SweetSpot: Jeff Samardzija

Facing the Los Angeles Angels' Triple-A lineup Thursday (all the starters rested after the Angels clinched the AL West title Wednesday night), Felix Hernandez crushed: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 11 K. He lowered his ERA to 2.07.

And he didn't get the win. The Mariners did finally capture the victory when Logan Morrison hit a three-run homer in the ninth, but Hernandez was left with a no-decision.

That's now three no-decisions this season for Hernandez in games in which he allowed zero runs, on top of four no-decisions and a loss when he allowed one run. Plus two no-decisions and two losses when he allowed two runs. You get the idea: The Mariners don't score many runs for their King.

[+] EnlargeFelix Hernandez
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsWhat more can Felix Hernandez do? (Maybe his run support would improve if they let pitchers hit in the American League.)

From ESPN Stats & Info: This was the 16th time in his career that Hernandez has fanned 10 or more batters, allowed zero earned runs and did not receive the win. The pitchers with the most such games over the past 100 years:

Nolan Ryan: 19
Chris Short: 18
Vida Blue: 17
Felix Hernandez: 16
Jake Peavy: 16
Sam McDowell: 16
Bob Veale: 16

Also, from ESPN Stats & Info: The Mariners have scored three runs or fewer in more than half of his career starts. Highest percentages since 1969:

Jon Matlack: 54.1 percent (172 of 318)
Steve Rogers: 52.7 percent (207 of 393)
Felix Hernandez: 52.5 percent (158 of 301)
Mike Scott: 52.1 percent (166 of 319)
Nolan Ryan: 51.7 percent (390 of 754)

Interesting list. Matlack spent his best years in the 1970s with some mediocre Mets clubs, pitching in Shea Stadium, a low run-scoring environment. In 1974, he tossed seven shutouts and still went just 13-15. He then finished with some bad Rangers teams in the late '70s and early '80s. Rogers pitched his entire career with the Expos from 1973 to 1985. They were well above .500 from 1979 to 1985, so a lot of those games must have come early in his career. He led the NL in losses in 1974 (even though he was an All-Star that year) and 1976, when he had a 3.21 ERA. Scott and Ryan both pitched in the Astrodome, where runs were hard to come by. Ryan spent a lot of years in Anaheim, another pitchers' park, and he had some awful offenses behind him in his early Angels seasons. He went 19-16 in 1972 for a team that averaged just 2.93 runs per game, an offense that makes the 2014 Mariners look like the 1927 Yankees.

Then we have Jeff Samardzija of the A's. On Wednesday, he tossed eight scoreless innings, left with a slim 1-0 lead and then saw Sean Doolittle cough up the lead in the ninth. He's now 6-12 despite a 2.98 ERA. You know how many pitchers have ever started 30 games, had an ERA below 3.00 and won six or fewer games? One! Some poor sap named Fred Glade for the 1905 St. Louis Browns. His nickname: Lucky.

(Actually, Glade wasn't some poor sap. He came from a wealthy family who owned a milling business that would eventually become part of ConAgra.)

Samardzija has allowed zero runs five times this year -- twice with the A's, three times with the Cubs -- and has received a no-decision each time. He's allowed one run five times and is just 2-0 in those games.

Going back to 1969, here are the pitchers with the most starts in a season of allowing no runs without getting the win:

Dustin Hermanson, 1997: 6 (33.1 IP)
Roger Clemens, 2005: 6 (40 IP)
Clayton Kershaw, 2009: 6 (38.2 IP)
Jimmy Key, 1985: 5 (27 IP)
Chris Young, 2007: 5 (25 IP)
Jeff Samardzija, 2014: 5 (35 IP)

Samardzija has eight games where he allowed no runs or one run and failed to get a win. Since 1969, two pitchers have had nine such games in a season: Kershaw in 2009 and Jose DeLeon in 1991. (Felix also has eight such games this year.)

Talk about two unlucky pitchers.

And yet we still hear some people talk about how there is an "art" to winning games.

Sure, it's called pitching well and getting run support.

Athletics need to be worried for stretch run

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
1:47
PM ET


The A’s have been on top for months, with the best record in baseball to brag about, and they’re supposed to be the runaway winners in the AL West. But in case you’ve missed it, they’re not running away any more, and not just because the Angels have been the second-best team in baseball. If anything, the A’s are coasting, because while they still have the best record, we’ll see how much longer that lasts.
[+] EnlargeBrandon Moss
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesBrandon Moss' power outage since the break is a big problem.

That’s because the A’s have gone 15-15 in their last 30 games, and after Friday night’s loss they’ve slipped below a .600 winning percentage on the season. They haven’t won a series against a team with an above-.500 record since the Orioles immediately after the All-Star break. At this point, you can skip talk of winning 100 games, because the division title isn’t the only thing in danger with the Mariners, Tigers and Royals all making serious pushes for the postseason. Say they play .500 the rest of the way, and they’d wind up with 93 wins, which should at least get them into the wild card -- one-and-done territory, or not where they were supposed to be when they traded away their best prospect, Addison Russell, to purportedly win the World Series this year.

What’s gone wrong of late? It’s pretty much a team-wide problem. Let’s start with the offense. Since the All-Star break, they’ve put up a collective .698 OPS, a tumble from the .729 OPS they had in the first half. Those numbers get worse when you get into what they’ve done since trading Yoenis Cespedes: a .636 OPS in August, with the A’s averaging just 3.7 runs per game when they had averaged 4.9 in the first half.

Who are the culprits? Brandon Moss has struggled terribly, hitting just .213/.31/.303 with two homers since the break; for a guy who had 21 on his way to his first All-Star Game, suddenly hitting 30 again seems a long way off. Coco Crisp has been even worse as he struggles through a neck injury, putting up just a .395 OPS. Moving parts like John Jaso (.647 OPS) and Alberto Callaspo (.505), so important to manager Bob Melvin’s lineup-card dynamics, are slumping as well. If it weren’t for Josh Donaldson doing his thing and Josh Reddick’s rebound since returning to action (.904 OPS, four homers since the break), the picture would be even more bleak.

[+] EnlargeScott Kazmir
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesScott Kazmir is among the A's pitchers who are slumping in the second half.
Then there’s the pitching. Saturday’s starter, Sonny Gray, may have set off alarms for the beatdown he took two turns ago, but his velocity’s holding relatively steady; he may be the one guy you should worry about least. Instead, worry about the fact that Scott Kazmir’s strikeout rate since the All-Star break is 13 percent, 10 points lower than it was in the first half, or that Jason Hammel has one quality start in seven tries as an Athletic. Or that Jeff Samardzija’s run of greatness extends no further back than this season. Did the A’s need Jon Lester? You bet they did, in no small part because their investment in Kazmir and their getting Hammel haven’t paid off as well as they might have hoped.

And then there’s the interior defense. Losing Jed Lowrie to the DL isn’t something you’d normally associate with hurting your defense, but the problem it created is that it moved Eric Sogard from a position he plays well at second base (averaging plus-9 Defensive Runs Saved per season on his career) to a position he doesn’t at short (minus-14 career). Exacerbating that loss is that Alberto Callaspo has had to become an every-day player at second. Whatever Callaspo’s virtues as a multi-positional rover, one thing he doesn’t do well and has never done well is play second base: His performance this year is at a minus-11 DRS for a full season at the keystone, consistent with a career clip of minus-14. So instead of the benefits of getting Lowrie’s bat (even in an off year) at short and Sogard’s glove at second, the A’s now have neither, plus they don’t have Callaspo to plug in everywhere else they might have a day-to-day need either. And with Kazmir and Hammel looking so hittable, you can bet a worse infield defense is hurting.

And just stop with Sam Fuld already. The guy’s well-spoken, a great interview and a decent fielder, but c’mon now, he’s sabermetrics’ answer to Willie Bloomquist. A .370 OBP during two months in Minnesota do not define a guy, they’re just two nice months from someone whose career suggests he couldn’t keep that up. And sure enough, the guy the A’s got back in a ticky-tack trade with the Twins has not been Rickey Henderson reborn or Lance Blankenship or even Eric Fox; instead, it’s the same guy who came into the year with a .314 career OBP, and the same guy who was eminently cut-worthy by these same A’s earlier this season. The A’s need him because Crisp’s neck injury and second-half struggles make an insurance policy in center necessary, but you can forget about penciling in an every-day OBP north of .350. Tell yourself you’ll always have Minnesota to fulfill your Fuld fantasy, and just let that notion go.

Now, I know, this is where we can cite all sorts of happy stats to warm A’s fans’ hearts, like their huge run differential or their expected record, which is six games better (79-43) than where they’re actually at (73-49). But wasn’t this supposed to the team that was better than the sum of its parts, not worse? Admittedly, that was a sportswriterly narrative that wilts in the daylight of data, but to stick with the facts, a big chunk of the A’s run differential belongs to early-season blowout wins that this lineup hasn’t been cranking out of late, as well as that stack of close losses that you can blame on the early-season mistake of having Jim Johnson as their closer.

And the thing to keep in mind is that the A’s won’t get any of that back -- those runs, wins and losses are history and already banked, and that accrual doesn’t mean squat for the last 40 games. That’s because this team is a significantly different collection of players than that which stacked up that run differential in the first place just a few short months ago. You can’t expect it to continue or magically continue. A big win in May can’t do anything more to keep the A’s ahead of the Angels than it already has. The A’s relative run differential is shrinking, and even with Lester and Samardzija and Gray going strong, it’s probably going to shrink more.

This is why all you ditch that stuff about the A’s being the best team in baseball, or having the best record in baseball. It’s true for as long as nobody catches them while playing .500 brand of baseball as they have lately, and that won't be for much longer. So Oakland needs an in-season rebound, starting now. Beating the struggling Braves in this series may not sound like much, but the A’s have to start somewhere if they’re going to fulfill any of the expectations put on them, let alone stay a game ahead of the Angels.


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

I wonder who was more nervous on Sunday afternoon: Jeff Samardzija or Billy Beane?

Beane is notorious for not actually watching Oakland's games, but I would guess he paid a little more attention to this one. Samardzija made his A's debut against the Blue Jays. And while it was just one start of 16 or so he'll make for Oakland this season -- and hopefully a few more in October -- it was an important one. Samardzija obviously wanted to get off to a good start for his new teammates, and Beane, not that he cares what the pundits say about the deal, certainly has a lot riding on Samardzija's performance.

Samardzija was terrific, allowing five hits and one run in seven innings as the A's beat the Blue Jays 4-2. Pumping it up to 97 mph on the radar gun, Samardzija flashed the big right arm that turned him into one of the National League's best pitchers with the Cubs (he had been voted on to the NL All-Star team by the players despite his 2-7 record). But the 29-year-old had something to prove as well: After posting a 1.68 ERA through May, he'd had two rough outings in June that pushed his ERA to 5.45 for the month and 2.83 for the season. Beane is betting those starts were an aberration and that he just traded for a guy who can join Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray for a 1-2-3 combo that lines up nicely in a playoff series in some order (with Jason Hammel, also acquired in Friday night's big trade, in the mix as a fourth starter).

Samardzija threw 57 fastballs, and while he didn't record any strikeouts with it, he did get eight groundballs. That's been a key to his improvement this year: After allowing 20 home runs in 2012 and 25 in 2013, he's allowed just seven this year as his groundball rate has risen from 45 percent two years ago to 54 percent. Four of his five strikeouts came on his splitter, and that pitch and his slider give him two wipeout weapons when he gets to two strikes. Batters are hitting .111 against the splitter and .206 against the slider, with just two home runs combined in 131 at-bats ending with those pitches. With his four-seamer, two-seam sinking fastball and cutter, he's developed into a five-pitch guy, all arguably above-average pitches.

[+] EnlargeSamardzija
AP Photo/Ben MargotJeff Samardzija pitched like an All-Star in his seven-inning debut with the A's.
"First impressions are always important," Samardzija said after the game. He also seemed to gain a quick appreciation for his new offense after being staked to an early lead. "The way [the A's] take at-bats is outstanding." No knock against the Cubs or anything.

"He was pretty unbelievable today," A's catcher Derek Norris told MLB.com. "It was even better than I anticipated. Definitely had some adrenaline going through his veins, and you could tell the passion and the excitement in his body language."

That attitude was one reason Beane was willing to mortgage what was supposed to be a big part of Oakland's future -- 20-year-old Double-A shortstop Addison Russell, widely considered as one of the game's top 10 prospects. Trading Russell led to a lot of criticism of the deal, that Beane gave up too much in Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney (the team's 2013 first-round pick) and pitcher Dan Straily for Samardzija, who is under team control for one more season, and Hammel, an impending free agent.

That criticism is a reflection of how prospects are valued these days -- maybe overvalued. There is no guarantee that Russell will develop into a star, as promising as he looks right now. Do I really need to list other recent top prospects? Jesus Montero? Domonic Brown? Dustin Ackley? Mike Moustakas? Those were can't-miss guys.

So you never know. But Beane knows he acquired an All-Star-quality starter and another solid starter in Hammel. Yes, it's possible that both just pitched the best three months of their careers, but the Oakland rotation was in need of some new blood and depth. After a hot April, its ERA had increased in May and then again in June. With the division suddenly in jeopardy with the Angels and Mariners looking tough, it was risky for the A's to continue betting on Jesse Chavez and Tommy Milone and Brad Mills to carry too much of the load.

As much as anything, that's why Beane needed to make the trade. There's obviously huge importance to winning the division and avoiding the wild-card game. Just listen to A's players after the trade was made, from Jane Lee's article at MLB.com:

Norris: "It's a monster trade. When you trade two recent first-rounders, it speaks volumes of what we're trying to do here. We're trying to take this good start we've gotten off to and make a good second-half push. I think it just takes us to a new level where, one through five, we have proven arms coming in and out."

Brandon Moss: "They just got rid of their top two prospects. Not very many organizations do that, regardless of contending or not. Usually when there are teams doing that, it's because they feel like they have an extremely special group that has a chance to do special things. It says a lot about the faith they have in us in this clubhouse, and it says a lot about the faith in the guys that they acquired, and obviously it took a lot to get them."

Sean Doolittle: "The goal is to win the division and get to the playoffs. Once you're there, anything can happen. We think we were built to make a little bit of a run, but none of that is even possible if we don't win the division."

Of course, many will grade this trade on one aspect: Whether or not the A's win (or at least reach) the World Series. I don't think that's quite fair; as Doolittle said, anything can happen in the playoffs. If Samardzija and Hammel pitch well and the A's win the division title, that justifies the risk Beane has taken. Yes, Russell may blossom with the Cubs. But I suppose Beane's response is that there a different ways to win a trade. Especially for a small-market club like the A's that has a group it won't be able to keep intact much longer.

I do agree with something Joe Sheehan wrote after the trade, however; this deal will be a critical part of the legacies for both Beane and Cubs team president Theo Epstein (Jed Hoyer is the Cubs GM, but Epstein, as Joe wrote, is still the face of the front office). Beane probably doesn't care much about his legacy either. He cares about that elusive World Series trip.

As Samardzija showed on Sunday, he can help the A's get there.

Winless Samardzija getting no run support

May, 11, 2014
May 11
12:12
AM ET
Chicago Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija threw six innings of scoreless baseball against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday. He was not awarded a win, however, because Ervin Santana managed seven scoreless of his own. The feeling of futility, emptiness and despair that might reasonably accompany this outcome is nothing new for Samardzija: Three times this season, he's managed a quality start in which he left the game tied. In two other instances, he gave up two and three runs and left the game with his team trailing. On April 29, in his worst start of the season, he gave up three runs in 5⅔ innings and exited down one. Most gallingly, Samardzija threw 7⅓ innings on April 23 and gave up two runs, bequeathing his teammates a 5-2 lead. Pedro Strop, James Russell, and Justin Grimm promptly combined to give up five runs and blow the game in the ninth.

In sum, Samardzija has thrown quality starts in seven of his eight outings (missing the eighth by just one-third of an inning). He came into Saturday's start against Atlanta with the second-best ERA in baseball (1.62), has a nasty, mid-90s fastball at the head of a five-pitch mix that includes one of baseball's few splitters, and he'll go to sleep Saturday night with the same 0-3 record that he woke up with.

The individual pitcher win has been rightly discredited in wider and wider circles over the past 15 years (Felix Hernandez won a Cy Young award in 2010 despite a 13-12 record, after all), so it's not just stat-nerd bloggers like me who can see past Samardzija's winlessness and recognize that he's having a fantastic season. Still, the 0-3 is striking: Of those pitchers currently qualified for the ERA title, the only others without a win are Josh Beckett (2.80 ERA, 32nd in the league out of 114 qualifiers), Charlie Morton (3.45, 54th), Kyle Kendrick (3.58, 62nd), Francisco Liriano (4.64, 88th) and Brett Oberholtzer (5.68, 111th). Clay Buchholz has been awful, with a 6.44 ERA that comes up last among qualifiers, and he has two wins. Jenrry Mejia is 3-0 with a 5.06 ERA.

Not to belabor the point, but Samardzija has really been unlucky.

The culprit for unlucky pitchers can vary, but in Samardzija's case, it's crystal clear: He's getting some of the worst run support in the league. Samardzija came into Saturday's action receiving just 1.88 runs per game of support, and the Braves' 2-0 shutout of the Cubs will depress that figure further. Samardzija is the Cubs' best starter and was their Opening Day starter, so it might stand to reason that he's faced a tougher group of opposing pitchers this season, but that's not really the case. The list:

The weighted average ERAs of these pitchers is 3.30. The NL average ERA is 3.54. Samardzija, in other words, hasn't faced a crew of aces so much as he's faced solid No. 2 or No. 3 starters. The Cubs as an overall offensive squad aren't all that terrible: They've scored 3.9 runs per game, ranking 10th in the NL. Tenth ain't great, but it ain't 15th, either.

No, Samardzija has just been a victim of bad timing, and the only question is whether his luck can turn around in time to put him in contention for the postseason awards that he might deserve if he keeps pitching this well. The win's decline in importance has been sharp, but when assessing a list of candidates, 8-12 (to take a stab at where Samardzija's win-loss record could end up) surely has a psychological effect, no matter how rationally a voter considers ERA and strikeouts, BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and run support, just as a voter can't help but be impressed by 21-3 or 20-5. A negative record won't cost Samardzija all consideration, as evidenced by Chris Sale's fifth-place Cy Young finish last season with an 11-14 record, but it's worth noting that Sale finished second in the AL in Baseball-Reference's pitcher WAR (wins above replacement), so the White Sox's failure to support him almost certainly did cost him votes.

Beyond awards, the salary arbitration process still relies notoriously on old-school counting stats (wins and losses, RBIs and runs) more than WAR or other advanced metrics. As Samardzija has one more arbitration-eligible season left before free agency, there's a very real sense in which Junior Lake (83 OPS+), Ryan Kalish (78), Darwin Barney (14!), and the like are costing Samardzija money.

In a lost season for the Cubs (they're already 10 games out of first place, and their playoff odds stand third lowest in the NL), Samardzija doesn't have a whole lot else to look forward to, so one hopes he takes GM Jed Hoyer's recent words to heart: "Hopefully, he realizes you don't need wins in this day and age to be considered a top-of-the-rotation pitcher."

Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beanball on the SweetSpot Network.
One thing about baseball players: They're good at playing baseball.

They're not always so good about analyzing baseball.

Case in point, this quote from Matt Garza, when advising former Cubs teammate Jeff Samardzija: "I told [Samardzija], 'It doesn't matter, dude. You play in Chicago. I was there, and I lost 30 wins in three seasons. It's not your fault. You pitch your way out of there.'"

OK, Garza's point was that if Samardzija keeps pitching well, he becomes more attractive on the trade market. Garza's other point was that he lost wins due to a bad team around him. But 30? Really?

In his two-plus seasons with the Cubs (he was traded to the Rangers in his third year), Garza went 21-18 in 60 starts. Taken literally, Garza is suggesting he should have won 51 times in 60 starts. That's a ridiculous percentage,of course, but let's say Garza deserved to win every time he pitched well. In those 60 starts, he had 38 quality starts (and zero "blown" quality starts by the bullpen). If we stretch the definition of quality start to every game he allowed three runs or fewer, we get 42 such games (although in one of those he pitched just three innings).

So that leaves 18 other starts, nine of which needed to be wins to get us to 51. He actually won one of those games already (he allowed five runs in six innings to beat the Brewers on June 16, 2011. We can find a few more potential wins if we're generous:

--April 25, 2011: 6 IP, 5 R, 1 ER
--Aug. 14, 2011: 5 IP, 4 R, 2 ER
--Aug. 25, 2011: 5 IP, 6 R, 3 ER
--June 13, 2012: 6 IP, 5 R, 3 ER

We classify those as games where his defense let him down. So now we're up to 46 wins. He gave up four runs in 6.1 innings against the Angels on June 5, 2013. That's not a quality start, but maybe in Garza's mind that's good enough to get a win, even though starting pitchers don't usually get wins in starts like that. (Last season, a started pitched between six and seven innings and allowed four runs 295 times; he got the win 53 times.) Again, we're giving him the benefit of the doubt here so we'll say Garza "deserved" to win that one. And, who knows, maybe the Cubs had some misplays in the field.

That's 47 wins. I can't really come up with four more. He had one start where he allowed nine runs, two with seven, three others with six runs that we didn't look at yet and five more where he allowed five earned runs. You can't say he deserved to win any of those games. But you know, 47 isn't so far from 51. Maybe if Garza had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the lineup and Andrelton Simmons and Andruw Jones playing defense behind him, he does win 47 games.

Although even the '27 Yankees scored two runs or fewer in 28 games.

If there's a bigger point here it's that in this age of declining offense, the old definition of a quality start -- six or more innings, three runs or fewer -- probably needs to be revised. Six innings with a 4.50 ERA isn't really a "quality" start these days.

To be fair, Garza did pitch in some bad luck. He allowed zero runs or one run in 17 starts with the Cubs (not counting that three-inning game) and won just 10 of those games. He allowed two runs in 14 starts and went 6-2.

Garza did pitch his way out of Chicago. He's with the Brewers now. The team with the best record in baseball.

He has one win in five starts.

As Buster Olney wrote in his Sunday blog, "a lot of the winter work was done" as general managers caught flights out of Orlando. But some big free agents are still out there -- most notably Shin-Soo Choo but also some quality starting pitchers in Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo and Ervin Santana.

Buster listed seven teams that could still have a big move left -- the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Rangers, Tigers, Mariners and Diamondbacks. With that in mind, here are 10 predictions on what will happen the rest of the offseason.

1. The Rangers sign Shin-Soo Choo.

SportsNation

Which team will Shin-Soo Choo sign with?

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The Rangers could go the less expensive route and bring back Nelson Cruz without forfeiting the first-round pick they'd lose for signing Choo, but Texas had a mediocre offense last year with Cruz. Why go down that road again? Choo gets on base more and would give the team another table-setter in front of Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder.

The Tigers signed Rajai Davis and appear willing to move forward with a Davis-Andy Dirks platoon in left field. Don't count out the Mariners -- the outfield is still a mess with the likes of Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley and possibly Corey Hart or Logan Morrison, although the latter two are best suited for first base or DH duties.

2. The Rays trade David Price to the Mariners.

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Which team will David Price be pitching for in 2014?

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The Mariners can't stop with Robinson Cano and two guys coming off injuries. For better or worse, general manager Jack Zduriencik is all in. Cano's best season in a Mariners uniform is likely to be 2014 and not 2016 or 2017, so there is pressure to upgrade the current roster right now.

To get Price, the Mariners will trade Taijuan Walker despite proclamations from Zduriencik that that won't happen. "I don't have intentions of trading Taijuan," he said during the winter meetings. "You listen to any opportunities that present themselves and you go into discussions with a lot of people. And his name will come up. Why wouldn't it? As do a lot of our guys, quite frankly. But Taijuan is high-profile because he's rated our top prospect."


3. The Angels sign Matt Garza.

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What team will sign Matt Garza?

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The Mark Trumbo trade gave the Angels some rotation depth with Hector Santiago from the White Sox and young lefty Tyler Skaggs from the Diamondbacks. Those two would slot in behind Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards, but the Angels may not be done looking for a starter. As they learned last year, you can never have enough pitching depth, plus it wouldn't hurt to give the 22-year-old Skaggs more time in the minors to help rediscover the form that made him one of the top prospects in the game in 2012.

Can Garza fit in the payroll? Right now, Baseball-Reference estimates it at about $144 million, up from last year's $129 million. The new national TV money is coming in, but signing Garza means the Angels may need to clear some payroll. Leading to this ...


4. The Angels trade Howie Kendrick to the Braves.

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Will the Braves acquire a second baseman to replace Dan Uggla?

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The Braves have been oddly quiet this offseason while losing Brian McCann and Tim Hudson via free agency. No, signing Gavin Floyd -- he's not expected back until at least May after Tommy John surgery -- doesn't qualify as a major move.

Remember, despite winning 96 games, this team still batted Evan Gattis cleanup in a playoff game and started Freddy Garcia with its season on the line. The obvious position to upgrade is second base, where Dan Uggla posted a minus-1.3 WAR and was left off the postseason roster in favor of Elliot Johnson. Uggla is due $13 million each of the next two seasons, but the Braves have to decide whether they want to count on a guy who may be washed up or whether they want to pay $22 million for two second basemen.

Kendrick is signed for two more years and would cost a couple of prospects, but maybe the Braves could toss in Uggla while picking up the majority of his salary.


5. The Reds re-sign Bronson Arroyo.

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Which team will sign Bronson Arroyo?

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Several teams have expressed interest in Arroyo, not only because of his durability but also because Cincinnati didn't give him a qualifying offer, so you don't lose a draft pick if you sign him. The Reds seemed focused on trying to sign Homer Bailey to a long-term extension, but that hasn't happened. So they may shift their priorities back to Arroyo, who has been with them since 2006.

Even though the Twins have signed Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey, they reportedly still want to sign one more guy as they revamp their rotation. Arroyo is a classic Twins-type pitcher: control over velocity. He's looking for a three-year contract, which may price out the Pirates, but Arroyo would be a nice fit to replace A.J. Burnett if he doesn't return to Pittsburgh.


6. The Dodgers do not trade Matt Kemp.

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Do the Dodgers end up trading an outfielder?

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After two injury-plagued seasons, it's easy to understand the desire to trade him. But ESPN Insider Dave Cameron wrote this week that we shouldn't assume Kemp's days as an elite-level player are over:
There's some good news for Kemp and the Dodgers, however; age-28 regressions are actually pretty common, even for good young players who had established themselves as high-quality players at a young age. In most of the cases, the guys who took a year off from hitting well bounced back to perform at a high level again.


Selling now on Kemp means selling low. Yes, he has that monster contract, but the Dodgers would be wiser to hold on to Kemp and hope he rebounds and gives them a huge middle of the order with Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez. There is the concern that he shouldn't be playing center field, but it's not like Andre Ethier is that all much better out there. Puig is probably the best option for center if the Dodgers want to move him.

As for Ethier, maybe a trade market develops for him once Choo and Cruz sign. The Dodgers can afford to be patient.

7. The Mariners sign Nelson Cruz.

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Which team signs Nelson Cruz?

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The Rangers gave Cruz a qualifying offer, so the market for a guy who will turn 34 in July, has posted mediocre OBPs in recent years and has little defensive value will be slim. But, hey, the Mariners have developed a fetish for this type of player, and their first-round pick is protected. Looks like a three-year marriage in the making.

What would the Mariners look like with Cruz and Price? Something like this:

SS Brad Miller
LF/1B Corey Hart
2B Robinson Cano
RF Nelson Cruz
3B Kyle Seager
DH Logan Morrison
1B Justin Smoak
C Mike Zunino
CF Michael Saunders/Dustin Ackley

SP Felix Hernandez
SP David Price
SP Hisashi Iwakuma
SP James Paxton
SP Erasmo Ramirez

8. The Orioles sign Grant Balfour.

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Which team signs Grant Balfour?

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The Orioles have a hole at closer after trading Jim Johnson, a hole in left field after losing Nate McLouth, and no obvious candidate to take most of the DH at-bats. It appears they are most concerned with finding a closer.

Several teams still need (or desire) a closer, but it could come to AL East rivals. While the Yankees can ultimately just put David Robertson in the ninth-inning role, the Orioles' top relievers (Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz) all have platoon issues. Balfour will turn 36 later this month but is seeking a three-year contract. My bet is the Orioles give it to him.

9. The Dodgers sign Ervin Santana.

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Which team signs Ervin Santana?

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The Dodgers have been rumored to be involved in David Price trade rumors, and they would certainly be in on Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka if he's posted. But they also don't want to deplete their farm system, and the Rakuten Golden Eagles may just decide to keep Tanaka.

Even if the Eagles do post Tanaka -- he's an unrestricted free agent in two years, so they may just decide to cash in regardless -- the Dodgers also have to sign Clayton Kershaw to a long-term contract. With Zack Greinke and eventually Kershaw, do they want three starters being paid mega-millions? Probably not. So look for them to seek a cheaper alternative like Santana, who would fill out the rotation as a durable No. 4-type starter.

10.The Cubs will keep Jeff Samardzija.

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Which team will Jeff Samardzija be pitching for in 2014?

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Are you as tired of Samardzija trade rumors as I am? At this point, he's been tied to nearly every team in one rumor or another. The Blue Jays are the latest possible destination, but the Cubs reportedly asked for two top prospects plus a third player. Samardzija has two seasons left until free agency, and while he struck out 214 in 213 2/3 innings, his ERA was also 4.34, and 4.72 in the second half.

So maybe he just remains with the Cubs because of the high asking price. And then the Cubs will hopefully sign him to a 10-year extension so we don't have to go listen to all these rumors again in July.
Is there a more up-and-down team this year than the Cleveland Indians? They started 5-10, but from April 28 through May 20 they went 18-4 to climb into first place. That was followed by seven losses in eight games and then an eight-game losing streak that dropped them three games under .500. Now they've won nine of 12 after beating the Orioles 5-2 on Monday night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travis Wood/Jeff Samardzija, Cubs
I'm assuming one or the other will be the Cubs' rep, but both have good cases to make it, even though Wood is 5-6 and Samardzija is 5-7. They succeed in different ways. Wood is an extreme fly ball pitcher who limits hits despite a ho-hum strikeout rate; Samardzija is pure power, with 115 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings. With 14 NL starters currently sporting an ERA under 3.00, somebody is going to get squeezed.
One of the best aspects of early April baseball is all the aces start on Opening Day. Then a few days later they meet again. Usually by each pitcher's third or fourth starts, the schedules get out of whack -- teams don't have the same off days, some teams will skip the fifth starter and so on. After those first couple of starts, ace-versus-ace matchups are more of a random occurrence throughout the baseball season. And when they do meet, you don't get a whole slate of them like we do Sunday.

Here are eight matchups to watch (pitchers' stats from opening start in parentheses) -- and these don't even include Chris Sale, David Price, Marlins 20-year-old rookie Jose Fernandez or Dodgers rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu. If you're not going to the ballpark, it looks like a good afternoon to sit inside. (Just get your exercise in before the games start!)

8. Diamondbacks at Brewers
Ian Kennedy (7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 8 K) vs. Yovani Gallardo (5 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 3 K)

Two pitchers trying to prove they are No. 1s. Kennedy was two years ago when he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young vote. He went 15-12 with a 4.02 ERA last year, but looked very good in beating St. Louis in his opener. Gallardo is 47-26 with a 3.63 ERA over the past three seasons. He walked 81 batters last year, so unless he cuts down on the free passes, he'll remain more of a No. 2. And the 1-4 Brewers are already reeling with Aramis Ramirez heading to the DL and the bullpen struggling again. Can you go nine, Yovani?

7. Cubs at Braves
Jeff Samardzija (8 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K) vs. Tim Hudson (4.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 3 K)

The former Notre Dame wide receiver showed in his first start that there was nothing fluky about last year's strong performance. He blew away the Pirates with his mid-90s heat, slider, cut fastball and splitter. He'll find the Atlanta lineup a little tougher, especially the red-hot Justin Upton, who already has five home runs in five games. Hudson isn't quite an ace anymore, but you know what you're going to get: a lot of ground balls. The flame-throwing kid against the wily veteran. How can you not watch this one?

6. Red Sox at Blue Jays
Jon Lester (5 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 7 K) vs. R.A. Dickey (6 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 BB, 4 K)

Lester is trying to prove that he still belongs with the other names on this list after struggling in 2012. He scuffled through his Opening Day start against the Yankees, striking out seven but throwing 96 pitches in five innings. A couple of things to watch with Dickey: He walked four in his first start, something he did just once last year in his Cy Young campaign with the Mets (also in his first start); and catcher J.P. Arencibia really struggled with the knuckleball, allowing three passed balls.

5. Royals at Phillies
James Shields (6 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 6 K) vs. Cole Hamels (5 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 1 BB 5 K)

Shields is coming off a 1-0 loss to Sale while Hamels allowed three home runs for just the eighth time in his career. The first trip through the revamped rotation showed positive signs for Kansas City: 11 runs in 28 innings and a nifty 32/5 K/BB ratio. But Shields will likely have to do better at getting the ball on the ground. He had just four ground balls and 10 fly balls in his first start (and six line drives). Last year, his ratio was 336 ground balls and 186 fly balls. Give up too many fly balls in Philly, and a couple may find the seats.

4. Cardinals at Giants
Adam Wainwright (6 IP, 11 H, 4 R, 0 BB, 6 K) vs. Matt Cain (6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K)

Cain came up on the no-decision end of Clayton Kershaw's Opening Day shutout, leaving after six impressive innings. Cain is tough at home: 2.03 ERA at AT&T last year, 2.80 in 2011, with only 11 home runs allowed over the two seasons. His fly balls go to die in San Francisco. The Giants have scored just 12 runs in their first five games, so Cain may have to put up another zero to beat Wainwright.

3. Yankees at Tigers
CC Sabathia (5 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 BB, 5 K) vs. Justin Verlander (5 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 7 K)

It's way too early to call this a must-win game for the Yankees, but they're 1-4 and now have to face Verlander. In their first time through the rotation, Yankees starters pitched the second-fewest innings of any club (23, one-third more than the Padres), so New York is desperate for Sabathia to pitch deep into the game. Verlander has never started a season 2-0. The Yankees hit him well in three regular-season matchups last year: 25 hits, including four home runs, and 12 runs in 20 innings.

2. Nationals at Reds
Stephen Strasburg (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K) vs. Johnny Cueto (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 9 K)

Any Strasburg start is must-see TV, especially when facing the Reds -- the team many consider the second best in the NL behind the Nationals. Strasburg's first start against the Marlins was interesting in that he shut them down but struck out just three in seven innings and was removed after 80 pitches. Strasburg has never pitched more than seven innings in any of his 46 career starts. In my book, you can't call him a true No. 1 until he proves he can go eight or nine once in awhile to help remove some of that stress on the bullpen.

1. Angels at Rangers
Jered Weaver (6 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 4 K) vs. Yu Darvish (8.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 14 K)

My must-watch game of the day, and not just because it's the national game on Sunday night on ESPN. This game has everything going for it: Darvish coming off his near-perfect game against the Astros, division rivals, Josh Hamilton back in Texas and Weaver trying to keep intact a 13-game winning streak in March/April. Keys to watch: Hamilton is 1-for-20 with 10 strikeouts so far and Mike Trout was 6-for-17 with two homers and a double off Darvish last year.
It's one of the best days of the year. Maybe the best. Especially if your team won. Here are 10 things to take away from Monday's action.

1. Bryce Harper loves the spotlight.

While Opening Day is, technically speaking, just one game of 162, it is special -- to players, to managers and certainly to fans, who fill parks across the country, even in 35-degree weather (applause to hearty Minnesotans). Opening Day isn't just another game in late July, where the legs are tired and the fatigue of a season has to be fought through. Everybody is pumped up and focused. The lights shine bright and that's why I love what Harper did on Monday. Davey Johnson showed no fear in naming the 20-year-old his No. 3 hitter and Harper's two solo home runs in a 2-0 victory showed a Ken Griffey Jr.-like flair for the dramatic (Griffey hit eight home runs on Opening Day in his career). Harper is going to take that No. 3 position in the lineup and own it for the next decade. And those gutsy MVP predictions for him don't look so crazy.

2. Yankees feed into preseason fears.

With a lineup that featured Eduardo Nunez hitting second, Kevin Youkilis hitting cleanup (his .409 slugging percentage last year was lower than his on-base percentage in 2009 and 2010), Vernon Wells, Ben Francisco, Jayson Nix and Francisco Cervelli, the Yankees are clearly going to struggle to score runs until they get Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira back. But will they still be in the race by then? CC Sabathia got dinged a little bit in a four-run second inning in the Yankees' 8-2 loss to the Red Sox -- two infield singles, a little flare, a groundball hit -- but he also walked four batters in five innings.

3. Jackie Bradley Jr. shows mature approach.

While Boston's rookie left fielder is already overhyped -- I worry Red Sox fans are expecting the next Harper or Mike Trout -- he showed why the Red Sox were confident he could hold his own in the majors despite playing just 61 games above Class A ball. He drew three walks, including a crucial freebie during that second inning in which he fought back from an 0-2 count and laid off three tough sliders to load the bases with one out.

4. Bullpen worries already in Milwaukee.

Brewers closer John Axford was outstanding in 2011 when the Brewers won the NL Central. He was the opposite of outstanding last year, losing his role for a spell to Francisco Rodriguez as the Brewers lost an MLB-leading 11 games they led heading into the ninth inning (MLB average: under four). So it didn't inspire confidence when he served up a game-tying home run to Dexter Fowler in the ninth. The Brewers did win the game in the 10th, but keep an eye on Axford's next few outings.

5. Cy Young candidates dominate.

Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Cain, Justin Verlander, Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez combined to allow ... nothing, in 41.2 scoreless innings. Jered Weaver and Johnny Cueto each allowed one run. What did we learn from those guys? Nothing! We already knew they were good. But the most impressive may have been Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who allowed two hits in eight scoreless innings against the Pirates, walking one and striking out nine. Samardzija surprised last year in moving to the rotation, especially with his command after having control issues as a reliever, and with a fastball clocked as high as 97 mph, his first outing suggests that maybe -- maybe -- he'll soon be mentioned in the same paragraphs as those other guys. Like this one. (By the way, Anthony Rizzo's home run to center was sweet, just a nice easy swing ... and boom.)

6. Angels bullpen answers first test.

The Angels had issues in middle relief last year, a problem that was hoped to be solved by signing Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett, and moving closer Ernesto Frieri to a setup role. But Madson is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and the bullpen didn't look good during the Angels' 10-20 spring training. But in relief of Weaver, the pen tossed seven innings of one-hit baseball to beat the Reds 3-1 in 13 innings. Frieri fanned Jay Bruce looking for the final out and you wonder even if Madson comes back if Frieri keeps the ninth-inning role.

7. Speaking of closers ...

It didn't take for Carlos Marmol to possibly lose his grip on the closer role for the Cubs, which is probably more important to fantasy owners than it actually is to the Cubs. After hitting Andrew McCutchen and then allowing a stolen base, RBI single and walk, the Cubs used James Russell and Kyuji Fujikawa to record the final two outs.

8. The Marlins hit Placido Polanco cleanup.

And they wonder why they're having trouble selling season tickets.

9. Andrelton Simmons makes me happy.

While the three home runs the Braves hit off Cole Hamels in a 7-5 win -- Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla and Justin Upton (welcome to Atlanta!) -- were the big story, Simmons made a couple nice plays in the field and showed off his cannon arm. If the Braves battle with the Nationals in the NL East, Simmons' Ozzie-like defense will be a key reason why.

10. Young stars everywhere.

Look at the names cited above. Harper. Bradley. Samardzija and Rizzo. Sale. Simmons. Strasburg. Even Kershaw is still just 25 years old. This is my biggest takeaway from Opening Day 2013: Baseball is stronger than ever, with young talent oozing all over the sport. This great game is in good hands and when we get to watch players like this, so pull up a chair and enjoy the next 179 days. I know I will.

Power rankings: All 30 teams!

December, 22, 2012
12/22/12
8:00
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Last weekend, I presented the top 10 teams in my personal power rankings. That was before the Blue Jays officially acquired R.A. Dickey, so I updated my top 10 after that trade, and, to spur on more debate, now present the rest of my rankings. Agree or disagree, but I do think this is the most parity we've seen in a long time. It's why the Orioles and A's were able to surprise this past season and why we will undoubtedly see another surprise team in 2013. It's a great time to be a baseball fan.

1. Nationals
Most talented rotation in the majors, deep lineup, depth. Re-signing Adam LaRoche to add another lefty power bat will help.

2. Reds
Superb rotation could be better if the Aroldis Chapman transition works, bullpen is deep enough to absorb his loss and Shin-Soo Choo provides a needed leadoff hitter.

3. Yankees
I think they can stretch things out more season with a deep rotation, excellent bullpen and power. Remember, they had the largest run differential in the American League last season.

4. Tigers
Deep rotation, great 1-2 punch with Miggy and Prince, and Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez should improve the lineup.

5. Braves
Left-handed power, power bullpen and a young team that could improve from last year's 94 wins.

6. Blue Jays
Addition of Dickey adds a needed No. 1 to a rotation that could be dominant if Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow remain healthy.

7. A's
Young teams that show big improvement are usually for real, and this team has a solid rotation, a strong outfield and power arms in the bullpen.

8. Dodgers
Have to love the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke combo and an offense with big upside if Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez come close to 2011 levels.

9. Rangers
I think the rotation is playoff-caliber with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Martin Perez and Colby Lewis.

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Which of these five teams should be No. 1 right now?

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10. Cardinals
Have to replace Kyle Lohse, but they'll score plenty of runs as long as Carlos Beltran (36 years old in April) and Matt Holliday (33 in January) keep producing.

11. Rays
Still some holes in the lineup, and replacing James Shields' 220-plus innings won't be that easy, but underestimate the Rays at your own risk.

12. Angels
Oddsmaker Bovada.lv has the Angels with the second-best odds to win the World Series (behind the Blue Jays), but I see a rotation with a lot of question marks behind Jered Weaver, and Josh Hamilton only replaces Hunter, who was terrific in 2012.

13. Giants
I discussed my issues with the Giants here. I could be wrong, although our friends at Bovada only put the Giants tied for ninth in their World Series odds.

14. Diamondbacks
Their run differential wasn't much different than the Giants last year, and they've added Brandon McCarthy, infield depth and still have Justin Upton.

15. Phillies
I want to say we're all underestimating a team that includes Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, but then I see an outfield of Darin Ruf, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown, and an infield defense that includes Michael Young and Ryan Howard and 30-somethings Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.

16. Brewers
They can score runs -- most in the National League last season -- and if the bullpen regroups after 2012's gruesome late-inning efforts, this team could surprise.

17. Red Sox
There will be no expectations after the disaster in 2012 (the franchise's worst record since 1965), but I see a big rebound coming.

18. Royals
I'll buy -- but I'm not buying a playoff spot. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have to take huge leaps forward ... or the Royals could be headed for another rebuild.

19. Orioles
Last season's 93-win playoff team provided a beautiful ride, but the Orioles haven't added that big bat they need.

20. Padres
Young team is moving in the right direction after winning 76 games in 2012. Can rotation improve to push Pads over .500?

21. Mariners
Mariners have pursued a big bat all offseason but were only able to pick up Kendrys Morales, and he cost them Jason Vargas, opening up a 200-inning hole in the rotation. Looks like 2014 before Mariners can make a push in the tough AL West.

22. Pirates
Still no No. 1 or even No. 2 starter (sorry, A.J. Burnett is a No. 3 at best) and not enough support for Andrew McCutchen. One of these years, Pirates fans, one of these years.

23. White Sox
No A.J. Pierzynski, a declining Paul Konerko, good year/off year Alex Rios due for an off year. Then again, White Sox had a bigger run differential in 2012 than the Tigers.

24. Cubs
Rotation of Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman could be competitive, but offense won't be.

25. Mets
At least Mets fans can dream of a future rotation that includes Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese and Noah Syndergaard. Unfortunately, the 2013 version still includes Frank Francisco and a bunch of fourth outfielders.

26. Marlins
Giancarlo Stanton still makes this team worth watching on a daily basis.

27. Indians
Getting Trevor Bauer in the Choo deal added a much-needed starting pitcher prospect. Unfortunately, much of the rest of rotation remains suspect.

28. Twins
Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey ... what, Rich Robertson and Sean Bergman weren't available?

29. Rockies
At least the Twins have a direction as they wait for young position players to reach the majors. I have no clue what the Rockies are doing, intend to do, want to do, wish to do or hope to achieve.

30. Astros
Welcome to the AL West, boys.

The Atlanta Braves pulled off an impressive sweep in St. Louis over the weekend to take over the first place in the National League East. Most impressively, they did it by scoring 23 runs in the three games. While it's not a surprise the Braves are contenders early on, what is surprising is they've done it more with their bats than their arms. Here is our list of top 10 early season surprises.

1. The Atlanta Braves' offense.

As Diane Firstman wrote the other day on the SweetSpot blog, the Braves have a chance at a historic turnaround on offense. A year ago, they averaged 3.96 runs per game, 8 percent below the major league average of 4.28 runs per game. This year, they're averaging 5.40 runs while the major league average has fallen to 4.18. That's 29 percent better, a 37 percent increase over 2011. Only a handful of teams have shown a 30 percent improvement like that year-to-year.

Some of the improvement was expected --- Jason Heyward and Martin Prado hitting better, for example. Michael Bourn has been superlative in the leadoff spot, hitting .336 with a .399 on-base percentage, but the biggest surprise has perhaps been the old man, Chipper Jones, who is hitting .299 and slugging .506. He has 22 RBIs in 24 games. With rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky holding his own, the Braves go eight deep and the scary thing is catcher Brian McCann hasn't really started to hit and you get the feeling Heyward is ready to explode.

2. The Baltimore Orioles are in first place.

The Orioles bounced back from losing three of four to the Texas Rangers by winning their weekend series against the Rays to maintain a one-game lead over Tampa. The Orioles live and die by the home run on offense -- they lead the majors with 54; their .310 OBP, however, ranks just 17th in the majors. Jake Arrieta got pounded again on Sunday and has allowed 13 runs his past two starts after that eight-inning shutout performance against the Yankees. That means three-fifths of Baltimore rotation has an ERA over 5.00. So, yes, there are obvious question marks here. But for now the Orioles have Matt Wieters and Adam Jones mashing, a lights-out bullpen and Jason Hammel pitching like an ace.

3. The Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros aren't terrible.

I heard a lot of mocking of the A's and Astros heading into the season -- predictions of 105 losses, 110, maybe even 115. Both teams have played solid baseball. The A's are 18-17 and as always Billy Beane has constructed a pitching staff that will keep the A's respectable. Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon and Tommy Milone throw strikes, while rookie Jarrod Parker has looked good in his first four starts. Set-up man Ryan Cook, acquired with Parker in the Trevor Cahill trade, hasn't allowed a run in 16.2 innings (and hardly a hit -- opponents are batting .060 against him.)

The Astros, meanwhile, are 15-19 but have actually outscored their opponents. Jose Altuve is as fun as any player in the game, Jed Lowrie has played well and veteran Wandy Rodriguez could be an attractive trade chip if he keeps pitching like this. The Astros aren't going to be playoff contenders, but at least they've giving their fans a reason to show up this summer.

4. Bryan LaHair and Jeff Samardzija.

The Chicago Cubs are bad team but have two of the season's best individual stories. Minor league vet LaHair is putting up All-Star numbers, hitting .340/.437/.670. Samardzija has been a revelation in the rotation, considering he had trouble throwing strikes as a reliever in 2011. His average fastball velocity of 94.7 mph trails only Stephen Strasburg among starters and his changeup has become one of the best strikeout pitches in the game. With a 4-1 record and 2.89 ERA, the former Notre Dame wide receiver has turned into must-see viewing for Cubs fans.

5. Derek Jeter.

Admit it, you saw more decline, you thought maybe he was just about done. Maybe you wanted him to be done. Jeter is hitting .372, has 14 extra-base hits, hasn't missed a game, and is playing like 27-year-old Jeter, not 37-year-old Jeter.

6. A.J. Ellis.

OK, Matt Kemp has been superhuman and Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly are both 5-0 but my favorite story on the team that owns baseball's best record is their obscure 31-year-old catcher who ranks third in the majors in OBP -- his .462 OBP higher than Josh Hamilton's .455. Ellis' 21 walks has been boosted by five freebies but the on-base skills are legit. Hey, Don, how about moving Ellis in front of Kemp in the lineup?

7. Bryce Harper.

The Nationals suffered a devastating injury with the loss of catcher Wilson Ramos this weekend, the latest in a string of injuries that includes Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and Drew Storen. Despite that, the Nationals are just a half-game behind the Braves in the NL East thanks to their dominant rotation. We certainly didn't expect Harper to be up so soon, but the 19-year-old has held his own. Trouble is, however, the injuries mean Harper may have to do more than hold his own. I wouldn't bet against him.

8. Parity rules the day.

The Red Sox, Angels and Phillies are in last place.

9. David Wright hitting .400.

When Wright fractured his pinkie four games into the season, Mets fans feared the worst for their franchise third baseman who has battled a string of injuries in recent season. Instead, Wright missed a few games and hasn't stopped hitting since. He's hitting .444 over his past 14 games and the Mets are 19-15 and should not be underestimated.

10. Pitchers are still throwing strikes to Hamilton.

Only Clint Barmes has swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone. Hamilton swings at the first pitch over 50 percent of the time. And yet ... OK, easier said than done. As Chipper said after Hamilton swatted four home runs against the Orioles, "He's a bad man."

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Chris DenorfiaEric Hartline/US PresswireChris Denorfia puts his Mother's Day-edition lumber to use for a first-inning sacrifice.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

April, 14, 2012
4/14/12
1:48
PM ET

  • Austin Jackson scored a run in each of the Tigers' first six games this season. That was the longest streak by a Detroit batter to start a season since Darrell Evans crossed the plate in each of the first eight contests in 1986. And it's the longest streak by a Tigers leadoff hitter since 1939, when one of Jackson's center field predecessors, Barney McCosky, also scored in the first eight games of the season. In game seven on Friday, however, Jackson was on base only once (he walked in the eighth) and was stranded at third.
  • [+] EnlargeAustin Jackson
    Duane Burleson/AP PhotoAustin Jackson is having a solid season for the Tigers early on.
    The Red Sox managed to blow a three-run lead in the ninth and a two-run lead in the 11th in losing a wild one to Detroit on Sunday, 13-12. It was the first time Boston had scored a dozen runs and lost since May 31, 1970, when they were on the wrong end of a 22-13 slugfest with the White Sox at Fenway.
  • Alfredo Aceves gave up all three ninth-inning runs in Sunday’s game without retiring a batter, making him just the second Red Sox pitcher in the live-ball era to work zero innings pitched in each of his first two appearances of the year. Guido Grilli faced one batter each in the first two games of the 1966 season, and didn't get either of them out.
  • The Tigers used eight pitchers in that 13-12, come-from-behind win over the Red Sox. It marked just the second time in 70 years that Detroit had come back to win a game in which their starter surrendered seven-plus runs without getting through the third inning. Omar Olivares was the starter in 1997 when the Tigers rallied to beat Baltimore 11-8.
  • On Sunday, the Yankees managed just three hits -- all doubles. That same day, the Twins had just two hits as Jason Hammel posted the longest no-hit bid of the year so far. Both Minnesota knocks were doubles. It's the first time in almost three years that two teams have done that on the same day. But then … the Royals did it against Oakland (three hits, three doubles) on Monday … and the Athletics did it against Kansas City (one hit) on Tuesday.It's the first time since at least 1917 that there have been three straight days where a team had every hit be a double.
  • On Sunday, Jeff Samardzija (making just his sixth career start) was afforded the chance at a complete game. He had to be pulled after giving up a two-out homer that pulled the Nationals to within a run. Four days later, Matt Garza was en route to a shutout against Milwaukee, but was pulled after committing a two-out error that allowed the inning to continue. So the Cubs had two pitchers this week leave the game after 8.2 innings pitched.The Cubs hadn't had two pitchers work exactly 8.2 innings in the same season since 1995 (Jaime Navarro and Frank Castillo).
  • In Sunday's Cardinals-Brewers game, you could say the teams spread it around. In the 9-3 Milwaukee victory, the 12 runs were charged to eight different pitchers. In fact, every hurler who appeared in the game ended up with at least one earned run on his record.It's the first game in eight seasons where the teams combined to use eight or more pitchers, and every single one of them got charged with at least one earned run. The last time that happened was on Sept. 9, 2004, when the Royals erupted for a 26-5 victory over the Tigers in the first game of a doubleheader.
  • James Shields got called for a balk Wednesday on an illegal pickoff throw to third. That was in the bottom of the fifth -- after Justin Verlander had been called for his own balk in the top of the fifth.It was the first MLB game to feature balks by both teams in the same inning since Aug. 16, 2004, when the Rangers' Mickey Callaway and then-Indian CC Sabathia committed them in the fourth inning of a 5-2 Texas win.
  • In that same game, Verlander threw eight shutout innings before getting tagged for four runs and the loss in the top of the ninth. He became the first pitcher to throw eight scoreless innings, then surrender four (or more) runs in the ninth to take a loss since Tim Hudson did it for the Braves on Sept. 22, 2005. Hudson allowed a three-run homer to Shane Victorino of the Phillies for most of that damage before Macay McBride had to come in and get the final out.
  • In Monday's Yankees-Orioles game, Derek Jeter went a perfect 4-for-4 for the visitors, while Matt Wieters went a perfect 4-for-4 in the home dugout. It was the first game this year to feature two players with four-hit games.Since the start of 2010, there's been only one other MLB game where a player for each team went a perfect 4-for-4 or better -- and it was between the Orioles and Yankees. On July 30, 2011, Vladimir Guerrero’s 4-for-4 was the bright spot for Baltimore as the Yankees -- led by Robinson Cano's 5-for-5 -- demolished them 17-3.
  • In Yu Darvish's much-anticipated major league debut on Monday, he allowed five earned runs, four walks, hit a batter, threw one wild pitch -- and won the game because the Rangers spotted him eight runs.He's the first pitcher in the live-ball era to win his major league debut while giving up all of those stats (or worse). Even take away the wild pitch, and only one other hurler has hit five earned runs, four walks, one HBP and a win in his debut. That was the Blue Jays' Matt Williams on Aug. 2, 1983.
  • Jeff Gray of the Twins earned the first one-pitch victory of the season on Wednesday. Gray threw his one and only pitch to Peter Bourjos to end the top of the seventh, after which the Twins took the lead in the bottom of the inning. The Twins, conveniently, recorded the last one-pitch win last season, by Matt Capps on Sept. 23.
  • Speaking of pitching oddities, the Royals-Athletics game was finally called in the top of the eighth inning on Tuesday after its second rain delay. Aaron Crow, who had pitched the seventh for the Royals, was credited with his first career save. Technically, he does meet the save criteria set forth in the rule book, notably that of being the "finishing pitcher" in a game his team won.The last player to be credited with a save prior to the ninth inning was Tony Sipp of the Indians, who received one in a rain-shortened affair with Tampa Bay on July 23, 2010. That also remains Sipp's only career save.
  • On Tuesday, Freddy Garcia of the Yankees famously threw five wild pitches to tie the single-game American League record for such a thing. He was also the first pitcher to throw five-plus wild pitches in an outing of less than five innings. But two of those wild pitches scored runs for Baltimore. Another run scored on an error. That made the Orioles the first team in two years to score four-plus runs with one or fewer RBI. (The one RBI they did get came on a home run.)For the Orioles, it was just the second time since moving to Baltimore that they scored four runs on one or zero RBI. The other was in their inaugural year: On June 27, 1954, they scored three times on errors by the Athletics before finally walking off on an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th.
  • Oakland "walked off" in unusual fashion on Wednesday when Jonathan Broxton plunked Yoenis Cespedes and Jonny Gomes to force in the winning run in the bottom of the 12th. It was the first game to end with back-to-back hit batters since Sept. 2, 1966, when Stu Miller of the Orioles hit Al Weis and Tommie Agee of the White Sox in the bottom of the 11th. (I admit that Elias found this a lot quicker than I would have.) However, Gomes became the first Athletics batter to get hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in extra innings since at least 1947. (It had never happened in the Baseball Reference "play index" era.) It's also noteworthy that Oakland scored its two runs in the 12th without a base hit. The three runners ahead of Cespedes reached on two walks and an error.
  • Before Friday, there had been 36 double-digit strikeout games by teams this week (including seven games where both teams did it) but not one by a single pitcher. Max Scherzer's 11-strikeout outing on Friday afternoon broke that string.
  • In Wednesday's 17-8 eruption between the Giants and Rockies, there were four pitchers (Tim Lincecum, Jeremy Guthrie, Guillermo Mota, Jeremy Affeldt)who all gave up at least six hits and at least five runs. It's the first time that that has happened since July 17, 1998, when Seattle dropped an 18-5 score on the Royals at the Kingdome.(It is also very intriguing that, in that game, both teams posted a seven-run inning. Except I don't know of a good way to search line scores.)

    By the way, on their next two games on Thursday and Friday, the Giants promptly had two pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain)carry no-hit bids into the sixth inning. The only team to have bids in consecutive games last season was also the Giants. That happened on May 8 and 10 by Ryan Vogelsong and Lincecum.
  • The Orioles and Blue Jays combined to hit seven home runs in Baltimore's 7-5 victory on Friday. All were solo shots. It's the first game with seven-plus home runs that were all solo since a July 20, 2010 game at Camden Yards between the Rays and Orioles.
  • There's always one guy left out.In the 10-9 "pitchers’ duel" between the Twins and Angels on Thursday, 17 of the 18 starters recorded at least one base hit. Howard Kendrick was the lone collar, going 0-for-4 plus a walk.

    It's the first nine-inning game this season to have 17 different starters record a base hit. There were three games last season where all 18 did.
  • Minnesota got a four-hit game from Denard Span and three-hit games from Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Danny Valencia. It's the first time the Twins have had four players with three hits, including at least one with four, since they dropped a 20-1 score on the White Sox on May 21, 2009.
It was Eric Karabell and Keith Law on Tuesday's Baseball Today, plus a guest appearance from Jerry Ferrara, Yankees fan and "Entourage" actor. The highlights:

1. Carlos Santana signed a long-term deal with the Indians but Keith isn't crazy about deals with catchers, especially those with knee problems.

2. Eric and Keith review Yu Darvish's debut. The first inning was ugly but did he look better after that?

3. Jeff Samardzija was awesome on Sunday, but the boys aren't quite willing to anoint him Cy Young material just yet.

4. Thoughts on Trevor Bauer, the Orioles and Tuesday's action.

5. Jerry isn't worried about the Yankees' slow start, talks about all the sports he watched on Sunday and about his new movie, "Act Like a Man."

All that on more on Tuesday's Baseball Today.
Spring stats mean nothing! But they're fun to look at. A few highlights ... and lowlights (stats from major league games only):
  • Some people haven't bought in on Paul Goldschmidt as they worry about the strikeouts, but one reason I do like him is he'll draw some walks to go with the power: He's hitting .265 with three homers, but with 12 walks (and 13 strikeouts).
  • Josh Collmenter hasn't pitched well for Arizona: Five walks and just four strikeouts in 12 innings. He'll start in the rotation but you wonder how soon before we see Trevor Bauer.
  • Braves prospect Julio Teheran has somehow allowed nine home runs in 13 innings.
  • Jeff Samardzija earned a spot in the Cubs' rotation by showing good stuff but just as impressively has walked just one batter in 20 innings. This from a guy who averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings in relief in 2011.
  • Not good news for the Cubs: First baseman Bryan LaHair has 16 strikeouts and one walk. Is the 29-year-old Triple-A vet pressing now that he's been given a chance to start after hitting .331 at Iowa? His SO/BB ratio at Triple-A was 111/60.
  • Joey Votto is hitting .214 without a home run. I like how people will make a big deal when somebody does well ... but not a big deal when a star player doesn't do well. Again, spring stats ... for entertainment purposes only!
  • Dexter Fowler has had a miserable spring for the Rockies, hitting .118 in 51 at-bats with 16 strikeouts.
  • Clemens has pitched five scoreless innings for the Astros. Paul Clemens, that is.
  • Matt Kemp says he wants to go 50-50. He's not going to do it swinging like this: 21 strikeouts and one walk. Ouch.
  • Carlos Zambrano has 14 walks in 17.2 innings. But 18 strikeouts. So ... I think it's safe to say nobody knows what to expect from Big Z.
  • Zack Greinke has perhaps been the most impressive pitcher this spring with a 28/2 strikeout/walk ratio and no home runs allowed. That's pretty tough to do in Arizona, where the ball flies.
  • Sticking with the Brewers, Jonathan Lucroy is hitting .513 (20-for-39). This has nothing to do with that .513 average, but I like Lucroy as a breakout candidate.
  • Jason Bay hasn't homered or driven in a run for the Mets and has petitioned to move in the spring training fences.
  • Roy Halladay has allowed six home runs in 20 innings. He gave up 10 in 233.2 innings last season.
  • Is this the year Pedro Alvarez breaks out? Umm ... well, with 20 K's and one walk I guess we can be positive and make a Matt Kemp comparison.
  • One of my sleeper relievers of the year is Brad Brach of the Padres; he's looked good with a 14/2 K/BB ratio.
  • What will the Giants do with Brandon Belt? He's hitting .407 with seven doubles and three homers in 59 at-bats.
  • Adam Wainwright has a 1.45 ERA for the Cardinals but just nine strikeouts (and six walks) in 18.2 innings.
  • Davey Johnson says he wants to bat Ian Desmond leadoff. He has 18 strikeouts and two walks while hitting .299.
If there's one thing we need more of in America, it's eight-pound hamburgers.

So thankfully the Washington Nationals have stepped up to sate our gluttony by introducing the StrasBurger, the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg reports. My favorite part of the news release: The burger will be served on a "large burger bun." Well, I would hope so.

My question: Was Stephen Strasburg consulted on this? Does he approve of being associated with an eight-pound piece of cow flesh? Or are we entering an Albert Pujols situation? I fear there will be repercussions to this burger unveiling.

More links:
  • The bloggers at the Capitol Avenue Club react to Chipper Jones' comments that he might not make it through the season.
  • Joey Matschulat writes on Mike Napoli's contract situation with the Rangers ... and the lack of an extension or even an apparent discussion.
  • The Mariners annually have the most creative promotional commercials. I'm not sure they actually help sell more tickets, but they're fun to watch. The best one this year shows where Justin Smoak gets his bats.
  • Chip Buck on the Boston's Sox bullpen situation. The Sox lost Jonathan Papelbon to free agency and Daniel Bard to the rotation, replacing them with Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon. Papelbon and Bard were dominant, both posting WHIPs under 1.00 and combining for 161 strikeouts in 137.1 innings. Papelbon only blew three saves, and didn't lose a game until No. 162, but Bard went 2-9. You can't ignore those nine losses, no matter the other numbers. Here, Bard's OPS allowed in different game situations:Margin greater than 4 runs: .237
    Within 4 runs: .561
    Within 3 runs: .566
    Within 2 runs: .562
    Within 1 run: .653
    Tied: .885

    Bard simply wasn't clutch went it mattered most. That's a long-winded way of saying the overall net effect of Bailey and Melancon replacing Papelbon and Bard might not be that severe, assuming those two can come close to the 137 innings the Red Sox got from their top two relievers in 2011 (considering Bailey's health history, that's the bigger question).
  • Speaking of bullpens, Ryan Topp of Disciples of Uecker asks, What to expect from the Brewers' pen? Personally, I like Milwaukee's pen as there is a lot of depth behind John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez. The weakness is a lack of a left-hander, a role potentially filled by Zach Braddock or Manny Parra (yes, he's still around).
  • Will Jeff Samardzija earn a spot in the Cubs' rotation? So far, so good.
  • Brandon Cloud looks at the future of the Rockies -- an examination of all the moves since the Ubaldo Jimenez trade.
  • John Bonnes has five storylines to watch for the Twins.
  • Who is Tyler Graham? An outfield candidate unlikely to break camp with the Giants, writes Chris Quick. But check out this play he made in center field.
  • ESPN Insider Ben Lindbergh looks at five relievers being converted to starters, and suggests Chris Sale is the best bet for a successful transition.
  • Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus has his organizational prospect rankings. Like ESPN Insider Keith Law, he ranks the Padres No. 1. Keith had Tampa Bay No. 2 and Toronto No. 3, while Kevin has Toronto No. 2 and St. Louis No. 3. Kevin has the Rays well down his list at No. 13.

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