SweetSpot: Yovani Gallardo

1. Back in spring training, Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish admitted he was working on a few minor tweaks on his mechanics in an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the nerve problem in his lower back and buttocks area that arose last September. Whether that had anything to do with the stiff neck that had sidelined him since March 16 and forced him to miss his Opening Day assignment remains unknown, considering the dubious nature of the original rationale for the neck issue ("I slept on it wrong," Darvish said).

In the end, he missed just one start, which was still enough of a setback to put Rangers fans in a minor state of panic considering the opening week rotation was already without Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

Darvish returned Sunday after not having pitched in three weeks and looked a lot like the guy many predicted will win the Cy Young Award, undoubtedly calming at least a few nerves in the Rangers fan base and front office. He pitched seven innings of no-run baseball in a 3-0 win over the Rays, an efficient 89-pitch effort that included just one walk. He threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes and held the Rays to an 0-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.

He wasn't necessarily overpowering, averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball while maxing out at 95.1 mph, but maybe this is the new, strike-throwing Darvish, one looking to be a little more economical in his pitch counts to avoid walks and pitch consistently deeper into games.

"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes. I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn't feel anything unusual."

While Darvish recorded just six strikeouts, he showed what makes him so tough to hit -- the six K's came on two fastballs, two curveballs, a slider and a changeup to Wil Myers. It's that changeup that could be a new weapon for him: He threw 90 changeups all of last year, recording just four strikeouts. Just what batters want to hear, knowing it's hard enough already with two strikes gearing up for a curveball or slider.

The Rangers' rotation remains a little unsettled -- Colby Lewis may be close to returning and they may use six starters this week. The good news is the Rangers are 3-3 despite the makeshift rotation and having hit just one home run. They play the Red Sox and Astros this week but will need the rotation to come together sooner rather than later as they play the Mariners seven times and the A's six before the end of the month.

Darvish joked that he'd pitch great every time if he had three weeks between starts. The Rangers are hoping he'll pitch great every fifth day.

2. The most impressive result of the weekend was the Brewers going into Boston and sweeping the Red Sox by scores of 6-2, 7-6 (in 11 innings) and 4-0 on Sunday. The Red Sox were swept just once all last season -- in a three-game series in Texas -- and shut out just three times at Fenway Park in the regular season.

Yovani Gallardo struck out only three in 6 2/3 innings but issued no walks and got 11 ground balls outs compared to four in the air. He hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts. Gallardo struggled last year and while his velocity isn't up from last year at least he's throwing strikes early on.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCano seems to be embracing his role as a leader in Seattle.
The bad news for the Brewers, of course, is Ryan Braun's thumb injury, which he now says hasn't completely healed from last year when the injury sapped his power and eventually forced him to the disabled list (before his suspension). He had two singles on Sunday to raise his average to .150 but he doesn't have an extra-base hit in (the small sample size of) 21 plate appearances. Remember, when Braun was putting up monster numbers in 2012 the Brewers led the National League in runs scored. If they're going to contend for a playoff spot, they better hope this thumb issue doesn't linger.

3. I watched a lot of Mariners this week and there were a lot of positives to draw upon as they went 4-2 on the road: Two dominant starts from Felix Hernandez, one from James Paxton, good hitting from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Robinson Cano hit a quiet .391/.500/.478 as he's still looking for his first home run. He has drawn three intentional walks already as the Angels and A's elected to go after Smoak.

All three walks came in conventional IBB situations: Two outs, runners on second or second and third. Smoak went 1-for-3 with a bases-clearing double. Still, for now, it appears opponents will avoid Cano whenever possible. The biggest positive with Cano may have been his hustle double on Sunday when he singled to center and took advantage of Coco Crisp jogging after the ball. That's a Cano that New York writers like to say doesn't exist. It's one play, but perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.

4. Mark Trumbo homered for the fourth straight game Sunday in the Diamondbacks' 5-3 win over the Rockies, just their second victory in nine games as they currently sit with the majors' worst record. Even though Trumbo has five home runs and 13 RBIs and Paul Goldschmidt is mashing, the Arizona offense has mostly struggled, averaging fewer than four runs per game.

The Rockies intentionally walked Trumbo with a runner on third base and one out on Sunday to pitch to Miguel Montero, who promptly grounded into a double play against Brett Anderson. Montero's OPS fell from .820 and .829 in 2011 and 2012 to .662 in 2013. He and Gerardo Parra are the only regular lefties in the D-backs' lineup, and they need the old Montero not the 2013 version.

5. I watched the last few innings of Chris Tillman's gem to beat the Tigers, and he looked really good, allowing one run again as he did in his Opening Day start. He couldn't quite finish it off, getting one out in the ninth before being pulled for Tommy Hunter, but he challenged the Tigers -- 74 of his 113 pitches were fastballs -- and did a good job of moving the fastball around against left-handed batters (he pitches mostly to the outside corner with the fastball against righties).

Without sounding overdramatic here, it was a big win for the Orioles as 2-4 just sounds a lot better than 1-5. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the majors as just six of their first 27 games are against teams that finished under .500 last year and those six are against Toronto, no pushover, so they need to make sure they don't get buried before May.

6. This wasn't from Sunday, but I hope you didn't miss Giancarlo Stanton's mammoth home run on Friday off Eric Stults. The ESPN Home Run Tracker estimated the moon shot at 484 feet, 31 feet longer than the second-longest home run so far. The longest home run last year was Evan Gattis' 486-foot blast for the Braves on Sept. 8 off Cole Hamels.

The Marlins lost on Sunday, but they're off to a 5-2 start. Stanton is hitting .345/.406/.655, and for all those fears that he wouldn't get pitched to, he hasn't drawn an intentional walk

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter is now No. 8 on the all-time hits list, but the Yanks need power.
7. Derek Jeter passed Paul Molitor for the eighth place on the all-time hits list. In many ways, the two are identical matches as hitters, with short, compact swings and both loved to go to the opposite field. Jeter has a career line of .312/.381/.446 with 256 home runs while Molitor hit .306/.369/.448 with 234 home runs. Molitor's adjusted OPS is slightly higher, at 122 versus Jeter's 117. Molitor struck out 10.2 percent of the time against a league average of 14.7 percent during his career; Jeter has fanned 14.7 percent of the time against a league average of 17.4 percent.

Jeter has his most hits off Tim Wakefield (36) and among pitchers he faced at least 40 times, has the highest average against Bruce Chen (.429). (He also hit an impressive .413 against Johan Santana. Molitor got 33 hits off both Jack Morris and Roger Clemens (and hit above .300 against both) and killed Erik Hanson (.482) and Walt Terrell (.477).

8. The Yankees have one home run in six games, hit by Brett Gardner on Sunday's win over the Blue Jays. Could power actually be an issue for the Yankees? Mark Teixeira landed on the DL over the weekend, which means they're really going to have to rely on 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran for some pop. Leading the team in extra-base hits? Yangervis Solarte. Of course.

9. B.J. Upton: Hey, at least he didn't strike out in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Nationals. But he did go 0-for-4 and is off to a .120/.120/.140 start with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. So far, Fredi Gonzalez has hit him second in all six games. It's way too early to panic, but tell that to Braves fans.

10. Speaking of worrying, should the Angels be worried about Jered Weaver? In two starts, batters are slugging .600 against him and the Astros pounded four home runs off him on Sunday. The four home runs came on four different pitches: Jason Castro off a 3-1 changeup, Matt Dominguez off a 3-2 slider, Jesus Guzman on an 0-1 fastball and Alex Presley on an 0-1 curveball. His fastball velocity, such as it is, has averaged 86.0 mph, about the same as last year's 86.5.

As with all these first-week results, don't overreact, but if Weaver isn't a strong rotation anchor, the Angels are in trouble. They're 2-4, hoping to avoid the terrible April starts of the past two seasons.

The first rule of Opening Day: Don't overreact to Opening Day. So these are merely observations from flipping around watching a bunch of different games.

1. At one point during the Cardinals-Reds opener, Adam Wainwright looked a little perturbed, presumably at the strike zone of plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. After all, Wainwright walked three guys unintentionally in his seven innings (plus another intentional walk). This was a guy who walked just 35 batters in 34 starts last year, just once walking three guys in a game. So he may have been unhappy with the balls and strikes … and yet still threw seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just three hits allowed in the Cards’ 1-0 victory. Whenever the Reds threatened, Wainwright got the big outs -- a Joey Votto double play on a 2-2 fastball in the third and Zack Cozart on a tapper in front of the plate with two runners on to end the sixth. He threw 105 pitches, including 22 of his famous curveball -- the Reds went 0-for-6 with a walk against the curve, including Cozart’s out. Here’s the thing about the Cardinals: While I (and others) have spent a lot of time discussing their depth and versatility, they also have two of the best players in the game: Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Their lone run off Johnny Cueto: Molina’s home run in the seventh off a 0-0 cutter that didn’t cut.

2. I don’t know if Billy Hamilton will hit, but I know he can’t hit Wainwright. The Reds’ rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Wainwright to register the dreaded golden sombrero -- the 17th player since 1914 to go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Opening Day. The potential bigger picture: If Hamilton and Brandon Phillips don’t get on base enough -- a distinct possibility -- Votto is going to draw 100-plus walks no matter if he has Jay Bruce, Johnny Bench or Frank Robinson hitting behind him. Which will lead to the haters complaining about Votto’s RBI total.

3. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-3 thanks to a big day from emergency shortstop acquisition Alex Gonzalez, who tripled in the tying run in the seventh and singled in the winning run in the ninth. Justin Verlander scuffled through his six innings, giving up six hits and three walks with just two strikeouts, but that’s not my initial concern. The concern is that Opening Day roster, which includes Gonzalez, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holaday, Tyler Collins, Don Kelly, Ian Krol and Evan Reed. Besides Krol and Reed, the bullpen includes Phil Coke (1.6 WHIP over the past two seasons), Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. In other words: The final 10 spots on the roster could be a disaster. It could work out -- Chamberlain and Alburquerque will probably be OK if they stay healthy, for example -- but the lack of depth on this team could be an issue. Detroit's star players -- Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer -- have been very durable, but a lengthy injury to any of those three or Anibal Sanchez, Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler could be crushing.

4. The Pirates picked up with the kind of game they won last year, beating the Cubs 1-0 on Neil Walker’s walk-off home run in the 10th inning. The Pirates won five 1-0 games last year (there were only 48 such games in the majors last season, so the Pirates had over 10 percent of all 1-0 victories). The major league average when scoring one run, two runs or three runs was a .270 winning percentage; the Pirates were 25-39 (.390) when scoring one to three runs, so they won a lot of low-scoring games. The big positive besides the bullpen throwing four scoreless innings was the six dominant innings from Francisco Liriano, who tied a Pirates club record with 10 strikeouts on Opening Day. With the loss of A.J. Burnett, the pressure is on Liriano to repeat his 2013 performance.

5. Showing early confidence in B.J. Upton, who hit .184 last year while striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hit his center fielder second while moving Justin Upton down to fifth (Chris Johnson hit cleanup). I can’t say that’s the lineup I’d go with -- Justin Upton seems the logical choice to bat second behind leadoff hitter Jason Heyward -- but no matter what order Gonzalez chooses there are going to be some OBP issues if B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis don’t get on base more often. Yovani Gallardo kept the Braves in check with six shutout innings -- a good sign for the Brewers considering Gallardo’s inconsistency and drop in velocity last year -- while Francisco Rodriguez was called on for the save in the Brewers’ 2-0 victory.

6. One reason I’m a little wary about the Orioles is new closer Tommy Hunter’s struggles against left-handed batters -- he gave up 12 home runs last year, which is way too many for a reliever to begin with, and all 12 were against lefties. He scraped through the save in the O’s 2-1 win over the Red Sox, hitting Will Middlebrooks with a pitch and giving up a one-out single to Dustin Pedroia, but he got ahead of David Ortiz 0-2 before getting him to fly out to medium-deep left center, and then struck out Jackie Bradley looking on a fastball at the belt. (Bradley was hitting after pinch running for Mike Napoli in the eighth).

7. I was dubious about Tanner Scheppers as a starter and his performance in the Rangers’ 14-10 loss to the Phillies didn’t alleviate any of those concerns. His fastball averaged 96.3 mph last year as a reliever but 93.3 on Monday as a starter. His strikeout rate as a reliever didn’t scream “try this guy as a starter” and he fanned just two in his four innings, which required 93 pitches to get through. It's just one start and considering it was his first in the major leagues and on Opening Day -- a strange choice by Ron Washington -- let’s give him a pass and keep an eye on his next outing.

8. Tough loss for the Mets, blowing leads in the seventh and ninth innings and then losing in 10 to the Nationals. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen said after Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer off John Lannan in the 10th, “What an atrocious day by the Mets' bullpen.” Something Mets fans have witnessed all too often in recent seasons.

9. While flipping through the various games, it’s pretty clear we're going to see even more defensive shifting. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the number of shifts has increased from 2,358 in 2011 to 4,577 in 2012 to 8,134 in 2013.

10. Jose Fernandez. He looked brilliant in his six innings, throwing 73 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and smiling when Carlos Gonzalez homered in the sixth off his one mistake. I think I may watch 33 Marlins games this year.

Some big names who could be traded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
One of the best aspects of early April baseball is all the aces start on Opening Day. Then a few days later they meet again. Usually by each pitcher's third or fourth starts, the schedules get out of whack -- teams don't have the same off days, some teams will skip the fifth starter and so on. After those first couple of starts, ace-versus-ace matchups are more of a random occurrence throughout the baseball season. And when they do meet, you don't get a whole slate of them like we do Sunday.

Here are eight matchups to watch (pitchers' stats from opening start in parentheses) -- and these don't even include Chris Sale, David Price, Marlins 20-year-old rookie Jose Fernandez or Dodgers rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu. If you're not going to the ballpark, it looks like a good afternoon to sit inside. (Just get your exercise in before the games start!)

8. Diamondbacks at Brewers
Ian Kennedy (7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 8 K) vs. Yovani Gallardo (5 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 3 K)

Two pitchers trying to prove they are No. 1s. Kennedy was two years ago when he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young vote. He went 15-12 with a 4.02 ERA last year, but looked very good in beating St. Louis in his opener. Gallardo is 47-26 with a 3.63 ERA over the past three seasons. He walked 81 batters last year, so unless he cuts down on the free passes, he'll remain more of a No. 2. And the 1-4 Brewers are already reeling with Aramis Ramirez heading to the DL and the bullpen struggling again. Can you go nine, Yovani?

7. Cubs at Braves
Jeff Samardzija (8 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K) vs. Tim Hudson (4.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 3 K)

The former Notre Dame wide receiver showed in his first start that there was nothing fluky about last year's strong performance. He blew away the Pirates with his mid-90s heat, slider, cut fastball and splitter. He'll find the Atlanta lineup a little tougher, especially the red-hot Justin Upton, who already has five home runs in five games. Hudson isn't quite an ace anymore, but you know what you're going to get: a lot of ground balls. The flame-throwing kid against the wily veteran. How can you not watch this one?

6. Red Sox at Blue Jays
Jon Lester (5 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 7 K) vs. R.A. Dickey (6 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 BB, 4 K)

Lester is trying to prove that he still belongs with the other names on this list after struggling in 2012. He scuffled through his Opening Day start against the Yankees, striking out seven but throwing 96 pitches in five innings. A couple of things to watch with Dickey: He walked four in his first start, something he did just once last year in his Cy Young campaign with the Mets (also in his first start); and catcher J.P. Arencibia really struggled with the knuckleball, allowing three passed balls.

5. Royals at Phillies
James Shields (6 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 6 K) vs. Cole Hamels (5 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 1 BB 5 K)

Shields is coming off a 1-0 loss to Sale while Hamels allowed three home runs for just the eighth time in his career. The first trip through the revamped rotation showed positive signs for Kansas City: 11 runs in 28 innings and a nifty 32/5 K/BB ratio. But Shields will likely have to do better at getting the ball on the ground. He had just four ground balls and 10 fly balls in his first start (and six line drives). Last year, his ratio was 336 ground balls and 186 fly balls. Give up too many fly balls in Philly, and a couple may find the seats.

4. Cardinals at Giants
Adam Wainwright (6 IP, 11 H, 4 R, 0 BB, 6 K) vs. Matt Cain (6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K)

Cain came up on the no-decision end of Clayton Kershaw's Opening Day shutout, leaving after six impressive innings. Cain is tough at home: 2.03 ERA at AT&T last year, 2.80 in 2011, with only 11 home runs allowed over the two seasons. His fly balls go to die in San Francisco. The Giants have scored just 12 runs in their first five games, so Cain may have to put up another zero to beat Wainwright.

3. Yankees at Tigers
CC Sabathia (5 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 BB, 5 K) vs. Justin Verlander (5 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 7 K)

It's way too early to call this a must-win game for the Yankees, but they're 1-4 and now have to face Verlander. In their first time through the rotation, Yankees starters pitched the second-fewest innings of any club (23, one-third more than the Padres), so New York is desperate for Sabathia to pitch deep into the game. Verlander has never started a season 2-0. The Yankees hit him well in three regular-season matchups last year: 25 hits, including four home runs, and 12 runs in 20 innings.

2. Nationals at Reds
Stephen Strasburg (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K) vs. Johnny Cueto (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 9 K)

Any Strasburg start is must-see TV, especially when facing the Reds -- the team many consider the second best in the NL behind the Nationals. Strasburg's first start against the Marlins was interesting in that he shut them down but struck out just three in seven innings and was removed after 80 pitches. Strasburg has never pitched more than seven innings in any of his 46 career starts. In my book, you can't call him a true No. 1 until he proves he can go eight or nine once in awhile to help remove some of that stress on the bullpen.

1. Angels at Rangers
Jered Weaver (6 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 4 K) vs. Yu Darvish (8.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 14 K)

My must-watch game of the day, and not just because it's the national game on Sunday night on ESPN. This game has everything going for it: Darvish coming off his near-perfect game against the Astros, division rivals, Josh Hamilton back in Texas and Weaver trying to keep intact a 13-game winning streak in March/April. Keys to watch: Hamilton is 1-for-20 with 10 strikeouts so far and Mike Trout was 6-for-17 with two homers and a double off Darvish last year.
Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout aren't on the United States roster, and their absence means a lot of fans don't care about the World Baseball Classic -- certainly not enough to spend a Friday evening in early March watching a baseball game between a largely no-name Mexico team and a still-star-laden U.S. team.

But this tournament isn't for fans who so willingly dismiss it. It's not even so much for fans in the United States, who are more focused on their professional teams or the impending NCAA basketball tournament. Earlier in the day, MLB reported that one-third of all television sets in Japan had watched the first-round games involving the Japanese team. I'm sure its dramatic comeback win over Taiwan on Friday morning rated even higher. Fans in Puerto Rico cheered on their team to a victory over Spain. Fans in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic care intensely about how their teams fare.

And Chase Field in Phoenix was nearly full for Friday's Mexico-U.S. game -- with maybe half that crowd rooting for Mexico. Those fans certainly cared that Mexico pulled off the huge 5-2 upset victory, essentially avoiding elimination after Thursday's heartbreaking ninth-inning loss to Italy. The players on the Mexican team certainly cared.

The Mexico lineup is pretty weak outside of Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Jorge Cantu hit fifth and he spent all of last year in Triple-A. Karim Garcia is still around and he hasn't played in the majors since 2004. But R.A. Dickey's knuckleball wasn't effective, a leadoff bloop single led to two runs in the first inning and Gonzalez torched a 73 mph knuckler to center field for a two-run homer in the third.

Other thoughts:
  • Pool D is really interesting now. It could all come down to run differential to see which two teams advance to the second round. If we assume the U.S. beats Italy on Saturday, and the U.S. and Mexico both beat Canada, then Italy, the U.S. and Mexico all finish 2-1. But Italy mercy-ruled Canada in a 14-4 victory, putting pressure on the U.S. lineup to do some damage in its next two games. The eighth inning could prove a key for the U.S., as Tim Collins and Steve Cishek worked out of a second-and-third, nobody-out jam.
  • After Dickey's performance, fans will be crying that Verlander or Kershaw or David Price aren't here. First off, Dickey wanted to be here and those guys didn't. Second, Dickey earned his invite as much as those guys would have, coming off his National League Cy Young Award. He just didn't have a good night. That's what happens in a tournament, not much different than what happens in the postseason: Anything can happen.
  • Joe Torre’s lineup left a little to be desired. He hit Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Phillips 1-2, because they're fast and they hit at the top of the order for their regular teams. He hit Eric Hosmer sixth, pushing Giancarlo Stanton -- who only led the NL in slugging percentage -- all the way down to seventh, and Adam Jones, he of the 32 home runs last year, batting eighth. Stanton and Jones are better hitters than Rollins, Phillips and Hosmer. Torre might have been playing the hot hand with Hosmer, who had hit .391 in spring training with the Royals, and maybe he wanted to spread out his three left-handed hitters (switch-hitter Rollins, Joe Mauer and Hosmer). Still, a little more creativity would have had something like David Wright, Mauer, Ryan Braun, Stanton, Jones, Rollins, Phillips, Hosmer and catcher J.P. Arencibia.
  • Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz had two key at-bats for Mexico. In the first inning, he delivered a sacrifice fly that was also deep enough to move Ramiro Pena to third, and Pena scored on Gonzalez's sac fly. In the fifth, after Eduardo Arredondo slapped an Ichiro-like double down the left-field line off Twins closer Glen Perkins and was bunted to third, Cruz delivered another sac fly.
  • Pitchers are allowed a maximum of 65 pitches in first-round games, but Yovani Gallardo was on a 50-pitch limit for Mexico. He looked sharp, allowing two hits and striking out four in 3.1 innings, but that meant Mexico had to rely on its bullpen, a day after using four relievers in that 6-5 loss to Italy. Royals righty Luis Mendoza escaped a jam in the fifth after walking the first two batters, striking out Arencibia on a nice 0-2 slider and then retiring Rollins and Phillips on ground balls. Oliver Perez got a key out in the sixth and Oscar Villareal pitched a scoreless seventh. The U.S. scored once off Cardinals reliever Fernando Salas in the eighth, and Giants closer Sergio Romo closed it out.
  • The Giants were undoubtedly nervous seeing Romo come in. They had apparently requested that Romo not appear in consecutive games, and manager Bruce Bochy has always been very cautious with his use of Romo. He threw 26 pitches Thursday, but this was a must-win game for Mexico. Saving him for Saturday's game against Canada doesn't make any sense if you lose this game. A reliever can't appear three consecutive days, so Romo is unavailable now for Canada.
  • Ryan Vogelsong starts for the U.S. against Italy, and while the Italian team is mostly comprised of U.S.-born players -- including several major leaguers -- they will start an actual pitcher from Italy: Luca Panerati, a left-hander who was in the Reds' system from 2008-11, never advancing past Class A. Last year, he pitched in the Italian Baseball League. Now he gets to face a team of the best players in the world. This is what the World Baseball Classic is all about.
After the Milwaukee Brewers won 96 games and reached the NLCS in 2011, not a lot people predicted they would make the playoffs last season, primarily because they had lost first baseman Prince Fielder.

I wrote before the season that the Brewers' offense would be fine and that their rotation and bullpen would get them back into the postseason. In fact, I picked them to win World Series. It was a bit of a wild-card pick, yes, but I believed it was grounded in solid analysis and not pulled out of thin air.

[+] EnlargeYovani Gallardo
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Veteran right-hander Yovani Gallardo anchors the Brewers' young staff.
Well, I was right about one thing: Even without Fielder, the Brewers scored 55 more runs than the year before. But here's what happened to the season-opening rotation:

  • Yovani Gallardo: Made 33 starts and was fine with a 3.66 ERA.
  • Zack Greinke: Made 21 starts and was traded July 27 with the Brewers 10 games under .500.
  • Randy Wolf: Went 3-10 with a 5.69 ERA in 24 starts. One of the worst starters in the league.
  • Shaun Marcum: Was effective (3.70 ERA) but made just 21 starts.
  • Chris Narveson: Tore his rotator cuff after two starts.

And then there was the bullpen. Closer John Axford had been dominant in 2011, saving 46 games in 48 chances, including 43 in a row. He was terrible in 2012, lost his job temporarily to Francisco Rodriguez (who was even worse), and the Brewers lost 11 games they were leading heading into the ninth inning, most in the majors.

But in the midst of this, there was some good news. The Brewers finished strong, going 36-23 over the final two months, and even got to within 1.5 games of the second wild card with 12 games left to play. A big reason they finished strong was a bunch of new guys in the rotation who pitched well: Mike Fiers (9-10, 3.74 ERA), Marco Estrada (5-7, 3.64) and late-season call-ups Wily Peralta (2-1, 2.48 in five starts) and Mark Rogers (3-1, 3.92 in seven starts).

Those are solid ERA totals for a group that included three rookies pitching in one of the best hitters' parks in the league. Here's a stat that may surprise you, however: Brewers starters had the best strikeout percentage in the National League.

Brewers: 22.0 percent
Nationals: 21.5 percent
Phillies: 21.5 percent
Mets: 20.7 percent
Giants: 20.4 percent

No, they didn't necessarily give that away by walking a lot of guys; the Brewers rotation actually had a slightly better strikeout-to-walk ratio than the heralded Nationals rotation. Of course, some of that was due to Greinke and Marcum, and those two are no longer here. But here are the strikeout percentages of the projected Milwaukee starters from last season:

Estrada: 25.2 percent
Rogers: 24.9 percent
Fiers: 24.8 percent
GREINKE: 24.2 percent
Gallardo: 23.7 percent
MARCUM: 20.7 percent
Peralta: 20.4 percent

Peralta is Milwaukee's top prospect, a big 23-year-old with a big fastball, clocking in over 95 mph in his short stint with the team. Rogers is a former first-round pick who has battled injuries and is now 27 years old, but he still throws 93-95. The guys a lot of people are skeptical about are Estrada and Fiers, since neither lights up the radar gun.

Estrada throws 88-92, but what he lacks in velocity, he makes up for in location. Look at how he painted that outside corner against left-handed batters:

EstradaESPN Stats & InformationSometimes it's not how fast your fastball is, but where you can put it.

Lefties hit just .203 with two home runs off his fastball in 139 plate appearances.

Fiers' fastball is even less impressive velocitywise, averaging 88.1 mph, but he changes speeds, throws strikes and his funky delivery makes it hard to pick up the ball. He dominated throughout his three-plus seasons in the minors, so there is a track record here. Some will point to his 7.09 ERA in September as a sign that the league was catching on to him, but he also may have just tired out after a career-high 180 innings. I like him in 2013.

Then there's staff ace Gallardo, who has never quite put together that all-around dominant season, but he's matured into one of the most consistent starters in the league: 30-plus starts each of the past four seasons, with an ERA ranging between 3.52 and 3.84.

The key guy will be Peralta. He averaged 4.8 walks per nine innings in Triple-A, so he needs to curb his wildness, but the mid-90s fastball is top-shelf material.

Considering that the Brewers still aren't known for their defensive prowess, having a strikeout staff is important. The Milwaukee staff may not impress on paper, but I think it's going to surprise. And if Axford and the bullpen bounce back, the Brewers will end up as sneaky playoff contenders.

The Milwaukee Brewers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-0 in a crucial game for positioning in the race for the second wild-card spot in the National League. Random thoughts follow.

1. To be fair, the Pirates played until 1:28 a.m. on Tuesday in Chicago, flew back to Pittsburgh, drove to their homes, maybe saw the kids off to school, maybe caught a few hours of sleep and then headed to the ballpark, where all they had to do was face one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, Yovani Gallardo. You can argue that it was unfair to make the Pirates sit through that long rain delay at Wrigley Field, but there was little choice as the Pirates didn't have any more open dates on the schedule and no more games against the Cubs.

2. Gallardo entered with a 7-0 record and 2.98 ERA over his past nine starts, all Brewers' victories. The Pirates had a chance to get to him in the second inning when he walked two and gave up a single with two outs, but A.J. Burnett was batting. He grounded out and Gallardo settled down, retiring 13 in a row at one point. Gallardo's curveball has been a key pitch during this stretch as he'd thrown it 187 times during those nine starts and batters were 7-for-42 against it, with 16 strikeouts and no walks in at-bats ending with the pitch. He didn't use his curve early in the game, relying mostly on his fastball and slider, then turned to the curve more in the middle innings. He also retired Andrew McCutchen all three times he faced him -- twice on sliders that resulted in ground outs and a first-pitch fastball that McCutchen lined back to Gallardo.

3. Ryan Braun. OK, let's talk about Ryan Braun. Two more hits, a run, an RBI, three of the Brewers' seven stolen bases. (Did I mention the Pirates looked listless?) Look, you may dislike him because of the positive PED test that was overturned. You may believe the dagger of doubt cancels out any appreciation of his skills. Pirates fans were booing him on Tuesday night, pretty precious from people who will cheer Ben Roethlisberger. Fact is the dude can absolutely rake and absolutely is an MVP candidate. As Jayson Stark outlined on Friday, the odds against Braun winning are slim, more so for what happened last winter than for any holes in his game. Because if you can find a hole, let me know. And remember, he's doing this without Prince Fielder batting behind him.

4. I think the Pirates are done. Great story. We rooted for them. I think I speak for most fans without a dog in the fight in saying we wanted the Pirates to make the playoffs. The depth just isn't there yet. With James McDonald struggling, the Pirates will give rookie Kyle McPherson his first major league start on Wednesday. I can't say Clint Hurdle is making the wrong decision considering McDonald's recent performances, but it's a sign of desperation. And desperation rarely works in a playoff race.

5. Unsung hero of the Brewers: Their catchers. Led by Jonathan Lucroy's .324 average, they were hitting a combined .292/.364/.451 with 18 home runs before Tuesday's game. Lucroy had three of Milwaukee's 13 hits.

6. Jeff Clement pinch-hit for the Pirates. The Mariners once drafted Clement third overall in the 2005 draft. Two picks ahead of a guy named Braun.

7. Can the Brewers really do this? The Cardinals' win over the Astros means the Brewers remain 2.5 games behind St. Louis. But they've passed the Pirates and passed the Phillies, so only the Dodgers and Cardinals stand between them and the second wild card. Since losing on Aug. 19, they're now 21-6 and have gone 11-2 against the Pirates, Cardinals and Braves. Over those 27 games they've outscored their opponents 161-99, averaging 6.0 runs per game.

8. Late in the game, the Pirates' announcers were talking about the batting title race in the National League, basically suggesting it would be a farce if Melky Cabrera wins it. He's hitting .346 to McCutchen's .339. I understand promoting your guy, but what is baseball supposed to do? Pretend Cabrera's 2012 season never existed? You can't do that, just like you can't take away home runs from Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire. McCutchen went 0-for-4, although he has played well in September (.293, four home runs). Sure, we'd like to see McCutchen catch Cabrera, but baseball has a long history of controversial batting titles. You could just add this one to the list.

9. Norichika Aoki has been quietly productive: .291/.361/.431, 27 steals, 2.7 WAR, solid defense in right field. The Brewers have him signed for 2 years, $2.5 million, with a $1.5 million team option for 2014. Great signing by Doug Melvin.

10. If you're the Brewers, do you second-guess trading Zack Greinke? Considering where they were, I don't think you can. The guys who replaced Greinke -- essentially Mark Rogers and now Wily Peralta -- have pitched well, so I'm not sure the Brewers would have a better record with Greinke. Now, having him around to pitch a potential tiebreaker game or wild-card game would be a nice option.

11. I think the Brewers need to win these next two games in Pittsburgh, take advantage of a reeling Pirates team. You don't want to head into Washington and Cincinnati having to go 6-1. As is, if we say 86 wins is needed to make the second wild, the Brewers have to go 11-4 over their final 15. I still think the Cards' schedule is a huge advantage -- they have eight more games against Astros and Cubs while the Brewers have just three against the Astros. In the end, I think the Brewers fall a game short. But wouldn't a three-way tie with Cardinals, Brewers and Dodgers be fun?

Andrew McCutchenCharles LeClaire/US PresswireAndrew McCutchen can only do so much as the Pirates slip behind the Brewers in the standings.

The second wild card is a goofy, ridiculous idea that goes against everything baseball history stands for: That the regular season is the ultimate test of a team's ability, strength and toughness. To get to the playoffs, you have to prove yourself over 162 games; and to get there, baseball requires a higher standard of excellence than other sports.

Which is one reason I didn't like the second wild card; it lowers that bar. And once you're there after playing 162 games, you get one game, do-or-die, to remain alive?

I still have my doubts, but in 2012, I'll admit: The second wild card has added an extra layer of fun.

I'm pretty sure the Milwaukee Brewers would agree. I'm not exactly sure when the Brewers hit their low point. Maybe it was when Rickie Weeks swung at this pitch, but more likely it was July 23, 24 and 25, when they lost three games in Philadelphia by identical 7-6 scores, all in the late innings. In the first game, Francisco Rodriguez allowed four runs in the bottom of the ninth. The next day, the Phillies scored six runs in the eighth inning. The day after that, the Brewers scored a run in the 10th but gave up two in the bottom of the inning. Two days later, Zack Greinke was traded.

And why not? The Brewers were 45-54, 10 games out of the second wild card, the magic of 2011's playoff run a distant memory.

Yet here we are, 44 games later, and the Brewers are three games behind the suddenly plummeting St. Louis Cardinals for that suddenly enticing second wild card. On Wednesday, the Brewers completed a three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves thanks to an eight-run explosion in the fifth inning, all the runs in Milwaukee's 8-2 victory. The Brewers are 18-5 over their past 23 games, hitting .289 with 36 home runs and 32 stolen bases while averaging 6.1 runs per game. The pitching has been impressive, of course, with a 3.33 ERA and 220 strikeouts in 208 innings.

The fifth inning came from nowhere. Paul Maholm, who has been so solid for Atlanta since coming over from the Cubs, was sailing along with just three hits allowed through four innings. The inning began with a Chipper Jones fielding error, Yovani Gallardo's sacrifice and Norichika Aoki's infield single that Jones made a diving stop on but couldn't make a throw. Up stepped Weeks, the 2011 All-Star whose averaged had sunk to .158 on June 10 and remained under .200 through July 24. Since then, however, he's hit .308, slugged over .500 and he hit a 2-1 fastball from Maholm into the bullpen in right-center for his sixth home run of September.

The Brewers weren't done. Ryan Braun -- can we finally start talking about him as an MVP candidate? -- singled. Aramis Ramirez reached on another infield single that Jones couldn't handle, Jonathan Lucroy singled just past a diving Paul Janish at shortstop, Logan Schafer walked and Travis Ishikawa cleared the bases with a double over the head of Jason Heyward on a pretty good low-and-away slider from Maholm. That brought in Cristhian Martinez and Gallardo finished off the inning with an RBI double.

Hey, it was one of those innings -- two infield hits, a single just past Janish, a double just out of Heyward's reach. It's one of those innings that when they happen in September you start believing in things like luck, karma and chasing down the Cardinals.

Gallardo, in the absence of Greinke, has stepped up since that trade. Other than one bad seven-run outing against the Pirates, he's been terrific over nine starts, giving up two runs or fewer in seven of those starts and three in the eighth. The Brewers have won all nine of those games. And here's a stat that may surprise: Gallardo leads the majors with 24 quality starts, one more than R.A. Dickey and Clayton Kershaw. Does that make him a Cy Young candidate? No, but he's provided that one consistent presence from an Opening Day rotation that saw Chris Narveson go down after two starts, Randy Wolf pitch his way out of town with a 5.69 ERA, Shaun Marcum miss time and Greinke get traded. The Brewers even had their own less-publicized Operation Shutdown when rookie Mark Rogers, who went 3-1 with a 3.92 in seven starts after his recall from the minors, was shut down after his Aug. 31 start.

* * * *

OK, maybe this is where I admit I picked the Brewers to reach the World Series. It was an admittedly left-field prediction, but going out on a limb with at least one pick is part of the fun of spring-training prognosticating. But one reason I believed in them was I did think their offense would be fine, even minus Prince Fielder. Indeed, the Brewers have scored the most runs in the National League and one big reason has been Ramirez, who essentially replaced Fielder in the lineup. Compare their numbers:

Fielder, 2011: .299/.415/.566, 38 home runs, 36 doubles
Ramirez, 2012: .296/.361/.529, 23 home runs, 44 doubles

Pretty close, and considering Ramirez plays third base, you can actually argue that Ramirez has been more valuable than Fielder (Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement: Fielder 4.3 in 2011, Ramirez 4.7 so far.)

What I didn't account for was Wolf pitching so poorly and the bullpen duo of Rodriguez and John Axford developing severe cases of pyromania. The Brewers have blown 10 games they led entering the ninth inning. That's terrible beyond words: Entering Wednesday's games, all 30 MLB teams were a collective 1842-91 when leading after nine innings. That's an average of three such losses per team; the Brewers had 10 percent of those defeats all by themselves.

So the Brewers can score. They have an ace. Axford has shaved off his 1890s 'stache, reclaimed his closer role and allowed one hit over his past nine appearances that resulted in eight saves and a win.

Are the Brewers a great team? No, they're 72-71. But this goofy race for the second wild card makes them playoff contenders. Their next six games are against the Mets and slumping Pirates.

Like I said: I dislike the second wild card. And yet I love it.

Now, about those Phillies ...

Nori AokiBenny Sieu/US PresswireNori Aoki's legging out an infield hit is the Brewers' case in point: They're not out yet.
First base: Braun and the boys. I'm not ready yet to give up on the Brewers. Yes, they're 28-32, Rickie Weeks is hitting .158, Nyjer Morgan has two RBIs (both on solo home runs), they're only 16-17 at home after posting the best home record in the majors in 2011 and they've had injury problems all season. But in the NL Central, 28-32 means they're far from out of it. The fact that so much has gone wrong and the Brewers are just 4.5 games behind the Reds can be viewed as a positive sign.

The main problem has been the pitching: The Brewers are 14th in the NL in runs allowed. Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum still have the potential to be a solid 1-2-3. Gallardo beat the Padres on Sunday to improve to 5-5, 4.21. While he's allowed three runs or fewer in 10 of his 13 starts, high pitch counts mean he's pitched more than seven innings just once. That's been an issue with the entire rotation as the Milwaukee has pitched the second-most innings in the NL. While more consistency is expected from Gallardo, the key is No. 4 starter Randy Wolf, who is 2-5, 5.45. Take out two starts against the Cubs and his ERA is 6.71. After taking four of six from the Cubs and Padres, the Brewers need to pull off similar results on this week's road trip to Kansas City and Minnesota.

As for Ryan Braun, after posting a .994 OPS during his 2011 MVP season, he's at .985 right now with 15 home runs. In other words, if the Brewers' pitching improves and they climb back over .500 and into the race, he's an MVP candidate once again.

Second base: Jason Kipnis is good. The Cleveland second baseman hit a game-winning three-run homer off St. Louis closer Jason Motte in the ninth inning to give the Indians a 4-1 victory. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kipnis turned on a 97.8 up-and-in fastball from Motte, only the third left-handed hitter in the last four seasons to homer on an up-and-in fastball of 97+ mph. Kipnis is hitting .285/.345/.460, ranks second in the AL in runs, eighth in RBIs, has 10 home runs and leads the league with 15 steals while getting caught just once. Robinson Cano is probably the deserving All-Star starter right now, but Ron Washington may need to find room for Kipnis on the squad.

Third base: Mariners can't hit at home. The Mariners scored just six runs in their weekend series against the Dodgers although they managed to win on Friday thanks to the six-pitcher combined no-hitter. But after hitting .181 in the three games they're now hitting .192 at home. The Mariners have played 37 road games and just 25 at home; normally, that could be viewed as a good indicator moving forward, but necessarily not with the way Seattle hits at home. It's worth noting that while Seattle's offenses were historically terrible in 2010 and 2011, they did play much better at home those years -- 35-46 in 2010 (25-56 on the road) and 39-45 in 2011 (28-50 on the road). With help from that 21-run outburst in Texas, the Mariners actually rank sixth in the AL in road OPS. They've scored 21 runs over the past nine home games.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. The Phillies have batted 117 times this season with a runner on third and less than outs. They've scored that run 45 times. How bad is that 38 percent success rate?
Shaun Marcum/Randy Wolf/Yovani GallardoUS PresswireShaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Yovani Gallardo are three-fifths of Milwaukee's rotation.
The Milwaukee Brewers have returned all five rotation starters from 2011, a season that was almost certainly the best in franchise history other than 1982. It's a solid group that puts Milwaukee in position to reclaim its NL Central title. It is not, however, a rotation that should be considered elite or ranked among the 10 best in baseball. I put that out on Twitter last week and Brewers fans came attacking like badgers. Wisconsin badgers, I guess. So I called Tom Haudricourt, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's veteran Brewers beat writer and asked him for some perspective.

"They went so long without any starting pitching to speak of," Haudricourt said about Brewers fans, "and now they finally have some and they want some credit for it."

The Brewers' passionate fan base is rushing to fill Miller Park at a pace that has team officials expecting to exceed last season's franchise-record attendance mark of more than 3 million fans. Those fans vigorously defend reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun as if lab test results showing the presence of exogenous testosterone simply never existed. I realize watching Prince Fielder go 5-for-12 with two home runs to begin his Tigers career may send fans running and screaming into the streets of Sheboygan Falls but let's not bet the bratwurst that this 2012 rotation is a pass into the postseason.

Good versus great can be oddly subjective in baseball but a simple numbers crunch is a fair start. After the wave of Twitter outrage from Brewers fans, ESPN Stats & Information analyst Lee Singer ran some numbers and it turned out my suspicion was correct: Using 2011 Wins Above Replacement totals from Baseball-Reference.com for the five pitchers in each 2012 Opening Day rotation, Milwaukee's group does not rank among baseball's 10 best.

2012 starting rotations according to 2011 bWAR
1. Phillies, 22.5
2. Angels, 18.8
3. Tigers, 17.7
4. Yankees, 17.6
5. Diamondbacks, 16.5
6. Rays, 15.3
7. Red Sox, 14.8
8. Giants, 14.2
9. Dodgers, 13.5
10. Nationals, 12.9
11. White Sox, 11.9
12. Brewers, 11.7

"They're in the top group in the National League," Haudricourt said. "There might be other rotations that individually may rank better in across-the-board stats but this rotation just seems to work well in conjunction with their late-inning bullpen." After watching countless closers either land on the disabled list or implode to begin 2012, the Brewers' duo of Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford seems worth its weight in gold.

Jose Veras, acquired from Pittsburgh for Casey McGehee last December, gives Milwaukee a third reliable reliever. "Ron Roenicke seems really comfortable pulling the starters and giving it to the bullpen," Haudricourt said. "Sometimes your rotation is just better than its stats because of what it does in conjunction with the bullpen. They're very protective in terms of pitch counts -- you won't see any staggering 125- or 130-pitch counts." Indeed, the reliability of that bullpen and Roenicke's willingness to use it is one reason why Milwaukee pitchers posted only one complete game in 2011 but all five Brewers rotation members started at least 28 games and Milwaukee used only six starting pitchers all season.

Last season, Yovani Gallardo allowed more than three earned runs only three times in his last 16 starts. Zack Greinke had a 2.61 ERA over his final 16 starts. Gallardo, however, can't beat the Cardinals, the Brewers' NL Central rival who have now won five of their past six games in Milwaukee. Following last Friday's Opening Day drubbing in which he allowed three homers in a four-batter span, Gallardo is now 1-9 in 13 starts against St. Louis with a 6.24 ERA, including last year's postseason.

Saturday, Greinke continued to be unbeatable in a Brewers uniform at Miller Park. He's 12-0, 2.91 at home for the Brewers in the regular season with 126 strikeouts in 102 innings. He was, however, just 5-6, 4.70 on the road last season. Rotation aces win on the road and they win critical games against big rivals. Greinke said last month that he's "very comfortable" in Milwaukee and called the organization "amazing" but he's a free agent after the season, just hired a new agent last week and if you don't think Matt Cain's new $127.5 million contract just shot Greinke's price through the roof you're kidding yourself.

Shaun Marcum is also a free agent after this season. After going just 3-4 in 11 starts last August and September, Marcum turned in a 0-3, 14.90 postseason. Marcum was acquired from Toronto for top prospect Brett Lawrie, who may be headed toward superstardom with the Blue Jays. The deal could end up rivaling the 1992 trade that sent Gary Sheffield to the Padres for Ricky Bones, Matt Mieske and Jose Valentin as the worst in Brewers history. "When they traded for Marcum they had no idea they were going to be able to get Greinke and they didn't have enough starters," Haudricourt explained. "There's no question the trade is going to work out better in the long run for Toronto and the Brewers readily admit that. But they had close to an 'all-in' year, last year and they just decided to go for it. They knew it was going to bite them in the end."

Any organization which goes "all-in" deserves support from its fan base and kudos to the Brewers brass for not simply claiming tied hands. But if that gamble doesn't pay off tension can increase as the window narrows. Gallardo, Greinke, Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson make up one of the National League's most competitive rotations, one certainly capable of bringing the postseason back to Milwaukee this year. Let's keep in mind, however, that it's a somewhat thin division in a league that fell another step behind the American League this winter.

Steve Berthiaume hosts "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN. Follow Steve on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.

In 2009 and 2010, Adam Wainwright was as good as just about any pitcher in baseball. He ranked third in adjusted ERA behind only Felix Hernandez and Roy Halladay. Only five guys threw more innings and only CC Sabathia won more games. Wainwright finished third and then second in the National League Cy Young voting.

He hurt his elbow in spring training last year and missed the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. His start Saturday against Zack Greinke is one of the more intriguing matchups of baseball's first weekend. Given Chris Carpenter's health issues, a successful return by Wainwright is even more imperative for the Cardinals.

Wainwright's signature pitch was his knee-buckling 12-to-6 curveball that he threw nearly 29 percent of the time in 2010. The only starters who threw a higher percentage of curveballs than Wainwright that year were Wandy Rodriguez and Gio Gonzalez. Two things made Wainwright's curve tough to attack: (1) He set it up with good velocity and location on his fastball, throwing 91-92 mph; (2) great location on the curve. Check the heat maps below: Wainwright spotted his curve low and away to left-handed hitters ... and low and away to right-handed hitters.

Adam WainwrightESPNThe location of Adam Wainwright's curveballs versus lefties and righties in 2011.

So while everybody's eyes will likely be on the radar gun, it may be Wainwright's command of his curve that tells us how he'll do as he returns. No matter what happens Saturday, it's an anticipated game for the Cardinals and their fans. "It really is a big deal," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak told MLB.com. "I'm probably going to have a few butterflies before that game even starts, just knowing how hard he's worked to get to where he is."

Meanwhile, Greinke gets the ball for the Brewers on the heels of Yovani Gallardo's four-homer Opening Day stink bomb. If you want a Cy Young candidate in the National League not named Halladay, Kershaw or Lee, Greinke may be your guy. Greinke finished 16-6 with a 3.83 ERA in 28 starts in 2011, and while that 3.83 ERA might not impress you, it comes with a big caveat: an extremely unlucky average on balls in play in the first half of the season.

Greinke's BABIP in the first half was .349, which led to a 5.45 ERA even though he had 99 strikeouts and just 16 walks in 74.1 innings. In the second half, his BABIP returned to a more normal level of .304 and he posted a 2.59 ERA.

Here's a heat map of Greinke's pitch locations in the first and second halves of 2011. While this doesn't tell the whole story of setting up hitters and so on, you can see the hot points are pretty similar. It does suggest that Greinke was merely unlucky in the first half, with a few too many bloopers, flares and infield hits.

Zack Greinke heat mapESPN Stats & InformationZack Greinke's overall pitch location in the first half of 2011 (left) and second half.

What does it mean? If Greinke pitches like he did in 2011, when he led the NL in strikeouts per nine innings at 10.5, he's more likely to come closer to that 2.59 ERA than 3.83. Greinke also loved pitching at home last season -- he went 11-0 in 15 starts while averaging 11.3 K's per nine. The one aspect Greinke needs to improve on to become a legit Cy Young contender -- and remember, he won the American League award in 2009 with the Royals -- is to pitch deeper into games. He pitched more than seven innings only twice last season.

After Gallardo's disaster, there's nothing the Brewers would like more than eight innings from Greinke and the chance to hand the ball to John Axford with the lead.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Michael Baumann of Crashburn Alley has a fun post on a theoretical question: If your life depended on winning the next 10 World Series, who do you pick for your 25-man roster? Money is no object. Injuries are a factor. Your team can't be too old, or it won't win down the road. It can't be too young or it won't win now. So who do you take? I like Michael's list, although I disagree with him on a couple of choices. Gerritt Cole over David Price or Justin Verlander (who isn't that old)? And he selected three relievers; I'd punt the relievers all together and draft 10 or 11 starting pitchers.

Other stuff:

What's next for Yovani Gallardo?

March, 1, 2012
Pitch location for Yovani Gallardo's curveball, which was a key to his late-season success.
Click here to create your own Gallardo heat maps

At the end of the 2011 season, Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo found the magic touch with the pitch that could make him a viable Cy Young candidate in coming seasons.

Other than two blips against the Cardinals (one in the regular season, one in the National League Championship Series), Gallardo was magnificent to close the year. In his last 11 starts, including the postseason, he posted a 3.00 ERA, with 90 strikeouts and 19 walks in 72 innings.

In the five-start span encompassing his last three regular-season appearances and two starts against the Diamondbacks in the NL Division Series, Gallardo struck out 50 hitters in 34 1/3 innings.

Gallardo’s success coincided with a change in the primary location of his curveball.

Gallardo was able to get his curveball to drop to a point just at or below the knees. Against both righties and lefties, he was able to spot the ball on or just off the outside corner as needed.

Check out the height of where the pitch landed in the heat maps atop this piece. Then, check out the results in the chart on the right.

Hitters couldn’t touch the pitch. The rate of swings that missed against it doubled from 32 percent to 64 percent over his last eight regular-season starts.

One of the reasons the Cardinals were successful against Gallardo in the NLCS was that he didn’t have his best curveball that day. They missed on only two of 12 swings and rapped three hits against it.

They were the fortunate ones. We’ll see if others will be as fortunate in 2012.

How will Gallardo fare in 2012? You tell us. Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Skippers' choices decide Game 3

October, 12, 2011

With Chris Carpenter looking to provide an encore after his masterpiece in Game 5 of the National League Division Series and Yovani Gallardo coming into the game with a career 1-7 record against the St. Louis Cardinals while allowing 6.5 runs per nine, Wednesday's Game 3 of the National League Championship Series was already one with all sorts of foreboding for the Milwaukee Brewers despite being an ace-on-ace matchup. In 11 starts against St. Louis, Gallardo has managed just four quality starts.

But Carpenter didn’t channel his inner Bob Gibson. Instead, he was the first starter hooked on Wednesday night, after just five innings. And that suited the Cardinals just fine, because with Tony La Russa’s team-pitching approach, he needed only five and a lead before turning to the revolving door from his bullpen. Just four would have to troop in to seal St. Louis' 4-3 victory, because even while he’s willing to go batter to batter with an alacrity unlike that of any other manager in history, La Russa let both Lance Lynn and Jason Motte pitch in multiple innings.

With this game on the line, it wasn’t the ageless geezers like Arthur Rhodes and Octavio Dotel who were pitching. La Russa’s love of veterans might be well-known, but he loves winning more. It was the younger guns he trusted with the one-run lead: rookies Fernando Salas and Lynn, then Marc Rzepczynski for Prince-erasure as the situational lefty, and finally Motte to cook with gas and put the game away. It might not sound like the Nasty Boys, but the Cardinals' pen will settle for being merely nasty.

Thanks to some wildness and some dubious defense -- more on that in a second -- the Cardinals busted out for four runs in the first, which might have triggered your expectation that they were going to repeat Game 2’s ugliness and blow the Brewers back to Milwaukee before they might ever sniff a Game 6. Gallardo wound up having about the strangest game you might imagine -- seemingly on the ropes from the outset en route to putting 13 of the 26 batters he faced on base. But the Cardinals simply couldn’t deliver the knockout blow, even doing Gallardo the characteristic favor of grounding into a couple of double plays.

Despite all that, Brewers skipper Ron Roenicke stuck with Gallardo, barely bothering to ring the pen until he finally hooked his starter after five innings and 95 pitches, down by just a run. If you expected Roenicke to play Captain Hook at any point, guess again. If Gallardo isn’t the Brewers’ ace, they have no ace, and with Randy Wolf starting Game 4, the last thing he could afford was a quick hook.

Given the desperate straits he was in on paper going into this game, Roenicke took a big risk at the outset -- on the lineup card. Roenicke’s willingness to take a few risks on offense is one of his key features as a manager, and with the series tied and going up against Carpenter, he elected to sit Nyjer Morgan vs. a right-handed pitcher and start Mark Kotsay in center in his place. This had a lot to do with the two hitters’ track records against Carpenter -- Morgan had a .469 OPS in 25 career PAs, while Kotsay had an .871 in 12. Carping about small sample sizes is the lazy thing to complain about, but that’s what managers have to work with, and with Morgan swinging out of his shoes in the postseason, Roenicke made a tough call. If you want to be generous, call it situational awareness.

Both the benefits and the hazards couldn’t have become transparent any more quickly than they did in this game. Swapping Kotsay in to play center field was obviously a risk: Kotsay is 35 years old, and it’s been years since he was an adequate center fielder, let alone a good one. And starting wound up being a key to the game’s outcome. After a four-run first inning during which Kotsay’s limited range was responsible for a couple of the runs, it didn’t look so good.

Maybe having Gallardo on the mound made this seem worth trying; Gallardo got 36 percent of his outs on strikeouts this season, so he’s much less defense-dependent than most starting pitchers. With two walks and a home run, Kotsay delivered on the offensive side of the equation, and his homer pulled the Brewers to within a run.

If the game swung on La Russa’s aggressiveness in going to his bullpen, Roenicke’s adaptive decision on his lineup card wound up being decisive for the Brewers. The Cardinals can take some satisfaction in the fact that they didn’t win in a walkover or via another tremendous Carpenter start -- but thanks to their pen, they didn’t need one. Now down two games to one with Wolf due, the Brewers’ situation is fairly desperate, with Wolf’s start in Game 4 already a cause for fear.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Well, we’ve got a new series in the American League, don’t we? Keith Law and I were able to discuss that along with some off-field news in a scintillating Wednesday edition of Baseball Today!

1. The Tigers hit some home runs and Doug Fister did the rest. Kudos to them! We discuss the M*A*S*H unit that has become each lineup and the value of an intentional walk.

2. Of course, what Fister and Colby Lewis did -- or didn’t do -- has little bearing on what Rick Porcello and Matt Harrison do. We preview the critical Game 4.

3. The NLCS shifts to St. Louis, where the last time we saw Chris Carpenter he was pretty darn effective. Can Yovani Gallardo step up?

4. Theo Epstein is leaving Boston for the beleaguered Chicago Cubs. We discuss the overrated mess left behind in Beantown -- the team wasn’t overrated, but the off-field activities of certain pitchers was -- as well as his impact on a new franchise.

5. Happy emails? Wait, people actually like us? Hey, we don’t write the emails, we just answer them, and on Wednesday people seemed in a pretty good mood. There were no calls of "Cat bias."

So download Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast and don’t forget to vote for your favorite shows as well as they compete for honors! We tell you how!