A-Rod a mystery for the Yankees 

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
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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?

AL Central tops MLB division ranks 

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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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Top 10 relief pitchers in MLB 

December, 2, 2014
Dec 2
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Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis ChapmanUSA TODAY SportsFireballers Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman top Buster's ranking of the top 10 relievers.
On to part 10 of our series ranking the best players at each position in baseball. Here are the top 10 relievers:

1. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

There is no sign of diminishment in Kimbrel's power stuff; in fact, Kimbrel's average fastball velocity of 97.0 mph last season was the highest of his career. He allowed just two homers in 61⅔ innings and converted 47 of 51 save attempts.

You'd be way out on a limb to suggest anyone might have the kind of career enjoyed by the two most decorated relievers in history in Mariano Rivera, whose postseason performance puts him on a mountaintop all his own, and Trevor Hoffman. But Kimbrel will be 26 years old when the 2015 season begins and needs only 14 more saves for 200 in his career, and he already is showing a range of pitch repertoire that he can reach for when he begins to lose velocity.

One stat to show Kimbrel's dominance: He has faced 1,127 batters in his career and struck out 476 of them, or 42 percent.


2. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds

For the first time in his career, Chapman's average fastball velocity was over 100 mph in 2014.

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Jon LesterBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsSome believe Jon Lester will fetch between $135 million and $150 million in his next contract.
Andrew Miller has a free-agent market all to himself, in a sense, as the only elite left-handed power reliever, and in the hours ahead he will choose his next team independent of anything else that happens with other players. There are a small handful of starting pitchers looking for one-year deals to rebuild value, like Brett Anderson. Theoretically, they could sign without being affected by other dominoes.

But many other pitchers -- including those who could be traded, like Oakland’s Jeff Samardzija -- may have to wait for Jon Lester to set the price. Almost everything in the pitching market seems to be on hold until Lester makes his choice among offers from the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants (and perhaps others). Once that happens, the price ceiling will be established. “Then everything else will fall in line after that,” said one agent.

Lester and Max Scherzer are regarded as the two best free-agent pitchers, but some club evaluators fully expect Scherzer’s contract talks to carry over for weeks, as agent Scott Boras works to make a big deal happen -- something significantly more than the six-year, $144 million deal that the Tigers offered to Scherzer in the spring. Boras’ negotiations often play out way past the winter meetings, and there is so little current buzz around Scherzer that some evaluators and agents theorize that one of two scenarios is developing with the former Cy Young Award winner:

1. He could be out on a limb, some evaluators believe, with his expected price undercut by the extraordinarily high volume of available pitching. “It’s not the best time to be looking for a big deal,” said one GM, noting the many pitching alternatives that can be found for less money.

2. He will be the target of a big, bold surprise strike by some team flush with cash, much in the way that the Washington Nationals jumped on Jayson Werth for $126 million in December 2010. Scherzer might be one among many options, but he is the best right-hander available right now with few strings attached, because he’s a free agent. (A team would have to surrender a top draft pick to sign him.) Sure, you can land Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto or Jordan Zimmermann, but any interested team would have to trade a major package of prospects in return.

So Lester is viewed as the bottleneck of the moment, and once he goes, an array of trades and signings will follow

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Top 10 right fielders in MLB 

November, 29, 2014
Nov 29
10:13
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USA TODAY SportsStanton tops the right field ranks, while Bautista and Pence also make appearances.
In the latest installment in our series ranking the top 10 players at each position -- and No. 1 third baseman Josh Donaldson was traded Friday night -- we move on to the right fielders.


1. Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins

Miami has bet a record-setting deal that Stanton is going to be one of the best players for years to come, and hey, why not?

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