Buster Olney: Insider MLB

videoThe best part of Leon Roberts’ job happened again Tuesday night, when George Springer was summoned into the manager’s office in Colorado Springs. Springer probably had some idea of what was to come, said Roberts, the hitting coach of the Oklahoma City RedHawks.

The word passed down from the Houston Astros’ front office reached Oklahoma City manager Tom Lawless late in the game, and Springer was pulled out for the ninth inning. On Tuesday he was 3-for-4 with four RBIs and four runs scored -- in other words, just another day for Springer, who had batted .353 with an OPS of 1.106 for the RedHawks.

When players are told they’re going to the big leagues, Roberts said, they usually react in one of two ways: Either they break down and cry, or they are speechless. Springer, Roberts said, was “more shocked and subdued. But he was playing like his hair was on fire.”

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Kyle Lohse, Carlos Gomez, Khris Davis Getty ImagesKyle Lohse, Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis have all been major contributors this season.
Last September, Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin stood and watched the remnants of the 2013 Brewers take batting practice on a Saturday. No Ryan Braun. No Aramis Ramirez. No Jean Segura. But what Melvin conveyed, amid the tatters of a lost season, was hope.

He liked the projected lineup for 2014, he said, with Khris Davis probably moving into a starting role. He thought Yovani Gallardo -- who seemingly never really recovered from the WBC in 2013 -- would bounce back. Melvin seemed intrigued by what the Brewers could be, and so far, that vision has been borne out.

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Matt MooreAP Photo/Orlin WagnerRays starter Matt Moore left Monday's game early with elbow soreness.
The Rays aren’t sure whether starter Matt Moore will need surgery, as Marc Topkin writes. But given what we saw the other night, with Moore recoiling from a pitch the way that Braves starter Kris Medlen did in March, it would surprise no one if it turns out he faces Tommy John surgery, and an uncertain future.

Looking back, it’s a good thing Moore signed that $14 million deal back in 2011.

Many of baseball’s best young players have been taking deals that buy out their first or second years of free agency, with an option year or two attached. Chris Archer did this recently, locking himself into a six-year deal that could become an eight-year deal and guarantees him $25.5 million. So did the Pirates' Starling Marte, who signed a six-year, $31 million deal.

This has spurred a lot of debate within the industry if the players are conceding too much, if they are leaving money on the table.

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Bobby ParnellElsa/Getty ImagesMets closer Bobby Parnell is expected to miss considerable time with a torn elbow ligament.
The Pirates' Jameson Taillon, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, is the latest to go through the process of having his elbow checked. The Mets, who have been models of restraint in the handling of their young pitchers, announced that closer Bobby Parnell has a partially torn elbow ligament.

From Tim Rohan’s story:
The Mets are often asked what reasons they have to be optimistic. Lately, their unequivocal response has been starting pitching. It is their obvious strength, now and for the future. They consider Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero precious assets. The Mets plan to be cautious with them, bring them along at the right pace and eventually ride them to relevance.

Much depends on how the Mets develop these promising pitchers.

That was why it seemed particularly concerning when the Mets announced Tuesday that Bobby Parnell, their closer, had a partly torn ulnar collateral ligament. Parnell will try rehabilitation to avoid Tommy John surgery, but if he has the operation, he will be the third Mets pitcher to have it in about nine months, following Jeremy Hefner and Harvey. Jenrry Mejia had it in 2011.

Every case is different, but general manager Sandy Alderson indicated that the Mets would review how they handled pitchers and their rehabilitation programs. He called the pitching injuries an "industrywide problem." Several top-flight pitchers had the operation during spring training this year, including the Atlanta Braves' Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, who each had it for a second time.

"It's something we constantly look at," Alderson said Wednesday. "But I don't think we have -- or the industry has -- any solid answers. That’s for sure."


Alderson speaks the essential truth: The industry has been trying to find solid answers and they don’t have much to show for it. They’ve been constructing pitch counts and innings limits and adhering to them closely, doing everything they can to develop pitchers while protecting them at the same time, and pitchers continue to break down.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it's possible that the constricted pitch counts have made little to no difference. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible that the innings limits have made little to no difference.

The one conclusion that a lot of general managers have reached is that there is no one-size-fits-all set of rules, no magic formula.

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Jurickson ProfarJoe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsJurickson Profar is expected to miss 10 to 12 weeks due to a muscle tear in his right shoulder.
The New York Yankees’ camp opened in 2013 with Derek Jeter still hobbling, despite a doctor’s projection that he would be ready to go at the start of the season, and Alex Rodriguez was sidelined, as well. Day by day, the team’s casualty list grew: Curtis Granderson got hurt, and so did Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis.

The Yankees’ front office scrambled to fill the spots in the last days of spring training, adding Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay and others. Joe Girardi handled the adversity well, setting a strong tone for his players, who spent all summer maxing out in preparation and effort.

But in the end, the Yankees were overwhelmed by the impact of their injuries. There was nothing they could do to change the reality that losing their first baseman, shortstop, third baseman and left fielder -- as well as catcher Russell Martin, who had signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates -- crushed their production. The Yankees hadn’t finished out of the top 10 in runs scored since 1991, and last summer 15 teams scored more runs than they did. The club won 85 games, surprisingly, but failed to make the playoffs.

It’s as if a curse that hung over the Yankees’ camp last spring has now been attached to the Texas Rangers, given everything that has gone wrong in Surprise, Ariz., where the team trains. The day after the Rangers announced that second baseman Jurickson Profar will miss 10 to 12 weeks, they revealed that catcher Geovany Soto will also be gone 10 to 12 weeks -- following a wave of other injuries.

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The future is now for Tigers 

March, 22, 2014
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Brad Ausmus, Victor MartinezAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBrad Ausmus, right, has high expectations for the Tigers in his first year as manager.
The presumption within baseball is that the Detroit Tigers have been absorbing financial losses for years, owing to Mike Ilitch’s deep desire for a World Series title.

Consider the payrolls of clubs similar in market size and geography. The Cleveland Indians operate in a similar-sized market as the Tigers, and last year they had a payroll of just under $80 million. The Cincinnati Reds’ was just under $110 million. The Milwaukee Brewers' payroll was about $85 million. The Pittsburgh Pirates spent about $80 million.

The Tigers, on the other hand, had a payroll of about $150 million despite inhabiting a city that has had tremendous financial trouble. Ilitch, who is 84, has done everything he can to build a winner in Detroit, and the fans have certainly responded: The Tigers finished fifth in AL attendance in 2012 and third in 2013. Some rival executives, including owners, have marveled at Ilitch’s willingness to essentially dig into his own pockets, from his personal wealth, to try to win.

“God bless him, he wants to win,” said another owner. “I don’t think anybody in baseball wants to win more than he does, and he puts his money where his mouth is.”

But an often-asked question in baseball is: What will the next generations of Tigers ownership be like?

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Bryan PriceAP Photo/Paul SancyaNew Reds manager Bryan Price, a former pitching coach, has a unique plan for the bullpen.
This is very, very interesting: New Reds manager Bryan Price -- a longtime pitching coach -- is not going to adhere closely to lefty-righty matchups with his bullpen.

From John Fay’s piece:
“Perhaps the biggest difference between [Dusty] Baker and Price will be how the bullpen is used. Baker, like most other managers, was big on getting left-on-left and right-on-right matchups late in the game.

Price says he won't do that.

"You're going to get some criticism when they don't do the job," he said. "But you don't go out and get Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton so they can come in get one left-handed or right-handed hitter out. I feel very strongly about that."

Price knows that this goes against the current thinking.

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Billy HamiltonMichael Hickey/Getty ImagesReds outfielder Billy Hamilton, who stole 155 bases in one minor league season, could surprise.
Colleague Andrew Feldman asked some of us to jump into an ESPN draft room yesterday and pick teams as part of #MockDraftMonday. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I figure I should’ve gotten a better core of relievers.

But after the first three rounds, I felt like I was able to reach down the board and grab players who might be undervalued at the moment. Matthew Berry, Eric Karabell et al know far more than I about determining fantasy value and knowing when it’s the appropriate time to grab for a starting pitcher or when to take a power-hitting outfielder over a good middle infielder. They understand where to slot in Joe Mauer’s possible production as a full-time first baseman, given that he’s still catcher-eligible.

I did find myself examining the fantasy rankings, however, and seeing players further down than I would have them at the moment, given the current intel. (And the key phrase, as Kris Medlen knows all too well, is at the moment, because circumstances can change in a hurry.

If you’re in a draft, these are players I might reach to grab because I bet they will thrive.

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1. Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds (ranked No. 164)

No young player is under greater pressure than Hamilton. Not only will he be trying to establish himself in the big leagues for the first time, but he also is being asked to lead off for a team that expects to contend for the National League Central title.

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Joe MauerBruce Kluckhohn/Getty ImagesJoe Mauer and the Twins face arguably MLB's toughest schedule through the first 40 games.
The Cleveland Indians were 51-44 at the All-Star break, and when they lost four of their first five games in the second half, it was unclear whether they would remain in contention.

But here’s the thing: The Indians had what appeared to be on paper one of the easiest schedules in the second half, with relatively few games against teams with records over .500 -- and they feasted and made the postseason.

As I’ve written here before, managers and players really don’t care about strength of schedule, but a lot of front offices consider it as they assess their own teams. This is particularly true in the first part of the season, as expectations take shape.

Here is the American League strength of schedule rankings for the first chunk of the season, from toughest to easiest.


1. Minnesota Twins

Games against teams with records of .500 or better in 2013: 31 of their first 40.
Home/road: 18 of their first 40 are at home.
Notable: My son plays a video game called "Injustice," and I think that lineup of villains is easier than what the Twins will face early in the year. They start out the season with six road games, and then beginning April 18, the Twins will play 25 straight games -- count 'em, 25 -- against teams that either made the playoffs or contended, including the Red Sox, Tigers, Rays and Dodgers. The Twins' new pitching will be tested early.

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Ben WetzlerAP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensBen Wetzler, a lefty from Oregon State, was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round last year.
LAKELAND, Fla. -- For the third consecutive day, the Philadelphia Phillies did not comment on the decision to inform the NCAA that the college juniors they drafted in the fifth and sixth rounds last summer -- Oregon State pitcher Ben Wetzler and Washington State outfielder Ben Monda -- might have violated rules regarding agent contact.

Monda was cleared by the NCAA weeks ago, and, on Friday evening, the NCAA announced that Wetzler will become eligible to play again on March 2 after completing a suspension.

As time passes and the Phillies’ silence continues, the impression hardens within the industry -- particularly among agents and college coaches -- that the team acted out of vindictiveness, because neither Wetzler nor Monda accepted their offer. That will not have a chance to change unless the Phillies explain their side of the story.

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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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CC SabathiaKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsYankees starter CC Sabathia hopes to bounce back in 2014 after a frustrating season.
TAMPA BAY -- CC Sabathia laughed about the reaction to his weight loss -- 40 pounds over the last two offseasons, he said Friday -- and mentioned that he felt like the winner of the show “The Biggest Loser.” He said he feels better, with his body adapted to his new weight, and he feels he’ll have the power back on his fastball.

In other words: It’s spring training, when everybody is entitled to optimism. Heck, optimism is required at this time of year, because if you’re not feeling good after having a winter of work and thought and anticipation of something new and better, well, there’s a root problem in place.

Reasons for optimism for each of the 30 teams:

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Their rotation has improved, and Albert Pujols -- a grinder who has had a habit of playing through injuries in his career -- had a chance to heal last season. Bernie Miklasz thinks Pujols will have a big bounce-back year.

San Francisco Giants: Pablo Sandoval is in tremendous shape, relatively speaking, and the Giants’ pitching staff had a full offseason of recovery.

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A-Rod runs out of people to blame 

February, 8, 2014
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Alex RodriguezElsa/Getty ImagesAlex Rodriguez dropped his lawsuits against MLB and the players' union this week.
Until Alex Rodriguez was willing to testify under oath, there was no reason to take any of his costly legal maneuverings seriously.

But along the way, before his abrupt capitulation Friday, we needed an abacus to keep track of the attempted diversions, from the gold-plated lawsuits to the beautifully scripted I’m-Not-Going-To-Take-It-Anymore exit from the arbitration hearing to the declaration of innocence on WFAN. This was like the wizard of Oz imploring you to ignore the man behind the curtain.

In the end, none of the machinations changed the essential truth: Rodriguez broke the rules and used performance-enhancing drugs, then tried to get away with it.

A dozen other players were caught in the same Biogenesis net, including Ryan Braun and Nelson Cruz, and, when presented with the evidence, they essentially threw up their hands and acknowledged: I surrender, you got me.

Not Rodriguez, who bypassed two windows of opportunity in which he could take responsibility and accept his punishment like the other players. If he had done so, his relationships with the Yankees and others would’ve been damaged but workable.

Instead, he started flame-throwing blame at just about everybody around him. This included the Yankees, commissioner Bud Selig and the arbitration system negotiated by his union, plus, in his last act of desperation, at the union itself. His lawsuit against the union specifically named Michael Weiner, the beloved former head of the union who passed away from cancer at the end of last year -- someone who spent far too many hours in the last year of his life working to defend Rodriguez, who had cheated and lied over and over.

What a complete waste, of time, of money, of good will, of grace.

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Rick RenteriaAndy Hayt/San Diego Padres/Getty ImagesRick Renteria, a former bench coach of the Padres, was named Cubs manager in November.
Rick Renteria dreams in two languages: Spanish and English. This is not unusual for folks who know more than one language. But when he speaks in his sleep loud enough to wake up his wife, there's one common denominator. He's talking about baseball.

Renteria is the new manager of the Chicago Cubs, bearing a reputation for having a personality that pushes players. "His personality is a big driver," said Josh Byrnes, general manager of the San Diego Padres, for whom Renteria worked as a coach before being hired by Chicago. "He's definitely got an infectious personality."

But Renteria's ability to speak two languages fluently has been viewed by potential employers as a major attribute, and he is thought to be especially good at connecting with young players, partly because of his understanding of language.

"The best managers connect to all players," Byrnes said.

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Toughest lineup quandaries in MLB 

February, 1, 2014
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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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