SweetSpot: Jim Thome

Moneyball, before Moneyball was cool

June, 7, 2014
Jun 7
One of the best-kept secrets in Cleveland sports is not who the Cavs will take with the first pick in the NBA draft, or who the Browns’ starting quarterback will be come fall. Rather, it is a computer program you've probably never heard of. But for years, the Indians have used a proprietary statistical analysis program called DiamondView. This program aids decision-making for the Cleveland Indians' front office, and it is a reason for numerous highly publicized endings to players' careers with the Tribe, including those of Jim Thome, CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee, to name a few.

Before Moneyball, there was DiamondView. As analytics have been adopted across Major League Baseball, DiamondView has stayed exclusive and evolved within the confines of Progressive Field, allowing the Indians to stay competitive as a small-market team during an era of extreme salary inflation.

One of just a few articles about the program was written in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2003. When it came to negotiating a contract extension with Jim Thome, the Indians felt uncomfortable offering the slugger more than five years. Thome’s new salary also would have exceeded 12.5 percent of the team’s payroll, a threshold the Tribe brass felt uncomfortable exceeding. General manager Chris Antonetti explained that Barry Bonds was the only hitter in the 22 prior seasons without a major decline in production after the age of 35, and that Thome would play the final two years of a five-year contract at ages 36 and 37.

The Indians were willing to risk three years of Thome playing at age 35 and beyond, but not four. For that reason, the Tribe's hero of the '90s jumped ship and left for Philadelphia, where he got the extra seasons under a contract he sought. In those six seasons of his new deal, three with the Phillies and three with the White Sox after a trade, Thome hit just .265 and missed an average of 32 games per season, numbers down from his Cleveland peaks. The extra seasons the Phillies gave to Thome became a clear overpay for a .245 hitter who could no longer field a position regularly. In his final six Cleveland seasons, Thome posted 29.1 wins above replacement, compared with just 17.2 WAR during his six-year contract. Though still productive into his late-30s, Thome was nowhere near the player he was at his peak, and his contract would have proved problematic for a smaller-market team.

[+] EnlargeJim Thome
Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty ImagesThanks to DiamondView, the Indians anticipated that Jim Thome wasn't going to be worth investing in for as many years as he wanted to get paid.
Instead of paying Thome what would have amounted to $63 million over five years, the Indians spent that money on bonuses for draft picks, along with rising salaries for players such as Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Matt Lawton. When those players became too expensive for the Indians to afford and too old for DiamondView to believe in their continued success, the cycle started again, with Sabathia, Victor Martinez, and Cliff Lee traded for prospects ahead of their impending free-agent paydays.

The creation of DiamondView was revolutionary because of the program's ability to decipher large amounts of data very quickly, updating its statistical database on a daily basis while also being able to point out trends and other important information. Though this does not sound extremely impressive today with the numerous sports databases at our disposal, DiamondView was a state-of-the-art analysis program upon its inception in spring 2000. In 2003, Antonetti was giddy about the team’s creation of the statistic OPS-plus (not to be confused with OPS+), an early metric used to better quantify and predict offensive performance.

Former Tribe outfielder Matt Lawton was thought of highly by DiamondView, leading the Indians to sign him for four years and $27 million in late 2001. Lawton disappointed in his first two seasons beside the shores of Lake Erie, battling through injuries and inconsistency, but he was an All-Star in 2004 once his health problems subsided. The performance roller coaster that Lawton rode on during his seasons in Cleveland was used as a way to refine and improve DiamondView. This mistake became a teaching point for the database, as it incorporated potential warning signs for future decisions.

Another interesting finding from the early days of DiamondView was how it tracked and forecasted the development of power hitting, and how it appears later during players’ careers. That has been exemplified this season through the power surge of Michael Brantley. The Tribe outfielder has hit nine home runs in 48 games this season after hitting just 10 in 151 games in 2013. His doubles rate is also up, leading to a triple-digit improvement in slugging percentage. Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion is another key example of the later-career power surge, as he did not post a slugging percentage above .500 until his age-29 season.

The age of 29 is important to note, as this is the age that the Tribe front office has pinpointed as a player’s performance peak. Generally, players begin to decline once they turn 29, with a slower rate of decline making a player more valuable. During winter 2012, I had the opportunity to travel to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and visit with multiple members of the Indians' front office. Normally tight-lipped in all aspects, the front-office members who spoke with my game theory class, including Antonetti and team president Mark Shapiro, talked a lot about DiamondView and their reliance on it, even sharing some of the secrets the program has revealed. They elaborated on the importance of DiamondView and divulged some fascinating factoids, as well. This “29 and decline” rule was one of the points mentioned by the analysts and Antonetti during their lectures.

Looking back at the first major trade of a talented Indians starting pitcher during the DiamondView era, Bartolo Colon follows the data strongly. He was 29 when the Indians shipped him to Montreal, with DiamondView proving its worth on both ends. Colon became a free agent after the 2003 season and signed a four-year contract with the Angels. That contract saw Colon post a 4.66 ERA in 96 appearances, including a 5.90 ERA in the final two years of the deal. And I don't think I need to go into detail with the Tribe’s acquisition of All-Stars Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips in that trade.

Antonetti focused on the trade of former American League Cy Young award winner CC Sabathia in summer 2008, mentioning how top prospect Matt LaPorta was rated highly by both traditional scouting and DiamondView’s analytics. They believed that he had a high probability of becoming a middle-of-the-lineup power hitter with All-Star potential. The scenario played itself out with LaPorta ended up as a bust, most recently being granted his release from a Mexican League team earlier this season. During the meeting, Antonetti mentioned that, statistically speaking, if the career of Matt LaPorta had played out 100 times, he would have been a successful player on 75 or 80 occasions. He also made it clear that there are no do-overs in the real world and that the team had to accept the outcomes handed to them.

On multiple occasions, the front office mentioned that, though computers can give the team an advantage, intangibles may also affect a player’s career path. DiamondView has a database of off-field information on players, but this information cannot be quantified as simply as on-field statistics. Antonetti and Shapiro also stressed that DiamondView is just one tool of many when it comes to player evaluation and analysis. The pair stressed that other important aspects of team building include character, work ethic and team chemistry. It explains the emphasis on good-character player signings, namely Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi.

In my research of DiamondView, it becomes clear that sample size is the biggest factor in the program’s accuracy. The Indians have struggled to draft successful players since the program’s inception in 2000, most likely due to an inability to contextualize the few statistics college players have at a level much lower than any in minor league baseball. With high school sample sizes even smaller than college, the Indians have to rely more heavily on typical scouting. Even just one or two years of minor league statistics lead to a better rate of success for the computer program, as shown through plenty of heists of minor leaguers in recent years. Once a player is part of a professional team's infrastructure, his intangibles can also be better understood. At the macro level, as DiamondView continues to mature and the database absorbs more information, its overall accuracy improves because it can learn from its mistakes.

But has DiamondView been ultimately successful? The short answer is somewhat. Since DiamondView’s creation in spring 2000, the Indians have a record of 1149-1171 (as of May 26, 2014). However, among smaller-payroll franchises, the Indians have the fourth-best record in the time frame, behind only the Oakland Athletics, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins. This means that the brainchild of the Shapiro/Antonetti regime has not been able to fully nullify the disparities that differing payrolls create, but it has allowed the Indians to be competitive among franchises in similar situations.

I am only scratching the surface on DiamondView, what it does and how it helps the Indians succeed on the field. I have never seen the program in action, relying on primary and secondary sources to learn about it. Moreover, Shapiro and Antonetti are two of the best in the business at staying secretive. As a small-market franchise, the odds are stacked against them, with almost no room for error. DiamondView has granted the Indians improved results in the 15 seasons since the program first came to fruition.

DiamondView is a known but not completely understood commodity within baseball, with some franchises even resorting to the creation of DiamondView knockoffs. Former Indians scouting director Josh Byrnes even offered top prospect Carlos Quentin in a trade for a copy of the program. The Indians said no, as mentioned in "The Yankee Years" by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci. Both authors praise the Indians for becoming the first team to adopt a giant searchable database of statistics and information. Antonetti and Shapiro do not get enough credit for being ahead of the curve and adapting to the challenges small-market teams face.

DiamondView was a revolutionary database when it was created, even predating Moneyball. While the secrets exposed in Michael Lewis’ book have been adopted across Major League Baseball, DiamondView’s findings have remained private. The ability for the program to adapt to the evolving nature of baseball’s sabermetric era has kept the franchise consistently competitive among constantly lessening odds for small-market teams.

Alex Kaufman is a rising sophomore at Denison University and a summer intern with It’s Pronounced Lajaway, the SweetSpot blog on the Cleveland Indians. Alex can be followed on Twitter at @NSF_Alex.
Thursday's blog titled "Did A-Rod really gain an edge from PEDs" stirred up some heated debate in the comments section. On Twitter, Paul Sporer asked about Alex Rodriguez's isolated power on contact, the Joe Sheehan stat used in the chart listed in that piece.

Remember, isolated power is slugging percentage minus batting average -- it takes singles out of the equation. By removing strikeouts, we're then checking A-Rod's power only when he makes contact.

1996: .330
1997: .236
1998: .303
1999: .384
2000: .372
2001: .383
2002: .402
2003: .380
2004: .289
2005: .376
2006: .307
2007: .417
2008: .351
2009: .314
2010: .290
2011: .235
2012: .210

Well, one thing, if Rodriguez has been using PEDs in recent seasons, they haven't helped. His isn't a Barry Bonds-like career path, that's for sure, but a rather conventional downward arc beginning in his mid-30s. It's interesting to note that Rodriguez's ISO/con didn't really increase all that much from his final two seasons in Seattle after he joined Texas in 2001, when he said he used PEDs -- even though he moved into a better hitter's park in Texas (the Mariners had moved into Safeco midway through the 1999 season).

We can only speculate about the dips and rises. In 2004, he joined the Yankees. Maybe he did stop PEDs, as he claimed, or maybe he just felt more pressure playing in New York ... and fell from 47 home runs and 83 extra-base hits to 36 and 62. He had a big spike in 2007 when he went from 35 home runs to 54. Did he start using PEDs? Make adjustments at the plate? Just have a great year?

We also don't know the typical variance in ISO/con. What's normal and not normal for an elite slugger? Here, let's look at Jim Thome, a guy with 612 home runs and whom everyone believes was clean:

1994: .346
1995: .324
1996: .418
1997: .414
1998: .428
1999: .402
2000: .378
2001: .513
2002: .525
2003: .447
2004: .429
2005: .209 (injured)
2006: .443
2007: .416
2008: .365
2009: .351
2010: .490
2011: .333

Well ... certainly a different arc than A-Rod (and also: Man, did Thome have some serious power or what?). A mammoth peak in 2001 and 2002 (when he was 30 and 31 years old) but otherwise pretty steady until he started getting old. Anyway, this proves nothing, other than Thome had more power than A-Rod, but Thome is also one of the all-time Three True Outcome kings (home run, walk or strikeout), so he's a pretty unique guy to compare to anybody.

You could do this all day with various players -- Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Miguel Cabrera ... Barry Bonds. Bonds would be a fun one. From 1958 to 1960, Mays averaged 31 home runs per year. From 1962 to 1965 he averaged 47. Did he start juicing? Probably not. Players change, conditions change, ballparks change. You can look at the numbers but the numbers don't always us provide an answer.

It's time for NL to adopt the DH

April, 4, 2013

So here we are: Two days from Ron Blomberg Day, the anniversary of baseball's partial adoption of an overdue innovation, the designated hitter. Forty years on, and we still have the two leagues playing by different rules. Imagine the NBA with one conference playing without the 3-point shot -- sounds silly, right? Well, that's what we've got for the time being, but we'll get to that.

As originally envisioned, the DH was supposed to be a role that kept great aging players -- identifiable brand names, even, like Hank Aaron or Harmon Killebrew or Rusty Staub -- in the game. Consider the impetus equal parts economic and offensive: The American League needed more runs, and baseball didn't want to lose stars to old age when they might still be able to hit.

[+] EnlargeRon Blomberg
Louis Requena/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesRon Blomberg was equally stiff afield, making him the perfect choice for baseball's first DH.
Forty years on, how are teams using the DH today? Not so much as the "golden years" power-and-profits mashup, that much is certain. Guys like Harold Baines or Edgar Martinez or Paul Molitor weren't gloried players in their golden years when they became full-time DHs, they were men who simply could not stay healthy playing the field. You could argue that they became more famous as DHs than they ever were beforehand. But even that has now changed.

Despite the obvious goal of using it to employ a guy who helps you put runs on the board, you might think teams aren't doing a great job of finding them. In the past 12 years, out of a possible 168 player-seasons for the guys we'll call full-time DHs -- say, those who spent at least 75 percent of their playing time in a given year batting as a DH -- there have been just 47 regular DH seasons worth a win or more via Baseball-Reference.com's Batting Runs stat. Nine of those belong to David Ortiz in Big Papi's 10 years with the Red Sox, which puts the rest of the American League at just a 23 percent return on getting even a modest win's worth of value out of their regular DHs. Beyond Ortiz, just three players have notched as many as five one-win seasons as a DH in the past dozen campaigns: Travis Hafner, the near-done Jim Thome and the long-since-retired Frank Thomas.

So taken in the aggregate, the DH today might seem like it's giving us more Blomberg than Baines. But I say this not to bury the designated hitter, but to praise it, because the contrast isn't between those very few -- and today, fewer still -- who deserve the epithet of "DH" and those who don't, it's between the travesty of letting pitchers hit versus the adaptive way that AL teams are using the DH to give us a better brand of baseball.

Simply put, American League teams aren't using the slot to just employ a full-time DH. Three players qualified for the batting title last year while playing as much as three-quarters of their games at DH -- Delmon Young of the Tigers, Billy Butler of the Royals and Kendrys Morales for the Angels. That tally isn't unusually low; in the last dozen seasons, on average just four guys qualified for the batting title while DHing 75 percent of the time.

Sure, there are plenty guys who are employed as a club's primary DH -- say, Adam Dunn with the White Sox. But that's the thing: Guys like that aren't just regular DHs for their teams. Witness that Dunn started 56 games at first base or in left for the White Sox last year. If anything, a team's DH is more like a guy doing what Chris Davis did for the Orioles, starting 38 games at first and another 39 in the outfield corners when he wasn't DHing. He was a moving part employed to provide power; sometimes that was as a DH, but that wasn't his sole role.

Cases like Dunn and Davis are examples of how the 12-man pitching staff forces teams to employ DHs who have to be ready to play the field as well. Almost gone are the days when the 1983 White Sox had to ask whether they could put the Bull, Greg Luzinski (138 DH starts, two at first base), in the field if they reached the World Series. Papi's the only guy we've had to worry about on that score any more.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsLet's celebrate David Ortiz, one of the last true regular DHs.
This isn't to say some players haven't lost job security to the larger pitching staffs of the present. Guys like Travis Ishikawa or Tony Gwynn Jr. don't have the same opportunities Greg Gross or Dave Bergman had back in the day. And while some of us might miss seeing guys like Bergman hanging around, it means that today's DH is generally forced to be more of a complete baseball player ... and not just a DH.

With year-round interleague play putting 10 games in National League parks on every AL team's schedule, that kind of flexibility is that much more important. That's what has Jim Leyland talking about putting Victor Martinez back behind the plate for a few games; it's that sort of flexibility that means the Tigers are the rare team that has three catchers, even in the age of the 12-man pitching staff. It's the sort of thing that allows the Twins using nominal regular DH Ryan Doumit as Joe Mauer's caddy behind the plate in the early going, at least when Doumit isn't snagging another 20 starts or so in the outfield corners.

Last year's Yankees were a good example of how a club can completely skip having anything like a regular DH. Without peeking, who do you think was the Yankees' most frequent DH in 2012? Who was their second-most-used DH? If you thought Raul Ibanez was either, you'd be wrong; he was third, with just 23 starts at the gloveless task. Joe Girardi's most frequent DHs were Alex Rodriguez (38 times) and Derek Jeter (25) -- the left side of his infield.

Which brings us to a major advantage that employing the DH gives the American League: In free agency. While AL teams must employ a ninth starting player on the payroll, they're not spending that money on the oldest players to play out the end of their careers, they're adding it to top-dollar offers to sign the best players on the market to long-term deals, knowing that they can rotate those guys in and out of the DH slot as needed later in their careers. Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder may never become an out-and-out full-time DH the way Ortiz is, but the AL teams taking the big-money risk know if a star player becomes fragile late in his career, they have the DH slot to protect him as well as their investment within. Having the DH even expands a team's options in terms of who they might draft, as Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow noted back in February.


What's your preference on the DH rule?


Discuss (Total votes: 32,628)

So enjoy the Papis and the Pronks while you can. Certainly, here's hoping we get to see Thome signed by somebody, not least so that he can pass Reggie Jackson for the all-time career strikeouts total -- Reggie only got there thanks to the DH, after all, and Thome will only be able to beat him because of it. But as things now stand, we stand to see less of their like, and more of teams rotating their position players through the slot, much as the A's are with their quintet of starting-quality outfielders, or the Angels with Mark Trumbo picking up Pujols or Josh Hamilton or Mike Trout.

So as multi-faceted and flexible as the DH has become, why do we still have the two leagues playing different brands of baseball? You probably know the checklist by heart.

There's the tradition argument, to leave things as they are because that's the way they've been. But really, how far does that go? Bud Selig added a third division per league, two wild cards, realignment and All-Star Games that "count." Tradition clearly ain't what it used to be, and to make a buck, the game is clearly more than happy to set it aside, just as it did in adding the DH to the AL in the first place.

Then there's the honest if incorrect conviction that the pitcher having to bat invites more strategy, though you'll see more elective bunting with position players in the AL than you do in the NL with the pitcher having to automatically bunt when he isn't whiffing almost 40 percent of the time. Me, I like to watch major league pitchers throwing to major league hitters, quality against quality, and let that drive strategy and tactics.

The DH gives us that, just as it gives us increasingly flexible definitions of what a DH is. It gives us one less way for pitchers to unnecessarily risk injury doing something most aren't even remotely good at. Considering the money shelled out to starters, you know that's a fairly massive incentive right there. And if National League owners want to avoid seeing the best free-agent hitters taking American League offers, you can bet they'll eventually come to terms with cashing in this element of tradition as well.

Here's hoping the NL sees the light before the 50th anniversary of Ron Blomberg Day. Here's hoping that we see the day when the DH isn't employed in just half of the games, but all of them.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Welcome to July episodes of the Baseball Today podcast. Mark Simon and I got the new week started with All-Star roster talk and much more!

1. From the good to the bad to the Dusty Baker, we tackle angles on who made and didn't make the All-Star teams, while trying to explain misplaced anger.

2. In other news, Carlos Lee stays out but Jim Thome heads to a contender.

3. In Simon Says, you can't miss the Kernel's all-same-name team!

4. Our power rankings are the same at the top, but not after the first five!

5. Emailers are curious about relievers, a one-game playoff and much more.

So download and listen to Monday's significant Baseball Today podcast, and hold the anger! Smiles for all!

Trading for Thome fixes non-DH problem

June, 30, 2012
Jim Thome's right back where he needs to be, and if you’re an Orioles fan, you might think the trade that moves him down I-95 has come not a moment too soon. The Orioles really needed to do something to shore up their offense, and perhaps more than anything, they’ve needed to find an outfield bat or two. Averaging just 4.2 runs per game, they’re ninth in the American League in offense, and a major part of the problem is the lack of good wood they’ve gotten from their left fielders (.642 collective OPS) and right fielders (.703).

The funny thing is that the Orioles’ designated hitters weren’t a problem, not in the aggregate, with a .787 OPS. Their in-season problem was that the absence of a reliable performer had helped suck Chris Davis out of the infield and into their DH mix. With their gaping holes in the outfield corners, they really do need something that would stick at DH, freeing manager Buck Showalter to reemploy Davis in the field and spare the club from reverting to the DH-du-jour non-answers Baltimore's weakly stocked bench provides.

Which brings me to the other major implication of this move -- what this deal does not mean: Thome isn’t replacing Wilson Betemit or Davis in the lineup in a bit of incremental improvement. Instead, he’s the answer to a crying need in Showalter’s offense, which was the absence of a regular DH who could deliver on the hitting half of being designated to hit. The Orioles’ current scoring clip is not going to get it done in the AL East, even with the expanded postseason.

But the market didn’t really have much to offer as far as outfield thumpers, so general manager Dan Duquette did the next-best thing: He traded for a cheaply available bat in Thome, figuring that adding a bat lets Showalter reemploy the day-to-day rovers he’s used to plug lineup holes all season to man one fewer position, and perhaps more precisely help fix the club’s problems in the non-Nick Markakis outfield corner. Markakis is due back soon, so the Orioles are already going to have one outfield answer. Trading for Thome is going to help them fix the other corner.

Adding Thome to the roster helps because it frees up the bats the Orioles were using at DH to help fix the other slots in the lineup. Showalter has utilized Davis in particular as one of those rovers, and he’ll no doubt continue to use Betemit as his infield Mr. Fix-It. With Thome in the fold, Davis might very well be the Orioles’ left fielder of the immediate future, a patch they desperately need.

With Markakis looking like a lock to return from the disabled list after the All-Star break, the Orioles’ lineup should be in significantly better shape shortly, with Markakis in right field, Davis in left and Thome at DH.

Where roster management is concerned, it’s understandably fashionable in the age of the seven-man bullpen to laud the virtues of doing without an everyday DH, and to instead use the slot as a chance to spread at-bats around to the three non-catchers most AL teams get by with on their benches. There’s a certain kind of wisdom to it when you have bench bats worth playing, but that was not this Orioles team, not when it's been picking from among the likes of infrequently healthy Nick Johnson, minor league veteran Steve Pearce, Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty or career fifth outfielder Endy Chavez. Or what might be more simply referred to as “bad choices.”

The Orioles' getting away from their initial team-DH solution and instead placing their faith in one of the last few true designated mashers left is what both Thome and they deserve. Just as he can be an instrument of their second-half success, so too can Thome show off that he’s still got plenty left in the tank.

Over the past two seasons, as a 40- and 41-year-old, Thome has hit .254/.357/.484 for the Twins, Indians and Phillies. This year, DHs around Major League Baseball have put together a .257/.331/.435 line -- which might not sound great, but it’s a better line than what MLB teams are getting from their first basemen or left fielders. But Thome’s been better still, despite the rust that started forming in his infrequent DH role until interleague play helped get him back in action.

The 27 innings that Thome played in the field for the Phillies were more than some thought he could handle, and it was more playing time with a fielding glove than he’s put in since 2005. They might also be the last, because after the misery of less-than-part-time play, Thome may elect to never return to the National League. If he keeps hitting this way, he shouldn’t need to.

Pablo SandovalCary Edmondson-US PresswireA Kung-Fu Panda has a natural advantage: A low center of gravity.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Bryce HarperHarry How/Getty ImagesBryce Harper's long-term future can't be decided in the first few weeks of his pro career.
To much fanfare and with exceedingly high expectations, the Washington Nationals called up Bryce Harper over the weekend. He went 2-for-6 with a double, a walk, a strikeout and a sac fly, although the Nationals lost both games. In his first game, he hustled to first base on a comebacker to the mound in his first at-bat, doubled and flipped his helmet in the seventh inning, unleashed a great throw from left field, put the Nationals ahead with a sacrifice fly in the ninth, and made a nice catch while crashing into the wall in center field in his second game.

Nothing wrong with that start, which began with Dodgers fans giving him a loud chorus of boos. Already the villain, it seems, which is certainly unfair to a 19-year-old kid. While the Nationals were desperate for some offense -- running out past-their-prime veterans like Xavier Nady and Mark DeRosa probably wasn't a good plan to begin with -- a rash of injuries forced the front office to call up Harper sooner than they probably wanted. As former Mets general manager Jim Duquette said on MLB Network Radio, you want guys to earn their promotion. Harper has just 534 plate appearances in the minor leagues, which isn't necessarily the issue; Ken Griffey Jr. had just 552 when he debuted with the Mariners at 19. The issue is Harper hasn't hit much in his limited exposure above Class A, especially against left-handers. The fear, it can be argued, is that if he struggles in the major leagues, it will harm his development.

I don't see it. If the kid is this good, I don't see a bad stretch doing irreparable harm to his long-term future. If Harper doesn't turn into a big star, it won't be because he was called up too soon.

An obvious comparison is Alex Rodriguez. He was first called up in July of 1994, a few weeks before his 19th birthday. A-Rod played 17 games, had 59 plate appearances, hit .204 and struck out 20 times while drawing just three walks. The next season, he spent more time in the majors and hit .232/.264/.408 with an awful 42/6 strikeout/walk ratio. Despite those two periods where major league pitchers destroyed him, his confidence and talent won out. In 1996, still just 20 years old at the start of the season, Rodriguez hit .358 with 36 home runs.

Now, it's unfair to compare Harper to Rodriguez, of course. So here's another one: Jim Thome had just turned 21 when called up in 1991. He hit .255/.298/.367 with one home run in 27 games that September. He struggled again the next year, hitting .205 with two home runs in 131 plate appearances. He ended up spending most of 1993 in the minors as well. He turned out OK.

It's probably unfair to even compare Harper to Thome, only one of the best power/on-base machines in the game's history. Harper is a better athlete than Thome, but his raw power is similar. OK, how about Justin Upton? He was still 19 when he made his debut in 2007. He hit .221/.283/.364 with 11 walks and 37 strikeouts in 152 plate appearances that season. It would seem to me that Upton is a good comp, a guy who showed steady development and turned into an MVP candidate in his age-23 season.

There are hopes that Harper will be even better than that. His destiny remains unknown. I just don't believe a few bad weeks -- if that's what happens -- will affect his ultimate path.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
I can't wait for the season to get going. You can't wait. Last October was the best we've had in years, and the offseason only fueled our baseball fever. Spring training is mercifully over. Let the games begin. Here are 100 reasons I'm pumped for the next seven months.

1. Albert Pujols in Anaheim. They call him The Machine, but Pujols had a few rusty bolts in 2011. He hit under .300 for the first time, his walk rate was down, and his extra-base-hit percentage was down. After a slow start through May (.267, nine home runs), he did hit much better after returning from his fractured forearm. He moves to a tougher division and will have to face the Rangers, A's and Mariners 19 times each -- with cavernous parks in Oakland and Seattle -- rather than the Cubs, Pirates and Astros. The pressure is on. The spotlight is bright. But machines are immune to all that, right?

2. Jim Thome's pursuit of a World Series title. He'll turn 42 in August and will play some first base until Ryan Howard returns. That's a pretty good story in itself (he hasn't played on the field since appearing in one game at first in 2008), but he's played in nine postseasons and reached two World Series without winning it all.

[+] EnlargeJamie Moyer
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAge is just a number for Jamie Moyer.
3. Jamie Moyer is back in the majors at age 49 and can surpass Jack Quinn as the oldest pitcher to win a game. Moyer's arsenal these days: an 80 mph fastball, a 70 mph changeup, a 65 mph curveball, a 55 mph slowball, a 20 mph Bugs Bunny ball and an 8 mph retirement community ball that bends time.

4. Justin Verlander's encore performance. Verlander threw 3,941 pitches in the regular season, the most since Livan Hernandez's 4,007 in 2005. Verlander added 360 more in the postseason. It's not necessarily a big deal -- Verlander's 2009 total is the third-highest since 2005 -- but you do wonder whether Jim Leyland will back off a little.

5. Roy Halladay's paintbrush.

6. Yu Darvish.

7. Yu Darvish's hair. Straight from Supercuts.

8. Adam Wainwright's return to the Cardinals' rotation. He was third in the 2009 NL Cy Young vote and second in 2010. He looked good this spring, pitching 18 2/3 innings and allowing just 11 hits. The strikeout rate wasn't great -- just nine K's -- but signs are positive a year after Tommy John surgery.

9. A full season of Stephen Strasburg, who was electric in his own return in September from TJ surgery in September 2010 -- his fastball averaged 95.8 mph, below the 97.3 he averaged in 2010 but still with enough velocity that it would have ranked No. 1 among starting pitchers. The big question for his season: How much the Nationals will limit his innings?

10. Jose Canseco's tweets.

11. Clayton Kershaw's slider. His fastball isn't too shabby, either. By the way, here's what Kershaw does in the offseason to stay in shape and get ready for the season.

12. Verlander, Halladay, Kershaw: three of the amazing generation of pitchers we get to enjoy. Maybe Darvish and Strasburg will join them. In 2011, 14 pitchers pitched at least 200 innings with an ERA of 3.00 or less. The last time we had even 10 such pitchers in one season was 1997, with 11. The last season with more than 14 was 1992, with 20. Yes, steroids are a small part of that. A small part. The best pitchers today are throwing harder and with meaner breaking stuff than we've ever seen. Guys like Kershaw and Halladay are relentless in their workout routines. It's not a lot of fun to be a hitter these days.

13. Well, Jose Bautista has a lot of fun.

14. A new generation of young hitters like Giancarlo Stanton, Eric Hosmer, Brett Lawrie, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Starlin Castro and Jesus Montero. All will play their age-22 seasons in 2012.

15. Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez.

16. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

[+] EnlargePrince Fielder
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesPrince Fielder adds even more punch to the Detroit Tigers' lineup.
17. Will Cabrera win his first MVP award? He's finished fifth in the voting three times, fourth once and second once. Two things that could prevent him from winning:

A. Austin Jackson's on-base percentage. Cabrera hit .388 with runners in scoring position in 2011 but drove in "just" 105 runs.
B. Fielder. Batting behind Cabrera and his .400-plus OBP will give Fielder more RBI opportunities. If he ends up driving in 15 to 20 more runs than Cabrera, they could split votes.

Five other all-time greats who have never won an MVP award: Derek Jeter, Eddie Murray, Mike Piazza, Al Kaline, Manny Ramirez.

18. Cabrera playing third base. With Fielder at first base, the Tigers could have the worst first baseman and worst third baseman in baseball. (And, please, don't defend Fielder's defensive prowess at first base. He's better than Adam Dunn, I suppose ... but Dunn is a DH.)

19. Defensive runs saved!

Your leaders by position in 2011:

C -- Matt Wieters
1B -- Adrian Gonzalez
2B -- Ben Zobrist
3B -- Evan Longoria
SS -- Brendan Ryan
LF -- Brett Gardner
CF -- Austin Jackson
RF -- Jason Heyward

20. The Sandman.

21. The fans in Milwaukee. The Brewers drew a franchise-record 3.071 million fans in 2011. Depressed over losing Fielder? Hardly. They'll surpass that in 2012.

(Read full post)

Top 10 position changes to watch

February, 6, 2012
Hanley Ramirez/Miguel CabreraUS PresswireHanley Ramirez, left, and Miguel Cabrera will be making high-profile position switches this spring.
Now that we’re waiting for these last few days to pass before pitchers and catchers report, it’s worth remembering that beyond the usual camp fights and reps as players get into regular-season shape, we’ll also see a few players challenged as they never have been: challenged to change positions.

Every club has different motivations for attempting this sort of thing: immediate need, making room for a major free agent or fulfilling a long-term plan for a younger player. What are the 10 most interesting attempted position switches to watch this spring?

1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers, from 1B to 3B: Cabrera’s bulk might seem like a major stumbling block to his making a jump to the hot corner now that Prince Fielder is manning first base. Although Cabrera started at the hot corner for the Marlins, he was a regular there in only two full seasons, 2006 and 2007; Baseball Info Solutions graded his defense 27 runs below average across those two seasons.

Tigers skipper Jim Leyland has plenty of experience with making the best of a bad situation at the hot corner. He tolerated Bobby Bonilla’s fielding at third base for the ’97 Marlins despite long exposure to Bonilla’s bad hands and scattershot arm as a Pirate back in the ’80s, for example. But fundamentally, can Cabrera do it? That seems like a stretch, but over a full season, he might not have to. The Tigers can rotate him or Fielder to DH now and again, and Cabrera also has plenty of experience in left field -- another position where the Tigers don’t have to play any one guy regularly.

With Leyland in the dugout, it’s worth keeping in mind that no manager in baseball today is more aggressive when it comes to using defensive replacements -- even if Cabrera acquits himself better than expected, don’t be surprised if Brandon Inge keeps busy as a frequently used substitute.

2. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins, from SS to 3B: Another move made to make room for a free agent. The immediate expectation is that an athletic shortstop like HanRam should be more than capable of jumping to third base. Shortstop is supposed to be harder, after all, so the expectation is that Ramirez might go from a questionable glove at short to a defensive asset at third.

However, it’s worth remembering that not all of these moves turn out well. As Michael Humphreys documents in his excellent "Wizardry: Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed," Chipper Jones was an example of a former shortstop with tremendous athletic ability moved to third, only to deliver initially awful results in his first several seasons. Humphreys goes on to point out that Alex Rodriguez hasn’t become a great or even a good third baseman since starting out as a competent shortstop, and if your memory goes back to the ’70s and ’80s, neither did Toby Harrah.

So Ramirez’s value at third base is no sure thing, and how well he adapts will be a matter of hard work in camp.

3. Neftali Feliz, Rangers, from closer to starter: We’ve been through this before, as Feliz was prepped to start for the Rangers last spring only to wind up back in the bullpen. This time around, with veteran closer Joe Nathan in the fold, the transition should stick. Feliz has consulted with Pedro Martinez on the nature of the challenge of moving to the rotation -- a move Pedro had to make when the Dodgers distrusted his ability to withstand the workload of starting.

In Feliz’s case -- unlike Pedro’s -- his size or stature has never been a stumbling block, and he’s always had the broad assortment of plus stuff you’d associate with a top starter. Between the plus changeup he added in 2008 and the power breaking stuff he hasn’t had to use as often out of the 'pen, he’ll do more than keep people guessing. Because he’ll be entering his age-24 season, the Rangers will be sure to monitor his workload, but every other light is green on this project.

4. Daniel Bard, Red Sox, from reliever to starter: If Feliz’s transition is part of a grand design, Bard’s seems more a matter of immediate need. However, it’s worth remembering that Bard started out as a starting pitcher prospect and a first-round selection. He didn’t really turn the corner with the slider that now complements his 97 mph fastball until he moved to the ’pen in the minors. Will he be able to throw it as effectively a second or third time through a big league lineup? His changeup might wind up becoming the key off-speed pitch in his arsenal that gets him all the way through 90-100 pitches and into the sixth inning.

5. Mark Trumbo, Angels, from 1B to 3B: This hasn’t gotten nearly the same kind of attention that Cabrera’s has in even less time, but that’s because Trumbo’s success is not a critical component to the Angels’ plans the way Cabrera’s is to the Tigers. General manager Jerry Dipoto is adamant that, after he recovers from a stress fracture in his foot, Trumbo’s move off first base to make way for Albert Pujols won’t be to one position but to a superutility role, playing all four corners and DH as Mike Scioscia tries to find ways to squeeze Bobby Abreu, Vernon Wells, Kendrys Morales and Trumbo into the lineup when there are just two lineup slots they can have to themselves.

Even if Trumbo’s healthy, there’s the question of whether he can really make the jump to third. He’s never played there in the minors, let alone the majors, and he was better known as a top pitcher in high school when the Angels drafted him. As experiments go, this seems desperate and might not survive to see the light of Opening Day.

6. Chris Sale, White Sox, from reliever to starter: This move is more like Feliz’s shift to the rotation than Bard’s, because it was anticipated from the day the White Sox drafted him in 2010 that he had the stuff to eventually start. But his arm was good enough to make the majors in a relief role just weeks after his selection. With Mark Buehrle’s defection via free agency, a slot has opened up, so the Sox can proceed with what they’ve always wanted from Sale: a southpaw tower of power capable of pumping pure gas from the mound. Although 2012 hasn’t been a season to look forward to on Chicago’s South Side, watching Sale every fifth day should be something people pay to see.

7. Jayson Werth, Nationals, from RF to CF: This isn’t guaranteed to happen, but it’s a very likely outcome should top prospect Bryce Harper somehow wind up making the team as the starting right fielder. The argument over whether Harper will be ready is one major hurdle, but whether Werth would be able to handle center field over a full season is another.

In baseball history, only two men as tall as Werth’s 6-foot-5 have ever played anything close to every day as a center fielder: Alex Rios of the White Sox over the past two years and the Phillies’ Von Hayes for big chunks of 1984 and 1985. Werth’s listed weight, 220, is heavier than either Rios' now or Hayes' then -- he’s simply a much bigger guy. Drew Stubbs is another big man in center -- he’s 6-foot-4, but also almost 20 pounds lighter. The Braves’ Dale Murphy was famously big for center, but at 6-4 and a listed weight of 210, he was also smaller than Werth.

If Harper makes a case to the Nats to play on Opening Day, could Werth really handle the pounding of racing gap to gap over a full season? If you have your doubts, you’re not alone, especially in light of GM Mike Rizzo’s recent decision to bring back Rick Ankiel (although on a minor league deal).

8. Jim Thome, Phillies, DH to 1B: As Jayson Stark pointed out last month, Thome’s challenge in moving back to playing a position might be remarkable, but he won’t be the only famous forty-something to have spent time at first base. But because he's played all of four games at first base in the past six seasons, concerns about his durability given his extensive track record for injury -- including two DL stints last season -- come to the fore.

However, even with the initial expectation that Thome will be little more than a Sunday starter and regular pinch hitter, you’ve got the open question about how much playing time in left John Mayberry Jr. might have to log, as well as the dubious proposition that Ty Wigginton will hit enough to handle the spot. Given the uncertainty about his lineup, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel might well be tempted to take a few chances with Thome.

9. Daniel Murphy, Mets, utility to 2B: It remains to be seen how serious the Mets are about attempting to return Murphy to the keystone after he was knocked out with knee injuries -- while playing second base, no less. He has never been able to handle second base as a regular at any level as a pro, having played just 19 games there in the minors. This is a lot like what the team went through with Keith Miller more than 20 years ago. Even with the “Hal McRae rule” to protect second basemen, a basic level of agility is required at second base -- to protect yourself and to move around the bag effectively -- and there’s reason to doubt Murphy has it after injuries to both knees, if he ever had it in the first place.

10. Sean Doolittle, Athletics, 1B to pitcher: Speaking of knee injuries, bum wheels essentially ruined Doolittle’s shot to stick as a position player. The former supplementary first-rounder from the 2007 draft was a two-way star at Virginia in college. Now the A’s are trying to recoup some value from their investment by putting that arm to good use on the mound. He made an initial effort on the mound last season, throwing an inning in rookie ball. You can never know how these things will turn out, but Sergio Santos is the most recent example of a strong-armed player enjoying an overnight success with a move to the mound; A’s fans might have at least this one small chance to daydream.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Mike Stanton/Hunter Pence/Jason HeywardGetty Images/US PresswireThe best right fielder in the NL East? Mike Stanton, Hunter Pence and Jason Heyward have their fans.
This is back-of-the-napkin stuff ... but fun back-of-the-napkin stuff. As we wait to see if Prince Fielder does land in Washington, let's check out the state of the NL East. We'll go position by position and rank the players. Then we'll come up with a final tally (five points for first, four for second, etc.)

1. Brian McCann, Braves
2. Wilson Ramos, Nationals
3. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies
4. Josh Thole, Mets
5. John Buck, Marlins

Phillies fans will storm the bastille over this one and say I'm underestimating Ruiz's ability to call a game, but I think Wilson Ramos has a chance to be something special. He hit .267/.334/.445 as a rookie, spending most of the season at just 23 years old. The thing that bodes well is that his walk rate improved from 4 percent in Triple-A in 2010 to 8.7 percent last season. And to think they got him from the Twins for Matt Capps. Ruiz is an underrated player -- he's posted a .376 OBP the past three seasons -- but Ramos' power and potential for improvement put him at No. 2 behind McCann.

First base
1. Freddie Freeman, Braves
2. Ryan Howard/Jim Thome, Phillies
3. Ike Davis, Mets
4. Gaby Sanchez, Marlins
5. Adam LaRoche, Nationals

Yes, there's huge value for the Nationals in signing Prince Fielder. With Davis and LaRoche coming off serious injuries and Howard out for at least a couple months, I have to give the top nod to Freeman. Sure, maybe he'll succumb to the dreaded sophomore jinx, but baseball history also tells us that players often make a huge leap from age 21 to age 22. If Davis hits like he did in the 36 games he played last year (.302/.383/.543) then he's an All-Star candidate, but while he says he's "good to go" for spring training, we'll have to wait to see how his ankle responds. As for Sanchez, he's a lukewarm cup of coffee on a 32-degree day.

Second base
1. Chase Utley, Phillies
2. Danny Espinosa, Nationals
3. Dan Uggla, Braves
4. Daniel Murphy, Mets
5. Omar Infante, Marlins

I put Utley first with some hesitation: His OPS totals since 2007 read .976, .915, .905, .832 and .769. Still, that .769 figure is better than Uggla or Espinosa produced in 2011, and Utley still carries a good glove. It's defense and predicted second-season improvement that pushes Espinosa over Uggla. Murphy doesn't hit many home runs or draw many walks, so most of his offensive value resides in his batting average. If he hits .320 again, he's a good player. If he hits .290, then he's still better than Infante.

Third base
1. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals
2. David Wright, Mets
3. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
4. Chipper Jones, Braves
5. Placido Polanco, Phillies

If healthy, Zimmerman is one of the best players in the league. Ramirez and Wright were once part of that discussion, but no longer. Both players had the worst years of their careers in 2011. Will Wright rebound with the fences moved in at Citi Field? Will Ramirez bounce back and handle the transition to third base? Your guess is as good as mine. Chipper is aging gracefully, playing through injuries but still putting up respectable numbers. If this is his last season, I hope he goes out in style.

1. Jose Reyes, Marlins
2. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
3. Ruben Tejada, Mets
4. Ian Desmond, Nationals
5. Tyler Pastornicky, Braves

Not much debate here. Tejada posted a .360 OBP in 2011 as a 21-year-old. He doesn't have any power, but I believe the Mets are in good hands at shortstop. The same can't be said about Desmond, who must improve his defense (23 errors) and approach at the plate (139/35 SO/BB ratio). Pastornicky hit .314 in the minors last year, including .365 in 27 games in Triple-A. He puts the ball in play and has some speed, but won't hit for much power or draw many walks, so he'll need to hit for a good average to hold the job.

Left field
1. Michael Morse, Nationals
2. Martin Prado, Braves
3. Logan Morrison, Marlins
4. Domonic Brown/John Mayberry, Phillies
5. Jason Bay, Mets

We have to consider Morse the real deal by now, don't we? Although he comes with a few caveats: That 126/36 SO/BB ratio is a concern; so is his .344 average on balls in play, which ranked 15th in the majors (can he repeat that figure?); and finally, he plays left field a bit like a fire hydrant. By the way, how bad is this group defensively? Morrison may have even less range than Morse, Brown looked terrible in right field with the Phillies last year and Bay isn't getting paid $16 million because he's adept at running down balls in the gap. Actually, I'm not sure what he's getting paid for.

Center field
1. Shane Victorino, Phillies
2. Michael Bourn, Braves
3. Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins
4. Andres Torres, Mets
5. Roger Bernadina, Nationals

This seems pretty straightforward other than the ongoing raging debate between Andres Torres fans and Roger Bernadina fans.

Right field
1. Mike Stanton, Marlins
2. Hunter Pence, Phillies
3. Jason Heyward, Braves
4. Jayson Werth, Nationals
5. Lucas Duda, Mets

Mike Stanton ... 2012 National League MVP? Too soon? I'm just saying don't be surprised if it happens.

No. 1 starter
1. Roy Halladay, Phillies
2. Josh Johnson, Marlins
3. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
4. Tim Hudson, Braves
5. Johan Santana, Mets

Is there a more important player in the majors in 2012 than Johnson? The Marlins fancy themselves contenders but they need a healthy Johnson headlining the rotation. After leading the NL with a 2.30 ERA in 2010, he had posted a 1.64 ERA through 10 starts in 2011 before shoulder tendinitis shelved him for the season. He's been throwing and long tossing and is expected to be 100 percent for spring training. Strasburg has the ability to be just as dominant as Halladay and Johnson, but the Nationals will likely monitor his innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

No. 2 starter
1. Cliff Lee, Phillies
2. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
3. Mark Buehrle, Marlins
4. Tommy Hanson, Braves
5. R.A. Dickey, Mets

This is a terrific group of No. 2 starters, as even the knuckleballer Dickey posted a 3.28 ERA in 2011 (and 3.08 ERA over the past two seasons). Hanson has Cy Young ability, but his own shoulder issues from late last season raise a red flag.

No. 3 starter
1. Cole Hamels, Phillies
2. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
3. Anibal Sanchez, Marlins
4. Jair Jurrjens, Braves
5. Mike Pelfrey, Mets

Zimmermann is the sleeping giant in the Nationals rotation. His strikeout/walk ratio of 4.0 ranked 11th-best among starters in 2011 and another year beyond his own TJ surgery should help him develop the stamina to improve on his second-half numbers (2.66 ERA before the All-Star break, 4.47 after). I'm not a big Jurrjens fan; he's a good pitcher, but he's now battled injuries two seasons in a row and his strikeout rate took a big dip last season.

No. 4 starter
1. Brandon Beachy, Braves
2. Vance Worley, Phillies
3. John Lannan, Nationals
4. Jonathon Niese, Mets
5. Ricky Nolasco, Marlins

You could draw this list out of a hat. Beachy and Worley surprised many with their exceptional rookie seasons; I believe both are for real, as both seemed to deliver better-than-advertised fastballs. Now they just have to prove they can become seven-inning pitchers instead of five or six. Niese is an excellent breakout candidate in 2012: He throws hard enough for a lefty (90-91), gets strikeouts, doesn't walk too many, gets groundballs. In fact, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) was 3.36 compared to his actual ERA of 4.40. It wouldn't surprise me to see him win 15 games with a 3.40 ERA. It would surprise me if Nolasco does that; 2008 is starting to look further and further in the rear-view mirror.

No. 5 starter
1. Mike Minor, Braves
2. Carlos Zambrano, Marlins
3. Dillon Gee, Mets
4. Chien-Ming Wang, Nationals
5. Joe Blanton/Kyle Kendrick, Phillies

If you're talking depth, the big edge here goes to the Braves, who also have prospects Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino ready to step in. Big Z is a nice gamble by the Marlins as a No. 5 starter, you could do worse.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
2. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
3. Drew Storen, Nationals
4. Heath Bell, Marlins
5. Frank Francisco, Mets

As dominant as Kimbrel was in winning Rookie of the Year honors (14.8 K's per nine), he did blow eight saves. But Papelbon is just one season removed from his own season of eight blown saves. Factor in Kimbrel's K rate and slightly heavier workload, and I'll give him the slight nod. Bell will have to prove himself away from the friendly confines of Petco Park, so Storen rates the clear No. 3 here.

1. Braves -- Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro
2. Marlins -- Steve Cishek, Edward Mujica, Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb, Randy Choate
3. Nationals -- Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, Ryan Perry, Tom Gorzelanny
4. Phillies -- Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Dontrelle Willis, David Herndon, Jose Contreras
5. Mets -- Bobby Parnell, Jon Rauch, Pedro Beato, Tim Byrdak, Manny Acosta

The top four teams all project to have solid-to-excellent pens. Venters and Clippard are arguably the two best set-up guys in baseball. Cishek is the rare sidearmer who can get lefties out as well as righties and he allowed just one home run in 54 innings as a rookie. The Phillies don't need many innings from their pen and while Willis could be a terrific lefty killer (lefties hit .127 off him in 2011), Bastardo must rebound from his late-season fatigue.

1. Marlins
2. Phillies
3. Braves
4. Nationals
5. Mets

New stadium, new free agents, new manager, new uniforms -- I view all of that as a plus for the Marlins. The playoffs left a sour taste for the Phillies' veteran-heavy squad and those guys will want nothing more than to win a sixth straight division title. The Braves have plenty of incentive after their late-season collapse. The Nationals are young but have no chip on their shoulder. But if they sign Prince ...

The final tally
1. Phillies, 58 points
2. Braves, 56 points
3. Marlins, 49 points
4. Nationals, 48 points
5. Mets, 29 points

And the napkin says the Phillies are still the division favorite. What, you want to bet against Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels?
Here are four more of the biggest stories from 2011.

Justin Verlander wins Cy Young, MVP awards
In becoming the first pitcher to win the MVP Award since A's reliever Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and the first starter since Roger Clemens in 1986, Verlander led the AL in wins, winning percentage, ERA, innings, strikeouts, hits per nine innings, opponents' batting average, opponents' on-base percentage and opponents' slugging percentage. He was the first pitcher to win 24 games since Randy Johnson in 2002 and pitched at least six innings in every start -- in other words, he never got knocked out early. I wrote during the MVP debate that while there were other deserving candidates in the AL, 2011 felt like Justin Verlander's year. It was.

Game 6 of the World Series
It wasn't always elegant (there were five errors), but Game 6 immediately went down as one of the most exciting, legendary and improbable postseason games ever played. The Cardinals trailed 1-0, 3-2, 4-3, 7-4 and 9-7, but rallied each time. Five comebacks in a single game? A World Series game? With the season on the line? Are you kidding? Down to their final strike in the bottom of the ninth, David Freese tripled in two runs to tie it. After Josh Hamilton's two-run homer in the 10th, Lance Berkman -- down to his final strike -- singled in the tying run in the bottom of the inning, setting up Freese's dramatic walk-off home run in the 11th. I can't wait for the book.

Phillies rotation meets expectations
It was billed as the best starting rotation since the Greg Maddux-Tom Glavine-John Smoltz trio headlined the Braves. And Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels didn't disappoint, as each pitched at least 216 innings with Hamels' 2.79 ERA the highest of the three. They became the first team to have three starters pitch at least 200 innings, average at least eight strikeout per nine innings and post an ERA+ of 130 or higher. (Only five teams had two pitchers meet those criteria.) While Roy Oswalt battled back issues, rookie Vance Worley stepped in and posted a 3.02 ERA in 21 starts. Overall, the Phillies' rotation finished with a 2.86 ERA, the lowest in the majors since the 1985 Dodgers (2.71) and Mets (2.84).

Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jim Thome reach milestones
Jeter reached 3,000 hits, Rivera passed Trevor Hoffman as the all-time saves leader and Thome became just the eighth player to hit 600 home runs.
Albert PujolsStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesWill Albert Pujols' on-field value increase over the course of his 10-year contract?
Let's be honest: I don't think Arte Moreno cares too much about 2017 or 2018, let alone 2021, when Albert Pujols will be 41 years old and finishing up the final season of his 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels.

Last week, ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski projected Pujols' numbers over the next 10 years. Szymborski's system predicts a fairly rapid decline for Pujols after the first four seasons. The Pujols defenders will rightly point out, however, that there have been few players like him in the history of baseball, that he doesn't drink and eats his vegetables and all that, and thus any projection system concerning Pujols will have a wide range of error.

So let's do this. Let's look at the most valuable first baseman or designated hitter since 1969 at each age, from 32 to 41, using Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement system. I'm using designated hitters for two reasons: Pujols will inevitably end up there at some point, and as you'll see, many of the "best" players at these ages have been DHs, not first basemen. Simply put: First basemen, even great ones, do not age well. At the end, we'll compare the total WAR of this method to Szymborski's ZiPS system.

Age 32: Lance Berkman, 2008 Astros -- 6.7 WAR (.312/.420/.567)

Actually, Edgar Martinez of the '95 Mariners was higher with 7.7 WAR, but he was primarily a DH that year. Martinez hit .356/.479/.628. It's perhaps interesting to note that Berkman and Martinez (you'll see his name a lot on this list) have higher career walk rates than Pujols. Berkman is at 15.5 percent for his career, Pujols at 13.1 percent. Martinez finished at 14.8 percent. If you factor in only unintentional walks, the difference is even greater. Pujols' walk rate declined in 2011 to a career-low 9.4 percent. Some of that was due to a big drop in intentional walks, but he was also more aggressive at the plate -- he averaged 3.65 pitches per plate appearance, his lowest average since 2004 and the second-lowest average of his career. Was it an anomaly, or the sign of a hitter with declining bat speed looking to "speed up" his bat by cheating a bit? One of the keys to Martinez being so successful late into his 30s was his extraordinary plate discipline. Pujols doesn't strike out much, but if he's cheating, that means he'll chase more bad pitches. And remember, walks create value in the form of on-base percentage. Pujols' .366 OBP in 2011 was 60 points below his career mark entering the season.

Next five: Willie McCovey (6.4), Jim Thome (5.9), Cecil Cooper (5.9), Keith Hernandez (5.6), Jeff Bagwell (5.5).

Age 33: Rafael Palmeiro, 1998 Orioles -- 6.2 WAR (.296/.379/.565)

From 1995 through 2003 (when he was 38), Palmeiro averaged 41 home runs per season. His average WAR over that span was 4.1. The potential edge Pujols has over Palmeiro is batting average -- Palmeiro hit .285/.380/.556 and was helped by playing five seasons in Texas. On the other hand, Palmeiro had 90-plus walks in a season five times over that 1995-03 span. Pujols walked 61 times in 2011.

Next five: Edgar Martinez (6.2), Jeff Bagwell (5.3), John Olerud (5.1), Todd Helton (5.0), Mark McGwire (4.9)

Age 34: Mark McGwire, 1998 Cardinals -- 7.2 WAR (.299/.470/.752)

Well, needless to say this one comes with a big asterisk. Look below and you will see the overall values of the best first basemen are starting to tail off quite rapidly.

Next five: Edgar Martinez (6.2), Eddie Murray (5.6), Carlos Delgado (3.8), Jeff Bagwell (3.8), Don Baylor (3.7)

Age 35: Mark McGwire, 1999 Cardinals -- 5.5 WAR (.278/.424/.697)

Thome makes the next five list below. He's one of the best hitters of the past 25 years, but from age 32 on, Thome had just two seasons with an offensive WAR of 4.0 or greater (ages 32 and 35). He's a different kind of hitter than Pujols, of course -- lower average, more strikeouts, more walks. But through age 31, he was hitting .287/.414/.567. From age 32 onward, he's hit .264/.388/.542. Thome is actually a kind of a best-case scenario: He has maintained much of his value as a hitter, although he's had issues remaining completely healthy.

Next five: Edgar Martinez (5.0), Jim Thome (4.6), Al Oliver (4.3), Todd Helton (4.2), Wally Joyner (4.2)

Age 36: Paul Molitor, 1993 Blue Jays -- 5.7 WAR (.332/.402/.509)

We're starting to see more designated hitters now. Molitor, Martinez and Hal McRae were all DHs.

Next five: Edgar Martinez (4.6), Rod Carew (4.4), Will Clark (4.1), Hal McRae (4.0), Jeff Bagwell (3.5)

Age 37: Edgar Martinez, 2000 Mariners -- 5.7 WAR (.324/.423/.579)

Now it's getting even more extreme: Only Andres Galarraga played first base of the top six guys here. The point is: Pujols will have to continue to hit like Martinez and continue to play first base to maintain his WAR above 5.0. Martinez hit .324 at 37. Pujols' batting averages the past four seasons: .357, .327, .312, .299.

Next five: Andres Galarraga (5.4), Frank Robinson (4.7), Ellis Burks (4.0), Paul Molitor (3.3), Brian Downing (3.1)

Age 38: Edgar Martinez, 2001 Mariners -- 5.5 WAR (.306/.423/.543)

Again ... a bunch of DHs, other than Willie Stargell, who had a nice late-career push at ages 38 and 39 (hitting a combined .287/.367/.559 over those two years, although offering little on the bases or in the field).

Next five: Frank Robinson (3.7), Willie Stargell (3.4), Frank Thomas (3.3), Gary Sheffield (3.1), Rico Carty (3.0)

Age 39: Paul Molitor, 1996 Twins -- 3.4 WAR (.341/.390/.468)

Molitor had an amazing late peak: From ages 34 through 40, he hit .320. Again, a totally different type of hitter and athlete than Pujols -- smaller, faster, much more athletic in the traditional sense of speed and agility.

Next five: Edgar Martinez (2.8), Willie Stargell (2.3), Brian Downing (2.1), Frank Thomas (2.0), Dave Parker (1.9)

Age 40: Edgar Martinez, 2003 Mariners -- 3.5 WAR (.294/.406/.489)

Look how low the WAR totals are getting. These aren't players who offer much value at this point in their careers.

Next five: Brian Downing (2.5), Harold Baines (2.3), Paul Molitor (1.4), Pete Rose (1.4), Reggie Jackson (1.3)

Age 41: Brian Downing, 1992 Rangers -- 2.5 WAR (.278/.407/.428)

If Pujols is still playing in the final year of his deal, he'll have to defy the odds of Father Time to remain an asset for the Angels (and by asset, we mean you'll have to ignore his salary). Downing is the only first baseman/DH to produce a WAR above 0.1 at age 41 since 1969.

OK, the final tally:

Szymborski's ZiPS: 32.4 WAR -- 32 wins above replacement level
Best players at each age: 51.9 WAR -- 52 wins above replacement level

What's interesting is that currently a win on the free-agent market is worth about $5 million. Take $254 million and divide by $5 million, and you get ... 50.8 wins.

So, if Pujols matches the production of the best player at each age since 1969 for the next 10 seasons, his on-field value will actually match the contract Moreno gave him. As great as Pujols is, I don’t see that happening, especially considering the signs of decline the past four seasons (his on-base percentage has also fallen from .462 to .443 to .414 to .366). Also consider that -- to put this delicately -- at least a couple players on these lists had some unusual aging patters to their careers in the midst of the steroids era.

If Pujols helps deliver the Angels a World Series title or two in the next few years, Moreno will be happy. And yes, Pujols provides value in more ways than just wins on the field -- the Angels reportedly sold 1,000 season-ticket packages after the Pujols and C.J. Wilson signings were announced. No doubt Pujols jerseys and T-shirts will be extremely popular in Orange County this summer. But you can’t deny it remains extremely likely that the back end of the deal will be a major albatross for the Angels.

Realignment would bring back DH debate

November, 10, 2011
Next week, the GM and owners’ meetings in Milwaukee will have a number of issues to address, but one of the ones I’m most intrigued by is the sale of the Houston Astros to Jim Crane. The deal is hung up on a few things, but perhaps the most interesting sticking point is the suggestion that the franchise is worth $50 million less if forced to be moved to the AL West.

The benefit of moving the Astros seems straightforward enough. It would end the unwieldy oddity of baseball’s split between the two leagues, ridding us of both the AL West’s short stack and Bud Selig’s old six-pack in the NL Central. It would also eliminate the stagy quality of interleague play. Instead of lining up interleague for weekends to get top turnout and then calling it a success, AL vs. NL on the schedule necessarily becomes a season-round phenomenon. Don’t be surprised when interleague attendance and ratings drop as these games get welcomed to cold, wet Aprils and irrelevant teams’ Septembers.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesOutside of David Ortiz, how many truly great designated hitters are out there?
There’s plenty to say about what the Astros’ move to the AL would involve, but right now I’m wondering about one element of it: Whether or not moving the Astros to the DH league from the classic-recipe circuit means it’s time to reopen the age-old Designated Hitter debate. If Jim Crane doesn’t want to employ a DH and doesn’t want to bring AL-brand baseball to Houston, maybe it’s time to pop the game’s hood and ask whether or not the DH is an artifact of the ’70s whose time has passed.

First, there’s the irony of the financial side of the proposition. At its foundation, the DH was founded as a money-maker. Across baseball’s long history, runs have reliably equaled attendance, and the American League wanted paying customers. If being forced to be in the DH league is part of what might arguably make the Astros less valuable, that’s a remarkable change within the industry. Admittedly, there are other factors to why Crane sees a move to the AL hurting franchise value, but work with me for a minute.

What if, instead of knocking down the Astros’ sticker price by $50 million, the owners instead tried to accommodate Crane and do away with the DH altogether? The owners can’t do such a thing unilaterally, of course -- they need the agreement of the union. But the new CBA is open and being negotiated at the moment, which means that this might be an item open for discussion. The 2012 season’s schedule is already set with the Astros in the NL, but realignment in 2013 could make for a convenient time to phase out the DH.

The argument from the players’ perspective for keeping the DH has always been about compensation -- in the abstract, they’re protecting the interests of 14 jobs open to well-paid veteran players. But who are today’s DHs? Not Jorge Posada, he just lost his gig in New York. And not Jim Thome -- he risked a move back to the NL. Are we really down to just David Ortiz as the lone example of a DH who lives up to the name? OK, there’s also Billy Butler in Kansas City.

A defense of the DH as a place where great hitters reside and get duly compensated would sound a lot better if we still had Frank Thomas or Edgar Martinez or Harold Baines playing. But we don’t get that; instead, we get the used-up husk of Hideki Matsui, and rest days for regulars. In the past 10 years just 10 players have accumulated more than a thousand plate appearances while DHing 50 percent or more of the time: Papi, Thome, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez, plus Travis Hafner, Jack Cust, Erubiel Durazo, Brad Fullmer, Mike Sweeney and Josh Phelps, or a lot of fine inheritors to the epic legacy of Ron Blomberg.

So other than the Indians’ long-standing regret for overpaying Pronk, maybe we’re back to this really being about David Ortiz’s job, and Butler’s, and perhaps Jesus Montero’s future. And on the other side, there’s a $50 million suggestion that the NL brand’s more valuable, with realignment and whatever goodies the owners might want to toss onto the scales to incentivize the players to get rid of the DH all hanging in the balance.

Not that I think this is likely. Slow news days encourage idle thought. And I’ll admit to a bit of sophistry here: I much prefer the DH and watching people who can hit to watching non-hitters flail away when they’re not just robotically surrendering outs in automatic sac bunt situations. Some call that strategy, but how much strategy can it be when that’s the default move? I like the DH because it keeps pitchers safe(r) from doing things that don’t involve pitching, and because it’s a handy way of letting position players take a break from the field while keeping their bat in the lineup. But I like baseball just fine either way.

The big-picture questions remain, though. If the Astros don’t want to be a DH team, and if being a DH-league franchise is seen as intrinsically less valuable, maybe it’s time to go over why Charlie Finley’s last good idea is still with us for reasons beyond “it’s good for Papi.”

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

Thome time again in Philly?

November, 4, 2011
Jim ThomeDavid Richard/US PresswireWill 41-year-old Jim Thome have a successful encore in Philadelphia?
Just yesterday I noted where Jim Thome ranked among my five favorite free agents. Now, according to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com, Thome might not be a free agent much longer. He appears headed back to Philadelphia to play first base, for $1.25 million, pending a physical.

The Phillies had to find a substitute for Ryan Howard, who figures to miss at least the first couple of months of the season as he recovers from surgery to repair his ruptured left Achilles. Once you get past the flashy options Insider, Philadelphia does not want Lyle Overbay as a dance partner trying to prop up a team offense that has dropped to around the league average -- whether you rely on OPS, OPS+ or equivalent average.

For Thome, it's a matter of trying to do something he hasn't managed to do since 2005, which is play first base with any semblance of regularity. You remember 2005, right? Papa Roach was big. It was a while ago. And Thome got hurt, first injuring his back in May before breaking down for keeps with a scragged elbow on July 1. He was 34 years old.

He's 41 now, with a career home run tally sitting at 604. He has little left to prove on his way to Cooperstown ... except perhaps that he can still play the field.

Can he do it? As far as DHs who attempted to return to the field late in their careers, there aren't a lot of happily-ever-after stories. Mike Easler gave it a shot in 1987 -- with the Phillies, no less -- and it didn't take. Easler had been an everyday DH for three years, but he'd played some first base and left field over that time. Yet he still was cooked as a position player at 36.

A more recent -- and more encouraging -- example is that of Jason Giambi with the Rockies. In a part-time role, "The Giambino" has done a nifty job of bopping from the bench and spot-starting for Todd Helton.

Having Thome around to contribute as a spot starter and pinch-hitting monster while Howard gets up to full speed, and then potentially give the Phillies some DH duty during the 2012 World Series? See, that's easy to imagine.

The problem is the time before Howard can come back and whether Thome can hold up when repeatedly playing the field. He'll almost certainly be platooned with John Mayberry Jr., which helps considerably. You also can bet that if Thome's old joints start aching, Charlie Manuel will sit him for day games after night games, regardless of who's on the mound. You can expect his defense to be terrible, however many polite compliments it draws in spring training. The focus in his starts will be on getting three or four at-bats and then getting him off the field with a double-switch or a pinch runner. Manuel has dealt with those sorts of handicaps before; it won't be a problem as much as a daily task.

Can Thome keep bopping at this level, as a 41-year-old? That might be a question better answered by Dan Szymborski, who projects results for ESPN Insider, but in the meantime, it doesn't seem like an unreasonable proposition. He still can walk around 10 percent of the time, and he'll still crank homers around 5 percent of the time. Citizens Bank Park isn't quite the bandbox it's reputed to be and is certainly an easier place to hit than the chilly expanses of Target Field.

As much fire as the Phillies catch -- and deserved to catch, even before the injury -- for Howard's latest deal ($125 million now through 2017 if they don't pick up his option), they couldn't afford to go without offense. Settling for an Overbay would not have guaranteed much offense. General manager Ruben Amaro is rolling the dice, but it's the sort of entertaining risk that might pay off. If it doesn't, it's doubtful the expense will be enough to prohibit the Phillies from going back to the dancers of Overbay's ilk.

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

Five free agents to follow

November, 3, 2011
Javier VazquezAP Photo/Paul BeatyFree agent right-hander Javier Vazquez could be a hot commodity this winter.
Hot Stove season’s already fired up, and we know that the big-name guys are going to get top dollar. However, the vast majority of players aren’t going to get contracts longer than a year or year plus an option, and when the arbitration-eligible players who get non-tendered hit the market later this month, GMs will have an even wider selection of free agents. That expanded supply of free agents won’t help the mid-market talents in their quest for security in terms of contract length and top dollar.

With that in mind, here are five players from baseball’s expanding “middle class” of free agents who will be interesting to follow -- with reasons why -- in the weeks and months to come as the market shapes up.

1. Javier Vazquez, starter. When the top starters on the market include Edwin Jackson, C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle, you understand why those with the deepest pockets are interested in Yu Darvish. Beyond them, the market features a huge group of veterans in various states of repair or recovery; Roy Oswalt and Erik Bedard represent the high end in terms of upside.

And then there’s the sporadically ace-worthy but often exasperating Vazquez. Two Bronx blowups and a lot of Windy City frustration suggest he’s not a great fit for homer-happy bandboxes, the DH league in general, and perhaps the AL East in particular. Limiting his market further still, he’s famously unwilling to go to teams out west. But for teams in the NL East or Central looking to get bang for their bucks, it’s worth remembering that over his past 24 starts in 2011, Vazquez posted a 2.70 ERA while holding opponents to .222/.257/.366 and striking out 24 percent of all batters. The tension between his track record for high-profile failure, his geographical wish list, and the shortage of starters on the market make his destination -- for how long and how much -- my most interesting plot to follow this winter.

2. Francisco Rodriguez, closer. The relief market’s packed with alternatives, so single-season saves record or no, K-Rod’s not likely to garner the same attention he got when the Mets handed him a three-year, $37 million deal. Add in his complaints about not closing as a Brewer or the incidents in New York that got him into legal trouble, and there will be some organizations who figure a poor citizenship grade’s going to keep him off their shopping list. But between the opportunity to make a fresh start, still-useful stuff, and his relative youth -- he turns 30 in January -- where he goes and for how much makes him particularly worth following. Much will depend on his willingness to settle sooner rather than later in a market where the best opportunities to rack up saves could dry up fast after Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell make their decisions.

3. Jim Thome, DH. Papi’s the big name in the DH free-agent market, and there are just four clearly open DH jobs out there: The job in Boston he’s potentially leaving, plus the Yankees’, Twins’ and Athletics’ DH gigs. The Blue Jays, Mariners, Orioles and Rays might all be in the market, but they don’t have to be if they don’t want to be, creating a very short list of possible venues for veteran batsmen like Vladimir Guerrero, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada. For several guys, the specter of unwilling retirement or a spin in Japan or the Atlantic League looms, but Thome’s choices are limited to one of the very few DH gigs available or getting his clock for Cooperstown ticking.

4. Alex Gonzalez, SS. Say you’re one of the teams who doesn’t get Jose Reyes, Rafael Furcal or Jimmy Rollins. That trio’s already priced out of many teams’ reach, leaving you with… antacid tablets, a review of your farm system’s ability to crank out an alternative, and short-term patches. Gonzalez isn’t going to be this winter’s Marco Scutaro, but if you were looking for a short-term patch to provide defense -- Gonzalez led major league shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved -- and modest sock from the bottom of the order, you could do worse. (Yuniesky Betancourt, anyone?)

5. Grady Sizemore, OF. It wasn’t that long ago that Sizemore was anticipated to be as big a factor in this winter’s market as people named Prince or Pujols. The Indians chucked him into the free-agent pool after deciding that his $9 million option was a bad risk, but the opportunity to see what he could do as a corner outfielder and playing with a creative deal built around his availability to play makes him a fascinating risk to run. The potential that he far outperforms that $9 million valuation is awfully tempting, but everyone knows that -- how far they’re willing to go on guaranteed money, vesting options, or across multiple seasons is what will make Sizemore’s spread of offers perhaps the most variegated of any free agent’s this winter.

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

Season in review: Believe the impossible

November, 1, 2011
St. Louis Cardinals celebrateAP Photo/Eric Gay
The thing they tell you about baseball is that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. This isn’t a game for sudden changes, rash decisions or riding a hot streak for the whole season. This is a game where only collapses are noticed, and even then they are usually a long, drawn-out process.

Yet, on one late, rainy September night, the marathon all but finished, it’s those precious last few hours that will decide everything. Will the Red Sox and Braves complete historic collapses? Will the Rays and Cardinals complete miracle runs?

We believe we’re in for a wild night. We want to believe we’re in for a wild night. Even if such anticipation often ends in predictable disappointment, maybe tonight won’t, maybe the possibilities that are there will come to pass. Maybe the Orioles will beat the Red Sox (again), maybe the Rays will come back against the Yankees, maybe Craig Kimbrel will blow the one save that really matters. We believe because baseball tells us it’s OK to believe, because Kirk Gibson showed us that you don’t need both legs to hit, and Jim Abbott showed us that you don’t need both hands to pitch.

We believe because we can.

* * * *

The season starts in March.

That alone should be telling; in the 85-year history of the old Yankee Stadium, no game was ever played in March.* Three seasons into the life of the new Yankee Stadium, and a crowd wearing so many layers it ends up waddling more than walking, packs into the concourses before the NCAA has yet to crown a men’s basketball champion.

The Yankees aren’t the only team to open on March 31; it’s a new thing they’re trying this season so that maybe the World Series ends before Halloween, the way it used to when you were still a child.** Still, while they’re introducing the 2011 Yankees, there’s some feeling this is a second-place team -- they missed out on Cliff Lee, missed out on Carl Crawford and signed Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Russell Martin and Eric Chavez. There isn’t the certainty here there is in Boston, or in Philadelphia.

It’s perhaps strange to think the biggest move of Philadelphia’s offseason was the acquisition of one single pitcher. Sign Cliff Lee. Keep everyone healthy. Win. It’s a simple formula, and it works well enough to produce the best record in the majors, the only team with 100 wins.

Boston, though, is a different story.

*There was supposed to be a March opener in 2008, but the weather intervened.

**Although the World Series has kept happening at a later and later date, November baseball itself first came about after a week of the regular season was lost in the fallout of 9/11.

* * * *

If you lose the first game of a baseball season, it’s no big deal. Sure, you prefer to start on a high note, but even the best baseball teams in history have lost close to 50 games. Things happen. A pitcher has a bad day, the offense struggles to hit in the cold damp of early spring. So when the Red Sox lose their first game, there are no alarm bells ringing, no bridges or ledges to check. If Carl Crawford goes hitless in four at-bats -- with the hat trick -- you shrug your shoulders and wait for tomorrow.

When you lose the next game, however, and the game after that, and the one after that, and so on until you’ve been swept in the first two series you’ve played, you’ve gone from unconcerned to outright panic. It takes a while in baseball to notice trends; sabermetricians and statistics buffs will tell you that the ultimate sin in baseball analysis is falling victim to the fallacies of small sample size. One good start cannot outdo a season of poor ones (ask A.J. Burnett), and one poor start cannot undo a season of good ones (ask Justin Verlander). Oh-and-one isn’t a concern, but 0-6 is, and by the time you get to 2-10, you’ve become familiar with the maxim: You can’t win a pennant in April, but you can lose one.

By the time Sept. 28 arrives, there’s one overriding question regarding the Red Sox: What if they had won just a few more games in April? What if they had won just one more game during those long nights?

* * * *

The Red Sox aren’t the only team to struggle out of the gate.

The season’s already seven games old by the time the Rays take their first lead.

* * * *

Ryan VogelsongAP Photo/Ross D. FranklinRyan Vogelsong returned to the majors for the first time since 2006 and went 13-7 for the Giants.

On April 2, Erick Almonte plays in a major league baseball game. It’s his first major league game since 2003.

He has four at-bats, and in three of them, he doesn’t reach base. The other at-bat is a home run.

Bartolo Colon returns from a year out of the majors. He pitches 164.1 innings for the Yankees (the team with the endless payroll signs him for just $900,000) and posts a 4.00 ERA. The last time he threw even 100 innings in one season? 2005.

If the Yankees strike gold with Colon, what do the Giants find with Ryan Vogelsong?

In the six years from 2001 to 2006, Vogelsong, pitching for the Giants and Pirates, had just one season with an ERA under 5.00, and just two with an ERA under 6.00.

In 28 starts with the Giants in 2011, the 33-year-old Vogelsong’s ERA will finish at 2.71.

It’s the fourth-best ERA in the National League.

* * * *

On April 30, for the White Sox, Adam Dunn is hitting .160/.300/.267, with two home runs. It’s a slow start, but other players have April slumps too -- Nick Swisher hits just .226/.340/.286 in the season’s first month.

Swisher will ultimately recover from his slump, and end the season with an .822 OPS. It’s not an All-Star season, but it’s perfectly respectable, the type of season some teams would kill to have from just one of their hitters.

Adam Dunn, however, does not recover.

His final line of .159/.292/.277 is, in some respects, worse than his April line, a historically bad season for a hitter, especially a player known for perennially finishing with 40 home runs ends the season with just 11.

* * * *

Dunn doesn’t hit home runs in 2011, but plenty of other players do.

Jose Bautista, as if to prove that he’s not a one-year aberration, does a Barry Bonds impression in the first half and finishes the season with 43 home runs. Curtis Granderson has 41. Mark Teixeira and Matt Kemp both have 39.

Everyone knows Derek Jeter will get his 3,000th hit in 2011, they just don’t know when. They do know, however, that the 3,000th hit won’t be a home run.

Except, it is.

What’s more, the fan who catches it, Christian Lopez, who can ask for the world in return for that ball, asks for absolutely nothing.

Then, on another night: Jim Thome hits his 599th and 600th home runs in the same game, giving his fans in Minnesota a lone night to cheer.

* * * *

Michael McKenry Julio LugoScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesA controversial 19-inning loss on July 27 began the Pirates' fade from first place.

The last time the Pirates finished a season with a winning record was 1992 -- when a man named William Jefferson Clinton was on the Democrats’ ticket for the White House.

The Pirates had a rookie pitcher that year who did quite well, with an 8-1 record and an ERA of 2.14 in 13 games started. His name? Tim Wakefield.

In 2011, when Tim Wakefield will notch his 200th win, there are three separate occasions in July, where, for a total of five nights, the Pirates go to sleep in first place.

The Pirates are undone by a 19-inning marathon with the Braves, a game that Scott Proctor actually wins, a game that, believe it or not, doesn’t have a position player pitching for either team, a game that sees a combined 39 runners left on base ... a game that ends on a blown call at home plate.

Pittsburgh fades into the quiet summer night. The Braves linger. For a little while, anyway.

* * * *

After losing 97 games in 2010 the Diamondbacks are branded underachievers. That young crop of Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, et al, has failed to mature. The bullpen is so noxious that someone jokes that the next time the phone rings, the bullpen coach should just let it go to voicemail*.

Kirk Gibson, who might know a little something about believing, somehow figures it out. Or, rather, if he doesn’t figure it out, it’s under his watch that his players do.

Arizona starts to win, and then they win again, and again, and when San Francisco can’t overcome injuries to Buster Posey and Brian Wilson, the Diamondbacks sense an opportunity.

They bite.

*via @Haudricort

* * * *

Mariano RiveraAP Photo/Kathy KmonicekWith his 602nd career save, Mariano Rivera passed Trevor Hoffman to become the all-time leader.

After 2010, one might think the Diamondbacks learned their lesson about bullpens.

Relief pitchers are supposed to have short lifespans.

They are supposed to come up, throw fire, be untouchable for a season or two, be emphatic in their celebration, and then fade into a sort of obscurity, only being remembered for that one World Series they helped their team win -- or, more often, lose.

They are not supposed to stick around long enough for 600 saves.

Yet, on a September afternoon, in what has been an unlikely season for the Yankees, a season of roster patches and Curtis Granderson home runs, Mariano Rivera stands on the mound, notches save No. 2 602, the all-time record, and celebrates with a handshake and hugs with his teammates.

Jorge Posada has to push the Yankees’ closer back to the mound, and force him to enjoy the adulation he’s earned.

* * * *

If only the Red Sox had Rivera.

If only the Braves had Rivera.

On Sept. 5, the Red Sox (they don’t know it yet, but The Collapse has already started) have a seven-game lead over Tampa Bay for the AL wild-card spot. The AL East, with the Yankees leading by just 2.5 games, is not out of reach.

On Sept. 5, the Braves lead the Giants and Cardinals by 8.5 games for the NL wild-card berth. The Phillies are too good for the NL East title to be realistic, but the Braves have such a cushion on the wild-card that the playoffs seem inevitable.

Baseball, though, is a marathon, and no one sees trends right away. The Red Sox lose a game here, the Braves lose a game there.

It’s OK, though -- it would take a miracle for the Cardinals or the Rays or the Giants or the Angels to pose any sort of threat. The Rays waited too long to call up Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore. The Cardinals are too busy worrying about Albert Pujols’ impending free agency. It can’t happen.

You know it can’t happen. There’s no possible way. It’s just a September slump.

Until it’s not.

Until you look up one late September day and realize the Red Sox need the Yankees to beat the Rays, not just so that their cushion doesn’t get any smaller, but instead, for their very survival.

Until you look up one late September day and realize that the Cardinals might actually have an easier time beating the Astros than the Braves will have beating the Phillies.

Until you look up one late September day and realize that barely averaging three runs a game for a month, even in a year of depressed offense, isn’t going to cut it when the other team has Albert Pujols (and even when they don’t).

Until you look up one late September day and realize that the Yankees, having clinched everything there possibly is available to clinch in the regular season (playoffs, division, home field), the Yankees have nothing to play for except the pride of not seeing the Red Sox in the playoffs, and the Rays now have everything on the table.

Until you look up, and believe.

* * * *

Evan LongoriaAP Photo/Chris O'MearaSomehow, some way, Evan Longoria and the Rays beat out the Red Sox to win the AL wild card.

So we believe.

We believe even as the Braves are just two outs away.

We believe even though the Yankees lead 7-0 lead in the eighth inning.

We believe even though the Red Sox have the Orioles down to their last strike.

There’s no Kirk Gibson one-legged home run on this night, no Jim Abbott no-hitter, but we don’t need them.

We have 13 innings in Atlanta, 12 in Tampa and nine in Baltimore, maybe the most dramatic of all.

We get a two-strike, two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth pinch-hit home run from Dan Johnson. We get a two-strike, two-out double from Nolan Reimold off Jonathan Papelbon.

We get a Robert Andino single, a Carl Crawford misplay, and an Orioles win, and then, not five minutes later, we get an Evan Longoria home run just to the right side of the left-field foul pole. A cheap shot, one might argue on another day. Not tonight.

This is the night of the baseball miracles. A month long in the making, a month long to notice, but tonight they’re here, right before our eyes.

We believe because it’s real.

* * * *

David FreeseJeff Curry/US PresswireDavid Freese's walk-off home run capped an epic comeback in Game 6 of the World Series for St. Louis.

Matt Moore has had one career start. Just one, and he’s tapped to start Game 1 of the ALDS for Tampa Bay, with his team on the road, with his team facing the offense of the Texas Rangers, at Arlington. The Rays can’t possibly win this game. Moore can’t possibly succeed with this sort of pressure.

Until he does.

One game won’t make a career, but we believe in courage.

Josh Collmenter’s a rookie, too. He’s a rookie, and he’s on the mound with his team down two games to none. Win or go home, kid, it all hangs on you.

Seven innings, two hits, one run, and the Diamondbacks will live to play another game.

We believe in hope.

Jorge Posada is not a rookie.

The last season of his contract has been an unmitigated disaster, on the field and, for a time, off it, but Posada battles.

His .429/.579/.571 batting line in the ALDS is the best of any Yankees’ hitter. Better than Robinson Cano or Granderson, better than Jeter or Alex Rodriguez, better than Teixeira or Swisher.

We believe in fight.

The Phillies sail through the regular season. Pitching and more pitching, a Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee-Cole Hamels starting three is a dream rotation; the Phillies get spoiled even further with Vance Worley and the best team ERA in the majors.

With that staff, the last image of their season isn’t supposed to be Ryan Howard clutching his ankle after rupturing his Achilles, but that’s what it is.

We believe in unexpected.

The Brewers aren’t afraid of Nyjer Morgan or Yuniesky Betancourt or Mark Kotsay, even when other teams shy away, even when the narrative is about Morgan’s character or Betancourt’s defense or Kotsay’s (lack of) hitting. They aren’t afraid to trade for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, even if it costs their entire farm system.

They have one season left to try to get Prince Fielder a World Series ring, the same Prince Fielder who hits a home run in the All-Star Game that will guarantee home-field advantage for whichever National League team makes it to the World Series.

If there is a season for the Brewers, this is supposed to be it.

We believe in going all-out.

Justin Verlander’s year has been so good that the debate isn’t whether or not he should win the Cy Young; it’s whether or not he should win the MVP. Yet, even with that performance, the move that puts the Tigers over the edge, that moves them from possible AL Central winners to probable American League contenders, is a trade for a pitcher who was 3-12 with a team that would go on to lose 95 games.

It isn’t Verlander to whom Leyland gives the ball in Game 5 of the ALDS; it’s Doug Fister.

We believe in second chances.

The World Series runners-up from 2010 have something to prove in 2011, and even while all the attention is on the Red Sox and the Phillies and the Yankees and the Brewers, the Rangers are still there, winning game after game.

This, we are told, is the Year of the Napoli. The Angels favored Jeff Mathis -- he of the career .194/.257/.301 batting line -- so Mike Napoli went to Texas instead, went to Arlington and posted a 171 OPS+ for the season, and then he kept hitting in the postseason, too.

Josh Hamilton’s story is such that if you pitched it as a Hollywood script they would tell you no, things like that don’t happen, that you can’t come all the way back from drug and alcohol problems to hit 28 home runs in the first round of the Home Run Derby in 2008 and then lead your team to the World Series in 2010 and 2011, that you can’t hit the extra-inning, go-ahead home run in the 10th inning of Game 6, and yet this is exactly what happens.

We believe in redemption.

The Cardinals are 10.5 games out in August and 8.5 back in September. Adam Wainwright doesn’t throw a single pitch for them all season. Ryan Franklin loses his job as the team’s closer and on June 17 Chris Carpenter is 1-7 with an ERA of 4.47. Matt Holliday loses his appendix and busts his finger; Albert Pujols breaks his wrist.

The Cardinals shouldn’t make the playoffs. They shouldn’t make the Phillies go five games, and then win because of Carpenter's complete game shutout (not when Tony La Russa’s managing, anyway). They shouldn’t beat the Brewers in Milwaukee, and they certainly shouldn’t have home-field advantage in the World Series.

They shouldn’t, but they do, and then they do more.

Albert Pujols echoes Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth, hitting three home runs in one World Series game, arguably the best single-game offensive performance in postseason history.

In Game 6, the Cardinals are twice down to their last at-bat, twice down to their last strike, twice one pitch away from losing the World Series. Each time, the Cardinals come through, as though the idea of losing the game never occurs, and a team that loses its ace before Opening Day forces a Game 7 in the World Series.

Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. This is what they tell you. One game can’t tell you anything, one game can’t make or break you, but this is what happens in the World Series. One game is all that stands between St. Louis and a World Series championship that few, if any, expected.

One game, and the Cardinals have Chris Carpenter on the mound.

We believe in impossible.

Rebecca Glass works for ESPN Stats & Information and is a contributor to ESPN New York's Yankees blog.