Royals Most Likely To Make A Mistake

As we enter the final week before the July 31 trade deadline, it’s a fun diversion to try to figure out who ought to be “sellers” and who ought to be “buyers.” But in the world of two wild cards per league, that’s not as easy a distinction as it used to be. These days, some teams wind up not really belonging in either category.

Still, we can look at the current FanGraphs playoff odds and split baseball pretty evenly in half to get a good idea of who should be doing what.

Fifteen teams have at least a 25 percent chance of making it to the playoffs, or in the case of theNew York Yankees, are within one game of a playoff spot. Everyone else is looking at odds that are less than 15 percent, and while mathematically generated odds don’t automatically rule out a late run, a low probability isn’t exactly a reason to dive into the trade market looking for help.

Most of those bottom-feeding clubs have no uncertainty about where they are, of course. Teams like the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers have known for a while now that 2014 won’t be their year. Others, such as the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Minnesota Twins have begrudgingly accepted that they won’t be playing in October. These teams might not outright be sellers, but they aren’t going to give up the future for this year, either. That is, except for one team, a team that looks increasingly unlikely to make a run but seems hell-bent on making the wrong decision anyway: the Kansas City Royals. Read the rest of this entry »


How Garrett Richards Became A Star

It’s pretty easy to argue the Oakland Athletics are the best team in baseball, and maybe they are. After all, they do have the most wins, the best run differential and a rotation recently reinforced by Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. They could be headed for their third consecutive AL West title.

But don’t count out those Los Angeles Angels, who quietly won 10 of 11 games heading into the break. They find themselves just a game and a half behind the A’s and are no doubt thinking about earning more than just a wild-card spot.

So how did the Angels get to this position after finishing 18 games out the past season? Well,Mike Trout has solidified his position as the no-doubt best player in the game, but he was this great in 2012 and 2013 too, and it didn’t get the Angels to October. Rebounds by Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton from disappointing 2013 seasons have helped of course, as has cutting out dozens of lousy starts from the 2013 group of Tommy HansonJoe Blanton and Jerome Williams.

But those improvements were countered somewhat by steps back and injury concerns from the veteran duo at the front of the rotation, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Rather, the biggest reason the Angels are 20 games over .500 at this point because of the emergence of a 26-year-old who can rightfully be thought of as the staff’s ace: Garrett Richards. Read the rest of this entry »


What Happened to Cards’ Offense?

The St. Louis Cardinals stormed their way to the NL Central title (and then the World Series) last season, and the popular thinking was that it was largely on the strength of their talented young pitching, with Shelby MillerMichael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal joining the consistently excellent veteran leader Adam Wainwright. To a certain extent, that was true, because only four teams allowed fewer runs than the Cardinals did, and despite injuries to Wacha, Joe Kelly and Jaime Garcia, the pitching has again been good in 2014. In fact, no starting rotation in baseball has allowed fewer runs.

Yet something isn’t quite the same. After winning the most games in the National League last year, the Cardinals have been stuck in second place in the NL Central behind the Milwaukee Brewers all season and sit on the precipice of the second wild-card spot. It’s not that being eight games over .500 is a problem, of course, but this year’s Cardinals team is not in the driver’s seat as it was last year.

And why aren’t they? Well, last year’s team scored the most runs in the National League, and the third-most in baseball. The 2014 version has outscored only the whiff-happy Atlanta Braves and the historically awful San Diego Padres, and they’ve hit fewer home runs than any team in the league. What caused this scoring outage, and more importantly, can it be fixed? Read the rest of this entry »


Will Contact Rate Keep George Springer Good Rather Than Great?

Let’s be resoundingly clear about one thing: George Springer has been everything the Houston Astros could have hoped for and more. His .240/.346/.469 slash line is good for a 127 wRC+, which means that he has been 27 percent more productive on offense than a league-average hitter. It puts him among the top-40 marks in the game, and he’s all but certain to smash Lance Berkman‘s team record for homers by a rookie (21 in 2000).

The Astros have rebounded from a wretched start to play close to .500 ball over the past two months, and Springer’s contribution is a huge reason why. In fact, only the performances of both Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu will keep him from being the obvious AL Rookie of the Year award recipient this fall.

Given his plus speed — he stole 77 bases in the minors in 2012 and 2013 — and center-field-quality defense, Springer can provide considerable value in other ways than just at the plate. And yet it’s difficult to shake the feeling that because of all the incredible things he has done in his short time in the big leagues, we’re willfully turning a blind eye to the one thing he’s really, really bad at, which happens to be quite important: making contact with the baseball.

So the question must be asked: Will Springer’s contact issues ultimately make him merely a good player rather than a great one? Read the rest of this entry »


Athletics Must Make a Move

Flags fly forever.

We hear this axiom repeated often. You could call it the baseball version of Al Davis’ famous battle cry, “Just win, baby!” Championships endure, we’re told. Teams on the brink of contention should always push their chips to the center of the table, they say.

But raising a flag is difficult. And so some teams are content to be merely good enough to contend — especially when that roster is cost-efficient.

For a long time, the Oakland Athletics have been such a club. But this year is different. This year, it seems, Oakland should go for the jugular.

Read the rest of this entry »


Anthony Rizzo, Superstar

At some point in the next few weeks, the Chicago Cubs are going to blow up what has surprisingly been a very good starting rotation (by at least one measure, the best), continuing the cycle of accepting present-day pain for potential future gain. Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel will likely head elsewhere via trade, to be replaced for now by the likes of Chris Rusin and Tsuyoshi Wada, and the pitching will suffer for it. Almost certainly, the season will end with the Cubs in fifth place in the NL Central for the sixth consecutive year.

If that sounds like it’s painting a bleak picture for Cubs fans, it shouldn’t. The Cubs are already seeing the fruits of last year’s deadline trades in the big leagues thanks to Jake ArrietaJustin GrimmMike Olt and Neil Ramirez, and potential Hammel/Samardzija trades should only bring in more talent. In the minors, third baseman Kris Bryant has done nothing but destroy baseballs, continuing to test the organization’s otherwise reasonable assertion that he won’t see the bigs until 2015.

That might not make another 90-loss trip to last place any easier to watch as fans continue to hear about “the future,” but this should: Right now, in 2014, the best first baseman in baseball might just be wearing Cubbie blue. Read the rest of this entry »


Don’t Sell The Farm For Samardzija

Another year, another Chicago Cubs starting pitcher on the trade market. As was the case with Ryan Dempster in 2012 and Matt Garza and Scott Feldman in 2013, the Cubs again have a desirable starter available to trade in Jeff Samardzija, who could very well be moved by the July 31 deadline.

Though the argument exists that the Cubs might be best served by signing Samardzija to an extension and having him around as their enviable collection of young hitting prospects arrives, it seems more likely they are looking to trade him to add more youth.

Samardzija is in the midst of the best season of his career, and he and David Price are the two best pitchers who are seemingly available this summer. That being the case, some team is going to pay dearly to obtain him — contenders in Oakland, Toronto, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore and Anaheim — among others — could all use a rotation boost, and since Samardzija is controlled through 2015, the price will be even higher. Think about the bounty Chicago extracted from the Texas Rangers last season for two months of Garza — the one that Rangers GM Jon Daniels admitted already regretting earlier this year — and go up from there.

Then again, Samardzija isn’t the only pitcher likely to be available this summer, and the biggest purchase isn’t always the best one. In fact, there are a few other seemingly available National League pitchers who can put up similar production to Samardzija at a fraction of the cost. Read the rest of this entry »


Oakland’s Young & Unique Arms

On May 24, the Oakland Athletics gave the final inning of a 5-2 loss in Toronto to Jeff Francis, a 33-year-old veteran of 10 big league seasons who had been claimed off of waivers from the Cincinnati Reds six days earlier.

That lone inning was just one of thousands in a major league season, one that no one other than Francis himself likely remembers anything about. It’s less notable for the impact it had on the game than for what it says about the structure of the Athletics, the American League’s best team: It’s the only inning pitched all season by an Oakland pitcher beyond his age-31 season. (And, since 30-year-old Jim Johnson‘s June 27 birthday falls just before the traditional July 1 cutoff for what defines a player’s seasonal age, Francis is, for the moment, the only Oakland pitcher to have seen his 31st birthday.)

The A’s don’t have the youngest pitching staff in baseball — their average of 27.8 years is older than that of Miami, St. Louis and Atlanta, and is essentially even with those in Cleveland, Anaheim and Houston — but they do have one of the best. Oakland has the lowest ERA in the game and the seventh-best fielding independent pitching (FIP). And, as usual, the A’s are doing things their own way. Read the rest of this entry »


Nats Need to Be Dealing

Each season, a number of teams end up stuck in the middle. The teams that can clearly navigate themselves out of that middle are often rewarded, but the teams that do nothing (looking at you, Philadelphia Phillies) often just remain trapped in their mediocrity. As the July 31 trading deadline begins to appear at the horizon of our road trip through the season, there are four teams that should be looking to be buyers. Here they are, plus lists of the players each should be targeting.

Read the rest of this entry »


How To Fix The Red Sox Outfield

In 2012, absolutely nothing went right for an injury-riddled Boston Red Sox team, which lost 93 games and finished in last place in the AL East. In 2013, absolutely everything went right — rebound seasons, unexpected health — as they won their third World Series title in a decade. With most of the championship roster returning in 2014 (minus a key contributor or two), plus a full season from top prospect Xander Bogaerts and the exciting potential of a Grady Sizemorecomeback, the Red Sox seemed positioned to contend again.

Instead? Through 50 games, the 2014 squad was actually five games behind the pace of the 2012 disaster. Through Thursday, the Red Sox were in fourth place, eight games behind theToronto Blue Jays. Maybe this won’t be their year, but there’s no indication that the Red Sox are ready to pack it in, as evidenced by last week’s move to bring back Stephen Drew. Unlike what’s happening in Texas, this isn’t an injury-fueled disaster that can’t be overcome, and despite how impressive the Jays have been, the AL East looks to be as weak as it has been in years.

If the Red Sox can merely get some of their bats to bounce back to long-established career norms, and possibly figure out what’s ailing Clay Buchholz (easier said than done, of course), this is still a talented team that can contend.

Well, except for the outfield, which absolutely cannot go on as it is.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Twins And How Not To Assemble A Roster

Once again, major league baseball players are striking out at previously unseen levels, with 20.5 percent of plate appearances ending in a whiff, which would set a record for the ninth year in a row. And once again, the Minnesota Twins’ pitching staff is doing its best to go against that trend.

Twins pitchers currently sit in last place in strikeout percentage; their 14.9 percent whiff rate is a full 1.6 percent behind the No. 29 White Sox. (If you prefer K/9, their 5.85 rate is also in last place, well below the league average of 7.85.) Not that this is new. The Twins had the majors’ lowest strikeout percentage rates in 2011, ’12 and ’13 as well.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Twins’ cumulative pitching strikeout percentage dating to 2010 pulls up the rear by a considerable amount: Read the rest of this entry »


Key Weaknesses for Contenders

It’s the first week of May, and so that means it’s still early in the season, but maybe not quite as early as you think. No, none of the various starting pitchers with ERA marks south of 2.00 are going to keep that up all year long — well, maybe Jose Fernandez — but most teams have played about 18 percent of their schedules at this point.

It’s enough that it can’t be totally discarded, and where we can at least take an early look at contenders, identify some potential trouble spots and see if there’s anything they can — or should — do about fixing their early-season ailments.

Here’s a look at key weaknesses that have emerged for three contenders. Read the rest of this entry »


Pirates in Serious Trouble

Last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates came within one win of the National League Championship Series, and their star center fielder Andrew McCutchen took home the National League Most Valuable Player award. It was an amazing season, but thus far the success has not carried over to 2014.

After winning five of its first seven games, Pittsburgh has dropped 14 of its past 19 contests, to fall to fourth place. As a result, the Bucs dropped 11 spots in the ESPN Power Rankings this week, all the way back to 24th place. And this isn’t some short-term overreaction. The Pirates are in real trouble.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Angels’ strike zone problem

Despite having the best player in baseball and a resurgent Albert Pujols, the Los Angeles Angels are off to a disappointing 11-12 start, failing to take advantage of spring injuries to Texas and Oakland that seemingly had opened a window of opportunity. Even with all their big contracts, the Angels haven’t been more than a single game over .500 since the end of 2012.

Thanks to the otherworldly performance of Mike Trout, along with Pujols, Howie Kendrick and friends, the problem hasn’t been the offense, but rather a pitching staff that ranks in the bottom half in ERA, FIP and xFIP. Not that this is necessarily a surprise, of course; the Angels’ pitching staff was a big problem last year, and even with the additions of Hector SantiagoTyler Skaggsand Joe Smith, it was expected to still be a weakness this year, too.

There are more than a few reasons why that is – Jered Weaver‘s declining velocity and sudden homer problem chief among them — but here’s one that may not be immediately obvious when watching the games: The Angels’ pitchers throw fewer first-pitch strikes than any other team in baseball. In fact, since data first became available back in 2002, this particular Angels team has thrown fewer first-pitch strikes (52.8 percent) than any other team on record.
Read the rest of this entry »


Tanaka Looking Like A Bargain So Far

It has been only three starts, and it has been only three starts against the Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs at that. Almost anything can happen over a few starts; just look at Aaron Harang‘s success. But so far Masahiro Tanaka has been everything the New York Yankees could have hoped for and more.

Remember the controversy that swirled in February when Yankees GM Brian Cashman said Tanaka “had the potential to be a No. 3 starter?” That wasn’t exactly what Yankee fans wanted to hear after seeing their team drop $155 million in salary, plus a $20 million acquisition fee on top of that. But if this keeps up, that price might almost look like a bargain. Read the rest of this entry »


Indians Will Bounce Back

Last season the Cleveland Indians started the year 8-10 and, despite winning one contest by a 19-6 count, had been outscored by six runs in the process. This April, the Indians have started 8-10 and, despite winning one contest by a 12-6 count, have been outscored by seven runs in the process. Last April they were mired in the 20s in the ESPN Power Rankings all month, and this week they have slid back to 22.

Last year, the Indians turned things around and earned a postseason berth. This year, the Indians will turn things around, and are still on the short list for earning a trip to the playoffs. Let’s consider why.

Read the rest of this entry »


Don’t expect Royals to improve

Coming off an 86-win 2013 season, the Kansas City Royals entered this season with a good deal of optimism. In fact, back in February, we even laid out a blueprint for how they could make the postseason. But a horrible start to the season has frittered away much of that optimism, as the Royals were swept in resounding fashion by the lowly Minnesota Twins, who outscored them 21-5 this past weekend. Kansas City’s record is now 4-7, and it has the second-worst run differential in the American League (minus-14).

Although it’s just one swept series and it’s still early, it’s hard to see where the Royals as currently constituted could make enough gains to reach the postseason.

Read the rest of this entry »


Reds can’t let Hamilton lead off

On Monday in St. Louis, Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton led off the game with a single to right field against Michael Wacha. Or at least it would have been a single, had it been struck by 99.9 percent of hitters who have ever played baseball. Instead, Hamilton never stopped running, and not only did he turn the single into a double, he was almost on second before the cutoff man even received the throw. It was an astounding display of speed, and it shows why Hamilton is considered such a promising player.

Unfortunately, that hit was Hamilton’s first of the season, and was only his second time on base. Add another hit Tuesday night, and Hamilton has bumped his average up to .091, with an .130 on base percentage. Hamilton has yet to score a run. He has yet to steal a base. And while it’s early, the total lack of production from the top of the lineup is a big part of why the Reds have lost six of their first eight, and have scored just 2.86 runs per game, tied with Houston for 26th in MLB.

It’s also a big reason why Joey Votto has only one run driven in. It’s much too soon to discuss sending Hamilton to the minors, but it’s not at all too soon to make an easier change: Cincinnati needs to get him out of the leadoff spot immediately. Read the rest of this entry »


White Sox’s Rebuild Is Working

The Chicago White Sox are almost certainly not going to contend this year. That was the prevailing opinion entering the season, and one week of baseball — despite a respectable 3-3 record — has done little to change that notion, as they rank 25th in ESPN.com’s latest power rankings.

The team is rebuilding, but thanks to the busy offseason of general manager Rick Hahn and his baseball operations staff, the path back to contention may not be as long as we think. The White Sox have done or are doing five things correctly that bode well for the future and make them worth following this year.

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Four Pitchers With New Pitches

Let’s say you’re a big league pitcher. You’ve had some success at the highest level, but like any good professional, you’re looking to improve. How do you do it? Getting into peak physical shape helps, but it’s extremely rare for a pitcher to add significant velocity in a single offseason, and command is generally improved over a period of several years, not all at once.

So what can you do? For many pitchers, the best route is to add a new weapon to their arsenal in the form of a new (or improved) pitch. As just one example, Clayton Kershaw came to the big leagues without a slider and threw it infrequently for most of his first two seasons. Now it’s not only one of his best pitches, it’s one of the most feared offerings in baseball.

Each spring, you hear about numerous pitchers coming to camp hoping to showcase a new pitch. Today, we’ll focus on four of them to watch for this season. Read the rest of this entry »