Top 10 linchpin players of 2015 

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
Brandon BeltAP Photo/Patrick SemanskyCan Brandon Belt fill the void left behind in San Francisco by Pablo Sandoval?
Madison Bumgarner will go down in history as one of baseball’s most transformative players, because we can say with Richard Sherman-level confidence that without Bumgarner, the Giants never would have won the World Series last year -- not even close.

Bumgarner pitched well in the first half of the 2014 season, posting a 3.47 ERA in 20 starts and earning an All-Star bid. But he was better in the second half before hoisting the Giants' franchise onto his shoulders in October, when he threw more than twice as many innings as any other pitcher who picked up a ball in the postseason.

The left-hander reminded a generation of how one player can make a difference, as Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson did in 2001, and Orel Hershiser did in 1988. Not all transformative players will reach their level of course, but there are individuals whose performances could be linchpins to success for their respective teams. And this is not always just about the best and most expensive players who generate their usual production; it’s understood that Clayton Kershaw’s performance is crucial for the Dodgers, and Joey Votto, who has nine years left on his deal with the Reds, must produce for Cincinnati.

This is also about players who can be the difference between a team denting October, or not -- such as the Pirates’ Edinson Volquez in 2014, the Royals’ Wade Davis, the Angels’ Garrett Richards, or Bumgarner.

Here are 10 pivotal players going into spring training:

1. Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

The Giants haven’t had more than a decent offense even while winning championships, but now Pablo Sandoval is gone and it stands to reason that run scoring could be a problem that prevents San Francisco from making the postseason.
Terry FranconaNick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesManager Terry Francona will get back to the basics after his Indians led the majors in errors in 2014.
As he recalled in a phone conversation Tuesday, Terry Francona, in his first year as a major league manager, was bound and determined that the Phillies' pitchers were going to be a strong defensive unit, and from the start of spring training, he had them doing all kinds of drills.

"Pretty soon, everybody's arm hurt," said Francona, laughing at the memory of his rookie-manager exuberance.

He will carry that perspective to spring training next month, for sure, and wants to make sure he doesn't wear out his players. But following the Indians' experiences of 2014, they will work a lot on defense.

With mostly the same cast, Francona seeks different results from a defense that was arguably baseball's worst last summer, so bad that you could hypothesize, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that the Indians' glove work might have cost them a playoff spot.

Pick any defensive metric, and Cleveland was awful in it. The Indians surrendered 72 unearned runs, the most in the majors. They committed 116 errors, the most in the majors. The Indians were minus-75 in defensive runs saved, which was -- yep -- the worst in the majors.

So there's room for improvement, for a team dwelling at rock bottom in this area of the game.

Some of that process began midway through last season, when Asdrubal Cabrera, the respected veteran shortstop, was traded to the Nationals. In the eyes of some evaluators, this was addition by subtraction, because Cabrera's range had lagged.

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videoAt the start of every round of batting practice, hitters of all shapes and sizes and power potential are expected to drop two bunts, whether it's Billy Hamilton or Miguel Cabrera, Dee Gordon or Jose Abreu. Depending on the player, this is sometimes done haphazardly, more as a part of the warmup process -- for the batting-practice pitcher as well as the hitter -- than as actual preparation.

After that, most hitters are expected to swing as if executing a hit-and-run, slapping the ball to the opposite field as a runner, real or imagined, breaks from first base.

These are elements of play that have been mostly ignored over the past 30 years, with most teams expecting the majority of their hitters to wait patiently for strikes before looking to drive the ball. Walks and homers became the building blocks of the best offenses.

But there was a precipitous drop in offense last season, in an era when radical defensive shifts are becoming standard operating procedure, and more and more teams have had discussions this winter about what counter attack to take. Some teams have spent more time talking about bunting -- about evaluating situations in which a bunt attempt could be appropriate within current climate, while also placing a greater focus on identifying players less likely to be constricted by a shift.

This has become part of the ebb and flow in the tides of baseball offense, following the time when pitchers first started throwing overhand, then the deadball era, then the offensive explosion in the 1930s, the run-production decline of the '60s that led to the lowering of the mound, and, for about 20 years, the steroid era.

So it's startling that new commissioner Rob Manfred might embrace the idea of banning defensive shifts, if necessary.

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Notes from the MLB awards dinner 

January, 25, 2015
Jan 25
Clayton Kershaw and Sandy KoufaxGetty Images, USA Today SportsClayton Kershaw has dominated his era, just like former Dodger great Sandy Koufax.
Our colleague Willie Weinbaum filed this from Saturday night’s annual baseball soiree.

On a night of transitions and tributes, the 92nd annual awards dinner of the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America began with a moment of silence in memory of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. The evening concluded with the remarks of obscure former Cub Bob Hendley, who pitched a one-hitter nearly 50 years ago in the same game that the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax achieved perfection.

Koufax, who sat on the dais between one commissioner whose term was about to begin and another whose tenure was about to end, fulfilled the wish he articulated at the event a year ago -- to present Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw with another National League Cy Young Award. Kershaw’s three awards equal Koufax’s career total, and he also received the NL MVP Award from Koufax, so the dominating lefties of eras a half-century apart each have one MVP too.

About 24 hours before Kershaw traveled to the banquet, his wife Ellen gave birth to their first child. In an emotional speech citing his family, Kershaw gave thanks by name to every Dodgers player and staffer he said he encountered daily last season. Surprisingly, he also expressed gratitude to the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that eliminated him and the Dodgers from the postseason.

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Ernie Banks always felt lucky 

January, 24, 2015
Jan 24
Ernie BanksAP Photo/Jim Prisching"Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks, who played 19 seasons in Chicago, passed away at the age of 83 on Friday.
In the first season of Home Run Derby, Ernie Banks vied against Mickey Mantle for the big money: The winner would get $2,000, the loser $1,000, with $500 bonuses built in for particular achievements. “Pretty lucky,” Banks said, after the first of his homers.

The modesty and the cash payout -- little more than what players would get in a week’s worth of meal money these days -- distinguish Banks as a man of a different time and place, when television was in black and white, when whites were only beginning to understand what it meant to be black in this country, only beginning to affect change.

But Banks was different even in his time, among his peers, seemingly free of cynicism and flush with joy, the way we all hoped someone fortunate enough to play baseball for a living would be. The way we all hope we would be.

Ernie Banks came through Nashville in the late '80s to pitch something – maybe it was a book, or a product – and the man seemed entirely happy, speaking about a love affair with game that he did not seem to take for granted. He praised his teammates and talked about the love of playing a game, about being outside on a warm day. The reality could be more complicated, of course; Wrigley Field can be one of the coldest places on earth, when the temperatures drop and the wind is gusting in from center field.

But Banks did not speak of that. There was no whining, no complaining, no off-the-record back-biting about the newest generation of ballplayers or the increasing salaries they were paid. For baseball, he conveyed only unabashed love; for his good fortune, he expressed only gratitude, and in the other two or three times we crossed paths, that never changed.

Banks was interviewed at the time he received the Medal of Freedom.

“I look at my life, look back, and say, ‘What have I done?’” Banks said. “I think we all do that as we get older in life.

“I think about baseball. America’s greatest pastime. Maybe that’s it -- hitting a baseball, going and catching it, playing against another team, playing against other players. And then it’s over, and what have I really done?

“They show the records. You won MVP awards, you did this, you did that. So it’s very special, as I think about it.”

Colleague Willie Weinbaum sent these notes from an interview he and Jeremy Schaap did with Frank Robinson. Jeremy asked Robinson how he would describe Banks.

“Be ready to listen,” Robinson began, laughing. “Because you are not gonna get much to say. He is gonna do all the talkin'. Ernie loves to talk. He loves the game, but he loves to talk. He loves people. He loved to be around people. And he loves to talk about everything and anything. But Ernie -- don't let Ernie fool you. He's a very smart individual. He knows a lot about different subjects. And you have to be prepared to discuss those things with him if you're around him for any length of time.”

Jeremy asked Robinson about Banks as a large man playing shortstop. “Very graceful,” Robinson replied.

“He was like a dancer. He’s just smooth, very graceful without putting any effort into it, it looked like. And he moved to first base. But he was -- he was a good shortstop. He was a good shortstop.”

• Ernie Banks passed away Friday, and nobody represented a team or a city the way that Banks did, writes Michael Wilbon.

• No other Cub will be adored in the same way that Banks was, writes Chris De Luca.

• Banks leaves this world to play two, and maybe more, writes Rick Morrissey.

• Banks was a man for all seasons.

Tim Kurkjian writes about Banks’ unbridled joy.

Dick Goldstein writes about the Banks mantra in his New York Times obituary of Banks.

Around the league

This is a big concern:

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Pirates offense teeming with depth 

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
Clint HurdleAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarAfter not having a winning record for 20 seasons, Clint Hurdle and the Pirates now have two straight.
The transformation of the Pittsburgh Pirates has been gradual, encompassing the larger part of a decade. The growth has been steady, and the organization is now well past the time when the Pirates had only a handful of front-line players and almost nothing in the way of reinforcements. Year by year, the Pirates take on the shape of the St. Louis Cardinals, who have been the model for Plan Bs over the past 15 years, with veterans and young players stepping in seamlessly when needed. The Cardinals' front office has drafted the right guys, or picked the right veterans to support them.

And so it goes now for the Pirates. Andrew McCutchen is homegrown, and so are Neil Walker, Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Pedro Alvarez, and time and again, the veterans added in the Pirates' modest free-agent signings or trades have flourished, from A.J. Burnett to Francisco Liriano to Edinson Volquez. Increasingly, Pittsburgh is seen as a place where a free agent can go to thrive, especially among pitchers, and through this perception, the Pirates get better, the roster deeper.

As Pittsburgh has constructed its roster for 2015, it has built in alternatives, maybe the best the Pirates have had since the advent of free agency in the 1970s. Not only will manager Clint Hurdle have a lot of options to rest his every-day players, but he also will have the flexibility to make adjustments if any player is struggling.

Pedro Alvarez is penciled in as the first baseman, for example, after a throwing problem forced his move away from third base.

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Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis Getty ImagesColby Rasmus and Evan Gattis were two of the Astros' most notable additions this offseason.
The 2015 Houston Astros will hit for a lot of power, with a whole lot of strikeouts, and newcomer Colby Rasmus, who, as Jerry Crasnick writes, will get $8 million in his one-year deal, will fit right in. Over the past two seasons, Rasmus banged 40 homers in 763 at-bats, and also had 259 strikeouts.

Two hundred sixty-three hitters had at least 300 plate appearances in 2014, and five of the hitters who appear poised to start in Houston's lineup finished in the top 19 in the majors for highest strikeout percentage. Here's a look at their possible lineup, with last season's K percentage and ranking:

2B Jose Altuve, 7.5 percent (262nd highest among 263 hitters)
3B Luis Valbuena, 20.7 percent (93rd)
SS Jed Lowrie, 14.0 percent (219th)
DH Chris Carter, 31.8 percent (14th)
RF George Springer, 33.0 percent (7th)
CF Colby Rasmus, 33.0 percent (9th)
LF Evan Gattis, 23.2 percent (53rd)
1B Jon Singleton, 37.0 percent (1st )
C Jason Castro, 29.5 percent (19th)

The Astros will be the latest team to test the theory that all outs are created equal, and it really doesn't matter whether you slap a ground ball to second base or strike out.

The Atlanta Braves were a baseball team masquerading as a sabermetric experiment the past two years after stacking their lineup with hitters who tend to swing and miss a lot, from the Upton brothers to Gattis to Freddie Freeman. In 2013, Atlanta had the third-most strikeouts in baseball and still had a decent offense, finishing 13th in runs scored, while winning the NL East.

But the team's run production disintegrated in 2014.

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Winners and losers of the Scherzer deal 

January, 20, 2015
Jan 20
When a big deal goes down the ripples always roll out in many directions, as seen in the Nationals' signing of Max Scherzer -- a deal with a multitude of winners and losers.

Let's take a look

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Does Scherzer improve MLB’s top team? 

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
Max Scherzer and Jordan ZimmermannGetty ImagesMax Scherzer will join an already-formidable rotation anchored by Jordan Zimmermann.
The Washington Nationals have agreed to a seven-year contract with Max Scherzer for a reported $210 million, half of it deferred -- Scherzer reportedly will receive $15 million annually for 14 years -- the most ever spent on a free-agent pitcher, the most ever paid out to a right-handed pitcher and the second-most dollars doled out for any pitcher, with the deal slotting in behind Clayton Kershaw's and ahead of Felix Hernandez's.

With that kind of payout, the Nationals can reasonably expect a marked upgrade in 2015, yes?

Well … not really.

Scherzer is an outstanding pitcher who has 492 strikeouts in his past 434 2/3 innings, and perhaps he'll be the guy who pushes the Nationals to a place they haven't gone before, the World Series.

But if Washington had maintained the status quo with its rotation -- arguably the best in the majors as it was -- the Nationals probably would've had an excellent chance to get to the postseason again. Here is the WAR (wins above replacement) for each member of the Nats' rotation in 2014:

Jordan Zimmermann 4.9
Doug Fister 4.5
Stephen Strasburg 3.5
Gio Gonzalez 2.3
Tanner Roark 5.1

That's a tremendous group, reflected in its cumulative 20.3 WAR, and there really is no reason to think that quintet wouldn't do something close to that in 2015, or maybe even better. Fister, who turns 31 in a couple of weeks, is the oldest of the group, and seems to be getting better and better. Gonzalez is 29, Roark is 28, Zimmermann is 28 and Strasburg is 26.

But the Nationals appear poised to break up the band.

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Christian Yelich, Marcel Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton Getty ImagesChristian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton are 23, 24 and 25 years old, respectively.
Giancarlo Stanton got a lot of attention in 2014 for his record-setting contract, for leading the National League in homers, and for that frightening moment when he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers fastball. All of that obscured Stanton's improvement as a player defensively, just one more reason why he and teammates Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna make up the No. 1 outfield combination in the majors.

With that, here's Part VI of the team element rankings: The top 10 outfields, based on the thoughts of MLB evaluators:

1. Miami Marlins

The Marlins' trio of Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna is incredibly young, and while colleague Jonah Keri might consider this blasphemous, it's not unreasonable to wonder whether these guys might eventually compare favorably with some of the trios that the Montreal Expos fielded through their extraordinary history of outfielders, such as the trio of Tim Raines, Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine (or Warren Cromartie), or the Moises Alou/Marquis Grissom/Larry Walker set. Stanton appears destined to be remembered as one of Major League Baseball's great power hitters, Yelich's career is off to an excellent start, and the other day, ESPN Insider Tony Blengino explained why Ozuna looks ready to break out.

Opposing pitchers already worked carefully to Stanton -- especially lefties, given his 1.000-plus OPS against them -- but this probably will be the season he starts to get a steady dose of the Barry Bonds treatment, as Andrew McCutchen and Freddie Freeman did last season. Stanton had 94 walks last season, and a rival scout mentioned the other day that it's a wonder he didn't have a lot more than that.

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Top 10 infields in MLB: Rockies No. 1 

January, 17, 2015
Jan 17
Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado and Justin Morneau Getty ImagesThe Rockies have issues elsewhere, but the infield is an enviable one.
Among all the team elements ranked in the ongoing series, getting a consensus on the top infields was the most difficult. At one point or another, more than half a dozen teams were mentioned for the top spot.

This is the fifth installment of the series, which has also covered the top 10 rotations, the top 10 bullpens, the top overall lineups and the top team defenses.

Today, it's the top 10 infields for overall play.

1. Colorado Rockies

The winter has been spent debating the value of Troy Tulowitzki

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Royals No. 1 in MLB team defense ranks 

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
Kansas City RoyalsJamie Squire/Getty ImagesThe formidable OF trio of Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain sets the tone for the Royals' D.
More and more, the use of defensive shifts is impacting the play of individuals. Last summer, there might not have been a better example than Jhonny Peralta. If a coach stood at the plate and mashed ground balls at Peralta and some of his peers, Peralta might be among the least impressive, lacking the range or the arm strength of someone like Andrelton Simmons.

But the Cardinals bought into the use of shifts last season, and Peralta, who was regarded as so limited in range at shortstop that the Tigers replaced him, finished third in Defensive Runs Saved. Some of the Pirates' defenders might be dressed up in a similar way by Pittsburgh's advanced use of shifts.

That's a factor in Part IV of our team element rankings. Earlier this week, we laid out the top-10 rotations, the top-10 bullpens and the top lineups. Now it's time to rank the defenses.

1. Kansas City Royals

In the postseason, casual baseball fans got to see the vision of GM Dayton Moore, who decided to fill the vast Kauffman Stadium outfield with guys who can cover a whole lot of ground and infielders who can make plays.

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Sandoval/RamirezUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoPablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez should return the Red Sox's offense to its glory days.
Last year, the world of run production was turned upside down, with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who almost always finish in the top 10 in runs scored, ranking among the worst rather than the best.

In 2015, that usual world order will return. In Part III of our team element ranks -- we ranked the rotations Monday and the bullpens Tuesday -- here are the top 10 MLB lineups:

1. Boston Red Sox

Even before the Red Sox closed a 2014 season in which they finished 18th in runs, Boston GM Ben Cherington had brought change.

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Top 10 bullpens in MLB: Royals No. 1 

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
DavisBrad ManginGetty ImagesWade Davis ranked No. 1 among all relievers with 60 or more innings in limiting opponents' OPS.
When baseball executives and players try to explain why run production has plummeted in recent seasons, they offer a range of theories, from MLB played without amphetamines and steroids to the impact of defensive shifts. But there is one common thread: The bullpens have become stacked with guys who throw really, really hard, with many teams presenting a parade of relievers firing mid-90s fastballs after the fifth inning.

In the second part of our top 10 team element rankings, let's break down the bullpens.

1. Kansas City Royals

If not for Giants starter Madison Bumgarner's superhuman feats, the Royals would’ve won the World Series and their relief corps would’ve taken a place in history alongside the Reds’ Nasty Boys for being the core of a championship. But in some ways, the Royals’ trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera accomplished stuff we really hadn’t seen before. That group faced 960 hitters last season, struck out 309 and allowed a total of three homers. Davis ranked No. 1 among all relievers with 60 or more innings in limiting opponents’ OPS last season (.408); Holland was sixth, and Herrera was 21st. Even if the Royals had a lot of mediocrity in other spots in their pen, the work of that trio would have Kansas City at No. 1 in these rankings.

But the Royals will also have Jason Frasor and Tim Collins, and Luke Hochevar is expected back after missing all of last season because of elbow reconstruction.

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Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmerman & Stephen StrasburgGetty ImagesDoug Fister, Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg form a solid top three for the Nationals.
Max Scherzer remains unsigned, as does James Shields, and executives from all teams continue to circle the market, monitoring the asking price on the likes of Cole Hamels and others.

But for most of the 30 teams, what you see is what you get, and their winter work is just about complete, which makes this a good time for our annual top 10 team rankings.

Today we begin with the top 10 rotations, based on input from talent evaluators around the majors:

1. Washington Nationals

Some evaluators believe the Dodgers should be No. 1, given the presence of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at the front of the rotation and some interesting investments at the back.

But the Nationals' depth is staggering. Four of the top 16 qualified NL pitchers in terms of ERA in 2014 were in the Washington rotation, and the one Nats guy not in that 16, Gio Gonzalez, had a respectable 3.57 ERA. Washington's rotation ERA of 3.04 was the best in the majors last year, and the group held opposing hitters to a .657 OPS, also the best mark in the bigs.

Jordan Zimmermann is headed toward a nine-figure payday, thanks to his dominance, and somehow Stephen Strasburg has become underrated because of the perception of what he hasn't accomplished.

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