SweetSpot: Hanley Ramirez

How do we think of Hanley Ramirez these days? After winning National League Rookie of the Year honors with the Marlins in 2006, he was one of the best players in the game from 2007 to 2009, hitting .325 while averaging 29 home runs and 38 steals per season. He finished second in the MVP voting in 2009, carrying an undermanned Marlins team to 87 wins. According to Baseball-Reference WAR, he trailed only Albert Pujols, Chase Utley and Alex Rodriguez in value over those three seasons. He was, at the time, on a Hall of Fame track, a power-hitting shortstop with speed.

MLB Free Agency: Half-Full, Half-Empty Logo
After that came injuries and some attitude problems and a trade to the Dodgers in 2012. We see bursts of the young Ramirez: In 2013, he played just 86 games but hit .345 with 20 home runs and finished eighth in the MVP voting. In 2014, he battled several nagging injuries and played 128 games, hitting .283/.369/.449 with 13 home runs.

Ramirez turns 31 in December. Jim Bowden predicted a four-year, $76 million contract for Ramirez. Others have estimated that he'll get something closer to $100 million.

Let's take a closer look.


In this era of declining offense, having a shortstop who can hit in the middle of the lineup is a rare luxury, and Ramirez can still hit. His wOBA ranked 25th in the majors in 2014 among qualified hitters and his park-adjusted metric wRC+ ranked 21st. When you focus just on shortstops, Ramirez's numbers are even more impressive. Only Troy Tulowitzki had a better triple-slash line, and only Tulowitzki, Jhonny Peralta and Ian Desmond topped Ramirez in isolated power.

Ramirez has a good approach as a hitter -- he draws some walks, doesn't strike out excessively, sprays the ball around the field and punishes pitches labeled as "soft" by ESPN Stats & Info. Here's his heat map against soft pitches in 2014:

Hanley Ramirez ESPN Stats & Info

Ramirez hit .331 against soft stuff, the second-best mark in the majors among qualified hitters behind Jose Altuve. Only seven batters hit .300. Only Mike Trout had a higher wOBA. This is a smart hitter, a guy who has the ability to adjust at the plate. To me, it all adds up to a hitter who should age well. A four-year contract takes Ramirez from his age-31 season through age-34. Indeed, the Steamer projection system predicts a .277/.352/.450 line in 2015, a nearly identical match to his 2014 numbers. Get him away from Dodger Stadium and it's possible that line jumps even higher as he hit .303 on the road in 2014 and .352 in 2013.

As for Ramirez's defense, he's never been a Gold Glove candidate. He was credited with minus-9 defensive runs saved in 2014, or minus-12 per 1,200 innings. That's admittedly near the bottom of the league, but it's not Derek Jeter-level or Yuniesky Betancourt-level bad. Plus, he makes up for it with his bat, and in this age of increasing strikeouts there are fewer balls in play anyway. He ranked sixth among shortstops in WAR in 2014 and second in 2013.

Ramirez should be able to handle shortstop for at least a couple of more seasons without completely wrecking his value or inflating a pitching staff's BABIP to unacceptable levels. Or, if a team doesn't want him for shortstop, he can move to third base, where his bat still plays.


Well, this is pretty obvious. The defense is terrible, bordering on brutal. Despite his athleticism, Ramirez has never had the range you want from a shortstop, and now that he's on the other side of 30, he's certainly not getting any quicker. Factor in the injuries and his defense could really crater over the next few seasons.

Speaking of injuries ... do you really want to pay $20 million a season for a guy who misses so many games? He missed 34 games in 2014, 76 in 2013, 70 in 2011. He has played at least 145 games just once in the past five seasons. If you sign him, you better have a good backup on hand.


What's your view on Hanley Ramirez as a free agent?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,778)

There has been talk that maybe Ramirez could move to the outfield. That sounds nice, but that kind of move rarely happens. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago: Since 1960 no player has played 400 games at both shortstop and left or right field (Robin Yount did make the transition to center field). The only player who really moved from shortstop to a corner outfield at this stage of his career was Hubie Brooks.

So the idea that Ramirez will move to the outfield in his 30s is rather unprecedented. More likely, if he moves, it will be to third base. Yes, his bat is OK there, but it's not as valuable as shortstop -- and there's also the possibility that Ramirez can't handle the position.

Teams interested in Ramirez may include the Mariners, Astros, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Giants, Padres and White Sox, with a return to the Dodgers a possibility as well.

What do you think? Is Ramirez worth the investment as run-producing shortstop or is his defense too shaky and the injury risk too high?

Well, not every rookie starter can be expected to deliver a performance like Gerrit Cole did for the Pirates or Sonny Gray did for the A's.

There isn't a whole lot to say about the Dodgers' 13-6 pounding of the Braves in Game 3 of their NL Division Series, other than to say the Dodgers hit well, the Braves pitched and fielded poorly and Hanley Ramirez might be on his way to one of those legendary Octobers.

The turning point, if there was one, came with Fredi Gonzalez's slow hook on rookie starter Julio Teheran. Teheran had allowed four runs in the second inning during a rally capped by Carl Crawford's three-run homer to right field with two outs. OK, he'd been one strike away from getting out of the inning with one run -- Crawford jumped on a 2-2 slider -- but in the bottom of the third, after the Braves had scored twice to tie the game, Gonzalez let Teheran allow four more hits and two runs before finally pulling him.

It was too late. Considering the importance of this game -- the winner of Game 3 has won 14 of the past 15 Division Series that were tied at one game -- you can't leave the starter in that long. What's the point of carrying seven relievers for a five-game series that has two off days if you can't be more flexible than how you would manage in the regular season?

[+] EnlargeJulio Teheran
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJulio Teheran wasn't the only rookie hurler who didn't bring his best game to this October Sunday.
It's an issue I have with most managers in the postseason, the unwillingness to change how they manage in October from how they manage in July, the inability to be more creative. Over 162 games, you have to worry about burning out your bullpen, and you have to let Teheran learn how to pitch out of jams. But you can't wait in the postseason. There is an urgency to every game, and one inning can change an entire series.

Compare Gonzalez's slow hook to what Don Mattingly did. Donnie Manager made some questionable moves in Game 2, but he didn't hesitate in this game. After the Dodgers took that 6-4 lead, Hyun-Jin Ryu was due up with two outs. He's actually a good batter -- he hit a sac fly earlier in the game and hit .203 with four extra-base hits in the regular season -- but Mattingly sensed an opportunity to (A) get more runs and (B) not gamble by keeping Ryu in there after he'd struggled through three innings.

Again, in the regular season with a 6-4 lead, you let Ryu go back out there with that lead, hoping that you can squeeze a couple more innings out of him. So I liked the decision to yank him and go to Chris Capuano, who responded with three scoreless innings.

One more minor nitpick on Gonzalez. When Capuano walked the first better he faced, No. 8 hitter Elliot Johnson, I thought Gonzalez should have hit for pitcher Alex Wood, who had replaced Teheran. Yes, Wood is a guy who started in the regular season and can give the Braves multiple innings out of the pen, but the leadoff walk presented the possibility of a big inning. Again, series tied, trailing in Game 3, there is no time for patience. Wood sacrificed and Capuano settled down, but bring in a position player to hit off Capuano and who knows what could have happened.

As for Ramirez, the dude is ripping line drives all over the place. After going 3-for-4, he's 7-for-13 in the series with six RBIs and six extra-base hits. He could be headed for one of those Reggie Jackson/David Ortiz/David Freese postseasons. Ramirez was the best player in 2013 on a per-game basis, and he's showing why he hit .345 with 20 home runs in 86 games. The Braves have 24 hours to figure out how to get him out.

Freddy Garcia -- yep, Freddy Garcia, who first appeared in the postseason way back in 2000 with the Mariners -- is the starter the Braves are trusting in Game 4 to do that. Garcia had 27 good innings with the Braves (1.65 ERA), which proves nothing but was enough to convince Gonzalez to start him. Hey, he had a 5.77 ERA for the Orioles in 53 innings, but who cares. Johnson got released by the Royals, but had 100 good at-bats with the Braves, so let's make him the starting second baseman. Evan Gattis isn't a left fielder, and his failure to get to a fairly routine fly ball in the second inning helped set up that four-run inning, and he later failed to back up a Ramirez triple that bounced off the wall, but, whatever., Let's keep sending him out there.

Look, this kind of decision-making doesn't kill you against the Phillies, the Mets or the Marlins. It does against a good team. Dodgers wrap this one up in four.

Kershaw pitching his way toward history

August, 17, 2013

The Dodgers did it, winning their 10th game in a row to make their record 42-8 in their past 50 games. Think about that for a second, because odds are, you aren’t old enough to have seen its like.

So let’s be blunt. Going 42-8 in 50 games, in today’s parity-enabled competitive environment, compared to the previous teams to put that up on the scoreboard? Skip the ’41 Yankees and kick the ’42 Cardinals to the curb. Those teams were playing in all-white leagues with competitive imbalance built into MLB’s system, all willfully preserved by the reserve clause. Which is just one reason this means something more. It means that this is a team with dynasty potential being birthed before our eyes. And it’s coming together here and now not just because of what part owner Magic Johnson spent last winter, and not just because of GM Ned Colletti’s ability to play with other people’s money to buy midmarket free agents. It's a team thing that they're here, but their greatest debts are owed to their best.

That's because this is a team winning due to its investment in the big-win players, and you can use any definition of that term you wish. Whether you keep score with Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or wins, runs scored or runs created, the Dodgers own the players that you wish your team had. And, by that, I don’t mean Nick Punto or Skip Schumaker or an Ellis to be named later -- complementary players are swell, and every winner wants and needs them, but they aren’t the platform you build from, now and into the future.
[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Chris Gardner/Getty ImagesWould you want to bet against Clayton Kershaw beating you? Beating anybody? You might regret it.

No, the guys the Dodgers will win with are by now very familiar to you: Yasiel Puig, paid top dollar on a truly open market as a Cuban defector. Maybe you blame Magic and the money men for that bit of good news. But then there's Hanley Ramirez, available in a trade for a fraction of his value once the Marlins decided to opt out on fulfilling promises made to a disgruntled Miami market. Easy as it is to beat up on Colletti, getting HanRam is going to be firmly lodged on the "win" side of his ledger forever after. And, above all else, Clayton Kershaw, drafted and developed from the moment they picked him with the seventh overall selection in 2006, with credit due to Logan White's exceptional player development crew. So, yeah, it's a team thing, but it's a team thing that gave the Dodgers the superstars they're beating people with now and into the foreseeable future.

Kershaw is making a case for himself as baseball’s most valuable player via WAR despite the vagaries of how WAR measures value on defense. (Giving Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez perhaps too much credit, for example). On any night after Kershaw pitches, there’s a chance he’ll vault to the top of the WAR rankings going up against position players who have four other days in between to accumulate value. This isn’t merely an expression of performance via one metric, it reflects the significance of his actual value to a team that came into its campaign with must-win expectations. Kershaw leads baseball in ERA, in WHIP and in hits per nine innings. He has the lowest walk rate and delivers one of the best HR/9 clips. And he isn’t high maintenance, having long since been handled with care to deposit him in his mid-20s, his peak run, ready to take the ball every fifth day all the way.

Kershaw is almost two months removed from his last nonquality start. He’s allowed two runs or less in 20 of 26 starts. When you keep scores that low, anybody can be the offensive hero -- and perhaps on those non-Pug or HanRam nights, anybody has had to -- because you’ve created so many narrow-margin winnable ballgames.

Every stathead has to reconcile a certain tension between his or her ability to analyze the data and the sheer thrill of watching the best deliver the best. The entire concept of money pitchers might seem so much nonsense when it’s argued on behalf of Jack Morris or Jack McDowell -- thanks to statheads like Greg Spira and Joe Sheehan, we know that both conclusively weren’t. But, even so, can you escape that vibe when it comes to talking about certain pitchers in certain moments of time? As fans, we all have “that guy,” the guy you’d want on the mound for any stakes in a must-win game. My own unexamined choice from my youth would be Dave Stewart, and, no doubt, you have your own.

Not all of them become historic, but some do. Whether Bob Gibson in the ’60s -- making the Tigers’ World Series win over the Cardinals in 1968 that much more epic -- or Mike Scott in 1986 or Orel Hershiser in 1988, there are guys you just don’t want to face, and you can see teams go to any length to avoid a championship game going up against them.

The way that they’re going, the fun question now for these Dodgers is whether or not Kershaw will be that guy. But the way that he’s dealing these days, would you bet against him? To make an utterly unfair comparison, Kershaw has been better through his age-25 season -- in which he is right now -- than Sandy Koufax was through his 25th birthday, but that’s because Koufax didn’t become Sandy Koufax until he turned 26 after making the majors at a very young age, just as Kershaw did. Kershaw deserved to win last season’s NL Cy Young Award as an encore to his first one in 2011, but if he adds a second to his trophy case this season, he’ll be well on his way to matching, perhaps even topping, Koufax’s trio before all is said and done.

We can’t know what Kershaw will deliver, but given what he’s already given us, expect something epic. Even as the Dodgers rampage their way towards the stretch, it’s one ride that any baseball fan will want to buckle up for.

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

There’s never a better time to overreact than on the eve of the trade deadline! General managers, their assistants, their scouts, their special advisors and their stat geeks in the front office have spent weeks assessing their own talent and that of other organizations. But one night can change everything.

Some thoughts on Tuesday's news, rumors and game results ...

Who needs Jake Peavy when you have Brandon Workman! The Red Sox have won the Peavy Sweepstakes, although I don’t know if that means winning the lottery or cashing in your $10 prize at 7-Eleven. Peavy’s injury history (long) and home run issues (14 in 80 innings) make him a wild card acquisition; this isn’t the same thing as trading for Cliff Lee, or even close to trading for Cliff Lee.

Peavy, however, comes a lot cheaper. The Red Sox got to keep all their top prospects and surrendered only slick-fielding Jose Iglesias, who has a superficially good .330/.376/.406 batting line with the Red Sox in 215 at-bats. He’s not close to a .300 hitter, let alone a .330 hitter. A few weeks ago I looked at all his hits and they featured an unsustainable number of infield singles, five-hoppers that sneaked through and bloopers just over the heads of infielders. In July, he’s hitting .205 with one extra-base hit in 83 at-bats and he’s a career .244/.296/.292 hitter in Triple-A in nearly 1,000 plate appearances. But he can pick it at shortstop (or third base, where he’s been playing a lot for the Red Sox) and I suppose there’s a small chance that he could improve at the plate, a la Omar Vizquel.

So good job by Red Sox GM Ben Cherington to sell high on Iglesias, even if Peavy is more of a No. 3-4 starter than a 1 or 2. But acquiring Iglesias makes sense for the Tigers, who will likely see shortstop Jhonny Peralta get suspended any day now in the fallout from the Biogenesis investigation. Iglesias will be an improvement over Peralta on defense -- although Peralta’s minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved haven’t hurt the team as much Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, both rated at minus-10 at the corner infield spots.

The White Sox get Avisail Garcia in the deal, a player scouts like a lot but sabermetric types are skeptical about, due to a low walk rate in the minors. Still, if he puts it together, there’s a lot of upside there. Put me in the skeptical category; probably a big league regular, but I don’t foresee a star player.

The Braves can stand pat. When Detroit’s Alex Avila hit that grand slam off Stephen Strasburg as the Braves were crushing the Rockies, it seems a symbolic moment of the Nationals’ 2013 season to me. They’re now 10 games behind the Braves and the Braves only have seven games left against teams currently over .500. At least the Nationals won’t have to worry about Strasburg’s innings in October.

So the Braves don’t have to make a deal, plus Alex Wood’s strong outing against the Rockies means he should get a few more turns through the rotation. With Peavy off the market, there isn’t really a starter who is a guaranteed upgrade anyway, other than Cliff Lee and he’ll cost a fortune.

You don’t win division titles on paper. Ignore the run differentials. Ignore the recent histories. The Pirates now have the best record in baseball after sweeping Tuesday’s doubleheader and lead the NL Central. Not that the Cardinals organization ever panics or overreacts, but Cardinals fans are certainly tired of seeing Matt Holliday ground into double plays (he’s done that 24 times, giving him a chance to catch Jim Rice’s single-season record of 36) and some dude named Brandon Cumpton shut them down in the second game. Maybe the Cardinals do make a move.

The Pirates should still get a bat. This is one reason we love the trade deadline: When the Cubs signed Nate Schierholtz in the offseason for $2.25 million -- $29.75 million less than Josh Hamilton will make in 2016 and again in 2017 -- it wasn’t exactly headline news. Now he’s viewed as a must-have acquisition for the Pirates because he’s slugging over .500 and Pirates right fielders have the lowest OPS in the majors.

The Orioles should get a bat as well. Chris Davis did hit a big home run a 4-3 win over the Astros, but he and Manny Machado haven’t matched their first-half exploits. The bottom four hitters in Tuesday’s lineup had on-base percentages of .302, .295, .273 and .293. Their DHs are hitting .200. They should be able to find an upgrade. Getting a pitcher would be sexier -- well, if that pitcher were Cliff Lee -- but a hitter would add more depth to an already solid lineup.

Michael Young is great! Hey, forget that he has -0.6 WAR this season, he went 2-for-4 with a home run on Tuesday. His trade value just shot up. Plus he’s a veteran presence in the clubhouse! Warning: Has the range of a flower vase at third base. Beware of defensive risks if employing full time at the hot corner. The Rangers need a hitter, but at least in their case it would be to use Young at DH or first base.

Who needs a third baseman when you have Juan Uribe! Uribe hit a 441-foot home run off Andy Pettitte and is hitting a respectable .263/.335/.406. The Dodgers may do just as well playing Uribe as acquiring some of the lackluster options for third (Young, Aramis Ramirez) or acquiring a shortstop and moving Hanley Ramirez to third (he's hitting so well, don't mess with him right now).

The Indians have momentum (if momentum existed in baseball). They started nine guys on Tuesday and the guy batting ninth had the highest slugging percentage in the lineup. (That’s Yan Gomes, hitting .291 and slugging .520.) They’ve won six in row after rallying from a 3-0 deficit to beat the White Sox. They acquired Marc Rzepczynski from the Cardinals to add a second lefty to the bullpen but acquiring another starter or reliever would help.

Zack Wheeler is the second coming of Matt Harvey. This is one reason we love the trade deadline, part 2: The hope that the prospect your team acquires can turn into Zack Wheeler and flash the no-hit stuff like Wheeler did against the Marlins. Two years ago, the Mets got Wheeler from the Giants for Carlos Beltran. There may not be a Wheeler in this year's crop of trades -- there rarely are -- but you never know.

Cameron Diaz fed popcorn to Alex Rodriguez. Wait ... that didn’t happen on Tuesday? Ahh, those were simpler times.

Hanley Ramirez delivers again

July, 21, 2013

Hanley delivers, Dodgers win? I know it’s only something we’ve been hearing about for the last six weeks or so, but give credit where it’s due: The dude has made that every bit as much an everyday event as Yasiel Puig made feats of strength just so much sports wallpaper during the kid’s magical first month.

Now I know, I know: As Mike Petriello rightly noted, they can’t keep this up. Baseball is not like basketball; you don’t win with Twin Towers and a grab bag of on-field witnesses. Except that Ramirez did just that, again, as the Dodgers beat the Nationals, an equally desperate expected contender, again.

But that's the thing: Hanley Ramirez has been here before, while Puig just got here. We connect them because they've both been hot, but where Puig still has plenty to prove, Hanley Ramirez is a legitimate MVP-caliber ballplayer. The arguments for why Ramirez can’t stay at an MVP level of production might be couched in relative terms; he’s produced at an MVP level for multiple seasons at a stretch. If he does so again for four months in the limelight of L.A. and a pennant race, as much as those things aren’t supposed to matter to those who reduce all ballgames to equal value, it will be the defining moment in one player’s career in a way that no feat of Marlindom ever could be.

On Saturday night, it was up to Zack Greinke and Ramirez to make their star turns, Greinke to keep the game in reach on a night that Gio Gonzalez brought his A-game, and HanRam to provide the winning margin in the 10th. To satisfy the skeptics, Puig settled for adding a trio of K's to the proceedings, but for those who want to give team-wide props to those who earned them, six relievers combined for four innings’ worth of scoreless cameos to cue HanRam’s decisive double in the 10th. That gave rookie Chris Withrow a win that, if not earned equally by everyone, was nevertheless earned collectively as the Dodgers picked up another game on the Diamondbacks.

Like so many Angelenos, Greinke has walked the well-worn path from small-stage hero to big-market hired gun, the man whose 2009 season as a Royal might still be the single best season on the mound in the new millennium. And just as he did a week ago with a complete-game shutout, he kept his infield busy this Saturday night. Say what you will about whether or not former right-field regular Andre Ethier can really handle playing center field in the major leagues, but when somebody’s pitching like this it generally doesn’t matter who’s planted in the middle pasture -- Ethier, Jimmy Hoffa, or a palm tree.

But the star gone dark lately for fans seeking instant gratification is Puig, 0-for-9 since the break with five whiffs, which is meaningless in any serious baseball context but is nevertheless sure to simultaneously set off alarms among doubting statheads and scare-mongering radio jabberati. Certainly, Puig may never replicate his magic month. Maybe he is “just” the new Vladimir Guerrero with speed; spare the Dodgers your crocodile tears if that is so.

In part, the Dodgers’ star turns reflect the basic unfairness of geography and cash distribution and expectations. While the Dodgers may play in Chavez Ravine, face it, they’re totally Hollywood. Where the silver screen might give us Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve or Thirteen, the expectation is that if the Dodgers want their own big-budget happy ending the diamond, at some point they’ll have to give us the Dodgers Twenty-Five.

And just as any ensemble cast blockbuster provides a vehicle for single scenes where one guy or another might show you why they’re a star, that’s what the Dodgers do for baseball fans, night after night. Withrow gets a win, but Hanley Ramirez and Zack Greinke made it possible more than anyone else. Not all 25 boys in blue are performing or will; that’s just flashing a command of the obvious, like noticing that there’s a big difference between Brad Pitt or George Clooney and Scott Caan or Eddie Jemison. But it’s only oh-so-Hollywood that the Dodgers have their share of men missing at this moment who might step in to be the hero in a scene TBNL, either starting now (Carl Crawford), next month (Matt Kemp?) or next year (Josh Beckett, anyone?).

We’ll see where the Dodgers’ roller-coaster season ends, but make no mistake, these Dodgers are in the race, and Hanley Ramirez is going to be a big part of the reason why, in September as much as he was in June. And while it would be too soon to talk sequel in Hollywood -- where they want you to show them the money first -- in the sports world every team gets a sequel, every year. The Dodgers have definitely shown us the money; now, let’s see if their stars shine all the way down the stretch.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
The final player vote for the All-Star Game is kind of like democracy on steroids, which, considering baseball's recent history, is perhaps fitting. I had to block a person on Twitter for the first time ever today (sorry, Matt in Atlanta) because he kept tweeting #VoteFreddie and including me (more than 150 tweets, apparently each tweet counted as a vote) -- something about a conspiracy theory to get Yasiel Puig in the All-Star Game instead of Freddie Freeman.

As it turned out, Braves fans like Matt in Atlanta rallied around Freeman, and he beat out Puig for the final spot on the National League squad.

Look, Freeman is a fine ballplayer having a very good season. He is hitting .307 with nine home runs, has driven in 56 runs and plays a nice first base. He's only 23 years old and has a chance to get a lot better considering his age; I could see him turning into this generation's John Olerud, and I mean that with the highest of compliments.

Also, considering the Braves are in first place, it's fair to argue they deserved another All-Star besides closer Craig Kimbrel. So there's nothing wrong with Freeman winning the vote for the National League's final All-Star slot. You can even argue that the NL's team chemistry will be improved with Freeman on the roster instead of Puig, with Puig apparently already earning villain status among his fellow big leaguers. Freeman's presence will lead to a happier dugout and since the game COUNTS, a happier dugout will give the National League a better chance of winning. (You can't tell me it was a mere coincidence that the NL went 3-11 in years Barry Bonds was on the team!)

But isn't the All-Star Game ultimately a chance to market the sport? It's played at a time when little is going on in the sports world outside of sports beloved in Europe (cycling, soccer), and Puig has been one of the big stories of the first half, a reason casual fans may tune in to watch the All-Star Game when they otherwise wouldn't. The argument against Puig is he hasn't earned the spot, that 35 games and 152 plate appearances don't warrant selection, even if he is hitting .394, belting home runs and playing spectacular defense. Of course, he has played more than Kimbrel -- who has faced 131 batters -- but I get it: Puig hasn't proved anything over the long haul.

Another argument against Puig is that teammate Hanley Ramirez, out much of the season with an injury, has been just as hot since his return from the disabled list, actually outhitting Puig. Considering Ramirez's track record of MVP-caliber seasons, why Puig and not Ramirez?

In looking just at 2013 value, however, Puig had earned an All-Star nod. His 2.6 WAR is basically the same as Freeman's 2.7 and better than seven NL position-player All-Stars.

In the end, it's not that big of a loss that Puig won't be in the game. He probably would have received one at-bat, maybe two, hardly much of an opportunity to display his talents. Baseball did miss a golden opportunity by not including Puig in the Home Run Derby, but I guess there's always next year; I get the feeling Puig will have some All-Star Games in his future.

* * *

The American League also had a final player vote, a choice of relief pitchers Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Toronto's Delabar won the vote and becomes one of the least likely All-Stars ever.

Jim Caple outlined Delabar's amazing story when he first reached the majors in September 2011 -- from substitute teacher that March to major leaguer six months later. When the Mariners signed him, he had been out of baseball for two years and had a metal plate and screws in his arm.

It's an improbable story, but now he's heading to New York as an All-Star. And that's the beauty of baseball, isn't it? Anyone can become an All-Star, whether you grew up in Cuba or the suburbs of Southern California, or even if you worked as a substitute teacher.
Matt Kemp is hitting .254/.309/.357, which looks more like a Nick Punto line than a Matt Kemp line, a pretty clear indication he probably should have gone on the disabled list several weeks ago when it became obvious his shoulder was limiting his production and ability to drive the ball. So now that he's on the DL and the easy reaction may be, "Well, the Dodgers climbed back into the NL West without Kemp contributing much, so there's no reason they can't climb some more without him, especially if he's just going to rest for a couple weeks."

That may very well be true, especially since they can still run out an outfield of Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig. Since Puig played his first game on June 3, the Dodgers have hit .267, third-best in the National League, and produced a .743 OPS, 30 points higher than their season total of .713. Their runs per game has increased from 3.5 runs to 4.3, a total that would rank a solid sixth in the league over the full season.

But that 4.3 runs per game is driven by the unsustainable numbers of Puig and Ramirez, both hitting better than .400 since June 3. Ramirez has actually outproduced Puig since that date, with a 1.174 OPS compared to Puig's 1.114. I state with a fair degree of confidence that neither will hit .400 the rest of the way.

Which is why I still think for the Dodgers to make the postseason they'll need a healthy Kemp at some point. Ethier hasn't hit all that well and isn't really a center fielder and Crawford hasn't managed to stay completely healthy since 2010. For the offense to remain playoff-caliber, the Dodgers are going to have to keep scoring runs at their current pace while assuming a decrease in production from Puig and Ramirez.

That's why Kemp's second half -- and not Ricky Nolasco or some other trade acquisition by the Dodgers or a division rival -- could be the deciding factor in the NL West.
Thoughts on Sunday's games ...
  • A brutal weekend for the suddenly disintegrating Dodgers. Swept by the Giants, including two on walk-off home runs. Hanley Ramirez, just activated from the DL earlier in the weekend, landed back on it after straining a hamstring on Friday. Adrian Gonzalez didn't start any of the three games because of a stiff neck but pinch-hit on Sunday, so I guess his neck was OK for one at-bat but not four. Meanwhile, Matt Kemp is still sitting on one home run, they've already used nine starting pitchers (rookie Matt Magill couldn't get out of the second inning on Saturday) and Sunday's lineup included Nick Punto, Juan Uribe, Luis Cruz and Dee Gordon. You're not winning anything with that group. Heck, Clayton Kershaw may ask for a trade not a contract extension. As for Sunday's game, Matt Cain took a 4-0 lead into the eighth before tiring and walking Kemp. The Giants' bullpen allowed Kemp and two more runners to score before finally closing the door on the 4-3 win. I'd say Cain finally looked like vintage Cain but, again, it wasn't much of a lineup he faced. The Dodgers are 13-17, they're second-to-last in runs scored in the National League, they're minus-27 in run differential and their best player isn't hitting. Right now, they're a bad baseball team, and showing no signs they have the talent to dig out of this.
  • The Orioles beat the Angels 8-4 to take three out of four in Anaheim. Manny Machado continues to impress with the bat almost as much as he has impressed in the field, hitting his fifth home run and improving his batting line to .309/.352/.522. The Orioles finished 7-4 on their longest road trip of the season and have won five of their past six series. How loaded is third base in the American League? You have Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria, and now Machado, the underrated Kyle Seager in Seattle and Josh Donaldson, off to a good start with the A's.
  • Speaking of Donaldson, his home run off Boone Logan in the eighth was the decisive run in Oakland's 5-4 win over the Yankees. The key decision, however, came in the bottom of the ninth when Brett Gardner singled with two outs off Grant Balfour and with Robinson Cano up was wild pitched to second. Bob Melvin elected to walk Cano -- the potential winning run -- a risky move and one that looked good when Vernon Wells struck out. Essentially, Melvin increased his chances of winning (Wells more likely to make an out than Cano) while simultaneously increasing his chances of losing (by putting the go-ahead on base). What he did was decrease the chance of a tie (because of the lesser chance of a game-tying hit). Interesting decision but not one you see too often.
  • Bryce Harper got ejected, the second ejection of his career. Seems like umpire John Hirshbeck got the check-swing call correct (the pitch was probably a strike anyway), but it certainly appears like he got a little itchy with the trigger finger. Come on, umps, the game isn't about you.
  • Nice win for the Royals over the White Sox. Billy Butler tied it in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run double with two outs and then they won it in the 10th. The Tigers beat up on the hapless Astros this weekend but the Royals stayed a half-game behind and have won four in a row. They can sweep the White Sox in Monday's makeup game. I still don't know what to make of the Royals. The pitching has been terrific but Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Jeff Francoeur have combined for three home runs. The optimist says that even when the pitching inevitably regresses the offense will start picking up the slack. Are you optimistic, Royals fans?
Spring training consists of a lot of bunting practice and manufactured stories, false alarms and overhyped weight losses (or increases). But some news events and stories are potentially important. Here are the 25 biggest ones -- from on the field -- as camps finally wind down.

25. Scott Kazmir makes Indians rotation
The last time we saw Kazmir in the majors was in the fourth game of the season for the Angels in 2011. He gave up a home run, walked two batters, hit two more batters and got knocked out in the second inning. He was just 27 years old, but on the heels of a terrible 2010, his career appeared over. Even last year, pitching for Sugar Land in the Atlantic League, he went 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA. The Indians invited him to camp and Kazmir impressed by throwing in the low 90s and, more importantly, throwing strikes (one walk in 13 innings). Who knows if Kazmir will work out in the long run, but it's a great spring training story.

24. Don't worry about Albert Pujols unless you want to
The knee is apparently OK, but now he's been bothered by plantar fasciitis. He says it comes and goes. "It's nothing that's going to keep me out of the lineup," Pujols said recently, "because I've played with it the whole season before."

23. Aaron Hicks wins Twins' center field job
[+] EnlargeAaron Hicks
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAaron Hicks locked down the center-field job after a big spring.
The Twins traded Denard Span and Ben Revere in the offseason to acquire some pitching, but they could afford to do so because they have a promising crop of outfielders on the way. Hicks will be the first to arrive after winning the center-field job with a big spring (.379, four homers). And how refreshing for a team to promote a player because he's one of their best 25 guys and not worry about his service time. "The guy has earned it," GM Terry Ryan said. "I find it almost humorous that people are talking about service time, starting the clock. We didn't trade Span and Revere to stall the next guy."

22. Where there's fire there's Smoak
The Mariners haven't scored runs since George W. Bush was president. Well, they've scored runs, just precious few. Former top prospect Justin Smoak is on his last chance and after hitting well last September with a new swing has looked good again this spring, hitting .434 with four homers and eight doubles in 53 at-bats. Could it be that Smoak and newcomers Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse will actually give Mariners fans something to watch on days King Felix doesn't pitch?

21. Diamondbacks are banged up
Rookie of the Year candidate Adam Eaton is already out six to eight weeks with an elbow strain and Cody Ross will likely miss Opening Day with a calf sprain. Now comes word that Jason Kubel, Willie Bloomquist and Aaron Hill were all dinged up in Tuesday's game. The D-backs have depth and may need it.

20. Ricky Romero can't throw strikes
When the Blue Jays traded for three-fifths of a rotation this winter -- NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, plus Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle from the Marlins -- they were going to join holdovers Brandon Morrow and Romero to help deliver the Jays to their first playoff berth since 1993. After going 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA in 2011, Romero struggled last year with a 5.77 ERA and league-leading 105 walks. His control is still an issue -- 10 walks and eight K's in 13 innings -- leaving the possibility that J.A. Happ wins that fifth spot.

19. Brandon Belt bashes
The Giants first baseman is hitting .453 with seven home runs, tied for the spring high, leading to speculation this could be the year he finds his power stroke and has that breakout season everyone anticipated last year.

18. Looking for Moore
The Rays could afford to trade James Shields because of their starting pitch depth. Sophomore Matt Moore, coming off a strong second half, was expected by many to pass Jeremy Hellickson and become the team's No. 2 starter behind David Price. But he's had a rough March, with his velocity down and struggling with his command (13 walks in 17.1 innings). Maybe he'll turn it on when the season starts, or maybe there's a problem to pay attention to.

17. Angels bullpen looks like last year's bullpen, only worse
The Angels struggled in middle relief in 2012, so they brought in Ryan Madson to close (pushing Ernesto Frieri to a setup role) and signed Sean Burnett. Madson hasn't pitched yet as he still recovers from Tommy John surgery, Frieri has been terrible (12 hits, only three K's in eight innings), and Burnett has been terrible (eight hits in 3.2 innings). Small sample sizes, but something to watch when the real games begin.

16. Zack Greinke's elbow
He started his first major league spring game on Monday since March 1 and said he felt fine, although he did walk three straight batters in the fourth inning. For now, he's scheduled to start the Dodgers' fourth game. "I thought I felt good, but the results didn't imply that the last inning," Greinke said. "It tells me I've got some work to do and build up arm strength. I've got to fine-tune some off-speed stuff. If the arm strength is there, I can make it work. That's the No. 1 most important thing."

15. Jackie Bradley tears it up
A top prospect heading into his junior season at South Carolina in 2011, Bradley had a disappointing season and slipped to the Red Sox with the 40th pick in the draft. That looks like an absolute steal after Bradley had an impressive 2012 in the minors, earning the No. 40 spot on Keith Law's top 100 prospects list heading into spring training. He's played so well -- .444/.523/.667, excellent defense -- that he may crack Boston's Opening Day lineup even though he has just 61 games above Class A.

14. Tigers closer remains unsettled
Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski hoped rookie flamethrower Bruce Rondon -- he of the 100-mph fastball -- would make their decision easy, but Rondon has looked like the inexperienced reliever he is. In 11.2 innings, he has 18 punchouts, but he's also allowed 15 hits, two home runs and seven walks. For the Tigers, however, it doesn't matter who is closing in April, but who is closing in October.

13. Shelby Miller wins rotation spot
The Cardinals' pitching depth was on full display this spring. Even with Chris Carpenter going down for the season, they still had Miller and fellow youngsters Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly fighting for the No. 5 spot. In the end, Mike Matheny went with the kid with the biggest upside in Miller, sending Rosenthal and Kelly to the bullpen. Miller had a 4.74 ERA at Triple-A but seemed to put everything together late in the season, as he had 53/4 SO/BB ratio in 37.1 innings in August, earning a September cameo in the majors.

12. Hanley Ramirez loves and hates World Baseball Classic
[+] EnlargeHanley Ramirez
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeHanley Ramirez is expected to miss eight weeks after injuring his thumb in the World Baseball Classic.
Ramirez is out about eight weeks after injuring his thumb, leaving the Dodgers scrambling at shortstop and third base. If you think more playing time for Juan Uribe and Nick Punto is a good idea, raise your thumb.

11. Julio Teheran dominates
Maybe the most impressive pitcher of the spring -- at least statically -- is Braves rookie right-hander Teheran, who has held opponents to an .082 average while whiffing 35 in 26 innings. He's earned the No. 5 slot in the rotation with an exclamation point. This is where we remind you that it is spring training and that Teheran had a 5.08 ERA in Triple-A last year, causing him to slip from No. 5 to No. 44 on Baseball America's top prospect list. But if he can keep that changeup down in the zone ... watch out.

10. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz look good ... very good
Yes, yes, yes: Don't read too much into spring training. Did we say that already? But after lackluster performances in 2012, Boston's top two starters have both dominated this spring, with scouting reports to match the statistics. Both have ERAs under 1.00 and Lester has allowed just six hits in 20 innings, Buchholz 11 hits in 18.2 innings.

9. A's infield remains unsettled
That Oakland won 94 games last year was more than a minor miracle, in part because of the offense the A's received from three-quarters of their infield. Their second basemen hit .228/.303/.316 (27th in the majors in OPS), their third basemen hit .227/.280/.391 (27th in OPS) and their shortstops hit .203/.272/.313 (28th in OPS). Japanese free agent Hiroyuki Nakajima was signed to play shortstop, but he's looked so tentative in the field and so helpless at the plate that he's likely to start the year at Triple-A Sacramento. That probably means Jed Lowrie plays shortstop, Josh Donaldson returns to third and Scott Sizemore plays second. But Eric Sogard has hit .500 and Adam Rosales, who is out of options, had played well until landing on the DL with an intercostal strain. Jemile Weeks, last year's regular second baseman, has already been sent down. The infield may be unsettled, but the A's should still get more production across the board.

8. Brewers boost rotation
Slotting in Kyle Lohse behind Yovani Gallardo gives the Brewers what could be a sneaky good rotation along with Marco Estrada and some combo of Chris Narveson, Mike Fiers and hard-throwing rookie Wily Peralta. The Brewers led the NL in runs scored in 2012, so if the bullpen doesn't implode again, don't be surprised if the Brewers run with the Reds and Cardinals.

7. Yasiel Puig is Yoenis Cespedes, Bo Jackson and God wrapped into one
No player stirred up the masses this spring like Dodgers outfielder Puig, the Cuban signed to a controversial $42 million deal last year. The Dodgers optioned him to Double-A after he hit .526 with three home runs and four steals in 57 at-bats. But it was the smart move: Puig had 11 strikeouts and no walks, suggesting he could be exposed when the pitchers start trying harder.

6. Mike Trout is fat
And it doesn't matter. His spring training numbers (.373, more walks than strikeouts) suggest an encore performance is in order. And he still makes this look easy.

5. Bryce Harper will win an MVP Award some day ... maybe in 2013
IT'S SPRING TRAINING. IT DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING. NOTHING. DON'T GET SO EXCITED, SCHOENFIELD. I know, I know. Still, Harper is hitting .476, with three home runs and five steals. Can you say 30/30 and MVP candidate at age 20?

4. Aroldis Chapman goes back to the pen
Maybe he was going to be Randy Johnson 2.0. Now we'll never know. Hey, if Chapman didn't want to start, what option did the Reds really have?

3. Tim Lincecum cuts hair, doesn't perform heroic feats
Lincecum went for the reverse Samson but it hasn't rejuvenated his fastball. He's allowed 17 hits and seven walks in 10.2 "A" game innings and the reports are that he looks like the Lincecum of last year, still fighting command of the fastball. The Giants survived his rocky 2012 (10-15, 5.18 ERA), but the NL West may be a lot tougher in 2013.

2. Roy Halladay is human
Of even bigger concern may be Halladay's struggles in Phillies camp. He can't crack 90 with his fastball and recently pitched in a minor league game and retired just seven of the 18 batters he faced. Even for great pitchers, the end can sometimes come suddenly.

1. Yankees willingly trade for Vernon Wells
That pretty much sums up the Yankees' spring.
Dodgers fans: Quit reading now. This article is going to be painful.

Here's the deal: The Dodgers could be awesome. Of course they could. They have the best pitcher in the National League in Clayton Kershaw, and the guy who probably should have won the MVP Award in 2011 in Matt Kemp, and they have Zack Greinke and Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier and too many starting pitchers to know what to do with. That's a lot of star power.

So, yes, they could be World Series champions. But the Titanic was supposedly unsinkable. This team could also be a bust on the scale of the 2012 Red Sox. Every regular player has a legitimate issue or concern heading into the season. Sure, you could do this with every team ("Mike Trout could turn into Luis Polonia!"), but in the Dodgers' case, the potential questions are more than fair to raise.

So, in the order they have Dodgers fans waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweats, here are 20 questions:

1. Zack Greinke: What's going on the with the elbow? He has inflammation and missed his start this week. Hopefully it's just a little spring training tendinitis.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
AP Photo/Reed SaxonHow Matt Kemp recovers from offseason shoulder surgery is among the questions facing the Dodgers this spring.
2. Carl Crawford: Were the past two seasons just an aberration or can he return to the All-Star level he was with Tampa Bay? He'll miss the start of the season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, he didn't do much with Boston, his defensive metrics fell off the table and his strikeout/walk ratio deteriorated. Otherwise ...

3. Hanley Ramirez: How many runs he will he give away defensively at shortstop? Can he return to being a .300 hitter?

4. Chad Billingsley: Will the elbow hold up? There were concerns he would need Tommy John surgery after missing the end of last season with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. So far, so good, but it's a wait-and-see issue.

5. Adrian Gonzalez: Is he good or Adrian Gonzalez Good? He was a star first baseman from 2008 to 2011, but dropped off last year. After walking 119 times in 2009, he drew just 42 last year, leading to a big decline in his on-base percentage.

6. Matt Kemp: How's the shoulder? Kemp had surgery in October to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff damage in his left shoulder (Gonzalez had similar surgery two years ago).

7. Luis Cruz: Big league regular or 4-A player? The 29-year-old minor league vet surprised last year, hitting .297/.322/.431 in 78 games, but there are doubts he can repeat those as the starting third baseman.

8. Clayton Kershaw: How's the hip? It bothered him at the end of last season, and while it's not an issue now, the Dodgers can't afford to have it pop back up.

9. A.J. Ellis: Is he for real? At the age of 31, the catcher became a starter for the first time and posted an impressive .373 OBP. But he also hit a less impressive .252/.336/.401 in the second half.

10. Josh Beckett: What does he have left? He turns 33 in May and has battled back problems in recent years, averaging 26 starts over the past three seasons. In those three years, he had a terrible one, a great one and a mediocre one. Which Beckett will show up in 2013?

11. Brandon League: Is he a legit closer? He was an All-Star with Seattle in 2011, but lost his job last year as his walk rate jumped from 1.5 per nine innings to 4.1. His strikeout rates have always been subpar for a closer, although he did allow just one home run in 2012. The Dodgers traded for him and then signed him to a three-year deal with a vesting option, an investment most analysts questioned.

12. Hyun-Jin Ryu: Is he any good? The Dodgers gave the Korean lefty $36 million with the belief he's ready to jump into their rotation, but he hasn't impressed this spring, and some have questioned his routine of not throwing between starts.

13. Mark Ellis: Can he stay healthy? He's had 500 plate appearances just once in the past four seasons.

14. Chris Capuano: Can he repeat his 2012 numbers? Capuano went 12-12 with a career-low 3.72 ERA, but was 3-8 with a 4.76 ERA in the second half.

15. Kenley Jansen: How's his health? He's held hitters to a .148 average in his three major league seasons, but missed three weeks last year with an irregular heartbeat and underwent surgery in the offseason. He's under no restrictions and the Dodgers' gentle giant should be fine, but they can't afford to lose their best reliever for any lengthy period of time.


Which team will win the NL West?


Discuss (Total votes: 60,539)

16. Andre Ethier: Will Don Mattingly finally platoon him against left-handers? Because Ethier can't hit them, .222/.276/.330 last year, .220/.258/.305 in 2011. And with Ethier, Gonzalez and Crawford, the Dodgers are likely to see a lot of southpaws.

17. Ronald Belisario: Can he do that again? Belisario was quietly dominating in 2012, going 8-1 with a 2.54 ERA and holding opponents to a .187 average.

18. Dee Gordon: What if he has to play shortstop? Once a rising star, Gordon's terrible 2012 (-1.3 WAR) means he'll start back in Triple-A. But if Ramirez can't handle short, is Gordon ready to step back in?

19. J.P. Howell: Can he handle the lefty bullpen role? Unless one of the starters (Ryu, Capuano, Ted Lilly) ends up down here, Howell might be the only lefty in the pen. After missing all of 2010 and pitching poorly in 2011, he was OK with the Rays last year (3.04 ERA in 50 innings). But how will he pitch away from his comfort zone of Tampa?

20. Don Mattingly: What if things turn sour? Mattingly is certainly more of the quiet leader from that top step, and he has two years of experience now, but expectations are high. If the Dodgers get off to a slow start, the pressure will mount in a hurry. And he has a core group of guys who -- fair or not -- couldn't handle that kind of pressure last year in Boston and were happily run out of town.
No, the World Baseball Classic isn't the World Series or the World Cup, and it doesn't really prove which country has the best baseball talent. But it's a fun event, the players participating want to win, and there are fans across the globe -- mostly outside of the United States -- who care passionately about the results.

Is the event perfect? Of course not. Thursday's much-anticipated Pool C game between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in Puerto Rico should have featured Felix Hernandez starting against Johnny Cueto instead of Anibal Sanchez against Edinson Volquez, but I didn't have a problem getting pumped up to watch a Dominican lineup that featured Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion, Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Santana, and a Venezuelan lineup that went nine deep with the likes of Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Pablo Sandoval, Miguel Montero and Martin Prado.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRobinson Cano drove in three of the Dominican's nine runs in the opener against Venezuela.
Managers Tony Pena of the Dominican and Luis Sojo of Venezuela were forced to scramble when a first-inning rain delay led to the early exits of Volquez and Sanchez. But the Dominican had already jumped on Sanchez for three first-inning runs -- Cano doubled in two -- and a contingent of Dominican relievers, some minor league no-names and some major leaguers with big fastballs held the explosive Venezuelans to just six hits in a 9-3 victory. The game slogged along, reminiscent of a Red Sox-Yankees affair from the mid-2000s, but that just showed what the game means to the players: They weren't going through the motions like you might see in a spring-training game in Arizona in early March.

The win puts the Dominicans in the driver's seat to win Pool C and help escape the embarrassment of 2009, when they lost twice to the Netherlands in pool play and failed to advance (scoring just three runs in those two games despite a lineup that included Cano, Reyes, Ramirez, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada). Venezuela entered the tournament as a favorite alongside the U.S. Even minus Hernandez, it seemed to have more pitching depth than the Dominican, especially among the starters.

But in pool play, it's all about bullpen depth. Pitchers are limited to 65 pitches per outing and if they throw at least 30, they can't pitch the following day. If you pitch two days in a row, you can't pitch a third day in a row. But the Dominican bullpen rolled out Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera, he of the average fastball velocity of 97 mph last year, veteran Octavio Dotel, Pedro Strop of the Orioles and Rays closer Fernando Rodney. Strop had the key appearance on Thursday, pitching 1.2 hitless innings in the middle of the game when the score was 5-3. Command has always been the issue for Strop, but he threw an efficient 20 pitches, 14 for strikes. With a day off on Friday, Pena had no reservations about running all his relievers out there.

The Dominicans can attack you in different ways. They have the speed of Reyes, Erick Aybar and Alejandro De Aza; the power of Cano and Encarnacion; the patience of Santana, who drew four walks on Thursday. The team is also hoping to add Adrian Beltre in the second round. With that lineup and that crew of hard-throwing relievers, the Dominicans certainly have the ability to win it all.

The U.S. is still the favorite on paper (it plays its opener on Friday against Mexico). Even without starters Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, it has the most pitching depth. After Volquez, the Dominicans have to rely on guys such as Wandy Rodriguez and probably Samuel Deduno to start.

And don't sleep on Venezuela. Its Saturday game against Puerto Rico likely becomes the key game now in Pool C. I wouldn't bet against a lineup where Marco Scutaro is batting ninth.
Jose BautistaAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAll eyes will be on Jose Bautista this season as the Blue Jays are expected to contend.
Does pressure exist in baseball? We've made heroes and goats of those who performed -- or didn't perform -- in the game's biggest moments. But those are usually isolated snippets of time in a postseason game, when the results of one at-bat or a few games serve to define your character (fairly or not).

Pressure in the regular season is different; it's more about external expectations and a player's importance to his club. Some players thrive under that spotlight; some pretend it doesn't exist. Tommy Lasorda put it another way: "Pressure is a word that is misused in our vocabulary. When you start thinking of pressure, it's because you've started to think of failure."

For the most part, major leaguers are oblivious to pressure because they are good; they expect success, not failure. But that doesn't mean pressure isn't out there in some form. For example, did Albert Pujols struggle last April because of the pressure of his new contract? It's certainly possible.

Here are the 10 guys I would suggest are facing the most pressure this season.

10. Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Marlins moved Ramirez off shortstop not just because they signed Jose Reyes a year ago but because they also believed Ramirez no longer had the range required to play the position. The defensive metrics back up that assertion -- minus-39 defensive runs saved over the three seasons, in what amounts to about two years' worth of innings at shortstop -- but Ramirez wants to play short and that's where he'll open the season. After hitting .313 over his first five seasons, Ramirez also has to show there's some potency left in his bat after hitting just .252 over the past two seasons.

9. Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
It's easier to be the big man on campus when winning results are hoped for more than assumed. But now that the Blue Jays are expected to be relevant, the spotlight will shine more intensely on Bautista. Is he the guy to carry a Jays team that many believe can -- or should -- reach the World Series? He's reportedly healthy after last year's wrist injury, but he has to prove he can come closer to 2011's monster numbers (.302/.447/.608, 43 home runs) than 2012's more pedestrian ones (.241/.358/.527).

8. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
The pressure on Wainwright won't come from a heavy-handed local media or fan base with unrealistic demands, but from the knowledge that Kyle Lohse won't be here and Chris Carpenter's career may be over. With young pitchers like Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly battling for the starting rotation, the mantle of staff leader falls on Wainwright's shoulders -- and surgically repaired right elbow. He obviously had a positive return from Tommy John surgery a year ago (14-13, 3.94 ERA), but it's important to note it wasn't really that great of a year -- his ERA ranked just 31st among qualified National League starters. But a strong second half has many believing Wainwright can return to his pre-injury Cy Young contender status.

7. Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox spent enough money in the offseason -- Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes -- that club officials certainly expect a rebound from last season's disaster and a return to contender status. To do that, however, they'll need a year like Ellsbury gave them in 2011, when he hit .321 with 32 home runs and finished second in the MVP vote. Ellsbury hasn't hit more than nine homers in any other season, so as an impending free agent he's also looking to earn a mega-payday by showing that power spike wasn't a fluke.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesJosh Hamilton will have to face the pressure of playing for a $125 million contract in Los Angeles.
6. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
As always, there's a lot of pressure on Longoria to lead a Tampa offense that isn't going to scare a lot of opponents. Aside from that, he has to prove he can stay healthy after missing significant chunks of action the past two years -- and rejoin that discussion of being one of the top five players in baseball -- and show that $100 million extension the Rays gave him in the offseason wasn't a mistake.

5. Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
With no Josh Hamilton and veteran leader Michael Young jettisoned to Philly, this is now Beltre's team, so to speak. He's the star of the Rangers' show and with that comes the pressure to carry a lineup that scored 47 fewer runs in 2012 than it did in 2011. Beltre hit .321 with 36 home runs, but he turns 34 in April, that precarious age when decline often starts setting in.

4. Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels
Speaking of Hamilton, when you leave a winning franchise to sign a $125 million deal with your former team's biggest rival, yeah, I'd say the intensity of expectations will be pretty high. Will the money affect him? How will he hit outside of Texas? What was up with all the strikeouts last year? Sure, it helps having Pujols and Mike Trout around to help carry the offensive burden, but Pujols' struggles suggest pressure to live up to a huge contract can arguably affect even the biggest stars. Anything short of Hamilton helping lead the Angels to a division title will be considered a disappointment.

3. Justin Upton, Atlanta Braves
Considering the months of trade rumors surrounding Upton -- and then everybody saying the Braves stole him from the Diamondbacks -- he has to show he was worth all the hype. He has hit .307 with a .937 OPS in Arizona in his career, .250 with a .731 OPS on the road. Did the Braves trade for a guy who was an MVP candidate in 2011 or merely a good, but inconsistent, player?

2. Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
No Nick Swisher. No Russell Martin. No Curtis Granderson for April. No Alex Rodriguez for who knows how long. A declining Mark Teixeira and an aging Derek Jeter trying to return from a broken ankle. Two outfielders in Ichiro Suzuki and Brett Gardner with little power. Oh, yeah, you're also playing in the toughest media market in the sport, coming off a postseason in which you hit .075 and playing for a huge contract as an impending free agent. Enjoy the season, Mr. Cano.

1. Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers
When you admit you signed with the Dodgers because of the hefty paycheck ($147 million over six years) it's not just a refreshing bit of honesty (although I respect him for saying it). With that comment, Greinke put the bull's-eye on himself. Heck, Dodgers management believes they're starting a dynasty here; they already have Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, but it's Greinke -- a guy with a 3.83 ERA over the past three seasons -- with the most pressure on the team.

Dodgers still living on the edge

September, 20, 2012

    "I mean, guys, I know how to hit. I promise you, I know how to hit. It’s just right now, it’s been pretty tough."
    -- Matt Kemp to reporters a few days ago

Kemp has not had a good September. He's been mired in such a terrible slump that Cardinals manager Mike Matheny intentionally walked Andre Ethier the other day with runners at second and third and two out in the bottom of the 10th inning. And it worked. Kemp flied out, and the Cardinals eventually won the game in 12 innings.

The 2011 MVP runner-up entered Wednesday's doubleheader in Washington hitting .122 in September, with one walk and 14 strikeouts, an approach conjuring up memories of Kemp's lackluster 2010 season. Going back to Aug. 10, he had one home run and 12 RBIs in 31 games. "The Bison"? This was more like "T-Bone" Shelby.

Kemp went 1-for-4 in the first game as the Nationals won 3-1, dropping the Dodgers to 9-17 since an Aug. 19 victory had left them a half-game up on the Giants in the National League West. They were now two games behind the Cardinals in the crawl to the second wild-card spot. I wouldn't quite label the nightcap a must-win game, but there was at least a certain urgency.

How did this happen? How did the Dodgers get here? On Aug. 20, they lost to the Giants, when Madison Bumgarner outdueled Clayton Kershaw 2-1 (both starters went eight innings, and combined for 20 strikeouts and no walks). The Giants won the next day and the next. A sweep at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers then had an off day, and general manager Ned Colletti spent it finalizing the blockbuster deal to acquire Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett. This would right the ship. It would be a battle to the end against their hated rivals, and in a perfect alignment of the schedule, the teams would finish the season against each other at Dodger Stadium.

Instead, the blockbuster became blockbusted. Gonzalez has been awful since joining the Dodgers, and his batting line stood at .233/.286/.378 (BA/OBP/SLG). Those would be described in the greater L.A. area as "James Loney numbers." Beckett had been inconsistent in four starts with the Dodgers, posting a 3.38 ERA but allowing 27 hits in 24 innings. He'd start the second game.

* * * *

The Dodgers scored three runs in the third inning. Kemp and Gonzalez drew key walks, and Hanley Ramirez and Ethier knocked in runs. They scored three more in the fourth. Kemp had an RBI single. He later scored a controversial run (replays showed he hadn't crossed the plate before a tag was made on Gonzalez). It was just the second time the Dodgers had scored at least six runs in 18 games. They'd scored two or fewer in nine of those games.

* * * *

The Nationals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth. The home crowd went crazy.

* * * *

The Dodgers were staring down the barrel of one of the season's most bitter defeats that any team had suffered, an absolutely crushing blow considering the timing and circumstances.

Kemp led off the ninth against Nationals closer Tyler Clippard, and fell behind on a called strike for a cutter and two foul balls on a changeup and fastball. Kemp had entered the day hitting .200 on 0-2 counts, with 32 strikeouts in 63 plate appearances. Over the past three seasons, batters were hitting .128 off Clippard when he reached an 0-2 count.

Clippard wanted to elevate a fastball; he didn't elevate enough. Kemp belted a towering fly ball to center field that reached the third row of bleachers. Brandon League had an easy, 12-pitch bottom of the ninth, and the Dodgers had the win 7-6. If the Dodgers somehow find a way to gather up some steam and catch the Cardinals to make the postseason, this will be the game Dodgers fans remember. From nearly falling off the edge of the cliff to catching a branch on the way down. Still hanging in there.

* * * *

This isn't a good team right now, not with Kemp and Gonzalez struggling at the plate. Not with Kershaw indefinitely sidelined -- maybe for the rest of the season -- with his sore hip. The Dodgers haven't been good since that amazing 30-13 start. In truth, the Dodgers' season peaked May 22, when Ivan DeJesus Jr. doubled in two runs in the ninth inning to give the Dodgers an 8-7 victory over the Diamondbacks. They seemed unstoppable at that time, a miracle season in the works. Cue highlights of Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson on the big screen.

The Gonzalez trade was a sign of desperation, a sign of a new ownership group with deep pockets being played the fool. Take on our fading stars! Take on these mammoth contracts! Win back your fans! It will work out for you, trust us!

You know, the funny thing about the Frank McCourt era is that the Dodgers made the playoffs four times in his eight seasons as owner. They even won their first two playoff series since 1988.

I have a feeling they will be 0-for-1 in the Magic Johnson era.

Matt KempHarry E. Walker/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp gets his due for taking the pressure off everyone else with his winning homer in the nightcap.
Mike TroutGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireAngels outfielder Mike Trout has the tools to be baseball's most exciting player for years to come.
We all have our own favorites, of course, and maybe they change from season to season. Or month to month. That's a little of the beauty of baseball; we don't all have to enjoy and appreciate the same players. The stars aren't necessarily shoved down our throats like a certain sport played with an orange ball.

For me, Mike Trout has been the most exciting player in baseball in 2012. It's completely subjective opinion, of course, but if you think of some of the factors that would be considered for such a description, Trout fits (as do Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Matt Kemp and others):

1. Power. Check.
2. Speed. Check.
3. Spectacular plays on defense. Check.
4. Young. Check. This is kind of like how we get excited over a new restaurant or new girlfriend or new TV show.
5. Looks good in a baseball uniform. Check.
6. Has the It Factor. Hard to define, but you know what it is when you see it.
7. Cool name. Mickey Mantle wouldn't quite be Mickey Mantle if his name had been "Andy Stankiewicz."
8. He's good. Duh. Although I suppose there's a different kind of excitement for players who aren't good.

Pitchers have a slightly different list of criteria, much of which boils down to "He's one bad dude."

The first year I remember following baseball was 1976, the year before the Mariners arrived in my hometown. Leaving out the fact that most of us probably prefer a guy on our favorite team, here's my own list of Most Exciting Player in Baseball since that year.

1976: Mark Fidrych, P, Tigers

There hasn't been anybody like Fidrych since he became a national phenomenon as a 21-year-old rookie. For all the attention given to Trout or Harper this year, imagine if ESPN and 24-hour sports coverage had been around in 1976, when Fidrych was talking to baseballs and shaking hands with infielders after a good play -- in the middle of innings. I remember watching the famous June "Monday Night Baseball" game against the Yankees, that's how big it seemed at the time. Fidrych would start the All-Star Game, complete 24 of his 29 starts and boost attendance whenever he pitched (he accounted for nearly half of the Tigers' attendance that year while making just 18 starts at Tiger Stadium). In Dan Epstein's "Big Hair and Plastic Grass," a history of baseball in the '70s, he writes that other teams begged the Tigers to pitch Fidrych in their parks.

How exciting was he? Here's a clip of that Yankees game; fast-forward to the 2:30 mark and not just for the awesome '70s clothes and fans smoking in the stands. Detroit fans hung out after the game, chanting "We want The Bird! We want The Bird!" When he finally appears from the clubhouse, the place explodes. One of a kind.

1977: George Foster, LF, Reds

Maybe a bit of a one-dimensional slugger, but his 52 home runs that year seemed otherworldly. And maybe they were. It was the only 50-homer season between Willie Mays in 1965 and Cecil Fielder in 1990, Foster waved that menacing black bat and was awesome.

1978: Dave Parker, RF, Pirates

Built like a linebacker, for a few years there Parker was arguably the best all-around player in baseball. He was the MVP in 1978 as he led the majors in batting average and OPS and owned a howitzer for an arm. Plus, this was the year he fractured his jaw and cheekbone in a home-plate collision and returned two weeks later wearing a hockey mask at the plate (quickly replaced by a football-like face mask).

[+] EnlargeGeorge Brett
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesGeorge Brett had 85 extra-base hits for the Royals in 1979.
1979-1980: George Brett, 3B, Royals

That sweet Charlie Lau swing. The dirty uniform even though he played his home games on turf. And then the chase for .400 in 1980. But how about this line in 1979: .329, 212 hits, 42 doubles, 20 triples, 23 home runs.

1981-1983: Rickey Henderson, LF, A's

Actually, you could probably give him the whole decade if you want.

1984-1985: Dwight Gooden, P, Mets

In 1984, he was Kid K, the 19-year-old phenom who finished second in the Cy Young vote, helping turn around a moribund Mets franchise. In 1985, he was Dr. K, the best pitcher on the planet -- 24-4, 1.53 ERA, 268 strikeouts. He pitched eight shutouts that year with his blistering high fastball and knee-buckling curveball, plus he had two more nine-inning scoreless outings where he got a no-decision. The four games he "lost" he allowed two, two, two and three runs. With a little luck, he could have gone unbeaten. You couldn't watch all the games back then, of course, unless you lived in the New York area, but I'd stay up late to watch the news to see how Gooden fared or devour the box score in the morning paper.

1986: Roger Clemens, P, Red Sox

Twenty strikeouts in a game. Twenty-four wins. Nothing then about needles in the butt.

1987: Eric Davis, CF, Reds

Skinny as a golf club, Davis somehow generated big power from his slight frame and combined that with blazing speed and acrobatic outfield play. In 1986, he hit 27 home runs and stole 80 bases; in 1987 he hit 37 home runs and stole 50 bases (in just 129 games). In a Sports Illustrated story, Reds manager Pete Rose said, "It's like having an atomic bomb sitting next to you in the dugout." Teammate Dave Parker said, "Eric is blessed with world-class speed, great leaping ability, the body to play until he's 42, tremendous bat speed and power, and a throwing arm you wouldn't believe. There's an aura to everything he does." In the long run, he couldn't stay healthy, although he did last until he was 39. If you missed seeing the young Davis, you missed something special.

1988: Jose Canseco, RF, A's

Don't laugh. When he went 40-40 it was a very big deal. But, no, I never called the Jose Canseco hotline.

1989-1994: Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners

OK, Barry Bonds was better. He was faster. When you break it down, he was a little better hitter and that was even before Big Barry broke out. But Griffey had the It Factor from the time he reached the majors at age 19 and Bonds never really did.

[+] EnlargeRandy Johnson
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonRandy Johnson's heroics in 1995 perhaps saved baseball in the city of Seattle.
1995: Randy Johnson, P, Mariners

Power and might, adrenaline at 100 miles per hour with his long hair flapping behind him, as intimidating a pitcher the game has ever seen. And if you were a Mariners fan in those days, a Johnson game was a treat to be savored. And when he trudged in from the bullpen in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series, the Kingdome exploded in pandemonium. Without Johnson's spectacular '95 season (remember, Griffey was hurt part of that year), there may not be baseball in Seattle.

1996: Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners

The common theory is that A-Rod -- like Bonds -- never managed to connect with the fans on a national scale like Griffey, but that's a little rewriting of history, especially after he left Seattle for his first megabucks contract. In 1996, when he was 20 years old (turned 21 in July), he was, like Mike Trout, a young guy putting up bizzaro offensive numbers -- he'd hit .358 with 36 home runs and 54 doubles. It's too easy to forget now but there was a moment when Rodriguez was a player of our affection instead of a player of derision.

1997: Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners

Griffey's MVP season when he led the AL with 56 home runs and 147 RBIs.

1998: Mark McGwire, 1B, Cardinals ... and Sammy Sosa, RF, Cubs

You have to put them together, no? And, no, you can't rewrite history: The home run chase was exhilarating, thrilling and astonishing.

1999-2000: Pedro Martinez, P, Red Sox

In the midst of the barrage of home runs, Pedro was putting up numbers we'd never seen before from a pitcher. In 1999, he struck out 313 batters in 213.1 innings, an average of 13.2 K's per nine innings ... and he walked just 37. He was Nolan Ryan with command and one unhittable changeup. In 2000, opponents hit .167 off him. This wasn't some reliever throwing one inning at a time. Attending a Pedro game at Fenway during this peak was like going to a religious revival, 35,000 fans believing fervently in the gifts of Pedro. He wasn't a god, but he sure pitched like one.

2001: Ichiro Suzuki, RF, Mariners

I think this list is just making Mariners fans sad.

2002-2004: Barry Bonds, LF, Giants

Are walks exciting? Bonds somehow made them so. Love him or hate him, a Bonds at-bat in this era was must-see TV.

2005: Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals

A weird season. Bartolo Colon won a Cy Young Award. Roger Clemens had a 1.87 ERA at age 42. Scott Eyre picked up 10th-place MVP vote. No, seriously, he did. We'll give the nod to Pujols, if only for that 9,000-foot home run off Brad Lidge in the NLCS.

2006-2008: Jose Reyes, SS, Mets

Over those three seasons he hit .292 while averaging 16 home runs, 16 triples and 66 stolen bases per season. Admit it: He was fun.

2009: Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins

Maybe should have mentioned him during the Reyes seasons. This was the year he hit .342 with power and speed.

2010: Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers

He was so good he won the MVP Award despite missing the final month.

2011: Justin Verlander, P, Tigers

With apologies to Matt Kemp.

So that's my list, no slights intended to those I left off. What about your most exciting players? Discuss below ... and enjoy baseball.

Hanley Ramirez: Third base or shortstop?

August, 24, 2012
Hanley Ramirez Daniel Shirey/US PresswireDefensive metrics aren't kind to Hanley Ramirez at either shortstop or third base.
Hanley Ramirez, not known as a defensive whiz in his six seasons as a shortstop, was moved to third base this season when the Miami Marlins signed Jose Reyes. Much was made of the move, regarding both Ramirez’s willingness and ability to handle it.

After being acquired by the Los Angeles Dodgers near the trade deadline, he’s essentially split his time between the two positions. That could change with shortstop Dee Gordon currently on a rehab assignment.

So which positions should he play? We use statistics, precedent and "Baseball Tonight" analyst Aaron Boone to come to a decision.

The case for third base
No defensive stats, standard or advanced, have been friendly to Ramirez as a shortstop. From his first full season in 2006 through last season, only Yuniesky Betancourt and Rafael Furcal committed more errors at shortstop than Ramirez’s 113 and only Betancourt and Derek Jeter had fewer Defensive Runs Saved than Ramirez’s minus-67.

Those three were far worse than any other shortstop; Julio Lugo and Felipe Lopez had minus-38 Defensive Runs Saved, the next-fewest during that span. That means Ramirez, Betancourt and Jeter cost their teams nearly twice as many runs as any other shortstop in six years.

Perhaps most surprising is that Betancourt, Jeter and Ramirez continued to play shortstop. Only five players have logged at least 7,000 innings at the position in those six years, and three were the three worst shortstops according to Defensive Runs Saved.

Ramirez wasn’t showing a ton of improvement at shortstop either. After posting his two highest fielding-percentage seasons in 2009 and 2010, last season was the worst of his career. According to Defensive Runs Saved, he had his second- and third-worst defensive seasons the past two years, costing the Marlins 19 runs in 2009 and 13 runs last season. In his first three seasons in the bigs, he cost his team 34 runs at shortstop, compared to just 30 the past three seasons, only about a half-win improvement.

The Fielding Bible Plus/Minus said that last season was the worst of his career for double-play percentage (percentage of double-play opportunities completed in which he was involved) and tied for the worst, with 2007, on ground balls to his right.

“You’re reading the ball in a completely different way” at third base, Boone said. In the infield, “you’re using your feet, creating as many good hops as possible -- something that comes with experience.” So we shouldn’t expect Ramirez to be the best third baseman in the league after just half a season.

The case for shortstop
Pointing to the experience that Boone mentioned, Ramirez had shown improvement, albeit minimal, in the middle of the diamond. According to the Fielding Bible Plus/Minus, Ramirez had his best season in 2011 both on ground balls hit right at him and to his left.

He also showed a penchant for making the spectacular play. Last season Ramirez had nine Web Gems, tied for third among all shortstops with Elvis Andrus and Troy Tulowitzki, among others.

This season, despite the need for patience as he learned a new position, there have been few signs that he is picking it up. The only third baseman with fewer Defensive Runs Saved this season than Ramirez is the Rockies’ Jordan Pacheco.

“He’s got the tools of a shortstop, and he’s not so bad that he has to be moved from the position yet,” Boone said.

The start of his career was remarkable for a shortstop -- through his age-25 season, Ramirez accumulated 22.3 Wins Above Replacement, sixth among shortstops in the expansion era.

That has a lot to do with offense, of course, which can’t be ignored in this debate. As recently as 2009, Ramirez put up more than seven Wins Above Replacement, the sixth-most in the majors.

According to this post from Baseball Reference, Ramirez’s offense would be worth nearly four times as much at shortstop than at third base, considering the value at each position.

Where should he play with the Dodgers?
“He can play either position well enough that he should play wherever his team needs him,” said Boone.

The Dodgers have a young shortstop in Gordon who hit .300 and stole 24 bases in limited time as a rookie last season, and has already stolen 30 bases this season. At third base they’ve used eight players, playing only one of them for more than 210 innings.

So obviously Ramirez should man the hot corner in L.A., right? Not so fast.

Gordon posted a .562 OPS in 327 plate appearances this season before his injury, the second-lowest among shortstops with 300 plate appearances. And only two players have cost their team more runs this season at the position.

And Ramirez has already cost the Dodgers a run in just 70 innings at third base -- more than a full win worse than the rest of the team’s third base contributors this season, who have combined for 11 Defensive Runs Saved.

The answer
Gordon has struggled in the field and at the plate this season, and is still working his way back from an injury. The Dodgers acquired Shane Victorino to put at the top of the order and provide the spark that Gordon wasn’t.

Ramirez has been playing shortstop in August -- through the end of July, Dodgers shortstops had a .610 OPS, 25th in the majors.

At third base, they’ve mostly mixed and matched with veterans who have played the position well but struggled at the plate this season. Since August, with Ramirez as shortstop, they’ve settled on Luis Cruz at third, and he hasn’t disappointed. He’s hitting .352 with a .934 OPS this month -- he hit .258 with a .722 OPS in July. And he has five Defensive Runs Saved in just 121 2/3 innings at third base -- only seven third basemen have more this season.

For the rest of this season, Ramirez should stay at shortstop with Cruz at third base. Where Ramirez plays next season should depend on how Gordon and Cruz perform in spring training at shortstop and third base, respectively. Let one of them win the job and use Ramirez at the other spot.

John Fisher is a researcher in ESPN's Stats and Information group.