SweetSpot: Jay Bruce

Steve Mancuso of Redleg Nation wrote about Jay Bruce playing first base in Monday's game for the Reds:
First of all, if you think Joey Votto isn’t going on the DL, I’ve got some World Series tickets from 2013 to sell you. Face value.

Second, this is a huge, gigantic, enormous hit defensively in the OF and likely at 1B, as Jay Bruce *plays the infield* for the first time in his career.

Third, in the short run, all this means is that we get double the crappy left-field platoon. This was always the problem with the plan to play Devin Mesoraco at 1B; it just meant we got a light-hitting catcher in the lineup. The "Hey, we can play so-and-so for Joey Votto" works best when the new player in the lineup isn’t a terrible hitter.

The most important issue is the first one. It doesn't matter how the Reds ultimately patchwork the lineup once Votto lands on the DL as expected. The Reds need Votto if they are going to make the playoffs; better yet, they need a healthy Votto. He has essentially been playing on one leg, and it's showed in his numbers. Since returning from a DL stint earlier this year, he has hit .250 with zero home runs and a .699 OPS, as opposed to .859 before the DL.

"It's becoming apparent in the quality of his play that it's not just something that's an inconvenience," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "It's getting to the point where it's very difficult for him to compete."

Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information and "Baseball Tonight" host Jon Sciambi also pointed out that Votto hasn't been the same hitter since he injured his knee sliding into third base in a game against the Giants on June 29, 2012. Before that, he had a career slugging percentage of .559, including .600 in his 2010 MVP season, .531 in 2011 and .639 in 2012 before that slide. Since then, he owns a .459 slugging percentage, and the numbers show he's especially been less effective on outside pitches.

Critics have suggested Votto is too passive at the plate. As Justin points out, however, Votto has actually swung more often at outside pitches; he's just not getting the ball in the air and driving it with power as often. This could be because of the knee and hamstring injuries.

The immediate problem for the Reds is that, without Votto, this is a lineup with OBP issues. Entering Monday's game, Billy Hamilton had a .301 OBP, Brandon Phillips .308 and Zack Cozart .274. Bruce has yet to get on track with a .312 OBP and eight home runs, but he's never been a big OBP guy anyway (.329 career). Mesoraco and Todd Frazier made the All-Star Game with big first halves, but can they repeat those performances?

The long-term problem for the Reds is that this is the first season of the 10-year extension Votto signed in April 2012, and the Reds will owe him $213 million after this season. A first baseman without much power and a bad knee isn't going to be worth that kind of money, even if Votto can continue to post OBPs around .400.

That's in the future. For now, I'm not sure the Reds can score enough runs to stay in the tough National League Central race. The rotation has kept the Reds over .500 with the second-best ERA in the majors, but what are the odds Johnny Cueto runs a 1.99 ERA in the second half and Alfredo Simon goes 11-3 with a 2.78 ERA?

Hey, it could happen. Bruce could swat 20 home runs in the second half, Mesoraco and Frazier could stay hot, and the Reds could pick up an outfielder who provides value for two months. Maybe Votto just needs to rest his hamstring for a couple weeks.

The NL Central is a four-team race right now. But if Votto's injury issues limit him the rest of the way, I see it turning into a three-team race.

Early trends: Bruce, Fielder, Rizzo, Heyward

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
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We've reached the point in the season where the first calls are coming into sports-talk radio. You know the kind. The ones that say "Bench (fill in the blank), he's terrible" or "(fill in the blank) is finally going to be a star."

But there are usually explanations for these small-sample spikes or sputters, the most common of which is "It's early!"

Nonetheless, some trends are starting to emerge. We'll see how long-lasting these are.

Jay Bruce
Bruce has been a victim of infield shifts this season.

He's 0-for-9 when hitting a groundball against a defensive shift and you can see from his spray chart that he's already got a fair number of outfield ground outs.

Bruce is a good example of someone for whom shifts have contributed to frustration in a number of areas.

Over the last five seasons, his batting average on groundballs has sunk from .314 to .275 to .205 to .185 to its current 1-for-14. That's what happens when you pull 71 percent of your groundballs, as he has this season.

Prince Fielder
Fielder is also having trouble with shifts.

But his issue isn't with pulled balls, it's with getting the ball through the middle of the diamond.

Fielder is 3-for-18 when hitting a grounder or soft liner against shifts. He's 0-for-9 on the ground balls hit between where the second baseman and shortstop would typically play, as since they've shifted slightly, they're in ideal position to field his ground balls. Last season, on balls hit to those same locations he was 21-for-78 (.269).

Anthony Rizzo
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is off to a good start after a 2013 in which his numbers never reached anything near the expectation level the Cubs had for him.


Anthony Rizzo got a base hit on this pitch against the Pirates last week.
Rizzo is hitting .319 in his first 47 at-bats and he can thank his duck snorts for that start.

Rizzo is 10-for-33 on balls classified as either softly-hit or medium-hit after batting .156 when hitting those same types of balls last season.

The classic example of that is this -- Rizzo reached out and got a base hit on a pitch that was thrown to the spot noted in the image on the right. Those hits make a big difference in the numbers this early in the season.

Jason Heyward
Last season, Victor Martinez of the Tigers got off to a slow start. But there was reason to believe that Martinez's performance would eventually catch up with how often he was hitting the ball hard (a lot) and it did.

This year, it looks like Jason Heyward is headed down the Martinez path.




Heyward is hitting .160 and is 4-for-11 when hitting a ball that our video-tracking system classifies as hard hit. Over the previous two seasons, Heyward hit .746 and .718 on his hard-hit balls.

Heyward is 0-for-15 in 2014 when hitting a fly ball that doesn't go out of the ballpark. That includes a pair of well-muscled fly balls that found gloves against the New York Mets and Washington Nationals.

He's also 1-for-11 on his groundballs despite not being regularly shifted against and that might be a little misleading since he has reached base twice on errors (had those been scored hits, his batting average would have jumped 40 points).

Matt Wieters
At least for two weeks, Wieters has used the center of the field as his primary means for reaching base. From 2011 to 2013, Wieters pulled 43 percent of the balls he put in play and hit 28 percent of them to center field. This season, he’s reversed those numbers, pulling 29 percent and centering 41 percent.

The result of that has been more line drives. Last year, Wieters totaled 15 line drives to center field as a left-handed hitter. In the first two weeks of the season, he’s already got seven. The effort to pull the ball less often is a route that Torii Hunter went last season with modest success. We'll see if Wieters has made the adjustment or if it's just temporary results.


The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.

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.

 
There are currently five teams in the majors with 40 or more wins, and three of them play in the National League Central.

From top to bottom, the American League East might be a little bit stronger, but on Friday we got a good look at the intriguing race brewing in the NL Central -- and why it might be so tough for the Pittsburgh Pirates to break through.

The Pirates continued their strong play at PNC Park, beating the Dodgers 3-0 to earn their major league-best 24th home win on the year. Jeff Locke allowed three baserunners through seven innings, and then Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli tacked on a scoreless inning each. It was the winning recipe the Bucs have been cooking with all year.

They caught a break when the Cardinals lost 5-4 to the last-place Marlins, as Jose Fernandez became the first pitcher under age 21 to strike out 10 batters in a game since Felix Hernandez in 2007. (If you're only as good as the company you keep, this Fernandez kid is going places.)

[+] EnlargeJeff Locke
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicLefty Jeff Locke improved to 6-1 and lowered his ERA to 2.19 with Friday's effort.
It also looked like Pittsburgh might gain a game on Cincinnati, as the Reds made three errors and were outhit 12-7 by the Brewers. But Milwaukee was just 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, and the Reds won 4-3 in 10 innings on an opposite-field, walk-off homer from Jay Bruce.

And now, despite becoming the fifth team in baseball to reach 40 wins, the Bucs sit in third place, three behind the first-place Cardinals and a half-game behind the Reds for second. Such is life in the National League Central.

The Pirates have made a habit these past couple years of playing well in the first half and getting fans to believe they will finish with a winning record for the first time since 1992, only to collapse down the stretch. However, there is reason to believe that this team's performance is more "real." The biggest reason is the pitching staff, which has shown a dominant streak unseen in the previous two seasons.

Pittsburgh's pitchers are currently third in the NL in strikeouts -- a category in which they finished 12th in 2012 and 16th in 2011. In other words, this is not a staff getting by thanks to some well-placed grounders and fly balls. One problem: The two NL teams with more strikeouts are -- you guessed it -- St. Louis and Cincinnati, respectively. Such is life in the NL Central.

The big separator among the three teams is on offense, as the Cardinals and Reds are second and third, respectively, in the NL in runs, while the Pirates are 10th. You see this difference reflected in the respective run differentials: the Cardinals sit at plus-101, the Reds plus-65 and the Pirates plus-17.

Thanks to their stellar bullpen, the Pirates have the kind of team that can typically outperform its run differential, but it's probably going to take 95 victories to win this division, and the Pirates probably can't get there without adding another bat (or two). Realistically, their best hope is the second wild card, but the Giants and Nationals might have something to say about that.

So it seems that the Pirates are a good bet to have their first winning season since 1992 and could win close to 90 games -- while finishing third in their division. Such is life in the NL Central.
Quick thoughts on Monday's action ...
  • Just over a week ago the Brewers were 2-8 and looked horrible. Now they've won eight in a row after beating the Padres 7-1 on Monday, as they lit up Jason Marquis for five runs in the first inning (Ryan Braun and the awesome Yuniesky Betancourt homered). Ahh, the rapid-fire twists and turns of April baseball. Braun has four home runs and 11 RBIs in his past five games, with three of those homers coming in the first inning and the other a go-ahead shot in the sixth. Keep an eye on Kyle Lohse, however, as he left after five innings with an injury to his left hand suffered when his finger got caught on Jedd Gyorko's belt while crossing first base on a bunt.
  • Matt Moore looked terrific in leading the Rays to a 5-1 win over CC Sabathia and the Yankees, allowing just two hits (both by Robinson Cano) over his career-high 117-pitch, eight-inning effort. Moore threw 79 fastballs and while he recorded just two of his eight strikeouts with the heater, the Yankees went just 1-for-15 against it. Moore improved to 4-0, 1.04, but I need to point out the Yankees lineup: Ben Francisco hitting second, Francisco Cervelli hitting fifth, lefties Brennan Boesch and Lyle Overbay ... George is not impressed. Teams should be doing everything in their power to start left-handers against the Yankees; they're hitting .190 with a .561 OPS against lefties (28th in the majors) compared to .301 with a .902 OPS against righties (first in the majors).
  • Big hit of the night: How about Buster Posey's two-run, game-tying blast to dead center off tough D-backs reliever David Hernandez in the ninth? Brandon Belt knocked in the game-winner the next inning for the G-men.
  • Big rally of the night: After the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the 13th, the Reds scored three in the bottom of the inning to win 5-4. Jay Bruce hit his first homer earlier in the game and then doubled home the tying runs in the 13th before Cesar Izturis delivered the game-winning hit with two outs. Still waiting for Dusty Baker to use Aroldis Chapman for more than three outs for the first time.
  • Justin Masterson survived four walks to improve to 4-1 as the Indians beat the White Sox 3-2. Adam Dunn went 0-for-4 to see his average drop to .101. Ozzie Guillen stuck with Dunn all year in 2011 but it will be interesting to see how long Robin Ventura sticks with him this time around. Speaking of bad White Sox hitters: Jeff Keppinger is hitting .171 in 76 at-bats and hasn't drawn a walk, so his OBP is actually lower than his average. Did we mention that the White Sox are in last place even though they've allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL?
  • Love watching Manny Machado play third base.
  • Finally, congrats to Felix Hernandez on his 100th career victory.
It's time for the old columnist staple: Random thoughts!

1. Mike Trout turned 21 years old in August, so the common axiom about young players as applied to Trout: He'll get better. But is that even possible? His 10.7 WAR was one of just 20 such seasons by a position player since 1950. If he repeats this season 10 more times he'd be over 100 career WAR -- a valuation just 19 position players have achieved. Now, unless he's the second coming of Willie Mays, Trout isn't going to be a 10-WAR player every season. His baserunning and fielding ability may have already crested, but is there room for development as a hitter? I think it's possible. He has a walk rate of 10.5 percent -- while above the AL average of 8.0 percent -- could improve, boosting his on-base percentages over .400, even if he's more .300 hitter than .330. Of course, maybe he is more Mays than Rickey Henderson. Mays had a .384 career OBP and walk rate of 11.7 percent that didn't grow much from a 10.9 percent rate as a rookie.

What about power? Trout wasn't projected as more of 20-homer guy coming up, so the 30 home runs was a big surprise, especially in a tough home run park. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, eight of Trout's 30 home runs were "just enough" -- a figure that wasn't near the league-leading figures of Miguel Cabrera (16) and Adrian Beltre (15). Trout's home run percentage on fly balls was 21.6 percent, which ranked 15th in the majors among those hitters with 300 plate appearances. Remember, as fast as is he, Trout isn't a small guy, at 6-1 and over 200 pounds. He's bigger than Mays or Hank Aaron. I believe the power is legit; that doesn't mean he's going to turn into a 40- or 45-homer guy. Eddie Mathews hit 47 as a 21-year-old and that was his career high. A friend of mine who plays in a simulation league owns Trout and was offered Bryce Harper for him. He asked my thoughts, wondering if it's possible Trout will never do this again. I suppose that's possible, but answered: He doesn't have to get better. He's already the best all-around player in the game.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonMike Trout doesn't have to get better to be great.
2. Does anybody sign Delmon Young?

3. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs broke down the Jeremy Guthrie signing here. Buster Olney also wrote about the Royals. I like the move a little more than Dave does. I understand the readers who said the Royals could have spent the money more wisely, but that ignores that in all likelihood none of the really good pitchers want to come to Kansas City. Guthrie has thrown 175-plus innings six straight years; yes, he'll be 34 in April, so that's not a guarantee to continue, but durability is no sure thing with any pitcher. But to a club like the Royals, getting an innings eater is a pretty valuable addition. Over those six seasons, the Royals have had just 11 seasons where a starter reached 175 innings -- and only five with 200 (three by Zack Greinke, two by Gil Meche). For the Royals, half the problem has been not having good starters, but half the problem has been not having durable ones, which leads to the necessity of using even more bad ones, and the deeper you go, the worse they get.

4. Some days I like B.J. Upton and some days I don't. For what it's worth, his Defensive Runs Saved figures the past three years are NOT very good: minus-19, minus-7, minus-4.

5. Are the Rockies really counting on Todd Helton to play first base again?

6. Excellent column from Jeff MacGregor on stats guru Nate Silver and how the quantification of sports impacts some of our enjoyment of the games. Jeff isn't saying the numbers and analysis are bad or evil; this isn't a terrible Mitch Albom column here (you can find it easily enough). Jeff is raising a fair and honest question: "The game exists to produce joy or sadness or distraction or love or hate or a thousand sensations unrelated to common sense or business or efficiency. Not even money. So to what end do we go to WAR over VORP?"

7. Joe Posnanski with a blog entry comparing MVP winners -- which he equates to the best narrative -- to the HOW winners (Heroes of WAR). Fun piece. As Joe points out, there are many seasons where a pitcher could have been in the MVP discussion, but the only one to win in the past two decades was Justin Verlander. If anything, Verlander's MVP stands out as the biggest outlier in recent MVP voting. Not that he wasn't deserving, but there have been many starters just as deserving -- Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux -- but only Pedro came close to winning. This is certainly an inconsistency to the MVP voting, which is really the reason it's so fun to argue over.

8. Rumors out there the Tigers are interested in Stephen Drew and would then trade Jhonny Peralta to Arizona. I agree with the Tigers' desire to upgrade defense at shortstop, but is Drew the answer? He'll be turning 30, an age when many shortstops start to lose range. His Defensive Runs Saved was not good last year -- minus-7 runs. There is some upside here -- Drew was a 4-win player in 2010, but there is the possibility he's not really an improvement over Peralta and more of an injury risk (Peralta has never been on the DL). The Tigers defense wasn't great in 2012, but I don't think Peralta was the main reason why. His DRS the past two seasons has been +2 and minus-1. Sometimes steady and reliable is OK.

9. Anibal Sanchez: $100 million? I can't see it. I mean .. it's Anibal Sanchez. Nice No. 3.

10. Chase Headley's road numbers, doubled: .300, 36 home runs, 128 RBIs. Miguel Cabrera's road numbers, doubled: .327, 32 home runs, 128 RBIs.

11. Joey Matschulat looks at the Rangers' 2013 payroll situation, which he estimates at $110 million and counting. Assuming an estimated $120-$130 million payroll that has been reported in the Dallas media, Joey points out why the team didn't make a qualifying offer to Mike Napoli (he may have accepted it) and writes:
    I think this should also serve to temper some of the expectations being bandied about as far as the Rangers making a serious run at a marquee free agent such as Zack Greinke -- sure, they could backload the hell out of such a deal in anticipation of another $30-plus million in expiring contracts coming off the books next winter (and, for that matter, in anticipation of their coffer-filling TV deal with FOX Sports Southwest that begins in 2015), but they would still end up around $125-130 million for 2013 just by adding Greinke alone, and before addressing any of their other roster holes. To make that work, ownership would need to be prepared to move above and beyond the $140 million mark for next season, or they would need to shed some of their existing payroll obligations.

Based on this analysis and assuming the Rangers aren't going to break that $130 payroll mark, it does seem unlikely the team will sign Greinke and one of the big free agent outfielders (whether Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton or somebody else). A Craig Gentry/Leonys Martin platoon would probably be adequate for center field and David Murphy can hold down left field or Ian Kinsler could move to the outfield. Remember, the team still has a big hole at catcher, especially if Geovany Soto is non-tendered.

12. Jason Linden looks at Jay Bruce, who said he'd like to play his whole career with the Reds. Of course he would. Bruce is a career .280 hitter at home with 82 home runs versus .231 on the road with 52 home runs (same number of PAs). Bruce is already signed through 2016 with a 2017 club option. There's no reason to extend him for seasons beginning with his age-31 season. My personal take is that Bruce is one of the more overrated players in the majors (which isn't the same thing as saying as he's a bad player; he's not). But it does seem that Bruce benefits from the cozy confines at GAB more than most hitters (certainly more than Joey Votto, whose splits are pretty even). Look at how Ryan Ludwick fared in 2012. Anyway, Jason looks at some comparable to players to Bruce to see how they fared from ages 31 to 35. Check it out.

13. I think the Dodgers end up with Greinke.

14. Finally, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Thanks for reading and enjoy the long weekend.
That was one of the more entertaining games of the postseason, a classic pitching duel of sorts, with some interesting strategic decisions and some missed opportunities. The Cincinnati Reds will be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of one of the best-pitched games in Reds postseason history and the San Francisco Giants will be wondering how they’re still alive in a game where they got three hits in 10 innings and struck out 16 times. For the rest of us, we’ll get more baseball!

Some thoughts on the Giants’ 2-1 victory:

  • As dominant as Aroldis Chapman was in the ninth inning, getting two strikeouts while throwing just 15 pitches, I was a little surprised he didn’t come back out for the 10th inning. Chapman pitched more than one inning eight times this season, but only twice after becoming the closer, a 1.2-inning save May 27 and a four-out save Aug. 10. Factoring in the shoulder fatigue that sidelined Chapman for 11 days in September, maybe Reds manager Dusty Baker is wary about using Chapman for more than an inning. The trouble is it’s a big drop-off from Chapman to Jonathan Broxton. Of course, it’s a big drop from Chapman to just about any reliever not named Craig Kimbrel.
  • As is, despite giving up two singles to start the inning, Broxton would have escaped the 10th if not for shoddy Reds defense. After he struck out Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady, Ryan Hanigan's passed ball allowed the runners to move up and then Scott Rolen mishandled Joaquin Arias' chopper to third base. The sloppy defense in this postseason continues. Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a couple interesting choices that inning: He let Belt swing away with two on and no out. I would say most managers would have bunted there about 99 percent of the time. I didn’t mind the call. Belt has never had a sacrifice bunt in his brief career and he was the Giants' best chance to deliver a hit. Bochy then let pitcher Sergio Romo hit with runners at first and second. Again, I liked the call. Romo is the Giants’ best reliever; Bochy had used the other relievers you might want to use. Plus, Bochy had used up his bench; only backup catcher Hector Sanchez was left.
  • Xavier Nady and Xavier Paul. Discuss. Or not. Man, these two benches are horrible.
  • Keith Law and Eric Karabell talked about an interesting point on the Baseball Today podcast today, wondering if the Yankees aren’t better off moving up Robinson Cano in the order. He hit cleanup on Monday, and was left in the on-deck circle as Alex Rodriguez made the final out. Keith’s point is that batting lineups don’t matter all that much, but one obvious benefit of stacking your best hitters at the top is you may get them one more plate appearance. That’s the problem with the Reds batting Zack Cozart and his .288 OBP second. He made the final out, leaving Joey Votto on deck.
  • Not to bury Homer Bailey's awesome start. You can see why he pitched a no-hitter two starts ago as he took a no-hitter to two outs in the sixth (although the Giants had scored on a hit-by-pitch, walk and two sacrifices). The walk to No. 8 Brandon Crawford proved especially painful and kudos to pitcher Ryan Vogelsong for a good bunt and Angel Pagan for delivering the sac fly. Considering Bailey had thrown just 88 pitches, you can argue that Baker took him out too early. I can't fault Baker for handing the game to the best bullpen in baseball, but the Giants couldn't touch Bailey on this night.
  • Bailey’s game score of 80 was the fourth highest in Reds postseason history, behind Hod Eller’s 89 in Game 5 of the 1919 World Series against a team that wasn’t trying to win (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 SO) and Ross Grimsley’s 84 in Game 4 of the 1972 NLCS (9 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 SO). Jose Rijo’s win to clinch the sweep of the A’s in the 1990 World Series (8.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 9 SO) scores a 91. And, yes, this was just an excuse to mention Hod Eller.
  • Brandon Phillips' hustle effort in the first inning when he got thrown out at third base is one of those plays described as a “baserunning error” if you don’t make it but “heads-up baseball” if you do. The argument against trying to get the extra base is that with zero outs there is a little reward if you do make it (you’re already in scoring position) but a huge penalty if you get caught. As it turned out, Vogelsong labored through a 30-pitch inning and Phillips’ hustle cost the Reds a potential big inning.
  • Vogelsong did a nice job of settling down after that inning. He walked Votto and Ryan Ludwick in the third, but got Jay Bruce on a fly to left. Bruce swung at the first pitch, which isn’t necessarily the worst idea if he thinks a pitcher is going to groove something after two walks. Bochy hit for Vogelsong leading off the sixth, again not a bad idea considering the circumstances. Vogelsong had thrown 95 pitches, the Reds had Votto and Bruce due up the next inning and the Giants were still hitless at the time. It was the one opportunity Bochy knew he could use Aubrey Huff against a right-hander, without the possibility of the Reds bringing in Sean Marshall or Chapman. Huff just isn’t a big weapon right now.
  • As I write this, the Reds haven’t announced their Game 4 starter. It could be Johnny Cueto, but that seems unlikely. It could be Mat Latos, three days after throwing 57 pitches in Game 1. It could be Mike Leake, but to activate him they’d have to replace Cueto, which would make him ineligible for the National League Championship Series, should the Reds advance. If they go with Latos, that would likely mean starting Bronson Arroyo on three days’ rest in a potential Game 5. No easy calls here, but I’d probably go Latos and Arroyo, and rely on the deepest bullpen in the league. The Giants counter with Barry Zito -- and you know Bochy will have a quick hook. The Reds had a .770 OPS against left-handers compared to .710 versus righties, so if Zito struggles early don’t be surprised to see Tim Lincecum again in relief. Should be a good chess match yet again.

 
Mat LatosKelley L Cox/US PresswireMat Latos pitched four effective innings in relief to help the Reds top the Giants.

When Cincinnati Reds starter Johnny Cueto had to leave with back spasms after recording just one out Saturday, manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price had four reasonable options:

1. Bring in reliever Sam LeCure, who didn’t start a game this season but had started 10 games in his career over the previous two seasons, and let him go as long as possible.

2. Turn into it into a bullpen game: Use LeCure and Alfredo Simon, another reliever who can be stretched out, and hope those two could get the game into the fifth inning.

3. Use Game 2 starter Bronson Arroyo, who last pitched on Monday.

4. Use Game 3 starter Mat Latos, who last pitched on Tuesday, meaning he’d be pitching on three days’ rest, something he’d never done before in the majors.

All were certainly defensible options. The Reds chose right: A combination of No. 1 and No. 4. LeCure got five outs to get the Reds through the second inning and then Baker gave the ball to Latos, who pitched four innings of one-run baseball, allowing only a home run to Buster Posey in the sixth inning. That decision proved key as the Reds beat the Giants 5-2 in their Division Series opener.

The smart thing Baker and Price did was to first use LeCure, a guy used to pitching in relief. That allowed Latos to go to the bullpen and conduct his usual pre-start routine and not potentially rush himself coming in for the injured Cueto. He wasn't dominant pitching on short rest, recording just one strikeout, but he got some help from his defense and bridged the gap to the back end of the Reds’ bullpen.

Defense -- and maybe a little luck -- was a huge key for the Reds. I counted six big defensive plays that saved bases and/or hits. In the second inning, Drew Stubbs cut off Gregor Blanco's double in the gap, preventing Brandon Belt from scoring from first base. Then, after intentionally walking Brandon Crawford, Matt Cain shot a hard liner to right field that Jay Bruce snagged. In the fourth, after Hunter Pence reached on an infield chopper, Belt rocketed a line drive that Joey Votto reached up and snared, allowing him to double off Pence. Left fielder Ryan Ludwick, not known for his defense, made a diving catch on Belt’s blooper in the sixth and a running catch on Marco Scutaro's drive over his head in the seventh. Brandon Phillips also saved an extra base by backing up an errant throw on Blanco’s bunt single in the sixth.

Some good plays, a couple at them balls, some heads-up thinking. The Reds ranked fifth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved, so defense like this is no surprise. The one aspect to watch moving forward is Votto’s mobility at first base with his bad knee; normally recognized as a pretty good glove, he had three scoop/reach plays and didn’t come up with any of them. It will be interesting to see if the Giants try a couple bunts on him in Game 2.

Offensively, the Reds rely on home runs, and that’s what they did, with Phillips clocking a hanging curveball from Cain just over the fence in left-center for a two-run shot and Bruce crushing a changeup 436 feet to right-center. Not a lot of balls are hit out in that area of AT&T Park (in fact, AT&T featured the fewest home runs by left-handed batters of any park in the majors). Bruce was my key hitter in the series for the Reds and he went 2-for-4, hitting a double and also a deep fly to center. A good sign for the Reds that he didn’t strike out. The Reds finished third in the NL home runs but just 12th in on-base percentage, so this is typical Reds baseball. When they hit home runs, they win.

As for Cain, he entered with a sterling postseason résumé from 2010, allowing just one unearned run in three starts. He just got beat on a couple bad pitches. Posey set up outside on the curveball to Phillips, but the pitch hung inside. The pitch to Bruce got too much of the middle of the plate.

I didn’t have a problem with Bruce Bochy hitting for Cain when he was due up leading off the bottom of the fifth. Considering the Reds’ bullpen -- it had the best ERA in the majors -- Bochy realized he had to try and generate some offense. The problem is Aubrey Huff and his .192 average (to be, fair, a .326 OBP, so at least he had a chance to draw a walk) was the choice. Other than Todd Frazier for the Reds, however, both teams have pretty weak benches.

One thing Bochy may have to consider is moving Belt up a spot in the order. With the Reds starting four right-handers, why not move Belt and his .380 OBP up to the fifth spot? (Or, arguably, ahead of Posey and moving Pablo Sandoval down to fifth). Belt had solid at-bats all night, drawing two walks. Pence may provide a veteran presence but he’s been terrible since coming over to the Giants, hitting .219/.287/.384.

The Giants made things interesting in the final two innings. Trailing 3-1 in the eighth, they got two on with two outs against Jonathan Broxton but Blanco took a 3-2 pitch on the low outside corner for strike three.

In the ninth, despite now leading 5-1, Baker brought on Aroldis Chapman. Remember, Chapman didn’t pitch for 11 days in mid-September and he hasn’t pitched in back-to-back games since returning. Why burn him with a four-run lead? The Reds had solid relievers in J.J. Hoover and Jose Arredondo available. As is, Chapman was wild enough to walk two guys, wild pitch in a run and allow likely NL MVP Posey to come up as the tying run with two outs. He finally struck him out on a high 100-mph fastball, but it took Chapman 28 pitches to get through the inning. It’s potentially a long postseason; now Baker has to wonder if Chapman will respond if needed on Sunday.

Obviously, the Giants don’t want to head back to Cincinnati down two games, so the pressure is on Madison Bumgarner to deliver a gem in Game 2, facing Arroyo. But the best news for the Reds: As of now, they believe Cueto will be OK to start Game 3.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
9:07
PM ET
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield
It's a good dilemma: Too many players, not enough starting positions.

With Joey Votto activated, Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker will have to decide what to do about his lineup. With Votto out since July 16 following knee surgery, Baker has been able to use Todd Frazier as his primary first baseman with Scott Rolen playing third. Rolen, who looked done the first two months of the season, has responded with an excellent second half, hitting .320/.420/.513 in the second half. Rolen, of course, is a veteran and we all know Baker loves his veterans. But the rookie Frazier is slugging .539 and hasn't been exposed with regular playing time since the All-Star break, hitting .306/.352/.522.

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What should Dusty Baker do about the Reds' lineup?

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In my chat session today, a reader threw out the possibility of playing Frazier in right field with Jay Bruce moving to center in place of Drew Stubbs (.219/.285/.356). Frazier has made five starts in the outfield this year, but all came in left field. Bruce, meanwhile, hasn't played center field since his rookie season in 2008. The trouble with that alignment -- or playing Frazier in left and Ryan Ludwick in center -- is that you weaken yourself at two positions, center field and right/left field. Neither Bruce or Ludwick should be considered a center fielder and it seems unlikely that Baker would play around with his defensive alignment this late in the season, even if it means getting Stubbs' bat out of the lineup.

Another reader pointed out that Tony La Russa played Skip Schumaker in center field last postseason, even though he hadn't played there in the regular season. Indeed, Schumaker had played just 13 innings all season in center field but started there four games in the postseason, including three World Series games. Schumaker had come up as an outfielder and started 59 games in center in 2008 before moving to second base, but it was still a risky move by La Russa.

Maybe Baker thinks Bruce can handle center. Bruce has basically rated as an average right fielder the past two seasons (minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved), so probably wouldn't be a disaster in center. Maybe when Bronson Arroyo -- the most extreme flyball pitcher in the rotation -- starts, Baker plays Stubbs. In the end, I'd predict Stubbs remains in center, with Rolen starting the most of the playoff games at third and Frazier serving as a pinch-hitter deluxe/occasional starter.

What would you do?
Let's of good debates in today's chat: We discuss Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera in the AL MVP race, whether or not Ryan Braun is an MVP candidate in the NL, whether or not some teams should consider a three-man rotation in the playoffs, plus the most amazing play I've ever seen in person. Check it all out -- and more -- here.
There's something beautiful when a baseball team goes on a long winning streak. The nature of the sport is that it's immensely difficult to win 10 games in a row like the Cincinnati Reds. One great game by an opposing starter; three bad pitches by a relief pitcher; one crucial double play not turned or blooper that falls. It doesn't take much to end a streak.

The only other team to win 10 in a row this season was the New York Yankees. Last season, only the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers had streaks of 10-plus wins a row. The Reds stretched their streak to double digits with a 7-2 win over the Colorado Rockies on Sunday as Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce homered in the fifth inning to break the game open.

"A lot of pressure coming into the game knowing we won nine in a row, but I just attacked them," winning pitcher Mat Latos said. "Today it was in the back of my mind, but it's baseball. Just play."

In honor of 10 straight, here are 10 random thoughts about The Big Red Hot Machine.

1. Are they the best team in the National League?

I'm not quite ready to make that declaration. While it's impressive that their past six wins have come on the road, let's keep in mind who the Reds defeated: the Diamondbacks (one win), Brewers, Astros and Rockies. The Astros are fielding a Triple-A team right now and the Rockies aren't much better. The starting pitchers the Reds faced: Joe Saunders, Marco Estrada, Yovani Gallardo, Michael Fiers, Wandy Rodriguez, Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris, Drew Pomeranz, Christian Friedrich and Jonathan Sanchez.

The Reds are combined 25-8 against the Astros, Brewers, Cubs, Padres and Rockies. The Nationals, 61-40 overall compared to the Reds' record of 61-40, have played those five teams 10 fewer games by comparison. The Reds still have 23 games left against the Astros, Brewers and Cubs; the Nationals get only 12 games against those three clubs.

2. But they've done this without Joey Votto.

True. The Reds are 11-2 since Votto went on the disabled list on July 16 because of knee surgery. Todd Frazier has started 10 of those games at first base (with Miguel Cairo starting the other three). Frazier has hit .269 with one home run and five RBIs since July 16, but Scott Rolen has played well at third base, hitting .306 with two home runs and five RBIs in 10 games without Votto. So while the Reds have missed Votto they haven't necessarily received zero production in his absence either.

3. Speaking of the Nationals, they've barely allowed fewer runs than the Reds.

Good point. For all the hype about the Nationals' rotation, the Reds have allowed just four fewer runs (in one less game), 362 to 358. The Nationals have a 3.25 staff ERA to the Reds' 3.26. True, the Nationals' rotation has a better ERA -- 3.13 versus 3.56 -- but the Reds' starters have pitched 32 more innings. That's allowed the Reds to concentrate more of their relief on their best guys -- although led by Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall, the Reds have the deepest and best bullpen in the league right now. They have six relievers who have pitched at least 35 innings and Sam LeCure's 3.47 ERA is the highest of the bunch. Amazingly, despite their home park, the Cincy bullpen has allowed the fewest home runs in the league. It's a knockout bunch and the depth ensures Dusty Baker isn't going to burn any of them before September.

4. Homer Bailey. Speak.

I predicted Bailey as a breakout performer before the season and he hasn't disappointed, coming on strong of late. He's 9-6 with a 3.53 ERA, including a 2.45 ERA over his past eight starts. Baker has responded by trusting Bailey to go deeper into games -- he's pitched eight innings in four of those eight games. As a fly-ball pitcher, Bailey is going to give up some home runs, especially in The Great American Ball Park, but he throws strikes and 12 of the 17 home runs he has allowed have come with the bases empty. He has allowed a .206 average with runners in scoring position, which has kept down his ERA. Maybe he didn't developed into the No. 1 or 2 once projected one he was a prospects, but he's finally a solid No. 3 or 4.

5. Will they make any moves?

The lineup is still very right-handed, with only Votto (when he returns) and Bruce swinging southpaw. Having both Miguel Cairo and Wilson Valdez as backup infielders is a waste of a roster space. Don't look for the Reds to make a big move, but expect Walt Jocketty to pick up a veteran left-handed bat for the bench or a platoon role in the outfield.

6. OK, the leadoff spot.

Yes, it has been a problem all season, with an MLB-worst .246 on-base percentage and .508 OPS. Baker has been hammered all season for sticking primarily with rookie shortstop Zack Cozart despite his poor production while hitting there. We'll see how Baker constructs the lineup once Votto returns. He obviously prefers to have a righty hit between Votto and Bruce (a strategy that I think is vastly overrated), but with Ryan Ludwick hitting well of late, maybe he keeps Ludwick in the cleanup spot and moves Brandon Phillips to leadoff.

7. What about the Pirates?

Hey, they're still hanging tough. It's rough when you go 7-3 like the Pittsburgh Pirates have over their past 10 games and still lose three games in the standings. "They're not going to go away, that's fairly obvious at this point," Bruce said after Sunday's win. "We have some series left with them, but any time you can gain a game it's great." Mark this upcoming weekend down on your calendar: Pirates at Reds, the first three of nine games remaining between the clubs.

8. Aroldis Chapman is back on track.

He had that huge blip in June when he lost four games in seven appearances, but since then he's appeared in 15 games, recorded 13 saves, and struck out 33 of the 53 batters he's faced. National League hitters, be afraid.

9. Hey, what about Todd Frazier for Rookie of the Year?

Frazier remains a big surprise, hitting .277/.333/.523. No, his future isn't as bright as Bryce Harper's, but his numbers certainly are better than Harper's .261/.338/.430 line. He has been one of the unsung heroes of the 2012 season.

10. The man with the toothpick.

It's easy to dish out criticism to Dusty Baker. When I do my weekly chat, it's become a running joke: Somebody makes a sarcastic comment about Baker's managing. I'm not saying it's deserved and he has been torn apart going back to his Giants days and his Cubs days, much of it justified. But he has also gotten a lot out of this team -- good seasons not only from Bailey but Bronson Arroyo, whom everyone assumed was washed up, and Mike Leake.

Sure the players always deserve most of the credit (or blame), but as we head into the final two months, I found myself rooting for Dusty. Hey, managers who have accomplished much less and made bigger blunders have won World Series titles. Maybe it's Dusty's turn.
Maicer IzturisGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireElliot Johnson has one thing to say: Catch me if you can!
The Cincinnati Reds are angry. Dusty Baker is very angry, accusing Tony La Russa of deliberately bypassing Johnny Cueto and Brandon Phillips in making his All-Star selections because of the infamous Reds-Cardinals brawl in 2010.

"A snub like that looks bad," Baker told reporters. "Johnny and Brandon were at the center of a skirmish between us and the Cardinals. Some of the Cardinals who aren't there anymore are making some of the selections."

La Russa
La Russa
Look, Cueto deserved to make the team. La Russa countered Baker by saying, "If Dusty had been more interested in Cueto being on the team, then he wouldn't be pitching him on Sunday. Cueto probably would be on the team if he wasn't pitching Sunday."

Still when you go through the process step by step it's clear why Phillips and Cueto didn't make the team.

At second base, the fans voted in Dan Uggla as the starter and Jose Altuve was the players' choice. Once reserves from the players' vote were added -- guys like David Wright and Ryan Braun -- La Russa had four positions to fill. He went with Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, a clearly deserving All-Star; Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, the club's lone representative; Reds outfielder Jay Bruce; and Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond.

Let's debate Desmond versus Phillips. Desmond is hitting .276/.308/.484; Phillips is hitting .285/.329/.442. Similar numbers. Even if you give Phillips an edge for his glove (which is debatable), I don't see where you can argue that Phillips got the short straw here. Especially when Aaron Hill is probably more deserving than Phillips.

The Bruce choice is actually a bit perplexing, especially when you consider that La Russa chose him over Matt Holliday or Michael Bourn, both of whom are having better seasons than Bruce. Holliday is hitting .307/.391/.502 compared to Bruce's .257/.326/.522. In fact, it's much easier to argue for Bruce's exclusion than it is for Phillips' inclusion.

OK, Johnny Cueto. He's 9-4 with a 2.26 ERA, a terrific ERA considering his home park. Once you get through the players' choices -- which included Lance Lynn -- La Russa had five spots for the pitching staff. His choices were Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Wade Miley, Huston Street and Jonathan Papelbon.

Miley was the Diamondbacks' lone rep. Street is the Padres' lone rep. You cannot fault for La Russa for choosing Kershaw and Hamels, obviously two of the best pitchers in the game and both having good seasons. The debatable selection is Papelbon, who isn't even having a particularly good season, and the Phillies already had Ruiz and Hamels on the roster. You can probably guess La Russa's thinking here: He'd prefer having a reliever pitching late in the game than a starter who isn't used to coming out of the bullpen. I'm not saying I agree with that, but I see the thought process, especially with Cueto scheduled to pitch Sunday.

La Russa did have a couple other options: He could have chosen Chase Headley as the Padres' representative -- but that would have meant over Desmond or Bruce. That would have allowed Cueto, Zack Greinke or James McDonald to be put on the roster instead of Street. He could have chosen Aaron Hill over Desmond, with one of the three starters going in place of Miley.

In the end, it comes down to difficult choices. Personally, I would prefer to see two of the deserving starting pitchers make it over the two relievers. La Russa better just hope that Papelbon doesn't lose the game.
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?

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