SweetSpot: Ryan Dempster

Some big names who could be traded

October, 18, 2013
The playoffs are just a couple weeks from wrapping up, which means the hot stove gets turned up to 11. Or something. I might be mixing up my metaphors. There's nothing quite like the flurry of trade rumors and whispers of potential landing spots for big-name free agents. This offseason will be no different as there are plenty of big names who could have new mailing addresses by the time the 2014 begins. Let's run through a handful of them.

Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Miami Marlins
Stanton isn't even 24 years old yet but he's been mentioned in trade rumors seemingly every week for the past two years. Given the Marlins' historical penchant for dealing away every useful player they've ever had, it makes sense. The Marlins signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell in their first big foray into the free-agent market upon the birth of a new stadium, but traded them away less than a year later. They traded away Hanley Ramirez, the face of their franchise. What's so special about Stanton that they wouldn't ship him off, too?

The outfielder is eligible for arbitration for the first time in his career, creating expectations for a significant jump in salary as he earned less than $550,000 in 2013. He becomes a free agent after the 2016 season. The Marlins, who had one of baseball's lowest Opening Day payrolls at $50.5 million, might value a haul of prospects more than Stanton's continued presence in their lineup. Even with Stanton, the Marlins saw a catastrophic decline in attendance in the second year in their new ballpark, so what's to stop them from running the franchise as cheaply as possible on a never-ending stream of pre-arbitration prospects, only to repeat the process ad nauseam?

There has already been a ton of interest in Stanton. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has inquired on Stanton's availability at least 10 times, only to be rebuffed each and every time. Imagine if the Marlins do make him publicly available. Cafardo suggests the Tigers, Mets, Mariners, Yankees, Orioles, Angels and Red Sox could all join the bidding if Stanton becomes available.

Max Scherzer, P, Detroit Tigers
After years of inconsistency, Scherzer put it all together for a fantastic 2013 season, one which will likely earn him the AL Cy Young Award. There's a ton to like about the right-hander. Among starters, only Yu Darvish missed bats at a higher rate than Scherzer. He cut his walk rate below 7 percent and he wasn't as homer-prone as in the past.

Scherzer, 29, enters his final year of arbitration having taken home a $6.725 million salary in 2013. MLB Trade Rumors estimates he'll earn $13.6 million. The Tigers already have $108 committed to just six players in 2014. If they have a comparable Opening Day payroll as they did in 2013, which was $149 million, they will need to round out the final 19 roster spots rather cheaply, which may make Scherzer expendable. Otherwise, they will need to significantly expand their payroll, perhaps to $175 million.

The only destination for Scherzer would be on a contending team looking for a one-year solution. The Dodgers and Rangers would certainly be among the first two teams to jump into the fray to acquire Scherzer's services, but don't count out teams like the Orioles and Nationals.

Matt Kemp, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have a surfeit of outfielders and the oft-injured Kemp could be the odd man out. With Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig breaking out, and Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier under costly long-term deals, trading Kemp and getting out from under his heavy contract might just be the best route to go for the Dodgers.

Kemp spent more than half of the 2013 season on the disabled list due to a plethora of injuries including a strained right hamstring, inflammation of the AC joint in his left shoulder, a sprained left ankle, and recurring ankle and shoulder pain. He had shoulder surgery on Oct. 8 but is expected to be at 100 percent by the start of next season.

The Dodgers would be expected to eat a significant amount of Kemp's remaining $128 million over six years in any deal. Otherwise, they wouldn't get much of a return in terms of high-ceiling prospects and MLB-ready players.

Philadelphia would be an interesting destination for Kemp. Citizens Bank Park has seen fewer fans the past two seasons, as the team has gotten worse and worse. With a new local TV deal on the horizon, dealing for a superstar like Kemp would be a typical Amaro move and it would bring attention back to the team as they attempt to strike it rich, whether with Comcast or elsewhere. Right now, their center fielder is Ben Revere. While he is perfectly serviceable on his own, he doesn't have anywhere near the upside of a healthy Kemp. The Phillies could also play Kemp in right field. The problem is that the Phillies' minor league system is rather weak, especially at the upper levels, so there may not be a match.

Cliff Lee, P, Philadelphia Phillies
Has there ever been a Cy Young Award winner traded more often than Lee? Lee, who played for four teams within a span of one calendar year -- the Indians, Phillies, Mariners, and Rangers -- could be on the block again as the Phillies attempt to create a more competitive roster going into 2014. The Phillies owe $109.5 million to seven players already without factoring in arbitration-eligible players, free agents and pre-arbs. They need at least one outfielder, at least one middle-of-the-rotation starter, a set-up man, and an entire bench. They opened 2013 with a payroll below $160 million, so filling all of those holes with $50 million or less would be quite a challenge.

Trading Lee while he's still at the apex of his value -- he's coming off of a season in which he posted a 2.87 ERA in 222.2 innings while leading the league with a 6.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- would give the Phillies their best shot to find a suitor willing to eat the $62.5 million remaining on his contract. In return, the Phillies could further bolster their minor league system and perhaps even add a major league-caliber player to fill one of those holes.

The same teams that would be interested in Scherzer would also have interest in acquiring Lee. Due to the lefty's age and remaining salary, he would require less in terms of impact prospects, which might be more attractive to a team with a less-bountiful system like the Rangers.

Yovani Gallardo, P, Milwaukee Brewers
2013 was the worst season of Gallardo's career. The right-hander put up a 4.18 ERA in 180.2 innings, showing a markedly reduced strikeout rate and diminished fastball velocity. The Brewers owe him $11.25 million in 2014 and have a $13 million option for 2015, but they could choose to move him while he still has value.

Gallardo is clearly a tier or two below Scherzer and Lee, but the fact that he would be under team control for potentially a second year (by the team's discretion only, as opposed to a player or vesting option) is attractive to some teams -- perhaps the Indians, Orioles or Nationals.

Chase Headley, 3B, San Diego Padres
The Padres could have traded Headley after the 2012 season, when he finished fifth in MVP voting thanks to a 31-homer, 115-RBI, .875-OPS output. Instead, the Padres hung on to him, hoping he could repeat his performance and help them compete in what appeared to be a wide-open NL West. Perhaps, even, they could sign him to an extension.

Headley fractured the tip of his thumb in spring training, keeping him out for the first 14 games. The injury clearly affected his power as he was able to muscle out just six home runs in 68 games through the end of June. He wasn't exactly dead weight, but he wasn't anywhere near the MVP-caliber player he was a season prior, either.

Headley took home an $8.575 million salary and now enters his final year of arbitration eligibility. He'll likely earn a salary in the double-digit millions in 2014. The Padres, who opened 2013 with a $68 million payroll, could attempt to trade the 29-year-old before his value declines any more. The Dodgers, Angels, Yankees, Giants, Red Sox and Cardinals would all likely show interest -- particularly the Yankees since the future of Alex Rodriguez hinges on his ongoing legal battles, which could result in a suspension through all of 2014.

Jon Lester/Jake Peavy/John Lackey/Ryan Dempster, Ps, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox could trade one of their veteran starters in an effort to create space for some of their younger arms. Any of Lester, Peavy, Lackey or Dempster could go.

Lester would be the most interesting as he's the youngest of the group. The Red Sox will assuredly pick up his $13 million club option for 2014, but they could still ship him somewhere for the right price. The lefty turns 30 in January and is coming off a rebound season. He posted a 4.82 ERA in 2012, showing a diminished ability to generate swings and misses. While he didn't fully recapture that ability in 2013, it was an improvement at least.

Peavy is under contract for one more year at $14.5 million. His bounce-back 2012 output (3.37 ERA) is sandwiched by two mediocre campaigns in 2011 (4.92) and 2013 (4.17). He'll turn 33 in May. As such, he might make a more attractive midseason acquisition rather than taking on the brunt of his salary with the chance he could be injured and/or ineffective for an entire season.

Lackey put himself back on the map in a big way in 2013, returning from Tommy John surgery. He posted a 3.52 ERA along with the best strikeout and walk rates of his 12-year career. Lackey will earn $15.25 million in 2014. His injury triggered a club option for 2015 in which he earns just the major league minimum salary ($500,000), which effectively means a team that acquires him prior to the upcoming season would be paying him $8 million per season for two years of control.

Dempster was a complete bust for the Red Sox, having his worst season by defense-independent measures since an injury-plagued 2007. The 36-year-old finished with a 4.57 ERA, forcing the Sox to move him to the bullpen for the postseason. They owe him $13.25 million for the 2014 season. Compared to a year and a half ago, when the Rangers acquired him in a trade with the Cubs, Dempster doesn't have much value, but he is easily the most expendable.

Dexter Fowler, CF, Colorado Rockies
Despite a breakout 2012 season in which he posted a .300/.389/.474 line, Fowler has consistently been a 2-3 WAR player over the last three years. His defense has ranged from slightly below average to well below average, and he is a deceptively mediocre baserunner, successfully swiping bags at a meager 68 percent success rate in 2013. He strikes out a ton and, aside from a BABIP-fueled 2012, doesn't hit for average.

Furthermore, over the span of his career (2,635 plate appearances0, Fowler has been almost entirely been a product of Coors Field. At home, he has hit .298/.395/.485, a line comparable to that of Matt Holliday, as an example. On the road, he has hit .241/.333/.361, a line comparable to Yunel Escobar.

The Rockies will pay Fowler $7.85 million in 2014, and he is eligible for arbitration for his final year after the season. While the two years of control and the potential to lock him up with an extension are both attractive features, teams (except for the Phillies, perhaps) are smart enough to check home and road splits, evaluate defense, and notice his inefficiency on the bases. When the Rockies made Fowler available last offseason, they didn't get any bites for this exact reason. The Rockies will make him available again. It will be interesting to see if Dan O'Dowd adapts by significantly reducing his center fielder's price.

Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
OK, we get it: Other major leaguers are not currently members of the Alex Rodriguez fan club. As colleague Jim Bowden and others have put it, players feel Rodriguez stole money from them by cheating; he got money that would have otherwise gone to other players.

Three quick thoughts:

1. When Ryan Dempster purposely hit Rodriguez in the second inning -- and he did, of course, hit him on purpose and should have been ejected -- the Red Sox were up 2-0. A-Rod was leading off the inning. Dempster hasn't exactly been Pedro Martinez 2000 here with his performance in 2013. Why jeopardize a game -- a game you need to win since you're battling for first place -- by plunking Rodriguez to make a point? That hit by pitch started a two-run rally and arguably changed the complexion of the game. No matter how strongly the Red Sox felt about Rodriguez, it was a stupid, stupid decision.

2. Did Red Sox manager John Farrell know what was going to happen? According to WEEI, the Red Sox will option pitcher Rubby De La Rosa back to Triple-A before today's game. De La Rosa pitched an inning on Sunday but was a starter in the minors. Did the Red Sox keep him around an extra day in case Dempster got ejected early?

3. Considering the Red Sox have their own dubious history with PEDs, watch those stones you throw. The Red Sox are completely clean? Nobody on their team has used PEDs or is using them? Or has a prescription to Adderall or something ADHD drug when they don't really need it? If Red Sox players are unhappy that Rodriguez gets to play while his appeal is under way, they should remember that Rodriguez -- and every other player -- has negotiated that privilege. Players shouldn't forget all the years of labor unrest they fought for to acquire those rights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The U.S. will be heavy favorite to advance. To use another Olympic hockey analogy, the Americans are the Soviets. Do the Canadians have a miracle in store? I'll be watching to find out. After all, it's about time we settle this border war with Canada.

Red Sox haven't improved rotation enough

January, 5, 2013
The Boston Red Sox were baseball's most disappointing team in 2012, with the Miami Marlins finishing a close second. After finishing at 90-72 in 2011, the Sox added Kelly Shoppach, Nick Punto, Mark Melancon, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross before the season. They also added Marlon Byrd in April. However, with a 60-66 record on Aug. 25, they folded, sending Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Punto to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the biggest salary dump baseball had ever seen -- a tacit admission that they had made some poor decisions.

This offseason has seen the Sox sign a few hitters: David Ross, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino (and, potentially still, Mike Napoli). Their only addition to 2012's third-worst starting rotation in the American League -- in terms of ERA -- was Ryan Dempster, while Koji Uehara and Joel Hanrahan were added to the bullpen.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireJon Lester had a 3.33 ERA from 2008 through 2011, but that ballooned to 4.82 in 2012.
The 2013 rotation will include Jon Lester (4.82 ERA in 2012), Dempster (3.38; 5.09 in the American League with the Rangers), Clay Buchholz (4.56), Felix Doubront (4.86), and John Lackey (injured). They need help, and they need it badly, whether it's from adding a new arm via free agency or trade (at this point in the offseason, not much is left out there), or from improvement from the other four over last season.

For Sox fans, there may be good news: Lester and Doubront are expected to enjoy 2013 a lot more according to ERA estimators. ERA estimators such as xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) and SIERA (skill interactive earned run average) consider the factors a pitcher controls most -- strikeouts, walks and ground/fly balls -- to tell you what a pitcher's ERA should have been, which removes noise such as abnormal luck and extremely good or bad defense.

Lester's xFIP was 3.82 in 2012, exactly a full run lower than his ERA. I looked at pitchers who underperformed their xFIP by at least a full run going back to 2009. Twelve such pitchers were found; only three were worse the next year, while five improved by more than a full run. We would expect Lester to improve, but that doesn't mean there aren't concerns.

The lefty's strikeout rate has been in a three-year decline, from 27 percent in 2009 to 19 percent last year. More balls in play means more chances for hits and defensive miscues. To illustrate the difference, let's consider that last season, Lester faced 876 batters. The eight percent difference means 70 more balls put in play, and assuming his career average .301 BABIP, leads to 21 more hits. While ERA predictors take a pitcher's strikeout rate into account, Lester's decrease itself could signify a deeper issue.

As for Doubront, his first full season in 2012 featured some of the typical problems you'd expect of a player in his mid-20s in his inaugural run through the majors: too many walks and too many home runs. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings in 2012, Doubront's home run rate on a per-fly ball basis was the fifth-highest in baseball at nearly 16 percent (the league average is under 12 percent). His walk rate was the ninth-highest at 10 percent. Nevertheless, xFIP was more optimistic about his performance due to his prodigious ability to miss bats -- his 23 percent whiff rate ranked 21st out of 118 qualified starters.

While Lester and Doubront might regress towards their mean in a good way, and the addition of Dempster should help, the Sox shouldn't expect much from Buchholz and Lackey. Once viewed as a potential ace, Buchholz's profile leaves him as a bit of a Kyle Kendrick type: someone who is average in almost every possible way. And average isn't bad at the back of a rotation, but when you are praying for regression, you need more upside than one finds with Buchholz. Put another way, when you've just lost a big hand at poker and you're looking to win your money back, you're hoping for pocket kings, not pocket sixes.

As for Lackey, the veteran has had a tumultuous tenure with the Red Sox and will be entering 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery. While there is a track record of pitchers having success after TJ surgery, there are no guarantees, particularly for a 34-year-old such as Lackey. In 2011, his last full season, he posted a career-low strikeout rate (14.5 percent) and finished with a strikeout-to-walk ratio under two for the first time in his 10-year career. To expect anything better than replacement-level pitching from Lackey would be a fool's errand.

When you look at the Red Sox rotation in its entirety, you have two pitchers who you're hoping were only bitten by bad luck in 2012, a free agent who has only been slightly above-average in recent years, a youngster who may have already hit his ceiling, and a veteran surrounded by a thousand question marks. The Red Sox, who last year won fewer than 70 games for the first time since 1965 (excluding strike-shortened seasons), don't appear to have done enough to upgrade what was one of the worst starting rotations in the league.

Few choices remain in free agency, with most best categorized as veteran retreads, but there are a few that should catch Ben Cherington's eye: Shaun Marcum, Kyle Lohse and Jeff Karstens. Marcum is a bit of an injury risk as he suffered from elbow problems last year with the Milwaukee Brewers, but the upside is that he would fit in well around Lester at the top of the rotation. Lohse is a proven veteran who appears to have taken big strides in his last two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming incredibly stingy allowing walks. Karstens is an underrated right-hander, similar in many ways to Lohse, but would come at a much cheaper price.

If the Red Sox are done adding to their rotation between now and the start of the regular season, it doesn't appear like they will have nearly enough to compete with the restocked Toronto Blue Jays and the rest of the hyper-competitive AL East.

Why each team can win it all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Texas Rangers took over possession of first place in the American League West on April 9, the fourth game of the season. They held that position every day since then, all by themselves, 182 consecutive days.

Until now.

Now they're in danger of ... well, I don't know exactly what to label it. It's not a collapse like last year's Red Sox and Braves suffered; the Red Sox went 7-20 in September, the Braves 9-18. Those teams did fall apart.

The Rangers haven't exactly done that. They went 15-13 in September but have gone 0-2 in October and now they're tied for first place and have a winner-to-take all showdown Wednesday afternoon, Ryan Dempster taking on A.J. Griffin.

If momentum does exist in baseball -- and I'm in that group believes it doesn't -- then the A's certainly own it. They're riding this wave like Laird Hamilton on the north shore of Maui. Sure, it's not exactly a winner-take-all game, since the Rangers would still back into the wild-card game on Friday against the Orioles or Yankees.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
AP Photo/Ben MargotRon Washington's refusal to tinker much with his lineup is one reason for Texas' predicament.
But that's how it would feel: Backing in. And that's not the situation the Rangers expected to be in last Monday, when they beat the A's in the first game of a four-game series to take a 5-game lead with nine games left.

Look, the Rangers have won 93 games, but they're not this powerhouse we've sort of assumed they were all season, and not just because of injuries to their rotation. (I'm not diminishing the effect of those, but keep in the mind A's lost Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson at various points.)

Issue No. 1: Ron Washington's determination to stick with Michael Young. His artificially OK batting line of .277/.313/.370 masks that he just isn't very good. His OPS+ of 78 is higher than just four other AL qualifiers -- Mike Aviles, Alexei Ramirez, Yunel Escobar and Jemile Weeks. Those guys are all middle infielders; Young is the team's primary designated hitter. We get it; Young is a respected veteran making a lot of money who helped the Rangers reach the past two World Series. This is a case where the front office needed to step in and acquire a better player or tell Washington to give those at-bats to somebody else.

As we've seen these past two nights in Oakland, the Rangers aren't the same offensive juggernaut away from Arlington.

Home: .285/.347/.473
Road: .262/.321/.423 (before Tuesday's game)

Ian Kinsler may be the biggest culprit here. His dead-pull swing works great in the left-field launching pad in Texas, where he's hit .293 with 14 home runs. But on the road he's hit .223 with five home runs. Yet Washington continues to him leadoff because he's the leadoff hitter and Washington prefers a set lineup.

The front office also could have upgraded first base. Rangers first basemen (mostly Mitch Moreland) -- despite playing in a great hitter's park -- rank 12th in the AL in OBP, 12th in home runs and 12th in RBIs.

But mostly this is a reminder that pennants aren't won on paper. The Rangers had eight All-Stars this season; the A's just one. The Rangers signed Roy Oswalt and traded for Dempster. The A's called up more rookies.

The A's will start one of those rookies on Wednesday in Griffin. But when the Rangers dig in against him, they won't see a rookie: They'll see a rival.

Bryce Harper, Nats winning slugly

September, 6, 2012

“That really pops” is usually a phrase you’re more likely to see on Bravo than ESPN. But these days, it’s what you can say about the Nationals’ lineup, because for a second consecutive night, it put up another power display that might have made you wonder whether they’d really put away the batting cages.

There were six home runs hit off Nats bats Tuesday and then the six more they hit Wednesday. Checking with Baseball-Reference.com can tell you that a team has done that just twice before since 1918. The Dodgers did it June 29 and 30, 1996, in Denver, in Coors Field, pre-humidor -- although even that is not doing the trick at altitude so much anymore, a story for another night. And the other time? That was in 2003, by the Angels against the Expos in rinky-dink Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico. Two crazy parks where crazy stuff was supposed to happen.

The Nats have been their own kind of crazy, but it has had nothing to do with the dimensions of Nationals Park. Starting with the “now you see him, but soon you won’t” saga of Stephen Strasburg, they’ve been nothing but fun from Opening Day on, to Bryce Harper's lauded arrival and beyond. Want some sour grapes? You can keep sniping about Jayson Werth's paydays, although with an on-base percentage better than .400, he’s a 6-foot-6 leadoff man who delivers what’s needed instead of being a tower of power. A pitching staff whiffing 22 percent of opposing hitters, third best in the league? A lineup that ranks third in homers hit? Gio Gonzalez notches his 18th win Wednesday to keep pace with R.A. Dickey for the league lead? Gotta squeeze that in there somewhere, too.

Put all of that together, and the Nats have been as action-packed as any team in the league. And if you need off-field drama, how about a war of words between general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson? That’s the sort of thing that might make you wonder whether chemistry is just something you talk about when all the other stuff isn’t happening.

But it’s the power that deserves the headline right now. Perhaps the signature slugging feat in Wednesday’s cornucopia of clouts was Harper’s pair of home runs. Maybe that can help end worries that his second-half slump will be something he’ll have to carry into October. After a low-wattage July (during which he powered just one homer and had a .313 slugging percentage), followed by a fading walk rate in August but better bopping (six homers), Harper seems to be slowly asserting his ability to dominate at the plate. Before Wednesday, he’d been OPS’ing at a .999 clip since Aug. 17. You can parse any hot streak to make a man a statistical hero, of course, but ESPN Stats & Information provides a peek at where he’s been doing damage lately.

Bryce Harper heat mapESPN Stats & InformationBryce Harper's heat map during his recent hot streak.

That's a lot of red, of course, but it's also interesting that he's clobbering stuff on the outside corner as well. For more on that, check out Stats & Info's blog post from Wednesday night's action.

Harper hasn’t been the only hero, however. First baseman Adam LaRoche, so long the target of derisive “he’s so average” catcalls from the stathead community, combined for three across Tuesday and Wednesday nights. In a day and age when he was dismissed for not being Albert Pujols, he’s leading National League first basemen in home runs with 28, his highest single-season tally since 2006, when he belted 32 bombs and slugged .561. That helped him catch the eye of the Pirates, who dealt him for Mike Gonzalez and Brent Lillibridge, a lose-lose move that might turn up only in a never-to-be-released Braves documentary, "John Schuerholz: The Blunder Years." As a Pirate, Red Sox, Brave and Diamondback through 2010, LaRoche slugged .478, with a mediocre isolated slugging number of .208. But this year, he's the resident steady Eddie in the Nats’ lineup while coming back from an injury-ruined 2011. Even now, he’s managing to be a background hero on a power-laden lineup, but that’s a nice problem to have.

Now, admittedly, a good chunk of the Nats’ feat is just the genuine pleasure big league hitters will get stepping in against these Cubs these days. They’re on an 8-26 tumble since July 31, and this isn’t Wrigleyville’s midseason staff with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza or even Paul Maholm out there. Instead, it’s the legacy of former GM Jim Hendry’s player development program on display, as Theo Epstein’s management crew riffles through the farm system’s upper-level options in a pitch-or-ditch test to see what the team has to work with. The Nats aren’t going to be stepping in against Blake Parker or Chris Rusin or Rafael Dolis in October, after all.

Even so, the Nationals have a lineup packed with top-to-bottom power, and guess what? They get to face the Cubs again Thursday. Could a team hit six or more homers three nights in a row? As with so much else about this club, you can ask, “Why not the Nationals?” Look around and then look back, because on the baseball landscape, face it, the Nats just pop.

Roger BernadinaPatrick McDermott/Getty ImagesRoger Bernadina may well be coming back to the dugout asking who hasn't hit a home run lately.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
For all the hype about the trade deadline, the early returns haven't been good.
  • Ryan Dempster, Rangers: Has been pounded for 19 runs in 17.1 innings in three starts, including two starts with eight runs. He gave up eight-plus runs just three times in 154 starts with the Cubs.
  • Like Dempster, Anibal Sanchez was roughed up on Monday. He's 1-3 with a 7.97 ERA with the Tigers, having allowed 35 hits and 19 runs in 20.1 innings.
  • The Angels haven't won in Zack Greinke's three starts. He starts Tuesday night, coming off a five-walk game.
  • Hanley Ramirez had a .749 OPS with the Marlins. He has a .746 OPS with the Dodgers and just one home run in 18 games. He does have 18 RBIs.
  • Hunter Pence, who had been struggling when traded, has been terrible with the Giants, hitting .145/.172/.273.
  • Ichiro Suzuki has been a little better with the Yankees than with the Mariners, but a .701 OPS and .301 is hardly pushing the Yankees closer to a division title.
  • Jonathan Broxton has allowed four runs in four innings with the Reds, including a blown save and a loss in one appearance.

Not all the acquistions have been duds. Omar Infante (.304/.315/.478) has been a big upgrade at second base for the Tigers. Shane Victorino has done OK with the Dodgers (.277/.333/.426). Chris Johnson has slugged .602 and has 18 RBIs in 15 games for Arizona. The biggest acquisition may prove to be Paul Maholm. He was regarded as the third-best of the Cubs pitchers on the trade block (behind Dempster and Matt Garza, who wasn't dealt), but has been superb for the Braves, allowing three runs through his first two starts. Over his last eight starts, he's allowed eight runs. It's possible that Maholm could be this year's Doug Fister, the under-the-radar pickup that proves to be a better deal than the more glamorous names.

The most interesting results have been from Dempster, Sanchez and Greinke, who all moved from the National League to the American League. It's only 10 starts, so it's a small sample size, but they've combined for a 7.15 ERA. Is the change in the leagues that much of a factor? Probably not, but pitching in Texas or Yankee Stadium is certainly a different test than facing the Astros.

As always, the trade deadline can provide reinforcements to a contending team, but the hype it generates rarely matches the impact that many fans and front offices expect.
Tuesday's Baseball Today Podcast featured Eric Karabell, myself and a guy who loves to eat.

1. Adam Richman of "Man vs. Food" fame joined the podcast to discuss his new show, "Adam Richman's Best Sandwich in America," which made Eric very hungry and desiring something that includes pork. Adam also talks about rooting for the Yankees and his favorite ballpark foods.

2. Ryan Dempster and Anibal Sanchez both struggled. Zack Greinke has struggled. What do they all have in common?

3. We again invoke the name of Stephen Strasburg. But if he's shut down, are the Nationals still the team to beat?

4. Will Manny Machado help the chemistry in the Orioles' clubhouse? We attempt to discuss.

5. A preview of Tuesday's games, including a battle of Cy Young candidates in San Francisco.

Let's fast-forward a couple of months. Pretend you're Ron Washington, preparing for the first game of the Division Series.

Who do you start?

When the Texas Rangers invested more than $100 million to sign Yu Darvish, they had to believe Darvish could be that No. 1 postseason starter, even if Nolan Ryan downplayed the idea at the time. Let's be honest: You don't spend $100 million to sign a No. 3.

These days, Darvish is looking less like an ace and more like a No. 5. He had perhaps the worst start of his major league career on Monday night at Fenway Park, allowing 11 hits, 4 walks and 6 runs in throwing 123 pitches over 6.2 innings. The Red Sox banged him around for eight doubles in the 9-2 victory. According to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, Darvish is the first starter to give up eight doubles in a game since Curt Schilling allowed nine in a 2006 start for the Red Sox against the Royals in Kansas City. The only other pitcher since 1990 to allow that many doubles in a game was Jim Abbott, in 1994.

Even more frustrating for the Rangers is Darvish's continued inability to throw strikes on a consistent basis. He has walked four or more batters in 10 of his 21 starts and is tied for third in the majors with 74 walks. Remember, in Japan he was known for his great stuff and great control; he walked just 36 batters in 28 starts in 2011. You hate to bring up the Daisuke Matsuzaka comparisons, but like Dice-K, it seems Darvish is doing a lot of nibbling at the corners, afraid to challenge hitters inside.

Here are his heats maps on his fastball versus left-handed and right-handed batters:

Darvish HeatmapESPN.comYu Darvish has struggled to get batters out with his fastball from both sides of the plate.

His fastball has been an ineffective put-away pitch. In 117 plate appearances against left-handers ending with fastballs, Darvish has allowed a .376/.496/.613 line. (Compared to a .275/.404/.488 line in 99 PAs against righties.) To me, it appears he's not trusting the pitch enough.

Part of his issues could be that in Japan he basically started just once a week. Here is his 2011 game log; most of his starts were made with six days of rest, sometimes more. He started only once all season on four days of rest. That allowed him to run up some big pitch counts -- seven games of 130-plus pitches -- but he has carried a heavy workload for the Rangers as well while making 11 starts on four days of rest, as only Justin Verlander and James Shields have averaged more pitches per start.

In a playoff series, there's the added consideration that in second and third starts against an opponent, Darvish is 3-5 with a 6.45 ERA. It's a small sample size, of course, but it possibly suggests that hitters are adjusting to Darvish's stuff after seeing him the first time.

So if not Darvish, who would the Rangers turn to?


Right now, who would be the Rangers' No. 1 starter in the postseason?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,442)

Derek Holland had the great World Series start last season when he blanked the Cardinals for 8.1 innings, but he has a 5.17 ERA. In his past four starts, he has allowed six runs in three games while serving up nine home runs. And while we remember that Game 4 start, in his other three postseason starts he lasted a total of just 13.1 innings. Holland's strikeout and walk rates are essentially identical to his totals last season; the big difference has been his home run rate. Still, when the fastball is popping and he's keeping the ball down in the zone, he's the most dominant Texas starter.

Matt Harrison has certainly been the Rangers' most consistent starter, with a 3.17 ERA. If there's a cause to question Harrison's ace status, it's that he's not a big strikeout pitcher despite a solid 91- to 93-mph fastball. He relies on ground balls and that excellent infield defense provided by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler. There's the old cliche that October baseball is all about power pitching and it's perhaps worth noting that Washington didn't exactly trust Harrison to pitch deep into games last October, as he didn't pitch more than five innings in any of his four postseason starts. But it's also probably true that Washington has a lot more faith in Harrison this year.

Ryan Dempster just came over from the Cubs. In his first start with the Rangers, he was pounded for nine hits, two home runs and eight runs in 4.2 innings. Welcome to Arlington, Ryan. With the Cubs, Dempster has transformed into a command guy, as he has averaged just a tick better than 90 mph on his fastball. Will that play in the American League, especially in Arlington, where balls fly? And how will it play in a big game against, say, the Yankees?

Finally, there's Scott Feldman, currently on a string of three outstanding starts. When he's on, he keeps his sinker down, but if he gets it up, he's prone to giving up the long ones.

Maybe we're asking this question at the wrong time, when the Texas rotation looks a little shaky. The Rangers have allowed 61 runs over their past eight games and are just 13-16 over their past 29 games. There's also the Roy Oswalt drama that flared up with his demotion to the bullpen and Washington uncharacteristically calling out a player, saying Oswalt asked out of his latest relief appearance after two innings.

And you can also argue that this ace stuff is overrated. After all, the Rangers were one out away from winning the World Series last year even though their starters pitched at least six innings in just four of 17 playoff games.

Still, when you may be looking at Justin Verlander or CC Sabathia or David Price or Jered Weaver twice in a five-game series, an ace may be an important thing to have.

Rafael FurcalJeff Curry/US PresswireThe Cardinals' blowout win was cause for cartwheels from Rafael Furcal.

Kenny Williams never seems to get a lot of respect.

During his tenure as Chicago White Sox general manager, which began after the 2000 season, he's built two division winners, including the 2005 World Series champions. Maybe the most impressive aspect of his reign is that the White Sox are always competitive. They've been under .500 just three times, but two of those were 79-83. He's done this despite lacking the monster payrolls of teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies; despite only once having a pick better than 12th in the first round of the draft; despite never having a franchise superstar like Barry Bonds to build around or pitchers like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, like Brian Sabean has had with the Giants; despite a farm system -- in part because of ownership's unwillingness to spend in the draft and because of that lack of high picks -- that usually ranks near the bottom (Keith Law and Baseball America both ranked the White Sox system 30th heading into the season).

What I like about Williams is he never gives up. He's always trying to win, to build the best team he can given his resources. He never craters, never commits to a complete teardown and embarrassing on-field product, such as the one you're seeing from the Astros, Williams' 2005 World Series opponents.

This is why trading for Francisco Liriano is a typical Kenny Williams move -- high risk, perhaps mocked, but one with a potential nice payoff. Liriano's season numbers with the Twins look terrible -- 3-10, 5.31 ERA -- and his last start (against the White Sox, of all teams) was a rough, seven-run blowup. But after an awful April and temporary trip to the bullpen, Liriano pitched very well in a 10-start stint from May 30 though July 18, posting a 2.84 ERA with 77 strikeouts, 28 walks and 38 hits in 63.1 innings (a .171 average allowed). That stretch included back-to-back starts of 15 strikeouts and 10 strikeouts against the A's and Orioles on July 13 and 18, respectively.

In other words, there's a good chance Liriano will outpitch Zack Greinke the rest of the way, even though this trade will receive much less fanfare and required much less in prospect value: light-hitting infielder Eduardo Escobar and left-handed pitcher Pedro Hernandez.

In fact, despite the much-maligned farm system, the White Sox have received contributions from several rookies, most notably on the pitching staff with Jose Quintana, closer Addison Reed, and relievers Nate Jones and Hector Santiago. With Quintana still the big surprise in the rotation, Liriano presumably takes the place of Philip Humber, who did pitch well in a 5-2 victory over the Rangers on Saturday, but that strong start barely got his ERA under 6.00. With the hope that John Danks might return from his shoulder issues, the White Sox now have rotation depth and options in case of injury or if they want to conserve Chris Sale's innings.

The White Sox also have a lot to gain from a deal such as this; with a 2.5-game lead over the Tigers, winning the division title is obviously huge. There is a reason you're seeing teams contending for a division title making moves, while teams further back in the playoff chase -- such as the American League East wild-card contenders -- are more conservative. The reward for winning one of the two wild cards is essentially half as valuable as last season, with the one-game playoff plus the possibility that you've burned your best pitcher. But the payoff for the White Sox winning the division is worth taking a chance on Liriano.

As for the Rangers, they don't need to be as desperate as their division rival Angels, who gave up three good prospects to acquire Greinke. Yes, acquiring Greinke would have helped, but the Rangers have to ask: Do any of the other available pitchers make the team that much better? I agree with Jim Bowden: Probably not Insider.

The top three starters in a playoff series right now probably would be Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish and Derek Holland (who has had a disappointing season but lately has looked more like the pitcher who threw so well in the second half and postseason a year ago). The fourth spot might be open as Neftali Feliz rehabs, but among Feliz, Scott Feldman, Roy Oswalt and maybe even Alexi Ogando, the Rangers have options. Do you want to give up Mike Olt or another top prospect for what might be just a minor upgrade in Josh Johnson (having his worst statistical season and would be expensive to acquire) or Ryan Dempster (who is unlikely to approve a trade to Texas anyway)?

Plus, Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli are impending free agents, and there's no guarantee they'll be back, even though the Rangers have entered the upper echelon of payrolls. Maybe the Rangers will let one of those guys walk, spend some of that money elsewhere and give a starting position next season to Olt (with super prospect Jurickson Profar waiting in the wings).

The Rangers have options, but their best chance at holding off the Angels and surging A's might lie within: Namely, Hamilton and Michael Young finding their strokes. Hamilton was given a mental day off Saturday to clear his head. Since June 1, he's been one of the worst hitters in the league, batting .190 with a .274 on-base percentage. He's hitting .145 in July with 21 strikeouts in 19 games. Young is eating up at-bats at designated hitter and first base despite an empty .270 batting average. His OBP is less than .300, and he hasn't homered since May 7.

For all the talk of needing a starter, Young is a gigantic hole in the lineup right now. Kenny Williams filled one of his holes. We'll see whether Rangers GM Jon Daniels plugs his.

Chase UtleyDale Zanine/US PresswireAs quick as Chase Utley is to the ball, he's not so quick he'll beat the ball to first base.
With the non-waiver trade deadline quickly approaching, Keith Law and I talked about all the potential action ahead as well as numerous interesting prospects to highlight on Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast!

1. With Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson, a few Cubs and more on the market, which pitcher should be most in demand? And which teams need those pitchers?

2. Any trade rumor involving the Rangers seems to involve prospect Mike Olt. So who would we compare him to?

3. Things keep getting worse for the Blue Jays, but do they have any obligation to stop using a struggling pitcher like Ricky Romero?

4. Our emailers want to know about franchise contraction, the MVP award, the Twins’ future and more!

5. Thursday’s limited schedule is noteworthy for the likely big league debuts for Matt Harvey and Starling Marte. Who are these guys?

So download and listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast and have a great day!
With numerous trades to discuss and Power Rankings to reveal, Mark Simon and I gathered for Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast , and, yes, we also got a little bit ridiculous!

1. Mark likes the Ichiro Suzuki trade and I think he’s pretty much shot as a hitter. Who’s right? Can’t we both be right?

2. The Tigers clearly upgraded in their deal with the Marlins, but how much? And will they eventually miss Jacob Turner?

3. As for the Power Rankings, the hottest team in baseball didn’t find its way into either of our top 10s, which is a bit surprising. Who made it?

4. Our emailers wanted to discuss Yadier Molina as an MVP candidate, lineups containing all alphabet letters, candy bars, Yankees All-Stars and batters hitting their weight. Interesting day!

5. Tuesday’s schedule features the amazing R.A. Dickey but also a quality matchup in St. Louis, Oakland hits the road and is this it for Zack Greinke as a Brewer?

So download and listen to Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast because the word “done” can refer to a lot of things, but our fine show is thankfully not one of them.
We had lots of trade deadline questions and suggestions in this week's chat -- and some of the ideas were even reasonable. Anyway, Justin Upton's name came up a lot ... and Ryan Dempster ... and Matt Garza ... and Cole Hamels ... well, you get the idea.
With a Monday night full of injuries for us to discuss, a seemingly healthy Keith Law and myself were eager to discuss the greatest game on Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast !

1. Losing Joey Votto for a month shouldn’t cripple the Cincinnati Reds, especially if Todd Frazier can continue his performance. Just how good has Votto been?

2. Meanwhile, the news should be harsher for the Toronto Blue Jays concerning Jose Bautista. Who is youngster Anthony Gose and what does he bring to the table?

3. And finally, the Red Sox won a game but potentially lost Big Papi. We discuss the battle of the Sox and return of Kevin Youkilis.

4. Our emailers want to know about Ryan Dempster’s BABIP, testing strategic development in the minor leagues and draft compensation strategy, among other things.

5. Tuesday figures to be another big night in baseball, with Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia returning, Trevor Bauer facing a more legit offense and the "contending" Orioles trying to avoid allowing three touchdowns in Minnesota.

So download and listen to Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast and please, don’t pull a groin in the process. Stay healthy!