SweetSpot: Jose Reyes

First-place Jays have had to adapt, adjust

May, 27, 2014
May 27
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The first-place Toronto Blue Jays? We’re coming up on finishing the first third of the season, and it’s a fun thing to think about: The first-place Blue Jays, for real. But how did they get there?

It’s easy to put down where they are to a couple of big developments: Mark Buehrle’s big start, 8-1 with the team going 9-1 in his 10 turns, or Edwin Encarnacion’s 13 home runs in May, or Jose Bautista staying healthy while posting an OPS north of .900 for the first time since 2011. Melky Cabrera is hitting and staying out of trouble (so far). Jose Reyes has played more games than he has missed.

Those are the things that, when they work, you congratulate yourself, because that’s all part of any master plan GM Alex Anthopoulos would have for how the Blue Jays contend. What’s interesting about where they’re at isn’t just the good things working out the way you’d like, it’s the other things that they’ve had to do. It’s the things they’ve had to fix, the elective decisions they’re making, to help themselves do even better.

Take their infield. Initially, they gave organizational soldier Ryan Goins a big chunk of the second-base job, figuring he’d split time with veteran utility infielder Maicer Izturis. Then Izturis tore up his knee, Goins didn’t hit, and predictably enough neither did veteran subs Munenori Kawasaki and Chris Getz. So, with all that failing to stick, the Jays got creative.

They’d already lucked into Juan Francisco’s availability at the end of spring training, signing him after he was cut by the Milwaukee Brewers, then employing the lefty slugger to good effect when DH Adam Lind got hurt. Looking at the wreck of their middle infield, they decided to try Francisco at third base despite years of scouting reports and weak performance to warn them against it. But they figured they were better off resuming the experiment with Brett Lawrie at second rather than continue futzing around with the scrappy second-base types most teams might accept -- Goins or Getz, it hardly mattered, use either and you’re probably not goin’ to getz anywhere.

So, at a time when offense is down, the Jays made the choice to play for runs instead of defense, and it’s working. They’re averaging 4.9 runs per game with a deep lineup capable of trading blows with the league-leading Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A’s. For the Jays, it’s a multi-positional platoon, one in which Lawrie flips between second and third base while playing every day, with Francisco at third base against righties and journeyman Steve Tolleson at second base against lefties, exploiting the .832 OPS the former Twins farmhand has put up in his abbreviated big-league career against southpaws. They’re 18-8 since Francisco’s first start at the hot corner on May 3 after starting the year 12-14. They’re 9-1 in the games Tolleson has started against a lefty, beating guys like Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson and Scott Kazmir.

How does this work? Well, sure, as Francisco is slugging above .600 reflects, some guys can have a great 100 at-bats or so. But perhaps more importantly the Blue Jays are using guys for what they can do where they can do it, instead of getting hung up on what they can’t. Take Francisco: Built with the range of your average home appliance, he probably isn’t going to be an average third baseman in the major leagues. So what? Aspire to adequacy, and that’s what you get, and you might miss out on what the guy can do: Crush right-handed pitching with regular playing time, slugging over .500 in his extended minor-league career. A corner is exactly where you can hide his bat, where he might see only two or three chances per game. Yes, he’ll strike out a third of the time. He’ll also crank out a .200 Isolated Power at a time when finding people who can contribute on offense isn’t so easy.

But let’s also credit manager John Gibbons for pushing for runs. Take Monday’s game: Up by two in the fifth with nobody out, his lineup just chased Erik Bedard, so the Rays have Alex Colome come in to face Tolleson -- who’d already homered -- and Gibbons pulls Tolleson anyway to exploit the offensive advantage and bat Francisco against the righty, and devil take the subsequent defensive risks. Francisco walked, the inning just got bigger, and two more runs would score to put the Rays down for keeps. In an era when pitching substitutions and their effectiveness usually define in-game initiative, it was nice to see someone in the dugout take it back on offense and win a matchup game because he had the option, and he used it.

The flip side of this is to note that the Jays have to play for runs, because of the other thing that isn’t working for them in the early going: Their rotation, and seeing what they’re going to do about it. Outside of Buehrle’s turns, they’re 21-22 overall, and they’ve gotten just nine quality starts in 31 games from the rotation outside of those made by Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. They need better.

Someone like J.A. Happ might make for an adequate No. 4 or 5 in a contender’s rotation. And you can get excited about what Drew Hutchinson might become if you just look at his strikeout and walk rates and his FIP, but that’s only going to so far when he keeps getting clobbered the second time through the order (.825 OPS before Monday’s slugfest), or the third (.855). Maybe he’ll adjust, maybe not.

But if Hutchinson doesn’t become the third horse they really need, the Jays have a rotation that’s going to keep putting them in the slugfests that their offense will have to win for them. That’s fine as long as it’s going good, and creating leads that their excellent relief trio of Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Steve Delabar protect and hand off to closer Casey Janssen. But you’d like to see the Jays adapt their plan in-season again by adding an arm, and not just because banking on Brandon Morrow’s comeback from the DL at some point in July would be optimistic.

Sometimes contention is a matter of building on both the ideal and the unexpected. Given that the Jays can be happy to be where they are, here’s hoping they take some more chances to stay there.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.


The Blue Jays started 10-18 last April and Jose Reyes' hamstring injury has Eric and myself wondering if they're doomed for another bad start.
In the offseason, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos sensed an opportunity to seize control of the AL East. The Yankees were a year older and refusing to make any big moves in order to, gulp, save money; the Red Sox were coming off a 93-loss season; the Orioles were a good bet to regress after going an all-time best 29-9 in one-run games; the Rays were once again trying to patch together an offense.

So in an attempt to make the Jays relevant for the first time in years and bring the baseball fans in Toronto back to the Rogers Centre, he made the plunge few GMs are willing to take: He dealt from his wealth of prospects and acquired NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets and high-priced veterans Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson from the Marlins. He dipped into the free-agent market and signed the PED-tainted Melky Cabrera to a two-year contract.

The moves were widely praised. The computer projections were positive -- Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system predicted Toronto would go 94-68 and win the AL East, making the playoffs in 68 percent of his simulations and finishing last just 6 percent of the time. Twenty of 43 of ESPN's baseball contributors picked the Blue Jays to win the division.

So what happened? The Blue Jays head into the stretch run at 64-76 and the announcement on Wednesday that Jose Bautista will miss the rest of the season with a bone bruise in his femur was sort of the exclamation point on the team's disappointing season. (The one piece of good news: The fans did respond to the acquisitions, as attendance is up over 30,000 per game for the first time since 1998.)

The obvious answer: The pitching has been terrible. Only the Astros have allowed more runs in the AL. The offense has been OK, but not the powerhouse lineup you would have projected with Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

Look at what happened to the projected rotation. Could it have been expected to fall apart?

R.A. Dickey: 11-12, 4.30 ERA. A predictable result. He was coming off a career season and was likely due for some regression, even before switching to the tougher league and a tougher park. His road ERA is 3.34, not far off the 2.90 mark he had with the Mets in 2012, but he's allowed 20 home runs at home with a 5.21 ERA.

Josh Johnson: 2-8, 6.20 ERA. He made just 16 starts and was terrible, so while the health issues were a risk the poor performance was certainly a surprise. Was he bad or unlucky? His xFIP -- expected fielding independent pitching with a normalized home run-to-flyball rate -- is 3.59, right at his career mark of 3.57. But he allowed 105 hits in 81.1 innings (a .361 BABIP) with 15 home runs. He may have been striking guys out, and while the BABIP was high he also got creamed when falling behind in the count (.387 average after 1-0, .487 after 2-0).

Brandon Morrow: 2-3, 5.63 ERA. Ten starts. He's been unable to stay healthy at any point in his career, so it was no surprise he went down again.

Ricky Romero: 0-2, 12.46 ERA. Spent most of the season in the minors, unable to throw strikes. He was a wild card heading into spring training considering his bad season in 2012 and it all fell apart.

Of the projected five starters, only Buehrle panned out, doing his usual solid work. But it was pretty clearly a high-risk rotation heading into the season, Johnson and Morrow with their injury histories, Romero with his control, and Dickey with his regression.

The bullpen was supposed to be the big concern coming of a league-worst 4.33 ERA in 2012, but it's been very good with a 3.41 ERA (second-best in the East behind the Yankees), although the rotation was so bad the bullpen has had to pitch the most innings in the AL -- 30 more than the Astros, and 100 more than Tigers. That the relievers have held together with such a heavy workload is a big plus and the only thing separating this staff from Houston's.

Anyway, once those starters got hurt/struggled, the Jays had no depth, resorting to replacement-level starters like Esmil Rogers, J.A. Happ and Todd Redmond.

Offensively, Encarnacion had a big year, Adam Lind had his best season since 2009 and Colby Rasmus has been solid, but Cabrera has been awful (.906 OPS to .682), J.P. Arencibia has been all-power, no-OBP once again, Reyes missed 50 games, Brett Lawrie hasn't developed into a big run producer and their second basemen have been the worst in the majors (.546 OPS). I was worried about the bottom of the lineup heading into the season, and there was always the chance that Reyes wouldn't stay healthy and Cabrera wouldn't come close to matching his big numbers with the Giants. Yes, the offense had upside, but the holes loomed large.

What's happened isn't really that surprising. It was a high-risk team, maybe higher risk than most anticipated. This doesn't mean Anthopoulos had a bad offseason; it just didn't work out like it could have.

Sizzling Blue Jays won't just streak and fade

June, 23, 2013
6/23/13
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Now that the Blue Jays have rattled off a 10-game win streak, we’re almost back to what I think we all expected in the American League East when the season started: a five-team race where nobody -- nobody -- should be considered the automatic favorite. After all, isn’t that what the Baltimore Orioles taught us last year, after months of confident, thoughtful assertions that they would regress, retreat or recoil short of the postseason?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A night that could define the season

April, 13, 2013
4/13/13
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Friday was just one of those nights when we give thanks for the existence of the MLB cable package.

Everywhere you turned there was something significant, bizarre, or significant and bizarre going on. Some of these events could define the season, or at the very least will help tell its story.

Let's break them down, starting with the most significant.

Reyes' injury

Is the Toronto Blue Jays' dream season over before it could really get going? The star-studded Jays were already off to an uneven start, and then Jose Reyes had to be carted off the field after an awkward slide while stealing second base in Kansas City. Last season, Mariano Rivera was a casualty of the Kauffman Stadium turf; this year, it's Reyes.

The Jays did manage to win, but losing a major asset will only make their path to the playoffs that much tougher. And as Paul Swydan pointed out earlier this week, they have a brutal first-half schedule.

Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is saying Reyes will be out at least one month, and it could be as many as three. Ouch.

The Nationals' collapse

On paper, the Washington Nationals are still baseball's best team. But if you want to nitpick, there are these: They have used Tyler Clippard -- one of the game's best relievers -- an alarming amount in recent years Drew Storen might still be dealing with confidence issues after blowing the 2013 NLDS, and every Ryan Zimmerman throw is an adventure.

So what happened on Friday? Clippard entered in the eighth with the Nationals leading 4-1. He wasn't sharp, walking three men and allowing a run without being able to get through the inning. Storen relieved him and got out of the jam, only to surrender two runs in the ninth. (Rafael Soriano was given the night off after working a lot the past few days.)

Storen wasn't hit hard, but one would imagine his confidence is still fragile, and this blown save against the Nats' main division rival won't help. And the tying runs? Those came when Justin Upton hit a slow chopper to Zimmerman with the bases loaded and two outs. Zimmerman fielded it cleanly but made an awkward sidearm throw that went into right field and allowed Ramiro Pena to score from second. Injuries have forced Zimmerman to change his arm angle, and he never looks comfortable when making a throw. The Braves took a 6-4 lead in the 10th on a two-run homer from Pena, and the Nats went quietly in the bottom of the frame.

Again, we're nitpicking on the Nats here, and this is a stacked team. But if you were looking for weaknesses, you could find them on Friday.

The Orioles' bad luck

It's been well documented that the Baltimore Orioles had some good mojo last year; look no further than their 29-9 record in one-run games. Friday's events suggested that their luck has turned.

With the score tied at two with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh, Vernon Wells hit a deep drive to center field. Adam Jones had a bead on it and was even blowing a bubble (as he's known to do) just as he was about to catch it. Not so fast, my friend. The ball bounced off his glove and three runs scored. It's a drop you never see a player like Jones make. Well, almost never.

Then, in the top of the eighth inning, the Orioles got the first two runners on before Manny Machado hit a soft one-hopper to Robinson Cano at second. And so began the strangest triple play you will ever see. Just watch for yourself.

Quentin's suspension

While all of this weirdness was going on, it was announced that Carlos Quentin would be suspended for eight games for igniting Thursday's brawl with the Dodgers' Zack Greinke. Earlier in the day, word got out that Greinke would miss at least two months with a broken collarbone, and it's easy to wonder if Quentin's suspension should have been heavier considering the severity of Greinke's injury.

I'm inclined to say yes. When you go after someone with the intent to harm, you must be prepared to face the consequences of your damage.

The suggestion that Quentin should have to sit out for as long as Greinke is injured is a bit harsh, but if the precedent for similar instances in which the pitcher was not hurt is eight games, then 15 games would be fair in this instance.

Other weird stuff
  • In Seattle, two Japanese pitchers squared off for just the 10th time in MLB history, with Yu Darvish going against Hisashi Iwakuma.
  • It was snowing when the New York Mets and Minnesota Twins got started at Target Field, with the kind of weather that usually makes it pretty hard to drive the ball. The Mets didn't get the memo, pounding out 16 runs while trouncing the Twins. John Buck hit a grand slam in the second inning and set a Mets record for most RBIs through 10 games with 19.

So yeah, wild night. Thank goodness we live in a world in which we could watch all of it while sitting on one sofa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason report card: Blue Jays

February, 7, 2013
2/07/13
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2012 in review
Record: 73-89 (74-88 Pythagorean)
716 runs scored (7th in AL)
784 runs allowed (11th in AL)

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

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

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

Position Players

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

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

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


Total: +55 runs.

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

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


Pitching Staff

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

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

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

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

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

SportsNation

How many games will the Blue Jays win?

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    33%
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    49%
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    15%
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    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,030)

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

What we don't know is how tough the AL East will be. On paper, it could be five teams all beating the snot out of each other. Or maybe one will rise above the rest. What do you think?
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.
David Samson is president and de facto general manager of the Miami Marlins. (Michael Hill has the official title of general manager, but Samson is the guy who makes the decisions generally associated with that title.)

This would suggest he knows something about baseball.

Well, Samson believes Justin Ruggiano should be representing the Marlins at the All-Star Game in place of the injured Giancarlo Stanton. Or relief pitcher Steve Cishek. Look, it's too bad that the Marlins' only legitimate All-Star rep got injured, but ... seriously ... Justin Ruggiano? Somebody who runs a major league team actually said this? Yep.

"I spoke to MLB. Cishek, Ruggiano, I think there were a lot of different ways that Tony [La Russa] and MLB could have gone," Samson told the Sun-Sentinel. "I think it’s unfortunate. I think that every team should be represented on the line in an All-Star Game."

Now, Ruggiano has been great, hitting .390 ... in 96 plate appearances. I suppose it goes without saying that 96 plate appearances does not make an All-Star, especially a 30-year-old minor league vet who has spent most of the past six seasons in Triple-A. It's been a terrific 96 plate appearances; I'm not knocking Ruggiano. But he's not an All-Star.

Cishek is a middle reliever with a 2.17 ERA. That's a little misleading, however, as six of the 15 runs he's allowed have been unearned. He's allowed 31 hits and 18 walks in 37.1 innings. He's a good pitcher; he's not an All-Star.

Notice, of course, that Samson didn't nominate his $106 million shortstop who is hitting .264 and scored just 41 runs. Or his $27 million closer who has maybe been the least valuable player in baseball in the first half.

In fact, if I were Samson, instead of worrying about who should replace Stanton in Kansas City, I'd be asking Ozzie Guillen why he keeps using Heath Bell to close out games.
First base: Phabulous Phil. I watched much of the Yankees-Tigers game and Phil Hughes looked as good as I've seen him since early in the 2010 season, showing a lot of confidence with his fastball in throwing his second career complete game. I thought a key moment came in the fifth inning when Hughes walked No. 8 hitter Don Kelly on five pitches with a 5-1 lead and you figured, "Here it goes." But Omir Santos grounded into a double play and Hughes allowed just two hits the rest of the game. Of course, it should be noted that the Detroit lineup featured not only the light-hitting Kelly and Santos, but Quintin Berry, Danny Worth and the struggling Brennan Boesch. In fact, outside of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, the Detroit is hardly imposing these days. After starting 9-3, the Tigers are 16-26. Justin Verlander lost his third straight decision and when he's not winning, Detroit is a thoroughly mediocre team.

Second base: Closer look at CarGo. Carlos Gonzalez slowed down the past two days, going 1-for-4 each game, but he's still 17-for-34 over his past nine games with six home runs, three doubles and 11 RBIs. But just how good is Gonzalez? This topic came up in last week's chat on the ESPN.com Franchise Player Draft as many readers felt Gonzalez didn't go high enough in the draft (he went 27th). I pointed out the red flag about Gonzalez: How good is he away from Coors Field? Eight of those nine games came at home. Entering Sunday's game, he had 1.235 OPS at home, .824 on the road. Ten of his 14 home runs have come at Coors. This follows his career pattern: He has a career 1.080 OPS at Coors, .753 on the road. In the chat, a user brought up Joey Votto, suggesting The Great American Ballpark is just as good a hitter's park as Coors. Well, sort of. It's a great home run park. But Votto actually has a higher career OPS on the road (.982 versus .949). He hits more home runs in Cincy, but compensates with a higher average and more doubles on the road. While it's pretty evident Votto is one of the best hitters in baseball no matter the park, the evidence suggests that's not the case with CarGo.

Third base: Speaking of hot hitters ... He's now playing the in the shadow of Giancarlo Stanton, but Hanley Ramirez is starting to give the Marlins the powerful 1-2 punch they envisioned. After hitting two home runs on Saturday, he hit another one on Sunday in a 5-1 victory over the Phillies (winning pitcher Carlos Zambrano also homered). After hitting .207 in April, he hit .322 in May and he's 12 for his last 24 with four home runs and three doubles. Most importantly, Ramirez has yet to miss a game. Jose Reyes had two more hits and he's quietly been raising his OBP as well -- from .293 in April to .344 by the end of May and now to .356. Also importantly, Reyes has missed just one game. It's a four-man offense right now for the Marlins (Omar Infante being the fourth run producer), but in the National League, four hitters may be all you need.

Home plate: Tweet of the day.


Baseball lore is full of great scouting stories, like the tale of the scout who was driving through rural Maryland one day and stopped to ask a kid working in a field for directions. The kid -- future Hall of Fame Jimmie Foxx -- raised his plow with one arm and pointed: "That way."

The scout, seeing the kid's raw strength, asked him the obvious question: "Do you play baseball?"

Who knows, maybe Brandon Beachy will become one of those stories.

Beachy played mostly third base and first base at Indiana Wesleyan and pitched a little, but went undrafted. A Braves area scout named Gene Kerns saw Beachy one July evening pitching in relief in the Virginia Valley League, a college summer league. He saw a kid with good size throwing in the low 90s.

After the game, he asked Beachy if he'd been drafted. (He wouldn't be allowed to talk to him if he had.) When Beachy said no, Kerns, as he relayed in a 2011 interview, then asked the obvious question: "Do you have an interest in professional baseball?"

Kerns convinced the club to sign him as a non-drafted free agent. Barely two years later, Beachy was in the major leagues. Now, after a sterling rookie season, Beachy is 5-1 after throwing his first major league complete game and shutout in a 7-0 victory over the Marlins. Beachy threw 122 pitches, struck out six, walked nobody, allowed four singles and one double and showcased why he leads the major leagues with a 1.33 ERA.

In less than four years he has gone from an undrafted college infielder to minor league reliever to maybe-he's-a-prospect to major league starter to ... well, what do we call him now? The most underrated pitcher in baseball? A possible All-Star? I'm not sure. For now, let's just call him very good.

Beachy isn't overpowering, usually settling in around 90-91 mph with his four-seamer, occasionally cranking it up to 94. He gets some running sink/cut on his fastball, although it's not a cutter. He tweeted earlier this season that "No, I don't throw a cutter. Just 4-seams and an occasional 2." He mixes in a changeup, a slow curve (72-74 mph) that he commands well and a slider. Yes, he relies to some extend on a deceptive delivery that makes it difficult for batters to pick up the ball, but he's excelling on more than deception; his stuff is better than advertised.

He was in control all game against the Marlins. They did get two runners on with two out in the fifth, but Jose Reyes lined out to right. In the seventh, Giancarlo Stanton doubled to lead off the inning and Chipper Jones made a nice diving stop on Gaby Sanchez for the first out. Beachy induced Emilio Bonifacio to ground out to second on a 94-mph four-seamer and then struck out Brett Hayes on a lovely changeup.

From there it was six up, six down and the shutout.

Last season, Baseball America ranked Beachy as Atlanta's No. 8 prospect, behind more heralded arms Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor and Arodys Vizcaino. But Beachy beat out Minor -- a former No. 1 pick -- for the No. 5 rotation slot out of spring training and never looked back. He made 25 starts and finished 7-3 with a 3.68 ERA, striking out 169 batters in 141.2 innings, the highest strikeout in the majors for pitchers with at least 100 innings.

His biggest issue as a rookie was an inability to pitch deep into games. The strikeouts were nice, but also meant he ran up his pitch counts, leading to early exits. He pitched seven innings just twice. Thursday was the fourth time in eight starts that he's gone at least seven. While his strikeout rate is down -- 6.5 Ks per nine -- he has been even more effective. His ground ball rate is up from 33.8 percent to 43.1 percent, he has allowed just one home run in 54 innings and his walks are down. There may be a little luck going on here --- the home run rate is absurdly low for a fly-ball pitcher and his .214 BABIP will surely rise -- but at this point you have to call him one of the best pitchers in the majors.

I asked Braves fans if they've been surprised by Beachy's sophomore campaign. A few responses:

  • "That dominant game from Beachy tonight is just a continuation of the good work he's been doing this year. Kid's got the goods." -- @jackson_todd
  • "Beachy has earned everything through hard work and dedication. I was surprised when he came up but not this year." -- @PaulGrey27
  • "Not surprised that he's been the Braves best pitcher. Very surprised that he's been THIS good." -- @JUnderwood9
  • "biggest surprise is continued ability to get swinging strikes on the fastball up, even when sitting 91-93. Huge asset." --@puckhoo
  • "so no, not too surprised. if he can stay efficient and get his K rate back up a little bit he will become a legit ace" --@telfo1
  • "Beachy reminds me so much of John Smoltz. His mechanics are simple which enables him to repeat pitches without stress." --@M823SL

Somewhere Gene Kerns was probably watching a baseball game tonight. I hope he got a chance to check out a few innings of Brandon Beachy. And if he wants to somehow involve a plow in future retellings of how he discovered Beachy, I think that sounds perfectly fine.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
OriolesEd Zurga/Getty ImagesWhen you're the Baltimore Orioles and in first place, you can celebrate any way you want.

The season is young, but never too young to raise a few issues we've seen so far. Here are 10:

1. Yu Darvish's control
In Japan, Darvish was known not only for his terrific stuff but his ability to throw it with precision. In 2011, he walked just 36 batters in 232 innings. Through three starts with the Rangers he's walked 13 in 17.2 innings. I've watched all three of those starts and there's no denying his ability, with good movement on his fastball and a sharp-breaking curve. The command hasn't been there, however, and I do see some Dice-K syndrome: Nibbling at the corners, not pitching inside, not trusting the quality of his stuff. It's early and I do think he'll be fine in the long run, but there is at least a little reason to doubt he'll be the No. 1 many projected.

2. Adam Wainwright
Wainwright has had a tough start this season as he dropped to 0-3, 9.88 after a five-inning outing against the Reds on Thursday. He gave up fourth-inning home runs to Brandon Phillips and Ryan Ludwick, giving him five home runs allowed in just 13.2 innings. One positive sign is that he has 14 strikeouts, an indication that the stuff is still there. From the heat map below, we have his curveball location in 2012 on the left versus 2010, when batters hit just .170 against it. He's only thrown it 45 times so far, but it appears the command in that lower quadrant of the strike zone isn't quite there yet.

Adam Wainwright heat mapESPN Stats & InformationAdam Wainwright's curveball location in 2012 (left) compared to 2010.
3. Marlins' defense
I was worried about Miami's defense before the season and so far that's a legitimate concern, as entering Thursday the Marlins ranked 29th in Defensive Runs Saved at minus-13 runs (only the Rockies ranked worse). The biggest holes so far? Jose Reyes is at minus-6 runs and Hanley Ramirez is at minus-2. Factor in Logan Morrison's plodding defense in left, Emilio Bonifacio's inexperience in center and Giancarlo Stanton's testy knee and this could be a season-long issue.

4. Angels' plate discipline
Entering Thursday's games, the Angels ranked 27th in the majors in walk percentage, ahead of just the Pirates, Royals and Phillies. The Angels also ranked second behind in the Phillies in percentage of pitches outside the strike zone they've swung at (33.1 percent). No matter how many home runs you hit, it's difficult to string together some rallies without drawing a few walks. The major culprits: Kendrys Morales (no walks in 42 plate appearances), Peter Bourjos (no walks in 32 PAs) and Vernon Wells (one walk in 47 PAs).

5. Tampa Bay's bullpen
As bad as Boston's bullpen has been (6.63 ERA), Tampa's has struggled even more with an 8.64 ERA. The Rays pieced together a decent pen a year ago from the likes of Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Juan Cruz and others. That pen benefited from having to throw the fewest innings in the majors. With Farnsworth on the DL, Fernando Rodney has been getting the save opportunities and he's done the job, but the rest of the pen has been shaky. Of concern: While Boston's relievers have 31 strikeouts and 12 walks, Tampa's have 26 strikeouts against 20 walks.

6. Josh Johnson
For all the concern over Tim Lincecum's drop in velocity and unsightly 10.54 ERA, the ace pitcher I'd be most worried about is Johnson. While Lincecum has 16 strikeouts and four walks in 13.2 innings, Johnson doesn't have any positives on his ledger: 16.2 IP, 28 H, 6 BB, 8 SO. Both have been burned by high BABIPs (.444 for Johnson) and Johnson hasn't allowed a home run, but the low strikeout rate is a big concern and his fastball velocity is also. Like Wainwright, Johnson is coming off an injury, but you have to hope the shoulder is OK.

7. Phillies' lineup
No surprise here with the absence of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, but it doesn't help that Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino have combined for just one home run. Even when Howard and Utley return, the Phillies will need a lot more production from Rollins and Victorino.

8. Scott Rolen
The Reds were counting on Rolen to hit cleanup, but Dusty Baker has already moved him out of that spot after his .171 start through 13 games. Considering his long injury history and struggles in 2011, the end of the line may be approaching for the 37-year-old third baseman. The Reds may eventually have to turn to Todd Frazier, but his minor league track record suggests bench player, not starting third baseman on a playoff team.

9. Brent Morel and Gordon Beckham
The White Sox have a solid rotation, a solid bullpen and ... well, they'll need offense and they were counting on these two infielders to improve from 2011. But Morel is hitting .103 with 18 strikeouts in 39 at-bats and Beckham is hitting .152 with 12 strikeouts in 33 at-bats. Neither has homered.

10. Kids running out on the field
What kind of example is this for the adults?

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Curtis GrandersonChris Trotman/Getty ImagesCurtis Granderson strikes one of his three home runs, part of a 5-for-5 night.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
On a packed Friday Baseball Today podcast with Mark Simon we exchanged thoughts on many pertinent topics, from struggling players to a weekend preview to former All-Star Jason Dickson (yep, he was an All-Star!).

1. From Thursday, was Zack Greinke really that bad, should Matt Garza have gotten the chance to finish his gem and what did the middle of the Twins order do that was so rare?

2. We take an in-depth look at the weekend schedule, with Albert Pujols at Yankee Stadium the headliner, but also it’s always about the Red Sox and which pitchers could be next to throw no-hitters?

3. When can we really start looking at sample sizes in baseball? Mark talks to a former manager and we each share thoughts.

4. Is there a legitimate statistical concern for Jose Reyes and Alex Rodriguez? Mark thinks so!

5. Our emailers have opinions on the quality starts stat, bunting, Dusty Baker’s style and much more!

So download and listen to Friday’s expertly produced Baseball Today podcast (by Frank Dale!) and please have a great weekend. Sunday night baseball is Angels-Yankees!

There are few events in baseball more exciting than Opening Day. Or Opening Night. Er … let’s just go directly to some observations from the Cardinals’ 4-1 victory over the Marlins, ushering in Marlins Park in disappointing fashion for the home crowd onlookers.

  • Kyle Lohse was brilliant, of course, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning and reminding everyone of Bob Feller's Opening Day no-hitter. Lohse said after the game that the no-hitter "probably did cross my mind after the fifth inning." He doesn’t throw hard, keeping hitters off-balance with a little slider and a changeup that he kept at the knees at night. Lohse had the best season of his career in 2011, although there was some luck built into it: He allowed a .269 average on balls in play, well below his career mark of .302. There’s nothing in the numbers that suggests he was doing something different -- his ground-ball rate matched his career and his line-drive rate was actually 1.1 percent higher than his career mark. Everyone expects some regression in 2012, but his first start was more 2011. No walks on the night and through six he threw a first-pitch strike to 13 of the 18 batters he faced. Hitters should know Lohse will come right after them when the bases are empty. He walked only 10 hitters last season in 469 plate appearances with nobody on; with runners, he walked 32 in 306 plate appearances.
  • Josh Johnson allowed 10 hits for only the second time in his career. While a few of the hits were bleeders and bloopers, he did leave some pitches over the middle of the plate. We can’t read too much into the start other than that he threw 91 pitches, avoided the blister issue that popped up in spring training and has his first start under his belt. Undoubtedly, he was pumped up pitching the first game in the club’s new park in his first start since last May. There's no reason not to expect better results moving forward.
  • There was miscommunication in the early innings between Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes as both pulled up on Carlos Beltran’s little trickler, allowing the ball to roll into left field. In the sixth inning with two runners on and Lohse up in a bunt situation, Johnson made sure to step off the mound and talk with Ramirez. That stuff will sort itself out, but the Marlins’ defense is an issue to keep an eye on. The Cardinals legged out two doubles to Logan Morrison in left field on balls that weren’t really even in the gaps. As Orel Hershiser said during the broadcast, "A lot of scouts are writing notes down about the arm of Logan Morrison." It doesn’t help that Morrison is still battling a sore knee that kept him out most of spring training, but he was a liability out there in 2011 even when healthy. According to the defensive runs saved metric, Morrison was 26 runs worse than the average left fielder -- the worst mark in the majors (only Raul Ibanez was in the same vicinity) and a whopping 46 runs worse than Brett Gardner’s majors-leading 23 DRS. There is a lot of ground to cover in deep left-center and center in the new park. In Emilio Bonifacio, the Marlins have an inexperienced center fielder (only 29 games started there in his career entering the season). Chris Coghlan, their other center fielder, rated minus-13 runs in 2011, the worst figure in the majors.
  • [+] EnlargeKyle Lohse
    AP Photo/Lynne SladkyOpening night of the 2012 season found Kyle Lohse (26) looking a lot like his 2011 self.

  • Giancarlo Stanton found out about those center-field dimensions, hitting two deep balls out there that were caught, a towering fly to the warning track in the fifth inning and a deep fly to right-center in the seventh that Jon Jay made a nice running catch on. It’s obviously too early to report on how the park will play, and it might play differently when the roof is open versus closed.
  • Jason Motte threw some 99 mph smokebombs to finish it off. A bit of a step up from Ryan Franklin.
  • For a while, Lohse had us thinking about the best Opening Day starts. Via Baseball-Reference.com, here are the best Game 1 starts since 1918:
    Walter Johnson, Senators, 1926: 111 (15 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 9 K)
    Lon Warneke, Cubs, 1934: 96 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 13 K)
    Bob Veale, Pirates, 1965: 95 (10 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K)
    Mel Harder, Indians, 1935: 95 (14 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 6 K)
    Johnny Vander Meer, Reds, 1943: 91 (11 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 3 K)

    Six pitchers scored a 90: Bob Feller twice (including his 1940 no-hitter in which he walked five and struck out eight), Tom Glavine, Bob Gibson, Clint Brown and Johnson again with a 13-inning effort in 1919. The best recent effort was Felix Hernandez striking out 12 in eight shutout innings in 2007. Camilo Pascual holds the Opening Day record with 15 strikeouts for the Twins in 1960. Randy Johnson twice fanned 14 for the Mariners.

  • Opening Night down. Opening Day up next. Good times have arrived.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

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