SweetSpot: Justin Smoak

Mariners kids' arrival long since overdue

June, 2, 2014
Jun 2

We’re a little more than a third of the way through the season, but let’s relish this tidbit as we head into the season’s middle months, when moves get made and buyers and sellers are supposed to start sorting themselves out: After beating the Yankees in a mismatch between Felix Hernandez and David Phelps, the Mariners are just a half-game back in the AL wild-card race. And a game over .500. Which means while there’s a whole lot of sorting left to be done, there’s no reason to take the Mariners any less seriously than they no doubt take themselves.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mariners are getting the most value out of King Felix and Robinson Cano and a very few others -- Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders in the lineup, Chris Young in the rotation. Use WAR as a quick cheat, and that’s the extent of the guys who’ve been worth a win so far, several fewer than the A’s or Angels have to talk about. Not that WAR is the ultimate answer to anything, but it does give you the suggestion that there are more than a few people playing for the Mariners whose value is harder to define than what statistical words of praise might provide.

That’s in large part because the core of young talent in the Mariners lineup, which was supposed to have been ready to shine by now, has provided the statistical equivalent of dark matter: We know they’re there, we know they’re supposed to be important. But defining what Justin Smoak or Dustin Ackley or the shortstop tandem of Brad Miller and Nick Franklin or the center fielder du jour -- it’s James Jones this month -- have added challenges easy explanation.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesEven without getting much help from the Mariners' lineup, Robinson Cano has reason to smile: They're contenders!
The Mariners are getting less than a .700 OPS not just from defense-first positions such as short and center, where they’ve been testing their prospects, but also at power positions such as first base, left field and DH. That’s no way to back up a bid to contend, and it will be on Ackley and Smoak -- and also veterans Logan Morrison and Corey Hart when they come back from the DL -- to improve upon it.

But the time for excusing youth should be over. Smoak is in his fifth season and Ackley his fourth. They aren’t kids -- they’re long since young veterans. What you see is what you get. You can at least credit Smoak for hitting away from Safeco this season, with a .765 OPS on the road so far. That's almost exactly the average production for an AL first baseman this season (.764). Average is the new up, at least where Mariners prospects are concerned.

Now, it might seem a bit unfair to pile on the Mariners’ bevvy of prospects for what they haven’t been and might never be. The only teams running younger lineups than the Mariners’ 27.3-year-old average are the Astros and Cubs, both of whom have unapologetically touched bottom in their comprehensive rebuilds. On the other hand, that same average age ties with the homegrown talent-laden Braves, who labor under all sorts of expectations of right-now contention -- and seem to be doing just fine. Guys such as Smoak and Ackley were mentioned in the same breath as prospects such as Freddie Freeman (a consensus top-20 prospect) or Jason Heyward (a consensus top 10). And while we’re on the subject of young and disappointing, keep in mind that Ackley is only a few months younger than Justin Upton and was the second overall pick in 2009 to Upton’s first overall selection in 2005. As frustrating as Upton has been for those expecting reliable greatness from one of baseball’s best streak hitters, you won’t confuse that for Ackley’s exasperating inability to come close to his rookie season .766 OPS in any of the past three seasons.

Which is why, for as young as these Mariners might seem to be right now, their time is now. Everything can be forgiven, if not forgotten, if the Mariners make this season’s September meaningful. That would be a first for a franchise that has yet to top the 85 wins they got in Jack Zduriencik’s first season as GM back in 2009. This is essentially his team, a compilation of players he inherited and chose to keep (such as Erasmo Ramirez), guys he drafted (such as Ackley, both shortstops and James Paxton) or guys he signed (Cano, Young and Fernando Rodney). If it’s going to add up to anything, ever, there’s no time like now to find out.

For the Mariners to deliver on the opportunity of their present, their best hopes might rest on what Paxton and Taijuan Walker can add on the mound behind Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. It makes for that much more of a pitching-and-defense formula, while praying for Cano and Seager to plate enough runs, for Zunino to develop unlike all the other top touts of prospect lists past. Not to mention hoping against hope that Ackley or Smoak or Franklin or Miller finally turn into something. Realistically, what alternative is there? Trade them away to surround Cano with better goodies? No matter how much club control a team might have left over Ackley or Smoak or Franklin, whatever dollar figure you assign doesn’t amount to any value in trade if it doesn’t amount to anything on the field now. Guys who can’t play at 26 or 27 aren’t likely to play ever.

It’s easy to mock Zduriencik’s zipping from one master plan to another with all the hyperactive schemes for world domination of a Bond villain: He’s tried building a winner just about every way imaginable in his six seasons in Seattle, flitting from pitching and defense to a lineup overstuffed with veteran DHs, to trusting in his farm system, to finally, in that classic sign of late-stage, go-for-broke desperation, throwing boatloads of cash at somebody with star power when he inked Cano. In short, there is no tack he hasn’t tried. The irony is the Mariners might contend for at least a wild-card slot this season, after the former player-development guy made the big-market move and signed the superstar for a budget-busting $240 million. If it works, and if the kids contribute anything, you can bet he’ll be congratulated for it.

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

Mariners, Swisher hitting in bad luck

May, 13, 2014
May 13
Every Monday, I tweet out a series of hard-hit ball leaderboards, ones that tell you how often players and teams are hitting a ball hard, and how often they’re getting hits when they hit the ball hard.

The decision of whether a ball is hard-hit or not is determined by a video-review team for one of our data providers. The analysts look for beneficial velocity and contact on the sweet spot of the bat in making their determination as to whether a ball is hit hard, medium or soft.

It is admittedly an imperfect, subjective stat. But it has value, and based on the reaction of my followers, there seems to be interest in learning more about it.

So with that in mind, here are a few things I gleaned from this week’s hard-hit and soft-hit leaderboards.

Poor Nick Swisher
Nick Swisher is 6-for-37 over the last two weeks, but this doesn’t appear to be of any fault of his own. Swisher has the second-highest rate of hitting balls hard over that span, registering a hard-hit ball in 13 of his trips to the plate.

But those 13 trips have produced only four base hits. Swisher has been crushing balls into power alleys, but they’ve been tracked down in the gaps by hard-pursuing outfielders.

Swisher’s track record is that he gets base hits when he hits the ball hard about 70 percent of the time. Had he done so here, he’d gave gotten nine hits.

Sounds like the baseball gods owe him a few.

Which teams hit the ball hard the most often?
I would never have guessed that the Seattle Mariners lead the sport in how often they hit the ball hard. But they do.

Justin Smoak
ESPN Stats & InfoJustin Smoak is not getting fully rewarded for driving the ball.
The Mariners have two players ranked in the top four in that stat -- Justin Smoak (third) and Kyle Seager (fourth). Smoak and Seager are each registering a well-hit ball 25 percent of the time. But just like Swisher, they’re going unrewarded. Smoak and Seager are each hitting .246.

The Mariners rank 24th in team batting average when hitting the ball hard, at .647.

Smoak has two homers in his last three games, but he’s got more hard-hit fly balls plus line-drive outs than any player in baseball, with 13.

Seager’s issue isn’t what happens when he hits the ball hard, but when he hits it softly. Seager has the worst "soft-hit average" (.022, 1-for-46) of any player in baseball. The average major leaguer gets hits on about 17 percent of soft-hit balls.

Everything’s going right for Howie Kendrick
Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick has the highest batting average in the majors when he hits the ball hard. He has 21 hits in his 23 instances of doing so.

[+] EnlargeHowie Kendrick spray chart
ESPN Stats & InformationHowie Kendrick is driving the ball the other way.
Kendrick looks like someone who has changed his approach. He’s driving the ball to the opposite field with a much higher frequency than he used to.

From 2010 to 2013, about one-third of Kendrick’s hard-hit balls were hit to the opposite field. In 2014, he’s just about doubled that rate. Fifteen of his 23 hard-hit balls have gone the opposite way and another six have been hit to the middle of the field.

The benefit for Kendrick is, among other things, more doubles. He had only 21 in 478 at-bats last season, but he’s already at 10 through his first 148 at-bats in 2014.

Matt Adams is killing them softly
Most of the players at the top of the list for highest batting average when hitting the ball softly are speedsters who beat out slow-hit groundballs (see Gordon, Dee). One of the exceptions to this is Matt Adams.

Adams is hitting .333 when hitting a soft-hit ball and seems to have made the decision to sacrifice power for batting average, particularly when hitting against a shift. He already has 21 soft-hit base hits (in 63 at-bats) this season, two more than he had in 2013 in 104 at-bats.

Mark Simon helps oversee the ESPN Stats & Information blog and Twitter. Follow him on Twitter at @msimonespn.
Eric Wedge Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesSeattle's failure to consistently develop prospects could soon cost manager Eric Wedge his job.
No, I'm not writing about Dustin Ackley again because I'm a Mariners fan. I'm writing about him because he was the second overall pick in the 2009 draft and got sent down to the minors over the weekend, the exclamation point on his quick demise from promising rookie in 2011 to .205-hitting replacement-level second baseman in 2013.

Actually, I'll save myself the pain and link to Dave Cameron's take over at the U.S.S. Mariner blog, including his reference to Mariners manager Eric Wedge's quote that blamed Ackley's struggles on sabermetrics. No, really. Here's what he said: "It's the new generation. It's all this sabermetrics stuff, for lack of a better term, you know what I mean? People who haven't played since they were 9 years old think they have it figured out. It gets in these kids' heads."

Read Dave's piece as he breaks down Wedge's quote with the lethal result of a Felix Hernandez changeup. He wraps up by saying that Wedge will probably be fired soon, which is probably true:
Everyone knows that the only people capable of offering any kind of intelligent analysis of baseball players are those who have Major League experience. You know, like Eric Wedge. That's what's made him such a successful Major League manager, with his career record of 725 wins and 784 losses. And, you know, clearly Wedge knows how to develop young talent, since he helped all those young players turn into superstars in Cleveland.

Oh, wait, Cleveland’s young players didn't develop as well as they were expected, and Wedge has had two winning seasons in 10 years as a big league manager. Hmm. Maybe experience isn't the only thing that matters after all?

Eric Wedge is going to be fired in the not too distant future. That move, in and of itself, won't turn around the Mariners franchise. But it won't hurt.

There's another piece on the U.S.S. Mariner site by Jeff Sullivan which compares Ackley to another former Mariner who was supposed to hit, Jeremy Reed. This points to the larger issue within the Mariners organization going back more than 10 years and three different front-office regimes: The complete inability to develop hitters (Kyle Seager, who was never a top prospect, being the exception).

Actually, they've developed three other real good ones in the past decade. Trouble is, they traded away Adam Jones, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera. But the list of Mariners position players besides Jones and Choo once rated in Baseball America's top 100 prospects is a sad list:

    • Dustin Ackley: Second overall pick in the 2009 draft. Was Baseball America's 11th and then 12th-best prospect. Truth is, he didn't tear apart the minor leagues (.280), but did draw more walks than strikeouts, and his decent rookie performance (.273/.348/.417) suggested he'd develop into a decent hitter. Definitely the most difficult one here to explain.
    • Justin Smoak: No. 13 prospect in 2010. His 24 home runs in 702 minor league at-bats suggests his power potential was always overrated anyway. Maybe remaking himself as well ... he's drawing walks now but a .698 OPS from a first baseman isn't exactly middle-of-the-order material.
    • Jesus Montero: Minor league numbers were impressive for his age, but the fact that he hit worse his second year in Triple-A was probably a bad sign in retrospect. Remember, this guy was BA's No. 4, No. 3 and No. 6 prospect three years running based on his sure thing as a hitter.
    • Michael Saunders: A May 13 headline in the Seattle Times reads, "Michael Saunders has gone from flop to force at the plate." Since then he's hit .109 (5-for-46) and is down to .217 with a sub-.300 OBP. Was BA's No. 30 prospect heading into 2010. He now has over 1,300 major league PAs and owns a career .219/.283/.366 line. I thought he had a breakthrough last year but now all bets are off.
    • Carlos Triunfel: BA's No. 62 prospect after debuting in the States at age 17. Remained in the top 100 the next year. Power never developed, undoubtedly aided by his poor plate discipline (35 SO, 7 BB in Triple-A this year).
    • Adam Moore: No. 83 before 2010, his minor league numbers were good, not great, but he was a catcher. Hit .195 as a rookie. Then came a bunch of injuries.
    • Jeff Clement: Drafted third overall in the loaded 2005 draft, peaked at No. 33 on the BA prospect lists. Just a misfire. A costly one.
    • Jose Lopez: Peaked as Baseball America's No. 38 prospect and reached the majors at age 20 and even made the All-Star team his first full season. But his willingness to swing at pretty much anything (never walked 30 times in a season) ruined his career.
    • Jeremy Reed: Acquired from the White Sox in the Freddy Garcia trade, he had hit .373 with 70 walks and 36 strikeouts in 2003 between A and Double-A. But a .289 average in Triple-A in 2004, the year the Mariners acquired him, suggests a guy who was probably overrated as the No. 25 prospect.
    • Chris Snelling: Three-time top-100 prospect, as high as No. 39. Couldn't stay healthy. The one guy here who I'm convinced would have hit.

How does this happen? How can one organization fail so miserably? Certainly, there's been a system-wide failure -- again, through different regimes and thus different major and minor league coaches and instructors -- to develop hitters with the ability to control the strike zone. Is that just bad luck? Bad coaching? Bad Safeco Field karma?

I don't really know. A friend of mine posits that the Mariners continually emphasize how much pressure they're under in the major leagues, instead of just letting them hit instead of talking about their struggles all the time. Maybe bad hitting and bad approaches just feed off itself like the Ebola virus. Losing is a disease, right?

There is no answer here other than that there is no magic wand you can wave, no secret sauce, no hitting coach that can flip the switch. The new guys are arriving -- Nick Franklin is here to replace Ackley and Mike Zunino will be up soon.

They better be good.

This whole closer thing is a tough business. Perfection isn't just expected; it's demanded. Slip up once and it's a headline; slip up twice and fans are ready to trade you to Topeka. Slip up three times and your manager usually starts questioning your intestinal fortitude. As the late, great Dan Quisenberry once said, "A manager uses a relief pitcher like a six-shooter: He fires until it's empty then takes the gun and throws it at the villain."

The trouble with closers, and the decisions managers have to make when they start to struggle: When do you know if the chamber is empty?

Three playoff contenders suffered wrenching defeats this weekend when their closers blew multirun leads. Blown saves in one-run games are bad enough; blowing leads of two or three runs is generally unacceptable. The victims, or saboteurs if you prefer: Jim Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles, Chris Perez of the Cleveland Indians, and Fernando Rodney of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Here's what happened:
  • The Orioles led the Blue Jays 5-2 on Sunday entering the bottom of the ninth, but Edwin Encarnacion doubled, Adam Lind grounded a single up the middle and J.P. Arencibia lined a base hit to right. A fly out, walk and fielder's choice made it 5-4 with runners at the corners and two outs. Light-hitting Munenori Kawasaki was at the plate. Johnson threw Kawasaki six consecutive fastballs -- six of his signature mid-90s sinker -- but the sixth one didn't sink much. The pitch hung out over the middle of the plate, and Kawasaki lined it into left center for a game-winning two-run double. The Orioles lost just one game last season they led heading into the ninth inning; they already have five such defeats in 2013. Johnson has lost three of those, and he has two other defeats, as well.
  • The Indians also led 5-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, ready to salvage a split of a four-game series at Fenway Park. Dustin Pedroia walked to lead off, and, as you can probably guess, bad things happen when you walk the leadoff batter with a three-run lead. David Ortiz doubled. A groundout scored a run, Ortiz stole third and then another groundout made it 5-4. But now the bases were empty and Perez had two outs. He walked Jonny Gomes, who is hitting .200 without a homer against right-handed pitchers; Stephen Drew lined a base hit to right; and Perez walked light-hitting Jose Iglesias. Terry Francona had finally had enough and brought in Joe Smith to face Jacoby Ellsbury, who won it with a double to left center. It was the first game Cleveland lost entering the ninth inning and just the second loss for the bullpen, but Perez has been shaky of late. Last week, he blew a two-run lead in the ninth to Seattle only to get the win, and two days later, he gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth only to be rescued again as Cleveland won in extra innings. That's seven runs his past three outings.
  • Rodney blew his fifth save on Saturday night, a 3-1 lead against the Yankees, who won in 11 innings. The Rays have now lost three games they led entering the ninth (and five they led entering the eighth). Last season, when Rodney allowed just nine runs all season and the entire pen was stellar, those figures were two and three.

So that's the play-by-play of disaster. That all three are struggling isn't necessarily a big surprise. Their Proven Closer labels were a little dubious entering the season, especially for Johnson and Rodney, who each had just one full season as a closer under the belt. In fact, it's time we take the magic out of the whole "closer mystique" nonsense that everybody likes to pretend exists. The fact that guys like Jason Grilli of the Pirates and Edward Mujica of the Cardinals are doing just fine is another indication that closers are often lucked into, not made.

There are few great ones -- Mariano Rivera, of course, and Craig Kimbrel (although even he has three blown saves) -- but the truth is that for most of these guys there's a slender margin between invincibility and Tom Niedenfuer. That's exactly what we're seeing with Johnson, Rodney and Perez this season.

Johnson is a pitch-to-contact closer whom sabermetric analysts predicted would be hard-pressed to match his big 2012 campaign when he saved 51 games. His strikeout rate is up, but that's because he's throwing more pitches up in the zone; a sinker up in the zone is a bad pitch. Last season, Johnson's ground ball rate was 62 percent; this season, it's 42 percent. Thus, he's getting hit more.

Perez was an All-Star the past two seasons, but his 3.45 ERA during that span is hardly elite material for a closer. He's always been a guy who lives on the edge, a decent reliever who got the ninth-inning role. His heat map shows a lot more pitches up in the zone this season, as well -- he's already allowed five doubles, four home runs and 10 walks in 16⅔ innings.

Rodney's implosion is probably the least surprising of the three. From 2007 to 2011, his ERA was more than 4.00 each season. Last season, he suddenly developed the perfect feel for his changeup to go along with fastball command, and batters hit .071 off it with 55 Ks and five walks. This season, the fastball command hasn't been there, and neither has the dominance on the changeup. He's already walked 18 batters (including 10 on changeups) after walking 15 all of last season. After giving up four extra-base hits in 2012, that total is already at nine. In other words, instead of getting Dennis Eckersley in his prime, the Rays are back to getting Fernando Rodney.

The managers of these clubs have some difficult decisions. Because all three have the Proven Closer label, how many chances do they get? And just shuffling them into the eighth-inning role and promoting the setup guy to closer doesn't necessarily solve anything; they can blow games just as easily in the eighth as in the ninth. Orioles manager Buck Showalter has the best options, as relievers Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day and Brian Matusz have all pitched well.

"We should be getting on the plane with three wins here, but I can't hang my head too long," Johnson said after the game. "It's going to hurt for a little bit, and it should."

For now, it appears Johnson will keep his job despite four blown saves in his past five appearances. But no matter what happens the rest of the season, the ninth inning has already been a disaster for the Orioles. Last season, the average team lost 3.7 games it lead heading into the ninth. As mentioned, that's already five such defeats for the O's this season. And each one has hurt a little bit.



Which closer should lose his job?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,919)

Three stars

1. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers. Sanchez lost his no-hit bid on Friday when Joe Mauer singled with one out in the ninth. After Detroit acquired Sanchez from the Marlins last season, his strong performance in the playoffs led the Tigers to sign him to an $80 million contract that seemed a little ambitious considering his 3.65 career ERA and the fact that he'd never pitched 200 innings in a season. So far, however, Sanchez has been much better than a midrotation starter, as he's increased his strikeout rate from 20.4 percent a season ago to 30.6 percent now. While he's getting more strikeouts with all four of his pitches, the biggest increase has been with his fastball, which had a strikeout rate of 13.8 percent on plate appearances ending with the pitch in 2012 but 28 percent this season. The command of his fastball -- especially on the outside corner to righties -- has made his other pitches even more effective.

2. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals. For a guy who is "struggling," Strasburg has looked pretty good of late. He allowed just one run in eight innings against the Phillies on Sunday. In his past three starts, he's allowed four runs and just 13 hits in 23 innings. He's recorded 39 groundouts and 15 fly outs over those three starts. He's still seeking his first double-digit strikeout game of the season but still has 71 Ks in 72⅓ innings. While his ERA of 2.49 is a little misleading -- he's allowed nine unearned runs -- his recent outings should alleviate the minor concerns about his early performance.

3. Pete Kozma, Cardinals. How to beat Clayton Kershaw? The Cardinals shortstop went 4-for-4 on Sunday with three doubles; three of those hits came off Kershaw, including a three-run double and rally-starting two-base hit, as the Cardinals won 5-3.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Of our many walk-off heroes, how about Chris Young of the A's? The A's trailed the Astros 5-3 on Friday. Jose Veras walked John Jaso and Coco Crisp on 3-2 pitches, setting the stage for Young with two outs. Young did this on a 1-1 curveball. The A's are now five games over .500 -- thanks in large part to a 9-0 record against the Astros, who they've outscored 68 to 31. Hey, if they go 19-0 against the Astros, it's going to be hard to deny them another trip to the playoffs.

Best game
The Giants fell behind 4-0 to the Rockies on Saturday but chipped away and tied the game in the seventh. Manager Bruce Bochy got ejected in the eighth when Marco Scutaro was thrown out at third base, and the Giants escaped a two-on, nobody-out jam in the ninth. Troy Tulowitzki homered off a Sergio Romo slider in the 10th. But then, after the usually steady Rafael Betancourt walked Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan lofted a deep fly to right center that kicked off the wall … and, well, Pagan ran 360 feet around the bases, helped a bit by a lazy relay throw from Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler.

Hitter on the rise: Matt Dominguez, Astros
When the Astros acquired Dominguez last season from the Marlins for Carlos Lee, everyone knew he had a major league caliber glove at third base. After going homerless in his first 33 games, doubts began increasing about his bat. Dominguez, however, has now popped seven homers in his past 13 games. His season line still needs some work, especially in the on-base department (.279), but he's starting to look like a positive in this dismal Astros season.

Pitcher on the rise: Jason Vargas, Angels
Don't look now, but the Angels have won eight in a row and are a respectable 23-27. Did they start too late, just like last season? Vargas is 4-0 with a 2.25 ERA in May, allowing nine runs in five starts. The Angels' next 10 games are against the Dodgers, Astros and Cubs. If they're a couple games over .500 at the end of those 10 games, they'll be back in the wild-card race.

Team on the rise: White Sox
Besides the Angels and Pirates (last week's team on the rise), the hottest club is the White Sox. We keep wanting to count out the South Siders, but, somehow, they find a way to hang in there. They don't score much, but they've won nine of 12 the old-fashioned way: with starting pitching. The starters have a 3.25 ERA over those 12 games, and that despite ace Chris Sale missing his last start with mild tendinitis in his shoulder. He's scheduled to start Tuesday against the Cubs.

Team on the fall: Mariners
They pulled out an extra-inning victory over the Rangers on Sunday, but that ended an eight-game losing streak. Starters not named Hernandez or Iwakuma have combined for a 6.78 ERA, which essentially means three-fifths of the Seattle rotation is below replacement level. The Jesus Montero catching experiment was finally, mercifully, brought to an end as he was demoted to Triple-A to see if he can rediscover the supposed hitting prowess that once made him a top-10 prospect (and play some first base). Dustin Ackley continues to be awful and Michael Saunders is three for his past 37. Things are so bad that Mariners fans are excited about Justin Smoak and his .698 OPS.

The Seattle Mariners are in that frustrating purgatory of baseball existence: Not good enough to contend, not bad enough to formulate a rebuilding strategy that makes sense.

Where are they? What is the master plan? Is there life after Felix?

There wasn't Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, when Felix Hernandez dueled CC Sabathia in a battle of aces. Hernandez outpitched Sabathia, but a collision at first base in the fifth inning might have shaken him up a bit. He labored through the sixth, allowing his only run and leaving after 97 pitches with a 3-1 lead.

The Mariners bullpen, stellar for most of the season, couldn't hold the lead; the Yankees received some good luck from the baseball gods and then Mariano Rivera closed out the 4-3 victory. The Mariners can cry about the 3-2 pitch to Brett Gardner in the seventh that looked like strike three, or moan about Justin Smoak's liner in the eighth with two on that doubled Dustin Ackley off second base. But they also failed to capitalize on 10 hits off Sabathia, and Michael Saunders couldn't get a bunt down in the eighth. These are the games that good teams pull out and mediocre teams don't pull out often enough.

[+] EnlargeSeattle's Dustin Ackley
Photo by Elsa/Getty ImagesGetting doubled off second to end a late Mariners threat was just the latest lowlight for Dustin Ackley.
The Mariners aren't a terrible team -- they're 18-21, they have a terrific 1-2 pitching combo in Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, they have some good arms in the bullpen and the offense, while still bad, is at least not historically bad anymore.

But ... where are they? That's harder to peg. They're not the Astros or Cubs. They're kind of in that Pirates/Royals territory of maybe if everything breaks right, except those two clubs are playing better right now. Their offseason moves -- signing veterans Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay and trading for Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales -- suggested a "win now" strategy. Those guys are short-term investments, with Ibanez and Bay simply one-year placeholders and part-time players, and Morse and Morales both free agents after the season.

Essentially, those guys were just roster filler anyway, and for all the angst among Mariners fans over Ibanez or Bay stealing a job from Casper Wells, the Mariners' present and future didn't rest in the bat of Casper Wells. No, it rested in the continued improvement of Kyle Seager and Saunders, plus the hopeful development of one-time top prospects Ackley, Smoak and Jesus Montero.

That takes us to mid-May, and it's time for Mariners management to make some difficult decisions. Seager and Saunders, building upon last season's success, have been fine; they're good players, guys who can be key components of a playoff team. But it's the other three -- all once rated as top-20 prospects in the game -- that have again disappointed.

Ackley is hitting .231/.273/.281, and as Jeff Sullivan of the U.S.S. Mariner blog pointed out, his walk rate has plummeted to Miguel Olivo levels. That's not good, in case you're wondering. Smoak is drawing walks but not doing much of anything else, hitting .235/.355/.311 with one home run. Montero is hitting .200/.250/.341 and the catching experiment is working out as well as anything labeled "experiment" usually does.

As I said, it's only mid-May, and you never want to jump to snap conclusions. But smart organizations do make conclusions. Back in the day, a manager like Whitey Herzog might look at a player for two weeks and determine if he's a major league player. Maybe he wasn't always right, but he believed in his convictions.

Do the Mariners still believe in these three? Ackley is now 25 years old and getting worse, much worse than he was as a rookie in 2011. Smoak is 26 and has a career .225 average. Montero is only 23 but is looking like a bat-only player who doesn't have enough of a bat.


Which Mariner do you still believe in?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,560)

Manager Eric Wedge hasn't exactly proven himself to be a great judge of talent -- not playing John Jaso and Iwakuma early on last season, for example -- but he certainly made his convictions clear with Tuesday's lineup: Ackley, Smoak and Montero all started the game on the bench. In their places were Robert Andino, Ibanez and Kelly Shoppach. Ackley, the can't-miss second pick in the draft, is now being benched against left-handers for a guy hitting .169. Smoak sat for a guy who has hit .207 against left-handers since 2011. Montero sat because he isn't good.

Smart organizations properly evaluate their own talent. They know when not to re-sign Josh Hamilton, know which prospects to hold and know when to walk away. It's time for general manager Jack Zduriencik to make some calls. If the Mariners think Ackley can play then play him, even against Sabathia, and certainly don't bench him for Robert Freakin' Andino. If Smoak can play, then play him. If Montero can't catch, then send him down to Triple-A to see if he can actually develop an idea of how to approach an at-bat.

Because even if those guys play a little better the rest of the season, what have you learned? You'd be back in the same position next year, counting on them simply because they were once highly-rated minor leaguers.

I think the Mariners are close to knowing some answers. They're not contenders. Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino are down in Triple-A, perhaps ready to replace Ackley and Montero, the new new things to get excited about.

It's time to Whitey Herzog it and man up. It's judgment day in Seattle.
Spring training consists of a lot of bunting practice and manufactured stories, false alarms and overhyped weight losses (or increases). But some news events and stories are potentially important. Here are the 25 biggest ones -- from on the field -- as camps finally wind down.

25. Scott Kazmir makes Indians rotation
The last time we saw Kazmir in the majors was in the fourth game of the season for the Angels in 2011. He gave up a home run, walked two batters, hit two more batters and got knocked out in the second inning. He was just 27 years old, but on the heels of a terrible 2010, his career appeared over. Even last year, pitching for Sugar Land in the Atlantic League, he went 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA. The Indians invited him to camp and Kazmir impressed by throwing in the low 90s and, more importantly, throwing strikes (one walk in 13 innings). Who knows if Kazmir will work out in the long run, but it's a great spring training story.

24. Don't worry about Albert Pujols unless you want to
The knee is apparently OK, but now he's been bothered by plantar fasciitis. He says it comes and goes. "It's nothing that's going to keep me out of the lineup," Pujols said recently, "because I've played with it the whole season before."

23. Aaron Hicks wins Twins' center field job
[+] EnlargeAaron Hicks
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAaron Hicks locked down the center-field job after a big spring.
The Twins traded Denard Span and Ben Revere in the offseason to acquire some pitching, but they could afford to do so because they have a promising crop of outfielders on the way. Hicks will be the first to arrive after winning the center-field job with a big spring (.379, four homers). And how refreshing for a team to promote a player because he's one of their best 25 guys and not worry about his service time. "The guy has earned it," GM Terry Ryan said. "I find it almost humorous that people are talking about service time, starting the clock. We didn't trade Span and Revere to stall the next guy."

22. Where there's fire there's Smoak
The Mariners haven't scored runs since George W. Bush was president. Well, they've scored runs, just precious few. Former top prospect Justin Smoak is on his last chance and after hitting well last September with a new swing has looked good again this spring, hitting .434 with four homers and eight doubles in 53 at-bats. Could it be that Smoak and newcomers Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse will actually give Mariners fans something to watch on days King Felix doesn't pitch?

21. Diamondbacks are banged up
Rookie of the Year candidate Adam Eaton is already out six to eight weeks with an elbow strain and Cody Ross will likely miss Opening Day with a calf sprain. Now comes word that Jason Kubel, Willie Bloomquist and Aaron Hill were all dinged up in Tuesday's game. The D-backs have depth and may need it.

20. Ricky Romero can't throw strikes
When the Blue Jays traded for three-fifths of a rotation this winter -- NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, plus Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle from the Marlins -- they were going to join holdovers Brandon Morrow and Romero to help deliver the Jays to their first playoff berth since 1993. After going 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA in 2011, Romero struggled last year with a 5.77 ERA and league-leading 105 walks. His control is still an issue -- 10 walks and eight K's in 13 innings -- leaving the possibility that J.A. Happ wins that fifth spot.

19. Brandon Belt bashes
The Giants first baseman is hitting .453 with seven home runs, tied for the spring high, leading to speculation this could be the year he finds his power stroke and has that breakout season everyone anticipated last year.

18. Looking for Moore
The Rays could afford to trade James Shields because of their starting pitch depth. Sophomore Matt Moore, coming off a strong second half, was expected by many to pass Jeremy Hellickson and become the team's No. 2 starter behind David Price. But he's had a rough March, with his velocity down and struggling with his command (13 walks in 17.1 innings). Maybe he'll turn it on when the season starts, or maybe there's a problem to pay attention to.

17. Angels bullpen looks like last year's bullpen, only worse
The Angels struggled in middle relief in 2012, so they brought in Ryan Madson to close (pushing Ernesto Frieri to a setup role) and signed Sean Burnett. Madson hasn't pitched yet as he still recovers from Tommy John surgery, Frieri has been terrible (12 hits, only three K's in eight innings), and Burnett has been terrible (eight hits in 3.2 innings). Small sample sizes, but something to watch when the real games begin.

16. Zack Greinke's elbow
He started his first major league spring game on Monday since March 1 and said he felt fine, although he did walk three straight batters in the fourth inning. For now, he's scheduled to start the Dodgers' fourth game. "I thought I felt good, but the results didn't imply that the last inning," Greinke said. "It tells me I've got some work to do and build up arm strength. I've got to fine-tune some off-speed stuff. If the arm strength is there, I can make it work. That's the No. 1 most important thing."

15. Jackie Bradley tears it up
A top prospect heading into his junior season at South Carolina in 2011, Bradley had a disappointing season and slipped to the Red Sox with the 40th pick in the draft. That looks like an absolute steal after Bradley had an impressive 2012 in the minors, earning the No. 40 spot on Keith Law's top 100 prospects list heading into spring training. He's played so well -- .444/.523/.667, excellent defense -- that he may crack Boston's Opening Day lineup even though he has just 61 games above Class A.

14. Tigers closer remains unsettled
Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski hoped rookie flamethrower Bruce Rondon -- he of the 100-mph fastball -- would make their decision easy, but Rondon has looked like the inexperienced reliever he is. In 11.2 innings, he has 18 punchouts, but he's also allowed 15 hits, two home runs and seven walks. For the Tigers, however, it doesn't matter who is closing in April, but who is closing in October.

13. Shelby Miller wins rotation spot
The Cardinals' pitching depth was on full display this spring. Even with Chris Carpenter going down for the season, they still had Miller and fellow youngsters Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly fighting for the No. 5 spot. In the end, Mike Matheny went with the kid with the biggest upside in Miller, sending Rosenthal and Kelly to the bullpen. Miller had a 4.74 ERA at Triple-A but seemed to put everything together late in the season, as he had 53/4 SO/BB ratio in 37.1 innings in August, earning a September cameo in the majors.

12. Hanley Ramirez loves and hates World Baseball Classic
[+] EnlargeHanley Ramirez
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeHanley Ramirez is expected to miss eight weeks after injuring his thumb in the World Baseball Classic.
Ramirez is out about eight weeks after injuring his thumb, leaving the Dodgers scrambling at shortstop and third base. If you think more playing time for Juan Uribe and Nick Punto is a good idea, raise your thumb.

11. Julio Teheran dominates
Maybe the most impressive pitcher of the spring -- at least statically -- is Braves rookie right-hander Teheran, who has held opponents to an .082 average while whiffing 35 in 26 innings. He's earned the No. 5 slot in the rotation with an exclamation point. This is where we remind you that it is spring training and that Teheran had a 5.08 ERA in Triple-A last year, causing him to slip from No. 5 to No. 44 on Baseball America's top prospect list. But if he can keep that changeup down in the zone ... watch out.

10. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz look good ... very good
Yes, yes, yes: Don't read too much into spring training. Did we say that already? But after lackluster performances in 2012, Boston's top two starters have both dominated this spring, with scouting reports to match the statistics. Both have ERAs under 1.00 and Lester has allowed just six hits in 20 innings, Buchholz 11 hits in 18.2 innings.

9. A's infield remains unsettled
That Oakland won 94 games last year was more than a minor miracle, in part because of the offense the A's received from three-quarters of their infield. Their second basemen hit .228/.303/.316 (27th in the majors in OPS), their third basemen hit .227/.280/.391 (27th in OPS) and their shortstops hit .203/.272/.313 (28th in OPS). Japanese free agent Hiroyuki Nakajima was signed to play shortstop, but he's looked so tentative in the field and so helpless at the plate that he's likely to start the year at Triple-A Sacramento. That probably means Jed Lowrie plays shortstop, Josh Donaldson returns to third and Scott Sizemore plays second. But Eric Sogard has hit .500 and Adam Rosales, who is out of options, had played well until landing on the DL with an intercostal strain. Jemile Weeks, last year's regular second baseman, has already been sent down. The infield may be unsettled, but the A's should still get more production across the board.

8. Brewers boost rotation
Slotting in Kyle Lohse behind Yovani Gallardo gives the Brewers what could be a sneaky good rotation along with Marco Estrada and some combo of Chris Narveson, Mike Fiers and hard-throwing rookie Wily Peralta. The Brewers led the NL in runs scored in 2012, so if the bullpen doesn't implode again, don't be surprised if the Brewers run with the Reds and Cardinals.

7. Yasiel Puig is Yoenis Cespedes, Bo Jackson and God wrapped into one
No player stirred up the masses this spring like Dodgers outfielder Puig, the Cuban signed to a controversial $42 million deal last year. The Dodgers optioned him to Double-A after he hit .526 with three home runs and four steals in 57 at-bats. But it was the smart move: Puig had 11 strikeouts and no walks, suggesting he could be exposed when the pitchers start trying harder.

6. Mike Trout is fat
And it doesn't matter. His spring training numbers (.373, more walks than strikeouts) suggest an encore performance is in order. And he still makes this look easy.

5. Bryce Harper will win an MVP Award some day ... maybe in 2013
IT'S SPRING TRAINING. IT DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING. NOTHING. DON'T GET SO EXCITED, SCHOENFIELD. I know, I know. Still, Harper is hitting .476, with three home runs and five steals. Can you say 30/30 and MVP candidate at age 20?

4. Aroldis Chapman goes back to the pen
Maybe he was going to be Randy Johnson 2.0. Now we'll never know. Hey, if Chapman didn't want to start, what option did the Reds really have?

3. Tim Lincecum cuts hair, doesn't perform heroic feats
Lincecum went for the reverse Samson but it hasn't rejuvenated his fastball. He's allowed 17 hits and seven walks in 10.2 "A" game innings and the reports are that he looks like the Lincecum of last year, still fighting command of the fastball. The Giants survived his rocky 2012 (10-15, 5.18 ERA), but the NL West may be a lot tougher in 2013.

2. Roy Halladay is human
Of even bigger concern may be Halladay's struggles in Phillies camp. He can't crack 90 with his fastball and recently pitched in a minor league game and retired just seven of the 18 batters he faced. Even for great pitchers, the end can sometimes come suddenly.

1. Yankees willingly trade for Vernon Wells
That pretty much sums up the Yankees' spring.
Earlier, I wrote about 10 players facing the most pressure in 2013. The following five players have a different kind of pressure (if pressure does actually exist), one perhaps even more intense: This may be their last chance to prove themselves as major league regulars and get on track to receive that multi-million dollar payday that will allow them to buy a large house in a gated community. A slow April and May and they could find themselves sitting on the bench.

Domonic Brown, LF, Phillies (age 25)

[+] EnlargeDomonic Brown
AP Photo/Matt SlocumDomonic Brown is only 25 and has had less than 500 plate appearances in the majors.
MLB career: 492 PAs, .236/.315/.396
Top prospect ranking: No. 4 Baseball America, 2011
Supposed to be: Power/speed threat
ZiPS projection: .265/.335/.461

After hitting .327/.391/.589 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2010, Brown looked like he would be a key to the Phillies' continued run of NL East dominance. Instead, he's been injured at times, hasn't hit when he has played and there have been reports about the Phillies allegedly not being too pleased with his hustle or work ethic. Aside from that final question, there are three issues here: (1) He's never played more than 116 games in any season; (2) He hasn't received consistent playing time with the Phillies; (3) Maybe he's just not as good as advertised.

So what is he now? His defense is suspect, he was probably never going to be a big basestealer (17-of-24 in the minors and 2010) and his power hasn't played up since fracturing his hamate bone at the base of his right wrist in spring training 2011. Still, he has fewer than 500 plate appearances in the big leagues and is just 25.

Justin Smoak, 1B, Mariners (26 years old)

MLB career: 1421 PAs, .223/.306/.377
Top prospect ranking: Baseball America No. 13 (2010)
Supposed to be: Patient switch-hitter, good glove, moderate power
ZiPS projection: .230/.318/.383

The Mariners acquired a bunch of DH-types in the offseason, but for now the plan appears to have Smoak opening at first base, with Mike Morse in left field, Kendrys Morales DH-ing and Raul Ibanez filling in (with Jason Bay potentially in the mix if he has a big spring training). At 26 and with nearly 1500 plate appearances under his belt, Smoak is getting too old to project much growth; he probably has three months to prove he's a starting first baseman.

The questions here: Can he improve against offspeed pitches? (He hit .194 against "slow" stuff in 2012.) Will moving in the fences at Safeco improve his production and confidence? (He's hit .210 with a .343 slugging percentage there in his career.) After getting sent down to Tacoma last year, he returned in September with a shorter swing from the left side and hit .341/.426/.580 with five home runs in 26 games. An adjustment that will stick? We'll see.

Brett Wallace, 1B, Astros (age 26)

MLB career: 792 PAs, .250/.323/.424
Top prospect ranking: Baseball America No. 27 (2010)
Supposed to be: Hitting machine
ZiPS projection: .242/.313/.387

The 13th pick in the 2008 draft -- two slots after Smoak -- Wallace entered pro ball with doubts about his body type and fielding, but everyone believed in the bat. He was traded three times before reaching the majors, but he's certainly with the one team where he has a chance of some guaranteed playing time.

Wallace showed some signs last year, hitting .253/.324/.424, but a strikeout rate of 28.7 percent is way too high for a guy who was supposed to hit for average. Couple that with a poor walk rate and he's not going to make it as a starter unless his approach improves.


Which young player is the best bet to break out?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,603)

Travis Snider, OF, Pirates (25 years old)

MLB career: 1062 PAs, .248/.309/.415
Top prospect ranking: Baseball America No. 6 (2009)
Supposed to be: Big-time run producer
ZiPS projection: .253/.312/.403

Snider was just 20 when he first reached the majors with Toronto, but he's been back and forth between Triple-A and the bigs ever since. The Jays finally gave up on him last summer, trading him to Pittsburgh, so the Pirates will see if he can finally tap into his power potential. Snider has hit .333/.412/.565 in various stints in Triple-A -- but that was in Las Vegas, where everyone puts up monster numbers.

Snider may not have the bat speed to excel at the major league level. Since 2010 in 346 plate appearances ending in fastballs, he's hit just .234 with nine home runs. That's well below the major league average of .280 against fastballs. If you can't hit the fastball, you're not going to make it.

Brian Matusz, P, Orioles (26 years old)

MLB career: 368 innings, 5.36 ERA
Top prospect ranking: Baseball America No. 5 (2010)
Supposed to be: Top-of-the-rotation starter
ZiPS projection: 8-11, 144 innings, 5.16 ERA

The fourth pick in the 2008 draft, Matusz's strong finish to his 2010 rookie campaign (7-1, 2.60 ERA over the final two months) had him on track to develop into the Orioles' ace. Instead, everything fell apart in 2011, beginning with a painful intercostal strain in spring training. In 12 starts, he went 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA and other ugly numbers. Given another shot at the rotation in 2012, he was 5-10 with a 5.42 ERA in July when he was sent down to the minors.

He returned as a reliever and excelled -- two runs in 13.1 innings with 19 strikeouts. While many guys end up throwing hard in relief, Matusz's average fastball velocity wasn't actually much different out of the bullpen -- 91.4 mph versus 91.0 -- so the Orioles will give him another chance in a potentially crowded rotation (he'll battle Jake Arrieta, another guy running out of chances, among others). Matusz has a spot in the bullpen if he's not starting, but that would be a disappointing scenario for a young pitcher who looked as good as he did in 2010.

Which of these guys is the best bet to prove himself? I'll go with Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection and go with Brown. He's the youngest of the five and has the least amount of major league experience.

This is Baltimore Orioles baseball.

This is Seattle Mariners baseball.

Watching the last few innings of their game against Seattle, you knew how it would end: The Orioles would win. They'd wait out Felix Hernandez. They'd wait out Tom Wilhelmsen. They waited 18 innings to win on Tuesday and they'd wait as long as it took to win their 15th consecutive extra-innings game on Wednesday. Eventually, they'd run into a Mariners reliever who didn't have it. Or maybe they'd wait for the Mariners to make a mistake or Eric Wedge to make a dumb move or Jeff Reboulet to come off the bench and hit a home run.

You knew. You knew BECAUSE THE ORIOLES DON'T LOSE IN EXTRA INNINGS. GOT THAT? THE ORIOLES DO NOT LOSE IN EXTRA INNINGS. The game was over. It was just a matter of how the baseball gods wanted the O's to win on this night.

It didn't take 18 innings. Adam Jones belted a two-run home run off Josh Kinney in the 11th, off a "hit me hard, please" 3-2 hanging slider. It was Jones' 30th long one of the season, his fourth go-ahead home run in extra innings (no other player has more than two) and his sixth in the seventh inning or later (no other player has more than four). You don't have to call that clutch if you don't want to, but you can call it awesome.

As for the bottom of the 11th, the Mariners' first two hitters singled. I'll let Joe Sheehan take over from there:

Joe wasn't quite accurate on the pitch count, but you get the idea.

Justin Smoak, displaying all the speed of a Molina, grounded into a 3-6-1 double play, pitcher Jim Johnson making a nice scoop to complete the play. Michael Saunders walked. Wedge then pinch-hit his best hitter, John Jaso. At least he managed to get him in the game this time; in Tuesday's loss he was outmaneuvered by Buck Showalter, pinch-hitting Jaso only to see Showalter bring in a lefty, which forced a pinch hitter for Jaso.

Trouble is, Jaso never got a chance to swing the bat. Saunders tried to steal on the first pitch. The Orioles saw it coming, as Johnson threw a high-and-away fastball, the perfect pitch for catcher Taylor Teagarden to gun down to second base. He nailed Saunders with a perfect throw right on the corner of the base.

[+] EnlargeAdam Jones
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenAdam Jones' winning blast was his fourth this season in extra innings -- twice as many as anyone else.
Orioles baseball. Mariners baseball.

It wasn't necessarily the worst move to send Saunders, who had been 20-for-23 in steal attempts. Give credit to Showalter or Teagarden for reading the tea leaves, as Johnson normally throws his heavy sinker pitch after pitch.

* * * *

I'm jealous of Orioles fans right now. I want to be in your seat, rooting for a team I've suffered with for far too long, to keep doing the improbable, to keep winning games like this. There is nothing in sports more exciting than the daily adrenaline rush of pennant-race baseball, sweating through every pitch and sometimes forgetting to breathe. Orioles fans deserve this; there are high school seniors who had never seen the O's even experience a winning season until this year.

Earlier in the day, I wrote a post titled "It's just an Orioles kind of season." Indeed. I've never seen anything like this; and unless you were rooting for the 1949 Cleveland Indians -- who won 17 straight in extra innings -- neither have you.

The Yankees swept a doubleheader from the Blue Jays on Wednesday, leaving the Orioles a half-game behind their wealthy neighbors in the American League East. But the remaining schedule seems to slightly favor Baltimore: The O's have a day off on Thursday and then three at Boston, four against Toronto, three against Boston and three at Tampa Bay. The Yankees have one with Toronto, three against Oakland, three at Minnesota, four at Toronto and three against Boston.

When Bobby Thomson beat the Dodgers to win the pennant in 1951, Red Smith wrote, "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention." When Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Dick Young wrote one of the great first sentences in sports writing: "The imperfect man pitched the perfect game."

The Orioles' story in 2012 is far from its end, but that's how I feel about this group: The imperfect team has strangled invention.
First base: Vogelsong victorious. Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong had another quality start in a 7-1 victory over the Padres -- seven innings, four hits, one run -- improving to 8-4 with a 2.26 ERA. Vogelsong now has 17 quality starts in 18 starts -- and in his one non-quality start he allowed he allowed four runs in six innings. Basically, he hasn't had a bad start all season. The Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann is in a similar position: He has 18 quality starts in 20 starts but has allowed four runs in six innings in his two "bad" starts.

Now it's not necessarily unusual to pitch at least six innings in every start; Justin Verlander, for example, hasn't pitched fewer than six innings since July 9, 2010. But how rare is it pitch at least six innings and allow four runs or fewer in every start? Even Verlander had two games with one run and one with six runs a year ago.

Using the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.com, we can conduct such a search. Here are the pitchers since 1994 with at least 30 such starts:

Justin Verlander, 2011: 31 (34 starts)
Jered Weaver, 2011: 31 (33 starts)
Brett Myers, 2010: 30 (33 starts)
Jake Peavy, 2007: 30 (34 stars)
Roy Oswalt, 2005: 30 (35 starts)
Curt Schilling, 2002: 31 (35 starts)
Randy Johnson, 2002: 31 (35 starts)
Kevin Brown, 1998: 31 (35 starts)

Going back a couple more years, we get Greg Maddux in 1992 (33 in 35 starts) and Jose Rijo in 1993 (32 in 36 starts). Pedro Martinez came close during his 23-4 season in 1999 but he had one start of five innings (one run) and one game where he allowed nine runs. When he posted a 1.74 ERA in 2000 in 29 starts, he had one start of five runs and one with six runs (plus two other starts he pitched fewer than six innings). Maddux, during the 1994 strike season, made 25 starts and had a 1.56 ERA ... but still allowed five runs in four games.

Anyway, Vogelsong's 2011 season, when the Giants signed him off the scrap heap and he went 13-7 with a 2.71 ERA, may have been viewed as a fluke. But now that he's doing it again it's time to give him credit for becoming perhaps the game's most underrated starter.

Second base: Ludwick lashing. On May 23, Reds outfielder Ryan Ludwick was hitting .191 with a .638 OPS. Since then he's hit .277/.337/.595 with 11 home runs and 12 doubles in 148 at-bats, a key reason the Reds lead the NL Central. On Monday, he hit cleanup for the second time since April and went 3-for-6 with two doubles in the Reds' 8-3 win over the Astros, Cincinnati's fifth straight win. The Reds are in the midst of a very friendly stretch of schedule: Only three of their next 30 games are against a team currently above .500 (the Pirates). With a 1.5-game lead over the Pirates and 6 games over the Cardinals, the Reds have to been seen as the clear favorite in the Central right now.

Third base: Smoak demoted. Justin Smoak, once the centerpiece of a Cliff Lee trade, was sent down to Triple-A. Hitting .189/.253/.320, Smoak had the third-lowest OPS of any regular player, better only than Cliff Pennington and Dee Gordon. Smoak had 13 home runs but just six doubles. While he was partially a victim of the Safeco Curse (10 of his 13 home runs were on the road), he was also hitting just .213 on the road. Mike Carp was called up. He's hit .157 with the Mariners and .182 in Triple-A. While it was time consider alternatives to Smoak, Carp probably isn't the long-term answer. Seattle will be seeking a first baseman in the offseason.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. Ichiro is a Yankee! While Ichiro didn't take Bernie Williams' No. 51, he did take the number of a Hall of Famer:
Felix HernandezStephen Brashear/Getty ImagesSince 2009, Felix Hernandez has the third-best ERA in the majors behind Roy Halladay and Clayton Kershaw.
Felix Hernandez made his debut for the Seattle Marines when he was 19 years old. It’s easy to fall in love with the kids, of course, especially ones who throw fastballs from heaven and curveballs that opposing hitters would suggest were from hell.

He was so good, so young, so dynamic in those first few starts in 2005, a gift from the baseball gods for a bad team. I watched him blow away the Royals in his third career start, pitching eight innings with 11 strikeouts, still pumping 96-mph fastballs in his final inning. He was already King Felix, Mariners fans lining up "KKKKKKKKKKKing Felix" placards in the outfield. After that game, Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said, "I am trying not to go over the deep end bragging about this guy. I would love to sit here and tell you all the flowery, beautiful things that I am feeling, but common sense tells me I should not go down that road."

I went down that road. At the time, I wrote, "I had to watch Monday night because maybe -- just maybe -- he really is the King who can save my baseball team."

Felix didn’t save the Mariners, no fault of his own, of course. He's been terrific, his best pitch now a lethal changeup, but since he made his first start on Aug. 4, 2005, the Mariners are 502-618, a .448 winning percentage. Twice they lost 101 games. Two other seasons they lost 90-plus. They’re on pace to lose 94 this season.

It’s time to say the once unthinkable words: It’s time to trade Felix Hernandez.

* * * *

In a nutshell:

1. The Mariners’ best chance of becoming relevant before Albert Pujols' contract expires lies in pitching prospects Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton.

2. If you have three good starting pitchers, you can afford to trade Hernandez.

3. Under contract through 2014, Hernandez’s trade value is as high as ever right now.

4. The Mariners are not going to be competitive in the next two seasons.

5. He has thrown a lot of innings at a young age. He's a pitcher. Pitchers get hurt.

What the Mariners need, of course, are hitters. Now is the time to acquire them. The 2012 season is wide open, especially in the National League. The addition of a second wild-card team may make teams even more aggressive on the trade market as the July 31 deadline approaches. With aces Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke possibly available, the Mariners would offer the biggest prize of all. Those two are rentals, impending free agents; if you trade for Felix, you get him for the rest of this season and two more. Now that’s a difference-maker.

Look where the Mariners stand. They’re competing against the Rangers and Angels, two franchises deep in talent and financial resources. Trying to build an 85-win club and hope you catch a few breaks isn’t going to cut it. You have to aim bigger.

How many championship-level starters are in the Mariners' current lineup? At the start of the season, the Mariners were banking on Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero to develop into a playoff-caliber core. All have been bitter disappointments. Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders have been pleasant surprises, showing enough promise to develop into solid contributors.

To be fair, something weird is going on at Safeco Field, making it a little more difficult to evaluate these players. The Mariners are hitting just .196 at home (opponents are hitting just .221). Of the 12 players with the lowest home OPS in the American League (minimum 100 plate appearances), seven are Mariners. On the road, the Mariners rank sixth in the AL in OPS and 11th in on-base percentage. That road OBP indicates this is an offense still in need of major help.

* * * *

Reasons why the Mariners shouldn’t make a trade.

1. These trades never work out.

True, the Indians, Phillies and Mariners all traded Cliff Lee and basically got nothing of value yet in return. The Indians traded CC Sabathia and have only Michael Brantley to show for it. But none of those trades involved a player with two-plus seasons of control left. When the Royals traded Zack Greinke to the Brewers, he had just two seasons remaining; they did a little better, with Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi. And sometimes they do work out, as when the Rangers acquired Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz (plus Jarrod Saltalamacchia) for Mark Teixeira. With Felix having two-plus years under control, the Mariners can demand more in return than those trades.

2. The Mariners will lose their fan base.

[+] EnlargeKings Court Fans
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe King's Court section at Safeco always brings out Hernandez's most loyal fans.
They’ve already lost much of it. The Mariners led the AL in attendance in 2001 and 2002. Even in 2005 when they lost 93 games, they still ranked fourth in the league. This year, attendance will decline for the fifth straight season, and they rank 11th in the league, averaging 22,286 per game, barely half of what they averaged a decade ago.

And, no, I don’t want to hear that Felix packs them in. Players don’t draw fans; winning teams draw fans. This year, the Mariners have averaged 25,616 when Hernandez pitches, 21,307 when he doesn’t. But Felix’s starts include the home opener and Father’s Day; take out those games and the M’s average 23,348 when he pitches. Last year they averaged 24,392 for Felix, 22,181 for everyone else. The Felix attendance boost is minor.

3. Felix loves Seattle and says he wants to pitch there forever.

Seattle fans have an irrational obsession over whether their athletes like Seattle or not. This goes way back to the 1970s; it used to be a huge deal whether local athletes lived in Seattle in the offseason. Anyway, after being spurned by Ken Griffey Jr. (who did return), Alex Rodriguez and an entire NBA franchise, Mariners fans went overboard when Hernandez said this. OK, can you guarantee he’ll re-sign with the Mariners after 2014? You can't … not when the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and, yes, Rangers and Angels, will be ready to pay him a fortune.

Here’s another consideration. Factoring in Safeco Field’s pitcher-friendly reputation, it’s difficult for the Mariners to sign free-agent hitters. The Mariners have signed five significant free agents since moving to Safeco: John Olerud (a Seattle native), Bret Boone (coming off a terrible season), Ichiro Suzuki (via Japan), Richie Sexson (a Washington state native), Adrian Beltre (coming off his monster season with the Dodgers to a deal many thought was an overpaid) and Chone Figgins (no comment). And when Beltre signed, Safeco didn’t have nearly the Death Valley reputation it has now.

Pitchers are more likely to head to Safeco. Plus, it’s also easier to fill out the back end of a pitching staff than a lineup, especially in a pitcher’s park. Considering the Mariners' farm system is thin in hitting prospects, trading Felix is the best way to acquire an impact bat.

So who do the Mariners call? There is one team that clearly matches up: the St. Louis Cardinals. They have depth and prospects; they are in win-now mode, they need Hernandez and they can afford to take on the $39.5 million owed to him in 2013 and 2014 with some high-priced players coming off the books. The Mariners ask for:

  • Outfielder Oscar Taveras, Keith Law’s No. 8 midseason prospect, is a 20-year-old hitting .332/.381/.593 in Double-A with just 46 strikeouts in 334 at-bats. As Keith wrote, "His bat still profiles as star caliber in right."
  • The Cardinals don’t have room for Matt Adams with Lance Berkman and Allen Craig. Adams is a 23-year-old lefty masher hitting .362/.390/.684 with 14 home runs in 174 at-bats at Triple-A Memphis (although just .244/.286/.384 in 27 games with the Cards). Alternatively, include Craig -- hitting .296/.364/.577 with the Cardinals -- instead of Adams.
  • Shelby Miller was one of the top pitching prospects entering the season but has struggled in Triple-A. Keith still ranked him No. 17 overall on his update. Take a chance on that arm.
  • Tyrell Jenkins is another power righty with big upside, a guy who just missed Keith’s top 50 list. OK, maybe that's getting a little greedy.

  • This trade doesn't completely gut the Cardinals' farm system, which would still have Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong, but it’s a no-brainer for them. Yes, as with any prospect deal, the risk would belong to Seattle.

    In 2014, the Mariners perhaps look like this:

    2B Dustin Ackley
    SS Nick Franklin (No. 40 on Keith’s list)
    RF Oscar Taveras
    1B Matt Adams
    DH Jesus Montero
    C Mike Zunino (Seattle’s 2012 top draft pick)
    3B Kyle Seager
    LF Casper Wells
    CF Michael Saunders

    P Taijuan Walker
    P Danny Hultzen
    P James Paxton
    P Shelby Miller
    P Erasmo Ramirez/Hector Noesi/free agent

    Throw in high draft picks from the 2013 and 2014 drafts and suddenly the Mariners are loaded with premium young talent at the big league level and in the minors. That roster would be dirt cheap, with Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki, Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez off the payroll, leaving plenty of room for free-agent reinforcements or trades for veteran players. It's a team that would be ready to compete with the Rangers and Angels.

    Think big.

    And then when Felix becomes a free agent after 2014 ... bring him home.
SweetSpot blogger Dave Schoenfield and I met in the bucolic Bristol studios to discuss the great game of baseball, with many ranging topics for Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast , including:

1. After hitting Marco Scutaro in the head with a pitch, was Stephen Strasburg afraid to pitch inside?
2. From fast and young to slow and ... well, you know, Jamie Moyer found work, again.
3. Wade Miley, NL All-Star? Yep!
4. Why do I want Derek Jeter to get more hits than Peter Edward Rose?
5. How are the fans doing for the AL All-Star voting?
6. What should we expect from Anthony Rizzo as he’s set for his Cubs debut?
7. David Ortiz, Hall of Famer? Other than in nickname, how does he compare with Edgar Martinez?
8. Ozzie Guillen catches a big mistake and still loses the game.
9. What does the future look like for Justin Smoak?
10. Are the Orioles playoff-bound?

It really was a packed Tuesday edition of the Baseball Today podcast, so download and enjoy. Dave and I will return Wednesday!

Mariners' offensive outburst overdue

June, 3, 2012

Another game, another double-digit Mariners outburst on the scoreboard? This makes it three in their past four games, and while it’s way too soon to talk about the Mariners offense terrorizing anybody, after scoring 31 runs in their last two games in Texas and then 14 in their first two in Chicago, things are certainly taking a turn for the better in terms of Mariners offense.

In Saturday's 10-8 victory over the White Sox, Ichiro Suzuki ripped two home runs, Michael Saunders avenged his Friday night game-losing error to rap out four hits (including a homer) and Justin Smoak’d his team-leading 10th shot into the cheap seats.

Has sad-sack Seattle suddenly busted out to become a slugging powerhouse? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. After all, one of the benefits of breaking out on offense is that you get the twin benefits of getting to take your chances against the bottom of a bullpen -- giving your batters more opportunities to hit against guys who aren’t the best starters, relievers or anything in between -- and you force opposing managers to use multiple relievers on consecutive days ... and not every fireman has his A-game working without rest. If anything, in the age of the seven-man bullpen, your chances of catching a reliever at less than his best improve, as busy skippers run through every guy they’ve got.

So how are the Mariners doing it? It isn’t simply a matter of finally coaxing Ichiro out of the third slot and having him bat leadoff, although getting his limited power output out of a slot usually associated with cashing in baserunners with extra-base sock can’t hurt. His reputation for incomparable batsmanship aside, Ichiro has only plated 11.9 percent of his baserunners, behind four other regulars plus Alex Liddi, John Jaso and Casper Wells. This isn’t a recent development -- last year, Ichiro ranked behind six other regulars, not to mention Milton Bradley and Jack Cust, both of whom didn’t last the year in Seattle because they didn’t do enough on offense to outstrip their assorted liabilities.

It also isn’t a matter of putting Chone Figgins back on the bench or getting Mike Carp and Miguel Olivo back from the disabled list, or even of riding the hot hand and sticking Kyle Seager in the No. 3 hole, although all of those are good things. Certainly, the Mariners are also enjoying the benefit of seeing Smoak and Dustin Ackley get on track and deliver the way that they’re expected to, especially relative to expectations for a pair of former top prospects. All of these things are helpful, all worthwhile, but perhaps not all crucial, not by themselves.

Instead, perhaps the Mariners are benefiting most lately from the three of the most important words in performance: location, location and location. That’s because getting away from Safeco Field is important, not least this year. Exacerbated by early-season injuries? Perhaps. And what about the Mariners getting dragooned into yet another MLB junket to cash in on the bounty of letting Opening Day occur in Japan -- which, considering MLB’s nine-digit payoff from licensing and more from Japan, has its incentives? Whatever the reasons, the Mariners' hitting rates at home are beyond awful: just .193/.278/.305 in their triple-slash stats.

After Saturday’s four-pack of clouts off Gavin Floyd in the Cell, the Mariners have hit 39 homers on the road in 33 games to the 12 they’ve managed in their 22 contests in front of the home folks. They’re now slugging .423 on the road, better than 100 points higher than at Safeco.

How unlikely, improbably, and unsustainably awful is the Mariners’ .584 team OPS at home? It would be the lowest home OPS in the era of divisional play (1969 to the present) if it lasted. Only two teams have ever finished a full season below .600 in OPS, the 1972 Padres (.586) and the ’72 Rangers (.595) -- not a Padres team playing in Petco, and no Astros team playing in the infamous old Astrodome managed it. These are raw and unadjusted OPS marks, of course, and both the Pads and the Rangers were pre-designated hitter.

However, unlike this year’s early-season pleas for fence-shifting in Miami, that’s just the way it is: The Mariners play in a pitcher’s park, and they’ve long since gotten used to it, because it has been true, year after year. Inevitably, they’re going to go home, and the bats will cool off -- somewhat, but not all the way down to a sub-.600 OPS. The Mariners’ home woes are unsustainably awful, unless they decide to put Figgins back in the everyday lineup or the like.

When the Mariners get back to Seattle on Friday to host the Dodgers, Padres and Giants in the latest spin with interleague entertainment, we’ll see if they bring their hitting gloves back with them. But even with Safeco’s well-earned rep as a pitcher’s park, if one thing is sure, you can probably bet that they will.

Yoenis CespedesJohn Rieger/US PresswireNow that he's back, Yoenis Cespedes must be happy to see third base, right?

Clearing the Bases: Wild, wild Wests

May, 31, 2012
First base: Carlos Gonzalez ripped a trio of home runs against the Astros in Coors Field. There’s no snark or punchline, just simple facts: The dude can rake, Coors is where he plays and the Astros aren’t the joke that people made them out to be in March.

So on a basic level, it looks like CarGo’s back on track to be that MVP candidate he looked like in 2010, when he won a batting title while cranking out 351 total bases (just two less than Matt Kemp had last year). But one odd or interesting thing about CarGo’s splits is that he’s generating longer at-bats but also swinging and missing a little more often. His unintentional walk rate -- the walks he draws himself, as opposed to the freebies he’s handed intentionally -- has slowly inched up year over year as a regular, going from 5.1 percent in 2010 to 7.5 percent in 2011 to 8.5 percent. Predictably enough, his at-bats are averaging more pitches, finally topping the league average this year (3.86 pitches per PA before Wednesday night).

Yet his rate of swinging strikes has also moved up, from a career average of 20 percent of his strikes to 23 percent. What’s that supposed to mean? The interesting thing there is that CarGo’s a fastball hitter, and a guy who offers -- and misses -- on off-speed stuff fairly often. But longer at-bats generally mean more hitter’s counts, and CarGo’s getting into hitter’s counts a little more often (40 percent of the time, versus 36 percent in 2011), and doing more damage in those counts, slugging .746 against .605 last year.

Having fun with numbers aside, what does it mean? I’d take these as symptoms of a still-young hitter coming into his own. CarGo’s just 26 years old, after all. And did I mention the dude can rake?

Second base: The Mariners scored 21 runs. No, wait, that’s not a punchline either, and it was off the Texas Rangers, the best team in the league. Every starter in Seattle’s lineup had a hit, so nobody was left out of the party. Third baseman Kyle Seager had four hits, and he didn’t even come close to having the best day at the office: Justin Smoak ripped a pair of bombs and a double while boosting his RBI season tally from 21 to 27, while Jesus Montero scored and plated four runs and hit a bomb of his own.

All sorts of stupid stuff comes out of this on the pitching side, like Hisashi Iwakuma being awarded a save for pitching the last three innings. Rule 10.20 says you award a save for a three-inning relief appearance for pitching “effectively,” but maybe his three runs allowed in three frames for the Mariners looked so effective compared to Yoshinori Tateyama’s night (two outs, eight runs allowed) that the official scorer was feeling especially generous to see this bloodbath brought to a merciful conclusion. At least Rangers starter Derek Holland can take some solace from the notion that he could only lose this game once.

But the notion of losing or winning this game just once is where the numbers get really silly. The Mariners were scoring just 3.79 runs per game beforehand, and can now point to this one ballgame representing almost 10 percent of their season runs scored tally, almost a third of the way through their season. How silly is that? Well, considering that the Mariners were already seen as doing three games worse than their expected record before this game -- using the Bill James-inspired Pythagenpat projection of team records per their runs scored and allowed, the Mariners were “supposed” to be 25-27 through their first 52, and now, after their big win, they’re supposed to be 27-26, or four games better than their actual 23-30. So by scoring 21 runs in one game, they now look like they’ve been even more “unlucky,” which is ridiculous, but that’s how these things work out.

Third base: Carlos Quentin’s making up for lost time at the plate. In his first three games back from the DL, the new Padre is 7-for-12 with three doubles and three homers, including Wednesday’s two-homer game against the Cubs. If the deadline market in the new two wild-card setup is likely to feature more buyers than sellers, you can bet that a franchise as out of it as the Padres franchise will be able to convert the free agent to be for top talent in July, especially if Quentin keeps thumping like this.

Home plate: The tweet of the night goes to well-monikered @SessileFielder, who noted of the new Brewers backup backstop, Martin Maldonado
Alcides EscobarDavid Richard/US PresswireBird? Plane? Or just Alcides Escobar levitating as he turns a deuce against the Indians?
Keith Law and I ended this final full week of April on the Baseball Today podcast with intelligent discussion about American League outfielders in the news, a weekend preview, and much more!

1. Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young is in the news for all the wrong reasons, leading us to wonder if the Tigers will deem his role on the team worth keeping around.

2. One guy that won’t be around for a while is Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford. Will this guy ever be the same?

3. We’ve seen Phil Humber be very good and very bad in a span of one week. What should we expect moving ahead from him, as well as struggling Miami closer Heath Bell?

4. Our emailers have questions about pitchers using their legs, Justin Smoak’s development and what the Cardinals will do with Lance Lynn.

5. Plenty of good baseball will be played this weekend, and we examine the series we’ll be watching and why pitcher wins don’t always tell a complete story.

So download and listen to Friday’s Baseball Today podcast, check out Sunday night’s Rays-Rangers game on ESPN, and have a great weekend!

My parents still love watching baseball, even Seattle Mariners baseball. I called them Monday evening to see if they watched Philip Humber's perfect game on Saturday and my dad said he watched a few innings, went out to the mow the lawn and came back just in time to see the bottom of the ninth.

He then proceeded to complain about Chone Figgins ("He just can't hit.") and Justin Smoak ("Most good hitters don't take three or four years to figure things out."). Hey, he's right. And you can't blame him; he's been watching inept offense for two-plus years now. But then he said something that sums up a problem not unique to the Mariners:

"You know, even with their great pitching staff the Phillies can't win either."

Indeed, the Philadelphia Phillies entered Monday's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks with a 2.46 ERA. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Vance Worley had allowed just 22 runs in their 13 starts. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in Sabermetrics to realize that's fewer than two runs per start. But after losing 9-5 to Arizona (made closer with a five-run outburst in the ninth inning) the Phillies are now 7-10. That's the same record as the Mariners, and the Phillies have scored just 48 runs, an average of 2.82 runs per game.

That's right, the Philadelphia Phillies -- the five-time defending National League East champs -- have become the Seattle Mariners.

OK, OK ... I kid, Phillies fans. But the Phillies have scored 12 fewer runs than the Mariners, a team whose OPS leader is Brendan Ryan, a guy with a .190 batting average. We all know the laundry list of the Phillies' problems -- Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on the disabled list; Jimmy Rollins hitting .242 with no power (two doubles, no home runs) and just four walks; Placido Polanco hitting .185 with one extra-base hit and one RBI; John Mayberry Jr. hitting .205 with no walks and 14 strikeouts. And so on. In fact, it's fair to ask: Where would the Phillies be without Juan Pierre and Ty Wigginton?

Man, those 45-homer seasons from Ryan Howard seem like a long time ago.

What I'm wondering: How many runs do the Phillies need to score to contend for the playoffs? After all, offense is still 50 percent of the game.

Entering Monday's action, the National League was hitting a collective .242/.310/.376 -- a .686 OPS that is 24 points lower than 2011's numbers. That figure takes us back to the offensive levels of 1988 to 1992, when the NL OPS figures were .673, .678, .704, .689 and .684. So one way of looking at this: Let's assume it will take 87 wins to make the playoffs. What's the lowest run total for an NL team from that 1988-1992 period that won at least 87 games?

For you baseball historians out there, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the 1988 Dodgers scored just 628 runs, or 3.88 runs per game. That actually put the Dodgers sixth in a 12-team league. The Dodgers allowed 544 runs and finished 94-67, exceeding their projected record by three wins.

Back to the Phillies. They're on pace to score 457 runs. Obviously, that won't cut it, but of course the offense won't be that bad all season. It will pick up, that we can predict. In 2011, they allowed 529 runs, the lowest full-season total since the 1969 Orioles allowed 517. So if they match the '88 Dodgers' total of 628 runs, they're still in good shape and project as a 93-win team, assuming the same run prevention as 2011.

What will it take to score 628 runs? They'd have to score 580 runs over the final 145 games, or 4.0 runs per game. Or just about what the National League average has been so far -- 3.94 runs per game entering Monday's game.

But just like the offense is likely to improve moving forward, the pitching staff probably won't match last season's historic stinginess. With Cliff Lee heading to the DL over the weekend with a strained oblique, we see the precariousness of relying so much on a few starting pitchers. The Diamondbacks lit up Kyle Kendrick, Lee's replacement, for 11 hits and seven runs in three innings on Monday. Kendrick had a nice season in 2011, posting a 3.22 ERA over 114.2 innings, including 15 starts. Kendrick, however, lives on a fine line of success. Among 145 pitchers last season with at least 100 innings, his strikeout rate ranked 138th. So as he steps in for Lee -- who may miss a month, meaning four or five starts -- don't expect a 3.22 ERA from Kendrick.

That's just one reason to expect the staff to allow a few more runs. Let's say 30 more than a year ago. That's 559 runs. Now that '88 Dodgers total of 628 runs projects to a win total of ... 89.5.

That might still be enough to squeak into the playoffs. Four runs a game. That's all you need, Phillies fans.

But what if the Phillies average 3.8 runs per game the rest of the season instead of 4.0? That projects to 599 runs scored.

And 86 wins. One run every five games. A couple of extra bloops or bleeders per week. A few ground balls with eyes. The difference between making the playoffs and going home.

Cubs CelebrateBrian Kersey/Getty ImagesRallying for a win in Wrigleyville is so much sweeter when it's at the Cardinals' expense.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.