Articles By Charlie Miller
If the season ended in mid-September, the Pirates’ streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons would be over. Alas, the Major League campaign continues to run through September, and the Pirates have to find a way to keep playing well throughout the entire season. Their record after Aug. 1 the past two seasons is a combined 37–76, costing them a chance (twice) at making a run at a postseason berth. So how do the Pirates get over the hump in the final third of the season?
Righthander A.J. Burnett and lefty Wandy Rodriguez, both acquired in trades last season, are the top two starters. Burnett went 16–10 with a 3.51 ERA after coming over from the New York Yankees in the early days of spring training. Rodriguez was acquired from Houston in a late-July trade and was 5–4 with a 3.72 ERA in 13 games with the Pirates and 12–13 with a 3.76 ERA overall. Righthander James McDonald went 9–3 with a 2.37 ERA before the All-Star break but finished 12–8 with a 4.21 ERA and was yanked from the rotation in the season’s final weeks. One of pitching coach Ray Searage’s biggest challenges this spring will be to get McDonald back to his first-half form. Another priority for the affable Searage will be finding a way to turn Jeanmar Gomez, acquired from Cleveland in a January trade, into a reliable starter. The 25-year-old Gomez had a 14–16 record in three years with the Tribe, but he had his worst season in 2012, going 5–8 with a 5.96 ERA in 20 games, including 17 starts. He’ll probably start the season in the bullpen until he proves he has turned the corner. The Bucs will turn to one youngster and one journeyman to complete the rotation. Lefty Jeff Locke, just 25, will get a chance to start every fifth day. Jonathan Sanchez, with just one successful season — 2010 with the Giants — on his résumé, will begin the season in the fifth spot.
Setup man Jason Grilli will be elevated to closer following the offseason trade of two-time All-Star Joel Hanrahan to Boston. Hanrahan converted 76-of-84 save opportunities during his two years as the Pirates’ closer. Meanwhile, Grilli has five saves in 10 big-league seasons. However, the Pirates are convinced the 36-year-old can pitch effectively in the ninth inning after he struck out 90 batters in 58.2 innings last season. They signed him to a two-year, $6.75 million deal in the offseason. Mark Melancon, who came over in the Hanrahan trade, will get a chance to pitch in a setup role despite struggling (6.20 ERA in 41 games) with the Red Sox last season. Jared Hughes will also pitch late in games after proving to be durable as a rookie in 2012. He worked in 66 games and recorded a 2.85 ERA. Tony Watson served as the lone left-handed reliever for most of last season and led the team with 68 appearances, posting a 3.38 ERA. Righthander Chris Leroux, out of minor league options, is likely to make the team as well. Gomez will pitch in long relief early, but he should eventually replace Sanchez in the rotation.
The double-play combination of shortstop Clint Barmes and second baseman Neil Walker is not the flashiest in the big leagues, but they form a solid defensive duo. Barmes struggled at the plate last year in the first season of a two-year, $10.5-million free agent contract, hitting only .229 with eight home runs in 455 at-bats. Walker hit .280 with 14 homers but missed most of September with a herniated disc in his lower back.
Few big-league hitters have more raw power than third baseman Pedro Alvarez, but he is still refining his game. He hit 30 home runs in 2012, his first full season in the majors, but also had a .244 batting average and 180 strikeouts. First baseman Garrett Jones had the best season of his five-year career, hitting .274 and belting 27 homers. However, Jones is a career .198 hitter against left-handed pitchers and will be often spelled against southpaws by Gaby Sanchez.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen had his best season yet in 2012 as he won back-to-back National League Player of the Month awards in June and July, hitting a combined .405 with 14 home runs in 52 games. He capped the year by winning his first career NL Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. He finished the season hitting .327 with 31 home runs and 20 stolen bases. A group of five players — Starling Marte, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata — began the spring competing for the other two starting spots. Marte hit .257 with five homers and 12 steals in 47 games as a rookie last season, while Presley, who began the year as the starting left fielder, batted .237 with 10 homers. Sands played in 70 games with the Dodgers the past two seasons and hit only .244 with four homers. Snider battled hamstring problems after being acquired from Toronto in a late-July trade last season and hit just .250 with one homer in 50 games. Tabata flopped in the first year of a six-year, $15-million contract, posting a .243 batting average with only three home runs. For now, the Pirates will go with Marte and Snider. But both are one slump away from demotion.
The Pirates made a rare free-agent splash by signing Russell Martin for two years and $17 million after he hit a career-high 21 home runs for the Yankees. He also hit a career-worst .211 but should be a big upgrade defensively from Rod Barajas.
Michael McKenry is a solid No. 2 catcher with pop who hit 12 home runs in 88 games last season. Sanchez hit just .241 with four homers in 50 games after coming over from the Marlins last year but is being counted on as the top right-handed hitter off the bench. Josh Harrison is below average defensively, but he is valuable because he can play almost anywhere on the infield and both corner outfield spots. John McDonald, acquired from Arizona late in spring training, is the backup at middle infield. He is a terrific defender. Tabata, one of the odd men out in the outfield competition, should stick as the fourth outfielder.
Hurdle has changed the culture of the clubhouse and instilled confidence and a winning attitude in a young club during his two years as manager. While he may not be a master strategist, and his bombastic nature can be wearing at times, he is a motivator. General manager Neal Huntington has hit some potholes along the way but has improved the talent throughout the organization during his five-year tenure. Huntington has whiffed on a number of free-agent signings, so it’s important that Martin — who received a big-money contract by the penny-pinching Pirates’ standards — plays well enough to warrant his deal in 2013.
The last two seasons have ended in disappointment for the Pirates. But there’s no denying that this franchise has made significant progress in recent years. The Pirates went 79–83 last season and were just three wins away from finally ending their streak of sub-.500 finishes. Making a run at the postseason might be a stretch — even in the era of the second wild card — but a winning record appears to be a realistic goal in Pittsburgh.
LF Starling Marte (R)
Has the power and speed to be a star, but needs to raise his .300 on-base percentage.
2B Neil Walker (S)
A solid all-around second baseman with some pop in his bat, though back problems are a concern.
CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
Already one of the game’s biggest stars at 26, and he still has room to improve his all-around game.
1B Garrett Jones (L)
Mashes right-handed pitching, but his troubles against lefties keep him from playing every day.
3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
Plenty of pop in his bat, but he also has plenty of holes in his swing; struck out 180 times last season.
C Russell Martin (R)
Figures to give his new team solid run production and a strong presence behind the plate.
RF Travis Snider (L)
Has seemingly been a prospect forever, but this season might be now or never for him.
SS Clint Barmes (R)
Solid glove work is the only thing still keeping him in the lineup; hit a career-low .229 last season.
C Michael McKenry (R)
Solid backup has surprising pop in his bat for a little guy, and pitchers love throwing to him.
1B Gaby Sanchez (R)
Late-season power surge in 2012 provides hope he can offer more run production in 2013.
UT Josh Harrison (R)
A true hacker as he has drawn just 13 walks in 480 big- league plate appearances.
OF Jose Tabata (R)
Still just 24, but the regression of his power and speed is alarming; has only 11 home runs in 1,072 at-bats.
SS John McDonald (R)
The outstanding defender was picked up from Arizona late in spring training.
RH A.J. Burnett
Still has great stuff at 36 and was rejuvenated last season by getting traded from the Yankees to Pirates.
LH Wandy Rodriguez
Southpaw’s outstanding command allows him to compete with an average arsenal.
RH James McDonald
Has the stuff to be an ace but lacks both the confidence and mental toughness to be a top-of-rotation fixture.
LH Jonathan Sanchez
Discounting his breakout (and fluky?) 2010, he’s 26-46 with a 1.52 WHIP and 5.09 ERA for his career.
LH Jeff Locke
Only twice in 10 career starts has he completed six innings, never more than that. But in his last start in 2012, he allowed just two hits and one run over six innings to the Braves.
RH Jason Grilli (Closer)
The journeyman is throwing harder than ever at 37 and was dominant last season as a set-up man.
RH Mark Melancon
Pirates hoping a switch back to the National League will get him back on track after a horrible year with Boston.
LH Tony Watson
Took a little bit off his fastball last year in his first full big-league season and gained better command.
RH Jared Hughes
He has an outstanding sinker and could be dominant if he develops a stronger second pitch.
RH Chris Leroux
Tall pitcher whose arm angle makes it difficult for hitters to pick up his pitches.
LH Justin Wilson
Converted starter has hit 99 mph with his fastball out of the bullpen.
LH Jeanmar Gomez
Gets a fresh start in the National League after a rough 2012 with the Indians.
Back in December, Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney introduced Jim Deshaies as the team’s new television analyst and said he would be “the guy who will call the next World Series team for the Cubs.” The last guy to call a World Series team for the Cubs was…well…no one. The Cubs’ first televised game was in 1946, and the team was last in the World Series in 1945. The Cubs haven’t been to a World Series in more than 65 years, haven’t won a World Series in more than a century, lost 101 games in 2012 and made offseason moves that were patchwork for another season of rebuilding. So fans might be forgiven for saying the usual “Wait ’til next year’’ before the season even begins. The second year of the Theo Epstein Era could be similar to the first, with promising players taking their lumps and marginally talented veterans filling up roster spots. Epstein promised the turnaround process would take time and asked fans to show patience. But the resolve of even the most patient Cubs fans was tested last year as the franchise lost 100 games for only the third time ever.
Last year the Cubs opened the season with Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm in the rotation. They ended the season with Justin Germano, Chris Rusin, Jason Berken, Volstad, and Travis Wood. Samardzija threw the most innings (174.2) and was shut down in early September. He could become the ace of the staff. Garza, who was supposed to be traded last offseason and again during the season, suffered an elbow injury a few weeks before the trading deadline and is back to give the rotation some stability. The healthier he gets, the hotter the trade rumors will get. Shortly before Christmas, the Cubs agreed to a four-year, $52 million deal with Edwin Jackson and a two-year, $10 million pact with Carlos Villanueva. Jackson went 10–11 with a 4.03 ERA with the Nationals in 2012. Travis Wood and Scott Feldman seem to have locked up spots in the rotation. Villanueva will have a place at least until Garza returns. It will be interesting to see how Scott Baker, coming off Tommy John surgery last summer, will figure in as the season progresses. He won 38 games for Minnesota from 2008-10.
The Cubs nearly traded closer Carlos Marmol in the offseason. He can either be unhittable or wild. His 11.7 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio is impressive, but his 7.3 walks-per-nine-innings ratio is alarming. Marmol was demoted for a few weeks last May. If that happens again, expect Kyuji Fujikawa, a Japanese import signed to a two-year deal in December, to slide into the closer’s role. Fujikawa posted dominant numbers in the last six seasons as the closer for Hanshin. He had 202 saves with a 1.36 ERA and a 0.855 WHIP. Southpaw James Russell and righthander Michael Bowden could become valuable setup men.
While many people in baseball believe shortstop Starlin Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney will occupy the Cubs’ middle infield for years to come, there are others who believe that minor leaguer Javier Baez is the team’s shortstop of the future because of his superior defense. Castro is erratic, but he and Barney, a 2012 Gold Glove winner, will team together for another year at least. Castro is a gifted offensive player who led the Cubs in hits for the second year in a row. Barney, the Cubs’ fourth-round pick in 2007, needs to improve his .254 average. He hit .303 in Wrigley Field but only .206 on the road.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Ian Stewart are on the opposite ends of the offensive spectrum. Rizzo is an up-and-coming player who many in the organization believe has All-Star potential. Epstein and his lieutenants drafted Rizzo when they were with the Red Sox. Current Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer dealt for Rizzo while he was an executive with San Diego. Then Hoyer joined the Cubs and acquired Rizzo once again. The left-handed hitter showed some power (15 home runs in 337 at-bats) and hit for average (.285) in a half season with the Cubs. Can he keep it up during a full season? This is the year to find out. Between stints on the DL, Stewart hit .201 in 179 at-bats in his first year with the club after hitting .156 in an injury-filled season with Colorado in 2011. Stewart signed a one-year deal in December to remain with the Cubs. But the injury bug has struck once again as Stewart is dealing with a strained quad. Luis Valbuena and Brent Lillibridge will share the position until Stewart is proven healthy and productive.
Left fielder Alfonso Soriano had one of his best seasons as a Cub, hitting .262 with team highs in homers (32), RBIs (108), doubles (33) and total bases (280). He has two more years remaining on his contract, and current management would love to move him and dump his large salary. But as long as there are no takers, Soriano will return and should provide a solid bat, improved defense and veteran leadership. Steady David DeJesus will likely man center field again after moving over to right when rookie Brett Jackson was promoted. Jackson struggled in the big leagues, and it’s doubtful he’ll open the season as a starting outfielder. DeJesus led off and had a team-high 61 walks. His seven stolen bases were third on the team. The Opening Day right fielder could be left-handed hitting newcomer Nate Schierholtz, who has a career average of .270 in six seasons with San Francisco and Philadelphia. He, like Soriano, has a cannon for an arm, and the two should make baserunners think twice about taking that extra base.
With just 63 games under his belt, Welington Castillo will be given the nod as the Cubs’ starting catcher. Last year, in his first significant action in the majors, Castillo hit .265 in 170 at-bats with 51 strikeouts. He is regarded as an outstanding defensive player. If he can just hit a little, he will be a more-than-adequate replacement for Geovany Soto, who was traded last season.
Outfielder Dave Sappelt showed some hitting and speed in a brief stint with the Cubs and could make a case to stick around. Backup catcher Steve Clevenger, a left-handed hitter, has hit .309 in 548 games in the minors but just .202 in his first 71 big-league games and could share backup duties behind the plate with Dioner Navarro. Clevenger can play first and maybe even some third if his bat comes to life. Valbuena filled in when Stewart was hurt last year. He didn’t impress with the bat but was a good fielder. Scott Hairston and Brent Lillibridge bring experience and versatility to the bench.
Epstein cleaned house in his first year with the Cubs. With all of the changes comes an adjustment period — which will require patience from the long-suffering fans. Epstein didn’t get it done with the Red Sox overnight, but he eventually delivered two World Series crowns to the city. His plan is to stock the minor league system with valuable assets. It figures to pay off in the long run, but the struggles in the short term will continue.
The offseason moves were underwhelming. It’s pretty clear there will not be a quick fix. But there is hope that the Cubs will be an improved team in 2013. The starting pitching should be better, and the lineup has some potential if Rizzo develops into a consistent producer and Soriano continues to deliver. There have been times in the not-so-distant past — 1998, 2003 and 2007 — when the Cubs have stunned the baseball world by making the playoffs the season after winning fewer than 70 games. There aren’t, however, many signs pointing in that direction for 2013.
CF David DeJesus (L)
Will become a more effective leadoff man if he can improve against lefties (.149 last year).
SS Starlin Castro (R)
Proven hitter for average — .297 in three full seasons — but is probably a better fit for a No.2 hitter than No.3.
1B Anthony Rizzo (L)
Hit .338 with runners in scoring position in his first run with the Cubs last year.
LF Alfonso Soriano (R)
Slugged .499, hit 32 homers and drove in 108 runs in ’12. Will continue to be shopped.
RF Nate Schierholtz (L)
Was known as “Nate the Great” with Giants. Ready to rebound after a toe injury hampered him last August.
3B Ian Stewart (L)
Hoping back-to-back nightmare seasons at the plate — and in the health department — are behind him. But a strained quad has sent him to the DL.
C Welington Castillo (R)
Solid defensive tools for a player who could be around awhile if his offense develops.
2B Darwin Barney (R)
Already has a Gold Glove under his belt. Has the tools to be a solid No. 2 hitter eventually.
IF Luis Valbuena (L)
He’s an ideal candidate as a late-inning replacement; good glove but light bat (.219 in 2012), but will fill in at third until Stewart gets healthy.
C-1B Steve Clevenger (L)
Will be challenged by Dioner Navarro for the backup backstop position in spring training.
C Dioner Navarro (S)
Has just 369 at-bats over last three seasons total.
OF Dave Sappelt (R)
Could grab the final spot on the roster if prospect Brett Jackson is shipped back to Class AAA.
OF Scott Hairston (R)
Utility player will get lots of at-bats, especially against left-handed pitching.
UT Brent Lillibridge (R)
If he shows he can offer anything offensively, the valuable defender can keep a job.
RH Jeff Samardzija
Impressed in his first extended time as a big-league starter and led the club with 180 strikeouts.
RH Matt Garza
Could be dealt if he bounces back from elbow injury; has a 15–17 record in two seasons with the Cubs. Strained lat will keep him out for at least the first few weeks.
RH Edwin Jackson
Has been on eight teams since 2003 but picked up the long-term contract he’s been seeking with the Cubs.
RH Scott Feldman
Had a 5.00-plus ERA in 2010 and 2012 for Texas and is now looking for success in the National League.
LH Travis Wood
Second on the team with 14 quality starts last year, but will have to fight to win the final rotation spot.
RH Carlos Marmol (Closer)
Will enter the season as the Cubs closer, but don’t be surprised if the team shops him aggressively.
RH Kyuji Fujikawa
Will open the season as a setup man, but has the tools to close. Put up dominant numbers in Japan.
RH Shawn Camp
Had six losses but led the squad with 18 holds last year; tied for the NL lead with 80 appearances.
RH Carlos Villanueva
Has valuable experience as both a starter and reliever; a strong spring could vault him into the rotation. Should fill in for Garza in the rotation.
LH James Russell
Seven wins and a 3.25 ERA in 2012 gives him an edge as the top left-handed setup man in 2013.
RH Michael Bowden
Had a 2.95 ERA with the Cubs in 30 appearances after a long stint with Class AAA Iowa.
RH Hector Rondon
Rule 5 pick should spend the summer eating lots of innings in Chicago.
The Reds dove head-first into the 2012 season determined to make a run at more than just the NL Central division when they traded away Edinson Volquez and two prospects to acquire starting pitcher Mat Latos. That run might have fallen short in a five-game loss to eventual World Series champion San Francisco in the divisional series, but it showed the organization that it isn’t far away. As was the case last offseason, general manager Walt Jocketty didn’t hesitate to make another significant trade. He acquired outfielder Shin-Soo Choo from Cleveland in a three-team exchange that sent center fielder Drew Stubbs to the Indians and minor league shortstop Didi Gregorious to Arizona. Jocketty strengthened a club deficiency by parting ways with talented players who weren’t going to fit into Cincinnati’s future plans. The Reds struggled with their 1-2 hitters last year, but Choo’s presence in the leadoff spot followed by Brandon Phillips should solidify the batting order and provide plenty of opportunities for Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce to drive in runs, especially at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.
This is a maturing group that could be as good as any rotation in the majors for the next few years. Only Bronson Arroyo (36) will be older than 27 during the season. Johnny Cueto was a Cy Young candidate last season, and Latos went 9–2 with a 2.43 ERA over his final 19 starts. Homer Bailey set career highs for wins (13), starts (33), quality starts (21), innings (208) and strikeouts (168). No NL starter has more wins, starts or innings pitched since 2006 than Arroyo. With the experiement to move closer Aroldis Chapman into the rotation now ended, Mike Leake is back in. Leake, the team’s first-round pick in 2008, started 30 games last season and threw 179.0 innings.
Chapman proved to be one of the best closers in the game last season with 38 saves and 122 strikeouts in just 71.2 innings. Aside from a second lefthander to go along with Sean Marshall, the bullpen has plenty of pieces. Jonathan Broxton, who has 111 career saves, is the primary setup man. Marshall, signed through 2015, started last season as the closer but was moved into a setup role as Chapman emerged and excelled in that role. Jose Arredondo had 66 appearances for a bullpen group that led the majors in ERA (2.65) and saves (56) and led the NL in opponents’ batting average (.219). Arredondo seemed to tire down the stretch and wasn’t as effective late in the year. J.J. Hoover, acquired in a trade with Atlanta last April, has closer-type potential and could provide valuable innings that Nick Masset was slated to handle last year before a spring training injury sidelined him. Masset had shoulder surgery in September, and his availability for the start of this season is unknown. The Reds aren’t going to wait around for him. Sam LeCure, once seen as a potential No. 5 starter, has found his niche as a long reliever who can be counted on in tight situations. He allowed just two hits over his final 10 appearances last season as he set a career-high with 48 games. Manny Parra, a member of Milwaukee’s starting rotation for three seasons, has found a home in the bullpen.
Phillips did everything but win the Gold Glove last season, while Zack Cozart became the first rookie to start at short for the Reds on Opening Day since 1971. His development made Gregorious expendable. Cozart showed good power with 33 doubles and 15 home runs, but his .246 average was a detriment at the leadoff spot. He’ll hit down in the order this season. Phillips was the team’s MVP. He’s versatile enough to hit in any spot in the order — an ability similar to what Barry Larkin showed in his playing days for the Reds — but should settle into the No. 2 hole behind Choo and in front of Votto. Phillips and the Reds agreed on a six-year extension last season in part because he’s grown from a highlight-reel defensive player into an all-around threat.
Votto missed 48 games with a knee injury and didn’t have the same pop in his bat when he returned in September, but he was still respected enough that he managed a .474 on-base percentage, 94 walks and 18 intentional walks. He hit .337 with 44 doubles but just 14 home runs and 56 RBIs. Better production at the top of the lineup and a return to full health should make Votto an MVP candidate. Todd Frazier takes over the everyday duties at third for Scott Rolen after being a fill-in at multiple positions last season when he was third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. There will be more pressure on Frazier to produce this season now that he has a starting role. Last season, he was the guy everyone wanted to see more of in the lineup. Those people will get their wish this season.
Bruce is a two-time All-Star and will be just 26 this season. He improved on his consistency, going through fewer lulls at the plate, and increased his home run total (34) for the fifth straight season. He finished with 99 RBIs. Choo will be playing center field on an everyday basis for the first time in his career, but the smaller dimensions of Great American Ball Park should make that an easier transition than it might sound. Ludwick found his groove in the second half of last season and carried it right through the postseason, earning a two-year deal. He finished with 26 homers and 80 RBIs, including hitting .421 with runners in scoring position over his final 57 chances. He has legitimate power to be the cleanup hitter and provide protection for Votto in the lineup. If this threesome has any major weakness, it would be defensively, especially in center.
Devin Mesoraco might be the catcher of the future, but Ryan Hanigan is still the catcher of the present. He’s got great rapport with the pitching staff (3.05 ERA with him behind the plate), throws extremely well and handles the bat admirably. He hit .274 mostly batting in the No. 8 hole. Mesoraco got plenty of experience last season but didn’t see much action down the stretch. He hit only .212 with five home runs and 14 RBIs.
The Reds will be more versatile off the bench this season. Chris Heisey can play all three outfield spots and gives some speed and power. Xavier Paul found a niche as a left-handed bat, something missing for much of last season. Infielder Jack Hannahan was signed as a free agent from Cleveland and provides another left-handed bat and can play first and third. Infielder Jason Donald was also part of the Choo deal and will give the Reds depth in the middle of the defense.
Owner Bob Castellini has set winning as a priority, and the entire organization follows his lead. Jocketty identified the team’s needs and addressed them by re-signing Ludwick, trading for Choo and signing Hannahan. Manager Dusty Baker signed an extension through 2014 late last season. He’s criticized for a constant shuffling of the lineup, but his formula keeps players fresh, and players respond well to his style.
The Reds are on the short list of contenders to win the World Series. The starting pitching is coming into its own, especially if Bailey continues the maturity and development he showed last season. This is a strong defensive team, even with the loss of Stubbs, and the lineup has the potential to be as good as any in the majors.
CF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
Career .289 hitter will provide decent pop in center field; had 43 doubles and 16 HRs with Cleveland last season.
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
Had 52 multi-hit games to lead club while batting leadoff (28 games), third (43 games) and fourth (73 games).
1B Joey Votto (L)
Led Reds in OBP for third straight season, joining Joe Morgan as only player to accomplish the feat.
LF Ryan Ludwick (R)
Hit .313 with 21 doubles, 18 home runs, 53 RBIs in his last 80 games, securing his spot in the everyday lineup.
RF Jay Bruce (L)
Joined Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera as only players with at least 34 homers, 35 doubles and 99 RBIs.
3B Todd Frazier (R)
Won Players Choice Award as the NL’s outstanding Rookie after ranking in the top 10 among rookies in BA, HR, RBIs.
SS Zack Cozart (R)
Became one of four shortstops in franchise history to have 30 doubles and 15 home runs in a season.
C Ryan Hanigan (R)
Caught 11 of the 12 shutouts by the pitchers and six of nine complete games by starters.
C Devin Mesoraco (R)
Optioned to Class AAA in August before returning in September, making just two appearances the rest of the way.
OF Chris Heisey (R)
Started 80 games and received the team’s Heart & Hustle Award for his passionate play.
OF Xavier Paul (L)
Found his niche as a pinch-hitter after July call-up, hitting .314 in 55 games for Reds.
IF Jack Hannahan (L)
Experienced at all four infield spots, primarily at third base and first base, but has had lingering back issues.
IF Jason Donald (R)
Has yet to have a full season in the big leagues but has versatility to play third base, second base and shortstop.
RH Johnny Cueto
Cy Young candidate also helped himself at plate with 17 sacrifices, tying Philadelphia’s Juan Pierre for NL lead.
RH Mat Latos
Has already made 105 starts before his 25th birthday,
including 30-plus each of last three seasons.
RH Bronson Arroyo
Has thrown 200 or more innings seven of last eight
seasons. The one season he didn’t, he had 199 innings.
RH Homer Bailey
Finally finding consistency to match first-round talent. Won four starts in a row last July for first time in career.
RH Mike Leake
Was odd man out with Chapman in rotation but has earned his way back in the rotation with Chapman closing.
LH Aroldis Chapman (Closer)
Got a long look as a starter, but with a week or so to go before the season, was moved back into the closer’s role.
RH Jonathan Broxton
Saved all four chances he got when Chapman was out with shoulder soreness in September.
RH Jose Arredondo
Had a career-high 66 appearances last season with 62 strikeouts, also a career best.
RH J.J. Hoover
Allowed 17 hits in 30.2 innings over two stints with Reds,
including 0.71 ERA in final 11 appearances.
LH Sean Marshall
Didn’t allow an earned run in his final 15 appearances of the season or any runs in final 13 games.
RH Sam LeCure
Set a career high with 48 appearances, including throwing at least 2.0 innings 12 times.
LH Manny Parra
A former starter with the Brewers, he held lefties to a .229 average in 62 games in relief last season.
It will all come down to pitching. Heard that one before, Brewers fans? Offensively, Milwaukee has a versatile and explosive lineup built to contend right now. The Brewers led the National League in runs, home runs and stolen bases a year ago, and every regular returns in 2013. So while Bernie Brewer should be plenty busy again this year, the hope is that the bullpen phone won’t ring so much. The team took a major step in improving the rotation while hopefully lessening the load on the bullpen with the signing of Kyle Lohse late in spring training. He and Yovani Gallardo are the only proven winners in the starting rotation, and the bullpen, though largely remade, was arguably the worst in the majors last year.
In Gallardo and Lohse, the Brewers boast two aces at the top of the rotation. Gallardo is a workhorse who almost always keeps his team in the game and can be counted on to be among the league leaders in strikeouts. He has started three consecutive Opening Days, and there’s zero doubt that he’ll again anchor Milwaukee’s rotation. Just how soon Lohse will be ready this season is a question, given that he signed on March 26, just six days prior to the Brewers’ first game. A victim of a shrinking free agent market, the 34-year-old inked a three-year deal for $33 million. Lohse has been a double-digit winner just five times in his 12-year career, but was 30-11 with a 3.11 ERA in just under 400 innings for the Cardinals over the past two seasons. He will offer a huge boost to the rotation. However, the contract may not look so good in 2015. The big question is, who will follow them? Veterans Marco Estrada and Chris Narveson, both of whom have pitched well in starting roles in the past, are the third and fourth starters. Both missed time with injury last year (Estrada missed a month with a quad strain; Narveson was out nearly the whole year with a torn rotator cuff) and both have experience pitching out of the bullpen, so manager Ron Roenicke may opt to put one or both of them there to solidify a shaky relief corps. Mike Fiers was surprisingly effective over his first 16 starts (8–6, 2.85), but seemed to tire as he faltered down the stretch (1–4, 7.09 in last six starts). Mark Rogers, a former No. 1 draft pick who saw his ascent slowed by injuries, finally got his chance and pitched well, striking out 41 in 39 innings. Big Wily Peralta, the organization’s top pitching prospect, threw well in his first big-league stint late last year (2–1, 2.48). He’ll get a shot at some point this season.
There’s nowhere to go but up. Brewer firemen had a bad habit of starting more infernos than they extinguished for a significant stretch of 2012, dooming any chance Milwaukee would return to the postseason for a second consecutive year. The good news is that flame-throwing closer John Axford seemed to fix his problems late in the year (converting 17 of his final 18 save opportunities), and just about all the other arsonists are gone. After toiling in the minor leagues for 10 years, Jim Henderson finally made it to The Show in 2012 and pitched well enough that he’ll be the set-up man for Axford. Brandon Kintzler, another late-season addition, will also get plenty of late-inning work. Lefties in the bullpen have been a rarity in recent years, but the Brewers picked up two from the Washington Nationals in the offseason, Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez. So, the Brewers return the closer who led the majors in blown saves and everybody else is either new or relatively unproven. A recipe for success?
Milwaukee’s middle infield promises to be one of the most dynamic in the National League. At second, Rickie Weeks worked hard to dig himself out of a major early-season hole (raising his average from .190 to .230 by hitting .282 over his final 65 games), and his powerful bat is a rarity at the position. As always, the question is whether he can stay away from injury. The Brewers have struggled to find a reliable shortstop for several years, but the Crew believes they’ve found one in 23-year old Jean Segura, the key pickup in the Zack Greinke trade. Though he’s a free-swinger, Segura has the tools at the plate and in the field to be a fixture in the Milwaukee infield for years to come.
At third, Aramis Ramirez was just what the Brewers hoped for in his first year in Milwaukee, putting up his usual impressive numbers at the plate (hitting .300 and collecting 100 RBIs for the seventh time and notching his 10th career 25-homer campaign) and leading all NL third basemen in fielding percentage. At first, Corey Hart settled into his new position nicely and didn’t let the transition affect his offensive performance. However, knee surgery in January will delay his season up to a month. Veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who has 1,536 games at short and none anywhere else on the diamond, will don the first baseman’s mitt to start the season. His season ended last year after just 24 games due a torn ACL.
If you’re a fan of the No. 8, you’d better enjoy watching Ryan Braun wear it because odds are it will never be donned by anyone else ever again in Milwaukee. Braun seems assured of going down as one of the Brewers’ all-time greats, and he’s still only 29 years old. One of the game’s most prolific sluggers, Braun followed up on his MVP season by posting numbers that were just as gaudy, leading the NL in homers, total bases, runs and OPS. In center, Carlos Gomez has finally established himself as a legitimate everyday player. He’s always been a plus defender, and last year he became much more consistent at the plate, putting up career bests in just about every category and ranking as one of only five players in the majors with at least 15 homers and 30 stolen bases. There was no more pleasant surprise in Milwaukee last year than Norichika Aoki. Arriving from Japan with little fanfare, Aoki’s emergence allowed Hart to move to first base. As a catalyst at the top of the lineup, Aoki has a nice blend of speed and occasional power.
Roenicke has a nice problem behind the plate with two more-than-capable backstops. Starter Jonathan Lucroy ranks among the top hitting catchers in the game today; his .320 average last year was the best among Milwaukee catchers in team history. When he missed a long stretch due to a hand injury last year, Martin Maldonado stepped in and showed he belonged in the bigs. Defensively, he’s better than Lucroy, and he more than holds his own at the plate. Expect him to see more action than the typical backup.
The bench has rarely been a strong point in Milwaukee, and this year is no exception. With regulars firmly established at every position, there will be little opportunity — barring injury — for significant at-bats for anyone on the pine. Logan Schafer is a nice fourth outfielder, bringing superior defense and great speed. Taylor Green is a capable left-handed pinch-hitting option, and Maldonado will spell Lucroy behind the plate.
Brewer fans have every reason to be confident in the franchise’s leadership. Even though he’s cut payroll back this year, owner Mark Attanasio has shown a willingness to spend money and make bold trades to give the team a chance to win. GM Doug Melvin has assembled a group that has won consistently, a fact that should not be taken for granted in Brew Town. The franchise has posted four winning seasons the last six years; this after zero plus-.500 campaigns the previous 14 seasons. Roenicke made a great first impression, leading the Crew to the NLCS in 2011, but last year may have been a more impressive performance, guiding the club through an early offensive slump and a midseason bullpen meltdown to eventually get the team back in playoff contention.
Brewer fans are a little confused about how to approach this season, and with good reason. Is it a rebuilding year? With a group of unproven starting pitchers and a re-tooled bullpen, it looks that way. Is the Crew a contender? With a proven offensive attack, it’s hard to count them out. Here’s the most positive way to look at it: Expectations will be lower than they were a year ago. The team can hit. Axford may have solved his problems, and the rest of the bullpen is new. A bunch of talented young pitchers are looking to make their mark. It’s more fun to be the hunter than the hunted. Sound good, Crew fans? If not, there’s always the Sausage Race.
RF Norichika Aoki (L)
Versatile offensive threat who ranked among NL’s most potent rookie bats in 2012.
2B Rickie Weeks (R)
Veteran overcame horrendous early-season slump by
hitting .282 over final 65 games.
LF Ryan Braun (R)
Perennial All-Star is only player in the majors with 100 runs and RBIs in each of last four seasons.
3B Aramis Ramirez (R)
Steady presence at hot corner batted .327 over final 111 games, raising average from .218 to .300.
C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
Arguably best offensive catcher in team history; .320 average was tops ever among Brewer catchers.
CF Carlos Gomez (R)
Solid defender coming off career-best year at plate — notched career highs in homers (19) and steals (37).
1B Alex Gonzalez (R)
The veteran shortstop who lost most of last season to a knee injury, will be the stopgap at first until Corey Hart is healthy.
SS Jean Segura (R)
Highly touted prospect was key acquisition in Zach Greinke trade; hit .329 in final 22 games.
1B Corey Hart (R)
Moved to new position and still excelled at plate, ranking among NL leaders in HRs and extra-base hits. Knee surgery in January has delayed his season.
INF Taylor Green (L)
Became first Brewer since Prince Fielder (2005) to collect first two career homers as pinch-hitter. A strained hip has landed him on the DL, but he shouldn’t miss too much time.
C Martin Maldonado (R)
Outstanding defensive catcher gets results — team was 10 games over .500 in his 58 starts.
OF Logan Schafer (L)
Speedy centerfielder is ideal fourth outfielder with good defensive skills.
INF Jeff Bianchi (R)
Second-round pick in 2005 made his first appearance in the majors last year, hitting .188 in 69 at-bats.
RH Yovani Gallardo
Ace produced second-most quality starts in NL (25); has four straight seasons with 200-plus strikeouts
RH Kyle Lohse
The Cardinals’ ace in 2012 pitches to contact. He had a 1.090 WHIP last season, but just 143 whiffs in 211 innings.
RH Marco Estrada
Bounced back from injury to go 5–2 with 2.03 ERA in final eight starts of season.
LH Chris Narveson
Opened season in rotation but suffered year-ending rotator cuff injury after just two starts.
RH Mike Fiers
Ranked third among NL rookies in wins (nine), strikeouts (135), ERA (3.74) and IP (127.2).
RH John Axford (Closer)
His 81 saves over last two seasons are third-most in MLB; had career-high 93 K’s in ’12.
RH Jim Henderson
Made big-league debut after 10 seasons in minors; pitched well enough to earn set-up role in ’13.
RH Brandon Kintzler
Worked way back from injury to add stability to Brewer pen; retired 12 of 14 first-batters faced.
RH Mark Rogers
Lost his spot in the rotation after team signed Lohse; struck out 41 in 39 IP a year ago. Begins the season on the DL, but not too serious.
LH Mike Gonzalez
Veteran lefty held left-handed batters to .179 average last year; has 56 career saves and could be closer in a pinch.
LH Tom Gorzelanny
Steady veteran lefty is equally effective against left- and right-handed hitters; can also spot start.
RH Alfredo Figaro
Non-roster player has earned the final spot in the pen.
RH Burke Badenhop
Could be the odd man out when Rogers returns.
After another unlikely October comeback, the Cardinals won three quick games against San Francisco and found themselves one victory away from a second consecutive National League pennant and the World Series. It was where they planned to be. It was not how they planned to get there. The Cardinals took several detours before their seventh National League Championship Series since 2000, navigating around a spring training injury to ace Chris Carpenter and the loss of Albert Pujols (to free agency) and Tony La Russa (to retirement). Rookie manager Mike Matheny inherited the 2011 World Series champs and drove them to contention despite a maddening offense. The Cardinals scored the second-most runs in the NL, but did so in gulps. In 44 of their 162 games they scored two or fewer runs and went 5–39 in those games. A third consecutive second-place finish in the NL Central meant the Cardinals needed the grace of Bud Selig’s second Wild Card to reach the postseason. Once there, the offense helped oust Atlanta in the Wild Card Game and proved timely for the Cardinals’ record rally from a 6–0 deficit to Washington in Game 5 of the NL Division Series. Then, true to the trend, the lineup wilted. The Cards scored one run in the final three games of the NLCS, and the Giants claimed the pennant. Denied a fourth trip to the World Series in nine years, the Cardinals confronted their contrast: To match the team that was one win shy of the World Series, they first had to address what also made them the team that finished nine games behind Cincinnati.
Adam Wainwright returned from the elbow surgery that stole his 2011 season, but Carpenter had recurring nerve issues in his right shoulder and eventually surrendered to surgery. Second-year righty Lance Lynn won 18 games as his sub. Kyle Lohse’s 2.86 ERA anchored the rotation’s 3.62 ERA, fourth-lowest in the majors. Jaime Garcia struggled because of a shoulder injury that did not require surgery but will be closely monitored during the spring. The absences tested the Cardinals’ pitching depth, and they passed with surging prospects. Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, and Shelby Miller — all 24 or younger — proved themselves capable of joining the rotation. Wainwright became stronger as the season progressed and appears to be back in Cy Young form. Carpenter, on the other hand, appears to be at the end of his career due to continued nerve problems. Lynn has nailed down a spot in the rotation, as has Garcia as long as his shoulder holds up. It’s now Miller’s time to join the group as the fifth starter.
After weeks of letting leads slip in the unsteady seventh inning, the Cardinals’ grip improved with the addition of Edward Mujica. Acquired at the trade deadline, the splitfinger-firing righty gave Matheny an effective, three-step approach: Mujica in the seventh, NL holds leader Mitchell Boggs in the eighth and closer Jason Motte (42 saves) in the ninth. That trio was the backbone of a bullpen that had an average age of 26 in the postseason and, led by Rosenthal’s 100-mph heat, overpowered with fastballs often surpassing 97 mph. But it was still lacking a lefty. The Cardinals signed veteran lefty specialist Randy Choate, who has held left-handed batters to a .173 average since 2010, and expect him to further simplify the relief recipe.
Rafael Furcal’s season ended with a torn ligament in his right elbow in August. Rehab created optimism, but his elbow didn’t hold up in spring training and he’s lost for the season. Rookie Pete Kozma’s unexpected punch from shortstop in September fueled the postseason run. He’ll get the call from the start of the season this year. It remains to be seen how he can produce over the long haul. Matheny will have an interesting decision at second. He has incumbent Daniel Descalso, a solid defender, and Matt Carpenter, a third baseman by trade. Carpenter batted .294 with an .828 OPS last season. Contrast that with Descalso’s .227/.627. Both will get some time there as Matheny must choose between offense and defense, at least until Carpenter gains some experience.
Allen Craig’s move to everyday play at first base happened a year earlier than expected, but his production was exactly as imagined. Despite missing a month recovering from knee surgery, Craig delivered 92 RBIs and a .522 slugging percentage. Since 2011, Craig’s .889 OPS ranks 17th among hitters with at least 700 plate appearances, and he’s the only one in the top 24 who hasn’t been an All-Star. That should change. Craig and third baseman Dave Freese were two of the five Cardinals who hit at least 20 home runs, a first for the club. Freese set career highs in homers and RBIs because of one big change: health. The hero of the Cardinals’ 2011 October run played more than 100 games in the majors for the first time in 2012. Now healthy again is an issue as a balky back has landed Freese on the DL to begin the season. Optimistically, he’ll miss no more than a week or so.
With Pujols away and Lance Berkman reduced to 32 games due to knee injuries, Carlos Beltran became a worthy and necessary complement to Matt Holliday. Beltran’s 32 home runs and 97 RBIs were his highest totals since 2007. Holliday’s .903 OPS since 2010, his first year with the Cardinals, ranks fifth in the NL, and he and Beltran are the only current teammates to rank in the top nine in OPS during that span. Often hitting back-to-back, they were bookends in the field around Jon Jay, who became a deft center fielder and then a capable leadoff hitter when Furcal faltered. With three stalwarts, prospect Oscar Taveras offers intrigue in the outfield. The heir to Beltran in right, Taveras, 20, could see playing time in center if he sticks out of spring training, which isn’t likely.
Yadier Molina’s record-setting season ended with a fourth-place finish in the NL MVP, the highest for a Cardinals catcher since Tim McCarver was second in 1967. On his way to a fifth consecutive Gold Glove Award, Molina became the first Cardinals’ catcher in more than three decades to hit 22 home runs and drive in 76 runs. With a .315 average, he led the team in batting for the second consecutive season, all while nurturing a pitching staff to a 3.60 ERA with him behind the plate. Molina started 133 games, leaving few for Tony Cruz, an adept backup despite the limited activity that will likely continue. Molina enters the first season of a five-year, $75-million extension signed in March 2012 insisting that “what I did was good, but I know I can do more.”
The Cardinals moved quickly this winter to add the player they believed their bench missed late in games last summer. Ty Wigginton signed to provide right-handed power potential and a veteran presence — “a piece, by definition, that you (cannot) get from your system,” GM John Mozeliak explains. Greenhorns and a rotating cast of minor leaguers will still be asked to provide bench options — like rookie slugger Matt Adams, a true left-handed threat — but Wigginton’s addition concedes that an unproven and improvised bench left Matheny shorthanded last season.
A rookie manager, Matheny showed he could work around injuries, integrate youth, and massage a lineup to avoid overtaxing players. Over the winter, the club tinkered with the roster to better fit his managing style. Mozeliak’s increased imprint on the organization includes the expanded use of analytics and a business model that rewards in-house players and avoids bidding wars. In five seasons as GM, Mozeliak has routinely made midseason moves to solve weaknesses, like the bullpen in 2011 and 2012. The trades have recently been subtle, yet substantive. Now with a cache of young pitching talent, he has the means and awaits the motivation to make a splash.
The Cardinals had a quiet winter, content to use a thin free-agent market for fine-tuning. With several aging contributors, health remains their biggest risk, but less so as the club has a stronger, self-sufficient farm system ready to keep them consistently competitive. There are many routes to their stated goal of annually reaching the playoffs. And the Cardinals, twice a champ as the Wild Card, know October’s abiding rule: A team just has to get in it to win it.
CF Jon Jay (L)
In his first year as the everyday center fielder, Jay seized the leadoff role with a .303 average when batting No. 1.
RF Carlos Beltran (S)
Seven-time All-Star brought desired jolt to Pujols-free lineup, with 32 homers and 97 RBIs, his best totals since 2007.
LF Matt Holliday (R)
Through nagging hip and back injuries, outfielder played 157 games and was an offensive fulcrum with team-high 102 RBIs.
1B Allen Craig (R)
In his first season as an everyday player, ranked seventh in the NL in both average (.307) and slugging (.522).
C Yadier Molina (R)
After signing a 5-year, $75-million extension, Molina set career highs in home runs (22), RBIs (76), and batting average (.315).
3B David Freese (R)
Adding 2012 health to his 2011 heroics, Freese set highs for homers (20), RBIs (79) and games played (144). Injuries continue to plague Freese this spring as a bad back has landed him on the DL again.
2B Daniel Descalso (L)
Emerged as the starter at second in September, overcoming a difficult offensive season with sure-handed play at the pivot.
SS Pete Kozma (R)
Thrust into starting job at short late last season, he responded with a .333 average and a .569 slugging percentage in 26 games.
UT Matt Carpenter (L)
Called “offensive spark” for production in a reserve role, he’s being outfitted for more playing time and a new position. He replaces Freese at third (his natural position) to start the season, but it will be interesting to see if he hits enough to replace the better defender (Descalso) at second once Freese returns.
UT Ty Wigginton (R)
Craving a seasoned presence for clubhouse and right-handed pop for the bench, Cards signed veteran who hit 22 HRs in 2010.
1B Matt Adams (L)
The slugger had 24 strikeouts and 21 hits in an audition last season.
C Tony Cruz (R)
Proven to be a reliable backup for his handling pitchers and ability to also play corner positions.
OF Shane Robinson (R)
Need for a right-handed-hitting center fielder off the bench creates an opportunity for solid-fielding Florida State alum.
IF Ryan Jackson
Recalled when Freese went on the DL.
RH Adam Wainwright
Gaining strength with each start after elbow surgery, Wainwright went 5–1 with a 2.75 ERA in six August starts.
LH Jaime Garcia
Inconsistency stemmed from a shoulder injury he insists he can overcome without surgery. Has 2013 to prove it.
RH Lance Lynn
Burly righty filled Carpenter’s spot in the rotation with an 11–4 record and 3.41 ERA in first half before stamina faltered.
RH Jake Westbrook
Sinkerballer’s 3.97 ERA was his lowest in a full season since 2004, and his overall sturdiness earned an extension for 2013.
RH Shelby Miller
The top prospect finally joins the rotation full-time.
RH Jason Motte (Closer)
In first season as surefire closer, Motte collected every save for the Cardinals, tying for league lead with 42. A sore elbow has shelved the former catcher and could delay his season.
RH Mitchell Boggs
Fulfilling his promise to be an impact pitcher in 2012, power righty led NL and set club record with 34 holds. He’ll close in Motte’s absence.
RH Edward Mujica
Acquired at the trade deadline, veteran righthander became the seventh-inning solution with 18 holds and a 1.03 ERA.
RH Fernando Salas
Led team with 24 saves in 2011, but that workload may have contributed to erratic, ragged results in 2012.
RH Trevor Rosenthal
Flamethrowing rookie was a postseason revelation as he struck out 15 of the 30 batters he faced in October.
LH Marc Rzepczynski
Perhaps miscast as a specialist; Cards hope addition of second lefty allows “Scrabble” to reset and thrive in late innings.
LH Randy Choate
The 37-year-old received a 3-year, $7.5-million commitment from the Cards because he’s the lefty neutralizer they lacked.
RH Joe Kelly
Will take on the long relief role if Motte is out for an extended time.
There are many things that history could choose to remember about the 2012 Washington Nationals. There was the debut of Bryce Harper, one of the most dynamic rookies to emerge in recent years. There was the franchise’s first division title and first playoff appearance since it moved from Montreal in 2005. And there was the cementing of Davey Johnson’s credentials as a Hall of Fame manager, as he was named Manager of the Year at season’s end. However, in all likelihood, the 2012 Nationals will still be remembered years from now as the team that willingly chose to shut down its ace — when he was completely healthy. In sidelining Stephen Strasburg in such a fashion, the Nationals cited, among other things, their window for winning future titles. That window is now wide open, and the way history ultimately views the Great Strasburg Shutdown of 2012 will depend largely on how the team performs in 2013 and beyond.
As with virtually every segment of the Nationals’ roster, the rotation is blessed with a plethora of younger, controllable players. Even with a couple of generic slop-ballers at the back end, a front three of Strasburg (presumably unleashed in 2013), lefty Gio Gonzalez and righthander Jordan Zimmermann would take this team a long way. But with the December free-agent signing of righthander Dan Haren to fill the role (held in 2012 by Edwin Jackson) of veteran innings-eater, the Nationals can boast a formidable back end of Haren and hard-throwing lefty Ross Detwiler — ensuring that, no matter where an opponent catches the Nationals in their starting rotation, they will be facing a tough night at the plate. An intriguing option for depth is flamethrower Christian Garcia, who emerged as a bullpen force late in 2012.
The shocking end of the Nationals’ 2012 season, in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals, could leave lasting marks on young closer Drew Storen, who blew a two-run ninth-inning lead after the Nationals were one strike away from advancing. While Johnson and the Nationals still believe in Storen, the team signed free agent Rafael Soriano to be the 2013 closer. Two of his 42 saves for the Yankees last season came prior to Mariano Rivera tearing his ACL in May. Storen joins Tyler Clippard to form what could be the most dominant setup tandem in baseball. Righthanders Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus, stalwarts in 2012, will return to their middle-relief roles. Lefty Zach Duke, who pitched well during a September call-up in 2012, is expected to fill the long reliever role held last year by Tom Gorzelanny.
Although the Nationals explored trading away second baseman Danny Espinosa this winter — less an indictment of Espinosa than a sign of how highly they regard backup Steve Lombardozzi — the team will return its double-play combo of Espinosa and shortstop Ian Desmond in 2013, and will be perfectly happy to do so. Switched out of the leadoff spot midway through the season (into a more comfortable role as the primary sixth hitter), Desmond had a breakout season that saw him earn his first All-Star appearance and Silver Slugger award (he was also a finalist for a Gold Glove), while becoming the emotional leader of the clubhouse. Espinosa strikes out too much and tends to go into long, deep funks at the plate, but he could also be poised for the same sort of breakout in 2013 that Desmond had in 2012.
After reviving his career with a huge 2012 season (33 homers, 100 RBIs, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, sixth in MVP voting), veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche paid a visit to free agency seeking a long-term deal, but was victimized by the draft-pick compensation rules in the new CBA, and ultimately returned to the Nationals on a two-year deal. LaRoche’s return gives the Nationals a top glove man and a critical left-handed bat in the middle of their lineup. Meantime, Ryan Zimmerman returns at third base following a strange 2012 that is best viewed as being divided into pre- and post-cortisone segments. On June 23, he received his first shot of the painkiller for his ailing shoulder, and his sagging numbers immediately took off. In the end, the popular Zimmerman wound up with a season in line with his career norms, then had a clean-up surgery on the shoulder immediately after the season.
The Nationals had been searching for years for a dependable leadoff hitter/center fielder, and over the winter they finally found their man in Denard Span, acquired via trade with Minnesota. Not only is Span a talented offensive and defensive player, but the Nationals also can envision other pieces falling into place with him on board: Harper (in left) and Jayson Werth (in right) move seamlessly to the corners, while Werth can be freed from the leadoff spot. If all three stay healthy and perform to expectations, the Harper-Span-Werth outfield could be among the best in baseball.
Kurt Suzuki, acquired in an August trade with Oakland, was supposed to have been little more than a two-month stopgap, filling an acute down-the-stretch need but ceding the starting job in 2013 when starter Wilson Ramos returns from injury. However, Suzuki played a critical role in the Nationals’ run to the NL East title. Lest we forget, however — Ramos was considered one of the brightest young catchers in the game before a season-ending knee injury in May. The two catchers proved in spring training that they were deserving of the starting job, and Johnson has decided to begin the season using Ramos and Suzuki every other day, keeping both fresh.
The Nationals were blessed with a potent, highly functional bench in 2012 and will be looking to reconstruct a similar one this year. To that end, they signed Chad Tracy, their top pinch-hitter in 2012, to a one-year extension for 2013, and they will return Lombardozzi, talented fourth outfielder Roger Bernadina and outfield/first base backup Tyler Moore as well.
The highly publicized shouting match between Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo last summer was less a sign of discord within the braintrust than a reminder that these are two bull-headed men who — with plenty of justification — believe strongly in their own abilities. They also happen to like and respect each other. Although Johnson will be 70 on Opening Day and has already indicated that 2013 will be his final year, he remains at the top of his game mentally. (And if Johnson does indeed step down after 2013, the Nationals appear to have already identified his successor in bench coach Randy Knorr.) Rizzo, too, has ascended to the upper tier of his profession, turning a perennial loser into a well-run, self-sustaining, winning organization that is the envy of his peers.
When Johnson blurted “World Series or bust” during the December 2012 Winter Meetings, he wasn’t being boastful or jingoistic. He was merely stating the obvious: This is a team built to win it all. In fact, all along 2013 was the Nationals’ target for contending — it just so happens that they arrived a year early in 2012. One could even argue that the franchise was caught unprepared for what befell them, based on the lack of a better plan for handling Strasburg’s innings limit. It is always dangerous to define your season as requiring a World Series appearance in order to qualify as a success, since the postseason is a crapshoot to some degree. But at least on paper, the Nationals appear to be as well equipped as anyone to survive both the marathon of the 162-game season and the sprint of October.
CF Denard Span (L)
The type of pure leadoff hitter the Nationals had been lacking; slapped 38 doubles and stole 17 bases in ’12.
RF Jayson Werth (R)
Thrived as leadoff hitter, but Nats believe he’ll be a perfect fit behind Span.
LF Bryce Harper (L)
After historic rookie season, ceiling in 2013 appears limitless for the 20-year-old outfielder.
3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
Played through shoulder injury, put up representative numbers, with 25 HRs and 95 RBIs.
1B Adam LaRoche (L)
Silver Slugger/Gold Glove exacta spoke to his immense value to the Nationals in 2012
SS Ian Desmond (R)
Arguably the best shortstop in the majors last season; had career highs in average (.292), HRs (25), RBIs (73).
2B Danny Espinosa (S)
Power numbers dipped slightly from 2011 rookie season, but Nationals aren’t giving up on him.
C Wilson Ramos (R)
Will need to earn job back after suffering ACL tear last May that ended his season.
C Kurt Suzuki (R)
Cameo after August trade was enough to earn shot at regular playing time in 2013.
OF Roger Bernadina (L)
Versatile glove-man and emerging hitter could start for many teams; valuable reserve for the Nats.
UT Tyler Moore (R)
Pure hitter was a crucial part of 2012 bench; hit 10 home runs in only 156 at-bats.
IF Chad Tracy (L)
Davey Johnson’s favorite pinch-hitter (12 hits in 46 at- bats) in 2012 returns in same role.
UT Steve Lombardozzi (S)
Steady infielder added outfield to his duties in 2012, increasing his value to the Nats.
RH Stephen Strasburg
The former No. 1 overall pick is poised for huge 2013 after being freed from controversial innings leash.
LH Gio Gonzalez
Won 21 games in his first season with the team, kept command issues at bay, kept clubhouse loose.
RH Jordan Zimmermann
Despite bringing heat, ranked eighth in the National League with only 2.0 walks per nine innings.
RH Dan Haren
Has averaged 220 innings pitched since 2005, though injuries plagued him in 2012.
LH Ross Detwiler
On any other staff, he’d be a No. 2 or No. 3, but the Nats are glad to have this 10-game winner in No. 5 hole.
RH Rafael Soriano (Closer)
Saved 42 games and blew just four last season for the Yankees.
RH Drew Storen
Had a 0.989 WHIP in regular season; 2012 season was going swell until ninth inning of Game 5 of NLDS.
RH Tyler Clippard
Had strong run as closer in Storen’s absence, but the Nationals value him as a setup man.
RH Craig Stammen
Paced the Nats’ 2012 bullpen with 88.1 innings pitched; only gave up 70 hits but walked 36.
RH Ryan Mattheus
Trusted seventh-inning man allowed opposing batters to hit .161 with runners in scoring position.
LH Zach Duke
Longtime starter shined in bullpen role last September, and earned himself a big-league contract for 2013.
RH Henry Rodriguez
Needs to cure wildness (22 walks in 29.1 IP in 2012), but Nats still believe in his power arm.
The Phillies are no longer the team to beat in the NL East. Maybe that will be beneficial, because this graying club, which was knocked from its lofty perch by injury and a horrible start in 2012, can use all the edge it can get. “Everyone is a little angry,” says Jimmy Rollins, the team’s longest-tenured player and a key contributor on five straight division championship clubs from 2007-11. “We have that chip on our shoulder to go back out there and prove this is still our division.” Injuries to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay contributed to a woeful 37–50 record before the All-Star break in 2012. Improved health and performance led to a 44–31 second half and fueled hopes that this team, aging but still high on accomplished star power, might have one more run in it.
What’s up, Doc? This is one of the most important questions facing this team. If Halladay is close to the pitcher he was in his first two seasons with the club, the Phillies will be in the enviable position of having three top starters. If Halladay struggles as he did in 2012, the Phils will have to get by with just two. Indications this spring are that the latter might be the case. Having Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee atop the rotation still puts the Phils in good position in the arms race. Hamels continued to blossom into an elite pitcher in 2012, and management recognized his importance by signing him to a six-year, $144 million contract in July. At 29, Hamels’ time to lead this staff has come. He’s talented enough to join Halladay and Lee as a Cy Young winner and lines up to make his first Opening Day start. “I’m still looking for him to have a really big year — 22, 24 wins,” manager Charlie Manuel said after Hamels’ career-best 17 wins in 2012. “It’s in there.” Lee’s win total was down in 2012, but he remains one of the best. He had a brilliant second half and joined Hamels with a top-10 ERA (in NL) finish. After finishing first and second in NL Cy Young voting his first two seasons in Philly, Halladay was a different pitcher in 2012. His 4.49 ERA was his highest in a season in which he pitched over 70 innings. Shoulder problems, likely caused by the wear and tear of over 2,700 big-league innings, sent him to the disabled list for seven weeks. When he was on the mound, he used off-speed stuff more than past years as he tried to compensate for reduced velocity and movement on his signature sinker and cutter. There is no more dedicated pro athlete than Halladay, who turns 36 in May. He has vowed to come back strong in 2013. If he does, everyone from the front office to the cheap seats will breathe easier, and the rotation will be deeper and more formidable. Kyle Kendrick and newcomer John Lannan, the third lefty on the starting staff, round out the rotation. Kendrick gained valuable confidence by recording a 3.20 ERA in his final 12 starts last season. Lannan has something to prove after being pushed out of Washington’s rotation by more talented arms last season. He made 30-plus starts and had a sub-4.00 ERA three times in Washington.
Even with Jonathan Papelbon converting 38-of-42 saves chances, the bullpen was a fatal weakness in 2012. Phillies relievers helped dig that huge first-half deficit by recording a 4.72 ERA, second-worst in the majors, before the break. The eighth inning was particularly disastrous. For the season, the Phils blew an unsightly 13 eighth-inning leads. Management believes it has fixed the problem with the signing of Mike Adams, one of the best setup men in the business. He and Papelbon could form one of the best back-end tandems in baseball. Antonio Bastardo, a lefty with strikeout stuff, will be key in the late innings as well. The Phils are hoping for the emergence of some of their young, high-upside relievers, most notably Mike Stutes and Jeremy Horst.
The best middle infield combo in franchise history could be nearing the end of a storied run together. Rollins and Utley are both 34. Utley, once the game’s top run-producing second baseman, has averaged just 100 games the last three seasons because of injuries, particularly bad knees. He enters the final year of his contract. He believes he can manage his way through the season, but his batting average and slugging percentage the last two seasons are just .258 and .426, respectively. Rollins won his fourth Gold Glove in 2012 and can still pick it and throw it with the best. He’s never been a prototypical leadoff man because of his aggressive approach at the plate, but he did score 102 runs in 2012. He is signed through 2014 with an option for 2015.
Veteran stars Howard and Michael Young both have something to prove. Howard, long one of the game’s premier power bats, missed three months while recovering from a torn Achilles in 2012. He returned to drive in 56 runs in 260 at-bats, but batted a career-low .219 and struck out 35 percent of the time, a career-worst. Management has challenged him to improve his physical conditioning and approach at the plate. With good health and a full spring training, Howard should hit 30-plus homers and push for 120-plus RBIs. The team needs that from him. Young, who became a spare part after 12 decorated seasons in Texas, takes over at third base. Defense could be an issue, but Young’s deficiencies at third will be tolerable if he can rebound from a career-low .682 OPS and put up numbers similar to 2011 when he hit .338 with 106 RBIs.
This area has been unsettled since Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence were traded in July, and it remains one of the club’s biggest concerns. Management hoped to add a power-defense package in center field, but settled for slap-hitting Ben Revere, who was acquired from Minnesota. The speedy Revere can run down balls, but his arm is weak and his power nonexistent. In their search for a run-producing corner bat, the Phillies signed Delmon Young, last season’s ALCS MVP for Detroit. Liability doesn’t begin to describe him defensively, but he has some pop and his right-handed bat will come in handy. He had ankle surgery. While he recovers, John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix will likely platoon in left field. The Phillies desperately need Domonic Brown to finally seize control of right field, but to this point, the former top prospect has been disappointing.
Carlos Ruiz hit every ball hard, reached career-highs across the board, and became a valuable middle-order bat while making his first All-Star team in 2012. What does he do for an encore after hitting 50 points above his career average? Well, first he’ll serve a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant late last season. At 34, will Ruiz pick up where he left off when he returns, or was his big season a one-year wonder? One thing is sure: Ruiz will handle pitchers well. The staff has great respect for his game management. Veteran Erik Kratz, who showed power, presence and a strong throwing arm while Ruiz was out with a sore foot in 2012, will get the call while Ruiz serves his suspension.
Sure-handed infielder Freddy Galvis is an important piece off the bench. He gives the club a strong defender when Utley or Rollins needs rest, and he can help protect a late lead at third. Kevin Frandsen earned his way into a utility/pinch-hitting role by hitting .338 in 195 at-bats with the big club in 2012. The possibility of outfield platoons could keep the bench sharp.
Manuel is the most successful manager in club history. In eight seasons, he has guided the Phils to the best record in the NL (727–569), five division titles, two pennants and a World Series title. At 69, Manuel is in the final year of his contract. He says he hasn’t decided whether he wants to manage beyond 2013, but a succession plan may have been put into place when Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg was promoted from Triple-A manager to big-league third base coach. Sandberg is considered an excellent managerial prospect.
With Hamels and Lee, the Phils have a great place to start, and with Adams and Papelbon, a good place to finish. Up the middle, the team is solid with Rollins and Ruiz. If Howard and Young rebound, and Halladay and Utley stay active and productive, this club will push for a playoff spot.
SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
Led NL shortstops in runs (102), extra-base hits (61) and fielding percentage (.978) in 2012.
2B Chase Utley (L)
Finally enjoying a full spring training game since missing the last two springs because of chronic knee issues.
3B Michael Young (R)
Lifetime .301 hitter and seven-time All-Star has played just 65 games at third base since 2010.
1B Ryan Howard (L)
He had 46 RBIs in his final 47 games in 2012 to finish with 56 in 260 at-bats.
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
Tied for second among National League catchers with 47 extra-base hits in 2012. Is suspended for the first 25 games for a positive PED test.
RF Domonic Brown (L)
Had seven assists in final two months of 2012, second-most in NL in that span.
CF Ben Revere (L)
His 37 infield hits (nine bunts) were third-most in the majors in 2012.
LF John Mayberry Jr. (R)
Played in career-high 149 games, including 107 starts, in 2012; only had 46 RBIs in 441 at-bats. Will likely platoon with Laynce Nix until Delmon Young’s ankle is completely recovered from offseason surgery.
IF Freddy Galvis (S)
Was leading team with 15 doubles when he sustained season-ending cracked spine last June.
IF Kevin Frandsen (R)
His 37 hits in August 2012 were tied for third-most in the National League.
C Erik Kratz (R)
Threw out 12-of-30 (40 percent) potential basestealers in 2012, and 18 of his 35 hits were for extra bases.
OF Ender Inciarte (L)
Rule 5 pick hasn’t advanced past High-A with Arizona where he hit .319 last season.
OF Laynce Nix (L)
Hit .342 in his first 17 games in 2012 then missed two-plus months with a calf strain.
LH Cole Hamels
Notched a career-high 216 strikeouts in 215.1 innings in 2012.
LH Cliff Lee
His 2.45 ERA after All-Star break was fifth-lowest among NL starters.
RH Roy Halladay
Did not have a complete game in 2012 for the first time in over a decade. Struggling to find velocity this spring.
RH Kyle Kendrick
Durability is valuable — has never been on the disabled list; had a career-high 6.6 K/9 IP in 2012.
LH John Lannan
He is 39–39 with a 3.80 ERA in 115 starts against teams other than the Phillies.
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
Has reached at least 30 saves in each of the last seven seasons.
RH Mike Adams
In 285.2 career innings in the NL, he has 2.11 ERA, 295 strikeouts and 85 walks.
LH Antonio Bastardo
Ranked third among qualified big-league relievers with 14.02 strikeouts per nine innings in 2012.
RH Mike Stutes
Showed promise in 2011, but missed much of 2012 with shoulder injury.
LH Jeremy Horst
Held left-handed hitters to a .170 average (8-for-47) with 17 strikeouts in 2012.
RH Chad Durbin
Returns to Philadelphia after pitching for Cleveland and Atlanta the last two seasons.
LH Raul Valdes
Lefties his just .149 last season; righties marginally better at .183.
After the 2011 season, the Mets lost the NL batting champion, Jose Reyes. After last season, they lost the NL Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey. Yet when Sandy Alderson announced Dickey’s trade to Toronto, he declared, “We’re certainly not punting on 2013.” He had to say it — with attendance already plummeting at Citi Field, the Mets don’t need their general manager conceding a season — but it’s clearly misleading. The Mets have no intention of contending this season, which will be the fifth losing campaign in a row for the franchise. On the positive side, they seem to be collecting a promising group of prospects who could grow together in years to come.
The Mets say they wanted Dickey to return, but their offer of a contract extension (two years, $20 million) was laughably out of line for a Cy Young Award winner in an industry with cash. They traded him to Toronto for an impressive prospect haul, but did not get a starter back in the deal. Without Dickey, Johan Santana moves back to the No. 1 spot, and while he has fought valiantly through a variety of physical problems, he’s proven to be unreliable for a full season. Shaun Marcum, twice a 13-game winner for Milwaukee, was signed and should provide quality innings if his shoulder doesn’t get too balky. The starters behind them offer long-term hope, with steady lefty Jon Niese and rising star Matt Harvey. Niese quietly had an outstanding season, going 13–9 overall and posting a 2.93 ERA in the final four months, never once walking more than three in a game over that span. Harvey, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft out of North Carolina, had an exciting debut, with a 2.73 ERA in 10 starts and 70 strikeouts in 59.1 innings. The rotation falls off steeply after that, with Dillon Gee, a replacement-level righty, having missed the second half of the season after having a blood clot removed from his shoulder. Until Santana is ready for a regular load, Jeremy Hefner will fill in. But the prize of the group for the future is top prospect Zack Wheeler.
Frank Francisco had a 3.55 ERA for Toronto in 2011, and he reversed those digits for the Mets in 2012 — 5.53. That’s not what the Mets had in mind when they signed him for two years and $12 million, but Francisco, in fairness, did not blow a save after June 5. He missed all of July with an oblique strain and may have had arm problems, too. He underwent surgery in December to remove a bone spur from his elbow, and is questionable for Opening Day. If he pitches well, he’ll be trade bait for contenders this summer. Setup man Bobby Parnell was not the best righthander named Robert Allen on the team — that was Robert Allen Dickey — but he did enjoy a strong season, with a career-high in games (74) and a career-low 2.49 ERA. He also earned his seventh save on the final day of the season to give himself another career-best mark. He’ll close until Francisco is completely healthy. Beyond Parnell, though, the bullpen is threadbare. Veteran Brandon Lyon signed late and should be an effective innings eater from the right side. Non-roster veterans Scott Atchison, LaTroy Hawkins and lefty Pedro Feliciano will add depth and give manager Terry Collins some good matchup options. Lefty Josh Edgin can also be a decent match-up guy.
As up-the-middle combinations go, they’re not exactly Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter. The Mets’ Daniel Murphy and Ruben Tejada are adequate but limited at the plate, both hitting for a respectable batting average but offering little power or speed to go with it. They’re viable big leaguers, which is saying something for this team, but they’re not difference makers. Advanced defensive metrics are not always reliable, but according to Fangraphs, Murphy’s Ultimate Zone Rating ranked 20th of 22 qualifying second basemen in the majors. Tejada was better, but still not among the upper half at his position, ranking 13th of 21 qualifying shortstops. A strained intercoastal muscle may keep Murphy on the shelf to start the season.
This is by far the Mets’ offensive strength. While Ike Davis struggled at Citi Field last season, he managed to smash 32 homers and drive in 90 runs. He needed only 16.2 at-bats per home run, ranking third in the National League, and at 26 years old, he still has time to get better. Across the diamond, third baseman David Wright had his best season since 2008, the year before the Mets moved to Citi Field, where he struggled at first with the distant dimensions. Moving in the fences suited Wright, who hit more long balls at home (12) than he did on the road (nine). A two-time Gold Glove winner, he also excelled in the field, with the best Ultimate Zone Rating among NL third basemen, according to Fangraphs. The Mets locked up Wright with an eight-year, $138 million contract extension that binds him to the team through 2020.
The Mets won the wild card in 2000 with an outfield of Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton and Derek Bell, and advanced to the World Series that year with Timo Perez replacing Bell. That’s a ragtag group, to be sure, but a juggernaut compared to the outfield in Flushing these days. The Mets have few outfielders who would start for other teams, with Collin Cowgill, veteran Marlon Byrd and Lucas Duda likely to hold down the starting spots. Cowgill — who bats right and throws left — will play for his third team in three seasons after stints with Arizona and Oakland, hoping to establish himself as an everyday player. He showed decent power and an ability to reach base in the minors, so he’s worth a look. Duda is the most established hitter, but he lumbers on defense and the bases and struggled to make up for it at the plate last season. Byrd, a non-roster player, has seen his better days, but should hit for a decent average.
The Mets believe they acquired a foundational piece in Travis d’Arnaud, who is so highly regarded that he’s been traded twice for Cy Young Award winners before his first game in the big leagues. He was hitting .333 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs at Class AAA Las Vegas last year before his season ended when he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while sliding to break up a double play. He also missed half the 2010 season with two bulging disks in his back. Those are troublesome issues for a young player, but the Mets were willing to bank on d’Arnaud’s potential while also acquiring a veteran, John Buck, who could be the starter early in the season. With little hope of contending this year, the Mets have determined they are best-served by leaving d’Arnaud in Class AAA to the start the season, delaying his eventual free agency by shortening his major league service time.
For a team with so many holes in the starting lineup, the Mets actually have a decent bench, with useful players like infielder Justin Turner, outfielder Mike Baxter and Jordany Valdespin, an infielder/outfielder. Valdespin had five separate stints with the Mets last year and set a single-season club record for pinch-hit homers, with five.
The Mets play hard for manager Terry Collins, but a lack of talent and a rash of injuries have doomed them down the stretch in the past two seasons. Collins burns to win and has vaguely raised questions about his team’s effort at times, but that is mostly just frustration, and players appreciate his generally positive approach in an atmosphere that can be harsh. Alderson knows how to build a winner, but he has mostly been limited to low-cost, low-impact moves, essentially treading water until the team has shed its glut of bad contracts. Owner Fred Wilpon and his son Jeff, who essentially runs the team, have sold minority ownership shares but have yet to prove they have really recovered from the havoc Bernie Madoff wreaked on their finances.
This season marks the 20th anniversary of the Mets’ last 100-loss season, and they could be headed for another. These Mets could be very bad, and only the filleting of the Miami Marlins will save them from the basement of the NL East. The good thing is that the future is finally coming into focus, and fans can watch Harvey, d’Arnaud, Wheeler and others develop while knowing that Wright will be here for the long haul.
SS Ruben Tejada (R)
In 78 games as the leadoff man last year, he attempted just four stolen bases.
2B Daniel Murphy (L)
His .291 average trailed only Robinson Cano, Marco Scutaro and Aaron Hill among everyday second basemen.
3B David Wright (R)
Greatest Met never to play in World Series faces a long road to get there. For now, just trying to get healthy to avoid starting the season on the DL.
1B Ike Davis (L)
Outstanding power, but must prove he can handle lefties and hit at Citi Field.
RF Marlon Byrd (R)
Veteran batted .270 in 34 games with the Red Sox last season, which was 200 points higher than his first 13 games with the Cubs.
LF Lucas Duda (L)
His OPS in the second half of the 2012 season was a miserable .644.
CF Collin Cowgill (R)
With .291 average in five minor league seasons, he’s ready for a shot.
C John Buck (R)
After making All-Star team with Jays in 2010, hit .213 in two years for Marlins.
OF Mike Baxter (L)
Sacrificed chunk of his season to save Johan Santana’s no-hitter with diving catch at wall.
UT Jordany Valdespin (L)
Pinch-hitter extraordinaire who started at five positions (LF, CF, RF, 2B, SS) as a rookie. Will get some regular time at second until Murphy is 100 percent.
IF Brandon Hicks (R)
Has a .133 career average in parts of three seasons with Atlanta and Oakland.
IF Justin Turner (R)
Proved himself to be a capable reserve (he hit .269 in 171 at-bats) after a year as a starter.
C Travis d’Arnaud (R)
Vaunted prospect should make debut in ’13 and stay for years to come.
LH Jon Niese
Won 13 games with a career-low 3.40 ERA in his third season as a starter.
RH Shaun Marcum
Has gone 33-19 with a 3.62 ERA over last three seasons.
RH Matt Harvey
Power righty projects as long-term ace; only gave up 42 hits in 59.1 innings last season.
RH Dillon Gee
Missed second half after having blood clot removed from shoulder in July.
LH Johan Santana
The danger of backloaded contracts — Santana will make $25.5M in 2013. A balky shoulder may keep him on the DL to start the season.
RH Jeremy Hefner
Former fifth-round pick of the Padres is leading candidate to replace Santana while the former Cy Young winner is disabled.
RH Frank Francisco (Closer)
First pitcher since 2009 to have at least 20 saves and an ERA above 5.50. Elbow inflammation is not a good sign; likely headed to DL.
RH Bobby Parnell
Especially stingy at Citi Field, with 1.54 ERA at home last season. Will close in place of the injured Francisco.
RH Brandon Lyon
Averaged 61 games and 62 innings over last seven seasons.
RH Scott Atchison
Was effective with Boston last season: a 1.58 ERA in 51.1 innings and a 0.994 WHIP. The 37-year-old has logged more than 1,000 innings in the minors and Japan, just over 200 in the majors.
RH LaTroy Hawkins
In 2009 and 2011 he had a combined 2.26 ERA; an unimpressive 4.97 in 2010 and 2012. Maybe 2013 will follow that trend.
LH Pedro Feliciano
Led the NL in appearances all three years from 2008-10 totaling 208 games, but hasn’t pitched in bigs since.
LH Josh Edgin
Held lefties to .164 average (9-for-55), which was good enough to earn another look.
Talk about a nasty case of buyer’s remorse. In a dizzying span of less than a year, the Miami Marlins: Went through a ballyhooed rebranding. Spent $191 million on three big-name free agents. Moved into a beautiful new downtown ballpark. Served as reality-show fodder for Showtime. Underperformed miserably. Fired manager Ozzie Guillen with three years left on his contract. Hired a rookie manager (Mike Redmond) out of A-ball. And, last but not least: Tore down their roster via a 12-player mega-dump deal with the Blue Jays. Just like old times, eh? South Florida baseball fans, at least what’s left of them, reacted with predictable rage after seeing five proven big-leaguers, including Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, shipped off for a boatload of mostly prospects. Redmond will be asked to pull a Joe Girardi (circa 2006) and whip a bunch of young prospects into a competent big-league ballclub as quickly as possible. Good luck.
Ricky Nolasco, the ace by default, wanted out in the immediate aftermath of the blockbuster deal. The Marlins refused to accommodate him, mostly because Nolasco, who turned 30 this offseason, was the only member of their projected rotation with more than 19 career wins. Plus, if they traded Nolasco and his $11.5 million salary, their net payroll, which opened last season at a franchise-record $112 million, would drop to less than a third of that figure. Henderson Alvarez, who pitched to a 4.85 ERA while spending last season in the Jays’ rotation, is a notable step down from the fellow Venezuelan righthander he essentially replaces (Anibal Sanchez). Young righthander Nate Eovaldi, who came over in a July deal with the Dodgers, has a lot to learn and will likely get 30-plus starts’ worth of education this year. At least he showed signs of sustainable effectiveness during a late-season audition. Wade LeBlanc, the former Padres lefty with 19 wins in five seasons to his credit, figures to occupy one slot. Veteran Kevin Slowey, who last pitched in the majors in 2011 with the Twins, has impressed enough this spring to earn a shot to start the season. But Jacob Turner, acquired from the Tigers last season, will be a key cog in the rotation in the future. He will get a call at some point this season.
Steve Cishek was a revelation for the Marlins in the second half of the 2012 season. The young sidewinder blew just one save after taking over for Heath Bell at the All-Star break. That was enough to convince the Marlins to dump Bell on the Diamondbacks — he wound up costing them $14 million for one horrible season — while turning over the closer’s reins to the former fifth-round draft pick. Sinkerballer Ryan Webb should emerge as the top option for the eighth inning, while Mike Dunn is the best option from the left side. It’s pretty much a no-name bullpen, but after the Marlins relief corps blew 22 saves a year ago, the team is willing to take its chances on some kids. Veterans Jon Rauch and Chad Qualls were signed late and bring some experience and stability.
The Marlins have had more than their share of standout shortstops in their brief-but-volatile history. Edgar Renteria and Alex Gonzalez each helped them win a World Series, while Hanley Ramirez and Reyes were more noted for their offensive prowess. Now along comes Adeiny Hechavarria, the Cuban defector who should start building his Gold Glove collection in the not-too-distant future. At least that’s what the Marlins are hoping after making him the centerpiece of their deal with the Blue Jays. Hechavarria may hit eventually as well, but so far his bat has only been truly lively in the light air of Las Vegas and the Pacific Coast League. Returning at second base is Donovan Solano, who shined with the Marlins after the Cardinals let him leave as a minor league free agent last winter. The 25-year-old Colombian hit .295 in 285 at-bats with the Marlins in his first season in the big leagues. Solano’s step forward made veteran Omar Infante expendable.
You wouldn’t want to run a relay race with these guys. Logan Morrison, moving back to his original position of first base after spending the past few years in left field, is coming off another arthroscopic knee surgery. When healthy, he’s a defensive weapon at first. Getting his legs underneath him also might help reverse a two-year decline at the plate. But he won’t be near full speed by Opening Day, so Casey Kotchman will likely start the season at first. But Morrison should be back by the end of April. At third base, the Marlins are betting $2.75 million that Placido Polanco’s back woes will somehow subside at age 37. Polanco, who attended college in Miami, has played in the postseason five times. That probably won’t be happening again this season.
If the Marlins were as smart as they seem to believe they are, they would have locked up All-Star right fielder Giancarlo Stanton with a long-term deal before dealing away half their roster. Instead, the burgeoning young slugger ripped the organization in the aftermath of its latest Great Selloff. Stanton, who already has 93 home runs in three seasons, can’t be a free agent until after 2016. However, further static from Stanton, along with what promises to be knee-buckling trade offers from lustful suitors, could accelerate his inevitable departure considerably. Juan Pierre, one of the heroes of the 2003 World Series team, is back to play left field. He signed a one-year, $1.6 million deal after a solid bounce-back year (.307 with 37 stolen bases) with the Phillies. Journeyman Justin Ruggiano looks like the smart bet in center field after a breakthrough season a year ago. The former Tampa Bay Ray hit .313 with 13 home runs in only 288 at-bats in his first season with the Marlins.
John Buck never could hit enough to justify that $6 million annual salary. Maybe, the Marlins figure, they will fare better with a platoon of young Rob Brantly, who came over from the Tigers in the Sanchez/Infante deal, and veteran backup Jeff Mathis. Brantly has a sweet lefty stroke and some pop. Unfortunately, Mathis is pretty much all mitt at this point. His combined OPS in eight big-league seasons is a putrid .570, and he doesn’t do much better against lefties than he does against righthanders. Mathis fractured his collarbone early in spring training, so youngster Kyle Skipworth could begin the season as Brantly’s backup.
Ruggiano will get some competition in center field from Gorkys Hernandez and even Chris Coghlan. Hernandez is out of options after enjoying a big winter season back home in Venezuela. Veteran reserve Greg Dobbs is an excellent safety net for those often-hobbled starters at the corner infield spots.
At the press conference to introduce new manager Mike Redmond, Marlins baseball czar Larry Beinfest admitted the organization had strayed from the Marlins Way — a term that he defined as “outperforming our challenges.” Exactly what challenges the Marlins still have now that they’re playing in a publicly funded, $515 million, retractable-roof ballpark was unclear. Redmond, a key backup on the 2003 World Series champions, has the right blend of personality and energy to get the most out of this young group. Even so, most expect a 100-loss season and a third straight year in the basement of the National League East.
Say this for the Marlins: They don’t do anything halfway. In the abstract, what they have attempted in churning nearly their entire roster since the middle of last season makes some sense. It’s probably the quickest way to return to consistent playoff contention and eventually end a nine-year playoff drought that now ranks as the fifth-longest in baseball. However, there’s that nagging little piece about $360 million in public money going toward a ballpark that was supposed to help them compete with richer clubs in more traditional baseball markets. The Marlins aren’t giving any of that money back, but they did find a way to offload more than $236 million in future contract obligations since the middle of last season. In the process, they just may have destroyed once and for all the fragile connection that had existed between South Florida and its twice-crowned baseball club.
LF Juan Pierre (L)
Veteran slugged just .190 against lefties, .405 against righties for the Phillies in 2012.
3B Placido Polanco (R)
Missed a combined 112 games the past two seasons with the Phillies, mostly due to back issues.
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R)
Hit 494-foot homer at Coors Field last year, longest in the big leagues since 2009. Probably feels like the Lone Ranger in Miami now.
C Rob Brantly (L)
Already owns big-league home runs off of Stephen Strasburg and reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.
CF Justin Ruggiano (R)
Career .226 hitter in parts of three big-league seasons before shocking breakout with Marlins last year.
2B Donovan Solano (R)
Made just two errors in 58 games at second base after taking over for the traded Omar Infante.
1B Casey Kotchman (L)
His averaged dropped 77 points from 2011 to 2012, but he’s a stellar defender and capable off the bench once Logan Morrison is healthy.
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R)
Career OBP of .286 in 172 minor league games outside hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
C Jeff Mathis (R)
Has a .198 batting average in nearly 1,600 career plate appearances in the majors. Makes his living with his defense and arm. A broken collarbone early in spring training has opened the door for Kyle Skipworth to start the season as the backup.
3B Greg Dobbs (L)
Started a combined 166 games the past two seasons for the Marlins.
UT Chris Coghlan (L)
Former NL Rookie of the Year remains on the radar due to his versatility.
1B-OF Logan Morrison (L)
Reached base at .436 clip after the count ran full in 2012, with two hits, 15 walks in 39 plate appearances. Should be in the lineup at either first base or left field every day once his knee is sound.
RH Ricky Nolasco
Has posted an ERA lower than 4.48 just once in seven big-league seasons.
RH Henderson Alvarez
Only two big leaguers (Clayton Richard and Rick Porcello) allowed more hits than Alvarez in 2012.
RH Nate Eovaldi
Needs 5,613 more strikeouts to catch the only other big leaguer from Alvin (Texas) High School (Nolan Ryan).
LH Wade LeBlanc
Turned in quality starts in just three of nine late-season opportunities.
RH Kevin Slowey
Hasn’t pitched in majors since 2011, but was impressive in spring training.
RH Steve Cishek (Closer)
Converted 14-of-15 save opportunities after replacing Heath Bell at midseason.
RH Ryan Webb
Sinkerballer posted a nearly two-to-one groundball/flyball ratio (47-to-26) after Aug. 1.
RH Jon Rauch
Has thrown at least 50 innings every year since 2006.
LH Mike Dunn
Career walk rate is 5.7 per nine innings in parts of four big-league seasons.
RH A.J. Ramos
Struck out 13 and allowed eight hits in 9.1 innings as a rookies last season.
RH Chad Qualls
Veteran allowed 12 of 27 inherited runners to score while logging 52.1 innings for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Yankees.
RH John Maine
Will serve as long relief man — and probably gets lots of work.
The Braves have endured their share of postseason frustration. They are 9–20 in playoff games since sweeping the NLDS in 2001 — but have managed to remain relevant through changing times in the tough NL East. Since its run of 11 straight division titles ended in 2006, Atlanta has had a winning record in five of seven seasons and made the playoffs in 2010 and ’12. If the Braves are going to threaten the Washington Nationals in 2013, they’ll do it behind a solid young pitching staff and the addition of the Upton brothers: center fielder B.J. via free agency and left fielder Justin via trade. They’ll also need either Freddie Freeman or Jason Heyward — or perhaps both — to take the next step offensively.
How shrewd did the Braves look last September, when Kris Medlen was the best thing going in the majors, and the Nationals had shut down ace Stephen Strasburg to rest his arm? Both were in their first full seasons after Tommy John surgery, and both were on about a 160-inning limit. But the Braves looked smart for pitching Medlen in relief the first half of the season — at least in the long run. Once Medlen joined the rotation on July 31, he went 9–0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. He enters 2013 as the staff ace, which is saying something for a pitcher with only 30 career starts. Tim Hudson, who has a 49–26 record over the last three seasons, is a solid No. 2 starter. His numbers were up a bit last year — with a 3.62 ERA (third-highest of his career) and 8.4 hits per nine innings (most since 2009) — but he still has several good seasons in his right arm. Brandon Beachy, the Braves’ best starter the first two to three months last season, aims to return from Tommy John surgery around the All-Star break. Paul Maholm, who was acquired at the trade deadline last year, and Mike Minor, who solidified a spot in the rotation with a dominant second half, give the Braves two quality lefty starters. Julio Teheran, considered a top prospect for a few years, finally has an opportunity to shine
In two seasons since taking over for Billy Wagner, Craig Kimbrel has emerged as the elite closer in the National League. He’s a big reason why the bullpen is one of the Braves’ strengths and among the best in baseball. After winning the NL Rookie of the Year in 2011, Kimbrel finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting last year and was eighth in the NL MVP race. He’ll try to match John Smoltz as the second Atlanta closer to post three straight 40-save seasons, after collecting 46 and 42 saves, respectively, in his first two full big-league seasons. Jonny Venters, who struggled to find consistency with his patented sinker, wasn’t as effective in 2012 as he was the year before. But Eric O’Flaherty followed his breakout season of 2011 with another outstanding campaign. Luis Avilan was a sleeper of a find in Double-A, and the Braves added power righthander Jordan Walden from the Angels in a trade for Tommy Hanson. Manager Fredi Gonzalez kept his word not to overuse the back end of the bullpen like he admittedly did in ’11.
Dan Uggla knows no middle ground. In his first two seasons with the Braves, he’s endured long stretches of being either hot or frigid. He hit .185 over the final 99 games last season, though he did manage a more-than-respectable .298 clip with nine extra-base hits and 14 RBIs over the final 23 games. Uggla still finished with 19 home runs — well off his 31 per year average — but struck out 168 times. The Braves are excited to see what they’ll get in a full season from Andrelton Simmons, a 23-year-old shortstop who was taken in the second round of the 2010 draft. Simmons is an energetic defensive standout who contributed more offensively than the Braves anticipated. He hit .289 with 19 RBIs in 166 at-bats in 2012. Simmons is a candidate to bat in the leadoff spot.
The Braves were aware that Chipper Jones’ departure would be problematic, but this offseason reinforced the difficulty of replacing him. The Braves’ original intent was to put Martin Prado at third base and acquire another left fielder and leadoff hitter. As it turned out, it took the trade of Prado to acquire their left fielder Justin Upton. In doing so the Braves acquired a platoon partner for Juan Francisco at third in Chris Johnson. Francisco remains a project, but he has huge power potential. The left-handed hitter needs to drop weight and eliminate extra rotation from his swing, but he took steps in that direction in winter ball in the Dominican. Given Jones’ departure, the Braves will also look to Freeman at first base for more offensive production. Freeman avoided a sophomore slump last season, hitting 23 home runs with 94 RBIs, but he needs to improve his .259 batting average.
The Braves love the combination of speed and power both Uptons bring, especially B.J. in center field, as well as their right-handed bats to balance their lineup. Many experts believe the Uptons and Heyward make up the best outfield in the National League. Outfield defense is certainly a team strength. Heyward won his first Gold Glove award in 2012, a big step in his progression as a young star. Offensively, Heyward made strides as well, rebounding from a rough sophomore season to hit a career-high 27 home runs, steal 21 bases and drive in 82 runs. Justin Upton played most of last season at Arizona with a deep bruise on his left thumb suffered on the first weekend of the season but still tied for second in the NL with 107 runs scored. With better health, he should improve on his 2012 totals of 17 homers and 67 RBIs, his lowest numbers in those two categories since 2008.
Another injury-plagued season cost Brian McCann what would have been a sixth Silver Slugger in seven major league seasons. He was hampered by right shoulder and knee problems and underwent shoulder surgery over the winter. The Braves hope he needs only a week or two in April to get healthy and is soon back to being the perennial All-Star and one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. The Braves lost well-respected backup David Ross to free agency — he signed with the Red Sox — but they believe Gerald Laird will fill in nicely, bringing the experience of playing in back-to-back World Series with the Cardinals and Tigers.
Re-signing Reed Johnson, the right-handed outfield bat the Braves added at last year’s trade deadline, gives the Braves a quality fourth outfielder. Johnson, who hit .270 in 43 games with the Braves last season, can play all three outfield spots, but isn’t expected to see much time. Jordan Schafer should also earn a roster spot. Paul Janish, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, or Ramiro Pena will back up at shortstop. Veteran minor leaguer Matt Pagnozzi will back up Laird until McCann returns.
The Braves stuck by Gonzalez after their September collapse in 2011 and saw the fruits of that decision when he led them to a berth in the Wild Card Game last fall. Gonzalez learned from previous mistakes: He didn’t overwork the back end of the bullpen, he wasn’t afraid to bench Uggla at times when the second baseman was struggling, and he worked Jones in and out of the lineup to keep him healthy. General manager Frank Wren bolstered the offense by acquiring the Uptons, but there is risk. B.J. and Justin strike out frequently and will join a lineup that lost its most disciplined hitter in Jones.
Despite the splash of the Upton acquisitions, the Braves will have a tough time challenging Washington for supremacy in the NL East, but their rotation and bullpen are strong and return largely intact. With Medlen starting all season, Beachy poised to return around the All-Star break, the Braves like their chances to return to the postseason.
SS Andrelton Simmons (R)
Rocket-armed defender who showed he could hit too with a .289 average, three HRs in 49 games as a rookie.
RF Jason Heyward (L)
Career-high 27 HRs and 21 steals, making him first 20/20 Brave since Andruw Jones in 2000.
RF Justin Upton (R)
Tied for second in the NL with 107 runs despite playing most of the season with a damaged left thumb.
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
Led the Braves in RBIs with 94 and second in homers with 23, but batting average fell from .282 to .259.
CF B.J. Upton (R)
Had career-high 28 HRs, added 31 steals last season for Tampa; 160-plus strikeouts for third straight season.
C Brian McCann (L)
Injury-plagued season saw career low in batting average (.230); 121 games were lowest total since 2005. Shoulder surgery
2B Dan Uggla (R)
Streak of five straight 30-plus-homer seasons ended with 19 home runs; hit career-low .220.
3B Juan Francisco (L)
Hit nine HRs in only 192 ABs, and nine more in Dominican League. Power potential gets him starting shot.
C Gerald Laird (R)
Hit .282 in 63 games for Detroit; will be No. 1 catcher in April as McCann recovers from shoulder surgery. Matt Pagnozzi will back up Laird.
OF Reed Johnson (R)
Led majors with 18 pinch hits and was second with .419 pinch-hit average; could win platoon role in left field.
IF Ramiro Pena (S)
Probably gets nod while Paul Janish recovers from shoulder surgery.
3B Chris Johnson (R)
Acquired in the deal with Justin Upton, Johnson could be a valuable platoon partner at third with Francisco.
OF Jordan Schafer (L)
Back for second tour with Braves.
RH Kris Medlen
NL pitcher of month for August and September went 9–0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts after moving into rotation.
RH Tim Hudson
Put up 3.62 ERA despite coming off spine surgery and pitching through bone spurs in ankle.
LH Mike Minor
Came into his own in second half of last season, going 7–4 with 2.21 ERA over last 15 starts.
LH Paul Maholm
Went 4–5 with 3.54 ERA in 11 starts as a Brave after midseason trade from Cubs.
RH Julio Teheran
Long considered a top prospect, with injury to Brandon Beachy and trade of Delgado, the path is cleared.
RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
Converted 42 of 45 saves while posting 1.01 ERA with 116 strikeouts and 14 walks in 62.2 innings.
LH Eric O'Flaherty
Allowed only four earned runs in 49 innings (0.73 ERA) in 55 appearances after May 2.
RH Jordan Walden
Closer with Angels (32 saves, 2.98 ERA in 2011) acquired in Tommy Hanson trade. Fastball can touch 100 mph.
LH Jonny Venters
ERA jumped from 1.84 to 3.22, reflecting struggles with his sinker and midseason elbow soreness.
LH Luis Avilan
Surprise of the year in the bullpen, going 1–0 with 2.00 ERA in 31 games after July 4 call-up from Double-A.
RH Cory Gearrin
Side-armer guns for first regular job in majors; 1.80 ERA over 22 appearances with the Braves in 2012.
RH Cristhian Martinez
Dependable long man with above-average change-up; went 5–4 with 3.91 ERA in 54 appearances in 2012.
The American League West is arguably the toughest division in baseball, which isn’t great news for an Astros team making its move into the division while trying to rebuild following the two worst seasons in franchise history. Coming off a club-record 107 losses in their final year in the National League in 2012 and 106 losses in 2011 — the Astros enter the AL with new uniforms, a new logo and a new manager in Bo Porter. The club is committed to staying the course of rebuilding through the draft and player development, which means playoff contention is likely years down the road. That’s especially true in the AL West, where the Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s are all built to contend, while the up-and-coming Mariners are no pushovers. Enter the Astros, who will play each of these teams 18 or 19 times while they try to give young players looks at several positions all over the diamond. Astros owner Jim Crane and general manager Jeff Luhnow, entering their second seasons with the club, are committed to youth and don’t plan to start spending major money in free agency until the team’s youngsters start coming of age. Baseball fans in Houston, who will get to see a different set of teams come through Minute Maid Park this year, can only hope the team grows up sooner than expected because life as the punching bag in the AL West won’t be fun.
The first three arms in the rotation are set, with righthanders Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell and Jordan Lyles. Norris will need to rebound following a 7–13 campaign in which he battled various injuries and went three months without getting a win. Harrell was one of the biggest bright spots for the Astros last year, coming out of nowhere to go 11–11 with a 3.76 ERA while making a team-high 32 starts as a rookie. He led the team in wins and innings pitched and went at least five innings in all but one of his starts. Lyles pitched all last year at 21 years old and struggled through a 5–12 season, though he threw a shutout in his final appearance. The Astros hope this is the year the promising youngster finally puts it all together and becomes a mainstay in the rotation. The final two spots in the rotation are up for grabs among a group of arms that includes lefthander Erik Bedard, a non-roster player, veteran Edgar Gonzalez and newcomers John Ely, Alex White and Philip Humber, who threw a perfect game with the White Sox in 2012. The odds are now that Humber and Bedard will break camp as starters.
The Astros’ youth shows in their bullpen, which was made up of fresh faces after Brandon Lyon and Brett Myers were traded last July. The team gave the closer job to Wilton Lopez to finish the season, but he was dealt to Colorado in December. Houston signed veteran Jose Veras — who will be on his sixth team in five seasons — to handle the closing duties, not that there figure to be too many chances to save games. The Astros also plan to give Josh Fields, taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft, a chance to pitch late in games too. Among those returning to the bullpen this year are righthanders Hector Ambriz and Rhiner Cruz and lefties Wesley Wright and Xavier Cedeno.
The middle of the infield, perhaps the Astros’ biggest area of strength last season, may now be only half full after the trade of shortstop Jed Lowrie. All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve returns for his second full season. Tyler Greene, who seemed to always be on the cusp of a breakout season with St. Louis, takes over at short. Altuve, the 5'5" dynamo, hit .290 with seven homers, 37 RBIs and 33 steals last year, getting plenty of time at the top of the lineup. At 22, he was the second-youngest member of the NL All-Star team after Bryce Harper and led the Astros with 147 games played, including 142 starts at second. Greene hit .246 in 39 games with Houston after managing just .218 in 77 games with the Cardinals. His speed is his greatest asset offensively. The two middle infielders will bat 1-2, perhaps even rotating until the offense finds a groove.
Brett Wallace got most of the time at first base last year following the July 4 trade of Carlos Lee and will enter the season as the favorite to hold onto the job this year. That’s assuming veteran Carlos Pena, who signed with the club in December, gets most of his at-bats at designated hitter. If Wallace can keep hitting for power, though, the position will be his. The Astros enter the season at third base with Matt Dominguez, who has a great glove and has hit well in a limited look. Then there’s Rule 5 pick-up Nate Freiman, who hit .298 with 31 doubles, 24 homers and 105 RBIs in 137 games with Double-A San Antonio (Padres) in 2012. Chris Carter, acquired from Oakland, is penciled in the outfield, but is more suited to first base. Stay tuned.
The competition for spots in the Astros outfield has been a free-for-all this spring. The only player assured of a spot somewhere in the outfield is Justin Maxwell, who slugged 18 homers and 53 RBIs last year as the club’s biggest power threat. Maxwell played all over the outfield a year ago, and where he winds up in 2013 may have more to do with which players lock down the other spots. J.D. Martinez will get another long look after a disappointing 2012 that saw his season end prematurely because of hand surgery. The Astros liked what they saw last year from Fernando Martinez, who along with Maxwell hit some of the longest homers in the majors. If his knees hold up, the former Mets top prospect could win a starting job, or at least platoon. Carter has impressed with his bat and will find his way into the lineup somewhere, most likely in left field, leaving the Martinezes to share right. Brandon Barnes proved he could play center field at a high level, though his bat remains a question mark.
Former first-round pick Jason Castro returned in 2012 after missing all of the previous season following ACL surgery and played well offensively. His knee forced him to the DL at one point, but he wound up hitting .257 with six homers and 29 RBIs, including a .281 average and five homers and 17 RBIs in his final 160 at-bats. Castro is the starter entering the season, but he’s going to have to improve his defense. He let too many balls scoot past him last year, which put his pitchers in tough spots. Castro has enough talent and smarts to be a solid everyday catcher.
Moving to the American League for 2013, the Astros were forced to find their first full-time designated hitter and wound up signing Pena to a one-year deal. He hit 19 home runs with 61 RBIs last year for Tampa Bay, but he doesn’t hit for much average anymore. Houston could also give Wallace some time at DH, but Pena figures to get most of the at-bats. The bench is thin with Marwin Gonzalez backing up in the middle of the infield and Carlos Corporan at catcher. Whichever player from the outfield mix of Fernando Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Barnes doesn’t win a starting job will likely be asked to come off the bench.
This will be the first season as manager for the 40-year-old Porter, who was hired after spending last year as the third base coach of the Nationals. He’s hired a diverse and experienced staff to help him along, but until the team puts better players on the field, it’s going to be challenging to deliver wins.
The Astros will be young and should play hard, but it’s difficult finding a scenario in which they won’t finish in the cellar of the AL West. They’re light years behind the veteran teams in Texas and Anaheim, and Oakland has proven it’s going to contend in the division for years. Perhaps the Astros can look at the A’s as hope that they can reach the playoffs sooner than expected, but they’re in the middle of a long-term rebuilding project and will continue to take lumps at the big-league level.
SS Tyler Greene (R)
Combined to hit .230 with the Cardinals and Astros last year and showed some good power numbers.
2B Jose Altuve (R)
Named team MVP after breakout season during which he hit .290 with seven homers, 33 steals and 37 RBIs.
DH Carlos Pena (L)
The Astros signed him to be their first full-time DH with hopes he can hit for average again.
LF Chris Carter (R)
Hit just .148 after Aug. 31 for the A’s last season, essentially forced to sit out the team’s late surge. Could be an adventure in the outfield.
1B Brett Wallace (L)
Finally began to show the power stroke the Astros wanted, hitting nine homers in 229 at-bats.
CF Justin Maxwell (R)
Played in a career-high 124 games; led the team with 18 homers and was second with 53 RBIs.
C Jason Castro (L)
Bounced back from injury that cost him 2011 season to hit .257, including .281 in his final 61 games.
RF Fernando Martinez (L)
Martinez doesn’t run well anymore, but he showed last year he has plenty of power in his bat.
3B Matt Dominguez (R)
He’s a polished defensive player at the hot corner who showed promise with the bat to end last year.
OF J.D. Martinez (R)
He couldn’t duplicate his promising half season of a year earlier, but still led team with 55 RBIs. He will platoon with Fernando Martinez in right field.
C Carlos Corporan (S)
Veteran did a nice job with the Astros, hitting .269 in 78 at-bats with four homers and 13 RBIs.
SS Marwin Gonzalez (S)
He’s about as good as they come defensively at short, but can his bat keep him in majors?
OF Rick Ankiel (L)
The athletic outfielder will make at least two throws this season that you cannot believe you saw.
RH Bud Norris
The Astros’ “ace” is a combined 22–34 with a 4.41 ERA over the last three seasons.
RH Lucas Harrell
Was named Astros Pitcher of the Year after going 11–11 with a 3.76 ERA in team-high 32 starts as a rookie.
RH Jordan Lyles
As a 21-year-old in 2012, he set career highs in innings, starts, strikeouts, quality starts and wins in going 5–12.
RH Philip Humber
Native Texan returns home to pitch for Astros after going 5–5 with a 6.44 ERA — and a perfect game — last year for White Sox.
LH Erik Bedard
Was a no-so-inspiring 7-14 with a 5.01 ERA in 24 starts for Pittsburgh last season.
RH Jose Veras (Closer)
5–4 with a 3.63 ERA in 72 games for Brewers in 2012, averaging 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
LH Wesley Wright
Appeared in a career-high 77 games last year, which led the club; held lefties to a .198 average.
LH Xavier Cedeno
Lefty bounced between minors and majors, but didn’t allow a run in 16 of his final 17 games with the Astros.
RH Hector Ambriz
Signed as a minor league free agent in June, he did nice work, appearing in 18 games for the Astros.
RH Rhiner Cruz
He throws harder than just about anyone on the staff, but he needs to refine control from 2012 rookie season.
RH Josh Fields
The No. 1 overall pick in Rule 5 draft, Fields went 4–3 with 2.01 ERA with 78 strikeouts in minors.
The Mariners head into their fifth year under general manager Jack Zduriencik with too many holes in their offense and pitching rotation to fix in one offseason. Significantly improving the roster became a challenge once the Mariners were outbid by $25 million for Josh Hamilton and saw the price for shorter-term fixes like Torii Hunter, Kevin Youkilis and Mike Napoli spiral away from them. And when potential trade partners demanded too many top prospects, Seattle’s game plan shifted toward a more cost-effective approach to upgrading. Rather than spend on Nick Swisher or Cody Ross in the outfield corners, the Mariners signed cheaper free agents Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez to one-year deals. They also filled a hole in the middle of the order by trading left-handed starter Jason Vargas to the Angels for first baseman Kendrys Morales. Despite a so-so comeback year in 2012, Morales had better numbers than any full-time Mariners hitter and provides an answer at designated hitter or first base while Justin Smoak finds his way. Seattle scored 513 runs in 2010 — second-fewest in club history — and 556 runs in 2011. The Mariners’ production improved to 619 runs in 2012, but the bats could again doom the team’s fortunes without improvement from several members of the lineup. With more hitter-friendly dimensions this season, the Mariners should get an offensive boost by scoring more runs at Safeco Field, where they averaged 3.2 runs per game last season compared to 4.5 on the road. But Seattle’s pitching allowed only 3.2 runs per game at home compared to 4.8 on the road, so any offensive gains from a revamped ballpark could be quickly offset. The Mariners’ pitching could also regress without surprises by starters not named Felix Hernandez. Vargas and Kevin Millwood pitched a combined 378.1 innings last season, but neither is back in the rotation in 2012. The Mariners need some new starters to step up.
Hernandez, the 2010 Cy Young Award winner, has averaged only 13.3 wins in the past three seasons but is still considered one of the elite pitchers in the game. He went 13–9 with a 3.06 ERA in 2012 but did not win a game in his final six starts. The Mariners re-signed Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma to a two-year, $14 million deal based primarily on the strong second half to his first season in the big leagues. Iwakuma, who went 8–4 with a 2.50 ERA in his final 15 starts, will be the No. 2 starter after 2012 wins leader Vargas was dealt. The loss of Vargas is tough to gauge, given his success in a pitcher-friendly home park and struggles away from it. There was concern the new, smaller Safeco Field would hurt Vargas. Veteran Joe Saunders will fill in innings in the middle of the rotation. After his trade from Arizona, the Orioles won four of his seven starts down the stretch, scoring just two, one and zero runs in the other three. The Mariners have younger arms with big-league experience in Blake Beavan (24), Erasmo Ramirez (22) and Hector Noesi (26). But their best prospects remain in the minors, most notably James Paxton, Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer.
Second-year closer Tom Wilhelmsen, with his lethal curveball, leads a bullpen crew long on potential but short on experience. That’s why Seattle re-signed veteran lefthander Oliver Perez, who impressed the organization with his 2012 conversion to a late-innings specialist. The pen looks southpaw-heavy with Perez, Charlie Furbush and former Rule 5 pickup Lucas Luetge. The Mariners also have 100 mph flamethrowers Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor, and both profile as late-inning specialists — or potential trade bait. Another 2012 surprise was Josh Kinney. He missed most of the spring with a rib cage injury giving veteran Kameron Loe an opportunity to prove himself.
Advanced metrics indicate shortstop Brendan Ryan is the game’s best defender at his position, but he hit only .194 last season. That has to improve. Second baseman and leadoff man Dustin Ackley hit .226 in a dismal sophomore season while battling bone spurs in his ankle. The spurs were removed during the winter, and Ackley should be healthy in 2013. The Mariners jettisoned light-hitting backup Munenori Kawasaki and traded for Robert Andino, who also doesn’t hit much. But Andino is still an upgrade, and he can play any spot on the infield.
Morales says he’s 100 percent after breaking his leg in 2010. He’ll play first base a few times per week, but will be the primary designated hitter. That will allow Smoak another chance to prove himself at the plate. Smoak, the former No. 11 overall pick by the Texas Rangers, hit only .217 with a .654 OPS in 2012. Ibanez can also play first, which gives the Mariners the option of sending Smoak to Class AAA to begin the season. Third baseman Kyle Seager likely profiles better at second. He led the team with 20 homers in 2012, and the Mariners lack options at the hot corner. With Ackley entrenched at second, Seager will remain at third base.
Seattle acquired Michael Morse from Washington and the former shortstop will be the left fielder. He hit .303 with 36 doubles and 31 homers in 2011 for the Nationals before injuries slowed him last season. His defense is sub-par, but he has the hitting thing figured out. Franklin Gutierrez is the starter in center field. He hit .260 with only four home runs and three stolen bases in an injury-plagued 2012. Michael Saunders will likely be the everyday right fielder. Casper Wells could remain on the roster as a reserve outfielder, but he’s out of minor league options and getting squeezed by incoming vets.
The Mariners have an offensive-minded catcher in Jesus Montero, who will get only limited at-bats at DH this season after the acquisitions of Morlaes and Morse. Acquired from the Yankees before the 2012 season, Montero was solid in his first full season in the big leagues. He hit .260 with 15 home runs in 515 at bats. Those are decent numbers — especially on a team like Seattle — but the Mariners are expecting more production in ’13. Montero started 55 games behind the plate last year and 77 games as the DH. He will catch more often this season and he must improve defensively.
Morales improved as the season wore on. Ibanez and Bay will also see significant time as the DH as well as filling in on the corners in the outfield. Andino doesn’t hit much, but he’s a versatile defensive player who will see time at all four infield spots. Veteran Kelly Shoppach is a capable backup to Montero.
Eric Wedge has implored his players to adopt a “ready to hit” mentality by swinging at hittable pitches and taking fewer walks. The team OPS improved from .640 to .665 in 2012 while runs jumped from 556 to 619 — but much work remains. Wedge doesn’t tolerate the clubhouse discord that toppled Seattle managers in 2008 and 2010, but he lost Miguel Olivo, one of the team leaders last season. He now will lean on newcomers Ibanez and Bay for leadership. There’s pressure on Wedge for tangible results in his third season. The only change on his coaching staff is the addition of Dave Hansen as the hitting instructor. He will replace Chris Chambliss. The Mariners says they can spend $90 million or more on payroll, but it appears that their 2013 Opening Day roster will be in the high-$70-million range. Zduriencik has yet to match Billy Beane, his counterpart with the A’s, in producing cost-effective winners.
The Mariners could flirt with the .500 mark with modest improvements on offense. They will also get a boost by playing 19 games against the Astros in the AL West. But contending is not likely in a division that features two teams that won 93 games in 2012 (Oakland and Texas) and another in the Angels that features arguably the best lineup in baseball. Anything higher than fourth place in the AL West would be a surprise.
2B Dustin Ackley (L)
Hit .226 in first full season, but played much of it with bone spurs in ankle.
CF Franklin Gutierrez (R)
Injuries limited him to 163 plate appearances in 2012 after only 344 in 2011 due to stomach condition.
3B Kyle Seager (L)
Was team’s most productive regular with .259 batting average, 20 homers and 86 RBIs in first full season.
LF Michael Morse (R)
Returns to Seattle where he was primarily a shortstop.
DH Kendrys Morales (S)
Posted OPS of .900 in August and .829 in September/October in comeback season with the Angels.
C Jesus Montero (R)
Showed some power with 15 homers, but hit just .228 off right-handed pitching.
1B Justin Smoak (S)
Demoted to Class AAA in second half of season in which he hit .217 with 19 homers, but strong September raised hopes.
RF Michael Saunders (L)
Seattle’s best power-hitting regular in 2012 with 19 homers and .432 slugging percentage.
SS Brendan Ryan (R)
Gold Glove finalist and arguably the game’s top defender at his position, but hit just .194 in 470 plate appearances.
C Kelly Shoppach (R)
Has thrown out 37 percent of would-be base stealers over the past two seasons.
OF Raul Ibanez (L)
Will get plenty of at-bats, either in LF, 1B or DH; had OPS of .811 versus righthanders in 2012.
IF Robert Andino (R)
Mariners feel he’ll rebound from down year in Baltimore and provide upgrade in over departed Munenori Kawasaki.
OF Jason Bay (R)
Mariners need the right-handed power he used to display before he hit .165 in final New York flameout.
RH Felix Hernandez
Added perfect game in August to résumé that includes 2010 Cy Young Award, but went 0–4 with 6.62 ERA from Sept. 1 on.
LH Joe Saunders
Has made at least 28 starts each of the last five seasons.
RH Hisashi Iwakuma
Went 8–4 with 2.50 ERA in 15 second-half starts. Had one start and 4.84 ERA in 15 first-half outings.
RH Erasmo Ramirez
Missed two months with elbow injury, then posted 2.86 ERA in four starts and one relief outing in September.
RH Blake Beavan
Made 26 starts and logged 152.1 innings in first full season for former first-rounder.
RH Tom Wilhelmsen (Closer)
Notched 29 saves in 34 opportunities after taking over closer role from Brandon League in May.
RH Carter Capps
Proved capable of hitting 100 mph on radar gun and landing some off-speed pitches in second-half call-up.
RH Stephen Pryor
Debuted last June, but missed seven weeks with groin injury and struggled with off-speed stuff.
LH Oliver Perez
Mariners leaned heavily on his veteran presence and late-inning stuff in second half of a 2.12 ERA season.
LH Charlie Furbush
Was a reliable late-inning and multi-inning reliever until July triceps injury cost him a month.
RH Josh Kinney
Mostly minor league journeyman became a go-to guy late for manager Eric Wedge because of tough slider. He has missed most of spring training with a rib cage injury.
LH Lucas Luetge
Lefties hit .193, righties .318.
RH Kameron Loe
Appeared in 142 games over last two seasons with Milwaukee.
If at first you don’t succeed — buy and buy again. Last winter, the Angels rocked the baseball world with the biggest one-day spending binge in the sport’s history. They committed over $320 million to free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, signing the two within hours one day in December. Even with the emergence of dynamic rookie Mike Trout, that did not get the Angels back into the postseason picture. So this winter, the Angels shocked everyone with another unexpected free-agent splurge, signing outfielder Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $123 million contract. If that isn’t enough to get the Angels into the playoffs for the first time since 2009, it’s hard to imagine who Angels owner Arte Moreno might try to buy next winter.
The Angels thought they had assembled one of the best rotations in baseball last season when they added lefthander Wilson to ace Jered Weaver and righthanders Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. The rotation was solid for most of the season and even added Zack Greinke in midseason. But Haren and Santana underperformed, dragging the rotation down in the second half of the season and leading to an offseason makeover. Greinke didn’t re-sign. Santana was traded, and Haren was allowed to leave as a free agent. Angels GM Jerry Dipoto used trades (for lefthander Jason Vargas and righthander Tommy Hanson) and free agency (signing Joe Blanton) to rebuild 60 percent of the rotation for 2013. After Weaver and Wilson, the quality drops off. The Angels will be happy just to get consistent performances from the rest of the rotation.
More than any other area of the team, it was the Angels’ bullpen that kept them from the playoffs in 2012. Angels relievers blew 22 saves, tied for the most in the American League and third in the majors. To no one’s surprise, the group received a major makeover for 2013. After electing not to sign an established closer for 2012 — Dipoto said he did not believe it was wise to invest big money in relief pitchers — the Angels signed closer Ryan Madson as a free agent this past winter. Madson had 32 saves for the Phillies in 2011 but missed all of 2012 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and will be limited to start this season. Dipoto also added free-agent lefthander Sean Burnett to a group of holdovers that is led by Ernesto Frieri, who led the Angels with 23 saves last year but will probably slide into a setup role when Madson is healthy. Veteran lefthander Scott Downs and righty Kevin Jepsen are two more dependable options for manager Mike Scioscia’s rebuilt pen. Downs has given up only 82 hits in 99.1 innings pitched in his two seasons with the Angels. Jepsen had a 3.02 ERA and 1.142 WHIP in 44.2 innings in 2012.
The Angels have set their keystone in stone for the next few seasons after giving contract extensions to both second baseman Howard Kendrick and shortstop Erick Aybar last spring. Neither has lived up to the potential that seemed to lie ahead in their early years — Aybar hit .312 in 2009 and won a Gold Glove in 2011; Kendrick made the All-Star team in 2011 — but both offer above-average defense and could become more productive offensively as they continue to mature. One (most likely Aybar) is likely to get the enviable boost of batting second in the Angels’ lineup this year between Trout and Pujols. That cushy slot led to a career revival for veteran outfielder Torii Hunter in 2012.
Pujols seemed unaffected by human distractions as he rolled out year after year of consistent production with the Cardinals, earning the nickname “The Machine.” All of that changed last season. Changing teams and leagues for the first time in his career, facing a steady diet of unfamiliar pitchers and trying to live up to the massive pressure of his $250 million contract all proved too much for Pujols last year. Early in May, he was hitting .194 with no home runs and only five RBIs when Scioscia benched him. Buoyed by the arrival of Trout, Pujols was more like himself the rest of the way and finished with enviable numbers (.285, 30 home runs, 105 RBIs). But those numbers have been in a three-year decline now, and The Machine isn’t what he used to be. Teamed with Hamilton in the middle of a deep Angels lineup in 2013, though, he won’t have to be. Third base, meanwhile, remains an unsolved riddle for the Angels — as it has been since Troy Glaus left following the 2004 season. The Mark Trumbo experiment did not last long last spring, and Alberto Callaspo spent another season as the Angels’ primary third baseman. Callaspo is an above-average defender but little more than a placeholder until something better comes along. He hit only 10 home runs with 53 RBIs in 520 plate appearances in 2012.
The 2012 season was transformative for the Angels — not because of Pujols’ debut but due to the arrival of Trout. At age 20, Trout had one of the best rookie seasons in baseball history and one of the most dynamic of any kind. Trout’s promotion in late April last season transformed the Angels’ lineup from a dysfunctional unit dragged down by underperforming veterans (i.e., Vernon Wells, Bobby Abreu and Pujols) into one of the most productive offenses in the American League. Hamilton’s addition for 2013 and beyond should take the Angels’ offense to another level. Defensively, the Angels will often field an outfield of three center fielders — Trout in left and Hamilton in right flanking Peter Bourjos — each capable of Gold Glove-caliber coverage that could make the team’s pitchers look better than they really are.
Satisfying Scioscia’s defensive demands and still offering some offensive contributions has proved too much for a generation of Angels catchers. Chris Iannetta is the latest to try, and Dipoto gave him a three-year contract extension as a vote of confidence. Iannetta did his best work in 2012 after returning from a wrist injury — he hit .306 in August.
The Angels’ decision to trade the limited Kendrys Morales clears the way for Trumbo to become the primary designated hitter. Trumbo figures to still see plenty of playing time in right field and first base with Hamilton and Pujols rotated through the DH spot on a regular basis. The bench, meanwhile, figures to offer little on a team where the everyday lineup is virtually set.
Friction between Dipoto and Scioscia was evident as the Angels got off to a bad start in 2012, reaching a head when Dipoto fired long-time hitting coach (and close Scioscia friend) Mickey Hatcher in May. The Angels turned around their season, but Scioscia figures to be on a very hot seat if the Angels underachieve again after Dipoto has handed him arguably the game’s top lineup.
In the past two years, the Angels have added two of the best players of the past 10 years (Pujols and Hamilton) and one who could be the best player of the next 10 years (Trout). That should allow them to field one of the most productive offenses in baseball and a defense capable of covering some of the team’s pitching deficiencies. The financial commitment it took to put that team together, however, figures to create high expectations and a pressurized atmosphere for Scioscia with a clubhouse now devoid of Hunter’s stabilizing presence. The Angels did not handle that pressure well last year, and it remains to be seen whether Moreno’s checkbook can buy a winner.
LF Mike Trout (R)
Hard to believe his historic rookie season did not result in third MVP-Rookie of the Year double in MLB history.
SS Erick Aybar (S)
Torii Hunter thrived last year in this cushy spot between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. Was one of best hitters in AL from June 2 until end of season (.326 with 111 hits in 91 games).
1B Albert Pujols (R)
Numbers have declined for three consecutive years — but still reached 30 HR-100 RBI plateau in 2012.
RF Josh Hamilton (L)
His K rate increased in 2012 (to 25.5 percent) fueled by jump in fastball miss rate (13.7 in ‘11 to 24.6 in ‘12).
DH Mark Trumbo (R)
Was his second-half slump a sign of growing pains or a regression to the mean?
2B Howard Kendrick (R)
Has hit between .279 and .287 with 14 steals in each of the last three seasons.
3B Alberto Callaspo (S)
Combined .664 OPS of Angels’ third basemen in 2012 ranked 28th in majors, 13th in American League.
C Chris Iannetta (R)
Missed 70 games in his debut season with the Angels with a wrist injury and a forearm strain.
CF Peter Bourjos (R)
Gold Glove-caliber defense but questionable offensive potential, though he did hit .271 in 552 at-bats in 2011.
C Chris Snyder (R)
Mike Scioscia loves veteran catchers who can handle pitchers.
OF Vernon Wells (R)
The Angels would give anything to be out from under this disastrous contract.
IF Andrew Romine (L)
Slick fielder can handle shortstop or third base but has yet to show he can hit at big-league level.
OF Kole Calhoun (L)
Scrappy player but scrappiness can get you only so far when your batting averages hovers below .200.
RH Jered Weaver
Has pitched at Cy Young level for three seasons now without winning the award.
LH C.J. Wilson
Blames bone chips in elbow for second-half slump last year — 4–5, 5.54 ERA, 1.57 WHIP in final 16 starts.
LH Jason Vargas
Benefited greatly from Safeco Field — ERA (2.74 to 4.78), WHIP (1.02 to 1.31) jumped on the road last year.
RH Joe Blanton
Two-year deal with innings-eater seems unnecessary with Garrett Richards knocking on door.
RH Tommy Hanson
Started 2009 10–4 with 2.44 ERA, .190 average against — in 36 starts since is 14–13 with 4.96 ERA, .277 average.
RH Ryan Madson (Closer)
During 32-save 2011 with Phillies had 62 Ks, only eight unintentional BBs, two HRs allowed in 62 appearances. Doubtful to start the season as closer.
RH Ernesto Frieri
Unhittable in debut with Angels — no hits in first 13 innings, no runs in first 26.1 with 45 strikeouts. Will assume the role of closer until Madson is ready.
LH Sean Burnett
Held left-handed hitters to .211 average with 28-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2012.
LH Scott Downs
Veteran had shoulder issues, was not as reliable in the second half last season — hence the Burnett signing.
RH Kevin Jepsen
After two years of knee problems and command issues, righthander has regained his velocity and reliability.
RH David Carpenter
Allowed 22 hits with 22 whiffs to right-handed batters in his debut season.
LH Brad Mills
Logged 378.2 minor league innings over the past three seasons.
RH Jerome Williams
Will be the long relief man and available for spot starts.
Consider this about how far the Rangers franchise has come: Their 93 wins in 2012 were viewed as a major disappointment for a team that has disappointed often since coming to Texas in 1972. Fans in the Metroplex had reason to be upset after the Rangers blew a five-game division lead with nine to play. Texas bowed out of the playoffs with a 5–1 loss to Baltimore in the inaugural AL Wild Card Game. The offseason didn’t start out any better, as five-time All-Star Josh Hamilton bolted to the division-rival Angels, and free agent Zack Greinke turned down the Rangers’ pile of money for a bigger one with the Dodgers. But the Rangers’ lineup, despite losing Hamilton, is still productive. The rotation should be a strength, assuming it can avoid the injuries that led to the club’s downfall last year. There’s too much talent to count this team out.
Failed bids to land Greinke and James Shields were met with dismay by Rangers fans, but the team’s rotation likely will feature three All-Stars and a 16-game winner. Yu Darvish finally lived up to the hype as he thrived down the stretch in 2012. The Rangers saw an ace-in-the-making who went 3–0 with a 2.21 ERA over his final five starts. Darvish made the AL All-Star team via the Final Vote contest on MLB.com. Matt Harrison could be considered the ace after winning a career-high 18 games. He dominated in June, when he was the AL Pitcher of the Month, and was a first-time All-Star in July. The third All-Star is Alexi Ogando, who made the AL team as a starter in 2011. The Rangers have settled on using Ogando as a starter after he spent the 2012 season in the bullpen. Ogando uses three pitches, though a mid- to upper-90s fastball is his best one. Derek Holland, who went 16–5 in 2011, and prospect Robbie Ross will round out the rotation, but the Rangers are expecting a significant contribution later in the year from Colby Lewis as he returns from surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon last summer.
There is little doubt that the Texas bullpen will be much stronger in the second half. That’s when the crew will be at full strength after the return of injured pitchers Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria and Martin Perez. And with the return of Lewis to the rotation by then, Ross will have returned to his valuable role in the bullpen. Soria, the former Royals closer will be an impact arm, but not until late May as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Jose Lindblom, who was acquired from Philadelphia in a trade for Michael Young, takes another spot. He’s a power pitcher who relies on a mid-90s fastball and a slider, but he gave up too many homers (13 in 71 innings) in 2012. Closer Joe Nathan, who saved 37 games, headlines the group of returning relievers. Feliz should return from Tommy John surgery around midseason. Perez may miss a couple of months.
There were multiple offseason discussions about where All-Stars Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus would play in 2013. The reason is top prospect Jurickson Profar. Club brass would like to see the switch-hitting Profar in the lineup every day. To do so, though, either Kinsler would have to be moved from second base or Andrus would have to be moved to another team. With free agency looming for Andrus after 2014 and with Scott Boras as his agent, the shortstop’s willingness to stay in Arlington is in question. Profar, who turned 20 early in spring training, is considered the top prospect in baseball. The Rangers believe his bat would upgrade a lineup that was inconsistent for much of 2012, and he’s athletic enough to play second base regularly even though he has been developed as a shortstop. He still could very well force his way into the Opening Day lineup, but the more likely scenario is that he will begin the season in the minors getting regular at-bats.
Adrian Beltre stands as the Rangers’ undisputed best player after Hamilton left for the Angels’ $125 million offer. Beltre, though, was moving toward that title last season as he swatted 36 homers with 102 RBIs and a .321 batting average. He also played spectacular defense, committing only eight errors, and earned his second straight Gold Glove — as well as the Platinum Glove, given to the best defensive player in the American League. The other side of the diamond, though, could be in flux. Mitch Moreland entered spring training as the starting first baseman, but wasn’t oozing with job security. The Rangers had flirted with the idea of playing Kinsler at first base in an attempt to make room for Profar. Moreland is the only true first baseman on the roster, but the left-handed hitter hasn’t shown much success against lefty pitchers. He also hasn’t had many chances the past two seasons, with the right-handed-hitting Young, Napoli and Mike Olt playing against lefties.
The loss of Hamilton obviously hurts, but there were a couple winners in the fallout of his departure. David Murphy will take over left field on a permanent basis. Murphy, who bats left-handed, hit a career-high .304 last season in 457 at bats and proved that he could hit left-handed pitchers (.347 in 75 at bats). The other winner was Leonys Martin, who defected from Cuba in 2010. He has power in his bat, though he will find more gaps than outfield seats, and his speed allows him to be a threat on the bases and a weapon in the outfield. Martin will open the season in a platoon with another strong-armed speedster, Craig Gentry, but the Rangers want to see Martin seize everyday duties. Nelson Cruz has manned right field since late in 2008, but leg injuries have made him less effective despite having the strongest arm in the outfield.
Along with the bullpen, catcher was the other area that the Rangers needed to address during the offseason. Free agent A.J. Pierzynski signed a one-year deal to be the Rangers’ primary catcher, with Geovany Soto re-signing to be the backup. Pierzynski had his most productive season in 2012, with a career-high 27 homers and a career-high-tying 77 RBIs for the White Sox. Numbers like that ordinarily warrant a multi-year deal, but at 36 years old, Pierzynski’s most attractive offer was the Rangers’ one-year pact. Soto disappointed after being acquired from the Cubs on July 31. He batted only .196 after the trade, but many pitchers preferred to have him as their catcher rather than the departed Napoli.
The Rangers like to use the DH spot as a chance to rest regulars without taking their bat out of the lineup, but the addition of Lance Berkman will limit that practice. Berkman might not be able to play 150 games, but it isn’t outrageous to think he will get 400 at-bats. Some of those could come at first base. Gentry will most likely serve as the fourth outfield, assuming Martin seizes center field. Veteran Jeff Baker appears to have won a reserve spot as a non-roster player. The most interesting decision remains what to do with Profar. Keeping him would most likely send Moreland to the bench. Sending him to the minors would open a spot for utility infielder Leury Garcia, a switch-hitter who has never played above Double-A.
Ron Washington is back for his seventh season as manager. His primary strength is that he consistently gets the most out of his players and allows them to play an exciting brand of baseball. But he also stresses the fundamentals, and the Rangers had their best season defensively since he took over, but their worst on the bases. Hitting coach Dave Magadan left the same post in Boston and takes over an offense that led the majors in runs (808) and finished third in batting average (.273). Dave Anderson and Gary Pettis are swapping coaching boxes, with Pettis heading to third as the Rangers try to maximize the base-running knowledge he had as a player.
The Rangers won’t be favored to win the West this year after losing Hamilton and failing to make an offseason splash. But this team still has multiple All-Stars, including three in the infield and three in the rotation, and they have the prospects and financial flexibility to alter the roster before the July 31 trade deadline. In short, the Rangers know how to win and still have the talent to compete for the AL West title.
2B Ian Kinsler (R)
Kinsler is looking for a rebound season after a subpar 2012. Don’t be surprised to see him play some first base, too.
SS Elvis Andrus (R)
He set career-highs in average, on-base percentage and RBIs in 2012, and was terrific defensively.
DH Lance Berkman (S)
Nolan Ryan helped woo the veteran to Arlington. If Berkman is healthy, he can be a threat in the middle of the lineup.
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
The Rangers’ best player put up huge numbers for a second straight year. No one in the clubhouse is respected more.
RF Nelson Cruz (R)
A more slender Cruz produced career-highs in doubles and RBIs, but was streaky. He’s in his walk year, so look for a big 2013.
LF David Murphy (L)
The longtime fourth outfielder seized his chance to play every day over the final two months of 2012.
C A.J. Pierzynski (L)
Signed in late December, the veteran upgrades the catching situation and provides a needed left-handed bat.
1B Mitch Moreland (L)
He must show that he can stay healthy and handle left-handed pitchers. He had only 46 at-bats against them in 2012.
CF Leonys Martin (L)
A .323 average in 533 minor league at-bats has the Rangers believing he’s ready to succeed in the major leagues.
C Geovany Soto (R)
A .196 hitter after the July trade from the Cubs, this former Rookie of the Year expects more from himself in 2013.
OF Craig Gentry (R)
The defensive-minded outfielder showed something at the plate in 2012, but he is not viewed as an everyday player.
UT Jeff Baker (R)
Hit just .248 for three different teams last season.
UT Leury Garcia (S)
The Rangers are likely to keep Garcia as a bench player and allow Jurickson Profar the opportunity for regular at-bats in the minors.
RH Yu Darvish
The Japanese import was one of the league’s top pitchers over the final two months, giving the Rangers high hopes for 2013.
LH Derek Holland
His 2012 was a disappointment after a 16-win 2011 season. Holland’s main problem was the long ball (32 HRs allowed).
LH Matt Harrison
He has won 32 games the past two seasons, tied for eighth-best in the majors. Won a career-high 18 in 2012.
RH Alexi Ogando
An All-Star in 2011, Ogando was back in the bullpen last year. He’s a starter once again, and it’s the job he wants most.
LH Robbie Ross
A longshot to make the 2012 roster, he posted All-Star numbers before fatigue caught up to him. He’s a key piece in 2013, and injuries to others have opened a door to the rotation.
RH Joe Nathan (Closer)
The veteran was a workhorse and an All-Star in 2012, and must be again while some key relievers try to overcome injuries.
RH Joakim Soria
The former Kansas City closer won’t be ready until late May (Tommy John surgery); will give the bullpen a boost on return.
RH Josh Lindblom
Acquired in the Michael Young trade, Lindblom gave up 13 homers in 71 innings in 2012. He knows that must improve.
RH Tanner Scheppers
Made big-league debut in ’12, two years later than anticipated. Fastball can hit 98 mph but straightens out too frequently.
LH Michael Kirkman
The former starting pitcher has found a home in the bullpen, and his slider is a key pitch against tough left-handed batters.
RH Jason Frasor
Says he’s healthy after hitting the DL (forearm strain) for the first time in his nine-year career in 2012.
Since these are the Oakland Athletics, subject of a popular motion picture you may have heard about, we can say it without exaggeration: The 2012 season unfolded like a movie. Billy Beane, their mad scientist of a general manager, traded three All-Star pitchers before the season started, then used the pieces he got in return to build another unlikely winner. The A’s roared to a 33–13 finish after Aug. 15 to capture the AL West title on the season’s final day. They lost a five-game division series to Detroit but return nearly the entire roster in an effort to get back to the playoffs.
The A’s ranked third in the American League in starters’ ERA, with their 3.80 mark trailing only Tampa Bay and Detroit. They managed this despite having only two pitchers, Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker, make 25 starts, while losing another, Bartolo Colon, to a suspension for testosterone use in August. Still another starter, Brandon McCarthy, had his season end in early September when he took a line drive off of his head. McCarthy has since signed with the Diamondbacks, but the A’s are bringing back everyone else,including Colon, who returns on a one-year, $3 million contract. Perpetually overweight, nearing 40 and presumably off performance-enhancing drugs, Colon is no sure thing. But there is young depth around him, with Milone, Parker and A.J. Griffin having gone a combined 33–19 as rookies last season, and lefty Brett Anderson ready for his first full season after Tommy John surgery. Dan Straily looked promising last season in his first seven career starts.
As well as the Oakland starters pitched last season, the relievers were even better. Only the Rays had a better bullpen ERA in the AL than the Athletics, whose 2.94 mark was more than a full run better than that of the division-rival Angels. Grant Balfour, the hard-throwing, fist-pumping, rage-inducing Australian, secured a closer’s role for the first time in his nine big-league seasons, earning 24 saves in 26 opportunities. And Balfour wasn’t even the bullpen’s All-Star — that honor went to Ryan Cook, who also pitched well in the second half before stumbling a bit in the playoffs. After knee surgery in February, Balfour may not be ready to start the season, leaving closing duties in Cook’s hands. Cook and sidewinder Pat Neshek, who was devastating against righties, provide strong right-handed setup relief for Bob Melvin, who could carry three lefthanders if Travis Blackley stays on the roster as a long man and spot starter. Jerry Blevins is prone to the long ball but generally holds lefties in check. And Sean Doolittle, a former first-round pick as a first baseman, made a remarkably swift transition to the mound, blowing hitters away with his heat while featuring, perhaps, the coolest Twitter handle in baseball (@whatwouldDOOdo).
When the A’s look at what’s new this spring, they’ll train their eyes on the middle of the diamond. Scott Sizemore’s 2012 season ended before it even started due to a knee injury sustained in February. Jemile Weeks struggled to replace him, with a .304 slugging percentage that was even lower than his .305 on-base percentage. Cliff Pennington ended up starting at second in the playoffs but was traded to Arizona, so Weeks and Sizemore remain in the mix at the position. At shortstop, the A’s let Stephen Drew leave for the Red Sox and signed Hiroyuki Nakajima for two years and $6.5 million. Nakajima, a right-handed batter who hit for average and power in Japan, played in the World Baseball Classic in 2009 but did not participate this spring.
Nobody could have predicted at the start of last season that Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson would be starting at the infield corners for a playoff team. The duo had combined for zero hits in the majors in 2011, Moss having gone 0-for-6 in a brief call-up with the Phillies, and Donaldson having spent the entire season in the minors. Their unexpected rise was just further evidence of the charmed existence of the 2012 Athletics, and it’s fair to wonder whether either can maintain their success. So it’s difficult to blame the club for trading for Jed Lowrie. Having played shortstop with Houston last season, the A’s will pencil Lowrie in at third and in the No. 2 hole in the lineup. With Moss, it’s probably unrealistic to expect anything more. In just 84 games last season, he belted 21 homers, drove in 52 runs and posted an OPS of .954.
The A’s lost Jonny Gomes, their high-on-base, high-energy, high-strikeout slugger, to the Red Sox, who gave him $10 million for two years. Even so, the A’s bring back three solid, athletic outfielders — Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick — who cover lots of ground and bring a diverse set of skills to the lineup. Cespedes can do it all and seems to have all the indicators of a possible breakout season in 2013. The Cuban defector has had a year to adjust to the United States and has already shown he can handle the majors, finishing as the runner-up for Rookie of the Year by hitting .292 with 23 homers and 16 stolen bases. At 27, he should be squarely in his prime and is the closest thing Oakland has to a legitimate superstar. Crisp is the old man of the offense, at 33, but he’s plenty spry enough to cover lots of ground in the outfield and is one of the top base-stealing threats in the league. Reddick — another former Red Sox player — blossomed with a full-time role in Oakland, drilling 32 homers and showing off a great arm in right.
The A’s got a catcher from the Nationals before last season (Derek Norris) and then traded a different one (Kurt Suzuki) to Washington during the season. Suzuki was popular in the Oakland clubhouse, but the A’s are fine with the swap. Norris didn’t show much at the plate last year, but he’s only 24 and his minor league numbers suggest the kind of hitter Oakland has long loved: high on-base percentage, big power. He also showed enough leadership qualities and rapport with a young pitching staff to get the most out of their abilities during the heat of the pennant race. The A’s also brought in John Jaso over the winter. He and Norris should split time, keeping both fresh throughout the season.
Seth Smith can play all three outfield spots, but will be the primary DH. The A’s pulled off the rare October trade, acquiring Chris Young from the Diamondbacks shortly after their loss to Detroit in the division series. Parker, who played with Young in Arizona, told the San Francisco Chronicle he loved the move. “He’s similar to a lot of guys we have here. He’s young. He’ll have a lot in common with everyone. It’s going to be exciting to see him.” It’s a bit unclear where Young fits, exactly, because he’s a good defensive outfielder. But the A’s already have three of those, so expect Young to see at least some time at designated hitter while mixing in and out of the outfield to keep everyone fresh. Donaldson is the first option as a backup infielder.
It’s difficult to think of any manager/GM combination that had a better year than Beane and Melvin. Beane’s bold trades of Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez netted both quantity and quality, at low cost, and his signing of Yoenis Cespedes was a masterstroke. The A’s did not expect to win a division in 2012, but they did, and the level-headed, approachable Melvin clicked nicely with a young, exuberant roster. Melvin earned American League Manager of the Year honors, and Beane’s moves give the A’s the chance to keep their core while waiting for baseball to decide if owner Lew Wolff can ever build a ballpark in San Jose.
The unsettled stadium issue hangs over the franchise, but Beane showed last season that he could still win a brain race against division rivals with much more cash to throw around. As the Angels spend lavishly to recapture their recent glory — Albert Pujols one year, Josh Hamilton the next — and the big-budget Rangers try to re-tool, the A’s have a strong chance to at least make things interesting again. It’s probably asking too much to make Oakland the favorite on paper, but with the talent and grit of this group, and with plenty of winnable games against Seattle and Houston, it’s foolish to count the A’s out.
CF Coco Crisp (S)
In three seasons with A’s, has 120 steals and .314 average with runners in scoring position.
3B Jed Lowrie (S)
When healthy, he’s proven to be an all-around solid player and one of team’s top power threats.
LF Yoenis Cespedes (R)
Four-year, $36M deal looked puzzling at the time; looks shrewd now for this emerging star.
1B Brandon Moss (L)
Led the American League with .545 average (18 for 33) when putting first pitch in play.
RF Josh Reddick (L)
Embodies the A’s offense — lots of homers (32) and lots of strikeouts (151).
DH Seth Smith (L)
Made final out of 2007 World Series with the Rockies and 2012 ALDS with the A’s.
C John Jaso (L)
Had a .394 OBP in 108 games with Seattle.
2B Scott Sizemore (R)
A’s are eager to see how he comes back from knee surgery that kept him out all last season.
SS Hiroyuki Nakajima (R)
Hit .302 with four seasons of at least 20 homers in Japan; signed a two-year deal with the A’s.
C Derek Norris (R)
Pitchers’ ERA was 3.13 with him behind plate, best for any AL catcher (min. 50 games). Will get significant at-bats against left-handed pitching.
OF Chris Young (R)
Strong defensive ability could be asset as fourth outfielder.
3B Josh Donaldson (R)
Former Auburn Tiger will need to improve .289 OBP to have a chance as an everyday starter.
1B Daric Barton (L)
Has hit .209 with one home run in 597 plate appearances since hitting .273 with 10 dingers in 686 Pas in 2010.
LH Brett Anderson
Southpaw has held opponents to .195 average with runners in scoring position over last three seasons.
RH Jarrod Parker
Former first-round pick by Arizona went 13–8 and had seven quality starts in his eight no-decisions.
LH Tommy Milone
Tossed Oakland’s only complete game with win vs. Dodgers last June.
RH Bartolo Colon
Won double-digit games for first time since 2005. Still must serve final five games of 50-game suspension.
RH A.J. Griffin
Slumped to 7.27 ERA in final four starts of regular season in his rookie campaign.
RH Grant Balfour (Closer)
Last blown save of 2012 season came on April 29; allowed only 41 hits in 74.2 innings. Will miss the beginning of the season due to knee surgery.
RH Ryan Cook
Held opponents scoreless in 22 of final 23 regular-season appearances in his first season in Oakland. Will fill in as closer until Balfour is healthy.
LH Sean Doolittle
Former first baseman hit 22 homers with 90 RBIs in minors in 2008.
LH Jerry Blevins
Allowed six first-batter home runs, most by A’s reliever in more than 30 years.
RH Pat Neshek
Righties went just 5-for-53 off Neshek after Orioles sold him to A’s in August.
RH Chris Resop
Threw a career-high 73.2 innings, seventh among NL relievers, for Pirates last season.
RH Fernando Rodriguez
Torn ACL leaves season in doubt.
The Minnesota Twins aren’t calling this a rebuilding season, but there’s no question they’re a team in transition. After winning six division titles in nine years, they’ve lost 99 and 96 games over the past two seasons, disappointing the slowly shrinking crowds at Target Field. Some moves this offseason suggested they were more focused on 2014 than 2013, but general manager Terry Ryan insists that fans could see some immediate improvement. Trading Denard Span and Ben Revere in a span of eight days left a big hole in center field, but those moves netted three starting pitchers for an organization sorely lacking quality arms at all levels. Span went to Washington for Double-A righty Alex Meyer, a hard-throwing first-round pick from the 2011 draft. Revere went to Philadelphia for Vance Worley, who will jump right into Minnesota’s rotation, and Trevor May, another Double-A righthander with No. 3 starter potential. The Twins have a wave of positional talent coming through their farm system, including center field prospect Aaron Hicks, a former first-round pick who probably will start the year at Triple-A. The goal now is to build a bridge toward the future without embarrassing themselves on the field.
The Twins gave this group an overhaul after their starters ranked second-to-last in the majors last year, one spot ahead of Colorado, with a 5.40 ERA. Rookie Scott Diamond had arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone chip from his left elbow in December after going 12–9 with a 3.54 ERA in 27 starts. His availability for Opening Day is in question. Kevin Correia, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal, isn’t flashy, but he’s been consistent over the past four seasons for the Padres and Pirates. Worley finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2011 but went 6–9 with a 4.20 ERA for the Phillies last year before having arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. The Twins were disappointed they couldn’t re-sign Scott Baker, who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Baker took a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Cubs. Instead, the Twins signed another pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery, former Met Mike Pelfrey, who hopes to be ready for Opening Day. Beyond Diamond, Correia, Worley and Pelfrey, the Twins have several wild-card rotation candidates including Liam Hendriks, Sam Deduno, Cole De Vries and P.J. Walters.
Twins officials point to their 2012 bullpen as proof things can turn around quickly. Their relievers were a major concern last spring, as they’d posted the worst ERA in baseball in 2011, at 4.51, before losing longtime closer Joe Nathan to free agency. But Ryan revamped the bullpen, turning it into a team strength. Jared Burton (2.18 ERA) handled the eighth inning, and Glen Perkins (2.56) handled the ninth. With dependable late-inning relief, the Twins had no problem letting former closer Matt Capps leave as a free agent. Burton and Casey Fien (2.06 ERA) were both minor league free-agent signings, proving there are gems in the scrap heap. They’ll both be back, along with lefthanders Brian Duensing and Tyler Robertson. The Twins believe this group can be even better if their starters can pitch deeper into games.
The Twins have candidates for both middle infield spots, but no sure things. Brian Dozier looked like he had real potential at shortstop at this time last year, but he disappointed both offensively and defensively in an 84-game stint. Now, there’s hope that he’ll settle in at second base, with Pedro Florimon taking over shortstop. Florimon has a strong arm and good range, but he’ll have to improve on the .272 on-base percentage he posted in six weeks last year. If either player falters, the Twins can turn to veteran utility man Jamey Carroll, who has shown he can start at second, third or shortstop.
First baseman Justin Morneau is entering the final year of his six-year, $80 million contract, and it’ll be interesting to see if he eventually gets traded for more pitching help. His past concussion issues and surgically repaired left wrist make him a continued injury risk, but after playing just 150 games combined the previous two years, he played 134 last year, making 99 starts at first base. The Twins could replace Morneau at first base with Chris Parmelee, but there’s room for both of them, as Parmelee also plays right field. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe hit 18 home runs in a staggering 39-game stretch last summer, but he managed just six homers over his other 80 games, and his defense was shaky throughout. A thumb injury helped contribute to his second-half fade, and the Twins hope he settles into another groove.
After the Twins traded Span, it looked like Revere would replace him as their center fielder and leadoff hitter, but then they traded Revere, too. It said something about how much confidence they have in 2008 first-round draft pick Aaron Hicks, a switch-hitting center fielder who made big strides last year in Double-A. Hicks will challenge for the starting center field job this spring, but the Twins likely will go with Darin Mastroianni, allowing Hicks to gain polish at Triple-A. Josh Willingham is back in left, coming off a career season that saw him rack up 35 home runs and 110 RBIs. The question now is, can he approach that same success at age 34? Parmelee is getting his first chance as a big-league regular in right field. He batted .355 with a 1.035 OPS for the Twins in September 2011 but struggled in the majors last year.
The Twins will use the same formula they used last year to keep Joe Mauer’s bat in the lineup as much as possible. In 2011, injuries limited him to 82 games, which was especially tough in the first year of his eight-year, $184 million contract. Last year, he rebounded to play a career-high 147 games. After signing Ryan Doumit, the Twins finally had a backup catcher with a good bat, which put less pressure on Mauer to stay behind the plate. Mauer played 74 games at catcher, 42 at DH and 30 at first base, and led the American League with a .416 on-base percentage. Doumit batted .275 with a career-high 18 home runs and 75 RBIs. The Twins were so impressed, they gave him a two-year contract extension.
After trading Jim Thome in 2011, the Twins often used the DH spot last year to keep Mauer and Morneau in the lineup. The team’s constant mound troubles led to it carrying at least 12 pitchers all season, leaving just four spots on the bench. They also kept three catchers, with Drew Butera serving as a defensive specialist to go with Mauer and Doumit (who will see time as the DH). This limits what the Twins can do with their other bench spots, but they gain some versatility with infielders who play multiple positions. Non-roster players Ray Olmedo, an infielder, and outfielder Wilkin Ramirez are making strong showings in spring training.
Ron Gardenhire was named AL Manager of the Year in 2010, but the past two seasons have taken a toll. The Twins made just one change to his coaching staff over his first 11 years as manager, replacing Al Newman with Joe Vavra after the 2005 season. But after finishing with the AL’s worst record the past two years, management demanded changes. Three longtime coaches lost their jobs — Rick Stelmaszek, Steve Liddle and Jerry White — getting replaced by Bobby Cuellar, Tom Brunansky and Terry Steinbach. Gardenhire knows he could be next to go.
Expectations haven’t been this low for the Twins since 2008, the season after they lost Torii Hunter to free agency and traded Johan Santana to the Mets. That year, the Twins wound up playing a Game 163 division tiebreaker, losing to the White Sox. But the Twins were stocked with pitching back then, both starting and relief. With their new makeshift staff, it’s difficult to imagine this team giving its fans much to cheer about in September. It’ll be interesting to see what midseason deals Ryan can make and whether Gardenhire survives to manage again in 2014.
CF Darin Mastroianni (R)
In 77 games as a rookie, he posted a .328 on-base percentage and was 21-for-24 in stolen base attempts.
2B Brian Dozier (R)
A career .298 hitter in the minors, he batted just .234 in 84 games as a rookie last season.
C Joe Mauer (L)
Led the majors with a .416 OBP and a played a career-high 147 games, including 74 at catcher.
LF Josh Willingham (R)
At age 33, he posted career highs in games played (145), home runs (35) and RBIs (110).
1B Justin Morneau (L)
Stayed healthy enough to play 134 games, but his .773 OPS was 78 points below his career average. After a terrific run in July and August (.314), he slipped in September (.236).
DH Ryan Doumit (S)
At age 31, he had career highs for games played (134), home runs (18) and RBIs (75).
RF Chris Parmelee (L)
Batted .338 with a 1.102 OPS for Class AAA Rochester last year but just .229 with a .671 OPS for the Twins.
3B Trevor Plouffe (R)
Twins love his power potential, but he was inconsistent and made 17 errors in 95 games at third base.
SS Pedro Florimon (S)
The switch-hitter needs to improve offensively, especially from the left side of the plate.
INF Eduardo Escobar (S)
Acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade; posted a .271 OBP in 14 games.
C Drew Butera (R)
The defensive specialist’s .198 batting average actually was a 31-point improvement from 2011.
INF Jamey Carroll (R)
After a slow start last year, he batted .295 with a .365 OBP over his final 86 games.
OF Wilkin Ramirez
A .270 hitter in just 37 at-bats in 2009 and ’11.
RH Vance Worley
Acquired from the Phillies for Ben Revere after going 6–9 with a 4.20 ERA last year.
RH Kevin Correia
Despite low strikeout rate, he’s averaged 11.5 wins over the past four years, the past two with Pittsburgh.
RH Mike Pelfrey
The ground-ball specialist had Tommy John surgery May 1 before leaving the Mets as a free agent.
LH Scott Diamond
Went 12–9 in 27 starts and ranked third among all qualifying MLB rookies in ERA (3.54). After elbow surgery in December, Diamond may not be ready to start the season. Righthander Liam Hendricks will fill the gap until the presumed ace is healthy.
RH Cole De Vries
Was 3–0 with a 1.02 ERA in his final three starts before suffering a cracked rib on Sept. 8.
LH Glen Perkins (Closer)
Had 78 strikeouts in 70.1 innings and converted 12-of-13 save chances to close the season.
RH Jared Burton
Posted a 2.18 ERA in 62 innings pitched, holding batters to a .186 batting average.
RH Casey Fien
Another minor league free-agent signee, he posted a 2.06 ERA in 35 innings pitched.
LH Brian Duensing
Posted a 3.47 ERA in 44 relief appearances but went 2–8 with a 6.92 ERA in 11 starts.
RH Alex Burnett
Led the Twins with 71.2 innings of relief, and his 3.52 ERA was down nearly two full runs from 2011.
LH Tyler Robertson
In his final 31 appearances, he held opponents to a .186 batting average, including .167 vs. lefties.
RH Ryan Pressly
Rule 5 draftee posted a 2.93 ERA in Double-A for the Red Sox last year.
Over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, no team spent more days in first place in the American League Central than the Cleveland Indians. Getting there was no problem, but sustaining it proved much more difficult, as the Indians fell apart in the second half in both seasons. But significant changes have the Tribe moving in a better direction. The Tribe’s biggest offseason acquisitions were manager Terry Francona and outfielders Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. The speedy Bourn is a potent catalyst atop the lineup and brings superb defense in center field. The switch-hitting Swisher will help a weak offense that averaged 3.7 runs per game after the All-Star break last season. Francona is coming off a great run in Boston, but Cleveland and Progressive Field are a long way from Fenway Park. Francona doesn’t have the payroll or the talent he had when he led the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. But his leadership should pay immediate dividends.
Francona and new pitching coach Mickey Callaway are dealing with a rotation that lost the most games (76) in the AL last year. Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers and Zach McAllister should fill the first four spots. Masterson and Jimenez, both righthanders, made a combined 65 starts last year, losing 32 of them. Myers was signed to a one-year $7 million deal in January, but he has not started a game since 2011. This will be McAllister’s first full year in the big leagues. The fifth spot will be decided among Trevor Bauer, Scott Kazmir, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and David Huff. Bauer, the third pick in the 2011 draft, was acquired in a three-way trade with Arizona and Cincinnati during the offseason. Bauer put up great numbers in the minors for Arizona last season, but his unique training methods and personality were so off-putting that the Diamondbacks traded him after only four big-league starts. At some point, he will join the rotation if not out of spring training. Kazmir, a former All-Star lefthander, has made just one major league start — lasting only 1.2 innings — since 2010. He came to camp on a minor league deal and has impressed Francona, becoming the leading candidate for the fifth spot.
All winter there was speculation that the Indians would trade closer Chris Perez, who offended almost everyone this side of the Pope last season with a sharp tongue and Twitter account. The Indians did not trade Perez, who will once again anchor the strongest part of the team after recording a save in 75-of-83 chances over the past two years. As in 2012, spring injuries have slowed his preparation for the season. There were changes in Perez’s setup men as Tony Sipp was traded to Arizona, Esmil Rogers to Toronto and Rafael Perez was non-tendered. Still, there are still plenty of good arms in front of him. Closer-in-waiting Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, Cody Allen and Nick Hagadone are back. Newcomers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw were acquired in the Arizona deal. Until Perez recovers from a balky shoulder this spring, Pestano will be the closer and either Rich Hill or David Huff will fill in gaps.
Fat and out of shape is no way for an All-Star shortstop to go through a career. Such has been the chatter surrounding Asdrubal Cabrera. He’s been great until he makes the All-Star team. Then in the second half, when the Indians fall out of the race, he loses interest. He’s signed through 2014, and it will be interesting to see if Francona can snap him out of his second-half slumps. Second baseman Jason Kipnis, coming off his first full season in the big leagues, needs to put forth a much more consistent effort if the offense is going to improve. Like Cabrera, Kipnis disappeared offensively in the second half. The Indians are expecting Cabrera and Kipnis to key the offense between Bourn at the top and run producers Carlos Santana and Swisher in the middle.
This should be the year Lonnie Chisenhall gets his much anticipated chance to start at third base. Chisenhall, a No. 1 pick in 2008, was beaten out by journeyman Jack Hannahan the last two years. Hannahan was non-tendered after the season. The job belongs to Chisenhall as long as he can stay healthy and survive against lefthanders. Chisenhall, a converted shortstop, has power potential, but he doesn’t walk much. The Indians committed $56 million to Swisher over the next fours year, the richest free-agent deal in team history. Not only will his bat anchor the lineup, but his personality will liven up the clubhouse.
The Indians committed $48 million to Bourn over the next four years. His on-base has been between .341 and .354 over the past four seasons, which should translate into about 40 steals and close to 100 runs for the Tribe. Pitchers will love his ability to run down balls in the gaps. Drew Stubbs, acquired in a three-team deal with the Reds and Diamondbacks, is scheduled to play right with Michael Brantley moving to left. Shin-Soo Choo, the Indians’ starting right fielder for the last four years, was traded to Cincinnati as part of the deal. Brantley, the only holdover from last year’s starting outfield, spent last season in center.
The Indians insist that Carlos Santana is a front-line catcher, but the evidence continues to mount that he is a future first baseman or DH. When the switch-hitting Santana struggles with the bat, as he did throughout the first half of last season, his catching suffers. He’s not aggressive or confident with his game-calling, and his ability to block balls in the dirt and control the running game is inconsistent. Santana is blessed with a strong arm, but he threw out only 26.3 percent of the runners he faced last season. Santana did lead the Indians in homers, walks and tied for the team lead in RBIs. Lou Marson was Santana’s backup, but he didn’t get much playing time. Yan Gomes, acquired from Toronto, could steal Marson’s job this summer.
Mark Reynolds has averaged 30 homers per year since reaching the big leagues in 2007. The Indians signed him to a one-year $6 million deal because they needed his power and right-handed bat to balance a lineup that leans heavily to the left. The byproduct of Reynolds’ power is strikeouts, lots of them. He averages 187 per year. His glove improved dramatically at first base last season, so Swisher will DH occasionally. Jason Giambi, in camp as a non-roster player, should make the team out of spring. He may have more value as a mentor and de facto hitting coach than as a pinch-hitter. Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn can both play multiple positions, but neither has much pop at the plate. Gomes may be the most interesting bench possibility. He’s a right-handed hitter with pop who can catch, play some outfield and first and third base.
The ties between the front office and the dugout have seldom been tighter. In signing a four-year deal with the Indians, Francona insisted on a clause that will give him an out if certain members of the front office are fired. It’s believed those members are GM Chris Antonetti and president Mark Shapiro. This is a homecoming of sorts for Francona, who worked as special assistant for the Indians in 2001 and played for them in 1988. Tito Francona, Terry’s father, played for the Indians from 1959-64. Sentimentality aside, there is a lot of work to do. Francona must repair a rotation that posted the second-highest ERA (5.25) in the AL last year and reclaim a roster that rolled over and played dead for former manager Manny Acta in the second half last season. The one good sign is ownership’s willingness to finally spend money on the free-agent market.
The Indians have lost 93 or more games in three of the last four years. Fans have lost faith in the Dolan family ownership, and they showed it with the second-lowest attendance in the big leagues last year. It’s unlikely the Dolans will ever be popular owners in Cleveland, but hiring Francona was a positive step. Signing Swisher and Bourn certainly helped. However, there have been so many bad drafts and poor trades that a turnaround will take more than one or two seasons. The best the Indians can do in 2013 is take one or two steps along that path.
CF Michael Bourn (L)
Speed atop the lineup will be catalyst of the offense although he doesn’t steal as much as he once did.
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (S)
Led AL shortstops last season in OPS (.765) and slugging (.425) and finished second in homers (16).
2B Jason Kipnis (L)
Finished tied for the team lead in RBIs despite driving in only 27 runs after the break.
1B Nick Swisher (S)
Ohio native hit 13 of his 24 home runs last season for the Yankees on the road.
C Carlos Santana (S)
Indians pitchers had a 4.68 ERA last season when he was behind the plate.
DH Mark Reynolds (R)
Hit just three of his 23 homers against left-handed pitching last year.
LF Michael Brantley (L)
Had hitting streaks of 22 and 13 games last season en route to career-high .288 average.
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (L)
Returned from a broken right wrist to hit .257 (18-for-70) in final 19 games of last season.
RF Drew Stubbs (R)
Over the last two seasons, Stubbs has averaged a strikeout for every three at-bats.
IF Mike Aviles (R)
Played in 128 games at shortstop last season for the Red Sox, hitting .250 with 60 RBIs.
C Lou Marson (R)
Threw out only 14 percent (11-of-78) of the basestealers he faced last year.
UT Ryan Raburn (R)
Can play all over the field and has averaged more than 330 plate appearances over last four years as utility man with Detroit.
1B Jason Giambi (L)
Francona loves the presence of the veteran and believes he will be a good manager some day.
RH Justin Masterson
Masterson allowed six or more earned runs in eight of his 34 starts last year.
RH Ubaldo Jimenez
His 17 losses were the most by a Tribe pitcher since Tom Candiotti lost 18 in 1987.
RH Brett Myers
Made 70 relief appearances last season for the Astros and White Sox, but has been a starter most of his career.
RH Zach McAllister
Finished sixth among American League rookies with 110 strikeouts last year.
LH Scott Kazmir
Former Tampa Bay fire-balling ace has resurrected his career — for now — with a fine spring.
RH Chris Perez (Closer)
He’s 41-for-45 in one-run save opportunities dating back to Aug. 12, 2010. With a strained shoulder, Perez is likely to begin the season on the DL
RH Vinnie Pestano
The Indians went 50–20 in his 70 appearances last year; only gave up 53 hits in 70 innings.
RH Joe Smith
His seven wins in relief were tied for second most in the American League last year.
LH Nick Hagadone
Struck out 26 in 25.1 innings last year, but allowed 14 earned runs in his last 10 appearances.
RH Matt Albers
Lefthanders hit .207 against him last year, righthanders .220.
RH Cody Allen
Started last season at Class A Carolina and ended up in the big leagues, where he struck out 27 in 29 innings.
LH David Huff
Made 52 starts over last four seasons with a 5.30 ERA.
It’s possible that the Kansas City Royals, after more than two decades of often pointless meandering, can become truly relevant again in 2013 after a seminal offseason in which general manager Dayton Moore overhauled a wretched rotation. Moore retained free agent Jeremy Guthrie and added James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis through trades. Remarkably, Moore did all of this without blowing up the baseball club’s modest payroll budget or disrupting a promising young lineup or deep bullpen. The cost, and it was high, came in prospects from a deep farm system, including outfielder Wil Myers (the consensus 2012 Minor League Player of the Year) and righthander Jake Odorizzi (the club’s most advanced pitching prospect). Myers and Odorizzi each went to Tampa Bay, along with two other prospects, to acquire Shields and Davis. It was a go-for-it move not without risk, but, as Moore says, “It’s time for us to start winning games.”
Shields is the front-of-the-rotation arm the Royals have coveted, and failed to develop, since trading Zack Greinke to Milwaukee after the 2010 season. Shields isn’t an ace in the mold of Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez or even former Rays teammate David Price. But he is a genuine staff leader who eats innings and brings a proven ability to anchor a rotation. The Royals control Shields for two more years, and there is genuine debate whether that span is sufficient to offset surrendering six years of Myers. But they wouldn’t have made the deal if they didn’t think they could reach the postseason before Shields becomes a free agent. Davis also came in the Tampa Bay deal and will get a chance to pitch as a starter after spending last season in the bullpen. Davis flashed a notable hike in velocity as a reliever. If he can maintain that bump for 100 pitches, he could be an enormous addition. The Angels agreed to part with Santana primarily because the Royals will be paying all but $1 million of his $13 million salary for the final year of his contract. Santana closed strong last season after some early struggles. A full bounce-back would more than validate the financial outlay. Guthrie returns on a three-year deal after resurrecting his career with two terrific months following a July 20 trade that brought him from Colorado. That leaves the final spot as a battle between veteran lefty Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar, whose flashes of considerable potential are too often countered by monumental meltdowns. The Royals are open to trading either one. Otherwise, the loser goes to the bullpen.
Closer Greg Holland heads a collection of young power pitchers who performed so well last season the Royals chose not to pony up the dollars necessary to see whether former closer Joakim Soria could return to form after Tommy John surgery. Holland was 16-for-18 in save opportunities after replacing Jonathan Broxton (who replaced Soria) as the closer. Holland also compiled a 2.08 ERA after returning in early May from the disabled list. Lefty Tim Collins, in his second season, led all AL relievers with 93 strikeouts and demonstrated improved consistency in compiling a 3.36 ERA in 72 appearances. Aaron Crow, an All-Star as a rookie in 2011, produced a solid second season with 19 holds and a 3.48 ERA in 73 games. But the staff’s best arm is Kelvin Herrera, who had a 2.35 ERA in 76 games while often drawing the toughest assignments prior to the ninth inning. Manager Ned Yost relies on those four to protect leads. Francisley Bueno is a good bet to be the unit’s situational lefty after a strong series of late-season appearances, which could push side-armer Louis Coleman into a battle for one of two projected long-relief roles. Luis Mendoza is likely to get one of those jobs after the offseason seemingly squeezed him out of the rotation.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar turned into an All-Star candidate with a breakout offensive season after signing a four-year contract that includes two additional club option years. Escobar batted a career-high .293 while stealing 35 bases and provided the glue to an underappreciated defensive infield. Second base will most likely be a platoon situation with Chris Getz, who can’t stay healthy, and Johnny Giavotella, who has yet to replicate his minor league production.
That overhauled rotation might not mean much if first baseman Eric Hosmer doesn’t rebound from a disappointing sophomore season. The most hopeful sign, beyond his immense potential, is that Hosmer batted .255 last season on balls in play. Statistically, that just shouldn’t happen again. Hosmer’s tools project as an impact No. 3 hitter — and that’s what the Royals need him to be. Mike Moustakas is another high-profile homegrown talent still looking to climb closer to his potential. He hit 20 homers last season while playing third base well enough to be a Gold Glove candidate in any league without Adrian Beltre. Moustakas denied a connection, but his production plummeted after he tweaked his knee in late July in Seattle.
Here’s where the trade sending Myers to Tampa Bay has its biggest negative impact: The Royals, barring a late move, now have limited alternatives to right fielder Jeff Francoeur, whose production dipped alarmingly last season after a revitalized 2011. Then again, Francoeur could quell the concern by bouncing back again. Lorenzo Cain, when healthy, draws comparisons in center field to a young Torii Hunter. Problem is, Cain played only 61 big league games in 2012. Yost says, “I need him healthy.” There are no worries in left field, where Alex Gordon backed up a breakthrough 2011 season with another All-Star-caliber year and a second straight Gold Glove.
Salvy Perez, at 22, is firmly established as the club’s most irreplaceable player because he combines superior defensive skills and a remarkable feel for calling a game with an ability to hit for average and power. Perez suffered torn knee cartilage last year in spring training, which sidelined him until June 22, and it’s no coincidence that the Royals stumbled through a disastrous April. He showed no limitations from the injury after returning and is likely to start at least 140 games.
Billy Butler was the Silver Slugger recipient last year for designated hitters and is quickly validating the belief that he is this generation’s Edgar Martinez — a .300-plus hitter with power but limited speed and defensive skills. Plus, Butler shows signs of only getting better after achieving numerous career highs in 2012. The bench will consist of a catcher (George Kottaras, acquired on waivers from Oakland); a utility infielder (presumably Getz or Giavotella, but Miguel Tejada, is trying to restart his career); and a backup outfielder (speedy Jarrod Dyson is the leading candidate); and an extra utility type (Elliot Johnson, acquired off waivers from Tampa Bay). David Lough, who is having a terrific spring, could be a low-cost corner outfielder to challenge Francoeur.
Moore achieved his offseason goal of upgrading the club’s rotation by retaining Guthrie and acquiring Shields and Davis from Tampa Bay and Santana from the Angels — all without surrendering anyone from the club’s projected big-league roster. Yes, the cost in prospects was high. Some argued that the cost was too high. Time will tell. This much, however, is certain: Moore’s efforts send the Royals into the season positioned as legitimate postseason contenders for the first time since 1994.
The Royals have everything in place to harbor postseason aspirations, although let’s not overstate things; Detroit remains the division favorite, and the Royals need a nine-game improvement just to reach .500. There’s a lot still to prove, but there’s real hope in the Heartland. That’s no small thing.
LF Alex Gordon (L)
Lineup’s best fit for leadoff role but only if Eric Hosmer can handle No. 3 slot.
SS Alcides Escobar (R)
Performed well last season after being moved up from bottom of the lineup.
1B Eric Hosmer (L)
Average dropped from .293 as a rookie to .232 in 2012; home runs and RBIs were down, too.
DH Billy Butler (R)
Continues to establish himself as one of the game’s best all-around hitters; belted 29 HRs in 2012.
C Salvy Perez (R)
Assuming he stays healthy, will be interesting to see what he can do in a full season.
3B Mike Moustakas (L)
Always likely to be streaky hitter but must prove late-season slide was outlier.
RF Jeff Francoeur (R)
Will be watched closely to see if he rebounds to 2011 form after disappointing 2012.
CF Lorenzo Cain (R)
Must prove he can stay healthy after multiple injuries derailed him a year ago.
2B Chris Getz (L)
Has set a franchise record with 887 career plate appearances without a home run.
C George Kottaras (L)
On-base percentage fell from .409 for Brewers to .280 for A’s. Has never hit higher than .252
2B Johnny Giavotella (R)
Will platoon at second base with Getz.
IF Elliot Johnson (S)
Is handy with the glove at multiple positions.
OF Jarrod Dyson (L)
Speed makes him ideal late-game weapon; could be more if he keeps ball on ground.
RH James Shields
Last two seasons in Tampa were outstanding; won a combined 31 games and gave up 403 hits in 473 IP.
RH Jeremy Guthrie
Pitched like a legit No. 1 starter over final two months, which led to three-year deal.
RH Ervin Santana
Royals betting $12 million that he bounces back big in final year before free agency.
RH Wade Davis
Velocity jumped last season when used as a reliever — but can he do it for 100 pitches?
LH Bruce Chen
Probably merits rotation job over Luke Hochevar after winning 35 games in last three years.
RH Greg Holland (Closer)
Proved over final two months last season that he had all the tools to be a closer.
RH Kelvin Herrera
Superior arsenal makes him a closer-in-waiting while getting tough outs before ninth.
LH Tim Collins
Proved last year that he was more than a situational lefty; has multi-inning stuff.
RH Aaron Crow
Much like Collins, he can handle hitters from either side; potent setup weapon.
LH Francisley Bueno
Former Cuban defector emerged late last season as good fit for duty as situational lefty.
RH Luis Mendoza
Often characterized by manger Ned Yost as a perfect fit for duty as swingman/long reliever.
RH Luke Hochevar
Loser in battle for fifth starting spot will spend time as long man until opportunity to spot start arises.
Looking for a big finish, not just a fast start, the Chicago White Sox hope they can out-pitch their competition in the AL Central. That’s a tall order given that the Detroit Tigers line up behind Justin Verlander, but first-year general manager Rick Hahn hopes that his rotation will be deeper and even more effective. He re-signed Jake Peavy to work alongside lefty Chris Sale and is counting on a comeback from John Danks, the 2012 Opening Day starter who was limited to nine starts and eventually underwent shoulder surgery. The lineup lacks any especially dynamic young hitters, continuing to count on Alex Rios, homer-or-bust slugger Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko. Manager Robin Ventura had his team in first place for most of 2012, with strong fielding as the trademark, but he will be challenged to improve on that 85-win season.
You can argue that the White Sox never should have let Mark Buehrle get away, but Sale has emerged as a potential long-term ace, and Peavy rebounded from three injury-plagued seasons to deliver 219 solid innings. Sale, an All-Star in his first year as a starter, draws some comparisons to Randy Johnson, with better command if not quite as much velocity. A few years ago, Danks looked like he’d be a staff ace, compiling a 3.32 ERA as a 23-year-old in 2008, but he now finds himself trying to turn around a slide that began in 2011. Gavin Floyd has been a consistent double-figure winner, which was why his contract option was exercised. Lefties Hector Santiago and Jose Quintana try will try to build off strong rookie seasons, with Brazilian prospect Andre Rienzo pushing for big-league consideration. Quintana has the edge over Santiago and Rienzo, who has a high ceiling, needs a full season in Triple-A.
How much does experience matter? Addison Reed and Nate Jones seemed to move past Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain to become the key guys in a group that is talented but wildly inexperienced. Reed is looking to build off a 29-save rookie season, and Jones carries just as much momentum into his second season after going 8–0 with a 2.39 ERA over 65 appearances as a rookie. He’s got the best stuff on the staff, but Reed doesn’t rattle, which is why he’s the closer. Thornton, arguably the best lefty setup man in the AL over the last seven seasons, appears to be a trade candidate with Donnie Veal and possibly Santiago or prospect Santos Rodriguez available to fill that role. Matt Lindstrom, signed as a free agent, adds some experience.
Shortstop Alexei Ramirez and second baseman Gordon Beckham provide up the middle fielding that’s as strong as any combination in the big leagues. But you wonder how much longer they will play together, as both have regressed as hitters. Ramirez’s OPS was .788 in 2008, his rookie season, and slipped to .651 last season. Beckham, a former first-round pick expected to be a force, had an .807 OPS as a rookie in 2009 but has been below .700 since. Carlos Sanchez, who hit .370 in 30 games in Double-A late last season, is a gifted fielder and promising on-base guy who could force himself into the mix at some point this season.
Konerko has been as consistently productive as any big leaguer over the last decade but at 37 is starting to show his age. Metrics suggest he’s become a liability in the field to go along with a career-long base-clogging tendency. The White Sox hope offseason surgery on Konerko’s left wrist will make this season more enjoyable for him, as it is the last one on his contract. He’s averaged 33 homers and 96 RBIs over the last nine years, and the Sox need him to get back to that level after a second-half slide ruined what was looking like a strong 2012. Third baseman Jeff Keppinger, signed to a three-year, $12-million contract, could get 500-plus at-bats for only the second time in almost a decade in the big leagues. He’s not flashy but could end the post-Joe Crede revolving-door approach at third.
Rios resurrected his career after a 2011 season that had people wondering if he could be productive again. He adjusted his batting stance, raising his hands into a more conventional position from an exaggerated crouch, and is pounding the ball in the fashion that prompted the Blue Jays to give him a seven-year, $70-million contract before the 2008 season. He’s had an up-and-down career since then but will establish himself as a true All-Star if he can repeat a season in which he had 37 doubles, 25 homers and 23 stolen bases. Center fielder Alejandro De Aza and left fielder Dayan Viciedo return for their second years as regulars. De Aza is a decent on-base guy and good baserunner. Viciedo is better than advertised defensively in left, thanks to a strong arm, but his low on-base percentage (.300) must be addressed to justify regular at-bats. Dewayne Wise is available if Ventura wants to consider a platoon. His on-base was only .322 against righthanders, however.
Few teams allow above-average catchers to walk, but the White Sox made almost no attempt to keep A.J. Pierzynski after he turned in a career year at age 35. It was clear that Hahn did not believe Pierzynski could duplicate that performance, and also that Hahn felt it was past time for 27-year-old Tyler Flowers to get his shot as a regular. Flowers, who is listed at 6'4", 245, spent the last two years backing up Pierzynski. He has hit only .205 in 108 games, but the Sox are sold on his ability to replace Pierzynski’s power and also to be an upgrade behind the plate. He threw out 33 percent of runners attempting to steal last season, and Sox pitchers had almost exactly the same earned run average with him catching as with Pierzynski.
To know Dunn is to respect him, which made it easy to explain how he was named Comeback Player of the Year even though he hit .204 and finished one strikeout short of matching the all-time record. It was impossible to ignore his 41 home runs, but the reality is that Dunn was never happy with his performance, even if it was much better than the nightmare 2011 season in which he hit .159 with only 11 homers. This is not an especially deep team, as Dunn, Konerko, Rios, Peavy, Danks and Floyd earn a combined $74.25 million (even with Konerko deferring $7 million of his salary), leaving little for spare parts. The Sox picked up corner infielder Conor Gillaspie over the winter and the former Giant appears to have earned a roster with a strong spring. Jordan Danks could figure in as an extra outfielder, though former Padre Blake Tekotte will also be in the mix to win a spot. Angel Sanchez, claimed in the Rule 5 Draft, and backup catcher Hector Gimenez round out a second-division bench.
Hahn, who had spent 12 years as Ken Williams’ assistant general manager, takes over an organization that has wasted its post-World Series spike in attendance, which has fallen below two million, where it was in 2004. Williams repeatedly went for the jugular and failed after the ’05 championship, trading away kids for veterans and largely neglecting the farm system. Hahn’s mandate is to rebuild the foundation while trying to contend behind the declining base of veterans. It’s a daunting task, but he is off to a good start by penciling in Brent Morel, Carlos Sanchez, Tyler Saladino and Andy Wilkins as his Triple-A infield rather than rush any of them to Chicago. The Sox gained a pulse internationally when Williams hired Marco Paddy from Toronto to run that operation, and the 2012 draft — the first with the spending limits favored by Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf — seemed a step in the right direction. Ventura finished third in Manager of the Year voting in his first season on the job. Pitching coach Don Cooper remains a key organizational asset.
There’s nothing wrong with this team that Mike Trout or Bryce Harper couldn’t fix. But the White Sox haven’t found many impact hitters in the draft since the run that brought them Frank Thomas, Ray Durham, Mike Cameron and Ventura, among others. The Sox were fourth in the AL in scoring last year but seem unlikely to sustain that level given the age of the lineup. They’ll need great pitching and fielding to compete. The presence of Sale, Peavy, Reed and Jones gives them a chance, but it will take surprising contributions elsewhere to win 85-plus games and click with a shrinking fan base.
CF Alejandro De Aza (L)
Leadoff man with speed had a higher WAR than Paul Konerko last season.
3B Jeff Keppinger (R)
Solid right-handed bat figures to get 500-plus at-bats in first year of three-year deal.
RF Alex Rios (R)
Best hitter in the lineup hit mostly fifth and sixth a year ago, a mistake Robin Ventura shouldn’t repeat.
1B Paul Konerko (R)
Surgery on left wrist may explain why his OPS dropped from .932 at All-Star break to .771 in the second half.
DH Adam Dunn (L)
Fifty-homer season isn’t out of the question if he stays healthy and figures a way to make better contact.
LF Dayan Viciedo (R)
Decent first season as a regular, highlighted by .289 average with runners in scoring position.
SS Alexei Ramirez (R)
While hitting career-low nine homers, took only 14 unintentional walks in 621 plate appearances in 2012.
C Tyler Flowers (R)
Favorite of teammates and coaches last two years when serving as A.J. Pierzynski’s understudy.
2B Gordon Beckham (R)
.270 average as rookie in 2009 has shrunk to .245 career batting average.
OF Dewayne Wise (L)
Veteran with all-around skills could get 250 at-bats if Viciedo starts slow.
SS Angel Sanchez (R)
Houston’s primary shortstop in 2011, he hit .320 in Triple-A last year.
C Hector Gimenez (S)
Next to Wise, probably the best hitter in the group; could emerge as a key contributor.
1B/3B Conro Gillaspie (L)
Picked up from San Francisco over the winter, he had six extra-base hits in his first 32 at-bats in the spring.
LH Chris Sale
A 17-game winner and All-Star in first year as a starter, he looks like a cornerstone player.
RH Jake Peavy
Fifth in AL with 219 innings last year; White Sox are betting he’s overcome run of injuries.
LH John Danks
Signed to a $65-million contract a year ago, he is a question mark after shoulder scope last August.
RH Gavin Floyd
With free agency around corner, the consistent double-figure winner is a trade candidate.
LH Jose Quintana
A major surprise as a rookie; started 22 games and pitched 136.1 innings.
RH Addison Reed (Closer)
Stephen Strasburg’s old college closer was 29-for-33 in his rookie season.
RH Nate Jones
High-90s fastball and snap-dragon curve give him chance to be eighth-inning force.
RH Jesse Crain
Veteran setup man makes mistakes up in strike zone but held hitters to .171 average last year.
LH Matt Thornton
Quiet leader in bullpen, the veteran workhorse worked a career-high 74 games at age 35.
LH Donnie Veal
Former Cubs second-rounder throws a slider that was death to left-handed hitters down the stretch.
RH Dylan Axelrod
Independent League find has a filthy slider and the ability to start or relieve.
RH Matt Lindstrom
Veteran allowed just four of 20 inherited runners to score last season split between Baltimore and Arizona.
The 2012 Detroit Tigers were a runaway pick to win the AL Central and a fashionable pick to win it all. But nothing ever seemed easy for them. They floundered below .500 for most of the first half of the season, trailed the Chicago White Sox for the bulk of the year and didn’t clinch the AL Central title until the calendar had flipped to October. Then, after surviving the A’s in the ALDS and destroying the Yankees in a four-game sweep in the ALCS, their bats curiously disappeared in the World Series, as they lost to the Giants in four games. The Tigers knew they needed more pop, and they also knew more pop was on its way, with DH Victor Martinez set to return in 2013 after a year spent rehabbing a blown-out knee. But that wasn’t enough — they also struck early in free agency, signing 37-year-old outfielder Torii Hunter coming off a career-high .313 average. Finally, they upgraded their rotation by re-signing righthander Anibal Sanchez, who came to Detroit in a trade-deadline deal last summer and pitched impressively down the stretch. Perhaps even more than a year ago — against a backdrop of an American League in which several perennial powers appear in decline — the Tigers will be viewed as a threat to win it all.
On the surface, any rotation that has Justin Verlander at the top and three other 10-game winners following him — a rotation that, in fact, posted a combined 3.76 ERA in 2012 — is plenty solid. Not only that, but No. 2 starter Max Scherzer also took a huge step in 2012 towards fulfilling his vast promise, with a 16-win, 231-strikeout season. But as the wise men say, you can never have too much pitching, and the Tigers knew they needed to retain Sanchez if they wanted to enter April with a championship-caliber club. The cost was staggering: $80 million for what is essentially a No. 4 starter. But the payoff is also enormous: The Tigers’ rotation is arguably the strongest and deepest in the American League — whether the fifth starter’s job belongs to righthander Rick Porcello or emerging lefty Drew Smyly.
After letting Jose Valverde, their high-wire artist of a closer, walk away via free agency, the Tigers kicked around various options for a closer in 2013, including free agents, trade targets and in-house candidates. Of that last category, the most intriguing option is much-hyped prospect Bruce Rondon, a 22-year-old Venezuelan who torched batters at Single-A and Double-A in 2012. The Tigers have given him a chance to win the closer’s job, and it appears that he has done so this spring. Also on board for 2013 is a strong core of bullpen veterans in lefty Phil Coke and righthanders Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel, plus an intriguing Rule 5 pickup in swingman Kyle Lobstein. Al Alburquerque appears healthy and ready to return to his swing-and-miss form.
Although Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta, the Tigers’ veteran double-play combo, don’t inspire much excitement, on this team and in this lineup there is something to be said for steady veteran play up the middle. Infante, a second baseman acquired last July in the Anibal Sanchez trade, broke his hand in Game 4 of the World Series but is completely healthy. Peralta, meantime, saw his offensive numbers drop in 2012, but he was an All-Star as recently as 2011 and is a capable shortstop, if nothing else.
The Tigers paid their corner infielders a combined $44 million in 2012 to hit a lot of home runs and not kill themselves (or the team) on defense. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder succeeded on both counts. The former had a historic year at the plate, winning both the Triple Crown and the MVP, and while the latter posted his lowest home run total in six years, he put up otherwise gaudy numbers in line with his career norms. On the other side of the ball, while neither was a threat to win a Gold Glove, the “experiment” of shifting Cabrera from first to third in order to accommodate Fielder was also not the abject disaster many predicted, and Cabrera’s selflessness in switching positions resonated both with teammates and MVP voters.
With all the firepower in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup, it was easy to overlook the brilliant season put up by center fielder Austin Jackson, who raised his OPS by 166 points over the year before and established himself as one of the top leadoff men in the game. One of the great travesties of the 2012 AL MVP race was that Jackson garnered nary a vote. The addition of Hunter gives Jackson a Gold Glove-caliber wingman in right, as well as another big-time bat behind him. Left field might wind up being a revolving door, but for now it appears that Andy Dirks, who had a fine 2012 season in a limited role, will get the first crack at the starting job. At some point in 2013, top prospects Nick Castellanos and/or Avisail Garcia could get the inevitable call-up.
Alex Avila had a breakout 2011 season, highlighted by an All-Star selection, but an injury-plagued 2012 sent his numbers plummeting and raised questions about his future durability. He made only 107 starts at catcher in 2012, down from 130 the year before, and almost all his numbers dropped — including his OPS by a whopping 159 points. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Tigers felt it important to upgrade at backup catcher, dropping veteran Gerald Laird and signing free agent Brayan Pena.
With Martinez out for the year following knee surgery, the Tigers’ DH job in 2012 was left primarily to Delmon Young, who, while capable of an occasional burst of power, is certainly no V-Mart. Getting the veteran Martinez back in 2013 will be like adding another big bat via free agency — only without the extra expenditure. As for the Tigers’ bench, Don Kelly, Jim Leyland’s favorite super-utility security blanket, is gone now, and it could take multiple players to replace him. The Tigers acquired a second baseman, Jeff Kobernus, in the Rule 5 Draft, but if he is to stick he will need to learn additional positions — and perhaps become a Kelly-like utility man. The Tigers still have Danny Worth and Ramon Santiago as backup infielders — though they can probably only afford to carry one of them — plus Quintin Berry as an extra outfielder. It isn’t the most intimidating bench around, but it should be functional.
Leyland, who has led the Tigers to two AL pennants in seven years with the organization, seems content at this point to exist on a series of one-year contracts, ending his last one with a World Series appearance, then signing yet another once the series was over. But at age 68, there are plenty of people wondering how many one-year contracts he has left in him. Which means, like plenty of others in the organization, his sense of urgency to win in 2013 will be acute. General manager Dave Dombrowski, on the other hand, signed a four-year extension in 2011 that carries through 2015 — not that he feels any less urgency to win. Together, they form one of the longest-standing and most respected GM/manager duos in baseball.
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has always shown a willingness to spend money, pushing the Tigers’ payroll into the upper quartile of baseball and dishing out mega-deals to Cabrera and Fielder. But in 2013, with the Tigers coming off a season that fell one step short of the ultimate goal, Ilitch is going another step. The signings of Hunter and Sanchez, plus the arbitration and contractual raises due a number of key players, will push the Tigers’ 2013 payroll into even more rarified air — in the $150 million range. Clearly, from the top of the organization down, the Tigers believe they are in position to win it all in 2013. They have arguably the best nucleus of talent in all of baseball, and all they need is for the rest to fall into place.
CF Austin Jackson (R)
Dazzling .300/.377/.479 season established him as one of top leadoff men in game
RF Torii Hunter (R)
Still a great glove man, a professional hitter and top-notch clubhouse influence.
3B Miguel Cabrera (R)
Inherited the mantle from Albert Pujols as best right-handed hitter in the game.
1B Prince Fielder (L)
His 30 HRs were fewest since 2006, but Tigers are confident he’s poised for a monster 2013 season.
DH Victor Martinez (S)
His return from injury deepens the lineup and makes pitching around Cabrera, Fielder a risk.
LF Andy Dirks (L)
Tigers anxious to see if he can extend big-time 2012 production over a full season.
SS Jhonny Peralta (R)
Steady veteran has played at least 145 games in seven straight seasons.
C Alex Avila (L)
Even in what constituted a “down” year, posted a healthy .352 OBP.
2B Omar Infante (R)
Say what you will, but if he’s your No. 9 hitter, you’re in good shape.
C Brayan Pena (S)
Upgrades backup catcher spot, replacing popular veteran Gerald Laird.
2B Jeff Kobernus (R)
Light-hitting Rule 5 Draft pick will probably need to play multiple positions to stick.
OF Quintin Berry (L)
Plays all three outfield spots, and stole 21 bases without being caught in 94 games in 2012.
IF Ramon Santiago (S)
Has made at least 60 starts as a middle infielder in each of the last four seasons for Detroit.
RH Justin Verlander
Cy Young runner-up in 2012 is arguably the best pitcher in the game.
RH Max Scherzer
Flamethrower took huge step forward in 2012, winning career-high 16 games.
RH Doug Fister
Strained oblique plagued him in 2012, but still won 10 games with a respectable 3.45 ERA.
RH Anibal Sanchez
Justified July trade with three quality starts in postseason and was signed to big deal in offseason.
RH Rick Porcello
Still only 24, but allowed a career-high 11.5 hits per nine IP in 2012.
RH Bruce Rondon (Closer)
Throws gas, but does he have the command and the calm to close in majors?
RH Joaquin Benoit
Jim Leyland’s top right-handed setup man struck out 84 in 71 innings.
LH Phil Coke
Strong showing in 2012 postseason underscored his value and versatility.
RH Octavio Dotel
Not the workhorse he used to be, but still effective when used right.
LH Kyle Lobstein
Rule 5 Draft pick is seen as a starter long-term, but to stick he’ll need to relieve.
RH Brayan Villarreal
Emerged as Leyland’s top option in the sixth and seventh innings.
RH Al Alburquerque
After returning from injury last September, he struck out 18 and gave up only six hits in 13.1 innings, but walked eight.
This time of year, sports fans and many non-sports fans are thinking about one thing: their NCAA Tournament brackets. For the next few days hoops fans will dissect rebounding margins, three-point shooting percentages, experience of guards and the ability to force turnovers. But for those of us who spend much more time studying pitchers’ velocity, prospects’ development and fielding practice on back fields in Florida and Arizona, it can be a bit difficult to complete basketball brackets.
But here goes. A completed NCAA Tournament bracket from a baseball nerd, uh, fan.
1 Louisville vs. 16 Liberty/North Carolina A&T
8 Colorado State vs. 9 Missouri
The fighting Sid Breams of Liberty will live to face Louisville in what we call the first round. We understand enough to know that 16s don’t beat 1s. Claiming Garry Templeton’s son, Garry Jr., isn’t enough for NC A&T. We love 8/9 games. Colorado State and Missouri is a classic. The Tigers with Max Scherzer, Aaron Crow and Ian Kinsler advance. But our favorite Mizzou alum might jut be Homer Summa.
In the second round Mizzou knocks out Louisville. There are only five former Cardinals who ever reached the majors, four of them in the 2000s. The tradition just isn’t there for Louisville.
5 Oklahoma State vs. 12 Oregon
4 Saint Louis vs. 13 New Mexico State
Oklahoma State and Oregon should be a real battle, but Okie State advances. After all, the Ducks just revived their program five years ago after rival Oregon State won a couple of College World Series titles. Saint Louis and New Mexico State? Really? How can I pick against a team from Saint Louis?
But being from Saint Louis is good enough only for one round. Not having produced a big leaguer since 1971 can’t match a school that produced Robin Ventura. Cowboys advance to Sweet 16.
6 Memphis vs. 11 Middle Tennessee/Saint Mary’s
3 Michigan State vs. 14 Valparaiso
St. Mary’s easily slides by Middle Tennessee. The Gaels have produced about four times as many major leaguers as the Blue Raiders. But we’ll take Dan Uggla’s alma mater (Memphis) over Mark Teahen’s (Saint Mary’s). Michigan State dominates Valpo. Steve Garvey and Kirk Gibson begin making plans to drop in on the Final Four.
Sparty keeps moving. There have been 38 players in the bigs who matriculated at East Lansing. Far more than at Memphis.
7 Creighton vs. 10 Cincinnati
2 Duke vs. 15 Albany
Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, who grew up in Omaha, was a basketball star at Creighton in the 1950s. He appeared with the Harlem Globetrotters, so this is a no-brainer as the Bluejays soundly defeat Cincinnati. Dick Groat, a teammate of Gibson’s on the 1964 World Champion Cardinals, was an All-America hoopster at Duke. No one from Albany has ever played in the majors.
The Blue Devils’ Groat hit .317 off of Creighton’s Gibson in his MLB career with no HBPs. Advantage Groat and Duke.
Things begin to get serious in the Sweet 16. The Oklahoma State Cowboys have appeared in 19 College World Series, Missouri just six. Groat continues a march toward MOP. He hit .320 in 101 plate appearances off Hall of Famer, and Sparty alum, Robin Roberts.
Crash Davis, an infielder not a catcher, played in 148 games over three seasons for Connie Mack during WWII. Basketball All-American Groat won NL MVP in 1960. Two-sport star Quinton McCracken played defensive back for Steve Spurrier before playing 999 games in the majors. With those three stars, Duke takes this bracket rather easily.
1 Gonzaga vs. Southern
8 Pittsburgh vs. 9 Wichita State
I’m sticking with the rule that 16s don’t lose to 1s, but I like Southern’s heritage with players like Lou Brock and Rickie Weeks. Pitt has never reached the College World Series, Wichita State has been to Omaha seven times, winning it all in 1989. Easy call. Not to mention the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t fielded a winner since 1992.
The Zags have such little baseball tradition, Wichita State shocks the No. 1 seed.
5 Wisconsin vs. 12 Ole Miss
4 Kansas State vs. 13 Boise State/LaSalle
Wisconsin has produced a few heavyweights through the years, namely Addie Joss and Harvey Kuenn. But long-time Cubs shortstop and Ole Miss alum Don Kessinger was named to the SEC Decade of the 60s basketball team along with Pete Maravich, Louie Dampier, Dan Issel, and Neal Walk. We’re sold on the Rebels. No major league hitter explored LaSalle or Boise, and the schools have combined to produce just five pitchers. With 194 major league wins, Larry Jackson gets the nod for Boise State. Even though Carlos Torres, who spent some time in Manhattan, Kan., is kicking around spring training with the Mets, Boise State advances to face Ole Miss.
Ole Miss easily dispatches the Broncos.
6 Arizona vs. 11 Belmont
3 New Mexico vs. 14 Harvard
Arizona has 16 CWS appearances and is the reigning champ. I love Belmont, but the Bruins are not going to knock off the Wildcats. New Mexico has never been to the College World Series. Harvard made four CWS appearances in a span of seven years from 1968-74. But that was a long time ago. Three Lobos spent time in the bigs last season, so New Mexico advances.
Arizona easily advances past New Mexico.
7 Notre Dame vs. 10 Iowa State
2 Ohio State vs. 15 Iona
It’s pretty simple, really. Iowa State defeated Notre Dame 13-8 in 10 innings in the 1957 College World Series, so there. Both teams were eliminated the day before Cal beat Penn State 1-0 for the title. We’d have to see Nick Swisher of Ohio State face Jason Motte of Iona to be sure, but since the Gaels have yet to produce a major league hitter or play in the College World Series, we’re moving the Buckeyes into the next round.
Ohio State wins big over Iowa State, a school without a major leaguer since Mike Myers retired in 2007.
The Shockers have had an alum in the major leagues every year since Bryan Oelkers and Joe Carter entered the league in 1983. Ole Miss is no match. Arizona is looking like a tournament favorite with all its tradition. Former Wildcats have accounted for 793 saves in the majors, 601 coming from Trevor Hoffman.
In a battle of heavyweights, Arizona by virtue of 16 CWS appearances to Wichita State’s 7 moves on to the Final Four.
1 Kansas vs. 16 Western Kentucky
8 North Carolina vs. 9 Villanova
No. 1 seed Kansas played in the 1993 CWS. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers did not. Villanova has produced 49 big leaguers, but only 10 have made it to the show since the 1940s. Of the 60 players UNC has produced, 23 have played in the majors in the 2000s. Go Tar Heels.
During the second round, most basketball pundits will want to talk about Roy Williams and the UNC-Kansas connection. We’ll be talking about Brian Roberts’ comeback in Baltimore and breakout seasons from Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager. Tar Heels keep moving.
5 VCU vs. 12 Akron
4 Michigan vs. 13 South Dakota State
Evidently VCU has a smart coach and Brandon Inge, of course. There are no major league hitters from Akron. Zip. Nada. Rams advance. Way back during the Dead Ball era, Vean Gregg won 92 games, 72 coming with the Indians. He’s the lone Jackrabbit to make it to the show. And really, if you have to go back that far, forget it. Wolverines in a cake walk.
Michigan has the old: Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer and George Sisler while VCU can counter with Jerry DiPoto, the general manager of the Angels. Edge to the old guard.
6 UCLA vs. 11 Minnesota
3 Florida vs. 14 Northwestern State
Who would have thought that a cold weather school like Minnesota would have more CWS appearances (8) and titles (3) than UCLA (4,0)? But the Gophers haven’t been there since 1977 and UCLA has been twice in the past three years. Bruins in a squeaker. Although in the 1973 NBA Draft (when John Wooden was still at UCLA) Jim Brewer from Minnesota was drafted second, Ron Behagen seventh before Swen Nater of UCLA was picked 16th. In that same draft, Golden Gopher Dave Winfield was the 79th pick by the Atlanta Hawks. He opted for baseball. Good decision. No big league hitter has ever come out of Northwestern State. Florida has produced three All-Star hitters since the 1980s. Laugher.
In a battle of two baseball factories, Florida has had 18 players drafted in the last two years, UCLA just 16. We’ll take Mike Zunino over Trevor Bauer or Gerrit Cole. Chomp!
7 San Diego State vs. 10 Oklahoma
2 Georgetown vs. 15 Florida Gulf Coast
Oklahoma can lean on basketball star Ryan Minor who hit .177 in 142 games for Baltimore and Montreal. He was a second-round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1996 NBA Draft, but never played in the NBA. His claim to fame is that he replaced Cal Ripken in the lineup to end the Iron Man’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games. San Diego State has the school’s all-time assists leader, Tony Gwynn, who also managed more than 3,000 hits in the majors. Yep, Gwynn is better than Minor. You know a No. 15 has beaten a No. 2 six times. Of the 35 former Georgetown Hoyas who made it to the show, just one has played in the majors since 1960. Florida Gulf Coast has Chris Sale. Upset!
Okay, we mentioned Tony Gwynn’s basketball exploits earlier, so now it’s time to play the Stephen Strasburg card. See ya Florida Gulf Coast.
And with the even older history of brothers Moses Fleetwood Walker and Welday Walker — two African-American major leaguers in the 1800s — Michigan continues to advance by knocking off the Tar Heels.
Sheer numbers of the Florida Gators are too much for the Aztecs, although the Strasburg-Addison Reed combo put up a fight.
You have to go back to the Dwight Eisenhower administration (1960) to find a season in which there was no Michigan alum in the big leagues. Wolverines fight their way into the Final Four.
1 Indiana vs. 16 Long Island/James Madison
8 NC State vs. 9 Temple
Right off the bat, Long Island takes James Madison. Larry Doby is the most famous LIU alum, while Billy Sample takes that honor for JMU. Uh, no contest. However, Indiana keeps the No. 1 seeds perfect. NC State’s Tim Stoddard, who pitched 13 years in the bigs, was a power forward on the 1974 national title team that featured David Thompson, Monte Towe and the 7’4” Tom Burleson. Temple has Bobby Higginson. Go State!
The NC State Wolfpack knocks off No. 1 seed Indiana based on State’s lone College World Series appearance in 1968. Yep, it was an ugly game. I’m guessing neither team shot better than 30 percent.
5 UNLV vs. 12 California
4 Syracuse vs. 13 Montana
UNLV can impress with the Stottlemyre brothers (Todd and Mel Jr.), the Ludwick brothers (Ryan and Eric) and Cecil Fielder, but you can trace a Cal alum in the bigs all the way back to 1920. That’s a long time. Cal in an upset. No Montana Grizzly has made it to the show. A total of 26 Syracuse alums have made it, but none since Will Pennyfeather last appeared in 1994. Orange moves forward.
Cal absolutely blows out Syracuse. There have 25 former Bears in the majors since Pennyfeather’s retirement as the last Orange.
6 Butler vs. 11 Bucknell
3 Marquette vs. 14 Davidson
Doug Jones had 303 career saves and Dan Johnson hit a memorable walk-off homer for Tampa Bay on the final day of the 2011 regular season. Go Butler. Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson had 373 wins. Bucknell rules. Ralph Shinners is the lone Marquette alum to play in the bigs, and he played his final game in 1925. Davidson wins.
Christy Mathewson continues to pitch Bucknell into unchartered waters. They knock off Davidson to advance to the Sweet 16.
7 Illinois vs. 10 Colorado
2 Miami vs. 15 Pacific
Illinois has sent 71 players to the majors, Colorado only five. Blowout. The list of 11 former Pacific Tigers to play in the majors includes current Padre third baseman Chase Headley, who transferred to Tennessee. The University of Miami had 14 alums playing last season alone. Over by halftime.
Tournament favorite Miami can count 28 All-Star appearances from alums who have played since 2000. Illinois has no chance.
Ryan Braun, Mike Piazza, Chris Perez and others end Bucknell’s Cinderella run. In the top of the bracket, it’s Cal all over NC State. Jeff Kent and Andy Messersmith lead the Golden Bears past, well, Stoddard and the Pack.
There have been 55 Miami Hurricanes play in the big leagues, and 46 of them have done so since 1990. Hurricanes are in the Final Four.
The Michigan Wolverines, living on old tradition, finally run out of gas against the much more modern cast from Miami.
Arizona easily dispenses with Duke. The Wildcats call on Kenny Lofton, the sixth man on the 1988 Final Four team. After basketball season, Lofton joined the Arizona baseball team and got in just five games, mostly as a pinch-runner and had just one at-bat.
Arizona, having appeared in 16 CWS, winning four, and Miami with 23 appearances and also four titles, meet in the championship game.
The two have crossed paths in five CWS, but met only twice on the field. Arizona won 5-1 in 1979, and Miami defeated the Wildcats 4-2 in 1986, but Arizona rebounded to win the title.
In a double-overtime thriller, the Hurricanes prevail with a little help from Barry Larkin’s son Shane, Miami’s point guard.
So, there you have it. That’s how a die-hard baseball (even in March) fan fills out his NCAA Tournament bracket. Enjoy the madness. Opening Day is just around the corner.
-Charlie Miller (@AthlonCharlie)
After years of making flashy purchases, the New York Yankees hunkered down after last season, treading carefully in the market with an eye on their 2014 payroll. Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement gives the Yankees significant financial incentive to keep their payroll under $189 million that season, and they plan to do it. The reasoning is sound — every other champion has spent less than the Yankees on payroll, so why waste money? But the composition of their roster looks thin in certain spots, and old throughout. The Yankees handed one-year contracts to Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Hiroki Kuroda, and signed Kevin Youkilis for a year to spell the injured Alex Rodriguez, at least initially. It’s not an inspiring group, and it’s lacking key contributors like Russell Martin, Rafael Soriano and Nick Swisher. But this is still a team that won 95 games last season and should remain a force in the AL East.
The Yankees doubled down on their 2012 rotation, bringing back Kuroda and Pettitte on one-year contracts to slot behind their ace, CC Sabathia, and in front of 16-game winner Phil Hughes. Ivan Nova and David Phelps are options for the fifth spot, and the Yankees are eager to finally see what they have in Michael Pineda, who missed all of last season with shoulder trouble that could cost him at least the first two months of 2013. Sabathia persevered through elbow discomfort last season and had minor elbow surgery in late October. Other American League aces have surpassed Sabathia in prominence, but there is no one the Yankees would rather have on the mound. Kuroda will be 38 this season, but he made such a seamless transition to the AL last year that he seems to be a sure thing. Pettitte turns 41 in June, and his stamina bears watching. While last year’s broken fibula was a freak injury — it came from a line drive — the fact remains that Pettitte has made just 12 regular-season starts in the last two years. Hughes, who turns 27 in June, should be squarely in his prime. If he’s going to reclaim his All-Star form of early 2010, now is the time. But a back injury has put him on the shelf for what will likely be the first few weeks of the season.
This was supposed to be Rivera’s first year of retirement, but he tore his ACL in a freak injury while shagging fly balls last May and decided to make this his final year. Rivera is 43, but remarkably, his skills have never diminished. To avoid a most awkward parting with the classy franchise icon, the Yankees need him to be the Rivera of old and leave on top, especially after losing their top insurance policy, Soriano. Even without Soriano, Rivera has a top setup man in David Robertson, a strikeout specialist who may have peaked in 2011 but was plenty effective last season, with 81 punchouts in 60.2 innings. Injuries have kept the once-electric Joba Chamberlain from reaching even 30 appearances in either of the last two seasons, but he’s still good for a strikeout per inning and should team with veteran David Aardsma or Cody Eppley as effective righties in middle relief. Lefties Clay Rapada and Boone Logan give manager Joe Girardi some solid matchup options.
Derek Jeter’s gruesome season-ending ankle injury in the ALCS casts him again as an aging icon, obscuring what a dynamic season he had at age 38. Jeter led the majors in hits, with 216, his most since 1999, and even added 15 homers, a figure he had topped just once since 2005. He turns 39 in June, so the offense will go sometime, but that time does not appear to be soon, and the injury should not impact him in the batter’s box. The more important concern is how much the surgery will affect his range in the field, which was already limited and has been well below league-average for years. His double-play partner, Robinson Cano, has no such concerns. Cano, 30, starts his ninth season with the Yankees and his first as a potential free agent. Cano is coming off a career-high 33 homers and .929 OPS, and won his second Gold Glove while finishing fourth in the AL MVP race. He came under some criticism for failing to hit in the clutch, finishing below 100 runs batted in for the first time since 2009.
If the Yankees could dial back the clock five years, they’d have two of the best corner infielders in the game, with another on the disabled list. Alas, it is 2013, not 2008, and Youkilis and first baseman Mark Teixeira appear to be past their prime. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is working to regain strength and agility after offseason surgery on his left hip. He’s scheduled to come back no sooner than June, a lengthier DL stint than he had in 2009 because of the need to repair a bone impingement. To that end, Youkilis was a smart buy on a one-year deal. Teixeira struggled at the end of the season with a calf injury, and he still has four years remaining on his eight-year, $180 million contract. A wrist injury suffered while taking some practice swings in the spring hoists another red flag.
You want left-handed hitters with speed? The Yankees have them, with Brett Gardner in left, Curtis Granderson in center and Ichiro Suzuki in right. Granderson, of course, is more of a power hitter now than a stolen base threat; with 43 homers last season and just 10 steals, he has become the ultimate Yankee Stadium player. Granderson is a top run producer but has a serious problem making contact, with 195 strikeouts in the regular season and 16 in 33 plate appearances in the postseason. But his homers, strikeouts and steals must wait while he recovers from a broken arm suffered when hit by a pitch during his first at-bat of the spring. Gardner missed almost all of last season, but thankfully for the Yankees, the injury was to his elbow, not the legs that scampered to an AL-best 49 stolen bases in 2011. The Yankees are eager to get Gardner and his .355 career on-base percentage back in the lineup, even if he is a very similar player to Suzuki, as a lefty singles hitter. Suzuki, who hit .322 in 67 games for the Yankees, returns with a two-year contract at age 39.
In a sure sign that their world is quite a bit different these days, the Yankees let Martin sign with Pittsburgh without bothering to match his two-year, $17 million offer. That might seem like a lot considering Martin’s .211 average last year, but he hit for decent power and handled the pitching staff well. What’s worse, the Yankees seemed to have no real backup plan, simply turning over the position to reserves Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli while they wait for their vaunted catching prospects to develop.
The Yankees have so many older players needing rest, they really wish they could have more than one DH spot. They’ll begin with Travis Hafner in this role, but will rotate Teixeira, Jeter and Rodriguez (when he returns) in and out. The Yankees are eager to give Eduardo Nunez more playing time, and if his fielding misadventures continue, DH makes the most sense. The Yanks’ tighter budget will result in a considerably weaker bench. Jayson Nix started nine games or more at four positions last season is attractive due to his versatility. Outfielders Matt Diaz and Ben Francisco were added to the mix in the offseason. An intriguing option could be Cuban defector Ronnier Mustelier, who has impressed this spring and can play third base.
Girardi’s stock phrase is “I believe in my guys,” but his faith has limits, and that should be encouraging for Yankees fans. Girardi’s greatest challenge is getting the most from aging superstars, and by benching Rodriguez and others in the playoffs, he showed a realization that big names cannot produce big results forever. Expect Girardi to deftly move his creaky veterans in and out of the DH spot and continue to work closely with Brian Cashman, who enters his 16th season as GM. Cashman recognizes the need for the Yankees to eventually get younger, but with a mandate to win every season, he’ll keep searching for impact veterans on short-term deals.
The Yankees won’t come right out and say it, but they’re going through a transition. The old guard can’t hang around forever, and their presence restricts the club’s flexibility on the field and in the payroll. But while the Yankees aren’t as feared as they once were, there’s still enough punch here to put them in the AL East mix, and the pitching looks solid. A division title is no certainty, but it’s still within reach.
RF Ichiro Suzuki (L)
Longtime Mariner hit .394 in final 16 games to earn two-year contract in winter.
SS Derek Jeter (R)
A hit machine, but serious ankle injury suffered in postseason could further hinder range at short.
2B Robinson Cano (L)
Only American League player to score 100 runs in each of the last four seasons.
1B Mark Teixeira (S)
His .997 AL fielding percentage is best in league history for a first baseman (min. 1000 games). An injured wrist may force him to miss all of April.
CF Curtis Granderson (L)
Has 61 homers at home, 47 on road, since joining Yanks in 2010, but he strikes out a ton. Hit by a pitch in his first plate appearance of the spring that left him with a broken arm and a place on the DL until May.
3B Kevin Youkilis (R)
After .233 average for Boston, hit just three points better after being dealt to the White Sox. He will see some time at first while Teixeira is on the mend.
DH Travis Hafner (L)
Although exclusively a DH, he hasn’t been healthy for a full season since 2007.
C Chris Stewart (R)
Yankee pitchers had a 3.41 ERA when working with this well-traveled veteran.
LF Brett Gardner (L)
Elbow injury ruined last season; led the American League in steals in 2011, with 49.
C Francisco Cervelli (R)
Returns to backup role after spending almost all of 2012 in minors; has hit .271 in his time in the bigs.
INF Eduardo Nunez (R)
They know he can hit and run. Weakness is fielding, so DH spot fits — at least until A-Rod returns.
OF Melky Mesa (R)
The only Melquisedec to make it to the major leagues. That’s why they call him Melky.
OF Matt Diaz (R)
Career .324 hitter vs. left-handed pitching has battled thumb problems recently.
LH CC Sabathia
Only pitcher in the majors with at least 15 wins in each of the last six seasons.
RH Hiroki Kuroda
His 16 victories in first season with Yanks were a career high, including his 11 seasons in Japan.
LH Andy Pettitte
Has made 140 starts without a complete game, longest active streak in MLB.
RH Phil Hughes
Won 16 games in 2012 and 18 in ’10 but only five in dreadful ’11 season. A bulging disc this spring has added to his misery.
RH Ivan Nova
Allowed 87 extra-base hits, a single-season record for a Yankees pitcher.
RH Mariano Rivera (Closer)
Only other Yankee to earn a save after age 40 — Jim Kaat, in 1979.
RH David Robertson
His seven losses in 2012 were most by Yankee reliever since Jeff Nelson in 1997.
RH David Phelps
Held opponents to a .209 average as a reliever in his first season in the majors. Will be the first option to fill in for an injured starter.
LH Clay Rapada
Allowed only 29 hits in 38.1 innings in first season as a Yankee; lefties hit .186 off him.
LH Boone Logan
His 80 appearances in 2012 led the majors and set a record for a Yankees’ lefty.
RH Joba Chamberlain
Missed Yanks’ first 102 games recovering from elbow and ankle injuries.
RH David Aardsma
Has faced just five batters since Sept. 19, 2010.
Grab your hard hats and watch your step, Red Sox fans, because Fenway Park’s going to be a construction zone. After hitting rock bottom in 2012, the Sox aren’t beginning a remodel so much as a teardown. The return to respectability won’t happen overnight, not in the rugged American League East, but at least the Red Sox shouldn’t embarrass themselves, which would be a refreshing development. They spent the winter patching the roster with veterans like Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino and Stephen Drew in the hopes that augmenting a nucleus featuring Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks and David Ortiz will keep the Sox in the hunt for the second Wild Card while the farm system prepares the next generation. We’ll see if that scenario unfolds. In the meantime, beware of falling concrete.
Here’s where the season will be made or broken. If Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz return to the form that made them All-Stars in 2010, John Lackey rebounds from Tommy John surgery to win his customary 13-to-15 games, and a youngster takes the fifth spot and runs with it, the Red Sox could contend for the division title. Unfortunately, that’s a lot of ifs, especially since the alternatives — Lester and Buchholz struggle for a second straight season, Lackey struggles with reentry, the fifth starter stumbles — are just as likely. It all starts with Lester. Now that Josh Beckett is gone, Lester is the leader of the rotation, and if he can rejoin that upper echelon of AL starters, he gives the Red Sox a bona fide ace. There are some worrisome signs, though. His strikeout rate has dipped in each of the last four seasons (from 10.0 in 2009 to 7.3 last year), along with his velocity. That’s why it’s so important that Buchholz returns to form and stays healthy. One name to watch is Rubby De La Rosa, a flamethrower coming off Tommy John surgery who was acquired from the Dodgers.
Whatever doubts exist about the rotation, they’re not shared in the bullpen. Taking a page from the 2012 Orioles, the Red Sox have tried to build a deep stable of power arms in the hopes of winning enough close games to stay in contention. The Red Sox have the arms to do it, particularly after acquiring two-time All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates. That shifts fellow two-time All-Star Andrew Bailey to the eighth. From there the Sox have their pick of arms like Koji Uehara, hard-throwing Junichi Tazawa, lefty Craig Breslow, lefty Andrew Miller, and the rubber-armed Alfredo Aceves. Plus, whichever of Felix Doubront and Franklin Morales loses the fifth starter’s battle should end up in relief, too. Breslow’s shoulder has been balky in the spring and will likely delay his season. But this is as deep a group as you’ll find in the majors.
If everyone stays healthy, the Red Sox have a chance to field one of the best all-around double-play combos in the game. Pedroia’s résumé speaks for itself at second. He’s a former MVP and Gold Glover whose tenacity sets the tone on the field and off. And don’t discount the underrated Drew, who has 20-homer power and an ability to work the count. If something happens to the latter, then slick-fielding youngster Jose Iglesias would get the call from Pawtucket, though there are real concerns about his bat. The utilityman should be speedy Pedro Ciriaco, who was a jack-of-all-trades in 2012.
The Red Sox figured they had their hole at first base plugged when they signed Mike Napoli to a three-year, $39 million deal as their first big move of the offseason in early December. More than a month later, the sides still hadn’t agreed on language to protect the Red Sox in case Napoli suffered a hip injury. But on Jan. 17. The sides agreed on language for a one-year deal for $5 million guaranteed. But staying clear of the DL and answering the call every day, the former catcher can earn as much as $8 million. His bat is a plus, but his glove, not so much. The other side of the diamond is far less murky thanks to Middlebrooks, who’s a 25-homer hitter in waiting. Middlebrooks is fully healed from the freak broken wrist (hit by pitch) that ended his rookie season in August.
The Red Sox had once hoped to just pencil in the names Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford in center and left, respectively, and watch them wreak havoc. Instead, Crawford was a colossal disappointment before being dumped on the Dodgers, while Ellsbury has only been able to stay on the field once in the last three seasons. With Ellsbury due to enter free agency, he could be traded at any point before the July 31 deadline, particularly if the Sox struggle to remain in contention. Otherwise, he’ll be flanked by Victorino, a former Gold Glover with the Phillies, in right field and Jonny Gomes in left. Gomes struggles in the field, but his right-handed power and clubhouse leadership make him an intriguing acquisition. Gomes has murdered left-handed pitching but will need a platoon partner against righties, with Daniel Nava and Mike Carp possibilities.
From the moment the Red Sox signed respected backup David Ross in November, it seemed inevitable that the other shoe would drop in the form of a trade of either incumbent starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia or promising youngster Ryan Lavarnway. But the Red Sox believed they could find room for all three catchers, even if it meant returning Lavarnway to Triple-A for further seasoning. In any event, the Sox could employ some intriguing permutations. The switch-hitting Saltalamacchia became an all-or-nothing proposition in the second half after a borderline All-Star first half. He’ll need to improve his selectivity or he won’t be playing anywhere. Lavarnway was likewise hideous down the stretch (.157-2-12 in 46 games). Ross is probably the most talented of the bunch, but he’s purely a backup at age 36 and is unlikely to play more than 70 games.
The man they call Big Papi is officially the last link to the glory of 2004, when the Red Sox ended their 86-year-old curse. Signed to a two-year deal over the winter that finally should provide some peace of mind, Ortiz is nonetheless as motivated as ever to prove to the doubters that (a) he’s worth the $13 million he’ll receive in each of the next two years, and (b) that he can stay healthy. In many respects, he was in the midst of his best season last year before an Achilles injury basically ended his season in July, so proving the first part seems easy enough. However, pain lingers in his Achilles making his availability for Opening Day doubtful. As for the bench, the Sox have put a premium on versatility. Ciriaco can play all over the infield and debuted in center last year. With Victorino able to play center, the Sox are covered behind Ellsbury. Nava and Carp can back up the corner spots and/or platoon with Gomes in left. The final order of business as spring training beckoned was adding Carp as a reserve left-handed first baseman.
Bobby Valentine divided and conquered the clubhouse through passive-aggression last year, and his tenure goes down as one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history. The Red Sox believe they’ve found the anti-Bobby V. in John Farrell, the team’s former pitching coach, who commands respect throughout the organization. Farrell dealt with the Hanrahan and Bailey situation immediately, naming the former his closer in December. In the GM’s office, Ben Cherington has learned from the mistakes of his first season — when he didn’t do enough to change the clubhouse culture — by striking aggressively late last summer (Dodgers blockbuster) and then all winter, securing a number of solid veterans on contracts of three years and fewer. Farrell and Cherington see the game similarly (they’re both former farm directors) and work well together.
The Red Sox need so much to break right to contend in the AL East. Most of their free-agent acquisitions are coming off down years. Vital cogs like Ortiz, Pedroia, and Ellsbury must stay healthy, something none of them managed in 2012. They need the starters to rebound and the bullpen to remain stout. It also wouldn’t hurt if some of the other teams in the East underachieved. In reality, this is Year 1 of a lengthy rebuild, and even though the Red Sox hope and expect to remain competitive, it’s probably going to be another season or two before they restore their status as legitimate contenders.
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
With free agency looming, Ellsbury would like nothing better than to prove his breakout 2011 the rule, not the exception.
SS Stephen Drew (L)
Drew knows how to work himself into a hitter’s count, and then he’s hacking.
2B Dustin Pedroia (R)
Pedroia and Drew are both better suited to hit second, but one of them must bat in the 3-hole where Pedroia owns a lifetime .840 OPS.
DH David Ortiz (L)
Baseball’s best DH by a wide margin, Ortiz hit .320 with a .985 OPS against lefties last year. But Achilles problems continue to plague him and make him doubtful to be ready by Opening Day.
1B Mike Napoli (R)
Napoli’s problem isn’t his production; it’s his health. He has averaged only 379 plate appearances per season.
RF Shane Victorino (S)
Victorino hits lefties (.881 career OPS) far better than righties (.727).
3B Will Middlebrooks (R)
Free swinger struck out 70 times and walked only 13 in 286 plate appearances as a rookie.
LF Jonny Gomes (R)
Gomes may never be a full-time player, but he has reached 20 homers in fewer than 400 at-bats three times.
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)
Needs to add more discipline to his approach, or he’ll be taking a seat in favor of David Ross or Ryan Lavarnway.
INF Pedro Ciriaco (R)
Opened eyes last year as a speedy pest who can play pretty much anywhere.
C David Ross (R)
Ross was universally adored in Atlanta, where pitchers loved throwing to him. Probably the game’s best backup.
1B/OF Mike Carp (L)
Acquired from Settle to potentially platoon with Gomes in left and as insurance for Napoli at first.
OF Daniel Nava (S)
A .317 hitter over six seasons in the minors, the Red Sox expect his bat to come around at the major league level as well.
LH Jon Lester
Let’s not forget that until his terrible 2012, Lester was pretty much a guaranteed 16 wins.
RH Clay Buchholz
There may not be a more diverse arsenal in the game, with Buchholz throwing everything but a knuckleball.
RH John Lackey
The man in the middle is Johnny on the spot. If he’s his Angels self, the Sox could be in business.
RH Ryan Dempster
The Red Sox suspect Dempster will struggle with good lineups, but they want him to feast on bad ones.
LH Felix Doubront
With legit swing-and-miss stuff and a 96 mph fastball, Doubront needs to harness his command.
RH Joel Hanrahan (Closer)
Hanrahan brings the 98 mph heat and buries with a slider that ranks among the game’s most unhittable pitches.
RH Andrew Bailey
Former All-Star closer says he’s okay with move to set up Hanrahan. If he takes to it, it’s difficult to imagine anyone better.
RH Junichi Tazawa
On another team in another season, the hard-throwing Tazawa could be considered a closer candidate.
RH Koji Uehara
Like Tazawa, Uehara strikes out more than a batter an inning with impeccable control.
LH Craig Breslow
After kicking around the game’s margins for nearly a decade, Breslow owns a 3.15 ERA since 2010. A sore shoulder has shelved him for a few weeks.
LH Andrew Miller
A bust as a starter, the 6'7" Miller has been reborn as a junior Randy Johnson in relief, abusing lefthanders.
LH Franklin Morales
Morales was a revelation as a starter last year, and may beat out Doubront for the fifth spot.
General manager Andrew Friedman talks about “always trying to thread the needle” in harmonizing the present and future. President Matt Silverman says the team is operated “as if we’re balanced on the head of a pin.” Both make good “points.” The attendance-famished, cash-impoverished Rays perennially stitch together a contender with a quilt of creative contracts, bargain-basement free agents, prospect development and Joe Mad(don)-scientist field management. Improbably, despite the loss of one of the top three position players (B.J. Upton) and pitchers (James Shields) in their history, they’ve done so again for 2013. Not that they’ve really darned a threadbare offense that was the fourth-lowest-scoring in the AL, but they’ve patched it. Not that they’re likely to match an ERA that was the best in the league since 1990, but the pitching remains enviable. Not that they can replace Upton’s stolen bases or have definitively addressed a defense that led the circuit in errors, but the roster is still athletic. It’s a living-on-the-edge formula tailored to Tampa Bay’s unique situation and executed with dexterity. “We are a turnover team. We do change things on an annual basis,” says Maddon. “Welcome to the Rays.”
Hanging on the wall in a corner of the Rays clubhouse is a slogan made popular by Shields: “If you don’t like it, pitch better.” Even after dealing the inspirational soul of their staff, the team still has a backlog of moundsmen who would be shoo-ins to make many rotations, but will have to “pitch better” to crack this one. David Price can’t pitch much better than he did in 2012. He went 20–5 and compiled a 1.62 ERA in his no-decisions. The Cy Young Award winner now mixes three solid complementary pitches to go with his hot, hot heat, and he remains driven to sustain the growth. Matt Moore is Price on training wheels — outrageously gifted, but sometimes with elusive fastball command. Although he broke the team’s rookie strikeout record, and his 3.31 ERA over his last 22 starts denotes improvement, Maddon cautions, “the finished product is probably two, three years down the road.” Jeremy Hellickson consistently pitches himself in and out of peril with the net result being the AL’s third-lowest ERA (3.02) over the past two years. To take the next step, he’ll have to economize; on 11 occasions, he was yanked after passing 90 pitches yet not completing the sixth inning. Blossoming Alex Cobb will build on an impressive finish to 2012, when his seven wins after July 31 tied for most in the circuit. Despite a career ledger of 40–26, oft-injured Jeff Niemann must hold off the youth brigade for the No. 5 slot. Chris Archer is at the vanguard. “This guy’s going to be so good,” Maddon predicts — but the 24-year-old needs a third pitch to get lefties out or risk being recast as a closer. Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome and Alex Torres face slightly longer odds. The X-factor is Roberto Hernandez, a former 19-game winner who lost track of his mojo — and his age — as Fausto Carmona in Cleveland.
Closer Fernando Rodney had, according pitching coach Jim Hickey, “maybe the best relief season in the history of the game. So I don’t expect him to do that (again).” Anything remotely close to his 48-for-50 save rate and all-time-record 0.60 ERA would be just fine. When Rodney is locating his high-90s fastball and low-80s change-up as he did in 2012, batters have no chance. Should he regress, pea-chucking lefty Jake McGee could probably work the ninth. Of the 44 men he faced in September, four got hits and 21 were punched out. Joel Peralta, the MLB holds leader with 37, was re-signed as the primary bridge man. Kyle Farnsworth brings stability and experience, but is not the fireballer he once was. The pen will fill out adequately with some combo of the losers in the starter’s derby and “4-A” veterans Cesar Ramos, Brandon Gomes and Josh Lueke.
Now that the words “Yunel” and “eye black controversy” will never again appear in print independently, we’re left to wonder whether his gay-slur incident will doom the new Rays shortstop to even more underachievement or prompt him to finally grow up. Escobar is gifted defensively and streaky-solid at the dish, but mystifyingly prone to all manner of mental mistakes. Maddon, like many managers before him, has been impressed initially by Escobar in the spring. We’ll see how long that lasts. The acquisition from Toronto frees Ben Zobrist (who finished 2012 at short) to return to second base where, as a total package, he’s one of the game’s five best. Maddon calls him “no chrome” — nothing flashy, but steely-solid. Zobrist will also see some time in right field as Maddon thrives on mixing and matching lineups.
“Nine 1/2 Weeks” was a movie about a shallow affair. That pretty much describes the Rays offense in the nine-and-a-half weeks it was without hammie-hobbled Evan Longoria. As the team’s only authentic run-producer, his absence turns the attack into a series of toppling dominoes. A full slate of the third baseman’s batsmithery is worth 30 homers and 100 RBIs — or more. “If we have Longo in the lineup all year, we win 10 more games, or 20,” Price speculates. His hyperbole was only slight. Things are not as secure at first, where James Loney succeeds Carlos Pena. He’s a hard worker, but an impatient one, both within individual at-bats and settling on an overall approach. The club would gladly take his 2008-10 production, when he averaged .279-12-89 for the Dodgers. Still, Loney is, says the skipper, “a great defender.”
Where there’s a Wil there’s a wait. At least it would seem that way, based on the team’s inclination to delay prospect debuts for both developmental and financial reasons. But unless the Rays add a thumper at the 11th hour, they almost have to slot treasured rookie Wil Myers into right field. The central return in the trade of Shields to the Royals, he’s a 22-year-old who ranked second in the minors with 37 home runs and carries a “superstar” projection by many scouts. Matt Joyce would then slide to left. His glove is fine, but a once-promising bat has yielded two straight OPS declines to a ho-hum .769. If that doesn’t improve, Myers will shift to left, Zobrist to right and giving Kelly Johnson a chance at second. With Upton off the grid, Desmond Jennings returns to his natural habitat in center, where he has Gold Glove possibilities. He’s a potential league leader in stolen bases, but not if he can’t elevate a .314 OBP that, as a leadoff man, was a literal non-starter. The issue: Jennings worked himself ahead in the count in a team-low 30.7 percent of plate appearances.
The Rays chose not to (or could not) upgrade the catching position, where Jose Molina is a liability at the plate and becoming immobile behind it. He’s still a master receiver/pitcher-handler with an adequate arm. As the team’s oldest position player by five years, he’s limited to 100 games, with replacement-level operatives Jose Lobaton or Chris Gimenez taking up the slack.
There’s no great cache of talent in reserve, just a smorgasbord of versatile grinders. Just the way Maddon likes it. He can play Sean Rodriguez (who Pena says might be the best defensive player he’s ever seen) almost anywhere and Johnson at second and the outfield, get two honest games a week out of three-position outfielder Sam Fuld, dispatch Ryan Roberts to second base when moving Zobrist to the outfield for platoon reasons … and so forth. Lefty swinging Luke Scott and righty Shelley Duncan will likely platoon at DH.
There’s none better in the bang vs. buck department. Friedman checks all the boxes as a GM; Maddon works below market because he adores the environment; owner Stuart Sternberg is fan-friendly and surprisingly agile with his bank. But, warns the latter, “At some point, it stops. You’ve got to make a decision. We’re going to eat steak, and we’re going to eat lobster, and we’re going to order some wine, but we’re not going to be able to turn the heat on, and the house isn’t going to get painted.”
Maddon says the franchise’s “DNA” is “great pitching … great defense.” When he gets both, as he should most days in 2013, the Rays are No. 1 on any opponents’ least-like-to-play list. Unfortunately, there is no forensic evidence to suggest they’ll be any better than mediocre at scoring runs. Still, in a year in which you can throw a blanket over the entire AL East, the Rays have a respectable chance of sewing up a fourth postseason appearance in six years.
CF Desmond Jennings (R)
Set team record (min. 20 attempts.) with 93.9 percent steal success rate last year.
SS Yunel Escobar (R)
Third-most hits (720) while playing shortstop since 2008, behind Derek Jeter and Jose Reyes.
2B Ben Zobrist (S)
Was, in 2012, first player in the modern era to start at least 45 games at three different positions.
3B Evan Longoria (R)
Rays went 47–27 (.635) when he started, 43–45 (.489) when he didn’t.
DH Luke Scott (L)
Hit .149 vs. lefties, .260 vs. righties last season.
RF Wil Myers (R)
Consensus 2012 Minor League Player of the Year will get a chance to win the job in the spring.
LF Matt Joyce (L)
Hit .219 when slotted third through fifth in the order, but .337 at sixth through eighth.
1B James Loney (L)
Led the big leagues in hits with runners in scoring position (161), 2008-10.
C Jose Molina (R)
Third among active catchers (min. 500 games) with 39.1 caught-stealing percentage.
INF Ryan Roberts (R)
Errorless in 225 chances at second base, but made nine in 197 at third.
INF Sean Rodriguez (R)
Has gone to 0-2 count in 1 of every 4.5 career PAs, reaching base in only 1 of 5 when he does.
C Jose Lobaton (S)
Only player ever to be married at home plate at Tropicana Field (last July 2).
1B/OF Shelley Duncan (R)
Will be the primary DH against left-handed pitching.
2B/OF Kelly Johnson (L)
Hit .201 vs. lefties last season, but carries a .274 career average against southpaws.
LH David Price
33–11 in career vs. AL East teams, including 10–2 with a 2.51 ERA in 2012.
RH Jeremy Hellickson
With runners in scoring position, OPS is .083 lower and HR rate about half as in other situations.
LH Matt Moore
Induced swing-and-miss on 11.8 percent of pitches — tied for second in AL.
RH Alex Cobb
ERA would have been 3.22 if his two eight-run stinkers were thrown out.
RH Jeff Niemann
Holds foes to .236 average first two times through order in career, but .284 thereafter.
RH Fernando Rodney (Closer)
MLB relief-record 0.60 ERA was 0.98 lower than any other in 2012 AL (min. 50 innings).
RH Joel Peralta
Has appeared in the most games (147) of AL hurlers the last two years.
LH Jake McGee
At 95.7 mph, unleashed fastest average heater (min. 50 innings) of AL lefty relievers.
RH Kyle Farnsworth
In roughly the same number of plate appearances, he allowed a .088 average in August, .364 in September.
LH Cesar Ramos
Held Triple-A lefties to .125 AVG and big-league righties to .130.
RH Roberto Hernandez
Won 32 games with a 3.41 ERA in his two best seasons with Indians.
The Toronto Blue Jays acted boldly in the offseason to snap out of the relentless mediocrity that has characterized the franchise for almost 20 years. They raided the NL East, acquiring Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle from the downsizing Marlins and Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the rebuilding Mets. They also signed Melky Cabrera despite his suspension for his positive test for testosterone, and re-hired a former Jays manager, John Gibbons, who already understands the local culture. It won’t be easy in the always-treacherous AL East, but it’s reasonable to expect Toronto to find its way back to the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1992 and 1993.
The Blue Jays’ rotation had a 4.82 earned run average last year, ranking 25th in the majors. It underwent a drastic renovation in the offseason, with trades for Dickey, Johnson and Buehrle. The Jays signed Dickey to a contract extension through 2015, betting on a knuckleball that has baffled hitters for three years and earned Dickey the NL Cy Young Award. Dickey is 38, but his career is ascending as he masters the finicky pitch, which he throws hard and controls with uncanny precision. Johnson pitched better than his record indicated and made it through the season after losing much of 2011 to shoulder trouble. He’s still in his prime and should be stronger now, and he will be unfamiliar to many AL hitters. Buehrle, the longtime White Sox mainstay, is no secret, but it’s hard to find a more consistent, dependable pro. Brandon Morrow was on his way to a long-awaited breakthrough season before losing more than two months to an oblique injury, but on his best days his stuff can match anyone’s. The biggest question is Ricky Romero, who seemed to be growing into a force at the top of the rotation before regressing badly last season. The restocked Jays won’t ask too much of Romero, their Opening Day starter the last two seasons, but if he can find his way back to at least being league-average, he’ll help a lot.
The Jays thought they had their closer of the future in Sergio Santos, the former position player who saved 30 games for the White Sox in 2011. But Santos saved only two for Toronto before needing shoulder surgery, and he returns to find his job taken by the veteran Casey Janssen — who also had a damaged shoulder. Janssen pitched a full season but had an operation in late November to shave down a small portion of his clavicle to relieve soreness. It was said to be minor surgery, but shoulder trouble is never a good sign. If healthy, though, Santos and Janssen would form the back end of the bullpen, supported by two lefties — one old (Darren Oliver) and one young (Aaron Loup) — and an intriguing group of righties including Esmil Rogers, Brad Lincoln and Steve Delabar. Rogers blossomed for the Indians last season after never quite figuring out Colorado, fanning 54 in 53 innings, while Delabar also showed strikeout stuff after midseason trades to Toronto.
Maicer Izturis signed a three-year, $10 million contract with Toronto in early November, a move that added a nice, versatile player to the infield mix. Soon after, though, they added a lot more sizzle, trading for Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio from Miami. Bonifacio hopes to pick up where he left off early last season, when he was successful on his first 20 stolen base attempts. Injuries to his thumb and knee torpedoed his progress, though, and he appeared in only 64 games. Like Izturis, he can play all over the infield, a valuable attribute for a team that plays home games on turf and would like to rest some starters now and then. Reyes, in particular, could benefit from occasional days off the turf, considering his history of hamstring injuries. But he was healthy last season and led the National League in plate appearances with 716. He was not the dynamic force the Marlins wanted him to be, and when they saw a chance to escape the last five years of his six-year, $106 million contract, they took it. In Toronto, Reyes might be in a late-season pennant race for the first time since the Mets’ collapses in 2007 and 2008. He should be energized and, still just 29 years old, can be a sparkplug for a dangerous Jays offense.
Trading two years of Shaun Marcum for the start of Brett Lawrie’s career was a steal for the Blue Jays, who love Lawrie’s background (he’s from British Columbia), his versatile offensive skills, and his defense at third. Forget the 17 errors, which led AL third basemen. By more advanced metrics, Lawrie ranked among the most valuable defensive performers in the game, with exceptional range. He’s battling a rib cage injury this spring, but it doesn’t appear too serious. Across the diamond, the Jays can use Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion, who have enough power to fit the profile for a first baseman. Encarnacion had a monster year last season, with 42 homers and 110 runs batted in, double his total from 2011. The Jays rewarded him with a three-year, $29 million contract extension, a bargain for that production, but a waste if his season was merely an anomaly. That is how Lind’s contract looks now, with three consecutive seasons that have fallen well short of his 2009 breakout. Lind, who was sent to the minors last season after hitting .186 through the end of May, has club options for 2014, 2015 and 2016. He needs to turn things around in a hurry for the Jays to consider retaining him.
Gibbons was the bench coach in Kansas City when Cabrera exploded for 201 hits in 2011. Cabrera was even better for the Giants last season, before his suspension for testosterone raised questions about what kind of player he really is. The Blue Jays are spending $16 million for the next two seasons to find out. They’ll trust that Cabrera can be a dynamic player cleanly. Colby Rasmus clashed with an intense manager in St. Louis (Tony La Russa), and played even worse for another intense manager in Toronto (John Farrell). Gibbons has had run-ins with his own players, but by nature he’s laid-back and affable, and perhaps in that environment Rasmus can unlock the talent that made him a first-round pick out of high school in 2005. On paper, he’s the only weak link in an outfield highlighted by Jose Bautista, the game’s premier power hitter the last few seasons. A wrist problem ruined Bautista’s second half, but as long as the injury has healed, there’s no reason to expect anything other than lots of homers, RBIs and walks, and plenty of screaming drives down the left field line.
The Blue Jays used catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud to land Dickey from the Mets. One reason they were willing to part the rising star is that they believe in J.P. Arencibia, with power by far his best tool. He caught Dickey in the World Baseball Classic, which allowed him to become familiar with the knuckler. Veteran Henry Blanco (yes, he’s still in the league) will be the backup at age 41. He still throws as well as any catcher in the AL.
The Jays can use Encarnacion or Lind as the designated hitter, which is also a convenient place to shift Reyes on occasion and play Izturis at shortstop. Gibbons could also inject speed into the lineup by using Rajai Davis or Anthony Gose, both reserve outfielders, in the DH spot.
GM Alex Anthopoulos constantly chases undervalued talent. It’s a worthwhile strategy, but it only goes so far, and Anthopoulos changed course in November. The industry-rattling acquisition of Reyes, Johnson and Buehrle brought proven performers to the Blue Jays, who are owned by a communications giant — Rogers — and have a nation to themselves. Anthopoulos is savvy and aggressive, and in Gibbons, he picked a manager who knows him and knows Toronto.
Four different AL East teams have reached the playoffs in the last four years, and the Jays are tired of being left out. There are no more excuses. The roster is not perfect, given the injury history of Reyes and Johnson, the declining performance of Rasmus and Romero, and the questionable sustainability of Cabrera’s recent success. But Dickey gives them a legitimate ace and helps make this the most talented Toronto team in more than a decade. All the elements are in place for the first postseason games in Canada since Joe Carter homered off Mitch Williams in 1993.
SS Jose Reyes (S)
Ended lackluster season in Miami by hitting .310 with 11 steals after Sept. 1.
LF Melky Cabrera (S)
Must prove his recent breakout is more than a result of PEDs. He was a gamble worth taking.
RF Jose Bautista (R)
Trade from Pirates for catcher Robinzon Diaz is one of great heists in MLB history.
1B Edwin Encarnacion (R)
Blue Jays need him to show that career year in 2012 (42 home runs, 110 RBIs) was no fluke.
CF Colby Rasmus (L)
OBP tumbled from excellent (.361) to abysmal (.289) in two years; still has the talent to be productive.
3B Brett Lawrie (R)
Hit .319 vs. lefties to lead the Blue Jays in his first full season in the big leagues. A rib cage injury leaves his availability for Opening Day in doubt.
DH Adam Lind (L)
Career peaked in 2009 (.305-35-114); can he come close to that again?
C J.P. Arencibia (R)
Is his decent power enough to offset his low on-base percentage?
2B Emilio Bonifacio (S)
Had .360 OBP and 40 steals as everyday infielder for Marlins in 2011.
IF Maicer Izturis (S)
Veteran started at least 162 career games at second, short and third; will be a valuable reserve.
OF Rajai Davis (R)
Playing time could be scaled back despite 46 steals in ’12; could grab some at-bats as the DH.
C Henry Blanco (R)
The 41-year-old backstop has thrown out 45 percent of base stealers since 2008.
OF Anthony Gose (L)
Former second-round pick must make better contact to take advantage of great speed.
3B Mark DeRosa (R)
The veteran will fill in for the injured Lawrie, then return to utility role.
RH R.A. Dickey
Threw one-hitters last year vs. new AL East rivals Baltimore and Tampa Bay.
RH Josh Johnson
A free agent after the ’12 season, he hopes to reestablish himself as an ace.
LH Mark Buehrle
Gold Glove winner in each of the last four seasons, three with White Sox, one with Marlins.
RH Brandon Morrow
Untouchable when he’s on; in his 10 wins, his ERA was 0.68; could be one of the game’s best No. 4 starters.
LH Ricky Romero
Suffered 13 consecutive losses, with 7.42 ERA, before winning last decision.
RH Casey Janssen (Closer)
Went 22-of-24 in save chances after assuming closer’s role.
RH Sergio Santos
Given closer job in 2012 but made only six appearances before season-ending shoulder surgery.
RH Steve Delabar
12.55 Ks per 9 innings was the best figure in the American League in 2012 (min. 60 innings).
LH Darren Oliver
Posted the lowest ERA (2.06) of his 19-year career in 2012, his first season with the Jays.
RH Esmil Rogers
Had 3.06 ERA for Indians in 44 games after escaping Coors Field.
LH Aaron Loup
Held lefties to .207 average in 33 games after promotion from Class AA.