SweetSpot: Matt Harrison



This isn’t where the Texas Rangers were supposed to be in 2014, a team on the precipice. They were supposed to be in the middle stages of a dynasty, maybe an epic dynasty, an organization built with sabermetric principles and great scouting and financial resources.

Think where this team was entering the 2012 season. They were coming off back-to-back World Series trips, although the second one had ended in heartbreaking, crushing defeat. But the future looked brighter than Nolan Ryan’s belt buckle. In September 2011, Grantland had run a piece titled "How television could launch a Rangers dynasty." Sure enough, the club signed Yu Darvish that winter. Baseball America ranked the Rangers' farm system as the second-best in baseball. General manager Jon Daniels had built a championship-caliber team that had payroll flexibility, young arms, foundation players such as Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre and a pipeline of talent on the way.

[+] EnlargeMartin Perez
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMartin Perez was cruising earlier this season, making his loss an even bigger deal.
Now, a quarter of the way into the current season, the Rangers face the devastating news that starting pitchers Martin Perez and Matt Harrison both might miss the rest of the season, Perez with Tommy John surgery due to a partial ligament tear in his elbow and Harrison with severe nerve irritation in his back that could require spinal surgery. Both pitchers are weighing options before determining their final course of action.

It has been a long list of injuries for the Rangers, beginning with Derek Holland tripping over his dog in early January and hurting his knee. Second baseman Jurickson Profar and catcher Geovany Soto have yet to play. Beltre missed 14 games. Opening Day starter Tanner Scheppers is currently on the disabled list.

The Rangers are 20-21 after Wednesday's loss to the Astros, almost a minor miracle considering the injuries, Prince Fielder’s slow start and a minus-32 run differential that is second-worst in the American League.

If Perez and Harrison are indeed out of the year, you can pretty much put a fork in the Rangers. Yes, you can blame the injuries, but when you build a pitching staff built on contingencies, this is what you get. On Wednesday, Nick Tepesch became the team’s ninth different starter and 21st different pitcher already, not including the outing from first baseman Mitch Moreland.

Think of how the rotation options looked heading into the season:

  • Darvish: Ace, Cy Young contender.
  • Perez: Promising arm but unproven ability to pitch a full season.
  • Scheppers: Had a low ERA as a reliever last year but a poor strikeout rate and lack of experience starting in the minors suggested the transition to the rotation was unlikely to work out (he has a 9.82 ERA in four starts).
  • Robbie Ross: Pitched out of the bullpen the past two years but no certainty his stuff would play up as a starter.
  • Harrison: Trying to come back after missing nearly all of 2013 after back surgery.
  • Colby Lewis: Veteran reclamation project coming back from two years of injuries.
  • Joe Saunders: Veteran lefty coming off a terrible season in Seattle and moving into a hitter’s park.
  • Tepesch: Mediocre results (4.84 ERA) as a rookie.
  • Holland: Possible return around the All-Stark break.


Lots of candidates there, so you can't really blame Daniels for failing to collect depth and options. The problem here is pretty obvious, however: You had one proven workhorse in the group, or two if you want to include Saunders, who was really just a desperation signing in early March anyway.

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Rather than signing a veteran free agent like Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez to provide a more dependable No. 2 behind Darvish, the Rangers were content to give this a group a shot, a group with a lot of unknowns and questions and pitching in a park that doesn't help pitchers.

So the Rangers are now at the edge of cliff, hoping 30-year-old Fielder can turn it around and 35-year-old Beltre can have another big year and 31-year-old Shin-Soo Choo can keep up his hot start and 33-year-old Alex Rios plays every day.

How did the Rangers get here? You can also point to the trade of Chris Davis during the 2011 season, that final week collapse in 2012, Josh Hamilton’s dropped fly ball against the A’s, the wild-card loss to the Orioles, not signing Zack Greinke in the 2012-13 offseason, letting Mike Napoli leave for Boston and Hamilton -- while an economically prudent decision -- leave for Anaheim. There was the ugly split with Ryan as he and Daniels wrestled for power in the front office.

That vaunted farm system? The Rangers’ top 10 prospects heading in 2012 were Profar, Perez, Mike Olt, Leonys Martin, Neil Ramirez, Cody Buckel, Jorge Alfaro, Christian Villanueva, Rougned Odor and Matt West. Some were traded, some are still in the minors, some are with the Rangers, but they haven’t yet received much help at the major league level from this group.

Are the Rangers dead for 2014? I guess I can’t say that with 100 percent certainly, not considering the mediocrity in the American League once you get past the Tigers and A’s. But where does that leave Texas? Scrambling again for a one-game-playoff situation?

Maybe they’ll get there, and if everything lines up, they can pitch Darvish. Win that game and I suppose anything can happen.

Oh, one more thing: That 2011 team that won 96 games and outscored opponents by 178 runs? Five pitchers -- each of whom started at least 29 games -- started 157 of the 162 games. It was a group that stayed healthy.

Matt Garza cures part of what ails Rangers

July, 24, 2013
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If not for an untimely three-base throwing error on a ground ball back up the middle, Matt Garza might have held the Yankees scoreless all night in his Rangers debut. Overall, Garza went 7⅓ innings, allowed five hits, walked none and struck out five on 95 pitches.

Garza made a great first impression as part of a new and improved Rangers rotation. Beginning in spring training, Rangers starters have been ravaged by injuries or lackluster performance all season long. They are one of eight teams with one or zero starters to have made 20 or more starts at this point in the season.

The litany of injuries started early. Martin Perez, one of several candidates for the fifth slot in the rotation in spring training, had his left forearm broken by a line drive hit back up the middle in March. Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz both had to undergo elbow surgery last year and have yet to return to action this season. Matt Harrison had to deal with an inflamed nerve in his back, and he might not return until late August.

The Rangers opened the season with rookie Nick Tepesch in the rotation, soon followed by Justin Grimm. Neither made matters better for the Rangers: Prior to his inclusion in the Garza trade with the Cubs, Grimm posted a 6.37 ERA in 17 starts with the Rangers, while Tepesch was at 4.85 in 16 starts before landing on the DL with inflammation in his right elbow after his start on July 6.
[+] EnlargeMatt Garza
Layne Murdoch/Getty ImagesIf not for one misplay, Matt Garza might have finished his Rangers debut unscored upon.

Through it all, Derek Holland and Yu Darvish have been the backbone of the Rangers pitching staff. Holland has a 3.10 ERA and Darvish has a 2.86 ERA and a league-leading 161 strikeouts. Sabermetrically, both rank in the top 10 among AL starters by Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), a stat that estimates ERA based on strikeouts, walks, and fly balls. Darvish has a 2.82 xFIP, second best in the league, while Holland ranks 10th at 3.48. If the playoffs were comprised of best-of-three series, the Rangers would be good to go. They just had no one to rely on beyond those two.

Enter Garza. He had been fantastic all season with the Cubs, posting a 3.17 ERA over 11 starts since making his season debut on May 21 after recovering from a right lat strain. The Rangers entered tonight 10 games over .500 and only three games behind the Oakland Athletics. Replacing whatever amalgamation of starters the Rangers would have ended up using in the No. 5 spot -- while pushing everyone else down a spot -- Garza is a tremendous boon with a little more than two months remaining.

This is not to say that Garza is the panacea for all that ails the Rangers. They still have issues in the outfield, as the combination of David Murphy in left and Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry in center haven’t added up to big numbers on offense. The Rangers are also worried that right fielder Nelson Cruz might be suspended like Ryan Braun for his involvement in the Biogenesis issue. According to reports, the Rangers have expressed some interest in right fielders Alex Rios of the White Sox and Hunter Pence of the Giants.

Garza was one half of the equation for fixing the Rangers in season. With the addition of an outfielder before the deadline, the Rangers will have everything they need to compete for the AL West title and go to battle in the postseason. A top four of Harrison, Darvish, Garza and Holland is as formidable as any in baseball. The Rangers' bullpen has been unhittable for four months.

As for Garza himself, he simply has to continue doing what he has done throughout his career, which is rely on fastballs and sliders to induce ground balls and limit home runs. Since 2007, his ERA has had a remarkably thin range between 2.87 (2013) and 3.95 (2009). That is the type of consistency the Rangers will need as they prepare for what they hope is a second-half surge that pushes them into postseason action.
Throughout July we're presenting 30 deals in 30 days: the best trade-deadline deal ever made by each team. We've covered the AL East, NL East, AL Central and NL Central so far, and are now on the AL West.

THE TEAM: Texas Rangers

THE YEAR: 2007

THE SITUATION: The Rangers were in the midst of another losing season, their seventh in eight seasons. Second-year general manager Jon Daniels had a rather unique idea to inject more talent into the organization: Trade first baseman Mark Teixeira, even though he wasn't set to be a free agent until after the 2008 season. Since Teixeira was a Scott Boras client, the Rangers knew he'd test free agency and, in the wake of the Alex Rodriguez contract, they weren't keen on giving out another mega-contract. Why not trade him now and extract more value than they'd be able to get in a year?


THE TRADE: The Rangers' recent run of success has been built on several excellent deadline deals -- Michael Young from the Blue Jays in 2000 for Esteban Loaiza; Nelson Cruz and Carlos Lee from the Brewers in 2006 for Francisco Cordero; David Murphy from the Red Sox in 2007 for Eric Gagne; and Cliff Lee from the Mariners in 2010. But this deal rates as the best one: On July 31, 2007, the Rangers acquired minor leaguers Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz plus catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia for Teixeira. The prospects were certainly a risk; Andrus was hitting .244 in Class A, Feliz was pitching in the Appalachian League and Harrison had mediocre numbers in Double-A. If anything, Saltalamacchia, who had already reached the majors with the Braves, was the top guy in the deal, Baseball America's No. 36 prospect before the season.

THE AFTERMATH: Teixeira posted a 1.020 OPS with the Braves, but they missed the playoffs anyway. The next year, they'd trade him to the Angels at the deadline, acquiring Casey Kotchman. Andrus, Feliz and Harrison have all been All-Stars with the Rangers and compiled 29.9 cumulative WAR -- although have been of little value in 2013, with Feliz injured, Harrison making just two starts so far and Andrus having a terrible year at the plate. Saltalamacchia didn't pan out in Texas and was later traded to the Red Sox.

 
Jesse Chavez is essentially the 25th man on the Oakland A's roster. He started the year in Triple-A, got called up, got sent down, got called back up and is working as the low-leverage guy out of the bullpen. Before Thursday, he hadn't pitched since June 5, and the final scores of games he'd appeared in (without a decision) were 6-1, 10-2, 11-5, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3, 10-2, 9-6 and 8-1.

Chavez is the definition of a journeyman right-hander, having pitched for the Pirates, Braves, Royals and Blue Jays before the A's purchased him from Toronto last August. He was a typical Billy Beane acquisition: He has a pretty good arm, fastball in the low 90s, but what Chavez hadn't had was much success at the major league level, with a 5.74 ERA over 191 career innings.

But sometimes you need that 25th guy to come through, and Chavez's other asset is that he had started for Triple-A Sacramento. That ability to pitch multiple innings came into play in Thursday's 18-inning marathon in Oakland, the A's finally pushing across the winning run with a blooper and broken-bat flare off Mariano Rivera, winning 3-2. Chavez was the big hero, however, pitching 5.2 innings of one-hit, scoreless relief. He has a starter's repertoire, with a cutter, curve and changeup. He got two big outs when he entered with two runners on in the 13th, striking out Kevin Youkilis and Vernon Wells on curveballs.

In the 14th, A's manager Bob Melvin had the guts to intentionally walk Robinson Cano with runners on first and second; Mark Teixeira popped out to shortstop, missing a hittable fastball. From there it was smooth sailing, as Chavez retired the side in order in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th innings. Not bad for your garbage-time reliever.

[+] EnlargeJesse Chavez
AP Photo/Eric RisbergJesse Chavez got the win for the A's in 5.2 innings of scoreless relief, with one hit and seven strikeouts.
"The last guy they threw was the best guy we faced all day," Teixeira told MLB.com. "That guy is nasty."

It's one of those games that will be remembered if the A's end up winning the American League West. It's that kind of bullpen depth that fueled their second-half surge last season and has fueled their strong start this season. The A's are 33-0 when leading heading into the ninth inning. They're 6-2 in extra innings. When tied through seven innings they're 8-1. This is a tough team to beat late in a game.

The A's have won 11 consecutive games at home and 21 of their past 26, and while they were 7 games behind the Rangers in mid-May, they now lead the division by two games, after the Blue Jays beat Yu Darvish and the Rangers 3-1, dropping the Rangers to 4-8 in June. Injuries to Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland have hurt, but that gets us back to roster depth.

Who is the favorite to win the West? Here's a quick rundown comparing the two teams.

Lineups
Oakland: .246/.328/.397
Texas: .264/.327/.436

Entering Thursday's games, the Rangers had the higher wOBA, but the A's had the slightly better park-adjusted offense. The A's have gotten huge performances from Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp, and while some regression might be in order, Donaldson also looks like a much-improved hitter from last season, as Jerry Crasnick wrote. On the other hand, Josh Reddick (.187) and Chris Young (.169) should improve.

For the Rangers, the offense is trending downward. In 2011, they averaged 5.3 runs per game; in 2012, 5.0; this year, 4.4. Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz are doing Adrian Beltre- and Nelson Cruz-type things, but Elvis Andrus and David Murphy are struggling right now. If Murphy doesn't pick it up, the Rangers might look to add an outfielder.

Advantage: A's.

Starting pitching
Oakland: 29-24, 4.01 ERA; .249/.298/.398; 6.1 innings per start
Texas: 25-21, 3.77 ERA; .251/.311/.391; 5.9 innings per start

The rotations have posted similar numbers, but once you adjust for ballpark, the Rangers' staff has performed better, led by Darvish and Derek Holland. FanGraphs WAR rates the Rangers' starters at 8.6 Wins Above Replacement, third-best in the majors, and the A's 12th-best at 5.0.

The good news for the A's is that Jarrod Parker pitched well again Thursday. After posting a 7.34 ERA through his first seven starts, he's gone 4-1 with a 2.40 ERA over his past seven, with a .183 average allowed and WHIP under 1.00. His changeup is back to the deadly weapon it was last year, as batters have hit .118 against it in those most recent seven games.

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Which team will win the AL West

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The Rangers have succeeded even though Matt Harrison has spent most of the season and the disabled list and Colby Lewis all of it. Alexi Ogando is also out again with shoulder inflammation. The Rangers received some solid work from Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm early on, but those two haven't been quite as strong lately, and you have to wonder if the injuries won't catch up to the rotation at some point, at least until Lewis and Harrison return.

Edge: Even. The Rangers have been better so far, but moving forward I think the A's close the gap.

Bullpen
Oakland: 12-3, 2.89 ERA; .227/.289/.358
Texas: 13-7, 3.29 ERA; .240/.313/.368

The Texas bullpen has also been outstanding, especially the back three of Joe Nathan, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross. Neal Cotts has added some depth as well. Scheppers has been the big surprise, with a fastball that sits at 94-96 mph and touches 98; he's always had a good arm but might finally be putting it together. He doesn't have a big strikeout rate (21 in 32.1 innings), and I do wonder if he keeps pitching this well. Batters are hitting just .170 off his fastball even though Scheppers' strikeout/walk ratio with the pitch is just 10.9.

Edge: A's. The Rangers have a good pen, but once you get into the fifth, sixth and seventh guys, I think the A's have the advantage.

Defense
Oakland: minus-20 Defensive Runs Saved
Texas: plus-8 Defensive Runs Saved

Ultimate Zone Rating has the clubs essentially even -- Texas at minus-0.3, Oakland at minus-1.3. The big problem area for the A's has been shortstop Jed Lowrie at minus-8 DRS. Chris Young, who usually rates very well in the outfield, has also rated poorly at minus-5 DRS. Of course, if he doesn't start hitting, he's not going to get much playing anyway behind Crisp, Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

Edge: Rangers.

The A's were my preseason pick to win the division, and they look like the better team right now. What do you think?
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!

Power rankings: All 30 teams!

December, 22, 2012
12/22/12
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Last weekend, I presented the top 10 teams in my personal power rankings. That was before the Blue Jays officially acquired R.A. Dickey, so I updated my top 10 after that trade, and, to spur on more debate, now present the rest of my rankings. Agree or disagree, but I do think this is the most parity we've seen in a long time. It's why the Orioles and A's were able to surprise this past season and why we will undoubtedly see another surprise team in 2013. It's a great time to be a baseball fan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30. Astros
Welcome to the AL West, boys.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
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With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland A's rookie right-hander A.J. Griffin has made 11 career starts. He hasn't been charged with a loss in any of the games and the A's have won nine of those games, including Wednesday's 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels, their third straight in the four-game series. He's a big kid at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds or so, but his fastball isn't all that big, 88 to 90 mph. But he throws strikes, mixes in a curve, slider and changeup, and opponents are hitting .202 off him. He hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his 11 starts.

It's been a remarkable 11 starts for Griffin: He has had to face Matt Cain, David Price and Felix Hernandez. He beat a pitcher who struck out 15 batters. The A's have now pulled 5.5 games ahead of the deep-pocket Angels in the wild-card race, and Griffin is one big reason why. His 11 starts:

1. Versus Cain -- no-decision but A's win.

2. Versus Matt Harrison -- six scoreless innings, ND, A's lose 4-3.

3. Versus Aaron Cook -- ND, A's win.

4. Versus Francisco Liriano -- Liriano fans 15, but Griffin gets first major league win.

5. Versus Freddy Garcia -- Gets the win in 4-3 victory.

6. Versus Ricky Romero -- A's win 16-0.

7. Versus Price -- ND, but A's win in 15 innings.

8. Versus Romero -- Leaves in second inning with shoulder tightness, A's lose in 11 innings.

9. Versus Felix Doubront -- Gets the win with one run over seven innings.

10. Versus Hernandez -- Gets the win in 6-1 victory.

11. Versus Ervin Santana -- Eight scoreless innings to improve to 6-0, 1.94 ERA.
David Price starts for the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night against the Texas Rangers to open a crucial three-game series, albeit more crucial for the Rays than the Rangers. A David Price start is always one to pay attention to, for a somewhat obvious reason: Price is one of those starters with an electric fastball, in the simple sense of "it's really fast." I mean, I love Felix Hernandez's changeup and R.A. Dickey's knuckler and Clayton Kershaw's slider, but there's an old-school beauty to those starting pitchers who will just rear back in a big situation and attempt to blow a high hard one past the enemy batsman.

SportsNation

As of today, who would your Cy Young vote go to?

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Price is one of those guys. His average fastball velocity this season is 95.4 mph, just a tick behind Stephen Strasburg's 95.7 for fastest in the majors among starting pitchers. Considering it's coming from a 6-foot-6 frame, it's a fastball that also comes with an intimidation factor, somewhat in the mode of Randy Johnson. Not surprisingly, left-handers are only hitting .195 off Price, after hitting .171 a season ago. It may be a nice game for Josh Hamilton to enjoy a day off, although Richard Durrett writes that Price hasn't fared well against the Rangers in his career.

When you think of dominant left-handed starters with big fastballs, don't you have to start thinking of Price as one of the elite? Besides Johnson, I think of pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Sam McDowell, Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton, Mark Langston and Herb Score. While Johnson (fastball/slider) and Koufax (fastball/curveball) essentially dominated with two pitches, Price has developed a solid four-pitch repertoire that includes a slider, curve and changeup, a key reason behind his recent dominant run in which he's gone 8-0 with a 1.45 ERA over his past 12 starts. But everything still feeds off his fastball; Price's .270 wOBA (weighted on-base average) allowed against his fastball is third-lowest among starting pitchers, behind only Jered Weaver and Brandon Beachy. While those two are fly ball pitchers, Price's dominance is seen in this rare combination: He's the only starter this season who has fanned at least 25 percent of the batters he's faced and generated a groundball rate of at least 50 percent. Strikeout and groundballs are good things.

Price isn't the only Tampa Bay pitcher on a roll right now, of course. The Rays are in the midst of a historic run of pitching excellence. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Rays have allowed 76 runs over their past 35 games; the last team to do that was the 1981 Astros, from Aug. 25-Sept. 29. The last American League team to do that was the 1968 Yankees. The Tampa Bay bullpen has a 0.85 ERA over that span, helping the Rays to a season team ERA of 3.26, which would be the lowest in the AL since the 1990 A's posted a 3.18 mark.

Still, Price sets the tone and has become the Cy Young favorite in a crowded and talented American League field. Here are the current leaders:
  • Price: 16-4, 2.28 ERA, 170 IP, 132 H, 46 R, 50 BB, 167 SO, 5.2 WAR
  • Justin Verlander: 12-7, 2.50 ERA, 190.2 IP, 63 R, 47 BB, 192 SO, 6.2 WAR
  • Felix Hernandez: 12-5, 2.54 ERA, 187.2 IP, 56 R, 45 BB, 179 SO, 4.6 WAR
  • Chris Sale: 15-4, 2.65 ERA, 153 IP, 122 H, 46 R, 36 BB, 150 SO, 5.4 WAR
  • Jered Weaver: 16-3, 2.74 ERA, 148 IP, 112 H, 48 R, 33 BB, 113 SO, 3.2 WAR
  • Hiroki Kuroda: 12-9, 2.98 ERA, 175 IP, 153 H, 62 R, 40 BB, 131 SO, 5.3 WAR
  • Matt Harrison: 15-7, 3.04 ERA, 169 IP, 159 H, 59 R 48 BB, 101 SO, 5.4 WAR

Verlander's big edge over Price is he's pitched 20 more innings, but considering Price leads the AL in ERA and is tied with Weaver in wins, he's probably the favorite among the voting bloc. Price has made eight starts against the Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees, the AL's big three offensive teams; but Verlander has also faced them eight times. Price has a 3.12 ERA in those eight starts, Verlander a 2.93 mark (although with seven unearned runs allowed). King Felix, by the way, has made six starts against those three clubs and has delivered a 1.29 ERA and three shutouts.

Besides Verlander, it's worth noting that Sale, Kuroda and Harrison also have matched Price's WAR. Park effects are coming into play there, as Kuroda and Harrison have to ply their trades in more hitter-friendly parks. Indeed, Price has a 1.66 ERA at home, 2.93 on the road. And the underrated Sale continues to put up impressive numbers.

We'll dig deeper into this later in the season, but right now it appears Price is on track to win his first Cy Young Award. For the Rays, however, the more important goal: Win tonight and inch another game closer to the Yankees. As always, never count out Joe Maddon's club.
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Let's fast-forward a couple of months. Pretend you're Ron Washington, preparing for the first game of the Division Series.

Who do you start?

When the Texas Rangers invested more than $100 million to sign Yu Darvish, they had to believe Darvish could be that No. 1 postseason starter, even if Nolan Ryan downplayed the idea at the time. Let's be honest: You don't spend $100 million to sign a No. 3.

These days, Darvish is looking less like an ace and more like a No. 5. He had perhaps the worst start of his major league career on Monday night at Fenway Park, allowing 11 hits, 4 walks and 6 runs in throwing 123 pitches over 6.2 innings. The Red Sox banged him around for eight doubles in the 9-2 victory. According to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, Darvish is the first starter to give up eight doubles in a game since Curt Schilling allowed nine in a 2006 start for the Red Sox against the Royals in Kansas City. The only other pitcher since 1990 to allow that many doubles in a game was Jim Abbott, in 1994.

Even more frustrating for the Rangers is Darvish's continued inability to throw strikes on a consistent basis. He has walked four or more batters in 10 of his 21 starts and is tied for third in the majors with 74 walks. Remember, in Japan he was known for his great stuff and great control; he walked just 36 batters in 28 starts in 2011. You hate to bring up the Daisuke Matsuzaka comparisons, but like Dice-K, it seems Darvish is doing a lot of nibbling at the corners, afraid to challenge hitters inside.

Here are his heats maps on his fastball versus left-handed and right-handed batters:

Darvish HeatmapESPN.comYu Darvish has struggled to get batters out with his fastball from both sides of the plate.


His fastball has been an ineffective put-away pitch. In 117 plate appearances against left-handers ending with fastballs, Darvish has allowed a .376/.496/.613 line. (Compared to a .275/.404/.488 line in 99 PAs against righties.) To me, it appears he's not trusting the pitch enough.

Part of his issues could be that in Japan he basically started just once a week. Here is his 2011 game log; most of his starts were made with six days of rest, sometimes more. He started only once all season on four days of rest. That allowed him to run up some big pitch counts -- seven games of 130-plus pitches -- but he has carried a heavy workload for the Rangers as well while making 11 starts on four days of rest, as only Justin Verlander and James Shields have averaged more pitches per start.

In a playoff series, there's the added consideration that in second and third starts against an opponent, Darvish is 3-5 with a 6.45 ERA. It's a small sample size, of course, but it possibly suggests that hitters are adjusting to Darvish's stuff after seeing him the first time.

So if not Darvish, who would the Rangers turn to?

SportsNation

Right now, who would be the Rangers' No. 1 starter in the postseason?

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Derek Holland had the great World Series start last season when he blanked the Cardinals for 8.1 innings, but he has a 5.17 ERA. In his past four starts, he has allowed six runs in three games while serving up nine home runs. And while we remember that Game 4 start, in his other three postseason starts he lasted a total of just 13.1 innings. Holland's strikeout and walk rates are essentially identical to his totals last season; the big difference has been his home run rate. Still, when the fastball is popping and he's keeping the ball down in the zone, he's the most dominant Texas starter.

Matt Harrison has certainly been the Rangers' most consistent starter, with a 3.17 ERA. If there's a cause to question Harrison's ace status, it's that he's not a big strikeout pitcher despite a solid 91- to 93-mph fastball. He relies on ground balls and that excellent infield defense provided by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler. There's the old cliche that October baseball is all about power pitching and it's perhaps worth noting that Washington didn't exactly trust Harrison to pitch deep into games last October, as he didn't pitch more than five innings in any of his four postseason starts. But it's also probably true that Washington has a lot more faith in Harrison this year.

Ryan Dempster just came over from the Cubs. In his first start with the Rangers, he was pounded for nine hits, two home runs and eight runs in 4.2 innings. Welcome to Arlington, Ryan. With the Cubs, Dempster has transformed into a command guy, as he has averaged just a tick better than 90 mph on his fastball. Will that play in the American League, especially in Arlington, where balls fly? And how will it play in a big game against, say, the Yankees?

Finally, there's Scott Feldman, currently on a string of three outstanding starts. When he's on, he keeps his sinker down, but if he gets it up, he's prone to giving up the long ones.

Maybe we're asking this question at the wrong time, when the Texas rotation looks a little shaky. The Rangers have allowed 61 runs over their past eight games and are just 13-16 over their past 29 games. There's also the Roy Oswalt drama that flared up with his demotion to the bullpen and Washington uncharacteristically calling out a player, saying Oswalt asked out of his latest relief appearance after two innings.

And you can also argue that this ace stuff is overrated. After all, the Rangers were one out away from winning the World Series last year even though their starters pitched at least six innings in just four of 17 playoff games.

Still, when you may be looking at Justin Verlander or CC Sabathia or David Price or Jered Weaver twice in a five-game series, an ace may be an important thing to have.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Rafael FurcalJeff Curry/US PresswireThe Cardinals' blowout win was cause for cartwheels from Rafael Furcal.

Kenny Williams never seems to get a lot of respect.

During his tenure as Chicago White Sox general manager, which began after the 2000 season, he's built two division winners, including the 2005 World Series champions. Maybe the most impressive aspect of his reign is that the White Sox are always competitive. They've been under .500 just three times, but two of those were 79-83. He's done this despite lacking the monster payrolls of teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies; despite only once having a pick better than 12th in the first round of the draft; despite never having a franchise superstar like Barry Bonds to build around or pitchers like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, like Brian Sabean has had with the Giants; despite a farm system -- in part because of ownership's unwillingness to spend in the draft and because of that lack of high picks -- that usually ranks near the bottom (Keith Law and Baseball America both ranked the White Sox system 30th heading into the season).

What I like about Williams is he never gives up. He's always trying to win, to build the best team he can given his resources. He never craters, never commits to a complete teardown and embarrassing on-field product, such as the one you're seeing from the Astros, Williams' 2005 World Series opponents.

This is why trading for Francisco Liriano is a typical Kenny Williams move -- high risk, perhaps mocked, but one with a potential nice payoff. Liriano's season numbers with the Twins look terrible -- 3-10, 5.31 ERA -- and his last start (against the White Sox, of all teams) was a rough, seven-run blowup. But after an awful April and temporary trip to the bullpen, Liriano pitched very well in a 10-start stint from May 30 though July 18, posting a 2.84 ERA with 77 strikeouts, 28 walks and 38 hits in 63.1 innings (a .171 average allowed). That stretch included back-to-back starts of 15 strikeouts and 10 strikeouts against the A's and Orioles on July 13 and 18, respectively.

In other words, there's a good chance Liriano will outpitch Zack Greinke the rest of the way, even though this trade will receive much less fanfare and required much less in prospect value: light-hitting infielder Eduardo Escobar and left-handed pitcher Pedro Hernandez.

In fact, despite the much-maligned farm system, the White Sox have received contributions from several rookies, most notably on the pitching staff with Jose Quintana, closer Addison Reed, and relievers Nate Jones and Hector Santiago. With Quintana still the big surprise in the rotation, Liriano presumably takes the place of Philip Humber, who did pitch well in a 5-2 victory over the Rangers on Saturday, but that strong start barely got his ERA under 6.00. With the hope that John Danks might return from his shoulder issues, the White Sox now have rotation depth and options in case of injury or if they want to conserve Chris Sale's innings.

The White Sox also have a lot to gain from a deal such as this; with a 2.5-game lead over the Tigers, winning the division title is obviously huge. There is a reason you're seeing teams contending for a division title making moves, while teams further back in the playoff chase -- such as the American League East wild-card contenders -- are more conservative. The reward for winning one of the two wild cards is essentially half as valuable as last season, with the one-game playoff plus the possibility that you've burned your best pitcher. But the payoff for the White Sox winning the division is worth taking a chance on Liriano.

As for the Rangers, they don't need to be as desperate as their division rival Angels, who gave up three good prospects to acquire Greinke. Yes, acquiring Greinke would have helped, but the Rangers have to ask: Do any of the other available pitchers make the team that much better? I agree with Jim Bowden: Probably not Insider.

The top three starters in a playoff series right now probably would be Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish and Derek Holland (who has had a disappointing season but lately has looked more like the pitcher who threw so well in the second half and postseason a year ago). The fourth spot might be open as Neftali Feliz rehabs, but among Feliz, Scott Feldman, Roy Oswalt and maybe even Alexi Ogando, the Rangers have options. Do you want to give up Mike Olt or another top prospect for what might be just a minor upgrade in Josh Johnson (having his worst statistical season and would be expensive to acquire) or Ryan Dempster (who is unlikely to approve a trade to Texas anyway)?

Plus, Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli are impending free agents, and there's no guarantee they'll be back, even though the Rangers have entered the upper echelon of payrolls. Maybe the Rangers will let one of those guys walk, spend some of that money elsewhere and give a starting position next season to Olt (with super prospect Jurickson Profar waiting in the wings).

The Rangers have options, but their best chance at holding off the Angels and surging A's might lie within: Namely, Hamilton and Michael Young finding their strokes. Hamilton was given a mental day off Saturday to clear his head. Since June 1, he's been one of the worst hitters in the league, batting .190 with a .274 on-base percentage. He's hitting .145 in July with 21 strikeouts in 19 games. Young is eating up at-bats at designated hitter and first base despite an empty .270 batting average. His OBP is less than .300, and he hasn't homered since May 7.

For all the talk of needing a starter, Young is a gigantic hole in the lineup right now. Kenny Williams filled one of his holes. We'll see whether Rangers GM Jon Daniels plugs his.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Chase UtleyDale Zanine/US PresswireAs quick as Chase Utley is to the ball, he's not so quick he'll beat the ball to first base.
This is the final weekend before the non-waiver trade deadline, meaning that it’s a pretty important couple of days for a number of teams that might not have figured out whether they are buyers, sellers or somewhere in between. Arizona, Cleveland, Philadelphia and a few American League East teams could certainly be swayed based on weekend results. Anyway, as per our new Friday custom, here’s what to watch this weekend.

1. While the eyes of the baseball world seem to be on every Red Sox-Yankees series, and this is again the ESPN Sunday Night matchup, more than 10 games separate these teams in the standings. Meanwhile out West, the Dodgers and Giants renew their long-time rivalry. Unless the Diamondbacks start figuring things out, it will be Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner starting a playoff game for the NL West champs -- or perhaps will start a playoff game due to the wild card. The Dodgers avoid Bumgarner this weekend, as well as inconsistent Tim Lincecum (you take a guess what he’ll do next outing). The last time these teams met the Dodgers did not score a run, quite literally: Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong and Lincecum helped the Giants outscore the Matt Kemp-less lineup 13-zip. Kemp is back now, Hanley Ramirez is here, too, and it should be more of a fair fight.

2. Say what you will about whether the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles will be legitimate contenders in September and therefore should be buying at the trade deadline, but naysayers will get a closer look when they meet at Camden Yards, each team firmly in the thick of the wild-card race. This is good for baseball! Oakland’s newfound offensive prowess is scheduled to be tested by Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter and Wei-Yin Chen. Yeah, the Orioles could use a rotation upgrade or two.

3. While Oakland is 16-3 in July, the division-leading Texas Rangers are 8-10. Only Kansas City, the Mets and, of course, Houston have fewer wins this month. The Rangers host the Chicago White Sox, a team that lost all its games last weekend in Detroit, then won all three games when it came home to meet the terrible Twins. Are the White Sox a crew that can stick with the good teams? The White Sox don’t see the Tigers again until the last day of August, and this will be a big test against Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and, at least for now, a scheduled Roy Oswalt on Sunday night. The struggling Josh Hamilton, hitting a mere .194 since June 1 (what does Nolan Ryan think of that?), should enjoy Sunday’s game against Gavin Floyd, who he’s 8-for-13 against. Playoff preview, perhaps?

Three more stats to watch:

15-0, 2.89: Zack Greinke could be a former Milwaukee Brewer before his scheduled Sunday start against the Washington Nationals -- or even by the time you read this -- but those are his career numbers at Miller Park. Nothing to worry about for the team that acquires him, right?

4-0, 1.26: That’s the July combined win-loss record and ERA for Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, scheduled to pitch in Milwaukee Friday and Saturday. Then on Sunday it’s Gio Gonzalez! Good luck to the defending NL Central champ Brewers, on a six-game losing streak. Meanwhile, keep talking about Stephen Strasburg and innings limits all you want, but the Nationals have depth.

0-3, 10.42: And we end with Red Sox-Yankees. Jon Lester won two of three starts at Yankee Stadium last season, but with a 9.20 ERA. That ERA is still better than Lester’s numbers for this current July. Yeah, he’s struggling. The Yankees will also face Aaron Cook and Felix Doubront.

Have a great weekend!

Rays getting uncommon power boost

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
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Facing baseball’s top team in their ballpark Friday night, the Tampa Bay Rays brought home run power at the plate and strikeouts on the mound to put away the Texas Rangers, 8-4. This marked the sixth consecutive win for the Rays, who have seemingly righted themselves after sputtering to a 4-5 record to start the season.

The Rays have managed to go 9-2 since then, mainly due to a potent offense that is fourth in the American League in runs scored. Evan Longoria has hit like an MVP candidate, currently sporting a .319/.437/.569 line with four home runs, including a three-run shot Friday. Desmond Jennings owns a nine-game hitting streak, during which he's hit .324, and B.J. Upton has come off the disabled list with a vengeance with a .788 OPS.

Newly acquired bats Carlos Pena and Luke Scott have made Rays fans forget the short, though productive, stints in Tampa Bay of Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman. Pena and Scott have already combined for nine home runs, more than one-third of the amount that Damon and Kotchman produced all of last year. For reference, the Rays have played 12.3 percent of their games so far, so it looks like these one-year deals on the heels of letting Damon and Kotchman walk could provide excess value.

Interestingly, the Rays are not utilizing the stolen base as the catalyst to their offensive production. Last season the Rays finished second in the majors in stolen bases, marking the first time since 2007 that they did not lead the league in the category. Entering last night, the Rays ranked 16th with 12 total steals. The Rays do have stolen-base threats in Jennings and Upton, but the Rays have been generating offense in a different manner than they are accustomed to -- with power.

The Rays have hit 27 home runs this year, tied for fourth in the majors. Longoria, Pena, Scott, and Matt Joyce have hit at least four long balls apiece. Behind them, Jennings and Ben Zobrist have three each. Those hitters comprise the Rays' 1-5 hitters against right-handed pitchers, as Joyce sits against southpaws. The impressive patience and power displayed by the Rays has been evident over their current win streak in that they have hit at least one home run in each of the past five games.

In addition to their offense, which was on display against Rangers lefty Matt Harrison on Friday night, the Rays have gotten a lift from their pitching over their past 10 games. Allowing just 2.9 runs per game has been a huge part of their 8-2 record over that span. Their run prevention has not all been pitching, however, as their defensive shifts have also proven to be effective. Adam Berry of MLB.com has a great article on the Rays and their shifts, along with the index cards they pull out for each hitter. The Rays currently rank second in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved with 19, nine more than the third-place Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Rays pride themselves on taking as many small advantages as possible, which is a testament to the quality of their front office, scouting and management. Signing players like Scott to a $6 million, one-year deal and moving starter Wade Davis to a bullpen role rather than trading him, are just two decisions that appear to be solid. Davis currently has a 1.86 ERA along with eight strikeouts and two walks in 9.2 innings out of the bullpen and was able to get out of a bases-loaded jam unscathed in the eighth inning of Friday’s victory.

The Rays will have to pitch better overall, specifically in the bullpen, over the course of the season. With the type of talent they possess and their excellent defense, their over-4.00 ERA should continue to decrease. With their offense scoring plenty of runs, improved pitching may make them the best team in baseball. But for now, that designation belongs to the team that is in the opposite dugout this weekend: the Rangers.

Ben Duronio writes about the Braves at Capitol Avenue Club. Follow him on Twitter.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Derek JeterAP Photo/Bill KostrounFar from your typical ending, Derek Jeter scores the winning run on a passed ball as the Yankees topped the Tigers.

2012 predictions you couldn't predict?

February, 18, 2012
2/18/12
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Last year, You Can't Predict Baseball came up with bold predictions for the year. We had a lot of fun coming up with them, and then laughing at how hilariously wrong they were at the end of the year. This year, we're bringing these predictions to SweetSpot, along with explanations for some of them. Keep in mind, these predictions are supposed to be bold, but not insane -- even we know the Orioles aren't going to the playoffs in 2012.

Los Angeles Angels: Kendrys Morales stays healthy all year.

Houston Astros: Bud Norris is top five in K/9 in the NL. We figured something good had to happen to the Astros, right? Norris actually has a pretty nice career K/9.

Oakland Athletics: Yoenis Cespedes is their starting center fielder by Memorial Day.

Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow makes the jump to elite starting pitcher. He's struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings two years running, though his ERAs have remained ugly. We think this is the year his results finally match the stuff, especially considering his declining walk rate.

Atlanta Braves: Julio Teheran has more wins than Tim Hudson.

[+] EnlargeRickie Weeks
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith Prince Fielder gone to Detroit and Ryan Braun facing possible disciplinary action, Rickie Weeks could lead the Milwaukee Brewers in home runs in 2012.
Milwaukee Brewers: Rickie Weeks leads the team in home runs. He was fourth on the team last year, with 20. In front of him were Corey Hart with 26, Ryan Braun with 33, and Prince Fielder with 38. Fielder is gone, and for this prediction we'll assume Braun will miss a third of the year due to a suspension. It's not too bold to think Weeks could pass Hart in 2012.

St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Beltran outproduces Albert Pujols from last year. Albert Pujols was great last year, but not quite best-player-of-his-generation Albert Pujols. If healthy, it's not absurd to think of Beltran outproducing Pujols' 5.1 WAR in 2011.

Chicago Cubs: Matt Garza isn't their best pitcher. It'll be Ryan Dempster, who had great peripherals but bad results last year.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Aaron Hill will be good again. He was great with them in limited time, and Arizona's park is quite hitter-friendly.

Los Angeles Dodgers: James Loney will be a top-three first baseman in the National League. Many thanks to Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness for somewhat alerting us to this one. We just decided to take it semi-absurdly far.

San Francisco Giants: Madison Bumgarner is their best pitcher. In terms of ERA, he already wasn't very far behind Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and his K/BB ratio eclipsed theirs by quite a bit.

Cleveland Indians: They'll have the best pitching in the American League Central. We're banking on Ubaldo Jimenez, making a major comeback to something closer to what he was in 2010, and the rest of the staff displaying the good that they did in 2011. We're also counting on the Tigers' starters not being very impressive behind Justin Verlander, which is bold but not quite insane, and the pitching of the White Sox, Twins and Royals not being able to keep up with Cleveland's.

Seattle Mariners: Jesus Montero catches 100-plus games. The Mariners probably aren't going to compete, so why not try and play him where he'll accrue the most value?

Miami Marlins: Despite all their new acquisitions and the hype, they still finish fourth in the NL East. When you think about it, this one isn't so crazy. If Josh Johnson isn't healthy and maybe even if he is their pitching still trails that of Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta; even with Heath Bell, we don't think their bullpen is as good, either. Their offense might be better than some of those teams', but the Marlins were quite a bit below league average offensively last year and we're not sure how much Jose Reyes is going to make up for that.

New York Mets: Mike Pelfrey is the worst starter in the NL. Pelfrey's been pretty terrible two of the past three years, and now they're moving the fences in at Citi Field. He was far better in his huge home stadium, but we're guessing with the moved-in walls he'll be significantly worse at Citi. Here at YCPB, we actually don't think the Mets are going to be quite as dire as many are saying, even if they do come in last place in the NL East - but Pelfrey won't be a bright spot.

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg has a 17-strikeout game.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters is the best catcher in the AL. A lot of people are so obsessed with Wieters not matching the hype that they didn't notice he became a plus offensive performer last year, to go along with very good defense. His taking the next step isn't that bold as predictions go, especially if Joe Mauer has to move off catcher.

San Diego Padres: Luke Gregerson is a top-three closer in the NL.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cole Hamels is their best starter. And this isn't meant to be a slight to Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but considering their ages and the fact that Hamels is pretty darn good himself, plus a possible boost from a contract year...

Pittsburgh Pirates: Charlie Morton is their All-Star.

Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish isn't their best starter -- but he's still good. And we think he'll be pretty good, we just think Derek Holland will become more consistently good, or Matt Harrison will put up numbers like his 2011.

Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields will have no complete games. Predicting someone to have no complete games might not seem bold, but it is when it's a guy who was known as "Complete Game James" last season. Shields did have 11 complete games in 2011, an almost unheard-of number these days, but he had no complete games in 2009 or 2010.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter none in either 2009 or 10, James Shields pitched 11 complete games for Tampa Bay in 2011.
Boston Red Sox: No one hits 30 home runs. This might seem crazy when you consider their great offensive numbers last year, but only one player on their team hit 30 home runs and it was Jacoby Ellsbury with 32.

Cincinnati Reds: Brandon Phillips is the best second baseman in the NL.

Colorado Rockies: Jamie Moyer will have the best HR/9 on the staff.

Kansas City Royals: They reach .500. While their pitching won't be great, their offense will take a big step forward this year. Combined with the rest of their division being the Tigers and some dumpster fires, it's not that difficult to see it happening.

Detroit Tigers: They score fewer runs than they did in 2011. Yes, that’s even with Fielder. It's not improbable that Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Delmon Young regress quite a bit from their numbers with Detroit last year, and that Prince Fielder's production "only" makes up for the offensive loss of Victor Martinez in 2012. They'll still have a very good offense, though.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer hits 15 home runs.

Chicago White Sox: Robin Ventura gets ejected more times than Ozzie Guillen. Look at the state of the White Sox. We'd get ejected too.

New York Yankees: Hiroki Kuroda leads the team in ERA.

You Can't Predict Baseball is an affiliate of the SweetSpot network.
Should we assume Adam Wainwright will be as good as he was in 2009 and 2010? How good is Jason Kipnis? Should the Reds trade Joey Votto before he becomes a free agent? Plus: Some suggested challenge trades, the future of the Astros and Orioles, Matt Harrison and more! Click here for the chat wrap.

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