought there wasn’t going to be any more drama in the NL Central, you guessed wrong.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Craig KimbrelDaniel Shirey/US PresswireCraig Kimbrel, one-man flamethrower.
Heading into the weekend, Atlanta Braves rookie closer Craig Kimbrel has 43 saves, a 1.55 ERA and a WHIP of 0.96. Only 22 closers have posted similar number: 40 or more saves, an ERA under 2.00 and a WHIP under 1.00.

How does Kimbrel's season compare to those other 22? Let's have fun with a little exercise. I'm going to rank all 23 of those closers -- -- plus Francisco Rodriguez's 2008 in which he set the record with 62 saves and Brad Lidge's 2008 season when he didn't blow a save -- in various categories: saves, save percentage, ERA, WHIP, strikeout per nine, opponents' OPS allowed and innings pitched.

If you rank first in a category, you get one point; if you rank 25th, you get 25 points. The pitcher with the fewest points wins the tally. By the way, all but one of these seasons have happened since 1990, aka the modern era for closers. Dan Quisenberry's 1983 season with the Royals is the lone exception. I would suggest that by no means should these be considered the greatest relief seasons of all time. I used the 40 saves/2.00 ERA/1.00 WHIP as an arbitrary cutoff point for statistical dominance; before 1990, it was difficult for closers to either (A) rack up as many saves, often because they pitched more innings and entered more tie games; or (B) dominate on the same statistical level since they did pitch so many more innings.

Anyway, here's the final tally:

1. Eric Gagne, 2003 Dodgers: 14 points
2. Dennis Eckersley, 1990 A's: 41 points
3. Trevor Hoffman, 1998 Padres: 46 points
4. J.J. Putz, 1997 Mariners: 63 points
5. Eric Gagne, 2002 Dodgers: 70 points
6. Armando Benitez, 2004 Marlins: 73 points
7. Bryan Harvey, 1991 Angels: 81 points
7. Billy Wagner, 2003 Astros: 81 points
9. Bryan Harvey, 1993 Marlins: 82 points
10. Mariano Rivera, 2005 Yankees: 83 points
11. Craig Kimbrel, 2011 Braves: 87 points
12. Robb Nen, 2000 Giants: 88 points
12. Dennis Eckersley, 1992 A's: 88 points
14. John Smoltz, 2003 Braves: 90 points
15. Robb Nen, 1998 Giants: 91 points
16. Joe Nathan, 2004 Twins: 97 points
17. Rafael Soriano, 2010 Rays: 98 points
18. Joakim Soria, 2008 Royals: 105 points
19. Mariano Rivera, 1999 Yankees: 109 points
20. Mariano Rivera, 2009 Yankees: 110 points
21. Brad Lidge, 2008 Phillies: 114 points
22. Dan Quisenberry, 1983 Royals: 124 points
23. Chad Cordero, 2005 Nationals: 125 points
24. Francisco Rodriguez, 2008 Angels: 127 points
25. Mike Jackson, 1998 Indians: 132 points

It's no surprise that Gagne's 2003 ranks No. 1 -- by a landslide. He was 55-for-55 in save opportunities, had a 1.20 ERA and his 14.98 K's per nine is the only figure that tops Kimbrel's mark of 14.86.

It's fun to see some of the forgotten great closer seasons like J.J. Putz with the Mariners in 2007 -- 40-for-42 in saves, 1.38 ERA, .454 OPS allowed; or Armando Benitez with the 2004 Marlins or Bryan Harvey, who appears twice on the list. Also noted is that Francisco Rodriguez's 2008 season with 62 saves wasn't really all that impressive other than the raw saves total: He blew six save chances, had a 1.28 WHIP, allowed a .630 OPS and pitched just 68.1 innings.

As for Kimbrel, he could move higher on the list since he still has a few weeks left to rack up more saves and more innings. What's most interesting is while he ranked 21st in WHIP, he ranks fourth in OPS since he's allowed just one home run and only four doubles. What's been quite a season for the rookie and deserves recognition as one of the best closer seasons we've seen.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
AxfordDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesBrewers closer John Axford is 2-2 with a 2.55 ERA and 30 saves in 2011.
John Axford could be the one man who means the difference in winning the National League Central. The Brewers' closer, who just two weeks ago had his job security seemingly challenged by Milwaukee's acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez, is emerging as baseball's most consistent closer. And with three teams separated by only 1.5 games for the NL Central lead, the 6-foot-5 Canadian with the trademark mustache and 97-mph fastball is providing the Brewers with the division's scarcest commodity: reliability.

In fact, Axford has quickly become the most reliable closer in Brewers history, converting a franchise-record 27 consecutive save opportunities. He's converted 30 of his 32 save attempts this season and hasn't blown a save since April 18. Axford's 24 saves last season set a Brewers rookie record, and since becoming Milwaukee's closer last May, Axford is 54-for-59 in save opportunities -- a percentage that ranks second in the majors behind only Heath Bell.

"Earlier in the year I felt my velocity was similar to that of last year ... if not a little bit lower," Axford told me via email. "But over the last three months the ball has just felt great coming out. I've really just been trying to use that to my advantage and pound the zone with that pitch. If I'm ahead in the count I can elevate or I can pound in or keep it on the outside corner. That can be dependent on what off-speed pitches I'm using as well. I think it's important to be confident and aggressive with your fastball ... the velocity only helps!"

A check of the pitch data reveals Axford's fastball numbers from his breakthrough rookie season of last year remain virtually unchanged. Axford does not throw a changeup, and with a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider and curveball repertoire, it's his breaking pitches that show the most dramatic results. The swing percentage on Axford's curveball is exactly the same as it was last season, 34.7 percent. However, the rate at which opposing hitters are swinging and missing his curve has doubled from 20 percent last season to 41 percent this year.

At the same time, Axford's slider has become a groundball pitch. Like his curveball, the swing percentage on the slider is exactly as it was last season, 47 percent, but hitters are putting the ball into play twice as often. Axford's groundball percentage is up to 54 percent. This is a pitcher who has surrendered only three home runs his entire career, and with 62 strikeouts in 49.1 innings this season, Axford is proving he can strike batters out and pitch to contact when needed.

"There was probably a stretch of about 10 games through June where all I used was 4-seam and curve," Axford wrote. "It worked so I stuck with it. When teams showed that they were adapting, I did too. I don't think I've thrown my slider this year as much as I did last year, so it might not be as sharp, but I'm still using it to keep hitters off balance and in moments where they may not be expecting it. If it's put in play and I'm getting outs with it ... I'm happy."

Was Axford happy on July 12 when the Brewers acquired Rodriguez from the Mets?

"My first reaction was excitement," Axford wrote. "I'd be lying if I said my second thought wasn't a little apprehension. But that immediately turned to excitement once again. Francisco didn't ask to be put in this position, and neither did I. I knew I did all I could have done to continue closing games so worrying about it initially was counterproductive. We were adding one of the best closers in the game and we did it because we want to win and that's my primary concern."

Rodriguez arrived in Milwaukee with 291 career saves, but has quickly become a perfect prelude to Axford's closing act. The Brewers are coming off a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Miller Park. In all three games, Rodriguez pitched the eighth inning and recorded a hold before Axford closed out the ninth for a save.

"Franky is an awesome competitor and it's been great to see his intensity in person," Axford wrote. "The last couple of innings, down there in the bullpen, you can see where his focus is. Outside of the game and in the clubhouse he's been great. He's been really opening up with us, and each day you can see his personality coming through more and more. I respect him immensely and am looking forward to closing out MANY more games with him this year."

In a divisional race as close as the NL Central, bullpens are often the deciding factor. Once Milwaukee added Rodriguez, St. Louis acquired starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, which pushed Kyle McClellan back to a relief role. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has been non-committal when discussing roles in his bullpen, where Fernando Salas rescued the closer's job from the wreckage of Ryan Franklin. Mark Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel were added as well, but St. Louis may still lack the dependability that the Milwaukee group of Axford, K-Rod, LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito provide. And in this division, where Pittsburgh is still unproven and consistency can be hard to come by, the Ax Man and his Brewers bullpen mates seem to have the edge.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.
As we all recover from a terrific sports weekend, Mark Simon and I discuss pertinent baseball matters on Monday’s Baseball Today podcast, led by these topics:

1. The Boston Red Sox finally scored and the overmatched Tampa Bay Rays finally lost, but in the end we discuss a tweet from Joe Maddon.

2. Are the Rays buyers or sellers with less than two weeks to the trading deadline? We delve through some of the interesting teams and their needs.

3. If it’s Monday then it’s time for Power Rankings, and as always we differ on the top team. I’ve got a sub-.500 team in my top 10!

4. Asdrubal Cabrera keeps showing up in the Web Gems portion of "Baseball Tonight," but would you believe he’s not actually having a great defensive season?

5. We talk baseball clichés, percentage of doubles for overall hits and whether All-Star selections matter for Hall of Fame consideration. If you’ve forgotten, send emails to baseballtoday@espnradio.com.

Plus: Jim Thome goes really, really deep, we look ahead to Monday’s schedule and we wish Nolan Ryan good health, all in Monday’s Baseball Today podcast!
Let the second half of the baseball season begin (though it kind of already has)! Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast is ready to go, as I talk to Jim Bowden and then Keith Law, with among the topics ...

1. As a former GM, Bowden shares insight into what the next few weeks should be like behind the scenes in terms of trading. Who’s buying, selling and who just doesn’t know?

2. Keith Law discusses who some of the best current GMs are, and why.

3. Keith has updated his top 50 prospects list, with risers, fallers and others in between. Who’s No. 1?

4. The Cardinals ink left-hander Jaime Garcia to a long-term deal -- was it a smart move?

5. Baseball returns on Thursday night and we couldn’t be happier, running through a few of the better pitching matchups.

Plus: Excellent emails, more on the K-Rod trade repercussions, why the Mets should want to lose, the sputtering Orioles and so much more on Thursday’s Baseball Today!