SweetSpot: Joe Blanton

You may have missed it. I did, until Eric Karabell told me over a fine lunch at the ESPN cafeteria: Joe Blanton is going to retire, according to Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register. Look, I get it: Blanton became a bit of a punch line in recent years, starting with when the Phillies brought out all their starting pitchers for that news conference one year. You had two pitchers who had won Cy Young Awards in Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, and two more who had contended for them in Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Then you had Blanton, the fifth "ace." Everybody seemed uncomfortable.

Then the Angels signed him as a free agent last year and he was terrible, 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA. Mike Scioscia kept running him out there, for 20 starts. Everybody definitely seemed uncomfortable with that.

The Angels released Blanton in spring training. He signed on with the A's and had made two starts for Triple-A Sacramento.

So it's easy to make fun of Blanton. But you know what? The guy had a pretty decent career: 85-89, 4.51 ERA, 9.6 WAR, 10 years in the bigs, 248 career starts, made a lot of money. That might not seem like much, but only 429 pitchers started 248 games in their major league careers -- out of the 8,001 players who have pitched in the big leagues. That places Blanton in the top 3 percent of all pitchers for games started.

As Eric reminded me, Phillies fans will always hold a fond place in their hearts for Blanton. In Game 4 of the 2008 World Series, the Phillies leading 2 games to 1, Blanton allowed two runs in six innings and hit a home run as the Phillies beat the Rays 10-2. It was the only home run of his career.

The Phillies never won a World Series with their four aces. They did, however, win one with Joe Blanton and Jamie Moyer in the rotation.
We're getting closer ...
  • Watched the Baltimore-Tampa Bay game on Wednesday night since it featured Opening Day starters Chris Tillman and David Price. Considering the teams are division rivals, both starters may have held back just a bit and neither pitcher went five innings. I think Price has a huge season coming, one reason I'm picking the Rays to win the AL East. Yu Darvish was going to be my Cy Young pick until his current stiff neck issue means he's going to miss the first week of the season and raises at least a little doubt over his season. I may shift now to Price -- or Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander -- as he became a strike-throwing machine when he returned from his DL stint last season, walking just 13 batters over his final 18 starts. When you can command your stuff like that and throw 95+ mph, a lot of good things are going to happen.
  • The Angels cut Joe Blanton even though he's owed $8.5 million on his contract. Teams still have a hard time admitting mistakes so give Angels GM Jerry DiPoto credit here for cutting bait. It was a bad deal at the time -- Blanton predictably got hammered in the AL after straddling the line of mediocrity in the NL -- and his poor performance (2-14, 6.04 ERA) was a major reason the Angels finished under .500. Blanton was worth -2.0 WAR last year, so even replacement-level pitching from the fifth spot will be an improvement.
  • Strong final start from Rockies Opening Day starter Jorge De La Rosa, with six shutout innings against the Giants with one walk and seven strikeouts. The Rockies will need Jhoulys Chacin to come back strong in May but I'm starting to think the Rockies could be that sleeper team to watch -- a team that finished below .500 in 2013 that could make the playoffs. A lot of that depends on the health of some injury-prone players -- Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Brett Anderson -- but if the back of the rotation holds up the Rockies could crack .500 and surprise.
  • The Mets still haven't decided between defensive whiz Juan Lagares and stolen-base dude Eric Young Jr. for a starting outfield slot. The Mets know Lagares can play center -- his great range and 15 assists allowed him to post 26 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013, the sixth-highest total of any fielder -- but also know the .281 OBP he posted may not get any better. OK, I get that he can't hit. But EYJR, who led the NL with 46 steals, had a .310 OBP with the Mets last year. Young has been worth 0.3 WAR in his major league career, Lagares valued at 3.5 WAR a year ago. Lagares doesn't have to improve with the bat to be a more valuable player than Young. Even if his defense slips a little (he may not get as many assists, for example), he's still the better player.
  • The Pirates locked up Starling Marte to a six-year, $31 million extension, buying out at least one year of free agency and owning options on two more. Looks like a great deal for the Pirates, exactly the kind of below-market rate they need to sign their young players to, and once Gregory Polanco reaches the majors at some point this year, you're going to see what could be one of the best defensive outfields in recent memory with Marte in left, Andrew McCutchen in center and Polanco in right.
  • Tanner Scheppers was named Opening Day starter for the Rangers, in what will be his first career start. I wonder how many pitchers have made their first career start on Opening Day? If I did the search right on Baseball-Reference, it looks like just three (at least since 1914): Lefty Grove of the Philadelphia A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the Phillies in 1943. So who were those three guys? Grove had been a star for years for Baltimore in the International League when the A's purchased him. Bagby, son of a former major leaguer, had gone 21-8 in the Class A New York-Penn League in 1937, enough for the Red Sox to start him against the Yankees as a 21-year-old rookie. Boston had been 80-72 in 1937, so starting a rookie seems a little odd. Gerheauser was a 26-year-old minor league vet who had pitched for Yankees' Triple-A club in Newark in 1942. The Phillies had lost 109 games in 1942, so probably were hoping some Yankee magic would rub off on them. (Actually ... that list looks like pitchers who made their major league debut as an Opening Day starter. Fernando Valenzuela's first career start -- after 10 relief appearances in 1980 -- came on Opening Day of 1981. He pitched a shutout and then reeled off seven more starts in a row of nine innings (one wasn't a complete game). He allowed four runs in those eight starts and we had Fernandomania.
  • So Randy Wolf was told he had made the Mariners' Opening Day rotation. And then got released. So ... what? Apparently, the Mariners asked Wolf to sign a 45-day advanced-consent relief form, which would mean the Mariners could release Wolf within 45 days and not have to pay his full season's salary. I didn't know such a possible contract existed, and I don't know how common such requests are, but Wolf refused to sign it and became a free agent. (Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times has the story here.) It's understandable why the Mariners would make the request -- Wolf didn't pitch in the majors last year and was last effective in 2011 and it's possible he would simply be holding a spot for a few starts until Taijuan Walker is ready, but considering Wolf was set to make just $1 million, it makes the Mariners look petty and cheap. It's already hard enough to get players to come to Seattle; this isn't going to help.

The 10 worst decisions of 2013

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
11:00
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Earlier, I presented the 10 best decisions of 2013. Here are my 10 worst decisions -- moves that were clearly questionable when made. And, no, all 10 do not involve the Phillies.

10. Angels give $125 million to Josh Hamilton. It's easy to forget that Hamilton hit 43 home runs and finished fifth in the MVP voting with the Rangers last season. But that was fueled by a huge first half. A big increase in strikeouts compared to 2011 and an increasingly poor approach at the plate were warning signals that he could be a risky investment. Hamilton salvaged his season a little in the second half, but he's still a guy with a .304 OBP and the Angels will be on the hook for $30 million a season in 2016 and 2017 -- his age 35 and 36 seasons.

9. Rockies give rotation spot to Jeff Francis. Francis had a 5.00 ERA with the Rockies in 2010. He had a 4.82 ERA with the Royals in 2011. He had a 5.58 ERA with the Rockies in 2012. The Rockies thought it was a good idea to give him 11 starts. Look, if three guys get hurt and you have to use Francis to fill in, OK. But 11 starts? He went 2-5 with a 6.61 ERA.

8. Yankees have no backup plan for Derek Jeter. Knowing Jeter's return from last October's broken ankle didn't have an exact timetable, and knowing his defense was an issue even when he was healthy, the Yankees needed an alternative plan -- and, no, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez weren't good ideas. I advocated early in the season that the Yankees go after defensive whiz Brendan Ryan, a move the team finally made in September. Nix, a .214 career hitter entering the season, didn't hit much and Nunez, a terrible fielder, rated at minus-28 Defensive Runs Saved, the worst total of any player in the majors.

7. Brewers pretend Yuniesky Betancourt is still a major league player. Giving Betancourt 396 plate appearances is kind of like giving up. Betancourt hit .280 with six home runs and 21 RBIs in April. Fake! He was still Yuniesky Betancourt and has hit .189/.215/.287 from May 8 on -- that's 284 PAs. Once it became obvious that April was a fluke, why keep him around all season?

6. Royals count on Jeff Francoeur for more than clubhouse leadership. The Royals believed so much in Francoeur that they traded super prospect Wil Myers to keep Francoeur in right field. Even though Francoeur hit .235/.287/.378 in 2012 and was worth minus-2.3 WAR. As in, way below replacement level. Francoeur played 59 games, struck out 49 times, drew eight walks, hit .208 and was mercifully released on July 5. There also was the Chris Getz problem at second. Or Ned Yost batting Alcides Escobar second for nearly 300 at-bats despite a .274 OBP. Or that Carlos Pena pinch-hit appearance ... if you get the idea that Yost had a bad year, well ...

5. Royals give Wade Davis 24 starts. Part of the controversial Myers-James Shields trade, Davis had pitched very well for Tampa Bay out of the bullpen in 2012, but the Royals decided to return Davis to the rotation, where he had mediocre results in 2010 and 2011 (4.27 ERA). Giving Davis a chance to start wasn't the worst idea, although he wasn't that great as a starter in Tampa considering the Rays' great defense and a pitcher's park. He was better in relief because his fastball ticked up in shorter outings. The big problem here was Yost kept running Davis out there despite a 5.67 ERA and .320 batting average allowed. The Royals have allowed the fewest runs in the AL, but what if Bruce Chen had joined the rotation before mid-July?

4. Mariners think it's a good idea to play Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez in the outfield. Together. OK, we'll be a little fair to GM Jack Zduriencik, who did reportedly acquire Justin Upton, only to see Upton veto the trade. He also pursued Hamilton. So Morse was kind of a Plan C or Plan D, the hope being his bat would make up for his lousy defense. Nope. Morse's defense was predictably awful, plus he didn't hit. When Franklin Gutierrez spent the year raising sheep in Australia instead of playing center field, that forced the Mariners to use Ibanez regularly in left field, giving them two of the worst (the worst?) corner defenders in the majors.

3. Giants stand pat with Barry Zito. OK, he beat Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series, which pretty much justified that $126 million contract all by itself. While it was understandable to open the season with Zito in the rotation -- he was at least serviceable last season before his clutch postseason performances -- you couldn't assume Zito would roll 30 starts again. Zito went 5-11 with a 5.75 ERA as the Giants gave him 25 starts. But that ERA comes courtesy of help from pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. Zito went a stunning 0-9 on the road with a 9.56 ERA and .401 average allowed. Basically, on the road, the average hitter against Zito was Ted Williams.

2. Angels sign Joe Blanton. Considering Blanton had a 4.79 ERA in the National League over the three previous seasons, the odds that he would perform better moving over to the American League seemed slim. There may have been some belief that Blanton's fly-ball tendencies would work in Anaheim. Wishful thinking. He went 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA. Meanwhile, the Angels let Ervin Santana go, and he had a great year for the Royals.

1. The Phillies go Young. Let's see. Delmon Young and Michael Young were worth a combined minus-2.8 WAR in 2012, with the Defensive Runs Saved statistic suggesting both were lousy defenders. Ruben Amaro flouted advanced metrics and acquired both players. They combined for minus-2.3 WAR while with the Phillies. On a perhaps related note, the Phillies have allowed the second-most runs in the NL.

Quick reactions from Monday's games ...
  • If you've seen the scary video of Bryce Harper crashing face-first into the wall at Dodger Stadium, you know the end result could have been much worse than a bloodied face. Aside from Harper needing to learn what "warning track" means, the reaction from some of the Nationals is frustrating. "That's all you can ask for as a pitcher, a guy going 110 percent," said winning pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. No, no, no. Absolutely wrong. There's rarely a good time to go crashing into a wall, especially when the score is 6-0. There is no way making that catch -- and getting ONE OUT -- is worth the risk of the injury. Sometimes you have to play this game at 99 or 95 percent. Manager Davey Johnson said, "I don't want to change him." Fine. I get it. The hustle, the energy, that's part of what drives Harper to excel. But you have to be smart. I'm pretty sure Davey's behind-the-scenes talks with Harper will be a little different than his public posturing.

    The one guy who got it right was Ryan Zimmerman: "I would rather him not go all-out into the wall. Some people look at it as a bad thing. If you play that hard every day, there is something to be said about that. He's going to play a long time and you have to learn to take care of your body. As he grows, he'll learn what to do and what not to do." Zimmerman is speaking from experience, as a player who has battled injuries in his career. I love Harper's all-out play; I don't love him running into walls.
  • Josh Beckett left after three innings after tweaking his groin, but gave up four runs before then anyway and fell to 0-5 with a 5.19 ERA. The Dodgers can use injuries as an excuse for their 15-22 record, but Beckett has been awful, Matt Kemp has been bad, Andre Ethier is slugging under .400, their third basemen are hitting a combined .185 with a .526 OPS and closer Brandon League has a 6.28 ERA.
  • Great day for Aaron Hicks, whom the Twins have resisted sending down to the minors despite his slow start. He homered twice off Hector Santiago of the White Sox in a 10-3 victory and then robbed Adam Dunn of a home run. Love the big smile from Hicks as he gets up from the ground. Let's hope this gets his season going in the right direction.
  • The Mets signed Rick Ankiel. He had been released by the Astros because he's struck out in over half his plate appearances. He started in center field. In a related note, the Mets lost 6-3 to the Cardinals.
  • Travis Wood pitched seven scoreless, two-hit innings against the Rockies and has quietly put up a 2.03 ERA for the Cubs. Wood is a fly ball pitcher -- he had 12 fly ball outs on Monday, seven on the ground -- and when the ball stays in the park, he can be very effective. He's had a lot of effective outings of late. In his past 17 starts dating back to last August, he has a 2.65 ERA, .189 average and .263 OBP allowed and just eight home runs. He's a guy the advanced metrics don't love because his strikeout rate isn't high, but he could be developing into a nice 1-2 combo with Jeff Samardzija.
  • The Rockies, meanwhile, are starting to struggle with the bats on the road. I've touched on this earlier this season, that Colorado's problems in the past has been more about the hitters doing bad on the road than the pitchers doing bad at home. The Rockies started out fine on the road, but the bats have gone dry, getting three hits in two games against St. Louis over the weekend and now getting three-hit by the Cubs.
  • Joe Blanton is a guy the advanced metrics overrate, because he walks so few batters his strikeout/walk ratio is terrific. Last night, for example, he had seven strikeouts and no walks. But he gave up 12 hits and seven runs in 4.2 innings in an 11-4 loss to the Royals. Maybe there was some bad luck: "I felt like I threw the ball good tonight and my stuff was good," Blanton said. "When they made contact they found holes, broken-bat balls fell in for singles and balls bounced their way down the lines. It was one of those weird games. There were a couple of innings where I was one pitch away from it." Still. He's now 0-7 with a 6.46 ERA, and it's not that big of a surprise he's been this bad. He wasn't good last season in the National League, and there was no reason to expect him to come over to the AL, face deeper lineups, and suddenly get his ERA closer to 4.00. He's not good.
Quick thoughts on Monday's games ...
  • The Blue Jays' lineup on Monday included just three players who finished the game with an OBP over .300, and one of those was ex-Mariners backup infielder Munenori Kawasaki, playing shortstop for the injured Jose Reyes. Sure enough, with J.P. Arencibia hitting third, Mark DeRosa sixth, Emilio Bonifacio leading off and Kawasaki playing, the Jays beat the White Sox 4-3 as Mark Buehrle delivered his first good start. The Jays are still missing Brett Lawrie and Jose Bautista was unavailable for this one, but how did the Jays get into a situation where they have to use Kawasaki (.459 OPS with the Mariners last year) and DeRosa (.578 OPS over the past three years)? Contending teams need better emergency plans than this.
  • With Giancarlo Stanton out with a sore left shoulder, the Marlins fielded this lineup: Juan Pierre, Chris Coghlan, Placido Polanco, Greg Dobbs, Justin Ruggiano, Rob Brantly, Adeiny Hechavarria, Donovan Solano. I mean ... the Marlins are 2-11, are hitting .203 and have two home runs while averaging fewer than two runs per game. In case you're wondering, no, the Marlins don't play the Astros this year.
  • Catch of the day and maybe the season so far: Ben Revere with a diving catch in right-center. Later in the game, he did this.
  • It was up to 38 degrees in Minnesota! Hometown hero Joe Mauer wasn't bothered by the cold and lashed out four hits in the Twins' 8-2 win over the Angels. Joe Blanton struggled again, dropping to 0-3 with an 8.59 ERA. Blanton just isn't very good; he had a 4.79 ERA the past three seasons in the National League. That translates to something over 5 in the AL. Yes, he throws strikes (he walked just 34 in 30 starts last year), but he gives up hits and home runs. We'll give him a reprieve on this one with a 16-mph wind blowing out to center, but I suspect the Angels will be looking for a rotation upgrade at some point.
  • Carl Crawford had three hits to bring his average to .396. Adrian Gonzalez is hitting .396. Matt Kemp had two hits in the Dodgers' 6-3 loss to the Padres, but that only raised his average to .196 and he's still looking for his first home run of the season. When Kemp had his monster April last year -- .417/.490/.893, 12 HRs, 25 RBIs -- he was showing good selectivity at the plate (he drew 13 walks against 21 strikeouts). This April he has three walks and 15 K's. In April of 2012 he swung at 43 percent of all pitches and had a chase percentage of 22 percent on pitches outside the zone. This year, those figures are 49 percent and 28 percent entering Monday's game. That's not the entire reason for his early struggles (and no doubt he started getting pitched around last April), but keep an eye on Kemp's discipline.
It's easy to forget that a year ago there were the big three super prospects: Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Matt Moore, and not necessarily in that order. Baseball America named Moore its No. 2 prospect and wrote, "He makes it look so easy, and he's so good he'll make David Price a No. 2 starter." While Harper and Trout exploded after getting called up in late April, Moore was quickly forgotten, in part because Harper and Trout exploded, in part because he plays for Tampa Bay, but mostly because it wasn't so easy for Moore in his rookie campaign.

Moore went 11-11 with a 3.81 ERA and struck out 175 batters in 177.1 innings, normally numbers about which one would be ecstatic from a rookie left-hander, but viewed with some disappointment. But it's not fair to view Moore through the lens of what happened to Harper and Trout, or even the 2.95 ERA that Rays teammate Jeremy Hellickson had posted as a rookie in 2011.

Expectations for Moore shot up after the dominant playoff start against the Rangers in 2011, when he pitched seven scoreless innings in just his second major league start. After an inconsistent first half in 2012, Moore was very good in the second half (3.01 ERA, five home runs allowed, opponents' batting line of .220/.303/.336). It was that improvement that was one reason many believed -- myself included -- that Moore would step in nicely behind Price as the team's No. 2 with the trade of James Shields to Kansas City.

Anyway, fast-forward to 2013. Most of the attention in the American League East has been paid to the revamped Blue Jays, the injury-riddled Yankees, and the revamped Red Sox (remember them?). Jackie Bradley Jr. drew a walk off CC Sabathia in the season opener and poems were written about his future greatness. Matt Moore? Yesterday's news.

After allowing no runs in his first start, Moore started again Wednesday on a 39-degree day in Texas, following a rain delay. He walked a career-worst six but escaped unscathed. In some regards, he was a little lucky -- last season, a starter walked at least six batters 65 times but only twice allowed no runs. His biggest out was getting Elvis Andrus to ground into an inning-ending double play with two on in the fifth. (Ben Zobrist would make the game's other key defensive play, throwing out Adrian Beltre at home in the eight to help preserve the 2-0 lead.)

"Where the big pitches that really needed to be made, I was locked into those moments," Moore said. "From that, we can be happy with what the results were."

The cold weather makes it difficult to evaluate Moore's performance. His fastball velocity is down a couple miles per hour from last year in his first two starts, but that's not yet a concern in early April. What is a concern is the location of those fastballs. Look where he has been throwing it against right-handed batters so far:

Matt MooreESPN Stats & InformationMatt Moore hasn't allowed a run in his 11.1 innings despite where he's left some fastballs.


Those are tough places to make a consistent living, especially when you're throwing 91-92 instead of 95-96. If he gets batters to chase that high fastball, it can work. But as we saw Wednesday, high fastball can also lead to walks. Again, it's early, and I think Moore will be fine -- heck, he hasn't allowed a run -- but the fastball command is something to pay attention to before we declare him the next David Price.

My bigger point: Before we move on to hoping for the next great thing, let's pay attention to the good ones already here.

Other quick thoughts from Wednesday:

  • Watched more A's-Angels. Random thoughts: (1) Joe Blanton might not last the year in the rotation; wasn't that good in the National League the past few years; (2) Albert Pujols looks really good (except when he has to run); (3) John Jaso looks really good in that No. 2 hole in the lineup; (4) Bob Melvin is a better manager than Eric Wedge (see point No. 3); (5) With Scott Sizemore out for the year, Eric Sogard is going to play a lot of second base. He has a chance to surprise. Not much power, but takes good at-bats, doesn't strike out much, will take a few walks.
  • How about Barry Zito for eight-game NL MVP? Hasn't allowed a run in two starts and is hitting .750!
  • Big start for the Royals' Wade Davis, who fought through a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the second by striking out Aaron Hicks and Joe Mauer and getting Josh Willingham to pop out. He was taking something off his fastball at times, according to the Royals announcers; they weren't calling it a changeup, but more of a "BP fastball." He settled down and went five scoreless. Davis had started for Tampa with mediocre results but had a great year in relief in 2012. If his transition back to the rotation works, KC's top three of Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Davis may be better than I originally thought.
  • Here's a long home run from Atlanta's Juan Francisco. Nobody said he didn't have power when he connects.
  • Bad news for the Mariners. Not only did the Astros kill them two games in a row, but Michael Saunders crashed into the wall and is likely headed to the disabled list with a shoulder strain. Looks like Saunders just misread where the wall was; one out certainly isn't worth crashing into a wall for.
  • Bryce Harper still hasn't walked. He went 2-for-4 and hit his fourth home run to raise his average to .394. But he saw only eight pitches. I'll look at this more closely Thursday, but since he saw so many breaking balls last year, I wonder if he's being more aggressive on fastballs early in the count. It's working for now, but at some point pitchers will start to use that aggressiveness against him.

Offseason report card: Angels

February, 13, 2013
2/13/13
11:00
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2012 in review
Record: 89-73 (88-74 Pythagorean)
767 runs scored (3rd in American League)
699 runs allowed (7th in AL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morales out, Bourjos in.

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

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

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

Position Players

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

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

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

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

Pitching Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

SportsNation

How many games will the Angels win?

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    38%
  •  
    45%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    4%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,753)

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

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

What do you think?
I joined Eric Karabell on the Baseball Today podcast to discuss all the latest from the winter meetings, including the rumors of Josh Hamilton going to Seattle and Michael Young being traded to Philadelphia. Plus actual signings like Joe Blanton, Shane Victorino and Eric Chavez, the Ben Revere trade to the Phillies and why the Yankees aren't making any moves.

Twins seeking to add more pitching

December, 3, 2012
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Minnesota Twins made a splash last week when they traded center fielder Denard Span to the Washington Nationals for pitcher Alex Meyer, a 6-foot-9 former first-round draft pick with a 100 mph fastball. Meyer has the potential to be a front-of-the-rotation starter or, in an alternate scenario, a dominant closer. But he might not be ready to contribute to the big league club for a couple of years.

[+] EnlargeJoe Blanton
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsJoe Blanton was 10-13 with a 4.71 ERA in 30 starts combined for the Phillies and Dodgers last season.
With that deal complete, the Twins now turn their attention to acquiring some immediate help for a rotation that went 39-75 with a 5.40 ERA in 2012. It's not a reach to say they're pitching-obsessed.

Free agents Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster and (maybe) Edwin Jackson might be beyond Minnesota's price range. But when you talk to people at the Gaylord Opryland hotel, they'll tell you the Twins are in on just about every other free agent with a résumé and pulse.

Joe Blanton, a veteran innings-eater who spent last season with the Phillies and Dodgers, is a prime target for the Twins, sources said. Midrange starters Kevin Correia and Brett Myers are on general manager Terry Ryan's radar, and the Twins are taking a serious look at the group of non-tendered pitchers who recently became free agents. That list includes former Washington Nationals starter John Lannan and erstwhile New York Met Mike Pelfrey, who underwent Tommy John surgery in March.

The Twins are also kicking the tires on veteran Vicente Padilla. Although some people in the Minnesota organization have concerns about Padilla's makeup, the Twins are intrigued by his ability to both start and relieve.

Minnesota also has been more active than expected in trade talks. Other clubs with excess pitching have approached the Twins to talk about center fielder Ben Revere and left fielder Josh Willingham, who is a particularly attractive commodity because of his reasonable contract and excellent production.

Willingham hit 35 homers and ranked eighth in the American League with a .524 slugging percentage last season, and he's signed for two more years at a total of $14 million. But unless Ryan is blown away, it's tough to envision him moving an outfielder and putting a major crimp in his offense. In the Twins' quest to bolster their pitching, they would simply be weakening one facet of the team to strengthen another.

Dodgers doing the necessary things

August, 14, 2012
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Matt Kemp didn’t go yard. He didn’t need to. And Andre Ethier? He didn’t put the lineup on his back either. What of Mattingly’s mighty mites, the guys who were the toast of Los Angeles back in May? They were there, sure, but they essentially clocked in and clocked out, proverbial lunch pails in hand.

And the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates just the same on Monday night, because the team that made people wonder how general manager Ned Colletti had done it three months ago doesn’t really exist anymore. Kemp had a good night, and journeyman Aaron Harang tossed his 14th quality start -- a reasonable stand-in definition for “winnable game” -- of the season. This could be the second year in Harang’s career that he tosses a quality start 60 percent of the time, the sort of serviceability that recommended him to the Dodgers in the first place, just as it did Chris Capuano and now Joe Blanton. Rounding out a rotation after you have an ace in place isn’t sexy but it’s necessary, and perhaps that’s the word that will define what Colletti’s done this summer: the necessary things.

That’s because Colletti didn’t stand still any more than circumstances did. When forced to do something necessary, he has done it. He has adapted and overcome, and that, as much as anything, might be what puts the Dodgers into the postseason. Colletti never made the mistake of settling, not for the team he built over the winter on back-loaded deals to an odd collection of journeymen, and not when that team started the season 30-13 behind Kemp’s brief triple-crown bid. After a 6-19 swoon through July 17 helped kill any complacency over their brittle early-season achievements, Colletti acted, armed with the newly added largesse of his team’s new owners. Trading for Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino and Blanton represents a facelift significant enough to elicit professional respect among cosmetic surgeons.

As a result, the new-look Dodgers might resemble that surprise hot-start team you remember from April, but only in the broadest particulars. Kemp and Ethier you remember. But the undercard? Let’s just say the Dodgers aren’t going to try getting to the dance with everyone they initially invited. Transient heroes such as Bobby Abreu, Elian Herrera and Dee Gordon have had their moments, but Colletti was as married to any of them as Kris Humphries was to Kim Kardashian -- give me a good month, maybe two, and then, see ya! As brutally unfair as that might seem, that’s life in baseball’s middle class.

Let’s not forget Don Mattingly’s part in also doing a few necessary things. The skipper didn’t settle on Javy Guerra as his closer, last year’s 21 saves or no. Faced with a necessary choice after Guerra pitched poorly, Mattingly let performance be his guide, and Kenley Jansen nailed down Monday's game. Confronted by James Loney’s consistently crummy production, the Dodgers have turned more and more to Juan Rivera at first base -- Rivera has started 16 of their past 30 games. Giving Ramirez a test-drive at short to see if he can still swing it sets up a later necessary decision about what Gordon’s role might be down the stretch. Gordon might be the franchise's long-term future at shortstop, but there’s a right-now future to honor as well, and you can bet Mattingly will make a necessary choice with that in mind.

If you want to speculate about anything with this club, though, don’t think about the warm fuzzies of the Dodgers’ new age of Magic (Johnson) or what might have been if Kemp had stayed healthy. That way lies madness -- with Kemp around, perhaps the Dodgers’ needs might not have seemed so dire, and maybe then Colletti doesn’t bring in HanRam and the Flyin’ Hawaiian and rent Joe Blanton. Follow that thread of possibilities and you’re probably left with a nice little team, an 85-win team that gets remembered fondly as a symbol of the Dodgers’ return to respectability, if mildly disappointing for its late fade.

But perhaps because the Dodgers did start strong and Kemp did get hurt, Colletti did those subsequently necessary things to make something more of his team's circumstance. As a result, the Dodgers are turning into something more than just a rival with those Angels arrivistes from Anaheim for Angeleno affections, they’re turning into the sort of team you can see going toe-to-toe with anybody in a postseason series. Outside of the non-Clayton Kershaw nights, they can now beat you with the sort of depth in talent that is usually associated with the Yankees or Red Sox or last year's Cardinals (or the Phillies, up until this year).

They're stronger now because they were weak in June, possibly as strong as any team in the league. Think on that: Do you really want to run into a team that can lead off a postseason series with Kershaw? If you’re a gambling man, here’s hoping you don’t find that necessary.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Mike SciosciaKelvin Kuo/US PresswireIf Mike Scioscia wants to make a federal case out of it, there's always the Ninth Circuit.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

With Hamels signed, what next for Phillies?

July, 25, 2012
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As if hoisted off the weary chest of the Philadelphia collective by a crane forged from an amount of money unfathomable to most of us, the Cole Hamels Situation has been resolved. Bill Baer has more thoughts on the Hamels' shiny new six-year, $144 million contract here, but for many months the thought of Philadelphia losing its greatest homegrown pitcher to free agency weighed heavy on the minds and hearts of Phillies fans, threatening to unravel the last thread of euphoria spun by these "golden era" teams of the past five seasons.

Instead, Hamels received the latest massive, multi-year agreement doled out by Phillies management to secure some of the game's top players over the past few seasons. It's a collection of talent that has reached the playoffs and set a club record for wins in a season, but has not replicated the 2008 title chase, for one reason or another.

To say things in 2012 haven't gone the way the Phillies, their fans and management had envisioned this past March would be a bit of an understatement, but retaining Hamels' services is an analgesic all parties will surely be happy to have. While the Hamels saga and the "will-he-won't-he" wondering about his future destination became the dominant storyline of the Phillies' season, putting that issue to rest doesn't mean general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s heavy lifting is over.

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels, Ruben Amaro Jr.
AP Photo/Tom MihalekWith Cole Hamels locked up, GM Ruben Amaro Jr., right, has plenty still to do in Philadelphia.
In fact, the toughest work may be yet to come.

Consider what faces the Phillies this coming winter: Even though Hamels is secure, the Phils likely stand to lose their starting center fielder (Shane Victorino) and third baseman (Placido Polanco) to free agency (or trade, at least in Victorino's case), and could suffer a hit to their rotational depth if Joe Blanton ends up departing. Retaining Hamels is important because of his value as a transitional player -- he's likely to be a top-tier starter well into this deal -- to lead the team as the remnants of the '08 squad continue to age. How, then, can Amaro restructure the Phillies and reshape their identity into one built not around Ryan Howard, Chase Utley or even Roy Halladay, but Cole Hamels?

Avoiding Free Agents Who Receive Qualifying Offers

The Phillies are far from stacked with internal candidates to step in and fill shoes of any potentially departing major leaguer, due in large part to the many trades executed to bring in players like Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. Trading away major leaguers for prospects could beef up what is currently a gaunt system, but keeping excess spending under wraps this offseason and keeping the incoming mid-to-early first-round pick -- or second-rounder, should the first be protected (the top 10 picks are protected) -- could go a long way toward improving the outlook of the distant future.

Teams lose their first-round pick if they sign a free agent who has received a qualifying offer from his previous team. That offer is the average of the top 125 players' salaries, expected to be in the $12-$13 million range. The Phils haven't drafted higher than 24th overall since 2007 and didn't have a first-round pick in three of the past nine years.

Maintaining Fan Interest

No fan base enjoys a transition or rebuilding, necessary as those phases may be. Finding ways to keep the fans interested and perpetuating the flow of revenue will be difficult; the Phillies have already seen their fair share of empty seats at home games this season, even though their sellout streak officially passed 250 consecutive games. I doubt the Phillies would commit additional money contingent solely on continued crowds of 44,000-plus even in lean years, but acquiring exciting and/or productive players who can hold down the fort for the time being would help bridge the gap between this moment and when it becomes prudent for the Phillies to make a free agent splash again.

Ripple Trades

This is the biggest point of all. It almost would have been easier for Amaro to trade Hamels or make continued efforts to re-sign him only to have the lefty walk in the winter. In that scenario, the Phillies could use the money saved on Hamels to keep trying to build around its current aging core. Instead, Amaro has tagged Hamels as the player to transition this franchise from a lean 2012 (and perhaps 2013) to a more prosperous latter half of the decade. In doing so, he's forcing his own hand into the near necessity of making additional trades, whether before the July 31 deadline or in the offseason.

The Phillies have long said they have no plans to operate above the luxury tax threshold, and I've seen no reason to doubt them. In 2014, the threshold will rise from its current $178 million ceiling to $189 million, which will help. But as currently constructed, the Phillies will be paying a combined $74 million to Howard, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins in 2014, plus Hamels' newly assumed salary and a potential $20 million option on Halladay. One or more of those players may not see the entirety of their deals played out in Philly.

With the Phillies looking at severely long odds of reaching the postseason, the departures of these players may be expedited to alleviate the pressure on the payroll, and that could mean a trade deadline that's far from quiet for the Phillies, even with Hamels going nowhere.

Extending Hamels was the right move, even if it means the second-highest pitching contract in history. Hamels has proven to be worthy of "cornerstone" billing. A Cy Young contender. A World Series MVP. A 28-year-old, homegrown ace whose departure would have left an indelible scar on the franchise. Now Hamels has a chance to prove himself yet again, and Amaro has the formidable task of retooling and reconstructing a championship-caliber team around the left arm of his latest multi-million-dollar man. The future of the franchise is now theirs to mold.

Paul Boye writes regularly for Crashburn Alley.

When the season began, everyone knew Chase Utley was going to miss a significant amount of time. We all knew Ryan Howard was going to be out until around the All-Star break. We all knew the core of the Phillies' lineup was getting older -- Placido Polanco was 36 and Jimmy Rollins 33 and Shane Victorino 31.

Still ... we believed. Most of us believed. ESPN.com polled 50 of its baseball contributors before the season: 27 of them had the Phillies winning the NL East; 17 had them winning one of the wild cards. Only six had them missing the playoffs. We saw Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and a team that had won five consecutive division titles and was coming off a 102-win season. We didn't see a team that was going to crater.

Just a few days ago, there was still reason to believe. The Phillies were 36-40, but Utley was returning to the lineup, Howard was beginning a rehab assignment in the minors and they were just 4.5 games behind the second wild-card team. Climb back to .500 at the All-Star break and maybe they'd be in position for a second-half run.

Instead, a disastrous five games ensued. The Pirates beat them on Wednesday and Thursday and then the Marlins swept the Phillies over the weekend, culminating with a 5-2 win on Sunday.

The Phillies have played half their schedule. They're 36-45 and eight games out of the wild card -- with six teams between them and the No. 2 wild-card team.

Are the Phillies done? I asked Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley to assess the general state of the Phillies' fandom and he replied, "I would venture to say most fans are fed up with this team and want to see some return on some of the to-be free agents like Shane Victorino and, among a lesser percentage, Cole Hamels."

Here's the best way to assess the Phillies' playoff hopes. Let's assume it will take 88 wins to make the playoffs. Even that win total may be a little optimistic as it wouldn't have made the postseason as the second wild card in either of the past two seasons.

To win 88 games, the Phillies will have to go 52-29 the rest of the way -- that's a 104-win pace, or .642 winning percentage. Or better than the club played last season.

Here's another way to look at that. The Phillies have scored 347 runs and allowed 362 (they've underperformed their expected record by three wins). What kind of runs totals will they need to produce to win 52 games? Using the Pythagorean formula to estimate wins and losses, the Phillies would need to score 387 runs and allow 297 to produce an estimated .641 winning percentage.

Is there room to add 40 runs and subtract 65?

Well, let's run through some scenarios:

Offense
The most surprising thing about the Phillies' first half: The offense wasn't the biggest culprit. They're fifth in the NL runs scored, on pace for 694. The Phillies scored 713 runs last season (which ranked seventh in the league). Still, there are areas for possible improvement.

1. Second base: +18 runs. This is the obvious position where the Phillies could get a huge upgrade. With rookie second baseman Freddy Galvis struggling at the plate until he was injured, Phillies second basemen created about 30 runs in the first half. Say Utley hits like he did in 2010, when he posted a .275/.387/.445 line. That's about an 18-run improvement over 300 plate appearances.

2. First base: +11 runs. The best thing to say about Ty Wigginton is that at least he wasn't awful. Overall, Phillies first basemen (10 games from Hector Luna?) hit .257/.318/.410 and created about 39 runs. Howard created about 97 runs a year ago. Cut that in half and you're talking about 50 runs over half a season. Probably not quite the improvement Phillies fans would expect, but Howard wasn't that great last year, hitting .253/.345/.488.

3. Center field: +14. Victorino has produced about 43 runs, but his triple slash line is way down from last season -- .355 to .322 in OBP and .491 to .386 in slugging. Let's say he hits in the second half like he did last season -- and manages to play every day like he did in the first half. He created 96 runs last year in 582 PAs; prorate that over 350 PAs and you get 57 runs created -- a 14-run improvement.

That's 43 runs. We needed 40 more. But remember, the Phillies are likely to see a drop in the second half from Carlos Ruiz and maybe from Juan Pierre. And keep in mind that while Utley and Howard were disabled, Victorino played every game, Hunter Pence missed one game, Rollins missed three and Ruiz missed just eight. Forty runs would be a big gain.

Defense
The Phillies had one of the great pitching staffs in NL history a year ago, allowing 529 runs. They allowed 362 in the first half; amazingly, only the Rockies and Astros have allowed more in the NL. To me, that indicates the Phillies will need a huge second-half improvement in the pitching and defense department. I have them needing to decrease their first-half total by 65 runs. Where would the improvement come from?

1. Cliff Lee: -17 runs. He allowed 41 runs in 13 starts. Throw in three of Kyle Kendrick's average starts (3.5 runs per start) for the time Lee missed and we're talking about 51 runs. Give Lee 16 second-half starts at the rate he allowed runs a season ago (2.1 per start) and we're talking about a 17-run improvement.

2. Roy Halladay: -15 runs. He just threw his first bullpen session as he mends from a sore shoulder. Add Halladay's 11 starts (32 runs) and five of Kendrick's starts and we get 50 runs from this rotation spot. Let's say Halladay makes a fairly quick return after the break and makes 15 second-half starts and allows 2.3 runs per start. That's about a 15-run improvement.

3. Joe Blanton: -8 runs. He's allowed 61 runs in 16 starts. He has to do better. Cut him by half a run a start.

4. Bullpen: -25 runs. Phillies relievers are 9-13 with a 4.57 ERA, 13th in the NL. They've allowed 114 runs in 205 innings, or 5.0 runs per nine innings. Whether it's improvement from the current motley crew on the roster or the Phillies trade for some depth, the 'pen will have to do better. Cut them by 25 runs over 190 second-half innings (we're assuming a few more innings from the rotation) and we get 89 runs, or 4.2 per nine innings. This gets us to our 65 runs.

OK, that's one way for the Phillies to win 52 games in the second half. On paper, it seems reasonable.

That's on paper. Nothing outrageous needed. But that also assumes everything goes the Phillies' way, the injuries subside and some of the veterans pick it up. There's also no guarantee that 88 wins will be enough. The Phillies may need to win 54 or 55 games in the second half.

I wouldn't trade Hamels just yet. But I don't think I'd be betting on a sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Darryl StrawberryBrad Penner/US PresswireOld-Timers' Day in Yankee Stadium makes Darryl Strawberry the center of attention once again.

OK, let's be brutally honest here about Jon Lester's complete game 6-1 victory on Monday night: It came against the Seattle Mariners. A lot of pitchers look pretty good against Seattle.

Nonetheless, it was Boston's first nine-inning complete game of the season and first since Josh Beckett threw a shutout last June. In fact, Beckett's shutout was Boston's only nine-inning complete game in 2011.

So it was a good sign that Lester went the distance (he did pitch eight innings in a 3-1 loss to Toronto back in his second start). For a guy who has had difficulty keeping his pitch counts down, he threw 119 pitches. He didn't walk anybody, although he threw first-pitch strikes to just 15 of 34 hitters. He struck out six, which at least was an improvement over his past two starts when he put away just five batters in 11 innings. I don't think we suddenly say the Jon Lester of 2008 through August 2011 is back, but it's a small step forward.

SportsNation

Which team is the best bet to make the playoffs?

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    8%
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    40%
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    32%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,227)

Of course, the Red Sox need a big step forward. Remember the Lester mentioned as a leading Cy Young candidate heading into last season? They need that guy back, if he ever existed in the first place. Lester's career high in innings came back in 2008, his first full season in the majors, when he pitched 210.1 innings. Last season, that total dipped to 191.2. Staff aces need to go deep into games. Imagine what an extra 30 or 40 innings would do in saving innings for the bullpen.

The Red Sox, of course, began the day in last place in the American League East. The Angels and Phillies also began the day in last place in their divisions. All three teams are under .500 and looking for small positives. Lester throws well against the Mariners? Hey, that's a positive. Joe Blanton beats the Astros? That's a positive. Small steps.

It has me wondering: Which of these teams -- all World Series contenders back in March -- is the best bet to take the big steps and reach the postseason? Let's backtrack a bit first.

Here were the odds to win the World Series for the three teams at the start of the season, from a certain gambling website:

Red Sox: 10-1
Angels: 7-1
Phillies: 6-1

And the current odds:

Red Sox: 14-1
Angels: 12-1
Phillies: 10-1

I'm actually surprised those odds haven't fallen a bit more, but it's a reminder that we're not even at the quarter pole yet.

Here were the preseason odds to make the playoffs that ran on ESPN Insider, Insider via Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system:

Red Sox: 61.1 percent
Angels: 68.1 percent
Phillies: 62.2 percent

ESPN's panel of baseball personnel was even more optimistic about the Angels and Phillies. Here were the playoff percentages from the 50-person voting panel back on Opening Day:

Red Sox: 32 percent
Angels: 92 percent
Phillies: 86 percent

Not only were the Angels an overwhelming pick to the make the playoffs, 18 of the 50 voters picked them to win the World Series. Interesting that while Dan's numbers-based projected rated the three teams' playoff odds pretty similarly, the Red Sox were viewed in much less regard by the human prognosticators.

And now, as each team sits under .500? The current playoff odds via Coolstandings.com that run on ESPN.com:

Red Sox: 29.8 percent
Angels: 17.8 percent
Phillies: 31.5 percent

Clay Davenport also calculates projected playoffs odds. His system still likes the Red Sox in particular (percentages entering Monday's games):

Red Sox: 65.9 percent
Angels: 20.8 percent
Phillies: 51.6 percent

Clay projects Boston winning 88 games. Maybe his system views Lester as a Cy Young contender.

Now, this is where I pick which of these three teams will make the playoffs. Of course, all three could make it; not a big surprise if that happens. But if I had to pick one team, it's the Phillies. "Baseball Today" podcast host/KaraBlog Insider author/SweetSpot contributor Eric Karabell says I can't do this; he says I've been bagging on the Phillies too much. He says I have to pick the Angels. I think Karabell is misremembering a few things. After all, I did have the Phillies to win the division and was one of just four of those ESPN folks to have the Angels missing the playoffs.

Look, the Red Sox can pound the old leather. My favorite stat: They have 100 doubles, 24 more than the Royals and at least 40 more than half the teams in baseball. The Angels have the advantage of playing the Mariners and A's 36 times this year, still have that great-on-paper rotation, and you know Albert Pujols will go on a tear at some point (although maybe we don't know that).

But I still see too many question marks on those teams. I need to see Lester and Beckett pitch several good games in a row. I need Vernon Wells and Erick Aybar and a few others hitting for the Angels. So here are five quick reasons I'm voting for the Phillies.

1. National League parity.

The Phillies, Brewers and Diamondbacks each won at least 94 games last season, but there's a high degree of possibility that no team will win that many in 2012. Heck, no team may win 90. This suggests the two wild cards may only have to win 85 or 86 games or so. Considering the mediocrity we've seen in the NL Central and NL West divisions outside the Cardinals and Dodgers, it seems like a good bet that two wild cards will come out of the NL East.

2. The Phillies' offense is bad ... but so is much pretty much every other team's offense in the NL.

The Phillies rank ninth in the NL in runs scored. They ranked seventh a year ago. Yes, Carlos Ruiz and Juan Pierre are leading the attack right now. The point isn't so much that this is suddenly going to turn into an offensive juggernaut once Ryan Howard and Chase Utley return and once Jimmy Rollins, Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino start hitting better, but merely to suggest that the Phillies' offense isn't a huge albatross when you compare it across the league.

3. They have Jonathan Papelbon.

OK, Charlie Manuel hasn't exactly done a good job of using him in high-leverage situations, but in a season where closers are falling prey to injuries and blown saves everywhere you look, Papelbon will still prove a small advantage over 162 games.

4. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels.

I still wouldn't trade them for another trio in baseball.

5. Blanton and Vance Worley.

Blanton lowered his ERA to 2.96 with seven strong innings against Houston on Monday. He has a 35/7 strikeout/walk ratio and has allowed just two home runs in 48.2 innings. Worley is once again proving skeptics wrong, with a 3.07 ERA and 45/15 strikeout/walk ratio in 44 innings. The rotation is five-deep and that depth will slowly show up over 162 games.

What do you think? If you haven't, vote in the poll at the top of the page.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Jason HammelJoy R. Absalon/US PresswireJust because Jason Hammel has to give up the ball doesn't mean he's happy about it.

Joe Blanton's trip to the DL

April, 28, 2011
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A running leitmotif of the winter, which started getting play after the Phillies signed Cliff Lee out from under the Yankees' and Rangers' noses, was that they'd have to send away Joe Blanton. There's no way they'd want to pay their fifth-best starter a salary of $10.5 million per year for 2011 and 2012. The fifth slot's the one you can skip while keeping everyone else on their regular turn, after all. It's the guy you don't pitch in the postseason, should you get there, which the Phillies have a habit of doing. Spend $21 million over two years for that guy? Really?

Blanton
Blanton
The assumption was that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. would do the "sensible" thing, and swap Kentucky Joe to some starter-needy ballclub to exploit the limited supply of good rotation-worthy free agents on the market. Either Amaro might need the money because adding Lee to the payroll was a big expense (despite its small initial footprint, just $11 million for 2011), or he might want to use it to address some other need on the ballclub. Either way, trade Blanton, and voila, he'd have cash back in the till. Amaro himself contributed to the speculation by commenting that the Phillies were discussing the possibility after signing Lee.

Like a lot of easy assumptions, though, a funny thing happened on the way to its happening: it never happened. Moving $10.5 million isn't all that easy in the first place, and Amaro had no incentive -- or need -- to take pennies on the dollar in a deal. And most of all, Blanton's trip to the DL with a bum elbow provides a handy reminder that it's a rare rotation that manages to run with just five starters across a full season. Odds are, someone's going to break, because somebody always does. It's the nature of committing an unnatural act -- throwing a baseball.

The other thing to note is that while Blanton may be "just" the fifth of five in the best top-to-bottom rotation in baseball, his final line last year was uglied up because of a bumpy first few starts coming back from a strained oblique that cost him April. Other teams might have looked at his full-season data, seen that final 4.82 ERA, and not found him to their liking. However, over his final 20 starts last year, Blanton posted a 3.92 ERA while pushing his strikeout rate up to 19.9 percent. The Phillies could choose to put some faith in that, and value him accordingly, and his SIERA -- which interprets what his performance was worth, and suggest what you ought to expect going forward -- was 4.01, or something well worth the price, since it was an above-average performance for major league starters last year.

In the meantime, the Phillies will have to get by with a more standard-issue fifth starter type in Vance Worley, an '08 third-rounder out of Long Beach State. It's not necessarily a matter of preferring to plug in the kid than immediately give Kyle Kendrick his old job back; Kendrick pitched two innings on Tuesday, so rather than risk the equivalent of a short-rest start on Friday against the Mets, it will be Worley's spin initially. Worley's a decent enough prospect for a guy with normal back-end aspirations for a big-league rotation: middling velocity, a nice curve, and like Kendrick, someone you skip if you feel the need. The Phillies will have to wait a bit to further enjoy the luxury of employing a $10.5 million fifth starter.

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

Striking gold with compensation picks

March, 11, 2011
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In the past week, I’ve been writing at Baseballin’ on a Budget about the A’s recent history with compensation picks lost or gained through free agency. The A’s added players such as Huston Street, Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton with draft picks that weren’t originally their own. I thought it would be interesting to see what other steals have been found with “free” draft picks. (Note: I only looked at first-round and sandwich picks that a team got for losing a player).

After the 1984 season, the Padres signed former Cubs pitcher Tim Stoddard to a three-year, $1.9 million contract. Stoddard threw 105 innings for the Padres in a season and a half, going 2-9 with an ERA+ of 85. He had one more good season in 1987 with the Yankees. The Cubs selected Rafael Palmeiro with the Padres' pick the following June; Palmeiro didn’t blossom until he was traded to the Rangers, but the Cubs made the right decision not signing Stoddard and found a gem late in the first round. Later, the Orioles would draft Brian Roberts with a sandwich pick after the Rangers signed Palmeiro for his second tour of duty in Arlington.

[+] EnlargeClay Buchholz
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesBoston used a compensatory pick to draft Clay Buchholz.
After the 1990 season, the Giants signed Bud Black from Toronto to a four-year, $10 million contract. Black had ups and downs the previous five years, but was coming off a good year. For San Francisco’s trouble, Black was worth 1.0 WAR over the four years. With the pick, the Blue Jays took Shawn Green; Green, along with Carlos Delgado, anchored Toronto’s lineup for a four–year stretch from 1996 to 1999, before being traded to the Dodgers.

Kansas City shortstop Kurt Stillwell signed with the Padres after the 1991 season; he played only 193 games the next two seasons, posting an OPS+ of 61. For the low, low price of $3.5 million over the two years, Stillwell posted minus-3.3 WAR (yeah, that’s negative). Adding insult to wallet-injury, the Royals took Johnny Damon with their sandwich pick.

Other tales include Toronto drafting Chris Carpenter (for aging but still-effective Tom Henke), Minnesota drafting Torii Hunter (for John Smiley), and the Mets drafting David Wright with a sandwich pick after letting Mike Hampton sign one of the worst contracts in baseball history with the Rockies.

Two teams in particular had drafts that could have been classified as great hauls with just compensatory picks. The Braves took Adam Wainwright in 2000 with Arizona’s first-round pick for letting Russ Springer go and later added Kelly Johnson with a sandwich pick for “losing” Jose Hernandez.

But the kings, as they are wont to do lately, are the Boston Red Sox. After 2004, the Red Sox played shortstop roulette, signing Edgar Renteria from St. Louis (losing their own first-round pick that became Colby Rasmus) and letting Orlando Cabrera go to Anaheim (picking up a first). The Red Sox also lost Derek Lowe to the Dodgers and Pedro Martinez to the Mets, giving them two firsts and three sandwich picks. With the picks for Cabrera, the Red Sox drafted Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie; with the picks for Lowe, they drafted Craig Hansen and Michael Bowden, and with the pick for Martinez, the Red Sox took Clay Buchholz. That’s a pretty good haul for any team, much less one that had just won the World Series.

Almost all of these teams did well letting their free agent sign elsewhere, which is the same conclusion that I came to looking at just the A’s. That some of the compensatory picks pan out is just a bonus.

One more interesting note: In 1983, the Mets drafted Calvin Schiraldi with their sandwich pick, setting him on a course in which he would play a vital role in their 1986 World Series win. Traded to Boston in 1985 in an eight-player deal, Schiraldi blew a save in Game 6, the famous “it gets through Buckner” game, and lost Game 7, giving up three runs in the seventh after entering with the game tied.

Dan Hennessey writes Baseballin' on a Budget, a blog about the Oakland Athletics. Follow him on Twitter @DanHennessey31.

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