SweetSpot: Kyle Seager

Mariners make strides, but fall short

September, 28, 2014

SEATTLE -- Felix Hernandez has pitched 10 years in Seattle, winning a Cy Young (and maybe a second this year), establishing himself as the American League’s premier pitcher ... and has yet to pitch a single inning in the postseason.

But at least he finally had this Sunday. When Felix took the mound on the final day of the regular season, with the King’s Court packed full of yellow-shirted subjects and more than 40,000 fans throughout the stadium, he actually had a chance to pitch the Mariners into the playoffs. Which is far, far more than most everyone thought possible when the season began -– or when Seattle lost eight games in a row in April.

Seattle entered Sunday needing to beat the Angels and have Oakland lose to Texas in order to tie the Athletics and force a one-game playoff for the second wild card spot. King Felix accomplished the first part by pitching 5 1/3 dominant, scoreless innings to secure the American League ERA crown and lead the Mariners to a 4-1 victory. But the tumbling Athletics thwarted the second part by beating the Rangers 4-0.

The Mariners fans had been chanting "Let's go Rangers!'' so they were very disappointed when they saw the Oakland-Texas final go on the scoreboard. But the fans soon erupted in appreciative applause for the entire season. And for good reason. This was an exciting season for the Mariners, whom Seattle fans figured would not contend again until the Highway 99/waterfront tunnel project is finished (hint to non-Seattleites, that project is our version of the Big Dig.

“It was fun. It was fun all year round,’’ Felix said. “We would go down. Then we would get up. We had some struggles, but I’m proud of this team and proud of my teammates.’’

Seattle didn’t make the playoffs or even win 90 games, but the Mariners gave fans something to cheer and hope for until the final afternoon. And considering the past 13 years, that means a lot. As manager Lloyd McClendon told his team, “You’re no longer the prey. You’re the hunters.’’

“I think this was a tremendous learning experience for this ballclub, and we took a tremendous step forward,’’ McClendon said. “We’ll be better. We have a lot of work to do.

“I told you guys when I took the job this was a golden era for the Seattle Mariners and they haven’t let me down. And we’re only going to get better.’’

How does next season look? A lot like this year -- which is both good and bad.

The pitching staff, which led the league in ERA, looks solid. Felix will be back, as almost certainly will Hisashi Iwakuma (who has a team option for 2015), though comeback player of the year candidate Chris Young is a free agent. Rookie James Paxton pitched brilliantly after returning from injury. Taijuan Walker also pitched well when healthy.

And then there is the offense.

Signed to a $240 million contract, Robinson Cano was a terrific addition in the lineup, on the field and in the clubhouse while first-time All-Star Kyle Seager keeps getting better. But the rest of the lineup needs a significant upgrade. Seattle was shut out 19 times and finished last in OPS. General manager Jack Zduriencik, whose contract was extended this summer, has his work cut out for him to improve what has been a serious weakness for several seasons.

“It’s sad now that we have to go home,’’ Cano said. “You look back and say, we should have won this game or that game. But you can’t look back. You have a sour taste in your mouth, but you have to go home, work out and be ready for next season and think about what we need to get better for next year. We’re pretty close.’’

Seattle fans hope so, which is more than they usually feel at the end of most seasons.

As the Mariners took the field for the ninth inning Sunday, Earth Wind and Fire’s classic hit “September’’ played over the stadium loudspeakers while their fans danced, swayed and waved their rally towels. It was a wonderful moment, but what Seattle still awaits is an October song, like “We are the Champions.’’

Mark Simon has a good piece on Kyle Seager's improved defense for the Mariners this year, improvement that has helped turn Seager into one of the most valuable players in the American League.

Too bold of a statement? I don't think so. Here are the AL Wins Above Replacement leaders via Baseball-Reference:

Mike Trout: 6.3
Josh Donaldson: 6.1
Felix Hernandez: 6.0
Chris Sale: 5.3
Corey Kluber: 5.2
Robinson Cano: 5.2
Kyle Seager: 5.1
Max Scherzer: 4.9
Adrian Beltre: 4.9
Michael Brantley: 4.8

On FanGraphs, Cano ranks fifth among AL position players (4.7) and Seager seventh (4.5). Maybe they're not strong MVP candidates -- not in a league with Mike Trout and teammate Felix Hernandez -- but the Mariners are certainly more than a one-man team.

Seager's numbers may not blow you away -- .279, 18 home runs, .344 OBP -- but he ranks 13th among AL hitters in park-adjusted wRC+ (weighted Runs Created). So he's one of the better hitters, he's been durable (he's missed just three games) and he's a plus defender at an important position; that creates a lot value. WAR also doesn't factor in that Seager has done a good job with runners on base, hitting .313/.371/.514.

It will be interesting to see how Seager finishes; he was having a similar season last year before cratering with a .196 average in August and .172 in September.

As for Cano, the story line for first two months was his lack of power -- he had just two home runs through Seattle's first 60 games. He was hitting for average but not pulling the ball with any authority. After a minor slump dropped his average to .319 on June 29, he's been on a terror, batting .357/.444/.579 with six home runs over his past 37 games. And remember, considering Seattle's lack of production from the first two spots in the lineup -- the Mariners are 27th in OBP from their leadoff hitters and last in OBP from their No. 2 hitters -- pitchers often have the luxury of working around Cano or working very carefully to him.

The fact that he has 66 RBIs is pretty remarkable. But he's done that by hitting .360/.491/.709 in 114 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. (Cano is tied for 72nd in the majors in number of PAs with RISP; Adrian Gonzalez leads with 171.)

Overall, Cano is posting a career-best .398 OBP that ranks fourth in the majors among qualified hitters. His wRC+ is 142 -- the same as last year.

He's having a great season.

Kyle Seager's big step forward on defense

August, 13, 2014
Brandon Wade/Getty Images
Kyle Seager is handling the hot corner very well for the Mariners this season.

The Seattle Mariners look like a completely different team this season, with the biggest difference being how they’ve gone from terrible to solidly competent in the field. The Mariners ranked last in the majors with minus-97 defensive runs saved in 2013, but have made a 114-run improvement in 2014.

That came about for a couple of reasons -- notably the reconfiguring of their outfield (goodbye, Michael Morse) and the addition of second baseman Robinson Cano.

The other key piece is the improvement of third baseman Kyle Seager. Seager ranks among the most improved defenders statistically, going from minus-8 defensive runs saved last season to 10 defensive runs saved in 2014.

“When you watch him, there’s nothing different [physically],” said one major league scout. “He’s just completing plays instead of not getting to balls or not being in the right position.”

The improvements are the product of consistent work with first-year Mariners infield coach Chris Woodward, who played second base, shortstop and third base over parts of 12 big league seasons. They’ve worked on some of the nuances of the position, things that Seager may not have had a lot of work with in the past, considering he played only 50 of his 269 minor league games at the position before his 2011 recall. Despite below-average rankings the previous two seasons, Seager did bring some positives to the position. He has quick reflexes and a very accurate throwing arm that ranked third-best in the majors last season, according to one measure from Baseball Info Solutions.

The improvements fall into a couple of different areas:

Positioning: The numbers show that Seager is vastly improved at fielding balls both down the third-base line and in the shortstop/third-base hole. There’s very little time for a third baseman to react on balls hit to the left or right of him, so Seager has worked on his anticipatory skills, those that allow him to deduce where the ball is most likely to be hit, if it’s hit near him.

“I’ve learned how to get into a more athletic position to handle what you need to handle at third base,” Seager said.

That means taking a step or two in one direction or the other as the pitch is coming to the plate. Someone like Dustin Pedroia tends to take a big hop to get himself into the right position. Seager’s is a more restrained approach, but it works.

“If I step into it and keep my eyes at the same level,” Seager said, "I react a lot quicker. I just want to be in a good position to make a good reaction.”

It leads to making plays like this double play against the Orioles.

“He’s getting better jumps on balls than shortstops do, which is mind-boggling,” Woodward said. “Because he doesn’t know whether a curve or slider is coming or where the pitch is going to be. But he gets tremendous jumps.”

Charging balls: Seager’s defensive highlight reel is dotted with plays like this one and this one, in which he had to make a tough play on the run.

“He’s improved dramatically at coming in on the ball,” Woodward said. “At third base, you don’t get too many balls, but you rarely get the routine ground ball.”

For Seager, it was about changing his mental approach to deal with that.

“My first instinct last year was to stand there, read the hop and take a step back,” Seager said. “This year I’ve been able to identify the hop and attack it. We worked on how to hold your glove, and how to make your footwork better.”

The sum of both of these improvements is a significant one. Consider the following numbers from Inside Edge (found at FanGraphs.com), which grades every play based on the percent chance it would be completed.

On plays expected to be made 10 to 40 percent of the time:
In 2013, Seager converted 1 of 10 into outs (10 percent).
In 2014, he’s converted 6 of 14.

On plays expected to be made 40 to 60 percent of the time:
In 2013, Seager turned 7 of 20 into outs (35 percent).
In 2014, he’s converted 9 of 12.

“He's a treat to work with,” Woodward said. “You put him in the right spots and he makes the plays.”

Where does he go from here?
Seager currently ranks second among American League third basemen in defensive runs saved, which will put him in the mix to be a finalist for a Gold Glove.

The only AL third baseman with better numbers is Josh Donaldson of the Oakland Athletics. Seager rates better than three third basemen with pretty good reputations: Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria and Manny Machado. He’ll likely need to keep this up the rest of the season to fully win over those who have been skeptical in the past; case in point, another scout said Seager looked about the same as he’d seen in previous seasons, which was “adequate.”

But there’s reason to believe he could keep this up.

“My theory is that defense is one of those things you can get better at if you have the makeup,” said the scout we referenced at the beginning of this piece. “I’ve seen a lot of guys make themselves into better defensive players because of their work habits. Seager is one of those blue-collar workers who has the makeup to get better.”

Sailing looks smoother for the Mariners

July, 5, 2014

After slowly embarking on the season, the Seattle Mariners are starting to make waves in the AL West. Though they made a huge offseason splash by signing Robinson Cano, a sluggish 10-14 record in April threatened to sink their expectations. Going into 2014, even with the addition of Cano, hopes for smooth sailing were somewhat tempered for a team coming off a floundering 2013 season in which the Mariners were outscored by 130 runs on their way to an abysmal 71-91 record, sputtering to fourth place with only the scuttled Astros saving them from the deep end of the AL West. So, what factors have helped to right the ship?

Historically, the Mariners' offense has a habit of getting stuck in port. In 2014, however, they are 12th in baseball in runs scored despite being 23rd in the league in team OPS. According to Baseball-Reference.com, like many teams, they are being torpedoed by Safeco Field, generating just a .652 OPS at home. Part of that is mitigated by a .764 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position. Whether that is due to machinations of the Mariners’ new manager, Lloyd McClendon, or blind luck may be the determining factor that sets the rudder for the Mariners for the rest of 2014.

One offensive catalyst for Seattle’s improved offense is the surge of Kyle Seager. The best third baseman in the AL not named Josh Donaldson has taken his game to a new level, generating the second-best WAR among AL third basemen with a total of 3.5. That increase is fueled in part by a career-high OPS at .839 as he has added power and a bit of batting average. Also, according to Baseball-Reference.com, his defense has substantially improved, with gains in range and in fielding percentage. At just 26 years of age with an ample minor league track record, he offers good reason to believe this high tide is for real.

Another reason for the Mariners’ good voyage so far in 2014 comes in the form of Fernando Rodney. A Tampa Bay Rays castoff, Rodney is leading the AL with 25 saves, the 25th coming in the 14th inning against the White Sox on Saturday afternoon. His command of the strike zone has been stellar by his sometimes erratic standards, with just 11 walks and 39 strikeouts over 34.1 innings pitched. He’s also allowed only one home run all year. These walk, strikeout and home run stats might be considered fluky if he hadn’t done it before in his career.

Of course you haven’t forgotten the way Felix Hernandez breezes through hitters. Well, Hernandez’s 2014 performance is elite even by his kingly standards. A far cry from the days when he won the Cy Young Award with a mediocre win-loss record (supported by less-than-mediocre offense), King Felix is an early-season favorite for another one, as he has racked up a record of 10-2 while having a career year in terms of WHIP (0.92) and ERA (2.10). On Saturday he was stellar again, allowing only four baserunners and two runs over 8 innings for a no-decision in Seattle’s 3-2, 14-inning win against the White Sox. Navigating his way through the American League lineups with aplomb, Hernandez has not allowed more than two runs in a start since May 12.

After their slow start to the year, the Mariners have gone 37-25 (.596) since May 1. It won’t be easy to leapfrog the A’s, who just rocked the boat with their blockbuster trade for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Nor will the Angels keep their sails furled, either. But as the July 31 trade deadline approaches on the horizon, expect Seattle to have the spyglass out in search of a cannon for its lineup. That might just provide the gust of wind the Mariners will need to navigate the division’s rough seas.

Richard Bergstrom writes for Rockies Zingers, a SweetSpot network blog on the Colorado Rockies.

Mariners kids' arrival long since overdue

June, 2, 2014

We’re a little more than a third of the way through the season, but let’s relish this tidbit as we head into the season’s middle months, when moves get made and buyers and sellers are supposed to start sorting themselves out: After beating the Yankees in a mismatch between Felix Hernandez and David Phelps, the Mariners are just a half-game back in the AL wild-card race. And a game over .500. Which means while there’s a whole lot of sorting left to be done, there’s no reason to take the Mariners any less seriously than they no doubt take themselves.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mariners are getting the most value out of King Felix and Robinson Cano and a very few others -- Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders in the lineup, Chris Young in the rotation. Use WAR as a quick cheat, and that’s the extent of the guys who’ve been worth a win so far, several fewer than the A’s or Angels have to talk about. Not that WAR is the ultimate answer to anything, but it does give you the suggestion that there are more than a few people playing for the Mariners whose value is harder to define than what statistical words of praise might provide.

That’s in large part because the core of young talent in the Mariners lineup, which was supposed to have been ready to shine by now, has provided the statistical equivalent of dark matter: We know they’re there, we know they’re supposed to be important. But defining what Justin Smoak or Dustin Ackley or the shortstop tandem of Brad Miller and Nick Franklin or the center fielder du jour -- it’s James Jones this month -- have added challenges easy explanation.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesEven without getting much help from the Mariners' lineup, Robinson Cano has reason to smile: They're contenders!
The Mariners are getting less than a .700 OPS not just from defense-first positions such as short and center, where they’ve been testing their prospects, but also at power positions such as first base, left field and DH. That’s no way to back up a bid to contend, and it will be on Ackley and Smoak -- and also veterans Logan Morrison and Corey Hart when they come back from the DL -- to improve upon it.

But the time for excusing youth should be over. Smoak is in his fifth season and Ackley his fourth. They aren’t kids -- they’re long since young veterans. What you see is what you get. You can at least credit Smoak for hitting away from Safeco this season, with a .765 OPS on the road so far. That's almost exactly the average production for an AL first baseman this season (.764). Average is the new up, at least where Mariners prospects are concerned.

Now, it might seem a bit unfair to pile on the Mariners’ bevvy of prospects for what they haven’t been and might never be. The only teams running younger lineups than the Mariners’ 27.3-year-old average are the Astros and Cubs, both of whom have unapologetically touched bottom in their comprehensive rebuilds. On the other hand, that same average age ties with the homegrown talent-laden Braves, who labor under all sorts of expectations of right-now contention -- and seem to be doing just fine. Guys such as Smoak and Ackley were mentioned in the same breath as prospects such as Freddie Freeman (a consensus top-20 prospect) or Jason Heyward (a consensus top 10). And while we’re on the subject of young and disappointing, keep in mind that Ackley is only a few months younger than Justin Upton and was the second overall pick in 2009 to Upton’s first overall selection in 2005. As frustrating as Upton has been for those expecting reliable greatness from one of baseball’s best streak hitters, you won’t confuse that for Ackley’s exasperating inability to come close to his rookie season .766 OPS in any of the past three seasons.

Which is why, for as young as these Mariners might seem to be right now, their time is now. Everything can be forgiven, if not forgotten, if the Mariners make this season’s September meaningful. That would be a first for a franchise that has yet to top the 85 wins they got in Jack Zduriencik’s first season as GM back in 2009. This is essentially his team, a compilation of players he inherited and chose to keep (such as Erasmo Ramirez), guys he drafted (such as Ackley, both shortstops and James Paxton) or guys he signed (Cano, Young and Fernando Rodney). If it’s going to add up to anything, ever, there’s no time like now to find out.

For the Mariners to deliver on the opportunity of their present, their best hopes might rest on what Paxton and Taijuan Walker can add on the mound behind Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. It makes for that much more of a pitching-and-defense formula, while praying for Cano and Seager to plate enough runs, for Zunino to develop unlike all the other top touts of prospect lists past. Not to mention hoping against hope that Ackley or Smoak or Franklin or Miller finally turn into something. Realistically, what alternative is there? Trade them away to surround Cano with better goodies? No matter how much club control a team might have left over Ackley or Smoak or Franklin, whatever dollar figure you assign doesn’t amount to any value in trade if it doesn’t amount to anything on the field now. Guys who can’t play at 26 or 27 aren’t likely to play ever.

It’s easy to mock Zduriencik’s zipping from one master plan to another with all the hyperactive schemes for world domination of a Bond villain: He’s tried building a winner just about every way imaginable in his six seasons in Seattle, flitting from pitching and defense to a lineup overstuffed with veteran DHs, to trusting in his farm system, to finally, in that classic sign of late-stage, go-for-broke desperation, throwing boatloads of cash at somebody with star power when he inked Cano. In short, there is no tack he hasn’t tried. The irony is the Mariners might contend for at least a wild-card slot this season, after the former player-development guy made the big-market move and signed the superstar for a budget-busting $240 million. If it works, and if the kids contribute anything, you can bet he’ll be congratulated for it.

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

Mariners, Swisher hitting in bad luck

May, 13, 2014
Every Monday, I tweet out a series of hard-hit ball leaderboards, ones that tell you how often players and teams are hitting a ball hard, and how often they’re getting hits when they hit the ball hard.

The decision of whether a ball is hard-hit or not is determined by a video-review team for one of our data providers. The analysts look for beneficial velocity and contact on the sweet spot of the bat in making their determination as to whether a ball is hit hard, medium or soft.

It is admittedly an imperfect, subjective stat. But it has value, and based on the reaction of my followers, there seems to be interest in learning more about it.

So with that in mind, here are a few things I gleaned from this week’s hard-hit and soft-hit leaderboards.

Poor Nick Swisher
Nick Swisher is 6-for-37 over the last two weeks, but this doesn’t appear to be of any fault of his own. Swisher has the second-highest rate of hitting balls hard over that span, registering a hard-hit ball in 13 of his trips to the plate.

But those 13 trips have produced only four base hits. Swisher has been crushing balls into power alleys, but they’ve been tracked down in the gaps by hard-pursuing outfielders.

Swisher’s track record is that he gets base hits when he hits the ball hard about 70 percent of the time. Had he done so here, he’d gave gotten nine hits.

Sounds like the baseball gods owe him a few.

Which teams hit the ball hard the most often?
I would never have guessed that the Seattle Mariners lead the sport in how often they hit the ball hard. But they do.

Justin Smoak
ESPN Stats & InfoJustin Smoak is not getting fully rewarded for driving the ball.
The Mariners have two players ranked in the top four in that stat -- Justin Smoak (third) and Kyle Seager (fourth). Smoak and Seager are each registering a well-hit ball 25 percent of the time. But just like Swisher, they’re going unrewarded. Smoak and Seager are each hitting .246.

The Mariners rank 24th in team batting average when hitting the ball hard, at .647.

Smoak has two homers in his last three games, but he’s got more hard-hit fly balls plus line-drive outs than any player in baseball, with 13.

Seager’s issue isn’t what happens when he hits the ball hard, but when he hits it softly. Seager has the worst "soft-hit average" (.022, 1-for-46) of any player in baseball. The average major leaguer gets hits on about 17 percent of soft-hit balls.

Everything’s going right for Howie Kendrick
Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick has the highest batting average in the majors when he hits the ball hard. He has 21 hits in his 23 instances of doing so.

[+] EnlargeHowie Kendrick spray chart
ESPN Stats & InformationHowie Kendrick is driving the ball the other way.
Kendrick looks like someone who has changed his approach. He’s driving the ball to the opposite field with a much higher frequency than he used to.

From 2010 to 2013, about one-third of Kendrick’s hard-hit balls were hit to the opposite field. In 2014, he’s just about doubled that rate. Fifteen of his 23 hard-hit balls have gone the opposite way and another six have been hit to the middle of the field.

The benefit for Kendrick is, among other things, more doubles. He had only 21 in 478 at-bats last season, but he’s already at 10 through his first 148 at-bats in 2014.

Matt Adams is killing them softly
Most of the players at the top of the list for highest batting average when hitting the ball softly are speedsters who beat out slow-hit groundballs (see Gordon, Dee). One of the exceptions to this is Matt Adams.

Adams is hitting .333 when hitting a soft-hit ball and seems to have made the decision to sacrifice power for batting average, particularly when hitting against a shift. He already has 21 soft-hit base hits (in 63 at-bats) this season, two more than he had in 2013 in 104 at-bats.

Mark Simon helps oversee the ESPN Stats & Information blog and Twitter. Follow him on Twitter at @msimonespn.

Fun with player comparisons

September, 6, 2013
We haven't done this in a while. If you haven't been paying close attention to the numbers, you may be surprised by some of these comparisons:

Player A: .265/.342/.496, 28 HR, 72 RBI, 132 OPS+
Player B: .283/.352/.468, 22 HR, 64 RBI, 134 OPS+

Player A is Evan Longoria, Player B is Kyle Seager. Longoria does hold the WAR advantage, 5.2 to 4.1, thanks to better defense, but Seager is quietly have another solid season at the plate.

Player A: .271/.359/.448, 22 HR, 117 OPS+, 1.0 WAR
Player B: .260/.370/.446, 17 HR, 131 OPS+, 3.1 WAR

Player A is Prince Fielder, Player B is Carlos Santana. Of course, I left out RBIs, and Fielder has 95 of those compared to 60 for Santana (Fielder has 81 more plate appearances). Has Fielder had a great RBI season? According to Baseball-Reference, the average major leaguer drives in 65 runs in 622 plate appearances, so Fielder is +30. Sounds good. But ... he's also had 98 more runners on base than the average hitter. In WAR, Santana moves ahead thanks to Fielder's poor defense and a positional adjustment for Santana, because he's played a lot behind the plate.

Player A: .233/.291/.448, 29 HR, 84 RBI, 1.5 WAR
Player B: .238/.299/.422, 19 HR, 62 RBI, 1.0 WAR

Player A is Mark Trumbo and Player B is Angels teammate Josh Hamilton. Trumbo has escaped criticism because he has more home runs and RBIs, but he's also another sub-.300 OBP guy in the middle of the Angels' lineup.

Player A: .243/.311/.433, 17 HR, 102 OPS+
Player B: .267/.316/.420, 18 HR, 98 OPS+

Looks pretty close, right? What if I told you one of these guys has 101 RBIs and has been touted as an MVP candidate by some (OK, at least one prominent national broadcaster), and the other guy has 60 RBIs.

Player A is Twins second baseman Brian Dozier and Player B is Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. In terms of WAR, Dozier has the bigger advantage, 3.8 to 1.7. Look, Phillips is hitting .354 with runners in scoring position. He's also hitting .211 with a .249 OBP with the bases empty; those at-bats count, too. Phillips has made the fourth-most outs in the NL.

Player A: 209 IP, 145 H, 47 BB, 201 SO, 6.6 WAR
Player B: 187.2 IP, 158 H, 40 BB, 199 SO, 6.2 WAR

Pretty similar. Both are left-handed. One stat I left out: Player A has a 1.89 ERA, while Player B's is 2.97. Player A, of course, is Clayton Kershaw while Player B is Chris Sale. How can Sale be close despite an ERA a run higher? A few things. We're talking an NL pitcher versus an AL one, so Kershaw's run-scoring environment is a little lower. Home park: Kershaw pitches in Dodger Stadium, a good park for pitchers, while Sale pitches at The Cell, a hitter's park. Quality of opponents: Kershaw's opponents have averaged 4.20 runs per game compared to 4.51 for Sale's. Defense: Kershaw's is good, Sale's isn't. So why has nobody noticed Sale's season? He's 10-12. Put him on the Tigers and he'd be competing with Max Scherzer for Cy Young Award honors.

Player A: 193 IP, 180 H, 43 BB, 174 SO, 3.50 ERA, 4.1 WAR
Player B: 184 IP, 169 H, 50 BB, 172 SO, 2.98 ERA, 4.0 WAR

Cole Hamels is A, and Mat Latos is B. Of course, Hamels is 6-13 and Latos is 14-5, obscuring the fact that Hamels has been outstanding. Hamels was 1-9 with an ERA approaching 5 through May, and those bad starts (or good starts) stick in our memories. But since July, he's made 12 starts and posted a 2.17 ERA, allowing more than two runs just twice (though he has just four wins). He's still one of the best left-handers in the league.

One more:

Player A: 5-2, 1.48 ERA, 38 saves, 2 blown saves
Player B: 4-2, 2.19 ERA, 41 saves, 6 blown saves

Joe Nathan (A) and Mariano Rivera (B). By the way, Nathan's career save percentage since becoming a closer: 91 percent. Rivera's since becoming a closer: 90 percent, not including the postseason.
Is there a more up-and-down team this year than the Cleveland Indians? They started 5-10, but from April 28 through May 20 they went 18-4 to climb into first place. That was followed by seven losses in eight games and then an eight-game losing streak that dropped them three games under .500. Now they've won nine of 12 after beating the Orioles 5-2 on Monday night.

The Indians are an interesting team in that they have a deep lineup but no obvious star; part-time outfielder Ryan Raburn is the only player slugging above .500. Justin Masterson has been their best starter, but he ranks just 15th in the American League in ERA. He's probably their most likely All-Star representative with his 9-5 record. However, the Indians have two other players who are worthy of All-Star consideration but are unlikely to find a spot on the roster.

The first is catcher Carlos Santana. With all the attention given this offseason to signing free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds, Santana still feels like the fulcrum of the Cleveland offense. He's hitting .276/.385/.476 and is seventh in the AL in on-base percentage, thanks to 43 walks (ranking behind only Miguel Cabrera's 47). Santana's defense takes a lot of knocks; he's started 11 games at first base and 13 at DH as Terry Francona keeps his bat in the lineup, and his caught-stealing percentage has dropped off dramatically this year, from a respectable 26 percent in 2012 (league average was 25 percent) to 12 percent. The Indians lead the league in wild pitches, and considering backup catcher Yan Gomes has thrown out nine of 16 base stealers, Santana might see even more time away from catcher in the second half.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Carlos Santana
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Santana's defensive reputation could keep him off of the All-Star team.
It's that defensive reputation that will likley keep him off the All-Star team. Joe Mauer looks like he'll be voted in as the starter and Matt Wieters will probably get the backup nod via the players' ballot. If there's a third catcher chosen it's more likely to be Jason Castro as the Astros' representative.

Jason Kipnis is quietly having a solid season as well. Compare these batting lines:

Kipnis: .282/.360/.486
Robinson Cano: .276/.354/.497
Dustin Pedroia: .311/.394/.418

Kipnis has nine home runs to Cano's 16, but has more extra-base hits, 32 to 31. He's stolen 17 of 22 bases. Kipnis had a solid first full season last year (4.0 WAR), but you'll remember that he started off red hot before fading. This year, he hit just .200 in April, but then blasted seven home runs in May and is hitting .392 in June. Cano and Pedroia are probably All-Star locks, but if the AL can find room for a third second baseman, Kipnis deserves consideration.

Here are other players flying under the radar who deserve All-Star consideration but have little chance of making a squad. (And here's a piece from Tommy Rancel arguing the case for a few middle relievers to make it.)

Kyle Seager, Mariners
In a league with Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre and Josh Donaldson at third base, Seager has no shot of making the All-Star Game, but he's quietly developed into the best position player on the Mariners. His WAR ranks 19th among AL position players on Baseball-Reference (2.2) and 11th on FanGraphs (2.7), ahead of Beltre on both sites. With 22 doubles and nine home runs, Seager sprays line drives all over the field, and has put up solid numbers despite playing in Seattle; seven of his nine home runs have come on the road.

James Shields, Royals
The 2-6 record means Shields can enjoy some hunting and fishing over the All-Star break, but the move from Tampa to Kansas City hasn't cut into his effectiveness. With a 2.92 ERA and league-leading 111 innings, he's been exactly what the Royals desired: a staff leader and a staff ace. Amazingly, Shields is winless (0-4) in his last 10 starts despite allowing only 23 runs. That doesn't mean he hasn't helped the Royals win, however; he has five straight no-decisions but the Royals won all five games.

Brett Gardner, Yankees
Adam Jones, Mike Trout and Nick Markakis lead the fan balloting in what is a lackluster year for AL outfielders. Despite playing for the Yankees, Gardner isn't in the top 15. After missing most of last season, Gardner has returned with more power; he has 28 extra-base hits, nearly equal the 34 he had during all of 2011. But what really ramps up his value is excellent defense in center field. In a game that matters, Gardner could be a late-inning defensive replacement, pinch runner or pinch hitter who will grind out an at-bat. You know, if managers actually played to win instead of just getting everyone into the game.

Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
Carpenter doesn't just lead NL second basemen in WAR -- he leads most NL position players in WAR. He's 10th on B-R and fifth on FanGraphs thanks to a .403 OBP and smooth transition defensively from third base. Brandon Phillips and Marco Scutaro are ranked 1-2 in fan voting and Chase Utley got off to a good start that could land him the backup job via the players' ballot, so it's going to be difficult to find room for Carpenter.

Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks
Carlos Beltran, Justin Upton and Bryce Harper lead the fan balloting, none of whom really deserve to start (although they aren't terrible choices). Once you include Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen and maybe Ryan Braun, that leaves Parra as a long shot. He's hitting .315/.378/.480, ranks second in the NL with 24 doubles and plays superb defense at all three outfield spots. Like Gardner, he would be an excellent late-game defensive sub or pinch hitter. Just don't ask him to steal: He's 6-for-15 trying to steal.

Pedro Alvarez, Pirates
Over the past calendar year, Alvarez is tied with Jay Bruce for the most home runs in the National League with 36. His .237 average and .303 OBP don't scream "All-Star," but he does have 19 homers and is slugging .572 versus right-hand pitchers. With Ryan Zimmerman struggling on defense and Pablo Sandoval having a mediocre year at the plate, Alvarez has a decent case as the backup to David Wright, but Zimmerman or Sandoval probably gets the nod.

Travis Wood/Jeff Samardzija, Cubs
I'm assuming one or the other will be the Cubs' rep, but both have good cases to make it, even though Wood is 5-6 and Samardzija is 5-7. They succeed in different ways. Wood is an extreme fly ball pitcher who limits hits despite a ho-hum strikeout rate; Samardzija is pure power, with 115 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings. With 14 NL starters currently sporting an ERA under 3.00, somebody is going to get squeezed.

The game survives. It always survives.

A routine Wednesday afternoon game on a gorgeous June day in Seattle between two teams rapidly going nowhere can slog along for 13 uneventful innings -- so uneventful that it was 0-0 heading to the 14th, with nary a hit with runners in scoring position.

Then the White Sox score five runs in the top of the 14th. Mariners fans began filing out into the concourses of Safeco Field. The Mariners score a run and load the bases with two out. White Sox closer Addison Reed has Kyle Seager in a 1-2 hole when Seager dramatically turns the routine into the remarkable, hitting a game-tying grand slam out to right-center.

The game heads to the 15th inning and the camera pans to fans heading back to their seats.

This is what baseball does to us. For 24 hours, the talk had been about Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez and Biogenesis instead of Yasiel Puig and Domonic Brown. Instead of discussing scores, everyone was discussing suspensions. And then Kyle Seager hits a grand slam and the fans return.

Maybe Bud Selig cares more about penalizing players who used performance-enhancing drugs than publicizing up-and-coming stars. Maybe he cares more about increasing owner profits than creating a playoff system that makes sense. Maybe he cares more about limiting bonuses to amateur players instead of trying to attract the best athletes to his sport.

There are many problems with the business of baseball.

There are not problems with the game. We do go back.

* * * *
The White Sox won 7-5 in 16 innings, snapping an eight-game losing streak. It's probably fair to say that they needed this one. Reed blew the five-run lead but, out of pitchers, manager Robin Ventura left Reed in to go three innings, which these days is like asking your closer to climb Mount Everest without oxygen and carrying Pablo Sandoval on his back.

[+] EnlargeKyle Seager
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonKyle Seager, center, became the first player to hit a game-tying grand slam in extra innings.
Needless to say, the game contained a few "first-evers" and other oddities. Seager became the first player in major league history to hit a game-tying grand slam in extra innings. It was the first time both teams scored 5-plus runs in extra innings after the game had been 0-0 through nine. The 12 total runs in extra innings tied an American League record. (All nuggets courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.) Mariners catcher Kelly Shoppach became the 13th player since 2010 to strike out five times in a game -- although the only one to also register two hits. Mariners manager Eric Wedge didn't use a single position player off his bench. The White Sox turned six double plays.

But the game also exposed the weaknesses of these two clubs. If they don't hit home runs, they don't score. The five runs the White Sox scored in the 14th were more than they had scored in any game during their eight-game losing streak, a stretch in which they hit .197 with one home run and a .486 OPS. With a 25-32 record, the White Sox appear to be a dysfunctional unit, hoping unproductive veterans Adam Dunn (.162 average, .261 OBP) and Paul Konerko (.233 average, .296 OBP) find a fountain of youth, with no youth to build a lineup around. The entire offense is a wreck outside of Alex Rios, last in the AL in runs, average, walks, OBP and 13th in home runs. The White Sox are likely going to be sellers at the deadline, but outside of Rios and Chris Sale (who isn't going anywhere) there aren't many assets here of much value.

The Mariners hit Endy Chavez and Jason Bay 1-2 on Wednesday, which also tells you the state of a team that's in Year 5 of general manager Jack Zduriencik's attempt to clean up the mess left behind by the Bill Bavasi. The Mariners are 26-34, and that's with two of the best starters in the league. Hisashi Iwakuma was terrific once again, pitching eight scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 1.94. He's 6-1 in 13 starts but has allowed more than three runs just once; with a little run support he could easily have 10 wins.

I don't know if this was the game of the year, but I'm pretty sure it will end up on the short list. For 5 hours and 42 minutes, two bad baseball teams gave us baseball to talk about.

Thank goodness for that.
The ESPN Fantasy staff has published its mid-May rankings -- their top 250 players for the rest of the season.

It's always interesting to see the different opinions. Everybody agrees on guys like Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Braun, but here are some guys where the rankings differ or have changed from preseason projections:

Bryce Harper (14th overall, up from No. 36 preseason): Our guy Eric Karabell has him the highest at No. 9 while his lowest ranking was 26th. I'm in line with Eric here, although he hasn't run yet (one stolen base) and needs to stay away from walls.

Stephen Strasburg (32nd overall, down from No. No 23): Wild variance in opinion, as he was as high as 22nd and as low as 73. Strikeout rate is down nearly two per nine innings from last year and left-handers have a .357 OBP against him. Somewhere in the 30s seems right to me.

Shin-Soo Choo (33rd overall, up from No. 75): As high as 18th, as low as 53rd (that's Karabell). He's helped carry my team to first-place in the one auction league I joined this year with all the ESPN fantasy gurus (shameless self-promotion), but I can't say he's going to hit .322/.465/.589 all season. Still, his power is playing up in that bandbox. The concern is he still can't hit lefties (.159) and you're not going to hit .322 when you can hit one side of pitchers.

Matt Kemp (18th overall, down from No. 6): The fantasy guys are expecting his power to come back (one home run so far). My concern: In his big 2011 season, he basically had two strikeouts for every walk; this year, it nearly 4-to-1.

Albert Pujols (25th overall, down from No. 7): He's hitting .248/.328/.418 with six home runs and 23 RBIs, so the fantasy guys expect a big bounce moving forward to rank him 25th. I'm not so sure. Yes, he'll get his RBIs hitting behind Mike Trout, but you have to be worried about a DL stint at some point and he's not going to give you those few stolen bases he always gets.

Matt Harvey (55th overall, up from No. 160): Thought he'd be a little higher, but I guess he may not win many games with the Mets' offense behind him.

Jean Segura (87th overall, up from No. 276): Hitting .349 and leads the NL with 13 steals. Obviously, if he comes close to that he'll be better than 87th, but keep in mind he always had trouble staying healthy in the minors.

Hisashi Iwakuma (134th overall, up from No. 243): He's not this good, but he is good, with that devastating split-fingered. His track record goes back to when he joined the Seattle rotation last July. With eight walks in nine starts, that WHIP will remain low even as his BABIP regresses to more normal levels.

Shelby Miller (135th overall, up from No. 261): Unlike Harvey, he'll get better run support. But will the Cardinals limit his innings?

Kyle Seager (138th overall, up from No. 162): But still below Brett Lawrie. I'll take Seager.

The Seattle Mariners are in that frustrating purgatory of baseball existence: Not good enough to contend, not bad enough to formulate a rebuilding strategy that makes sense.

Where are they? What is the master plan? Is there life after Felix?

There wasn't Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, when Felix Hernandez dueled CC Sabathia in a battle of aces. Hernandez outpitched Sabathia, but a collision at first base in the fifth inning might have shaken him up a bit. He labored through the sixth, allowing his only run and leaving after 97 pitches with a 3-1 lead.

The Mariners bullpen, stellar for most of the season, couldn't hold the lead; the Yankees received some good luck from the baseball gods and then Mariano Rivera closed out the 4-3 victory. The Mariners can cry about the 3-2 pitch to Brett Gardner in the seventh that looked like strike three, or moan about Justin Smoak's liner in the eighth with two on that doubled Dustin Ackley off second base. But they also failed to capitalize on 10 hits off Sabathia, and Michael Saunders couldn't get a bunt down in the eighth. These are the games that good teams pull out and mediocre teams don't pull out often enough.

[+] EnlargeSeattle's Dustin Ackley
Photo by Elsa/Getty ImagesGetting doubled off second to end a late Mariners threat was just the latest lowlight for Dustin Ackley.
The Mariners aren't a terrible team -- they're 18-21, they have a terrific 1-2 pitching combo in Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, they have some good arms in the bullpen and the offense, while still bad, is at least not historically bad anymore.

But ... where are they? That's harder to peg. They're not the Astros or Cubs. They're kind of in that Pirates/Royals territory of maybe if everything breaks right, except those two clubs are playing better right now. Their offseason moves -- signing veterans Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay and trading for Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales -- suggested a "win now" strategy. Those guys are short-term investments, with Ibanez and Bay simply one-year placeholders and part-time players, and Morse and Morales both free agents after the season.

Essentially, those guys were just roster filler anyway, and for all the angst among Mariners fans over Ibanez or Bay stealing a job from Casper Wells, the Mariners' present and future didn't rest in the bat of Casper Wells. No, it rested in the continued improvement of Kyle Seager and Saunders, plus the hopeful development of one-time top prospects Ackley, Smoak and Jesus Montero.

That takes us to mid-May, and it's time for Mariners management to make some difficult decisions. Seager and Saunders, building upon last season's success, have been fine; they're good players, guys who can be key components of a playoff team. But it's the other three -- all once rated as top-20 prospects in the game -- that have again disappointed.

Ackley is hitting .231/.273/.281, and as Jeff Sullivan of the U.S.S. Mariner blog pointed out, his walk rate has plummeted to Miguel Olivo levels. That's not good, in case you're wondering. Smoak is drawing walks but not doing much of anything else, hitting .235/.355/.311 with one home run. Montero is hitting .200/.250/.341 and the catching experiment is working out as well as anything labeled "experiment" usually does.

As I said, it's only mid-May, and you never want to jump to snap conclusions. But smart organizations do make conclusions. Back in the day, a manager like Whitey Herzog might look at a player for two weeks and determine if he's a major league player. Maybe he wasn't always right, but he believed in his convictions.

Do the Mariners still believe in these three? Ackley is now 25 years old and getting worse, much worse than he was as a rookie in 2011. Smoak is 26 and has a career .225 average. Montero is only 23 but is looking like a bat-only player who doesn't have enough of a bat.


Which Mariner do you still believe in?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,560)

Manager Eric Wedge hasn't exactly proven himself to be a great judge of talent -- not playing John Jaso and Iwakuma early on last season, for example -- but he certainly made his convictions clear with Tuesday's lineup: Ackley, Smoak and Montero all started the game on the bench. In their places were Robert Andino, Ibanez and Kelly Shoppach. Ackley, the can't-miss second pick in the draft, is now being benched against left-handers for a guy hitting .169. Smoak sat for a guy who has hit .207 against left-handers since 2011. Montero sat because he isn't good.

Smart organizations properly evaluate their own talent. They know when not to re-sign Josh Hamilton, know which prospects to hold and know when to walk away. It's time for general manager Jack Zduriencik to make some calls. If the Mariners think Ackley can play then play him, even against Sabathia, and certainly don't bench him for Robert Freakin' Andino. If Smoak can play, then play him. If Montero can't catch, then send him down to Triple-A to see if he can actually develop an idea of how to approach an at-bat.

Because even if those guys play a little better the rest of the season, what have you learned? You'd be back in the same position next year, counting on them simply because they were once highly-rated minor leaguers.

I think the Mariners are close to knowing some answers. They're not contenders. Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino are down in Triple-A, perhaps ready to replace Ackley and Montero, the new new things to get excited about.

It's time to Whitey Herzog it and man up. It's judgment day in Seattle.
There is no scientific way to pick an all-underrated team. Well, I suppose there is some formula we could come up with, but that would be about as much fun as watching Brendan Ryan take batting practice. So let's go with an unscientific approach: my gut instinct. Plus how many times Eric Karabell and I talk about these guys being underrated at dinner. (He's sick of me bringing up Kyle Seager every Monday night. I remind him he's the only good position player right now on the Mariners.)

So here we go: The 2013 SweetSpot All-Underrated team, guys who don't seem to receive as much national acclaim as they deserve. Note: It's hard to be underrated if you play for an East Coast team, especially ones named "Yankees" or "Red Sox."

C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
Had a breakout season with the bat last year, hitting .320 with 12 home runs in between a stint on the DL for breaking his hand when a suitcase fell on it. Aside from his offense, statheads know Lucroy as one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Assuming he stays away from suitcases, the Brewers will reap benefits from his team-friendly contract: He'll make $15 million through 2017.

1B -- Allen Craig, Cardinals
Craig is still looking for his first home run of 2013, but a year ago he replaced Albert Pujols and hit .307/.354/.522 -- that's a higher on-base and slugging percentage than Pujols had with the Angels. Craig hit over .300 in the minors but his lack of a defensive home kept him off prospect lists and he didn't play 100 games in a major league season until last year, when he was already 27. He's a late bloomer but that doesn't mean he can't rake.

2B -- Neil Walker, Pirates
Unlike Craig, Walker seemed to spend forever on prospect lists, first as a catcher, then as a third baseman. He's settled in at second base, but playing for Pittsburgh his solid ability at the bat goes unnnoticed. He's not a star, but a solid contributor who should hit .280 with 12-15 home runs and adequate defense.

3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
Seager got off to a bad start and Karabell told me ESPN fantasy owners were dropping him like Raul Ibanez drops flies. Oh, the rash judgments of April. After a two-hit night Monday, Seager is up to .276/.337/.487. Unheralded coming up through the Seattle system, he has proved to be a better hitter than his North Carolina teammate, Dustin Ackley.

SS -- Brandon Crawford, Giants
OK, OK ... do I think his hot start with the bat is for real? No. Crawford has never really hit. But he's kind of a poor man's Andrelton Simmons, and while everyone raves about Simmons' ability in the field, nobody talks much about Crawford's. Just show them your ring, Brandon.

LF -- Josh Willingham, Twins
Willingham has put up good numbers at the plate for years -- including a monster 35-homer, 110-RBI season last season -- but he has played for the Marlins, Nationals, A's and Twins when they all had bad seasons and has never appeared in a postseason game. He may get that chance this year if the Twins trade him to a contender. (Not that the Twins can't contend! You never know!)

CF -- Shin-Soo Choo, Reds
He's finally getting some recognition thanks to his hot start (.366 average, better-than-Votto .521 OBP), but even then some people just want to talk about his shaky defense in center. He was a good player for the Indians for several years before coming to Cincy and I see his first All-Star Game in his future.

RF -- Norichika Aoki, Brewers
He came over from Japan last year and quietly hit .288/.355/433, lashed out 51 extra-base his, stole 30 bases and played a very good right field. He also made appearances as Bernie Brewer and at least four times raced as the Italian sausage.

SP -- Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
Quick: Which starting pitcher has led the AL in ERA since last July 1? I hope you guessed Iwakuma. In 20 games, he has a 2.44 ERA, edging out Justin Verlander's 2.51 mark, and held batters to a .225 average. He's off to a great start in 2013, with a 1.69 ERA through four starts and just 12 hits in 26.2 innings. His fastball isn't overpowering, but he gets away with throwing 90 mph fastballs up in the zone and mixing a good splitter.

SP -- Mike Minor, Braves
I'll break my East Coast rule to include Minor, who also has been dominant since last July 1, with a 2.00 ERA that is second in the majors only to teammate Kris Medlen. I believe he's for real.

What do you think? Whom would you put on your All-Underrated Team?

By the way, check out the video. Who do I think is overrated? You may be surprised.
These are five guys I like for 2013. They're already good players, but I think they will take a big leap and become more than good players.

1. Mat Latos, SP, Reds. With Johnny Cueto having a Cy Young-caliber season and Aroldis Chapman dominating out of the pen, there weren't many headlines left for Latos in 2012. With Latos coming over from the Padres in that big offseason trade, some projected that he would suffer moving out of Petco Park, but he finished 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA. He did allow a few more home runs, but that's going to happen in Cincinnati -- 18 of the 25 home runs he gave up came at home. Importantly, however, he didn't let the home runs affect his approach, and he actually finished with a lower ERA at home than on the road.

[+] EnlargeMat Latos heat map
ESPN Stats & InformationIf Mat Latos keeps throwing his slider here, look for another big season in 2013.
Latos got off to a slow start in April -- including a blow-up, eight-run outing in St. Louis -- but posted a 3.09 ERA over his final 28 starts, losing just twice. He's a big horse out there at 6-foot-6, 235 pounds or so, and he crossed the 200-inning barrier for the first time. Although he sets up his fastball/slider/curveball arsenal with a solid 92-95 heater that he throws up in the zone, it's his slider that is developing into his key pitch. As you can see from the heat map, he gets it down and in to lefties and away from righties, exactly where you need to go. In 247 plate appearances ending with the slider, batters hit just .169 against him -- righties .161 and lefties .185.

I view Latos as a guy maturing into a staff ace and a sleeper Cy Young candidate in 2013, although it will be tough keeping that ERA under 3.00 pitching half his games in Cincy.

2. Salvador Perez, C, Royals. Keith Law had Perez 12th on his 25 under 25 list for good reason: This kid can hit, and, with his strong throwing arm and quick release -- he threw out 42 percent of base stealers, tops in the American League -- he could be a future Gold Glove winner.

You might have missed Perez's excellent sophomore campaign because his season didn't start until June 22 after he tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee in spring training. He returned a few weeks earlier than expected and, in 79 games, hit .301/.328/.471. Remember, Perez is just 22 years old, which makes his hit tool even that much more special. Through 463 career plate appearances, he has an .810 OPS and 121 OPS+. Here's the list of catchers with at least 400 PAs through 22 who had a higher OPS+: Brian McCann and Johnny Bench. That's it.

Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system projects Perez to hit .286/.316/.422, not quite believing in his power potential. I do think Perez will outperform that; his ability to put the ball in play -- he had the seventh-lowest strikeout rate among those with 300 PAs -- should help him maintain a .300 average, even with his lack of foot speed. Perez doesn't walk much, at least not early in his career, but he isn't necessarily a wild hacker at the plate. He swung at 38 percent of pitches outside the zone, which did rank 30th (worst) in the majors, but below other accomplished hitters such as Josh Hamilton, Adam Jones and Adrian Beltre. He just looks like one of those rare hitters who can expand the zone and still make hard contact.

Here's how much I like Perez: Don't be surprised when he makes the All-Star team in July.

3. Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners. I've written about Seager before, and his .259 batting average in his first full season might not jump out at you. But he slugged over .500 on the road and finished with 20 home runs overall. With the Mariners moving in the fences at Safeco Field, their hitters will have a chance to put up better numbers at home, where Seager hit just .223 with five home runs.

Never as heralded as Dustin Ackley, his college and now major league teammate, Seager has surpassed him at the plate -- he had 56 extra-base hits last year to Ackley's 36. He just does a better job of squaring up the ball and hitting it harder. He has a good approach at the plate and, considering he has played fewer than 100 games above Class A, is still developing as a hitter. Like a lot of young left-handed hitters, he's much better against right-handed pitchers, but his seven home runs off lefties shows he wasn't completely helpless against them.

You can call Seager an overachiever. I call him a hitter on the rise.

4. Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants. I know, I know … you're sick of hearing about Brandon Belt. Bruce Bochy finally gave Belt a chance to play in 2012 -- well, sort of, since he did start only 106 games -- and Belt hit .275/.360/.421, a solid line for AT&T Park, where home runs go to die.

If we dig into the sabermetric numbers on Belt's season, we see he grades out with a wRC+ of 116 -- in line with hitters such as Martin Prado, Curtis Granderson and Adrian Gonzalez. The odd thing about Belt's season is that, unlike most of his teammates, he actually hit much better at home -- .315/.401/.505 versus .237/.321/.341 on the road.

I'd love for Belt to get 600 PAs this year … he held his own against lefties, so I think it's time Bochy sees him as more than a platoon player -- and see what he can do. He's probably not going to be a big home run guy -- especially in San Francisco -- but I see a player who can hit .290 with 15 to 18 home runs and an on-base percentage approaching .400. That will make him one of the more valuable first basemen in the National League.

5. Derek Holland, SP, Rangers. The Holland bandwagon was in full tilt after a strong second half and dominating performance in the 2011 World Series. But then the 2012 season began and he allowed 32 home runs -- in just 175 innings -- and finished with a 4.67 ERA. He also lost some time to shoulder fatigue.

I'm going to jump back on the Holland wagon. Remember, he was just 25 years old last season, still learning to pitch. Hopefully he realized he can't just rely on his mid-90s fastball to blow hitters away. Aside from that, there were still some positive signs about his season: His strikeout-to-walk ratio improved, and he had five starts in August and September when he pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs, a sign that his shoulder was better.

He also pitched in some bad luck a year ago: His rate of home runs per fly ball was sixth-worst among major league starters. Some of that is pitching in Texas, of course, some of that is too many fastballs up in the zone, but some of that was bad luck. He has the power arm and stuff to adapt and lower that gopher-ball rate. I like a big comeback year, with an ERA below his 3.95 figure from 2011, and teaming with Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison to give the Rangers a "big three" starting rotation.
Player comparisons are fun. It's part of talking baseball with our friends: Who do you like better? Who should you take in your fantasy draft? Would you trade this guy for that guy? Here are a couple of comparisons to consider.

Player A is Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, still highly regarded enough that Grantland's Jonah Keri recently called him the 32nd-most valuable trade asset in baseball. Player B is Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, a less heralded prospect who outhit Moustakas -- not to mention former North Carolina teammate Dustin Ackley -- in his first full season in the majors.

In fact, the more you dig into the numbers you realize how much better Seager was than Moustakas at the plate. Seager had to play half his games in the Safeco Field dungeon. He hit just .223 with five home runs there, but hit .293 with 15 home runs on the road, pushing his slugging percentage over .500. Moustakas, meanwhile, hit .279/.333/.461 at home, but just .205/.260/.364 on the road. After a good first half, he also faded in the second half. Seager had slightly better walk and strikeout rates. In looking at wRC+ from Fangraphs, a stat that is park-adjusted, we see Seager was better. In terms of runs created, he was about eight runs better than an average hitter while Moustakas was nine runs worse.

The difference in perception between the two comes from their prospect pedigree. Moustakas was the second overall pick in the 2007 draft and heralded as a star after hitting 36 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2010 (sound familiar, Royals and Rays fans?). Seager was a third-round pick the same year the Mariners drafted Ackley second overall. Seager was viewed as a utility guy coming up through the minors but all he's done is hit and then added surprising power in 2012.

Moustakas does have advantages on his side: He rated as an excellent fielder this past season, pushing his Baseball-Reference WAR ahead of Seager's. Importantly, he's also a year younger, and as Bill James showed long ago, the difference in career length between two players with the same stats but one being a year younger can be significant. Still, Seager keeps exceeding expectations and with the Mariners moving in the fences at Safeco, I like his chances to put up even bigger numbers in 2013.

Watching Seager, he may not look like a star hitter in uniform (his legs are short and he wears the baggy pants, making him looking short and squat), but he hits the ball hard (35 doubles as well). Look, Moustakas may yet live up to his prospect hype; Seager may have already maxed out. But right now I don't see a lot that separates the two.

Player A is a guy who goes high in any fantasy draft, an All-Star signed to a long-term contract that will eventually pay him $20 million in one season. Player B is a guy who finally broke though in 2012 after several years bouncing back and forth and not producing at the big league level. Player A is Carlos Gonzalez; Player B is another Mariner, Michael Saunders.

Obviously, the raw batting lines here are much different -- a .303 hitter (.299 career) versus a guy who hit .247. But we must again must dig into park effects. Not surprisingly, CarGo has generated monster numbers at Coors Field, and pedestrian numbers on the road: In 2012, .368/.437/.609 versus .234/.301/.405. In his career, he's hit .353 at Coors, .258 on the road. Saunders, like most of his Mariners teammates, hit much better on the road -- .262/.324/.469 versus .229 at home. In considering park effects, you have to remember that a run created in Safeco is more valuable than a run created at Coors, since games are lower scoring. It leads to a question that we can't fully answer: What would Gonzalez hit if he played for the Mariners and what would Saunders hit if he played for the Rockies?

It's possible that Gonzalez is suffering from the "Coors effect" -- that something happens to Rockies hitters once they hit the road, and that, like Matt Holliday, he'd hit just fine if he played for another team. Holliday, however, did receive a sizable advantage from Coors, hitting .358 there compared to .294 everywhere else. And he hit much better on the road with the Rockies than Gonzalez has -- .301 in his big 2007 season, for example.

The other factor in comparing Gonzalez to Saunders is defense. Gonzalez won his second Gold Glove Award in 2012, and that's one where the sabermetric analysis splits widely from the managers and coaches who vote on that award. Baseball Info Solutions rated Gonzalez as -13 runs in left field in 2012, after being a positive defender in 2010 and 2011. Saunders spent most of the season in center field, but he also rated poorly via Defensive Runs Saved at -12. In the end, Saunders' positional advantage as a center fielder, and the park effects of hitting in Safeco that make their offense closer than it appears, gives him the edge in Baseball-Reference WAR. (Gonzalez does have the edge in FanGraphs WAR at 2.7 to 2.3.)

I'm not saying Saunders is the better player; 2012 was Gonzalez's worst year since his 2010 breakout campaign. And Saunders, despite just establishing himself, is only a year younger, so he probably doesn't have a lot of growth left in his game. I'd like to see Saunders improve his strikeout/walk ratio a bit before I declare him a sure thing, but like Seager, he could be a big surprise in 2013 if Safeco plays a little more fair. Again, this comparison is to point out a matter of perception; Gonzalez is viewed as a superstar; but Saunders, at the least, is clearly an underrated asset.

Check back later today for two more comparisons. And I promise they won't involve any Mariners.
Our friend Jonah Keri has dared to brave one of those lists to end all lists -- he ranks the 50 most valuable trade properties in baseball. With the winter meetings slated for next week in Nashville and trade rumors flying violently across cyberspace, it's the perfect time for such a list. Like the one Bill Simmons does for the NBA or the Dave Cameron does at FanGraphs, this isn't simply a list of the 50 best players in baseball. Contracts, service time and age matter. Here's the first part of Keri's list (honorable mention to No. 32).

Since this is meant as great debate fodder, some quick thoughts.
  • SportsNation

    Which of these young starters has the most trade value?


    Discuss (Total votes: 1,031)

    Keri lists a bunch of young starters as honorable mention -- Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, Trevor Cahill, Mat Latos, Lance Lynn, Jarrod Parker, Matt Harvey, Trevor Bauer, all of whom have at least three years left of team control. While Keri groups all those guys together, he says to keep an eye on Harvey and Bauer. I completely agree on Harvey, who looked very impressive in his 10 starts with the Mets, both visually and statistically. I think Bauer rates behind all those other guys; I know the hype, but I see a guy who hasn't proven anything at the major league level with some command issues in the minors (4.2 walks per nine). It requires too much projection to put him on the same level as guys like Latos, Parker and Hellickson. But which one should rate highest? I'd probably go Parker, Latos, Harvey, Hellickson and Holland. What do you think? Let's put it to a poll.
  • No Matt Cain. The Giants owe Cain $121 million, thus the reluctance to include Cain in the top 50. That's a lot of money and pitchers are always big health risks, but Keri lists Wade Miley at No. 49. Yes, Miley is dirt cheap, but I'm pretty sure Cain would still bring a bigger haul -- in part because he is signed to a long-term contract, but also in part because Miley still has to prove he can do this again.
  • Honorable mention for Todd Frazier. Keri cites some sort of man crush on Frazier. I don't see it. Nice rookie season, but he's already 26 and never hit this well in the minors. I wouldn't be surprised to see him drop off next year.
  • Elvis Andrus and Andrelton Simmons at 46 and 45. I like both these guys, glad to see they made the top 50. In fact, they may be underrated. For example: Desmond Jennings at 39? If the Braves or Rangers called up and offered the Rays their shortstop for Jennings, I'm pretty sure the Rays think about 26 seconds before saying, "Done." Jennings was already 25 in 2012 and posted a .314 OBP. He does other things to help you win, but I love the defense and acceptable offense Andrus and Simmons offer.
  • Alex Gordon 34. Very underrated player. Signed for four more years at $44 million.
  • Mike Moustakas at 32. I know he's cheap for the foreseeable future and under team control for five more seasons. But he also posted a .708 OPS last year. That's, umm, not good. After a hot April, he hit .231 the rest of the way. Yes, first full season and all that, but I'm not quite on the Moustakas bandwagon. In fact, ignoring the prospect hype, is Moustakas any better than Kyle Seager? Yes, Moustakas is a year younger, but Seager had better numbers in a much tougher place to hit, playing in a tougher division. Seager hit .293/.324/.511 on the road; Moustakas hit .205/.260/.364.

Anyway, great list. The bottom part of it is actually a lot more fun to debate than the top 10. Part 2 on Tuesday on Grantland.