SweetSpot: Ian Kinsler

Why Tigers are AL favorites

June, 29, 2014
6/29/14
12:50
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With the season nearly half over, the Detroit Tigers have stumbled to first place in the AL Central. And yes, I said "stumbled." As you might recall, the Tigers were the ESPN Forecast preseason prediction to be the American League representative in the World Series. Yet so far they have the second-best record and worst run differential of the three AL division leaders.

As bland as leading a division by 4.5 games can be (which can make all the difference in sudden-death wild-card formats), the 2014 Tigers could have been even worse. I wouldn’t call it karma, but trading Prince Fielder seemed fortunate, especially after he stuck his neck out with some rather nonchalant comments about last year’s playoffs but before he had the season-ending neck injury. Throw in slow starts from Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera, a false start from Joe Nathan, and no start at all from their original starting shortstop, Jose Iglesias, and even the Cleveland Indians (briefly) looked competitive.

That phase has passed. After Saturday's come-from-behind victory over the Houston Astros, the Tigers are 8-2 in their past 10 games while other teams in the AL Central have wilted. Cabrera, their reigning Triple Crown winner, has a .994 OPS over the past week. To complement Cabrera, Victor Martinez hasn't exactly been roster filler either, nesting himself among the league leaders in hitters. And the guy they acquired for Fielder? Ian Kinsler's got a higher WAR than Martinez and Cabrera. While you might be dazzled by the offense, don't forget that the Tigers have two Cy Young award winners, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, on their staff which can make all the difference in a short series playoff format. Furthermore, they have remaining upside on both sides of the ball if Jackson returns to form and Nathan returns to relevance.

[+] EnlargeIan Kinsler
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesIan Kinsler for Prince Fielder? The Tigers have certainly gotten the better end of that deal so far.
But what if Jackson falters or Nathan remains, um, not good? What separates the Tigers from the other AL division leaders and wild-card wannabes is that they have much more flexibility to make moves at the trade deadline, getting the players needed to win in 2014. It is no secret that Mike Ilitch, the elder Tigers’ owner, badly wants to win a World Series. Ilitch has thrown, wisely, his support (and let’s not forget the money) to a front office headed by GM Dave Dombrowski, who has provided Detroit with one of baseball's rarities, a team that perpetually wins.

We’ve seen evidence of Dombrowski's handiwork beyond the Fielder trade. Before the season, he signed J.D. Martinez to a minor league contract and called him up near the end of April to avert an offensive outfield offense. While Martinez has been used sparingly and is highly unlikely to continue to post an elite OPS of .957, he’s bought time for the rest of the offense to find its wheels. Meanwhile, though Rookie of the Year candidate Nick Castellanos has been serviceable at third base, Dombrowski’s early promotion of Eugenio Suarez to plug the shortstop hole is paying off offensively, if not defensively, so far.

Furthermore, there’s little that blocks Dombrowski from making a future move. Though the Tigers' farm system isn’t the richest in the world, there is still some talent that can be used to snatch players from “rebuilding” teams. Meanwhile, they can still take on more money despite having a payroll in excess of $161M. Comparatively, the Blue Jays and A’s are both near their limit payroll-wise. Sure, they can acquire players for prospects (which would be a break for the norm for both of them), but the Tigers can swim in both ends of the pool.

If Hunter continues to look better smiling than he does hitting, he can ride the bench and be sent on his merry way while a star player (and their ensuing salary) is brought on. Ilitch has the finances to absorb a Nathan demoted to middle reliever status if it means bringing on a still-working closer. If Castellanos (or some other Tiger) goes into a horrible slump, the Tigers can make a move. Those are worst case scenarios from a front office that wants to win. If Castellanos achieves his upside, pure gravy cometh.

The AL East and AL West are still tight races, meaning that even the Oakland A's, with their lofty run differential, could get bumped out early in either a wild-card game or short series. We also know that there are teams "in the hunt" such as the Los Angeles Angels or (gasp) the New York Yankees that will spend. While the Tigers, at present, have neither the best record nor the best run differential, they have an outstanding group of core talent, they are in the best position to win their division and have the kind of roster that can go far in the playoffs. Furthermore, they have a front office empowered to make moves that their rivals just can't or won't make.

Richard Bergstrom writes for Rockies Zingers, a SweetSpot network blog on the Colorado Rockies.
Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, coming off a season in which his club won 93 games and reached the ALCS, made two controversial offseason trades.

In November, he traded first baseman Prince Fielder and cash to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler.

Two weeks later, he traded starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Nationals for minor league pitcher Robbie Ray, reliever Ian Krol and utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi.

The first trade was met with generally positive reviews for both teams, as clearing Fielder's contract -- he's signed through 2020 at $24 million per season (the Tigers will pay $6 million per year of that from 2016 through 2020) -- was viewed as a way to clear some room for the Tigers to potentially sign impending free agent Max Scherzer. Plus, Kinsler would add needed speed and athleticism and allow Miguel Cabrera to move back to first base, improving the team's defense. As for the Rangers, they needed a lefty power bat in a lineup that skewed right-handed.

Still, there were concerns that the Tigers would miss Fielder's bat behind Cabrera, even though Fielder was coming off the worst OPS (.819) and lowest homer output (25) of his career.

The second trade was almost universally criticized. Fister is a sabermetric darling, a guy who ranked ninth in FanGraphs WAR from 2011 to 2013, behind much bigger names (including three of his teammates, Justin Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez).

Ray, the centerpiece of the deal, wasn't seen as a prospect worthy of Fister. While Ray had a breakthrough year in the minors, striking out 160 in 142 innings between Class A and Double-A, he wasn't a top-100 guy on the various best-in-the-minors lists. The message was that the Tigers should have done much better for a valuable pitcher like Fister. Maybe Fister was Detroit's fourth-best starter, but he would be the No. 1 or No. 2 on many other teams.

How are those trades looking? Pretty good from Detroit's perspective. The Tigers (20-9) have the best winning percentage in the majors and are enjoying an eight-game winning streak that has given them a five-game lead in the AL Central. There were concerns that Kinsler would struggle away from Texas, where he always had a large home-field advantage, but he's hitting .309 AVG/.346 OBP/.423 SLG.

Fielder, meanwhile, is showing no signs that 2013 was just a down year. He's hitting .226/.347/.331 and while his eye at the plate seems as good as ever (although nine of his 21 walks have been intentional), he's hit just two home runs. His struggles against fastballs continue, meaning the speculation that his bat speed is declining still holds. He's hitting .286 against fastballs, which sounds good, but the best hitters feast off fastballs. He hit .272 against fastballs last year. In 2012, Fielder hit .348 and slugged .542 against fastballs; in 2011, he hit .323 and slugged .607. In 2009, when he hit 46 home runs, he hit .332 and slugged .620 against fastballs.

It's too early to draw conclusions on Fielder, but he's not providing the big power the Rangers expected. With his poor defense and baserunning, his WAR is a below-replacement-level minus-0.5. Ouch. And that's without getting into the $114 million the Rangers will owe him after this season.

As for Ray, he's pitched well in Triple-A and looked impressive Tuesday in his major league debut in a spot start for Sanchez. Granted, it was against the Astros, but he pitched with poise and confidence, showing command of his low-90s fastball and a good changeup. Buster Olney compared his mechanics to former Red Sox lefty Bruce Hurst. Fister hasn't pitched yet due to elbow inflammation.

Again, it's way too early to analyze this deal, but it certainly could be that Dombrowski and the Tigers simply evaluated Ray much higher -- and more accurately -- than everyone else. In the end, that's all that matters. We don't know what other deals Dombrowski could have gotten for Fister; the GM obviously was happy with the one he got.

General managers of teams with big payrolls never receive as much credit as Billy Beane in Oakland or Andrew Friedman in Tampa, and that's understandable, but Dombrowski's trade record is impressive. Consider some of his big deals:

• He acquired Sanchez and Omar Infante from the Marlins for the 2012 stretch. Jacob Turner, the big prospect in that trade, has yet to do much for the Marlins. (And the Tigers were able to re-sign Sanchez after the season).

• He acquired Fister from Seattle in 2011 in an absolute steal, with only reliever Charlie Furbush providing marginal value to the Mariners.

• Scherzer was a talented but erratic right-hander with Arizona, and Austin Jackson a toolsy prospect with the Yankees, when they came over in a three-team trade. The Tigers gave up Curtis Granderson, who was certainly very good with the Yankees, and Edwin Jackson, whom the D-backs quickly traded away. None of the three teams got burned, but Scherzer and Jackson have helped the Tigers to three straight playoff appearances.

• Of course, back before the 2008 season , he acquired Miguel Cabrera (and Dontrelle Willis, who was a flop) for Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin (plus others), two of the top 10 to 15 prospects in baseball at the time. Obviously, a huge win for the Tigers as Miller and Maybin never developed in Florida.

In an era when prospects are more prized than ever, Dombrowski has almost taken the opposite approach, using them instead as trade leverage. But he's also made the proper evaluations: keeping Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly instead of Turner; trading away Francisco Martinez in the Fister trade while keeping Nick Castellanos; trading away Maybin and acquiring Jackson. The first key to a successful GM is properly evaluating your own talent. We'll see if Ray is the next guy Dombrowski was right about.

Most of Dombrowski's free-agent signings have also panned out -- guys like Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Torii Hunter have provided excellent bang for the buck. The Fielder contract was questionable, but now the Tigers are out from under most of that.

Dombrowski isn't perfect; the Tigers' lack of depth has been an issue even as they've made the playoffs in recent years. The Tigers started Quentin Berry in the World Series two years ago, after all, and counted on Delmon Young. Dombrowski's bullpens have certainly been inconsistent.

But when it comes to trading, I'm not sure I want to be the GM on the other end of the line when Dombrowski calls.
1. I wrote about the Brewers-Pirates brawl here. While the brawl was certainly interesting, the biggest takeaway from the weekend has to be Ryan Braun's two home runs off Jason Grilli in the ninth -- one to win the game on Saturday, one to tie it on Sunday. It's only eight innings, but Grilli has yet to match last year's dominance, so something to watch.

2. The Oakland A's continue to impress and have the majors' biggest run differential at +32. Jesse Chavez, who replaced Jarrod Parker in the rotation when Parker went down in spring training, had his fourth straight solid start in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Astros and has allowed six runs in 26 innings with a 28/5 strikeout/walk ratio. Chavez pitches up in the strike zone with his 90-93 mph fastball but his cutter has developed into a nice weapon. What's interesting about it is that he locates on the outside part of the plate to left-handers and to right-handers. He's actually thrown it more than his four-seamer and while two of the three home runs he's allowed came off the cutter, batters are hitting .209 off it. He mixes in a curveball and changeup, making him four-pitch starter with good command. You have to like what he's done.

3. After a slow start, Josh Donaldson is also heating up. Over his past 12 games he's hitting .345 with four home runs, seven doubles and 12 RBIs and looking like the guy who finished fourth in the AL MVP voting last season. The A's have yet to play a team currently over .500, so this week's three-game series against the Rangers will be a good test.

4. Should the Braves be a little worried about Craig Kimbrel? He actually got pulled from Saturday's relief appearance -- his first outing in a week after resting a sore shoulder -- after giving up three hits, a walk and two runs. Jordan Walden had to come on to get the final out for the save. Kimbrel then wasn't used in Sunday's 14-inning loss to the Mets.

5. Dee Gordon continues to do good things for the Dodgers, hitting .367/.409/.483 with 10 steals in 11 attempts. Going back to last August, when he was recalled from Triple-A, Gordon is hitting .363 in 99 plate appearances. Still a sample size, but it's not like he has no track record of hitting. He's a career .301 hitter in the minors and hit .304 in 56 games as a rookie in 2011. Yes, he has no power, but if he can hit close to .300 and draw a few walks, he's going to steal a lot of bases and score runs in front of the big boys.

6. Giancarlo Stanton beat the Mariners with a walk-off grand slam on Friday, giving him six home runs and an MLB-leading 26 RBIs. The Stanton Fear Factor came into play in a big way on Sunday. The Mariners led 2-1 in the eighth. One out, runner on second, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon elects to intentionally walk Stanton, putting the go-ahead on base. I get it: Stanton has delivered some big hits. But he also has four times as many strikeouts as home runs. What is more likely to happen there? You cannot put the go-ahead on base there. If he beats you, he beats you, but giving the opponent a free runner often leads to bad things. A walk, fielder's choice and sacrifice fly gave the Marlins the win as Stanton came around to score. Great player, bad managing.

7. Robinson Cano is not driving the ball at all. He's hitting .268/.321/.352 with three doubles and one home run, his one home run coming in Texas when he did manage to sort of one-arm the ball just over the fence in right. Cano had hit 40-plus doubles the past five seasons, so the lack of extra-base hits is as concerning as the lack of home runs. Again, just 18 games, and he had an April like this in 2012 when he hit .267 with one home run and four RBIs, but he's part of the reason the Mariners have looked awful since that 3-0 start.

8. The Tigers won 2-1 on Sunday, in part because Ian Kinsler created a run all by himself with the help of some sloppy Angels defense. The Angels were credited (discredited?) with three errors on the play. By the way, Kinsler has played well so far, hitting .317/.353/.476. Miguel Cabrera, however, has yet to get untracked, hitting .220 with one home run.

9. Big win for the Nationals on Sunday, ralling from a 2-0 deficit against the Cardinals with two runs in the seventh and the winning run in the ninth. Danny Espinosa played a key role in both rallies, driving in a run in the seventh and single to start the winning rally. I criticized the Nationals on Thursday after a sloppy 8-0 loss to the Cardinals, but they managed a little redemption with wins on Friday and Sunday, sandwiched around Bryce Harper getting benched on Saturday for not running out a groundball.

10. Finally, Brewers backup catcher Martin Maldonado had a busy weekend. On Sunday, he was heavily involved in the brawl, sucker-punching Travis Snider. On Friday, he pulled a Roy Hobbs and literally knocked the cover off the ball. Poor Pedro Alvarez; he's led the majors in errors the past two seasons and had to try and throw that thing to first base. It was ruled an infield hit.

Porcello plus iffy infield could be trouble

April, 5, 2014
4/05/14
11:56
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When the Tigers take the field Saturday, it might provide a fascinating test case for a couple of the propositions that -- if not as important as Miggy being Miggy or the front three in the rotation doing their thing -- could be the difference between their winning the AL Central going away, or whether they’ll slip back down below 90 wins and bring the race back within reach of the Royals and Indians.

That’s because we’re going to get to see the first real test of whether or not ground-baller Rick Porcello and the left side of the Tigers’ reconfabulated infield are going to work out very well together. Rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos may not be that much of an improvement on Miguel Cabrera -- he was moved to the outfield corners when he moved up to Double-A in 2012, and the scouting reports on his work at the hot corner have involved terms such as "timid" and "stiff." As a result, it shouldn't surprise people to hear that Miguel Cabrera’s days at third base aren't over, and that he’ll apparently play there some this season (also getting Victor Martinez some reps at first base). I guess if the standard is, “We can survive with Cabrera, so…” then Castellanos will be fine by the Tigers’ standards, but we’ll see if Porcello continues to be the ground-ball guy who pays a particular penalty as a result.

At shortstop, the Tigers are choosing between 37-year-old shortstop Alex Gonzalez -- who hasn’t played the position regularly or well in the majors since 2011 -- and former Angels utilityman Andrew Romine, and you can understand how this might turn out badly. It’ll be interesting to see how manager Brad Ausmus leans on this; if Romine is considered the better defender, will he draw more Porcello game-day starts, considering Porcello’s career 1.7 ground ball/fly ball ratio? Not that I think we could call a Gonzalez-Romine platoon an offense-defense combo -- Gonzalez’s OPS the last five years is .679, which would be hard for him to reach, let alone top -- but we’ve seen other clubs be adaptable with shortstop tandems, particularly the Pirates last season in how they employed defensive specialist Clint Barmes.

Now, I admit, I’ve already made my arguments for why I don’t think Porcello will break out big, but you can understand why folks think he will: his youth and his spiking strikeout rate. We’ll see if Saturday’s start gives us much to mull over on whether Porcello’s finally going to blossom into the quality starter people have expected him to be since he was taken with the 27th overall pick in 2007.

Another fun thing we learned about the Tigers? MLive Tigers reporter James Schmehl confirmed that skipper Brad Ausmus is going to let Victor Martinez catch in a few interleague games this season. For myself, I love it, even if V-Mart doesn’t do well behind the backstop, because a skill unused often becomes a skill lost. If you’re going to employ a full-time DH on your roster, with today’s roster crunch, it’s a lot more useful if he can also pick you up as your backup first baseman and third catcher.

The less-happy takeaway? That Alex Avila’s wonderful 2011 season might sadly go down in history as an echo of Cubs catcher Rick Wilkins’ 1993 breakout, a great year that won’t be repeated.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Throwing Ian Kinsler a pity party

March, 4, 2014
3/04/14
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So, Ian Kinsler isn't happy that he was traded from Texas. And say what he will, for his sake you can hope it motivates him to bigger and better things with the Tigers. While it might strike you or me as a little strange -- the path to the postseason is a lot more direct from Detroit via the AL Central than it is from Arlington in the hyper-competitive AL West -- some folks aren't big on change. I think we can all sympathize with his plight: This deep into his career after eight years, Kinsler owed a lot of what we think about him as a player to Rangers Ballpark.

[+] Enlarge Ian Kinsler
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesIan Kinsler's new uni won't be the only thing that will make him hard to recognize in 2014.
Which is really where my focus is when I wonder what Kinsler will do in 2014. I'm still one of the people who looks at a guy who has left the ballpark that made him the 30-homer masher in his prime, a ballpark where he slugged .511, as opposed to the guy who has slugged .399 everywhere else in his career. A guy who turns 32 in June. A guy whose Isolated Power has dropped from .223 in his age-29 season -- the tail end of a normal player's peak -- to .136 last year. His career lows for walk rate? They've both come in the past two years, having dropped down toward 8 percent, where it used to be up around 12.

So that's a guy who has lost 100 points of slugging across three years while calling one of the game's great hitters' nirvanas home, and he's lost a third of his walk rate. Skip hating on change of venues, that's a pretty clear indication of a decline. If you're a Tigers fan, you should be worried about Kinsler.

That's because Kinsler is going to a much more power-neutral park in Comerica, indexing at 98 for righty homers against Rangers Ballpark's 113 (where 100 is average). In his career, Kinsler has hit just .200/.298/.329 in Comerica, but to be fair, that was hitting against Tigers pitching. He won't end up with an OPS below .630. His OPS the past two years has been down around .750, despite which the various projection tools out there are a bit more sanguine about what's likely to come next:

Bill James Handbook: .773 OPS
Dan Szymborski's ZiPS: .764
Baseball Prospectus: .747
FanGraphs' Oliver: .744

I think you know I'm leaning toward the bottom half of that quartet, perhaps below even that if Comerica and age undermine what power Kinsler has left. That won't make him a bad player, not in general, and not on a team I expect to win the AL Central regardless. But then you start looking at his plummeting values in a defensive metric like UZR -- which handles high-opportunity positions such as second, third and shortstop well -- and you have additional reasons for worry.

So yeah, feel a little bit sorry for Ian Kinsler, because there are certainly a few reasons that transcend the inconvenience of having to move midway through a contract he might have felt meant he'd retire as a Ranger. Instead, feel sorry for Kinsler because it may not just be the new uniform that makes him hard to recognize before this year's done.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

AL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
9:30
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Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we’d take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our American League look.

AL East

Blue Jays: The transition from J.P. Arencibia to Dioner Navarro behind the plate is likely a wash and there hasn’t been much of an overhaul to this team other than the departure of Rajai Davis (who did have a decent amount of defensive value).
Ryan Goins
Goins
The most interesting thing for the Jays will be how Ryan Goins fares as a regular second baseman. Goins racked up a hard-to-believe 12 Defensive Runs Saved (backed up on video review by 21 Good Fielding Plays and only a pair of Defensive Misplays & Errors) in a 32-game stint last season.

Orioles: The biggest issue on defense for the Orioles will be dealing with the loss of Manny Machado’s major-league leading Runs Saved, at least until he returns from injury. Baltimore did make one positive move that should upgrade its outfield defense, getting David Lough from the Royals for utilityman Danny Valencia.

Rays: The Rays made a long-term commitment to James Loney, which bodes well from a defensive perspective, and also made one to catcher Ryan Hanigan, who is considered one of the best base-stealing deterrents and pitch-framers in the sport. He’ll give them a solid alternative to Jose Molina.

Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts will likely step into everyday roles and fill the shoes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew. The Red Sox will also have a new catcher, though there isn’t much of a defensive difference between A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Both rate below-average statistically.

Yankees:There have been some pretty notable changes on the defensive side. Brian McCann’s pitch-framing rates well, but he’s not the baserunning deterrent that Chris Stewart was. Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts could split time at second base but neither is the Gold-Glove-caliber glove that Robinson Cano was. Johnson could also wind up full-time at third base, a position at which he’s barely played more than 100 innings, if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended.

The Yankees should be great in center and left with an Ellsbury/Brett Gardner combo. Carlos Beltran has less ground to cover in the Bronx than he did in Busch. That could benefit his achy knees and help his defensive rating.

One smart thing the Yankees did: Hire Brendan Ryan to be their “shortstop closer” for the next two seasons and as much as it will pain Derek Jeter to leave games, it will be for the good of the team to let Ryan finish close games.


AL Central

Indians: The Indians tried to make a right fielder out of center fielder Drew Stubbs in 2013 and it didn’t work. They got themselves an upgrade in free agent David Murphy who rates adequate enough (5 Runs Saved in about a season’s worth of innings in right field) that his D could be a one-win upgrade by itself.

Royals: The best team in baseball, as it comes to Defensive Runs Saved, tinkered a little bit, swapping out Lough for Norichika Aoki in the outfield, which probably rates as a push (they’re both good … fair warning to Royals fans, Aoki likes to play a deep right field), and making an offensive upgrade by getting Omar Infante to fill the hole that was second base.

The one thing the Royals got from their second basemen last season was good defense (18 Runs Saved from the collection of Elliot Johnson, Chris Getz and others). Infante isn’t at that level, but he rates above average more often than not (he did by UZR, but not Runs Saved in 2013) and his offensive work should make up for any drop-off.

Tigers: The Tigers' defensive overhaul has been the biggest of the offseason as the team’s opening-day infield will be entirely different from 2013. Ian Kinsler is a definite upgrade at second base and we’ll see if Jose Iglesias’ wow plays add up over a full season (he has seven Runs Saved in just under 800 career innings at short).

Going from Prince Fielder back to Miguel Cabrera should actually be a slight upgrade.

The big question will be third base where the scouting reports on Nick Castellanos’ defense don’t inspire confidence. But even so, conservatively, the Tigers should be about 25 Runs Saved better in 2014, which takes them from being a lousy defensive infield to an average one.

Twins: The Twins made the career-preserving move of shifting Joe Mauer from behind the plate to first base and signed Kurt Suzuki, who has a good statistical history at the position. Suzuki has rated better than Mauer over the course of his career in Runs Saved, though he’s not as good at throwing out basestealers.

I asked Doug Glanville to assess what Mauer’s challenge will be in making the move to first:

“He is a super athlete and I am sure he will be fine. It will be tough to not be as involved with the game in every single moment. No one can compete with catchers in the leadership it requires to play that position and the need for constant vigilance. He has to sharpen his focus to deal with new lulls in time. I am sure he will.”

White Sox: The White Sox had the third-worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in 2013 and they’ve been overhauled all over the place. Their worst position last season was center field (-19 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013) and they’ll have a new look there with Adam Eaton.

They’ll also be much different at first base with Jose Abreu, whose hitting has been compared to Ryan Howard's (but if his defense is, that’s not good) and third base with adequately-rated Matt Davidson, whom they got for Addison Reed. Will different equal better? They better hope so.

Al West

Angels: The aging of Albert Pujols will continue to be an issue both on offense and defense. Last season broke a run of eight straight seasons in which Pujols ranked in the top five among first basemen in Runs Saved.

Pujols will have a familiar teammate working at the opposite corner with the addition of third baseman David Freese, who had a dreadful season in 2013 per both Runs Saved and UZR, ranking third-worst in the former and second-worst in the latter. That’s something that will need to be dealt with.

Astros: The Astros traded away their second-best defender stats-wise from 2013 in Brandon Barnes to get Dexter Fowler from the Colorado Rockies. Fowler has less ground to cover in the gaps of Minute Maid Park, but has a deeper center field (and Tal’s Hill) to worry about. Fowler has posted a negative Runs Saved rating in four of his six seasons, but has fared well at handling balls hit to the deepest parts of the park.

Athletics: The Athletics made two moves that should definitely help their defense in 2014.
Craig Gentry
Gentry
By adding Craig Gentry in a trade from the Rangers, they’ve obtained one of the game’s premier outfield defenders and one who could fit in well both in left field (to make Yoenis Cespedes a DH) and center (to give Coco Crisp a breather) very well.

The Athletics also added a valuable utility piece in Nick Punto, who could start at second base (ahead of Eric Sogard) or close games at shortstop (replacing Jed Lowrie, who rates as a poor defender). Either way, he’s a big upgrade over what they had.

Mariners:The Mariners now have a Gold Glove-caliber defender at second in Cano. He’ll need to cover more ground to his left than he did in New York, because the Mariners’ first-base options (Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart) do not rate well. Morrison is going to present an issue wherever they put him. He’s not quite at the level of Michael Morse, but his ratings historically have been poor.

Rangers: The difference between Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland at first base is a sizable one, potentially 15 runs over the course of a season, so if the Rangers do decide to hang on to Moreland, they'd be best off playing him at first base and having Fielder DH. The Rangers could use a good defender at first, since Jurickson Profar is basically going to learn on the job at second base. Texas will also have some outfield concerns with Shin-Soo Choo having limited experience in left field and the team no longer having the security blanket of Gentry (traded to Athletics).

SweetSpot TV: Offseason rapid fire!

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
12:37
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It's another edition of Offseason Rapid Fire with Eric Karabell. We discuss the latest news and also ask: Which is the team to beat right now?






In his newsletter yesterday -- sent out before the big trade -- Joe Sheehan wrote a column titled, "Money Don't Matter," making an argument that there's so much money flowing into the game now, and a relatively low percentage going back to the players (4 percent less of total revenue than NFL players receive), that our traditional methods of evaluating contracts are becoming outdated. Joe wrote:
It is so much money that it has a distorting effect on the market for talent, not just breaking our models, but arguably invalidating the first principle: that the opportunity cost of spent money matters. The combination of so much extra cash combined with so little talent becoming freely available -- due to teams locking up the best players in baseball long-term through their peaks -- means that there isn't much opportunity cost to spending. The money is there, and if it isn't spent on free agents it's not going to be spent in the draft or in the Dominican or on a superstar because the next superstar might not hit the market for another two years.

The money doesn't matter. It's not about whether the marginal cost of a win on the free-agent market is five million bucks or $7 million or $13 million; it's about that framework no longer being the way to evaluate signings. The extra dollars a team might spend to bring a player into the fold -- and turn a contract from a sabermetric win to a sabermetric loss -- are meaningless in the big picture because there's just no other good application of those dollars. The opportunity cost of not signing the player isn't "having the money to sign someone else", it's "having cash and no good way to use it."


This is essentially the argument for the Rangers trading for Fielder. They have money, they needed power and especially left-handed power, and Fielder was available, warts and all. The Rangers were willing to absorb his contract simply because they have the budget to do so.

On the other hand, the excellent Marc W. wrote this at the U.S.S. Mariner blog (scroll down to the bottom of the piece, past the stuff about the Mariners' 40-man roster moves):
Still, I wonder if we'll come to see the Fielder deal as some sort of peak in the value of pure power hitters on the open market. The Pujols deal may end up looking worse in time, and the Ryan Howard contract is still so bad it's basically in a separate category, but throw in Mark Teixeira and you're looking at a lot of dead money for 1Bs. As Dave's mentioned, this is part of a trend where contracts have lengthened, showing that teams are holding the line on single-year salary and stretching their commitment over time instead. But while Fielder's deal isn't going to seriously impact Robinson Cano’s negotiations, I wonder if we may not see many deals like, say, Joey Votto's extension for a while. We won't really be able to see for a while, not until the very reasonable extensions for young players like Arizona's Paul Goldshmidt run out, but the fact that the Reds will be paying Votto $25m in 2023 looks odd, and Votto's a much better hitter than Fielder. Basically, will this lead to a re-valuation of good-not-historically-great ballplayers?


This is essentially the sabermetric argument against the Rangers trading for Fielder -- that his decline in 2013 could be a harbinger of things to come, making him a very expensive player for his relative value. You can also argue that money is still a factor; for the Tigers, moving Fielder creates needed space to sign Max Scherzer to a big extension.

While that's likely true, you can also argue that for the Tigers this was strictly a baseball trade. They needed a second baseman and Kinsler fills that hole; they needed to improve the defense, and getting rid of Fielder and moving Miguel Cabrera to first base and installing highly rated rookie Nick Castellanos at third will do that. Even without Fielder's bat the Tigers may be a better team in 2014.

Some other reaction from across the interwebs, starting with Keith Law of ESPN Insider:
Compared to Fielder, Kinsler is showing greater signs of decline, with two disappointing offensive years as his legs have lost strength and his power has evaporated. After two 30-homer seasons in three years (2009, 2011), he's hit 32 total in the past two seasons in a good ballpark for power bats. His defense at second base improved with effort in his late 20s but has started to regress with his legs, and it's fair to worry that in a year or two his range will make him a liability at the position. He does fill a critical hole for the Tigers at second base in the short term, probably three wins above any internal options they had for the position, but their biggest gain in the deal is financial -- they save $76 million, which they can put toward retaining Max Scherzer or filling other needs. From a baseball perspective, however, I'd rather roll the dice on Fielder than Kinsler -- and with multiple sources indicating to me that the Rangers had shopped Kinsler but found no takers, it seems they had little choice.
Dave Cameron, FanGraphs:
If you're a Tigers fan, this is a deal to celebrate. Don't worry about narratives like "big bats" and "Cabrera needs protection," or listen to the criticisms of Kinsler's good-at-everything-great-at-nothing skillset. The Tigers just made a fantastic trade that sets them up to be even better in 2014 than they were the last two years.

Dave Dombrowski has made a lot of good trades; this might end up being one of his best.


Sam Miller, Baseball Prospectus, on Fielder's 2013:
Most of the lost value came in two areas: his walks dropped and he quit hitting as many of his fly balls over the fence. His plate discipline didn't show much change -- he didn't swing more overall, he didn't get thrown more strikes, he didn't chase more; the only real change was a couple-percentage-point drop in contact rate—so we can chalk that up almost entirely to a drop in intentional walks, perhaps a combination of batting behind Miguel Cabrera (lineup protection sometimes works both ways) and batting in front of a switch-hitter for most of the season.

So then the home runs. Had his fly balls left the yard at exactly the rate that they typically do, he would have hit 10 more home runs. Say five of those lost homers turned into doubles and five into outs. Had he hit those 10 homers, and had he drawn 13 more intentional walks to match his 2012 total, his line goes up to .287/.381/.504, hardly a decline at all. Why give him credit for those home runs? You probably shouldn't! But 10 fly balls pulling up just short is hardly enough to declare a guy's career over. And his average fly ball, at 294 feet, went just two feet shorter than his average fly ball in 2012, and four feet shorter than in 2011.


John Niyo, Detroit News, addressed Fielder's second straight disappointing postseason:
Fielder’s brief tenure as the Tigers’ cleanup hitter and the highest-paid player in franchise history finished amid a cascade of boos in Comerica Park and that infamous third-base flop at Fenway Park. But it also ended with a series of puzzling postgame interview sessions that revealed Fielder as either tone deaf or just plain dumb. ...

And yet his nonchalant explanation after Game 3 against the Red Sox last month was, "If they throw a mistake, I hit it. If not, I won’t." That comment didn't sit well with other leaders in the Tigers clubhouse, and though Fielder's work ethic was never questioned -- "He played hard, he played every day," (GM Dave) Dombrowski said -- it's not hard to understand why.

Prince Fielder wasn't brought here simply to hit mistakes.
Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPNDallas:
Sure, there's risk involved. Fielder is a big man, and there's a chance he'll have a dramatic decline as he nears the end of his deal.

No guarantees exist in pro sports. Every deal of consequence contains risk. The best GMs aren't paralyzed by fear.

They study the deal from every angle, then make a pragmatic baseball decision.

The reality is [Jon Daniels] is on a pretty good streak when it comes to making franchise-altering moves.

More importantly, the move allows Jurickson Profar to play second base instead of being miscast as a utility infielder. Now, the Rangers have their middle infield of Profar and shortstop Elvis Andrus locked up for at least five seasons.
Jeff Passan, Yahoo:
No, this was about what Kinsler isn't: a $168 million cost over the next seven years. Even after sending cash to Texas, Detroit freed up $76 million to lock up Max Scherzer long-term or re-up Miguel Cabrera before his contract runs out after the 2015 season. Coming off the AL Cy Young, Scherzer likely never will find his market value as high as it is now. That didn't stop Detroit from giving Justin Verlander a $180 million contract over seven seasons after back-to-back years in which he finished first and second in Cy Young voting, and unless the Tigers divert their pot of gold to a left fielder -- (Shin-Soo) Choo makes all the sense in the world, actually -- it could be Scherzer's.

Just as likely is Detroit putting it toward the Let Miggy Retire a Tiger Fund. This is worth remembering: Cabrera will be only 32 after the 2015 season. Jayson Werth received $126 million at age 31. A $200 million contract for Cabrera is almost a certainty, even if he does go to first base, which is the logical next step after the Fielder deal.
Dustin Parkes, The Score:
I think what’s most interesting about this deal, though, is what we thought when these players signed their contracts with their previous teams. Fielder's nine-year, $214-million contract from a Tigers team with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Alex Avila already vying for future plate appearances from the 1B/DH spot seemed ridiculous. Kinsler signing his five-year, $75-million extension after a seven-win season in 2011 was a stroke of genius for the Rangers.

Since that time, Detroit has won two straight divisions, and made a World Series appearance. Fielder has put up seven wins, and arguably given room for Miguel Cabrera to emerge as not just an elite hitter, but perhaps the greatest many of our generation will have seen. Kinsler could never equal his 2011 performance. Since signing the deal, he’s become only a slightly above average player with most of his value coming from his defensive play.

It's not all roses for Fielder, nor is it Death Valley for Kinsler. The Rangers new first baseman had one of the worst years of his career last season, causing many to believe that the long-believed-to-be-impending decline due to his weight had finally begun. Meanwhile, Kinsler's contributions over the last two seasons have been limited as he battled injuries. With good health, Detroit's new second baseman could easily regain his status as one of the best up the middle players in the league.
Jon Paul Morosi, Fox Sports:
I fully expect Fielder will find greater contentment and gaudier power numbers in Texas. It won't surprise me at all if he swats 40 or 45 home runs next year, thanks to the welcome scenery change and hitter-friendly environment at Rangers Ballpark. Meanwhile, Miguel Cabrera is likely to see fewer pitches to hit now that Fielder isn't protecting him any longer. (Remember: Fielder has batted behind an MVP in each of the last three seasons -- Ryan Braun with the Brewers in 2011, Cabrera for the last two. That is not an accident.)

"It's going to be a bat we miss at times," Dombrowski admitted.


Last word to Miguel Cabrera ... considering all the pictures of Fielder and himself that he posted on Twitter, I think he's going to miss the big guy:







I've been saying all along that I believed the Texas Rangers were the sleeper team in the Robinson Cano sweepstakes; swapping Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder is a move that helps increase the likelihood of that happening.

Yes, the immediate reaction is that this merely opens the door to play Jurickson Profar at second base; but I think Rangers CEO Ray Davis and general manager Jon Daniels have something even bigger in mind.

Here's what I mean. Trading Kinsler for Fielder by itself doesn't really make the Rangers all that much better; in fact, you can argue Kinsler, with his all-around game that includes defense and baserunning, is a better player than Fielder. Of course, Fielder isn't directly replacing Kinsler, but rather Mitch Moreland (or everyone the Rangers used at DH in 2013). Here are the Steamer WAR projections for 2014 published at FanGraphs:

Moreland: 1.3
Kinsler: 3.3
Total: 4.6 WAR

Fielder: 3.7
Profar: 1.4
Total: 5.1 WAR

So based on the projections (which predict Fielder to bounce back from his subpar 2013), the Rangers are making only a minor upgrade for 2014, while absorbing a large portion of Fielder's remaining contract in the process. Why do that?

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesRobinson Cano is widely considered the best free agent on the market this offseason.
Yes, Profar was the top prospect in baseball just a year ago and certainly has the potential to be a star -- maybe Daniels is banking on that happening in 2014.

More likely, this puts the Rangers in the bidding for Cano. The Rangers need and want power, having to replace Nelson Cruz, leaving as a free agent, and needing a general upgrade in that department as well. Fielder hit 25 home runs last year (30 in 2012) while Kinsler has averaged 16 the past two seasons. So that's an upgrade, but doesn't make up for the loss of Cruz.

Enter Cano. With Nolan Ryan ousted as CEO, Davis is eager to make a big splash. What bigger splash than trading for Fielder and signing the biggest free agent on the market? Meanwhile, that still leaves Daniels the option of trading Profar for a corner-outfield bat. How about making this deal: Profar for Cardinals prospect Oscar Taveras? It's a perfect match with the Cardinals needing a shortstop; instead of spending money on injury-prone Stephen Drew, they could use that money to bring back Carlos Beltran and/or go after Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury.

For the Rangers, that would give them this potential lineup:

SS Elvis Andrus
RF Alex Rios
2B Robinson Cano
3B Adrian Beltre
1B Prince Fielder
LF Oscar Taveras
DH Mitch Moreland
C Geovany Soto/other
CF Leonys Martin/Craig Gentry

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Can the Rangers afford all this? Absolutely. Their 2013 payroll was about $125 million. Before this trade, Baseball-Reference estimated the Rangers' 2014 payroll (with the current roster) at about $107 million. With each team gaining about $25 million in additional revenue in 2014 from national TV contracts -- plus the Rangers' own local cable deal that begins in 2015 and triples their annual payment to about $80 million per season -- the Rangers will be swimming in cash. They will increase their payroll.

Cano to the Rangers. I don't know if Cano will get the $300 million he and agent Jay-Z have reported asked for, but Ray Davis isn't going to balk at $200 million.

 
Jesse Chavez is essentially the 25th man on the Oakland A's roster. He started the year in Triple-A, got called up, got sent down, got called back up and is working as the low-leverage guy out of the bullpen. Before Thursday, he hadn't pitched since June 5, and the final scores of games he'd appeared in (without a decision) were 6-1, 10-2, 11-5, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3, 10-2, 9-6 and 8-1.

Chavez is the definition of a journeyman right-hander, having pitched for the Pirates, Braves, Royals and Blue Jays before the A's purchased him from Toronto last August. He was a typical Billy Beane acquisition: He has a pretty good arm, fastball in the low 90s, but what Chavez hadn't had was much success at the major league level, with a 5.74 ERA over 191 career innings.

But sometimes you need that 25th guy to come through, and Chavez's other asset is that he had started for Triple-A Sacramento. That ability to pitch multiple innings came into play in Thursday's 18-inning marathon in Oakland, the A's finally pushing across the winning run with a blooper and broken-bat flare off Mariano Rivera, winning 3-2. Chavez was the big hero, however, pitching 5.2 innings of one-hit, scoreless relief. He has a starter's repertoire, with a cutter, curve and changeup. He got two big outs when he entered with two runners on in the 13th, striking out Kevin Youkilis and Vernon Wells on curveballs.

In the 14th, A's manager Bob Melvin had the guts to intentionally walk Robinson Cano with runners on first and second; Mark Teixeira popped out to shortstop, missing a hittable fastball. From there it was smooth sailing, as Chavez retired the side in order in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th innings. Not bad for your garbage-time reliever.

[+] EnlargeJesse Chavez
AP Photo/Eric RisbergJesse Chavez got the win for the A's in 5.2 innings of scoreless relief, with one hit and seven strikeouts.
"The last guy they threw was the best guy we faced all day," Teixeira told MLB.com. "That guy is nasty."

It's one of those games that will be remembered if the A's end up winning the American League West. It's that kind of bullpen depth that fueled their second-half surge last season and has fueled their strong start this season. The A's are 33-0 when leading heading into the ninth inning. They're 6-2 in extra innings. When tied through seven innings they're 8-1. This is a tough team to beat late in a game.

The A's have won 11 consecutive games at home and 21 of their past 26, and while they were 7 games behind the Rangers in mid-May, they now lead the division by two games, after the Blue Jays beat Yu Darvish and the Rangers 3-1, dropping the Rangers to 4-8 in June. Injuries to Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland have hurt, but that gets us back to roster depth.

Who is the favorite to win the West? Here's a quick rundown comparing the two teams.

Lineups
Oakland: .246/.328/.397
Texas: .264/.327/.436

Entering Thursday's games, the Rangers had the higher wOBA, but the A's had the slightly better park-adjusted offense. The A's have gotten huge performances from Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp, and while some regression might be in order, Donaldson also looks like a much-improved hitter from last season, as Jerry Crasnick wrote. On the other hand, Josh Reddick (.187) and Chris Young (.169) should improve.

For the Rangers, the offense is trending downward. In 2011, they averaged 5.3 runs per game; in 2012, 5.0; this year, 4.4. Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz are doing Adrian Beltre- and Nelson Cruz-type things, but Elvis Andrus and David Murphy are struggling right now. If Murphy doesn't pick it up, the Rangers might look to add an outfielder.

Advantage: A's.

Starting pitching
Oakland: 29-24, 4.01 ERA; .249/.298/.398; 6.1 innings per start
Texas: 25-21, 3.77 ERA; .251/.311/.391; 5.9 innings per start

The rotations have posted similar numbers, but once you adjust for ballpark, the Rangers' staff has performed better, led by Darvish and Derek Holland. FanGraphs WAR rates the Rangers' starters at 8.6 Wins Above Replacement, third-best in the majors, and the A's 12th-best at 5.0.

The good news for the A's is that Jarrod Parker pitched well again Thursday. After posting a 7.34 ERA through his first seven starts, he's gone 4-1 with a 2.40 ERA over his past seven, with a .183 average allowed and WHIP under 1.00. His changeup is back to the deadly weapon it was last year, as batters have hit .118 against it in those most recent seven games.

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The Rangers have succeeded even though Matt Harrison has spent most of the season and the disabled list and Colby Lewis all of it. Alexi Ogando is also out again with shoulder inflammation. The Rangers received some solid work from Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm early on, but those two haven't been quite as strong lately, and you have to wonder if the injuries won't catch up to the rotation at some point, at least until Lewis and Harrison return.

Edge: Even. The Rangers have been better so far, but moving forward I think the A's close the gap.

Bullpen
Oakland: 12-3, 2.89 ERA; .227/.289/.358
Texas: 13-7, 3.29 ERA; .240/.313/.368

The Texas bullpen has also been outstanding, especially the back three of Joe Nathan, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross. Neal Cotts has added some depth as well. Scheppers has been the big surprise, with a fastball that sits at 94-96 mph and touches 98; he's always had a good arm but might finally be putting it together. He doesn't have a big strikeout rate (21 in 32.1 innings), and I do wonder if he keeps pitching this well. Batters are hitting just .170 off his fastball even though Scheppers' strikeout/walk ratio with the pitch is just 10.9.

Edge: A's. The Rangers have a good pen, but once you get into the fifth, sixth and seventh guys, I think the A's have the advantage.

Defense
Oakland: minus-20 Defensive Runs Saved
Texas: plus-8 Defensive Runs Saved

Ultimate Zone Rating has the clubs essentially even -- Texas at minus-0.3, Oakland at minus-1.3. The big problem area for the A's has been shortstop Jed Lowrie at minus-8 DRS. Chris Young, who usually rates very well in the outfield, has also rated poorly at minus-5 DRS. Of course, if he doesn't start hitting, he's not going to get much playing anyway behind Crisp, Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

Edge: Rangers.

The A's were my preseason pick to win the division, and they look like the better team right now. What do you think?

 
Texas Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland did this today off Brandon McCarthy, although I'd like a new measurement on the reported 391 feet.

Moreland
That was Moreland's 11th home run and he's hitting .286/.333/.555. Not bad for a guy many suggested before the season should be benched to find room in the lineup for Jurickson Profar, with the popular idea being to play Profar at second base and move Ian Kinsler to first.

The sentiment to replace Moreland wasn't without merit. His Baseball-Reference WAR last season of 0.3 suggests a replacement-level first baseman. While he hit .275/.321/.468, those are Arlington-inflated numbers, and he didn't do much damage against left-handers. Overall, for a first baseman, his season wasn't anything special.

On the other hand, his OPS was still higher than Kinsler's, and moving Kinsler to first wouldn't necessarily have been a defensive upgrade. And while there's no doubting Profar's potential, we were still talking about a 20-year-old kid who hit .281 in Double-A. Profar is a switch-hitter, but sitting Moreland would have meant losing one of the few power lefty bats in the Texas lineup -- not a good idea with the departure of Josh Hamilton.

Anyway, the Rangers and manager Ron Washington have always liked Moreland more than the scouts and analysts, even giving him a regular spot against lefties -- 10 of his 11 home runs have come off right-handers, but nine doubles against lefties have helped him to a respectable .268/.312/.437 line against southpaws. I still think the Rangers would be better off platooning him -- finding a right-handed batter who can mash against lefties and play first base is a pretty easy roster spot to fill if you so choose -- but playing him every day has worked so far.

I'm not trying to portray Moreland as some kind of future star here. He's already 27 years old and could just be riding a hot streak right now. But so far he's proving that you don't get rid of a guy unless you know you have a better option available.

As for Profar, with Kinsler currently on the disabled list he will get a few weeks of action in the big leagues. After a three-hit day in the Rangers' 9-5 victory over the Diamondbacks on Thursday, he's hit .370 in seven games. Hey, there's nothing wrong with having depth.

A quick warning about Jurickson Profar's call to the majors to replace the disabled Ian Kinsler: Do not expect Mike Trout; do not expect Bryce Harper; do not expect Manny Machado.

Yes, the performance of those three wunderkinds has, unfortunately, raised the expectations for all prospects, especially one deemed the best in the game entering this season.

In time, maybe Profar joins them as generational talents (I can see the corny nickname already: "The Four Tops"), but it would be unfair to believe Profar will hit like they have, at least right off the bat. Remember, he's only 20, and, while he held his own in Triple-A, hitting .278/.370/.438 with four home runs, HE'S ONLY 20 YEARS OLD. Most 20 year olds are still learning how to hit curveballs in the South Atlantic League.

That said, I'm excited to see the kid play for a couple weeks. While Profar didn't start Sunday and Ron Washington said he'll split time with Leury Garcia, I'm not sure the Rangers recalled Profar to play three games a week. Profar has a good approach at the plate, particularly for a kid so young, drawing 21 walks in 37 games at Round Rock, so that's a good sign that he'll come up to the majors and not get in trouble by being overly aggressive. And, as Washington likes to say, "He's not afraid of the game."

Kinsler had been one of the best players in the league so far, hitting .302 with seven home runs, 20 RBIs and 24 runs, so the Rangers will miss his production from the leadoff spot. But they have a comfortable lead in the AL West and there was no reason to push him through the injury.

Profar is likely headed back to Triple-A once Kinsler's DL stint ends. Of course, who knows, maybe Profar hits so well he leaves the Rangers no choice but to find a regular spot for him. I don't think that will happen, but I wouldn't be that eager to bet against him, either.

REST OF THE WEEKEND

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Three stars

1. Matt Joyce, Tampa Bay Rays. Down 4-0 after one inning to the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday, Joyce hit a two-run homer in the third to get the Rays closer and then hit a two-run, go-ahead double in the ninth. On Sunday, Joyce's homer provided the insurance run in a 3-1 win as the Rays swept the O's.

2. Dexter Fowler, Colorado Rockies. The Rockies had many heroes in winning three of four against the San Francisco Giants at home, but Fowler jumpstarted the offense all weekend with 10 hits and seven runs scored. Not a bad four days: He raised his average from .252 to .286.

3. Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians. Masterson tossed his second consecutive scoreless start, striking out a season-high 11 in seven innings against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday in a 6-0 victory. Masterson improved to 7-2 while lowering his ERA to 2.83. This is a different Masterson than we've seen the past couple seasons, with a much higher strikeout rate (25 percent versus 18 percent last season) but still keeping the home runs to a minimum (just three). While he's struggled in the past against left-handers, he's held them to a .226 average this season with a 36/19 K/BB ratio compared to 72/56 in 2012. And it's not all batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is a fairly normal .285 so far. If he keeps getting lefties out, he's going to keep winning games.

Honorable mention star of the weekend
Have to mention Joey Votto for getting on base all six times in Saturday's win for the Cincinnati Reds -- he went 4-for-4 with two walks, a double and a home run. Only two players had a "6-for-6" day last season -- Aaron Hill of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Neil Walker of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Both went 5-for-5 with a walk and, like Votto, doubled and homered.

One more honorable mention star of the weekend
The Diamondbacks beat the Miami Marlins on Saturday as Brandon McCarthy pitched the three-hit shutout (no save!), but he had a lot of help from Gerardo Parra, who led off the game with this on the first pitch and then did this in the bottom of the first. Parra has one of the better arms in the majors, but his bat is a big reason the D-backs are in first place, as he's hitting .320/.385/.494 with 28 runs (11th in the NL). That batting line, combined with his outstanding defense, has Parra leading the NL in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), tied with Matt Harvey and Clayton Kershaw, at 3.1. Justin who?

Clutch performance of the weekend
Atlanta Braves rookie Evan Gattis keeps finding a way to get himself into the highlights. On Saturday, he pinch hit in the eighth inning against hard-throwing Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers with the Braves down 1-0 and a runner on and did this on a 2-2 fastball. The best part of the highlight is Freddie Freeman's "I don't believe that" reaction in the dugout.

The Dodgers bullpen, meanwhile, continues to implode. They followed Saturday's loss with another one on Sunday, giving up four runs in the eighth in a 5-2 loss. It has 13 losses, three more than any other team, and its 4.61 ERA is better only than the New York Mets and Houston Astros.

Unclutch performance of the weekend
Aroldis Chapman, step on down. Chapman entered with a 2-1 lead on Sunday and walked Delmon Young with one out. That was bad enough, but Cliff Lee pinch ran for Delmon (yes, a guy who plays the outfield regularly got run for by a pitcher) … and got picked off for the second out of the inning. Game over, right? Nope. Erik Kratz homered on a 3-2, 98 mph heater. And then Freddy Galvis -- Freddy Galvis! -- hit the dramatic walk-off home run off a 95 mph fastball.

Best game
OK, it's pretty difficult to top that one. There were some wild games this weekend -- Tampa beat Baltimore 12-10 on Friday, the Indians gave up two home runs in the ninth to Seattle on Saturday only to win in the bottom of the inning -- but Friday's Washington Nationals-San Diego Padres game was a tough one for San Diego. Adam LaRoche homered twice off rookie Burch Smith, but the Padres tied it with two runs in the bottom of the ninth off Rafael Soriano -- with the help of another Ryan Zimmerman throwing error. (A situation that's becoming a serious problem for the Nationals, as that's nine errors for Zimmerman with his fielding percentage a Mark Reynolds-like .897.) Anyway, Chad Tracy hit a pinch-hit homer off Huston Street in the 10th to give the Nats a 6-5 win. That's already six home runs allowed for Street, whose trade value is shrinking with each home run.

Hitter on the rise: Jason Kipnis, Indians
He had a three-run, walk-off home run in the 10th inning on Friday and two hits on Saturday and Sunday, giving him nine in his past four games, all Cleveland victories. The Indians are 17-4 since April 28 and Kipnis has hit .305 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs in the 20 games he's played. He won't start the All-Star Game with Robinson Cano in the American League, and the AL is loaded at second base with Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Kipnis at the All-Star Game.

Pitcher on the rise: Jeff Locke, Pirates
I'm not necessarily buying, but the lefty is now 4-1 with a 2.73 ERA after tossing seven scoreless innings on Sunday against the Astros in a 1-0 win. His K/BB ratio is a pedestrian 32/22, but opponents are hitting just .219 off him, thanks to a .230 BABIP. With that number likely to rise, Locke will need to record a few more whiffs to maintain success close to this level. Still, that's three scoreless outings this season and one did come against the Cardinals. Even though he's not this good, if he can give the Pirates 175 solid innings as a No. 4 starter, they'll take it.

Team on the rise: Pirates
The Pirates took two of three from the Astros to improve to 11-6 in May and 26-18 overall. They're second in the majors in ERA, and it's not necessarily a huge fluke as they're third in strikeouts. One thing to keep an eye on: Only the hapless Astros have needed more innings from their bullpen, so while the Pittsburgh crew has been outstanding, the workload is a possible concern down the road.

Team on the fall: Dodgers
The two bright spots this week were Zack Greinke's return and Matt Kemp's great catch on Saturday, but three losses in Atlanta reiterated that this isn't just a team ravaged by injuries: It's a bad team with a bad bullpen that finds ways to lose. Manager Don Mattingly said not to blame the bullpen. "You add on a run here or there, it takes a lot of pressure off a guy that you can't give up one hit that changes the whole game. I think we have to take this all as a group."

OK, then, we'll call it a team effort of a team on the fall.

    "I don't think I ever got proper credit about being smart about the game." -- Rickey Henderson

When was the golden age for leadoff hitters?

Well, 1965 was pretty good. Joe Morgan was a rookie that year and hit his way into the leadoff spot, where he posted a .943 OPS. Felipe Alou started 108 games in the leadoff position and hit .303 with 20 home runs. Zoilo Versalles was the American League MVP, started 155 games there for the Twins and led the league in runs, doubles, triples and total bases. Pete Rose and Lou Brock started large chunks of games there. Maury Wills stole 92 bases.

How about 1975? Rose, Ken Singleton and Bobby Bonds each had more than 400 plate appearances from the top spot and on-base percentages over .400. Davey Lopes stole 72 bases, and Brock swiped 56. Guys such as Bernie Carbo, Roy White, Don Money and Al Bumbry were productive when hitting there.

There was 1987, with Henderson, Tim Raines, Paul Molitor, a second-year kid named Barry Bonds, Brett Butler, Brian Downing and Lou Whitaker. Remember Kal Daniels? He started 74 games for the Reds as the leadoff hitter that year and hit .337 with 22 home runs.

And 2004 seems like a good season. Ichiro Suzuki hit .377 with 251 hits as a leadoff guy. Johnny Damon scored 123 runs and drove in 94. Other leadoff success stories were Ray Durham, Jimmy Rollins, some Derek Jeter, .336-hitting Juan Pierre and Rafael Furcal. Craig Biggio hit .281 with 23 home runs and 46 doubles leading off. Pretty stellar group.

Good years all. Maybe you grew up in the '80s, when it seems half the teams had leadoff hitters who could swipe 50-plus bases -- Vince Coleman, Juan Samuel, Willie Wilson, Omar Moreno. Maybe that feels like the best era for leadoff hitters.

It isn't. The golden age is now.

I checked every season since 1950 and compared the production of leadoff hitters to the overall major league batting totals. Granted, it's only early May, but at their current rate, leadoff hitters have never hit better when compared to their peers. Here's a table listing the top 10 seasons by leadoff hitters (since 1950), using OPS compared to league OPS. Also included are the league-average runs per game and the number of stolen bases and runs scored per 650 PAs.


Using OPS is an imperfect method, because it doesn't factor in speed and stealing bases. That's why I included the totals for steals and runs per 650 PAs. Stolen bases don't really have a large effect on run scoring. Compare 2013 to 1990; the run-scoring environments were essentially the same (4.3 runs per game), and while the 1990 guys swiped 10 more bases per 650 PAs, they scored fewer runs. Stolen bases are down a bit in 2013, and certainly injuries to big stolen-base guys such as Jose Reyes and Michael Bourn have dragged down those steal totals a bit.

If there was a golden era before 2013, it looks like that 1990-1992 period, which featured leadoff hitters such as Henderson, Molitor, Lenny Dykstra, Wade Boggs, Tony Phillips, Bip Roberts, Butler, Delino DeShields, Raines, Biggio, Brady Anderson and Devon White.

But never before have we seen the depth in quality leadoff hitters that we're seeing this year. Yes, some of this is a result of the readjustment of offensive levels in recent years. From 1993 to 2006, leadoff hitters never posted OPS totals above the MLB average; as offensive totals boomed, leadoff hitters looked worse compared to their peers. The decline in offensive numbers has brought the rest of the pack back closer to leadoff hitters, but even the raw OPS total for 2013 of .759 is tied for the fourth highest behind 1987 (.764), 2006 (.762) and 2007 (.760).

Look at the best leadoff hitters in the game right now -- a group that doesn't even include Mike Trout, who has started only eight games in the leadoff spot, or the injured Reyes: Shin-Soo Choo (leading the majors in OBP), Austin Jackson (31 runs in 31 games), the underrated Alex Gordon, Ian Kinsler off to big start, Carl Crawford looking healthy and good again, Jacoby Ellsbury, the emerging Dexter Fowler, unsung Norichika Aoki and Starling Marte, perhaps a star in the making in Pittsburgh. Baltimore's Nate McLouth is a platoon player but has a .423 OBP hitting leadoff.

But what really makes 2013 a golden age is the quality behind those players. Others who have hit regularly there include Coco Crisp, Jose Altuve, Denard Span, Angel Pagan, Gerardo Parra, Michael Brantley, David DeJesus and Brett Gardner, all of whom have provided solid production.

One thing managers have wised up on -- for the most part -- is that batting a speedy guy leadoff isn't worth it if his OBP is under .300. Coleman had 670 PAs and stole 107 bases with the Cardinals in 1986 but still scored only 94 runs. The days of guys like Brian Hunter (.282 OBP in 1999 while starting 102 games with the Mariners in the leadoff position) burning up 500 PAs are gone. Managers won't stick with a guy that long anymore. (Well, Dusty Baker might, but Walt Jocketty acquired Choo for him this year.)

So, no, maybe there isn't one player the equal of a Henderson (of course not, that's like saying there's nobody who can hit like Babe Ruth) or Raines, or a 1993 Dykstra or in-his-prime Ichiro, but appreciate the guys out there: There's a lot of quality.
Quick thoughts on a Tuesday night that featured a lot of home runs across this great land ...

  • Look, Pablo Sandoval is fat. I'm about 99.7 percent sure if that if he lost 10 or 50 pounds that he'd be a better player. But, hey, he is who he is and right now the Giants don't care if can't tuck in his jersey as long as he keeps hitting like this. He crushed an 0-1 fastball from J.J. Putz for a two-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Giants a dramatic 2-1 win over the Diamondbacks. He's 11-for-18 in his past four games, but the best thing about his home run: He sort of called it. Andrew Baggarly of CSN tweeted, "Sandoval told Pence on his way to the plate that he was 'gonna click one.' So he called his shot? 'Pretty much.'" For Putz, that's already four blown saves (although the D-backs managed to win the first three of those games) and you wonder if Kirk Gibson will consider moving David Hernandez or even Heath Bell into the role.
  • [+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Pablo Sandoval
    Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsPablo Sandoval's two-run home run in the ninth gave the Giants a win over the Diamondbacks.
    Watched a lot of the Rays-Royals game to see James Shields battle against his old pals. Alex Cobb was dominant through five innings, leading 2-0 and going to two balls on just two hitters. The Royals broadcast showed a cool split screen showing the similar deliveries of Shields and Cobb; Shields has that little Tiant-esque twist and Cobb has maybe a little more deliberation, but the two are very similar. Cobb even credits Shields with showing him the spike curveball that he now uses with his fastball/changeup combo. Suddenly with two outs and nobody on in the sixth, the Royals got to Cobb with an Eric Hosmer double, Lorenzo Cain single, Mike Moustakas home run to right (his first of the year), Jeff Francoeur double and Salvador Perez single. Meanwhile, Shields served up a two-run homer to Matt Joyce in the first, but settled down and delivered another quality start. He's only 2-2 as the Royals have struggled to score runs, but he has a 3.00 ERA and 39/10 SO/BB ratio. He's been everything the Royals wanted.
  • The reports of Roy Halladay's demise may have been exaggerated, but the reports of his return may also have been a bit premature. The Indians tagged him for three home runs, nine hits and eight runs in 3.2 innings. Cleveland then added four more off the Philly bullpen -- with Ryan Raburn hitting two for the second game in a row -- in a 14-2 win. The Indians have scored 33 runs in their past three games. Oh, Carlos Santana is good: .389/.476/.722. I'll have to check in on the Indians one of these nights.
  • Ian Kinsler is quietly having a great season for the Rangers -- two more hits in a 10-6 win over the White Sox to raise his line to .317/.395/.525, along with outstanding defense at second.
  • Fun back-and-forth game in Toronto as the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox 9-7 after David Ortiz had given Boston a 7-6 lead with a three-run double in the seventh. Big win to snap a four-game skid. Edwin Encarnacion hit two home runs, including the go-ahead two-run shot off the very tough Junichi Tazawa, and this ginormous shot off Jon Lester into the fourth deck, just the 14th player to hit one there. Melky Cabrera continues to struggle but Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are starting to heat up. Still, as Dan Szymborski wrote, the Jays' slow start has hurt their playoff odds big time. Insider
  • Yuniesky Betancourt, you are awesome.
  • This happened at Dodger Stadium tonight.
With Mike Trout currently batting second for the Angels, Eric Karabell wondered: Who is the game's best leadoff hitter right now? Time for a quick debate!

Eric: Austin Jackson
I'll go with Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson. He's not off to the flashiest start, not like Shin-Soo Choo, Jose Altuve or Carl Crawford, but Jackson has the brightest future, as he does just fine getting on base, running a bit, scoring many runs. Leaving out the part about Jackson's elite ability defensively, at the plate he brings speed, power and durability to the leadoff role, but what I like best is he continues to grow as a hitter. Last season Jackson cut quite a bit into his strikeout rate and walked more, and while it didn't get noticed because of what Trout accomplished, Jackson was probably the second-best leadoff option in the game. Now that Trout is hitting second in the lineup, Jackson is first. He's 26 and getting better.

SportsNation

Who is the game's best leadoff hitter right now?

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    41%
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    5%
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    29%
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    17%
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    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,620)

Dave: Shin-Soo Choo
The Cincinnati Reds center fielder is off to a stunning start, getting on base more than Joey Votto (his .521 OBP leads the majors, thanks in part to an amazing nine hit by pitches already) and adding some power (three homers, six doubles). It's no fluke, of course: Choo has a career .385 OBP and he thrived after moving to the leadoff spot last year in Cleveland. And while he's not known as a burner, he's averaged 19 steals over the past four seasons. The question with him is how he does against left-handers. So far, so good (OBP over .400), but last year he had just a .318 OBP. If we're talking all-around game, sure, I'll take Jackson and his terrific glove over Choo and his questionable range. But for pure leadoff skills, Choo is my guy.

What do you think?

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