Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin UptonGetty Images
The whole baseball world is talking about the San Diego Padres today, in the dead of winter, probably for the first time since Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter were traded for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez a quarter-century ago. The Padres’ spring training site in Peoria, Ariz., has usually been a place reporters pass on their way to some other more interesting venue, but in a couple of months, San Diego’s rounds of batting practice will be must-see, with Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers taking turns to launch baseballs way over the tilted heads of awestruck teammates shagging fly balls.

Before the events of recent days, you would’ve been more likely to find Bigfoot in the Gaslamp district of San Diego than three of baseball’s most explosive power hitters in the Padres’ lineup. The team has everybody’s attention, and presumably, this will translate into immediate payoff in offseason ticket sales. The Padres can already count a win in the anticipation column.

Which is why it’s no fun to acknowledge the cracks in these days of Padres bliss: When quilted together, the pieces San Diego has acquired appear completely ill-fitting, like a resplendent suit that runs beyond the fingertips and over the toes.

Kemp alone, or Upton alone, or Myers alone would represent an offensive upgrade for a team that challenged records for futility last year.

If Jays want Duquette, they should ante up 

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
Buck Showalter and Dan DuquetteGetty ImagesO's owner Peter Angelos, left, has the chance to leverage the Blue Jays' interest in GM Dan Duquette.
The compensation for the trade of non-uniform personnel in the major leagues has never been that much, with the most recent example being the relatively paltry return that the Red Sox received when Theo Epstein moved from Boston to the Cubs. The return was relief pitcher Chris Carpenter, who has pitched in a total of 18 games in the big leagues.

Think about that: Epstein is regarded as one of the best and brightest minds in baseball and was being pursued for a leadership position with a billion-dollar company, and he was under contract, and all the Red Sox received was a second-tier relief pitcher. If the Cubs achieve the potential that rival executives see in them, with a tremendous wave of prospects reaching the big leagues and Jon Lester poised to throw the first pitch of the season, imagine how much money the team stands to make through Epstein's machinations. Great baseball executives continue to be the most undervalued asset in an industry currently obsessed with identifying value.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has a chance to raise that bar now, with the Toronto Blue Jays' ownership still in the process of looking for a replacement for CEO Paul Beeston.

Kenny Williams, an executive with the White Sox, has been considered, but to date, Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf has not allowed Williams to pursue the Jays' gig.

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The future of MLB in Cuba 

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
 President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro AP Photo/SABC PoolBarack Obama and Raul Castro are seeking to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
There is a temptation to say that the possible normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States could lead to rapid and significant changes in professional baseball, because we've all heard the harrowing stories of escape from the island of players from Orlando Hernandez to Yasiel Puig. We've seen the talent of players, such as Jose Abreu, who is widely regarded as one of the three or four best hitters in baseball after just one season of Major League Baseball.

But while there is general relief in the industry that change in the politics between two countries so close to each other geographically is imminent, there is also skepticism among executives familiar with baseball in Cuba that the landscape of baseball will see a marked shift anytime soon.

The inevitable first domino, some executives say, is that the incredible prices being paid to defectors from Cuba -- most recently, the Diamondbacks' signing of Yasmany Tomas to a $68.5 million deal -- will plummet. Maybe this won't affect the bidding on Yoan Moncada, the infielder who worked out for scouts last month in Guatemala, but some club officials believe that eventually the market will be undercut by the prospect of change.

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A-Rod a mystery for the Yankees 

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
Alex Rodriguez, Joe GirardiTim Farrell/USA TODAY SportsJoe Girardi and the Yankees face many questions as Alex Rodriguez returns to the team this season.
The strangest spring training saga will begin when the Yankees’ full squad emerges from the clubhouse for their first pre-workout stretch. International star Masahiro Tanaka will be there, and so will Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran and Andrew Miller and other players of renown, but the platoon of cameras will be focused on a guy with an undefined role: Alex Rodriguez.

Reporters will trace his every movement and log Rodriguez’s interaction with teammates, looking for signs that the others around him might shy away from him. After all, the last time he was with the Yankees, folks on the staff were wary that any conversation they had with him would be subject to subpoena. Will he be embraced by his teammates? Will they keep him at arm’s length, generally? Will they be merely polite with a disgraced player coming back from the longest PED suspension in baseball history, or will they treat him warmly?

The search for signs of awkwardness will continue the first time the Yankees’ infielders move to their positions. Given that the Yankees just signed Chase Headley to a four-year, $52 million contract, Headley will go into camp as the third baseman. But players have long respected a pecking order, and whatever you think of Rodriguez, he is still a former MVP, and he is still stalking Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. Will A-Rod step in the front of the line, in front of Headley, among those awaiting grounders at third base? Or will Rodriguez defer to Headley?

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AL Central tops MLB division ranks 

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
Melky Cabrera and Yoenis CespedesGetty ImagesMelky Cabrera and Yoenis Cespedes will both move from the AL East to the AL Central next season.
Since Indians general manager Chris Antonetti joked last week that he'd be in favor of a talent quarantine in the AL Central, the Tigers traded for Yoenis Cespedes and Alfredo Simon and the White Sox landed Melky Cabrera on a three-year, $42 million deal, continuing the extraordinary influx of talent into the division. The AL Central needs some sort of baseball Ellis Island to deal with all the players who have emigrated from other divisions, from Jeff Samardzija to Brandon Moss to David Robertson to Cespedes.

The Central is the home of the defending AL champions, the Kansas City Royals, as well as the Tigers, who reached the AL Championship Series in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and the Indians, who made the playoffs in 2013. Even the Minnesota Twins, generally considered the ugly duckling of the division, have stocked up this winter, adding Ervin Santana.

Considering the offseason moves, you can make a strong case that the AL Central is now baseball's best, with all of its Cy Young Award-caliber pitchers (Corey Kluber, David Price, Chris Sale, etc.) to its elite hitters (Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, Victor Martinez) to the great bullpens of the Royals and Indians.

That standing has been reinforced by the amount of money taken on so far this winter.

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videoSAN DIEGO -- In keeping with tradition, the Rule 5 draft was held on the final morning of baseball's winter meetings Thursday, and typically, executives pull roller bags into and out of that room, dying to get to the airport after four boring days of sitting around waiting for their phone to ring and picking through plates of stale room service nachos.

But that was not the feel this year. No, there were wry smiles all over the place as scouts and club officials chuckled over how this year's meetings turned into some kind of transaction stock car race. The Cubs and White Sox slammed against the news of each other; the Dodgers lapped the field in a Wednesday sprint that carried into Thursday morning; the Red Sox lost the Lester 500 but hit the checkered flag with three pitchers.

In the usual way, there were lots of winners and some losers -- the Giants, for example, who own October every other year but have gotten off to a slow start this winter, missing out on Pablo Sandoval and Lester. They want to make a deal sooner rather than later, assistant GM Bobby Evans says. But in light of the fact that these were not your typical winter meetings, we're going next level on the whole winners and losers thing

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Dodgers' makeover extreme -- and needed 

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
videoSAN DIEGO -- The new inhabitants of the Dodgers’ front office are well aware of the media portrayal of them as nerds wielding mechanical pencils stuffed into pocket protectors. “The sooner we get past us being the story,” one Dodgers official said, “the better it will be.”

After what happened here Wednesday, however, there is no chance that Andrew Friedman and his staff will able to exist in the shadowy fringes. Not since Whitey Herzog assumed control of the Cardinals and remade them into a track team with a flurry of moves have we seen a front office so decisively alter the composition of a roster and a team.

Based on the choices they have made, however, a more appropriate representation of Friedman’s gang could be as a cleanup crew dressed in hazmat suits, because they have quickly waded into the messiest parts of the organization, from the clubhouse culture to the club’s subpar defense, and taken care of business.

Which is what is needed. The Dodgers' level of dysfunction last season was extraordinary. Manager Don Mattingly is even-keeled and circumspect, and is not someone who overreacts, given his experience of playing in New York in George Steinbrenner’s worst years as owner. But he was so moved, so frustrated by what he saw in the Dodgers' players and their treatment of each other

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The Red Sox blew it with Jon Lester 

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
SAN DIEGO -- When David Cone pitched for the Yankees, he had some savvy advice for young pitchers as they tried to cope with the frustration of talking with reporters after a terrible performance -- you know, one of those situations when every choice you make turns out badly, for eight runs in 2⅔ disastrous innings.

“Just tell them you stunk,” Cone would say. “Just tell them you were awful.”

Cone’s strategy wasn’t only about being honest. His feeling was that if you just admitted to mistakes, then you would appear contrite and accountable and, at the same time, once you said you blew it there really aren’t a lot of follow-up questions necessary, and you could move on.

Cone might find temporary work as a crisis manager this morning for the Red Sox, in the face of the avalanche of frustration, anger and shock of their fan base, now that Jon Lester has decided to wear the uniform of the Chicago Cubs rather than return to Boston.

John Henry is the principal owner of the Red Sox, and Larry Lucchino is the president and chief executive officer and most visible member of the club’s leadership. One or both of them should get on a conference call today and steal Cone’s words and simply say: "We blew it."

Because there really is no way to spin this

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Miss on Jon Lester? Here's Plan B 

December, 9, 2014
Dec 9
James Shields, Francisco Liriano & Max ScherzerUSA TODAY SportsJames Shields, Francisco Liriano and Max Scherzer are all still out there.
SAN DIEGO -- A week ago, some folks within the Giants organization thought they had little or no shot at signing Jon Lester. In the past 72 hours, that changed. Now the hope is building for the Giants, backed by their own significant offer. The Cubs have hoped all along that they might be able to get Lester, and some within the Red Sox offices have believed that all things being equal, Lester would value the comfort of a known quantity, his former team.

The Dodgers have always had the ability to throw more money on the table, and while that doesn’t mean everything in these talks, it puts them in the conversation.

For Lester, the choices are distinct.

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Jon LesterKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsJon Lester is arguably the top left-handed starter available this offseason.
SAN DIEGO -- The Levinson brothers, Seth and Sam, are the gatekeepers of these winter meetings as the representatives for free-agent pitcher Jon Lester, and they are known among club executives for being grinders in how they negotiate.

They don’t really accept team offers, one club official noted. They determine what they believe to be a fair market price and then challenge the clubs to meet it, dangling a number. In the current circumstances, of Lester being pursued by big-market teams, you might think of the Levinsons the way you would someone holding a treat over a dog that leaps repeatedly, while saying, You can get it, Sparky! You can get it! Just a little higher!

Except in this case, there are four leaping dogs. And by the time it’s over, all will be exhausted, only one happily.

Early in the process, the perception of the target to reach -- the place that those involved thought the Levinsons wanted them to aim for -- was $150 million. But there’s no telling where that is now that the Dodgers are involved, either to grab Lester for themselves or to push the division rival Giants.

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Sandoval/RamirezUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoThe Red Sox signed two big hitters this offseason. Now, they need to make a splash on the mound.
SAN DIEGO -- As the winter meetings kick off, here are the most significant needs for 12 teams that view themselves as top contenders in 2015:

1. Boston Red Sox: A starting pitcher

Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval are unique in this winter’s market in that they each have the ability to hit good pitching, and so it’s possible that Boston’s offense will rebound in a big way next season. But it really won’t matter unless Boston finds a way to make up for the departures of Jon Lester and John Lackey -- maybe even by re-signing Lester.

As of this morning, the Red Sox rotation looks like this, according to their website:

1. Clay Buchholz
2. Joe Kelly
3. Rubby De La Rosa
4. Allen Webster
5. Anthony Ranaudo

As a reminder, Boston’s ranking in ERA after the All-Star break, when it mostly competed without Lester and Lackey:

30. Minnesota Twins, 4.99
29. Colorado Rockies, 4.51
28. Chicago White Sox, 4.47
27. Boston Red Sox, 4.27

If not Lester, then the Red Sox need James Shields; if not Shields, they need Jeff Samardzija, Doug Fister or one of the other high-end starters on the market.

As the Lester bidding nears a conclusion, John Henry flew to meet with Lester one-on-one, writes Rob Bradford and Alex Speier. The Red Sox should bolster their rotation by using trade chips rather than signing pitchers to long-term deals, writes Brian MacPherson.

Max Scherzer would also be available, writes Michael Silverman.

Here’s the problem with that for Boston:

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Didi GregoriusThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesYankee Stadium will suit Didi Gregorius' left-handed swing.
A scout who isn’t employed by the New York Yankees spent some time Friday lauding the defense of Didi Gregorius, especially his range. Gregorius is not an elite player with the glove, the scout said, but he's certainly above average.

A natural question to the scout followed: What do you think about him offensively?

“He’s a good defender,” the scout replied drolly.

There were similar responses about the 24-year-old Gregorius from other evaluators Friday, after the Yankees traded for the guy who will be the first primary shortstop after Derek Jeter. “Can’t hit,” one executive texted. Said another evaluator: “You can throw the ball by him.”

I couldn’t find anyone with the Yankees claiming that Gregorius -- who has a .680 career OPS in 191 career games -- is a future Silver Slugger winner. But they do think Yankee Stadium suits his left-handed swing, and that he will improve.

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If the Dodgers really want Jon Lester and he doesn’t have any personal objections to playing in Los Angeles, a rival evaluator mused Thursday, then the Dodgers will get him. Plain and simple. Their pile of money is much larger than any team other than the Yankees -- who are not in the Lester bidding -- and if Lester’s decision comes down to the dollars alone, they will win.

But only the Dodgers and Lester’s agent, Seth Levinson, know exactly how

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Why I'm abstaining from HOF voting 

December, 4, 2014
Dec 4
videoMike Mussina spent each of his 18 seasons in the most treacherous waters pitchers have ever faced, among the whitecaps of what will always be remembered as an era of rampant steroid use -- and in the offense-rich American League East, no less. He was a fly ball pitcher who called two homer-happy ballparks -- Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium -- his home during his career.

It’s as if he navigated his way daily through one of those monstrous marble-hard golf courses in Scotland covered with bunkers that have names (such as St. Andrews' Road Hole Bunker), as compared to the Executive Par-3s of 2014. In 2000, Mussina’s last season with the Orioles, 47 hitters mashed 30 or more homers; in 2014, only 11 batters reached 30 homers.

Mussina finished his career with a 3.68 ERA and is 19th all time in strikeouts. He also is 24th in WAR among pitchers, and most of the guys ahead of him on the list are in the Hall of Fame.

But his chances for induction will improve slightly this year because I’m abstaining from the voting for the first time, and won’t submit a ballot. The same is true for Curt Schilling, and Tim Raines, and at least two others who I think should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

To repeat: I think Mussina, Schilling and Raines and others are Hall of Famers, but it’s better for their candidacy if I don’t cast a ballot.

If that sounds backward, well, that’s how the Hall of Fame voting has evolved, squeezed between rules that badly need to be updated and the progression of the candidates linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The process needs to be pruned to allow voters to get back to answering a simple question about each candidate: Was his career worthy of the Hall of Fame?

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Top 10 starting pitchers in MLB 

December, 3, 2014
Dec 3
Clayton Kershaw and Felix HernandezUSA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez top Buster's starting pitcher ranks, but who follows them?
This is the final installment of the position rankings and it has been an enjoyable exercise, culling through opinions from evaluators, getting feedback from some players, picking the brains of some really smart scouts. Justin Havens, Mark Simon and John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Information have provided outstanding statistical insight, confirming the greatness that we've seen in some players and, in some cases, revealing unseen excellence in others.

It's all good.

Until today.

Because today, we rank the top 10 starting pitchers, and there doesn't seem to be any combination of 10 that is satisfactory. With each new set of 10 being considered, I found myself asking how I could leave some great pitcher off the list, and then wondering who would be dropped off the list in order to get somebody else on.

It would've been easier to identify the top 10 starting pitchers in 2000, when a total of three posted ERAs lower than 3.00. But this season, 22 starters had ERAs below 3.00. (On the flip side, there were just three first basemen with an OPS over .900 this season; in 2000, there were 10 first basemen with an OPS over .900).

We finally settled on 10, but this is a post-and-duck situation: I'm posting this and then heading off to Tora Bora. If you think there's a starting pitcher who should be on this list, you probably can build a convincing and reasonable case.

1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

He knows better than anyone that he has the "Yeah, but …" hurdle in front of him, as in, "Yeah, but he hasn't had success in the postseason." Until he gets another shot at October, he'll have to settle for being the best pitcher on the planet from April through September, the part of the year he has mastered.

If you need a reminder, Kershaw led the majors in ERA in each of the past four seasons -- he's the first pitcher ever to do that -- while winning three Cy Young Awards and finishing second in the other season. He needs two more wins to reach 100, and oh, by the way, he's just 26 years old.

Kershaw led all pitchers in adjusted ERA+ in 2014 by a staggering difference, like a marathoner winning an elite race by five minutes. And again, this was a year in which so many pitchers thrived.

2. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

If there were a metric that reflected confidence, he'd probably lead every year, because he carries with him a certain Pedro Martinez-like swagger.

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