Pedro Alvarez, Martin MaldonadoJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPittsburgh's use of defensive shifts was beneficial in 2013, and has been thus far in 2014.
One of the major questions around the increasing use of defensive shifts is whether they can help teams reduce the incidence of hits on balls in play, especially line drives and other "well-hit" balls in play that are more likely to become hits. (Line drives fall in for hits at roughly three times the rates of ground balls and fly balls, although the exact rates fluctuate each year.) Improving your defense by acquiring or developing better fielders can affect a team's batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP). But we have anecdotal evidence from the last few years that heavy use of defensive shifts and/or improved defensive positioning can do so as well.

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DELMARVA, Md. -- Tuesday rain meant Wednesday's marquee minor league pitching matchup in Delmarva, Md., was a 5 p.m., seven-inning game to start a doubleheader, which meant hitters unlucky enough to have to face Baltimore Orioles prospect Hunter Harvey (son of former Angel and Marlin closer Bryan) or Washington Nationals prospect Lucas Giolito had to do so with the late-evening shadows interfering as well. Both pitchers lived up to expectations, combining for 11 shutout innings, allowing eight baserunners and striking out 13.

• Harvey was throwing 91-94 mph with plus sink on his fastball and was very aggressive with the pitch, coming inside to right- and left-handed batters without fear.

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Coaches erred in Rodon decision 

April, 13, 2014
Apr 13
10:43
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Carlos RodonAP Photo/Nati HarnikControversy surrounds the decision to have Carlos Rodon throw 134 pitches on April 11.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter saw me voice my displeasure over NC State's usage of left-hander Carlos Rodon, the best college player in this year's draft class, on Friday night. Rodon, who has pitched with a 50- or 55-rated fastball all year, was going on short rest on Friday, but showed up (paradoxically) with more velocity, sitting at 92-94 mph and touching 96.

NC State then decided to push Rodon to 134 pitches, sending him back out to start his final inning after he'd already thrown 118 pitches, an acceptable, if upper-bound, number for a 21-year-old pitcher. This was a clear example of a coaching staff putting their own interests over those of a pitcher, a perfect example of moral hazard at work in amateur baseball, one that calls for regulation by the NCAA.

The Wolfpack, despite having two of the best college players in the country this year, are 5-11 in the ACC so far (19-14 overall) and in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, a result that would be devastating given their talent level. The potential cost of missing the tournament is so high that the coaching staff has the incentive to try to win at all costs, including asking players to do things that may not be in their own best interests, such as throwing 134 pitches in one outing. Only one MLB pitcher did that in all of 2013: Tim Lincecum, in his July 13 no-hitter. (In fact, since the start of the 2010 season, only four MLB pitchers have thrown 134 or more pitches. Three were no-hitters, one was Brandon Morrow's 17-strikeout one-hitter in 2010, and all four spread those pitches over nine innings rather than Rodon's 7 2/3 innings.)

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ManaeaJohn Sleezer/Getty ImagesIf Sean Manaea regains his mid-90s velocity he could become an elite starter.
I tabbed Wilmington (Royals) and Myrtle Beach (Rangers) as two of the most loaded minor league rosters to start the season, and lo and behold, the two faced each other this week in the first home series for the Blue Rocks. I went to the first two games of the three-game series, and have the following to report about these two clubs in the high Class A Carolina League.

Wilmington (Kansas City Royals affiliate)

• Lefty Sean Manaea made his pro debut Tuesday night, throwing 60 pitches before he was lifted once he hit his limit. Manaea was the Royals' second pick in the 2013 draft, 34th overall, a potential top-10 pick before he suffered an injury to the labrum in his hip in a start last March at the late, unlamented Metrodome. The Royals signed him for $3.55 million, comparable to a top-five selection, after working out a below-slot deal with their first pick, infielder Hunter Dozier.

Manaea hit 88 to 92 mph Tuesday night, touching 94, and dipping to 88-90 in his last inning, but the tremendous deception in his delivery had hitters swinging through his fastball for much of the outing.

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Happy baseball!

Thursday night was Opening Day in Trenton, New Jersey, for the Thunder (the Yankees' Class AA affiliate) and the New Hampshire Weasels ... er, Fisher Cats (the Blue Jays' AA affiliate), with both teams throwing their best starting pitchers in Game 1. I was there for the matchup and here's my report.

• Aaron Sanchez started for New Hampshire and his raw stuff was the best I've seen from him. His fastball was an easy 94-96 mph with explosive late life, with hitters flinching twice, once at how quickly it got in on them (especially right-handers) and again when it seemed to find another gear over the plate (an illusion, but an effective one). Sanchez paired it with a plus curveball, mostly 80-81, very sharp with late bite, breaking down hard, with curveball rotation but the timing of a slider's break. His changeup was between average and fringe-average, 88-91, a little too firm with some arm-side run but not enough action to make it truly effective. I'd worry about a pitch like that playing more like a BP fastball in the majors.

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videoThursday is Opening Day for the minor leagues, and final rosters have been appearing online over the last 24 hours. Christopher Crawford has compiled lists showing where the top 10 prospects in each organization have been assigned, and here I'll highlight six rosters in particular that are loaded with top prospects or other guys I'd gladly travel to go watch.

Wilmington Blue Rocks (Kansas City Royals, high Class A)

Top 100 prospects: SS Raul Mondesi Jr., RHP Miguel Almonte
Former top 100 guys: OF Bubba Starling
First-round picks: IF Hunter Dozier (2013), LHP Sean Manaea (2013), Starling (2011)
Other prospects of note: RHP Aroni Nina, C Zane Evans, C Cam Gallagher, RHP Christian Binford

I may be biased, but the team in my own backyard might just be the most loaded roster in all of minor league baseball.

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With the help of Christopher Crawford of MLB Draft Insider, we have compiled the minor league assignments for all prospects in Keith Law's organizational top 10 rankings.

Due to injuries and late assignments, some minor league rosters are not yet official. In those instances, we took our best guess as to where those prospects will be assigned to begin the year.

Note: Players with an asterisk have been traded since the top-10 lists came out, and they are listed with their assignment for their new club.


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Yu DarvishAP Photo/Darron CummingsThe AL leader in strikeout rate last year, Yu Darvish is an AL Cy Young frontrunner.
Keith Law offers up his win-loss predictions for all 30 teams and winners for the six major postseason awards. Furthermore, explanations for each team are included, along with notes on key players or possible impact call-ups. Award predictions follow the division picks.

AL East

It's hard to pick against a Boston Red Sox team that returns so many of the players who helped them win the World Series last year, losing Stephen Drew but replacing him with one of the majors' best rookies in Xander Bogaerts.

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The Miguel Cabrera deal seemed like it might pose big problems for the Los Angeles Angels as they tried to lock up Mike Trout, the best player in baseball in each of the past two seasons, to a long-term extension, but the Halos and Trout were apparently close enough that they still managed to come to terms on a deal.

The extension is for six years (2015 through 2020) and reportedly worth $144.5 million on top of the $1 million he'll earn this season.

It's a reasonable deal for both sides, paying Trout a rational salary in his free-agent years that could end up a little light if the market keeps going up while also giving him tremendous financial security.

A generational talent

Trout will almost certainly set the record for the highest annual salary with the three free-agent years in this deal, which I imagine will come in at more than $30 million per season.

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videoIn analyzing Miguel Cabrera's enormous contract extension with the Detroit Tigers, I might as well just rerun my column on the Ryan Howard contract from April 2010: Teams just do not need to extend veteran players who are two years from free agency out into their late 30s (or beyond).

The Tigers might as well just light much of the $292 million they're giving to Cabrera on fire or invest it in downtown Detroit real estate.

Cabrera is one of the best hitters in the game but not the best player even in his own league, because being the best player involves more than just hitting -- defense matters, position matters, baserunning matters, and Miggy, although preternaturally gifted at hitting, isn't very good at those other things.

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videoEvery year, a certain number of fantasy players create a big debate among fantasy owners. We asked Keith Law to give his thoughts on some questions surrounding some of this year's most divisive guys.

Q: Jacoby Ellsbury seems to be the one person fantasy owners don’t believe in as much ESPN's fantasy experts do: We have him ranked No. 7, his average draft position is 12. What do you think?

If he's healthy he'll produce, and his injuries have never been of the chronic variety.

Q: Starlin Castro killed his owners last season, some of whom will not take a chance on him again this season. But he’s still so young. If he can overcome his hammy issues, is he poised to bounce back?

I don't think he's "poised" to bounce back, and the hamstring never struck me as a valid explanation for what went wrong with him as he's not much of a runner. His approach stinks -- his plate discipline is bad, and his mental plan at the plate does not exist.

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Neftali Feliz, and Joakim SoriaGetty ImagesNeftali Feliz shows little motivation or stuff, making Joakim Soria an easy decision as Texas' closer.
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- I'm leaving Arizona on Monday to head home, so here's the last two days' worth of notes on players I saw over the weekend.

• Texas lefty Joe Saunders showed virtually no ability to get major league hitters out, but reliever Neftali Feliz came in after and wasn't a whole lot better. Worse, Feliz seemed totally disinterested in the whole "pitching" part of his day.

Feliz's fastball was 89-91 mph with good tailing life, but that's way below his old velocity, although he also didn't seem to be putting any effort into it.

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Rob Zastryzny AP Photo/Dave MartinPitcher Rob Zastryzny, a 2013 second-round pick out of Missouri, has MLB potential.
Two days watching Chicago Cubs prospects beyond the Big Four -- Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora -- didn't yield a ton of positive observations, but here are my thoughts on three of the most notable names:

• The Cubs' second-round pick from 2013, University of Missouri lefty Rob Zastryzny, was the first of seven college pitchers the team took in the top 10 rounds, and the one with the best chance of the group to profile as a starting pitcher in the majors.

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UriasAP Photo/Brian WesterholtJulio Urias, just 17 years old, is showing a repertoire advanced beyond his years.
Though only 17 years old until August, Julio Urias was my No. 14 prospect coming into 2014 and he’s already showing big league stuff. He performed very well in a brief stint in the low Class A Midwest League last year and threw an inning for the Dodgers on Saturday. He then came back with a crisp three-inning outing on Wednesday in an A-ball game against the Cubs' high Class A roster.

Urias was 91-95 mph with his fastballs, showing good life on a two-seamer and a lot of confidence in the four-seamer, running it in to a right-handed batter for a strikeout when the hitter was probably looking for off-speed. Urias didn't throw his curveball, but threw some very sharp sliders anywhere from 81-86, tending toward the top end of the range for right-handed batters. His changeup was at least solid-average, 81-84 with a little action, relying more on deception and his ability to control the pitch.

Urias' delivery is very clean and simple, with a good stride, plenty of hip rotation, a clean arm swing and a landing that puts him online to the plate.

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10 breakout player picks for 2014 

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
10:14
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Tyler SkaggsKevin French/Icon SMITyler Skaggs has his velocity back and is ready to fulfill his promise in Anaheim.
I like to try to tab a few young players each year as candidates to break out with a significant improvement in their performances; last year's list had eight names on it, four of whom broke out in a huge way and two of whom saw modest improvements.

This year, I've broken the list into two tiers. The first group of seven is made up of players I expect to truly break out, with a big boost in their value on the field in 2014. The second group has four players in it, guys who had good years in 2013 but who I think have room for smaller improvements in 2014.

lastname
Tyler Skaggs, LHP | Los Angeles Angels

Skaggs struggled from day one in 2013, showing up in spring training with a shorter stride that led to an earlier, higher release point, lower velocity and a softer breaking ball. The Diamondbacks never fixed this problem, but the Angels have. Skaggs has been hitting 95 mph again this month with his old curveball back.

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