SweetSpot: Nick Punto

You may have seen that Major League Baseball will now be giving out annual Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year and Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year awards. Jim Caple poked a little fun at this, wondering what's next, "The Nick Punto Oscar for Best Supporting Player in a Utility Role"?

That got me to thinking: Who is the best utility infielder of all time? Should the award actually be named after Punto, or is there a more deserving player? How to even go about searching for an answer? Will I actually spend time doing this?

Of course I will! I am here to serve you, and this was a question that demanded an answer.

I reached out to Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information for help. I asked for the following parameters: most career plate appearances since 1900 while never batting 500 times in a season. I figured this would give us a starting point. Unfortunately, this eliminated Punto from consideration, since he twice batted more than 500 times, in 2006 and 2007 with the Twins. True, he played all over the place, but if you bat 500 times, you're more or less a regular. I want a guy who never moved past a backup role, even for a season.

That initial list mostly turned up catchers, which I should have realized would happen; the top seven guys were Rick Dempsey, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jerry Grote, Alan Ashby, Cliff Johnson, Andy Seminick and Don Slaught. The first non-catcher was Tom Paciorek, who played 18 seasons in the majors and never batted 500 times. The one season he was a regular (and made the All-Star team) was 1981, the strike season, so he didn't bat 500 times. Anyway, Paciorek was an outfielder/first baseman/DH, not what we're looking for.

So we did a second search that added 200 career games at shortstop as a qualifier. This gave us a better list:

Rance Mulliniks (4,089 plate appearances)
Bill Spiers (3,845)
Maicer Izturis (3,332)
Tom Foley (2,988)
Manny Lee (2,960)
Willie Bloomquist (2,929)
Juan Castro (2,849)
Abraham Nunez (2,804)
Larry Milbourne (2,671)
Brendan Ryan (2,645)
Denny Hocking (2,632)
Jeff Reboulet (2,607)
John McDonald (2,565)
Rocky Bridges (2,537)
Rafael Belliard (2,524)
Bob Lillis (2,492)

We can eliminate some of these guys. Mulliniks did come up as a shortstop but spent most of his career platooning at third base for the Blue Jays in the '80s. From 1983 to 1988 he hit .293/.374/.458 with a 124 OPS+. A good player, but not what we're after. Lee, Ryan, Belliard and Lillis also spent seasons as the primary starting shortstops for their teams, although they never batted 500 times. Spiers had some seasons as the Brewers' starting shortstop but couldn't stay healthy.

Here's the rest of the list again with each player's career WAR:

Maicer Izturis (11.0)
Tom Foley (5.8)
Willie Bloomquist (2.3)
Juan Castro (-5.2)
Abraham Nunez (0.9)
Larry Milbourne (-0.3)
Denny Hocking (-0.5)
Jeff Reboulet (10.2)
John McDonald (6.9)
Rocky Bridges (3.0)

It's possible there is somebody out there who had a shorter career and was a better player than these guys, but I don't think so. I did a quick scroll of all players who played at least 200 games at shortstop with between 10 and 25 career WAR and it gave us Mike Gallego and Jamey Carroll, but they both had seasons of 500 plate appearances (Carroll had three).

So it looks like it's a two-man debate for best utility guy ever: Maicer Izturis, now with the Blue Jays, versus former Twins/Orioles legend Jeff Reboulet.

Izturis is a classic tweener. He doesn't have the range to play shortstop on an every-day basis but doesn't have the power you want from a third baseman. He hits some doubles, draws some walks and probably could have been an every-day second baseman at some point, but the Angels had Adam Kennedy and then Howie Kendrick in front of him. The most games he ever started at one position in a season was 78 at third base for the Angels in 2006. He definitely fits our utility definition.

Reboulet came up through the Twins system and played with them from 1992 to 1996, was with the Orioles from 1997 to 1999 and finished up with the Royals, Dodgers and Pirates. He gets bonus points for jumping on the small-market merry-go-round by playing with bad Royals and Pirates clubs. They were probably looking for veteran leadership.

Anyway, while Izturis nearly missed our list by batting 494 times in 2011, Reboulet never came close, peaking at 299 PAs in his final season in 2003. The most games he ever started in a season was 62 at second base for those mighty 2003 Pirates, but he played nearly as many innings at shortstop in his career as second base. He even started 24 games at first base plus five in the outfield and played one inning at catcher.

Here's another bonus: Reboulet owned Randy Johnson, so to speak. He faced him more than any other pitcher in his career -- 66 times (he faced Chuck Finley 45 times, the only other pitcher he faced more than 26 times). He hit .273/.375/.436 against Johnson, with two of his 20 career home runs. In Game 4 of the 1997 division series, Orioles manager Davey Johnson benched Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar and inserted Reboulet into the lineup. He homered, and the Orioles won 3-1.

Izturis was the better hitter (91 OPS+ versus 72), Reboulet the better fielder (53 runs saved on defense versus -11). Pick your poison. I'm going with the Randy Johnson killer and slick glove. Congratulations, Jeff Reboulet, you're the best utility infielder of all time.

(And if you want to argue that I unfairly disqualified Punto, I guess I won't argue too vociferously. His career WAR of 14.5 is higher than Reboulet's.)

Dodgers' addition of Young a no-risk assist

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
12:23
AM ET
This late in the season, the Dodgers are cruising to win the NL West, so why would they make a move and trade for Michael Young?

One big reason is that third base has been the Dodgers’ weakest slot on offense: Through Friday’s action, Dodger third basemen had among their position players put up a lineup-low .646 OPS. Most of that was other people bringing down what they were getting from Juan Uribe, and Uribe’s .722 OPS at that point was identical to Young’s mark. Add in Uribe’s significantly better defense (plus-9 Defensive Runs Saved to Young’s minus-17 at third this year), and you might still wonder what the point of getting Young was.
[+] EnlargeMichael Young
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesMichael Young still swings a quick enough bat against fastballs to help the Dodgers.

To that, I’d make two points. First, this shouldn’t be a one-for-one change in the lineup. Maybe Young gets the job at third base, maybe not. Of course you’re not going to platoon Uribe and Young at third, not in the traditional sense: They’re both right-handed, and they’re both not doing as well against lefties as they have in the past.

But you could play matchup games and use both of them, going by the opposing pitcher’s stuff, not handedness. Young has been hitting fastballs effectively this year (worth 5.0 runs above average on fastballs, per FanGraphs) and he’s stronger on sliders as well (1.7 above average), while Uribe isn’t as strong against those pitches but is in the black against curveballs and changeups -- which Young has fared much less well against. So, maybe we could look forward to some interesting mix-and-match possibilities at the hot corner for the Dodgers down the stretch, as Don Mattingly gets used to having both and deciding which one he’s more comfortable with on his lineup card against different pitchers.

Beyond that, there’s also the depth to the roster that Young adds for the Dodgers at positions beyond third base. While Uribe used to be a good shortstop and still is a good third baseman, he hasn’t played short since last year, and not for any serious amount of time since 2010. And he hasn’t played much second base since 2011. So he isn’t really a great choice to bump back into a utility role to make up for what Jerry Hairston Jr. hasn’t been able to do -- but Young might be able to.

After all, Young was able and willing to bound around the diamond for the Rangers in 2011 and 2012 while playing every day; while his defense at second base wouldn’t be anything to get excited about, slotting him against particular pitchers while someone like Clayton Kershaw or Zack Greinke pitching -- pitchers who don’t allow a lot of balls in play in the first place -- the Dodgers could net an offensive benefit they might not get from the sporadically healthy Mark Ellis, the punchless Nick Punto or the used-up Hairston.

But the most important consideration is this: Would you really want to bank on Juan Uribe in this season, after he’d already given the Dodgers two disastrously awful seasons peppered by injuries? As insurance moves go, it’s a nice one to have made, for third base, but also more than just third base. Given the Dodgers didn’t give up a prospect they’ll miss and only have to pay for the benefit, it’s a low-risk, some-possible-reward pickup they might have reason to appreciate in short order.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

 
We've had a brawl, we've had upsets, we've had dramatic late-inning rallies and, thanks to one big swing from David Wright, we now get a monumental showdown between bitter enemies Canada and the United States to stay alive in the World Baseball Classic.

OK, maybe it's not quite Sidney Crosby and the Canadians taking on Ryan Miller and the Americans in the 2010 gold-medal hockey game at the Vancouver Olympics, and maybe Canada and the U.S. aren't exactly enemies on the diamond, but Sunday's game at Chase Field in Phoenix is probably the biggest baseball game for Canadians since the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series in 1993.

Baseball fans in the U.S. are still warming up to the whole idea of this tournament, and while a major goal is to help increase popularity of the sport in countries such as Brazil and China and Italy and the Netherlands, don't be fooled: The organizers want U.S. fans to get as passionate about the World Baseball Classic as those in Japan and Latin America. In large part because second-round games will be held in Miami, with the semifinals and finals in San Francisco, and the organizers want sold-out ballparks -- something more likely to happen if the U.S. keeps advancing.

With that possibly in mind, the U.S. was given a soft pool. While the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico were all placed together in Pool C, the U.S. drew lighter-weights Mexico, Canada and Italy. But when Italy beat Mexico and Canada, and then Mexico upset the U.S. on Friday night, it suddenly put pressure on the U.S. to win its final two games of pool play. Joe Torre's squad was actually helped when Canada beat Mexico earlier Saturday -- a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl in the ninth inning -- meaning the Americans now controlled their destiny.

That destiny took a turn for the worse when the surprising Italians took a 2-0 lead against Ryan Vogelsong, who didn't have his usual excellent fastball command. Most of the Italian players are from the U.S., including big leaguers Anthony Rizzo, Chris Denorfia and Nick Punto, but cleanup hitter Alex Liddi of the Mariners was born and raised in Italy and 23-year-old starting pitcher Luca Panerati is an Italian who played a few years in the Reds system, topping out in A-ball. Panerati nevertheless shut down the U.S. with his 86 mph fastball and offspeed pitches, leaving after three scoreless innings; he can tell his grandkids someday about the time he shut down a lineup of major league All-Stars. But the U.S. rallied with five runs in the fifth inning, capped by Wright's two-out grand slam off Matt Torra, an American who pitched in Triple-A for Tampa Bay’s organization last year.

[+] EnlargeDavid Wright
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsDavid Wright turned one around from Italy's Matt Torra for the key fifth-inning grand slam.
That 6-2 win means U.S. versus Canada, winners move on to Miami, losers go home (or back to spring training). Considering the way this tournament has gone -- Italy advancing, Venezuela out after losing its first two games, 2009 runner-up South Korea failing to advance out of the first round, the Netherlands beating Cuba in a second-round game -- don't count out the Canadians.

First, their lineup has some guys you've heard of: Former MVPs Joey Votto and Justin Morneau. Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders went 4-for-4 in the 10-3 win over Mexico. The lineup was hurt by Brett Lawrie's injury in spring training and we’ll have to see if Pete Orr and Rene Tosoni, ejected after the brawl, will be suspended or not; the pitching is thin without guys such as Ryan Dempster, Scott Diamond and Erik Bedard participating. Still, Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon will start against the U.S., and while he hasn't reached the major leagues yet (he pitched in Double-A last year), he has major league stuff, ranking as Keith Law No. 20 preseason prospect. He's certainly capable of shutting down the U.S. lineup for his 65-pitch limit. After that, however, Canada's pitching thins out in a hurry, with Brewers closer John Axford and Phillies reliever Phillippe Aumont the two biggest names in the bullpen.

The U.S. will start Derek Holland, a good strategic move by Torre to get the lefty Holland in there to try to neutralize Votto, Morneau and Saunders. With Ross Detwiler throwing four scoreless innings of relief against Italy, that means the U.S. bullpen is well-rested. Look for Torre to use lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Glen Perkins against the middle of the lineup in the middle innings, and he still has Craig Kimbrel waiting to get some action.

The U.S. will be heavy favorite to advance. To use another Olympic hockey analogy, the Americans are the Soviets. Do the Canadians have a miracle in store? I'll be watching to find out. After all, it's about time we settle this border war with Canada.
Alex Avila, Carlos Santana & Joe MauerUS PresswireWith Alex Avila, Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer, the AL Central is loaded at catcher.


We're back with more divisional position rankings for 2012. You can scream, you can holler, you can protest and call me names. But just because I rated your player lower than you think he deserves doesn't mean I hate your team.

(Here are the NL East and NL West rankings.)

Catcher
1. Alex Avila, Tigers
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Carlos Santana, Indians
4. Salvador Perez, Royals
5. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox

The AL Central might not be baseball's glamor division, but it may have three of the top five catchers in the game if Mauer bounces back from his injury-plagued campaign. Since we're not certain of his health, I'm going to give top billing to Avila, who had the best hitting numbers of any catcher outside of Mike Napoli and plays solid defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Santana explodes; with his power-and-walks combo, all he has to do is raise his average 30 points and he'll be one of the most valuable players in the game. Considering that his average on balls in play was .263, there is a good chance of that happening. Perez hit .331 in 39 games; OK, he won't do that again, but he doesn't turn 22 until May and puts the ball in play. There's no shame in being fifth in this group but that's where I have to place Pierzynski, who keeps rolling along and is now 36th on the all-time list for games caught.

First base
1. Prince Fielder, Tigers
2. Paul Konerko, White Sox
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Justin Morneau, Twins
5. Matt LaPorta, Indians

In 2009, when Morneau played 135 games, he hit .274 AVG/.363 OBP/.516 SLG. Even if he replicates that line, he may rank only fourth. Konerko has hit a combined .306 with 70 home runs the past two seasons. He's 104 home runs from 500 but turns 36 in March, so he's probably four seasons away; not sure he'll hang on that long, but who knew he'd be this good at this age. If Hosmer improves his walk rate and defense and Konerko declines, Hosmer could climb past him. If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen next. The most similar batter to him at age 21: Eddie Murray.

Second base
1. Jason Kipnis, Indians
2. Gordon Beckham, White Sox
3. Johnny Giavotella, Royals
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins
5. Ramon Santiago, Tigers

Well, this isn't exactly a Robinson Cano/Dustin Pedroia/Ben Zobrist debate, is it? Kipnis' bat is a sure thing, as evidenced by his excellent play after his call-up (.272 average and .507 slugging in 36 games). His glove was once a question mark but now appears solid enough that he looks like a future All-Star to me. Can anybody explain what has happened to Beckham? He's second mostly by default; he's gone downhill since his superb rookie season in 2009 but is only 25, so there's hope that he'll find those skills again. Giavotella has some potential with the bat (.338/.390/.481 at Triple-A), which is more than you can say for Casilla and Santiago.

Third base
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians
4. Danny Valencia, Twins
5. Brent Morel, White Sox

We'll go with the idea that Cabrera is Detroit's starting third baseman, although I predict he'll end up starting more games at designated hitter. Manager Jim Leyland will end up doing a lot of mixing of his lineups, but for this little exercise we have to choose a starter. Moustakas didn't tear up the league as a rookie and I worry about his ability to hit lefties (.191, homerless in 89 at-bats), but he showed more than fellow rookies Chisenhall and Morel. Valencia doesn't get on base enough and he rated poorly on defense in 2011. I hope he's at least good in the clubhouse. Morel was terrible all season and then exploded for eight of his 10 home runs in September and drew 15 walks after drawing just seven the previous five months. Maybe something clicked.

Shortstop
1. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
2. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3. Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
4. Alcides Escobar, Royals
5. Jamey Carroll, Twins

Peralta had the best 2011 season, but he's a difficult guy to project. He had an .804 OPS in 2008 but dropped to .691 in 2009. He had a .703 OPS in 2010 and then .823 in 2011. I just don't see a repeat season, at the plate or in the field. Cabrera didn't rate well on the defensive metrics, and after a strong start he wore down in the second half. Ramirez has turned into a nice player, with a good glove and some power, and he even draws a few walks now. Escobar is a true magician with the glove. Carroll is actually a useful player who gets on base (.356 career OBP), but he's pushed as an everyday shortstop and he'll be 38. He'll be issued the honorary Nick Punto locker in the Twins' clubhouse.

Left field
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
2. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
3. Ben Revere, Twins
4. Michael Brantley/Shelley Duncan, Indians
5. Ryan Raburn/Don Kelly, Tigers

I'm not sure what to do here. After Gordon, I just get a headache. We'll pretend to believe in De Aza after his impressive stint in the majors (171 plate appearances, .329/.400/.920). He's hit in Triple-A for three seasons now, and while he's not going to post a .400 OBP again, he should be adequate. Revere is one of the fastest players in the majors, but he's all speed and defense; he hopes to grow up to be Brett Gardner, which isn't a bad thing, but he'll have to learn to get on base at a better clip. Brantley doesn't have one outstanding skill so he'll have to hit better than .266 to be anything more than a fourth outfielder; Duncan provides some right-handed pop as a platoon guy. The Tigers have Delmon Young, but I'll slot him at DH. That leaves supposed lefty masher Raburn and utility man Kelly to soak up at-bats; both had an OBP below .300 in 2011, although Raburn has hit better in the past.

Center field
1. Austin Jackson, Tigers
2. Denard Span, Twins
3. Grady Sizemore, Indians
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
5. Alex Rios, White Sox

I can't rate Sizemore any higher since he's played just 104 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn't had a big year since 2008. Rios was terrible in '09, OK in '10 and worse than terrible in '11. I'm not betting on him.

Right field
1. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
2. Brennan Boesch, Tigers
3. Jeff Francoeur, Royals
4. Josh Willingham, Twins
5. Dayan Viciedo, White Sox

Choo would like to forget 2011, but there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back and play like he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was one of the 10 best position players in the AL. I don't expect Francoeur to deliver 71 extra-base hits again, but maybe he'll surprise us. Viciedo is apparently nicknamed "The Tank," which makes me wonder how much ground he can cover. He did improve his walk rate last season in the minors and turns 23 in March, so there's still room for more growth.

Designated hitter
1. Billy Butler, Royals
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Ryan Doumit, Twins
4. Delmon Young, Tigers
5. Adam Dunn, White Sox

Has there been a bigger prospect disappointment than Young in the past decade? I mean, yes, there were complete busts like Brandon Wood and Andy Marte, but those guys had obvious holes in their games, while Young was viewed as a sure thing, a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. But his bat has never lived up to its billing. Other than one decent year in Minnesota, he has low OBPs and he clearly lacked range in the outfield. His career WAR on Baseball-Reference is minus-0.2 (1.6 on FanGraphs), meaning he's been worse than replacement level. He's just not that good, Tigers fans.

No. 1 starter
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. John Danks, White Sox
3. Justin Masterson, Indians
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
5. Carl Pavano, Twins

Masterson was better than Danks in 2011, and I do believe his improvement was real. He absolutely crushes right-handers -- they slugged an anemic .259 off him. Danks had two bad months but has the longer track record of success. Even in his "off year" he had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than Masterson. If you want to argue about Hochevar versus Pavano, be my guest.

No. 2 starter
1. Doug Fister, Tigers
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
3. Gavin Floyd, White Sox
4. Francisco Liriano, Twins
5. Jonathan Sanchez, Royals

Yes, sign me up for the Doug Fister bandwagon club. Jimenez's fastball velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season but the positives are that his strikeout and walk rates were identical to 2010; he'll be better. Floyd isn't flashy but he's now made 30-plus starts four years in a row, and he'll become a very rich man when he becomes a free agent after this season. Sanchez won't have the luxury of pitching in San Francisco (and to eight-man NL lineups).

No. 3 starter
1. Max Scherzer, Tigers
2. Scott Baker, Twins
3. Philip Humber, White Sox
4. Bruce Chen, Royals
5. Josh Tomlin, Indians

I could be underrating Baker, who was excellent last season, but only once in his career has he made 30 starts in a season. Tomlin's fans will disagree with this ranking, but he's a finesse guy who relies on the best control in baseball (21 walks in 26 starts). He's the kind of guy you root for, but the league seemed to figure him out as the season progressed.

No. 4 starter
1. Felipe Paulino, Royals
2. Rick Porcello, Tigers
3. Jake Peavy, White Sox
4. Derek Lowe, Indians
5. Nick Blackburn, Twins

Scouts still love Porcello's arm and I know he's just 23, but he's made 89 big league starts and shown no signs of getting better. His WHIP has increased each season and his strikeout rate remains one of the lowest in baseball. Paulino has an electric arm -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball -- and is getting better. How could the Rockies give up on him after just 14 innings? How could the Astros trade him for Clint Barmes? Anyway, kudos to the Royals for buying low on the guy who may turn into their best starter. Peavy can't stay healthy. Lowe has led his league in starts three out of the past four seasons, but I'm not sure that's a good thing anymore. Blackburn is a poor man's Lowe, and I don't mean that in a good way.

No. 5 starter
1. Chris Sale, White Sox
2. Jacob Turner, Tigers
3. Aaron Crow/Danny Duffy, Royals
4. Fausto Carmona/David Huff/Jeanmar Gomez, Indians
5. Brian Duensing/Jason Marquis, Twins

Welcome to the AL Central crapshoot. Turner and Sale have the most upside, but one is a rookie and the other is converting from relief. Crow will also be given a shot at the rotation, but his difficulties against left-handed batters (.311 average allowed) don't bode well for that transition. Even if the artist formerly known as Carmona gets a visa, what do you have? A guy with a 5.01 ERA over the past four seasons. Duensing is another typical Twins pitcher, which means he at least throws strikes. His first full season in the rotation didn't go well, so of course the Twins brought in Marquis, yet another guy who doesn't strike anybody out.

Closer
1. Jose Valverde, Tigers
2. Joakim Soria, Royals
3. Matt Thornton, White Sox
4. Chris Perez, Indians
5. Matt Capps, Twins

Four good relievers plus Matt Capps. I do admit I'm a little perplexed by Perez, however. In 2009, he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. In 2010, that figure fell to 8.7 but he posted a pretty 1.71 ERA. In 2011, it was all the way down to 5.9, but without much improvement in his control. Perez blew only four saves but he did lose seven games. He survived thanks to a low .240 average on balls in play. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher but didn't serve up many home runs. Bottom line: I'd be nervous.

Bullpen
1. Indians -- Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Nick Hagadone
2. Royals -- Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares
3. Tigers -- Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Al Alburquerque
4. White Sox -- Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod
5. Twins -- Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

If you're starting to think I'm not high on the Twins for this season, you would be correct.

Intangibles
1. Royals
2. Indians
3. Tigers
4. White Sox
5. Twins

I like the youthful exuberance of the Royals, plus the likelihood of improvement from the young players and the possibility of some midseason reinforcements from the minors. The depth of the bullpen will help bolster a shaky rotation, and this just feels like an organization that is finally starting to believe in itself. The Indians are riding last year's positive results and enter the season knowing they might get better production from Choo and Sizemore and full seasons from Kipnis and Chisenhall. I'm not knocking the Tigers here, but they do lack depth in the pitching staff and the pressure is on them.

The final tally
1. Tigers, 65 points
2. Royals, 55 points
3. Indians, 54 points
4. White Sox, 46 points
5. Twins, 35 points

No surprise here: The Tigers will be heavy favorites to win the division with a lineup that should score a ton of runs. I don't think it's a lock that they'll win -- Verlander, Avila, Peralta and Valverde will all be hard-pressed to repeat their 2011 campaigns, for example. But the Royals and Indians appear to have too many questions in the rotations, the White Sox have serious lineup issues, and the Twins have a beautiful ballpark to play their games in.
Tags:

Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Andy Marte, Joe Mauer, John Danks, Jonathan Broxton, Denard Span, Nick Punto, Alcides Escobar, Rafael Perez, Justin Morneau, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Brandon Wood, Anthony Swarzak, Dustin Pedroia, Alex Rios, Tim Collins, Justin Verlander, Jonathan Sanchez, Alexei Ramirez, Ryan Doumit, Justin Masterson, Jason Frasor, Jason Marquis, Francisco Liriano, Matt Capps, Luke Hochevar, Alex Gordon, Matt LaPorta, Prince Fielder, Gordon Beckham, Alexi Casilla, Joakim Soria, Gavin Floyd, Delmon Young, Ramon Santiago, Carl Pavano, Mike Napoli, Ubaldo Jimenez, Grady Sizemore, Jeff Francoeur, Travis Hafner, Jose Valverde, Jake Peavy, Billy Butler, Adam Dunn, Derek Lowe, Miguel Cabrera, Brian Duensing, Ben Zobrist, Fausto Carmona, Jim Leyland, Shin-Soo Choo, Max Scherzer, Phil Coke, Michael Brantley, Danny Valencia, Jose Mijares, Danny Duffy, Carlos Santana, A.J. Pierzynski, Austin Jackson, Robinson Cano, Chris Perez, Clint Barmes, Brett Gardner, Brennan Boesch, Nick Blackburn, Paul Konerko, Scott Baker, Chris Sale, Josh Willingham, Jhonny Peralta, Asdrubal Cabrera, Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp, Matt Thornton, Aaron Crow, Josh Tomlin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Jamey Carroll, Jesse Crain, Alex Avila, philip humber, Brent Morel, Joaquin Benoit, Ben Revere, Eric Hosmer, Al Alburquerque, Ryan Raburn, Mike Moustakas, Dayan Viciedo, Octavio Dotel, Jacob Turner, Don Kelly, Salvador Perez, Johnny Giavotella, Lorenzo Cain, Jeanmar Gomez, Shelley Duncan, Alejandro De Aza, Bruce Chen, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Glen Perkins, Felipe Paulino, Nick Hagadone, Daniel Schlereth, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

Will Jose Iglesias be the new Rey Ordonez?

January, 23, 2012
1/23/12
5:45
PM ET
Sending shortstop Marco Scutaro away might seem like an invitation for disaster for the Red Sox. It might seem as if they are about to lurch back into the bad, old days of Jackie Gutierrez, just so that they can afford Roy Oswalt in an attempt to keep up with the Yankees in the AL East arms race.

But if anything, dumping Scutaro with one year left on his contract represents a neat calculated risk: Can Nick Punto and Mike Aviles keep them covered at least until they might call on defensive whiz Jose Iglesias?

[+] EnlargeMarco Scutaro
AP Photo/Dave MartinThe Red Sox traded Marco Scutaro to the Rockies for right-handed pitcher Clayton Mortensen.
There's little doubt that Iglesias' glove is ready right now. The Cuban defector's range, arm and footwork already make him a decent choice for best shortstop glove in the minors today. The problem is whether his bat will be ready, now or ever.

After Iglesias' .235/.285/.269 line for Triple-A Pawtucket as a 21-year-old last season, you can understand the skepticism. Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projects Iglesias to hit .267/.307/.344, while Baseball Info Solutions is significantly more pessimistic about what he might do this year (.241/.277/.277).

The situation is a lot like that of a previous Cuban defector who was a highly regarded glove wizard: Rey Ordonez of the Mets. Ordonez was considered a ready-now glove from the moment he signed with the Mets at the end of 1993. Like Iglesias, he notched two years down on the farm before debuting in the majors. And at the plate he was worse than Iglesias despite being three years older at this same point of his career, hitting .214/.261/.294 for Triple-A Norfolk in 1995.

The Mets gave him the job at shortstop the next year anyway, heavily leaning on a strong interior defense. It didn't pay off immediately -- they won 71 games in '96. The Mets won 88 games in each of the next two seasons, though, although Ordonez didn't manage to get an OPS over .600 in any of his first three years.

The Mets then won 97 games and the wild card in '99, as Ordonez delivered his first borderline adequate season at the plate (.636 OPS). But the extent to which Ordonez was helping or hindering the effort to put the Mets over the top was open to question. When he got hurt in 2000, they traded for Mike Bordick at the deadline and won the NL pennant. The next year, they switched back to Ordonez -- and fell right back out of contention.

Iglesias isn't expected to be the second coming of Nomar Garciaparra, but he should eventually grow up to be better than Rey Ordonez at the plate. That's setting the bar as low as it can go, though. Would Iglesias' development as a hitter --if he has any in him -- suffer from an early promotion? Ozzie Smith is the ultimate example of a shortstop whose contributions on offense eventually caught up to his value on D. That was extraordinary, and the suspicion is that Iglesias won't be.

However, carrying a weak bat for the defensive payoff might be slightly easier on the Red Sox, especially now. They led the majors in scoring last season, and that was despite getting terrible production from their corner outfielders. Carl Crawford should be better, and there's no way they'll get worse production from their right fielders, even if they wind up relying on some combination of Ryan Sweeney, Darnell McDonald and Ryan Kalish.

Something approaching normalcy from those hitters would make Iglesias that much more palatable if Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine -- the man who managed Ordonez over the bulk of his “productive” career with the Mets -- takes a shine to Iglesias in camp.

In the meantime, Boston's fall-back options are fairly reasonable. Like Scutaro, Punto is neither the best or worst defender at short. The difference in their career OBPs (.338 vs. .325) is narrow enough to suggest there won't be any drop-off with a change to the identity of the ninth-slot hitter in Boston's lineup, and Punto actually has a higher walk rate for his career (10.2 percent to Scooter's 9.1). That's without getting into why Aviles might have been the best right-now option of the three. After getting jerked around by the Royals ever since coming back from the Tommy John surgery that put a dent in his future in 2009, he still profiles as a good bat and playable glove at short.

But it's Iglesias who represents the team's long-term future at short. And it's Rey Ordonez's old manager who will be helping to decide whether or not he can use the latest slick-fielding Cuban kid at short, sooner or later.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
The gang got back together for the final November edition of the Baseball Today podcast, as Mark Simon and I spoke about myriad offseason matters and welcomed a special guest!

1. ESPN senior writer Jim Caple shares his stories off the offseason both good and bad, waxing poetic about the CBA and Nick Punto but also the tragic Greg Halman incident.

2. Mark and I remind listeners about the MVP and Cy Young voting, what made sense and what did not. You might be surprised.

3. The big-name free agents remain unsigned, but there have been some interesting signings and a few trades to discuss. And where else will you hear the name Steve Buechele in 2011?

4. Interleague play for an entire season? Not surprisingly, Mark and I don’t share the same sentiments on the issue for that or the new playoff format.

5. We check out the latest emails, discussing the Houston Astros in the American League, interleague play, Theo and the Cubs and more!

Check back with the Baseball Today crew as we’re live -- well Keith Law will be -- from the winter meetings in Dallas next week!

Carroll part of bleak Minnesota winter

November, 11, 2011
11/11/11
10:00
PM ET
The Minnesota Twins’ rumored agreement with Jamey Carroll for two years and $7 million is another one of those nice developments (if you’re Jamey Carroll), while simultaneously proving to be yet another cause for frustration for Twins fans still wondering how they got here.

[+] EnlargeJamey Carroll
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesJamey Carroll might not be as effective a defensive shortstop as the Twins pitching staff needs.
Keep in mind, the Twins haven’t let the position become a scar over the years. After Cristian Guzman left as a free agent, they replaced him with Jason Bartlett, who they’d stolen from the Padres in a minor deal for Brian Buchanan years before. Even before Bartlett got expensive, they bundled him with Matt Garza to get Delmon Young from the Rays. The Twins didn’t effectively replace Bartlett for two years (mucking around with Nick Punto, Orlando Cabrera, Brendan Harris, Adam Everett and more), but finally dealt Carlos Gomez -- one of the keys to the Johan Santana trade -- to get J.J. Hardy. Yet a year later, with Hardy still a year removed from free agency, he was deemed too expensive, and Minnesota dealt him to the Orioles.

In all of these trades -- dealing away Garza plus Bartlett, Gomez, Hardy and Young -- the Twins have ended up on the short end, at least on every scoreboard that doesn’t have a dollar sign on it. Worse yet, they lost talent that other teams have either dealt to better effect or happily retained. And all of those trades belonged to then-general manager Bill Smith. So did signing Tsuyoshi Nishioka and finding he was another Japanese import who couldn’t handle shortstop in the major leagues. And the decision to move Alexi Casilla to short last year, despite a spotty track record there in the minors, without ever spending an entire season at the position? Another Smith move, for which you can blame penury, optimism or madness, whatever your inclination might be.

The question is whether this inaugural move for Terry Ryan’s second (non-consecutive) term running the show in Minny is really that much better, or if it isn’t just the latest patch slapped on a self-inflicted wound. There’s no reason to believe that Carroll can play short adequately on an everyday basis. His Total Zone Fielding Runs or Defensive Runs Saved marks this year were dreadful; they were dreadful in 2005. And this is the man joining a Twins team that needs good fielding behind its pitchers, who routinely rank low in the majors in strikeout rate, touching bottom with last season’s 30th-place finish.

Even if Carroll’s track record as a shortstop wasn’t poor, that’s without getting into the number of shortstops playing the position effectively into their late 30s. Carroll will be 38 by next season, and only 25 teams have ever played a shortstop that old or older; of them, only one, the 1984 Cubs with Larry Bowa, ever made the postseason. The Yankees will be giving it a shot next year with Derek Jeter. Suffice to say Jamey Carroll ain’t the Captain, whatever your position on Jeter’s defensive performance.

It’s possible that Carroll winds up at second instead of short, and that the Twins continue to employ Nishioka and Casilla and Trevor Plouffe at shortstop. However, a four-headed middle-infield monster where nobody can play shortstop effectively simply sounds more monstrous. Add in Danny Valencia’s brand of relative immobility at third, and it sounds like a tough season to come for the Twins’ especially defense-dependent pitching -- unless Carroll replaces Valencia, and the Twins find a shortstop.

Which leaves Minnesota with ... what? Beyond the unfortunate legacy and throwing money at the middle-infield problem, the Twins do get something for their troubles. The good news is that Carroll’s perhaps Punto-plus at the plate -- his lowest OBP mark in the past four seasons was .355. And given that he’s a negligible extra-base threat, Target Field’s slugging-suppressing powers won’t matter to him. Placed in one of the two top slots in Minnesota's order, he ought to be an offensive asset, creating plenty of run-scoring opportunities for Joe Mauer and … well, other people, because on the long list of problems that Ryan is going to have to fix this winter, staffing next year’s lineup has to rank right at the top. Carroll’s a useful part, and one who can be moved around, but if he’s locked in at short, the Twins have locked in on a non-solution to their problems there.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Allen Craig
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PRESSWIREAllen Craig reacts following his pinch-hit RBI single in the seventh inning.

ST. LOUIS -- A famous philosopher named Joaquin Andujar who resided in St. Louis once uttered the classic phrase, “You never know.”

On this night, never was that statement more true.

Game 2 of the World Series belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals. Allen Craig had won the sequel over Alexi Ogando. Jaime Garcia had pitched a brilliant game. It was 1-0 in the ninth inning, the team’s Rivera-esque closer was coming in to lock it down and Busch Stadium was rocking in anticipation of its beloved Cards taking a commanding lead in the World Series.

But this is baseball. Postseason baseball. You never know.

Instead, the Texas Rangers snatched a stunning victory, the first team to win a World Series game after trailing through the eighth inning since the Arizona Diamondbacks won Game 7 in 2001. They became just the third team to win a World Series game after trailing 1-0 entering the ninth. As Rafael Furcal's fly ball fell quietly toward Nelson Cruz’s glove for the final out of the game, the crowd had already started turning for the aisles. Cruz pumped his fist, the Rangers celebrated their 2-1 victory, the Cardinals retreated to the clubhouse and suddenly we have the makings of a classic World Series.

The ninth inning of Game 2. Keep this one in mind. It could be the inning that turns around this World Series, 21 pitches of agony for the Cardinals, 21 pitches of ecstasy for the Rangers.

True story: I had lunch Thursday at a famous St. Louis barbecue joint called Pappy’s Smokehouse. As I got there, Cardinals closer Jason Motte sat in his big white Ford pickup, talking with a local television camera crew (which actually was there trying to find some Rangers fans to interview). As the interview ended and Motte started up his engine, a fan yelled out, “Save another one, Jason!” Motte responded, “Yes, sir!”

When he strolled to the mound for the ninth, Motte had allowed one baserunner all postseason. That’s not runs; that’s baserunners. He’d faced 28 batters and retired 27 of them. Yes, sir ... it seemed inevitable. He'd come in and finish up a 1-0 pitchers' duel.

Ian Kinsler hit a 2-2 pitch to center for a leadoff single. Elvis Andrus tried to bunt initially, and took a ball, a strike and then another strike, with Kinsler stealing and beating the throw. After two foul balls sandwiched around another ball, Andrus lined a hit to center, Kinsler taking a wide turn and holding. But Albert Pujols failed to cut off the throw, and Andrus expertly dashed in to second. Three huge plays: the steal, the failed cut-off play, the extra base by Andrus.

Plus a little luck. That, too, is baseball. Rangers manager Ron Washington was willing to give up the out with Andrus. "I had Elvis bunting, just trying to get the run over to second base and give the middle of the order a chance to at least give us a run and stay in the ballgame," Washington said afterward. "But it all worked out."

Indeed.

Tony La Russa brought in 41-year-old Arthur Rhodes to face the lefty-swinging Josh Hamilton, who is battling a groin injury. He’d looked bad all night, unable to generate any power from his lower half. Maybe La Russa should have left in Motte, with his high-90s fastball; in his postgame news conference, the Cardinals' manager said he went with Rhodes because Hamilton is a good fastball hitter, that his main goal was to keep the go-ahead at second base.

Hamilton flew out to right, deep enough to advance both runners, and then Michael Young hit a fly to center off Lance Lynn, scoring Andrus with the winning run. Not sexy, but it got the job done. On Wednesday night, La Russa got all the praise for his moves; on Thursday night, he faced the questions of why he brought in Rhodes -- a 41-year-old guy over a reliever who had been basically untouchable all postseason. He says he still has confidence in Motte: "I know that if we get the lead on Saturday, he'll be 100 percent ready to go. He caught a tough break, which is baseball."

See? La Russa understands: You never know.

* * * *

It looked like Allen Craig would be the hero with his seventh-inning RBI single.

For the second night in a row, Nick Punto got on base with two outs to keep an inning going. On this night, he fell behind the count two strikes, fouled off a fastball, then hit a hard grounder toward first base. Young should have made the play -- a tough play perhaps, but there is no margin for error in the World Series. It bounded off his glove into right field for a base hit, knocking Colby Lewis from the game.

Setting the stage for the second night in a row: Craig versus the flame-throwing fastball machine Alexi Ogando.

First pitch: a 98 mph fastball fouled off.

Second pitch: a 96 mph fastball in a good location, low and away. But not low enough and definitely not away enough. Craig saw this pitch in Game 1. He’d seen nothing but fastballs. Ogando and catcher Mike Napoli kept his slider in their back pocket. And just like in Game 1, Craig lined a single into right field, David Freese scored, Busch Stadium erupted into a temporary madhouse and Craig had put the Rangers into a heap of trouble.

  • It was a brilliant pitchers’ duel, and it appeared we'd get the first 1-0 World Series game since Game 4 of the 2005 Series, the clinching victory for the White Sox over the Astros (Freddy Garcia versus Brandon Backe, the winning run scoring in the eighth inning). There have been just three 1-0 games since Jack Morris’ legendary 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of 1991.
  • Jaime Garcia is a joy to watch when he’s on. He rarely cracks 90 on his fastball, content and confident enough to get ahead of hitters with 88 mph two-seamers and 86 mph cutters, but everything he throws has movement and he usually keeps the ball down in the zone. He’ll mix in a curveball, and his changeup has become his big out pitch. In at-bats ending with his changeup this season, right-handers hit just .151 off it. And he has the moxie to throw it nearly 20 percent of the time. Just a brilliant effort on this night. Other than two hard lineouts by Napoli and a hard shot by Nelson Cruz that landed a few feet foul in the second inning, nobody hit him hard.
  • In his pregame news conference, Washington firmly said Hamilton is his No. 3 hitter, despite Hamilton’s lingering groin injury. “Even if Hamilton doesn’t do anything, he makes a difference just with his presence in our lineup, and I want his presence in it, and it’s in there tonight,” he said. Hamilton did get the sac fly, but his health remains a big issue as the series moves to Texas.
  • Two key plays in the game: a beautiful 6-4-3 double play by Andrus and Kinsler in the fourth inning on Matt Holliday, with Andrus ranging wide to his left and Kinsler bare-handing the toss and executing a lightning-quick turn, backing up his credentials as one of the best pivotmen in the majors. Later, Andrus made one of the sweetest plays you'll ever see, a diving stop of Rafael Furcal's liner up the middle with two runners on in the fifth, with a brilliant glove flip of the ball to Kinsler. Those plays will be lost in the midst of the ninth-inning dramatics, but without them, the game might not have been 1-0 at that time.

We’ve got one game down in the World Series, and who knows how many more to go? So it was that Keith Law and I gathered for Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast to break down what we saw and project ahead.

1. Score Game 1 for Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Sure, Chris Carpenter and Allen Craig were valuable, but La Russa continues to make his mark.

2. Meanwhile, Rangers manager Ron Washington intentionally walked one of the worst hitters in the big leagues and sent a guy who hadn’t batted in nearly a month up to pinch-hit in a critical spot.

3. The non-call on the apparent Adrian Beltre foul ball in the ninth inning was a shame, but would instant replay really have mattered there?

4. We discuss the news of the day involving general managers, from Theo Epstein to candidates in other places like Kim Ng, Jerry DiPota and Tony LaCava.

5. Plus, another team wants John Lackey, what Japanese baseball does with their playoffs and we preview Game 2 of the World Series!

So download and listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, and we’ll be back with you on Friday!
Ron Washington, Tony LaRussaPaul Sancya/Pool Photo/US PresswireTony La Russa's decision to bring in and stick with Marc Rzepczynski was a key moment in the game.

ST. LOUIS -- Give credit to Lance Berkman for his odd-looking cue-shot hit that bounded past Michael Young for a two-run single in the fourth.

Give credit to Albert Pujols for his diving stop of a Young grounder up the line with a runner on third and two outs in the sixth.

Give credit to Allen Craig for coming off the bench to deliver the go-ahead RBI single in the sixth inning.

Give credit to Marc Rzepczynski for escaping a seventh-inning jam and Chris Carpenter for a solid six-inning effort.

And in this chess match of a Game 1, credit Tony La Russa for the final checkmate, the latest in his string of postseason moves that have made him the stealthiest postseason manager since Connie Mack started Howard Ehmke in Game 1 of 1929 World Series.

The players win and lose, and the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers 3-2 in the opening game of the World Series, but La Russa’s decisions -- and Ron Washington’s mistakes -- played a key component in the outcome.

This was most evident in the top of the seventh inning. Craig’s two-out single had given St. Louis a 3-2 lead. The Rangers had their 5-6-7 hitters up: Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli, aka the heart of the Texas lineup these days. La Russa brought in right-handed reliever Fernando Salas. Cruz singled with one out and Napoli walked on four pitches. You’re up, Tony.

[+] EnlargeLance Berkman
Jeff Curry/Getty ImagesLance Berkman drove in two runs for the Cardinals with a single in the fourth inning.
La Russa brought in the lefty Rzepczynski to face southpaw-swinging David Murphy, a .215 hitter with no home runs in 107 at-bats against left-handers. At this point, it become apparent that the Rangers have one major weakness: the lack of a good right-handed bat off the bench.

Washington sent up Craig Gentry, who is really a defensive speed merchant more than a hitter. He struck out looking on a 1-2 pitch that caught the outside corner. Or was maybe a bit outside. That brought up the pitcher’s spot. La Russa had Octavio Dotel -- .145 against right-handers this season -- warming up in the bullpen.

Washington basically had three options:

1. Hit Yorvit Torrealba, his best right-handed bat left on the bench. Not a good one -- .256 with no homers versus left-handers. But Rzepczynski’s crossfire motion is tough on lefties, so you had to send a righty up there.

2. Hit Esteban German ... a guy who hadn’t had an at-bat since Sept. 25.

3. Hit German and hope La Russa would bring in Dotel. Washington could then hit Mitch Moreland, the lefty-swinging first baseman and the best bat left on the Rangers’ bench.

I don’t know if Washington was thinking La Russa would bite; maybe he thought German was his best option -- all he said after the game was, "I thought he had a good chance against Rzepczynski. ... In German's case, he's a contact hitter. I thought he can handle Rzepcynzski's offspeed stuff." He denied that he expected La Russa to bring in Dotel and stuck to his belief that German was the guy for that situation.

Regardless, La Russa didn’t bite. Afraid of Esteban German? Not quite. Rzepczynski struck out the overmatched German on three pitches.

Washington, on the other hand, was afraid of Nick Punto. Yes, Nick Punto, the guy with the .249 career average and 14 career home runs in nearly 3,000 plate appearances. He intentionally walked him in the fourth inning with two outs to pitch to Chris Carpenter with a runner on second. Not the worst decision -- it used to be commonplace for NL managers to walk the No. 8 hitters 30 or 40 years ago, but you see it less often these days.

That one worked out when the Cardinals failed to score the next inning despite a leadoff walk to Rafael Furcal. Punto came up again in the sixth, with David Freese on third with two outs (after Wilson had fanned the hard-to-strikeout Yadier Molina). Carpenter was on deck. He’d thrown 87 pitches on this cold night and was hardly blowing the Rangers away.

It seemed pretty obvious La Russa would hit for Carpenter. Wilson gave Punto the old unintentional intentional walk on four pitches, a pretty inexplicable decision, even if it did ensure that Carpenter would be removed.

Craig hit. Washington brought in Alexi Ogando. Nothing wrong there, although: Why not just bring in Ogando to face Punto? Craig lined a 1-2 high-octane heater down the right-field line; Cruz dove feet first, but came up short, as the ball fell a few inches in front of him. Maybe with a glove-first dive he could have made the catch. It would have been a higher-risk play to attempt it.

Risk. On this night, that’s how Ron Washington managed. He took a risk in not pitching to Punto. He took a risk in bringing in Esteban German. His risks didn’t work out.

But it’s only Game 1. Maybe he learned something about how La Russa will handle different parts of his lineup. But he shouldn’t feel so bad: A lot of managers have been schooled by La Russa over the years.

Whether you love Tony La Russa, grudgingly respect him, or just plain loathe him, you have to admit: He certainly makes watching a Cardinals playoff game more interesting.

La Russa made two unconventional moves in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Both moves worked out beautifully for his Cardinals, key decisions and results that helped St. Louis to a 7-1 victory and series lead as we head back to Milwaukee for Game 6.

Of course, Milwaukee's stone-gloved defense helped out. More on that in a minute; let's start by focusing on those two moves.

The first came in the bottom of the fourth inning, after David Freese and Yadier Molina had singled with no outs and the Cardinals were already up 3-0. That brought up the No. 8 hitter, light-hitting Nick Punto, who moved the runners up with a sacrifice bunt. Now, Jaime Garcia swings the bat OK for a pitcher -- he hit a home run this season, and while he's a .137 career hitter, he struck out just 18 times in 62 at-bats. Garcia got the ball in play against the drawn-in infield, scoring Freese when Yuniesky Betancourt's only play was at first base.

How unusual was that sacrifice bunt? The Cardinals had attempted 15 sacrifices with their No. 8 hitter all season -- five came when the pitcher was hitting eighth and the other 10 all came late in games when the Cardinals would either hit for the pitcher or had already made a double-switch. In other words, it was the first time all season La Russa bunted in that situation. Give him credit for thinking outside the box in a situation that called for conventional thinking. I'm not sure it was the "right" play, since you're essentially giving away the chance for a big inning, and if Garcia had struck out, La Russa wouldn't have looked so smart. But Garcia got the ball in play and drove in the run. He made his manager look smart.

The second big move came in the top of the fifth. Corey Hart's two-out RBI single made it 4-1 (Milwaukee's first two-out run in 41 innings) before Jerry Hairston singled to bring to the plate ... Ryan Braun. Rather than have the left-handed Garcia pitch to the scorching-hot Braun, La Russa went to the bullpen. You can guess how many times he yanked his starter in a regular-season game this year when the starter hadn't pitched five innings and had allowed one run or none: Yep, zero. (Not including a game in which Miguel Batista was removed due to a rain delay.)

But this isn't the regular season and La Russa has been quick to his bullpen all series. He brought on righty killer Octavio Dotel, who held righties to a .154 average this season. This wasn't a case of La Russa micromanaging. This was La Russa sensing this could be the key moment in the game and he brought in a better weapon for that situation. Dotel got the job done, albeit it with a little good fortune: A generous call on a low 1-0 fastball made the count 1-1 instead of 2-0; and he struck out Braun on a slider that was a pretty meaty pitch for Braun to handle.

As for the Brewers, they put on an embarrassing display of defense with four errors, showing off their Achilles' heel that all the analysts said was their weakness. In the second, Garcia's two-out grounder scooted through the legs of third baseman Hairston, a costly miscue that allowed two runs to score to give St. Louis a 3-0 lead. Betancourt's error in the sixth led to another unearned run. In between, Rickie Weeks -- seemingly still not 100 percent after his ankle injury in late July -- threw a ground ball into the Busch Stadium dirt and failed to run down a catchable pop fly in shallow center.

While Zack Greinke may have deserved better, the truth is he had another poor postseason outing. He failed to strike out a batter in 5 2/3 innings, the first time in his career he's pitched that deep into a game and failed to record a strikeout. While in the game, he managed just two swings and misses. The Brewers fans and statheads who expected a big game from Greinke will now have to wait -- for the World Series. Or for 2012.

The Brewers get to go home, but their defense isn't going to get any better on the plane ride to Milwaukee. Their Game 6 starter is Shaun Marcum, who has allowed 14 hits and 12 runs over 8 2/3 innings in his two postseason starts, and 31 runs over his past 31 1/3 innings going back to the regular season. The odds may seem stacked against the Brewers, but the way they play at Miller Park, I'm not going to count them out.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
News broke about the death of Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew just before we taped Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast . In addition to a well-done tribute by Tim Kurkjian, here are other reasons you should listen to the show, co-hosted by myself and Keith Law, or KLaw to his pals:

1. Kansas City Royals pitcher Vin Mazzaro had a really bad Monday, for more than the 14 reasons (the runs he allowed) than you might think. We each feel bad for the kid, but why?

2. The David Wright back injury doesn't only mean the New York Mets will be missing their best player for awhile, but also impacts the moves they might make down the road.

3. I watched Albert Pujols play third base Monday night, and while I know Tony La Russa's flawed reasoning behind it, I still don't really buy it. Luckily, neither does KLaw. We explain.

4. Who really is the top pitching prospect for the Atlanta Braves, and is this really reflected in who they promoted for Wednesday's start?

5. Is Miguel Tejada the reason why Tim Lincecum stunk up the Coors Field joint Monday night? We delve into the Miggy matter.

Plus: Excellent emails, more discussion about rivalries, which Cleveland Indian might be "pulling a Posada" and keeping a close eye on Francisco Liriano and Ubaldo Jimenez. All this and more on Tuesday's Baseball Today!

Twins sorting 3B candidates

March, 2, 2010
3/02/10
2:20
PM ET
Is this (25-year-old) kid really a viable answer for the Twins at third base? La Velle Neal:

    Danny Valencia batted .224 for Mayaguez in the Puerto Rican winter league and .217 in six games in the Caribbean Series. But neither Valencia nor the Twins look at his offseason as a failure.

    "It was a great time," he said. "It was a great experience. I learned a lot. I had some great at-bats. Obviously, my stats don't show that, but I was happy with it."

    Now Valencia, 25, can focus on proving he's ready for a major league call-up in camp. Nick Punto and Brendan Harris are expected to split the time at third base this season, but all it takes is an injury or a severe slump for the Twins to look at other options.

    --snip--

    The Twins could have called up Valencia last September for a taste of the majors, but they allowed him to return home to Miami because they didn't believe he was ready. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire praised Valencia for realizing what he needed to do during the offseason.

    "You can tell him and explain it to him, but the guy has to take it and understand it," Gardenhire said. "We're not making this up. This is good for him, to go down and get experience and get some swings in.

Valencia was a 19th-round draft pick and will eventually play in the majors, which in itself is a surprise. On the other hand, by all accounts he's a subpar third baseman and at 25 isn't going to get much better. His on-base percentage was .305 in Triple-A last year. He bats right-handed, so you can't platoon him with Brendan Harris (Punto's a switch-hitter, equally ineffective against all sorts of pitchers).

Mike Lowell's looking better every day.

Friday Filberts

October, 16, 2009
10/16/09
12:10
AM ET
Today's links were saved at the last moment by a nifty bit of line-drive-inducing relief work from Brad Lidge ...

  • I'm sure I've asked this question before, but ... Why aren't contemporary photographs beautiful like this?
  • Listen up, Andrew Friedman, because John Romano has solved all your problems: Just be smarter than Theo Epstein!
  • It's true: Nick Punto is actually a pretty good baseball player!
  • Nice history lesson about the Angels when they were really in Los Angeles.
  • Nobody's yet figured out for sure why they call the bullpen "the bullpen." But Mental Floss presents six theories to chew on.
  • As Kevin Roderick notes, the Los Angeles media is absolutely relishing this prospective battle for the Dodgers between Frank and Jamie McCourt (according to Bill Plaschke, both were accompanied by their lawyers to Game 1). What does it mean for the franchise, though? I don't have any idea yet.
  • Yes, we probably make a bit too much of the lateness of these October games, and you can hardly blame the principals for wanting as many eyeballs as possible. Would it really kill anyone to show one World Series game on a Saturday afternoon, though? For, you know, the youngsters?
  • Mike Silva revisits the Bobby Abreu's Hall of Fame case. Tough reaching Cooperstown when you've never finished higher than 14th in MVP balloting (though he may do better than that this year). He might get some extra credit for not being accused of juicing, but that seems like a leap of faith to me.
  • Speaking of Abreu, supposedly the Angels have offered him a two-year contract extension worth about $16 million. Presumably that's not their final offer and they will go a bit higher. But it'll be interesting to see if they'll stick to their guns with something reasonable. Considering their financial resources, they don't really have to.

  • Chewing on Cuzzi's call

    October, 12, 2009
    10/12/09
    2:09
    PM ET
    Of course it's history now, but umpire Phil Cuzzi's bizarrely blown call in Game 2 of the Twins-Yankees series will be remembered by Twins fans nearly as long as Nick Punto's bizarre baserunning blunder in Game 3. And Steve Politi, writing about Cuzzi's call, left me with plenty to chew on. Politi:
      Phil Cuzzi knows what you were thinking. He was standing right there, barely 10 feet away, with an unobstructed view. He saw the ball curve down the left-field line and bounce. He is an umpire with decades of experience, working at the highest level in his sport. How the heck did he miss that call?!

      --snip--

      Cuzzi had called it foul, negating a leadoff double, and he spent much of the next 24 hours trying to figure out what happened. Part of it, he thinks, was playing an unnatural position - baseball only uses umpires along the outfield foul lines in the postseason and for the All-Star Game.

      "We're not used to playing that far down the line,” Cuzzi said. "The instant the ball is hit, we usually start running. I think I may have been looking too closely at it. I never had a feel for where the left fielder was on the play."

    When you see this photo, your natural reaction is, "How could he miss that call? He's so close!"

    But I think Cuzzi's right; I think he was too close. Cuzzi hasn't followed the ball from the bat to the ground; when he sees where the ball is headed, he runs down the line, then (necessarily) loses sight of the ball while setting up to see where it lands. The ball then enters his vision and touches ground, and somewhere between vision and ground -- which happens very quickly -- he loses it. Yes, he should have gotten it right. But that call really was harder than it looked.

    Let me ask you this, though: How many times during the regular season have you seen a fair/foul call missed that badly? I can't remember ever seeing one missed so badly. Certainly not in 2009. Not during the regular season. And the difference of course, is that during the regular season they use only four umpires.

    Supposedly the fifth and sixth umpires were added, some years ago, to help on (yes) the calls down the line, but also (and most critically) on balls hit over the outfield fence (or not). But there's no need for help on those latter calls anymore. Not with the introduction of video review. Video review has obviated the need -- if there ever was a need -- for the fifth and sixth umpires. Now they're useful only on those calls down the lines. But as we saw the other night, and as Cuzzi essentially admitted, they're not much use for those, either. Especially not when you consider how rarely the calls down the line are missed during the regular season, with only four umpires.

    Of course, the World Umpires Association will fight for those fifth and sixth spots until they're blue in the face, because umpires want to work on the big stage. The truth, though, is that there's no reason for them.*

    * Oh, and if you think the umpires will fight for those fifth and sixth spots because they want the money, you'd be right ... except they don't have to fight for them. In return for making the postseason assignments (somewhat) merit-based, Major League Baseball pays postseason bonuses to all umpires, whether they work postseason games or not. Ah, unions.

    More from Politi:

      In baseball, they call this the "human element,” and Cuzzi hopes his missed call is not used as a reason to move away from the tradition. The knee-jerk reaction in the postgame was easy: Baseball needs more instant replay. In a few years, we might have managers throwing red hankies onto the field and umpires in the press box overruling their peers on the field.

      It would be a disaster, one that would make long games even longer. Part of the allure of baseball is the imperfections - the odd field dimensions, the bullpens in play, the Hall of Fame debate. Most of the calls are correct on the field. Can baseball ever get them all right?

      The answer is no.

    Of course the answer is no. But does accepting the inevitability of some errors mean we have to accept all errors? Of course the answer is of course not. The allure of baseball does include many things, including the lore of the horribly missed calls by the umpires. But if you're a Twins fan, wouldn't you trade a tiny bit of lore for a Joe Mauer double and a bit of prolonged life in October? I know I would. If you're a Rockies fan, wouldn't you trade a tiny bit of lore for an out in the ninth inning of Game 3 of a Division Series? I know I would.

    So, what's to be done? A reader weighs in with this:

      I have long against instant replay, but in light of recent events, I am officially dropping my objections. I still have one large issue that I don't feel has really been addressed.

      In my unofficial and unscientific study, I have concluded that a massive percentage of bad calls actually pass without argument. Taking stolen bases as an example, very often we learn that a umpire actually blew the call long after the runner's trotted off the field, or the infielder's lobbed the ball back to the pitcher. If so many bad calls can happen without argument, it must mean the teams themselves don't really know what the call should be, and if THAT is the case, and the plays were reviewable, wouldn't it become a common event, seemingly even required, for the teams to start questioning all close calls?

      This issue needs to be addressed by process. When IR is instituted, it will need to be accompanied by a no-arguing-anything rule, and a process that ensures plays will be reviewed automatically, and overturned as needed, without interference from the participants. Any form of IR that does not define the proper course of action for the participants will make watching the game (potentially) unbearable.

      Your thoughts?

    This is a brilliant observation, but I think there's already a general consensus that if video review is someday expanded, there will have to be some limits imposed, just as there are now in the NFL. You simply can't allow the managers to appeal every close play, because Matt is right: there would be no end to it. As for how those limits would work ... well, we can spend all day hashing that one out. But it's not hard to come up with some ideas, and at least one of those should work reasonably well.

    The ultimate goal shouldn't be to embrace imperfections (i.e. failure). The ultimate goal should be to get as many calls right as humanly possible, and the obvious ways to get more calls right are 1) enhanced use of video review, and 2) better umpires. Speaking of which, I had no idea about this (more from Politi):

      The "human element,” it turns out, can apply to something else entirely. Cuzzi is human, and this is why he would never accept "no” as an answer when he chased his dream to become an umpire.

      Cuzzi had been let go once from that job, forced to work at the Short Hills Hilton as a concierge, when he saw an opportunity to get back into the game: Len Coleman, then the president of the National League, was staying as a guest in the hotel.

      So early one morning in 1996, Cuzzi stood in the hallway in front of Coleman's door and waited for it to open. Coleman was startled. Was it a stalker? No, Cuzzi told him, it was an umpire.

      "I initially jumped back, and then h
      e identified himself,” Coleman said. "He was working at the hotel and figured I'd be going out in the morning. He already had 140 major-league games under his belt, but I told him there was no way he was getting back to the big leagues unless he started at A ball.

      "So that's exactly what he did. He got back into his car and rode all over the country, umpiring A-ball games from one league to the next, all because he wanted to get back to the majors so badly.”

    First off, nobody "forced" Cuzzi to work at the Hilton, anymore than someone forced me to roof houses after I flunked out of college. Those were choices that we made. And second -- and with all due respect -- is this really the absolute best way to find the best umpires? Phil Cuzzi was once a major-league umpire ... except he wasn't, officially. Officially, Cuzzi was just a Triple-A umpire in the early 1990s, but major-league umpires get a fair amount of time off during the baseball season, and their vacation replacements are Triple-A umpires. Including Phil Cuzzi.

    Permanent major-league jobs open up rarely, though, and a fair number of Triple-A umpires -- even those selected to serve as substitutes in the majors -- are often let go after a few years. That's what happened to Cuzzi. In 1993 he was 38 and hadn't yet been chosen for a full-time job, and he was let go.

    But he went back to the minors and was hired as a full-timer in the majors in 1999. Maybe he'd become a better umpire. Or maybe he had simply blown through the minor leagues because he was always the most experienced arbiter on the field. Either way, it seems to me a strange system. And I will note in passing that since Cuzzi became a full-timer 10 years ago, he has been selected to work in just four postseason series, including one LCS (2005) and zero World Series.

    If Major League Baseball doesn't want more video review, they need to find more great umpires.

    SPONSORED HEADLINES