SweetSpot: Mark Buehrle

Longtime reader/chatter Tarek asked the following question in Tuesday's chat: How many of this year's All-Stars will have a better career than Derek Jeter?

Now, that's a bit of a layered question when you start factoring in things like World Series titles and legacy, two areas where it's difficult to trump Jeter. So let's keep it simple: How many will finish with a higher career Wins Above Replacement than Jeter?

Jeter's current career WAR, via Baseball-Reference.com, is 72.1. That's fourth among active players, behind Alex Rodriguez (116.0), Albert Pujols (95.0) and Adrian Beltre (74.0).

Does Beltre, who made this year's All-Star Game, ranking so high surprise you? He's not really considered a slam-dunk Hall of Famer right now, in part because a large percentage of that value is tied into his defense. His career batting line has a much different arc than Jeter's:

Beltre: .284/.335/.480
Jeter: .311/.379/.443

Jeter has the better on-base percentage but Beltre has more power. Who has been the more valuable hitter? Beltre has created an estimated 1,410 runs in 9,704 career plate appearances -- 5.6 runs per 27 outs. Jeter has created 1,887 runs in 12,315 PAs -- 6.3 runs per 27 outs. Those are not park-adjusted figures; Beltre spent a large portion of his career in Dodger Stadium and Safeco Field, two pitcher's parks, so that draws him a little closer. But getting on base is more important than slugging and B-R estimates Jeter has been 362 runs better than the average hitter while Beltre has been 193.

But Beltre makes up for that with his good fielding and Jeter's poor fielding. The fielding metrics Baseball-Reference uses has Beltre at 183 runs above average on defense and Jeter at 240 runs below average. So that's how Beltre ends up higher than Jeter in career WAR.

Here are the five remaining 2014 All-Stars with the highest career WAR:

Chase Utley: 60.8
Mark Buehrle: 57.9
Miguel Cabrera: 57.6
Robinson Cano: 48.1
Felix Hernandez: 42.9

A quick and dirty way to see how these guys compare to Jeter is to check his career WAR when he was their age.

SportsNation

Which of this year's All-Stars will end up with the highest career WAR?

  •  
    4%
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    24%
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    11%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    55%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,214)

Utley (age-35 season) -- Jeter was at 67.3
Utley rates so well due to more high-peak seasons than Jeter. He was arguably the second-best all-around player in the game from 2005 through 2009 when he averaged 7.9 WAR per season (only Pujols was better). Even while missing time with injuries in recent seasons, Utley has reached at least 3.0 WAR the past three seasons and is already at 2.9 this year. So he's behind Jeter but Jeter didn't do much after turning 36. Could be close.

Buehrle (age-35 season) -- Jeter was 67.3
He's headed for his 14th consecutive season of 200-plus innings. He's never been a big star but he's still accumulating value and with his style of pitching could easily remain effective until 40. Can he pile up 16 more WAR before he's done? He was probably over his head in the first half -- 4.0 WAR compared to 2.1 all of 2013 -- so I say he comes up short.

Cabrera (age-31 season) -- Jeter was at 48.4
Even though he doesn't earn much value with his defense or position, Cabrera is well ahead of Jeter at the same age. His offensive numbers are down from the past few seasons but he's still hitting .312, leading the league with 32 doubles and has been worth 3.0 WAR. He should soar past Jeter and approach at least 80 career WAR.

Cano (age-31 season) -- Jeter was at 48.4
So these two are just about dead even at the same age, although Cano will move ahead by the end of the season. Jeter had two of his better seasons at 32 (5.5 WAR) and 35 (6.5). With his decline in power so far, Cano is at 2.9 WAR, well below the 7.4 he averaged the previous four seasons. He's been one of the most durable players in the game (as was Jeter until his injury in the 2012 playoffs). Yankees fan will never put Cano on the same pedestal as Jeter -- in part because of Cano's dismal .222 postseason average -- but through the same age it's hard to argue he hasn't been as valuable in the regular season.

Hernandez (age-28 season) -- Jeter was at 36.8
King Felix is ahead of Jeter's pace. Of course, most pitchers don't remain as durable as Buehrle. Hernandez is in the midst of his best season yet and there's no reason he won't stay dominant for many more years if his elbow and shoulder remain intact.

What about the younger guys? Well, Mike Trout only needs five more 10-win seasons to pass The Captain.
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.


The Blue Jays lost a tough one on Thursday, a fun back-and-forth game with the Royals that the Jays ultimately blew when Jose Reyes shanked a throw to first base on a routine grounder in the ninth inning. It would have ended the game -- Edwin Encarnacion couldn't come up with the scoop on the short hop -- but instead allowed the tying to run score and the Royals then scored twice in the 10th to win it 8-6.

So the Jays' winning streak ended at nine. But I'm going to write about them anyway.

1. Encarnacion's on fire

Talk about locked in. He homered twice: a fourth-inning two-run shot off James Shields and then a sixth-inning two-run blast that gave the Jays the lead and sent the home crowd into a frenzy. That's five multi-homer games for Encarnacion since May 8, tying him with Mickey Mantle for the AL record with 16 home runs in May. Here are the guys who have hit at least 15 home runs in May:

Barry Bonds, Giants, 2001 -- 17
Encarnacion, Blue Jays, 2014 -- 16
Mark McGwire, Cardinals, 1998 -- 16
Mantle, Yankees, 1956 -- 16
Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners, 1994 -- 15
McGwire, A's, 1987 -- 15
Frank Howard, Senators, 1968 -- 15
Harmon Killebrew, Senators, 1959 -- 15
Babe Ruth, Yankees, 1928 -- 15
Cy Williams, Phillies, 1923 -- 15

Some good stories. You may not have heard of Williams, but he was a four-time home run champion and led the NL with 41 in 1923. McGwire was a rookie in 1987. Killebrew wasn't a rookie, having spent parts of the five previous seasons with the Senators (but batting just 280 times). He hit 42 in 1959, the first of his six home run titles. Howard's big month came in the Year of the Pitcher in 1968; he hit 44 that year, and I can only imagine how many he'd have hit in 1998.

Both of Encarnacion's home runs on Thursday went to left field. He's pulled 16 of his 18 home runs this season, with the other two going to center.

2. The fearsome threesome
[+] EnlargeJose Bautista
Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SportsJose Bautista is healthy and slugging, two things the Blue Jays could use all season long.
Jose Bautista also homered and Melky Cabrera went 2-for-4. How good is Toronto's big three? As I write this, Bautista (second), Encarnacion (fourth) and Cabrera (13th) all rank in the top 15 in the AL in wOBA. (If you're not familiar with wOBA, it measures the sum of a player's offensive contributions, although it isn't park-adjusted.)

That's a rate stat. Runs created also measures the sum of a player's contributions, but the more plate appearances you get, the more runs you'll create. Entering Thursday, the big three all ranked in the top 10 in the AL. So how rare is that? Is this potentially one of the great threesomes in recent history?

Perhaps. But last year, Encarnacion, Bautista and Adam Lind actually ranked fifth, 10th and 12th in the AL in wOBA, although Bautista and Lind missed significant time. In 2012, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson of the Tigers ranked first, third and 11th. In 2011, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox ranked third, fourth and fifth in the AL in wOBA (and Dustin Pedroia ranked 11th).

Another advanced metric is OPS+ -- a player's on-base plus slugging, but adjusted for home park and era and scaled to where 100 is league average. Entering Thursday, the Jays had Bautista at 165, Encarnacion at 148 and Cabrera at 135. But they also had Adam Lind at 169, although he hasn't played enough yet to qualify for the leaderboard. Encarnacion certainly jumped over the 150 mark after his two-homer game. Only five teams since 1901 have had three regulars with an OPS+ of 150 or higher, via the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index:

• 2004 Cardinals (Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen)
• 1996 Mariners (Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez)
• 1963 Giants (Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Wille McCovey)
• 1929 Yankees (Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Babe Ruth)
• 1902 Pirates (Ginger Beaumont, Fred Clarke, Honus Wagner)

So there's nothing really historic about Toronto's fearsome threesome, but if Lind can keep hitting, maybe we'll have to start looking at fearsome foursomes (apologies to Deacon Jones).

3. Is this the best lineup in the league?

I think the jury is still out on that. After all, the Jays have scored only four more runs than the A's, while playing one more game. They've scored only 13 more runs than the White Sox. And the Jays get a boost from SkyDome. They're hitting .271 and slugging .488 at home compared to .255 and .414 on the road.

They're also getting some great production from role players -- Juan Francisco is slugging .577 in 120 plate appearances, Steve Tolleson is slugging .596 in 53 PAs and backup catcher Josh Thole is hitting .340 in 59 PAs.

I do like what John Gibbons is doing with a multi-position platoon, however, sliding Brett Lawrie between second and third base with Francisco platooning with Tolleson. It's a creative way to get more offense out there, even if Francisco and Tolleson aren't exactly Gold Gloves candidates.

4. The Buehrle thing

The Jays are 10-1 when Mark Buehrle starts and 22-22 when anybody else starts. I'm pretty sure they're not going to go 30-3 in Buehrle's starts this season, which means they'll have to pick up elsewhere. Toronto's rotation is actually fifth in the AL in ERA (yes, Buehrle's 2.33 has a lot do with that), so I don't think it's as bad/mediocre as people portray. Again, factor in SkyDome; Jays starters have a 3.04 ERA on the road.

It could be that for the Jays to keep this hot stretch going all season, they'll actually need the offense to score more runs, rather than finding another starter.
  • George Springer is red hot -- his nine home runs this month are the most by a rookie in May since Mark McGwire hit 15 in 1987 -- and Justin Havens breaks down his rapid improvement at the plate in just a few short weeks in the majors. I was a little skeptical about Springer due to the high strikeout rates in the minors but so far his talent is winning out. When he does makes contact he makes hard contact. One thing to keep in mind: He's already 24, turns 25 in September, so he's a fairly polished player for a rookie. Not saying he won't get better -- as Justin detailed, he's already made some positive adjustments at the plate -- but he may be close to his ceiling right now.
  • Speaking of players who may need to make some adjustments, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs looks at Mike Trout's relative "struggles" offensively. Trout leads the AL in strikeouts, and the pitches he's whiffing on more often compared to last year are pitches up in the zone. He's 0-for-21 with 11 walks and 19 strikeouts on plate appearances ending on pitches up in the zone (or above). Last year he was 15-for-86 (.174) but with 42 walks and 38 strikeouts.
  • Patrick Hruby with a profile of Scott Boras and his long client list of players on the Washington Nationals. With Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon three of the those players, the future of the Nationals' is linked directly with Boras.
  • Joe Posnanski celebrates batting average as he wonders about the direction the game is taking. Here's a stat to consider: Last year, 105 players struck out 105 times. This year, 119 players are on pace to do so. Just 20 years ago in 1993, 42 players struck out 100 times. There is no end in sight.
  • In fact, on a similar tangent, in this piece (pay) Bill James write about the best hitters who had a bad strikeout-to-walk ratio. His best season under his method was Andres Galarraga in 1993, who hit .370 with 22 home runs in 120 games despite 74 K's and just 24 walks. His best career hitter was Willie Stargell, who had 1,936 strikeouts and 936 walks (and 227 of those were intentional). Stargell did have three seasons with 80-plus walks but he had other years where he didn't walk much and he struck out a lot for his generation (he averaged 118 K's per season between 1965 and 1976). Anyway, Bill also writes, "We appear to be headed to the time at which every major league hitter without exception will have more strikeouts than walks. Until doing this study, I hadn’t realized had close we had come to that point." Last year, only Norichika Aoki, Edwin Encarnacion, Marco Scutaro and Albert Callaspo had more walks than K's (minimum 400 PAs.). Among qualified batters this year, we have Victor Martinez, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto, Jed Lowrie, Prince Fielder (although he eventually fall off the qualified list), Carlos Ruiz, Ben Zobrist and Kurt Suzuki, while Anthony Rizzo and Michael Brantley are even. We'll see if all those guys can keep it going.
  • Remember Ben Revere's first career home run the other day? Here are 16 facts about that from FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan.
  • The draft is next week and Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus asks (pay): How good are teams at predicting the future? He studied the 2003-2008 drafts, using signing bonus as a predictor and studying the correlation between signing bonus and career WAR. Lots of math in there, but he concludes: "It is true that teams are better at pricing college players than high-school grads. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, because they have at least three more years of data to draw from with the college kids. The high-school kids are more likely to be high-volatility types, and that makes for a poor correlation. Contrary to popular belief, hitters do not end up being safer (or at least more properly priced) bets than pitchers." I wonder if the college players are priced better simply because they may have less leverage than a high school player? Not sure if he factored that in or not.
  • Remember when Nick Markakis was going to be a big star? He's never matched his numbers from his first two seasons -- his offense started sliding right when the rest of baseball's did -- and while he's hitting .301 this year he's not hitting for much power (three home runs). Nate Delong of Camden Depot chronicles Markakis' secret platoon issue.
  • Several of the SweetSpot blogs have podcasts you should check out if you're a fan of that team. Here's one from It's About the Money (Yankees).
  • Callum Hughson breaks down the keys to Mark Buehrle's early success. One reason: Dioner Navarro is calling the pitches instead of J.P. Arencibia, resulting in a different mix of pitches. By the way, the Jays are 10-1 when Buehrle starts and 22-21 when somebody not named Buehrle starts.
  • The Braves finally called up Tommy La Stella to give him a shot at second base.
  • The Nationals have had the worst offense in the NL in May. It's not a good team right now and the rotation hasn't been near as dominant as expected. I'll have more on the Nats on Saturday.
  • Robin Ventura had an odd intentional walk Wednesday night. Or a bad one. The White Sox still won, but I'm with James Fegan:: You don't walk Jason Giambi (becoming the go-ahead run) to pitch to Yan Gomes.
  • Seth Stohs argues that Josmil Pinto needs to play more for the Twins.
  • How are those top prospects doing for the Cubs?
  • For some reason, Paul Goldschmidt's walk rate is way down this year. Jeff Wiser takes a closer look.


First-place Jays have had to adapt, adjust

May, 27, 2014
May 27
10:00
AM ET
The first-place Toronto Blue Jays? We’re coming up on finishing the first third of the season, and it’s a fun thing to think about: The first-place Blue Jays, for real. But how did they get there?

It’s easy to put down where they are to a couple of big developments: Mark Buehrle’s big start, 8-1 with the team going 9-1 in his 10 turns, or Edwin Encarnacion’s 13 home runs in May, or Jose Bautista staying healthy while posting an OPS north of .900 for the first time since 2011. Melky Cabrera is hitting and staying out of trouble (so far). Jose Reyes has played more games than he has missed.

Those are the things that, when they work, you congratulate yourself, because that’s all part of any master plan GM Alex Anthopoulos would have for how the Blue Jays contend. What’s interesting about where they’re at isn’t just the good things working out the way you’d like, it’s the other things that they’ve had to do. It’s the things they’ve had to fix, the elective decisions they’re making, to help themselves do even better.

Take their infield. Initially, they gave organizational soldier Ryan Goins a big chunk of the second-base job, figuring he’d split time with veteran utility infielder Maicer Izturis. Then Izturis tore up his knee, Goins didn’t hit, and predictably enough neither did veteran subs Munenori Kawasaki and Chris Getz. So, with all that failing to stick, the Jays got creative.

They’d already lucked into Juan Francisco’s availability at the end of spring training, signing him after he was cut by the Milwaukee Brewers, then employing the lefty slugger to good effect when DH Adam Lind got hurt. Looking at the wreck of their middle infield, they decided to try Francisco at third base despite years of scouting reports and weak performance to warn them against it. But they figured they were better off resuming the experiment with Brett Lawrie at second rather than continue futzing around with the scrappy second-base types most teams might accept -- Goins or Getz, it hardly mattered, use either and you’re probably not goin’ to getz anywhere.

So, at a time when offense is down, the Jays made the choice to play for runs instead of defense, and it’s working. They’re averaging 4.9 runs per game with a deep lineup capable of trading blows with the league-leading Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A’s. For the Jays, it’s a multi-positional platoon, one in which Lawrie flips between second and third base while playing every day, with Francisco at third base against righties and journeyman Steve Tolleson at second base against lefties, exploiting the .832 OPS the former Twins farmhand has put up in his abbreviated big-league career against southpaws. They’re 18-8 since Francisco’s first start at the hot corner on May 3 after starting the year 12-14. They’re 9-1 in the games Tolleson has started against a lefty, beating guys like Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson and Scott Kazmir.

How does this work? Well, sure, as Francisco is slugging above .600 reflects, some guys can have a great 100 at-bats or so. But perhaps more importantly the Blue Jays are using guys for what they can do where they can do it, instead of getting hung up on what they can’t. Take Francisco: Built with the range of your average home appliance, he probably isn’t going to be an average third baseman in the major leagues. So what? Aspire to adequacy, and that’s what you get, and you might miss out on what the guy can do: Crush right-handed pitching with regular playing time, slugging over .500 in his extended minor-league career. A corner is exactly where you can hide his bat, where he might see only two or three chances per game. Yes, he’ll strike out a third of the time. He’ll also crank out a .200 Isolated Power at a time when finding people who can contribute on offense isn’t so easy.

But let’s also credit manager John Gibbons for pushing for runs. Take Monday’s game: Up by two in the fifth with nobody out, his lineup just chased Erik Bedard, so the Rays have Alex Colome come in to face Tolleson -- who’d already homered -- and Gibbons pulls Tolleson anyway to exploit the offensive advantage and bat Francisco against the righty, and devil take the subsequent defensive risks. Francisco walked, the inning just got bigger, and two more runs would score to put the Rays down for keeps. In an era when pitching substitutions and their effectiveness usually define in-game initiative, it was nice to see someone in the dugout take it back on offense and win a matchup game because he had the option, and he used it.

The flip side of this is to note that the Jays have to play for runs, because of the other thing that isn’t working for them in the early going: Their rotation, and seeing what they’re going to do about it. Outside of Buehrle’s turns, they’re 21-22 overall, and they’ve gotten just nine quality starts in 31 games from the rotation outside of those made by Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. They need better.

Someone like J.A. Happ might make for an adequate No. 4 or 5 in a contender’s rotation. And you can get excited about what Drew Hutchinson might become if you just look at his strikeout and walk rates and his FIP, but that’s only going to so far when he keeps getting clobbered the second time through the order (.825 OPS before Monday’s slugfest), or the third (.855). Maybe he’ll adjust, maybe not.

But if Hutchinson doesn’t become the third horse they really need, the Jays have a rotation that’s going to keep putting them in the slugfests that their offense will have to win for them. That’s fine as long as it’s going good, and creating leads that their excellent relief trio of Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Steve Delabar protect and hand off to closer Casey Janssen. But you’d like to see the Jays adapt their plan in-season again by adding an arm, and not just because banking on Brandon Morrow’s comeback from the DL at some point in July would be optimistic.

Sometimes contention is a matter of building on both the ideal and the unexpected. Given that the Jays can be happy to be where they are, here’s hoping they take some more chances to stay there.


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

Keep an eye on Buehrle-Kluber matchup

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
10:00
AM ET
Let's put this afternoon's pitchers in the Toronto Blue Jays-Cleveland Indians matchup side by side.

Mark Buehrle has an 0.86 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and .221 opponents' batting average in his first three starts of the season.

Corey Kluber has a 5.40 ERA, 1.68 WHIP and .347 opponents' batting average in his first three starts of the season.

On the surface, the numbers look similar in only one regard (Buehrle's strikeout-to-walk ratio is 16-2, Kluber's is 16-3), but …


Mark Buehrle has gotten his fair share of outs on hard-hit balls in 2014.

Buehrle has allowed 16 batted balls that have been classified as hard-hit by Inside Edge's video-tracking system.

Kluber has allowed only 15.

They've each allowed hard-hit balls in 20 percent of the at-bats against them this season.

The difference in their performance this season is what has happened on those hard-hit balls.

Opponents are 6-for-16 with three singles and three doubles when hitting the ball hard against Buehrle. Against Kluber, opponents are 10-for-15 with two singles, six doubles and two home runs when hitting the ball hard.

Buehrle has benefited from his outfielders being able to chase down fly balls. In his last start against the Orioles alone, there were three warning-track fly outs that had they had a little bit more carry to them, would have gone over the fence and produced four more runs.

Kluber has not been as fortunate. Balls are falling in against him with a bit more frequency, not necessarily an abnormal one, but one that has been damaging to his overall performance nonetheless.

The gap between the two is much smaller if you take a look at a stat like FIP (fielding independent pitching), which estimates ERA based on strikeouts, walks and homers allowed. Buehrle's is 1.95. Kluber's is 3.22.

So forgive us if we like Kluber to bounce back this afternoon and for Buehrle to fall back to earth just a little bit.
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.
1. Tony Cingrani

Michael Wacha was the more-hyped sophomore in Wednesday's matchup, but Cingrani had a stellar rookie season in his own right, going 7-4 with a 2.92 ERA in 104.2 innings with 120 strikeouts. While Wacha is a more conventional pitcher with a four-pitch repertoire, Cingrani throws primarily fastballs. Last season, among pitchers with at least 100 innings, only Bartolo Colon threw a higher percentage of fastballs than Cingrani's 81.7 percent. What makes Cingrani even more unique and wonderful is that he isn't overpowering; he throws hard enough but his average fastball velocity of 91.8 mph is hardly Randy Johnson territory.

He pitches up in the strike zone, with a deceptive delivery that hides the ball well. Batters seem to have a hard time reading the pitch for some reason, leading to a high strikeout rate so far in his career.

Against the Cardinals, 75 of his 92 pitches were fastballs, nearly all of them high fastballs -- only eight of those 75 fastballs were in the lower third of the strike zone or below. His average velocity of 92.7 mph was a tick higher than last year. But it works. He gets batters out. He pitched seven scoreless innings.

Tony Cingrani ESPN Stats & Info
2. James Paxton

Mariners left-hander Paxton was making his fifth career major league start. He looked great in four September starts last year (3-0, 1.50 ERA), but that was on the heels of a mediocre, up-and-down season at Triple-A Tacoma (4.45 ERA). Against the Angels on Wednesday, he threw seven shutout innings, allowing just two hits, two walks and nine strikeouts. His final fastball of the game was clocked at 97 mph.

Like Cingrani, Paxton relies a lot on that fastball -- 56 of his 99 pitches were fastballs. But he mixed in 35 curveballs and sliders and those two pitches registered seven of his nine strikeouts: Locate the fastball, put hitters away with the offspeed stuff. On this day, it's clear what Paxton's game plan was and he executed if perfectly: Spot that fastball low and away to lefties, down and in to righties. The heat map shows that he pounded that corner:

James Paxton ESPN Stats & Info
3. Mark Buehrle

Our third lefty of the night is the veteran Buehrle. His 187th career victory in the Blue Jays' win over the Rays was one of his best -- with 11 strikeouts, he registered double-digit whiffs for just the second time in his career. His Game Score of 86 ranks seventh on his career list (his no-hitter in 2007 and perfect game in 2009 rank 1-2). Not bad for a guy whose fastest pitch of the night was 83.8 mph. If he was pitching in high school with that kind of velocity he wouldn't even get drafted.

How does he do it? Smarts, command, deception, control, brains, location, smarts, command, deception ... He threw 108 pitches -- 39 "fast" balls, 22 changeups, 20 sliders, 18 curveballs and nine cutters. Five different pitches but he attacks the same general area: A completely different approach than Paxton or Cingrani. Sixty-two percent of his pitches were strikes even though only 42 percent were actually in the strike zone; Buehrle has made a lot of money getting batters to chase pitches just off the plate. (Interestingly, Paxton had the same 42 percent of pitches in the strike zone.)

Mark BuehrleESPN Stats & Info
Welcome back, Tim Hudson, even if you do look a little strange in that Giants uniform.

In a day and evening of masterful starting pitching performances, Hudson’s may have been the most important. Making his first regular-season start since that gruesome fractured ankle ended his season last July, Hudson’s debut with the Giants was brilliant, that great sinker of his dipping and diving and leaving the Diamondbacks flailing at air and pounding worm burners into the ground.

Hudson threw 103 pitches in his 7 2/3 innings, 74 strikes, and put a zero in the run column while allowing three hits and no walks as the Giants won 2-0. Fifteen of his outs were registered via a groundball (eight) or strikeout (seven). At 38 and coming off a serious injury, there had to be some question marks about what Hudson could bring a Giants rotation that struggled last season behind ace Madison Bumgarner. How good was he? His Game Score of 80 was Hudson’s highest since throwing eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts on Sept. 17, 2011.

Hudson went 8-7 with a 3.97 ERA in 21 starts for the Braves last year and the Giants need that kind of performance -- or something a little better. The Giants’ rotation last year was pretty much a disaster, despite its “We won two World Series” reputation. Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong took the brunt of the punishment, but Matt Cain struggled for two months and Tim Lincecum’s ERA was also over 4.00. As a group, the Giants ranked 22nd in rotation ERA and 27th in FanGraphs WAR -- worse than the Twins or Cubs.

For one game at least, it was vintage Hudson. And that’s a wonderful thing.

* * * *

Welcome back, Michael Wacha. Last year’s October rookie sensation picked up where he left off (well, we’ll ignore that final World Series start) with 6 2/3 scoreless innings, three hits allowed and seven K’s. Wacha's changeup was just as dominant as last season as the Reds went 0-for-10 against it with four strikeouts. He may not even have been the best pitcher in the game, however. Fellow sophomore Tony Cingrani, with his deceptive motion and array of high fastballs (75 of his 92 pitches were fastballs, almost all of them up in the zone), was sensational for the Reds, striking out nine while allowing two hits in his seven innings. The Reds finally scraped across a run in the bottom of the ninth, with Chris Heisey’s pinch-hit single off Carlos Martinez with bases loaded winnng it. With two 1-0 games already in the books, you get the feeling the Cardinals and Reds are going to play a lot of tense, low-scoring games against each other.

* * * *

What kind of night was it? Wacha and Cingrani may not have been the most impressive young pitchers on the evening. Seattle’s James Paxton, who impressed in four outings last September, looked wicked nasty in an 8-2 win over the Angels. He tossed seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and two hits, touching 98 on the radar gun, throwing 97 in the seventh inning and inducing several ugly looking swings from the Angels. Paxton’s command has always been the issue coming up with through minors but 64 of his 99 pitches were strikes. Not all of those were in the strike zone (42 percent were classified as in the zone), as he got the Angels chasing his two-seamer that often tailed out of the zone. His fastball really rides in on right-handed batters and he used his curveball as his out pitch -- five of his nine K’s came off his curve. The Mariners swept the Angels in impressive fashion.

* * * *

Then there was Mark Buehrle, who registered just the second double-digit strikeout game of his career with 11 Ks in Toronto's 3-0 win over the Rays -- one short of his career high set way back in 2005. Unlike Paxton, he did not reach 98 mph. In fact, his fastest pitch of the night was 83.8 mph. Like Paxton though, just 42 percent of the pitches he threw were actually in the strike zone. Paxton got hitters to chase due to his pure stuff; Buehrle got hitters to chase because he’s one smart, wily veteran who still knows how to pitch.

* * * *

P.S.: In a day game, Matt Garza and Aaron Harang both took no-hitters into the seventh.

P.P.S: I didn’t even mention Max Scherzer.

P.P.P.S: Closers, on the hand, were brutal. They blew six saves.

Sizzling Blue Jays won't just streak and fade

June, 23, 2013
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Now that the Blue Jays have rattled off a 10-game win streak, we’re almost back to what I think we all expected in the American League East when the season started: a five-team race where nobody -- nobody -- should be considered the automatic favorite. After all, isn’t that what the Baltimore Orioles taught us last year, after months of confident, thoughtful assertions that they would regress, retreat or recoil short of the postseason?

SportsNation

Which team will win the AL East?

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    20%
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    18%
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    7%
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    49%
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    6%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,391)

What’s interesting about the Jays clambering past .500 to get back into the thick of things in baseball’s drama division isn’t that they’ve done it; more than a few people pegged this team to win as confidently as they did the Nationals before Opening Day, after all. What’s interesting is how they’re doing it, and who they’re doing it with.

  • After years of disappointment as a homegrown, big-ticket investment, Adam Lind is delivering for the first time in years, slugging almost .700 for the month of June. Spotted with care, he’s even hitting those lefties he remains in the lineup to face (OPS 1.030) after years of having problems hitting against them (.626 career).
  • Lind is far from the only surprise hero in the lineup. Colby Rasmus has put up an .861 OPS over the past 30 days, providing a nice reminder that it wasn’t very long ago that he was considered one of the best prospects in the game (including third overall before the 2009 season on Baseball America’s top prospect list). He’s still just 26 years old this season, and after a two-year hiccup, it isn’t inconceivable that his year is for real. An even bigger surprise has been Munenori Kawasaki going from scrap-heap sub at shortstop -- stepping in for Jose Reyes, no less -- to someone providing a .347 OBP.
  • The rotation has been made a shambles by ineffectiveness (R.A. Dickey has just one quality start in the past month), injuries (fragile young gun Josh Johnson has already missed nine starts) or, in the case of the maddeningly promising Brandon Morrow, both. But setbacks for some create opportunities for others. Chien-Ming Wang has provided innings and winnable games and converted shortstop Esmil Rogers has had a couple of good starts. More significantly, Johnson is back in action and Mark Buehrle is already turned around after a slow start, rattling off quality starts in six of his last eight turns.
  • [+] EnlargeMark Buehrle
    AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Frank GunnMark Buehrle, part of the Jays' big offseason deal with Miami, has come on after a bumpy start.
    But perhaps the most impressive element of the Blue Jays’ run back to relevance has been their bullpen. On the year, its numbers aren’t amazing, allowing 3.5 runs scored per nine and a decidedly average 32 percent of inherited runners to score. But over the past 30 days, the Toronto relievers have gotten tremendous work from a no-name crew fronted by closer Casey Janssen. In that time, skipper John Gibbons’ most frequently used quintet (Janssen, Steve Delabar and Neil Wagner, plus lefties Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup) have pitched 52 times, tossing 58.1 innings while giving up just 1.4 runs per nine. They’ve delivered a 65:16 strikeout:walk ratio in that time. Cecil’s been especially effective, allowing just four baserunners in 16 innings against 20 whiffs. And as much trouble as the Jays’ rotation has been, the bullpen has had to pitch an MLB-leading 267.1 innings, so while its overall RA/9 or Fair Run Average (4.41 according to Baseball Prospectus) hasn’t been earth-shattering, it’s the volume of useful innings plus the pen's recent performance that has been crucial to the Jays' success. As much as any bullpen can be a crapshoot in terms of making too much of small sample sizes, it would be fair to say the Jays’ pen has been a lovely surprise in a moment of need for innings, and Gibbons seems to be getting a lot more mileage out of his unit than other, more famous skippers are getting out of other, more famous (or expensive) assemblages of relief talent.

All of which might lead you to make assertions every bit as confident as last year’s about the Orioles, that surely the Jays can’t keep this up. It would be easy to infer that these are all just the symptoms of victory. And that’s sensible: Keeping your expectations low for guys like Rogers or Wang or Kawasaki is entirely reasonable, and based on an awful lot of direct observation. Is Lind going to slug .700 from here on out? Of course not; who do you think he is -- Chris Davis? These are the guys the regression fairy is liable to clobber with a two-by-four.

But what has helped get the Jays this far doesn’t have to be what leverages the Jays even further into the AL East race. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are bashing -- and they should. In the rotation, Johnson is already back, and Morrow might be before the All-Star break; that could lighten the load on the pen, while keeping more games in reach for the Jays’ homer-happy lineup. The feeble production the Jays have gotten from most of their infield slots will almost certainly improve once Reyes and Brett Lawrie come back in a week or so.

In short, what has gotten the Blue Jays this far doesn’t have to be what they win with in the second half. They can thank their surprise heroes for helping get them back into this thing, but the Jays have a tremendous opportunity to build off this run once they’re back at full strength. In many respects, you can look at the Jays’ slow 13-24 start this year as being very much like what happened to them in 1989, when they started out 12-24 -- and nevertheless came back to win the AL East with 89 wins. In a division where it looks like everybody is going to knock everyone else down, keeping all five teams in the race, that sounds very familiar indeed.

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

 
If you're younger than 28 or so, you don't remember when the Toronto Blue Jays were the preeminent franchise in Major League Baseball, unless you're Canadian and weaned on sports history other than Paul Henderson. They won American League East titles in 1985, 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1993 and World Series titles in '92 and '93. They had a gleaming new modern stadium that was the envy of other teams, packed every night (the Jays drew more than 4 million fans each season from 1991-93, averaging better than 50,000 per game in 1993), and had a team of stars -- Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter and Jack Morris and Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield and homegrown talent like John Olerud, Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen, and were bold enough to pick up rental players like David Cone and Rickey Henderson during their championship runs.

After 20 years, the Blue Jays are back. Baseball hasn't died in Toronto -- the Jays have certainly been competitive -- but it has been dormant. But watching R.A. Dickey pitch the team's opener before a sold-out Rogers Centre -- backed by the likes of Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and last year's 42-homer man, Edwin Encarnacion -- is a reminder of those halcyon days when Toronto was the baseball capital of the world.

The game didn't go Toronto's way, as Dickey struggled a bit with commanding the knuckleball, walking four (give credit to Cleveland's hitters for showing a lot of patience) as the Indians won, 4-1. Dickey walked four in a game just twice during his 2012 Cy Young campaign with the Mets, but if there's consolation for Jays fans, one of those came in the season opener. Let's not read too much into Dickey's outing and overanalyze things like pitching indoors or moving to the American League or whatever. It just wasn't his night and I'm chalking it up as nothing more.

[+] EnlargeR.A. Dickey
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesR.A. Dickey, left, allowed four walks in his Blue Jays debut -- something he did in his 2012 opener, too.
Asdrubal Cabrera golfed out what looked like a pretty good low tumbler for a two-run homer in the fifth and also made the key play of the game, stopping Adam Lind's hard smash with the bases loaded and none out in the third to start a nifty double play. Justin Masterson settled down after that and survived his own four-walk opener.

The main thing I liked about Toronto's offseason is that -- like Pat Gillick back in the day when he traded Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff for Alomar and Carter or acquired Cone and Henderson -- general manager Alex Anthopoulos made the bold moves to acquire Dickey, sign Melky Cabrera and pull off the blockbuster deal with the Marlins. Considering the Tommy John surgeries handed out to young starters Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, and the struggles of Ricky Romero, it could have been easy to say 2013 would be a holding pattern as the Jays waited for the next wave of youngsters to arrive.

After all, isn't that what you're supposed to do these days? Develop your own talent, and if you're lucky enough to have them turn into Justin Verlander or Buster Posey, break the bank to sign them to long-term deals. But the Jays seized advantage of a market opportunity to acquire proven big league stars! Imagine that.

It's just one night, so let's not overreact here, but as much as I like the top four of the Jays' lineup -- Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Encarnacion -- I do see potential on-base issues in the bottom of the lineup. Brett Lawrie is out another couple weeks and he'll hold down the five-hole when he returns, but it's not like he tore it up in 2012 (.273/.324/.405). Though, he's only 23 and a good bet to improve. With him sidelined, the Jays had Lind (.314 OBP in 2012), J.P. Arencibia (.275 OBP) and Colby Rasmus (.289 OBP) hitting fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. That's simply just not a championship-quality 5-6-7 trio unless they improve.

But I'll still buy into Toronto's potential to run away with the AL East if everything breaks right. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson could be as good as any top four in the league, and Bautista and Encarnacion could combine for 85 home runs with Reyes easily leading the league in runs. Opening Day is a day to believe, and one loss doesn't change that. I suspect we'll see a few more sellouts at the Rogers Centre.

Offseason report card: Blue Jays

February, 7, 2013
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2012 in review
Record: 73-89 (74-88 Pythagorean)
716 runs scored (7th in AL)
784 runs allowed (11th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Traded Henderson Alvarez, Yunel Escobar, Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jeff Mathis and Anthony DeSclafani to the Marlins for Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck. Traded Buck, Travis d'Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard and Wuilmer Becerra to the Mets for R.A. Dickey, Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas. Signed free agents Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis. Picked up option on Darren Oliver. Lost free agent Kelly Johnson. Acquired Mike Aviles from the Red Sox (for manager John Farrell and David Carpenter) and traded Aviles and Yan Gomes to the Indians for Esmil Rogers. Signed Dickey to a two-year extension with 2016 club option. Named John Gibbons manager.

That's what I call an exciting offseason. It may even have pushed the Maple Leafs off the front page of the sports section for a few days. GM Alex Anthopoulos picked up the NL Cy Young winner, a guy who has pitched 200-plus innings 12 seasons in a row, a guy coming off a season in which he hit .346 (and, yes, got suspended for a positive PED test), a shortstop who has compiled the third-most wins above replacement at the position over the past two seasons (or most, depending which version of WAR you prefer), a starter who led the NL in ERA in 2010, and a solid utility guy who has swiped 73 bases the past two years.

What did he give up? Of the prospects traded, d'Arnaud (14), Nicolino (62), Marisnick (82) and Syndergaard (97) ranked in Keith Law's top 100 prospects Insider. The Blue Jays' farm system, which would have been ranked in the top five, now ranks 24th. In this era when general managers don't want to make that fatal mistake, kudos to AA for pulling off the deals (and ownership for approving the salary influx, which should increase Toronto's payroll by an estimated $30 million or so).

Position Players

Despite Edwin Encarnacion's monster 42-homer breakout season, the Blue Jays' offense was a big disappointment in 2012, and not just because Jose Bautista played only 92 games. Brett Lawrie was OK in his first full season but underperformed expectations. Adam Lind had another underwhelming season. Overall, the main problem was getting on base -- the Blue Jays' .309 OBP ranked 13th of 14 teams in the AL. Some of those guys are gone, but Colby Rasmus (.289), J.P. Arencibia (.275) and Lind (.314) are still projected as regulars.

How many more runs can we expect the Jays to score? Here are some quick back-of-the-napkins numbers for the new guys in the lineup:

Cabrera replaces Rajai Davis/others: 85 runs created versus 65; +20 runs.
Reyes replaces Escobar: 86 runs created versus 53; +33 runs.
Izturis/Bonifacio replaces Johnson/others: 70 runs created versus 68; +2 runs.


Total: +55 runs.

That's about five wins, not factoring in defense. Defensive runs saved rated Escobar at plus-14 runs in 2012, Reyes at minus-16 (he hasn't had a positive DRS since 2007). So it's possible the Jays are giving back a couple of those wins on defense at shortstop. Of course, the Jays are hoping for a full season from Bautista, improvement from Lawrie and Rasmus, and another big year from Encarnacion.

I think it's a good lineup but not a great one. I still see some OBP holes, and Cabrera and Encarnacion will be hard-pressed to repeat their 2012 numbers. If Lawrie and Rasmus take a leap -- much more likely in Lawrie's case -- it could be a great offense, but I'm holding back for now.


Pitching Staff

I expect the Jays to make bigger gains on the pitching end of things. After a 2012 season that saw Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison all miss time (Tommy John surgery in the cases of Drabek and Hutchison) and staff ace Ricky Romero struggle through a miserable 5.77 ERA, the Jays could end up with the best rotation in the majors after posting a 4.82 team ERA last year.

Although there is A-plus upside to this group, there are obvious reservations, primarily in the health and durability of Morrow and Johnson. Morrow had a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts -- after years of underperforming his peripherals -- but he never has pitched 180 innings in a season. Johnson did make 31 starts for the Marlins after missing most of 2011, although he wasn't quite the dominant pitcher he had been in 2010. Dickey takes his knuckleball back to the American League, and, although he might have had his career season, maybe he hasn't. Romero will get another shot, but J.A. Happ pitched well after coming over from the Astros and is a solid No. 6 guy.

Toronto's bullpen had the worst ERA in the AL last year. It won't be the worst this year. Casey Janssen has a solid track, and Sergio Santos returns from his injury to compete for the closer role. Rookie Aaron Loup (21-2 SO-BB ratio) looked very good late in the season, and Anthopoulos might have stolen hard-throwing Steve Delabar from the Mariners. He curbed his home run problems after coming over and struck out 46 in 29 1/3 innings with the Jays. He could emerge as an important late-inning weapon.

Heat Map to Watch
Was Encarnacion's season a fluke? At age 29, he hit 42 home runs and 110 RBIs, after never having hit more than 26 before. But the Jays apparently did a couple of things with Encarnacion's approach, most notably having him keep both hands on the bat throughout the swing. As this article points out, he also did a better job laying off pitches out of the strike zone. And he did a better job attacking fastballs, hitting .315/.411/.633 against them after hitting .289/.370/.482 in 2011. As the heat map shows, he likes those high fastballs.

Edwin EncarnacionESPN Stats & InformationWarning to pitchers: Edwin Encarnacion likes those high fastballs.
Overall Grade

SportsNation

How many games will the Blue Jays win?

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    33%
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    49%
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    15%
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    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,030)

There's no doubting the upside of this club. Should the Jays be the World Series favorites, as one Vegas book has them? I don't know about that. Still, if Bautista and Encarnacion become the first pair of teammates to hit 40 home runs since Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome with the 2006 White Sox, and if Gibbons gets 60 starts from Morrow and Johnson, I can see a 95-win club.

What we don't know is how tough the AL East will be. On paper, it could be five teams all beating the snot out of each other. Or maybe one will rise above the rest. What do you think?

Over/under: Wins for White Sox

March, 15, 2012
3/15/12
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"I think we're going to be a lot better than some people think -- a lot better," Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams said Wednesday to CBSSports' Danny Knobler.

SportsNation

Over/under prediction: 77.5 wins for White Sox

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    50%
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    50%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,698)

The White Sox won 79 games a year ago, a pretty remarkable achievement considering Adam Dunn hit .159 (lowest ever for a player with 450 plate appearances), Alex Rios had a .265 OBP (one of the 10 lowest figures ever for an outfielder with 500 PAs), Gordon Beckham hit .230 with a .296 OBP, Brent Morel posted a .287 OBP and Juan Pierre played 157 games.

That, my friends, is a lot of bad hitting.

The bad news is all those guys except Pierre are back. The good news is that they can't do any worse. The White Sox lost longtime starter Mark Buehrle and outfielder Carlos Quentin (second on the team in home runs and RBIs in 2011) via free agency. In their spots will be Chris Sale, moving from the bullpen, and prospect Dayan Viciedo. The rotation will count on better seasons from John Danks (4.37 ERA) and Jake Peavy (4.92 in 18 starts) and a repeat performance from 2011 surprise Philip Humber. Gavin Floyd fills out what could be a solid rotation, although one lacking a No. 1-type ace.

The bullpen is minus closer Sergio Santos, traded to the Blue Jays, but the White Sox believe they have depth with Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, rookie Addison Reed and Will Ohman.

But it's the offense that will decide the fate of the 2012 White Sox. Do you believe in comebacks? If so, maybe you'll take the over on the betting line of 77.5 wins.
JohnsonRonald C. Modra/Getty ImagesAfter making just nine starts in 2011, the Marlins are hoping for a full season from ace Josh Johnson.
I like to do a rough estimate of a team's strength by starting off with their 2011 totals for runs scored and runs allowed, adding and subtracting for new players and projected performance, and see where we end up. Here is an estimate I a did a couple weeks ago on the Washington Nationals. With the Miami Marlins playing the Red Sox on ESPN this afternoon, and Tristan Cockcroft asking how Hanley Ramirez will bounce back , I thought I'd tackle the Marlins.

For all the hype around the Marlins, they won just 72 games a season ago. They scored 625 runs and allowed 702, which creates an estimated win-loss record of ... 72-90. Obviously, the Marlins move into a new park this year. Some believe it will be a better hitter's park than the old place. We haven't factored this into the numbers below.

Catcher: John Buck, Brett Hayes
Buck carried one of the heaviest workloads of any catcher in 2011, starting 129 games. I'd suggest the heat and humidity of the Florida summer caught up to him, but he hit just as poorly in the first half as the second half, and his .687 OPS was a fry cry from the .802 OPS he posted with the Blue Jays in 2010, when he made the AL All-Star team. Of course, 2010 was his career-year, his OPS+ of 87 essentially matches his career mark of 89. In other words, expect more of 2011, not 2010. No change.

First base: Gaby Sanchez
Sanchez made the 2011 NL All-Star team, which I think says more about the state of first base in the National League than Sanchez's abilities. He did hit .293 in the first half, but slumped to .225 in the second half, leaving his overall numbers pretty similar to what he posted as a rookie in 2010. While you might normally project growth for a third-year player, Sanchez is already 28; he's not likely to get better. He is what he is. No change.

Second base: Omar Infante
After hitting .309 from 2008 to 2010 in part-time role with the Braves, Infante was exposed a bit as an everyday player and hit just .276. He played a good second base, and I do believe he can do a little better with the bat as his BABIP was .298, down from .343 over the previous three seasons. Let's give an extra five runs here.

Third base: Hanley Ramirez
Marlins third basemen weren't a complete disaster in 2011, hitting .260/.315/.347, but with just six home runs and 44 RBIs. Believe it or not, that OPS was 12th in the NL. Anyway, a healthy Ramirez will obviously be a huge upgrade. For all the concern about Ramirez handling the move to third base, the other part of the equation is Ramirez has fallen off the plate the past few seasons, from .342 to .300 to .243. Most of the projection systems have Ramirez creating 90 to 100 runs, about what he produced in 2010 (97), but fewer than 2009 (122). Let's give 100 runs created here. Last season, Marlins third basemen created about 69 runs, so that's a 31-run improvement.

Shortstop: Jose Reyes
While Ramirez struggled at the plate in 2011, Emilio Bonifacio did a nice job filling in when Ramirez was injured. Marlins shortstops created about 87 runs. Reyes created about 105 runs a year ago -- in 126 games. Of course, he hit a career-best .337, which led to career-bests in on-base percentage and slugging percentage as well. The projection systems estimate Reyes around 80 to 85 runs created in a similar amount of playing time -- hitting about .300 with a .350 OBP. Let's give him 85 runs created and a few more for his substitute, giving 105 overall, an 18-run improvement. Certainly, that's probably conservative. Maybe Reyes stays healthy for 150 games and creates 115 runs.

Left field: Logan Morrison
Marlins left fielders (mostly Morrison) created 92 runs in 2011. Morrison is certainly capable of improving upon his .247/.330/.468 line, especially in the on-base department. I'm looking for a 15-run improvement.

Center field: Emilio Bonifacio
Chris Coghlan, Mike Cameron and Bryan Petersen each started at least 35 games in center a season ago. None exactly tore it up, and Marlins center fielders posted a collective .317 OBP with 14 home runs, worth about 76 runs created. Bonifacio, serving as a full-time utility guy, hit .296/.360/.393 and swiped 40 bases. He doesn't have any power, and the .360 OBP might be a little over his head, so the projections systems are a little down on him. All told, some combination of Benifacio, Coghlan and Petersen should do a little better. I'll call for an additional nine runs.

Right field: Giancarlo Stanton
Stanton hit .262/.356/.537 with 34 home runs as a 21-year-old. He could explode on the league this year (in fact, I like him as a sleeper MVP selection). I'm going plus-13 runs, and I believe that's a safe prediction.

Leaving aside pinch-hitting and pitchers' hitting, that adds up to a 91-run improvement. That would take the Marlins up from 625 runs (11th in the NL) to 716 runs (seventh in the NL, based on 2011 figures, but just 19 behind No. 2 Cincinnati and Colorado).

Now to the pitching. In 2011, Marlins starters allowed 486 runs in 944.1 innings or 4.6 per nine. Ace Josh Johnson went down after nine starts, but the Marlins received 29-plus starts from four other pitchers. Let's break down the rotation into five slots:



And here's how the rotation stacks up for 2012, using estimates based on various projection systems:



Old guys: 162 starts, 944.1 IP, 486 runs
New guys: 154 starts, 958 IP, 430 runs

Now, you can argue that's too optimistic, getting 154 starts from five pitchers -- after all, Johnson made 33 starts in 2009, but just 37 over the past two seasons, and Zambrano's durability is also an issue -- but that's what we're going with for now. Obviously, you can do your own adjustments if you don't believe Johnson will make 30 starts. Anyway, add in eight more starts at 40 innings and 25 runs (a low estimate of 5.6 runs per nine) and you end up with 998 innings and 455 runs allowed, a 31-run improvement.

The Marlins bullpen was pretty effective in 2011, allowing a 3.44 ERA, sixth in the NL. The big addition was bringing in Heath Bell as the closer to replace Juan Oviedo, currently on the restricted list after it was discovered he wasn't Leo Nunez. I view this as a minor upgrade; Bell has been one of the game's best closers the past three seasons, but he's also a flyball pitcher who benefited from the deep dimensions of Petco Park. His strikeout rate also took a serious plunge in 2011 (11.1 per nine to 7.3), so that's another red flag. I like some other Marlins relievers -- Steve Cishek is a sidearming groundball machine who was effective against both sides of the plate; Michael Dunn is a power lefty; Edward Mujica is a control guy who throws strikes, but can give up some home runs. If Oviedo returns, it should be a pretty deep pen. Overall, I'm going to project the Marlins' pen as being the same as 2011, when it pitched 515 innings and allowed 216 runs. Since we project more innings from the starters, we'll take some away from the bullpen, leaving it with 461 innings and 195 runs -- 21 fewer runs.

So we end up with:

Offense: +91 runs, for new total of 716 runs
Pitching: +52 runs, for new total of 650 runs

We haven't factored in defense, where the major changes will be Reyes replacing Ramirez at shortstop, and Ramirez replacing Greg Dobbs and others at third base. Baseball Info Solutions rated Marlins shortstops at minus-16 runs a year ago; Reyes rated minus-11 and hasn't rated above average on defense since 2007. At third base, the Marlins rated minus-10; we don't know how Ramirez will show at third, but I have to think he has a chance at improving on that. In center, the Marlins could also show a slight improvement, as Coghlan got the most innings out there in 2011 and he's a below-average center fielder. Overall, the Marlins could see slight improvement from their defense. Let's say 15 runs, knocking their runs allowed down to 635 runs.

This gives them an expected winning percentage of .530 -- or 86 wins.

Note: I screwed up the math in the original piece. 716 runs scored and 635 runs allowed translates to a winning percentage of .555, or 90 wins.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Robin Ventura and the trial by fire

March, 4, 2012
3/04/12
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Robin VenturaAP Photo/Jae C. HongThe team GM Kenny Williams, left, hired Robin Ventura to manage certainly has its share of holes.


Robin Ventura succeeds Ozzie Guillen as manager of the White Sox, having never managed (or coached) at any level in pro ball. Just what has he gotten himself into?

Distinguished Playing Career

Although he will be hard-pressed to make as vivid an impression as his predecessor, Ventura should be able to command the respect of his players on the basis of his own career as a player. Though he isn’t a Hall of Famer, he has certainly had a career worthy of a Cooperstown exhibit. He was a three-time All-American at Oklahoma State University, where he set the NCAA consecutive game hitting streak record of 58 (he still holds the Division I mark). He was a first-round draft pick (10th overall) of the Chicago White Sox in 1988 and made his big-league debut a year later, after only 129 games in the minors.

While never a top-10 player, with few "black ink" stats on the back of his baseball cards, his career was notable for its consistency. Though he only surpassed 100 RBIs and 30 homers twice in his 16-year career, he was a six-time Gold Glover at third, and from 1991-2003 he compiled a 117 OPS+, with no season lower than 97. Whatever foot speed he had in his youth was erased in a horrific fractured/dislocated ankle injury suffered during a spring training game in 1997. He had compiled a line of .276/.367/.442 prior to 1997, but only .256/.357/.446 from 1997 onward.

Ventura had a knack for making history with the bases loaded. On September 4, 1995, he became only the eighth player to hit two grand slams in the same game. On May 20, 1999, he became the first and only player to hit a grand slam in both games of a doubleheader. During Game Five of the 1999 National League Championship Series, he hit a walkoff slam, which turned into a "Grand Slam Single" when his trip around the bases was interrupted by a celebrating teammate who hoisted Ventura up, preventing him from touching home plate. Another memorable moment came in a game against the Rangers in 1993, when he decided he didn’t like getting hit by Nolan Ryan, and charged the mound, only to be "noogied to death" by the 46-year-old Texan.

Track record of neophyte managers

Of those who will be pacing a dugout in 2012, at least seven went into their first big-league stewardship like Ventura is now, a babe in the managerial woods. But unlike Ventura, they all had prior coaching experience. Let’s examine how those seven did in their first two seasons:

  • Dusty Baker (1993 Giants): Baker inherited a team that won 72 games in 1992. Thanks in large part to the addition of free agent Barry Bonds (who compiled a 1.136 OPS), San Francisco improved to a 103-59 record in 1993, with Baker winning NL Manager of the Year. The '94 squad slumped to a 55-60 mark in the strike-curtailed season.
  • Bob Melvin (2003 Mariners): The 2002 squad went 93-69, only good enough for third place in the highly competitive American League West and six games out of the wild card. Melvin guided the M’s to the exact same record in his first year. This time they nabbed second place in the West, but still missed the wild card by two games. Melvin’s second year saw the Mariners fall from seventh to last in the AL in runs scored, and the team went 63-99. Melvin was fired after the season.
  • Ozzie Guillen (2004 White Sox): After the Sox went 86-76 in 2003, Guillen took over in 2004 and led the team to an 83-79 finish. His second season was when the magic happened: An AL-best 99-63 record and a 11-1 postseason record culminating in the franchise’s first title since 1917.
  • Joe Girardi (2006 Marlins): The 2005 Florida squad went 83-79, and Girardi somehow guided the team with the lowest payroll in the majors in '06 to a very respectable 78-84 record. He was rewarded with the NL Manager-of-the-Year award, but not before getting fired by the Marlins due to some clashes with ownership.
  • Bud Black (2007 Padres): Black’s fortunes were similar to Melvin’s -- he barely changed the team’s record in his first year (going from 88-74 to 89-74, with that 163rd game being a loss in the wild card tiebreaker), then saw the team totally collapse in his second season (63-99).
  • Kirk Gibson (2010 Diamondbacks): The D-backs had suffered through a 70-92 campaign in 2009, and were on the same path in the middle of 2010 at 31-48 when Gibson took over. He guided them to a slightly better 34-49 finish, then surprised most pundits with an NL West Division title in 2011, going 94-68 and earning the league’s Manager-of-the-Year award.
  • John Farrell (2011 Blue Jays): After the Jays finished in fourth place in the AL East 2010 despite an 85-77 record, manager Cito Gaston retired, and Farrell was surprisingly given the reins. The Jays meandered to an 81-81 ledger in 2011, never more than four games over or five games under .500 at any point.
  • Don Mattingly (2011 Dodgers): Donnie Baseball took over for a retiring Joe Torre, who had gone 80-82 in 2010. Despite all the off-field distractions, and very little offense outside of Matt Kemp, Mattingly was able to guide the Dodgers to an 82-79 record in 2011.

Two of the most recent examples of managers being hired despite no prior managing or coaching experience have turned out poorly:

  • Buck Martinez (2001 Blue Jays): The 2000 season saw the Jim Fregosi-led Jays go 83-79. Martinez, who spent most of his post-playing career in the broadcast booth, led the ’01 squad to a similar 80-82 record; after getting off to a 20-33 start in 2002, Martinez was fired.
  • A.J. Hinch (2009 Diamondbacks): The 2008 Diamondbacks went a disappointing 82-80, and when they started out 12-17 in '09, Hinch was given the job, at the tender age of 34. He led the team to a 58-75 finish to that season, and was 31-48 in the 2010 campaign when he was replaced by ... Kirk Gibson.

As you can see, most times there is little change in year one, but major upheaval (both good and bad) in year two.

The team he will manage

Since their splendid 99-63 regular season run to the 2005 World Series title, the record of the ChiSox has been neither wretched nor exemplary. With the exception of 2007 (a 72-win campaign), they’ve won between 79 and 90 games each year. They’ve compiled a .511 winning percentage and just one playoff appearance. They rank 13th in W-L percentage during that time.

[+] EnlargeJohn Danks
Jennifer Stewart/US PresswireHow John Danks, right, performs as No. 1 starter and whether Gordon Beckham can get his OPS back on track are key questions awaiting Ventura.
But last year’s club showed some glaring weaknesses. On offense, the 2011 squad had only two regulars compile an OPS greater than .728 (the league OPS was .730) or over a 100 OPS+. There were 22 players with more than 400 plate appearances and a sub-.660 OPS during 2011, and the Sox had five of them. The team finished no higher than seventh in the AL in any offensive category. It were also the third-oldest offense in the league. On defense, committing the second-fewest errors in the AL couldn’t mask the lack of range afield, as White Sox' Defensive Efficiency ranked third from bottom. If you reached first base against the Sox, you ran, as they threw out a league-low 22 percent of stolen-base attempts. The pitching helped keep some of the pressure off of the defense, as their 7.5 K/9 and 2.78 K/BB led the AL. But they still ended up with a league-average 4.10 ERA.

In 2012, the club will face some major hurdles if it wishes to improve on last season's performance or even just to keep pace with it. The starting rotation must replacing staff ace/workhorse Mark Buehrle’s 200-plus innings. Buehrle’s 2,425 frames since 2001 are 60 more than anyone else. John Danks, who pitched better than his 4.33 ERA might suggest, assumes the No. 1 starter position, with 22-year-old Chris Sale stepping into the rotation. Philip Humber pitched more than 21 2/3 innings in the majors for the first time in 2011, by 141 innings; his BABIP was a low .276, and something may have to give in 2012. In the bullpen, Matt Thornton has been the ChiSox primary set-up man for six years, and had a shot to close last year but lost it; with the departure of Sergio Santos via trade, can the 35-year-old Thornton step up, despite a sharp drop in his K/9 rate last year (12.0 to 9.5)?

On offense, there is a growing concern over second baseman Gordon Beckham. The former first-round draft pick has seen his OPS slide from .807 to .695 to .633, though his defense has improved at second base. Third baseman Brent Morel may not be the answer at the hot corner, as his profile (a .250 doubles hitter with few walks and below-average range) is lacking for the position. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski is 35 and closing in on 1,500 games behind the plate. His 120 games at catcher last year were his lowest since 2004, and he threw out only 20 percent of runners attempting to steal, below his career mark of 24 percent. There have been only 30 player-seasons in the past 50 years where a 35-or-older catcher has managed at least a .728 OPS (as Pierzynski did last year).

Then we come to the two biggest enigmas, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. Everyone is well aware of Dunn’s legendary collapse in 2011, including his .064 batting average versus lefties. With three years and $44 million to go, can new hitting coach Jeff Manto get "The Big Donkey" standing upright again? Also, while Rios will never truly be worth the $21 million he is drawing each year through 2014, the Sox hope for something closer to the .284/.334/.457 line of 2010, rather than the .227/.265/.328 slash of 2011. They’re moving him to left field this season, where he has played one game his entire career.

Will Ventura exceed expectations?

So, Robin Ventura will certainly have his hands full (and tied) with a team that is, at best, in transition and, at worst, about to fall off a cliff. If he can move the White Sox in the right direction, it will be yet another extraordinary performance, as impressive as any of his grand slams. Given his history as a player, and the opportunity to establish a new atmosphere in the clubhouse, I think there is at least a chance he can pull it off.

Diane Firstman blogs about baseball at Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot network affiliate, and you can follow her on Twitter at @dianagram

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