SweetSpot: Joe Saunders

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The Atlanta Braves playing a wild-card game where they committed three throwing errors, got burned on a controversial umpire’s call, and saw their fans delay the game after littering the field with debris?

Sure, I can envision all that happening.

But Joe Saunders doing this? Delivering 77 pitches of one-run baseball in his own personal house of horrors against a lineup that should devour a pitcher like him?

No way did I see that coming.

Welcome to postseason baseball. You just never know.

Here’s what the numbers said about Saunders: 0-6 in six career starts in Arlington with a 9.38 ERA. In 2012, right-handed batters hit .307/.349/.500 off him, meaning the typical righty becomes something akin to Albert Pujols or Adam Jones against Saunders. All 21 home runs he allowed were hit by right-handers.

The Rangers had eight right-handed batters in their lineup. Most with power.

So of course the Orioles eliminated the Rangers 5-1, on a night where Yu Darvish pitched well but received no support.

What I liked about Buck Showalter’s approach in this game is he clearly he had a plan. Certainly, it becomes it easier to execute that plan when your players perform. But he knew that given a tight game, Saunders wouldn’t pitch past Josh Hamilton (lefty on lefty, and Saunders crushed lefties this season) and Adrian Beltre (who hit much better against righties). So when Nelson Cruz came up with two out and nobody on with the Orioles leading 2-1 in the sixth, that was it for Saunders. No gambling by Showalter. No leaving in Saunders to give up a game-tying home run.

[+] EnlargeJoe Saunders
Tim Heitman/US PresswireJoe Saunders held the potent Rangers offense to a single run in its home park.
In the eighth, he knew he had another lefty waiting for Hamilton and Brian Matusz blew him away on three pitches. But he also left in Darren O'Day to start the inning -- instead of going to Pedro Strop -- because O'Day had cruised through four batters with just 14 pitches. O'Day ended up pitching two innings of one-hit relief.

Showalter had the bullpen stirring in the first inning when Saunders ran into trouble. He wasn’t going to let the game get away early from the Orioles. And you know Showalter had a plan if he needed to remove Saunders in the third inning or the fifth inning. Compare that to Fredi Gonzalez, who couldn’t figure out how to get Craig Kimbrel, who had the most dominant relief season in history, into the game until the Braves already trailed 6-3. Gonzalez had only one contingency plan for Kimbrel: Use him in a save situation.

Or compare to Ron Washington, who started Geovany Soto at catcher and Mike Napoli at designated hitter, but then lost his DH spot when he pinch-hit for Soto and inserted Napoli behind the plate. This potential problem could have been avoided by simply starting Napoli at first base and Michael Young at DH. The defensive advantage wasn’t so great as to be concern; Young ended up making a crucial first-inning error that led to an unearned run anyway.

Let’s not give too much credit to Showalter, however. Give it to Saunders, of course, for battling his way through 5 2/3 innings. After that, it wasn’t a surprise the Baltimore bullpen closed it out. That’s been the strength all season for a team that was 74-0 when leading after seven innings and 75-1 when leading after eight innings. Closer Jim Johnson's job got a little easier in ninth when the Orioles scored twice off Joe Nathan to pad their 3-1 lead. As is, the Rangers got the tying run to the plate with two out but Johnson got David Murphy to fly out to end it.

For the Rangers, it was the finale of a fairly epic collapse, leading the American League West by five games with nine to play, yet going 4-9 down the stretch and losing the division title on the final day of the season. The Rangers have shown us just how tough it is to win a World Series: They lost it in 2010, were one strike away in 2011 and now go home in bitter disappointment.

This anger was summed up when the fans booed Hamilton after he struck out in the eighth. Think about it: Miguel Cabrera hit 44 home runs and drove in 139 runs and Tigers fans think he had the greatest season of all time. Hamilton hit 43 home runs and drove in 128 and he gets booed. I know Hamilton had a strange season, but if that was his final game with Rangers, it seems a sad way to go out considering all the great memories he’s given Rangers fans.

For the Orioles, the miracle run continues against the hated Yankees. The best part of all this: Orioles fans will get a home playoff game, their first since 1997. The Orioles actually clinched a playoff spot on a plane ride to Tampa, so this will be a chance to acknowledge their fans and for the fans to acknowledge this magical season.

Not to mention the chance to beat the Yankees.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
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With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield


Here's the thing about baseball in 2012: The difference between the best teams and the worst teams isn't all that extreme. The New York Yankees, for example, have outscored their opponents by 99 runs. The Minnesota Twins, with one of the worst starting rotation in recent memory, have been outscored by 114 runs. That's 213 runs, which is significant, but maybe not as large as you might imagine. The Twins have played 129 games, so we're talking about 1.7 runs per game. What's 1.7 runs? A double here, a single there, an extra walk here, one play made on defense. It's not that much, but those three or four plays a game add up over 162 games.

This gets us to the Baltimore Orioles, the team that won't go away. For the past couple of months, most analysts have predicted them to slowly slide out of the playoff chase, especially those of us who look at the numbers. We kept to their negative run differential: It will catch up to them eventually, we said. The talent base isn't there; they won't keep winning all these one-run games; their luck will run out.

Well, it's late August and the Orioles have 34 games remaining. Forget what us so-called experts predicted -- they're still in the race; they're 3.5 games behind the Yankees; and if the season ended today they'd be playing the Oakland A's in the wild-card game. And they're still getting outscored on the season ... by 39 runs.

But here's the deal: A month ago, the Orioles were 52-49 and 8.5 games behind the Yankees. Their run differential at that time was minus-63. Since then they've gone 19-8 and outscored their opponents by 24 runs -- or nearly one per game. There's nothing that screams fluke about what has happened over the past 30 days. The Orioles might have lucked into a 52-49 record but at this point they're for real.

One reason for their improvement has been the emergence of Chris Tillman, the tall, talented right-hander for whom it seems the Orioles have been waiting since Bush 43 was still president. After struggling in 2009 (5.40 ERA) ... and 2010 (5.87 ERA) ... and 2011 (5.52 ERA), Tillman didn't make the Opening Day roster. He was sent down to the minors leagues, cleaned up his motion so it became more over the top. His fastball, which had averaged 90.5 mph in 2010 and 89.5 mph in 2011, has now averaged 92.8 in 2012, with good downhill plane generated from his 6-foot-6 frame.

On Tuesday night at Camden Yards, the Chicago White Sox looked clueless against Tillman, who pitched seven one-hit innings on the way to a 6-0 Baltimore victory. He did walk four but the White Sox couldn't measure his fastball, which he threw on 68 of his 109 pitches, a much higher percentage of fastballs than he normally throws (about 45 percent entering the game). He mixes in a curveball, slider and changeup, which he started utilizing more often late in the game. In other words, a classic approach since the days of rock-strewn infields and baggy wool uniforms: Establish the fastball early and then mix in the offspeed stuff.

The only hit off Tillman was Dayan Viciedo's infield dribbler in the fifth inning that J.J. Hardy couldn't field cleanly. Tillman actually said he didn't have his Grade A stuff on this night. "There were plenty of games where I had better stuff," he said. "There were some spurts there when I kind of got out of whack." Tillman had walked just 15 batters in his first nine starts.

Tillman's emergence -- he's now 7-2 with a 3.26 ERA -- symbolizes how the Orioles have revamped their rotation over the past month. Gone are Jake Arrieta (6.13 ERA), Brian Matusz (5.40 ERA) and now Tommy Hunter (5.95 ERA), to be replaced by the newly acquired Joe Saunders, who will start in Wednesday's series finale. Jason Hammel, the team's ace the first half, will also make a rehab start this weekend and could return to the rotation on Sept. 6. Arrieta, Matusz and Hunter combined to start 54 games -- and allowed five or more runs in 22 of them. Those are three main culprits behind the team's run differential. Well, that and the fact that Wilson Betemit and Mark Reynolds are no longer attempting to play third base.

Watching the Orioles the past two games, I've gotten a little bit of that "destiny" feeling. Lew Ford, out of the majors since 2007, homered both nights. Nate McLouth hit the big two-run home run Monday and added three hits Tuesday. As a Mariners fan, it reminds me of the miracle 1995 season, when the M's rallied from a 12.5-game deficit in late August to win the American League West. The team featured memorable big moments from guys such as Alex Diaz and Doug Strange and a way-past-his-prime Vince Coleman.

The Orioles are 24-6 (a .800 winning percentage) in one-run games, which would easily be the best record in one-run games during the wild-card era (the 2003 Giants went 28-12, a .700 mark). In fact, that would be the best of any team since 1901 -- the 1981 Orioles went 21-7 (.750). Of the top 10 one-run records from 1996 to 2011, eight of the teams made the postseason.

Team of destiny? Maybe, just maybe.

Thanks to Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information for research help.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
OriolesJoy R. Absalon/US PresswireIt's almost September, and the Orioles have plenty of practice celebrating a last out.
There was perfection on our minds as we recorded Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast , both for the show Keith Law and I co-hosted and a certain right-handed Giant from Wednesday.

1. Matt Cain made history against the Astros, so we take all angles on discussing this, from his performance, to his defense, to Houston’s lineup and big-picture thoughts as well.

2. Meanwhile, R.A. Dickey is making his own kind of history, something unprecedented for a knuckleballer. Do we think it can last?

3. We just can’t stop talking about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, but an emailer has a comparison to the Jason Heyward/Buster Posey season.

4. Trevor Bauer is being handled different than Dylan Bundy, and KLaw discusses what it means for their development. Also, if Bauer is approaching another promotion, is Joe Saunders really the Diamondback to watch? Or could it be Thursday’s scheduled starter?

5. As for the rest of Thursday, Travis Wood, Tommy Hunter and Jarrod Parker (at Coors Field!) are all on our mind.

So download and listen to Thursday’s fine Baseball Today podcast, because we might not be as perfect as Matt Cain, but we certainly give 110 percent, whatever that means.
How good is Mike Trout? Should the Red Sox trade Kevin Youkilis? Should the Giants trade Pablo Sandoval? Discussion about the all-time draft rosters. All that in more in Tuesday's chat wrap.
Joe Saunders made $5.5 million in 2011 and had a pretty good year with the Diamondbacks: 12-13, 3.69 ERA, 212 innings pitched. Those are nice numbers for pitching in a hitter's park and Saunders certainly expected a bigger paycheck as a result.

The Diamondbacks didn't necessarily agree. Saunders have would received about $8 to $9 million via arbitration, so Arizona instead non-tendered him, making him a free agent. Saunders still expected a big pay day. He didn't get it. According to reports, he turned down a two-year, $12 million offer from the Diamondbacks, which was later pulled off the table.

In the end, there wasn't much of a demand for Saunders or at least a demand for Saunders at his asking price, and he ended up returning to Arizona on a one-year, $6 million deal.

Score one for management. Right?

Saunders' peripheral numbers don't suggest a pitcher who can maintain an ERA under 4.00: He allowed 29 home runs and averaged just 4.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Among 93 qualified starting pitchers, only three (Jeff Francis, Carl Pavano and Brad Penny) had a lower strikeout rate. Saunders' FIP -- fielding independent pitching ERA -- was 4.78, indicating that he was likely helped a great deal by his defense, namely the terrific outfield trio of Chris Young, Justin Upton and Gerardo Parra. Saunders' batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .271, 20th among starting pitchers. Even with those three guys returning (although Jason Kubel will get a lot of the time in left field), that figure would be difficult to repeat.

So it all indicates that Saunders will be hard-pressed to repeat that 3.69 ERA. However, I don't necessarily think it was a bad signing for Arizona. For an additional $6 million, the D-backs suddenly have excellent rotation depth:

1. Ian Kennedy
2. Daniel Hudson
3. Trevor Cahill
4. Joe Saunders
5. Josh Collmenter
6. Wade Miley
7. Trevor Bauer

Remember, this team won 94 games in 2011 despite giving 31 total starts to Zach Duke, Barry Enright, Armando Galarraga, Jason Marquis and Micah Owings. Those five guys combined for a 9-13 record, 163 innings and a 6.07 ERA in those 31 starts.

Even if Collmenter falters after his surprising rookie season, Arizona has Bauer, the third overall pick in the 2011 draft, and Miley in Triple-A; in fact, if there's anything questionable about the Saunders signing, it's that you could argue that Miley and/or Bauer are both rotation ready.

Which begs the question: Arizona will spend $13.5 million in 2012 for Kubel and Saunders; money wisely spent? That's a lot of cash for two players who may provide only marginal benefits above what the club already had. But they will serve to make Arizona's roster much deeper than a season ago, enough that Arizona should enter 2012 as the favorite in the NL West.

The remaining all-free agent team

December, 21, 2011
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Prince FielderJerry Lai/US PresswirePrince Fielder is the biggest catch remaining in baseball's pool of free agents.

There are still some good free agents out there, perhaps even a few bargains. What kind of team could you buy if you signed the best of these guys? Let's find out. Here's a 25-man roster of unsigned players, with estimated salaries and WAR (wins above replacement). Would it be a competitive team?

C: Chris Snyder
Snyder is coming off back surgery, but it's a thin lot of available catchers. He's been up and down in his career with his bat, but will draw some walks and has a little pop.

Projected salary: $2.5 million
Projected WAR: 1.0

C: Ramon Castro
The career backup never landed in the right place at the right time, but he can he hit left-handed pitching and provides a capable 200-plate appearance backup.

Projected salary: $1.2 million
Projected WAR: 0.6

1B: Prince Fielder
We're going to empty our pocketbooks and have the big guy anchor our lineup. We'll sign him to a seven-year, $165 million contract, but we'll backload the deal. That way, if we get fired, it screws the next GM.

Projected salary: $20 million
Projected WAR: 5.0

2B: Ryan Theriot
Honestly, he doesn't bring a whole lot to the table other than a proven ability not to be horrible. He'll hit an empty .270 or so and play capable defense.

Projected salary: $2 million
Projected WAR: 0.7

3B: Carlos Guillen
Third base is a bit of a problem so we'll have to gamble on Guillen. He's missed a lot of time the past three years, so we'll sign him to a low base salary with incentives if he remains healthy. Considering the production of third basemen in the majors in 2011, he could produce at a league-wide average for the position.

Projected salary: $1.5 million plus incentives
Projected WAR: 1.0

SS: Ronny Cedeno
No, a shortstop who hits .249/.297/.339 isn't ideal, but Troy Tulowitzki isn't available in this scenario. Still, Cedeno was a 1.5 WAR player in 2011 and there's no reason he can't duplicate that effort again.

Projected salary: $4 million
Projected WAR: 1.5

[+] EnlargeCarlos Beltran
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireWhen healthy, veteran Carlos Beltran is still considered one of baseball's most feared hitters.
RF: Carlos Beltran
We need another big bat and Beltran is still out there. He's been compared to Michael Cuddyer, who signed a three-year, $31.5 million deal, so Beltran figures to go in a similar range. The good thing is he's better than Cuddyer. Even if he drops off a bit from his strong 2011, he'll be a productive player.

Projected salary: $12 million
Projected WAR: 3.5

LF: Luke Scott/Andruw Jones
We're going with a platoon here, hoping for Scott to bounce back but signing Jones to play against left-handers. Scott hit .264 and slugged .499 from 2007 to 2010, so we think he has something left in the tank. Jones had a .923 OPS against left-handers in 2011.

Scott's projected salary: $5 million
Scott's projected WAR: 1.9
Jones' projected salary: $3 million
Jones' projected WAR: 1.1

CF: Coco Crisp
We're going to want a good flychaser in center and Crisp is a solid defender who also led the AL with 49 stolen bases. His OBP fell to .314 in 2011, so we should be able to sign him for a decent salary.

Projected salary: $6.5 million
Projected WAR: 2.0

IF: Brooks Conrad
He's an insurance policy for Guillen as someone who could provide some pop off the bench and also play second base in a pinch.

Projected salary: $800,000
Projected WAR: 0.6

IF: Jack Wilson
Ugh. But considering Conrad isn't a glove guy (in fact, I'm not sure he even wears a glove in the field), we better sign Wilson as infield insurance. No, we don't like this move, especially considering Wilson's propensity to get injured while filing his fingernails.

Projected salary: $1.4 million
Projected WAR: 0.0

OF: Rick Ankiel
We wanted to sign Cody Ross here, but he's a little expensive for a fourth outfielder (although isn't that what he should be?). Ankiel can play center and provide a left-handed pinch-hitter off the bench.

Projected salary: $1.5 million
Projected WAR: 0.5

OK, now to the pitching staff, which will have to be the strength of our team.

SP: Roy Oswalt
For all the talk about his injury history, 2011 was his first season he didn't start 30 games since 2003. A bad back is always a concern but this was a guy who led the NL in WHIP in 2010. Jerry Crasnick recently reported that Oswalt wants to show he's healthy and is thus willing to take a one-year deal and aim for a bigger contract after 2012. Perfect.

Projected salary: $10 million
Projected WAR: 3.0

SP: Hiroki Kuroda
The Yankees reportedly offered Kuroda a one-year, $12 million deal. Sounds good to us.

Projected salary: $12 million
Projected WAR: 2.8

SP: Javier Vazquez
Yes, we are going to force Javy out of his rumored retirement. He had a 2.15 ERA in the second half last season, so he's far from finished.

Projected salary: $10 million
Projected WAR: 2.5

SP: Joe Saunders
The Diamondbacks declined to offer him a contract, making him a free agent. We're not in love with his soft-tossing style, but he's a solid innings eater for the back of the rotation.

Projected salary: $8 million
Projected WAR: 1.8

SP: Paul Maholm
He may be a little expensive for a No. 5 starter, but we like durability in our rotation. He was 6-14 with the Pirates in 2011, but that was a misleading record for a guy with a 3.66 ERA (4.36 career).

Projected salary: $6.25 million
Projected WAR: 1.5

[+] EnlargeRyan Madson
Howard Smith/US PresswireRyan Madson proved last season that he can be one of baseball's most dominant closers.
Closer: Ryan Madson
Baseball's most underrated reliever the past few seasons, Madson finally got a chance to close regularly in Philadelphia and did an outstanding job. His changeup is one of the best pitches in the game and we feel we can bring him in for slightly under his rumored asking price.

Projected salary: $9 million
Projected WAR: 1.7

RP: Hong-Chih Kuo
Kuo was unhittable in 2010, holding opponents to a .139 average and one home run in 60 innings, but developed his usual elbow problems in 2011 and had minor surgery after the season. He's a risky signing but with the potential of a big payoff.

Projected salary: $2.5 million
Projected WAR: 1.0

RP: Chad Qualls
A fungible middle reliever, the right-hander got pounded in 2010 but bounced back ... albeit in San Diego, so he's not necessarily a sure thing. But he's a veteran with a rubber arm. He's not as good as Octavio Dotel, who signed for $3.5 million, so we'll sign him for under that.

Projected salary: $2.3 million
Projected WAR: 0.8

RP: Darren Oliver
Doesn't every team need a veteran left-hander? Oliver has now had an ERA under 3.00 four straight seasons.

Projected salary: $2.7 million
Projected WAR: 1.1

RP: Micah Owings
He can be a long man, spot starter or even pinch-hitter!

Projected salary: $1 million
Projected WAR: 0.4

RP: Clay Hensley
After a strong 2010, his control deserted him in 2011 and he walked 30 batters in 67.2 innings and served up nine big ones. But we'll take a flyer to see if he can rediscover his 2010 groove.

Projected salary: $1 million
Projected WAR: 0.5

RP: Jamey Wright
Yes, we could sign Francisco Cordero, but bringing in two closers isn't realistic. Wright is cheap, mediocre and the perfect 11th or 12th guy on a staff.

Projected salary: $900,000
Projected WAR: 0.5

Total payroll: $127.05 million
Projected WAR: 37.0

How good would this team be? A team of replacement-level players would be estimated to win about 48 games, so our team with +37 WAR would be estimated to win about 85 games. Obviously, there's a wide range in there; if everybody stayed healthy and we had some big years, maybe it could win 90. On the other hand, there are a lot of injury risks on this roster, so the downside could be pretty extreme. Plus, there's the simple fact that a $127 million payroll is high -- that's about what the White Sox's payroll was, which ranked fifth in the majors in 2011.

If only we had a few good rookies making the league minimum to supplement the free agents!

Non-tenders added to free-agent pool

December, 13, 2011
12/13/11
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Last night gave us the latest set of free agent transactions, as teams reached the deadline to tender 2012 contracts to players -- or not, particularly in the case of a few veteran players eligible for arbitration. The decision to tender or not was also responsible for several deadline deals, notably the Pirates’ acquisition of Casey McGehee from the Brewers for Jose Veras, but also the Rays’ addition of swingman Burke Badenhop from the Marlins for minor-league catcher Jake Jefferies.

By this mechanism of roster manipulation, teams forgo the opportunity to go to arbitration with a player, skipping the almost automatic pay raise that involves, while retaining the latitude to sign him should they choose to do so. A total of 29 players were non-tendered by 20 different teams, and included some modest surprises as well as some long overdue severances.

The biggest surprises, at least as far as the people you’ve heard of? By that standard, perhaps the three most significant players who just became free agents are Diamondbacks starter Joe Saunders and Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo -- both former All-Stars -- as well as Orioles DH Luke Scott. Scott and Kuo both spent considerable chunks of 2011 on the DL, which helps explain their availability.

Scott will be trying to come back from shoulder surgery (and LASIK), a combination that with his age (34 next season) made him an expensive risk to run. At the same time, he averaged 25 homers per year from 2008-10, and his kind of power is sure to earn him an offer, perhaps one crafted to reward him for being healthy enough and productive enough to be a star DH again.

Kuo has lost so much time to injury on his career that perhaps the only relief he got was that his 2011 problems didn’t involve elbow issues, which have shelved him three times. Instead, he had to fend off back woes before spending a good chunk of the year with anxiety-related issues.

More pragmatically, Saunders’ job security probably evaporated as a result of the Diamondbacks’ deal last week to land Trevor Cahill from the Athletics. The D-backs understandably decided to forgo seeing the arbitrator give him a raise beyond $5.5 million, but his chances of landing a deal for that kind of money on the market are pretty good. A finesse lefty in a hitters’ park, Saunders posted a 4.42 ERA in Phoenix against his 3.14 ERA on the road (including 12 quality starts in 18 road turns). As a result, he might consider his newfound freedom a blessing, because his four consecutive seasons with 30 or more starts will make him attractive as somebody’s innings-eater. However, he’s a fly-ball guy whose lack of plus stuff involves cutting things fairly fine around home plate, an approach that won’t work well everywhere.

The rest of the pool of new free agents includes a number of still-valuable guys similarly let go for essentially economic reasons balanced against their basic limitations: Cardinals infielder Ryan Theriot and Giants infielder Jeff Keppinger can still help teams, but they don’t play short especially well and they don’t have power, which is why they’re here. Rockies outfielder Ryan Spilborghs can be a platoon asset and a fine fourth outfielder, but a bad 2011 made paying him more than $2 million an expensive proposition. A pair of Florida swingmen -- Rays pitcher Andy Sonnanstine and the Marlins’ Clay Hensley -- have their uses, but Hensley’s better out of the pen.

A full list of this winter’s non-tenders:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Joe Saunders, swingman Micah Owings
Atlanta Braves (2): Reliever Peter Moylan, infielder Brooks Conrad
Baltimore Orioles (3): DH Luke Scott, lefty Jo-Jo Reyes, right-hander Willie Eyre
Boston Red Sox (1): Lefty Rich Hill
Chicago Cubs (1): Backup catcher Koyie Hill
Colorado Rockies (2): Outfielders Ryan Spilborghs and Cole Garner
Detroit Tigers (1): Second baseman Will Rhymes
Florida Marlins (1): Swingman Clay Hensley
Kansas City Royals (1): Lefty Aaron Laffey
Los Angeles Dodgers (1): Lefty reliever Hong-Chih Kuo
Minnesota Twins (1): Lefty Jose Mijares
NY Mets (2): Catcher Ronny Paulino, outfielder Mike Baxter
Pittsburgh Pirates (2): Catcher Jason Jaramillo, infielder Pedro Ciriaco
St. Louis Cardinals (1): Middle infielder Ryan Theriot
San Diego Padres (1): Outfielder Jeremy Hermida
San Francisco Giants (2): Infielder Jeff Keppinger, catcher Eli Whiteside
Seattle Mariners (2): Right-hander Dan Cortes, utilityman Chris Gimenez
Tampa Bay Rays (1): Swingman Andrew Sonnanstine
Texas Rangers (1): Right-hander Fabio Castillo
Washington Nationals (1): LOOGY Doug Slaten

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

NL West: Three fixes for each team

December, 2, 2011
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Welcome to the National League West, baseball's most unpredictable division. I wouldn't be surprised if all five teams finished 81-81 in 2012.

Here are three fixes or action items for each club.

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Rotation (Joe Saunders, eligible for arbitration)

Arizona's rotation posted a 3.84 ERA, only ninth in the NL, but a strong figure considering it had to pitch half its games in the desert. Most impressive, only the Phillies received more innings from their starters. If there's a red flag, it's that the rotation ranked 14th in the NL in strikeouts per nine innings. Saunders is in his final year before free agency, after posting a solid 3.69 ERA over 212 innings, and Arizona might not want to pay him the big increase he'll get from his 2011 salary of $5.5 million. The back of the rotation has an opening as well.

Likely solution: Look for the D-backs to re-sign Saunders to a two-year deal. He doesn't strike out many guys, but Arizona's outfield of Justin Upton, Chris Young and Gerardo Parra might cover the most ground in baseball. Rookies Jarrod Parker, Wade Miley and 2011 No. 1 pick Trevor Bauer should battle for the No. 5 spot out of spring training.

2. Find a leadoff hitter

Arizona's starting eight looks set, but nobody on the roster profiles as a quality leadoff hitter. Arizona leadoff hitters compiled a .314 OBP, with light-hitting Willie Bloomquist leading off most often, 75 times.

Likely solution: Kirk Gibson needs to think outside the box here, with a lefty/righty platoon perhaps necessary. How about Young leading off against lefties? He posted a .392 OBP against them in 2011, and Justin Upton and Paul Goldschmidt can provide power lower in the order. Parra might be the best option against right-handers.

3. Bullpen depth

The bullpen ERA improved from 5.74 in 2010 (worst in the NL) to 3.71 (10th). It helped that it didn't have to throw many innings, but there's no guarantee the rotation will carry such a heavy workload again. Plus, closer J.J. Putz has been injury-prone in his career and guys like Micah Owings and Bryan Shaw were surprising contributors.

Likely solution: Arizona won't spend big here, although a guy like Jonathan Broxton would have been a nice gamble. Look for them to troll for a veteran lefty or make a minor deal.

San Francisco Giants



1. Finder another bat -- one who can hit

The Giants' offensive woes were well-documented, of course -- last in the NL in runs scored, with the lowest on-base percentage. Some of that is the ballpark, some of it was injuries, but there's no denying it was a terrible offensive team.

Likely solution: No, Melky Cabrera is not the only answer. Or shouldn't be. While he had a career year with the Royals, his .339 OBP is hardly star level, and he hit 30 points above his career average. The other outfielders on the roster are Andres Torres and Nate Schierholtz. That's not a division-winning outfield. Brian Sabean: You need Carlos Beltran back. How many more years can you get out of that great young rotation before somebody gets hurt or leaves via free agency? You have to win now. Sign Beltran.

2. Shortstop (Brandon Crawford)

The ill-advised idea to sign Miguel Tejada last season predictably didn't work out. Crawford has the goods on defense, but his .204 batting average is an accurate indicator of his offensive abilities. Crawford remains the default option right now, and while the Giants got into a bizarre bidding war for Bloomquist, Giants fans would love to see a different free-agent shortstop in the Bay Area.

Likely solution: You never know, but there are no signs the Giants are pursuing Jose Reyes or Bay Area native Jimmy Rollins. The Giants signed Javier Lopez to a two-year, $8.5 million deal and picked up Jeremy Affeldt's $5 million option. Why not use some of that money for a shortstop? In the end, unless the Giants sneak in for a second-tier shorstop like Rafael Furcal, it looks like Crawford will be the guy.

3. No. 5 spot in the rotation

The two candidates on the roster right now are Barry Zito (5.87 ERA in 53 innings) and Eric Surkamp (5.74 ERA in six starts as a rookie). As good as Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are, and as good as Ryan Vogelsong was in 2011, the rotation is one major injury and Vogelsong regression from looking a little shaky.

Likely solution: Surkamp had great numbers at Double-A -- 142.1 IP, 110 hits, 44 BB, 165 SO -- and the Giants skipped him past Triple-A in promoting him to the majors. He's a lefty who isn't overpowering with a fastball that averaged just 87.9 mph in his stint in the majors. Look for Zito to get the job out of spring training: "I'm not gonna hide from it: Barry Zito is our fifth starter next year," Bruce Bochy told KNBR radio station in November.

Los Angeles Dodgers



1. Find a new owner

While the Dodgers were allowed to sign Matt Kemp to a $160 extension, until Frank McCourt sells the club, the bankrupt Dodgers will be hamstrung on moves. McCourt has agreed to sell the team by April 30.

Likely solution: The bidding process starts next week and Mark Cuban says he'll participate. Dodgers fans should love that idea, but baseball previously balked when Cuban looking into buying the Cubs and Rangers. A team of investors fronted by ex-Dodgers Orel Hershiser and Steve Garvey is one possibility. Former agent Dennis Gilbert, who also pursued the Rangers, fronts another group of partners.

2. Infield

Here's how bad the Dodgers' offense was in 2011:

First base: 27th in majors in OPS
Second base: 28th in majors in OPS
Third base: 24th in majors in OPS
Shortstop: 19th in majors in OPS

Likely solution: The Dodgers have already signed Mark Ellis to play second base and Adam Kennedy to help at third, low-cost fixes but hardly great solutions. It looks like another year of James Loney at first base, but maybe it's time to punt on him and try prospect Jerry Sands. Loney has hit just 48 homers over the past four seasons and doesn't walk much. He's a .281 hitter without anything to go with it, and he's due a raise in arbitration over the $4.88 million he made in 2011. The lone bright spot is speed demon shortstop Dee Gordon, who looks to show his .304 rookie season wasn't a fluke. (Juan Uribe is also still around, at $16 million over the next two seasons. Yay.)

3. Rotation (Hiroki Kuroda, free agent)

GM Ned Colletti has indicated the club can't afford to re-sign Kuroda, unless he's willing to take a big cut. (Kuroda has said he'll either sign with the Dodgers or return to Japan). After Clayton Kershaw, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley, there are two spots to fill.

Likely solution: Cheaper free agent veterans like Aaron Harang or Chris Capuano are possibilities. Trading Andre Ethier for a starter is another option. Look for the No. 5 spot to be filled from within -- somebody like Nathan Eovaldi, Allen Webster or Chris Withrow.

Colorado Rockies



1. Third base (Ian Stewart)

Rockies third basemen hit a combined .222/.281/.348, among the worst production from the position in the majors, as Ty Wigginton earned the majority off the playing time after Stewart collapsed. Stewart hit .156 with zero home runs in 122 at-bats, although he found his stroke at Colorado Springs (of course, everyone finds their stroke at Colorado Springs). Here's the thing about Stewart: Even when he was good, he wasn't that good -- his park-adjusted OPS from 2008 to 2010 still places him as a below-average hitter.

Likely solution: It's possible Stewart gets non-tendered; there's also rumors off a Stewart-for-Blake DeWitt deal with the Cubs (your abscess for our canker sore). Top prospect Nolan Arenado, the Arizona Fall League MVP, hit .298 with 20 home runs at Class A Modesto, but he's just 21 in April and probably needs another season in the minors. The Rockies have also asked about Atlanta's Martin Prado, reportedly offering outfielder Seth Smith.

2. Starting pitcher (Jorge De La Rosa out for at least half the season)

As 2011 proved, it's still difficult to build a consistent rotation in Colorado. The Rockies' rotation compiled a 4.73 ERA, ranking 15th in the NL. Yes, Coors Field is a hitter's park, but it's no longer the Coors Field of old. It was a bad rotation. Right now, Jhoulys Chacin is the only starter who looks like a reliable option for 2012.

Likely solution: What the Rockies have done is collect young, power arms. They got Drew Pomeranz and Alex White for Ubaldo Jimenez; they just picked up Tyler Chatwood from the Angels for Chris Iannetta. Esmil Rogers is still around, and still very raw. A veteran starter acquired via trade is a possibility to line up behind Chacin and Jason Hammel; one guy the Rockies have pursued is Jeremy Guthrie, offering closer Huston Street.

3. Second base (Mark Ellis signed with the Dodgers)

Jonathan Herrera is still around, but the .300 average he posted in April looked more and more like a fluke as the season progressed. He finished at .242, and considering he has no power, isn't a viable short-term or long-term solution.

Likely solution: Look for the Rockies to make a trade pitch for Padres second baseman Orlando Hudson. There isn't much left on the free-agent market, although Kelly Johnson would make for an interesting risk in the thin air if he doesn't re-sign with the Blue Jays.

San Diego Padres



1. Bullpen/closer (Heath Bell, signed with Marlins; Chad Qualls, free agent)

Welcome to San Diego, Josh Byrnes. The new GM will have to figure out how to build a winning club on a payroll of $53-55 million. But you know what? The Padres aren’t that far behind the Diamondbacks. The Padres had a run differential of minus-18; the Diamondbacks had a run differential of plus-69. The Padres would have been expected to win 79 games based on their differential; the D-backs 88. With the departure of Bell and last season’s trade of Mike Adams, the Padres will be looking for bullpen depth.

Likely solution: Ernest Frieri and Luke Gregerson are the best internal candidates, but Frieri needs to improve his control and Gregerson is more of a righty specialist. Rookie Brad Brach, a one-time 42nd-round draft pick who signed for $1,000 has dominated in the minors but probably needs time in middle relief. The Padres won’t spend big on a free agent, so look for a trade.

2. Power (empty)

Ryan Ludwick led the team with 11 home runs. Nobody else reached double digits. And don’t blame the deep canyons of Petco Park -- the Padres hit 45 home runs on the road, fewest in the majors.

Likely solution: None. The Padres’ "big" moves have to been bolster the bench with Mark Kotsay and John Baker. Prospect Anthony Rizzo, who hit 26 home runs in 93 games at Triple-A Reno, will be given another shot at first base after hitting .141 with one home run in 128 at-bats with San Diego. Kyle Blanks is still around, but at 270 pounds, his lack of range in the outfield is a problem. Third-base prospects Jedd Gyorko and James Darnell are both close to big-league ready and provide some hope for punch down the road.

3. Starter (Aaron Harang, free agent)

Mat Latos, Cory Luebke and Tim Stauffer are a solid top three, with Luebke’s season in particular flying under the radar (154 strikeouts in 139.2 innings). The Padres got good work out of Dustin Moseley and Clayton Richard over 38 combined starts, but both guys delivered just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings and are good bets to regress, even pitching in Petco.

Likely solution: The Padres have offered Harang arbitration, but he’ll probably get a two-year offer from another team. Otherwise, it’s hoping that Moseley and Richard hold their own and that prospects Casey Kelly and Robbie Erlin (acquired in the Adams trade) are ready by midseason.

Running-Game Killers: Pitchers

August, 29, 2011
8/29/11
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This late in the year, it’s easy to start getting into who’s doing the best job in the more obscure areas, some of which wind up mattering an awful lot, and some of which are just interesting to know. Today’s quick take on statistical feats is on the pitchers who’ve done the best job to help throttle opponents’ running games. If you’re fond of past greats like Terry Mulholland, Andy Pettitte or Steve Carlton, these should be your heroes today:

Keeping the double play in order is useful enough as is, but additional benefits include keeping runners close to hinder their ability to take extra bases on balls in play. It’s a tactical skill that reflects a distinct difference in approach; some pitchers take this part of their job very seriously, others don’t focus on it as much, and not all of them have the benefit of strong-armed catchers. Seeing Buehrle here when his most regular receiver is the oft-criticized A.J. Pierzysnki should remind you of that, but seeing Weaver make this list serves notice that some guys just don't cut opponents slack in any phase of the game.

Shields’ performance is a breakthrough in the pickoffs department. While he’s always been good at containing the running game, his career total of pickoffs before this year was eight, making him more than worthy of a Dave Schoenfield post a few weeks back. He’s a long ways from Charlie Hough’s right-handed record of 73 (using B-Ref’s 1950 cutoff to make that determination), but the knuckleballer’s single-season mark of 14 is still in reach if runners aren’t careful.

It’s interesting to note that MLB’s leader in times an opponent was caught stealing while he was on the mound is Cleveland’s Justin Masterson with 14 baserunner kills in 25 attempts. Since he’s had to rely on Carlos Santana as his receiver far more often than the stronger-armed Lou Marson, you can give Masterson a big chunk of credit for six of the 15 attempts against Santana as well as a share for eight of 10 caught the third of the time he’s had Marson.

That said, there are pitchers who have been remarkably successful pitching despite their relative indifference of their baserunners. In this as in so many other ways, Nolan Ryan was in a class by himself by seeing a record 757 bases stolen against him in more than a thousand attempts, at a 75 percent success rate. That wasn’t merely a function of longevity, as Phil Niekro pitched just 18 more innings on his career, but allowed more than 300 fewer stolen bases while getting stolen off of at just a 67 percent clip.

More recent examples of pitchers who kept their focus on the men at the plate and less so the runners aboard include Hideo Nomo in 2001 (with 52 steals allowed in 63 attempts) and Chris Young for the Padres in 2007 with 44 steals with no one caught -- fairly unambiguous examples of hurlers with slow deliveries that inspired people to run on them. This year’s most permissive pitchers when it comes to let runners steal comprise a trio tied with minus-4 RsbP: the Braves’ Tommy Hanson (30-for-33 success on steals, no pickoffs), Boston’s John Lackey (27-for-30, no pickoffs) and the Dodgers’ Ted Lilly (29-for-31, a pickoff).

Tomorrow, we’ll get into the other half of batteries, and make our way around to hitting and pitching as well as fielding-related topics.

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

Reviewing the 2010 deadline

July, 23, 2011
7/23/11
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With trade rumors hitting us in full force as the deadline approaches, let's take a look back at some of what happened at the 2010 trade deadline and see how many of those players are making an impact for their new teams.

Cliff Lee traded to the Rangers; Mariners acquired Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Matthew Lawson and Josh Lueke
Despite a solid BB/K rate, Smoak continues to struggle with consistency at the big league level. He's still only 24, so there is time for him to improve, but he's not the instant impact bat that the Mariners were hoping for. Both Beavan and Lueke have pitched in spots for the Mariners this season. The Rangers rode Lee’s contributions to the World Series and have since moved on from Smoak seamlessly, relying instead on the likes of postseason hero Mitch Moreland, Michael Young and Mike Napoli.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Scott Rovak/US PresswireThe Rangers acquired Cliff Lee in a 2010 deadline deal and rode his arm to a World Series appearance.
Dan Haren traded to the Angels; Diamondbacks received Joe Saunders, Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin and Rafael Rodriguez
Haren has thrived for the Angels this season, and Saunders has held his own with the surprise contenders in Arizona. However, the big score for the D-Back may not arrive until late next season or 2013, as Skaggs has continued to impress all those who have seen him pitch. Recently, he earned a promotion to Double-A after posting a 3.22 ERA, 2.65 FIP and 3.7 K/BB rate at High-A Visalia in the hitter-friendly California League. Corbin has had his struggles at Double-A, but he has posted an impressive 4.5 K/BB rate and should see the big leagues one day.

Edwin Jackson traded to the White Sox; Diamondbacks received Daniel Hudson and David Holmberg
This move was sort of a head-scratcher at the time, and the way Hudson has pitched for the D’backs ever since confirms that confusion. The Snakes have Hudson under team control through 2016 while Jackson will hit the free-agent market this winter.

Roy Oswalt traded to the Phillies; Astros acquired J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar Oswalt pitched brilliantly for the Phils in the 2010 postseason. However, career-long back problems may have finally caught up to him. On the Astros' side, Happ was plugged right into the rotation, but his struggles with command and allowing the long ball have led to an ERA nearing six. Gose never played a game in the Astros' system as he was flipped to the Blue Jays for first baseman Brett Wallace; the 24-year-old Wallace has been unimpressive in his young major league career, though he does sport an above-average OBP. Villar continues to struggle with strikeouts in the minor leagues.

Lance Berkman traded to the Yankees; Astros received Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes
While Berkman is in the midst of a late-career renaissance with the Cardinals, Melancon has taken over as the Astros' closer with a 2.91 ERA, 3.33 FIP and ground-ball rate of 60 percent. Jimmy Paredes is now in Double-A and continues to steal bases, but he also continues to struggle with his lack of plate discipline.

Matt Capps traded to the Twins; Nationals received Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa
Capps pitched well for the Twins down the stretch in 2010, but his huge regression in strikeout rate has hurt him big-time this season. In the meantime, despite some ups and downs in his first full big-league season, Ramos has established himself as the Nationals' catcher of the now and the immediate future.

Jhonny Peralta traded to the Tigers; Indians received Giovanni Soto
Peralta re-signed with the Tigers last offseason and has been worth every penny of the $5.25M he is making this season. Over the past two seasons, Peralta has improved his contact rate, which has helped to lower his strikeout rate. Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Soto continues to show good strikeout ability at the lower minor-league levels of the Indians' organization.

Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot traded to the Dodgers; Cubs received Blake DeWitt, Brett Wallach and Kyle Smit
Lilly pitched well for the Dodgers down the stretch in 2010, but his issues with the gopher-ball have hurt him this season. With the Dodger's financial situation in shambles, the three-year $33 million deal Lilly signed last offseason only makes things worse. Overall, this deal has helped no one, though the Dodgers did at least acquire league-average reliever Blake Hawksworth in exchange for Theriot this past offseason.

Octavio Dotel traded to the Dodgers; Pirates acquired James McDonald and Andrew Lambo
After being acquired by Los Angeles, Dotel appeared in 19 games, allowed seven earned runs and was then traded to the Rockies in September. The Pirates landed the high-upside, inconsistent McDonald, who has been once again inconsistent. However, his 4.15 ERA (4.57 FIP) have at least contributed as a back-end rotation piece to the surprising Pirates. Lambo was once a top-end prospect with the Dodgers, but his prospect status is all but gone now. He's hitting .206/.278/.326 between Double- and Triple-A this season.

Kyle Farnsworth and Rick Ankiel traded to the Braves; Royals received Tim Collins, Jesse Chavez and Gregor Blanco
Both Farnsworth and Ankiel moved on from the Braves in the offseason, and Blanco was traded to the Nationals this past May. Collins made the Royals out of spring training and has continued to prove that he can miss bats (24.3 percent whiff rate), but his control has really tailed off at the big-league level. Collins is only 21 years old, so his future may still be as a consistent late-inning reliever someday.

Charlie Saponara writes for SweetSpot blog, "Fire Brand of the AL." You can find all of his writing adventures by following on Twitter.
In 2007, just three seasons after losing 111 games, the Arizona Diamondbacks won 90 games and the NL West title and reached the NLCS. They were swept by red-hot division rival Colorado, but it was a terrific season for a young ballclub. The future looked bright for a team that started just one regular position player over 30 and had the youngest lineup in the National League.

Mark Reynolds
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireAfter striking out 638 times during the 2008-10 seasons, Mark Reynolds was traded to the Orioles.
Among the promising hitters: Rookie center fielder Chris Young hit 32 home runs and stole 27 bases; shortstop Stephen Drew, in his first full season, hit just .238 but played solid defense and had 44 extra-base hits; rookie third baseman Mark Reynolds hit .279 with 17 home runs in 111 games; second-year right fielder Carlos Quentin had struggled (.214/.298/.349), but the team had called Justin Upton, who was just 19 when he made his major league debut. Backup catcher Miguel Montero showed promise in his rookie season. Sitting in the farm system: Carlos Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Max Scherzer and Jarrod Parker. With that base, the D-backs followed their 90-win season by winning 82, 70 and 65 games and the 2011 team is 12-15 with four starters owning ERAs on the wrong side of 5.00.

So, what went wrong?

1. The 2007 team wasn't that good. Despite winning 90 games it was actually outscored 732 to 712 and despite playing in a great hitter's park, ranked just 14th in the NL in runs and 16th in batting average and on-base percentage. In truth the Diamondbacks had a bad offense -- granted, one that could be expected to improve due to the young hitters ... but how much?

2. The Eric Byrnes contract. Late in the 2007, the team signed the scrappy Byrnes to a three-year, $30 million extension. Byrnes had a nice 2007, hitting 21 home runs and stealing 50 bases. But he was 31 years old and the contract proved a disaster as Byrnes hit .218 over two seasons before getting released.

3. Thinking they need to improve upon a rotation of Brandon Webb, Livan Hernandez, Doug Davis and Micah Owings, the team traded Gonzalez and Anderson to the A's for Dan Haren. Haren was traded last season to the Angels for a mediocre Joe Saunders and prospect Tyler Skaggs, who is several years from the majors. So, for Gonzalez and Anderson the team basically received two-plus years of Haren and a bottom-of-the-rotation starter.

4. Brandon Webb's injury. The team's ace and 2006 Cy Young winner, Webb won 22 games in 2008 before hurting his shoulder.

5. A related note has been Arizona's complete inability to develop starting pitchers. Once you get past Webb, the starting pitcher developed from within with the most victories in a D-backs uniform is Owings, who won just 14.

6. Strikeouts, strikeouts, strikeouts. The homer-happy approach of the lineup went too far. After striking out the 10th and 11th most times in history in 2008 and 2009, the team set the all-time record in 2010, whiffing an amazing 1,529 times, with five players striking out at least 145 times. The strikeouts became a major hindrance to the young hitters becoming bigger stars, most notably Upton, who followed an excellent 2009 with a disappointing 2010. Young has been inconsistent and the team finally gave up on 200-strikeout man Reynolds, trading him to the Orioles.

7. Too much lost talent: Quentin, Alberto Callaspo and Jose Valverde were all traded and Orlando Hudson left as a free agent. The Diamondbacks have nothing on the current roster to show for those guys.

8. Bullpen blues. The pen -- led by closer Valverde -- was excellent in 2007, but slowly deteriorated to the point that Baseball Prospectus analyzed the 2010 pen as the fourth-worst since 1950.

This much is clear: The days of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling heating up the desert seem long ago.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.

On not getting enough for Dan Haren

July, 26, 2010
7/26/10
11:27
AM ET
Jeff Passan on the deal that may have set the Diamondbacks back years in their rebuilding process:
The Angels depantsed the Arizona Diamondbacks. They stole Dan Haren in a trade and left the directionless D’backs naked and with nowhere to hide. First, Arizona panicked by firing general manager Josh Byrnes earlier this season. Now, with suitors from coast to coast putting together packages for Haren, they jumped at one centering around Joe Saunders.

Again, just for giggles: Twenty-nine year-old Dan Haren, one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball entering this season, and still an ace, for Joe Saunders.

OK, so there are a few kids involved, too: Twenty-one year-old left-hander Pat Corbin, 26-year-old reliever Rafael Rodriguez and a player to be named later who could be 19-year-old lefty Tyler Skaggs. No can’t miss prospects. No top-of-the-line major league players. Just Saunders, his miserable strikeout rate and a lot of dreaming.

Passan cleverly reviews the players exchanged when the Diamondbacks traded for Haren less than three years ago. Then, they gave up a platoon of top prospects: Brett Anderson, Carlos Gonzalez, Chris Carter, Aaron Cunningham and Dana Eveland.

Now, there's a real good reason why Haren's not worth as much now as he was then. Then, he was a durable All-Star under team control for three years and $16 million. Now, he's a durable All-Star under team control for three years and $41 million.

That difference of $25 million is why the Diamondbacks couldn't get nearly the haul the Athletics got, three years ago.

Still, someone seems to have messed up here. If Joe Saunders plus some (relatively) unheralded prospects was the best the Diamondbacks could do, 1) they should have just kept Haren until they could get more for him, and 2) a bunch of other teams looking for a good starting pitcher really, really messed up by not offering the Diamondbacks a more attractive package than the Angels.

My guess? Diamondbacks management simply overrated Joe Saunders -- perhaps because of his 54-32 career record -- and, especially, the three minor leaguers in the deal. I'm sure they've got a bunch of bright people working there. But it would be odd if they were so right about this deal and everyone else were so wrong.

Is Joe Saunders this good?

May, 12, 2009
5/12/09
3:41
PM ET

From the mailbag, an issue that I wanted to address in today's SportsNation chat but didn't have the space ...

 Saunders

    Rob, I don't know if you caught it, but Joe Saunders and Zack Greinke pitched one of the best games I've ever seen last Saturday. Greinke has (deservedly) gotten plenty of ink, but what is your opinion of Saunders? He's thrown 432 innings of 116 ERA+ ball. His K/9 ratio is actually decreasing, and his GB/FB ratio is less than 1. Has Joe figured something out or is this just an incredibly long lucky streak? He certainly looks like he knows what he's doing, but I'm no scout. I'd love it if he could maintain the success, but I'm a little worried the other shoe may drop at any moment.

    Daniel
    Anaheim, Cal.

1. I'm sure that Saunders knows what he's doing.

The most striking thing about Saunders is that while his strikeout rate goes down, so does his (or rather, the opposing hitters') batting average on balls in play (batted balls less home runs). To wit:

Joe Saunders By the Numbers
Year K/9 BABiP
2007 5.8 .336
2008 4.7 .267
2009 4.2 .249

Two things we know about pitching in the major leagues:

1. It's extraordinarily difficult to thrive while striking out fewer than five batters per nine innings, and;

2. It's essentially impossible to limit batters, year in and year out, to much lower than .290 on balls in play.

Johan Santana's career mark is .286. CC Sabathia's is .297, Roy Halladay's .298, Greg Maddux's .289. The only real exception to the rule seems to be knuckleballers, the best of whom -- Tim Wakefield, of course -- has given up just a .280 average on balls in play in his long career.

Last time I checked, Saunders is not a knuckleballer. Last season's .267 BABiP was a fluke. This season's .249 is a super-fluke, and there will be a correction soon. I don't believe Saunders is going to collapse or anything similarly dramatic. But his underlying performance simply can't sustain this season's 2.66 ERA, and it probably can't sustain last season's 3.41 mark, either.

The general assumption, I think, is that the Angels are going to run away and hide in the AL West when John Lackey and Ervin Santana return to the rotation. But Matthew Carruth has his doubts, and I agree with him. The Angels may need Lackey and Santana merely to balance the probably inevitable slides of guys like Saunders, Shane Loux and Matt Palmer.

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