SweetSpot: Michael Pineda

Five things we learned Friday

September, 6, 2014
Sep 6
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1. James Shields delivers a gem.

Shields has often been mocked for his "Big Game" nickname, but if the past two months are any indication, he might have earned the right to put it on the back of his baseball card.

Shields pitched another gem on Friday night, blanking the Yankees over 8 1/3 innings in the Royals' 1-0 win. He dominated the Yanks' lineup, retiring the first 11 batters he faced and holding the Yankees to just three hits.

With the Royals clinging to a slim lead in the American League Central, Shields was masterful in keeping Kansas City ahead of the Tigers in the division and on pace to snap the franchise's 28-season postseason drought.

Shields has cemented himself as the team's ace over the last two months, posting a 2.26 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP in 12 starts since July 7. In that span, he's allowed more than three earned runs just once, while going at least seven innings in seven of those 12 outings.

Like a true ace, he has also stepped up against the best competition over this two-month stretch, allowing only seven runs in four starts combined against the A's, Giants and Tigers.

With Shields at the top of his game and backed up by perhaps the most dominant bullpen in baseball, the Royals may have found the perfect formula to give their fans a taste of October for the first time in nearly three decades.

2. What might have been for Michael Pineda and Yankees.

The Yankees' playoff hopes are on life support following their brutal 1-0 loss to the Royals, as they wasted another brilliant effort by Pineda and fell even further back in the AL wild-card race.

The Yankees' rotation has been crippled by injuries this season, and perhaps none has been more significant than the four months that Pineda missed this season with a muscle strain in his shoulder.

Pineda has quietly pitched to a 1.80 ERA in nine starts, allowing no more than two runs in each game. The only starting pitcher with a lower ERA and at least 50 innings pitched this season is Clayton Kershaw (1.70).

Given Pineda's excellence on the mound, you can't help but wonder where the Yankees would be in the postseason race if Pineda had been healthy all year. Could they have challenged the Orioles for the AL East crown? Would they be looking up at multiple teams in the wild-card standings?

Some might say the answer is no, given the fact that Pineda can't hit and an underachieving offense has been the Yankees' biggest deficiency this season. Pineda knows all too well about the Yankees' slumping bats -- the team has given him just 16 runs of support during his nine starts.

3. Indians still very much in playoff race.

Although the Indians have hovered near .500 most of the season, they have stuck around in the playoff race by winning games like they did on Friday night against the White Sox.

They got another dominant effort from their starting pitcher, as Indians rookie T.J. House threw one-run ball over seven innings, lowering the rotation's ERA since Aug. 1 to an MLB-best 2.55. And the Indians got another clutch hit in extra innings, as pinch hitter David Murphy drove in the winning run on a base-loaded single in the 10th to give the Indians their AL-leading 11th walk-off win this season.

The Indians know something about September comebacks -- last year they went 21-6 in the final month to claim an AL wild-card spot -- and I wouldn't bet against another rally down the stretch this season, especially after Friday night's dramatic victory.

4. Marlins can play spoiler down the stretch.

The Marlins have a 1 percent chance to make the postseason, but that doesn't mean they have nothing to play for in September. In fact, they might be the senior circuit's biggest spoiler team, with a chance to significantly impact the NL wild-card race.

They played that role on Friday night, handing the Braves their third loss in the last four games and dropping them one game back in the wild-card standings. The Marlins are now 9-8 against Atlanta this season, with two more games left in the season series this weekend.

The Fish then travel to Milwaukee on Monday for four games against the team that the Braves are chasing in the wild-card standings. By the time that series is over, we may have a good idea of who is primed to take the second NL wild-card spot, and the Marlins will have played a huge part in deciding the fate of both teams in the hunt.

5. Brewers put an end to their losing ways.

There is finally something for Brewers fans to cheer about this month, as Milwaukee snapped its nine-game skid with a 6-2 win over the Cardinals at Miller Park.

Mike Fiers pitched another gem and Scooter Gennett drove in three runs, allowing the Brewers to pull to within three games of the Cardinals in the NL Central and reclaim sole possession of the NL's second wild card.

Fiers entered the rotation in the August after Matt Garza landed on the disabled list with a strain in his rib cage, but has hardly been a replacement starter, delivering a 1.94 ERA and a quality start in each of his nine outings.

The Brewers still have five more games remaining against the Cardinals, so there is still plenty of time to catch them in the division race. However, the Redbirds appear to have the easier schedule down the stretch with 16 of their 21 remaining games coming against below .500 teams, compared to 13 for the Brew Crew.

Katie Sharp blogs about the Yankees for SweetSpot network affiliate It's About the Money, and can be followed on Twitter at @ktsharp.
As expected, Major League Baseball suspended Michael Pineda for 10 games for using pine tar in violation of rule 8.02 that prohibits using a "foreign substance" on the ball. Pineda will not appeal the suspension and will begin serving it immediately, meaning he'll be eligible to pitch again Monday, May 5.

The bigger issue here remains: Is this something teams, managers and MLB will be willing to crack down on moving forward with other pitchers? Or even want to? As offense continues to decline and strikeouts continue to rise to ridiculous levels, has the game swung too far in favor of the pitchers? Is it just a coincidence that pitchers are dominating at the same time the use of pine tar or spray-on sunscreen is apparently so widespread that the reaction from within the game was basically, "Pineda just should have done a better job of hiding it"? MLB officials didn't blink an eye -- at least publicly -- when Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester was spotted during last year's World Series with a mysterious green substance on his glove. How far is, "It's part of the game" allowed to go?

Is there a correlation between using something to improve your grip and the dominant level of pitching we're seeing these days? Maybe not. Pitchers say a little tar or sunscreen doesn't make their curveball any better or slider any sharper, but a better grip is still a better grip. On the other hand, pitchers have always done stuff to the baseball more dramatic than pine tar. As Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams once said about pitchers trying to get an edge, "Anything short of murder is OK."

[+] EnlargeMichael Pineda
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMichael Pineda will be eligible to return from his 10-game suspension on May 5.
Still, I think there are some potential ramifications brewing from the Pineda incidents (he was seen with pine tar on his palm a couple of weeks ago), along with the accusations last year toward Lester and teammate Clay Buchholz:

1. Managers will be watching a little more closely, at least for obvious offenders. Of course, the trade-off there is your own pitchers will be watched more closely. But I think managers will feel obligated to have umpires check when the offender is as obvious as Pineda was Wednesday or Lester was last October.

2. Pitchers, certainly, will be more careful about what they're doing (not that many have been caught or accused). I don't think we'll be seeing any pitchers with green goop on their glove this postseason.

3. MLB officials will convene some sort of study on the effects of pine tar and/or sunscreen and/or whatever else pitchers are using. Or at least a blue ribbon panel.

After all, by the rules, it is cheating. As Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations, said on MLB Network on Thursday, "You have to enforce the rules."

Of course, in a 1990 article in the Los Angeles Times, Torre, then a broadcaster for the Angels, said, "I have no problem with cheating. Whatever you can get away with."

So it's a complicated issue, at least if you're not a pitcher. I guess it comes down to this: If the people in the game don't deem pine tar as cheating, then it's time to change the rules.


In the annals of illustrious moments in pitching history, I’m not exactly sure where Michael Pineda’s pine tar on the neck ranks among such past incidents as Whitey Ford’s turpentine ball, Gaylord Perry’s Vaseline, Rick Honeycutt’s thumbtack in the glove, Mike Scott’s physics-defying "splitter," Joe Niekro’s sandpaper on the finger and flying emery board, Kenny Rogers’ mystery substance or even Clay Buchholz’s extra sweaty forearm, but suffice it to say it was one of the lamest attempts at cheating you’ll ever see.

I mean: Where was Derek Jeter’s veteran leadership? You can’t allow Pineda to take the mound when his neck is oozing in goop and gnats are sticking to it like they flew into a Venus flytrap.

If he had been in the minors, Pineda would have faced an automatic 10-game suspension after getting ejected when Red Sox manager John Farrell asked plate ump Gerry Davis to check him out. Rule 8.02(a) is clear on this:

The pitcher shall not –

(2) expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove;
(3) rub the ball on his glove, person or clothing;
(4) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball;
(5) deface the ball in any manner; or
(6) deliver a ball altered in a manner prescribed by Rule 8.02(a)(2) through (5) or what is called the "shine" ball, "spit" ball, "mud" ball or "emery" ball. The pitcher is allowed to rub the ball between his bare hands.

PENALTY: For violation of any part of Rules 8.02(a)(2) through (6)

(a) the pitcher shall be ejected immediately from the game and shall be suspended automatically. In National Association Leagues, the automatic suspension shall be for 10 games.

SportsNation

Would you describe Michael Pineda as a cheater?

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    64%
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    36%

Discuss (Total votes: 11,158)

While the rule is clear, the length of the suspension for a major league offense, or determining Pineda's intentions, are not so easy to delineate.

This isn’t Perry, about whom Indians president Gabe Paul once said, "Gaylord is a very honorable man. He only calls for the spitter when he needs it." This isn’t Ford, who confessed that in the 1963 World Series, "I used enough mud to build a dam." It’s not Don Sutton, who once left a note inside his glove that read -- in case the umpires dared to check it that day -- "You're getting warm, but it's not here."

No, by all accounts, Pineda wasn’t doing anything most major league pitchers haven’t done at one time or another: Use a foreign substance -- pine tar and spray-on sunscreen are popular choices -- to get a better grip on the ball. Pineda was just a little too obvious about it, as he was a couple of starts ago when pine tar was clearly visible on the palm of his hand.

As former Diamondbacks and Angels pitcher Barry Enright (now in Triple-A for the Phillies) explained in an exchange I had with him on Twitter, resin isn’t always helpful in gripping the baseball on a cold night (or a windy one like Wednesday in Boston). "Some baseballs feel like they've been tossed in baby powder to start the game," he wrote. "Balls in cold weather or places like Arizona are like throwing a cue ball. Especially hard when you can't get a good sweat going in cold weather. Sweat at least helps with getting the dust off the ball."

His point is that using something like pine tar isn’t done to manipulate the movement of the ball, as with a spitter or when scuffing the ball. "Not condoning the use of illegal substances. Just saying something like tar/sunblock aren't used the same way as tack or Vaseline," he said.

Aaron Boone and Rick Sutclifffe, working the ESPN telecast of the game, didn’t seem to have much of an issue with a pitcher using pine tar either, other than pointing out you can’t be so obvious about it. Enright agreed, writing, "I've talked to a lot of hitters and most don't have an issue as long as it's not affecting the 'flight' of the ball." Boone, a former hitter, echoed that assessment.

The trouble, of course, is even if all the players generally accept substances such as pine tar and sunscreen as part of the unwritten rules of baseball, how should you legislate their usage? Right now, those are foreign substances and, by rule, illegal. The Red Sox were certainly within their right to request a check on Pineda.

Are there levels of cheating? Steroids are evil bad stuff but pine tar is OK? But what about Whitey Ford’s mud or Don Sutton’s sandpaper? What if some pitchers can throw a better slider by applying a little extra pine tar on the right spot on the ball?

It’s certainly a slippery slope and as baseball wrestles with some of the issues involving instant replay and the new transfer rule, it has another can of worms (or cans of spray-on sunscreen) to deal with. If you're all about enforcing the rules -- whether it's catching steroids users or defining a catch -- do you start enforcing the use of foreign substances by pitchers?

Enright's tweets have been edited for the sake of clarity.
PinedaTom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesIt appears Pineda had something on his palm during his first start of the year in Toronto.
It appears that Thursday night wasn't the first time Michael Pineda had apparently used some sort of foreign substance on his hand. As you can see in the photo above from his first start of the year in Toronto, there appears to be something that looks like pine tar on his palm.

Since that game was played inside at Toronto, Pineda can't even use cold weather as a potential excuse. A quick scroll back through photos from his Mariners days in 2011 doesn't reveal anything suspicious, so whatever Pineda may or may not be using appears to be something new.

"I don't use pine tar," Pineda said after the game. "It's dirt. I'm sweating on my hand too much in between innings." Sounds a little bit like the excuse Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz used last year when his forearm appeared a little extra shiny.

For reference, here's rule 8.02(A):
The pitcher shall not --

(4) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball

(6) deliver a ball altered in a manner prescribed by Rule 8.02(a)

Penalty: The pitcher shall be ejected immediately and suspended automatically.

[+] EnlargePineda
Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY SportsWhen Pineda was pitching for Seattle in 2011, it didn't appear that he had anything on his palm.
In 2012, Tampa Bay Rays reliever Joel Peralta was ejected from a game and suspended eight games after he was caught with pine tar in his glove. Red Sox starter Jon Lester had some strange-looking green-colored substance in his glove last October. Of course, Pineda wasn't ejected from the game, so it's unclear whether he would face a possible suspension.

As Buster Olney wrote today in his blog, that could be why the Red Sox didn't raise an issue about the suspicious-looking nature of Pineda's hand: Everybody is doing something to get a better grip on the baseball.

Pine tar is one way to get a better grip on the ball. So is sunscreen, which is what Buchholz was likely using last May when Blue Jays broadcaster Jack Morris accused him of throwing a spitball. In the wake of the Buchholz incident, Yahoo's Jeff Passan reported that, according to his sources, most pitchers use spray-on sunscreen.

Passan wrote:
Two veteran pitchers and one source close to the Red Sox told Yahoo! Sports that about 90 percent of major league pitchers use some form of spray-on sunscreen – almost always BullFrog brand – that when combined with powdered rosin gives them a far superior grip on the ball. …

… "I just don't get the difference between BullFrog and hitters using pine tar," the NL pitcher said. "No difference whatsoever. Pitcher needs better grip so he knows somewhat where it's going and doesn't hit the batter in the head.

"I've never heard of it affecting movement. Scuffs on the ball are the only thing that can do that."

Though the BullFrog concoction may not foster unnatural movement, the pitchers admitted that once they mastered its whims -- balls that are too sticky end up bouncing 5 feet in front of the plate, so it can take time to tame -- it unquestionably helped their stuff. The better grip a pitcher has, the more confident he is in unleashing his pitches. The longer a ball stays on his fingers, the better finish he gets on the pitch.

As for the quote about hitters, the pitcher is missing one obvious point: It's legal for a batter to use pine tar; it's illegal for a pitcher to use a foreign substance.

It makes you wonder a little bit: Has offense declined in recent years due to the proliferation of spray-on sunscreen? Is that one reason pitchers are dominating like we have seen in 25 years? Is BullFrog (or pine tar) to pitchers what steroids were to hitters?

As offense spirals downward, maybe it's time for Major League Baseball to crack down on another wave of substance abuse.
Let's catch up on a few things ...
  • I enjoyed the two games from Australia, even getting up at 4 a.m. to watch the opener. Clayton Kershaw didn't really have his best stuff in that game, with his fastball velocity way down, averaging 88.3 mph. Remember, he struggled all spring with fastball command and had allowed 15 runs in 14 2/3 innings, but when the big lights went on he was able to adjust and allowed just one run in 6 2/3 innings while striking out seven. In the second game, the Dodgers tried to blow a 7-1 lead as Don Mattingly got a little cute with his bullpen, running through seven relievers over the final four innings. The Diamondbacks scored four runs in the ninth as Jose Dominguez walked two batters and gave up a two-run single and Mark Trumbo blasted a two-run homer off Kenley Jansen. I still expect the Dodgers bullpen to be one of the best in the league.
  • After going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in the opener, Yasiel Puig had three hits in the second game but was up to his usual shenanigans on the bases, getting thrown out trying to advance to second after a single and then getting throwing out trying to advance to third on a pitch in the dirt. Neither play was close. He then didn't come out for the bottom of the ninth inning, clearly irritating Mattingly, who after the game said, "Shoulder yesterday, back today, so I'm not sure if they're going to get him tests or get him to the MRI Monday or a bone scan on Tuesday, maybe. I'm not quite sure what we'll do. We may not do anything. I'm not sure." Here's Mark Saxon's report.
  • Joe Kelly beat out Carlos Martinez for the Cardinals No. 5 starter slot and you can't argue with that too much. Is Kelly as good as the 2.69 ERA he posted last year? Probably not, as that ERA was helped by a high strand rate that included a .161 average allowed with runners in scoring position. Critics point to his low strikeout rate (79 in 124 innings) but Kelly's best pitch is a 95 mph fastball with sink that doesn't necessarily register strikeouts but does get ground balls (he gave up just one home run off his fastball in 2013). As for Martinez, he returns to the eighth-inning role we saw him in during the playoffs, when he averaged 97.8 mph on his fastball and reached 100 pmh on the gun. I don't think this means the Cardinals are giving up on him as a starter, but some projected he would eventually end up in the bullpen anyway. Don't write him off as a starter, but we also know -- see his teammate, Trevor Rosenthal -- that once you turn into a dominant late-inning force managers will be reluctant to move you back to the rotation.
  • The Rangers announced second baseman Jurickson Profar is out 10-12 weeks with a torn muscle in his shoulder. He won't need surgery but won't be able to resume a throwing program for six weeks or so. The Rangers' backup infielders on the 40-man roster are Adam Rosales, Andy Parrino and Luis Sardinas, none of whom have shown much ability with the bat. The Rangers could scuffle along with Rosales or Parrino, but it's certainly a minor blow. An obvious trade candidate would be the Cubs' Darwin Barney, as the Cubs have prospect Arismendy Alcantara ready for the near future, not to mention that shortstop prospect Javier Baez played some second base this spring. Even if they didn't want to rush Alcantara or Baez, they could plug in Donnie Murphy at second on a short-term basis.
  • One of the most encouraging results this spring has been the solid performance of Yankees starter Michael Pineda, trying to return after missing two seasons (he did pitch in the minors last year). Pineda had another good effort on Sunday, allowing three runs (two earned) in six innings while walking nobody. Pineda is throwing 90-92, not the upper 90s heat he flashed as a rookie with the Mariners, so the concern is that there won't be enough of a velocity difference between his fastball and slider, and without the big fastball the slider alone may not be enough to be effective against left-handers. As a rookie back in 2011, he did flash on occasional changeup (162 of them in 28 starts) so that may have to become a more important pitch for him.
  • With hard-throwing Yordano Ventura winning a spot in the rotation, the Royals optioned Danny Duffy to the minors. No surprise there since Duffy has had a rough spring (15 runs and six home runs allowed in 11 innings). Even with Luke Hochevar's injury the Royals have plenty of depth in the bullpen, so it makes sense to send Duffy to the minors and keep him stretched out as a starter.
  • It hasn't been announced, but Brad Miller will be the Mariners' starting shortstop over Nick Franklin, as expected. Miller has been one of the most exciting players in the Cactus League, hitting .438/.491/.938 with four doubles, four triples and four home runs. With Willie Bloomquist signed as the team's utility infielder, Franklin may start the year in Triple-A. You can bet the Mariners are still receiving calls from teams asking about Franklin.
One of the more fascinating trades in recent years came in January of 2012 when the Mariners traded Michael Pineda, coming of a terrific rookie season, to the Yankees for Jesus Montero, regarded as one of top five or six prospects in the game.

It was the type of trade you never see: Your young guy for our young guy, an old-fashioned challenge trade. It wasn't about contracts or money or rebuilding, just talent for talent.

The trade, so interesting to break down at the time, has been a disaster for everyone involved. Montero was one of the players suspended for 50 games on Monday in the Biogenesis case, ending his terrible season in which he (A) Didn't hit in the majors; (B) Proved once and for all he'll never be a catcher; (C) Got injured.

In 164 games with the Mariners, Montero has hit .252/.293/.377, a huge disappointment for a player who was supposed to have a can't-miss bat. As Dave Cameron wrote today on the U.S.S. Mariner site:
Montero is no longer a catcher, his offensive potential is in question, and he’ll likely enter the 2014 season in Tacoma, trying to prove to everyone that he can actually hit well enough to justify a big league roster spot at some point. ... But his stock has probably fallen faster than anyone else in baseballs over the last few years. For the short term, you can basically forget about Jesus Montero.


The news hasn't been any better for Pineda, however. He missed all of 2012 following shoulder surgery and in February pleaded no contest to a DUI arrest from last August. Currently in Triple-A as he rehabs his shoulder, Pineda left his latest start on Friday after two innings due to shoulder stiffness. He'll visit team doctors but any hope of him appearing in the majors this year is probably over.

Does either team have a chance to ever "win" this trade? Shoulder injuries are notoriously difficult to come back from, more so than elbow injuries (or Tommy John surgery). But Montero showed little that would translate to big success at the major league level, with any power he did have undermined by a poor approach at the plate (just 37 walks in 663 plate appearances with Seattle).

At this point, the odds are long against either ever becoming a star. January of 2012 seems like a long time ago.

Forget-me-nots for the missing men of 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
The question is simple: If you were starting a franchise and could pick any player in baseball, who would you pick? Ignore contracts, current or future. Ignore current team. Think only of ability, position and age. Who do you build around?

On Thursday, we'll unveil the second annual ESPN Franchise Player Draft. We've enlisted 30 of ESPN's writers and TV analysts to conduct the draft -- 30 picks, 30 players. But first: A look back at last year's draft, conducted on June 1. The calendar date is important because as I reviewed the selections it became clear that what had happened the first two months greatly influenced the choices.

The most conspicuous absence from last year's first round: Matt Kemp. So why did 30 participants pass on him? Let's back up one year. Remember, Kemp was coming off a lackluster 2010 in which he'd hit just .249 with a .310 on-base percentage and 28 home runs. Still, he was just 26 years old and was hitting .312/.389/.556 through the end of May. Kemp had a hot April, batting .368, but hit .253 in May and I think everyone assumed he was just reverting back to his 2010 form. We were wrong, of course, and now I suspect Kemp will be one of the first players selected. He's not young -- at least, not in the sense of Bryce Harper or Mike Trout -- but at 27 he's clearly in the peak of his career, plays an up-the-middle position and should still have eight to 10 seasons of solid-to-excellent performance ahead of him, although he'll probably have to move to right field in a few years.

So here's a look. Draftees have not been listed to protect the guilty.

[+] EnlargeTroy Tulowitzki
AP Photo/Jack DempseyColorado SS Troy Tulowitzki has put his early season defensive woes behind him.
1. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies
Considering the lack of top two-way talents at shortstop in the majors right now, this pick made perfect sense. The concerns with Tulo are essentially the same as last year: Durability and the question of how he'd hit away from Coors Field. He played 143 games in 2011 and has missed just three games this season. He did get off to a bit of a slow start this year and had a weird slump with the glove in the season's opening weeks (he already has more errors than all of last season), but he's played much better of late. The Coors question is fair: He has a career .922 OPS at home, .814 on the road, although it wasn't as pronounced in 2011. He's 27, and while personally I can't quite say he's the best player in baseball, I see no reason why he wouldn't go in the top five selections.

2. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays
Off to a terrific start until his injury, which will drop him to a lower spot this year. That's two significant injuries in two seasons; time to start worrying about his durability?

3. Felix Hernandez, P, Mariners
This was actually my selection in the draft. Normally, I wouldn't advocate taking a pitcher this high -- as you'll see, they come with enormous risk -- but Felix was as safe as pitchers come at the time, a guy with proven success and proven durability. Also, I didn't see an obvious young, up-the-middle player worthy of taking with the No. 3 pick.

4. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
Nothing wrong with this pick. Votto was coming off his MVP season and while he didn't quite match those numbers in 2011, he's having another monster season in 2012, hitting .321/.460/.595 and on pace for a record 73 doubles.

5. Tim Lincecum, P, Giants
6. Josh Johnson, P, Marlins

This is why pitchers are risky.

7. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves
Heyward went this high even though he was hitting just .214 through the end of May. He had, however, hit seven home runs in April. It will be interesting to see if he even gets selected this year; he's not tearing it up but he's still just 22.

8. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals
This was probably a little high at the time considering Pujols was already on the wrong side of 30. Will he even get drafted now? Considering his slow start and age (32), would you want to bet he still has seven or eight great seasons in him?

9. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals
10. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers

An 18-year-old kid playing in Class A ball over the guy who would eventually win the NL MVP Award? Amazingly, a year later, it doesn't even seem like an outrageous pick but a brilliant one. Wait, did I just kiss Eric Karabell's behind? Yes, I did.

11. Jon Lester, P, Red Sox
Lester was one of 11 pitchers taken. Too many? I'm sure we'll see a similar number this year, but it's a telling point that three of the first four pitchers taken last year probably won't get selected this year. A lot can change in 12 months.

12. Mike Trout, CF, Angels
13. David Price, P, Rays
14. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees

Three solid picks. Trout undoubtedly goes higher this year (maybe even No. 1 overall?), Cano maybe slides a bit due to his age (29).

15. Joe Mauer, C, Twins
Not this year, Mauer.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
AP Photo/Paul SancyaTigers ace Justin Verlander is proving to be the most dominant right-hander in the majors.
16. Justin Verlander, P, Tigers
OK, this one needs a little explanation and it's actually a pretty easy one: Through May, Verlander's ERA was 3.12. Yes, he'd thrown a no-hitter earlier in the May, but he hadn't quite turned into Justin Verlander. From May 29 through the end of the season, he went 20-3 with a 1.94 ERA and became the best pitcher in baseball. He's now 29. Is that too old to make him the first pitcher to go off the board?

17. Carlos Santana, C, Indians
18. Buster Posey, C, Giants

Catchers are nearly as risky as pitchers and these are two guys who have had major surgeries already in their careers. But considering their ages and skills with the bat, I suspect both once again go in the top 30.

19. Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs
20. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins

Ramirez was a good gamble last year but never did get untracked. Now he's playing third base, he's 28 and not quite the hitter he was back in 2009 when he won the NL batting title with a .342 average. Borderline top-30 guy for me. Castro is likewise a mixed bag. He's hitting .313 and he's still just 22, but he has just four walks so his OBP is hardly elite level. According to Defensive Runs Saved, his defense has been terrific so far -- plus nine runs compared to minus-10 a year ago. Has a really improved that much? Would you rather have Castro or Elvis Andrus? Or for that matter ... Jurickson Profar? (My sleeper top-30 guy.)

21. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins
I have no idea how this happened. A 21-year-old right fielder who had already proven he could mash home runs on the big league level fell to the 21st pick? It won't happen this year, that's for sure, and if I had the first pick, my short list would include Stanton, Harper, Trout, Kemp ... and, well, maybe just those four.

22. Stephen Strasburg, P, Nationals
23. Neftali Feliz, P, Rangers

Feliz was an odd pick a year ago, considering he was still a reliever. The Strasburg gamble (by Kevin Goldstein) looks astute a year later.

24. Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Rockies
He's still just 26 and putting up better offensive numbers than a year ago, so I suspect he goes in a similar place. But he comes with a big warning: His defensive metrics this season are horrible. And I mean worst-in-the-game horrible. His Defense Runs Saved total is minus-12, second-worst in baseball behind Braves shortstop Tyler Pastornicky. Has he really become that bad of an outfielder? Small sample size fluke? Too bulked up? Lost a step? Hard to know exactly what's going on there.

25. Clayton Kershaw, P, Dodgers
Umm ... OK, can we have a do-over? To be fair, he did take a big leap forward in 2011, lowering his ERA, cutting his walks, improving his durability. Considering he's five years younger than Verlander, don't you have to make him the first pitcher selected?

26. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays
Only fell due to his age, but why Bautista over the two-years-younger Miguel Cabrera?

27. Michael Pineda, P, Mariners
28. Roy Halladay, P, Phillies

Have I mentioned that pitchers are risky?

29. Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks
This one is nearly as difficult to understand as Stanton falling. Upton was hitting .266/.343/.502 through the end of May and was just 23. Now he's 24 ... and considering his slow start I wouldn't be surprised if he falls again.

30. Wilson Ramos, C, Nationals
A bit of a wild card a year ago, but his torn ACL takes him off the board.

I mentioned Kemp and Cabrera not going a year ago. Josh Hamilton wasn't selected due to his age (30) and early season injury. Does he go this year, now that he's a year older but killing the ball? Prince Fielder wasn't drafted, I suppose due to position and doubts about his long-term value. Does Adam Jones' monster start earn him a place in the top 30? What about emerging young players like Brett Lawrie, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas or Jesus Montero? What about pitchers Matt Moore, Yu Darvish and Chris Sale? Harper and Trout were the only minor leaguers taken last year; would you take a risk on Profar or Dylan Bundy or another prospect in the top 30?

Come back Thursday at noon ET and discuss the Franchise Player Draft with several of the individuals making the selection during a Cover It Live session.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
On Thursday's Baseball Today podcast , Keith Law and I discuss both serious (depression) and non-serious (Bobby Valentine) issues. You’ll never forget which hand Liam Hendriks throws with after listening to our show.

1. Valentine’s lineup gaffe Wednesday might seem funny, but isn’t it somewhat embarrassing for the Red Sox organization?

2. The Yankees lose Michael Pineda for the season but an older guy is on the comeback trail.

3. Keith openly discusses his battles with depression and what Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff is going through.

4. It’s still only April, but at what point should we start to worry about struggling players like Albert Pujols, or take upstart teams like the Orioles and Nationals seriously?

5. Our emailers want to talk about two-sport starts (NFL draft is tonight!), sacrifice bunts and giving position players days off. Plus, we look closer at Thursday’s schedule.

So download and listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, and come back with us on Friday as me and Law preview the weekend!
There are days baseball makes me sad. Today is one of those days.

As most of you know, I'm a Mariners fan, and other than Felix Hernandez and a couple months of Cliff Lee's genius, it's been a miserable few years rooting for the M's. It's been a miserable half-decade to be honest.

[+] EnlargeYankees' Michael Pineda
Kim Klement/US PRESSWIREMichael Pineda will miss the rest of the 2012 season.
That's one reason I fell a little bit in love with Michael Pineda last season. He was new and young, big and bulky and kind of inelegant on the mound, sort of a gangly mess of limbs and torso as he pitched. But, man could he could pitch. He threw hard, he threw strikes and there are few things in baseball as electrifying as a rookie pitcher who can ring it up into the upper 90s and has a clue where the ball is going.

He was dazzling to watch, that rare rookie in which you think the sky is the limit and believe it.

Yes, he wasn't as good in the second half, but that was of little concern. He got a little tired. He just needed to master his changeup for 2012. Then he'd be unhittable.

Then he got traded. I know Mariners fans who immediately said they hoped Pineda didn't do well in New York. "We want to win the trade," they said. What? Why does that matter? You hope Jesus Montero does well with the Mariners, but root against Michael Pineda? No way. I was hoping he'd take New York City by storm, become a fearsome twosome with CC Sabathia, let the rest of the baseball world see how good he was.

Then his velocity wasn't there in spring training. Then he had to leave a game early with a sore shoulder. He was despondent, a 23-year-old kid who had worked hard at his craft, had worked hard to learn English, a kid excited last April to pass his driving test to get his license. A kid with an electric arm and now a shoulder that wouldn't allow him to do his thing.

He's out for the season now as he'll undergo surgery for a torn labrum. It's a tough injury, maybe even tougher to come back from than Tommy John surgery. Curt Schilling and Chris Carpenter are two guys who've done it.

The Yankees may cry damaged goods, who knows. Maybe Pineda hurt his shoulder some time last season. Maybe he hurt it that first time out this spring, or maybe in a subsequent appearance as he tried to throw harder. At this point, it doesn't matter. The Yankees should be fine this season. Andy Pettitte makes another tuneup start in the minors on Wednesday night and will soon be ready. They have David Phelps, who can pitch in the rotation, and their own homegrown prospects, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, may be ready by midseason if Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia continue to struggle. And they're the Yankees, always ready and able to swing a deal if needed.

But the sad part is Yankees fans won't get to see Michael Pineda pitch this year. We can only hope they'll get to in 2013.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
First base: Mr Enigmatic. Is Max Scherzer a good pitcher? A mediocre pitcher? A potentially great pitcher? Last October, in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, we saw how good Scherzer can be when he pitched six scoreless innings, using an explosive, moving fastball to throttle the Yankees. And there he was two starts later in the American League Championship Series against the Rangers, getting knocked out in the third inning. One reason so many people predicted the Tigers to run away with the AL Central is they penciled in improvement for Scherzer and Rick Porcello. I wasn't quite so sure; both have maddeningly inconsistent in their young careers and it's been mostly bad Scherzer in 2012. The punchless Mariners roughed him up Tuesday for 10 hits and five runs in five innings, bumping his ERA to 8.24. Frankly, I can't figure him out. He has a nice 23/6 strikeout-to-walk but has allowed 30 hits in 19.2 innings. Unlucky on balls in play? Sure, probably. Mix in a little Miggy Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta as well. But it was similar last season, when he posted a 4.43 ERA: Good ratios, but too many hits and too many home runs (29). Coming on the heels of Porcello's one-inning stinker, the Detroit rotation after Justin Verlander remains a work in progress.

Second base: Narveson out for season. Tough day for pitchers, as Michael Pineda will get another opinion on his shoulder and Mike Pelfrey went on the disabled list with elbow inflammation and possibly worse. Brewers starter Chris Narveson, however, is done for the season after it was announced he'll undergo rotator cuff surgery. Narveson was a solid fifth last season, but Marco Estrada is a nice replacement -- maybe even a step up. A fastball/curve/changeup guy, the Nationals originally drafted Estrada but never quite believed in him since his fastball is 90-91, and the Brewers picked him up on waivers in 2010. He pitched well last season, including a 3.70 ERA in seven spot starts, and threw well last week with five innings of one-run ball, with nine strikeouts and no walks against the Rockies. He isn't flashy, but he throws strikes and should be solid. We talk a lot about the need for rotation depth. Estrada will end up being a key to the Brewers' season.

Third base: CarGo-es deep. The Rockies lost 5-4 to the Pirates as the bullpen blew a lead in the eighth inning but the good news was Carlos Gonzalez finally hit his first two home runs, improving his triple-slash line to .278/.328/.500 (he raised his average 38 points and his slugging percentage 140 points in one night). Nice, but the Rockies will need more ... like 2010 more, when Gonzalez led the National League with a .336 average, slugged .598 and finished third in the MVP vote. That season was built on a .384 average on balls in play, third-best in the majors. His BABIP returned to more normal levels last season and his numbers fell. Gonzalez did start out slow last April (.228, one homer) before heating up in May and June, only to come down with a wrist injury in July that he aggravated again in September. Hopefully this is a sign the wrist is completely healthy and he'll start heating up.

Tweet of the night. A's rookie lefty Tom Milone improved to 3-1 with a 2.00 ERA with eight shutout innings against the White Sox.
If you've seen the video of the controversial triple play from the Padres-Dodgers game on Sunday, you'll see umpire Dale Scott initially raise his hands indicating a foul ball on Jesus Guzman's bunt attempt. As the ball then rolled fair, Scott reversed his call and Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis proceeded to start a triple play, snuffing a potential rally in the ninth inning of a tie game.

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs breaks down the play and calls for the game to be replayed from the point of Guzman's at-bat, his argument being that Padres' couldn't have been expected to run once Scott raised his arms, and also pointing out that one game in the expanded playoff system could be the deciding game on one team making the playoffs and another missing them.

At issue: Judgment calls cannot be protested (and thus overturned). Was this just a bad judgment by Scott -- reversing his call in the middle of a play -- or do the Padres have a right to protest based on a rules interpretation (that the play should have been ruled dead once Scott raised his arms)? To confuse matters, it was a fair ball. As reader Dave Alden wrote on FanGraphs, "Letting it stand is unfair to the Padres. Pretending it never happened would be unfair to the Dodgers. There is no perfect solution."

There is about zero chance that if the Padres do end up protesting that the call would be reversed and the game replayed from that point on (as what happened with the famous George Brett pine-tar home run game). But Dave raises an interesting point, and if the Dodgers sneak into the playoffs by a game, maybe they can give a playoff share to Mr. Scott.
Ah, April is here! Mark Simon and I tried to harness our joy for the season’s first official month in Monday’s Baseball Today podcast, discussing Power Rankings, ridiculous questions (and ridiculous on-field maneuvers) as well!

1. Let’s just say we’ve got different teams in our respective top 10s, and in a different order. The differences (Rangers versus Angels, where the Red Sox, Tigers and Phillies rank) are interesting.

2. Ubaldo Jimenez did a bad thing Sunday, but will it actually hurt the Indians? And does anyone look good from the beaning incident?

3. Congrats to Jamie Moyer for making the Rockies! Mark shares tweets about other professorial baseball players.

4. In search of some off-the-wall baseball season predictions, Mark involves Tim Tebow, Martin Brodeur and the MLS.

5. It wouldn’t be a Simon show without some ridiculous questions of the day and a little singing, and we’ve got it today!

So download and listen to Monday’s excellent Baseball Today podcast. It’ll make you laugh and cry.
Links to check out from around the SweetSpot network (and a couple other places):
All for now. Enjoy your weekend!
Well, this season just got even more interesting with the announcement that Andy Pettitte will be returning to the New York Yankees.

The cynic would suggest that maybe the New York Yankees are worried about Michael Pineda's velocity. The reality is undoubtedly more simple: A Yankee legend wanted to return. The Yankees, of course, have nothing to lose except a $2.5 million investment.

But will this be an upgrade in the rotation? Obviously, once Pettitte is stretched out -- maybe mid-April -- he's in the rotation, which bumps somebody. Here are the ZiPS projections for the rotation candidates:

CC Sabathia: 3.55
Michael Pineda: 4.11
Hiroki Kuroda: 4.33
Ivan Nova: 4.44
Phil Hughes: 4.84
Freddy Garcia: 4.85

Andy Pettitte
AP Photo/Charles KrupaEven at age 40, Andy Pettitte should help the Yankees' starting rotation depth.
Pettite was very good with the Yankees in 2010, posting a 3.28 ERA over 21 starts. That was actually his best ERA in years; from 2006 through 2009 he posted a 4.24 ERA with the Astros and Yankees, a figure that made him only slightly better than a league-average pitcher. Pettitte was never really a great pitcher, was more of a consistent and durable winner. Pettitte's skill-set didn't suddenly improve in 2010; basically, he stranded more runners and had a better defense behind him, leading to fewer base hits. Here are his fielding independent ERAs each season:

2006: 4.13
2007: 3.87
2008: 3.71
2009: 4.15
2010: 3.85

So he was really the same guy all those years, with the only blip being the tender elbow that sidelined him from mid-July to mid-September in 2010. Pettitte returned and pitched well, including allowing just four runs over 14 playoff innings.

But will he be the same pitcher in 2012? Pettitte's now 40 years old. What happens to pitchers at that age? Over the past 25 years, there have been 19 40-year-old pitchers who pitched at least 150 innings.

  • Fifteen of the 19 posted an ERA+ of league average or better. This makes sense; only good pitchers are still around at age 40 and old pitchers are going to be on a short leash if they're not any good. So if an old pitcher remains in the rotation it's because he's at least decent. I suspect this would be the case with Pettitte; he's either the same as he's always been or gets shelled over a few starts and hangs 'em up again.
  • Collectively, the 19 pitchers posted a 3.76 ERA at age 40 ... and a 3.85 ERA at 38. They actually pitched more innings at age 40 -- 3788.1 to 3540.2. Of course, none of them missed an entire season at age 39. Again, this would seem to confirm the above statement: If Pettitte remains reasonably healthy, he should be the old Andy Pettitte.
  • Eleven of the 19 had a better ERA+ at age 40 than age 38, although the margins were very close in some cases. The only pitcher with a significant drop from his age-38 ERA to age 40 was Orlando Hernandez, who posted a 3.30 ERA in 15 starts with the Yankees in 2004 but a 4.66 ERA in 29 starts with the Diamondbacks and Mets in 2006.

So we can assume Pettitte should be capable of posting an ERA around 4.00. This would likely be a minor upgrade over the team's current fifth starter, Hughes or Garcia. For all the hype around Hughes, he's had one good season in the rotation and it wasn't that dominant, with a 4.19 ERA in 2010. And even in that it was only two good months (April and May). His ERA over the final four months that year was 4.89. Certainly, Pineda could also be sent down to the minors if he continues to throw 90-92 mph instead of the 95-98 he fired with the Mariners a season ago.

In the end, it gives them more depth than anything. There's never anything wrong with that.

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