SweetSpot: Josh Willingham

Dunn among vets seeking first playoffs

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
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For an aspiring major leaguer, the first milestone is reaching the big leagues. Once he's played his first game, another goal -- playing in the postseason -- can be just as long and arduous. Just ask Adam Dunn.

Dunn had played 1985 major-league games over 14 seasons and none of them in the playoffs, the most among active players. The wait to make the playoffs has made his wait to reach the big show -- a relatively short four years and 343 games in the minors -- seem like a flash. So the potential to finally play baseball rather than golf in October was one of the reasons why the big slugger, who announced recently that he plans to retire after the season, approved his trade from the White Sox to the A's on Aug 31. Despite the A's recent swoon, they still have a 92 percent chance of making it into baseball's postseason tournament, according to coolstandings.com (which we use on ESPN).

But Dunn's not the only veteran with a decent chance of fulfilling a playoff dream. Several seasoned players stand a better than even chance of seeing October action for the first time: The Royals’ Scott Downs and Josh Willingham, the Orioles' Nick Markakis, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, the Dodgers' Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm and the Nationals' Scott Hairston.

Some of those players have come close. Dunn's best previous opportunity came after the Reds traded him to the Diamondbacks in August of 2008 to help them chase the Dodgers. But the 44-game rental wasn't enough as Arizona fell two games short of the NL West title. Four years later, Dunn's White Sox led the AL Central for most of the second half of 2012 but faltered in the season's final week and finished out of the money by three games.

Markakis, on the other hand, has actually played for a team that made the playoffs. It's just that injury prevented him from playing during the postseason. With less than a month remaining in the Orioles' wild-card season of 2012 season, C.C. Sabathia broke Markakis' left thumb with a pitch, sidelining the right fielder for the team's wild-card game and five Division Series games.

Willingham is a different story. Despite playing for five different clubs in his 11-year career, he hasn't come close to the playoffs. Heading into this season, Willingham's teams have languished with a .438 winning percentage and finished an average of 20 games back of their division leader. So when he came over from the last-place Twins to the first-place Royals on Aug. 11, he was in unfamiliar territory. If the Royals do hold on and win the Central, though, Willingham isn't a sure thing for the playoffs: He only recently returned to the lineup after having been out since Aug. 29 with a sore back.

Willingham's Kansas City teammate Bruce Chen broke in with the Braves when fall ball was as much of a certainly on their schedule as spring training. Chen was part of the NL East title-winning clubs in 1998 and 1999, but didn't make the playoff roster. He played most of the 2014 season with the playoff-hunting Royals, but found out last week that the Royals designated him for assignment, shelving his playoff dream after 16 seasons.

Players can use their beleaguered teammates' pursuit of the playoffs as motivation. Markakis' outfield mate Adam Jones claims the team is "still [angry] about" Sabathia's pitch. And Orioles manager Buck Showalter is no stranger to teams rallying around long-suffering stars: He managed the Yankees in 1995 when the team won their final 11 of 12 games and 26 of 33 to at last take Don Mattingly to the playoffs in his final season. And this year, Mattingly’s Dodgers team includes pitcher Jamey Wright, who is in his 19th season but only last year saw the the playoffs (with Tampa Bay).

But if the A's plan to use Dunn’s quest as a rallying cry for their own, the Cardinals and Pirates will have to look to motivators other than helping forbearing teammates realize a dream. That's because those NL Central contenders simply don't have many veterans who haven't played October baseball. Their longest-tenured players without playoff experience are Peter Bourjos and Ike Davis, respectively, each 27 years old and in only his fifth major-league season.

Given a reprieve from a playoff-less career, Donnie Baseball went out with a .440 OBP and .708 SLG in the Bombers' five-game 1995 ALDS loss to the Mariners. As Mattingly later said, "I would have been disappointed had I not gotten at least that one chance to play in the postseason, because you really wanna see how you handle it. And I did get that chance."

It’s a swan song that Adam Dunn would like to emulate this year. Will he -- and others -- get the chance?

Longest-tenured vets who have never appeared in postseason for playoff contenders

Athletics -- Adam Dunn, 14 seasons in majors
Royals -- Scott Downs, 13 seasons
Braves -- Aaron Harang, 13 seasons
Dodgers -- Kevin Correia, 12
Blue Jays -- R.A. Dickey, 12
Nationals -- Scott Hairston, 11
Mariners -- Felix Hernandez, 10
Brewers -- Zach Duke, 10
Orioles -- Nick Markakis, 9
Tigers -- Rajai Davis, 9
Angels -- Chris Iannetta, 9
Yankees -- Brandon McCarthy, 9
Indians -- Scott Atchison, 8
Giants -- Yusmeiro Petit, 7
Cardinals -- Peter Bourjos, 5
Pirates -- Ike Davis, 5

Matt Philip writes about the Cardinals at Fungoes.net.

Will Kendrys Morales power Twins' bid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Twins be the surprise team of 2014?

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
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It’s been a rough three years in Minnesota, as the Twins have bounced around winning 63-66 games and flirting with their first 100-loss season since 1982. But reflecting on what Terry Ryan has been up to this winter, and thinking back on the way the Indians just showed us how a team in the AL Central can sneak up on people and put itself into the postseason picture, there are a few reasons I’m beginning to wonder if the Twins aren’t a team that might not just get back into the 70s in wins, but might actually come a bit further than that. Here are my reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
There is no scientific way to pick an all-underrated team. Well, I suppose there is some formula we could come up with, but that would be about as much fun as watching Brendan Ryan take batting practice. So let's go with an unscientific approach: my gut instinct. Plus how many times Eric Karabell and I talk about these guys being underrated at dinner. (He's sick of me bringing up Kyle Seager every Monday night. I remind him he's the only good position player right now on the Mariners.)

So here we go: The 2013 SweetSpot All-Underrated team, guys who don't seem to receive as much national acclaim as they deserve. Note: It's hard to be underrated if you play for an East Coast team, especially ones named "Yankees" or "Red Sox."

C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
Had a breakout season with the bat last year, hitting .320 with 12 home runs in between a stint on the DL for breaking his hand when a suitcase fell on it. Aside from his offense, statheads know Lucroy as one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Assuming he stays away from suitcases, the Brewers will reap benefits from his team-friendly contract: He'll make $15 million through 2017.

1B -- Allen Craig, Cardinals
Craig is still looking for his first home run of 2013, but a year ago he replaced Albert Pujols and hit .307/.354/.522 -- that's a higher on-base and slugging percentage than Pujols had with the Angels. Craig hit over .300 in the minors but his lack of a defensive home kept him off prospect lists and he didn't play 100 games in a major league season until last year, when he was already 27. He's a late bloomer but that doesn't mean he can't rake.

2B -- Neil Walker, Pirates
Unlike Craig, Walker seemed to spend forever on prospect lists, first as a catcher, then as a third baseman. He's settled in at second base, but playing for Pittsburgh his solid ability at the bat goes unnnoticed. He's not a star, but a solid contributor who should hit .280 with 12-15 home runs and adequate defense.

3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
Seager got off to a bad start and Karabell told me ESPN fantasy owners were dropping him like Raul Ibanez drops flies. Oh, the rash judgments of April. After a two-hit night Monday, Seager is up to .276/.337/.487. Unheralded coming up through the Seattle system, he has proved to be a better hitter than his North Carolina teammate, Dustin Ackley.

SS -- Brandon Crawford, Giants
OK, OK ... do I think his hot start with the bat is for real? No. Crawford has never really hit. But he's kind of a poor man's Andrelton Simmons, and while everyone raves about Simmons' ability in the field, nobody talks much about Crawford's. Just show them your ring, Brandon.

LF -- Josh Willingham, Twins
Willingham has put up good numbers at the plate for years -- including a monster 35-homer, 110-RBI season last season -- but he has played for the Marlins, Nationals, A's and Twins when they all had bad seasons and has never appeared in a postseason game. He may get that chance this year if the Twins trade him to a contender. (Not that the Twins can't contend! You never know!)

CF -- Shin-Soo Choo, Reds
He's finally getting some recognition thanks to his hot start (.366 average, better-than-Votto .521 OBP), but even then some people just want to talk about his shaky defense in center. He was a good player for the Indians for several years before coming to Cincy and I see his first All-Star Game in his future.

RF -- Norichika Aoki, Brewers
He came over from Japan last year and quietly hit .288/.355/433, lashed out 51 extra-base his, stole 30 bases and played a very good right field. He also made appearances as Bernie Brewer and at least four times raced as the Italian sausage.

SP -- Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
Quick: Which starting pitcher has led the AL in ERA since last July 1? I hope you guessed Iwakuma. In 20 games, he has a 2.44 ERA, edging out Justin Verlander's 2.51 mark, and held batters to a .225 average. He's off to a great start in 2013, with a 1.69 ERA through four starts and just 12 hits in 26.2 innings. His fastball isn't overpowering, but he gets away with throwing 90 mph fastballs up in the zone and mixing a good splitter.

SP -- Mike Minor, Braves
I'll break my East Coast rule to include Minor, who also has been dominant since last July 1, with a 2.00 ERA that is second in the majors only to teammate Kris Medlen. I believe he's for real.

What do you think? Whom would you put on your All-Underrated Team?

By the way, check out the video. Who do I think is overrated? You may be surprised.

Offseason report card: Twins

February, 12, 2013
2/12/13
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2012 in review
Record: 66-96 (68-94 Pythagorean)
701 runs scored (10th in AL)
832 runs allowed (13th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Traded Denard Span to the Nationals for Alex Meyer. Traded Ben Revere to the Phillies for Vance Worley and Trevor May. Signed free agents Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey and Rich Harden. Lost free agents Scott Baker, Matt Capps and Carl Pavano. Lost Alexi Casilla on waivers to the Orioles. Not sure all those moves exactly qualify as "big." In 2011, the Twins had increased their payroll to $113 million -- more than double from where it had been in 2008. When that team lost 99 games, the front office went the opposite route and the payroll will be back to under $80 million this year, with nearly half that going to the M&M boys.

The Twins had two center fielders who could chase down fly balls and be reasonably productive leadoff hitters, so they ... traded them both. They may have gotten a decent return for Revere in a back-end starter in Worley and a pitcher with upside in May if he harnesses his stuff, but the return for Span seems a little light. Meyer was a first-round pick, but Span is an underrated player signed to a team-friendly contract and Meyer hasn't pitched above Class A.

Aside from those trades, it was basically a bunch of depressing moves like hoping on rehab guys such as Pelfrey, who wasn't that good when healthy, and Harden, who is never healthy anyway. And as it was pointed out to me on Twitter, they gave Pelfrey, coming off Tommy John surgery, as much as the Mets gave Shaun Marcum, a guy with a 3.62 ERA over the past three seasons.

Heck, they even signed Scott Elarton, who hasn't pitched in the majors since 2008, had a 5.41 ERA in Triple-A with the Phillies and basically had two decent seasons in the majors back in 2000 and 2001. The point isn't that Elarton is going to pitch for the Twins, but that their minor league system is so devoid of anybody resembling a major league pitcher that the front office felt compelled to sign a guy who hasn't been good in over a decade.

Position Players

The Twins are just biding their time until their highly rated position player prospects such as Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Oswaldo Arcia, Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario are ready. Hicks has a chance to jump from Double-A to the majors and Arcia could reach the majors late in the year, but the others are further away.

Basically, check back in 2015.

In the meantime, this is still a team built around Joe Mauer, who did lead the AL with his .416 OBP although I think we can officially write off that 28-homer MVP season in 2009 as a power fluke. He's still an excellent player, however, but the Twins need him to catch more than 72 games. Justin Morneau is a platoon player at this point in his career (.902 OPS versus right-handers, but a Drew Butera-like .569 against lefties). Josh Willingham is coming off a career-high 35 homers (and is prime trade bait at the trade deadline) while Trevor Plouffe and Ryan Doumit at least give the offense a semblance of respectability.

But shortstop and right field -- Chris Parmelee is a right fielder neither in bat nor glove -- are black holes and second base isn't much better. Unless Hicks jumps from Double-A, there isn't really a center fielder on the roster. The outfield defense with Willingham, minor league vet Darin Mastroianni and Parmelee could be among the worst in baseball. Remember ... the Twins' pitching was bad a year ago with Span and Revere out there regularly. I shudder to think what could happen this year.

Pitching Staff

Let's be nice here: These guys are placeholders. Even Scott Diamond, who pitched so well as a rookie (12-9, 3.54 ERA), is likely ripe for a sophomore slump unless he improves his strikeout rate that ranked 85th among 88 qualified starters. No. 86? Kevin Correia, one of the players the Twins signed in the offseason.

The pitcher to watch is Kyle Gibson, the team's first-round pick in 2009 who had Tommy John surgery in 2011. His stuff looked good in the Arizona Fall League and he has a chance to break camp with the club out of spring training.

Otherwise, as with the position players, it's a waiting game. At least Nick Blackburn isn't around. Oh, wait ... he's a non-roster invite after posting that horrific 7.39 ERA last season.

Glen Perkins is a serviceable closer, a guy who has gone from failed starting pitcher to setup guy and now to closer. Maybe the Twins should try him again as a starter. Jared Burton had a good 2012 (2.18 ERA), but he'd been injured the two seasons before that so he's a long shot to repeat those numbers. After that, the pen thins out pretty quickly.

Heat Map to Watch
Conventional wisdom says left-handed hitters like the ball down and in. Maybe Willingham has some left-handed genes. One reason for his big season was he destroyed fastballs. Twenty-three of his 35 home runs came off fastballs, with seven of those 23 coming on inside pitches. He's a dead-pull hitter: Only one of his home runs came to the right of center field, and even that one by only a few feet.

Josh WillinghamESPN Stats & InformationJosh Willingham ranked seventh in the AL with 35 home runs and third with 110 RBIs.
Overall Grade

SportsNation

How many games will the Twins win?

  •  
    12%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    33%
  •  
    42%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,423)

Outside of the Astros, the Twins may have the least talented 25-man roster in the major leagues ... and that's with two former MVPs on it. For years, the Twins preached control pitchers and good defense, but that formula finally caught up to them the past two seasons. They realized they needed to get some power arms, thus the trades for guys like Meyer and May.

What Twins fans can look forward to is all the talent down on the farm. Sano, Buxton, Gibson, Hicks, Arcia and Meyer all ranked in Keith Law's top 61 prospects. They'll get to add another premium prospect this June with the fourth overall pick.

Until then ... well, there's always the sweet swing of Mauer.


Eric Karabell and myself discuss one of the big All-Star issues of the week: Who should start in the outfield for the American League at the All-Star Game? Josh Hamilton, Curtis Granderson and Jose Bautista lead the voting, but are they the three most deserving players?
First base: Goodbye, Youk. Kudos to White Sox general manager Kenny Williams for not waiting until late July to shore up his team's third-base problem. White Sox third basemen (mostly Brent Morel and Orlando Hudson) had combined to hit .167 with one home run, and they ranked last in the majors in home runs, batting average, OBP, slugging, RBIs and extra-base hits. So Kevin Youkilis doesn't have to be great -- even if he matches the .233/.315/.377 line he had with Boston, that's a big improvement. If he matches the .258/.373/.459 he put up in 2011, even better. Considering the White Sox will have to pay only $2 million of the remaining $7.8 million owed to Youkilis, it's a low-risk move by Williams that only cost him a back-of-the-staff pitcher in Zach Stewart and utility player Brent Lillibridge. Paul Konerko summed it up best: "There is no way we are not a better team with Kevin Youkilis. He is just too good of a player and has been through all the wars, and is still relatively a young guy. We just have to keep him on the field. If that is the case, it could be one of the bigger steals of the season."

Second base: Low-scoring duels. The White Sox and Brewers played two 1-0 games over the weekend, with both games going 10 innings. The Brewers won on Friday with Zack Greinke getting the win with nine scoreless innings, and the White Sox won on Sunday as rookie Jose Quintana tossed eight scoreless frames for the second straight start. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the last time teams split 1-0 extra-inning games in the same series was 1975, when the Giants and Phillies did so. In those games, Giants starters Ed Halicki (10.2 innings) and John Montefusco (10 innings) both went the distance. Yes, I just wanted to mention John Montefusco.

Third base: Interleague play wraps up. The American League clobbered the National League in interleague play, going 142-110, a .563 winning percentage. Only five NL teams posted winning records -- the Nationals (10-8), Pirates (10-8), Cardinals (8-7), Diamondbacks (9-6) and, of course, the Padres (8-7). The contending team that suffered the most was the Marlins, who went 5-13 -- even though they didn't have to play the Yankees. They went 1-5 against both the Rays and Red Sox. The Marlins scored nine runs to beat the Blue Jays 9-0 on Sunday, breaking a stretch of 25 consecutive games scoring five runs or fewer, longest in MLB this season. Over those 25 games they went 8-17, hit .228 and averaged 3.0 runs per game. In his past 17 games, Hanley Ramirez is homerless while hitting just .200 with three RBIs.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. Aroldis Chapman gave up another game-winning home run, a two-run shot to Minnesota's Josh Willingham that gave the Twins a 4-3 victory. Joe Mauer's double off a 99-mph fastball preceeded Willingham's blast. It's Chapman's fourth loss in seven appearances.
Do the Detroit Tigers need a second baseman more than a starting pitcher? Are the Pittsburgh Pirates for real? Will the Cleveland Indians make a deal? Who should be in the Home Run Derby? Is Mike Trout worthy of MVP discussion? And why were accused of AL bias? Check it out in today's chat wrap.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

April, 14, 2012
4/14/12
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  • Austin Jackson scored a run in each of the Tigers' first six games this season. That was the longest streak by a Detroit batter to start a season since Darrell Evans crossed the plate in each of the first eight contests in 1986. And it's the longest streak by a Tigers leadoff hitter since 1939, when one of Jackson's center field predecessors, Barney McCosky, also scored in the first eight games of the season. In game seven on Friday, however, Jackson was on base only once (he walked in the eighth) and was stranded at third.
  • [+] EnlargeAustin Jackson
    Duane Burleson/AP PhotoAustin Jackson is having a solid season for the Tigers early on.
    The Red Sox managed to blow a three-run lead in the ninth and a two-run lead in the 11th in losing a wild one to Detroit on Sunday, 13-12. It was the first time Boston had scored a dozen runs and lost since May 31, 1970, when they were on the wrong end of a 22-13 slugfest with the White Sox at Fenway.
  • Alfredo Aceves gave up all three ninth-inning runs in Sunday’s game without retiring a batter, making him just the second Red Sox pitcher in the live-ball era to work zero innings pitched in each of his first two appearances of the year. Guido Grilli faced one batter each in the first two games of the 1966 season, and didn't get either of them out.
  • The Tigers used eight pitchers in that 13-12, come-from-behind win over the Red Sox. It marked just the second time in 70 years that Detroit had come back to win a game in which their starter surrendered seven-plus runs without getting through the third inning. Omar Olivares was the starter in 1997 when the Tigers rallied to beat Baltimore 11-8.
  • On Sunday, the Yankees managed just three hits -- all doubles. That same day, the Twins had just two hits as Jason Hammel posted the longest no-hit bid of the year so far. Both Minnesota knocks were doubles. It's the first time in almost three years that two teams have done that on the same day. But then … the Royals did it against Oakland (three hits, three doubles) on Monday … and the Athletics did it against Kansas City (one hit) on Tuesday.It's the first time since at least 1917 that there have been three straight days where a team had every hit be a double.
  • On Sunday, Jeff Samardzija (making just his sixth career start) was afforded the chance at a complete game. He had to be pulled after giving up a two-out homer that pulled the Nationals to within a run. Four days later, Matt Garza was en route to a shutout against Milwaukee, but was pulled after committing a two-out error that allowed the inning to continue. So the Cubs had two pitchers this week leave the game after 8.2 innings pitched.The Cubs hadn't had two pitchers work exactly 8.2 innings in the same season since 1995 (Jaime Navarro and Frank Castillo).
  • In Sunday's Cardinals-Brewers game, you could say the teams spread it around. In the 9-3 Milwaukee victory, the 12 runs were charged to eight different pitchers. In fact, every hurler who appeared in the game ended up with at least one earned run on his record.It's the first game in eight seasons where the teams combined to use eight or more pitchers, and every single one of them got charged with at least one earned run. The last time that happened was on Sept. 9, 2004, when the Royals erupted for a 26-5 victory over the Tigers in the first game of a doubleheader.
  • James Shields got called for a balk Wednesday on an illegal pickoff throw to third. That was in the bottom of the fifth -- after Justin Verlander had been called for his own balk in the top of the fifth.It was the first MLB game to feature balks by both teams in the same inning since Aug. 16, 2004, when the Rangers' Mickey Callaway and then-Indian CC Sabathia committed them in the fourth inning of a 5-2 Texas win.
  • In that same game, Verlander threw eight shutout innings before getting tagged for four runs and the loss in the top of the ninth. He became the first pitcher to throw eight scoreless innings, then surrender four (or more) runs in the ninth to take a loss since Tim Hudson did it for the Braves on Sept. 22, 2005. Hudson allowed a three-run homer to Shane Victorino of the Phillies for most of that damage before Macay McBride had to come in and get the final out.
  • In Monday's Yankees-Orioles game, Derek Jeter went a perfect 4-for-4 for the visitors, while Matt Wieters went a perfect 4-for-4 in the home dugout. It was the first game this year to feature two players with four-hit games.Since the start of 2010, there's been only one other MLB game where a player for each team went a perfect 4-for-4 or better -- and it was between the Orioles and Yankees. On July 30, 2011, Vladimir Guerrero’s 4-for-4 was the bright spot for Baltimore as the Yankees -- led by Robinson Cano's 5-for-5 -- demolished them 17-3.
  • In Yu Darvish's much-anticipated major league debut on Monday, he allowed five earned runs, four walks, hit a batter, threw one wild pitch -- and won the game because the Rangers spotted him eight runs.He's the first pitcher in the live-ball era to win his major league debut while giving up all of those stats (or worse). Even take away the wild pitch, and only one other hurler has hit five earned runs, four walks, one HBP and a win in his debut. That was the Blue Jays' Matt Williams on Aug. 2, 1983.
  • Jeff Gray of the Twins earned the first one-pitch victory of the season on Wednesday. Gray threw his one and only pitch to Peter Bourjos to end the top of the seventh, after which the Twins took the lead in the bottom of the inning. The Twins, conveniently, recorded the last one-pitch win last season, by Matt Capps on Sept. 23.
  • Speaking of pitching oddities, the Royals-Athletics game was finally called in the top of the eighth inning on Tuesday after its second rain delay. Aaron Crow, who had pitched the seventh for the Royals, was credited with his first career save. Technically, he does meet the save criteria set forth in the rule book, notably that of being the "finishing pitcher" in a game his team won.The last player to be credited with a save prior to the ninth inning was Tony Sipp of the Indians, who received one in a rain-shortened affair with Tampa Bay on July 23, 2010. That also remains Sipp's only career save.
  • On Tuesday, Freddy Garcia of the Yankees famously threw five wild pitches to tie the single-game American League record for such a thing. He was also the first pitcher to throw five-plus wild pitches in an outing of less than five innings. But two of those wild pitches scored runs for Baltimore. Another run scored on an error. That made the Orioles the first team in two years to score four-plus runs with one or fewer RBI. (The one RBI they did get came on a home run.)For the Orioles, it was just the second time since moving to Baltimore that they scored four runs on one or zero RBI. The other was in their inaugural year: On June 27, 1954, they scored three times on errors by the Athletics before finally walking off on an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th.
  • Oakland "walked off" in unusual fashion on Wednesday when Jonathan Broxton plunked Yoenis Cespedes and Jonny Gomes to force in the winning run in the bottom of the 12th. It was the first game to end with back-to-back hit batters since Sept. 2, 1966, when Stu Miller of the Orioles hit Al Weis and Tommie Agee of the White Sox in the bottom of the 11th. (I admit that Elias found this a lot quicker than I would have.) However, Gomes became the first Athletics batter to get hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in extra innings since at least 1947. (It had never happened in the Baseball Reference "play index" era.) It's also noteworthy that Oakland scored its two runs in the 12th without a base hit. The three runners ahead of Cespedes reached on two walks and an error.
  • Before Friday, there had been 36 double-digit strikeout games by teams this week (including seven games where both teams did it) but not one by a single pitcher. Max Scherzer's 11-strikeout outing on Friday afternoon broke that string.
  • In Wednesday's 17-8 eruption between the Giants and Rockies, there were four pitchers (Tim Lincecum, Jeremy Guthrie, Guillermo Mota, Jeremy Affeldt)who all gave up at least six hits and at least five runs. It's the first time that that has happened since July 17, 1998, when Seattle dropped an 18-5 score on the Royals at the Kingdome.(It is also very intriguing that, in that game, both teams posted a seven-run inning. Except I don't know of a good way to search line scores.)

    By the way, on their next two games on Thursday and Friday, the Giants promptly had two pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain)carry no-hit bids into the sixth inning. The only team to have bids in consecutive games last season was also the Giants. That happened on May 8 and 10 by Ryan Vogelsong and Lincecum.
  • The Orioles and Blue Jays combined to hit seven home runs in Baltimore's 7-5 victory on Friday. All were solo shots. It's the first game with seven-plus home runs that were all solo since a July 20, 2010 game at Camden Yards between the Rays and Orioles.
  • There's always one guy left out.In the 10-9 "pitchers’ duel" between the Twins and Angels on Thursday, 17 of the 18 starters recorded at least one base hit. Howard Kendrick was the lone collar, going 0-for-4 plus a walk.

    It's the first nine-inning game this season to have 17 different starters record a base hit. There were three games last season where all 18 did.
  • Minnesota got a four-hit game from Denard Span and three-hit games from Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Danny Valencia. It's the first time the Twins have had four players with three hits, including at least one with four, since they dropped a 20-1 score on the White Sox on May 21, 2009.
Alex Avila, Carlos Santana & Joe MauerUS PresswireWith Alex Avila, Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer, the AL Central is loaded at catcher.


We're back with more divisional position rankings for 2012. You can scream, you can holler, you can protest and call me names. But just because I rated your player lower than you think he deserves doesn't mean I hate your team.

(Here are the NL East and NL West rankings.)

Catcher
1. Alex Avila, Tigers
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Carlos Santana, Indians
4. Salvador Perez, Royals
5. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox

The AL Central might not be baseball's glamor division, but it may have three of the top five catchers in the game if Mauer bounces back from his injury-plagued campaign. Since we're not certain of his health, I'm going to give top billing to Avila, who had the best hitting numbers of any catcher outside of Mike Napoli and plays solid defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Santana explodes; with his power-and-walks combo, all he has to do is raise his average 30 points and he'll be one of the most valuable players in the game. Considering that his average on balls in play was .263, there is a good chance of that happening. Perez hit .331 in 39 games; OK, he won't do that again, but he doesn't turn 22 until May and puts the ball in play. There's no shame in being fifth in this group but that's where I have to place Pierzynski, who keeps rolling along and is now 36th on the all-time list for games caught.

First base
1. Prince Fielder, Tigers
2. Paul Konerko, White Sox
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Justin Morneau, Twins
5. Matt LaPorta, Indians

In 2009, when Morneau played 135 games, he hit .274 AVG/.363 OBP/.516 SLG. Even if he replicates that line, he may rank only fourth. Konerko has hit a combined .306 with 70 home runs the past two seasons. He's 104 home runs from 500 but turns 36 in March, so he's probably four seasons away; not sure he'll hang on that long, but who knew he'd be this good at this age. If Hosmer improves his walk rate and defense and Konerko declines, Hosmer could climb past him. If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen next. The most similar batter to him at age 21: Eddie Murray.

Second base
1. Jason Kipnis, Indians
2. Gordon Beckham, White Sox
3. Johnny Giavotella, Royals
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins
5. Ramon Santiago, Tigers

Well, this isn't exactly a Robinson Cano/Dustin Pedroia/Ben Zobrist debate, is it? Kipnis' bat is a sure thing, as evidenced by his excellent play after his call-up (.272 average and .507 slugging in 36 games). His glove was once a question mark but now appears solid enough that he looks like a future All-Star to me. Can anybody explain what has happened to Beckham? He's second mostly by default; he's gone downhill since his superb rookie season in 2009 but is only 25, so there's hope that he'll find those skills again. Giavotella has some potential with the bat (.338/.390/.481 at Triple-A), which is more than you can say for Casilla and Santiago.

Third base
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians
4. Danny Valencia, Twins
5. Brent Morel, White Sox

We'll go with the idea that Cabrera is Detroit's starting third baseman, although I predict he'll end up starting more games at designated hitter. Manager Jim Leyland will end up doing a lot of mixing of his lineups, but for this little exercise we have to choose a starter. Moustakas didn't tear up the league as a rookie and I worry about his ability to hit lefties (.191, homerless in 89 at-bats), but he showed more than fellow rookies Chisenhall and Morel. Valencia doesn't get on base enough and he rated poorly on defense in 2011. I hope he's at least good in the clubhouse. Morel was terrible all season and then exploded for eight of his 10 home runs in September and drew 15 walks after drawing just seven the previous five months. Maybe something clicked.

Shortstop
1. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
2. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3. Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
4. Alcides Escobar, Royals
5. Jamey Carroll, Twins

Peralta had the best 2011 season, but he's a difficult guy to project. He had an .804 OPS in 2008 but dropped to .691 in 2009. He had a .703 OPS in 2010 and then .823 in 2011. I just don't see a repeat season, at the plate or in the field. Cabrera didn't rate well on the defensive metrics, and after a strong start he wore down in the second half. Ramirez has turned into a nice player, with a good glove and some power, and he even draws a few walks now. Escobar is a true magician with the glove. Carroll is actually a useful player who gets on base (.356 career OBP), but he's pushed as an everyday shortstop and he'll be 38. He'll be issued the honorary Nick Punto locker in the Twins' clubhouse.

Left field
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
2. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
3. Ben Revere, Twins
4. Michael Brantley/Shelley Duncan, Indians
5. Ryan Raburn/Don Kelly, Tigers

I'm not sure what to do here. After Gordon, I just get a headache. We'll pretend to believe in De Aza after his impressive stint in the majors (171 plate appearances, .329/.400/.920). He's hit in Triple-A for three seasons now, and while he's not going to post a .400 OBP again, he should be adequate. Revere is one of the fastest players in the majors, but he's all speed and defense; he hopes to grow up to be Brett Gardner, which isn't a bad thing, but he'll have to learn to get on base at a better clip. Brantley doesn't have one outstanding skill so he'll have to hit better than .266 to be anything more than a fourth outfielder; Duncan provides some right-handed pop as a platoon guy. The Tigers have Delmon Young, but I'll slot him at DH. That leaves supposed lefty masher Raburn and utility man Kelly to soak up at-bats; both had an OBP below .300 in 2011, although Raburn has hit better in the past.

Center field
1. Austin Jackson, Tigers
2. Denard Span, Twins
3. Grady Sizemore, Indians
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
5. Alex Rios, White Sox

I can't rate Sizemore any higher since he's played just 104 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn't had a big year since 2008. Rios was terrible in '09, OK in '10 and worse than terrible in '11. I'm not betting on him.

Right field
1. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
2. Brennan Boesch, Tigers
3. Jeff Francoeur, Royals
4. Josh Willingham, Twins
5. Dayan Viciedo, White Sox

Choo would like to forget 2011, but there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back and play like he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was one of the 10 best position players in the AL. I don't expect Francoeur to deliver 71 extra-base hits again, but maybe he'll surprise us. Viciedo is apparently nicknamed "The Tank," which makes me wonder how much ground he can cover. He did improve his walk rate last season in the minors and turns 23 in March, so there's still room for more growth.

Designated hitter
1. Billy Butler, Royals
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Ryan Doumit, Twins
4. Delmon Young, Tigers
5. Adam Dunn, White Sox

Has there been a bigger prospect disappointment than Young in the past decade? I mean, yes, there were complete busts like Brandon Wood and Andy Marte, but those guys had obvious holes in their games, while Young was viewed as a sure thing, a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. But his bat has never lived up to its billing. Other than one decent year in Minnesota, he has low OBPs and he clearly lacked range in the outfield. His career WAR on Baseball-Reference is minus-0.2 (1.6 on FanGraphs), meaning he's been worse than replacement level. He's just not that good, Tigers fans.

No. 1 starter
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. John Danks, White Sox
3. Justin Masterson, Indians
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
5. Carl Pavano, Twins

Masterson was better than Danks in 2011, and I do believe his improvement was real. He absolutely crushes right-handers -- they slugged an anemic .259 off him. Danks had two bad months but has the longer track record of success. Even in his "off year" he had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than Masterson. If you want to argue about Hochevar versus Pavano, be my guest.

No. 2 starter
1. Doug Fister, Tigers
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
3. Gavin Floyd, White Sox
4. Francisco Liriano, Twins
5. Jonathan Sanchez, Royals

Yes, sign me up for the Doug Fister bandwagon club. Jimenez's fastball velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season but the positives are that his strikeout and walk rates were identical to 2010; he'll be better. Floyd isn't flashy but he's now made 30-plus starts four years in a row, and he'll become a very rich man when he becomes a free agent after this season. Sanchez won't have the luxury of pitching in San Francisco (and to eight-man NL lineups).

No. 3 starter
1. Max Scherzer, Tigers
2. Scott Baker, Twins
3. Philip Humber, White Sox
4. Bruce Chen, Royals
5. Josh Tomlin, Indians

I could be underrating Baker, who was excellent last season, but only once in his career has he made 30 starts in a season. Tomlin's fans will disagree with this ranking, but he's a finesse guy who relies on the best control in baseball (21 walks in 26 starts). He's the kind of guy you root for, but the league seemed to figure him out as the season progressed.

No. 4 starter
1. Felipe Paulino, Royals
2. Rick Porcello, Tigers
3. Jake Peavy, White Sox
4. Derek Lowe, Indians
5. Nick Blackburn, Twins

Scouts still love Porcello's arm and I know he's just 23, but he's made 89 big league starts and shown no signs of getting better. His WHIP has increased each season and his strikeout rate remains one of the lowest in baseball. Paulino has an electric arm -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball -- and is getting better. How could the Rockies give up on him after just 14 innings? How could the Astros trade him for Clint Barmes? Anyway, kudos to the Royals for buying low on the guy who may turn into their best starter. Peavy can't stay healthy. Lowe has led his league in starts three out of the past four seasons, but I'm not sure that's a good thing anymore. Blackburn is a poor man's Lowe, and I don't mean that in a good way.

No. 5 starter
1. Chris Sale, White Sox
2. Jacob Turner, Tigers
3. Aaron Crow/Danny Duffy, Royals
4. Fausto Carmona/David Huff/Jeanmar Gomez, Indians
5. Brian Duensing/Jason Marquis, Twins

Welcome to the AL Central crapshoot. Turner and Sale have the most upside, but one is a rookie and the other is converting from relief. Crow will also be given a shot at the rotation, but his difficulties against left-handed batters (.311 average allowed) don't bode well for that transition. Even if the artist formerly known as Carmona gets a visa, what do you have? A guy with a 5.01 ERA over the past four seasons. Duensing is another typical Twins pitcher, which means he at least throws strikes. His first full season in the rotation didn't go well, so of course the Twins brought in Marquis, yet another guy who doesn't strike anybody out.

Closer
1. Jose Valverde, Tigers
2. Joakim Soria, Royals
3. Matt Thornton, White Sox
4. Chris Perez, Indians
5. Matt Capps, Twins

Four good relievers plus Matt Capps. I do admit I'm a little perplexed by Perez, however. In 2009, he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. In 2010, that figure fell to 8.7 but he posted a pretty 1.71 ERA. In 2011, it was all the way down to 5.9, but without much improvement in his control. Perez blew only four saves but he did lose seven games. He survived thanks to a low .240 average on balls in play. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher but didn't serve up many home runs. Bottom line: I'd be nervous.

Bullpen
1. Indians -- Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Nick Hagadone
2. Royals -- Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares
3. Tigers -- Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Al Alburquerque
4. White Sox -- Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod
5. Twins -- Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

If you're starting to think I'm not high on the Twins for this season, you would be correct.

Intangibles
1. Royals
2. Indians
3. Tigers
4. White Sox
5. Twins

I like the youthful exuberance of the Royals, plus the likelihood of improvement from the young players and the possibility of some midseason reinforcements from the minors. The depth of the bullpen will help bolster a shaky rotation, and this just feels like an organization that is finally starting to believe in itself. The Indians are riding last year's positive results and enter the season knowing they might get better production from Choo and Sizemore and full seasons from Kipnis and Chisenhall. I'm not knocking the Tigers here, but they do lack depth in the pitching staff and the pressure is on them.

The final tally
1. Tigers, 65 points
2. Royals, 55 points
3. Indians, 54 points
4. White Sox, 46 points
5. Twins, 35 points

No surprise here: The Tigers will be heavy favorites to win the division with a lineup that should score a ton of runs. I don't think it's a lock that they'll win -- Verlander, Avila, Peralta and Valverde will all be hard-pressed to repeat their 2011 campaigns, for example. But the Royals and Indians appear to have too many questions in the rotations, the White Sox have serious lineup issues, and the Twins have a beautiful ballpark to play their games in.
Tags:

Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Andy Marte, John Danks, Jonathan Broxton, Denard Span, Nick Punto, Alcides Escobar, Rafael Perez, Justin Morneau, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Brandon Wood, Anthony Swarzak, Dustin Pedroia, Tim Collins, Justin Verlander, Jonathan Sanchez, Alexei Ramirez, Ryan Doumit, Justin Masterson, Jason Frasor, Jason Marquis, Francisco Liriano, Matt Capps, Luke Hochevar, Alex Gordon, Matt LaPorta, Prince Fielder, Gordon Beckham, Alexi Casilla, Joakim Soria, Gavin Floyd, Delmon Young, Ramon Santiago, Carl Pavano, Mike Napoli, Ubaldo Jimenez, Grady Sizemore, Jeff Francoeur, Travis Hafner, Jose Valverde, Jake Peavy, Billy Butler, Derek Lowe, Miguel Cabrera, Brian Duensing, Ben Zobrist, Fausto Carmona, Jim Leyland, Shin-Soo Choo, Max Scherzer, Michael Brantley, Danny Valencia, Jose Mijares, Danny Duffy, Carlos Santana, A.J. Pierzynski, Austin Jackson, Robinson Cano, Chris Perez, Clint Barmes, Brett Gardner, Brennan Boesch, Nick Blackburn, Paul Konerko, Scott Baker, Chris Sale, Josh Willingham, Jhonny Peralta, Asdrubal Cabrera, Vinnie Pestano, Matt Thornton, Aaron Crow, Josh Tomlin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Jamey Carroll, Jesse Crain, Alex Avila, philip humber, Brent Morel, Joaquin Benoit, Ben Revere, Eric Hosmer, Al Alburquerque, Ryan Raburn, Mike Moustakas, Dayan Viciedo, Octavio Dotel, Jacob Turner, Salvador Perez, Johnny Giavotella, Lorenzo Cain, Jeanmar Gomez, Shelley Duncan, Alejandro De Aza, Bruce Chen, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Glen Perkins, Felipe Paulino, Nick Hagadone, Daniel Schlereth, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

I pointed out on Twitter the other night that Michael Cuddyer has had just one season with a Baseball-Reference WAR over 2.1. A few angry Cuddyer fans jumped on my case.

Hey, it wasn't meant to insult the guy. He is a nice player, can play right field or first base or even second or third in a pinch, has some power and is apparently a great guy. He's a complementary player on a good team or, in the case of the 2011 Twins, the best player on a terrible team. He signed a three-year, $31.5 million deal with the Rockies, who presumably will put him in right field and trade Seth Smith.

So what the Rockies have essentially done is commit $30 million to a player who isn't all that much better than Smith (who will make $2 million in 2012) but gives them the flexibility to trade Smith for something else of value. Cuddyer also fits in nicely with the Rockies' desire to acquire good clubhouse guys. I won't dismiss that virtue completely, but it doesn't have much effect on the field or on ticket sales, no matter what Dan O'Dowd believes.

The bigger issues:

(1) What is the value of the positional flexibility? Cuddyer isn't a particularly adept fielder at any position. He hasn't played much third base since 2005 -- even though the Twins haven't had a good third baseman since. In other words, the Twins clearly didn't think he could play there. He played 17 games at second base in 2011, which I think is more symbolic of what happened to the Twins than a sign of positional flexibility. Really, Cuddyer is a right fielder with a good arm but limited range. He'll also be 33 ... which means that range isn't going to improve.

(2) He has a fairly sizable platoon split. His career OPS is 100 points higher against left-handers but even more pronounced the past three seasons: 210 points higher in 2009, 175 in 2010, 265 in 2011. Of course, his overall numbers should increase at Coors Field, but there's nothing special about a right fielder with a .343 career on-base percentage. And again, we'll see how he ages into his mid-30s.

I don't think it's a terrible signing, especially if the Rockies can flip Smith for some value. But it's hardly an impact move. The Rockies still are a team with holes at second base and third base, without a proven 200-inning starter (Jhoulys Chacin did throw 194 innings last season) and counting on a 38-year-old first baseman with a bad back to remain healthy.

As for the Twins, they effectively replaced Cuddyer's bat with Josh Willingham's, at $21 million over three years. The Twins get a similar hitter, save $10 million and get two compensatory draft picks for losing Cuddyer. Good job, Minnesota.

Will Josh Willingham boost Twins' power?

December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
1:00
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The Minnesota Twins’ pursuit of Josh Willingham makes sense for them, but does it make sense for him? The Twins need a left fielder to plug into the lineup to replace Delmon Young, and they need right-handed power to replace Young and Michael Cuddyer.

[+] Enlarge Josh Willingham
Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireFormer A's outfielder Josh Willingham slugged 29 home runs last season.
Part of this is a function of their lineup, which rests upon the left-handed bats of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. That’s a fairly fragile proposition at this point, just like the two stars themselves, assuming Morneau ever completes his comeback from post-concussion symptoms. The Twins finished next to last in the AL in runs scored, finishing ahead of only the Mariners. They also finished last in the AL and 29th in the major leagues in Isolated Power -- even with the advantage of a DH.

That in turn is a function of their ballpark. The one team that finished behind the Twins in ISO, the Padres, play in Petco Park, the best pitchers’ venue in the major leagues. But using the 2012 edition of the irreplaceable "Bill James Handbook," you’ll see that the Twins’ Target Field indexes worse than any other in park factor for home runs across the past two years (76, when 100 is average). However, with just two years in existence, Target Field’s numbers have already bounced around a bit; last year, it rated 104 for right-handed hitters’ homers. That’s far from the biggest boosts via park power: The Yankees’ short-porch in right field indexes at 143 across three years and the White Sox’s equally short porch in left indexes at 138. But in a park that slightly favors pitchers (95 over two years), that looks like an exploitable advantage for a Twins team that needs power.

Hence, the addition of Willingham on top of initially signing Ryan Doumit to help provide power at DH, catcher, first base and/or the outfield corners. Coming off a 29-homer season for the A’s in equally pitcher-friendly, power-strangling Oakland Coliseum, Willingham should be an outstanding third wheel and right-handed foil to Mauer and Morneau. But does signing with the Twins make sense for Willingham? We’ll see what the terms will be on what’s already reported to be a multiyear deal -- it’s hard to beat handsome compensation, certainly, especially as a free agent heading into your age-33 season.

But beyond cash, is Minnesota where you want to wind up? Can the Twins contend? Signing Willingham is the latest move in GM Terry Ryan’s speedy bit of retooling. First, he added Jamey Carroll to provide an OBP boost at the top of the order and to play shortstop, then he added Doumit’s flexibility and bat. If this aging crew can complement Mauer and Morneau, with Ben Revere and Denard Span in the outfield, the Twins have what looks to be a contending lineup in a potentially expanded playoff format and a weak division. That’s if everyone stays healthy; if the Tigers come back to the pack, that would also help, but that’s obviously outside of Ryan’s control.

The downside of signing Willingham is what it means for the Twins’ already-ragged defense. After rating negatively as a left fielder in four of the past five years via Total Zone (and three of five via Baseball Info Solutions’ Plus/Minus) putting him in left field doesn’t figure to do Twins pitchers any favors. Adding him on top of the DH-worthy Doumit and Carroll (with his weak range at short) makes it especially hard to sustain the faith in fundamentals that’s supposed to be a Minnesota mantra. But the Twins already rated last in Defensive Efficiency and Baseball Prospectus’ Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency last year, so it wasn’t like they could rank any lower. But they could get worse.

In the end, adding Willingham should help power a much-improved Twins offense -- how could he not? You can appreciate the problem from Ryan’s perspective, because he was already tasked with shoring up an offense. The new problem is whether or not Willingham’s the latest poor addition to what might be a particularly bad defense lined up behind a pitching staff already well known for its pitch-to-contact tendencies. Come the season, it could be a summer of slugfests in the twin cities.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
The American League Central may have a reputation as baseball's skinflint division, but such is not the case: The White Sox, Twins and Tigers each had payrolls over $100 million in 2011 and ranked in the top 10 of highest-salaried ballclubs.

The problem was that two of those three teams didn't get much for their money. Considering the issues in Chicago and Minnesota, and the youth and unwillingness to spend big in Cleveland and Kansas City, Detroit will enter 2012 as the heavy favorite to win the division -- no matter what happens in the offseason. But even the Tigers are far from a sure thing and if the Indians can get good health from Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore in 2012, plus strong seasons from youngsters Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, their offense could be dramatically improved.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Here's a quick look at some action plans and items of interest for the five teams.

Detroit Tigers

1. Third base (Brandon Inge)

With Inge plummeting to a .197 average, Detroit's third-base production was among the worst in the majors. The team has already been linked to free agent Aramis Ramirez and trade discussions with Angels on Maicer Izturis. Both would be big upgrades over Inge, who still has one year remaining on his contract. The dark horse possibility: With Carlos Guillen ($13 million) and Magglio Ordonez ($10 million) off the books, the Tigers pursue Jose Reyes to fill their leadoff void, moving Jhonny Peralta to third base.

Likely solution: As much I love the Reyes idea, Ramirez to Detroit seems like a logical fit. The negatives are Ramirez's lack of range and Detroit's need for a little more athleticism in the lineup.



2. Middle relief

By the postseason, Jim Leyland was down to two relievers he trusted: Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit. Al Alburquerque had a strong rookie season out of nowhere and Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth provide rare power lefty arms, but Albuquerque and Schlereth still have trouble throwing strikes. The Tigers could go after a low-cost veteran like LaTroy Hawkins, Mike Gonzalez or Darren Oliver, or maybe make a trade pitch for White Sox lefty Matt Thornton, although it seems unlikely Chicago would trade Thornton to a division rival.

Likely solution: A veteran righty-hander, with the Tigers counting on improvement from Coke and Schlereth.

3. A left-handed bat.

The Tigers missed Brennan Boesch's stick in the playoffs, as Victor Martinez and the hobbled Alex Avila were the only threats from the left side (granted, Don Kelly hit a big home run). Boesch's return will help, but Detroit could use a lefty bat to help balance out the lineup.

Likely solution: Andy Dirks may given another shot at that third/fourth outfielder job after hitting .251/.296/.406 as a rookie. But what about Rockies left fielder Seth Smith, who is on the trade block? His career .518 slugging percentage against righties has been bolstered a bit by Coors Field, but he's a solid hitter who could platoon with Ryan Raburn in left, or allow Raburn to play some at second base.

Cleveland Indians

1. Find a left fielder who can hit.

Michael Brantley is a decent asset -- but as a center fielder. The plan to use Brantley as an everyday left fielder was never a great one to begin with, as he's never going to pop many balls over the fence. Brantley, Austin Kearns, Shelley Duncan and Travis Buck all started at least 20 games in left; Jared Head started six games there. As a group, Cleveland's left fielders hit a miserable .233 with seven home runs; only Baltimore and Minnesota received a lower OPS from their left fielders.

Likely solution: Signing Grady Sizemore doesn't necessarily push Brantley back to a starting role in left field. He's best used as a fourth outfielder and Sizemore insurance. Michael Cuddyer may end up getting priced out of Cleveland's range, so how former Twins teammate Jason Kubel? He can play left and step in as designated hitter when Travis Hafner suffers his inevitable breakdown.

2. Find at least one more starter.

Right now, the Indians can only count on Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez for their rotation. Carlos Carrasco is out for the season following Tommy John surgery, Fausto Carmona was terrible and even Josh Tomlin is a question mark after the league caught up to him in the second half (5.26 ERA).

Likely solution: Jeanmar Gomez has been roughed up in two stints in the majors (146 hits in 116 innings), but his Triple-A numbers were solid, if unspectacular. He'll be given another chance in spring training to battle David Huff for a rotation spot.

3. If not Matt LaPorta, who plays first base?

The big prospect acquired in the CC Sabathia deal, LaPorta just hasn't hit as expected, posting a .299 on-base percentage in 2011. The Indians seem ready to punt on LaPorta, who turns 27 in January so isn't even that young. Carlos Santana ended up playing a lot of first base down the stretch, but let's hope he's kept behind the plate, where his hitting value would be maximized.

Likely solution: If free agent Carlos Pena lowers his price, he's a possibility, and the Indians reportedly talked with Houston about Brett Wallace. I'm not sure Wallace is much of an upgrade over LaPorta, but at least he's younger. Casey Kotchman could fit nicely here as lower-cost alternative after posting a .378 OBP with Tampa. And hey, he's only two years older than LaPorta.

Chicago White Sox

1. What do you do with Adam Dunn and Alex Rios?

Dunn hit .159 with a .569 OPS. Rios hit .227 with a .613 OPS. Dunn was the least-valuable position player in baseball, according to Baseball-Reference.com, while Rios was seventh-worst. They made $24 million in 2011 and will make a combined $26 million in 2012. Both are signed through 2014.

Likely solution: General manager Kenny Williams will be busy during the winter meetings, perhaps shopping around guys like Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Matt Thornton, looking for some sort of backup plan to these two pieces of junk. The 40-man roster currently includes Alejandro De Aza, who probably deserves a chance to play somewhere after a nice run (if over his head) last season. Let's put it this way: he can produce an OPS higher than .613.

2. Third base (Brent Morel)

After struggling all season, hitting .250 with just two home runs and seven walks in 328 at-bats through August, Morel suddenly changed his approach in September, got more patient and swung for the fences. He hit just .224 the final month, but with eight home runs and 15 walks. Was it a legitimate improvement, or merely feasting off September tired arms and rookie call-ups?

Likely solution: Morel's hot September earns him another shot.

3. The new manager

This isn't so much an action plan, as a big question mark. Robin Ventura has no previous managerial experience, but the good sign for the White Sox is that respected pitching coach Don Cooper is still around to handle the pitching staff.

Likely solution: If Dunn and Rios stink it up again, it won't matter how well Ventura transitions into the job -- he'll be doomed.

Kansas City Royals

1. Fix the rotation

The Royals had a 4.82 ERA from their starters; only Baltimore was worse in the American League.

Likely solution: The Royals already made a move here, trading Melky Cabrera to the Giants for Jonathan Sanchez. The club also re-signed Bruce Chen. With the signing of Jonathan Broxton, and the emergence of rookie relievers Greg Holland, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins in 2011, fellow 2011 rookie Aaron Crow will be given a shot at the rotation. I have my doubts it will work: Crow walked 31 in 62 innings out of the bullpen and left-handed hitters tagged him for a .311 average and .538 slugging percentage. There's a reason he struggled in the minors as a starter in 2010 (5.73 ERA). He has a great arm, but won't be able to rely on his fastball/slider combo as a starter.

2. Second base (Chris Getz)

Royals second basemen posted a .301 OBP and .636 OPS (26th in the majors) in 2011.

Likely solution: Rookie Johnny Giavotella played the final two months there and hit .247 with a .649 OPS. He'll head into spring training as the favorite to win the job. He hit .338/.390/.481 at Triple-A, so the batting potential is there: Bill James projects him to hit .295/.342/.419.

3. Center field (empty -- Cabrera traded)

The Royals were smart to deal Cabrera after his career season.

Likely solution: Lorenzo Cain, acquired from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade, will finally get a chance to play after spending 2011 in Triple-A. Cain is old for a guy still considered a prospect -- he turns 26 in April -- so he should be a polished product by now. He showed some power for the first time in his career, hitting 16 home runs for Omaha while batting .312. He doesn't walk much, so won't be a star, but should come closing to matching Cabrera's 2011 production.

Minnesota Twins

1. The M & M boys

After 2011's train wreck -- the club's first 90-loss season since 2000 (and at 99 losses, the most the 1982 Twins lost 102) -- it seems pretty clear this team will be dead in the water again unless Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau get healthy and regain their All-Star status. But they also can't assume these guys are going to play 140-plus games.

Likely solution: Obviously, the Twins need a better backup plan for Mauer than giving .167-hitting Drew Butera 250 plate appearances. They already accomplished with the smart signing of Ryan Doumit to a one-year deal for $3 million. Doumit can catch or play right field, but his bat is good enough to warrant a regular place in the lineup even when he's not behind the plate. Of course, he's also been injury-prone throughout his career. Prospect Chris Parmalee, who impressed in a September call-up, gives the team a potentially decent backup option for Morneau as well.

2. Right field: Empty (Michael Cuddyer, free agent)

For all the attention Cuddyer is getting, let's remember that he's really just a complementary bat on a good team. Unfortunately, considering some of the other outfielders the Twins tried last season -- Rene Tosoni, Jason Repko, Trevor Plouffe -- you realize they had nobody in the upper levels of the system.

Likely solution: Doumit may factor into their plans here, but regardless, the Twins need another bat to play a corner or DH. Smith is a trade option and free agent Josh Willingham is another possibility.

3. Closer: Empty (Matt Capps and Joe Nathan, free agents)

Nathan signed with Texas while GM Terry Ryan recently told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that it's likely Capps could return.

Likely solution: Capps was terrible last year, allowing 10 home runs in 65.2 innings while striking out just 4.7 hitters per nine innings. Two years ago, he had a 5.80 ERA. I can't fathom why any team would want to make Capps its closer. Sadly, however, the rest of the Minnesota bullpen is nearly as uninspiring (as is the rotation, but I don't have room to get to them here), but Capps throws strikes and there's nothing the Twins love more than a pitcher who throws strikes (velocity are ability to miss bats don't seem to be a factor). There's no reason for this team to spend big money on one of the remaining free-agent closers, so it probably will be Capps or lefty Glen Perkins.

NL East: Three fixes for each team

November, 28, 2011
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Sure, every team would love to plug its shortstop hole with Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins. Albert Pujols would look terrific in any uniform. Have a spare $40 million sitting around? Sure, Ryan Madson is an underrated closer.

But let's be realistic here: Those can't be solutions for every team. So let's identify three key areas of importance for each team and determine a more likely action plan as the offseason wheeling and dealing starts to heat up. We'll start with the National League East. (Check back all week for the other divisions.)

Philadelphia Phillies

1. Shortstop: Empty (Jimmy Rollins, free agent)

Rollins just turned 33, but the Phillies would like to bring him back -- on a four-year contract, while Rollins is reportedly looking for a five-year deal that would take him through his age-37 season. While Rollins isn’t the hitter he was in his 2007 MVP season, Phillies shortstops still ranked ninth in the majors in OPS, tied for second in runs scored and tied for sixth in RBIs. Rollins is the obvious candidate here, but if it takes five years, why not go after the younger Jose Reyes?

Likely solution: Rollins. The big question: Was his 2011 season a fluke, or will he regress back to his subpar numbers of 2009 and 2010 (.248 average, .306 OBP)? It’s also worth mentioning that Rollins hasn’t been a good postseason player. He has a career .686 OPS in 46 postseason games, and he’s homerless in his past 140 postseason at-bats.

2. Left field: Empty (Raul Ibanez, free agent)

Stats you may not believe: Despite Ibanez’s .298 on-base percentage, Phillies left fielders ranked 16th in the majors in OPS and tied for fourth with 95 RBIs. Remember when left fielders owned big bats? Those days are gone. Still, considering Ibanez’s lack of defensive value, it should be easy for the Phillies to upgrade the overall production with Domonic Brown and John Mayberry Jr. Oddly, the Phillies offered Ibanez arbitration, meaning they’re risking Ibanez accepting and earning a likely payout of $12-14 million. (As Buster Olney writes, there could be a gentleman’s agreement between the two sides to not accept the offer, although Ibanez must know he won’t get anything close to that on the open market.)

Likely solution: Brown/Mayberry Jr. platoon. It’s time to give Brown 450 at-bats to see what he can do. Mayberry can play against lefties (and also fill in at first base until Ryan Howard returns). Even if Ibanez DOES return, the Phillies should stick with the youngsters.

3. Third base: 22nd in majors with .665 OPS

Here’s incumbent third baseman Placido Polanco's year-by-year WAR (wins above replacement) since 2007, via Baseball-Reference: 5.0, 3.7, 2.5, 2.0, 1.8. He still carries an excellent glove, but this is a player in decline. Factor in that he’s missed 70 games the past two seasons and he’s an even bigger question mark.

Likely solution: Polanco will return, but the Phillies would be wise to have a solid alternative. Unfortunately, recent acquisition Ty Wigginton is not the answer, as he's been a below-average hitter each of the past three seasons, despite having a little pop. As the Phillies are learning with Polanco, and will learn with Howard, giving long-term contracts to guys past 30 can be a very risky proposition.

Atlanta Braves

1. Shortstop: Empty (Alex Gonzalez, free agent)

The Braves didn’t even offer arbitration to Gonzalez, a solid fielder with a little pop, but also the owner of an abysmal .270 OBP. Atlanta has a couple of good shortstop prospects in Andrelton Simmons (.311 in Class A) and Tyler Pastornicky (who hit .314 between Double-A and Triple-A). They may believe Pastornicky is ready to handle the job or maybe they’ll enter the Rollins/Reyes sweepstakes.

Likely solution: Considering the state of shortstops, the Braves' best option could be to dangle one of their talented young starting pitchers in a trade. But good luck finding a team with an extra shortstop -- maybe Boston’s Jed Lowrie, with the Red Sox looking for a rotation arm. Short of that, maybe the Braves bring Rafael Furcal back to Atlanta.

2. Left field: Upgrade Martin Prado

One hot rumor was the Braves trading Prado for Delmon Young, a “big” right-handed bat the Braves need. Here’s the problem with that rumor: Young isn’t a big bat. Prado had a .687 OPS in 2011 while battling a staph infection, but Young’s OPS was just .695. Over the past three years, Prado’s OPS is .771, Young’s .758. And Young is a lousy left fielder. Anyway, that rumor was quickly shot down for those obvious reasons, but it does point to the larger issue of trying to upgrade left field: If Young is considered a big bat, maybe you’re better off sticking with Prado and hoping for a bounce-back season.

Likely solution: Prado. Why not see if he hits better; if not, you can always seek an in-season fix. Or what about a trade for Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier? The Braves could keep Prado as Chipper Jones insurance, and trade a young pitcher for Ethier, who the Dodgers may not want to pay after inking Matt Kemp to a $160 million deal.

3. Right field: More production from Jason Heyward

In reality, the best hope for more offense for the Braves rests in improvement from Heyward and sophomore first baseman Freddie Freeman. With Heyward hitting just .227/.319/.389, Braves right fielders ranked just 26th in the majors in OPS, 29th in runs and 27th in RBIs.

Likely solution: Heyward is just 22. I think he's going to have a big season.

Washington Nationals

1. Rotation: Find a power starter

Washington’s rotation actually posted a respectable 3.80 ERA, seventh in the NL, but did so despite averaging just 5.67 K’s per nine innings, 15th in the NL. That's a difficult equation to maintain. With Jordan Zimmermann the only good bet to repeat his 2011 production, the Nats shouldn’t simply rely on a healthy Stephen Strasburg to bolster the rotation.

Likely solution: C.J. Wilson. While some expect the Nats to bid for Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, why not spend around half the money and go after Wilson? He’s not a classic power pitcher in the sense of fastball velocity but he’s racked up 376 strikeouts the past two years. His adjusted ERA over the past two seasons is seventh best among all starters. If you can pitch in Texas, you could dominate in the NL. And with Strasburg around, he won’t have to shoulder the pressure of staff ace.

2. Center field: Vacant (Rick Ankiel, free agent)

Nationals center fielders posted a .691 OPS, 23rd in baseball. They’ve reportedly inquired about one of the Twins’ glove wizards, Denard Span or Ben Revere. But rather than trade away a good prospect for a marginal player like Span or Revere (neither would offer much with the bat), why not play Jayson Werth there? He’d be an adequate defensive center fielder, at least for a couple of years, and clear room for Bryce Harper in right field, who may be ready by the All-Star break. The Nats will also have to find room in a year or so for 2011 top pick Anthony Rendon, a third baseman in college who will have to move positions with Ryan Zimmerman around. Rendon could end up in left field.

Likely solution: Move Werth to center, sign a short-term corner outfielder like Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel or Cody Ross (Michael Morse could also play left if Adam LaRoche returns healthy, but is best suited for first base).

3. Manager: Is Davey Johnson the long-term answer?

Considering he’ll be 69 in January and hadn’t managed in the majors since 2000, Johnson was an interesting choice to replace Jim Riggleman. Following an 80-win season and with a slew of talented prospects close to the majors -- Harper, Rendon, pitcher Brad Peacock, catcher Derek Norris -- this is a team on the verge of becoming a playoff contender. Maybe not in 2011, but soon. Johnson built a young team in the Mets, but also had veterans Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez as clubhouse leaders. He won in Baltimore, but with a veteran team. Is he the right guy to trust the youngsters as they gain big league experience? I believe he is.

New York Mets

1. Shortstop: If not Reyes, who?

Likely solution: Sign Reyes, or give the job to Ruben Tejada. He’s never going to hit with any power, but he posted a .360 OBP last season at age 21 (in 376 plate appearances). How rare is that? Since 1980, only three other middle infielders had at least 300 plate appearances at age 21 and posted an OBP of at least .350 -- Alex Rodriguez, Delino DeShields and Jerry Browne. If Tejada can handle short, maybe the Mets are better off spending their money elsewhere.

2. Bullpen: Who closes?

Only the Cubs, Rockies and Astros had a worse bullpen ERA than the Mets in 2011, and none of them had the luxury of pitching their home games in Citi Field. While the Mets could certainly use an ace for the rotation (only the most hopeful will believe in Johan Santana's comeback), building a bullpen can be cheap and easy.

Likely solution: Ryan Madson? No, he’s too expensive. If the Mets don’t trust a guy like Bobby Parnell, how about a second-tier closer like Frank Francisco, who would cost about $30 million less than Madson? I’d also consider adding a second reliever like righty killer Octavio Dotel or veteran Takashi Saito. Hopefully the Mets learned their lesson with Francisco Rodriguez: Bullpen depth is more important than an overrated $15 million closer.

3. Power in the outfield

With Carlos Beltran gone, Jason Bay a shell and Angel Pagan apparently returning to play center, the Mets may be struggling to get power from the outfield.

Solution: Move in the fences! (Wait, this will help the other team as well?) OK: Don't discount Lucas Duda, who presumably moves into a regular spot in right field, with the return of Ike Davis to first. Duda hit an impressive .292/.370/.482. His park-adjusted OPS was higher than Troy Tulowitzki, Howard, Shane Victorino or Carlos Gonzalez.

Miami Marlins

1. Third base: Empty

Since the Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers, they’ve had four different regular third basemen in four seasons. In 2011, Marlins third basemen ranked 23rd in the majors in OPS and only the Mariners received fewer home runs and RBIs. Certainly, signing Jose Reyes to play shortstop and moving Hanley Ramirez to the hot corner makes perfect sense, especially since Reyes would be a defensive upgrade and maybe moving Ramirez would get his bat back to his 2007-2009 level. Prospect Matt Dominguez, who received a September cameo, carries a superb glove but questionable stick (.258/.312/.431 in Triple-A). He’s still just 22, though.

Likely solution: In a year with so few top free agents, the odds are slim the Marlins will be the top bidder for Reyes, new ballpark or not. It’s a nice smoke screen in an attempt to sell a few season tickets. The most realistic option is to give the job to Dominguez, or if management feels that he needs another year in Triple-A, go the stopgap approach and sign a guy like Wilson Betemit. If the Marlins are determined to spend money, they could go after Aramis Ramirez, although a Ramirez-Ramirez left side of the infield is a little scary defensively. (The other option would be to slide Emilio Bonifacio back to third base, but that would mean more Chris Coghlan in center field, and nobody wants that.)

2. Find a quality starter

For all the talk about Reyes and Albert Pujols, the Marlins have some problems in the rotation. Their 4.23 ERA ranked 12th in the NL, and that’s despite a pretty good home park to pitch in. Javier Vazquez, who rebounded with a strong second half (2.15), is also a free agent, leaving a current rotation of Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and the eternally disappointing Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad. Brad Hand, who turns 22 in March, is in the mix, but his minor league track record is mixed, and more seasoning in Triple-A to improve his command appears necessary.

Likely solution: Re-sign Vazquez and go after a high-risk, lower-cost starter like Erik Bedard. Look, Volstad has made 102 starts in the majors; while he’s still young, it’s time to maybe face the fact he just isn’t that good. He doesn’t miss bats and for a guy who is supposed to be a ground ball pitcher, he gives up way too many home runs (23 in just 165.2 innings). Mark Buehrle would be a nice addition, but Bedard is the more realistic signing. If Johnson returns healthy and Bedard comes up big, the Marlins could suddenly have a strong rotation.

3. Be realistic about appraising your players

Volstad isn’t that good. Coghlan hasn’t hit in two years. Gaby Sanchez is OK, but hardly a star -- 20 teams had a better slugging percentage from their first basemen than Sanchez’s .427 mark. (And at 28, he’s unlikely to get better.) Logan Morrison is better suited to first base, not left field, where he's a big defensive liability.

Likely solution: Yes, a lineup of Reyes, Bonifacio, Ramirez, Pujols, Mike Stanton, Morrison, John Buck and Omar Infante and would look pretty impressive ... even adding a guy like Aramis Ramirez would plug a hole in the middle of the lineup. Despite their 72-90 record, I don’t think the Marlins are that far away, but I have doubts they’ll be able to lure any of the big free agents. But at least the pitches to guys like Pujols and Reyes indicates the Marlins may be aware that Sanchez isn't a star or that Ramirez's days at shortstop may be numbered. Those are good signs.

Extra pitching in Oakland?

February, 7, 2011
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As the A's have been wheeling-and-dealing throughout the offseason, I've been closely tracking how it affects both the 25- and 40-man rosters. By my count, there could be as many as eight new Athletics on the Opening Day roster.

The additions of Josh Willingham, David DeJesus and Hideki Matsui have just about set the position player side of the equation, but the 12-man pitching staff is still up-in-the-air (for those not as familiar with the A's, it's a lock that they break camp with 12 pitchers; Bob Geren would have it no other way).

Assuming that Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden all take rotation spots, there are as many as 13 candidates for the remaining eight spots. At minimum, the A's have the following pitchers available for bullpen spots: Andrew Bailey, Grant Balfour, Jerry Blevins, Craig Breslow, Joey Devine, Brian Fuentes, Michael Wuertz, and Brad Ziegler.

That's not including Rich Harden, if he's not the fifth starter, or other potential fifth-starter candidates Brandon McCarthy, Josh Outman, Tyson Ross and Bobby Cramer.

There are injury questions with many of these guys, including Bailey, a shutdown closer through two seasons with a 1.70 ERA (and just-as-spiffy 2.70 FIP) in 132 major-league innings, Devine, coming off Tommy John surgery that cost him the last two seasons, and the perennially injured Harden, whose role still has yet to be determined.

The A's are sitting on at least eight average major-league relief pitchers right now, possibly more. "Average major-league relief pitchers" might not sound that great, but this bullpen stacks up with any in baseball, in terms of both peak talent and depth.

While teams might not have wanted to pay for Balfour or Fuentes during the offseason, some of them (all of them?) will need relief help come July. As we've seen recently, teams will do silly things in the thick of a playoff race when time is running out.

The A's, with extra money to spend after failing to come up with Adrian Beltre or Hisashi Iwakuma, smartly added assets at close to their market value. The contracts for Balfour and Fuentes could allow them to be moved for decent young talent, given their salaries. While not quite as talented, pitchers like Wuertz or Ziegler could be moved for the same talent given their short (one-year) contracts and lower salaries.

This all assumes that everything goes according to plan. Which, for the A's, it almost always does. Even if it doesn't, the A's depth will be a major strength in 2011.

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

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