Buster Olney: St. Louis Cardinals

Starlin CastroNuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty ImagesStarlin Castro and the Cubs are not getting help from their early-season schedule.

In following Tuesday's column ranking the American League's early-season schedules, Wednesday we have the National League. The teams are ranked toughest to easiest in caliber of early-season schedule.

1. Chicago Cubs

Games vs. teams with records of .500 or better in 2013: 31 of first 40.
Home/away: 18 of their first 40 are at home.
Notables: The Cubs basically get to run an NL Central gauntlet in the first quarter of the season, with 21 of their first 40 games against the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.

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Toughest lineup quandaries in MLB 

February, 1, 2014
Feb 1
Xander BogaertsRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesBoth Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia could see time leading off for the Red Sox in 2014.
When Joe Torre managed, he jotted down lineups in his time away from the park, mulling over various possibilities, internally debating certain combinations.

In other words: He was like a lot of baseball fans and reporters, who like to think through different lineup quandaries, especially in the cold of winter.

Around baseball, there are interesting lineup quandaries.

For the defending champion Red Sox: Who hits leadoff?

Boston’s leadoff hitters ranked first in on-base percentage last season and third in runs scored, but the guy primarily responsible for that is gone. So now John Farrell has to decide who will replace Jacoby Ellsbury in the No. 1 spot in his batting order.

He’s got a few imperfect candidates such as Dustin Pedroia, who actually has done some of his worst work when he’s hit leadoff, or Jackie Bradley, who doesn’t have a lot of experience, or maybe Xander Bogaerts, who may ultimately be needed to hit in the middle of the Boston order.

But the Red Sox are likely to open the year with Bradley at or near the bottom of their lineup to help ease his transition into the big leagues.

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Top 10 teams in the majors 

December, 31, 2013
Miguel CabreraMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWith Miguel Cabrera no longer out of position, the Tigers should be even better in 2014.
As 2013 becomes 2014, here's a look at the top 10 teams in MLB.

1. Detroit Tigers

Some of the teams that employ advanced metrics determined at the end of the last regular season that the Tigers were the best team in the American League -- by far. This, in spite of a bullpen that repeatedly went through changes at closer, and in spite of what was widely regarded as the worst defense in the majors. The Tigers won the AL Central for the third straight year, and again they couldn't win the World Series, losing to Boston in the ALCS. And since the end of the season, Detroit GM David Dombrowski has gone about the business of plugging the holes.

He allowed Jhonny Peralta to depart, cementing Jose Iglesias' spot at shortstop.

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Top 10 defenses in the majors 

December, 29, 2013
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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Mariners a free agency sleeping giant 

November, 23, 2013
Felix HernandezOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesStarter Felix Hernandez, signed through 2019, has Seattle's only long-term contract.
There are more than a few rising young executives -- and older executives, for that matter -- who are outside of the Seattle Mariners' organization and looking in, and they are wistful, wishing they could grab the Mariners’ steering wheel.

First and foremost, they love the city, curled around Puget Sound, surrounded by fir trees and hemlocks; they see it as a great place to live. They love the ballpark, underrated and underappreciated. They see potential in the passion of a fan base that is dormant after more than a decade of struggles.

They see the Mariners as the great sleeping giant in baseball.

They see a possible financial powerhouse, given that the Mariners own their own television network.

They see a team saturated with prospects taken near the top of the draft.

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10 biggest holes on contenders 

November, 13, 2013
A year ago, Marlon Byrd was coming off a season in which he had been suspended for the use of performance-enhancing drugs and was limited to just 47 games, and he eventually settled for a make-good minor league deal with the New York Mets.

Now he's 36 years old and getting a $16 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, which speaks to the level of desperation in play for teams wanting to get better, needing to get better.

As baseball executives meet in Orlando this week for the GM meetings, these are the 10 biggest holes that have to be filled among would-be contenders:

1. Texas Rangers: middle-of-the-order bats

Josh Hamilton walked away a year ago, Nelson Cruz is prepared to walk away now, and the Rangers -- who have historically posted top-notch, productive lineups in the way Duke has had good basketball teams -- have a problem. With Cruz, they clubbed 176 homers last season, and without him, they will lack thump.

This is why Brian McCann could make sense for them, or Carlos Beltran, or both. This is why they could be the best match for the Dodgers for an outfielder trade. This is why rival executives believe that if and when Giancarlo Stanton is traded, the Rangers will be at the front of the line and sticking their elbows out.

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Where Wacha went wrong 

November, 1, 2013
Michael WachaStan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesMichael Wacha abandoned his changeup in Game 6, and the results were disastrous.
BOSTON -- Opposing hitters tell stories about Yadier Molina's creativity in his pitch calling, how he tends to think ahead of them from pitch to pitch. Joey Votto, for example, will occasionally exchange thoughts with Molina during at-bats about the pitch just thrown, like rival poker masters reviewing the hand just played.

He is always thinking, and as Michael Wacha explained before the start of the World Series, it is great to know that Molina's experience and knowledge and pitch selection can be relied upon. He is the best defensive catcher in the game, with a brilliant baseball mind, which is why the young St. Louis pitchers defer to him.

Molina is not one to open his bank of intelligence to outsiders, but it would be interesting to know his thought process in the choices he and Wacha made during the rookie's short Game 6 start, and whether Molina had any morning-after regret.

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Strategy changes and mysteries 

October, 28, 2013
David OrtizRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesDavid Ortiz delivered a speech in Game 4; he's been delivering hits in every game.
ST. LOUIS -- It was just after midnight Monday morning, and the only folks left on the field at Busch Stadium were the camera crews and a other few stragglers, including colleague Tim Kurkjian, producer Shawn Fitzgerald and me.

“Do you have any idea who is going to win Game 5?” I asked Tim.

“I haven’t had any idea who is going to win this whole time,” Tim replied.

Nope. Because who knew that Game 3 would end with an obstruction call, for the first time ever in the postseason, and that Game 4 would end with a pickoff, for the first time ever in the World Series?

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McCannBrett Davis/USA TODAY SportsAs a free-agent catcher who can produce at the plate, Brian McCann could fetch top dollar.
ST. LOUIS – As the Cardinals and Red Sox play on, MLB’s other 28 teams are preparing for the offseason market that will begin next week. There has been some early trade talk, officials say, some feeling out for what could be available, and teams are preparing their budgets and trying to figure out where the spending will go.

There is some consensus on that point: The free-agent market is going to be flush with cash, some highly ranked evaluators predict, but not with quality free agents. Which bodes very well for the best of the lot.

As one executive noted, there figure to be situations in which the middle class of free agents will appear so uninspiring that a bidder will make a push for the top one or two players at a given position, rather than settle for something less from the pack. “It’s like what happened with Albert Pujols,” the executive said. “That deal was driven by [the specter] of TV money, where they are looking for a name. It’s an overpay, but they dive into it because of the splash.”

With teams set to receive the significant windfall from Major League Baseball’s new television contract, some evaluators expect that the best of the free agents could see the bidding for their services climb to unexpected heights.

If this happens, here are some stars who might benefit the most:

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Crowd seemed to sway the umps 

October, 24, 2013
BOSTON -- For years, showing instant replay of a controversial calls on the big screen in major league ballparks has been verboten, with the theory being that a wrong decision by an umpire might spur fan wrath that could spill onto the field.

Someone sitting at home watching television has had a better understanding of what had just happened than the folks who had paid premium seat prices to go to the ballpark, because of access to replay.

By rule, teams were not allowed to have television monitors in their dugouts to give them an immediate look at the instant replay, and this is why players, managers and coaches would go sprinting into their respective clubhouses to watch the television feed. When you watch NFL games, you often see coaches and players staring up at the big screen after a contested call to get a look at it, and reacting, along with the crowd. For many years, this has not been the case in Major League Baseball, because teams are told they can only show the replays in the concourses and in the private suites.

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Days of superstar managers are over 

October, 23, 2013
Joe Torre and Don MattinglyKelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsDon Mattingly will never attain the managerial superstar status of Joe Torre, his former boss.
BOSTON -- Bobby Valentine was hired to be the Red Sox manager in the fall of 2012 largely because he is a big name, a big personality -- and the theory of the club's ownership was that fans would be familiar with him and energized by him. The Marlins used the same logic in hiring Ozzie Guillen in the same offseason.

Both were fired in less than a year, of course, and they will be among the last of a fading concept: The Manager as Franchise Savior, the Manager as Franchise Leader, the Manager as Face of the Franchise.

The days of John McGraw, Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver being bigger than anybody else in the organization are over.

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10 pivotal World Series matchups 

October, 21, 2013
Here are 10 pivotal matchups to look out for when the World Series begins Wednesday night:

1. Red Sox hitters vs. the Cardinals bullpen

Let’s get right to it: Boston is in the World Series because of the damage done to Detroit's bullpen. Eleven of Boston’s 19 runs were plated with a reliever on the mound, including both the grand slams hit by David Ortiz and Shane Victorino.

But while bullpen depth was an Achilles’ heel for Detroit, the Cardinals are a completely different challenge, with a wave of relievers, each seemingly throwing harder than the last. The average fastball velocity for some of the St. Louis relievers (per FanGraphs):

Carlos Martinez 97.6 mph
John Axford 95.3 mph
Kevin Siegrist 95 mph
Seth Maness 90.4 mph
Trevor Rosenthal 96.4 mph

So far in the postseason, the Cardinals bullpen has allowed only six earned runs in 19 innings, with 23 strikeouts.

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Collision ban seen as inevitable 

October, 19, 2013
David Ross, Alex AvilaAP Photo/Matt SlocumAlex Avila suffered a strained patellar tendon when David Ross ran over him at home plate.
BOSTON -- In the aftermath of two home plate collisions in the American League Championship Series on Thursday, officials from other teams reiterated that they expect the topic of banning that play to be raised again in meetings this winter.

Given how quickly sentiment within the sport about collisions is shifting -- particularly as information about concussions has come to light, including the cost of concussion-related lawsuits faced by the National Football League -- some officials talk of change as inevitable and predict that it could come swiftly.

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Miguel Cabrera plots against pain 

October, 15, 2013
Miguel CabreraKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsMiguel Cabrera's battle against constant pain has caused him to alter his swing.
DETROIT -- This is the 25th anniversary of Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series, when none of us -- Jack Buck, first and foremost -- could believe what we just saw.

In the moments leading up to that at-bat, Gibson had taken some swings in the tunnel behind the Dodgers dugout, trying to figure out a way he could be functional at the plate. He had a knee injury and a hamstring injury and could barely move, making his usual setup and swing mechanics obsolete. Gibson had to take the working pieces of his body and make it all work.

Miguel Cabrera has been going through the same process in recent weeks. He has some sort of abdominal injury -- a best guess would be a sports hernia -- and he struggles to run, to move, to swing the bat. From Aug. 26 to Oct. 8, Cabrera had a total of two extra-base hits. But Cabrera, like Gibson, has been trying to figure out a way to make it work, and it has not gone unnoticed by the Red Sox that Cabrera has altered his swing mechanics to account for whatever he is feeling.

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Key matchups in the ALCS 

October, 12, 2013
BOSTON -- David Ortiz hosted his Red Sox teammates for a barbecue at the two acres of his home here Thursday, a night away from the grind. Sort of. There are six televisions in the Ortiz home, and what filled the screen of each was the Detroit Tigers, playing their Game 5 against the Oakland A's.

Boston and Detroit go back to work tonight in the American League Championship Series. Here are 10 crossroads to watch, as the Tigers or the Red Sox navigate their way to the World Series.

1. Detroit's starting pitchers versus the relentless Boston hitters

The backbone of the Tigers’ success is their rotation, which in this series will start with Anibal Sanchez, followed by Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and bat-breaking Doug Fister. In the regular season, Detroit starters led the majors in innings (1,023) and had about 10 percent more strikeouts than any other rotation.

The Tigers’ rotation is the modern-day version of the Braves’ rotations of the '90s. But what the Red Sox hitters do better than anybody is wear on starting pitchers. Through their collective at-bats, they damage pitch counts like no other team.

Total number of pitches seen in 2013, by team:

Red Sox -- 25,664

Twins -- 25,027

Athletics -- 24,500

Indians -- 24,409

Mets -- 24,331

Diamondbacks -- 24,288

Rays -- 24,219

Mariners -- 24,138

Tigers -- 24,040

Blue Jays -- 23,955

Reds -- 23,955

When Leyland spoke with the media Friday, he said the same thing that a lot of the Red Sox hitters have been saying: Boston’s ability for extended at-bats is not about taking pitches. Taking strikes, he said, would be good for the Tigers.

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