SweetSpot: Aubrey Huff

Over the next month, we're going to present 30 deals in 30 days: the best trade deadline deal ever made by each team.

THE TEAM: Tampa Bay Rays

THE YEAR: 2006

THE SITUATION: It was July 2006, and the Rays -- actually, still the Devil Rays then -- were well on their way to another losing season, their ninth in a row with at least 90 losses (it would become 101 that year) since the birth of the franchise. Aubrey Huff had hit .311 with 34 home runs for Tampa in 2003 and .297 with 29 home runs in 2004, but hadn't quite matched that production in 2005 and was hitting .283 with eight home runs in '06. As an impending free agent, it was time to deal.

The Astros had reached the World Series in 2005 but weren't getting much production from their outfield. At the All-Star break they were 43-46 but only six games out of first place in a weak NL Central. Roger Clemens had just rejoined the rotation, and they were looking for some offense.

THE TRADE: The Rays sent Huff to the Astros for two minor leaguers: pitcher Mitch Talbot and shortstop Ben Zobrist. Zobrist wasn't considered a top prospect -- Baseball America had ranked him 16th in the Houston system before the start of the season -- although he'd hit over .300 since being drafted in 2004. But he didn't have much power, with three home runs in Double-A at the time of the deal, and was already 25 years old. New Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman undoubtedly saw a player who had consistently posted high on-base percentages, however.

THE AFTERMATH: Huff played right field and third base for the Astros and did OK (.250/.341/.478, 13 HRs, 38 RBIs in 68 games) but the Astros fell 1½ games short of the Cardinals in the division race. Zobrist reached the majors with Tampa in 2006 but didn't contribute much until 2008 when the renamed Rays surprised everyone and won the AL East and reached the World Series. He has become one of baseball's most valuable assets in recent years, moving between second base and the outfield and even playing a little shortstop, while adding power that he never showed in the minors. Since 2009, Baseball-Reference ranks him as the third-most valuable position player in baseball with 29.6 WAR, behind only Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano and just ahead of teammate Evan Longoria.
That was one of the more entertaining games of the postseason, a classic pitching duel of sorts, with some interesting strategic decisions and some missed opportunities. The Cincinnati Reds will be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of one of the best-pitched games in Reds postseason history and the San Francisco Giants will be wondering how they’re still alive in a game where they got three hits in 10 innings and struck out 16 times. For the rest of us, we’ll get more baseball!

Some thoughts on the Giants’ 2-1 victory:

  • As dominant as Aroldis Chapman was in the ninth inning, getting two strikeouts while throwing just 15 pitches, I was a little surprised he didn’t come back out for the 10th inning. Chapman pitched more than one inning eight times this season, but only twice after becoming the closer, a 1.2-inning save May 27 and a four-out save Aug. 10. Factoring in the shoulder fatigue that sidelined Chapman for 11 days in September, maybe Reds manager Dusty Baker is wary about using Chapman for more than an inning. The trouble is it’s a big drop-off from Chapman to Jonathan Broxton. Of course, it’s a big drop from Chapman to just about any reliever not named Craig Kimbrel.
  • As is, despite giving up two singles to start the inning, Broxton would have escaped the 10th if not for shoddy Reds defense. After he struck out Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady, Ryan Hanigan's passed ball allowed the runners to move up and then Scott Rolen mishandled Joaquin Arias' chopper to third base. The sloppy defense in this postseason continues. Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a couple interesting choices that inning: He let Belt swing away with two on and no out. I would say most managers would have bunted there about 99 percent of the time. I didn’t mind the call. Belt has never had a sacrifice bunt in his brief career and he was the Giants' best chance to deliver a hit. Bochy then let pitcher Sergio Romo hit with runners at first and second. Again, I liked the call. Romo is the Giants’ best reliever; Bochy had used the other relievers you might want to use. Plus, Bochy had used up his bench; only backup catcher Hector Sanchez was left.
  • Xavier Nady and Xavier Paul. Discuss. Or not. Man, these two benches are horrible.
  • Keith Law and Eric Karabell talked about an interesting point on the Baseball Today podcast today, wondering if the Yankees aren’t better off moving up Robinson Cano in the order. He hit cleanup on Monday, and was left in the on-deck circle as Alex Rodriguez made the final out. Keith’s point is that batting lineups don’t matter all that much, but one obvious benefit of stacking your best hitters at the top is you may get them one more plate appearance. That’s the problem with the Reds batting Zack Cozart and his .288 OBP second. He made the final out, leaving Joey Votto on deck.
  • Not to bury Homer Bailey's awesome start. You can see why he pitched a no-hitter two starts ago as he took a no-hitter to two outs in the sixth (although the Giants had scored on a hit-by-pitch, walk and two sacrifices). The walk to No. 8 Brandon Crawford proved especially painful and kudos to pitcher Ryan Vogelsong for a good bunt and Angel Pagan for delivering the sac fly. Considering Bailey had thrown just 88 pitches, you can argue that Baker took him out too early. I can't fault Baker for handing the game to the best bullpen in baseball, but the Giants couldn't touch Bailey on this night.
  • Bailey’s game score of 80 was the fourth highest in Reds postseason history, behind Hod Eller’s 89 in Game 5 of the 1919 World Series against a team that wasn’t trying to win (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 SO) and Ross Grimsley’s 84 in Game 4 of the 1972 NLCS (9 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 SO). Jose Rijo’s win to clinch the sweep of the A’s in the 1990 World Series (8.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 9 SO) scores a 91. And, yes, this was just an excuse to mention Hod Eller.
  • Brandon Phillips' hustle effort in the first inning when he got thrown out at third base is one of those plays described as a “baserunning error” if you don’t make it but “heads-up baseball” if you do. The argument against trying to get the extra base is that with zero outs there is a little reward if you do make it (you’re already in scoring position) but a huge penalty if you get caught. As it turned out, Vogelsong labored through a 30-pitch inning and Phillips’ hustle cost the Reds a potential big inning.
  • Vogelsong did a nice job of settling down after that inning. He walked Votto and Ryan Ludwick in the third, but got Jay Bruce on a fly to left. Bruce swung at the first pitch, which isn’t necessarily the worst idea if he thinks a pitcher is going to groove something after two walks. Bochy hit for Vogelsong leading off the sixth, again not a bad idea considering the circumstances. Vogelsong had thrown 95 pitches, the Reds had Votto and Bruce due up the next inning and the Giants were still hitless at the time. It was the one opportunity Bochy knew he could use Aubrey Huff against a right-hander, without the possibility of the Reds bringing in Sean Marshall or Chapman. Huff just isn’t a big weapon right now.
  • As I write this, the Reds haven’t announced their Game 4 starter. It could be Johnny Cueto, but that seems unlikely. It could be Mat Latos, three days after throwing 57 pitches in Game 1. It could be Mike Leake, but to activate him they’d have to replace Cueto, which would make him ineligible for the National League Championship Series, should the Reds advance. If they go with Latos, that would likely mean starting Bronson Arroyo on three days’ rest in a potential Game 5. No easy calls here, but I’d probably go Latos and Arroyo, and rely on the deepest bullpen in the league. The Giants counter with Barry Zito -- and you know Bochy will have a quick hook. The Reds had a .770 OPS against left-handers compared to .710 versus righties, so if Zito struggles early don’t be surprised to see Tim Lincecum again in relief. Should be a good chess match yet again.


Bumgarner wins as Giants bum for runs

August, 21, 2012

Yes, you can never have enough pitching. You win with it, you lose to it, you can’t live without it and, if the margins are narrow enough, you live and die with every pitch. Welcome to Bruce Bochy’s world in a Melky-free world. And welcome to the reason why he can thank his lucky stars that he’s the man managing a rotation with Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Monday night’s starter against the Dodgers, Madison Bumgarner.

Bumgarner was in perfect command against the evil SoCal boys in blue, mowing them down through eight scoreless frames while whiffing 10 in San Francisco's 2-1 victory. Just another day at the office for one of the Giants’ rotation horses, his 18th quality start on the season, and a reminder that this club is far from done where the National League West race is concerned.

But there’s more to it than that. This summer, with all the talk of extending or overextending young superstar prospects on the mound during a pennant race, Bumgarner is a great example of the wisdom of not letting expectations set your timetable where young pitching is concerned. Coming into 2010, Bumgarner was supposed to be all that, flame-throwing southpaw’d greatness in cleats at the tender age of 20. And then he wasn’t -- he wasn’t throwing hard, having lost five miles per hour off his heat from his minor league days. He wasn’t mowing people down. He wasn’t greatness in cleats, or street shoes or flip-flops.

He also wasn’t hurt, although preseason conditioning turned out to be an issue. But from that seeming disappointment, Bumgarner has significantly changed his repertoire from what he was when he was a top prospect. His velocity has remained in low-90s territory, but he has come to rely more and more on a devastating slider that has helped him boost his swings-and-misses to a 16 percent clip despite whatever it was he lost on his fastball. He’s arguably a better pitcher as a result. He’s also only just turned 23, and more than a year younger than Stephen Strasburg.

That deafening silence you hear over Bumgarner’s birth certificate is the concern over his workload. Because without starting pitching, the Giants could be done. But if Tim Lincecum really does get his kinks ironed out, they may have four horses to ride all the way to the end.

If we can credit Bochy for helping keep Bumgarner saddled up and delivering, we might also credit Bochy for always being willing to wangle some extra way to score to make good on the slender margins his pitchers provide. Whatever the talent Bochy is working with, and even whatever the defensive sacrifices he might have to make behind that starting staff.

Picking between Justin Christian and Gregor Blanco to start in Melky Cabrera’s place in the outfield is sure to make you ask where Nate Schierholtz got to (Philadelphia), and what’s behind Door No. 3, but we’ll see what Bochy’s willing to risk in the weeks to come. If general manager Brian Sabean swings a waiver deal for a veteran bat, don’t be surprised -- it’s the sort of move he has been able to pull off in the past, and again, with this kind of pitching, a little bit of offense goes a long way.

Bochy is so hungry for runs, he’s even platooning at shortstop lately, spotting Joaquin Arias’ single-riffic plinky-ness for Brandon Crawford against the league’s lefties. Platooning at a key up-the-middle position like short? That might work considering Arias’ .818 OPS against lefties in about 200 big-league plate appearances, but it’s also slightly more risky this season than in years past, because the Giants are no longer leading the league in strikeout rate, instead whiffing opponents a very league-average 20 percent of the time. That means more balls in play, and more chances the defense could cost you. The Giants are a little above-average in defensive efficiency (.696, vs. the NL-standard .690), but it’s still a risk.

Then again, this is the manager who helped the Giants win it all in 2010 by coming up with one of the craziest platoons of recent memory: Splitting at-bats between first baseman Travis Ishikawa and center fielder Aaron Rowand in the lineup across first base and the outfield in July through Aug. 14, while moving Andres Torres and Aubrey Huff around to accommodate them. Rotating in Ishikawa helped launch a 27-13 Giants run that preceded their deals for Jose Guillen and Cody Ross. It had less to do with Ishikawa’s greatness than it did with working with what Bochy had at his disposal and getting enough runs to win with an incredible pitching staff.

In short, Bochy has got a well-earned rep as a lineup MacGyver: Give the man some used gum, a pencil and a Topps card to be named later, and he might just give you an edge, part of the reason why Chris Jaffe’s excellent book "Evaluating Baseball’s Managers" described him as one of the most underrated skippers in baseball history.

One of the things Jaffe suggested in his book was the Achilles’ heel that Bochy’s teams had back in San Diego when he managed the Padres was that they tended to be short on pitching. Happily for him and for the Giants, thanks to Madison Bumgarner & Co. that’s one problem this year’s Giants don’t have.

Madison BumgarnerJayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireOn nights like Madison Bumgarner had on Monday against the Dodgers, two runs will do.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
We closed another fantastic week on the Baseball Today podcast with Friday’s episode, in which SweetSpot blogger Dave Schoenfield and I continued to rave about perfection and Mike Trout, but also quite a bit more.

1. Kudos to the Mets and Orioles for midweek interleague sweeps against other contenders. Believe it or not, the Mets and Orioles are each in the top 10 in runs scored!

2. We get Dave’s opinion on Matt Cain and the greatest games ever pitched, and praise R.A. Dickey for postgame comments about his performance.

3. Dave shares his thoughts on what Team USA could look like in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

4. Our emailers have thoughts on Randy Johnson’s dominance, Wrigley Field and more!

5. ESPN Sunday Night Baseball will feature the Red Sox and Cubs, but there is plenty of other interesting action, including Yankees-Nationals, Reds-Mets and Chris Sale versus Clayton Kershaw!

So download and listen to Friday’s fine Baseball Today podcast, thanks again for supporting the show and have a great weekend!

A year later, Buster Posey's back in action

May, 26, 2012

Exactly one year ago, Buster Posey went from sure thing to question mark. It wasn’t because of anything he failed to do, it wasn’t because he hadn’t fulfilled every expectation for his greatness. If anything, it was a matter of professional hazard: He was a catcher protecting home plate, and when Scott Cousins took his shot at scoring, Posey was there, trying to make a play. Instants later, Posey went from the best young catcher in baseball to a young man in agony at home plate.

Giants fans were understandably devastated. Posey was the best thing to happen to catcher offense since Mike Piazza. His rookie-season performance -- hitting .305/.357/.505 with 18 home runs, gunning down 29 percent of stolen-base attempts and winning the National League Rookie of the Year award -- created a heightened expectation of what was to come. He was the new bright light on a defending champion; a first-rounder who hadn’t just lived up to his promise, he’d taken the Giants to the promised land. And then, one play at the plate later, Posey was dealing with a case of career, interrupted.

Now, one year later, we can say that interruption, however avoidable, however unfortunate, has cost Posey little in terms of what he’s able to do. One year later, and he’s hitting like the same kid catcher who provided so much joy in 2010: .297/.364/.473, not very different from the .297/.366/.479 line that ESPN Insider’s Dan Szymborski projected for him via ZiPS before the season. Posey is fourth in OPS+ and OBP among regular receivers, sixth in slugging, seventh in homers. Quibblers might note that Posey is throwing out just 22 percent of stolen-base attempts, but when people are testing you scarcely more often (0.77 attempts per nine innings) than they do Yadier Molina (0.69), that’s a sign of respect of what Posey is to this day: A big-league catcher.

Losing sight of Posey’s comeback might be easy, especially after the Dodgers’ torrid start. The Giants have had more than their share of problems beyond that: Brian Wilson’s broken beyond repair this season and Pablo Sandoval’s out with a broken hand for a few more weeks yet. Tim Lincecum has delivered just one quality start in 10 this season, and took another beating at the hands of the Fish Friday night. The long-standing Aubrey Huff versus Brandon Belt debate over who should be playing first base has been fairly pointless with both men’s bats missing in action.

But in the big picture, Posey is just the leading example of how much is going right for the Giants already. He joins Melky Cabrera’s crazy-good start, and Posey’s handling a pitching staff that, outside of Lincecum’s woes, may very well be the league’s best. In the two wild-card-team era, that’s something any skipper could work and win with.

You can consider me an interested party as an observer to Posey’s misfortune because, this time last year, I’d selected Posey in ESPN’s franchise player draft. I’d picked Posey before he suffered the injury, but the horror of this play at the plate came before we went to press. In an act of generosity, I was asked if I wanted to change my pick from Posey, taking anyone left on the board. I thought about it … and I said no.

I said no because I believed, or because I wanted to believe, not just in Posey’s promise of what could be, of what was supposed to be, but because I wanted to believe that he’d be back, that he would be every bit the player he’d already been and was always meant to be. I believed because I’m a fan, and in the way that every fan wants to see players play, I wanted to see Posey play again. Call it faith if you want, faith in a player, faith in the miracle of modern orthopedics, but I believed Posey would be back.

It wasn’t simple fandom on my part, and I don’t think any of us kid ourselves over the amount of work that went into his getting back on the field. Frankly, as a Northern Californian and an A’s fan in the late ’70s, I grew up hating the Giants, resenting the affection they received from a fawning press still buzzing off a contact high from Willie Mays, where Charley Finley’s franchise received -- and deserved -- derision. No, if I was a fan of anything, it was Posey’s game, a fan of what baseball deserves, of what he deserves.

So, seeing Posey take the field in Florida to face the Marlins on this unhappy anniversary, you can consider me guilty of a contact high of my own, one that comes from getting to say that this is one of those happy non-news stories: That Buster Posey remains the player he’s supposed to be. And whether you root for the Giants or against them, that’s a beautiful thing, all by itself.

Hunter PenceJeff Curry/US PresswireHunter Pence does a little dance with Shane Victorino, but nobody was the worse for wear.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
On Thursday's Baseball Today podcast , Keith Law and I discuss both serious (depression) and non-serious (Bobby Valentine) issues. You’ll never forget which hand Liam Hendriks throws with after listening to our show.

1. Valentine’s lineup gaffe Wednesday might seem funny, but isn’t it somewhat embarrassing for the Red Sox organization?

2. The Yankees lose Michael Pineda for the season but an older guy is on the comeback trail.

3. Keith openly discusses his battles with depression and what Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff is going through.

4. It’s still only April, but at what point should we start to worry about struggling players like Albert Pujols, or take upstart teams like the Orioles and Nationals seriously?

5. Our emailers want to talk about two-sport starts (NFL draft is tonight!), sacrifice bunts and giving position players days off. Plus, we look closer at Thursday’s schedule.

So download and listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, and come back with us on Friday as me and Law preview the weekend!
With a perfect game and a very imperfect Boston Red Sox performance in our rear view mirror, but very much on our minds, Mark Simon and I gathered for Monday’s Baseball Today podcast!

1. First of all, kudos to Chicago White Sox right-hander Philip Humber for the 21st perfecto in big league history. Humber was an unlikely candidate, but the team he beat wasn’t.

2. As for the Red Sox, we don’t want to say they or they're manager deserve this rough start, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. And credit the Yankees for coming back from a 9-0 deficit.

3. It’s Power Rankings day! See where the struggling Phillies and Angels fell to this week, as well as which potential contender falls to the bottom five.

4. Simon says defenses are doing something to Albert Pujols that is wise, but a bit unprecedented. As for Pujols himself, is all going to be well?

5. And our emailers have thoughts on players that had three home runs among five hits in a game (Mickey Brantley!), why Aubrey Huff should never play second base again, and making the most outs per at-bat.

So, download and listen to Monday’s fun Baseball Today podcast, as Bias Cat triumphantly returned (as did our producer), and a good time was had by all. Except the Red Sox fan.

Can the Giants come from behind again?

September, 3, 2011

As in life, the tragedy of baseball is that it can all fall apart. Sometimes that happens with a single pitch, sometimes in the span of 25 games or with the loss of an invaluable player. It’s a cruel sport, one in which you can find yourself hoisting a golden trophy into October winds one moment only to be on the precipice of not qualifying for the same tournament less than a year later.

That’s where the San Francisco Giants found themselves going into Friday night. Desperately needing a win against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who led by six games in the division, Bruce Bochy’s club pulled out a 6-2 victory. Led by a brilliant Matt Cain supported by an offensive outbreak highlighted by homers off the bats of Cody Ross and Carlos Beltran, the Giants now trail by five games.

While the Bay can rejoice tonight, the morning sun still will greet the hometown nine with a hefty deficit. Baseball Prospectus has the Giants’ playoff odds at 16.6 percent, a cruel reminder that one victory does not make a season. So how did the defending world champs find themselves in this hole, going from the top of the baseball world to a must-sweep situation?

Well, for one, they have arguably the worst offense in baseball. (The Mariners might have some merit in claiming this infamous title over the men in black and orange.) The Giants have scored fewer runs than anyone else in the game. They have the second-lowest wOBA in the game and are only .003 points in front of the M’s. Their OBP also ranks second lowest. When they say it’s torture baseball, they aren’t kidding.

Sure, the Giants might be a little unlucky. Their .281 BABIP is the lowest in the game -- although their 18.8 strikeout percentage means not a lot of balls are being put in play anyway, and their .355 SLG means hardly any of those balls are leaving the yard, let alone dropping for extra bases. When the Giants do get on base, they’re not particularly dangerous, having stolen only 75 bases, the ninth-lowest total in the majors.

The struggles of Aubrey Huff, one of the key pieces of last year’s world champs, have been well documented, but it’s worth noting just how much he has regressed this year. His OBP has dropped a ridiculous 84 points. He is striking out much more frequently, 16.1 percent of the time compared to 13.6 percent last year, and he’s walking much less, only 7.8 percent of the time compared to last year’s 12.4 percent. That’s never a good combination. His power has almost completely disappeared, as his SLG has dropped to .375 from a .506 pace he set last season.

Beyond Huff, key acquisition Beltran has OPS’d at only a .664 clip since he was shipped to the Bay, quite a difference from the .904 mark he was putting up for the Mets. Although Beltran had a huge night at the plate Friday, the Giants acquired him to be the elite power hitter they have so desperately needed, and he has launched only two long balls thus far.

Through all this, the Giants’ pitching has stayed incredibly consistent, and per usual it is the only thing keeping them afloat. Cain has improved on his excellent numbers from last year, surrendering only 0.38 home runs per nine innings, an incredible feat. Tim Lincecum has been his usual self, even improving a bit (3.10 FIP compared to a 3.15 mark last year). With the inconsistencies of Jonathan Sanchez, the emergence of Ryan Vogelsong has been a revelation, although his 3.73 FIP shows he is due to come back to earth any time now.

So in the end, it’s the same old Giants: a punchless offense buoyed by an All-Star rotation. Last year’s feel-good team still has a lot of work to do if it plans on competing again in the Fall Classic. That’s not to say there isn’t any hope. It’s easy to forget that entering last September, the Giants trailed the San Diego Padres by four games; we all know how that story ended. Also in the G-Men’s favor is the fact that the D-backs have been baseball’s streakiest team this year. Before their recent nine-game win streak, they were owners of a seven-game losing streak. They’ve had five three-game losing streaks this season, a five-game losing streak and a six-game losing streak. If they fall into another funk, the Giants will be ready to take advantage of it.

The Giants did their job in this first game, pulling out a much-needed victory. But they know where they stand: five games out with 24 to go. Arizona will send its best to the mound in Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson over the next two days. It won’t be easy for San Francisco -- in fact it’s statistically improbable. So it’s going to be a long September at AT&T, with every pitch meaning more than the next.

But that’s Giants baseball, right? Beating the odds when it matters most. Some might even call it torture.

Ryan HowardSteve Mitchell/US PresswireIt's not a stretch to say Omar Infante's safe with Ryan Howard off the bag.
Alex Convery writes for Fire Brand of the American League, the Red Sox affiliate of the SweetSpot network. You can follow him on Twitter.
The feline population might not enjoy Wednesday’s Baseball Today -- don’t ask! -- but there’s something for everyone as Keith Law and I discussed many pertinent and occasionally funny matters, including:

1. The Indians really needed Tuesday night’s win, and they got it in a most unconventional way. How does KLaw feel about intentional walks to load the bases? I think you get the picture.

2. Meanwhile, let’s not forget about those first-place Milwaukee Brewers, extending their NL Central lead! We spent much time discussing our love of the Brew Crew today, or something like that.

3. The signs are there as the Toronto Blue Jays are in the news and for all the wrong reasons. Do all teams steal signs, or just the Canadian one? KLaw worked for the Blue Jays, and he brings the information.

4. Dan Uggla is the latest National Leaguer to hit in 30 consecutive games, but when is the last time an American Leaguer turned the trick? And why has it been so long?

5. We talk more about Ivan Nova than we ever thought we would, but in a good way. Yankees-Angels on ESPN Wednesday night! Don’t miss it!

Plus: Excellent emails, Aubrey Huff hits one out, the cool stat Sierra, Bobby Abreu’s power trip, Jason Heyward’s injury and a ton more on a packed Baseball Today podcast for Wednesday!
I'm from Seattle, where the wave was invented. It was a fun thing in the '80s at Seahawks games, when the decibel level in the Kingdome would reach near-unbearable levels. But at baseball games? In 2011? I was at a Red Sox game last night when the crowd in the right-field bleachers attempted to get a wave going. It never made its around the ballpark, despite repeated efforts.

Anyway, Page 2 has a story saying the Texas Rangers have sort of unofficially banned the wave. Check out that story and a few other links:

From the unfortunate Braves-Pirates ending in the wee hours of Wednesday morning to actual breaking news during the taping of the show, Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast with myself, Keith Law and guest Jim Bowden was certainly an interesting one. Among the highlights were:

1. Jim wasn’t just sad (like me) about the apparent umpiring mistake that cost America’s Team, but he sounded downright angry! Also, his reaction to the Colby Rasmus trade and other potential deals should not be missed.

2. Keith also shares his opinions on a very interesting past 24 hours in baseball, but rather than focus solely on the umpire mistake, the managers deserve blame for the 19-inning affair as well.

3. The Cardinals certainly make a statement with the Rasmus trade, but it seems like a short-sighted one.

4. Why is investing in relief pitchers for the long-term generally a poor idea? KLaw has the answer and Jonathan Papelbon fans might not like it.

5. Tim Lincecum versus Cole Hamels highlights a big night of baseball, but we point out the other starting pitchers you need to keep an eye on Wednesday.

Plus: Excellent emails, Lance Berkman versus Aubrey Huff, pitchers headhunting and concussions, stats we like, Winnie the Pooh and a whole lot more on a busy Baseball Today podcast for Wednesday. Download now!
Injuries were the lead focus of Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, but Keith Law and I also found time for some upbeat discussion as well. Here are a few of the reasons why you should listen:

1. The Diamondbacks lost Stephen Drew, but their offense will survive. The question is about their defense.

2. The Tigers picked up a key player and again the question is about the team’s defense.

3. If KLaw was running the Mets, would he be showing Jose Reyes the proverbial door along with Carlos Beltran?

4. Ozzie Guillen went nuts -- again -- on Wednesday, but we kind of like his behavior. Should the White Sox?

5. It’s a day of aces in baseball, but our focus starts with a right-hander with an ERA on the wrong side of 5.

Plus: Excellent emails, the not-so-excellent Aubrey Huff, late-developing lefty pitchers, prospect Leonys Martin and a ton more on Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast!
San Francisco Giants cleanup hitters are batting .252/.324/.378, for a .703 OPS that ranks 23rd in the majors. Reds cleanup hitters are performing even more poorly, with a .249/.323/.377 line. Both teams have a used a variety of guys in the four-hole: Buster Posey, Aubrey Huff and a slew of others guys for the Giants (Cody Ross, Pat Burrell, Pablo Sandoval); for the Reds, Brandon Phillips hit OK there, but Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce have hit poorly when batting cleanup.

Both the Giants and Reds are playoff contenders, so my question: Can you make the playoffs with poor production from your cleanup position?

Going back over the past five seasons (40 playoff teams), here are the teams that ranked in the bottom third in the majors in OPS from the cleanup spot.

2010 Giants: .788 (21st)
2009 Dodgers: .769 (23rd)
2008 Dodgers: .778 (26th)
2007 Diamondbacks: .812 (21st)
2007 Angels: .801 (23rd)
2006 Padres: .802 (27th)
2006 Tigers: .805 (25th)
2006 Twins: .764 (28th)

Eight teams made the playoffs and two -- last year's Giants and the 2006 Tigers -- reached the World Series. Some of these teams resolved cleanup issues as the season progressed. For example, the 2006 Twins had Rondell White hitting there early on and he went 6-for-64 in the four-hole. Michael Cuddyer ended up with the most playing time there. The 2006 Twins are also a prime example of why you can't assume 100 RBIs means you're getting great production from the cleanup spot: Despite ranking 28th in the majors in OPS that year, Twins cleanup hitters still drove in 107 runs. Nearly every team gets 100 RBIs from the cleanup position.

The 2008 and 2009 Dodgers made the playoffs in back to back years despite subpar production from their cleanup hitters. In 2008, it was mostly Jeff Kent and James Loney hitting there before Manny Ramirez was acquired at the trade deadline. Ramirez was terrific in the cleanup spot but Joe Torre ended up using Ramirez as his No. 3 down the stretch and in the playoffs that year (with Russell Martin and Andre Ethier hitting cleanup). In 2009, five players started at least 20 games in the cleanup spot -- Casey Blake, Ethier, Matt Kemp, Ramirez and Loney. All told, Dodgers cleanup guys hit .265 with 19 home runs that year.

Last year's Giants similarly used several players there. Huff began the season hitting cleanup. Oddly, Bruce Bochy tried Bengie Molina there for a couple weeks, even though Huff had been hitting well. Eventually, the team would settle on Huff hitting third and Posey hitting cleanup. Huff and Posey actually hit well; Burrell's .155 mark in 30 games in the cleanup spot dragged down the team totals.

The problem Bochy faces this year is the lack of an alternative as viable as Posey. He's been trying Huff there lately, and after a slow start he has been hitting better, so he's the guy for now. In Cincinnati, Dusty Baker would undoubtedly prefer to keep Joey Votto and Bruce -- who both hit left-handed -- separated in the order by the right-handed Rolen, but Rolen just hasn't produced. Baker may be better off hitting Drew Stubbs and Chris Heisey in the 1-2 spots, and moving Phillips back to the cleanup spot if he doesn't want the two lefties hitting back to back.

In the end, neither team is necessarily doomed by their cleanup production, but it's a key aspect to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
So, what's gone wrong this season for the World Series champions? Well ... Buster Posey is out for the year. ... Freddy Sanchez just joined Posey on the out-for-the-year list after dislocating his shoulder. ... Brandon Belt is on the DL with a broken wrist. ... Aubrey Huff, last season's best hitter, is hitting .234 with a sub-.300 on-base percentage. ... Miguel Tejada is hitting .227 with one home run and looks older than a redwood tree -- and moves about as well as one. ... Pablo Sandoval hasn't played since April 29. ... Andres Torres missed nearly 30 games. ... Nobody has more than eight home runs. They're 15th in the NL in runs scored. ... Barry Zito has made just three starts. Madison Bumgarner is 2-8. ... Tim Lincecum has allowed 16 runs his past three starts.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cain
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMatt Cain, who tossed a perfect game in June, is a worthy pick to start the All-Star Game for the NL.
Let me catch my breath. So, what's gone right?

The Giants are 37-29 and leading the NL West by one game over the Diamondbacks. That .561 winning percentage puts them on pace to win 91 games, just one off last year's 92.

Of course, we know how they're winning: great starting pitching, great bullpen. Their 3.27 ERA from the rotation ranks just behind Philadelphia (3.20) and Atlanta (3.20) in the NL. The bullpen ERA is 3.20, seventh in the NL. The bullpen also has a 17-6 record, as the Giants completed their 20th comeback win of the season on Sunday, most in the majors. They're 18-9 in one-run games and 7-3 in extra innings.

Can they keep it up? Their record in one-run games is probably unsustainable, so they'll have to score more runs. Ryan Vogelsong is unlikely to keep pitching like this: In his past seven starts, he's allowed six runs. Their run differential indicates they should be .500, not eight games over, so while they haven't been hitting, they have been getting timely hits, something else that might be unsustainable.

Bill Hall is not the answer at second base. Signed after getting released by the Astros, he was hitting .221 with a 56/9 strikeout/walk ratio. The only decent year at the plate he's had since 2007 was last season with the Red Sox. He's merely adequate defensively, and that might be kind. They're going to have to improve at second base. Of course, they also have to improve at shortstop, where Tejada and Mike Fontenot are not the answers.

On the positive side, Sandoval will return Tuesday to help boost the offense. Zito just made a good rehab start in Class A, so when he's ready the team will have six quality starters, opening up trade possibilities. The Giants are 10-8 since Posey was injured. The bullpen is so deep they can't even find enough innings for Sergio Romo and his 0.71 WHIP.

But it's that rotation that still makes them the team to beat. Despite the team's offensive struggles, I wouldn't bet against Lincecum, Matt Cain and company just yet.
We finish the week as we do every Friday, with a packed Baseball Today podcast hosted by myself and Mark Simon dealing with many factors and looking ahead to a fun weekend. Here are a few highlights from Friday:

1. San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean goes off on the man who ended his catcher's season, and Mark and I agree it doesn't seem like the wisest course of action.

2. So much for matchup of star pitchers in Seattle Thursday, as Felix Hernandez was terrific but James Shields must have missed the memo. How should we view Shields' outing?

3. We debate stars versus superstars, trying to define what these words mean and which players fall into which categories. You might be surprised!

4. Seems like the three-homer games are in vogue now, as Aubrey Huff was the latest to pull off the accomplishment. Who's next? And no, taking Joey Bats or Joey Votto is too easy. Mark and I go off the grid for unlikely names.

5. There are a few series this weekend matching winning teams (in terms of record), so we analyze the ones you shouldn't be missing ... and of course the Mets play the Braves on Sunday night. That was for you, Mark!

Plus: Excellent emails discussing sabermetricians, more on our franchise draft picks, snobs versus dorks, reaching base after "fowling" a ball off yourself, and so much more we could barely get it all in before we lost our voices. Check out Friday's Baseball Today!