SweetSpot: Miguel Cabrera

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.
Miguel Cabrera has won three straight American League batting titles, hitting .344, .330 and .348. He's the first right-handed batter to win three batting titles since Bill Madlock won his fourth in 1983 and the first to capture three in a row since Rogers Hornsby won six in a row from 1920 to 1925.

Cabrera was hitting .359 through Aug. 26, after going 1-for-4 with his third home run in four games. A series of injuries affected his play the rest of the way and over his final 25 games he hit .284 with just one home run.

He says he's healthy after offseason surgery to repair core muscles damaged by a groin tear and added new exercises. His two home runs on Monday appear to indicate he's ready to go.

Cabrera turns 31 in April and there's no reason to expect any decline to start happening. The move to first base relieves him of some of the added defensive responsibility he's had the past two seasons. ZiPS projects a .317 average, Steamer .325. Both seems a little low considering what he's hit the past three seasons. Let's set the over under/under at .330.

By the way, I found this interesting: The team Cabrera hit worst against in 2013? The lowly Twins. He hit just .239 with two home runs in 19 games against them (only three of those games came in September).

Key position switches for 2014

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
A year ago, the St. Louis Cardinals tried the unorthodox move of switching third baseman Matt Carpenter to second base, a position he had played just 18 innings previously in the majors and never in the minors. Players rarely move up the defensive spectrum, but the risk paid off for the Cardinals as Carpenter played a solid second base -- he rated as league average via defensive runs saved (DSR) -- and had a big year at the plate, hitting .318 and leading the National League in runs, hits and doubles.

Carpenter will move back to third base in 2014, clearing room for rookie second baseman Kolten Wong. That will allow the Cardinals to upgrade defensively at two spots: Carpenter over David Freese at third base and Wong, considered a plus defender, over Carpenter.

With teams opening up camps later this week, here are some other key position changes to watch in spring training:

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJoe Mauer played eight games at first base last season.
Joe Mauer, Twins: Catcher to first base
Mauer has started 54 games at first base in his career, but it appears his catching days are over as he takes over for the departed Justin Morneau. It's the right move by the Twins. It appears that rookie catcher Josmil Pinto will be a solid major league regular, and the move will help keep Mauer healthy and his bat in the lineup more often. Plus, he hasn't really been a regular catcher in recent seasons anyway: The past two seasons, he started 73 and 72 games behind the plate. Mauer may not provide the prototypical power you'd like from a first baseman, but his .400 on-base percentage plays anywhere. He's a good enough athlete to be decent with the glove (he's plus-1 DRS at first base in his limited time there).

Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies: Left field to center field
Like the Carpenter move, this one involves a player shifting to a more demanding position. Gonzalez hasn't played any center field the past two seasons, but did play there earlier in his career (187 games started). This one is interesting because Gonzalez's defensive metrics in left field have been all over the place: plus-8 in 2011, minus-13 in 2012, plus-10 in 2013. Gonzalez, who missed time with a finger injury in 2013, underwent emergency appendectomy surgery in January but is expected to be fully ready for spring training. The Rockies did acquire Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes in the offseason, two guys who can play center if Gonzalez is deemed lacking in range.

Ryan Braun, Brewers: Left field to right field
All 817 of Braun's games in the outfield have come in left, but he'll move to right as the weaker-armed Khris Davis takes over in left. DRS has rated Braun as a plus fielder over the years in left -- plus-28 runs -- but his arm has rated slightly below average at minus-10 runs. Still, he should be to handle right field, although opposing baserunners will surely test his arm early on.

Carlos Santana, Indians: Catcher to third base
By far the most intriguing position change, this one isn't written in stone, but Santana has played some third base this winter. With Yan Gomes emerging as a plus defensive catcher, the Indians want to keep Santana's bat in the lineup and Lonnie Chisenhall may be out of chances at third base. Santana was originally an infielder in the low minors before switching to catcher, so moving to third base won't be completely foreign to him. Still, the catcher-to-third move is a rare one midcareer, most notably done by Joe Torre, Todd Zeile and Brandon Inge (who had been a shortstop in college). Most likely, Santana settles in as a super-utility guy, filling in at third and first if he's not the full-time DH.

Alex Guerrero, Dodgers: Shortstop to second base
This is the most common position change as shortstops without quite enough arm are shifted to second. In Guerrero's case, he played shortstop in Cuba and will move because Hanley Ramirez is entrenched at short. The Dodgers sent Guerrero to the Dominican Winter League, but early reports on his defense were not good, with stiff hands being the big issue. He played only a few games there, however, so spring training will be a crash course at second base. The Dodgers are banking heavily on Guerrero since the backup appears to be Dee Gordon, who has struggled at the plate the past two years.

Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers: Center field to left field
Choo had been a right fielder with the Indians and then played center for the Reds. He had a huge year offensively but showed a lack of range in center. The Rangers will wisely move him back to a corner slot, with Leonys Martin in center. Even then, Choo may prove to be a below-average defender as his metrics in right field in 2012 were not good (minus-12 DRS).

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: Third base to first base
The Tigers will have new infielders at all four positions, certainly an interesting twist for a likely playoff team. But they have arguably upgraded defensively at all four spots: Cabrera over Prince Fielder at first, Nick Castellanos over Cabrera at third, Ian Kinsler over Omar Infante at second, and Jose Iglesias over Jhonny Peralta at shortstop. Cabrera isn't a great first baseman, no matter what people try to tell you; he has good hands, but he still moves about as well as a redwood tree.

Rafael Furcal, Marlins: Shortstop to second base
After missing all of 2013, Furcal is hoping to hang on with the Marlins. He hit .264 AVG/.325 OBP/.346 SLG with the Cardinals in 2012, which would be only a minor improvement over the .235/.292/.349 mark the Marlins got from their second basemen in 2013.
Miguel Cabrera signed for a Venezuelan-record $1.9 million ... Making his pro debut at 17, Cabrera stood out as the best position prospect on stacked Rookie-level Gulf Coast League club. For his age, Cabrera has an advanced approach at the plate. He has a great eye and a compact swing to go with plus power. He could contend for batting crowns and home run titles. In the field he has a solid, accurate arm and a quick release. His hands are soft and more than sufficient to play shortstop. Cabrera's speed is below-average, he has a stocky build and his legs tend to be a bit heavy. Those attributes, plus his long frame, have prompted speculation about a move to third base. ... If all goes well he should challenge for a big league job by 2003.
-- Baseball America 2001 Prospect Handbook

Well, you can't deliver a much better scouting projection than that, especially considering Cabrera had hit .260 with two home runs in 57 games for the rookie league Marlins. The report also was accurate about Cabrera reaching the majors in 2003. That was the year Cabrera's power finally developed. He'd hit seven home runs in the Midwest League in 2001, nine in the Florida State League in 2002. He tore up Double-A at the start of 2003 and was soon promoted to the majors. By the World Series, Marlins manager Jack McKeon was batting his 20-year-old rookie cleanup. In his first full season in 2004 Cabrera hit .294 with 33 home runs and 112 RBIs.

He hasn't stopped hitting, of course, and has churned out 10 straight 100-RBI seasons, three straight batting titles (and a career average of .321), nine seasons of 30-plus homers, a Triple Crown and back-to-back MVP awards. Cabrera is at the pinnacle of his powers and debuts at No. 45 in the ESPN Hall of 100, just behind Sandy Koufax and one spot in front of Warren Spahn. It's a pretty lofty ranking for a player who doesn't turn 31 until April.

Is it too high? I think it's probably a little premature to rank Cabrera in the top 50. There is danger in ranking a player mid-career; we can't predict the second half after all. While it's easy to project three or four more monster seasons for him plus a decline phase that will lead to some huge final totals, we don't know if that's what will happen.

Consider Ken Griffey Jr. Through his age-30 season, Griffey had just completed his first season with Reds. He'd hit 40 home runs for the fifth straight season (and seventh in eight, the exception being 1995 when he broke his wrist) and looked like a slam dunk to not only reach 700 home runs but surpass Hank Aaron's 755. Griffey had 438 home runs, 1,270 RBIs and a .296 career average, similar to Cabrera's totals of 365, 1,260 and .321. If we'd voted on a Hall of 100 back then, Griffey probably ranks in the top 30, headed to top-10 status.

We know what happened. He battled injuries. He never hit 40 home runs again and reached 30 just twice, finishing with 630. He hit .300 just one more time and .260 over his final 10 seasons. He added weight and his defense declined. Griffey ranks 35th on the Hall of 100 list and give or take a few spots that feels about right.

Now that's just a warning. Cabrera has been one of the most durable players in baseball history, with only two seasons where he has played fewer than 157 games -- 150 in 2010 and 148 last year. But were last year's injuries a sign of things to come? Cabrera played through a groin tear and had surgery after the playoffs, and it clearly hampered his production as he hit .278 with one home run in September. He's not getting younger. Still, considering his history, he's as good a bet as anyone to remain healthy through his 30s.

Two other reasons I think the No. 45 ranking is a little high for now. His career length is still a little short. Compare to, say, Chipper Jones, No. 50 on the Hall of 100. Chipper has 789 more games played and nearly 3,500 more plate appearances. To play with the big boys, you need dominance and longevity (Koufax being the exception).

The final consideration is perhaps even more important: Cabrera's defense. He's never been a plus defender -- he was below average in the outfield at the start of his career, below average at third base, adequate at best at first base and then well below average when moved back to third base the past two seasons.

Baseball Reference rates Cabrera as minus-79 runs defensively in his career. The only position player in the top 50 rated worse is Derek Jeter at a whopping minus-234, but at least Jeter played a key up-the-middle position. The next-lowest totals for players ranked higher are Pete Rose at minus-54, Joe Morgan at minus-49, Mickey Mantle at minus-42 and Ted Williams at minus-32. No other top-50 players are rated below average.

This shows up in Cabrera's career, which stands at 54.6 WAR right now via Baseball Reference. That puts him well below most of the players above him -- even Jeter is at 71.6 (Chipper is at 85.1).

You can point out that Williams is ranked fourth on the Hall of 100 despite his indifference on defense. Well, as great as Cabrera is with the bat, Williams was a different beast. His on-base percentage of .482 dwarfs Cabrera's .399. Williams led his league in OPS in 10 times, Cabrera twice (the past two).

But where will Cabrera end up? He has averaged 7.3 WAR the past three seasons. If he churns out 20 WAR over the next three years he's up to 75 and will just be turning 34. With normal aging maybe he adds on another 20 WAR or so, putting him somewhere in the range of 45 to 35 all time. With a little longer peak, maybe he vaults into the top 30. That's just a rough statistical evaluation. A couple of big postseasons -- maybe another World Series title -- would help cement his legacy. Another MVP or two will help as well.

And that's the best part: Cabrera still has a lot of baseball left to play.

AL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we’d take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our American League look.

AL East

Blue Jays: The transition from J.P. Arencibia to Dioner Navarro behind the plate is likely a wash and there hasn’t been much of an overhaul to this team other than the departure of Rajai Davis (who did have a decent amount of defensive value).
Ryan Goins
The most interesting thing for the Jays will be how Ryan Goins fares as a regular second baseman. Goins racked up a hard-to-believe 12 Defensive Runs Saved (backed up on video review by 21 Good Fielding Plays and only a pair of Defensive Misplays & Errors) in a 32-game stint last season.

Orioles: The biggest issue on defense for the Orioles will be dealing with the loss of Manny Machado’s major-league leading Runs Saved, at least until he returns from injury. Baltimore did make one positive move that should upgrade its outfield defense, getting David Lough from the Royals for utilityman Danny Valencia.

Rays: The Rays made a long-term commitment to James Loney, which bodes well from a defensive perspective, and also made one to catcher Ryan Hanigan, who is considered one of the best base-stealing deterrents and pitch-framers in the sport. He’ll give them a solid alternative to Jose Molina.

Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts will likely step into everyday roles and fill the shoes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew. The Red Sox will also have a new catcher, though there isn’t much of a defensive difference between A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Both rate below-average statistically.

Yankees:There have been some pretty notable changes on the defensive side. Brian McCann’s pitch-framing rates well, but he’s not the baserunning deterrent that Chris Stewart was. Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts could split time at second base but neither is the Gold-Glove-caliber glove that Robinson Cano was. Johnson could also wind up full-time at third base, a position at which he’s barely played more than 100 innings, if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended.

The Yankees should be great in center and left with an Ellsbury/Brett Gardner combo. Carlos Beltran has less ground to cover in the Bronx than he did in Busch. That could benefit his achy knees and help his defensive rating.

One smart thing the Yankees did: Hire Brendan Ryan to be their “shortstop closer” for the next two seasons and as much as it will pain Derek Jeter to leave games, it will be for the good of the team to let Ryan finish close games.

AL Central

Indians: The Indians tried to make a right fielder out of center fielder Drew Stubbs in 2013 and it didn’t work. They got themselves an upgrade in free agent David Murphy who rates adequate enough (5 Runs Saved in about a season’s worth of innings in right field) that his D could be a one-win upgrade by itself.

Royals: The best team in baseball, as it comes to Defensive Runs Saved, tinkered a little bit, swapping out Lough for Norichika Aoki in the outfield, which probably rates as a push (they’re both good … fair warning to Royals fans, Aoki likes to play a deep right field), and making an offensive upgrade by getting Omar Infante to fill the hole that was second base.

The one thing the Royals got from their second basemen last season was good defense (18 Runs Saved from the collection of Elliot Johnson, Chris Getz and others). Infante isn’t at that level, but he rates above average more often than not (he did by UZR, but not Runs Saved in 2013) and his offensive work should make up for any drop-off.

Tigers: The Tigers' defensive overhaul has been the biggest of the offseason as the team’s opening-day infield will be entirely different from 2013. Ian Kinsler is a definite upgrade at second base and we’ll see if Jose Iglesias’ wow plays add up over a full season (he has seven Runs Saved in just under 800 career innings at short).

Going from Prince Fielder back to Miguel Cabrera should actually be a slight upgrade.

The big question will be third base where the scouting reports on Nick Castellanos’ defense don’t inspire confidence. But even so, conservatively, the Tigers should be about 25 Runs Saved better in 2014, which takes them from being a lousy defensive infield to an average one.

Twins: The Twins made the career-preserving move of shifting Joe Mauer from behind the plate to first base and signed Kurt Suzuki, who has a good statistical history at the position. Suzuki has rated better than Mauer over the course of his career in Runs Saved, though he’s not as good at throwing out basestealers.

I asked Doug Glanville to assess what Mauer’s challenge will be in making the move to first:

“He is a super athlete and I am sure he will be fine. It will be tough to not be as involved with the game in every single moment. No one can compete with catchers in the leadership it requires to play that position and the need for constant vigilance. He has to sharpen his focus to deal with new lulls in time. I am sure he will.”

White Sox: The White Sox had the third-worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in 2013 and they’ve been overhauled all over the place. Their worst position last season was center field (-19 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013) and they’ll have a new look there with Adam Eaton.

They’ll also be much different at first base with Jose Abreu, whose hitting has been compared to Ryan Howard's (but if his defense is, that’s not good) and third base with adequately-rated Matt Davidson, whom they got for Addison Reed. Will different equal better? They better hope so.

Al West

Angels: The aging of Albert Pujols will continue to be an issue both on offense and defense. Last season broke a run of eight straight seasons in which Pujols ranked in the top five among first basemen in Runs Saved.

Pujols will have a familiar teammate working at the opposite corner with the addition of third baseman David Freese, who had a dreadful season in 2013 per both Runs Saved and UZR, ranking third-worst in the former and second-worst in the latter. That’s something that will need to be dealt with.

Astros: The Astros traded away their second-best defender stats-wise from 2013 in Brandon Barnes to get Dexter Fowler from the Colorado Rockies. Fowler has less ground to cover in the gaps of Minute Maid Park, but has a deeper center field (and Tal’s Hill) to worry about. Fowler has posted a negative Runs Saved rating in four of his six seasons, but has fared well at handling balls hit to the deepest parts of the park.

Athletics: The Athletics made two moves that should definitely help their defense in 2014.
Craig Gentry
By adding Craig Gentry in a trade from the Rangers, they’ve obtained one of the game’s premier outfield defenders and one who could fit in well both in left field (to make Yoenis Cespedes a DH) and center (to give Coco Crisp a breather) very well.

The Athletics also added a valuable utility piece in Nick Punto, who could start at second base (ahead of Eric Sogard) or close games at shortstop (replacing Jed Lowrie, who rates as a poor defender). Either way, he’s a big upgrade over what they had.

Mariners:The Mariners now have a Gold Glove-caliber defender at second in Cano. He’ll need to cover more ground to his left than he did in New York, because the Mariners’ first-base options (Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart) do not rate well. Morrison is going to present an issue wherever they put him. He’s not quite at the level of Michael Morse, but his ratings historically have been poor.

Rangers: The difference between Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland at first base is a sizable one, potentially 15 runs over the course of a season, so if the Rangers do decide to hang on to Moreland, they'd be best off playing him at first base and having Fielder DH. The Rangers could use a good defender at first, since Jurickson Profar is basically going to learn on the job at second base. Texas will also have some outfield concerns with Shin-Soo Choo having limited experience in left field and the team no longer having the security blanket of Gentry (traded to Athletics).

Cabrera won't suffer without Fielder

November, 22, 2013
There have been many, many sabermetric studies on the idea of "lineup protection." Do a Google search and you can find them easily enough. The studies all come to the same general conclusion: It doesn't really exist. Players don't change their performance based on who is hitting behind them.

But fans still believe in it. Media members still believe in it. Even some people who work in baseball believe in it. When Prince Fielder was traded to the Rangers, I read and heard people talking about how Miguel Cabrera will now suffer as a result -- without the fear of facing Fielder next, pitchers won't have to throw strikes to Cabrera. It's a topic you'll never change opinions on.

After all, didn't Cabrera just win back-to-back MVP Awards? Of course lineup protection exists! Don't be silly.

Here are Cabrera's last four seasons. Can you tell which two were the ones with Fielder hitting behind him and the two that weren't?

.344/.448/.586, 108 BB
.348/.442/.636, 90 BB
.328/.420/.622, 89 BB
.330/.393/.606, 66 BB

The two Fielder seasons are the second one (2013) and the fourth one (2012). In terms of wOBA, you'd rank them 2013, 2011, 2010, 2012. Cabrera's worst season was actually the best of Fielder's two seasons, and in theory the season when Cabrera received the most "protection."

OK, but let's dig into the numbers a little deeper. One way possible way to measure whether pitchers are pitching around Cabrera or challenging him more often is to look at the percentage of fastballs thrown him. If pitchers don't want to walk him -- and thus face Fielder with a runner or runners on base -- than Cabrera should see more fastballs to hit since the fastball is the easiest pitch command.

Here are the percentages of fastballs thrown to Cabrera the past four seasons:

2010: 52.3 percent
2011: 53.8 percent
2012: 54.0 percent
2013: 54.5 percent

OK, he has seen a few more fastballs. What does that mean in terms of total pitches? Cabrera has averaged about 2500 total pitches per season over the past four years; the difference between 52.3 percent and 54.5 percent is 55 pitches -- or about one extra fastball every three games.

What about the percentage of total pitches in the strike zone?

2010: 42.2 percent
2011: 41.5 percent
2012: 44.7 percent
2013: 44.8 percent

Again, a minor uptick -- an 82-pitch difference between 41.5 percent and 44.8 percent, or about one extra pitch in the strike zone every other game. That doesn't seem significant, especially once you factor in intentional walks (more on that in a second).

Now, there are two numbers which point in favor of Fielder helping Cabrera. He hit 68 home runs in 2010-11 but 88 in 2012-2013. That's 20 more home runs that maybe resulted from some juicier pitches Cabrera saw, right? Maybe. At the same, however, his doubles have gone down, from 93 in 2010-2011 to 66 in 2012-2013, leaving his isolated power relatively unchanged, other than a dip in 2011 when he hit just 30 home runs: .294, .241, .277, .288.

Yes, he had the injury at the end of 2013 that dragged down his final numbers; however, keep in mind that Fielder was much worse in 2013 than in 2012, and thus pitchers didn't have to "fear" him as much as in 2012. And it's true that Cabrera's walk rate increased in 2013 from the season before, perhaps because he was pitched around more (although note that the percentage of fastballs and pitches in the strike zone were basically identical both seasons).

Of interest as well is where those home runs were hit. The biggest increase the past two years came on home runs classified as being hit to "center" -- 22 versus eight over 2010-2011. Much of that is simply because Cabrera has done more damage on cripple pitches -- he hit .542 on pitches located in the middle of the strike zone the past two season versus .448 in 2010-2011, with the additional home run power.

The other category to note is intentional walks. Cabrera's intentional walks since 2010: 32, 22, 17, 19. So the intentional walks dropped a bit, particularly from 2010, when Brennan Boesch most often hit behind Cabrera.

This is the one argument you can make where protection comes into play. In 2010-2011, Cabrera batted 121 times with a runner on second and was intentionally walked 26 times (21 percent); in 2012-2013, he batted 145 times with a runner on second and was intentionally walked 18 times (12 percent). With runners on second and third, the ratios were 10 out of 29 and 5 out of 24.

So, yes, there were arguably about 10 plate appearances a season where Cabrera got to hit thanks to Fielder's protection. But also note that with Victor Martinez hitting behind him in 2011, the intentional walks were down from when Boesch hit behind him.

As for those who say Cabrera will just get a ton of free passes in 2014, here are his unintentional walk rates the past four seasons (removing all intentional walks from both total plate appearances and total walks):

2010: 9.3 percent
2011: 10.0 percent
2012: 7.2 percent
2013: 11.2 percent

He walked more often this year than the year Brennan Boesch was hitting behind him.

When you add it all up, there just isn't evidence that Prince Fielder made Miguel Cabrera a better hitter. Cabrera will be great again in 2014 because he's a great hitter.

In his newsletter yesterday -- sent out before the big trade -- Joe Sheehan wrote a column titled, "Money Don't Matter," making an argument that there's so much money flowing into the game now, and a relatively low percentage going back to the players (4 percent less of total revenue than NFL players receive), that our traditional methods of evaluating contracts are becoming outdated. Joe wrote:
It is so much money that it has a distorting effect on the market for talent, not just breaking our models, but arguably invalidating the first principle: that the opportunity cost of spent money matters. The combination of so much extra cash combined with so little talent becoming freely available -- due to teams locking up the best players in baseball long-term through their peaks -- means that there isn't much opportunity cost to spending. The money is there, and if it isn't spent on free agents it's not going to be spent in the draft or in the Dominican or on a superstar because the next superstar might not hit the market for another two years.

The money doesn't matter. It's not about whether the marginal cost of a win on the free-agent market is five million bucks or $7 million or $13 million; it's about that framework no longer being the way to evaluate signings. The extra dollars a team might spend to bring a player into the fold -- and turn a contract from a sabermetric win to a sabermetric loss -- are meaningless in the big picture because there's just no other good application of those dollars. The opportunity cost of not signing the player isn't "having the money to sign someone else", it's "having cash and no good way to use it."

This is essentially the argument for the Rangers trading for Fielder. They have money, they needed power and especially left-handed power, and Fielder was available, warts and all. The Rangers were willing to absorb his contract simply because they have the budget to do so.

On the other hand, the excellent Marc W. wrote this at the U.S.S. Mariner blog (scroll down to the bottom of the piece, past the stuff about the Mariners' 40-man roster moves):
Still, I wonder if we'll come to see the Fielder deal as some sort of peak in the value of pure power hitters on the open market. The Pujols deal may end up looking worse in time, and the Ryan Howard contract is still so bad it's basically in a separate category, but throw in Mark Teixeira and you're looking at a lot of dead money for 1Bs. As Dave's mentioned, this is part of a trend where contracts have lengthened, showing that teams are holding the line on single-year salary and stretching their commitment over time instead. But while Fielder's deal isn't going to seriously impact Robinson Cano’s negotiations, I wonder if we may not see many deals like, say, Joey Votto's extension for a while. We won't really be able to see for a while, not until the very reasonable extensions for young players like Arizona's Paul Goldshmidt run out, but the fact that the Reds will be paying Votto $25m in 2023 looks odd, and Votto's a much better hitter than Fielder. Basically, will this lead to a re-valuation of good-not-historically-great ballplayers?

This is essentially the sabermetric argument against the Rangers trading for Fielder -- that his decline in 2013 could be a harbinger of things to come, making him a very expensive player for his relative value. You can also argue that money is still a factor; for the Tigers, moving Fielder creates needed space to sign Max Scherzer to a big extension.

While that's likely true, you can also argue that for the Tigers this was strictly a baseball trade. They needed a second baseman and Kinsler fills that hole; they needed to improve the defense, and getting rid of Fielder and moving Miguel Cabrera to first base and installing highly rated rookie Nick Castellanos at third will do that. Even without Fielder's bat the Tigers may be a better team in 2014.

Some other reaction from across the interwebs, starting with Keith Law of ESPN Insider:
Compared to Fielder, Kinsler is showing greater signs of decline, with two disappointing offensive years as his legs have lost strength and his power has evaporated. After two 30-homer seasons in three years (2009, 2011), he's hit 32 total in the past two seasons in a good ballpark for power bats. His defense at second base improved with effort in his late 20s but has started to regress with his legs, and it's fair to worry that in a year or two his range will make him a liability at the position. He does fill a critical hole for the Tigers at second base in the short term, probably three wins above any internal options they had for the position, but their biggest gain in the deal is financial -- they save $76 million, which they can put toward retaining Max Scherzer or filling other needs. From a baseball perspective, however, I'd rather roll the dice on Fielder than Kinsler -- and with multiple sources indicating to me that the Rangers had shopped Kinsler but found no takers, it seems they had little choice.
Dave Cameron, FanGraphs:
If you're a Tigers fan, this is a deal to celebrate. Don't worry about narratives like "big bats" and "Cabrera needs protection," or listen to the criticisms of Kinsler's good-at-everything-great-at-nothing skillset. The Tigers just made a fantastic trade that sets them up to be even better in 2014 than they were the last two years.

Dave Dombrowski has made a lot of good trades; this might end up being one of his best.

Sam Miller, Baseball Prospectus, on Fielder's 2013:
Most of the lost value came in two areas: his walks dropped and he quit hitting as many of his fly balls over the fence. His plate discipline didn't show much change -- he didn't swing more overall, he didn't get thrown more strikes, he didn't chase more; the only real change was a couple-percentage-point drop in contact rate—so we can chalk that up almost entirely to a drop in intentional walks, perhaps a combination of batting behind Miguel Cabrera (lineup protection sometimes works both ways) and batting in front of a switch-hitter for most of the season.

So then the home runs. Had his fly balls left the yard at exactly the rate that they typically do, he would have hit 10 more home runs. Say five of those lost homers turned into doubles and five into outs. Had he hit those 10 homers, and had he drawn 13 more intentional walks to match his 2012 total, his line goes up to .287/.381/.504, hardly a decline at all. Why give him credit for those home runs? You probably shouldn't! But 10 fly balls pulling up just short is hardly enough to declare a guy's career over. And his average fly ball, at 294 feet, went just two feet shorter than his average fly ball in 2012, and four feet shorter than in 2011.

John Niyo, Detroit News, addressed Fielder's second straight disappointing postseason:
Fielder’s brief tenure as the Tigers’ cleanup hitter and the highest-paid player in franchise history finished amid a cascade of boos in Comerica Park and that infamous third-base flop at Fenway Park. But it also ended with a series of puzzling postgame interview sessions that revealed Fielder as either tone deaf or just plain dumb. ...

And yet his nonchalant explanation after Game 3 against the Red Sox last month was, "If they throw a mistake, I hit it. If not, I won’t." That comment didn't sit well with other leaders in the Tigers clubhouse, and though Fielder's work ethic was never questioned -- "He played hard, he played every day," (GM Dave) Dombrowski said -- it's not hard to understand why.

Prince Fielder wasn't brought here simply to hit mistakes.
Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPNDallas:
Sure, there's risk involved. Fielder is a big man, and there's a chance he'll have a dramatic decline as he nears the end of his deal.

No guarantees exist in pro sports. Every deal of consequence contains risk. The best GMs aren't paralyzed by fear.

They study the deal from every angle, then make a pragmatic baseball decision.

The reality is [Jon Daniels] is on a pretty good streak when it comes to making franchise-altering moves.

More importantly, the move allows Jurickson Profar to play second base instead of being miscast as a utility infielder. Now, the Rangers have their middle infield of Profar and shortstop Elvis Andrus locked up for at least five seasons.
Jeff Passan, Yahoo:
No, this was about what Kinsler isn't: a $168 million cost over the next seven years. Even after sending cash to Texas, Detroit freed up $76 million to lock up Max Scherzer long-term or re-up Miguel Cabrera before his contract runs out after the 2015 season. Coming off the AL Cy Young, Scherzer likely never will find his market value as high as it is now. That didn't stop Detroit from giving Justin Verlander a $180 million contract over seven seasons after back-to-back years in which he finished first and second in Cy Young voting, and unless the Tigers divert their pot of gold to a left fielder -- (Shin-Soo) Choo makes all the sense in the world, actually -- it could be Scherzer's.

Just as likely is Detroit putting it toward the Let Miggy Retire a Tiger Fund. This is worth remembering: Cabrera will be only 32 after the 2015 season. Jayson Werth received $126 million at age 31. A $200 million contract for Cabrera is almost a certainty, even if he does go to first base, which is the logical next step after the Fielder deal.
Dustin Parkes, The Score:
I think what’s most interesting about this deal, though, is what we thought when these players signed their contracts with their previous teams. Fielder's nine-year, $214-million contract from a Tigers team with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Alex Avila already vying for future plate appearances from the 1B/DH spot seemed ridiculous. Kinsler signing his five-year, $75-million extension after a seven-win season in 2011 was a stroke of genius for the Rangers.

Since that time, Detroit has won two straight divisions, and made a World Series appearance. Fielder has put up seven wins, and arguably given room for Miguel Cabrera to emerge as not just an elite hitter, but perhaps the greatest many of our generation will have seen. Kinsler could never equal his 2011 performance. Since signing the deal, he’s become only a slightly above average player with most of his value coming from his defensive play.

It's not all roses for Fielder, nor is it Death Valley for Kinsler. The Rangers new first baseman had one of the worst years of his career last season, causing many to believe that the long-believed-to-be-impending decline due to his weight had finally begun. Meanwhile, Kinsler's contributions over the last two seasons have been limited as he battled injuries. With good health, Detroit's new second baseman could easily regain his status as one of the best up the middle players in the league.
Jon Paul Morosi, Fox Sports:
I fully expect Fielder will find greater contentment and gaudier power numbers in Texas. It won't surprise me at all if he swats 40 or 45 home runs next year, thanks to the welcome scenery change and hitter-friendly environment at Rangers Ballpark. Meanwhile, Miguel Cabrera is likely to see fewer pitches to hit now that Fielder isn't protecting him any longer. (Remember: Fielder has batted behind an MVP in each of the last three seasons -- Ryan Braun with the Brewers in 2011, Cabrera for the last two. That is not an accident.)

"It's going to be a bat we miss at times," Dombrowski admitted.

Last word to Miguel Cabrera ... considering all the pictures of Fielder and himself that he posted on Twitter, I think he's going to miss the big guy:

SweetSpot TV: MVP preview

November, 14, 2013

Eric and myself are to break down all six of the MVP finalists. What are their cases and who should win?

The lament of Cabrera and Fielder

November, 4, 2013
When the Detroit Tigers look back on the opportunities they bungled in the 2013 ALCS, their biggest regrets on the offensive side are going to be the strikeouts by Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder with one out and runners on first and on third, trailing by a run in the eighth inning of Game 3.

Tigers fans, you are not alone in your laments. There is company in your misery when it comes to missed opportunities of that nature.

We pondered and came up with a few sets of fans who can sympathize.

1986 Angels fans: The lament of DeCinces and Grich
As bad a memory as the Dave Henderson home run is for Angels fans, it could have all been an afterthought had the Angels finished off the series in the bottom of the ninth.

After Henderson's home run gave the Red Sox the lead, the Angels tied the game in that frame and loaded the bases with one out, needing only a well-hit fly ball to end the series in five games.

But an overeager Doug DeCinces swung at Steve Crawford's first pitch and hit a fly ball to shallow right, not far enough out to challenge the best arm in the American League in Dwight Evans.

Grich would then hit a soft liner back to the pitcher and the game would go extra innings, with the Red Sox winning on a Henderson sacrifice fly. They would romp in the next two games to win the series in seven.

1988 Mets fans: The lament of Strawberry and McReynolds
Game 4 of the 1988 NLCS is best remembered for the game-tying homer hit by Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia against Dwight Gooden in the ninth inning.

But the game did not end there. The Dodgers scored in the 12th on Kirk Gibson's homer, but the Mets had a great threat in the bottom of the frame, loading the bases with one out for their two best run producers.

Tommy Lasorda brought Jesse Orosco in from the bullpen and he coaxed a popout by Darryl Strawberry and then Orel Hershiser made a cameo appearance (after starting the previous game) to get Kevin McReynolds on a blooper to center on which John Shelby made the game-ending catch, evening the series, 2-2.

The Dodgers would go on to win the series in seven games.

1991 Braves fans: The lament of Smith, Gant and Bream
The instant classic that was Game 7 of the 1991 World Series presented both teams with opportunities to break a scoreless tie.

The Braves could have and should have, but didn't score in an eighth inning with multiple regrets. The first was when Lonnie Smith, who was on first base, got deked out by the Twins infield and was forced to hold at third on Terry Pendleton's double into the left-center gap.

Second and third and nobody out still presented the most golden of opportunities, but Jack Morris got the outs for which he became a legend (and a debatable Hall of Fame candidate), getting Ron Gant to ground to first, and after an intentional walk, Sid Bream to hit into a 3-2-3 inning-ending double play.

The Twins would win in 10 innings on Gene Larkin's single, winning a memorable series in seven games.

1996 Braves fans: The lament of Lopez and Polonia
Game 3 of the 2013 ALCS was very similar to Game 5 of the 1996 World Series between the Yankees and Braves, with Justin Verlander playing the role of tough-luck loser John Smoltz.

Similar to how the Tigers threatened in the eighth inning, the Braves had their chance down 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth after Chipper Jones doubled and Fred McGriff advanced him with a groundout.

Catcher Javy Lopez could not get the tying run home though, grounding to third against John Wetteland.

After an intentional walk to Ryan Klesko, pinch-hitter Luis Polonia hit a fly ball into the right-center field gap that looked like it would be a game-winning double.

But Paul O'Neill raced back, made a running catch and punched the outfield fence in delight as the Yankees headed home with a win, and a 3-2 series lead.

1999 Astros fans: The lament of Everett, Eusebio and Gutierrez
This one's not so much on the hitters, though Carl Everett, Tony Eusebio and Ricky Gutierrez did strand the bases loaded after no one was out in the 10th inning of a tie game of Game 3 of a 1-1 NLDS between the Astros and Braves.

This one is more remembered for Walt Weiss' amazing defensive play on Eusebio's grounder (which sandwiched Everett's forceout and Gutierrez's strikeout).

Weiss' diving stop and throw home for the out thwarted the Astros' hopes of a walk-off win and extended the game. The Braves would win in the 12th and send the Astros home after another year of postseason frustration.

2003 Yankees fans: The lament of Boone and Flaherty
Aaron Boone had the greatest moment of his career with his walk-off homer in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox.

But his second opportunity at baseball glory didn't go as well.

The Yankees led the Marlins 2 games to 1 in the 2003 World Series. In the 11th inning of Game 4, with the score tied 3-3 and the bases loaded with one out, Boone came up against Braden Looper, but couldn't get the run in that would have put the Yankees ahead, striking out after a long at-bat. John Flaherty popped up and the game continued.

The Marlins would win in the 12th on Alex Gonzalez's series-knotting homer and would not lose again, beating the Yankees in six games for their second championship.

2013 Athletics fans: The lament of Reddick, Vogt and Callaspo
The Tigers did what was done to them unto others, in this case the Athletics in Game 4 of this year's ALDS.

Max Scherzer's great escape in the eighth inning protecting a one-run lead with the bases loaded and nobody out by striking out Josh Reddick and Stephen Vogt, and getting Alberto Callaspo to fly to center, is one fond memory for Tigers fans to take into this offseason.

It could have been fonder though, had Cabrera or Fielder come through just that once.
You like offense? Home runs make you happy and strikeouts make you sad? Then this is not the postseason for you.

But if you like dominant pitching and fastballs in the upper 90s and splitters that dive like Italian soccer players and changeups that dance around like whiffle balls, then this is the postseason for you. If you like tense, low-scoring baseball where one pitch, one swing of the bat, one miscue in the field can turn a game or an inning, then there’s been no shortage of October drama to appreciate.

The Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers were at it again in Game 3, Justin Verlander dueling John Lackey, Verlander striking out six in a row at one point, Lackey matching him pitch for pitch. The scoreless battle ended in the top of the seventh when Mike Napoli hammered a 3-2, 96 mph fastball into the left-center bullpen, Verlander’s one mistake in a textbook display of power pitching.

The game’s other decisive at-bats would come in the bottom of the eighth, after Craig Breslow had walked the struggling Austin Jackson and the struggling Torii Hunter had singled with one out off Junichi Tazawa to send Jackson storming into third. Bringing up Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

Red Sox manager John Farrell could have turned to lockdown closer Koji Uehara, he of the unhittable splitter. But there seems to be a building trend in these playoffs that closers can go four outs but for some inexplicable reason can’t go five outs.

Tazawa remained in the game and there may have been a good reason Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves kept him in: He throws harder than Uehara. And Cabrera, with his injury issues, has largely struggled with fastballs in September and the postseason.

The pitch sequence:

--94 mph fastball, swing and miss
--95 mph fastball off the plate, swing and miss
--94 mph fastball way outside
--94 mph fastball off the plate, swing and miss

Three swings, three swing-and-misses from Cabrera. During the regular season he swung and missed on 17 percent of fastballs thrown him, but in this game he swung and missed on eight fastballs. It was a poor at-bat by Cabrera; unable to catch up to the heat is one thing, but expanding the strike zone is something he rarely does.

That left it up to Fielder, 1-for-3 in this game and RBI-less in 14 postseason games going back to Game 1 of last year’s ALCS. He swung through a hittable 89 mph fastball, swung through another four-seamer down at the knees and then couldn’t lay off the 0-2 splitter, a weapon that’s as good as any pitch in baseball right now. For Prince, that makes it 15 postseason games without an RBI, a stretch that includes just one extra-base hit for Fielder. This is Fielder’s fourth postseason and he’s hitting .203 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 36 games. He’s an RBI machine … until October rolls around.

One more note on how one pitch can swing a game. Victor Martinez -- isn’t it time to move him up in the order? -- led off the bottom of the ninth with a single, bringing in a pinch runner and Jhonny Peralta to the plate. The 1-1 pitch -- Billy Beane has called that the most important pitch, the one that swings an at-bat more than any other -- was a fastball just below the knees. Except Ron Kulpa called it a strike. The next pitch was a splitter and a 6-4-3 double play.

You hate to panic in the playoffs, but you wonder if Leyland should change his lineup around a bit. Martinez and Peralta have been the Tigers' best hitters but are batting fifth and sixth. Jackson struck out twice more and has fanned 18 times in 33 at-bats in the postseason. His postseason struggles aren't a new story, and you wonder if he's just a guy who can't hit good pitching. (Per Baseball-Reference.com, he hit .118 against "power pitchers" this season and .220 last season. You're probably seeing fewer finesse guys in October.) Fielder's walk rate has deteriorated in his postseason career compared with the regular season. It could be a small sample size thing -- 152 plate appearances -- but maybe he, too, doesn't hit good pitching (his slugging percentages against fastballs has gone way down over the past two seasons).

In the end, the Tigers wasted another great performance from Verlander. He matched Cliff Lee as the only pitcher in postseason history with three straight games of 10-plus strikeouts and one run or fewer. But his loss continues an amazing stretch the past few days. Verlander, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright have started games in their respective League Championship Series and combined to allow eight runs in those six starts.

And their teams didn’t win any of those games.

* * * *

This was the 11th 1-0 postseason game won with a solo home run. The other 10:
  • 2001 ALDS, Game 3: Yankees 1, A’s 0 (Mike Mussina over Barry Zito, Jorge Posada HR, aka the Jeter Flip Game)
  • 1997 ALCS, Game 6: Indians 1, Orioles 0 (Mussina vs. Charles Nagy, Tony Fernandez HR in 11th off Armando Benitez)
  • 1995 WS, Game 6: Braves 1, Indians 0 (Tom Glavine vs. Dennis Martinez, David Justice HR off Jim Poole)
  • 1986 NLCS Game 1: Astros 1, Mets 0 (Mike Scott over Dwight Gooden, Glenn Davis HR)
  • 1983 NLCS Game 1: Phillies 1, Dodgers 0 (Steve Carlton over Jerry Reuss, Mike Schmidt first-inning HR)
  • 1974 ALCS Game 3: A’s 1, Orioles 0 (Vida Blue over Jim Palmer, Sal Bando HR, six hits total)
  • 1966 WS Game 4: Orioles 1, Dodgers 0 (Dave McNally over Don Drysdale, Frank Robinson HR)
  • 1966 WS Game 3: Orioles 1, Dodgers 0 (Wally Bunker over Claude Osteen, Paul Blair HR)
  • 1949 WS Game 1: Yankees 1, Dodgers 0 (Allie Reynolds over Don Newcombe, Tommy Henrich HR leading off bottom of ninth)
  • 1923 WS Game 3: Giants 1, Yankees 0 (Art Nehf over Sam Jones, Casey Stengel HR)
Another Game 5, so let’s try another running diary.

First, a couple quick notes on the starting pitchers. Joe Sheehan made a great point about Sonny Gray in his newsletter: Other than his Game 2 start against the Tigers, Gray has faced a pretty easy slate of opponents in his short career, including the Astros and Mariners twice, plus two starts against the Joe Mauer-less Twins in September. Of 329 pitchers to throw at least 50 innings, Gray was 255th in quality of opposing batters faced (per Baseball Prospectus).

That said, aside from those dominant eight shutout innings in Game 2, I think there are two other reasons Bob Melvin gave him the start over Bartolo Colon: (1) Gray has a 1.66 ERA at home and (2) Gray’s fastball has more juice than Colon’s. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have struggled against good fastballs, Cabrera of late due to his injuries and Fielder all season (he slugged just .439 against fastballs in the regular season). They’ve fed Cabrera a steady diet of fastballs and neither he nor Fielder have an extra-base or a walk in the series.

As for Justin Verlander, he’s allowed one earned run in three postseason starts against Oakland the past two years, striking out 11 each game. Of course, what he did last season isn’t all that relevant to this season, unless he’s in the heads of the Oakland hitters, and as a reminder the A’s did score five runs off Verlander in late August.

First inning
One major lineup change for the Tigers: Jhonny Peralta is back at his old shortstop position over Jose Iglesias with Don Kelly playing left field. With Verlander on the mound, it’s probably worth taking the defensive hit at shortstop, as Verlander’s a good bet to rack up strikeouts and he’s also more of a fly ball pitcher. Kelly gives Jim Leyland a much better glove in left and another left-handed bat to do battle against Gray’s curveball.

Both pitchers cruise through the first, one strikeout for Gray, two for Verlander.

Second inning
The Tigers run themselves into a double play when they try a strange hit-and-run with Fielder (who had walked) on first and Peralta at bat. Halfway to second base, Fielder turns around and tries to hop on the BART back to first base.

Verlander has another 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts, impressively blowing two fast ones past Brandon Moss.

Third inning
Is there any manager more lovably crusty than Leyland? In one of those between-innings interview he says Gray isn’t as sharp as Game 2, so they better get to him early. But he says it in that flat monotone, so you don’t know if he’s disgusted his team hasn’t scored or just perturbed he can’t go smoke a cigarette. The Tigers don’t have a hit through three innings, although Gray has thrown just 22 of 41 pitches for strikes.

Meanwhile, Verlander is nine up and nine down, firing a 96 mph 3-2 fastball right down the middle and right past Stephen Vogt for his fifth strikeout. These two pitchers have combined for 23 scoreless innings in the series and Verlander has 23 consecutive scoreless innings going back to the regular season.

Fourth inning
With one out, Torii Hunter grounds a 3-2, 94 mph four-seamer up the middle for the game’s first hit. There goes our dream of a double no-hitter! And then -- finally! -- Cabrera connects. A 93 mph fastball low and away for a ball and then a 94 mph fastball up and in that Cabrera powers over the left-field wall, just his second home run since late August. Not sure if it was Dennis Eckersley or Buck Martinez who said it on air, but with the way they’ve been getting Cabrera out all series by going away, away, away, that pitch was not the location the A's wanted. Tigers up 2-0.

With the way Verlander is pitching, that home run feels a lot like the two-run home run David Freese hit for the Cardinals on Wednesday night.

Also, Leyland was right. Unable to throw the curve for strikes, the Tigers are starting to sit on the fastball. Victor Martinez singles to left with two outs. Peralta singles. Very dangerous right now for the A’s as they can’t afford to give up anything else. Nobody is warming up.

Alex Avila walks to load the bases. Dan Otero finally gets up, but if Omar Infante singles here it’s 4-0 and the game just might be over. Gray is also at 27 pitches in the inning. Two balls to Infante, a foul ball, another foul on a high fastball out of the zone ... and a 6-3 grounder to escape the inning. A’s are still in it, but I’ll be surprised if Gray comes out for the fifth. He’s been a one-pitch pitcher tonight and you can’t live off fastballs alone. Well, unless you’re Walter Johnson.

Twelve up, 12 down for Verlander; just 51 pitches, 34 for strikes.

Fifth inning
Well, tells you what I know. Gray is back out there. I get that he’s only at 74 pitches, but he’s facing the 9-1-2 hitters, which means it will be the third time around for the top of the order. We’ll see. Gray survives a leadoff walk to Kelly and intentional walk to Cabrera by getting Fielder on a comebacker to end the inning.

Verlander averaged 12.7 swing-and-misses per game in the regular season. He’s at 17, with six strikeouts, and he’s still perfect after another easy inning. Pure domination. Don't think there's been a hard-hit ball off him.

Sixth inning
Not sure why Melvin waited for Gray to allow two more baserunners before taking him out. Otero almost escapes the jam, getting Infante to hit a hard grounder to third baseman Josh Donaldson, but Donaldson’s throw to turn the double play is in the dirt and Alberto Callaspo can’t turn it, allowing a run to score. Donaldson was an MVP candidate but hasn’t done anything in the series, hitting .158 with no extra-base hits and failing to turn a pretty easy double play there.

So the story now is pretty much just Verlander and his quest for perfection. And ... it ends after 16 batters. A 3-2 fastball to Josh Reddick is way outside. Vogt flies to deep right-center and Coco Crisp flies routinely to left. Maybe the A’s should try laying down a bunt in front of Cabrera or something. Or Fielder. Nine outs to go for the no-hitter. Right now, I’m thinking I'd bet on it.

Seventh inning
Did you know that from May 11 through Aug. 27 Verlander had a 4.49 ERA? OK, you probably did, since there a lot of "What’s wrong with Justin Verlander?" stories cropping up there. At one point, he said he found a flaw in his mechanics, although that was late July or early August and he didn't really turn it around until September.

Maybe it will be a minor blessing in disguise for the Tigers though, since Verlander threw 20 fewer innings this year than 2012 and 33 fewer than 2011, and he struggled at times in both postseasons (although in total pitches, he only threw 76 fewer this season than last season).

Donaldson whiffs swinging on 96 mph high-inside heat. Jed Lowrie flies out to left. Then Yoenis Cespedes ends the no-hit bid with a sharp single up the middle. No, Iglesias wouldn't have gotten to it, either. Verlander recovers by striking out Seth Smith on a curveball that Ted Williams in 1941 couldn’t have hit. Two amazing clutch performances we've seen these two nights, first from Adam Wainwright and now Verlander.

Eighth inning
Who would you say had more pressure tonight? I’m not saying either team felt it, but the A’s had that Game 5 history to overcome -- five straight Game 5 losses in the Division Series in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2012. On the other hand, the Tigers have the weight of expectation and star talent -- that they should win, that they can’t afford to miss another postseason opportunity with guys like Verlander, Cabrera and Max Scherzer at their peaks.

In the bottom of the eighth, Reddick singles with two outs, but then Verlander strikes out Vogt -- he threw him four straight curveballs. I think Vogt could face Verlander a hundred times and not get a hit. The cameras show Verlander getting handshakes and little man hugs from his teammates. He's going to be done after 111 pitches, two hits, one walk and 10 strikeouts. In four starts against the A's the past two postseasons, Verlander has allowed one earned run in 31 innings with 43 strikeouts. Fair to say the A's hope never to see him again in October.

Ninth inning
After Grant Balfour retires the Tigers in order, it's up to Joaquin Benoit to put the finishing touches on Verlander's masterpiece. The A's will have the top of their order up.

Lowrie singles with two outs, giving A's fans one last bit of life. A bloop and a blast ... or hit batter and a blast. Cespedes is hit by a 2-2 changeup, although the Tigers thought he might have swung. So it's up to Smith (why is he batting ahead of 30-homer guy Moss?). Hard to stay within yourself here and not swing for the fences. Benoit struck out Smith to end Game 4 -- after Smith fouled off several pitches -- also when he was the tying run.

Key to Benoit is timing that fastball and laying off the changeup. Ball, strike, fastball up. Hitter's count. Fastball ... and Smith gets under it, Hunter makes the catch in right and Verlander finally breathes in the Detroit dugout.

Detroit is moving on to the American League Championship Series again, and the A's suffer the indignity of a sixth straight Game 5 loss in the ALCS.
We interrupt your wild-card races to give you Henderson Alvarez and one of the strangest celebrations you'll ever see.

The Miami Marlins right-hander struck out Matt Tuiasosopo to end the top of the ninth -- completing nine no-hit innings against the Detroit Tigers. But it wasn't -- yet -- a no-hitter. The Marlins hadn't scored a run and a no-hitter isn't official unless it comes in a complete game.

Ask the great Pedro Martinez. He never threw a no-hitter in his career but in 1995 with the Expos he pitched nine perfect innings against the Padres. But the game was tied through nine innings. Bip Roberts led off the bottom of the 10th with a double and Martinez lost his perfect game and no-hitter (at least he'd get the win).

So Alvarez watched the bottom of the ninth from the dugout and then the on-deck circle, his moment of fame perhaps resting on the Marlins' ability to push across a run (although with just 99 pitches it's likely he would have come out for another inning). Giancarlo Stanton singled with one out and the Marlins eventually loaded the bases with two outs, Greg Dobbs facing Luke Putkonen, who had already thrown one wild pitch in the inning.

Putkonen threw a hard-breaking curve that dived low and in toward Dobbs, catcher Brayan Pena was a little lazy getting down to block it and Stanton raced home with the winning run as Alvarez, who was on deck, was mobbed by his teammates in foul territory along the third-base line. A great moment for Alvarez and the Marlins' fans.

It was sort of reminiscent of the perfect game Mike Witt threw for the Angels against the Rangers on the final day of the 1984 season, except that game was between two teams counting down their hours until the first round of offseason golf. We don't have pitch counts for that game, but it was played in a brisk 1 hour, 47 minutes, so I'm guessing there may have been a few aggressive approaches at the plate. (The only other no-hitter on the final day was a combined four-pitcher no-hitter by the A's in 1975.)

The Tigers, however, are heading to the postseason. Even though their Division Series doesn't start until Friday they did sit several regulars, including Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter, but it was a decent lineup out there. Still, give Alvarez credit for his efficient four-strikeout, one-walk affair. He threw 66 of his 99 pitches for strikes, throwing his fastball 66 times all told. He's a guy who throws harder than his strikeouts would indicate, averaging 94.1 mph on his fastball against the Tigers and topping out at 96.9 mph. But he struck out just 57 in 102 2/3 innings for the Marlins this season. The scouting report when he was with Toronto was the fastball was too straight and he didn't have a put-away breaking ball.

The interesting thing about Alvarez is that he changed his approach in the 17 starts he made with the Marlins. In 2012, he threw 46 percent four-seam fastballs and 29 percent two-seam fastballs. This year, he threw 56 percent two-seamers versus 25 percent four-seamers, while mixing in his slider 15 percent of the time. The net result was huge: Not more strikeouts, but after allowing 29 home runs for the Blue Jays in 187 innings, he surrendered just two with the Marlins. There may be a degree of luck there as his overall fly ball rate was basically the same; last year they left the park, this year they didn't, but perhaps better movement on the two-seamer helped, as well.

Anyway, he remains an intriguing arm, especially if he can develop a change or curveball to offset the fastball-slider combo. While unlikely to develop into an ace, he's a guy who could slot into the rotation nicely next season after Jose Fernandez, Nate Eovaldi and Jacob Turner.

As for the Tigers, they were no-hit on Sunday, scored one run in 10 innings on Saturday and just two on Friday in getting swept by the 100-loss Marlins. Even though the games didn't mean anything, it's not how you want to head into the postseason. They did hit .270 in September -- fourth in the majors -- but their power disappeared as they hit just 16 home runs in 26 games after hitting 37 in July and 38 in August. This is a team that doesn't manufacture runs with speed, so it relies on the long ball -- and Miguel Cabrera -- to generate offense. With Cabrera hobbled in September, the Tigers averaged just 3.7 runs per game after averaging more than five per game the previous two months.

You don't want to read too much into those September numbers, but I'd be concerned if I were a Tigers fan. If Cabrera can't generate any power -- and he had just two extra-base hits in September -- somebody else needs to step up.