SweetSpot: Phil Hughes

Make-or-break seasons: Pitchers

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
With Keith Law unveiling his top 100 prospects, let's look at five pitchers, once top prospects themselves, who are entering make-or-break seasons of sorts.

Pitchers, of course, are harder to predict and project than hitters. A new pitch or a new grip or a sudden ability to repeat a delivery can take a pitcher to a new level. A pitcher's park or defense -- good or bad -- also can have a big influence on his results.

Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays
Age: 27 in April
2013: 5.17 ERA, 174 IP, 185 H, 50 BB, 135 SO, -0.8 WAR
ZiPS projection: 164 IP, 4.12 ERA, 1.5 WAR

Through his first two-plus seasons, Hellickson was 27-21 with a 3.10 ERA, but hadn't won over the sabermetric community because of mediocre strikeout-to-walk rates and a fairly high total of home runs allowed. His success had been built on pitching particularly well -- or being particularly lucky -- with runners on base. In his first two full seasons, opponents hit just .194 with runners in scoring position against him.

In 2013, Hellickson lowered his walk rate and increased his strikeout rate while home runs allowed remained the same -- and his ERA rose to an unsightly 5.17. Batters hit .333 with runners in scoring position. Had his luck run out or was it just bad luck? The Rays probably can't afford to once again keep a guy with an ERA of 5.00 in the rotation all season, not with guys such as Jake Odorizzi and Enny Romero waiting for an opportunity.

What to expect: Hellickson probably wasn't as good as his first two seasons or as bad as 2013. He's not overpowering -- average fastball of 90.5 mph -- so he relies on movement and then tries to get hitters to chase his changeup or pound it into the ground. In the end, the lack of a dominant fastball probably limits his upside and he probably settles in somewhere between his 2011 and 2013 performance.

Phil Hughes, Minnesota Twins
Age: 28 in June
2013: 5.19 ERA, 145.2 IP, 170 H, 42 BB, 121 SO, -0.7 WAR
ZiPS projection: 141.2 IP, 4.64 ERA, 0.8 WAR

Hughes has been around so long now -- he debuted with the Yankees in 2007 -- that it seems a little odd to include him here, but he's here because this could be his final chance to prove himself as a starting pitcher. He's on a new team and in a new ballpark and some believe getting him away from the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium will help. After all, he served up 35 home runs in 2012 and 24 last year in just 145 innings. Indeed, over those two seasons, he allowed 39 home runs at home, 20 on the road, although his ERA splits weren't so dramatic, 4.88 in Yankee Stadium, 4.33 on the road.

What to expect: ZiPS isn't optimistic, projecting Hughes as barely above replacement level. He still pitches up in the zone too much with his fastball and no ballpark is going to fix that. Still, moving to a more favorable environment and a weaker division should help. If he stays healthy, I can see an ERA in the upper 3s ... good enough to keep his rotation job and prevent a move to the bullpen.


Which pitcher will improve the most in 2014?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,693)

Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays
Age: 25 in June
2013: 3.29 ERA, 150.1 IP, 119 H, 76 BB, 143 SO, 2.6 WAR
ZiPS projection: 171.1 IP, 3.41 ERA, 3.0 WAR

Wait, the dude went 17-4 and you're calling this a make-or-break season? Well, not exactly. Moore is going to have a long career in the majors. The question for him: Is he going to turn the corner and develop into the ace status projected after he burst onto the scene at the end of the 2011 season?

For Moore, it's all about command. He walked 4.5 batters per nine innings in 2013 and led the AL with 17 wild pitches. One effect of this is it runs up his pitch counts and knocks him out of games early. He averaged just 5.5 innings per start. Aces have to stay in the game longer. He'll turn 25 in June, so we should be looking at a guy who can pitch 200 innings.

What to expect: ZiPS still projects a starter who will walk four batters per nine innings and it's difficult to be an ace when you're walking that many batters. Moore's No. 1 comp via ZiPS is Mark Langston -- which makes perfect sense. Langston was a hard-throwing lefty for the Mariners in the '80s, a guy whose stuff was as good as any left-hander's in the game back then. He led the AL in strikeouts as a rookie in 1984 and again in 1986 and 1987. He also walked 100 batters a year his first seven seasons. He had a great career -- 50.4 WAR -- and if Moore does that nobody should complain.

Garrett Richards, Los Angeles Angels
Age: 26 in May
2013: 4.16 ERA, 145 IP, 151 H, 44 BB, 101 SO, 0.8 WAR
ZiPS projection: 139 IP, 4.47 ERA, 0.4 WAR

Nobody questions Richards' arm strength -- his average fastball clocked in at 94.9 mph in 2013 -- but the total package remains elusive. He worked out of the pen and then started 19 games last season, but the trades for Hector Santiago and Diamondbacks prospect Tyler Skaggs means Richards isn't a lock for the rotation in 2014. Despite the big heat, his strikeout rates remain low -- even in the minor leagues they were nothing special. Richards threw 1,092 fastballs in 2013 with 306 plate appearances ending with the pitch. He recorded just 17 strikeouts. His fastball has good velocity, but just hasn't been a swing-and-miss offering. His slider was a solid weapon, but he has to be able to set it up with an effective fastball.

What to expect: There just isn't a track record that suggests Richards is going to make any kind of significant leap forward. Even in Double-A in 2011, he fanned just 103 in 143 innings. He may get one final shot at the rotation if the Angels don't sign another starter, but I'm skeptical. I think he'll end up in the bullpen long term.

Jacob Turner, Miami Marlins
Age: 23 in May
2013: 3.74 ERA, 118 IP, 116 H, 54 BB, 77 SO, 1.4 WAR
ZiPS projection: 157.1 IP, 4.35 ERA, 1.2 WAR

The Tigers made Turner the ninth overall pick in 2009 out of a St. Louis high school, a big, projectable right-hander, and he reached the majors at the end of 2011. The Tigers liked his polish, but he was included in the Anibal Sanchez trade in 2012. Turner now has 30 major league starts under his belt and while he posted a solid ERA in 2013, his peripherals were less impressive. Among the 145 pitchers with at least 100 innings, Turner ranked 142nd in strikeout/walk ratio. If he's going to become something more than a back-end starter, it's time to make some improvements.

What to expect: While his overall strikeout rate was low, he actually ranked 85th in swing-and-miss percentage -- higher than Jon Lester or David Price, to name two. To me, this suggests his stuff is good enough to get more strikeouts. He needs to improve his command and maybe trust his offspeed stuff a little more, especially his curveball. He threw 67 percent fastballs in 2013, a pretty high percentage for a guy who doesn't blow it by batters. I'm not sure the breakthrough will come this season -- ZiPS isn't a huge fan -- but I still believe he can develop into a No. 3-caliber starter.

Could Twins be the surprise team of 2014?

December, 29, 2013
It’s been a rough three years in Minnesota, as the Twins have bounced around winning 63-66 games and flirting with their first 100-loss season since 1982. But reflecting on what Terry Ryan has been up to this winter, and thinking back on the way the Indians just showed us how a team in the AL Central can sneak up on people and put itself into the postseason picture, there are a few reasons I’m beginning to wonder if the Twins aren’t a team that might not just get back into the 70s in wins, but might actually come a bit further than that. Here are my reasons:

Go, Joe! First off, there’s the question of what Joe Mauer might be capable of now that he doesn’t have to deal with the physical toil of catching. This isn’t like Jimmie Foxx or Paul Konerko moving out from behind the plate early in their careers. But can Mauer give the Twins, say, a Joe Torre ’71-style MVP-caliber explosion at the plate? There’s plenty to dream on given what Mauer has been capable of delivering despite catching.

In part because Mauer is heading into his age-31 season, I like to think of Brian Downing as a useful example of what could happen. That’s because I’m an optimist and because Downing’s commitment to his own conditioning was a big part of his ability to sustain his value in his 30s and 40s -- much like a lot of modern players. Downing had just one truly great season as a regular catcher (1979), posting a 142 OPS+ that sticks out in the 109 OPS+ career he posted through 1981. Finally ditching his catching gear for good in his age-31 season, Downing cranked out a 128 OPS+ during the next 11 years, a part of a career where a “normal” player is supposed to decline.
[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty ImagesWill Joe Mauer bust out big at the plate now that he won't have to catch? Twins fans can hope.

Allowing for the fact we don’t know the net effect of the physical toll catching has taken on Mauer -- he hasn’t had to catch 100 games since 2010 -- his career 138 OPS+ has gone up the past two years (142 OPS+ in 2012-13 combined) as more and more of the backstop duties have been spread around. He may not have another 2009, when Mauer hit .365/.444/.587, in him, but I wouldn’t bet against him having his best year since in 2014.

Add in that the Twins have Josmil Pinto in the wings after breaking out as an offensive force between Double- and Triple-A the past two years, and have Kurt Suzuki lined up to help out, as well, and it’s clear that the Twins could net runs on offense on both sides of this transition.

The revamped rotation. Admitting again to a bit of late-December optimism, I like the Twins going and getting both Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Hang the expense -- should anyone weep for Pohlad family money being released into the market? -- and focus on the fact the Twins just shunted aside a big chunk of the rotation that put up a league-low 62 quality starts last season. Coming to Target Field’s tough environment for left-handed hitters should help both right-handers: Nolasco’s career righty/lefty OPS+ split is 90-110, while Hughes’ is 97-103 but was especially rough last year (90-108). Add in some hope that Hughes thrives outside of the media glare in the Big Apple, and you might wind up with a decent one-two punch.

Admittedly, there’s no ace, no guy you put up against Verlander or Scherzer or Shields or Sale. And the rest of the rotation is cause for concern. Kevin Correia is a decent No. 4 on a mediocre team, and comeback from Tommy John or no, I’m not really sure Mike Pelfrey’s ever going to be anything more than that himself. But there’s a benefit to having a deeper collection of guys capable of keeping games within reach into the sixth inning, and if the competition for the one open slot brings out the best in Samuel Deduno or Andrew Albers or Kyle Gibson, so much the better. If they all rise to the challenge, better still, because if there’s one guarantee with pitching, it’s that someone’s going to get hurt.

The new Twins towers? OK, so the latter-day M&M boys didn’t work so well after Mauer kept losing chunks of his career and Justin Morneau never regained his top form after his 2010 concussion. But the Twins have young talent on the way. With Pinto’s ready to replace Mauer behind the dish after putting up an .882 OPS last year, the Twins should already have a short-list Rookie of the Year candidate stepping into their Opening Day lineup. But what if he’s joined by third baseman Miguel Sano from the outset? After hitting a combined .280/.382/.610 between high Class-A and Double-A while thumping 35 homers, Sano shouldn’t need much seasoning -- he’s already the real tabasco.

The Twins may opt for a soft landing, introducing Sano and Pinto in late April or early May, after the build-up of expectations and Opening Day have already dissipated. They may even push Sano’s arrival back to show that his strained elbow is 100 percent, or to manipulate his service time since he is not yet even on the 40-man roster. But if Sano’s healthy, he’ll be in the majors in 2014. And that rookie combination is more than just tantalizing for the present, they’re two of the building blocks around Mauer primed to deliver contending Twins teams in the back half of this decade.

The old slugs getting slugly. Josh Willingham and Jason Kubel are both coming off terrible years. I’m not going to pretend there aren’t concerns about both men’s durability in their 30s, as it is open to question. But if Willingham can come back from his injury-marred 2013 and keeping in mind Kubel’s just a year removed from a 30-homer season for the Diamondbacks, it isn’t implausible that between the left field and DH slots the Twins might get 50 home runs. That’ll make up a lot of ground for low-powered lineup that put up just a .138 Isolated Power number when the AL average was .149 last year.

That’s not to say there aren’t lingering issues, especially in center field. It takes a good measure of faith in the tarnished prospect status of Aaron Hicks to think the Twins are set in center field for the time being. Resorting to journeymen like Clete Thomas and Alex Presley in the season’s final third wasn’t how things were supposed to wind up, and Presley doesn’t really have the glove to handle the job on an everyday basis.

So right now, the Twins are best off if Hicks comes to camp and quickly shows that he’s ready to bounce back from the sub-.600 OPS he put up before a demotion and injuries helped end his season early. He shouldn’t be discounted: A year ago Hicks was on top 100 prospect lists after putting up an .844 OPS in Double-A, he’s only just turned 24, and he can handle center. He’s going to be challenged to beat out Presley in camp, a classic case of putting a modest obstacle in front of a prospect with something to prove; ideally, Hicks will rise to the challenge.

Failing that, the field opens up for desperation moves, like resigning themselves to Presley, mulling the merits of someone available on the market (defensive whiz Sam Fuld is still out there), or maybe even giving a non-roster guy like former A’s prospect Jermaine Mitchell a look. And if that doesn’t work out? Twins fans are going to have to hope that blue-chipper Byron Buxton keeps making jumps up the farm system’s ladder at least two rungs at a time after tearing his way up to high Class-A in his first full season last year. Which is another way of saying that Hicks has no time to waste getting back in gear, because by 2015 the future may no longer belong to him.

Now, I admit, that’s a lot of ifs and maybes; it goes with the territory at this time of year. But a lineup that should have the benefit of adding Sano and Pinto and perhaps even a redeemed Hicks would be a radical change from the recent rut the Twins have been in.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Confession: I spent all offseason believing the Yankees would still rank among the American League's elite teams in 2013. After all, despite the woeful hitting in the postseason, this was still a team that won 95 games and had the second-best run differential in the majors. It was still a team with a deep arsenal of starting pitching, and good starting pitching can take you a long way.

So while most were jumping off the Yankees bandwagon, I remained on.

No longer. As the injuries continue to mount during spring training -- Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter's slow recovery from his broken foot -- it seems like it's finally going to happen. The collapse is coming and it's going to happen in 2013. I hate to join the legions predicting the demise of this long-running Yankees dynasty -- because if there's anything I've learned over the past 15 years it's to never count out the Yankees -- but here are 27 reasons the collapse will occur.

1. From 2002 to 2011 (10 seasons), 77 teams won at least 90 games. Seventeen of those won at least 15 fewer games the following season -- 22 percent. Six teams dropped 20 or more wins the next season. (Only 11 of the 77 won more games the following year.) Collapses can happen overnight.

2. From 1949 to 1964, the Yankees won 14 American League pennants in 16 years. In 1964, they won 99 games. In 1965, they won 77. It's happened to the Yankees before.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
John Munson/USA TODAY SportsCC Sabathia anchors a Yankees rotation made up of aging veterans and unreliable youngsters.
3. The Yankees 52-33 in the first half last year, but just 43-34 in the second half. The decline was already under way.

4. The Blue Jays and Red Sox should be much improved. The Yankees went 24-12 against those two clubs in 2012. That could be six or seven fewer wins right there.

5. The rotation is counting on 41-year-old Andy Pettitte, 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda and 32-year-old CC Sabathia, who is coming off some minor elbow issues from last season. Those three went a combined 36-21 last year, worth about 10.5 wins above replacement (WAR). The group could produce more value -- Pettitte made just 12 starts -- but I would bet under 10.5 WAR.

6. Phil Hughes is hoping to recover in time from two bulging disks to be ready for Opening Day. Remember, Hughes pitched just 74 innings in 2011 due to arm fatigue and shoulder inflammation, so this is a guy with injury history.

7. Jeter without a broken ankle: 39 years old, coming off his best year since 2009, likely to regress anyway. Derek Jeter coming off a broken ankle: 39 years old, coming off his best year since 2009, maybe not ready for the start of the season, his range in the field undoubtedly a bigger issue than ever.

8. Eduardo Nunez, aka "hands of stone" and "arm of the wilderness," is the backup. This could be fun.

9. The catchers are Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli, the definition of replacement-level. Russell Martin wasn't great last year (.211/.311/.403), but still popped 21 home runs and was worth 1-2 WAR. Cervelli did show on-base skills when he played regularly for the Yankees in 2010, but he had a .316 slugging percentage last year at Scranton.

10. Granderson will miss April with a fractured right forearm, an injury that also forced the Yankees to scrap plans to move Granderson to left and Brett Gardner to center. Missing Granderson for a month is ultimately a minor loss, but what will he be when he returns? In 2011, he hit .262/.364/.552 and led the AL in runs and RBIs. In the first half of 2012, he hit .248/.352/.502; in the second half he hit .212/.278/.480, with his walk rate plummeting and his strikeout rate increasing. He still hit 20 home runs but he'd turned into a one-dimensional slugger: home run or nothing. Overall, he was worth 2.7 WAR, down from 5.3 in 2011. At 32, I don't see him improving.

11. Brennan Boesch will apparently fill in while Granderson is out. Boesch was one of the worst players in the majors last year with the Tigers, statuesque in the outfield and he didn't hit (.286 OBP). Basically, the Yankees hope he can produce like Raul Ibanez did last year, but what is that worth? Baseball-Reference valued Ibanez at 0.3 WAR.

12. Teixeira may miss the entire season. For now, the club is hoping his wrist can heal and that he'll return in eight to 10 weeks, but there is a chance the partially torn tendon sheath will eventually require season-ending surgery. The backup first basemen? Juan Rivera and Dan Johnson. Rinse, repeat: Juan Rivera and Dan Johnson. Teixeira was worth 3.6 WAR last year. And if he does return healthy, he's been a player in offensive decline anyway.

[+] EnlargeKevin Youkilis
Larry Goren/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesKevin Youkilis hasn't played more than 122 games since 2009.
13. Kevin Youkilis. He was great as recently as 2010 when he hit .307/.411/564, but has played 102, 120 and 122 games the past three seasons, is 34 years old, and coming off a .235/.336/.409 season, most of that in the AL Central with the White Sox. He's going to be facing tougher pitching in the AL East. Best-case scenario is probably similar to what A-Rod did last year: .272/.353/.430. The worst-case scenario: The new swing doesn't work and he retires in June.

14. Ichiro Suzuki. He showed a little spark of life after joining the Yankees, but he's 39 years old and has hit .277 with a .308 OBP over the past two seasons. Yankees fan will be pining for Nick Swisher.

15. Mariano Rivera is back ... but Rafael Soriano is gone. As good as Soriano was last year, even if Mo is still Mo, this is a wash.

16. Travis Hafner. He hasn't slugged .500 since 2006. He's averaged 86 games over the past five seasons. He can still hit some home runs (especially in Yankee Stadium) and draw walks, but I wouldn't expect him to be a major contributor. A 4-for-31 spring isn't inspiring confidence.

17. Ivan Nova. He didn't strike anybody out in 2011 and was good (16-4, 3.70). He struck more people out in 2012 but was much worse (12-8, 5.02). No idea what to expect in 2013, but I don't see him developing into anything more than a solid No. 4.

18. Home runs. The Yankees finished second in the AL runs last season, in large part because of a league-leading 245 home runs. But Swisher (24 home runs) is gone, replaced by Ichiro. Granderson (43) is out for a month. Teixeira (24) may be out all season. Martin (21) is gone and replaced by two guys who may not hit more than five. Part-timer Eric Chavez (16) is gone. Ibanez (19) is gone with Gardner (7 in 2011) back. Robinson Cano is coming off a career-best 33 home runs. Even if you're optimistic, you'll have a hard time coming up with 200 home runs. Which means they're not going to score 804 runs again.

19. Defense. Jeter at short. Granderson in center. No Teixeira at first. The Yankees were 22nd in the majors in defense runs saved in 2012 at -22, and that's with Teixeira (+17) and Cano (+15) ranking among the best in baseball. The return of Gardner will help the outfield, but this doesn't appear to be a strong defensive team.

20. The Yankees are 10-16 in spring training. That indicates maybe 1 percent of something, but it could be an important 1 percent.

21. Self-imposed payroll constraints mean the Yankees aren't going to make any big midseason acquisitions. Not that they'll still be in it at midseason.

22. Cano's free agency is looming over the organization like a funnel cloud. And while his steady demeanor means most believe his play won't be affected, you never know. But if they don't sign him and the team gets off to a bad start, the trade rumors are going to start thundering.

23. The New York media is ready to pounce.

24. No George. How will the brothers Steinbrenner react if the Yankees are in last place in late April?

25. Joe Girardi's little black book doesn't have formulas for magical potions -- like turning back the clock five years for everyone on the roster.

26. The baseball gods. Even they're tired of seeing the Yankees in October.

27. Alex Rodriguez to the rescue. Exactly.

Prediction: 75-87. If the Phillies can drop 20 wins from 2011 to 2012, so can the Yankees. For the first time since 1992, the Yankees will finish under .500.
This will be the year.

How long have we been saying this about the New York Yankees? This will be the year. Too old, too many bloated contracts, not enough young talent coming up through the minors and now ownership that -- horror of horrors! -- seems intent on keeping the team's payroll below luxury-tax thresholds.

The collapse is imminent. The dynasty -- the one that has seen the Yankees win 13 division titles and make the playoffs 17 times in 18 years during the wild-card era -- will come to a crashing termination. Derek Jeter, it's been nice knowing you all these Octobers.

After the four-game wipeout in the American League Championship Series against the Tigers and a relatively inactive offseason, the doomsayers have been more vociferous than ever. The Yankees didn't pursue any of the big free agents, lost effective role players in Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez, might lose their closer, will lose Alex Rodriguez for several months, have to hope Jeter returns from his broken ankle, and, in the lowest point in franchise history since Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson exchanged wives, saw their starting catcher sign with the Pirates.

Before I explain why I'm not willing to count out the Yankees in 2013, let's take a year-by-year look at their remarkable run of the past 18 seasons.

One of the main arguments against the 2013 Yankees is their age. After all, the 2012 club was old, and the core of the 2013 club will be another year older (yes, oddly, this is true).

But look at the above chart. The Yankees have always been an old team during this run. The '95 team had the oldest lineup in the AL, and while the pitching staff was younger, the Yankees haven't had a staff that young since. That doesn't mean there isn't cause for concern here. The 2012 lineup was the oldest one yet, and while the Yankees have parted ways with Ibanez (40 years old in 2012) and Chavez (34), they will be counting heavily on 39-year-old Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, 33-year-old Mark Teixeira, and 32-year-old Curtis Granderson.

It's also worth noting the team's run differential in 2012, always a good way to evaluate a team's base talent level. While the plus-136 differential was a 74-run drop from 2011, it was still the best in the AL. It also was better than those of several of those previous playoff teams. Meaning: The Yankees were a good team in 2012 (as long as you ignore the offensive collapse in the playoffs). The Blue Jays, everyone's team du jour of the offseason, were 204 runs worse than the Yankees in 2012. Yes, they added a lot of parts; that's still a lot of runs to get to the 95-win level the Yankees achieved.

Yankees fans and local columnists have complained the Yankees haven't done anything this offseason. What they mean, of course, is the Yankees didn't sign Zack Greinke or Josh Hamilton. But the club will be making additions for 2013:

1. Kevin Youkilis. Granted, he's just an insurance policy until A-Rod returns from offseason hip surgery, but Youkilis could slide over to the designated hitter role when A-Rod returns in June or July (or allow A-Rod to serve as the DH).

2. The Yankees re-signed Ichiro. While he is a downgrade from Nick Swisher, Ichiro did play well in his 240 plate appearances with the Yankees in 2012, hitting .322 and slugging .454. He hit particularly well at Yankee Stadium -- .338/.363/.531 (BA/OBP/SLG) in 139 plate appearances -- and while we have to point out that obviously has small-sample-size warnings written all over it, it's possible Suzuki retailored his swing to the short porch or was rejuvenated after leaving the Safeco Field dungeon. The larger point: Ichiro shouldn't be a complete disaster.

3. They get Brett Gardner back. He was a superb player in 2010 and 2011, and having Gardner back in left field will provide a big lift defensively and offer the team speed and better on-base ability than what it got from the likes of Ibanez and Andruw Jones. He easily could be a three-win improvement.

4. They get Mariano Rivera back. Would you bet against him?

OK, OK, there are reasons to be concerned about the lineup. But remember again what the Yankees did this past season: They led the AL in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It's true that some of those power totals came courtesy of Yankee Stadium, but power does play anywhere; only the Orioles had a better AL road record.

But the main reason I won't write off the Yankees: the pitching staff. I still like the quality and depth of the starting rotation:
  • CC Sabathia -- He did have surgery to remove a small bone spur from his elbow but is expected to be ready for spring training. Otherwise, he was arguably better than ever in 2012, with a league-leading strikeout-walk ratio and .238 batting average allowed.
  • Hiroki Kuroda -- Pitched a career-high 219 innings while winning 16 games with a 3.32 ERA, adapting without a problem to the AL.
  • Phil Hughes -- Had a solid season other than the 35 home runs allowed. Walked just 46 batters in 32 starts, so if he can cut off 10 home runs, he'll look more like a No. 3 than a 4 or 5.
  • Andy Pettitte -- Made just 12 starts but was very effective with a 2.87 ERA. He hasn't lost much in stuff -- in fact, his strikeout percentage matched the highest of his career. If the Yankees can get 25 starts out of him, they'll likely be good ones.
  • David Phelps -- Sleeper breakout candidate for 2013. Fastball in the 90-92 mph range, good cutter, a curveball and an improving changeup. Good minor league numbers, good numbers as a rookie as a reliever/spot starter.
  • Ivan Nova -- Good rebound candidate, despite the ERA spike from 2011. His strikeout rate was much higher than in 2011 and his walk rate was slightly better, but he suffered a .331 average on balls in play, third highest among all qualified starting pitchers. There are reasons that happened but the stuff is there to suggest improvement is possible if he adjusts.
  • Michael Pineda -- The wild card if he can bounce back from shoulder problems.

When I look at the strengths of teams entering a season, I place a huge emphasis on the depth of rotations. Few teams make it through the season with just five starters. Few make it through with six. So you need that depth. The Yankees have it -- certainly more depth than the other AL East teams. Yes, Toronto's rotation could be outstanding if Josh Johnson makes 30 starts (good luck) and if R.A. Dickey has another Cy Young-caliber season (I do like his chances) and if Brandon Morrow can pitch more than 179 innings for the first time and if Ricky Romero can bounce back. The Tampa rotation could be terrific again, but the Rays have to replace James Shields' 33 starts and 227 innings.

So, yes, I like the rotation. I like the bullpen. I like the power. I know you can look at the chart above and note the last time the Yankees didn't make any big moves in the offseason was 2008, the one year the team missed the playoffs during this period.

The fall will come. When it does, it could be as hard as what happened when the original dynasty collapsed after 1964. The Yankees went from the World Series to last place in two seasons. Maybe 2013 will be that year. But we've said that before.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield

The best time of the season is here

September, 14, 2012

As the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles played on in the late-afternoon shadows, the managers turned to Chris Archer and Tommy Hunter, a rookie with just 18 innings of big league experience making his first relief appearance of the season and a veteran starter banished to the bullpen, respectively.

This is pennant-race baseball.

In Anaheim, Angels ace Jered Weaver took the mound, making his first start in 11 days because of biceps tendinitis, and all he had to do was prevent the A's from completing a four-game sweep and keep the Angels within shouting distance of the playoffs.

This is playoff-race baseball.

In Houston, the Phillies -- who punted back in July when they traded two-thirds of their starting outfield -- had suddenly found themselves smelling the sweat of the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates. They started a rookie named Tyler Cloyd, making his fourth major league start. Not only that, he was starting on three days' rest. I knew nothing about him, so I looked up a few facts. He was the International League pitcher of the year, but he's a finesse right-hander who rarely reaches 90 mph. He was an 18th-round draft pick in 2008 out of Nebraska-Omaha, but his lack of velocity meant he wasn't one of Baseball America's top 30 Phillies prospects entering the season despite good minor league numbers in 2011.

This is wild-card baseball.

I intended to watch the monumental Chris Sale-Justin Verlander showdown, two Cy Young contenders facing off in a crucial game in the American League Central, but that game was rained out, so I focused on the Yankees-Red Sox showdown at Fenway Park. Phil Hughes, a pitcher who had allowed the second-most home runs in the major leagues, was trying to pitch the Yankees back into a first-place tie with the Orioles. All he did was pitch one of the best games of his career, allowing no runs for just the second time this season.

This is baseball.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Orioles should be celebrating. They're in playoff contention after not having a winning record in 15 seasons.
I'm riveted to my television set, flipping channels, checking box scores, watching a second game on my laptop. It's the best time of the year, when nearly every game matters, when important outs in important games start taking on an October-like intensity. It's why we watch the first 140 games, to build up to these moments: Archer versus 20-year-old rookie Manny Machado with the game on the line.

Archer had used a little magic in the 13th inning, when he escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs jam to extend the game another inning. During that high-wire act, he fell behind Matt Wieters 3-0 but came back to strike him out on a 94 mph fastball, his seventh consecutive fastball of the at-bat. No tricks, just heat, and it worked. I tweeted something along the lines of: "If the Rays win this game and eventually make the playoffs, remember this inning."

But Buck Showalter has been around this game a few years. They say he's pretty wise. In the 14th inning, Archer got the first batters out, but Adam Jones fouled off a 3-2 slider and then drew ball four. Endy Chavez singled to left. That brought up the rookie Machado, 0-for-5 on the day, 2-for-his-past-20. Archer fell behind 3-and-0.

You don't give a rookie the green light.

Buck gave Machado the green light.

Machado swung and lofted a sinking line drive near the left-field line. Matt Joyce ran in, dove, stretched out, his glove reaching for the baseball, reaching for hope -- to keep the game going, to give the Rays hope of getting a win closer to the playoffs rather than a loss further away. Off the glove. Base hit. Orioles win 3-2 -- their 13th in a row in extra innings; 27-7 in one-run games, the best percentage in history. How can you not believe in the Orioles?

Joyce came up a few inches short. If Sam Fuld, an outfielder with more range, had been in left field, he makes the play. But Fuld had been removed in the 13th inning when Joe Maddon had replaced him with Reid Brignac to give the Rays five infielders after the Orioles loaded the bases. And that strategy worked when the Rays got the first out of the inning on a force at home. Maddon used 26 players in the game, clawing for any little edge.

That's what you do this time of year.

* * * *

Cloyd pitched three scoreless innings against the Astros but then gave up a single -- single -- home run and got the hook. He was replaced by another rookie, B.J. Rosenberg, with an ERA of 9.00. Rosenberg pitched two scoreless innings. In the eighth, the Phillies clinging to a 4-3 lead, Charlie Manuel turned to yet another rookie, Phillippe Aumont, once the prize of the Cliff Lee trade with the Mariners. Big stuff, no command: He averaged 6.9 walks per nine innings in Triple-A. He walked a guy, but got a caught stealing. He walked another guy. He hit a batter.

Two outs, two on, the Phillies cannot afford to lose. They have a $50 million closer in the bullpen.

Manuel brought in yet another rookie, Jake Diekman. He gave up a two-run double and an RBI single, and the Phillies lost 6-4.

Jonathan Papelbon sat in the bullpen, and suddenly that playoff run seems a little less likely.

The victories are extra sweet. The losses extra bitter. Welcome to the best time of the season.

On July 18, the New York Yankees blanked the Toronto Blue Jays 6-0 in a rain-shortened game. Hiroki Kuroda pitched the seven-inning shutout, Mark Teixeira homered and the Yankees ripped 12 hits off Ricky Romero. The Yankees were cruising, having won nine of 11 and 16 of 22 games, and were leading the American League East by 10 games, on pace for 95 wins.

The hated rivals up in Boston already were turning into a bad joke, barely a rival anymore after the Yankees had taken three of four a few days before. The upstart Baltimore Orioles had won that day but had lost 13 of their pevious 19, slowly drifting into their usual pathetic irrelevance. The Tampa Bay Rays? Hey, never discount them -- they'd made a big comeback in 2011, after all -- but this wasn't their year, the lineup wasn't any good and the rotation wasn't as dominant as expected.

Yes, the Yankees were going to cruise to another division title. Print the playoff tickets.

* * * *

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the modern Yankees dynasty is their numbing consistency. Sixteen playoff appearances in 17 years. Twelve division titles. Twelve 95-win seasons in the past 15. Yes, they have more money than Zeus, but money is no guaranteed road to success.

Just look at their neighbors to the north, who are going to miss their third postseason in a row and have won just one division title in 16 years. Look at the Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the second-highest opening-day payroll. The Phillies had a nice run, five National League East titles in a row, but age and injuries caught up to them this season, and they're struggling to finish .500. The Angels will have spent more than $300 million the past two seasons and another $104 million in 2010, and might have no playoff appearances to show for that.

The Yankees have kept their dynasty going, defying age and bad luck. They did miss the playoffs in 2008, a season in which they won 89 games. Yes, that was the season they gave 20 starts to Darrell Rasner and 15 to Sidney Ponson. That offseason, they reloaded with Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and then they won the World Series.

Still, this can't go on forever, can it?

* * * *

The Yankees lost 5-2 to the Rays on Tuesday as Tampa slugged three home runs off Freddy Garcia, and a lineup that featured Raul Ibanez, Jayson Nix, Chris Dickerson and Chris Stewart failed to do much against Alex Cobb. The Orioles pounded the Blue Jays 12-0 on Tuesday as Zach Britton pitched seven scoreless innings and Mark Reynolds belted his fifth home run in five games.

The Orioles are now tied with the Yankees for first place.

"We're just having a good time and we're not putting pressure on ourselves," Reynolds said after the game. "Everybody knows the situation we're in but we're just taking it day by day and having fun."

Something tells me the Yankees aren't having a lot of fun right now.

Here's some data from Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information:

Since July 19:
Yankees: 19-25, run differential of plus-3
Orioles: 29-15, run differential of plus-37
Rays: 28-16, run differential of plus-84

As Katie points out, Nick Markakis returned from an injury after the All-Star break and the Orioles' offense has been vastly improved since. The O's hit .240/.302/.402 (BA/OBP/SLG) in the first half and .253/.322/.423 in the second (entering Tuesday's game). Markakis' .343 average and .902 OPS in the second half rank fifth and 13th, respectively, among AL hitters (before he went 3-for-5 on Tuesday). In their past 11 games, Orioles starters have nine quality starts and a 2.22 ERA.

Why not Baltimore?

* * * *

If the Orioles and A's are this year's miracle teams, that means we now have to consider the Rays grizzled vets, even if their $64 million payroll is higher than that of just five other teams. The Rays were a miracle in 2008 and a mini-miracle in 2011. We are no longer surprised.

Since the All-Star break, the Rays have a 2.45 staff ERA, which would be the second-lowest second-half ERA by an AL team since the first All-Star Game in 1933 (the 1972 Angels had a 2.37 ERA).

Pitching, my friends, pitching. The Yankees are relying on Sabathia's elbow to hold up, and the retread Garcia, and the inconsistent Phil Hughes, all the while hoping 40-year-old Andy Pettitte will return to offer a lifeline.

The Yankees look old, mediocre and beaten up.

Why not Tampa Bay?

* * * *

From 10 games ahead to pure panic. Yankees fans should be worried. Right now, they're the third-best team in the AL East. They're even with the Orioles, and the Rays are 1.5 games back, with a chance to cut the deficit to a half-game with a win Wednesday.

Sure, injuries. Sure, Alex Rodriguez just returned and Robinson Cano didn't play Tuesday and Teixeira is out. But that's what happens when you get old. Ibanez is old. Ichiro Suzuki is old. Andruw Jones is old. Curtis Granderson isn't old but has morphed into Dave Kingman in the past couple of months, a guy who hits home runs and strikes out.

The Yankees are struggling. The Yankees are not going to win the AL East.

The playoffs? Hey, it's still the Yankees; you never want to count them out. They have four games left with Tampa Bay and a four-game series this weekend in Baltimore, but the rest of the schedule is soft other than one series with Oakland -- six games against the sinking Red Sox, seven against the banged-up Blue Jays, three against the Twins. Even if the Orioles and Rays rise past the Yankees, New York can make the wild card if it can hold off the Tigers/White Sox loser and the A's and Angels.

I want to say the Yankees won't make it, that they're too old, overpaid and overrated. People in baseball often talk about digging deep. It's just something they like to say.

But I'll say this: Get out your shovels, Yankees.

Nick MarkakisBrad White/Getty ImagesNick Markakis slips in the same way the Orioles tied for first: Stealthily and safely.

You have to love August baseball. This is when the grind of the long season settles in, when depth becomes even more important, when pitchers have to pitch through fatigue and soreness and maybe a little pain. It's when we find out if the pretenders are contenders and whether the favorites really do have the firepower.

August is time for scoreboard-watching. August is time for your ace to go on a five-win hot streak. August is time for the MVP candidates to shine. August is time for big wins, like the one the Giants had on Sunday at home, when they scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Trade-deadline acquisition Hunter Pence had the decisive blow, a three-run home run, his first since joining the Giants. Pence is hitting just .137 with the Giants, but his homer off Rafael Betancourt capped a rally started when Brandon Crawford's leadoff pop fly fell for a single.

Beginning with the Giants, here are 10 important things you need to know as August rolls on.

1. The Giants have an offense.

Since the All-Star break, the Giants are second in the National League in runs scored to the Nationals, hitting .270 with a .339 on-base percentage, also second in the league. Buster Posey, of course, has been on fire, hitting .443 with nine home runs and 32 RBIs since the break. Only Boston's Adrian Gonzalez has more post-break RBIs (35). Melky Cabrera hasn't slowed down either; his .918 second-half OPS matches his .910 of the first half. If Pence can get going to provide another power threat, the Giants' offense looks even better.

2. Remember Jayson Werth.

Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Mike Morse have combined for 23 home runs since the break to power the Nationals, who had their eight-game winning streak snapped Sunday, but Werth provides something the offense has needed all season: A leadoff hitter. Since his return from a broken wrist, Werth has hit .400 with a .500 OBP. On the season, Nationals leadoff hitters rank just 13th in the National League in OBP. "I am totally surprised how my wrist is doing, how I’ve recovered," Werth told the Washington Post a couple days ago. "When I look down at my wrist and I see that scar, it almost reminds me. Like, 'Oh, yeah.' I almost forget about it until I see the hatchet wound." Werth won't ever live up to the $126 million contract, but he's a a huge key as the Nats push for a division title.

3. Who will step up for the Angels behind Jered Weaver?

Can we stop declaring that the Angels are guaranteed to secure one of the AL wild cards? They're 3-8 over the past 11 games after Jason Vargas outdueled Weaver on Sunday and have slipped 8 games behind the Rangers in the West, and to fifth in the wild-card race behind the Rays, Orioles, A's and Tigers. Dan Haren has allowed at least one home run in nine consecutive starts, Ervin Santana continues to pitch like a ticking time bomb and has allowed the most home runs in the majors, Zack Greinke has been terrible in two of his three starts with the Angels, including the fifth five-plus walk game of his career, and even C.J. Wilson has allowed 27 runs in 29.2 innings over his past five starts. With the starters getting knocked early, the overtaxed Angels bullpen has also been an issue. For all the Mike Trout love, the Angels have a good chance of becoming the season's most disappointing -- yes, even more disappointing than the Red Sox.

4. The Rays are scorching hot on the mound.

If pitchers feed off each other, the Rays are like a pack of hungry wolves right now. Tampa Bay owns a 2.33 ERA since the All-Star break and has held opponents to a .200 average in going 17-11. The Rays swept the Twins by scoring four runs in the top of the 10th and have won eight of 11 to surge into the wild-card lead with the Orioles. Next up on this road: Trips to Seattle and Anaheim. That four-game series against the Angels looms large and David Price and James Shields will start the first two games.

5. Jim Leyland is right ... sort of.

The Tigers manager started a minor firestorm when he referred to Mike Trout as "Wonderboy" in suggesting his own Miguel Cabrera is deserving of the AL MVP Award so far. Leyland's comments really weren't derogatory, as he was simply referring to the potential of voters getting caught up in Trout's storyline. Hey, he's right in that regard; voters do love a good storyline. It's why Ichiro Suzuki won in 2001 over Jason Giambi and teammate Bret Boone. Or why Miguel Tejada won over Alex Rodriguez in 2002. Interestingly, the last "Wonderboy" to challenge for an MVP trophy was A-Rod in 1996, and he finished second to Juan Gonzalez in one of the worst MVP votes of all time.

That's because what MVP voters really like is a player who makes the playoffs. It's why Ryan Braun beat out Matt Kemp in 2011 or why Joey Votto collected 31 of 32 first-place over Albert Pujols in 2010 despite basically identical numbers. Of the 34 MVP trophies handed out during the wild-card era, only six have gone to players whose teams didn't reach the playoffs: Pujols (2008), Ryan Howard (2006), Barry Bonds (2004 and 2001), A-Rod (2003) and Larry Walker (1997). So maybe Trout is the MVP favorite right now, but that all changes if the Angels don't reach the playoffs (the same, of course, can be said for Cabrera).

6. The Cardinals have the same record through 115 games as 2011.

Just like a season ago, the Cardinals are 62-53. However, in 2011 they were just 3 games behind the Brewers and 4 behind wild-card leader Atlanta. While they're 7 behind the Reds in the National League Central, they trail the Braves and Pirates by just 2.5. Like a year ago, the bullpen is struggling -- on Sunday, St. Louis blew a three-run lead in the eighth to the Phillies and lost in 11 innings. Of course, we know the bullpen buttoned down last year.

7. The best trade deadline pickup may have been ... Paul Maholm?

Maybe the Braves got the best Cubs pitcher being shopped around. Maholm's record since June 29: Eight starts, eight runs allowed. He's pitched in obscurity for years in Pittsburgh, often with some terrible defensive teams behind him. He doesn't light up the radar gun but his strikeout rate has ticked up a notch this year, perhaps because he's throwing his slider with greater frequency. Oh, another note: Mike Minor, much-maligned by Braves fans in the first half, has a 1.99 ERA over his past five starts.

8. Manny Machado is here to stay.

Can a rookie lead the Orioles to the first playoff berth since 1997? In four games since his surprise call-up from Double-A, all the 20-year-old rookie has done is hit three home runs, a double and a triple, scored five runs and knocked in seven. Maybe we have a second Wonderboy.

9. The Yankees are 26-22 since June 18. A-Rod is on the DL. CC Sabathia is again on the DL ...

Since reeling off that 10-game winning streak in mid-June, the Yankees have played just above .500 baseball. They're actually 14-14 over the past 28 games. Phil Hughes, having looked better, has returned to being Phil Hughes his past two starts. Ivan Nova lives and dies on whether his curveball and slider have enough bite on any given start. Sabathia has a tender elbow. Andy Pettitte had a setback. And then there's the offense. Curtis Granderson is turning into an extreme all-or-nothing hitter. He has seven homers since the break, but is hitting .218 with a 39/9 SO/BB ratio. Ichiro Suzuki has a sub-.300 OBP since joining the Yankees. And ... the Yankees are still up 5 games in the East.

10. We don't know anything.

Nine teams in the AL are within 5.5 games of a playoff spot. Seven teams are within 5 games of a playoff spot in the NL. That means more than half the teams have legitimate playoff hopes. There is no clear-cut No. 1 team in baseball. We have parity, we have excitement, we have fans filling ballparks (well, at least some of them) and we have a crazy, unpredictable finish ahead of us. Why is that important? Because it gives all of us reason to do plenty of scoreboard-watching.
Ryan Braun made his fifth straight All-Star Game with another monster first half, hitting .306 with an NL-leading 24 home runs. Overall, his numbers are pretty similar to his 2011 MVP season: .306/.391/.599 in 2012 versus .332/.397/.597. Jack Moore of Disciples of Uecker addresses the complicated question of whether this vindicates Braun following his offseason "positive" drug test.

Other links to check out from the SweetSpot network:
First base: Don't look now ... With CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte on the DL, the Yankees need Phil Hughes to step it up and pitch deeper into games to help save the bullpen workload. On Sunday, he went eight innings for the second straight game in the Yankees' 4-2 victory over the White Sox, allowing two runs and striking out eight with one walk. Hughes has now allowed two runs or fewer in eight of his past 10 starts. True, the other two starts were blow-up outings -- six runs against the Braves, seven against the Angels -- but he seems to be settling into some consistency. Hiroki Kuroda has also quietly lowered his ERA to 3.17, ninth among AL starters. With those two pitching well, the Yankees can be patient in getting Sabathia and Pettitte back.

Second base: Slumping Rays. The Rays lost 5-3 to the Tigers on Sunday, dropping them to 41-38. After going 15-8 in April, they've gone 26-30 since and have been outscored on the season. The team's issues go beyond injuries at this point. Desmond Jennings, expected to produce in the leadoff spot, has a .303 OBP. B.J. Upton's continues to cost himself millions as an upcoming free agent, with a woeful .240/.298/.358 line. Jeff Keppinger batted cleanup on Sunday and the lineup included Hideki Matsui (.177) and Jose Molina (.198). Evan Longoria, please come back. It's worth noting, perhaps, that the Rays were only three wins better a year ago at this point at 44-35, but went 18-10 in August and 17-10 in September.

Third base: Plouffe power. Trevor Plouffe hit two more home runs for the Twins and now leads all major league third basemen with 18. Not bad for a guy who started only 10 games in April and didn't hit his second home run until May 16. Since that date the Twins are 23-19 and averaging 4.9 runs per game. It's hard to see them climbing back in it considering their terrible rotation -- even at just 8.5 games behind the White Sox -- but at least they've becoming an interesting team to pay attention, a far cry from the April team that looked headed for 100 losses.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. After being shut out five times in six games (and hitting .163 over that span), the Dodgers exploded for eight runs on Sunday night. Thanks to three Mets errors, six of the runs were unearned.

ESPN Insider Chris Sprow joined me to talk about the red-hot New York Yankees -- with 10 straight wins entering Tuesday night's game, have they separated themselves as the team to beat in the AL East? And we can't avoid discussing R.A. Dickey, but do you want to start a knuckleballer in the All-Star Game? After all, the game counts!

"Show us some respect," yell Baltimore Orioles fans. Or maybe they're politely demanding. But I've seen the complaints in the Power Rankings comments, read the emails sent to "Baseball Today," been asked the question in my chats: Why doesn't anyone believe in the Orioles?

The Orioles traveled to Fenway Park this week in a precarious situation. They've lost two of three in Tampa. They've been swept in Toronto. They've lost two of three at home to Kansas City. They've lost two of three at home to Boston. They haven't won a series since the big weekend showdown in Washington from May 18-20.

So, yes, the concerns all of us "experts" had been raising -- it's a long season, let's see what happens to the rotation, let's find out if some of the hitters can keep up their hot starts, the bullpen can't keep its ERA under 2.00 all season -- were proving true. The O's were 27-14 after winning the second against the Nationals but had gone 3-10 since, with the staff posting a 4.95 ERA while the offense scored 3.5 runs per game.

These were the Orioles we all expected. And then they beat the Red Sox in extra innings on Tuesday. And then they beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday behind a solid effort from Wei-Yin Chen and scoreless innings from Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. They're 5-0 at Fenway in 2012 and Chen is now 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA. The key moments came in the seventh inning after the Red Sox threatened with a pair of singles to start the frame. But after a sacrifice bunt, Chen struck out Marlon Byrd and induced Mike Aviles to pop out to first base.

Normally, Buck Showalter might have turned to his stellar bullpen, but after Tuesday's victory, in which the bullpen threw five innings, he left Chen to escape the jam. He set up Byrd with three fastballs and then got him swinging on a beautiful changeup. He threw three more fastballs to Aviles that he couldn't get around on. Don't underestimate Chen. His stuff plays up big, with his four-seamer reaching 94 mph. His last pitch to Aviles was clocked at 93. In 11 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs seven times and I think this outing will give Showalter more confidence to stretch Chen a little deeper into games.

So the Orioles remain in first place for another day, half a game ahead of the Yankees. Is it time to show them a little respect, to give Orioles fans what they crave? Let's do some position-by-position rankings to help sort out this tightly packed division. Rankings are simply listed in order of who I would want the rest of the season.

(Season-to-date Wins Above Replacement from Baseball-Reference.com, before Wednesday's games, listed in parenthesis.)

1. Matt Wieters, Orioles (1.6 WAR)
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Kelly Shoppach, Red Sox (1.6)
3. Russell Martin, Yankees (0.7)
4. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays (0.2)
5. Jose Molina, Rays (0.1)

There is a case to be made that Boston's duo is more valuable since they've combined for 14 home runs and an OPS over .900. But Wieters brings elite defensive skills and I also don't believe Salty is going to slug .583 all season. For the second consecutive season, the Rays are essentially punting offense at catcher. Rays catchers have the worst OPS in the majors.

First base
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox (0.8)
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees (0.6)
3. Mark Reynolds, Orioles (-0.6)
4. Carlos Pena, Rays (0.4)
5. David Cooper/others, Blue Jays (incomplete)

Gonzalez is still struggling to get his stroke going, but he's the best of a weak group. Yes, I just called Mark Teixeira weak, but at this point he's a low-average guy who pops a few long balls, doesn't draw as many walks as he once did and isn't as great on defense as Yankee fans believe. But in this group that's good enough to rank second. Reynolds has a low WAR but he's missed time and that includes his bad defense at third base, a position we've hopefully seen the last of him playing. The Jays, meanwhile, need to quit fooling around at first base and find a legitimate hitter, or move Edwin Encarnacion there and find a designated hitter. You hate to waste a potential playoff season because you can't find a first baseman who can hit. (No, David Cooper is not the answer, although he's hit well so far in 11 games.)

Second base
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.1)
2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (1.8)
3. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays (2.1)
4. Ben Zobrist, Rays (0.7)
5. Robert Andino, Orioles (0.6)

I love Ben Zobrist almost as much as two scoops of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's, but a .199 average isn't going to cut it in this group, even if you are on pace to draw 100-plus walks. Zobrist has actually play more right field so far, but should be back at second on a regular basis with Desmond Jennings back.

Third base
1. Evan Longoria, Rays (1.4)
2. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays (3.1)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1.2)
4. Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Wilson Betemit/Steve Tolleson, Orioles (-0.1)

Lawrie's WAR is boosted by defensive metrics that treat him like he's the second coming of Brooks Robinson. He's a good player but don't I think he's been the second-best position player in the American League. Longoria hopes to return at the end of the Rays' current road trip. As for A-Rod, his health is always a question at this stage of his career, but Youkilis has health questions and I'm not a believer in Middlebrooks' ability to hit .321 with power all season. His 29/4 strikeout/walk ratio is something pitchers should learn to exploit. As for the Orioles ... third base is an obvious concern. But don't expect a rare intra-division trade to acquire Youkilis.

1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles (2.1)
2. Mike Aviles, Red Sox (2.2)
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees (0.9)
4. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays (1.9)
5. Sean Rodriguez, Rays (1.9)

Wait ... Jeter has been the least valuable of this group so far? The other four all rate as excellent fielders -- in fact, Baseball-Reference rates them all in the top 13 fielders in the AL. Jeter, meanwhile, ranks 310th in the AL on defense -- out of 313 players.

Left field
1. Desmond Jennings, Rays (1.2)
2. Daniel Nava/Carl Crawford, Red Sox (1.7)
3. Brett Gardner/Raul Ibanez, Yankees (0.3)
4. Eric Thames/Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (-0.1)
5. Endy Chavez/Xavier Avery/Nolan Reimold, Orioles (-0.3)

Not to keep picking on the Orioles, but this is another problem position, especially if Reimold's disc problems lingers all season. Nava has quietly been a huge savior for the Red Sox, batting .305 with a .438 OBP. He's drawing walks at a crazy rate. He should slide some but he's provided the kind of depth the Orioles don't have.

Center field
1. Adam Jones, Orioles (2.5)
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees (1.3)
3. B.J. Upton Rays (0.9)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury/Scott Podsednik/Marlon Byrd, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (1.3)

Ellsbury might be the biggest wild card in this race, because the Red Sox can't survive much longer with the Podsednik/Byrd platoon. When will he return? How will he hit? He just started throwing and could return by the end of the month. I've conservatively put him fourth, which seems fair considering the unknown. And please note, Orioles fans, that I believe in Mr. Jones.

Right field
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (0.9)
2. Matt Joyce, Rays (2.2)
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees (-0.1)
4. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox (1.6)
5. Nick Markakis/others, Orioles (0.3)

Markakis is out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, an injury that once again reflects Baltimore's lack of depth. But all five teams are solid in right field. Ross is about to return from his broken foot; we'll see if he pounds the ball like he was before the injury (.534 slugging).

Designated hitter
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox (1.4)
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (1.6)
3. Revolving Door, Yankees
4. Chris Davis, Orioles (0.3)
5. Luke Scott, Rays (0.0)

No respect for Davis? OK, he's hitting .295/.333/.494. And he has 53 strikeouts and eight walks. Sorry, call me skeptical, O's fans. Yankee designated hitters have actually fared well, hitting a combined .279/.354/.467 with 10 home runs.

No. 1 starter
1. David Price, Rays (2.2)
2. CC Sabathia, Yankees (1.9)
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (0.3)
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Jason Hammel, Orioles (1.9)

Look, Hammel has been terrific so far thanks to a career-high strikeout rate and a career-high ground-ball rate. But this is tough group and the question is who is going to be best moving forward? My biggest concern is that Hammel has never pitched 180 innings in a season. Can he pitched the 210 to 220 that you need from a No. 1?

No. 2 starter
1. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (1.1)
2. James Shields, Rays (-0.4)
3. Andy Pettitte, Yankees (1.5)
4. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles (0.7)
5. Jon Lester, Red Sox (-0.4)

I like Chen. Heck, right now I like him better than Jon Lester, which tells you how much I like him. But he averaged just 172 innings in Japan over the past three seasons. Can he hold up over 32 starts?

No. 3 starter
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.0)
2. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees (1.4)
3. Felix Doubront, Red Sox (0.4)
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles (0.2)
5. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays (0.4)

Matusz is holding his own at 5-5, 4.41, but he's still walking a few too many, allowing a few too many hits, a few too many home runs. The velocity is solid, averaging 91 on his fastball. We're talking minor upgrades needed in his command, getting the ball down in the zone more often to get more groundballs. If the Orioles are to have any chance, Matusz's improvement may be the single most important aspect.

No. 4 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays (-0.6)
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees (0.3)
3. Jake Arrieta, Orioles (-0.4)
4. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (-1.2)
5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (-0.1)

Five pitchers who have struggled, but Arrieta's peripheral numbers are actually pretty solid. Like Matusz, there is hope for improvement. On the other hand, he's been awful since pitching eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, giving up 29 runs in 31.2 innings. His BABIP was .243 through May 2; it's .361 since. The truth is probably right in the middle, leaving Arrieta third on our list of fourth starters.

No. 5 starter
1. Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann, Rays (0.3)
2. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (0.1)
3. Phil Hughes, Yankees (0.2)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook/Daniel Bard, Red Sox (-0.3)
5. Tommy Hunter, Orioles (-0.5)

Hunter isn't really a major league starter, but I'm not sure Jamie Moyer -- just signed to a minor league contract -- is exactly a solution. The Orioles need to upgrade here.

1. Yankees (2.76 ERA)
2. Orioles (2.48 ERA)
3. Red Sox (3.66 ERA)
4. Rays (3.43 ERA)
5. Blue Jays (4.39 ERA)

If you watched Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson close out Wednesday's win, you'll realize the back of the Orioles' end has two guys with filthy stuff. Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala are strike-throwing machines and Troy Patton is a lefty who isn't a LOOGY. It's a good pen and it's deep. But the reliability of the pen ties into the rotation's inability to pitch deep into games -- Orioles relievers have already thrown 39 more innings than Yankees relievers, for example.

OK, let’s add it up … one point for ranking first, five points for ranking fifth. Hey, this isn’t meant to be scientific, so don’t overanalyze this too much. The totals:

Yankees: 36 points
Rays: 40 points
Red Sox: 45 points
Blue Jays: 51 points
Orioles: 53 points

Not the respect Orioles fans are seeking. Sorry about that; it’s nothing personal. Look, I don’t think the Orioles are going to fade away anytime soon. I worry about the rotation’s ability to hold up all summer and the bullpen’s workload. They lack depth on offense and have a couple of obvious holes. Hey, you never know, and the Orioles are certainly due for a winning season. I would love to see it happen.

Javier Lopez Jake Roth/US PresswireJavier Lopez is sending a message to Mark Kotsay: Tag, you're out!
First base: Phabulous Phil. I watched much of the Yankees-Tigers game and Phil Hughes looked as good as I've seen him since early in the 2010 season, showing a lot of confidence with his fastball in throwing his second career complete game. I thought a key moment came in the fifth inning when Hughes walked No. 8 hitter Don Kelly on five pitches with a 5-1 lead and you figured, "Here it goes." But Omir Santos grounded into a double play and Hughes allowed just two hits the rest of the game. Of course, it should be noted that the Detroit lineup featured not only the light-hitting Kelly and Santos, but Quintin Berry, Danny Worth and the struggling Brennan Boesch. In fact, outside of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, the Detroit is hardly imposing these days. After starting 9-3, the Tigers are 16-26. Justin Verlander lost his third straight decision and when he's not winning, Detroit is a thoroughly mediocre team.

Second base: Closer look at CarGo. Carlos Gonzalez slowed down the past two days, going 1-for-4 each game, but he's still 17-for-34 over his past nine games with six home runs, three doubles and 11 RBIs. But just how good is Gonzalez? This topic came up in last week's chat on the ESPN.com Franchise Player Draft as many readers felt Gonzalez didn't go high enough in the draft (he went 27th). I pointed out the red flag about Gonzalez: How good is he away from Coors Field? Eight of those nine games came at home. Entering Sunday's game, he had 1.235 OPS at home, .824 on the road. Ten of his 14 home runs have come at Coors. This follows his career pattern: He has a career 1.080 OPS at Coors, .753 on the road. In the chat, a user brought up Joey Votto, suggesting The Great American Ballpark is just as good a hitter's park as Coors. Well, sort of. It's a great home run park. But Votto actually has a higher career OPS on the road (.982 versus .949). He hits more home runs in Cincy, but compensates with a higher average and more doubles on the road. While it's pretty evident Votto is one of the best hitters in baseball no matter the park, the evidence suggests that's not the case with CarGo.

Third base: Speaking of hot hitters ... He's now playing the in the shadow of Giancarlo Stanton, but Hanley Ramirez is starting to give the Marlins the powerful 1-2 punch they envisioned. After hitting two home runs on Saturday, he hit another one on Sunday in a 5-1 victory over the Phillies (winning pitcher Carlos Zambrano also homered). After hitting .207 in April, he hit .322 in May and he's 12 for his last 24 with four home runs and three doubles. Most importantly, Ramirez has yet to miss a game. Jose Reyes had two more hits and he's quietly been raising his OBP as well -- from .293 in April to .344 by the end of May and now to .356. Also importantly, Reyes has missed just one game. It's a four-man offense right now for the Marlins (Omar Infante being the fourth run producer), but in the National League, four hitters may be all you need.

Home plate: Tweet of the day.
It's easy to discount the Baltimore Orioles and their 14-8 start. Even Orioles fans will agree with that, I suppose -- 14 consecutive losing seasons, six consecutive seasons of 90-plus losses, a decade of bad pitching, bad fielding, bad free agents and bad ownership. It's the Orioles. It's been a long time since they mattered.

But we have to pay attention after this start. At least for a few weeks, right? They are 14-8, they are tied for first with the Tampa Bay Rays in baseball's brawniest division, they've won six of seven and they've won games in a peculiar, un-Orioles-like fashion -- great pitching and dramatic comebacks. The Orioles allowed just 13 runs over this seven-game stretch. Sunday's win was the kind you put on a season highlight DVD as they scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth -- capped by Wilson Betemit's walk-off three-run homer against Oakland's Grant Balfour.

"We got a team where everybody pulls together," Betemit said after the game. "Everybody knows how to play, knows how to win, and that's what we do."

Now, maybe Betemit just got caught up in the happy celebration. He probably doesn't realize how that quote sounds so odd to Orioles fans. Then again, he's new to Baltimore and isn't trapped by that cloud of losing seasons. But it's also true that Baltimore is winning these kinds of games -- according to Nick Faleris of the Camden Depot blog, that's five comeback wins in the seventh inning or later for the Orioles, matching their 2011 total.

Nolan Reimold (.333), Adam Jones (.330), Robert Andino (.324) and Chris Davis (.319) are all hitting above .300. Matt Wieters has six homer runs and a team-leading 15 RBIs. The Orioles are sixth in the AL in runs even though J.J. Hardy is hitting .181 and Mark Reynolds is hitting .150 without a home run.

Now, this is where I rain on the Orioles' parade a little bit. Those four guys hitting over .300? They've combined for just 13 walks but 60 strikeouts. Can they keep up that production? The low walk rate means the Orioles are just 10th in the AL in on-base percentage, so they have been relying on the home run (29 in 22 games).

But it's been the rotation that has provided the biggest lift. After ranking last in the AL in 2011 with a 5.39 ERA, the rotation has posted a 3.65 ERA so far, led by newcomer Jason Hammel's 1.73 mark. But Wei-Yin Chen has been a nice surprise as well, with a 2.22 ERA. The 26-year-old Taiwanese left-hander came over from Japan and has a four-pitch repertoire that isn't overpowering but he's fanned 19 batters in 24.2 innings, a good enough rate to survive.

Now ... this is where I again in some rain. While Jake Arrieta has looked good, left-hander Brian Matusz has again struggled, although his last start was his best. The Orioles are still looking for the promising lefty of 2010, but he's at least throwing 90 mph again. Tommy Hunter is a finesse right-hander who has survived despite allowing eight home runs so far. But what happens when he starts going through those AL East lineups start after start?

Speaking of which. The Orioles play the Yankees and Red Sox this week. They already went 0-3 earlier in the season against New York and this time have to play the Yankees on the road. This will be a good test to see what kind of team the Orioles really have. Not to disagree with Mr. Betemit, but I have doubts whether this is a team that knows how to win. Last year, the O's went 13-23 against New York and Boston; in 2010, they went 14-22; in 2009, 7-29. The last time they won a season series against either team was 2004, when they went 10-9 against Boston.

Series of the week: Orioles at Yankees, Monday through Wednesday
Jason Hammel (3-0, 1.73) vs. Hiroki Kuroda (1-3, 4.38), 7:05 ET
Brian Matusz (0-3, 5.66) vs. Phil Hughes (1-3, 7.88), 7:05 ET
Jake Arrieta (1-2, 4.45) vs. Ivan Nova (3-0, 5.18), 7:05 ET (ESPN)

Hammel has thrived by throwing lots of grounders -- he's fourth among all starting pitchers in groundball rate so far, at 61.8 percent. The O's hope to take advantage of a struggling Hughes on Tuesday. He's lasted just 16 innings over four starts, giving up five home runs and a .329 average. Nova is 3-0 -- he hasn't lost a start since last June 3. But he's allowed a .343 average, though his walk rate is down and strikeout rate way up from 2011.

Three pitching matchups to watch
1. Cole Hamels (3-1, 2.73) vs. Brandon Beachy, Phillies at Braves (Tuesday, 7:10 ET)

The Braves have quietly gone 14-8 with a +27 run differential, third-highest in baseball behind the Rangers and Cardinals. Filthy Hamels (30 strikeouts, three walks) will be a fun test for the NL's leading offense (tied with the Cardinals at 5.1 runs per game). Beachy has a 1.05 ERA, although that figure has been helped by four unearned runs. Still, Beachy has allowed a .191 average through four starts and has improved his groundball rate from 33.8 percent in 2011 to 47.3, leading to just one home run allowed.

2. Jake Peavy (3-1, 1.67) vs. Drew Smyly (1-0, 1.23)

Peavy looks rejuvenated, the Peavy of a Cy Young past. He's thrown two straight complete games, has held hitters to a .162 average, has allowed one home run and has a 33/5 strikeout/walk ratio. Impressively, four of his starts have come against the Red Sox, Tigers, Orioles and Rangers, four of the AL's best offenses so far. In short, he's been dominant, maybe the best pitcher in baseball in April if you factor in the competition. Detroit's rookie left-hander has been impressive in his four starts -- allowing one run each time out (three of those on home runs). Smyly throws in the 90-93 range with his four-seamer, mixing in a slider and cut fastball and occasional changeup. He allowed two hits in six innings against the Yankees in his previous start.

3. Zack Greinke (3-1, 3.94) vs. Madison Bumgarner (4-1, 2.53), Brewers at Giants (Saturday, 4:05 ET)

Greinke had one blow-up start in which he allowed eight runs, but has otherwise allowed a total of five runs in his four other starts, two of which were wins over the Cardinals. I'd like to see Greinke get a little more economical with his pitches and prove he can pitch more than seven innings. Greinke pitched at least eight innings 10 times with the Royals in 2010, but has to do it with the Brewers. Bumgarner has reeled off four straight wins and has yet to walk more than two batters in a game.

Heat map of the week
Courtesy of Mark Simon we have a little comparison between Albert Pujols and red-hot Matt Kemp. One big difference has been their success with two strikes. Pujols has faced 50 two-strike plate appearances and has totaled 11 hits plus walks (and no home runs, of course). Kemp has faced 45 two-strike plate appearances but has 18 hits plus walks, including four home runs. Another big difference, as you can see on the heat map below on their overall production in different zones: Kemp is 8-for-12 (with five home runs) on pitches down the middle while Pujols is hitless in that area. Maybe that's reason for Angels fans to be optimistic: He's due to start pounding those mistakes.

Kemp/PujolsESPN Stats & InformationMatt Kemp is pounding nearly everything in the strike zone; Albert Pujols is not.
Player on the hot seat: Mat Latos, Reds
The Reds gave up a lot to get Latos from the Padres in the offseason, a guy acquired to fit behind Johnny Cueto in the rotation, but in reality expected to be Cincy's best pitcher. He's been a huge disappointment, with one win in five starts. He had one seven-inning scoreless stint against the Giants, but has otherwise failed to fool many batters. Opponents are hitting .304 off him and he's fanned just 18 batters in 28.2 innings, after averaging 8.9 K's per nine the past two seasons. His velocity has been fine; hitters are just putting more balls in play. After hitters to swing and miss his slider 23 percent of the time last year, they're doing so 17 percent this season. He's also allowed a much higher line-drive percentage and his slider and sinker.

(Oh, yes, this doesn't mean Pujols isn't still on the hot seat.)

Player to watch: Bryce Harper
No introduction needed. He's up, he went 2-for-6 with a double, walk and sac fly in his two games and I'll be watching as many of his at-bats as possible this week. You can check him out on "Sunday Night Baseball" against the Phillies.

Chris JohnsonAP Photo/David KohlWith Jordan Lyles bunting (R) while Chris Johnson scores (L), Ryan Hanigan got caught in between.
Mark Simon and I delivered a hard-hitting Wednesday episode of the Baseball Today podcast , focusing on the good, the bad and the Jake Westbrook.

1. Yu Darvish was magnificent against the Yankees, showing better command than in earlier starts. Can anything stop the Rangers?

2. Can anything stop the Washington Nationals? Have they actually become the team to beat in the NL East?

3. Mark tells us the pitchers with the lowest hard-hit average so far, including Westbrook and quite a few lefties with aberrant numbers.

4. Our emailers want answers about the Minnesota Twins/ future, resources for looking up advanced stats, and on the ridiculous side, the oldest players to homer on their birthday.

5. Wednesday’s schedule features quite a few pitchers potentially at a crossroads, including Kyle Drabek, Joe Wieland and Phil Hughes.

So download and listen to Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast and learn more about Omar Moreno and Frankie Crosetti.