SweetSpot: Matt Moore



In "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," Michael Lewis wrote, "The sheer quantity of brain power that hurled itself voluntarily and quixotically into the search for new baseball knowledge was either exhilarating or depressing, depending on how you felt about baseball. The same intellectual resources might have cured the common cold, or put a man on Pluto."

Brain power is a big reason the Tampa Bay Rays have achieved great levels of success since 2008. It has helped them overcome their small payrolls, their inability to buy the best free agents or sign some of their best players. Brain power has led them to find the right players for the right roles, to become one of the first teams to emphasize infield shifts or to quantify a catcher’s ability to frame pitches. Brain power is supposed to keep the Rays on top.

Sometimes, it just isn’t your year.

Since 2008, only the Yankees have won more games than the Rays. They’ve done just about everything but win a World Series.

That’s not going to happen this year. The Rays are awful. They lost their ninth straight game on Wednesday, a 5-4 loss to the Marlins that dropped them to 23-37. There’s nothing accidental about that record: The Rays haven’t hit, pitched or fielded well. They sent ace David Price to the bump to end this losing streak, and he couldn’t stop the bleeding. He was given a 3-1 lead in the first inning and couldn’t hold it, surrendering a three-run homer in the third inning to light-hitting Donovan Solano one pitch after Evan Longoria dropped the ball on a two-out tag play at third. Lack of focus? Just a bad slider? A lucky swing from Solano?

[+] EnlargeDavid Price
Mike Carlson/Getty ImagesIs David Price really better off watching the stretch run with the also-ran Rays?
Or just one of those seasons.

You can put a fork in this club. They’re done, no longer the Rays but the Devil Rays. Sure, you can argue that they still have 102 games left to play, so it’s too early to make utensil references. I looked up all teams over the previous 10 seasons that had won between 22 and 24 of their first 60 games. This provided a list of 26 teams off to bad starts similar to the Rays.

Only one of the 26 teams finished with a winning record and the average final record of those 26 teams was 67-95. Devil Rays, indeed.

But … yes, there was one team that maybe provides hope. The 2005 A's started 24-36, but they soon won 12 out of 13 and from June 18 through Aug. 7 went 30-9. They’d finish 88-74. But do the Rays have a 30-9 stretch in them? They’re known for their extended periods of hot play -- they had a 23-4 stretch through late June and July last season that carried them into the postseason -- but I don’t see it in this club. Wil Myers is out for two months. Matt Moore is gone for the season. They’ve been outscored by 42 runs. Only the Diamondbacks, Phillies and Astros have a worse run differential.

Which leads us to this: The Rays have to trade Price. For all the talk and rumors in the offseason about trading Price, I had believed the Rays needed to keep him. After all, they were a playoff team with the obvious potential to make it back to the postseason.

This start, however, has highlighted a bigger issue with the Rays: You can only win so many games with the likes of James Loney batting cleanup and Kevin Kiermaier hitting leadoff and catchers who can frame pitches but can’t hit. Even if the team has underperformed and the pitching staff gets on a roll, history says 23-37 -- even in the mediocre American League season -- is too much to overcome.

There’s also the bigger issue of where the Rays stand long term. Myers might or might not become a star. Longoria should be at his MVP-caliber peak but has had two bad months. Desmond Jennings is OK but not the star once projected of him. Alex Cobb is great -- when he pitches. Moore will have to come back from Tommy John surgery. This piece by Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus also shows that Tampa's farm system might be drying up: Of the players in the majors in 2014, only the Astros and Orioles drafted fewer than the Rays.

So, Price. Despite the 4.03 ERA, there will be a big market for him since he’s not a free agent until after 2015. His phenomenal strikeout-to-walk ratio of 101 to nine is a better indicator of what he’ll do moving forward (although maybe he is throwing too many strikes, as he’s allowed 13 home runs and more than a hit per inning). With so many teams in the playoff race, more suitors should lead to better offers. And every team will want to consider Price, not just the teams in obvious need of pitching. Think of a team like Seattle. Even though the Mariners are second to the A’s in runs allowed in the AL, their fifth starters (Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer) have an ERA over 6.00 and they can’t necessarily continue to count on good results from Chris Young and Roenis Elias. The A's might appear to be without a weakness, but why not add Price to go with Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir (money issues notwithstanding)?

Whether those teams have the young players or minor leaguers to get Price is another issue, but you get the idea. The Rays need an infusion of talent. They’re not going anywhere this year. Price is their chip. Sadly, it's time to start dealing.

Even if Moore's gone, Rays will rebound

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
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Let’s start off with the obvious: The news for Matt Moore is far from a death sentence as far as his 2014 season is concerned. An inconclusive MRI and a trip to Dr. Andrews’ office are both ominous, but in themselves they are not the end.

The more basic concern is that Moore has had to be shut down for elbow trouble before. Last year, the power southpaw missed 31 games (or about five starts) to inflammation to this same left elbow, and Joe Maddon understandably didn’t sound thrilled the day after Moore had to leave his Monday start early, admitting that the elbow was “worse than what we thought before.”

It’s easy to speculate about how losing Moore for an extended period of time could be disastrous for the Rays’ annual bid to be underdog contender in 2014. Consider who’s in their rotation beyond staff ace David Price; Alex Cobb has yet to notch a 30-start season in the majors, after all. Neither has Chris Archer. Rookie Jake Odorizzi has seven career big league starts; he’s expected to become a midrotation horse in time, but absent Moore they might need that time to be now.
[+] EnlargeChris Archer
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty ImageThe Rays can't blow off losing Matt Moore for any length of time, but Chris Archer is ready to help.

The thing is that’s by design. This year’s rotation isn’t saddled with a willful science experiment like the comeback of Roberto Hernandez (the mound artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona). It was instead a quintet picked because of their bright futures and readiness. Price is the old man of the group at 28, a man who could add another Cy Young Award or two to his mantel before hitting free agency after 2015. Cobb (4th round, 2006) and Moore (8th round, 2007) are reminders that picking high school arms really can pay off in terms of upside, taken at a time when it seemed as if everyone was overreacting to less-remembered object lesson of "Moneyball," that you should rely on college-groomed arms. Archer (25) was part of the package received for Matt Garza, Odorizzi, a former first-rounder and an egregious bit of ballast bundled into the Wil Myers-James Shields deal with the Royals.

It’s a cadre of talent carefully accumulated and prepped to pick up where that old Rays rotation of Price, Garza and Shields. Heck, it’s a group so good and so young you might be forgiven for pegging them as the gaggle most likely to do a ’90s Braves impression in the back half of the decade. But that’s only on paper, and only if they stay healthy, and as with almost every rotation this side of the ’90s Braves (or the Aughties White Sox), that’s never a sure thing no matter how smart they might be in getting them, and no matter how carefully you manage their workloads.

Asking about whether the Rays have a serious problem depends on your time frame and whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. For the time being, it looks like they might turn to journeyman Erik Bedard, no stranger to the DL himself, and not a guy you can count on to get through opposing lineups three times. If it’s Cesar Ramos instead, you can still ask yourself if the bullpen lefty will do that much better beyond a second time through the order. Either of them will add to the middle-inning load of the bullpen. It’s nothing Joe Maddon hasn’t had to manage around before, but full, healthy seasons from Cobb, as well as Price, would certainly help.

The good news is that the Rays might not have to resort to those kinds of patches in their rotation for long. In the nearer term, Jeremy Hellickson is slowly making his way back from February surgery to remove bodies in his pitching elbow. If he heals on the short side of his recovery plan, he might be back in action in the second half of May, while the long side might involve sometime in June. So the Rays’ window of need in the worst-case scenario might close no later than June -- if Moore has to miss the season, and if Hellickson takes the maximum amount of time to recuperate and gear up, barring any setbacks.

But that’s Hellickson comes back to pitch the way he did before 2013, and while you can hope so, we’ll need to see it happen first. Even though metrics like FIP and xFIP cheerily proposed 2013 was his best season yet because his strikeout rate went up, suggesting he was almost a full run per nine better last year than his 5.17 ERA. While Hellickson earned plenty of top-talent touts in his first two seasons and while he is still just 27 years old, last year he notched just 11 quality starts in 31 turns, his power allowed to opposing batters spiked up to a .176 Isolated Power, and his innings pitched per start dropped to 5.5. The cavalry won’t come if this horse comes back hobbled by that kind of hard-hit, liner-happy ineffectiveness.

This early in a season, it’s easy to be negative. It’s easy to be positive. You can hope Moore will be back in action after two weeks or as many as five (like last year), because last year, Price, Cobb and Moore all spent time on the DL, and the Rays nevertheless made it to the postseason. But that was then, and this is where the rubber meets the road. The last bit of good news is that, even with the defending champion Red Sox in the division, nobody from among the East’s tough quintet of teams looks like they’ll be running out ahead anytime soon. We’ll see if the Rays can roll with this latest injury as effectively as they’ve adapted in the past, but I wouldn’t bet against them, whatever Doc Andrews says to Matt Moore on a day TBNL.


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

Make-or-break seasons: Pitchers

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
11:50
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With Keith Law unveiling his top 100 prospects, let's look at five pitchers, once top prospects themselves, who are entering make-or-break seasons of sorts.

Pitchers, of course, are harder to predict and project than hitters. A new pitch or a new grip or a sudden ability to repeat a delivery can take a pitcher to a new level. A pitcher's park or defense -- good or bad -- also can have a big influence on his results.

Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays
Age: 27 in April
2013: 5.17 ERA, 174 IP, 185 H, 50 BB, 135 SO, -0.8 WAR
ZiPS projection: 164 IP, 4.12 ERA, 1.5 WAR

Through his first two-plus seasons, Hellickson was 27-21 with a 3.10 ERA, but hadn't won over the sabermetric community because of mediocre strikeout-to-walk rates and a fairly high total of home runs allowed. His success had been built on pitching particularly well -- or being particularly lucky -- with runners on base. In his first two full seasons, opponents hit just .194 with runners in scoring position against him.

In 2013, Hellickson lowered his walk rate and increased his strikeout rate while home runs allowed remained the same -- and his ERA rose to an unsightly 5.17. Batters hit .333 with runners in scoring position. Had his luck run out or was it just bad luck? The Rays probably can't afford to once again keep a guy with an ERA of 5.00 in the rotation all season, not with guys such as Jake Odorizzi and Enny Romero waiting for an opportunity.

What to expect: Hellickson probably wasn't as good as his first two seasons or as bad as 2013. He's not overpowering -- average fastball of 90.5 mph -- so he relies on movement and then tries to get hitters to chase his changeup or pound it into the ground. In the end, the lack of a dominant fastball probably limits his upside and he probably settles in somewhere between his 2011 and 2013 performance.

Phil Hughes, Minnesota Twins
Age: 28 in June
2013: 5.19 ERA, 145.2 IP, 170 H, 42 BB, 121 SO, -0.7 WAR
ZiPS projection: 141.2 IP, 4.64 ERA, 0.8 WAR

Hughes has been around so long now -- he debuted with the Yankees in 2007 -- that it seems a little odd to include him here, but he's here because this could be his final chance to prove himself as a starting pitcher. He's on a new team and in a new ballpark and some believe getting him away from the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium will help. After all, he served up 35 home runs in 2012 and 24 last year in just 145 innings. Indeed, over those two seasons, he allowed 39 home runs at home, 20 on the road, although his ERA splits weren't so dramatic, 4.88 in Yankee Stadium, 4.33 on the road.

What to expect: ZiPS isn't optimistic, projecting Hughes as barely above replacement level. He still pitches up in the zone too much with his fastball and no ballpark is going to fix that. Still, moving to a more favorable environment and a weaker division should help. If he stays healthy, I can see an ERA in the upper 3s ... good enough to keep his rotation job and prevent a move to the bullpen.

SportsNation

Which pitcher will improve the most in 2014?

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    11%
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    22%
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    49%
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    7%
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    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,693)

Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays
Age: 25 in June
2013: 3.29 ERA, 150.1 IP, 119 H, 76 BB, 143 SO, 2.6 WAR
ZiPS projection: 171.1 IP, 3.41 ERA, 3.0 WAR

Wait, the dude went 17-4 and you're calling this a make-or-break season? Well, not exactly. Moore is going to have a long career in the majors. The question for him: Is he going to turn the corner and develop into the ace status projected after he burst onto the scene at the end of the 2011 season?

For Moore, it's all about command. He walked 4.5 batters per nine innings in 2013 and led the AL with 17 wild pitches. One effect of this is it runs up his pitch counts and knocks him out of games early. He averaged just 5.5 innings per start. Aces have to stay in the game longer. He'll turn 25 in June, so we should be looking at a guy who can pitch 200 innings.

What to expect: ZiPS still projects a starter who will walk four batters per nine innings and it's difficult to be an ace when you're walking that many batters. Moore's No. 1 comp via ZiPS is Mark Langston -- which makes perfect sense. Langston was a hard-throwing lefty for the Mariners in the '80s, a guy whose stuff was as good as any left-hander's in the game back then. He led the AL in strikeouts as a rookie in 1984 and again in 1986 and 1987. He also walked 100 batters a year his first seven seasons. He had a great career -- 50.4 WAR -- and if Moore does that nobody should complain.

Garrett Richards, Los Angeles Angels
Age: 26 in May
2013: 4.16 ERA, 145 IP, 151 H, 44 BB, 101 SO, 0.8 WAR
ZiPS projection: 139 IP, 4.47 ERA, 0.4 WAR

Nobody questions Richards' arm strength -- his average fastball clocked in at 94.9 mph in 2013 -- but the total package remains elusive. He worked out of the pen and then started 19 games last season, but the trades for Hector Santiago and Diamondbacks prospect Tyler Skaggs means Richards isn't a lock for the rotation in 2014. Despite the big heat, his strikeout rates remain low -- even in the minor leagues they were nothing special. Richards threw 1,092 fastballs in 2013 with 306 plate appearances ending with the pitch. He recorded just 17 strikeouts. His fastball has good velocity, but just hasn't been a swing-and-miss offering. His slider was a solid weapon, but he has to be able to set it up with an effective fastball.

What to expect: There just isn't a track record that suggests Richards is going to make any kind of significant leap forward. Even in Double-A in 2011, he fanned just 103 in 143 innings. He may get one final shot at the rotation if the Angels don't sign another starter, but I'm skeptical. I think he'll end up in the bullpen long term.

Jacob Turner, Miami Marlins
Age: 23 in May
2013: 3.74 ERA, 118 IP, 116 H, 54 BB, 77 SO, 1.4 WAR
ZiPS projection: 157.1 IP, 4.35 ERA, 1.2 WAR

The Tigers made Turner the ninth overall pick in 2009 out of a St. Louis high school, a big, projectable right-hander, and he reached the majors at the end of 2011. The Tigers liked his polish, but he was included in the Anibal Sanchez trade in 2012. Turner now has 30 major league starts under his belt and while he posted a solid ERA in 2013, his peripherals were less impressive. Among the 145 pitchers with at least 100 innings, Turner ranked 142nd in strikeout/walk ratio. If he's going to become something more than a back-end starter, it's time to make some improvements.

What to expect: While his overall strikeout rate was low, he actually ranked 85th in swing-and-miss percentage -- higher than Jon Lester or David Price, to name two. To me, this suggests his stuff is good enough to get more strikeouts. He needs to improve his command and maybe trust his offspeed stuff a little more, especially his curveball. He threw 67 percent fastballs in 2013, a pretty high percentage for a guy who doesn't blow it by batters. I'm not sure the breakthrough will come this season -- ZiPS isn't a huge fan -- but I still believe he can develop into a No. 3-caliber starter.

Playoff watch: Thoughts of the day

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
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Some quick thoughts on the most important results and plays of the day and a look forward to Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeMat Latos
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMat Latos is a big part of the reason why September could be good for the Reds.
Pitching performance of the day: Mat Latos, Reds. Don't count the Reds out just yet in the NL Central race. For the second start in a row, the Reds battered Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, but Latos stepped up with his first complete game of 2013 and just the fourth of his career. Dusty Baker rarely lets Latos get to 110 pitches (his season high is 111, twice) so Latos rarely gets past the seventh. But he threw an efficient 100 pitches, striking out two while allowing four hits. If the Reds don't win the division, it could be Latos who gets the ball in the wild-card game.

Key at-bat of the day: Jurickson Profar versus Grant Balfour. With a 4-2 lead and Oakland closer Balfour pitching for the fourth time in five days -- he said after the game he was "pitching on fumes" -- he walked David Murphy on four pitches to start the ninth and gave up a Leonys Martin single to left. That brought up the rookie, Profar. The Rangers are second in the AL in sacrifice bunts (although with 34, they're hardly Gene Mauch-ish about it) and Ron Washington decided to play for the tie rather than a win against a tired reliever. Except Profar squared around twice and took two strikes. Swinging away, he ended up bouncing out to first, so he at least advanced the runners. But what if he had been allowed to hit away? Balfour escaped the inning as Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre both swung at first pitches and flew out.

Most important win: Oakland's win over Texas, giving them a tie for first rather than a two-game deficit.

Most important loss: The Indians not only dropped behind the Yankees (not to mention the Rays and Orioles) for the second wild-card spot, but lost rotation ace Justin Masterson after just one inning with soreness in his side. He'll undergo an MRI and other tests on Tuesday.

Awards watch: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is pushing his way onto the short list of NL MVP candidates. He homered, doubled and drove in five runs in Atlanta's 13-5 thrashing of the Mets and now ranks fourth in the NL with 93 RBIs. And there's nothing MVP voters love more than an RBI guy on a playoff team.

Tuesday's best pitching matchup: Detroit's Max Scherzer versus Boston's Jon Lester. Scherzer is going for his 20th win but faces Lester, who has allowed more than three runs just once in his past nine starts. Scherzer escaped his second defeat in his last start when the Tigers rallied in the ninth inning. Considering the Tigers' remaining schedule, if he gets past this one without a loss we could be looking at the best single-season win-loss percentage in history.

Tuesday's most important pitching matchup: St. Louis' Michael Wacha versus Cincinnati's Homer Bailey. Wacha pitched out of the bullpen in August and the rookie will be making his first major league start since June. He did throw four scoreless innings in relief against the Reds on August 28, but the Cardinals rotation is scuffling right now: Since Aug. 15, it has the second-worst ERA in the majors (5.14). The St. Louis rotation is why I think the Pirates can win the division -- or why the Reds could catch the Cardinals and Pirates, even though everyone still seems to be picking St. Louis. Wacha has talent, but he's also pitching in Cincinnati, where the Reds are 42-23. Look for more angst in St. Louis after Bailey beats the Cards.

Player to watch: Matt Moore. The Tampa Bay lefty returns to the rotation for his first start since July 28 following a DL stint with elbow soreness. He made one rehab start in Triple-A, allowing eight hits and two walks with two strikeouts in four innings.
From ESPN Stats & Information, following Roberto Hernandez's complete-game win for the Rays on Tuesday: The Rays now have seven complete games this month thrown by four different starters (David Price, Chris Archer, Matt Moore and Hernandez, with Jeremy Hellickson the slacker). The last MLB team with 7+ complete games in a month was the Phillies in May 1999 (7). The last team with complete games from four different starters in one month was the Marlins in August 2005 (Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Jason Vargas, Dontrelle Willis).

It's an amazing run for that rotation. Collectively, the rotation is 18-3 with a 2.10 ERA in July and has averaged just over seven innings per start. Going deep into games has a ripple effect, of course -- the bullpen doesn't get overused and Joe Maddon always has his best relievers available.

What's impressive is that Maddon hasn't had to stretch out the starters in any of these games. All three of Price's complete games required fewer than 100 pitches, as did one of Archer's complete games. The high pitch total was Archer's 112 in his five-hit shutout over the Astros on July 14.

This run reminds me of the run the Giants rotation went on in September of 2010, when the starters posted a 2.36 ERA and rode that momentum all the way through the postseason to a World Series victory.

Jason Collette wrote on the Rays rotation a couple days ago here: "Over the first three months of the season, the starting pitchers held opposing batters to a .242/.312/.392 slash line while striking out 21.7 percent of them and walking 8.5 percent. In July, that slash line has fallen to .197/.240/.302 and while the strikeout rate is down a bit to 19.5 percent, the walk rate has plunged four percentage points to 4.5 percent."

Right now, it's a championship-caliber rotation. But championships aren't won in July.

Matt Moore changing things up to dominate

July, 23, 2013
7/23/13
12:41
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The Tampa Bay Rays have won 21 of their past 25 outings with a mixture of timely hitting and dominating pitching. The 2.18 team ERA during this run of success is nearly a full run better than any other team in the American League in the same time frame. Many critics are quick to point at the relatively easy schedule the Rays have had over the past month, one that included many home games as well as seven matchups against the Houston Astros, with another 10 games against the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays.

But as the Rays started their critical four-game series against Boston on Monday night, it would be their first game of the month against a team over .500 and not in fourth or fifth place in its division. Boston had also owned the season series up to that point, winning nine of 12 contests. Despite being outhit by Tampa Bay, Boston pitching had done incredible work stranding Rays on the basepaths: In those 12 games, Rays hitters had managed just 15 hits in 104 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Tampa Bay was able to drive in just 20 runners in those 12 games while posting a slash line of .144/.250/.173.

Just 1.5 games separated the two teams as they started play, and Boston’s 25-16 record within the American League East was a big reason why the Red Sox were in first place. Tampa Bay was looking to Matt Moore to both even the team’s record within the division, as well as get within a half-game of a team they trailed by a full seven games back on June 28.
[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMatt Moore has a handle on this winning thing.

Consider this a case of mission accomplished. While Boston entered the series with the highest team batting average in baseball over the past month at .298, and the second highest team OPS at .805, Moore limited the Red Sox to just three hits while throwing his first career complete-game shutout. Moore was so dominant that the only runner to reach second base did so as a result of a wild pitch in the seventh inning. Moore threw 74 of 109 pitches for strikes, including using 21 changeups according to ESPN Stats & Info. The increased usage of his changeup has been one of the key factors in his recent success.

Early in the season, Moore did not utilize his changeup that frequently. Through his first 10 starts of 2013, Moore threw as many as 20 changeups just one time and totaled 156 changeups through the first two months of the season. Since the beginning of June, despite one less outing, Moore has already thrown 205 changeups and has thrown at least 20 in all but two of those outings. Not only is Moore using the pitch more frequently, he is using it in different patterns.

In late June, Moore was interviewed by Ben Lindbergh of BaseballProspectus.com about the use of changeups to same-handed hitters. In the interview, Moore stated his primary reason for limiting the use of his changeup against left-handed hitters was due to the fact that, “the bottom of the zone, for lefties, is such a sweet spot.” In fact, of the 1,004 pitches Moore threw to left-handed hitters from his rookie debut until the end of May 2013, just three percent were changeups. But since then, of the 276 pitches Moore has thrown to left-handed hitters, that percentage has nearly quadrupled to 11 percent.

This process began in earnest this month in Moore’s first start of July against the Chicago White Sox. After watching the success Jeremy Hellickson had with his changeup in the first game of the series, Moore threw a season-high 33 of them against the White Sox, nine of which were thrown to left-handed hitters. Tommy Rancel of The Process Report quoted Adam Dunn after the game on Moore’s approach saying, “For the most part, he pitched us a lot different than he had pretty much all year. He’s throwing lefties a lot more changeups than normal. He had a really good changeup.” However, against the Red Sox, Moore threw just three changeups to Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz while needing only 23 pitches to limit the dynamic duo to a single trip on the bases on the evening.

Moore’s 2013 season has essentially been a tale of two stanzas with one dreadful intermission. In the first 10 games of the season, Moore had an unblemished 8-0 record with a 2.21 ERA. Over 61 innings, he limited batters to a .181 batting average and a .606 OPS while striking out 56. Then, Mother Nature interfered. On May 31, Moore took the mound in Cleveland on a very wet Friday evening and pitched a scoreless inning before the rain delayed the game over two hours. Moore’s next start came on June 4 in Detroit; he had no command of his pitches and allowed 13 runners to reach base before being pulled from the game in the third inning, starting a three-game stretch that ended with Moore losing all three decisions while allowing 39 baserunners in just 12 1/3 innings with 19 earned runs allowed.

Moore has now put that rough stretch behind him with authority. After last night’s win, Moore has won each of his past six starts and has a 1.50 ERA during that time while limiting opposing batters to a .143 batting average and a .403 OPS. Moore is now 14-3 on the season with a 3.17 ERA and is coming out of the break as red-hot as he and his teammates went into it.
What to make of Matt Moore right now?

His 9-3 record looks nice, but he hasn't pitched like a 9-3 pitcher, especially of late. Even when he started the season 8-0, there were some red flags: a lot of walks, high pitch counts that led to early exits and a .181 batting average allowed that seemed unsustainable.

After that hot start, a one-inning outing truncated by a rain delay was followed by three blow-up starts: six runs and six walks in two innings, 12 hits and nine runs in five innings and five runs and four walks in 5⅓ innings.

I don't know if we really learned anything from Thursday's 8-3 victory over the Yankees, in which Moore took a shutout into the sixth inning before giving up three runs. For starters, the Yankees' is a pretty sad excuse for a major league lineup, and it's particularly pathetic against left-handers. Chris Capuano, who has been terrible for the Dodgers, just threw six scoreless innings against New York on Wednesday.

Moore did throw 63 of 99 pitches for strikes, about four percent higher than his season rate, but he should be throwing strikes against a lineup that had Jayson Nix batting second and Ichiro Suzuki hitting sixth. The uncertainty over Moore's production -- is he an ace or a No. 4 starter? -- makes him the most important guy moving forward in a Tampa Bay rotation that has been a disappointment.

You could pick almost any Tampa Bay starter here, including David Price, who begins his rehab stint from a strained triceps Friday, or Jeremy Hellickson, who has a 5.50 ERA. But if Price is healthy, he should be fine. Hellickson has a better strikeout rate, lower walk rate and the same home run rate as last season; instead of the 82 percent strand rate he's had the past two seasons, it's 61 percent this seaspn. He should be better moving forward as well.

That makes Moore the key starter if the Rays are to stay close in the crowded American League East race. In fact, with the Blue Jays surging -- winners of eight in a row -- seven games separate first-place Boston from last-place Toronto. Here are nine other key players the rest of the way, one hitter and pitcher per team.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJohn Lackey could well be Boston's No. 2 starter right now -- and will be a key player in the AL East race.
Matt Joyce, Rays
Since April 26, Joyce has hit .292/.383/.590 with 12 home runs to give the Rays a lethal 1-2 combo with Evan Longoria. If he continues hitting like he is, the Rays offense will continue scoring runs.

John Lackey, Red Sox
Lackey continues to impress in his return from Tommy John surgery, throwing seven strong innings against the Tigers on Thursday, leaving with a 3-2 lead and lowering his ERA to 3.03. Red Sox fans might not be willing to forgive him just yet for 2011, but he's starting to win them over. He's throwing in the low 90s, painting the corners with his fastball and getting inside to left-handers with his slider (lefties are hitting just .174 against that pitch). Considering Jon Lester's inconsistency, Lackey has arguably become the team's No. 2 starter. Who would have thought that?

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
He's not the MVP candidate of 2011 -- just one home run -- but he's providing energy at the top of the lineup with a .281 average, .348 OBP and 31 steals in 34 attempts. While more power would be nice, the Red Sox just need him to at least keep replicating what he's done so far.

Jason Hammel, Orioles
Look, the Orioles can't expect to keep running Freddy Garcia and Jake Arrieta out there and expect to win the division. They'll get Wei-Yin Chen back soon, but they're desperate for Hammel to replicate his 2012 performance. Last season, Hammel was getting great sinking movement on his fastball, off which batters hit .252/.318/.378; this season, he's leaving it up too often, and hitters are pounding it for a .309/.377/.510. Last year was a career season for Hammel, so the Orioles might have to decide on banking on his improvement or look to supplement the rotation via trade.

Chris Davis, Orioles
Well, he's on pace for 58 home runs and 146 RBIs. I don't think he'll keep doing this, and while he's clearly an improved hitter over last season, we have to expect some regression at some point … right?

CC Sabathia, Yankees
Most pitchers would be happy with a 7-5 record and 3.93 ERA, but it's been an up-and-down season for Sabathia. Manager Joe Girardi is still riding his horse -- Sabathia's on pace for 230 innings -- but righties are slugging .447 off him, up from last season's .374 mark. It's clear he doesn't have the fastball he once had (average velocity: 90.3 mph), so the issues here: Should Girardi back off him a little? Does Sabathia get better? Should we just view him as an innings-eater instead of an ace?

Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
We have to put somebody here, and I can't bring myself to write "Vernon Wells." But the Yankees do need to find some right-handed bats. Heck, maybe they'll sign Manny Ramirez.

R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays
The Jays are starting to get healthy again, Josh Johnson has looked better of late and Mark Buehrle is looking like Mark Buehrle, so if Dickey can find some consistency and pitch like last season's NL Cy Young winner, the Jays will climb over .500 -- they're 35-36 now -- and make things interesting.

Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
The Jays are seventh in the AL in runs, and while Jose Reyes will improve the offense when he returns in a few days, they could use a patented Bautista tear in the second half. His numbers are OK, not great -- .257, 15 home runs, .352 OBP -- but, considering the hole they dug, they'll need more from him.
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The Franchise Player Draft has been completed, so it's time for Eric Karabell and myself to continue our tradition of doing the second round. All picks were made by Eric and myself, not the franchise "owners," so yell at us, not them. Eric made all the odd-numbered picks and I made the even-numbered picks.

And, no, I did not draft Eric Hosmer.

31. Keith Law (David Price): Oscar Taveras. KLaw knows a few things about prospects, and Taveras was his No. 2 guy entering the season, after the already chosen Jurickson Profar.

32. Manny Acta (Jose Bautista): Matt Moore. Bautista is a win-now type of building block, but so is Moore, a 24-year-old with terrific stuff, hasn't been overworked and has as good a chance as anybody to be the best pitcher in baseball over the next five years.

33. Eric Karabell (Andrelton Simmons). Carlos Gonzalez. Defense in Round 1, offense in Round 2. And even if this mythical team doesn't play its home games at Coors Field, note that CarGo is hitting better on the road this season.

34. Jonah Keri (Joe Mauer): Madison Bumgarner. Hard to believe that he doesn't turn 24 until August, but he already has two World Series rings and two 200-inning seasons. He's so efficient that he should be a 200-inning guy for years to come.

35. Scott Spratt (Felix Hernandez): Jean Segura. I'll admit I considered Segura late in Round 1, but instead opted for the elite defense of Simmons. Segura won't hit .350 all year, but he's not a bad pick at this spot.

36. Jim Bowden (Stephen Strasburg): Jordan Zimmermann. Hey, don't blame Strasburg and Zimmermann for the Nationals' problems this year! Jim was the Nationals' GM when the club selected him in the second round of the 2007, so he's happy to snag him again.

37. Paul Swydan (Jurickson Profar): Matt Wieters. Build teams up the middle! Wieters remains a building-block player, despite a slow start to 2013.

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Who should be the first pick of the second round?

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    28%
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    17%
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Discuss (Total votes: 1,661)

38. Curt Schilling (Shelby Miller): Paul Goldschmidt. Too early for a first baseman? Maybe, but Goldschmidt is more than just a slugger. He's an elite defender at first, swipes some bases, and at 25 is entering his prime years.

39. Mark Simon (David Wright): Zack Wheeler. Well, Mark is, after all, a Mets fan. And pretty soon Wheeler will have many fans.

40. Justin Havens (Ryan Braun): Prince Fielder. A relatively safe pick considering Fielder's durability and on-base skills. Plus, Justin can now watch that 2011 Brewers highlight DVD that has been collecting dust.

41. Orel Hershiser (Justin Upton): Adam Wainwright. OK, so maybe the Cardinals right-hander has never tossed 59 consecutive scoreless innings, but he's pretty good.

42. David Schoenfield (Troy Tulowitzki): Miguel Sano. Prospects are overrated! Plus, Sano is only in Class A ball, you say? Sure, but he'll be in Double-A soon, putting him on track for a midseason promotion to the Twins in 2014. And then my future third baseman will start winning home run titles.

43. Mike Greenberg (Matt Kemp): Chris Davis. Well, at least one of these sluggers is healthy and producing. And Davis does look legit.

44. Mike Golic (Dustin Pedroia): Elvis Andrus. With that double-play duo behind them, the pitchers on Golic's team will be very happy pitchers. Well, assuming the outfield doesn't consist of Raul Ibanez, Lucas Duda and Mike Morse.

45. Richard Durrett (Justin Verlander): Adam Jones. This elite center fielder looks even better than his breakout 2012.

46. Christina Kahrl (Jason Heyward): Xander Bogaerts. He probably doesn't stick at shortstop, but he's going to hit at whatever position he plays. Plus, his name starts with an X, and he'll be better than Xavier Nady.

47. Buster Olney (Robinson Cano): Clay Buchholz. Olney got a close-up look at Buchholz on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, and had to be impressed. Perhaps he can build an entire fake team with all Yankees and Red Sox.

48. Dan Szymborski (Yu Darvish): Carlos Santana. We're not privy to the super secret ZiPS projection system that Dan keeps stored in a bank vault somewhere in Maryland, but we have to think it likes a catcher with power and on-base skills.

49. Jon Sciambi (Giancarlo Stanton): Yasiel Puig. Could be 80 home runs from this duo in 2014. Or, we suppose, fewer.

50. Mike Petriello (Andrew McCutchen): Yadier Molina. Talk about building up the middle. Molina turns 31 in July and caught a lot of games before turning 30, so there's risk that he won't hold up. But he's the kind of guy you take a risk on.

51. C.J. Nitkowski (Joey Votto): Austin Jackson. Terrific center fielder and leadoff hitter could have gone in the first round. It's tougher to find an all-around center fielder than a first baseman.

52. Alex Cora (Miguel Cabrera): Chris Sale. Some believe he's an arm injury waiting to happen, but there's no denying he's one of the best starters in the game.

53. Tim Kurkjian (Matt Harvey): Wil Myers. One future Cy Young winner is set, and here comes the prototypical slugging right fielder to join him. If the Rays would just cooperate and promote him.

54. Jim Caple (Yoenis Cespedes): Matt Cain. We know Caple loves those West Coast guys, so let's give him Cain, who is still just 28. Don't overreact to his current 5+ ERA. He'll be fine.

55. Dave Cameron (Evan Longoria): Mike Zunino. Mariners fan gets the next great Mariner. Thought about giving him Dustin Ackley or Jesus Montero, picks from last season, but that seemed a bit unfair.

56. Molly Knight (Clayton Kershaw): Cole Hamels. What's wrong with Hamels? As with Cain, let's not overreact to two subpar months. A rotation with these two lefties would look pretty sweet.

57. Jayson Stark (Buster Posey): Jose Fernandez. Future ace has certainly impressed as a rushed rookie this season.

58. Aaron Boone (Manny Machado): Starling Marte. He's playing left field for the Pirates, but could easily move to center, giving Aaron two elite young defenders who have some ability at the plate as well.

59. Doug Glanville (Bryce Harper): Starlin Castro. What a fall from grace! A year ago the Chicago Cubs shortstop was the ninth overall selection in Round 1. Now he barely gets chosen at all. I have to admit, he doesn't seem to be growing at the plate or in the field, but Glanville probably has more patience.

60. Jerry Crasnick (Mike Trout): Mark Appel. Jerry loves Dylan Bundy, but he was just recently cleared to start throwing for the first time since late March. So let's go off the board and give him a guy who hasn't even started his professional career yet. Thanks us later, Jerry.

When the Tampa Bay Rays changed their name in 2008 and transformed overnight from the hapless laughingstock of the American League to 97-win division champions, their rotation featured five pitchers 26 or younger: At 26, James Shields was the old man of the group, which included Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine.

The genius of the Rays since then has been their ability to consistently replenish the staff with young starters and yet remain one of the best in the league. With the departure of Shields this offseason, that original five has been completely made over; a transition began when David Price joined the rotation during the 2009 season. The unofficial title of staff ace has shifted from Kazmir to Shields to Price, and it appears another shift is taking place in 2013.

SportsNation

OK, you've seen a quarter of the season. Who wins the AL East?

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Matt Moore, your presence as a Cy Young contender is duly noted. With reigning Cy Young champ Price struggling -- earning just one win in nine starts while posting a 5.24 ERA, and then landing on the DL a few days ago with triceps strain -- it is Moore who has helped keep the Rays afloat more than any one pitcher. He improved to 8-0 on Sunday, limiting the Baltimore Orioles to five hits and one run over seven innings in a 3-1 victory, as the Rays completed an impressive sweep in Baltimore.

Moore lowered his ERA to 2.29, the Rays improved to 23-20 with their ninth win in 11 games, and this is looking like a team starting to click on all cylinders -- even as Price sits on the sidelines the next two weeks.

At 23, Moore became the youngest American League pitcher to start 8-0 since another hard-throwing lefty named Babe Ruth did it in 1917. The scary thing about his start is that the ability to perform even better is there, as he has been inconsistent with his command and pitched seven innings just twice. Manager Joe Maddon suggested as much, telling MLB.com:
I think from where he's coming from, he knows he can be better. He doesn't like those five-inning outings. He doesn't like that at all. So I'm sure he's deflecting based on that. As you see him get deeper into the games and more consistent with the wins, I think you might see him step out a little bit.

But I like the idea that there's humility involved. I like the idea that he knows that he can get better. I love that. The accountability is tremendous. That doesn't surprise me. ... Historically speaking, it has been wonderful, but there is 'more' in Moore. And he knows that.

Moore has held batters to a .175 average but he has also walked 26 in 55 innings, so there's room for improvement. In some ways, that's what made Sunday's outing impressive: He struck out only three but walked one, avoiding a big inning in the process. Another area for improvement is that while Moore's fastball/curveball/changeup arsenal has destroyed right-handers -- they're hitting .064 off the curveball with 20 strikeouts in 47 plate appearances -- he hasn't yet learned to dominate lefties, who have hit a respectable .236/.335/.361 off him the past two seasons he sticks mostly to the fastball against them.

Of course, a major reason he's 8-0 is excellent run support, but this isn't a typical Tampa Bay offense that struggles to put up runs. After outscoring only the Royals, Indians and Mariners last season, the Rays have scored just 12 runs fewer than the best-in-the-AL Tigers. The Rays' OPS has increased from .711 to .760 and not just because Dodgers castoff James Loney is off to a .356 start. Matt Joyce has eight home runs and Luke Scott has driven in 12 runs in 17 games since coming off the DL; both homered in Sunday's win. Kelly Johnson is hitting .274 with seven home runs. With Loney's hot start, that gives the Rays four threats from the left side. Logic says to throw left-handed pitching at the Rays, but the division isn't exactly ripe with left-handed starters once you get past CC Sabathia and Jon Lester, especially with Mark Buehrle struggling and Andy Pettitte and Wei-Yin Chen currently on the DL.

Throw a lefty, however, and there's that guy named Evan Longoria waiting for you in the middle.

But here's why I'll stick with my preseason choice of the Rays to win the AL East: pitching, pitching, pitching. At least starting pitching. (The bullpen is the team's major issue right now.) At Triple-A Durham, the rotation included Alex Torres (2.39 ERA, 49 SO, 14 BB in 37.2 IP), Jake Odorizzi (3.83 ERA, 47 SO, 15 BB in 44.2 IP), Chris Archer (4.38 ERA, 40 SO, 19 BB in 39 IP) and Alex Colome (2.86 ERA, 59 SO, 20 BB in 50 IP). The Angels would kill to have those four in their rotation right now.

Torres was called up to replace Price, but Odorizzi will get the start on Monday afternoon against Toronto. All Torres did on Saturday was pitch four hitless innings in relief of Roberto Hernandez to earn his second major league win.

It's all those arms that explain why Price will likely make his billions with another team eventually.

Not that Maddon doesn't want his ace back as quickly as possible … or co-ace, that is.
As a reminder:

Odds to win AL East, March 25 (Bovada.lv)
Blue Jays +160
Rays +250
Yankees +350
Red Sox +550
Orioles +750

AL East projected standings, March 26 (Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system)
Blue Jays -- 94-68
Rays -- 88-74
Red Sox -- 84-78
Yankees -- 83-79
Orioles -- 82-80

Picks to win AL East, March 30 (ESPN baseball contributors)
Blue Jays -- 20
Rays -- 20
Orioles -- 2
Yankees -- 1
Red Sox -- 0

Before the season began, everyone talked about how the AL East would be the crazy island of division races, but the consensus was the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays were the two best teams and the other three would be left fighting for wild-card scraps.

Only four of ESPN's 43 baseball contributors picked the Red Sox to even make the playoffs. I was one. As we close in on the end of April, the Red Sox own baseball's best record and are doing it in impressive fashion: 18-7, including 11-5 at home and 7-2 on the road; third in the AL in runs; third in fewest runs allowed; owners of the best run differential in the majors at +40.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Winslow Townson/USA TODAY SportsDavid Ortiz's return from the DL has sparked the Boston Red Sox to a hot April and baseball's best record.
Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have rightfully received a lot of the credit for going a combined 9-0 in 10 starts and allowing just 13 runs. Free agent Mike Napoli is second in the majors with 27 RBIs. Daniel Nava has hit himself into more playing time with a .310 average, four homers and 16 RBIs. Jacoby Ellsbury is healthy and providing energy at the top of order. John Lackey even won on Sunday, so you know things are going well.

But if one player best sums up Boston's April, it's David Ortiz, the heart and soul of the franchise. I imagine Big Papi will get old one of these years. Maybe the bat speed will suddenly slow and he'll turn into that most discouraging of sights: the aging slugger who can no longer hit. That's not going to happen in 2013. In eight games since returning from the DL, Papi has come back with a vengeance by hitting .516 with seven extra-base hits and 11 RBIs. Eight of his 16 hits have gone to left field as he has beat the shift teams usually put on against him. Most importantly, the Sox are 7-1 in those games. With Ortiz in the cleanup spot, the Red Sox lineup looks complete: Speed with Ellsbury, on-base skills with Nava and Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli in the middle. This lineup just beat the Astros four straight times at home.

It's the kind of lineup that can win a division, especially if Will Middlebrooks and Stephen Drew start inflicting some damage from the bottom of the order. As I hand out some April grades, the Red Sox and Big Papi both earn an A+ for their inspiring start.

Here are some more April grades for the American League (we'll do the National League on Monday night), starting with some other newsworthy mentions from the AL East.

New York Yankees: A. Explain this: No Curtis Granderson, no Mark Teixeira, no Alex Rodriguez, no Derek Jeter ... and the Yankees are 15-9 and lead the AL in home runs. Robinson Cano has seven but Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells, acquired off the scrap heap pile known as "former stars," have each hit six. Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera continue to drink from that special supply of Hudson River water fed into the Yankee Stadium home clubhouse fountain of youth. The Yankees are, dare we say, a good story.

Baltimore Orioles: A. The O's suffered a tough loss on Sunday, but they're 15-10, and there's no crazy record in one-run games going on this year; the Orioles are 4-5 in such contests. The Orioles also have played well through what looked like a tough early slate: six against the Rays plus series against the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers and Twins. The offense is second to Oakland in runs scored with Davis (and his 28 RBIs) and Adam Jones leading the way.

Chris Davis, Orioles: A+. Has a good case as the AL MVP for April, which is nice but merely means: Prove it over the next five months.

Toronto Blue Jays: F. Yes, Jose Reyes went down early, but that alone isn't an excuse for a team that has been outscored by 35 runs. They've been awful in every phase of the game, and last week there was a game where John Gibbons hit Rajai Davis and Munenori Kawasaki 1-2. Embarrassing. The Blue Jays are 9-17, a good reminder that April games matter just as much as games in September. The worst April record of last year's playoff teams was the A's at 11-13, so it's possible to recover from a slow start. But ask the Angels how hard it is to recover from a terrible start.

Melky Cabrera, Blue Jays: F. The Jays were hoping there were getting 2011-12 Melky. Instead, they're getting the Melky (no homers, OPS under .600 so far) that Braves fans booed out of town in 2010. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances here with Cabrera's positive PED test last August. Did the PEDs help that much? Is he pressing? Just a slow start? Stay tuned.

Arte Moreno's pocketbook: D. On the heels of last year's mixed-review signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson comes Josh Hamilton, who is hitting .219 with two home runs. The Angels just lost three of four to the dreadful Mariners and you can't just blame the rotation: They scored three runs in the three losses.

Mike Trout, Angels: C+. Trout is hitting .263/.330/.424 with two home runs, and people are already screaming sophomore slump. Come on. Look deeper and you'll see the strikeout and walk rates are basically the same as last year; he has eight doubles and his line-drive rate is higher. He'll be fine.

Yu Darvish, Rangers: A-. He had the near-perfect game and opponents are hitting just .165 off him with no home runs. So why only an A-? Well, he has faced the Mariners and Astros in three of his five starts (and the struggling Angels in his other two), so before declaring him the best pitcher in the AL, let's see him face some of the league's better offenses. I mean, he might be the best pitcher in AL, but I want to see him shut down the A's or the Red Sox or the Tigers before making that declaration.

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Who has been the AL MVP for April?

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Kansas City Royals: B+. The pitching has been outstanding with James Shields as advertised (although poor run support means he's just 1-2 despite his 3.09 ERA) and Ervin Santana (3-1, 2.00 ERA), with a nifty 31/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Yes, Royals fans have forgotten about Jonathan Sanchez and Will Smith. The bad news is Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas haven't hit (no home runs).

Rick Ankiel, Astros: C-. On one hand, he has five home runs and 11 RBIs. On the other, he had 29 strikeouts and one walk in 50 plate appearances, meaning he's fanned in nearly 60 percent of his PAs. Baseball in 2013, everyone!

Jeff Keppinger, White Sox: F. Owner of my favorite batting lines so far: He's hitting .202 but his on-base percentage is .198.

Vernon Wells, Yankees: A. Leads AL outfielders in WAR! Better WAR than Trout, Hamilton and Peter Bourjos combined! You can't predict baseball.

Matt Moore, Rays: A-. With Cy Young winner David Price struggling and just capturing his first win, Moore has held the Tampa staff together with his 5-0, 1.13 ERA mark. Opponents are hitting just .113, a figure obviously unsustainable, so I'd still like to see Moore cut his walk rate. But boy, is he fun to watch.

Weather: F. The Minnesota Twins might have to schedule some tripleheaders in July.
Quick thoughts on Monday's action ...
  • Just over a week ago the Brewers were 2-8 and looked horrible. Now they've won eight in a row after beating the Padres 7-1 on Monday, as they lit up Jason Marquis for five runs in the first inning (Ryan Braun and the awesome Yuniesky Betancourt homered). Ahh, the rapid-fire twists and turns of April baseball. Braun has four home runs and 11 RBIs in his past five games, with three of those homers coming in the first inning and the other a go-ahead shot in the sixth. Keep an eye on Kyle Lohse, however, as he left after five innings with an injury to his left hand suffered when his finger got caught on Jedd Gyorko's belt while crossing first base on a bunt.
  • Matt Moore looked terrific in leading the Rays to a 5-1 win over CC Sabathia and the Yankees, allowing just two hits (both by Robinson Cano) over his career-high 117-pitch, eight-inning effort. Moore threw 79 fastballs and while he recorded just two of his eight strikeouts with the heater, the Yankees went just 1-for-15 against it. Moore improved to 4-0, 1.04, but I need to point out the Yankees lineup: Ben Francisco hitting second, Francisco Cervelli hitting fifth, lefties Brennan Boesch and Lyle Overbay ... George is not impressed. Teams should be doing everything in their power to start left-handers against the Yankees; they're hitting .190 with a .561 OPS against lefties (28th in the majors) compared to .301 with a .902 OPS against righties (first in the majors).
  • Big hit of the night: How about Buster Posey's two-run, game-tying blast to dead center off tough D-backs reliever David Hernandez in the ninth? Brandon Belt knocked in the game-winner the next inning for the G-men.
  • Big rally of the night: After the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the 13th, the Reds scored three in the bottom of the inning to win 5-4. Jay Bruce hit his first homer earlier in the game and then doubled home the tying runs in the 13th before Cesar Izturis delivered the game-winning hit with two outs. Still waiting for Dusty Baker to use Aroldis Chapman for more than three outs for the first time.
  • Justin Masterson survived four walks to improve to 4-1 as the Indians beat the White Sox 3-2. Adam Dunn went 0-for-4 to see his average drop to .101. Ozzie Guillen stuck with Dunn all year in 2011 but it will be interesting to see how long Robin Ventura sticks with him this time around. Speaking of bad White Sox hitters: Jeff Keppinger is hitting .171 in 76 at-bats and hasn't drawn a walk, so his OBP is actually lower than his average. Did we mention that the White Sox are in last place even though they've allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL?
  • Love watching Manny Machado play third base.
  • Finally, congrats to Felix Hernandez on his 100th career victory.
It's easy to forget that a year ago there were the big three super prospects: Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Matt Moore, and not necessarily in that order. Baseball America named Moore its No. 2 prospect and wrote, "He makes it look so easy, and he's so good he'll make David Price a No. 2 starter." While Harper and Trout exploded after getting called up in late April, Moore was quickly forgotten, in part because Harper and Trout exploded, in part because he plays for Tampa Bay, but mostly because it wasn't so easy for Moore in his rookie campaign.

Moore went 11-11 with a 3.81 ERA and struck out 175 batters in 177.1 innings, normally numbers about which one would be ecstatic from a rookie left-hander, but viewed with some disappointment. But it's not fair to view Moore through the lens of what happened to Harper and Trout, or even the 2.95 ERA that Rays teammate Jeremy Hellickson had posted as a rookie in 2011.

Expectations for Moore shot up after the dominant playoff start against the Rangers in 2011, when he pitched seven scoreless innings in just his second major league start. After an inconsistent first half in 2012, Moore was very good in the second half (3.01 ERA, five home runs allowed, opponents' batting line of .220/.303/.336). It was that improvement that was one reason many believed -- myself included -- that Moore would step in nicely behind Price as the team's No. 2 with the trade of James Shields to Kansas City.

Anyway, fast-forward to 2013. Most of the attention in the American League East has been paid to the revamped Blue Jays, the injury-riddled Yankees, and the revamped Red Sox (remember them?). Jackie Bradley Jr. drew a walk off CC Sabathia in the season opener and poems were written about his future greatness. Matt Moore? Yesterday's news.

After allowing no runs in his first start, Moore started again Wednesday on a 39-degree day in Texas, following a rain delay. He walked a career-worst six but escaped unscathed. In some regards, he was a little lucky -- last season, a starter walked at least six batters 65 times but only twice allowed no runs. His biggest out was getting Elvis Andrus to ground into an inning-ending double play with two on in the fifth. (Ben Zobrist would make the game's other key defensive play, throwing out Adrian Beltre at home in the eight to help preserve the 2-0 lead.)

"Where the big pitches that really needed to be made, I was locked into those moments," Moore said. "From that, we can be happy with what the results were."

The cold weather makes it difficult to evaluate Moore's performance. His fastball velocity is down a couple miles per hour from last year in his first two starts, but that's not yet a concern in early April. What is a concern is the location of those fastballs. Look where he has been throwing it against right-handed batters so far:

Matt MooreESPN Stats & InformationMatt Moore hasn't allowed a run in his 11.1 innings despite where he's left some fastballs.


Those are tough places to make a consistent living, especially when you're throwing 91-92 instead of 95-96. If he gets batters to chase that high fastball, it can work. But as we saw Wednesday, high fastball can also lead to walks. Again, it's early, and I think Moore will be fine -- heck, he hasn't allowed a run -- but the fastball command is something to pay attention to before we declare him the next David Price.

My bigger point: Before we move on to hoping for the next great thing, let's pay attention to the good ones already here.

Other quick thoughts from Wednesday:

  • Watched more A's-Angels. Random thoughts: (1) Joe Blanton might not last the year in the rotation; wasn't that good in the National League the past few years; (2) Albert Pujols looks really good (except when he has to run); (3) John Jaso looks really good in that No. 2 hole in the lineup; (4) Bob Melvin is a better manager than Eric Wedge (see point No. 3); (5) With Scott Sizemore out for the year, Eric Sogard is going to play a lot of second base. He has a chance to surprise. Not much power, but takes good at-bats, doesn't strike out much, will take a few walks.
  • How about Barry Zito for eight-game NL MVP? Hasn't allowed a run in two starts and is hitting .750!
  • Big start for the Royals' Wade Davis, who fought through a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the second by striking out Aaron Hicks and Joe Mauer and getting Josh Willingham to pop out. He was taking something off his fastball at times, according to the Royals announcers; they weren't calling it a changeup, but more of a "BP fastball." He settled down and went five scoreless. Davis had started for Tampa with mediocre results but had a great year in relief in 2012. If his transition back to the rotation works, KC's top three of Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Davis may be better than I originally thought.
  • Here's a long home run from Atlanta's Juan Francisco. Nobody said he didn't have power when he connects.
  • Bad news for the Mariners. Not only did the Astros kill them two games in a row, but Michael Saunders crashed into the wall and is likely headed to the disabled list with a shoulder strain. Looks like Saunders just misread where the wall was; one out certainly isn't worth crashing into a wall for.
  • Bryce Harper still hasn't walked. He went 2-for-4 and hit his fourth home run to raise his average to .394. But he saw only eight pitches. I'll look at this more closely Thursday, but since he saw so many breaking balls last year, I wonder if he's being more aggressive on fastballs early in the count. It's working for now, but at some point pitchers will start to use that aggressiveness against him.
Spring training consists of a lot of bunting practice and manufactured stories, false alarms and overhyped weight losses (or increases). But some news events and stories are potentially important. Here are the 25 biggest ones -- from on the field -- as camps finally wind down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Yankees willingly trade for Vernon Wells
That pretty much sums up the Yankees' spring.
Jonah Keri is back with the second part of his MLB Trade Rankings, this time with No. 31 through No. 1. Here's his list.

Some random thoughts:
  • Jason Kipnis at 31. As bad as the Indians were last year, they actually have some nice assets, starting with Kipnis and Carlos Santana, both of whom made Jonah's top 50. They also have Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, both rumored trade candidates this offseason. Kipnis looked like a star after his late-season mashing in 2010 and then a nice first half in 2011, but now I'm not so sure. He'll be turning 26 and fell apart in the second half -- .277 to .233, 11 home runs to three, 20 for 21 stealing bases to 11 of 17. I wonder if there was some kind of minor injury he played through.
  • SportsNation

    Which one of these young pitchers has the most trade value?

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      23%
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      15%
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      11%
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      29%
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      22%

    Discuss (Total votes: 1,123)

  • Madison Bumgarner and Matt Moore at 27 and 26. Which lefty would you want, both signed to long-term deals? Moore is signed through 2019 (with options) for just $36 million, Bumgarner potentially for $57 million through 2019. Jonah has Moore rated one spot higher and I think I agree. The polish isn't there yet, but the stuff is a grade higher.
  • Brett Lawrie at 21. Jonah lists Lawrie, Dylan Bundy, Manny Machado and Jurickson Profar from 21 to 18. Lawrie had a solid first season, but was a disappointment with the bat. His fielding metrics were terrific, so his WAR rates him as a four-win player. I know these guys are dirt cheap for now, but they're still more prospect than proven. For example, I wouldn't take Bundy over Bumgarner or Moore -- especially factoring in their contracts. Bundy's stuff is great, sure, but we have no idea about his durability and he's barely pitched above Class A.
  • Jason Heyward at 10. Man, talk about an under-the-radar season.
  • Ryan Braun at 6. Followed by Evan Longoria, Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen. Hard to disagree with this order, although I may move Braun up to No. 3. He's signed through 2020 (2021 option), and while he's not cheap, he's awesome, he's durable, he hits, he runs and he's turned himself into an adequate left fielder. Posey is cheap for now, but you would have only four years of team control. Which is more valuable: Four years of Posey at below-market value or up to nine years of Braun? I may lean toward Braun, even knowing catchers are hard to find. Well, so are left fielders who hit .319 with 41 home runs and 30 steals.
  • Trout and Harper, Harper and Trout. Read Jonah's piece to see who he has No. 1.

Who should win the AL wild cards?

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
1:48
AM ET


I sent an email to my pal Jim Caple, asking: Would you rather see the A’s or Angels in the playoffs?

I could also ask: Would you rather see the Orioles or the Rays?

All four teams won on Wednesday, which means good news for the Orioles and A’s -- one game closer to the playoffs! -- and bad news for the Rays and Angels, who need to keep winning and get some help.

My thought on the A’s is I want them to make it because they’re the ultimate underdog, Cinderella, small-market franchise, and it’s good for baseball for a team like that to make it to show success doesn’t depend solely on a high payroll. But I’d also like to see Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the postseason. And I’d like to see if the Orioles can keep their magical success in one-run games and extra-inning games going. And I’d like to see the Rays make it, because how can you not root for the Rays?

But only two of the four teams can win the wild cards (and we shouldn’t discount the Orioles’ chances of winning the American League East). Here’s the case for each on why we want them to make it.

SportsNation

Which of these teams do you most want to see in the playoffs?

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    69%
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    9%
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    16%
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    6%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,309)

Baltimore Orioles: Because there are Orioles fans now in high school who haven't seen their team post a winning record. … Because they were once baseball’s premier franchise from the late 1960s to the early '80s (18 consecutive winning seasons, including 13 with 90-plus wins) and Baltimore was once a great baseball town, finishing first or second in the American League in attendance every year from 1992 to 2000. … Because we need to see if Adam Jones can hit another home run in extra innings. … Because we have no idea who Buck Showalter would start in the wild-card game. … Because we may see Cal Ripken throw out a first pitch. … Because they wear orange jerseys. … Because nobody believed in them when they won five in a row in New York and Boston in May -- including The Chris Davis Game -- to improve to 19-9, or when they tossed back-to-back shutouts in Atlanta in June to go to 39-27, and certainly not when they lost 17 of their next 24. … Because they’ve won 16 extra-inning games in a row. … Because they’ve brought back the tri-colored '80s hats. … Because they had the guts to call up 20-year-old shortstop Manny Machado and make him their starting third baseman down the stretch. … Because an Orioles-Nationals World Series would be pretty cool. … Because it’s time to exorcise the demons of that brat in the Yankees cap.

Tampa Bay Rays: Because they keep doing this every season despite one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and it’s time to see them go all the way. … Because we could see a David Price vs. Justin Verlander showdown at some point. … Because Evan Longoria is a stud and deserves some time on the big stage and 11 Yankees make more money than he does. … Because we want to see if Matt Moore can replicate that “Welcome to the big leagues, kid!” performance from last October, when he blanked the Rangers for seven innings on two hits in Game 1 of the Division Series. … Because Fernando Rodney has had a season for the ages (45 saves, 0.63 ERA) and nobody has paid much attention to it. … Because Joe Maddon had the guts to move Ben Zobrist to shortstop in August and the Rays have gone 27-18 since. … Because they have a 2.48 ERA over their past 63 games and if pitching is what takes you all the way then this team can go all the way. … Because we could get Jose Molina facing brother Yadier in the World Series. … Because at least it won’t be 38 degrees inside Tropicana Field.

Oakland A's: Because they were ranked No. 29 in the first week of the ESPN.com Power Rankings, one slot below the Orioles (hey, at least we got the Astros right). … Because it was just announced that Travis Blackley is officially a rookie, meaning the A’s are currently going with an all-rookie rotation -- and that is just awesome. … Because they signed Yoenis Cespedes and nobody else did. … Because Jarrod Parker's changeup is so good it can be compared with Felix Hernandez's and not make anyone think you’re crazy saying that. … Because Chris Carter has more power in one arm than many big leaguers have in two. … Because maybe we’ll get a wild-card game against the Orioles featuring yellow jerseys versus orange jerseys and we can pretend it’s the '70s all over again. … Because they have the sixth-best record since 2000 and four of the other five teams won a World Series (Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, Angels; the Braves being the exception). … Because they’ve used 18 different rookies. … Because Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Pedro Feliciano make more money combined than the entire A’s roster. … Because they have 13 walk-off wins, most in the majors, and is there anything sweeter than a walk-off win in the postseason? … Because we could see an A’s-Giants Bay Area World Series. … Because with Blackley and Grant Balfour, a World Series with the A’s in it would be HUGE in Australia.

Los Angeles Angels: Because America wants to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because America needs to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because we could get Albert Pujols going back to St. Louis and we can all spend three days wondering if Cardinals fans will boo him or cheer him. … Because Jered Weaver throws high fastballs in the upper 80s and gets away with it. … Because when he’s on, few pitchers are as fun to watch as Zack Greinke. … Because a World Series featuring Trout and Bryce Harper would remind us of the 1951 World Series that also featured two rookie center fielders named Mays and Mantle. … Because Mark Trumbo may hit one 500 feet. … Because maybe we’ll see C.J. Wilson face off against Yu Darvish and his ex-Rangers teammates. … Because you know a World Series game in Anaheim means we won’t see players wearing earflap caps and drinking coffee in the dugout while wearing ski gloves.

As for my question to Jim, what was his response? "I want them both to make it!"

Thanks, Jim. Way to take a stand.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Yadier MolinaTroy Taormina/US PresswireYadier Molina shows why he's incomparable when it comes to the rough dance around home plate.

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