SweetSpot: R.A. Dickey

First-place Jays have had to adapt, adjust

May, 27, 2014
May 27
The first-place Toronto Blue Jays? We’re coming up on finishing the first third of the season, and it’s a fun thing to think about: The first-place Blue Jays, for real. But how did they get there?

It’s easy to put down where they are to a couple of big developments: Mark Buehrle’s big start, 8-1 with the team going 9-1 in his 10 turns, or Edwin Encarnacion’s 13 home runs in May, or Jose Bautista staying healthy while posting an OPS north of .900 for the first time since 2011. Melky Cabrera is hitting and staying out of trouble (so far). Jose Reyes has played more games than he has missed.

Those are the things that, when they work, you congratulate yourself, because that’s all part of any master plan GM Alex Anthopoulos would have for how the Blue Jays contend. What’s interesting about where they’re at isn’t just the good things working out the way you’d like, it’s the other things that they’ve had to do. It’s the things they’ve had to fix, the elective decisions they’re making, to help themselves do even better.

Take their infield. Initially, they gave organizational soldier Ryan Goins a big chunk of the second-base job, figuring he’d split time with veteran utility infielder Maicer Izturis. Then Izturis tore up his knee, Goins didn’t hit, and predictably enough neither did veteran subs Munenori Kawasaki and Chris Getz. So, with all that failing to stick, the Jays got creative.

They’d already lucked into Juan Francisco’s availability at the end of spring training, signing him after he was cut by the Milwaukee Brewers, then employing the lefty slugger to good effect when DH Adam Lind got hurt. Looking at the wreck of their middle infield, they decided to try Francisco at third base despite years of scouting reports and weak performance to warn them against it. But they figured they were better off resuming the experiment with Brett Lawrie at second rather than continue futzing around with the scrappy second-base types most teams might accept -- Goins or Getz, it hardly mattered, use either and you’re probably not goin’ to getz anywhere.

So, at a time when offense is down, the Jays made the choice to play for runs instead of defense, and it’s working. They’re averaging 4.9 runs per game with a deep lineup capable of trading blows with the league-leading Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A’s. For the Jays, it’s a multi-positional platoon, one in which Lawrie flips between second and third base while playing every day, with Francisco at third base against righties and journeyman Steve Tolleson at second base against lefties, exploiting the .832 OPS the former Twins farmhand has put up in his abbreviated big-league career against southpaws. They’re 18-8 since Francisco’s first start at the hot corner on May 3 after starting the year 12-14. They’re 9-1 in the games Tolleson has started against a lefty, beating guys like Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson and Scott Kazmir.

How does this work? Well, sure, as Francisco is slugging above .600 reflects, some guys can have a great 100 at-bats or so. But perhaps more importantly the Blue Jays are using guys for what they can do where they can do it, instead of getting hung up on what they can’t. Take Francisco: Built with the range of your average home appliance, he probably isn’t going to be an average third baseman in the major leagues. So what? Aspire to adequacy, and that’s what you get, and you might miss out on what the guy can do: Crush right-handed pitching with regular playing time, slugging over .500 in his extended minor-league career. A corner is exactly where you can hide his bat, where he might see only two or three chances per game. Yes, he’ll strike out a third of the time. He’ll also crank out a .200 Isolated Power at a time when finding people who can contribute on offense isn’t so easy.

But let’s also credit manager John Gibbons for pushing for runs. Take Monday’s game: Up by two in the fifth with nobody out, his lineup just chased Erik Bedard, so the Rays have Alex Colome come in to face Tolleson -- who’d already homered -- and Gibbons pulls Tolleson anyway to exploit the offensive advantage and bat Francisco against the righty, and devil take the subsequent defensive risks. Francisco walked, the inning just got bigger, and two more runs would score to put the Rays down for keeps. In an era when pitching substitutions and their effectiveness usually define in-game initiative, it was nice to see someone in the dugout take it back on offense and win a matchup game because he had the option, and he used it.

The flip side of this is to note that the Jays have to play for runs, because of the other thing that isn’t working for them in the early going: Their rotation, and seeing what they’re going to do about it. Outside of Buehrle’s turns, they’re 21-22 overall, and they’ve gotten just nine quality starts in 31 games from the rotation outside of those made by Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. They need better.

Someone like J.A. Happ might make for an adequate No. 4 or 5 in a contender’s rotation. And you can get excited about what Drew Hutchinson might become if you just look at his strikeout and walk rates and his FIP, but that’s only going to so far when he keeps getting clobbered the second time through the order (.825 OPS before Monday’s slugfest), or the third (.855). Maybe he’ll adjust, maybe not.

But if Hutchinson doesn’t become the third horse they really need, the Jays have a rotation that’s going to keep putting them in the slugfests that their offense will have to win for them. That’s fine as long as it’s going good, and creating leads that their excellent relief trio of Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Steve Delabar protect and hand off to closer Casey Janssen. But you’d like to see the Jays adapt their plan in-season again by adding an arm, and not just because banking on Brandon Morrow’s comeback from the DL at some point in July would be optimistic.

Sometimes contention is a matter of building on both the ideal and the unexpected. Given that the Jays can be happy to be where they are, here’s hoping they take some more chances to stay there.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
In the offseason, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos sensed an opportunity to seize control of the AL East. The Yankees were a year older and refusing to make any big moves in order to, gulp, save money; the Red Sox were coming off a 93-loss season; the Orioles were a good bet to regress after going an all-time best 29-9 in one-run games; the Rays were once again trying to patch together an offense.

So in an attempt to make the Jays relevant for the first time in years and bring the baseball fans in Toronto back to the Rogers Centre, he made the plunge few GMs are willing to take: He dealt from his wealth of prospects and acquired NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets and high-priced veterans Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson from the Marlins. He dipped into the free-agent market and signed the PED-tainted Melky Cabrera to a two-year contract.

The moves were widely praised. The computer projections were positive -- Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system predicted Toronto would go 94-68 and win the AL East, making the playoffs in 68 percent of his simulations and finishing last just 6 percent of the time. Twenty of 43 of ESPN's baseball contributors picked the Blue Jays to win the division.

So what happened? The Blue Jays head into the stretch run at 64-76 and the announcement on Wednesday that Jose Bautista will miss the rest of the season with a bone bruise in his femur was sort of the exclamation point on the team's disappointing season. (The one piece of good news: The fans did respond to the acquisitions, as attendance is up over 30,000 per game for the first time since 1998.)

The obvious answer: The pitching has been terrible. Only the Astros have allowed more runs in the AL. The offense has been OK, but not the powerhouse lineup you would have projected with Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

Look at what happened to the projected rotation. Could it have been expected to fall apart?

R.A. Dickey: 11-12, 4.30 ERA. A predictable result. He was coming off a career season and was likely due for some regression, even before switching to the tougher league and a tougher park. His road ERA is 3.34, not far off the 2.90 mark he had with the Mets in 2012, but he's allowed 20 home runs at home with a 5.21 ERA.

Josh Johnson: 2-8, 6.20 ERA. He made just 16 starts and was terrible, so while the health issues were a risk the poor performance was certainly a surprise. Was he bad or unlucky? His xFIP -- expected fielding independent pitching with a normalized home run-to-flyball rate -- is 3.59, right at his career mark of 3.57. But he allowed 105 hits in 81.1 innings (a .361 BABIP) with 15 home runs. He may have been striking guys out, and while the BABIP was high he also got creamed when falling behind in the count (.387 average after 1-0, .487 after 2-0).

Brandon Morrow: 2-3, 5.63 ERA. Ten starts. He's been unable to stay healthy at any point in his career, so it was no surprise he went down again.

Ricky Romero: 0-2, 12.46 ERA. Spent most of the season in the minors, unable to throw strikes. He was a wild card heading into spring training considering his bad season in 2012 and it all fell apart.

Of the projected five starters, only Buehrle panned out, doing his usual solid work. But it was pretty clearly a high-risk rotation heading into the season, Johnson and Morrow with their injury histories, Romero with his control, and Dickey with his regression.

The bullpen was supposed to be the big concern coming of a league-worst 4.33 ERA in 2012, but it's been very good with a 3.41 ERA (second-best in the East behind the Yankees), although the rotation was so bad the bullpen has had to pitch the most innings in the AL -- 30 more than the Astros, and 100 more than Tigers. That the relievers have held together with such a heavy workload is a big plus and the only thing separating this staff from Houston's.

Anyway, once those starters got hurt/struggled, the Jays had no depth, resorting to replacement-level starters like Esmil Rogers, J.A. Happ and Todd Redmond.

Offensively, Encarnacion had a big year, Adam Lind had his best season since 2009 and Colby Rasmus has been solid, but Cabrera has been awful (.906 OPS to .682), J.P. Arencibia has been all-power, no-OBP once again, Reyes missed 50 games, Brett Lawrie hasn't developed into a big run producer and their second basemen have been the worst in the majors (.546 OPS). I was worried about the bottom of the lineup heading into the season, and there was always the chance that Reyes wouldn't stay healthy and Cabrera wouldn't come close to matching his big numbers with the Giants. Yes, the offense had upside, but the holes loomed large.

What's happened isn't really that surprising. It was a high-risk team, maybe higher risk than most anticipated. This doesn't mean Anthopoulos had a bad offseason; it just didn't work out like it could have.

Sizzling Blue Jays won't just streak and fade

June, 23, 2013

Now that the Blue Jays have rattled off a 10-game win streak, we’re almost back to what I think we all expected in the American League East when the season started: a five-team race where nobody -- nobody -- should be considered the automatic favorite. After all, isn’t that what the Baltimore Orioles taught us last year, after months of confident, thoughtful assertions that they would regress, retreat or recoil short of the postseason?


Which team will win the AL East?


Discuss (Total votes: 9,391)

What’s interesting about the Jays clambering past .500 to get back into the thick of things in baseball’s drama division isn’t that they’ve done it; more than a few people pegged this team to win as confidently as they did the Nationals before Opening Day, after all. What’s interesting is how they’re doing it, and who they’re doing it with.

  • After years of disappointment as a homegrown, big-ticket investment, Adam Lind is delivering for the first time in years, slugging almost .700 for the month of June. Spotted with care, he’s even hitting those lefties he remains in the lineup to face (OPS 1.030) after years of having problems hitting against them (.626 career).
  • Lind is far from the only surprise hero in the lineup. Colby Rasmus has put up an .861 OPS over the past 30 days, providing a nice reminder that it wasn’t very long ago that he was considered one of the best prospects in the game (including third overall before the 2009 season on Baseball America’s top prospect list). He’s still just 26 years old this season, and after a two-year hiccup, it isn’t inconceivable that his year is for real. An even bigger surprise has been Munenori Kawasaki going from scrap-heap sub at shortstop -- stepping in for Jose Reyes, no less -- to someone providing a .347 OBP.
  • The rotation has been made a shambles by ineffectiveness (R.A. Dickey has just one quality start in the past month), injuries (fragile young gun Josh Johnson has already missed nine starts) or, in the case of the maddeningly promising Brandon Morrow, both. But setbacks for some create opportunities for others. Chien-Ming Wang has provided innings and winnable games and converted shortstop Esmil Rogers has had a couple of good starts. More significantly, Johnson is back in action and Mark Buehrle is already turned around after a slow start, rattling off quality starts in six of his last eight turns.
  • [+] EnlargeMark Buehrle
    AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Frank GunnMark Buehrle, part of the Jays' big offseason deal with Miami, has come on after a bumpy start.
    But perhaps the most impressive element of the Blue Jays’ run back to relevance has been their bullpen. On the year, its numbers aren’t amazing, allowing 3.5 runs scored per nine and a decidedly average 32 percent of inherited runners to score. But over the past 30 days, the Toronto relievers have gotten tremendous work from a no-name crew fronted by closer Casey Janssen. In that time, skipper John Gibbons’ most frequently used quintet (Janssen, Steve Delabar and Neil Wagner, plus lefties Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup) have pitched 52 times, tossing 58.1 innings while giving up just 1.4 runs per nine. They’ve delivered a 65:16 strikeout:walk ratio in that time. Cecil’s been especially effective, allowing just four baserunners in 16 innings against 20 whiffs. And as much trouble as the Jays’ rotation has been, the bullpen has had to pitch an MLB-leading 267.1 innings, so while its overall RA/9 or Fair Run Average (4.41 according to Baseball Prospectus) hasn’t been earth-shattering, it’s the volume of useful innings plus the pen's recent performance that has been crucial to the Jays' success. As much as any bullpen can be a crapshoot in terms of making too much of small sample sizes, it would be fair to say the Jays’ pen has been a lovely surprise in a moment of need for innings, and Gibbons seems to be getting a lot more mileage out of his unit than other, more famous skippers are getting out of other, more famous (or expensive) assemblages of relief talent.

All of which might lead you to make assertions every bit as confident as last year’s about the Orioles, that surely the Jays can’t keep this up. It would be easy to infer that these are all just the symptoms of victory. And that’s sensible: Keeping your expectations low for guys like Rogers or Wang or Kawasaki is entirely reasonable, and based on an awful lot of direct observation. Is Lind going to slug .700 from here on out? Of course not; who do you think he is -- Chris Davis? These are the guys the regression fairy is liable to clobber with a two-by-four.

But what has helped get the Jays this far doesn’t have to be what leverages the Jays even further into the AL East race. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are bashing -- and they should. In the rotation, Johnson is already back, and Morrow might be before the All-Star break; that could lighten the load on the pen, while keeping more games in reach for the Jays’ homer-happy lineup. The feeble production the Jays have gotten from most of their infield slots will almost certainly improve once Reyes and Brett Lawrie come back in a week or so.

In short, what has gotten the Blue Jays this far doesn’t have to be what they win with in the second half. They can thank their surprise heroes for helping get them back into this thing, but the Jays have a tremendous opportunity to build off this run once they’re back at full strength. In many respects, you can look at the Jays’ slow 13-24 start this year as being very much like what happened to them in 1989, when they started out 12-24 -- and nevertheless came back to win the AL East with 89 wins. In a division where it looks like everybody is going to knock everyone else down, keeping all five teams in the race, that sounds very familiar indeed.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
What to make of Matt Moore right now?

His 9-3 record looks nice, but he hasn't pitched like a 9-3 pitcher, especially of late. Even when he started the season 8-0, there were some red flags: a lot of walks, high pitch counts that led to early exits and a .181 batting average allowed that seemed unsustainable.

After that hot start, a one-inning outing truncated by a rain delay was followed by three blow-up starts: six runs and six walks in two innings, 12 hits and nine runs in five innings and five runs and four walks in 5⅓ innings.

I don't know if we really learned anything from Thursday's 8-3 victory over the Yankees, in which Moore took a shutout into the sixth inning before giving up three runs. For starters, the Yankees' is a pretty sad excuse for a major league lineup, and it's particularly pathetic against left-handers. Chris Capuano, who has been terrible for the Dodgers, just threw six scoreless innings against New York on Wednesday.

Moore did throw 63 of 99 pitches for strikes, about four percent higher than his season rate, but he should be throwing strikes against a lineup that had Jayson Nix batting second and Ichiro Suzuki hitting sixth. The uncertainty over Moore's production -- is he an ace or a No. 4 starter? -- makes him the most important guy moving forward in a Tampa Bay rotation that has been a disappointment.

You could pick almost any Tampa Bay starter here, including David Price, who begins his rehab stint from a strained triceps Friday, or Jeremy Hellickson, who has a 5.50 ERA. But if Price is healthy, he should be fine. Hellickson has a better strikeout rate, lower walk rate and the same home run rate as last season; instead of the 82 percent strand rate he's had the past two seasons, it's 61 percent this seaspn. He should be better moving forward as well.

That makes Moore the key starter if the Rays are to stay close in the crowded American League East race. In fact, with the Blue Jays surging -- winners of eight in a row -- seven games separate first-place Boston from last-place Toronto. Here are nine other key players the rest of the way, one hitter and pitcher per team.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJohn Lackey could well be Boston's No. 2 starter right now -- and will be a key player in the AL East race.
Matt Joyce, Rays
Since April 26, Joyce has hit .292/.383/.590 with 12 home runs to give the Rays a lethal 1-2 combo with Evan Longoria. If he continues hitting like he is, the Rays offense will continue scoring runs.

John Lackey, Red Sox
Lackey continues to impress in his return from Tommy John surgery, throwing seven strong innings against the Tigers on Thursday, leaving with a 3-2 lead and lowering his ERA to 3.03. Red Sox fans might not be willing to forgive him just yet for 2011, but he's starting to win them over. He's throwing in the low 90s, painting the corners with his fastball and getting inside to left-handers with his slider (lefties are hitting just .174 against that pitch). Considering Jon Lester's inconsistency, Lackey has arguably become the team's No. 2 starter. Who would have thought that?

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
He's not the MVP candidate of 2011 -- just one home run -- but he's providing energy at the top of the lineup with a .281 average, .348 OBP and 31 steals in 34 attempts. While more power would be nice, the Red Sox just need him to at least keep replicating what he's done so far.

Jason Hammel, Orioles
Look, the Orioles can't expect to keep running Freddy Garcia and Jake Arrieta out there and expect to win the division. They'll get Wei-Yin Chen back soon, but they're desperate for Hammel to replicate his 2012 performance. Last season, Hammel was getting great sinking movement on his fastball, off which batters hit .252/.318/.378; this season, he's leaving it up too often, and hitters are pounding it for a .309/.377/.510. Last year was a career season for Hammel, so the Orioles might have to decide on banking on his improvement or look to supplement the rotation via trade.

Chris Davis, Orioles
Well, he's on pace for 58 home runs and 146 RBIs. I don't think he'll keep doing this, and while he's clearly an improved hitter over last season, we have to expect some regression at some point … right?

CC Sabathia, Yankees
Most pitchers would be happy with a 7-5 record and 3.93 ERA, but it's been an up-and-down season for Sabathia. Manager Joe Girardi is still riding his horse -- Sabathia's on pace for 230 innings -- but righties are slugging .447 off him, up from last season's .374 mark. It's clear he doesn't have the fastball he once had (average velocity: 90.3 mph), so the issues here: Should Girardi back off him a little? Does Sabathia get better? Should we just view him as an innings-eater instead of an ace?

Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
We have to put somebody here, and I can't bring myself to write "Vernon Wells." But the Yankees do need to find some right-handed bats. Heck, maybe they'll sign Manny Ramirez.

R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays
The Jays are starting to get healthy again, Josh Johnson has looked better of late and Mark Buehrle is looking like Mark Buehrle, so if Dickey can find some consistency and pitch like last season's NL Cy Young winner, the Jays will climb over .500 -- they're 35-36 now -- and make things interesting.

Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
The Jays are seventh in the AL in runs, and while Jose Reyes will improve the offense when he returns in a few days, they could use a patented Bautista tear in the second half. His numbers are OK, not great -- .257, 15 home runs, .352 OBP -- but, considering the hole they dug, they'll need more from him.

Back in March, we would have predicted this showdown of reigning Cy Young winners R.A. Dickey and David Price -- just the third time that that has happened -- would be a monumental duel between two of the game's best pitchers, maybe with first place in the AL East on the line.

Instead, the Toronto Blue Jays entered with a lousy record, a lousy run differential and a starting rotation in shambles, both in performance and injury status. The Tampa Bay Rays were a little better but still three games under .500, and their biggest problem hadn't been scoring runs, but preventing them. This isn't the Blue Jays team we expected to see, nor the Rays team we've grown accustomed to seeing.

The Rays ended up winning 5-4 in 10 innings, but let's review how things went for our Cy Young winners.

Dickey entered with a 2-5 record and 5.36 ERA, and his problems compared to 2012 were pretty easy to spot: more walks (1.5 more per nine innings), fewer strikeouts (down nearly two per nine innings), more home runs (eight, already one-third his total of 24 from 2012) and a low strand rate (80 percent in 2012, 65 percent in 2013).

Numbers are numbers, but they don't tell us why the numbers were bad. In this case, however, a deeper dig reveals a primary cause: Dickey hasn't been throwing -- or has been unable to throw because of back and neck inflammation -- his "hard" knuckleball as often. According to research from Mark Simon and Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information, Dickey threw his knuckleball at 80 mph or higher 491 times last season, or 20 percent of his total pitches. Entering Thursday's game, he had thrown only 12 knuckleballs at 80-plus mph, or 2 percent of his total pitches. The kicker is that results against Dickey's sub-80 knuckleballs were nearly identical: .241/.293/.382 in 2012 versus .226/.294/.397 in 2013. But last season, his hard knuckleball, with that late break, was his dominant putaway pitch. He hasn't had that this season.

[+] EnlargeToronto's R.A. Dickey
Photo by J. Meric/Getty ImagesComing off a Cy Young season, R.A. Dickey has struggled with his hard knuckleball.
Thursday's outing saw more of the same. Of the 110 pitches Dickey threw, 104 were knuckleballs, but only two registered 80-plus. He walked five in his six innings, although he escaped with minimal damage, three runs allowed. It's too early to make a judgment on how Dickey's season will go; some of this could be the back, some of it could be adjusting to new catchers, some could just be not having the feel right now for the knuckler.

In his last game at home, he was booed after giving up three home runs to the Mariners. "We're somewhat of a dysfunctional team right now," Dickey said after that loss. "We're kind of searching for a way to score runs, a way to pitch well. We're doing a lot of things poorly, myself included."

Thursday's game didn't do anything to alleviate those issues. The Blue Jays ended up losing in the 10th inning on a bases-loaded two-out walk on a 3-2 pitch to Luke Scott by Brad Lincoln. He had entered with two on and walked pinch hitter Ryan Roberts to load the bases. But that had been preceded by John Gibbons having lefty Aaron Loup intentionally walk left-handed James Loney with a runner on second. I understand why the move was made; Loney is hitting .381, second in the AL, and once Roberts was announced -- he's hit .152 against right-handers -- Gibbons made the switch. Of course, Loney hasn't hit lefties in years (ignore this season's small sample size), and if Gibbons was so concerned about matchups, why not bring in Lincoln to face Evan Longoria, who had doubled with two outs to start the rally?

Anyway, another bad loss for the Jays, with plenty of blame to go around. They're 10 games under .500 at 13-23. In the wild-card era, 95 teams have started 13-20 or worse and only three (2001 A's, 2005 Astros and 2009 Rockies) recovered to make the playoffs.

The returns on Price were much more positive. He pitched eight innings, allowed four runs (two earned) with eight strikeouts and a walk. While much has been made about his drop in fastball velocity (an average of 95.4 mph in 2012 versus 93.2 mph entering Thursday's game), Mark and Katie discovered that Price's curveball perhaps has been the bigger problem. Basically, he has been throwing it for strikes too often and it has been getting hit instead serving as a punch-out pitch. Last season, batters hit .153 against it; before Thursday, they were hitting .323 against it.

He threw his curve 13 times against the Jays, but only one ended up as a decisive pitch in an at-bat (he got the out). The good news is he kept his pitches down. He'd thrown 53 percent of his pitches in the upper half of the strike zone entering the game, up 12 percent from 2012. On this night, that figure was just 26 percent. As a result, he didn't allow a home run for only the second start this season.

While one win in his first eight starts isn't how Price and Rays fans envisioned things, there are clear reasons to be optimistic about him. It hardly would be a surprise to see him roll off seven or eight great starts in a row and get that ERA close to 3.00 by the All-Star break. The Rays still need to get the bullpen going and stop surrendering so many home runs (tied for fourth most in the majors), but if you ask me which team -- Toronto or Tampa Bay -- is more likely to climb into the pennant race, I'd go with the Rays.
The final weekend of April is upon us and while it's still too early for most teams struggling in the standings to panic, that doesn't mean there won't be some panicking anyway. For example, big things were expected from the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels, but barring a big winning streak to close April those teams will start May with more losses than wins. This weekend the Blue Jays visit Yankee Stadium, while the Angels will be sleeping in Seattle, and the pressure is on. Here is what else you need to know for this weekend:

Revenge! Earlier this month defending division champs Cincinnati and Washington met in Ohio, and the Reds had the edge, taking the first game 15-0 and the third game 6-3, beating Stephen Strasburg. This series began on Thursday with a blowout Nationals win, and continues through the weekend. This could certainly be a playoff preview, but will the Nationals still be relying on Saturday starter Dan Haren by October? And what about the Reds with rookie lefty Tony Cingrani, scheduled to start Sunday? Haren hasn't retired a hitter in the sixth inning of any of his four starts, and while he searches for answers, don't be shocked when the Nationals upgrade as the year goes on. Cingrani has been terrific, and Sunday will be a test, but regardless of statistics he could be headed back to the minors soon when Johnny Cueto is healthy.

Surprises no more: A year ago today the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics seemed more likely to be last-place teams rather than playoff entrants, but the rest was history. Each team is off to a strong start and they'll continue their series, which also began Thursday (with an Orioles victory), in the Bay Area. Right-hander Bartolo Colon comes off a rain-shortened shutout (seven innings at Fenway Park) and is Sunday's scheduled starter. Colon, soon to be 40, is 3-0 already with a 2.42 ERA and he's issued one walk while striking out 17. How does he do it? Nine out of every 10 of his pitches are fastballs, and he's still hitting 90 mph on the radar gun, so give him credit for location, location and more location.

Bullpen follies: In one bullpen you've got the best closer in the business in Craig Kimbrel. In the other it's Jose Valverde, unemployed all winter, in Single-A ball when this week began and now closing again. It's quite the difference! The Atlanta Braves and Detroit Tigers are likely playoff teams no matter how their bullpens evolve (each bullpen will be fine) and face off in Detroit in the lone interleague series. The Braves have the pitching edge, as they avoid Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, and their trio of Paul Maholm, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor bring a composite 1.65 ERA with them. The Tigers will send right-hander Rick Porcello to the mound Saturday, coming off an outing in which he was charged with nine runs in the first inning at Anaheim. Still only 24 but with a career ERA of 4.67 in more than 700 innings, those expecting Porcello to suddenly emerge as a star might be waiting a really long time. Minor and the worthy Doug Fister are scheduled to meet on Sunday night on ESPN.

Worst of the worst: Meanwhile, the battles aren't solely between contending teams. The Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins certainly aren't good teams, but that doesn't mean there isn't much to watch. For the dysfunctional Marlins, it's all about outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, off to miserable start. For those blaming the lack of offense around him I ask, who exactly protected Stanton in the lineup last year, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio? For the Cubs, it's worth tuning in if they have a ninth-inning lead. Pick the over on potential Carlos Marmol bases on balls. Tune in to this series and get a few laughs.

From Cy to Sigh: Every R.A. Dickey outing is worth a look, just to see how the knuckleball will be floating, and so far it seems last season's NL Cy Young award winner is even less sure than normal where it's going. Dickey's numbers are a bit inflated (4.66 ERA, 1.45 WHIP), likely in some part due to neck and back stiffness that he says has affected the knuckleball's velocity. Dickey has never started a game at Yankee Stadium, and it's not exactly a great offensive squad he'll face (Jayson Nix! Lyle Overbay! Brennan Boesch!), but if the Blue Jays are going to contend in the AL East, they'll need better pitching than they’ve received.

Enjoy your weekend!
Struggling starting pitchers will certainly be on display this weekend as teams -- both real and fantasy -- wonder if their aces will deliver. Of course, it's not even Tax Day yet, so in general it's wise to be patient. By the way, don't forget to pay your taxes on time!

Cy of relief? The defending Cy Young Award winners each come off brutal outings and both feature ERAs around 9. But who's really worried about Tampa Bay Rays lefty David Price and Toronto Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey hurling Saturday? Each permitted eight runs their last time out, but they won a combined 40 games last year. Price has performed well at Fenway Park, going 4-1 with a 2.22 ERA over seven starts. Don't worry about him. With Dickey, it's tough to control the knuckleball at times. His career numbers at Kansas City (5.28 ERA) are irrelevant because he was ineffective while with the Texas Rangers, but don't be surprised when he needs more time to find his 2012 form.

In a Halladaze: Of far greater concern is a two-time Cy Young winner in Philly. Do not assume work-in-progress former ace Roy Halladay will suddenly dominate the terrible Miami Marlins on Sunday. Even struggling offenses have their day. The Houston Astros scored 24 runs Tuesday and Wednesday. Halladay can't locate his pitches, his cutter has been ineffective and while the Phillies claim all is well physically, you should know better than to listen to what a team says. If John Buck and Evan Gattis are taking Halladay deep, what do you think Giancarlo Stanton will do? Fantasy owners should bench Halladay, while the Phillies have no choice but to send the $20 million man out there. This might again be painful to watch. The game to check out in this weekend series is Saturday, when exciting rook Jose Fernandez takes on Cole Hamels.

The real NL East battle: Early division bragging rights are on the line as the Braves visit the Nationals. Fifth starters Julio Teheran and Ross Detwiler open the series Friday, but then the Braves have to face Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. Maybe Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm can match up with them this weekend, but Washington's top starting pitching is a differentiator in this top-notch race. Meanwhile, MVP candidates Justin Upton and Bryce Harper are always worth watching.

O for offense: Runs were at a premium when the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees met in the playoffs last season. Baltimore hit .187 in the series, the Yankees .211. Big money ultimately trumped overachieving bullpen, and neither team has distinguished itself in the early going as a team to beat. Sunday night’s ESPN game features underrated lefties Wei-Yin Chen and Andy Pettitte. Chen was Baltimore's top starter a year ago, and figures to deliver a similar performance, while the 40-year-old Pettitte has won both of his starts, giving up only one run in each. Who has the better season? I'll go with Pettitte for 15 wins, and take the minority opinion he avoids the disabled list as well.

A for effort: The Detroit Tigers outlasted the Oakland Athletics in the other ALDS last October, with Justin Verlander allowing one run in his two victories. Oakland's nominal ace, the oft-injured Brett Anderson, didn't allow any runs in his Game 4 win, either. On Saturday afternoon these fellows are scheduled to meet, assuming Anderson's left (pitching) thumb contusion allows him to work. Anderson's upside isn't to the level of Verlander, but his presence in Oakland's rotation is as critical as teammate Jarrod Parker's, who doesn't look like the same guy he was in 2012. As always with Anderson, it's not about performance, but health.

Enjoy your weekend!
Here's the chat wrap from Tuesday afternoon's session -- lots of thoughts on the bad call that ended Monday night's Rays-Rangers game, some questions and discussion on the bad starts for R.A. Dickey and Roy Halladay, my all-time Mariners opponents team ... and much more!
Mark Simon wraps up the struggles of the aces on Sunday. Here are some more quick thoughts on Sunday's action.
  • OK, Matt Cain. He matched a career-worst with nine runs allowed. Even stranger, they all came in one inning and at home -- where he allowed just 26 runs in 15 starts last year. I wasn't watching the game, but went back and watched that fourth inning, which Cain had entered having retired nine in a row. Here's what happened:
    -- Jon Jay, soft liner to left center, reaches second on Angel Pagan bobble.
    -- Matt Carpenter, hard line single to right.
    -- Allen Craig, sac fly to right.
    -- Carlos Beltran, four- pitch walk.
    -- Yadier Molina, groundball single into left field to load the bases.
    -- Matt Adams crushes 1-0 90-mph fastball into Triples Alley for ground-rule double.
    -- Ty Wigginton lines 0-1 slider into left for RBI hit.
    -- Pete Kozma, bloop base hit to right.
    -- Adam Wainwright pops out bunting.
    -- Jay, walks.
    -- Carpenter, soft liner to right on 3-2 pitch. Couple borderline calls went against Cain. Anyway, Jose Mijares came in and two more runs scored. Other than the Adams double, nothing was really hit that inning. But only Kozma's bloop was a true gift. Just one of those innings that can happen even to the best of 'em. The bigger first-week issue for the Giants: They scored just 15 runs in six games.
  • Will Middlebrooks slugged three home runs as the Red Sox routed R.A. Dickey and the Blue Jays. This one traveled a very far distance. Middlebrooks flew out to the warning track in a bid for his fourth home run. "I was blowing on it running down the line but it didn't have enough steam," he said. And, no, I'm not worried about Dickey. It's two starts. He had a 5.71 ERA after three starts last year with the Mets.
  • Besides Middlebrooks, another young AL third baseman to watch is Lonnie Chisenhall, who slugged a laser beam home run off David Price in Cleveland's 13-0 romp (Carlos Santana went 5-for-5). Price allowed only three homers to left-handed batters in 2012. Like Middlebrooks, Chisenhall's control of the strike zone will go a long ways to his future. He's yet to draw a walk (Middlebrooks has two).
  • Caught a little bit of Marlins' rookie Jose Fernandez's debut. The 20-year-old looked impressive in his five innings, showing a nice out-pitch curve and striking out eight while allowing one run. The kid isn't exactly lacking in confidence, nicknames his curve The Defector (Fernandez escaped Cuba in 2008). After the game he said, "I was more nervous watching five through nine than when I was pitching. It didn't feel any different. It was more like a spring training game." Well, when you're facing Collin Cowgill, Mike Baxter and Anthony Recker, it probably did feel like a spring training game. The Mets got the last laugh, however, scoring two runs off Steve Cishek in the ninth to win 4-3.
  • The White Sox wore the 1983 AL West champion throwback uniforms -- and they looked just as bad as they did 30 years ago. But Dayan Viciedo did his best Greg Luzinski impression and hit a walk-off home run off Kameron Loe in the 10th.
  • The Pirates are hitting .119.
  • The Astros have nine walks and 74 strikeouts in six games. My lord are they awful.
One of the best aspects of early April baseball is all the aces start on Opening Day. Then a few days later they meet again. Usually by each pitcher's third or fourth starts, the schedules get out of whack -- teams don't have the same off days, some teams will skip the fifth starter and so on. After those first couple of starts, ace-versus-ace matchups are more of a random occurrence throughout the baseball season. And when they do meet, you don't get a whole slate of them like we do Sunday.

Here are eight matchups to watch (pitchers' stats from opening start in parentheses) -- and these don't even include Chris Sale, David Price, Marlins 20-year-old rookie Jose Fernandez or Dodgers rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu. If you're not going to the ballpark, it looks like a good afternoon to sit inside. (Just get your exercise in before the games start!)

8. Diamondbacks at Brewers
Ian Kennedy (7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 8 K) vs. Yovani Gallardo (5 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 3 K)

Two pitchers trying to prove they are No. 1s. Kennedy was two years ago when he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young vote. He went 15-12 with a 4.02 ERA last year, but looked very good in beating St. Louis in his opener. Gallardo is 47-26 with a 3.63 ERA over the past three seasons. He walked 81 batters last year, so unless he cuts down on the free passes, he'll remain more of a No. 2. And the 1-4 Brewers are already reeling with Aramis Ramirez heading to the DL and the bullpen struggling again. Can you go nine, Yovani?

7. Cubs at Braves
Jeff Samardzija (8 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K) vs. Tim Hudson (4.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 3 K)

The former Notre Dame wide receiver showed in his first start that there was nothing fluky about last year's strong performance. He blew away the Pirates with his mid-90s heat, slider, cut fastball and splitter. He'll find the Atlanta lineup a little tougher, especially the red-hot Justin Upton, who already has five home runs in five games. Hudson isn't quite an ace anymore, but you know what you're going to get: a lot of ground balls. The flame-throwing kid against the wily veteran. How can you not watch this one?

6. Red Sox at Blue Jays
Jon Lester (5 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 7 K) vs. R.A. Dickey (6 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 BB, 4 K)

Lester is trying to prove that he still belongs with the other names on this list after struggling in 2012. He scuffled through his Opening Day start against the Yankees, striking out seven but throwing 96 pitches in five innings. A couple of things to watch with Dickey: He walked four in his first start, something he did just once last year in his Cy Young campaign with the Mets (also in his first start); and catcher J.P. Arencibia really struggled with the knuckleball, allowing three passed balls.

5. Royals at Phillies
James Shields (6 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 6 K) vs. Cole Hamels (5 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 1 BB 5 K)

Shields is coming off a 1-0 loss to Sale while Hamels allowed three home runs for just the eighth time in his career. The first trip through the revamped rotation showed positive signs for Kansas City: 11 runs in 28 innings and a nifty 32/5 K/BB ratio. But Shields will likely have to do better at getting the ball on the ground. He had just four ground balls and 10 fly balls in his first start (and six line drives). Last year, his ratio was 336 ground balls and 186 fly balls. Give up too many fly balls in Philly, and a couple may find the seats.

4. Cardinals at Giants
Adam Wainwright (6 IP, 11 H, 4 R, 0 BB, 6 K) vs. Matt Cain (6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K)

Cain came up on the no-decision end of Clayton Kershaw's Opening Day shutout, leaving after six impressive innings. Cain is tough at home: 2.03 ERA at AT&T last year, 2.80 in 2011, with only 11 home runs allowed over the two seasons. His fly balls go to die in San Francisco. The Giants have scored just 12 runs in their first five games, so Cain may have to put up another zero to beat Wainwright.

3. Yankees at Tigers
CC Sabathia (5 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 BB, 5 K) vs. Justin Verlander (5 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 7 K)

It's way too early to call this a must-win game for the Yankees, but they're 1-4 and now have to face Verlander. In their first time through the rotation, Yankees starters pitched the second-fewest innings of any club (23, one-third more than the Padres), so New York is desperate for Sabathia to pitch deep into the game. Verlander has never started a season 2-0. The Yankees hit him well in three regular-season matchups last year: 25 hits, including four home runs, and 12 runs in 20 innings.

2. Nationals at Reds
Stephen Strasburg (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K) vs. Johnny Cueto (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 9 K)

Any Strasburg start is must-see TV, especially when facing the Reds -- the team many consider the second best in the NL behind the Nationals. Strasburg's first start against the Marlins was interesting in that he shut them down but struck out just three in seven innings and was removed after 80 pitches. Strasburg has never pitched more than seven innings in any of his 46 career starts. In my book, you can't call him a true No. 1 until he proves he can go eight or nine once in awhile to help remove some of that stress on the bullpen.

1. Angels at Rangers
Jered Weaver (6 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 4 K) vs. Yu Darvish (8.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 14 K)

My must-watch game of the day, and not just because it's the national game on Sunday night on ESPN. This game has everything going for it: Darvish coming off his near-perfect game against the Astros, division rivals, Josh Hamilton back in Texas and Weaver trying to keep intact a 13-game winning streak in March/April. Keys to watch: Hamilton is 1-for-20 with 10 strikeouts so far and Mike Trout was 6-for-17 with two homers and a double off Darvish last year.
Maybe we'll try and do this each morning. Maybe we'll get tired of doing it after two weeks. Anyway, quick thoughts from Tuesday's games.

  • The story of the night obviously was Yu Darvish's bid for a perfect game. He become the fifth pitcher in 25 years to lose a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning, joining the Blue Jays' Dave Stieb, the Mariners' Brian Holman (I'll never forget watching that one; ex-Mariner Ken Phelps hit a pinch-hit home run, the final home run of his career), the Yankees' Mike Mussina and, of course, Armando Galarraga. I'm sure Darvish went to bed thinking of that first-pitch fastball to Marwin Gonzalez. I'll suggest this won't be the first no-hit bid against the Astros this year, and certainly not the only no-hit bid of Darvish's career. If he commands his fastball like he did in this game, watch out American League. Here's more on Darvish's near-perfecto from ESPNDallas' Jean-Jacques Taylor.
  • After that game ended, watched some of Hyun-Jin Ryu's debut for the Dodgers. The Korean free agent looked impressive, working inside to lefties/outside to righties (see heat map below) and working quickly. He did allow 10 hits, all singles, but didn't walk anybody, and a couple of errors led to two unearned runs. My first thought was he reminded me of David Wells -- like Wells, he has a few extra pounds on him as well -- and then I heard Jim Kaat make the same comparison. He's not overpowering, topping out at 92 mph, but seemed to have a good feel out there. Plus, he wears No. 99, so you have to love that.
Hyun-Jin Ryu Heat MapESPN Stats & InformationKorean free agent Hyun-Jin Ryu had an impressive first outing for the Dodgers.

  • Madison Bumgarner was even better, and Kaat pointed out how pitching coach Dave Righetti has worked with Bumgarner to come a little more over the ball with his fastball grip (if I explained that correctly), to allow him to pitch more effectively inside to right-handed batters. He's always had command on the outside corner, but if he can command his fastball inside, maybe he takes a step forward this season. Which would make him a Cy Young contender.
  • Was also watching some of Mariners-A's game. The Mariners threw out their Raul Ibanez-Michael Saunders-Mike Morse stone statue outfield (at least Jason Bay wasn't in center) but it didn't matter as Hisashi Iwaukuma allowed only a Yoenis Cespedes home run in six innings as Seattle won 7-1. Remember, Iwakuma was one of the best pitchers in the AL in the second half (2.50 ERA). Morse slammed two home runs, including an oppposite-field shot off Jarrod Parker in the third. For Mariners, the most important line was this one: eight walks. Kyle Seager, a strong breakout candidate for 2013, went 3-for-3 with two walks. Josh Reddick's beard is now 0-for-8.
  • Yes, I'm already worried about that Brewers bullpen.
  • Justin Masterson was OK for the Indians in their win against R.A. Dickey. J.P. Arencibia (three passed balls) has some work to do in learning to catch the knuckleball.

If you're younger than 28 or so, you don't remember when the Toronto Blue Jays were the preeminent franchise in Major League Baseball, unless you're Canadian and weaned on sports history other than Paul Henderson. They won American League East titles in 1985, 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1993 and World Series titles in '92 and '93. They had a gleaming new modern stadium that was the envy of other teams, packed every night (the Jays drew more than 4 million fans each season from 1991-93, averaging better than 50,000 per game in 1993), and had a team of stars -- Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter and Jack Morris and Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield and homegrown talent like John Olerud, Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen, and were bold enough to pick up rental players like David Cone and Rickey Henderson during their championship runs.

After 20 years, the Blue Jays are back. Baseball hasn't died in Toronto -- the Jays have certainly been competitive -- but it has been dormant. But watching R.A. Dickey pitch the team's opener before a sold-out Rogers Centre -- backed by the likes of Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and last year's 42-homer man, Edwin Encarnacion -- is a reminder of those halcyon days when Toronto was the baseball capital of the world.

The game didn't go Toronto's way, as Dickey struggled a bit with commanding the knuckleball, walking four (give credit to Cleveland's hitters for showing a lot of patience) as the Indians won, 4-1. Dickey walked four in a game just twice during his 2012 Cy Young campaign with the Mets, but if there's consolation for Jays fans, one of those came in the season opener. Let's not read too much into Dickey's outing and overanalyze things like pitching indoors or moving to the American League or whatever. It just wasn't his night and I'm chalking it up as nothing more.

[+] EnlargeR.A. Dickey
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesR.A. Dickey, left, allowed four walks in his Blue Jays debut -- something he did in his 2012 opener, too.
Asdrubal Cabrera golfed out what looked like a pretty good low tumbler for a two-run homer in the fifth and also made the key play of the game, stopping Adam Lind's hard smash with the bases loaded and none out in the third to start a nifty double play. Justin Masterson settled down after that and survived his own four-walk opener.

The main thing I liked about Toronto's offseason is that -- like Pat Gillick back in the day when he traded Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff for Alomar and Carter or acquired Cone and Henderson -- general manager Alex Anthopoulos made the bold moves to acquire Dickey, sign Melky Cabrera and pull off the blockbuster deal with the Marlins. Considering the Tommy John surgeries handed out to young starters Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, and the struggles of Ricky Romero, it could have been easy to say 2013 would be a holding pattern as the Jays waited for the next wave of youngsters to arrive.

After all, isn't that what you're supposed to do these days? Develop your own talent, and if you're lucky enough to have them turn into Justin Verlander or Buster Posey, break the bank to sign them to long-term deals. But the Jays seized advantage of a market opportunity to acquire proven big league stars! Imagine that.

It's just one night, so let's not overreact here, but as much as I like the top four of the Jays' lineup -- Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Encarnacion -- I do see potential on-base issues in the bottom of the lineup. Brett Lawrie is out another couple weeks and he'll hold down the five-hole when he returns, but it's not like he tore it up in 2012 (.273/.324/.405). Though, he's only 23 and a good bet to improve. With him sidelined, the Jays had Lind (.314 OBP in 2012), J.P. Arencibia (.275 OBP) and Colby Rasmus (.289 OBP) hitting fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. That's simply just not a championship-quality 5-6-7 trio unless they improve.

But I'll still buy into Toronto's potential to run away with the AL East if everything breaks right. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson could be as good as any top four in the league, and Bautista and Encarnacion could combine for 85 home runs with Reyes easily leading the league in runs. Opening Day is a day to believe, and one loss doesn't change that. I suspect we'll see a few more sellouts at the Rogers Centre.
Mike Trout and Miguel CabreraGetty ImagesThe SweetSpot bloggers predict another 1-2 MVP finish for Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera in 2013.

Yes, it's the time of the year ... awards predictions! Here are the collective thoughts of the writers from across the SweetSpot network.

Last year, the SweetSpot bloggers correctly picked Miguel Cabrera as the AL MVP winner. How quickly we fall in love with the new kid on the block! I'm not surprised that Mike Trout is the MVP favorite by the SweetSpot bloggers -- but I am surprised by his runaway vote total, as he collected 33 of the 47 first-place votes (including mine). If wisdom of the crowds proves true, it should be a landslide MVP result for Trout.

Amazingly, Cabrera only received two first-place votes (remember, he ranked ahead of Trout in our recent BBTN500 voting). This probably reflects the difference in the mind-set between the bloggers -- who are going to pay more attention to advanced metrics like WAR -- and the more conventional group of analysts (writers, announcers, former players) who voted in the BBTN500.

The network bloggers must have high hopes for the Rays since Evan Longoria ranked third in the balloting. And maybe the Yankees won't collapse just yet: Robinson Cano finished fourth in the balloting.

Points on a 14-9-8-7-6 basis.

1. Mike Trout, 574 points (33 first-place votes)
2. Miguel Cabrera, 374 points (2)
3. Evan Longoria, 268 points (3)
4. Robinson Cano, 238 points (4)
5. Adrian Beltre, 101 points (1)
6. Yoenis Cespedes, 92 points (0)
7. Jose Bautista, 85 points (2)
8. Prince Fielder, 70 points (1)
9. Albert Pujols, 62 points (1)
10. Jose Reyes, 43 points (0)

Others -- Josh Hamilton (41 points), Dustin Pedroia (34), Joe Mauer (21), Alex Gordon (18), Matt Wieters (9), Adam Jones (7), Curtis Granderson (7), Edwin Encarnacion (6), Carlos Santana (6), Ian Kinsler (6), Jacoby Ellsbury (6)


No surprise here: Justin Verlander collected 28 first-place votes to easily outdistance last season's Cy Young winner, David Price. Keep an eye on Yu Darvish: He finished ahead of Felix Hernandez in the voting. Reigning NL CY Young winner R.A. Dickey is now with Toronto and he collected just one first-place vote.

Points on a 7-4-3 basis.

1. Justin Verlander, 258 points (28 first-place votes)
2. David Price, 129 points (4)
3. Yu Darvish, 81 points (5)
4. Felix Hernandez, 70 points (5)
5. Jered Weaver, 34 points (3)
6. R.A. Dickey, 15 points (1)

Others -- Chris Sale (9 points), CC Sabathia (8), Max Scherzer (6), Josh Johnson (6), Jarrod Parker (6), Jon Lester (6), Doug Fister (3), Matt Moore (3), Jake Peavy (3)


The rookie race is even more wide open, since most of the top rookie prospects will begin the year in the minors, including Tampa Bay outfielder Wil Myers, who led our balloting with 17 first-place votes. Outfielders Aaron Hicks of the Twins and Jackie Bradley of the Red Sox will break camp with their big league teams, and that helped them finish second and third in the voting.

Points on a 5-3-1 basis.

1. Wil Myers, 111 points (17 first-place votes)
2. Aaron Hicks, 71 points (8)
3. Jackie Bradley, 65 points (8)
4. Jurickson Profar, 46 points (4)
5. Dylan Bundy, 29 points (4)
6. Brandon Maurer, 24 points (2)
7. Trevor Bauer, 21 points (1)
8. Dan Straily, 12 points (1)

Others -- Bruce Rondon (6 points), Mike Olt (5), Mike Zunino (4), Chris Archer (3), Avisail Garcia (1), Conor Gillaspie (1), Nick Tepesch (1), Kevin Gausman (1)
Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout aren't on the United States roster, and their absence means a lot of fans don't care about the World Baseball Classic -- certainly not enough to spend a Friday evening in early March watching a baseball game between a largely no-name Mexico team and a still-star-laden U.S. team.

But this tournament isn't for fans who so willingly dismiss it. It's not even so much for fans in the United States, who are more focused on their professional teams or the impending NCAA basketball tournament. Earlier in the day, MLB reported that one-third of all television sets in Japan had watched the first-round games involving the Japanese team. I'm sure its dramatic comeback win over Taiwan on Friday morning rated even higher. Fans in Puerto Rico cheered on their team to a victory over Spain. Fans in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic care intensely about how their teams fare.

And Chase Field in Phoenix was nearly full for Friday's Mexico-U.S. game -- with maybe half that crowd rooting for Mexico. Those fans certainly cared that Mexico pulled off the huge 5-2 upset victory, essentially avoiding elimination after Thursday's heartbreaking ninth-inning loss to Italy. The players on the Mexican team certainly cared.

The Mexico lineup is pretty weak outside of Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Jorge Cantu hit fifth and he spent all of last year in Triple-A. Karim Garcia is still around and he hasn't played in the majors since 2004. But R.A. Dickey's knuckleball wasn't effective, a leadoff bloop single led to two runs in the first inning and Gonzalez torched a 73 mph knuckler to center field for a two-run homer in the third.

Other thoughts:
  • Pool D is really interesting now. It could all come down to run differential to see which two teams advance to the second round. If we assume the U.S. beats Italy on Saturday, and the U.S. and Mexico both beat Canada, then Italy, the U.S. and Mexico all finish 2-1. But Italy mercy-ruled Canada in a 14-4 victory, putting pressure on the U.S. lineup to do some damage in its next two games. The eighth inning could prove a key for the U.S., as Tim Collins and Steve Cishek worked out of a second-and-third, nobody-out jam.
  • After Dickey's performance, fans will be crying that Verlander or Kershaw or David Price aren't here. First off, Dickey wanted to be here and those guys didn't. Second, Dickey earned his invite as much as those guys would have, coming off his National League Cy Young Award. He just didn't have a good night. That's what happens in a tournament, not much different than what happens in the postseason: Anything can happen.
  • Joe Torre’s lineup left a little to be desired. He hit Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Phillips 1-2, because they're fast and they hit at the top of the order for their regular teams. He hit Eric Hosmer sixth, pushing Giancarlo Stanton -- who only led the NL in slugging percentage -- all the way down to seventh, and Adam Jones, he of the 32 home runs last year, batting eighth. Stanton and Jones are better hitters than Rollins, Phillips and Hosmer. Torre might have been playing the hot hand with Hosmer, who had hit .391 in spring training with the Royals, and maybe he wanted to spread out his three left-handed hitters (switch-hitter Rollins, Joe Mauer and Hosmer). Still, a little more creativity would have had something like David Wright, Mauer, Ryan Braun, Stanton, Jones, Rollins, Phillips, Hosmer and catcher J.P. Arencibia.
  • Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz had two key at-bats for Mexico. In the first inning, he delivered a sacrifice fly that was also deep enough to move Ramiro Pena to third, and Pena scored on Gonzalez's sac fly. In the fifth, after Eduardo Arredondo slapped an Ichiro-like double down the left-field line off Twins closer Glen Perkins and was bunted to third, Cruz delivered another sac fly.
  • Pitchers are allowed a maximum of 65 pitches in first-round games, but Yovani Gallardo was on a 50-pitch limit for Mexico. He looked sharp, allowing two hits and striking out four in 3.1 innings, but that meant Mexico had to rely on its bullpen, a day after using four relievers in that 6-5 loss to Italy. Royals righty Luis Mendoza escaped a jam in the fifth after walking the first two batters, striking out Arencibia on a nice 0-2 slider and then retiring Rollins and Phillips on ground balls. Oliver Perez got a key out in the sixth and Oscar Villareal pitched a scoreless seventh. The U.S. scored once off Cardinals reliever Fernando Salas in the eighth, and Giants closer Sergio Romo closed it out.
  • The Giants were undoubtedly nervous seeing Romo come in. They had apparently requested that Romo not appear in consecutive games, and manager Bruce Bochy has always been very cautious with his use of Romo. He threw 26 pitches Thursday, but this was a must-win game for Mexico. Saving him for Saturday's game against Canada doesn't make any sense if you lose this game. A reliever can't appear three consecutive days, so Romo is unavailable now for Canada.
  • Ryan Vogelsong starts for the U.S. against Italy, and while the Italian team is mostly comprised of U.S.-born players -- including several major leaguers -- they will start an actual pitcher from Italy: Luca Panerati, a left-hander who was in the Reds' system from 2008-11, never advancing past Class A. Last year, he pitched in the Italian Baseball League. Now he gets to face a team of the best players in the world. This is what the World Baseball Classic is all about.

Offseason report card: Blue Jays

February, 7, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 73-89 (74-88 Pythagorean)
716 runs scored (7th in AL)
784 runs allowed (11th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Traded Henderson Alvarez, Yunel Escobar, Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jeff Mathis and Anthony DeSclafani to the Marlins for Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck. Traded Buck, Travis d'Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard and Wuilmer Becerra to the Mets for R.A. Dickey, Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas. Signed free agents Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis. Picked up option on Darren Oliver. Lost free agent Kelly Johnson. Acquired Mike Aviles from the Red Sox (for manager John Farrell and David Carpenter) and traded Aviles and Yan Gomes to the Indians for Esmil Rogers. Signed Dickey to a two-year extension with 2016 club option. Named John Gibbons manager.

That's what I call an exciting offseason. It may even have pushed the Maple Leafs off the front page of the sports section for a few days. GM Alex Anthopoulos picked up the NL Cy Young winner, a guy who has pitched 200-plus innings 12 seasons in a row, a guy coming off a season in which he hit .346 (and, yes, got suspended for a positive PED test), a shortstop who has compiled the third-most wins above replacement at the position over the past two seasons (or most, depending which version of WAR you prefer), a starter who led the NL in ERA in 2010, and a solid utility guy who has swiped 73 bases the past two years.

What did he give up? Of the prospects traded, d'Arnaud (14), Nicolino (62), Marisnick (82) and Syndergaard (97) ranked in Keith Law's top 100 prospects Insider. The Blue Jays' farm system, which would have been ranked in the top five, now ranks 24th. In this era when general managers don't want to make that fatal mistake, kudos to AA for pulling off the deals (and ownership for approving the salary influx, which should increase Toronto's payroll by an estimated $30 million or so).

Position Players

Despite Edwin Encarnacion's monster 42-homer breakout season, the Blue Jays' offense was a big disappointment in 2012, and not just because Jose Bautista played only 92 games. Brett Lawrie was OK in his first full season but underperformed expectations. Adam Lind had another underwhelming season. Overall, the main problem was getting on base -- the Blue Jays' .309 OBP ranked 13th of 14 teams in the AL. Some of those guys are gone, but Colby Rasmus (.289), J.P. Arencibia (.275) and Lind (.314) are still projected as regulars.

How many more runs can we expect the Jays to score? Here are some quick back-of-the-napkins numbers for the new guys in the lineup:

Cabrera replaces Rajai Davis/others: 85 runs created versus 65; +20 runs.
Reyes replaces Escobar: 86 runs created versus 53; +33 runs.
Izturis/Bonifacio replaces Johnson/others: 70 runs created versus 68; +2 runs.

Total: +55 runs.

That's about five wins, not factoring in defense. Defensive runs saved rated Escobar at plus-14 runs in 2012, Reyes at minus-16 (he hasn't had a positive DRS since 2007). So it's possible the Jays are giving back a couple of those wins on defense at shortstop. Of course, the Jays are hoping for a full season from Bautista, improvement from Lawrie and Rasmus, and another big year from Encarnacion.

I think it's a good lineup but not a great one. I still see some OBP holes, and Cabrera and Encarnacion will be hard-pressed to repeat their 2012 numbers. If Lawrie and Rasmus take a leap -- much more likely in Lawrie's case -- it could be a great offense, but I'm holding back for now.

Pitching Staff

I expect the Jays to make bigger gains on the pitching end of things. After a 2012 season that saw Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison all miss time (Tommy John surgery in the cases of Drabek and Hutchison) and staff ace Ricky Romero struggle through a miserable 5.77 ERA, the Jays could end up with the best rotation in the majors after posting a 4.82 team ERA last year.

Although there is A-plus upside to this group, there are obvious reservations, primarily in the health and durability of Morrow and Johnson. Morrow had a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts -- after years of underperforming his peripherals -- but he never has pitched 180 innings in a season. Johnson did make 31 starts for the Marlins after missing most of 2011, although he wasn't quite the dominant pitcher he had been in 2010. Dickey takes his knuckleball back to the American League, and, although he might have had his career season, maybe he hasn't. Romero will get another shot, but J.A. Happ pitched well after coming over from the Astros and is a solid No. 6 guy.

Toronto's bullpen had the worst ERA in the AL last year. It won't be the worst this year. Casey Janssen has a solid track, and Sergio Santos returns from his injury to compete for the closer role. Rookie Aaron Loup (21-2 SO-BB ratio) looked very good late in the season, and Anthopoulos might have stolen hard-throwing Steve Delabar from the Mariners. He curbed his home run problems after coming over and struck out 46 in 29 1/3 innings with the Jays. He could emerge as an important late-inning weapon.

Heat Map to Watch
Was Encarnacion's season a fluke? At age 29, he hit 42 home runs and 110 RBIs, after never having hit more than 26 before. But the Jays apparently did a couple of things with Encarnacion's approach, most notably having him keep both hands on the bat throughout the swing. As this article points out, he also did a better job laying off pitches out of the strike zone. And he did a better job attacking fastballs, hitting .315/.411/.633 against them after hitting .289/.370/.482 in 2011. As the heat map shows, he likes those high fastballs.

Edwin EncarnacionESPN Stats & InformationWarning to pitchers: Edwin Encarnacion likes those high fastballs.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Blue Jays win?


Discuss (Total votes: 7,030)

There's no doubting the upside of this club. Should the Jays be the World Series favorites, as one Vegas book has them? I don't know about that. Still, if Bautista and Encarnacion become the first pair of teammates to hit 40 home runs since Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome with the 2006 White Sox, and if Gibbons gets 60 starts from Morrow and Johnson, I can see a 95-win club.

What we don't know is how tough the AL East will be. On paper, it could be five teams all beating the snot out of each other. Or maybe one will rise above the rest. What do you think?