SweetSpot: Joe Mauer

Will Kendrys Morales power Twins' bid?

June, 7, 2014
Kendrys Morales reportedly signed with the Minnesota Twins, which can lead to a few quick takeaways. First, of course, it’s just further proof that not everybody wants to put on pinstripes, and that’s a glorious thing. But why, after so many months, does a guy pick the Twins?

Keeping in mind that terms have not yet been disclosed, so we don’t know how long he’s signed to be a Twin -- four months, or for 2015, too? We’ll see, but the better question is why not the Twins? They may be just below .500, but they’re just 2.5 games out in the pack of ballclubs crowding the AL wild-card field. They’re also just five games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, who are in the middle of a 7-13 tumble that puts the division title back in play. So yes, as midseason moves go, suffice to say the Twins are taking themselves seriously -- and they should.

And why not? Morales is almost exactly what the Twins need. This is a lineup that is already proving effective at creating baserunners, ranking third in the AL in walk rate (9.6 percent) and tied for third in the AL in walks drawn. That’s not all Joe Mauer, who you might have expected -- Mauer has walked 27 times before Saturday’s action, but burgeoning second-base star Brian Dozier led the team with 35 freebies before action started. Heck, even struggling part-time center fielder Aaron Hicks has at least walked 27 times. The Twins are walking despite their not having reliable walker Josh Willingham active for most of the early going; now that he’s back in action and back in left field, they could already anticipate those good team-wide numbers to get even better.

Getting Morales helps them that much more, though, because he helps address what has been a weak spot: Slugging, where the Twins rank just 10th in the league in Isolated Power (or ISO). The Twins were already plating a league-average 14 percent of their baserunners, but with Willingham as well as Oswaldo Arcia both back in action to provide corner outfielder-grade offense and Morales joining the party at the DH slot, that number should improve. Morales comes in with a career ISO of .200, as well as greater effectiveness against right-handed pitching (.286/.340/.499) as a switch-hitter, making him a superb fit for the middle of the order, where he can start cashing in all those Twins baserunners. At the very least, they can dispense with Jason Kubel’s slugless comeback.

The other thing this probably helps address is what Joe Mauer has not been this season, the franchise-grade force on offense the Twins signed him to be. Plating just 9 percent of baserunners while slugging 50 points below league average (.395), this is rapidly turning into the worst season of Mauer’s career. Maybe Morales helps with that, and maybe this lets Mauer just focus on contributing OBP from the second slot for the rest of the season.

So far, so good, but can the Twins really win, when this shored-up lineup still has to outscore a rotation struggling to generate quality starts whenever Phil Hughes isn’t on the mound? Hughes has thrown eight in his 12 turns, while the rest of the starters have combined for just 17 in 47 starts, a 36 percent clip that’s hard to sustain win streaks with if you’re going to keep up in the hunt for a playoff slot. As much as signing Kendrys Morales is a good thing, the shored-up Twins lineup is going to have to seriously crank to beat that sort of near-daily handicap. And there, there may not be a good answer, beyond the expectation that former first-rounder Kyle Gibson is supposed to get better, and that the same expectations that led to signing Ricky Nolasco and Kevin Correia as free agents should fuel the expectation they’ll be better in the second half. If they’re not, the Twins won’t go anywhere, even if they manage to hang around .500.

Which brings us to why signing with the Twins might especially make sense for Morales, without knowing about how much money was in play. Say the Twins fall entirely out of the race -- if that happens, they’re an obvious seller at the deadline, and Morales could look forward to being dealt to a team in a stronger position in the standings. Rather than pick a contender and hope for the best, signing with the longshot team provides him with a chance there, and potentially a chance to be dealt to an even better opportunity to return to the postseason in two months. Considering Morales hasn’t played any October baseball since 2009, it’s not the worst gambit for a guy who has already lost so much of this season to taking a bad risk on his value on the open market as a free agent.

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

First base regained some luster last season as Chris Davis and Paul Goldschmidt had monster years that put them in the MVP discussions in their leagues and Freddie Freeman had a breakout year for the Braves. The position gets even stronger this year as Miguel Cabrera moves back over from third base, Joe Mauer moves from catcher to first on a full-time basis and Jose Abreu looks to make a big impact for the White Sox. Who are the top 10 first basemen? Eric Karabell and myself discuss the BBTN 100 rankings.
OK, I'm back from vacation, all rested up for the next eight months of non-stop blogging and baseball watching.

Jayson Stark has a piece up on Joe Mauer and his move to first base, a move the Twins made in the hope it will get Mauer's bat in the lineup 150 games every season and minimize the time he misses with injuries or days off needed from catching.


Over or under on Joe Mauer hitting .315?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,179)

The other potential benefit: Will Mauer hit better not having to squat behind the plate or focus as much on working with the pitching staff? Mauer is a three-time batting champion, although his last title came in 2009, his MVP season in which he hit .365. He hit .324 in 2013, when he finished second to Miguel Cabrera's .348 mark in the American League.

It appears as if catching hasn't had much negative effect on his batting averages, however. Mauer hit .330 when catching last season, .312 when not catching (he started 37 games at DH or first base). In 2012, he hit .365 when catching and .273 when not catching, when he split time between catcher and first base/DH. If we include his entire career, he's hit .328 when catching and .307 when not catching (971 at-bats). The data certainly suggests that we shouldn't expect Mauer to hit better just because he's relieved of his catching duties.

The projection systems don't foresee Mauer hitting .324 again. ZiPS has him at .294, Steamer at .300. I assume the systems still read him as a catcher and he's at the age when catchers often start declining. So in one sense, maybe Mauer will hit better because of the position move. I'm going a little higher and will set the over/under at .315.

Key position switches for 2014

February, 10, 2014
A year ago, the St. Louis Cardinals tried the unorthodox move of switching third baseman Matt Carpenter to second base, a position he had played just 18 innings previously in the majors and never in the minors. Players rarely move up the defensive spectrum, but the risk paid off for the Cardinals as Carpenter played a solid second base -- he rated as league average via defensive runs saved (DSR) -- and had a big year at the plate, hitting .318 and leading the National League in runs, hits and doubles.

Carpenter will move back to third base in 2014, clearing room for rookie second baseman Kolten Wong. That will allow the Cardinals to upgrade defensively at two spots: Carpenter over David Freese at third base and Wong, considered a plus defender, over Carpenter.

With teams opening up camps later this week, here are some other key position changes to watch in spring training:

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJoe Mauer played eight games at first base last season.
Joe Mauer, Twins: Catcher to first base
Mauer has started 54 games at first base in his career, but it appears his catching days are over as he takes over for the departed Justin Morneau. It's the right move by the Twins. It appears that rookie catcher Josmil Pinto will be a solid major league regular, and the move will help keep Mauer healthy and his bat in the lineup more often. Plus, he hasn't really been a regular catcher in recent seasons anyway: The past two seasons, he started 73 and 72 games behind the plate. Mauer may not provide the prototypical power you'd like from a first baseman, but his .400 on-base percentage plays anywhere. He's a good enough athlete to be decent with the glove (he's plus-1 DRS at first base in his limited time there).

Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies: Left field to center field
Like the Carpenter move, this one involves a player shifting to a more demanding position. Gonzalez hasn't played any center field the past two seasons, but did play there earlier in his career (187 games started). This one is interesting because Gonzalez's defensive metrics in left field have been all over the place: plus-8 in 2011, minus-13 in 2012, plus-10 in 2013. Gonzalez, who missed time with a finger injury in 2013, underwent emergency appendectomy surgery in January but is expected to be fully ready for spring training. The Rockies did acquire Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes in the offseason, two guys who can play center if Gonzalez is deemed lacking in range.

Ryan Braun, Brewers: Left field to right field
All 817 of Braun's games in the outfield have come in left, but he'll move to right as the weaker-armed Khris Davis takes over in left. DRS has rated Braun as a plus fielder over the years in left -- plus-28 runs -- but his arm has rated slightly below average at minus-10 runs. Still, he should be to handle right field, although opposing baserunners will surely test his arm early on.

Carlos Santana, Indians: Catcher to third base
By far the most intriguing position change, this one isn't written in stone, but Santana has played some third base this winter. With Yan Gomes emerging as a plus defensive catcher, the Indians want to keep Santana's bat in the lineup and Lonnie Chisenhall may be out of chances at third base. Santana was originally an infielder in the low minors before switching to catcher, so moving to third base won't be completely foreign to him. Still, the catcher-to-third move is a rare one midcareer, most notably done by Joe Torre, Todd Zeile and Brandon Inge (who had been a shortstop in college). Most likely, Santana settles in as a super-utility guy, filling in at third and first if he's not the full-time DH.

Alex Guerrero, Dodgers: Shortstop to second base
This is the most common position change as shortstops without quite enough arm are shifted to second. In Guerrero's case, he played shortstop in Cuba and will move because Hanley Ramirez is entrenched at short. The Dodgers sent Guerrero to the Dominican Winter League, but early reports on his defense were not good, with stiff hands being the big issue. He played only a few games there, however, so spring training will be a crash course at second base. The Dodgers are banking heavily on Guerrero since the backup appears to be Dee Gordon, who has struggled at the plate the past two years.

Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers: Center field to left field
Choo had been a right fielder with the Indians and then played center for the Reds. He had a huge year offensively but showed a lack of range in center. The Rangers will wisely move him back to a corner slot, with Leonys Martin in center. Even then, Choo may prove to be a below-average defender as his metrics in right field in 2012 were not good (minus-12 DRS).

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: Third base to first base
The Tigers will have new infielders at all four positions, certainly an interesting twist for a likely playoff team. But they have arguably upgraded defensively at all four spots: Cabrera over Prince Fielder at first, Nick Castellanos over Cabrera at third, Ian Kinsler over Omar Infante at second, and Jose Iglesias over Jhonny Peralta at shortstop. Cabrera isn't a great first baseman, no matter what people try to tell you; he has good hands, but he still moves about as well as a redwood tree.

Rafael Furcal, Marlins: Shortstop to second base
After missing all of 2013, Furcal is hoping to hang on with the Marlins. He hit .264 AVG/.325 OBP/.346 SLG with the Cardinals in 2012, which would be only a minor improvement over the .235/.292/.349 mark the Marlins got from their second basemen in 2013.

Beltre, Utley among all-time great gloves

January, 10, 2014
There is an interesting common thread among some of those under consideration for the Hall of 100 this season, and that's how much defensive play impacted their overall value.

Baseball Info Solutions has been tracking defensive runs saved as a statistic since 2003, and in that time, the top three players in that stat are three players who were under Hall of 100 consideration this year: Adrian Beltre (165 DRS), Chase Utley (141 DRS) and Albert Pujols (131 DRS).

Granted, that is partly due to their having been in the majors 11 years ago when the stat was devised, but it also speaks to their consistent defensive success.

I was asked to rank the players on the Hall of 100 ballot by their defensive value and I'm fairly comfortable with that trio being my 1-2-3.

Beltre slipped a little bit last season but has averaged 15 DRS per season in this 11-year stretch. That sort of success has propelled Beltre to be ranked among the elite third baseman in the sport's history (a drum Dave Cameron of FanGraphs and ESPN Insider has been beating for some time).

Consider this: If you look at Baseball Reference's all-time wins above replacement leaders for third baseman (using 40 percent of games at third base as the standard), the top eight are Alex Rodriguez, Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Chipper Jones, Brooks Robinson and Beltre, with Ron Santo a little behind.

By the formulas used for defensive WAR, which take into account both DRS and a pre-2003 metric, total zone runs, Beltre's defensive value is nearly 22 wins.

Were Beltre worth half of what he has been worth defensively in his career, his overall rank among third basemen in WAR dips to the 16-17 range, alongside Darrell Evans and Robin Ventura.

My educated guess is that most fans perceive Beltre as being closer to the latter players in stardom, but when you dig deeper into the numbers (including the defensive ones), he fits in with the best of the best, and worth of Hall of 100 consideration.

Utley's glove

If you had asked me which player ranks closer to the top of the all-time list in WAR at their position, Beltre or Utley, I'd have guessed Utley ... and been wrong.

Utley ranks 15th, right behind Jackie Robinson and just ahead of Jeff Kent. Three more 3-WAR seasons and Utley will be the virtual equal of Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar, even though he'll be considerably behind them in base hits.

Utley can thank his defensive performance for that. He currently ranks 10th in dWAR among second basemen (17.1), though he'll have to work to maintain that. Last year was the first season of Utley's career in which he didn't rank as strongly above average in DRS.

Pujols and adjustments

The way that dWAR works with regard to adjusting for position played, first basemen don't get a great spike from being great defensively. But when we consider Pujols, we should consider him to be among the best of the best.

From 2004 to 2010, he was among the top five in DRS every season. Total zone, which works off 60 years of data rather than 11, has Pujols as one of only three players with at least 100 runs saved at that position (one run behind Todd Helton and 15 behind Keith Hernandez).

Pujols ranks behind Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx in overall WAR among those whose primary position was first base, and you could make a legit case if you put a premium on defensive value, that Pujols is the No. 2 first baseman of all-time right now, and worthy of his No. 16 rankings in the Hall of 100.

The rest of this year's ballot

Carlos Beltran: His defense has slipped with age and knee injuries, but in his prime, he was a great center fielder, who made difficult catches look easy because he could glide to the ball. Beltran won three Gold Gloves and has a good but not great dWAR and DRS totals. His defense should definitely be worth a slight bump, though probably not enough to get him into the top 100.

Alex Rodriguez: A-Rod has bigger problems than how his defense impacts his overall value, but he should rate pretty well, considering that he handled two of the toughest positions in baseball very well. He rates solidly in dWAR, though chances are not many people are going to remember that when his career is done.

Joe Mauer: The good perception on Mauer's defense doesn't quite match up with his career DRS of minus-6. (For the record, he does rate very well at limiting stolen bases.) The perception of his defense rates as an incomplete, though, as he'll write an additional chapter with his move to first base this spring.

David Wright: Wright is an interesting defender because he has had years where he has looked great (16 DRS in 2012) and been Gold Glove worthy (he has improved since Tim Teufel became Mets infield coach), and had other years in which he has rated poorly (-14 in both 2009 and 2010). It will be interesting to see how Wright rates against Beltre when their careers are done. Beltre probably should rate better overall, but I'm not convinced that public perception will match that.

Derek Jeter: His defense is a polarizing topic, and without getting into a full-fledged discussion about it, I'm inclined to buy into the numerical assessments, which don't treat him well.

Those who rank Jeter as this generation's Honus Wagner need to take this into consideration. Jeter rates as the second or third-best offensive shortstop of all-time (depending on whether you consider A-Rod a shortstop), but his dWAR ranks next-to-last. His Hall of 100 rank of 33 is probably just about right for him. Were he as good a defender as some perceive, I'd argue he’d be worthy of the top 15.

Miguel Cabrera: He is going to put up amazing offensive numbers by the time he's done, but those classifying him as a future top-20 player in our Hall of 100 assessment should consider that he's already in the bottom 100 in dWAR. The move back to first base and the DH role may eventually save him from descending much further.

Could Twins be the surprise team of 2014?

December, 29, 2013
It’s been a rough three years in Minnesota, as the Twins have bounced around winning 63-66 games and flirting with their first 100-loss season since 1982. But reflecting on what Terry Ryan has been up to this winter, and thinking back on the way the Indians just showed us how a team in the AL Central can sneak up on people and put itself into the postseason picture, there are a few reasons I’m beginning to wonder if the Twins aren’t a team that might not just get back into the 70s in wins, but might actually come a bit further than that. Here are my reasons:

Go, Joe! First off, there’s the question of what Joe Mauer might be capable of now that he doesn’t have to deal with the physical toil of catching. This isn’t like Jimmie Foxx or Paul Konerko moving out from behind the plate early in their careers. But can Mauer give the Twins, say, a Joe Torre ’71-style MVP-caliber explosion at the plate? There’s plenty to dream on given what Mauer has been capable of delivering despite catching.

In part because Mauer is heading into his age-31 season, I like to think of Brian Downing as a useful example of what could happen. That’s because I’m an optimist and because Downing’s commitment to his own conditioning was a big part of his ability to sustain his value in his 30s and 40s -- much like a lot of modern players. Downing had just one truly great season as a regular catcher (1979), posting a 142 OPS+ that sticks out in the 109 OPS+ career he posted through 1981. Finally ditching his catching gear for good in his age-31 season, Downing cranked out a 128 OPS+ during the next 11 years, a part of a career where a “normal” player is supposed to decline.
[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty ImagesWill Joe Mauer bust out big at the plate now that he won't have to catch? Twins fans can hope.

Allowing for the fact we don’t know the net effect of the physical toll catching has taken on Mauer -- he hasn’t had to catch 100 games since 2010 -- his career 138 OPS+ has gone up the past two years (142 OPS+ in 2012-13 combined) as more and more of the backstop duties have been spread around. He may not have another 2009, when Mauer hit .365/.444/.587, in him, but I wouldn’t bet against him having his best year since in 2014.

Add in that the Twins have Josmil Pinto in the wings after breaking out as an offensive force between Double- and Triple-A the past two years, and have Kurt Suzuki lined up to help out, as well, and it’s clear that the Twins could net runs on offense on both sides of this transition.

The revamped rotation. Admitting again to a bit of late-December optimism, I like the Twins going and getting both Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Hang the expense -- should anyone weep for Pohlad family money being released into the market? -- and focus on the fact the Twins just shunted aside a big chunk of the rotation that put up a league-low 62 quality starts last season. Coming to Target Field’s tough environment for left-handed hitters should help both right-handers: Nolasco’s career righty/lefty OPS+ split is 90-110, while Hughes’ is 97-103 but was especially rough last year (90-108). Add in some hope that Hughes thrives outside of the media glare in the Big Apple, and you might wind up with a decent one-two punch.

Admittedly, there’s no ace, no guy you put up against Verlander or Scherzer or Shields or Sale. And the rest of the rotation is cause for concern. Kevin Correia is a decent No. 4 on a mediocre team, and comeback from Tommy John or no, I’m not really sure Mike Pelfrey’s ever going to be anything more than that himself. But there’s a benefit to having a deeper collection of guys capable of keeping games within reach into the sixth inning, and if the competition for the one open slot brings out the best in Samuel Deduno or Andrew Albers or Kyle Gibson, so much the better. If they all rise to the challenge, better still, because if there’s one guarantee with pitching, it’s that someone’s going to get hurt.

The new Twins towers? OK, so the latter-day M&M boys didn’t work so well after Mauer kept losing chunks of his career and Justin Morneau never regained his top form after his 2010 concussion. But the Twins have young talent on the way. With Pinto’s ready to replace Mauer behind the dish after putting up an .882 OPS last year, the Twins should already have a short-list Rookie of the Year candidate stepping into their Opening Day lineup. But what if he’s joined by third baseman Miguel Sano from the outset? After hitting a combined .280/.382/.610 between high Class-A and Double-A while thumping 35 homers, Sano shouldn’t need much seasoning -- he’s already the real tabasco.

The Twins may opt for a soft landing, introducing Sano and Pinto in late April or early May, after the build-up of expectations and Opening Day have already dissipated. They may even push Sano’s arrival back to show that his strained elbow is 100 percent, or to manipulate his service time since he is not yet even on the 40-man roster. But if Sano’s healthy, he’ll be in the majors in 2014. And that rookie combination is more than just tantalizing for the present, they’re two of the building blocks around Mauer primed to deliver contending Twins teams in the back half of this decade.

The old slugs getting slugly. Josh Willingham and Jason Kubel are both coming off terrible years. I’m not going to pretend there aren’t concerns about both men’s durability in their 30s, as it is open to question. But if Willingham can come back from his injury-marred 2013 and keeping in mind Kubel’s just a year removed from a 30-homer season for the Diamondbacks, it isn’t implausible that between the left field and DH slots the Twins might get 50 home runs. That’ll make up a lot of ground for low-powered lineup that put up just a .138 Isolated Power number when the AL average was .149 last year.

That’s not to say there aren’t lingering issues, especially in center field. It takes a good measure of faith in the tarnished prospect status of Aaron Hicks to think the Twins are set in center field for the time being. Resorting to journeymen like Clete Thomas and Alex Presley in the season’s final third wasn’t how things were supposed to wind up, and Presley doesn’t really have the glove to handle the job on an everyday basis.

So right now, the Twins are best off if Hicks comes to camp and quickly shows that he’s ready to bounce back from the sub-.600 OPS he put up before a demotion and injuries helped end his season early. He shouldn’t be discounted: A year ago Hicks was on top 100 prospect lists after putting up an .844 OPS in Double-A, he’s only just turned 24, and he can handle center. He’s going to be challenged to beat out Presley in camp, a classic case of putting a modest obstacle in front of a prospect with something to prove; ideally, Hicks will rise to the challenge.

Failing that, the field opens up for desperation moves, like resigning themselves to Presley, mulling the merits of someone available on the market (defensive whiz Sam Fuld is still out there), or maybe even giving a non-roster guy like former A’s prospect Jermaine Mitchell a look. And if that doesn’t work out? Twins fans are going to have to hope that blue-chipper Byron Buxton keeps making jumps up the farm system’s ladder at least two rungs at a time after tearing his way up to high Class-A in his first full season last year. Which is another way of saying that Hicks has no time to waste getting back in gear, because by 2015 the future may no longer belong to him.

Now, I admit, that’s a lot of ifs and maybes; it goes with the territory at this time of year. But a lineup that should have the benefit of adding Sano and Pinto and perhaps even a redeemed Hicks would be a radical change from the recent rut the Twins have been in.

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

AL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we’d take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our American League look.

AL East

Blue Jays: The transition from J.P. Arencibia to Dioner Navarro behind the plate is likely a wash and there hasn’t been much of an overhaul to this team other than the departure of Rajai Davis (who did have a decent amount of defensive value).
Ryan Goins
The most interesting thing for the Jays will be how Ryan Goins fares as a regular second baseman. Goins racked up a hard-to-believe 12 Defensive Runs Saved (backed up on video review by 21 Good Fielding Plays and only a pair of Defensive Misplays & Errors) in a 32-game stint last season.

Orioles: The biggest issue on defense for the Orioles will be dealing with the loss of Manny Machado’s major-league leading Runs Saved, at least until he returns from injury. Baltimore did make one positive move that should upgrade its outfield defense, getting David Lough from the Royals for utilityman Danny Valencia.

Rays: The Rays made a long-term commitment to James Loney, which bodes well from a defensive perspective, and also made one to catcher Ryan Hanigan, who is considered one of the best base-stealing deterrents and pitch-framers in the sport. He’ll give them a solid alternative to Jose Molina.

Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts will likely step into everyday roles and fill the shoes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew. The Red Sox will also have a new catcher, though there isn’t much of a defensive difference between A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Both rate below-average statistically.

Yankees:There have been some pretty notable changes on the defensive side. Brian McCann’s pitch-framing rates well, but he’s not the baserunning deterrent that Chris Stewart was. Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts could split time at second base but neither is the Gold-Glove-caliber glove that Robinson Cano was. Johnson could also wind up full-time at third base, a position at which he’s barely played more than 100 innings, if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended.

The Yankees should be great in center and left with an Ellsbury/Brett Gardner combo. Carlos Beltran has less ground to cover in the Bronx than he did in Busch. That could benefit his achy knees and help his defensive rating.

One smart thing the Yankees did: Hire Brendan Ryan to be their “shortstop closer” for the next two seasons and as much as it will pain Derek Jeter to leave games, it will be for the good of the team to let Ryan finish close games.

AL Central

Indians: The Indians tried to make a right fielder out of center fielder Drew Stubbs in 2013 and it didn’t work. They got themselves an upgrade in free agent David Murphy who rates adequate enough (5 Runs Saved in about a season’s worth of innings in right field) that his D could be a one-win upgrade by itself.

Royals: The best team in baseball, as it comes to Defensive Runs Saved, tinkered a little bit, swapping out Lough for Norichika Aoki in the outfield, which probably rates as a push (they’re both good … fair warning to Royals fans, Aoki likes to play a deep right field), and making an offensive upgrade by getting Omar Infante to fill the hole that was second base.

The one thing the Royals got from their second basemen last season was good defense (18 Runs Saved from the collection of Elliot Johnson, Chris Getz and others). Infante isn’t at that level, but he rates above average more often than not (he did by UZR, but not Runs Saved in 2013) and his offensive work should make up for any drop-off.

Tigers: The Tigers' defensive overhaul has been the biggest of the offseason as the team’s opening-day infield will be entirely different from 2013. Ian Kinsler is a definite upgrade at second base and we’ll see if Jose Iglesias’ wow plays add up over a full season (he has seven Runs Saved in just under 800 career innings at short).

Going from Prince Fielder back to Miguel Cabrera should actually be a slight upgrade.

The big question will be third base where the scouting reports on Nick Castellanos’ defense don’t inspire confidence. But even so, conservatively, the Tigers should be about 25 Runs Saved better in 2014, which takes them from being a lousy defensive infield to an average one.

Twins: The Twins made the career-preserving move of shifting Joe Mauer from behind the plate to first base and signed Kurt Suzuki, who has a good statistical history at the position. Suzuki has rated better than Mauer over the course of his career in Runs Saved, though he’s not as good at throwing out basestealers.

I asked Doug Glanville to assess what Mauer’s challenge will be in making the move to first:

“He is a super athlete and I am sure he will be fine. It will be tough to not be as involved with the game in every single moment. No one can compete with catchers in the leadership it requires to play that position and the need for constant vigilance. He has to sharpen his focus to deal with new lulls in time. I am sure he will.”

White Sox: The White Sox had the third-worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in 2013 and they’ve been overhauled all over the place. Their worst position last season was center field (-19 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013) and they’ll have a new look there with Adam Eaton.

They’ll also be much different at first base with Jose Abreu, whose hitting has been compared to Ryan Howard's (but if his defense is, that’s not good) and third base with adequately-rated Matt Davidson, whom they got for Addison Reed. Will different equal better? They better hope so.

Al West

Angels: The aging of Albert Pujols will continue to be an issue both on offense and defense. Last season broke a run of eight straight seasons in which Pujols ranked in the top five among first basemen in Runs Saved.

Pujols will have a familiar teammate working at the opposite corner with the addition of third baseman David Freese, who had a dreadful season in 2013 per both Runs Saved and UZR, ranking third-worst in the former and second-worst in the latter. That’s something that will need to be dealt with.

Astros: The Astros traded away their second-best defender stats-wise from 2013 in Brandon Barnes to get Dexter Fowler from the Colorado Rockies. Fowler has less ground to cover in the gaps of Minute Maid Park, but has a deeper center field (and Tal’s Hill) to worry about. Fowler has posted a negative Runs Saved rating in four of his six seasons, but has fared well at handling balls hit to the deepest parts of the park.

Athletics: The Athletics made two moves that should definitely help their defense in 2014.
Craig Gentry
By adding Craig Gentry in a trade from the Rangers, they’ve obtained one of the game’s premier outfield defenders and one who could fit in well both in left field (to make Yoenis Cespedes a DH) and center (to give Coco Crisp a breather) very well.

The Athletics also added a valuable utility piece in Nick Punto, who could start at second base (ahead of Eric Sogard) or close games at shortstop (replacing Jed Lowrie, who rates as a poor defender). Either way, he’s a big upgrade over what they had.

Mariners:The Mariners now have a Gold Glove-caliber defender at second in Cano. He’ll need to cover more ground to his left than he did in New York, because the Mariners’ first-base options (Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart) do not rate well. Morrison is going to present an issue wherever they put him. He’s not quite at the level of Michael Morse, but his ratings historically have been poor.

Rangers: The difference between Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland at first base is a sizable one, potentially 15 runs over the course of a season, so if the Rangers do decide to hang on to Moreland, they'd be best off playing him at first base and having Fielder DH. The Rangers could use a good defender at first, since Jurickson Profar is basically going to learn on the job at second base. Texas will also have some outfield concerns with Shin-Soo Choo having limited experience in left field and the team no longer having the security blanket of Gentry (traded to Athletics).

SweetSpot's 2013 AL All-Star team

September, 28, 2013
Here are my choices for the 2013 American League All-Star team:

Catcher: Joe Mauer, Twins (.324/.404/.476, 11 HRs, 47 RBIs, 5.2 WAR)
There's not a real clear choice, as Mauer played just 75 of his 113 games behind the plate, but he's the best hitter among the catchers and threw out a league-leading 43 percent of base stealers. Carlos Santana has good offensive numbers, but he played a lot of first base and DH and struggled defensively. Jason Castro's fine season was buried in the Astros' awfulness, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia has hit .272, raising his average 50 points from last year, while bashing 40 doubles and 14 home runs. If he had played a little more behind the plate -- he started 95 games -- he might have been my choice.

First base: Chris Davis, Orioles (.287/.370/.637, 53 HRs, 138 RBIs, 6.7 WAR)
Davis is the easy choice in a weak year at first base in the AL. The only other two first basemen to slug .500 were Edwin Encarnacion, who spent a large chunk of his time at DH, and Brandon Moss, a platoon player. Davis joined Babe Ruth and Albert Belle as the only players with 50 home runs and 40 doubles in a season.

Second base: Robinson Cano, Yankees (.313/.383/.514, 27 HRs, 106 RBIs, 7.6 WAR)
In a year when so much went wrong with the Yankees, Cano was the one constant, missing just one game and putting up his usual excellent numbers. Now the Yankees have to decide exactly how much they're willing to pay for those numbers. Teams like the Dodgers and Nationals could pursue the free agent this winter.

Third base: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (.347/.441/.637, 44 HRs, 137 RBIs, 7.1 WAR)
Despite the injury issues that have slowed him in September (.265, just two extra-base hits and seven RBIs), Cabrera remains the likely MVP winner, thanks in part to a .397/.529/.782 mark with runners in scoring position. It's a deep position with Josh Donaldson having his own MVP-caliber season, Manny Machado catching everything at the hot corner and Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre once again doing everything, but it's hard to deny Miggy's dominance with the bat.

Shortstop: J.J. Hardy, Orioles (.262/.305/.432, 25 HRs, 74 RBIs, 3.6 WAR)
There's not an obvious guy at the position. Hardy is good defensively and has power, but that .305 OBP lowers his offensive value. Yunel Escobar may have had the best year on defense, but a slow start dragged down his offense. Elvis Andrus plays great defense and has 41 steals but doesn't give you much at the plate. Jed Lowrie stayed healthy and hit but lacks range. In the end, I went with Hardy, who has played 157 games and gives you a little on both sides of the ball.

Left field: Mike Trout, Angels (.323/.431/.554, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs, 9.1 WAR)
OK, I cheated a little bit since Trout actually started more games in center than left. But the state of left field in the AL is pretty pathetic, with Alex Gordon and Michael Brantley the only other two rated as even 2.0 WAR players.

Center field: Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox (.297/.355/.421, 8 HRs, 52 RBIs, 5.7 WAR)
Ellsbury also stole 52 bases in 56 attempts, the second-best percentage ever for a player with at least 50 steals. Orioles fans will argue for Adam Jones, who has 33 home runs and 108 RBIs, but he's drawn just 25 walks so his OBP is a mediocre .318 and his defense doesn't match Ellsbury's.

Right field: Shane Victorino, Red Sox (.297/.354/.456, 15 HRs, 61 RBIs, 6.2 WAR)
He's been solid offensively -- including hitting .303 and slugging .515 while having to bat right-handed against right-handed pitchers after a hamstring injury prevented him from batting left-handed. He has been terrific defensively with 24 Defensive Runs Saved, the sixth-best total in the majors at any position. Again, nobody with big numbers here on offense, especially with Jose Bautista's season-ending injury, but Victorino is a worthy selection.

Designated hitter: David Ortiz, Red Sox (.308/.395/.565, 30 HRs, 103 RBIs, 4.3 WAR)
At 37, he's still going strong with his seventh 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Hall of Famer? He's up to 431 career home runs and 1,429 RBIs.

Starting pitchers: Max Scherzer, Tigers (21-3, 2.90 ERA, 6.6 WAR); Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners (14-6, 2.66 ERA, 7.0 WAR); Chris Sale, White Sox (11-14, 3.07 ERA, 7.0 WAR); Yu Darvish, Rangers (13-9, 2.82 ERA, 5.7 WAR); Anibal Sanchez, Tigers (14-8, 2.64 ERA, 6.0 WAR)
Apologies to Bartolo Colon and Felix Hernandez, and even Clay Buchholz, who went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts.

Left-handed setup guy: Neal Cotts, Rangers (7-3, 1.13 ERA)
Cotts was one of the great stories of the season. He hadn't pitched in the majors since 2009, having Tommy John and four hip surgeries in the intervening years. He pitched in 25 games for the Rangers in Triple-A last year and started there again this season before getting recalled. In 55 2/3 innings, he's allowed just eight runs and 35 hits while striking out 63.

Right-handed setup guy: David Robertson, Yankees (5-1, 2.07 ERA)
For those worried about replacing Mariano Rivera as Yankees closer, the bigger question may actually be: Who replaces Robertson as the eighth-inning guy?

Closer: Koji Uehara, Red Sox (4-1, 21 saves, 1.10 ERA)
Apologies to Kansas City's Greg Holland, who has a 1.23 ERA and 46 saves, and Texas' Joe Nathan, who has a 1.41 ERA and 43 saves. But Uehara, who began the year in middle relief, has put up one of the most dominant relief seasons ever, limiting batters to a .129 average with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 100-to-9.
Until his concussion, Joe Mauer was having another excellent season, hitting .324 with a .404 on-base percentage and .476 slugging percentage, his highest in that category since his MVP season in 2009. He'll finish with 508 plate appearances, just enough to quality for the leaderboards, and currently ranks second in the AL in batting average, third in OBP and eighth in wOBA.

Nick Nelson of Twins Daily says Mauer's concussion -- which will end up costing him 39 games -- is the final straw: That catching should no longer be an option for Mauer.


What should the Twins do next year with Joe Mauer


Discuss (Total votes: 1,321)

It won't be an easy decision for the Twins. After throwing out just 14 percent of basestealers in 2012, Mauer's arm strength returned this year and he's caught 43 percent of basestealers, best in the AL. But the departure of Justin Morneau opens up first base for Mauer on a regular basis. Yes, he loses positional value if je moves to first, but Josmil Pinto looks like he has potential behind the plate.

I'm inclined to agree with Nick. It's time to get Mauer's bat in there for 150 games and avoid the injury risk. He's only been a part-time catcher the past two seasons anyway, filling in at DH and first. As Nick writes, "He's too valuable to the franchise -- monetarily and otherwise -- for such an undeniably substantial risk."

What do you think?
Albert Pujols was placed on the disabled list on Sunday, sort of the exclamation point to the Los Angeles Angels' debacle of a season. Sunday was Hall of Fame induction day -- you may have missed it, considering the lone player elected played his final game in 1890 -- and Pujols' injury and the ceremony in Cooperstown got me wondering: Which of today's players will be future Hall of Famers?

There are probably more than you realize. Pujols, of course, is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, even factoring in the somewhat disappointing results of his first two seasons with the Angels. With three MVP Awards, 492 home runs, 1,491 RBIs, a .321 average and a career WAR of 92.9 (27th all time among position players) his legacy is ensured, even if his Angels career never lives up to the expectations of his contract.

Based on historical trends, I estimate about 40 current players are future Hall of Famers -- possibly more, although Hall of Fame standards have been growing tougher in recent years, both by the Baseball Writers Association, which pitched a shutout this year, and the Veterans Committee, which has voted in just one post-1950 player since 2001. The steroids era fallout is also affecting voting results.

Anyway, if we look back at 10-year increments we can see how many Hall of Famers were active that season:

1953: 28 players
1963: 36 players
1973: 37 players
1983: 34 players
1993: 19 players

There are fewer players in 1953 because there were fewer teams, just 16 compared to 30 now. Compared to 1983, when there were 26 teams, 1953 still has a higher percentage of players inducted (1.75 per team versus 1.30). Still, 1983 already has 34 players who active that season already in the Hall of Fame, plus potential enshrinees like Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Lee Smith, Dale Murphy, Lou Whitaker, Keith Hernandez, Ted Simmons and others (some of whom are off the BBWAA ballot but could be Veterans Committee selections).

OK, to our little list. Here are 40 active players who will be Hall of Famers -- listed in order of most likely to make it. We're at a moment when there are very few sure-thing Hall of Famers -- I count only five -- so the list thus involves a lot speculation. I considered only players who have played in the majors this year, so no Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez or Scott Rolen.

1. Derek Jeter: Would anyone find reason not to vote for Jeter? Well, he did date Mariah Carey. Jeter may seem like a lock as a unanimous selection, but keep in mind that eight voters somehow found reason not to vote for Cal Ripken Jr.

2. Mariano Rivera: No matter what you think of closers, Rivera will be a slam-dunk selection, with his "greatest closer ever" label, World Series rings, universal respect among opponents and writers, and 0.70 postseason ERA in 141 innings. While writers have generally become very generous to relievers -- Dennis Eckersley made it in his first year on the ballot -- I suspect a few won't vote for Rivera out of an anti-reliever stand.

3. Albert Pujols: If his career continues to peter out, that more recent perception may cast a shadow over his dominant run from 2001 to 2010, when he averaged 8.1 WAR per season. Many Hall of Famers never achieved that in one season.

4. Miguel Cabrera: Cabrera is now in his age-30 season, with 53.2 WAR. Through age 30, Pujols had 81.1 WAR. That's how good Pujols was -- nearly 30 wins better than a sure Hall of Famer who arrived in the majors at a younger age. Much of that advantage comes on defense and the basepaths, but Baseball-Reference estimates Pujols created 590 runs more than the average batter through 30, with Cabrera at 447 (and counting).

5. Ichiro Suzuki: He may not get to 3,000 hits in the majors -- he's at 2,706 after Sunday's four-hit game -- but with 1,278 hits in Japan, voters should factor that he didn't arrive in Seattle until he was 27. With his all-around brilliance, he should sail in on the first ballot.

6. Robinson Cano: He has done a lot of things MVP voters like -- hit for average, drive in runs, win a World Series -- and done it with exceptional durability. He's already at 42.4 WAR and needs three to four more peak seasons to ensure lock status, but he's just 30 and still at the top of his game. Considering his durability and age, 3,000 hits isn't out of the question either.

7. Clayton Kershaw: Obviously, he could get hurt, and a lot of pitchers who were dominant through age 25 couldn't carry that success into their 30s. But Kershaw has been handled carefully, is on his way to a third straight ERA title and second Cy Young Award. He's the Koufax of this decade … minus the World Series heroics. But maybe he'll get that shot this year.

8. Felix Hernandez: He's 27 and has won 109 games, despite playing for some of the worst offenses in the history of the game. He has earned 38.8 WAR, which puts him about halfway to Hall of Fame lock status. As with Kershaw, barring injury he'll get there.

9. Roy Halladay: He leads all active pitchers with 65.6 WAR, a total higher than Hall of Famers Bob Feller (65.2), Eckersley (62.5), Juan Marichal (61.9), Don Drysdale (61.2) and Whitey Ford (53.2), to name a few. But what if he never pitches again? Is he in? He has 201 wins and voters still fixate on wins for pitchers. To Halladay's advantage is the general consensus that he was the best pitcher in baseball at his peak, his two Cy Young Awards and two runner-up finishes, three 20-win seasons and the second no-hitter in postseason history.

10. Adrian Beltre: Voters have never been kind to the good-glove third basemen -- excepting Brooks Robinson -- so I may be overrating Beltre's chances. But he also has the chance to reach 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. If he gets to those milestones, that combined with his defensive reputation should get him in.

11. CC Sabathia: He has 200 wins and looked like a possible 300-game winner entering this season, but that 4.65 ERA has everyone wondering how much he has left in the tank at age 33.

12. David Wright: Similar in a lot of ways to Cano -- same age, similar career WAR (Wright is actually a little higher at 45.9) -- so if he plays well into his 30s like Beltre has, he'll get in. But a lot of players have looked like Hall of Famers at 30.

13. Justin Verlander: He still has a lot of work to do, with 134 career wins and just two seasons with an ERA under 3.00.

14. Carlos Beltran: I suspect he'll have a long, slow trek to Hall of Fame status, as his all-around game may be difficult for voters to properly assess. His having just two top-10 MVP finishes will work against him, but he has eight 100-RBI seasons, should reach 400 home runs, is one of the great percentage basestealers of all time and should reach 1,500 runs and 1,500 RBIs.

15. Mike Trout: Well, of course this is premature; he's only 21. He could be Willie Mays, he could be Cesar Cedeno. I'm betting on Mays.

16. Evan Longoria" Beloved in sabermetric circles, he could use that one monster MVP season to create more of a Hall of Fame aura around him.

17. Joey Votto: Will voters appreciate the on-base percentage in 20 years?

18. Joe Mauer: Like Votto, Mauer has an MVP award that helps his case; any time you can argue "he was the best player in the game" about a guy, his candidacy shoots up in the minds of voters. He's not going to end up with the big home run and RBI totals but his .323 career average, .405 OBP and solid defense (three Gold Gloves) will garner support. He has to stay healthy and probably needs to stay behind the plate a few more years.

19. Andy Pettitte: See Jack Morris. Probably a slow crawl on the BBWAA ballot, perhaps hurt by admitting he tried PEDs (although he seems to have escaped the stain), with eventual election by the Veterans Committee. With 252 wins, five World Series rings and 19 postseason wins, it's difficult to ignore his fame and constant presence in October.

20. Bryce Harper: Most home runs before turning 21: Mel Ott 61, Tony Conigliaro 56, Ken Griffey Jr. 38, Harper 37, Mickey Mantle 36, Frank Robinson 34.

21. Buster Posey: Yadier Molina may be the most valuable catcher right now, but Posey is the better Hall of Fame candidate.

22. David Price: Pitchers become Hall of Famers in their 30s, not their 20s, but Price is already 66-36 with a Cy Young award.

23. Dustin Pedroia: I'm a little skeptical how he'll age into 30s, but Pedroia seems like the kind of player voters would love to put in if he becomes a borderline candidate. He does have an MVP award and recognition for his all-around play, but since he's not a big home run or RBI guy, he'll have to remain durability and approach 3,000 career hits.

24. Manny Machado: He's in a big slump right now but we have to remember he's still just 20 years old. But few players have shown this kind of ability at his age and his defense -- Jim Palmer said recently he makes plays at third base that Brooks Robinson could not have made -- is already Hall-of-Fame caliber.

25. Todd Helton: We can just about close the book on him. The .318/.417/.541 career line is impressive, although voters will have to adjust for Coors Field. The 361 home runs and 1,378 RBIs are short of Hall of Fame standards for recent first base inductees. Considering Larry Walker's poor support so far, Helton will probably have to get in through the back door.

26. Andrew McCutchen: How about an MVP Award for 2013?

27. Giancarlo Stanton: Injuries are an issue, but I'm still betting on him (or Harper) to be the premier power hitter of his generation.

28. Troy Tulowitzki: He has to stay healthy, of course, but he has 30.5 WAR so far, in his age-28 season. Jeter had 36.8 and Ripken 50.1 through age 28, but you don't have to be Derek Jeter or Cal Ripken to make the Hall of Fame. Recent inductee Barry Larkin had 30.9 WAR through age 28 and only played 140 games three seasons after that (although did play until he was 40).

29. Miguel Tejada: Tough one here. He has the PED rumors, but he also has six 100-RBI seasons as a shortstop, an MVP award, more than 300 home runs and he will top 2,400 hits. Perhaps a Veterans Committee choice?

30. Prince Fielder: He hasn't hit 40 home runs since 2009 and is going through the worst season of his career. Still, he's just 29 and has 277 home runs and 838 RBIs. He has been the most durable player in the game since his rookie season, but his body type certainly raises questions about how he'll do as he gets into his mid-30s. If he does remain healthy and reaches some of the big milestones he's going to be a Morris-like controversial candidate, because his career WAR (currently 22.4) isn't going to reach Hall of Fame standards.

31. Madison Bumgarner: He turns 24 on Aug. 1 and already has 46 career wins, two World Series rings and is in the midst of his best season. Check back in 10 years.

32. Yasiel Puig: Is he not in already?

33. Andrelton Simmons: We're starting to get into the area of crazy projections. Hey, a lot of Hall of Famers didn't look like Hall of Famers their first few seasons in the league. Anyway, the Braves have four young players you could reasonably project long-shot HOF status onto -- Simmons, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel. I like Simmons; he'll have to have an Omar Vizquel-type career with most of his value coming from his glove, but what a glove it is.

34. Chase Utley: He basically has no chance to get in via the BBWAA because his career counting totals will be well short of Hall standards. His five-year peak from 2005 to 2009 was among the best ever for a second baseman -- in fact, since 1950, from ages 26 to 30, the only players with a higher WAR were seven guys named Mays, Pujols, Yastrzemski, Aaron, Bonds, Boggs and Schmidt. If he can stay healthy for a few more years -- a bit of a dubious proposition -- he enters Veterans Committee territory.

35. Jose Fernandez: This could be Chris Sale or Stephen Strasburg or some other hotshot young pitcher.

36. Tim Hudson: I believe pitching standards will have to change, as the idea that you need 300 wins eventually subsides in this day where starters just don't as many decisions as they once did. Hudson is out for the year after breaking his ankle and, at the age of 38, you have to worry about his future. But he does have 205 wins and one of the best winning percentages of all time at .649. He sounds like a Veterans Committee choice in 2044.

37. Nick Franklin: The point isn't that I think Franklin is a Hall of Fame player, but that somebody like Franklin will turn into a Hall of Famer. It could BE Franklin, it could be Wil Myers, it could be Marcell Ozuna, it could be Jurickson Profar. As for Franklin, he has reached the majors at 22, has flashed power (10 home runs and 12 doubles in 52 games) and shown a good approach at the plate. You never know.

38. September call-up to be named: Xander Bogaerts? Oscar Taveras? Miguel Sano?

39. David Ortiz: There's no denying the fame and the peak value -- he finished in the top five in MVP voting five consecutive seasons -- but he has several strikes against him, notably the PED allegations (Ortiz was mentioned in the Mitchell report) and the fact that he may not be the best DH eligible (that would be Edgar Martinez, with a career WAR of 68.3 to Ortiz's 42.7). Papi is at 420 home runs; if he gets to 500 (round number!), his chances go up, but like all the guys tied to steroids, he'll be a controversial candidate.

40. Alex Rodriguez: He hasn't actually suited up in the majors yet this season, but let's assume he does to be eligible for this list. I also assume, at some point in the future -- 20 years? 25 years? 75 years? -- the moral outrage against the steroids users eventually subsides. Maybe, like Deacon White, A-Rod makes it some 130 years after he plays his final game.

For Freese, the moment in time has faded

June, 28, 2013
David FreeseMarc Serota/Getty ImagesDavid Freese is focused these days on getting the Cardinals back to the World Series.

ST. LOUIS -- People say time is, what, money? An illusion? That it flies? For David Freese, time diminishes the memory.

Here in this great Midwestern baseball heaven, time has lessened what it felt like for him when the baseball, shining bright against the dark green grass beyond the outfield wall, sent the Cardinals to Game 7 of the 2011 World Series.

"As far as that moment, it seems like it was light years away," Freese said.

Yet it was just two years ago.

"I think it kind of stamps me as far as Cardinals history because it was so much on the national stage," Freese said. "But personally, it fades. It fades a little bit."

Freese believes when he is retired that the memory will come back. He said it will mean more then, but now, in true Cardinals fashion, Freese has moved on.

"I want to do it all again," he said. "I want to get back to the World Series and try to win another one."

The Cardinals third baseman is 30 years old, but with a late start to his major league career, he will not become a free agent until after the 2015 season. This spring, in his first year of eligibility, he avoided arbitration when he agreed to a one-year, $3.15 million contract with St. Louis.

He is the hometown hero with no long-term commitment. This raises an interesting baseball question: In a team's formula for placing value on players, do October heroics factor in?

Freese was a primary reason for one of the greatest moments in World Series history -- while driving in 21 runs in 18 games that postseason -- yet the Cardinals have not given him a long-term contract. Baseball people understand this. The past, and even postseason stardom, is no longer a stepping stone to the future. Smart teams base contracts on future projections, not past performance.

"The bottom line, especially with a team that demands winning, you have to be productive," Freese said. "I understand going through arbitration that your cost rises, so you have to do your part. I think if I just do my part, I have the potential to be around for a while."

Freese knows one of the keys for him playing well is his health. He played a career-high 144 games last year but missed the start of this season with a back strain and then a few more games with a thumb injury.

"I had those surgeries a few years ago, and it just kept building," Freese said. "I think when I was coming up in the minors, I was proving that I was a guy that could handle third base. I had some injuries then got in the weight room and stayed healthy, and now things are coming together."

Freese enters Friday batting .276, but the interesting thing is what he's done in high-leverage situations (when the game is closest), hitting .326. With two strikes, he has a .348 OBP, fourth highest in the majors.

Most guys in the big leagues understand the physical aspect of an at-bat, Freese said, but he believes his ability to hit when the game, or an at-bat, is on the line is all mental.

[+] EnlargeDavid Freese
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesTeammates mob David Freese after his 11th-inning homer won Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.
"It just starts with confidence on the on-deck circle," he said. "That's something that you have to understand. You have to walk up to the plate with confidence. Just understand that you need to wait for a pitch and have patience. I think the key for every AB is to stay in your zone, to have an approach and understand, no matter the count, you still need to battle and focus."

Hitting coach John Mabry said Freese has a good approach at the plate in high-leverage situations because he's a good player in every situation.

"Good players have that unique ability to drive people in," Mabry said. "He's one of those players. He changes the game when he's in the lineup."

Talk about clutch ability being nonexistent, but Freese is earning a reputation as a tough out in big situations. The value in a hitter like Freese is not in how the memory of those clutch moments remains in the minds of the fans but how opposing teams remember them.

Ron Washington knows about this. He understands. Even now, the Rangers manager said that when Freese comes up to the plate in a high-leverage situation, he thinks, "I'm not going to let him beat me."

"I've seen him do it," Washington said.

The memory of Freese beating the Rangers hasn't faded for Washington like it has for Freese.

"No," Washington said adamantly. "No, no. You walk him. He can beat you. It's [Jon] Jay behind him, so I'm saying, 'Freese or Jay?' I'm going to let Jay beat me. No disrespect to Jay either because he's a pretty good player, but I'll feel better if he did it than Freese."

* * *

David Giuntoli, star of the NBC drama "Grimm," was at Busch Stadium to throw out the first pitch for a recent game against the Rangers. The St. Louis native stopped Freese as he was coming off the field for batting practice.

"I'm a big fan of yours," Giuntoli said to Freese.

Freese shook his hand, and they talked for a bit. He has such a humble way of taking all the attention in stride, and this goes over well with fans.

"I just want to be a guy that played the game hard and tried to play with a smile on my face," Freese said.

Yet there is a lot of pressure on him on and off the field.

"But that's what is cool about this," he said. "Seeing kids wearing my jersey at games, having kids running around wanting to be big leaguers and wanting to be a Cardinal, that's what is special. It's not just in St. Louis; there's kids around this country that want to be St. Louis Cardinals, and that's really cool."

The Cardinals franchise is married to winning, not stars. They have a highly regarded second-base prospect in Kolten Wong, and Matt Carpenter can play third.

This year during spring training, Joe Mauer said playing for the Twins is all he's ever known. Hometown heroes like Mauer are rare in baseball, and there's some nostalgia lost in this. If Freese doesn't end up being a Cardinal for life, while it might be a rational business decision -- he'll be 33 in 2016, after all -- there's something sad about the hometown kid being shipped away.

"I know he's dangerous," Washington said. "It doesn't matter if he's struggling or not. One swing of the bat and he can hurt you."

Ultimately, this is the aspect Freese adds to the Cardinals. Nothing in his numbers can change Washington's belief that at any point Freese can beat you.

The moment that will always define Freese might have faded, but while he says, "I'd love to be a Cardinal forever," only time will tell.
We talked some baseball. We talked Paul Goldschmidt versus Joey Votto. The record paces of Miguel Cabrera and Manny Machado. What's wrong with the B.J. Upton and Matt Kemp and what the Braves and Dodgers should do. We talked about the defense of Mike Trout and Shin-Soo Choo, disappointing prospects, Pete Kozma, Joe Mauer's RBI production, Oscar Taveras and Jurickson Profar, and much more! Click here for the complete chat wrap.
Some reaction to Tuesday's excellent slate of games ...
  • Wanted to check out those gritty Diamondbacks so was watching their game against the Yankees. The 4-2 Yankees win ended up coming down to one pitch, Robinson Cano's three-run homer off Brandon McCarthy in the fourth. The D-backs led 2-0, there were runners at first and second with one out and McCarthy couldn't exactly intentionally walk Cano like he had in the third inning. But he didn't exactly want to give him anything to hit either. It was a great at-bat: Cut fastball inside, another cutter/sinker in the dirt, a changeup way outside, a 3-0 change for a called strike, a curveball that Cano foul tipped and then a 3-2 changeup that Cano didn't miss, sending it high into the Bronx air. "It's still such a hit-or-miss pitch," McCarthy said. "Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not. It's very hard for me to get to a place where it can be relied on in a situation. It was coming along; I felt like it was doing what we needed it to do. It just maybe, in that count, it might have been too good a pitch."
  • The Reds-Phillies game was suspended in the bottom of the ninth inning tied 0-0, but Homer Bailey had about as dominant a performance as any pitcher this season, going eight scoreless innings and allowing just two hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks. Impressively, he threw just 89 pitches -- and that was after throwing 17 in the first inning. Aroldis Chapman pitched the top of the ninth and is due up sixth in the bottom of the inning. Hey, maybe Dusty Baker lets him throw two innings if the Reds don't score.
  • Great ending in the Rangers' 4-2 win over the Cubs. The Cubs had scored twice off Michael Kirkman and Joe Nathan and had the bases loaded with two outs. Darwin Barney fouled off three two-strike pitches and then hit a liner to center field, where Craig Gentry did this.
  • After sweeping the Mets in a doubleheader -- maybe with a little help from the freezing cold weather -- it may be time to start paying attention to the 10-4 Rockies. In the second game, the Rockies tied it with two runs in the eighth after errors by pitcher Brandon Lyon and shortstop Ruben Tejada. A hard-hit ball off David Wright's glove in the 10th helped set up Jordan Pacheco's winning hit. Carlos Gonzalez, who had had five hits and scored five runs in the doubleheader, summed it up: "Worst, best day ever."
  • Good game in Toronto, where the White Sox pulled out a 4-3 victory. Paul Konerko had tied the game at 2 in the seventh when he hit a 3-0 Josh Johnson fastball out to left. The Sox then scored twice in the ninth and held off a Blue Jays rally in the bottom of the inning.
  • Dan Haren: Not good again for the Nationals. The Marlins had scored seven runs in the previous five games but lit up Haren for seven runs in 4.1 innings. Four runs were unearned but that's three shaky/bad starts for Haren. Giancarlo Stanton missed his fifth straight game with his bruised shoulder.
  • The Angels: Not good again. Joe Mauer had four hits for the second straight day in the Twins' 8-6 victory. The Angels are 4-10 and you have to start wondering if Mike Scioscia's job is in jeopardy. Not that it's his fault, but if the Angels don't go on a winning streak, somebody will pay the price for the team's slow start.

Twins story: Joe Mauer still the man

March, 24, 2013
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- On a day when Joe Mauer has a lot of work to catch up on because he played in the World Baseball Classic, he takes some time to sign autographs. As Mauer signs baseball after baseball, a lady tells him about her grandchildren and how she knows Mauer will just love having twins. She says she's excited for him and can't wait to watch him as a dad. It's as if she believes Mauer is part of her extended family.

People who say we shouldn't have heroes anymore have never spent much time with the Twins catcher. Mauer is one of the last of a dying breed, the perfect hometown hero.

He grew up in St. Paul and was selected by the Twins as the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. For Mauer, playing for the Twins is not just a job.

"It's all I've ever known," Mauer said about playing in his hometown.

Mauer knows there is a lot responsibility resting on his shoulders this year. He will be handling the pitching staff again this year, the Twins need him to consistently get on base and they need his bat in the lineup every day. Plus, he has an added charge this year -- Mauer and his wife, Maddie, are expecting twins. He takes it all in stride and doesn't ask for much help, though he says that may change.

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Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesJoe Mauer hit .319 with 10 home runs and 85 RBIs in 2012.
"We'll need a lot of help here come the end of the summer," Mauer said. "We're very excited. I can't wait."

Mauer has had a busy spring with his participation in the World Baseball Classic and now back with the Twins he is trying to get to know the many new pitchers on the Twins staff in the last few weeks of spring training. As he showed in the WBC, where he hit .429, his bat appears ready. Last season, he led the majors with a .416 on-base percentage.

Mauer says when he is at the plate this year he is going to try and do exactly what the situation calls for because he knows if he can find a way to get on base the guys batting behind him, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau, will drive him home.

"I just try to have good at-bats," Mauer said. "Obviously getting hits is a great thing but getting on base and making the defense work a little bit is kind of the goal of manufacturing runs. Just try to work the counts and get on base any way I can."

Tom Brunansky, the Twins' new hitting coach, said Mauer’s approach to the plate is first and foremost a gift. That's not to say Mauer doesn't work hard, but as Brunansky describes Mauer's talent as a "great gift from God" he talks about Mauer in a tone that suggests it's a talent that doesn't come along often.

"He's [also] pretty smooth and solid in his approach," Brunansky added. "He doesn't get too excited. He doesn't get all riled up. Hitters, we tend to get ourselves out. There's a key word that we like to use and that's trust. He trusts his ability to be able to do the things he wants to do. ... The thing about Joe is that he understands his zone and he's not afraid to hit with two strikes. And it comes back to that word of trust. He has no fear in the fact that he trusts his ability."

Last season, three of the top 10 batting averages in the majors were from catchers, Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Mauer. The position of catcher has more wear and tear on the body than other positions on the field, yet with the Mauer being a pivotal part of the lineup the Twins have to find ways to keep him in there every day.

In 2012 Mauer caught 74 games, played first base for 30 games and was the DH 42 times. Manager Ron Gardenhire says what position Mauer plays will be a day-to-day decision. He doesn't have a set number of games he expects Mauer to catch.

"I always go and check with him if he catches two days in a row," Gardenhire said. "There’s going to be one of those days where he's going to get foul tips and really beat up and those are the days I guard [him] and I talk to him. It's all about conversations on how he is feeling and keeping his bat in the lineup."

Mauer says he wants to be behind the plate every chance he can get. He still loves being a catcher.

"Being back there, making those decisions on every pitch, one or two pitches in a game can matter a whole bunch," he said. "So being in the middle of that, your teammates looking for you to make those tough decisions, I love being the guy to do that. Yeah, it's tough on your body. It can be a little mentally draining but I wouldn't have it any other way."

Mauer enjoys showing his pitchers that he's there for them. As a catcher he wants to do whatever is best for his pitchers.

"You're trying to get outs to help your team win," Mauer said. "I think everybody understands that here. With the new guys it's going to take a little time for them to see what I'm all about and for me to see what they are all about. So, it's a fun, unique relationship; you have to have a lot of trust involved."

He says he builds trust by knowing his pitchers' strengths. Each day is different -- a pitcher may not have his best stuff one day, so Mauer figures out what is working that game to get the best pitching performance.


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"That's the thing I've learned over the years," Mauer said. "You've got to be prepared and call the right pitch but the main thing is having your pitcher convinced about that pitch. That might not necessarily be your favorite pitch at that point but if he's convinced [about the pitch] I'd rather have him throw it then maybe something else he might not be as confident with."

Vance Worley, the right-hander acquired from Philadelphia this offseason, worked with Mauer for the first time on Friday against the Yankees. Worley had a rough outing, pitching five innings and giving up eight hits and five runs. However, Worley says it won't take him much time to get to know Mauer, but that it's just a matter of "learning each other."

"Today he just came out and said just make sure you work a little bit more down," Worley said. "Just [Mauer] coming out here and trying to slow it down for you a little bit, that's the biggest thing he can do."

Last year Twins catchers had a tough time catching guys on the basepaths, as their caught stealing percentage, 18 percent, was last in the American League. (Mauer's caught stealing percentage was 25 percent, the lowest of his career.) At times in 2012 Mauer's mechanics and the position he threw from behind the plate looked a little different from his form in his earlier years.

"I don't know if he's throwing different but I think he's had some injuries that have changed some of his mechanics," Gardenhire said. "His arm is still there, he's still got a cannon. I think the tendencies are when you are not able to work on things like that a lot you get a little long with your actions."

Gardenhire says he is happy to have former major league catcher Terry Steinbach on the Twins coaching staff this year. He's going to be working with Mauer all year long.

"The one thing [Steinbach] has been talking to [Mauer] about is being a little shorter with everything and he's working on it," Gardenhire said. "So there's change and that has to happen as you get a little older, too."

Gardenhire says he worries about a lot of things but "not Joe."

His manager trusts him. His coaches trust him to do what the team needs, his pitchers trust him and as he walks by the fans waiting for an autograph you can tell they trust him, too. They know Mauer will treat them well -- the hometown kid who made it big.

"You know, to have my grandparents at every home game for the last nine years, I wouldn't have it any other way. It's nice, definitely thankful that I'm in this position. I'm excited for another year."

Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. Follow her on Twitter @Anna_McDonald.
Craig KimbrelMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsCraig Kimbrel worked a one-two-three ninth to secure the win over Team Canada.
They call this the World Baseball Classic and Sunday's United States-Canada game certainly qualifies as a classic, with a David-versus-Goliath storyline, several questionable lineup and managerial decisions made by Joe Torre, a late-inning rally and maybe some respect earned for this tournament.

The final score read 9-4 in favor of the United States, and the U.S. moves on to the second round next weekend in Miami. But the game was much more tense than the score indicated. Some quick thoughts:
  • Let's begin with Torre's lineup. He inserted Shane Victorino into left field and Ben Zobrist into right field, moving Ryan Braun to the DH spot, Joe Mauer to catcher and benching Giancarlo Stanton. While that added two switch-hitters to the Team USA lineup against Canadian right-hander Jameson Taillon, it meant sitting one of the game's premier sluggers for Victorino, who isn't the same presence in the lineup. I understand that Torre wanted to get Victorino into a game, but this isn't tee ball; there are no trophies and cookies handed out to the losing team for trying your best.
  • Torre then had a strange sacrifice bunt attempt in the second inning with two runners on and no outs after David Wright doubled and Canada third baseman Taylor Green dropped an infield pop-up. Instead of going for a big inning against a 21-year-old who has pitched three games above Class A, Torre had Adam Jones bunt. It made no sense to play little ball there instead of trying to blow the game open against a pitcher who didn't exactly dominate the Florida State League in 2012. The bunt worked but Taillon worked out of the jam without a run. Play for one, get none.
  • The U.S. fell behind when Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders continued his hot WBC streak with a two-run home run to right, yanking a terrible hanging slider from Derek Holland. Saunders had shown bunt on the first pitch, a ball in the dirt, then swung away. That's what can happen when you don't bunt.
  • Down 2-0 in the fourth, Torre then bunted again with two on and no outs. The bunt "worked" when Green hesitated on Zobrist's bunt down the third-base line and Zobrist beat the throw to first. How rare is a bunt when trailing by two runs? Torre managed the Yankees from 1996 to 2007 and the Yankees had 13 sacrifice bunts when down two runs -- one by a pitcher, three by Miguel Cairo and the others by weak hitters other than two by Derek Jeter in 2004. In other words, Torre almost never bunted in that situation. It's like Torre was watching all the small ball played by the Asian teams and forgot he has the best lineup in the tournament. If Green makes the play, the U.S. scores only one run that inning instead of two. Good outcome, but the wrong call.
  • In the eighth inning, after Jones delivered a big go-ahead double to give the U.S. the lead, Torre turned to Diamondbacks righty David Hernandez even though the heart of the Canada lineup -- Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Saunders, all left-handed hitters -- was due up. I can't quibble too much with that decision, even though lefty Jeremy Affeldt was available. I would have used Affeldt, as all three players had sizable platoon splits last year, but Hernandez was one of the game's best relievers in 2012 (although he held righties to a .145 average and lefties to a .240 mark). After Votto reached on an infield, Morneau struck out and Saunders laid down a perfect bunt single. Chris Robinson then singled to load the bases and Adam Loewen grounded out to make the score 5-4. Torre then brought in Marlins reliever Steve Cishek (of course, using Craig Kimbrel, the most dominant reliever in baseball with your tournament on the line was apparently out of the question) and had him intentionally walk Pete Orr (!) to load the bases. I never like that move, which gives a pitcher no room for error. Canadian manager Ernie Whitt also pinch-hit lefty Tim Smith to face the sidearmer. The intentional walk also guaranteed Votto would bat in the bottom of the ninth. Anyway, Cishek got Smith to ground out to second in what turned out to be the game's crucial at-bat.
  • The U.S. broke it open in the ninth, with Whitt waiting too long to bring in Brewers closer John Axford, who served up a three-run double to Eric Hosmer. In the end, the U.S. bullpen depth proved key, as many expected it would before the game.
  • One thing that needs to stop is the guarantees made to general managers that if their guy is selected to a squad, he needs to play. I'm not sure if Torre used Hernandez because he hadn't pitched in the previous two games -- and again, it wasn't that strange of a move, not like the two bunts -- and needed to get him some work. Same thing with Cishek. Or maybe Torre just wanted to get them into a game. But this isn't exactly an All-Star Game. It's not an easy job, but I'd like the U.S. managers to treat this a little more seriously and not guarantee playing time. It's easy enough for a reliever to throw on the side after a game and Victorino's season isn't going to be ruined by not playing for three days.
  • Part of the fun of the World Baseball Classic is rooting for guys from your team, no matter which country they're playing for. As a Mariners fan, it was exciting to see Saunders have another big game. It was a rough day for Brewers fans, however. Green went 0-for-5 and his two miscues in the field led to at least two U.S. runs, Jim Henderson couldn't hold the 4-3 lead in the eighth, and then Axford let the game get away in the ninth. Even Braun went a quiet 1-for-5.