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Kevin  Kleps

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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.

2014 prospect watch

Saturday April 5, 2014

I won't pretend that I've watched Byron Buxton play in person.

I won't tell you I've watched DVDs of Oscar Taveras and his immense power.

When it comes to ranking baseball's best prospects, I leave it to the real experts -- the talent scouts at Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com and Scout.

We looked at the four site's prospect rankings in an effort to come up with a consensus top 10, which is located here. Any close calls were broken by analyzing each prospect's minor-league history.

The top 10 includes five shortstops, two outfielders, two starting pitchers and one third baseman. The only team to have two players in the top 10 are the most lovable of losers -- the Chicago Cubbies.

If you include the five honorable-mention choices, there are five shortstops and five pitchers in the top 15, along with three outfielders and two third basemen. The Twins join the Cubs with two prospects in the top 15.

We hope you enjoy our "expert" analysis.

And we think you'll like our 2014 baseball predictions -- especially if you're a Washington Nationals fan.

We'll be back tomorrow with our power rankings for Week 2. Until then, enjoy the Final Four, and check out the Barry Bonds mentions in our MLB predictions.

Mike Trout's new deal is a win-win

Sunday March 30, 2014

Last month, we wrote that Mike Trout, should he agree to a 10-year contract, would be worth $300 million.

This week, Trout and the Angels agreed to a six-year, $144.5 million extension that is the rare deal that seems great for both sides.

The Angels now have the 22-year-old All-Star under contract through 2020. And Trout will earn almost $100 million -- $99.75 million, to be exact -- from 2018-20. Those three years were Trout's first post-arbitration seasons, and the Angels paid handsomely for them ($33.25 million per season).

If they would have given Trout another four years, which we assume they would have gladly done, Trout probably would have earned at least another $140 million -- $35 million per season. That would put his 10-year deal in the range of $285 million to $300 million.

That's Miguel Cabrera money.

Instead, Trout will earn $5.25 million, $15.25 million and $19.25 million in his arbitration seasons (2015-17), and he'll get a full no-trade clause and a $5 million signing bonus. And he'll be eligible for another monster contract at age 29.

It seems crazy to think that a contract averaging $24.1 million per season for six years, for a player who has only two full big-league seasons under his belt, is beyond fair. But it is.

Well done, guys.

Play ball!

Baseball is back in full force on Monday, March 31.

To get you ready, we have Week 1 power rankings, our 2014 division previews and a breakdown of each team's payroll heading into Opening Day.

Now we just need Mother Nature to realize it's spring.

Making sense of Miguel Cabrera's monstrous contract

Thursday March 27, 2014

Step aside, Alex Rodriguez.

You, too, Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano. (Not you, Jay-Z. You can do whatever you want.)

If Thursday's reports are accurate, Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers are closing in on an eight-year, $248 million extension that, depending on how you count the years, could be the richest contract in baseball history.

Rodriguez's 10-year, $275 million contract with the Yankees is the largest ever in Major League Baseball. The deal to which Cabrera reportedly has agreed would be worth $292 million if you include the two years and $44 million that remain on the contract of the two-time reigning American League MVP.

Cabrera's extension would average $31 million per season -- slightly above the $30.7 million per year for seven seasons the Dodgers recently gave lefty Clayton Kershaw -- from 2016 to 2023.

CBS Sports reported that the deal, which won't be finalized until Cabrera passes a physical, also includes $30 million vesting options for 2024 and 2025 -- when Cabrera would be 41 and 42.

If Cabrera reaches the required benchmarks, he will be paid $352 million in the next 12 seasons -- $29.3 million per year.

At first glance, Cabrera's extension seems like a huge reach on the Tigers' part, considering he will turn 31 on April 18.

But if you dig a little deeper, consider the going rate for the best sluggers in the game.

Prior to the 2012 season, Pujols agreed to the biggest non-A-Rod contract in baseball history -- 10 years and $240 million. At the start of the 2012 campaign, Pujols was 32 years and two months old.

Prior to this season, Cano agreed to a deal that is identical in value and length to Pujols' contract. The new Mariner turned 31 on Oct. 22, making him almost six months older than Cabrera.

Quick question: Would you rather pay Cano $24 million a year for the next 10 years, or Cabrera $29.2 million per season during that span?

It's not my $292 million to spend, but I'd gamble on Cabrera before Cano.

In six years with the Tigers, Cabrera has batted .327 with a .995 OPS. His per-season averages in that span: 38 homers, 38 doubles, 103 runs and 123 RBI.

A few more Cabrera highlights:

  • He has hit at least 30 homers and driven in more than 100 runs in each of his six seasons with Detroit.
  • In the last five seasons, he has batted .324 or higher each year.
  • He's won three consecutive batting titles, he captured the Triple Crown in 2012, and he's led the AL in homers in three of the last six years.
  • In addition to his back-to-back AL MVPs, he was an MVP runner-up in 2010 and has earned three Silver Slugger Awards in the last four years.

A scary parallel for any Tigers fan has to be what Pujols has done since getting a monstrous deal from the Angels.

In 11 years with the Cardinals, Pujols batted .328 with a 1.037 OPS and per-season norms of 41 homers, 121 RBI, 117 runs and eight steals.

Take away Cabrera's 314 at-bat rookie season in 2003 with the Marlins, and he has the following per-season norms the last 10 years: .324, 35 homers, 120 RBI, 103 runs, 39 doubles and 157 games played.

His consistency and production are remarkable. The same could have been said about pre-Angels Pujols, who was even more prolific in St. Louis than Cabrera has been the last decade.

Is Cabrera, like Pujols, going to start showing signs of breaking down and make Detroit regret committing huge money to him through age 40 (and possibly beyond)?

That's a legitimate concern.

But if I had to bank on one 30-plus-year-old slugger sustaining his success for most of the next decade, my money would be on Miggy.

Baseball's odd opening games

Sunday March 23, 2014

While you were consuming as much of March Madness as possible, the 2014 Major League Baseball season started with the Los Angeles Dodgers winning a pair of games against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Since no one seemed to notice, I'm here to tell you the Dodgers are 2-0 and the D-Backs are 0-2. The games were played in Sydney -- the first-ever MLB contests held in Australia.

All together now: Whaaaat?

I understand every professional sports league is attempting to grow globally.

I also get that the Aussies love baseball as much as Alex Rodriguez loves himself.

The Dodgers' 3-1 and 7-5 wins drew crowds of 38,266 and 38,079 to a 162-year-old cricket ground that was converted into a ballpark.

But here's where it gets really odd again for MLB: After the opening games that were played overseas, the Dodgers and D-Backs return to spring training.

The Dodgers will play exhibition games against the Angels from March 27-29. The first two contests will be at Dodger Stadium, and the finale will be played at Angel Stadium -- 23 hours before the Dodgers play Game 3 of their regular season on Sunday night, March 30, at the Padres.

One more time: Whaaaat?

The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, will play Cactus League games Wednesday, Thursday (two split-squad contests), Friday and Saturday. The latter two games will be at their home park, Chase Field, vs. the Cubs.

Two days later, March 31, Arizona will play the San Francisco Giants in its home opener.

Granted, it's only two games out of 162.

And granted, MLB has gone all the way to Japan to start the season four times since 2000.

Still, it's odd, and it creates a goofy schedule for the teams involved.

Switching from the season opener back to spring training -- how invested do you think the D-Backs will be for their two split-squad games on March 27? -- is quite an adjustment.

Plus, what about us fantasy baseball fanatics who might have lost a gem from Clayton Kershaw, who pitched the Dodgers' opener in Sydney, because the game was held before most of us start our fake seasons?

Don't we help grow the game globally?

OK, maybe we don't.

But here's a serious question: How many baseball fans even know that Arizona is 0-2 right now?

If the answer for most fans is no, doesn't that defeat the purpose of going all out for an international "show"?

2014 season preview

We have now broken down five of baseball's six divisions, with predicted order of finish, projected lineups and rotations, key additions, crucial losses and key questions. Here they are:

Scherzer situation puts Tigers in a tough spot

Sunday March 23, 2014

A starting pitcher and a team tabling contract talks until after the season is nothing new.

But the method in which the Detroit Tigers and Scott Boras, the agent for reigning American Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, announced that discussions were ending was a little odd.

Sunday, the Tigers released a statement that their "substantial, long-term contract extension offer to Max Scherzer" was rejected. The deal, according to Detroit, would have placed the right-hander "among the highest-paid pitchers in baseball."

Boras later told ESPN that it was Scherzer's offer that was rejected.

According to ESPN's Jayson Stark, the Tigers' offer was slightly below Justin Verlander's average annual salary of $25.7 million, but it would have placed Scherzer among MLB's top six starting pitchers in terms of average salary.

That means the Tigers were offering Scherzer at least $24 million per season, but what we don't know is for how many years -- which is obviously a very key detail in this saga.

The problem for Detroit is Boras probably wants Scherzer to receive more money per year than Verlander's $25.7 million, but there is no way the Tigers can pay Scherzer more than the pitcher who won the 2011 Cy Young and was the runner-up in 2012.

Last season, Scherzer was vastly superior to Verlander, going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 240 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings. Verlander was 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA and 1.32 WHIP.

But check out these numbers from 2010-12:

  • Verlander: 59-22, 2.79 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 713 2/3 innings, 708 strikeouts.
  • Scherzer: 43-27, 3.89 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 578 1/3 innings, 589 Ks.

Is Verlander, who just turned 31, wearing down from pitching more than 224 innings every season from 2009-12?

It's much too soon to know.

What is certain is he has six years and $160 million remaining on his contract, and the Tigers aren't going to give Scherzer more than that.

Boras obviously doesn't want to hear that argument, which means this debate might not come to a peaceful resolution.

It was a bad week for promising young pitchers

Sunday March 16, 2014

Dr. James Andrews' schedule just got even more hectic.

Patrick Corbin, a 24-year-old left-hander who made the 2013 National League All-Star team for Arizona, said Sunday, March 16, that he has a partially torn ligament in his left elbow.

Corbin was 14-8 with a 3.41 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 208 1/3 innings for the Diamondbacks last season. He has averaged 7.5 Ks per nine innings in his first two big-league seasons.

He told reporters he will get a second opinion from Andrews.

The noted orthopedic surgeon is also scheduled for a St. Patrick's Day visit from a pair of promising Atlanta Braves pitchers.

Right-handers Kris Medlen, 28, and Brandon Beachy, 27, are going to be examined by Andrews, and both are expected to need their second Tommy John surgeries.

Medlen was 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA and 157 Ks in 197 innings in 2013, his first full season as a starting pitcher. He had his first ligament replacement surgery in August 2010 and returned 13 months later (the end of the 2011 regular season).

Beachy, meanwhile, could be facing his second Tommy John surgery in 21 months. He had the procedure in June 2012, then returned to start five games last season.

In August 2013, Beachy was shut down by the Braves. A month later, Andrews removed a floating bone chip from his right elbow.

In the process, his once-promising career seems to have been derailed.

In 2011, Beachy was 7-3 with a 3.68 ERA. He had a whopping 169 strikeouts in 141 2/3 innings. The following season, he was 5-5 with a 2.00 ERA and 68 Ks in 81 innings pitched in 13 starts.

Beachy then suffered an elbow injury, and, assuming he will be out another 13-plus months, he will have been limited to five starts in a three-year span.

The cases of Corbin, Medlen and Beachy show why teams are so careful with their young arms.

But major-league clubs can only do so much.

Since his minor-league debut in 2008, Beachy has never thrown more than 146 2/3 innings in a season.

Medlen, who made his professional debut in 2006, hadn't pitched more than 151 1/3 innings in a season until 2013. Last year, he threw 197 innings.

Corbin, who first pitched in the minor leagues in 2009, hadn't thrown more than 160 1/3 innings in a season until last year. He made the jump to 208 1/3 innings in 2013.

Corbin ranked 23rd in baseball in innings pitched last season, and Medlen tied for 42nd.

By comparison, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright and two-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers racked up 241 2/3 and 236 innings, respectively.

Was it the increased workload for Medlen and Corbin?

Who knows.

At some point, teams have to let their horses throw 200 innings.

Unfortunately, an increasing number of horses never get to truly run wild.

2014 division previews

We are breaking down each of baseball's six divisions, with projected orders of finish, key additions, key subtractions, projected lineups and starting rotations, and much more.

  • The American League East preview can be found here.
  • Go here for the AL Central, and here for the AL West.
  • This is your homepage for our 2014 baseball previews.

We'll predict the National League in the coming weeks.

Until then, you should start preparing for the relaunch of R.B.I. Baseball.

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