Wednesday, May 30, 2012

An evening at Fenway: Red Sox 6. Tigers 3

I was lucky enough to get to go to the Red Sox game last night. A friend called last week and said he had extra tickets, which made me excited. Then I found out that Justin Verlander was scheduled to start, which made me even more excited. Then the Red Sox won on Monday, meaning that a win on Tuesday would bring them above .500 for the first time all season, and that made me apprehensive. After all, they'd been .500 six times already, and were 0-6 in games that would put them over the hump. With the seeming mismatch of Daniel Bard vs. Verlander, it seemed like they could be in line to make it 0-7.

Anyhow, my fears were allayed as the Red Sox won. The lessons from the night are that a) you don't pitch against the opposing starting pitcher, you pitch against the opposing team - this is important, because the Red Sox offense is excellent, and the Tigers really stinks, b) David Ortiz is really, really good, once again. 

From our seats up in the right field roof boxes, it was tough to tell how sharp either pitcher was. Verlander didn't get the results he normally does, but his fastball was hard, and it seemed like he had a good changeup. It looked as though the Sox really just did a good job hitting. The same cannot be said of the Tigers, baseball's most disappointing team right now at 23-26. After the signing of Prince Fielder, it looked like they were to be one of the better teams in the game, but they are eighth in the American League in scoring while allowing the fourth most runs in the league. While the pitching should come around - Scherzer is pitching better after his usually early-season troubles, and the rest of the starting rotation seems sound - the offense may be in more trouble. After Cabrera, Fielder and the injured Austin Jackson, they haven't received that much of an offensive contribution elsewhere. Alex Avila was in an awful slump but has brought his slugging percentage back over .400. The bigger issues are the sub .300 OBPs from right-fielder Brennan Boesch and designated hitter Delmon Young, along with the vortex that has been their second base position. Led by Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago (combined -2.1 WAR), Tigers' second sackers are batting .175/.253/.250, which probably has 55-year old Lou Whitaker interested in a comeback. The Tigers have built a pretty deep hole for themselves, and without some upgrades, will not be able to dig out of it.

As far as Ortiz, it's really a treat getting to watch him. My guess is that this won't actually be his last year in Boston, but it could, so I'm glad I got the chance to see him again. Ortiz went 3 for 4 with two doubles and a laser beam home run over the Green Monster. He's been one of the best hitters in the American League this year, and now has 331 home runs in a Red Sox uniform. I'm lucky to have had the chance to see him so many times.

Daniel Bard, who I wrote about this past weekend, had a nice game, though it's hard to say anything definitive. He was generally throwing about 93, where he's been all season, but did seem to have a few more topping out in the 95-96 range. It took him 94 pitches to get through 5.1 innings, and he allowed two home runs after only allowing three in his first nine games. Without Jackson in the lineup, the Tigers lineup wasn't Bard's toughest test, but it was a solid outing.

As far as the experience goes, the game was a blast, as Fenway Park almost always is. We had about a 45 minute rain delay as some pretty crazy thunderstorms moved through in the eighth. After that, it took only about 15 mintues to close out the game. I like the right field roof box seats, which give a nice open view of the field at a reasonable price. It's amazing to walk through and look at the changes made in the 10 years since the new ownership came on. Some of it is obvious to those watching at home, like the Green Monster seats and the roof deck over where the retired numbers are. 

My personal favorite is the concourse and picnic area in what used to be a storage area between the grandstand in the bleachers. It's a wide open area filled with food vendors and maintains the feel of the park, while also fixing what was once the biggest flaw of Fenway - the fact you couldn't walk all the way around it. If you had bleacher tickets, you were stuck either in the bleachers, or the area underneath. Now you can enter in any gate. 

My least favorite improvement is the shutting down of Yawkey Way on game day. It detracts from the whole "downtown ballpark experience" in my view. Part of the fun of having a park in a busy city location is all the people who don't have tickets walking around, enjoying the area - and just living. People who live over on Brookline Ave. or Boylston Street are just there. Now, though, if you want to get around the park on the outside, you have a pretty long route to navigate, making a miserable experience for the neighbors. I agree with closing the street to vehicle traffic, but you shouldn't need a ticket to walk down Yawkey Way.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The development of Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz

Developing players is hard.

It seems like it should be so simple. Draft a guy, move him slowly, but not too slowly, through the minor leagues. In a couple years, they break into the major league rotation. They take their lumps for a couple years, before turning into a front end starting pitcher.

It's a tempting narrative, and it happens - C.C. Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw. All high draft picks, all with somewhat fast trips through the minors, all with some struggles when they first came up, and all, now, with Cy Young Awards. We see the 2011 draft giving us a truly incredible amount of pitching talent: Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy (who still hasn't given up a run) went in the top 4. Other first rounders like Jose Hernandez, Matt Barnes and Tyler Anderson are all pitching incredibly well. All of their teams - and the fans of these teams - are beaming, thinking of their shiny new 2015 Opening Day starter.

And that's ok - it's fun to dream about the new toy. That's why we spend so my time on prospect manuals, studying the draft, comparing an incredible number of lists. We wait breathlessly for those "Top 100" Lists that come out every preseason, especially the ones from the guys who really do know who and what they're talking about - Keith Law, Jim Callis, John Sickels, and the Baseball Prospectus Team.

Sometimes players become stars, and everyone is happy. Sometimes they bust, and we chuckle years later about how Andy Yount was going to save the Red Sox. There are a lot of guys in between, though, and they're the hard ones to deal with. Kerry Wood retired this week, and Joe Posnanski had a wonderful retrospective on appreciating Wood for what he was, rather than what we hoped he could become. They just had Pat Burrell Day in Philadelphia, which seems strange because he spent his entire time in Philadelphia failing to live up to the unreasonable expectations fans had built up for him.

That brings us to Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard. Buchholz was the third of five first rounders selected by the Red Sox in 2005. Bard was the second of four first rounders the Sox took in 2006. Both were top prospects in the Red Sox system, both have had success in the major leagues, both are in the Red Sox starting rotation, and both are pitching not all that well.

The Red Sox, through last season, had accumulated more value from their draft picks since 2002 than any other organization, per this article in Fangraphs. So it seems incorrect to draw the conclusion that the Red Sox are simply incompetent. So, something else is going on here. Let's dig into both pitchers individually.

I'll start with Bard. I've written many times in this space that the best place for a team to find starting pitching help may be its own bullpen, and that pitchers who perform well in the bullpen are also likely to do so as starters. While I believe this to be true, it is also an oversimplification. The reason many successful relief pitchers turn into successful starters is because they were successful starters in the minors before being put in the bullpen to fill a need at the major league level. Derek Lowe, C.J. Wilson, Chris Sale, Neftali Feliz... all successful minor league starters.

Daniel Bard was never a successful minor league starter.

That is a big deal. I don't write it because I believe it makes him unable to transfer to the rotation, but it means he never adjusted to the way a starter pitches in the major leagues. Whenever we talk about a pitcher transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation, we talk about the pitcher learning to pace himself.  While that's part of the transition, that's an entirely incomplete description - it is not as though a pitcher just needs to throw a little bit slower, giving him the endurance to pitch for a longer time. A pitcher also needs to learn to cycle in his pitches, keep repeating his mechanics, set up batters not only for later pitches in the at-bat but for later at-bats within the game. Daniel Bard never learned to do that in the minor leagues. He came into games, threw close to 100 miles an hour, and occassionally made batters look silly with his slider and change-up, got between one and six outs, and hit the showers. It's certainly not as easy as that last sentence would have you believe, but he'd never learned to start in professional ball.

When Bard was drafted in 2006, he was a starting pitcher at the University of North Carolina. The #2 starter there, in fact, behind #7 overall pick and current teammate Andrew Miller. Though he struggled some with his control in college, his stuff and general results were excellent, and the Red Sox, already with one of the better minor league systems on the strength of that 2005 class, could afford a higher-risk guy like Bard. Bard also interviewed quite well, a bright guy and a real student of the game.

Because he pitched in the College World Series, the Sox decided not to have Bard pitch in 2006, instead waiting until 2007 to debut him at High-A Lancaster. In hindsight, the high-powered offensive environment of Lancaster might have been a poor fit for a guy like Bard to begin his career. He made five starts, pitching only 13.1 innings, compiling a 10.12 ERA, walking 22 batters and striking out 9. (That is not a misprint - he struck out less than half as many people as he walked). Bard was so bad that the Red Sox have not, to my knowledge, debuted a pitcher in High-A since then, even though they have long since left Lancaster for Salem, NC. He was placed on the disabled list at the beginning of May, and essentially given a month off to get his head straight before beginning June in Greenville. His results were little better: Bard made 17 starts, pitching only 61.2 innings with a 6.42 ERA, walking 56 and striking out 38.

The Red Sox converted him to a reliever and sent him to the Hawaii Winter League. He immediately turned things around, winning his Winter League's player of the year honor, then tearing through the minors. In 57 games at Greenville, Portland and Pawtucket from April 2008 through May 2009, Bard threw 93.2 innings, compiled a 1.44 ERA, allowed only 48 hits, walked 35 and struck out 136(!!!), earning a call-up to the majors, for good, on May 10. 

From then until the end of last year, he was a reliever, and generally an excellent one. He compiled a 2.88 ERA in 197.0 innings pitched, striking out 213, walking 76, and allowing 16 home runs - essentially spreading C.J Wilson's 2011 season over three years. Like just about every Boston pitcher, Bard ended 2011 poorly, but the common thought was that he would replace Jonathan Papelbon as the club's closer in 2012. Instead, Bard let the front office know that he was interested in trying to start, and the club, hoping to maximize his value, was inclined to give him that shot. (Seeing the difference between the contracts signed by Jonathan Papelbon and C.J. Wilson probably did little to deter Bard from believing that a move to the rotation was worth trying out).

So far in 2012, Bard's results have been uneven. Through nine games (eight starts) he has a 4.69 ERA in 48 innings. He's allowed 46 hits, and only 3 home runs, which are both encouraging numbers. On the other hand, he's walked 29 and struck out 28. A drop in strikeout rate is expected on some level, but usually the "rule of 17 applies" - strikeout rate usually drops about 17% in a move from the bullpen to the rotation - but Bard's has fallen off by over 40%. .Meanwhile, the increase in his walk rate goes back to the second half of last year. The confluence of the two has resulted in fears that even that mediocre 4.69 ERA is unsustainable - his FIP is 4.77, and his xFIP measures 5.22.

While those are numbers appear frustrating from someone who was a dominant reliever, they are quite impressive considering that he was never a successful starting pitcher in the minor leagues. Bard is still learning how to start, and patience is necessary. The difference between what starters and relievers get paid is appropriate - starters face three times as many batters, and when dominant can essentially win or lose games on their own. If Bard can be even a #3 starter, he'll be more valuable than the very good reliever he was.

The question then becomes whether Bard can get there while pitching in the major leagues. With options remaining, should Bard be getting his feel for starting down in Triple-A Pawtucket? In order to get a feel for cycling all his pitches while becoming comfortable with his mechanics as a starter, perhaps he needs to overmatch a few Triple-A hitters. If Bard is committed to the idea of being a stater long-term, would he be willing to sacrifice two to three months of service time in order to experience some sustained success as a starter?


Clay Buchholz is a much more difficult situation. Unlike Bard, Buchholz has obviously been a successful starting pitcher - not just as a professional, but in the major leagues. Everyone remembers his no-hitter in 2007, but his excellent 2010 season, where he had a 2.33 ERA and allowed only 9 home runs all year seems almost a mirage. He was solid last season, with a 3.48 ERA before being shut down for the season in June with a stress fracture in his back. Upon his return this year, something is quite obviously wrong - whether he isn't healthy, has lost his mechanics, or his confidence is shot, through 9 starts Buchholz has 7.84 ERA, worst among qualifiers in the major leagues. In 49.1 innings, he has allowed 67 hits, 11 of which have been home runs. He's walked 27 and struck out 27. His curveball has been flat, his fastball slow, a terrible combination.

Buchholz starts today against the Tampa Bay Rays, and another bad start will lead to some serious decisions. Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched very well yesterday in rehab start with Pawtucket, allowing only 1 hit and 1 walk in 5.0 innings. Ross Ohlendorf has a June 1 opt-out clause, and while he hasn't been fantastic with the PawSox, his 4.07 ERA and BB/9 rate under 2.5 look awfully inviting compared to Buchholz's struggles. Buchholz has not looked at all like a major league pitcher, and with an option remaining, woud he, like Bard, be a candidate for a demotion?

Unlike Bard, I think the decision here is more clear cut. Buchholz has been in this position before. After a terrible 2008 season, Buchholz began 2009 in the minor leagues. He worked closely with Rich Sauveur (the Pawtucket pitching coach) on rebuilding his delivery as well as his pregame preparation. If Sauveur can work his magic again, Buchholz and the Red Sox will both be better off. Unless he pitches well today, I would not be surprised to see the Boston front office send a pitcher - who only two years ago finished sixth for the Cy Young Award - back to the minor leagues.

Tying the question back to player development - is this a failure of the Red Sox? I don't believe so. While the Red Sox development of players is impressive, it hasn't been perfect - Craig Hansen was developed terribly, in one especially memorable example. Buchholz, though, doesn't resemble Hansen at all. In the case of Buchholz, in order to criticize the Red Sox, one would have to identify what they've done wrong. Specifically. Short of such evidence, the organization has earned the benefit of the doubt. Buchholz has proven to be a difficult guy to develop, and it's just as possible that another organization wouldn't have gotten nearly as much of a contribution as the Red Sox have from him.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lew Ford signs with the Orioles!

Lew Ford, who played in parts of five seasons with the Twins and finished 24th in the 2004 MVP voting, has been signed to a minor league contract by the Baltimore Orioles and assigned to their Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk. Ford had been with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League since the start of last season, consistently among the league leaders. Since leaving the Twins after the 2007 season, he'd also spent some time in the Colorado Rockies organization, Oaxaca of the Mexican League, and the Hanshin Tigers of NPB.

Ford has long been a personal favorite, and not just because he was drafted by the Red Sox and then dealt by Dan Duquette for Hector Carrasco in one of a series of ridiculous moves where Duquette emptied the Red Sox minor league system in 2001 and 2000 for average-ish major leaguers (see also Matt Kinney and Chris Reitsma). Ford became a favorite of mine in the spring of 2003, when he was the leadoff hitter for the Rochester Red Wings. As a senior in college that year, I had a parking space, and a car to put into that parking space. That car was used to take me to just about every Red Wings game in April and May of that year at Frontier Field.

Note: Frontier Field is an awesome baseball stadium. I've been to about a half-dozen minor league parks, and Frontier is by far my favorite, with all due respect to LeLacheur Park in Lowell. If you ever find yourself in Rochester for any reason, catch a Red Wings game.

Anyhow, every time Ford was announced, my friends and I, who were occassionally fairly alone in the $5 seats, would give him a long LLEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWW cheer. Regularly batting second was Luis Rodriguez, who got a cheer of LLUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU-IIIS. It was not, of course, especially creative, but we were having fun. Ford seemed like a good guy, and played very well for the Red Wings, leading me to buy a #20 Ford t-shirt when he was called up to the Twins, a shirt I wore proudly when he had his best season the next year.

In today's game against the Pawtucket Red Sox, Ford went 3 for 5 with 2 doubles and 2 RBI, leading Norfolk to the 6-3 win, and he now sits at .500/.571/.667 after his first three games. At the very least, he provides some depth to the Orioles system, something they need with Nolan Reimold out longer than initially anticipated with a herniated disk. If Ford continues to play well, he could find himself next in line for a recall. If not, though, I'll at least be able to dust off that #20 Twins shirt and scream LLEEEEEWWW from the cheap seats.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Johan Santana gets first win since 2010

Johan Santana hasn't had very good luck the last few years.

First, he lost the 2005 Cy Young Award to Bartolo Colon in what was probably the last year that voters for that category cared about pitcher wins. With all the criticism of the BBWAA over the past several years for their award voting, they made Zack Greinke the Cy Young Award winner in 2009, Felix Hernandez in 2010. That shift has happened, and if the 2005 Awards were voted today, I have no doubt that Santana would win - possibly unanimously.

Second, he got traded to the Mets. Seriously, that's more bad luck than any individual deserves.What's worse, he seems to get a lot of the blame as the Mets have spent the past several seasons as a bit of an embarrassment. With that in mind, I'm going to make a semi-controversial statement:

Trading for Johan Santana was one of the best deals in Mets' franchise history.

Ok, that seems nuts. He's costing them a ton of money, and the Mets haven't done anything for years. So let me explain in a bit more depth.

First off, the Mets traded NOTHING of value to get Santana. As I've discussed in this space, Bill Smith got absolutely fleeced trading the best pitcher alive. Perhaps you would argue that the Mets don't deserve any credit for ripping off Bill Smith, since that seems to have been a general trend of the past several years, and I would grant you that point. Still, every other team out there had a chance to rip of Smith - the Mets stepped up and got it done. 

Second, Santana has been very good on the Mets. Not as good as he was from 2004 to 2007 with the Twins, but still, quite good. He's now appeared in 94 games with the Mets, In 631.0 innings, he has a 2.84 ERA, good for a 143 ERA+. For comparison, he had a 141 ERA+ with the Twins. That includes the 2000 and 2001 season where Santana worked as a reliever and wasn't good yet, but the idea that Santana has been a significantly worse pitcher with the Mets than they expected is just not correct. His peripherals have remained strong as well, with 530 strikeouts against 176 walks, putting him with a K/BB ratio just over 3.0. He's also given up slightly under a home run per 9 innings. 

After missing the entire 2011 season, Santana has pitched effectively in his first six starts of this season. He has allowed more than 1 run only twice, and now has three consecutive quality starts. He should have won his first game before Saturday, but don't forget, he pitches for the Mets. At a 9.87 K/9 rate and 2.61 ERA, and only 1 home run allowed, he is pitching like an ace. Of course,  he's pitched like an ace for a long time. Maybe he hasn't always been healthy, but he's pretty much always been very good.

The question now turns to what is next. Santana is owed roughly $46 million more over the next season and three-quarters. That's elite pitcher money, and while he looks like an elite pitcher so far this year, he still missed the entire 2011 season with a right shoulder injury. He's become the personification of high-risk/high-reward - he could be the best pitcher on a championship team, or he could break.

I do believe that Santana will be traded. The Mets are not going to compete this year, and probably will not next year. The Mets need to begin rebuilding their organization in earnest, and the Alderson/DePodesta team inspires much more confidence than previous regimes. As far as destination spots, the usual suspects are there. The Red Sox and Yankees both have miserable starting pitching, and may be willing to take on his contract. However, I'm going to suggest that Santana ends up with a less likely suitor in the same division: the Toronto Blue Jays. 

The Blue Jays, who lost out in their pursuit of Yu Darvish, have the money to spend, and the prospects to deal. They have a significant interest in making a deal as well - with a second wild card added, it's hard to picture the Jays being out of contention. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow have pitched well, but adding a top starter would really make them a serious contender. They play excellent defense and have significant power. Jose Bautista will NOT have a .177 BABIP this season (correcting his BABIP up to .304 would give him a season line of .279/.391/.452). Furthermore, unlike the Yankees and Red Sox, selling out the Skydome can be a goal for the Jays in this playoff-starved city. With the Raptors an afterthought, and a Maple Leafs team that locals would love an excuse to not think about for a summer, the Toronto sports scene is ripe for the plucking. Usually I'm against deals meant to "create excitement" but the advantage here is higher than usual. A move would send a clear sign that this Blue Jays team is not content to play for third place.

Alex Anthropoulos has gained a reputation as a shrewd GM, Mike Napoli for Frank Francisco aside. The Mets would not be able to rip him off. However, Anthropoulos also doesn't seem to be scared of taking a risk. Santana would seem like a sensible one. 

As far as the Mets are concerned, they may be able to get a better haul for Santana in 2012 than Omar Minaya gave up for him after the 2007. Read that last sentence again, and you'll probably understand why the Twins stink right now.

SoxProspects: Cup of Coffee: Anderson, Ciriaco lead PawSox over Pettitte

5/7 Cup of Coffee: Pawtucket knocked around a rehabbing Andy Pettitte, Portland's pitching shut down New Britain, and a balanced attack led Greenville over Rome. Defensive miscues were Salem's downfall in the only loss of the afternoon.

Friday, May 04, 2012

What do we know?

Welcome back! I apologize for the negligence in posting regularly - I just finished up my first year of graduate school, so posting here was lower on the priority list. It's disappointing though, because we had a pretty exciting first month of the baseball season. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout have been called up, probably for good. Jered Weaver has thrown a no-hitter, and Phil Humber a perfect game. The Rays and Rangers have emerged (unsurprisingly, especially in the Rangers' case) as teams that appear elite. Matt Kemp may now be the best player in baseball - a subject that deserves attention in more detail further down the road.

Today, I just want to go into some of the stuff we now know. It's easy to make overly rash judgments based on a month of games, but in truth, the first month usually IS a good indicator of things to come. Sure, people read too much into flukes and slumps, but there are some things that it's ok to read into. So, a month in to the 2012 season, here is some stuff I think I know.

Note: SOMETHING on this list will turn out laughably wrong, and will be saved on the internet forever. I have no idea what that is. If I did, I wouldn't write it. Just keep that in mind. 

1. If Stephen Strasburg is healthy, he is really, really good.
Strasburg has now thrown 124.0 innings as a major leaguer. He has a 2.18 ERA, 150 strikeouts, and 25 walks. He has now gone 64.1 innings since allowing his last home run. It's too early in the season for WAR to be truly meaningful, but his is 2.5 according to Baseball-Reference, best in all of baseball. If you've gotten the chance to watch him pitch, it's easy to see why - his fastball, overhand curve and changeup give him three pitches that are better than just about any other pitcher's best. He's a pitching freak, and for baseball's sake, I hope he stays healthy. If you believe in the whole "Inverted-W" mechanics being a major flaw, then you have reason to be worried. All the more reason to enjoy him now.

2. Mark Prior just signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox.
This, of course, is why we need to enjoy Strasburg now. Mark Prior, sadly, is now THE cautionary tale of phenom pitchers who broke down. The thing is, nobody can say for certain why Prior broke down - was it his mechanics, was it his overuse, was it just because some pitchers break? He will apparently pitch out of the bullpen in his attempt to work his way back up to the Sox.

3. Yu Darvish looks really quite good. 
One of the reasons the Rangers have emerged over the past three years as one of the best organizations in baseball is their pitching. With that in mind, this was the best possible place for Darvish to land. Through his first five starts, Darvish is 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA, with 33 strikeouts and 17 walks in 33.0 innings pitched. That walk total a little high for you? In his last two starts, against the Blue Jays and Yankees, he has pitched 15.1 innings, striking out 19 while walking 4, allowing just 1 run. Those two teams are third and fourth in the American League in walks, by the way, so it's not like he's pitching to a bunch of free swingers. He's settling in. Don't panic if there are adjustments to be made down the line, but Darvish looks, early on, like an ace.

4. The best place to find starting pitching may be your own bullpen. The Texas Rangers can be thanked for this.
It makes sense, doesn't it? Almost every successful major league pitcher comes up through the minors as a starter. There's an occasional college closer, sure, but usually players are put into relief because of a need. If this were 2007, Neftali Feliz, Daniel Bard, Chris Sale and Lance Lynn would likely all be in the bullpen (the first three, without question).  Lynn and Sale have been fantastic in the rotation, while Feliz and Bard have had more mixed reviews. The upside here clearly outmatches the downside, though. Suppose Feliz continues to walk a few too many people. The Rangers can send him back to the pen - they'll have a valuable reliever, and can take comfort in knowing they are getting the maximum value out of him. Compare that to  the Red Sox usage of Jonathan Papelbon, who likely would have turned into an excellent starter (and made himself twice as much money as a free agent), and relieved several of the depth issues the Sox had in their rotation between 2008 and 2011. So, while the infuriating closer usage patterns that developed in the late 1980's have not yet passed on, teams have finally re-identified the relative value of starting pitchers vs. relief pitchers.

This, which I will post in greater depth at a later date, is what Moneyball was supposed to be about. The point wasn't that college players and OBP were good - it was that they were undervalued. After the A's won in the early 00's, the market adjusted. Teams drafted smarter (a trend clearly visible if you look at the performance of first rounders in recent years compared to 15 years prior), and valued guys who didn't make outs. The Rangers are the team that exploited the next inefficiency, which was reliever usage. With C.J. Wilson, Alexi Ogando and now Neftali Feliz, they have found what had been an inefficiency, to free up the money to sign players like Darvish and Adrian Beltre. Keep an eye on relief phenom Robbie Ross, who could be in the Rangers 2013 rotation.

5. Free Alexi Ogando
An addendum to the previous paragraphs. After an solid year in the rotation last year, the Rangers have moved Ogando back to the bullpen. Not necessarily because they think he can't start, but because they think they have five better starters. They may be right about that. The Rangers sixth starter would be a top three starter on most teams, and the #1 on a couple. To his credit, instead of sulking in the pen, he has been marvelous. 12.2 innings pitched, 5 hits, 1 run allowed, no walks, 12 strikeouts. It would be possible to see him moved in a deal for a slugging first baseman if one were to become available, but there's no obvious counterpart out there.

6. Matt Wieters is breaking out
After enormous expectations on him as a rookie in 2009, his three year line of .265/.328/.415 with solid defense at catcher (8.3 WAR over the three years, according to B-Ref) was considered a disappointment. The expectations had become something of a curse, making it hard to enjoy the fact that Wieters had become one of the ten best catchers in the game. While 22 games isn't enough to say he's made the leap, it's impossible not to be impressed with a .303/.391/.618 line

7. No Pujols, No Carpenter, No Problem
I was among the many who thought the Cardinals would struggle this year, especially after hearing that Carpenter was having disc problems. Instead, they have baseball's best run differential, and the best record in the National League. Can they keep it up? Well, Lance Lynn and David Freese might be emerging stars, but I'm fairly confident that Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Jon Jay are playing way over thier heads. I'm also not confident in Carlos Beltran's ability to stay healthy. On the other hand, Lance Berkman has appeared in only 7 games, and Adam Wainwright has struggled after coming back from Tommy John surgery. If Wainwright puts it together (and his strikeout and walk numbers indicate that he will), and one of the Berkman/Beltran duo can stay healthy at a time (debatable), the Cardinals should, at worst, be competing with the Reds and potentially the Brewers.

8. Alex Rodriguez is no longer an elite player
Say it over and over. Repeat it every time you hear an announcer talk about how feared he is. Think about it especially hard when, for the next few spring trainings, we hear stories about how the guy is in "the best shape of his life." I hate to keep beating up on the guy (HA - don't believe that for a second, I enjoy it with every fiber of my being... ahem), but his OPS has crawled steadily downward for six years now. The fact that every home run he hits gets replayed on SportsCenter makes it seem like he has more than the 4 he does right now. Among 95 AL qualifiers, he is 48th in slugging, one point behind Alcides Escobar. I'm very skeptical at this point that he'll break Bonds' record of 762. Even if he stays healthy, a big if, I don't see him cracking 700 until mid 2014 at the earliest. Fortunately for the rest of baseball, he IS quite likely to get to 660, costing the Yankees a whole ton of money over the next six years.