SweetSpot: Johan Santana

Would adding Johan Santana help O's?

March, 3, 2014
This is getting talked up on Twitter as very close to happening: Johan Santana could be an Oriole.

If so, I love it. I love it even if it subsequently turns out that he has nothing left and that his towering stack of injuries has robbed him of his ability to pitch effectively for any length of time. I love it because you won’t know that for sure until you check him out. If the O’s take that chance, more power to them.

For most of the last month, Santana has been promoting and throwing bullpen sessions to advertise both that he’s still alive -- after missing all of 2013 and 2011, as well as a big chunk of 2012, people start to wonder -- and that his arm is sound. Since he has been touching only 80 on the gun, it’s hard to say he’s all the way back.

Even so, the Orioles are one of the teams that can’t just afford to take a flyer on him. They have to if they want to take themselves seriously. Not because of what Santana is now, but because of what he might be if he can come back to some fraction of his former self. Think of it as a latter-day John Tudor play: If he’s healthy enough to pitch, chances are he’ll be good enough to help you win.

Does Johan Santana have anything left?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,258)

Why does that matter for the O’s? Because after you get past Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman, Baltimore has lunch-bucket types, guys who might make a nice No. 4 in anybody’s rotation: Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris at the least, plus Zach Britton and Brian Matusz, if you’re feeling generous. Top prospect Kevin Gausman will eventually pitch his way past that crowd of mediocrity. But over 162 games and especially early on, that mediocrity and depth will have value, keeping games in reach for Chris Davis & Co. while giving Buck Showalter enough talent to work with until Santana and Gausman are ready to contribute.

Why them, and why later? Because in a perfect-world, blue-sky scenario where the Orioles contend, you don’t want to wind up in the postseason having to start Norris. Gausman might give the Orioles a key front-end starter down the stretch, perhaps playing as large a role for them as Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole did for their teams last year. Running up some combination of Santana and Gausman, Jimenez and Tillman? Now we’re talking, not just about a team that might get to the one-game wild-card play-in but a team that might have the starting pitching to win a division series.

So credit the Orioles if they’re willing to roll the dice. It isn’t like Peter Angelos can take all of his tobacco lawsuit money with him, and for the O’s -- and their fans -- there’s no time like the present.

If Santana gives us some fraction of that world-beating pitcher who won two Cy Youngs, just call me greedy, because it’ll be fun to watch.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
With a big trade (finally) and Power Rankings on our plate this was a busy Monday edition of the Baseball Today podcast, and Mark Simon and I had a blast!

1. Kevin Youkilis is changing his Sox from Red to White, which certainly seems like a positive move for both teams. We explain why.

2. As for the weekly top 10 of the best in baseball, one of us had both Sox in the rankings, while the other is thinking of birds of a different feather.

3. A few weeks ago it seemed the NL East was on par with the AL East, but that certainly doesn’t appear to be the case any longer.

4. Our emailers have thoughts about a team or replacement players, the real Mets ace, defensive shifts and inherited baserunners for relievers.

5. Monday’s schedule features one of baseball’s best at Coors Field, plus the Tribe in Gotham and some interesting starting pitching options.

So download and listen to Monday’s Baseball Today podcast, as we talk about our recent baseball trips and prepare for another exciting day! Enjoy!
Do the Detroit Tigers need a second baseman more than a starting pitcher? Are the Pittsburgh Pirates for real? Will the Cleveland Indians make a deal? Who should be in the Home Run Derby? Is Mike Trout worthy of MVP discussion? And why were accused of AL bias? Check it out in today's chat wrap.
Another week, another set of interesting Power Rankings to get us going! Mark Simon joined me for Monday’s Baseball Today podcast and a good time was had by all!

1. We separately supply our top-10 teams, with one major difference, and also point out the worst of the worst.

2. Good for Dusty Baker in how he used Aroldis Chapman Sunday night, but the end result was a Detroit win. Is this the start of a Tigers' turnaround?

3. The Diamondbacks haven’t lost since a few of their players were ripped by the team’s managing general partner. Coincidence? Plus, Stephen Drew answers back.

4. Emails normal, ridiculous and a new one -- ludicrous -- are dissected, concerning the Pirates, Mariners organization pitching and more!

5. Light schedule on Monday, but all four games involve potential playoff teams. And no, we’re not Joshing ya.

So download and listen to Monday’s fine Baseball Today podcast, or else you’ll be as unlucky as Bobby Parnell. You don’t want to be as unlucky as Bobby Parnell.

Eric Karabell and myself discuss the Mets and whether or not they can hang in the NL East race, the slumping Cardinals and the MVP of the National League so far.

When I was a kid I had a book titled "The Giant Book of Strange but True Sports Stories." I must have read it a hundred times. I can't remember how many of the stories were actually strange or how many were even true, but I loved that book.

Kind of like the 2012 season. We're a third of the way through it and we have a whole list of intriguing story lines. I don't how many of them can be classified as strange, but many of them are certainly a bit mystifying and remarkable. And as far as I know, all true.

Here are a few of these stories and a few corresponding predictions.

1. Josh Hamilton hits like Babe Ruth for two months, Albert Pujols goes through a slump of biblical proportions, and somehow the Angels are only 4.5 games behind the Rangers.

The Rangers made a small statement on Sunday, beating the Angels 7-3 in a game Dan Haren struggled with his command. Haren allowed just two runs in five innings but was removed after throwing 104 pitches and first-pitch strikes to 12 of the 24 batters he faced. But the Angels took two of three in the series to chip into a Rangers' lead that was once as many as nine games and was still eight games as recently as May 22. The Angels have reeled off 10 wins in 12 games.

In fact, Haren's mediocre start Sunday was symbolic of his inconsistent season. A workhorse in 2011, he pitched at least seven innings in 21 of his 34 starts and at least eight innings in nine starts. This season he has gone seven innings in just five of 12 starts and eight or more just twice. Similar to Pujols' struggles, this can be viewed as a positive: At some point, Haren is a good bet to get in a groove where he's pitching deeper into games on a regular basis.

As for the Rangers, they started 12-2 -- a stretch that included six wins over the Twins and Mariners -- but have since gone just 20-20, despite Hamilton's heroics. Signing Roy Oswalt indicates the concerns the club has about a rotation that has struggled lately. On Sunday, Matt Harrison won his third straight start with a decent but not dominant outing (three walks, three strikeouts). We're also unkind enough to mention that the first two of those three wins came against Seattle. Still, his numbers are starting to line up with 2011, one positive sign for a pitching staff that has had to rely heavily on its bullpen. That .500 record over 40 games shows that a dominant bullpen is nice but it doesn't necessarily make up for a mediocre rotation.

Prediction: I still believe the Rangers are the team to beat in the AL West -- after all, they're still on pace for 96 wins (strange but true!). Oswalt is certainly a bit of a wild card but should improve the back end of the rotation. The bullpen is the best in the business and gets even deeper if Neftali Feliz ends up there when he returns from the disabled list. And the offense leads the league in runs scored. The Angels are better club with Vernon Wells on the DL, but they need improvement from Haren and Ervin Santana and have to hope Jered Weaver's DL stint isn't a lengthy one.

2. Scott Podsednik has more home runs than Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford combined. Felix Doubront leads the rotation in ERA. The Red Sox have had two five-game losing streaks and another stretch of five losses in six games. And they're just three games out of first place.

The Red Sox were 12-19 on May 10 but have gone 16-7 since to climb to 28-26. The entire AL East is over .500, but the Red Sox are back in the race despite a long list of injuries, poor performances from the rotation, and Adrian Gonzalez's poor start. Dead and buried? Not quite. The Red Sox have risen.

Still, things aren't all positive in Beantown. While Clay Buchholz has looked better his past two starts, Daniel Bard's transition to starter continues to be a work in progress. On Sunday, he bombed out in the second inning after walking six batters. His season totals now include the ugly marks of 37 walks and 34 strikeouts. Among 118 qualified major league starters, the only one with a worse strikeout/walk ratio is Cleveland's Ubaldo Jimenez. The Red Sox don't really have a viable alternative to Bard right now, but you have to believe they'll be pursuing a starter before the trade deadline if Bard doesn't improve.

Prediction: The Red Sox aren't going anywhere. Even with all the injuries, the offense is second in the league to the Rangers in runs scored. They've scored 38 more runs than the Yankees, 50 more than the Orioles and 60 more than the Rays. Last time I checked, scoring runs is still 50 percent of the equation. I'll stick with my preseason pick: This is a playoff team.

3. The New York Mets are tied for first place.

There were 643,782 predictions made on the Internet this year about MLB's final standings. I looked them all up. Not one picked the Mets to win the NL East. This isn't strange but true, but strange, true and amazing.

After beating the Cardinals on Sunday night, the Mets are tied for first place even though they have the worst bullpen ERA in the NL, first baseman Ike Davis is hitting .170, they're on their third starting shortstop due to injuries, they've used four starters in the fifth slot, their closer has a 6.10 ERA, and they're 14th in the NL in home runs.

It's easy to look at the run differential of minus-six runs and assume they've been lucky, that maybe they'll be 27-27 or 26-28 instead of 31-23. But in this year of parity, early season run differential can be a little misleading. The Mets have scored 10 runs in a game just once. But they've had games where they've allowed 18 runs, two with 14, one with 11 and with 10. The back end of the bullpen has been terrible, which leads to a poor run differential, but not necessarily more losses.

The Mets' success starts with the rotation combo of R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana. Dickey is 8-1 with a 2.69 ERA; and there's nothing that screams fluke about his numbers. Since the start of 2010, he ranks 10th in the majors among pitchers with at least 400 innings pitched with a 3.02 ERA. He has 70 strikeouts and 17 walks in 73.2 innings this year. The knuckleballer isn't a conventional ace but he's a legit one. Santana is just 3-2 but with a 2.38 ERA and a .200 opponents' batting average. As he showed during his no-hitter on Friday night, his changeup is as devastating as ever, even if his fastball velocity isn't what it once was.

Prediction: Everyone wants to doubt this club and I do agree they'll need to add a couple relievers. But improving a bad bullpen is the easiest thing to fix in midseason. Go down the rest of the NL East rosters and the other four teams have significant flaws as well. I think the Mets fall short in the end, but I think they stay'll close deep into September.

4. The Pittsburgh Pirates are ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals.

This one can't be true. The Pirates are hitting .221 with a .275 on-base percentage. They're on pace to score 495 runs, which ... well, would make them one of the worst hitting teams ever. But I guess you knew that from that .221 average. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are second in the NL in runs and lead the league in batting, OBP and slugging percentage.

Put it this way: Andrew McCutchen is the only Pirate who could crack the Cardinals' starting lineup. (OK, maybe Neil Walker.)

Look, we can break down the numbers a million different ways and the Cardinals are going to come out on top. The Cardinals have outscored their opponents by 47 runs; the Pirates have been outscored by 26 runs. The teams shouldn't be close in the standings. But remember what we just said about run differential? In the key stat that matters, the Pirates are 27-26 and the Cardinals are 27-27.

Prediction: Hey, maybe A.J. Burnett will end up pitching in the postseason ... but I think that happens only if he gets traded. I just can't get past how abysmal Pittsburgh's offense has been. Yes, the pitching has been stellar, allowing the second-fewest runs in the league. The bullpen has been near perfect, with a 10-4 record and 2.59 ERA. But if the pitching falters even a little, the Pirates will be headed for another under .500 season.

And the defending World Series champs? On paper, they appear to be the most talented team in the National League. Their division is weak. Is this just a lackluster 7-16 stretch? Or a sign of mediocrity? I'm going with a bad stretch. But this is sports. Stranger things have happened.

Philly PhanaticHoward Smith/US PresswireJust another rough day at the office for the Phillie Phanatic...

White Sox never counted out Humber

April, 21, 2012
Don't count anybody out, ever. But perfect? Philip Humber was never supposed to be perfect, but on the 21st day of April he was exactly that: the 21st pitcher to deliver a perfect game and the first to throw one since Roy Halladay threw the 20th on May 29, 2010. It was also the first American League perfecto since Dallas Braden on May 9, 2010.

But he was never supposed to be perfect. After all, he had proven so very imperfect since being the third overall pick of the 2004 draft. Touted as a top Mets prospect, he blew out his elbow in 2005, and it wasn’t long before he was referred to as another example of a Rice pitcher who got hurt and hadn’t lived up to the hype. Unimpressed with his minor league performance after coming back from Tommy John surgery, the Mets bundled him into the four-for-one swap that brought them Johan Santana before the 2008 season.

[+] EnlargePhilip Humber
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonThe White Sox are Philip Humber's fifth organization since he was drafted third overall in 2004.
But the Twins never let him start a single game in the majors after making 48 starts over two years at Triple-A, simply letting him slip away after 2009 rather than keep him on the 40-man roster. The Royals picked him up ... and they left him in Triple-A. However desperate the Royals were for pitching of any flavor, they lost him on waivers after the 2010 season to the A’s. They were just looking for a possible fifth starter. But the A’s lost him on waivers a month later when they decided they had a better way to use to spot on their 40-man roster, signing free agent Grant Balfour.

That is where the White Sox stepped in, grabbing Humber off waivers. Their goal for him wasn’t any higher than anyone else’s. He looked like a good guy to stash at the back end of a rotation -- a fifth guy, a bubble guy on an organizational depth chart, a guy only as good as his last start before giving him much thought. He was somebody who sticks only as long as he earns his keep and who won’t be forgiven a run of bad starts.

That was his due, because at no point did Humber dominate in Triple-A. Across four years bouncing among organizations, flitting from New Orleans to Rochester to Omaha, from the Pacific Coast League to the International League and back again, he posted a 4.67 ERA in Triple-A. His clip of 6.9 strikeouts and 2.7 unintentional walks per nine reflected a pitcher who had good command.

With heat that just bumps above 90 mph and good command of four pitches, he’s a finesse righty, and those don’t catch many breaks. But he promptly proved he belonged last season, getting that last slot in the White Sox’s rotation and keeping it, earning job security he’d probably only heard about happening to other people. And now, having achieved history as a strike-throwing machine, those days should be behind him for some time to come.

He’s not the first such find for general manager Kenny Williams, though. The White Sox have made a cottage industry out of giving second chances to other teams’ tarnished top prospects. Gavin Floyd looked like a Phillies flop after being the fourth overall pick of the 2001 draft; John Danks was the ninth overall selection for the Rangers in 2003, but they dealt him for Brandon McCarthy after seeing him deliver mediocre results at Double- and Triple-A. Good pitching might be hard to find, and not everything Williams touches turns to gold, but these are the benefits of betting on upside risk.

Humber might have had the good fortune to face the Mariners, a woeful lineup, in Safeco Field, a great place to pitch. But other people get those chances, and they don’t deliver perfection. It’s because of these finds that the Sox have the best rotation in the American League Central, and how they do will define how far the Sox might go this season. As Humber just showed, that might be a lot better than you ever expected.

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

Strasburg will need, and get, help

April, 12, 2012

At first blush, Stephen Strasburg’s overpowering start for the Washington Nationals might seem like good news for a club trying to get itself taken every bit as seriously as the Miami Marlins in the National League East’s “Division of Death” this season. But two outstanding starts into the season, Strasburg’s work brings up a couple of interesting things about this Nats club that bear watching as we head deeper into the 2012 season.

First, there’s the question of his workload. In the broad strokes, worrying about this now would definitely qualify as a case of too much, too soon. Even if Strasburg is limited to starting in a five-man rotation, in which nobody’s turn gets skipped because of scheduled days off, his total starts and innings are going to pile up. Even if Strasburg gets the odd extra day of rest between turns, he’s going to have around 17 starts by the All-Star break. As a 23-year-old. Coming back from elbow surgery. With the second half to look forward to. If he fends off a (perhaps unwanted) All-Star Game invite, he’d be on turn to lead off the rotation in the second half, same as the first.

That might not seem like a big deal. Davey Johnson probably isn’t going to overwork his young stud starter in individual ballgames, after all. But as dominating as Strasburg was Wednesday against the New York Mets, he still racked up 108 pitches against 24 batters in just six innings. Eighteen pitches facing just four guys per inning? That’s life when you’re striking people out, and that’s going to get you run out of games early, even when you’re going well.

But the real problem about the ideal of watching the kid’s workload and giving all due care to the logistical tedium of managing top talent carefully is where it might run up against the Nats’ bid for contention. That might sound silly to talk about in April, but various projection tools have the Nationals winning 80 to 82 games, and perhaps nobody in the NL East reaches 90. That makes the Nats a contender, on paper or in projections, admittedly, but a team that will be in the running.

Now, what does that mean for how they manage their best starter’s workload down the stretch? Is a buzzer going to go off when Strasburg makes his 24th start at the end of August, and general manager Mike Rizzo rings up Davey in the dugout and says, “Bad news, skip, the kid’s got just two starts left this year”? An incredulous Johnson might look at the standings and see that his team’s just four out and wonder what the point of the first five months was if you have to pull up and watch the Braves or Phillies or Marlins race on ahead.

That becomes even more difficult to swallow with the new two-wild-card setup for the postseason -- if you’re the Nats, and you might squeak into a one-game playoff to move into the NL Division Series, wouldn’t you feel pretty confident about your chances if you’ve got Strasburg in the fold?

Happily for the Nats, Johnson has a roster set up with more than a few compensations to deal with a young ace who’s going to have to be handled carefully early in the season, so maybe the issue becomes academic. First, you can skip worrying about who’s getting saves for the Nats, whether it’s Drew Storen or Brad Lidge at whatever point of the season. The real relief the Nats can look forward to comes from the relative no-names who will be pitching in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, starting with Tyler Clippard -- the NL’s most valuable non-Braves reliever last year, according to WAR -- and Henry Rodriguez's triple-digit gas, and Craig Stammen's ground-pounding sinker. That’s the kind of talent that will keep hard-hit balls from happening, usually with strikeouts. They won’t notch saves, but they’ll allow Johnson to hook Strasburg earlier than a previous generation’s skipper might have, and that might help keep the kid in the mix to the very end of the season.

Second, Johnson’s an old hand at getting the best from his lineups, to the point that he’ll eke out runs by cheating on defense. Witness Wednesday’s lineup behind Strasburg: With lefty Johan Santana on the mound, it becomes relatively affordable to put the towering Jayson Werth out in center field. Why? Because Strasburg generates so many outs at home plate that Johnson can risk a few adequate (or worse) defenders on the field. Against the Mets, Strasburg got half of his outs at home with those nine K's, got three ground-ball outs, and got a fly-ball out per inning.

There’s nothing very newfangled about this: Back in the 1980s, Johnson was willing to play sluggers such as Howard Johnson or a young Kevin Mitchell at shortstop when he had an extreme fly-ball/strikeout pitcher such as Sid Fernandez on the mound. And with more strikeouts happening today than ever, it makes even more sense now.

So maybe that’s the formula that gets Strasburg deep into the season: Better run support thanks to tailored lineups, a bullpen that can cover three or four frames per game, and not just pitch counts. If the Nats stay in this thing the way you could think they might, we’ll see what they decide about Strasburg’s workload then.

Ichiro SuzukiRick Yeatts/Getty ImagesIchiro might be getting up there, but he can still get on his horse and ride.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
There are so many new pitchers to capture our attention -- Matt Moore or Yu Darvish or Justin Verlander, for example -- it's easy to forget it wasn't long ago Stephen Strasburg was the prospect du jour or that Johan Santana was one of the best pitchers in the game.

The New York Mets won't be protecting a perfect record Wednesday afternoon at Citi Field after their first loss of the season on Tuesday, but their game against the Washington Nationals features an intriguing matchup between these two pitchers. Both are attempting to return from injuries after missing all or most of 2011.

"It's always good for baseball when you have a matchup like that," Santana told ESPN New York's Adam Rubin. "I'm still working my way back. But it's definitely good. Every time you have a challenge like that, it's going to be a good one, and I'm looking forward to it."

Strasburg had a solid Opening Day effort against the Chicago Cubs, allowing one run with five strikeouts in seven innings at Wrigley. His average fastball velocity clocked in at 95.3 mph, less than the 97.3 he averaged in 2010 but still some impressive heat, especially for a first start in April. The bigger issue, as it is with many pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery, is command of their pitches.

Here are two heat maps for Strasburg, the first showing his pitch location versus right-handed batters with his fastball in the 2010 season, and the other from last week, in his start against the Cubs.

Stephen StrasburgESPN Stats & InformationLeft: Strasburg's fastball location vs. RHB in 2010. Right: Opening Day location.

In 2010, Strasburg held right-handed batters to a .218 average off his fastball. As you can see from the heat map, he pretty much gunned high fastballs down the middle, overpowering them with high 90s octane. Against, the Cubs, he threw 42 fastballs to right-handed batters and was a bit inconsistent with his location. He walked only one batter, but if you watch Wednesday, pay attention to where he's spotting his fastball and whether he can use it to get ahead of hitters.

From 2002 through 2010, Santana was an incredible 130-66 with a 2.90 ERA, leading his league three times in ERA, three times in strikeouts and winning two Cy Young Awards. He led all starting pitchers in ERA over that span and held hitters to a .221 average. His knockout pitch was a devastating changeup, a big reason he's held right-handed batters to a lower career OPS than lefties.

Below is the heat map on Santana's changeup location versus right-handed batters in 2010 and in his Opening Day start against the Braves.

Johan SantanaESPN Stats & InformationLeft: Johan Santana's changeup location vs. RHB in 2010. Right: Opening Day location.

As you can see, he made his living against righties on the low outside corner; there's not much hitters can do with that pitch. Righties hit just .189 off Santana's changeup in 2010. He threw 10 changeups to righties against the Braves and, with this limited sample size, he was all over the place. Like Strasburg's fastball command, check to see Santana's changeup location. With the Nationals featuring a righty-heavy lineup, he'll need to be hitting that outside corner.

Matt KempJayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireHe didn't build it, but Dodger Stadium is Matt Kemp's house now.

I'm still trying to catch my breath. What a first weekend of games, from ace starters dominating to bullpen implosions to clutch home runs. The first week of the season is always entertaining for the rash judgments and choleric reactions to a few losses, but there's no denying the big storyline: The Baltimore Orioles are undefeated!

OK, I kid, but we may not get a chance to mention the Orioles too often this year. (Nick Markakis is swinging a sweet stick so far!) No, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are both 0-3, for the time since 1966 when they finished and ninth and 10th in the 10-team American League. I asked ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski, king of projections, how often the Red Sox and Yankees both missed the playoffs in his simulated seasons. The answer: 5.1 percent of the time. And if you want to believe that both clubs aren't as strong as Szymborski originally projected Insider (he had the Yankees at 93 wins, the Red Sox at 89), the odds are even lower. So, it's not absolutely crazy to think both of these teams could fall short of October.

For all you haters out there, however: The 1998 Yankees started 0-3 and won 114 games ... so don't get too excited just yet. Still, attention will be focused on all the hysteria coming out of the Boston and New York camps this week, and deservedly so. But there is much to watch in our first full of week of action.

Series of the week

Tampa Bay Rays at Detroit Tigers, Tuesday through Thursday

Matt Moore vs. Rick Porcello
James Shields vs. Justin Verlander
Jeff Niemann vs. Drew Smyly

An intriguing series as both teams are coming off season-opening sweeps. The Moore's anticipated 2012 debut is must-watch baseball. You're telling me you're not excited to see how the rookie attacks Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder? We get the two aces on Wednesday, with Verlander coming off a dominant Opening Day performance. Shields didn't face the Tigers last season. Rookie Smyly makes his major league debut on Thursday. The Tigers' second-round pick out of Arkansas in 2010, Smyly made his pro debut in 2011 and posted a 2.26 ERA between Class A and Double-A, with 131 strikeouts and 38 walks in 127.2 innings. He beat out Jacob Turner, the team's top prospect, for the No. 5 job in rotation. A 6-foot-3 lefty, Smyly isn't overpowering but throws strikes and repeats his delivery well. A start this weekend for Toledo didn't go well, as he lasted just 1.2 innings and gave up three hits and two walks.

Three pitching matchups to watch

1. Monday: Hector Noesi vs. Yu Darvish, Mariners vs. Rangers (8:05 p.m. ET)

Umm, I'm sure Noesi has his fans but this is all about Darvish's first start. The Rangers carefully slotted Darvish in as the team's No. 4 starter, allowing him to make his first two starts against the Mariners and Twins. That's called easing him in.

2. Wednesday: Stephen Strasburg vs. Johan Santana, Nationals at Mets (1 p.m. ET)

A crucial NL East tilt! Hey, the Mets are 3-0, don't laugh. Both pitchers were solid in the season debuts, although the Mets would like to see Santana go deeper then the five inning he pitched on Opening Day.

3. Wednesday: Josh Johnson vs. Roy Halladay, Marlins at Phillies (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN3)

These two have faced off three times since Halladay joined the Phillies. Johnson won last year 2-1 while they split in 2010 -- Halladay winning 1-0 with his perfect game and Johnson winning 2-0 (Halladay allowed just one run).

Player on the hot seat: Red Sox bullpen

Closer Alfredo Aceves has faced five batters in two games and failed to retire any of them. Mark Melancon has already been tagged with two losses, as five of the eight batters to face him have knocked out hits. Will Bobby Valentine panic? Will Franklin Morales be moved to closer? Will Daniel Bard return to the pen before he even starts a game? Good times, Red Sox Nation!

Player to watch: Yoenis Cespedes

With three home runs in his first four games -- including a mammoth home run off the facing off the second deck in Oakland on Friday night, a 462-foot blast he stood and admired for a couple seconds -- Cespedes has already displayed the huge power that scouts drooled over. He's also fanned seven times with no walks in 13 plate appearances. As Mark Simon points out, Cespedes has taken 13 swings on breaking pitches and missed on 10 of them, looking especially vulnerable on balls in the dirt. It's been all or nothing but the "all" has been mighty impressive.

Heat map of the week

Clayton Kershaw's slider is one of the most devastating weapons in baseball. In 2011, left-handers went 8-for-58 (.138) with 26 strikeouts and one home run when putting the slider in play (or striking out against); right-handers went 23-for-198 (.116) with 112 strikeouts and just two home runs. What makes the slider so tough isn't necessarily the location, but the movement on it and how he sets it up with his fastball. As you can, the slider is often in a hittable location -- but hitters can't hit it.

Clayton Kerhsaw ESPN Stats & InformationKershaw's slider location in 2011 versus lefties (left) and righties.
Buster PoseyChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesLyle Overbay learns that you can't assume on getting home against Buster Posey.
This looks like the pitching line of a dominant closer:

88.2 IP, 49 H, 15 R, 14 ER, 27 BB, 77 SO, 2 HR, 1.44 ERA

That's the collective work of Thursday's 14 starting pitchers. Eleven of the 14 allowed one run or zero runs. Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay affirmed their status as baseball's top pitchers with eight scoreless innings each. Justin Masterson and Ryan Dempster each struck out 10. Clayton Kershaw, with his own claim as baseball's best, started despite a bad case of the flu and still pitched three scoreless innings before exiting. Johnny Cueto shut down the Marlins on three hits over seven innings.

Starting pitchers: Dominant.

Hitters: Still working on their timing.

The bullpens weren't quite as effective, leading to an exciting ninth inning in Detroit as Jose Valverde, a perfect 49-for-49 in save opportunites in 2011, blew a 2-0 lead; Kerry Wood couldn't hold a 1-0 lead for the Cubs, walking three consecutive batters; and Cleveland's Chris Perez collapsed in a flurry of walks and hits to surrender a 4-1 lead. That blown save eventually led to Toronto's 7-4 victory in 16 innings, the longest Opening Day game in history.

Baseball, welcome back.

If anything, the dominant form of the pitchers raises the obvious question: Will offense decline again in 2012? Check out the runs-per-game totals in recent seasons:

[+] EnlargeOmar Vizquel
AP Photo/Amy SancettaIn an unusual move, Omar Vizquel, age 44, made just his second-ever outfield appearance.
2007: 9.6
2008: 9.3
2009: 9.2
2010: 8.8
2011: 8.6

Of course, one day -- especially when guys named Verlander, Halladay, Kershaw and Jon Lester are pitching -- doesn't signify anything. Still we had three shutouts and nearly had two others. That isn't necessarily unusual, as there were many days in 2011 with three shutouts and May 14 with six such games. Still, three of the seven games were shutouts and we nearly had four 1-0 games.

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Fun fact of the day: In the bottom of the 12th inning the Indians put runners at the corners with one out. Blue Jays manager John Farrell brought in Omar Vizquel as a fifth infielder. Technically, since he replaced Eric Thames, Vizquel was listed as a left fielder, just his second major league appearance as an outfielder. The first one came in a remarkable game in 1999. The Indians scored 10 runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, capped by Richie Sexson's three-run homer off Troy Percival, to take a 14-12 lead against the Angels. Due to various moves in that inning, Vizquel moved from shortstop to right field in the ninth inning.

Fun fact No. 2: There were two previous 15-inning games on Opening Day. The Tigers beat the Indians 4-2 in 1960 and in 1926 Walter Johnson outdueled Eddie Rommel 1-0. That's right, both pitchers went the distance.

Hero of the day: How about Toronto reliever Luis Perez? He got out of that first-and-third jam with a double play and went on to pitch four hitless innings.

Good sight of the day: Johan Santana back on the mound for the Mets, throwing five scoreless innings.

Spring-training-doesn't-matter note of the day: Matt Kemp looked horrible all spring for the Dodgers, finishing with 26 strikeouts and two walks. He went 2-for-5 with a two-run home run and no whiffs.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

The anticipation begins as soon as the final out of the World Series is recorded. It builds during an offseason of trade rumors and free-agent signings, spring training injury updates and roster cutdowns. Then Opening Day arrives and maybe a small part of us wonders whether we'll still care as much. But then Justin Verlander takes the mound and Jacoby Ellsbury steps in and we wonder whether Verlander can amaze us like he did so often last year or whether Ellsbury will have the same lightning in his bat. Roy Halladay takes the mound and we wonder whether this is the season he slips a bit or why Ty Wigginton is batting fifth or whether the Pirates will actually do anything.

So we flip on the TV or the computer or check the updates on our phones. Maybe you sneak a peek at work or school. We're kids again, with a million questions that need answers and baseball on our minds.

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A few notes from the early games ...
  • Justin Verlander picked up where he left off, dominating the Red Sox with eight shutout innings. He got into one mini-jam, two runners on with two outs in the sixth and David Ortiz up. Ortiz got in an 0-2 hole, fouled off two pitches, and then Verlander spun a filthy, 82 mph curveball that Ortiz swung through, leaving him shaking his head in respectful disgust. Jon Lester was nearly as good for Boston and could have escaped without a run. Alex Avila doubled deep into the left-field corner with two outs in the seventh, a nice piece of hitting in which he fought off a 93 mph up-and-in fastball. The ball hung in the air awhile, but Cody Ross was unable to track it down. (Would Carl Crawford have made the play?)

    When the Tigers tacked another run off Vicente Padilla in the eighth to make it 2-0, the game appeared over. Jim Leyland yanked Verlander after 105 pitches -- he averaged 116 per outing in 2011 -- and brought in Papa Grande, Jose Valverde, Mr. Perfect who was 52-for-52 in save opportunities last season including the playoffs. But this is why we love baseball: Sure enough, Valverde blows the save, and everybody wonders why Verlander was taken out.

    For what it's worth, nobody tosses a complete game anymore on Opening Day. There have been just six nine-inning outings since 2000, and only Felix Hernandez has gone the distance since 2007.

    Valverde got the vulture win when the Tigers scored in the bottom of the ninth, so in the end the only negative for Detroit was Verlander didn't get the deserved "W" next to his name, a reminder of why he might pitch just as well and not win 24 games again. Jhonny Peralta and Avila hit soft singles off Mark Melancon -- Ryan Sweeney, who failed to track down Austin Jackson's leadoff triple in the eighth pulled up short on Peralta's hit. (It was the smart play with one out; you can't give up an extra-base hit there.) Bobby Valentine then went to Alfredo Aceves, his designated closer and a better bet to induce a ground ball, although also less of a strikeout pitcher. Anyway, Aceves hit Ramon Santiago, then Jackson drilled a 2-1 pitch past a diving Kevin Youkilis for the winning hit.
    One game in, and you already know there will be questions raised about the Red Sox's bullpen.
  • Halladay was Halladay, with eight cruise-control innings against the Pirates. There were a few concerns during spring training when Halladay allowed seven home runs in just 22 innings after surrendering just 10 last season. But he flipped the switch and allowed two hits and no walks, and threw just 92 pitches. Jonathan Papelbon showed what a closer is supposed to do, with a 1-2-3 ninth.

    The Phillies' lineup, of course, is a cause for concern with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard out, and one run won't alleviate those concerns. But for at least one day Phillies fans can toast Ty Wigginton, who scored the game's only run and made a nice stretch at first base to record the final out of the eighth. Yes, Phillies fans are counting on Wigginton to be productive. Chalk it up as a reason nobody can predict what will happen this season.
  • For a while, it looked like we might have three or four games end 1-0. There were 52 such games in 2011, never more than two on one day. But the late rallies in Detroit and then Chicago ended that. The Mets' 1-0 victory included five solid innings from Johan Santana. He was throwing 87-88 mph, but because he relies on his slider and changeup, he doesn't necessarily have to be overpowering. In 2010, when he posted a 2.98 ERA before his season-ending injury in September, Santana averaged 89.4 mph on his fastball. That was down from his peak velocity with the Twins of 93 mph, but he proved he still can be effective throwing 88-90.
  • Stephen Strasburg was also impressive in a windy day at Wrigley, allowing one run over seven innings. Ryan Dempster was even more dominant, striking out 10 over 7 2/3 innings. Kerry Wood came on with a runner on base ... and walked three batters in a row. Jayson Werth battled back from an 0-2 count to force in the tying run. The Nationals then scored in the ninth off the always-shaky Carlos Marmol to win 2-1. The Cubs got a one-out triple from Ian Stewart, but Jeff Baker swung at a first-pitch slider from Brad Lidge and pulled it to third base as Stewart went on contact. He was easily out at home plate. Nothing more painful than blowing a late lead to lose at home on Opening Day. Wait 'til next year, Cubbies.
Some quick bullet points on our third Opening Day/night of the season:

1. A day of aces. Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Ricky Romero, Justin Masterson ... I think we may see some low-scoring games today. Strasburg's start in Chicago will be especially interesting. After his impressive return last September, his spring training numbers were mediocre (not that you can read too much into that).

2. Red Sox closer situation. Bobby Valentine named Alfredo Aceves his closer. The most interesting thing here is to see how Valentine employs him. Much of Aceves' value a year ago was that he wasn't just a one-inning guy. The Red Sox are carrying 13 pitchers, but you wonder if Valentine will try and use Mark Melancon and Aceves to get more than six outs if Boston has a lead and the starter has to come out.

3. Johan Santana making his first start since Sept. 2, 2010. If he gives the Mets 30 ace-level starts, can they become surprise contenders in a tough division? (My Mets friends say: No.)

4. The revamped Citi Field dimensions. We saw all the space in Marlins Park last night. The Mets went the opposite direction, moving the fences in. How much will that affect home runs?

5. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. How will Cabrera handle third base? Is there any truth to the belief that Fielder will "protect" Cabrera? He did receive 22 intentional walks last year, so in theory that number may decrease.
Some more good stuff from around the SweetSpot network ...
And a few more links from elsewhere ...

On the same day 82-year-old Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch decided to go all-in on Prince Fielder and a World Series title chase, the San Francisco Giants showed some fiscal responsibility by reportedly agreeing with two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum on a two-year, $40.5 million contract. The deal means the two sides will avoid going to arbitration this year and next, his final season before hitting free agency.

This is absolutely the correct approach in handling Lincecum. There is no need to negotiate a long-term deal with a pitcher two years before he's a free agent. Pitchers are risky creatures as is, so why take the risk before you have to? This gives you two more seasons to chase your own World Series title with Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain (if the Giants sign him past 2012).

There seems to be a mindset that teams need to "get something" for a player if they might not be able to sign him to a long-term deal when he becomes a free agent. But why does this make sense if you have a chance to win? The Brewers could have traded Fielder before last season, knowing he was unlikely to stay in Milwaukee, but instead went for it and actually strengthened the club instead by acquiring Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. They made the playoffs and gave themselves a shot at the World Series. It was the right call. The Tampa Bay Rays are taking a similar approach this season with B.J. Upton.

Compare that to the Minnesota Twins with Johan Santana in 2008. They traded Santana for a package of prospects that didn't turn out, but the biggest problem with that trade is that the Twins ended up missing the playoffs when they lost a tiebreaker game to the White Sox. With Santana, they win the division. And once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen; who knows, the Twins may have won the World Series with Santana.

I did a chat earlier on Tuesday in which somebody suggested since the Phillies might not be able to afford Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in 2013 (Hamels will be a free agent) that maybe they should look to trade one of the three. What? Of course not. You go for it in 2012 behind those guys and if you lose Hamels, so be it.

Next season, you'll certainly hear cries that the Giants should look to trade Lincecum. Get something for him while you can. Or you can try and win another World Series title.

The Giants may decide that Lincecum won't be worth that $100 million investment in the future. Maybe they'll try to sign him and he'll bolt, like Jose Reyes with the Mets. But there's nothing wrong with trying to win now.

Especially when you don't have to spend $214 million to do it.