SweetSpot: Jason Kipnis

NEW YORK -- Media day at the All-Star Game isn't quite media day at the Super Bowl, but on a hot, steamy day in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda at Citi Field, sweaty media members met with sweaty ballplayers. There was a vibe of happiness from the players because everyone enjoys being an All-Star, but special praise to Justin Verlander and Brandon Phillips for gutting out the hot weather and wearing jackets to their media sessions -- Verlander in a baby blue coat complete with pocket square, something you might see your grandfather wearing at his condo in Florida -- when most players smartly donned short-sleeved shirts.

(Poor Felix Hernandez kept needing a towel to mop off the sweat dripping down his forehead. Hey, he's not used to 100-degree weather pitching in Seattle.)

Players praised Mariano Rivera and talked about childhood dreams coming true, although Brett Cecil admitted he never dreamed of becoming an All-Star. Matt Carpenter was asked to translate "I love baseball" in Chinese for a promotional video. Joey Votto said he thought Ichiro Suzuki would be a good contestant for the Home Run Derby.

Speaking of home runs, on Sunday, I wrote about Chris Davis now being on pace to hit 62 -- short of Barry Bonds' record of 73, but giving him a chance to beat Roger Maris' total of 61.

I asked readers who they think the "real" home run champion is and the poll results, with more than 38,000 votes, have Maris ahead of Bonds, 73 percent to 27 percent. That's a landslide for Maris.

What do the All-Stars think? All leaned toward 73 -- as in homers, not percent -- at least the ones we asked. Some of the more interesting responses:
  • Votto, the Cincinnati Reds first baseman: "I think 61 came with its own little asterisk, since they had extended the schedule to play more games. At the time, if you asked players of the previous era, they probably would have said 60 is the record, with Babe Ruth. If you ask players of Maris' generation, they'll say 61 is the record. If you ask the recent generation, they'll probably say 73 [with Barry Bonds]. My gut says to keep 73, but it's something we'll have better perspective on in 20 or 30 years."
  • Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, teammate of Davis: "I think that year all those home runs were happening was really exciting for the fans, really exciting for us, fun to watch. I don't know where the record should stand. If Chris hits 61 home runs this year, that would be pretty cool though." By the way, Hardy on playing with Davis this year: "It's awesome. Just like the fans and how interested they are in watching, I think everyone on his team is the same way. Everyone in the dugout watches every one of his at-bats in case something special happens. He put up numbers like this in the minors and it was just a question of whether he'd do it in the big leagues, so it's not like he hasn't done it before. It's something that's been in there."
  • Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis: "That's a record I'll never have to worry about. It's a topic you're going to have a lot of debate over if Davis gets close. I guess the old-school guys will say 61. The purists will probably say 61. But didn't the pitchers use back then as well? They did from what I know. I think [Bonds] is just a product of his era. The fact is he hit 73 home runs."
  • San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, giving a little bit of a Of course Bonds holds the record, he's a Giant look: "Bonds holds the record, but if Davis can come close to 61 or 73, that will be fun to watch."
  • Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman: "That's a tough question. I grew up with Bonds and I choke up on the bat because of him. It was amazing what he did when he would often only get one pitch to hit in a game. That answer your question? Probably not."
  • Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann: "Bonds holds the record. I grew watching him and it was incredible what he did."
  • Braves reliever Craig Kimbrel: "I'd like to see Davis hit 62 because that's fun baseball. [But would that make him the home run king?] If he hits 62, he hits 62."

One interesting side note: Many of players seemed reluctant to actually mention Bonds by name, which is interesting, although they still tacitly acknowledged he's the record holder.

As for Davis himself suggesting 61 is the record, Votto had the best quip: "Maybe he's just being selfish, saying that if he beats the record he'll get to wear a crown or something."

On the final day of June, on the final day of his first month in the major leagues, the 22-year-old Cuban named Yasiel Puig went 4-for-5 and Los Angeles Dodgers fans cried with joy and poets penned sonnets and the baseball gods shook hands and toasted their work with a cold beverage.

In truth, Puig was a little lucky on this day. Two hits were infield singles off the glove of Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Michael Young, plays that a better third baseman could have made. The triple was blooped to right field, a play that a more agile fielder than Delmon Young could have caught. Then he drilled a line drive between first and second and made it to second base as Young must have been stationed in San Bernadino.

But study those plays: That triple. Do most players make it to third base so easily? That double. The ball never reached the wall and Puig coasted into second like a passenger in a buffet line on a cruise. He added two steals on the day, and in case he hadn't yet fully showcased all his tools this day was a testament to his speed. Hit, hit for power, field, throw, run. The five tools. "He's something special," as my friend Eric e-mailed me Sunday night.

Thank you, baseball gods. We toast as well.

Puig earns our first grade of June, and it's an A+. Can we go higher? He has electrified not only Los Angeles, but baseball fans across the country. He ripped out 44 hits in June, the second-most for a rookie in his first month in the majors behind only Joe DiMaggio's 48 in May of 1936.

It's not that Puig's total of 44 hits in a month are all that unusual in itself -- Adrian Beltre, Manny Machado and Miguel Cabrera each had 44 in May, for example -- but he also hit .436 and the only other players since 2010 to finish a month with at least 44 hits and a .425 average were Josh Hamilton in June of 2010, the aforementioned Young in July of 2010, and Melky Cabrera last May. But those three weren't rookies with essentially two months of minor league action and they didn't have the same out-of-nowhere exhilaration behind them. Puig was the story of June and what a story it was.

More grades for June efforts:

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: A+. He hit .378/.492/.704 in June with nine home runs and 21 RBIs. Cabrera's wRC+ -- an advanced hitting metric that compares him to a league average hitter of 100 (adjusted for home park) -- is 207. That currently ranks as the eighth-highest wRC+ since World War II ended, with three guys named Bonds, Williams and Mantle ahead of him. It's an all-time great season at the plate in progress, even better than his Triple Crown numbers of last year, and there's nothing unsustainable here going on. Cabrera, for example, had 31 "well-hit" balls in June compared to 19 for Puig.

Mike Trout, Angels: A. Trout matched Cabrera's MLB-leading total of 31 well-hit balls and hit .358/.433/.541, just in case you were forgetting that he's still pretty good. Despite Trout's big month, the Angels still earn just a C- for going 14-13 in June, a record gained only by winning their final six games of the month. They're still nine games behind the division-leading Rangers (and 8.5 behind the A's) at 39-43, but if there's one hope for Angels fans it's that they still have 13 games left against both teams.

Jason Kipnis, Indians: A+. After an eight-game losing streak early in June, the Indians went on a 14-5 run thanks in large part to Kipnis, who hit .419/.517/.699 for June -- with four home runs and 25 RBIs. As with Puig, the "well-hit" average suggests some luck involved but that luck may have earned Kipnis a trip to the All-Star Game.

[+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesAfter a hot start, the Yankees have cooled off and had one of the worst records in baseball during June.
New York Yankees: D-. The Yankees went 11-16 -- only the White Sox and Giants had a worse record in June -- but that doesn't tell how poorly the Yankees played. Or shall we say how poorly the Yankees hit. At minus-34 runs, they had the worst run differential thanks to a .223 average (29th in the majors) and .330 slugging percentage (last). They hit three home runs against left-handed pitchers in 301 at-bats.

San Francisco Giants: F. The Giants went 10-17 and scored the fewest runs in the National League. They hit 14 home runs, fewest in the majors, and drew 57 walks, 27th in the majors. No power and not getting on base via walks equals a bad combo. But in the NL West they're still just 3 games out.

Chase Headley, Padres: D-. Last year's NL RBI leader continued to struggle, hitting .183/.270/.257 with one home run. The Padres have a shot in the wide-open NL West but need Headley to go on a second-half tear like he did a year ago.

Jeff Locke, Pirates: A-. At 17-9, the Pirates tied the Blue Jays for the best record in June (including winning their ninth in a row on Sunday). Locke was just 2-0 but with a 1.67 ERA in five starts. He has been the stabilizing influence in the rotation as he has held opponents to a .199 average on the season. OK, his .228 BABIP is second-lowest among starters and maybe he'll regress, but he's proving to be a better pitcher than anyone projected, relying on a sinking fastball (he throws his fastball 67 percent of the time, ninth-most among starters).

Justin Verlander, Tigers: C. A 3.92 ERA in June, following a 6.41 ERA in May. Over the past two months, batters are hitting .382 off his fastball and has 21 walks and just 15 strikeouts in plate appearances ending with the pitch. Last year, batters hit .253 off it and he had more than twice as many K's as walks.

Jose Fernandez, Marlins: A. Shelby Miller got the early hype for rookie pitchers, but Fernandez quietly posted a 1.67 in June -- tied with Locke for best in the majors. He allowed just two doubles and no home runs in the month. His team is going nowhere but he may end up as the best rookie pitcher in the majors this year.

Michael Cuddyer, Rockies: A-. He played 23 games in June and hit in all 23, extending his hitting streak to 27 games.

Pedro Alvarez, Pirates: B+. He hit .309 with 10 home runs and knocked in 24 runs and his defense is drawing improved reviews. The strikeouts are still extreme -- 35 in 26 games -- so I'm not saying he has turned a corner just yet. But when he goes on a streak he can help carry a team like he did in June. Plus, his home runs can go a long way, like this one from Saturday. (He leads the majors with nine "no doubt" home runs via the ESPN Home Run Tracker.)

Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks: D. Kennedy's 6.83 ERA was second-worst among starters and he continues to fall further away from the guy who won 21 games in 2011.

Jay Bruce, Reds: B+. He got off to a slow start with one home run in April but hit seven in May and 10 in June, including this 472-foot blast, the longest of the month. He's now sixth in the majors with 43 extra-base hits.

Andrelton Simmons, Braves: B. OK, the bat is a work in progress, but the glove keeps making plays like this.

Chris Davis and Manny Machado, Orioles: A. Thirty-one home runs. (Are you kidding me?) Thirty-eight doubles. (Are you kidding me?) Good stuff. Great month. Three more to go before the playoffs.
Is there a more up-and-down team this year than the Cleveland Indians? They started 5-10, but from April 28 through May 20 they went 18-4 to climb into first place. That was followed by seven losses in eight games and then an eight-game losing streak that dropped them three games under .500. Now they've won nine of 12 after beating the Orioles 5-2 on Monday night.

The Indians are an interesting team in that they have a deep lineup but no obvious star; part-time outfielder Ryan Raburn is the only player slugging above .500. Justin Masterson has been their best starter, but he ranks just 15th in the American League in ERA. He's probably their most likely All-Star representative with his 9-5 record. However, the Indians have two other players who are worthy of All-Star consideration but are unlikely to find a spot on the roster.

The first is catcher Carlos Santana. With all the attention given this offseason to signing free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds, Santana still feels like the fulcrum of the Cleveland offense. He's hitting .276/.385/.476 and is seventh in the AL in on-base percentage, thanks to 43 walks (ranking behind only Miguel Cabrera's 47). Santana's defense takes a lot of knocks; he's started 11 games at first base and 13 at DH as Terry Francona keeps his bat in the lineup, and his caught-stealing percentage has dropped off dramatically this year, from a respectable 26 percent in 2012 (league average was 25 percent) to 12 percent. The Indians lead the league in wild pitches, and considering backup catcher Yan Gomes has thrown out nine of 16 base stealers, Santana might see even more time away from catcher in the second half.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Carlos Santana
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Santana's defensive reputation could keep him off of the All-Star team.
It's that defensive reputation that will likley keep him off the All-Star team. Joe Mauer looks like he'll be voted in as the starter and Matt Wieters will probably get the backup nod via the players' ballot. If there's a third catcher chosen it's more likely to be Jason Castro as the Astros' representative.

Jason Kipnis is quietly having a solid season as well. Compare these batting lines:

Kipnis: .282/.360/.486
Robinson Cano: .276/.354/.497
Dustin Pedroia: .311/.394/.418

Kipnis has nine home runs to Cano's 16, but has more extra-base hits, 32 to 31. He's stolen 17 of 22 bases. Kipnis had a solid first full season last year (4.0 WAR), but you'll remember that he started off red hot before fading. This year, he hit just .200 in April, but then blasted seven home runs in May and is hitting .392 in June. Cano and Pedroia are probably All-Star locks, but if the AL can find room for a third second baseman, Kipnis deserves consideration.

Here are other players flying under the radar who deserve All-Star consideration but have little chance of making a squad. (And here's a piece from Tommy Rancel arguing the case for a few middle relievers to make it.)

Kyle Seager, Mariners
In a league with Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre and Josh Donaldson at third base, Seager has no shot of making the All-Star Game, but he's quietly developed into the best position player on the Mariners. His WAR ranks 19th among AL position players on Baseball-Reference (2.2) and 11th on FanGraphs (2.7), ahead of Beltre on both sites. With 22 doubles and nine home runs, Seager sprays line drives all over the field, and has put up solid numbers despite playing in Seattle; seven of his nine home runs have come on the road.

James Shields, Royals
The 2-6 record means Shields can enjoy some hunting and fishing over the All-Star break, but the move from Tampa to Kansas City hasn't cut into his effectiveness. With a 2.92 ERA and league-leading 111 innings, he's been exactly what the Royals desired: a staff leader and a staff ace. Amazingly, Shields is winless (0-4) in his last 10 starts despite allowing only 23 runs. That doesn't mean he hasn't helped the Royals win, however; he has five straight no-decisions but the Royals won all five games.

Brett Gardner, Yankees
Adam Jones, Mike Trout and Nick Markakis lead the fan balloting in what is a lackluster year for AL outfielders. Despite playing for the Yankees, Gardner isn't in the top 15. After missing most of last season, Gardner has returned with more power; he has 28 extra-base hits, nearly equal the 34 he had during all of 2011. But what really ramps up his value is excellent defense in center field. In a game that matters, Gardner could be a late-inning defensive replacement, pinch runner or pinch hitter who will grind out an at-bat. You know, if managers actually played to win instead of just getting everyone into the game.

Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
Carpenter doesn't just lead NL second basemen in WAR -- he leads most NL position players in WAR. He's 10th on B-R and fifth on FanGraphs thanks to a .403 OBP and smooth transition defensively from third base. Brandon Phillips and Marco Scutaro are ranked 1-2 in fan voting and Chase Utley got off to a good start that could land him the backup job via the players' ballot, so it's going to be difficult to find room for Carpenter.

Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks
Carlos Beltran, Justin Upton and Bryce Harper lead the fan balloting, none of whom really deserve to start (although they aren't terrible choices). Once you include Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen and maybe Ryan Braun, that leaves Parra as a long shot. He's hitting .315/.378/.480, ranks second in the NL with 24 doubles and plays superb defense at all three outfield spots. Like Gardner, he would be an excellent late-game defensive sub or pinch hitter. Just don't ask him to steal: He's 6-for-15 trying to steal.

Pedro Alvarez, Pirates
Over the past calendar year, Alvarez is tied with Jay Bruce for the most home runs in the National League with 36. His .237 average and .303 OBP don't scream "All-Star," but he does have 19 homers and is slugging .572 versus right-hand pitchers. With Ryan Zimmerman struggling on defense and Pablo Sandoval having a mediocre year at the plate, Alvarez has a decent case as the backup to David Wright, but Zimmerman or Sandoval probably gets the nod.

Travis Wood/Jeff Samardzija, Cubs
I'm assuming one or the other will be the Cubs' rep, but both have good cases to make it, even though Wood is 5-6 and Samardzija is 5-7. They succeed in different ways. Wood is an extreme fly ball pitcher who limits hits despite a ho-hum strikeout rate; Samardzija is pure power, with 115 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings. With 14 NL starters currently sporting an ERA under 3.00, somebody is going to get squeezed.
This is one of those stretches that makes you happy to be a baseball fan. Or a baseball fan in Cleveland, at least. If you're a baseball fan in Seattle you may be starting to look ahead to football season.

The Indians just completed a four-game sweep of the Mariners, with three wins coming in walk-off fashion, two of those in extra innings, and the fourth win a 6-0 shutout over Felix Hernandez.

Monday's win featured a game-tying rally in the bottom of the ninth, and then after Justin Smoak homered in the 10th for Seattle, a walk-off, three-run homer from Yan Gomes, his second of the game. The tying run scored in the ninth when Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen dropped a throw at first base with two outs. In the 10th, the Indians were playing for a tie when Drew Stubbs sacrificed with nobody out, but Smoak's throwing error put two on with nobody out. Gomes followed with his blast to left off a 3-2 fastball from Charlie Furbush.

But it wasn't just Seattle's errors that created this latest bit of magic for Cleveland, now 18-4 since April 28 and 27-18 overall. The rally in the ninth included an infield single by Jason Kipnis on a 3-1 pitch that Robert Andino fielded and short-hopped Smoak, who should have made the scoop, and then a Nick Swisher blooper to right, just out of the reach of Andino. Home-plate ump Laz Diaz, who was terrible all game, had also missed a 2-1 pitch to Kipnis, which changed the structure of that at-bat. Michael Brantley began the 10th with another blooper to right just beyond Andino.

Hit 'em where they ain't.

So, good luck, good fortune and timely hitting. A pretty good combo.

Of course, the Indians have been here before. They were 33-20 on June 1 in 2011, five games up, and were still in first place as late as July 18. Last year's club was 26-18 in May and held first place on June 23 before collapsing to a 24-53 record in the second half.

But I think this is a better team, with a deeper lineup and, so far, better starting pitching. It's still early, but things are looking bright in Cleveland.

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.



Of the early leaders, who is the best bet to lead the AL in home runs?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,052)

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.
Reaction to Wednesday's games ...
  • Watched a lot of the Indians' 10-4 win against the Phillies on Wednesday afternoon as Cleveland knocked around Cole Hamels, who fell to 1-6 with a 4.61 ERA. Ignore the win-loss record since that's dependent upon run support. Has Hamels been as bad as that ERA? That ERA ranks 79th out of 110 qualifiers, which means Hamels isn't pitching like a $19 million pitcher. (Only five, or possibly six, years to go on his contract!) It's pretty easy to pinpoint his issue: Walk rate up 4 percent, which translates to 1.6 more walks per nine innings, strikeout rate down 1.5 per nine). Basically, he's taken one strikeout per game and turned into one walk; such is the fine line between one of the best pitchers in the game and a guy with a 4.61 ERA. A quick look at the numbers suggests his changeup has been fine (.077 average, no home runs), although he has walked seven batters on PAs ending with the pitch compared to just 10 all of 2012. Hitters have been pounding his fastball: Six of his nine home runs allowed have come off the pitch compared to 10 in 2012. Hamels is too good to keep struggling like this; pitchers of his quality don't usually lose their command overnight. Hamels will figure things out and since the Braves have come back to the pack, the Phillies are still just 3.5 games out of first.
  • The Indians, meanwhile, continue to score runs, ranking tied for second in the AL at 4.9 runs per game. While everyone pointed to Cleveland's rotation as the big problem in 2012 (and it was), the offense was equally bad. Only Seattle scored fewer runs in the AL as the Indians ranked 13th out of 14 teams in slugging percentage. They did rank sixth in OBP so there was some ability here. They just needed power and Mark Reynolds has been the big key there with his 11 home runs. Jason Kipnis hit a three-run homer against Philly and after a slow start he's coming around, hitting .288 with six homers his past 16 games. It's a good offense, nothing flukey going on here. Now if the pitching ...
  • Watched Shelby Miller in his first start since last week's one-hit, 13-strikeout shutout. He struggled with his command, especially in the first two innings when he threw 45 pitches. He tried to mix in his changeup more, throwing it 10 times after throwing it only 10 times total in his first seven starts. (Congratulations, Mets, you are now used for practice purposes!) Mets announcer Keith Hernandez pointed out that Miller was tipping the pitch by slowing his arm motion down a bit. Only two of the 10 pitches were strikes, so the changeup remains a big work in progress for the young righty. Still, despite battling his stuff all night Miller still pitched 5.2 scoreless innings.
  • Obviously, a huge lift for the Dodgers as Zack Greinke returned from the DL and pitched 5.1 solid innings in a 3-1 victory over the Nationals. "Stuff was pretty good, just stamina needs to be a little bit stronger," Greinke said. "I was feeling pretty drained after the fifth." His fastball velocity wasn't great -- around 90 -- and I thought he got away with a few pitches, but he made pitches when he had to and didn't walk anybody. He replaced Josh Beckett, who hit the DL with a pulled groin, so the rotation is still a work in progress. Now if Matt Kemp can get his power stroke going ...
  • Another win for the Pirates as lefty Wandy Rodriguez shut down the Brewers' right-handed attack. Rodriguez is a solid 4-2, 3.25, and has walked just nine batters in eight starts. I still have doubts about the Pirates' rotation, but if Rodriguez can keep pitching like this, he's a nice No. 2 behind A.J. Burnett.
  • The Astros won in dramatic fashion as Miguel Cabrera flew out to the warning track with the bases loaded for the final out.
Some quick reactions to Monday's fine major league baseball action ...

  • [+] EnlargeMatt Cain
    Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe Giants on Monday recorded their first win of the season in a game that Matt Cain started.
    The good news for the Giants: A 6-4 win over the Diamondbacks to snap a five-game losing streak and a win for the first time when Matt Cain started. The bad news: Cain scuffled yet again. Cain was sailing along until the fourth inning, when he served up home runs to Jason Kubel, Eric Chavez and Martin Prado. Cain left with a no-decision, and while he remains winless in six starts, it's not just poor run support that explains his 0-2 record. He's allowed nine home runs in his past four starts, including three in two of those. He'd allowed three in a game just twice in the previous three seasons. He also walked four against Arizona. Should the Giants be worried? Kubel and Prado hit fastballs that were both down and in, while Chavez hit a changeup off the plate out to left. Blame Cain for the first two, but give Chavez credit for his. Hitters have been doing a lot of damage off Cain's fastball, hitting .264/.354/.528, compared to a .255/.332/.429 line last year. I think he'll be fine but everyone seems to agree that his stuff just hasn't been as sharp. Keep an eye on his fastball next time out; as with nearly every starting pitcher, everything else plays off the fastball.
  • The Matt Harvey-Jose Fernandez matchup kind of fizzled as Fernandez lasted just four innings and 81 pitches while Harvey was pulled in the sixth after laboring through 121 pitches. The game ended up going 15 innings, thanks primarily to the Mets going 1-for-18 with runners in scoring position. The game featured 512 pitches, 16 pitchers and last more than 5 hours. Not exactly one for the time capsule. Shaun Marcum, who had started and threw 70 pitches on Saturday, ended up taking the loss for the Mets, giving up two runs in the bottom of the 15th after the Mets had scored in the top of the inning. At 10-14, reality is starting to hit the Mets: They're not very good. As for Fernandez, after a dominating first two starts, he's been hit around a bit, primarily to hitters jumping on his fastball early in the count. They're hitting .367 off the pitch in his past three starts. He's going to be a very good pitcher but he's learning that it's a big leap from Class A to the majors.
  • Giancarlo Stanton landed on the DL after the game with a strained right hamstring suffered in the 10th inning. A shame, especially considering he had homered three times in six at-bats entering the game and looked ready to begin a patented Stanton terror. He missed time last year with a knee problem and then a strained intercostal muscle and you have to start wondering if durability is going to be an issue with him.
  • Indians 9, Royals 0. Takeaways: 1. Ubaldo Jimenez won a game! Don't count on this becoming a regular habit. 2. Jason Kipnis hit his first home run. Kipnis (.185/.260/.277) and Lonnie Chisenhall (0-for-4, .221/.254/.368) have to start producing if the Indians want to do anything. 3. Eric Hosmer, another doughnut; .250, three doubles, no homers now and the frustrations build. 4. The Wade Davis (4.2 IP, 12 H, 8 R) starter experiment is probably nearing its end. His stuff just doesn't play up as a starter. Move him back to the pen where he was so good last year with Tampa and give Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar another shot at the rotation. Wait, did I just say to start Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar?
  • Props to the Brewers: After starting 2-8, they'll end up finishing April with a winning record after beating the Pirates 10-4 to go to 13-11. Starter Yovani Gallardo hit his second home run -- one of five the Brewers hit -- and gave up just three hits in seven innings. Jean Segura is really looking good for the Brewers, with three more hits to raise his average to .364.
  • The Dodgers activated Hanley Ramirez from the DL but he didn't start, which seems a little strange. He pinch-hit and struck out in a 12-2 loss to Colorado. The Dodgers' 6-7-8 hitters: Skip Schumaker, Luis Cruz and Justin Sellers. Come on. In his second major league game, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado went 3-for-6 with his first home run. Welcome to the bigs, kid.
  • Kevin Gregg picked put up his fourth save for the Cubs. KEVIN GREGG.
  • A's fans chanting to Josh Hamilton: "Thank you, Josh. Thank you, Josh." (In reference to his dropped fly ball in Game 162 last year that helped the A's win the AL West.) Job well done, A's fans.
Jonah Keri is back with the second part of his MLB Trade Rankings, this time with No. 31 through No. 1. Here's his list.

Some random thoughts:
  • Jason Kipnis at 31. As bad as the Indians were last year, they actually have some nice assets, starting with Kipnis and Carlos Santana, both of whom made Jonah's top 50. They also have Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, both rumored trade candidates this offseason. Kipnis looked like a star after his late-season mashing in 2010 and then a nice first half in 2011, but now I'm not so sure. He'll be turning 26 and fell apart in the second half -- .277 to .233, 11 home runs to three, 20 for 21 stealing bases to 11 of 17. I wonder if there was some kind of minor injury he played through.
  • SportsNation

    Which one of these young pitchers has the most trade value?


    Discuss (Total votes: 1,123)

  • Madison Bumgarner and Matt Moore at 27 and 26. Which lefty would you want, both signed to long-term deals? Moore is signed through 2019 (with options) for just $36 million, Bumgarner potentially for $57 million through 2019. Jonah has Moore rated one spot higher and I think I agree. The polish isn't there yet, but the stuff is a grade higher.
  • Brett Lawrie at 21. Jonah lists Lawrie, Dylan Bundy, Manny Machado and Jurickson Profar from 21 to 18. Lawrie had a solid first season, but was a disappointment with the bat. His fielding metrics were terrific, so his WAR rates him as a four-win player. I know these guys are dirt cheap for now, but they're still more prospect than proven. For example, I wouldn't take Bundy over Bumgarner or Moore -- especially factoring in their contracts. Bundy's stuff is great, sure, but we have no idea about his durability and he's barely pitched above Class A.
  • Jason Heyward at 10. Man, talk about an under-the-radar season.
  • Ryan Braun at 6. Followed by Evan Longoria, Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen. Hard to disagree with this order, although I may move Braun up to No. 3. He's signed through 2020 (2021 option), and while he's not cheap, he's awesome, he's durable, he hits, he runs and he's turned himself into an adequate left fielder. Posey is cheap for now, but you would have only four years of team control. Which is more valuable: Four years of Posey at below-market value or up to nine years of Braun? I may lean toward Braun, even knowing catchers are hard to find. Well, so are left fielders who hit .319 with 41 home runs and 30 steals.
  • Trout and Harper, Harper and Trout. Read Jonah's piece to see who he has No. 1.

Time to encourage Indians-Pirates rivalry

June, 15, 2012
I grew up in the small town of Hermitage, Pa., which is situated on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border about midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. I watched people almost come to blows over the storied Steelers-Browns rivalry, yet saw people treat the Indians and Pirates with indifference. Obviously a big part of this is due to the fact that the baseball teams are not only in separate divisions, but separate leagues. Yet I still don’t think that fully explains the lack of any developed rivalry between the Tribe and the Bucs. There is still plenty of animosity between crosstown interleague rivalries in New York and Chicago, and even cross-state in Missouri and Texas. I’m not necessarily complaining; I’m mostly indifferent about football, and can therefore enjoy both the Indians and Pirates in peace without harassment. At the same time, I can’t help but think that Major League Basball is missing out on a great opportunity to encourage a rivalry between two teams just 133 miles apart.

The Indians' brass seems to prefer their cross-state rivalry with the Cincinnati Reds in the battle for the Ohio Cup, while the Pirates don’t have a true interleague rival. I think one of the big reasons that an interleague rivalry never developed between the Indians and Pirates was because neither team has really been good at the same time. Since interleague play began in 1997, the Pirates haven’t had a season when the team even played .500 baseball; you’d have to go back to 1992 to find the last time the Pirates finished a year above .500. The Indians have made the playoffs five times since interleague play began, but were still terrible in the early 1990s when the Pirates made their last trips to the playoffs.

For a portion of 2011 and thus far in 2012, the Indians and Pirates have both been in contention. Whether they can maintain their positions through the end of the season has yet to be determined. While both had high hopes in 2011 and were buyers at the trade deadline, the end result was anything but a close race for the Tribe or the Bucs. When the two teams square off at Progressive Field this weekend, both teams will hope to creep closer to first place in their respective divisions. Both teams have something on the line when they meet this year.

There are myriad connections between the Indians and Pirates on the field, in the front office, and even in their recent past. The Pirates are a team that has survived throughout the 2012 season based on the strength of their pitching. Even though their offense is much improved over the past couple of weeks, they still are last in baseball in runs scored. The Indians’ offense has struggled at times as well, and the team has often gotten help from their strong bullpen in order to close out victories.

Both teams have a mix of exciting young stars and prospects -- Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor in Cleveland; Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon for Pittsburgh. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington spent a number of years in Cleveland’s front office, eventually serving as assistant general manager and special assistant to the general manager at the time, Mark Shapiro. The Pirates and the Indians also suffered crushing Game 7 walk-off losses: the Pirates in 1992 against the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS, and the Indians in 1997 against the Florida Marlins in the World Series. Both teams saw their title hopes crushed by the Atlanta Braves in that decade (the Indians in the 1995 World Series).

When baseball decided to whittle the National League Central down to five teams, the most logical solution was to move Houston to the American League West. This also amplifies the already cross-state rivalry between the Rangers and the Astros. But think about what would have happened if MLB found a way to move the Pirates to the AL Central. Not only would you establish a true rivalry with the Indians, but with the Detroit Tigers as well. Why would a rivalry with the Tigers be significant, apart from their geographical proximity to the Pirates? Several members of the Tigers coaching staff have connections to the great Pirates teams of the early 1990s. Jim Leyland, Gene Lamont and Lloyd McClendon all managed the Pirates; Leyland from 1986 to 1996, Lamont from 1997 to 2000, McClendon from 2001-2005. Former Pirates player Rafael Belliard is also on the Tigers’ coaching staff.

There will undoubtedly be people who scoff at the Indians-Pirates series this weekend, who think there is nothing of interest between a team that hasn’t had a winning season in 19 years and a team that hasn’t won a World Series since Harry Truman was in the Oval Office. (Not to mention the fact that both crumbled in the second half of 2011.) Despite the fact that the Indians and Pirates both had bad weeks against the Reds and Orioles respectively, this still has a chance to be an exciting matchup. Optimistically, one hopes that the Indians and Pirates both have bright futures ahead of them. It would be the ultimate interleague battle for the pair to meet up in October a few years down the road.

Stephanie Liscio writes for the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" blog on the Indians.
ESPN Insider contributor Dave Cameron had an analysis of Dustin Ackley over at his USS Mariner site, attempting to ask: Why does Ackley strike out so much?

Now, Ackley's strikeout rate isn't in Adam Dunn or Pedro Alvarez territory, but 55 strikeouts in 58 games is certainly a lot for a hitter who is supposed to have good bat control and was drafted second overall for his ability to hit for average. In part because of the strikeouts, Ackley is hitting just .248.

As Cameron writes,
Ackley’s career major league strikeout rate is 21.1%, higher than the 19.1% league average during his time in the big leagues, and his batting average is just .263. Batting average isn’t a great way to evaluate a hitter, but mid-level power guys generally need to hit for a higher average to offset the lack of bombs. Ackley is just not getting as many base hits as was expected, and it’s pretty much entirely due to the fact that he’s striking out far more than he has previously.

What's odd about Ackley's strikeout rate is that he actually has a good contact rate when he does swing. Cameron found 52 other hitters with a similar contact rate and they struck out an average of 15.2 percent of their plate appearances; Ackley's rate was the highest in the group.

Anyway, read his piece. Cameron is still optimistic about Ackley's potential. I'm a little more lukewarm. Ackley's had 636 career plate appearances, about one full season, so it's time to see the production improve. What concerns me about his star potential is that he doesn't do any one thing well -- the batting average, his supposed strength, hasn't been there. He walks at a decent clip, but he's not Edgar Martinez or anything. He has speed but he's not a big base stealer. He has a moderate power for a middle infielder (he's on pace for 31 doubles and 10 home runs), but not the power you want from a middle-of-the-order hitter. He's transitioned well to second base, but isn't going to be a Gold Glover.

Also remember, he's not a kid as he's 24 years old. As the second pick in the draft, he was expected to be more of a polished college hitter. Heck, his less-heralded North Carolina teammate, Kyle Seager (drafted the same year in the third round by the Mariners) has been more impressive this season, hitting the ball much harder and striking out less.

Of course, picking on Ackley for the Mariners' problems is like pointing out Gisele's nose is too big. Still, the Mariners need Ackley to be a star, not a complementary player.

Here's a question for you: Is the best second-year second baseman in the American League actually Cleveland's Jason Kipnis and not the more-hyped Ackley? Kipnis was also drafted in 2009, in the second round. Like Ackley, he was a college outfielder moved to the infield. He is a year older than Ackley, but he's hitting .284/.343/.457, with a .359 wOBA compared to Ackley's .305. He also leads the AL with 15 steals (in 16 attempts).

What do you think? Will Ackley adjust and become the .300 hitter scouts projected? Is Kipnis going to be the better player, with more power and more stolen bases? Place your vote and discuss below.
Do the Detroit Tigers need a second baseman more than a starting pitcher? Are the Pittsburgh Pirates for real? Will the Cleveland Indians make a deal? Who should be in the Home Run Derby? Is Mike Trout worthy of MVP discussion? And why were accused of AL bias? Check it out in today's chat wrap.
First base: Braun and the boys. I'm not ready yet to give up on the Brewers. Yes, they're 28-32, Rickie Weeks is hitting .158, Nyjer Morgan has two RBIs (both on solo home runs), they're only 16-17 at home after posting the best home record in the majors in 2011 and they've had injury problems all season. But in the NL Central, 28-32 means they're far from out of it. The fact that so much has gone wrong and the Brewers are just 4.5 games behind the Reds can be viewed as a positive sign.

The main problem has been the pitching: The Brewers are 14th in the NL in runs allowed. Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum still have the potential to be a solid 1-2-3. Gallardo beat the Padres on Sunday to improve to 5-5, 4.21. While he's allowed three runs or fewer in 10 of his 13 starts, high pitch counts mean he's pitched more than seven innings just once. That's been an issue with the entire rotation as the Milwaukee has pitched the second-most innings in the NL. While more consistency is expected from Gallardo, the key is No. 4 starter Randy Wolf, who is 2-5, 5.45. Take out two starts against the Cubs and his ERA is 6.71. After taking four of six from the Cubs and Padres, the Brewers need to pull off similar results on this week's road trip to Kansas City and Minnesota.

As for Ryan Braun, after posting a .994 OPS during his 2011 MVP season, he's at .985 right now with 15 home runs. In other words, if the Brewers' pitching improves and they climb back over .500 and into the race, he's an MVP candidate once again.

Second base: Jason Kipnis is good. The Cleveland second baseman hit a game-winning three-run homer off St. Louis closer Jason Motte in the ninth inning to give the Indians a 4-1 victory. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kipnis turned on a 97.8 up-and-in fastball from Motte, only the third left-handed hitter in the last four seasons to homer on an up-and-in fastball of 97+ mph. Kipnis is hitting .285/.345/.460, ranks second in the AL in runs, eighth in RBIs, has 10 home runs and leads the league with 15 steals while getting caught just once. Robinson Cano is probably the deserving All-Star starter right now, but Ron Washington may need to find room for Kipnis on the squad.

Third base: Mariners can't hit at home. The Mariners scored just six runs in their weekend series against the Dodgers although they managed to win on Friday thanks to the six-pitcher combined no-hitter. But after hitting .181 in the three games they're now hitting .192 at home. The Mariners have played 37 road games and just 25 at home; normally, that could be viewed as a good indicator moving forward, but necessarily not with the way Seattle hits at home. It's worth noting that while Seattle's offenses were historically terrible in 2010 and 2011, they did play much better at home those years -- 35-46 in 2010 (25-56 on the road) and 39-45 in 2011 (28-50 on the road). With help from that 21-run outburst in Texas, the Mariners actually rank sixth in the AL in road OPS. They've scored 21 runs over the past nine home games.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. The Phillies have batted 117 times this season with a runner on third and less than outs. They've scored that run 45 times. How bad is that 38 percent success rate?
OK, the first round of the second annual Franchise Player Draft is in the books.

Like last year, we thought it would be to conduct a second round, where we make the picks for a distinguished panel. Eric starts with pick No. 31 and makes all the odd-numbered choices and Dave makes the even-numbered ones, which means we get to select for each other.

We used a snake-draft format with each participant's first-round pick in parenthesis. Remember, these picks are from Karabell and Schoenfield, so yell at us if you disagree!

31. Jonah Keri (Jason Heyward): Jose Bautista. Hey, Jonah took him last year.

32. Mark Simon (Miguel Cabrera): Mark already has Cabrera, but we're moving him to first base and giving him David Wright of his beloved New York Mets.

33. Jerry Crasnick (Yu Darvish): Dylan Bundy. You can never have enough young pitching, and really, Darvish isn't all that young.

34. Amanda Rykoff (Carlos Gonzalez): Matt Moore may win two or three Cy Youngs in the next 10 years. I'll take him to headline a pitching staff.

35. Rick Sutcliffe (Jeff Samardzija): Josh Hamilton should still be hitting for major power the next few seasons.

36. Chris Singleton (David Price): Adam Jones. If the power surge is for real, we have an MVP candidate. And Jones is still just 26 years old. He'll be running down fly balls for years to come.

37. Jorge Arangure (Jurickson Profar): Terrific first-rounder, and Carlos Santana could be the best catcher in the game for years, so lock up the up-the-middle spots.

38. Jim Bowden (Buster Posey): Nice pick with Santana. He was next on my board, except Bowden already has a catcher. Let's go with Posey's Giants teammate Matt Cain, still just 27 years old and he's never missed a start in the big leagues.

39. Enrique Rojas (Neftali Feliz): Well, as if anyone was really concerned, Albert Pujols is hitting now and we know he'll be around another what, eight years.

40. Jayson Stark (Robinson Cano): Cano is a little older, so with this team we may be thinking of the next five years as opposed to 10. So let's go with Cole Hamels, arguably the best pitcher in baseball right now.

41. Mark Mulder (Ryan Zimmerman): Ah! How did Hamels not go in the first round? Well, I think Madison Bumgarner has a pretty bright future himself, so let's go there.

42. Doug Glanville (Matt Wieters): Austin Jackson is maybe the best defensive center fielder in baseball and he looks much improved at the plate this year. Potential stud leadoff hitter for a long time.

43. David Schoenfield (Eric Hosmer): I think Emmanuel Burriss is a terrific pick for Dave here. Whatta ya think, Dave? OK, we'll give you Jay Bruce. First-rounder last season and he hasn't exactly regressed.

44. Keith Law (Andrew McCutchen): #freetrevorbauer

45. Molly Knight (Prince Fielder): Elvis Andrus. A Gold Glove-caliber shortstop showing improving on-base skills? Thank you very much. Plus, we need some defense on this team.

46. Steve Berthiaume (Brett Lawrie): Steve is a closet Red Sox fan. Give him Dustin Pedroia, although we hear he's very high on this Scott Podsednik kid.

47. Christina Kahrl (Giancarlo Stanton): What, I thought it was Marlon Byrd. OK, Christina can't pass up Adrian Gonzalez. Tremendous value here; what a start for her offense.

48. Jim Caple (Mike Trout): We know Caple would definitely take a West Coast player. And definitely not a closer. Let's a big risk here and go with Dustin Ackley and hope he learns to hit left-handed pitching.

49. Tim Kurkjian (Bryce Harper): He's closing these days, but Aroldis Chapman is a future ace, and Tim will love the numbers he'll put up.

50. Mike Golic (Ryan Braun): Chapman! Ehh, who wants a guy who throws 100 mph. Joining Braun will be up-and-coming third baseman/masher Mike Moustakas.

51. Mike Greenberg (Felix Hernandez): Curtis Granderson has some flaws, but had a terrific 2011 and should be good for years.

52. Aaron Boone (Starlin Castro): Continuing the up-the-middle theme, we'll give Boone 25-year-old catcher Alex Avila. If he can come close to 2011's .895 OPS the next seven years, he's an extremely valuable player.

53. Dave Cameron (Joey Votto): Zack Greinke is nearing a monster contract. An ace slips deep into round 2.

54. Barry Larkin (Justin Upton): Speaking of aces, Gio Gonzalez's improved command has turned him into one. And at 26, he's two years younger than Greinke.

55. Karl Ravech (Stephen Strasburg): We're not expecting Gold Gloves from Jesus Montero, but man, can the guy hit. Decent building block.

56. Eric Karabell (Evan Longoria): Let's see, tough call here: Do we go Utley, Howard, Rollins or Wigginton? OK, we know Karabell loves hitters ... Jason Kipnis will look good in that infield with Longoria.

57. Orel Hershiser (Justin Verlander): Former ace already has added an ace, and another ace is sitting there in Jered Weaver. Can't pass that up.

58. Kevin Goldstein (Clayton Kershaw): We have to give Goldstein a prospect so let's go with Royals outfielder Wil Myers, who has bashed his way through Double-A and just got promoted to Triple-A, and may be in Kansas City before long.

59. Buster Olney (Troy Tulowitzki): Pretty strong middle infield if we give him Ian Kinsler as well, so let's do exactly that.

60. Terry Francona (Matt Kemp): We need a pitcher. So many good ones left to choose from. He's a health risk, but if he's on he's as good anybody in the game: Josh Johnson.

Wow ... no Hanley Ramirez or Jose Reyes. Tim Lincecum's slow start scares us off. Joe Mauer and Brian McCann left on the board. Jordan Zimmermann, Brandon Morrow, not to mention top prospects like Manny Machado or Taijuan Walker. What do you think?

OK, I'll give you Justin Verlander.

I'll even give you Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson.

But five through 25? I think I'll take the Cleveland Indians over the Detroit Tigers.

The Indians beat the Tigers 5-3 on Tuesday, even though Ubaldo Jimenez struggled once again with his control. Relief ace Chris Perez, who criticized Indians fans on Saturday for their lack of support (Cleveland is last in the majors in attendance), was greeted with a thunderous ovation as he came in out of the bullpen in the ninth inning. With two runners on, he struck out Cabrera and got Fielder to ground out.

Just another save. "That's the loudest I've ever been cheered here," Perez said. "I was pumped, the adrenaline was going. It could have gone the other way. I came through. I didn't know which way it was going to go. I was thankful it went the good way."

The good way pushed the Indians to 24-18. The Tigers are 20-22, and for the life of me I can't understand why everyone still thinks Detroit is the better team. Mind you, I'm not saying the Indians are better. I just don't see why the Tigers are better. Just because everyone picked them before the season?

Once you get past those big shiny names on the Tigers' roster, if you want to pinpoint one big difference between the two clubs, it's a little statistic that us sabermetric types love: the old base on balls. The Indians lead the American League with 188 walks, 25 more than any other team; the Tigers have 127 walks, ninth in the league. That patience will go a long ways toward giving Cleveland an offense capable of scoring as many runs as Detroit's (the Indians have outscored the Tigers by one run so far, 184 to 183).

In fact, when you go position by position, you'll see what I mean.

Catcher: Carlos Santana versus Alex Avila. So far, Avila has been unable to match 2011's .366 average on balls in play, the sixth-best average in the majors. Which means he's hitting like he did in 2010. Santana, meanwhile, is a walks machine who hit 27 home runs in 2011.

First base: Casey Kotchman versus Prince Fielder. Obvious edge to Fielder, of course. The most interesting thing about his start (.292/.354/.472) is his walk rate is down from 15.5 percent to 8.5 percent. Part of that is he was intentionally walked 32 times a year ago, just three this year.

Second base: Jason Kipnis versus Ramon Santiago/Ryan Raburn. Please. Big edge to Kipnis with Santiago and Raburn both hitting under .200. Will Detroit make a move here?

Third base: Jack Hannahan/Jose Lopez versus Miguel Cabrera. This may be the first and only time you'll see Jose Lopez mentioned in the same breath as Miguel Cabrera. So far, however, this edge has been minimal. Cabrera is hitting .304/.362/.488, Hannahan .287/.365/.436 but with better defense. According to Defensive Runs Saved, Cabrera has cost the Tigers four runs -- worst among third basemen (tied with Hanley Ramirez).

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera versus Jhonny Peralta. With the Indians preaching plate discipline, check out Cabrera: Last year, 44 walks and 119 strikeouts; this year, 18 walks and just 12 strikeouts. He's hitting .309 with an OBP over .400 but hasn't lost any power. In 2011, he swung at 31 percent of the pitches out of the strike but he has cut that down to 24 percent. Small differences can go a long way. Peralta was a big surprise for Detroit last season but hasn't matched the numbers in the plate or in the field.

Left field: Johnny Damon/Shelley Duncan versus Andy Dirks/Delmon Young. Damon has looked terrible. Dirks has looked great, but too early to evaluate this one.

Center field: Michael Brantley versus Austin Jackson. With his defense and hot start at the plate, Jackson has been as valuable as any player in the American League not named Josh Hamilton.

Right field: Shin-Soo Choo versus Brennan Boesch. This one isn't close and that's with Choo off to a middling start in the power department. Choo has a .391 OBP, Boesch a .271 OBP. Choo is a solid defender while Boesch is slow and lumbering. With his poor start at the plate and poor defense, Boesch has been one of the worst regular in baseball so far. Choo is an underrated asset and I love Manny Acta's decision to move him into the leadoff spot.

Designated hitter: Travis Hafner versus field. Cleveland's designated hitters have six homers and .370 OBP (fourth in the league). Detroit's DHs have one home run and a .238 OBP (13th in the league). Big, big edge to Pronk.

Rotation. With the best pitcher on the planet, Detroit's rotation has posted a 3.87 ERA; without the best pitcher on the planet, Cleveland's rotation has posted a 3.94 ERA. Both teams have played 42 games and Cleveland's starters have thrown 12 more innings. Moving forward, maybe you think Detroit's group will perform better. After all, Doug Fister missed some, Max Scherzer just struck out 15 in game (never mind that the Pirates have been an historic strikeout binge of late) and Rick Porcello will put it together one of these years, because everyone says so. Meanwhile, Ubaldo Jimenez can't throw strikes, Justin Masterson hasn't pitched as well as last year and Derek Lowe is doing it with smoke, mirrors and a deal with the devil. The one thing the Cleveland starters do is keep the ball in the park; they've allowed 20 home runs, second-fewest in the league. Look, maybe you think Scherzer will start pitching better; I'd say so will Masterson. Maybe you're a Porcello believer; I'm not, especially with that infield defense behind him. Lowe is a fluke? Well, let's see how Drew Smyly does as the scouting reports get around on him.

Bullpen. Neither pen has been stellar, as Cleveland's 4.16 ERA ranks 13th in the AL and Detroit's 4.76 ranks 14th. Cleveland's top guys, however, have been pretty solid -- Chris Perez is 14 of 15 in save opportunities while Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith and Nick Hagadone have pitched well. Detroit's top two of Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit, so dominant a year ago, have both struggled to throw strikes.

I said before the season that I believed the Tigers were drastically overrated. On the Baseball Today podcast late in spring training, I predicted Cleveland would win the division. Unfortunately, when ESPN.com published predictions a few days later, I changed my pick to Detroit. I bought into the hype.

I'm not buying any longer. This division is wide, wide open. (And I haven't even mentioned the White Sox!)

Jose Altuve Troy Taormina/US PresswireDiminutive Astros infielder Jose Altuve isn't always so low to the ground.

Move of the Day: Choo leads off

May, 15, 2012
Not every move involves rosters: Some just involve putting your better assets to work. Case in point: Today’s lineup card for the Cleveland Indians, which featured Shin-Soo Choo batting leadoff, something Manny Acta started trying just yesterday.

Choo was followed by second baseman Jason Kipnis in his usual slot, then Asdrubal Cabrera, then Carlos Santana. If that sounds to you like every good Indians batter, stacked up in a row, you’d be right. But with Choo’s .362 OBP (pre-game) up front, it gave manager Manny Acta some big-inning potential, and when Minnesota's Jason Marquis got into trouble in the fifth, there was no easier out for him to get, and they cranked a trio of home runs before Ron Gardenhire could get him off the mound.

[+] EnlargeShin-Soo Choo
AP Photo/Jim MoneShin-Soo Choo homered as part of the Indians' fifth-inning barrage against Minnesota.
Admittedly, your best four up front is pretty much the definition of a short-sequence offense. But stacking all the good stuff up front is usually a better way to get a crooked number or two on the board, and then you can try to be cute with the assorted sidekicks in the bottom of the order: Jack Hannahan and Michael Brantley, Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon. Considering that it was a rare day off for Travis Hafner against a right-hander, though, that front-loaded lineup can at least go five deep, Choo to Kipnis to Cabrera to Pronk to Santana. That isn’t a bad place to start.

And while that back end might not be a good group, it’s worth remembering that the Indians aren’t married to any of them. Hannahan and Kotchman are defensive specialists who at the best of times get on base. But behind them, the Tribe has options: Lonnie Chisenhall’s slugging .562 at Columbus and ready to roll, while Matt LaPorta’s hammered 10 home runs as his teammate.

It’s the outfield where things aren’t happy. Damon’s utility as a source of OBP or power is now several seasons out of date, while Brantley’s marking time until he goes from ex-prospect to outright suspect and career fourth outfielder. And the Tribe doesn’t have a ready or ready-ish alternative in the upper levels among their outfielders; rather, they have the latest iteration of a story they’ve been putting children to sleep with for years: “Grady Sizemore will be back soon.” When your former center field star is the stuff of milk-carton legend, you know that you probably shouldn’t count on him as an in-season solution.

Which is what will make the weeks and months to come interesting to follow as far as the Tribe’s lineup cards are concerned. Will Brantley or Damon earn his keep? Will Sizemore actually return, and play well enough to consign one of the other two to the bench? Will Chisenhall or LaPorta get the call?

Or will Mark Shapiro simply deal for a corner bat worthy of the name before the end of July? Because that’s the thing that you can really wonder about: If you’re not getting offense out of first base or left field, that’s usually one of the easiest things to fix around the deadline, and without having to give away a top prospect. If Choo gets to be the Indians’ once and future leadoff man, then in addition to riding the benefits of that front-loaded lineup, you can stop excusing Damon or Brantley as guys who help at the top of the order, and start looking at how little they’re delivering on offense. Fix that, and the team the Tribe’s winning with now could be better still a deal later in August.

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