SweetSpot: Lance Berkman

I wrote about Lance Berkman and his Hall of Fame chances back in May 2012, when he first contemplated retirement following knee surgery while still with the Cardinals. He managed to return later that season for a few games and then had one more go in 2013 with the Rangers, but his knees finally got the best of him and he has officially announced his retirement: "It doesn't make sense to play in the physical condition I'm in," he told MLB.com.

Berkman's final career numbers: .293/.406/.537, 366 home runs, 1,234 RBIs, 51.8 WAR.

Great career. We'll miss you, Lance.

Berkman's final triple-slash line is pretty close to former teammate Jeff Bagwell, who finished at .297/.408/.540.

Back in 2012, I wrote:

Hall voters, of course, require a tough-to-dissect combination of peak value and career value. After struggling in 2010 with a knee injury, Berkman bounced back with a terrific 2011, hitting .301 with 31 homers. He had a great World Series, hitting .423, driving in five runs, scoring nine. The Cardinals won it all. In 52 career postseason games, his batting line is .317/.417/.532. I'll take that, thank you.

So where does that leave us?

A player who was one of the elite hitters of his generation.

Ten Hall of Fame-caliber seasons, plus a great partial season in 2000 (.297/.388/.561 in 114 games) and a not-so-great 2010.

A terrific postseason performer.

A player who didn't win an MVP award but fared well in the voting.

On the negative side: Not much defensive or baserunning value, a late career start (his first big year came at 25) and relatively low career totals.


Two years ago, I wrote that Berkman's 10 strong years was enough for me. Now, I'm not so sure. Back to Bagwell. Berkman's career WAR falls way below Bagwell's 79.5. Why? For starters, Bagwell played 271 more games. More of his career took place in the Astrodome, a pitcher's park, so the runs Bagwell created were worth more than the runs Berkman created at Minute Maid Field, where the run environment was higher. (Berkman played only 25 games in the Astrodome.) Bagwell has a big advantage on the bases as he was worth 31 runs above average while Berkman was 23 runs below average, a swing of about five wins of value. Bagwell was a terrific defender, Berkman wasn't.

Historically, the BBWAA favors longevity -- think Eddie Murray or Andre Dawson or Tony Perez -- over guys with higher peaks and shorter careers (think Dale Murphy, Edgar Martinez or Larry Walker). But does Berkman even compare to Martinez (68.3 WAR) or Walker (72.6 WAR)? His career WAR places him more in the Fred McGriff/Jeff Kent class in terms of value, and considering his relatively low totals of home runs and RBIs for a corner outfielder/first baseman (he did play more games in the outfield in his career), Berkman has virtually no chance to get elected via the BBWAA, even if he is a member of the all-interview team.

So check back in 25 years when he's up for consideration via the Veterans Committee.

* * * *

One final note: Should Berkman have remained a switch-hitter? In his career, he hit .304/.420/.575 from the left side, .260/.360/.417 from the right side. Left-handed batters do typically have a larger platoon split than right-handed batters -- on average, lefties produced about 32 points less of wOBA against left-handed pitchers than against right-handed pitchers. Berkman had .416 wOBA from the left side, .341 from the right side, a 75-point difference. It's possible he would have been better off just sticking to the left side. Of course, every individual is different, and Berkman obviously deduced he was still better off switch-hitting.

* * * *

The all-time switch-hitting team:

C -- Ted Simmons
1B -- Eddie Murray
2B -- Frankie Frisch or Roberto Alomar
3B -- Chipper Jones
SS -- Ozzie Smith (he actually has the highest career offensive WAR of any switch-hitting shortstop)
LF -- Tim Raines
CF -- Mickey Mantle
RF -- Carlos Beltran
DH -- Lance Berkman (hey, he was a DH for the Rangers)
UT -- Pete Rose
P -- Carlos Zambrano (hitting only)
Spring Training is awesome! The weather in Arizona and Florida (usually) rocks, the next generation of stars are on display, we get to see baseball being played after snowy months without it and ... what am I saying? By the end of March I can’t wait for the games to finally, mercifully, eventually count in real standings -- sorry, Kansas City Royals fans -- and now that day is nigh. The big Texas rivalry officially starts the 2013 season on Sunday night baseball on ESPN, so let’s go! It’s Friday, so here are five things you have to know for this weekend in baseball!

Bud Norris versus Matt Harrison!: Hope springs eternal, even in Houston where the goals are to build for 2019 (hopefully sooner) and avoid losing 100 games this year, just a bit different than that of the contender-ish Texas Rangers. Perhaps this isn’t an outstanding rivalry yet, but there’s certainly room for growth! Anyway, Norris has faced only two current Rangers, but current Astros are 0-for-18 against Harrison. Anyone else smell a no-hitter watch on Opening Day? Bob Feller (1940) would welcome Harrison to the club!

We’re not Joshing: Meanwhile, Josh Hamilton spent five seasons as a Ranger, making five All-Star teams, hitting many home runs and burning bridges when he departed. The new center field arrangement is a likely speedster platoon of Cuban Leonys Martin and Arkansas native Craig Gentry. It won’t provide power, but certainly intrigue at the bottom of a deep lineup. Hamilton’s power will be replaced -- as Ron Washington crosses his fingers -- by Lance Berkman. Sure, last season he was an injured mess. In 2011 when nobody expected it, Berkman finished sixth in the majors in OPS. Hamilton was 10th in OPS last year.

San Antonio, here we come!: Meanwhile, all teams are technically in action this weekend, even if their low-level Class A players will be doing the heavy pitching and hitting lifting. The Rangers host the San Diego Padres in Tim Duncan’s lovely city Friday and Saturday. San Jose is a lovely place, too, but the Oakland Athletics are going to end up somewhere, someday, so remember the Alamo, or at least the attendance figures this weekend when the A's and Giants host each other. The skeleton of the New York Yankees -- oh wait, that’s their actual April lineup? -- will take on Army at West Point, N.Y. An entire Army? And you thought the Yankees taking on the rest of baseball was a challenge.

Roster roulette: Fantasy owners might be wondering why the heck Christian Garcia is on the disabled list -- or who he is -- or when the Yankees will officially send Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson as teams finagle 25 men onto their active rosters. Longer-term injured players will get their procedural asterisks for DL placement, but in some of the cases the moves will be short-term. Baltimore Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman, for example, had his DL stint performed retroactively, and could still pitch later in the week, so don’t give up on the potential fantasy windfall of players like Tillman just yet. What’s more interesting is ...

Unemployment line: The healthy players who do end up with jobs -- because there are some big names on the proverbial fence. Check out SweetSpot blogger Dave Schoenfield’s beloved Seattle Mariners, for example, where four-time 30-100 guy Jason Bay should make the team, but only to sell tickets. Seriously, can he be an integral contributor after years of unfortunate injury and insult to New York Mets fans? Prospects like Jackie Bradley Jr. in Boston won’t be out of work, but it’s undecided where that work will be on display. Don’t be surprised by a trade or two as well, as teams look for upgrades even at the last minute. Casper Wells starting in left field for Philly for their Opening Day? Alfredo Aceves in another team’s rotation? Jose Valverde closing for his pal Jim Leyland in Detroit? Well, maybe not.

Regardless, enjoy your weekend and remember, the games count starting Sunday night!

Offseason report card: Rangers

February, 20, 2013
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2012 in review
Record: 93-69 (91-71 Pythagorean)
808 runs scored (1st in AL)
707 runs allowed (9th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Lost free agents Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Mike Adams, Scott Feldman, Ryan Dempster, Roy Oswalt and Koji Uehara. Signed free agents A.J. Pierzynski, Lance Berkman and Joakim Soria. Traded Michael Young to the Phillies for Josh Lindblom and Lisalverto Bonilla. Signed Matt Harrison to a five-year, $55 million extension.

Of course, it's the two moves -- or one move -- the Rangers failed to make that defined their offseason: the failure to sign Zack Greinke, combined with the seemingly half-hearted attempt to bring back Hamilton.

This is what happens when you build a good team: It starts getting expensive. When the Rangers reached the World Series in 2010, their payroll was about $65 million. Last year, it had climbed to about $120 million; this year, it should be around that figure again, maybe a million or two higher. There was certainly room to go higher -- for the right guy. Instead, the Rangers had to go to backup plans: Berkman, coming off a season in which he played just 32 games, and Soria, the former Kansas City closer coming back from Tommy John surgery.

Berkman is an interesting gamble in that the Rangers need him to assume a prominent role in the lineup. Two years ago, he finished seventh in the NL MVP voting for St. Louis, hitting .301/.412/.547, although that was his best OPS since 2008.

In the end, though, the Rangers didn't get the pitcher they wanted, they lost a 43-homer guy, they lost a productive player in Napoli, and they lost depth on their pitching staff.

Position Players

Fun fact No. 1: Tampa Bay and Seattle scored more runs on the road than Texas.

Fun fact No. 2: In his two seasons with the Rangers, Adrian Beltre has hit 43 home runs at home, 25 on the road.

Fun fact No. 3: For all the talk about playing rookie Jurickson Profar at second base and moving Ian Kinsler to first, Mitch Moreland had a higher wOBA than Kinsler in 2012.

Fun fact No. 4: Maybe there's a reason Nelson Cruz's name was in the Biogenesis case. His OPS has gone from .950 to .821 to .779. On the bright side, he did play 159 games last year after missing 38 and 54 the previous two seasons, respectively.

Fun fact No. 5: Pierzysnki hit a career-high 27 home runs for the White Sox, after hitting just 17 the previous two seasons combined.

OK, what do we have here? A team with terrific infield defense in Elvis Andrus, Kinsler and Beltre, plus the center field platoon of Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin. But it's also a lineup relying on aging hitters pegged for the middle of the order: Berkman (37), Cruz (32), Beltre (34) and Pierzynski (36). On the other hand, the team has purged itself of Young, who was awful in 2012 in eating up 651 plate appearances, and youngsters Profar and Mike Olt are ready to step in when and if needed.

I think the lineup is overrated, as it benefits from playing at hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark. The Rangers will miss Hamilton's presence and production, I don't know what to expect from Berkman and Pierzynski, and Beltre and David Murphy might regress some from 2012. I'm giving this group a B-plus, in part because of the defense, but that could be a half-grade too high.

Pitching Staff

Just like the lineup is maybe a bit overrated, I think the Rangers' pitching staffs have been underrated during their three-year playoff run. Yu Darvish and Harrison are an excellent 1-2, and I expect Darvish to be even better in his second year in the States. Alexi Ogando returns to the rotation, where he went 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA in 2011. There are some concerns that year was a BABIP-driven fluke (.267 BABIP) and his ERA was 4.48 in the second half, but remember that was his first season starting. I think he'll be fine.

The key to the rotation in my mind is Derek Holland. His dominant run in the second half of 2011 and a couple of strong playoff starts led to high expectations last year, but he went 12-7 with a 4.67 ERA. His biggest problem was the long ball: 32 home runs allowed in 27 starts. Thirty of those came against right-handed batters, so he needs to improve the consistency of his curve or changeup to go with his fastball/slider combo.

The fifth spot is wide open between Martin Perez (whom some still believe in), Justin Grimm and Robbie Ross, although the team hopes Colby Lewis can return sometime after the All-Star break after Tommy John surgery.

The bullpen loses its top two setup guys in Ogando and Adams, and Soria isn't expected to be ready until May. If Soria isn't the same guy he was with the Royals, there could be some issues here behind closer Joe Nathan unless one of the one guys such as Tanner Scheppers, Wilmer Font or Michael Kirkman steps up. As with Lewis, the Rangers also hope former closer Neftali Feliz returns in July or August from his Tommy John surgery.

Heat Map to Watch
At times, Darvish was spectacular; at times, he was frustrating when he nibbled and failed to command his fastball. But there was no doubt his stuff met expectations, as he fanned 221 batters in 191.1 innings and opponents hit just .220 off him. His big wipeout pitch was his slider: Opponents hit .148 off it and fanned 71 times in 157 plate appearances.

DarvishESPN Stats & InformationYu Darvish went 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA in his first season in the U.S.
Overall Grade

SportsNation

How many games will the Rangers win?

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    9%
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    47%
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    38%
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    6%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,224)

Two years ago, the Rangers outscored their opponents by 178 runs; last year, it was down to 101. Now, maybe that run differential increases slightly thanks to 19 games against the Astros, but I'm having trouble figuring out how the Rangers will be better than last year.

Their strength is a lack of weaknesses, and I'd be projecting fewer wins if not for the Astros joining the division. The Rangers also have flexibility to make some in-season moves thanks to the depth of their farm system, and Profar and Olt provide injury insurance at multiple positions. As much as Rangers fans soured on Hamilton by the end of last season, this was still a guy who hit 43 home runs, slugged .577 and drove in 130 runs. I think they're a 90-win club, but that might be good enough for only third in the AL West.

Planning a Boston bounce-back in 2013

November, 23, 2012
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So, how about that AL East? We know the Blue Jays have been busy, and the Yankees will be. The Rays can't be counted out and the Orioles just proved nothing's certain. What's a fading former contender like the Boston Red Sox to do?

It would be easy to blast to the foundations and start dealing away everyone who might be a free agent after 2013 -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Jarrod Saltalamacchia among others -- but I doubt that's why they re-signed David Ortiz, and it probably wouldn't help them talk Dustin Pedroia into signing a contract extension. So instead, let's say the Red Sox make a real effort to contend again, shy of making any huge financial commitments, but shoring up the hand they've got and making a play to get back to October. Could they make that happen?

What do they need? I'd argue two big areas would have to be addressed: A front-end rotation starter who ranks up there with Lester at the very least, and offensive upgrades wherever possible, especially at first base and the outfield.

The rotation's fairly straightforward, because to keep up in the AL East's arms race, the Red Sox need to shore up a rotation that let them down in 2011, delivering only 72 quality starts last year. Hoping for rebound seasons from Lester and Clay Buchholz may be reasonable, and counting on John Lackey to come back and be a solid mid-rotation horse will help, but it isn't enough.

On offense, let's face it, an outfield blend of just-added Jonny Gomes plus Ryan Kalish, Daniel Nava and Ryan Sweeney doesn't add up to two well-stocked corners. And at first base, settling for some combination of Mauro Gomez and Jerry Sands also isn't going to get it done; outside of Albuquerque's extra-friendly confines, Sands hit a relatively unimpressive .278/.350/.510 in the hitter-friendly PCL in his second season in the circuit. Take that down a few pegs in the majors, and you won't get much O from an offense-first position.

General manager Ben Cherington's cupboard isn't bare. The Red Sox have a few young veterans who might fill people's needs at up-the-middle positions, notably Saltalamacchia and Kalish. In and of themselves they're not guys who will put Boston over the top, now or ever, but that's perhaps the Red Sox's area of surplus. As Salty heads into his age-28 season after belting 25 bombs in 2012, he's already as good as he's going to get, and while Kalish has had his moments at the lower levels over a long minor-league apprenticeship, he's no Ellsbury. Their value may never be higher, so better to shop them now and address the Red Sox's needs.

(Read full post)

Cardinals' unhappy formula for failure

September, 16, 2012
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If there’s one takeaway where the defending world champs are concerned, it’s this: Even wounded, these Cardinals could still fly. Most teams, you scratch a No. 1 starter, a leadoff man and a cleanup hitter, and you might expect them to be long since dead in the water. But even without Chris Carpenter, without Rafael Furcal, without Lance Berkman -- all of that in the post-Pujols era -- no matter how many blows the Cards take, they aren’t dead, not by a long shot.

The big question, though, isn’t why they’re still going, but why they’re not ahead just the same. With a record that is games worse than expected, they’re supposed to be able to lose games like Saturday night’s -- a 4-3 defeat in Los Angeles -- and not break a sweat. But that’s not where they are. Instead, they’ve fallen into a tie with the Dodgers for the National League’s last slot.

It isn’t supposed to have worked out this way. Allen Craig plated every run the Cardinals scored, a Pujolsian feat that also reflects a creeping problem for the Cards’ offense: The league-leading attack that had been scoring 5 runs per game before the All-Star break has dropped off to score 4.4 runs per game since. They were allowing 4.2 runs before the break, and they’re at 4.0 runs allowed per nine after, but because of the offense’s drop-off, the margins they get to work with have narrowed.

The first-half question over why the Cardinals weren’t doing as well as they should has become more persistent in the second half, and after a swing game like Saturday’s, the uncomfortable questions are unavoidable.

Is it the manager? Rookie manager Mike Matheny’s under fire, but he was tasked with the impossible task of following in Tony La Russa’s footsteps as the old mast heads down the road to Cooperstown. It’s easy to single out the Cardinals’ record in one-run games -- now 18-25 -- and assert that some better manager to be named later would do better than that.

But that’s looking for a fall guy, and Matheny may not really deserve that, save as a matter of expectations as the first-year skipper managing a defending world champ. Any suggestion that La Russa might be the Cardinals’ missing man most missed might have needed one particular proof this night: Would the bullpen deliver? Love it or hate it, that’s the gold standard by which most managers get judged by many commentators and fans, because ’pen management is the one task that’s transparent to the public.

After getting a good game from Jaime Garcia, without getting too clever playing matchup games Matheny ran through his crew in straightforward style: Edward Mujica to Mitchell Boggs to Jason Motte ... and Motte blew it, giving up a two-out double in the ninth to Luis Cruz for the tie, then gave up the game-losing single to Juan Rivera.

There was no special brand of genius involved, just a scripted set-up gone wrong: Closer tasked with closing, leaves the door open, then sees it blown off its hinges. If Matheny’s to be judged, it’s by exactly the same standard that Casey Stengel suggested back in the day, in happier circumstances after winning the 1958 World Series: “I couldna dunnit without the players.”

To Matheny’s credit, he managed other elective tasks just fine on Saturday night. Swapping around in the middle infield midgame is the Cardinals’ lot. Early on they paid the penalty of making Daniel Descalso a shortstop as a matter of need: His first error in the first inning created the Dodgers’ first score. With second baseman Descalso playing short and converted outfielder Skip Schumaker starting at second, the Cards have been sacrificing defense to put their best available players in the lineup. Is that on Matheny? No more than the subsequently regretted decision to dump key utilityman Tyler Greene on the Astros.

With a lead six frames into the game, out came Schumaker, in came good-glove Pete Kozma at shortstop, and Descalso slid back to his natural position. Lineup management isn’t particle physics. Inveterate tinkerer La Russa may be history in every sense of the word, but this sort of lineup tinkering can still go on without him as Matheny tries to compensate for losing Furcal.

Given the Cardinals’ increasingly narrow margins, watching every run, every opportunity, forces Matheny to make tough calls. You can’t really blame him for the choices he made, given the options he had. No less than the bullpen blowing the game, you can’t blame him too badly for having Descalso at short. The agony for the Cardinals right now is that it’s adding up to just enough to lose.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Jason MotteHarry How/Getty ImagesWell that Jason Motte might cover his face after blowing the save on Saturday night.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Is the stretch Freese's time of year?

September, 2, 2012
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Every season has its bright lights, new and old alike. Take the question of whose star burns brightest at the hot corner in the National League, right now. David Wright might be the obvious answer for best ballplayer at third base, but playing for the Mets, he might as well be shining down on the rest of us from the galaxy Irrelevant, light years away from a pennant race. Chipper Jones would probably be the next-best answer, but he’s a month and change from going nova and calling it quits, a superstar so bright he’ll be putting people in the shade from Cooperstown for decades to come.

Instead, right now, as the shadows of the season grow long, the question might be whether it’s that time of year again, that time when it will be David Freese’s star that burns brightest. That’s because the hero of last October’s action for the Cardinals could not have chosen a better time to reignite than on Saturday, because now, as then, the Cardinals absolutely need him.

Against the Nationals, Freese ripped a second-inning two-run homer that helped run Jordan Zimmermann out of the game early, then plated the deciding score in the ninth off Nationals set-up man Drew Storen in the Cardinals' 10-9 victory. It was a nice time for Freese to step up for all sorts of reasons: He helped end a four-game losing streak, he fueled an offense that had been limited to a lone run in those games, and he broke with his own recent bad run, as he’s struggled with a .650 OPS over the previous four weeks.

Last year might have represented Freese’s coming-out party, when he starred in October for the eventual champs by plating 21 October runs while clouting five homers, coming right on the heels of a nice September run (.844 OPS). Well-timed, sure, and maybe just that. But nice to have if he's on your team.

But coming-out or not, Freese's arrival has been something of a slow-moving development because of a career frequently interrupted by injury: He lost the second half of 2009 to surgery on his left foot, more than half of 2010 to ankle surgery on his right foot, and almost a third of the 2011 season to surgery to repair a broken hamate. As a result, Freese is already in his age-29 season, so there is no better time for him to blaze away than right now.

His recent slump aside, he’s nevertheless in the front rank of third basemen in this or any league. Despite the injuries he’s been remarkably strong year-to-year in his three full-ish seasons in the majors, never delivering a BABIP below .356 -- no, everybody does not inevitably “regress” to .300 -- while putting up career-best power (.172 Isolated Power) and a career-best walk rate (over 9 percent) in 2012. Hitting as many line drives as he strikes out -- 22 percent of the time for both -- puts Freese in rare company with younger sluggers like Carlos Gonzalez, Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt.

The Cardinals haven’t had a long-term answer at third base since they traded away Scott Rolen, and one of Freese’s many tests is whether he’ll be more like Rolen and less like another injury-prone temporary fix like Troy Glaus was for the Cardinals, briefly -- good to rent, but not reliably available. If he stays healthy, Freese could be better in his 30s than he was in his 20s, because you marry his past consistency with regular availability, and it's easy to anticipate good things.

In the meantime, if the Cardinals are going to have any shot at repeating last year’s 18-8 September run to get to October, they need Freese to heat up. Sure, they need Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday to deliver as well -- but both have struggled badly to get on base, putting up OBPs in the .260s in the last month. But a strong offense fires on more than one piston, or two. The ill-timed loss of Rafael Furcal to a torn-up elbow is a bad break, but even then, the Cardinals’ lineup has plenty of potential heroes. Allen Craig could fend off his own lengthy injury history and star down the stretch again. The Cards can hope that Lance Berkman’s comeback from an injured knee isn’t limited to sporadic spot starts and a whole lot of pinch-hitting. They’ll need Yadier Molina to bounce back from his most recent home-plate collision and continue crank out his own brand of MVP-level production from behind the plate.

But if now is the time that Freese fires his star back up again, it’ll make one cold August a quickly and easily forgotten memory. As much as the sabermetric community has happily helped kill off notions like clutch hitting as some innate, separate skill from being able to just flat-out hit, you can’t blame a guy like Freese for becoming famous if, now as then, he’s ready to run for the stretch, and perhaps blaze as brightly as any other star.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Bryce HarperBrad Mills/US PresswireJust what the Cardinals need, more home-plate mayhem for Yadier Molina his first night back.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

July, 28, 2012
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  • Three players this week -- Brett Lawrie on Sunday, Desmond Jennings on Wednesday and Starling Marte on Thursday -- took the very first pitch of the game out of the yard. Five players have now done that this season. Derek Jeter and Zack Cozart both pulled off the feat in June.
    In Marte’s case, it was his first major league at-bat, making him the first Pirate to homer in his debut since Don Leppert on June 18, 1961.
  • In Friday's game at Wrigley Field, Matt Holliday started the Cardinals' scoring with a solo homer in the first inning. Yadier Molina promptly went deep in the second; Lance Berkman in the third; Matt Carpenter in the fourth; and Allen Craig in the fifth. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cardinals are the first team to homer in each of the first five innings since the Astros did it on the final weekend of the 2004 season against the Rockies (Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, Biggio again, Eric Bruntlett and Kent again). And it was a first in Cardinals team history.
  • [+] EnlargeTravis Wood
    AP Photo/Paul BeatyChicago's Travis Wood became the first starter ever to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
    Travis Wood gave up all five of those homers, making him the fifth pitcher in Cubs history to surrender five long balls in a game (Carlos Zambrano did it last season), and according to Elias, the first starter ever -- for any team -- to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
  • Jim Johnson of the Orioles had a fairly rough Friday night. He started the ninth inning with his team clinging to a 9-8 lead. After a leadoff groundout, he gave up five singles and a walk in succession. All six runners would score, and Oakland rallied for a 14-9 win. Johnson is just the second pitcher this year to surrender six or more runs in a save situation. Brett Myers did it for Houston on June 28, although only one of his six runs ended up being earned. Since saves became official in 1969, only two other Orioles have done it -- Jim Hoey in 2006 and Doug Jones in 1995 -- and neither of them entered in the ninth.
  • Matt Harvey made his major league debut for the Mets on Thursday night, and promptly mowed down 11 Diamondbacks -- nine of them swinging -- in the process. It's been nearly two years since a pitcher hit double-digit strikeouts in his debut. Nope, not Stephen Strasburg (he did do it in 2010, but he's not the last). That would be Thomas Diamond of the Cubs, who struck out 10 Brewers on Aug. 3 of that season, but also gave up three runs and took the loss. Harvey, however, earned himself an even better distinction by getting a two-out double and a two-out single in his two plate appearances. Elias says that makes Harvey the first player in modern baseball history (since 1900) to strike out 10-plus batters and get two hits in his major league debut.
  • Chris Johnson had three hits for the Astros on Friday night -- a homer, a triple and a double. He never got the "elusive" single, striking out in his final at-bat. Johnson did walk in the game, but alas, this is not 1887 (the year when walks counted as base hits). That means Johnson became only the fifth player this season to miss the cycle by a single. Paul Goldschmidt (June 23) was the most recent. By comparison, 32 players have needed the homer, 11 the double and 149 the triple.
  • Couldn't let this week end without one leftover Kernel from last Saturday. The Cardinals sent 17 batters to the plate in a 12-run seventh inning against the Cubs. Allen Craig was up third, pinch hitting in the pitcher's spot. He doubled and scored. As the inning continued, Craig came up again as the 12th batter. He doubled and scored again -- thus becoming the first "pinch hitter" to have two doubles before taking the field since Bobby Kielty of the Twins did likewise on June 4, 2002.
    St. Louis went on to hit seven doubles in that inning, a feat accomplished only once before, by the 1936 Boston Bees (the five-year experimental rebranding of the Braves).
    As for the 12 runs in that inning, that turned out to be the only scoring in the game. The Cardinals shut out Chicago 12-0. And that had also happened only once before in MLB history. The Indians scored all 12 runs in the fourth inning to shut out the Yankees on July 2, 1943.
Statistical support for this story provided by Baseball-Reference.com and the Elias Sports Bureau.
Lance BerkmanAP Photo/Lynne SladkyGiven Lance Berkman's knee injury, the Cardinals first baseman sits squarely on the HOF bubble.
A few quick thoughts on Lance Berkman, who has a mangled-up knee and will miss at least six to eight weeks, and what this may mean for his Hall of Fame chances.

My first thought: Other than sabermetric types who dream about walks and OBP, I don't think most baseball fans think of Berkman in Hall of Fame terms and I'm sure some of you will be insulted that I'm using Berkman and Hall of Fame in the same sentence. I could be wrong about that. I believe most baseball writers probably don't think about Berkman in those terms, although I could be wrong about that as well. For example, it's pretty clear that Berkman has been regarded by the baseball writers as a great player. He's finished third, third, fifth, fifth, seventh and seventh in various MVP votes.

What does that mean? Bill James created something called "award shares." If you're a unanimous MVP winner, that's 1.0 award shares -- you collected 100 percent of the possible maximum points; if you collected 80 percent of the possible points, that's .80 award shares. And so on. Berkman has 2.0 career award shares, which doesn't sound like a lot, but is more than Ryne Sandberg, Tony Gwynn, Gary Carter, Roberto Alomar, Rod Carew, Robin Yount, Willie McCovey, Eddie Mathews, Billy Williams, Paul Molitor and many other Hall of Famers.

So I think that at least puts him in the discussion; it doesn't make him a Hall of Famer, but it's a starting point that he merits the debate.

SportsNation

If Lance Berkman's career is over, do you think he deserves election to the Hall of Fame?

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    58%
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    42%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,641)

Berkman's power and on-base skills have made him a lethal hitter. From 2001 through 2009, he hit .301/.415/.558 while averaging 32 home runs and 107 RBIs. He hit as high as .331 in those years, topped 40 home runs twice, led the NL one year with 128 RBIs, drove in 136 runs another, made the postseason three times. Those are all things Hall of Famers voters like. During those nine years, he ranked seventh in home runs, fourth in RBIs, fourth in OBP, eighth in slugging percentage, sixth in OPS and fifth in OPS+ (behind Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez). He was, clearly, one of the elite hitters in the game.

But was nine elite years enough? Hall voters, of course, require a tough-to-dissect combination of peak value and career value. After struggling in 2010 with a knee injury, Berkman bounced back with a terrific 2011, hitting .301 with 31 homers. He had a great World Series, hitting .423, driving in five runs, scoring nine. The Cardinals won it all. In 52 career postseason games, his batting line is .317/.417/.532. I'll take that, thank you.

So where does that leave us?

  • A player who was one of the elite hitters of his generation.
  • Ten Hall of Fame-caliber seasons, plus a great partial season in 2000 (.297/.388/.561 in 114 games) and a not-so-great 2010.
  • A terrific postseason performer.
  • A player who didn't win an MVP Award but fared well in the voting.

On the negative side: Not much defensive or baserunning value, a late career start (his first big year came at 25) and relatively low career totals (right now) of 359 home runs, 1,197 RBIs and 1,836 hits.

It's interesting to compare him to his one-time teammate, Jeff Bagwell, who obviously isn't in the Hall of Fame (for some reasons we all know about) but whom many of you and in the stat community believe is a no-brainer Hall of Famer:

Bagwell: .297/.408/.540
Berkman: .296/.409/.546

Bagwell did that in 2,150 games, Berkman over 1,787 games so far, so it's not exactly the same thing. Plus Bagwell had to play his early years in the Astrodome and was a superior first baseman and baserunner. Anyway, the point is they're pretty close as hitters, which many may not realize.

I thought entering the season that Berkman needed two more good seasons similar to his 2011 campaign -- get him past 400 home runs, close to 1,500 RBIs. Yes, voters love those round numbers. The knee injury wipes out much of 2012 and puts his future in doubt. Berkman alluded to having concerns about coming back. "You certainly think, if I have to get my ACL repaired, I might be done playing," he said. "And the doctor kind of said that. He's like, 'Well, you're not a young man anymore.'

Without adding to his career counting totals, this puts Berkman on the Hall of Fame bubble. As Dave Cameron wrote on FanGraphs, "Given his numbers and his peers, my guess is that Berkman ends up with guys like (Edgar) Martinez and Todd Helton -- hitters who specialized in the wrong skills."

Given those bubble candidates, voters historically favor the long careers -- Tony Perez and Eddie Murray -- over the high-peak, shorter career guys (Martinez, Larry Walker). They did vote in Jim Rice a few years ago, but he's a bit of an outlier candidate for a lot of reasons, a guy whose case became a politicized battle of the pre-steroids generation.

What do you think? Myself, it's a close call, but I think those peak years were so good I'd vote for him. Ten years as one of the very best hitters in the game? Works for me.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Prospects are always a popular topic when Keith Law and I gather for a Baseball Today podcast, so here's what was on our minds for Tuesday!

1. Who is this Matt Adams guy on the Cardinals and what should we expect from him with Lance Berkman out?

2. What is the long-term prognosis for Rangers right-hander Neftali Feliz, and why can't Yu Darvish conquer the Mariners?

3. Aroldis Chapman is Cincy's closer, but is that really the best way to use him? Of course it isn't!

4. Our emailers want to know about the overlooked Chicago White Sox, bad managing and Independent leagues.

5. Our preview of Tuesday's schedule looks at the Diamondbacks, Angels and other matchups that matter.

So download and listen to Tuesday's fun Baseball Today podcast, and come back with us for Wednesday!
Eric Karabell and Mark Simon gathered for Monday's Baseball Today podcast. Here's what went down:

1. Justin Verlander's near no-no and Max Scherzer's 15-strikeout game topped the weekend's pitching performances. Who else had great games?

2. Aroldis Chapman named Reds closer, but does this move really make Cincinnati any better?

3. Lance Berkman is heading to the DL, so it's time to talk about Matt Adams.

4. Power rankings!

5. Ridiculous question of the week!

All that and more, including a look ahead to Monday's game. King Felix versus Yu Darvish!
News and notes from around the majors ...

First base: Injury news. The injury bug hits the Mets again as we learned David Wright suffered a fractured pinkie finger on Monday. Adam Rubin of ESPN New York reports that the Mets will determine Friday if Wright has to go on the disabled list. If necessary, Terry Collins would likely move Daniel Murphy to third base and play Justin Turner or prospect Jordany Valdespin at second. Valdespin hit .294/.333/.468 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2011. ... Brandon Phillips landed a big contract and then missed Tuesday's game with a sore hammy. He could miss three or four days. Willie Harris played second and hit leadoff. ... Nationals left fielder Michael Morse is still out indefinitely with his strained lat. He left a minor-league rehab stint, unable to throw the ball from left to shortstop. Veteran Xavier Nady is 2-for-10 in his place. ... Lance Berkman left his game in the eighth inning with a calf injury. Check tomorrow for updates, but if he's out, Matt Carpenter would play first base.

Second base: The Bard's tale. Daniel Bard pitched better than his final line of 5 IP, 8 H, 5 R indicates. He had six K's and just one walk and induced 18 swing-and-misses. Only Josh Beckett had more swings-and-misses in a game last season (20). Basically, Bard got done in by the dreaded BABIP, burned by a few groundballs that got through the infield. Red Sox fans should be encouraged by his start.

Third base: More Moore. Matt Moore made his first start on a cold day in Detroit that featured two different snow flurries. He walked five and struck out four in 6.2 innings, allowing four hits including an Austin Jackson home run in the seventh. Like Yu Darvish's first start, it would be ridiculous to make any conclusions. The kid is going to be great, it's mostly just a matter if he'll throw enough strikes to be great this year.

Home plate: Tweet of the day.
It’s another Opening Day! Can you feel the excitement? Keith Law and I can, and we talk about the big ESPN Cardinals-Marlins game for Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast along with plenty of other stuff!

1. I set the over/under on Josh Johnson starts for 2012 at 26, and KLaw sends back his opinion. Will Marlins fans be happy or sad with his answer?

2. Do we have the defending champs or the Marlins in the postseason? All the preseason predictions are posted at ESPN.com, and we discuss our choices.

3. A pair of AL East closers hit the shelf with injuries, but there’s really no need for the Red Sox and Rays to panic. So will they panic?

4. Keith digs into his scouting bag of tricks to discuss how the Pirates handle young pitchers and how scouts judge outfield arms.

5. Stephen Strasburg, Lance Berkman and more Yankees bias are topics for our emailers.

So download and listen to Wednesday’s fun Baseball Today podcast, our first in which we preview a 2012 game in the USA! Many more to come!
I can't wait for the season to get going. You can't wait. Last October was the best we've had in years, and the offseason only fueled our baseball fever. Spring training is mercifully over. Let the games begin. Here are 100 reasons I'm pumped for the next seven months.

1. Albert Pujols in Anaheim. They call him The Machine, but Pujols had a few rusty bolts in 2011. He hit under .300 for the first time, his walk rate was down, and his extra-base-hit percentage was down. After a slow start through May (.267, nine home runs), he did hit much better after returning from his fractured forearm. He moves to a tougher division and will have to face the Rangers, A's and Mariners 19 times each -- with cavernous parks in Oakland and Seattle -- rather than the Cubs, Pirates and Astros. The pressure is on. The spotlight is bright. But machines are immune to all that, right?

2. Jim Thome's pursuit of a World Series title. He'll turn 42 in August and will play some first base until Ryan Howard returns. That's a pretty good story in itself (he hasn't played on the field since appearing in one game at first in 2008), but he's played in nine postseasons and reached two World Series without winning it all.

[+] EnlargeJamie Moyer
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAge is just a number for Jamie Moyer.
3. Jamie Moyer is back in the majors at age 49 and can surpass Jack Quinn as the oldest pitcher to win a game. Moyer's arsenal these days: an 80 mph fastball, a 70 mph changeup, a 65 mph curveball, a 55 mph slowball, a 20 mph Bugs Bunny ball and an 8 mph retirement community ball that bends time.

4. Justin Verlander's encore performance. Verlander threw 3,941 pitches in the regular season, the most since Livan Hernandez's 4,007 in 2005. Verlander added 360 more in the postseason. It's not necessarily a big deal -- Verlander's 2009 total is the third-highest since 2005 -- but you do wonder whether Jim Leyland will back off a little.

5. Roy Halladay's paintbrush.

6. Yu Darvish.

7. Yu Darvish's hair. Straight from Supercuts.

8. Adam Wainwright's return to the Cardinals' rotation. He was third in the 2009 NL Cy Young vote and second in 2010. He looked good this spring, pitching 18 2/3 innings and allowing just 11 hits. The strikeout rate wasn't great -- just nine K's -- but signs are positive a year after Tommy John surgery.

9. A full season of Stephen Strasburg, who was electric in his own return in September from TJ surgery in September 2010 -- his fastball averaged 95.8 mph, below the 97.3 he averaged in 2010 but still with enough velocity that it would have ranked No. 1 among starting pitchers. The big question for his season: How much the Nationals will limit his innings?

10. Jose Canseco's tweets.

11. Clayton Kershaw's slider. His fastball isn't too shabby, either. By the way, here's what Kershaw does in the offseason to stay in shape and get ready for the season.

12. Verlander, Halladay, Kershaw: three of the amazing generation of pitchers we get to enjoy. Maybe Darvish and Strasburg will join them. In 2011, 14 pitchers pitched at least 200 innings with an ERA of 3.00 or less. The last time we had even 10 such pitchers in one season was 1997, with 11. The last season with more than 14 was 1992, with 20. Yes, steroids are a small part of that. A small part. The best pitchers today are throwing harder and with meaner breaking stuff than we've ever seen. Guys like Kershaw and Halladay are relentless in their workout routines. It's not a lot of fun to be a hitter these days.

13. Well, Jose Bautista has a lot of fun.

14. A new generation of young hitters like Giancarlo Stanton, Eric Hosmer, Brett Lawrie, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Starlin Castro and Jesus Montero. All will play their age-22 seasons in 2012.

15. Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez.

16. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

[+] EnlargePrince Fielder
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesPrince Fielder adds even more punch to the Detroit Tigers' lineup.
17. Will Cabrera win his first MVP award? He's finished fifth in the voting three times, fourth once and second once. Two things that could prevent him from winning:

A. Austin Jackson's on-base percentage. Cabrera hit .388 with runners in scoring position in 2011 but drove in "just" 105 runs.
B. Fielder. Batting behind Cabrera and his .400-plus OBP will give Fielder more RBI opportunities. If he ends up driving in 15 to 20 more runs than Cabrera, they could split votes.

Five other all-time greats who have never won an MVP award: Derek Jeter, Eddie Murray, Mike Piazza, Al Kaline, Manny Ramirez.

18. Cabrera playing third base. With Fielder at first base, the Tigers could have the worst first baseman and worst third baseman in baseball. (And, please, don't defend Fielder's defensive prowess at first base. He's better than Adam Dunn, I suppose ... but Dunn is a DH.)

19. Defensive runs saved!

Your leaders by position in 2011:

C -- Matt Wieters
1B -- Adrian Gonzalez
2B -- Ben Zobrist
3B -- Evan Longoria
SS -- Brendan Ryan
LF -- Brett Gardner
CF -- Austin Jackson
RF -- Jason Heyward

20. The Sandman.

21. The fans in Milwaukee. The Brewers drew a franchise-record 3.071 million fans in 2011. Depressed over losing Fielder? Hardly. They'll surpass that in 2012.

(Read full post)

What's next for Lance Berkman?

February, 13, 2012
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5:11
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"Baseball Tonight" (airing at 3:30 p.m. ET) will be taking a closer look this week at players in the spotlight for 2011, asking the question "What's next?" for that player. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Lance Berkman went from a player whose career was thought to be on the verge of ending to a pivotal player on a World Series-winning team.

Berkman was one of baseball’s most prodigious mashers in his prime, posting an average season of a .301 batting average, 32 home runs and 107 RBIs from 2001 to 2009. After falling in 2010, he nearly matched that average in 2011, hitting .301 with 31 home runs and 94 RBIs.

Berkman re-found his power stroke from the left side, particularly when a pitcher would make a mistake, as noted in the chart on the right and the heat maps below. He averaged a home run every 25 at-bats versus right-handed pitching in 2010, one every 14 at-bats in 2011.

The focus figures to increase on Berkman in 2012 with the departure of Albert Pujols from the St. Louis lineup.

The question is: Can he maintain this sort of success for another year?

Left: Lance Berkman's hot/cold zones for power as a LHB (2010)
Right: Berkman's hot/cold zones for power as a LHB (2011)
Click here to create your own Berkman heat maps

What will Berkman do in 2012? Discuss and debate below.

Position production: At the corners

January, 28, 2012
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Alex RodriguezJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAlex Rodriguez's injury-marred year contributed to a weak group of third basemen in 2011.
Are first basemen doing more to put runs on the board today than they did 10 years ago? How about 25 years ago? How do you make broad comparisons like this?

With any question like this you can get hung up on the differences between eras. Run-scoring environments are going to bounce around as a matter of course, and that’s before you get into the bump of the so-called "Steroids Era." If you were a fan just getting started in the late ’90s, chances are you might wind up with an inflated sense of what player performance is supposed to look like.

Happily, you can compare player performance within the context of their own season. Clay Davenport, an old colleague from Baseball Prospectus, cranks this data for every season. We can get a snapshot of where performance has gone at each position by using his Equivalent Average, or EqA. Equivalent Average isn’t the only stat you can employ; Clay scales production to batting average, with .260 defined as average.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at performances from the eight major positions over the past 25 years. We’ll start with the premium offensive positions, the four corners, from 1987 to the present:

MLB ChartESPN.comFour-corner EqA performance at the plate, 1987-2011


Keep in mind, .260 is average for every season, so the year-to-year variations are going to refer back to that baseline. We can already draw a few broad conclusions -- some of which are pretty much accepted wisdom, but some prove slightly surprising.

Runs come from first base. This might seem obvious, but that’s especially the case now. It hasn’t always been that way. As you can see from the chart, left and right fielders have sometimes approached the first basemen, but that usually coincides with bad years for first basemen. But these days, first base is the game’s premium offense position.

If you look back further, that picture gets a lot more complicated. During the ’70s, first, right and left were equally important offensive positions, and in 1982 the four corners and center field were separated by just eight points. That changed in the late ’80s, as the standard for production at first base now winds up north of a .280 EqA year after year.

This higher standard has survived two expansions and the steroid era. This year Mark Teixeira was below average despite hitting 39 homers. Admittedly, it was a down year for him: he posted a .281 EqA compared to an MLB average of .283. In contrast, in 1991 Carlos Quintana defined adequacy at first -- if you’re from outside Boston and have forgotten him entirely, it’s probably just as well, but he was a nice OBP guy without much power.

What does that mean today? Well, this goes a little bit towards what Dave Schoenfield was writing about as far as Albert Pujols ranking as the top player in the game for so long. It also means that while teams like the Rangers have been leaving runs on the table by playing Mitch Moreland, you can understand why the Red Sox traded for Adrian Gonzalez while the Angels landed Pujols. Credit the Rays for keeping up with the other big-money contenders by bringing Carlos Pena back (.292 last year).

Right field is where outfield stars play. This might take us back to the days of Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron as opposed to Ted Williams or Barry Bonds. While the averages for the two positions have balanced out over time, right field is the much stronger position these days. Some of that has is because of a matter of preference: Lance Berkman played right for the Cardinals not because he’s a good right fielder, but because he’d help them score a ton of runs. Jose Bautista might be a fantasy league’s perfect third baseman, but the Blue Jays keep bumping him back to the outfield. Add in breakthrough seasons for Mike Stanton and Matt Joyce and even nice bounce-backs from Justin Upton and Jeff Francoeur, and you wind up with the game’s reigning premium outfield slot.

Left field is down. Way down. As you can see, the last 25 years have been pretty up and down for the left-side corners. The average for left fielders in the era of division play is .277, but they haven’t reached that mark since 2004.

The sad state of left-field offensive production has already been debated plenty among statheads. Is it an affordable risk on offense at a time when teams are more defense-conscious than ever before? Or is it a case of reaping what you sow when you make a point putting guys like Juan Pierre in your everyday lineup? It might reflect an industry-wide choice to employ better defenders at the position, sacrificing some offense. But in other ways it might also reflect how left field has become almost a garbage-time position for teams that stow their backup center fielder or a sputtering veteran holdover. Teams now lack the roster space to platoon or mix and match on offense the way that they could before the seven-man bullpen became fashionable.

Whatever your take, offensive production from left fielders is down at its lowest point in 25 years, matching 1997 for punchlessness with a .268 EqA. That isn’t a coincidence; much like the present, 1997 featured a lot of transition in left fields around the majors, with guys like Gregg Jefferies, Wil Cordero and B.J. Surhoff playing their first full seasons in the outfield. Moises Alou got hurt (again), Bernard Gilkey’s career started imploding, and Greg Vaughn and Ron Gant had the worst years of their careers.

Fast-forward to the present, and you find your share of setback seasons (Carl Crawford and Delmon Young). You also see a lot of flat-out awful from self-inflicted bad ideas, like Raul Ibanez in the last year of his contract while Vernon Wells, Carlos Lee and Alfonso Soriano marked time on huge deals that won’t go away soon enough.

Against that, you’ve got the guys we might call sops to the speed-and-defense crowd, or what I think of as the next-gen Dave Collins solutions: Brett Gardner, Jose Tabata, Michael Brantley, Sam Fuld, Pierre and more. They range from useful OBP sources to significantly less so, but not one of them is going to be Tim Raines, let alone Crawford. Last year Gerardo Parra had the best season among this group (.280 EqA); he also stands to lose playing time in 2012 to Jason Kubel, a guy who’s a much more conventional corner-outfield selection.

Third Base is hurting. If you’re a student of baseball history, you already know that back in the Deadball Era second base was more of a high-offense position than the hot corner. That changed in the 1920s with the introduction of the livelier ball, but every once in a while you get a year where you’ve got a great group of second baseman and a weak crew of third-base vets. That was very much the case in the late ’80 and early ’90s (thanks in part to guys like Roberto Alomar, Ryne Sandberg, Robby Thompson, Lou Whitaker and Julio Franco), but after the Marlins-Rockies expansion in ’93 second base fell back again. But now we’re at this same point again, where third base has slipped behind second base, if only barely (.262 EqA to .261).

With the declining standards reflected by Scott Rolen getting named to an All-Star team despite a lousy season, finding merely competent options for third base isn’t as easy as it sounds. Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones certainly aren’t getting any younger.

You can hope this will change for the better with the arrivals of touted prospects like Brett Lawrie, Mike Moustakas and Lonnie Chisenhall, but we’ve also seen a few major third-base prospect flops: Pedro Alvarez or Andy LaRoche, anyone? That’s why journeymen like Casey Blake, Ryan Roberts or Jack Hannahan get opportunities to stick around.

If anything, the state of third base these days speaks volumes about the Tigers' decision to move Miguel Cabrera across to the diamond after signing Prince Fielder. As Mark Simon notes, the defensive penalty might be steep, but reviewing this data suggests that there's a major competitive advantage to be gained relative to the competition, because they're making room for two superstar bats in the lineup: Cabrera with his career .315 EqA, and Fielder with his .313. The Cardinals just ran up a flag after risking their defense at the corners with Berkman in right, so you can't blame the Tigers for trying to do likewise.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the up-the-middle positions. If you’re one of those people who think finding good help at shortstop or catcher is hard to find these days, you might have a surprise to look forward to.

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

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