SweetSpot: Zach Britton

Would adding Johan Santana help O's?

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
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.

Playoff watch: Good job, Pirates!

September, 4, 2013

Some quick thoughts on the most important results and plays of the day, and a look forward to Wednesday.

Key at-bat of the day: The Pirates had surrendered a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth, but Travis Snider pinch-hit for Vin Mazzaro leading off the ninth against Brewers closer Jim Henderson and smashed a 2-2 slider 418 feet to right-center for the go-ahead home run. It was a great at-bat as Snider fell behind 1-2 and fouled off two pitches to stay alive. After five straight mid-90s four-seam fastballs, Henderson tried to sneak a slider past Snider. Didn't work.

Pitching performance of the day: The Reds' Homer Bailey pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing just two hits, in a 1-0 win over the Cardinals, five days after tossing 7 1/3 scoreless against the Cards (who are now a game under .500 since the All-Star break).

Most important win: The Pirates beating the Brewers 4-3 to move to 81 wins, clinching the franchise's first .500 season since 1992. Of course, that wasn't exactly reason to pop champagne in the clubhouse, since this team has designs on something much bigger than 81 wins.

If anything, it's more a moment for the fans -- for all those who suffered through the John Russell years, the rise and fall of Oliver Perez, the blown draft picks, Operation Shutdown, Jason Kendall's horrific injury, the Aramis Ramirez trade, the collapses of 2011 and 2012, Kris Benson's wife, dumping Jose Bautista … and on and on and on. So, congrats to Clint Hurdle and the boys, but congrats to Pirates fans as well. Now, go win the division.

Oh … the game. Besides Snider's heroics, Justin Morneau went 3-for-3 with a walk and Marlon Byrd went 2-for-3 with two RBIs, so some positive returns for the August trade acquisitions. But it was Andrew McCutchen who once again jump-started the offense, scoring three runs, including his 100th career homer in the first inning. Can you say MVP?

Most important loss: The Orioles couldn't muster any offense against Ubaldo Jimenez in a 4-3 loss to the Indians. While they made it interesting with Nate McLouth's three-run homer in the ninth off Chris Perez, Perez eventually got Chris Davis to ground out (two pitches after Davis had a check-swing strike on a breaking ball that actually hit him in the leg). Combined with the Yankees' dramatic five-run eighth to the beat the White Sox 6-4, the Orioles fell behind the Yankees in the wild-card race (with Tampa Bay still holding the lead on wild-card berth No. 2).

Awards watch: Max Scherzer lost! He's now 19-2, although he remains the Cy Young favorite. Scherzer pitched well in the Tigers' 2-1 loss to the Red Sox, but Will Middlebrooks' two-run single with two outs in the sixth was the game-winning hit. It was a first-pitch slider that Scherzer left up in the zone.

Wednesday's best pitching matchup: Yu Darvish versus Jarrod Parker (Texas at Oakland, 3:35 p.m. ET). Darvish has struck out 11 or more batters in five of his past seven starts. Parker had a 2.23 ERA in six starts in August, allowing 11 runs.

Player to watch: Just recalled from the minors, Zach Britton will make the start for the Orioles, his first since July, when he allowed five runs against the Rangers and didn't strike out a batter in five innings. Britton didn't exactly mow through Triple-A at Norfolk, posting a WHIP over 1.50. His last turn was good, however, with eight K's and no walks, although over his previous three starts he had 14 walks and 14 strikeouts. Buck Showalter wants to give his starters an extra day of rest -- and also line up Chris Tillman to pitch Monday against the Yankees instead of Sunday against the White Sox -- but this seems like a bit of a gamble.

Hey, it's not like Adrian Beltre hasn't been stiffed for the All-Star Game before. Back in 2004 when he was with the Dodgers, he was hitting .315 with 22 home runs and 56 RBIs at the break but didn't make the All-Star team, getting squeezed out at third base by starter Scott Rolen and backup Mike Lowell. Beltre would put up even bigger numbers in the second half and finish second in the MVP vote. But he wouldn't make his first All-Star Game until 2010 in his one season with the Red Sox after leaving the Safeco Field dungeon.

After putting up big numbers the past two seasons for the Rangers, Beltre finally played his first postseason games since that '04 season and, not coincidentally, finally began escaping the "most underrated" label. Amazing what playing for a playoff team will do for your reputation. People have even started viewing him as a potential Hall of Famer, given his reputation in the field and the possibility he'll reach 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. He's just 34, aging well and on track for another terrific season. He went 4-for-4 with two home runs and five RBIs in Tuesday's 8-4 win over the Orioles, and suddenly, his season totals are 20 big ones and 52 RBIs to go with his .319 average.

He won't be going to Citi Field next week for the All-Star Game, however, which isn't an insult as much as a matter of the luck of his happening to play the most loaded position in the majors right now: third base, American League, at which Miguel Cabrera and Manny Machado made the All-Star team. As a result, Beltre, Evan Longoria and Josh Donaldson will get to spend a few days fishing.

Beltre is in a little different station this season: With Josh Hamilton gone, you can make the case that Texas is Beltre's team. Well, not in the sense that he owns the Rangers team, but in the sense that he's the guy of whom opposing pitchers will say -- if they actually say such things -- "We can't let this guy beat us." Beltre never has really had to be "the man" on the Rangers before, but without Hamilton and with this Rangers team scoring half a run per game fewer than last season, it's hardly the same power attack we saw in Texas in recent seasons.

However, Beltre did beat the Orioles on this night. He led off the second with a home run as Zach Britton tried to get ahead with a first-pitch, middle-of-the-plate 90 mph fastball. Beltre doesn't miss middle-of-the-plate fastballs, and he crushed this one 411 feet to center field. After surrendering a single to Beltre in the fourth, Britton tried to sneak a 1-0, middle-of-the-plate fastball past Beltre, or maybe figured he'd be taking. Bad idea. Beltre was sitting on that high fastball and tomahawked it on a line to left for a three-run homer. In the seventh, the Orioles had learned their lesson and intentionally walked Beltre. He added an RBI single in the ninth.

Pitchers try to work Beltre outside -- he's pretty much a dead-pull hitter for power, as only two of his 20 home runs have gone to the right of center field (including his first one Tuesday, which went just to the right of center). But he still hits for a good average on pitches on the outside part of the plate, hitting .311 on the season due to his ability to drive the ball to right-center for base hits and doubles. And if you miss over the plate, he can punish you.

Britton's inability to locate those fastballs pinpoints the larger issue with the Orioles: Their rotation remains a big question mark. The Rangers pounded new acquisition Scott Feldman on Monday. Britton now owns a 4.76 ERA and, after getting no strikeouts against the Rangers, has just 12 in 34 innings. He's not going to succeed with that ratio, and while his fastball has adequate velocity, he's just not the same promising left-hander of a couple of years ago.

The Baltimore rotation now sports a 4.85 ERA, 27th in the majors, and even the spectacular hitting from Chris Davis and all-around brilliance from Machado won't be able to mask that over a full 162 games. Orioles starters allow the most home runs per nine innings, and while some of that is a Camden Yards effect, it's a staff that gives up a lot of fly balls and doesn't register a lot of strikeouts. That can work in the spacious outfields in Seattle or San Francisco, but it's not going to work very well in Baltimore. Wei-Yin Chen returns Wednesday for his first start since May 12, and the Orioles are desperate for him pitch as well as he was before straining his oblique.

Chen's return essentially bumps Britton from the rotation, which now looks like Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Jason Hammel and Feldman. If the Orioles can keep those five guys healthy -- they've used 13 different starters -- and Chen pitches well and Hammel starts pitching like he did last season, maybe that's enough, even lacking an ace. But I get the feeling the O's will need Davis to keep hitting a lot of home runs.

On July 18, the New York Yankees blanked the Toronto Blue Jays 6-0 in a rain-shortened game. Hiroki Kuroda pitched the seven-inning shutout, Mark Teixeira homered and the Yankees ripped 12 hits off Ricky Romero. The Yankees were cruising, having won nine of 11 and 16 of 22 games, and were leading the American League East by 10 games, on pace for 95 wins.

The hated rivals up in Boston already were turning into a bad joke, barely a rival anymore after the Yankees had taken three of four a few days before. The upstart Baltimore Orioles had won that day but had lost 13 of their pevious 19, slowly drifting into their usual pathetic irrelevance. The Tampa Bay Rays? Hey, never discount them -- they'd made a big comeback in 2011, after all -- but this wasn't their year, the lineup wasn't any good and the rotation wasn't as dominant as expected.

Yes, the Yankees were going to cruise to another division title. Print the playoff tickets.

* * * *

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the modern Yankees dynasty is their numbing consistency. Sixteen playoff appearances in 17 years. Twelve division titles. Twelve 95-win seasons in the past 15. Yes, they have more money than Zeus, but money is no guaranteed road to success.

Just look at their neighbors to the north, who are going to miss their third postseason in a row and have won just one division title in 16 years. Look at the Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the second-highest opening-day payroll. The Phillies had a nice run, five National League East titles in a row, but age and injuries caught up to them this season, and they're struggling to finish .500. The Angels will have spent more than $300 million the past two seasons and another $104 million in 2010, and might have no playoff appearances to show for that.

The Yankees have kept their dynasty going, defying age and bad luck. They did miss the playoffs in 2008, a season in which they won 89 games. Yes, that was the season they gave 20 starts to Darrell Rasner and 15 to Sidney Ponson. That offseason, they reloaded with Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and then they won the World Series.

Still, this can't go on forever, can it?

* * * *

The Yankees lost 5-2 to the Rays on Tuesday as Tampa slugged three home runs off Freddy Garcia, and a lineup that featured Raul Ibanez, Jayson Nix, Chris Dickerson and Chris Stewart failed to do much against Alex Cobb. The Orioles pounded the Blue Jays 12-0 on Tuesday as Zach Britton pitched seven scoreless innings and Mark Reynolds belted his fifth home run in five games.

The Orioles are now tied with the Yankees for first place.

"We're just having a good time and we're not putting pressure on ourselves," Reynolds said after the game. "Everybody knows the situation we're in but we're just taking it day by day and having fun."

Something tells me the Yankees aren't having a lot of fun right now.

Here's some data from Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information:

Since July 19:
Yankees: 19-25, run differential of plus-3
Orioles: 29-15, run differential of plus-37
Rays: 28-16, run differential of plus-84

As Katie points out, Nick Markakis returned from an injury after the All-Star break and the Orioles' offense has been vastly improved since. The O's hit .240/.302/.402 (BA/OBP/SLG) in the first half and .253/.322/.423 in the second (entering Tuesday's game). Markakis' .343 average and .902 OPS in the second half rank fifth and 13th, respectively, among AL hitters (before he went 3-for-5 on Tuesday). In their past 11 games, Orioles starters have nine quality starts and a 2.22 ERA.

Why not Baltimore?

* * * *

If the Orioles and A's are this year's miracle teams, that means we now have to consider the Rays grizzled vets, even if their $64 million payroll is higher than that of just five other teams. The Rays were a miracle in 2008 and a mini-miracle in 2011. We are no longer surprised.

Since the All-Star break, the Rays have a 2.45 staff ERA, which would be the second-lowest second-half ERA by an AL team since the first All-Star Game in 1933 (the 1972 Angels had a 2.37 ERA).

Pitching, my friends, pitching. The Yankees are relying on Sabathia's elbow to hold up, and the retread Garcia, and the inconsistent Phil Hughes, all the while hoping 40-year-old Andy Pettitte will return to offer a lifeline.

The Yankees look old, mediocre and beaten up.

Why not Tampa Bay?

* * * *

From 10 games ahead to pure panic. Yankees fans should be worried. Right now, they're the third-best team in the AL East. They're even with the Orioles, and the Rays are 1.5 games back, with a chance to cut the deficit to a half-game with a win Wednesday.

Sure, injuries. Sure, Alex Rodriguez just returned and Robinson Cano didn't play Tuesday and Teixeira is out. But that's what happens when you get old. Ibanez is old. Ichiro Suzuki is old. Andruw Jones is old. Curtis Granderson isn't old but has morphed into Dave Kingman in the past couple of months, a guy who hits home runs and strikes out.

The Yankees are struggling. The Yankees are not going to win the AL East.

The playoffs? Hey, it's still the Yankees; you never want to count them out. They have four games left with Tampa Bay and a four-game series this weekend in Baltimore, but the rest of the schedule is soft other than one series with Oakland -- six games against the sinking Red Sox, seven against the banged-up Blue Jays, three against the Twins. Even if the Orioles and Rays rise past the Yankees, New York can make the wild card if it can hold off the Tigers/White Sox loser and the A's and Angels.

I want to say the Yankees won't make it, that they're too old, overpaid and overrated. People in baseball often talk about digging deep. It's just something they like to say.

But I'll say this: Get out your shovels, Yankees.

Nick MarkakisBrad White/Getty ImagesNick Markakis slips in the same way the Orioles tied for first: Stealthily and safely.
Zach Britton pitched maybe the best game of his career Thursday afternoon -- striking out 10, allowing one run and walking nobody in the Orioles' 5-3 win over the White Sox -- and was rewarded by getting optioned to Triple-A Norfolk.

This is a procedural move. The Orioles will add Randy Wolf to the 25-man roster, making him eligible for the postseason roster, should the Orioles get there. Since Norfolk didn't make the playoffs, Britton won't even need to stay down for the required 10 days; in his postgame media session, Buck Showalter hinted that Britton is still likely to start Sept. 4 against the Blue Jays.

Keep an eye on the transactions wire over the next two days as teams maneuver to get players on the 25-man roster before the Aug. 31 postseason deadline. The official rules state that to be eligible for the postseason, as of midnight Aug. 31, a player must be (A) on the 25-man roster; (B) on the disabled list; (C) on the bereavement or suspended list. A player on the 60-day DL can be replaced by another player from the 40-man roster, but only at the same position (pitcher for pitcher or position player for position player).

In Wolf's case, since he wasn't already on the 40-man roster, he needed to be added to the active roster to be eligible for the postseason. This doesn't mean Britton won't be a postseason option for the Orioles. Right now they have Tsuyoshi Wada and Stu Pomeranz on the 60-day DL, so in theory Wada could be "added" to the playoff roster with Britton then replacing him.

In looking at other teams, there has been speculation the Reds may recall minor league speedster Billy Hamilton, to use as a pinch-runner in the postseason. But Hamilton isn't on the 40-man roster yet and GM Walt Jocketty indicated Hamilton won't get called up. "We haven't made a final determination," he said. "I'm going to go watch him this weekend, but probably not." For the Orioles, Dylan Bundy signed a major league contract out of high school so he's already on the 40-man roster so doesn't have to be called up to get maneuvered onto the postseason roster.

Jurickson Profar, the top prospect in the minors, is an interesting recall candidate, since the Rangers currently don't have a utility infielder on their 40-man roster. The only position player the Rangers currently have on the DL is Mike Napoli, so Profar would have to be recalled before Aug. 31 to be postseason eligible.

Cardinals pitching prospect Shelby Miller is another recall candidate as he's been dominant of late in Triple-A. He would also needed to be added to the 40-man roster but not necessarily recalled before Aug. 31, since Kyle McClellan and Chris Carpenter are 60-day DL guys who could be replaced (although there is speculation Carpenter could return).

Zach Britton's gem O's latest surprise

August, 19, 2012

The Orioles are the team that won’t go away. For months now, they’ve been predicted to, expected to, and they have no end of excuses for why they’re supposed to be long since out of the expanded wild-card picture already. Injuries, run differential, relative anonymity plus generally underwhelming performances from most of the people you have heard of -- the Orioles are supposed to be goners.

They aren’t gone, but they might be going places. On Saturday, it was Zach Britton’s bend-don’t-break stylings that were their latest “that’s not really possible, is it?” feat. Seven shutout innings against the Tigers make for some sort of Saturday night special, not bad for the latest transient solution in Buck Showalter’s constantly fixed-up rotation.

Go by appearances alone, and it seemed like Britton had no business matching zeroes with the Tigers’ Rick Porcello, allowing nine baserunners to Porcello’s four through the first six innings. But three 6-4-3 double plays were enough to keep his head above water. Porcello had retired 11 men in a row heading into the seventh, but so what? A pair of dink singles and Chris Davis’ three-run shot later, it didn’t matter what Porcello had done beforehand or how good he looked doing it, because the O’s had a decisive lead thanks to Davis’ just-enough bit of bopping, making Britton a winner.

That in itself might be a bit of a surprise, considering that Britton’s shot at pitching this year was no sure thing in March, when shoulder surgery seemed likely. But opting for platelet-rich plasma (or PRP) treatments put him on the shorter road to rehab, and he’s been the skippable, sometime-fifth starter for a team that barely goes a week without having to change something in its rotation.

The Orioles have managed to keep the identity of their rotation’s third or fourth or fifth starter a matter of a near-weekly surprise to everyone, including themselves. Some of that has been a matter of effective roster management by general manager Dan Duquette: Early in the season, the Orioles could afford to flip the optionable Tommy Hunter back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk, rostering him only when they had to. Despite that time spent shuttling back and forth, it says something about Baltimore’s lot that Hunter is now second on the team in total starts because almost everyone queued up ahead of him has broken down or pitched his way out of a job.

This yo-yo role Britton found himself in on Saturday, as he was called back up into the latest breach in the rotation after already blowing his initial call-up after the All-Star break, getting clobbered in five of six starts. In the Orioles’ ad-hoc rotation, he was back up because he was on the 40-man roster and had four days’ rest, and little else -- he was four days removed from getting chewed up by Charlotte, pitching through a split nail on his pitching hand.

Britton briefly dealt with the burden of being blown up too soon as a sign of better times to come in the spring of 2011, after he notched a quick eight quality starts in his first 10 turns as a rookie in the big-league rotation. But just like Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, his success didn’t last -- Britton managed just five starts of six innings or more and three runs allowed or less in his last 18 turns in 2011, putting him well on his way toward a new entry on the Orioles’ list of mound disappointments. But like every other expectation for an Orioles setback, it seemed to merely set the stage for this latest improbable bit of heroics.

Where the rotation woes of the Yankees or the Red Sox get featured prominently, the Orioles have been scrambling all season. Only Chinese import Wei-Yin Chen has lasted the season. Chen plus Britton, Hunter, former Mariners prospect Chris Tillman and journeyman Miguel Gonzalez represent the latest front-five confection in a rotation that has already had to use 10 starters. Every day, the four non-Chens are all pitching for their jobs, because Jason Hammel is on the mend and due back in another two weeks.

Contenders aren’t supposed to start TBD in three or four rotation slots this late in the season, are they? But this comes on top of their playing TBNL in left field. Davis was briefly their answer there, but so was Nolan Reimold, Endy Chavez, Xavier Avery and Steve Pearce. They’re down to a Nate McLouth-Lew Ford platoon that would be entirely plausible if we were talking about a contender -- in the International League.

All of which is part of what makes the Orioles so entertaining. As they scrape to keep pace with the Rays in the wild-card chase, it might be hard to call them the underdog, but that’s only if you keep your eyes peeled on payrolls. It’s easy to root for the Rays -- every statistically savvy smart kid goes fanboy on sabermetrics’ poster team. And they’re supposed to beat Baltimore -- they’re supposedly smarter, and stocked up on the really good players you already know, like Evan Longoria and David Price. And yet the Orioles still will not go away. Fun, ain’t it?

Mike TroutKelvin Kuo/US PresswireRyan Roberts might do a little dance, but it's Mike Trout who has a steal to celebrate.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
This is the final weekend before the non-waiver trade deadline, meaning that it’s a pretty important couple of days for a number of teams that might not have figured out whether they are buyers, sellers or somewhere in between. Arizona, Cleveland, Philadelphia and a few American League East teams could certainly be swayed based on weekend results. Anyway, as per our new Friday custom, here’s what to watch this weekend.

1. While the eyes of the baseball world seem to be on every Red Sox-Yankees series, and this is again the ESPN Sunday Night matchup, more than 10 games separate these teams in the standings. Meanwhile out West, the Dodgers and Giants renew their long-time rivalry. Unless the Diamondbacks start figuring things out, it will be Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner starting a playoff game for the NL West champs -- or perhaps will start a playoff game due to the wild card. The Dodgers avoid Bumgarner this weekend, as well as inconsistent Tim Lincecum (you take a guess what he’ll do next outing). The last time these teams met the Dodgers did not score a run, quite literally: Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong and Lincecum helped the Giants outscore the Matt Kemp-less lineup 13-zip. Kemp is back now, Hanley Ramirez is here, too, and it should be more of a fair fight.

2. Say what you will about whether the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles will be legitimate contenders in September and therefore should be buying at the trade deadline, but naysayers will get a closer look when they meet at Camden Yards, each team firmly in the thick of the wild-card race. This is good for baseball! Oakland’s newfound offensive prowess is scheduled to be tested by Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter and Wei-Yin Chen. Yeah, the Orioles could use a rotation upgrade or two.

3. While Oakland is 16-3 in July, the division-leading Texas Rangers are 8-10. Only Kansas City, the Mets and, of course, Houston have fewer wins this month. The Rangers host the Chicago White Sox, a team that lost all its games last weekend in Detroit, then won all three games when it came home to meet the terrible Twins. Are the White Sox a crew that can stick with the good teams? The White Sox don’t see the Tigers again until the last day of August, and this will be a big test against Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and, at least for now, a scheduled Roy Oswalt on Sunday night. The struggling Josh Hamilton, hitting a mere .194 since June 1 (what does Nolan Ryan think of that?), should enjoy Sunday’s game against Gavin Floyd, who he’s 8-for-13 against. Playoff preview, perhaps?

Three more stats to watch:

15-0, 2.89: Zack Greinke could be a former Milwaukee Brewer before his scheduled Sunday start against the Washington Nationals -- or even by the time you read this -- but those are his career numbers at Miller Park. Nothing to worry about for the team that acquires him, right?

4-0, 1.26: That’s the July combined win-loss record and ERA for Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, scheduled to pitch in Milwaukee Friday and Saturday. Then on Sunday it’s Gio Gonzalez! Good luck to the defending NL Central champ Brewers, on a six-game losing streak. Meanwhile, keep talking about Stephen Strasburg and innings limits all you want, but the Nationals have depth.

0-3, 10.42: And we end with Red Sox-Yankees. Jon Lester won two of three starts at Yankee Stadium last season, but with a 9.20 ERA. That ERA is still better than Lester’s numbers for this current July. Yeah, he’s struggling. The Yankees will also face Aaron Cook and Felix Doubront.

Have a great weekend!

Rookie picks: Hellickson, Kimbrel

November, 14, 2011
Jeremy Hellickson and Craig KimbrelUS PresswireTampa Bay's Jeremy Hellickson, left, and Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel led the SweetSpot rookie balloting.

The American League rookie crop has a chance to be one of the deepest, most exciting groups of rookies one league has produced in a long time (although the 2010 NL group with Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton, Starlin Castro and Jaime Garcia was an excellent one as well).

On the hitting side, Dustin Ackley, Eric Hosmer, Desmond Jennings and Brett Lawrie all have All-Star potential, and guys like Mark Trumbo, Jemile Weeks, Jason Kipnis, Mike Moustakas, Lonnie Chisenhall, J.P. Arencibia and Salvador Perez aren't far behind or showcased plenty of potential. Pitchers included Jeremy Hellickson, Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, Zach Britton and Jordan Walden. Those lists don't even include prospect studs Mike Trout and Jesus Montero, who will both remain rookies next season.

It makes for a crowded rookie race, especially since several of the hitters excelled after in-season promotions, which limited their overall numbers. Here are the voting results from the SweetSpot network (based on the same structure as the real voting: five points for first, three for second and one for third):

1. Michael Pineda, Mariners: 77 points (13 first-place votes)
2. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays: 51 points (6)
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals: 25 points (3)
4. Dustin Ackley, Mariners: 23 points (1)
5. Ivan Nova, Yankees: 11 points
(tie) Mark Trumbo, Angels: 11 points (1)
7. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays: 8 points
8. Desmond Jennings, Rays: 5 points
9. Zach Britton, Orioles: 1 point

In our vote, it was essentially a two-player race; I suspect that in the actual vote, Nova will receive much more support. Let's start by looking at the three starting pitchers, all three of whom were regulars in their team's rotations most of the season.

Hellickson: 13-10, 2.95 ERA, 189 IP, 146 H, 117 SO, 72 BB, 21 HR, 1.15 WHIP
Pineda: 9-10, 3.74 ERA, 171 IP, 133 H, 173 SO, 55 BB, 18 HR, 1.10 WHIP
Nova: 16-4, 3.70 ERA, 165.1 IP, 163 H, 98 SO, 57 BB, 13 HR, 1.33 WHIP

Despite that glossy record, I think it’s pretty easy to dismiss Nova. He doesn’t have Hellickson’s ERA or Pineda’s peripherals; he pitched 24 fewer innings than Hellickson; he pitched in the AL East, but so did Hellickson. (We can ignore win-loss record, right? We all learned that last year when Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award, correct?) As important as Nova was to the Yankees, I think he's pretty clearly No. 3 here.

So let’s compare Hellickson and Pineda.

Baseball-Reference WAR
Hellickson: 4.2
Nova: 3.6
Lawrie 2.8
Pineda 2.8
Ackley 2.5
Jennings 2.3
Trumbo 2.1
Hosmer 1.3

FanGraphs WAR
Pineda: 3.4
Lawrie: 2.7
Ackley: 2.7
Nova: 2.7
Jennings: 2.4
Trumbo: 2.3
Hosmer: 1.6
Hellickson: 1.4

Hellickson's season was an anomaly in one important regard: He allowed just 7.0 hits per nine innings while striking out 5.6 batters per nine. How odd is that combo? Since 2000, only six other pitchers have thrown at least 150 innings while allowing 7.5 hits or less per nine innings and fewer than six strikeouts per nine. The others: Johnny Cueto (2011), Tim Hudson (2010), Trevor Cahill (2010), Barry Zito (2003), Derek Lowe (2002) and Damian Moss (2002).

Hellickson succeeded because his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .223, the lowest among major league starters. That explains the difference in his WAR total between the two sites. FanGraphs' WAR is based upon FIP (fielding independent pitching), which attempts to remove defensive support from a pitcher’s performance and assesses "a pitcher's talent level by looking at things a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs."

So while Hellickson's ERA was 2.95, FIP looks at his mediocre 117-72 strikeout/walk ratio and 21 home runs allowed and projects a 4.44 run average. Pineda, meanwhile, had a 173/55 strikeout/walk ratio and 18 home runs allowed, and his FIP comes in at 3.42 -- lower than his actual ERA.

Basically, FIP regards Hellickson as being hit lucky; indeed, if you were projecting which pitcher will have the lower ERA next season, Pineda is the obvious choice (assuming Hellickson doesn't ramp up his strikeout rate). As a projection system, FIP is much better than simply looking at ERA.

But when evaluating a current season, do you simply dismiss Hellickson’s results and say he wasn't that good? Personally, I think that’s a big leap. Hellickson’s run prevention may have involved a degree of luck -- it’s worth pointing out that Pineda also allowed a low .258 BABIP, ninth-lowest among MLB starters (both were also extreme flyball pitchers, which can lower a pitcher's BABIP) -- but he did allow a 2.95 ERA over 29 starts, pitching in the tough AL East. He made eight starts against the Red Sox and Yankees (3-2, 3.73 ERA in 48.1 innings). Pineda only had to make one start each against the Red Sox and Yankees. Yes, Hellickson benefited from him his home park and an excellent Tampa Bay defense; but Pineda also benefited from a pitcher-friendly home park and good defense.

Hellickson had a left-on-base percentage of 82 percent -- second-best in the majors behind Jered Weaver’s 82.6 percent. He allowed a .167 average with runners in scoring position, with just three home runs in 144 at-bats. Again, there is some good fortune involved here -- a .167 average allowed is not a repeatable skill -- but it did happen. It was a real result that helped the Rays win games and I can’t so easily dismiss what happened on the field.

In some aspects, while last year's AL Cy Young debate was billed as the battle of new numbers (win-loss record for pitchers is overrated), it wasn't really the battle of new numbers: King Felix excelled in all the other conventional statistics like ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched. To deny Hellickson the rookie award would be the real shout-out to sabermetrics, ignoring his ERA and attributing his numbers completely to luck and defense. I don't think that will happen in the real vote; in fact, I'll be surprised if Pineda finishes in the top three, since -- let's face it -- win-loss record still means something to a lot of voters.

I’m a Mariners fan. I watched Pineda pitch 10-12 times this season and he and Ackley provided two bright hopes in a miserable season. If he stays healthy, the big right-hander is going to be a Cy Young contender in the future. But I put Hellickson No. 1. As for the rest of my ballot, Lawrie and Jennings were great in short stints (Lawrie's WAR includes a positive rating for his defense, which goes against the scouting reports as he came up through the minors), Ackley in a little longer stint, Hosmer over 128 games. Both B-R and FanGraphs hate Hosmer’s defense (going against the general scouting reviews of his glovework), and thus affecting his WAR rating. Trumbo’s 29 home runs and 87 RBIs led all rookies, but that .291 on-base percentage is damaging. Trumbo had some big hits for the Angels, but I can't put a guy with a .291 OBP in the top three.

My ballot
1. Jeremy Hellickson
2. Michael Pineda
3. Eric Hosmer

Predicted results
1. Jeremy Hellickson
2. Ivan Nova
3. Mark Trumbo

* * * *

In the National League, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel is expected to cruise to the award after leading the NL with 46 saves, posting a 2.10 ERA and striking out 127 batters in 77 innings, the sixth-highest strikeout rate ever with at least 50 innings pitched. (By the way, fellow rookie Kenley Jansen had the best rate ever, with 16.10 per nine innings.)

Here is the SweetSpot network voting results:

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves: 108 points (18 first-place votes)
2. Freddie Freeman, Braves: 35 points (3)
3. Danny Espinosa, Nationals: 26 points (3)
4. Vance Worley, Phillies: 16 points
5. Brandon Beachy, Braves: 14 points
6. Wilson Ramos, Nationals: 13 points
7. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers: 2 points
8. Josh Collmenter, Diamondbacks: 1 point
(tie) Lucas Duda, Mets: 1 point

I suspect the actual voting results will follow a similar pattern, with Kimbrel possibly emerging as the unanimous winner. Espinosa flew under the radar all season, but hit for power (21 home runs) and played a very good second base. Like Hosmer, Freeman’s glovework doesn’t rate well by the fielding metrics. Overall, Espinosa's package of power and defense at a premium position makes him more valuable than Freeman. Worley and Beachy were terrific in partial seasons and Ramos gave the Nationals a second foundation piece for the future.

My ballot
1. Craig Kimbrel
2. Danny Espinosa
3. Freddie Freeman

Predicted results
1. Craig Kimbrel
2. Freddie Freeman
3. Danny Espinosa
A quick preview of the week ... and a little confusion over what the Marlins are trying to accomplish by sending Logan Morrison down to the minors.


Rangers at Angels, Monday through Thursday

Monday: Alexi Ogando (11-5, 3.22) vs. Garrett Richards (0-1, 10.80)
Tuesday: Derek Holland (10-4, 4.30) vs. Tyler Chatwood (6-8, 4.07)
Wednesday: C.J. Wilson (11-5, 3.28) vs. Ervin Santana (9-8, 3.10)
Thursday: Colby Lewis (11-8, 4.01) vs. Jered Weaver (14-6, 2.13)

The Angels are now four games behind the Rangers after a tough series in Toronto -- Jered Weaver got battered for eight runs, the first game he'd allowed more than four, and then Jordan Walden blew his eighth save on Sunday and the Angels lost in extra innings. It's desperation time and they begin the series with hard-throwing Garrett Richards, making just his second major league start. They follow that up with ... another rookie. As for the Rangers, they lead the AL in road ERA at 3.09. One of their secret weapons has been former Angel Mike Napoli, hitting .288/.386/.583. Think the Angels could have used that production?


Ian Kennedy (15-3, 3.12) vs. Vance Worley (8-1, 2.85), Diamondbacks at Phillies (Thursday)

In what could be a playoff preview, Arizona travels to Philly for an interesting series beginning Tuesday. The series finale is the best matchup as Kennedy takes his seven-start win streak (2.44 ERA, .211 average allowed during that stretch) against the Phillies' rookie. Worley got hit hard his previous start but the Phillies are 12-2 in games he's started.


1. After hitting two home runs on Sunday, rookie Brandon Belt might have finally earned a place in the San Francisco lineup. Question is: Did Bruce Bochy waste too many weeks (months?) waiting for his veterans to come around. And if Belt goes 0-for-4, will he back on the bench? The Giants might have the second-best ERA in the majors, but unless Belt hits and Carlos Beltran returns soon from his hand injury, this team won't score enough runs to win the NL West. They have a four-game series in Atlanta to start the week, but then play 12 games against the Astros, Padres and Cubs before meeting Arizona in early September. They need to play well in Atlanta and over those next 12 games to stay close to the Diamondbacks.

2. It would seem the Marlins sent Logan Morrison down to the minors to send a message about his tweeting, more so than for his production. While his .249 batting average is a disappointment, his overall line of .249/.327/.464 with 17 home runs still makes him much more productive than the average National League hitter. His .791 OPS is actually better than All-Star first baseman Gaby Sanchez's .787 mark -- and second-best on the team. The problem: the Marlins didn't say they're sending him down because of his tweeting and other organizational criticisms (Morrison criticized the team when hitting coach John Mallee was fired in June and teammate Hanley Ramirez for missing a photo session), but for his .249 average. But the Marlins are either (A) lying; (B) being disingenuous; or (C) unable to properly evaluate hitters. They certainly have the right to tell Morrison to keep certain topics inside the clubhouse, but their public stance smacks of dishonesty and of a front office that doesn't want to put its best team on the field.

3. One of the most disappointing results of the season has been the results from the Orioles' young rotation. The problems started in spring training with Brian Matusz and his intercostal strain that affected his ribs; he never seemed to recover, was terrible in six starts and is now back in Triple-A. Jake Arrieta was 10-8 but with a 5.05 ERA before he had season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow. Zach Britton had a 3.10 ERA through June 17 but gave up 45 hits in 23 innings over his next six starts and was finally put on the DL with a left shoulder strain, although he could return shortly. Chris Tillman just hasn't developed as many projected. While all have been disappointments, some of the blame goes to the Baltimore defense, which various defensive metrics rate as the worst in the majors. The Orioles will undoubtedly count on all four youngsters again next season, but right now they look the same old Orioles, a long way from fielding a winning ballclub.


Dan Uggla's hitting streak was exciting and unexpected and while it helped salvage his wreck of a season, it doesn't completely salvage his season. The streak raised his average from .173 to .232, but his on-base percentage is still below .300 at .297. He's not a good fielder and FanGraphs rates him as the 19th-best second baseman in baseball. The Braves are paying Uggla $9 million this season -- but $13 million a season through 2015. That's a lot of coin for a low-OBP, poor fielding second baseman, even if you do hit 30-plus home runs.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Buck Showalter's arrival as Orioles manager last season was a booster shot of competence for a franchise that had been allowed to deteriorate for far too long, a sense that the organization and its place in the game mattered again. There were several dramatic walk-off wins and a 34-23 finish to the year. Now at 30-33 this season, the team has reached that point in the discussion that goes, "The Orioles are on the upswing. Yes, but ... they have a long way to go." The key is the attentive cultivation of a young pitching staff and Showalter knows harvest time is still a ways off.

"These guys are sharing a lot of the first-time things together," he told me. "They come with different backgrounds and different makeups, they're not all robots. The AL East is relentless, it's a tough place to develop young pitching but I'll tell you one thing: If they get through it they'll be as mentally tough as anyone. We'll have some good and bad while we get some seed on the ground."

[+] EnlargeBrian Matusz
Joy R. Absalon/US PresswireBrian Matusz was dominant in his last eight starts of 2010, but he's been hampered by injuries this year.
An immediate concern is 24-year-old Brian Matusz, the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft. In his final eight starts last season, Matusz went 6-0 with a 1.57 ERA and allowed just 29 hits in 46 innings. However, Matusz missed the first two months of this season with a painful intercostal strain in his rib area and retired only four batters in Sunday's 9-6 loss to Tampa Bay, allowing four runs and five hits while walking four. In three starts since his return from the DL, Matusz's WHIP is 1.78.

The biggest issue is a dramatic dip in Matusz's velocity. Johnny Damon led off the game with a home run on an 86-mph fastball. Matusz's fastball Sunday was consistently between 85 and 87 mph and never higher than 89 mph. Matusz insisted after the game that he's 100 percent healthy. Both Damon and Rays manager Joe Maddon told reporters that Matusz isn't throwing as hard as he has in the past, with Maddon adding that he thinks Matusz isn't fully healthy.

"He's basically just starting out in spring training," Showalter said. "He's not where he's going to be. He came out of camp as our second starter and the challenge was not to rush him back."

Zach Britton, a 23-year-old lefty, was too impressive this spring to leave behind and by May 1, Britton was 5-1, 2.63. In seven starts since, however, Britton is 1-3, 3.65 and with 82 innings already worked toward a cap of approximately 180, the Orioles will skip Britton's scheduled start on Tuesday in an effort to slow his workload so he's available to pitch in September, a step the organization will likely take several more times. "I had a talk with him after his last start," Showalter said. "I told him, 'I know you'd like to go 25-0 but it's not going to happen. A guy with 30 or 35 starts may go out there with all his bullets only 10 times a year. It's those other 20 starts when you learn to pitch in the big leagues. What are you going to do to defend yourself and keep us in the game?' That's the reason you love the kid, he expects perfection."

[+] EnlargeJake Arrieta
Kim Klement/US PresswireJake Arrieta has gotten off to an 8-3 start this season.
A bright spot has been 25-year-old right-hander Jake Arrieta. In Friday's 7-0 win over Tampa Bay, Arrieta threw 72 of his 98 pitches in the outer third of the strike zone or further outside, the highest percentage of his career. Sixty of his 71 pitches to left-handed hitters were away as lefties went 1-for-12 against him. It was a clear sign of progress. "Sometimes I don't think he knows how good he can be," Showalter said. "A pitching coach can't make a visit after every hitter or two so they have to understand and figure out by themselves out there what's going on."

There are no shortage of young rotation candidates and the Orioles are making sure the list keeps growing. Brad Bergesen, 25, and Chris Tillman, 23, struggled and were sent to Triple-A Norfolk, where Bergesen is 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA. In last week's amateur draft, Baltimore used 15 of its first 30 selections on pitchers, including seven of its first 10 picks. Showalter explained the organizational philosophy this way: "Very few teams can sign a No. 1 starter or trade for a No. 1 starter. We have to grow and develop our own. That's why most of our picks were pitchers. Once you have pitchers you can always go out and get bats."

The Orioles used the fourth overall pick to take the first prep player selected, Dylan Bundy, a high school pitcher from Oklahoma whose father built a baseball field in the family backyard. As a senior, Bundy went 11-0 with 158 strikeouts and only five walks in 71 innings. "We can't draft a safe college pitcher," Showalter said. "We have to take the guy who has the best chance to get to the front of our rotation. Try as you may, you can't screw up the good ones. We think he has as much upside as anybody in the draft. We have to out-evaluate and out-work. You have to trust your evaluations and we like where we are in the process."

Yes, the Orioles are on the upswing but they have a long way to go.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.
Clayton KershawJeff Gross/Getty ImagesJust 23 years old, Clayton Kershaw is pitching like a Cy Young contender so far in 2011.
Clayton Kershaw was the seventh player selected in the 2006 draft, the first high school pitcher taken following five college pitchers, and it's safe to say that those five teams regret passing on the hard-throwing lefty from Dallas. Those five pitchers -- Luke Hochevar (Royals), Greg Reynolds (Rockies), Brad Lincoln (Pirates), Brandon Morrow (Mariners) and Andrew Miller (Tigers) -- have combined for a 62-98 record and only Morrow has a career ERA under 5.00.

Kershaw, meanwhile, has developed into the best young lefty in the game. Since his arrival in the big leagues in 2008 at age 20, he ranks 10th among starting pitchers in ERA (3.15), third in strikeouts per nine innings (9.4) and first in opponents' batting average (.221). The Dodgers have handled him carefully in his career, he's remained healthy and he's increased his dominance in 2011, putting up career bests in strikeouts per nine innings (10.1) while lowering his walk rate from 3.6 per nine innings in 2010 to 2.7, and down from 4.8 in 2009. He's an electrifying presence on the mound, a guy who can bring no-hit stuff any start. As Tim Kurkjian writes, he's added a slider to his fastball/curveball repertoire and improved his changeup. He topped 200 innings in 2010 for the first time and his final step to greatness is to prove he can handle a 230-inning workload, although he may be another season away from the Dodgers pushing him to that level. (He's on pace for 208 innings over 32 starts.)

Did we mention he's only 23?

Here's a comparison of Kershaw's numbers to some of other recent left-handers and what they accomplished through their age-23 seasons:

The most interesting comparison is obviously Scott Kazmir, as Kershaw is at the exact point in his career where Kazmir was at the end of the 2007 season. Kershaw was a little tougher to hit, but some of that is pitching in the NL West versus the AL East. Their career strikeouts, walks and ERA (once adjusted for park and league) are eerily similar. In 2007, Kazmir had gone 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA for Tampa Bay, leading the AL with 239 strikeouts (10.4 per nine innings).

There was one big difference: Kazmir was still walking four batters per nine innings. He still had a solid 2008, but spent time on the DL and he hasn't been the same pitcher since. Could this happen to Kershaw? Kazmir was pushed a little harder, but not too much harder. Through his first 97 starts, Kazmir averaged 102.1 pitches per start; through 96 starts, Kershaw has averaged 99.4. In 2007, Kazmir averaged 106.1 pitchers per start; Kershaw has averaged 101.1 this season. Kazmir threw at least 90 pitches in all 34 starts that year, with a season high of 118. Kershaw's season high is 122, but he's been under 90 five times. Don Mattingly is still being careful with his prized ace.

The other difference: Kazmir is 6-foot, 195 pounds. Kershaw is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. If you believe the old adage that big pitchers are more durable, that may be another positive for Kershaw's long-term outlook.

That's always the big question with any young pitcher: Can he stay healthy? CC Sabathia had 54 wins through his age-23 season, the eighth-most ever for a left-handed pitcher and fourth-most since 1969. (Babe Ruth has the most, with 80.) He's been durable and became a better pitcher in his late 20s, but that's not always the case, as we learned with Kazmir. Oakland's talented young lefty Brett Anderson just landed on the DL with elbow soreness. Those two serve as a warning that the only thing keeping Kershaw from winning a Cy Young Award in the future (or heck, in 2011) is the health of all those gifted tendons and ligaments.

We're in a golden age of young pitching, and Kershaw is just one of many outstanding 25-and-younger left-handed starters in the game: Anderson, David Price, Jaime Garcia, Madison Bumgarner, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Gio Gonzalez and Derek Holland, to name the best. Check out some of their numbers so far:

  • Kershaw (23): 6-3, 3.05 ERA, 85.2 IP, 69 H, 26 BB, 96 SO, 7 HR
  • Price (25): 7-5, 3.35 ERA, 91.1 IP, 78 H, 14 BB, 83 SO, 7 HR
  • Garcia (24): 6-2, 3.20 ERA, 81.2 IP, 76 H, 20 BB, 72 SO, 4 HR
  • Bumgarner (21): 2-7, 3.42 ERA, 71 IP, 71 H, 23 BB, 52 SO, 2 HR
  • Gonzalez (25): 5-4, 2.62 ERA, 75.2 IP, 65 H, 33 BB, 70 SO, 5 HR
  • Britton (23): 6-4, 3.18 ERA, 82 IP, 72 H, 29 BB, 47 SO, 7 HR

Which would young lefty would you want for the next five years?

I'd give the slight edge to Price (I'd like to see the numbers he could post in the NL West) over Kershaw, with the others somewhere behind those two, but what do you think? Vote in the poll (we could only list five!).

Follow David on Twitter @dschoenfield and check out the SweetSpot Facebook page.

Quality sixth starters

May, 20, 2011
When the Cardinals lost Adam Wainwright, they didn’t just lose a reliable Cy Young contender, they were confronted with the challenge almost every team has had to overcome, every year, going back to forever: How do you replace a rotation regular? As it turned out, they had a ready alternative in Kyle McClellan, who became the National League’s first six-game winner on Thursday.

[+] EnlargeKyle McClellan
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesKyle McClellan is 6-1 for the St. Louis Cardinals this season.
At first blush, McClellan’s breakthrough is a straightforward reminder that teams can find useful starting pitchers in the bullpen; the Rangers fished C.J. Wilson out of relief before their pennant-winning 2010 season, after all. But wherever a sixth starter comes from, the larger point is that there isn’t a team in baseball that doesn’t need him. Going back to 1901, just five teams have managed to get through a full season while using five starting pitchers, and three of those clubs played in the first few years during the Deadball Era, when workloads, pitching schedules and offensive levels were very different. Only two ballclubs -- the 1966 Dodgers, and the 2003 Mariners -- have managed the feat of using five starters in the 162-game season. Even then, the Dodgers may not have had the dead ball, but future Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax, Don Sutton and Don Drysdale had the benefit of the high mound, which helped scoring plummet during offense’s little ice age.

That’s the sort of information that ought to depress anybody who might be wondering whether his or her team’s rotation will make it through a full season. No matter how carefully a staff’s workload is managed, even in today’s pitch-count-conscious era, as a group any front five isn’t going to make it through a season without something going awry. Somebody’s going to break down, need additional rest or deserve to be bumped for plain old ineffectiveness.

As a result, any well-run franchise has to lay in reserves if it wants to keep its rotation in working order. With that in mind, beyond McClellan, which sixth men have already had to be plugged in, and have answered the call? Using WAR as a quick way to rank the best starters who have had to step into someone else’s slot, and SIERA to tell us which way their ERAs are probably headed, here’s a rotation’s worth of the best replacements:

* Values not updated through Thursday's action, but I will once those numbers are published.

Zach Britton, Orioles: Britton’s hardly your classic sixth man since the power lefty came into the season as the O’s top pitching prospect. That’s the virtue of an Orioles system stuffed with pitching talent, as Britton’s anticipated arrival inspired Jeremy Guthrie trade rumors. However long it took until Britton was ready, former prospects like Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen were going to be pitching for their jobs in the meantime, even after Justin Duchscherer’s regularly scheduled debilitating hip injury. However, after Brian Matusz’s spring training back injury created one more open slot for Britton, the Arrieta/Tillman/Bergesen trio is now locked into a battle to determine who will become the depth chart’s sixth starter du jour, because Britton’s trip up the totem pole looks strictly one way.

Alexi Ogando, Rangers: Calling Ogando even the team’s sixth starter might be a bit generous in terms of his ranking on the depth chart, because between Brandon Webb’s super slo-mo comeback, Neftali Feliz’s job-title drama and Tommy Hunter’s spring injury, even then he was behind lefty Matt Harrison in the queue to get a starting gig. However, between showing improved touch on his slider to neutralize lefties and a four-seam fastball hitters swing through, Ogando has rattled off seven quality starts in eight. Now it looks like he won’t be anyone’s sixth man again any time soon. Harrison has been fine in his slot as well (6-for-8 in quality starts), putting the Rangers in the happy position of being able to take their time with Webb and Hunter while guaranteeing that Feliz’s future will continue to be as the club’s designated saves-generator.

Tyson Ross, Athletics: With Dallas Braden done for the year after surgery on a torn capsule, the A’s ambitions for AL West contention had to fall on somebody else’s shoulder -- it turned out to belong to Ross, a hard-throwing Cal product who spent much of last year in a mop-up middle-innings role. Unfortunately, he left Thursday’s game with a strained oblique, so we’ll see who may have to come out from behind door No. 7 for Oakland.

Philip Humber, White Sox: If anyone might seem like a classic example of a fifth-slot aspirant, it might be Humber, a strike-throwing finesse righty in a world that generally doesn’t show them a lot of love. Hop-scotching from the Royals to the A’s to the White Sox via waivers, he was plugged in as a well-traveled temp once Jake Peavy’s ambitious Cactus League campaign to come back was stopped short. Humber has subsequently served notice that he can mix pitches effectively enough to be kept around, as Ozzie Guillen has decided to run with a six-man rotation for the remainder of the month now that Peavy’s back.

Looking at the group, McClellan ranks among but not clearly atop this quintet, and the direction that his SIERA suggests his ERA will be headed is far from promising. Then again, if his performance in the peripheral data -- the information that reflects dominance -- had been great in the first place, he probably wouldn't have been a sixth man. Perhaps what's especially important so far is that McClellan has been durable, and health is a valuable skill, one that Ross might already envy.

And what group of five starting pitchers would be complete without a sixth man ready to potentially step in? My pick would be the Twins’ Kevin Slowey, who only finds himself in the extra man’s predicament because of the Twins’ faith in Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing, despite Slowey’s stronger recent performance in a rotation and stronger projections (3.93 via PECOTA, 4.33 per ZiPS). But as any of these other former sixth men might be able to say, tomorrow’s opportunity can be found on the other side of today -- and perhaps someone else’s misfortune.

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

If you collected baseball cards in the 1980s, you'll remember the "rookie craze." You'd open a pack, desperately seeking that Dwight Gooden rookie card or Mark McGwire rookie card or Sam Horn rookie card. Those cards were going to pay for your college tuition.

I don't know if the rookie card craze still exists -- I haven't collected baseball cards in more than 20 years -- but I had a rookie craze on Wednesday night. Danny Duffy was making his major league debut for the Kansas City Royals. Zach Britton was going for the Baltimore Orioles. Jeremy Hellickson started for the Tampa Bay Rays. Julio Teheran was making his second start for the Atlanta Braves.

Here are some notes as I flipped through the action.

Danny Duffy: Listed at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, although he doesn't look that big to me, maybe built more along the lines of somebody like Erik Bedard. ... Baby-faced, close-shaven blonde hair, looks like he should nervously be pinning a corsage on his date before the prom instead of looking calm and confident on a major league mound. ... Duffy actually retired last spring, but returned in June. He's pitched only 14 games above Class A, so the Royals are maybe rushing him a bit. ... Early on, he's relying on his fastball and occasional curveball. Works at a nice pace, moving his fastball in and out, trying to keep the ball down in the zone. Fastball speed is all over the place, according to the TV radar gun, moving around from 90 to 95 mph. ... After two scoreless innings, gets in a bases-loaded jam in the third inning with one out. Jams Adrian Beltre with an 0-1 inside fastball for a 6-4 force out and then throws two nice curveballs to get Mitch Moreland to bounce out to first. Nice job, rook. ... In the end, Duffy lasts just four innings, throwing 94 pitches, 54 for strikes. The line score looks worse than what I saw: 4 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 6 BB, 4 SO. ... On this night, he was able to get the fastball inside to right-handed hitters, but he fatigued a bit, started getting the ball up and didn't challenge the hitters if he fell behind in the count. In other words, he looked like a rookie.

Zach Britton: I love watching this kid pitch. He enters his start against the Yankees with a 5-2 record and 2.42 ERA through his first eight starts. He throws a hard sinker, and while he has just 29 strikeouts in 52 innings, opponents are hitting just .203 with a .578 OPS off him. ... He looks good early on, keeping the ball down, getting ground ball outs. The Yankees' first four hits are all ground singles through the infield. Those are the types of hits Britton gives up, as he's allowed only 11 extra-base hits over those eight starts. ... Defense lets him down in the fourth inning when second baseman Robert Andino's error leads to an unearned run. ... By the way, the last Orioles pitcher to throw 200 innings with an ERA under 3.25: Mike Mussina in 1997. And other than Mussina? Storm Davis and Mike Boddicker -- in 1984. This franchise is starving for an ace. ... Finally gives up a couple of hard-hit balls in the sixth when Alex Rodriguez singles in the gap and Robinson Cano drills a single off the right-field scoreboard. But Adam Jones gunned down A-Rod trying to stretch his hit into a double and Britton gets Nick Swisher looking to end the inning. ... Britton ends up going seven innings and gets off the hook for the "loss" when the Orioles tie it up at 1 with a run off Mariano Rivera in the ninth. ... Did I mention the Orioles need an ace? They may have one.

Jeremy Hellickson: A lot of people like to compare him to Greg Maddux, which is really code for "Right-handed pitcher, good control, knows how to pitch, not overpowering." Of course, everybody acknowledges there's only one Greg Maddux, and truth is Hellickson is nothing like Maddux, other than the lack of a big fastball. Maddux essentially relied on a moving fastball that he developed pinpoint control with. Hellickson throws the kitchen sink up at you: fastballs, changeups, curveballs, varying the speed and location with every pitch. ... He's not afraid to pitch up in the zone. In the first, he gets Yunel Escobar swinging on a 79-mph changeup that's up at the letters and gets Corey Patterson to swing through a 90-mph fastball that looks down the middle. Jose Bautista smacks a fastball at the knees into left for a single. A good pitch, in that at least Bautista didn't homer. ... Later on in the sixth, Patterson hits an outside fastball to right for a double. It wasn't a bad pitch, but Patterson was able to hook it into the corner. ... Bautista drills a liner to left on a low curve that Sam Fuld makes a nice running catch on, but Hellickson is chased when Aaron Hill doubles off the wall in left-center and Eric Thames lines his first major league hit to center. ... Hellickson had a 33/8 SO/BB ratio during his late-season call-up last year, but right now it's at 36/21 after walking three guys on this night. He lasts long enough to get credit for the win, improving his record to 5-2. ... The overall season numbers are decent, but he's also a beneficiary of Tampa's excellent defense. Without that overpowering fastball, he'll need to drop the walk rate.

Julio Teheran: Just 20 years old, his start on May 7 against the Phillies was supposed to be a one-start cameo due to a rainout backlog, but he's back already for another try. I watched that Phillies game and he didn't look ready for the majors, with little command of his fastball. ... Watching the Arizona feed as the game begins and the announcers say he threw 23 changeups in his first start. ... He gets two quick outs, goes to a 3-2 count to Justin Upton and throws another changeup. As Mark Grace says on the broadcast, "Justin was not fooled." Upton crushes it about 15 rows over the fence in left-center. ... In the fourth, with two outs and two runners on, Ryan Roberts is up. On a 2-2 count, Teheran goes to the fastball this time, but Roberts cuts down on his swing (these are not your 2010 Diamondbacks) and lines an RBI single to right. ... Teheran is done after four innings and 83 pitches and leaves trailing 2-0. Like his first start, he shows that he lacks a knockout pitch, as he again strikes out just one batter. Grace likes what he sees, however: "I was very impressed with the young man. Showed good moxie out there. Wasn't afraid. Went right after the hitters."

* * * *

I was going to rank this year's rookie pitchers, but we'll do that another time. I may be biased as a Mariners fan, but it's clear that Michael Pineda is by the far most electrifying of these rookie starters. He's like a Don Drysdale or Justin Verlander: Tall, overpowering and intimidating. When Pineda gave up his first major league homer a couple starts ago to Mitch Moreland, he had a look of disbelief on his face. He's a very confident young pitcher. Of course, I suppose if I was 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, with the ability to throw 97 mph with control, I'd be pretty confident as well.

Time will tell how good this group will turn out to be, but I did a quick look back at some rookie pitching crops of the past 30 years. This isn't comprehensive and is sorted by rookie season (not necessarily debut season, so a September call-up season wouldn't count). Anyway, here are some of the best years I found (the 2006 group looks pretty special and check out that 1984 class):

2006: Justin Verlander, Josh Johnson, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, Jered Weaver, James Shields Matt Cain, Chad Billingsley, Adam Wainwright.

2000: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Mark Buehrle, Johan Santana, Brad Penny, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett.

1987: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, David Cone, Chuck Finley.

1984: Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Mark Langston, Bret Saberhagen, Jose Rijo, Orel Hershiser, John Franco, Jimmy Key, Mark Gubicza, Sid Fernandez.

Cubs FansAP Photo/J Pat CarterInsert your own joke about what these poor kids are about to embark upon in a lifetime as Cubs fans.
We're about 25 percent of the way through the season. After writing about my 25 percent AL and NL MVPs earlier, here are 10 important things we've learned so far.

1. Offense is down and not going up.

OK, it's not quite 1968, but entering Tuesday the major league batting average was .251, lowest since 1972, and the slugging percentage was .389, lowest since 1992. What this means is we have to mentally adjust our calculations of player performance from what we've been used to the past 15 years.

For example, Cliff Lee has a 3.84 ERA. Pretty good, right? Well, the NL overall ERA is 3.82, so before making park adjustments and so forth, Lee has been about average. He's 33rd among 61 NL starters in ERA. He's allowed a .262 batting average, which also placed him 33rd. Jimmy Rollins isn't having a great year with a .276/.355/.374 line? Actually, that makes about a league average hitter, and very good for a shortstop.

2. Parity rules the day.

Only three teams are at least seven games out of first place -- the White Sox, Twins and Astros.

I checked a similar point in the schedule for each of the past 10 seasons, seeing how many teams were at least seven games out at the quarter point:

2010: 9
2009: 10
2008: 4
2007: 14
2006: 7
2005: 10
2004: 5
2003: 12
2002: 12
2001: 11

Obviously, those totals can be affected by a supremely hot start by a team in your division (such as Seattle starting 31-9 in 2001). The Indians and Phillies are the only teams playing .600 ball so far, but we also have fewer bottom feeders than usual. Every injury, every blown save, every late-inning comeback or costly error will be even more important this season.

3. Never overreact to the first two weeks.

We do it every year. We'll do it again next year. It's a rite of baseball, alongside hot dogs, the seventh-inning stretch and four-hour Red Sox-Yankees games. Tampa Bay started 1-8. Boston started 2-10. A month later, the Rays are in first place and the Red Sox are over .500.

4. Thus, while the Yankees have issues, there is no need to panic yet.

The Yankees are kind of doing what everyone has expected, aren't they? Their offense is second in the AL in runs, the starting rotation has the 10th-best ERA and their bullpen has the fifth-best ERA. But a 6-10 record so far in May has New York in a bad state of mind. But history shows us the Yankees often have a bad month on the way to a winning season. Here is their worst month each of the past 10 seasons:

2010: 12-15 in September (95 wins)
2009: 12-10 in April (103 wins)
2008: 13-15 in August (89 wins)
2007: 9-14 in April; 13-15 in May (94 wins)
2006: 14-12 in June (97 wins)
2005: 10-14 in April; 12-14 in June (95 wins)
2004: 12-11 in April (101 wins)
2003: 11-17 in May (101 wins)
2002: 14-12 in June (103 wins)
2001: 15-14 in August (95 wins)

So that's only six losing months in 10 years, but it's evidence (for me) that an under-.500 May doesn't mean the Yankees have to push the panic button. (Although it's fun to watch the fans and media overreact.)

5. The Cardinals can win without Adam Wainwright.

Few teams could survive the loss of a Cy Young contenders, but so far St. Louis has withstood the loss of their ace. Led by the fearsome foursome of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and Colby Rasmus, St. Louis has the best offense in the NL, leading the league in runs, batting average and on-base percentage entering Tuesday. It's been their pitching that has been a pleasant surprise. They have 25 quality starts, tied for fourth in the league, and they're doing it despite slow starts from Chris Carpenter (1-3 4.95 ERA through nine starts) and Jake Westbrook (3-3, 6.07 ERA). But Jaime Garcia pitched another gem Tuesday night and he's looking like one of the best starters in the NL. Kyle Lohse has been excellent and Kyle McClellan a nice bonus moving over from the bullpen. The bullpen is getting straightened out ... and Pujols hasn't even heated up yet.

6. Jose Bautista is for real.

But are the Blue Jays? Toronto is 21-20, right in the thick of the AL East race. The Blue Jays are hanging in there despite some dreadful starts by some of their regulars: Edwin Encarnacion and Aaron Hill haven't homered yet, Travis Snider is hitting .184 and Juan Rivera is hitting .203. If those guys start hitting, the Jays could turn the East into a four-team race.

7. Speed is more important than it has been in years.

With scoring down, teams are placing more of an emphasis on stealing bases, manufacturing runs and gaining that extra base. Stolen bases are averaging .68 per team per game, the highest since the same total in 1999. From Baseball Prospectus, the top five baserunning teams (incorporating steals and advancement on base hits, etc.).

1. Nationals, +9.5 runs
2. Mets, +7.7 runs
3. Dodgers, +5.7 runs
4. Blue Jays, +5.5 runs
5. Giants, +5.4 runs

The bottom five:

30. Braves, -9.5 runs
29. Cardinals, -6.7 runs
28. Marlins, -5.0 runs
27. White Sox, -4.7 runs
26. Rockies, -4.1 runs

With more close games, every little edge counts. Pay attention to how your team runs the bases.

8. More young stars on the way.

After 2010's terrific crop of rookies -- Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton, Starlin Castro, Jaime Garcia, Ike Davis, Neftali Feliz, Brian Matusz, among others -- we're seeing another good-looking group. Not surprisingly, it's led by pitchers: AL starters Michael Pineda (Seattle), Jeremy Hellickson (Tampa Bay) and Zach Britton (Baltimore), plus closers Craig Kimbrel (Atlanta) and Jordan Walden (Angels).

For hitters, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer is the first of a wave of talented prospects about to arrive in Kansas City, with pitcher Danny Duffy debuting Wednesday. A pair of catchers -- J.P. Arencibia in Toronto and Hank Conger with the Angels -- look like future middle-of-the-order hitters. Down in the minors, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and Angels outfielder Mike Trout are living up to their billing as two of the best hitting prospects we've seen in years.

9. The defending champs will have to fix, repair and adjust on the fly like last season.

Shortstop Miguel Tejada is on his final leg. Aubrey Huff, last year's cleanup hitter, is hitting .229. The outfield has been a revolving door of slumping hitters, hot streaks and injuries. Will top prospect Brandon Belt return anytime soon, and where will he play? Does Nate Schierholtz have enough bat to remain in the lineup? The starting pitching remains solid and the bullpen looks excellent, but can Bruce Bochy arrange his chess board with the same magical results as 2010?

10. The Indians aren't going anywhere.

They easily have the majors' largest run differential (+63). They actually haven't taken advantage of a soft schedule, as their strength of schedule has been top 10 in the majors so far. The lineup leads the AL in runs scored and that's without their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters (Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana) meeting projected numbers.

If the Indians remain baseball's Cinderella story ... well, let's just say no city deserves it more.

Harmon KillibrewAP Photo/Elaine ThompsonOn Tuesday, baseball lost one of its best -- a great, Hall of Fame player and true gentleman.
Follow David on Twitter: @dschoenfield.
Despite it being Friday the 13th, Mark Simon and I were able to enjoy Friday's Baseball Today podcast with nothing going wrong and no disasters ... we think you'll even enjoy the show, for the following reasons:

1. Carlos Beltran and James Shields each shined Thursday for Mark's favorite teams, and we discuss their interesting progress and futures.

2. An emailer asks us how great Beltran could have been if healthy, leading us to discuss players hampered by injury, from Ken Griffey Jr. to a few 1970s Houston Astros. Sounds like a future SweetSpot blog to me, eh Schoenfield!

3. Why offense is really down this season, and a look at the hitters currently under the Mendoza line. David Wright isn't one of them, but we discuss him anyway.

4. Mark gives a terrific explanation of the different eras in baseball history, though the actual start of a recent troublesome era isn't so clear cut.

5. Every weekend is a big weekend in baseball, but we do our best to highlight the most important series to keep an eye on, the interesting pitching matchups, and it's not all about Red Sox-Yankees.

Plus: Excellent emails, ballpark clothing etiquette for rooting for a team that isn't playing, why Jason Vargas of the Seattle Mariners could have gone 10 innings Thursday, the awesome Eric Hosmer and his weekend challenge, plus a story that rivals the one told by Steve Berthiaume a week ago. All this on Friday's Baseball Today podcast!