SweetSpot: Kyle Lohse

Maybe it's not quite fair to call Mark Buehrle, Kyle Lohse and Tim Hudson junkballers, especially because I think that phrase was retired along with Livan Hernandez.

But in this day of starting pitchers routinely pumping 95 mph fastballs, these three veterans are pitching better than ever without lighting up the radar guns. Here's what happened Sunday:

--Buehrle, 35, pitched eight shutout innings to improve to 10-1 with a 2.10 ERA. He averaged 84 mph on his fastball, topping out at 87.2. For the season he's averaged 83.3 mph on his fastball; of 101 qualified starting pitchers, the only one with a lower average velocity on his fastball is knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

--The 35-year-old Lohse gave up three hits and beat the Cubs with his eighth career shutout to improve to 7-1, 2.60 ERA. His Game Score of 87 was tied for the second-highest of his career, behind an 88 last year when he recorded a two-hit shutout. His fastest pitch on Sunday was 91.8 mph, and his season average fastball velocity of 89.6 ranks 81st out of those 101 starters.

--Hudson, 38, allowed three hits and no runs in seven innings in an 8-0 victory over the Cardinals, and he's 6-2 with a 1.75 ERA. His average fastball velocity on the season ranks 86th of those 101 pitchers.

What do the three have in common? Obviously, they know how to pitch, moving the ball around and changing speeds. You may classify all three as strike throwers, and that's generally true: Hudson has the third-lowest walk rate among starters (2.7 percent, with eight walks in 11 starts, and well below his 6.7 percent rate of last season); Lohse is ninth-lowest at 3.9 percent (13 walks in 12 starts and slightly lower than the past two seasons but still a career-best rate); Buehrle is actually just 35th in walk rate at 6.1 percent, which is just above his career mark of 5.5 percent.

You may think all three are ground-ball pitchers, but that's not quite true, either. Hudson is fourth among starters in ground-ball rate, a reason he's allowed just four home runs. I'd say that moving to AT&T Park has helped the home runs, but he's allowed just one of the four on the road. Of course, with that good sinker, Hudson has been successful throughout most of his career in limiting the long ball, especially in recent seasons. But Buehrle is 61st in ground-ball rate and Lohse is 76th. Despite being middle-of-the-pack in this category, Buehrle has allowed just two home runs. If you're going to chalk up any number of the three so far as lucky, this is probably it: Buehrle has the lowest home-run-to-fly-ball rate in the majors at 2.6 percent. His ground-ball rate is right at his career average; last year he gave up 24 home runs.

Anyway, a look at some heat maps will help in seeing how these three attack hitters.

Kyle LohseESPN Stats & Information
Kyle LohseESPN Stats & Information
Mark BuehrleESPN Stats & Information
Tim HudsonESPN Stats & Information


We can see that these guys love to pound the corners. Hudson's map, if we shaded it with more colors, would emphasize the red on the outside part of the plate more than the middle. These get hitters to chase pitches off the plate. Buehrle, for example, throws 47 percent of his pitches to right-handed batters in the strike zone, but 62 percent of his pitches to right-handed batters have been strikes. Hitters won't do much damage on those pitches off the plate, even if the pitches are slow, slower and slowest. I'm reminded of two Sandy Koufax principles. "Show me a guy who can't pitch inside and I'll show you a loser," he famously said. But as a spring training coach with the Dodgers, Koufax also instructed young pitchers to locate on the outside corner. Sure, you have to go inside sometimes, he would say, but the outside corner is how you get batters out.

Lohse is instructive (and Hudson is similar) because he has the ability to pound the outside corner against both lefties and righties. Back in 2009 and 2010, he posted a 5.54 ERA for the Cardinals over 40 starts. In 2010, he did have surgery on his forearm to fix a rare condition called exertional compartment syndrome -- apparently, no major leaguer had had the surgery before (it's reportedly common among motocross racers and long-distance runners) -- and he's been an improved pitcher since 2011.

Injuries or not, Lohse's heat maps from 2009 and 2010 aren't the same as now. He used to be up in the zone more often and caught the middle of the plate more often. So his command has improved, but his two-seam fastball has also become an effective sinker, similar to Hudson's go-to pitch. He rarely throws his four-seam fastball anymore, an adjustment he started making in 2011, relying almost exclusively on the sinker to go with his slider, changeup and curveball. It's a valuable lesson: Velocity isn't everything.

These three guys may not be able to keep this up -- Buehrle will start giving up some home runs, and Hudson's hit rate may go up -- but they're proving that radar readings aren't everything. They call it the art of pitching for a reason, and these three are three of the best artists going right now.
1. The biggest story of the first two weeks has to be the Milwaukee Brewers, winners of nine in a row and at 10-2, two wins better than any other team in the early going. The big surprise is the Brewers have allowed just 29 runs, fewest in the majors. They swept Pittsburgh over the weekend by out-Pirating the Pirates, winning 4-2, 3-2 and 4-1.

Kyle Lohse was dominant in Sunday’s win, falling one out short of a complete game when manager Ron Roenicke removed him after Andrew McCutchen singled with two outs (Roenicke was greeted with a smattering of boos from the home crowd but was vindicated when Will Smith fanned Pedro Alvarez on three pitches to end it).

The Brewers are a difficult team to analyze. They’ve drawn just 25 walks, fourth fewest in the majors, so they love to swing the bats and you wonder if this aggressive approach will be exploited as the season rolls on. They have a 1.80 ERA and it hasn’t been just smoke and mirrors -- they’re fourth in the majors in strikeout percentage and tied for sixth in lowest walk percentage. The unknown at this point is whether the staff is really shaping up as one of the best in the majors. A year ago it ranked 27th in strikeout percentage and 11th in walk percentage.

Anyway, without overanalyzing two weeks of results, what I wanted to know about Milwaukee is this: Does a long winning streak mean good things are ahead for the Brewers? There are a lot of nine-game winning streaks in a season, so searching for any nine-game winning streak might not tell us much. I thought I’d check nine-game streaks in April to see if that correlates to season-long success. For example, last season the Braves and A’s both had nine-game winning streaks in April and went on to division titles.

But you know who else had a nine-game winning streak in April? The Milwaukee Brewers. Of course, they had started 2-8 before reeling off nine a row from April 14 through April 23, so that put them at 11-8. They were 14-11 through April 30 but then went 6-22 in May and the season was over.

Another way to look at the Brewers’ hot start is to look at teams that began 10-2 or better to start the season. Here are the teams since 1996 to do that:

2013 Braves: 11-1 (96-66, division title)
2012 Rangers: 10-2 (93-69, wild card)
2011 Rockies: 10-2 (73-89, missed playoffs)
2009 Marlins: 11-1 (87-75, missed playoffs)
2006 Mets: 10-2 (97-65, division title)
2005 Dodgers: 10-2 (71-91, missed playoffs)
2003 Giants: 11-1 (100-61, division title)
2003 Royals: 11-1 (83-79, missed playoffs)
2003 Yankees: 10-2 (101-61, division title)
2002 Indians: 11-1 (74-88, missed playoffs)
1999 Indians: 10-2 (97-65, division champ)
1998 Indians: 10-2 (89-73, division champ)
1998 Padres: 10-2 (98-64, division champ)
1998 Orioles: 10-2 (79-83, missed playoffs)
1996 Orioles: 10-2 (88-74, wild card)

The tally: The 15 teams went an average of 88-74 with nine of them making the playoffs. So a hot start isn’t a guarantee of reaching the postseason. The 2005 Dodgers started 10-2 and went 15-8 in April, but that proved to be their only winning month. Still, a 10-2 stretch is a sign of something. In the tough NL Central, it means we could be seeing a four-team race this year.

2. We’ll have more Braves coverage Monday to preview the Braves-Phillies game on ESPN, so just a couple of quick thoughts on the Braves’ impressive weekend sweep of the Nationals. Justin Upton, who is 11-for-14 over his past four games with four home runs, two doubles and 8 RBIs, is in one of his patented hot streaks. But we've seen this before, most notably last April. I still don’t expect Upton to suddenly morph into anything different from what he was last year, but it's fun to watch when he gets in a groove.

The Nationals are 6-0 against the Mets and Marlins, 1-5 against the Braves ... which sounds a lot like 2013, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 80-63 against everyone else. Until they prove they can beat the Braves, I’m going to withdraw my preseason evaluation of the Nationals as one of the three best teams in baseball.

Finally, Freddie Freeman: No hitter has looked more impressive through two weeks than Freeman, who is hitting .442/.519/.814. He hit his fourth home run Sunday -- a towering fly ball to right field (about as high as you’ll see any home run hit). Most impressive to me is he’s struck out just four times in 52 plate appearances -- a 7.7 percent strikeout rate compared to 19.2 percent in 2013. If this K-rate is a sign of a new and improved Freeman, he’s going to win the batting title.

3. Mark Buehrle is one of those players you don’t properly appreciate until you take the time to properly appreciate him. The fastest pitch he’s thrown this season is 86.0 mph and after a sterling seven-inning effort in Toronto’s 11-3 pounding of the Orioles he’s 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA.

He has as many swings and misses in his three starts (24) as Felix Hernandez got on Opening Day, but he pounds that outside corner to right-handed batters and they often pounded it into the ground. When they say velocity doesn't matter, what they really mean, "Well, no, not if you can paint the corners like Mark Buehrle." Since Buehrle debuted in 2000, the only pitchers with more than his 189 wins are CC Sabathia (206), Tim Hudson (196) and Roy Halladay (194).


4. In that game, Ubaldo Jimenez had his third shaky outing, giving up 10 hits and five runs, including two home runs. He’s 0-3 and has allowed 13 runs in 16 innings, with a 13-10 strikeout-walk ratio and four home runs. Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie tagged him Sunday, Rasmus on a 3-2, 92 mph low fastball over the middle of the plate and Lawrie on a 2-1 splitter that was pretty much down the middle. Obviously, both were pitches in bad locations.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDon't worry about Chris Davis -- he'll still hit a bunch of home runs this year.
Compared to last year, Jimenez’s velocity on his fastball is down a bit (91.7 to 90.0) and while his overall percentage of strikes is about the same, he’s throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (50 percent to 46 percent) and inducing about 4 percent fewer swings and misses. We don’t want to consign this to the bad signings bin after three outings, but so far Jimenez hasn’t resembled the pitcher who had a 1.82 ERA over his final 13 starts last season for Cleveland.

5. More Orioles: Chris Davis, last year’s 53-homer monster, finally hit his first of 2014, a 433-foot bash to straightaway center. The good news here is that Davis hasn’t actually been "slumping" like he's prone to do; he’s still hitting .279/.353/.419, so at least he has been contributing even without the home runs. I'm not worried about the slow power output so far and still see him as a 38-to-40 homer guy. I thought I’d check to see which players who hit 50-plus home runs had the biggest decrease the following season. Here are those who fell by 25 or more home runs:

Hack Wilson, 1930-31: -43 (56 to 13)
Mark McGwire, 1999-2000: -33 (65 to 32)
Brady Anderson, 1996-97: -32 (50 to 18)
Luis Gonzalez, 2001-02: -29 (57 to 28)
Roger Maris, 1961-62: -28 (61 to 33)
Barry Bonds, 2001-02: -27 (73 to 46)
Hank Greenberg, 1938-39: -25 (58 to 33)

Of the 42 previous players to hit 50, they dropped on average from 55.7 home runs to 43.6 the following season, which puts Davis right around 40.

6. After tearing apart the Angels in their opening series, the Mariners' offense is starting to look a lot like ... the Mariners' offense. In four of their five losses since that 3-0 start they’ve allowed three runs or fewer, so the pitching staff has done its job even with Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker on the disabled list.

The A’s beat the Mariners 3-1 Saturday and shut them out 3-0 Sunday behind Scott Kazmir (looking good early on) and some late runs. Suddenly, the Mariners are hitting .225 and rank 27th in the majors in batting average and on-base percentage. Robinson Cano is hitting .333 but hasn’t homered and some disturbing numbers have come from Kyle Seager (.121), Brad Miller (17 strikeouts, one walk), Mike Zunino (12 strikeouts, no walks) and Corey Hart (nine strikeouts, one walk).

7. Here’s a double play you rarely see: 6-2-4-3-2 as the Rays recorded two outs at home plate. It didn't matter in the end as the Reds won 12-4, but the Rays still won the series after winning 2-1 and 1-0 in the first two games behind David Price and Alex Cobb. Cesar Ramos started Sunday in place of the injured Matt Moore in what was essentially a bullpen game -- Tampa Bay used six pitchers, none for more than two innings. For all the attention given to Billy Hamilton’s slow start, shortstop Zack Cozart is hitting even worse (.114/.162/.171). The more you look at this Reds lineup, the more you wonder where the runs are going to come from.

8. Continuing on our struggling offenses theme, we bring you the Kansas City Royals, who have one home run in 11 games. They suffered a three-game sweep in Minnesota, getting outscored 21-5. Sunday’s 4-3 loss was especially dispiriting as the Royals had scored three runs in the top of the eighth to take a 3-2 lead on a 42-degree day in Minneapolis. But Aaron Crow walked the first two batters of the eighth, bringing on Wade Davis, who struck out Joe Mauer but then loaded the bases with another walk.

He induced a tapper back to the mound for what could have been a 1-2-3 inning-ending double play but instead threw wildly to catcher Salvador Perez. One major reason for the Royals’ 86-76 record last year was beating up on the hapless Twins -- they went 15-4 with a plus-47 scoring margin (exactly their scoring margin for the season). We give the two-week caveat, but this game showcased my concern with the Royals heading into the season: a lack of power and a bullpen that probably wasn’t going to repeat last year’s AL-leading 2.55 ERA.

9. Two general takeaways from the first weeks: There is a lot of parity in the American League this season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see two or even three playoff teams from the AL win fewer than 90 games. The only AL playoff teams in the past decade to win fewer than 90 were the 2012 Tigers (88), 2009 Twins (87) and 2008 White Sox (89).

Second, offense is puttering along at about the same pace as last year, when batters hit .253/.318/.396, the lowest major league average of the DH era (since 1973). This year, we’re off to a .247/.316/.393 start heading into the Sunday night Red Sox-Yankees game. And, no, offense doesn’t always pick up when the weather heats up.

Last year, the OPS per month ranged from .706 (July and September) to .722 (May). In 2012, hitters were "cold" in April with .711 OPS and increased that to .730 and .731 in May, June and July. In 2011, the OPS ranged from .708 (June) to .740 (August).

10. Adrian Gonzalez homered Sunday for the fourth straight game and Giancarlo Stanton hit another mammoth bomb Saturday, a 469-foot blast that now gives him the first- and third-longest home runs of 2014. But the biggest home run news of the week came Wednesday when David Ortiz took 32.91 seconds to round the bases after his home run -- the slowest trot yet recorded on Larry Granillo’s Tater Trot leaderboard.
Quick thoughts on Monday's action ...
  • Just over a week ago the Brewers were 2-8 and looked horrible. Now they've won eight in a row after beating the Padres 7-1 on Monday, as they lit up Jason Marquis for five runs in the first inning (Ryan Braun and the awesome Yuniesky Betancourt homered). Ahh, the rapid-fire twists and turns of April baseball. Braun has four home runs and 11 RBIs in his past five games, with three of those homers coming in the first inning and the other a go-ahead shot in the sixth. Keep an eye on Kyle Lohse, however, as he left after five innings with an injury to his left hand suffered when his finger got caught on Jedd Gyorko's belt while crossing first base on a bunt.
  • Matt Moore looked terrific in leading the Rays to a 5-1 win over CC Sabathia and the Yankees, allowing just two hits (both by Robinson Cano) over his career-high 117-pitch, eight-inning effort. Moore threw 79 fastballs and while he recorded just two of his eight strikeouts with the heater, the Yankees went just 1-for-15 against it. Moore improved to 4-0, 1.04, but I need to point out the Yankees lineup: Ben Francisco hitting second, Francisco Cervelli hitting fifth, lefties Brennan Boesch and Lyle Overbay ... George is not impressed. Teams should be doing everything in their power to start left-handers against the Yankees; they're hitting .190 with a .561 OPS against lefties (28th in the majors) compared to .301 with a .902 OPS against righties (first in the majors).
  • Big hit of the night: How about Buster Posey's two-run, game-tying blast to dead center off tough D-backs reliever David Hernandez in the ninth? Brandon Belt knocked in the game-winner the next inning for the G-men.
  • Big rally of the night: After the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the 13th, the Reds scored three in the bottom of the inning to win 5-4. Jay Bruce hit his first homer earlier in the game and then doubled home the tying runs in the 13th before Cesar Izturis delivered the game-winning hit with two outs. Still waiting for Dusty Baker to use Aroldis Chapman for more than three outs for the first time.
  • Justin Masterson survived four walks to improve to 4-1 as the Indians beat the White Sox 3-2. Adam Dunn went 0-for-4 to see his average drop to .101. Ozzie Guillen stuck with Dunn all year in 2011 but it will be interesting to see how long Robin Ventura sticks with him this time around. Speaking of bad White Sox hitters: Jeff Keppinger is hitting .171 in 76 at-bats and hasn't drawn a walk, so his OBP is actually lower than his average. Did we mention that the White Sox are in last place even though they've allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL?
  • Love watching Manny Machado play third base.
  • Finally, congrats to Felix Hernandez on his 100th career victory.
If you're not listening to Keith Law's podcast, Behind the Dish, you should be! I joined him on today's show and we discussed Kyle Lohse's deal with the Brewers, the state of the Yankees, what to do with youngsters lighting it up in spring training like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Yasiel Puig and how teams could be more creative with their rosters.

Keith was also joined by Andrew Baggarly, who covers the Giants for CSN Bay Area. They discussed one of the season's most important players in Tim Lincecum and Brandon Belt's big spring. Check it out!

Kyle Lohse and the 17th pick

March, 26, 2013
3/26/13
10:30
AM ET

Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin admitted surrendering the 17th pick in the MLB draft to sign Kyle Lohse is a risky proposition. He pointed out that Cole Hamels was a 17th pick and CC Sabathia was an 18th pick (actually, 20th).

Well, sure, you can do that all day long. Roy Halladay was also a 17th pick. Roger Clemens was a 19th pick. Mike Mussina and Torii Hunter were 20th picks. Matt Cain and Mike Trout were 25th picks. And so on.

So, yes, of course there's risk in losing that pick.

Back in January, I did a quick study of first-round picks since 1990. The 17th pick has yielded an average of 6.4 WAR per player. Obviously, the total will increase as Hamels continues to accumulate value or recent picks surface in the majors. The best No. 17 picks have been Halladay, Hamels, Jeromy Burnitz, David Murphy and Brad Lidge. Other No. 17 picks in recent years, however, have included A.J. Pollock, David Cooper, Blake Beavan, Matt Antonelli, C.J. Henry and Scott Elbert.

Actually, 17th picks have done pretty well. The 18th pick has averaged just 0.6 WAR per player and the 19th pick 3.4 WAR per player.

The Brewers lose maybe a 1-in-10 chance of drafting a star. They also get a pitcher who can help them win now. Considering Ryan Braun is at his peak and players like Aramis Ramirez, Norichika Aoki and Rickie Weeks aren't going to get better, it makes sense for the Brewers to go for it now.
The Texas Rangers failed in their attempt to bring back Josh Hamilton or to sign Zack Greinke. OK, maybe failed is the wrong word. Maybe the Rangers just drew a line on what they were willing to pay and wouldn't cross it.

But Kyle Lohse is still out there and the Rangers theoretically have a rotation slot open behind Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando. I say theoretically, because the Rangers still have Colby Lewis, who is expected to return in the second half after elbow surgery. They also have Robbie Ross, who pitched out of the bullpen as a rookie in 2012. They have highly touted prospect Martin Perez, or at least the one-time highly touted Martin Perez.

So they have options. Their estimated payroll right now is $121 million, a little less than last year's $124 million. The Rangers' mega-TV deal with Fox Sports Southwest doesn't kick until 2015, a deal that will increase the Rangers' local TV revenue from about $20 million per year to $80 million. So -- theoretically -- the Rangers' payroll can increase in the future. Just maybe not this season.

That doesn't mean it can't. Accountants have a way of making the money work. Is Lohse worth whatever price tag it will take? Aside from the money, the first question: How much better would he be than Perez or Ross? (We'll leave Lewis out of the equation for now.) Certainly, Lohse has developed into a solid starter the past two seasons after years of mediocrity, thanks to impeccable command -- just 38 walks in 33 starts in 2012. He went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA and career-high 211 innings, all numbers that scream career season, but you never know, maybe at 34 he's hitting a little peak of effectiveness here. His strikeout percentage was also a career-best 16.6 percent, his walk percentage a career low and he's now posted back-to-back seasons with a .269 BABIP and .262 BABIP.

Still, we wouldn't project him to do that again, and certainly not in Texas, which is a much higher run-scoring environment than St. Louis. Plus you would be adding in the DH. On the other hand, he'd still get to face the Astros.

Last year, Lohse allowed 74 runs in 211 innings, or 3.2 per nine innings. I think we can conservatively add 15 runs to that total, or 3.8 per nine. Personally, I think that's a pretty low estimate. In 2011, he allowed 80 runs in 188 innings. Anyway, let's be optimistic about Lohse's future and give him those 211 innings again and project 89 runs allowed.

Perez first became a big prospect after a big 2009 season, most of it spent in Class A. He was young and polished and expected to make a quick rise from there to the majors. But he got hammered in Double-A in 2010, was a little better in 2011 and then posted a 4.25 ERA in Triple-A in 2012, but with a poor 69/52 SO/BB ratio in 127 innings. He also pitched 38 innings for the Rangers, making six starts and six relief appearances, and was ineffective with a 5.45 ERA. I'm not optimistic about his chances of becoming a good starter, but he doesn't turn 22 until April.

Ross had a fine season as a rookie in the Texas bullpen, going 6-0 with a 2.22 ERA. His peripherals aren't quite that good -- more like a pitcher with an ERA in the mid-3s -- but he showcased a good low-90s fastball/slider combo. He had very little time in the minors above Class A and would need to add a third pitch as a starter, so as with Perez, he's a question mark as a starter.

Let's say these two were given a shot to start and weren't that impressive -- allowing, say, 5.5 runs per nine innings. That's pretty bad, as bad as Perez in his short stint last year. Of course, they wouldn't throw 200 innings; more like 160. That's 98 runs allowed. We had Lohse at 89 runs in 211 innings. That means the bullpen has to throw an extra 50 innings; at four runs per nine (the Texas bullpen had a 3.99 ERA last year), that's about 22 additional runs. So the difference between Perez/Ross and Lohse would be about 31 runs -- which is worth about three wins -- plus the extra workload the bullpen would have to carry. Maybe that's an extra win that shows up in other ways.

SportsNation

If you were the Rangers, would you sign Kyle Lohse?

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    23%
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    37%
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    40%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,138)

I don't have to point out the meaning of four wins in the AL West; the Rangers know all too well the potential value of one win.

Now ... the numbers above are more like a best-case/worst-case scenario. Odds are the Rangers' fifth starters could do better, and Lohse could do worse. Maybe the spread is more like one win or two wins. In signing Lohse, the Rangers would also lose their first-round draft pick and the bonus money allotted to that pick in their draft budget. Not to mention the $15 million per year or whatever it will cost to sign him.

It wouldn't be an easy decision for general manager Jon Daniels. On the other hand, the Rangers are in win-now mode. Nelson Cruz is already declining, Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre aren't going to get better, and you should ride Darvish and Harrison while they're healthy. The window is now.

What do you do?
Roy HalladayAP PhotosLanding a star like Roy Halladay in the second half of the first round is a rare happening.
One of the big stories of the offseason has been what has happened to the nine free agents who received qualifying offers. Teams had to decide whether to offer their free agents a one-year, $13.3 million contract in order to receive draft-pick compensation if the player signed with another team. The nine players extended such an offer were Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, Hiroki Kuroda, David Ortiz, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse, Rafael Soriano and Adam LaRoche.

Hamilton and Greinke were the top two free agents on the market, Kuroda and Ortiz re-signed with the Yankees and Red Sox, respectively, and Swisher signed with Cleveland, which since it owns a protected top-10 pick, had to forfeit its second-round pick instead of a first-rounder. The other four players remain unsigned, and there has been speculation it's because they're tied to a draft pick -- but not so good, as in the case of Hamilton and Greinke, to entice a big contract . Of course, three of those players are Scott Boras clients, so there are mitigating factors here.

Anyway, it raises the question: What is a draft pick worth? If you're the Texas Rangers and you're interested in signing Bourn but would have to give up the 24th pick in the draft, do you still make the plunge?

I went back to all drafts since 1990 to determine the value of each pick, 11 through 30. That's 23 drafts worth of first-rounders. The draft began in 1965, but rules have changed through the years, scouting has improved (high school players were overdrafted in the early years, for example) and by 1990, the college game was fully mature. So let's start there.

Using Baseball-Reference.com, we can add up the total Wins Above Replacement for each draft slot. I divided by 20 to get an average value per slot -- obviously, most players from the past three drafts have yet to reach the majors. Certainly, that average will go up as players accumulate value, but it does give us a decent estimate of what to expect from each slot.

11. Total WAR: 50.4 (2.5 per player)
Best picks: Andrew McCutchen, Max Scherzer, Shawn Estes, Neil Walker
In the minors: George Springer

Until the Pirates tabbed McCutchen in 2005, journeyman lefty Estes had been the best player with the 11th pick, making this sort of the black hole of draft positions. Other than Scherzer, there is little else on the horizon, as recent picks like Justin Smoak and Tyler Matzek haven't developed.

12. Total WAR: 179.2 (9.0 per player)
Best picks: Nomar Garciaparra, Jered Weaver, Billy Wagner, Matt Morris, Jay Bruce
In the minors: Taylor Jungmann

Some good depth here as well with guys like Brett Myers, Joe Saunders and Doug Glanville. Wagner, Garciaparra and Morris were taken in 1993-95, all college players.

13. Total WAR: 150.8 (7.5 per player)
Best picks: Manny Ramirez, Paul Konerko, Aaron Hill, Chris Sale
In the minors: Brandon Nimmo

Manny accounts for 64.8 of that 150.8 WAR, or 43 percent.

14. Total WAR: 109.8 (5.5 per player)
Best picks: Derrek Lee, Cliff Floyd, Jason Varitek, Jason Heyward, Billy Butler
In the minors: Jose Fernandez

Heyward will end up as the best player on the list.

15. Total WAR: 113.8 (5.7 per player)
Best picks: Chase Utley, Chris Carpenter, Scott Kazmir, Stephen Drew
In the minors: Jed Bradley

It's a big drop after those top four players, as the fifth-most valuable has been spare outfielder Gabe Gross.

16. Total WAR: 120.8 (6.0 per player)
Best picks: Lance Berkman, Shawn Green, Nick Swisher, Brett Lawrie
In the minors: Lucas Giolito

Lawrie was a Brewers draft pick, traded to the Blue Jays for Shaun Marcum.

17. Total WAR: 127.3 (6.4 per player)
Best picks: Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Jeromy Burnitz, Brad Lidge
In the minors: C.J. Cron

One Hall of Famer, one potential Hall of Famer, a closer who had a couple great years and not much else.

18. Total WAR: 15.1 (0.8 per player)
Best picks: R.A. Dickey, Ike Davis, Aaron Heilman
In the minors: Kaleb Cowart

And Dickey's value came after he had been let go by four different organizations.

19. Total WAR: 67.7 (3.4 per player)
Best picks: Alex Rios, Shannon Stewart, James Loney
In the minors: Shelby Miller

This is how difficult it is to extract value from the draft: James Loney was a good first-round pick.

20. Total WAR: 238.7 (11.9 per player)
Best picks: Mike Mussina, CC Sabathia, Torii Hunter, Adam Kennedy, Denard Span
In the minors: Tyler Anderson

Two future Hall of Fame pitchers makes this the highest-rated slot here. However, the slot hasn't seen much productivity since Span was selected in 2002.

21. Total WAR: 56.6 (2.8 per player)
Best picks: Jason Varitek (did not sign), Jake Westbrook, Ian Kennedy
In the minors: Lucas Sims

We're counting Varitek in the above total, although the Twins failed to sign him.

22. Total WAR: 94.1 (4.7 per player)
Best picks: Jayson Werth, Rick Helling, Jeremy Guthrie, Gil Meche, Matt Thornton
In the minors: Kolten Wong

If we go back before 1990, we get Craig Biggio (1987) and Rafael Palmeiro (1985).

23. Total WAR: 79.1 (4.0 per player)
Best picks: Jason Kendall, Aaron Sele, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jeff Francoeur, Phil Hughes
In the minors: Christian Yelich

Whatever happened to Bubba Crosby?

24. Total WAR: 51.3 (2.6 per player)
Best picks: Rondell White, Chad Billingsley, Joe Blanton
In the minors: Taylor Guerrieri

No. 4 on the list of best picks: Brian Bogusevic. As you can see, getting value is becoming far less likely the lower you go.

25. Total WAR: 58.4 (2.9 per player)
Best picks: Matt Cain, Mike Trout, Matt Garza, Bobby Crosby
In the minors: Joe Ross

Well, OK, then you have Cain and Trout. The odds are slim, but those two names are why teams are reluctant to give up any first-round pick, even one in the 20s, even knowing it's dumb luck as much as anything.

26. Total WAR: 8.7 (0.4 per player)
Best picks: Brent Gates, Jeremy Bonderman, Kelly Wunsch
In the minors: Blake Swihart

This might be the first and only time you'll see Kelly Wunsch's name appear in this blog.

27. Total WAR: 6.6 (0.3 per player)
Best picks: Rick Porcello, Sergio Santos, Joey Devine
In the minors: Nick Franklin

Hey, back in 1967, the A's got Vida Blue here.

28. Total WAR: 54.9 (2.7 per player)
Best picks: Charles Johnson, Colby Rasmus, Daric Barton, Ben Revere
In the minors: Gerrit Cole (did not sign)

Cole, now in the Pirates system after going first overall in 2011, was originally drafted by the Yankees.

29. Total WAR: 46.9 (2.3 per player)
Best picks: Adam Wainwright, Jay Payton, Carlos Quentin
In the minors: Joe Panik

Wainwright is one of many recent first-rounders the Braves selected out of Georgia, but they traded him as a minor leaguer to the Cardinals for J.D. Drew.

30. Total WAR: 18.4 (0.9 per player)
Best picks: Noah Lowry, Jack Cust, Russ Johnson
In the minors: Casey Kelly

Best 30th pick of all time: Mike Schmidt.

* * * *

What conclusions can we draw from all this? Since 1990, we're talking 459 players who have been drafted 11th to 30th (with Jason Varitek being drafted twice). The number of "star" players is about 30 -- or less than one in 10, even allowing for those yet to develop.

Most of these picks don't reach the majors or reach it only for a cup of coffee. Some have a a year or two of limited value. Some turn into decent journeyman-type players like Joe Saunders or Joe Blanton. But few accumulate even 10 career WAR. If you sign Michael Bourn to a 4-year or 5-year contract, you'll almost certainly receive that in value (while paying a premium for that value).

Certainly having a pick closer to 10th is more valuable than having a pick closer to 30th. This arguably points to an inequity with the current rules. The Mariners, for example, have the 12th pick in this year's draft. They could be interested in Bourn (and have money to spend), but losing the 12th pick is a lot different than the Rangers losing the 24th pick. Basically, the system helps the teams that are already good (a group that tends to lean towards teams with deeper pockets) since picks late in the first round rarely produce significant big league talent; the system also helps protect the bad teams since they won't lose their first-round pick.

Of course, there is no perfect system. But if I'm the Rangers and if paying Bourn isn't the ultimate issue, I wouldn't worry about losing that first-round pick. Odds are that player isn't Mike Trout or Matt Cain anyway.

Forget-me-nots for the missing men of 2012

December, 27, 2012
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Say you’re a team that has a problem, like losing an everyday player to free agency. Market solutions tend to be expensive, whether in cash spent or prospects dealt. But some teams already have potential solutions for their seeming offseason needs on hand, thanks to the return of players who missed most or all of 2012. As a result, they haven’t had to lift a finger to fix what might have appeared to be a problem.

Consider the Cardinals’ lot with Kyle Lohse headed to parts unknown for whatever the market will bear. Their rotation isn’t simply going to be fine, it could be better because former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter should be firing on all cylinders this season. If the Cardinals decide to hold onto fellow Cy-worthy ace Adam Wainwright, they’ll have that tandem together again for the first time since 2010, a daunting prospect for any NL Central challenger.

So, with a hat-tip to Simple Minds’ song, “Don’t You Forget About Me,” here’s a non-comprehensive list of guys who missed most of 2012 who you shouldn’t forget will be back in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDelmon Young
Harry How/Getty ImagesIn 2013, the Tigers will swap the at-bats of Delmon Young for those of Victor Martinez.
It wasn’t that long ago that Victor Martinez ranked as a premium producer as a catcher, first baseman and DH for the Indians and Red Sox. Certainly, that’s what the Tigers signed him up for when they gave him a four-year, $50 million deal after 2010. But after just one season (and an .850 OPS), Martinez missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL in his knee. Torii Hunter's addition might have commanded the early-winter headlines, but V-Mart may be the biggest (re)addition to the lineup, filling the at-bat gap left by the unlamented departure of Delmon Young while providing an upgrade on offense. If V-Mart and Prince split the playing time across first base and the DH slot, the Tigers would also spare themselves’ Prince’s leaden glovework as an everyday disaster. Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projects Victor Martinez to produce a .770 OPS; not great, but a big improvement on Young’s .707 in 2012.

Carl Crawford is a bit of a gimme for that name outfielder you don’t want to forget about. (As if.) Having injured and reinjured himself in Boston trying to make up for an ugly first season with the Red Sox, he was dealt to the Dodgers after already getting shut down. He’s expecting to be ready in time for Opening Day. Could he yet prove to be worth the $20 million per year so many sabermetricians confidently accepted as his value when he signed his monster deal with the Red Sox? Well, that’s a bit much, especially if he lives up -- or more appropriately down -- to his ZiPS-projected .746 OPS.

Behind the plate, the guy I’m most interested in seeing back in action after a too-long absence is Wilson Ramos of the Nationals. His .779 OPS in 2011 makes a great basis for projecting him to be an All-Star catcher. The Nats are publicly going through the rigmarole of saying Ramos will have to come back from his torn ACL and fight Kurt Suzuki for playing time, but that’s one of those low-threshold challenges -- Ramos should win, and soon thereafter, he’ll be a star.

Top prospects on the mend also deserve some mention here, because their absence in 2012 doesn’t mean their teams forgot about them for 2013. Joe Benson missed most of the season with injuries to his wrist and knee, but he’ll head into spring training with a shot at winning the Twins’ center-field job outright in head-to-head competition with Aaron Hicks. The Rays’ Brandon Guyer missed most of 2012 with a shoulder injury, but the rose-colored view of his power and contact-hitting skills might make you think he could hit upwards towards .300 and slug in the high .400s from an outfield corner or the DH slot, making it that much easier to leave Wil Myers in Durham to keep the service-time clock of the former top Royals prospect acquired for James Shields at zero.

[+] EnlargeIan Stewart, Bryan LaHair
David Banks/US PresswireEven an average season from Ian Stewart, right, would give the Cubs a slash-line bump at third.
Among relievers, Mariano Rivera gets pride of place, but there’s been plenty said about him already; it isn’t like the future Hall of Famer slipped off anyone’s radar after a season spent on the shelf. Instead, I’m thinking we shouldn’t forget Sergio Santos and his importance to the Blue Jays. Santos is expected to be 100 percent by Opening Day in his recovery from surgery on his labrum, and that’s a big part of the reason why the hyperactive Jays have yet to make any major moves to repair their ’pen this winter.

I’m also curious about Nick Masset of the Reds, and if he can return to be a solid set-up man. Worth a win per year out of the pen in 2009 and 2010, Masset started to melt down in 2011 before getting his torn right shoulder capsule repaired after missing all of 2012. If he’s back at full strength, he might be the perfect right-handed foil to Sean Marshall for handing off save opportunities to Jonathan Broxton. It certainly wouldn’t hurt their latest attempt at keeping Aroldis Chapman in the rotation.

As I touched on last year when Theo Epstein signed him, Ian Stewart wasn’t necessarily a great bet to thrive at the plate by moving closer to sea level as an ex-Rockie. That said, Stewart’s wrist surgery ended his season more than three months early, contributing to the Cubs’ woeful .201/.289/.322 cumulative line from their third basemen. Even a dead-cat bounce from Stewart would be better than that. What was good enough to try in 2012 seems worth dialing up a do-over for 2013.

At second base, Brian Roberts of the Orioles might seem the name to know: A premium leadoff hitter with career .356 OBP in the top slot, and someone playing at an up-the-middle position? This sounds exactly like the guy the O’s need considering the .293 OBP they got from the top two slots in 2012. Unfortunately, Roberts hasn’t played a full season since 2009, and between his 2011 concussion and his 2012 surgery to repair the labrum in his hip, he’s going to be tough to count on. So instead, let’s peg Scott Sizemore of the Athletics as the second baseman you shouldn’t forget about. He’s coming back from a torn ACL, once he escaped the Tigers his combination of power and patience produced at .778 OPS for Oakland in 2011, and he’s reportedly moving back to the keystone this spring.

Honorable mentions are legion, especially among pitchers: Japan’s Tsuyoshi Wada might finally make his Orioles debut and win a rotation slot after missing his rookie season with Tommy John surgery; John Lackey will have plenty to prove after an ugly 2011 intro to Red Sox Nation (6.41 ERA), but if more closely resembles the mid-rotation workhorse he was with the Angels, their shot at keeping up in the AL East looks much more realistic. And from among the arms expected back for the second half, Michael Pineda for the Yankees, Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz for the Rangers, Daniel Hudson for the D-backs and the Braves’ Brandon Beachy should all make an impact on the postseason picture.

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

Power rankings: All 30 teams!

December, 22, 2012
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Last weekend, I presented the top 10 teams in my personal power rankings. That was before the Blue Jays officially acquired R.A. Dickey, so I updated my top 10 after that trade, and, to spur on more debate, now present the rest of my rankings. Agree or disagree, but I do think this is the most parity we've seen in a long time. It's why the Orioles and A's were able to surprise this past season and why we will undoubtedly see another surprise team in 2013. It's a great time to be a baseball fan.

1. Nationals
Most talented rotation in the majors, deep lineup, depth. Re-signing Adam LaRoche to add another lefty power bat will help.

2. Reds
Superb rotation could be better if the Aroldis Chapman transition works, bullpen is deep enough to absorb his loss and Shin-Soo Choo provides a needed leadoff hitter.

3. Yankees
I think they can stretch things out more season with a deep rotation, excellent bullpen and power. Remember, they had the largest run differential in the American League last season.

4. Tigers
Deep rotation, great 1-2 punch with Miggy and Prince, and Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez should improve the lineup.

5. Braves
Left-handed power, power bullpen and a young team that could improve from last year's 94 wins.

6. Blue Jays
Addition of Dickey adds a needed No. 1 to a rotation that could be dominant if Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow remain healthy.

7. A's
Young teams that show big improvement are usually for real, and this team has a solid rotation, a strong outfield and power arms in the bullpen.

8. Dodgers
Have to love the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke combo and an offense with big upside if Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez come close to 2011 levels.

9. Rangers
I think the rotation is playoff-caliber with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Martin Perez and Colby Lewis.

SportsNation

Which of these five teams should be No. 1 right now?

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Discuss (Total votes: 35,031)

10. Cardinals
Have to replace Kyle Lohse, but they'll score plenty of runs as long as Carlos Beltran (36 years old in April) and Matt Holliday (33 in January) keep producing.

11. Rays
Still some holes in the lineup, and replacing James Shields' 220-plus innings won't be that easy, but underestimate the Rays at your own risk.

12. Angels
Oddsmaker Bovada.lv has the Angels with the second-best odds to win the World Series (behind the Blue Jays), but I see a rotation with a lot of question marks behind Jered Weaver, and Josh Hamilton only replaces Hunter, who was terrific in 2012.

13. Giants
I discussed my issues with the Giants here. I could be wrong, although our friends at Bovada only put the Giants tied for ninth in their World Series odds.

14. Diamondbacks
Their run differential wasn't much different than the Giants last year, and they've added Brandon McCarthy, infield depth and still have Justin Upton.

15. Phillies
I want to say we're all underestimating a team that includes Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, but then I see an outfield of Darin Ruf, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown, and an infield defense that includes Michael Young and Ryan Howard and 30-somethings Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.

16. Brewers
They can score runs -- most in the National League last season -- and if the bullpen regroups after 2012's gruesome late-inning efforts, this team could surprise.

17. Red Sox
There will be no expectations after the disaster in 2012 (the franchise's worst record since 1965), but I see a big rebound coming.

18. Royals
I'll buy -- but I'm not buying a playoff spot. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have to take huge leaps forward ... or the Royals could be headed for another rebuild.

19. Orioles
Last season's 93-win playoff team provided a beautiful ride, but the Orioles haven't added that big bat they need.

20. Padres
Young team is moving in the right direction after winning 76 games in 2012. Can rotation improve to push Pads over .500?

21. Mariners
Mariners have pursued a big bat all offseason but were only able to pick up Kendrys Morales, and he cost them Jason Vargas, opening up a 200-inning hole in the rotation. Looks like 2014 before Mariners can make a push in the tough AL West.

22. Pirates
Still no No. 1 or even No. 2 starter (sorry, A.J. Burnett is a No. 3 at best) and not enough support for Andrew McCutchen. One of these years, Pirates fans, one of these years.

23. White Sox
No A.J. Pierzynski, a declining Paul Konerko, good year/off year Alex Rios due for an off year. Then again, White Sox had a bigger run differential in 2012 than the Tigers.

24. Cubs
Rotation of Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman could be competitive, but offense won't be.

25. Mets
At least Mets fans can dream of a future rotation that includes Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese and Noah Syndergaard. Unfortunately, the 2013 version still includes Frank Francisco and a bunch of fourth outfielders.

26. Marlins
Giancarlo Stanton still makes this team worth watching on a daily basis.

27. Indians
Getting Trevor Bauer in the Choo deal added a much-needed starting pitcher prospect. Unfortunately, much of the rest of rotation remains suspect.

28. Twins
Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey ... what, Rich Robertson and Sean Bergman weren't available?

29. Rockies
At least the Twins have a direction as they wait for young position players to reach the majors. I have no clue what the Rockies are doing, intend to do, want to do, wish to do or hope to achieve.

30. Astros
Welcome to the AL West, boys.

Five crazy free-agent ideas

November, 3, 2012
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Keith Law unveiled his list of the top 50 free agents and, as you can see, it filters out pretty quickly. Truth is teams are doing a good job these days of locking up their young stars to long-term contracts, so you just don't see the number of premium free agents like you once did. Next year's potential free-agent class looks even thinner than this year's, so considering national TV revenue more than doubles to $50 million per team starting in 2014, I expect this year's crop of free agents to receive some generous deals that will surprise us in their outlays.

As the saying goes, it only takes one.

With that said ... let's have a little fun. Here's a list of potential free-agent signings that are off the radar -- but actually make sense.

1. Zack Greinke and Nick Swisher to the Mariners.

The Mariners have only Felix Hernandez signed beyond 2013, so they have a young team with considerable payroll flexibility. They have a farm system with several highly rated prospects who could debut sometime in 2013 -- pitchers Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, catcher Mike Zunino and shortstop Nick Franklin. They have a local TV contract that pays $45 million a year but which they can opt out of after 2015 and probably get another $25 million or so. What they don't have right now is a team worth watching, let alone one that can contend with the Rangers, Angels and A's.

The Mariners aren't Kansas City or Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay -- this is a franchise that has spent in the past and drawn large crowds when successful. Ownership needs to makes some impact signings. It needs to make this team interesting and give fans hope. Spend and spend big. The rotation is thin behind Hernandez and Jason Vargas. The Mariners need an outfielder and first baseman. Greinke fits in perfectly behind Hernandez, in a media market more to his suiting and without the pressure of being a No. 1. Swisher provides some power and on-base skills and can play right field or first base. Plus, if you sign Greinke and re-sign Hisashi Iwakuma, maybe you trade one of those pitching prospects for another bat. And keep Greinke away from the Angels or Rangers.

2. Kyle Lohse and Anibal Sanchez to the Twins.

The Twins had a historically awful rotation in 2012, one that posted a 5.40 ERA that, when adjusted for the league average, made it one of the worst of all time. The offense has a solid foundation with Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau, Ryan Doumit, Denard Span, Ben Revere and Trevor Plouffe. What they need, of course, is some pitching and Lohse and Sanchez fit the bill. Lohse is a former Twin who fits the classic Twins pitcher profile -- a guy who throws strikes. Sanchez's control took a big leap forward in 2012 and he showed he can succeed in the American League.

Remember, these are not the Twins of a decade ago. They spent $113 million on payroll in 2011 and $100 million in 2012. They drew more than 3 million fans in 2010 and 2011 and 2.7 million in 2012. And despite the $23 million per season owed to Mauer through 2018, the payroll is in decent shape, especially once Morneau's $15 million is off the books after 2013.

[+] EnlargeAngel Pagan
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAngel Pagan could fill gaps in the Reds' offense and defense ... and the Giants could fill the outfield hole with Josh Hamilton.
3. Angel Pagan to the Reds.

The Reds would like to re-sign left fielder Ryan Ludwick, but the outfielder they need to pursue is Pagan. Dusty Baker loves Drew Stubbs' defense in center field, but Stubbs has become so ineffective against right-handed pitching that he's really nothing more than a platoon guy now.

Pagan fills the three primary holes for the Reds: a better center fielder, a leadoff hitter and a left-handed/switch-hitter to help balance all the right-handed bats in the Cincinnati lineup. The Reds have to give Joey Votto a $7.5 million increase in 2013, but his $19 million drops back to $12 million in 2014 (before rising again). But they've axed $14 million worth of Scott Rolen and Ryan Madson. It's a tight squeeze, but this is a team that can win it all with just a move or two. Pagan should be that move.

4. Josh Hamilton to the Giants.

Who will spend the money on Hamilton? Why not the defending champs? If any hitter can hit the ball out of AT&T Park, it's Hamilton. With Pagan heading over to the Reds and Hunter Pence a non-tender possibility, the Giants will need an outfielder. Hamilton fits perfectly, especially since the Giants can let Gregor Blanco play center field and put Hamilton in a corner. Remember, this team had huge production from Melky Cabrera that it will need to replace.

Money? Shouldn't be a problem. This is a team that ranked second in the National League in attendance the past two years and has drawn 3 million all but two years since moving into AT&T Park in 2000. Long-term contract issues aren't a problem, especially with Barry Zito's deal down to one year and Tim Lincecum signed only through 2013. That's $40 million off the books by 2014. You can give Hamilton a lower salary in 2013 and then have it escalate. Plus: A 3-4-5 of Hamilton, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval would look awfully sweet.

5. Melky Cabrera to the Rangers.

With Hamilton possibly on his way out and Nelson Cruz in decline, the Rangers need to rearm in the outfield, although moving Ian Kinsler there is a possibility with infield prospect Jurickson Profar ready for the majors. The Rangers could take advantage of what will likely be an underrated asset because of his suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs and sign Cabrera to a one-year deal with a club option for 2014.

Signing Cabrera would allow the Rangers to play defensive whiz Craig Gentry more regularly in center and let David Murphy handle regular designated-hitter duties in place of the Veteran Formerly Known As Michael Young. It's a win-win situation for both parties.
Heading into the offseason, the top free-agent starting pitchers looked to be Zack Greinke, Kyle Lohse and Jake Peavy, assuming the Chicago White Sox didn't pick up a $22 million option on Peavy.

Peavy
The White Sox didn't exercise that option, as they made a different move: They signed Peavy to a two-year, $29 million extension, making the already-sparse starting pitching market a little more sparse. It looks like one of those win-win moves: The White Sox get Peavy for a more cost-effective $33 million (including the $4 million buyout of his existing contract) and Peavy stays in a place where he wanted to play.

The White Sox also announced that they declined options on Kevin Youkilis and Brett Myers while picking up the $9.5 million option on Gavin Floyd, giving the White Sox a 2013 rotation of Chris Sale, Peavy, Floyd, John Danks and Jose Quintana or Philip Humber. Even with Danks making just nine starts due to surgery to repair a tendon tear (he's expected to be ready for spring training), the White Sox finished with a 4.15 ERA from their rotation, seventh-best in the American League but a solid figure considering U.S. Cellular Park is one of the best hitting parks in the league.

Peavy was a big reason the White Sox battled the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central title, the right-hander going 11-12 with a 3.37 ERA that ranked ninth in the AL. He also ranked fifth in innings pitched, helping give him 5.0 WAR, sixth-best among AL pitchers. The caveat: It was the first time he topped 200 innings since 2007 and the first season since 2008 he surpassed even 112 innings. His long medical history certainly suggests this isn't a risk-free deal for the White Sox.

The surgery he had in 2010 to reattach a tendon in his shoulder was the first time the surgery had been performed on a baseball player, but Peavy told ESPNChicago.com during the 2012 season that he was a different pitcher than in recent seasons, "worrying about game planning, not sitting in the trainer's room the whole time in between days."

If Peavy and Danks can stay healthy, it's certainly a rotation that can contend for a division title. Next up for the White Sox: Possibly re-signing Youkilis and free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who hit .278 with 27 home runs in 2012.
The Cardinals and Giants haven't exactly played a series for the ages -- not with scores of 7-1, 8-3, 5-0 and 6-1 and no one-run games. We haven't had a tie score past three innings and every game ended up decided by the fourth. But we have a Game 7 and there's nothing in sports like the pressure and intensity of a Game 7.

If the trend of the first six games continues, the early innings will thus be important and the two managers can't let the game get away early. Kyle Lohse and Matt Cain are the starters and it's that rare Game 7 where each team's ace draws the start. Still, I expect Mike Matheny and Bruce Bochy to have a fairly early hook on their starters, although Matheny has a little deeper bullpen to employ.

Will we get a classic Game 7? Can the Giants become the seventh team to win a league championship series after trailing three games to one? Check out Buster Olney's list of the 18 greatest Game 7s (including World Series and LCS) and Mark Simon's piece on some of the keys to the game.

Meanwhile, here's a quick look back at the past 10 Game 7s.

[+] EnlargeChris Carpenter
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonChris Carpenter and the Cardinals were all smiles after their last Game 7 performance.
2011 World Series: Cardinals 6, Rangers 2
Starters: Chris Carpenter versus Matt Harrison
Key hit: David Freese two-run double in first to tie score.
Key move: With the Cards up 3-2 in the fifth, Ron Washington intentionally walked Freese to load the bases with two outs. Scott Feldman walked Yadier Molina to force in one run and then C.J. Wilson hit Rafael Furcal to force in another. The Cardinals scored two runs -- without getting a hit.
Rating: One star. Little drama and that ugly fifth inning that featured three walks and two hit batters.

2008 ALCS: Rays 3, Red Sox 1
Starters: Matt Garza versus Jon Lester
Key hit: Willy Aybar's home run in the seventh gives Tampa a two-run cushion.
Key move: Boston's roster construction left no good right-handed bat off the bench. Rookie David Price fanned J.D. Drew with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth and Mark Kotsay struck out against Price in the ninth.
Rating: Three stars. The Rays used five pitchers to get through the eighth inning, with Price eventually picking up his first major league save.

2007 ALCS: Red Sox 11, Indians 2
Starters: Daisuke Matsuzaka versus Jake Westbrook
Key hit: Dustin Pedroia's two-run homer in seventh off Rafael Betancourt gives Red Sox a 5-2 lead. They add six more runs in the eighth.
Key move: Terry Francona pulled Dice-K after five innings -- even though in atypical Dice-K fashion he hadn't walked a batter. Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon each threw two scoreless innings.
Rating: Two stars. Close game until Red Sox blew it open late.

2006 NLCS: Cardinals 3, Mets 1
Starters: Jeff Suppan versus Oliver Perez
Key hit: Yadier Molina's two-run homer off Aaron Heilman in the ninth.
Key move: Tied 1-1 in the sixth, the Mets put runners at second and third with one out after a walk and throwing error. Tony La Russa had Suppan intentionally walk Shawn Green. Jose Valentin struck out and Endy Chavez flied out.
Rating: Four stars. From Perez as the unlikely Game 7 starter (he had a 6.55 ERA that year) to Chavez's all-time great catch to rob Scott Rolen of a home run to Adam Wainwright striking out Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded to end it, this game was full of suspense all the way.

2004 ALCS: Red Sox 10, Yankees 3
Starters: Derek Lowe versus Kevin Brown
Key hit: Johnny Damon's grand slam off Javier Vazquez in the second.
Key move: After scrambling to win the three previous games to force a seventh game, Terry Francona has to start Lowe on two days' rest and he delivers six one-hit innings.
Rating: Three stars. It wasn't a great game as the Sox blew out the Yanks early, but the history involved made it a dramatic finale.

2004 NLCS: Cardinals 5, Astros 2
Starters: Jeff Suppan versus Roger Clemens
Key hit: Scott Rolen's two-out, two-run homer in the sixth gave the Cardinals a 4-2 lead.
Key move: Roger Cedeno pinch hits for Suppan leading off the sixth and starts a three-run rally.
Rating: Three stars. All three runs in the sixth came with two outs as Albert Pujols hit an RBI double ahead of Rolen's homer.

2003 ALCS: Yankees 6, Red Sox 5 (11)
Starters: Roger Clemens versus Pedro Martinez
Key hit: Aaron Boone wins it with a home run off Tim Wakefield.
Key move: Grady Little leaves in a tiring Martinez to throw 123 pitches as the Yankees tie it with three runs in the eighth.
Rating: Five stars. On the short list of greatest games ever played. Who can forget the tears in Joe Torre's eyes as he huggged Mariano Rivera?

2003 NLCS: Marlins 9, Cubs 6
Starters: Mark Redman versus Kerry Wood
Key hit: Ivan Rodriguez doubles in a run to help set up a three-run inning as the Marlins take a 6-5 lead in the fifth.
Key move: Jack McKeon brings in Josh Beckett, the Game 5 starter, and he pitches four innings of one-hit, one-run relief.
Rating: Three stars. Everybody remembers Game 6, but few remember that the Cubs had a lead in this one as well.

2002 World Series: Angels 4, Giants 1
Starters: John Lackey versus Livan Hernandez
Key hit: Garret Anderson's bases-loaded double in the third plates three runs and gives Angels a 4-1 lead.
Key move: Hernandez had been bombed in Game 3 and some felt Dusty Baker should have started Kirk Rueter (who would pitch four scoreless innings in relief).
Rating: Two stars. Angels win only title but no runs are scored after the third inning.

2001 World Series: Diamondbacks 3, Yankees 2
Starters: Curt Schilling versus Roger Clemens
Key hit: Luis Gonzalez's blooper wins it but Tony Womack's double down the right-field line tied it up.
Key move: After Mark Grace leads off the ninth with a single, Mariano Rivera fields a bunt and instead of taking the easy out at first base, tries for the out at second and throws the ball away. Rivera has made only six errors in the regular season in his career.
Rating: Five stars. This game had it all -- two potential Hall of Fame starters, all the drama leading up to it and then the unlikely Game 7 comeback.

Hey, why not? Let’s play another fifth game. There’s no such thing as too much baseball.

Jayson Werth saw 13 pitches from Lance Lynn leading off the bottom of the ninth. After taking the first two fastballs for strikes, he fouled off seven pitches and worked the count full. On the 13th pitch, Lynn fired a 96 mph fastball down the middle and Werth crushed it into the bullpen in left-center for the game-winning home run. It was a 2-1 victory for the Washington Nationals and the first home playoff win for a team in our nation’s capital since Earl Whitehill pitched a shutout for the Senators in Game 3 of the 1933 World Series at Griffith Stadium.

That Washington team featured guys named Buddy, Goose, Heinie, Ossie, Lefty and General. This one features guys named Jayson, Jordan, Bryce and Ian. It’s a different generation and this club wants to leave its mark. It believes it’s the best team in baseball, but in the previous two games had looked more like the 2009 Nationals than the 2012 version.

The Nationals would get only three hits in this game, but two were home runs -- Adam LaRoche hit one in the second inning off Kyle Lohse. With Jim Joyce’s rather liberal strike zone behind the plate, pitchers on both teams dominated. The Cardinals had only three hits of their own and Nationals relievers struck out eight batters in a row at one point. When Matt Holliday was called out on a pitch several inches outside the strike zone in the eighth, he simply turned around and laughed as he headed back to the dugout.

It came down to Werth versus Lynn -- pitching out of the bullpen after winning 18 games as a starter. As a starter he works 91-94, with two fastballs, a curveball and an occasional changeup or slider. Out of the bullpen, where he pitched in last year’s World Series run, he mainly works fastball/curveball.

He threw 10 fastballs in the showdown, three curves. He missed outside the zone with two curves; Werth fouled one off. Maybe he could have pulled the string with a 3-2 changeup, but you also don’t want to walk the leadoff man. Lynn challenged him. Werth delivered.

"I felt pretty good going into the at-bat," Werth said. Referring to his former teammate with the Phillies, he added, "Watching my boy Raul Ibanez do it last night, he gave me something tonight."

Werth began the season batting in the middle of the Nationals’ lineup but then broke his left wrist in early May. Returning in August, he eventually settled into the leadoff position, filling a void the team needed. Werth’s .387 OBP led the team and while he hit only five home runs -- the wrist injury may have affected his power -- he hit .300, got on base and cut down on his strikeouts. After whiffing 160 times in 2011, he cut his strikeout rate from 24.7 percent to 16.6 percent. You saw the ability to hang in during at-bats against Lynn.

The Nationals got a terrific effort from Ross Detwiler, who threw 104 pitches and allowed just an unearned run over six innings, after throwing 100 pitches in a game just once all season. Game 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann struck out the side in the seventh, Tyler Clippard struck out the side in the eighth and Drew Storen got two more in the ninth, with Ian Desmond making a nice running catch of a blooper in the Bermuda Triangle area near the left-field line to retire the side.

You can question whether Mike Matheny should have gone to Lynn. Mitchell Boggs, in relief of Lohse, had thrown just 14 pitches in the eighth. Lynn had thrown 50 pitches on Tuesday and gave up two home runs. In a game where runs were nearly impossible to come by, perhaps Matheny should have soaked one more inning out of Boggs and then turned it over to closer Jason Motte in the 10th, leaving Lynn for later in the game if it stretched out that far.

We now get a Game 1 rematch of Adam Wainwright and Gio Gonzalez. Obviously, Gonzalez can’t walk seven batters again. He’ll have to get through all that right-handed power in the St. Louis lineup, but Gonzalez’s curveball makes him a tough reverse platoon lefty -- right-handers hit just .199 off him this season. All hands will be on deck. Zimmermann threw just 12 pitches, Clippard 16. Storen threw 26, so he’s probably available for just one inning. The Cardinals are similarly well-rested. Don't be surprised to see rookie Trevor Rosenthal, who was throwing 99 mph cheese on Wednesday, at some point.

More baseball? Let's do it.

The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t your typical 88-win team. When you go through their roster, it’s difficult to find obvious holes. The lineup was second in the league in runs scored. The pitching staff allowed the fifth-fewest runs in the league and features Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright and now Chris Carpenter, who returned late in the season. The bullpen features a bunch of power arms in 18-game winner Lance Lynn, moved from the rotation, plus Mitchell Boggs and closer Jason Motte.

So, yes, the Washington Nationals won 10 more games during the regular season, but they weren’t the overwhelming favorite to win the series, especially considering the Cards’ status as defending World Series champs.

Before the series, I penciled Game 2 as the key game for the Nationals. It was the one game for which they had the obvious pitching advantage on paper, sending Jordan Zimmermann (good season) against Jaime Garcia (so-so season, although better in September). As it turns out, Garcia had to leave after two innings, but with Lynn sitting in the bullpen, Mike Matheny had a good option to go to.

Unlike in Game 1, the Cardinals didn’t miss their scoring opportunities in this game, routing Zimmermann and a slew of relievers in a 12-4 victory to lock up the series at a win apiece. Zimmermann usually is a good bet to deliver a quality start -- he did so in 24 of his 32 starts – and he allowed five runs or more just twice all season. One was a five-run game against the Marlins, but the other was an eight-run blowup on Sept. 1 against the Cardinals. A lot will be made of whether the Cardinals own Zimmermann, but I’d just chalk it up to small-sample-size fluke for now.

What isn’t a fluke is that the Cardinals now arguably have the edge in starting pitching for the next three games:

Game 3: Chris Carpenter (0-2, 3.71) versus Edwin Jackson (10-11, 4.03)
Game 4: Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86) versus Ross Detwiler (10-8, 3.40)
Game 5: Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94) versus Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89)

Yes, Carpenter is a bit of a wild card with only three regular-season starts under his belt. But there are pitchers who know how to grind out a postseason game like he can. But Matheny isn’t asking him to go deep into the game; even after using Lynn for three innings in Game 2 and four relievers, the bullpen is in fine shape. Lynn might be unavailable after throwing 50 pitches, but I guess this is why you carry 12 pitchers in a postseason series.

Meanwhile, Jackson is a definite wild card. He started four postseason games for the Cardinals last year. He won one, got knocked out after two innings in another and walked seven in his World Series start. Obviously, the Cardinals know him well, so they expect them to be patient and force Jackson to show he has his command.

Game 4 has to rate as another edge for the Cards; Lohse had a quiet, underrated campaign and doesn’t seem likely to blow up. Detwiler is likewise an underrated pitcher, a lefty with a good power sinker who generates a lot of ground ball outs. But he’s also a guy with a big platoon split: .170 against lefties, .263 versus righties. The Cardinals, of course, are predominately right-handed.

And in a potential Game 5, it’s back to the Game 1 starters. One of them walked seven batters in that game and the other one didn’t.

After reading through all that: Don’t tell me the Nationals won’t miss Stephen Strasburg.

That doesn’t mean the Cardinals will win the series. The games will take place in Washington; the Nationals, despite the beating in Game 2, still have a good bullpen. They can score runs. I think they have a big edge in the dugout with Davey Johnson.

* * * *

Carlos Beltran added to his postseason legacy with two home runs. While Mets fans remember his strikeout looking against Wainwright for the final out in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, it’s fun to see Beltran back in the playoffs for the first time since that strikeout. With the Astros in 2004, he slugged eight home runs in 12 games; he now has 13 home runs in just 25 career postseason games. He had a red-hot first half before going through a big slump Aug. 15 through Sept. 21, when he hit .215 with one home run and six RBIs over 31 games. With a lineup that leans heavy to the right side with Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and David Freese, the switch-hitting Beltran essentially fills the role that Lance Berkman provided a year ago: that lefty power bat in the middle of the order.

If the Nationals are to win this series, they'll have to shut down Beltran. But if this game is a harbinger of things to come, Beltran just might help carry the Cards into the NLCS.


Well, that was insane.

Fans of the new system will say this is exactly the kind of excitement baseball needs.

Critics will suggest this game sums up everything that’s wrong with a one-game playoff series. One bad throw (or three), one mental error, one ... umm, one bad umpiring call shouldn’t knock you out of the postseason.

Did I say bad call? Atrocious? Abominable? Disgraceful? How do you properly sum up what happened in the bottom of the eighth inning when umpire Sam Holbrook raised his right arm and all hell broke loose?

If you watched the game, you know what happened: The Braves trailed the Cardinals 6-3 and had runners on first and second when Andrelton Simmons popped out to shallow left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma drifted about 70 feet beyond the infield dirt ... and suddenly peeled off, the ball plunking harmlessly onto the grass in front of Matt Holliday. The Braves had the bases loaded and the Ted was rocking with noise.

Except ... say it ain’t so. Holbrook called an infield fly rule, raising his arm right about the time Kozma peeled off. That meant Simmons was out, and Jason Motte would eventually escape the inning when he blew a 98-mph fastball past Michael Bourn with the bases loaded. The Braves got two more runners on in the ninth but Motte retired Dan Uggla to finish off the 6-3 victory.

But the whole complexion of the game changes if the Braves have the bases loaded with one out and Brian McCann up. Maybe the whole complexion of the postseason changes. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez protested the game, but the infield fly rule is a judgment call, even when the judgment is terrible.

Rule 2.00 refers to a ball that "could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder." It doesn’t mean the ball has to be in the infield. The rule is in place so an infielder can’t trick baserunners by purposely dropping a pop fly to turn a double play. In this case, Kozma was so far out in the outfield, a trick double play would have been an impossible and absurd feat to attempt.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez, Sam Holbrook
AP Photo/Todd KirklandFredi Gonzalez and the Braves played under protest after the infield-fly call by Sam Holbrook, right.
So Holbrook’s name will now go down in history alongside Don Denkinger and Richie Garcia, the umps on the Jorge Orta play in the 1985 World Series and the Jeffrey Maier/Derek Jeter home run in the 1996 American League Championship Series, respectively.

That play will tarnish the result of this game. Braves fans tarnished the game by littering the field with garbage, forcing a long delay as the Cardinals had to temporarily leave the field. And the wild-card round began its history with a game that will be long remembered.

* * * *

Controversy aside, the Braves played about as bad a game of baseball as you can play: Physical errors, mental errors, terrible managerial decisions. It was typical Bad News Braves in the playoffs; the franchise is now 9-20 in the postseason going back to the 2001 National League Championship Series and losers of seven consecutive playoff series if you include this one-game affair.

Sadly, with the big “10” carved into the outfield grass and the thunderous ovations he received each time he came to bat, Chipper Jones’ final game of his career will also be remembered for his crucial throwing error in the fourth inning.

Carlos Beltran had singled to lead off the inning, the first hit off Kris Medlen (whose streak of the Braves winning 23 consecutive games he started would end). Holliday drilled a one-hopper that Chipper snared -- an easy double-play ball. Except Chipper chucked the ball into right field. Allen Craig followed with an RBI double over Martin Prado’s head in left field. After an RBI groundout and sac fly, the Cardinals had three runs and a 3-2 lead instead of zero runs and a 2-0 deficit.

After a Holliday home run made it 4-2, the Braves fell apart again in the seventh inning. Uggla bobbled and then threw away David Freese’s routine grounder, putting Freese on second base. Mike Matheny pinch-ran speedster Adron Chambers, a key maneuver that would pay dividends moments later. A sac bunt moved Chambers to third.

Now, consider the situation if you’re the Braves: You’re down 4-2, with a runner on third with one out. Your season is on the line. You can’t afford to give up any more runs. What’s the best way to escape the jam? You need a strikeout. Do the Braves have a reliever like that? Anybody you can think of? Anybody who struck out 50 percent of the batters he faced this season, the highest rate in the history of major league baseball?

Did Gonzalez call on Craig Kimbrel? Nope. He brought on Chad Durbin, a pitcher who struck out 19 percent of the batters he faced. Durbin did induce Kozma to hit a grounder to Simmons at shortstop, but the rookie bobbled the ball and rushed his throw home (with the speedy Chambers running, he didn’t really have much of a chance once he bobbled the play), throwing wildly to let Kozma reach second. If Freese had been running, maybe Simmons doesn’t hurry the throw. That made it 5-2 and Matt Carpenter's infield single scored Kozma. After committing the fewest errors in the league during the season, the Braves made three in this game.

Another head-scratching move came in the bottom of the fourth when the Braves had runners at the corners with one out and Simmons -- the No. 8 hitter -- up. Gonzalez apparently called a safety squeeze. Simmons bunted in front of the plate -- slow-footed Freddie Freeman either missed the play (which is what the TBS broadcasters said Gonzalez told them) or decided not to run since the bunt was too close to the plate. On the resulting throw to first, Simmons ran too far inside the baseline and was ruled out for interference when the throw bounced off his head (it was clearly the correct call). Medlen struck out to end the threat.

This game goes down as the Holbrook Affair. Braves fans will forever blame the umps. In truth, the Braves have nobody to blame but themselves.

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