SweetSpot: Dexter Fowler

ICYMI: SweetSpot Hits

March, 29, 2014
Greetings, fellow seamheads. This is our first weekly installment of "ICYMI: SweetSpot Hits," a fly-by from some of the various sites that comprise ESPN's SweetSpot Network. Our goal is to bring you the best from each of our sites each week, allowing you a closer look at your favorite (or not so favorite) teams.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Rod Ghods breaks down the Australia series that saw the D-backs lose two games to the Dodgers at the Sydney Cricket Ground -- three, if you count an awful performance against Team Australia.

Chicago Cubs: View From the Bleachers
Why Cubs’ Fans Can’t Compare Current Prospects with Gary Scott and Felix Pie: There are many out there who will say "We’ve seen this before" when it comes to Cubs prospects. Chris Neitzel addresses that concern and examines whether that feeling is warranted with this new crop of prospects in the system.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The 2014 White Sox: Win Predictions and Chaos: Nick Schaefer examines the wide range of possibilities for the 2014 White Sox through the lense of a few of their particularly boom-or-bust players.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
A Fowler Front Office? Dexter Fowler's grit was publicly questioned by general manager Dan O'Dowd, leading to Fowler firing off his own response. Richard Bergstrom looks at both sides of the argument and whether O'Dowd should have started the argument in the first place.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Put Him in Coach? Aaron Hicks is Ready for Center Field: Parker Hageman, reporting on location in Fort Myers, explains why Hicks is ready to pull it together after a miserable rookie season.

New York Yankees: It's About the Money
Does Pitch Framing Make Brian McCann the Yankees' MVP? EJ Fagan delves into McCann's ability to pitch-frame and how well he's done it from 2008-2013.
Also from IIATMS: It's About The 2014 Predictions. Stacey Gotsulias compiled the entire writing staff's predictions (division and wild-card winners, award winners) for the upcoming season, including a bold prediction from each writer.

San Francisco Giants: West Coast Bias
2014 NL West Preview. In what could prove to be one of the most intriguing divisions in baseball, Connor Grossman and Andrew Tweedy break down the best- and worst-case scenarios for each NL West team.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
2014 NL Preview: An in-depth look at the NL Central teams, as well as Pip's picks in the ESPN SweetSpot poll.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The End is the Beginning: As spring training has come to a close, Brandon Land takes a look at some of the positives to come out of an injury-riddled camp.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.
Quick thoughts ...
  • With Max Scherzer ending negotiations with the Tigers until after the season, it appears he (and agent Scott Boras) will head into free agency. Reports indicated Scherzer was offered less than teammate Justin Verlander, who signed an extension last spring that averages $25.7 million per season over seven years. If Scherzer was offered a deal at $24 million per year, we'd be looking at a six-year, $144 million. Even if Scherzer repeats his Cy Young season, I'm not sure he'd get much more than that on the free agent market. He's not to going to get the $30.7 million AAV that Clayton Kershaw received from the Dodgers because (A) He's not Clayton Kershaw; and (B) Scherzer is four years older. Scherzer has had one great season; while it wouldn't shock me to see him have a similar season, even a little regression back to his career norms means he's unlikely to get a $24-25 million AAV contract. You do have to like his confidence and belief in himself, however, to have another big year.
  • How big of a loss is Geovany Soto to the Rangers? It could have bigger impact than you might expect at first glance. You really don't want to play J.P. Arencibia on a regular basis considering he hit .194 with a .227 OBP last season. Over the past two seasons he's struck out 256 times while drawing just 36 walks, making him one of the least disciplined hitters in major league history. He has 11 strikeouts and one walk in spring training. Even with his decent defense, that made him a replacement-level player. Robinson Chirinos is hitting .444 this spring and he had a big year with the bat in the minors in 2010, but he hit a lukewarm .257/.356/.400 at Triple-A Round Rock last year. Still, don't be surprised if he ends up at least splitting time with Arencibia until Soto returns. Say this about last year's catcher, A.J. Pierzynski: He's never great but he is durable.
  • The Mariners released Scott Baker, as they had to notify him by today whether or not made the big league roster. This means Randy Wolf will almost certainly be in the Opening day rotation, which will probably turn out as bad as it sounds. He's given up six home runs in 19 spring innings with just nine strikeouts. Good luck.
  • I found this interesting: Dexter Fowler sort of criticized the Rockies for trading him to the Astros, saying "I don’t even know who’s the GM. I think everybody over there is still wondering who really is the GM," referring to Dan O'Dowd and Bill Geivett, who split GM duties in Colorado. I agree with Fowler: The Rockies basically traded Fowler to free up money to sign Justin Morneau and Morneau is a worse player than Fowler. It leaves the Rockies without an everyday center fielder -- Corey Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, Charlie Blackmon and Brandon Barnes will share the job in some format -- and they could have moved slow-footed right fielder Michael Cuddyer to first base.
  • You never want to read too much into spring training stats, but the Giants have to be concerned about the spring performances of starters Ryan Vogelsong (33 hits in 19 innings, 12 strikeouts) and Tim Lincecum (25 hits and 14 runs in 19 1/3 innings, just 11 strikeouts). Yes, the ball tends to fly in those Arizona spring parks but you're also not facing a full slate of major league hitters.

AL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we’d take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our American League look.

AL East

Blue Jays: The transition from J.P. Arencibia to Dioner Navarro behind the plate is likely a wash and there hasn’t been much of an overhaul to this team other than the departure of Rajai Davis (who did have a decent amount of defensive value).
Ryan Goins
The most interesting thing for the Jays will be how Ryan Goins fares as a regular second baseman. Goins racked up a hard-to-believe 12 Defensive Runs Saved (backed up on video review by 21 Good Fielding Plays and only a pair of Defensive Misplays & Errors) in a 32-game stint last season.

Orioles: The biggest issue on defense for the Orioles will be dealing with the loss of Manny Machado’s major-league leading Runs Saved, at least until he returns from injury. Baltimore did make one positive move that should upgrade its outfield defense, getting David Lough from the Royals for utilityman Danny Valencia.

Rays: The Rays made a long-term commitment to James Loney, which bodes well from a defensive perspective, and also made one to catcher Ryan Hanigan, who is considered one of the best base-stealing deterrents and pitch-framers in the sport. He’ll give them a solid alternative to Jose Molina.

Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts will likely step into everyday roles and fill the shoes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew. The Red Sox will also have a new catcher, though there isn’t much of a defensive difference between A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Both rate below-average statistically.

Yankees:There have been some pretty notable changes on the defensive side. Brian McCann’s pitch-framing rates well, but he’s not the baserunning deterrent that Chris Stewart was. Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts could split time at second base but neither is the Gold-Glove-caliber glove that Robinson Cano was. Johnson could also wind up full-time at third base, a position at which he’s barely played more than 100 innings, if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended.

The Yankees should be great in center and left with an Ellsbury/Brett Gardner combo. Carlos Beltran has less ground to cover in the Bronx than he did in Busch. That could benefit his achy knees and help his defensive rating.

One smart thing the Yankees did: Hire Brendan Ryan to be their “shortstop closer” for the next two seasons and as much as it will pain Derek Jeter to leave games, it will be for the good of the team to let Ryan finish close games.

AL Central

Indians: The Indians tried to make a right fielder out of center fielder Drew Stubbs in 2013 and it didn’t work. They got themselves an upgrade in free agent David Murphy who rates adequate enough (5 Runs Saved in about a season’s worth of innings in right field) that his D could be a one-win upgrade by itself.

Royals: The best team in baseball, as it comes to Defensive Runs Saved, tinkered a little bit, swapping out Lough for Norichika Aoki in the outfield, which probably rates as a push (they’re both good … fair warning to Royals fans, Aoki likes to play a deep right field), and making an offensive upgrade by getting Omar Infante to fill the hole that was second base.

The one thing the Royals got from their second basemen last season was good defense (18 Runs Saved from the collection of Elliot Johnson, Chris Getz and others). Infante isn’t at that level, but he rates above average more often than not (he did by UZR, but not Runs Saved in 2013) and his offensive work should make up for any drop-off.

Tigers: The Tigers' defensive overhaul has been the biggest of the offseason as the team’s opening-day infield will be entirely different from 2013. Ian Kinsler is a definite upgrade at second base and we’ll see if Jose Iglesias’ wow plays add up over a full season (he has seven Runs Saved in just under 800 career innings at short).

Going from Prince Fielder back to Miguel Cabrera should actually be a slight upgrade.

The big question will be third base where the scouting reports on Nick Castellanos’ defense don’t inspire confidence. But even so, conservatively, the Tigers should be about 25 Runs Saved better in 2014, which takes them from being a lousy defensive infield to an average one.

Twins: The Twins made the career-preserving move of shifting Joe Mauer from behind the plate to first base and signed Kurt Suzuki, who has a good statistical history at the position. Suzuki has rated better than Mauer over the course of his career in Runs Saved, though he’s not as good at throwing out basestealers.

I asked Doug Glanville to assess what Mauer’s challenge will be in making the move to first:

“He is a super athlete and I am sure he will be fine. It will be tough to not be as involved with the game in every single moment. No one can compete with catchers in the leadership it requires to play that position and the need for constant vigilance. He has to sharpen his focus to deal with new lulls in time. I am sure he will.”

White Sox: The White Sox had the third-worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in 2013 and they’ve been overhauled all over the place. Their worst position last season was center field (-19 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013) and they’ll have a new look there with Adam Eaton.

They’ll also be much different at first base with Jose Abreu, whose hitting has been compared to Ryan Howard's (but if his defense is, that’s not good) and third base with adequately-rated Matt Davidson, whom they got for Addison Reed. Will different equal better? They better hope so.

Al West

Angels: The aging of Albert Pujols will continue to be an issue both on offense and defense. Last season broke a run of eight straight seasons in which Pujols ranked in the top five among first basemen in Runs Saved.

Pujols will have a familiar teammate working at the opposite corner with the addition of third baseman David Freese, who had a dreadful season in 2013 per both Runs Saved and UZR, ranking third-worst in the former and second-worst in the latter. That’s something that will need to be dealt with.

Astros: The Astros traded away their second-best defender stats-wise from 2013 in Brandon Barnes to get Dexter Fowler from the Colorado Rockies. Fowler has less ground to cover in the gaps of Minute Maid Park, but has a deeper center field (and Tal’s Hill) to worry about. Fowler has posted a negative Runs Saved rating in four of his six seasons, but has fared well at handling balls hit to the deepest parts of the park.

Athletics: The Athletics made two moves that should definitely help their defense in 2014.
Craig Gentry
By adding Craig Gentry in a trade from the Rangers, they’ve obtained one of the game’s premier outfield defenders and one who could fit in well both in left field (to make Yoenis Cespedes a DH) and center (to give Coco Crisp a breather) very well.

The Athletics also added a valuable utility piece in Nick Punto, who could start at second base (ahead of Eric Sogard) or close games at shortstop (replacing Jed Lowrie, who rates as a poor defender). Either way, he’s a big upgrade over what they had.

Mariners:The Mariners now have a Gold Glove-caliber defender at second in Cano. He’ll need to cover more ground to his left than he did in New York, because the Mariners’ first-base options (Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart) do not rate well. Morrison is going to present an issue wherever they put him. He’s not quite at the level of Michael Morse, but his ratings historically have been poor.

Rangers: The difference between Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland at first base is a sizable one, potentially 15 runs over the course of a season, so if the Rangers do decide to hang on to Moreland, they'd be best off playing him at first base and having Fielder DH. The Rangers could use a good defender at first, since Jurickson Profar is basically going to learn on the job at second base. Texas will also have some outfield concerns with Shin-Soo Choo having limited experience in left field and the team no longer having the security blanket of Gentry (traded to Athletics).
Take a deep breath. If Tuesday's slew of transactions is any sign of what will happen at next week's winter meetings, then be prepared for a great week of rumors, deals and signings. As for Tuesday, so much happened that I'm starting to believe the Robinson Cano-to-the-Mariners rumors.

Let's start with the Astros acquiring Dexter Fowler from the Rockies. The Rockies have seemingly been shopping Fowler for years, but apparently the market for him was more lukewarm than a three-day-old cup of Starbucks. Jordan Lyles is still young and throws strikes but has been hit hard at the major league level (5.35 career ERA with 65 starts) and doesn't possess a quality strikeout pitch; he's the kind of pitcher who will get absolutely destroyed at Coors Field.

Even if the Rockies will put a better defense behind Lyles than the Astros did -- Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado will help in that department -- Lyles appears to be a long shot to succeed. Brandon Barnes was a 27-year-old rookie center fielder who posted a .289 on-base percentage, struck out 127 times while walking just 21 times, and was 11-for-22 in stealing bases, a package that made him one of the worst percentage players in the majors. His defense is OK but he looks like a fourth outfielder at best.

What did the Astros get? A player with two years remaining until free agency who has averaged a consistent 2.4 WAR over the past three seasons. He's a good player whom the Rockies always expected more from, perhaps creating a poor read of his actual value. There is the possibility that his numbers will crater outside of Coors Field -- he's hit .298 there in his career, .241 on the road -- but as a guy who takes his walks I like his chances to produce once he gets away from the Coors effect. Kudos to the Astros for acquiring some talent without giving up much in return. With prospect George Springer presumably ready to take over center, I wouldn't be surprised to see Fowler move to left field; his bat won't play as well there but he'll improve the Astros' defense dramatically over the statue-like Chris Carter.

What were the Rockies thinking? Who knows. The Rockies and Mariners seem like the two franchises without any semblance of a game plan right now. Are the Rockies trying to win now? Are they trying to rebuild? Were they merely dumping a salary (Fowler will make $7.35 million in 2014, a relative bargain for a 2-WAR player)? Are they trying to improve the rotation or the offense? If I had to guess, the Rockies see this as a salary dump to clear space to sign a free-agent pitcher. Last year, Roy Oswalt, Jeff Manship, Drew Pomeranz, Collin McHugh and Chad Bettis combined to go 0-19 in 26 starts with a 7.42 ERA. Can't wait to see the Rockies sign Ervin Santana and be shocked when he gives up 40 home runs.

But there was more that happened on Tuesday ... much more!
  • The A's traded for Orioles closer Jim Johnson. The Rays traded for Diamondbacks closer-by-default Heath Bell. What's going on here? Are the A's and Rays, the beloved darlings of the sabermetric guild, admitting they believe in Proven Closers? Well ... yes and no. The A's aren't going to pay big bucks for a closer with a long-term deal, so with Grant Balfour leaving as a free agent they picked up Johnson, who has one year remaining before free agency. It's a rental without giving up anything of value (no, Jemile Weeks doesn't count as "value"). The A's may have gone with Ryan Cook as their closer, but he struggled down the stretch with his command last year so Billy Beane undoubtedly wanted more of a sure thing. Now they just need Johnson not to blow nine saves like he did for the Orioles. As for Bell, I don't quite see what the Rays see in him (he gave up 12 home runs in 2013), but they turned Fernando Rodney into a top closer, so Bell will probably go out and record 45 saves with a 2.50 ERA. Bell is due to make $9 million, but the Marlins are paying $4 million of that, so the Rays get a potential closer for the tidy sum of $5 million.
  • The A's added further depth to their bullpen by acquiring Luke Gregerson from the Padres for Seth Smith. The A's get another one-year rental, but Gregerson has been one of the majors' most consistent relievers the past few seasons. He held batters to a .203 average in 2013, .226 over the past three years. Yes, Gregerson pitched in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, but he moves to another pitchers' park and his sinker means he's pretty good at preventing home runs anyway. The A's gave up outfielder/DH Smith, who didn't really hit like a corner outfielder/designated hitter needs to hit. Score this as a win for the A's.
  • Have I mentioned that I love Billy Beane? To replace Smith and the departed Chris Young, he picked up Craig Gentry from the division rival Rangers for Michael Choice. Gentry is the perfect fourth outfielder, a plus defender in center who can hit left-handed pitching. He doesn't have power but has a .391 OBP the past three years against lefties. He's a terrific platoon-slash-role player. The Rangers get Michael Choice, a former top prospect who hit .302 with 14 home runs at Triple-A. The Rangers get some potential upside here in the former 10th overall pick, but outside of a big year in the California League, his power potential hasn't completely materialized. A worthwhile gamble by the Rangers, however.
  • The Tigers are apparently close to signing Joe Nathan -- the move everyone has been predicting all offseason. Clearly the Doug Fister trade was made to clear some salary space. Is there another move in the works? Do the Tigers still bring back Joaquin Benoit to set up Nathan? Is there another big signing -- Shin-Soo Choo? -- coming? Stay tuned!
  • The Red Sox signed A.J. Pierzynski. Makes sense. One-year deal, leaving the possibility of Blake Swihart or Christian Vazquez to take over at catcher in 2015. Love what the Red Sox are doing here. They could have an extremely young core of Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Swihart in a couple years ... leaving plenty of payroll to spend on David Price when he becomes a free agent after 2015. It's good to be a Red Sox fan right now.
  • What else? The Rays acquired Ryan Hanigan. Interesting because they just signed Jose Molina. That gives them two of the best defensive catchers in the game. Brian Wilson looks like he's returning to the Dodgers. Makes sense for the Dodgers; surprising only because everyone thought Wilson wanted to close. Oh, yeah ... the Mariners have emerged as major players in the Robinson Cano sweepstakes, according to an ESPN New York report. The Mariners have money; they want to spend money; Cano wants money. Who knows, maybe it actually will happen. And then don't be shocked when the Mariners also sign Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ubaldo Jimenez. Of course, that could just be my head spinning after this crazy day.

Some big names who could be traded

October, 18, 2013
The playoffs are just a couple weeks from wrapping up, which means the hot stove gets turned up to 11. Or something. I might be mixing up my metaphors. There's nothing quite like the flurry of trade rumors and whispers of potential landing spots for big-name free agents. This offseason will be no different as there are plenty of big names who could have new mailing addresses by the time the 2014 begins. Let's run through a handful of them.

Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Miami Marlins
Stanton isn't even 24 years old yet but he's been mentioned in trade rumors seemingly every week for the past two years. Given the Marlins' historical penchant for dealing away every useful player they've ever had, it makes sense. The Marlins signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell in their first big foray into the free-agent market upon the birth of a new stadium, but traded them away less than a year later. They traded away Hanley Ramirez, the face of their franchise. What's so special about Stanton that they wouldn't ship him off, too?

The outfielder is eligible for arbitration for the first time in his career, creating expectations for a significant jump in salary as he earned less than $550,000 in 2013. He becomes a free agent after the 2016 season. The Marlins, who had one of baseball's lowest Opening Day payrolls at $50.5 million, might value a haul of prospects more than Stanton's continued presence in their lineup. Even with Stanton, the Marlins saw a catastrophic decline in attendance in the second year in their new ballpark, so what's to stop them from running the franchise as cheaply as possible on a never-ending stream of pre-arbitration prospects, only to repeat the process ad nauseam?

There has already been a ton of interest in Stanton. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has inquired on Stanton's availability at least 10 times, only to be rebuffed each and every time. Imagine if the Marlins do make him publicly available. Cafardo suggests the Tigers, Mets, Mariners, Yankees, Orioles, Angels and Red Sox could all join the bidding if Stanton becomes available.

Max Scherzer, P, Detroit Tigers
After years of inconsistency, Scherzer put it all together for a fantastic 2013 season, one which will likely earn him the AL Cy Young Award. There's a ton to like about the right-hander. Among starters, only Yu Darvish missed bats at a higher rate than Scherzer. He cut his walk rate below 7 percent and he wasn't as homer-prone as in the past.

Scherzer, 29, enters his final year of arbitration having taken home a $6.725 million salary in 2013. MLB Trade Rumors estimates he'll earn $13.6 million. The Tigers already have $108 committed to just six players in 2014. If they have a comparable Opening Day payroll as they did in 2013, which was $149 million, they will need to round out the final 19 roster spots rather cheaply, which may make Scherzer expendable. Otherwise, they will need to significantly expand their payroll, perhaps to $175 million.

The only destination for Scherzer would be on a contending team looking for a one-year solution. The Dodgers and Rangers would certainly be among the first two teams to jump into the fray to acquire Scherzer's services, but don't count out teams like the Orioles and Nationals.

Matt Kemp, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have a surfeit of outfielders and the oft-injured Kemp could be the odd man out. With Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig breaking out, and Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier under costly long-term deals, trading Kemp and getting out from under his heavy contract might just be the best route to go for the Dodgers.

Kemp spent more than half of the 2013 season on the disabled list due to a plethora of injuries including a strained right hamstring, inflammation of the AC joint in his left shoulder, a sprained left ankle, and recurring ankle and shoulder pain. He had shoulder surgery on Oct. 8 but is expected to be at 100 percent by the start of next season.

The Dodgers would be expected to eat a significant amount of Kemp's remaining $128 million over six years in any deal. Otherwise, they wouldn't get much of a return in terms of high-ceiling prospects and MLB-ready players.

Philadelphia would be an interesting destination for Kemp. Citizens Bank Park has seen fewer fans the past two seasons, as the team has gotten worse and worse. With a new local TV deal on the horizon, dealing for a superstar like Kemp would be a typical Amaro move and it would bring attention back to the team as they attempt to strike it rich, whether with Comcast or elsewhere. Right now, their center fielder is Ben Revere. While he is perfectly serviceable on his own, he doesn't have anywhere near the upside of a healthy Kemp. The Phillies could also play Kemp in right field. The problem is that the Phillies' minor league system is rather weak, especially at the upper levels, so there may not be a match.

Cliff Lee, P, Philadelphia Phillies
Has there ever been a Cy Young Award winner traded more often than Lee? Lee, who played for four teams within a span of one calendar year -- the Indians, Phillies, Mariners, and Rangers -- could be on the block again as the Phillies attempt to create a more competitive roster going into 2014. The Phillies owe $109.5 million to seven players already without factoring in arbitration-eligible players, free agents and pre-arbs. They need at least one outfielder, at least one middle-of-the-rotation starter, a set-up man, and an entire bench. They opened 2013 with a payroll below $160 million, so filling all of those holes with $50 million or less would be quite a challenge.

Trading Lee while he's still at the apex of his value -- he's coming off of a season in which he posted a 2.87 ERA in 222.2 innings while leading the league with a 6.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- would give the Phillies their best shot to find a suitor willing to eat the $62.5 million remaining on his contract. In return, the Phillies could further bolster their minor league system and perhaps even add a major league-caliber player to fill one of those holes.

The same teams that would be interested in Scherzer would also have interest in acquiring Lee. Due to the lefty's age and remaining salary, he would require less in terms of impact prospects, which might be more attractive to a team with a less-bountiful system like the Rangers.

Yovani Gallardo, P, Milwaukee Brewers
2013 was the worst season of Gallardo's career. The right-hander put up a 4.18 ERA in 180.2 innings, showing a markedly reduced strikeout rate and diminished fastball velocity. The Brewers owe him $11.25 million in 2014 and have a $13 million option for 2015, but they could choose to move him while he still has value.

Gallardo is clearly a tier or two below Scherzer and Lee, but the fact that he would be under team control for potentially a second year (by the team's discretion only, as opposed to a player or vesting option) is attractive to some teams -- perhaps the Indians, Orioles or Nationals.

Chase Headley, 3B, San Diego Padres
The Padres could have traded Headley after the 2012 season, when he finished fifth in MVP voting thanks to a 31-homer, 115-RBI, .875-OPS output. Instead, the Padres hung on to him, hoping he could repeat his performance and help them compete in what appeared to be a wide-open NL West. Perhaps, even, they could sign him to an extension.

Headley fractured the tip of his thumb in spring training, keeping him out for the first 14 games. The injury clearly affected his power as he was able to muscle out just six home runs in 68 games through the end of June. He wasn't exactly dead weight, but he wasn't anywhere near the MVP-caliber player he was a season prior, either.

Headley took home an $8.575 million salary and now enters his final year of arbitration eligibility. He'll likely earn a salary in the double-digit millions in 2014. The Padres, who opened 2013 with a $68 million payroll, could attempt to trade the 29-year-old before his value declines any more. The Dodgers, Angels, Yankees, Giants, Red Sox and Cardinals would all likely show interest -- particularly the Yankees since the future of Alex Rodriguez hinges on his ongoing legal battles, which could result in a suspension through all of 2014.

Jon Lester/Jake Peavy/John Lackey/Ryan Dempster, Ps, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox could trade one of their veteran starters in an effort to create space for some of their younger arms. Any of Lester, Peavy, Lackey or Dempster could go.

Lester would be the most interesting as he's the youngest of the group. The Red Sox will assuredly pick up his $13 million club option for 2014, but they could still ship him somewhere for the right price. The lefty turns 30 in January and is coming off a rebound season. He posted a 4.82 ERA in 2012, showing a diminished ability to generate swings and misses. While he didn't fully recapture that ability in 2013, it was an improvement at least.

Peavy is under contract for one more year at $14.5 million. His bounce-back 2012 output (3.37 ERA) is sandwiched by two mediocre campaigns in 2011 (4.92) and 2013 (4.17). He'll turn 33 in May. As such, he might make a more attractive midseason acquisition rather than taking on the brunt of his salary with the chance he could be injured and/or ineffective for an entire season.

Lackey put himself back on the map in a big way in 2013, returning from Tommy John surgery. He posted a 3.52 ERA along with the best strikeout and walk rates of his 12-year career. Lackey will earn $15.25 million in 2014. His injury triggered a club option for 2015 in which he earns just the major league minimum salary ($500,000), which effectively means a team that acquires him prior to the upcoming season would be paying him $8 million per season for two years of control.

Dempster was a complete bust for the Red Sox, having his worst season by defense-independent measures since an injury-plagued 2007. The 36-year-old finished with a 4.57 ERA, forcing the Sox to move him to the bullpen for the postseason. They owe him $13.25 million for the 2014 season. Compared to a year and a half ago, when the Rangers acquired him in a trade with the Cubs, Dempster doesn't have much value, but he is easily the most expendable.

Dexter Fowler, CF, Colorado Rockies
Despite a breakout 2012 season in which he posted a .300/.389/.474 line, Fowler has consistently been a 2-3 WAR player over the last three years. His defense has ranged from slightly below average to well below average, and he is a deceptively mediocre baserunner, successfully swiping bags at a meager 68 percent success rate in 2013. He strikes out a ton and, aside from a BABIP-fueled 2012, doesn't hit for average.

Furthermore, over the span of his career (2,635 plate appearances0, Fowler has been almost entirely been a product of Coors Field. At home, he has hit .298/.395/.485, a line comparable to that of Matt Holliday, as an example. On the road, he has hit .241/.333/.361, a line comparable to Yunel Escobar.

The Rockies will pay Fowler $7.85 million in 2014, and he is eligible for arbitration for his final year after the season. While the two years of control and the potential to lock him up with an extension are both attractive features, teams (except for the Phillies, perhaps) are smart enough to check home and road splits, evaluate defense, and notice his inefficiency on the bases. When the Rockies made Fowler available last offseason, they didn't get any bites for this exact reason. The Rockies will make him available again. It will be interesting to see if Dan O'Dowd adapts by significantly reducing his center fielder's price.

Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

A quick warning about Jurickson Profar's call to the majors to replace the disabled Ian Kinsler: Do not expect Mike Trout; do not expect Bryce Harper; do not expect Manny Machado.

Yes, the performance of those three wunderkinds has, unfortunately, raised the expectations for all prospects, especially one deemed the best in the game entering this season.

In time, maybe Profar joins them as generational talents (I can see the corny nickname already: "The Four Tops"), but it would be unfair to believe Profar will hit like they have, at least right off the bat. Remember, he's only 20, and, while he held his own in Triple-A, hitting .278/.370/.438 with four home runs, HE'S ONLY 20 YEARS OLD. Most 20 year olds are still learning how to hit curveballs in the South Atlantic League.

That said, I'm excited to see the kid play for a couple weeks. While Profar didn't start Sunday and Ron Washington said he'll split time with Leury Garcia, I'm not sure the Rangers recalled Profar to play three games a week. Profar has a good approach at the plate, particularly for a kid so young, drawing 21 walks in 37 games at Round Rock, so that's a good sign that he'll come up to the majors and not get in trouble by being overly aggressive. And, as Washington likes to say, "He's not afraid of the game."

Kinsler had been one of the best players in the league so far, hitting .302 with seven home runs, 20 RBIs and 24 runs, so the Rangers will miss his production from the leadoff spot. But they have a comfortable lead in the AL West and there was no reason to push him through the injury.

Profar is likely headed back to Triple-A once Kinsler's DL stint ends. Of course, who knows, maybe Profar hits so well he leaves the Rangers no choice but to find a regular spot for him. I don't think that will happen, but I wouldn't be that eager to bet against him, either.



Of the early leaders, who is the best bet to lead the AL in home runs?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,052)

Three stars

1. Matt Joyce, Tampa Bay Rays. Down 4-0 after one inning to the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday, Joyce hit a two-run homer in the third to get the Rays closer and then hit a two-run, go-ahead double in the ninth. On Sunday, Joyce's homer provided the insurance run in a 3-1 win as the Rays swept the O's.

2. Dexter Fowler, Colorado Rockies. The Rockies had many heroes in winning three of four against the San Francisco Giants at home, but Fowler jumpstarted the offense all weekend with 10 hits and seven runs scored. Not a bad four days: He raised his average from .252 to .286.

3. Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians. Masterson tossed his second consecutive scoreless start, striking out a season-high 11 in seven innings against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday in a 6-0 victory. Masterson improved to 7-2 while lowering his ERA to 2.83. This is a different Masterson than we've seen the past couple seasons, with a much higher strikeout rate (25 percent versus 18 percent last season) but still keeping the home runs to a minimum (just three). While he's struggled in the past against left-handers, he's held them to a .226 average this season with a 36/19 K/BB ratio compared to 72/56 in 2012. And it's not all batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is a fairly normal .285 so far. If he keeps getting lefties out, he's going to keep winning games.

Honorable mention star of the weekend
Have to mention Joey Votto for getting on base all six times in Saturday's win for the Cincinnati Reds -- he went 4-for-4 with two walks, a double and a home run. Only two players had a "6-for-6" day last season -- Aaron Hill of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Neil Walker of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Both went 5-for-5 with a walk and, like Votto, doubled and homered.

One more honorable mention star of the weekend
The Diamondbacks beat the Miami Marlins on Saturday as Brandon McCarthy pitched the three-hit shutout (no save!), but he had a lot of help from Gerardo Parra, who led off the game with this on the first pitch and then did this in the bottom of the first. Parra has one of the better arms in the majors, but his bat is a big reason the D-backs are in first place, as he's hitting .320/.385/.494 with 28 runs (11th in the NL). That batting line, combined with his outstanding defense, has Parra leading the NL in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), tied with Matt Harvey and Clayton Kershaw, at 3.1. Justin who?

Clutch performance of the weekend
Atlanta Braves rookie Evan Gattis keeps finding a way to get himself into the highlights. On Saturday, he pinch hit in the eighth inning against hard-throwing Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers with the Braves down 1-0 and a runner on and did this on a 2-2 fastball. The best part of the highlight is Freddie Freeman's "I don't believe that" reaction in the dugout.

The Dodgers bullpen, meanwhile, continues to implode. They followed Saturday's loss with another one on Sunday, giving up four runs in the eighth in a 5-2 loss. It has 13 losses, three more than any other team, and its 4.61 ERA is better only than the New York Mets and Houston Astros.

Unclutch performance of the weekend
Aroldis Chapman, step on down. Chapman entered with a 2-1 lead on Sunday and walked Delmon Young with one out. That was bad enough, but Cliff Lee pinch ran for Delmon (yes, a guy who plays the outfield regularly got run for by a pitcher) … and got picked off for the second out of the inning. Game over, right? Nope. Erik Kratz homered on a 3-2, 98 mph heater. And then Freddy Galvis -- Freddy Galvis! -- hit the dramatic walk-off home run off a 95 mph fastball.

Best game
OK, it's pretty difficult to top that one. There were some wild games this weekend -- Tampa beat Baltimore 12-10 on Friday, the Indians gave up two home runs in the ninth to Seattle on Saturday only to win in the bottom of the inning -- but Friday's Washington Nationals-San Diego Padres game was a tough one for San Diego. Adam LaRoche homered twice off rookie Burch Smith, but the Padres tied it with two runs in the bottom of the ninth off Rafael Soriano -- with the help of another Ryan Zimmerman throwing error. (A situation that's becoming a serious problem for the Nationals, as that's nine errors for Zimmerman with his fielding percentage a Mark Reynolds-like .897.) Anyway, Chad Tracy hit a pinch-hit homer off Huston Street in the 10th to give the Nats a 6-5 win. That's already six home runs allowed for Street, whose trade value is shrinking with each home run.

Hitter on the rise: Jason Kipnis, Indians
He had a three-run, walk-off home run in the 10th inning on Friday and two hits on Saturday and Sunday, giving him nine in his past four games, all Cleveland victories. The Indians are 17-4 since April 28 and Kipnis has hit .305 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs in the 20 games he's played. He won't start the All-Star Game with Robinson Cano in the American League, and the AL is loaded at second base with Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Kipnis at the All-Star Game.

Pitcher on the rise: Jeff Locke, Pirates
I'm not necessarily buying, but the lefty is now 4-1 with a 2.73 ERA after tossing seven scoreless innings on Sunday against the Astros in a 1-0 win. His K/BB ratio is a pedestrian 32/22, but opponents are hitting just .219 off him, thanks to a .230 BABIP. With that number likely to rise, Locke will need to record a few more whiffs to maintain success close to this level. Still, that's three scoreless outings this season and one did come against the Cardinals. Even though he's not this good, if he can give the Pirates 175 solid innings as a No. 4 starter, they'll take it.

Team on the rise: Pirates
The Pirates took two of three from the Astros to improve to 11-6 in May and 26-18 overall. They're second in the majors in ERA, and it's not necessarily a huge fluke as they're third in strikeouts. One thing to keep an eye on: Only the hapless Astros have needed more innings from their bullpen, so while the Pittsburgh crew has been outstanding, the workload is a possible concern down the road.

Team on the fall: Dodgers
The two bright spots this week were Zack Greinke's return and Matt Kemp's great catch on Saturday, but three losses in Atlanta reiterated that this isn't just a team ravaged by injuries: It's a bad team with a bad bullpen that finds ways to lose. Manager Don Mattingly said not to blame the bullpen. "You add on a run here or there, it takes a lot of pressure off a guy that you can't give up one hit that changes the whole game. I think we have to take this all as a group."

OK, then, we'll call it a team effort of a team on the fall.

I'm not a Colorado Rockies fan so I can't profess to know how they feel about Todd Helton returning from the disabled list and into the starting lineup a couple days ago. He's the greatest player in Rockies history, a guy who will have an interesting Hall of Fame case in a few years, a respected veteran who has played in nearly two-thirds of the games the franchise has ever contested.

He's also a first baseman who has been a below-average park-adjusted hitter in three of the past five seasons, a hitter whose injuries have sapped his power. He can't run and, while he's still regarded as a good fielder, he's not Keith Hernandez-in-his-prime good, and not many teams win pennants with a slick-fielding, bad-hitting first baseman anyway.

More importantly, the Rockies don't necessarily need him. His stint on the DL with a left forearm strain allowed the Rockies to give more playing time in the outfield to Eric Young Jr., who has played well, and slide right fielder Michael Cuddyer to first base on occasion (or play Jordan Pacheco at first). Playing Young in the outfield instead of the slow-footed Cuddyer improves the defense, and playing Cuddyer over Helton likely improves the offense, even if Cuddyer cools down from his hot start.

It's the first big test of rookie manager Walt Weiss' season and it's not an easy decision, one perhaps clouded by the fact that Weiss and Helton were briefly teammates during Helton's call-up to the majors in 1997. It's never easy knowing what to do with a player of Helton's stature; they don't all go out on top like Chipper Jones did a year ago. It's also unclear whether Helton's offseason arrest for driving under the influence (he pleaded guilty Tuesday to driving while impaired) affected his standing in an organization that has made public overtures through the years about acquiring "good guys."

[+] EnlargeTodd Helton
AP Photo/Jack DempseyFitting Todd Helton into a Rockies lineup that's gotten along OK without him presents a dilemma.
All this was on my mind as I watched the Yankees and Rockies face off in a rare Coors Field pitchers' duel. Carlos Gonzalez's two-run homer in the sixth off Hiroki Kuroda was it for the scoring as Jorge De La Rosa tossed six scoreless frames (the Yankees can't hit lefties at all, even in Coors Field) in a 2-0 Colorado victory. Helton went 1-for-3, singling to right in the sixth.

"He has been driving us crazy," Weiss told MLB.com when Helton, who turns 40 in August, was activated. "At some point about halfway through his DL stint here in the dugout, I tried to get [head trainer Keith Dugger] to hit him with a tranquilizing dart. But it's good to have him back out there. It'll be nice watching him take [at-bats] again, doing his thing."

The Rockies don't need Helton's value -- if it even exists -- as the "face of the franchise." For one thing, he's not that guy anymore. Troy Tulowitzki, when healthy, is one of the 10 best players in baseball and right now he's healthy and mashing. Gonzalez is playing his best baseball since 2010 and Dexter Fowler may finally be developing into the star player Insider many once projected he would be. Second-year catcher Wilin Rosario looks like he'll improve on the 28 home runs he hit as a rookie. Plus, rookie third baseman Nolan Arenado has made a huge impact in just eight games in the majors.

In other words, this isn't a case of the 2009 Seattle Mariners bringing back Ken Griffey Jr. in an attempt to draw a few extra fans to see a bad team (and then making the mistake of re-signing him for 2010). But Helton should have to earn his spot in the lineup. If he hits like he did in 2012 -- .238/.343/.400 -- it's hard to justify a regular spot. Maybe Weiss develops a Helton/Young platoon, with Helton sitting against left-handers and Cuddyer moving back and forth between right field and first base. Helton certainly deserves the leash to prove there's something left in the bat; knowing how long of a leash is what can turn competent managers into great ones.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the Rockies. They're probably better than I projected, and definitely interesting and exciting, especially with Tulo playing so well. Unlike pretty much every Rockies team ever, they're actually hitting well on the road (so far), as their .800 OPS led the National League entering Tuesday's action.

Arenado just adds another dimension. He was a highly rated prospect before 2012 after a big season in Class A, and nearly made the big league club out of spring training. Some of his shine was lost after a mediocre season at Double-A Tulsa (.285, 12 home runs), but a hot start at Triple-A and Chris Nelson's struggles led to Nelson getting traded to the Yankees and the quick call-up for Arenado.

He's a high-contact guy with power potential, and a contact hitter who can spray the ball around can do a lot of damage in Coors Field. He's just 22 but he doesn't have to be a star just yet; he just has to be a solid contributor.

That's also all the Rockies want from Helton at this point. Who knows, maybe his body will hold up and he can put together one last .300 season. That would be a nice way to head off into his retirement years -- with maybe a surprising playoff appearance to boot.

Speaking of: Now, about the pitching ...

    "I don't think I ever got proper credit about being smart about the game." -- Rickey Henderson

When was the golden age for leadoff hitters?

Well, 1965 was pretty good. Joe Morgan was a rookie that year and hit his way into the leadoff spot, where he posted a .943 OPS. Felipe Alou started 108 games in the leadoff position and hit .303 with 20 home runs. Zoilo Versalles was the American League MVP, started 155 games there for the Twins and led the league in runs, doubles, triples and total bases. Pete Rose and Lou Brock started large chunks of games there. Maury Wills stole 92 bases.

How about 1975? Rose, Ken Singleton and Bobby Bonds each had more than 400 plate appearances from the top spot and on-base percentages over .400. Davey Lopes stole 72 bases, and Brock swiped 56. Guys such as Bernie Carbo, Roy White, Don Money and Al Bumbry were productive when hitting there.

There was 1987, with Henderson, Tim Raines, Paul Molitor, a second-year kid named Barry Bonds, Brett Butler, Brian Downing and Lou Whitaker. Remember Kal Daniels? He started 74 games for the Reds as the leadoff hitter that year and hit .337 with 22 home runs.

And 2004 seems like a good season. Ichiro Suzuki hit .377 with 251 hits as a leadoff guy. Johnny Damon scored 123 runs and drove in 94. Other leadoff success stories were Ray Durham, Jimmy Rollins, some Derek Jeter, .336-hitting Juan Pierre and Rafael Furcal. Craig Biggio hit .281 with 23 home runs and 46 doubles leading off. Pretty stellar group.

Good years all. Maybe you grew up in the '80s, when it seems half the teams had leadoff hitters who could swipe 50-plus bases -- Vince Coleman, Juan Samuel, Willie Wilson, Omar Moreno. Maybe that feels like the best era for leadoff hitters.

It isn't. The golden age is now.

I checked every season since 1950 and compared the production of leadoff hitters to the overall major league batting totals. Granted, it's only early May, but at their current rate, leadoff hitters have never hit better when compared to their peers. Here's a table listing the top 10 seasons by leadoff hitters (since 1950), using OPS compared to league OPS. Also included are the league-average runs per game and the number of stolen bases and runs scored per 650 PAs.

Using OPS is an imperfect method, because it doesn't factor in speed and stealing bases. That's why I included the totals for steals and runs per 650 PAs. Stolen bases don't really have a large effect on run scoring. Compare 2013 to 1990; the run-scoring environments were essentially the same (4.3 runs per game), and while the 1990 guys swiped 10 more bases per 650 PAs, they scored fewer runs. Stolen bases are down a bit in 2013, and certainly injuries to big stolen-base guys such as Jose Reyes and Michael Bourn have dragged down those steal totals a bit.

If there was a golden era before 2013, it looks like that 1990-1992 period, which featured leadoff hitters such as Henderson, Molitor, Lenny Dykstra, Wade Boggs, Tony Phillips, Bip Roberts, Butler, Delino DeShields, Raines, Biggio, Brady Anderson and Devon White.

But never before have we seen the depth in quality leadoff hitters that we're seeing this year. Yes, some of this is a result of the readjustment of offensive levels in recent years. From 1993 to 2006, leadoff hitters never posted OPS totals above the MLB average; as offensive totals boomed, leadoff hitters looked worse compared to their peers. The decline in offensive numbers has brought the rest of the pack back closer to leadoff hitters, but even the raw OPS total for 2013 of .759 is tied for the fourth highest behind 1987 (.764), 2006 (.762) and 2007 (.760).

Look at the best leadoff hitters in the game right now -- a group that doesn't even include Mike Trout, who has started only eight games in the leadoff spot, or the injured Reyes: Shin-Soo Choo (leading the majors in OBP), Austin Jackson (31 runs in 31 games), the underrated Alex Gordon, Ian Kinsler off to big start, Carl Crawford looking healthy and good again, Jacoby Ellsbury, the emerging Dexter Fowler, unsung Norichika Aoki and Starling Marte, perhaps a star in the making in Pittsburgh. Baltimore's Nate McLouth is a platoon player but has a .423 OBP hitting leadoff.

But what really makes 2013 a golden age is the quality behind those players. Others who have hit regularly there include Coco Crisp, Jose Altuve, Denard Span, Angel Pagan, Gerardo Parra, Michael Brantley, David DeJesus and Brett Gardner, all of whom have provided solid production.

One thing managers have wised up on -- for the most part -- is that batting a speedy guy leadoff isn't worth it if his OBP is under .300. Coleman had 670 PAs and stole 107 bases with the Cardinals in 1986 but still scored only 94 runs. The days of guys like Brian Hunter (.282 OBP in 1999 while starting 102 games with the Mariners in the leadoff position) burning up 500 PAs are gone. Managers won't stick with a guy that long anymore. (Well, Dusty Baker might, but Walt Jocketty acquired Choo for him this year.)

So, no, maybe there isn't one player the equal of a Henderson (of course not, that's like saying there's nobody who can hit like Babe Ruth) or Raines, or a 1993 Dykstra or in-his-prime Ichiro, but appreciate the guys out there: There's a lot of quality.

Why are the Rockies mountain-high?

April, 20, 2013

You already know the Braves have been the hottest team in the National League. You also know they have the guy with the most home runs in baseball in Justin Upton. But who has the second-best record in the NL, and who, even more surprisingly, has the second-most homers in MLB? The Colorado Rockies and Dexter Fowler? Yes, for reals. But how are they doing it? Here are a couple of reasons:

Is there another "best" outfield in baseball? Adding a double dose of Uptons to Jason Heyward makes the Braves' outfield everybody’s easy-to-love unit. But the Rockies’ trio is off to a hot start. Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer and Fowler all are slugging better than .600. You might expect that kind of performance in multiweek stretches from Gonzalez and Cuddyer. But as the song goes, "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same." What has gotten into Fowler?

You might wonder, because Fowler has belted seven home runs already. He is more than halfway to last year’s single-season career high of 13. And before you might sensibly say, “It’s a Coors Field thing,” four of them have come on the road, two of them in Petco. Of course, two of them were hit off John Axford, and he probably isn’t going to get to hit against the Brewers’ former closer again, at least not with a game on the line. Yes, it’s small-sample craziness in the third week of April, but it’s also something to keep an eye on. If Fowler enjoys a big breakout as a power hitter in his age-27 season, he won’t be the first or last.

So, perhaps we can say CarGo is being CarGo, Cuddyer is doing that “professional hitter” thing and Fowler is someone to follow, whether you want to believe or not. But it’s a great place to start from on offense. Add in that speedster Eric Young Jr. is getting regular playing time as the Rockies' spare and getting on base effectively, and they even have a nice change-of-pace alternative from their big-bopping trio.

Remember Tulo? In Troy Tulowitzki's first six seasons as a regular, the Rockies have enjoyed just three in which he didn’t land on the disabled list. They went to the postseason in two of them. That isn’t quite the 2-for-3 the Giants have gotten with World Series-winning seasons when Buster Posey is available, but it’s a reminder that when Tulo is around, he’s a candidate for MVP and best player in baseball. He ripped his fifth homer of the young season Friday night. Maybe you still expect him to get hurt, but here’s hoping he doesn’t -- you want to see the great ones play, and there’s no doubt Tulo has the talent to be counted among them.

Add in catcher Wilin Rosario ripping four homers, and the Rockies are getting tremendous power up the middle. Add the expected offense a team is supposed to get from the corners, and you're going to score runs by the truckload. The Rockies are doing just that, running neck and neck with the equally surprising Mets for the NL scoring lead.

The rotation is back. The interesting question for the Rox is whether Jhoulys Chacin is ready to be the staff ace Ubaldo Jimenez had been. In his young career, Chacin has put up two of the four best single-season ERAs in a full year; Jimenez has the other two. (Thanks to the strike of 1994, we’ll never know what Marvin Freeman would have done that season.)

Not to knock Jon Garland's comeback, but if Chacin silences last year’s complaints about his conditioning and injury-abbreviated season, that gives the Rockies a pitcher they can spot against any top starter in the ace-laden NL West. Jorge De La Rosa might give them a second; after missing most of the previous two years while recovering from elbow reconstruction, he has tossed a pair of quality starts in his first three turns. And who says Garland can’t pull out a season like the come-out-of-nowhere All-Star campaign Jason Marquis cranked out in 2009? OK, OK, it’s obviously early, that’s crazy talk.

Skippering isn’t particle physics. Which I say not to diminish the job Walt Weiss has done so far, but to credit it. The concern over his lack of experience at any level higher than high school appears to have been overstated. He’s keeping his bench involved and using his whole roster. He’s platooning Todd Helton, he’s showing admirable restraint with his healed-up hurlers over workloads and there is no reason to complain about his bullpen management. Of course, when you’re winning, everyone looks smart, and we’ll see how Weiss handles his first major in-season setback or extended rough stretch. But so far, so good.

Not everything has been perfect, of course. Second baseman Josh Rutledge's bat will have to come around. Chris Nelson still looks like nothing more than a placeholder at third base -- but with Nolan Arenado slugging better than .800 in Triple-A, the organization’s ultimate answer at the hot corner might be about to present itself.

And perhaps most of all, Chacin’s early exit Friday night with “oblique stiffness” is troubling. We’ll have to see whether it’s cause for concern. Just as the Rockies depend on having a healthy Tulo to win, the Rockies cannot afford anything less than Chacin on the mound every fifth start. But if they get these things, I wouldn’t bet against Colorado come October.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
ESPN headline: "Rockies bolster rotation with Garland signing" ... well, I'm not sure I would have used "bolster" there.

OK, let's assume Jon Garland is healthy after making just nine starts in 2011 and missing all of last season with shoulder issues. He was in camp with the Mariners and it appeared like he was going to make the rotation until he didn't. So he exercised an out clause in his contract and signed with the Rockies.

By the way, Garland's spring statistics that apparently made the Rockies decided they needed him in their rotation: 12 innings, 10 hits, five walks, four strikeouts.

Which is who Garland is: Not a strikeout pitcher. In other words, he's the worst kind of a pitcher for Coors Field (not that there's really a good kind). What makes Coors such a good hitter's park isn't so much the home runs, but all the gaps in the outfield: It's a batting average park as much as it is a home run park. Last year, the Rockies hit .306 at home, .241 on the road; their opponents hit .306 at Coors, .273 at home.

Instead of focusing on groundball pitchers, I've always thought the Rockies should focus on strikeout pitchers -- even if that means strikeout pitchers who walk guys. What you don't want at Coors is balls in play, because at Coors, balls in play tend to fall for hits. Garland allows a lot of balls in play, which means he gives up a lot of hits. And while he has a reputation as a groundball guy, he still serves up his share of home runs. In his last full season in the majors, 2010 with the Padres, he allowed 20 home runs in 200 innings. Not a bad total, but that was in San Diego. And it was three years ago. He posted a fine 3.47 ERA that year, but it was 4.01 on the road. So even if things work out perfectly here there is little upside.

It's a low-risk signing by the Rockies; if Garland doesn't pan out, they'll just get rid of him, similar to what they did last year with Jamie Moyer after 10 starts. The larger issue is that the Rockies still feel the need to take these stabs in the dark at veterans like Moyer and Garland, both of whom were coming off seasons missed with injuries. You don't win pennants by hoping you get lucky.

The rotation will now include Jhoulys Chacin, Jeff Francis, Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio and Garland, with young lefty Drew Pomeranz likely headed to Triple-A (even though he was probably the team's best starter a year ago, not that that's an award to put in your trophy room).

Some people believe the Rockies have sleeper potential in 2013 with the likes of Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler and Wilin Rosario leading the offense. With that rotation, I have serious doubts.
NEW ORLEANS -- The week before the week preceding the Super Bowl, things are usually slow in the host city. But I can personally attest that wasn’t the case this year in New Orleans. During a recent trip to the Big Easy, I met an American film icon in a hotel elevator, caught a glimpse of Adam Richman of "Man vs. Food" fame roaming Bourbon Street in search of good eats, found a restaurant that can do amazing things with Brussels sprouts, and gained some valuable insights into the world of Major League Baseball salary arbitration.

From Jan. 23-25, I had the good fortune to take part in Tulane University Law School's National Baseball Arbitration Competition, which gives aspiring Tal Smiths and Ron Shapiros an opportunity to test their oral advocacy and writing skills against their peers during a nerve-wracking, 36-hour period. This year, representatives from 40 law schools across the U.S. and Canada gathered to argue the cases of Colorado outfielder Dexter Fowler, Mets first baseman Ike Davis and Angels and former Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson before a distinguished panel of experts. And me.

[+] EnlargeBinders
Courtesy Jerry CrasnickRepresentatives from 40 law schools across the U.S. and Canada gathered in New Orleans last month to argue the arbitration cases of Dexter Fowler and Tommy Hanson.
The salary arbitration process doesn’t drive Internet traffic in the same way that, say, A-Rod’s wellness clinic activities make news, but it’s a major item on baseball’s winter calendar. This year, 133 big leaguers with the requisite three to six years service time (along with a select number of “Super Twos’’) filed for arbitration. Teams and players exchange figures in January, and if they can’t reach a settlement, the club and player make their cases before a three-person panel at a hearing in February.

The player’s side is entrusted with proving he merits a salary $1 above the "midpoint," while the team's burden is to show the player should be paid $1 below the midpoint. The financial stakes vary according to the player's service time and on-field achievements. This year San Diego third baseman Chase Headley filed for a $10.3 million award while the Padres offered $7.075 million. Headley settled on an $8.575 contract last week to avoid having to go to a hearing. That's not small potatoes.

The Tulane competition is the brainchild of Gabe Feldman, director of the school's sports law program and a former associate of the prominent Washington, D.C., law firm Williams and Connolly. What began as a six-team, intra-school event in 2006 has since grown into a major national event. Among the 40 schools represented at this year's competition: Arkansas, Florida State, George Mason, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pepperdine, Stanford, Villanova, Virginia and William & Mary.

"The competition gives law school students a unique opportunity to hone their advocacy skills in a field they're passionate about and in front of baseball executives who do this for a living," says Feldman.

As front-office people and agents can attest, the preparation for hearings is exhaustive, and there's an art to the process. In the course of building a case against Dexter Fowler, the Rockies are obliged to point out that his advanced defensive metrics are poor and his home-road splits are pronounced. But they need to do it artfully, in a way that doesn't overly disparage the player and create a rift in future relations.

[+] EnlargeMorgan Freeman
Courtesy of Jerry CrasnickNext stop, Zihuatanejo: I shared an elevator with legendary actor Morgan Freeman.
A player’s "platform" season is pivotal, and both sides have to come up with suitable comparables, or "comps," of recent cases that might help frame the debate for the arbitrator. While judging Fowler's case, I saw references to Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton and Angel Pagan, among other center fielders.

This year's champion was New York’s Pace University, which beat a team from host Tulane in a spirited and exceedingly close final. As a reward for their expertise, Pace students Greg Dreyfuss and Dan Masi and coach Jared Hand came away with bragging rights, an impressive line or two for their résumés and a trophy the size of Jose Altuve.

My big prize came two days before the final, when the guy who chauffeured Miss Daisy, played Nelson Mandela in "Invictus" and served as God to Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty happened to be pressing the buttons on my hotel elevator when I worked up the nerve to address him. Morgan Freeman might have thought I was a little unhinged when I told him I grew up in Maine about 15 minutes from the Buxton hay field where he found the note that helped reunite him with his friend Andy Dufresne in "The Shawshank Redemption." But he was kind enough to consent to a photo, which raised my stature considerably with my two daughters.

Next year at this time, Morgan will probably be working on a film in a different locale or scrubbing a boat on that pristine beach in Zihuatanejo. Meanwhile, dozens of bright, ambitious law school students will descend upon the Tulane University campus in New Orleans to chase their personal grail. In the world of salary arbitration, as in life, you can either get busy living, or get busy dying.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

September, 15, 2012

  • Curtis Granderson didn't start last Sunday's game against Baltimore, but was available to pinch-hit. He probably didn't expect to have quite the game he did. Granderson drilled a pinch-hit home run in his first plate appearance in the sixth inning. He stayed in the game in center field, and then came up twice more with the bases loaded as the Yankees exploded for seven more runs in the next two innings. All told, Granderson went 3-for-3 with five RBI in a game he didn't start. Toronto's Kelly Gruber was the last player to have three hits and drive in five runs as a substitute. Gruber entered Toronto's game against the Yankees on April 11, 1988, in the first inning after starting 3B Rance Mulliniks was injured in a collision with a stealing Rickey Henderson. The last player to do it who didn't enter a game until the sixth inning was Cincinnati's Art Shamsky, who had a three-homer game on August 12, 1966. And Granderson is the first Yankee ever to have five RBIs (on any number of hits) in a game that he didn't start.
  • [+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki
    J. Meric/Getty ImagesLast Sunday, Ichiro Suzuki became the third Yankee in the past 30 years to play all three outfield positions in the same game.
    Ichiro Suzuki had an interesting line in that same game last Sunday as well, over and above his two singles and an RBI: He played all three outfield positions. When Granderson entered the game, Ichiro moved from center over to left. The next inning, Raul Ibañez pinch-hit and stayed in left, forcing No. 31 back across to right field. He's the fourth player this year to see all three outfield positions in the same game, but just the third Yankee in the past 30 years. Gerald Williams (July 2001) and Melky Cabrera (September 2009) both did it in equally-lopsided games.
  • Although he only drove in two runs rather than Granderson’s five, Arizona's Chris Johnson duplicated Granderson's three-hit feat on Friday night, going 3-for-3 after batting for Ryan Wheeler in the sixth inning. Johnson, Granderson, and Sam Fuld (August 28) are the only players this season with three hits in a game they didn't start. Johnson's two RBIs accounted for both Arizona runs in its 6-2 loss to San Francisco. Johnson became just the third player in Diamondbacks history to record at least three hits as a sub. Quinton McCracken went 4-for-5, including a walk-off triple in the 11th, against Florida on July 18, 2005; and Mark Grace went 3-for-3 against Colorado on July 17, 2002. As for plating both Arizona runs, no substitute had posted three-plus hits AND driven in all his team's runs in a game since Dave Hostetler had the lone RBI in Montréal's 2-1 loss to the Mets on the final day of the 1981 season. And the only sub ever to do it where multiple runs were involved had been Billy Hitchcock of the Athletics, who replaced Hank Majeski on Sept. 5, 1951, after the latter fouled a ball off his face in the first inning. Hitchcock then went 4-for-4 and drove in all the runs in Philadelphia's 4-1 win over the Senators.
  • Cincinnati's 14-inning win over Pittsburgh on Monday was a classic "September call-up" game. The teams combined to use 49 players -- five more than in any other game this year, and the most since Washington and Atlanta combined for 51 on Sept. 7, 2008. If you recognize that pinch hitters are denoted with letters in the box score, better brush up on your alphabet. Of those 49 entries on the lineup card, 14 of them were "pinch" players (hitters and runners). Each team used seven, and that was one day after the Phillies became the first team this season to use seven pinch-players in any game (the nightcap of their doubleheader with Colorado). The Pirates hadn't used seven pinch-players in a game since losing a rainy 8-6 affair with St. Louis on May 3, 1995. The Reds had used no more than seven over that same span.
  • Pittsburgh had the bases loaded with nobody out in the top of the 14th inning of that game, and didn't score. The next three batters hit a short fly ball, a fielder's choice with the out recorded at home, and a ground ball to end the inning. That made the Pirates the first team this year to have three on with none out in the 13th inning or later and fail to score at least one run. On Thursday, the Orioles matched them, filling the sacks in the 13th before eventually walking off with the win in the 14th. It was only their fifth time loading the bases with no outs after the 13th since moving to Baltimore in 1954, and the first of those five occurrences where they didn't score.
  • As for that Baltimore win in the 14th, it was the 13th straight extra-inning game that the Orioles had won. According to Elias, that ties the '95 Indians for the second-longest such streak in major-league history. The 1949 Cleveland squad won 17 straight extra-inning affairs. The O's also extended their record in one-run games to 27-7 (.794); they can lose two more one-run games and STILL have the best winning percentage in history. But possibly the quirkiest thing about that game was when Ryan Roberts injured himself with two strikes in the top of the 11th. Chris Archer, who was already set to pitch the bottom of the 11th for Tampa Bay, was sent up to complete the at-bat in Roberts' stead. Archer took a called third strike, ending the inning, and invoking the rule (10.15b) where Roberts gets credited with the strikeout.
  • Archer then remained in the game to pitch as scheduled -- becoming just the second American League pitcher ever to enter a Designated Hitter game as a pinch-hitter, and then stay in the game to pitch. Joel Finch of the Red Sox (who pitched only 15 games in his career) was the other occurrence, on July 25, 1979, in a 16-4 blowout of the Athletics at Fenway. Carl Yastrzemski left the game after the seventh inning, causing the Red Sox to surrender the DH. Catfish Hunter is listed as a PH/P in a Sept. 5, 1976, game against the Orioles; but in that case, Hunter started the game and the Yankees gave up the DH by having Hunter "pinch-hit" for Sandy Alomar, thereby assuming Alomar's spot in the order. Ron Mahay and Steve Avery also pinch-hit and pitched in interleague games played under NL rules. Thanks to forfeiting the DH, the Rays had 20 players who assumed an official spot in the batting order (not all of them batted), the most in their history.
  • That strikeout rule came into play again on Thursday night, when Billy Butler of the Royals got ejected in mid-at-bat for arguing a called second strike. Tony Abreu had to come in to finish the plate appearance, swung at and missed the only pitch he saw, and then sat back down. So again, because Butler "left the game" with two strikes, he gets charged with the K -- despite already having been tossed out of the game. The last known occurrence of a player striking out after getting ejected was on June 24, 2004. Then-Giant Michael Tucker took offense to a high pitch from Eric Gagné, dived out of the way, and then got in a shouting match that cleared the benches and got both players ejected. Damon Minor came on to complete the strikeout once order was restored.
  • In other pinch-hitter news this week, Tyler Moore of the Nationals homered in Tom Gorzelanny's spot in the seventh inning on Tuesday. The Nats have four pinch-hit home runs this year; Moore has the last two. But two innings later, Scott Hairston hit for Mets CF Andres Torres and also belted a home run. The Mets have 10 pinch-hit homers this year, tied with Colorado for the most in the majors. It's just the second time this year that opposing teams have hit pinch-hit home runs in the same game; both have been in the last week. The Mets (Ronny Cedeño) and Braves (Eric Hinske) matched each other last Saturday. There were two such games in 2010, but none during the 2011 campaign.
  • Dexter Fowler led off for the Rockies last Sunday (as he's been doing for all of September). If the leadoff man is supposed to get on base, Fowler cooperated. He went 3-for-3 with two doubles and two walks. He was retired once on a double play, and stranded at either first or second the other four times. Didn't score a single run. He's the only leadoff hitter this season to reach base five times (via any combination of hits, walks, errors, etc.) and not score at least once. Nobody did it last year, either.Then-Royal Gregor Blanco (four hits and a walk) posted the last such line on August 27, 2010. Fowler’s “feat” was a first (for a leadoff hitter) in Rockies franchise history.
  • [+] EnlargeBJ Upton
    Charles Sonnenblick/Getty Images B.J. Upton takes a curtain call after hitting his third homer of the game last Sunday.
    B.J. Upton launched three homers out of Tropicana Field last Sunday. (OK, not really "out of" Tropicana Field, but over the wall.) He joins Jonny Gomes (2005) and Evan Longoria (2008) as the three Tampa Bay hitters with three-homer games. It's also the sixth consecutive season that exactly one leadoff hitter has had three home runs; Chris Heisey of the Reds (June 22) was last year's winner. Upton's homers were all solo shots, meaning he finished the game with "only" three RBI. Among this year's 10 three-homer games, only Ike Davis (July 28) hit three of the solo variety. The aforementioned Jonny Gomes had another three-HR game for Cincinnati on August 13, 2009. And he was the last player (before Upton on Sunday) to have a three-homer game and out-hit the entire opposing team. The Nats were shut out on two hits that day, just as the Rangers were against Upton. The two-hit shutout thrown by James Shields was the Rays' first since Matt Garza's no-hitter in July 2010.
  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia pulled off the rarest of cycle misses this week, going homer-triple-double and needing just the "elusive" single for Boston's first cycle since 1996 (John Valentin). Only 13 players have missed the cycle by the single this year, versus 219 needing the triple, 14 the double, and 46 the homer. Since Valentin, six other Red Sox hitters have gone homer-triple-double, most recently Dustin Pedroia on July 2, 2008. And ‘Salty’ is the first Boston catcher to have a homer, a triple, and a double in the same game since Rich Gedman hit for the cycle against Toronto on Sept. 18, 1985.
  • Hitter-friendly Chase Field (whose Park Factor for runs trails only Coors Field among NL stadiums) saw just one run and nine hits on Tuesday as the Diamondbacks got an RBI double from Miguel Montero to beat the Dodgers 1-0 on an unearned run. (Montero’s hit scored Paul Goldschmidt, who had reached on an error.) It was the first 1-0 game at the ballpark this year, and just the 13th in its history. The Diamondbacks have won seven of those. Overall, Arizona has won just 16 1-0 games since the franchise was founded, and Tuesday's was the second of those wins that came on an unearned run. The first was last year (May 14), also against the Dodgers, when Stephen Drew was on second, went to third on a wild pickoff throw and then scored on a sacrifice fly.
  • The Astros also won a 1-0 game on Tuesday, the third 1-0 victory among their 46 this season. That's actually the most 1-0 wins in the National League, and it trails only Seattle (who has five) in the majors. These are, however, still the Astros. En route to their 1-0 win, they committed four errors, all allowing batters to reach base. But those errors came in four different innings, and the Cubs didn't advance any of the runners. The last team to commit four-plus errors, score only one run, and still win the game? That's your 1997 World Champion Florida Marlins, who also made four miscues against the Cubs on April 10 of that season but made Gary Sheffield's RBI single in the first inning stand up for the win.
  • It took until Sept. 14 for the Reds to make their first foray into the new Marlins Park in Miami. It didn't go well. Cincinnati managed just three hits and got shut out 4-0, just the third shutout the Marlins have put up in their new home. Of the 18 visiting teams to play their first game on the former Orange Bowl site this year, the Red Sox (one run on five hits) came the closest to the Reds' futility. Half got to double digits in hits, and three scored 10-plus runs. Overall, visiting teams were an even .500 (9-9) in their first game at the new stadium this season.
  • CC Sabathia threw two wild pitches and hit a batter (Evan Longoria) in Friday night's loss to the Rays. Although none of those directly led to a run, it was just the second game in Sabathia's career with two-or-more WP and a hit batter. The other was back in 2005 when he was with Cleveland. In the majors, 10 pitchers this year have bounced two and hit one in a game. Three of them have been Yankees, including Freddy Garcia's infamous five-WP game back in April and Hiroki Kuroda in July. No other team has had more than one such game. And it's the first time in the live-ball era that three different Yankees have done it in the same season. (They had three such outings in 2002, but two were by Roger Clemens.)
  • Kris Medlen of the Braves posted 13 strikeouts in his seven innings on Friday night, allowing just one run to the division-leading Nationals. Atlanta, however, couldn't get the offense going, and Medlen left the game tied 1-1. The Braves needed a walk-off throwing error to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. Medlen is just the fourth pitcher this season to record 13 strikeouts and NOT win the game. Aaron Harang and Anibal Sanchez got no-decisions in April, while Francisco Liriano took a 15-K loss in Minnesota's first game after the All-Star Break. Medlen is the first Braves pitcher with a 13-strikeout non-win since John Smoltz allowed two runs (and the bullpen allowed four more) to the Mets on April 10, 2005. The last five Braves to do it before that: Jason Marquis (2001), Kevin Millwood (2000), Pete Smith (1989), Phil Niekro (1977), and Warren Spahn (1952).


Center-field superstars: Generation Next

June, 10, 2012

You might have been one of those children who grew up with parents who, every Saturday, turned your radio’s dial to "A Prairie Home Companion," where among other features you could reliably look forward to the segment in which Garrison Keillor welcomed you to Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” You might also be one of those adults who tunes in to hear him say that same thing every Saturday, to this day. And you might be one of those adults who does so only after following an afternoon’s worth of major league action. If you are, you might be forgiven if you have started to wonder whether ol’ Garrison wasn’t talking about children, but about big league center fielders.

That’s what comes to mind after watching Adam Jones rocket another baseball out of the ballpark to settle affairs with the Phillies on Saturday. That’s his 17th home run on the year, another reason why the Orioles shelled out at least $85.5 million to keep Jones in Baltimore through 2018. (As the always indispensable Cot’s Contracts on Baseball Prospectus reports, he stands to make another $6 million beyond that in incentives.) His adjusted OPS (or OPS+) of 146 is a career high.

It’s probably no coincidence that he’ll turn 27 in August, the age forecasters have pegged as the likely peak for most players. Informed by that, no doubt a few spoilsports already mourn the Angelos dollars spent on Jones when he’ll be 32. But the next couple of seasons should look very good for an O’s franchise that hasn’t had a center fielder this good since Brady Anderson’s run in the 1990s and that had nothing to compare beforehand.

After all, 17 home runs from your center fielder a little more than a third of the way through the year? Nice, very nice. However, it’s also good for just the third-highest tally among major league center fielders so far, and Jones probably ranks that high only because Matt Kemp is out on an excused absence on the disabled list. Josh Hamilton is out in front of all stick-bearing bipeds with 22 taters to his name, and Jones’ homer came the same day that Curtis Granderson hit yet another home run for the Yankees, his 18th.

So that’s three center fielders who could wind up with 50-homer seasons ... plus Kemp and however many he could hit. Where are we, back in the days of Willie, Mickey and Duke?

But those are just four guys, and we’re talking only home runs so far. For all the headlines Hamilton, Kemp, Granderson and Jones have already generated, you have to get into the tremendous season Andrew McCutchen is having for Pittsburgh or the just-reactivated Austin Jackson has put up for the Tigers. Hamilton and Granderson are the two on the “wrong” side of 27; the others are all just heading into their primes.

Mike Trout is “finally” here to stay, a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday, and he very well could be the best of the bunch ... except he might not even be the best teen phenom center fielder in baseball right now, because Bryce Harper is playing center field for the Nationals, and he’s proving that’s something else he can do much better than anyone might have reasonably expected of him already.

But even the ex-prospects are coming around. Dexter Fowler is at long last delivering on his blue-chipper billing for the Rockies, slugging .544. Is that a headline? No, because in this crowd, he’s just another guy, joining the Mariners’ Michael Saunders on an “oh yeah, I guess he came around” list.

There’s also a gaggle of top-of-the-order types having great years. Michael Bourn? He’s posting a .368 OBP from the leadoff slot for the Braves -- a huge part of the reason they’re third in the National League in scoring. Alejandro De Aza is having a scrapheap superfind season for the White Sox, posting a .389 OBP as the everyday leadoff man Juan Pierre could only dream of being. You’d be hard-pressed to meet folks beyond Chicago’s South Side who’ve noticed.

What’s worth noting is that all these guys have OPS+ marks above 110. A total of 16 center fielders do so far this season. That’s why I’m bemused by the concept of average not meaning quite the same thing for center fielders these days. Center fielders as a group posted a 104 OPS+ in 2011 and 101 in 2010, but right now, major league center fielders are posting a collective 110 OPS+. It's probably no coincidence that the center fielder with the worst OPS+, Marlon Byrd, was designated for assignment Saturday.

What this adds up to is that center field is moving up in the world. Among the position-playing positions, center fielders currently rank behind only the right fielders (115 OPS+) for production and are even a bit better than the first basemen (109). While MLB-wide offense is essentially flat this year relative to last, the center fielders as a group are doing better, a lot better.

Now, think on all that, even with Hamilton and Kemp and Jones having hogged the headlines, with Harper shining and Trout breaking through. Adam Jones is enjoying his moment in the sun with the promise of so many more to come. Call it a leap of faith, but I put all of that together, and I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that we’re entering a new golden age of center-field superstars, one that isn’t dependent on just one player or one in each league, but one in which, compared to the recent past, most teams really are better off than they were.

Sure, that might defy the notion of what constitutes “average.” But maybe we’re just lucky enough to be watching the game at a time when, as Garrison Keillor might have it, maybe all the center fielders are above average.

Joey VottoFrank Victores/US PresswireJoey Votto with the tool of his trade in the Gap -- can you say 'gladiator'?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Beltre, Hamels and 10 must-see players

April, 10, 2012
The three major ways I enjoy baseball are through the partisan experience, the narrative experience and the aesthetic experience. The partisan experience is simplest -- when your team wins, you’re happy. Enjoying the narrative experience is getting lost in the story. It can be something as shallow as laughing at the absurdity of a game that’s gone to extra innings, something as exciting as watching the Red Sox come back from 3-0 down in the 2004 ALCS, or something with actual real-world value, like Josh Hamilton's comeback from addiction and injury to take the game by storm.

The trouble with those two types of fan experiences is that they’re hard to predict. I don’t know how happy the partisan in me will be come September, because I don’t know how many games the Phillies are going to win. Similarly, it’s hard to predict the great narrative moments of 2012, because they often pop up out of nowhere. I had no idea the 19-inning Phillies-Reds game from last May was coming, nor the insane final day of the season. And that’s part of the reason why those narrative moments are so great -- they take you by surprise.

But we can predict the aesthetic experience. The aesthetic experience is appreciating a moment of beauty, or of great skill, that leaves the viewer in a state of shock or euphoria. It’s the collective OH SNAP when an outfielder robs a home run, or the Clayton Kershaw breaking ball that puts the I-just-bit-into-a-lemon expression on your face. Below are 10 amazing or exciting or bizarre individual skills you’ll see that are worth looking forward to. They're on the top of my must-watch list for this season.

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
AP Photo/Alex BrandonCole Hamels is coming off a season with a 2.79 ERA and 0.99 WHIP that ranked second in the NL.
1. Cole Hamels’ changeup

Hamels idolized Trevor Hoffman when he was growing up, and it shows. Hamels owned, according to FanGraphs’ linear weight pitch values, by far the most effective changeup in the game in 2011, and at 29.3 runs above average, the second-most effective pitch of any kind after Dan Haren’s cutter. It’s a devastating pitch that not only comes in the low 80s, compared to the low 90s of Hamels’ fastball, but features serious two-plane break. It’s reminiscent not only of Hoffman but of Greg Maddux, and it’s good enough that Hamels was able to pitch effectively through 2008 using only his fastball and change. After a 2009 season in which his ERA jumped by more than a run (although his FIP didn't move in the slightest), Hamels started refining his curveball and added a cutter. Though none of his other pitches are much better than average, having four options to go to has allowed Hamels to use his changeup more judiciously. The result: When he’s ahead in the count, a Hamels changeup is like a thermite bomb. Best not to swing at all and salvage a modicum of dignity.

2. Dexter Fowler’s speed

I’ve long had a theory about Coors Field, which is not at all borne out by the park effects data, but I’ll tell you anyway. The air is thin enough in Denver that a normal-sized ballpark would turn any well-hit fly ball into an upper deck home run, or so the story goes. Therefore, the Rockies built a stadium with a massive outfield in an attempt to keep some of those balls in play. The unintended consequence is that while home runs are reduced, the number of bloop singles, doubles and triples goes up. Like I said, the data don’t back up this theory, but the Rockies have a tradition of employing center fielders who can run, if they can do absolutely nothing else. With the exception of Ellis Burks, a Colorado center fielder is a speed-and-defense first kind of guy. The young Juan Pierre is the best example.

Dexter Fowler is the evolutionary result of Alex Cole, Pierre and Willy Taveras. At 6-foot-4, Fowler is bigger than most slap-and-run speed guys, and he strikes out more than any of his National League contemporaries, with the exception of Drew Stubbs and Michael Bourn. But he can run. With his long legs, he covers ground like Usain Bolt, even if his straight-line speed hasn’t exactly led to exceptional stolen base efficiency or sterling advanced defensive ratings. Fowler, for all of his flaws, hits a lot of triples and attempts a lot of stolen bases -- two of the most exciting plays in baseball, and FanGraphs rates him as one of the best baserunners in the game. Even if he never becomes a star, Fowler’s sheer speed makes him one of the game’s most exciting players.

[+] EnlargeBeltre
J. Meric/Getty ImagesAdrian Beltre is a three-time Gold Glover winner.
3. Adrian Beltre’s defense

I always knew Beltre was a great defensive player by reputation, and now that he’s out of Seattle, he’s getting the respect he deserves as a hitter as well. Beltre might never walk, but he hits for quite a bit of power and strikes out relatively rarely for a guy with a career .501 slugging percentage. He’s quietly building a very convincing Hall of Fame case, but because he developed a reputation as a mercenary and spent his prime in a park that killed his offensive numbers, he’ll probably end up on the outside looking in.

I first paid serious attention to Beltre’s defense during last season’s playoffs, and his greatness with the glove is just beautifully understated. He doesn’t make the flashy plays that gave Brooks Robinson or, more recently, Scott Rolen such fame. Rolen at his peak was like a panther at third, leaping and laying out to get to the ball, tracking it down and firing it on a rope to first. I grew up idolizing Rolen for his quickness, sure hands and strong arm. He was absolutely mesmerizing. Beltre, by contrast, just always seems to be there. If the ball is hit sharply down the baseline, he’s there to pick it up and throw the ball to first with a minimum of drama. He’s almost telepathic in his ability to anticipate the play and record the out. You have to make an effort to notice exactly how good Beltre is defensively, but once you do, it’s like the arrow in the FedEx logo. Once you notice it, your view is changed forever.

4. Ian Kinsler’s batting approach

Kinsler is sort of like Chase Utley Southwest -- a second baseman who plays all-out with heart and grit but doesn’t get a ton of press, despite being one of the best all-around players in the game. When hitting is boiled down to its barest essence -- see the ball, wait for a good pitch, and hit it hard -- Kinsler may have no equal in the game. In 2011, only Bobby Abreu swung at a lower percentage of pitches outside the zone than Kinsler. When Kinsler did swing, he had the fifth-best contact rate in the game, and of the four players who finished ahead of him, three (Pierre, Jamey Carroll and Placido Polanco) are slap-hitters. In 2011, among players who walked more than they struck out, only Prince Fielder, Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera had a higher isolated power figure than Kinsler. Add in his excellent baserunning and fielding, and Kinsler might do more things well than anyone else in the game. Watch a lot of Rangers games. I guess that’s what I’m saying.

5. Roy Halladay’s kitchen sink pitch selection

Of the Phillies’ top three starting pitchers (and I know I’m being a massive homer here), I probably like watching Hamels because of the elegance of his motion and because, unlike Halladay and Cliff Lee, he gets emotional on the mound from time to time. Which is not to say that Halladay isn’t worth the price of admission. What makes Hamels great is his devastating changeup. Halladay, by contrast, has more weapons than an armored tank division. Again, using FanGraphs’ linear weights pitch data, Halladay has a slightly below-average fastball. But in 2011, he had the second-most valuable cutter, the most valuable curveball, and the most valuable split-fingered fastball. Add in his exceptional command, and you’ve got the best pitcher in the game. Halladay is so consistently excellent, and so unflappably methodical, that there’s almost no drama to his outings. It’s like you go to sleep and wake up two and a half hours later, and he's allowed one earned run through eight innings.

[+] EnlargeGiancarlo Stanton
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceGiancarlo Stanton hit 34 home runs in 2011. Will the new Marlins Park cost him some power?
6. Giancarlo Stanton’s raw power

The former Mike Stanton was third in baseball last season in isolated power among players who qualified for the batting title. In only 997 career plate appearances, Stanton has already mashed 56 home runs and 51 doubles. Of course, those numbers are nice, if not mind-blowing, in a vacuum. But in a down period for power hitters, they take on new meaning. And Stanton is only 22, and figures to get better and stronger over the next few years. He’s going to strike out a lot, as power hitters are wont to do, but he’s going to hit enough home runs that he can change his name to Plutonium Wigglesworth for all I care. If I were designing a stadium for Stanton, I’d put in a ridiculous home run machine too.

7. Jaime Garcia’s curveball

If you’re going to make a point to watch a Cardinals pitcher this season, it’s probably going to be former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter. Or Adam Wainwright. Or superprospect Shelby Miller, when he comes up. And of the much-heralded 2010 National League rookie class, it’s easy to get excited about Jason Heyward and Buster Posey. The point is, no one seems to recognize how good Jaime Garcia is. Garcia mixes up four pitches to get a ton of groundballs, on top of a K/BB ratio that topped 3-to-1 in 2011. I’m a sucker for a pitch with a lot of vertical break, and Garcia’s hard-breaking curveball is a big part of his ability to generate strikeouts and groundballs, the lifeblood of any effective starting pitcher. Coming off a year where a low strand rate and moderate bad luck with batted balls created a superficial drop in effectiveness, Garcia flew under the radar, and on a staff with bigger, more exciting names, he could do the same this season. Do yourself a favor and catch at least one of his starts.

8. Brett Gardner’s defense

Gardner has Fowler’s speed and Beltre’s gift for showing up in the right place at the right time -- center fielder’s skills, essentially -- and puts them to use in left field. The end result is that UZR rates him, over the past two seasons, as worth 50.7 runs above average on defense. At this point, I’m legally obligated to inform you that advanced defensive metrics are imprecise, vary wildly from year to year, and that left field is notorious for being hard to evaluate.

With that said, the only player via UZR who was even half as valuable over that time on defense, at any position, is Polanco. Beltre, brilliant defender that he is, was 23 runs above average, albeit at a much tougher defensive position. Gardner’s glove has been more valuable since 2010 than the aggregate contributions of Derek Jeter, Colby Rasmus and Andre Ethier in that time. More than Ryan Howard and Casey Kotchman put together. Of course, it’s likely that UZR is massively overrating Gardner. But I’ve yet to hear anyone call Gardner anything but an exceptional defensive left fielder.

[+] EnlargeMatt Wieters
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMatt Wieters is improving with the bat but he's already one of the best defensive catchers in the game.
9. Matt Wieters’ throwing arm

I’ll grant you, Wieters is about the only thing Orioles fans have to get excited about nowadays. He shuts down the running game as well as any catcher in baseball. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Wieters is big for the position, but that hasn’t hampered his ability to field his position as well as anyone in the game. In 2011, he threw out 37 percent of opposing basestealers, tops among full-time American League catchers, and well above the mark needed to turn opponents’ basestealing efforts into a net positive for the Orioles. As his reputation grows, the number of runners attempting to run on him should only decrease. But if you’re in the unfortunate position of having to watch a lot of Orioles baseball in 2012, Wieters’ defense is one reason for optimism.

10. Jordan Walden’s amazing, leaping, not-legal-for-sure pitching motion

Most of the rest of the entries on this list are exciting for being impressive and effective, if not so much for being entertaining or artistic. Walden’s delivery is a little bit of both. The Angels’ closer had an outstanding rookie season in 2011, riding a 99-mph fastball to an All-Star appearance, 32 saves, and 31 shutdowns, a FanGraphs stat that tracks win probability added for relief pitchers. In 2011, Walden had the highest gmLI in the game, meaning that, on aggregate, he entered the game with more on the line than any other pitcher in baseball. That’s exciting enough on its own, I think. But what separates Walden from relief aces is that Walden throws his rocket fastball from midair, several inches in front of the rubber.

SB Nation’s Jeff Sullivan studied Walden’s bizarre delivery last summer in great detail, but the short version is that Walden actually lifts his right foot off the rubber before his left foot hits the ground, and well before he releases the ball. It’s fascinating, and terrifying, and I have no idea if it’s legal. The highlight for me last season was watching the Rays’ seven-run comeback on the last day of the season on my laptop, while flipping back and forth between the Braves’ collapse and the Red Sox collapse on TV. A close second was getting to see in person Walden do ... whatever it is he does.

Michael Baumann writes about the Phillies at Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @atomicruckus.
Spring stats mean nothing! But they're fun to look at. A few highlights ... and lowlights (stats from major league games only):
  • Some people haven't bought in on Paul Goldschmidt as they worry about the strikeouts, but one reason I do like him is he'll draw some walks to go with the power: He's hitting .265 with three homers, but with 12 walks (and 13 strikeouts).
  • Josh Collmenter hasn't pitched well for Arizona: Five walks and just four strikeouts in 12 innings. He'll start in the rotation but you wonder how soon before we see Trevor Bauer.
  • Braves prospect Julio Teheran has somehow allowed nine home runs in 13 innings.
  • Jeff Samardzija earned a spot in the Cubs' rotation by showing good stuff but just as impressively has walked just one batter in 20 innings. This from a guy who averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings in relief in 2011.
  • Not good news for the Cubs: First baseman Bryan LaHair has 16 strikeouts and one walk. Is the 29-year-old Triple-A vet pressing now that he's been given a chance to start after hitting .331 at Iowa? His SO/BB ratio at Triple-A was 111/60.
  • Joey Votto is hitting .214 without a home run. I like how people will make a big deal when somebody does well ... but not a big deal when a star player doesn't do well. Again, spring stats ... for entertainment purposes only!
  • Dexter Fowler has had a miserable spring for the Rockies, hitting .118 in 51 at-bats with 16 strikeouts.
  • Clemens has pitched five scoreless innings for the Astros. Paul Clemens, that is.
  • Matt Kemp says he wants to go 50-50. He's not going to do it swinging like this: 21 strikeouts and one walk. Ouch.
  • Carlos Zambrano has 14 walks in 17.2 innings. But 18 strikeouts. So ... I think it's safe to say nobody knows what to expect from Big Z.
  • Zack Greinke has perhaps been the most impressive pitcher this spring with a 28/2 strikeout/walk ratio and no home runs allowed. That's pretty tough to do in Arizona, where the ball flies.
  • Sticking with the Brewers, Jonathan Lucroy is hitting .513 (20-for-39). This has nothing to do with that .513 average, but I like Lucroy as a breakout candidate.
  • Jason Bay hasn't homered or driven in a run for the Mets and has petitioned to move in the spring training fences.
  • Roy Halladay has allowed six home runs in 20 innings. He gave up 10 in 233.2 innings last season.
  • Is this the year Pedro Alvarez breaks out? Umm ... well, with 20 K's and one walk I guess we can be positive and make a Matt Kemp comparison.
  • One of my sleeper relievers of the year is Brad Brach of the Padres; he's looked good with a 14/2 K/BB ratio.
  • What will the Giants do with Brandon Belt? He's hitting .407 with seven doubles and three homers in 59 at-bats.
  • Adam Wainwright has a 1.45 ERA for the Cardinals but just nine strikeouts (and six walks) in 18.2 innings.
  • Davey Johnson says he wants to bat Ian Desmond leadoff. He has 18 strikeouts and two walks while hitting .299.