Buster Olney: MLB

VottoAP Photo/Al BehrmanJoey Votto and the Cincinnati Reds face St. Louis and Pittsburgh in nine of their first 12 games.
Last week we ranked the difficulty of the American League schedules in the early part of the season, with the Houston Astros having the toughest and the Baltimore Orioles having the smoothest path into mid-May.

Today we give you the National League rankings. In the years since we started doing this, I cannot recall a team with a better opportunity to break away to a strong start than what the Washington Nationals have in 2015.

From most difficult to the easiest:

1. Cincinnati Reds

Early-season games against teams that finished over .500 last year: 27 of their first 39 games.
Home/away: Nineteen of their first 39 are at home.
Noteworthy: They seem to be one of the teams on the contender bubble going into the season, and they will be tested immediately, opening with nine of their first 12 games against the Cardinals (six) and Pirates (three).

How Texas replaces Yu Darvish 

March, 10, 2015
Mar 10
Yu Darvish AP Photo/Brandon WadeTexas Rangers starter Yu Darvish has partially torn ligaments in his right elbow.
The Rangers have climbed into the trade market for star pitchers a couple of times in recent years, history worth considering as they ponder the possibility again if the news on Yu Darvish’s elbow ligament turns out badly.

Those past forays are instructive:

In the summer of 2010, the Rangers outbid the Yankees for Cliff Lee, swapping first baseman Justin Smoak and pitchers Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke for the left-hander and reliever Mark Lowe. Lee made 15 regular-season starts for the Rangers, then dominated in three playoff starts and helped Texas reached the World Series for the first time in club history. When he departed as a free agent in the winter, the Rangers got a first-round pick as compensation.

Then, in 2013, the Rangers traded for Matt Garza, dealing Class A pitching prospect C.J. Edwards, third baseman Mike Olt and pitchers Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm to the Cubs. Garza was a problem more than a solution, compiling a 5.02 ERA in 13 starts for Texas; the Rangers missed the postseason. Garza left in free agency, and because the deal was made under new rules and in midseason, the Rangers got nothing in return. Edwards continues to develop within the Cubs’ organization; he threw well on Monday.

The Rangers are weighing internal options, and as they think about external options like Cole Hamels, they can draw upon the experiences of those trades for Lee and Garza -- although neither presents an apples-to-apples comparison.

In 2010, the Rangers were building a power, and Lee was the piece that put them over the top. Although Texas tried to re-sign Lee, it essentially got what it paid for in the deal. In 2013, the Rangers were looking for a starter who could help them hang on, and the Garza deal was a bust, something they probably wouldn’t do again.

So where the Rangers believe they are now will probably be a deciding factor in the choice they make.

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Jose AltuveJohn Rivera/Icon SportswireJose Altuve and the Astros face arguably the most challenging early-season schedule in MLB.
Managers and players don’t really peruse schedules the way that general managers do, because for those in uniform, the season plays out like a baseball version of "Groundhog Day." There’s always a charter, or a bus to the ballpark, or a specified report time for home games, and always a ballgame. They worry only about the team in front of them.

But a GM must assess his club and players relative to the competition, so they’ll weigh the strength of schedule to see where the possible pitfalls and opportunities are over the months of games.

In 2015, it looks as though the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics will be candidates to start well, based on their early-season schedule -- the first quarter of their games or so -- and on the other hand, the Astros’ very difficult slate of games in the first weeks of the season might set them on a trajectory to be sellers before the trade deadline.

These early-season schedules are ranked from most difficult to least difficult, and today, we break down the American League. We’ll rank the National League schedules Sunday. Something worth remembering: There will always be scheduling quirks that make players and managers grumble, and creating an arrangement of games that will equally satisfy the interests of all 30 teams is impossible.

1. Houston Astros

Games against teams that had records over .500 in 2014: 39 of their first 48 games are against teams with records over .500.
Home/away: 22 of their first 38 games are at home.
Noteworthy: It’s hard to imagine the Astros having a more challenging start than what they face in 2014. Twenty-two of their first 41 games are against the Angels, Athletics and Mariners, who finished 1-2-3 in the AL West last year, and they also have out-of-division series against the Giants, Blue Jays, Indians and Tigers.

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Martin PradoJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMartin Prado is preparing for multiple roles with his new team, the Miami Marlins.
JUPITER, Fla. – The memory is clear in Martin Prado’s mind, and as he spoke about it Friday in the Marlins’ indoor batting cages, the rain falling outside, Prado wasn’t so much describing as he was reliving. He used his hands and gestures to replicate and convey the sheer horror of the moment.

This was about the instance in which Prado manned third base and Giancarlo Stanton used the full force of his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame and blistered a baseball right at Prado’s soul and body, although not necessarily in that order.

Prado smiled slightly as he began to relate the story, but he is a dead-serious professional, which is part of the reason the Marlins traded for him during the offseason.

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MLB faces tough decision on Hamilton 

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
Josh Hamilton Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsAngels outfielder Josh Hamilton reportedly suffered a cocaine and alcohol relapse.
JUPITER, Fla. -- Josh Hamilton’s status is still unknown. The Daily News reports that Hamilton suffered a relapse, using alcohol and cocaine.

But the details of what has happened with Hamilton are still sketchy. Maybe even for Major League Baseball officials who have spoken directly to Hamilton. Maybe even to Hamilton himself. Such is the nature of addiction.

As Rob Manfred faces his first major discipline case since he assumed the role of commissioner, he is faced with the question of what to do with a star player -- one of the highest paid in the sport -- who has a long and serious history of addiction.

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Adrian Beltre Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesThe Texas Rangers are likely to pick up the 2016 option for third baseman Adrian Beltre.
Adrian Beltre is at the heart of the Rangers, writes Gerry Fraley.

From his story:
The Rangers want him to stay a while. At least two years.

General manager Jon Daniels indicated the club could soon pick up an option on Beltre for 2016, at a salary of $16 million. Beltre could guarantee the option with 586 plate appearances this year, but Daniels hopes by acting now to avoid creating a subplot that would hang over the club all season.

“We’ll address that relatively soon,” Daniels said. “We don’t want that to be a distraction nor even a story as we go through the year.”

The Rangers’ 2014 season disintegrated quickly in an avalanche of injuries, from Derek Holland to Yu Darvish to Prince Fielder to Shin-Soo Choo, and it made sense for them to at least consider some trades of players not tethered to their future. For example, they spoke with other teams during the summer about Alex Rios, who became eligible for free agency last fall.

But when I’d ask various sources about the possibility of Beltre being marketed, I’d be shooed away from the idea. The Rangers view Beltre as a legacy player, an all-time great third baseman who could finish his career with Texas and perhaps have the Rangers’ cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.

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Why a pitch clock seems inevitable 

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
Tim TimmonsAP Photo/Alex BrandonThe role of the MLB umpire is set to change in the coming seasons as new rules for hitters develop.
A lot of parents would tell you they mostly concern themselves with the A-list of priorities. Keeping the kids safe, properly fed and on time to school, with homework completed.

Most tension is rooted in the murkiness of the B-list of priorities: the timely completion of chores, the condition of the room, time spent with electronics.

The daily challenges facing umpires hover along parallel lines. The A-list is correctly applying rules most integral to the play on the field, from the definition of the strike zone to safe-or-out calls on the bases.

Almost all of the trouble between umpires and players stems from a piece of the B-list: on-field conduct. Different umpires, managers and players have different views on how and when an umpire’s decision can be questioned, with so much hinging on the interpretation of facial expressions and tone.

This is the fault line in Major League Baseball’s effort to speed up the game, and why inevitably, the sport must turn to a pitch clock.

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Progressive FieldDavid Richard/USA TODAY SportsCleveland's Progressive Field will be open for business almost an hour earlier for six games in 2015.
Start times for several Cleveland Indians home games will be a little different this year. From Zack Meisel's story:
The Indians are trying something new this season, with six weeknight games in April and May being designated with 6:10 p.m. start times. Those games fall on the following dates:

• Tuesday, April 14 vs. Chicago

• Monday, April 27 vs. Kansas City

• Tuesday, April 28 vs. Kansas City

• Wednesday, April 29 vs. Kansas City

• Tuesday, May 12 vs. St. Louis

• Wednesday, May 13 vs. St. Louis

When asked about the reasoning behind the 6:10 p.m. starts, an Indians spokesperson said the club will make a formal announcement in the coming days.

Existing within an area that has seen more than its share of financial difficulty, the Indians have endeavored to be as attentive to what their fans need and want as any organization in baseball. The Indians will soon explain their thought process, as Zack writes, but presumably, the fact that school is in session in April and May was a major consideration.

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Notes from the MLB awards dinner 

January, 25, 2015
Jan 25
Clayton Kershaw and Sandy KoufaxGetty Images, USA Today SportsClayton Kershaw has dominated his era, just like former Dodger great Sandy Koufax.
Our colleague Willie Weinbaum filed this from Saturday night’s annual baseball soiree.

On a night of transitions and tributes, the 92nd annual awards dinner of the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America began with a moment of silence in memory of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. The evening concluded with the remarks of obscure former Cub Bob Hendley, who pitched a one-hitter nearly 50 years ago in the same game that the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax achieved perfection.

Koufax, who sat on the dais between one commissioner whose term was about to begin and another whose tenure was about to end, fulfilled the wish he articulated at the event a year ago -- to present Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw with another National League Cy Young Award. Kershaw’s three awards equal Koufax’s career total, and he also received the NL MVP Award from Koufax, so the dominating lefties of eras a half-century apart each have one MVP too.

About 24 hours before Kershaw traveled to the banquet, his wife Ellen gave birth to their first child. In an emotional speech citing his family, Kershaw gave thanks by name to every Dodgers player and staffer he said he encountered daily last season. Surprisingly, he also expressed gratitude to the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that eliminated him and the Dodgers from the postseason.

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Top 10 bullpens in MLB: Royals No. 1 

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
DavisBrad ManginGetty ImagesWade Davis ranked No. 1 among all relievers with 60 or more innings in limiting opponents' OPS.
When baseball executives and players try to explain why run production has plummeted in recent seasons, they offer a range of theories, from MLB played without amphetamines and steroids to the impact of defensive shifts. But there is one common thread: The bullpens have become stacked with guys who throw really, really hard, with many teams presenting a parade of relievers firing mid-90s fastballs after the fifth inning.

In the second part of our top 10 team element rankings, let's break down the bullpens.

1. Kansas City Royals

If not for Giants starter Madison Bumgarner's superhuman feats, the Royals would’ve won the World Series and their relief corps would’ve taken a place in history alongside the Reds’ Nasty Boys for being the core of a championship. But in some ways, the Royals’ trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera accomplished stuff we really hadn’t seen before. That group faced 960 hitters last season, struck out 309 and allowed a total of three homers. Davis ranked No. 1 among all relievers with 60 or more innings in limiting opponents’ OPS last season (.408); Holland was sixth, and Herrera was 21st. Even if the Royals had a lot of mediocrity in other spots in their pen, the work of that trio would have Kansas City at No. 1 in these rankings.

But the Royals will also have Jason Frasor and Tim Collins, and Luke Hochevar is expected back after missing all of last season because of elbow reconstruction.

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Top 12 surprise stats of 2014 MLB season 

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 MLB storylines of 2015 

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

1. The new commissioner

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

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

But what’s next for him?

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Who’s ready to move on from 2014? 

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

1. The Texas Rangers

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

Texas should have better luck in 2015.


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Hamels would make Pads a top contender 

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

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

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

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

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A-Rod a mystery for the Yankees 

December, 16, 2014
Alex Rodriguez, Joe GirardiTim Farrell/USA TODAY SportsJoe Girardi and the Yankees face many questions as Alex Rodriguez returns to the team this season.
The strangest spring training saga will begin when the Yankees’ full squad emerges from the clubhouse for their first pre-workout stretch. International star Masahiro Tanaka will be there, and so will Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran and Andrew Miller and other players of renown, but the platoon of cameras will be focused on a guy with an undefined role: Alex Rodriguez.

Reporters will trace his every movement and log Rodriguez’s interaction with teammates, looking for signs that the others around him might shy away from him. After all, the last time he was with the Yankees, folks on the staff were wary that any conversation they had with him would be subject to subpoena. Will he be embraced by his teammates? Will they keep him at arm’s length, generally? Will they be merely polite with a disgraced player coming back from the longest PED suspension in baseball history, or will they treat him warmly?

The search for signs of awkwardness will continue the first time the Yankees’ infielders move to their positions. Given that the Yankees just signed Chase Headley to a four-year, $52 million contract, Headley will go into camp as the third baseman. But players have long respected a pecking order, and whatever you think of Rodriguez, he is still a former MVP, and he is still stalking Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. Will A-Rod step in the front of the line, in front of Headley, among those awaiting grounders at third base? Or will Rodriguez defer to Headley?

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