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Are the Brewers for real?

Sunday April 13, 2014

At 10-2, the Milwaukee Brewers have baseball's best record.

The Brewers are riding a nine-game winning streak and have outscored their first 12 opponents 57-29. Their run differential of plus-28 is easily the best mark in MLB. Oakland, at plus-19, is the only other team with a run differential better than plus-13.

So are the Brewers for real?

We attempt to answer that question and more in this week's edition of the power rankings.

We have a new No. 1 this week, and only one team in the top 17 is in the same position as it was last week. (Congrats, Giants.)

The Brewers and Giants had a much better week than baseball's instant replay system.

As ESPN's Buster Olney wrote this morning, Saturday, April 12, was not a good one for MLB's new and supposedly improved system.

This weekend, we broke down how the expanded replay system works.

We hope you enjoy that much more than Nationals manager Matt Williams did the umps' confusing four-minute review of a call that should have been reversed Saturday against the Braves.

As I wrote in the replay piece, baseball has finally entered the 21st century.

Now it needs to figure out how to make the system work more efficiently.

 

Is the old Grady Sizemore back? Almost

Saturday April 12, 2014

Grady Sizemore hasn't been an All-Star in six years and, prior to this season, he hadn't played in the big leagues since 2011.

Sizemore is only nine games into the 2014 season, but the early returns are sensational -- at least if you consider what the outfielder has overcome.

Many of us didn't expect Sizemore to even make the Red Sox's roster out of spring training. Not after he had microfracture surgeries on both knees in a span of two years (on his left in 2010 and his right in 2012).

But Sizemore didn't just make the defending World Series champions' Opening Day roster, he has been one of the Red Sox's most positive developments in an otherwise slow start.

In Boston's first 12 games (through Saturday, April 12), Sizemore has played in nine contests and is batting .333 with four runs, two home runs, four RBI, a .394 on-base percentage and .994 OPS. On Friday, April 11, his three-run homer off former Indians teammate CC Sabathia was the difference in Boston's 4-2 win over the Yankees.

To understand how far Sizemore has come, you have to go back to 2009, '10 and '11, when his body started to break down.

In 2009, he played in 106 games -- 51 fewer than his total from 2008. In 2006 and '07, Sizemore played in all 162 contests each year -- a streak he took pride in and, in hindsight, one during which the Indians should have insisted on getting him some rest.

In 2010 and '11, Sizemore was limited to a combined 104 games. In that span, he batted .220 with 10 homers, 45 RBI and four steals.

The latter number shows just how banged up he was.

From 2005-08, Sizemore averaged 29 steals per year. It was then that he was among the most dynamic players in the game.

In that four-year stretch, Sizemore averaged 116 runs, 27 homers and 81 RBI per season. In 2006, he led baseball with 134 runs scored, and he tied for the MLB lead with 53 doubles.

He made three All-Star teams, won a pair of Gold Gloves and one Silver Slugger in an electric four-year run. Four years later, in 2012, he was out of baseball -- at age 29.

Now, Sizemore, at 31, will probably never again be a threat to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season. The Red Sox, smartly, aren't playing him more than three games in a row.

With Shane Victorino on the disabled list all season because of a hamstring injury, Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr., the player Sizemore beat out to start in center field on Opening Day, have been Boston's best outfielders.

Bradley is batting .276 with five RBI, six runs and a .382 OBP in 11 games. Daniel Nava, who batted .303 with a .385 OBP last season, is hitting .150 with a .477 OBP and 10 strikeouts in his first 40 at-bats.

When Victorino returns, which could be as soon as Monday, April 14, it's possible Boston could go with Sizemore in left field, Bradley in center and Victorino in right.

Since Sizemore would need to sit every three or four games and Bradley wouldn't need to play every day, Nava could still get regular at-bats.

Regardless of how Red Sox manager John Farrell decides to configure his outfield, what's remarkable is Sizemore has been able to make it this far.

His All-Star days likely are over.

But his career is far from done, which is what counts.

Follow me on Twitter for baseball information and analysis. Email me at baseball@aboutguide.com.

Why closer is baseball's most volatile position

Friday April 11, 2014

Jim Johnson led Major League Baseball with 50 saves in 2012.

A year later, he tied Craig Kimbrel -- the best stopper in the game -- for the MLB lead with 51 saves.

Not even two weeks into this season, Johnson is out of a job.

The latter development isn't that surprising when you remember that Johnson's former team, the Orioles, had so little faith in him that they traded him to the Athletics in the offseason.

Why?

For starters, Johnson's lofty save total masked his struggles in other areas.

He led MLB with nine blown saves in 2013, and he had a 1.28 WHIP and allowed 9.2 hits per nine innings (up from 7.2 the season before).

Another reason: Closers, with very few exceptions (see Kimbrel, Craig) are expendable.

April isn't even half over and we already have the following developments at baseball's most volatile position:

  • The Brewers demoted Jim Henderson, who was 28-for-32 in save opportunities and struck out 75 batters in 60 innings last season, prior to Opening Day. Henderson struggled in the spring, and his replacement, Francisco Rodriguez, has been lights out thus far for the Brew Crew.
  • David Robertson -- attempting to replace the seemingly never injured, and now retired, Mariano Rivera -- is already hurt. The Yankees' closer is on the DL with a pulled groin, forcing the Bronx Bombers to put their faith in Shawn Kelley to finish games.
  • Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen is on the DL with a back injury. Enter former White Sox closer Sergio Santos.
  • Cubs reliever Jose Veras has been so shaky (a 10.13 ERA and 2.63 WHIP in his first three games) that he reportedly is close to losing his job.
  • Nate Jones, expected to pitch the ninth inning for the White Sox this season, is on the DL with a strained hip. Matt Lindstrom won the job, but has a 6.75 ERA and 1.75 WHIP in his first four contests.
  • With Jesse Crain on the DL with a biceps injury, Astros relievers Anthony Bass, Chad Qualls and Josh Fields have one save each.
  • Mets closer Bobby Parnell had Tommy John surgery this week. New York's new "stopper" is Jose Valverde, who had a 5.59 ERA and lost his closer's job with the Tigers last season.

Last month, while ranking closers for fantasy baseball, we reminded you about our preference to "punt" saves on draft day.

In "real" baseball, managers obviously don't have that option. But they can, like the Athletics are doing now, use a committee approach.

There is a lot of pressure on closers, whose margin for error often is more minuscule than B.J. Upton's batting average.

Most don't last.

Even the ones who save 50 games in back-to-back seasons.

Follow me on Twitter for baseball information, analysis and an explanation of why I try to bring up B.J. Upton in any post that mentions bad contracts, bad numbers or bad fantasy baseball decisions. Email me at baseball@aboutguide.com.

Pirates' patience is paying off

Sunday April 6, 2014

The Pittsburgh Pirates' run to 94 wins and a finish that was this close to a trip to the 2013 National League Championship Series was captivating.

For fans of the Buccos, the good vibes have carried over to 2014.

Saturday, the Pirates awarded general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle with contract extensions through the 2017 season. The Pirates also have club options on both leaders for 2018.

Under Hurdle's watch, the Pirates' win totals have improved from 70 in 2011 to 79 in 2012 and 94 last season. In 2010, the year before his arrival, Pittsburgh was 57-105.

Last season marked Pittsburgh's first trip to the postseason -- and its first winning record -- since 1992. And the Pirates are winning the only way a small-market team can in baseball -- by drafting smartly and locking up young core players through their prime years.

The Pirates' 2014 payroll of $78.1 million ranks 27th in MLB. That's obviously about as impressive as three-pitch strikeout by Adam Dunn, but it's a huge improvement from 2004-11, when the Pirates' payroll never reached $48.7 million.

Huntington, a former member of the Cleveland Indians' front office, also appears to be using the 1990s Tribe model of identifying core players and signing them to long-term contracts well before they are eligible for free agency.

A few examples:

  • Reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen is signed through 2017. McCutchen's six-year, $51.5 contract -- which we recently ranked as the fourth-biggest bargain in baseball -- can become a seven-year, $65 million deal if Pittsburgh, as expected, exercises a team option for the 2018 season. McCutchen is 27.
  • Promising outfielder Starling Marte, 25, is signed through 2019, with club options for 2020 and '21. Marte, whose contract is for six years and $31 million, had 41 steals and 12 homers in 2013, his first full season in the big leagues.
  • Pitcher Gerrit Cole was 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA in 2013, his rookie season. The 23-year-old can't become a free agent until 2020.
  • Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, 27, is under team control through 2016. He has averaged 33 homers and 93 RBI the last two seasons.

That's how you build a small-market winner.

And that's why Huntington and the manager he hired in December 2010, Hurdle, have been rewarded.

Week 2 power rankings

  • The Nationals remain No. 1, but there is a team closing fast.
  • The hottest team of the week: The Miami Marlins, who are 5-2 and have a run differential of plus-21.
  • For the complete rankings and a breakdown of the Marlins' fast start, go here.

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