SweetSpot: Jeff Francoeur

Pirates first to 50, but they're no fluke

June, 30, 2013

First team to 50 wins, the Pittsburgh Pirates? For reals? Legit? By getting there behind Francisco Liriano’s start, a deep pen’s collective hold and save, and the homers hit by Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones, today’s Pirates might have done something no Pirates team has done since the franchise's 1960 championship squad.

Holy moly, we might be witnessing the end of professional sports’ longest, dimmest dark age, not least in terms of Steel City baseball history. Praise be that it might be done for; never have so many suffered for so long to so little reward. A generation of children born in Pittsburgh since the Pirates’ last winning season and postseason appearance have already been eligible to vote since the Buccos’ major-sports record of 20 consecutive losing seasons -- the past six with the Nutting family running the show -- got started. Give it much longer, and they’d have been graduating from college en masse. Say what you will about Cubs fans, but they’ve never had to endure something like this.

It might all seem improbable enough. But by notching his seventh win in Saturday's 2-1 victory over visiting Milwaukee, Liriano is making it clear that his initial strong start is not the flashy return from yet another injury, followed by a predictable fade. He’s notched five quality starts in his past six turns. His walk rate isn’t just down by 1.5 free passes per nine, it’s down below 3.5 BB/9, at which it was when he was helping pitch the Minnesota Twins into one-game playoffs and contention. As easy as it might be to write off Liriano as flaky, this is the guy who was once the sixth-best prospect in baseball (per Baseball America before 2006), and after a year lost to Tommy John surgery on his elbow plus five different 15-day disabled-list stints for shoulder woes and arm soreness, there comes a point at which you have to stop calling the guy flaky and recognize the talent he’s capable of showing when he’s healthy, as infrequent as that might be.

But there’s the rub: That fragility is part of what made him a Pirate, but that talent is part of why the Buccos were smart to get him. The fascinating thing about the Pirates making the leap from sub-mediocrity to best record in baseball isn’t that it’s a surprise. It’s that they have the talent to make it so.

These Pirates aren’t some ragamuffin band of misfit toys -- they are not the Oakland A’s of "Moneyball" legend or present-day fact. This is a team built around past top prospects, whether they belonged to the Pirates or others. Guys like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker and Alvarez and Gerrit Cole are men that they picked and any team might envy; faded former studs like A.J. Burnett and Liriano and even a well-traveled veteran like closer Jason Grilli -- if you go back to the ’90s and his pedigree as a Giants farmhand 15 years ago -- are past top prospects who they have picked up, recognizing who they’ve been and what they might still be capable of.

[+] EnlargeJason Grilli
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsA Jason Grilli save is worth just as much in the standings as any other save, so why pay more than you have to?
Never mind that they’re rattling off wins while either three- or four-fifths of their rotation is on the DL. (That depends on how you feel about Jeff Karstens’ place on the depth chart.) With Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez due back from the DL within a week’s time, that just means Pittsburgh has the kind of depth in its rotation to sustain big weeks, big months and big seasons, no matter how well or badly its lineup is doing. Add their in-season fixes like switching from the oh-so-glovely Clint Barmes to better everyday option Jordy Mercer at shortstop, and it’s clear the Pirates are willing to fix things on the fly to aim for targets that might once have seemed sky-high.

But that’s the thing. As much as things are going right by reaching 50 wins first, for all that, these really aren’t your daddy’s Pirates. And why is that? How is it that the franchise of Dave Parker, or Roberto Clemente, or Paul Waner, as proud a legacy of right-field greatness as any team this side of Babe Ruth’s employers, could be producing a collective .656 OPS before Saturday’s action?

That’s the lowest RF mark in the National League, the worst among NL corner outfielders (even the Juan Pierre-hobbled Marlins), and worse production than 10 teams in the NL are getting from their center fielders. This is even more epically awful when you consider that right field is supposed to be one of your best run-producing slots, with production that bounces around the standard set by first basemen. It is a huge part of the reason the Pirates rank just 10th in the NL in runs scored per game, and it’s the most obvious fix that, once addressed, would provide a platform for them to really romp in the second half, something that goes beyond just hoping that the rotation's depth and McCutchen's inevitable monster month carry them.

The Pirates’ right-field issue is the biggest problem slot in any outfield in the National League, whether you’re just talking contenders or not -- and the Pirates, despite their recent history for second-half fades, have earned the right to be called contenders. So this isn’t just something on general manager Neal Huntington’s eventual to-do list -- it’s important, and it’s important right now. This is not a problem you solve by getting Jose Tabata back from the DL next week; it certainly isn’t something you settle for patching up by grabbing Jeff Francoeur off waivers and hoping he forgets he’s Jeff Francoeur for a few months. This requires a bold stroke in the same way that breaking from two decades of below-.500 baseball demands something more than an 82-win season.

If you think this is a coming-of-age trade deadline coming up for the Pirates, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Huntington has actually been fairly aggressive at the deadline in recent seasons -- striking deals for Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider last season and Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick in 2011.

So as far as that goes, the Pirates have proven more than willing to play in the inexpensive end of the deadline market when it comes to the self-improvement sweepstakes. But what would it mean if the people signing the checks would pony up the cash to add a premium bat for right field? Everything. Or Nutting.

The Pirates will be defined not by their ambitions, but by their actions. As brilliant as those have been on the field, here’s hoping that they’re matched by off-field machinations in the month to come. The good folks in Pittsburgh deserve nothing less.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
From ESPN Stats & Information, most total bases through 19 career games (live-ball era):

Mandy Brooks, 1925 Cubs, 64
Joe DiMaggio, 1936 Yankees, 59
George Scott, 1966 Red Sox, 59
Willie McCovey, 1959 Giants, 56
Alvin Davis, 1984 Mariners, 54
Jeff Francoeur, 2005 Braves, 53
Chris Dickerson, 2008 Reds, 53
Josh Rutledge, 2012 Rockies, 52
Yasiel Puig, 2013 Dodgers, 52

The Dodgers host the Giants tonight on ESPN at 10 p.m. ET, so if you haven't seen Puig play yet, try checking out the game. It's a good matchup with Madison Bumgarner facing Hyun-Jin Ryu, who has quietly had an effective rookie season for the Dodgers.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports Dodgers rookie outfielder Yasiel Puig has impressed with his power to the opposite field.
Anyway, that's an interesting list above, and while comparing Puig to them isn't the most valuable of exercises, it's a fun exercise. It's what we like to do when a young phenom emerges. Who does he remind us of?

Mandy Brooks played a long time ago, and I'd never heard of him, with good reason: He was a 27-year-old rookie and 1925 was more or less the extent of his big league career (he added 57 plate appearances in 1926). He hit .370 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs in his first 19 games and finished the season at .281 with 14 home runs. The odd thing is he came up in late May and was immediately inserted into the cleanup spot. Guess they did things differently then.

Alvin Davis and Willie McCovey were different players from Puig -- slow left-handed-hitting first basemen (although McCovey ended up playing left field with Orlando Cepeda around). As a Mariners fan, I have fond memories of Davis' debut. He was called up a week into the season, homered in his first two games and hit .352 with eight home runs in his first 19 games. He went on to win Rookie of the Year honors and was one of the best hitters in the American League for seven years before suddenly losing it. He was a much different hitter from Puig, with great plate discipline (he had more walks than strikeouts in his career) and marginal power.

George Scott was a 22-year-old rookie with the Red Sox when he hit .343 with nine home runs through 19 games. He struck out 152 times that year -- the second-highest total ever at the time. Like Davis and McCovey, he was a first baseman, although athletic enough that the Red Sox tried him at third base one year.

Maybe you remember Josh Rutledge's hot start last year. It didn't get quite the same play as Puig's, but he hit .355 with five home runs, six doubles and two triples in his first 19 games. In the end, he was done in by poor strike-zone judgment; he finished the year with 54 strikeouts and nine walks, and his future appears to be more utility infielder than big league starter.

Chris Dickerson was a 26-year-old minor league vet when the Reds called him up in August of 2008. He hit .320 with six home runs, seven doubles, two triples and drew 12 walks in his first 19 games. He's never been able to get a regular gig, and as a backup with the Orioles this year he's hitting .265 with four home runs in 85 plate appearances, but has struck out 29 times while drawing two walks.


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So that leaves us with Joe DiMaggio and Jeff Francoeur, and I'd suggest Puig's future could range from DiMaggio to Francoeur -- yes, that's how wide of an arc we have to put over him right now. His raw ability is so immense, with that great opposite-field power -- four of his six home runs have gone to right-center or right -- and his plus defense (he has already been rated at plus-5 defensive runs saved in right and looks as if he could handle center) that he could grow into an MVP candidate someday.

Or he could turn into Francoeur.

Wait! Jeff Francoeur? Are you kidding me?

Well, remember, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover after his torrid start. He was the 2005 version of Puig, except he grew up right in the Braves' backyard instead of in Cuba. He hit .406 with seven home runs in his first 19 games. Although Puig hadn't had much high-level experience, neither had Francoeur, who was only 21 at the time of his recall in July, a year younger than Puig.

There was a red flag about Francoeur's start, however: He hadn't drawn a walk in those 19 games. "My whole life, plate discipline has been the knock on me," Francoeur said in that glowing SI cover story. "I'm not the kind of guy who'll look for a certain pitch and take two strikes till I get it. The biggest difference here is that I haven't been swinging at sliders in the dirt."

In the end, that approach did hurt Francoeur, who never learned to rein in that aggressive approach. And after hitting .300 as a rookie, he now has a career .264 average.

It could be that's what ultimately will determine Puig's star power as well; his two walks on Saturday were the first two unintentional free passes of his young career. I think he'll end up being much better than Francoeur, and maybe someday be mentioned again alongside Hall of Famers, but as you can see from that list of hot starts, 19 games does not yet guarantee that he's the real deal.

How the Royals can win the AL Central

December, 11, 2012
Mike Moustakas/Eric HosmerJamie Squire/Getty ImagesImprovement from Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, right, could lift the Royals into contention.

What would it take for the Kansas City Royals to unseat the Detroit Tigers, overtake the Chicago White Sox and hold off the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins to win the American Central in 2013?

Over the past three seasons, the AL Central champions finished the season with a roster totaling about 38 wins above replacement.

The 2012 Royals finished the season 25 wins above replacement, so there is a gap to be closed. We’re going to see if we can come up with the combination of numbers to close it.

Position players
The chart on the right shows MLBdepthcharts.com's projected Royals lineup for 2013 along with 2012 WAR total for those players.

Let’s take the youngest players in that group and give them some room to grow. Let’s bump Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez up an average of half a win each. And let’s work off the idea that Alex Gordon and the Chris Getz/Johnny Giavotella platoon will match in 2013 what they did in 2012.

Then, let’s make two leaps of faith.

1. That Jeff Francoeur goes from being the lowest-valued position player in baseball (minus-2.7 WAR) to borderline-replacement level (minus-0.7 WAR) by getting his defensive game back to something reasonable and by improving slightly as a hitter and baserunner (remember, he’ll be only 29 when the season starts).

2. That Eric Hosmer fixes what ailed him during his sophomore slump and gains back the WAR that he lost from 2011 to 2012, pushing him back up to 1.3 for 2013.

If all of that was to happen for the Royals, that lineup would be worth a collective 22.8 WAR, up 6.5 wins from what it was worth in 2012.

The Royals are not projected to have a strong bench in 2013, and most of their top-prospect position players are projected to start the season in Double-A or below.

So we’re going to presume that when they do go to reserves, they are hurt by replacement-level-or-less players more often than they are helped by Jarrod Dyson and Irving Falu.

Let’s subtract 2.0 WAR over the course of the season for the time seen by the bench.

That gives the Royals a position-player group worth 20.8 WAR.

The Royals basically have a No. 2 starter (James Shields) filling a No. 1 role, a No. 3 starter (Jeremy Guthrie) filling a No. 2 role, and a No. 4 starter (Ervin Santana) filling a No. 3 role. They have Wade Davis as their No. 4, which seems about right, and Bruce Chen as the No. 5.

Again, remember that we’re creating a scenario in which the Royals win the AL Central. So let’s take a rosy view of this fivesome and hand them 140 starts.

Let’s peg Shields as a 4-WAR pitcher, Guthrie as a 3-WAR pitcher and Santana as a 2-WAR pitcher.

That’s not a horrendous reach. Those numbers would rate as the third-, fourth- and fifth-best seasons for those pitchers, respectively.

Davis was a 1.1-WAR starter in 2010, so let’s plug him in for 1.0 in 2013.

With Chen set to turn 36 in June and trending downward, we’ll drop him from -0.2 to -1.2.

We’ll split up the remaining 22 starts among Luis Mendoza, Luke Hochevar, Guillermo Moscoso, Will Smith, Tommy John-recoverees Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy and whichever prospects (and they still have a few) emerge from the minors.

The big thing here is that if those top five Royals starters are healthy, their fill-ins can’t do too much damage. We’ll subtract 1.0 WAR for their work.

Now to the bullpen -- and we know that relief pitching is volatile. But again, we’re trying to establish what the Royals need to win, not what they will do.

Among Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins, two will probably struggle to duplicate their 2012 numbers, and maybe one of the others gets hurt.

As a group, those five guys were worth 6.8 WAR last season. That’s pretty good and strikes us as hard to duplicate. But again, this is a young group, so maybe the drop-off isn’t so great.

Let’s give them 5.0 WAR this time around and take away 1.0 WAR for anyone else who fills in for a time (the starters listed above, and Everett Teaford get the first crack).

Let’s add it all together. The lineup has a value of 20.8 WAR. The starting rotation is worth 8.0 WAR and the bullpen is worth 5.0 WAR.

That gets us to almost 34 wins above replacement.

Our target was 38.

So we still have four wins to make up.

How do we do that? We change a few numbers.

Let’s add a win to Shields and make him a 5-WAR pitcher, something he has done once before in his career. That means he should be getting some Cy Young votes.

Let’s make Guthrie a 3.5-WAR pitcher, meaning he basically does what he did in 91 innings for the Royals in 2012 for 200 innings in 2013.

Let’s make Davis a 1.5-WAR pitcher, which is better than he has done before, but he's young enough to improve.

That takes care of half of the win gap. Now we need to find two more wins among the position players.

There are a number of ways to do this, such as adding 0.2 WAR to every regular (boring), taking a couple regulars and making them a bit better (also boring), making Francoeur into an almost-average player (meh) or hand all of that WAR to one player (fun!).

I like the last option, even though it’s a bit reckless.

I’m going to give those 2 WAR to Hosmer and make him a 3.3 for 2013.

Hosmer rated 26th in WAR among the 30 players with 300 at-bats who played at least half their games at first base last season. Bumping him to a 3.3 would jump him 20 spots, to the point of being viewed among the better first basemen in the game.

So, Royals fans, that’s what you’re looking at. Unrealistic? Probably.

But here’s the key point: No one said this was going to be easy.

How the Royals can be contenders

November, 18, 2012
One lesson to take away from the 2012 season is that parity is as strong as ever.

The Baltimore Orioles, after 14 consecutive losing seasons, improved by 24 wins over last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 1997. While the Orioles' impressive record in one-run games helped them finish 24 games over .500 despite outscoring their opponents by just seven runs, the Orioles did make a drastic improvement over 2011, allowing 155 fewer runs.

The Oakland A's improved by 20 wins and captured the AL West, despite featuring an all-rookie rotation late in the season. Oakland's improvement came on both sides of the ball: The A's scored 68 more runs and allowed 65 fewer than they did last season.

If the Orioles and A's can make such dramatic gains in one season, why not the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners, two other downtrodden AL franchises? The Royals have suffered nine consecutive losing seasons and have just one winning season during the wild-card era. The Mariners have had two winning seasons in the past nine and haven't outscored their opponents in a season since 2003. But with the right moves, either team -- or both -- could end up the 2013 version of the Orioles or A's.

Let's discuss the Royals today and the Mariners on Monday.

Kansas City Royals
2012 runs scored: 676
2012 runs allowed: 746

We start with the currency of wins: runs scored and runs allowed. The Royals won 72 games in 2012, but their run totals project to a 74-win team. In order to project them as an 88-win team (the Tigers' win total in 2012), we'd have to get them to 766 runs scored (plus-90) and 696 runs allowed (minus-50).

On offense, the good news is the Royals should have scored more than 676 runs. Their offensive statistics say they created 709 runs, but due to inefficient timing of that production, they scored 33 fewer than that. (A main culprit appeared to be their hitting with the bases loaded: .283 in 113 plate appearances, but with just one home run, three doubles and two walks.)

So if we consider the Royals a 709-run offense, we need to find 59 more runs. There are three obvious spots they can improve: Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and right field. Hosmer hit .232/.304/.359 in his disappointing sophomore campaign, worth about 62 runs created. It's not difficult to project him with an additional 25 runs -- players with about 87 runs created in 2012 included Justin Upton, Andre Ethier and Bryce Harper.

Moustakas had a big first half before falling apart after the All-Star break. He created about 71 runs in 149 games. As another young player, we can project offensive growth; let's say 15 more runs created.

The other area for improvement is right field, where Jeff Francoeur was one of the least valuable players in the majors, playing every day while posting a .287 on-base percentage. Francoeuer created just 56 runs, while using up way too many outs. Dan Szymborski projects top rookie prospect Wil Myers to hit .266/.330/.450, which would be a big improvement over Frenchy. In fact, factor in a full season from catcher Salvador Perez and you can see why the Royals should be optimistic about scoring a lot more runs.

The trouble is finding gains on the pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation. The five likely starters as of now -- Ervin Santana, Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza and Chris Volstad -- all project to ERAs over 5.00 in Szymborski's system. It will help if Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino can return sometime after the All-Star break following Tommy John surgeries, but neither can be counted on. Assuming the bullpen is once again stellar, that means the Royals need to improve by 50 runs in the rotation.

Is that possible? Last season, Kansas City starters allowed 527 runs in 890 innings, or 5.3 runs per nine innings. We're talking 10 runs per rotation spot, which seems easy to achieve, but is more difficult than it sounds. One Jonathan Sanchez-type result, and suddenly the other rotation slots have to pick up the margin of error. If they allow 477 runs over the same number of innings, that's 4.8 runs per nine innings -- which would have ranked ninth among AL rotations in 2012, right between the Rangers and Orioles.

This is why you've seen the Billy Butler trade rumors out there (including some involving the Mariners, who reportedly covet the designated hitter). After hitting .313 with a career-high 29 home runs, Butler is the one Royals hitter who may regress a bit in 2013. But trading Butler would give the Royals a big gap at DH to fill -- without an obvious in-house candidate (Clint Robinson?). But maybe the Royals believe they can get enough offensive improvement from Hosmer, Moustakas, Myers, Perez and perhaps second baseman Johnny Giavotella (.404 OBP at Triple-A Omaha) and center fielder Lorenzo Cain to part with Butler.

If the Royals do trade Butler, it would likely be for a major league ready pitching prospect -- and the Mariners happen to have one in Danny Hultzen. The Royals could also sign a veteran starting pitcher such as late-season acquisition Jeremy Guthrie, who posted a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts with Kansas City. A bounce-back year from Santana and a full season of Guthrie leaves the Royals short of that 50-run improvement -- but in the vicinity. Guthrie would be worth about 10 to 15 runs over the likes of a Will Smith over half a season; if Santana posts an ERA closer to 4.00 than 5.00 over 200 innings, that could be a 20- to 25-run improvement over Hochevar. With slight improvement from Chen and Mendoza, we get close to that 50-run mark. If you trade for somebody like Hultzen, the Royals improve their depth as they wait for Duffy and Paulino to return.

It can be done, and the Royals don't have to wait until 2014 to do it. Make at least one more move in the rotation, dump Francoeur and watch Hosmer and Moustakas start hitting line drives all over Kauffman Stadium. In the new world order, anything is possible.

Linsanity! Baseball's Jeremy Lins

February, 13, 2012
Mark Fidrych-Fernando ValenzuelaGetty ImagesMark Fidrych, left, and Fernando Valenzuela came out of nowhere, taking baseball by storm.
Even if you don't follow the NBA you've been unable to ignore the amazing story of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.

Whether the story would be getting the same amount of attention if Lin played for the Sacramento Kings or Charlotte Bobcats is a question we probably know the answer to, but Lin's rise got me thinking of similar episodes in MLB history. Here are five guys who seemingly came out of nowhere to spark the baseball world. Bonus points if the player has an interesting back story.

Bob "Hurricane" Hazle, 1957 Milwaukee Braves. Hazle was a 26-year-old minor league vet with six games of big league experience with the Reds in 1955 when the Braves recalled him in late July. At the time, the Braves were tied for first. In 41 games, Hazle hit .403 with seven home runs, 12 doubles and 27 RBIs, earning the nickname "Hurricane" -- named after, in part, a powerful hurricane that had struck his home state of South Carolina in 1954. The Braves went on to win the World Series, and while Hazle was just 2-for-13, both hits came in Game 7, including a one-out single in the third inning that started a four-run rally. The following spring, Hazle was hit in the head by a pitch and then early in the season sprained his ankle and was again hit in the head by a pitch, putting him in the hospital. The Braves sold him to Detroit in May, and after 63 plate appearances with the Tigers his major league career was over.

Mark Fidrych, 1976 Detroit Tigers. Fidrych was a one-time 10th-round draft pick who began 1975 at Class A, although he had worked his way up to Triple-A. He wasn't overpowering (just 73 strikeouts in 117 innings) but made the Tigers' Opening Day roster. And mostly sat on the bench, appearing just twice in relief in the team's first 23 games. But he started on May 15 and threw a two-hit complete game. Ten days later, he threw another complete game. In his third and fourth starts, he won again -- pitching 11 innings both times. He was a sight few fans had ever seen: With his long, curly hair, he was nicknamed "The Bird," after "Sesame Street's Big Bird. More oddly, he talked to the baseball. A memorable "Monday Night Baseball" game in late June drew a packed Tiger Stadium and huge TV audience. Fidrych didn't disappoint. He'd go 12-6 with a 2.36 ERA that first half, completing 16 of his 18 starts, and started the All-Star Game. Everywhere Fidrych went he drew huge crowds. In Anahem, he reportedly had to sign autographs from inside a cage to prevent fans from rioting. Sadly, after winning 19 games as a rookie, he suffered knee and shoulder injuries in 1977 and was never the same.

Fernando Valenzuela, 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers. Back in 1981, there was no Internet and no overhyping of prospects, certainly not of baseball prospects. Valenzuela was a 20-year-old rookie from Mexico who had pitched out of the Dodgers bullpen in September of 1980. He spoke no English, had those chubby cheeks, a screwball and that crazy windup where he looked up into the heavens at the apex of his delivery. Steve Wulf did profile Valenzuela that March for Sports Illustrated, but nobody expected this when the season unfolded: Shutout, complete game with one run, shutout, shutout, shutout, nine innings with one run, shutout, complete game with two runs. Eight starts, eight wins, five shutouts, 0.50 ERA. In early May, SI wrote on Fernando Fever; two weeks later he was on the cover. The media hounded Valenzuela so much that the Dodgers had to hold special news conferences, and Valenzuela complained to his agent that he didn't have time to shag flies or take batting practice. Fernandomania was so intense that it spread across the country and into South America: the number of Mexican radio stations carrying Dodger games increased from three to 17, and the number of Venezuelan stations from 20 to 40. When the Dodgers traveled to Shea Stadium early in the season, the Mets built two extra ticket booths. Averaging barely 11,000 fans per game, the Mets drew nearly 40,000 for Fernando.

Hideo Nomo, 1995 Los Angeles Dodgers. Fourteen years later, the Dodgers had another rookie sensation, although this time it was a 26-year-old veteran from Japan. Nobody knew what to expect when Nomo came over, and once the season finally began in late April, Nomo started off slow, failing to win any of his first six starts. But then he won all six of his starts in June, allowing just five earned runs and posting games with 16 strikeouts and two with 13. Like Fernando, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated. He started the All-Star Game against Randy Johnson and threw two scoreless innings. Nomo never matched the success of his first season, as hitters clued in on his deceptive delivery, but with 123 career wins he wasn't a mere flash either.

Jeff Francoeur, 2005 Atlanta Braves. Francoeur didn't exactly come out of nowhere, as he'd been a first-round pick and Atlanta's No. 1 prospect entering the 2005 season. But when the local product got called up on July 7 and then hit .432 through his first 23 games, Sports Illustrated put him on its cover with the headline "The Natural," the same billing used back in 1990 for Ken Griffey Jr. The magazine also asked of Francoeur, "Can anyone be this good?" It was, of course, an absurd and unfair question, highlighted by the fact that Francoeur didn't draw a walk until his 34th game. That lack of strike-zone judgment would end up undermining his "natural" abilities throughout his career.

Others of note: Tim Wakefield (converted minor league first baseman went 8-1, 2.15 with the Pirates in 1992, helping them reach the playoffs); Albert Pujols (Baseball America ranked him as the Cardinals' No. 2 prospect before 2001, behind ... Bud Smith); Jose Bautista (if Lin turns into an MVP candidate then we can compare him to Bautista).

Defining who's Mr. Average

January, 29, 2012
With all of this talking about production up the middle or at the four corners over the past 25 years, it might also be helpful to put this into perspective by asking: Who’s average?

Here again, I’m indebted to Clay Davenport’s work in creating Equivalent Average, as useful a tool for all-time performance on offense today as it was in the ’90s. Sticking with the 2011 and following Clay’s advice to cheat up a couple of points -- to avoid the impact of the real scrubs -- let’s look at who set the bar for mediocrity at all eight regular positions in the field:

Catcher: Rod Barajas, .258 Equivalent Average (EqA). Sure, he struggles to get on base, but Barajas’ modest pop at the plate -- delivering a .200 ISO last season -- and solid receiving skills makes him the acme of average from the backstop bin. In Pittsburgh, he might help propel their latest bid for a .500 season.
Runner-up: The Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy, .254 EqA.

First Base: Freddie Freeman, .286 EqA. This might seem like an indictment of the Atlanta Braves’ prodigy, but the standards for offense at first base are higher than at any position, and this isn’t a shabby place to start for a kid in his age-21 season.
Runner-up: The Marlins’ Gaby Sanchez, .284 EqA.

Second Base: Orlando Hudson, .268 EqA. Hudson’s power has taken a hit the last two years since going to slugger-sapping Target Field and now the Padres’ Petco Park, but he still provides average offense for the position and above-average glove work, so he’ll keep landing gigs.
Runner-up: The Mets’ Justin Turner, .263 EqA, and an excellent example of how GMs can still find plug-in players on the waiver wire.

Third Base: One of the funny things about the field is that you’d be hard-pressed to find a truly average regular at third, but the closest might be Casey Blake with the Dodgers (.268 EqA) or Jack Hannahan with the Indians (.263), so let’s call it a platoon and punt on picking a runner-up.

Shortstop: Clint Barmes, .257 EqA. Here we have another Pirates offseason acquisition, which might be taken as proof that average is the new up, or that it takes a certain kind of player to choose to go to Pittsburgh. But more fundamentally, Barmes reflects today’s higher standard for adequacy on offense at short, because beyond premium defense he ripped a dozen homers for the Astros.
Runner-up: The White Sox’s Alexei Ramirez, .256 EqA, and another example after knocking 15 homers of his own.

Left Field: Cody Ross, .273 EqA. In contrast, here’s a great example of the declining standard for what gets by in left. The hero of the postseason in 2010 went back to his more mortal form at the plate with the Giants, and looks like he’ll be shunted into a part-time role with the Red Sox, splitting time in right field or spotting for the injured Carl Crawford in left early on.
Runner-up: Jason Bay, .270 EqA, and a symbol of the Mets’ bang-less bucks at work.

Center Field: Adam Jones, .273 EqA. Here’s a reflection on what a difference a position makes. Cody Ross? Not in high demand. Adam Jones of the Orioles? He’s a star, and somebody many teams would love to trade for.
Runner-up: The Diamondbacks’ Chris Young, .270 EqA. Keep in mind, Equivalent Average is park-adjusted, so all that slugging the Snakes get from their center fielder at home -- including 14 of his 20 homers, with a 131-point difference between his home and road SLG.

Right Field: Seth Smith, .283 EqA. Right’s the premium offensive position in the outfield these days, so the standard for average is going to be a bit higher. It says something about the Athletics’ lot on offense that they traded for Smith and fell he’ll provide a big boost with his bat from either corner.
Runner-up: Jeff Francoeur, .279 EqA. His comeback with the Royals was nice to see, but it’s a reflection of the depths he plummeted to during his three years in the wilderness that he’s gone from awful to average, not awesome.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Some weekend reading for you. What, are you going to watch the Pro Bowl instead?
Alex Avila, Carlos Santana & Joe MauerUS PresswireWith Alex Avila, Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer, the AL Central is loaded at catcher.

We're back with more divisional position rankings for 2012. You can scream, you can holler, you can protest and call me names. But just because I rated your player lower than you think he deserves doesn't mean I hate your team.

(Here are the NL East and NL West rankings.)

1. Alex Avila, Tigers
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Carlos Santana, Indians
4. Salvador Perez, Royals
5. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox

The AL Central might not be baseball's glamor division, but it may have three of the top five catchers in the game if Mauer bounces back from his injury-plagued campaign. Since we're not certain of his health, I'm going to give top billing to Avila, who had the best hitting numbers of any catcher outside of Mike Napoli and plays solid defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Santana explodes; with his power-and-walks combo, all he has to do is raise his average 30 points and he'll be one of the most valuable players in the game. Considering that his average on balls in play was .263, there is a good chance of that happening. Perez hit .331 in 39 games; OK, he won't do that again, but he doesn't turn 22 until May and puts the ball in play. There's no shame in being fifth in this group but that's where I have to place Pierzynski, who keeps rolling along and is now 36th on the all-time list for games caught.

First base
1. Prince Fielder, Tigers
2. Paul Konerko, White Sox
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Justin Morneau, Twins
5. Matt LaPorta, Indians

In 2009, when Morneau played 135 games, he hit .274 AVG/.363 OBP/.516 SLG. Even if he replicates that line, he may rank only fourth. Konerko has hit a combined .306 with 70 home runs the past two seasons. He's 104 home runs from 500 but turns 36 in March, so he's probably four seasons away; not sure he'll hang on that long, but who knew he'd be this good at this age. If Hosmer improves his walk rate and defense and Konerko declines, Hosmer could climb past him. If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen next. The most similar batter to him at age 21: Eddie Murray.

Second base
1. Jason Kipnis, Indians
2. Gordon Beckham, White Sox
3. Johnny Giavotella, Royals
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins
5. Ramon Santiago, Tigers

Well, this isn't exactly a Robinson Cano/Dustin Pedroia/Ben Zobrist debate, is it? Kipnis' bat is a sure thing, as evidenced by his excellent play after his call-up (.272 average and .507 slugging in 36 games). His glove was once a question mark but now appears solid enough that he looks like a future All-Star to me. Can anybody explain what has happened to Beckham? He's second mostly by default; he's gone downhill since his superb rookie season in 2009 but is only 25, so there's hope that he'll find those skills again. Giavotella has some potential with the bat (.338/.390/.481 at Triple-A), which is more than you can say for Casilla and Santiago.

Third base
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians
4. Danny Valencia, Twins
5. Brent Morel, White Sox

We'll go with the idea that Cabrera is Detroit's starting third baseman, although I predict he'll end up starting more games at designated hitter. Manager Jim Leyland will end up doing a lot of mixing of his lineups, but for this little exercise we have to choose a starter. Moustakas didn't tear up the league as a rookie and I worry about his ability to hit lefties (.191, homerless in 89 at-bats), but he showed more than fellow rookies Chisenhall and Morel. Valencia doesn't get on base enough and he rated poorly on defense in 2011. I hope he's at least good in the clubhouse. Morel was terrible all season and then exploded for eight of his 10 home runs in September and drew 15 walks after drawing just seven the previous five months. Maybe something clicked.

1. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
2. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3. Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
4. Alcides Escobar, Royals
5. Jamey Carroll, Twins

Peralta had the best 2011 season, but he's a difficult guy to project. He had an .804 OPS in 2008 but dropped to .691 in 2009. He had a .703 OPS in 2010 and then .823 in 2011. I just don't see a repeat season, at the plate or in the field. Cabrera didn't rate well on the defensive metrics, and after a strong start he wore down in the second half. Ramirez has turned into a nice player, with a good glove and some power, and he even draws a few walks now. Escobar is a true magician with the glove. Carroll is actually a useful player who gets on base (.356 career OBP), but he's pushed as an everyday shortstop and he'll be 38. He'll be issued the honorary Nick Punto locker in the Twins' clubhouse.

Left field
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
2. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
3. Ben Revere, Twins
4. Michael Brantley/Shelley Duncan, Indians
5. Ryan Raburn/Don Kelly, Tigers

I'm not sure what to do here. After Gordon, I just get a headache. We'll pretend to believe in De Aza after his impressive stint in the majors (171 plate appearances, .329/.400/.920). He's hit in Triple-A for three seasons now, and while he's not going to post a .400 OBP again, he should be adequate. Revere is one of the fastest players in the majors, but he's all speed and defense; he hopes to grow up to be Brett Gardner, which isn't a bad thing, but he'll have to learn to get on base at a better clip. Brantley doesn't have one outstanding skill so he'll have to hit better than .266 to be anything more than a fourth outfielder; Duncan provides some right-handed pop as a platoon guy. The Tigers have Delmon Young, but I'll slot him at DH. That leaves supposed lefty masher Raburn and utility man Kelly to soak up at-bats; both had an OBP below .300 in 2011, although Raburn has hit better in the past.

Center field
1. Austin Jackson, Tigers
2. Denard Span, Twins
3. Grady Sizemore, Indians
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
5. Alex Rios, White Sox

I can't rate Sizemore any higher since he's played just 104 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn't had a big year since 2008. Rios was terrible in '09, OK in '10 and worse than terrible in '11. I'm not betting on him.

Right field
1. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
2. Brennan Boesch, Tigers
3. Jeff Francoeur, Royals
4. Josh Willingham, Twins
5. Dayan Viciedo, White Sox

Choo would like to forget 2011, but there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back and play like he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was one of the 10 best position players in the AL. I don't expect Francoeur to deliver 71 extra-base hits again, but maybe he'll surprise us. Viciedo is apparently nicknamed "The Tank," which makes me wonder how much ground he can cover. He did improve his walk rate last season in the minors and turns 23 in March, so there's still room for more growth.

Designated hitter
1. Billy Butler, Royals
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Ryan Doumit, Twins
4. Delmon Young, Tigers
5. Adam Dunn, White Sox

Has there been a bigger prospect disappointment than Young in the past decade? I mean, yes, there were complete busts like Brandon Wood and Andy Marte, but those guys had obvious holes in their games, while Young was viewed as a sure thing, a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. But his bat has never lived up to its billing. Other than one decent year in Minnesota, he has low OBPs and he clearly lacked range in the outfield. His career WAR on Baseball-Reference is minus-0.2 (1.6 on FanGraphs), meaning he's been worse than replacement level. He's just not that good, Tigers fans.

No. 1 starter
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. John Danks, White Sox
3. Justin Masterson, Indians
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
5. Carl Pavano, Twins

Masterson was better than Danks in 2011, and I do believe his improvement was real. He absolutely crushes right-handers -- they slugged an anemic .259 off him. Danks had two bad months but has the longer track record of success. Even in his "off year" he had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than Masterson. If you want to argue about Hochevar versus Pavano, be my guest.

No. 2 starter
1. Doug Fister, Tigers
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
3. Gavin Floyd, White Sox
4. Francisco Liriano, Twins
5. Jonathan Sanchez, Royals

Yes, sign me up for the Doug Fister bandwagon club. Jimenez's fastball velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season but the positives are that his strikeout and walk rates were identical to 2010; he'll be better. Floyd isn't flashy but he's now made 30-plus starts four years in a row, and he'll become a very rich man when he becomes a free agent after this season. Sanchez won't have the luxury of pitching in San Francisco (and to eight-man NL lineups).

No. 3 starter
1. Max Scherzer, Tigers
2. Scott Baker, Twins
3. Philip Humber, White Sox
4. Bruce Chen, Royals
5. Josh Tomlin, Indians

I could be underrating Baker, who was excellent last season, but only once in his career has he made 30 starts in a season. Tomlin's fans will disagree with this ranking, but he's a finesse guy who relies on the best control in baseball (21 walks in 26 starts). He's the kind of guy you root for, but the league seemed to figure him out as the season progressed.

No. 4 starter
1. Felipe Paulino, Royals
2. Rick Porcello, Tigers
3. Jake Peavy, White Sox
4. Derek Lowe, Indians
5. Nick Blackburn, Twins

Scouts still love Porcello's arm and I know he's just 23, but he's made 89 big league starts and shown no signs of getting better. His WHIP has increased each season and his strikeout rate remains one of the lowest in baseball. Paulino has an electric arm -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball -- and is getting better. How could the Rockies give up on him after just 14 innings? How could the Astros trade him for Clint Barmes? Anyway, kudos to the Royals for buying low on the guy who may turn into their best starter. Peavy can't stay healthy. Lowe has led his league in starts three out of the past four seasons, but I'm not sure that's a good thing anymore. Blackburn is a poor man's Lowe, and I don't mean that in a good way.

No. 5 starter
1. Chris Sale, White Sox
2. Jacob Turner, Tigers
3. Aaron Crow/Danny Duffy, Royals
4. Fausto Carmona/David Huff/Jeanmar Gomez, Indians
5. Brian Duensing/Jason Marquis, Twins

Welcome to the AL Central crapshoot. Turner and Sale have the most upside, but one is a rookie and the other is converting from relief. Crow will also be given a shot at the rotation, but his difficulties against left-handed batters (.311 average allowed) don't bode well for that transition. Even if the artist formerly known as Carmona gets a visa, what do you have? A guy with a 5.01 ERA over the past four seasons. Duensing is another typical Twins pitcher, which means he at least throws strikes. His first full season in the rotation didn't go well, so of course the Twins brought in Marquis, yet another guy who doesn't strike anybody out.

1. Jose Valverde, Tigers
2. Joakim Soria, Royals
3. Matt Thornton, White Sox
4. Chris Perez, Indians
5. Matt Capps, Twins

Four good relievers plus Matt Capps. I do admit I'm a little perplexed by Perez, however. In 2009, he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. In 2010, that figure fell to 8.7 but he posted a pretty 1.71 ERA. In 2011, it was all the way down to 5.9, but without much improvement in his control. Perez blew only four saves but he did lose seven games. He survived thanks to a low .240 average on balls in play. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher but didn't serve up many home runs. Bottom line: I'd be nervous.

1. Indians -- Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Nick Hagadone
2. Royals -- Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares
3. Tigers -- Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Al Alburquerque
4. White Sox -- Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod
5. Twins -- Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

If you're starting to think I'm not high on the Twins for this season, you would be correct.

1. Royals
2. Indians
3. Tigers
4. White Sox
5. Twins

I like the youthful exuberance of the Royals, plus the likelihood of improvement from the young players and the possibility of some midseason reinforcements from the minors. The depth of the bullpen will help bolster a shaky rotation, and this just feels like an organization that is finally starting to believe in itself. The Indians are riding last year's positive results and enter the season knowing they might get better production from Choo and Sizemore and full seasons from Kipnis and Chisenhall. I'm not knocking the Tigers here, but they do lack depth in the pitching staff and the pressure is on them.

The final tally
1. Tigers, 65 points
2. Royals, 55 points
3. Indians, 54 points
4. White Sox, 46 points
5. Twins, 35 points

No surprise here: The Tigers will be heavy favorites to win the division with a lineup that should score a ton of runs. I don't think it's a lock that they'll win -- Verlander, Avila, Peralta and Valverde will all be hard-pressed to repeat their 2011 campaigns, for example. But the Royals and Indians appear to have too many questions in the rotations, the White Sox have serious lineup issues, and the Twins have a beautiful ballpark to play their games in.

Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Andy Marte, Joe Mauer, John Danks, Jonathan Broxton, Denard Span, Nick Punto, Alcides Escobar, Rafael Perez, Justin Morneau, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Brandon Wood, Anthony Swarzak, Dustin Pedroia, Alex Rios, Tim Collins, Justin Verlander, Jonathan Sanchez, Alexei Ramirez, Ryan Doumit, Justin Masterson, Jason Frasor, Jason Marquis, Francisco Liriano, Matt Capps, Luke Hochevar, Alex Gordon, Matt LaPorta, Prince Fielder, Gordon Beckham, Alexi Casilla, Joakim Soria, Gavin Floyd, Delmon Young, Ramon Santiago, Carl Pavano, Mike Napoli, Ubaldo Jimenez, Grady Sizemore, Jeff Francoeur, Travis Hafner, Jose Valverde, Jake Peavy, Billy Butler, Adam Dunn, Derek Lowe, Miguel Cabrera, Brian Duensing, Ben Zobrist, Fausto Carmona, Jim Leyland, Shin-Soo Choo, Max Scherzer, Phil Coke, Michael Brantley, Danny Valencia, Jose Mijares, Danny Duffy, Carlos Santana, A.J. Pierzynski, Austin Jackson, Robinson Cano, Chris Perez, Clint Barmes, Brett Gardner, Brennan Boesch, Nick Blackburn, Paul Konerko, Scott Baker, Chris Sale, Josh Willingham, Jhonny Peralta, Asdrubal Cabrera, Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp, Matt Thornton, Aaron Crow, Josh Tomlin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Jamey Carroll, Jesse Crain, Alex Avila, philip humber, Brent Morel, Joaquin Benoit, Ben Revere, Eric Hosmer, Al Alburquerque, Ryan Raburn, Mike Moustakas, Dayan Viciedo, Octavio Dotel, Jacob Turner, Don Kelly, Salvador Perez, Johnny Giavotella, Lorenzo Cain, Jeanmar Gomez, Shelley Duncan, Alejandro De Aza, Bruce Chen, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Glen Perkins, Felipe Paulino, Nick Hagadone, Daniel Schlereth, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

Baseball issues positive and negative were certainly on display for Keith Law and me as we enjoyed Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast. Here are some of the topics:

1. It was a Giant win in Atlanta, but can the defending champs overcome the bullpen injuries? Speaking of the Braves, their rotation depth is discussed.

2. Look, not every outing for the great Stephen Strasburg will be dominating, but KLaw tries to put expectations in check.

3. The Kansas City Royals have decided on their right fielder for the next few seasons, but is Jeff Francoeur the right choice?

4. The Cardinals may or may not be contenders still, but their catcher and former center fielder are topics for the emailers.

5. It’s a somewhat limited Thursday schedule, but it’s full of aces. So naturally we turned our attention to a young pitcher with ace upside and his innings limit.

Plus: Excellent emails, rooting for Dustin McGowan, the strange case of Mike Jacobs, more RBIs and runs talk -- we can’t get enough! -- and a ton more on a packed Thursday Baseball Today. Download now!
From the strange but true category: Based on FanGraphs' WAR (wins above replacement), the Kansas City Royals have the second-best outfield in the American League.

Using the top three rated outfielders for each club, here are the top five clubs in the AL:

1. Yankees (Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher): 7.8 WAR.
2. Royals (Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francoeur): 5.6 WAR.
3. Blue Jays (Jose Bautista, Corey Patterson, Juan Rivera: 5.4 WAR.
4. Twins (Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel): 5.2 WAR.
5. Indians (Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, Grady Sizemore): 3.9 WAR.

In the National League, the Diamondbacks (Justin Upton, Chris Young, Gerardo Parra) rate at 7.2 WAR, the Cardinals (Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus) at 6.8 and the Pirates (Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones and Jose Tabata) at 6.2.

Gordon is having a solid year with that bat and glove. Cabrera and Francoeur don't get on base the way you'd like, but Cabrera's overall is pretty good for a center fielder and Francoeur rates very well with the glove.

The worst outfield? The Mariners have collectively been below replacement level.

Who has the best outfield throwing arm?

May, 4, 2011
When it comes to the best outfield arms, there's substantive, useful information, and that which is less so.

Say you want to step up for Roberto Clemente. This is easy. Note that Clemente is the all-time leader in assists for a right fielder, and you confirm the conviction that he remains the best right-field arm of all time. Back that up further with the avalanche of anecdotal evidence from, say, David Maraniss' excellent Clemente biography, in which he relives the great one's perfect, no-hop throw to third in Game 2 of the 1971 World Series.

That wouldn't necessarily get you any closer to a substantive answer, though. Besides, Clemente is an easy choice. What does it mean that the active leader for assists from right field is Bobby Abreu? Think you'll be telling Abreu anecdotes to your grandkids? How about noting that Carlos Lee leads all active left fielders?

As is, sabermetrician Bill James noted that outfield assists are inversely related to team performance -- being an outfielder on a bad team is a great way to rack up assist totals. Opportunities aren't evenly distributed, and a mediocre outfielder on a worse team can get more chances to throw people out. This isn't to knock Clemente, even though as great as he was, he did play on some bad Pirates teams early in his career.

When it comes to picking an arrow from the statistical quiver, there are better tools today than just looking at assists. We can evaluate the outfielder's impact on his team's defensive base/out combinations on the balls he gets to. By looking at what the baserunners did and didn't do on balls hit to an outfielder, we can see the impact on a team's overall run expectancy.

It's significant if the baserunners consistently take fewer bases than expected on base hits or outs because it's much more of an everyday phenomenon. It's also something you won't see in your box score.

As I've suggested before, the best way to employ fielding metrics is to reach for the wisdom of a well-informed crowd and see what conclusions command broad support. With that in mind, let's look at last year's tallies from four different arm metrics. We differentiated the outfield positions because each spot presents different challenges.

We'll use Sean Smith's TotalZone, Mitchel Lichtman's UZR, John Dewan's plus/minus and Colin Wyers' fielding runs. These four counting stats don't work entirely the same way, drawing on different data sets -- there isn't 100 percent agreement on all events among data sets -- although they all scale performance to runs. UZR and fielding runs both employ a seasonal definition of average so that every year, average is zero; plus/minus and TotalZone don't, at least not exactly.

There doesn't appear to be a ton of agreement by just looking at the leaders. But digging down the individual leader boards for each stat gives you more common suspects.

  • Among left fielders, Shelley Duncan's UZR mark is an outlier because of his small sample size, and UZR's second- and third-best throwers are Josh Hamilton (4.9) and Brett Gardner (4.8); TotalZone has Gardner tied for second (with Duncan and Felix Pie).
  • For right field, there's general agreement between TotalZone and plus/minus that the top three were Shin-Soo Choo, Jeff Francoeur and Jayson Werth. They differed on the order but both ranked Jose Bautista fourth. UZR has that same quartet with Bautista second followed by Choo and Werth.
  • For center field, Peter Bourjos was one of the three tied for the lead via TotalZone; UZR has fellow small-sample hero Mitch Maier rated second, followed by Alex Rios and Marlon Byrd. Plus/minus had Byrd third behind Shane Victorino.

Based on these metrics, who has the best throwing arm today? Between last year's results and the fact that left fielders generally aren't going to be your better throwers, I think we can narrow this down to a much smaller group.

The problem is that there isn't a slam-dunk champ. We don't have a Clemente or a Jesse Barfield to make this easy -- we have several good choices but no obvious great one. While giving honorable mention to Bourjos, Byrd and Adam Jones, you can narrow this list down to Francoeur or Choo for the best throwing arm based on their performances in the field.

For a pair, the distinction between the two couldn't be starker. Frenchy might have to settle for being his generation's Ellis Valentine, a one-dimensional player whose infrequent flirtations with offensive success have already hampered his ability to rack up bigger defensive numbers. In contrast, Choo is a legitimately excellent all-around player, albeit now one whose relative anonymity is fading for reasons good and bad.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Typically, even at this early point in the season, Kansas City Royals fans are already getting sour looks on their faces: Picture Dennis Leonard after accidentally swallowing his chewing tobacco. The very best the Royals could do last season was three consecutive wins. Granted, Kansas City strung together that victory trifecta on six different occasions, but three straight was the point at which Royals momentum peaked on the way to a 67-95 finish. It was as if this payroll-challenged outfit had not a salary cap, but a consecutive wins cap.

This year's Royals, however, have changed their walk-up music.

[+] EnlargeKansas City's Matt Treanor
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerMatt Treanor's three-run homer in the 13th on Sunday gave the Royals a last at-bat victory.
It takes a Marty Pattin-bulldog mentality to begin a season like this. Tuesday's walk-off win over the White Sox made the Royals just the third team in the past 20 seasons to have its first four wins come in the last at-bat and the first AL team to do so since the 1989 Royals. That win, following Sunday's 12-9 win over the Angels that ended on Matt Treanor's three-run homer in the 13th inning, gave the Royals consecutive wins in games lasting longer than 11 innings for the first time since April of 1969.

Yes, K.C. blew a ninth-inning lead Wednesday afternoon against Chicago. But the Royals tied it in the bottom of the ninth and had the winning run on third base with one out in the 11th. Jeff Francoeur struck out and Alcides Escobar grounded out to strand that winning run. The result wasn't there but at this point it's more about the mentality -- the Royals were a base hit away from five straight last at-bat wins.

Joakim Soria blew the save Wednesday, but he failed to convert only three save opportunities last season and is among the game's best closers. This season, for the first time in quite a while, there may be more in that Royals bullpen than just their All-Star closer. Kansas City's last three wins have all been recorded by rookie relief pitchers.

Saturday's victory went to Aaron Crow, the Royals' first-round draft pick in 2009, who signed with K.C. one year after the Nationals couldn't sign him after drafting him in the first round in 2008. Tim Collins, meanwhile, wasn't drafted at all. Collins is 5-foot-7 and perhaps 170 pounds. He can light up a radar gun near 97 mph and throw a curveball that buckles major league knees. He'd previously been with the Blue Jays and Braves and earned a place in the Royals bullpen this spring after arriving in camp as a non-roster invitee. Collins' path to the Kansas City bullpen could not have been more different than Crow's, but after three innings of two-hit relief Sunday, Collins had earned his first major league victory. Tuesday's rookie reliever winner was Jeremy Jeffress, who was the Brewers' first-round pick in 2006 and came to the Royals as part of the haul received from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade.

The offense has been there, too. Alex Gordon, the University of Nebraska hero who hit just .232 and .215 the previous two seasons, may be one more slumping season away from officially becoming a hometown bust, but is 11-for-21 with five RBIs in his past four games. He's hitting .379 overall, with five doubles, a homer and a 1.075 OPS. Gordon, Melky Cabrera, Francoeur, Billy Butler and Chris Getz are all batting north of .290. Treanor's weekend included two brilliant defensive blocks of home plate for outs and the walk-off home run that beat the Angels.

From here the Royals play three games at Detroit and two at Minnesota. Then it's back home for eight games against the Mariners and Indians. There's a fair chance given their energetic start and remaining April schedule, that Kansas City could still be a first-place team entering May.

Steve Berthiaume is a SportsCenter anchor and host of Baseball Tonight. He'll be a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. Follow him on Twitter at @SBerthiaumeESPN.

The top 10 struggling sluggers since 1950

March, 2, 2011
I hate to say it, but when it comes to evaluating baseball players, I'm a slave to power. I love watching batters launch home runs. I love to see players like Albert Pujols hit tape-measure shots. Power is seductive. However, hitting for power isn't a guaranteed route to success in the majors. In fact, there have been more than just a few players who have hit for power and, at the same time, have been poor offensive players.

For this post, I wanted to rank those players who struggled while hitting for power. Using Baseball Reference's handy-dandy Play Index Tool, I ran a query with the following parameters: At least 500 plate appearances in a season, at least 25 home runs hit, and ranked by Adjusted OPS (or OPS+). I ran this search from 1950-2010.

Our top 10 list for sluggers who struggled looks as follows:

10. Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks, 2007, 32 HR, 88 OPS+

You can probably forgive Chris Young's 2007 season depending on how you view his defense. Like most on this list, Young hit for great power but his OBP checked in at a dreadful .295. You can hit all the home runs in the world, but if you can't get your OBP over .300 you're in trouble.

[+] EnlargeTony Batista
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltTony Batista had almost as many home runs (221) in his 11-season career as he did walks (287).
9. Tony Batista, Toronto Blue Jays/Baltimore Orioles, 2001, 25 HR, 87 OPS+

The infamous Tony Batista. I have to admit that before I ran this list, I knew I would see a lot of Batista. His batting stance was fun to watch, but all Batista (and I mean all) did in his career was hit home runs. He might be the worst hitter in baseball's history to hit at least 200 career home runs.

8. Jeff Francoeur, Atlanta Braves, 2006, 29 HR, 87 OPS+

This was Francoeur's follow-up season to his promising 2005 rookie year. The homers were nice, the plate discipline (23 walks, 686 PAs) was terrible. Francoeur never met a pitch he didn't like and he's currently set to play 2011 in Kansas City. I'm sorry, Royals fans.

7. Andruw Jones, Atlanta Braves, 2007, 26 HR, 87 OPS+

Jones' lack of productivity, even with power, is forgivable depending on how you rate his defense in center field. And even in 2007, by most metrics, Jones was still a solid plus in center field. This was, however, the downturn in Jones' career as a hitter.

6. Brandon Inge, Detroit Tigers, 2009, 27 HR, 87 OPS+

You would think that you could at least eke out league average production with 27 homers in your back pocket. Inge only batted .230 in '09 to go with a super low OBP of .314 -- that will wreck anyone's season.

5. Tony Armas, Boston Red Sox, 1983, 36 HR, 85 OPS+

In '83 Armas was second in the AL in homers behind only Jim Rice. He slashed (.218/.254/.453) his way to a below-average season. Armas gets the nod for the hitter with the most homers on our list.

4. Vinny Castilla, Colorado Rockies, 1999, 33 HR, 83 OPS+

I'm kind of surprised that Castilla is the only Coors Field bopper to make our list. Before the Rockies installed the humidor, Coors Field played like some weird trumped-up version of spaceball. Fun fact: Castilla hit 20 of his 33 homers at home.

3. Tony Batista, Montreal Expos, 2004, 32 HR, 80 OPS+

Holy Batista! I stand firm by my statement that Batista is the worst hitter to ever accrue 200+ career dingers. Yet, in order to hit 200 career homers, you've got to be given the chance. Making it equally frightening is that he played 11 seasons. Ah, such is the alluring power of the homer.

2. Aaron Hill, Toronto Blue Jays, 2010, 26 HR, 79 OPS+

Coming off a very solid 2009 (114 OPS+), Aaron Hill had a 2010 to forget. The homers mostly carried over from 2009 (36 to 26), but his OBP fell to .271 compared to a career .325. The culprit? A .196 BABIP -- the lowest among all qualified hitters in the majors. Hill seems like a nice rebound candidate next year.

1. Tony Batista, Baltimore Orioles, 2003, 26 HR, 73 OPS+

Were you really expecting anyone else? Batista's 2003 is a masterful display of hitting for power at all costs. He didn't walk (28 BB, 670 PA), and to make things worse he hit into a career-high 20 double plays.

Tony Batista, incredible baseball player or the most incredible baseball player? You decide.

Chris Quick writes for Bay City Ball, which is part of the SweetSpot blog network.

A look at baseball's worst 100-RBI seasons

February, 14, 2011
As most people spending time in this space know already, RBIs are a very poor measure of a hitter’s actual offensive production. So what are the worst seasons ever turned in by players who topped 100 RBIs? The Baseball Reference blog did a list a little like that a while ago using WAR, but WAR includes defense and a positional adjustment; what I’m interested in is a list of guys who got RBIs but were in fact poor offensive players. So I’ve used only the batting component of Baseball Reference’s WAR (rbat), the number of runs above or below average the player’s bat was worth. Here’s the actual list. I’m making a few subjective adjustments to the order of the top 10 below:

[+] EnlargeJoe Carter
US PresswireFormer Toronto outfielder Joe Carter drove in 102 runs in 1997.
10. Jeff Francoeur, 2006 Braves: .260/.293/.449 (-16 rbat), 103 RBIs

This was Francoeur’s first full season, when, at age 22, we could still dream about what might happen if he learned to take a pitch every now and then. He generally hit fifth or sixth in a solid lineup, so he had plenty of runners on base.

9. Ray Pepper, 1934 Browns: .298/.333/.399 (-18 rbat), 101 RBIs

The Browns had one above-average hitter get more than 31 PA. As a team, they had a 77 OPS+, last in the AL, so Pepper’s 83 was right in line. But it was a hitters’ park in a hitter’s time, so Pepper knocked in 101 just by banging out a bunch of singles in a bad lineup, topping 100 RBIs with just six homers. This was Pepper’s only full season; I guess people just didn’t value a proven run producer in those days.

8. Tony Armas, 1983 Red Sox: .218/.254/.453 (-16 rbat), 107 RBI

Armas hit 36 homers in ‘83, then led the league in homers (43), RBIs (123) and strikeouts (156) in ‘84. But he was never able to hit for average or draw walks, and in ‘83, all the non-home-run-hitting aspects of his game were at their very worst.

7. Lou Bierbauer, 1894 Pirates: .303/.337/.407 (-18 rbat), 109 RBI

Bierbauer’s raw numbers don’t look nearly as bad as they were; the entire Pirates team hit .312/.379/.443, and the league averaged more than seven runs per game. Four Pirates starters had an OBP better than .400 and a ton of batters reached on errors, so Bierbauer had plenty of opportunities despite only three homers.

6. Moose Solters, 1936 Browns: .291/.336/.467 (-15 rbat), 134 RBI

These Browns were better hitters than the ones from two seasons prior, and the park and era helped just as much. Solters’ line is no worse than the four others above, but he was that bad and had 134 RBIs! Solters actually surrounded this one with two legitimately good years in 1935 and ‘37, but here he was just in the right place at the right time.

5. Ruben Sierra, 1993 Athletics: .238/.288/.390 (-18 rbat), 101 RBI

As I wrote a few weeks ago, in 1994, Bill James thought Sierra was headed to the Hall. That was written just after this atrocious season. With little patience and just OK power, Sierra depended on maintaining a high batting average to be productive. That aspect of his game fell apart in ‘93. Sierra was never quite this bad again, but also never really recovered, and never drove in 100 again.

4. Lave Cross, 1895 Phillies: .271/.319/.364 (-21 rbat), 101 RBI

See No. 7 above. Cross was one of four Phillies to top 90 RBIs (in just 131 team games). A year before, Cross had played like a star: .387/.424/.528, 132 RBIs. In ‘95, everything about his game dropped through the floor, and he hit just two home runs, but he still reached 100 ribbies. Safe to say that Hall of Fame teammates Billy Hamilton (.490 OBP) and Ed Delahanty (.500) helped.

3. Vinny Castilla, 1999 Rockies: .275/.331/.478 (-20 rbat), 102 RBI

Through his prime, Castilla was a pretty decent hitter who Coors Field made look like a star; this was past that, and he was a very poor hitter who Coors made to look pretty decent. Surprising that Castilla’s partner in crime against unadjusted slash lines, Dante Bichette, doesn’t make this list, but much of Bichette’s negative value came from defense, while Castilla was a solid glove man.

2. Tony Batista, 2004 Expos: .241/.272/.455 (-22 rbat), 110 RBI

If Castilla had never set foot in Coors and had an insane stance, he’d be Batista, whose previous season with Baltimore was one RBI short of No. 1: .235/.270/.393 (-29 rbat), 99 RBI.

1. Joe Carter, 1997 Blue Jays: .234/.284/.399 (-25 rbat), 102 RBI

For Carter, 1997 was his last full season and his worst, but in addition to No. 1, he also occupies spots 11, 15, 47, 105, 129 and 139 on the list. Carter was a more athletic and longer-lasting version of Armas. The Jays plugged Carter into either the number three or four spot in 157 of their 162 games in ‘97, where he cost them significantly in runs and wins on both sides of the ball despite the RBI.

Each of these 10 guys cost his team runs with his bat, while apparently excelling in the category most people seem to associate with “run production” -- RBI are kind of a fun little thing to look at, but it would be nice if we stopped pretending they mean anything.

Bill writes for The Platoon Advantage on ESPN's SweetSpot Network, and you can follow him on Twitter.

Could 'Mystery Team' tempt Pujols?

February, 13, 2011
Tick, tick, tick …

The sound of another edition of “60 Minutes"? Hardly. How about the countdown on the deadline for the Cardinals to sign Albert Pujols to a contract extension. As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, Pujols has set a deadline of the beginning of spring training for the sides to come to an agreement, or he will play out the 2011 season and hit the free-agent market at season’s end.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireSt. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols can become a free agent after the coming season.
With the Cardinals pitchers and catchers reporting to Jupiter today, and Pujols due to report on Wednesday, the pressure is on both sides to reach an agreement. What’s adding to the pressure is the fact the Cardinals aren’t exactly sure where the deadline falls. Is it today? Is it Wednesday? Is it arbitrary and able to change at a moment’s notice?

This is one of those negotiations where you want to grab a box of popcorn. The next couple of days should be some kind of fun.

Jason Rosenberg did an excellent job detailing the potential suitors should Pujols enter the market next winter, narrowing the list down to the usual suspects -- including the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels and Cubs. Of course, there could be a Mystery Team. You know the Mystery Team. They’re always lurking, ready to strike when you least expect it. A team cloaked in secrecy, shrouded in inscrutability, and covered in question marks. Yet chock full of stealth, and with it’s pockets lined with cold, hard cash.

According to Jeff Gordon from STLtoday, that mystery team could be in the same state as the Cardinals.
“But wouldn’t the Royals offer the ultimate free-agency option for Pujols?

Kansas City is home for Albert and Dee Dee, to a significant degree. That is where they met. That is where Pujols played high school and college ball. It's where he worked with his hitting/training mentor to become the machine that he is.

The Royals are loaded with prospects that player development experts love. They have Tampa Bay Rays-like potential, with plenty of big arms and big bats on the way.

That team has significant money committed to just one player beyond 2011, Billy Butler. The Royals loaded up with veterans on one-year deals this season, including pitcher Jeff Francis and outfielder Jeff Francoeur.

They possess maximum payroll flexibility for 2012. More than most franchises, the Royals can afford to spend $30 million (or more) per season for one hitter.”

Gordon pretty much speaks the truth. Yes, Pujols spent his formative years in the Kansas City area. Yes, the Royals system is loaded. Yes, the Royals have a number of players on one-year contracts. And yes, the Royals have payroll flexibility for 2012 and beyond.

But can the Royals afford to spend $30 million for one player?

As Jason pointed out in his post, committing more than a quarter of your payroll for one player isn’t just bad business, it’s potentially franchise crippling. As such, for a $30 million player to fit, the team must operate with a payroll north of $120 million.

The Royals Opening Day payroll in 2010 was a franchise record $74.9 million. Take the 25th man off the Royals roster -- say Mitch Maier and his $415,000 salary -- and replace him with Pujols and his $30 million, and you’re looking at the first baseman gobbling up roughly 29 percent of the payroll. It’s not the 25 percent that seems to be the accepted amount, but it’s close. Maybe that’s not a killer. Maybe that’s doable.

However, that was last season. After a couple of years of escalating payroll, the Royals have sliced and diced costs in an effort to prepare for what some have termed Project 2012 -- when the majority of the team’s pool of young talent is slated to reach the majors. After dealing Zack Greinke to the Brewers and getting the $12 million gift that was the Gil Meche retirement, the Royals are looking at an Opening Day payroll that will be in the neighborhood of $35 million.

To look at it another way, the Royals Opening Day payroll will be just $5 million more than Pujols is seeking for his next contract.

The Royals diminished payroll for the upcoming season is all part of The Process. With the Royals’ system flush with talent in the minors, the Royals have a unique situation in which they will be able to either complement their young players with some major league free agents, or they have the flexibility to lock in those young players to club-friendly, long-term contracts. You can never say never, especially when it comes to the actions of Dayton Moore at the major-league level, but it’s highly unlikely Moore will squander his flexibility with a single contract. After all, Moore has been fairly vocal about how he has gotten the Royals to this point regarding payroll, and how he plans to maintain the flexibility. Of course, he also once said he valued on-base percentage …

(Quick aside: Time for a perspective check from one Royals fan …

Pujols? Why do we need Pujols? We have Billy Butler, who can rake. Kila Ki’ahuie is a monster who is going to set the baseball universe on its axis and will undoubtedly start a streak of 10 consecutive All-Star Game appearances this summer. And then Eric Hosmer has the best looking swing in the history of whatever and will be ready for the majors in 2012.

Honestly, tell me where Pujols fits. I just don’t see it.

Ummmm … Yeah. That was fun. Perspective check over.)

While the thought of Pujols driving west on I-70 might be enough to cause heartburn on the Hill in St. Louis, and while Pujols might feel the pull of his hometown should he hit the open market, Kansas City won’t be a player in the Pujols Sweepstakes.

Craig Brown writes for the Royals blog, Royals Authority and about fantasy baseball for Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on Twitter.