Top 12 surprise stats of 2014 MLB season 

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
10:44
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Garrett RichardsAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillGarrett Richards allowed an MLB-low .261 slugging percentage in 2014.
No sport overflows with information the way baseball does, with each pitch of each plate appearance adding to the growing expanse of an analytic universe. The players begin generating these numbers in early March, in exhibition games, and this continues until the final pitch -- and in 2014, that meant a pop-up caught by Pablo Sandoval in foul territory in Kansas City.

But in spite of the eight months spent peeling away the layers of this daily data, there are still surprises to be found in the winter, upon further review:

1. Garrett Richards allowed an MLB-low .261 slugging percentage last season.

So, in other words, Richards effectively reduced hitters into the immortal Mario Mendoza, for whom the Mendoza line is named; Mendoza had a .262 career slugging percentage. This number reflects the hitters’ sentiments last season that the challenge of trying to hit Richards was an absolute nightmare because of the staggering movement of his cut fastball and because of how hard he threw.

Top 10 MLB storylines of 2015 

December, 25, 2014
Dec 25
10:11
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Rob ManfredAP Photo/Steve RuarkNew MLB commissioner Rob Manfred should have a plan to better market stars nationally.
As 2015 approaches, here are my 10 biggest storylines to watch in the world of baseball.

1. The new commissioner

Rob Manfred can probably relate to Prince Charles somewhat, because he’s been waiting patiently for his turn at the throne in recent years. But his time will begin next month, when Bud Selig will follow through on his threat of many years and walk away from the job.

Manfred presumably will get all of the perks of the post, the use of the private jet -- hopefully, its code name is Fastball -- and the staggering salary that all commissioners get these days. We’ve already gotten a reaffirmation of what matters most to Manfred in recent days, when MLB worked out a new five-year collective bargaining agreement with the umpires. The current labor agreement with the players’ union has two years remaining before it is set to expire, and if Manfred stays with a proven formula for financial growth in the sport, he’ll make the next agreement happen.

But what’s next for him?

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Who’s ready to move on from 2014? 

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
10:09
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Shin-Soo Choo, AP Photo/Richard RodriguezShin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, major acquisitions by Texas last offseason, both struggled in 2014.
These are some folks in Major League Baseball who probably can’t wait to put 2014 behind them.

1. The Texas Rangers

Last year began with what was effectively a season-ending collision between Derek Holland and his dog Wrigley, and it went downhill from there. Prince Fielder played his last game May 16, managing just three homers, and Shin-Soo Choo reached base 180 times, after reaching base 300 times leading up to his free agency in 2013. The Rangers’ win total plummeted from 91 in 2013 to 67 last season, and Texas finished 31 games out of first place. Manager Ron Washington resigned after a personal scandal.

Texas should have better luck in 2015.

Right?

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Hamels would make Pads a top contender 

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
10:07
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Cole HamelsHunter Martin/Getty ImagesCole Hamels is owed $90 million for the next four seasons, with a vesting option for 2019.
The Padres are said to be pursuing Cole Hamels, writes Ryan Lawrence.

San Diego still has three of its top four prospects remaining after its flurry of trades, based on Baseball America’s rankings -- catcher Austin Hedges, pitcher Matt Wisler, and outfielder Hunter Renfroe -- and the Padres have a potential trade chip in Wil Myers, who will be under team control for five more seasons. So San Diego has the roster firepower to put together a trade for Hamels, because it’s hard to imagine the Phillies trading the left-hander without at least asking for at least two in that group of four players.

Don’t forget that Hamels grew up in the San Diego area and the Padres are among the teams to which he could be traded without his permission. This distinguishes the Padres from a team such as the Red Sox, who are one of the teams to which Hamels could veto a trade.

But the money involved ... that’s where the most significant question of any San Diego-Hamels deal will linger.

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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.

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If Jays want Duquette, they should ante up 

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
10:02
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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
9:59
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 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
9:55
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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?

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AL Central tops MLB division ranks 

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
9:37
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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
8:29
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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
8:17
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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
8:32
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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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