SweetSpot: Jose Bautista

Will Jays adapt absent Lawrie and Bautista?

June, 22, 2014
Jun 22
Just when you thought things had come together for the Toronto Blue Jays, they start going to pieces all over again. In Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds, both Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie had to come out after suffering injuries. The additional frustration is that this was just after it looked like the Jays’ lineup would finally be firing on all cylinders with Colby Rasmus back this week after spending time on the DL with a hamstring injury. Now they’re at least one man down for a month, or maybe even two.

The immediate concern is how much time Lawrie will have to miss with a fractured index finger on his throwing hand. Recovery time might take a month, perhaps longer. The silver lining is that there will still be plenty of time for him to put in a live-game rehab stint in the minors and rejoin the Jays for the stretch run.

In the meantime, manager John Gibbons will have to continue to rely on a moving-parts infield that he’s employed to good effect, just without his best option in Lawrie. Juan Francisco hasn’t gotten much regular playing time at third base lately because he's manning DH while Adam Lind gets over a foot injury, but once Lind recovers, you can anticipate another three-headed playing time split between second and third base, with Francisco starting against most right-handed pitchers at the hot corner, Steve Tolleson facing all lefties, and Munenori Kawasaki getting most of the time at the keystone. It’s a disparate mishmash, one that invites risk -- Francisco’s defense, Kawasaki’s bat -- while exploiting what each of them can contribute. Suffice it to say, Jays fans should continue keeping score in pencil, since Gibbons should be busy in-game.

But the additional concern is that we also have to see how much time Bautista might miss. Given his history of breaking down and the fact that he hasn’t played a full season since 2011, you can understand the Jays’ quickness to take him out of a game, even with the outcome in doubt. Even with his five-year slip in the power department -- with his isolated power (SLG minus AVG) amounting to more than 130 points of slugging lost -- Bautista has been on track to hit 30 homers while generating tons of scoring opportunities with his 17.6 percent walk rate.

The big-picture problem is that these kind of overlapping injuries are what could keep the Blue Jays breaking away from the AL East pack, with the even greater danger that they could undermine their bid altogether. Losing Bautista, Lawrie, Rasmus and Lind for varying chunks of time saps the most reliable quality the Jays’ offense has been banking on: power, producing the most homers as well as the best ISO in the American League. Finding someone like Francisco on the scrapheap isn’t a feat easy to repeat, even for a GM as canny as Alex Anthopoulos, and this isn’t a lineup with the kind of depth to afford multiple hits of this magnitude.

The fun upshot of this is that if nobody breaks away, you might see the four teams with legitimate shots to win the AL East (the Jays, Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox) bidding aggressively for help at the trade deadline. All four have holes, even before losing players to injury. Deciding the division champ may well wind up being a matter of finding out which team is the most adaptable as well as which team makes the best deal.

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

The Blue Jays lost a tough one on Thursday, a fun back-and-forth game with the Royals that the Jays ultimately blew when Jose Reyes shanked a throw to first base on a routine grounder in the ninth inning. It would have ended the game -- Edwin Encarnacion couldn't come up with the scoop on the short hop -- but instead allowed the tying to run score and the Royals then scored twice in the 10th to win it 8-6.

So the Jays' winning streak ended at nine. But I'm going to write about them anyway.

1. Encarnacion's on fire

Talk about locked in. He homered twice: a fourth-inning two-run shot off James Shields and then a sixth-inning two-run blast that gave the Jays the lead and sent the home crowd into a frenzy. That's five multi-homer games for Encarnacion since May 8, tying him with Mickey Mantle for the AL record with 16 home runs in May. Here are the guys who have hit at least 15 home runs in May:

Barry Bonds, Giants, 2001 -- 17
Encarnacion, Blue Jays, 2014 -- 16
Mark McGwire, Cardinals, 1998 -- 16
Mantle, Yankees, 1956 -- 16
Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners, 1994 -- 15
McGwire, A's, 1987 -- 15
Frank Howard, Senators, 1968 -- 15
Harmon Killebrew, Senators, 1959 -- 15
Babe Ruth, Yankees, 1928 -- 15
Cy Williams, Phillies, 1923 -- 15

Some good stories. You may not have heard of Williams, but he was a four-time home run champion and led the NL with 41 in 1923. McGwire was a rookie in 1987. Killebrew wasn't a rookie, having spent parts of the five previous seasons with the Senators (but batting just 280 times). He hit 42 in 1959, the first of his six home run titles. Howard's big month came in the Year of the Pitcher in 1968; he hit 44 that year, and I can only imagine how many he'd have hit in 1998.

Both of Encarnacion's home runs on Thursday went to left field. He's pulled 16 of his 18 home runs this season, with the other two going to center.

2. The fearsome threesome
[+] EnlargeJose Bautista
Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SportsJose Bautista is healthy and slugging, two things the Blue Jays could use all season long.
Jose Bautista also homered and Melky Cabrera went 2-for-4. How good is Toronto's big three? As I write this, Bautista (second), Encarnacion (fourth) and Cabrera (13th) all rank in the top 15 in the AL in wOBA. (If you're not familiar with wOBA, it measures the sum of a player's offensive contributions, although it isn't park-adjusted.)

That's a rate stat. Runs created also measures the sum of a player's contributions, but the more plate appearances you get, the more runs you'll create. Entering Thursday, the big three all ranked in the top 10 in the AL. So how rare is that? Is this potentially one of the great threesomes in recent history?

Perhaps. But last year, Encarnacion, Bautista and Adam Lind actually ranked fifth, 10th and 12th in the AL in wOBA, although Bautista and Lind missed significant time. In 2012, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson of the Tigers ranked first, third and 11th. In 2011, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox ranked third, fourth and fifth in the AL in wOBA (and Dustin Pedroia ranked 11th).

Another advanced metric is OPS+ -- a player's on-base plus slugging, but adjusted for home park and era and scaled to where 100 is league average. Entering Thursday, the Jays had Bautista at 165, Encarnacion at 148 and Cabrera at 135. But they also had Adam Lind at 169, although he hasn't played enough yet to qualify for the leaderboard. Encarnacion certainly jumped over the 150 mark after his two-homer game. Only five teams since 1901 have had three regulars with an OPS+ of 150 or higher, via the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index:

• 2004 Cardinals (Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen)
• 1996 Mariners (Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez)
• 1963 Giants (Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Wille McCovey)
• 1929 Yankees (Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Babe Ruth)
• 1902 Pirates (Ginger Beaumont, Fred Clarke, Honus Wagner)

So there's nothing really historic about Toronto's fearsome threesome, but if Lind can keep hitting, maybe we'll have to start looking at fearsome foursomes (apologies to Deacon Jones).

3. Is this the best lineup in the league?

I think the jury is still out on that. After all, the Jays have scored only four more runs than the A's, while playing one more game. They've scored only 13 more runs than the White Sox. And the Jays get a boost from SkyDome. They're hitting .271 and slugging .488 at home compared to .255 and .414 on the road.

They're also getting some great production from role players -- Juan Francisco is slugging .577 in 120 plate appearances, Steve Tolleson is slugging .596 in 53 PAs and backup catcher Josh Thole is hitting .340 in 59 PAs.

I do like what John Gibbons is doing with a multi-position platoon, however, sliding Brett Lawrie between second and third base with Francisco platooning with Tolleson. It's a creative way to get more offense out there, even if Francisco and Tolleson aren't exactly Gold Gloves candidates.

4. The Buehrle thing

The Jays are 10-1 when Mark Buehrle starts and 22-22 when anybody else starts. I'm pretty sure they're not going to go 30-3 in Buehrle's starts this season, which means they'll have to pick up elsewhere. Toronto's rotation is actually fifth in the AL in ERA (yes, Buehrle's 2.33 has a lot do with that), so I don't think it's as bad/mediocre as people portray. Again, factor in SkyDome; Jays starters have a 3.04 ERA on the road.

It could be that for the Jays to keep this hot stretch going all season, they'll actually need the offense to score more runs, rather than finding another starter.

First-place Jays have had to adapt, adjust

May, 27, 2014
May 27
The first-place Toronto Blue Jays? We’re coming up on finishing the first third of the season, and it’s a fun thing to think about: The first-place Blue Jays, for real. But how did they get there?

It’s easy to put down where they are to a couple of big developments: Mark Buehrle’s big start, 8-1 with the team going 9-1 in his 10 turns, or Edwin Encarnacion’s 13 home runs in May, or Jose Bautista staying healthy while posting an OPS north of .900 for the first time since 2011. Melky Cabrera is hitting and staying out of trouble (so far). Jose Reyes has played more games than he has missed.

Those are the things that, when they work, you congratulate yourself, because that’s all part of any master plan GM Alex Anthopoulos would have for how the Blue Jays contend. What’s interesting about where they’re at isn’t just the good things working out the way you’d like, it’s the other things that they’ve had to do. It’s the things they’ve had to fix, the elective decisions they’re making, to help themselves do even better.

Take their infield. Initially, they gave organizational soldier Ryan Goins a big chunk of the second-base job, figuring he’d split time with veteran utility infielder Maicer Izturis. Then Izturis tore up his knee, Goins didn’t hit, and predictably enough neither did veteran subs Munenori Kawasaki and Chris Getz. So, with all that failing to stick, the Jays got creative.

They’d already lucked into Juan Francisco’s availability at the end of spring training, signing him after he was cut by the Milwaukee Brewers, then employing the lefty slugger to good effect when DH Adam Lind got hurt. Looking at the wreck of their middle infield, they decided to try Francisco at third base despite years of scouting reports and weak performance to warn them against it. But they figured they were better off resuming the experiment with Brett Lawrie at second rather than continue futzing around with the scrappy second-base types most teams might accept -- Goins or Getz, it hardly mattered, use either and you’re probably not goin’ to getz anywhere.

So, at a time when offense is down, the Jays made the choice to play for runs instead of defense, and it’s working. They’re averaging 4.9 runs per game with a deep lineup capable of trading blows with the league-leading Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A’s. For the Jays, it’s a multi-positional platoon, one in which Lawrie flips between second and third base while playing every day, with Francisco at third base against righties and journeyman Steve Tolleson at second base against lefties, exploiting the .832 OPS the former Twins farmhand has put up in his abbreviated big-league career against southpaws. They’re 18-8 since Francisco’s first start at the hot corner on May 3 after starting the year 12-14. They’re 9-1 in the games Tolleson has started against a lefty, beating guys like Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson and Scott Kazmir.

How does this work? Well, sure, as Francisco is slugging above .600 reflects, some guys can have a great 100 at-bats or so. But perhaps more importantly the Blue Jays are using guys for what they can do where they can do it, instead of getting hung up on what they can’t. Take Francisco: Built with the range of your average home appliance, he probably isn’t going to be an average third baseman in the major leagues. So what? Aspire to adequacy, and that’s what you get, and you might miss out on what the guy can do: Crush right-handed pitching with regular playing time, slugging over .500 in his extended minor-league career. A corner is exactly where you can hide his bat, where he might see only two or three chances per game. Yes, he’ll strike out a third of the time. He’ll also crank out a .200 Isolated Power at a time when finding people who can contribute on offense isn’t so easy.

But let’s also credit manager John Gibbons for pushing for runs. Take Monday’s game: Up by two in the fifth with nobody out, his lineup just chased Erik Bedard, so the Rays have Alex Colome come in to face Tolleson -- who’d already homered -- and Gibbons pulls Tolleson anyway to exploit the offensive advantage and bat Francisco against the righty, and devil take the subsequent defensive risks. Francisco walked, the inning just got bigger, and two more runs would score to put the Rays down for keeps. In an era when pitching substitutions and their effectiveness usually define in-game initiative, it was nice to see someone in the dugout take it back on offense and win a matchup game because he had the option, and he used it.

The flip side of this is to note that the Jays have to play for runs, because of the other thing that isn’t working for them in the early going: Their rotation, and seeing what they’re going to do about it. Outside of Buehrle’s turns, they’re 21-22 overall, and they’ve gotten just nine quality starts in 31 games from the rotation outside of those made by Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. They need better.

Someone like J.A. Happ might make for an adequate No. 4 or 5 in a contender’s rotation. And you can get excited about what Drew Hutchinson might become if you just look at his strikeout and walk rates and his FIP, but that’s only going to so far when he keeps getting clobbered the second time through the order (.825 OPS before Monday’s slugfest), or the third (.855). Maybe he’ll adjust, maybe not.

But if Hutchinson doesn’t become the third horse they really need, the Jays have a rotation that’s going to keep putting them in the slugfests that their offense will have to win for them. That’s fine as long as it’s going good, and creating leads that their excellent relief trio of Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Steve Delabar protect and hand off to closer Casey Janssen. But you’d like to see the Jays adapt their plan in-season again by adding an arm, and not just because banking on Brandon Morrow’s comeback from the DL at some point in July would be optimistic.

Sometimes contention is a matter of building on both the ideal and the unexpected. Given that the Jays can be happy to be where they are, here’s hoping they take some more chances to stay there.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
In the offseason, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos sensed an opportunity to seize control of the AL East. The Yankees were a year older and refusing to make any big moves in order to, gulp, save money; the Red Sox were coming off a 93-loss season; the Orioles were a good bet to regress after going an all-time best 29-9 in one-run games; the Rays were once again trying to patch together an offense.

So in an attempt to make the Jays relevant for the first time in years and bring the baseball fans in Toronto back to the Rogers Centre, he made the plunge few GMs are willing to take: He dealt from his wealth of prospects and acquired NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets and high-priced veterans Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson from the Marlins. He dipped into the free-agent market and signed the PED-tainted Melky Cabrera to a two-year contract.

The moves were widely praised. The computer projections were positive -- Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system predicted Toronto would go 94-68 and win the AL East, making the playoffs in 68 percent of his simulations and finishing last just 6 percent of the time. Twenty of 43 of ESPN's baseball contributors picked the Blue Jays to win the division.

So what happened? The Blue Jays head into the stretch run at 64-76 and the announcement on Wednesday that Jose Bautista will miss the rest of the season with a bone bruise in his femur was sort of the exclamation point on the team's disappointing season. (The one piece of good news: The fans did respond to the acquisitions, as attendance is up over 30,000 per game for the first time since 1998.)

The obvious answer: The pitching has been terrible. Only the Astros have allowed more runs in the AL. The offense has been OK, but not the powerhouse lineup you would have projected with Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

Look at what happened to the projected rotation. Could it have been expected to fall apart?

R.A. Dickey: 11-12, 4.30 ERA. A predictable result. He was coming off a career season and was likely due for some regression, even before switching to the tougher league and a tougher park. His road ERA is 3.34, not far off the 2.90 mark he had with the Mets in 2012, but he's allowed 20 home runs at home with a 5.21 ERA.

Josh Johnson: 2-8, 6.20 ERA. He made just 16 starts and was terrible, so while the health issues were a risk the poor performance was certainly a surprise. Was he bad or unlucky? His xFIP -- expected fielding independent pitching with a normalized home run-to-flyball rate -- is 3.59, right at his career mark of 3.57. But he allowed 105 hits in 81.1 innings (a .361 BABIP) with 15 home runs. He may have been striking guys out, and while the BABIP was high he also got creamed when falling behind in the count (.387 average after 1-0, .487 after 2-0).

Brandon Morrow: 2-3, 5.63 ERA. Ten starts. He's been unable to stay healthy at any point in his career, so it was no surprise he went down again.

Ricky Romero: 0-2, 12.46 ERA. Spent most of the season in the minors, unable to throw strikes. He was a wild card heading into spring training considering his bad season in 2012 and it all fell apart.

Of the projected five starters, only Buehrle panned out, doing his usual solid work. But it was pretty clearly a high-risk rotation heading into the season, Johnson and Morrow with their injury histories, Romero with his control, and Dickey with his regression.

The bullpen was supposed to be the big concern coming of a league-worst 4.33 ERA in 2012, but it's been very good with a 3.41 ERA (second-best in the East behind the Yankees), although the rotation was so bad the bullpen has had to pitch the most innings in the AL -- 30 more than the Astros, and 100 more than Tigers. That the relievers have held together with such a heavy workload is a big plus and the only thing separating this staff from Houston's.

Anyway, once those starters got hurt/struggled, the Jays had no depth, resorting to replacement-level starters like Esmil Rogers, J.A. Happ and Todd Redmond.

Offensively, Encarnacion had a big year, Adam Lind had his best season since 2009 and Colby Rasmus has been solid, but Cabrera has been awful (.906 OPS to .682), J.P. Arencibia has been all-power, no-OBP once again, Reyes missed 50 games, Brett Lawrie hasn't developed into a big run producer and their second basemen have been the worst in the majors (.546 OPS). I was worried about the bottom of the lineup heading into the season, and there was always the chance that Reyes wouldn't stay healthy and Cabrera wouldn't come close to matching his big numbers with the Giants. Yes, the offense had upside, but the holes loomed large.

What's happened isn't really that surprising. It was a high-risk team, maybe higher risk than most anticipated. This doesn't mean Anthopoulos had a bad offseason; it just didn't work out like it could have.

Comeback trio are post-break HR leaders

August, 11, 2013
Who has the most home runs since the All-Star break? After Saturday night’s action, three guys were tied with seven apiece: Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays, Jayson Werth of the Nationals and Justin Morneau of the Twins. In other words, neither of the league leaders (Chris Davis and Paul Goldschmidt), and a couple of guys you might well have already left for dead if you weren’t a die-hard fan of the also-ran Nats or still-buried Twinkies. And, speaking as a fan, I’m glad to see all three of them getting back in the swing of things, not least because all three of them are making comebacks against injuries and expectations.

Bautista’s “comeback” might seem like a bit of a stretch, in that he has 27 home runs this season. You might say that his skills never did go away. It’s just that he did, after losing almost half of his 2012 campaign to a wrist injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. You’d be forgiven for thinking everything has been great for him because he did come out of the gate pretty hot to make a quick case that he would still be one of baseball’s best sluggers.
[+] EnlargeJustin Morneau
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJustin Morneau's recent power burst is a reminder of better days for the Twins slugger.

However, Bautista is coming off a rough pair of months, and he very clearly has not been the same guy: He’s hitting more grounders while putting more balls in play, and his rate of home runs per fly ball has come down to 15.9 percent, its lowest mark since 2009. Maybe some of that is a matter of shaking some post-surgical rust off the wrist, and maybe some of it is Father Time taking his cut. If you enjoyed watching Bautista bash 97 home runs in 2010-11, you can take his postbreak run as a positive indicator that maybe he really is back.

You don’t have to be that much of an acid-washed skeptic to suspect that Werth’s recent bit of sluggery probably makes for the shortest comeback. Werth has been demonized ever since he took the Nationals’ offer of ludicrous amounts of cash before the 2011 season, but why blame him for that? There isn’t one of us who wouldn’t have taken a nine-figure offer.

Werth’s checkered health history was an even bigger red flag than his already being beyond age 30 at the time the Nats handed him $126 million, and injuries have certainly undermined his seasons in D.C. His first season, 2011, was sapped by getting hit by pitches in three straight games in early June; whatever Werth’s reputation for fragility, he played through it, but his midseason clip of .175/.307/.277 until his bat came around at the end of July suggests he was far from his best. A fractured wrist in 2012 cost him almost three months, and this season, a hamstring strain took him out for a month.

Werth’s second-half run is quietly helping him produce his best season yet for the Nationals. In his age-34 season, he’s perhaps as healthy as he’s ever been as a National, and his seven postbreak homers are providing a small reminder of one of the reasons GM Mike Rizzo gave him the big bucks. This latest streak provides a small suggestion that maybe there are a few chapters left to write in his already unusual career.

But the guy you really have to feel for is Morneau, the former AL MVP and one of the two towers the Twins were supposed to be able to build an offense around. But ever since his best season was cut short in 2010 by a concussion, his career has not been the same, as he struggled through an injury-abbreviated 2011 and a 2012 season best celebrated for his ability to play daily once more than for his feats at the plate, with just a .773 OPS. He’s been able to keep that up this season, but his bat’s gotten worse.

I’m not going to pretend that Morneau is going to put the Twins back in the headlines any time soon. Nor is Morneau really hitting all that well since the break: .237/.290/.505 with those seven homers and very little else, and they’re being hit against the Mariners, White Sox and Astros. But if anyone playing today deserved a few weeks to enjoy at least an echo of what he once had going for him as one of the game’s top sluggers, I’d agree it ought to be Morneau. This might not be a comeback, but at least it’s a reminder of what was. More power to him.

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

Today's scrubs may be tomorrow's All-Stars

July, 11, 2013
On Monday night, Carlos Gomez jumped, stuck his glove over Miller Park's center field fence, and pulled back what would have been a go-ahead home run from Reds first baseman Joey Votto. Instead, it was the third out in the ninth inning. Francisco Rodriguez got the save and the Brewers happily celebrated as Gomez jogged towards his teammates from the warning track.

According to FanGraphs, Gomez has been the National League's best player thus far, compiling 4.9 wins above replacement thanks to an .889 OPS, that great defense in center and 21 steals in 24 attempts. At one time, he was the No. 3 prospect in the Mets' system according to Baseball America, but the Mets included him in a package they sent to the Twins to acquire ace lefty Johan Santana.

Playing every day for the Twins in 2008 and '09, Gomez struggled at the plate. In 963 plate appearances, he posted a .645 OPS with a staggering 214 strikeouts and 47 walks, a ratio in excess of 4.5. His defense was great at times, but the Twins couldn't justify keeping his weak bat in the lineup. After the 2009 season, they traded Gomez to the Milwaukee Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Though he missed some time between 2010-12 with injuries, Gomez still did not live up to the lofty expectations set for him when he ascended through the Mets' system. The Brewers used him as a fourth outfielder behind Nyjer Morgan in 2011, and splitting time with Norichika Aoki to start the 2012 season, primarily platooning him against left-handers. By the end of July, though, Gomez was back playing every day and he finally showed flashes of the player dominating the league presently. Between July 16 and the end of the 2012 regular season, Gomez posted an .812 OPS with 14 home runs in 273 plate appearances. He stole 26 stolen bases in 29 attempts.

In an article for Sports On Earth, Howard Megdal noted how Gomez himself decided to make a change. He discarded years of advice from the plethora of coaches and decided to try to hit home runs, rather than put the ball on the ground. "I always expected myself to be a three-hole hitter," Gomez said. "Thirty-plus home runs. That's how I saw myself ... But all the people wanted [was] to take advantage of was my speed. I mean, better late than never."

Gomez, still just 27 years old, is just the latest in a surprisingly long line of players who are now at the top of the game after having been given up on by their former teams. Jose Bautista went from club to club, never finding the kind of success that parlays into a starting role. He went to the Blue Jays in 2008, changed his swing, and the rest is history. Edwin Encarnacion has a similar story; he hovered around the league average offensively, came to the Blue Jays in 2009, and turned into one of the game's premier power hitters. Domonic Brown was nearly given up on by the Phillies organization just a few years after they refused to include him in a trade for Roy Halladay, and now he sits with the second-most home runs in the National League.

Perhaps the best example is Chris Davis. Davis tore up opposing pitching while in the minors with the Rangers between 2006-08. In 2008, he reached Triple-A at the age of 22, and he hit 23 home runs in 329 trips to the plate while posting a 1.029 OPS. He earned a call up to the majors at the end of June, and hit 17 home runs with an .880 OPS.

He was asked to replicate that in 2009 at the big league level, but he couldn't. Opposing pitchers had a book on him and his approach at the plate wasn't major league quality. While he was able to muscle out 21 home runs, he struck out 150 times and walked only 24 times in 391 plate appearances. The Rangers kept him in Triple-A for most of 2010 and he performed well; in three different stints in the majors that year, however, he looked completely lost.

At the trade deadline in 2011, the Rangers needed to add some pieces for a postseason run so they traded Davis to the down-and-out Baltimore Orioles with Tommy Hunter for reliever Koji Uehara and a small amount of cash. The Rangers lost the World Series in seven games and, they would eventually find out, they also lost an impact bat.

Davis flourished with the Orioles. Last season, he hit 33 home runs with a .827 OPS. This year, were it not for Miguel Cabrera hitting at an historic level, Davis would be baseball's best hitter. He has hit the most home runs in baseball thus far with 33 and he has the highest slugging percentage with a Bondsian .690. He is walking more, striking out less, and making good contact on seemingly everything. And he's only 27 years old.

The moral of the story is not to give up on players with a surfeit of talent but a deficit of results. Patience is often rewarded in baseball. And it is a never-ending cycle. Right now, there are struggling players who have yet to live up to expectations who will eventually be discarded by an impatient, unsatisfied team and picked up by an optimistic team hoping to strike lightning in a bottle.


Which of these young players is the best bet to develop into a future All-Star?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,307)

Mike Moustakas may be one such player. After hitting 20 home runs last year but posting overall below-average offensive numbers, he has been among the five worst-hitting American Leaguers this year, with only six home runs and a .213 average to his name entering Thursday's game against the Yankees. The Royals are 43-45 and just seven games out of the second wild-card spot. Their offseason trade of Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis was a public admission they wanted to compete for the postseason, so it wouldn't be surprising to see them use Moustakas in a trade to bolster the roster for a late-season run.

Lonnie Chisenhall is another. The 24-year-old has posted tremendous minor league numbers and was ranked as the No. 39 overall prospect by Keith Law before the 2011 season. In 542 PAs in the majors, though, he hasn't shown much. The power and plate discipline he showcased in the minors seems to disappear when he faces major league pitching, but the potential is there nonetheless. Since being recalled on June 18, Chisenhall has posted a .772 OPS. That is certainly a small sample, but also a glimmer of hope as well.

Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley was ranked No. 7 by Law before the 2011 season, but like Chisenhall, has not been able to translate minor league success into major league success. In 1,249 PAs in the big leagues, he has a .650 OPS, including a paltry .533 this year that includes a .209 average. With Triple-A Tacoma -- after getting sent down -- he posted a .947 OPS with more walks (19) than strikeouts (14). He's back with Seattle and now playing outfield.

You can look at Mets first baseman Ike Davis through the same prism. And to the Mets' credit, they have been incredibly patient with him and have been exhausting their options to get him to be an above-average major league contributor. In fact, Davis has a lot in common with Davis, including the tremendous raw power and the high strikeout rate.

As odd as it sounds, some of tomorrow's All-Stars may be found at the bottom of this year's offensive leaderboards. At the same time two years ago, you would never have expected us to be talking about Chris Davis and Gomez as their league's respective most valuable players, but here we are in 2013 doing exactly that. Baseball, it's a funny game that way.

Bill Baer is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. He runs the Crashburn Alley blog on the Phillies.

The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.

Sizzling Blue Jays won't just streak and fade

June, 23, 2013

Now that the Blue Jays have rattled off a 10-game win streak, we’re almost back to what I think we all expected in the American League East when the season started: a five-team race where nobody -- nobody -- should be considered the automatic favorite. After all, isn’t that what the Baltimore Orioles taught us last year, after months of confident, thoughtful assertions that they would regress, retreat or recoil short of the postseason?


Which team will win the AL East?


Discuss (Total votes: 9,391)

What’s interesting about the Jays clambering past .500 to get back into the thick of things in baseball’s drama division isn’t that they’ve done it; more than a few people pegged this team to win as confidently as they did the Nationals before Opening Day, after all. What’s interesting is how they’re doing it, and who they’re doing it with.

  • After years of disappointment as a homegrown, big-ticket investment, Adam Lind is delivering for the first time in years, slugging almost .700 for the month of June. Spotted with care, he’s even hitting those lefties he remains in the lineup to face (OPS 1.030) after years of having problems hitting against them (.626 career).
  • Lind is far from the only surprise hero in the lineup. Colby Rasmus has put up an .861 OPS over the past 30 days, providing a nice reminder that it wasn’t very long ago that he was considered one of the best prospects in the game (including third overall before the 2009 season on Baseball America’s top prospect list). He’s still just 26 years old this season, and after a two-year hiccup, it isn’t inconceivable that his year is for real. An even bigger surprise has been Munenori Kawasaki going from scrap-heap sub at shortstop -- stepping in for Jose Reyes, no less -- to someone providing a .347 OBP.
  • The rotation has been made a shambles by ineffectiveness (R.A. Dickey has just one quality start in the past month), injuries (fragile young gun Josh Johnson has already missed nine starts) or, in the case of the maddeningly promising Brandon Morrow, both. But setbacks for some create opportunities for others. Chien-Ming Wang has provided innings and winnable games and converted shortstop Esmil Rogers has had a couple of good starts. More significantly, Johnson is back in action and Mark Buehrle is already turned around after a slow start, rattling off quality starts in six of his last eight turns.
  • [+] EnlargeMark Buehrle
    AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Frank GunnMark Buehrle, part of the Jays' big offseason deal with Miami, has come on after a bumpy start.
    But perhaps the most impressive element of the Blue Jays’ run back to relevance has been their bullpen. On the year, its numbers aren’t amazing, allowing 3.5 runs scored per nine and a decidedly average 32 percent of inherited runners to score. But over the past 30 days, the Toronto relievers have gotten tremendous work from a no-name crew fronted by closer Casey Janssen. In that time, skipper John Gibbons’ most frequently used quintet (Janssen, Steve Delabar and Neil Wagner, plus lefties Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup) have pitched 52 times, tossing 58.1 innings while giving up just 1.4 runs per nine. They’ve delivered a 65:16 strikeout:walk ratio in that time. Cecil’s been especially effective, allowing just four baserunners in 16 innings against 20 whiffs. And as much trouble as the Jays’ rotation has been, the bullpen has had to pitch an MLB-leading 267.1 innings, so while its overall RA/9 or Fair Run Average (4.41 according to Baseball Prospectus) hasn’t been earth-shattering, it’s the volume of useful innings plus the pen's recent performance that has been crucial to the Jays' success. As much as any bullpen can be a crapshoot in terms of making too much of small sample sizes, it would be fair to say the Jays’ pen has been a lovely surprise in a moment of need for innings, and Gibbons seems to be getting a lot more mileage out of his unit than other, more famous skippers are getting out of other, more famous (or expensive) assemblages of relief talent.

All of which might lead you to make assertions every bit as confident as last year’s about the Orioles, that surely the Jays can’t keep this up. It would be easy to infer that these are all just the symptoms of victory. And that’s sensible: Keeping your expectations low for guys like Rogers or Wang or Kawasaki is entirely reasonable, and based on an awful lot of direct observation. Is Lind going to slug .700 from here on out? Of course not; who do you think he is -- Chris Davis? These are the guys the regression fairy is liable to clobber with a two-by-four.

But what has helped get the Jays this far doesn’t have to be what leverages the Jays even further into the AL East race. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are bashing -- and they should. In the rotation, Johnson is already back, and Morrow might be before the All-Star break; that could lighten the load on the pen, while keeping more games in reach for the Jays’ homer-happy lineup. The feeble production the Jays have gotten from most of their infield slots will almost certainly improve once Reyes and Brett Lawrie come back in a week or so.

In short, what has gotten the Blue Jays this far doesn’t have to be what they win with in the second half. They can thank their surprise heroes for helping get them back into this thing, but the Jays have a tremendous opportunity to build off this run once they’re back at full strength. In many respects, you can look at the Jays’ slow 13-24 start this year as being very much like what happened to them in 1989, when they started out 12-24 -- and nevertheless came back to win the AL East with 89 wins. In a division where it looks like everybody is going to knock everyone else down, keeping all five teams in the race, that sounds very familiar indeed.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
What to make of Matt Moore right now?

His 9-3 record looks nice, but he hasn't pitched like a 9-3 pitcher, especially of late. Even when he started the season 8-0, there were some red flags: a lot of walks, high pitch counts that led to early exits and a .181 batting average allowed that seemed unsustainable.

After that hot start, a one-inning outing truncated by a rain delay was followed by three blow-up starts: six runs and six walks in two innings, 12 hits and nine runs in five innings and five runs and four walks in 5⅓ innings.

I don't know if we really learned anything from Thursday's 8-3 victory over the Yankees, in which Moore took a shutout into the sixth inning before giving up three runs. For starters, the Yankees' is a pretty sad excuse for a major league lineup, and it's particularly pathetic against left-handers. Chris Capuano, who has been terrible for the Dodgers, just threw six scoreless innings against New York on Wednesday.

Moore did throw 63 of 99 pitches for strikes, about four percent higher than his season rate, but he should be throwing strikes against a lineup that had Jayson Nix batting second and Ichiro Suzuki hitting sixth. The uncertainty over Moore's production -- is he an ace or a No. 4 starter? -- makes him the most important guy moving forward in a Tampa Bay rotation that has been a disappointment.

You could pick almost any Tampa Bay starter here, including David Price, who begins his rehab stint from a strained triceps Friday, or Jeremy Hellickson, who has a 5.50 ERA. But if Price is healthy, he should be fine. Hellickson has a better strikeout rate, lower walk rate and the same home run rate as last season; instead of the 82 percent strand rate he's had the past two seasons, it's 61 percent this seaspn. He should be better moving forward as well.

That makes Moore the key starter if the Rays are to stay close in the crowded American League East race. In fact, with the Blue Jays surging -- winners of eight in a row -- seven games separate first-place Boston from last-place Toronto. Here are nine other key players the rest of the way, one hitter and pitcher per team.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJohn Lackey could well be Boston's No. 2 starter right now -- and will be a key player in the AL East race.
Matt Joyce, Rays
Since April 26, Joyce has hit .292/.383/.590 with 12 home runs to give the Rays a lethal 1-2 combo with Evan Longoria. If he continues hitting like he is, the Rays offense will continue scoring runs.

John Lackey, Red Sox
Lackey continues to impress in his return from Tommy John surgery, throwing seven strong innings against the Tigers on Thursday, leaving with a 3-2 lead and lowering his ERA to 3.03. Red Sox fans might not be willing to forgive him just yet for 2011, but he's starting to win them over. He's throwing in the low 90s, painting the corners with his fastball and getting inside to left-handers with his slider (lefties are hitting just .174 against that pitch). Considering Jon Lester's inconsistency, Lackey has arguably become the team's No. 2 starter. Who would have thought that?

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
He's not the MVP candidate of 2011 -- just one home run -- but he's providing energy at the top of the lineup with a .281 average, .348 OBP and 31 steals in 34 attempts. While more power would be nice, the Red Sox just need him to at least keep replicating what he's done so far.

Jason Hammel, Orioles
Look, the Orioles can't expect to keep running Freddy Garcia and Jake Arrieta out there and expect to win the division. They'll get Wei-Yin Chen back soon, but they're desperate for Hammel to replicate his 2012 performance. Last season, Hammel was getting great sinking movement on his fastball, off which batters hit .252/.318/.378; this season, he's leaving it up too often, and hitters are pounding it for a .309/.377/.510. Last year was a career season for Hammel, so the Orioles might have to decide on banking on his improvement or look to supplement the rotation via trade.

Chris Davis, Orioles
Well, he's on pace for 58 home runs and 146 RBIs. I don't think he'll keep doing this, and while he's clearly an improved hitter over last season, we have to expect some regression at some point … right?

CC Sabathia, Yankees
Most pitchers would be happy with a 7-5 record and 3.93 ERA, but it's been an up-and-down season for Sabathia. Manager Joe Girardi is still riding his horse -- Sabathia's on pace for 230 innings -- but righties are slugging .447 off him, up from last season's .374 mark. It's clear he doesn't have the fastball he once had (average velocity: 90.3 mph), so the issues here: Should Girardi back off him a little? Does Sabathia get better? Should we just view him as an innings-eater instead of an ace?

Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
We have to put somebody here, and I can't bring myself to write "Vernon Wells." But the Yankees do need to find some right-handed bats. Heck, maybe they'll sign Manny Ramirez.

R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays
The Jays are starting to get healthy again, Josh Johnson has looked better of late and Mark Buehrle is looking like Mark Buehrle, so if Dickey can find some consistency and pitch like last season's NL Cy Young winner, the Jays will climb over .500 -- they're 35-36 now -- and make things interesting.

Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
The Jays are seventh in the AL in runs, and while Jose Reyes will improve the offense when he returns in a few days, they could use a patented Bautista tear in the second half. His numbers are OK, not great -- .257, 15 home runs, .352 OBP -- but, considering the hole they dug, they'll need more from him.

OK, let's stir up some arguing and yelling again. Yesterday, I ranked the top five pitching duos. Today, let's do the majors' best hitting duos.

Ranking the pitchers was difficult because there were so many excellent pairs to choose. Ranking the hitters is difficult because of a lack of obvious candidates. But here goes. Angry comments can be posted below!

1. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, Tigers
They seem like the pretty clear choice for No. 1 to me. You have the best hitter in baseball in Cabrera and a power-hitting, on-base machine in Fielder. One bats right-handed, the other hits lefty. They never miss a game and the fact that they can't run is but a minor inconvenience. Right, Cabrera ranks first in wOBA and Fielder 21st. Last year they ranked first and sixth.

2. Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, Reds
They've been the best pair so, ranking third and fourth in wOBA (Baltimore's Chris Davis is second). They've also combined to create the most runs of any pair -- Votto is second in the majors and Choo third in runs created, behind only Cabrera. As good as they've been, I can't put them No. 1 for a couple of reasons. First, Choo is unlikely to sustain this level of play (after hitting .337 in April, he's hitting .250 in May, albeit with power and walks). But it's hard to rate this duo as the best when Choo is also completely helpless against left-handers -- .146/.317/.188. He hit .199 against them last year, so you can pretty easily argue that he should be platooned.

3. Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, Giants
The Giants are no longer fueled by their starting rotation but by this pair. Their raw stats may not blow you away, but some of their effectiveness is masked by playing half their games in AT&T Park. Last year, for example, Posey hit 17 of his 24 home runs on the road (although this year he's hitting .367 at home and .227 on the road). Sandoval has been inconsistent throughout his career -- his year-by-year OPS totals since 2009 are .943, .732, .909, .789 and .832 so far in 2013 -- but after breaking a bone in each hand the past two seasons, looks poised for a big season. And we mean big. He's the ultimate bad-ball, bad-body hitter, and while I wished he walked more, he and Posey have developed into a lethal combo. Put them in a different park and their numbers would be even better.

4. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
Both started a little slow but have still combined for 21 home runs. Each has the ability to hit 40 home runs (Encarnacion hit 42 last year, Bautista passed the 40 mark in 2010 and 2011). Both are hitting under .260 right now, but they draw walks so they will post solid-to-excellent on-base percentages. If Bautista ends up hitting closer to the .302 mark he posted in 2011 and Encarnacion hits .280 as he did last year instead of his current .256, they could end up challenging Cabrera and Fielder for the top spot.

5. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Angels
Oh, yeah, Trout is now hitting .293/.373/.558, including .343/.434/.757 in May, and provides added offensive value with his speed. The question: What does Pujols bring to the table? He has scuffled so far with a .247/.318/.420 line, including a league-leading 10 double plays. The foot is clearly bothering him and maybe it doesn't get better. Maybe Pujols doesn't get better even if the foot does. But I'm not quite ready to write him off just yet.


OK, after Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, who is the best hitting duo in the majors?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,803)

OK, I know I'm going to hear it from Rockies fans about not including Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez -- but I'm going to include them in the poll instead of Trout and Pujols. For the first time in his career, CarGo is actually hitting on the road, a robust .325/.407/.625. His walk rate is up as well, so we could be seeing an improved Gonzalez this year. If CarGo does keep hitting on the road, then I'll move them into the top five.

Worth mentioning:

Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez/Jean Segura, Brewers. Gomez and Segura are off to great starts, but let's wait a bit to see if they're this good.

Carlos Santana and Mark Reynolds, Indians. Two reasons the Indians have scored a lot of runs.

David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox. Ortiz has 29 RBIs in 27 games since returning from the DL and Pedroia has a .420 OBP.

Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp, Dodgers. If Kemp gets going.

• Chris Davis and Manny Machado/Adam Jones, Orioles. Machado falls into the Gomez/Segura camp: Let's see him do it for bit longer period of time.

In April, Jose Bautista had turned into a three true outcomes type of player: home run, walk or strikeout. He hit seven home runs and had a slugging percentage over .500, but was hitting just .200.

Was he just finding his stroke as he returned from last year's injury problems? Or was he no longer the MVP-caliber hitter of 2010 and 2011, when he hit 54 and 43 home runs, drew walks, and hit .260 and then .302?

He hit his first two home runs of May on Sunday in a 12-4 pasting of the Red Sox to raise his overall batting to .246/.360/.544 -- respectable, if not quite 2011-level Bautista. And the Blue Jays need 2011-level Bautista if they have any hope of recovering from their awful start.

I'm not quite sure he's there yet. While Bautista can crush any fastball -- he's hitting .333 with six home runs in 51 at-bats ending with a fastball this season -- it was his production against "soft" stuff that allowed him to hit above .300 in 2011. Check out these two charts on his batting average against soft stuff in 2011, and then the past two seasons:

Jose Bautista heat mapESPN Stats & InformationIn 2011, Bautista hit .291/.415/.591 with 16 home runs against soft stuff.

Jose Bautista heat map 2012-13ESPN Stats & Information Over the past two seasons, Bautista has hit just .180/.326/.365 against soft stuff.

As you can see, that's a lot of red (hot) in 2011 and a lot of blue (cold) since. This year, he's 7-for-51 (.137) with three home runs against soft stuff. He split his home runs on Sunday -- one came off a first-pitch Ryan Dempster fastball, the other off an 0-1 83 mph slider from Clayton Mortensen. Bautista is a dead pull hitter -- only one home run to center and one to right-center over the past two seasons -- which can leave him vulnerable to breaking stuff on the outside part of the plate.

I haven't seen enough evidence that he's going to punish those pitches like he did a couple years ago, so I would guess he'll be prone to ups and downs throughout the season. He's still a huge threat at the plate, but not the MVP bat of 2011.



Who would you most want the rest of the season?


Discuss (Total votes: 765)

Three stars
1. Shelby Miller, Cardinals. One hit. Twenty-seven down. In a 3-0 win over the Rockies on Friday, the St. Louis rookie became the fifth pitcher since 1961 to allow the first batter to reach base and then retire 27 in a row, joining John Lackey (2006 Angels), Jerry Reuss (1982 Dodgers), Jim Bibby (1981 Pirates) and Woodie Fryman (1966 Pirates). Miller had the Rockies guessing wrong -- or merely looking -- all night long, as he got 30 called strikes, the second-most by a starter this season. Eight of those closed out Miller's 13 strikeouts. Just a dominant performance. In fact, for all the attention given to Matt Harvey this year, compare the two young right-handers:

Miller: 5-2, 1.58 ERA, 45.2 IP, 29 H, 3 HR, 11 BB, 51 SO, .179 AVG
Harvey: 4-0, 1.44 ERA, 56.1 IP, 27 H, 3 HR, 14 BB, 62 SO, .142 AVG

2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals. Not to be outdone, Wainwright took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Saturday, finishing with a two-hit shutout in another 3-0 win for the Cards. Wainwright improved to 5-2 with a 2.30 ERA and had strong words about his rookie teammate: "You follow Roger Clemens a couple times like I have been, it makes you focus a little bit more," he said. "Once you see Shelby mow through a lineup like he has all year, you want to go out there and do it, too." Kudos also to Cards manager Mike Matheny for leaving in Miller to throw 113 pitches, and Wainwright to throw 120. In this day when managers are too willing to yank starters at 100 pitches, it is good to see a manager let his guys go the distance.

3. Chris Sale, White Sox, and Jon Lester, Red Sox. Two more one-hit shutouts, Lester on Friday, Sale on Sunday. Can't anyone here hit anymore? Lester got 12 ground-ball outs as he joined Pedro Martinez (2000), Hideo Nomo (2001), Curt Schilling (2007) and Josh Beckett (2011) as Red Sox pitchers to throw a one-hit, no-walk shutout in the live ball era. But Sale threw his wearing the so-ugly-they're-cool 1983 throwback uniforms.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Evan Longoria, for his two-out, two-run, bottom-of-the-ninth home run to give the Rays a dramatic 8-7 win over the Padres on Saturday. My favorite part: There's some sort of picnic area in left-center (yes, "picnic area" and "domed stadium" is kind of an oxymoron) where the ball landed, and it looks like half the fans out there didn't realize it was a game-winning home run.

First off, credit Ben Zobrist for a drawing the two-out walk on a 3-2 pitch from Huston Street, working back from a 1-2 count. Street knew that was the batter he had to get. "You get him 1-2, you've got to make a pitch," he said. "I'm frustrated about that just as much as leaving a pitch to Longoria in the middle of the plate." The Rays had led 6-2 before the Padres scored five in the seventh, leading Joe Maddon to say it would have been one of Tampa's worst three losses of the year. "But you can't go to the dance playing like that. When you get leads, you've got to put the other team away. I'm not happy with that. That's inappropriate. That's got to stop," he said.

The Rays finished the sweep on Sunday, however -- their fifth win in a row -- and clawed a game over .500.

Best game
Well, that Padres-Rays game was pretty good. Miller's game was mesmerizing. Toronto's win over Boston on Saturday featured Adam Lind's go-ahead home run in the ninth off Junichi Tazawa, after the Red Sox had tied it in the bottom of the eighth. But I'll go with Cleveland's 7-6 win over Justin Verlander and the Tigers on Saturday. Or Cleveland's 4-3 win on Sunday, in which the Indians tied it in the ninth and won it in the 10th, leading to this quote from Mark Reynolds, who delivered the go-ahead single: "With two strikes, I'm just trying to shorten up my swing and get something into play," he said. Wait ... since when does Reynolds shorten up his swing? Gotta love baseball.

The Indians took two of three from the Tigers to move into a first-place tie with Detroit.

Hitter on the rise: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
He had six home runs through April 21, but his average fell to .173 after a three-strikeout game on April 25. In 16 games, he's hit .419/.478/.694, with three more home runs, eight doubles and nearly as many walks (six) as strikeouts (eight). He has six three-hit games in that stretch, and he's showing he's more than just an all-or-nothing slugger. He's showing he's a guy who is going to be the Cubs' cleanup hitter for a long time.

Pitcher on the rise: Zach McAllister, Indians
Don't believe in the Indians? Don't believe in the rotation? McAllister is starting to look like another solid option alongside Justin Masterson. He didn't get a decision in Sunday's game but pitched a solid six innings. He's 3-3 with a 2.68 ERA and a decent 33/13 SO/BB ratio in 43.2 innings. He's a fly ball pitcher but has allowed just five home runs in seven starts. If he keeps the ball on the right side of the fence he has a chance to be successful.

Brandon Phillips play of the week
This one was pretty.

Happy Mother's Day
Pablo Sandoval uses his pink bat to launch one into McCovey Cove. Tim Lincecum backed up Sandoval with his best outing of the year as the Giants took the final three of four from the Braves. Tough stretch coming up for the Giants, however: 20 of their next 30 on the road, including series in Toronto, Colorado, St. Louis, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

Team on the rise: Indians
They're 12-2 over the past 14, hitting .305 with 24 home runs -- and that stretch does not include that 19-6 win over Houston earlier in the season. The pitching staff has a 2.98 ERA with 13 home runs allowed. The Indians lead the majors in home runs and OPS, and guys like Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall have room to do better.

Team on the fall: A's
Awful week, losing four to Cleveland and then two of three to Seattle. They scored more than three runs just once in seven games as injuries to outfielders Coco Crisp, Chris Young and Josh Reddick have left them playing Michael Taylor and Brandon Moss in the outfield (with Daric Barton or Nate Freiman replacing Moss at first base). Jarrod Parker is still scuffling (6.86 ERA, four walks in 6.1 innings on Saturday). The A's just need to get healthy, and they didn't hit their stride last year until July (they were 37-42 and 13 games out on July 1), so they may be down now, but hardly out.

If you're younger than 28 or so, you don't remember when the Toronto Blue Jays were the preeminent franchise in Major League Baseball, unless you're Canadian and weaned on sports history other than Paul Henderson. They won American League East titles in 1985, 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1993 and World Series titles in '92 and '93. They had a gleaming new modern stadium that was the envy of other teams, packed every night (the Jays drew more than 4 million fans each season from 1991-93, averaging better than 50,000 per game in 1993), and had a team of stars -- Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter and Jack Morris and Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield and homegrown talent like John Olerud, Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen, and were bold enough to pick up rental players like David Cone and Rickey Henderson during their championship runs.

After 20 years, the Blue Jays are back. Baseball hasn't died in Toronto -- the Jays have certainly been competitive -- but it has been dormant. But watching R.A. Dickey pitch the team's opener before a sold-out Rogers Centre -- backed by the likes of Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and last year's 42-homer man, Edwin Encarnacion -- is a reminder of those halcyon days when Toronto was the baseball capital of the world.

The game didn't go Toronto's way, as Dickey struggled a bit with commanding the knuckleball, walking four (give credit to Cleveland's hitters for showing a lot of patience) as the Indians won, 4-1. Dickey walked four in a game just twice during his 2012 Cy Young campaign with the Mets, but if there's consolation for Jays fans, one of those came in the season opener. Let's not read too much into Dickey's outing and overanalyze things like pitching indoors or moving to the American League or whatever. It just wasn't his night and I'm chalking it up as nothing more.

[+] EnlargeR.A. Dickey
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesR.A. Dickey, left, allowed four walks in his Blue Jays debut -- something he did in his 2012 opener, too.
Asdrubal Cabrera golfed out what looked like a pretty good low tumbler for a two-run homer in the fifth and also made the key play of the game, stopping Adam Lind's hard smash with the bases loaded and none out in the third to start a nifty double play. Justin Masterson settled down after that and survived his own four-walk opener.

The main thing I liked about Toronto's offseason is that -- like Pat Gillick back in the day when he traded Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff for Alomar and Carter or acquired Cone and Henderson -- general manager Alex Anthopoulos made the bold moves to acquire Dickey, sign Melky Cabrera and pull off the blockbuster deal with the Marlins. Considering the Tommy John surgeries handed out to young starters Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, and the struggles of Ricky Romero, it could have been easy to say 2013 would be a holding pattern as the Jays waited for the next wave of youngsters to arrive.

After all, isn't that what you're supposed to do these days? Develop your own talent, and if you're lucky enough to have them turn into Justin Verlander or Buster Posey, break the bank to sign them to long-term deals. But the Jays seized advantage of a market opportunity to acquire proven big league stars! Imagine that.

It's just one night, so let's not overreact here, but as much as I like the top four of the Jays' lineup -- Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Encarnacion -- I do see potential on-base issues in the bottom of the lineup. Brett Lawrie is out another couple weeks and he'll hold down the five-hole when he returns, but it's not like he tore it up in 2012 (.273/.324/.405). Though, he's only 23 and a good bet to improve. With him sidelined, the Jays had Lind (.314 OBP in 2012), J.P. Arencibia (.275 OBP) and Colby Rasmus (.289 OBP) hitting fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. That's simply just not a championship-quality 5-6-7 trio unless they improve.

But I'll still buy into Toronto's potential to run away with the AL East if everything breaks right. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson could be as good as any top four in the league, and Bautista and Encarnacion could combine for 85 home runs with Reyes easily leading the league in runs. Opening Day is a day to believe, and one loss doesn't change that. I suspect we'll see a few more sellouts at the Rogers Centre.
Mike Trout and Miguel CabreraGetty ImagesThe SweetSpot bloggers predict another 1-2 MVP finish for Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera in 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Points on a 7-4-3 basis.

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

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


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

Points on a 5-3-1 basis.

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

Others -- Bruce Rondon (6 points), Mike Olt (5), Mike Zunino (4), Chris Archer (3), Avisail Garcia (1), Conor Gillaspie (1), Nick Tepesch (1), Kevin Gausman (1)
Jose BautistaAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAll eyes will be on Jose Bautista this season as the Blue Jays are expected to contend.
Does pressure exist in baseball? We've made heroes and goats of those who performed -- or didn't perform -- in the game's biggest moments. But those are usually isolated snippets of time in a postseason game, when the results of one at-bat or a few games serve to define your character (fairly or not).

Pressure in the regular season is different; it's more about external expectations and a player's importance to his club. Some players thrive under that spotlight; some pretend it doesn't exist. Tommy Lasorda put it another way: "Pressure is a word that is misused in our vocabulary. When you start thinking of pressure, it's because you've started to think of failure."

For the most part, major leaguers are oblivious to pressure because they are good; they expect success, not failure. But that doesn't mean pressure isn't out there in some form. For example, did Albert Pujols struggle last April because of the pressure of his new contract? It's certainly possible.

Here are the 10 guys I would suggest are facing the most pressure this season.

10. Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Marlins moved Ramirez off shortstop not just because they signed Jose Reyes a year ago but because they also believed Ramirez no longer had the range required to play the position. The defensive metrics back up that assertion -- minus-39 defensive runs saved over the three seasons, in what amounts to about two years' worth of innings at shortstop -- but Ramirez wants to play short and that's where he'll open the season. After hitting .313 over his first five seasons, Ramirez also has to show there's some potency left in his bat after hitting just .252 over the past two seasons.

9. Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
It's easier to be the big man on campus when winning results are hoped for more than assumed. But now that the Blue Jays are expected to be relevant, the spotlight will shine more intensely on Bautista. Is he the guy to carry a Jays team that many believe can -- or should -- reach the World Series? He's reportedly healthy after last year's wrist injury, but he has to prove he can come closer to 2011's monster numbers (.302/.447/.608, 43 home runs) than 2012's more pedestrian ones (.241/.358/.527).

8. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
The pressure on Wainwright won't come from a heavy-handed local media or fan base with unrealistic demands, but from the knowledge that Kyle Lohse won't be here and Chris Carpenter's career may be over. With young pitchers like Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly battling for the starting rotation, the mantle of staff leader falls on Wainwright's shoulders -- and surgically repaired right elbow. He obviously had a positive return from Tommy John surgery a year ago (14-13, 3.94 ERA), but it's important to note it wasn't really that great of a year -- his ERA ranked just 31st among qualified National League starters. But a strong second half has many believing Wainwright can return to his pre-injury Cy Young contender status.

7. Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox spent enough money in the offseason -- Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes -- that club officials certainly expect a rebound from last season's disaster and a return to contender status. To do that, however, they'll need a year like Ellsbury gave them in 2011, when he hit .321 with 32 home runs and finished second in the MVP vote. Ellsbury hasn't hit more than nine homers in any other season, so as an impending free agent he's also looking to earn a mega-payday by showing that power spike wasn't a fluke.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesJosh Hamilton will have to face the pressure of playing for a $125 million contract in Los Angeles.
6. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
As always, there's a lot of pressure on Longoria to lead a Tampa offense that isn't going to scare a lot of opponents. Aside from that, he has to prove he can stay healthy after missing significant chunks of action the past two years -- and rejoin that discussion of being one of the top five players in baseball -- and show that $100 million extension the Rays gave him in the offseason wasn't a mistake.

5. Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
With no Josh Hamilton and veteran leader Michael Young jettisoned to Philly, this is now Beltre's team, so to speak. He's the star of the Rangers' show and with that comes the pressure to carry a lineup that scored 47 fewer runs in 2012 than it did in 2011. Beltre hit .321 with 36 home runs, but he turns 34 in April, that precarious age when decline often starts setting in.

4. Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels
Speaking of Hamilton, when you leave a winning franchise to sign a $125 million deal with your former team's biggest rival, yeah, I'd say the intensity of expectations will be pretty high. Will the money affect him? How will he hit outside of Texas? What was up with all the strikeouts last year? Sure, it helps having Pujols and Mike Trout around to help carry the offensive burden, but Pujols' struggles suggest pressure to live up to a huge contract can arguably affect even the biggest stars. Anything short of Hamilton helping lead the Angels to a division title will be considered a disappointment.

3. Justin Upton, Atlanta Braves
Considering the months of trade rumors surrounding Upton -- and then everybody saying the Braves stole him from the Diamondbacks -- he has to show he was worth all the hype. He has hit .307 with a .937 OPS in Arizona in his career, .250 with a .731 OPS on the road. Did the Braves trade for a guy who was an MVP candidate in 2011 or merely a good, but inconsistent, player?

2. Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
No Nick Swisher. No Russell Martin. No Curtis Granderson for April. No Alex Rodriguez for who knows how long. A declining Mark Teixeira and an aging Derek Jeter trying to return from a broken ankle. Two outfielders in Ichiro Suzuki and Brett Gardner with little power. Oh, yeah, you're also playing in the toughest media market in the sport, coming off a postseason in which you hit .075 and playing for a huge contract as an impending free agent. Enjoy the season, Mr. Cano.

1. Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers
When you admit you signed with the Dodgers because of the hefty paycheck ($147 million over six years) it's not just a refreshing bit of honesty (although I respect him for saying it). With that comment, Greinke put the bull's-eye on himself. Heck, Dodgers management believes they're starting a dynasty here; they already have Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, but it's Greinke -- a guy with a 3.83 ERA over the past three seasons -- with the most pressure on the team.
ESPN Insider Dave Cameron wrote last week about speed being the Toronto Blue Jays' secret weapon. Their not-so-secret weapons are the 1-2 punch of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in the middle of the batting order.


Over or under on Edwin Encarnacion hitting 33.5 home runs?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,089)

Encarnacion had a breakout season in 2012. He changed his hitting approach (keeping both hands on the bat through his swing) and did a better job laying off pitches outside the strike zone, leading to a career-high 42 home runs.

The power wasn't a complete fluke; Encarnacion had hit 26 home runs with the Reds back in 2008 and 21 with the Blue Jays in 2010 in just 332 at-bats. he can turn on any fastball and is primarily a pull hitter: Only three of his 42 home runs went to right field or right-center.

But how much of Encarnacion's power surge was the new approach at the plate and how much of it was luck? His home run percentage on flyballs was a career-high 18.7 percent, but only 3.6 percent higher than in 2010. Projections systems have Encarnacion at around 30 home runs, but the systems factor in only the numbers, not the mechanisms for achieving those numbers. In Encarnacion's case, the improvement may be real.

What do you think? I'll be a little more optimistic and set the over/under at 33.5 home runs.


Over or under on Jose Bautista hitting 36.5 home runs?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,990)

As for Bautista, his production for 2013 is a question of health. He hit 54 home runs in 2010, 43 in 2011 and 27 in 92 games in 2012 before undergoing surgery on his left wrist (check out Stephania Bell's injury analysis on Bautista here). Stephania writes:
Any wrist injury is always a cause for concern with a power hitter, but not all wrist injuries are created equal. The key to retaining power is regaining adequate motion through the wrist to allow the hitter to maintain his normal swing. ... Bautista's injury was not to the tendon itself, but rather to the protective sheath around it. After the original injury last year, the torn tissue would aggravate his wrist as he attempted his batting motion. Repairing the tissue removes the source of the problem. If he has been able to recover the motion to swing the bat freely -- by the sounds of things, he has -- then the potential for him to return to his prior level of play is high.

Entering his age-32 season, the projection systems range from 31 to 39 home runs for Bautista. His home run percentage on flyballs was 20 percent last year -- not far off his 2010 and 2011 percentages of 21.7 and 22.5. What did drop a little last year was his walk rate -- from 20.2 percent in 2011 to 14.8 percent. (With more help around him in the lineup, Bautista's intentional walks fell from 24 to 2; hitting .241 instead of .302 also led to fewer free passes.)

Let's split the middle on the projection systems and put Bautista's over/under at 36.5 home runs. Too low?

I'm inclined to take the over on both. Which means it could be a very good year in Toronto.