SweetSpot: Gaby Sanchez

Pirates fans should get to say 'I like Ike'

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
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One of the things a few folks -- not just long-suffering Mets fans -- were wondering was whether Ike Davis was going to be able to build on last season's big second half. After going down for a month to help him address things like an epically awful start, perhaps related to his planting too far back from the plate, Davis came back up in July and clouted pitchers at a .267/.429/443 clip in two months. That from a lefty power bat that hit 32 homers in 2012, a guy who even with the awful two months to start 2013 has a career .256/.357/.471 line against right-handed pitching (2014-inclusive).

So the thing to watch is if Davis is going to be some variation of that guy again: The lefty masher, maybe the guy who delivered the third-best second-half OBP in the majors in 2013 -- the Pirates aren’t all that picky.
[+] EnlargeIke Davis
Brad Barr/USA TODAY SportsIf Ike Davis brings his 2012 power or his 2013 second-half OBP, he'll be a big addition to the Bucs.

The fun thing is that Davis perfectly complements the guy the Pirates had left over at first base, right-handed hitter Gaby Sanchez. Sanchez managed just a .619 OPS against righties last year as the short end of the Pirates’ first-base platoon, with Garrett Jones initially and Justin Morneau later, while thriving against the lefties he’s reliably chewed up (.898 OPS career), seeing his usual 200-point OPS split spike up to .987 last year. Even if that had regressed toward something less extreme, even if Sanchez got his OPS against right-handed hitters back up around .700 as an everyday player, he wasn’t going to be an asset as a regular. Credit the Pirates for both resurrecting Sanchez -- he was a Marlins All-Star in 2011, and combined for 38 homers in 2010 and 2011 -- and using him within his limits.

To compensate for those shortcomings, the Pirates had retained Travis Ishikawa as a sort of latter-day Dave Bergman/Tony Muser type, something you don’t see much of on rosters these days. As a fan of a certain age, those are my points of reference for a backup first baseman good for spot starts against right-handers who struggle against lefties, maybe some pinch hitting and defensive-replacement duties. They were fun to have around, but they were something you could only afford the roster space for at a time when bullpens were staffed by five or six guys, not seven or eight. Like Morneau, Davis is a much stronger alternative, and a much better use of the roster spot in today’s competitive environment, which is why the Pirates promptly designated Ishikawa for assignment as soon as they could add Davis to the active roster on Saturday.

Having assembled their latest retread platoon to cover their first-base needs, it’s interesting to see how many teams are adapting to today’s decline in runs scored with platoons or with some measure of platooning. The Brewers have had to resort to the barrel-bottom solution of Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, while the Rays have stuck with James Loney-Sean Rodriguez at first. The Yankees have resorted to a platoon during Mark Teixeira’s time on the DL, partnering Kelly Johnson with Francisco Cervelli and Scott Sizemore at first. The Astros and Rockies play matchup games.

But most of those are desperation or price-driven choices, whereas the Davis-Sanchez platoon might combine to crank out offensive production to rank among the top half of first basemen. While we don’t know who the PTBNL the Mets will get will be, minor league righty reliever Zach Thornton seems like little more than an organizational arm. So while the Pirates may well be cost-conscious and reluctant to part with talent, what they might get from first base won’t be too shabby for a pair of bargain-basement finds.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
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.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington and his St. Louis counterpart, John Mozeliak, spent the requisite long hours at the trade deadline making calls, kicking tires and putting out feelers in an effort to improve their rosters. But when the sellers are dictating the terms, it’s hard for two baseball executives in buyer mode not to feel like the main characters in a show about nothing.

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Huntington popped into the media conference room at PNC Park and spent 15 minutes explaining the team’s decision to refrain from an impact move at the deadline. Shortly thereafter, Mozeliak sat in the visitors dugout and shared a similar tale.

The Pirates acquired infielder Robert Andino from Seattle later in the evening and St. Louis traded lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski to Cleveland for a minor league shortstop at the deadline. Throw in a similar lack of activity by third-place Cincinnati, and July 31 was Stand Patrick’s Day in the National League Central.
[+] EnlargeYadier Molina
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesEven absent Yadier Molina for two weeks, the Cardinals didn't make a move.

“There’s no question we forced the issue,” Huntington said. “I made offers that made me incredibly uncomfortable, but we did so with the idea that we wanted to help this club. When the holder group became larger than expected, it made it even more of a seller’s market. And even when those clubs were willing to sell, it was either a difficult match or they didn’t have the players that matched what we were looking for.”

Of the two clubs, the Pirates were operating under greater scrutiny to get something done. How crazy are things in Pittsburgh now that the Buccos enter August in first place for the first time since 1992? When manager Clint Hurdle visited Starbucks Wednesday on one of his daily Man-About-the-Steel City rituals, the other patrons gave him a venti-sized standing ovation.

Recent history has shown that a flurry of midseason moves doesn’t necessarily produce the desired result. Last year, the Pirates acquired Gaby Sanchez, Travis Snider, Wandy Rodriguez and Chad Qualls in July, and those reinforcements couldn’t prevent them from going into a 20-39 free fall in August and September.

Huntington said the team’s primary focus this year was on upgrading the offense, which ranks in the bottom half of the NL in batting average, runs, hits and total bases and near the top in strikeouts. The Pirates checked out an assortment of hitters that included Giancarlo Stanton, Mark Trumbo, Alex Rios, Justin Morneau and Nate Schierholtz, only to discover that the objects of their affection were either unavailable, cost-prohibitive or not a heck of a lot better than the talent already on the Pittsburgh roster. And any deal that mentioned top prospects Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco and Tyler Glasnow was guaranteed to make Huntington swallow hard.

“We were willing to do something stupid,” Huntington said. “We weren’t willing to do something insane.”

In the absence of a new bat, Hurdle said several Pittsburgh hitters are capable of contributing more than they have to this point. Neil Walker entered Wednesday’s game hitting .242 before launching his seventh homer of the season off Adam Wainwright, and Garrett Jones has 10 homers and a .433 slugging percentage compared to totals of 27 and .516 in 2012. Huntington also seems intrigued by minor league outfielder Andrew Lambo, who has hit 27 homers in a Darin Ruf-like power breakout with Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis this season.

The Pirates also felt comfortable not adding a relief pitcher even though their bullpen has logged a heavy workload and the team’s closer, Jason Grilli, is on the shelf with a strained forearm. They have faith in Mark Melancon in the ninth inning and think they have enough young, hard-throwing arms in the organization to overcome Grilli’s absence.

In contrast to the Pirates, who are on an emotional high right now, the Cardinals have to take solace in the knowledge that they’re just going through a temporary funk. They were the best team in the National League for the better part of three months, and they have the second-best run differential in baseball behind the Tigers. Mozeliak wasn’t about to panic and include Oscar Taveras, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong or another top prospect in a trade for a marginal upgrade.

“We didn’t want to make a decision in a six-game vacuum,” Mozeliak said. “In the end, we think we’re going to be a better team and play to what we’re capable of doing. When we looked at how we could have improved our club, we just didn’t have a lot of access to those pieces that could have made a difference.”

At least Mozeliak received some positive news on Wednesday when he learned that All-Star catcher Yadier Molina suffered no structural damage to his knee and will probably be fine with two weeks of rest. The Cardinals are talking to the agent for veteran Kelly Shoppach, who became a free agent after opting out of his minor league deal with Washington. But barring a change, the Cards will stick with Rob Johnson and Tony Cruz behind the plate until Molina returns.

Conventional wisdom says that a significant July deadline trade can boost spirits in a clubhouse, but Huntington and Mozeliak put an alternative spin on the status quo.

“I feel like this is a vote of confidence to the talent we have in there, because we weren’t scrambling to add to it.” Mozeliak said. “For us, those 25 guys in that room right now have to know that we believe in them. And we do.”

A general manager can help boost a player's spirits with a back slap or a kind word. In this case, Huntington and Mozeliak showed their faith in their 25-man rosters by doing next to nothing.

Offseason report card: Pirates

February, 15, 2013
2/15/13
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2012 in review
Record: 79-83 (78-84 Pythagorean)
651 runs scored (10th in NL)
674 runs allowed (7th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agents Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Re-signed free agent Jason Grilli. Traded Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to Boston for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus and Stolmy Pimentel. Acquired Clint Robinson and Vin Mazzaro from the Royals. Lost free agents Kevin Correia and Rod Barajas.

What, you expected the Pirates to sign Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and Kyle Lohse? The Neal Huntington regime began in late September 2007. The GM took over a club that won 68 games and has won 67, 62, 57, 72 and 79 games. I guess that's progress. The club he inherited wasn't completely without talent, at least on offense:

--Jose Bautista: Traded in 2008 for Robinzon Diaz.
--Jason Bay: Traded in 2008 in a three-way deal. Pirates got Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris. Also known as the poo-poo platter (although Moss resurfaced with Oakland last year and played well).
--Adam LaRoche: Traded in 2009 for Hunter Strickland and Argenis Diaz.
--Freddy Sanchez: Traded in 2009 for Tim Alderson.
--Jack Wilson: Hit .296 in '07. Traded in 2009 with Ian Snell for Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno and two minor leaguers.

Look, Huntington took over a wreck of a franchise. The farm system did have Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, but not much else. But Huntington had five players with some value (six if you include Xavier Nady, who had a decent 2007), traded all of them, and got nothing in return. That's one reason the Pirates are still where they're at today.

Huntington's first draft pick was Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick in 2008. It took longer than expected, but he finally produced a decent season with 30 home runs in 2012. Still, he's hardly a star, hitting .244 last year with mediocre defense and no value on the bases. Buster Posey went a couple picks later. The Pirates selected catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick in 2009, a choice widely panned at the time. He hasn't hit much in the minors (.268 AVG/.365 OBP/.403 SLG). With the second pick in 2010, the Pirates selected pitcher Jameson Taillon, who looks good, although Manny Machado was the next pick. Gerrit Cole was the first overall pick in 2011 and should reach the majors this year. Behind those two upside arms, Keith Law ranked the Pirates' system seventh overall Insider.

Will that be enough to save the Huntington regime? After contending into July the past two seasons only to collapse over the final two months, this may be a make-or-break season for him.

As for the offseason moves, it was smart to trade Hanrahan while his value was high, although I don't think the Pirates got much back. Melancon is just another relief pitcher and Sands has a chance to stick as a platoon outfielder. Martin is an upgrade over Barajas, although backup catcher Michael McKenry actually had better numbers than Martin, and Liriano has had an ERA over 5.00 in three of the past four seasons, so good luck with that. (And now he'll miss the start of the season after breaking his arm in a freak Christmas accident, the day before he was to fly to Pittsburgh for his physical. Only the Pirates.)


Position Players

Well, McCutchen is pretty good. He may have won the MVP Award if he had better teammates.

The Pirates had four regulars with an OBP under .300 last year, but only shortstop Clint Barmes is back in his starting role, and he's there for his glove. Young outfielders Jose Tabata and Alex Presley flopped, so this year's flavors of the month appear to be Blue Jays former top prospect/washout Travis Snider and homegrown Starling Marte.

Marte is a 24-year-old with tools, but in his first exposure to major league pitching he struck out 50 times in 167 at-bats and walked just eight times. That approach isn't going to lead to a long and fruitful career, that's for sure. His career walk rate in the minors was abysmal, so I don't see much -- if any -- star potential here. More time in the minors may be needed, giving Tabata another chance at full-time duty.

That approach is Pittsburgh's overall problem on offense: They were fourth in the NL in homers but last in walks drawn, leading to a .304 OBP. Walks are good.

Defensively, the Pirates ranked 24th in the majors at minus-25 defensive runs saved, with Barmes being the only real plus defender. Barajas was terrible throwing out runners a year ago: 93 steals and only six caught stealing (not a misprint).




Pitching Staff

There is some potential here for an above-average rotation if Burnett repeats, James McDonald figures out what went wrong in the second half (9-3, 2.57 before the break, 3-5, 7.52 after), Wandy Rodriguez pitches like Wandy Rodriguez, and Cole makes a rapid ascension into the big league rotation. Even Jeff Karstens isn't a bad No. 5 starter, a soft-tosser who at least doesn't beat himself.

On the other hand, it's still A.J. Burnett, McDonald's first half may have been a fluke, Rodriguez could be ripe for a decline, and Karstens isn't really that good. You know things are going bad if free-agent reclamation project Jonathan Sanchez appears in the rotation.

The bullpen had a solid 3.36 ERA in 2012, seventh in the NL, but I'm skeptical about a repeat performance. Hanrahan wasn't always dominant, but he blew just four saves each of the past two seasons. Veteran Jason Grilli came out of nowhere to fan 90 in 58.2 innings, so if he pitches like that again he'll be fine as the closer. But guys like Jared Hughes and Tony Watson are good bets for regression, and I don't see much depth.


Heat Map to Watch

What's amazing about McCutchen's final numbers -- .327 average, 31 home runs -- is that it's easy to forget he didn't hit a home run in April. He did fall off the final two months, hitting .252 in August and .254 in September, as maybe the weight of 24 teammates on his shoulders wore him down. He tinkered with his swing mechanics last offseason and it paid off, especially against fastballs. He hit .363/.423/.676 against fastballs, with 22 of his 31 homers. He had hit .280 off fastballs in 2011. The new revamped swing allowed him to do much more damage on inside pitches.

Andrew McCutchenESPN Stats & InformationAndrew McCutchen feasted on fastballs in 2012, especially those on the inner half of the plate.
Overall Grade

SportsNation

How many games will the Pirates win?

  •  
    20%
  •  
    45%
  •  
    24%
  •  
    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,043)

Is this the year? Can the Pirates finish over .500 for the first time since 1992?

I'd like to say yes. I'd like to say that Pedro Alvarez will hit .275 with 40 bombs, and both Travis Snider and Starling Marte will hit .280 (and combine for 40 home runs), and McCutchen will have another MVP-caliber year, and Burnett and McDonald and Rodriguez will win 15 games apiece, and Cole will come up from the minors in May and go 12-5 with a 3.27 ERA.

But I don't see it. The Astros aren't much competition (Pittsburgh went 12-5 against Houston) and the Reds and Cardinals look pretty tough again. But I hope I'm wrong.
Keith Law and I returned from a brief Independence Day hiatus to discuss many pertinent matters on Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, including ...

1. Carlos Lee is now a Miami Marlin, but will he really make much of an impact on his new team? And what about the prospects headed to Houston?

2. Meanwhile, Cliff Lee wins his first game of the season, which is funny for quite a few reasons.

3. How do the Dodgers ever score runs these days? We discuss the lineup, which lost a key cog Wednesday. And why is Matt Kemp competing in the home run contest?

4. Today we gladly took your tweets instead of emails and it was a blast! We talked potential trades, Chris Sale, minor leaguers and much more!

5. Thursday’s schedule has one matchup of All-Stars in New York, but keep an eye on a battle of pitchers traded for each other in San Diego as well!

So download and listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast and get ready for Friday’s episode with me and Mark Simon! Then it’s on to Kansas City!

Thank you for showing up, Boston Red Sox.

There are mini tests throughout a baseball season -- a series that maybe in the big picture is just another three games of 162, but hold revelations about a ballclub.

The Red Sox entered their weekend showdown with the Washington Nationals facing a challenging test against the three best starters on the best pitching staff in the National League. They were 29-28 and while they were in fifth place in the AL East, they were just three games out of first place. Despite the slew of injuries to hit their lineup, the Red Sox had scored the third-most runs in the majors.

Behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals left Fenway with a sweep as the Red Sox hit .208, struck out 30 times and went 3-for-26 with runners in scoring position. The frustrating weekend concluded with Bobby Valentine getting ejected in the top of the ninth inning after Roger Bernadina had doubled home Bryce Harper with two outs for the winning run. (Harper, in case you haven't noticed, goes first-to-home like a lightning bolt.) Valentine felt Bernadina should have been called out on a 2-2 pitch.

"Good umpires had a real bad series this series -- a real bad series -- and it went one way," Valentine said after the game. "There should be a review."

Valentine is staring at a fine after those comments. Even worse, he's now staring at a six-game deficit as the first-place Tampa Bay Rays swept the Miami Marlins in the battle of Florida.

The Marlins failed in their own test in front of their home fans, as the Rays outscored them 22-7 in the sweep, hitting .302 and drawing 14 walks. This is not the way to get more fans out to the new park. After clawing back from 8-14 to start to reach 31-23, the Marlins have now lost six in a row, are five games behind the Nationals and have a season run differential of minus-28 that is tied for fourth-worst in the National League.

It makes the series starting on Monday between the Red Sox and Marlins the most intriguing series of the week. It's time for the Red Sox to stop blaming the umps and start pitching better; it's time for the Marlins to start hitting and playing with more consistency.

A few things to watch in the series:

1. Boston's defensive alignments.

David Ortiz played first base in two games in Boston's only previous road interleague series this year in Philadelphia, so presumably he'll be back there. But a defense with Ortiz at first, Adrian Gonzalez in right, Kevin Youkilis and third and Scott Podsednik or Ryan Sweeney in center is a liability, especially with all the space in Miami's outfield. The Red Sox entered Sunday ranked second in the American League in defensive runs saved at plus-35 (second in the majors to the Blue Jays), although they rank just 19th in defensive efficiency (percentage of balls in play turned into outs). Either way, a Ortiz/Gonzalez alignment makes them a much worse defensive team.

2. Marlins at the plate.

The Marlins are 12th in the NL in runs scored and 12th in OPS -- and it's not all because their new park is a difficult place to hit. In fact, that has nothing to do with it. The Marlins are last in the NL in road OPS. The main culprits? Marlins catchers are hitting .188, their first basemen (Gaby Sanchez returned Sunday after a 19-game demotion to the minors) are hitting .197, their center fielders have a .346 OBP but a .312 slugging percentage. Sanchez needs to hit but the other middle-of-the-order bat struggling is Logan Morrison, with a .227/.315/.349 line. Benched Friday and Saturday for a mental break, Morrison returned to the lineup on Sunday and went 3-for-4 with two doubles. He has battled a bad knee all season, but the Marlins may have to make a decision soon on Sanchez and Morrison. You can't afford to keep punting offense at first base and left field.

3. Josh Johnson.

The Marlins' ace draws the start in Monday's ESPN telecast against Josh Beckett. After getting knocked out in the third inning on May 4 against the San Diego Padres, Johnson's ERA stood at 6.61 and opponents were batting .359 against him. In six starts since, he has 2.95 ERA and .252 average allowed, with his BABIP dropping from an extreme .448 to a more normalized .302. It wasn't just bad luck early on, however; he was getting hit. His season line-drive percentage is still 26 percent, which ranks second-worst among major league starters to Mike Leake.

Anyway, key for Johnson is his fastball location versus left-handed batters. Check out 2012 versus 2011, when he dominated for nine starts before landing on the disabled list.

Josh Johnson heat mapESPN Stats & InformationJohnson has been hit hard by left-handed batters in 2012. The heat map shows why.
There's a reason he has been hit hard this year: He's not hitting that outside corner like he did previously. He held lefties to a .209 average in 2011 (.258 BABIP) but they're hitting .331 off him in 2012 (.405 BABIP). Johnson's stuff is close to what it was; he overpowered the Braves at times in his most recent start with some high heat. But what do they say? Location, location, location. It's been better lately; let's see how he does against the Boston left-handed hitters on Monday night.

4. Is Clay Buchholz back?

Buchholz starts Tuesday versus Mark Buehrle and he has been terrific his past three starts, giving up four runs in 24 innings, including a four-hit shutout against Baltimore in his most recent start. He has a 19/4 strikeout/walk ratio after struggling with a 27/27 ratio through his first nine starts. The key to Buchholz's resurgence has been his changeup. "My grip was a little off," he told the media after his win over the Baltimore Orioles. "I was able to free that up a little bit. It’s been a pitch that we tried to work on for a long time and I noticed it wasn’t the same grip I had in past years and it’s coming back."

Indeed, over his first nine starts, batters hit .375 off his changeup; in the three starts since, he has thrown the pitch 69 times and batters are 1-for-10 with five strikeouts.

So watch Buchholz's changeup and watch this crucial mid-June series. Maybe it's just another three games. Maybe it's a big three games.

My bet? The Red Sox don't have to face Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann in this series. Beckett and Buchholz, who can be prone to the home run, should enjoy Marlins Park. The Red Sox take two of three as the AL East continues to show its superiority over the NL East (it went 9-6 this past weekend without any help from the Red Sox) and the Marlins will have to head to Tampa Bay next weekend with another big test to face.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Martin MaldonadoBenny Sieu/US PresswireMartin Maldonado thoughts on called K's? Where there's a whiff, there's a win.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO OF THE DAY
OriolesEd Zurga/Getty ImagesWhen you're the Baltimore Orioles and in first place, you can celebrate any way you want.
JohnsonRonald C. Modra/Getty ImagesAfter making just nine starts in 2011, the Marlins are hoping for a full season from ace Josh Johnson.
I like to do a rough estimate of a team's strength by starting off with their 2011 totals for runs scored and runs allowed, adding and subtracting for new players and projected performance, and see where we end up. Here is an estimate I a did a couple weeks ago on the Washington Nationals. With the Miami Marlins playing the Red Sox on ESPN this afternoon, and Tristan Cockcroft asking how Hanley Ramirez will bounce back , I thought I'd tackle the Marlins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

So we end up with:

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

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

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

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

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Defining who's Mr. Average

January, 29, 2012
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With all of this talking about production up the middle or at the four corners over the past 25 years, it might also be helpful to put this into perspective by asking: Who’s average?

Here again, I’m indebted to Clay Davenport’s work in creating Equivalent Average, as useful a tool for all-time performance on offense today as it was in the ’90s. Sticking with the 2011 and following Clay’s advice to cheat up a couple of points -- to avoid the impact of the real scrubs -- let’s look at who set the bar for mediocrity at all eight regular positions in the field:

Catcher: Rod Barajas, .258 Equivalent Average (EqA). Sure, he struggles to get on base, but Barajas’ modest pop at the plate -- delivering a .200 ISO last season -- and solid receiving skills makes him the acme of average from the backstop bin. In Pittsburgh, he might help propel their latest bid for a .500 season.
Runner-up: The Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy, .254 EqA.

First Base: Freddie Freeman, .286 EqA. This might seem like an indictment of the Atlanta Braves’ prodigy, but the standards for offense at first base are higher than at any position, and this isn’t a shabby place to start for a kid in his age-21 season.
Runner-up: The Marlins’ Gaby Sanchez, .284 EqA.

Second Base: Orlando Hudson, .268 EqA. Hudson’s power has taken a hit the last two years since going to slugger-sapping Target Field and now the Padres’ Petco Park, but he still provides average offense for the position and above-average glove work, so he’ll keep landing gigs.
Runner-up: The Mets’ Justin Turner, .263 EqA, and an excellent example of how GMs can still find plug-in players on the waiver wire.

Third Base: One of the funny things about the field is that you’d be hard-pressed to find a truly average regular at third, but the closest might be Casey Blake with the Dodgers (.268 EqA) or Jack Hannahan with the Indians (.263), so let’s call it a platoon and punt on picking a runner-up.

Shortstop: Clint Barmes, .257 EqA. Here we have another Pirates offseason acquisition, which might be taken as proof that average is the new up, or that it takes a certain kind of player to choose to go to Pittsburgh. But more fundamentally, Barmes reflects today’s higher standard for adequacy on offense at short, because beyond premium defense he ripped a dozen homers for the Astros.
Runner-up: The White Sox’s Alexei Ramirez, .256 EqA, and another example after knocking 15 homers of his own.

Left Field: Cody Ross, .273 EqA. In contrast, here’s a great example of the declining standard for what gets by in left. The hero of the postseason in 2010 went back to his more mortal form at the plate with the Giants, and looks like he’ll be shunted into a part-time role with the Red Sox, splitting time in right field or spotting for the injured Carl Crawford in left early on.
Runner-up: Jason Bay, .270 EqA, and a symbol of the Mets’ bang-less bucks at work.

Center Field: Adam Jones, .273 EqA. Here’s a reflection on what a difference a position makes. Cody Ross? Not in high demand. Adam Jones of the Orioles? He’s a star, and somebody many teams would love to trade for.
Runner-up: The Diamondbacks’ Chris Young, .270 EqA. Keep in mind, Equivalent Average is park-adjusted, so all that slugging the Snakes get from their center fielder at home -- including 14 of his 20 homers, with a 131-point difference between his home and road SLG.

Right Field: Seth Smith, .283 EqA. Right’s the premium offensive position in the outfield these days, so the standard for average is going to be a bit higher. It says something about the Athletics’ lot on offense that they traded for Smith and fell he’ll provide a big boost with his bat from either corner.
Runner-up: Jeff Francoeur, .279 EqA. His comeback with the Royals was nice to see, but it’s a reflection of the depths he plummeted to during his three years in the wilderness that he’s gone from awful to average, not awesome.

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

NL East: Three fixes for each team

November, 28, 2011
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Sure, every team would love to plug its shortstop hole with Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins. Albert Pujols would look terrific in any uniform. Have a spare $40 million sitting around? Sure, Ryan Madson is an underrated closer.

But let's be realistic here: Those can't be solutions for every team. So let's identify three key areas of importance for each team and determine a more likely action plan as the offseason wheeling and dealing starts to heat up. We'll start with the National League East. (Check back all week for the other divisions.)

Philadelphia Phillies

1. Shortstop: Empty (Jimmy Rollins, free agent)

Rollins just turned 33, but the Phillies would like to bring him back -- on a four-year contract, while Rollins is reportedly looking for a five-year deal that would take him through his age-37 season. While Rollins isn’t the hitter he was in his 2007 MVP season, Phillies shortstops still ranked ninth in the majors in OPS, tied for second in runs scored and tied for sixth in RBIs. Rollins is the obvious candidate here, but if it takes five years, why not go after the younger Jose Reyes?

Likely solution: Rollins. The big question: Was his 2011 season a fluke, or will he regress back to his subpar numbers of 2009 and 2010 (.248 average, .306 OBP)? It’s also worth mentioning that Rollins hasn’t been a good postseason player. He has a career .686 OPS in 46 postseason games, and he’s homerless in his past 140 postseason at-bats.

2. Left field: Empty (Raul Ibanez, free agent)

Stats you may not believe: Despite Ibanez’s .298 on-base percentage, Phillies left fielders ranked 16th in the majors in OPS and tied for fourth with 95 RBIs. Remember when left fielders owned big bats? Those days are gone. Still, considering Ibanez’s lack of defensive value, it should be easy for the Phillies to upgrade the overall production with Domonic Brown and John Mayberry Jr. Oddly, the Phillies offered Ibanez arbitration, meaning they’re risking Ibanez accepting and earning a likely payout of $12-14 million. (As Buster Olney writes, there could be a gentleman’s agreement between the two sides to not accept the offer, although Ibanez must know he won’t get anything close to that on the open market.)

Likely solution: Brown/Mayberry Jr. platoon. It’s time to give Brown 450 at-bats to see what he can do. Mayberry can play against lefties (and also fill in at first base until Ryan Howard returns). Even if Ibanez DOES return, the Phillies should stick with the youngsters.

3. Third base: 22nd in majors with .665 OPS

Here’s incumbent third baseman Placido Polanco's year-by-year WAR (wins above replacement) since 2007, via Baseball-Reference: 5.0, 3.7, 2.5, 2.0, 1.8. He still carries an excellent glove, but this is a player in decline. Factor in that he’s missed 70 games the past two seasons and he’s an even bigger question mark.

Likely solution: Polanco will return, but the Phillies would be wise to have a solid alternative. Unfortunately, recent acquisition Ty Wigginton is not the answer, as he's been a below-average hitter each of the past three seasons, despite having a little pop. As the Phillies are learning with Polanco, and will learn with Howard, giving long-term contracts to guys past 30 can be a very risky proposition.

Atlanta Braves

1. Shortstop: Empty (Alex Gonzalez, free agent)

The Braves didn’t even offer arbitration to Gonzalez, a solid fielder with a little pop, but also the owner of an abysmal .270 OBP. Atlanta has a couple of good shortstop prospects in Andrelton Simmons (.311 in Class A) and Tyler Pastornicky (who hit .314 between Double-A and Triple-A). They may believe Pastornicky is ready to handle the job or maybe they’ll enter the Rollins/Reyes sweepstakes.

Likely solution: Considering the state of shortstops, the Braves' best option could be to dangle one of their talented young starting pitchers in a trade. But good luck finding a team with an extra shortstop -- maybe Boston’s Jed Lowrie, with the Red Sox looking for a rotation arm. Short of that, maybe the Braves bring Rafael Furcal back to Atlanta.

2. Left field: Upgrade Martin Prado

One hot rumor was the Braves trading Prado for Delmon Young, a “big” right-handed bat the Braves need. Here’s the problem with that rumor: Young isn’t a big bat. Prado had a .687 OPS in 2011 while battling a staph infection, but Young’s OPS was just .695. Over the past three years, Prado’s OPS is .771, Young’s .758. And Young is a lousy left fielder. Anyway, that rumor was quickly shot down for those obvious reasons, but it does point to the larger issue of trying to upgrade left field: If Young is considered a big bat, maybe you’re better off sticking with Prado and hoping for a bounce-back season.

Likely solution: Prado. Why not see if he hits better; if not, you can always seek an in-season fix. Or what about a trade for Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier? The Braves could keep Prado as Chipper Jones insurance, and trade a young pitcher for Ethier, who the Dodgers may not want to pay after inking Matt Kemp to a $160 million deal.

3. Right field: More production from Jason Heyward

In reality, the best hope for more offense for the Braves rests in improvement from Heyward and sophomore first baseman Freddie Freeman. With Heyward hitting just .227/.319/.389, Braves right fielders ranked just 26th in the majors in OPS, 29th in runs and 27th in RBIs.

Likely solution: Heyward is just 22. I think he's going to have a big season.

Washington Nationals

1. Rotation: Find a power starter

Washington’s rotation actually posted a respectable 3.80 ERA, seventh in the NL, but did so despite averaging just 5.67 K’s per nine innings, 15th in the NL. That's a difficult equation to maintain. With Jordan Zimmermann the only good bet to repeat his 2011 production, the Nats shouldn’t simply rely on a healthy Stephen Strasburg to bolster the rotation.

Likely solution: C.J. Wilson. While some expect the Nats to bid for Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, why not spend around half the money and go after Wilson? He’s not a classic power pitcher in the sense of fastball velocity but he’s racked up 376 strikeouts the past two years. His adjusted ERA over the past two seasons is seventh best among all starters. If you can pitch in Texas, you could dominate in the NL. And with Strasburg around, he won’t have to shoulder the pressure of staff ace.

2. Center field: Vacant (Rick Ankiel, free agent)

Nationals center fielders posted a .691 OPS, 23rd in baseball. They’ve reportedly inquired about one of the Twins’ glove wizards, Denard Span or Ben Revere. But rather than trade away a good prospect for a marginal player like Span or Revere (neither would offer much with the bat), why not play Jayson Werth there? He’d be an adequate defensive center fielder, at least for a couple of years, and clear room for Bryce Harper in right field, who may be ready by the All-Star break. The Nats will also have to find room in a year or so for 2011 top pick Anthony Rendon, a third baseman in college who will have to move positions with Ryan Zimmerman around. Rendon could end up in left field.

Likely solution: Move Werth to center, sign a short-term corner outfielder like Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel or Cody Ross (Michael Morse could also play left if Adam LaRoche returns healthy, but is best suited for first base).

3. Manager: Is Davey Johnson the long-term answer?

Considering he’ll be 69 in January and hadn’t managed in the majors since 2000, Johnson was an interesting choice to replace Jim Riggleman. Following an 80-win season and with a slew of talented prospects close to the majors -- Harper, Rendon, pitcher Brad Peacock, catcher Derek Norris -- this is a team on the verge of becoming a playoff contender. Maybe not in 2011, but soon. Johnson built a young team in the Mets, but also had veterans Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez as clubhouse leaders. He won in Baltimore, but with a veteran team. Is he the right guy to trust the youngsters as they gain big league experience? I believe he is.

New York Mets

1. Shortstop: If not Reyes, who?

Likely solution: Sign Reyes, or give the job to Ruben Tejada. He’s never going to hit with any power, but he posted a .360 OBP last season at age 21 (in 376 plate appearances). How rare is that? Since 1980, only three other middle infielders had at least 300 plate appearances at age 21 and posted an OBP of at least .350 -- Alex Rodriguez, Delino DeShields and Jerry Browne. If Tejada can handle short, maybe the Mets are better off spending their money elsewhere.

2. Bullpen: Who closes?

Only the Cubs, Rockies and Astros had a worse bullpen ERA than the Mets in 2011, and none of them had the luxury of pitching their home games in Citi Field. While the Mets could certainly use an ace for the rotation (only the most hopeful will believe in Johan Santana's comeback), building a bullpen can be cheap and easy.

Likely solution: Ryan Madson? No, he’s too expensive. If the Mets don’t trust a guy like Bobby Parnell, how about a second-tier closer like Frank Francisco, who would cost about $30 million less than Madson? I’d also consider adding a second reliever like righty killer Octavio Dotel or veteran Takashi Saito. Hopefully the Mets learned their lesson with Francisco Rodriguez: Bullpen depth is more important than an overrated $15 million closer.

3. Power in the outfield

With Carlos Beltran gone, Jason Bay a shell and Angel Pagan apparently returning to play center, the Mets may be struggling to get power from the outfield.

Solution: Move in the fences! (Wait, this will help the other team as well?) OK: Don't discount Lucas Duda, who presumably moves into a regular spot in right field, with the return of Ike Davis to first. Duda hit an impressive .292/.370/.482. His park-adjusted OPS was higher than Troy Tulowitzki, Howard, Shane Victorino or Carlos Gonzalez.

Miami Marlins

1. Third base: Empty

Since the Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers, they’ve had four different regular third basemen in four seasons. In 2011, Marlins third basemen ranked 23rd in the majors in OPS and only the Mariners received fewer home runs and RBIs. Certainly, signing Jose Reyes to play shortstop and moving Hanley Ramirez to the hot corner makes perfect sense, especially since Reyes would be a defensive upgrade and maybe moving Ramirez would get his bat back to his 2007-2009 level. Prospect Matt Dominguez, who received a September cameo, carries a superb glove but questionable stick (.258/.312/.431 in Triple-A). He’s still just 22, though.

Likely solution: In a year with so few top free agents, the odds are slim the Marlins will be the top bidder for Reyes, new ballpark or not. It’s a nice smoke screen in an attempt to sell a few season tickets. The most realistic option is to give the job to Dominguez, or if management feels that he needs another year in Triple-A, go the stopgap approach and sign a guy like Wilson Betemit. If the Marlins are determined to spend money, they could go after Aramis Ramirez, although a Ramirez-Ramirez left side of the infield is a little scary defensively. (The other option would be to slide Emilio Bonifacio back to third base, but that would mean more Chris Coghlan in center field, and nobody wants that.)

2. Find a quality starter

For all the talk about Reyes and Albert Pujols, the Marlins have some problems in the rotation. Their 4.23 ERA ranked 12th in the NL, and that’s despite a pretty good home park to pitch in. Javier Vazquez, who rebounded with a strong second half (2.15), is also a free agent, leaving a current rotation of Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and the eternally disappointing Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad. Brad Hand, who turns 22 in March, is in the mix, but his minor league track record is mixed, and more seasoning in Triple-A to improve his command appears necessary.

Likely solution: Re-sign Vazquez and go after a high-risk, lower-cost starter like Erik Bedard. Look, Volstad has made 102 starts in the majors; while he’s still young, it’s time to maybe face the fact he just isn’t that good. He doesn’t miss bats and for a guy who is supposed to be a ground ball pitcher, he gives up way too many home runs (23 in just 165.2 innings). Mark Buehrle would be a nice addition, but Bedard is the more realistic signing. If Johnson returns healthy and Bedard comes up big, the Marlins could suddenly have a strong rotation.

3. Be realistic about appraising your players

Volstad isn’t that good. Coghlan hasn’t hit in two years. Gaby Sanchez is OK, but hardly a star -- 20 teams had a better slugging percentage from their first basemen than Sanchez’s .427 mark. (And at 28, he’s unlikely to get better.) Logan Morrison is better suited to first base, not left field, where he's a big defensive liability.

Likely solution: Yes, a lineup of Reyes, Bonifacio, Ramirez, Pujols, Mike Stanton, Morrison, John Buck and Omar Infante and would look pretty impressive ... even adding a guy like Aramis Ramirez would plug a hole in the middle of the lineup. Despite their 72-90 record, I don’t think the Marlins are that far away, but I have doubts they’ll be able to lure any of the big free agents. But at least the pitches to guys like Pujols and Reyes indicates the Marlins may be aware that Sanchez isn't a star or that Ramirez's days at shortstop may be numbered. Those are good signs.

Fish-y corner solutions equal better bats

May, 27, 2011
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Once upon a time, as long ago as spring 2010, Florida had potential problems with its prospects filling their positions. But because of how they’ve resolved the issues, the Fish might be able to give their feast-or-famine fans another cause to celebrate come October.

Consider their lot little more than a year ago. Logan Morrison was a first baseman. As prospects went, he wasn’t considered an ideal first-base bat. While he showed an excellent batting stroke in his age-20 and -21 seasons and excellent command of the strike zone, he also had less power than you normally would associate with the position. And no, he wasn’t seen as the next Keith Hernandez around the bag, so as good a prospect as he was, he might have been an odd fit at first base.

A rung or two ahead of Morrison in the Fish farm system, the Marlins also had Gaby Sanchez, a third baseman whose footwork and defense wasn’t considered top-shelf, but also someone whose bat could play in the majors.

This winter, they traded for super utility man Omar Infante. They knew they’d also be getting 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan -- an infielder in the minors -- back from injury. Would they leave Coghlan in left field, and leave Morrison with no place to play?

The Marlins’ solution to this multi-corner conundrum? They let the best available bats play. Sanchez had already earned first crack at first base last season as a 26-year-old rookie, and delivered a solid, but unspectacular, .273/.341/.448 season with 19 home runs. They were also already set with Mike Stanton looking like a league-leading slugger for years to come out in right field. With two corner positions already filled, Morrison was moved to left in the minors, and he has done nothing but hit since, managing a .292/.397/.487 line in his first 88 games as a pro. Some scouts expected disaster in the field, but disaster has not in fact come. Why should it? With strikeout rates peaking, defenders are making fewer plays than ever, so taking a chance in the corners can pay off, and Morrison’s bat is definitely doing that.

What about Coghlan? The Marlins made the daring decision to move him to center field. So far, the fielding metrics are mixed in their evaluation of his performance. But as a way of getting the 2009 Rookie of the Year (after a .321/.390/.460 season) in the lineup, they’ve few reasons for regret. Added to Sanchez, Morrison and Stanton, the Marlins’ brass has found room in the lineup to deploy all of their best ready-now homegrown batters around Hanley Ramirez.

The Marlins are not the first team to have problems sorting out a crowded collection of alternatives at various positions, and they won’t be the last. But in part because of their decisions -- decisions that go against the grain of any recent “trend” that defense is what matters most -- the Fish are getting set to let their best bats play. Already parked behind the Phillies and boasting the second-best record in the National League, these are the kinds of critical decisions that should keep the Marlins toward the top of the playoff pack well down the stretch.

Why does this matter? In part, because the Marlins are a league-best 14-4 in one-run games so far after sweeping the Giants on Thursday, something that might be seen as “lucky.” While having to get by with Emilio Bonifacio (during Morrison’s three-week absence on the DL) and Greg Dobbs in the lineup might lead you to expect regression. But that’s the thing about regression -- like life, it isn’t fair. Going forward, the Marlins won’t have to make do with Bonifacio and Dobbs playing every day, any more than they have to anticipate that Ramirez and Infante will deliver .600 OPS seasons.

The Fish can bank their already-achieved +10 in one-run games and look forward to better offense. They also have the expected advantage of adding prospect Matt Dominguez at third base -- if he earns the call. By already affording themselves reputedly worse defenders in left and center, they should have space for Dominguez’s Gold Glove potential at third base -- a case of putting up their best bats and their best defenders on the diamond.

As little-engine-that-could stories go, the Marlins are tough to love, given what we know about how they operate on a budget. But it’s enough to make you wonder whether the Marlins’ anthem ought to be Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing." But instead of getting that swing, in the past 14 years the Fish have twice over gotten their ring, their bling, all while delivering a collective ding on the other 27 teams that haven’t won two titles in the span. With premium talent deployed to good effect, maybe the Marlins can make it three in 15 as they sail into their ill-gotten pleasure park in Little Havana next season.

PHOTO OF THE DAY

Josh WillinghamGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireJosh Willingham's just covering his bases.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Can the Marlins compete in 2011?

March, 11, 2011
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The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are heavy favorites in the NL East, while the Washington Nationals are still building and the New York Mets have some talent but are generally a mess. The Florida Marlins have won 84, 87 and 80 games during the last three seasons. Could they be the NL wild card, if not the division champions?

The Marlins traded Dan Uggla to Atlanta, a severe hit offensively given that they are replacing him with Omar Infante (who I presume is keeping second base warm until Osvaldo Martinez is called up). They signed John Buck to be their catcher, stabilizing a position that’s been a concern for Florida for the last half-decade.

Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison will each get a full season’s worth of playing time, adding to a young core that includes Gaby Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez (hard to believe he’s only 27). Chris Coghlan, recovering from knee surgery, will take a crack at center field. He’s already moved from second base to left field (and handled it fairly well), but the move to center is even more difficult, especially coming off a leg injury. With these five, the core is young and talented, with room yet to improve.

In the rotation, Josh Johnson leads the way; over the last two seasons, he’s posted a 2.80 ERA that matches a sparkling 2.76 FIP. A big-time groundball pitcher, his home ballpark also helps him keep the ball in the park.

The talented trio of Ricky Nolasco (28), Chris Volstad (24) and Anibal Sanchez (26) follows Johnson, and the Marlins added Javier Vazquez on a one-year deal. If he can find what made him great in 2009, when he was one of the top three or four pitchers in the National League (and I think it was just more than moving to the American League), the Marlins will run out an above-average starter every day. Additionally, two Florida trades this winter included bullpen arms coming back. Ryan Webb, Edward Mujica, and Mike Dunn all figure to strengthen the bullpen in front of Leo Nunez.

Even with their additions, the Marlins need their young talent to get better. It might seem like an obvious statement, but those young players are also their best players, and they’ll need to become elite quickly if the Marlins are going to compete in September.

For the past few seasons (since the trade of Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis), it has seemed like the Marlins have been building for the future. That future could be here soon, just as soon as the stars-to-be become stars right now.

Dan Hennessey writes Baseballin' on a Budget, a blog about the Oakland Athletics. Follow him on Twitter @DanHennessey31.

Heyward, Posey go missing

November, 15, 2010
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So anyway, Craig has some issues with the National League Rookie of the Year voting:
    Check out the voting yourself: there are 32 voters. Each one gets to name three players on their ballot. Both Posey and Heyward were named on only 31 ballots. I don’t care if you have Posey first or Heyward first, but how do you not have one of them either first, second or third?Can this be explained by Gaby Sanchez’s two inexplicable first-place votes? Is there a Florida insurgency? Did Sanchez’s flying clothesline of Nyjer Morgan not only catapult him higher in the rankings than he deserves, but also knock out votes for Posey and Heyward?

    Inquiring minds want to know ...

And if there's one there we're good at, out here in InterWebland, it's inquiring.

Rhetorically, I mean. We're probably not going to track down every possible voter and ask if they had a Rookie of the Year ballot and what they did with it. That would take away from our blogging time (and probably wouldn't work, anyway).

I'll say this: The two guys who left Heyward and Posey off their ballots entirely are not idiots. They might be idiots. But not necessarily. There are two other possibilities.

One, they might just be smarter than everyone else. It happens. We might look back at the 2010 season, in 20 or 50 or 100 years, with our super-fangled sabermetric-blended-with-scouting tools and say, "Gosh, after all these years it looks like Posey and/or Heyward really weren't among the three best rookies in the league."

What seems more likely is that these guys were trying to make a point. I can tell you that a lot of people who follow -- and, yes, cover professionally -- the Florida Marlins believed that Gaby Sanchez was neglected all season long.

You know what? They're right. Sanchez started 148 games at first base for the Marlins and drove in 85 runs. He wasn't great. His sub-800 OPS means he was barely good. But there's something to be said for a rookie who just goes out there every day and does his job, and unfortunately nobody outside of South Florida has been saying it about Sanchez.

My guess is that a couple of voters in South Florida got together and came up with a nifty little plan: We'll both vote for Sanchez, and we'll balance our ballots by each leaving off Posey or Heyward.

Or not. That explanation is probably too convenient. Inquiring minds left without answers will come up with some wild ideas. Those two voters owe us, though. If they're really so much more brilliant than the rest of us, they really should share their genius. It's just the right thing to do. For humanity.

If, on the other hand, they're using their ballots to make a point -- something that's happened many times in the past -- they shouldn't be given any more ballots. Because that's not what they're for.

Update: My explanation was wildly wrong! One of the voters was Yasushi Kikuchi, of the Kyodo News. He had Sanchez first, and left off Posey. Based purely on playing time, you can almost see it. The other voter was Dejan Kovacevic, who had Posey first, followed by two Pirates. It doesn't even matter which Pirates. Kovacevic does a fantastic job covering the Pirates for the Post-Gazette. But I think he went a little too far in actually voting for them. Unless -- again -- he's just that much smarter than everyone else. Which is absolutely possible.

Bucs' Alvarez not among RoY candidates

August, 25, 2010
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Among the reasons to be (guardedly) optimistic about the Pirates' future: farm products Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, and Jose Tabata, all of whom are shy of 25 -- in Walker's case, barely; in Tabata's case, by a lot -- and have held their own in the majors this season. Let's not get too excited about those guys, though. None have played brilliantly, and ... well, let's fisk this comparison:
    While some fan bases prepare for a final month of playoff races, Pittsburgh Pirates fans are nearing the end of the franchise's 18th consecutive losing season. This means the Pirates have been bottom dwellers for the entire life span of most high school seniors. However, we're not here to focus on the past, but rather, the future. Namely, the future of Pedro Alvarez.

    After years of misses at the top of the draft, the Pirates selected Alvarez in 2008. The former Vanderbilt teammate of Rays ace David Price is already a regular in the Pittsburgh lineup. Some questions remain about which side of the diamond he'll play down the road, but for now, the 23-year-old the man at the hot corner for the Buccos.

    Before signing his pro contract, Alvarez and his agent Scott Boras made plenty of headlines, In the end, though, he made his major league debut with relatively little hype. Despite lacking the media coverage of Jason Heyward (to say nothing of Stephen Strasburg) upon his debut, Alvarez has been one of this year's most productive rookies, coming close to Heyward's level of production.

This is a real stretch. Even leaving aside the raw numbers -- Heyward's played 45 more games than Alvarez -- Heyward has a huge edge in OPS: 827 to 735. Heyward's also three years younger than Alvarez. Essentially, if everything works out for Heyward he'll be in the Hall of Fame someday, and if everything works out for Alvarez he'll play in a couple of All-Star Games.

Even if Alvarez had played more this season, he wouldn't be a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. Which is fine, since there are plenty of those without him. In April, Heyward looked like a lock for the award (as much as anyone can look like a lock for anything in April). But then came that lousy June and those three weeks on the DL. Since returning to the Braves' lineup in mid-July, Heyward's been good but not great, which has allowed a few other fellows into the mix. Most notably, Gaby Sanchez has roughly the same OPS as Heyward in more playing time, and Starlin Castro's not far behind while playing shortstop. And of course Buster Posey would trump them all if not for the Giants' odd infatuation with Bengie Molina.

The only two pitchers with a fighting chance are Jaime Garcia and John Axford. Garcia's got the shiny ERA (2.42) but only 11 wins, and I suspect he needs at least 14 to have a shot at beating out the top hitter on the ballot. Axford's got 19 saves, and Andrew Bailey won in the American League last year with only 26 saves. But Bailey pitched 83 innings while Axford is going to top out around 60 innings.

Heyward's going to get extra credit for the spring hype. But the voters, I think, should take long looks at Sanchez, Castro, and Garcia, too.

Marlins' 1B candidates fighting for job

March, 15, 2010
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Is there anything more entertaining -- and at the same time, sort of silly -- than a position battle in March? Submitted for your approval, Miami's First Basemen of the Future:

    If slumping Logan Morrison doesn't pick up his performance at the plate, he'll come out on the short end in his battle with Gaby Sanchez for the starting job at first base.

    Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez -- quick to note that he hasn't given one look at either player's Grapefruit League numbers -- said the decision won't be difficult if one player holds a distinct statistical edge over the other at the end of spring training.

    "I've always said I want both of them to hit .390," Gonzalez said. "But, obviously, if one's hitting .390 and the other's hitting .057 -- competition is competition. If one guy's hitting .380 and the other guy hits .060, we can't say, `Wait a second, the other guy makes the team.' "

    --snip--

    "A lot can happen," Gonzalez said of the Morrison/Sanchez competition at first. "The only thing that separates them for me is one is left-handed [Morrison] and other is right-handed [Sanchez]. They're that close. If we start breaking them down, it's splitting hairs."

Just for fun, let's split a few hairs anyway.

Sanchez is 26; Morrison's just 22.

Sanchez was a fourth-round draft pick out of the University of Miami; Morrison was a 22-round pick out of high school.

Last year, Sanchez hurt his knee in the spring, then spent a few months in Triple-A before coming up in August and serving as a pinch-hitter for the big club; Morrison hasn't played above Double-A yet.

About all they have in common -- aside from rooming together for a couple of weeks in 2006 -- is that both play first base and both have real affinities for the strike zone. Sanchez has walked as many times as he's struck out, and Morrison posted a .411 OBP in the Southern League last year.

If one of them has to win, Sanchez seems like the obvious choice. Considering his age, right now he's almost as good as he's ever going to be, and the Marlins should take advantage of his cheap talent.

Of course, in the old days -- and I know I'm starting to obsess about this -- a manager would have looked at these two guys and pondered a platoon. If not now, then later this season when Morrison (presumably) proves his mettle in New Orleans. But, you know ... gotta carry a dozen pitchers!

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