Buster Olney: Max Scherzer

Max ScherzerJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesMax Scherzer still managed to impress while allowing 12 hits and seven earned runs Wednesday.
Max Scherzer had his worst outing of the season Wednesday, and even in that he showed a side of himself that will be valued when he becomes a free agent in the fall. Scherzer allowed seven runs in the first three innings, with his pitch count spinning out of control, and yet he still held it together long enough to throw the last pitch of the seventh inning. He will get paid in a big way, and so will Jon Lester, whether it's by the Red Sox this summer or by some other team in the open market, and James Shields, who is doing what he has always done, taking the ball and pitching well.

Here are some other prospective free agents off to strong starts:

1. Victor Martinez, DH, Detroit Tigers: On Wednesday's podcast, Torii Hunter offered a great description of how Martinez focuses, how he controls the tempo of each at-bat. Martinez, 35, is having one of the best seasons of his career, now having fully overcome the knee surgery that cost him the 2012 season and affected him the first half of 2013. So far he's hitting .329, with 12 homers, 16 walks and 11 strikeouts, sporting a .998 OPS. It would make sense for the Tigers to re-sign him, but if that doesn't happen, another team will jump at the chance to do so, given the nature of his at-bats and reputation for being an outstanding teammate.

2. Michael Morse, OF, San Francisco Giants: Because of his injury history, he was able to get only a one-year, $6 million deal this past offseason.
Anibal SanchezJesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsAnibal Sanchez allowed 25 stolen bases in 26 attempts during the 2013 season.
BOSTON -- From the first day of spring training, the Detroit Tigers players say, Brad Ausmus talked about the running game.

But not only the running game of the Detroit baserunners, who were told to look for opportunities to take a base when they see it. Ausmus also wanted his pitchers to think more about the running game.

When pitchers threw their bullpen sessions in the spring, about a third of their work was done from the stretch, Alex Avila recalled. They simulated situations in which there was a runner at first, or first and third. They worked on varying their delivery times to the plate and on throwing to first base.

Last year, opposing teams ran aggressively against the Tigers. Detroit allowed 128 steals in 157 attempts, a staggering rate of 81.5 percent, which ranked 29th in the majors. Only two teams allowed more stolen bases.

This season, the Tigers have allowed 27 steals in 42 attempts, and their 35.7 percent rate of nabbing runners ranks fifth in the majors.

The pitchers have bought in to slowing down opposing runners, said Ausmus. That includes Anibal Sanchez, particularly, after he's had a lot of trouble with stolen bases in the past. Last year, Sanchez allowed 25 steals in 26 attempts.

This year, Sanchez's numbers aren't much better (six steals allowed in seven attempts), but Avila feels he’s throwing better, and has put in the work to improve. “Throwing out runners is a two-way street,” said Avila.

The Tigers added Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler during the offseason, and so it was inevitable that Detroit would run more and steal more bases. The Tigers’ baserunners generally have a green light to run, other than when they get a hold sign from the bench, and Torii Hunter believes the Detroit baserunners are assuming a natural aggressiveness.

Detroit leads the AL in steals with 36 -- one more than all of last season, when the Tigers finished last in MLB.

More on the Red Sox, Tigers

• The Boston Red Sox players have a strong sense of what it takes to win, after going from worst to first last season, and there is deep unhappiness with the team’s situational play right now. They feel like they should be taking advantage of those opportunities to move runners in close games, given the team’s dip in power production this season, and given Boston’s own strong pitching. The Red Sox currently rank 15th in runs, after leading the majors -- by far -- in 2013.

• The sands in the hourglass continue to slide away in the time remaining for the Red Sox to sign Jon Lester to a long-term extension. Clayton Kershaw set the very top of the market when he got a $215 million deal in the offseason, but the fairer comparables for Lester might be Cole Hamels, who got $144 million from the Philadelphia Phillies a few months before he was set to hit the market as a free agent, or Matt Cain, who got a five-year, $112.5 million extension in the spring before his free-agent fall.

The Red Sox offered Lester $70 million over four years earlier this year, and while Lester has mentioned that he’d like to stay in Boston, there is typically a time in the baseball calendar when it makes more sense for a prospective free agent to simply wait until he can hit the market.

If Boston intends to make a stronger offer to the 30-year-old Lester, who is off to the best start of his career, then it makes absolutely no sense to wait before presenting the upgraded proposal.

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Scherzer & Sandoval & LesterUSA TODAY SportsMax Scherzer and Jon Lester are off to great starts in "prove it" years, while Pablo Sandoval has scuffled.
In the April leading up to CC Sabathia’s free agency in 2008, his ERA after four starts was 13.50. Months later, he got the biggest contract ever for a pitcher -- $161 million -- after he had bounced back, and then been traded to Milwaukee and led the Brewers into the postseason.

All of that is a long way of saying that it’s still very early, and there is plenty of time for the members of the prospective free-agent class of 2015 to place themselves on the road to really big dollars.

But the sample size is growing.

A rating of the first part of the season for free agents, on a scale of 1 to 10:

Max Scherzer: 10

Nobody bet more on himself than Scherzer

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Clock is ticking on a David Price trade 

November, 8, 2013
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PriceStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThe Rays may never be able to extract more value in a trade of David Price than they could this offseason.
The Tampa Bay Rays have been baseball's version of Seabiscuit over the past six seasons, the plucky team with the diminutive payroll racing and often winning against War Admirals such as the Yankees and Red Sox.

Logic tells us that the Rays shouldn’t be able compete for the postseason annually, and yet year after year they have rolled out contending teams, accumulating, in order: 97 wins in 2008, 84 in 2009, then 96, 91, 90 and 92 over the next four seasons. They've made the playoffs four times in six seasons, an astounding feat that probably doesn't get the attention it deserves.

We could be tempted to say this happens because of The System of player evaluation developed by general manager Andrew Friedman and his staff, or because of the symbiosis that exists between the front office and Joe Maddon, who is regarded by some rival evaluators as the pre-eminent manager in the sport. We could credit players such as Evan Longoria and David Price.

But I've always thought that the central root of the Rays' success comes down to this:

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Red Sox will see real Verlander 

October, 11, 2013
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Justin VerlanderAP Photo/Chris O'MearaJustin Verlander has insisted his struggles have been mechanical, not physical. Maybe he's right.
The topic was Justin Verlander, and the two veteran hitters who had faced him this year spoke of the Cy Young winner in their dugout with great respect, but also with professional honesty.

"He’s not the same guy," said one of the players.

The other nodded: "Not even close."

They talked about how Verlander’s fastball in 2013 was less than it used to be, and about how this changed everything in the challenge of hitting against him. Because he wasn’t throwing as hard and couldn’t throw the ball past them, as he had in the past, he relied much more on his off-speed stuff. "He's got to trick you now," said one of the hitters. "He never had to do that before."

The early diagnosis of Verlander from these two particular players was the same shared by a lot of evaluators: All those innings logged, all those games when he drove himself past 120 pitches, as the game’s best pitcher, had finally begun to catch up to him.

Well ... so much for that.

Verlander had said all summer that he felt that there were mechanical adjustments he needed to make, tweaks that would get his delivery back to maximum efficiency, and apparently he has made them, because at the end of what has generally been a less-than-dominant year, he has been exceptional, again.

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Early leaders for MVP, Cy Young

June, 25, 2013
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Yadier MolinaAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillYadier Molina now has a potent offensive game to go with his elite defensive skills.

I recently bumped into a longtime evaluator who offered an interesting handicap on the National League Most Valuable Player race. "Right now," he said, "Yadier Molina is the league MVP, hands down."

Over the next week to 10 days, every team will play its 81st game and reach the midpoint of the season, and the races for the major awards are starting to take form.

It’s possible to win the MVP or the Cy Young Award with a mad finish, like Vladimir Guerrero did in 2004, but as the use of statistical analysis deepens, the more the broad, season-long view of performance will be weighted -- not only by teams, but also by the writers who vote, who have demonstrated they will pick and choose. We saw this in 2010, when voters ignored Felix Hernandez's 13-12 record and gave him the AL Cy Young Award. Of course, the same electorate ignored WAR and leaned on traditional numbers to select Miguel Cabrera over Mike Trout last year.

NL MVP: Yadier Molina, Cardinals

He leads the NL batting race, with a .353 average, and among catchers he has the highest OPS. Remember, his offensive production is regarded as a complementary part of what he provides. He is renowned for his ability to handle a pitching staff -- and the Cardinals’ work has been excellent this season -- and for positioning the defense, and for shutting down the running games of opposing teams.

Think about this number, which isn’t necessarily related to Molina’s MVP candidacy in 2013 but demonstrates the impact of his presence in a game. Since the start of 2006, these are the fewest stolen-base attempts against major league teams:

1. Cardinals: 645
2. Twins: 860
3. Reds: 863
4. Mets: 877
5. Diamondbacks: 889
6. Astros: 901
7. Mariners: 951
8. Brewers: 955
9. Nationals: 960
10. Orioles: 960

It’s hard to measure exactly what a great catcher provides, but there’s more than enough to support the scout’s view that as of now, Molina’s the front-runner.

The others in the conversation:

2. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
3. Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
4. David Wright, Mets
5. Joey Votto, Reds

Troy Tulowitzki would be among the top three here if he weren’t on the disabled list, with an extended absence ahead of him. Carlos Gomez, by the way, ranks first in WAR.

AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers

The guy is hitting .370, without the benefit of infield hits or being able to swing from the left side of the plate. And, by the way, he currently leads the AL in WAR.

2. Chris Davis, Orioles
3. Evan Longoria, Rays
4. Manny Machado, Orioles (second in AL in WAR)
5. Mike Trout, Angels


NL Cy Young Award: Matt Harvey, Mets

He’s got a 2.05 ERA, which is second best in the NL behind Jeff Locke, and he leads in WHIP and in strikeouts.

2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (leads NL pitchers in WAR)
3. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (career 2.42 ERA in the second half)

Others in the conversation: Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals.

AL Cy Young Award: Max Scherzer, Tigers

He’s second in the league in WHIP, and in strikeouts. And he seems to be getting better as the season rolls along.

2. Yu Darvish, Rangers
3. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (although he is drifting back because of his time on the disabled list)

Others in the conversation: Felix Hernandez, Mariners; Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners; Anibal Sanchez, Tigers.

Around the league

Jose Reyes is rejoining the Blue Jays. Reyes could be back in the lineup Wednesday.

Wil Myers made himself at home in his first game in the Trop. Jeremy Hellickson is on a roll.

From ESPN Stats & Info, how Hellickson ended Toronto's winning streak:

A) Hellickson induced a career-high 14 outs on his changeup without allowing a hit. The 14 changeup outs are tied for the second most by any pitcher on changeups this season (John Danks, 16).
B) Hellickson started 19 of 24 hitters with a first-pitch strike (79 percent), his highest percentage in more than two years. He didn’t go to a single 2-0 count for the first time this season.
C) Hellickson threw 66 percent of his fastballs down in the zone, his highest percentage since his rookie season in 2010. He induced 10 groundouts, tied for his second most in the past two seasons.

• There is really bad news for Angel Pagan, Henry Schulman writes.

• As Vin Scully says of Yasiel Puig here: "The kid has done it again." He led the Dodgers to victory.

There are more adjustments to come from opposing pitchers, given Puig’s hyper-aggression at the plate. His rate of swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone is over 40 percent, which is very high, but not at the rate of hitters like Pablo Sandoval and A.J. Pierzynski.

When the pitch is inside the strike zone, his rate of swinging is the highest in the majors.

And as the pitchers try to adjust, so, too, will Puig.

From ESPN Stats & Info: Two of Puig’s three hits Monday, including his go-ahead HR in the first and his go-ahead single in the eighth, came early in the at-bat, something Puig has made a habit out of this season. All of his extra-base hits and homers have come within the first three pitches of a plate appearance. He’s hitting "only" .286 after the plate appearance reaches four pitches, including .214 with two strikes.

Other assorted Puig notes:
1) He’s hitting .688 (11-for-16) in the first inning this season.
2) Five of his seven homers have been to right field; no other righty has more than three such homers since Puig’s MLB debut.
3) Puig leads all of baseball in batting average (.442) and hits (34) and ranks second in slugging (.753) since his debut on June 3.
4) The Dodgers are now 5-1 in games in which Puig has homered this season.

• We are re-learning this summer that even with the advances of modern medicine and the remarkable understanding doctors have of how the body works, what they present remains an educated guess, because of all the variables involved.

The belief was that Mark Teixeira would be able to play sometime in early May, and instead he took longer than that. Now, after coming back, he’s still apparently not right and could be headed for season-ending wrist surgery.

On the other hand: Alex Rodriguez appears to be making more progress than expected, quickly.

The Nationals’ medical staff is under scrutiny. Bryce Harper is set to begin his injury rehabilitation assignment today.

Ask Corey Hart about how precise medicine is.

• There’s nothing new happening in the contract talks of Robinson Cano, he said, after first saying he’ll be a free agent at the end of the season.

• On Monday’s podcast, Joe Nathan talked about his unusual path to the big leagues, and about his conservations with Mariano Rivera.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Pirates aren’t saying whether they will limit the innings of Gerrit Cole, writes Travis Sawchik. From his piece:

The baseball industry has managed young arms carefully in recent years, the most notable case being the Nationals' controversial decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg after their ace reached a predetermined innings limit last season despite the Nationals being in the midst of a postseason chase.

Does Cole face a similar innings cap if he remains with the Pirates?

Neal Huntington declined to answer Monday when asked if a specific innings cap for Cole exists, but the Pirates' GM indicated Cole is a considerable distance from reaching his workload limit.

"Part of our development plan is to build guys accordingly so that when they get to the big leagues, they are hopefully in a position to be able to log the innings without the media attention that some have gotten," Huntington said. "If he ever gets to his workload limit, we'll let you know."


One lesson that the rest of the industry gleaned from the Strasburg debate last year: Don’t talk about innings limitations.

2. The Indians called up a reliever.

3. The Reds’ next stretch of games could impact the deadline talks.

4. Dan Straily was optioned to the minors.

5. Mike Kickham was called up to be part of the Giants’ rotation.


Monday’s games

1. Jonathan Papelbon blew another save chance. It’s worth repeating: The Phillies are crazy if they don’t at least field offers and consider trading him right now, when there’s a lack of available closers in the market and they have a chance to step away from the back end of his contract.
From Ryan Lawrence’s story:

Papelbon, who had converted 13 straight save chances to begin the season, has blown 4 of his last 5 save opportunities. "He’s in a little funk," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Things aren’t going his way right now."

"It's not any tougher than any other situation I've been in," Papelbon said of his sudden cold spell. "I've been in this situation a million times before. I don't really carry previous ballgames into the next day. It's just not what I do. If you're a closer or relief pitcher or starter, if you take stuff into the next day, it gets out of hand."


2. The Indians are gathering momentum: they won again.

Dings and dents

1. Meanwhile, Mike Adams got bad news, but Roy Halladay got good news.

2. Dylan Bundy continues to experience discomfort in his forearm.

3. Jedd Gyorko continues to make progress.

4. Alex Cobb is hopeful he can return this season.

5. Carlos Gomez avoided major injury the other day.

6. Peter Bourjos has managed to avoid the disabled list.

NL East

Zack Wheeler takes the mound for the Mets on Tuesday night, looking to do better.

• For Justin Ruggiano, opportunity has paid off.

• Atlanta GM Frank Wren believes his offense will eventually click.

NL Central

• Jeff Locke’s parents don’t watch him pitch, because they don’t have the baseball package, while living in their little New England town. Nice piece by Michael Sanserino.

Matt Adams will be getting some added playing time in the days ahead, writes Derrick Goold.

Bernie Miklasz wonders if Matt Holliday is declining.

• It’s the Cubs’ time in the spotlight.

NL West

Jason Kubel and Cody Ross are heating up, writes Scott Bordow.

• Arizona starts a stretch in which it’ll play 20 games in 20 days, writes Steve Gilbert.

• The Padres continue to push toward the top of the NL West.

• Colorado’s bullpen could soon get a boost.

AL East

Will Middlebrooks met with a mentor, writes Scott Lauber. Middlebrooks has been frustrated, he acknowledged over the weekend.

Andrew Bailey is facing a challenge.

Zoilo Almonte is off to a hot start.

Andy Pettitte remains driven, writes Jeff Roberts.

AL Central

• Jim Leyland has plans to rest everybody but Prince Fielder.

Anthony Swarzak is finally home again.

AL West

• Nolan Ryan says he’s not worried about losing Nelson Cruz to a suspension.

• The Astros are set to face a whole lot of contenders.

Nick Franklin is catching on quickly with Seattle.

Other stuff

• Last fall, executives spoke of how the shift of the Astros to the AL West would affect pennant races, and Benjamin Hoffman details how that is playing out.

Mike Redmond promises to be more animated the next time he gets ejected, writes the great Joe Capozzi.

And today will be better than yesterday.

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