SweetSpot: Travis Hafner

It's time for NL to adopt the DH

April, 4, 2013
4/04/13
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So here we are: Two days from Ron Blomberg Day, the anniversary of baseball's partial adoption of an overdue innovation, the designated hitter. Forty years on, and we still have the two leagues playing by different rules. Imagine the NBA with one conference playing without the 3-point shot -- sounds silly, right? Well, that's what we've got for the time being, but we'll get to that.

As originally envisioned, the DH was supposed to be a role that kept great aging players -- identifiable brand names, even, like Hank Aaron or Harmon Killebrew or Rusty Staub -- in the game. Consider the impetus equal parts economic and offensive: The American League needed more runs, and baseball didn't want to lose stars to old age when they might still be able to hit.

[+] EnlargeRon Blomberg
Louis Requena/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesRon Blomberg was equally stiff afield, making him the perfect choice for baseball's first DH.
Forty years on, how are teams using the DH today? Not so much as the "golden years" power-and-profits mashup, that much is certain. Guys like Harold Baines or Edgar Martinez or Paul Molitor weren't gloried players in their golden years when they became full-time DHs, they were men who simply could not stay healthy playing the field. You could argue that they became more famous as DHs than they ever were beforehand. But even that has now changed.

Despite the obvious goal of using it to employ a guy who helps you put runs on the board, you might think teams aren't doing a great job of finding them. In the past 12 years, out of a possible 168 player-seasons for the guys we'll call full-time DHs -- say, those who spent at least 75 percent of their playing time in a given year batting as a DH -- there have been just 47 regular DH seasons worth a win or more via Baseball-Reference.com's Batting Runs stat. Nine of those belong to David Ortiz in Big Papi's 10 years with the Red Sox, which puts the rest of the American League at just a 23 percent return on getting even a modest win's worth of value out of their regular DHs. Beyond Ortiz, just three players have notched as many as five one-win seasons as a DH in the past dozen campaigns: Travis Hafner, the near-done Jim Thome and the long-since-retired Frank Thomas.

So taken in the aggregate, the DH today might seem like it's giving us more Blomberg than Baines. But I say this not to bury the designated hitter, but to praise it, because the contrast isn't between those very few -- and today, fewer still -- who deserve the epithet of "DH" and those who don't, it's between the travesty of letting pitchers hit versus the adaptive way that AL teams are using the DH to give us a better brand of baseball.

Simply put, American League teams aren't using the slot to just employ a full-time DH. Three players qualified for the batting title last year while playing as much as three-quarters of their games at DH -- Delmon Young of the Tigers, Billy Butler of the Royals and Kendrys Morales for the Angels. That tally isn't unusually low; in the last dozen seasons, on average just four guys qualified for the batting title while DHing 75 percent of the time.

Sure, there are plenty guys who are employed as a club's primary DH -- say, Adam Dunn with the White Sox. But that's the thing: Guys like that aren't just regular DHs for their teams. Witness that Dunn started 56 games at first base or in left for the White Sox last year. If anything, a team's DH is more like a guy doing what Chris Davis did for the Orioles, starting 38 games at first and another 39 in the outfield corners when he wasn't DHing. He was a moving part employed to provide power; sometimes that was as a DH, but that wasn't his sole role.

Cases like Dunn and Davis are examples of how the 12-man pitching staff forces teams to employ DHs who have to be ready to play the field as well. Almost gone are the days when the 1983 White Sox had to ask whether they could put the Bull, Greg Luzinski (138 DH starts, two at first base), in the field if they reached the World Series. Papi's the only guy we've had to worry about on that score any more.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsLet's celebrate David Ortiz, one of the last true regular DHs.
This isn't to say some players haven't lost job security to the larger pitching staffs of the present. Guys like Travis Ishikawa or Tony Gwynn Jr. don't have the same opportunities Greg Gross or Dave Bergman had back in the day. And while some of us might miss seeing guys like Bergman hanging around, it means that today's DH is generally forced to be more of a complete baseball player ... and not just a DH.

With year-round interleague play putting 10 games in National League parks on every AL team's schedule, that kind of flexibility is that much more important. That's what has Jim Leyland talking about putting Victor Martinez back behind the plate for a few games; it's that sort of flexibility that means the Tigers are the rare team that has three catchers, even in the age of the 12-man pitching staff. It's the sort of thing that allows the Twins using nominal regular DH Ryan Doumit as Joe Mauer's caddy behind the plate in the early going, at least when Doumit isn't snagging another 20 starts or so in the outfield corners.

Last year's Yankees were a good example of how a club can completely skip having anything like a regular DH. Without peeking, who do you think was the Yankees' most frequent DH in 2012? Who was their second-most-used DH? If you thought Raul Ibanez was either, you'd be wrong; he was third, with just 23 starts at the gloveless task. Joe Girardi's most frequent DHs were Alex Rodriguez (38 times) and Derek Jeter (25) -- the left side of his infield.

Which brings us to a major advantage that employing the DH gives the American League: In free agency. While AL teams must employ a ninth starting player on the payroll, they're not spending that money on the oldest players to play out the end of their careers, they're adding it to top-dollar offers to sign the best players on the market to long-term deals, knowing that they can rotate those guys in and out of the DH slot as needed later in their careers. Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder may never become an out-and-out full-time DH the way Ortiz is, but the AL teams taking the big-money risk know if a star player becomes fragile late in his career, they have the DH slot to protect him as well as their investment within. Having the DH even expands a team's options in terms of who they might draft, as Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow noted back in February.

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So enjoy the Papis and the Pronks while you can. Certainly, here's hoping we get to see Thome signed by somebody, not least so that he can pass Reggie Jackson for the all-time career strikeouts total -- Reggie only got there thanks to the DH, after all, and Thome will only be able to beat him because of it. But as things now stand, we stand to see less of their like, and more of teams rotating their position players through the slot, much as the A's are with their quintet of starting-quality outfielders, or the Angels with Mark Trumbo picking up Pujols or Josh Hamilton or Mike Trout.

So as multi-faceted and flexible as the DH has become, why do we still have the two leagues playing different brands of baseball? You probably know the checklist by heart.

There's the tradition argument, to leave things as they are because that's the way they've been. But really, how far does that go? Bud Selig added a third division per league, two wild cards, realignment and All-Star Games that "count." Tradition clearly ain't what it used to be, and to make a buck, the game is clearly more than happy to set it aside, just as it did in adding the DH to the AL in the first place.

Then there's the honest if incorrect conviction that the pitcher having to bat invites more strategy, though you'll see more elective bunting with position players in the AL than you do in the NL with the pitcher having to automatically bunt when he isn't whiffing almost 40 percent of the time. Me, I like to watch major league pitchers throwing to major league hitters, quality against quality, and let that drive strategy and tactics.

The DH gives us that, just as it gives us increasingly flexible definitions of what a DH is. It gives us one less way for pitchers to unnecessarily risk injury doing something most aren't even remotely good at. Considering the money shelled out to starters, you know that's a fairly massive incentive right there. And if National League owners want to avoid seeing the best free-agent hitters taking American League offers, you can bet they'll eventually come to terms with cashing in this element of tradition as well.

Here's hoping the NL sees the light before the 50th anniversary of Ron Blomberg Day. Here's hoping that we see the day when the DH isn't employed in just half of the games, but all of them.

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

OK, I'll give you Justin Verlander.

I'll even give you Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson.

But five through 25? I think I'll take the Cleveland Indians over the Detroit Tigers.

The Indians beat the Tigers 5-3 on Tuesday, even though Ubaldo Jimenez struggled once again with his control. Relief ace Chris Perez, who criticized Indians fans on Saturday for their lack of support (Cleveland is last in the majors in attendance), was greeted with a thunderous ovation as he came in out of the bullpen in the ninth inning. With two runners on, he struck out Cabrera and got Fielder to ground out.

Just another save. "That's the loudest I've ever been cheered here," Perez said. "I was pumped, the adrenaline was going. It could have gone the other way. I came through. I didn't know which way it was going to go. I was thankful it went the good way."

The good way pushed the Indians to 24-18. The Tigers are 20-22, and for the life of me I can't understand why everyone still thinks Detroit is the better team. Mind you, I'm not saying the Indians are better. I just don't see why the Tigers are better. Just because everyone picked them before the season?

Once you get past those big shiny names on the Tigers' roster, if you want to pinpoint one big difference between the two clubs, it's a little statistic that us sabermetric types love: the old base on balls. The Indians lead the American League with 188 walks, 25 more than any other team; the Tigers have 127 walks, ninth in the league. That patience will go a long ways toward giving Cleveland an offense capable of scoring as many runs as Detroit's (the Indians have outscored the Tigers by one run so far, 184 to 183).

In fact, when you go position by position, you'll see what I mean.

Catcher: Carlos Santana versus Alex Avila. So far, Avila has been unable to match 2011's .366 average on balls in play, the sixth-best average in the majors. Which means he's hitting like he did in 2010. Santana, meanwhile, is a walks machine who hit 27 home runs in 2011.

First base: Casey Kotchman versus Prince Fielder. Obvious edge to Fielder, of course. The most interesting thing about his start (.292/.354/.472) is his walk rate is down from 15.5 percent to 8.5 percent. Part of that is he was intentionally walked 32 times a year ago, just three this year.

Second base: Jason Kipnis versus Ramon Santiago/Ryan Raburn. Please. Big edge to Kipnis with Santiago and Raburn both hitting under .200. Will Detroit make a move here?

Third base: Jack Hannahan/Jose Lopez versus Miguel Cabrera. This may be the first and only time you'll see Jose Lopez mentioned in the same breath as Miguel Cabrera. So far, however, this edge has been minimal. Cabrera is hitting .304/.362/.488, Hannahan .287/.365/.436 but with better defense. According to Defensive Runs Saved, Cabrera has cost the Tigers four runs -- worst among third basemen (tied with Hanley Ramirez).

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera versus Jhonny Peralta. With the Indians preaching plate discipline, check out Cabrera: Last year, 44 walks and 119 strikeouts; this year, 18 walks and just 12 strikeouts. He's hitting .309 with an OBP over .400 but hasn't lost any power. In 2011, he swung at 31 percent of the pitches out of the strike but he has cut that down to 24 percent. Small differences can go a long way. Peralta was a big surprise for Detroit last season but hasn't matched the numbers in the plate or in the field.

Left field: Johnny Damon/Shelley Duncan versus Andy Dirks/Delmon Young. Damon has looked terrible. Dirks has looked great, but too early to evaluate this one.

Center field: Michael Brantley versus Austin Jackson. With his defense and hot start at the plate, Jackson has been as valuable as any player in the American League not named Josh Hamilton.

Right field: Shin-Soo Choo versus Brennan Boesch. This one isn't close and that's with Choo off to a middling start in the power department. Choo has a .391 OBP, Boesch a .271 OBP. Choo is a solid defender while Boesch is slow and lumbering. With his poor start at the plate and poor defense, Boesch has been one of the worst regular in baseball so far. Choo is an underrated asset and I love Manny Acta's decision to move him into the leadoff spot.

Designated hitter: Travis Hafner versus field. Cleveland's designated hitters have six homers and .370 OBP (fourth in the league). Detroit's DHs have one home run and a .238 OBP (13th in the league). Big, big edge to Pronk.

Rotation. With the best pitcher on the planet, Detroit's rotation has posted a 3.87 ERA; without the best pitcher on the planet, Cleveland's rotation has posted a 3.94 ERA. Both teams have played 42 games and Cleveland's starters have thrown 12 more innings. Moving forward, maybe you think Detroit's group will perform better. After all, Doug Fister missed some, Max Scherzer just struck out 15 in game (never mind that the Pirates have been an historic strikeout binge of late) and Rick Porcello will put it together one of these years, because everyone says so. Meanwhile, Ubaldo Jimenez can't throw strikes, Justin Masterson hasn't pitched as well as last year and Derek Lowe is doing it with smoke, mirrors and a deal with the devil. The one thing the Cleveland starters do is keep the ball in the park; they've allowed 20 home runs, second-fewest in the league. Look, maybe you think Scherzer will start pitching better; I'd say so will Masterson. Maybe you're a Porcello believer; I'm not, especially with that infield defense behind him. Lowe is a fluke? Well, let's see how Drew Smyly does as the scouting reports get around on him.

Bullpen. Neither pen has been stellar, as Cleveland's 4.16 ERA ranks 13th in the AL and Detroit's 4.76 ranks 14th. Cleveland's top guys, however, have been pretty solid -- Chris Perez is 14 of 15 in save opportunities while Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith and Nick Hagadone have pitched well. Detroit's top two of Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit, so dominant a year ago, have both struggled to throw strikes.

I said before the season that I believed the Tigers were drastically overrated. On the Baseball Today podcast late in spring training, I predicted Cleveland would win the division. Unfortunately, when ESPN.com published predictions a few days later, I changed my pick to Detroit. I bought into the hype.

I'm not buying any longer. This division is wide, wide open. (And I haven't even mentioned the White Sox!)

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Jose Altuve Troy Taormina/US PresswireDiminutive Astros infielder Jose Altuve isn't always so low to the ground.

Move of the Day: Choo leads off

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
9:45
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Not every move involves rosters: Some just involve putting your better assets to work. Case in point: Today’s lineup card for the Cleveland Indians, which featured Shin-Soo Choo batting leadoff, something Manny Acta started trying just yesterday.

Choo was followed by second baseman Jason Kipnis in his usual slot, then Asdrubal Cabrera, then Carlos Santana. If that sounds to you like every good Indians batter, stacked up in a row, you’d be right. But with Choo’s .362 OBP (pre-game) up front, it gave manager Manny Acta some big-inning potential, and when Minnesota's Jason Marquis got into trouble in the fifth, there was no easier out for him to get, and they cranked a trio of home runs before Ron Gardenhire could get him off the mound.

[+] EnlargeShin-Soo Choo
AP Photo/Jim MoneShin-Soo Choo homered as part of the Indians' fifth-inning barrage against Minnesota.
Admittedly, your best four up front is pretty much the definition of a short-sequence offense. But stacking all the good stuff up front is usually a better way to get a crooked number or two on the board, and then you can try to be cute with the assorted sidekicks in the bottom of the order: Jack Hannahan and Michael Brantley, Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon. Considering that it was a rare day off for Travis Hafner against a right-hander, though, that front-loaded lineup can at least go five deep, Choo to Kipnis to Cabrera to Pronk to Santana. That isn’t a bad place to start.

And while that back end might not be a good group, it’s worth remembering that the Indians aren’t married to any of them. Hannahan and Kotchman are defensive specialists who at the best of times get on base. But behind them, the Tribe has options: Lonnie Chisenhall’s slugging .562 at Columbus and ready to roll, while Matt LaPorta’s hammered 10 home runs as his teammate.

It’s the outfield where things aren’t happy. Damon’s utility as a source of OBP or power is now several seasons out of date, while Brantley’s marking time until he goes from ex-prospect to outright suspect and career fourth outfielder. And the Tribe doesn’t have a ready or ready-ish alternative in the upper levels among their outfielders; rather, they have the latest iteration of a story they’ve been putting children to sleep with for years: “Grady Sizemore will be back soon.” When your former center field star is the stuff of milk-carton legend, you know that you probably shouldn’t count on him as an in-season solution.

Which is what will make the weeks and months to come interesting to follow as far as the Tribe’s lineup cards are concerned. Will Brantley or Damon earn his keep? Will Sizemore actually return, and play well enough to consign one of the other two to the bench? Will Chisenhall or LaPorta get the call?

Or will Mark Shapiro simply deal for a corner bat worthy of the name before the end of July? Because that’s the thing that you can really wonder about: If you’re not getting offense out of first base or left field, that’s usually one of the easiest things to fix around the deadline, and without having to give away a top prospect. If Choo gets to be the Indians’ once and future leadoff man, then in addition to riding the benefits of that front-loaded lineup, you can stop excusing Damon or Brantley as guys who help at the top of the order, and start looking at how little they’re delivering on offense. Fix that, and the team the Tribe’s winning with now could be better still a deal later in August.

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


We drown in numbers and statistics these days, but here's one that sums up the crumbling state of the Boston Red Sox quite eloquently: Following Josh Beckett's implosion on Thursday night, Red Sox starters have now allowed five-plus runs in 14 starts; Nationals starters have done so once.

Here's another way. Fifty-three American League starting pitchers are qualified for the AL ERA title. Here's where Boston's five starters rank:

32. Jon Lester (4.29)
38. Daniel Bard (4.83)
46. Felix Doubront (5.29)
51. Josh Beckett (5.97)
53. Clay Buchholz (9.09)

OK, ERA can be a little misleading early in the season. Here's where those five guys rank among AL starters in strikeout/walk ratio:

27. Beckett
32. Doubront
41. Lester
48. Bard
51. Buchholz

The Red Sox are 12-19 for a lot of reasons: injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford and Andrew Bailey; a slow start from Adrian Gonzalez; a couple bullpen implosions; Bobby Valentine using outfielder Darnell McDonald to pitch in a tie game.

Those are all factors, but despite the injuries on offense, the Red Sox are still second in the AL in runs scored; the bullpen has five losses, but 14 teams have more; and Valentine is more lightning rod than explanation.

No, the responsibility rests with the starting rotation. Bard and Doubront have perhaps predictably been mediocre, but they've actually been improvements over Tim Wakefield and John Lackey, so the blame falls on the supposed big three of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz.

Beckett started in Fenway against Cleveland on Thursday, his first start since April 29 and first since the infamous "he cares more about golfing than pitching" story leaked to the media. Beckett actually had pitched pretty well since his five-homer disaster in his first start, posting a 2.93 ERA over his next four starts. While I'm happy to report that I didn't see any greasy fried chicken stains on his jersey, his evening was yet another May disaster for the Sox.

In the top of the second, with one run already in, Jack Hannahan hit a 2-2 changeup to right field for a two-out home run. Not surprisingly, the Fenway faithful let go with more than a few loud boos. In third inning, Jason Kipnis crushed a 3-2 cutter over the bullpen in right-center. After Asdrubal Cabrera singled, Beckett got ahead of Travis Hafner with two strikes but then threw four consecutive balls. Shin-Soo Choo doubled to right on a 2-0, four-seam fastball to score Cabrera. Michael Brantley fell behind two strikes, then lined a double into the gap in left-center on a 1-2 curveball, scoring two more runs and knocking Beckett from the bump in what would be an 8-3 Indians victory.

You can see the issues here: Even when he got ahead of batters, Beckett was unable to put them away. He used the whole tool box -- changeups, four-seamers, cutters, curveballs; the Indians hit them all. Six of the seven hits off Beckett went for extra bases.

I blurted out on Thursday's Baseball Today podcast that Beckett is the most overrated pitcher of the past decade. That's probably unfair to a pitcher who has been good for a lot of years, a guy who had dominant postseason runs in 2003 and 2007 in leading the Marlins and Red Sox to World Series titles. Those playoff performances did inflate his reputation a bit, as his regular-season performances haven't been consistently at that level. He has received Cy Young votes just twice in his career (finishing second in 2007 and ninth in 2011). He hasn't exactly been CC Sabathia when it comes to durability, reaching 200 innings just three times and never topping 215. With the Red Sox, he's had two seasons of ERAs over 5.00.

Maybe 2012 is going to be one of those down years; Red Sox fans who saw Beckett and Lester collapse down the stretch expected leadership from Beckett, not reports on his golf swing.

Speaking of Lester, what has happened to the dominant left-hander of a few seasons ago? In 2009, he averaged 10.0 strikeout per nine innings, but that figure has dipped to 6.0 this season. His walks are up more than one per nine innings since 2009. His velocity is still fine; as Curt Schilling has pointed out, his command isn't, with Lester especially struggling in pitching to the outside corner against right-handed batters. Going back to his final 11 starts of 2011, Lester has a 4.16 ERA and a poor strikeout/walk ratio of 86/50. The stuff is still there, but we're going on 18 starts now of mediocre pitching.

Buchholz is an even bigger disaster, the worst starter in the majors so far. Unable to get the ball down in the zone, Buchholz has been pounded like a punching bag. Opponents are hitting .343 and slugging .613 off him. Essentially, the average hitter against Buchholz is David Ortiz. The Red Sox can't afford to keep sending him out there; he probably has one more start before a demotion to Triple-A or stint on the disabled list is necessary.

Eric Karabell made a good argument on the podcast: the Red Sox were 14-17 a year ago and only a historical collapse prevented them from reaching the playoffs. They're only two games worse now, he would suggest, so rationally they're far from out of it. Eric could also point out that Detroit and Arizona were both 14-17 after 31 games a year ago and won 95 and 94 games, respectively.

Eric is right, of course. The Red Sox aren't dead.

But with a 1-8 record in May and a starting rotation in shambles, they certainly look it.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Ron GardenhireHannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDoes this look like the manager of the worst team in baseball? Yes it does.
It was another eventful chat session as we discussed Albert Pujols' homerless April and asked readers to project his final numbers. We discussed many things about the Minnesota Twins, gave a shout-out to the awesome Jose Altuve, tried to figure out what the Angels should do with Mark Trumbo, wondered who the first manager to be fired will be (yes, once we again Dusty Baker's name came up!), wondered how much bad defense has to do with the poor starts by Max Scherzer and Josh Johnson, wondered how much good defense is helping Jeremy Hellickson, debated the Nationals' attendance issues and pointed out that Pujols' slow start is stealing attention away from Jose Bautista's slow start. All that and more! Check out the transcript here.
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Alex Avila, Carlos Santana & Joe MauerUS PresswireWith Alex Avila, Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer, the AL Central is loaded at catcher.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The American League Central may have a reputation as baseball's skinflint division, but such is not the case: The White Sox, Twins and Tigers each had payrolls over $100 million in 2011 and ranked in the top 10 of highest-salaried ballclubs.

The problem was that two of those three teams didn't get much for their money. Considering the issues in Chicago and Minnesota, and the youth and unwillingness to spend big in Cleveland and Kansas City, Detroit will enter 2012 as the heavy favorite to win the division -- no matter what happens in the offseason. But even the Tigers are far from a sure thing and if the Indians can get good health from Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore in 2012, plus strong seasons from youngsters Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, their offense could be dramatically improved.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Here's a quick look at some action plans and items of interest for the five teams.

Detroit Tigers

1. Third base (Brandon Inge)

With Inge plummeting to a .197 average, Detroit's third-base production was among the worst in the majors. The team has already been linked to free agent Aramis Ramirez and trade discussions with Angels on Maicer Izturis. Both would be big upgrades over Inge, who still has one year remaining on his contract. The dark horse possibility: With Carlos Guillen ($13 million) and Magglio Ordonez ($10 million) off the books, the Tigers pursue Jose Reyes to fill their leadoff void, moving Jhonny Peralta to third base.

Likely solution: As much I love the Reyes idea, Ramirez to Detroit seems like a logical fit. The negatives are Ramirez's lack of range and Detroit's need for a little more athleticism in the lineup.



2. Middle relief

By the postseason, Jim Leyland was down to two relievers he trusted: Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit. Al Alburquerque had a strong rookie season out of nowhere and Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth provide rare power lefty arms, but Albuquerque and Schlereth still have trouble throwing strikes. The Tigers could go after a low-cost veteran like LaTroy Hawkins, Mike Gonzalez or Darren Oliver, or maybe make a trade pitch for White Sox lefty Matt Thornton, although it seems unlikely Chicago would trade Thornton to a division rival.

Likely solution: A veteran righty-hander, with the Tigers counting on improvement from Coke and Schlereth.

3. A left-handed bat.

The Tigers missed Brennan Boesch's stick in the playoffs, as Victor Martinez and the hobbled Alex Avila were the only threats from the left side (granted, Don Kelly hit a big home run). Boesch's return will help, but Detroit could use a lefty bat to help balance out the lineup.

Likely solution: Andy Dirks may given another shot at that third/fourth outfielder job after hitting .251/.296/.406 as a rookie. But what about Rockies left fielder Seth Smith, who is on the trade block? His career .518 slugging percentage against righties has been bolstered a bit by Coors Field, but he's a solid hitter who could platoon with Ryan Raburn in left, or allow Raburn to play some at second base.

Cleveland Indians

1. Find a left fielder who can hit.

Michael Brantley is a decent asset -- but as a center fielder. The plan to use Brantley as an everyday left fielder was never a great one to begin with, as he's never going to pop many balls over the fence. Brantley, Austin Kearns, Shelley Duncan and Travis Buck all started at least 20 games in left; Jared Head started six games there. As a group, Cleveland's left fielders hit a miserable .233 with seven home runs; only Baltimore and Minnesota received a lower OPS from their left fielders.

Likely solution: Signing Grady Sizemore doesn't necessarily push Brantley back to a starting role in left field. He's best used as a fourth outfielder and Sizemore insurance. Michael Cuddyer may end up getting priced out of Cleveland's range, so how former Twins teammate Jason Kubel? He can play left and step in as designated hitter when Travis Hafner suffers his inevitable breakdown.

2. Find at least one more starter.

Right now, the Indians can only count on Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez for their rotation. Carlos Carrasco is out for the season following Tommy John surgery, Fausto Carmona was terrible and even Josh Tomlin is a question mark after the league caught up to him in the second half (5.26 ERA).

Likely solution: Jeanmar Gomez has been roughed up in two stints in the majors (146 hits in 116 innings), but his Triple-A numbers were solid, if unspectacular. He'll be given another chance in spring training to battle David Huff for a rotation spot.

3. If not Matt LaPorta, who plays first base?

The big prospect acquired in the CC Sabathia deal, LaPorta just hasn't hit as expected, posting a .299 on-base percentage in 2011. The Indians seem ready to punt on LaPorta, who turns 27 in January so isn't even that young. Carlos Santana ended up playing a lot of first base down the stretch, but let's hope he's kept behind the plate, where his hitting value would be maximized.

Likely solution: If free agent Carlos Pena lowers his price, he's a possibility, and the Indians reportedly talked with Houston about Brett Wallace. I'm not sure Wallace is much of an upgrade over LaPorta, but at least he's younger. Casey Kotchman could fit nicely here as lower-cost alternative after posting a .378 OBP with Tampa. And hey, he's only two years older than LaPorta.

Chicago White Sox

1. What do you do with Adam Dunn and Alex Rios?

Dunn hit .159 with a .569 OPS. Rios hit .227 with a .613 OPS. Dunn was the least-valuable position player in baseball, according to Baseball-Reference.com, while Rios was seventh-worst. They made $24 million in 2011 and will make a combined $26 million in 2012. Both are signed through 2014.

Likely solution: General manager Kenny Williams will be busy during the winter meetings, perhaps shopping around guys like Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Matt Thornton, looking for some sort of backup plan to these two pieces of junk. The 40-man roster currently includes Alejandro De Aza, who probably deserves a chance to play somewhere after a nice run (if over his head) last season. Let's put it this way: he can produce an OPS higher than .613.

2. Third base (Brent Morel)

After struggling all season, hitting .250 with just two home runs and seven walks in 328 at-bats through August, Morel suddenly changed his approach in September, got more patient and swung for the fences. He hit just .224 the final month, but with eight home runs and 15 walks. Was it a legitimate improvement, or merely feasting off September tired arms and rookie call-ups?

Likely solution: Morel's hot September earns him another shot.

3. The new manager

This isn't so much an action plan, as a big question mark. Robin Ventura has no previous managerial experience, but the good sign for the White Sox is that respected pitching coach Don Cooper is still around to handle the pitching staff.

Likely solution: If Dunn and Rios stink it up again, it won't matter how well Ventura transitions into the job -- he'll be doomed.

Kansas City Royals

1. Fix the rotation

The Royals had a 4.82 ERA from their starters; only Baltimore was worse in the American League.

Likely solution: The Royals already made a move here, trading Melky Cabrera to the Giants for Jonathan Sanchez. The club also re-signed Bruce Chen. With the signing of Jonathan Broxton, and the emergence of rookie relievers Greg Holland, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins in 2011, fellow 2011 rookie Aaron Crow will be given a shot at the rotation. I have my doubts it will work: Crow walked 31 in 62 innings out of the bullpen and left-handed hitters tagged him for a .311 average and .538 slugging percentage. There's a reason he struggled in the minors as a starter in 2010 (5.73 ERA). He has a great arm, but won't be able to rely on his fastball/slider combo as a starter.

2. Second base (Chris Getz)

Royals second basemen posted a .301 OBP and .636 OPS (26th in the majors) in 2011.

Likely solution: Rookie Johnny Giavotella played the final two months there and hit .247 with a .649 OPS. He'll head into spring training as the favorite to win the job. He hit .338/.390/.481 at Triple-A, so the batting potential is there: Bill James projects him to hit .295/.342/.419.

3. Center field (empty -- Cabrera traded)

The Royals were smart to deal Cabrera after his career season.

Likely solution: Lorenzo Cain, acquired from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade, will finally get a chance to play after spending 2011 in Triple-A. Cain is old for a guy still considered a prospect -- he turns 26 in April -- so he should be a polished product by now. He showed some power for the first time in his career, hitting 16 home runs for Omaha while batting .312. He doesn't walk much, so won't be a star, but should come closing to matching Cabrera's 2011 production.

Minnesota Twins

1. The M & M boys

After 2011's train wreck -- the club's first 90-loss season since 2000 (and at 99 losses, the most the 1982 Twins lost 102) -- it seems pretty clear this team will be dead in the water again unless Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau get healthy and regain their All-Star status. But they also can't assume these guys are going to play 140-plus games.

Likely solution: Obviously, the Twins need a better backup plan for Mauer than giving .167-hitting Drew Butera 250 plate appearances. They already accomplished with the smart signing of Ryan Doumit to a one-year deal for $3 million. Doumit can catch or play right field, but his bat is good enough to warrant a regular place in the lineup even when he's not behind the plate. Of course, he's also been injury-prone throughout his career. Prospect Chris Parmalee, who impressed in a September call-up, gives the team a potentially decent backup option for Morneau as well.

2. Right field: Empty (Michael Cuddyer, free agent)

For all the attention Cuddyer is getting, let's remember that he's really just a complementary bat on a good team. Unfortunately, considering some of the other outfielders the Twins tried last season -- Rene Tosoni, Jason Repko, Trevor Plouffe -- you realize they had nobody in the upper levels of the system.

Likely solution: Doumit may factor into their plans here, but regardless, the Twins need another bat to play a corner or DH. Smith is a trade option and free agent Josh Willingham is another possibility.

3. Closer: Empty (Matt Capps and Joe Nathan, free agents)

Nathan signed with Texas while GM Terry Ryan recently told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that it's likely Capps could return.

Likely solution: Capps was terrible last year, allowing 10 home runs in 65.2 innings while striking out just 4.7 hitters per nine innings. Two years ago, he had a 5.80 ERA. I can't fathom why any team would want to make Capps its closer. Sadly, however, the rest of the Minnesota bullpen is nearly as uninspiring (as is the rotation, but I don't have room to get to them here), but Capps throws strikes and there's nothing the Twins love more than a pitcher who throws strikes (velocity are ability to miss bats don't seem to be a factor). There's no reason for this team to spend big money on one of the remaining free-agent closers, so it probably will be Capps or lefty Glen Perkins.

Realignment would bring back DH debate

November, 10, 2011
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Next week, the GM and owners’ meetings in Milwaukee will have a number of issues to address, but one of the ones I’m most intrigued by is the sale of the Houston Astros to Jim Crane. The deal is hung up on a few things, but perhaps the most interesting sticking point is the suggestion that the franchise is worth $50 million less if forced to be moved to the AL West.

The benefit of moving the Astros seems straightforward enough. It would end the unwieldy oddity of baseball’s split between the two leagues, ridding us of both the AL West’s short stack and Bud Selig’s old six-pack in the NL Central. It would also eliminate the stagy quality of interleague play. Instead of lining up interleague for weekends to get top turnout and then calling it a success, AL vs. NL on the schedule necessarily becomes a season-round phenomenon. Don’t be surprised when interleague attendance and ratings drop as these games get welcomed to cold, wet Aprils and irrelevant teams’ Septembers.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesOutside of David Ortiz, how many truly great designated hitters are out there?
There’s plenty to say about what the Astros’ move to the AL would involve, but right now I’m wondering about one element of it: Whether or not moving the Astros to the DH league from the classic-recipe circuit means it’s time to reopen the age-old Designated Hitter debate. If Jim Crane doesn’t want to employ a DH and doesn’t want to bring AL-brand baseball to Houston, maybe it’s time to pop the game’s hood and ask whether or not the DH is an artifact of the ’70s whose time has passed.

First, there’s the irony of the financial side of the proposition. At its foundation, the DH was founded as a money-maker. Across baseball’s long history, runs have reliably equaled attendance, and the American League wanted paying customers. If being forced to be in the DH league is part of what might arguably make the Astros less valuable, that’s a remarkable change within the industry. Admittedly, there are other factors to why Crane sees a move to the AL hurting franchise value, but work with me for a minute.

What if, instead of knocking down the Astros’ sticker price by $50 million, the owners instead tried to accommodate Crane and do away with the DH altogether? The owners can’t do such a thing unilaterally, of course -- they need the agreement of the union. But the new CBA is open and being negotiated at the moment, which means that this might be an item open for discussion. The 2012 season’s schedule is already set with the Astros in the NL, but realignment in 2013 could make for a convenient time to phase out the DH.

The argument from the players’ perspective for keeping the DH has always been about compensation -- in the abstract, they’re protecting the interests of 14 jobs open to well-paid veteran players. But who are today’s DHs? Not Jorge Posada, he just lost his gig in New York. And not Jim Thome -- he risked a move back to the NL. Are we really down to just David Ortiz as the lone example of a DH who lives up to the name? OK, there’s also Billy Butler in Kansas City.

A defense of the DH as a place where great hitters reside and get duly compensated would sound a lot better if we still had Frank Thomas or Edgar Martinez or Harold Baines playing. But we don’t get that; instead, we get the used-up husk of Hideki Matsui, and rest days for regulars. In the past 10 years just 10 players have accumulated more than a thousand plate appearances while DHing 50 percent or more of the time: Papi, Thome, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez, plus Travis Hafner, Jack Cust, Erubiel Durazo, Brad Fullmer, Mike Sweeney and Josh Phelps, or a lot of fine inheritors to the epic legacy of Ron Blomberg.

So other than the Indians’ long-standing regret for overpaying Pronk, maybe we’re back to this really being about David Ortiz’s job, and Butler’s, and perhaps Jesus Montero’s future. And on the other side, there’s a $50 million suggestion that the NL brand’s more valuable, with realignment and whatever goodies the owners might want to toss onto the scales to incentivize the players to get rid of the DH all hanging in the balance.

Not that I think this is likely. Slow news days encourage idle thought. And I’ll admit to a bit of sophistry here: I much prefer the DH and watching people who can hit to watching non-hitters flail away when they’re not just robotically surrendering outs in automatic sac bunt situations. Some call that strategy, but how much strategy can it be when that’s the default move? I like the DH because it keeps pitchers safe(r) from doing things that don’t involve pitching, and because it’s a handy way of letting position players take a break from the field while keeping their bat in the lineup. But I like baseball just fine either way.

The big-picture questions remain, though. If the Astros don’t want to be a DH team, and if being a DH-league franchise is seen as intrinsically less valuable, maybe it’s time to go over why Charlie Finley’s last good idea is still with us for reasons beyond “it’s good for Papi.”

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

Thome comes back to the Tribe

August, 26, 2011
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Realistically, Jim Thome arrives in Cleveland too late in the season (and about five years too late in his career) to rescue his former team. The Indians got off to a 30-15 start on the strength of superb starting pitching and some spirited late rallies, but that seems like an awfully long time ago. They’re now 6 1/2 games behind Detroit in the American League Central, with a lineup that’s been decimated by injuries, and their staff just yielded 29 runs in four games with Seattle. Barring a sudden turnaround in September, they’ve boarded an Acela train to oblivion.

But if you’re partial to closure and final scenes of heroes walking off into majestic sunsets, the Thome-Tribe reunion makes for a heck of a story.

As an added bonus to Cleveland sports fans, the acquisition of Thome from Minnesota on Thursday steals some attention from the city’s NFL team. While the Eagles were toying with Colt McCoy and the Browns in their preseason game, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti landed the guy who was supposed to be the cherry on top of the Philadelphia Phillies’ roster.

Thome’s final destination has been an intriguing, under-the-radar work in progress for the past month or two. Everybody knew that the Twins would hang on to him until he launched career home run No. 600. But once that milestone came and went on Aug. 15 and the Twins faded from the race, the only question was where he'd go.

Philadelphia was the most natural fit for Thome if he wanted to have one final postseason fling, but the complex mechanics of August waiver deals made a return to Citizens Bank Park virtually impossible. Thome had to pass through every American League club and then every NL team to reach Philadelphia. He still has some thunder in that bat and he’s owed a reasonable $600,000 the rest of the way, so there was no way he was going to slip all the way to the Phillies.

Ultimately, fate and time produced the best possible alternative. Thome waived his no-trade clause and landed back in his baseball home with the organization that drafted him in the 13th round in 1989. In Cleveland he eventually blossomed into one of the game’s most revered sluggers. He learned how to hit under the guidance of current Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, his mentor in the minors and in Cleveland, and they developed a baseball “bromance” of the first magnitude.

“I know him just like my son, really,” Manuel said recently in the aftermath of Thome’s 600th homer. “I spent that much time with him. He's very dedicated. Everything he's done, he's a credit to the game. His attitude is off the charts. He's totally genuine and totally legit.”

Regardless of what happens to this Indians team the rest of the way, Thome’s return gives Cleveland fans another chance to reflect on the glorious 1990s, when the city and its franchise provided a model for doing things the right way. The Indians made the playoffs six times in a seven-year span, sold out 455 straight games at Jacobs Field and came tantalizingly close to a title before losing to Atlanta in the 1995 World Series and then dropping a heartbreaker to the Marlins in 1997.

Thome never finished higher than sixth on an MVP ballot as an Indian. But he holds the franchise record with 334 homers, ranks third to Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle in career slugging at .567 and is third behind Tris Speaker and Shoeless Joe Jackson with a .414 on-base percentage.

In 2002, Thome said someone would have to “rip the uniform off my back” before he would leave Cleveland, then signed a six-year, $85 million deal with the Phillies as a free agent. The outcry wasn’t exactly LeBron James-esque, but some Indians fans found it impossible to forgive. As Cleveland Plain-Dealer columnist Bud Shaw recently observed, “In Cleveland, there's no statute of limitations on holding a grudge.”

A lot has changed over the past nine years. Roberto Alomar just entered the Hall of Fame. Ramirez torched his reputation by using performance-enhancing drugs. Sandy Alomar Jr. is Cleveland’s first-base coach, and Charles Nagy, the pitcher who surrendered the climactic hit to Edgar Renteria in the 1997 Series, is running Kirk Gibson’s pitching staff in Arizona. Jacobs Field became Progressive Field, and the Indians are no longer a hot ticket -- they rank 25th in the majors in attendance this season.

But management bought itself some goodwill Thursday by bringing back Thome. He’ll be a nice role model for Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis and the kids, and a serviceable bat to replace the injured Travis Hafner at designated hitter. If you believe all the recent tributes to Thome as baseball’s premier “man of the people,’’ the ushers and concessionaires in Cleveland have reason to be happy, too.

Jim Thome has come full circle, and it’s only fitting that he’ll wear an Indians cap on the field before it appears on his Hall of Fame plaque. One day soon, Thome is going to drive a ball into the seats and take a home run trot to the accompaniment of raucous cheers from some old friends. It will be a sight to behold.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Dan UgglaJerry Lai/US PresswireSome popups are just Uggla to run down, but this one lands for a Starlin Castro single.
We close the week of Baseball Today podcasts as Mark Simon and I discuss many matters of fun and importance , both on and off the diamond, including these:

1. Both New York shortstops are obviously in the news, and we clarify our opinions on each of them moving ahead, one toward history and another to a potentially lengthy absence.

2. There's a new Angel in the outfield, as baseball's top prospect has been summoned to the big leagues. We discuss his impact, if any, and also run through the all-fish team. Corny? Eh, what else did you expect from us?

3. From Shane Victorino to Joel Hanrahan and who closes for the American League next week, we continue with our All-Star coverage.

4. Travis Hafner's memorable blast sent the Indians to an improbable victory … and I loved every minute of it.

5. Braves-Phillies might be the signature series in baseball this weekend, but it's not the only one to watch. I'm keeping my eye out in Cali for what the Seattle Mariners do.

Plus: Excellent emails, All-Star Game intentional walks, the most effective strikeout pitches -- not pitchers -- in the game, some ridiculous questions and so much more on Friday's Baseball Today podcast. Check out all the podcasts at the podcenter!
Grady SizemoreAP Photo/Mark DuncanGrady Sizemore's return has provided a big boost -- offensively and defensively.
The Cleveland Indians were quiet this past offseason. No sexy free-agent signings, no wheeling and dealing. When I arrived to Indians camp in spring training, I spent considerable time with rookie GM Chris Antonetti and second-year manager Manny Acta. Both were convinced that if everything went as planned the Indians could contend as early as this season -- even though this was a team that hadn’t had a winning record since 2007 and had lost 93 games in 2010 and 97 in 2009. Contending? Really? How?

Antonetti, one of the youngest and brightest GMs in baseball, broke it down this way for me on that hot Arizona March day: "To contend we need the following to happen: (1) We need our key players to get healthy, specifically Grady Sizemore, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and Travis Hafner; (2) We need our other young players on the roster to continue their development with meaningful contributions on the field. This list of players includes Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Chris Perez, Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta and our young bullpen arms; (3) We need our veterans to contribute and provide leadership on the field and in the clubhouse, including Orlando Cabrera, Sizemore and Hafner."

Check, check and check, Mr. Antonetti.

This Indians team is not only contending but has the best record in the American League. Are they for real? Yes, they’re for real. I’m not saying they’re going to win the division, but what I am saying is that if they stay healthy, this team will contend into September and should win more games than they lose. The main reason this team is for real is the pitching and defense. The starting pitching is solid, the bullpen underrated and the infield defense is the best the Indians have seen since Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel and Travis Fryman played together.

[+] EnlargeJosh Tomlin
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJosh Tomlin is 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP through six starts this season.
The starting rotation is led by Fausto Carmona, who won 13 games last year and is capable of winning 13-16 again this season. Masterson, one of the pitchers acquired in the Victor Martinez trade with Boston, is emerging as a solid No. 2 behind Carmona. Masterson has great size and stuff. His four-seam fastball goes up to 97 mph while the two-seamer sits between 89-94. He mixes in a slider and change from a deceptive lower arm angle and has great downward bite. His command in the lower part of the strike zone has improved due to the fact he solidified his delivery. Most importantly, Masterson continues to develop the understanding of how to best utilize his stuff to attack left-handed hitters, a weakness throughout his career. Masterson has quickly become one of the better pitchers in the league, starting 5-0 with a 2.11 ERA.

Carrasco just spent time on the DL for the first time in his career, but the Indians are not concerned as he is set to return to the rotation this week. In my discussions with Shin-Soo Choo, Santana and Acta, they raved about Carrasco’s potential. They think he’ll develop into a 15-game winner. That brings us to Josh Tomlin, who wins everywhere he goes. His minor league career record is 54-21 and his major league career record is 10-5, including 4-1 this year. Here is Antonetti’s scouting report on Tomlin that he gave me this week: "Great competitor. Won’t beat himself. Pounds the zone. Good four-pitch mix. Understands how to pitch and get hitters out." No argument from me. He might not chalk up a lot of strikeouts each night, but he’ll get the groundballs and get the outs to win games.

That brings us to the infield defense. When you have a rotation that pounds the lower part of the strike zone, but doesn’t always miss bats, then you better catch the ball in the infield with range. This infield catches the ball with range. Jack Hannahan, the journeyman infielder, has done a tremendous job defensively at third base, catching everything with soft hands and an accurate arm. Asdrubal Cabrera is quickly becoming one of the best all-around shortstops in the American league, a very good offensive and defensive shortstop with power, quick hands and feet and a strong arm from the hole. He also has great baseball instincts. He exchanges the ball from glove to release as quickly as anyone. Orlando Cabrera was the one major free-agent signed by Antonetti this offseason and here’s his assessment of Cabrera: "He has made an impact both on the field and in the clubhouse. He has great baseball intelligence and understands what it takes to win." In fact, it seems wherever Cabrera goes his teams win (see: Reds, Twins, Red Sox).

Behind the plate Santana has helped lead the Indians' staff to the third-best ERA in the AL. He has well above-average arm strength and eventually will be able to stop the running game when he gets more experience. He’s off to a slow start with the bat, but he can hit and hit with power from both sides of the plate. He’s a legit future All-Star.

The outfield defense matches the infield defense. Choo is one of the best right fielders in baseball. He gets great jumps, angles on balls and has a strong arm. He can also hit and hit with power. Sizemore is back diving for baseballs and Brantley covers everything in left field like a center fielder. Not a lot of balls are going to be falling in the the gaps at Progressive Field this summer.

The Indians' starting pitchers are pitching deep into games, their offense has put up quality at-bats and has manufactured runs in a variety of ways, thanks to the shrewd managing of Acta, and the bullpen has done a great job of closing games when they get leads as closer Chris Perez has saved 10 of 11 opportunities while Tony Sipp, Vinnie Pestano and Rafael Perez all have ERAs under 2 setting him up.

Remember, this first-place team is doing it without much production from the heart of the order as Choo and Santana have struggled to get past the Mendoza line and top hitting prospect Lonnie Chisenhall is in the minor leagues getting additional seasoning. But we all know that will change, and all three will be productive offensive weapons by season's end.

Hafner and Sizemore are competing for the Comeback Player of the Year Award. Hafner’s shoulder is finally healthy and according to Acta, that allowed him to weight train for the first time in years in the offseason. The result is that Hafner’s bat speed is back, as shown by his .347 average and .932 OPS.

The farm system is also about to add another wave of young talented players as well. Rookie starter Alex White made his debut recently with a win, Nick Hagadone and Drew Pomeranz aren’t far behind ( not to mention Jason Knapp, Zach Putnam and Bryce Stowell) and Chisenhall will probably be taking over third base by the middle of this summer. Chisenhall has a chance to be a .290-to-.300 hitter in the big leagues with 15-20 home runs and 40 doubles. He can really hit and is adequate and improving defensively at third base.

Acta is not only one of the best-dressed managers, but he’s also quickly becoming one of the most respected young skippers in the game. He’s done a phenomenal job in developing the Indians' young arms the last two years and his ability to communicate and motivate are special.

The Indians -- if they stay healthy -- are for real and should produce a summer of winning and continued improved parity in the American League Central.

Thanks for reading and as always I appreciate your comments and feedback. Follow me on Twitter @JimBowdenESPNxm and feel free to send me ideas for future blogs.
Russell Martin and Lance BerkmanGetty ImagesA change of scenery has done wonders for Russell Martin and Lance Berkman.
One of the great storylines of the 2011 season has been the comeback stories across both leagues. Often called "reclamation projects" when they are signed, these comeback players can make a general manager look brilliant if they succeed.

Comeback players can return to success for myriad reasons, including but not limited to: finally getting healthy; mechanical adjustments; a change of scenery; a weightlifting or conditioning program; getting a second chance from off-field problems; taking a year off and wanting to come back; or even improvements in their personal life like a marriage or birth of a child.

When a general manager signs a player with the intent of him becoming a Comeback Player of the Year candidate, he normally has a reason behind it. Here are some of those guys, plus a couple who didn't change organizations.

1. Lance Berkman, St. Louis Cardinals

Berkman had spent his entire career with the Astros, averaging 30 home runs, 110 RBIs and a .410 on-base percentage over a 12-year career as one of baseball’s top OPS guys. However, at 34 years old, he saw it all crumbling down last season, in which he hit just .245 with 13 HRs and 49 RBIs before being traded to the Yankees. Once he arrived with the Yankees it got worse, as he finished the year batting .255 with just one home run in 106 at-bats. His lower half looked old. His legs were slow. His bat was slow. His torque in the middle wasn't the same. He looked finished. He was embarrassed. He also did something about it. Ed Wade, his former GM in Houston, told me this past winter that he ran into Berkman in the Houston area and he had lost 15-20 pounds and looked to be in great shape. He was excited about being able to return to right field with the Cardinals -- a position he hadn’t played in over four years. His hard work in the offseason has paid off early this season, as he’s hitting .390 with nine HRs and 27 RBIs. In the case of Berkman, the reasons he has been able to make a successful comeback can probably be attributed to conditioning, weight training, change of scenery and the wake-up call that he appeared not only in decline but possibly near the end of his career. Whatever the reason, he’s back, and Cardinals GM John Mozeliak is no longer answering questions about why he signed Berkman to a one-year, $8 million deal. By the way, Berkman also has looked impressive in the field, getting good jumps on balls and covering enough ground to be called close to an average defender.

2. Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

The Royals have taken a lot of flak for drafting Gordon ahead of such players as Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki and Jay Bruce, and rightfully so. However, Gordon was always a talented player and most clubs had him in the top five that year. Gordon has had to overcome injuries, positional changes (3B, 1B and now finally a home in LF) and mechanical changes. More importantly, he had to overcome being rushed to the major leagues before he was ready. He really struggled with major league pitching, leaving a lot of evaluators scratching their heads. However, he made a mechanical change this spring that allowed his hands to start further back and higher, giving him the ability to let the ball travel further, and that has put him back on the map as one of the top, young, potential left-handed power hitters in the game. Gordon presently has an OPS of .900 with 20 RBIs.

3. Aaron Harang, San Diego Padres

Harang won 16 games for the Cincinnati Reds in 2006 and 2007 and was considered the ace of the staff. However, after three years of averaging six wins per season, the Reds let him go via free agency at the end of last season. Jed Hoyer, the GM of Padres, took a chance on Harang on the recommendation of pitching coach Darren Balsley, and it has paid off. Harang told me that Balsley changed his leg kick back to where it was in '06 and '07 and changed the timing of his hands splitting. The results added velocity, a crisper breaking ball, a much-improved WHIP and two wins away from Petco Park.

[+] EnlargeAlfonso Soriano
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAlfonso Soriano has been one of the few bright spots so far for the Cubs.
4. Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs

Last summer, Cubs GM and then-manager Lou Piniella told me Soriano will never be the player he was in Washington. Because of bad knees, Soriano hasn’t hit 30 home runs since 2007, when he hit 33 in his first year with the Cubs. But 2011 is a new season, and Soriano, after spending the winter working on his legs, knees and lower half, is back. He has an NL-leading 11 home runs and is presently on pace to hit more than the 46 home runs he hit for me in Washington back in 2006. Amazing what happens when a talented player gets healthy again. Another good comeback story.

5. Bartolo Colon, New York Yankees

This one’s the hardest one for me to believe. Colon is throwing a 92-96 mph fastball, painting the corners and keeping it down or elevating when needed with a good breaking ball. This can’t be happening, can it? I feel like Michael J. Fox is going to soon tell me we are back to the past. Colon won 21 games in 2005 for the Angels. He won a total of 14 games over the next four years ... four years! The great Branch Rickey once said, "If you see it once, you can see it again." Colon is 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA but giving the Yankees important innings in the rotation. The key will be how long can he maintain this; how long can he maintain velocity; how long can he maintain command? A phenomenal story.

6. Travis Hafner, Cleveland Indians

Hafner’s shoulders have been so bad that he hasn't been able to do any offseason weightlifting the past few years. However, this offseason was different. With better health on his side, Hafner worked hard in building up strength and flexibility. The result has been outstanding, as his bat speed is back and so is the thump in his bat. His sweet spot contact is loud again, and his face is smiling. And it should be after starting this season with a .404 OBP, including four home runs. Hafner is presently nursing a sore right foot but fortunately is not heading to the disabled list, according to Indians manager Manny Acta.

7. Russell Martin, New York Yankees

I watched Martin closely the last two years with the Dodgers. He showed no power in games and no power in BP, and questions about the health of his hip and knees never ceased. When the Dodgers decided to non-tender Martin, it wasn’t met with surprise, but rather with understanding. Remember, he hit five home runs in 2010 and seven in 2009. When Yankees GM Brian Cashman signed Martin, he took a lot of criticism. With Jorge Posada, Jesus Montero and Austin Romine, the signing didn’t appear to make sense. However, Cashman is now looking brilliant. Martin already has six home runs and 20 RBIs to go with a .939 OPS and has done an admirable job of calling a game and stopping the running from a defensive standpoint. He is clearly one of the better free-agent bargains of 2011, and the Red Sox and Dodgers should be kicking themselves for not pursuing him more aggressively. This comeback story has as much to do with a change of scenery as health, but both have played a major factor.

Comeback players can make an impact on pennant races and they already have this year for teams such as the Yankees (Colon, Martin and Eric Chavez) and Indians (Grady Sizemore and Hafner).

You can follow me on Twitter @JimBowdenESPNxm, and I look forward to your input, feedback and ideas. Thanks for reading.
I filled in on Friday's Baseball Today podcast for Eric, hosting with Friday regular Mark Simon. Let's just say it's not every podcast that references Lenny Sakata, the Corn Palace in South Dakota and Travis Hafner's hometown. We also discuss:
  • Joe Mauer heads to the DL, culminating a bad day for the Twins.
  • Troy Tulowitzki is on fire. Is he the one guy you'd start a team with right now?
  • Instant replay: Pros and cons to expanding its role.
  • Adrian Gonzalez's big, new contract. How does it affect Albert Pujols?
  • Cliff Lee's great game and an interesting comparison with Sandy Koufax.
  • Simon says: Correcting an error on Jason Varitek and Roger Maris, best players from North and South Dakota.
  • Mailbag, a look ahead to the best of the weekend, birthdays and Jackie Robinson Day.

Expect better Indians infield defense in '11

February, 26, 2011
2/26/11
10:26
AM ET
If I were to tell the story of the Cleveland Indians' 2010 season, I would probably start with the three-run error.

[+] EnlargeJhonny Peralta
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireCleveland won't miss the defensive mishaps of former third baseman Jhonny Peralta.
Every team makes errors. It's unreasonable to expect any team to make it through a season defensively unscathed. The very best Gold Glove-winning infielders make errors.

This was not one of those errors.

Tribe fans were excited to start the season with perceived defensive whiz Asdrubal Cabrera at short: He had played well at both middle infield positions in 2009, and was considered a sizable defensive upgrade to the rather plodding, spherically-headed Jhonny Peralta. Peralta slid over to third, a position that could potentially hide his below-average range while still taking advantage of his strong arm. His slow first step was not seen as an asset of comparable size.

When you think about a three-run error, you think about a diving outfielder and a ball rolling to the wall. You might think of Jose Canseco's innovative cranial fielding technique, or perhaps a marauding band of highly agitated Pennsylvania Outfield Badgers. But the outfield is involved in some way, no?

No.

With the bases loaded, the Tigers' hitter bounced a ball to Peralta's left, which he managed to knock down with a grace normally accompanied by an eyeless Muppet singing, "Bork, bork, bork!"

Thousands of Cleveland fans momentarily lost consciousness as they forgot to breathe while giving Peralta the telepathic signal not to rush the throw.

In my experience as a Cleveland fan, the Cleveland Fan Long-Distance Telepathic Network needs work.

Peralta's throw to ersatz first baseman Andy Marte was … look, it was not a good throw. Not many first basemen would have caught that throw. My point is, not many first basemen would have approached the play as Marte did, either, which is to say, to stand like a grandfather clock and … again, I cannot tell you what Marte's thought process was here, but it appeared to combine equal parts Zen, terror, and petit mal seizure. The ball rolled away. Detroit's baserunners continued to run. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, roughly 19 times the distance from the ball, ran toward the ball. The sun changed position perceptibly in the sky. Detroit baserunners continued to run.

Did I mention that Cleveland lost by three runs?

After Peralta was traded, which was after he broke Cabrera's arm in a collision, Cleveland fans were "treated" to the sight of Jason Donald playing short and waiver pickup Jayson Nix sliding from his natural position of second to third. As a shortstop, Donald is a perfectly adequate second baseman. As a third baseman, Nix is a perfectly adequate second baseman.

If the Indians face a lineup of Adam Dunn, Jim Thome, Ryan Howard and Travis Hafner, their innovative three-second-basemen defense will serve them well. Until this team is constructed, they will still require someone to stand closer to third base than any other player. Right now, this is likely Nix. Or Donald. Possibly Luis Valbuena, a man who is not quite as good as Donald, or Nix, or a sack of iguanas.

Compounding this is the fact that the two best Cleveland starting pitchers are groundball pitchers Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson.

Other amusing anecdotes from the 2010 infield include the walk-off bunt, the four-wild-pitch opener (as least partly due to rookie catcher Tofu Lou Marson's inexperience with Jake Westbrook's sinker), the walk-off wild pitch, and the game with six infield hits.

Is there room for hope here? Of course. For one thing, the Indians are placing an increased emphasis on infield defense this season. They recognize the issue. But plenty of potential improvement can come from simple experience: Marson became much more accomplished behind the plate over the season and has a terrific arm. Nix and Donald will likely play better just by virtue of repetition. A healthy Matt LaPorta, if such a thing actually exists in non-theoretical space, should be fine at first. And the future of the Cleveland infield is probably Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, and possibly Cord Phelps, although none of them is ready to open 2011 with the Tribe.

The offensive contributions of these players (besides LaPorta) are almost irrelevant: The Indians did a decent job of scoring runs in 2010 and will likely do so again. A full season of Carlos Santana, any contribution better than what Grady Sizemore was able to struggle through, and a fully-recovered Cabrera will go a long way toward boosting the offense.

In Cleveland, the watchword is "infield defense." It will be better in 2011 … axiomatically.

Steve Buffum writes The B-List, a blog about the Cleveland Indians.

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