SweetSpot: Nelson Cruz



This is the lineup the Baltimore Orioles dreamed about back in spring training: Manny Machado spraying hits all over the field, Chris Davis hitting big bombs, J.J. Hardy providing power from shortstop.

And of course, Nelson Cruz doing Nelson Cruz types of things. You know: .294 average, 28 home runs, 73 RBIs. That's a pretty typical Cruz season; maybe a little high with the batting average since he has hit between .260 and .266 each of the past three seasons, but sometimes you just have one of those seasons when the bloopers fall and the ground balls have eyes.

Yep, a pretty typical Cruz kind of season. Except the Orioles have played 89 games and Cruz is on pace for 51 home runs and 133 RBIs. He played a big part in the Orioles' 8-2 win over the Nationals in 11 innings on Monday. His two-run home run in the fourth inning off Stephen Strasburg provided the team's offense until a six-run explosion in the 11th -- a rally Cruz started with a broken-bat infield single.

[+] EnlargeNelson Cruz
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesNelson Cruz ripped his 28th homer for the Orioles, but where would they be if he'd signed elsewhere?
Cruz homered off a 1-0 95 mph fastball from Strasburg, waist-high and too much near the middle of the plate, the kind of pitch Cruz hasn't been missing this season. It's also the kind of pitch that has gotten Strasburg into trouble all season. Despite his premium velocity, his fastball has been one of the least effective in the majors, as opponents are hitting .328/.371/.510 against it. Fall behind Cruz, and he loves to sit on those heaters -- 19 of his 28 home runs have come off fastballs.

You know, back in the old days -- like, I don't know, five years ago -- Cruz would probably be the AL MVP favorite right now. For decades, the guy who led the league in RBIs was usually on the short list for MVP candidates. If you also led the league in home runs (Cruz leads in both) and your team made the playoffs or were close to making it, you were pretty much a lock to win the award. See: Ryan Howard, Juan Gonzalez, George Bell and so on. Things like defense and position didn't really matter.

(We could bring up Mike Trout here, but Miguel Cabrera was a better candidate than guys such as Gonzalez and Bell, but I digress).

We all know Trout is the best all-around player in the American League and that Cruz's WAR doesn't compare -- entering Monday, Trout led Cruz in bWAR 5.0 to 2.7 and in fWAR 5.5 to 2.5 -- but it is fair to ask where the Orioles would be without Cruz.

Machado had five hits on Monday, including a double and home run, but that raised his season line to only .261/.308/.404. Davis got over .200 with his go-ahead home run that followed Cruz's infield single. Hardy's tacked-on home run in the 11th was just his third of the year, after averaging 26 the past three seasons. Chris Tillman pitched well on Monday, but he and Ubaldo Jimenez have generally been awful.

Despite that, the Orioles are 49-40 -- 14-4 in their past 18 games -- and they're in first place. Cruz has helped overshadow Machado's immaturity, Davis' struggles and the issues in the rotation.

I'm not actually advocating Cruz as AL MVP. It's clearly Trout. But Cruz has been the big bat the Orioles have needed.

* * * *

One thing sabermetricians haven't been able to quantify: How much of a team's success in a season is dumb luck?

I mean, there are ways to quantify it, but I'm getting at things like the Cruz signing or Steve Pearce. The Orioles basically lucked into Cruz. They got him because he didn't get the free-agent money he wanted, teams decided to spend their money on players other than Cruz, so the Orioles were kind of the last team standing with a little extra cash. They signed Cruz on Feb. 24, after spring training had already started.

Then there's Pearce, who is hitting .324/.379/.578 in a part-time role. In terms of bWAR, he actually has been the Orioles' second-most valuable player -- behind Adam Jones and ahead of Cruz. That's a hard sell, but there's no doubt he has been huge.

And there's luck involved there as well. Pearce is a journeyman who has bounced around Triple-A and the majors for several years. The O's had him in 2012, and waived him during the season. They brought him back later that season and he came off the bench last year. He opened the season with Baltimore but was released on April 27, having played just three games. Then Davis got injured, Pearce was re-signed and he's been on fire ever since.

Dumb luck? I'd say so. Or some element of it.

Nobody could have expected Cruz to put up numbers like he has or Pearce to hit like this. Yes, it remains to be seen whether both players can keep this up, but Monday's game showcases why the Orioles don't have to rely just on those two moving forward: There's talent in this lineup ready to break out. I think Machado and Davis will have better second halves, and that's why the AL East is the Orioles' division to lose.


It's about time we talked about Nelson Cruz, the free agent nobody wanted in the offseason, at least for the money that Nelson Cruz wanted. Coming off a 50-game PED suspension, maligned for his defense, maligned for his age (he turns 34 on July 1), maligned for his mediocre on-base percentages, maligned for playing in a park that boosted his stats, he remained unsigned after spring training had already started, finally going to Baltimore on a one-year, $8 million contract.

Compare that to the $14.1 million qualifying offer he turned down from the Rangers, or the three-year, $48 million contract that ESPN Insider Jim Bowden predicted he'd receive, and Cruz headed to Orioles with his head between his legs a bit.

And maybe something to prove.

Cruz belted his 24th home run on Wednesday, tying Edwin Encarnacion for the major league lead, and it was a big one: A game-tying grand slam with two outs in the eighth inning. The Orioles would go on to beat the White Sox 5-4 in 12 innings on a walk-off wild pitch.

To say Cruz has been the team's MVP is stating the obvious. On a team that relies on the home run, Chris Davis, last year's monster masher, has struggled to replicate his 2013 season; J.J. Hardy, who hit 25 home runs last year, has just one so far this year; Matt Wieters was off to a great start but then hurt his elbow and is out for the season having played just 26 games.

But there's Cruz with his home runs, his .590 slugging percentage and his MLB-leading 64 RBIs. Fans have noticed: He's leading David Ortiz and Encarnacion in the All-Star balloting at designated hitter.

How to explain this? It certainly made sense that considering his age and change of venues from Texas to somewhere else that Cruz was a good bet to enter the decline phase of his career. After all, over the previous three seasons, he'd hit 50 home runs in Arlington and 30 on the road while also hitting 32 points higher at home.

Of course, going to Baltimore played to Cruz's primary strength, the ability to hit the long ball, since Camden Yards has those enticing power alleys. But Camden Yards doesn't explain why he's on pace for 50 home runs.

One of the problems in examining Cruz as a hitter is best represented in these three heat maps, from 2012, 2013 and 2014:

Nelson CruzESPN Stats & Info
Nelson CruzESPN Stats & Info
Nelson CruzESPN Stats & Info


Those three maps looking nothing alike. To me, that's the profile of how Cruz has often been described through the years: He's a classic mistake hitter. Except ... mistakes are usually hanging sliders or changeups that don't move, right? Cruz has done most of his damage against fastballs, especially this year. Here are his home runs off fastballs through the years:

2014: 16 of 24 (67 percent)
2013: 17 of 27 (63 percent)
2012: 13 of 24 (54 percent)
2011: 12 of 29 (41 percent)
2010: 14 of 22 (64 percent)
2009: 19 of 33 (58 percent)

His grand slam on Wednesday came off a 2-1, 95 mph heater from Javy Guerra on the outside corner that Cruz lined just over the wall in right field. Overall, Cruz is hitting .379/.443/.831 off fastballs this year. Over the previous three years, he hit .293/.364/.563 against fastballs. So again: What's going on? He's seeing the same percentage of fastballs as usual (around 50 percent of all pitches). He's not getting into more 2-0 counts. He's not more or less aggressive. He's basically the same Nelson Cruz as always.

He's just crushing fastballs.

I can't really explain it. We've certainly seen this Cruz before, especially in the postseason, where he has 14 home runs in 34 career playoff games. It's a little insulting to suggest Cruz is merely more focused than normal, but I suppose that could be the case, a man on a mission to get a bigger contract next offseason. He could just be hot -- or had an extended hot period. He's actually cooled off in June, hitting .241 with four home runs, compared to .315 with 20 home runs through May.

With all our numbers and access to all kinds of information today, we try to explain things. We can explain many things, or at least attempt to explain why they've happened.

In the case of Cruz, I don't know. I suspect he's sitting on the right pitches at the right time. But that's just guesswork on my part without going back and looking at all 24 home runs. Everything doesn't have an easy answer. I suspect he won't hit 50 home runs, may not even hit 40. He's had injury issues at times. But you never know. It's not like the man doesn't have power.

If you're an Orioles fan, maybe better to forget the analysis and just enjoy the ride. And hope it lasts into October.
The latest All-Star voting results were announced on Monday and right now your American League starting lineup would include Blue Jays outfielder Melky Cabrera and Orioles designated hitter Nelson Cruz.

I think we know what those two have in common, but in case you've been circumnavigating the globe the past two years without Internet access, both served 50-game suspensions for PED use.

Ah, that's just Blue Jays and Orioles fans stuffing the internet ballot box, you suggest. OK, if that's the case then how come Adam Jones is only fifth among outfielders or why is Edwin Encarnacion just fourth among DHs? Where is Jose Reyes among shortstops? All those votes for Cabrera and Cruz aren't coming just from Blue Jays and Orioles fans.

Cruz's case is especially interesting because his suspension was the most recent and he's competing in a loaded position: Red Sox icon David Ortiz; the Tigers' Victor Martinez, who leads the AL in OPS and has as many as home runs as strikeouts; A's slugger Brandon Moss; plus Encarnacion.

And yet Cruz has the most votes, more than all but five other AL players.

My conclusion? Fans don't really care all that much about PED usage and PED history. Especially if it's somebody on your team putting up the big numbers.
If you want to take a break from the MLB draft or actual baseball games, some stuff to check out:
  • Fun list from the Baseball Prospectus staff: 11 draft-day what-ifs. Of course, there is no end to the what-ifs, but these are some good ones that could have happened.
  • Matt Kremnitzer with an interesting idea if the Orioles fall out of the playoff race: Could Nelson Cruz be a trade chip? At 30-27, I'm not sure the Orioles will fall out of the everyone's-in-it AL wild-card race, but if they do, it's a plausible scenario.
  • David Laurila of FanGraphs interviews Pedro Martinez on the art -- and science -- of pitching. Love this quote: “My fastball was my best pitch. I was a power pitcher for most of my career. My fastball had a natural tail. I threw four-seams and two-seams, but predominately fours. My four was a power fastball that I could ramp up when I needed to. I could spot it." Note: Ramp up when I needed to. Relates to one of the issues we've been talking about with all these Tommy John surgeries: Pitchers don't have to -- and probably shouldn't -- air out every fastball at max velocity.
  • Joe Posnanski has a little fun with a scouting report on Derek Jeter.
  • Michael Eder of It's About the Money is a little more blunt: Jeter is hurting the Yankees.
  • More Posnanski: How the A's continue to thrive, a decade after "Moneyball." Money quote: "Moneyball II is not about being smart. Everybody in baseball can be smart. Moneyball II is about doing smart things. There's a big difference. The A's face the same pressures, the same groupthink, the same visual cues as everyone else. They have the same gut reactions to events, and they initially want to respond in the same way as everyone else. To say that they are smarter than everyone else misses the biggest point.

     



    "The biggest point is this: Nobody's that smart -- not even the A's. They have to work just as hard as anybody to avoid the traps, address their weaknesses, overcome the silly flaws in their System One thinking. They have to call up Josh Donaldson when brains tell them not to call him up. They have to pitch Tommy Milone even though they see that nothing fastball and can't figure out how he can get anyone out."
  • You may have read Tim Kurkjian's piece last week on the unwritten rules of baseball. Former major league reliever and book author Dirk Hayhurst had a pointed response on Deadspin: "None of the players passing along their wisdom seemed to realize that it was all completely arbitrary. No one came close to acknowledging, 'You know, it's stupid and none of us know where it came from, and before we go fracturing some poor rookie's wrist because he looked too happy about going yard on a vet, we should really sit down and ask ourselves if the punishment fits the crime.'"
  • Jonathan Judge says Kendrys Morales is more valuable to the Brewers than he would be to other teams.
  • Fire Brand of the AL with their latest podcast on the Red Sox.
  • Here's the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" podcast on all things Indians.
  • Maybe it's time the Rangers admit that Mitch Moreland just isn't that good.
  • Ryan P. Morrison with a look at the Diamondbacks' defense. Last year, Arizona's defense was excellent; this year, it's been mediocre -- or unlucky. Either way, maybe the pitchers have been as awful as everyone thinks.
  • This may be of more interesting to baseball fans in Connecticut than to Twins fans, but the New Britain Rock Cats, Minnesota's Double-A affiliate, is relocating to Hartford for 2016, as the city is building a new downtown stadium.
  • Finally, this is pretty awesome: Harry Caray, when he was a broadcaster for the White Sox in 1972, kept a diary that year. It was a pretty simple diary: Caray kept track of the bars he visited and the bar tabs. The first date is Jan. 1 and it lists four bars. At one point, he goes 288 consecutive days visiting a bar. Now that is a legendary streak.

First-place O's get Chris Davis back

May, 11, 2014
May 11
2:04
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So the first-place Orioles are getting Chris Davis back. That comes after they’re already getting Manny Machado back. Along with the big-bopping benefits of Nelson Cruz, they should be ready to roll, right?

Well, maybe not so much, because Matt Wieters’ long fight to avoid the DL finally ended with his heading there to get some rest for his elbow soreness to recede. He may be gone until July.

Still, let’s take the big-picture view of where the Orioles offense is right now. Despite losing Davis for some time, not having Machado for most of the season so far and needing to lean heavily on weak-hitting subs like Ryan Flaherty, Steve Lombardozzi, Jonathan Schoop and David Lough in the early going, the Orioles are nevertheless seventh in the league in runs scored at 4.3 per game. That’s nevertheless a little below average because of the big split -- almost a half-run -- between the league’s six best offenses and the rest of the league.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Orioles are hoping Chris Davis starts crushing like it's 2013 all over again.
But now that Davis is back, you can see how things should improve for the Orioles, even if Wieters has to rest his elbow until June or perhaps even July. Cruz has already powered 10 home runs in his PED suspension redemption campaign. Machado has struggled, but in his defense, he has less than two weeks’ worth of live-game at-bats between his rehab work and his time since being reactivated; it shouldn’t be much longer before he’s back in a groove. J.J. Hardy hasn’t really gotten going, but he was hampered by early hamstring problems.

And then there’s Davis, last year’s third man in the Trout-Cabrera MVP duel after his 53-homer campaign. That built on Davis’ end-of-season heroics in 2012, when his 10 homers after Sept. 1 powered the Orioles into the postseason. If the Orioles are going to sustain another October bid, they need him to be producing at the plate.

One potential problem for Davis? According to BrooksBaseball.net pitch data at Baseball Prospectus, Davis is seeing 23.75 percent of all pitches below the strike zone and 25.68 percent of all pitches away and outside: low, high, you name it. Between those two categories, that should amount to a lot of balls (Eric Gregg strike zones excepted), but it means a lot of pitchers are throwing him low and outside. As he waits for cookies that haven’t come, Davis hasn’t been able to resist. He has swung at almost 60 percent of breaking and off-speed pitches below and outside the strike zone, swinging and missing on 56 percent of them while notching just three base hits. He may not like being more of a walking man, but until he can force pitchers to come back into the zone against him, those cookies are going to be a long time coming.

Getting Davis back is very good news. And I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that getting Lough out of the lineup at the same time that Machado has replaced that unproductive Schoop-Flaherty combo at the hot corner has helped. Wieters’ move to some time at DH while Steve Clevenger chipped in a surprising amount of offense? Another benefit. With Davis back, this could mean a whole more at-bats for Davis’ substitute at first base, Steve Pearce, in the DH slot, keeping Lough among the playing-time losers.

But getting more out of the regular lineup is a matter of finally getting some production out of several weak slots in the Orioles’ lineup. They are last in the league in walk rate, getting a free pass in just 5.9 percent of at-bats. Davis’ return will be a big help on that score, but a significant problem is the absence of almost anyone else in the lineup who might walk much. Counting on Pearce for any length of time will be a risk, and waiting on Wieters while hoping Clevenger can keep popping as their regular catcher in the meantime will be another. And the absence of any acceptable answer at second base figures to be a season-long problem; I don’t consider Schoop a real answer, not when he hasn’t hit very well anywhere for any meaningful length of time since mashing in the Sally League in a half-season in 2011.

It’s clear the Orioles need to deal for some help, but GM Dan Duquette’s job on that front won’t be easy. This early, with few teams in sell mode, there aren’t a ton of options available at second base -- mighty mite Jose Altuve of the Astros, perhaps? There are almost as few options to trade for behind the plate.

If there’s good news, it’s that the organization may finally have some pieces to deal, ranking 10th in the Keith Law’s preseason organizational sorting, but it’s a system with a few great high-upside arms and not a ton of depth, so perhaps not exactly the sort of hand you want to deal from to land some of the right-now help the Orioles need. Even assuming Duquette were willing to deal, high-end talent demands high-end returns, and Altuve probably ain’t that.

Which brings it back to Davis and right now. If he starts pounding at the same time that Machado and Hardy get in gear, that could buy the Orioles the time they need. Time to see when Wieters will be back. Time to see whether an answer to their needs at second base and either DH or left field -- wherever Cruz isn’t -- present themselves. For a team in first place in the tight fight in the American League East, they can afford to take the time to find out.

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


This is what the players should have done back in 1995 or 1998 or 2001: Police themselves.

The new agreement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association creates even harsher penalties for those players who violate the Joint Drug Program: A first suspension increases from 50 games to 80 and a second one from 100 to 162. A third positive still results in permanent suspension. Further, if you're suspended during the season you're ineligible to play in the postseason, even if your suspension has elapsed.

By agreeing to the rules and these expanded penalties, the players have made it even more clear that they want the game cleaned up and kept clean. No more Ryan Brauns, no more Jhonny Peraltas and definitely no more Alex Rodriguezes (one A-Rod is undoubtedly enough). In theory, tougher penalties will curb PED usage, although that's purely speculative; we don't really know how many players are using now and how many are getting away with it. In a recent ESPN The Magazine survey of major leaguers, one player suggested PED use is next to zero while another estimated 20 percent of players are still using. So even the players aren't exactly sure what's going on, let alone how many players are currently skirting the drug tests.
[+] EnlargeRyan Braun
Courtesy is Jerry CrasnickExpanded PED penalties for all players might be Ryan Braun's less happy legacy.

Why the urgency for players to want changes? There was a lot of negative reaction from players when Peralta, coming off a PED suspension with the Tigers, signed a four-year, $53 million contract with the Cardinals this offseason. What penalty did Peralta pay? He missed 50 games, but he still played in the postseason with Detroit and then got a fat contract from the Cardinals.

Of course, these new rules won't necessarily change that potential outcome, although there is now greater risk for those teams who sign a player who has previously been suspended.

Aside from the lengths of the suspensions, modifications include more in-season random urine collections (from 1,400 to 3,200) in addition to the 1,200 mandatory collections from players on the 40-man major league roster during spring training and 1,200 more during the season. In theory, this will make it more difficult to beat the drug testers. More testing means that, during the season, anybody using will be rolling the dice because they're at that much more risk of being caught. There will also be more blood tests for human growth hormone. The two sides also agreed to add DHEA -- an endogenous steroid hormone found in supplements and widely available -- to the list of banned substances, although with less stringent penalties (follow-up testing for a first violation, 25-game suspension for a second violation, 80 games for a third and permanent suspension for a fourth).

Some will argue the new rules still aren't tough enough; some will argue they're too harsh, especially if a player tests positive for inadvertently using a product with a banned substance (there are allowances for that if a player can prove it was accidental). Some will argue this all just a big waste of time since PEDs don't really help all that much anyway.

The one thing the new modifications don't account for is the high percentage of MLB players allowed to use ADHD medication. Last season, 119 players were granted therapeutic use exemptions (or TUE) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and allowed to use medication that basically acts as a stimulant. Stimulants are banned in the JDE if you're not granted a TUE. That 119 total was approximately 14 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters or disabled lists. The percentage of adults ages 18 to 44 with ADHD is estimated at 4.4 percent, so it seems fairly clear that MLB players are abusing this loophole.

In the end, the players wanted a cleaner game and they're the ones who have made this happen. Bud Selig will surely claim this as another check mark on his legacy list but we know he slept on this issue for at least a decade.

If you want to credit anyone, give credit to Tony Clark, the new head of the MLBPA, for his being willing to modify the current agreement. You can call this another win for the owners but I call it a win for the players.

Brett Gardner versus Nelson Cruz

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
10:27
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I heard a couple of radio guys -- one of them a former major league pitcher -- on Sunday discussing the Brett Gardner contract, and they were a little incredulous that Gardner could get a four-year, $52 million contract from the Yankees while Nelson Cruz signed for one year and $8 million with the Orioles. They couldn't get past the idea that Cruz hits a lot more home runs and drives in a lot more runs.

Indeed, over the past three seasons, Cruz has averaged 34 home runs and 105 RBIs per 162 games played, while Gardner has averaged eight and 47 per 162 games.

Now, there are other issues involved in those signings:
  • Because Cruz had been extended a qualifying offer from the Rangers, the team signing him would lose a draft pick. In the Orioles' case, this means losing a second-round pick because they already had lost their first-round pick for signing Ubaldo Jimenez.
  • In looking ahead to free-agent outfielders next offseason, it's very slim pickings: Gardner, Colby Rasmus, Michael Cuddyer and Cruz would have been the biggest names, not including those with club options. The Yankees now know they won't be scrambling to fill left field.
  • Age. Gardner's extension takes him from 2015 through 2018 (with a club option for 2019), his age-31 through age-34 seasons. Cruz's 2014 season is his age-33 season. In general, fast players age better than slow players.
  • Cruz is coming off a PED suspension, which can't be ignored.
SportsNation

Whom would you rather have for 2014?

  •  
    28%
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    72%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,338)

But even aside from those factors, there's this: Gardner is the better player. Comparing Cruz and Gardner is a classic sabermetric argument: The RBI guy versus the guy who does a little bit of everything.

A few points:

1. First off, while Cruz has averaged 34 home runs and 105 RBIs per 162 games, he's never actually achieved either figure. He has hit 30 home runs once, back in 2009. His career high in RBIs is 90. Some of that is because he has played more than 128 games only once. Gardner did miss nearly all of 2012 with an elbow injury but played 150, 159 and 145 games in his other three seasons as a regular.

2. Despite Cruz's power advantage, they're closer offensively than you might realize. Cruz had a .353 wOBA in 2013; Gardner .331. In terms of Runs Created, Cruz created 5.5 runs per 27 outs; Gardner 5.2. Sure, Cruz outhomered Gardner 27 to 8, but Gardner had more doubles (33 to 18), more triples (10 to 0), more walks (52 to 35) and more stolen bases (27 to 5). Now, Gardner played more games. Here are their totals prorated to 145 games:

Gardner: 33 2B, 10 3B, 8 HR, 52 BB, 24 SB, .273/.344/.416
Cruz: 24 2B, 0 3B, 36 HR, 47 BB, 7 SB, .266/.327/.506

Cruz hit more home runs; Gardner got on base more and made up for most of the difference in home runs with doubles, triples and running the bases. (I didn't mention runs scored, which also can be lineup-dependent like RBIs, but Gardner scored 81 and Cruz 49.)

3. Then there's defense. Cruz graded at minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved, his best showing since 2010. Gardner, playing center field, graded out at plus-6 Defensive Runs Saved. Gardner will move to left field, where his defensive numbers in 2010 and 2011 were terrific (plus-34 and plus-22 DRS). Even if he has lost a step since then, he projects above-average defensively in left field. But the numbers align with the general consensus: Gardner is a plus defender while Cruz is not.

Add it all up, and Baseball-Reference crunches the numbers like this:

Cruz
2011: 1.3 WAR
2012: 0.4 WAR
2013: 2.0 WAR

Gardner
2011: 3.9 WAR
2012: 0.2 WAR
2013: 4.2 WAR

Look, for one year and $8 million, Cruz should be a good deal for the Orioles. He moves from one good home run park to another, and there's no such thing as a bad one-year contract (other than the risk of losing that draft pick). But Gardner got $52 million because he's the better all-around player.

Random thoughts for Monday

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
6:37
PM ET
As the headline says, random thoughts for Monday ...
  • If you read the blog last week you saw my preseason rankings of all 30 teams. The team I admit that I'm most likely to miss on is the Giants, whom I ranked 20th. If they get positive production from the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, a big bounce back is certainly possible. Anyway, Connor Grossman of West Coast Bias responds to my Giants prediction.
  • Which team is most likely to go from under .500 to the playoffs, as the Indians and Pirates did last year? I'd mention the Giants and Blue Jays although neither would be considered a huge surprise if that happened. The Angels also finished under .500. If we're talking about a surprise team, I'd throw out the Padres (kind of like the A's, they're hoping 25-man depth will override their lack of star power). The Mariners have boom or bust potential depending on the growth of their young players.
  • Playoff team most likely to sink? I'd say the Pirates, who failed to add offense to a lineup that needed it, lost A.J. Burnett from the rotation and had a remarkable year from the bullpen.
  • The shortstop battle in Arizona between Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings will be intriguing. I'm probably in the minority in liking Gregorius better, as he has a chance to be a plus defender and showed more with that bat than expected as a rookie. Owings hit .330 at Triple-A Reno and while he did cut way down on his strikeouts from 2012, I'm skeptical of any numbers put up in Reno (or Las Vegas or any of the other high-altitude PCL cities). He doesn't walk much, so he needs to hit for a high average. ZiPS projects Owings at 2.2 WAR, Gregorius at 2.0, so it could be a case of best spring wins even if that's a lousy way to decide a job situation.
  • The Rangers have agreed to a minor league deal with Tommy Hanson pending a physical. It's a low-risk move for the Rangers but Hanson's fastball velocity has dropped from averaging 92.6 mph in 2010 to 89.6 with the Angels in 2013, with resulting decreases in effectiveness in recent seasons. Even if his shoulder is sound it's probably a long shot that he'll be able to contribute much.
  • Good piece on George Springer from Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs. Springer, of course, went 30-30 (37 home runs and 45 steals to be exact) in the minors but also went 30-30-150, as in strikeouts. ZiPS is positive on Springer, projecting him to 3.3 WAR with Mike Cameron as his No. 1 comp. Even if Springer does turn into Cameron as a power-speed-strikeouts-defense combo, there may be some growing pains along the way.
  • Some Q&A about the Nationals from our Nationals Baseball blog, including thoughts on new manager Matt Williams. The interesting thing about new managers is that everyone will focus on the strategy, but for the most part everyone manages the in-game stuff pretty much the same way these days, give or take a few bunts or what you do with the No. 2 hitter. It's not like Williams is going let Stephen Strasburg throw 130 pitches a game. The important stuff is more likely to be the stuff we don't see or can't evaluate with numbers. Williams also inherits a pretty set roster, with the only major issue being when to work Nate McLouth into the lineup.
  • A look at Orioles prospects from Camden Depot. Dylan Bundy, we haven't forgotten about you.
  • Daniel Poarch looks at the projections for the Red Sox offensive core of hitters. The most interesting guy here is Daniel Nava, quietly a huge part of Boston's division title last year as he hit .303/.385/.445.
  • It's About the Money asks if we should be tempering expectations for Masahiro Tanaka. We probably should but it's a lot more fun if we don't.
  • Bill Baer on why the Phillies should platoon Ryan Howard. Good idea, of course, but I don't see Ryne Sandberg doing it.
  • Nelson Cruz to the Mariners rumors are still hot. Let's wait and see the terms of such a deal before us Mariners fans get upset thinking of Mike Morse Part II, Revenge of the Slow-Moving Outfielder Whose Power Won't Play Well at Safeco Field.
  • Nick Nelson asks if the Twins moved too aggressively in signing Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. It's possible, considering Hughes was signed for three years and $24 million while the comparable -- if not better -- Paul Maholm just signed for $1.5 million with the Dodgers.
  • Two pieces from the great Tim Keown worth checking out: What's next for Yasiel Puig? That, of course, may be the most interesting question of the 2014 season. And how come baseball teams don't train the brain more?



As Buster Olney wrote in his Sunday blog, "a lot of the winter work was done" as general managers caught flights out of Orlando. But some big free agents are still out there -- most notably Shin-Soo Choo but also some quality starting pitchers in Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo and Ervin Santana.

Buster listed seven teams that could still have a big move left -- the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Rangers, Tigers, Mariners and Diamondbacks. With that in mind, here are 10 predictions on what will happen the rest of the offseason.

1. The Rangers sign Shin-Soo Choo.

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Which team will Shin-Soo Choo sign with?

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The Rangers could go the less expensive route and bring back Nelson Cruz without forfeiting the first-round pick they'd lose for signing Choo, but Texas had a mediocre offense last year with Cruz. Why go down that road again? Choo gets on base more and would give the team another table-setter in front of Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder.

The Tigers signed Rajai Davis and appear willing to move forward with a Davis-Andy Dirks platoon in left field. Don't count out the Mariners -- the outfield is still a mess with the likes of Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley and possibly Corey Hart or Logan Morrison, although the latter two are best suited for first base or DH duties.

2. The Rays trade David Price to the Mariners.

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Which team will David Price be pitching for in 2014?

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The Mariners can't stop with Robinson Cano and two guys coming off injuries. For better or worse, general manager Jack Zduriencik is all in. Cano's best season in a Mariners uniform is likely to be 2014 and not 2016 or 2017, so there is pressure to upgrade the current roster right now.

To get Price, the Mariners will trade Taijuan Walker despite proclamations from Zduriencik that that won't happen. "I don't have intentions of trading Taijuan," he said during the winter meetings. "You listen to any opportunities that present themselves and you go into discussions with a lot of people. And his name will come up. Why wouldn't it? As do a lot of our guys, quite frankly. But Taijuan is high-profile because he's rated our top prospect."


3. The Angels sign Matt Garza.

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What team will sign Matt Garza?

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The Mark Trumbo trade gave the Angels some rotation depth with Hector Santiago from the White Sox and young lefty Tyler Skaggs from the Diamondbacks. Those two would slot in behind Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards, but the Angels may not be done looking for a starter. As they learned last year, you can never have enough pitching depth, plus it wouldn't hurt to give the 22-year-old Skaggs more time in the minors to help rediscover the form that made him one of the top prospects in the game in 2012.

Can Garza fit in the payroll? Right now, Baseball-Reference estimates it at about $144 million, up from last year's $129 million. The new national TV money is coming in, but signing Garza means the Angels may need to clear some payroll. Leading to this ...


4. The Angels trade Howie Kendrick to the Braves.

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Will the Braves acquire a second baseman to replace Dan Uggla?

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The Braves have been oddly quiet this offseason while losing Brian McCann and Tim Hudson via free agency. No, signing Gavin Floyd -- he's not expected back until at least May after Tommy John surgery -- doesn't qualify as a major move.

Remember, despite winning 96 games, this team still batted Evan Gattis cleanup in a playoff game and started Freddy Garcia with its season on the line. The obvious position to upgrade is second base, where Dan Uggla posted a minus-1.3 WAR and was left off the postseason roster in favor of Elliot Johnson. Uggla is due $13 million each of the next two seasons, but the Braves have to decide whether they want to count on a guy who may be washed up or whether they want to pay $22 million for two second basemen.

Kendrick is signed for two more years and would cost a couple of prospects, but maybe the Braves could toss in Uggla while picking up the majority of his salary.


5. The Reds re-sign Bronson Arroyo.

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Which team will sign Bronson Arroyo?

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Several teams have expressed interest in Arroyo, not only because of his durability but also because Cincinnati didn't give him a qualifying offer, so you don't lose a draft pick if you sign him. The Reds seemed focused on trying to sign Homer Bailey to a long-term extension, but that hasn't happened. So they may shift their priorities back to Arroyo, who has been with them since 2006.

Even though the Twins have signed Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey, they reportedly still want to sign one more guy as they revamp their rotation. Arroyo is a classic Twins-type pitcher: control over velocity. He's looking for a three-year contract, which may price out the Pirates, but Arroyo would be a nice fit to replace A.J. Burnett if he doesn't return to Pittsburgh.


6. The Dodgers do not trade Matt Kemp.

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Do the Dodgers end up trading an outfielder?

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After two injury-plagued seasons, it's easy to understand the desire to trade him. But ESPN Insider Dave Cameron wrote this week that we shouldn't assume Kemp's days as an elite-level player are over:
There's some good news for Kemp and the Dodgers, however; age-28 regressions are actually pretty common, even for good young players who had established themselves as high-quality players at a young age. In most of the cases, the guys who took a year off from hitting well bounced back to perform at a high level again.


Selling now on Kemp means selling low. Yes, he has that monster contract, but the Dodgers would be wiser to hold on to Kemp and hope he rebounds and gives them a huge middle of the order with Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez. There is the concern that he shouldn't be playing center field, but it's not like Andre Ethier is that all much better out there. Puig is probably the best option for center if the Dodgers want to move him.

As for Ethier, maybe a trade market develops for him once Choo and Cruz sign. The Dodgers can afford to be patient.

7. The Mariners sign Nelson Cruz.

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Which team signs Nelson Cruz?

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The Rangers gave Cruz a qualifying offer, so the market for a guy who will turn 34 in July, has posted mediocre OBPs in recent years and has little defensive value will be slim. But, hey, the Mariners have developed a fetish for this type of player, and their first-round pick is protected. Looks like a three-year marriage in the making.

What would the Mariners look like with Cruz and Price? Something like this:

SS Brad Miller
LF/1B Corey Hart
2B Robinson Cano
RF Nelson Cruz
3B Kyle Seager
DH Logan Morrison
1B Justin Smoak
C Mike Zunino
CF Michael Saunders/Dustin Ackley

SP Felix Hernandez
SP David Price
SP Hisashi Iwakuma
SP James Paxton
SP Erasmo Ramirez

8. The Orioles sign Grant Balfour.

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The Orioles have a hole at closer after trading Jim Johnson, a hole in left field after losing Nate McLouth, and no obvious candidate to take most of the DH at-bats. It appears they are most concerned with finding a closer.

Several teams still need (or desire) a closer, but it could come to AL East rivals. While the Yankees can ultimately just put David Robertson in the ninth-inning role, the Orioles' top relievers (Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz) all have platoon issues. Balfour will turn 36 later this month but is seeking a three-year contract. My bet is the Orioles give it to him.

9. The Dodgers sign Ervin Santana.

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The Dodgers have been rumored to be involved in David Price trade rumors, and they would certainly be in on Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka if he's posted. But they also don't want to deplete their farm system, and the Rakuten Golden Eagles may just decide to keep Tanaka.

Even if the Eagles do post Tanaka -- he's an unrestricted free agent in two years, so they may just decide to cash in regardless -- the Dodgers also have to sign Clayton Kershaw to a long-term contract. With Zack Greinke and eventually Kershaw, do they want three starters being paid mega-millions? Probably not. So look for them to seek a cheaper alternative like Santana, who would fill out the rotation as a durable No. 4-type starter.

10.The Cubs will keep Jeff Samardzija.

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Which team will Jeff Samardzija be pitching for in 2014?

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Are you as tired of Samardzija trade rumors as I am? At this point, he's been tied to nearly every team in one rumor or another. The Blue Jays are the latest possible destination, but the Cubs reportedly asked for two top prospects plus a third player. Samardzija has two seasons left until free agency, and while he struck out 214 in 213 2/3 innings, his ERA was also 4.34, and 4.72 in the second half.

So maybe he just remains with the Cubs because of the high asking price. And then the Cubs will hopefully sign him to a 10-year extension so we don't have to go listen to all these rumors again in July.

Stay away from Nelson Cruz

November, 13, 2013
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Dan Szymborski has an ESPN Insider piece today on five players to avoid this winter. I was a little surprised that Nelson Cruz didn't make his cut.

Yesterday, Jerry Crasnick tweeted that the Mariners would "like to find a way to add both Nelson Cruz and Carlos Beltran." That led to Dave Cameron on the U.S.S. Mariner blog to pretty much eviscerate the idea that this would be a good move for the Mariners:
We haven't talked too much about Cruz here, but it makes perfect sense that the Mariners would be interested in Nelson Cruz. Because we know that this front office places a very high value on this particular skillset. For your reference, below are Nelson Cruz's core offensive numbers over the last three seasons, compared to the same numbers that Michael Morse put up in the three seasons prior to be acquired by the Mariners last winter.

Dave then shows these numbers:

 


BB% SO% ISO
Morse 6% 22% .220
Cruz 7% 23% .226


Dave continues:
The similarities don't end there, of course. Both are physically built like linebackers. Both are right-handed power hitters, which the Mariners believe they need to add to their lineup for balance and to help against left-handed pitching. Both are injury-prone, spending parts of nearly every season of their career on the disabled list. Neither are particularly good defenders or baserunners, and accumulate almost all of their damage at the plate. Both have been suspended for using PEDs. Both are on the wrong side of 30 and are headed to the decline phase of their careers.

I absolutely agree. Cruz will turn 34 next July and is one of the most overrated players in baseball, as mediocre players on good teams often are. He had one monster season, hitting .318/.374/.576 in 108 games in 2010. He's come up big in the postseason, with 14 home runs and 27 RBIs in 34 games, enhancing his reputation. The things he does well -- hit some home runs, drive in some runs -- are the two skills most often overvalued. The things he doesn't do well -- get on base, play defense -- are still two traits too often overlooked.

Then factor in that he's played more than 128 games just once. And then factor in that over the past three seasons he's hit just .247/.299/.432 on the road -- yes, his road games do include a large percentage of games in Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim, but still, those are the numbers maybe acceptable from a second baseman not a slugging right fielder. Over the last three years he's hit .249/.299/.465 against right-handers, making him more Jonny Gomes than All-Star right fielder.

Cruz, leaving Texas and coming off a PED suspension while entering his age-33 season, is like the Triple Crown of red flags.

Somebody will overpay (Jim Bowden predicted a contract for three years and $48 million) and while that team won't necessarily be getting Michael Morse circa 2013, they're also unlikely to get the player they believe they're acquiring.

No surprises in qualifying offers

November, 4, 2013
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Thirteen free agents received one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offers from their previous team, meaning those players will have now a choice: See what the market bears or return to their team for that one-year offer (or negotiate a new contract with that club).

Those 13 players:

Stephen Drew, Red Sox
Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Mike Napoli, Red Sox
Robinson Cano, Yankees
Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
Ervin Santana, Royals
Nelson Cruz, Rangers
Kendrys Morales, Mariners
Brian McCann, Braves
Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
Shin-Soo Choo, Reds


These players are now tied to first-round compensation picks if the team that signs them doesn't own one of the top 10 picks (Astros, Marlins, White Sox, Cubs, Twins, Mariners, Phillies, Rockies, Blue Jays, Mets). Those 10 teams would have to sacrifice a second-round pick for signing one of those 13 guys.

In the case of a highly sought free agent suc as Cano, Ellsbury or Choo, this will likely have little effect on contract offers they receive. However, for several of the players on the list this could drastically reduce their demand. We saw this happen last year with several players, most notably Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (who both ended up signing with Cleveland, which owned a protected top-10 pick), Kyle Lohse (who didn't sign with the Brewers until spring training was under way), and Adam LaRoche (who declined the Nationals' $13.3 million qualifying offer before eventually returning to Washington on a two-year, $24 million deal).

For example, considering Beltran's age, he was probably looking at a two-year contract. Would a contending team be willing to give up a first-round pick for two seasons of him? Perhaps. With Cruz coming off his PED suspension and given that he'll turn 34 next July, he's another guy who will now see limited demand. In both cases, it wouldn't surprise me if it pushes both players back to their original team, unless one of the bottom 10 teams come calling in hot pursuit (such as the Phillies). Coming off an injury, Curtis Granderson also could be headed back to the Yankees.

For Morales, this almost guarantees he returns to Seattle. The market for designated hitters has been slow in recent seasons and it's unlikely any team will give him $14.1 million, even on a one-year deal, and certainly not at the cost of a first-round pick. He'll probably go back to Seattle, maybe negotiating a deal similar to what LaRoche signed with the Nationals last year.

The most interesting guy could be Drew. He was a free agent a year ago and signed a one-year deal with Boston that paid him $9.5 million. After missing time in 2011 and 2012 with injuries, he had his best season at the plate since 2010. Considering he's the only top shortstop on the market, interest in him was expected to be high. But if you're, say, the Cardinals and wishing to replace Pete Kozma, do you want to give Drew a multi-year contract for tens of millions and lose that first-round pick? That's a tougher call.


There were some moments there when it appeared the Tampa Bay Rays would complete a mini collapse of sorts, especially when manager Joe Maddon lost his cool as the Rays were starting to melt down in the seventh inning and he had an Earl Weaver moment, getting ejected after arguing with plate umpire Paul Schreiber following a trip to the mound.

The Rays had entered the weekend in control of their own wild-card destiny, but while the Indians and Rangers were beating the Twins and Angels, Tampa had lost twice to Toronto. A six-run first inning made it appear it would be an easy win on Sunday, but the Rays saw a 7-0 lead slide to 7-3 in the sixth, then 7-4 in the seventh and then 7-6 in the eighth as closer Fernando Rodney gave up two run-scoring singles and then a walk that loaded the bases. But he struck out Moses Sierra with two outs and got through the ninth and now the Rays will play the Rangers in the tiebreaker game on Monday night to move on to the wild-card game.

On paper, the pitching matchup goes to the Rays, with David Price starting against Martin Perez. The Rays set up their rotation back in early September to line up Price to start the wild-card game or, if necessary, this game. The Rangers had to scramble at the end and, needing a win on Sunday, started ace Yu Darvish, so the start here falls to the young left-hander.

Before we get to Price's checkered big-game history -- especially against the Rangers -- I'm left with two thoughts on this year's wild-card race.

First, the Rays are arguably better than the Indians or Rangers. By that, I mean the AL East was clearly a tougher division than the Central or the West. AL East teams went 242-188 outside the division, the Central went 210-220 and the West went 197-233. If the Rays had played 19 games against the Astros and Mariners instead of the Orioles and Blue Jays, they would have likely won a few more games.

But them's the breaks, I guess, and strength of schedule matters only for NCAA tournament seedings. Plus, the Rangers are hosting the game because they did win the season series, 4-3.

The second issue is the decision the Rays made to start Wil Myers in the minor leagues and not recall him until June 18. While the Rays can claim they wanted Myers to work on cutting down his strikeouts, we also know this move is something the Rays have done in the past to save money. By delaying Myers' call-up date, they saved not only a season on his free agency but also postponed his initial eligibility for arbitration by a year. That will save them millions down the road, but maybe it will end up costing them a playoff berth this year.

From Opening Day until June 17, Rays right fielders hit .246/.327/.427, not awful but below Myers' .295/.353/.482 line. Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist played a lot out there early on, so in essence the Rays were playing guys like Ryan Roberts and Sam Fuld early on instead of Myers. I think it's fair to suggest the Rays would have at least one more win if Myers had been called up six weeks earlier.

[+] EnlargeDavid Price
AP Photo/Michael DwyerDavid Price doesn't want to have to face further questions about his problems with the Rangers.
OK, so what about Monday's game? While Price is understandably the guy Maddon wants to give the ball to, it's also true that the Rangers sort of have the whammy on him. Price is 1-4 with a 5.98 ERA in eight regular-season starts against Texas and is 0-3 with a 4.66 ERA in three postseason starts. Those are the only three playoff starts of Price's career, and remember also that on that memorable final day of 2011 he started and dug a big hole for the Rays when he allowed six runs in four innings to the Yankees. So he has a checkered past in big games.

After missing all of June with a triceps injury, Price returned and had the best stretch of his career, eight starts where he went 5-1 with a 1.40 ERA, a 44-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio and had three complete games where he threw fewer than 100 pitches. He's allowed two runs in each of his past four starts, but hasn't had quite the same efficiency. What he's done, however, is keep the ball in the park as he's given up just two home runs in his past 11 starts.

In a move to perhaps counteract Price's dominance against left-handers, the Rangers announced Nelson Cruz will be activated for Monday's game. They didn't say whether he would be in the starting lineup, but you have to think Ron Washington may take that chance even though Cruz hasn't played a major league game since Aug. 4.

The past week or so, Washington has gone with Craig Gentry in left, Leonys Martin in center and Alex Rios in right, with David Murphy, Jeff Baker and others rotating through the DH slot. Martin hasn't hit lefties (.231/.286/.300), but an outfield of Gentry/Martin/Rios is the best defensive alignment the Rangers can throw out there. Baker will be in the lineup somewhere, considering he's slugged .667 against left-handers (10 home runs in 105 at-bats). An infielder by trade, Baker has started 15 games at first base. If I'm Washington, I keep the outfield intact, play Baker at first, bench Mitch Moreland and use Cruz as the designated hitter.

(Update: Baker has a hernia and has been ruled out from playing in the field the past few weeks. Plus he hasn't homered since August, so we'll likely see Moreland at first but maybe still see Cruz at DH.)

Perez doesn't have Price's résumé, but he has a 3.05 ERA over his past 11 starts. The peripherals aren't quite as good, with just 51 strikeouts in 73 2/3 innings. However, Perez has a great changeup that has actually made him more effective against right-handed batters. Maddon is pretty limited in his lefty-bashing options at the plate. You may see David DeJesus, who has delivered some big hits down the stretch, but you're unlikely to see Matt Joyce, who hit .167 against lefties.

Washington, of course, has a deep bullpen so he'll have the luxury of a quick hook and the ability to mix and match with righties and lefties. Remember, expanded rosters are in play since this is simply Game No. 163 of the regular season. While Perez has been solid of late, I don't think Washington should play around unless Perez is absolutely dealing; a quick hook should be in order. On the other hand, in sweeping the Angels, Washington did use Tanner Scheppers and Joe Nathan all four games and Neal Cotts in three. Not that Scheppers or Nathan will be unavailable, but it probably means Washington is even more unlikely to be a little creative and maybe stretch those two for four or five outs instead of three.

Given where the Rays were a week ago, I feel like more pressure is actually on them. The Rangers won their last seven just to get here and have to feel good just to have one more game. If the Rays lose, they'd become the first team since the 2002-03 Mariners to miss the playoffs two straight years while winning 90-plus games, so they face the frustration of another excellent season that falls just short of the postseason.

I don't see Price going the distance, so it becomes a battle of the bullpens in the late innings. Advantage, Rangers. I'll say Texas 4, Tampa Bay 3, with Fernando Rodney taking the loss in the bottom of the ninth.


David Schoenfield took your questions in a live video chat to discuss today's Biogenesis suspensions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advantage: A's.

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

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

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

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Which team will win the AL West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edge: Rangers.

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

 
News items:

1. Sources say Major League Baseball will seek to suspend about 20 players connected to the Biogenesis PED scandal up to 100 games.

2. The Oakland A's lost a tough one, 4-3 in 10 innings to the Brewers after blowing a 3-0 lead. Still, they've won 15 of their past 18 games.

3. The Texas Rangers were hammered 17-5 in Boston.

The Rangers' lead over the A's in the AL West -- 7 games less than three weeks ago -- remains at 1.5 games. Maybe you were ready to count out the A's back when they were plodding along at 20-22, chalking up 2012's division title as a fluke. But this is what the A's do: They get on these awesome runs, an Oakland tradition going back to the Hudson-Zito-Mulder clubs.

Last year, they were 37-42 entering July, 13 games out of first place. They won 18 of their next 21 games; in August and early September they would run off another stretch of 15 wins in 17 games. In 2006, when they had last won the AL West title, the A's were 25-30 on June 2 when they won 13 out of 14. They would later reel out a 17-3 stretch. In 2004, they had a 16-2 stretch in August/early September. In 2003, it was a 14-2 stretch in August/September that pulled them to a division title. In 2002, it was the famous 20-game winning streak beginning in August. In 2001, they had a 22-2 stretch -- again in August into September.

Those earlier years were a different generation of A's teams, of course, but the A's have always had a similar philosophy, it seems: They're loose, they have fun, they play with that ol' fire in their bellies. Whether or not that helps to lead to more of these hot streaks, I don't know, but when the A's get hot they seem unstoppable.

The Rangers, of course, were supposed to be here, although there were some questions about the offense after losing Josh Hamilton, some concerns about the bullpen with Alexi Ogando moving back to the rotation, and then some concerns about the rotation after Matt Harrison underwent back surgery after just two starts.

It's a fascinating AL West race, especially after the A's swept the Rangers in the final three games last season to pass the Rangers and send Texas into the wild-card game. The Rangers have become one of baseball's wealthy franchises while the A's are still put together with toothpaste and tin foil. The Rangers still have the star power -- Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler -- while Oakland's best player has been the relatively unknown second-year third baseman/former catcher Josh Donaldson.

[+] EnlargeOakland's Bartolo Colon
Ed Szczepanski/USA TODAY SportsBartolo Colon has been the A's best pitcher this season.
This race becomes even more interesting if MLB does find a way to suspend the players involved in the Biogenesis report. While the biggest names there are Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez, the two most important names are Bartolo Colon of the A's and Nelson Cruz of the Rangers. Braun's Brewers are way out of the race, the Yankees are hoping A-Rod just goes away and the Nationals' Gio Gonzalez, while on the list of Biogenesis clients, might have received only legal substances.

Remarkably, Colon, who just turned 40 on May 24, has been Oakland's best pitcher with a 6-2 record and 3.33 ERA. He's become one of the most unique pitchers in major league history. He's walked just four batters in 11 starts and basically throws just fastballs -- two-seamers and four-seamers, so count that as two pitches if you'd like. Of the 964 pitches he's thrown, 823 have been fastballs, with some sliders and changeups mixed in.

If Colon were to be suspended, the A's have a couple options. First, there's Brett Anderson, their preseason No. 1, who's currently on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his right foot. But he might be out another two months. After that, former first-round draft pick Sonny Gray would appear to be the next option, as he has 2.40 ERA at Triple-A Sacramento with 65 strikeouts, 20 walks and just one home run allowed in 63.2 innings.

Cruz may be even more difficult to replace, however. He's having a solid season with a .268/.323/.512 line, hitting his 14th home run in Tuesday's loss. But this Rangers team isn't the offensive powerhouse of recent seasons, ranking seventh in the AL in runs scored. They could play defensive whiz Craig Gentry on a regular basis or utility guy Jeff Baker, but Gentry would be exposed offensively playing every day while Baker is really just a platoon bat against left-handers. There doesn't appear to be much in the way of outfielders on the Triple-A roster. Of course, the wild card could be moving Jurickson Profar to the outfield when Kinsler returns from the DL, but I don't think you would move a rookie infielder to a new position at the major league level. Or, horror of horrors, you could try Lance Berkman or Mitch Moreland out there.

Of those options, playing Gentry is probably the best one; at least he'll give you great defense. Baker can continue to be platooned with David Murphy in left field. But losing Cruz's power still leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the lineup.

The Rangers could look to swing a trade -- Andre Ethier (and his ugly contract) is probably available for free from the Dodgers!

Of course, we're getting way ahead of ourselves. But if MLB gets its way on the suspensions, it's the A's and Rangers who will be most affected. How Billy Beane and Jon Daniels respond ultimately could decide the AL West.

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