How I'd fix the Diamondbacks 

April, 18, 2014
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Mark TrumboMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsMark Trumbo is a square peg on the Diamondbacks' roster.

Entering the season, many people saw the Arizona Diamondbacks as a .500 team with an outside shot at the playoffs. After a 4-14 start, those postseason odds seem remote because not only is this team losing, it's getting crushed -- with a run differential that would be comparable to the '62 Mets if prorated over a full season.

The D-backs have made a lot of mistakes in recent years in their attempt to mimic the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, teams that have thrived by targeting "high-character" players. The difference is that Arizona did this at the expense of talent, something Boston or St. Louis never did.

For example, the trades of Justin Upton and Adam Eaton were both made with team chemistry in mind, but those players are better than the guys who replaced them -- Mark Trumbo and A.J. Pollock. And the D-backs also had to give up Tyler Skaggs in the Eaton deal, a quality young starter they could desperately use right now.

So what should Arizona do? A lot of fans probably want to see GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson fired, but I don't think that is the solution. They were both recently given contract extensions -- terms were not disclosed -- but they have good continuity with president Derrick Hall and owner Ken Kendrick, and continuity is a virtue.

I'd like to think that Towers and Gibson can learn from recent mistakes and start rebuilding the team with talent as the priority. The good news for the D-backs is they have some intriguing trade assets.

Trade bait

Looking at Arizona's roster, four names jump out to me as trade candidates: Aaron Hill, Martin Prado, Miguel Montero and Trumbo.

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videoThe three major rule changes/adjustments that MLB made over the winter -- instant replay, banning collisions at home and the "transfer" rule -- have already caused a lot of controversy this season. On one hand, I think MLB should be commended for being proactive, but it's clear all of the modifications need a little tweaking.

While I understand why the sport would want to wait until the winter to change anything, I think MLB should look to make some needed tweaks before the first of May, even if it means invoking the "best interests of baseball" clause. Remember, MLB instituted instant replay on home runs in August 2008, so there is precedent for major rule changes during the season.

Here are the changes I would recommend for each controversial rule.

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Top 10 big-game pitchers in MLB 

April, 16, 2014
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On Wednesday night, baseball fans will be treated to one of the best pitching matchups of the season, as Felix Hernandez toes the rubber in Texas against Yu Darvish.

These are two of the best pitchers in the game in the midst of their respective peaks, and this matchup got me thinking about the best big-game pitchers in the baseball right now. We've seen a number of guys with a history of shining in big spots recently retire, such as Chris Carpenter and Andy Pettitte, which has me re-calibrating my ranking of the best big-game pitchers in the game.

Here is my list of the top 10 big-game pitchers in MLB today, based on how I've seen them pitch in their biggest games and how I think they would do if given the opportunity to pitch in Game 7 of a World Series.

A couple of players who I would have included in past years but didn't make the cut here are Matt Cain and Cole Hamels. Cain hasn't been the same pitcher in the past 13 months, but if he can recapture his 2012 form, he'd be in the top five. As for Hamels, his recent injury raises questions about whether he will be able to dominate when he returns.

On to the rankings.
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1. Clayton Kershaw | LHP | Los Angeles Dodgers

Like Hamels, Kershaw is also on the DL, but he is so good that I can't justify putting anyone else at No. 1 on this list. (Also, his ailment, a back issue, is not related to his arm.)

Some might question Kershaw's placement here based on getting shelled in his most recent postseason start, Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS, but let's not forget how dominant he was in the LDS, when he allowed only one run in two starts against Atlanta while striking out 18.
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2. Madison Bumgarner | LHP | San Francisco Giants

Bumgarner has pitched in two World Series and has yet to give up an earned run, going 2-0 and yielding just five hits in 15 innings while punching out 14.

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McCann & GirardiAP Photo/Seth WenigNo free agent got a more market-appropriate deal over the winter than Brian McCann.
One of my favorite pieces I write every year is my free-agent predictions. For those unfamiliar, at the start of every offseason, I make my best guess at what each free agent's contract will look like and give a prediction of where he will sign.

In the interest of accountability, I thought it would be a good idea to go back and review my best and worst predictions before the season gets too far along.

This year, I was pretty accurate in predicting the average annual value of most contracts, but I was a little light on years, perhaps not properly adjusting for the game's growing TV revenues. For example, I predicted Robinson Cano would get $25 million per season over eight years. He got $24 million per season, but over 10 years.

Here's a look at my best and worst offseason predictions, starting with the best.

Brian McCann, C | New York Yankees
Prediction:
5 years, $90 million
Actual: 5 years, $85 million

Yankees GM Brian Cashman did a great job in getting this deal done quickly and allowing the Yankees' long tradition of distinguished catchers from Yogi Berra to Thurman Munson to Jorge Posada to (now) McCann to continue.

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Manny MachadoBrad Penner/USA TODAY SportsManny Machado is one of several young stars Jim Bowden would lock up long term now.
As baseball’s revenues continue to break records year over year, clubs are well aware that, based on baseball history, those revenues normally get passed right down to the players.

Indeed, we’ve recently seen a flurry of six-year contract extensions by clubs for non-arbitration-eligible players in the past few months, including:

Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels, $144.5 million
Yan Gomes, Cleveland Indians, $23 million
Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves, $32.4 million
Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays, $25.5 million
Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians, $52.5 million

In addition to those six-year deals, there was also Freddie Freeman's eight-year, $135 million extension, which is the longest contract in Braves history.

This proactive method benefits the team and the player. For the teams, they get to pre-emptively buy out some of the player's free-agent years, which should save them millions of dollars considering the ridiculous pace at which free-agent salaries are escalating. In exchange, the players receive lifetime security yet are still able to test the free-agent market again at a reasonably young age.

The Trout deal broke records at almost every aspect, and the Teheran and Archer deals were riskier because of pitchers’ greater chance of landing on the disabled list at some point in their six-year contract.

Gomes was the biggest gamble because he hasn’t established the track record the others did to justify committing those types of dollars. Regardless of the risk, clubs cannot ignore the opportunity to save so much money, making contracts such as these no-brainers.

When I look around the league, I see a number of other candidates for these kind of long-term deals. Here are nine pre-arbitration players I think teams would have a chance to lock up, plus four Boras Corp. clients who probably have very little chance to sign now -- Scott Boras almost always recommends his players hold out for free agency ASAP -- but should try anyway.

As always, agents will use recent deals as a framework when negotiating, and I've noted some recent deals that would provide a guideline for each player in question.

Non-arbitration-eligible players clubs should extend now

1. Manny Machado | 3B | Service time: 1+056 | Agent: MVP Sports

Note: Service time is as of Opening Day, and "1+056" means one year, 56 days.

Machado had offseason knee surgery and started the year on the disabled list, so of course the Orioles will need to make sure he is 100 percent upon his return before doing a deal. However, once he is back to full strength, they should be aggressive in getting him locked up. The time will never be better, the price and value never lower.

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A Blue Jays rebuilding plan 

April, 2, 2014
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We are only few days into the 2014 season and there is no reason for a team to panic if it gets off to a slow start -- unless you’re the Toronto Blue Jays. For the Jays, it's time to accept the fact that they are not going to make the playoffs this year.

The four other teams in their division are well-equipped to make a playoff run, while the Jays are plagued by a lack of pitching depth and have already seen Jose Reyes -- the key to any 2014 revival -- hit the DL again with a hamstring injury.

Now, I'm not going to blame general manager Alex Anthopoulos for this predicament. Back in the fall of 2012, he sensed that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox might be poised to drop off -- a sentiment shared around the league at the time -- and decided to see if he could capitalize by trading a number of elite prospects, such as Noah Syndergaard, Travis d'Arnaud, Jake Marisnick and Justin Nicolino, in two separate deals with the Mets and Marlins that netted him R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Reyes.

Everyone in baseball believed the Blue Jays were headed for October -- and many thought Anthopoulos would win executive of the year -- but their playoff hopes were dashed by injuries and underperformance.

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A large slate of games Monday offered glimpses of what could be an exciting 2014 season. There were unexpected performances (Alejandro De Aza's two home runs) and disappointing ones (Cliff Lee’s eight earned runs in five innings), too, as well as a walk-off win in Pittsburgh.

There’s still a long way to go for any of my bold predictions to play out, but here are my five best takeaways from Opening Day 2014.

1. So far, so good for Sizemore and Sox

Grady Sizemore was the best and biggest story of spring training, and he kept it going Opening Day with a single in his first at-bat and a long home run in his second.

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Bryan PriceAP Photo/Paul SancyaNew Reds manager Bryan Price has some very specific changes for the 2014 season.
Somewhat fittingly, the Cincinnati Reds open their season on Monday against the St. Louis Cardinals. Reds general manager Walt Jocketty built the Cardinals into a perennial power and 2006 World Series champion during his tenure as St. Louis’ GM from 1994 to 2007.

With the Reds, Jocketty is trying to do the same, and although some have criticized him for "standing pat" this winter, I believe he built a team that is poised to be in the mix for the National League Central crown once again.

Jocketty still is scouring the trade market for more offensive help for his lineup, and at the very least, some offensive help that can also back up in the infield. But believe in the Reds; they're going to be better than everyone thinks. This past offseason, the Reds made no significant moves, and that was the right move, for another 90-win season and a wild-card berth are well within their grasp in 2014.

No moves, better team



So how can the Reds lose Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo via free agency and still have a better team? Thanks to its farm system, Cincinnati has a chance to be better, and here's why:

Hamilton takes over center field: Billy Hamilton might get some bad jumps and take some poor angles, but because of his speed he has so much more range than Choo.

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Seven bold predictions for 2014 

March, 29, 2014
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Cliff Lee Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesCliff Lee has a lot to be worried about if things go sideways for the Phillies.
With the start of the 2014 season upon us, it's time to take a guess at what might happen this year.

In this space last season, I predicted that Yasiel Puig would become an instant hit in Los Angeles and envisioned a last-place finish for the New York Yankees. Although the Yankees did not end up in the AL East cellar, they definitely fell off, and "Puigmania" did indeed ensue. So here are seven predictions I'm making for 2014.

1. Phillies finish last in the NL East

The Philadelphia Phillies might not have the worst roster in baseball, but they do have the oldest, and it's a team that has been on a steady decline for the past few years.

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When will Trout's reign end? 

March, 27, 2014
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videoLos Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout clearly has established himself as the best player in Major League Baseball. He is ranked No. 1 in the "Baseball Tonight" 100, and he will be the favorite to remain on the top of this list for the next five years.

The rest of the top five will turn over, as there are a number of players who will move in and out over the next half-decade. Let’s have some fun and take a look at the guys who I think will populate the list of top-five players each year through the 2019 season.

Understand these lists are purely what I think could happen, and I'm assuming some amount of good health and luck during these five years, while hypothesizing some outcomes based on current performance and trajectory. I added some statistical projections courtesy of Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections system, just to give you a sense of what the stats say about these guys. In some case, I'm a bit more optimistic than the computer models.

Top 5 players in 2015 (projected via ZiPS)

1. Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels (.289/.384/.505, 42 SB, 8.9 WAR)
2.

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videoMiguel Cabrera's new contract, which is reportedly worth close to $300 million, should keep him with the Detroit Tigers for the rest of his career.

Most of the industry is shell-shocked and isn't sure how to react to this news. Here are my five key takeaways.

1. The timing is weird

If Cabrera happened to be a free agent this offseason, this is the kind of contract I would expect him to get. Problem is, he's not a free agent. In fact, he's under team control for two more years.

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Shin-Soo ChooJoe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsThe Texas Rangers might have wildly overpaid for free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.
When a general manager makes a trade or a free-agent signing, he must always have significant justification for why the move was made. This could include:

• Scouting reports
• Advanced metrics and analytics
• Medical reports
• Evaluations of makeup and character
• Financial considerations
• Roster structure
• Team needs to wants

Most GMs will provide owners with at least 20 pages of documentation supporting any significant move. By the time everyone evaluates why the decision was made most of the organization should believe the move was made in the best interest of the organization.

However, after all the preparation and analysis is done, the decision is right only until something goes wrong. That could be an injury, a decline in performance, a personal problem that changes the player’s focus, a change of vibe in the clubhouse or even a change of league or position that all of a sudden makes the move go wrong, leaving the club with nothing but regrets.

Of course, anyone who's ever been a GM, president or owner would love to have a mulligan or two during their careers. Looking at this year’s offseason moves, here are the five that will backfire, either by season’s end or sometime in the next few years.

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videoFor those who weren't interested in the Dodgers-Diamondbacks series in Australia -- and the latest Yasiel Puig controversy -- the big story of the weekend was the Detroit Tigers' announcement that Max Scherzer has turned down a "substantial" contract extension, and that talks will be tabled until next winter.

The offer was reportedly worth a little more than $25 million per season over six years, for a total value of $150 million or so. Scherzer supposedly wanted something closer to Clayton Kershaw's recent seven-year, $215 deal. With the two sides so far apart, it's no surprise they decided to call off negotiations.

The Boras factor

It's no secret that Scott Boras, Scherzer's agent, prefers to take his clients to free agency, believing that is how he can maximize their value. And while he may have misread the market for players such as Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew this winter, his strategy generally works for players at the top end of the market, such as Scherzer.

Now, once in a while, a player will overrule Boras and take a deal that is below market value if he is in a situation he likes. A prime example is Jered Weaver, who surprised a lot of people by signing a five-year, $85 million extension in 2011.

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Chris OwingsJoe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsIt looks like Chris Owings -- not Didi Gregorius -- will be Arizona's Opening Day shortstop.
This week we checked in at several camps, including the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics. We continue our tour through the Cactus League, with a couple of stop in NL camps, both of which are located at the gorgeous facility in Talking Stick, Ariz., that is shared by the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks. Let's look at the buzz surrounding their spring camps thus far:

Arizona Diamondbacks

• I'm hearing that Chris Owings will be the everyday shortstop.

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MLB has never had more parity 

March, 15, 2014
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One of the main purposes of ESPN Insider's Future Power Rankings is to offer fans hope.

Even if your team is bad now, it might be really good in three years. The rankings are designed to peer into the projected future. However, this year’s FPR also illustrated something else: baseball has achieved a tremendous amount of parity. If you look at the overall scores, you'll see that the gap between No. 1 and No. 5 (25.8 points) is larger than the gap between No. 5 and No. 25 (23.8). This kind of parity keeps fans’ hopes alive because, year to year, any team could be that surprise contender.

The rankings showed there were four elite teams with scores well above the average: the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers. Conversely, there was a significant drop to the last four teams: the Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers and Miami Marlins. But what about that middle 22 teams?

For fans celebrating their teams ranked just below the elite at fifth or sixth, not so fast. For fans upset their teams ranked as low as 24th or 25th, not to worry. The reality is, there isn’t much difference between the fifth-ranked team and the 26th-ranked team, thanks to this new competitive balance. Any of the teams within this range can easily move up or down within a year with some solid moves and decisions.

But how did baseball create such competitive balance so quickly?

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