SweetSpot: Robinson Cano

Five things we learned Thursday

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
12:45
AM ET
1. Michael Wacha will be able to help the Cardinals.

In a bit of a surprise move, the Cardinals started Michael Wacha in a key divisional game against the Brewers even though the second-year righty had pitched just two innings in his one minor-league rehab appearance as he comes back from the stress reaction in his right shoulder that caused him to miss 11 weeks. Most teams won't start a guy until he's ready to go at least 75 to 80 pitches, but the Cardinals were willing to give Wacha 50 pitches and turn it over to the bullpen. And why not? With expanded rosters, Cards manager Mike Matheny had plenty of relievers to work with once Wacha exited after three innings.

The decision paid off as Wacha gave up one run in his three innings, throwing 50 pitches on the nose. He gave up an RBI double in the first inning but settled down and most importantly his velocity was excellent, averaging 95.9 mph on his four-seam fastball. With Adam Wainwright still struggling and Justin Masterson booted to the bullpen, Wacha's return comes right as the Cardinals are ready to put the hammer on the Brewers and Pirates.

The Cardinals held on to win 3-2, handing the Brewers their ninth straight loss and increasing their division lead to a suddenly cushy four games. Wacha should slowly get extended out, throwing another 15-20 pitches in his next start.

2. Cardinals' outfield played some defense.

In the sixth inning, right fielder Jon Jay totally robbed the Brewers' Khris Davis with two runners on base. That wasn't even the play of the game. In the bottom of the eighth, with two runners on and one out for the Brewers, Logan Schafer lined a ball to deep center that Peter Bourjos flagged down. Two great catches, four runs saved. This is what happens when teams lose nine games in a row.

3. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke may have overmanaged just a bit.

In that eighth inning, Aramis Ramirez reached on an error and then Davis singled. Trailing 3-2, Roenicke ran for Ramirez, his cleanup hitter, at second base. As much as you hate to take your cleanup hitter out of the game, you can certainly understand the reasoning there. You need to get that run home. So that wasn't the worst decision. Except ... Roenicke then bunted with the next batter, but Martin Maldonado, pinch-hitting for Lyle Overbay, lined the bunt attempt back to the pitcher. Why run for Ramirez and then play for one run? A runner's speed is less important at third base than at second base. Plus, if you do tie the game, Ramirez's spot is likely to come up again but he'll be out of the game. I can see running for Ramirez, but only if you're going for the big inning.

As it turns, Ramirez's spot came up in the ninth, with two outs and two runners on, against Trevor Rosenthal. Roenicke pinch-hit Jason Rogers for Hector Gomez; Rogers was making just his second major-league plate appearance. He flew out to right field.

I'm not really blasting Roenicke. Without expanded rosters he certainly wouldn't have run for Ramirez in the eighth inning. It shows the ripple effect of moves. I think the error was not trying to go for the big inning when he had a chance.

4. Big win for the Yankees.

On a night the Tigers and Mariners would both win, the Yankees would have dropped another game back in the wild-card standings. Instead, they hit two dramatic home runs in the bottom of the ninth inning off Koji Uehara, with Chase Headley's walk-off blast giving the Yankees the 5-4 win in Derek Jeter's final game at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox. Headley has hit a solid .256/.353/.391 for the Yankees in a key trade-deadline pickup (and would make for a better No. 2 hitter than Jeter right now). The bullpen was once again key, throwing 4 2/3 scoreless innings. Can the Yankees overcome Seattle and Detroit/Kansas City to win a wild card? I still don't see it. They host the Royals this weekend; maybe they don't need a sweep but a sweep would be nice. After that the schedule doesn't get much easier with Tampa, Baltimore, Tampa again, Toronto and Baltimore. Only a season-ending trip to Fenway looks easy. We finally get a season-ending series between the two rivals in the one year it may not matter.

5. Robinson Cano.

Well, everyone did say he wouldn't get the same attention playing for the Mariners. That, they were right about. He had his first four-RBI game with Seattle, raising his season line to a pretty nice .322/.388/.463. He's second in the AL in OBP, 10th in OPS, fifth among position players in WAR. He's on the short list of American League MVP candidates.
Mark Simon has a good piece on Kyle Seager's improved defense for the Mariners this year, improvement that has helped turn Seager into one of the most valuable players in the American League.

Too bold of a statement? I don't think so. Here are the AL Wins Above Replacement leaders via Baseball-Reference:

Mike Trout: 6.3
Josh Donaldson: 6.1
Felix Hernandez: 6.0
Chris Sale: 5.3
Corey Kluber: 5.2
Robinson Cano: 5.2
Kyle Seager: 5.1
Max Scherzer: 4.9
Adrian Beltre: 4.9
Michael Brantley: 4.8

On FanGraphs, Cano ranks fifth among AL position players (4.7) and Seager seventh (4.5). Maybe they're not strong MVP candidates -- not in a league with Mike Trout and teammate Felix Hernandez -- but the Mariners are certainly more than a one-man team.

Seager's numbers may not blow you away -- .279, 18 home runs, .344 OBP -- but he ranks 13th among AL hitters in park-adjusted wRC+ (weighted Runs Created). So he's one of the better hitters, he's been durable (he's missed just three games) and he's a plus defender at an important position; that creates a lot value. WAR also doesn't factor in that Seager has done a good job with runners on base, hitting .313/.371/.514.

It will be interesting to see how Seager finishes; he was having a similar season last year before cratering with a .196 average in August and .172 in September.

As for Cano, the story line for first two months was his lack of power -- he had just two home runs through Seattle's first 60 games. He was hitting for average but not pulling the ball with any authority. After a minor slump dropped his average to .319 on June 29, he's been on a terror, batting .357/.444/.579 with six home runs over his past 37 games. And remember, considering Seattle's lack of production from the first two spots in the lineup -- the Mariners are 27th in OBP from their leadoff hitters and last in OBP from their No. 2 hitters -- pitchers often have the luxury of working around Cano or working very carefully to him.

The fact that he has 66 RBIs is pretty remarkable. But he's done that by hitting .360/.491/.709 in 114 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. (Cano is tied for 72nd in the majors in number of PAs with RISP; Adrian Gonzalez leads with 171.)

Overall, Cano is posting a career-best .398 OBP that ranks fourth in the majors among qualified hitters. His wRC+ is 142 -- the same as last year.

He's having a great season.
Longtime reader/chatter Tarek asked the following question in Tuesday's chat: How many of this year's All-Stars will have a better career than Derek Jeter?

Now, that's a bit of a layered question when you start factoring in things like World Series titles and legacy, two areas where it's difficult to trump Jeter. So let's keep it simple: How many will finish with a higher career Wins Above Replacement than Jeter?

Jeter's current career WAR, via Baseball-Reference.com, is 72.1. That's fourth among active players, behind Alex Rodriguez (116.0), Albert Pujols (95.0) and Adrian Beltre (74.0).

Does Beltre, who made this year's All-Star Game, ranking so high surprise you? He's not really considered a slam-dunk Hall of Famer right now, in part because a large percentage of that value is tied into his defense. His career batting line has a much different arc than Jeter's:

Beltre: .284/.335/.480
Jeter: .311/.379/.443

Jeter has the better on-base percentage but Beltre has more power. Who has been the more valuable hitter? Beltre has created an estimated 1,410 runs in 9,704 career plate appearances -- 5.6 runs per 27 outs. Jeter has created 1,887 runs in 12,315 PAs -- 6.3 runs per 27 outs. Those are not park-adjusted figures; Beltre spent a large portion of his career in Dodger Stadium and Safeco Field, two pitcher's parks, so that draws him a little closer. But getting on base is more important than slugging and B-R estimates Jeter has been 362 runs better than the average hitter while Beltre has been 193.

But Beltre makes up for that with his good fielding and Jeter's poor fielding. The fielding metrics Baseball-Reference uses has Beltre at 183 runs above average on defense and Jeter at 240 runs below average. So that's how Beltre ends up higher than Jeter in career WAR.

Here are the five remaining 2014 All-Stars with the highest career WAR:

Chase Utley: 60.8
Mark Buehrle: 57.9
Miguel Cabrera: 57.6
Robinson Cano: 48.1
Felix Hernandez: 42.9

A quick and dirty way to see how these guys compare to Jeter is to check his career WAR when he was their age.

SportsNation

Which of this year's All-Stars will end up with the highest career WAR?

  •  
    4%
  •  
    24%
  •  
    11%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    55%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,214)

Utley (age-35 season) -- Jeter was at 67.3
Utley rates so well due to more high-peak seasons than Jeter. He was arguably the second-best all-around player in the game from 2005 through 2009 when he averaged 7.9 WAR per season (only Pujols was better). Even while missing time with injuries in recent seasons, Utley has reached at least 3.0 WAR the past three seasons and is already at 2.9 this year. So he's behind Jeter but Jeter didn't do much after turning 36. Could be close.

Buehrle (age-35 season) -- Jeter was 67.3
He's headed for his 14th consecutive season of 200-plus innings. He's never been a big star but he's still accumulating value and with his style of pitching could easily remain effective until 40. Can he pile up 16 more WAR before he's done? He was probably over his head in the first half -- 4.0 WAR compared to 2.1 all of 2013 -- so I say he comes up short.

Cabrera (age-31 season) -- Jeter was at 48.4
Even though he doesn't earn much value with his defense or position, Cabrera is well ahead of Jeter at the same age. His offensive numbers are down from the past few seasons but he's still hitting .312, leading the league with 32 doubles and has been worth 3.0 WAR. He should soar past Jeter and approach at least 80 career WAR.

Cano (age-31 season) -- Jeter was at 48.4
So these two are just about dead even at the same age, although Cano will move ahead by the end of the season. Jeter had two of his better seasons at 32 (5.5 WAR) and 35 (6.5). With his decline in power so far, Cano is at 2.9 WAR, well below the 7.4 he averaged the previous four seasons. He's been one of the most durable players in the game (as was Jeter until his injury in the 2012 playoffs). Yankees fan will never put Cano on the same pedestal as Jeter -- in part because of Cano's dismal .222 postseason average -- but through the same age it's hard to argue he hasn't been as valuable in the regular season.

Hernandez (age-28 season) -- Jeter was at 36.8
King Felix is ahead of Jeter's pace. Of course, most pitchers don't remain as durable as Buehrle. Hernandez is in the midst of his best season yet and there's no reason he won't stay dominant for many more years if his elbow and shoulder remain intact.

What about the younger guys? Well, Mike Trout only needs five more 10-win seasons to pass The Captain.

Sailing looks smoother for the Mariners

July, 5, 2014
Jul 5
11:42
PM ET


After slowly embarking on the season, the Seattle Mariners are starting to make waves in the AL West. Though they made a huge offseason splash by signing Robinson Cano, a sluggish 10-14 record in April threatened to sink their expectations. Going into 2014, even with the addition of Cano, hopes for smooth sailing were somewhat tempered for a team coming off a floundering 2013 season in which the Mariners were outscored by 130 runs on their way to an abysmal 71-91 record, sputtering to fourth place with only the scuttled Astros saving them from the deep end of the AL West. So, what factors have helped to right the ship?

Historically, the Mariners' offense has a habit of getting stuck in port. In 2014, however, they are 12th in baseball in runs scored despite being 23rd in the league in team OPS. According to Baseball-Reference.com, like many teams, they are being torpedoed by Safeco Field, generating just a .652 OPS at home. Part of that is mitigated by a .764 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position. Whether that is due to machinations of the Mariners’ new manager, Lloyd McClendon, or blind luck may be the determining factor that sets the rudder for the Mariners for the rest of 2014.

One offensive catalyst for Seattle’s improved offense is the surge of Kyle Seager. The best third baseman in the AL not named Josh Donaldson has taken his game to a new level, generating the second-best WAR among AL third basemen with a total of 3.5. That increase is fueled in part by a career-high OPS at .839 as he has added power and a bit of batting average. Also, according to Baseball-Reference.com, his defense has substantially improved, with gains in range and in fielding percentage. At just 26 years of age with an ample minor league track record, he offers good reason to believe this high tide is for real.

Another reason for the Mariners’ good voyage so far in 2014 comes in the form of Fernando Rodney. A Tampa Bay Rays castoff, Rodney is leading the AL with 25 saves, the 25th coming in the 14th inning against the White Sox on Saturday afternoon. His command of the strike zone has been stellar by his sometimes erratic standards, with just 11 walks and 39 strikeouts over 34.1 innings pitched. He’s also allowed only one home run all year. These walk, strikeout and home run stats might be considered fluky if he hadn’t done it before in his career.

Of course you haven’t forgotten the way Felix Hernandez breezes through hitters. Well, Hernandez’s 2014 performance is elite even by his kingly standards. A far cry from the days when he won the Cy Young Award with a mediocre win-loss record (supported by less-than-mediocre offense), King Felix is an early-season favorite for another one, as he has racked up a record of 10-2 while having a career year in terms of WHIP (0.92) and ERA (2.10). On Saturday he was stellar again, allowing only four baserunners and two runs over 8 innings for a no-decision in Seattle’s 3-2, 14-inning win against the White Sox. Navigating his way through the American League lineups with aplomb, Hernandez has not allowed more than two runs in a start since May 12.

After their slow start to the year, the Mariners have gone 37-25 (.596) since May 1. It won’t be easy to leapfrog the A’s, who just rocked the boat with their blockbuster trade for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Nor will the Angels keep their sails furled, either. But as the July 31 trade deadline approaches on the horizon, expect Seattle to have the spyglass out in search of a cannon for its lineup. That might just provide the gust of wind the Mariners will need to navigate the division’s rough seas.

Richard Bergstrom writes for Rockies Zingers, a SweetSpot network blog on the Colorado Rockies.
Let's try something different today. Throughout the day, I'll look at 10 random questions that pop into my head.

Question No. 1: What's up with Robinson Cano's power?
What, you mean like the fact that Billy Hamilton has more home runs? Cano is hitting .327 but has just three home runs and I suppose the knee-jerk reaction is simply that he moved from the short porch at Yankee Stadium to Safeco Field.

It's not that simple, of course. From 2011 to 2013, Cano did hit more home runs at Yankee Stadium than on the road: 49 to 39. He compensated by hitting more doubles on the road -- 77 to 58 -- so his wOBA was nearly identical, .384 at home and .378 on the road.

Still, while we would have expected his power to drop some -- he was also moving from some homer-friendly road parks like Baltimore and Toronto to less-friendly road parks like Oakland and Anaheim -- it shouldn't have collapsed like this, and we've gone past the point where it's just an extended slump.

SportsNation

How many home runs will Robinson Cano end up with?

  •  
    17%
  •  
    42%
  •  
    33%
  •  
    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,255)

To make matters worse, his three home runs have all been classified by the ESPN Home Run Tracker as "Just Enoughs." Two of those came in the right-field jet stream in Texas (off Tanner Scheppers and Nick Tepesch) and the third came at Safeco off Masahiro Tanaka (ruining Tanaka's shutout bid in the ninth inning).

From 2011 to 2013, Cano hit a home run on 18 percent of the fly balls he hit, peaking at 21 percent in 2012. This year, he's homered on just 7 percent of his fly balls. He's also hitting a lot fewer fly balls:

2013: 31.6 percent fly ball rate, 282 feet average fly ball distance
2014: 17.7 percent fly ball rate, 278 feet average fly ball distance

So when he hits a fly ball, the ball is roughly traveling the same distance, although a few feet here and there can be big difference. Cano may be making a conscious effort to go for more line drives -- his line drive rate is up a few percent -- but he's been unable to turn on pitches with authority like in the past. He's always been a good opposite-field hitter, but would still yank some pitches to right field. Compare his fly ball charts the past two seasons:

Robinson CanoESPN Stats & Information


Note that all three of his home run were classified as line drives, not fly balls. Keep in mind that Safeco doesn't punish power to right field like it does to left field. Collectively, Mariners' left-handed hitters have a slightly higher isolated power at home than on the road (it was higher on the road last year, however).

Overall, I'd say Safeco has played a small factor in his power struggles. Some of it has been bad luck. Oh ... and Cano is seeing the same percentage of pitches over the vertical middle and the inside part of the plate as last season, so the idea that he's seeing a lot of junk on the outside part of the plate doesn't hold true.

Actually, this number may be the scariest number for Mariners fans: According to ESPN Stats & Info date, he's actually seen nearly 10 percent more fastballs this year than last year (65.6 percent to 56.1 percent. Is word getting around the league that maybe his bat has slowed up a bit?

Look, Cano is still have a good year at the plate and he's hardly the problem in Seattle's lineup. But the Mariners surely expected more power from their $240 million second baseman.


The awesome Eric Karabell and myself with another edition of Rapid Fire. Today's topics: Robinson Cano, Jedd Gyorko, Jose Abreu, Eric Hosmer, Starlin Castro and Javier Baez and a certain Phillies general manager.

Mariners kids' arrival long since overdue

June, 2, 2014
Jun 2
11:54
PM ET

We’re a little more than a third of the way through the season, but let’s relish this tidbit as we head into the season’s middle months, when moves get made and buyers and sellers are supposed to start sorting themselves out: After beating the Yankees in a mismatch between Felix Hernandez and David Phelps, the Mariners are just a half-game back in the AL wild-card race. And a game over .500. Which means while there’s a whole lot of sorting left to be done, there’s no reason to take the Mariners any less seriously than they no doubt take themselves.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mariners are getting the most value out of King Felix and Robinson Cano and a very few others -- Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders in the lineup, Chris Young in the rotation. Use WAR as a quick cheat, and that’s the extent of the guys who’ve been worth a win so far, several fewer than the A’s or Angels have to talk about. Not that WAR is the ultimate answer to anything, but it does give you the suggestion that there are more than a few people playing for the Mariners whose value is harder to define than what statistical words of praise might provide.

That’s in large part because the core of young talent in the Mariners lineup, which was supposed to have been ready to shine by now, has provided the statistical equivalent of dark matter: We know they’re there, we know they’re supposed to be important. But defining what Justin Smoak or Dustin Ackley or the shortstop tandem of Brad Miller and Nick Franklin or the center fielder du jour -- it’s James Jones this month -- have added challenges easy explanation.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesEven without getting much help from the Mariners' lineup, Robinson Cano has reason to smile: They're contenders!
The Mariners are getting less than a .700 OPS not just from defense-first positions such as short and center, where they’ve been testing their prospects, but also at power positions such as first base, left field and DH. That’s no way to back up a bid to contend, and it will be on Ackley and Smoak -- and also veterans Logan Morrison and Corey Hart when they come back from the DL -- to improve upon it.

But the time for excusing youth should be over. Smoak is in his fifth season and Ackley his fourth. They aren’t kids -- they’re long since young veterans. What you see is what you get. You can at least credit Smoak for hitting away from Safeco this season, with a .765 OPS on the road so far. That's almost exactly the average production for an AL first baseman this season (.764). Average is the new up, at least where Mariners prospects are concerned.

Now, it might seem a bit unfair to pile on the Mariners’ bevvy of prospects for what they haven’t been and might never be. The only teams running younger lineups than the Mariners’ 27.3-year-old average are the Astros and Cubs, both of whom have unapologetically touched bottom in their comprehensive rebuilds. On the other hand, that same average age ties with the homegrown talent-laden Braves, who labor under all sorts of expectations of right-now contention -- and seem to be doing just fine. Guys such as Smoak and Ackley were mentioned in the same breath as prospects such as Freddie Freeman (a consensus top-20 prospect) or Jason Heyward (a consensus top 10). And while we’re on the subject of young and disappointing, keep in mind that Ackley is only a few months younger than Justin Upton and was the second overall pick in 2009 to Upton’s first overall selection in 2005. As frustrating as Upton has been for those expecting reliable greatness from one of baseball’s best streak hitters, you won’t confuse that for Ackley’s exasperating inability to come close to his rookie season .766 OPS in any of the past three seasons.

Which is why, for as young as these Mariners might seem to be right now, their time is now. Everything can be forgiven, if not forgotten, if the Mariners make this season’s September meaningful. That would be a first for a franchise that has yet to top the 85 wins they got in Jack Zduriencik’s first season as GM back in 2009. This is essentially his team, a compilation of players he inherited and chose to keep (such as Erasmo Ramirez), guys he drafted (such as Ackley, both shortstops and James Paxton) or guys he signed (Cano, Young and Fernando Rodney). If it’s going to add up to anything, ever, there’s no time like now to find out.

For the Mariners to deliver on the opportunity of their present, their best hopes might rest on what Paxton and Taijuan Walker can add on the mound behind Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. It makes for that much more of a pitching-and-defense formula, while praying for Cano and Seager to plate enough runs, for Zunino to develop unlike all the other top touts of prospect lists past. Not to mention hoping against hope that Ackley or Smoak or Franklin or Miller finally turn into something. Realistically, what alternative is there? Trade them away to surround Cano with better goodies? No matter how much club control a team might have left over Ackley or Smoak or Franklin, whatever dollar figure you assign doesn’t amount to any value in trade if it doesn’t amount to anything on the field now. Guys who can’t play at 26 or 27 aren’t likely to play ever.

It’s easy to mock Zduriencik’s zipping from one master plan to another with all the hyperactive schemes for world domination of a Bond villain: He’s tried building a winner just about every way imaginable in his six seasons in Seattle, flitting from pitching and defense to a lineup overstuffed with veteran DHs, to trusting in his farm system, to finally, in that classic sign of late-stage, go-for-broke desperation, throwing boatloads of cash at somebody with star power when he inked Cano. In short, there is no tack he hasn’t tried. The irony is the Mariners might contend for at least a wild-card slot this season, after the former player-development guy made the big-market move and signed the superstar for a budget-busting $240 million. If it works, and if the kids contribute anything, you can bet he’ll be congratulated for it.

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


Eric and I take your questions on the Braves, Josh Donaldson's MVP chances, Robinson Cano, Adam Jones, Matt Cain and Chris Owings.
1. Back in spring training, Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish admitted he was working on a few minor tweaks on his mechanics in an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the nerve problem in his lower back and buttocks area that arose last September. Whether that had anything to do with the stiff neck that had sidelined him since March 16 and forced him to miss his Opening Day assignment remains unknown, considering the dubious nature of the original rationale for the neck issue ("I slept on it wrong," Darvish said).

In the end, he missed just one start, which was still enough of a setback to put Rangers fans in a minor state of panic considering the opening week rotation was already without Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

Darvish returned Sunday after not having pitched in three weeks and looked a lot like the guy many predicted will win the Cy Young Award, undoubtedly calming at least a few nerves in the Rangers fan base and front office. He pitched seven innings of no-run baseball in a 3-0 win over the Rays, an efficient 89-pitch effort that included just one walk. He threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes and held the Rays to an 0-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.

He wasn't necessarily overpowering, averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball while maxing out at 95.1 mph, but maybe this is the new, strike-throwing Darvish, one looking to be a little more economical in his pitch counts to avoid walks and pitch consistently deeper into games.

"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes. I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn't feel anything unusual."

While Darvish recorded just six strikeouts, he showed what makes him so tough to hit -- the six K's came on two fastballs, two curveballs, a slider and a changeup to Wil Myers. It's that changeup that could be a new weapon for him: He threw 90 changeups all of last year, recording just four strikeouts. Just what batters want to hear, knowing it's hard enough already with two strikes gearing up for a curveball or slider.

The Rangers' rotation remains a little unsettled -- Colby Lewis may be close to returning and they may use six starters this week. The good news is the Rangers are 3-3 despite the makeshift rotation and having hit just one home run. They play the Red Sox and Astros this week but will need the rotation to come together sooner rather than later as they play the Mariners seven times and the A's six before the end of the month.

Darvish joked that he'd pitch great every time if he had three weeks between starts. The Rangers are hoping he'll pitch great every fifth day.

2. The most impressive result of the weekend was the Brewers going into Boston and sweeping the Red Sox by scores of 6-2, 7-6 (in 11 innings) and 4-0 on Sunday. The Red Sox were swept just once all last season -- in a three-game series in Texas -- and shut out just three times at Fenway Park in the regular season.

Yovani Gallardo struck out only three in 6 2/3 innings but issued no walks and got 11 ground balls outs compared to four in the air. He hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts. Gallardo struggled last year and while his velocity isn't up from last year at least he's throwing strikes early on.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCano seems to be embracing his role as a leader in Seattle.
The bad news for the Brewers, of course, is Ryan Braun's thumb injury, which he now says hasn't completely healed from last year when the injury sapped his power and eventually forced him to the disabled list (before his suspension). He had two singles on Sunday to raise his average to .150 but he doesn't have an extra-base hit in (the small sample size of) 21 plate appearances. Remember, when Braun was putting up monster numbers in 2012 the Brewers led the National League in runs scored. If they're going to contend for a playoff spot, they better hope this thumb issue doesn't linger.

3. I watched a lot of Mariners this week and there were a lot of positives to draw upon as they went 4-2 on the road: Two dominant starts from Felix Hernandez, one from James Paxton, good hitting from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Robinson Cano hit a quiet .391/.500/.478 as he's still looking for his first home run. He has drawn three intentional walks already as the Angels and A's elected to go after Smoak.

All three walks came in conventional IBB situations: Two outs, runners on second or second and third. Smoak went 1-for-3 with a bases-clearing double. Still, for now, it appears opponents will avoid Cano whenever possible. The biggest positive with Cano may have been his hustle double on Sunday when he singled to center and took advantage of Coco Crisp jogging after the ball. That's a Cano that New York writers like to say doesn't exist. It's one play, but perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.

4. Mark Trumbo homered for the fourth straight game Sunday in the Diamondbacks' 5-3 win over the Rockies, just their second victory in nine games as they currently sit with the majors' worst record. Even though Trumbo has five home runs and 13 RBIs and Paul Goldschmidt is mashing, the Arizona offense has mostly struggled, averaging fewer than four runs per game.

The Rockies intentionally walked Trumbo with a runner on third base and one out on Sunday to pitch to Miguel Montero, who promptly grounded into a double play against Brett Anderson. Montero's OPS fell from .820 and .829 in 2011 and 2012 to .662 in 2013. He and Gerardo Parra are the only regular lefties in the D-backs' lineup, and they need the old Montero not the 2013 version.

5. I watched the last few innings of Chris Tillman's gem to beat the Tigers, and he looked really good, allowing one run again as he did in his Opening Day start. He couldn't quite finish it off, getting one out in the ninth before being pulled for Tommy Hunter, but he challenged the Tigers -- 74 of his 113 pitches were fastballs -- and did a good job of moving the fastball around against left-handed batters (he pitches mostly to the outside corner with the fastball against righties).

Without sounding overdramatic here, it was a big win for the Orioles as 2-4 just sounds a lot better than 1-5. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the majors as just six of their first 27 games are against teams that finished under .500 last year and those six are against Toronto, no pushover, so they need to make sure they don't get buried before May.

6. This wasn't from Sunday, but I hope you didn't miss Giancarlo Stanton's mammoth home run on Friday off Eric Stults. The ESPN Home Run Tracker estimated the moon shot at 484 feet, 31 feet longer than the second-longest home run so far. The longest home run last year was Evan Gattis' 486-foot blast for the Braves on Sept. 8 off Cole Hamels.

The Marlins lost on Sunday, but they're off to a 5-2 start. Stanton is hitting .345/.406/.655, and for all those fears that he wouldn't get pitched to, he hasn't drawn an intentional walk

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter is now No. 8 on the all-time hits list, but the Yanks need power.
7. Derek Jeter passed Paul Molitor for the eighth place on the all-time hits list. In many ways, the two are identical matches as hitters, with short, compact swings and both loved to go to the opposite field. Jeter has a career line of .312/.381/.446 with 256 home runs while Molitor hit .306/.369/.448 with 234 home runs. Molitor's adjusted OPS is slightly higher, at 122 versus Jeter's 117. Molitor struck out 10.2 percent of the time against a league average of 14.7 percent during his career; Jeter has fanned 14.7 percent of the time against a league average of 17.4 percent.

Jeter has his most hits off Tim Wakefield (36) and among pitchers he faced at least 40 times, has the highest average against Bruce Chen (.429). (He also hit an impressive .413 against Johan Santana. Molitor got 33 hits off both Jack Morris and Roger Clemens (and hit above .300 against both) and killed Erik Hanson (.482) and Walt Terrell (.477).

8. The Yankees have one home run in six games, hit by Brett Gardner on Sunday's win over the Blue Jays. Could power actually be an issue for the Yankees? Mark Teixeira landed on the DL over the weekend, which means they're really going to have to rely on 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran for some pop. Leading the team in extra-base hits? Yangervis Solarte. Of course.

9. B.J. Upton: Hey, at least he didn't strike out in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Nationals. But he did go 0-for-4 and is off to a .120/.120/.140 start with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. So far, Fredi Gonzalez has hit him second in all six games. It's way too early to panic, but tell that to Braves fans.

10. Speaking of worrying, should the Angels be worried about Jered Weaver? In two starts, batters are slugging .600 against him and the Astros pounded four home runs off him on Sunday. The four home runs came on four different pitches: Jason Castro off a 3-1 changeup, Matt Dominguez off a 3-2 slider, Jesus Guzman on an 0-1 fastball and Alex Presley on an 0-1 curveball. His fastball velocity, such as it is, has averaged 86.0 mph, about the same as last year's 86.5.

As with all these first-week results, don't overreact, but if Weaver isn't a strong rotation anchor, the Angels are in trouble. They're 2-4, hoping to avoid the terrible April starts of the past two seasons.
videoHere's the deal: It's distinctly possible I am inherently biased. After all, as most of you know, I am a Mariners fan since the days of Ruppert Jones and Danny Meyer and as this recent article at Baseball Prospectus argued, we all tend to overrate our favorite teams heading into the season, even those of us who study all the statistics and projections.

But if you're looking for a surprise team for 2014 -- this year's Pirates or Indians -- the Mariners may very well be your best bet. By surprise team, I mean a team that finished below .500 the year before; I'd suggest expanding that to all that finished under .500 in each of the past two seasons. That eliminates teams such as the Giants or Angels who were pretty good in 2012 (the Giants won the World Series, of course) and wouldn't exactly be a surprise if they contended.

That leaves the Cubs (nope), White Sox (don't actually fit our criteria but don't see them contending), Rockies (maybe), Astros (not yet), Marlins (unlikely), Mets (less likely), Twins (bad team), Phillies (don't meet our criteria but they're awful), Padres (possible) or Blue Jays (tough division).

So, that leaves the Mariners. Here's why:

1. The AL West could be ripe for the taking. The Rangers have more injuries than a Civil War regiment, the A's lost their top two starters from last year, the Angels have pitching questions and the Astros are three years away. Even if the Mariners don't win the division, if the AL West isn't as strong as it has been the past couple of years that would bode well in the wild-card race.

2. They have a superstar pitcher in Felix Hernandez and now have a superstar hitter in Robinson Cano. The Cano upgrade will be huge -- Mariners second basemen hit .214/.289/.330 last season. He gives the Mariners their first legit middle-of-the-order bat in years and helps extend the lineup one spot deeper than a season ago.

[+] EnlargeMariners
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesJustin Smoak's six RBIs have helped the Mariners to a 2-0 start.
3. Their core hitters are all at the ages when players generally peak. Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders are in their age-27 seasons while Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley and Logan Morrison are 26. It's not that those guys are great players, but considering their ages and experience there's a good chance they improve collectively as a group and a good chance one of those guys breaks out with a big season.

4. Brad Miller can hit. I like this kid. His defense at shortstop is an issue but he had a solid rookie season (.265/.318/.418), a huge spring, can run (although he's not necessarily a big base stealer) and looks as if he'll enjoy hitting in front of Cano. I can see him hitting .285 with 15 home runs and a bunch of doubles and triples.

5. The defense will be better. It's still a concern -- Miller booted a routine grounder Tuesday, Ackley failed to run down a catchable fly ball in left Monday -- but the defense was so bad last year (minus-99 defensive runs saved, 29th in the majors), it has nowhere to go but up. Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and Michael Morse are no longer around with their statuesque efforts in the outfield, so it's more addition by subtraction as much as anything.

There is the scary possibility that we'll see Morrison and Corey Hart too much in the corners, although hopefully they'll just ending up sharing time at designated hitter. It's not a good defense, but shaving even 40 runs would be worth an extra four wins.

6. There is potential improvement in the rotation. Yes, Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker began the season on the disabled list, but they hopefully should be ready in a few weeks. The Mariners will have to weather April -- and 22 of their first 25 games are against division opponents -- but if Iwakuma comes back strong (remember, he was third in the Cy Young voting last season), the Mariners will have one of the best one-two punches in the league.

They just need the rest of the guys to step up -- Erasmo Ramirez looked good in his debut, James Paxton starts Wednesday night, veteran Chris Young will try to stay healthy for more than three weeks and rookie Roenis Elias will start the year in the rotation. Again, it's addition by subtraction as Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang and Brandon Maurer combined for 68 starts and a 5.60 ERA in 2013. Shaving even a run off that ERA would be worth about 40 runs with room for even more gains.

7. The bullpen will be better. The Mariners ranked 29th in the majors with a 4.58 bullpen ERA -- but they ranked fourth in strikeout percentage, a sign that there are some good arms down there. They signed Fernando Rodney to be the closer and while he has to prove he can succeed away from Tampa Bay, the Mariners should be better in the late innings (they lost six games they led heading into the ninth and were 6-15 in extra innings).

8. Nick Franklin is good trade bait. If they wish to upgrade center field or find a starter down the road, Franklin could bring some help.

9. The projection systems see a close AL West race. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection has the top four teams between 87 and 80 wins. FanGraphs now has the top four teams all between 85 and 83 wins.

10. You never know.
There's nothing quite like Opening Day. As Pete Rose once said, "It's like Christmas except warmer." It's a reminder that for perhaps inexplicable reasons we still love this crazy game, that we're ready to devote way too many hours over the next seven months to watching games that will enthrall us and disgust us but bring us together. We'll laugh, we'll cry, we'll shout -- and that's just within one Starlin Castro at-bat. It's Opening Day. Enjoy.

Must-watch game of the day
If I could watch only one game on Opening Day -- which would pretty much qualify as cruel and unusual punishment if actually forced to such limits -- I'd go with St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). First, we get a heated division rivalry with two playoff teams from last season. We get a great pitching matchup with Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto. We get Billy Hamilton trying to get on base and then trying to run on Yadier Molina if he does get on. We get the new Reds lineup with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce hitting third and fourth. (Oh, how we miss you, Dusty.) Plus, there are potential cameos from Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, Pete Rose or Schottzie.

Best pitching matchup of the day
Considering the depth of starting pitching in the majors, you'd think we'd have more can't-miss pitching matchups of Cy Young contender facing Cy Young contender, but that isn't really the case on this day. But James Shields versus Justin Verlander is a great one (Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers, 1:08 p.m. ET).

Here's an interesting fact: The Tigers had all that great pitching last year, right? Well, the Royals allowed the fewest runs in the American League. Shields is making his sixth career Opening Day start while Verlander makes his seventh in a row. Verlander allowed zero runs his past two openers (although he pitched just five innings last year on a cold day in Minnesota). Royals fans must deal with no Jeff Francoeur in the opening lineup for the first time in four years. Hold those tears.

Pitcher you have to watch if you've never watched him
The Marlins rarely appear on national TV, so you may not have seen Jose Fernandez pitch as a rookie unless you're actually a Marlins fan or your team faced him. If you missed him, you made a mistake, so don't miss this one. No dinner break. No excuse that this may be your third game of the day. He starts against Jorge De La Rosa as the Colorado Rockies play the Miami Marlins (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN).

This is kind of a cool random factoid from ESPN Stats & Information: This is the first Opening Day matchup in the past 100 years of pitchers born in Cuba and Mexico. Fernandez will become the fourth-youngest Opening Day starter in the past 35 seasons behind Dwight Gooden (1985 and 1986 Mets), Fernando Valenzuela (1981 Dodgers) and Felix Hernandez (2007 Mariners).

The "Wait, he's starting on Opening Day?" award
This is always a fun one. One year the Pittsburgh Pirates started Ron Villone, who had posted a 5.89 ERA the year before -- primarily as a reliever. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays started Dewon Brazelton in 2005; he'd finish the season 1-8 with a 7.61 ERA. The Twins started Vance Worley a year ago. This year's most interesting surprise starter is Tanner Scheppers of the Rangers (Philadelphia Phillies at Texas Rangers, 2:05 p.m. ET) -- interesting because he has never started a major league game.

Since 1914, only three pitchers made their major league debuts starting on Opening Day: Lefty Grove of the A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the 1943 Phillies. Scheppers doesn't match their feat because he's pitched in relief, but he does match Valenzuela, whose first major league start came in that 1981 Opening Day start. Of course, to match Fernando, all Scheppers has to do is throw five shutouts and six complete games in his first seven starts.

Just thought I'd mention this
The Los Angeles Dodgers will pay reliever Brandon League more this season ($8.5 million) than the Pirates will pay National League MVP Andrew McCutchen ($7.458 million), who will rank 34th among outfielders in salary in 2014. Anyway, watch McCutchen's Pirates host the Chicago Cubs (1 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).

Another reason to love McCutchen, besides the fact that he's a talented artist, can imitate others' batting stances and helps old ladies cross the street: His WAR has increased each season of his career, 2.3 to 3.8 to 5.7 to 7.0 to 7.9.

Watch Robinson Cano in a new time zone
Cano makes his Mariners debut in a late game, Mariners at Angels (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). As a bonus, you get Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Abraham Almonte and Justin Smoak. The Mariners begin the season with a seven-game road trip and play 22 of their first 25 games against division opponents while trying to patch together a rotation missing Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker for a few weeks, so few teams will be under more pressure early on than Seattle. Enjoy the marine layer, Robby!

Player most likely to be booed on Opening Day
I was going to say Dan Uggla or Ryan Braun, but unfortunately the Atlanta Braves play at the Milwaukee Brewers (2:10 p.m. ET) instead of vice versa.

Player likely to get the biggest ovation
I'll go with Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, in what will be his final Opening Day -- although he's not guaranteed to start (Twins at White Sox, 4:10 p.m. ET). OK, Konerko or Ike Davis, I'm not sure.


The BBTN100 project -- ranking the top 100 players in baseball -- begins today with the top 10 second basemen. Eric Karabell and myself discuss the rankings in the video and Christina Kahrl and myself debate Robinson Cano versus Dustin Pedroia.
It's one month to the official start date of spring training (the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will start a week earlier due to their opening two games in Australia). It has been quiet the past few weeks as everybody waits for Masahiro Tanaka to sign. But the quiet means there are still many questions to consider over the next month. Here are 14:

1. Can the Dodgers afford both Clayton Kershaw and Masahiro Tanaka?

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonDodgers ace Clayton Kershaw led the majors with a 1.83 ERA last season.
Well, I suppose they could considering the Dodgers seem to have enough money to fill all the swimming pools in Malibu. But let's say Kershaw eventually signs a $300 million contract and Tanaka goes for $120 million. Throw in the $102 million still owed Zack Greinke and you would be talking over $500 million just for three pitchers -- on top of the $129 million owed Matt Kemp and $110 million owed Adrian Gonzalez. They're three great pitchers, but they're still pitchers with all the inherent injury risks that pitchers have. But unless Kershaw gets done in the next week, the Dodgers have a decision to make before the Jan. 24 deadline to sign Tanaka: All-in on both or just one?

2. Will the Yankees look to make a move at third base?

At this point, I doubt it. Their options include Kelly Johnson, Scott Sizemore (just signed to a minor league deal), Eduardo Nunez and minor league vet Dean Anna, a left-handed bat who hit .331/.410/.482 for Triple-A Tucson (a Padres affiliate). The free-agent options are down to Placido Polanco and Michael Young, not exactly inspiring options. The Yankees probably will roll the dice with the guys they have and focus on signing Tanaka and making some additions to the bullpen rather than trading for somebody like Chase Headley.

3. Will the Rangers try to replace Derek Holland?

Holland injured his knee tripping over his dog at home and will miss at least half the season. The good news for the Rangers is that the pitching staff was the strength of the team in 2013. While closer Joe Nathan departed as a free agent, there is still plenty of depth in the bullpen, plus Matt Harrison should return after back surgery limited him to two starts. Without Holland, the rotation shapes up as Yu Darvish, Harrison, Martin Perez, Alexi Ogando and Nick Tepesch. That still looks like an above-average rotation if Harrison is healthy, but there aren't solid backup options, so the Rangers could still go after one of the remaining free-agent starters. They've already lost their first-round pick for signing Shin-Soo Choo, so signing Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana means they'd surrender only a second-rounder. It's not money the Rangers planned on spending, but they're desperate to get back into the postseason.

4. Are the Mariners done?

I find it hard to believe the Mariners are quitting after signing Robinson Cano and the injury gambles on Corey Hart, Logan Morrison and Franklin Gutierrez. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the Mariners' estimated payroll right now for 2014 is $81.6 million -- less than last year's $84.9 million. Where can they upgrade? Well, how about offense, rotation and bullpen? The Mariners were 12th in the American League in runs scored, and while Cano is about a 50-run upgrade over the production the Mariners got from their second basemen in 2013, Hart and Morrison essentially replace Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez. The rotation behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma would be Erasmo Ramirez and rookies Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. The bullpen had a 4.58 ERA, better than only the Astros. The Mariners are undoubtedly in on Tanaka but if they don't get him, another starting pitcher has to be a priority. And don't be surprised if Morales ends up back in Seattle.

5. Is Gaby Sanchez really the Pirates' regular first baseman?

[+] EnlargeGaby Sanchez
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGaby Sanchez batted .254 with just seven home runs in 136 games for the Pirates in 2013.
I hope not. As the Pirates wait on A.J. Burnett's retirement decision, the biggest issue the club faces isn't replacing Burnett but getting more offense from first base. Sanchez is a platoon bat at best. He's hit .234/.306/.368 against right-handers the past three seasons; that's barely acceptable for a shortstop let alone a first baseman. They signed minor league veteran Chris McGuiness, who played briefly with the Rangers in 2013, but he hit .246 with 11 home runs in 362 at-bats in Triple-A. Morales is out there, but the Pirates don't want to surrender their first-round pick to sign him. They could try minor league slugger Andrew Lambo (32 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A) there. Ike Davis remains a trade rumor. But right now first base looks like a nightmare for a team that needs to score more runs.

6. Where does Stephen Drew land?

You'd think there would be more interest in a solid defensive shortstop who hit .253/.333/.443 -- that's a .777 OPS and only two teams (the Rockies and Dodgers) received a higher OPS from their shortstops in 2013. Only 12 teams even topped .700. So why is Drew still out there? He could be asking for too much; he does have an injury history; most teams are set at shortstop, even if it's a young, glove-first guy like Alcides Escobar in Kansas City, Pedro Florimon in Minnesota or Adeiny Hechavarria in Miami. The obvious fit for Drew would seem to be the Yankees, but they seem content to rely on some guy who played in only 17 games a season ago, hit .190 and turns 40 in June.

7. Where does Ubaldo Jimenez land?

As with Santana, Bronson Arroyo and Matt Garza, it's a waiting game until after Tanaka signs. Bottom line: Teams are clearly reluctant to pay big money and surrender a first-round pick for Jimenez (That signals a return to Cleveland or signing with a team whose first-round pick is protected -- Seattle or Toronto being the best bets).

8. Are the Indians really moving Carlos Santana to third base?

A couple of position switches paid huge dividends last year, most notably the Cardinals moving Matt Carpenter to second base. Indians third basemen hit 20 home runs, but batted just .218 with a .274 OBP. With the emergence of Yan Gomes behind the plate and not wanting to bet once again on Lonnie Chisenhall, Santana has been playing third base in winter ball. Catchers have moved to third base before -- Joe Torre, Todd Zeile -- so it isn't unprecedented, plus Santana played some third base early in his minor league career. The Indians understandably don't want to turn Santana into a full-time DH at his age, but that's always an option if he doesn't take to third base.

9. Are the Royals done?

The Royals have made some solid moves to upgrade an offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs -- they signed Omar Infante to play second base, acquired Norichika Aoki to play right field, and picked up Danny Valencia to platoon with Mike Moustakas at third base. None of those were sexy moves like their rumored quest for Carlos Beltran, but all should help the team score more runs. But will it be enough? The Royals won 85 games thanks to their run prevention -- they allowed the fewest runs in the AL -- but they're expecting Jason Vargas to replace Ervin Santana and Danny Duffy and Wade Davis/Yordano Ventura to step in the fourth and fifth spots. James Shields is a solid No. 1, but Jeremy Guthrie and Vargas don't seem to fit as a playoff threesome. While there are rumors of Santana returning to Kansas City, that seems unlikely considering the team's payroll is already an estimated $11 million higher than last year. It seems to me that any increase in runs will be canceled out by an increase in runs allowed unless a young guy -- Eric Hosmer, Ventura? -- takes a big leap forward.

10. So who signs Santana?

[+] EnlargeErvin Santana
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesErvin Santana posted a career best 3.24 ERA while making 32 starts for the Royals last season.
Santana is a fly ball pitcher so he's a good fit for the Mariners or Angels, a bad fit for the White Sox, Rangers or Blue Jays. But how about Arizona? The Diamondbacks are reportedly interested in Tanaka, but it seems unlikely they'd win that bidding war. Santana would give Arizona a needed workhorse to slot in behind Patrick Corbin and Wade Miley.

11. Which team has had the best offseason?

Until we know where Tanaka lands, this question is still open. I like what the White Sox have done, acquiring Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson from the Diamondbacks, two young guys who should step into the starting lineup, and signing high-upside Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. But how about the Angels? They traded the powerful but overrated Mark Trumbo to get Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, two pitchers who should help shore up their rotation. They traded a spare part in Peter Bourjos for David Freese (the Angels were 29th in home runs from third basemen with eight last season). They signed a valuable bullpen arm in Joe Smith. The biggest questions remain Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, but the Angels look better on paper. (Of course, they looked better on paper the past two years …)

12. Which is the biggest hole still to be filled?

Besides first base in Pittsburgh? Among potential contending teams, here are five:

1. Second base in Toronto. The Blue Jays received the worst production from second base in the majors last year at .216/.258/.297. Rookie Ryan Goins has a plus glove, but doesn't bring much with the bat. Maybe veteran Maicer Izturis bounces back.

2. Designated hitter in Baltimore. If David Lough is penciled in as the regular left fielder, that pushes Nolan Reimold into a DH battle with Henry Urrutia. Reimold can't stay healthy although Urrutia, to be fair, has some potential. The 27-year-old (in February) Cuban did hit .365 in Double-A and .316 in Triple-A with nine home runs in 314 at-bats. In 58 PAs with the Orioles, however, he had no extra-base hits and no walks. We'll see. Morales is a good fit if the Orioles are willing to punt their first-round draft pick.

3. Closer in Tampa Bay. This looks like a spring training battle between Heath Bell, Jake McGee and Joel Peralta. Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney are still free agents, but don't expect the Rays to pony up the cash. (The Orioles still need a closer after backing out of a deal with Balfour, but for now they'll let Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day duke it out. Likewise in Texas with Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria and Tanner Scheppers.)

4. Yankees fourth/fifth starters. Once you get past CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova, it's wide open: David Phelps, Michael Pineda (good luck after missing two full seasons), Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno. Thus the interest in not just Tanaka, but other starters. Don't be surprised if Bronson Arroyo ends up here.

5. Phillies rotation. Wait, the Phillies are contenders?

13. Will anybody get traded before spring training?

It's the same names that we've been talking about: David Price, Andre Ethier, Nick Franklin. But you don't usually see trades between now and the start of spring training. So I'd bet that Price remains in Tampa … which I think is the right move for the Rays. Yes, this is the perpetual cycle they have to stay in to remain cost efficient, but at the same time their chances of winning the World Series are going to be much higher with Price in their rotation than with any trade they make.

14. Which team wins the World Series?

The Cardinals look strongest on paper, although their lack of power could prove to be an issue. The Red Sox bring just about everybody back, but will be relying on three young players -- Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks -- to provide offense. The Tigers are trying something new: defense. The Rangers brought in Choo and Prince Fielder. The Nationals should be stronger after last year's disappointment. If the Dodgers land Tanaka, they may head into the season as the preseason favorite.

But there will be a team that will come out of nowhere, the Red Sox or Pirates of 2013. The magic of the unknown still exists in baseball. In a month, it all begins. I can't wait.

AL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
9:30
AM ET
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we’d take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our American League look.

AL East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


AL Central

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al West

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rangers: The difference between Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland at first base is a sizable one, potentially 15 runs over the course of a season, so if the Rangers do decide to hang on to Moreland, they'd be best off playing him at first base and having Fielder DH. The Rangers could use a good defender at first, since Jurickson Profar is basically going to learn on the job at second base. Texas will also have some outfield concerns with Shin-Soo Choo having limited experience in left field and the team no longer having the security blanket of Gentry (traded to Athletics).
Well, they did it. The Seattle Mariners have reportedly agreed to a 10-year, $240 million deal with Robinson Cano, the first big-time free agent the Mariners have signed since snagging Adrian Beltre after his 48-homer season in 2004. (Sorry. Chone Figgins and Carlos Silva don't count.)

I'll write this as a Mariners fan, albeit one who hasn't lived in Seattle since 1999. I've suffered through these miserable seasons of late only via television and depressing emails with friends.

The Mariners needed talent. They had to spend to get it. They likely overspent to acquire one of the best players in the game. Yes, we all know the history of these types of contracts -- I'm pretty sure Angels fans were pumped when their team signed Albert Pujols. Yes, Cano may only have two or three years left at his peak ability, and the final years of the contract could be a financial disaster. But talent. Talent is a precious thing to have.

You can argue the Mariners would have been wiser to spend that money on three players rather than one. But there also was no guarantee the Mariners would be able to convince Shin-Soo Choo or Ubaldo Jimenez or whomever to come to Seattle, anyway. At some point, you have to strike, and the Mariners did it in the biggest way possible.

So I'm pumped about having a legit middle-of-the-order bat in the lineup for the first time since ... well, Cano posted an .899 OPS last year and has averaged a .906 OPS over the past four seasons and the last Mariners hitter to post an .899 OPS was Richie Sexson way back in 2005. So, since Richie Sexson. And Mariners fans hated that guy. That was in a different offensive era as well, making Cano even more impressive compared to league average totals. So he becomes the best Mariners hitter since Bret Boone and Edgar Martinez on the 2001 club that won 116 games. Or that other guy we won't name.

It's just one piece, of course. Mariners fans have to hope more moves will follow because Cano alone won't turn a 71-win team into anything close to a playoff contender. It does make a potential David Price trade more likely, although most Mariners fans I heard from on Twitter are hoping and praying that top prospect Taijuan Walker wouldn't be included in such a deal. Last offseason, the Rays acquired a top-10 overall prospect in Wil Myers for James Shields from the Royals, and Price is better than Shields, so everyone seems to think the Rays can do that again; but the Myers-Shields trade (which included other parts) was arguably an aberration. Just because the Royals paid a hefty price for two years of Shields doesn't mean another team will pay that to acquire Price.

Still, with Cano on board, that makes second-year second baseman Nick Franklin available. You could certainly see general manager Jack Zduriencik dealing Walker and Franklin for Price, although trading 12 years of team control for those two players for two years of Price has the potential to morph into an Adam Jones-Erik Bedard deal (or Choo for Ben Broussard ... or Asdrubal Cabrera for Eduardo Perez ... or David Ortiz for Dave Hollins ... stop me before I poke my eyes out with a fork).

Like most Mariners fans, I'd prefer them to keep Walker and see if they could do another package for Price. (Good luck with that, however.) Better yet, just spend more money. Maybe signing Cano will convince Choo and Jimenez that Seattle is the place to be. Really, signing those two on top of Cano wouldn't even break the payroll considering only Felix Hernandez is also signed long-term.

Sign those two and you could roll out this lineup:

LF Shin-Soo Choo
SS Brad Miller
2B Robinson Cano
3B Kyle Seager
1B Justin Smoak
C Mike Zunino
RF Michael Saunders
DH Jesus Montero
CF Dustin Ackley/Abraham Almonte

It's too left-handed (the top four guys all bat lefty), so you would want to sign a right-handed outfielder/DH or trade Franklin for somebody to fill one of those slots. (Franklin to the Royals for Billy Butler, so the Royals can sign Carlos Beltran to DH?)

The rotation would look like this:

Felix Hernandez
Hisashi Iwakuma
Ubaldo Jimenez
Taijuan Walker
James Paxton

That's two rookies, but two rookies with big upside. Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer are around to provide depth. The bullpen would need to improve.

With Russell Wilson and the Seahawks sapping up all the sports interest in Seattle, and with the Sounders hugely popular, the Mariners needed to do something to stir up interest in the club. The Mariners led the majors in attendance in 2001 and 2002 but fell to 25th last year. That's what happens after years of losing, boring baseball.

For the first time since the club made the big Cliff Lee trade, it feels good to be a Mariners fan. Cano is not a fix or a solution all by himself; we realize that. Hopefully he's the first move of several more.

Seattle fans are dying for a winning baseball team. Build one and the fans will return.

SPONSORED HEADLINES