Buster Olney: Baltimore Orioles

Adam JonesOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAdam Jones' prowess in center field is paramount to Baltimore's success.
BOSTON -- There was no batting practice for the Boston Red Sox or Baltimore Orioles here Saturday morning, despite the warm sunshine that enveloped Fenway Park. The warning track around the entire field was filled with fans waiting to take photographs of Red Sox players who slowly rotated toward them.

Meanwhile, the Orioles players lounged in the shoebox-sized visitors clubhouse. Adam Jones picked at some breakfast and chatted about Jack Murphy Stadium, while Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop and others watched television.

This was a rare day when the Orioles would not go through their regular extensive defensive preparation with their infield work and with outfielders working on throwing to a particular spot. It's a practice which isn't always commonplace these days.

Like every other team in the AL East, the Orioles have their issues. Manny Machado is out, although he is making progress. Their starting rotation has been spotty. They've had a flu bug burrow into their ranks in recent days.

But day after day, this is a team that catches the ball. “That’s the key,” Jones said. “Don’t make mistakes.”

Shortstop J.J. Hardy is a Gold Glover, and so is Jones and catcher Matt Wieters. The Orioles acquired outfielder David Lough during the winter largely because they loved the defensive metrics attached to his play, and even as Ryan Flaherty struggled at the plate early this season, Buck Showalter has seen value in his work because of his steadiness in the field.

Going into Saturday’s game, the Orioles had -- remarkably -- made only three errors on the season, the fewest in the majors. They had allowed only two unearned runs. Somebody asked Showalter before Saturday’s game about the Orioles’ almost pristine error total, and Showalter jokingly gawked, in acknowledgment of a possible jinx situation, and asked the reporter where he would be during the game if Baltimore made an error, so he would know where to aim his death stare.

The Orioles made an error in the first inning: Schoop fumbled a grounder in the middle of a Boston rally, and a run scored. The rookie’s defensive skills are exceptional and he has played third base well by all accounts, but he has made three of the team’s four errors, and when Gold Glover Machado comes back, Schoop will play second base.

It was just a one-day hiccup in three weeks of the regular season. No matter the alignment, the defense will continue to be at the core of whatever the Orioles accomplish.

We’ve got the Orioles and Red Sox on "Sunday Night Baseball" on ESPN and WatchESPN, with a special 7 ET start time. Ubaldo Jimenez will be pitching for the Orioles, looking to be more aggressive with his mechanics. Machado played in his first extended spring game.

MLB's new investigation

Last week, a document retention memo was issued to all 30 teams by Major League Baseball, as it began its investigation of the article posted here April 9, and positioned itself to examine the history of communication of the hundreds of folks employed by the clubs: text messages, phone records, etc. Here's a look at the situation from Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

The investigation was prompted by a strongly worded statement from new union chief Tony Clark on April 11:

“I am angered that numerous, anonymous baseball executives have blatantly and intentionally violated our collective bargaining agreement by offering to ESPN comments about the free agent values of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales. These statements undermine the free agent rights of the players and depress their market value. Today, I have called upon the Commissioner’s Office to investigate immediately and thoroughly the sources of these statements and to take appropriate action to enforce our agreement.”

It’s the responsibility of Clark and MLB to protect the integrity of the collective bargaining agreement, of course. But if this is really about the CBA -- which binds club employees and agents from leaking details of negotiations to reporters, or passing on imaginary offers -- then presumably the union will also begin a corollary investigation of the communications of agents and their text messages, emails and phone records to track the interaction with specific reporters, and cross-reference those documents with subsequent reports.

When an agent informs a reporter that a player has drawn interest from a team or teams when in fact there is none, as part of an effort to artificially bolster the player’s market value, that’s a CBA violation. When a report comes out that a player has offers from X number of teams, where is that almost certainly coming from? Yes, the agent. And this has been happening for years and years, and Clark knows it.

When an agent leaks the terms of a deal before the full deal is completed, that’s a violation of the player’s rights under the CBA. But it happens all the time, and MLB and the union know it. Some of the particular reporter-agent quid pro quo relationships are so ingrained and such a consistent stream of seeming disinformation that they've become Baghdad Bob punch lines within the industry.

Similarly, if Major League Baseball is devoted to protecting the sanctity of the CBA, then it will investigate the cases of when club-operated websites have reported news of a contractual agreement -- before the completion of a physical exam, in some cases -- which is a blatant violation of the agreement.

But in all likelihood, the ongoing investigation of the April 9 piece will be an isolated exercise, because in fact this isn’t really about a CBA violation.

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Ervin SantanaJamie Squire/Getty ImagesWith three weeks to go before Opening Day, Ervin Santana remains a free agent.
It’s worth documenting, again, all that Ervin Santana did well last year:

• Only 24 starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title posted a lower number than his 3.24.
• Only 19 pitchers had a lower WHIP.
• His strikeout-walk ratio of 3.16 ranked 35th in the majors.
• Santana held opposing hitters to a .668 OPS, ranking 27th.
• He pitched 211 innings -- only 16 pitchers threw more in 2013.

So he had a really good season, bolstered by his sturdy reputation as being a good guy -- a positive clubhouse presence, someone invested in the esprit de corps.

But with three weeks to go before the Padres and Dodgers play the first game of the season in North America, Santana is still not signed. He is reportedly talking about a one-year deal with the Blue Jays or the Orioles or another team, and if he gets something in the range of $14 million, this will be about $100 million less than what club officials say the initial asking price for him was.

A lot of factors have contributed to him being in this position, from the concerns that some clubs have about whether his elbow will hold up through a multiyear deal, the fact that he’s tied to draft-pick compensation, and the reality that 17 months ago, the regard for Santana was so compromised that he was nearly non-tendered by the Angels.

But the essential truth is that his side completely misread the market, setting a price way too high at the outset and then reacting too slowly as available jobs and money evaporated.

The relationship between a player and his representation can be complicated, and in the end, there are almost always multiple versions of conversations and expectations. Sometimes the player can drive the discussion, sometimes it's player’s parents or spouse or most trusted friend, and sometimes it’s the agents. Sometimes it can be the union, depending on how assertive the player and the agent are. And the guess here is that whoever actually generated and drove the idea of Santana as a $112 million player isn’t going to jump up and down and brag about it today.

The fact is that nobody who takes a paycheck from a team saw Santana as a $100 million-plus pitcher. Nobody. The fact is that Santana should’ve gotten more than what he's expected to receive now, at least comfortably slotting into the group of pitchers like Ricky Nolasco, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson. Those are pitchers who have been good but have never been elite, as Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee have been.

The Royals wanted him back, but after their overtures in September were rebuffed, they took their available dollars and invested $32 million in Jason Vargas, who has never posted an ERA within half a run of what Santana did last year. Other teams checked in on Santana during the offseason, heard the asking price and moved on; when some doubled back, the numbers still hadn’t come down enough to coax an offer.

Speaking generally to USA Today, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin explained how the high price tags can affect interest. From Bob Nightengale’s piece:

Several GMs and executives say maybe it's time for these players to look in the mirror. They all rejected the $14.1 million qualifying offers from their original teams, and when they hit the market, some of the rumored contract requests scared teams.

"I do see these numbers that come out early that say, 'Oh, he's going to get $100 million,'" Brewers GM Doug Melvin says. "You read that stuff, and then you say, well, there's no sense in me even making a phone call if those are the numbers."


All agents want to push the numbers as high as they can, but some say privately that it is absolutely crucial to be tethered to an understanding of how the player is perceived in the market. One high-ranking executive said Friday that he is asked by agents all the time to offer assessments of what a fair deal for their clients would be -- like Rick Harrison from the TV show "Pawn Stars," who will call in an expert for an opinion before negotiating a price.

In the case of Santana, there was a total disconnect between the asking price and how the industry viewed him from the outset of the offseason.

Because of this, somebody is going to get him for a good price.

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Ubaldo JimenezBrace Hemmelgarn/Getty ImagesUbaldo Jimenez had a 1.85 ERA in 13 starts after the All-Star break last season.
The concern within the Baltimore Orioles’ organization, as the negotiations with Ubaldo Jimenez began percolating over the last 48 hours, was that the Boston Red Sox or Toronto Blue Jays would snag the right-hander.

The Red Sox, after all, had known in recent weeks that Ryan Dempster would probably walk away from the last year of his contract, surrendering his $13.25 million salary for the upcoming season. Boston seemingly had the rotation spot open for Dempster, as well as the newfound financial flexibility.

The Blue Jays have had a quiet offseason, generally, and are positioned to take a starting pitcher … at the right price. The Orioles had at least some reason to guess that the Blue Jays or the Red Sox could jump in, so in order to land Jimenez -- to separate themselves from what they believed to be the pack -- Baltimore increased its offer from three years to four for Jimenez, and this is how the Orioles reached the agreement on Monday.

But behind the curtain, there is this: Sources say that neither the Red Sox nor the Blue Jays actually made any offer for Jimenez, and that the dialogue was not a matter of either team pursing the player, but of Jimenez’s representative pursuing the team.

No matter how we got here, however, the fact is that the Orioles felt they needed to do something.

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A predictable bidding war 

February, 6, 2014
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Bronson ArroyoAP Photo/Jaime Henry-WhiteBronson Arroyo isn't among the game's better starters, but some covet his predictability.
Bronson Arroyo has been like baseball’s version of an old, dependable pickup truck. The odometer is well over 100,000 miles at this point, but year after year, he always starts, in all kinds of weather...

2004: 27 starts, 178.2 innings
2005: 32 starts, 205.1 innings
2006: 35 starts, 240.2 innings
2007: 34 starts, 210.2 innings
2008: 34 starts, 200 innings
2009: 33 starts, 220.1 innings
2010: 33 starts 215.2 innings
2011: 32 starts 199 innings
2012: 32 starts 202 innings
2013: 32 starts 202 innings

That's one whole decade of taking the ball on the day you’re supposed to pitch, start after start. An evaluator who works for a team currently bidding on Arroyo says that there will be days that the right-hander might give up a crooked number in the first inning, but when you look up in the fifth or sixth inning, Arroyo usually has been through the lineup twice -- and at the very least, he’s competed, kept your team within range and saved your relievers for the day.

“He’s not a bullpen-killer,” said the evaluator. “Some pitchers just kill your bullpen, but Bronson will get you into the middle of the game. He’s predictable.”

Among remaining starters on the free-agent market

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Top 10 defenses in the majors 

December, 29, 2013
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Manny MachadoMitchell Layton/Getty ImagesBaltimore's Manny Machado earned the American League Platinum Glove Award last season.
There probably has been more focus on evaluating and maximizing defensive efficiency than any other part of baseball in the last five years. If we're looking for explanations about why offensive production has been declining, increased defensive production might be responsible.

In Part IV of our series, we look at the top 10 defenses in Major League Baseball.

1. Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles posted pictures of their Gold Glove winners in their spring training facility, and with good reason: Buck Showalter’s club has continued the organizational tradition -- fostered by the likes of Paul Blair, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Cal Ripken Jr. and others -- of strong defense. The best of the group is third baseman Manny Machado (“The best at his position, and it’s not close,” said one evaluator), although we don’t know what condition he'll be in during his first months back on the field since having knee surgery.

They have Gold Glove defenders at shortstop (J.J. Hardy), center field (Adam Jones) and at catcher (Matt Wieters). Right fielder Nick Markakis and first baseman Chris Davis are solid defenders, and newcomer David Lough posted one of the best UZR/150 ratings among outfielders with at least 650 innings last season.

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Orioles facing a run of tough choices 

November, 17, 2013
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WietersRob Carr/Getty ImagesChemistry alone can't keep the core of the Orioles together. It'll take a pile of money, too.
The Red Sox have won the World Series three times in the past 10 seasons. The Yankees have made the playoffs all but two seasons since 1995, capitalizing on a record payroll. The Tampa Bay Rays are generally viewed within the industry as having the best-run baseball operations department and the most symbiotic organization.

Welcome to the world that the Baltimore Orioles inhabit, where they must try to find elbow room. The Orioles won 93 games in 2012 and made the postseason for the first time in 15 years, but they drifted back to 85 wins this past summer and now face a winter of extremely difficult decisions.

The Orioles’ payroll grew from $67 million in 2009 to $92 million in 2013, and because of raises built into signed contracts for the likes of Nick Markakis and Adam Jones, and because Baltimore has more than a half-dozen arbitration-eligible players, the payroll could easily climb to $100 million without a significant upgrade.

This goes a long way to explaining why Orioles GM Dan Duquette cast a wide net at the GM meetings last week, encouraging teams to present their best offers

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Mets' struggles creating value 

September, 28, 2013
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Sandy AldersonRich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Mets' disappointing season has likely earned Sandy Alderson's club a protected draft pick.
The New York Mets’ loss Friday was the 87th of their season. And it was a really important loss.

With that defeat, the Mets moved back into position to have the No. 10 pick in the 2014 draft -- and if this holds over the last two days of the regular season against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Mets’ first-round pick would be among those 10 that are protected against draft-pick compensation.

This past winter, the Mets’ pick was not protected, which affected their aggressiveness in trying to sign Michael Bourn and others. If they finish the year lined up for the No. 10 pick (or better), it could nudge them into pursuit of one of the better free-agent position players who will be available this winter. If they signed a Shin-Soo Choo or a Jacoby Ellsbury, the Mets would have to surrender only a second-round pick in compensation.

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Roy Halladay's World Series quest 

September, 14, 2013
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Roy HalladayHoward Smith/USA TODAY SportsCould Roy Halladay end up pitching for a contender next season?
It’s worth remembering how much Roy Halladay wanted to pitch for the Phillies, in successfully pushing for a trade to Philadelphia prior to the 2010 season. If he had waited to become a free agent at the end of that season, he might have been in line for a $100 million deal, but Halladay’s home is near the Phillies’ spring training facility in Clearwater, Fla.

So, his side worked out a three-year deal worth $20 million per season and he happily joined Philadelphia. He wanted some sense of normalcy for his kids, and he wanted a legitimate chance to win a World Series, and with the Phillies -- who would go on to win 97 regular-season games in 2010 and 102 games in 2011 -- he had the possibility of achieving both.

But that didn’t happen; the Phillies lost in the 2010 playoffs to the Giants and in the 2011 playoffs to the Cardinals, with both of those opponents going on to win the World Series. Some of Halladay’s friends think that if the Phillies had won the World Series in 2011, he already would be retired. “He’s all about winning the championship now,” said someone who has known Halladay for many years.

Halladay regressed in 2012, posting a 4.49 ERA, and this year has been a summer of enormous frustration for him. Halladay has been one of the game’s great plow horses in his career, repeatedly throwing deep into games; but, in 11 starts this season, he has compiled 55 2/3 innings, with 31 walks and a 7.28 ERA.

Halladay probably has enough equity with the Phillies -- and has engendered enough respect -- that he could work out something with Philadelphia. But his friends think that he’ll be open to more possibilities than that, and that money really is irrelevant at this stage. They think Halladay’s absolute priority is to land with a club capable of winning the World Series.

A club such as the following:

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Why MLB must ban plate collisions 

September, 7, 2013
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Prince FielderAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezA hard collision at home plate caused Giants catcher Buster Posey to miss much of 2011.
A talent evaluator who works in baseball imagined the future testimony aimed at a team -- or all of Major League Baseball -- in a lawsuit filed by a catcher seriously injured while blocking home plate.

"'I was told in spring training by my catching instructor that this is something I need to do,'" the evaluator said, imitating the words that any catcher could say. "'I didn't block home one day and he called me a -----, and he said that blocking home plate is something that every catcher is expected to do.'"

The evaluator jumped into another role, imagining himself as the catcher's lawyer: "'What happened next?'"

Evaluator as catcher: "'I blocked home plate, as I was instructed to do, and now I can't walk.'"

This testimony could be especially effective, the evaluator noted, if it comes from someone sitting in a wheelchair, and if you think that can't happen, maybe you should watch this video of the hit that Harrisburg catcher Brian Jeroloman took in a Double-A playoff game the other night, when he was run over by Erie's Brandon Douglas.

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Where Robinson Cano could go 

August, 25, 2013
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CanoAP Photo/Gail BurtonYankees second baseman Robinson Cano's 4.8 WAR is among the best in baseball.
LOS ANGELES -- If the Yankees don't make the playoffs, then as of this morning, there are 33 games left in the career of Mariano Rivera.

But everybody saw that coming. There may also be only 33 games remaining in Robinson Cano's tenure with the Yankees if he leaves as a free agent when the season is over. He is their best player and they need him, and yet in recent years, teams have held the line with their own superstars -- for instance, the Cardinals with Albert Pujols and the Rangers with Josh Hamilton -- and those choices have been quickly vindicated.

The Yankees have their own experience in deciding whether to invest in a long-term star (Alex Rodriguez), and that hasn't turned out so well.

Cano is represented by Jay-Z and CAA, and the expectation among executives is that they will be looking to plant a flag with their contract -- something in the A-Rod/Pujols neighborhood.

But a big question that has come up among some rival officials is this: What teams will compete against the Yankees to sign him to create that leverage?

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When baseball changed in Baltimore 

August, 16, 2013
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Adam JonesESPN IllustrationAdam Jones has seen losing in Baltimore. He says it all changed with Buck Showalter.
August 3rd, 2010 is a day that changed not only my life but changed the culture in Baltimore and even changed Orioles fans. That was the day Buck Showalter was hired.

We had heard so many different things. There was, “He is very detail-oriented" or, "He’s a tireless worker.” And we quickly learned that all of it was very true. The players I talked to ultimately described his demands in a way that I think fits perfectly with the type of player that I am: You have one job to do; come and do your job. And since the day he arrived, I think everybody in this entire organization, top to bottom, has taken a different approach when it comes to baseball.

Showalter gets the biggest ovation of anyone, hands-down, when his name is introduced before the game, because he’s brought resilience, a never-say-die attitude and a winning mentality back to Baltimore. Now our fans are getting to see a resurgence and style of baseball that is reminiscent of the Orioles of the past. I remember myself as a kid, watching the Orioles on TV and, even as they struggled, thinking it would be cool to play in that city. Getting to play here and winning makes a big difference.

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Baseball and Big Boards 

August, 13, 2013
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Mel KiperESPN IllustrationMel Kiper's love of baseball rivals his passion for football.
Buster Olney is on vacation this week, so for the second straight year, guest columnists are writing the lead of his column in his absence. On Sunday, D-backs reliever Brad Ziegler talked about MLBPA head Michael Weiner, who is battling cancer. A's reliever Sean Doolittle discussed what it's like to play for the team synonymous with "Moneyball." Today, ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. discusses his love of baseball, as well as some great baseball players who could have cut it in the NFL.

I’m looking at the Mel Kiper NFL Draft Guide from 1979 -- this was Volume No. 1. I was new to the business and, in reality, it wasn’t a business at all. I was 18. In it I added a profile for a player I had a good hunch would never play a down in the NFL. But he was such a great player I couldn’t help it, so he took up some ink.

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Michael Weiner a true class act

August, 11, 2013
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Brad ZieglerESPN IllustrationArizona pitcher Brad Ziegler makes a Sunday column relief appearance for Buster Olney.
Buster Olney is on vacation this week, so for the second straight year, guest columnists are writing the lead of his column in his absence. Today, D-backs reliever Brad Ziegler chimes in on what makes union leader Michael Weiner such a special person.

This is a crazy game. If you had told me when I was growing up that I'd have at least six seasons of time in major league baseball, I'd have been absolutely ecstatic. While it was always a dream of mine to play, it also always seemed so far out of reach. Yet, here I am, blessed with so many things in my life, including a career that I truly enjoy. There are many other things, too: an amazing family (including the two friendliest dogs in existence), financial security and good health.

Good health -- something I'm thankful for every day. Something that not everyone in this life shares.

One of the most respected people in this game is in the fight of his life, and anyone -- everyone -- who has any part of this game is pulling for him. Players, coaches, general managers, owners, writers, umpires. Everyone.

As many of you know, Michael Weiner is currently serving as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association -- our union. And anyone who follows the game also knows that a year ago, Michael was diagnosed with a Stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive and inoperable brain cancer.

I've been a player representative for the union since the start of the 2009 season. In the middle of that season, I got a phone call from Donald Fehr, informing me that he was retiring as executive director. After a few conference calls, we selected the obvious replacement that December: Michael Weiner. I hadn't yet met Michael. My agent, Rob Martin, had met him a few times and heard him speak a couple of times, so I asked what he was like. "The man is a human computer," he said. "He can probably quote you the entire basic agreement."

In my time getting to know Michael at various union events or even through casual phone calls, I can honestly say I have seen zero instances to dispute my agent's assessment. However, I can also honestly say that while his knowledge of the basic agreement and labor law in general is impressive, it isn't even close to his best asset.

His best feature is, far and away, who he is as a person. He's a devoted family man. He often speaks of his wife, Diane, and his three lovely daughters, and you can tell how much he cares for them. Furthermore, he genuinely cares about every single ballplayer. Never once has he started a conversation with me in which the first topic wasn't about how my family and I were doing. I'm guessing he's the same way with every other player. Those who've taken the time to get to know him know exactly what I'm talking about.

[+] EnlargeMichael Weiner
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIMichael Weiner's leadership on the issue of PEDs has been pivotal, writes Brad Ziegler.
As far as his professionalism, there's one thing that has really stood out to me: He genuinely cares about improving the game of baseball. Don't get me wrong, he wants things to be as good as possible for the players. And he can get downright angry and ruthless when he feels like the owners are attempting to encroach on the principles we, as a union, have stood on since our inception. But he also gets the big picture: What is best for the game in the long run?

In my opinion, never has this been more evident than when dealing with our Joint Drug Agreement. Michael has listened to the players. We want the game clean. No more PEDs. Period. We want to be the era that, down the road, is widely accepted as the group of players who cleaned up baseball. We certainly want to punish those who are caught with something illegal in their system, even if it's not intentionally ingested with the mindset of gaining an edge on the field.

As for those who intentionally cheat? Ban them for a year. Or ban them for life. As for voiding their contracts, well, that time may be coming. Players are sick and tired of guys trying to beat the system, and at this point, we have no tolerance. We are tired of this being the focus of our sport, year after year. Baseball is an amazing game -- perfect in so many ways -- and we must keep the attention on the field, where it should be.

It has to be a tough spot for Michael to be in when it comes to this topic. He's supposed to represent all players and get the best possible outcome for them in every situation, right? No. Michael's response: "If they cheated, they should be punished -- I'm just here to help make sure they get a fair trial."

To me, that is someone who genuinely cares about our game and the way it's perceived publicly. We all leave a legacy in life, and he wants the game to be better when his time in the game is over than it was when he first got involved.

I recently had a casual conversation with an MLB general manager. We discussed Michael's medical situation, and he said something that really stuck out to me: "That guy is incredible. He's the best thing that's ever happened to this game."

And even if he said it in passing, I'm not sure he's far off.

Michael's legacy on this game has already been established. And whether he continues to build on it for the next 40 years, or if he's taken from this life sometime sooner, he continues to leave a mark on this game -- and on people's lives -- that won't ever be forgotten. It is an absolute privilege to work alongside you, Michael. And it's an even greater pleasure to call you my friend.

Notes and links (from Buster)

Hanley Ramirez will try out his right shoulder on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Dodgers never lose: After Zack Greinke's strong effort Saturday, they've now won 36 of their last 44. The Rays pulled off a hidden-ball trick.

• The Braves' winning streak ended.

Jordan Schafer was activated from the disabled list, and Fredi Gonzalez intends to use him. 

We had the Braves on "Sunday Night Baseball" the last two weekends, and our crew talked to Gonzalez about how he would structure his lineup down the stretch and into the playoffs. Gonzalez wasn't specific -- and he doesn't need to be -- but I walked away from those conversations convinced that his standards will be simple. He will play the best lineup he believes gives him the best chance of winning, regardless of contract size and track record. He reiterated that the Braves' collapse in 2011 changed the way he thinks, because now he's much more willing to make changes.

If B.J. Upton struggles early in September, he won't play as much in late September, I'd guess, and Schafer's presence gives Gonzalez an attractive alternative, especially against right-handed pitchers.

Brian McCann has a sore knee and was out of the lineup. The Braves' lead in the AL East gives Gonzalez the flexibility to liberally rest veterans such as McCann, and McCann has shown enough this season to demonstrate to teams that might be interested in him in the winter that he'll continue to be a productive player. He might be the most sought-after free agent of the winter, given that he could fit so many teams: Texas, Washington, the Yankees, Boston, San Francisco (with he and Buster Posey sharing catcher/first base duties), Philadelphia, the White Sox, etc.

Miguel Cabrera did it again. His current triple crown standing:

Batting average: .363 (first, by 33 points)

Home runs: 35 (he trails Chris Davis, who has 42)

RBIs: 109 (tied for first with Davis)

• White Sox GM Rick Hahn and the players believe in Robin Ventura, writes Paul Sullivan. 

Ryan Ludwick is nearing his return, and undoubtedly, the Reds need him to come back and produce. The Reds have been a middle-of-the-pack offensive team since the All-Star break. 

Jason Hammel is hopeful that his forearm issue doesn't keep him out a long time. 

Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes are getting more playing time, Paul Hoynes writes. 

• The Rangers regained first place with help from Alex Rios

Will Middlebrooks is getting a welcome chance to reboot, writes Nick Cafardo. 

Jayson Werth had a really big day

• The Astros are on pace to finish 52-110, with a run differential of minus-242. 

Jacoby Ellsbury led the Red Sox to victory. 

• The Rockies are collapsing, and it's open season on internal evaluations

Adam Eaton has been finding his groove at the plate. 

• The Phillies need to make a decision on Charlie Manuel, writes Bob Brookover. 

In some parts of the Philadelphia organization, it's already taken as a fait accompli that Manuel and some staffers will be let go. But it'll be interesting to see if the logic used in the re-signing of Chase Utley -- he's an important part of the team's history, and he is still productive -- will be used in Manuel's case. Because if the Phillies don't believe Manuel is the best person for the job now, they should've already fired him, and if they think that like Utley, he can still do the job, they should extend him.

Other stuff

• There is a reported BALCO and Biogenesis link: Alex Rodriguez.

The tide has turned when it comes to MLB cheats, writes Tom Haudricourt. 

Rodriguez is on a short leash with Yankees fans, writes Bob Klapisch.

• The ousted St. Louis radio duo of Jack Clark and Kevin Slaten are weighing their options

• Ken Griffey Jr. was part of the ceremony in which he was inducted into the Mariners' Hall of Fame. He's a really complicated person.

And today will be better than yesterday.

Winter ball worries; top 10 moves

August, 9, 2013
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Puerto RicoAP Photo/Brennan LinsleyWinter ball has long been a place for vets to prove they still have it, or for players injured during the year to get valuable reps.
Every winter, teams encourage players to go to winter ball to learn, to play, and the vast majority of those who join a team in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela or Mexico or Puerto Rico talk about how much they glean from the experience.

The What-Have-You-Done-For-Me-Lately Factor is not higher anywhere than it is in winter ball, because the teams do not care if you’re a former first-round pick or a veteran of 10 years in the majors. If you don’t produce, you’re going to lose your job during the short and intense season.

Winter ball veterans who grew up in the U.S. or Canada talk about the benefit of being out of your comfort zone, and being forced to adapt to a new culture, as Latin American players do when they first sign with teams in Major League Baseball. But this year, it’s not a sure thing that MLB will allow players under its umbrella to participate in winter ball.

Here’s the issue: The Caribbean Federation is welcoming Cuba back into its championship series for the first time since 1960, as first reported back in June. This is a problem for Major League Baseball, which, like all businesses, is under pressure from the federal government here to not fuel a revenue stream into Cuba.

Under U.S. law, MLB is restricted from entering into any agreement with a league that includes Cuban membership without proper authorization. MLB and the Caribbean Confederation had a meeting about this Wednesday in an effort to reach a new agreement, according to a source with knowledge of the talks. The discussions will continue.

Notables

• The Orioles are said to be the most aggressive in placing waiver claims, which makes sense, given their current position in the standings, with the sixth-best record in the American League. The Orioles trail in the wild-card race by 1 1/2 games, and therefore can control access that any of the teams above them have to players on waivers.

Bryce Harper would have liked to have seen a little retaliation after he got drilled the other day.

He was on Comcast and said this:

“I think if I’m the pitcher on my team, I think I’m gonna drill somebody,” he said of the lack of retribution on Tuesday. “It’s something that’s part of the game, you know, yesterday, and it’s also something that I think could light a fire for us. But, like I said, we’re 14 1/2 games back and we don’t need anybody getting ejected or doing anything like that. We got a great team and we gotta push to the end.”


• There was a moment in Max Scherzer’s start Thursday in which he seemed to lose the strike zone, for just a moment. So he circled behind the mound and took a deep breath and gathered himself, something he didn’t always do in past years, when sometimes he couldn’t stop an inning from snowballing.

Then Scherzer climbed back up the hill and applied the last bit of wrecking ball to what remained of the Indians. When the series began, it had been possible for the Tigers to be overtaken in the standings, and instead, Detroit buried Cleveland, seven games deep, and the Indians finished the series with Ryan Raburn on the mound.

From ESPN Stats & Information: Scherzer became the first pitcher in Tigers history to be 17-1 after the first 18 decisions and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the fifth pitcher in MLB history with at least 17 wins in his first 18 decisions of a season. He joins Rube Marquard (1912), Roger Clemens (2001), Roy Face (1959) and Don Newcombe (1955). Marquard had 18 wins, the others 17.

Entering Thursday, Scherzer ranked fifth in MLB with 78 strikeouts using his fastball. On Thursday hitters were 1-for-14 against that pitch, but he didn't record a single strikeout with the fastball and his Miss Percentage (3.7) was his the third-lowest since 2009. So how did he have so much success with his go-to pitch? Scherzer used his defense -- his In-Play Percentage of 51.9 was his highest since Aug. 2, 2011. His defense responded by not making an error while he was on the mound and the only hit he gave up via the fastball was a bases-empty, two-out single in the sixth to Jason Kipnis on a tough pitch down and away.

• The Indians will hang in there, Terry Francona said after the game. They’ve been awful against the Tigers and really good against the rest of baseball.

The news wasn’t all good for the Tigers: Alex Avila returned to Detroit for concussion tests.

• Meanwhile: The Royals won again, and now are just 1 1/2 games behind the Indians and 4 1/2 games out of the wild card.

• Mark Melancon’s cut fastball has become a significant weapon, with a late, hard downward break, down and in to left-handed batters -- with so much movement that hitters are mostly flailing at pitches out of the strike zone. Melancon is throwing the pitch about 60 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs, more than double his use of the pitch in 2012.

Like Mariano Rivera, Melancon can run his cutter in on the hands of left-handed hitters, as he does on this pitch. Left-handed batters have posted a .344 OPS against him this season, with two extra-base hits in 94 plate appearances.

• The Dodgers: You can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them.

Best moves
[+] EnlargeErvin Santana
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsThe addition of Ervin Santana has been a coup for the Royals.

Jerry Crasnick has a piece that will post later today about the best moves of the offseason. Here’s my Top 10:

1. The Royals’ deal for Ervin Santana. At the time, some teams passed on Santana because they thought he was in irretrievable regression, but he has given K.C. exactly what they had hoped to buy.

2. The Atlanta blockbuster for Justin Upton and Chris Johnson. Not only did they get the middle-of-the-order slugger they wanted in Upton, but Johnson is leading the league in hitting.

3. The Orioles re-signed Nate McLouth for $2 million. McLouth made this deal happen in the 24th hour.

4. The Indians’ signing of Scott Kazmir, who rediscovered his velocity and hard slider.

5. The Rays’ low-budget signing of James Loney. They always manage to find one or two gems every year.

6. The Pirates’ signing of Francisco Liriano.

7. The Cubs’ signing of Nate Schierholtz.

8. The Tigers’ signing of Matt Tuiasosopo.

9. Shawn Kelley for the Yankees. They made a minor deal for him, and he has been excellent.

10. Cleveland’s acquisition of Yan Gomes. They got him, along with Mike Aviles, as part of a deal for Esmil Rogers, and he has been a real plus for them.

A-Rod

Alex Rodriguez returns to Yankee Stadium tonight. He says he’s looking forward to it.

According to Chris Matcovich of TiqIQ.com, the secondary ticket market for this game has erupted. He notes: On July 31, the average price for Friday’s game was $80.14. It has increased 39.94 percent since then to $112.15. Quantity is down 46.78 percent from Monday to about 5,000 tickets available.

The current get-in price is $49 (up 104.17 percent from Monday afternoon, when it was $24). The next-highest get-in price during the weekend series is Saturday, at $26.

It’s probably not a good thing for a ballplayer when the New York Times is doing favorable/unfavorable polls on you -- and the results for A-Rod are not favorable.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Mark Reynolds just stopped hitting, and he was cut by the Indians. Reynolds is owed about $1.7 million by the Indians for the rest of the season, so it’s hard to imagine that he would be claimed on waivers.

2. The Rangers did not come close to making a deal for Alex Rios before the trade deadline, so it’s hard to imagine they could get something done now. The bottom line is this: Other teams see Rios as somewhat overpriced at $12.5 million and weren’t willing to give up much in a trade for him, and the White Sox have been looking for solid return. Before the deadline, writes T.R. Sullivan, the White Sox wanted a package of three players for Rios -- so it’s hard to imagine they’d just give him away now.

3. Mike Rizzo must soon decide who to pick as a replacement for Davey Johnson, writes Amanda Comak, and she mentions that Washington could target Bo Porter, who is currently the manager of the Astros. Some of Rizzo’s friends in the game believe he will pick Matt Williams.

4. Ruben Amaro is taking a huge chance in re-signing Chase Utley, writes Bob Brookover.

Two things: First, these are decisions that are made at the highest level of the organization, so whenever we talk about the Phillies’ choices, everything -- the good and the bad -- shouldn’t be dropped at Amaro’s feet alone. And second, the part that I don’t get is essentially reinvesting in a team product that has been steadily regressing for two years. As the old saying goes: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Utley could earn $75 million.

5. The Athletics claimed Adam Rosales, as Susan Slusser writes.

6. Oakland is injecting Sonny Gray into its rotation.

Dings and dents

1. Omar Infante could be back soon.

2. The Cubs lost a reliever for the rest of the season.

3. Rickie Weeks landed on the disabled list. He is under contract for $11 million in 2014, with an option for $11.5 million in 2015.

4. Tim Wood’s comeback is officially over.

5. Andrew McCutchen is dealing with some shoulder discomfort.

6. Chris Archer expects to make his next start.

7. An Astros rookie is set to return.

Thursday’s games

1. The Cardinals are not faring well in a series of games that is testing them, writes Derrick Goold.

2. Jeff Samardzija was hit around.

3. For the third straight day, the Pirates came back to win.

4. Dillon Gee closed out a sweep.

5. Tim Lincecum had a great outing.

AL East

Dylan Bundy says he feels fine and is right where he wants to be.

Manny Machado continues to grow as a player.

Jacoby Ellsbury is back to pulling the ball with authority, writes Brian MacPherson.

• Mike Rutsey asks: What should the Blue Jays do with Adam Lind?

AL Central

• The Twins want to maximize their spots in the Arizona Fall League.

AL West

Mike Trout is unlikely to be part of the MVP debate given the Angels’ struggles, writes Alden Gonzalez. I’d respectfully disagree and here’s why: Miguel Cabrera has been dealing with some nagging injuries and if Detroit maintains its sizable lead in the AL Central, he might get more days off than he usually does, giving Trout an opportunity to build a significant statistical advantage.

I believe this, too: If Cabrera hadn’t won the Triple Crown last year -- if he had led the AL in hitting and RBIs but not in home runs -- I think Trout would have won the MVP. But once Cabrera became the first player in 45 years to get a Triple Crown, voters looked past Trout’s overall statistical advantage.

The same split of opinion among baseball people remains in place, I think -- the folks in uniform think Cabrera is one of the greatest players of all time, while a lot of front-office types believe Trout is the better player, and not by a small margin.

Brad Miller continues to learn, writes Ryan Divish.

• Without Nelson Cruz, the Rangers are a pitching team now, writes Gerry Fraley.

NL East

Matt Harvey says his knee is fine.

Jose Fernandez was really good, but the rest of the Marlins, not so much, as Andre Fernandez writes.

• The Braves are putting it all together, writes Mark Bowman.

NL Central

• Mike Matheny’s policy doesn’t make sense, writes Bernie Miklasz.

Jonathan Broxton is excited to be back with the Reds.

NL West

Randall Delgado is on a learning curve, as Nick Piecoro writes.

• The Rockies are broken, writes Mark Kiszla.

• A Padres reliever is having a breakout season.

Carl Crawford looks back on his days with the Rays with some fondness, writes Marc Topkin.

Other stuff

• The Twins’ CEO is noncommittal about the future of manager Ron Gardenhire.

• Some Blue Jays put the Latin drug connection into context, as Richard Griffin writes.

• It has not been a good summer for Vanderbilt basketball.

And today will be better than yesterday.

The future of Alex Rodriguez 

August, 4, 2013
8/04/13
9:27
AM ET
Alex RodriguezRick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAlex Rodriguez could face a ban through the 2014 season for PED use.
PHILADELPHIA -- The news conference that Alex Rodriguez gave the other night was astonishing because it was like he stole the script that Ryan Braun had used 17 months before.

Rodriguez was indignant, he was resolute, he hinted at conspiracy, and above all, he professed his love for baseball, which apparently is the thing you're supposed to say after you trample all over the sport. The problem for Rodriguez is that everybody has seen the act before, including commissioner Bud Selig, who is said to be very comfortable now in the role of a steroid-fighting Wyatt Earp.

Once extremely tentative in his steps toward the high ground years ago, Selig figured out before the commissioners of the other major sports that when you're running a multibillion-dollar industry, spending tens of millions in a hyper-aggressive effort to keep your sport clean is like buying pest control for your house: It's worth the investment.

Baseball officials were appalled and angered by Braun's performance at that news conference, the brazenness of the lies. And so Rodriguez, with his knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Selig isn't negotiating anymore, believing that he has the evidence to take down Rodriguez. Perhaps by Saturday night, Rodriguez fully realized how deeply he has buried himself in this mess because he declined to comment.

That won't last, of course, because Rodriguez can never really help himself for long.

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