SweetSpot: Jered Weaver

Angels' rotation may be their weak link

July, 22, 2014
7/22/14
1:48
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video

The Angels are the second-best team in baseball. Win or lose going into Monday night’s game against the AL East-leading Orioles, they were going to be the second-best team in baseball after the fact. They lost, missing the chance to move within a game of the A’s in the AL West race. But it’s July and there’s still plenty of time, so there’s no reason to sweat, right?

Certainly not, at least not if you look at the big picture and the projection models at FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus, which say the Angels have a 98 or 99 percent shot at the playoffs. Slam-dunk sure thing? Sounds like it.

But there’s a problem with that: It doesn’t mean all that much in the era of the one-game play-in wild-card “round.” The Angels' shot at winning the AL West is calculated as much less of a sure thing, from the 20 percent range according to analyst Clay Davenport, to the 30s for FanGraphs, or the 40s for Baseball Prospectus. These are roughly the same as the chances of the Blue Jays coming back to win the AL East and then also not having to sweat a one-or-done scenario despite probably being 10 games worse than the Angels at season’s end. Saying the Angels’ shot at playing their way into the one-game coin-toss of the wild card is around 60 or 70 percent is like saying their chance of their season ending a day or two after the regular season is still astonishingly likely.

[+] EnlargeMatt Shoemaker
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMatt Shoemaker's loss was the latest tough start for the Angels' non-Richards rotation regulars.
Unless they beat the A’s and win the West. Unless they make their math problem now into Oakland’s math problem tomorrow. That’s their challenge, and losing games like Monday’s will only make it harder.

To pull this off in the long weeks to come, they’re going to have to find a happier answer in their rotation than the ones they’ve found so far. While the trades for Jason Grilli and Huston Street may have shored up their bullpen, there’s the larger problem of how good their rotation really is outside of newly minted ace and All-Star Garrett Richards. Assuming that Jered Weaver’s back is sound all the way down the stretch, he hasn’t overpowered strong teams’ lineups, seeing his OPS jump 50 points and his WHIP increase by 0.3 facing teams that are .500 or better; unsurprisingly, his FIP is 4.12, which suggests sturdy mediocrity, not the ace he once was. C.J. Wilson won’t be back from his DL stint for a sprained ankle until after the trade deadline; even if he’s sound, his 4.29 FIP doesn’t suggest he’s a solid No. 2, either. And the back-end trio of Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker have put together just 15 quality starts in their 38 turns.

To catch the A’s, the Angels are going to need not just one guy but several guys to step up down the stretch. Not just because you can’t count on a league-best offense to crank out five or more runs every night, but because the Angels need to have somebody else besides Richards to use in those potentially scary end-of-year situations. What if Richards has to pitch in the last weekend series against the Mariners but the Angels don’t catch the A’s then? What if they have to play a tiebreaker? Who pitches the wild-card game? Where does that leave them in the ALDS? They’ll need some of the non-Richards starters to step up, not just to keep up with the A’s and their shored-up rotation, but to be able to win October games when they don’t put five or six runs on the scoreboard.

That was why Shoemaker’s start against Baltimore was a little more important than just another late-July turn. Barring a trade, somebody is going to be bumped once Wilson comes back from the DL. Even on a night when he struck out a career-high 10 batters, seeing Shoemaker get beaten deep twice by Adam Jones was the sort of thing that won’t keep the rookie ahead of Skaggs or Santiago, not that either of them is owning his slot.

To be sure, the Angels should be grateful things are this close. Thanks in large part to early-season bullpen problems of their own, the A’s are four games worse than you’d project from their runs scored and allowed, which is a big part of the reason they are within striking range for the Angels, even after Oakland went 20-10 in its past 30 games. All it took was the Angels going 22-8 in their past 30 before Monday, no easy thing to do with a rotation that may struggle to match the A’s made-over, Jeff Samardzija-enhanced rotation in the last 60 games.

If Wilson or Weaver, Shoemaker or Skaggs steps up, things will be that much more interesting all the way down to the wire. If not, the Angels may be one of those great teams that, like the 1993 Giants, wind up getting to brag about how great they were without getting much of an opportunity to prove it come October. Those Giants were caught from behind by the Braves, San Francisco winning 103 games for the second-best record in baseball … and no October invite. The Halos have to hope they’ll earn something more than one game better than that -- but more than hoping for it, they’ll have to do it.


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

SweetSpot TV: Rapid Fire!

July, 8, 2014
7/08/14
12:38
PM ET


It's the award-winning Rapid Fire! Today, Eric and I discuss the Angels' rotation, more replay confusion, Jose Altuve's chances of winning the batting, Manny Machado and the Orioles and whether Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young Award and more!
1. Back in spring training, Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish admitted he was working on a few minor tweaks on his mechanics in an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the nerve problem in his lower back and buttocks area that arose last September. Whether that had anything to do with the stiff neck that had sidelined him since March 16 and forced him to miss his Opening Day assignment remains unknown, considering the dubious nature of the original rationale for the neck issue ("I slept on it wrong," Darvish said).

In the end, he missed just one start, which was still enough of a setback to put Rangers fans in a minor state of panic considering the opening week rotation was already without Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

Darvish returned Sunday after not having pitched in three weeks and looked a lot like the guy many predicted will win the Cy Young Award, undoubtedly calming at least a few nerves in the Rangers fan base and front office. He pitched seven innings of no-run baseball in a 3-0 win over the Rays, an efficient 89-pitch effort that included just one walk. He threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes and held the Rays to an 0-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.

He wasn't necessarily overpowering, averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball while maxing out at 95.1 mph, but maybe this is the new, strike-throwing Darvish, one looking to be a little more economical in his pitch counts to avoid walks and pitch consistently deeper into games.

"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes. I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn't feel anything unusual."

While Darvish recorded just six strikeouts, he showed what makes him so tough to hit -- the six K's came on two fastballs, two curveballs, a slider and a changeup to Wil Myers. It's that changeup that could be a new weapon for him: He threw 90 changeups all of last year, recording just four strikeouts. Just what batters want to hear, knowing it's hard enough already with two strikes gearing up for a curveball or slider.

The Rangers' rotation remains a little unsettled -- Colby Lewis may be close to returning and they may use six starters this week. The good news is the Rangers are 3-3 despite the makeshift rotation and having hit just one home run. They play the Red Sox and Astros this week but will need the rotation to come together sooner rather than later as they play the Mariners seven times and the A's six before the end of the month.

Darvish joked that he'd pitch great every time if he had three weeks between starts. The Rangers are hoping he'll pitch great every fifth day.

2. The most impressive result of the weekend was the Brewers going into Boston and sweeping the Red Sox by scores of 6-2, 7-6 (in 11 innings) and 4-0 on Sunday. The Red Sox were swept just once all last season -- in a three-game series in Texas -- and shut out just three times at Fenway Park in the regular season.

Yovani Gallardo struck out only three in 6 2/3 innings but issued no walks and got 11 ground balls outs compared to four in the air. He hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts. Gallardo struggled last year and while his velocity isn't up from last year at least he's throwing strikes early on.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCano seems to be embracing his role as a leader in Seattle.
The bad news for the Brewers, of course, is Ryan Braun's thumb injury, which he now says hasn't completely healed from last year when the injury sapped his power and eventually forced him to the disabled list (before his suspension). He had two singles on Sunday to raise his average to .150 but he doesn't have an extra-base hit in (the small sample size of) 21 plate appearances. Remember, when Braun was putting up monster numbers in 2012 the Brewers led the National League in runs scored. If they're going to contend for a playoff spot, they better hope this thumb issue doesn't linger.

3. I watched a lot of Mariners this week and there were a lot of positives to draw upon as they went 4-2 on the road: Two dominant starts from Felix Hernandez, one from James Paxton, good hitting from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Robinson Cano hit a quiet .391/.500/.478 as he's still looking for his first home run. He has drawn three intentional walks already as the Angels and A's elected to go after Smoak.

All three walks came in conventional IBB situations: Two outs, runners on second or second and third. Smoak went 1-for-3 with a bases-clearing double. Still, for now, it appears opponents will avoid Cano whenever possible. The biggest positive with Cano may have been his hustle double on Sunday when he singled to center and took advantage of Coco Crisp jogging after the ball. That's a Cano that New York writers like to say doesn't exist. It's one play, but perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.

4. Mark Trumbo homered for the fourth straight game Sunday in the Diamondbacks' 5-3 win over the Rockies, just their second victory in nine games as they currently sit with the majors' worst record. Even though Trumbo has five home runs and 13 RBIs and Paul Goldschmidt is mashing, the Arizona offense has mostly struggled, averaging fewer than four runs per game.

The Rockies intentionally walked Trumbo with a runner on third base and one out on Sunday to pitch to Miguel Montero, who promptly grounded into a double play against Brett Anderson. Montero's OPS fell from .820 and .829 in 2011 and 2012 to .662 in 2013. He and Gerardo Parra are the only regular lefties in the D-backs' lineup, and they need the old Montero not the 2013 version.

5. I watched the last few innings of Chris Tillman's gem to beat the Tigers, and he looked really good, allowing one run again as he did in his Opening Day start. He couldn't quite finish it off, getting one out in the ninth before being pulled for Tommy Hunter, but he challenged the Tigers -- 74 of his 113 pitches were fastballs -- and did a good job of moving the fastball around against left-handed batters (he pitches mostly to the outside corner with the fastball against righties).

Without sounding overdramatic here, it was a big win for the Orioles as 2-4 just sounds a lot better than 1-5. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the majors as just six of their first 27 games are against teams that finished under .500 last year and those six are against Toronto, no pushover, so they need to make sure they don't get buried before May.

6. This wasn't from Sunday, but I hope you didn't miss Giancarlo Stanton's mammoth home run on Friday off Eric Stults. The ESPN Home Run Tracker estimated the moon shot at 484 feet, 31 feet longer than the second-longest home run so far. The longest home run last year was Evan Gattis' 486-foot blast for the Braves on Sept. 8 off Cole Hamels.

The Marlins lost on Sunday, but they're off to a 5-2 start. Stanton is hitting .345/.406/.655, and for all those fears that he wouldn't get pitched to, he hasn't drawn an intentional walk

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter is now No. 8 on the all-time hits list, but the Yanks need power.
7. Derek Jeter passed Paul Molitor for the eighth place on the all-time hits list. In many ways, the two are identical matches as hitters, with short, compact swings and both loved to go to the opposite field. Jeter has a career line of .312/.381/.446 with 256 home runs while Molitor hit .306/.369/.448 with 234 home runs. Molitor's adjusted OPS is slightly higher, at 122 versus Jeter's 117. Molitor struck out 10.2 percent of the time against a league average of 14.7 percent during his career; Jeter has fanned 14.7 percent of the time against a league average of 17.4 percent.

Jeter has his most hits off Tim Wakefield (36) and among pitchers he faced at least 40 times, has the highest average against Bruce Chen (.429). (He also hit an impressive .413 against Johan Santana. Molitor got 33 hits off both Jack Morris and Roger Clemens (and hit above .300 against both) and killed Erik Hanson (.482) and Walt Terrell (.477).

8. The Yankees have one home run in six games, hit by Brett Gardner on Sunday's win over the Blue Jays. Could power actually be an issue for the Yankees? Mark Teixeira landed on the DL over the weekend, which means they're really going to have to rely on 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran for some pop. Leading the team in extra-base hits? Yangervis Solarte. Of course.

9. B.J. Upton: Hey, at least he didn't strike out in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Nationals. But he did go 0-for-4 and is off to a .120/.120/.140 start with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. So far, Fredi Gonzalez has hit him second in all six games. It's way too early to panic, but tell that to Braves fans.

10. Speaking of worrying, should the Angels be worried about Jered Weaver? In two starts, batters are slugging .600 against him and the Astros pounded four home runs off him on Sunday. The four home runs came on four different pitches: Jason Castro off a 3-1 changeup, Matt Dominguez off a 3-2 slider, Jesus Guzman on an 0-1 fastball and Alex Presley on an 0-1 curveball. His fastball velocity, such as it is, has averaged 86.0 mph, about the same as last year's 86.5.

As with all these first-week results, don't overreact, but if Weaver isn't a strong rotation anchor, the Angels are in trouble. They're 2-4, hoping to avoid the terrible April starts of the past two seasons.

Even short-handed, Angels flying high

May, 26, 2013
5/26/13
1:55
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The Angels had a plan, and the expectation was that if they executed it, this time around they’d get back to the postseason. They’ve followed a course many might advise, and when they fell hard early, many were ready to write them off. But now that they’re riding a seven-game win streak and they’re on the cusp of seeing their roster more closely resemble their original contending design, “it’s early” is no longer an excuse, and it might be a confident prediction that the Angels are far from done when it comes to the American League postseason picture.

Keep in mind, the Angels have been missing from October action since 2009, when they lost the ALCS to the Yankees in six games. Making good on the time and seasons lost inspired their $240 million investment in Albert Pujols, followed by last winter’s $133 million in Josh Hamilton. In doing so, the Angels were doing something many statheads could sign off on: investing major money in top-quality position players, putting their money on the so-called “certainty” that hitters age a certain way. Proving that Arte Moreno’s pockets aren’t bottomless, for free-agent pitching help they settled on journeyman Joe Blanton and traded for Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson.

This season, same as last (when they got off to an 8-15 start in April), the Angels dug themselves an early hole. But now, as the big-spending franchise gets in gear and finally starts winning games -- clouting the AL’s middle-class franchises, such as the Mariners, Royals and White Sox -- it’s worth crediting Los Angeles for what’s working. Obviously, any plan that starts with having Mike Trout has something going for it, and he and fellow homegrown Angel Mark Trumbo have combined to make any investment in free agents over homegrown talent seem like money ill-spent. Trout and Trumbo have powered the win streak, between them muscling nine extra-base hits, including four home runs, in those seven games.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout, Mark Trumbo
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerMike Trout, left, and Mark Trumbo have been homegrown keys to the Angels' win streak.
That duo hasn’t been alone, though. Some of it is a matter of who’s due. Hamilton might not be slugging what’s expected in the aggregate yet, but he cranked out six walks and a couple of homers during the streak. Chris Iannetta, long loathed for what he hadn’t lived up to being during his time in Denver, has settled into being what he can be as an Angel, providing OBP -- in the form of 30 walks already -- to a team that can score men on base, plus a couple of homers during the streak. Alberto Callaspo has had a great week, ripping five doubles and plating eight men before Saturday’s action. That might be the last time you read about Alberto Callaspo, but if he can be better than the sub-.700 OPS he’d sunk to beforehand, third base is no longer a problem to solve.

But the better news is that the Angels have been doing this even as injuries have kept staff ace Jered Weaver, closer Ryan Madson and erstwhile leadoff threat Peter Bourjos out of action, while nagging hurts have kept Pujols from really romping at opponents’ expense. But Pujols, already living down the most disappointing 80-extra-base-hit season ever -- and how reasonable is that? -- while playing on bad wheels, has bounced back at the bat; seeing regular turns as designated hitter, he's been left to get back to doing what he can do best: hitting for average and power. And with Bourjos and Weaver due back inside of two weeks, and Madson gearing up for a June return, the Angels might be just rolling. But just as you might expect the natural life of a hot streak to peter out, they’re about to get reinforcements.

Even with Weaver out for another couple of spins through the rotation, it’s also worth noting that this year’s cobbled-together crew has done well in the meantime -- sitting just two quality starts behind the AL-leading White Sox and Tigers. With Weaver hurt and Hanson absent for much of May with an undisclosed problem, much of that has been thanks to C.J. Wilson (eight of 10) and Vargas (six of 10), the lefties scooped up from division rivals in consecutive seasons. But in their moments of need, they’ve also been able to turn to swingman Jerome Williams -- because, yes, the Angels have one -- who has put up three quality starts in four turns. Once Weaver and Hanson return, it makes for an interesting decision, to see whether manager Mike Scioscia will bump Williams back to the bullpen before Blanton, who’s 1-7 with a 6.19 ERA.

Going forward, the same reasons to believe that the Angels had it going for them up front are there. They still have Trout, who might be the best bet to be the no-doubt-about-it best player in baseball since Ken Griffey Jr., or maybe even Fred Lynn. Hamilton might not deliver the same results playing in Anaheim that he did in the Rangers’ bandbox, but the same basic talent should be there. Even if Pujols has to DH and Trumbo keeps manning first, if that lets Pujols keep producing an .876 OPS without having to field, that’s well worth doing.

With help on the way and the Angels already showing off how they can play, you better believe they’re far from done.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
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.
Our first full weekend of the 2013 regular season will start with numerous Friday afternoon games, including the 1980 World Series rematch between the Kansas City Royals and Philadelphia Phillies, with Hall of Fame third basemen George Brett and Mike Schmidt scheduled to toss out first pitches. It's not quite Wade Davis versus Kyle Kendrick, but then again, neither of them figures to pitch in a World Series anytime soon. Ah, memories. It's Friday, so here are things to know for this weekend.

Welcome home: Former Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton didn't make many pals on his way out of the football town, and wouldn't you know it, his Los Angeles Angels are visiting this weekend. Hamilton isn't off to a great start, hitting .083 with one hit and six strikeouts in 12 at-bats. OK, so it's early and he'll be fine, but this is a streaky player. The Rangers finally get to face a big league squad after striking out a thousand Houston Astros. The festivities conclude (after Hamilton has been booed many times) with the Sunday nighter on ESPN as Jered Weaver meets Yu Darvish. That duo permitted three hits over 14 2/3 innings their first time around.

Rematch time: Meanwhile, a pair of potential NL playoff teams face off the first time since the stunning end of their October playoff series. The St. Louis Cardinals won three of the first four games against the San Francisco Giants back then, needing one win to move on to the World Series. Then Barry Zito and friends took over. Zito won Game 5, Ryan Vogelsong took Game 6 and Matt Cain cruised in the seventh game. In the final three games, the Giants outscored the Cardinals 20-1. First up on Friday afternoon, it's Mr. Zito.

Rematch time, part 2: The New York Yankees head on the road to face a Detroit Tigers team they couldn't take a game from last October. As Derek Jeter was carried off the field, the Yankees scored only two runs the final three games of the ALCS, batting .157 for the series. And let's just say this current Yankees lineup doesn't look nearly as formidable. What could go wrong on Sunday against Justin Verlander, or even the first two games against Doug Fister and Max Scherzer?

Pitchers to watch: Saturday's slate features quite a few enticing young right-handers, including Shelby Miller of the Cardinals, Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves and Alex Cobb of the Tampa Bay Rays. Someone who wasn't scheduled to start until a Scott Kazmir injury -- yeah, shocking, right? -- is Cleveland Indians right-hander Trevor Bauer. The Arizona Diamondbacks couldn't wait to unload the top prospect, in part due to makeup issues rather than physical ones, and now he gets a new start in the American League. Watch him thrive.

Best of the best: The Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals won the most games last season, and each team certainly appeared to improve this offseason. So an opening week matchup, with the winner vying for the top of the Power Rankings, should be fun. Sunday features the best matchup, as aces Stephen Strasburg and Johnny Cueto meet. Much like the Rangers, the Nationals got to feast on a really bad Marlins team, as their starters posted a 0.47 ERA. That should go up this weekend, but don't look for shootouts, either.

As always, enjoy your weekend!
Mike Trout and Miguel CabreraGetty ImagesThe SweetSpot bloggers predict another 1-2 MVP finish for Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera in 2013.


Yes, it's the time of the year ... awards predictions! Here are the collective thoughts of the writers from across the SweetSpot network.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Last year, the SweetSpot bloggers correctly picked Miguel Cabrera as the AL MVP winner. How quickly we fall in love with the new kid on the block! I'm not surprised that Mike Trout is the MVP favorite by the SweetSpot bloggers -- but I am surprised by his runaway vote total, as he collected 33 of the 47 first-place votes (including mine). If wisdom of the crowds proves true, it should be a landslide MVP result for Trout.

Amazingly, Cabrera only received two first-place votes (remember, he ranked ahead of Trout in our recent BBTN500 voting). This probably reflects the difference in the mind-set between the bloggers -- who are going to pay more attention to advanced metrics like WAR -- and the more conventional group of analysts (writers, announcers, former players) who voted in the BBTN500.

The network bloggers must have high hopes for the Rays since Evan Longoria ranked third in the balloting. And maybe the Yankees won't collapse just yet: Robinson Cano finished fourth in the balloting.

Points on a 14-9-8-7-6 basis.

1. Mike Trout, 574 points (33 first-place votes)
2. Miguel Cabrera, 374 points (2)
3. Evan Longoria, 268 points (3)
4. Robinson Cano, 238 points (4)
5. Adrian Beltre, 101 points (1)
6. Yoenis Cespedes, 92 points (0)
7. Jose Bautista, 85 points (2)
8. Prince Fielder, 70 points (1)
9. Albert Pujols, 62 points (1)
10. Jose Reyes, 43 points (0)

Others -- Josh Hamilton (41 points), Dustin Pedroia (34), Joe Mauer (21), Alex Gordon (18), Matt Wieters (9), Adam Jones (7), Curtis Granderson (7), Edwin Encarnacion (6), Carlos Santana (6), Ian Kinsler (6), Jacoby Ellsbury (6)

CY YOUNG

No surprise here: Justin Verlander collected 28 first-place votes to easily outdistance last season's Cy Young winner, David Price. Keep an eye on Yu Darvish: He finished ahead of Felix Hernandez in the voting. Reigning NL CY Young winner R.A. Dickey is now with Toronto and he collected just one first-place vote.

Points on a 7-4-3 basis.

1. Justin Verlander, 258 points (28 first-place votes)
2. David Price, 129 points (4)
3. Yu Darvish, 81 points (5)
4. Felix Hernandez, 70 points (5)
5. Jered Weaver, 34 points (3)
6. R.A. Dickey, 15 points (1)

Others -- Chris Sale (9 points), CC Sabathia (8), Max Scherzer (6), Josh Johnson (6), Jarrod Parker (6), Jon Lester (6), Doug Fister (3), Matt Moore (3), Jake Peavy (3)

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

The rookie race is even more wide open, since most of the top rookie prospects will begin the year in the minors, including Tampa Bay outfielder Wil Myers, who led our balloting with 17 first-place votes. Outfielders Aaron Hicks of the Twins and Jackie Bradley of the Red Sox will break camp with their big league teams, and that helped them finish second and third in the voting.

Points on a 5-3-1 basis.

1. Wil Myers, 111 points (17 first-place votes)
2. Aaron Hicks, 71 points (8)
3. Jackie Bradley, 65 points (8)
4. Jurickson Profar, 46 points (4)
5. Dylan Bundy, 29 points (4)
6. Brandon Maurer, 24 points (2)
7. Trevor Bauer, 21 points (1)
8. Dan Straily, 12 points (1)

Others -- Bruce Rondon (6 points), Mike Olt (5), Mike Zunino (4), Chris Archer (3), Avisail Garcia (1), Conor Gillaspie (1), Nick Tepesch (1), Kevin Gausman (1)
One thing casual baseball fans do is overrate the importance of one player. In the NBA, you build a team around one superstar. If you have two, you can win 27 games in a row.

But it doesn't work that way in baseball. Look at last year's Tigers. They had the arguably the best pitcher in the game in Justin Verlander, the best hitter in the game in Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder, one of the 10 best hitters. They still won just 88 games in a weak division.

You can even overcome the loss of a great player, like the Cardinals did in 2011 when Adam Wainwright, the Cy Young runner-up in 2010, went down in spring training and they went on to win the World Series.

Still, that doesn't mean some players just seem more important than even their statistics or Wins Above Replacement would suggest. Which brings me to Jered Weaver.

The Angels are going to score runs. Even if Mike Trout regresses a bit and Josh Hamilton misses 50 games and Albert Pujols hits .271 with 26 home runs, they're going to score runs. The big questions for the Angels revolve around a revamped rotation that now includes Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson alonside Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Vargas and Blanton are what we call innings eaters, but Vargas has to show he can succeed away from Safeco Field and Blanton has a 4.79 ERA over the past three seasons in the National League. Hanson has had injury issues in recent seasons, and Wilson had minor surgery in the offseason to remove some bone chips from elbow. That's a lot of risk in slots No. 2 through No. 5, and there isn't much depth behind those guys other than Garrett Richards.

So, yes, Weaver is very important to the Angels, maybe the most important player in baseball for 2013.

Weaver had his own DL stint in 2012, missing three starts with a lower back sprain and spasms, and after averaging 224 innings per season from 2009 to 2011, threw just 188.2 last year -- although he still managed to go 20-5 and finish third in the Cy Young voting.

So they need him not just to remain healthy, but maybe tack on an extra 40 innings as well.

Weaver remains one of the most singular, fascinating pitchers of his generation, from his slingshot, across-the-body delivery to his ability to confound hitters with a fastball that rarely cracks 90 mph (he averaged 87.8 mph last season). Even though his strikeout rate has dipped from 26 percent in 2010 to 19 percent in 2012, he remained as good as ever, holding batters to a .214/.265/.340 battling line last year. He does this even though he pitches up in the zone. Here, check the location of his fastball against left-handed and right-handed batters in 2012:

Jered Weaver ESPN Stats and InformationLefties hit just .185 with three home runs in 222 at-bats off Weaver's fastball in 2012.
Jered Weaver ESPN Stats and InformationRight-handed batters hit just .209/280/.390 against Weaver's fastball in 2012.


Obviously, he paints that corner against lefties with artistry that would make Greg Maddux proud. Against righties, even though the pitches are often over the middle of the plate, he changes speeds and gets enough movement that hitters don't make solid contact.

That's one of the hallmarks of Weaver's success: Hitters don't get good wood against him. If you've read this blog much, you're probably familiar with the theory that pitchers don't have a lot of control over what happens once the ball is put in play. The statistic that tracks this is BABIP -- batting average on balls in play (removing home runs from the equation). Anyway, most pitchers are going to be around .290 to .300 in BABIP (the MLB average was .293 in 2012); if they're well above or below that figure in one season, they'll likely move toward that .300 figure the next.

SportsNation

Over or under on Jered Weaver winning 17.5 games?

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    75%
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Discuss (Total votes: 754)

Now, fly ball pitchers do generally allow a slightly lower BABIP than ground ball pitchers, and Weaver is an extreme fly ball pitcher, but he takes BABIP and gives it a severe kick in the groin. Amazingly, his BABIP has decreased five consecutive seasons:

2007: .312
2008: .298
2009: .278
2010: .276
2011: .250
2012: .241

Certainly, having a good outfield defense helps a pitcher like Weaver. The Angels' outfield defense was tremendous in 2012, which helps explain why Weaver's BABIP decreased -- and why he remained effective despite the lower strikeout. Using Defensive Runs Saved, here are the Angels' overall runs saved totals since 2007, with the primary outfielders listed from left field to right field with the top reserve:

2007: -24 (Garret Anderson 0, Gary Matthews -13, Vlad Guerrero -3, Reggie Willits -10)
2008: +5 (Anderson 0, Torii Hunter -4, Guerrero -7, Matthews -7)
2009: +17 (Juan Rivera +16, Hunter +12, Bobby Abreu -2, Matthews -7)
2010: -24 (Rivera -12, Hunter -10, Abreu -11, Peter Bourjos +13)
2011: +4 (Vernon Wells -8, Bourjos +12, Hunter +9, Mike Trout +2)
2012: +45 (Wells +2, Trout +23, Hunter +15, Bourjos +9)

The 2013 outfield alignment of Trout, Bourjos and Hamilton could be even better than last year. Which is good news for Weaver -- and great news for the Angels. If Weaver gives them 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings, he should be a Cy Young contender again. And hitters will continue to wonder why they can't hit the guy.

Offseason report card: Angels

February, 13, 2013
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2012 in review
Record: 89-73 (88-74 Pythagorean)
767 runs scored (3rd in American League)
699 runs allowed (7th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agent Josh Hamilton to five-year, $125 million contract. Traded Kendrys Morales to Mariners for Jason Vargas. Traded Jordan Walden to Braves for Tommy Hanson. Signed free agents Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett and Joe Blanton. Traded Ervin Santana to Royals. Lost Torii Hunter, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Maicer Izturis, LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen.

What to make of general manager Jerry Dipoto's busy offseason? In some ways, it's just a reshuffling of the deck chairs.

Hunter: 5.5 WAR, 88 runs created in 584 PAs
Hamilton: 3.4 WAR, 115 runs created in 636 PAs

At quick glance, Hamilton looks like the far superior hitter in 2012, creating 27 more runs in a few more plate appearances. Once you adjust for home-park environment, Hunter edges a little closer, then when you factor in Hunter's superior defense (Hunter plus-15 defense runs saved, Hamilton minus-9 DRS), you can see why Hunter moves ahead in wins above replacement. That doesn't mean Hamilton was a bad signing; Hunter was unlikely to repeat his season -- at the plate or in the field -- and Hamilton might have a better year. In terms of 2012 value versus 2013 value, however, this looks pretty even.

Vargas and Hanson: 2.8 WAR and minus-0.9 WAR (392 IP)
Haren and Santana: minus-0.6 WAR and minus-1.6 WAR (354.2 IP)

Haren and Santana were pretty bad last year, posting high ERAs despite playing in a pitchers' park and with a good defense behind them. Hanson remains an injury risk, but Vargas has developed into a solid innings-eater and should put up good numbers in Angel Stadium with Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos running down fly balls behind him. This should be an upgrade of a few wins over 2012 performance. However, some of that is given back with the Blanton signing, given that he's unlikely to replicate the Greinke/Jerome Williams rotation slot. So unless Hanson is healthy and pitches better than last year, this looks like a minor upgrade -- maybe a win or two.

Morales out, Bourjos in.

Bourjos won't produce as much offense as Morales, but adding his elite glove back to the outfield on a regular basis is a big plus. Still, if Morales is 20 runs better at the plate than Bourjos and Bourjos is 20 runs better than Mark Trumbo in the outfield, that's another equal tradeoff.

The bullpen should be better, although Madson -- returning from Tommy John surgery -- has already been shut down with a sore elbow.

In the end, I can't give the Angels' offseason that high of a grade, especially given that they didn't get the guy they really wanted: Greinke. But at least give Dipoto credit for adjusting to not getting Greinke by signing Hamilton and trading for Vargas.

Position Players

The Angels have the best player in baseball, a 40-homer guy, one of the greatest players of all time who is still pretty good even if he's in decline, a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, a 32-homer designated hitter and two middle infielders who hit pretty well for middle infielders. The catcher hits OK for a catcher, and the third baseman at least puts up a decent OBP.

That's a lineup without a glaring weakness. It's a lineup that will be as fun to watch as any in the game. Is it a great lineup, however, or just very good?

Aside from Trout's sophomore campaign and Hamilton's transition across the AL West, Albert Pujols is the guy to pay attention to. Take away his homerless April and he hit .297/.357/.553. His days as a .400 OBP machine are long gone thanks to the continued deterioration in his walk rate, but a lot of teams would still like Pujols anchoring their lineup.

The one problem area? Depth. There is none (no, Vernon Wells doesn't count). The Angels do have some players with injury histories, so we'll see whether that comes into play.

Pitching Staff

A year ago, we were talking about the possibility of the Angels having four 220-inning starters. Instead, C.J. Wilson led the staff with 202.1 innings.

Jered Weaver, Wilson and Vargas should be a solid top three, although Wilson had his elbow cleaned out in the offseason. His first season with the Angels was a bit of disappointment -- 3.83 ERA after a 3.14 ERA with the Rangers over the previous two seasons -- and if his walk rate remains at 4.0 per nine innings, it's going to be difficult to get that ERA under 3.50.

Blanton is a bit of wild card in the fifth spot. He's the opposite of Wilson -- a guy who basically throws strikes and hopes his defense helps him out. He had a 4.79 ERA in the National League over the past three seasons, so there's a good chance he won't last the season in the rotation.

The Angels' bullpen had a 3.97 ERA last year, ranking ahead of only Cleveland and Toronto in the AL. But it was arguably even more problematic than that. Only the Yankees' pen threw fewer innings, so Mike Scioscia was able to concentrate his innings in his best relievers. Although Ernesto Frieri did an excellent job as the closer after coming over from the Padres, it was the middle relief that hurt the club. The Angels lost 12 games when they led heading into the seventh inning -- 3.5 more than the major league average. Madson was supposed to help out there (or assume closer duties, with Frieri sliding to the seventh and eighth) but is a big question mark. The one thing the Angels do have is three good lefties in Burnett, Scott Downs and rookie Nick Maronde, if he's kept on the big league roster as a reliever instead of starting in the minors.

Heat Map to Watch
With a quick glance at Trout's heat map, you can see he punished low pitches. On pitches in the lower half of the zone, he hit .360/.396/.608 -- the best OPS in the majors against pitches down in the zone. Does that mean pitchers should attack Trout up high this year? Possibly. But if you attack up in the zone, that means doing it with the fastball. Trout hit .297/.397/.509 in plate appearances ending in fastballs. Which is actually kind of scary: He already has shown he can cream the off-speed stuff. Good luck, pitchers.

Mike Trout heat mapESPN Stats & InformationWhere do you pitch Mike Trout? Working him low in the zone didn't pay off in 2012.
Overall Grade

SportsNation

How many games will the Angels win?

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Discuss (Total votes: 5,753)

The Angels might be the best team in the American League. With Trout, Pujols and Hamilton, they might have the best offensive trio of any team in baseball. In Weaver, they have a legitimate No. 1. That makes them one of the top World Series favorites, at least according to the latest odds in Vegas.

But they were in that position last year and failed to make the playoffs despite Trout's monster rookie season. I worry about the lack of depth behind the starting nine and the back end of the rotation. I don't think Pujols will put up better numbers than last year, and I don't think Hamilton will hit 43 home runs again. The Angels will surely be in the playoff chase, but I don't expect them to run away with the division -- and they might not win it.

What do you think?

Power rankings: All 30 teams!

December, 22, 2012
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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.

SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 35,031)

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.

Restocking the Angels' rotation

November, 12, 2012
11/12/12
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Entering 2012, the Angels’ rotation looked like it would be a winning weapon. At the top, Jered Weaver was coming off a Cy Young-caliber season, and Dan Haren and Ervin Santana were poised to repeat their solid campaigns. Jerry Dipoto has inked C.J. Wilson to a long-term deal to give the Angels a very strong four-man crew. Jerome Williams or Garrett Richards would be the fifth starter, and both seemed like they would be pretty decent in such a role.

Santana imploded, came on strong, imploded again, then came on strong to finish. His final body of work was well below average, and the Angels had little interest in bringing him back at a $13 million salary. Haren struggled to stay healthy, and he wasn’t able to command the strike zone like he had in 2011. The Angels opted to decline Haren’s $15.5 million option, making him a free agent after two-plus years wearing Halo red.

Weaver had another fantastic season. Wilson was great for a while, then regressed into the mid-rotation arm that he is. Williams and Richards put together underwhelming performances, but in June the Angels turned prospects Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena and Jean Segura into two months of Zack Greinke. Greinke’s arrival encouraged championship expectations; the rotation was supposed to be stable and healthy down the stretch. It wasn’t.

With the end of the season came a world of uncertainty. Weaver and Wilson are the only locks to return, and the Angels have 60 percent of a rotation to fill this winter. Who are some of their better options to restock the staff?

1. Zach Greinke. Greinke is the prize of this offseason. He’s been viewed as an ace ever since his incredible 2009 season with the Royals, in which he posted a 2.33 FIP across just under 230 innings. He’s clearly the best pitcher available on the free agent market, and the Angels have a good amount of money coming off the books, with Haren, Santana and Torii Hunter all off the payroll.

However, while the Angels will aggressively pursue Greinke, but there are several other viable options on the market. Over at Halos Daily, we’ve taken a few different looks at how some of the top arms might fit in SoCal, especially how it relates to Greinke’s value this winter.

2. Anibal Sanchez. Andrew Karcher examined Sanchez, finding that “[he] and his agent will probably bide their time before signing somewhere… letting Greinke set the market and create a bidding war for [Sanchez’s] services.” Sanchez might be a good option as a fallback option if Greinke is out of reach; he isn’t Greinke, but he’s a very consistent, viable piece that any rotation would love to have. If the Angels can’t nab Greinke, Sanchez is a clear fit.

3. Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda could also be a good fit for the Halos. He isn’t young, so it looks like he’s content with a short-term deal without a huge commitment. Regardless of whether the Angels have paid Greinke funny money, Kuroda could be a fit and could make the rotation one of the best in baseball, much like it looked like he would when he originally signed with the Yankees prior to 2012.

At Halos Daily, Jesse Crall points out that Kuroda is “someone whose xFIP is always around 3.50, someone who keeps his ground-ball rate around 50 percent, someone who strikes out just enough batters to succeed, and someone whose fastball has the same low 90’s velocity it did when he broke in with the Dodgers.” Kuroda is the same pitcher that's been above-average for several years now, and he might decide that he wants to go back to SoCal, but that he also looks better in red.

4. Brandon McCarthy. The next attractive option is McCarthy. Whispers that his personal connection is a bit too strong might be true, but money talks, and McCarthy might be willing to leave Oakland given the right situation and a mansion with the proper square footage. The A’s rotation is also pretty deep, so they may decide that getting into a bidding war for McCarthy isn’t worth their time and resources.

McCarthy hasn’t stayed healthy for a long stretch of time, and 2012 wasn't an amazing season for him. His strikeout rate took a dip and he walked a few more batters than he had in 2011. But his stuff was the same, and assuming a clean bill of health, there’s no reason to assume he can’t return to being the No. 2 starter he looked like in 2011. Halos Daily’s Nathan Aderhold thinks “McCarthy can [probably] be had for something around two years and $20 million, which would likely leave $12-$15 million or so on the table to sign another pitcher like Hiroki Kuroda or Shaun Marcum.”

5. Shaun Marcum. Another solid option, Marcum could stabilize the middle of the Angels’ rotation. He’ll probably be looking for some long-term security, and the Angels could roll the dice and give him a three-year deal.

Marcum has been consistent throughout his time in the majors, but elbow soreness sidelined him for over two months in 2012. He returned strong (at least in terms of peripherals), but he turns 31 in December, so his clock is ticking.

Marcum could wait out the offseason for the highest and last bidder, and he may end up settling for an expensive one-year deal that he can use to prove his worth for potential employers in a year. Given that Marcum had the highest strikeout rate of his career in 2012, the Angels would be well advised to jump on such a deal.

The Angels need to fill three spots. Greinke is the flashy name, and one Greinke might mean more than one Sanchez and one Marcum combined if you need him in Game 1 of the postseason, but the Angels are trying to get back to the playoffs first. Rotational depth is a need, and with the club having locked up so much talent long-term last season, they might be best to invest a lot of short-term money in guys who can fill spots for them and perform well, even if they aren’t elite.

Hudson Belinsky is a contributor to Halos Dailey, the SweetSpot network affiliate dedicated to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Who should win the AL wild cards?

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
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I sent an email to my pal Jim Caple, asking: Would you rather see the A’s or Angels in the playoffs?

I could also ask: Would you rather see the Orioles or the Rays?

All four teams won on Wednesday, which means good news for the Orioles and A’s -- one game closer to the playoffs! -- and bad news for the Rays and Angels, who need to keep winning and get some help.

My thought on the A’s is I want them to make it because they’re the ultimate underdog, Cinderella, small-market franchise, and it’s good for baseball for a team like that to make it to show success doesn’t depend solely on a high payroll. But I’d also like to see Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the postseason. And I’d like to see if the Orioles can keep their magical success in one-run games and extra-inning games going. And I’d like to see the Rays make it, because how can you not root for the Rays?

But only two of the four teams can win the wild cards (and we shouldn’t discount the Orioles’ chances of winning the American League East). Here’s the case for each on why we want them to make it.

SportsNation

Which of these teams do you most want to see in the playoffs?

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Baltimore Orioles: Because there are Orioles fans now in high school who haven't seen their team post a winning record. … Because they were once baseball’s premier franchise from the late 1960s to the early '80s (18 consecutive winning seasons, including 13 with 90-plus wins) and Baltimore was once a great baseball town, finishing first or second in the American League in attendance every year from 1992 to 2000. … Because we need to see if Adam Jones can hit another home run in extra innings. … Because we have no idea who Buck Showalter would start in the wild-card game. … Because we may see Cal Ripken throw out a first pitch. … Because they wear orange jerseys. … Because nobody believed in them when they won five in a row in New York and Boston in May -- including The Chris Davis Game -- to improve to 19-9, or when they tossed back-to-back shutouts in Atlanta in June to go to 39-27, and certainly not when they lost 17 of their next 24. … Because they’ve won 16 extra-inning games in a row. … Because they’ve brought back the tri-colored '80s hats. … Because they had the guts to call up 20-year-old shortstop Manny Machado and make him their starting third baseman down the stretch. … Because an Orioles-Nationals World Series would be pretty cool. … Because it’s time to exorcise the demons of that brat in the Yankees cap.

Tampa Bay Rays: Because they keep doing this every season despite one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and it’s time to see them go all the way. … Because we could see a David Price vs. Justin Verlander showdown at some point. … Because Evan Longoria is a stud and deserves some time on the big stage and 11 Yankees make more money than he does. … Because we want to see if Matt Moore can replicate that “Welcome to the big leagues, kid!” performance from last October, when he blanked the Rangers for seven innings on two hits in Game 1 of the Division Series. … Because Fernando Rodney has had a season for the ages (45 saves, 0.63 ERA) and nobody has paid much attention to it. … Because Joe Maddon had the guts to move Ben Zobrist to shortstop in August and the Rays have gone 27-18 since. … Because they have a 2.48 ERA over their past 63 games and if pitching is what takes you all the way then this team can go all the way. … Because we could get Jose Molina facing brother Yadier in the World Series. … Because at least it won’t be 38 degrees inside Tropicana Field.

Oakland A's: Because they were ranked No. 29 in the first week of the ESPN.com Power Rankings, one slot below the Orioles (hey, at least we got the Astros right). … Because it was just announced that Travis Blackley is officially a rookie, meaning the A’s are currently going with an all-rookie rotation -- and that is just awesome. … Because they signed Yoenis Cespedes and nobody else did. … Because Jarrod Parker's changeup is so good it can be compared with Felix Hernandez's and not make anyone think you’re crazy saying that. … Because Chris Carter has more power in one arm than many big leaguers have in two. … Because maybe we’ll get a wild-card game against the Orioles featuring yellow jerseys versus orange jerseys and we can pretend it’s the '70s all over again. … Because they have the sixth-best record since 2000 and four of the other five teams won a World Series (Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, Angels; the Braves being the exception). … Because they’ve used 18 different rookies. … Because Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Pedro Feliciano make more money combined than the entire A’s roster. … Because they have 13 walk-off wins, most in the majors, and is there anything sweeter than a walk-off win in the postseason? … Because we could see an A’s-Giants Bay Area World Series. … Because with Blackley and Grant Balfour, a World Series with the A’s in it would be HUGE in Australia.

Los Angeles Angels: Because America wants to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because America needs to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because we could get Albert Pujols going back to St. Louis and we can all spend three days wondering if Cardinals fans will boo him or cheer him. … Because Jered Weaver throws high fastballs in the upper 80s and gets away with it. … Because when he’s on, few pitchers are as fun to watch as Zack Greinke. … Because a World Series featuring Trout and Bryce Harper would remind us of the 1951 World Series that also featured two rookie center fielders named Mays and Mantle. … Because Mark Trumbo may hit one 500 feet. … Because maybe we’ll see C.J. Wilson face off against Yu Darvish and his ex-Rangers teammates. … Because you know a World Series game in Anaheim means we won’t see players wearing earflap caps and drinking coffee in the dugout while wearing ski gloves.

As for my question to Jim, what was his response? "I want them both to make it!"

Thanks, Jim. Way to take a stand.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Yadier MolinaTroy Taormina/US PresswireYadier Molina shows why he's incomparable when it comes to the rough dance around home plate.

The best time of the season is here

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
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As the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles played on in the late-afternoon shadows, the managers turned to Chris Archer and Tommy Hunter, a rookie with just 18 innings of big league experience making his first relief appearance of the season and a veteran starter banished to the bullpen, respectively.

This is pennant-race baseball.

In Anaheim, Angels ace Jered Weaver took the mound, making his first start in 11 days because of biceps tendinitis, and all he had to do was prevent the A's from completing a four-game sweep and keep the Angels within shouting distance of the playoffs.

This is playoff-race baseball.

In Houston, the Phillies -- who punted back in July when they traded two-thirds of their starting outfield -- had suddenly found themselves smelling the sweat of the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates. They started a rookie named Tyler Cloyd, making his fourth major league start. Not only that, he was starting on three days' rest. I knew nothing about him, so I looked up a few facts. He was the International League pitcher of the year, but he's a finesse right-hander who rarely reaches 90 mph. He was an 18th-round draft pick in 2008 out of Nebraska-Omaha, but his lack of velocity meant he wasn't one of Baseball America's top 30 Phillies prospects entering the season despite good minor league numbers in 2011.

This is wild-card baseball.

I intended to watch the monumental Chris Sale-Justin Verlander showdown, two Cy Young contenders facing off in a crucial game in the American League Central, but that game was rained out, so I focused on the Yankees-Red Sox showdown at Fenway Park. Phil Hughes, a pitcher who had allowed the second-most home runs in the major leagues, was trying to pitch the Yankees back into a first-place tie with the Orioles. All he did was pitch one of the best games of his career, allowing no runs for just the second time this season.

This is baseball.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Orioles should be celebrating. They're in playoff contention after not having a winning record in 15 seasons.
I'm riveted to my television set, flipping channels, checking box scores, watching a second game on my laptop. It's the best time of the year, when nearly every game matters, when important outs in important games start taking on an October-like intensity. It's why we watch the first 140 games, to build up to these moments: Archer versus 20-year-old rookie Manny Machado with the game on the line.

Archer had used a little magic in the 13th inning, when he escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs jam to extend the game another inning. During that high-wire act, he fell behind Matt Wieters 3-0 but came back to strike him out on a 94 mph fastball, his seventh consecutive fastball of the at-bat. No tricks, just heat, and it worked. I tweeted something along the lines of: "If the Rays win this game and eventually make the playoffs, remember this inning."

But Buck Showalter has been around this game a few years. They say he's pretty wise. In the 14th inning, Archer got the first batters out, but Adam Jones fouled off a 3-2 slider and then drew ball four. Endy Chavez singled to left. That brought up the rookie Machado, 0-for-5 on the day, 2-for-his-past-20. Archer fell behind 3-and-0.

You don't give a rookie the green light.

Buck gave Machado the green light.

Machado swung and lofted a sinking line drive near the left-field line. Matt Joyce ran in, dove, stretched out, his glove reaching for the baseball, reaching for hope -- to keep the game going, to give the Rays hope of getting a win closer to the playoffs rather than a loss further away. Off the glove. Base hit. Orioles win 3-2 -- their 13th in a row in extra innings; 27-7 in one-run games, the best percentage in history. How can you not believe in the Orioles?

Joyce came up a few inches short. If Sam Fuld, an outfielder with more range, had been in left field, he makes the play. But Fuld had been removed in the 13th inning when Joe Maddon had replaced him with Reid Brignac to give the Rays five infielders after the Orioles loaded the bases. And that strategy worked when the Rays got the first out of the inning on a force at home. Maddon used 26 players in the game, clawing for any little edge.

That's what you do this time of year.

* * * *

Cloyd pitched three scoreless innings against the Astros but then gave up a single -- single -- home run and got the hook. He was replaced by another rookie, B.J. Rosenberg, with an ERA of 9.00. Rosenberg pitched two scoreless innings. In the eighth, the Phillies clinging to a 4-3 lead, Charlie Manuel turned to yet another rookie, Phillippe Aumont, once the prize of the Cliff Lee trade with the Mariners. Big stuff, no command: He averaged 6.9 walks per nine innings in Triple-A. He walked a guy, but got a caught stealing. He walked another guy. He hit a batter.

Two outs, two on, the Phillies cannot afford to lose. They have a $50 million closer in the bullpen.

Manuel brought in yet another rookie, Jake Diekman. He gave up a two-run double and an RBI single, and the Phillies lost 6-4.

Jonathan Papelbon sat in the bullpen, and suddenly that playoff run seems a little less likely.

The victories are extra sweet. The losses extra bitter. Welcome to the best time of the season.
SportsNation

Who is your NL Cy Young favorite right now?

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    4%
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    12%
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    54%
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    19%
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    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,380)

Some recent performances of Cy Young candidates:
  • Johnny Cueto, Reds: Eight runs and 17 hits over 11 innings in his past two outings.
  • Aroldis Chapman, Reds: Four hits and three runs allowed on Friday, including a game-losing home run to Matt Dominguez of the Astros, raising his ERA to 1.61, his losses to five and his blown saves to five.
  • Justin Verlander, Tigers: In his past three starts, has had six-run and eight-run outings, raising his ERA from 2.50 to 2.91.
  • Felix Hernandez, Mariners: Has lost his past two starts, giving up 11 runs and 20 hits over 12 innings.
  • David Price, Rays: Missed Friday's start with shoulder stiffness. Scheduled to throw a side session on Tuesday and will maybe start this weekend against the Yankees.
  • Jered Weaver, Angels: Battling a sore shoulder and has just one win in his past five starts.
  • Chris Sale, White Sox: Beat the Royals on Saturday but lost his previous two starts, allowing four runs each outing.

Anyway, one guy holding his consistency has been R.A. Dickey, who is 3-0 with a 1.21 ERA over his past four starts and has passed Cueto as the NL ERA leader while ranking just behind Clayton Kershaw in innings and strikeouts. Kershaw has a 1.97 ERA over his past eight starts but his 12-8 record compared to Dickey's 18-4 is a strike against him. (Yes, we all know wins don't matter, but in an otherwise close race, they probably will.)

SportsNation

Who is your AL Cy Young favorite?

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    36%
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    31%
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    8%
  •  
    9%
  •  
    16%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,245)

While Dickey has probably re-emerged as the NL favorite, it remains a crowded field: Braves closer Craig Kimbrel (1-1, 1.18 ERA, 35 saves) and Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez (18-7, 2.98) are in the mix alongside Dickey, Cueto, Chapman and Kershaw.

The AL race isn't any more clear. Verlander and Sale lead in WAR, but Verlander's 13-8 record won't blow away the voters and Sale has pitched a lot fewer innings than some of the other leading contenders. Nobody seems to be talking about Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney, but he's 2-2 with 42 saves and a 0.69 ERA.

You know my opinion on closers for the Cy Young, but Rodney has a chance to pass Dennis Eckersley for the lowest ERA for a pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched. Eck had a 0.61 ERA over 73.1 innings with the A's in 1990. He allowed nine runs and five earned runs -- Rodney's exact totals so far in 65.1 innings. So if Rodney can pitch 8.1 scoreless innings (or at least allow no earned runs), he'll pass Eckersley. And that will throw him in the Cy Young mix.
Right when the Angels are starting to make things interesting as they try to hunt down one of the wild-card spots -- they've won 11 of their past 14 games -- comes news that Jered Weaver is likely to miss his start Friday against the Tigers.

If he misses just one game, it's not a huge deal -- although it hurts that it's against the Tigers, a team that Angels are conceivably fighting against for the playoffs. On the other hand, one game could be the difference between having a 50/50 shot at advancing to the Division Series or hitting the golf course.

[+] EnlargeJered Weaver
Jim Rogash/Getty Images)Jered Weaver struggled through an August swoon (4.91 ERA), just like he did last season.
Over his past five starts Weaver has allowed 21 runs in 29.1 innings (6.14 ERA) and allowed seven home runs. If that August slide rings a bell, it's because the same thing happened last season. Through Aug. 5 of 2011, Weaver was 14-5 with a 1.78 ERA and just eight home runs allowed. He then went through a five-start stretch where he allowed 22 runs in 29.2 innings ... with seven home runs allowed. He did correct himself after that, allowing seven runs over his final four starts, although he did give up a total of 12 home runs over those final nine starts.

I don't think there's too much to read into all that other than the randomness of his "slumps" coming at exactly the same time. You'd rather have Weaver moving forward than ... well, I guess Jerome Williams (6-7, 4.59 ERA) would get the start in his place. In one game, Williams is certainly capable of a quality start. If Weaver's injury proves more serious and he misses a few starts or even the rest of the season, then the damage may be felt.

Still, it sort of leaves us where we've been all season with the Angels: They need Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana to deliver some good outings. After a rough patch, Zack Greinke has allowed just four runs over his past three starts. As for Haren, after allowing at least one home run in 10 consecutive starts, he's been homerless his past two outings. Good sign or more random results? Santana has been better, with a 3.63 ERA and .194 average allowed over his past seven starts (although still prone to the long ball with nine home runs). After an 11-start winless streak, Wilson has won his past two starts, although the results were only marginally better.

The biggest problem the Angels face is time: They're fifth in the wild-card race (with the Tigers a half-game behind them), so have to leapfrog past at least three teams to make the playoffs. They need to keep winning, but just catching the A's may not be enough. They'll need some help from those above them.

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