SweetSpot: Ubaldo Jimenez

Matt Wieters will miss the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. While it's certainly a tough blow for the Orioles, it's hardly a season-ending blow for them.

Despite his respected reputation and two All-Star appearances, Wieters is a good player, not a great one, especially last season when he hit .235/.287/.417. That's not criticism; there's a lot of value in being a good player. He had been off to a great start in the 26 games he played, hitting .308/.339/.500, but that was well above his career norms and way above what he did last season, obviously. There was little reason to expect Wieters to keep hitting .300 all year.

Baseball-Reference valued Wieters at just 0.5 WAR in 2013. He was better in 2011 (4.9) and 2012 (3.5). FanGraphs had him at 2.4 WAR last season, but similar totals in 2011 (4.5) and 2012 (3.9). Let's say last year was just a bad year and that Wieters is roughly a four-win player. That's hard to replace; good two-way catchers don't exactly fall off trees. The other three catchers the Orioles have used -- Steve Clevenger, Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley -- have combined to hit .184 with no home runs and 12 RBIs. That's pretty bad, certainly about replacement-level offense if not below. Collectively, the three have been worth minus-0.3 WAR heading into Monday's game, according to Baseball-Reference.

Throw it in the mixer and those three should provide at least replacement-level performance, possibly better depending on how Hundley does, if he gets to play. Last year with the Padres Hundley produced a batting that was basically a replica of Wieters', especially when you adjust for parks: .233/.290/.389. The Orioles will take that. Anyway, we're talking about a lot of possibilities and variables here, but the difference in value could be four wins, or it could be one win.

So Wieters' injury hurts, and that's without recognizing that there may be some relative intangibles we risk missing here. StatCorner.com has rated both Joseph and Hundley as better pitch framers than Wieters in 2014. Wieters didn't rate well last year in pitch framing. It's possible the Orioles don't less anything defensively and actually improve with Joseph.

Anyway, I would argue the Orioles have other issues as important or more so if they're going to chase down the Blue Jays in the AL East.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
AP Photo/Gail BurtonThe Orioles have to hope Manny Machado starts producing like the star they expect him to be.
1. Manny Machado has to start hitting and fielding better. We know what he did last year, hitting .283 with 14 home runs and a league-leading 51 doubles. We know he played Gold Glove defense at third base, deservedly winning with what the defensive metrics said was one of the best seasons ever by a third baseman (the eye test agreed).

My gut says he'll improve in both areas from where he's at now, especially as his knee continues to get better after he injured it late last season. I do worry about the overaggressive approach at bat and the inability to lay off breaking stuff off the plate, but he also has a low .265 average on balls in play compared to .322 last year. His line-drive rate is actually higher than last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information (23 percent to 20 percent). He hit .757 on line drives last year but is hitting .531 this year. The MLB average is .675. That looks like some bad luck to me.

Defensively, he's making 3.07 plays per nine innings this year; he made 3.05 last year. His error rate is up, but you have to dig deep into the metrics to figure out why he's not grading out near as well this year as last year.

2. Chris Tillman needs to get people out. Maybe he's not an ace but he's supposed to be the Orioles' No. 1 starter and he's 5-4 with a 4.80 ERA and impossible to figure out. On May 16 he pitched a shutout; his next start he gave eight runs and got three outs. On May 31 and June 10 he allowed one run each time; in between those two games, he again got just three outs. In his last start on Sunday he gave up three runs in seven innings but didn't record a strikeout.

Here's the concern: His hits and walks are up from last year, while his strikeouts and home runs are down. Overall, however, the package is similar: He had a 4.42 FIP in 2013 and is at 4.61 this year. He managed to outperform his FIP in 2012 (2.93 ERA) and 2013 (3.71 EA), but isn't doing so this season. Regardless, a staff leader can't afford five-inning starts let alone one-inning starts.

3. Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy: Where's the power? Last year, with Davis hitting 53 home runs and Hardy 25, the Orioles clubbed 212 long balls, the most in the majors. That was the basis of their offense. They don't walk much (next-to-last in the AL last year and last year this year), so they have to the ball over the fence to score runs. Davis has 11 home runs (he did miss 15 games) while Hardy is sitting on zero. Overall, the Orioles are on pace to hit 36 fewer home runs that last year, and that's with Nelson Cruz playing the Chris Davis role with an MLB-leading 21.

4. Big hole at second base: Baltimore's second sackers are hitting .245 with a .289 OBP. Buck Showalter loves Ryan Flaherty's defense and rookie Jonathan Schoop has some potential, but this position was an issue last year and remains a problem. An upgrade -- like trading for Arizona's Aaron Hill? -- is a possibility.

5. Ubaldo Jimenez: The big wild card. Among 99 qualified starters, he's No. 99 in walk rate. His walk rate is 13.5 percent, up from 10.3 percent last year and way up from the 7.8 percent in the second half of last season when he went on the great roll with Cleveland, his first consistent stretch since he began the 2010 season red-hot for the Rockies. Who is the real Ubaldo Jimenez? I'd suggest that what he has done over most of the past four seasons is a better barometer than three months.

What's it all mean? The Orioles are clearly a team with some fatal flaws: They don't walk so they are too reliant on hitting home runs; they lack a No. 1 to lead the rotation; and now they potentially have a hole at catcher. That's without mentioning the bullpen, which lost Monday's game in the eighth inning.

Look, this team could get hot, for all sorts of reasons: Davis goes on a tear, Machado improves, Tillman or Jimenez get straightened out, the bullpen settles down. But right now, the Orioles are 35-34 and that's what they look like to me: a .500 team.

Jimenez, Peralta at top of mound efforts

May, 3, 2014
Lots of storylines around the majors on Friday night, as you would expect. With all due respect to Starling Marte (walk-off homer against Toronto) and rookie Jose Abreu (11th homer of the season equals the total of the Kansas City Royals), however, the five most noteworthy performances of the evening occurred on the pitching mound.

1. Ubaldo Jimenez was nothing short of brutal in five April starts, but the big right-hander finally picked up his first win with the Orioles. He did so in dominating fashion, twirling 7 1/3 scoreless innings, while allowing just three hits and one walk in a 3-0 shutout of Minnesota.

More encouraging for Baltimore fans: Jimenez struck out 10 Twins. Before Friday night, he had been walking too many batters (17 in 27 1/3 innings), and the drop in fastball velocity (1.6 mph below last year’s fastball) continues to be worrisome, but the Orioles need an effective Jimenez if they want to stay atop the American League East.

2. Wily Peralta did it all himself in Cincinnati. Not only did the Brewers' right-hander pitch eight shutout innings, but Peralta also doubled in both of Milwaukee’s runs in a 2-0 win. Those RBIs were the first of Peralta’s career.

Milwaukee boasts the best record in baseball at 21-9; its 12-3 mark away from Miller Park is also the best in the league. We are just two days into May, and the Brew Crew has already opened up a six-game lead in the NL Central (9.5 over the last-place Cubs and Pirates).

[+] EnlargeMike Minor
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsBraves lefty Mike Minor took the loss in his season debut Friday night despite pitching well over six innings.
3. Much ink has been spilled about the early brilliance of Atlanta’s pitching, but you have to think that Mike Minor’s return to the Braves couldn’t have come at a better time. Minor was effective over six innings, permitting two runs on seven hits while striking out four (both San Francisco runs scored on solo homers). Of course, that performance wasn’t enough to out-duel Tim Lincecum, as the Giants won 2-1.

Minor has been Atlanta’s best pitcher since the 2012 All-Star break (87 1/3 IP, 2.16 ERA in the second half of 2012; 13-9, 3.21 ERA in 200+ innings last year). With the clock (possibly) striking midnight on Aaron Harang, and the club now mired in a four-game losing skid, Minor’s return to the top of the Atlanta rotation is welcome indeed.

4. Tom Koehler entered the season as Miami’s fifth starter after going 5-10 with a 4.41 ERA as a rookie last year. On Friday, Koehler pitched seven scoreless innings, holding the Dodgers to three hits in a 6-3 Marlins victory. The win was Miami’s seventh in a row at home; its 13-4 home record is the best in baseball. Also, don’t look now, but the win permitted the Marlins to climb above .500 for the first time since April 9.

Koehler is 3-2 with a 2.41 ERA on the season, but he seems like a good bet to return to Earth any time now. He has issued free passes to almost four batters per nine innings, and that 24/16 strikeout-to-walk ratio does not inspire confidence that he can continue to outperform his peripherals (4.41 FIP, for example).

5. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the best pitching matchup of the night: Cliff Lee vs. Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg pitched six strong innings, giving up three unearned runs in the first before settling down; he was lifted by manager Matt Williams after only 83 pitches. Lee had a typical Cliff Lee performance, allowing one earned run over seven innings. Things got a little testy in the fifth, when Lee got into a bit of a shouting match with Washington’s Denard Span, after which each player’s posse emerged from his respective dugout to mill around on the field before order was restored.

Finally, we didn’t really need more proof that you can’t predict baseball, but Lee and Strasburg provided it. Lee had issued four walks in his first six starts. He hadn’t walked a pitcher in three years. So what happened tonight? Yep, Lee walked Strasburg on four straight pitches.

You gotta love baseball.

Chad Dotson writes for Redleg Nation on the SweetSpot Blog Network.
1. The biggest story of the first two weeks has to be the Milwaukee Brewers, winners of nine in a row and at 10-2, two wins better than any other team in the early going. The big surprise is the Brewers have allowed just 29 runs, fewest in the majors. They swept Pittsburgh over the weekend by out-Pirating the Pirates, winning 4-2, 3-2 and 4-1.

Kyle Lohse was dominant in Sunday’s win, falling one out short of a complete game when manager Ron Roenicke removed him after Andrew McCutchen singled with two outs (Roenicke was greeted with a smattering of boos from the home crowd but was vindicated when Will Smith fanned Pedro Alvarez on three pitches to end it).

The Brewers are a difficult team to analyze. They’ve drawn just 25 walks, fourth fewest in the majors, so they love to swing the bats and you wonder if this aggressive approach will be exploited as the season rolls on. They have a 1.80 ERA and it hasn’t been just smoke and mirrors -- they’re fourth in the majors in strikeout percentage and tied for sixth in lowest walk percentage. The unknown at this point is whether the staff is really shaping up as one of the best in the majors. A year ago it ranked 27th in strikeout percentage and 11th in walk percentage.

Anyway, without overanalyzing two weeks of results, what I wanted to know about Milwaukee is this: Does a long winning streak mean good things are ahead for the Brewers? There are a lot of nine-game winning streaks in a season, so searching for any nine-game winning streak might not tell us much. I thought I’d check nine-game streaks in April to see if that correlates to season-long success. For example, last season the Braves and A’s both had nine-game winning streaks in April and went on to division titles.

But you know who else had a nine-game winning streak in April? The Milwaukee Brewers. Of course, they had started 2-8 before reeling off nine a row from April 14 through April 23, so that put them at 11-8. They were 14-11 through April 30 but then went 6-22 in May and the season was over.

Another way to look at the Brewers’ hot start is to look at teams that began 10-2 or better to start the season. Here are the teams since 1996 to do that:

2013 Braves: 11-1 (96-66, division title)
2012 Rangers: 10-2 (93-69, wild card)
2011 Rockies: 10-2 (73-89, missed playoffs)
2009 Marlins: 11-1 (87-75, missed playoffs)
2006 Mets: 10-2 (97-65, division title)
2005 Dodgers: 10-2 (71-91, missed playoffs)
2003 Giants: 11-1 (100-61, division title)
2003 Royals: 11-1 (83-79, missed playoffs)
2003 Yankees: 10-2 (101-61, division title)
2002 Indians: 11-1 (74-88, missed playoffs)
1999 Indians: 10-2 (97-65, division champ)
1998 Indians: 10-2 (89-73, division champ)
1998 Padres: 10-2 (98-64, division champ)
1998 Orioles: 10-2 (79-83, missed playoffs)
1996 Orioles: 10-2 (88-74, wild card)

The tally: The 15 teams went an average of 88-74 with nine of them making the playoffs. So a hot start isn’t a guarantee of reaching the postseason. The 2005 Dodgers started 10-2 and went 15-8 in April, but that proved to be their only winning month. Still, a 10-2 stretch is a sign of something. In the tough NL Central, it means we could be seeing a four-team race this year.

2. We’ll have more Braves coverage Monday to preview the Braves-Phillies game on ESPN, so just a couple of quick thoughts on the Braves’ impressive weekend sweep of the Nationals. Justin Upton, who is 11-for-14 over his past four games with four home runs, two doubles and 8 RBIs, is in one of his patented hot streaks. But we've seen this before, most notably last April. I still don’t expect Upton to suddenly morph into anything different from what he was last year, but it's fun to watch when he gets in a groove.

The Nationals are 6-0 against the Mets and Marlins, 1-5 against the Braves ... which sounds a lot like 2013, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 80-63 against everyone else. Until they prove they can beat the Braves, I’m going to withdraw my preseason evaluation of the Nationals as one of the three best teams in baseball.

Finally, Freddie Freeman: No hitter has looked more impressive through two weeks than Freeman, who is hitting .442/.519/.814. He hit his fourth home run Sunday -- a towering fly ball to right field (about as high as you’ll see any home run hit). Most impressive to me is he’s struck out just four times in 52 plate appearances -- a 7.7 percent strikeout rate compared to 19.2 percent in 2013. If this K-rate is a sign of a new and improved Freeman, he’s going to win the batting title.

3. Mark Buehrle is one of those players you don’t properly appreciate until you take the time to properly appreciate him. The fastest pitch he’s thrown this season is 86.0 mph and after a sterling seven-inning effort in Toronto’s 11-3 pounding of the Orioles he’s 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA.

He has as many swings and misses in his three starts (24) as Felix Hernandez got on Opening Day, but he pounds that outside corner to right-handed batters and they often pounded it into the ground. When they say velocity doesn't matter, what they really mean, "Well, no, not if you can paint the corners like Mark Buehrle." Since Buehrle debuted in 2000, the only pitchers with more than his 189 wins are CC Sabathia (206), Tim Hudson (196) and Roy Halladay (194).

4. In that game, Ubaldo Jimenez had his third shaky outing, giving up 10 hits and five runs, including two home runs. He’s 0-3 and has allowed 13 runs in 16 innings, with a 13-10 strikeout-walk ratio and four home runs. Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie tagged him Sunday, Rasmus on a 3-2, 92 mph low fastball over the middle of the plate and Lawrie on a 2-1 splitter that was pretty much down the middle. Obviously, both were pitches in bad locations.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDon't worry about Chris Davis -- he'll still hit a bunch of home runs this year.
Compared to last year, Jimenez’s velocity on his fastball is down a bit (91.7 to 90.0) and while his overall percentage of strikes is about the same, he’s throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (50 percent to 46 percent) and inducing about 4 percent fewer swings and misses. We don’t want to consign this to the bad signings bin after three outings, but so far Jimenez hasn’t resembled the pitcher who had a 1.82 ERA over his final 13 starts last season for Cleveland.

5. More Orioles: Chris Davis, last year’s 53-homer monster, finally hit his first of 2014, a 433-foot bash to straightaway center. The good news here is that Davis hasn’t actually been "slumping" like he's prone to do; he’s still hitting .279/.353/.419, so at least he has been contributing even without the home runs. I'm not worried about the slow power output so far and still see him as a 38-to-40 homer guy. I thought I’d check to see which players who hit 50-plus home runs had the biggest decrease the following season. Here are those who fell by 25 or more home runs:

Hack Wilson, 1930-31: -43 (56 to 13)
Mark McGwire, 1999-2000: -33 (65 to 32)
Brady Anderson, 1996-97: -32 (50 to 18)
Luis Gonzalez, 2001-02: -29 (57 to 28)
Roger Maris, 1961-62: -28 (61 to 33)
Barry Bonds, 2001-02: -27 (73 to 46)
Hank Greenberg, 1938-39: -25 (58 to 33)

Of the 42 previous players to hit 50, they dropped on average from 55.7 home runs to 43.6 the following season, which puts Davis right around 40.

6. After tearing apart the Angels in their opening series, the Mariners' offense is starting to look a lot like ... the Mariners' offense. In four of their five losses since that 3-0 start they’ve allowed three runs or fewer, so the pitching staff has done its job even with Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker on the disabled list.

The A’s beat the Mariners 3-1 Saturday and shut them out 3-0 Sunday behind Scott Kazmir (looking good early on) and some late runs. Suddenly, the Mariners are hitting .225 and rank 27th in the majors in batting average and on-base percentage. Robinson Cano is hitting .333 but hasn’t homered and some disturbing numbers have come from Kyle Seager (.121), Brad Miller (17 strikeouts, one walk), Mike Zunino (12 strikeouts, no walks) and Corey Hart (nine strikeouts, one walk).

7. Here’s a double play you rarely see: 6-2-4-3-2 as the Rays recorded two outs at home plate. It didn't matter in the end as the Reds won 12-4, but the Rays still won the series after winning 2-1 and 1-0 in the first two games behind David Price and Alex Cobb. Cesar Ramos started Sunday in place of the injured Matt Moore in what was essentially a bullpen game -- Tampa Bay used six pitchers, none for more than two innings. For all the attention given to Billy Hamilton’s slow start, shortstop Zack Cozart is hitting even worse (.114/.162/.171). The more you look at this Reds lineup, the more you wonder where the runs are going to come from.

8. Continuing on our struggling offenses theme, we bring you the Kansas City Royals, who have one home run in 11 games. They suffered a three-game sweep in Minnesota, getting outscored 21-5. Sunday’s 4-3 loss was especially dispiriting as the Royals had scored three runs in the top of the eighth to take a 3-2 lead on a 42-degree day in Minneapolis. But Aaron Crow walked the first two batters of the eighth, bringing on Wade Davis, who struck out Joe Mauer but then loaded the bases with another walk.

He induced a tapper back to the mound for what could have been a 1-2-3 inning-ending double play but instead threw wildly to catcher Salvador Perez. One major reason for the Royals’ 86-76 record last year was beating up on the hapless Twins -- they went 15-4 with a plus-47 scoring margin (exactly their scoring margin for the season). We give the two-week caveat, but this game showcased my concern with the Royals heading into the season: a lack of power and a bullpen that probably wasn’t going to repeat last year’s AL-leading 2.55 ERA.

9. Two general takeaways from the first weeks: There is a lot of parity in the American League this season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see two or even three playoff teams from the AL win fewer than 90 games. The only AL playoff teams in the past decade to win fewer than 90 were the 2012 Tigers (88), 2009 Twins (87) and 2008 White Sox (89).

Second, offense is puttering along at about the same pace as last year, when batters hit .253/.318/.396, the lowest major league average of the DH era (since 1973). This year, we’re off to a .247/.316/.393 start heading into the Sunday night Red Sox-Yankees game. And, no, offense doesn’t always pick up when the weather heats up.

Last year, the OPS per month ranged from .706 (July and September) to .722 (May). In 2012, hitters were "cold" in April with .711 OPS and increased that to .730 and .731 in May, June and July. In 2011, the OPS ranged from .708 (June) to .740 (August).

10. Adrian Gonzalez homered Sunday for the fourth straight game and Giancarlo Stanton hit another mammoth bomb Saturday, a 469-foot blast that now gives him the first- and third-longest home runs of 2014. But the biggest home run news of the week came Wednesday when David Ortiz took 32.91 seconds to round the bases after his home run -- the slowest trot yet recorded on Larry Granillo’s Tater Trot leaderboard.

Would adding Johan Santana help O's?

March, 3, 2014
This is getting talked up on Twitter as very close to happening: Johan Santana could be an Oriole.

If so, I love it. I love it even if it subsequently turns out that he has nothing left and that his towering stack of injuries has robbed him of his ability to pitch effectively for any length of time. I love it because you won’t know that for sure until you check him out. If the O’s take that chance, more power to them.

For most of the last month, Santana has been promoting and throwing bullpen sessions to advertise both that he’s still alive -- after missing all of 2013 and 2011, as well as a big chunk of 2012, people start to wonder -- and that his arm is sound. Since he has been touching only 80 on the gun, it’s hard to say he’s all the way back.

Even so, the Orioles are one of the teams that can’t just afford to take a flyer on him. They have to if they want to take themselves seriously. Not because of what Santana is now, but because of what he might be if he can come back to some fraction of his former self. Think of it as a latter-day John Tudor play: If he’s healthy enough to pitch, chances are he’ll be good enough to help you win.

Does Johan Santana have anything left?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,258)

Why does that matter for the O’s? Because after you get past Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman, Baltimore has lunch-bucket types, guys who might make a nice No. 4 in anybody’s rotation: Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris at the least, plus Zach Britton and Brian Matusz, if you’re feeling generous. Top prospect Kevin Gausman will eventually pitch his way past that crowd of mediocrity. But over 162 games and especially early on, that mediocrity and depth will have value, keeping games in reach for Chris Davis & Co. while giving Buck Showalter enough talent to work with until Santana and Gausman are ready to contribute.

Why them, and why later? Because in a perfect-world, blue-sky scenario where the Orioles contend, you don’t want to wind up in the postseason having to start Norris. Gausman might give the Orioles a key front-end starter down the stretch, perhaps playing as large a role for them as Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole did for their teams last year. Running up some combination of Santana and Gausman, Jimenez and Tillman? Now we’re talking, not just about a team that might get to the one-game wild-card play-in but a team that might have the starting pitching to win a division series.

So credit the Orioles if they’re willing to roll the dice. It isn’t like Peter Angelos can take all of his tobacco lawsuit money with him, and for the O’s -- and their fans -- there’s no time like the present.

If Santana gives us some fraction of that world-beating pitcher who won two Cy Youngs, just call me greedy, because it’ll be fun to watch.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
It's one month to the official start date of spring training (the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will start a week earlier due to their opening two games in Australia). It has been quiet the past few weeks as everybody waits for Masahiro Tanaka to sign. But the quiet means there are still many questions to consider over the next month. Here are 14:

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

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

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

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

3. Will the Rangers try to replace Derek Holland?

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

4. Are the Mariners done?

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

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

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

6. Where does Stephen Drew land?

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

7. Where does Ubaldo Jimenez land?

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

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

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

9. Are the Royals done?

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

10. So who signs Santana?

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

11. Which team has had the best offseason?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. Will anybody get traded before spring training?

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

14. Which team wins the World Series?

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

But there will be a team that will come out of nowhere, the Red Sox or Pirates of 2013. The magic of the unknown still exists in baseball. In a month, it all begins. I can't wait.
Last season left a bitter taste with the Washington Nationals: World Series favorites heading into the season, the team never got going and was frustratingly mediocre all season until an 18-9 September -- thank you, Mets and Marlins -- pushed their final record to 86-76.

Matt Williams has replaced Davey Johnson as manager, but the toughest question that general manager Mike Rizzo must solve: How to improve this club?

For some teams, the holes are obvious; the Nationals' problems aren't so easy to fix. On paper, it's a team without any outstanding strengths or weaknesses. They finished sixth in the National League in runs scored and sixth in runs allowed. They ranked sixth in rotation ERA and 11th in bullpen ERA, so maybe you can argue they need to improve the relief corps. The bench was horrible in 2013, so that could use an upgrade, but bullpens and benches are notoriously fickle.

While Rizzo will look to improve those areas (although with Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen and Drew Storen in the pen, you're looking at a second-tier type of reliever), he needs to aim higher.

That leaves two moves Rizzo could do to make the Nationals better.

1. All eight of his starting position players are under contract, but there is one big signing he could make to improve the lineup: Sign Robinson Cano to play second, move Anthony Rendon back to his natural position of third base, and slide Ryan Zimmerman over to first base, where his throwing problems would no longer be an issue. That leaves Adam LaRoche without a job, but you could keep him around for bench strength or trade him to a team that needs a first baseman, like the Pirates.

Financially, signing Cano is feasible. The only players signed long term are Zimmerman (through 2019), Jayson Werth (through 2017), and Gio Gonzalez (through 2016). Of course, at some point the Nationals will need to pony up big money if they hope to keep Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, and right now Cano's asking price is absurdly high.

The other move is more fiscally responsible.

2. While Cano would look nice in the middle of the lineup, the Nationals can expect to score more runs merely from improvement from Harper, a full season from Rendon and better production from the bench. So that leaves the starting rotation. Once you get past Strasburg, Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, it thins out. Ross Detwiler wasn't good last season and battled injuries, Dan Haren is a free agent, and none of the young guys who pitched down the stretch is an elite prospect (Nate Karns is the best one, although Tanner Roark pitched well late in the season).

There are no No. 1 or No. 2 starters in free agency this year (not including Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka), but Ubaldo Jimenez is a guy with No. 1 or 2 potential, and flashed that ability the final four months of 2013 with Cleveland, when he went 10-6 with a 2.40 ERA in 22 starts. He was even more dominant in his final 12 starts, posting a 1.72 ERA. There was nothing that screams fluke in these numbers, as his BABIP was well over .300. Jimenez simply threw more strikes than he has in years and let his natural movement take over.

Yes, he's a risk to fall back into the mechanical nightmares of recent seasons, which led to his struggles in 2011 and 2012 and the first part of 2013, but free agency is the ultimate high-stakes poker game anyway, and it's not like Matt Garza and Ervin Santana don't come with associated risks as well.

Jimenez is the one who can provide the most upside and probably comes in a little less expensive. Plus he has a rubber arm, having made more than 30 starts six seasons in a row, one of just 13 starters to have done that. Garza has battled some injuries, and Santana has been inconsistent and homer-prone despite playing in pitcher-friendly parks.

Plus, Jimenez wouldn't be expected to be the savior in this rotation; he'd merely line up as the fourth guy behind a very good top three. That leaves the Nationals plenty of depth with Karns, Detwiler and Roark battling for the fifth slot. Strasburg, Zimmerman, Gonzalez and Jimenez?

Sounds like a playoff rotation to me.

SweetSpot TV: Offseason rapid fire!

November, 21, 2013

Eric and I roll through some of the hot topics of the offseason (we taped this before the big Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler trade) -- Robinson Cano, Ervin Santana and Matt Garza, Paul Konerko's possible return to the White Sox, Eric's beloved but aging Phillies, Carlos Beltran, Stephen Drew and Ubaldo Jimenez.

No surprises in qualifying offers

November, 4, 2013
Thirteen free agents received one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offers from their previous team, meaning those players will have now a choice: See what the market bears or return to their team for that one-year offer (or negotiate a new contract with that club).

Those 13 players:

Stephen Drew, Red Sox
Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Mike Napoli, Red Sox
Robinson Cano, Yankees
Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
Ervin Santana, Royals
Nelson Cruz, Rangers
Kendrys Morales, Mariners
Brian McCann, Braves
Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
Shin-Soo Choo, Reds

These players are now tied to first-round compensation picks if the team that signs them doesn't own one of the top 10 picks (Astros, Marlins, White Sox, Cubs, Twins, Mariners, Phillies, Rockies, Blue Jays, Mets). Those 10 teams would have to sacrifice a second-round pick for signing one of those 13 guys.

In the case of a highly sought free agent suc as Cano, Ellsbury or Choo, this will likely have little effect on contract offers they receive. However, for several of the players on the list this could drastically reduce their demand. We saw this happen last year with several players, most notably Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (who both ended up signing with Cleveland, which owned a protected top-10 pick), Kyle Lohse (who didn't sign with the Brewers until spring training was under way), and Adam LaRoche (who declined the Nationals' $13.3 million qualifying offer before eventually returning to Washington on a two-year, $24 million deal).

For example, considering Beltran's age, he was probably looking at a two-year contract. Would a contending team be willing to give up a first-round pick for two seasons of him? Perhaps. With Cruz coming off his PED suspension and given that he'll turn 34 next July, he's another guy who will now see limited demand. In both cases, it wouldn't surprise me if it pushes both players back to their original team, unless one of the bottom 10 teams come calling in hot pursuit (such as the Phillies). Coming off an injury, Curtis Granderson also could be headed back to the Yankees.

For Morales, this almost guarantees he returns to Seattle. The market for designated hitters has been slow in recent seasons and it's unlikely any team will give him $14.1 million, even on a one-year deal, and certainly not at the cost of a first-round pick. He'll probably go back to Seattle, maybe negotiating a deal similar to what LaRoche signed with the Nationals last year.

The most interesting guy could be Drew. He was a free agent a year ago and signed a one-year deal with Boston that paid him $9.5 million. After missing time in 2011 and 2012 with injuries, he had his best season at the plate since 2010. Considering he's the only top shortstop on the market, interest in him was expected to be high. But if you're, say, the Cardinals and wishing to replace Pete Kozma, do you want to give Drew a multi-year contract for tens of millions and lose that first-round pick? That's a tougher call.

The fall and rise of Ubaldo Jimenez

September, 19, 2013
When the Ubaldo Jimenez trade was first announced at the 2011 trade deadline, I was guardedly optimistic. There were a lot of Cleveland Indians fans who seemed to take a similar position, but a lot more who thought Drew Pomeranz and Alex White were too steep of a price for the Indians to pay for a struggling starter. The prevailing opinion was also based on paranoia that the Rockies knew something was up with Jimenez, that they were trying to offload him before it was too late.

It didn't take long for the guarded optimism to disappear. As Cleveland fell out of the playoff race in 2011, Jimenez certainly didn't pitch like an ace trying to catapult his team into October. Fans just had to hope that he would be able to turn it around in 2012, that he would look more like the 2010 Rockies version of Jimenez, the guy who finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. As he faltered in 2012, it seemed to strike a nerve of rage among most Indians fans. People who were never fully sold on the trade to begin with were seeing exactly what they had feared. Jimenez was so maddeningly inconsistent. Instead of trying to decide whether we would see "good Ubaldo" or "bad Ubaldo" in any given game, I started to flip a coin. Heads was "good Ubaldo," tails was "bad Ubaldo." I talked to a lot of fans who just wanted to release him, see Cleveland cut its losses and move on. The good moments seemed few and far between, and the bad moments were increasing in frequency and intensity.

[+] EnlargeUbaldo Jimenez
AP Photo/Tony DejakUbaldo Jimenez is 12-9 with a 3.49 ERA but has a 1.83 ERA since the All-Star break.
By the 2013 season, a lot of Indians fans had already given up on Jimenez. But then a strange thing started to happen: The bad moments started to decline while the dominant outings were on the rise. People still didn't want to believe in him; the late 2011 and 2012 versions were just too prominent in their memories. As Jimenez's starts consistently improved, there were still fans who complained about his high pitch counts early in games, griping that he had trouble making it past the fifth or sixth inning. When I told people Jimenez's ERA actually was lower than Justin Masterson's since the beginning of June, they laughed at me and acted as if I were showing them pictures of my Bigfoot sighting.

The Indians are in the midst of the wild-card race -- a half-game behind the Rangers entering Jimenez's start Thursday against the Astros -- and have secured their first winning season since 2007. One of the major reasons for their success is the emergence of Jimenez as the pitcher they envisioned when they traded for him in 2011. Since the All-Star break, he's sporting a 1.83 ERA and batters are hitting just .224/.294/.338 against him (down from a 4.56 ERA in the first half, when batters hit .252/.342/.405 against him). His WHIP has dropped from 1.61 in 2012 to 1.37 in 2013, his swing-and-miss rate has improved dramatically and is closer to his 2010 figure, and his ground ball percentage has climbed by nearly 5 percentage points compared with 2012.

With Masterson sidelined because of a strained left oblique, the Indians need a dominant final two or three starts from Jimenez. The sad thing now is that, just as fans have started to trust and even love Jimenez, he might be on his way out the door this winter. Although he and Scott Kazmir have said they would love to discuss staying in Cleveland, the fact remains that Jimenez has an $8 million option for next season that became both a player and team option once he was traded to the Indians. Even if the Indians pick up their half, it's unlikely Jimenez will do so. When you consider the deals that Edwin Jackson and Kyle Lohse received this offseason, and add in that it's a fairly thin starting pitching market this winter, it makes more sense for Jimenez to angle for a multiyear year deal from some team. Although Indians fans hope he's willing to work with Cleveland to make this happen, there's the fear that a much wealthier team will swoop in with an offer he can't refuse. Plus, the paranoid part of your brain wonders whether he is somehow "fixed" or perhaps this is all just some kind of mirage -- that, instead of the 2013 version, the Tribe would commit a multiyear deal to the 2012 Jimenez.

I think it's a testament to how far Jimenez has come this year that, when asked by a fellow Indians fan whom I would start in the wild-card game (if Cleveland should make it there) if Masterson is unable to go, I answered "probably Ubaldo."

Stephanie Liscio writes for the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" blog on the Indians.

Congratulations, Ned Yost, you just managed the worst inning of the season.

The situation: The Kansas City Royals trailed the Cleveland Indians 4-3 entering the top of the ninth. The Indians summoned closer Chris Perez from the bullpen, a guy who has been awful of late. In his previous 13 appearances Perez had faced 60 batters and allowed 18 hits -- including four home runs -- and four walks. In September, he'd pitched four innings and allowed eight hits.

Salvador Perez led off with a base hit to left field. Mike Moustakas walked on four pitches. Pinch-runners for both were on base. Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Alcides Escobar -- the bottom of the order -- were due up. You have a struggling pitcher who just walked a batter on four pitches. What do you do?

[+] EnlargeJimenez
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesUbaldo Jimenez stepped up and dealt at a time when the Tribe needed him to.
Here's what you don't do: Give Perez an out.

David Lough pinch-hit for Cain and sacrificed. Didn't take a pitch. Didn't make Perez throw at least one strike. He bunted the first pitch.

Look, it's not just the sabermetric crowd who is anti-bunt. Managers have become anti-bunt, not sacrificing nearly as often as they used to. It's a one-run strategy with minimal payoff in a world where more hitters than ever can drive the ball for extra bases or out of the park. A bunt may slightly increase your chance to score one run but it also decreases your chance for multiple runs. It's a strategy from an era when singles were more common, but in this age of increasing strikeouts and declining batting averages, singles are less likely than ever to occur.

In this specific instance, though, why give an out to a pitcher who has been a train wreck of late? Why make him get only two outs in an inning instead of three?

Yost then trumped that decision with an even worse one: He pinch-hit Carlos Pena for Dyson. That's .208-hitting Carlos Pena. That's Carlos Pena, with two major league plate appearances since July 20. That's Carlos Pena, the owner of one of the highest strikeout rates in the majors (28 percent of his PAs this year). So with the Royals' season on the line -- well, maybe not quite the entire season, although it sure felt like it to Royals fans -- Yost sent up a guy who doesn't hit singles and had a 1-in-3 chance of striking out.

Maybe he was hoping for a sacrifice fly, playing for the tie rather than the win. Go for the knockout blow there when you have a chance. (You can argue that he should have saved Lough to hit for Dyson, since he's a much better contact guy than Pena.)

Pena saw six pitches. Didn't move the bat off his shoulder. Called out on strikes. An awful at-bat by a veteran who knew he was sent up there to put the ball in play. Then again, that's what Pena does: He strikes out. After George Kottares, yet another pinch-hitter, skillfully coaxed a walk off Perez, Alex Gordon flew out to shallow center. Game over. Season over?

Yost, you may remember, was the manager the Milwaukee Brewers fired with 12 games remaining in the 2008 season -- they were battling for the playoffs but had just lost six of seven. Dale Sveum replaced him and went 7-5 over the final 12 games and the Brewers won the wild card. Who fires their manager with 12 games left in a playoff season? I mean, outside of the NHL? A front office that felt it could do better.

So ... this was a huge win for the Indians, and a huge start again for Ubaldo Jimenez, who allowed one unearned in seven innings, with 10 strikeouts and no walks. It was his second walk-less start of the season, but also his second in three starts: He had a 10-K, no-walk start against Atlanta on Aug. 29. In fact, since July 22, Jimenez has a 1.95 ERA in nine starts, with 63 strikeouts, 22 walks and three home runs in 55 2/3 innings. It's his best run of pitching since that great start he had for the Rockies in 2010.

The Indians need him to keep doing this with Justin Masterson possibly out the rest of the season. With the Rays idle, the Indians (and victorious Orioles) moved to 1.5 games behind Tampa for the second wild card. The Royals dropped down to 4 back. In a most painful way.

Takes a Tribe to grind down Verlander

May, 12, 2013

Say you’re the Cleveland Indians. You’ve been one of baseball’s hottest teams, but you’re in Detroit against the defending pennant winners, you got routed in the first game of the series, and you’re facing Justin Verlander, who’s still on top of most people’s lists for best pitcher on the planet.

How to beat all of those seemingly insuperable challenges and pull off a win? Easy: It takes the whole Tribe.

Consistent with what has worked for the Indians so far this season, that’s how they pulled off an upset 7-6 victory Saturday in the Motor City to make it clear that the American League Central is a race that has months to run. Put on the spot, Cleveland's offense did the best things possible against Verlander: The Indians scored early and often, but most of all, they used him up to get to the Tigers bullpen early. The Tribe had already pushed Verlander to 90 pitches through the first four innings. Even allowing for Jim Leyland’s understandable willingness to let his ace achieve feats of strength racking up big pitch counts, that’s not what long nights from your best pitcher are made of.

Getting four runs off Verlander through five innings was big, but getting the next three runs with nine baserunners against the Tigers’ bullpen over the following three innings was the decisive reward, an opportunity created by a top-to-bottom lineup that, even as some hitters have struggled, is doing a good job of creating shark attack-like feeding frenzies in-game.

That might sound easy enough, because the Indians rank second in the league to the Tigers in runs per game, and they’re first in OPS for the time being. Those numbers create an illusion of strength this lineup has not yet made good on, though: As my old Baseball Prospectus compadre Joe Sheehan noted last week in his excellent newsletter, the Tribe has been far from consistent in terms of scoring -- plating two runs or less in 12 of their first 34 games -- but thanks to 13-0, 19-6 and 14-2 wins in the early going, they project as a statistical powerhouse only in the aggregate.

[+] EnlargeNick Swisher
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNick Swisher helped the Indians wear down Justin Verlander, working two walks off the Tigers ace.
However, look at that info, and it would be easy to overstate their failings, because Cleveland's offense has qualities most teams would kill for. The Indians are grinding down opposing pitchers, they’re exploiting the flexibility and depth they built up over the winter, and what problems they do have are ones that can be fixed.

Consider their grinding approach on offense. The Indians are next-to-last in the league in swinging strikes, and fourth in the league in pitches per plate appearance. Which is not to say they’re enjoying perfect success; their walk rate of 8.0 percent is below league average. But walks aren’t the sole goal of getting deep into counts -- they’re just one of the positive outcomes, but getting your pitch and simultaneously using up the opposing starter are the others. The Indians extend their at-bats and make opponents work, but it’s interesting to note that they’re not collectively watching strike three go by: Unlike the sabermetrically-beloved Rays and their league-leading 30 percent clip for being called out by those oh-so-human umps on their whiffs, the Indians are down around league average at 25 percent.

One of the other cool features of the Indians’ assemblage is that theirs is a lineup stocked with moving parts. Nick Swisher rotating from first to right field to designated hitter from night to night is no surprise, but he’s not the only roving corner in Terry Francona’s playing-time scheme. Mark Reynolds has split his time among first, DH and third. (To some of us among the chatterati, Reynolds might have initially seemed like a free agent signed too soon for too much, but with a league-leading homer tally and that value at multiple lineup slots, the Indians may well get the last laugh.) Carlos Santana is doing his variation on a Buster Posey theme by moving to first or DH when he isn’t catching. Mike Aviles provides considerably more power than your average utility infielder, which is why he starts more regularly than one.

That flexibility could come even more into play as we get deeper into the season. Now that Michael Bourn is back from the disabled list, you might wonder how much Francona will still be able to keep all of his hitters active and sharp with an everyday player back in the mix. But the silver lining of losing Bourn for a couple weeks to injury might just be getting to (over)expose Drew Stubbs for what he is, now that he’s 28 and been doing this for years: A fine defender and baserunner, but not a regular at a corner.

That isn’t the Indians’ only lineup issue: Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall’s early-season struggles force the question of whether he’s going to turn the corner and stick as an everyday player. He came into Saturday with a career .288 OBP in 466 PAs; if he fielded like Brooks Robinson or slugged like Rob Deer, that’s a survivable blemish, but he doesn’t do those things. He’ll need to improve, or risk losing at-bats to some combination of Aviles and Reynolds.

If players like Stubbs and Chisenhall come around, that’s great. But if not, the Indians already have the depth on hand to make some hard choices. If Francona wants to keep putting pressure on opposing pitchers, that will continue to mean expanded playing time for his duo of handy platoon bats from the bench -- lefty thumper Jason Giambi at DH and lefty-masher Ryan Raburn -- thanks to the position flexibility his other starters and semi-regulars possess. And if the Indians still don’t have a happy answer by the end of July, renting a free agent-to-be at the trade deadline wouldn’t cost much in talent or treasure.

That’s because the Indians shouldn’t have to indulge Chisenhall or Stubbs their struggles all season, not as a contender. Because that’s what these Indians should be: Contenders. Maybe just for the AL Central title, and maybe because the Tigers fail to run away with it. But contenders just the same.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Some quick reactions to Monday's fine major league baseball action ...

  • [+] EnlargeMatt Cain
    Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe Giants on Monday recorded their first win of the season in a game that Matt Cain started.
    The good news for the Giants: A 6-4 win over the Diamondbacks to snap a five-game losing streak and a win for the first time when Matt Cain started. The bad news: Cain scuffled yet again. Cain was sailing along until the fourth inning, when he served up home runs to Jason Kubel, Eric Chavez and Martin Prado. Cain left with a no-decision, and while he remains winless in six starts, it's not just poor run support that explains his 0-2 record. He's allowed nine home runs in his past four starts, including three in two of those. He'd allowed three in a game just twice in the previous three seasons. He also walked four against Arizona. Should the Giants be worried? Kubel and Prado hit fastballs that were both down and in, while Chavez hit a changeup off the plate out to left. Blame Cain for the first two, but give Chavez credit for his. Hitters have been doing a lot of damage off Cain's fastball, hitting .264/.354/.528, compared to a .255/.332/.429 line last year. I think he'll be fine but everyone seems to agree that his stuff just hasn't been as sharp. Keep an eye on his fastball next time out; as with nearly every starting pitcher, everything else plays off the fastball.
  • The Matt Harvey-Jose Fernandez matchup kind of fizzled as Fernandez lasted just four innings and 81 pitches while Harvey was pulled in the sixth after laboring through 121 pitches. The game ended up going 15 innings, thanks primarily to the Mets going 1-for-18 with runners in scoring position. The game featured 512 pitches, 16 pitchers and last more than 5 hours. Not exactly one for the time capsule. Shaun Marcum, who had started and threw 70 pitches on Saturday, ended up taking the loss for the Mets, giving up two runs in the bottom of the 15th after the Mets had scored in the top of the inning. At 10-14, reality is starting to hit the Mets: They're not very good. As for Fernandez, after a dominating first two starts, he's been hit around a bit, primarily to hitters jumping on his fastball early in the count. They're hitting .367 off the pitch in his past three starts. He's going to be a very good pitcher but he's learning that it's a big leap from Class A to the majors.
  • Giancarlo Stanton landed on the DL after the game with a strained right hamstring suffered in the 10th inning. A shame, especially considering he had homered three times in six at-bats entering the game and looked ready to begin a patented Stanton terror. He missed time last year with a knee problem and then a strained intercostal muscle and you have to start wondering if durability is going to be an issue with him.
  • Indians 9, Royals 0. Takeaways: 1. Ubaldo Jimenez won a game! Don't count on this becoming a regular habit. 2. Jason Kipnis hit his first home run. Kipnis (.185/.260/.277) and Lonnie Chisenhall (0-for-4, .221/.254/.368) have to start producing if the Indians want to do anything. 3. Eric Hosmer, another doughnut; .250, three doubles, no homers now and the frustrations build. 4. The Wade Davis (4.2 IP, 12 H, 8 R) starter experiment is probably nearing its end. His stuff just doesn't play up as a starter. Move him back to the pen where he was so good last year with Tampa and give Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar another shot at the rotation. Wait, did I just say to start Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar?
  • Props to the Brewers: After starting 2-8, they'll end up finishing April with a winning record after beating the Pirates 10-4 to go to 13-11. Starter Yovani Gallardo hit his second home run -- one of five the Brewers hit -- and gave up just three hits in seven innings. Jean Segura is really looking good for the Brewers, with three more hits to raise his average to .364.
  • The Dodgers activated Hanley Ramirez from the DL but he didn't start, which seems a little strange. He pinch-hit and struck out in a 12-2 loss to Colorado. The Dodgers' 6-7-8 hitters: Skip Schumaker, Luis Cruz and Justin Sellers. Come on. In his second major league game, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado went 3-for-6 with his first home run. Welcome to the bigs, kid.
  • Kevin Gregg picked put up his fourth save for the Cubs. KEVIN GREGG.
  • A's fans chanting to Josh Hamilton: "Thank you, Josh. Thank you, Josh." (In reference to his dropped fly ball in Game 162 last year that helped the A's win the AL West.) Job well done, A's fans.
Does one game in July really change a team’s season? Keith Law and I start with the interesting Nationals-Mets game from Tuesday night and take it from there for Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast!

1. While the Nats continue to impress, and we dissect their lineup, the Mets are struggling. But are they really out of it.

2. Arizona’s Trevor Bauer had a difficult Tuesday as well, and Keith discusses how his wildness could prevent a larger issue.

3. Another day, another discussion about Stephen Strasburg and his innings limit, but could the Nationals have avoided this entire mess?

4. Our emailers need to discuss trading Jon Lester and Ubaldo Jimenez, catchers framing pitches and the Cape Cod League!

5. Today’s schedule features the Phillies trying to do something they haven’t done all year, Francisco Liriano either adding to or subtracting from his trade value and Doug Fister seeing if he can get on a roll like last year.

So download and listen to Wednesday’s fun and comprehensive Baseball Today podcast, because each and every time our producer discusses his beloved Red Sox, it makes us laugh.

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!)

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

Forget Albert Pujols. There's another reason to watch the Los Angeles Angels, and his name is Mike Trout.

For all the hype Bryce Harper has rightfully received, it's time to start giving a few headlines to another rookie phenom, time to give the Left Coast a little love. Trout went 3-for-4 with a home run, a stolen base and three runs scored in the Angels' 4-0 victory over the A's on Tuesday. In 15 games since getting recalled from Triple-A, Trout is hitting .316 BA/.369 OBP/.561 SLG, reminding Angels fans what an All-Star batting line is supposed to look like and why a homegrown, five-tool rookie with young, fresh legs is a player to get more pumped about watching than a money-for-hire Hall of Famer you purchased on the free-agent market.

So while we wait for Pujols to get untracked, maybe the Angels' answer to their offensive prayers -- they've been shut out an MLB-leading eight times -- is a kid who doesn't turn 21 until August.

Against Bartolo Colon, he took a middle-in fastball and crushed it just to the right of center field, off the back wall behind the center-field fence in Anaheim. There aren't many leadoff hitters who can mash a pitch with that type of authority. The other day, he showcased his quick, compact swing, yanking a 2-1 fastball from Yu Darvish well over the left-field fence in Texas. His first home run came on a 1-0 fastball off Toronto's Kyle Drabek, a 93 mph heater low in the zone that Trout hit to left-center.

I think those returns are pretty clear: Trout can do some serious damage when he gets into a fastball count.

Trout is even faster than Harper and much more advanced defensively (although he lacks Harper's arm). And for all the awe for Harper's quick rise, Trout is only a year older. Like Harper, he debuted in the majors while still 19 years old. Like the previous two 19-year-old center-field phenoms -- a couple of guys named Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey Jr. -- Trout has that broad range of skills that should make him a franchise player as he matures.

My favorite aspect of the Trout/Harper comparisons is that the two will always be linked, even though they play in different leagues and cities three time zones apart. Just like we debated Rodriguez and Jeter and Garciaparra back in the late '90s, or like New Yorkers debated Mays and Mantle and Snider in the 1950s, I'm sure we'll be endlessly debating Trout and Harper for years to come.

The other highly rated prospects entering the season were Tampa Bay Rays lefty Matt Moore and Mariners catcher/designed hitter Jesus Montero. They aren't off to impressive starts like Trout and Harper, but let's take a closer look at them as well.

Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
I'll make this one brief. We've seen Harper's lightning-quick bat speed and raw power with his home runs in back-to-back games -- one blast to dead center and the one Tuesday to deep right-center. We've also seen a few misplays in the field, however, from losing a ball in the darkened skies Sunday to dropping a fly ball Monday.


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And of course, we've seen the rocket arm and the top-grade athleticism. There's no reason to believe he can't be a superb fielder with more experience. I think the biggest positive is his strikeout rate hasn't been excessive, with 11 in 60 at-bats. Along with his ability to hit left-handers, that was the big concern of his premature call-up. While there were initial thoughts that his time in the majors would be temporary, his play and the Nationals' injuries mean he's here to stay.

Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays
When I polled the SweetSpot network bloggers before the season for their American League rookie of the year predictions, Moore came out on top, outpointing Darvish. I wasn't quite as optimistic, as I believed Moore's spectacular playoff performance against the Rangers raised expectations to unrealistic levels. The only rookie starter since 2000 to pitch at least 162 innings with an ERA less than 3.00 was Jeremy Hellickson, and his flukey .224 average on balls in play had something to do with that. With Moore, I still wanted to see a guy who had the consistent command needed to dominate in the majors.

That's been a big issue with him so far, as he's walked 22 batters in 39 innings, a rate of 5.1 walks per nine. As Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Info points out, Moore also has struggled with runners on base:

Justin also writes that Moore "continues to leave entirely too many balls up in the zone, ranking sixth out of 115 pitchers in percentage of total pitches 'up' in the zone." This ties into Moore having the third-highest walk rate (12.4 percent) among starters, behind only Ubaldo Jimenez and Drabek, and six home runs allowed in seven starts.

There are no major issues here, other than pointing out that most young pitchers do go through a learning curve. Hellickson -- who doesn't have the raw stuff Moore owns -- set the bar high with his own rookie campaign, but that type of season is the exception.

Jesus Montero, Seattle Mariners
It's also a mixed bag so far with Montero. With five home runs, he's displayed the power stroke scouts projected. His overall batting line of .256/.285/.411, however, isn't much to get excited about, as the occasional long ball is marred by a poor 29/6 strikeout/walk ratio.

There are a few things going on here. He has expanded the strike zone, swinging at 36.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That's not necessarily a career-killing attribute (Josh Hamilton currently has the second-highest rate in the majors), but it's among the 30 worst percentages so far. The bigger problem is he isn't making contract on those pitches and certainly not good contact. He's swinging and missing at those pitches 56.6 percent of the time, which again places him among the 30 worst rates.

When you dig deeper into the numbers, it's pretty clear what's happening. Check out the heat maps below. On the left, Montero against "hard" stuff, and on the right, Montero against "soft" stuff.

Jesus MonteroESPN Stats & InformationMontero has been hitting the hard stuff (left), but struggling against offspeed pitches.

Against "hard" stuff, he's hitting .362 (25-for-69) with four home runs and five doubles. Against "soft" stuff, he's hitting .133 (8-for-60) with one home run and no doubles. So if pitchers get ahead in the count, they can get Montero to chase the offspeed stuff out of the zone.

A final issue is Montero's ability -- or lack of it -- to pull the ball. While he's known for his opposite-field power, I'm not sure you can live off that trait alone. Of Montero's five home runs, two have gone to right-center, one to center and two to left-center. His hit chart is littered with fly balls to right field and the right-field line. Frankly, he just hasn't shown the ability to pull the ball with any authority. To me, this reads like a guy who can be jammed inside and will chase pitches outside. Look, the pitch recognition should improve, but he's going to have to figure out how to do more damage to all fields.

The injury to Miguel Olivo also forced the Mariners to play Montero more regularly behind the plate. I haven't seen the defensive butcher advertised, but he's clearly a work in progress. A couple of starts ago, Kevin Millwood was constantly shaking him off. However, the two were on the same page in Millwood's win over the Yankees on Sunday. Opponents are 8-for-10 stealing bases off him.

Asdrubal CabreraHannah Foslien/Getty ImagesFred Astaire might have been light on his feet, but could he do what Asdrubal Cabrera has to?