SweetSpot: Hiroki Kuroda
Since then, the epidemic has grown. The candy is now showing up in the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and on the road, most recently at Wrigley Field. The candy is called Hi-Chew.
"It is kind of a mix between bubble gum and a Starburst," said David Phelps, who might pop one or two before his start against the White Sox on Thursday night.
“Hiroki Kuroda is the Walter White of the Hi-Chew Yankees. Kuroda, who is not a paid endorser of Hi-Chew, was asked by the Japanese company to distribute the high-calorie, fruity sweets to his teammates. From there, the addiction has taken hold.
There is something about them. I don't know if there is some sort of illegal substance in them or something like that [that] makes them so addictive, but they are definitely one of those things where you can knock down 10 and not even realize it.” -- Yankees reliever Matt Thornton
"I was first introduced to Hi-Chew in Boston last year," reliever Matt Thornton said. "When I first saw it come into the clubhouse here, I knew immediately that it would be a huge hit with the guys.
"There is something about them. I don't know if there is some sort of illegal substance in them or something like that [that] makes them so addictive, but they are definitely one of those things where you can knock down 10 and not even realize it. I had a steady diet of them going on in the playoffs last year. They are good. They are kind of a newer candy over here."
The candy actually has been around for decades, mostly on the coasts, but many of the Yankees had never tasted it until this spring. They would receive free box after free box, one of the spoils of being a major leaguer.
"When players run out, they request for refills," Kuroda said.
There is debate about who is the most addicted. Kuroda said it was CC Sabathia. Others think it is the relievers like Shawn Kelley, but it has slowly grasped the whole team.
"I can't say that I haven't had any," Joe Girardi said.
Utility man Kelly Johnson held out for a while, but even he now has succumbed.
"I was probably one of the last ones to try it," Johnson said. "It was probably like two weeks ago that I tried my first one. The next three days, I probably ate about 50 of them, but I wouldn't put myself in the addicted category."
Should there be concern that the Yankees need hit after hit of this tangy treat?
"I'm not worried, but I see a lot of the guys eating it," said Masahiro Tanaka, who said he likes Hi-Chew but didn't seem as if he is one of the players with a problem. "I'm not worried."
The only guys who have to be concerned are the ones who come late to the new boxes and suffer from withdrawal.
"It is pretty funny when you see a box and they are wiped out before the game is even over," Thornton said. "I think you could call it a plague of the clubhouse."
As for Kuroda, he is just proud he can distribute a product from his home country.
"It is good to see people like it," a smiling Kuroda said. "If they can relax by eating it, that's good. It is good to see guys eating Japanese products and liking it."
Those 13 players:
Stephen Drew, Red Sox
Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Mike Napoli, Red Sox
Robinson Cano, Yankees
Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
Ervin Santana, Royals
Nelson Cruz, Rangers
Kendrys Morales, Mariners
Brian McCann, Braves
Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
Shin-Soo Choo, Reds
These players are now tied to first-round compensation picks if the team that signs them doesn't own one of the top 10 picks (Astros, Marlins, White Sox, Cubs, Twins, Mariners, Phillies, Rockies, Blue Jays, Mets). Those 10 teams would have to sacrifice a second-round pick for signing one of those 13 guys.
In the case of a highly sought free agent suc as Cano, Ellsbury or Choo, this will likely have little effect on contract offers they receive. However, for several of the players on the list this could drastically reduce their demand. We saw this happen last year with several players, most notably Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (who both ended up signing with Cleveland, which owned a protected top-10 pick), Kyle Lohse (who didn't sign with the Brewers until spring training was under way), and Adam LaRoche (who declined the Nationals' $13.3 million qualifying offer before eventually returning to Washington on a two-year, $24 million deal).
For example, considering Beltran's age, he was probably looking at a two-year contract. Would a contending team be willing to give up a first-round pick for two seasons of him? Perhaps. With Cruz coming off his PED suspension and given that he'll turn 34 next July, he's another guy who will now see limited demand. In both cases, it wouldn't surprise me if it pushes both players back to their original team, unless one of the bottom 10 teams come calling in hot pursuit (such as the Phillies). Coming off an injury, Curtis Granderson also could be headed back to the Yankees.
For Morales, this almost guarantees he returns to Seattle. The market for designated hitters has been slow in recent seasons and it's unlikely any team will give him $14.1 million, even on a one-year deal, and certainly not at the cost of a first-round pick. He'll probably go back to Seattle, maybe negotiating a deal similar to what LaRoche signed with the Nationals last year.
The most interesting guy could be Drew. He was a free agent a year ago and signed a one-year deal with Boston that paid him $9.5 million. After missing time in 2011 and 2012 with injuries, he had his best season at the plate since 2010. Considering he's the only top shortstop on the market, interest in him was expected to be high. But if you're, say, the Cardinals and wishing to replace Pete Kozma, do you want to give Drew a multi-year contract for tens of millions and lose that first-round pick? That's a tougher call.
1. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
This may surprise you, but Hernandez and Iwakuma have the highest WAR (wins above replacement) of any pair of pitchers in the majors. And before we write off Iwakuma's outstanding start to the season as a fluke, here are the American League ERA leaders going back to last July 1, when Iwakuma joined the Mariners' rotation:
Justin Verlander: 2.77
James Shields: 2.86
Hiroki Kuroda: 2.97
So the M's have Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in baseball, a guy who has pitched 230-plus innings the past four seasons and who has been as effective as any starter in the game for nearly a year. And they have Iwakuma, who will give up some home runs, but he's walked only 11 batters in 10 starts and his splitter has turned into a wipeout pitch -- batters are hitting .184 off it with one home run, 35 strikeouts and two walks in 79 plate appearances ending with the pitch. If the Mariners fall out of the wild-card race, maybe they'll look to trade Iwakuma while his stock is high, but I fear that would be a mistake and they would be making a Doug Fister-like trade that backfires. Iwakuma is for real.
2. Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, Tigers
The Tigers' rotation is so good that you could also slot Fister or Max Scherzer here and have an equally terrific duo. I still like Scherzer as the club's No. 2 as the season progresses, but Sanchez has been terrific so far and has ramped up his strikeout rate to new highs, up more than 9 percent from last season (68 in 55.1 innings). His ERA is 2.77, and while his home run rate is probably unsustainable (just two allowed), his BABIP is too high on the other end at .356. Moving forward, those two results should cancel each other out as they normalize and Sanchez should remain outstanding.
3. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Dodgers
Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game right now -- he's gone 22 consecutive starts allowing three earned runs or fewer, the longest such streak since Pedro Martinez had 23 in 1999-2000 -- and Greinke would be the ace of many teams. Now that Greinke is back from his broken collarbone, we'll see if everyone has written off the Dodgers too quickly.
4. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Somehow, Kuroda still flies under the radar despite playing in New York. He's not flashy, but batters are hitting .201 AVG/.254 OBP/.292 SLG against him. There's some luck going on here since his .229 BABIP will probably rise, but his slider has been untouchable: opponents are 8-for-61 (.131) against it without an extra-base hit. Meanwhile, Sabathia has lost some velocity off his fastball, but he pitches down in the zone more, throws strikes and keeps the Yankees in games. Since his pitch counts have run high at times he's averaging only 6.5 innings per start, so maybe his days as a 230-inning workhorse are over (he missed a few starts last year, remember, and pitched just 200 innings). Remember as well that these guys have to pitch half their games at Yankee Stadium, where routine fly balls can land in the right-field stands.
Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Yes, young guns Shelby Miller and Matt Harvey have seemingly pushed Strasburg out of the limelight, but he's still pretty good and still throws hard (best average fastball velocity among starting pitchers). Nonetheless, he's been surpassed by Zimmermann as the club's ace. Zimmerman doesn't rack up the huge strikeout totals so the advanced metrics like FIP and xFIP suggest his ERA will rise (well, it will, since it's at 1.62 right now). But he throws strikes with Maddux-like precision (nine walks in nine starts) and while there were concerns heading into the season about his ability to go deep into games, his efficiency has allowed him to toss three complete games without throwing more than 107 pitches. He's 7-2 and could be 9-0 -- in the two games he lost, he allowed two runs.
That's my top five, and I couldn't find room for Adam Wainwright and Miller, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Chris Sale and Jake Peavy, Matt Moore and David Price, Matt Harvey and anybody. It's a pitcher's game right now, that's for sure.
So while most were jumping off the Yankees bandwagon, I remained on.
No longer. As the injuries continue to mount during spring training -- Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter's slow recovery from his broken foot -- it seems like it's finally going to happen. The collapse is coming and it's going to happen in 2013. I hate to join the legions predicting the demise of this long-running Yankees dynasty -- because if there's anything I've learned over the past 15 years it's to never count out the Yankees -- but here are 27 reasons the collapse will occur.
1. From 2002 to 2011 (10 seasons), 77 teams won at least 90 games. Seventeen of those won at least 15 fewer games the following season -- 22 percent. Six teams dropped 20 or more wins the next season. (Only 11 of the 77 won more games the following year.) Collapses can happen overnight.
2. From 1949 to 1964, the Yankees won 14 American League pennants in 16 years. In 1964, they won 99 games. In 1965, they won 77. It's happened to the Yankees before.
4. The Blue Jays and Red Sox should be much improved. The Yankees went 24-12 against those two clubs in 2012. That could be six or seven fewer wins right there.
5. The rotation is counting on 41-year-old Andy Pettitte, 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda and 32-year-old CC Sabathia, who is coming off some minor elbow issues from last season. Those three went a combined 36-21 last year, worth about 10.5 wins above replacement (WAR). The group could produce more value -- Pettitte made just 12 starts -- but I would bet under 10.5 WAR.
6. Phil Hughes is hoping to recover in time from two bulging disks to be ready for Opening Day. Remember, Hughes pitched just 74 innings in 2011 due to arm fatigue and shoulder inflammation, so this is a guy with injury history.
7. Jeter without a broken ankle: 39 years old, coming off his best year since 2009, likely to regress anyway. Derek Jeter coming off a broken ankle: 39 years old, coming off his best year since 2009, maybe not ready for the start of the season, his range in the field undoubtedly a bigger issue than ever.
8. Eduardo Nunez, aka "hands of stone" and "arm of the wilderness," is the backup. This could be fun.
9. The catchers are Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli, the definition of replacement-level. Russell Martin wasn't great last year (.211/.311/.403), but still popped 21 home runs and was worth 1-2 WAR. Cervelli did show on-base skills when he played regularly for the Yankees in 2010, but he had a .316 slugging percentage last year at Scranton.
10. Granderson will miss April with a fractured right forearm, an injury that also forced the Yankees to scrap plans to move Granderson to left and Brett Gardner to center. Missing Granderson for a month is ultimately a minor loss, but what will he be when he returns? In 2011, he hit .262/.364/.552 and led the AL in runs and RBIs. In the first half of 2012, he hit .248/.352/.502; in the second half he hit .212/.278/.480, with his walk rate plummeting and his strikeout rate increasing. He still hit 20 home runs but he'd turned into a one-dimensional slugger: home run or nothing. Overall, he was worth 2.7 WAR, down from 5.3 in 2011. At 32, I don't see him improving.
11. Brennan Boesch will apparently fill in while Granderson is out. Boesch was one of the worst players in the majors last year with the Tigers, statuesque in the outfield and he didn't hit (.286 OBP). Basically, the Yankees hope he can produce like Raul Ibanez did last year, but what is that worth? Baseball-Reference valued Ibanez at 0.3 WAR.
12. Teixeira may miss the entire season. For now, the club is hoping his wrist can heal and that he'll return in eight to 10 weeks, but there is a chance the partially torn tendon sheath will eventually require season-ending surgery. The backup first basemen? Juan Rivera and Dan Johnson. Rinse, repeat: Juan Rivera and Dan Johnson. Teixeira was worth 3.6 WAR last year. And if he does return healthy, he's been a player in offensive decline anyway.
14. Ichiro Suzuki. He showed a little spark of life after joining the Yankees, but he's 39 years old and has hit .277 with a .308 OBP over the past two seasons. Yankees fan will be pining for Nick Swisher.
15. Mariano Rivera is back ... but Rafael Soriano is gone. As good as Soriano was last year, even if Mo is still Mo, this is a wash.
16. Travis Hafner. He hasn't slugged .500 since 2006. He's averaged 86 games over the past five seasons. He can still hit some home runs (especially in Yankee Stadium) and draw walks, but I wouldn't expect him to be a major contributor. A 4-for-31 spring isn't inspiring confidence.
17. Ivan Nova. He didn't strike anybody out in 2011 and was good (16-4, 3.70). He struck more people out in 2012 but was much worse (12-8, 5.02). No idea what to expect in 2013, but I don't see him developing into anything more than a solid No. 4.
18. Home runs. The Yankees finished second in the AL runs last season, in large part because of a league-leading 245 home runs. But Swisher (24 home runs) is gone, replaced by Ichiro. Granderson (43) is out for a month. Teixeira (24) may be out all season. Martin (21) is gone and replaced by two guys who may not hit more than five. Part-timer Eric Chavez (16) is gone. Ibanez (19) is gone with Gardner (7 in 2011) back. Robinson Cano is coming off a career-best 33 home runs. Even if you're optimistic, you'll have a hard time coming up with 200 home runs. Which means they're not going to score 804 runs again.
19. Defense. Jeter at short. Granderson in center. No Teixeira at first. The Yankees were 22nd in the majors in defense runs saved in 2012 at -22, and that's with Teixeira (+17) and Cano (+15) ranking among the best in baseball. The return of Gardner will help the outfield, but this doesn't appear to be a strong defensive team.
20. The Yankees are 10-16 in spring training. That indicates maybe 1 percent of something, but it could be an important 1 percent.
21. Self-imposed payroll constraints mean the Yankees aren't going to make any big midseason acquisitions. Not that they'll still be in it at midseason.
22. Cano's free agency is looming over the organization like a funnel cloud. And while his steady demeanor means most believe his play won't be affected, you never know. But if they don't sign him and the team gets off to a bad start, the trade rumors are going to start thundering.
23. The New York media is ready to pounce.
24. No George. How will the brothers Steinbrenner react if the Yankees are in last place in late April?
25. Joe Girardi's little black book doesn't have formulas for magical potions -- like turning back the clock five years for everyone on the roster.
26. The baseball gods. Even they're tired of seeing the Yankees in October.
27. Alex Rodriguez to the rescue. Exactly.
Prediction: 75-87. If the Phillies can drop 20 wins from 2011 to 2012, so can the Yankees. For the first time since 1992, the Yankees will finish under .500.
Record: 95-67 (95-67 Pythagorean)
804 runs scored (2nd in AL)
668 runs allowed (4th in AL)
Big Offseason Moves
Re-signed free agents Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Ichiro Suzuki. Signed free agents Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner. Lost free agents Nick Swisher, Rafael Soriano, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez. Acquired Shawn Kelley from Mariners for Abraham Almonte. Placed Alex Rodriguez on 60-day disabled list.
For all the talk that the Yankees "did nothing" this winter, that's clearly not the case. Sure, maybe signing Pettitte and Rivera were foregone conclusions, but bringing back Kuroda and Ichiro weren't, and the Rodriguez injury meant the club had to spend money on a third baseman instead of potentially elsewhere. Swisher's offense -- at least during the regular season -- will be missed, but the return of Gardner plus a full season of Ichiro should replace the value Swisher and Ibanez provided; a different kind of value (defense and speed), but still value.
The one the Yankees didn't replace was Martin, who hit only .211 last year, but with his power (21 home runs), a few walks (.311 OBP) and OK defense he was still about a 2-win player (WAR). Is he a huge loss? No, but veteran Chris Stewart is a no-hit, good glove type, and Francisco Cervelli will slap a few base hits but that's about it. Both are replacement-level players.
I'm not going to chalk this up as a terrible offseason, even if Yankees fans would have preferred seeing a few big-name free agents signed. But Yankees fans always expect the team to keep spending. The goal to get under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold in order to restart their potential tax payments at a lower rate makes sense. Save now and maybe spend later.
Let's not forget that the Yankees did win the most games in the American League and did have the best run differential in the major leagues in 2012. The team that hit .211 against the Orioles in the playoffs and .157 against the Tigers wasn't the same team we saw all season.
Yes, the Yankees' power game plays better at Yankee Stadium with that short porch in right -- they were seven wins better at home -- but that's not all that unusual. The Tigers were plus-12 at home, the Rangers plus-7, and the A's plus-6. It will be interesting to see how Ichiro does with a full season in pinstripes: Did that short porch help rejuvenate his batting (.322 AVG/.340 OBP/.454 SLG with the Yankees) or will he regress to being the washed-up singles hitter he was with the Mariners (.261/.288/.353)?
Anyway, a main reason the Yankees' offense should score plenty of runs -- even with aging players like Ichiro, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Youkilis -- is Robinson Cano. Here's how good he is: Yankees second basemen (Cano started 150 games there) had a .911 OPS. The only other team with second basemen over .800 was Arizona, where Aaron Hill had a big year. Sixteen teams were under .700. Yankees second basemen had a .372 OBP; only Arizona (.355) and the Dodgers (.341) were also over .340. In looking at runs created, Cano was at 125 and Hill at 112, and then you go down to Ian Kinsler at 91 and Marco Scutaro at 90. Those totals aren't park-adjusted, but you get the basic idea: With Cano, the Yankees are starting with at least a 30-run advantage over nearly every other team. (That edge over other second basemen is a big reason Cano's WAR ranked second in the AL to Mike Trout.)
Yes, there is risk here. Jeter turns 39 in June, has to recover from the broken ankle, and was coming off his best season since 2009. Curtis Granderson hit 43 home runs, but also hit just .232 with a .319 OBP; his SO/BB ratio declined from 99/50 in the first half to 96/25 in the second half, so that's something to watch. Youkilis is injury-prone these days, and I guess I don't need to point out Teixeira's declining OPS totals from 2007 to '12: .963, .962, .948, .846, .835, .807. (OK, I did point them out.)
Quickly, on the defense: The Yankees were at minus-22 defensive runs saved in 2012, 22nd in the majors. Jeter was at minus-18 and Granderson at minus-10 in center. The Yankees would be better off playing Gardner in center and moving Granderson to left.
Overall, I still like this group. They're old and not without a lot of risk, so I have to downgrade for that. But they'll hit home runs, and Cano might finally have that MVP season.
For all the attention being paid to the Detroit rotation, and the love being given to David Price & Co. in Tampa, I view the Yankees' rotation as being just as good: Remember, they have to pitch at Yankee Stadium, so they're going to give up some home runs. Put them in a neutral park and it's possible they'd have the best numbers of any group in the league.
As with the lineup, there are age and health questions. CC Sabathia missed a few starts last year, although he did manage to throw 200 innings for the sixth straight season. He still as good as ever, however, posting the best strikeout and walk rates of his Yankees career (his SO/BB ratio was the best in the AL). All he did was give up a few extra home runs. He's still an ace in my book. Hiroki Kuroda was marvelous, going 16-11 with a 3.32 and throwing a career-high 219.2 innings. He's 38 so you never know, but I expect another good year. Andy Pettitte returns, and he'll turn 41 in June; but he also was a very good pitcher in his 12 starts (2.87). He missed time with a broken ankle, but his arm is sound and his head knows what to do with a baseball.
That's a good top three, but what the Yankees possess is depth: Phil Hughes (needs to curb the home runs), Ivan Nova (bounce-back season?), David Phelps (underrated) and Michael Pineda (could return in June or July). The bullpen should be solid with the 1-2 punch of some guy named Rivera and David Robertson. Boone Logan and Clay Rapada are solid lefties, and Joba Chamberlain was throwing well at the end of the season. He's even made peace with former enemy Youkilis.
I can't give this group an A because of its age, but I love the depth in the rotation.
Heat Map to Watch
Kuroda came over from the Dodgers and surprised everyone. Maybe it shouldn't have been such a big surprise. This is a pitcher who pounds the strike zone and has a four-pitch arsenal, although he's mostly fastball/slider/split. His fastball is better than many realize -- 91.8 mph average velocity -- and he knows what to do with it. As the heat map tells us, he likes that outside corner to lefties/inside corner to righties. That helps set up his slider and splitter.
I think they have one more season in them. The rotation should keep them in the playoff hunt, and if Jeter, Granderson and Teixeira come close to what they did a year ago, the offense will score enough runs.
I've been waiting for the downfall of the empire for a few years now; until it actually happens, I'm going to keep predicting the Yankees will win 90 games.
A report from Japan said Fujikawa has met with the Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, Diamondbacks and Orioles. Fujikawa is a 32-year-old right-hander who posted a 1.36 ERA in Japan over the past six seasons and Keith Law ranked Fujikawa 30th on his list of top 50 free agents, noting he pitches with a solid-average fastball and splitter. Japanese relievers have been pretty successful coming over here, including guys like Takashi Saito, Kaz Sasaki and Koji Uehara. With Brandon League signed to a three-year deal, the Dodgers would be looking at Fujikawa as a setup guy.
Aside from being one of the favorites to sign Zack Greinke, the Dodgers are also rumored to be interested in bringing Hiroki Kuroda back to Los Angeles -- where his two daughters attend school. The Dodgers also paid $25.7 million to win the rights to Korean left-hander Ryu Hyun-jin and have until Dec. 10 to sign him (they get the money back if he doesn't sign).
Let's say they sign all those guys. What kind of team are the Dodgers looking at? Let's look at their potential baseline for 2013, using the average WAR for each player over the past two seasons.
C A.J. Ellis: 3.2 WAR in 2012
1B Adrian Gonzalez: 5.0 WAR
2B Mark Ellis: 2.2 WAR
3B Hanley Ramirez: 0.6 WAR
SS Dee GordonL -0.8 WAR, adding 2011 and 2012 to equal a full season
IF Jerry Hairston: 1.3 WAR
LF Carl Crawford: umm ... 0.2 WAR
CF Matt Kemp: 5.1 WAR
RF Andre Ethier: 2.8 WAR
SP Clayton Kershaw: 6.3 WAR
SP Zack Greinke: 2.4 WAR
SP Hiroki Kuroda: 4.1 WAR
SP Josh Beckett: 1.7 WAR
SP Ryu Hyun-jin: 1.5 WAR?
Other options: Chad Billingsley (may or may not need elbow surgery), Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, Ted Lilly (coming arthroscopic shoulder surgery). It may seem unlikely the Dodgers would sign both Greinke and Kuroda, but ownership has apparently told GM Ned Colletti that money is no obstacle to improving the club. Certainly, if they signed those two and Ryu, that probably puts Capuano and/or Harang on the trade market, depending on Billingsley's status.
The bullpen would be very deep:
RP Brandon League: 0.7 WAR
RP Kenley Jansen: 1.3 WAR
RP Kyuji Fujikawa: 1.0 WAR?
RP Ronald Belisario: 1.4 WAR in 2012
RP Matt Guerrier: 0.0 WAR
RP Scott Elbert: 0.8 WAR
Total WAR: 40.8
So, what does that mean? Using a replacement baseline of 50 wins, that suggests this configuration of the Dodgers rates as a 91-win club. Of course, 91 wins would just be a guesstimate. In baseball, the margin of error is wide on either side. It's also possible that 91 wins would be a low estimate. As ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski wrote today, Greinke is a good bet to beat his 3.83 ERA of the past two seasons, as his peripheral numbers are better than that. Dan's projection system has Greinke at 4.7 WAR in 2013. The above totals also don't account for injuries that Kemp and Crawford suffered in 2012. It's also possible that Gordon and/or Ramirez play better or that Gonzalez rebounds to his 2011 form.
On the other hand, it could be a poor defensive club with Ramirez and Gordon in the infield and Kemp and Ethier in the outfield. Ramirez, Gordon and Kemp combined for -35 Defensive Runs Saved with the Dodgers in 2012. Several players have suffered injuries in recent years, and it's possible Ramirez, Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett just aren't as good as they once were.
Also, while Greinke and Kuroda are top-shelf starters, the Dodgers had decent production last season from the likes of Capuano and Harang, so the two new guys wouldn't be huge upgrades over what the Dodgers had. (That doesn't mean Capuano and Harang are good bets to repeat their 2012 performance.)
I have a feeling the new Dodgers owners will learn that it's not so easy to buy a pennant. Even adding Greinke and Kuroda to the great Clayton Kershaw may not make the Dodgers the favorite in the NL West.
Santana imploded, came on strong, imploded again, then came on strong to finish. His final body of work was well below average, and the Angels had little interest in bringing him back at a $13 million salary. Haren struggled to stay healthy, and he wasn’t able to command the strike zone like he had in 2011. The Angels opted to decline Haren’s $15.5 million option, making him a free agent after two-plus years wearing Halo red.
Weaver had another fantastic season. Wilson was great for a while, then regressed into the mid-rotation arm that he is. Williams and Richards put together underwhelming performances, but in June the Angels turned prospects Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena and Jean Segura into two months of Zack Greinke. Greinke’s arrival encouraged championship expectations; the rotation was supposed to be stable and healthy down the stretch. It wasn’t.
With the end of the season came a world of uncertainty. Weaver and Wilson are the only locks to return, and the Angels have 60 percent of a rotation to fill this winter. Who are some of their better options to restock the staff?
1. Zach Greinke. Greinke is the prize of this offseason. He’s been viewed as an ace ever since his incredible 2009 season with the Royals, in which he posted a 2.33 FIP across just under 230 innings. He’s clearly the best pitcher available on the free agent market, and the Angels have a good amount of money coming off the books, with Haren, Santana and Torii Hunter all off the payroll.
However, while the Angels will aggressively pursue Greinke, but there are several other viable options on the market. Over at Halos Daily, we’ve taken a few different looks at how some of the top arms might fit in SoCal, especially how it relates to Greinke’s value this winter.
2. Anibal Sanchez. Andrew Karcher examined Sanchez, finding that “[he] and his agent will probably bide their time before signing somewhere… letting Greinke set the market and create a bidding war for [Sanchez’s] services.” Sanchez might be a good option as a fallback option if Greinke is out of reach; he isn’t Greinke, but he’s a very consistent, viable piece that any rotation would love to have. If the Angels can’t nab Greinke, Sanchez is a clear fit.
3. Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda could also be a good fit for the Halos. He isn’t young, so it looks like he’s content with a short-term deal without a huge commitment. Regardless of whether the Angels have paid Greinke funny money, Kuroda could be a fit and could make the rotation one of the best in baseball, much like it looked like he would when he originally signed with the Yankees prior to 2012.
At Halos Daily, Jesse Crall points out that Kuroda is “someone whose xFIP is always around 3.50, someone who keeps his ground-ball rate around 50 percent, someone who strikes out just enough batters to succeed, and someone whose fastball has the same low 90’s velocity it did when he broke in with the Dodgers.” Kuroda is the same pitcher that's been above-average for several years now, and he might decide that he wants to go back to SoCal, but that he also looks better in red.
4. Brandon McCarthy. The next attractive option is McCarthy. Whispers that his personal connection is a bit too strong might be true, but money talks, and McCarthy might be willing to leave Oakland given the right situation and a mansion with the proper square footage. The A’s rotation is also pretty deep, so they may decide that getting into a bidding war for McCarthy isn’t worth their time and resources.
McCarthy hasn’t stayed healthy for a long stretch of time, and 2012 wasn't an amazing season for him. His strikeout rate took a dip and he walked a few more batters than he had in 2011. But his stuff was the same, and assuming a clean bill of health, there’s no reason to assume he can’t return to being the No. 2 starter he looked like in 2011. Halos Daily’s Nathan Aderhold thinks “McCarthy can [probably] be had for something around two years and $20 million, which would likely leave $12-$15 million or so on the table to sign another pitcher like Hiroki Kuroda or Shaun Marcum.”
5. Shaun Marcum. Another solid option, Marcum could stabilize the middle of the Angels’ rotation. He’ll probably be looking for some long-term security, and the Angels could roll the dice and give him a three-year deal.
Marcum has been consistent throughout his time in the majors, but elbow soreness sidelined him for over two months in 2012. He returned strong (at least in terms of peripherals), but he turns 31 in December, so his clock is ticking.
Marcum could wait out the offseason for the highest and last bidder, and he may end up settling for an expensive one-year deal that he can use to prove his worth for potential employers in a year. Given that Marcum had the highest strikeout rate of his career in 2012, the Angels would be well advised to jump on such a deal.
The Angels need to fill three spots. Greinke is the flashy name, and one Greinke might mean more than one Sanchez and one Marcum combined if you need him in Game 1 of the postseason, but the Angels are trying to get back to the playoffs first. Rotational depth is a need, and with the club having locked up so much talent long-term last season, they might be best to invest a lot of short-term money in guys who can fill spots for them and perform well, even if they aren’t elite.
Hudson Belinsky is a contributor to Halos Dailey, the SweetSpot network affiliate dedicated to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
But all of that adds up to one night’s action and one game’s outcome, however much fear it breeds in New York and Detroit. Before you can so much as try to gather your thoughts and reflect, Game 2 is already upon us, with the Tigers squaring off against Hiroki Kuroda, while Anibal Sanchez gets ready to take on the Yankees.
What experience the Tigers have collectively against Kuroda is almost entirely summed up in their two shots at him this season: In two turns, Kuroda delivered quality starts each time out. In today’s wide-ranging schedules, that’s what has to pass for familiarity with a particular pitcher. The old rule that you don’t want to pass judgment on a particular pitcher-batter matchup until 20 at-bats may no longer apply in the tech-enabled present. Never mind something as simple as a scouting report. Between video-enabled batting cages and readily available data, hitters have never had so much info at their disposal as they do now.
Still, nothing beats the real thing, right? Prince Fielder, armed with the most experience against Kuroda going back to their previous time spent in the National League, seemed to think so immediately after Game 1: "Man, he’s good. I’ve been facing him since he was with the Dodgers. He’s always been tough; tomorrow he’s going to be tough as well."
Certainly it doesn’t hurt any that Miguel Cabrera and Fielder have both enjoyed success against Kuroda in their limited confrontations. Miggy has ripped two homers and a double in nine at-bats, while Fielder has gone 5-for-16 with a double.
With the tight 15-hour turnaround from Game 1’s late finish to Game 2’s first pitch, will the Tigers have any shot at preparing for Kuroda? Center fielder Austin Jackson wasn’t in a hurry to get there, saying of where he was after the game, "You kind of enjoy it for right now. When tomorrow comes, you start getting prepared."
Thinking ahead, Fielder just smiled and said, "I’m really not the Peyton Manning of baseball by any means. As far as studying videos, I’m not going to do that that much, I’m just going to try to get some rest."
It probably doesn’t hurt the Tigers’ chances that Kuroda will also be starting on short rest, something he didn’t have to attempt in the Japanese leagues or with the Dodgers. Before Game 1, he noted, "This is probably the shortest rest that I have ever had in my baseball career,” but added, “I’m not too concerned. I prepare myself as [if] the next game that I’m going to pitch is my last. I have always taken that approach, so I am just going to do the same [for Game 2]."
Kuroda noted, "My style of pitching is to be aggressive and just be aggressive all the time." Informed of that, Fielder responded, "Hopefully, it works out for us, and we score some runs early."
Direct experience with the Yankees has been much less rewarding for Sanchez this season. He took a hammering at the hands of the Yankees his third time out in a Tigers uni after coming over in a midseason deal. But does that one game mean all that much?
Manager Jim Leyland seemed willing to discount the early work.
"There’s a lot of stress and things that go along with moving to another team, particularly a team in a pennant race with a lot of responsibility. ... It takes a little time to get acclimated to your new surroundings."
Looking at the big picture, perhaps predictably since coming over from the National League, Sanchez has seen his strikeout rate drop from almost 22 percent to a below-average 18 percent. That might seem normal enough for a pitcher moving to the DH league, but he’s still managed to pitch as effectively, posting a 3.74 ERA that’s a little higher than what fielding-independent performance metrics FIP and xFIP suggest it should be.
Perhaps the big problem for Sanchez is that he has little or no control over the Tigers’ defense, which is why that lower strikeout rate is cause for some concern. Detroit ranked next-to-last in the AL in defensive efficiency (and park-adjusted defensive efficiency), converting just 67.8 percent of balls in play into outs. That isn’t all Cabrera or Fielder or Jhonny Peralta or Delmon Young -- it’s all of them combined, and the cumulative result is that balls in play against the Tigers lead to bad things for their pitchers.
Collectively, Tigers pitchers have mitigated that damage on defense this season by striking out almost 22 percent of opposing batters, the second-best mark in the league. With Justin Verlander (25 percent) or Max Scherzer (29 percent), there are that many fewer chances that a bad defense can make an impact. Sanchez isn’t cut from that cloth. While he’s not a finesse righty by any means -- throwing around 92 mph with his fastball -- how well he hits spots with his slider and changeup could be critical.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.
2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.
3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.
4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.
5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.
On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.
If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:
1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).
2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.
3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.
4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.
5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.
2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.
3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.
4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.
5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball
San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.
2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.
3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.
4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).
5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.
2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.
3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.
4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.
5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.
2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.
3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.
4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.
5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.
2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.
3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.
4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.
5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.
2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.
3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.
4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.
5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward
New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.
2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.
3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.
4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.
5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
On July 18, the New York Yankees blanked the Toronto Blue Jays 6-0 in a rain-shortened game. Hiroki Kuroda pitched the seven-inning shutout, Mark Teixeira homered and the Yankees ripped 12 hits off Ricky Romero. The Yankees were cruising, having won nine of 11 and 16 of 22 games, and were leading the American League East by 10 games, on pace for 95 wins.
The hated rivals up in Boston already were turning into a bad joke, barely a rival anymore after the Yankees had taken three of four a few days before. The upstart Baltimore Orioles had won that day but had lost 13 of their pevious 19, slowly drifting into their usual pathetic irrelevance. The Tampa Bay Rays? Hey, never discount them -- they'd made a big comeback in 2011, after all -- but this wasn't their year, the lineup wasn't any good and the rotation wasn't as dominant as expected.
Yes, the Yankees were going to cruise to another division title. Print the playoff tickets.
* * * *
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the modern Yankees dynasty is their numbing consistency. Sixteen playoff appearances in 17 years. Twelve division titles. Twelve 95-win seasons in the past 15. Yes, they have more money than Zeus, but money is no guaranteed road to success.
Just look at their neighbors to the north, who are going to miss their third postseason in a row and have won just one division title in 16 years. Look at the Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the second-highest opening-day payroll. The Phillies had a nice run, five National League East titles in a row, but age and injuries caught up to them this season, and they're struggling to finish .500. The Angels will have spent more than $300 million the past two seasons and another $104 million in 2010, and might have no playoff appearances to show for that.
The Yankees have kept their dynasty going, defying age and bad luck. They did miss the playoffs in 2008, a season in which they won 89 games. Yes, that was the season they gave 20 starts to Darrell Rasner and 15 to Sidney Ponson. That offseason, they reloaded with Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and then they won the World Series.
Still, this can't go on forever, can it?
* * * *
The Yankees lost 5-2 to the Rays on Tuesday as Tampa slugged three home runs off Freddy Garcia, and a lineup that featured Raul Ibanez, Jayson Nix, Chris Dickerson and Chris Stewart failed to do much against Alex Cobb. The Orioles pounded the Blue Jays 12-0 on Tuesday as Zach Britton pitched seven scoreless innings and Mark Reynolds belted his fifth home run in five games.
The Orioles are now tied with the Yankees for first place.
"We're just having a good time and we're not putting pressure on ourselves," Reynolds said after the game. "Everybody knows the situation we're in but we're just taking it day by day and having fun."
Something tells me the Yankees aren't having a lot of fun right now.
Here's some data from Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information:
Since July 19:
Yankees: 19-25, run differential of plus-3
Orioles: 29-15, run differential of plus-37
Rays: 28-16, run differential of plus-84
As Katie points out, Nick Markakis returned from an injury after the All-Star break and the Orioles' offense has been vastly improved since. The O's hit .240/.302/.402 (BA/OBP/SLG) in the first half and .253/.322/.423 in the second (entering Tuesday's game). Markakis' .343 average and .902 OPS in the second half rank fifth and 13th, respectively, among AL hitters (before he went 3-for-5 on Tuesday). In their past 11 games, Orioles starters have nine quality starts and a 2.22 ERA.
Why not Baltimore?
* * * *
If the Orioles and A's are this year's miracle teams, that means we now have to consider the Rays grizzled vets, even if their $64 million payroll is higher than that of just five other teams. The Rays were a miracle in 2008 and a mini-miracle in 2011. We are no longer surprised.
Since the All-Star break, the Rays have a 2.45 staff ERA, which would be the second-lowest second-half ERA by an AL team since the first All-Star Game in 1933 (the 1972 Angels had a 2.37 ERA).
Pitching, my friends, pitching. The Yankees are relying on Sabathia's elbow to hold up, and the retread Garcia, and the inconsistent Phil Hughes, all the while hoping 40-year-old Andy Pettitte will return to offer a lifeline.
The Yankees look old, mediocre and beaten up.
Why not Tampa Bay?
* * * *
From 10 games ahead to pure panic. Yankees fans should be worried. Right now, they're the third-best team in the AL East. They're even with the Orioles, and the Rays are 1.5 games back, with a chance to cut the deficit to a half-game with a win Wednesday.
Sure, injuries. Sure, Alex Rodriguez just returned and Robinson Cano didn't play Tuesday and Teixeira is out. But that's what happens when you get old. Ibanez is old. Ichiro Suzuki is old. Andruw Jones is old. Curtis Granderson isn't old but has morphed into Dave Kingman in the past couple of months, a guy who hits home runs and strikes out.
The Yankees are struggling. The Yankees are not going to win the AL East.
The playoffs? Hey, it's still the Yankees; you never want to count them out. They have four games left with Tampa Bay and a four-game series this weekend in Baltimore, but the rest of the schedule is soft other than one series with Oakland -- six games against the sinking Red Sox, seven against the banged-up Blue Jays, three against the Twins. Even if the Orioles and Rays rise past the Yankees, New York can make the wild card if it can hold off the Tigers/White Sox loser and the A's and Angels.
I want to say the Yankees won't make it, that they're too old, overpaid and overrated. People in baseball often talk about digging deep. It's just something they like to say.
But I'll say this: Get out your shovels, Yankees.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Stephen Strasburg's 95.7 for fastest in the majors among starting pitchers. Considering it's coming from a 6-foot-6 frame, it's a fastball that also comes with an intimidation factor, somewhat in the mode of Randy Johnson. Not surprisingly, left-handers are only hitting .195 off Price, after hitting .171 a season ago. It may be a nice game for Josh Hamilton to enjoy a day off, although Richard Durrett writes that Price hasn't fared well against the Rangers in his career.
When you think of dominant left-handed starters with big fastballs, don't you have to start thinking of Price as one of the elite? Besides Johnson, I think of pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Sam McDowell, Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton, Mark Langston and Herb Score. While Johnson (fastball/slider) and Koufax (fastball/curveball) essentially dominated with two pitches, Price has developed a solid four-pitch repertoire that includes a slider, curve and changeup, a key reason behind his recent dominant run in which he's gone 8-0 with a 1.45 ERA over his past 12 starts. But everything still feeds off his fastball; Price's .270 wOBA (weighted on-base average) allowed against his fastball is third-lowest among starting pitchers, behind only Jered Weaver and Brandon Beachy. While those two are fly ball pitchers, Price's dominance is seen in this rare combination: He's the only starter this season who has fanned at least 25 percent of the batters he's faced and generated a groundball rate of at least 50 percent. Strikeout and groundballs are good things.
Price isn't the only Tampa Bay pitcher on a roll right now, of course. The Rays are in the midst of a historic run of pitching excellence. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Rays have allowed 76 runs over their past 35 games; the last team to do that was the 1981 Astros, from Aug. 25-Sept. 29. The last American League team to do that was the 1968 Yankees. The Tampa Bay bullpen has a 0.85 ERA over that span, helping the Rays to a season team ERA of 3.26, which would be the lowest in the AL since the 1990 A's posted a 3.18 mark.
Still, Price sets the tone and has become the Cy Young favorite in a crowded and talented American League field. Here are the current leaders:
- Price: 16-4, 2.28 ERA, 170 IP, 132 H, 46 R, 50 BB, 167 SO, 5.2 WAR
- Justin Verlander: 12-7, 2.50 ERA, 190.2 IP, 63 R, 47 BB, 192 SO, 6.2 WAR
- Felix Hernandez: 12-5, 2.54 ERA, 187.2 IP, 56 R, 45 BB, 179 SO, 4.6 WAR
- Chris Sale: 15-4, 2.65 ERA, 153 IP, 122 H, 46 R, 36 BB, 150 SO, 5.4 WAR
- Jered Weaver: 16-3, 2.74 ERA, 148 IP, 112 H, 48 R, 33 BB, 113 SO, 3.2 WAR
- Hiroki Kuroda: 12-9, 2.98 ERA, 175 IP, 153 H, 62 R, 40 BB, 131 SO, 5.3 WAR
- Matt Harrison: 15-7, 3.04 ERA, 169 IP, 159 H, 59 R 48 BB, 101 SO, 5.4 WAR
Verlander's big edge over Price is he's pitched 20 more innings, but considering Price leads the AL in ERA and is tied with Weaver in wins, he's probably the favorite among the voting bloc. Price has made eight starts against the Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees, the AL's big three offensive teams; but Verlander has also faced them eight times. Price has a 3.12 ERA in those eight starts, Verlander a 2.93 mark (although with seven unearned runs allowed). King Felix, by the way, has made six starts against those three clubs and has delivered a 1.29 ERA and three shutouts.
Besides Verlander, it's worth noting that Sale, Kuroda and Harrison also have matched Price's WAR. Park effects are coming into play there, as Kuroda and Harrison have to ply their trades in more hitter-friendly parks. Indeed, Price has a 1.66 ERA at home, 2.93 on the road. And the underrated Sale continues to put up impressive numbers.
We'll dig deeper into this later in the season, but right now it appears Price is on track to win his first Cy Young Award. For the Rays, however, the more important goal: Win tonight and inch another game closer to the Yankees. As always, never count out Joe Maddon's club.
"Show us some respect," yell Baltimore Orioles fans. Or maybe they're politely demanding. But I've seen the complaints in the Power Rankings comments, read the emails sent to "Baseball Today," been asked the question in my chats: Why doesn't anyone believe in the Orioles?
The Orioles traveled to Fenway Park this week in a precarious situation. They've lost two of three in Tampa. They've been swept in Toronto. They've lost two of three at home to Kansas City. They've lost two of three at home to Boston. They haven't won a series since the big weekend showdown in Washington from May 18-20.
So, yes, the concerns all of us "experts" had been raising -- it's a long season, let's see what happens to the rotation, let's find out if some of the hitters can keep up their hot starts, the bullpen can't keep its ERA under 2.00 all season -- were proving true. The O's were 27-14 after winning the second against the Nationals but had gone 3-10 since, with the staff posting a 4.95 ERA while the offense scored 3.5 runs per game.
These were the Orioles we all expected. And then they beat the Red Sox in extra innings on Tuesday. And then they beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday behind a solid effort from Wei-Yin Chen and scoreless innings from Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. They're 5-0 at Fenway in 2012 and Chen is now 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA. The key moments came in the seventh inning after the Red Sox threatened with a pair of singles to start the frame. But after a sacrifice bunt, Chen struck out Marlon Byrd and induced Mike Aviles to pop out to first base.
Normally, Buck Showalter might have turned to his stellar bullpen, but after Tuesday's victory, in which the bullpen threw five innings, he left Chen to escape the jam. He set up Byrd with three fastballs and then got him swinging on a beautiful changeup. He threw three more fastballs to Aviles that he couldn't get around on. Don't underestimate Chen. His stuff plays up big, with his four-seamer reaching 94 mph. His last pitch to Aviles was clocked at 93. In 11 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs seven times and I think this outing will give Showalter more confidence to stretch Chen a little deeper into games.
So the Orioles remain in first place for another day, half a game ahead of the Yankees. Is it time to show them a little respect, to give Orioles fans what they crave? Let's do some position-by-position rankings to help sort out this tightly packed division. Rankings are simply listed in order of who I would want the rest of the season.
(Season-to-date Wins Above Replacement from Baseball-Reference.com, before Wednesday's games, listed in parenthesis.)
1. Matt Wieters, Orioles (1.6 WAR)
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Kelly Shoppach, Red Sox (1.6)
3. Russell Martin, Yankees (0.7)
4. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays (0.2)
5. Jose Molina, Rays (0.1)
There is a case to be made that Boston's duo is more valuable since they've combined for 14 home runs and an OPS over .900. But Wieters brings elite defensive skills and I also don't believe Salty is going to slug .583 all season. For the second consecutive season, the Rays are essentially punting offense at catcher. Rays catchers have the worst OPS in the majors.
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox (0.8)
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees (0.6)
3. Mark Reynolds, Orioles (-0.6)
4. Carlos Pena, Rays (0.4)
5. David Cooper/others, Blue Jays (incomplete)
Gonzalez is still struggling to get his stroke going, but he's the best of a weak group. Yes, I just called Mark Teixeira weak, but at this point he's a low-average guy who pops a few long balls, doesn't draw as many walks as he once did and isn't as great on defense as Yankee fans believe. But in this group that's good enough to rank second. Reynolds has a low WAR but he's missed time and that includes his bad defense at third base, a position we've hopefully seen the last of him playing. The Jays, meanwhile, need to quit fooling around at first base and find a legitimate hitter, or move Edwin Encarnacion there and find a designated hitter. You hate to waste a potential playoff season because you can't find a first baseman who can hit. (No, David Cooper is not the answer, although he's hit well so far in 11 games.)
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.1)
2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (1.8)
3. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays (2.1)
4. Ben Zobrist, Rays (0.7)
5. Robert Andino, Orioles (0.6)
I love Ben Zobrist almost as much as two scoops of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's, but a .199 average isn't going to cut it in this group, even if you are on pace to draw 100-plus walks. Zobrist has actually play more right field so far, but should be back at second on a regular basis with Desmond Jennings back.
1. Evan Longoria, Rays (1.4)
2. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays (3.1)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1.2)
4. Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Wilson Betemit/Steve Tolleson, Orioles (-0.1)
Lawrie's WAR is boosted by defensive metrics that treat him like he's the second coming of Brooks Robinson. He's a good player but don't I think he's been the second-best position player in the American League. Longoria hopes to return at the end of the Rays' current road trip. As for A-Rod, his health is always a question at this stage of his career, but Youkilis has health questions and I'm not a believer in Middlebrooks' ability to hit .321 with power all season. His 29/4 strikeout/walk ratio is something pitchers should learn to exploit. As for the Orioles ... third base is an obvious concern. But don't expect a rare intra-division trade to acquire Youkilis.
1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles (2.1)
2. Mike Aviles, Red Sox (2.2)
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees (0.9)
4. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays (1.9)
5. Sean Rodriguez, Rays (1.9)
Wait ... Jeter has been the least valuable of this group so far? The other four all rate as excellent fielders -- in fact, Baseball-Reference rates them all in the top 13 fielders in the AL. Jeter, meanwhile, ranks 310th in the AL on defense -- out of 313 players.
1. Desmond Jennings, Rays (1.2)
2. Daniel Nava/Carl Crawford, Red Sox (1.7)
3. Brett Gardner/Raul Ibanez, Yankees (0.3)
4. Eric Thames/Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (-0.1)
5. Endy Chavez/Xavier Avery/Nolan Reimold, Orioles (-0.3)
Not to keep picking on the Orioles, but this is another problem position, especially if Reimold's disc problems lingers all season. Nava has quietly been a huge savior for the Red Sox, batting .305 with a .438 OBP. He's drawing walks at a crazy rate. He should slide some but he's provided the kind of depth the Orioles don't have.
1. Adam Jones, Orioles (2.5)
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees (1.3)
3. B.J. Upton Rays (0.9)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury/Scott Podsednik/Marlon Byrd, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (1.3)
Ellsbury might be the biggest wild card in this race, because the Red Sox can't survive much longer with the Podsednik/Byrd platoon. When will he return? How will he hit? He just started throwing and could return by the end of the month. I've conservatively put him fourth, which seems fair considering the unknown. And please note, Orioles fans, that I believe in Mr. Jones.
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (0.9)
2. Matt Joyce, Rays (2.2)
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees (-0.1)
4. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox (1.6)
5. Nick Markakis/others, Orioles (0.3)
Markakis is out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, an injury that once again reflects Baltimore's lack of depth. But all five teams are solid in right field. Ross is about to return from his broken foot; we'll see if he pounds the ball like he was before the injury (.534 slugging).
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox (1.4)
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (1.6)
3. Revolving Door, Yankees
4. Chris Davis, Orioles (0.3)
5. Luke Scott, Rays (0.0)
No respect for Davis? OK, he's hitting .295/.333/.494. And he has 53 strikeouts and eight walks. Sorry, call me skeptical, O's fans. Yankee designated hitters have actually fared well, hitting a combined .279/.354/.467 with 10 home runs.
No. 1 starter
1. David Price, Rays (2.2)
2. CC Sabathia, Yankees (1.9)
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (0.3)
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Jason Hammel, Orioles (1.9)
Look, Hammel has been terrific so far thanks to a career-high strikeout rate and a career-high ground-ball rate. But this is tough group and the question is who is going to be best moving forward? My biggest concern is that Hammel has never pitched 180 innings in a season. Can he pitched the 210 to 220 that you need from a No. 1?
No. 2 starter
1. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (1.1)
2. James Shields, Rays (-0.4)
3. Andy Pettitte, Yankees (1.5)
4. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles (0.7)
5. Jon Lester, Red Sox (-0.4)
I like Chen. Heck, right now I like him better than Jon Lester, which tells you how much I like him. But he averaged just 172 innings in Japan over the past three seasons. Can he hold up over 32 starts?
No. 3 starter
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.0)
2. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees (1.4)
3. Felix Doubront, Red Sox (0.4)
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles (0.2)
5. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays (0.4)
Matusz is holding his own at 5-5, 4.41, but he's still walking a few too many, allowing a few too many hits, a few too many home runs. The velocity is solid, averaging 91 on his fastball. We're talking minor upgrades needed in his command, getting the ball down in the zone more often to get more groundballs. If the Orioles are to have any chance, Matusz's improvement may be the single most important aspect.
No. 4 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays (-0.6)
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees (0.3)
3. Jake Arrieta, Orioles (-0.4)
4. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (-1.2)
5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (-0.1)
Five pitchers who have struggled, but Arrieta's peripheral numbers are actually pretty solid. Like Matusz, there is hope for improvement. On the other hand, he's been awful since pitching eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, giving up 29 runs in 31.2 innings. His BABIP was .243 through May 2; it's .361 since. The truth is probably right in the middle, leaving Arrieta third on our list of fourth starters.
No. 5 starter
1. Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann, Rays (0.3)
2. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (0.1)
3. Phil Hughes, Yankees (0.2)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook/Daniel Bard, Red Sox (-0.3)
5. Tommy Hunter, Orioles (-0.5)
Hunter isn't really a major league starter, but I'm not sure Jamie Moyer -- just signed to a minor league contract -- is exactly a solution. The Orioles need to upgrade here.
1. Yankees (2.76 ERA)
2. Orioles (2.48 ERA)
3. Red Sox (3.66 ERA)
4. Rays (3.43 ERA)
5. Blue Jays (4.39 ERA)
If you watched Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson close out Wednesday's win, you'll realize the back of the Orioles' end has two guys with filthy stuff. Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala are strike-throwing machines and Troy Patton is a lefty who isn't a LOOGY. It's a good pen and it's deep. But the reliability of the pen ties into the rotation's inability to pitch deep into games -- Orioles relievers have already thrown 39 more innings than Yankees relievers, for example.
OK, let’s add it up … one point for ranking first, five points for ranking fifth. Hey, this isn’t meant to be scientific, so don’t overanalyze this too much. The totals:
Yankees: 36 points
Rays: 40 points
Red Sox: 45 points
Blue Jays: 51 points
Orioles: 53 points
Not the respect Orioles fans are seeking. Sorry about that; it’s nothing personal. Look, I don’t think the Orioles are going to fade away anytime soon. I worry about the rotation’s ability to hold up all summer and the bullpen’s workload. They lack depth on offense and have a couple of obvious holes. Hey, you never know, and the Orioles are certainly due for a winning season. I would love to see it happen.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
The cynic would suggest that maybe the New York Yankees are worried about Michael Pineda's velocity. The reality is undoubtedly more simple: A Yankee legend wanted to return. The Yankees, of course, have nothing to lose except a $2.5 million investment.
But will this be an upgrade in the rotation? Obviously, once Pettitte is stretched out -- maybe mid-April -- he's in the rotation, which bumps somebody. Here are the ZiPS projections for the rotation candidates:
CC Sabathia: 3.55
Michael Pineda: 4.11
Hiroki Kuroda: 4.33
Ivan Nova: 4.44
Phil Hughes: 4.84
Freddy Garcia: 4.85
So he was really the same guy all those years, with the only blip being the tender elbow that sidelined him from mid-July to mid-September in 2010. Pettitte returned and pitched well, including allowing just four runs over 14 playoff innings.
But will he be the same pitcher in 2012? Pettitte's now 40 years old. What happens to pitchers at that age? Over the past 25 years, there have been 19 40-year-old pitchers who pitched at least 150 innings.
- Fifteen of the 19 posted an ERA+ of league average or better. This makes sense; only good pitchers are still around at age 40 and old pitchers are going to be on a short leash if they're not any good. So if an old pitcher remains in the rotation it's because he's at least decent. I suspect this would be the case with Pettitte; he's either the same as he's always been or gets shelled over a few starts and hangs 'em up again.
- Collectively, the 19 pitchers posted a 3.76 ERA at age 40 ... and a 3.85 ERA at 38. They actually pitched more innings at age 40 -- 3788.1 to 3540.2. Of course, none of them missed an entire season at age 39. Again, this would seem to confirm the above statement: If Pettitte remains reasonably healthy, he should be the old Andy Pettitte.
- Eleven of the 19 had a better ERA+ at age 40 than age 38, although the margins were very close in some cases. The only pitcher with a significant drop from his age-38 ERA to age 40 was Orlando Hernandez, who posted a 3.30 ERA in 15 starts with the Yankees in 2004 but a 4.66 ERA in 29 starts with the Diamondbacks and Mets in 2006.
So we can assume Pettitte should be capable of posting an ERA around 4.00. This would likely be a minor upgrade over the team's current fifth starter, Hughes or Garcia. For all the hype around Hughes, he's had one good season in the rotation and it wasn't that dominant, with a 4.19 ERA in 2010. And even in that it was only two good months (April and May). His ERA over the final four months that year was 4.89. Certainly, Pineda could also be sent down to the minors if he continues to throw 90-92 mph instead of the 95-98 he fired with the Mariners a season ago.
In the end, it gives them more depth than anything. There's never anything wrong with that.
Los Angeles Angels: Kendrys Morales stays healthy all year.
Houston Astros: Bud Norris is top five in K/9 in the NL. We figured something good had to happen to the Astros, right? Norris actually has a pretty nice career K/9.
Oakland Athletics: Yoenis Cespedes is their starting center fielder by Memorial Day.
Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow makes the jump to elite starting pitcher. He's struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings two years running, though his ERAs have remained ugly. We think this is the year his results finally match the stuff, especially considering his declining walk rate.
Atlanta Braves: Julio Teheran has more wins than Tim Hudson.
St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Beltran outproduces Albert Pujols from last year. Albert Pujols was great last year, but not quite best-player-of-his-generation Albert Pujols. If healthy, it's not absurd to think of Beltran outproducing Pujols' 5.1 WAR in 2011.
Chicago Cubs: Matt Garza isn't their best pitcher. It'll be Ryan Dempster, who had great peripherals but bad results last year.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Aaron Hill will be good again. He was great with them in limited time, and Arizona's park is quite hitter-friendly.
Los Angeles Dodgers: James Loney will be a top-three first baseman in the National League. Many thanks to Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness for somewhat alerting us to this one. We just decided to take it semi-absurdly far.
San Francisco Giants: Madison Bumgarner is their best pitcher. In terms of ERA, he already wasn't very far behind Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and his K/BB ratio eclipsed theirs by quite a bit.
Cleveland Indians: They'll have the best pitching in the American League Central. We're banking on Ubaldo Jimenez, making a major comeback to something closer to what he was in 2010, and the rest of the staff displaying the good that they did in 2011. We're also counting on the Tigers' starters not being very impressive behind Justin Verlander, which is bold but not quite insane, and the pitching of the White Sox, Twins and Royals not being able to keep up with Cleveland's.
Seattle Mariners: Jesus Montero catches 100-plus games. The Mariners probably aren't going to compete, so why not try and play him where he'll accrue the most value?
Miami Marlins: Despite all their new acquisitions and the hype, they still finish fourth in the NL East. When you think about it, this one isn't so crazy. If Josh Johnson isn't healthy and maybe even if he is their pitching still trails that of Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta; even with Heath Bell, we don't think their bullpen is as good, either. Their offense might be better than some of those teams', but the Marlins were quite a bit below league average offensively last year and we're not sure how much Jose Reyes is going to make up for that.
New York Mets: Mike Pelfrey is the worst starter in the NL. Pelfrey's been pretty terrible two of the past three years, and now they're moving the fences in at Citi Field. He was far better in his huge home stadium, but we're guessing with the moved-in walls he'll be significantly worse at Citi. Here at YCPB, we actually don't think the Mets are going to be quite as dire as many are saying, even if they do come in last place in the NL East - but Pelfrey won't be a bright spot.
Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg has a 17-strikeout game.
Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters is the best catcher in the AL. A lot of people are so obsessed with Wieters not matching the hype that they didn't notice he became a plus offensive performer last year, to go along with very good defense. His taking the next step isn't that bold as predictions go, especially if Joe Mauer has to move off catcher.
San Diego Padres: Luke Gregerson is a top-three closer in the NL.
Philadelphia Phillies: Cole Hamels is their best starter. And this isn't meant to be a slight to Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but considering their ages and the fact that Hamels is pretty darn good himself, plus a possible boost from a contract year...
Pittsburgh Pirates: Charlie Morton is their All-Star.
Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish isn't their best starter -- but he's still good. And we think he'll be pretty good, we just think Derek Holland will become more consistently good, or Matt Harrison will put up numbers like his 2011.
Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields will have no complete games. Predicting someone to have no complete games might not seem bold, but it is when it's a guy who was known as "Complete Game James" last season. Shields did have 11 complete games in 2011, an almost unheard-of number these days, but he had no complete games in 2009 or 2010.
Cincinnati Reds: Brandon Phillips is the best second baseman in the NL.
Colorado Rockies: Jamie Moyer will have the best HR/9 on the staff.
Kansas City Royals: They reach .500. While their pitching won't be great, their offense will take a big step forward this year. Combined with the rest of their division being the Tigers and some dumpster fires, it's not that difficult to see it happening.
Detroit Tigers: They score fewer runs than they did in 2011. Yes, that’s even with Fielder. It's not improbable that Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Delmon Young regress quite a bit from their numbers with Detroit last year, and that Prince Fielder's production "only" makes up for the offensive loss of Victor Martinez in 2012. They'll still have a very good offense, though.
Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer hits 15 home runs.
Chicago White Sox: Robin Ventura gets ejected more times than Ozzie Guillen. Look at the state of the White Sox. We'd get ejected too.
New York Yankees: Hiroki Kuroda leads the team in ERA.
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Johnny Damon: He's 277 hits away from 3,000 but currently scraping for a job. Tampa Bay apparently signed Luke Scott as its designated hitter and with Desmond Jennings taking over in left field, there won't be room for Damon in Tampa. While he still has something left in the tank -- his .743 OPS ranked ninth in the AL among 20 left fielders and DHs with at least 400 appearances -- there just aren't teams looking for a 38-year-old left fielder with a noodle arm. One possibility: the Orioles. With Nolan Reimold in left and Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds slated for third and first, they could sign Damon as their DH.
Edwin Jackson: A Scott Boras client allegedly seeking a five-yeal deal (good luck, Scott!), Jackson is what he is: A durable but mediocre starter. He's one of just 22 pitchers to start 150 games over the past five seasons, but only A.J. Burnett and Livan Hernandez own a worse ERA among those 22. Teams appear to be viewing Jackson correctly: A short-term placeholder, but not a guy you want to make a long-term investment on. He's apparently talked to the Yankees, but I could see him landing in a place like Detroit, allowing the Tigers to give Jacob Turner more seasoning in Triple-A.
Roy Oswalt: Yes, he missed time with a bad back in 2011, but it was the first season he hasn't started at least 30 games since 2003. He's said he's willing to sign a one-year deal to prove he's healthy, so he's a low-risk signing. I still like him: He's one season removed from leading National League starters in lowest WHIP and he had a better SO/BB ratio in 2011 than C.J. Wilson, Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester or Mark Buehrle. Here's one red flag, especially if a team like the Red Sox or Yankees is interested: Oswalt has spent most of his career in the NL Central facing a lot of weak lineups. His career ERA is 3.21, but 3.70 in interleague games. If he's not the pitcher he once was, that could translate to an ERA in the mid-4 range pitching in the AL East.
Carlos Pena: He can still mash against right-handers (.255/.388/.502 in 2011), but really needs to be a platoon player. Trouble is, most teams can't afford to carry a platoon at first base, not when you carry 12 or 13 relievers. (Now, a smart team would realize that carrying an extra bat can be more valuable than an extra LOOGY, but that's a different essay.) The Indians still seem like a good fit and at this point, Pena won't be busting their budget. The Rays may still be in play, although the Scott signing certainly makes that less likely. By the way, only five players have hit more home runs the past five seasons than Pena: Ryan Howard, Fielder, Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira and Miguel Cabrera.
Hiroki Kuroda: He's allegedly seeking $12 to $14 million per season and he just may be worth it. He's put up solid numbers with the Dodgers despite some mediocre defenses behind him. His fastball velocity has averaged 92 mph for four years in the majors, so he's shown no signs of decline despite his age (37 in February). He won't give you much more than 200 innings, but he could be a big difference-maker for a pennant contender. Do the Angels spend even more money and have Kuroda replace Jerome Williams as the No. 5 starter? That may be overkill, but aren't the Angels all-in at this point?
Francisco Cordero: I'd be vary wary. If you look at the 37 saves and 2.45 ERA you may be mislead. But most front offices are smarter than that these days, so they'll look at the low strikeout rate (5.4 K's per nine), drop in fastball velocity (from 95 in 2009 to 94.5 in 2010 to 93 last season) and see an aging pitcher in decline, even if he did throw his changeup more last season and walk fewer batters. Yes, he's a Proven Closer, but there just doesn't seem like there's much interest in $8 million relievers this offseason. Good luck, Francisco. I don't think you'll be getting that much.