SweetSpot: Miguel Cabrera

Via Lee Sinins of the Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, Miguel Cabrera moved into the top 10 for career home runs through his age-31 season.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMiguel Cabrera, 31, has 388 career home runs, good for 60th on the all-time list.
The top 10:

1. Alex Rodriguez, 518
2. Jimmie Foxx, 464
3. Ken Griffey Jr., 460
4. Albert Pujols, 445
5. Eddie Mathews, 422
6. Mickey Mantle, 419
7. Frank Robinson, 403
8. Henry Aaron, 398
9. Juan Gonzalez, 397
10. Miguel Cabrera and Mel Ott, 388

Here's how many home runs each of those players hit after age 31:

Rodriguez, 136
Foxx, 70
Griffey, 170
Pujols, 73 and counting (in age-34 season)
Mathews, 90
Mantle, 117
Robinson, 183
Aaron, 357
Gonzalez, 37
Ott, 123

You can see how Aaron became the all-time home run king: It was what he did in his 30s, not his 20s, that propelled him to 755 career home runs.

What does this mean for Cabrera? It's hard to say. We can draw comparisons between the two other first basemen on the list, Foxx and Pujols, but Foxx played way back in the 1930s, so I'm not sure that helps us out much. Pujols hit 40-plus home runs six times between the ages of 23 and 30, none since, but also went to a tougher home run park and his older years have come in a time of better pitching and expanded strike zones.

But it's also clear, with the exception of Aaron, that none of these players aged exceptionally well. Here's the list of most home runs from age 32 on:


How many career home runs will Miguel Cabrera end up with?


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1. Barry Bonds, 428
2. Babe Ruth, 358
3. Henry Aaron, 357
4. Rafael Palmeiro, 336
5. Mark McGwire, 306
6. Willie Mays, 292
7. Andres Galarraga, 283
8. Jim Thome, 278
9. Reggie Jackson, 250
10. Stan Musial, 248
11. Edgar Martinez, 247
11. Darrell Evans, 247
13. Hank Sauer, 246
14. Raul Ibanez, 236
15. Mike Schmidt, 234

I ran the list down to 15 to get Ibanez on there. Cabrera could match Ibanez's late-career production, right? What if Cabrera hit 234 more home runs? That's an average of 26 per season from ages 32 to 40. That may not seem like a lot for Cabrera, who hit 44 homers in each of the past two seasons, but he's at only 23 this year. He has played through a bad ankle, so it's possible that has affected his output. It's also likely that Cabrera won't be as durable in his 30s as he was in his 20s.

Anyway, 234 more home runs would get him to 622, plus whatever he does the rest of this season. To get to 700, he would have to hit 312, or 35 per season through age 40. That seems like a lot. Remember, as Aaron aged he moved into more favorable hitting conditions -- from Milwaukee to Atlanta -- and then the mound was lowered in 1969, when he was 35. He hit 44 home runs that year and then a career-high 47 at age 37. And let's just say a few of the other names in the top 10 should arguably come with a little asterisk next to their names.

So what do you think? I'd predict Cabrera ends up somewhere just over 600. Given his body type and athleticism, I'm not sure he's going to remain a premier slugger into his late 30s. But he should have enough big seasons left to get him to 600.

Monday's game between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians set up to be one of those much-anticipated September pitching duels between aces on playoff contenders: David Price versus Corey Kluber, the team everyone expected to win the American League Central against the team that has suddenly turned it into a three-team race for the division crown.

Miguel Cabrera would like to tell everyone: Remember me?

Cabrera was coming off an August where he hit .252 with one home run. He had just two home runs in July. He'd been more Jolbert Cabrera than Miggy Cabrera of late when he stepped in against Kluber in the top of the first inning, one out and Ian Kinsler on third after a bloop triple to right field. Kluber entered on a roll that has turned him into one of the game's top starters, posting a 1.69 ERA over his previous 13 starts, with a .207 average allowed and 105 strikeouts in 96 innings. Cabrera, battling a sore ankle, hadn't homered since Aug. 2.

Cabrera took a fastball for a strike and then muscled an 0-1 changeup just over the fence in left field. It wasn't a good pitch from Kluber; catcher Yan Gomes wanted it down, but the pitch was up and too far inside. Cabrera has struggled lately driving hard stuff inside, but he didn't miss the 87 mph changeup.

As it turned out, it wasn't Kluber's day, as he was knocked out in the third inning after throwing just 57 pitches, his shortest outing of the year. He gave up three home runs after allowing just four over those previous 13 starts. Cabrera would add another home run in the eighth inning off rookie reliever Bryan Price, making his major league debut, and Price rebounded from his disastrous nine-hits-in-a-row outing to pitch Detroit to a 12-1 victory.

Cabrera is one of the key players to watch in September. He's still the main cog in that Detroit lineup, capable of doing great things and leading the Tigers to a fourth straight division title. Here are some other important players for September, one for each playoff contender.

Trevor Bauer, Indians: The right-hander has tossed two straight scoreless starts but got knocked out before the fifth inning in two of his previous three starts. That inconsistency has been the case for him all season. Terry Francona won't ask much more than six innings out of him, but he needs to deliver those six, not three or four.

Yordano Ventura, Royals: He continues to walk a tightrope but scraped together another "just good enough" start to get the win in Monday's 4-3 victory over the Rangers. But you wonder if the rookie right-hander is about to hit the wall as he's walked 17 in 24 2/3 innings over his past four starts. The Royals haven't had to dig very deep in their rotation -- only nine starts beyond their top five guys -- but watch Ventura closely. He's at 152 innings after throwing 149 last year between the minors and majors.

Kendrys Morales, Mariners: Lloyd McClendon continues to think Morales is his cleanup hitter, even though he's now hitting .227/.270/.327 on the season and has three home runs in 33 games with Seattle. Heck, those numbers aren't better than what Justin Smoak can offer -- who, by the way, was back in the lineup at first base in Monday's loss to the A's.

Matt Shoemaker, Angels: With Garrett Richards out for the season, Shoemaker is suddenly the Angels' best starter. Nobody will call him the ace of the staff ahead of Jered Weaver, but the rookie right-hander is 7-1 with a 1.12 ERA over his past eight starts, with 43 strikeouts and six walks in 48 1/3 innings. The Angels' rotation is in scramble mode even as the team has jumped past the A's in the AL West standings, but it's also leaning on more great work from Shoemaker.

Brandon Moss, A's: He went 0-for-3 in the win over Seattle and is now homerless since July 24 -- hitting .163 with just three extra-base hits in 31 games. Adam Dunn would help relieve some of the power issues the A's have had without Yoenis Cespedes, but Moss needs to start hitting like he did in the first half, when he made the All-Star team after hitting 21 home runs.

Nelson Cruz, Orioles: The Orioles would love to see Cruz rediscover the hot bat he had early on. He did have six home runs in August and hit his 36th on Monday, but has hit just .181 with a .254 OBP since the All-Star break. Buck Showalter has kept him in the cleanup spot but the all-or-nothing approach has since a little too much nothing in recent weeks.

Bryce Harper, Nationals: Washington will win the East so it's all about getting Harper in a consistent groove for the postseason. Minus Ryan Zimmerman, Harper's power could be a key to a long October. The thumb is finally looking healthy and he launched two long home runs on Sunday in Seattle. The pressure isn't on him to carry the team -- he's batting sixth -- but he's starting to provide that presence behind Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond.

Mike Minor, Braves: If the Braves win a wild card, it has to come from the pitching. As we saw in Monday's no-hitter, the lineup just isn't going to suddenly put it together. Enter Minor, so good a year ago but a guy who had struggled most of the season. But he's allowed just four runs his past three starts, allowing nine hits over 21 2/3 innings.

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals: The numbers speak for themselves: 12-4, 1.83 ERA, 4.26 SO/BB ratio in the first half; 3-5, 4.68 ERA, 1.94 SO/BB ratio in the second half.

Ryan Braun, Brewers: Braun had an All-Star-caliber first half but he's hitting .229/.280/.414 since the break. The power is still there -- seven home runs -- but he's chasing a lot of pitches out of the strike zone (38 percent chase rate) and getting himself out too easily. Much the offense isn't going to carry the Braves, the pitching here isn't going to carry the Brewers. They need a huge September from their right fielder.

Gerrit Cole, Pirates: Cole took a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the seventh against the Cardinals on Monday in a big game to kick off a three-game series. With one out, he gave up a single to Pete Kozma and then a two-run, pinch-hit homer to Kolten Wong, a 1-2 fastball, middle-in. Blame the pitch selection, blame the location, but games are won and lost on one bad pitch. Jon Jay then tripled and scored the go-ahead run.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: Let's see, if the Dodgers win every Kershaw start they probably only have to go about .500 in the other games to win the division. Fair?

Buster Posey, Giants: He's been one of the best players in baseball in the second half, hitting .342/.391/.565. Do that another month, beat Kershaw, and maybe the Giants win the West.

Derek Jeter, Yankees: Does he have one final legendary act in him?

Why Tigers are AL favorites

June, 29, 2014
Jun 29

With the season nearly half over, the Detroit Tigers have stumbled to first place in the AL Central. And yes, I said "stumbled." As you might recall, the Tigers were the ESPN Forecast preseason prediction to be the American League representative in the World Series. Yet so far they have the second-best record and worst run differential of the three AL division leaders.

As bland as leading a division by 4.5 games can be (which can make all the difference in sudden-death wild-card formats), the 2014 Tigers could have been even worse. I wouldn’t call it karma, but trading Prince Fielder seemed fortunate, especially after he stuck his neck out with some rather nonchalant comments about last year’s playoffs but before he had the season-ending neck injury. Throw in slow starts from Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera, a false start from Joe Nathan, and no start at all from their original starting shortstop, Jose Iglesias, and even the Cleveland Indians (briefly) looked competitive.

That phase has passed. After Saturday's come-from-behind victory over the Houston Astros, the Tigers are 8-2 in their past 10 games while other teams in the AL Central have wilted. Cabrera, their reigning Triple Crown winner, has a .994 OPS over the past week. To complement Cabrera, Victor Martinez hasn't exactly been roster filler either, nesting himself among the league leaders in hitters. And the guy they acquired for Fielder? Ian Kinsler's got a higher WAR than Martinez and Cabrera. While you might be dazzled by the offense, don't forget that the Tigers have two Cy Young award winners, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, on their staff which can make all the difference in a short series playoff format. Furthermore, they have remaining upside on both sides of the ball if Jackson returns to form and Nathan returns to relevance.

[+] EnlargeIan Kinsler
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesIan Kinsler for Prince Fielder? The Tigers have certainly gotten the better end of that deal so far.
But what if Jackson falters or Nathan remains, um, not good? What separates the Tigers from the other AL division leaders and wild-card wannabes is that they have much more flexibility to make moves at the trade deadline, getting the players needed to win in 2014. It is no secret that Mike Ilitch, the elder Tigers’ owner, badly wants to win a World Series. Ilitch has thrown, wisely, his support (and let’s not forget the money) to a front office headed by GM Dave Dombrowski, who has provided Detroit with one of baseball's rarities, a team that perpetually wins.

We’ve seen evidence of Dombrowski's handiwork beyond the Fielder trade. Before the season, he signed J.D. Martinez to a minor league contract and called him up near the end of April to avert an offensive outfield offense. While Martinez has been used sparingly and is highly unlikely to continue to post an elite OPS of .957, he’s bought time for the rest of the offense to find its wheels. Meanwhile, though Rookie of the Year candidate Nick Castellanos has been serviceable at third base, Dombrowski’s early promotion of Eugenio Suarez to plug the shortstop hole is paying off offensively, if not defensively, so far.

Furthermore, there’s little that blocks Dombrowski from making a future move. Though the Tigers' farm system isn’t the richest in the world, there is still some talent that can be used to snatch players from “rebuilding” teams. Meanwhile, they can still take on more money despite having a payroll in excess of $161M. Comparatively, the Blue Jays and A’s are both near their limit payroll-wise. Sure, they can acquire players for prospects (which would be a break for the norm for both of them), but the Tigers can swim in both ends of the pool.

If Hunter continues to look better smiling than he does hitting, he can ride the bench and be sent on his merry way while a star player (and their ensuing salary) is brought on. Ilitch has the finances to absorb a Nathan demoted to middle reliever status if it means bringing on a still-working closer. If Castellanos (or some other Tiger) goes into a horrible slump, the Tigers can make a move. Those are worst case scenarios from a front office that wants to win. If Castellanos achieves his upside, pure gravy cometh.

The AL East and AL West are still tight races, meaning that even the Oakland A's, with their lofty run differential, could get bumped out early in either a wild-card game or short series. We also know that there are teams "in the hunt" such as the Los Angeles Angels or (gasp) the New York Yankees that will spend. While the Tigers, at present, have neither the best record nor the best run differential, they have an outstanding group of core talent, they are in the best position to win their division and have the kind of roster that can go far in the playoffs. Furthermore, they have a front office empowered to make moves that their rivals just can't or won't make.

Richard Bergstrom writes for Rockies Zingers, a SweetSpot network blog on the Colorado Rockies.

Heading into Wednesday's game, Troy Tulowitzki leads all qualified hitters in batting average (.354), on-base percentage (.447) and slugging percentage (.634). We can call that the triple-slash Triple Crown. And if you're doing that, you're the best hitter in the game. (Jerry Crasnick has a story here on the game's best pure hitters worth checking out.)

Except ... of course, Coors Field. But we can adjust for the advantage that Tulo and all Rockies hitters possess, by park-adjusting their stats. FanGraphs has a rate stat called wRC+, which adjusts for home-park environment. Tulo is first in the majors, just ahead of Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton and Andrew McCutchen.

And yet, I'm still bothered by these facts:

--Tulowitzki is 92nd in the majors in road batting average (.252).
--He's 39th in road OBP (.355).
--He's 44th in road slugging (.465), behind Luis Valbuena. Behind Lucas Duda. What if Duda played his home games in Coors Field?

What Tulowitzki has done is destroy pitchers at home: .457/.539/.803, with 11 of his 18 home runs and 22 of his 34 extra-base hits, in the same number of plate appearances. That said, Tulo does appear to be an improved hitter this season; he's always struck out more than he walked, except in his shortened 47-game 2012 season, but this year he has 42 walks and 43 strikeouts. Back in May, Richard Bergstrom of the RockiesZingers site pointed out that Tulowitzki has changed his stance a bit this year. His BABIP (average on balls in play) is .365, well above his career mark of .320, and according to Baseball-Reference.com, his line-drive rate the past two years has increased dramatically over his career norms (30 percent last year and 28 percent this year, compared to 21 percent over his career).


Who is the best hitter in the game right now?


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Still, those road numbers don't scream "best hitter in baseball." There are various factors in play there, however. The Rockies do play in a division with three pitcher's parks in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, so that's going to hurt his road stats. There appears to be a Coors Field side effect that hurts Rockies hitters when they go on the road. All of that makes it difficult to evaluate Rockies hitters. In other words, what would Tulowitzki do on another team? That's the unknown.

One thing I've wondered: Are good hitters able to take a bigger advantage of Coors Field than their less talented teammates? When adjusting for Coors, a generic park effect is established, based on the results of all Rockies hitters.

As a team, the Rockies are hitting .328/.377/.529 at home and .237/.290/.387 on the road. Using another advanced metric called weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), the Rockies have a .384 wOBA at home and .291 on the road, a difference of 93 points. Tulo's spread is 203 points, so he's been much better at home even compared to his teammates.

What about recent years? Between 2009 and 2013, the Rockies had a .356 wOBA at home and .295 on the road, a difference of 61 points. Over those seasons, Tulowitzki had a .412 wOBA at home and .368 on the road, a difference of 44 points. So before this year, he didn't improve at Coors as much as his teammates.

So far, however, in 2014 Coors has been a better run-scoring environment than its recent past. That could change as the season evolves. Different sites will come up with different park factors but most use a multi-season park factor. FanGraphs appears to use a five-year factor, so the fact that Coors has been even more extreme than normal in 2014 won't "penalize" Tulowitzki as much.

Back to the question at hand: Is Tulowitzki the best hitter in the game? I'm still skeptical, even if an altered stance (and good health) has led to better numbers. Even his home numbers are skewed by his hot start: He hit .608 in his first 15 home games but .355 since. I guess I'd like to see what kind of numbers Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout would put up in Colorado before declaring Tulo the best in the game. Or Giancarlo Stanton. How many more home runs would he hit if he got to play there?

What do you think? Who is the game's best hitter right now?

The best player in baseball

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17

Sorry, Miggy. Your hitting feats are legendary. You'll be in the Hall of Fame some day, on the short list of best right-handed batsmen the game has ever seen. You know you're an all-timer when you're hitting .319 and on pace for 135 RBIs and nobody is even talking much about how great you've been. You've been so good for so long that sometimes we do take you for granted and shame on all of us for that.

Sorry, Giancarlo. Your feats of strength seem impossible. Your home run on Monday was impossible. You've become must-see TV because any swing can result in something we've never seen before. How many players can we say that about? Watching you hit -- I hate to say it because it sounds crazy -- but watching you hit in some ways must have been like when Babe Ruth started swatting home runs for the Yankees in the old Polo Grounds. What was that? When Yankee Stadium was built they called it the House That Ruth Built. Maybe someday that park in Miami will be called Stanton's Playground. You've matured as an all-around hitter and even your defense has improved.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
AP Photo/Mark DuncanFew players can or should set their personal goals as high as Mike Trout might for himself.
Sorry, Tulo. You might be in the midst of a season for the ages, in the running to win that MVP award all of us have predicted for you at one time or another, and the reason you may not win it is because your team hasn't been so terrific. You were born to play shortstop, gliding effortlessly to make plays, that strong arm of yours allowing you to make plays other shortstops can't. You've managed to stay on the field, and we know that has been an issue in the past.

Sorry, Cutch. You were the MVP last year. You have no weakness in your game and pack surprising power into your small frame. You're one of the class acts in the game, exciting at the plate and in the field, and you've lifted a sorry franchise into a team worth paying attention to.

But Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. I should say: Still the best player in baseball. He was the game's best all-around player the past two seasons. That isn't really up for debate; I mean, you can argue if you want, but you're going to lose. Ask any general manager who has been the best player in the game past two years and I would predict 29 will say "Trout." Maybe 30 if promised anonymity.

In Tuesday's 9-3 win over the Indians, Trout went 3-for-5 with two home runs and four RBIs. His first homer was a three-run shot off Josh Tomlin in the fifth inning that gave the Angels a 5-2 lead, off a 2-2 89-mph fastball that Trout lined over just over the fence in right field after fouling off three two-strike pitches. His second homer in the seventh off Mark Lowe came off an 0-1 fastball that Trout crushed several rows deep into the left-center bleachers.

Trout is now hitting .311/.397/.611 with 16 home runs, 54 RBIs and nine steals. He lead the American League in slugging percentage and OPS while tied for third in RBIs (impressive for a No. 2 hitter). What's remarkable about those numbers is that it was just a few weeks ago when the big story line was, "What's wrong with Mike Trout?"

After a big opening month, he suddenly slumped in early May. On May 19, he went 1-for-4 in a loss to the Astros and his average dropped to .263. As far as crisis, it wasn't quite Babe Ruth overdoing it on the hot dogs, but Trout had struck out 56 times in 44 games, the most whiffs in the American League. What was going on?

On May 20, Trout started and left in the fifth inning with what was reported at the time as tightness in his leg. He sat out the next day. On June 3, he left a game after one at-bat and the club reported he'd been dealing with a lingering back issue, or "mid-back discomfort." An MRI showed no major problems, just inflammation. He sat out the game on June 4 but has been back in the lineup since. And he has been raking. He's Mike Trout.

In fact, since falling to .263 on May 19, he's hitting .410/.475/.819 with eight home runs, eight doubles and a triple in 22 games. Remember when he was striking out twice as often as he was walking after being close to a 1-to-1 ratio last year? In those 22 games, he has 14 walks and 14 strikeouts.


Who is the best player in the game right now?


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Both of his home runs on Tuesday came on low pitches. That's danger zone against Trout. He whips that bat through the zone so quickly on those pitches with great extension. The swing is different, of course, but in some ways it reminds me of Ken Griffey Jr.; his beautiful lefty swing with that big arc was tailor-made for low pitches. Fifteen of Trout's 16 home runs have come on pitches in the lower half of the strike zone. His one home run in the upper half of the zone was a middle-of-the-plate slider. Eight of his home runs have come on low fastballs. Basically, the worst pitch you can throw Trout is a low fastball.

The Indians threw two low fastballs and paid the price.

Power, speed, defense, walks. We know Trout does all of those things. Maybe pitchers will eventually learn to expose that top part of the strike zone more often (Trout is hitting .119 against pitches in the upper half of the zone or above), but pitchers are not trained to pitch up in the zone these days; it's down, down, down, so many just aren't comfortable throwing high fastballs.

Even then, I suspect Trout will eventually learn to adjust. He is, after all, still just 22 years old.

Best player in the game? Here's my top 10 right now, June 17, 2014:

1. Mike Trout
2. Troy Tulowitzki
3. Giancarlo Stanton
4. Andrew McCutchen
5. Jose Bautista
6. Yasiel Puig
7. Carlos Gomez
8. Miguel Cabrera
9. Jonathan Lucroy
10. Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Donaldson (tie)

I reserve the right to change this list on June 18.

Five thoughts on Monday’s battle between the first-place Detroit Tigers and first-place Baltimore Orioles, a 4-1 Tigers win that was more interesting than the final score indicates and evidence of why they were No. 1 in this week's Power Rankings.

1. Bud Norris did a very dumb thing. Norris had locked up with Rick Porcello in a nice pitcher’s duel, the Tigers leading 2-1 in the eighth inning when Ian Kinsler hit a 1-1 fastball for a two-run homer. Two pitches later Norris drilled Torii Hunter in the ribs, angering Hunter and setting off a little benches-clearing meet-and-greet where Hunter said something along the lines of "I’m going to take that piece of equipment jockeys carry for their horses and use it on your posterior."

Norris, who was ejected, appeared to say, "It’s a fastball inside."

Well, OK. Wayyyyyyy inside.

If you ask me, Norris was clearly upset after giving up the two-out homer. But what did Hunter do? I love that pitchers will get upset when a batter flips his bat but it’s OK for pitchers to throw at hitters for no reason.

[+] EnlargeTorii Hunter
AP Photo/Nick WassTorii Hunter had a few choice words about getting hit by a pitch by the Orioles' Bud Norris.
"I understand the emotion," an understated Orioles manager Buck Showalter said after the game. "But it happens."

Well, sure. It also will be interesting to see if the Tigers attempt to retaliate on Tuesday.

The bigger question: Should Norris have still been in the game? Kinsler was up for the fourth time and studies show that pitchers get progressively worse each time through the lineup. He had thrown more than 100 pitches and had walked Alex Avila to start the inning. The bullpen had not been worked very hard over the weekend, so it wasn’t a question of Showalter needing the starter to soak up some innings. Plus, in a 2-1 game in the eighth you’re not really worried about preserving the bullpen.

2. Rick Porcello continues to impress. Porcello allowed five hits and no walks in six innings, improving to 6-1 with a 3.22 ERA. He has never walked many but his control has taken a leap forward this year as he’s walked just six in seven starts. Certainly, improved defense in the infield has helped the ground-ball specialist and maybe given him more confidence that he doesn’t have to throw the perfect pitch.

But Porcello has made a major change in his approach this year, as well, throwing more sliders and fewer curveballs:

2013: 182 sliders, 467 curveballs
2014: 99 sliders, 93 curveballs

Whether it's new pitch selection or simply throwing more strikes, it's an improved Porcello and now a valuable part of the Detroit rotation instead of being the "other guy" behind Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez.

3. Victor Martinez actually struck out. One of my favorite stat lines of the season: Martinez has eight home runs and just seven strikeouts, his seventh coming on Monday night. In this era when hitters swing for the fences no matter the count, Martinez has mastered the lost art of putting the ball in play. Martinez went 2-for-4 and is now hitting .331/.380/.583, inheriting the Prince Fielder role of batting behind Miguel Cabrera and outperforming what Prince.

How impressive is Martinez’s non-strikeout start? Since 1980, only George Brett and Barry Bonds have had seasons with more home runs than K’s. Martinez isn’t going to do that -- he had 62 strikeouts and 14 home runs in 2013 -- but this is a special hitter. With two strikes he’s hitting -- get this -- .343/.356/.657. Six of his eight home runs have come with two strikes and he has fanned just those seven times in 73 two-strike plate appearances. When you hear announcers talked about the “toughest out” in baseball, Martinez is at the top of that list so far in 2014.

4. Miguel Cabrera is driving in runs and he hasn’t even gotten hot yet. This is kind of a scary thing for opposing pitchers to consider: Cabrera is hitting .290/.331/.478 with five home runs -- nice numbers but nice isn't usually the word used to described Cabrera at the plate -- but he still has 30 RBIs in 34 games.

There’s still something not quite right about Cabrera, however. He has just eight walks and 27 strikeouts. That’s a 5.4 percent walk rate and 18.2 percent K rate, compared to walking 13.8 percent and whiffing 14.4 percent of the time last year. I’m not quite sure what’s going on there because his chase rate on pitches out of the zone is barely higher than last year and his swing-and-miss percentage is actually down one percent. Pitchers aren’t giving him the free passes like a year ago when he had 19 intentional walks (he has just one this year), but that could be a function of having more runners on base in front of him and thus fewer open bases or managers not fearing Cabrera as much.

My prediction: Cabrera starts heating up as the weather warms. Then we'll start seeing pitchers pitch around him more often.

Assuming they want to pitch to Martinez, that is.

5. The Tigers' defense is better. I alluded to this in the Porcello comment, but the Detroit defense has looked much better than it did in 2013, with one notable exception. The Tigers were at minus-14 Defense Runs Saved entering Monday’s game, but Hunter is at minus-10 in right field and the ill-fated Alex Gonzalez experiment at shortstop resulted in a minus-4 rating. A year ago, the Tigers allowed a .306 average on balls in play; this year it’s at .292.

So, Tigers sitting at No. 1 in the Power Rankings? I'm not going to disagree.
Tuesday was a great night of baseball. At various times, I watched parts of Reds-Red Sox, Mets-Marlins, Astros-Tigers, Dodgers-Nationals, Blue Jays-Phillies, Yankees-Angels and Mariners-A’s, making it through to the final out on the West Coast.

Thoughts on those games and others ...
  • Checked in on Robbie Ray's major league debut for the Tigers. Ray was the centerpiece of the controversial Doug Fister trade with the Nationals, with most analysts believing the Tigers should have done better. Ray, making a spot start in place of Anibal Sanchez, had a 1.53 ERA at Triple-A Toledo, with 21 strikeouts and five walks in 29.1 innings. Against the Astros -- admittedly, not the toughest test -- he looked pretty good, pitching with poise and confidence and showing the good fastball command that Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones talked about before the game. He's not overpowering -- he averaged 90.8 mph on his fastball -- but moved his fastball around the zone. He gave up five hits in 5.1 innings and two of those were infield singles and a third was a bloop double. His changeup is his best offspeed pitch (he threw it 29 times) while his curveball, which he threw just nine times, remains a work in progress according to Jones.
  • "You hear them talking -- not to your face, but you hear them talking," Ray told MLB.com about critics of the Fister trade. "You just have to push it aside, and they have to wait and see. With runners at the corners and no outs in the first, Ray worked out of the jam, getting two strikeouts and a groundout and cruised from there into the sixth, retiring 10 in a row at one point.
  • Sanchez, out with a lacerated right middle finger, threw a bullpen session on Tuesday. Ray may make another start on Sunday before Sanchez is ready. The other good news for the Tigers, now winners of seven in a row, was the four-hit game and 419-foot home run from Miguel Cabrera. The home run, his third, came off a meaty 80-mph changeup from Brett Oberholtzer but he also doubled deep to left-center. He’'s still not driving the ball to the opposite field like he does when he's locked, but he's up to .293/.339/.466 after his slow start.
  • Homer Bailey scuffled through six innings for the Reds, walking five and allowing three runs as he battled his fastball command. "I just didn't have the right feel tonight," Bailey said. "It was one of those games that I had to grind out." Bailey has a 5.36 ERA and has allowed 52 hits and 14 walks in 40.1 innings, a sharp decline from his production the past two seasons that garnered him that $105 million extension. His velocity is fine, but he's allowed a .372 BABIP. That could be some bad luck, but could also be a location issue. In checking his heat maps, he's leaving a lot more pitches to right-handers inside and over the plate and righties are hitting .260 against him, after hitting .205 last year. Lefties, meanwhile, are tagging him for a .403 average, including .465 against his fastball. Again, a lot of red right in the middle of the plate. You wonder how much he misses Ryan Hanigan (not that Hanigan caught all his games last year).
  • The Red Sox ended up with a 4-3 win in 12 innings as Grady Sizemore -- who nearly signed with the Reds in the offseason before going to Boston -- delivered the game-winning hit. With Jay Bruce out a month or so after knee surgery, this is an important stretch for the Reds, now 15-17. Joey Votto is getting on base, but is slugging well below .500. Brandon Phillips has a .308 OBP. Tuesday's lineup featured Skip Schumaker hitting sixth and Zack Cozart seventh. The Reds are fortunate the Cardinals have also gotten off to a lackluster start, but they have just one division series (against St. Louis) until June 13 so it may be hard to make up much ground on the Brewers before then.
  • The Rockies continue to pound the ball at home, smashing the Rangers 12-1. The unstoppable Troy Tulowitzki went 3-for-4 and was hit by a pitch to raise his season line to .421/.522/.794. Carlos Gonzalez went 5-for-5. Nolan Arenado doubled in his final at-bat -- the ball landing right on the left-field foul line -- to extend his hitting streak to 26 games. When things are going good, they're going good. It's a fun team and their +48 run differential is now best in the majors. They're 13-5 at home and 8-9 on the road, so like many Rockies teams of the past, the test will be to play better away from Coors Field. Even last year's team went 45-36 at home while stumbling to a 29-52 mark on the road.
  • The Marlins are another fun team to watch. Henderson Alvarez spun his second shutout of the season and third in eight starts going back to his no-hitter last September. A 1-2-3 of Jose Fernandez, Nate Eovaldi and Alvarez is looking pretty solid, but the big reason for the Marlins' 18-15 start and +28 run differential has been an improved offense -- they were last (and historically bad) in runs scored last year, but rank second to the Rockies in the NL this year. Yes, it probably isn't sustainable -- they're riding a .334 BABIP, second to the Rockies in the majors -- but they're not doing anything special with runners in scoring position (.267 versus .271 overall) and Giancarlo Stanton gives them a monster in the middle.
  • Michael Saunders nearly killed Jesse Chavez.
  • Nice win for the Mariners in that Roenis Elias had another solid outing and the Mariners put the game away with four runs in the ninth off Jim Johnson. The key play in that rally was Corey Hart beating out a double-play ball with the bases loaded to score the first run -- helped out by Robinson Cano hustling into second with a hard slide. In light of Mariano Rivera's comments that he'd take Dustin Pedroia over Cano, it's easy to pick on those times when Cano doesn't run out a groundball. But in watching the Mariners a lot this year I haven't seen many instances (if any) of Cano not hustling or taking a play off. Maybe his uniform doesn't get as dirty as Pedroia's, but there are many ways to play the game.
  • Despite all their pitching injuries, the Mariners are fourth in the AL in ERA. Elias has been a big part of that with a 3.27 mark and he's been much better his past three outings with a combined 22-8 strikeout/walk ratio. Hisashi Iwakuma returned over the weekend as well. The Mariners can't really hit, but they're 16-15 and in the AL it looks like anything is possible.
  • The power went out in Tampa so the Rays outfielders watched cartoons.
  • OK, maybe I was wrong in dissing instant replay over the overturned call that gave the Pirates the win over the Giants. If there's any reason for instant replay, it's for a game-deciding play like that one. My larger point: One good (and important) call doesn't take away from my replay likeability, and my gut feeling right now is it hasn't won me over.

Notes on D: Shifts, Tigers, leaping Lough

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
Take a look at the spray chart on the right.

Omar Infante provides an interesting dilemma for teams that like to shift.

It is the profile of a right-handed hitter, Kansas City Royals infielder Omar Infante, with an extreme tendency to pull groundballs. He’s hit 26 this season and only two have been hit to the right of the second base bag (we’ll tell the story of one in a second).

Do you shift him or do you defend him straight up?

This is a fascinating topic of discussion.

If you watched last Thursday’s "Baseball Tonight," you know where Eduardo Perez stands on the issue.

Perez, who was the Astros bench coach and was in charge of shifting last season, said that he would not shift Infante because Infante’s bat-control ability negated anything that might come from his spray chart.

"He’s too good of a hitter," Perez said.

This year, the Astros and their coach in charge of defensive positioning, Pat Listach, put on a full shift for Infante, the first team documented to do so (the Pirates and Rays have tried partial shifts against him for a combined total of six times).

Sure enough, in his second at-bat against the Astros this season, Infante adjusted and punched a base hit through the hole on the right side (the hits in the image are in light blue).

Expect to see "The Omar Infante Dilemma" play out with hitters across the major leagues (Jackie Bradley Jr. being shifted by the Yankees and Jimmy Rollins being shifted by the Mets in past years are other examples). We’ll try to report on this from time to time in this space.

For now, we’re curious. Would you shift against Infante? We find both sides of the debate to be compelling.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Tigers D not so grrrreat
Last week we wrote about the defensive struggles of Torii Hunter, who currently has the worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors.

What we didn’t detail is how the Tigers have fared as a team. They’re currently at -21 DRS.

We bet you wouldn’t be able to guess the team leader in DRS. It’s none other than first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who has fared adequately in his move back to first. His three Defensive Runs Saved are tied for the second-most of any first baseman.

Double your (dis)pleasure
As one who regularly writes about the Mets, we’ve become sensitive regarding the turning of double plays, mainly because the Mets have struggled at it this season. They’re tied for second the majors in a stat tracked by Baseball Info Solutions called Double Play Misplay & Errors, with five (the Padres lead the majors with eight).

If you’re wondering what the difference is between a shortstop who rates well at turning a double play and one who rates poorly, a couple of examples work well.

Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy has been either the fielder or pivot man on 21 groundballs with a man on first base and less than two outs this season. He’s turned 19 of them into double plays.

That 90 percent conversion rate is the best in baseball, and as you can imagine, it’s atypical for end-of-season numbers (the major-league average is 63 percent and Pete Kozma was the leader at shortstop last season at 75 percent).

The two shortstops who rate worst in baseball this season are Yunel Escobar of the Rays (nine of 24) and Ruben Tejada of the Mets (seven of 21).

Among second basemen, Josh Wilson of the Rangers (nine of 10) and Danny Espinosa of the Nationals (12 of 14) rate best and Eric Sogard of the Athletics (six of 19) rates worst.

Last season’s leader was Ryan Flaherty of the Orioles (77 percent) and the major-league average was 65 percent.

Lough before you leap
In scouring video for the best plays made recently, we noticed a trend -- David Lough of the Orioles and his penchant for leaping catches.

Lough made three of them in left field in an eight-day span from April 20 to 27, robbing A.J. Pierzynski, Jose Bautista and Jarrod Dyson of base hits.

Amazingly, Lough has the third-most Defensive Runs Saved among left fielders over the last two seasons (a position in which you typically play your third-best outfielder) despite having only played a little more than 200 innings there in that span.
I mean, other than it's just 16 games. Still, Miguel Cabrera, a three-time reigning batting champion and best hitter on the planet, is struggling along with a .206/.275/.333 line. While even the great hitters have their slumps, it's unusual to see Cabrera go through a prolonged one. On Sunday, he struck out twice looking on 3-2 fastballs and grounded into a double play. He went 0-for-4 Monday with two long outs and a ground ball out against a shift, his sixth 0-for-4 in 16 games. He had only 15 0-for-4s (or worse) all of 2013.

"His first two at-bats were 800 feet worth of outs," manager Brad Ausmus said after Monday's loss. "In a lot of ballparks, that's two home runs. He struck those balls well and really hit the ball up the middle well, it's just the second baseman was shifted over. If we're playing in a lot of parks, he's 3-for-3 with two homers right there."

After going 4-for-5 with a home run in the third game of the season, Cabrera is hitting .157 with no home runs and four RBIs in his past 13 games. That's tied for the ninth-longest homerless streak of his career -- although four of his top eight such stretches came in the past three seasons:

Sept. 5-22, 2011: 16 games (.375/.538/.542)
May 1-8, 2011: 15 games (.250/.406/.333)
Aug. 27-Sept. 16, 2013: 14 games (.250/.377/.273)
April 29-May 14, 2012: 14 games (.311/.323/.377)

When Cabrera slumped last September, he was battling various injuries, of course. In spring training, he declared himself healthy. Then he signed that $292 million contract extension and maybe it's possible even the best hitter on the planet is pressing.

Aside from that speculation, it's clear what he hasn't been doing: Hitting the ball to the opposite field with success. Here are his hit charts from 2013 and 2014:

Miguel CabreraESPN Stats & InfoCabrera usually makes a nice living driving the ball to right field, but he hasn't done that in 2014.

In 2013, 55 of his 193 hits went to right field, including 12 of his 44 home runs. This year, he has just one hit to right field. Most of his other data is similar to last year -- swing rate, chase percentage and so on. He swing-and-miss rate is actually down a few percent in 2014. His ratio of ground balls to fly balls has increased so far (he has 23 grounders and 12 fly balls whereas that ratio was nearly 1:1 last year), so that partially explains the lack of home runs.

At this point, it just looks like a slump to me. Maybe the longest one of his career and considering his offseason surgery, not one that should be ignored. But if you're Charlie Leesman and making just your second career start Tuesday night for the White Sox … be careful. Miggy is due.
Is that such an outlandish headline? I'm not sure it is. Wood did it all in Monday's 5-1 win over the hapless Diamondbacks, pitching seven innings with nine strikeouts and no walks and going 2-for-3 with a double and three-run homer. Here's a fun tweet:

Wood hit .222 with three home runs last year, and while we won't quite declare him the new Mike Hampton yet, there are similarities in that both are/were smallish lefties who could hit (Hampton hit seven home runs for the Rockies in 2001 and hit .344 the next season with three home runs).

More importantly, Wood is off to a great start on the mound (2.52 ERA), so far proving his 2013 breakout wasn't a fluke. In 25 innings, he has 28 K's and four walks and two home runs allowed. That's a big boost in his strikeout rate from 2013 -- 17.5 percent to 25.7 percent -- and if this is a real improvement then it's time to start thinking of him as an elite starter.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, while Wood and Jeff Samardzija have allowed just 14 runs in their eight starts, those two are a combined 1-4 as the Cubs are next-to-last in the NL in runs.

Other quick thoughts from Monday's action:
  • New Pirates first baseman Ike Davis hit a grand slam and then the Pirates scored runs in the eighth and ninth to beat the Reds 6-5. The Reds have an MLB-worst 5.77 bullpen ERA with an atrocious 1.72 WHIP. J.J. Hoover and Manny Parra have really struggled, so even Aroldis Chapman's return isn't an automatic fix. As for Davis, he's been plagued by inconsistency in his career, but we're not that far removed from the second half of 2012 when he hit .255/.346/.542 with 20 home runs. Who knows if it will work out, but it was a good risk by the Pirates to get him. Sure, you worry about all the strikeouts and low average you're going to get from Davis and Pedro Alvarez but they may also combine for 65 home runs.
  • Some sweet fielding plays on Monday. Loved this double play by Ruben Tejeda and Daniel Murphy for the Mets and this slick bare-handed play by Albert Pujols. Tejeda made another diving stop and out as the Mets blanked the Cardinals 2-0 behind Jenrry Mejia's 6.2 scoreless innings and Kyle Farnsworth's first save.
  • Nice 4-3 win for the Rangers over the A's on a night Yu Darvish didn't have a dominant outing, with eight hits and four walks in six innings. Fun fact: Prince Fielder has already been intentionally walked nine times, the most ever for an AL player in April. He's hitting just .205 but opposing managers still want to get a righty-righty matchup when possible.
  • Fielder's old teammate in Detroit, some guy named Miguel Cabrera, continues to struggle with a .206/.275/.333 line and one home run. It's gone relatively unnoticed because he's Miguel Cabrera and we expect him to heat up soon enough -- and the Tigers are still 9-7 after losing to John Danks on Monday -- but this is a guy who never has a bad month (last September, when he was injured, being the exception). He only has one opposite-field hit all season. Last year, 55 of his 193 hits went to right.
  • Keep an eye on Corey Dickerson, who gets a chance to play for the Rockies with Michael Cuddyer on the DL. He can hit and went 3-for-4 with one of the five home runs the Rockies hit against the Giants.
  • Things are turning ugly in Seattle. The Mariners returned home to face the Astros with Felix Hernandez pitching and put up a stinkbomb of a game for their seventh straight loss. An error by Kyle Seager in the sixth inning led to four unearned runs as Hernandez gave up three run-scoring hits with two outs. Dustin Ackley was moved up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup and promptly went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Justin Smoak is hitting .170 after his big opening series against the Angels. Seager and Brad Miller are hitting under .200. Leadoff hitter Abraham Almonte has 28 strikeouts in 19 games. Looks like the same old Mariners.
1. I wrote about the Brewers-Pirates brawl here. While the brawl was certainly interesting, the biggest takeaway from the weekend has to be Ryan Braun's two home runs off Jason Grilli in the ninth -- one to win the game on Saturday, one to tie it on Sunday. It's only eight innings, but Grilli has yet to match last year's dominance, so something to watch.

2. The Oakland A's continue to impress and have the majors' biggest run differential at +32. Jesse Chavez, who replaced Jarrod Parker in the rotation when Parker went down in spring training, had his fourth straight solid start in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Astros and has allowed six runs in 26 innings with a 28/5 strikeout/walk ratio. Chavez pitches up in the strike zone with his 90-93 mph fastball but his cutter has developed into a nice weapon. What's interesting about it is that he locates on the outside part of the plate to left-handers and to right-handers. He's actually thrown it more than his four-seamer and while two of the three home runs he's allowed came off the cutter, batters are hitting .209 off it. He mixes in a curveball and changeup, making him four-pitch starter with good command. You have to like what he's done.

3. After a slow start, Josh Donaldson is also heating up. Over his past 12 games he's hitting .345 with four home runs, seven doubles and 12 RBIs and looking like the guy who finished fourth in the AL MVP voting last season. The A's have yet to play a team currently over .500, so this week's three-game series against the Rangers will be a good test.

4. Should the Braves be a little worried about Craig Kimbrel? He actually got pulled from Saturday's relief appearance -- his first outing in a week after resting a sore shoulder -- after giving up three hits, a walk and two runs. Jordan Walden had to come on to get the final out for the save. Kimbrel then wasn't used in Sunday's 14-inning loss to the Mets.

5. Dee Gordon continues to do good things for the Dodgers, hitting .367/.409/.483 with 10 steals in 11 attempts. Going back to last August, when he was recalled from Triple-A, Gordon is hitting .363 in 99 plate appearances. Still a sample size, but it's not like he has no track record of hitting. He's a career .301 hitter in the minors and hit .304 in 56 games as a rookie in 2011. Yes, he has no power, but if he can hit close to .300 and draw a few walks, he's going to steal a lot of bases and score runs in front of the big boys.

6. Giancarlo Stanton beat the Mariners with a walk-off grand slam on Friday, giving him six home runs and an MLB-leading 26 RBIs. The Stanton Fear Factor came into play in a big way on Sunday. The Mariners led 2-1 in the eighth. One out, runner on second, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon elects to intentionally walk Stanton, putting the go-ahead on base. I get it: Stanton has delivered some big hits. But he also has four times as many strikeouts as home runs. What is more likely to happen there? You cannot put the go-ahead on base there. If he beats you, he beats you, but giving the opponent a free runner often leads to bad things. A walk, fielder's choice and sacrifice fly gave the Marlins the win as Stanton came around to score. Great player, bad managing.

7. Robinson Cano is not driving the ball at all. He's hitting .268/.321/.352 with three doubles and one home run, his one home run coming in Texas when he did manage to sort of one-arm the ball just over the fence in right. Cano had hit 40-plus doubles the past five seasons, so the lack of extra-base hits is as concerning as the lack of home runs. Again, just 18 games, and he had an April like this in 2012 when he hit .267 with one home run and four RBIs, but he's part of the reason the Mariners have looked awful since that 3-0 start.

8. The Tigers won 2-1 on Sunday, in part because Ian Kinsler created a run all by himself with the help of some sloppy Angels defense. The Angels were credited (discredited?) with three errors on the play. By the way, Kinsler has played well so far, hitting .317/.353/.476. Miguel Cabrera, however, has yet to get untracked, hitting .220 with one home run.

9. Big win for the Nationals on Sunday, ralling from a 2-0 deficit against the Cardinals with two runs in the seventh and the winning run in the ninth. Danny Espinosa played a key role in both rallies, driving in a run in the seventh and single to start the winning rally. I criticized the Nationals on Thursday after a sloppy 8-0 loss to the Cardinals, but they managed a little redemption with wins on Friday and Sunday, sandwiched around Bryce Harper getting benched on Saturday for not running out a groundball.

10. Finally, Brewers backup catcher Martin Maldonado had a busy weekend. On Sunday, he was heavily involved in the brawl, sucker-punching Travis Snider. On Friday, he pulled a Roy Hobbs and literally knocked the cover off the ball. Poor Pedro Alvarez; he's led the majors in errors the past two seasons and had to try and throw that thing to first base. It was ruled an infield hit.

Porcello plus iffy infield could be trouble

April, 5, 2014
Apr 5
When the Tigers take the field Saturday, it might provide a fascinating test case for a couple of the propositions that -- if not as important as Miggy being Miggy or the front three in the rotation doing their thing -- could be the difference between their winning the AL Central going away, or whether they’ll slip back down below 90 wins and bring the race back within reach of the Royals and Indians.

That’s because we’re going to get to see the first real test of whether or not ground-baller Rick Porcello and the left side of the Tigers’ reconfabulated infield are going to work out very well together. Rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos may not be that much of an improvement on Miguel Cabrera -- he was moved to the outfield corners when he moved up to Double-A in 2012, and the scouting reports on his work at the hot corner have involved terms such as "timid" and "stiff." As a result, it shouldn't surprise people to hear that Miguel Cabrera’s days at third base aren't over, and that he’ll apparently play there some this season (also getting Victor Martinez some reps at first base). I guess if the standard is, “We can survive with Cabrera, so…” then Castellanos will be fine by the Tigers’ standards, but we’ll see if Porcello continues to be the ground-ball guy who pays a particular penalty as a result.

At shortstop, the Tigers are choosing between 37-year-old shortstop Alex Gonzalez -- who hasn’t played the position regularly or well in the majors since 2011 -- and former Angels utilityman Andrew Romine, and you can understand how this might turn out badly. It’ll be interesting to see how manager Brad Ausmus leans on this; if Romine is considered the better defender, will he draw more Porcello game-day starts, considering Porcello’s career 1.7 ground ball/fly ball ratio? Not that I think we could call a Gonzalez-Romine platoon an offense-defense combo -- Gonzalez’s OPS the last five years is .679, which would be hard for him to reach, let alone top -- but we’ve seen other clubs be adaptable with shortstop tandems, particularly the Pirates last season in how they employed defensive specialist Clint Barmes.

Now, I admit, I’ve already made my arguments for why I don’t think Porcello will break out big, but you can understand why folks think he will: his youth and his spiking strikeout rate. We’ll see if Saturday’s start gives us much to mull over on whether Porcello’s finally going to blossom into the quality starter people have expected him to be since he was taken with the 27th overall pick in 2007.

Another fun thing we learned about the Tigers? MLive Tigers reporter James Schmehl confirmed that skipper Brad Ausmus is going to let Victor Martinez catch in a few interleague games this season. For myself, I love it, even if V-Mart doesn’t do well behind the backstop, because a skill unused often becomes a skill lost. If you’re going to employ a full-time DH on your roster, with today’s roster crunch, it’s a lot more useful if he can also pick you up as your backup first baseman and third catcher.

The less-happy takeaway? That Alex Avila’s wonderful 2011 season might sadly go down in history as an echo of Cubs catcher Rick Wilkins’ 1993 breakout, a great year that won’t be repeated.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

It's the third installment of the epic Mike Trout-Miguel Cabrera trilogy, made even more intriguing by the mammoth contracts the two players just signed. While you can come up with a dozen legitimate MVP candidates in the National League, AL honors will almost surely go to Trout or Cabrera, barring a miracle Mariners run to the AL West title or something like that. Even though Cabrera has dominated the voting the past two seasons -- he received 45 first-place votes to just 11 for Trout -- I'm leaning toward Trout winning in 2014 for the following reasons:

(1) I think he's going to take a small step forward. It's hard to imagine him playing better, but Trout's suggestion that's he going to be more aggressive swinging early in the count could actually be a good thing. Among 140 qualified regulars last season, Trout ranked 140th in swing rate (37 percent). He ranked 131st in swing rate on first pitches. Trout is too disciplined to start hacking at pitches out of the zone, so zeroing in on certain pitches early in the count could lead to more production without sacrificing his walk rate all that much.

(2) Cabrera will be hard-pressed to match the past two seasons. That's not a knock, just an awareness of how good he's been (including a sick .397/.529/.782 line with runners in scoring position last year). Last September's injury issues -- he hit .278 with one home run -- show that Cabrera is human even when his body fails him. He says he's fine after offseason surgery, but it still raises a small question heading into the season.

(3) Only one player -- Barry Bonds from 2001 to 2004 -- has won three consecutive MVP awards. Voters don't like to give it to the same player every year. In fact, Cabrera was just the second AL player in 40 years to win back-to-back MVP honors (Frank Thomas was the last in 1993-94). If the numbers are close, that works in Trout's favor this time around.

(4) More awareness that Trout is the better all-around player. Cabrera has been worth 7.2 and 7.5 WAR (Baseball-Reference) the past two seasons, Trout 10.8 and 8.9. Polls of general managers have indicated they think Trout is the better player. Again, that's not a knock on Cabrera, the best hitter in the game.

(5) The Angels should be better. The biggest roadblock to Trout winning the past two seasons was the Angels missing the playoffs. In recent years, voters have almost exclusively given the MVP Award to a guy on a playoff team. The Tigers are still the better bet for the postseason, so that could ultimately swing the award back to Cabrera for a third straight year.

2. Who is this year's Josh Donaldson or Matt Carpenter?

Historically, these guys had pretty amazing and unique seasons. Donaldson was 27, in his first full season as a starter, and he surprised everyone by finishing fourth in the AL MVP vote. Carpenter, also 27 and playing every day for the first time, finished fourth in the NL MVP vote. And then there was Chris Davis -- also 27 -- who mashed 53 home runs and knocked in 138 runs. He had a little more of a résumé than Donaldson or Carpenter, having hit 33 home runs the year before, but nobody had him as a preseason MVP candidate.

Odds are slim that we'll see even one of those types of performances, let alone three, but since 27 seemed to be the magical age, here are some guys playing their age-27 seasons in 2014: Pedro Alvarez, Jay Bruce, Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis, Justin Smoak, Jason Kipnis, Pablo Sandoval, Desmond Jennings, Josh Reddick, Ike Davis, Michael Saunders, Yonder Alonso. Hmm ... Alvarez certainly could go all Chris Davis on us (he hit 36 home runs in 2013), but I don't see a Donaldson or Carpenter in there; then again, we didn't see a Donaldson or Carpenter coming last year. (Guys such as Bruce, Kipnis and Sandoval are already pretty accomplished players.)

If we go down to age-26 players, I see a few more interesting candidates: Brandon Belt (I've written about him), Kyle Seager, Khris Davis, Kole Calhoun, Dustin Ackley. So there you go: Kole Calhoun, MVP candidate!

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

C -- Brian McCann (30 years old)
1B -- Mark Teixeira (34)
2B -- Brian Roberts (36)
3B -- Kelly Johnson (32)
SS -- Derek Jeter (40)
LF -- Brett Gardner (30)
CF -- Jacoby Ellsbury (30)
RF -- Carlos Beltran (37)
DH -- Alfonso Soriano (38)

The top subs are Ichiro Suzuki (40) and Brendan Ryan (32). If those guys ending up staying reasonably healthy, the Yankees won't have one regular younger than 30. I wonder if that's ever happened before. The rotation features 33-year-old CC Sabathia and 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda.

And yet ... the Yankees may be better than we expect. I have them at 84 wins, which is right where the projection systems have them (FanGraphs at 83 wins, Baseball Prospectus also at 83), and I'm beginning to wonder if that's too conservative. Masahiro Tanaka looked terrific this spring and maybe he does match the 2.59 ERA projected by the Oliver system as opposed to the 3.68 of ZiPS or 3.87 of Steamer. Michael Pineda could provide a huge boost to the rotation. The offense is going to score a lot more runs than last year. Yes, age and injuries will be the deciding factor, but the Yankees have defied Father Time in the past.

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

I'm going with explode -- in a good way. That doesn't mean he isn't going to give Don Mattingly headaches or miss the cutoff guy every now and then or get a little exuberant on the base paths on occasion or incite columnists to write about the good ol' days when Mickey Mantle always showed up to the ballpark on time. But the positives will outweigh the negatives, he'll provide tons of energy to the Dodgers, he'll be one of the most exciting players in the game and he's going to have a big, big season.

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

For a team that won 96 games, the Braves enter the season with a surprising range of outcomes. Minus Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Kris Medlen, this won't be the same team as last year. But maybe that's a good thing if Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton don't hit .179 and .184 again. The Braves allowed fewer runs in 2013 than any of the Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz teams, so they were going to be hard-pressed to match that run prevention anyway. Implode or explode? I'm going somewhere in the middle, with 86 wins -- which may be just enough to capture a wild card.

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

The first 10 names that pop into my head, without analysis or explanation (other than to say these are players with a great deal of potential volatility in their performance or a high degree injury risk):

1. Derek Jeter, Yankees
2. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
3. Tim Lincecum, Giants
4. Billy Hamilton, Reds
5. Francisco Liriano, Pirates
6. Scott Kazmir, A's
7. Albert Pujols, Angels
8. Michael Wacha, Cardinals
9. B.J. Upton, Braves
10. Ubaldo Jimenez, Orioles

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

I'm going with the Astros, although it wouldn't surprise me to see the Phillies plummet to the bottom. Or the Twins. If you want a dark horse team, how about the Blue Jays? The rotation could be a disaster and if even Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and/or Edwin Encarnacion suffer lengthy injuries, the offense could collapse, as well.

8. Is offense going to decrease across the league again?

Considering there's going to be even more drug testing this year, I'll say it drops a tiny bit. Here are the runs per game totals in recent seasons:

2006: 4.86
2007: 4.80
2008: 4.65
2009: 4.61
2010: 4.38
2011: 4.28
2012: 4.32
2013: 4.17

The increased use of defensive shifts will continue to make it harder to hit singles, and the pitching just seems to get better and better. Yes, we had several guys go down with season-ending injuries in spring training -- most notably Medlen, Jarrod Parker and Patrick Corbin -- but we've added Tanaka, we'll get full seasons from the likes of Wacha and Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray and Chris Archer and Tony Cingrani, and other young guns such as Taijuan Walker, Eddie Butler, Jonathan Gray, Archie Bradley and Jameson Taillon could make major impacts. Plus, Joe Blanton won't be in the Angels' rotation.

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

By "this year's Pirates," we mean a team that finishes under .500 the year before and unexpectedly soars into the playoffs. We actually had three such teams make the playoffs last year: the Pirates, Red Sox and Indians. In 2012, we had the Orioles, A's, Reds and Nationals. In 2011, we had the Brewers and Diamondbacks. In 2010, we had the Reds.

The Royals don't count because they won 86 games last year, so improving a few wins and reaching the playoffs wouldn't be a surprise.

Technically, the Giants fit since they were below .500, but they would hardly be a surprise team just two years after winning the World Series.

Who does that leave? I see three choices in each league:

Blue Jays, Mariners, Angels -- The Blue Jays need their rotation to produce in a tough division, the Mariners maybe can take advantage of injuries to the A's and Rangers. The Angels were below .500, but they've been perennial playoff contenders, so they hardly fit the "surprise" definition.

Padres, Rockies, Brewers -- I'd be most inclined to go with the Rockies here, as they have two stars in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez and just need better production from the back of the rotation (although the early injury to Jhoulys Chacin doesn't help). I've been on the Brewers' bandwagon the past two years and refuse to jump on this year (which means they're probably headed to the World Series).

10. Who are five rookies who will impact the pennant races?

1. Masahiro Tanaka, P, Yankees. Don't be surprised if he's a Cy Young contender.

2. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox. We saw his already-polished game in the postseason last October.

3. Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds. The speed is Cool Papa Bell turn-of-the-light-switch-and-be-in-bed-before-the-room-goes-dark kind of speed. The defense should be above average, but will he hit?

4. Gregory Polanco, RF, and Jameson Taillon, P, Pirates. They won't be up to start the season but will eventually be part of Pittsburgh's playoff drive.

5. Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers. With Cabrera moving over to first, he takes over at third base with potential to produce with the bat.

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

I'm going with the AL West, which should be a three-team race between the A's, Rangers and Angels, with the Mariners possibly making it a four-team race. Or maybe the AL East, which could be a titanic struggle between the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and Orioles. Or the NL West, which could be a five-team race if the Dodgers fall back to the pack. Or the NL Central, if the Cardinals aren't as dominant as I believe they will be. Or the AL Central, which the Tigers won by only a game last year. Or the NL East ... which, well, I can't see this as anything but a two-team race. (Sorry, Mets, Marlins and Phillies fans.)

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Evan Longoria
4. Adrian Beltre
5. Dustin Pedroia

AL Cy Young
1. David Price
2. Yu Darvish
3. Max Scherzer
4. Justin Verlander
5. Felix Hernandez

AL Rookie
1. Masahiro Tanaka
2. Xander Bogaerts
3. Nick Castellanos

AL home run champ
1. Chris Davis
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Edwin Encarnacion

AL batting champ
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Joe Mauer

1. Yadier Molina
2. Joey Votto
3. Andrew McCutchen
4. Hanley Ramirez
5. Ryan Braun

NL Cy Young
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Jordan Zimmermann
3. Jose Fernandez
4. Zack Greinke
5. Adam Wainwright

NL Rookie
1. Billy Hamilton
2. Chris Owings
3. Travis d'Arnaud

NL home run champ
1. Giancarlo Stanton
2. Pedro Alvarez
3. Paul Goldschmidt

NL batting champ
1. Joey Votto
2. Andrew McCutchen
3. Yadier Molina

13. Do the Red Sox win it all?
No, but they do make the playoffs. My final standings:

AL East
Tampa Bay: 93-69
Boston: 91-71
New York: 84-78
Baltimore: 84-78
Toronto: 78-84

AL Central
Detroit: 91-71
Kansas City: 82-80
Cleveland: 79-83
Chicago: 71-91
Minnesota: 67-95

AL West
Texas: 88-74
Oakland: 87-75
Los Angeles: 83-79
Seattle: 76-86
Houston: 61-101

NL East
Washington: 93-69
Atlanta: 86-76
New York: 73-89
Miami: 73-89
Philadelphia: 65-97

NL Central
St. Louis: 95-67
Cincinnati: 85-77
Pittsburgh: 84-78
Milwaukee: 79-83
Chicago: 70-92

NL West
Los Angeles: 94-68
San Francisco: 82-80
San Diego: 80-82
Colorado: 79-83
Arizona: 78-84

14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.

Miguel Cabrera's absolutely huge deal

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27

Three hundred million dollars for Miguel Cabrera? I don’t think Dr. Evil ransomed the entire world for that much in the last “Austin Powers” sequel. OK, the deal is reportedly for something less than $300 million, but that’s still epic. There are a few key takeaways from Cabrera potentially making this kind of money over 10 years.
  • If Cabrera's new contract -- which includes the two years remaining on his current deal and eight additional years -- is calculated as a 10-year deal, it's the biggest individual contract in sports history as well as baseball history, dwarfing Alex Rodriguez’s initial 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers from 2001 and his subsequent 10-year, $275 million deal with the Yankees that runs through 2017. It’s bigger than Robinson Cano’s 10-year, $240 million deal from just this past winter as well as Albert Pujols’ 10-year, $240 million payday. And Joey Votto, as a similar rust belt franchise hero? Signed for $225 million, he’s the guy who just got bumped from the top five contracts in sports history.
  • The Tigers didn’t have to do this deal now -- or did they? Miggy was already signed through 2015 for $22 million this year and next, after all. But obviously, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch realizes he can’t take it with him as he’ll turn 85 this summer. And after a few near misses the past couple of years, you can imagine how he’d like to see his Tigers hoist one more flag to fly forever.

    However, this much money almost automatically makes you wonder if this is what the Tigers decided to do with their entire dividend from dealing Prince Fielder to the Rangers last winter. Because Max Scherzer just said he wasn’t going to sign with anybody until after the season, apparently vast sums of cash were burning a hole in Ilitch’s very deep pockets. It remains to be seen if this buys Ilitch, the Tigers and the city of Detroit another World Series trophy in his lifetime, but mazel tov on the old man’s willingness to try buying happiness.
  • What about Scherzer? Maybe the Tigers can also afford to re-sign him after this season, maybe not. Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter are also free agents after this season, and that’s a potential $26 million off the books. Austin Jackson, currently making $6 million, will head into a lucrative last year of arbitration next winter. In the same way that this much money for Miggy should teach us never to say never when it came to a deal dwarfing A-Rod’s, I wouldn’t rule out the Tigers’ willingness to afford anything within reason if it buys them a title within these 10 years.
  • Speaking of reason, have the Tigers completely taken leave of their senses? Aren’t they nuts for giving Miggy this much? Yes and no. Yes, Miguel Cabrera is clearly one of the most remarkable hitters in the history of the game, and as Dan Szymborski recently observed, he’s someone who could win the Triple Crown again. Who else are you and I going to live to say that about?

    So yes, Cabrera is someone worth the price of admission if you’re buying a seat. For now. But paying that much money on a guy’s 30-something decade, potentially signing him through his 41st birthday or so? When he’s built that way and should be playing only first base (or DH) from here on out? Yeah, it’s probably also more than a little nuts.

    Baseball Prospectus’ 10-year PECOTA forecast through 2023 suggests he’ll be an elite offensive hitter through 2020, when he’ll be 37. Then he’ll slide somewhere down around normal human being production for a first baseman, if you define normal as “talented enough to play in the major leagues,” something only a few thousand people on the planet can do. That’s a huge overpay on the back end of a deal, on top of what might be seen as an overpay right now.

Finally, this deal might be the first thing that Mike Trout has to thank Cabrera for, because even if Miggy’s reliable hardware rival has to wait until after the 2017 season to get market rate or superhero market rate, you can only imagine what Trout will command.

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

First base regained some luster last season as Chris Davis and Paul Goldschmidt had monster years that put them in the MVP discussions in their leagues and Freddie Freeman had a breakout year for the Braves. The position gets even stronger this year as Miguel Cabrera moves back over from third base, Joe Mauer moves from catcher to first on a full-time basis and Jose Abreu looks to make a big impact for the White Sox. Who are the top 10 first basemen? Eric Karabell and myself discuss the BBTN 100 rankings.