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The Rocky Rockies

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If there was a team in the league that you would least expect to have a no-hitter thrown against them, it would be the Colorado Rockies. As a team they lead the majors in batting average and slugging percentage and they rank third in on-base percentage behind the Athletics and Pirates. They’re second in homers, second in runs scored and they lead the league in BABIP, which means they’ve been so good when putting the ball in play that they’re bound to regress at some point.

And yet, there was Clayton Kershaw making them look silly on Wednesday night, striking them out 15 times en route to his first career no-hitter, which would have been a perfect game were it not for an error by Hanley Ramirez. Of course, Kershaw makes almost everybody look silly, but Colorado’s rare sputtering on offense was indicative of a team that has been derailed by injuries and of a ballclub that just can’t seem to strike a proper balance between a dominant offense and a dormant pitching staff.

Colorado has gotten off to an exciting start offensively thanks to the MVP-caliber play from Troy Tulowitzki, more consistent brilliance from second year third baseman Nolan Arenado, a surprisingly great start from Charlie Blackmon and and strong mixed and match contributions from outfielders Corey Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, Michael Cuddyer and Brandon Barnes.

Franchise cornerstone Carlos Gonzalez has had the worst start of any Rockie offensively – batting just .255 with a .307 on-base percentage in about 200 at-bats before going on the DL – and it hasn’t mattered because just about everybody that Walt Weiss has put in the line-up has been able to hit around or better than .300 and get on base at a solid clip.

But even with their stellar collective efforts offensively, the Rockies sit nine games back of the first place Giants and, at four games under .500, they will also have to contend with the Dodgers should they ever put things together to make a run towards the top of the division. And that’s because Colorado is totally lacking effective and consistent options on the mound.

lyles
Jordan Lyles was off to a great start as a Rockie before breaking his hand.

Jordan Lyles, a talented 23-year old whom the Rockies acquired from the Astros along with Barnes in the Dexter Fowler deal, has been their best arm. He’s got a solid 3.87 FIP and he’s got the second lowest flyball rate in the league at 21.2%, which is vital for a pitcher that calls Coors Field home. But, as a symbol of the Rockies luck this season, Lyles broke his hand two weeks ago and is currently on the disabled list.

Lyles’ injury, as well as the putrid performance of Franklin Morales, led to the promotion of top prospect Eddie Butler from Double-A. Not only did Butler’s major league career get off to a rocky start on the hill – giving up 10 hits and six earned runs to the Dodgers in his big league debut – he also experienced some shoulder inflammation and has since landed on the DL.

Colorado had little production from any of their starters before Lyles went down and things have only gotten worse since. After a strong 2013 campaign, Jorge de la Rosa has had his walk and homerun rates rise significantly and his FIP has gone from above average a season ago to a horrid 4.80 mark this season. Just about all that is left for the Rockies on the mound is rookie Tyler Matzek, who has looked good in his first two big league starts.

Lyles great start gave the Rockies’ pitching staff hope, but his injury combined with De La Rosa’s surprising struggles has led Weiss to search for any kind of fix for his rotation, and the answers don’t seem to be presenting themselves. It would appear as if this is destined to be a down year for Colorado meant for their young arms to gain some experience going forward.

But their offense is so good that calling this a rebuilding year at this point would be premature. It’s quite clear that Colorado’s pitching staff can’t continue to put up what has been the league’s worst FIP by a wide margin over Baltimore, but if they can manage to trend upward ever so slightly, there’s hope for this team to make some noise, because Troy Tulowitzki is in the midst of what may end up being the banner season of his tremendous career.

It’s somewhat ironic that Tulo, who has had a troubling history of injuries, is having his best year ever during a season in which the rest of his teammates are dropping like flies, but the Rockies are still hanging around in the NL West by virtue of his glorious bat. Through 69 games, Tulowitzki has an ungodly .356/.445/.653 slashline, he’s hit 18 homers, putting him on pace to smash his career high of 32 homers set back in 2009, he’s driven in 45 runs and he’s got some of the best defensive numbers of his career.

Across the board, just about the only guys that keep company with Tulowitzki numbers wise are Mike Trout and Yasiel Puig, and he tops them in most categories. Tulowitzki currently leads the league in all three slash categories (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage), he has the top weighted on-base average in the league – and if he keeps up the pace, his wOBA of .467 will be the best the league has seen since Barry Bonds’ cartoonish .537 mark in 2004 – and Tulo also leads the league in weight runs created.

Even with Arenando and Cuddyer on the DL, the Rockies have been able to sustain at the plate, Kershaw’s near perfect game notwithstanding, because Tulowitzki spearheads a group of exceptional contact hitters.

Blackmon’s awesome season, which started with that ridiculous 6-for-6, five RBI, four run, four extra-base hit (three doubles and a homer) way back in the first week of the season, has given the Rockies another .300 hitter with pop. He’s sitting at 12 homers and 44 RBIs right now, second on the team in both categories, on top of a team high 12 steals. And guys like Dickerson, Stubbs and Barnes sprinkle the ball across the field whenever they’re called into action.

The Rockies have always been a fun offensive team to follow because of their home ballpark, but this season they’ve actually compiled a pretty complete set of hitters that hit well for contact and power and get on base efficiently. Unfortunately, their poor pitching staff has put them in a hole in what has been a competitive division over the years. It’s tough to see a miracle emerging from the mound, but if the Rockies can get any sort of improvement from their starting rotation, Tulowitzki seems poised to carry his team to the post-season.

Taking A Chance

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On September 29th, the final day of the 2013 MLB regular season, the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to have more wins than losses. Disregarding the infinitesimal chance that the Pirates undergo a colossal collapse for the second season in a row, there’s a strong chance the the Pirates are going to play more than 182 games this season.

It’s hard to explain how much that means for this franchise, a downtrodden punching bag whose last winning season came before I was born. Even last season, when the Pirates were on pace for their first winning season in over a decade before having a 5-18 stretch in September, Pittsburgh couldn’t climb above fourth in the NL Central.

Now that the Pirates can practically feel the brisk October chill flowing off the Allegheny, management has made a risky move to help firm up the roster heading into the post-season. In acquiring veterans Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the New York Mets, they’ve offered up 19-year old middle infield prospect Dilson Herrera.

What’s particularly interesting about this move is not so much the players involved – a pair of solid veterans and a well-regarded prospect – nor the effect that each party will have on their new ballclubs (although I suspect both sides will be happy with the deal in the short-term) but rather the idea of going for “it” whenever “it” is in sight. Herrera is not going to be the next Mike Trout or Manny Machado, so to some extent this is not the perfect illustration of a team sacrificing it’s future for immediate results, but it is fair to question why a team would trade an intriguing young player for a pair of older, more experienced guys, one of which will likely be nothing more than a back-up catcher.

Last season we saw a team take the opposite stance, albeit in a different context. The Washington Nationals decided that their organization would be better off in the longrun if they shut Stephen Strasburg down for the season in August. On the day after Strasburg’s last start of 2012, the Nationals were six and a half games up on the Braves in the NL East and were a sure bet to make the post-season. Even knowing that, the Nationals, an expansion franchise that had been one of the worst teams in baseball since they moved to the states and had the most electric young pitcher/hitter duo in the league between Strasburg and Bryce Harper, decided to take the overly cautious route.

One year later, the Nationals currently sit 13 games back of the Braves in their division with no hope of a wildcard birth. They wagered on their team being able to become a perennial playoff participant when they sat Strasburg, and they’ve lost the bet this season. Of course, we are just one year removed from the decision, and in the macro the decision to spare Strasburg’s arm a month of work may payoff somehow.

Or, more likely, fewer miles on Strasburg’s odometer won’t have any affect on his ability to perform in the future. As we continue to learn each time a pitcher tears a ligament, there is almost nothing that can be done to prevent it. Could Strasburg have blew out his elbow on August 30th of 2012, thus costing the Nationals a full year of service from their ace? Of course, but ligament damage is either going to happen or it’s not. Would it have been ill-timed for Strasburg to hurt himself then? Yes, but his risk was no higher that it has been any time he’s been on the mound this season. Washington made unnecessary preparations for something that could have happened, and it cost them an extremely rare opportunity to compete for a championship.

The game of baseball has an inherent challenge that few other professional sports do: it incorporates a minor league system in which the 30 major league teams have complete control over the development of their prospects. Thus, there is an added layer of strategy that must be factored in when building a team that regards to what the franchise will look like years down the line. While it’s important for teams to do their best to strike a balance between finding productive major league players and stocking their system with assets that project to take their place, it’s not a perfect science, and it’s heavily dependent on context.

In the case of the Pirates, they are a team that has been scratching and clawing at relevancy for as long as I’ve been alive, and they’ve finally built a team that is on the cusp of contending for it all. Herrera may turn out to be one of the best second basemen in the league someday, but right now he is an unknown, a question mark in a farm system full of them. What is not a question is that the Pirates are one of the best teams in baseball, one with a narrow gap separating them from a trip to the World Series, a gap that could be filled by someone like Byrd or Buck.

So, when you are presented with a chance to accomplish the ultimate goal of the sport, you have to be willing to deal with the unknown, whether that means taking the reigns off of your staff ace or trading away one of your better prospects. The tradeoff may mortage your future, but there’s no way of guaranteeing that the Pirates will ever have this good of a chance to win it all again.

Rangers Finding A New Way

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I remember sitting back as the Rangers started off last season 13-3, with an 8-1 record on the road and a locomotive offense that putting up close to six runs a game, and thinking about how little that blazing hot start could mean in the long run. I had been through the historical stretches of offensive domination before, only to see it all fade away at the end of the year. To be clear, Texas’ offense was consistently brilliant, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around a third straight trip to the World Series given all that has to go right for a team to get that far just once, much less three times in a row.

When Texas started struggling down the stretch last year, you could tell that the team had lost it’s way. If a collapse wasn’t evident in the boxscore each night, it was easy to see disintegration in the body language of the players. When Oakland finished off their incredible surge to take the division title from Texas on the final day of the season, just about every Ranger walked off the field hanging their heads, and their season wasn’t even over yet.

Last year’s demoralizing finish set into motion a fundamental change to the Rangers’ roster. It started with Josh Hamilton going to the Angels, which turned out to be a blessing disguise, and ended with the Rangers choosing not to make a major move involving Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar that would have netted them a major slugger to fill Hamilton’s void. Instead, the Rangers decided to make smaller moves to secure role players and solid starters. They didn’t overreact to the losses of Hamilton and Mike Napoli and instead kept their foundation of young, versatile players together, with the exception of trading Mike Olt for Matt Garza at the trade deadline.

This has left the Rangers with a team less reliant on the longball and more dependent on their contact hitters and loaded pitching staff. The Rangers may well end up with the same amount of homeruns as they had last year, but the overwhelming majority of their longballs came in the first half of the season, which was back when Nelson Cruz (and Lance Berkman) were playing regularly. Now Texas only has one player carrying a substantial load on offense from a power perspective, and the result has been a more balanced offense than we saw in years past.

According to FanGraphs, the Rangers are one of only two teams currently in the playoff picture (Oakland is the other) that only has one player worth over 3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) this season. Most teams have an all-star caliber player leading the way – your Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen’s of the world – and Texas holds up well in that department with the ageless Adrian Beltre. Where the Rangers don’t compare well to the rest of the contenders around the league is with their secondary star or offensive co-pilot. The Pirates have McCutchen AND Starling Marte, the Dodgers have Hanley Ramirez AND Yasiel Puig, the Red Sox have Jacoby Ellsbury AND Dustin Pedroia. The Rangers have Beltre and … Leonys Martin?

And it’s not as if those teams only have two above average players, either. The Pirates also have Russell Martin, the Dodgers have Adrian Gonzalez and the Red Sox have Shane Victorino. Statistically speaking, Texas’ third best player this season has been Craig Gentry, who has played nearly 50 fewer games this season than Elvis Andrus. I’m a huge fan of Gentry’s and I think he gives the Rangers value in a lot of places, but for him to be the Rangers’ third most productive position player right now perfectly illustrates how much change has occurred over the past 12 months.

With the suspension of Cruz, who had 27 bombs and a career high strikeout rate before the Biogenesis scandal came to light, an average year from Ian Kinsler and setback seasons for Mitch Moreland and David Murphy (in Murphy’s case, it has been a catastrophic setback), the Rangers are hitting the stretch run with a very different offense than the one that struck fear into each and every opponent on their path to the World Series.

After Beltre, the contributions the Rangers have gotten from their next five best position players are about equal. Martin, Gentry, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and A.J. Pierzynski are all on track to finish the season with around 2-3 WAR, which places them in the “solid” to “good” category. For perspective, Texas had six players worth over 3 WAR in 2011, including three over 5 WAR (Beltre, Napoli and Kinsler). Texas has lost a substantial amount of thump in their line-up and the edge they had heading into games over the past few seasons is definitely gone, but they’ve found a way to remain productive.

One of the biggest reasons the Rangers have maintained a top seven scoring offense is an extremely simple concept: they are getting the bat on the ball more often. Last season, the Rangers made contact on 79% of their swings, which ranked 22nd in baseball. This season the Rangers have the third best contact rate in the league at 82.3%. An increase of 3.3% may not seem like much, but when you’re dealing with thousands of swings over the course a 162-game season, it’s a significant bump that has played a part in keeping Texas’ offense chugging along.

A side effect of their improved contact rate is that the Rangers rank dead last in swinging strikes this season, which means they swing and miss less than every other team in baseball. Anyone who watched the Rangers last year understands how large a role Hamilton’s departure played in that statistical development. On a related note: the Rangers have the second lowest strikeout rate in the league this season. Putting more balls in play, or being more patient at the plate, leads to a higher number of baserunners and more baserunners is exactly what a team that can’t rely on the longball needs. The Rangers are no longer a detrimentally free-swinging bunch; they’ve taken a more conservative approach at the dish and it’s paid off.

The other major factor in the Rangers success this season, outside of their pitching, has been their tremendous defense. Last season the Rangers ranked 13th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings, which is the most widely accepted advanced metric for defense, at 1.4 UZR/150. This season the Rangers have jumped to fifth in baseball this season at 6.2 UZR/150, due in large part to Leonys Martin becoming an everyday player this season.

Martin has been great offensively for the Rangers this season, hitting a solid .275 with 27 stolen bases in his first full season in the bigs, but his value has been even greater on defense. He’s played 93 games in centerfield this season and he’s already emerged as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. On top of displaying great range in center, Martin has been a recurring character on nightly highlight reels because of his rocket arm. Martin combines every element of throwing – the power, accuracy, footwork and grace – and has thrown out runners in situations that usually don’t even merit throws. He’s saved Texas a few runs with his arm alone, and he’s been a huge upgrade over Hamilton defensively this year.

With Gentry, one of the best defensive outfielders in the league, and the above average Alex Rios alongside Martin in the outfield, the Rangers have the best defensive outfield in baseball (Murphy is a solid defensive back-up as well, but he’s been a nightmare at the plate this season). With Elvis Andrus at short, Moreland’s underrated glove at first and the always brilliant Beltre at the hot corner, the Rangers have several defensive stalwarts and no weakspot amongst their everyday position players. Even Jeff Baker has been solid in spots at first base (and his bat has been a pleasant surprise as well), and anytime Profar has gotten on the field, he’s looked solid.

Texas lost some big name players and some big time production this offseason, but as we enter the stretch run, they are tied for the best record in the American League. Fans may look at the ceiling of these differently because they don’t possess the star power that they used to, but the Rangers know far too well that the team with the big names and the big homerun totals don’t always win. Even looking back at last year, it wasn’t the team with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder that won it all; in fact, they didn’t win a single game against the Giants while Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval lead their team to victory.

With an improved pitching staff, including a deeper rotation and one of the best bullpens in baseball, and a more balanced offensive group, one that actually fits Ron Washington’s micromanaged smallball attack, Texas has found a different way to win games this season. It may not seem as impressive or flashy, but a “substance over style” approach is the common denominator amongst most World Series champions, and it’s nice to see the Rangers testing out a new philosophy.

Viva Puig!

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When I was in the fourth grade, I was seen as some sort of a class clown; as someone who would later graduate high school with honors and a squeaky clean record, this was an inauspicious start.

I wasn’t acting out in order to get attention or to seem cool to my classmates, I was simply doing things that would help curtail my boredom. While I never did anything out of line (serious missteps required a trip to the principal’s office) I can understand why my teacher would give me “yellow cards” that forced me to describe my actions and why I shouldn’t do those things, although I think she was out of line when she confiscated my CD player during recess because I had a disc with WWE theme songs on it.

Most of my elementary school life unfolded this way because I never felt challenged by any of the material put in front of me. That was the case until one day when my math teacher pulled me aside after class and suggested that I should start doing the assignments a few pages ahead of where the rest of the class was in the textbook. I swiftly finished his bonus homework assignment and soon enough, he had me delving into algebra a full year before most students are even introduced to the basic principles of the subject. The satisfaction I got from completing something that actually made me think was exactly the kind of jolt I needed to make me stop falling asleep in class (that said, I could never keep my head off the desk in my AP English class in 11th grade, but I did pass the AP test).

Two days ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers called up a young player that has been stuck with the label of “immature”, somewhat of a class clown of the lockerroom that never seemed to fully dedicate himself while playing in the minor leagues. With both Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp dealing with injuries, the Dodgers were forced to call upon stud prospect Yasiel Puig, a 22-year old Cuban outfielder, who had been deemed by many close to the game as unfit for the big show at this stage of his career.

Puig defected from Cuba in 2012 and, shorty after establishing his residency in Mexico to become an official MLB free agent, signed a seven year deal with the Dodgers worth $42 million. Puig was on fire in his first season playing ball in the states and hit over .500 in spring training this year, but despite some rumors that he’d begin the year with the Dodgers, Puig started this season in Double-A. Even as he continued to hit the ball extremely well no matter where he was, Puig was seen as a big-headed kid who hadn’t put everything together in terms of the mental composure it takes to be a professional athlete, and there were also concerns about his baseball acumen in the field.

But now that Puig has given the Dodgers, a team that has greatly underachieved in the first 50+ games of the season and has dealt with questions about Don Mattingly’s job security for the past month, a shot in the arm, the concerns about Puig not being mature enough for the show have ceased.

Puig has led off in both of his first two major league games, and he’s already been more valuable to the Dodgers in two games (0.4 WAR) than Andre Either has been in 55 games this season (0.2 WAR). Puig went 2-for-4 in his major league debut on Monday night, capping off the game with an absolutely unbelievable rocket throw from the warning track in right field to double up the runner at first base to end the game.

As if that laser beam wasn’t enough reason to fall for this guy’s potential, his encore performance last night should be enough to get you on the bandwagon. In his second game in the majors, Puig hit the game tying and game clinching homers to give the Dodgers their second straight win, no small feat for this struggling ballclub. Puig finished 3-for-5 with two homers, a double and five RBIs, giving him an unbelievable start to his big league career.

The Dodgers have desperately needed something to go right for them over the past month to help kickstart a potential turnaround, and in Puig they may have found that lightning rod. It’s very easy for a baseball team to start mailing in games once things start to go badly (just ask the 2011 Red Sox), and the Dodgers were getting close to being too far in the hole for this season to be salvaged.

As an added bonus, now that Puig is being challenged, facing off against pitchers that can actually keep him guessing, playing in games that actually matter and playing alongside veterans and stars that can keep him in line and in the moment, there’s a strong chance that the off-the-field issues start to become less of a factor.

Puig truly could have been struggling to grasp what it meant to be a professional when he was suiting up for the Chattanooga Lookouts, but it turns out that a great solution to immaturity is an accelerated promotion to algebra.

And now a player that was thought to be an unknown integer has been figured out as a difference maker.

Bye Bye, A-Rod?

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I have always been a very seasonal sports fan. Anytime someone would ask me what my favorite sport was, my answer would depend on what time of year it was. Though basketball has emerged as my true favorite, I still enjoy diving into football and baseball during the NBA off-season and still keep up with those sports more than the average sports fan. With the NBA season just a few games from being over, I’m beginning to prepare myself to be a baseball fan again.

Unfortunately, just two weeks or so before I was going to slap on some sunscreen and head out to the ballpark, we learn that Major League Baseball is about to pursue heavy suspensions for a list of players that were connected to the Biogenesis clinic in Miami, with a heavy emphasis on Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez, two players that have had their histories with PED allegations. Braun is my favorite player in the league, so to see that he’ll after to go through yet another legal battle (if he so chooses) with the league to fight off doping accusations, was obviously disappointing.

But strangely, it bugged me even more when I saw that Rodriguez may be handed a 100-game ban from the MLB, with any suspension acting as cause for the Yankees to pursue the option of voiding the remaining five years and $114 million on A-Rod’s humongous contract. I’m not even a big Rodriguez supporter, it’s just odd to see that one of the game’s most recognizable faces may have already seen his final pitch in the major leagues.

Even though Rodriguez’s reputation has been stained ever since he admitted to looking for PT-141 for sale and using steroids during his days as a Ranger and even though most of his accomplishments are considered irrelevant now by the majority of baseball fans, I’ve been among the few people that have considered him clean during his time as a Yankee. Perhaps I was just gullible, but I viewed his performance in the 2009 post-season as the saving grace of his career and his production over the past couple of seasons has not been indicative of a cheating player.

Regardless of how you view Rodriguez’s career, there’s no denying that he was one of the most important – and one of the best – players of his era, and I don’t like the idea that this how one of the game’s greatest players ever will leave the sport. If these new allegations are true, then there is nobody to blame but A-Rod for an abrupt end to his career, but that doesn’t mean that his exit from baseball won’t lack the sense of finality that we all like to have with our favorite athletes. Tim Duncan has a shot to end his glorious NBA career at the top of the mountain with an NBA Championship this season, giving him the ultimate storybook ending to his Hall-of-Fame career. Rodriguez is staring at the polar opposite termination of his journey.

While Rodriguez’s career is marred by his cheating, for his final baseball moment to be his name once again coming up in a PED related scandal seems wrong to me. Even if Rodriguez had come back from his current hip injury to have two middling seasons, I feel like that would be much better closure for his career than this.

But in a way, I guess it’s fitting. For a player whose career has been fragmented in so many distinct chapters, his epilogue will only serve to remind us of the black eye that made one of baseball’s best players such an ugly blemish on the game.

Can Miguel Cabrera Grab Another Triple Crown?

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Miguel Cabrera is one of the most talented hitters to ever step on the diamond. Last season, he completed one of only 17 Triple Crowns in Major League Baseball history by hitting .330 with 44 home runs and 139 RBI. He is obviously now a member of a pretty elite fraternity.

However, given the pace that he is off to in 2013, it is not too hard to believe that he might become a member of a more exclusive club. He is in a position to win his second Triple Crown, and he would join only Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams as the only men to complete this accomplishment.

Right now, 52 games of the season are in the books, and here is how Cabrera stands in each of the big three categories. Keep in mind that he only needs to lead the American League in each of these categories in order to win the title.

In terms of batting average, he is currently sitting in first place with a .368 batting average. Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles is his nearest competition with a .356 average, but I would like to point out that Davis is notorious for his high strikeout totals and consequently low average. Over his career, he only has a .268 average which is definitely solid, and I do not mean to diminish that, but the odds of him keeping up with Cabrera are very slim. The next closest competitor is also from the Baltimore Orioles. Manny Machado is having a great rookie season, and he is hitting .336. However, with an over 30 point difference in average, Cabrera seems like a very safe bet for this statistical category.

It is not surprising that the home run category is competitive. Right now, Cabrera is sitting in second with 15 bombs. Not surprisingly, Chris Davis is also the top of this category with 19 home runs. Last season, he did hit 33 home runs, so there is no doubt that he has power, and perhaps he has taken that production to another level. I believe that this will be the toughest category for Cabrera to recapture.

Finally, he has a very familiar competitor in the race to dominate RBI. Cabrera is on top with 59 RBI, but Davis is right behind him with 50 of his own. Both of them are sitting in the middle of lineups that produce a lot of runs as well, so it is highly unlikely that either one slows down substantially. Cabrera has a slightly better track record than Davis, so while this race is far from over, I would have to assume that he has a little bit of an advantage.

Right now, if Miguel Cabrera is going to land his second Triple Crown, he needs to overcome the power hitting first baseman of the Baltimore Orioles Chris Davis. History would obviously lean in favor of Cabrera, but Davis has shown so much improvement this season that it is hard for me to write him off as a hitter who is simply going to cool off.

With this serious competition, Cabrera needs to stay hot. I think it is possible, but there is a lot of baseball left to play.

Texas Rangers off to a Blazing Start

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The Texas Rangers are currently the best team in baseball in terms of pure record. They are sitting at 27-14, and they are quite frankly dominating both sides of the ball.

Right now, they have scored the seventh most runs in baseball. An obvious contributor is Nelson Cruz. Even though his average is a little bit low at .264, he has clubbed 11 home runs and driven in 33 runs. Those 33 RBI rank him tied for sixth in all of Major League Baseball.

Of course, he is not alone. Adrian Beltre has driven in 26 runs and crossed the plate 26 times. Ian Kinsler is hitting .302 with 20 RBI and 24 runs scored. This lineup has so much production from top to bottom that it is hard to imagine them slowing down. They seem to have adjusted to the large hole that was left by the departure of Josh Hamilton, and they have regained their position as one of the top offensive units in all of baseball.

When you combine this type of offensive production with the type of pitching staff that is ranked fifth in ERA in all of the MLB. Of course, they are the top unit in the American League. That great performance comes largely from the strong bullpen work turned in by Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross. When you combine their numbers, these two men have pitched 37.2 innings and allowed a miniscule two runs. That is flat out ridiculous, but when you put that type of bullpen behind a staff led by men like Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando, it is no surprise that the wins are piling up.

Obviously, when you put together the two most important dimensions of the game of baseball and have success in both of them, good results are going to follow. The Texas Rangers are playing great baseball right now, and it will be interesting to see if they can maintain this level of performance for the entire season. They have done it for one quarter of it already.

Justin Upton’s Remarkable Start to 2013

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What has gotten into Justin Upton?

The 25-year-old Atlanta Braves outfielder is off to arguably the best start in all of Major League Baseball this season, and maybe we are finally getting to see the potential that we all knew he had.

Let me put this into a little bit of perspective just in case you haven’t been tracking this campaign. So far, the Atlanta Braves have played 15 games. Over that time, Justin Upton has nine home runs. I know that it is virtually impossible to maintain this pace over an entire campaign, but if he was able to, he would completely demolish Barry Bonds’ single-season home run record by slamming 97 home runs.

On top of that, he has driven in 13 runs so far. Again, if we extrapolate this over the entire season, he would end up with 140 RBI.

This is the type of production that the Atlanta Braves were hoping for when they dealt for Upton this off-season. Last season was a bit of a struggle for him, and that was what made this trade possible. Generally, five-tool 24-year-olds are given all the time in the world to develop, but I have to admit that I was a little bit confused as to his aggressive sale.

Of course, he only hit 17 home runs and drove in 63 runs all of that year. His average dipped down to .280, and I think the fact that that potential I already mentioned was not shining through eventually frustrated the Arizona Diamondbacks.

What is interesting is that in 2011 hit .289 with 31 home runs and 88 RBI. Of course, having a down year is less than desirable, but he was only one year removed from an excellent season. For a young player in his mid-20s, that is often times to be expected.

Regardless of what Arizona was thinking at the time, the Atlanta Braves are certainly cashing in on this trade right now. There is no doubt that he will cool off, but for right now, it will be fun to see how far he can take this.

Who Is on Top of Baseball on April 12?

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Courtesy of: http://www.kffl.com//images/media/paul-maholm-580x316-20120907.jpg

Right now, who do you think is the best team in Major League Baseball?

Personally, I think that there is a very clear top three, and we’re going to talk about those today.

3. Oakland Athletics (8-2)

I know that Oakland Athletics have grabbed six of their wins at the hands of the floundering Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the incredibly strikeout-happy Houston Astros, so you might want to discount what they have done so far.

However, that is significant on one level. These teams will be the ones that the Athletics will see the most throughout the season because they are in the same division, so this dominance is a good sign for the future.

The team has had surprising performances from Jed Lowrie and Brandon Moss. These men have hit five home runs and driven in 18 runs combined over the first 10 games.

On the mound, most of the staff has been outstanding. The bullpen has been particularly solid, and Chris Resop, Sean Doolittle and Jerry Blevins have combined to pitch 13.2 shutout innings so far this year.

Despite a lower strength of schedule, Oakland looks great this year.

2. San Francisco Giants (7-3)

Remember a few years ago when we all thought that Barry Zito was down for the count? He is off to a great start for the San Francisco Giants this year. He has pitched 14 shutout innings so far, and while I would say that is the most impressive achievement so far, the rest of this staff is doing a great job as well.

On offense, there seems to be kind of a triple threat going on. Angel Pagan, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence are serving as key run producers. Combined, they have scored 17 runs and driven in 21.

This team will probably see a challenge from the Los Angeles Dodgers by the end of the season, but if they keep playing like they have been, they are in a good position.

1. Atlanta Braves (8-1)

Last season, the general consensus was that the Atlanta Braves were an excellent bet for the future. They were loaded with young talent then, and they added BJ and Justin Upton to the outfield this winter.

BJ is struggling so far, but Justin has six home runs in nine games with a .353 batting average. Also highlighting the offense has been the outstanding rookie (as well as surprising story) Evan Gattis. He has three home runs and six RBI in six games so far, and it seems as if the absence of Brian McCann has not been nearly as painful as it might be.

Their pitching staff has been incredible. Four of their seven bullpen pitchers have ERAs of 0.00 so far, and Paul Maholm has also not allowed a run over two starts and 12.2 innings. The Atlanta Braves have historically been known for their pitching, and that is the main reason they are on top of my ranking right now.

The Likable Red Sox?

in MLB by
redsox

For years, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have been the evil empires of baseball. They put together the best teams by outspending their competition, they get featured on national TV on a bi-weekly basis despite playing four hour snooze fests and the majority of their marquee players have been steroid users. I think we can universally agree that watching a team like the San Fransisco Giants win two of the past three World Series is much easier on the soul than watching the Yankees or Red Sox pile up the pennants.

But last year things started to change. There was a massive shift in the American League East, with the Red Sox and Yankees trending downwards and the Orioles, Rays and even Blue Jays moving in the right direction thanks to things like building a farm system, excellent scouting and smart managing. You know, only the total opposite way of building a franchise compared to how the Red Sox and Yankees succeeded.

The Red Sox took it harder than the Yankees, with the hiring of Bobby Valentine and the whole beer and chicken fiasco combining to create enough chaos that it forced Theo Epstein to want to work for the Cubs, Kevin Youkilis to want to work for the Yankees and left the team barren of talented players outside of guys like Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury (who are both coming off of down years).

For the first time in over a decade, the Blue Jays, Orioles and Rays were all favored to finish better than the Red Sox and Yankees prior to the start of this season, as the evil empires of the American League were expected to go through a down year. It’s easy to see why this was the most common prognostication for the division. The Orioles were tremendous last season and have a cast of young stars, Tampa has been consistently competitive over the past handful of years and the Blue Jays had one of the best off-seasons in baseball by adding Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey, superstar Jose Reyes and useful regulars like Emilio Bonifacio and Melky Cabrera.

Meanwhile, the Yankees entered this season with a litany of injuries to their best players and the Red Sox were relying heavily on guys like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks. From a talent standpoint, all three of the AL East’s former underdogs have an advantage over Boston and New York.

But over the first week of the season, I found myself gravitating to the Red Sox for some reason. I had previously disliked the Red Sox because I tend to root for the underdog and they were always buying their way to success. But now the roles are reversed. Now it’s Boston that has all of the odds stacked against them with a cast of players looking to prove themselves and a division filled with tough opponents to overcome. And it’s always easier to fall for a team when they have someone like rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. there to pull you in.

Boston took a risk this season by deciding to keep Bradley with the big league club to start the year, and it paid off immediately when he burst onto the scene in Boston’s opening series against the Yankees. For a player that got all of two hits in that series, Bradley still made an impression on fans because he had a keen eye, a virtue that very few young players come into the league with. Bradley drew three walks on opening day and has five on the season so far, and he’s captivating the Red Sox fan base even though he’s not often making contact with the ball.

Bradley’s outfield mates – Ellsbury and off-season acquisition Shane Victorino – are also easy players to root for.

Ellsbury was legitimately in the conversation as one of the handful of best players in baseball a year ago before his season was derailed by injuries. We can only hope that Ellsbury is able to get back to his usual self at some point this season, because when all facets of his game are working – the great plate approach, the surprising power, the tremendous defense and the blazing speed – he’s one of the funnest players in the game to watch.

Victorino has always been a fun player to watch, too, because it’s clear he’s always giving it his all. He’s been a pretty consistent 3-4 WAR player since he became an everyday regular in Philly, with the one outlier being his 5.7 WAR campaign in 2011 when he slugged a career high .491 and posted a career high 133 wRC+ (weight runs created). Some have criticized Victorino’s defense in recent years, but his advanced metrics (UZR and UZR/150) have stayed above average and if he can get back to being a .280/.350/.450 hitter, he’ll likely give the Red Sox a 3-4 WAR return on their off-season investment.

Then there is Will Middlebrooks, the second year third baseman that lit up the Blue Jays on Sunday to the tune of three homeruns (and he hit a flyball to the warning track in his final at-bat). Middlebrooks showed flashes of being a solid everyday player last year – he had a .288/.325/.509 slash line with 15 homers and 1.9 WAR – and he’s looking like an even more dangerous hitter this season.

The pitching staff lacks that power arm or strikeout savant that is fun to watch take the hill every five days, but Jon Lester is at an important point in his career as he tries to bounce back from his disaster 2012 season, and he’s off to a good start (2-0, 1.50 ERA, 13 Ks) and I think the combination of Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan in the bullpen has the potential to be one of the better 8th-9th inning combos in the league. And we can only hope that Daniel Bard makes his way back to the big leagues with his confidence with him, because he’s was one of the game’s best relief pitchers before he began his transition to a starting role.

The Red Sox have started off the year 5-2 with series wins over the Yankees and Blue Jays and a 3-1 victory over the Orioles yesterday. After they finish their home series with Baltimore, Boston will travel to Tampa Bay for a four game series with the Rays. By the end of next week, the Red Sox will have one through a series with each and every one of their division opponents, and there is a good chance that they will emerge from their opening stretch with a winning record and potentially with a spot at the top of the division.

The tables have turned for the Red Sox this season. They’ve gone from cursed to a traditional power to a laughing stock during my lifetime and now they’ve entered a new phase as underdogs in the American League East. And now that the perception of them as favorites is gone, I find them an easy team to root for because of their talented and enjoyable personnel. I’m sure that once this lull in the franchise’s history is complete or the team is sold that Boston will be back to their bullying ways in the free agent market, but for now I will enjoy this scrappy bunch as they fight an uphill battle for a playoff spot.

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