SweetSpot: Justin Morneau

So much for Miguel Cabrera resting. He played Wednesday and went 1-for-4, including a bases-clearing double in the eighth inning of the Tigers' 7-1 win over the Twins.

From ESPN Stats & Information, highest career batting average with the bases loaded, last 50 seasons:

Tony Gwynn -- .444
Miguel Cabrera -- .418
Felix Millan -- .410
Mark Grace -- .402
Carlos Guillen -- .402

Felix Millan? The guy who held the bat like this? Yes, he really did.

Cabrera is 4-for-9 with the sacks juiced this year, with one grand slam. For his career he's 56-for-134 with four grand slams. I'm not sure what cutoff the Stats & Info folks used, since their list doesn't include Pat Tabler, who hit .489 in 109 career plate appearances (88 at-bats) with the bases loaded.

Here are the leaders over the past 50 years in slugging percentage with the bases loaded, minimum 100 PAs (via Baseball-Reference.com Play Index):

Albert Belle -- .833 (13 grand slams)
Richie Sexson -- .781 (15 grand slams)
Eddie Murray -- .739 (19 grand slams)
Jason Kubel -- .734 (8 grand slams)
Willie McCovey -- .713 (18 grand slams)

Cabrera appears to go more for base hits than home runs in these situations; despite the high batting average he's only 48th in slugging percentage at .627 (although just ahead of Barry Bonds' .624 mark). Alex Rodriguez has hit the most grand slams with 23 (tied with Lou Gehrig for most ever), followed by Manny Ramirez with 21 and Murray with 19. Don Mattingly and Travis Hafner hit six in one season for the all-time single-season record.

From ESPN Stats & Information, most 3-RBI games in a season, Detroit Tigers:

Hank Greenberg, 1935 -- 23
Hank Greenberg, 1938 -- 20
Hank Greenberg, 1937 -- 20
Rudy York, 1938 -- 19
Miguel Cabrera, 2013 -- 18
Rudy York, 1937 -- 17

What's the record most 3-RBI games in a season? Not surprisingly, Hack Wilson shares the mark:

Hack Wilson, 1930 -- 27
Babe Ruth, 1927 -- 27
Babe Ruth, 1921 -- 25
Lou Gehrig, 1934 -- 25
Alex Rodriguez, 2007 -- 24
Al Simmons, 1930 -- 24
Jimmie Foxx, 1938 -- 24

As you would expect, most of the leaders are from the high-scoring 1920s and '30s.

OK, two more notes about hitting with the bases loaded. Here are the lowest batting averages over the past 50 years (100 PAs minimum):

Rick Dempsey -- .136
Gorman Thomas -- .170
Jose Cruz Jr. -- .170
Rick Monday -- .174
Pete Incaviglia -- .177

Getting into very small sample size data, the highest single-season batting average since 1963 with the bases loaded, at least 15 PAs, was Mike Stanley in 1995, who went 9-for-11 (.818) with four walks and three sac flies (driving in 27 runs in those 18 PAs). Justin Morneau in 2013 has the second-highest average -- he's 10-for-13 (.769) with a walk and two sac flies this season.

Comeback trio are post-break HR leaders

August, 11, 2013
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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.
Craig KimbrelMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsCraig Kimbrel worked a one-two-three ninth to secure the win over Team Canada.
They call this the World Baseball Classic and Sunday's United States-Canada game certainly qualifies as a classic, with a David-versus-Goliath storyline, several questionable lineup and managerial decisions made by Joe Torre, a late-inning rally and maybe some respect earned for this tournament.

The final score read 9-4 in favor of the United States, and the U.S. moves on to the second round next weekend in Miami. But the game was much more tense than the score indicated. Some quick thoughts:

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

 
We've had a brawl, we've had upsets, we've had dramatic late-inning rallies and, thanks to one big swing from David Wright, we now get a monumental showdown between bitter enemies Canada and the United States to stay alive in the World Baseball Classic.

OK, maybe it's not quite Sidney Crosby and the Canadians taking on Ryan Miller and the Americans in the 2010 gold-medal hockey game at the Vancouver Olympics, and maybe Canada and the U.S. aren't exactly enemies on the diamond, but Sunday's game at Chase Field in Phoenix is probably the biggest baseball game for Canadians since the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series in 1993.

Baseball fans in the U.S. are still warming up to the whole idea of this tournament, and while a major goal is to help increase popularity of the sport in countries such as Brazil and China and Italy and the Netherlands, don't be fooled: The organizers want U.S. fans to get as passionate about the World Baseball Classic as those in Japan and Latin America. In large part because second-round games will be held in Miami, with the semifinals and finals in San Francisco, and the organizers want sold-out ballparks -- something more likely to happen if the U.S. keeps advancing.

With that possibly in mind, the U.S. was given a soft pool. While the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico were all placed together in Pool C, the U.S. drew lighter-weights Mexico, Canada and Italy. But when Italy beat Mexico and Canada, and then Mexico upset the U.S. on Friday night, it suddenly put pressure on the U.S. to win its final two games of pool play. Joe Torre's squad was actually helped when Canada beat Mexico earlier Saturday -- a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl in the ninth inning -- meaning the Americans now controlled their destiny.

That destiny took a turn for the worse when the surprising Italians took a 2-0 lead against Ryan Vogelsong, who didn't have his usual excellent fastball command. Most of the Italian players are from the U.S., including big leaguers Anthony Rizzo, Chris Denorfia and Nick Punto, but cleanup hitter Alex Liddi of the Mariners was born and raised in Italy and 23-year-old starting pitcher Luca Panerati is an Italian who played a few years in the Reds system, topping out in A-ball. Panerati nevertheless shut down the U.S. with his 86 mph fastball and offspeed pitches, leaving after three scoreless innings; he can tell his grandkids someday about the time he shut down a lineup of major league All-Stars. But the U.S. rallied with five runs in the fifth inning, capped by Wright's two-out grand slam off Matt Torra, an American who pitched in Triple-A for Tampa Bay’s organization last year.

[+] EnlargeDavid Wright
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsDavid Wright turned one around from Italy's Matt Torra for the key fifth-inning grand slam.
That 6-2 win means U.S. versus Canada, winners move on to Miami, losers go home (or back to spring training). Considering the way this tournament has gone -- Italy advancing, Venezuela out after losing its first two games, 2009 runner-up South Korea failing to advance out of the first round, the Netherlands beating Cuba in a second-round game -- don't count out the Canadians.

First, their lineup has some guys you've heard of: Former MVPs Joey Votto and Justin Morneau. Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders went 4-for-4 in the 10-3 win over Mexico. The lineup was hurt by Brett Lawrie's injury in spring training and we’ll have to see if Pete Orr and Rene Tosoni, ejected after the brawl, will be suspended or not; the pitching is thin without guys such as Ryan Dempster, Scott Diamond and Erik Bedard participating. Still, Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon will start against the U.S., and while he hasn't reached the major leagues yet (he pitched in Double-A last year), he has major league stuff, ranking as Keith Law No. 20 preseason prospect. He's certainly capable of shutting down the U.S. lineup for his 65-pitch limit. After that, however, Canada's pitching thins out in a hurry, with Brewers closer John Axford and Phillies reliever Phillippe Aumont the two biggest names in the bullpen.

The U.S. will start Derek Holland, a good strategic move by Torre to get the lefty Holland in there to try to neutralize Votto, Morneau and Saunders. With Ross Detwiler throwing four scoreless innings of relief against Italy, that means the U.S. bullpen is well-rested. Look for Torre to use lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Glen Perkins against the middle of the lineup in the middle innings, and he still has Craig Kimbrel waiting to get some action.

The U.S. will be heavy favorite to advance. To use another Olympic hockey analogy, the Americans are the Soviets. Do the Canadians have a miracle in store? I'll be watching to find out. After all, it's about time we settle this border war with Canada.

The list: Worst MVP winners

September, 28, 2012
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In my earlier post, I wrote about players since 1969 who had terrific all-around seasons but didn't win the MVP Award. As a companion to that piece, let's take a quick look at worst MVP winners. There are many ways to look at this, but the easiest is to simply create a cutoff using Wins Above Replacement.

Let's start by looking at MVP winners who had less than 5.0 WAR (via Baseball-Reference.com).

Division Era: 1969 to 2011

[+] EnlargeJustin Morneau
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireFinishing second in the AL in RBIs helped Justin Morneau earn league MVP honors in 2006.
2006 AL: Justin Morneau, Twins (4.0 WAR)

This actually wasn't as bad a selection as it may seem. Grady Sizemore led AL position players at 6.5 WAR and Vernon Wells was the only other 6-win player, but their teams didn't make the playoffs. Morneau wasn't a great choice -- he won because he finished second in the league in RBIs -- and edged out Derek Jeter (5.4 WAR) by 14 points in a year without an obvious top guy.

1998 AL: Juan Gonzalez, Rangers (4.6 WAR)

Gonzalez fit the classic mode of an MVP winner: An RBI leader who played for a playoff team. Nomar Garciaparra (6.8 WAR) and Jeter (7.3 WAR) finished second and third in the voting and also went to the postseason. They would have been better choices, along with WAR leader Alex Rodriguez (8.3).

1996 AL: Juan Gonzalez, Rangers (3.5 WAR)

Touched on this one in the other post. He was only ninth in the AL in OPS and his game was all offense. According to WAR, he ranked as the 30th-best position player in the AL. Probably my vote for the worst MVP selection ever.

1995 AL: Mo Vaughn, Red Sox (4.1 WAR)

Shortened 144-game season, but was unlikely to reach 5 WAR. Edged out Albert Belle (6.6 WAR) by eight points. Red Sox teammate John Valentin actually led the AL in WAR for position players at 8.1, with Edgar Martinez (6.7) second and Belle third. Voters during this period didn't really give much weight to position. Sure, up-the-middle guys like Robin Yount or Ryne Sandberg or Cal Ripken would win MVP Awards, but in years when they were the best offensive players in the league. Valentin had great numbers, especially for a shortstop, and was an underrated defender. Vaughn got extra credit for leadership and Valentin finished ninth in the voting.

1992 AL: Dennis Eckersley, A's (2.8 WAR)

Before Justin Verlander last year, the last pitcher to win MVP. An idiosyncratic selection that's impossible to defend (this even wasn't his 0.61 ERA season). Kirby Puckett had the highest WAR among hitters (6.8) and finished second in the vote.

1987 AL: George Bell, Blue Jays (4.6 WAR)

One of the more famous MVP disputes. Bell led the AL in RBIs and hit 47 home runs and edged out Alan Trammell (8.0 WAR) even though Trammell's Tigers won the AL East on the final day of the season.

1987 NL: Andre Dawson, Cubs (3.7 WAR)

Inexplicable back then and even more so now. Wait, it was explicable: Dawson led the league in home runs and RBIs and won despite a .328 OBP and the Cubs' last-place finish. Ozzie Smith (6.2 WAR) was second in the voting, while Tony Gwynn had the highest WAR at 8.3.

1984 AL: Willie Hernandez, Tigers (4.6 WAR)

The Tigers closer did have an amazing season (9-3, 1.92 ERA, 32 saves, 140 innings) but arguably the most anonymous MVP winner ever. Ripken had the highest WAR in the league and finished 28th in the vote. Ouch.

1979 AL: Don Baylor, Angels (3.5 WAR)

Baylor led the AL in runs scored and RBIs, was viewed as a team leader and the Angels made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, so it's easy to see why he won, despite his limited defensive value (he split the season at DH and left field). George Brett (8.4) and Fred Lynn (8.6) had monster seasons, but finished third and fourth in the voting.

1979 NL: Willie Stargell, Pirates (2.3 WAR)

Shared the award with Keith Hernandez. The only time a guy won an MVP Award for putting gold stars on his teammates' caps.

1974 AL: Jeff Burroughs, Rangers (3.2 WAR)

Another RBI leader and the Rangers won 84 games after losing 105 games the year before. Six different players received first-place votes. The WAR leaders were Rod Carew (7.2) and Bobby Grich (7.0), who finished seventh and ninth in the voting. Grich's all-around game never was fully appreciated. Actually, Gaylord Perry had the best WAR; pitchers dominated the AL back then. Eight of the top-10 players in 1974 by WAR were pitchers.

1974 NL: Steve Garvey, Dodgers (4.3 WAR)

A very good player for a few years but not really a great one. Mediocre on-base percentages and only moderate power for a first baseman.

1970 AL: Boog Powell, Orioles (4.8 WAR)

Talked about this in the other post. Carl Yastrzemski had a huge season for the Red Sox.

Pre-1969 winners
I'm not saying the best players won every year -- heck, it would have been boring just to give it to Willie Mays every year -- but here the most egregious MVP winners in the pre-division period.

1962 NL: Maury Wills (5.8) over Mays (10.2)

Wills did have a good season but won primarily because he stole a then-record 104 bases, at a time when the stolen base was just regaining popularity after nearly going extinct in the 1950s. So there was a certain "wow" factor that impressed the writers back then. Still ... Mays was incredible (.304, 49 home runs, 141 RBIs, 130 runs, Willie Mays defense). Plus, the Giants beat the Dodgers in the three-game tiebreaker to win the pennant. Wills won the vote by seven points.

1961 AL: Roger Maris (6.7) over Mickey Mantle (10.2)

Like Mays, they couldn't give it to Mantle every year. Maris set the home run record but Mantle hit 54 of his own and had a 1.135 OPS versus .993 for Maris. The vote was close: 202 to 198.

1958 AL: Jackie Jensen (4.6 WAR)

Jensen led the league in RBIs and Mantle (8.4) didn't.

1955 AL: Yogi Berra (4.2 WAR)

Voters used to place a lot more emphasis on leadership attributes back in the '50s, a big reason Berra and fellow catcher Roy Campanella both won three MVP awards. Yogi had a good year, but Mantle or Al Kaline probably should have won.

1952 NL: Hank Sauer (5.2 WAR)

Often cited as a terrible MVP selection -- Sauer was a 35-year-old left fielder on a .500 club -- he did lead the NL in home runs and RBIs and ranks fifth in WAR among position. Still, an odd choice over more well-rounded players like Jackie Robinson (8.1) or Stan Musial (7.8), or 28-game winner Robin Roberts (who finished second in the vote).

1950 NL: Jim Konstanty (4.2 WAR)

An obscure 33-year-old relief pitcher for the pennant-winning Whiz Kids who went 16-7 with a 2.66 ERA in 152 innings. Had only one other season above 1.0 WAR. The Phillies didn't really have a star position player, so the Konstanty story line took hold and he got 18 of the 24 first-place votes.

1947 AL: Joe DiMaggio (4.5 WAR) over Ted Williams (9.6 WAR)

Maybe the most controversial results in MVP history. This was the year Williams won the Triple Crown but was left off a ballot and lost the vote by one point. Whether it was Boston writer Mel Webb who did so remains unclear. This story says Webb may not even have had a vote.

This may have been the most bizarre MVP vote ever and not just because Williams didn't win. Eddie Joost, a shortstop who hit .206 for the 78-76 Philadelpia A's received two first-place votes -- just one fewer than Williams. Some of the down-the-ballot votes were hilarious, including a shortstop named for the Senators named Mark Christman who hit .222/.287/.281 and earned four points.

1944 NL: Marty Marion (4.6) over Stan Musial (8.8)

Musial actually finished fourth in the voting as his Cardinals teammate won. Marion was a good defensive shortstop and probably led the league in intangibles. Eight different players received first-place votes but Musial was the best player in the league.

1934 AL: Mickey Cochrane (3.7)

Cochrane was the player-manager for the pennant-winning Tigers, so this one wasn't just about numbers. Lou Gehrig hit .363/.465/.706 and compiled 10.1 WAR -- good enough to finish fifth in the voting. Yankee fans are still ticked off.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

August, 4, 2012
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Theme of the week: Late-game drama.

  • Sunday's Yankees/Red Sox tilt featured a 10th-inning go-ahead single by Pedro Ciriaco. There's been only one other go-ahead hit by a Bostonian, in extra innings, in the Bronx, over the past eight years: Jacoby Ellsbury's 14th-inning homer on Sept. 25. And it was the first non-home run version of such a hit since April 22, 2001, when Jason Varitek singled off Mariano Rivera in the 10th, driving in Trot Nixon from second.
  • Anthony Rizzo hit the Cubs' second walk-off homer of the season on Sunday to beat those hated Cardinals 4-2. It's the first time Chicago has defeated St. Louis via walk-off homer since Aramis Ramirez took Dennys Reyes deep in April 2009.
  • Milwaukee's Corey Hart homered in the bottom of the 10th against Washington on Sunday as well. His, unfortunately, was not a walk-off because the Nationals had scored twice in the top of the 10th. Hart finished 4-for-5, including an extra-inning homer, in a home game that his team still managed to lose (in this case, by an 11-10 score). He's the first player to do that since Sept. 7, 2004, when Corey Patterson of the Cubs launched his second homer of the game in the bottom of the 12th in a 7-6 loss to Montreal.It was a dubious first in Brewers franchise history.
  • [+] EnlargeOakland A's
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThe Athletics on Friday won their second 15-inning game in the span of five days.

  • Oakland is still very much in the walk-off business, securing their 12th of the season with a sacrifice fly by Jemile Weeks on Monday -- in the bottom of the 15th. By inning, it was the latest "sac-fly-off" since Raul Ibanez brought an end to that 19-inning game between the Phillies and Reds last season. It was Oakland's first walk-off sac fly since Rickey Henderson‘s 15th-inning winner to beat Toronto on May 23, 1981.
  • The Athletics played 15 more innings on Friday night against Toronto, and won on another sacrifice fly (by Coco Crisp) in the bottom of the 15th. Oakland leads the majors in walk-off wins with 13. The Nationals have eight. No team, by the way, has ever had two "sac-fly-offs" in the 15th or later in the same season.
  • After surrendering three runs in the top of the 10th on Wednesday, Texas walked off with an 11-10 victory over the Angels on Elvis Andrus' two-run single to cap a four-run rally. It was the most runs the Rangers had scored in an extra inning since May 5, 2009, when they put up a six-spot in the 10th at Seattle. Andrus hit the first walk-off single, with his team trailing in extras, of the season. And it was the first single to turn an extra-inning deficit into an extra-inning walk-off, in Rangers/Senators franchise history.
  • Justin Morneau (4-for-4, HBP) and Jamey Carroll (4-for-4, walk, go-ahead single in the 10th) both had "perfect" days at the plate for Minnesota. The Twins are the only team this season to have two players each record four-plus hits and a hit in every at-bat. Ben Revere and Ryan Doumit both did it on June 22 in Cincinnati.
Statistical support for this column provided by Baseball-Reference.com and the Elias Sports Bureau.

The pressure is mounting. The rumors are swirling. Phones are ringing. Minor flaws are starting to look like gaping, gangrenous wounds. Prospects are starting to get viewed with beer goggles. Please the owner, please the fans, please your manager, do what's best for the organization -- for the present, for the future. Full speed ahead ... win now ... or else!

And whatever you do, make sure that prospect you trade away doesn't turn into John Smoltz or Jeff Bagwell. Or that the starting pitcher you acquire doesn't go 3-5 with a 4.37 ERA down the stretch.

You're a big league general manager, and it's less than 24 hours to the trade deadline. What do you do?

Cliff Lee and the Rangers
You have to think Roy Oswalt's poor outing against the Angels on Monday night increases the likelihood the Rangers will pursue Lee or another starting pitcher (Buster Olney reported Monday night that the Rangers and Phillies are no longer discussing Lee). While I wrote earlier Monday that Lee doesn't guarantee anything, Oswalt just isn't a reliable option right now, and Neftali Feliz is a question mark after being scratched from his rehab start Sunday. So unless the Rangers decide to stretch out Alexi Ogando, acquiring a starter seems like a strong possibility.

While Lee has struggled of late -- a 5.20 ERA over his past eight starts -- it's also probable he would become the No. 1 starter in the postseason for the Rangers. The other consideration is that the Angels' win cut the Rangers' lead down to four games. Obviously, winning the division and avoiding the one-game wild-card playoff is of vital importance, so for the Rangers there is added incentive to do everything possible to preserve that lead. The big issue for GM Jon Daniels, aside from not wanting to part with Mike Olt: Depending on how much of Lee's remaining salary (more than $100 million if his 2016 option vests) the Rangers would take on, how would that affect the team's budget and ability to re-sign Josh Hamilton? In the end, it makes sense that this deal just wasn't going to happen.

Deal I'd like to see: Of course, there's another option: The Rangers instead pursue Matt Garza, in spite of his current injury. Garza, while not being a guy who can headline a playoff rotation, would do a lot to help preserve the division lead. And isn't likely to cost the Rangers Olt.

Man, it ain't easy being a GM, is it?

Ryan Dempster to the Dodgers
The Dodgers seem intent on making at least one more big move -- be it Dempster or maybe Shane Victorino from the Phillies. This Dempster saga has played out longer than the final episodes of "Lost." WILL IT EVER END?

The Dodgers already upgraded their offense with Hanley Ramirez, but they are still playing James Loney, they have no production from third base or shortstop (wherever Ramirez doesn't play), and left field is in the capable hands of Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera. Oops, maybe they could use Alfonso Soriano.

As good as Dempster has been with the Cubs, he has the look of a pitcher who will disappoint if he's traded. That doesn't mean he can't be a nice addition, but his career indicates he's not a guy likely to continue putting up a 2.25 ERA. He's allowed seven runs, including three home runs, in 12 innings over his past two starts. Is that a blip? Or just the predictable regression?

Victorino isn't exactly having a stellar season, either, so it might be that Dempster is the biggest impact deal the Dodgers could swing.

Deal I'd like to see: How about Justin Morneau? Upgrading over Loney arguably could help even more than adding another starter. Morneau is hitting .263/.324/.458 (BA/OBP/SLG), but he's destroyed right-handers: .311/.385/.571 entering Monday. He's a legit cleanup hitter against righties, which could allow the Dodgers to go Andre Ethier-Matt Kemp-Morneau in the 2-3-4 spots against righties. Suddenly that looks a lot more like a playoff lineup.

Josh Beckett out of Beantown
We keep trying to kill off the Red Sox, but they keep hanging in there. Hey, I thought this team had no heart? Anyway, after beating the Tigers 7-3 on Monday to claw back over .500, the Red Sox remain four games out of the wild-card lead. Clay Buchholz had another strong start and has been terrific going back to late May. So that leaves Beckett and Jon Lester needing to turn things around. Sure, if those two don't pitch better, the Red Sox aren't going to make up enough ground in the wild-card race, but can they pitch better?

Beckett's strikeout rate is down a bit and his fastball isn't as lethal as it once was, so I don't expect big improvement from him. Would he still be attractive to a team such as the Rangers? Considering Beckett is signed through 2014 at $15.75 million per year, probably. Gordon Edes reported Monday night that Beckett is not going anywhere.

Lester is another story; the arm appears fine, but he's been getting hammered by righties (.295/.352/.514), so maybe there's a mechanical adjustment or something that needs to be figured out. I still believe the Red Sox have a seven- or eight-game winning streak in them at some point. Which puts them right in the thick of the wild-card race. If they do anything, maybe they'll pick up a starting pitcher.

Deal I'd like to see: Cliff Lee to the Red Sox? Let's see it happen!

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Darren O'DayAnthony Gruppuso/US PresswireYou go right ahead and choose the high road, Darren O'Day will stick with the low road.
It was another eventful chat session as we discussed Albert Pujols' homerless April and asked readers to project his final numbers. We discussed many things about the Minnesota Twins, gave a shout-out to the awesome Jose Altuve, tried to figure out what the Angels should do with Mark Trumbo, wondered who the first manager to be fired will be (yes, once we again Dusty Baker's name came up!), wondered how much bad defense has to do with the poor starts by Max Scherzer and Josh Johnson, wondered how much good defense is helping Jeremy Hellickson, debated the Nationals' attendance issues and pointed out that Pujols' slow start is stealing attention away from Jose Bautista's slow start. All that and more! Check out the transcript here.
Mark Simon and I gathered for Monday’s Baseball Today podcast, talking about players young and old, as well as the good and bad from Power Rankings!

1. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout were each called up since our Friday show. Is this desperation from the Nationals and Angels? And will it work?

2. Meanwhile, Trout’s struggling teammate Albert Pujols remains homerless, and his team is nine games outta first place! Pujols will hit, right? Well, we analyze it.

3. Mark shares tales from his Mets-apolooza weekend as well as sharing the leaders in ERA-FIP differential and an update on who is hitting the ball hard.

4. Power Rankings! There are some surprises in our respective top 10s, notably in a few preseason contenders leaving the ranks.

5. Yu Darvish is featured in Monday’s action, but I’ll also be watching his opponent. We break down the schedule with the teams and pitchers you should be watching.

So download and listen to Monday’s Baseball Today podcast, as we have a legendary Ridiculous Question of the Day and much more!
On Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast I’m joined by Keith Law, and starting pitching is clearly on our minds from Monday night.

1. Tim Lincecum is not off to a very good start, but is there truly cause for concern? And what does Lincecum’s future have to do with Madison Bumgarner’s new contract?

2. Justin Verlander tossed a whole lotta pitches to win Monday’s game, but at least he earned his first win! Keith talks pitch counts and what they mean.

3. An emailer asks about pitch counts for younger fellows like Stephen Strasburg, and whether they are necessary. Also, why were the stands so empty for Strasburg’s Monday outing?

4. Speaking of the fans, which teams have the best ones? Our answer might surprise you.

5. We take a closer look at Tuesday’s schedule, including the real reason why people should be watching the Miami Marlins, plus the old guy in Coors Field and why is Tyson Ross a starter?

So download and listen to Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast. There was bias, but no bias cat. Meow.
For all the consternation and criticism dished out over the Boston Red Sox's 1-5 start, another expected American League power is off to a sluggish opening week as well: The Los Angeles Angels are 2-4 after coughing up 20 hits and an eighth-inning lead in losing 10-9 to the Minnesota Twins on Thursday.

There is one obvious difference between the two starts: The Red Sox have been outscored 38 to 22 while the Angels are even-up 30 and 30. On the other hand, the Red Sox have played the Detroit Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays while the Angels have faced Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, Jonathan Sanchez, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano. Not exactly Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz there.

Actually, based on ESPN.com's preseason predictions, maybe it's not fair to label the Red Sox an "expected power." After all, 34 of 50 voters predicted the Red Sox to miss the playoffs. Only one -- fantasy expert Matthew Berry -- picked the Red Sox to win the American League East. Meanwhile, 25 of the 50 picked the Angels to win the AL West and 46 of 50 picked them to make the playoffs.

The Angels were easily the most popular World Series pick as well, with 18 of the 50 selecting them to win it all -- 36 percent, a pretty amazing total since last time I checked there are some other pretty good teams around. Only one voter (Karl Ravech) picked the Red Sox to win the World Series.

OK, those are just predictions and as our SweetSpot network blog affiliate says, you can't predict baseball. Still, since ESPN's panel of experts did essentially declare the Angels the World Series favorite, it seems like a fair time to ask: What's wrong with the Angels and why aren't their fans ready to fire the manager, whine about overpaid left fielders and complain about the bullpen?

Well, it's Los Angeles, for one thing. No less enthusiastic, but perhaps slightly less pessimistic. Still, we can't get all crazy about the Red Sox and just ignore the Angels getting bulldozed by a mediocre Twins lineup.

True fact: In 2011, the Red Sox had a run differential of plus-138. The Angels had a run differential of just plus-34. As good as Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson are, and as good Kendrys Morales may prove to be, that's still a lot of ground for the Angels to make up.

So, in the spirit of early-season panic, here are some things that could go wrong with the Angels.

1. Jered Weaver doesn't repeat his career season.

Weaver is a terrific pitcher. He has increased his innings each season he has been in the big leagues, peaking at 235.2 last season, when he ranked fifth in the league. It's not a knock against him to say he might not be quite as stingy with the runs as in 2011. But check his basic numbers in 2010 and 2011:



In some regards, he actually pitched better in 2010, most notably in strikeout rate. His walk rate, home run rate and hit rate were all pretty similar, thus his Fielding Independent Pitching runs per nine was basically identical. So why did he allow 18 fewer runs in 2011? A couple primary reasons: 15 of his 20 home runs were solo shots as opposed to 15 of 23 in 2010; he allowed a .195 average with men on base in 2011 versus .236 in 2010. In other words, if you consider hits to be randomly distributed, they worked in his favor last season. Also note: After a hot start in 2011, his second-half ERA rose from 1.86 to 3.21 as he surrendered 15 home runs in 95.1 innings. He's off to a great start in 2012 in one regard: 17 strikeouts and just one walk. But he's allowed five runs for a 3.21 ERA. Random distribution, my friends.

2. Potential bullpen issues.

Mike Scioscia left Rich Thompson in to allow four runs in the eighth inning on Thursday, the first two on Justin Morneau's go-ahead two-run homer and then two more that proved costly when the Angels scored twice in the ninth. Now, Scioscia would have loved to have had lefty Scott Downs face Joe Mauer and Morneau, but Downs had rolled his ankle the previous inning in a collision with Denard Span. Fellow lefty Hisanori Takahashi had already been used since starter Dan Haren lasted only five innings.

But put of the reason Thompson was in there was that ancient relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen were apparently unavailable to pitch since both had thrown the night before, Hawkins for 16 pitches, Isringhausen for 10. Seems odd, since neither had pitched on Tuesday. But why not extend closer Jordan Walden for five outs? Thompson is a guy who is homer-prone, so why let him face the meat of the Twins' order? Plus, isn't it a bad sign if two-sevenths of your bullpen can't pitch two days in a row? "We're going to need to get our starters maybe over that little hump and then try to get our roles in the bullpen a little more nailed down," Scioscia said. "Our guys tried. We just couldn't shut the door when we needed it."

3. Vernon Wells.

It's early, but he's hitting .217 with no walks and five strikeouts. Stay tuned.

4. Will we get good Ervin or mediocre Ervin?

Ervin Santana had a career-low 3.38 ERA last season. He has been pretty consistent the past two seasons, but he has been plagued by minor injuries in the past, a reason his ERA rocketed up to 5.03 in 2009 and 5.76 in 2007. Just something to keep in mind.

5. Is Peter Bourjos' bat for real?

Bourjos is a supreme defender in center and he exceeded expectations last year with a .271/.327/.438 batting line. Scouts had doubts about his bat coming up through the minors and he did strike out 124 times against just 32 walks in 2011. While his .338 BABIP may be repeatable -- he is one of the fastest players in the majors, after all -- Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system projects a .261/.309/.412 line, with some regression due to a lower BABIP.

6. Mark Trumbo's defense at third.

I've written about this before. The early returns aren't good; yes, it's early, I realize that. It's also true that since 1950 only Enos Cabell has successfully converted from first base to third base at the major league level. We don't know yet how determined Scioscia will be to keep Trumbo's bat in the lineup, but playing him at third is likely to be a liability, especially since Trumbo's low OBP means he isn't really much -- if any -- of an offensive upgrade over Alberto Callaspo.

7. Howie Kendrick also coming off his best season.

Kendrick posted a career-high .802 OPS in 2011, 50 points above his career mark, fueled by a career-high 18 home runs. It's possible that power growth was real, as he appeared to sacrifice a few more strikeouts -- a career-high 20.4 percent K rate -- for a little more power while maintaining his usual .285 or so batting average. But there's also a chance it was simply his best season and he's not quite as good.

8. Maybe Albert Pujols won't be better than he was in 2011.

Hey, that's still pretty awesome, if also somewhat more mortal compared to his previous decade of production.

Look, it's only a week. The Angels should still have one of the best, and maybe the best, rotations in the league. They have a lot of depth and versatility in the lineup, although it remains to be seen who will be a second and third big bat behind Pujols.

The larger point is this: This isn't a perfect team in my book, certainly one that shouldn't rate as such a landslide favorite to make the playoffs and win the World Series.

So, yes, I just managed to slam 49 of my ESPN colleagues. This is what the first week does to us.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Denard Span and Scott DownsHannah Foslien/Getty ImagesAngels pitcher Scott Downs collides with Minnesota's Denard Span, injuring his ankle in the process.
Links to check out from around the SweetSpot network (and a couple other places):
All for now. Enjoy your weekend!

Over/under: Wins for Twins

March, 21, 2012
3/21/12
3:01
PM ET
From 2002 through 2010, the Minnesota Twins averaged 89 wins per season and made the playoffs six times. Coming off a 94-win season in 2010, they were the preseason favorites to win the AL Central.

SportsNation

Over/under prediction: 74 wins for Twins

  •  
    65%
  •  
    35%

Discuss (Total votes: 995)

Instead, the team collapsed, going 63-99 and finishing 32 games behind the Tigers in the division.

With Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau combining for just 621 plate appearances -- and without much production -- the Twins scored 619 runs, 13th in the AL, and hit the fewest home runs in the AL. And that wasn't just a Target Field effect; the Twins hit the second-fewest home runs on the road. Three of their four players who hit double-digit home runs are gone -- Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome. Josh Willingham will provide some power, but unless Mauer and Morneau bounce back big, where are the Twins going to get runs?

Right now, the rotation looks like Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis. The Twins ranked last in the league in strikeouts in 2011, a problem that expects to persist in 2012. Closer Matt Capps is coming off a 4.25 ERA and just 34 strikeouts in 65.2 innings.

The over/under is 74 wins. I'll admit: I don't see a lot of positives here, even if Mauer and Morneau are healthy and produce. I'm taking the under.
It's Friday, so here's one last list of links for the weekend.
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, Joe Mauer, John Danks, Jonathan Broxton, Denard Span, Nick Punto, Alcides Escobar, Rafael Perez, Justin Morneau, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Brandon Wood, Anthony Swarzak, Dustin Pedroia, Alex Rios, 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, Adam Dunn, Derek Lowe, Miguel Cabrera, Brian Duensing, Ben Zobrist, Fausto Carmona, Jim Leyland, Shin-Soo Choo, Max Scherzer, Phil Coke, 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, Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp, 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, Don Kelly, 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

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