SweetSpot: James Loney

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

May, 9, 2014
May 9
We're nearing the end of Week 6 and Nolan Arenado is still hitting, Seattle can't seem to lose, the Jays are mashing, Miami sits atop the the NL East and is unbeatable at home, Laz Diaz is still taunting players and a few teams picked to excel this year are below .500 (looking at you, Rays, Pirates, Royals, Reds, Cleveland).

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Projections vs. reality: D-backs position players: Jeff Wiser compares preseason ZiPS projections to the performances of each of the Arizona position players, showing that some players are more responsible for the team's slow start than others, and discussing what to expect of each going forward. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24.

Atlanta Braves: Chop County
The Braves made a mistake by signing Chris Johnson: Martin Gandy says the Braves signed one too many players to a long-term contract when they inked Chris Johnson this week. Follow on Twitter: @gondeee.

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Anatomy of a Scoring Decision: Joe Reisel discusses what goes into the decision-making process of an official scorer. He uses a specific incident during one of his games in Norfolk. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.

Boston Red Sox: Fire Brand of the American League
Starting rotation could separate Red Sox in AL East: With a deep and talented set of starters and plenty of prospects biding their time in Triple-A, the Red Sox’s depth at starting pitching might prove to be their crucial advantage. Follow on Twitter: @AlexSkillin.

Chicago Cubs: View From the Bleachers
Three Cubs prospects who deserve a promotion: Joe Aiello takes a look at some names in the Cubs farm system who are off to a great start and deserve consideration for a promotion. Follow on Twitter: @VFTB.

Chicago White Sox, The Catbird Seat
On Donald Sterling and Jerry Reinsdorf: Chris Lamberti uses Jerry Reinsdorf's history to explore the fallacy of believing owner misdeeds are as obvious and easily purged as Donald Sterling's boorish racism. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Analyst Who? Don't blink: Richard Bergstrom channels The Doctor with a word to any companions attempting to observe the Colorado Rockies' front office. Follow on Twitter: @rockieszingers.

Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
Carlos Gomez and controlled aggression: Carlos Gomez's game is all about aggression, but he's bringing more control to it all the time according to Curt Hogg. Follow on Twitter: @cyrthogg.

New York Yankees: It's About The MoneyDerek Jeter and the fastball: It seems Derek Jeter is having an issue with fastballs and so far, and teams like the Rays and Angels are bombarding him with them. @edermik.

The maturation of Dellin Betances: Dellin Betances has been tremendous out of the bullpen and Brad Vietrogoski writes about how much Betances has matured to get to this point. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
MAD factor for pitchers: Pip quantifies the Madduxian ideal of enticing batters both to swing at balls and to not swing at strikes. Follow on Twitter @fungoes.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
Under The Hood: Jennings, Loney and Joyce: Tommy Rancel examines the hot starts of Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce while exploring James Loney's performance in "clutch" situations. Follow on Twitter: @TRancel

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
Second Base and the offensive regression: Brandon Land looks at the spot in the lineup that is now hurting the Rangers the most. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook, although the to-be-renamed podcast was spiked on iTunes.
1. Rays and James Loney agree on a three-year, $21 million contract.

I'm a little surprised Loney wasn't able to get a little better contract after a solid 2013 -- two years and $20 million or three years and $30 million, something like that -- but Loney remains a bit of an enigma and he doesn't give you the power you'd like from a first baseman, so teams hate to spend money on a guy like him. Still, I'd rather have Loney for three years at $7 million per season than Justin Morneau for two years at $6.25 million per season (as the Rockies gave him).

While Loney hit .299/.348/.430 in 2013 and plays good defense, he also hit .249/.293/.336 in 2012. The fear is that he may be more 2012 than 2013. But as Tommy Rancel pointed out over at The Process Report:
Perception aside, there appears to be little wrong with this arrangement. Loney is an average -- or slightly better -- player being paid at what appears to be market rate. The comparison to Casey Kotchman will be made, but that is rather lazy. Some will quickly point out Loney’s disastrous 2012, and sudden rebound as too positive of a correction, but looking at each season in which he has logged over 300 plate appearances, it is 2012 and not 2013 that jumps out as more of the outlier.

Season by wRC+
2007 – 137
2008 – 102
2009 – 103
2010 – 97
2011 – 110
2012 – 70
2013 – 115

Loney isn't a great player but he's durable and, at 29, three years younger than Morneau, and plays better defense. For a team like the Rays, it's a safe investment.

2. Royals and Omar Infante agree to four-year, $30 million deal.

Infante has had an interesting career. A regular in the big leagues at 22 with the Tigers, he had a bad season at age 23 and the Tigers turned him into a utility player, eventually trading him to the Cubs (for Jacque Jones, who hit .165 in 24 games with Detroit). The Cubs immediately traded him to the Braves. From 2006 through 2009 he averaged just 250 plate appearances a season. I'm pretty sure at that point Infante never imagined he'd be signing a $30 million contract. Anyway, he was a controversial All-Star in 2010 for the Braves, traded to the Marlins for Dan Uggla and then traded with Anibal Sanchez back to the Tigers in 2012.

He's been a good player the past four seasons, averaging 2.7 WAR per year as a good contact hitter who plays a reliable second base. But those were his age-27 to age-31 seasons. The Royals are banking him being productive from ages 32 to 35. The Royals have now handed $62 million to Infante and Jason Vargas, which probably sounds more ridiculous than it is. Both are average-ish players, but Kansas City is banking on strong aging curves from both. While it's easy to criticize both moves, these are the types of players a team like the Royals are going to land in free agency.

Infante hit .318 with a .345 OBP in 2013 (he doesn't walk much, obviously) so had value on offense; but he hit .276 in 2011 and .274 in 2012 and didn't have as much value. The Royals needed a second baseman so Infante will help; it's just a question of how much he'll help.

3. Rockies reportedly agree with Boone Logan on a three-year, $16.5 million contract.

In his past three years with the Yankees, Logan averaged 45.1 innings per season while posting a 3.51 ERA. So the Yankees viewed him as a LOOGY, although he's not really a dominant LOOGY; lefties hit .238/.300/.404 off him with 10 home runs in 302 at-bats over those three years. Among lefty relievers with at least 100 innings over the past three years, he's 33rd in OPS allowed against left-handed batters. He's not a bad pitcher and he's good enough against right-handers that his role could potentially be expanded, keeping in mind that Joe Girardi used him very carefully.

The issue with giving Logan $16.5 million is simple: Why spend your money on relief pitching? OK, the Rockies had the worst bullpen ERA in the National League at 4.23. But some of that is pitching in Coors Field and some of that is that Rockies relievers had to throw more innings than any other team. The Rockies claim they have a limited payroll and decided to spend their new TV money on: (A) a first baseman who has regressed into a barely league-average hitter; (B) a starting pitcher (Brett Anderson) who has made 24 starts the past three seasons; (C) a LOOGY.

I've been critical of the Rockies, although I will say they went 74-88 while the bottom of the rotation was beyond horrible. With better starting pitcher, they could suddenly morph into contender status. I don't see it, but you never know.
James Loney is hitting .376, second in the majors to Miguel Cabrera. Eric Karabell wrote about the Tampa Bay Rays first baseman:
Loney enters the week one of five players being aided by a BABIP of better than .400. All five players (Joe Mauer, Carlos Gomez, Starling Marte, Cabrera and Loney) are hitting considerably better than .300, but I think only Mauer and Cabrera stay there. Loney is taking walks, making more contact and not striking out as much, and considering he has been on the bench against lefty pitchers, I wouldn't be shocked if he batted .300. But I'll say he hits more like .250 the rest of the way, and I'll take the under on 12 home runs and 70 RBIs. The fact we're even discussing him at all after years of underachievement with the Los Angeles Dodgers is a feat in itself.

I'm basically in agreement with Eric. He's unlikely to have suddenly improved at age 29. The Rays are smartly platooning him; for some reason the Dodgers never realized he couldn't hit left-handers, or kept hoping he'd eventually figure it out. (He hit .231 with little power against lefties from 2009 through 2012.)

Anyway, you know who Loney reminds me of? Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. In fact ... the similarities are pretty eerie. Both were pitchers/first basemen in high school who some teams like on the mound as much as the plate. Both are tall/thinner guys who put up big numbers their first seasons in the majors, leading to big expectations.

You remember what Hosmer did as a rookie in 2011 at age 21, hitting .293 with 19 home runs in 128 games. But Loney had even bigger numbers his first season in the majors in 2007. After hitting well at the end of 2006 (.901 OPS in 111 plate appearances), Loney hit .331/.381/.538 with 15 home runs in 96 games his rookie season. He was older than Hosmer -- he turned 23 that season -- but still young enough that he looked like a future All-Star.

It never happened, of course. Those 15 home runs remain a career high. Last year, he slumped all the way to .249/.293/.336, putting his career in jeopardy if he didn't rebound this year.

Like Loney, Hosmer has so far been unable to tap into his power potential. He struggled last year and while he's hitting .270 right now, it's a soft .270 with one home run. And he's not hitting doubles either -- he's on pace for 19 doubles and five home runs. He just doesn't hit the ball hard enough or far enough often enough.

He's still very young, of course, and it's easy to lose sight of that. But Loney's career is a warning that just because you flash power early in your career you're not necessarily going to grow from there.

Dodgers still living on the edge

September, 20, 2012

    "I mean, guys, I know how to hit. I promise you, I know how to hit. It’s just right now, it’s been pretty tough."
    -- Matt Kemp to reporters a few days ago

Kemp has not had a good September. He's been mired in such a terrible slump that Cardinals manager Mike Matheny intentionally walked Andre Ethier the other day with runners at second and third and two out in the bottom of the 10th inning. And it worked. Kemp flied out, and the Cardinals eventually won the game in 12 innings.

The 2011 MVP runner-up entered Wednesday's doubleheader in Washington hitting .122 in September, with one walk and 14 strikeouts, an approach conjuring up memories of Kemp's lackluster 2010 season. Going back to Aug. 10, he had one home run and 12 RBIs in 31 games. "The Bison"? This was more like "T-Bone" Shelby.

Kemp went 1-for-4 in the first game as the Nationals won 3-1, dropping the Dodgers to 9-17 since an Aug. 19 victory had left them a half-game up on the Giants in the National League West. They were now two games behind the Cardinals in the crawl to the second wild-card spot. I wouldn't quite label the nightcap a must-win game, but there was at least a certain urgency.

How did this happen? How did the Dodgers get here? On Aug. 20, they lost to the Giants, when Madison Bumgarner outdueled Clayton Kershaw 2-1 (both starters went eight innings, and combined for 20 strikeouts and no walks). The Giants won the next day and the next. A sweep at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers then had an off day, and general manager Ned Colletti spent it finalizing the blockbuster deal to acquire Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett. This would right the ship. It would be a battle to the end against their hated rivals, and in a perfect alignment of the schedule, the teams would finish the season against each other at Dodger Stadium.

Instead, the blockbuster became blockbusted. Gonzalez has been awful since joining the Dodgers, and his batting line stood at .233/.286/.378 (BA/OBP/SLG). Those would be described in the greater L.A. area as "James Loney numbers." Beckett had been inconsistent in four starts with the Dodgers, posting a 3.38 ERA but allowing 27 hits in 24 innings. He'd start the second game.

* * * *

The Dodgers scored three runs in the third inning. Kemp and Gonzalez drew key walks, and Hanley Ramirez and Ethier knocked in runs. They scored three more in the fourth. Kemp had an RBI single. He later scored a controversial run (replays showed he hadn't crossed the plate before a tag was made on Gonzalez). It was just the second time the Dodgers had scored at least six runs in 18 games. They'd scored two or fewer in nine of those games.

* * * *

The Nationals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth. The home crowd went crazy.

* * * *

The Dodgers were staring down the barrel of one of the season's most bitter defeats that any team had suffered, an absolutely crushing blow considering the timing and circumstances.

Kemp led off the ninth against Nationals closer Tyler Clippard, and fell behind on a called strike for a cutter and two foul balls on a changeup and fastball. Kemp had entered the day hitting .200 on 0-2 counts, with 32 strikeouts in 63 plate appearances. Over the past three seasons, batters were hitting .128 off Clippard when he reached an 0-2 count.

Clippard wanted to elevate a fastball; he didn't elevate enough. Kemp belted a towering fly ball to center field that reached the third row of bleachers. Brandon League had an easy, 12-pitch bottom of the ninth, and the Dodgers had the win 7-6. If the Dodgers somehow find a way to gather up some steam and catch the Cardinals to make the postseason, this will be the game Dodgers fans remember. From nearly falling off the edge of the cliff to catching a branch on the way down. Still hanging in there.

* * * *

This isn't a good team right now, not with Kemp and Gonzalez struggling at the plate. Not with Kershaw indefinitely sidelined -- maybe for the rest of the season -- with his sore hip. The Dodgers haven't been good since that amazing 30-13 start. In truth, the Dodgers' season peaked May 22, when Ivan DeJesus Jr. doubled in two runs in the ninth inning to give the Dodgers an 8-7 victory over the Diamondbacks. They seemed unstoppable at that time, a miracle season in the works. Cue highlights of Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson on the big screen.

The Gonzalez trade was a sign of desperation, a sign of a new ownership group with deep pockets being played the fool. Take on our fading stars! Take on these mammoth contracts! Win back your fans! It will work out for you, trust us!

You know, the funny thing about the Frank McCourt era is that the Dodgers made the playoffs four times in his eight seasons as owner. They even won their first two playoff series since 1988.

I have a feeling they will be 0-for-1 in the Magic Johnson era.

Matt KempHarry E. Walker/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp gets his due for taking the pressure off everyone else with his winning homer in the nightcap.

Dodgers doing the necessary things

August, 14, 2012
Matt Kemp didn’t go yard. He didn’t need to. And Andre Ethier? He didn’t put the lineup on his back either. What of Mattingly’s mighty mites, the guys who were the toast of Los Angeles back in May? They were there, sure, but they essentially clocked in and clocked out, proverbial lunch pails in hand.

And the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates just the same on Monday night, because the team that made people wonder how general manager Ned Colletti had done it three months ago doesn’t really exist anymore. Kemp had a good night, and journeyman Aaron Harang tossed his 14th quality start -- a reasonable stand-in definition for “winnable game” -- of the season. This could be the second year in Harang’s career that he tosses a quality start 60 percent of the time, the sort of serviceability that recommended him to the Dodgers in the first place, just as it did Chris Capuano and now Joe Blanton. Rounding out a rotation after you have an ace in place isn’t sexy but it’s necessary, and perhaps that’s the word that will define what Colletti’s done this summer: the necessary things.

That’s because Colletti didn’t stand still any more than circumstances did. When forced to do something necessary, he has done it. He has adapted and overcome, and that, as much as anything, might be what puts the Dodgers into the postseason. Colletti never made the mistake of settling, not for the team he built over the winter on back-loaded deals to an odd collection of journeymen, and not when that team started the season 30-13 behind Kemp’s brief triple-crown bid. After a 6-19 swoon through July 17 helped kill any complacency over their brittle early-season achievements, Colletti acted, armed with the newly added largesse of his team’s new owners. Trading for Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino and Blanton represents a facelift significant enough to elicit professional respect among cosmetic surgeons.

As a result, the new-look Dodgers might resemble that surprise hot-start team you remember from April, but only in the broadest particulars. Kemp and Ethier you remember. But the undercard? Let’s just say the Dodgers aren’t going to try getting to the dance with everyone they initially invited. Transient heroes such as Bobby Abreu, Elian Herrera and Dee Gordon have had their moments, but Colletti was as married to any of them as Kris Humphries was to Kim Kardashian -- give me a good month, maybe two, and then, see ya! As brutally unfair as that might seem, that’s life in baseball’s middle class.

Let’s not forget Don Mattingly’s part in also doing a few necessary things. The skipper didn’t settle on Javy Guerra as his closer, last year’s 21 saves or no. Faced with a necessary choice after Guerra pitched poorly, Mattingly let performance be his guide, and Kenley Jansen nailed down Monday's game. Confronted by James Loney’s consistently crummy production, the Dodgers have turned more and more to Juan Rivera at first base -- Rivera has started 16 of their past 30 games. Giving Ramirez a test-drive at short to see if he can still swing it sets up a later necessary decision about what Gordon’s role might be down the stretch. Gordon might be the franchise's long-term future at shortstop, but there’s a right-now future to honor as well, and you can bet Mattingly will make a necessary choice with that in mind.

If you want to speculate about anything with this club, though, don’t think about the warm fuzzies of the Dodgers’ new age of Magic (Johnson) or what might have been if Kemp had stayed healthy. That way lies madness -- with Kemp around, perhaps the Dodgers’ needs might not have seemed so dire, and maybe then Colletti doesn’t bring in HanRam and the Flyin’ Hawaiian and rent Joe Blanton. Follow that thread of possibilities and you’re probably left with a nice little team, an 85-win team that gets remembered fondly as a symbol of the Dodgers’ return to respectability, if mildly disappointing for its late fade.

But perhaps because the Dodgers did start strong and Kemp did get hurt, Colletti did those subsequently necessary things to make something more of his team's circumstance. As a result, the Dodgers are turning into something more than just a rival with those Angels arrivistes from Anaheim for Angeleno affections, they’re turning into the sort of team you can see going toe-to-toe with anybody in a postseason series. Outside of the non-Clayton Kershaw nights, they can now beat you with the sort of depth in talent that is usually associated with the Yankees or Red Sox or last year's Cardinals (or the Phillies, up until this year).

They're stronger now because they were weak in June, possibly as strong as any team in the league. Think on that: Do you really want to run into a team that can lead off a postseason series with Kershaw? If you’re a gambling man, here’s hoping you don’t find that necessary.

Mike SciosciaKelvin Kuo/US PresswireIf Mike Scioscia wants to make a federal case out of it, there's always the Ninth Circuit.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
The Los Angeles Dodgers don't need Hanley Ramirez to suddenly convert back into vintage, MVP-candidate Hanley Ramirez.

Certainly, the Dodgers have hopes Ramirez will exceed the .246/.322/.428 line he put up with the Marlins. But even if he fails to improve -- and there's evidence that declining bat speed possibly created by a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery is the primary culprit -- he's still a big upgrade over what the Dodgers have been getting at third base or shortstop. Dodgers third basemen entered Wednesday's games ranked 23rd in the majors in OPS at .681; Dodgers shortstops ranked 25th with a .604 OPS.

Ramirez had a promising debut on Wednesday night, going 2-for-4. He tripled off the center-field wall and scored in the second inning and delivered a two-out RBI single in the sixth. He drew a leadoff walk in the 12th but didn't advance past first base, and the Cardinals scored in the bottom of the frame to win, 3-2.

The lack of offense from anyone besides Ramirez points to some larger issues, namely that he alone isn't going to push the Dodgers past the Giants. Here are five big-picture keys for the Dodgers winning the West:

1. Andre Ethier: Where has your power gone?
On June 12, Ethier signed a contract extension that will cover at least five years and cost $85 million. The deal was met with mixed reviews considering Ethier's age (30) and declining power numbers since 2009. He hasn't done much lately to inspire confidence in that deal by hitting .261 with just two home runs in 157 at-bats since May 22. Ethier's numbers are up a bit from 2011 thanks to 25 doubles, but he's still slugging under .400 over the past two months. You need better results from your cleanup hitter.

2. Production from the leadoff spot
Thanks to abysmal production from shortstop Dee Gordon, Dodgers leadoff hitters ranked 26th in the majors with a .278 on-base percentage and 30th in OPS. Somebody needs to tell Don Mattingly that it doesn't matter that Gordon could challenge Usain Bolt in a sprint around the bases: He's about as appropriate of a leadoff hitter as Magic Johnson. It's not clear what the Dodgers will do once Gordon returns from his thumb injury, but batting leadoff should no longer be in his job description if he gets his starting spot back.

In fact, considering the continued ineptitude of Juan Uribe at the plate (.196/.255/.297), it seems the Dodgers' best lineup would feature Ramirez at shortstop and utility man Jerry Hairston at third base. While Ramirez is likely only adequate at shortstop, it's not like Gordon is Ozzie Smith out there. His minus-13 defensive runs saved are tied with Derek Jeter for worst among shortstops. Half-season defensive numbers have to be taken with small sample caveats, but I don't think the Dodgers would lose by replacing Gordon with Ramirez.

In Gordon's absence, Mattingly has primarily alternated Bobby Abreu and Hairston in the leadoff spot, based on if a right-hander or left-hander starts. Even though Abreu has, shall we say, lost a step or four, he can at least get on base at an acceptable clip (.345).

Also, why not move catcher A.J. Ellis out of the eighth spot? No, he doesn't have a lot of power -- although he is third on the team in home runs with seven -- but he has a .389 OBP. This could give the Dodgers a lineup something like this:

LF Abreu
C A.J. Ellis
CF Kemp
RF Ethier
SS Ramirez
3B Hairston
2B Mark Ellis
1B James Loney

Against a left-hander, move Hairston into the leadoff spot and slide in Juan Rivera in left field. However ...

3. James Loney: Isn't it time?
To cut bait, you mean? Yes. I'm sure Mattingly, as a gifted glove man back in his day, appreciated a defensive first baseman. But enough is enough. Loney is hitting .248. He doesn't get on. He doesn't have power. He's tied for the National League lead in double plays grounded into. So ... umm ... can't they find somebody better to play first base? How about a guy like Daniel Murphy of the Mets? Not a power guy, but he can base a bit. Or they could revisit Carlos Lee, who earlier vetoed a trade to the Dodgers before the Astros traded him to the Marlins.

4. Chad Billingsley: Good ... or mediocre?
The Dodgers have received terrific production from free-agent signings Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang and I'm not worried that Clayton Kershaw's ERA has skyrocketed all the way up to 3.14. That leaves Billingsley as the one who could up step up the final 60 games. While his 4.15 ERA nearly matches his 4.21 mark of 2011, there are indicators he is pitching better: His SO/BB ratio of 2.97 is vastly improved over last year's 1.81. Still, he remains a frustrating enigma; it's clear Mattingly doesn't have a lot of confidence in him, as he's pitched more than six innings in four of his 19 starts.

5. Tim Lincecum!
The best sign for Dodgers on Wednesday might not have been Ramirez's two hits, but Lincecum getting pounded by the Padres. After two good starts against the Astros and Phillies, Lincecum gave up 11 baserunners, five runs and two home runs in a 6-3 loss. I would argue that the Dodgers' best chance of winning the NL West rests not Ramirez's bat or Kemp's return from injury or Mattingly's figuring out a batting order, but on Lincecum's right shoulder.

Omar InfanteJason Miller/Getty ImagesOmar Infante is feeling lighter than air after getting away from Miami's mayhem.

Ethier's injury latest Dodger setback

July, 5, 2012

At some point, you might start thinking that the Dodgers’ litany of woes is like the real estate market: Sure, it’s supposed to get better, but it finds new ways to make you unhappy. After all, no sooner had they started working up excitement over Matt Kemp's imminent return from the DL than they had to absorb the next unaffordable body blow to the lineup: Now right fielder Andre Ethier is headed to the DL, as well.

Earlier in the year, you could talk about how the Dodgers were a testament to the purported wisdom of general manager Ned Colletti’s aggressive offseason assemblage of journeyman bit players -- usually at top dollar, and overwhelmingly on two-year, back-loaded contracts. People wondered about those deals in December and January, but those concerns were easy to set aside in the early going. Chris Capuano and even Aaron Harang were doing good things in the rotation, Mark Ellis was getting on base as their regular at second base and with Jerry Hairston Jr. getting plugged into every hole in the lineup as it opened up, Colletti was an easy April tout.

Bobby Abreu washing up on waivers and longtime farmhand Elian Herrera posting a .400 OBP in his first month on the roster, and Colletti’s crew appeared to be the roster equivalent of found money. It was easy to credit Colletti with a certain brand of genius in an NL West without any easy favorite.

But all of that is much more easily affordable when the middle of the order features Kemp slugging .700 and Ethier providing his blend of offensive balance. Bit players doing their bit is nice and further evidence of the old saying that victory has many fathers, while defeat’s an orphan. Boppers bopping has a way of making everybody look good.

But take that one-two punch of Kemp and now Ethier out of the picture, and you’ve got a lineup that scrapes by at best. Without either Ethier or Kemp around this past week, the Dodgers have averaged just more than two runs per game and are drawing about two walks per game. They’ve hit one home run. That’s what happens when your supporting cast is put into the limelight, not for a scene, but carrying the whole show.

Things were already bad before Ethier left, though. Last week’s three consecutive shutouts to the Giants may be the signature setback, but during their latest 5-12 run, the Dodgers have scored more than three runs in a ballgame just three times. (Consistent with the way their luck has been going, they also managed to lose one of those rare outbursts.)

None too coincidentally, the supporting cast looked terrible during that time. The highest OPS of any Dodger position player over the past 30 games is Juan Rivera’s .653. The team-wide OPS from June 1 on is .572. The guys who are supposed to be center pieces have been anything but: Ethier is among those struggling (.628 OPS since June 1, with one homer). James Loney's bat has been MIA for so long that you’re more likely to see it on a milk carton, but even he has managed to disappoint the low standards he’s set for himself in recent seasons, contributing just a .540 OPS since the calendar turned to June.

How low can the Dodgers go? Much depends on if Ethier will really be ready to come back right after the All-Star break -- the same time as Kemp’s supposed to return to action. Back-dating Ethier’s trip to the DL to June 28 isn’t suggestive so much as it’s a formality. Ethier joins a long list of ballplayers who’ve suffered oblique injuries in the past two seasons, and rushing him back brings on a high risk of re-injury -- as high as 12 percent, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine in a 20-year study that Dodgers senior trainer Stan Conte co-authored earlier this year.

So there’s that risk, but that’s without getting into the Dodgers’ unhappy recent experience with Kemp at the end of May. The Dodgers reactivated their star slugger from his original hamstring injury six weeks ago only to have to return him to the DL two games later because he aggravated the injury. Even if Kemp’s back and 100 percent after the All-Star break, however much everyone involved might want all of the best Dodgers back on the field, their tenuous contention bid can’t afford a rush-back re-injury repeat experience with Ethier, as well. As the Dodgers have learned as the bit players get overexposed by everyday play, the supporting cast simply isn’t good enough for them to be able to afford it.

Things will get better once Kemp and Ethier return, of course. But how much better, and will it be in enough time? Even then, thanks to Colletti’s multiyear commitments, the question of whether or not the Dodgers can honestly expect better things next year remains to be seen, especially when the balloon payments to Capuano, Harang, Ellis and Hairston add another $11.5 million to the team’s payroll. If you think things can’t get worse, the bad news is that, relative to their fast opening in April and May, they may never get better.

Nats FanGreg Fiume/Getty ImagesWhat fan doesn't want to say happy birthday to the U.S. of A.?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Buster Olney had a note in his Sunday blog Insider that the Dodgers may open the season with 13 pitchers.

Not to pick on the Dodgers, because they won't be the only team to carry 13 pitchers, but I just don't understand this trend. Seven relief pitchers seemed like a lot, but eight? There are barely enough innings available to keep seven relievers busy.

What's even more odd about the Dodgers potentially keeping eight relievers is they threw the second-fewest relief innings in the National League last season. There are 26 weeks in the regular season. Dodgers relievers threw 439 innings, or about 17 innings per week. That's about two innings per reliever per week, or 52 innings per season. Of course, your best relievers will pitch more than 52 innings. Matt Guerrier pitched 66 a year ago. Kenley Jansen should approach 70, assuming he has no further complications with his heart palpitations. Closer Javy Guerra will pitch more than the 46.2 he threw last season when he wasn't recalled until May 15. A good manager will figure out how to get all three of those guys around 70 innings -- or 54 total innings above and beyond the 52-inning average if you carry eight relievers.

In other words, there is no room for an eighth guy if you properly manage your pen. And considering the Dodgers only have one lefty reliever in Scott Elbert likely to make the team, this isn't a case of carrying three lefties for the sake of carrying three lefties.

But the bigger problem is it limits your flexibility in managing your bench. If you carry 13 pitchers, that means four bench players -- two hitters you need to keep handy to pinch-hit for pitchers, your backup catcher, and a utility guy like Jerry Hairston who can double-switch into just about any position. It leaves manager Don Mattingly with essentially no ability to hit for a player in the starting lineup. That means no pinch-hitting for James Loney, who hit .213/.254/.307 against left-handers in 2011. It means no hitting for Andre Ethier, who hit .220/.258/.305 against lefties (and is just .242 with little power in his career). It means you can't really hit for Tony Gwynn Jr., Juan Rivera or Adam Kennedy with an opposite-side hitter except in maybe the eighth or ninth innings, and even then only if you haven't already hit for the pitcher.

It basically means opposing managers will always get the matchup they want against the Dodgers. The tactical advantage for carrying 13 pitchers is so small it actually becomes a tactical disadvantage, especially for a team like the Dodgers that should be hitting regularly for its starting eight.

This is a theme you'll likely see me pound home time and again. One small reason scoring has gone down in recent seasons is the trend to bigger bullpens. That may be great for the platoon edge on defense, but it makes most teams ill-equipped to make a countermove.

First-base question marks

February, 22, 2012
Matt LaportaAP Photo/Tony DejakCleveland's Matt Laporta hasn't had much to celebrate in the majors. Will 2012 be different?
On Tuesday I ran through Freddie Freeman’s projections and reasons to feel good and bad about his 2012, but there’s a larger point to make about young first basemen these days, starting with this: Freeman’s one of the success stories.

Look around the rest of the game, you’ll find a surprisingly large number of first-base disappointments with major questions to answer over whether or not they’re ever going to break through:

Chris Davis, Orioles: MLB career line of .252/.301/.448.
After mashing 36 homers as a 21-year-old in his full-season debut in the minors, Davis was ranked 65th on Baseball America’s 2008 list of baseball’s top 100 prospects. In fairness, Davis has had to deal with getting shuttled between the infield corners and from Texas to Baltimore, but he’s struck out more than 31 percent of the time in 1082 big-league plate appearances, and an OBP around .300 isn’t going to fly, even with his tremendous power. In his age-26 season, he needs to break through.

Lars Anderson, Red Sox: .175/.292/.200 (in 48 PAs)
Before 2009, Anderson ranked as the 17th-best prospect in baseball. It was all about projection, of course: He’d already reached Double-A and hit there before his 21st birthday. But the expectation that doubles would turn into homers as he matured hasn’t happened, and he hadn’t hit that many doubles in the first place -- a career minor-league ISO of .162 is nice, not excellent, not at first base. He’s not done, but he’s also not pushing his way into Boston’s plans.

Matt LaPorta, Indians: .238/.304/.397 in 1008 MLB PAs
The days when LaPorta was considered a top prospect and worthy payment for a couple of months of CC Sabathia’s time seem long gone now. He ranked 23rd on Baseball America’s top-100 list before 2008, “fell” to 27th as Indians property going into 2009, but after several clean shots as the Indians’ starter, he now looks like the guy who will lose his job to…

Casey Kotchman, Indians: .268/.336/.398
Seeing Kotchman on this list after his nice little season with the Tampa Bay Rays might seem harsh, but after already bouncing from Anaheim to Atlanta to Boston to Seattle, he’s already been a non-answer for a number of teams before his 30th birthday. But you can sort of understand why so many have taken a look: He had a four-year run on BA’s top-100 list where he never rated as low as LaPorta’s best, rising from the 22nd-best prospect in the land in 2002 to sixth (!) in 2005. Even allowing for the initial stumble at the outset of his big-league career with mono, Kotchman’s produced little power at a power position. He’s a slick fielder and a nice place-holder of last/cheap resort -- perhaps especially if you’ve already endured LaPorta-induced heartbreak -- but if he’s supposed to be an OBP guy, just remember that his career walk rate (8.3 percent) is lower than the MLB average over that time (8.5). Is that really what you’re supposed to have gotten from the sixth-best prospect in baseball?

Brett Wallace, Astros: .248/.323/.354
Back when Wallace was the 13th overall selection by the Cardinals in the 2008 draft, he was considered a pure hitting machine, but somebody whose thick build probably wouldn’t work out at third base. Even as a hit tool-only prospect, BA rated him as the world’s 27th-best prospect before the 2010 season. But in four years as a pro he’s flitted through four different organizations, hasn’t hit, and now the Astros are talking about giving him a shot -- back at third base, perhaps in part because he hasn’t hit anywhere close to well enough to be an adequate answer at first.

James Loney, Dodgers: .288/.348/.436
Including Loney on this list might seem unfair. He’s been durable, and like Kotchman he gets credited with good glovework. He bounced around the 30s and 40s on BA’s top-100 lists in the early Aughties, and that career rate might make it seem as if he’s delivered. Unfortunately, he hasn’t matched his career OPS since his rookie season back in 2007, when he wowed folks with a .919 clip. Back then, you could talk about Matt Kemp and Loney and think the Dodgers were set with two MVP candidates, but nothing Loney has done since has kept him in that conversation.

Chris Carter, Athletics: .167/.226/.254 in 124 MLB PAs
Carter hasn’t had a clean shot at a job yet, so he hasn’t accrued much playing time. But at this rate you have to wonder if the A’s will ever clear the path for him considering how many equally frustrating rivals they’ve collected to put in his way. Carter topped out as the 28th-ranked prospect by BA before 2010, and he’s also moved around a lot (three organizations). Heading into his age-25 season with a career .540 SLG in the minors, you might figure he’s due for a look, but the A’s also have Brandon Allen, sabermetric favorite Kila Ka’aihue (long live the Kila Monster), and…

Daric Barton, Athletics: .252/.362/.378
Barton might be the perfect example about of how “Moneyball” was a nice movie, but if there was even an organizing philosophy, you have to wonder if it hopped off the tracks at some point. When the A’s acquired Barton (with Kiko Calero) for Mark Mulder, it seemed like a perfect match. Barton topped out at 28th on BA’s top-100 list, but his patience at the plate made him seem like the organization’s idiosyncratic answer at first base. But in the middle of what seemed like a breakthrough season in 2010, he got fascinated with bunting at will (worse yet, manager Bob Geren indulged him), and he lost most of 2011 after tearing up his shoulder. Where the modern walking man fits in on the team that’s supposed to love walks more than anybody is up in the air.

Justin Smoak, Mariners: .227/.316/.385
There’s no joy to be had in putting Smoak on this list, and there are certainly special circumstances: He played with injuries to first one thumb and then the other and saw that sap his early season production. He then suffered a broken nose that placed him on the DL, and he lost his Dad -- all really tough things to work through. There was enough good stuff before he got hurt and after he healed to make you think he’ll be fine this year. But set against that you’ve got a first baseman who rated 13th on Baseball America’s top-100 prospects list heading into 2010, and he’s barely topping a .700 OPS.

Now, ’tis the season for hope and faith, new beginnings and redemption, and all the rest of the warm fuzzies you’re supposed to get this time of year. Carlos Pena's career got off on the wrong foot (several wrong feet, actually), to the point that the Tigers simply released the former top-five prospect at the end of spring training in 2006. But after five organizations Pena finally stuck as a 29-year-old journeyman with the Rays. How many of these guys' stories are going to have similarly happy endings? Touted as they’ve been, they’ve got plenty of questions to answer over whether or not they’ll be flat-out useful.

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

2012 predictions you couldn't predict?

February, 18, 2012
Last year, You Can't Predict Baseball came up with bold predictions for the year. We had a lot of fun coming up with them, and then laughing at how hilariously wrong they were at the end of the year. This year, we're bringing these predictions to SweetSpot, along with explanations for some of them. Keep in mind, these predictions are supposed to be bold, but not insane -- even we know the Orioles aren't going to the playoffs in 2012.

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.

[+] EnlargeRickie Weeks
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith Prince Fielder gone to Detroit and Ryan Braun facing possible disciplinary action, Rickie Weeks could lead the Milwaukee Brewers in home runs in 2012.
Milwaukee Brewers: Rickie Weeks leads the team in home runs. He was fourth on the team last year, with 20. In front of him were Corey Hart with 26, Ryan Braun with 33, and Prince Fielder with 38. Fielder is gone, and for this prediction we'll assume Braun will miss a third of the year due to a suspension. It's not too bold to think Weeks could pass Hart in 2012.

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.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter none in either 2009 or 10, James Shields pitched 11 complete games for Tampa Bay in 2011.
Boston Red Sox: No one hits 30 home runs. This might seem crazy when you consider their great offensive numbers last year, but only one player on their team hit 30 home runs and it was Jacoby Ellsbury with 32.

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.

You Can't Predict Baseball is an affiliate of the SweetSpot network.
JacksonTony Ding/Icon SMIAs analysts predicted, excessive strikeouts have limited the effectiveness of Detroit's Austin Jackson.
As a Mariners fan in the 1980s, one player absolutely wrecked me above all others: Jim Presley. He was a third baseman with good power, a quick bat and a strong arm. In 1985, his first full season, he hit .275/.324/.484 with 28 home runs and 33 doubles. He looked like he'd be a star.

But while he made the All-Star team in 1986, his strikeouts increased from 100 to 172. The problem was obvious: The dude couldn't lay off the slider low and away. Time after time, he would flail helplessly at the pitch. It got comical; pitchers learned they didn't even have to throw the pitch close to the plate and Presley would chase. With two strikes, you knew it was coming; Presley knew it was coming. Swing and a miss. By 1991, not yet 30 years old, he was out of the majors.

All fans have their most frustrating players. Here are five current major leaguers who pop into my mind. Discuss your frustrations below!

Austin Jackson, Tigers: Just because you're on the list doesn't mean you're a bad player. Jackson is an excellent defensive center fielder -- according to the Defensive Runs Saved metric from Baseball Info Solution, he tied with Brett Gardner and Pablo Sandoval with 22 runs saved in 2011, the best total in the majors. What makes Jackson frustrating, of course, is the high total of strikeouts: 170 as a rookie in 2010 and 181 in 2011. He managed to overcome the strikeouts his rookie season when he hit .293 thanks to a high average on balls in play. Analysts predicted a big decline in 2011 unless he cut down his strikeouts, and they were right: Jackson hit .249 with a .317 on-base percentage, numbers exacerbated by Jim Leyland's stubborn insistence on hitting Jackson leadoff. Despite a great lineup -- the Tigers finished fourth in the majors in runs scored -- Detroit finished just 10th in runs scored by its leadoff hitters.

James Loney, Dodgers: In 2007, Loney hit .331 with 15 home runs in 344 at-bats as a 23-year-old rookie. He looked like a future stud, a first baseman who would hit for a good average and 25 to 30 home runs per season. But he's never matched the power potential, settling in with numbing consistency, hitting between 10 and 13 home runs each season. Since he's not a .300 hitter nor does he draw many walks, Loney's numbers remain subpar for a first baseman. The improvement just hasn't happened, yet Dodgers management continues to stick with him. He's now making $6.375 million; that's a lot to pay for a first baseman who's hit .281/.341/.411 over the past four seasons.

Mark Reynolds, Orioles: Reynolds has big-time power, of course: Since 2008, he's fifth in the majors with 141 home runs, trailing only Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder and Mark Teixeira. But all those home runs come at the expense of record-breaking strikeout totals that drag down Reynolds' average. He's led the majors in K's each of those four seasons, and has racked up 834 -- more than 200 (!) per season. He shows no inclination to cut down on his swing. As a result, even though he draws walks, his .210 average and .322 on-base percentage cut into his overall offensive value. And then there's the defense. Reynolds had an .897 fielding percentage at third base in 2011, prompting the Orioles to start playing him at first. For now, they plan to move him back to third in 2012, and Reynolds has said he's lost weight this offseason to help improve his quickness and range at the hot corner. Now if only he would adjust a little at the plate.

A.J. Burnett, Yankees: He has a 5.20 ERA over the past two seasons, and while the Yankees may want to trade him, I see that as unlikely even if they pick up a large chunk of the remaining $33 million on his contract. His average fastball velocity, which peaked as high as 95.6 mph with the Marlins in 2005, was down to 92.7 in 2011. That's still plenty of velocity, but mixed with his lack of command and gopherball-itis, it's not enough to remain consistently effective. But enough to remain consistently frustrating.

Ricky Nolasco, Marlins: Nolasco went 15-8 with a 3.52 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 2008. He was prone to the home run, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked second in the NL. His future seemed like it could include becoming one of the top pitchers in the league. While he's gone 37-30 over the past three seasons, his ERA has been 4.76 and his WHIP has increased each year. He still has an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio (although it declined a bit in 2011), so he should be putting up better numbers. But he hasn't, and opposing batters hit .295 off him in 2011. The stuff and control are there. But we're still waiting for him to get his ERA back under 4.00.

Nick Evans, under-the-radar asset?

December, 3, 2011

Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireNick Evans' defensive skills could be of value down the road.

You probably didn’t notice that the Pittsburgh Pirates recently signed first baseman and outfielder Nick Evans to a minor league contract within the past two weeks. There wasn’t much reason to do so. Evans was nondescript with the bat, hitting .256 with four home runs and 25 RBIs for the Mets in 2011.

But Evans did something within his limited time that was significant to those of us trying to learn about advanced defensive stats. It struck me as being the defensive equivalent to hitting .400 over 150-or-so at-bats. In 337 2/3 innings, the equivalent of 37 nine-inning games at first base, Evans finished with seven defensive runs saved. That’s a good number for a first baseman. It tied him for most in the majors for the season with Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo.

It’s also significantly better than what the Pirates got from their first basemen last season. Theirs ranked 28th in the majors, costing the team 11 runs.

Defensive runs saved for first basemen calculates the ability to turn batted balls into outs and the success at getting outs on bunts.

Evans scored well primarily because he did well handling the 46 balls that were hit into his “zone,” with “zone” defined as the areas on the field in which first basemen turned batted balls into an out more than half of the time.

Evans’ revised zone rating was 84.8% (of the 46 balls in his zone, he converted 39 into outs).

That rate was tied for fifth-best among the 46 first basemen that played at least 300 innings at the position.

It was within striking distance of MLB leader Todd Helton (85.9 percent) and considerably ahead of Evans’ crosstown counterpart, Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira (77.0 percent). For every 46 balls hit into his zone last season, Teixeira got 35 outs, four fewer than Evans did in his (admittedly small) sample.

The way that Baseball Info Solutions, which calculates a plus-minus rating for every fielder, looks at it, they divide batted balls into three areas for infielders -- balls hit to the left and right of the area where most outs are recorded, and balls hit directly where a first baseman most often records outs.

Evans was a plus-six on balls hit into the latter area, meaning he was six plays better than the average first baseman. That factored significantly into Evans’ defensive runs saved rating, as did his defense on bunts, which was similarly above average.

Evans’ success jibed with that which he’d had as a minor leaguer as well.

The researchers at Baseball Info Solutions, whose founder John Dewan came up with the defensive runs saved metric, acknowledge that the stat isn’t necessarily the perfect measure of a first baseman’s skills.

There are many other components to first base defense (a recent article in the blog “DRays Bay” attempted to put a value on each), the most recognizable to fans being the ability to handle throws from one’s teammates.

So we dug a little deeper.

In addition to coming up with sabermetric stats, Baseball Info Solutions hires “video scouts” (for the most part, former high school and college players) to chart games from television viewing, tagging notable plays into more than 80 subcategories of “Good Fielding Plays” (GFPs) and “Defensive Misplays & Errors.” (DM&Es)
There are tightly defined rules, devised by sabermetrician Bill James, to what constitutes a GFP and a DM.

First basemen were credited with just over 2,000 Good Fielding Plays and just under 1,100 Defensive Misplays & Errors in 2011, the ratio of good to bad being about 1.9-to-1.

In his time at first base, Evans’ ratio of GFPs to DMs was 24-to-5, or almost 5-to-1.

The reason for this was that in the eyes of multiple viewers (video scouts rotate so not to watch the same team or player too often), Evans was adept at a key aspect to his position not measured by Defensive Runs Saved or UZR/150- catching throws.

Evans was credited with 11 GFPs for “handling a difficult throw” (usually either by scooping it out of the dirt or coming off the base) in which the Mets got the batter out, and four GFPs for “catches wild throw,” meaning that he prevented a batter or baserunner from gaining an extra base by coming off the bag to block/catch an errant throw.

Samples of Evans handiwork in this area can be seen at these three links.

Evans was tagged for only one DM&E for “failing to catch the throw” from a teammate. His ratio of good-to-bad plays was 15-to-1. By comparison, the average ratio for a first baseman on these plays was 5-to-1. Reds first baseman Joey Votto, who won the NL’s Gold Glove, had 29 GFPs and 10 DM&Es related to handling throws.

We’re not saying that Evans can maintain the sort of success from his small sample over a full season.

But for the Pirates, who also showed a defensive-minded commitment with the signing of shortstop Clint Barmes, it’s an interesting sort of gamble that could be worth watching more closely as the 2012 season unfolds

NL West: Three fixes for each team

December, 2, 2011
Welcome to the National League West, baseball's most unpredictable division. I wouldn't be surprised if all five teams finished 81-81 in 2012.

Here are three fixes or action items for each club.

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Rotation (Joe Saunders, eligible for arbitration)

Arizona's rotation posted a 3.84 ERA, only ninth in the NL, but a strong figure considering it had to pitch half its games in the desert. Most impressive, only the Phillies received more innings from their starters. If there's a red flag, it's that the rotation ranked 14th in the NL in strikeouts per nine innings. Saunders is in his final year before free agency, after posting a solid 3.69 ERA over 212 innings, and Arizona might not want to pay him the big increase he'll get from his 2011 salary of $5.5 million. The back of the rotation has an opening as well.

Likely solution: Look for the D-backs to re-sign Saunders to a two-year deal. He doesn't strike out many guys, but Arizona's outfield of Justin Upton, Chris Young and Gerardo Parra might cover the most ground in baseball. Rookies Jarrod Parker, Wade Miley and 2011 No. 1 pick Trevor Bauer should battle for the No. 5 spot out of spring training.

2. Find a leadoff hitter

Arizona's starting eight looks set, but nobody on the roster profiles as a quality leadoff hitter. Arizona leadoff hitters compiled a .314 OBP, with light-hitting Willie Bloomquist leading off most often, 75 times.

Likely solution: Kirk Gibson needs to think outside the box here, with a lefty/righty platoon perhaps necessary. How about Young leading off against lefties? He posted a .392 OBP against them in 2011, and Justin Upton and Paul Goldschmidt can provide power lower in the order. Parra might be the best option against right-handers.

3. Bullpen depth

The bullpen ERA improved from 5.74 in 2010 (worst in the NL) to 3.71 (10th). It helped that it didn't have to throw many innings, but there's no guarantee the rotation will carry such a heavy workload again. Plus, closer J.J. Putz has been injury-prone in his career and guys like Micah Owings and Bryan Shaw were surprising contributors.

Likely solution: Arizona won't spend big here, although a guy like Jonathan Broxton would have been a nice gamble. Look for them to troll for a veteran lefty or make a minor deal.

San Francisco Giants

1. Finder another bat -- one who can hit

The Giants' offensive woes were well-documented, of course -- last in the NL in runs scored, with the lowest on-base percentage. Some of that is the ballpark, some of it was injuries, but there's no denying it was a terrible offensive team.

Likely solution: No, Melky Cabrera is not the only answer. Or shouldn't be. While he had a career year with the Royals, his .339 OBP is hardly star level, and he hit 30 points above his career average. The other outfielders on the roster are Andres Torres and Nate Schierholtz. That's not a division-winning outfield. Brian Sabean: You need Carlos Beltran back. How many more years can you get out of that great young rotation before somebody gets hurt or leaves via free agency? You have to win now. Sign Beltran.

2. Shortstop (Brandon Crawford)

The ill-advised idea to sign Miguel Tejada last season predictably didn't work out. Crawford has the goods on defense, but his .204 batting average is an accurate indicator of his offensive abilities. Crawford remains the default option right now, and while the Giants got into a bizarre bidding war for Bloomquist, Giants fans would love to see a different free-agent shortstop in the Bay Area.

Likely solution: You never know, but there are no signs the Giants are pursuing Jose Reyes or Bay Area native Jimmy Rollins. The Giants signed Javier Lopez to a two-year, $8.5 million deal and picked up Jeremy Affeldt's $5 million option. Why not use some of that money for a shortstop? In the end, unless the Giants sneak in for a second-tier shorstop like Rafael Furcal, it looks like Crawford will be the guy.

3. No. 5 spot in the rotation

The two candidates on the roster right now are Barry Zito (5.87 ERA in 53 innings) and Eric Surkamp (5.74 ERA in six starts as a rookie). As good as Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are, and as good as Ryan Vogelsong was in 2011, the rotation is one major injury and Vogelsong regression from looking a little shaky.

Likely solution: Surkamp had great numbers at Double-A -- 142.1 IP, 110 hits, 44 BB, 165 SO -- and the Giants skipped him past Triple-A in promoting him to the majors. He's a lefty who isn't overpowering with a fastball that averaged just 87.9 mph in his stint in the majors. Look for Zito to get the job out of spring training: "I'm not gonna hide from it: Barry Zito is our fifth starter next year," Bruce Bochy told KNBR radio station in November.

Los Angeles Dodgers

1. Find a new owner

While the Dodgers were allowed to sign Matt Kemp to a $160 extension, until Frank McCourt sells the club, the bankrupt Dodgers will be hamstrung on moves. McCourt has agreed to sell the team by April 30.

Likely solution: The bidding process starts next week and Mark Cuban says he'll participate. Dodgers fans should love that idea, but baseball previously balked when Cuban looking into buying the Cubs and Rangers. A team of investors fronted by ex-Dodgers Orel Hershiser and Steve Garvey is one possibility. Former agent Dennis Gilbert, who also pursued the Rangers, fronts another group of partners.

2. Infield

Here's how bad the Dodgers' offense was in 2011:

First base: 27th in majors in OPS
Second base: 28th in majors in OPS
Third base: 24th in majors in OPS
Shortstop: 19th in majors in OPS

Likely solution: The Dodgers have already signed Mark Ellis to play second base and Adam Kennedy to help at third, low-cost fixes but hardly great solutions. It looks like another year of James Loney at first base, but maybe it's time to punt on him and try prospect Jerry Sands. Loney has hit just 48 homers over the past four seasons and doesn't walk much. He's a .281 hitter without anything to go with it, and he's due a raise in arbitration over the $4.88 million he made in 2011. The lone bright spot is speed demon shortstop Dee Gordon, who looks to show his .304 rookie season wasn't a fluke. (Juan Uribe is also still around, at $16 million over the next two seasons. Yay.)

3. Rotation (Hiroki Kuroda, free agent)

GM Ned Colletti has indicated the club can't afford to re-sign Kuroda, unless he's willing to take a big cut. (Kuroda has said he'll either sign with the Dodgers or return to Japan). After Clayton Kershaw, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley, there are two spots to fill.

Likely solution: Cheaper free agent veterans like Aaron Harang or Chris Capuano are possibilities. Trading Andre Ethier for a starter is another option. Look for the No. 5 spot to be filled from within -- somebody like Nathan Eovaldi, Allen Webster or Chris Withrow.

Colorado Rockies

1. Third base (Ian Stewart)

Rockies third basemen hit a combined .222/.281/.348, among the worst production from the position in the majors, as Ty Wigginton earned the majority off the playing time after Stewart collapsed. Stewart hit .156 with zero home runs in 122 at-bats, although he found his stroke at Colorado Springs (of course, everyone finds their stroke at Colorado Springs). Here's the thing about Stewart: Even when he was good, he wasn't that good -- his park-adjusted OPS from 2008 to 2010 still places him as a below-average hitter.

Likely solution: It's possible Stewart gets non-tendered; there's also rumors off a Stewart-for-Blake DeWitt deal with the Cubs (your abscess for our canker sore). Top prospect Nolan Arenado, the Arizona Fall League MVP, hit .298 with 20 home runs at Class A Modesto, but he's just 21 in April and probably needs another season in the minors. The Rockies have also asked about Atlanta's Martin Prado, reportedly offering outfielder Seth Smith.

2. Starting pitcher (Jorge De La Rosa out for at least half the season)

As 2011 proved, it's still difficult to build a consistent rotation in Colorado. The Rockies' rotation compiled a 4.73 ERA, ranking 15th in the NL. Yes, Coors Field is a hitter's park, but it's no longer the Coors Field of old. It was a bad rotation. Right now, Jhoulys Chacin is the only starter who looks like a reliable option for 2012.

Likely solution: What the Rockies have done is collect young, power arms. They got Drew Pomeranz and Alex White for Ubaldo Jimenez; they just picked up Tyler Chatwood from the Angels for Chris Iannetta. Esmil Rogers is still around, and still very raw. A veteran starter acquired via trade is a possibility to line up behind Chacin and Jason Hammel; one guy the Rockies have pursued is Jeremy Guthrie, offering closer Huston Street.

3. Second base (Mark Ellis signed with the Dodgers)

Jonathan Herrera is still around, but the .300 average he posted in April looked more and more like a fluke as the season progressed. He finished at .242, and considering he has no power, isn't a viable short-term or long-term solution.

Likely solution: Look for the Rockies to make a trade pitch for Padres second baseman Orlando Hudson. There isn't much left on the free-agent market, although Kelly Johnson would make for an interesting risk in the thin air if he doesn't re-sign with the Blue Jays.

San Diego Padres

1. Bullpen/closer (Heath Bell, signed with Marlins; Chad Qualls, free agent)

Welcome to San Diego, Josh Byrnes. The new GM will have to figure out how to build a winning club on a payroll of $53-55 million. But you know what? The Padres aren’t that far behind the Diamondbacks. The Padres had a run differential of minus-18; the Diamondbacks had a run differential of plus-69. The Padres would have been expected to win 79 games based on their differential; the D-backs 88. With the departure of Bell and last season’s trade of Mike Adams, the Padres will be looking for bullpen depth.

Likely solution: Ernest Frieri and Luke Gregerson are the best internal candidates, but Frieri needs to improve his control and Gregerson is more of a righty specialist. Rookie Brad Brach, a one-time 42nd-round draft pick who signed for $1,000 has dominated in the minors but probably needs time in middle relief. The Padres won’t spend big on a free agent, so look for a trade.

2. Power (empty)

Ryan Ludwick led the team with 11 home runs. Nobody else reached double digits. And don’t blame the deep canyons of Petco Park -- the Padres hit 45 home runs on the road, fewest in the majors.

Likely solution: None. The Padres’ "big" moves have to been bolster the bench with Mark Kotsay and John Baker. Prospect Anthony Rizzo, who hit 26 home runs in 93 games at Triple-A Reno, will be given another shot at first base after hitting .141 with one home run in 128 at-bats with San Diego. Kyle Blanks is still around, but at 270 pounds, his lack of range in the outfield is a problem. Third-base prospects Jedd Gyorko and James Darnell are both close to big-league ready and provide some hope for punch down the road.

3. Starter (Aaron Harang, free agent)

Mat Latos, Cory Luebke and Tim Stauffer are a solid top three, with Luebke’s season in particular flying under the radar (154 strikeouts in 139.2 innings). The Padres got good work out of Dustin Moseley and Clayton Richard over 38 combined starts, but both guys delivered just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings and are good bets to regress, even pitching in Petco.

Likely solution: The Padres have offered Harang arbitration, but he’ll probably get a two-year offer from another team. Otherwise, it’s hoping that Moseley and Richard hold their own and that prospects Casey Kelly and Robbie Erlin (acquired in the Adams trade) are ready by midseason.
Five reasons you should check out Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast with myself and Mark Simon:

1. Jered Weaver finally lost a game and we explain how the Red Sox beat him.

2. Bartolo Colon didn't get credit for the win, but was excellent yet again, and you may be surprised how he's doing it.

3. Is Justin Verlander one of the top 10 starters in the game? I'm not so sure, but Mark disagrees.

4. How tough has the Braves' schedule been and should David Ross really become Jair Jurrjens' personal catcher?

5. Fun Armando Benitez factoid that you won't want to miss!

Plus emails, injury updates, Andre Ethier's hitting streak, James Loney's $1 fines, the Giants' hitting woes and a preview of Tuesday's games.

Minus Furcal, Dodgers need to rely on depth

April, 12, 2011
This year’s Dodgers offense was already going to be something of a dependent proposition -- dependent on the availability of Rafael Furcal. If OBP is the lifeblood of any offense, Furcal was the man being counted on to deliver it from the top of the order. But now that L.A.’s leadoff man is out for at least the next six weeks with a broken thumb, the Dodgers have to confront the same ugly numbers that have defined their destinies in the previous five seasons.

Since coming over from Atlanta in 2006, Furcal has been something of a weathervane for the club’s fortunes -- when he plays, it’s a contender, and when he’s not, it struggles to reach .500. Over the past five seasons, the Dodgers have a record of 306-257 when Furcal has been healthy enough to start and 123-124 when he’s out of the starting lineup. (And for all of that, he’s gotten as high as 14th in the MVP voting just once -- in 2006, when he played in a career-high 159 games in his first season in L.A.) With the usual small-sample caveats, this season was no different: Furcal in, Dodgers win, with a 5-2 record in his starts, 1-2 with grinder Jamey Carroll subbing.

[+] EnlargeRafael Furcal
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesRafael Furcal may be out for six weeks after he broke his thumb stealing third.
Replacing Furcal’s bat might seem to be where the Dodgers will take the biggest hit. Projected by PECOTA for the second-best OBP in the lineup (behind Andre Ethier) at .339, for a .341 by ZiPS and for a .349 OBP by BIS, you may not read that as irreplaceable. However, the Dodgers were projected to rank 13th in the league at getting people on base, and absent Furcal for a quarter of the season or more, that isn’t going to get any better, even if the patient Carroll gets most of the playing time in his absence.

However, will the hit be that bad? It’s worth wondering now that the Dodgers have Carroll around, because last year they actually managed a slightly better record with him in the lineup than Furcal. Carroll’s career walk rate (10 percent) has been a fairly reliable commodity, creating a career OBP of .356, against Furcal’s .350.

What about defense? Carroll’s in his age-37 season, and might not be seen as a true shortstop these days. Given that there’s nobody else on the roster to replace Furcal with who resembles an everyday shortstop -- with prospect Ivan DeJesus Jr. long being seen as someone likely to wind up at second base -- it might be easy to rate Furcal’s value on defense fairly high. Admittedly, losing him should hurt, but via James Click’s Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, the Dodgers have bounced around from as high as second-best in MLB with Furcal playing regularly (in 2009) to 24th in 2006 and 20th in 2007 and 2010.

Fielding metrics like Total Zone (from Baseball-Reference.com) or Colin Wyers’ new Fielding Runs metric suggest that there wasn’t a lot separating Furcal and Carroll defensively last year. So even when talking about a defensive position as important as shortstop, defense necessarily has to work synergistically. Or, as Al Capone might note, "But in the field, what? Part of a team!"

If you remember "The Untouchables," you know what came next. And because of the club’s big-picture record without Furcal in the lineup, in his absence it’s easy to believe that it’s the Dodgers who stand a good chance of being bludgeoned. Even with their restocked rotation, this was a team that was going to have to win its share of close ballgames because of a series of decisions made about their lineup, from their enduring faith in James Loney’s punchless bat from first base, a bopper’s slot, to signing low-OBP infielder Juan Uribe away from the Giants.

In the abstract, this shouldn’t be quite as devastating as it sounds, but everything depends on the Dodgers’ depth. Can they count on Carroll and Casey Blake as regulars in their age-37 seasons? Maybe if Blake’s health puts him back in the lineup at third base somewhat regularly, the Dodgers might not seem not that badly off, swapping in one OBP threat in Carroll for another.

But the problem is that they’re relying on players close to the end of their careers, and if Blake or Carroll falter, there isn’t much to fall back on. DeJesus is projected to a .319 OBP (by PECOTA), the same as the team’s projected mark. If the Dodgers are going to endure, it’ll have to be on the merits of their old men.

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