SweetSpot: Brandon Morrow

Some stuff to check out ...
  • Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk disagreed with my take on instant replay after the Giants-Pirates game on Tuesday. Fair enough. I can admit I may have missed the boat (the ocean?) on that one. Certainly, if there's any reason to apply instant replay, that would be the occasion, along with all other plays at home plate or when a run scores.
  • You may have heard that Troy Tulowitzki is hitting the baseball very hard these days. Grantland's Jonah Keri looks into Tulo's hot start. One interesting note: "Seeking a second opinion, I turned to a longtime scout for an NL team. While the scout largely agreed that not much has changed, he did notice one small thing: Tulowitzki is closing his stance a bit more than in the past, and is also now spreading his legs slightly farther apart."
  • The Hardball Times has had an excellent series of "10 things I learned" articles on sabermetrics-related themes. The pieces: ESPN Insider contributor Dan Szymborski on creating a projection system, Dave Studeman on Win Probability Added, Mitchel Lichtman on defensive statistics, Dave Cameron on baseball economics and Matt Hunter on creating a baseball simulator. Good stuff.
  • Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus with an early report on catcher framing. Through Monday, Mike Zunino leads the majors with 5.1 framing runs added, according to the BP measurement.
  • Brian Dozier of the Twins is quietly developing into a star-level second baseman. He has power (eight home runs, although just one double), draws walks (third in the AL with 24), is 11 for 12 stealing bases, leads the AL with 31 runs and seems to show up every other night with a diving play on defense. Grantland's Michael Baumann appreciates this unsung player.
  • The Orioles swing a lot and chase a lot of pitches out the strike zone, which means they don't walk much. Which means they rely on home runs. Matt Kreminitzer of Camden Depot takes a look.
  • Alex Skillin of Fire Brand of the AL says rotation depth is what could eventually separate the Red Sox from the rest of the AL East.
  • Jason Collette of The Process Report takes a closer look at David Price, who has off to an odd start with diminishing velocity but more strikeouts -- and more hits.
  • Can Derek Jeter no longer hit the fastball?
  • Will the Mets be gone from New York in 10 years?
  • Joe Aiello asks: Which Cubs prospect are you most confident in? Sounds like this may be related to Javier Baez's awful start at Triple-A.
  • Curt Hogg of Disciples of Uecker looks into Jean Segura's improved play at shortstop.
  • Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal aren't fooling batters as much this season.
  • Without Jurickson Profar, Brandon Land reports that the Rangers are having problems from offense at second base.
  • The Justin Upton trade keeps looking worse, writes Ryan Morrison of Inside the 'Zona.
  • More from Craig Calcaterra: A bunch of baseball-related podcasts were pulled from iTunes. An MLB Advanced Media spokesperson said it was for "infringing uses of trademarks of Major League Baseball and certain Clubs." I understand MLB's desire to protect its trademarks but what a way to anger your most passionate fans. Unfortunately, it's not the first time MLB has done this (see: blackout policy).
  • Wendy Thurm of FanGraphs with a piece titled "At the Ballpark: Race, Community and MLB."
  • Richard Griffin writes about Brandon Morrow, who may or may not be done for the year and who may or may not be done as a Blue Jay (the club has a $10 million club option for next season). Morrow was the guy the Mariners drafted ahead of local kid Tim Lincecum back in 2006 (also two spots ahead of a high school kid named Clayton Kershaw). It didn't work out in Seattle and despite flashes of brilliance in Toronto, Morrow was never able to stay healthy. Griffin suggests Morrow's diabetes may be a cause for his injury issues, at least a related problem (fatigue, etc.). Anyway, in the end it's hard to say whether injuries or command issues or lack of consistency ultimately undermined Morrow from reaching his potential.

Sizzling Blue Jays won't just streak and fade

June, 23, 2013
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Now that the Blue Jays have rattled off a 10-game win streak, we’re almost back to what I think we all expected in the American League East when the season started: a five-team race where nobody -- nobody -- should be considered the automatic favorite. After all, isn’t that what the Baltimore Orioles taught us last year, after months of confident, thoughtful assertions that they would regress, retreat or recoil short of the postseason?

SportsNation

Which team will win the AL East?

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    20%
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    18%
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    7%
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    49%
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Discuss (Total votes: 9,391)

What’s interesting about the Jays clambering past .500 to get back into the thick of things in baseball’s drama division isn’t that they’ve done it; more than a few people pegged this team to win as confidently as they did the Nationals before Opening Day, after all. What’s interesting is how they’re doing it, and who they’re doing it with.

  • After years of disappointment as a homegrown, big-ticket investment, Adam Lind is delivering for the first time in years, slugging almost .700 for the month of June. Spotted with care, he’s even hitting those lefties he remains in the lineup to face (OPS 1.030) after years of having problems hitting against them (.626 career).
  • Lind is far from the only surprise hero in the lineup. Colby Rasmus has put up an .861 OPS over the past 30 days, providing a nice reminder that it wasn’t very long ago that he was considered one of the best prospects in the game (including third overall before the 2009 season on Baseball America’s top prospect list). He’s still just 26 years old this season, and after a two-year hiccup, it isn’t inconceivable that his year is for real. An even bigger surprise has been Munenori Kawasaki going from scrap-heap sub at shortstop -- stepping in for Jose Reyes, no less -- to someone providing a .347 OBP.
  • The rotation has been made a shambles by ineffectiveness (R.A. Dickey has just one quality start in the past month), injuries (fragile young gun Josh Johnson has already missed nine starts) or, in the case of the maddeningly promising Brandon Morrow, both. But setbacks for some create opportunities for others. Chien-Ming Wang has provided innings and winnable games and converted shortstop Esmil Rogers has had a couple of good starts. More significantly, Johnson is back in action and Mark Buehrle is already turned around after a slow start, rattling off quality starts in six of his last eight turns.
  • [+] EnlargeMark Buehrle
    AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Frank GunnMark Buehrle, part of the Jays' big offseason deal with Miami, has come on after a bumpy start.
    But perhaps the most impressive element of the Blue Jays’ run back to relevance has been their bullpen. On the year, its numbers aren’t amazing, allowing 3.5 runs scored per nine and a decidedly average 32 percent of inherited runners to score. But over the past 30 days, the Toronto relievers have gotten tremendous work from a no-name crew fronted by closer Casey Janssen. In that time, skipper John Gibbons’ most frequently used quintet (Janssen, Steve Delabar and Neil Wagner, plus lefties Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup) have pitched 52 times, tossing 58.1 innings while giving up just 1.4 runs per nine. They’ve delivered a 65:16 strikeout:walk ratio in that time. Cecil’s been especially effective, allowing just four baserunners in 16 innings against 20 whiffs. And as much trouble as the Jays’ rotation has been, the bullpen has had to pitch an MLB-leading 267.1 innings, so while its overall RA/9 or Fair Run Average (4.41 according to Baseball Prospectus) hasn’t been earth-shattering, it’s the volume of useful innings plus the pen's recent performance that has been crucial to the Jays' success. As much as any bullpen can be a crapshoot in terms of making too much of small sample sizes, it would be fair to say the Jays’ pen has been a lovely surprise in a moment of need for innings, and Gibbons seems to be getting a lot more mileage out of his unit than other, more famous skippers are getting out of other, more famous (or expensive) assemblages of relief talent.

All of which might lead you to make assertions every bit as confident as last year’s about the Orioles, that surely the Jays can’t keep this up. It would be easy to infer that these are all just the symptoms of victory. And that’s sensible: Keeping your expectations low for guys like Rogers or Wang or Kawasaki is entirely reasonable, and based on an awful lot of direct observation. Is Lind going to slug .700 from here on out? Of course not; who do you think he is -- Chris Davis? These are the guys the regression fairy is liable to clobber with a two-by-four.

But what has helped get the Jays this far doesn’t have to be what leverages the Jays even further into the AL East race. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are bashing -- and they should. In the rotation, Johnson is already back, and Morrow might be before the All-Star break; that could lighten the load on the pen, while keeping more games in reach for the Jays’ homer-happy lineup. The feeble production the Jays have gotten from most of their infield slots will almost certainly improve once Reyes and Brett Lawrie come back in a week or so.

In short, what has gotten the Blue Jays this far doesn’t have to be what they win with in the second half. They can thank their surprise heroes for helping get them back into this thing, but the Jays have a tremendous opportunity to build off this run once they’re back at full strength. In many respects, you can look at the Jays’ slow 13-24 start this year as being very much like what happened to them in 1989, when they started out 12-24 -- and nevertheless came back to win the AL East with 89 wins. In a division where it looks like everybody is going to knock everyone else down, keeping all five teams in the race, that sounds very familiar indeed.

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

 
If you're younger than 28 or so, you don't remember when the Toronto Blue Jays were the preeminent franchise in Major League Baseball, unless you're Canadian and weaned on sports history other than Paul Henderson. They won American League East titles in 1985, 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1993 and World Series titles in '92 and '93. They had a gleaming new modern stadium that was the envy of other teams, packed every night (the Jays drew more than 4 million fans each season from 1991-93, averaging better than 50,000 per game in 1993), and had a team of stars -- Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter and Jack Morris and Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield and homegrown talent like John Olerud, Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen, and were bold enough to pick up rental players like David Cone and Rickey Henderson during their championship runs.

After 20 years, the Blue Jays are back. Baseball hasn't died in Toronto -- the Jays have certainly been competitive -- but it has been dormant. But watching R.A. Dickey pitch the team's opener before a sold-out Rogers Centre -- backed by the likes of Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and last year's 42-homer man, Edwin Encarnacion -- is a reminder of those halcyon days when Toronto was the baseball capital of the world.

The game didn't go Toronto's way, as Dickey struggled a bit with commanding the knuckleball, walking four (give credit to Cleveland's hitters for showing a lot of patience) as the Indians won, 4-1. Dickey walked four in a game just twice during his 2012 Cy Young campaign with the Mets, but if there's consolation for Jays fans, one of those came in the season opener. Let's not read too much into Dickey's outing and overanalyze things like pitching indoors or moving to the American League or whatever. It just wasn't his night and I'm chalking it up as nothing more.

[+] EnlargeR.A. Dickey
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesR.A. Dickey, left, allowed four walks in his Blue Jays debut -- something he did in his 2012 opener, too.
Asdrubal Cabrera golfed out what looked like a pretty good low tumbler for a two-run homer in the fifth and also made the key play of the game, stopping Adam Lind's hard smash with the bases loaded and none out in the third to start a nifty double play. Justin Masterson settled down after that and survived his own four-walk opener.

The main thing I liked about Toronto's offseason is that -- like Pat Gillick back in the day when he traded Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff for Alomar and Carter or acquired Cone and Henderson -- general manager Alex Anthopoulos made the bold moves to acquire Dickey, sign Melky Cabrera and pull off the blockbuster deal with the Marlins. Considering the Tommy John surgeries handed out to young starters Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, and the struggles of Ricky Romero, it could have been easy to say 2013 would be a holding pattern as the Jays waited for the next wave of youngsters to arrive.

After all, isn't that what you're supposed to do these days? Develop your own talent, and if you're lucky enough to have them turn into Justin Verlander or Buster Posey, break the bank to sign them to long-term deals. But the Jays seized advantage of a market opportunity to acquire proven big league stars! Imagine that.

It's just one night, so let's not overreact here, but as much as I like the top four of the Jays' lineup -- Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Encarnacion -- I do see potential on-base issues in the bottom of the lineup. Brett Lawrie is out another couple weeks and he'll hold down the five-hole when he returns, but it's not like he tore it up in 2012 (.273/.324/.405). Though, he's only 23 and a good bet to improve. With him sidelined, the Jays had Lind (.314 OBP in 2012), J.P. Arencibia (.275 OBP) and Colby Rasmus (.289 OBP) hitting fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. That's simply just not a championship-quality 5-6-7 trio unless they improve.

But I'll still buy into Toronto's potential to run away with the AL East if everything breaks right. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson could be as good as any top four in the league, and Bautista and Encarnacion could combine for 85 home runs with Reyes easily leading the league in runs. Opening Day is a day to believe, and one loss doesn't change that. I suspect we'll see a few more sellouts at the Rogers Centre.

Offseason report card: Blue Jays

February, 7, 2013
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2012 in review
Record: 73-89 (74-88 Pythagorean)
716 runs scored (7th in AL)
784 runs allowed (11th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Traded Henderson Alvarez, Yunel Escobar, Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jeff Mathis and Anthony DeSclafani to the Marlins for Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck. Traded Buck, Travis d'Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard and Wuilmer Becerra to the Mets for R.A. Dickey, Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas. Signed free agents Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis. Picked up option on Darren Oliver. Lost free agent Kelly Johnson. Acquired Mike Aviles from the Red Sox (for manager John Farrell and David Carpenter) and traded Aviles and Yan Gomes to the Indians for Esmil Rogers. Signed Dickey to a two-year extension with 2016 club option. Named John Gibbons manager.

That's what I call an exciting offseason. It may even have pushed the Maple Leafs off the front page of the sports section for a few days. GM Alex Anthopoulos picked up the NL Cy Young winner, a guy who has pitched 200-plus innings 12 seasons in a row, a guy coming off a season in which he hit .346 (and, yes, got suspended for a positive PED test), a shortstop who has compiled the third-most wins above replacement at the position over the past two seasons (or most, depending which version of WAR you prefer), a starter who led the NL in ERA in 2010, and a solid utility guy who has swiped 73 bases the past two years.

What did he give up? Of the prospects traded, d'Arnaud (14), Nicolino (62), Marisnick (82) and Syndergaard (97) ranked in Keith Law's top 100 prospects Insider. The Blue Jays' farm system, which would have been ranked in the top five, now ranks 24th. In this era when general managers don't want to make that fatal mistake, kudos to AA for pulling off the deals (and ownership for approving the salary influx, which should increase Toronto's payroll by an estimated $30 million or so).

Position Players

Despite Edwin Encarnacion's monster 42-homer breakout season, the Blue Jays' offense was a big disappointment in 2012, and not just because Jose Bautista played only 92 games. Brett Lawrie was OK in his first full season but underperformed expectations. Adam Lind had another underwhelming season. Overall, the main problem was getting on base -- the Blue Jays' .309 OBP ranked 13th of 14 teams in the AL. Some of those guys are gone, but Colby Rasmus (.289), J.P. Arencibia (.275) and Lind (.314) are still projected as regulars.

How many more runs can we expect the Jays to score? Here are some quick back-of-the-napkins numbers for the new guys in the lineup:

Cabrera replaces Rajai Davis/others: 85 runs created versus 65; +20 runs.
Reyes replaces Escobar: 86 runs created versus 53; +33 runs.
Izturis/Bonifacio replaces Johnson/others: 70 runs created versus 68; +2 runs.


Total: +55 runs.

That's about five wins, not factoring in defense. Defensive runs saved rated Escobar at plus-14 runs in 2012, Reyes at minus-16 (he hasn't had a positive DRS since 2007). So it's possible the Jays are giving back a couple of those wins on defense at shortstop. Of course, the Jays are hoping for a full season from Bautista, improvement from Lawrie and Rasmus, and another big year from Encarnacion.

I think it's a good lineup but not a great one. I still see some OBP holes, and Cabrera and Encarnacion will be hard-pressed to repeat their 2012 numbers. If Lawrie and Rasmus take a leap -- much more likely in Lawrie's case -- it could be a great offense, but I'm holding back for now.


Pitching Staff

I expect the Jays to make bigger gains on the pitching end of things. After a 2012 season that saw Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison all miss time (Tommy John surgery in the cases of Drabek and Hutchison) and staff ace Ricky Romero struggle through a miserable 5.77 ERA, the Jays could end up with the best rotation in the majors after posting a 4.82 team ERA last year.

Although there is A-plus upside to this group, there are obvious reservations, primarily in the health and durability of Morrow and Johnson. Morrow had a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts -- after years of underperforming his peripherals -- but he never has pitched 180 innings in a season. Johnson did make 31 starts for the Marlins after missing most of 2011, although he wasn't quite the dominant pitcher he had been in 2010. Dickey takes his knuckleball back to the American League, and, although he might have had his career season, maybe he hasn't. Romero will get another shot, but J.A. Happ pitched well after coming over from the Astros and is a solid No. 6 guy.

Toronto's bullpen had the worst ERA in the AL last year. It won't be the worst this year. Casey Janssen has a solid track, and Sergio Santos returns from his injury to compete for the closer role. Rookie Aaron Loup (21-2 SO-BB ratio) looked very good late in the season, and Anthopoulos might have stolen hard-throwing Steve Delabar from the Mariners. He curbed his home run problems after coming over and struck out 46 in 29 1/3 innings with the Jays. He could emerge as an important late-inning weapon.

Heat Map to Watch
Was Encarnacion's season a fluke? At age 29, he hit 42 home runs and 110 RBIs, after never having hit more than 26 before. But the Jays apparently did a couple of things with Encarnacion's approach, most notably having him keep both hands on the bat throughout the swing. As this article points out, he also did a better job laying off pitches out of the strike zone. And he did a better job attacking fastballs, hitting .315/.411/.633 against them after hitting .289/.370/.482 in 2011. As the heat map shows, he likes those high fastballs.

Edwin EncarnacionESPN Stats & InformationWarning to pitchers: Edwin Encarnacion likes those high fastballs.
Overall Grade

SportsNation

How many games will the Blue Jays win?

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Discuss (Total votes: 7,030)

There's no doubting the upside of this club. Should the Jays be the World Series favorites, as one Vegas book has them? I don't know about that. Still, if Bautista and Encarnacion become the first pair of teammates to hit 40 home runs since Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome with the 2006 White Sox, and if Gibbons gets 60 starts from Morrow and Johnson, I can see a 95-win club.

What we don't know is how tough the AL East will be. On paper, it could be five teams all beating the snot out of each other. Or maybe one will rise above the rest. What do you think?

Power rankings: All 30 teams!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 35,031)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30. Astros
Welcome to the AL West, boys.

Third time's no charm for Blue Jays

June, 16, 2012
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A little more than a week ago, things looked so very different for the Toronto Blue Jays. Brandon Morrow had just delivered a complete-game shutout of the White Sox in the Cell, and the Jays were 30-26. In the early going, they were a reasonable candidate within baseball’s newly expanded wild-card picture.

And a big part of the reason why they deserved that consideration was a “no-name” rotation that had delivered more quality starts than all but two American League rivals, the Los Angeles Angels and the Chicago White Sox.

What a difference a week makes, because first they lost Morrow to an oblique injury on Monday, his next turn. On Wednesday, Kyle Drabek tore up his elbow and might need Tommy John surgery. And on Friday night, rookie Drew Hutchison had to leave his start early with his own dose of elbow trouble. Within the space of four ballgames, the Jays might have three of five starting pitchers on the disabled list.

Perhaps no team could withstand that sort of rotation wipeout, but at least the Jays still have Ricky Romero in working order -- for now. How good were these three starters?

  • Morrow: He’d delivered a league-leading three complete-game shutouts as well as eight quality starts in his first 12, striking out 22 percent of opposing batters while cutting his walks to a career low, below 8 percent. All of the expectations that Morrow’s selection as the fifth overall pick of the 2006 draft looked like they were on the verge of being fulfilled as he began to earn ace status.
  • Drabek: As highly touted as Morrow back in the day, and another canny trade pickup by the Jays, Drabek has had to work his way past wildness on and off the field. He came into 2012 having to pitch for his job, no matter how rosy his former promise had been, but he looked like he’d come around after five quality starts in his first nine, posting a 3.27 ERA. Allowing 34 walks in those 52.1 IP reflected that location was still an issue, but you could hope he was getting back on track.
  • Hutchison: Ranked before the year as the organization’s sixth-best prospect by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus and ninth-best by Baseball America, Hutchison was pressed into action with just six starts above A-ball. The 21-year-old didn’t lack the stuff or touch to make it, however, showing excellent touch on a fastball-slider-change mix. He’d cranked out quality starts against the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox in recent weeks.

These three already have company to keep on the rehab trail, unfortunately enough: The perennially promising and reliably broken Dustin McGowan’s on the DL as well, dealing with shoulder woes. Counting on McGowan hasn’t been a good idea since 2007.

Pickings are slim as far as what else the Jays can do after losing three of their front five in such short order. If Hutchison joins Drabek on the “wait ‘til next year” list, that’s two slots to fill for the remainder of the year, as well as the month-plus of turns that will have to go to Morrow’s replacement while he’s out. Brett Cecil is slipping into Morrow’s slot Sunday, and you can hope the young finesse lefty can recapture some of his former promise. Long reliever Carlos Villanueva might help, but his track record as a starter isn't great.

They don’t really have a promising kid like Hutchison to turn to; Deck McGuire’s getting drubbed in Double-A, leaving the cupboard relatively bare. You get into wondering what well-traveled Jesse Chavez or former rotation stalwart Scott Richmond have left. The borderline bid of convention just got rolled back into borderline bad ballclub possibilities. The sabermetric construction of “replacement level” is a handy fiction -- there’s certainly no guarantee that the Jays will get replacement-level work from their available replacements.

The Jays probably don’t get their fair share of sympathy or schadenfreude, which is a pity considering the remarkable job general manager Alex Anthopoulos has done. Whoever gets the call beyond Cecil, in the meantime the Jays still have Romero and farmhand Henderson Alvarez to rely upon. But that isn’t what the Jays’ slender hopes for contention were based on. If they’re excused early, it’s a shame, but in divisional races as tight as either East boasts, you can’t afford this kind of misfortune.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Ben ZobristJ. Meric/Getty ImagesBen Zobrist must still be looking for his home run to come down.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
A few new and interesting contracts were in the news as Keith Law and I gathered for Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast !

1. Jorge Soler signed a nine-year deal to become a member of the Chicago Cubs. Law has the goods on this top outfield prospect.

2. Andre Ethier and the Los Angeles Dodgers will be partners for the next five years. Do we feel as good about this contract?

3. Should Angels stud Mike Trout play in the All-Star Game? Should he get MVP votes? Yeah, he's that good.

4. Our emailers want to talk about Stony Brook, international free agent strategy, team construction and arm slot for pitchers.

5. Tuesday's schedule features more interleague, with streaking Clay Buchholz back on the mound in Miami, Felix Hernandez getting a gift with the Padres and Zack Greinke returning to Kansas City.

So download and listen to Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast, because in this business, like Brandon Morrow and his oblique injury, we're all day to day!


"Show us some respect," yell Baltimore Orioles fans. Or maybe they're politely demanding. But I've seen the complaints in the Power Rankings comments, read the emails sent to "Baseball Today," been asked the question in my chats: Why doesn't anyone believe in the Orioles?

The Orioles traveled to Fenway Park this week in a precarious situation. They've lost two of three in Tampa. They've been swept in Toronto. They've lost two of three at home to Kansas City. They've lost two of three at home to Boston. They haven't won a series since the big weekend showdown in Washington from May 18-20.

So, yes, the concerns all of us "experts" had been raising -- it's a long season, let's see what happens to the rotation, let's find out if some of the hitters can keep up their hot starts, the bullpen can't keep its ERA under 2.00 all season -- were proving true. The O's were 27-14 after winning the second against the Nationals but had gone 3-10 since, with the staff posting a 4.95 ERA while the offense scored 3.5 runs per game.

These were the Orioles we all expected. And then they beat the Red Sox in extra innings on Tuesday. And then they beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday behind a solid effort from Wei-Yin Chen and scoreless innings from Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. They're 5-0 at Fenway in 2012 and Chen is now 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA. The key moments came in the seventh inning after the Red Sox threatened with a pair of singles to start the frame. But after a sacrifice bunt, Chen struck out Marlon Byrd and induced Mike Aviles to pop out to first base.

Normally, Buck Showalter might have turned to his stellar bullpen, but after Tuesday's victory, in which the bullpen threw five innings, he left Chen to escape the jam. He set up Byrd with three fastballs and then got him swinging on a beautiful changeup. He threw three more fastballs to Aviles that he couldn't get around on. Don't underestimate Chen. His stuff plays up big, with his four-seamer reaching 94 mph. His last pitch to Aviles was clocked at 93. In 11 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs seven times and I think this outing will give Showalter more confidence to stretch Chen a little deeper into games.

So the Orioles remain in first place for another day, half a game ahead of the Yankees. Is it time to show them a little respect, to give Orioles fans what they crave? Let's do some position-by-position rankings to help sort out this tightly packed division. Rankings are simply listed in order of who I would want the rest of the season.

(Season-to-date Wins Above Replacement from Baseball-Reference.com, before Wednesday's games, listed in parenthesis.)

Catcher
1. Matt Wieters, Orioles (1.6 WAR)
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Kelly Shoppach, Red Sox (1.6)
3. Russell Martin, Yankees (0.7)
4. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays (0.2)
5. Jose Molina, Rays (0.1)

There is a case to be made that Boston's duo is more valuable since they've combined for 14 home runs and an OPS over .900. But Wieters brings elite defensive skills and I also don't believe Salty is going to slug .583 all season. For the second consecutive season, the Rays are essentially punting offense at catcher. Rays catchers have the worst OPS in the majors.

First base
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox (0.8)
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees (0.6)
3. Mark Reynolds, Orioles (-0.6)
4. Carlos Pena, Rays (0.4)
5. David Cooper/others, Blue Jays (incomplete)

Gonzalez is still struggling to get his stroke going, but he's the best of a weak group. Yes, I just called Mark Teixeira weak, but at this point he's a low-average guy who pops a few long balls, doesn't draw as many walks as he once did and isn't as great on defense as Yankee fans believe. But in this group that's good enough to rank second. Reynolds has a low WAR but he's missed time and that includes his bad defense at third base, a position we've hopefully seen the last of him playing. The Jays, meanwhile, need to quit fooling around at first base and find a legitimate hitter, or move Edwin Encarnacion there and find a designated hitter. You hate to waste a potential playoff season because you can't find a first baseman who can hit. (No, David Cooper is not the answer, although he's hit well so far in 11 games.)

Second base
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.1)
2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (1.8)
3. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays (2.1)
4. Ben Zobrist, Rays (0.7)
5. Robert Andino, Orioles (0.6)

I love Ben Zobrist almost as much as two scoops of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's, but a .199 average isn't going to cut it in this group, even if you are on pace to draw 100-plus walks. Zobrist has actually play more right field so far, but should be back at second on a regular basis with Desmond Jennings back.

Third base
1. Evan Longoria, Rays (1.4)
2. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays (3.1)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1.2)
4. Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Wilson Betemit/Steve Tolleson, Orioles (-0.1)

Lawrie's WAR is boosted by defensive metrics that treat him like he's the second coming of Brooks Robinson. He's a good player but don't I think he's been the second-best position player in the American League. Longoria hopes to return at the end of the Rays' current road trip. As for A-Rod, his health is always a question at this stage of his career, but Youkilis has health questions and I'm not a believer in Middlebrooks' ability to hit .321 with power all season. His 29/4 strikeout/walk ratio is something pitchers should learn to exploit. As for the Orioles ... third base is an obvious concern. But don't expect a rare intra-division trade to acquire Youkilis.

Shortstop
1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles (2.1)
2. Mike Aviles, Red Sox (2.2)
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees (0.9)
4. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays (1.9)
5. Sean Rodriguez, Rays (1.9)

Wait ... Jeter has been the least valuable of this group so far? The other four all rate as excellent fielders -- in fact, Baseball-Reference rates them all in the top 13 fielders in the AL. Jeter, meanwhile, ranks 310th in the AL on defense -- out of 313 players.

Left field
1. Desmond Jennings, Rays (1.2)
2. Daniel Nava/Carl Crawford, Red Sox (1.7)
3. Brett Gardner/Raul Ibanez, Yankees (0.3)
4. Eric Thames/Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (-0.1)
5. Endy Chavez/Xavier Avery/Nolan Reimold, Orioles (-0.3)

Not to keep picking on the Orioles, but this is another problem position, especially if Reimold's disc problems lingers all season. Nava has quietly been a huge savior for the Red Sox, batting .305 with a .438 OBP. He's drawing walks at a crazy rate. He should slide some but he's provided the kind of depth the Orioles don't have.

Center field
1. Adam Jones, Orioles (2.5)
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees (1.3)
3. B.J. Upton Rays (0.9)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury/Scott Podsednik/Marlon Byrd, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (1.3)

Ellsbury might be the biggest wild card in this race, because the Red Sox can't survive much longer with the Podsednik/Byrd platoon. When will he return? How will he hit? He just started throwing and could return by the end of the month. I've conservatively put him fourth, which seems fair considering the unknown. And please note, Orioles fans, that I believe in Mr. Jones.

Right field
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (0.9)
2. Matt Joyce, Rays (2.2)
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees (-0.1)
4. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox (1.6)
5. Nick Markakis/others, Orioles (0.3)

Markakis is out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, an injury that once again reflects Baltimore's lack of depth. But all five teams are solid in right field. Ross is about to return from his broken foot; we'll see if he pounds the ball like he was before the injury (.534 slugging).

Designated hitter
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox (1.4)
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (1.6)
3. Revolving Door, Yankees
4. Chris Davis, Orioles (0.3)
5. Luke Scott, Rays (0.0)

No respect for Davis? OK, he's hitting .295/.333/.494. And he has 53 strikeouts and eight walks. Sorry, call me skeptical, O's fans. Yankee designated hitters have actually fared well, hitting a combined .279/.354/.467 with 10 home runs.

No. 1 starter
1. David Price, Rays (2.2)
2. CC Sabathia, Yankees (1.9)
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (0.3)
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Jason Hammel, Orioles (1.9)

Look, Hammel has been terrific so far thanks to a career-high strikeout rate and a career-high ground-ball rate. But this is tough group and the question is who is going to be best moving forward? My biggest concern is that Hammel has never pitched 180 innings in a season. Can he pitched the 210 to 220 that you need from a No. 1?

No. 2 starter
1. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (1.1)
2. James Shields, Rays (-0.4)
3. Andy Pettitte, Yankees (1.5)
4. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles (0.7)
5. Jon Lester, Red Sox (-0.4)

I like Chen. Heck, right now I like him better than Jon Lester, which tells you how much I like him. But he averaged just 172 innings in Japan over the past three seasons. Can he hold up over 32 starts?

No. 3 starter
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.0)
2. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees (1.4)
3. Felix Doubront, Red Sox (0.4)
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles (0.2)
5. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays (0.4)

Matusz is holding his own at 5-5, 4.41, but he's still walking a few too many, allowing a few too many hits, a few too many home runs. The velocity is solid, averaging 91 on his fastball. We're talking minor upgrades needed in his command, getting the ball down in the zone more often to get more groundballs. If the Orioles are to have any chance, Matusz's improvement may be the single most important aspect.

No. 4 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays (-0.6)
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees (0.3)
3. Jake Arrieta, Orioles (-0.4)
4. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (-1.2)
5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (-0.1)

Five pitchers who have struggled, but Arrieta's peripheral numbers are actually pretty solid. Like Matusz, there is hope for improvement. On the other hand, he's been awful since pitching eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, giving up 29 runs in 31.2 innings. His BABIP was .243 through May 2; it's .361 since. The truth is probably right in the middle, leaving Arrieta third on our list of fourth starters.

No. 5 starter
1. Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann, Rays (0.3)
2. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (0.1)
3. Phil Hughes, Yankees (0.2)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook/Daniel Bard, Red Sox (-0.3)
5. Tommy Hunter, Orioles (-0.5)

Hunter isn't really a major league starter, but I'm not sure Jamie Moyer -- just signed to a minor league contract -- is exactly a solution. The Orioles need to upgrade here.

Bullpen
1. Yankees (2.76 ERA)
2. Orioles (2.48 ERA)
3. Red Sox (3.66 ERA)
4. Rays (3.43 ERA)
5. Blue Jays (4.39 ERA)

If you watched Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson close out Wednesday's win, you'll realize the back of the Orioles' end has two guys with filthy stuff. Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala are strike-throwing machines and Troy Patton is a lefty who isn't a LOOGY. It's a good pen and it's deep. But the reliability of the pen ties into the rotation's inability to pitch deep into games -- Orioles relievers have already thrown 39 more innings than Yankees relievers, for example.

OK, let’s add it up … one point for ranking first, five points for ranking fifth. Hey, this isn’t meant to be scientific, so don’t overanalyze this too much. The totals:

Yankees: 36 points
Rays: 40 points
Red Sox: 45 points
Blue Jays: 51 points
Orioles: 53 points

Not the respect Orioles fans are seeking. Sorry about that; it’s nothing personal. Look, I don’t think the Orioles are going to fade away anytime soon. I worry about the rotation’s ability to hold up all summer and the bullpen’s workload. They lack depth on offense and have a couple of obvious holes. Hey, you never know, and the Orioles are certainly due for a winning season. I would love to see it happen.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Javier Lopez Jake Roth/US PresswireJavier Lopez is sending a message to Mark Kotsay: Tag, you're out!
It wasn’t exactly a rainbows and unicorns day on the Wednesday edition of the Baseball Today podcast as Keith Law and discussed injured pitchers, an angry pitching coach and more.

1. Yep, stick a fork in the Angels and Phillies now that their aces are gone. Are you kidding? Keith and I take issue with assuming anything in the May standings.

2. Roy Oswalt was league average last year, and now he’s a significant pickup for the Rangers? Or is he?

3. White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper doesn’t want to hear from people who didn’t play major league baseball. We tell you why.

4. Our emailers want to talk about teams that are for real, where Troy Tulowitzki bats in Colorado’s order and draft boards.

5. Wednesday’s schedule features the streaking Angels against the Yankees, but also the erratic Brandon Morrow and the struggling Tim Lincecum.

So download and listen to Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast and smile, smile, smile!

Resilient Jays can bounce back

May, 27, 2012
5/27/12
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Josh Hamilton flipped the bat back and jogged around the bases with his eyes fixed to the ground. There was no fist-pump, no pointing at the dugout, not even a wave to the fans. That’s not how you react when you expect to win games, and Hamilton and the Texas Rangers certainly expect to do that every time they take the field. Boasting the best run differential in the American League, Texas certainly deserves the respect it's being given this year.

But look just two ticks below them in the run-differential standings, and you’ll see a team that may surprise you: The Toronto Blue Jays, the very team that Hamilton beat with his walk-off home run on Saturday afternoon.

Toronto certainly had some hype coming into the season. With the two-time defending home-run king, Jose Bautista, to build around, things up north were only getting better. Add in a full season of emerging superstar Brett Lawrie, who looked like a legitimate All-Star during his brief time in the majors last year, and there seemed to be no reason why the Blue Jays couldn’t find themselves playing October baseball, especially once Bud Selig announced the addition of a second wild-card team in each league.

Well, two months later Bautista is hitting only .234, Lawrie has a meek .672 OPS, and the man who protected Bautista in the lineup over the past two years, Adam Lind, isn’t even on the major league team. Knowing those three facts alone, one would predict that the season hasn’t exactly gone as general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell imagined. Yet even after Saturday’s heartbreaking 13-inning loss to the Rangers, Toronto sits only 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot with a 24-23 record.

Like almost anything else in baseball, success starts with the starting pitching. Toronto’s top four of Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez all have ERAs of 3.86 or lower, with at least five quality starts apiece. That type of production will keep any team afloat.

Morrow in particular has been brilliant. The ex-Mariner was always plagued with command issues that limited his success as a starter. His 8 percent walk rate this year is a full 3 percent lower than his career mark, and would seem to indicate that he has finally gotten a grip commanding his stuff.

Unfortunately for Toronto, each of these four pitchers has a higher FIP than ERA, indicating that all of them are probably due for some regression as the season continues. Don’t be surprised to see the Jays in on any starters who might become available as the trade deadline gets closer, with Zack Greinke as the ultimate prize.

Although Bautista has been struggling, Edwin Encarnacion has been a revelation for the Jays. He has already jacked 15 home runs, only two fewer than he did all of last year, with a robust .929 OPS. That being said, his power is likely to slide off a bit over the coming weeks. His current HR/FB rate of 18.8 percent is much higher than his 12.4 career mark.

Bautista, on the other hand, hasn’t gotten any breaks this season. His .211 BABIP means his average will bounce back soon enough, and it’s not like he’s experiencing a power outage -- he has 12 homers on the year. On top of that, his fly-ball and ground-ball rates are right around his career averages, reflecting that he hasn’t changed anything fundamental with his swing. Just give him time, and there’s every reason to believe Bautista will return to form.

At the moment, the Blue Jays have two big problems besides Bautista’s struggles. The first is their bullpen, something that was supposed to be a strength coming into the season. When Anthopoulos acquired Sergio Santos from the White Sox over the winter, many believed that the Blue Jays had finally found a consistent closer, a position that had been in flux over the past few years. Instead, Santos blew the first two save opportunities he had before being placed on the disabled list with an injured shoulder. The man Anthopoulos acquired to be Santos’ setup man, Francisco Cordero, took over; he was even worse. Casey Janssen has since assumed the role and has done remarkably, not allowing a run since being named the closer. Still, the Jays’ bullpen has almost no depth, with the ageless Darren Oliver as the only other consistent option. This is another area that Toronto will be looking to fix come the end of July if it wants to contend.

The other main obstacle Toronto faces right now is, of course, the division it plays in. The AL East is easily the best division in baseball, if not all of sports. Having to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees every year is tough enough, but now that Tampa Bay is a legitimate power and Baltimore is looking better and better every day (and in first place), there are five legitimate playoff contenders vying for three spots. Toronto is 7-12 against teams in its division, and 17-11 against everyone else. The fact that the Jays have to play 18 games every year against four teams with so much talent is almost unfair.

With a fourth of the season done, Toronto is still very much in the playoff race. Farrell would surely tell you that this team can do better, and the numbers would back him up. Although the Jays saw a sure victory turn into a mirage in the Texas heat Saturday, their future is still bright.

If Toronto acquires an ace and some bullpen depth at the deadline, it should have more than just playoff aspirations. That sort of reinforced Jays club could have championship aspirations. Blue jays traditionally start heading south when the October winds blow in, but this just might be the year where those traditions begin to change.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Dayan ViciedoDavid Banks/US PresswireSox fans don't interfere, they just let left fielder Dayan Viciedo do his thing.
Alex Convery writes for Fire Brand of the American League, a SweetSpot network affiliate. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Leaderboard of the week: ERA vs. FIP

April, 30, 2012
4/30/12
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One of the popular concepts in the baseball stats community is to look at a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks and home runs as a means for estimating what his ERA should be. The resultant stat is known as Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), and is scaled similarly to ERA. The stat can be found on FanGraphs.com.

The idea behind this is that most pitchers with a good combination of strikeouts, walks and few home runs allowed tends to have a good ERA. Rare is the pitcher who doesn’t. If a pitcher has a bad ERA, but a good FIP, his ERA may be due to something beyond what he controls most. This could be the defense behind him, the ballpark he’s in, bad luck, or any number of factors.

Statisticians will often project a pitcher with a bad ERA and good FIP to improve the following season. The poster child for this is Rays starter James Shields, whose FIP indicated that he was far better than his 5.18 ERA in 2010. He responded with a 2.82 ERA in 2011.

How does this apply to April of 2012?

The three pitchers who had the widest differential between their ERA and FIP in 2011 were Derek Lowe, Ricky Nolasco and Brandon Morrow. Each had an ERA of 4.50 or higher. Each had a FIP of 3.70 or lower. All three have been great in 2012.

These three aren’t the only pitchers with significant ERA-FIP differences who are thriving in 2012.

Giants starter Madison Bumgarner finished last season with a 3.21 ERA and 2.67 FIP. He won on Sunday and is 4-1 with a 2.53 ERA through five starts.

Dodgers starter Chris Capuano had a 4.55 ERA last season and a 4.04 FIP. He won Sunday and is now 3-0 with a 2.73 ERA through five starts.

Remember one week ago? I know many of you wanted to kill off the Yankees and Red Sox. Both teams were 0-3 and in such dire straits that Bill Simmons had a special podcast with his buddy JackO -- a Yankees fan -- to commiserate in their pain.

Well, it's not so easy to get rid of the wicked witches of the East. The Red Sox pummeled the Rays over the weekend, scoring 31 runs in a three-game sweep in games started by David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore.

The Yankees, meanwhile, took two of three from the Angels to climb above .500, although they did miss Jered Weaver and Dan Haren while getting shut down by C.J. Wilson. (Hey, we don't want Yankees fans to get too comfortable.)

OK, in all seriousness, it's a reminder of the hysteria that's easy to ensue when a team with high expectations doesn't go 7-3 out of the gate. A similar sense of panic exists in Philadelphia, where the Phillies are 4-5 and scoring barely three runs a game. It's early, folks.

Before the Yankees and Red Sox meet this weekend, the Yankees will have an excellent opportunity to pad their win total with a four-game series against the hapless Twins, looking like a good bet early on to challenge the Astros as baseball's worst team. Don't expect much run support for Carl Pavano, who faces Freddy Garcia on Monday night on ESPN and ESPN3 (7 ET): The Twins have scored three runs or fewer in seven of their nine games.

Outside of Derek Jeter (.366, four doubles, two home runs) and Nick Swisher, most of the Yankees hitters are off to lukewarm starts. Robinson Cano has one RBI, Alex Rodriguez is hitting .222 with one home run and Mark Teixeira (a career .235 hitter in April) is off to his usual slow start with a .222 average and zero home runs.

But with four games against the Twins, look for Cano and Teixeira to enter their showdown with Boston with at least one home run on their ledger.

Series of the week

Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals, Tuesday through Thursday

Johnny Cueto (1-0, 2.25) vs. Kyle Lohse (2-0, 1.35)
Mat Latos (0-1, 5.59) vs. Jaime Garcia (1-0, 4.22)
Bronson Arroyo (0-0, 2.63) vs. Adam Wainwright (0-2, 11.42)

In some regard, the Cardinals were baseball's most impressive team through the first 10 games of the schedule. They methodically took two of three from the Brewers, Reds and Cubs, as well as beating the Marlins on Opening Day. Their plus-23 run differential is the best in the majors, as is their 57 runs scored. So far, the Cardinals' bench is shaping up as a possible strength. Matt Carpenter stepped in for the injured Lance Berkman (who should return Tuesday) and has driven in 10 runs in just 22 at-bats. Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalso provide flexibility in the infield. And so far, Yadier Molina (.353/.421/.735, three home runs) is showing his offensive growth in 2011 was for real.

The Reds have scored just 31 runs in 10 games. Outside of Joey Votto and Zack Cozart, the offense hasn't done much. I was worried about Scott Rolen's ability to produce heading into the season and Dusty Baker's cleanup man is off to a .121 start (4-for-33, no home runs, one walk). Baker has also given rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco just 12 at-bats, and Drew Stubbs is still having big issues making contact. Yes, Brandon Phillips missed some games, but there appear to be some red flags about the Reds' offense. The Reds can hardly afford to let the Cardinals put six games between them this early in the season, but that's what they're facing if St. Louis sweeps the series.

Three pitching matchups to watch

1. Monday: Roy Halladay (2-0, 0.60) vs. Tim Lincecum (0-1, 12.91, Phillies at Giants (10:15 p.m. ET)

Halladay has been terrific while Lincecum has been terrible and is coming off the shortest outing of his career on Wednesday, when he couldn't escape the third inning in Colorado. Lincecum is 4-1 with a 2.61 ERA in nine career starts against the Phillies -- teams that had better offenses than this Phillies team, of course. Wednesday's Cliff Lee-Matt Cain matchup ain't exactly chopped liver, either. Yes, I just used that phrase.

2. Wednesday: David Price (1-1, 4.82) vs. Brandon Morrow (0-0, 2.57), Rays at Blue Jays (7:07 p.m. ET)

Tampa Bay's brutal April schedule continues with a Monday morning Patriots Day affair in Boston, three in Toronto and then a bit of a reprieve with three at home against the Twins. Price is coming off a poor stint against the Red Sox in which he had issues locating his fastball and threw 83 pitches in three innings. Morrow has gone seven innings in each of first two starts, a good early sign for somebody looking to prove he can pitch 200 innings for the first time.

3. Saturday: Neftali Feliz (1-0, 2.25) vs. Justin Verlander (0-1, 2.25), Rangers at Tigers (1:05 ET)

Yes, please. The Tigers will prove to be a sterner test for Feliz than the Twins and Mariners. Feliz used his changeup successfully in seven shutout innings against the Mariners in his first start, less so on Sunday against the Twins. He's still a work in progress as a starter, and while nobody doubts his fastball, we'll see if his secondary stuff can catch up. Many still consider moving him to the rotation a bit of a risk, considering his strikeout rate as a closer in 2011 didn't exactly reflect domination (54 strikeouts in 62.1 innings). So far he has seven K's in 12 innings.

Player on the hot seat: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers

After hitting .306/.361/.510 with 26 home runs for the Cubs, the Brewers signed Ramirez to help replace Prince Fielder. So far he's hitting .114 without a big one.

Player to watch: Chad Billingsley, Dodgers

Billingsley has made two strong starts -- one run with a 15-1 strikeout-walk ratio -- raising hopes that the Dodgers will have a strong No. 2 starter behind Clayton Kershaw. Billingsley suffered through the worst season of his career in 2011 as he walked 84 batters, but made some mechanical adjustments this spring. "Success breeds confidence," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told ESPNLA's Tony Jackson. "They go hand in hand. Right now, you're seeing him totally in control. He isn't right on target with every ball he throws, but we're not seeing that wildness. I like to call them well-thrown balls, and we are seeing a lot of well-thrown balls coming out of his hand. Those are quality pitches. He just needs to do that consistently."

Heat map of the week

Courtesy of Mark Simon and Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats and Information, we have to do a Matt Kemp heat map. Baseball's hottest hitter is just the fourth player since 1920 hitting .450 with at least six home runs and 16 RBIs through his team's first 10 games. The typical major leaguer hits a home run on every nine to 10 of the fly balls he hits, but Kemp's first nine fly balls have resulted in six home runs. He's hit the ball to the opposite field six times, resulting in five hits and four home runs. And in at-bats ending in curveballs, he's 5-for-5 with three singles, a double and a home run.

Kemp Heat MapESPN Stats & InformationFour of Matt Kemp's six home runs so far have gone to right field.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Denard SpanBrace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireElvis Andrus chases his man, but Denard Span says, Catch me if you can.

Over/under: Wins for Blue Jays

March, 16, 2012
3/16/12
10:36
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It's not easy playing in the AL East. Since 2006, the Toronto Blue Jays have won 87, 86 and 85 games in various seasons; if they'd been in the AL Central, maybe they would have won a division title somewhere in there.

SportsNation

Over/under prediction: 81.5 wins for Blue Jays

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    91%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,935)

But not in the AL East, which means the Blue Jays are one of the franchises that should be happiest about the addition of a second wild-card team. Suddenly their playoff hopes are drastically improved.

Toronto went 81-81 in 2011, scoring 743 runs while allowing 761.

The one major addition in the offseason was acquiring closer Sergio Santos from the White Sox, but the biggest additions will be full seasons from third baseman Brett Lawrie, center fielder Colby Rasmus and starter Henderson Alvarez. The rotation will also be relying on improvement from Brandon Morrow. He led the AL in strikeouts per nine innings last season but posted a disappointing 4.72 ERA. He needs to pitch better with runners on base and go deeper into games. If he develops into a solid No. 2 behind Ricky Romero, the Jays could be surprise wild-card contenders.

What do you think? Some believe the Jays are a year or two away, as they wait for some of their minor league talent to reach the majors. The oddsmakers aren't predicting much improvement, setting the Jays' over/under at 81.5 wins.
It's Friday, so here's one last list of links for the weekend.

2012 predictions you couldn't predict?

February, 18, 2012
2/18/12
11:00
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Last year, You Can't Predict Baseball came up with bold predictions for the year. We had a lot of fun coming up with them, and then laughing at how hilariously wrong they were at the end of the year. This year, we're bringing these predictions to SweetSpot, along with explanations for some of them. Keep in mind, these predictions are supposed to be bold, but not insane -- even we know the Orioles aren't going to the playoffs in 2012.

Los Angeles Angels: Kendrys Morales stays healthy all year.

Houston Astros: Bud Norris is top five in K/9 in the NL. We figured something good had to happen to the Astros, right? Norris actually has a pretty nice career K/9.

Oakland Athletics: Yoenis Cespedes is their starting center fielder by Memorial Day.

Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow makes the jump to elite starting pitcher. He's struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings two years running, though his ERAs have remained ugly. We think this is the year his results finally match the stuff, especially considering his declining walk rate.

Atlanta Braves: Julio Teheran has more wins than Tim Hudson.

[+] EnlargeRickie Weeks
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith Prince Fielder gone to Detroit and Ryan Braun facing possible disciplinary action, Rickie Weeks could lead the Milwaukee Brewers in home runs in 2012.
Milwaukee Brewers: Rickie Weeks leads the team in home runs. He was fourth on the team last year, with 20. In front of him were Corey Hart with 26, Ryan Braun with 33, and Prince Fielder with 38. Fielder is gone, and for this prediction we'll assume Braun will miss a third of the year due to a suspension. It's not too bold to think Weeks could pass Hart in 2012.

St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Beltran outproduces Albert Pujols from last year. Albert Pujols was great last year, but not quite best-player-of-his-generation Albert Pujols. If healthy, it's not absurd to think of Beltran outproducing Pujols' 5.1 WAR in 2011.

Chicago Cubs: Matt Garza isn't their best pitcher. It'll be Ryan Dempster, who had great peripherals but bad results last year.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Aaron Hill will be good again. He was great with them in limited time, and Arizona's park is quite hitter-friendly.

Los Angeles Dodgers: James Loney will be a top-three first baseman in the National League. Many thanks to Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness for somewhat alerting us to this one. We just decided to take it semi-absurdly far.

San Francisco Giants: Madison Bumgarner is their best pitcher. In terms of ERA, he already wasn't very far behind Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and his K/BB ratio eclipsed theirs by quite a bit.

Cleveland Indians: They'll have the best pitching in the American League Central. We're banking on Ubaldo Jimenez, making a major comeback to something closer to what he was in 2010, and the rest of the staff displaying the good that they did in 2011. We're also counting on the Tigers' starters not being very impressive behind Justin Verlander, which is bold but not quite insane, and the pitching of the White Sox, Twins and Royals not being able to keep up with Cleveland's.

Seattle Mariners: Jesus Montero catches 100-plus games. The Mariners probably aren't going to compete, so why not try and play him where he'll accrue the most value?

Miami Marlins: Despite all their new acquisitions and the hype, they still finish fourth in the NL East. When you think about it, this one isn't so crazy. If Josh Johnson isn't healthy and maybe even if he is their pitching still trails that of Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta; even with Heath Bell, we don't think their bullpen is as good, either. Their offense might be better than some of those teams', but the Marlins were quite a bit below league average offensively last year and we're not sure how much Jose Reyes is going to make up for that.

New York Mets: Mike Pelfrey is the worst starter in the NL. Pelfrey's been pretty terrible two of the past three years, and now they're moving the fences in at Citi Field. He was far better in his huge home stadium, but we're guessing with the moved-in walls he'll be significantly worse at Citi. Here at YCPB, we actually don't think the Mets are going to be quite as dire as many are saying, even if they do come in last place in the NL East - but Pelfrey won't be a bright spot.

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg has a 17-strikeout game.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters is the best catcher in the AL. A lot of people are so obsessed with Wieters not matching the hype that they didn't notice he became a plus offensive performer last year, to go along with very good defense. His taking the next step isn't that bold as predictions go, especially if Joe Mauer has to move off catcher.

San Diego Padres: Luke Gregerson is a top-three closer in the NL.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cole Hamels is their best starter. And this isn't meant to be a slight to Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but considering their ages and the fact that Hamels is pretty darn good himself, plus a possible boost from a contract year...

Pittsburgh Pirates: Charlie Morton is their All-Star.

Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish isn't their best starter -- but he's still good. And we think he'll be pretty good, we just think Derek Holland will become more consistently good, or Matt Harrison will put up numbers like his 2011.

Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields will have no complete games. Predicting someone to have no complete games might not seem bold, but it is when it's a guy who was known as "Complete Game James" last season. Shields did have 11 complete games in 2011, an almost unheard-of number these days, but he had no complete games in 2009 or 2010.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter none in either 2009 or 10, James Shields pitched 11 complete games for Tampa Bay in 2011.
Boston Red Sox: No one hits 30 home runs. This might seem crazy when you consider their great offensive numbers last year, but only one player on their team hit 30 home runs and it was Jacoby Ellsbury with 32.

Cincinnati Reds: Brandon Phillips is the best second baseman in the NL.

Colorado Rockies: Jamie Moyer will have the best HR/9 on the staff.

Kansas City Royals: They reach .500. While their pitching won't be great, their offense will take a big step forward this year. Combined with the rest of their division being the Tigers and some dumpster fires, it's not that difficult to see it happening.

Detroit Tigers: They score fewer runs than they did in 2011. Yes, that’s even with Fielder. It's not improbable that Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Delmon Young regress quite a bit from their numbers with Detroit last year, and that Prince Fielder's production "only" makes up for the offensive loss of Victor Martinez in 2012. They'll still have a very good offense, though.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer hits 15 home runs.

Chicago White Sox: Robin Ventura gets ejected more times than Ozzie Guillen. Look at the state of the White Sox. We'd get ejected too.

New York Yankees: Hiroki Kuroda leads the team in ERA.

You Can't Predict Baseball is an affiliate of the SweetSpot network.

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