SweetSpot: Travis Wood

Is there a more up-and-down team this year than the Cleveland Indians? They started 5-10, but from April 28 through May 20 they went 18-4 to climb into first place. That was followed by seven losses in eight games and then an eight-game losing streak that dropped them three games under .500. Now they've won nine of 12 after beating the Orioles 5-2 on Monday night.

The Indians are an interesting team in that they have a deep lineup but no obvious star; part-time outfielder Ryan Raburn is the only player slugging above .500. Justin Masterson has been their best starter, but he ranks just 15th in the American League in ERA. He's probably their most likely All-Star representative with his 9-5 record. However, the Indians have two other players who are worthy of All-Star consideration but are unlikely to find a spot on the roster.

The first is catcher Carlos Santana. With all the attention given this offseason to signing free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds, Santana still feels like the fulcrum of the Cleveland offense. He's hitting .276/.385/.476 and is seventh in the AL in on-base percentage, thanks to 43 walks (ranking behind only Miguel Cabrera's 47). Santana's defense takes a lot of knocks; he's started 11 games at first base and 13 at DH as Terry Francona keeps his bat in the lineup, and his caught-stealing percentage has dropped off dramatically this year, from a respectable 26 percent in 2012 (league average was 25 percent) to 12 percent. The Indians lead the league in wild pitches, and considering backup catcher Yan Gomes has thrown out nine of 16 base stealers, Santana might see even more time away from catcher in the second half.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Carlos Santana
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Santana's defensive reputation could keep him off of the All-Star team.
It's that defensive reputation that will likley keep him off the All-Star team. Joe Mauer looks like he'll be voted in as the starter and Matt Wieters will probably get the backup nod via the players' ballot. If there's a third catcher chosen it's more likely to be Jason Castro as the Astros' representative.

Jason Kipnis is quietly having a solid season as well. Compare these batting lines:

Kipnis: .282/.360/.486
Robinson Cano: .276/.354/.497
Dustin Pedroia: .311/.394/.418

Kipnis has nine home runs to Cano's 16, but has more extra-base hits, 32 to 31. He's stolen 17 of 22 bases. Kipnis had a solid first full season last year (4.0 WAR), but you'll remember that he started off red hot before fading. This year, he hit just .200 in April, but then blasted seven home runs in May and is hitting .392 in June. Cano and Pedroia are probably All-Star locks, but if the AL can find room for a third second baseman, Kipnis deserves consideration.

Here are other players flying under the radar who deserve All-Star consideration but have little chance of making a squad. (And here's a piece from Tommy Rancel arguing the case for a few middle relievers to make it.)

Kyle Seager, Mariners
In a league with Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre and Josh Donaldson at third base, Seager has no shot of making the All-Star Game, but he's quietly developed into the best position player on the Mariners. His WAR ranks 19th among AL position players on Baseball-Reference (2.2) and 11th on FanGraphs (2.7), ahead of Beltre on both sites. With 22 doubles and nine home runs, Seager sprays line drives all over the field, and has put up solid numbers despite playing in Seattle; seven of his nine home runs have come on the road.

James Shields, Royals
The 2-6 record means Shields can enjoy some hunting and fishing over the All-Star break, but the move from Tampa to Kansas City hasn't cut into his effectiveness. With a 2.92 ERA and league-leading 111 innings, he's been exactly what the Royals desired: a staff leader and a staff ace. Amazingly, Shields is winless (0-4) in his last 10 starts despite allowing only 23 runs. That doesn't mean he hasn't helped the Royals win, however; he has five straight no-decisions but the Royals won all five games.

Brett Gardner, Yankees
Adam Jones, Mike Trout and Nick Markakis lead the fan balloting in what is a lackluster year for AL outfielders. Despite playing for the Yankees, Gardner isn't in the top 15. After missing most of last season, Gardner has returned with more power; he has 28 extra-base hits, nearly equal the 34 he had during all of 2011. But what really ramps up his value is excellent defense in center field. In a game that matters, Gardner could be a late-inning defensive replacement, pinch runner or pinch hitter who will grind out an at-bat. You know, if managers actually played to win instead of just getting everyone into the game.

Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
Carpenter doesn't just lead NL second basemen in WAR -- he leads most NL position players in WAR. He's 10th on B-R and fifth on FanGraphs thanks to a .403 OBP and smooth transition defensively from third base. Brandon Phillips and Marco Scutaro are ranked 1-2 in fan voting and Chase Utley got off to a good start that could land him the backup job via the players' ballot, so it's going to be difficult to find room for Carpenter.

Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks
Carlos Beltran, Justin Upton and Bryce Harper lead the fan balloting, none of whom really deserve to start (although they aren't terrible choices). Once you include Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen and maybe Ryan Braun, that leaves Parra as a long shot. He's hitting .315/.378/.480, ranks second in the NL with 24 doubles and plays superb defense at all three outfield spots. Like Gardner, he would be an excellent late-game defensive sub or pinch hitter. Just don't ask him to steal: He's 6-for-15 trying to steal.

Pedro Alvarez, Pirates
Over the past calendar year, Alvarez is tied with Jay Bruce for the most home runs in the National League with 36. His .237 average and .303 OBP don't scream "All-Star," but he does have 19 homers and is slugging .572 versus right-hand pitchers. With Ryan Zimmerman struggling on defense and Pablo Sandoval having a mediocre year at the plate, Alvarez has a decent case as the backup to David Wright, but Zimmerman or Sandoval probably gets the nod.

Travis Wood/Jeff Samardzija, Cubs
I'm assuming one or the other will be the Cubs' rep, but both have good cases to make it, even though Wood is 5-6 and Samardzija is 5-7. They succeed in different ways. Wood is an extreme fly ball pitcher who limits hits despite a ho-hum strikeout rate; Samardzija is pure power, with 115 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings. With 14 NL starters currently sporting an ERA under 3.00, somebody is going to get squeezed.
I made a quick point about Cubs starter Travis Wood in an earlier post. As Jedi Johnson points out on the View From the Bleachers blog, Wood has eight quality starts in eight chances this year and while he's topped 100 pitches just twice, he's still averaging over six innings per start.

Look, Wood isn't going to sustain a 2.03 ERA. His batting average allowed is .169 and his average on balls in play is .189, which is historically unsustainable. The question: How much will he regress? I heard Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette discussing Wood on MLB Network Radio this morning and Mike made a great point on how Wood survives even though he throws few offspeed pitches. Indeed, according to ESPN Stats & Info date, of the 766 pitches Wood has thrown this year, 295 have been fastballs and 275 cut fastballs -- 74 percent of his total pitches. Wood has a changeup that he thrown about four times per game and a slider he throws a little more frequently, neither of which is considered more than an average pitch. He's basically a fastball/cutter guy.

Mike and Jim wondered if he could succeed with this repertoire (and thought he could). Conventional wisdom certainly suggests this will be difficult, that starters need to mix in some sort of effective offspeed weapon. I thought: Mariano Rivera has made a pretty nice living throwing almost one pitch exclusively. No, I'm not comparing Wood to Rivera, but why can't Wood make this work? Why can't he be some lesser version of Rivera, just for six or seven innings at a time instead of one?

Reds rookie Tony Cingrani, off to a 2-0, 2.89 ERA in five starts, with 37 strikeouts and seven walks in 28 innings, is another lefty relying on fastballs. He's thrown 493 pitches -- and 412 fastballs (84 percent). He doesn't throw a cutter, but merely changes speeds and has more velocity than Wood. Like Wood, there is some deception in the delivery and he's a flyball pitcher (which leads to a lower BABIP).

I don't know how good Wood is, and he's never going to be a workhorse with his slight stature. But I think there's a good chance he's developing into a solid mid-rotation starter, one who will beat the 4.17 ERA he posted in 2012.

Quick reactions from Monday's games ...
  • If you've seen the scary video of Bryce Harper crashing face-first into the wall at Dodger Stadium, you know the end result could have been much worse than a bloodied face. Aside from Harper needing to learn what "warning track" means, the reaction from some of the Nationals is frustrating. "That's all you can ask for as a pitcher, a guy going 110 percent," said winning pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. No, no, no. Absolutely wrong. There's rarely a good time to go crashing into a wall, especially when the score is 6-0. There is no way making that catch -- and getting ONE OUT -- is worth the risk of the injury. Sometimes you have to play this game at 99 or 95 percent. Manager Davey Johnson said, "I don't want to change him." Fine. I get it. The hustle, the energy, that's part of what drives Harper to excel. But you have to be smart. I'm pretty sure Davey's behind-the-scenes talks with Harper will be a little different than his public posturing.

    The one guy who got it right was Ryan Zimmerman: "I would rather him not go all-out into the wall. Some people look at it as a bad thing. If you play that hard every day, there is something to be said about that. He's going to play a long time and you have to learn to take care of your body. As he grows, he'll learn what to do and what not to do." Zimmerman is speaking from experience, as a player who has battled injuries in his career. I love Harper's all-out play; I don't love him running into walls.
  • Josh Beckett left after three innings after tweaking his groin, but gave up four runs before then anyway and fell to 0-5 with a 5.19 ERA. The Dodgers can use injuries as an excuse for their 15-22 record, but Beckett has been awful, Matt Kemp has been bad, Andre Ethier is slugging under .400, their third basemen are hitting a combined .185 with a .526 OPS and closer Brandon League has a 6.28 ERA.
  • Great day for Aaron Hicks, whom the Twins have resisted sending down to the minors despite his slow start. He homered twice off Hector Santiago of the White Sox in a 10-3 victory and then robbed Adam Dunn of a home run. Love the big smile from Hicks as he gets up from the ground. Let's hope this gets his season going in the right direction.
  • The Mets signed Rick Ankiel. He had been released by the Astros because he's struck out in over half his plate appearances. He started in center field. In a related note, the Mets lost 6-3 to the Cardinals.
  • Travis Wood pitched seven scoreless, two-hit innings against the Rockies and has quietly put up a 2.03 ERA for the Cubs. Wood is a fly ball pitcher -- he had 12 fly ball outs on Monday, seven on the ground -- and when the ball stays in the park, he can be very effective. He's had a lot of effective outings of late. In his past 17 starts dating back to last August, he has a 2.65 ERA, .189 average and .263 OBP allowed and just eight home runs. He's a guy the advanced metrics don't love because his strikeout rate isn't high, but he could be developing into a nice 1-2 combo with Jeff Samardzija.
  • The Rockies, meanwhile, are starting to struggle with the bats on the road. I've touched on this earlier this season, that Colorado's problems in the past has been more about the hitters doing bad on the road than the pitchers doing bad at home. The Rockies started out fine on the road, but the bats have gone dry, getting three hits in two games against St. Louis over the weekend and now getting three-hit by the Cubs.
  • Joe Blanton is a guy the advanced metrics overrate, because he walks so few batters his strikeout/walk ratio is terrific. Last night, for example, he had seven strikeouts and no walks. But he gave up 12 hits and seven runs in 4.2 innings in an 11-4 loss to the Royals. Maybe there was some bad luck: "I felt like I threw the ball good tonight and my stuff was good," Blanton said. "When they made contact they found holes, broken-bat balls fell in for singles and balls bounced their way down the lines. It was one of those weird games. There were a couple of innings where I was one pitch away from it." Still. He's now 0-7 with a 6.46 ERA, and it's not that big of a surprise he's been this bad. He wasn't good last season in the National League, and there was no reason to expect him to come over to the AL, face deeper lineups, and suddenly get his ERA closer to 4.00. He's not good.

Power rankings: All 30 teams!

December, 22, 2012
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Last weekend, I presented the top 10 teams in my personal power rankings. That was before the Blue Jays officially acquired R.A. Dickey, so I updated my top 10 after that trade, and, to spur on more debate, now present the rest of my rankings. Agree or disagree, but I do think this is the most parity we've seen in a long time. It's why the Orioles and A's were able to surprise this past season and why we will undoubtedly see another surprise team in 2013. It's a great time to be a baseball fan.

1. Nationals
Most talented rotation in the majors, deep lineup, depth. Re-signing Adam LaRoche to add another lefty power bat will help.

2. Reds
Superb rotation could be better if the Aroldis Chapman transition works, bullpen is deep enough to absorb his loss and Shin-Soo Choo provides a needed leadoff hitter.

3. Yankees
I think they can stretch things out more season with a deep rotation, excellent bullpen and power. Remember, they had the largest run differential in the American League last season.

4. Tigers
Deep rotation, great 1-2 punch with Miggy and Prince, and Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez should improve the lineup.

5. Braves
Left-handed power, power bullpen and a young team that could improve from last year's 94 wins.

6. Blue Jays
Addition of Dickey adds a needed No. 1 to a rotation that could be dominant if Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow remain healthy.

7. A's
Young teams that show big improvement are usually for real, and this team has a solid rotation, a strong outfield and power arms in the bullpen.

8. Dodgers
Have to love the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke combo and an offense with big upside if Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez come close to 2011 levels.

9. Rangers
I think the rotation is playoff-caliber with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Martin Perez and Colby Lewis.

SportsNation

Which of these five teams should be No. 1 right now?

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Discuss (Total votes: 35,031)

10. Cardinals
Have to replace Kyle Lohse, but they'll score plenty of runs as long as Carlos Beltran (36 years old in April) and Matt Holliday (33 in January) keep producing.

11. Rays
Still some holes in the lineup, and replacing James Shields' 220-plus innings won't be that easy, but underestimate the Rays at your own risk.

12. Angels
Oddsmaker Bovada.lv has the Angels with the second-best odds to win the World Series (behind the Blue Jays), but I see a rotation with a lot of question marks behind Jered Weaver, and Josh Hamilton only replaces Hunter, who was terrific in 2012.

13. Giants
I discussed my issues with the Giants here. I could be wrong, although our friends at Bovada only put the Giants tied for ninth in their World Series odds.

14. Diamondbacks
Their run differential wasn't much different than the Giants last year, and they've added Brandon McCarthy, infield depth and still have Justin Upton.

15. Phillies
I want to say we're all underestimating a team that includes Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, but then I see an outfield of Darin Ruf, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown, and an infield defense that includes Michael Young and Ryan Howard and 30-somethings Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.

16. Brewers
They can score runs -- most in the National League last season -- and if the bullpen regroups after 2012's gruesome late-inning efforts, this team could surprise.

17. Red Sox
There will be no expectations after the disaster in 2012 (the franchise's worst record since 1965), but I see a big rebound coming.

18. Royals
I'll buy -- but I'm not buying a playoff spot. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have to take huge leaps forward ... or the Royals could be headed for another rebuild.

19. Orioles
Last season's 93-win playoff team provided a beautiful ride, but the Orioles haven't added that big bat they need.

20. Padres
Young team is moving in the right direction after winning 76 games in 2012. Can rotation improve to push Pads over .500?

21. Mariners
Mariners have pursued a big bat all offseason but were only able to pick up Kendrys Morales, and he cost them Jason Vargas, opening up a 200-inning hole in the rotation. Looks like 2014 before Mariners can make a push in the tough AL West.

22. Pirates
Still no No. 1 or even No. 2 starter (sorry, A.J. Burnett is a No. 3 at best) and not enough support for Andrew McCutchen. One of these years, Pirates fans, one of these years.

23. White Sox
No A.J. Pierzynski, a declining Paul Konerko, good year/off year Alex Rios due for an off year. Then again, White Sox had a bigger run differential in 2012 than the Tigers.

24. Cubs
Rotation of Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman could be competitive, but offense won't be.

25. Mets
At least Mets fans can dream of a future rotation that includes Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese and Noah Syndergaard. Unfortunately, the 2013 version still includes Frank Francisco and a bunch of fourth outfielders.

26. Marlins
Giancarlo Stanton still makes this team worth watching on a daily basis.

27. Indians
Getting Trevor Bauer in the Choo deal added a much-needed starting pitcher prospect. Unfortunately, much of the rest of rotation remains suspect.

28. Twins
Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey ... what, Rich Robertson and Sean Bergman weren't available?

29. Rockies
At least the Twins have a direction as they wait for young position players to reach the majors. I have no clue what the Rockies are doing, intend to do, want to do, wish to do or hope to achieve.

30. Astros
Welcome to the AL West, boys.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

July, 28, 2012
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  • Three players this week -- Brett Lawrie on Sunday, Desmond Jennings on Wednesday and Starling Marte on Thursday -- took the very first pitch of the game out of the yard. Five players have now done that this season. Derek Jeter and Zack Cozart both pulled off the feat in June.
    In Marte’s case, it was his first major league at-bat, making him the first Pirate to homer in his debut since Don Leppert on June 18, 1961.
  • In Friday's game at Wrigley Field, Matt Holliday started the Cardinals' scoring with a solo homer in the first inning. Yadier Molina promptly went deep in the second; Lance Berkman in the third; Matt Carpenter in the fourth; and Allen Craig in the fifth. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cardinals are the first team to homer in each of the first five innings since the Astros did it on the final weekend of the 2004 season against the Rockies (Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, Biggio again, Eric Bruntlett and Kent again). And it was a first in Cardinals team history.
  • [+] EnlargeTravis Wood
    AP Photo/Paul BeatyChicago's Travis Wood became the first starter ever to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
    Travis Wood gave up all five of those homers, making him the fifth pitcher in Cubs history to surrender five long balls in a game (Carlos Zambrano did it last season), and according to Elias, the first starter ever -- for any team -- to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
  • Jim Johnson of the Orioles had a fairly rough Friday night. He started the ninth inning with his team clinging to a 9-8 lead. After a leadoff groundout, he gave up five singles and a walk in succession. All six runners would score, and Oakland rallied for a 14-9 win. Johnson is just the second pitcher this year to surrender six or more runs in a save situation. Brett Myers did it for Houston on June 28, although only one of his six runs ended up being earned. Since saves became official in 1969, only two other Orioles have done it -- Jim Hoey in 2006 and Doug Jones in 1995 -- and neither of them entered in the ninth.
  • Matt Harvey made his major league debut for the Mets on Thursday night, and promptly mowed down 11 Diamondbacks -- nine of them swinging -- in the process. It's been nearly two years since a pitcher hit double-digit strikeouts in his debut. Nope, not Stephen Strasburg (he did do it in 2010, but he's not the last). That would be Thomas Diamond of the Cubs, who struck out 10 Brewers on Aug. 3 of that season, but also gave up three runs and took the loss. Harvey, however, earned himself an even better distinction by getting a two-out double and a two-out single in his two plate appearances. Elias says that makes Harvey the first player in modern baseball history (since 1900) to strike out 10-plus batters and get two hits in his major league debut.
  • Chris Johnson had three hits for the Astros on Friday night -- a homer, a triple and a double. He never got the "elusive" single, striking out in his final at-bat. Johnson did walk in the game, but alas, this is not 1887 (the year when walks counted as base hits). That means Johnson became only the fifth player this season to miss the cycle by a single. Paul Goldschmidt (June 23) was the most recent. By comparison, 32 players have needed the homer, 11 the double and 149 the triple.
  • Couldn't let this week end without one leftover Kernel from last Saturday. The Cardinals sent 17 batters to the plate in a 12-run seventh inning against the Cubs. Allen Craig was up third, pinch hitting in the pitcher's spot. He doubled and scored. As the inning continued, Craig came up again as the 12th batter. He doubled and scored again -- thus becoming the first "pinch hitter" to have two doubles before taking the field since Bobby Kielty of the Twins did likewise on June 4, 2002.
    St. Louis went on to hit seven doubles in that inning, a feat accomplished only once before, by the 1936 Boston Bees (the five-year experimental rebranding of the Braves).
    As for the 12 runs in that inning, that turned out to be the only scoring in the game. The Cardinals shut out Chicago 12-0. And that had also happened only once before in MLB history. The Indians scored all 12 runs in the fourth inning to shut out the Yankees on July 2, 1943.
Statistical support for this story provided by Baseball-Reference.com and the Elias Sports Bureau.

SweetSpot's NL players to see

February, 17, 2012
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First the SweetSpot network took on the AL teams. Now they look at the NL. Which players are bloggers most excited to watch this season, and why?

Arizona Diamondbacks: Justin Upton
Diamondbacks
Upton was finally healthy for an entire season in 2011, and met all the lofty expectations placed on him in the second year of a six-year, $51.25 million contract signed when he was 22. He set career highs in homers (31), RBI (88) and stolen bases (21, caught nine times), while compiling a .289/.369/.529 line. Through their age-23 season, there have been only four others to match Upton’s 91 homers, 62 stolen bases and 119 OPS+: Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco, Ken Griffey Jr. and Orlando Cepeda. Pretty elite company, and Upton still has time to mature as a player and team leader. I’m looking forward to watching this multifaceted young man do his thing again in 2012. -- Diane Firstman, Value Over Replacement Grit

Atlanta Braves: Jason Heyward
Braves
A healthy Heyward has to be the player Braves fans are most excited to see this season. Through injuries, bad habits developed while playing injured and benchings, just about everything that could have gone wrong for such a talent did go wrong last year. Despite all of that, Heyward never hung his head or complained and actually managed to produce slightly above-league-average value in right field. Heyward has reportedly straightened his swing out this offseason and has really worked hard to get his game back on track. If Heyward can get a little more elevation on his swing, while maintaining the other aspects of his rookie performance, Braves fans could once again witness a once-in-a-generation talent leading the team to a successful season. -- Franklin Rabon, Capitol Avenue Club

Chicago Cubs: Travis Wood
Cubs
In 2010, Wood made his big league debut for the Reds in an outing against the Cubs. He was brought in this offseason as part of the deal that sent Sean Marshall packing. For some, that was a disappointment considering Wood’s ERA last year was 4.84, but if we look beyond that we see that Wood posted a FIP ERA of 4.06, and Bill James projects him for an ERA of 3.75 in 2012. Also factor in that Great American Ballpark is a tough place to pitch; Wood had a 5.30 in the Gap vs. 3.58 on the road. Wrigley is not the hitters’ park we’ve all been told it is, primarily due to the wind blowing in often early in the year. The move from Cincinnati should do a lot toward boosting Wood’s production and confidence. -- Joe Aiello, View From the Bleachers

Cincinnati Reds: Mat Latos
Reds
Anticipation is building steadily for Latos' debut in a Cincinnati uniform. At 24 years of age and with a couple of excellent seasons already under his belt, the sky is the limit for him. For Reds fans, there is the hope that the club will have a legitimate ace at the top of the rotation for the first time in a couple of decades. Yes, there is reason for legitimate excitement in the Queen City. -- Chad Dotson, Redleg Nation

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
Rockies
It’s a debate in my mind between Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Both have tremendous gloves, bats and arms. Tulo trained this offseason with Jason Giambi in Las Vegas, and one could extrapolate some motivation from Dan O'Dowd's offseason acquisitions and trades. (O'Dowd believes the team needs leaders and better clubhouse guys, so what does that say about Tulo who plays the most important position on the field, is signed through 2020 and the face of the franchise?). What will Tulo do this year? I think 30 homers, Gold Glove-level defense and solidifying his place as the best player in baseball is a sure bet. Are the playoffs a sure bet for the Rockies? MVP for Tulo? I can't wait to see! -- Travis Lay, Blake Street Bulletin

Houston Astros: Jordan Lyles
Astros
With all of the changes, everyone seems to have forgotten that Lyles was recently the Astros’ top prospect. How quickly a young player that showed real promise last year has become overlooked in Houston. He's only 21 years old and had a number of very promising starts last year, posting a fair 4.41 ERA through July before running out of gas and getting shelled in August and September. He clearly needs to continue to build his stamina and strengthen himself to last the entire season. I'm interested to see how he continues to progress and if we can see him grow into the kind of player that can withstand the rigors of an entire major league season. I don't know how the Astros faithful have forgotten about Lyles so fast, but I think they'll be quickly and pleasantly reminded why he was considered a top prospect. -- Austin Swafford, Austin’s Astros 290 Blog

Los Angeles Dodgers: Kemp and Kershaw
Dodgers
Heaven knows it's hard not to be excited about the return of Juan Uribe or the potential of having Juan Rivera for a full season. But even so, there's a small, small part of me that is intrigued by these fellas named Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. They made a bit of an impression last year, and I can't say I'm not going to be, well ... OK, hanging on their every swing and pitch. But to avoid being too reliant on last year's stars, the new Dodger Roadrunner, Dee Gordon, will also be an exciting player to watch. -- Jon Weisman, Dodger Thoughts

Miami Marlins: Logan Morrison
Marlins
The player I'm truly most excited to see don a Marlins uniform this season is Logan Morrison. Following a splendid sophomore season in 2011, Morrison enters the new season as one of the game's top outfielders in the National League. With a solid approach and some power, a full season from Morrison could result in at least five additional wins for the Fish -- assuming Morrison can remain healthy. -- David Gershman, Marlins Daily

Milwaukee Brewers: Zack Greinke
Brewers
Last season, the Brewers didn't even get to see their prized acquisition participate in spring training, as Greinke broke a rib playing pickup basketball and missed all of spring and the first month of the season. This season, no basketball for the former Cy Young award winner. He'll be there through spring training and Brewer fans hope to avoid the slow start he suffered through last season. Greinke posted just a 5.63 ERA despite an 80:12 K:BB ratio in May and June last season (mostly thanks to eight home runs) before calming down in the second half. Greinke finished strong, posting a 2.80 ERA thanks to a .233/.293/.373 line allowed in July, August and September. -- Jack Moore, Disciples of Uecker

New York Mets: David Wright
Mets
After a winter of discontent for Mets fans, it’s hard to be excited about anyone in particular. The team is in desperate financial straits, is slashing payroll at record rates, and appears destined to finish in last place. Wright, the one player for whom I reserve excitement, may not even be on the team after July 31. Still, I’m highly anticipating his 2012 performance, because after two disappointing seasons I’m convinced that Wright has too much pride to have a third. For the first time in his career, the Mets are “his” team -- he’s the de facto leader, the man who sets the example for everyone else. Chances are, Wright is determined to have a career year, and will pound opposing pitching with a savage vengeance -- all in the name of leading the Mets to a less-than-90-loss season. -- Joe Janish, Mets Today

Philadelphia Phillies: Antonio Bastardo
Phillies
It was easy to be impressed by the sustained excellence of Atlanta's Jonny Venters last season, but Bastardo was quietly in the same neighborhood. Bastardo had a monster 2011 in which he struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings and held opponents to a .524 OPS. If he can even approach his 2011 performance, Bastardo, along with Jonathan Papelbon and the Phillies' army of young guys who throw hard (Mike Stutes, Justin De Fratus, David Herndon and so on), gives the Phillies' bullpen the potential to be one of the best in the National League. -- Michael Baumann, Crashburn Alley

Pittsburgh Pirates: Pedro Alvarez
Pirates
While Andrew McCutchen remains eminently exciting, we have a firm grasp on his star-level capabilities. I’m more excited to see whether Alvarez can rebound from his terrible sophomore season and get back to where his debut left off. The Pirates have a chance at a bright future, but all of their elite prospects are several years away. If there is any hope to be a competitive team in 2012, Alvarez has to give McCutchen and Neil Walker some help offensively. He has barely played a full season of games (169), and there is still time for him to meet the expectations that come as a No. 2 overall pick. Hey, Alex Gordon finally did. -- Paul Sporer, Pitt Plank

St. Louis Cardinals: Adam Wainwright
Cardinals
Despite losing everyone's perennial favorite player to watch to free agency, the defending champs have several captivating players in 2012. Partly because fans haven't seen him in a year and partly because he throws one of the most entertaining curveballs in the game, Wainwright will be a sight for sore eyes as he comes back from Tommy John surgery. But the player with whom Wainwright will forever be linked in fans' memories, Carlos Beltran, also figures to be a pivotal and exciting addition to the post-Pujols roster. -- Matt Philip, Fungoes

San Diego Padres: Carlos Quentin
Padres
The acquisition of Quentin brings energy, excitement and more total bases (210 in 2011 with the White Sox) and home runs (24) than any Padres player had last year. The Padres now employ two hitting coaches -- a model just a few MLB teams use -- as Phil Plantier and Alonzo Powell help with the workload hitting instruction requires. Quentin plays hard and he will help change the dynamics in the clubhouse. With the Padres' deep farm system and strong pitching, Quentin just might be the player to add the much needed spark of power in the middle of the order. -- Anna McDonald

San Francisco Giants: Buster Posey
Giants
I think I can speak for Giants fans everywhere when I say the player that I'm most excited to see play this season is Posey, and it's not even close. His injury in 2011 was a black mark on a year that we'd all like to forget. Beyond the numbers, Posey has quickly become the face of the Giants. He's young, energetic, talented and -- for us fans -- we hope healthy. Regardless of what happens, I'll be happy to see him back on the field in 2012. -- Chris Quick, Bay City Ball

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg
Nationals
How could it be anyone but Strasburg? When healthy, the most hyped pitching prospect in over a decade has delivered some fabulous pitching performances, and yet it feels like he is just scratching the surface of what he can do. He's as equally likely to blow guys away for a double-digit K performance as he is to shut a team down and let just two guys reach first over eight innings. He looked so good at the end of last year that the feeling is the only thing that can stop him in 2012 are the limits imposed by his own team to protect his recovering arm. -- Harper Gordek, Nationals Baseball

Reds' rotation demands tough choices

November, 18, 2011
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Johnny CuetoJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto heads a promising Reds rotation ... assuming he can stay healthy.

One of the reliable tropes about both general managers and managers is that everybody’s good at something. Some managers might be exceptionally good with getting the most out of a veteran roster, and some GMs might be especially effective in adding that talent. Certainly, in Cincinnati a win-now hook was part of the rationale behind enabling Walt Jocketty’s palace coup when he took over the Reds from Wayne Krivsky at the start of the 2008 season. That was certainly part of the reason why they’d already put Dusty Baker in the dugout as well.

And to some extent, you can call the last four seasons in Cincinnati a modest success. Through 2011, payroll had only grown 17 percent (before inflation). The Reds have significantly raised their performance margins within the old Bill James “Plexiglass Principle”: Instead of ping-ponging between 70 and 80 wins as they had during the Aughties, they’ve won 78, 91 and 79 games the past three years, a much happier range to be bouncing around.

And for all that, they’re about as exasperating a team as you could imagine, because Jocketty and Baker are supposed to deliver. Last season’s climb back down below 80 wins from their 2010 Central Division title was all the more disappointing because so many questions remain unanswered. Perhaps first and foremost among those questions is their rotation -- deep, talented and immensely frustrating.

Before the 2010 season, you could be understandably excited about the Reds’ rotation depth. In the abstract, a list with Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, Edinson Volquez, Travis Wood and Aroldis Chapman on it is supposed to make you excited about a team’s near-term future.

Unfortunately, that was before so many things went wrong. For all that talent, the Reds rotation averaged a Game Score of 50 on the season, better than just four teams in the league. Cueto’s shot at winning the National League ERA title was squelched by shoulder woes early and neck problems late in the year. Chapman was sent to the pen, struggled with his command, and shipped to the minors, remaining in relief role after his return. Bailey landed on the disabled list twice, and it was his right shoulder both times, making it three times in two years that’s happened. Wood gave them 10 quality starts in his first 16, but the Reds were frustrated and shipped him to Triple-A for two months anyway. A couple of weeks later, Volquez followed him to Louisville, sporting an unintentional walk rate of 5.6 BB/9 while allowing 15 homers in 85 innings pitches.

That is not to say the picture’s entirely bleak. Bailey managed to notch quality starts in more than half his turns (13 out of 22), a career first for him. When healthy, Cueto is the ace they need to contend again. Leake turned in a fine sophomore season.

However, the FIPs for Bailey (4.02) and Leake (4.19) don’t suggest they’ll join Cueto at the front of the rotation. That’s also not any better than Wood (4.03 FIP), if the Reds are willing to give him a second chance. Volquez might not get even that; his name shows up in trade rumors, and despite the poor performance arbitration is only going to make him more expensive to employ the next two seasons.

Sorting out the Reds’ rotation to pick their best five guys is going to require judgment. But you could have said that about them last year too, only to see them wind up resurrecting Dontrelle Willis. Whatever the basis on which those choices are made -- scouting, stats or both -- the challenge for Jocketty this winter will be picking his ponies and then having Dusty watch them run. That sounds easy enough, but the problem is whether or not you can reasonably hope for the Reds to pick the right guys.

Take the Reds’ recent big-picture decisions, and the most recent developments. Last winter, Jocketty gave Bronson Arroyo a three-year, $35 million extension to be the rotation’s veteran workhorse. They were rewarded with a 46-homer season, the second-highest single-season tally in National League history. Sure, it’s clever to defer payments to lower the contract’s annual average value below $10 million per year, but it’s still a massive multi-year commitment to Bronson Arroyo, a nice mid-rotation innings-eater at the best of times. Unfortunately, the deal was to keep him around for his age-34 through age-36 seasons, which weren’t likely to be the best of times, and haven’t been.

Any hopes that the Reds might move Chapman back to the rotation any time soon are on hold after he came up with a sore shoulder in the Arizona Fall League. As a result, they scrapped plans to let him start in winter ball.

Cueto, Bailey and Chapman, all top young pitchers, all coming up sore-armed on Dusty Baker’s watch? Even if Baker is being more careful with young pitchers than he was with another talented trio in Chicago, we’ve certainly been here before.

And then there’s the Reds’ rumored interest in Jair Jurrjens of the Atlanta Braves. Jurrjens is also someone most statheads expect to see take a tumble in 2012, by as much as a full run given a 3.95 FIP to his 2.96 ERA. That’s assuming that the right knee that has shelved him three times in two years holds up, and that’s without getting to an additional pair of DL stints in the last two years for injuries to an oblique and a thigh.

On paper, adding another body to their rotation depth would seem like the last thing the Reds should be worrying about -- they already have seven guys for five slots, and they’re struggling to identify which ones are their real keepers. It certainly doesn't reflect well on their current crew, although teams willing to trade for any of the non-Arroyos wouldn't be hard to find. If Jurrjens is the solution, maybe it's the decision-making process that tells the Reds to go after him that is the problem.

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

Reds scare or Reds scary?

July, 8, 2011
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Considering that the Cincinnati Reds play in a division they won by five games in 2010 and in which the other contenders have been hit with injuries to key players in 2011, you might have expected them to be sitting in a very comfortable position by now. Instead, after a 5-4 loss in Milwaukee on Thursday, they’re on the wrong side of .500 at 44-45 and trail the Brewers, Cardinals and even the Pirates in the NL Central. They’re 7-12 since a three-game sweep of the Dodgers in mid-June. For all that, they’re still just three games out of first place. Can the ship be righted, and how?

The team took a stab at dealing with its two most obvious problems on Thursday. They demoted Edinson Volquez, who had been walking nearly six men per game on the way to a 5.93 ERA and may be replaced by an apparently resurgent Dontrelle Willis. And they gave a long-overdue promotion to shortstop prospect Zack Cozart, who had been hitting .310/.357/.467 and will be given an opportunity to replace the shockingly poor production they had been receiving from Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria, who have combined to produce -0.1 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs.com. Both moves represent huge steps in the right direction.

Those weren’t the only problems this team has, however. Bronson Arroyo has arguably struggled even more than Volquez, and his veteran status and hefty price tag running through 2013 make him a harder burden to shake off than Volquez. Travis Wood has been similarly ineffective if you go by his 5.11 ERA, though his 4.11 FIP suggests he’s been mostly unlucky. All told, for all the preseason talk about the great starting rotation depth, and despite a great first 11 starts from Johnny Cueto, Reds starters entered Thursday with a 4.60 ERA, second-to-last in the National League, and tied for last with just 3.5 FanGraphs WAR.

Outside of that little rotation issue, though -- and that’s a big one -- it’s hard to pinpoint areas in which this team has gone wrong. They’ve gone with an unorthodox sort of three-headed-monster approach in left field, dividing the position among Chris Heisey, Jonny Gomes and Fred Lewis. Yet all three have been effective, with Gomes and Heisey providing good offense and Lewis good defense, combining for 3.1 WAR. It’s starting to look like Scott Rolen’s bat has fallen off the old-age table, but he appears to be making up for it with his still-excellent defense, and his oft-used substitute Miguel Cairo (against all odds) has been solid with both bat and glove. At catcher, first, second, center and right, the Reds have received well above-average play (at least), and the bullpen has been solid. One would think a team with this lineup would be better than 44-45, even with a shaky rotation.

And in at least one sense, they have been better than that. Coming into Thursday, the Reds’ “Pythagorean record” -- the record suggested by their run differential -- was 47-41, which would have them tied for first place in the division. A negative disparity between a team’s Pythagorean and actual record sometimes suggests a managerial failing of some kind, but I don’t see a lot of evidence of that here. Dusty Baker certainly has his flaws (ones we in the sabermetric community are all too aware of), and sometimes makes some interesting decisions regarding the use of his bullpen and other personnel, and it’s possible that his decision-making has lost some close games. There’s no hard data to back that up, though, and anecdotally, most Reds fans I know seem to think that Dusty is doing a better job of in-game managing this year than he has in the past.

Rather, the discrepancy seems to be the result of a lack of “clutch hitting” by the Reds; the team’s .259/.330/.403 overall line (through Wednesday) slips to .237/.313/.343 in “late and close” situations, suggesting that they’re finding it easier to score runs when ahead or trailing by a bunch than they are late in a tight game, when each individual run matters a bit more. The team’s overall hitting line is above the NL average, but its “late and close” line is slightly below average across the board. (The NL “late and close” average entering Thursday was .244/.322/.359.)

So the Reds’ problems, after dealing with their shortstops and Volquez, seem to boil down to Arroyo, Wood and clutch hitting. The last bit can’t be dealt with; study has shown that “clutch,” to the extent it exists, is impossible to separate from simple dumb luck, good or bad. Wood should be fine for essentially the same reason: He has really struggled with runners in scoring position, and unless the team has some reason to believe he has problems pitching out of the stretch or gets more rattled than most do with men on second or third, those numbers should get better. Arroyo on the other hand has been legitimately struggling for two months, and is a real worry; if they’re willing to recognize his huge contract as a sunk cost and move him to a long-relief role (or off the team entirely), and in favor of Sam LeCure (if healthy) a possible acquisition on the trade market, that could really improve the team going forward.

For the most part, though, the Reds have done almost everything they can by finally calling up Cozart and demoting Volquez. Most else is out of their control: The hits should get more timely, and the non-Arroyo pitching should get better. Even the hitters who are doing well in 2011 -- Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce, in particular -- have shown themselves capable of doing even better. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see one or more of them get incredibly hot and carry the team over the second half.

Looking up at three other teams at the All-Star break is never a good place to be, but the Reds seem about as well-positioned to make a second-half run as a fourth-place team could get.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Andrew MillerMark L. Baer/US PresswireAndrew Miller only has eyes for his comeback with the Red Sox.
Bill Parker writes for The Platoon Advantage. Follow him on Twitter: @Bill_TPA.
There are many reasons you should listen to Wednesday's three-headed Baseball Today podcast with myself, Keith Law and SweetSpot blogger David Schoenfield, but here are the top five:

1. Tuesday was a far different day for the De La Rosa pitchers, as one blew out of his elbow, and the other got the call to the big leagues. Are the Colorado Rockies in trouble replacing their De La Rosa? And what are the Los Angeles Dodgers doing promoting theirs?

2. Sticking with the NL West, do the San Francisco Giants want to score runs? Of course they do, but then why aren't they playing their best hitters? Then again, this isn't the same offense it was a year ago.

3. Should MLB take a cue from Premier League soccer and bump out the bottom few teams each season? As always, Mr. Law brings a strong opinion.

4. We talk relief pitchers, from the hierarchy of the Atlanta Braves' top duo to the fellow that earned a three-year contract from the Detroit Tigers.

5. On Wednesday's docket is a rematch of one of the best pitched games of 2010. Not to give too much away, but you can find this game on ESPN2!

Plus: Excellent, Gleeful emails (send to baseballtoday@espnradio.com, incidentally), discussion about a few prospects in the upcoming draft, Alfredo Simon's presence in the big leagues, Edinson Volquez's presence in the minor leagues, why Madison Bumgarner isn't a bum and I wantonly ring the Kara-bell, all on Wednesday's Baseball Today podcast!
The Cincinnati Reds have one of the deepest starting rotations in the National League -- seven-deep, in fact -- and of the seven, six of them are ages 23-27.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Cueto
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto, who'd been on the disabled list with muscle irritation in his arm, pitched six shutout innings in his season debut May 8.
Edinson Volquez has shown flashes of being a potential No. 1 starter; Johnny Cueto already is a solid No. 2; Bronson Arroyo just wins 15 games and pitches 200 innings every year; Travis Wood has pinpoint control; Homer Bailey has the raw stuff to potentially become a No. 1; and Mike Leake and Sam LeCure are solid back-of-the-rotation arms. With one of baseball's best defensive teams behind this young, strong rotation, the Reds are built to be a World Series-contending team over the next several seasons.

Rotation depth should give them an advantage over the 162-game schedule. But the question remains: Can they compete in the playoffs? While the Phillies, Giants, Marlins, Rockies, Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals all have proven No. 1 starters, the Reds are hoping that either Volquez, Cueto or Bailey will develop into one. The hope is that they can compete with the likes of Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and Josh Johnson come October in Games 1 and 7 of important playoff matchups. The potential is there.

Here is a breakdown of their starting rotation:

Volquez, 27, has an overpowering fastball at times (90-96 mph) with an excellent changeup, an effective curveball and a hard slider. He has quick arm speed out front with whip-like action. When he’s healthy, he’s shown he can be a strike thrower who goes right at hitters and pounds the zone. In fact, if you want to take a snapshot of his best pitching, it was the first half of 2008, when he went 12-3 with a 2.29 ERA and a WHIP of just 1.24. Some even nicknamed him "Mini-Pedro" for that short period of success. Since then, he’s had Tommy John surgery and a positive test for PEDs. The reality is he can’t control the baseball like he used to. In his past start, he walked five of the first 12 batters he faced. His WHIP is 1.6, he’s averaging seven walks per nine innings, and leads the league in walks with 33. Although he has the potential to be a No. 1, he looks more like a No. 3 starter, and the Reds are hoping the command and control come back sooner rather than later. The raw stuff is top-of-the-rotation talent.

Former Reds scout Johnny Almaraz recruited Cueto as an international signee . Cueto, 24, has a smaller frame with a powerful fastball in the 90-95 mph range. He’s aggressive and commands the fastball well. This has allowed him to realize getting outs on the ground can be as effective as strikeouts. He has a hard, tight slider that is deceptive enough to get him punch-outs out of the zone against even some of the league's better hitters. He has a plus changeup at times, and the cutter is also effective, especially against left-handed hitters. The Reds signed Cueto to a four-year, $27 million deal before spring training. Imagine the alarm when his shoulder started barking. But thanks to one of the best medical teams in baseball, led by Dr. Timothy Kremchek, they quickly put him on a strengthening program that has him healthy again and back on track to being a solid No. 2 starter.

Arroyo, 34, is one of the best No. 3 starters in baseball. He has won at least 15 games three years in a row and has pitched at least 200 innings every season since 2005. He’ll throw between 85-90 mph, with a big, slow curveball, an average slider with tilt, and an effective cutter. He varies speeds, plains, zones and really knows how to pitch. He’ll try to get you to chase, and he’ll try to fool you. He wins. He pitches innings. He has tremendous make-up and character and is the leader of this rotation. He is a straight shooter and a rock 'n' roller, with the hairdo, swagger and charm. Every fifth day the Reds can count on him keeping them in the game with a chance to win.

Wood, 24, is the lone lefty in the rotation. He is a competitor and a good athlete. His sinking fastball is mostly 88-91 mph with pinpoint control. He has an excellent changeup, a quality cutter, and his breaking balls -- a slider and a curveball -- have developed enough to be effective. His balls have late movement, and he keeps them out of the middle of the plate. He spent time in the offseason with Cliff Lee, working out and talking about pitching. Both Arroyo and catcher Ryan Hanigan rave about Wood and his ability to get outs with less stuff. Wood is a solid lefty who will always be referred to as a real estate pitcher, meaning location, location, location ... and late life.

Bailey, 25, has the highest ceiling of any of the Reds' starting pitchers. Like Cueto, Wood and Lecure, he was cross-checked and recommended by former Reds scout Jimmy Gonzales, who felt strongly Bailey would be a 15-18 game winner someday. Bailey had some minor injuries early in his career and used to be just a thrower. His stubbornness and inability to make adjustments due to immaturity frustrated the Reds' brass for years. However, last September, the maturity came, the light bulb went on, and Bailey is now ready to take off. His fastball is 90-96 mph with hard, arm-side sink. The pitch is so overpowering that at times he can throw it down the middle of the plate, tell the hitter it’s coming, and they still can’t catch up. When he was drafted, he had a big curveball that was his primary breaking pitch, but now his first breaking ball is a tight slider or cutter that is a lot more effective. His secondary offspeed pitch has improved dramatically; everything moves. He is a fierce competitor who is really coming into his own as he has learned how to pitch.

Leake, 23, the right-hander out of Arizona State, became the first player in a decade in the past season to make the major leagues without spending time in the minors. He rewarded the Reds in the first half by going 6-1 with a 3.53 ERA in 17 starts with a WHIP of 1.3 and was a ground-ball machine. Leake is not overpowering, but he used both sides of the plate and kept the ball down. The second half, however, was a different story once the innings racked up. Leake is now throwing out of the bullpen, but if there is an injury, he’ll be ready to step back into the rotation. At the back end of the rotation, he is certainly capable of winning 10-12 games.

LeCure, 27, went to school at the University of Texas and was academically ineligible to pitch in 2005. That didn’t stop the Reds from evaluating and drafting him after watching his bullpen sessions. His fastball can get up to 88-91 mph, and he commands his slider and changeup. LeCure is a tough kid with exceptional make-up, an over-achiever who can win at the back end of any rotation. He provides more valuable depth for the Reds.

The bottom line is that this is a really talented and deep rotation. If Volquez, Cueto and/or Bailey arrive at their fullest potential, the Reds may be celebrating at the White House and not just at Fountain Square in the Queen City or at one of Jeff Ruby’s famous downtown restaurants.

Thanks for reading, and I appreciate your comments, recommendations and retweets. You can follow me on Twitter: @JimBowdenESPNxm.
I picked the Reds to win the NL Central for several reasons, including:

1. Joey Votto. Canada’s hero gives the lineup a true superstar hitter.
2. Adam Wainwright's injury.
3. Concerns about Milwaukee’s defense and bullpen.
4. The Reds’ depth.

I’m going to focus on reason No. 4. The various projection systems all predict the National League as a complicated playoff struggle, with as many as 10 teams having a legitimate shot at the playoffs if things break right. Maybe 12 if you’re so inclined to include the Mets and Padres in that mix.

That means a key component becomes who avoids injuries, who doesn’t, and who has the depth to fill in.

Leake
AP Photo/David KohlMike Leake started 22 games as a 22-year-old rookie last season.
The Reds are already being tested, with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey landing on the DL out of spring training, opening up rotation slots for Mike Leake and Sam LeCure. Here are Baseball Prospectus’ projections for those two:

Leake: 140 IP, 155 H, 50 BB, 92 SO, 4.88 ERA, 1.9 WARP (wins above replacement)
LeCure: 135 IP, 147 H, 53 BB, 100 SO, 4.86 ERA, 2.0 WARP

Those numbers may not blow you away, but they are very serviceable for sixth and seventh starters. Leake, who makes his 2011 debut Tuesday against Houston, in particular has some upside as a former No. 1 pick who jumped straight to the majors last season. The point isn’t that these two are necessarily stars, but that they’re solid replacements for Cueto and Bailey. Those two are projected for a combined 5.9 WARP, meaning the drop to Leake and LeCure is about two wins over a full season.

But it’s not just the rotation where the Reds have solid reserves.

Ryan Hanigan, who hit two home runs and reached base five times on Sunday, is the best backup catcher in the majors. He posted a .361 OBP in 2009 and .405 OBP in 2010. He can particularly destroy left-handed pitchers, a nice complement to Joey Votto and Jay Bruce if the opposition tries to stack its rotation with lefties. Power isn’t his forte, but he’s worked hard on his stroke, saying, “I want to be a dangerous guy.”

Ramon Hernandez remains the starter, with Hanigan serving as Bronson Arroyo’s personal caddy and playing regularly against lefties. Hanigan has tired in the second half in previous systems, thus Dusty Baker’s reluctance to increase his playing time beyond two or three times a week.

In the outfield, Chris Heisey is a nice fourth outfielder, a good glove at all three positions who can hit some. He had a 103 OPS+ as a rookie last year, a fair representation of his minor league numbers. Factoring in his defense, he may actually be an upgrade over regular left fielder Jonny Gomes. Paul Janish is the team’s starting shortstop and if he falters, Edgar Renteria is around. He’s past his prime, of course, but there are worse fallback options. Waiting in the minor leagues are top prospects like first baseman Yonder Alonso, a former first-round pick, catcher Devin Mesoraco, who hit 26 homers in the minors in 2010, and outfielder Dave Sappelt, who hit .361 in Double-A.

Finally, I’m more bullish on Travis Wood than most. Wood is a small, skinny lefty without overpowering stuff who nonetheless had excellent strikeout rates throughout the minors. He averaged 7.5 K’s per nine innings as a rookie and posted a 3.51 ERA. The caveat is that he’s an extreme flyball pitcher (32 percent groundball rate) but allowed just nine home runs in 102 2/3 innings, an impressive total considering his bandbox home park, and a .259 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). The analysts would say he’s unlikely to be so well-served by the baseball gods in 2011. ZiPS, however, projected him to a 3.64 ERA and if he can match or exceed that figure, the Reds have a solid No. 2 or 3 starter for their rotation.

Plus, they still have Joey Votto. Did I mention that?

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.

NL Central: Upgrades on the mound

February, 27, 2011
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In 2010, the NL Central finished the season with only six of the top 40 starting pitchers based on ERA. Three of those pitchers belonged to one team, the St. Louis Cardinals (Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia.) The other three were Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez (Houston Astros) and Johnny Cueto (Reds). This means the Cubs, Pirates and Brewers were without a starter in the top 40 ERA’s in the league by the end of 2010. The potential was there, but it was never realized. Fast forward to 2011 …

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
John Rieger/US PresswireThe Brewers added former Kansas City ace Zack Greinke to the top of their rotation in the offseason.
The Brewers made the first move this offseason when they picked up Zack Greinke in a trade with the Royals. They gave up little for what will be their staff ace. FanGraphs projects Greinke’s 2011 stats to be about 14-15 wins and an ERA in the mid 3.00’s. The Brew Crew did not stop there, acquiring Shawn Marcum, who cobbled together a nice 2010 for Toronto in the tough AL East after missing all of 2009. These two additions, along with future Cy Young candidate Yovani Gallardo make the Brewers a contender for the NL Central crown in 2011.

The Cubs’ offseason answer to their pitching staff questions came in a trade with Tampa Bay. Matt Garza was acquired in exchange for a slew of prospects. While the big question is how Garza will fair in Wrigley, it goes without saying he is an upgrade, and makes a fine middle-of-the-rotation addition. FanGraphs projects something like 11 wins and a high 3.00 to low 4.00 ERA. He gives the Cubs a very solid top three along with Ryan Dempster and a “newly cured” Carlos Zambrano. What if Randy Wells can get his 2009 form back? Any Cubs fan can tell you that 2010’s failure came from a lack of offense. If this staff gets even a hint of support, the NL Central is well within reach.

We can’t discuss the Cubs without touching on the Cardinals. Year in and year out the Cardinals seem to have pitching, or at least starting pitching. Yes, Wainwright is gone for the 2011 season, and while this is a big blow, I don’t see it being the end of their 2011 season. Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan are unbelievable at squeezing water from a stone. Duncan got production from Todd Wellemeyer for crying out loud. Every year the duo of La Russa and Duncan seems to pull a starting pitcher out of a hat. I am sure somebody will fall in place to pick up at least some of the wreckage left behind by Wainwright’s injury. They still have Carpenter and Garcia to lean on. Let’s also not forget the sinkerball pitcher, Jake Westbrook, who I am sure Duncan will turn into a Cy Young candidate before long. Oh yes, the Cardinals are still in the hunt … even when they lose their best pitcher.

The sneakiest staff might be Houston's. Rodriguez and Myers will once again anchor this staff. Don’t count out J.A. Happ, as he fit in nicely coming over from the Phillies in a trade last season. While I don’t see the Astros contending this year, mostly because of their offensive woes and bullpen, these three guys make for a nice base to a starting staff. Rodriguez and Myers were both in the top 40 ERA’s for starting pitchers last year, and Happ has the stuff to be included in that conversation someday, too.

Alongside these teams sit the Cincinnati Reds. Youth would be the operative word here. The potential in this starting rotation is enormous for 2011 and beyond. Yes, Bronson Arroyo is 33, but after that you have Edison Volquez (28), Cueto (25) , Homer Bailey (25) and a fifth starter in Travis Wood (24) or Mike Leake (23). There is also the tease that Cuban fireballer Aroldis Chapman (22) might one day become a starter. With the exception of Chapman and possibly Wood, all of these pitchers have seen significant success at the major league level in a starting role. The only thing keeping the Reds from a return to the playoffs is the fact that every team in the division upgraded with exception to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The NL Central has always had a few good pitchers sprinkled about its rosters. What’s new to the past decade is the depth of each team’s starting staff, not to mention the potential for more in the future. While the Astros, and more so the Pirates, have some ground to make up in this category, the remaining four teams are finding strength and depth from their starters.

Chet West writes for The View From the Bleachers blog, which is part of the SweetSpot network.

You can't blame Dusty Baker for this one

October, 6, 2010
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One half of the Phillies' Game 1 victory -- or if you prefer, the Reds' Game 1 loss -- absolutely demands attention from card-carrying members of the American Second-Guessing Association of America (ASGAA).

Cincinnati rookie Travis Wood debuted in the majors on the 1st of July, and essentially was the Reds' best starting pitcher for the rest of the esason. He won just five times in 17 starts, but posted a 3.51 ERA and a brilliant 3.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That latter figure was easily the best among Cincinnati's starters.

Wood also gave up only nine home runs in 103 innings; that ratio, too, was the best on the staff.

One might have argued, 24 hours ago, that Travis Wood was the best starting pitcher available to Dusty Baker.

One might also have argued that Baker needed to deploy at least one left-handed starting pitcher against the Phillies, who rely so heavily on left-handed hitters in the heart of their lineup: Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez.

Unfortunately, only two left-handed pitchers started even one game for the Reds all season: Wood and Matt Maloney (a junkballer who started twice in July).

More unfortunately, Baker opted to leave Wood out of his Division Series rotation. What makes things even easier for the ASGAA: after Baker's Game 1 starter, right-hander Edinson Volquez, got knocked out in the second inning, Travis Wood trotted in from the bullpen and retired 10 of the 12 batters he faced.*

* Members of the American Rationalists of America (ARA) -- sworn enemies of the ASGAA -- will point out that Volquez did just fine against the left-handed hitters he faced, and it was mostly right-handed hitters and switch-hitters who did most of the damage. Don't listen to the ARA. They're just a bunch of curmudgeons.

The bottom line is that you're going to have a hard enough time beating the Phillies, but a harder time if you can't throw either a Cy Young candidate or a tough left-hander against them.

The Reds don't have anything like a Cy Young candidate. And Baker chose against his only tough left-hander. So it shouldn't be a surprise that the Phillies scored enough runs to win.

But of course that's just half the game, the half in which the Phillies batted.

There's nothing to second-guess about the other half, the half in which the Reds batted. Cincinnati won 91 games this season and led the National League in scoring, with essentially the same lineup that Dusty Baker deployed in Game 1.

Unfortunately, Charlie Manuel deployed the best pitcher in the National League.

More unfortunately, that pitcher threw one of the greatest games that any pitcher has ever thrown in the postseason.

In the end, this just wasn't a good day for the ASGAA.

Or for anyone who had to bat against Roy Halladay.

No. 5 Starter Watch: Reds choose Leake

April, 2, 2010
4/02/10
7:33
PM ET
Well, it's (almost) official ... According to Mark Wood, the Reds have finally chosen their No. 5 starter:


    The fifth starter has been determined. It's Mike Leake, although the Reds have not announced anything.

    Travis Wood learned first and returned to the clubhouse and started packing his stuff. About five minutes later, Leake walked back from his meeting trying to contain his smile. He and Wood bumped fists.

    Leake confirmed he was given the good news.

    "It's kind of surreal right now," Leake said. "It has to soak in a little."

    Leake, the eighth overall pick last summer, will be the first drafted pitcher to skip the Minor Leagues since Darren Dreifort of the Dodgers in 1994.


And the first drafted starting pitcher to skip the minors since Jim Abbott.

As a rookie, Abbott went 12-12 and finished fifth in Rookie of Year balloting despite an ERA that was just average. The next season he was just decent, as his walks went down but so did his strikeouts. In his third season, though, Abbott upped his strikeouts a little, cut his walks a little, gave up only 14 home runs in 243 innings, and finished third in the Cy Young balloting.

Abbott pitched roughly as well a year later, but suffered one of the all-time unluckiest seasons and his record fell from 18-11 (in 1991) to 7-15. He pitched a LOT of innings before he turned 25, and the rest of his career, frankly speaking, wasn't real good. Abbott was finished before his 32nd birthday; in his last six years, he walked nearly as many batters as he struck out. There was that one magical game in 1993, which seems like it came near the end of his career but was actually closer to the beginning; he had six more tough years afterward.

Hey, it was a good career. But Jim Abbott didn't win 100 games. Most exciting rookie pitchers don't. It's a tough business. In the short term, I won't be surprised if Mike Leake pitches pretty well and wins a dozen or so games. In the long term ... well, there's nobody alive who can know.

No. 5 Starter Watch: Reds (status quo)

April, 1, 2010
4/01/10
12:36
PM ET
It looks like the Reds are taking this one to the wire (if not beyond). From CNati.com:

    The decision on the Reds fifth starter was made no easier by Wednesday's performances by Travis Wood and Mike Leake.

    The two were competiting for the fifth spot in the rotation and made their final spring starts on Wednesday.

    Leake, last year's first-round pick, pitched first, in Phoenix against the A's. He went six innings, allowed two runs (both earned), four hits, a walk and struck out two. He finished the spring with a 3.00 ERA, appearing in six games, throwing 18 innings with 16 hits, four walks and 10 strikeouts.

    Wood pitched later in chilly Las Vegas against the Dodgers. Wood went four innings, allowing three runs, five hits, three walks and struck out five. He finishes the spring with a 3.50 ERA in six games and 18 innings. He allowed 15 hits, 12 walks and had 17 strikeouts.

    --snip--

    The Reds wouldn't need a fifth starter until April 10 or 11, so neither Wood nor Leake may make the Opening Day roster and then be activated for that game.

Umm. I know they're close -- we looked at Leake and Wood last week -- but aren't Wood's 12 walks in 18 innings a bit of a red flag? Especially considering that he's walked roughly four hitters per nine innings in the minors? Wood is still a baby, just turned 23 this winter. But I'd like to see him throw a higher percentage of strikes before asking him to retire Albert Pujols.

Leake, though he's not pitched a single inning of Organized Baseball, did pitch 162 innings last year: 142 with Arizona State, then 20 in the Arizona Fall League. Do we count 162 innings, and assume he can bump to 180-some this year? Or do think he should be babied in his first real professional season?

As always, I would err on the side of caution. But with Wood and Aroldis Chapman backing him up, giving Leake a slot in the rotation tomorrow doesn't mean he has to throw 200 innings this year. I think he's ready, and I think he's going to win the job.

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