Is the year the Pirates break their streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons?
If the season ended in mid-September, the Pirates’ streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons would be over. Alas, the Major League campaign continues to run through September, and the Pirates have to find a way to keep playing well throughout the entire season. Their record after Aug. 1 the past two seasons is a combined 37–76, costing them a chance (twice) at making a run at a postseason berth. So how do the Pirates get over the hump in the final third of the season?
Righthander A.J. Burnett and lefty Wandy Rodriguez, both acquired in trades last season, are the top two starters. Burnett went 16–10 with a 3.51 ERA after coming over from the New York Yankees in the early days of spring training. Rodriguez was acquired from Houston in a late-July trade and was 5–4 with a 3.72 ERA in 13 games with the Pirates and 12–13 with a 3.76 ERA overall. Righthander James McDonald went 9–3 with a 2.37 ERA before the All-Star break but finished 12–8 with a 4.21 ERA and was yanked from the rotation in the season’s final weeks. One of pitching coach Ray Searage’s biggest challenges this spring will be to get McDonald back to his first-half form. Another priority for the affable Searage will be finding a way to turn Jeanmar Gomez, acquired from Cleveland in a January trade, into a reliable starter. The 25-year-old Gomez had a 14–16 record in three years with the Tribe, but he had his worst season in 2012, going 5–8 with a 5.96 ERA in 20 games, including 17 starts. He’ll probably start the season in the bullpen until he proves he has turned the corner. The Bucs will turn to one youngster and one journeyman to complete the rotation. Lefty Jeff Locke, just 25, will get a chance to start every fifth day. Jonathan Sanchez, with just one successful season — 2010 with the Giants — on his résumé, will begin the season in the fifth spot.
Setup man Jason Grilli will be elevated to closer following the offseason trade of two-time All-Star Joel Hanrahan to Boston. Hanrahan converted 76-of-84 save opportunities during his two years as the Pirates’ closer. Meanwhile, Grilli has five saves in 10 big-league seasons. However, the Pirates are convinced the 36-year-old can pitch effectively in the ninth inning after he struck out 90 batters in 58.2 innings last season. They signed him to a two-year, $6.75 million deal in the offseason. Mark Melancon, who came over in the Hanrahan trade, will get a chance to pitch in a setup role despite struggling (6.20 ERA in 41 games) with the Red Sox last season. Jared Hughes will also pitch late in games after proving to be durable as a rookie in 2012. He worked in 66 games and recorded a 2.85 ERA. Tony Watson served as the lone left-handed reliever for most of last season and led the team with 68 appearances, posting a 3.38 ERA. Righthander Chris Leroux, out of minor league options, is likely to make the team as well. Gomez will pitch in long relief early, but he should eventually replace Sanchez in the rotation.
The double-play combination of shortstop Clint Barmes and second baseman Neil Walker is not the flashiest in the big leagues, but they form a solid defensive duo. Barmes struggled at the plate last year in the first season of a two-year, $10.5-million free agent contract, hitting only .229 with eight home runs in 455 at-bats. Walker hit .280 with 14 homers but missed most of September with a herniated disc in his lower back.
Few big-league hitters have more raw power than third baseman Pedro Alvarez, but he is still refining his game. He hit 30 home runs in 2012, his first full season in the majors, but also had a .244 batting average and 180 strikeouts. First baseman Garrett Jones had the best season of his five-year career, hitting .274 and belting 27 homers. However, Jones is a career .198 hitter against left-handed pitchers and will be often spelled against southpaws by Gaby Sanchez.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen had his best season yet in 2012 as he won back-to-back National League Player of the Month awards in June and July, hitting a combined .405 with 14 home runs in 52 games. He capped the year by winning his first career NL Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. He finished the season hitting .327 with 31 home runs and 20 stolen bases. A group of five players — Starling Marte, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata — began the spring competing for the other two starting spots. Marte hit .257 with five homers and 12 steals in 47 games as a rookie last season, while Presley, who began the year as the starting left fielder, batted .237 with 10 homers. Sands played in 70 games with the Dodgers the past two seasons and hit only .244 with four homers. Snider battled hamstring problems after being acquired from Toronto in a late-July trade last season and hit just .250 with one homer in 50 games. Tabata flopped in the first year of a six-year, $15-million contract, posting a .243 batting average with only three home runs. For now, the Pirates will go with Marte and Snider. But both are one slump away from demotion.
The Pirates made a rare free-agent splash by signing Russell Martin for two years and $17 million after he hit a career-high 21 home runs for the Yankees. He also hit a career-worst .211 but should be a big upgrade defensively from Rod Barajas.
Michael McKenry is a solid No. 2 catcher with pop who hit 12 home runs in 88 games last season. Sanchez hit just .241 with four homers in 50 games after coming over from the Marlins last year but is being counted on as the top right-handed hitter off the bench. Josh Harrison is below average defensively, but he is valuable because he can play almost anywhere on the infield and both corner outfield spots. John McDonald, acquired from Arizona late in spring training, is the backup at middle infield. He is a terrific defender. Tabata, one of the odd men out in the outfield competition, should stick as the fourth outfielder.
Hurdle has changed the culture of the clubhouse and instilled confidence and a winning attitude in a young club during his two years as manager. While he may not be a master strategist, and his bombastic nature can be wearing at times, he is a motivator. General manager Neal Huntington has hit some potholes along the way but has improved the talent throughout the organization during his five-year tenure. Huntington has whiffed on a number of free-agent signings, so it’s important that Martin — who received a big-money contract by the penny-pinching Pirates’ standards — plays well enough to warrant his deal in 2013.
The last two seasons have ended in disappointment for the Pirates. But there’s no denying that this franchise has made significant progress in recent years. The Pirates went 79–83 last season and were just three wins away from finally ending their streak of sub-.500 finishes. Making a run at the postseason might be a stretch — even in the era of the second wild card — but a winning record appears to be a realistic goal in Pittsburgh.
Lineup LF Starling Marte (R)
Has the power and speed to be a star, but needs to raise his .300 on-base percentage. 2B Neil Walker (S)
A solid all-around second baseman with some pop in his bat, though back problems are a concern. CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
Already one of the game’s biggest stars at 26, and he still has room to improve his all-around game. 1B Garrett Jones (L)
Mashes right-handed pitching, but his troubles against lefties keep him from playing every day. 3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
Plenty of pop in his bat, but he also has plenty of holes in his swing; struck out 180 times last season. C Russell Martin (R)
Figures to give his new team solid run production and a strong presence behind the plate. RF Travis Snider (L)
Has seemingly been a prospect forever, but this season might be now or never for him. SS Clint Barmes (R)
Solid glove work is the only thing still keeping him in the lineup; hit a career-low .229 last season.
Bench C Michael McKenry (R)
Solid backup has surprising pop in his bat for a little guy, and pitchers love throwing to him. 1B Gaby Sanchez (R)
Late-season power surge in 2012 provides hope he can offer more run production in 2013. UT Josh Harrison (R)
A true hacker as he has drawn just 13 walks in 480 big- league plate appearances. OF Jose Tabata (R)
Still just 24, but the regression of his power and speed is alarming; has only 11 home runs in 1,072 at-bats. SS John McDonald (R)
The outstanding defender was picked up from Arizona late in spring training.
Rotation RH A.J. Burnett
Still has great stuff at 36 and was rejuvenated last season by getting traded from the Yankees to Pirates. LH Wandy Rodriguez
Southpaw’s outstanding command allows him to compete with an average arsenal. RH James McDonald
Has the stuff to be an ace but lacks both the confidence and mental toughness to be a top-of-rotation fixture. LH Jonathan Sanchez
Discounting his breakout (and fluky?) 2010, he’s 26-46 with a 1.52 WHIP and 5.09 ERA for his career. LH Jeff Locke
Only twice in 10 career starts has he completed six innings, never more than that. But in his last start in 2012, he allowed just two hits and one run over six innings to the Braves.
Bullpen RH Jason Grilli (Closer)
The journeyman is throwing harder than ever at 37 and was dominant last season as a set-up man. RH Mark Melancon
Pirates hoping a switch back to the National League will get him back on track after a horrible year with Boston. LH Tony Watson
Took a little bit off his fastball last year in his first full big-league season and gained better command. RH Jared Hughes
He has an outstanding sinker and could be dominant if he develops a stronger second pitch. RH Chris Leroux
Tall pitcher whose arm angle makes it difficult for hitters to pick up his pitches. LH Justin Wilson
Converted starter has hit 99 mph with his fastball out of the bullpen. LH Jeanmar Gomez
Gets a fresh start in the National League after a rough 2012 with the Indians.
Whether it's turnover in Toronto, sophomore superstars, or Dodger dollars, there's no shortage of storylines coming this 2013 baseball season. To get you up to speed before opening day, here's a look at everything you need to know.
A shaky rotation and questionable outfield could result in a long season in Queens
After the 2011 season, the Mets lost the NL batting champion, Jose Reyes. After last season, they lost the NL Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey. Yet when Sandy Alderson announced Dickey’s trade to Toronto, he declared, “We’re certainly not punting on 2013.” He had to say it — with attendance already plummeting at Citi Field, the Mets don’t need their general manager conceding a season — but it’s clearly misleading. The Mets have no intention of contending this season, which will be the fifth losing campaign in a row for the franchise. On the positive side, they seem to be collecting a promising group of prospects who could grow together in years to come.
The Mets say they wanted Dickey to return, but their offer of a contract extension (two years, $20 million) was laughably out of line for a Cy Young Award winner in an industry with cash. They traded him to Toronto for an impressive prospect haul, but did not get a starter back in the deal. Without Dickey, Johan Santana moves back to the No. 1 spot, and while he has fought valiantly through a variety of physical problems, he’s proven to be unreliable for a full season. Shaun Marcum, twice a 13-game winner for Milwaukee, was signed and should provide quality innings if his shoulder doesn’t get too balky. The starters behind them offer long-term hope, with steady lefty Jon Niese and rising star Matt Harvey. Niese quietly had an outstanding season, going 13–9 overall and posting a 2.93 ERA in the final four months, never once walking more than three in a game over that span. Harvey, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft out of North Carolina, had an exciting debut, with a 2.73 ERA in 10 starts and 70 strikeouts in 59.1 innings. The rotation falls off steeply after that, with Dillon Gee, a replacement-level righty, having missed the second half of the season after having a blood clot removed from his shoulder. Until Santana is ready for a regular load, Jeremy Hefner will fill in. But the prize of the group for the future is top prospect Zack Wheeler.
Frank Francisco had a 3.55 ERA for Toronto in 2011, and he reversed those digits for the Mets in 2012 — 5.53. That’s not what the Mets had in mind when they signed him for two years and $12 million, but Francisco, in fairness, did not blow a save after June 5. He missed all of July with an oblique strain and may have had arm problems, too. He underwent surgery in December to remove a bone spur from his elbow, and is questionable for Opening Day. If he pitches well, he’ll be trade bait for contenders this summer. Setup man Bobby Parnell was not the best righthander named Robert Allen on the team — that was Robert Allen Dickey — but he did enjoy a strong season, with a career-high in games (74) and a career-low 2.49 ERA. He also earned his seventh save on the final day of the season to give himself another career-best mark. He’ll close until Francisco is completely healthy. Beyond Parnell, though, the bullpen is threadbare. Veteran Brandon Lyon signed late and should be an effective innings eater from the right side. Non-roster veterans Scott Atchison, LaTroy Hawkins and lefty Pedro Feliciano will add depth and give manager Terry Collins some good matchup options. Lefty Josh Edgin can also be a decent match-up guy.
As up-the-middle combinations go, they’re not exactly Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter. The Mets’ Daniel Murphy and Ruben Tejada are adequate but limited at the plate, both hitting for a respectable batting average but offering little power or speed to go with it. They’re viable big leaguers, which is saying something for this team, but they’re not difference makers. Advanced defensive metrics are not always reliable, but according to Fangraphs, Murphy’s Ultimate Zone Rating ranked 20th of 22 qualifying second basemen in the majors. Tejada was better, but still not among the upper half at his position, ranking 13th of 21 qualifying shortstops. A strained intercoastal muscle may keep Murphy on the shelf to start the season.
This is by far the Mets’ offensive strength. While Ike Davis struggled at Citi Field last season, he managed to smash 32 homers and drive in 90 runs. He needed only 16.2 at-bats per home run, ranking third in the National League, and at 26 years old, he still has time to get better. Across the diamond, third baseman David Wright had his best season since 2008, the year before the Mets moved to Citi Field, where he struggled at first with the distant dimensions. Moving in the fences suited Wright, who hit more long balls at home (12) than he did on the road (nine). A two-time Gold Glove winner, he also excelled in the field, with the best Ultimate Zone Rating among NL third basemen, according to Fangraphs. The Mets locked up Wright with an eight-year, $138 million contract extension that binds him to the team through 2020.
The Mets won the wild card in 2000 with an outfield of Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton and Derek Bell, and advanced to the World Series that year with Timo Perez replacing Bell. That’s a ragtag group, to be sure, but a juggernaut compared to the outfield in Flushing these days. The Mets have few outfielders who would start for other teams, with Collin Cowgill, veteran Marlon Byrd and Lucas Duda likely to hold down the starting spots. Cowgill — who bats right and throws left — will play for his third team in three seasons after stints with Arizona and Oakland, hoping to establish himself as an everyday player. He showed decent power and an ability to reach base in the minors, so he’s worth a look. Duda is the most established hitter, but he lumbers on defense and the bases and struggled to make up for it at the plate last season. Byrd, a non-roster player, has seen his better days, but should hit for a decent average.
The Mets believe they acquired a foundational piece in Travis d’Arnaud, who is so highly regarded that he’s been traded twice for Cy Young Award winners before his first game in the big leagues. He was hitting .333 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs at Class AAA Las Vegas last year before his season ended when he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while sliding to break up a double play. He also missed half the 2010 season with two bulging disks in his back. Those are troublesome issues for a young player, but the Mets were willing to bank on d’Arnaud’s potential while also acquiring a veteran, John Buck, who could be the starter early in the season. With little hope of contending this year, the Mets have determined they are best-served by leaving d’Arnaud in Class AAA to the start the season, delaying his eventual free agency by shortening his major league service time.
For a team with so many holes in the starting lineup, the Mets actually have a decent bench, with useful players like infielder Justin Turner, outfielder Mike Baxter and Jordany Valdespin, an infielder/outfielder. Valdespin had five separate stints with the Mets last year and set a single-season club record for pinch-hit homers, with five.
The Mets play hard for manager Terry Collins, but a lack of talent and a rash of injuries have doomed them down the stretch in the past two seasons. Collins burns to win and has vaguely raised questions about his team’s effort at times, but that is mostly just frustration, and players appreciate his generally positive approach in an atmosphere that can be harsh. Alderson knows how to build a winner, but he has mostly been limited to low-cost, low-impact moves, essentially treading water until the team has shed its glut of bad contracts. Owner Fred Wilpon and his son Jeff, who essentially runs the team, have sold minority ownership shares but have yet to prove they have really recovered from the havoc Bernie Madoff wreaked on their finances.
This season marks the 20th anniversary of the Mets’ last 100-loss season, and they could be headed for another. These Mets could be very bad, and only the filleting of the Miami Marlins will save them from the basement of the NL East. The good thing is that the future is finally coming into focus, and fans can watch Harvey, d’Arnaud, Wheeler and others develop while knowing that Wright will be here for the long haul.
Lineup SS Ruben Tejada (R)
In 78 games as the leadoff man last year, he attempted just four stolen bases. 2B Daniel Murphy (L)
His .291 average trailed only Robinson Cano, Marco Scutaro and Aaron Hill among everyday second basemen. 3B David Wright (R)
Greatest Met never to play in World Series faces a long road to get there. For now, just trying to get healthy to avoid starting the season on the DL. 1B Ike Davis (L)
Outstanding power, but must prove he can handle lefties and hit at Citi Field. RF Marlon Byrd (R)
Veteran batted .270 in 34 games with the Red Sox last season, which was 200 points higher than his first 13 games with the Cubs. LF Lucas Duda (L)
His OPS in the second half of the 2012 season was a miserable .644. CF Collin Cowgill (R)
With .291 average in five minor league seasons, he’s ready for a shot. C John Buck (R)
After making All-Star team with Jays in 2010, hit .213 in two years for Marlins.
Bench OF Mike Baxter (L)
Sacrificed chunk of his season to save Johan Santana’s no-hitter with diving catch at wall. UT Jordany Valdespin (L)
Pinch-hitter extraordinaire who started at five positions (LF, CF, RF, 2B, SS) as a rookie. Will get some regular time at second until Murphy is 100 percent. IF Brandon Hicks (R)
Has a .133 career average in parts of three seasons with Atlanta and Oakland. IF Justin Turner (R)
Proved himself to be a capable reserve (he hit .269 in 171 at-bats) after a year as a starter. C Travis d’Arnaud (R)
Vaunted prospect should make debut in ’13 and stay for years to come.
Rotation LH Jon Niese
Won 13 games with a career-low 3.40 ERA in his third season as a starter. RH Shaun Marcum
Has gone 33-19 with a 3.62 ERA over last three seasons. RH Matt Harvey
Power righty projects as long-term ace; only gave up 42 hits in 59.1 innings last season. RH Dillon Gee
Missed second half after having blood clot removed from shoulder in July. LH Johan Santana
The danger of backloaded contracts — Santana will make $25.5M in 2013. A balky shoulder may keep him on the DL to start the season. RH Jeremy Hefner
Former fifth-round pick of the Padres is leading candidate to replace Santana while the former Cy Young winner is disabled.
Bullpen RH Frank Francisco (Closer)
First pitcher since 2009 to have at least 20 saves and an ERA above 5.50. Elbow inflammation is not a good sign; likely headed to DL. RH Bobby Parnell
Especially stingy at Citi Field, with 1.54 ERA at home last season. Will close in place of the injured Francisco. RH Brandon Lyon
Averaged 61 games and 62 innings over last seven seasons. RH Scott Atchison
Was effective with Boston last season: a 1.58 ERA in 51.1 innings and a 0.994 WHIP. The 37-year-old has logged more than 1,000 innings in the minors and Japan, just over 200 in the majors. RH LaTroy Hawkins
In 2009 and 2011 he had a combined 2.26 ERA; an unimpressive 4.97 in 2010 and 2012. Maybe 2013 will follow that trend. LH Pedro Feliciano
Led the NL in appearances all three years from 2008-10 totaling 208 games, but hasn’t pitched in bigs since. LH Josh Edgin
Held lefties to .164 average (9-for-55), which was good enough to earn another look.
Phillies need aging stars to stay healthy, productive in order to contend in the NL East
The Phillies are no longer the team to beat in the NL East. Maybe that will be beneficial, because this graying club, which was knocked from its lofty perch by injury and a horrible start in 2012, can use all the edge it can get. “Everyone is a little angry,” says Jimmy Rollins, the team’s longest-tenured player and a key contributor on five straight division championship clubs from 2007-11. “We have that chip on our shoulder to go back out there and prove this is still our division.” Injuries to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay contributed to a woeful 37–50 record before the All-Star break in 2012. Improved health and performance led to a 44–31 second half and fueled hopes that this team, aging but still high on accomplished star power, might have one more run in it.
What’s up, Doc? This is one of the most important questions facing this team. If Halladay is close to the pitcher he was in his first two seasons with the club, the Phillies will be in the enviable position of having three top starters. If Halladay struggles as he did in 2012, the Phils will have to get by with just two. Indications this spring are that the latter might be the case. Having Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee atop the rotation still puts the Phils in good position in the arms race. Hamels continued to blossom into an elite pitcher in 2012, and management recognized his importance by signing him to a six-year, $144 million contract in July. At 29, Hamels’ time to lead this staff has come. He’s talented enough to join Halladay and Lee as a Cy Young winner and lines up to make his first Opening Day start. “I’m still looking for him to have a really big year — 22, 24 wins,” manager Charlie Manuel said after Hamels’ career-best 17 wins in 2012. “It’s in there.” Lee’s win total was down in 2012, but he remains one of the best. He had a brilliant second half and joined Hamels with a top-10 ERA (in NL) finish. After finishing first and second in NL Cy Young voting his first two seasons in Philly, Halladay was a different pitcher in 2012. His 4.49 ERA was his highest in a season in which he pitched over 70 innings. Shoulder problems, likely caused by the wear and tear of over 2,700 big-league innings, sent him to the disabled list for seven weeks. When he was on the mound, he used off-speed stuff more than past years as he tried to compensate for reduced velocity and movement on his signature sinker and cutter. There is no more dedicated pro athlete than Halladay, who turns 36 in May. He has vowed to come back strong in 2013. If he does, everyone from the front office to the cheap seats will breathe easier, and the rotation will be deeper and more formidable. Kyle Kendrick and newcomer John Lannan, the third lefty on the starting staff, round out the rotation. Kendrick gained valuable confidence by recording a 3.20 ERA in his final 12 starts last season. Lannan has something to prove after being pushed out of Washington’s rotation by more talented arms last season. He made 30-plus starts and had a sub-4.00 ERA three times in Washington.
Even with Jonathan Papelbon converting 38-of-42 saves chances, the bullpen was a fatal weakness in 2012. Phillies relievers helped dig that huge first-half deficit by recording a 4.72 ERA, second-worst in the majors, before the break. The eighth inning was particularly disastrous. For the season, the Phils blew an unsightly 13 eighth-inning leads. Management believes it has fixed the problem with the signing of Mike Adams, one of the best setup men in the business. He and Papelbon could form one of the best back-end tandems in baseball. Antonio Bastardo, a lefty with strikeout stuff, will be key in the late innings as well. The Phils are hoping for the emergence of some of their young, high-upside relievers, most notably Mike Stutes and Jeremy Horst.
The best middle infield combo in franchise history could be nearing the end of a storied run together. Rollins and Utley are both 34. Utley, once the game’s top run-producing second baseman, has averaged just 100 games the last three seasons because of injuries, particularly bad knees. He enters the final year of his contract. He believes he can manage his way through the season, but his batting average and slugging percentage the last two seasons are just .258 and .426, respectively. Rollins won his fourth Gold Glove in 2012 and can still pick it and throw it with the best. He’s never been a prototypical leadoff man because of his aggressive approach at the plate, but he did score 102 runs in 2012. He is signed through 2014 with an option for 2015.
Veteran stars Howard and Michael Young both have something to prove. Howard, long one of the game’s premier power bats, missed three months while recovering from a torn Achilles in 2012. He returned to drive in 56 runs in 260 at-bats, but batted a career-low .219 and struck out 35 percent of the time, a career-worst. Management has challenged him to improve his physical conditioning and approach at the plate. With good health and a full spring training, Howard should hit 30-plus homers and push for 120-plus RBIs. The team needs that from him. Young, who became a spare part after 12 decorated seasons in Texas, takes over at third base. Defense could be an issue, but Young’s deficiencies at third will be tolerable if he can rebound from a career-low .682 OPS and put up numbers similar to 2011 when he hit .338 with 106 RBIs.
This area has been unsettled since Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence were traded in July, and it remains one of the club’s biggest concerns. Management hoped to add a power-defense package in center field, but settled for slap-hitting Ben Revere, who was acquired from Minnesota. The speedy Revere can run down balls, but his arm is weak and his power nonexistent. In their search for a run-producing corner bat, the Phillies signed Delmon Young, last season’s ALCS MVP for Detroit. Liability doesn’t begin to describe him defensively, but he has some pop and his right-handed bat will come in handy. He had ankle surgery. While he recovers, John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix will likely platoon in left field. The Phillies desperately need Domonic Brown to finally seize control of right field, but to this point, the former top prospect has been disappointing.
Carlos Ruiz hit every ball hard, reached career-highs across the board, and became a valuable middle-order bat while making his first All-Star team in 2012. What does he do for an encore after hitting 50 points above his career average? Well, first he’ll serve a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant late last season. At 34, will Ruiz pick up where he left off when he returns, or was his big season a one-year wonder? One thing is sure: Ruiz will handle pitchers well. The staff has great respect for his game management. Veteran Erik Kratz, who showed power, presence and a strong throwing arm while Ruiz was out with a sore foot in 2012, will get the call while Ruiz serves his suspension.
Sure-handed infielder Freddy Galvis is an important piece off the bench. He gives the club a strong defender when Utley or Rollins needs rest, and he can help protect a late lead at third. Kevin Frandsen earned his way into a utility/pinch-hitting role by hitting .338 in 195 at-bats with the big club in 2012. The possibility of outfield platoons could keep the bench sharp.
Manuel is the most successful manager in club history. In eight seasons, he has guided the Phils to the best record in the NL (727–569), five division titles, two pennants and a World Series title. At 69, Manuel is in the final year of his contract. He says he hasn’t decided whether he wants to manage beyond 2013, but a succession plan may have been put into place when Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg was promoted from Triple-A manager to big-league third base coach. Sandberg is considered an excellent managerial prospect.
With Hamels and Lee, the Phils have a great place to start, and with Adams and Papelbon, a good place to finish. Up the middle, the team is solid with Rollins and Ruiz. If Howard and Young rebound, and Halladay and Utley stay active and productive, this club will push for a playoff spot.
Lineup SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
Led NL shortstops in runs (102), extra-base hits (61) and fielding percentage (.978) in 2012. 2B Chase Utley (L)
Finally enjoying a full spring training game since missing the last two springs because of chronic knee issues. 3B Michael Young (R)
Lifetime .301 hitter and seven-time All-Star has played just 65 games at third base since 2010. 1B Ryan Howard (L)
He had 46 RBIs in his final 47 games in 2012 to finish with 56 in 260 at-bats. C Carlos Ruiz (R)
Tied for second among National League catchers with 47 extra-base hits in 2012. Is suspended for the first 25 games for a positive PED test. RF Domonic Brown (L)
Had seven assists in final two months of 2012, second-most in NL in that span. CF Ben Revere (L)
His 37 infield hits (nine bunts) were third-most in the majors in 2012. LF John Mayberry Jr. (R)
Played in career-high 149 games, including 107 starts, in 2012; only had 46 RBIs in 441 at-bats. Will likely platoon with Laynce Nix until Delmon Young’s ankle is completely recovered from offseason surgery.
Bench IF Freddy Galvis (S)
Was leading team with 15 doubles when he sustained season-ending cracked spine last June. IF Kevin Frandsen (R)
His 37 hits in August 2012 were tied for third-most in the National League. C Erik Kratz (R)
Threw out 12-of-30 (40 percent) potential basestealers in 2012, and 18 of his 35 hits were for extra bases. OF Ender Inciarte (L)
Rule 5 pick hasn’t advanced past High-A with Arizona where he hit .319 last season. OF Laynce Nix (L)
Hit .342 in his first 17 games in 2012 then missed two-plus months with a calf strain.
Rotation LH Cole Hamels
Notched a career-high 216 strikeouts in 215.1 innings in 2012. LH Cliff Lee
His 2.45 ERA after All-Star break was fifth-lowest among NL starters. RH Roy Halladay
Did not have a complete game in 2012 for the first time in over a decade. Struggling to find velocity this spring. RH Kyle Kendrick
Durability is valuable — has never been on the disabled list; had a career-high 6.6 K/9 IP in 2012. LH John Lannan
He is 39–39 with a 3.80 ERA in 115 starts against teams other than the Phillies.
Bullpen RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
Has reached at least 30 saves in each of the last seven seasons. RH Mike Adams
In 285.2 career innings in the NL, he has 2.11 ERA, 295 strikeouts and 85 walks. LH Antonio Bastardo
Ranked third among qualified big-league relievers with 14.02 strikeouts per nine innings in 2012. RH Mike Stutes
Showed promise in 2011, but missed much of 2012 with shoulder injury. LH Jeremy Horst
Held left-handed hitters to a .170 average (8-for-47) with 17 strikeouts in 2012. RH Chad Durbin
Returns to Philadelphia after pitching for Cleveland and Atlanta the last two seasons. LH Raul Valdes
Lefties his just .149 last season; righties marginally better at .183.
The pieces appear to be in place for this Nationals team to play well into October
There are many things that history could choose to remember about the 2012 Washington Nationals. There was the debut of Bryce Harper, one of the most dynamic rookies to emerge in recent years. There was the franchise’s first division title and first playoff appearance since it moved from Montreal in 2005. And there was the cementing of Davey Johnson’s credentials as a Hall of Fame manager, as he was named Manager of the Year at season’s end. However, in all likelihood, the 2012 Nationals will still be remembered years from now as the team that willingly chose to shut down its ace — when he was completely healthy. In sidelining Stephen Strasburg in such a fashion, the Nationals cited, among other things, their window for winning future titles. That window is now wide open, and the way history ultimately views the Great Strasburg Shutdown of 2012 will depend largely on how the team performs in 2013 and beyond.
As with virtually every segment of the Nationals’ roster, the rotation is blessed with a plethora of younger, controllable players. Even with a couple of generic slop-ballers at the back end, a front three of Strasburg (presumably unleashed in 2013), lefty Gio Gonzalez and righthander Jordan Zimmermann would take this team a long way. But with the December free-agent signing of righthander Dan Haren to fill the role (held in 2012 by Edwin Jackson) of veteran innings-eater, the Nationals can boast a formidable back end of Haren and hard-throwing lefty Ross Detwiler — ensuring that, no matter where an opponent catches the Nationals in their starting rotation, they will be facing a tough night at the plate. An intriguing option for depth is flamethrower Christian Garcia, who emerged as a bullpen force late in 2012.
The shocking end of the Nationals’ 2012 season, in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals, could leave lasting marks on young closer Drew Storen, who blew a two-run ninth-inning lead after the Nationals were one strike away from advancing. While Johnson and the Nationals still believe in Storen, the team signed free agent Rafael Soriano to be the 2013 closer. Two of his 42 saves for the Yankees last season came prior to Mariano Rivera tearing his ACL in May. Storen joins Tyler Clippard to form what could be the most dominant setup tandem in baseball. Righthanders Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus, stalwarts in 2012, will return to their middle-relief roles. Lefty Zach Duke, who pitched well during a September call-up in 2012, is expected to fill the long reliever role held last year by Tom Gorzelanny.
Although the Nationals explored trading away second baseman Danny Espinosa this winter — less an indictment of Espinosa than a sign of how highly they regard backup Steve Lombardozzi — the team will return its double-play combo of Espinosa and shortstop Ian Desmond in 2013, and will be perfectly happy to do so. Switched out of the leadoff spot midway through the season (into a more comfortable role as the primary sixth hitter), Desmond had a breakout season that saw him earn his first All-Star appearance and Silver Slugger award (he was also a finalist for a Gold Glove), while becoming the emotional leader of the clubhouse. Espinosa strikes out too much and tends to go into long, deep funks at the plate, but he could also be poised for the same sort of breakout in 2013 that Desmond had in 2012.
After reviving his career with a huge 2012 season (33 homers, 100 RBIs, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, sixth in MVP voting), veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche paid a visit to free agency seeking a long-term deal, but was victimized by the draft-pick compensation rules in the new CBA, and ultimately returned to the Nationals on a two-year deal. LaRoche’s return gives the Nationals a top glove man and a critical left-handed bat in the middle of their lineup. Meantime, Ryan Zimmerman returns at third base following a strange 2012 that is best viewed as being divided into pre- and post-cortisone segments. On June 23, he received his first shot of the painkiller for his ailing shoulder, and his sagging numbers immediately took off. In the end, the popular Zimmerman wound up with a season in line with his career norms, then had a clean-up surgery on the shoulder immediately after the season.
The Nationals had been searching for years for a dependable leadoff hitter/center fielder, and over the winter they finally found their man in Denard Span, acquired via trade with Minnesota. Not only is Span a talented offensive and defensive player, but the Nationals also can envision other pieces falling into place with him on board: Harper (in left) and Jayson Werth (in right) move seamlessly to the corners, while Werth can be freed from the leadoff spot. If all three stay healthy and perform to expectations, the Harper-Span-Werth outfield could be among the best in baseball.
Kurt Suzuki, acquired in an August trade with Oakland, was supposed to have been little more than a two-month stopgap, filling an acute down-the-stretch need but ceding the starting job in 2013 when starter Wilson Ramos returns from injury. However, Suzuki played a critical role in the Nationals’ run to the NL East title. Lest we forget, however — Ramos was considered one of the brightest young catchers in the game before a season-ending knee injury in May. The two catchers proved in spring training that they were deserving of the starting job, and Johnson has decided to begin the season using Ramos and Suzuki every other day, keeping both fresh.
The Nationals were blessed with a potent, highly functional bench in 2012 and will be looking to reconstruct a similar one this year. To that end, they signed Chad Tracy, their top pinch-hitter in 2012, to a one-year extension for 2013, and they will return Lombardozzi, talented fourth outfielder Roger Bernadina and outfield/first base backup Tyler Moore as well.
The highly publicized shouting match between Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo last summer was less a sign of discord within the braintrust than a reminder that these are two bull-headed men who — with plenty of justification — believe strongly in their own abilities. They also happen to like and respect each other. Although Johnson will be 70 on Opening Day and has already indicated that 2013 will be his final year, he remains at the top of his game mentally. (And if Johnson does indeed step down after 2013, the Nationals appear to have already identified his successor in bench coach Randy Knorr.) Rizzo, too, has ascended to the upper tier of his profession, turning a perennial loser into a well-run, self-sustaining, winning organization that is the envy of his peers.
When Johnson blurted “World Series or bust” during the December 2012 Winter Meetings, he wasn’t being boastful or jingoistic. He was merely stating the obvious: This is a team built to win it all. In fact, all along 2013 was the Nationals’ target for contending — it just so happens that they arrived a year early in 2012. One could even argue that the franchise was caught unprepared for what befell them, based on the lack of a better plan for handling Strasburg’s innings limit. It is always dangerous to define your season as requiring a World Series appearance in order to qualify as a success, since the postseason is a crapshoot to some degree. But at least on paper, the Nationals appear to be as well equipped as anyone to survive both the marathon of the 162-game season and the sprint of October.
Lineup CF Denard Span (L)
The type of pure leadoff hitter the Nationals had been lacking; slapped 38 doubles and stole 17 bases in ’12. RF Jayson Werth (R)
Thrived as leadoff hitter, but Nats believe he’ll be a perfect fit behind Span. LF Bryce Harper (L)
After historic rookie season, ceiling in 2013 appears limitless for the 20-year-old outfielder. 3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
Played through shoulder injury, put up representative numbers, with 25 HRs and 95 RBIs. 1B Adam LaRoche (L)
Silver Slugger/Gold Glove exacta spoke to his immense value to the Nationals in 2012 SS Ian Desmond (R)
Arguably the best shortstop in the majors last season; had career highs in average (.292), HRs (25), RBIs (73). 2B Danny Espinosa (S)
Power numbers dipped slightly from 2011 rookie season, but Nationals aren’t giving up on him. C Wilson Ramos (R)
Will need to earn job back after suffering ACL tear last May that ended his season.
Bench C Kurt Suzuki (R)
Cameo after August trade was enough to earn shot at regular playing time in 2013. OF Roger Bernadina (L)
Versatile glove-man and emerging hitter could start for many teams; valuable reserve for the Nats. UT Tyler Moore (R)
Pure hitter was a crucial part of 2012 bench; hit 10 home runs in only 156 at-bats. IF Chad Tracy (L)
Davey Johnson’s favorite pinch-hitter (12 hits in 46 at- bats) in 2012 returns in same role. UT Steve Lombardozzi (S)
Steady infielder added outfield to his duties in 2012, increasing his value to the Nats.
Rotation RH Stephen Strasburg
The former No. 1 overall pick is poised for huge 2013 after being freed from controversial innings leash. LH Gio Gonzalez
Won 21 games in his first season with the team, kept command issues at bay, kept clubhouse loose. RH Jordan Zimmermann
Despite bringing heat, ranked eighth in the National League with only 2.0 walks per nine innings. RH Dan Haren
Has averaged 220 innings pitched since 2005, though injuries plagued him in 2012. LH Ross Detwiler
On any other staff, he’d be a No. 2 or No. 3, but the Nats are glad to have this 10-game winner in No. 5 hole.
Bullpen RH Rafael Soriano (Closer)
Saved 42 games and blew just four last season for the Yankees. RH Drew Storen
Had a 0.989 WHIP in regular season; 2012 season was going swell until ninth inning of Game 5 of NLDS. RH Tyler Clippard
Had strong run as closer in Storen’s absence, but the Nationals value him as a setup man. RH Craig Stammen
Paced the Nats’ 2012 bullpen with 88.1 innings pitched; only gave up 70 hits but walked 36. RH Ryan Mattheus
Trusted seventh-inning man allowed opposing batters to hit .161 with runners in scoring position. LH Zach Duke
Longtime starter shined in bullpen role last September, and earned himself a big-league contract for 2013. RH Henry Rodriguez
Needs to cure wildness (22 walks in 29.1 IP in 2012), but Nats still believe in his power arm.
With strong pitching and athletic outfield, Braves believe they can challenge Nats
The Braves have endured their share of postseason frustration. They are 9–20 in playoff games since sweeping the NLDS in 2001 — but have managed to remain relevant through changing times in the tough NL East. Since its run of 11 straight division titles ended in 2006, Atlanta has had a winning record in five of seven seasons and made the playoffs in 2010 and ’12. If the Braves are going to threaten the Washington Nationals in 2013, they’ll do it behind a solid young pitching staff and the addition of the Upton brothers: center fielder B.J. via free agency and left fielder Justin via trade. They’ll also need either Freddie Freeman or Jason Heyward — or perhaps both — to take the next step offensively.
How shrewd did the Braves look last September, when Kris Medlen was the best thing going in the majors, and the Nationals had shut down ace Stephen Strasburg to rest his arm? Both were in their first full seasons after Tommy John surgery, and both were on about a 160-inning limit. But the Braves looked smart for pitching Medlen in relief the first half of the season — at least in the long run. Once Medlen joined the rotation on July 31, he went 9–0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. He enters 2013 as the staff ace, which is saying something for a pitcher with only 30 career starts. Tim Hudson, who has a 49–26 record over the last three seasons, is a solid No. 2 starter. His numbers were up a bit last year — with a 3.62 ERA (third-highest of his career) and 8.4 hits per nine innings (most since 2009) — but he still has several good seasons in his right arm. Brandon Beachy, the Braves’ best starter the first two to three months last season, aims to return from Tommy John surgery around the All-Star break. Paul Maholm, who was acquired at the trade deadline last year, and Mike Minor, who solidified a spot in the rotation with a dominant second half, give the Braves two quality lefty starters. Julio Teheran, considered a top prospect for a few years, finally has an opportunity to shine
In two seasons since taking over for Billy Wagner, Craig Kimbrel has emerged as the elite closer in the National League. He’s a big reason why the bullpen is one of the Braves’ strengths and among the best in baseball. After winning the NL Rookie of the Year in 2011, Kimbrel finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting last year and was eighth in the NL MVP race. He’ll try to match John Smoltz as the second Atlanta closer to post three straight 40-save seasons, after collecting 46 and 42 saves, respectively, in his first two full big-league seasons. Jonny Venters, who struggled to find consistency with his patented sinker, wasn’t as effective in 2012 as he was the year before. But Eric O’Flaherty followed his breakout season of 2011 with another outstanding campaign. Luis Avilan was a sleeper of a find in Double-A, and the Braves added power righthander Jordan Walden from the Angels in a trade for Tommy Hanson. Manager Fredi Gonzalez kept his word not to overuse the back end of the bullpen like he admittedly did in ’11.
Dan Uggla knows no middle ground. In his first two seasons with the Braves, he’s endured long stretches of being either hot or frigid. He hit .185 over the final 99 games last season, though he did manage a more-than-respectable .298 clip with nine extra-base hits and 14 RBIs over the final 23 games. Uggla still finished with 19 home runs — well off his 31 per year average — but struck out 168 times. The Braves are excited to see what they’ll get in a full season from Andrelton Simmons, a 23-year-old shortstop who was taken in the second round of the 2010 draft. Simmons is an energetic defensive standout who contributed more offensively than the Braves anticipated. He hit .289 with 19 RBIs in 166 at-bats in 2012. Simmons is a candidate to bat in the leadoff spot.
The Braves were aware that Chipper Jones’ departure would be problematic, but this offseason reinforced the difficulty of replacing him. The Braves’ original intent was to put Martin Prado at third base and acquire another left fielder and leadoff hitter. As it turned out, it took the trade of Prado to acquire their left fielder Justin Upton. In doing so the Braves acquired a platoon partner for Juan Francisco at third in Chris Johnson. Francisco remains a project, but he has huge power potential. The left-handed hitter needs to drop weight and eliminate extra rotation from his swing, but he took steps in that direction in winter ball in the Dominican. Given Jones’ departure, the Braves will also look to Freeman at first base for more offensive production. Freeman avoided a sophomore slump last season, hitting 23 home runs with 94 RBIs, but he needs to improve his .259 batting average.
The Braves love the combination of speed and power both Uptons bring, especially B.J. in center field, as well as their right-handed bats to balance their lineup. Many experts believe the Uptons and Heyward make up the best outfield in the National League. Outfield defense is certainly a team strength. Heyward won his first Gold Glove award in 2012, a big step in his progression as a young star. Offensively, Heyward made strides as well, rebounding from a rough sophomore season to hit a career-high 27 home runs, steal 21 bases and drive in 82 runs. Justin Upton played most of last season at Arizona with a deep bruise on his left thumb suffered on the first weekend of the season but still tied for second in the NL with 107 runs scored. With better health, he should improve on his 2012 totals of 17 homers and 67 RBIs, his lowest numbers in those two categories since 2008.
Another injury-plagued season cost Brian McCann what would have been a sixth Silver Slugger in seven major league seasons. He was hampered by right shoulder and knee problems and underwent shoulder surgery over the winter. The Braves hope he needs only a week or two in April to get healthy and is soon back to being the perennial All-Star and one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. The Braves lost well-respected backup David Ross to free agency — he signed with the Red Sox — but they believe Gerald Laird will fill in nicely, bringing the experience of playing in back-to-back World Series with the Cardinals and Tigers.
Re-signing Reed Johnson, the right-handed outfield bat the Braves added at last year’s trade deadline, gives the Braves a quality fourth outfielder. Johnson, who hit .270 in 43 games with the Braves last season, can play all three outfield spots, but isn’t expected to see much time. Jordan Schafer should also earn a roster spot. Paul Janish, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, or Ramiro Pena will back up at shortstop. Veteran minor leaguer Matt Pagnozzi will back up Laird until McCann returns.
The Braves stuck by Gonzalez after their September collapse in 2011 and saw the fruits of that decision when he led them to a berth in the Wild Card Game last fall. Gonzalez learned from previous mistakes: He didn’t overwork the back end of the bullpen, he wasn’t afraid to bench Uggla at times when the second baseman was struggling, and he worked Jones in and out of the lineup to keep him healthy. General manager Frank Wren bolstered the offense by acquiring the Uptons, but there is risk. B.J. and Justin strike out frequently and will join a lineup that lost its most disciplined hitter in Jones.
Despite the splash of the Upton acquisitions, the Braves will have a tough time challenging Washington for supremacy in the NL East, but their rotation and bullpen are strong and return largely intact. With Medlen starting all season, Beachy poised to return around the All-Star break, the Braves like their chances to return to the postseason.
Lineup SS Andrelton Simmons (R)
Rocket-armed defender who showed he could hit too with a .289 average, three HRs in 49 games as a rookie. RF Jason Heyward (L)
Career-high 27 HRs and 21 steals, making him first 20/20 Brave since Andruw Jones in 2000. RF Justin Upton (R)
Tied for second in the NL with 107 runs despite playing most of the season with a damaged left thumb. 1B Freddie Freeman (L)
Led the Braves in RBIs with 94 and second in homers with 23, but batting average fell from .282 to .259. CF B.J. Upton (R)
Had career-high 28 HRs, added 31 steals last season for Tampa; 160-plus strikeouts for third straight season. C Brian McCann (L)
Injury-plagued season saw career low in batting average (.230); 121 games were lowest total since 2005. Shoulder surgery 2B Dan Uggla (R)
Streak of five straight 30-plus-homer seasons ended with 19 home runs; hit career-low .220. 3B Juan Francisco (L)
Hit nine HRs in only 192 ABs, and nine more in Dominican League. Power potential gets him starting shot.
Bench C Gerald Laird (R)
Hit .282 in 63 games for Detroit; will be No. 1 catcher in April as McCann recovers from shoulder surgery. Matt Pagnozzi will back up Laird. OF Reed Johnson (R)
Led majors with 18 pinch hits and was second with .419 pinch-hit average; could win platoon role in left field. IF Ramiro Pena (S)
Probably gets nod while Paul Janish recovers from shoulder surgery. 3B Chris Johnson (R)
Acquired in the deal with Justin Upton, Johnson could be a valuable platoon partner at third with Francisco. OF Jordan Schafer (L)
Back for second tour with Braves.
Rotation RH Kris Medlen
NL pitcher of month for August and September went 9–0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts after moving into rotation. RH Tim Hudson
Put up 3.62 ERA despite coming off spine surgery and pitching through bone spurs in ankle. LH Mike Minor
Came into his own in second half of last season, going 7–4 with 2.21 ERA over last 15 starts. LH Paul Maholm
Went 4–5 with 3.54 ERA in 11 starts as a Brave after midseason trade from Cubs. RH Julio Teheran
Long considered a top prospect, with injury to Brandon Beachy and trade of Delgado, the path is cleared.
Bullpen RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
Converted 42 of 45 saves while posting 1.01 ERA with 116 strikeouts and 14 walks in 62.2 innings. LH Eric O'Flaherty
Allowed only four earned runs in 49 innings (0.73 ERA) in 55 appearances after May 2. RH Jordan Walden
Closer with Angels (32 saves, 2.98 ERA in 2011) acquired in Tommy Hanson trade. Fastball can touch 100 mph. LH Jonny Venters
ERA jumped from 1.84 to 3.22, reflecting struggles with his sinker and midseason elbow soreness. LH Luis Avilan
Surprise of the year in the bullpen, going 1–0 with 2.00 ERA in 31 games after July 4 call-up from Double-A. RH Cory Gearrin
Side-armer guns for first regular job in majors; 1.80 ERA over 22 appearances with the Braves in 2012. RH Cristhian Martinez
Dependable long man with above-average change-up; went 5–4 with 3.91 ERA in 54 appearances in 2012.
Expect lots of losses and plenty of empty seats in Marlins Park this season
Talk about a nasty case of buyer’s remorse. In a dizzying span of less than a year, the Miami Marlins: Went through a ballyhooed rebranding. Spent $191 million on three big-name free agents. Moved into a beautiful new downtown ballpark. Served as reality-show fodder for Showtime. Underperformed miserably. Fired manager Ozzie Guillen with three years left on his contract. Hired a rookie manager (Mike Redmond) out of A-ball. And, last but not least: Tore down their roster via a 12-player mega-dump deal with the Blue Jays. Just like old times, eh? South Florida baseball fans, at least what’s left of them, reacted with predictable rage after seeing five proven big-leaguers, including Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, shipped off for a boatload of mostly prospects. Redmond will be asked to pull a Joe Girardi (circa 2006) and whip a bunch of young prospects into a competent big-league ballclub as quickly as possible. Good luck.
Ricky Nolasco, the ace by default, wanted out in the immediate aftermath of the blockbuster deal. The Marlins refused to accommodate him, mostly because Nolasco, who turned 30 this offseason, was the only member of their projected rotation with more than 19 career wins. Plus, if they traded Nolasco and his $11.5 million salary, their net payroll, which opened last season at a franchise-record $112 million, would drop to less than a third of that figure. Henderson Alvarez, who pitched to a 4.85 ERA while spending last season in the Jays’ rotation, is a notable step down from the fellow Venezuelan righthander he essentially replaces (Anibal Sanchez). Young righthander Nate Eovaldi, who came over in a July deal with the Dodgers, has a lot to learn and will likely get 30-plus starts’ worth of education this year. At least he showed signs of sustainable effectiveness during a late-season audition. Wade LeBlanc, the former Padres lefty with 19 wins in five seasons to his credit, figures to occupy one slot. Veteran Kevin Slowey, who last pitched in the majors in 2011 with the Twins, has impressed enough this spring to earn a shot to start the season. But Jacob Turner, acquired from the Tigers last season, will be a key cog in the rotation in the future. He will get a call at some point this season.
Steve Cishek was a revelation for the Marlins in the second half of the 2012 season. The young sidewinder blew just one save after taking over for Heath Bell at the All-Star break. That was enough to convince the Marlins to dump Bell on the Diamondbacks — he wound up costing them $14 million for one horrible season — while turning over the closer’s reins to the former fifth-round draft pick. Sinkerballer Ryan Webb should emerge as the top option for the eighth inning, while Mike Dunn is the best option from the left side. It’s pretty much a no-name bullpen, but after the Marlins relief corps blew 22 saves a year ago, the team is willing to take its chances on some kids. Veterans Jon Rauch and Chad Qualls were signed late and bring some experience and stability.
The Marlins have had more than their share of standout shortstops in their brief-but-volatile history. Edgar Renteria and Alex Gonzalez each helped them win a World Series, while Hanley Ramirez and Reyes were more noted for their offensive prowess. Now along comes Adeiny Hechavarria, the Cuban defector who should start building his Gold Glove collection in the not-too-distant future. At least that’s what the Marlins are hoping after making him the centerpiece of their deal with the Blue Jays. Hechavarria may hit eventually as well, but so far his bat has only been truly lively in the light air of Las Vegas and the Pacific Coast League. Returning at second base is Donovan Solano, who shined with the Marlins after the Cardinals let him leave as a minor league free agent last winter. The 25-year-old Colombian hit .295 in 285 at-bats with the Marlins in his first season in the big leagues. Solano’s step forward made veteran Omar Infante expendable.
You wouldn’t want to run a relay race with these guys. Logan Morrison, moving back to his original position of first base after spending the past few years in left field, is coming off another arthroscopic knee surgery. When healthy, he’s a defensive weapon at first. Getting his legs underneath him also might help reverse a two-year decline at the plate. But he won’t be near full speed by Opening Day, so Casey Kotchman will likely start the season at first. But Morrison should be back by the end of April. At third base, the Marlins are betting $2.75 million that Placido Polanco’s back woes will somehow subside at age 37. Polanco, who attended college in Miami, has played in the postseason five times. That probably won’t be happening again this season.
If the Marlins were as smart as they seem to believe they are, they would have locked up All-Star right fielder Giancarlo Stanton with a long-term deal before dealing away half their roster. Instead, the burgeoning young slugger ripped the organization in the aftermath of its latest Great Selloff. Stanton, who already has 93 home runs in three seasons, can’t be a free agent until after 2016. However, further static from Stanton, along with what promises to be knee-buckling trade offers from lustful suitors, could accelerate his inevitable departure considerably. Juan Pierre, one of the heroes of the 2003 World Series team, is back to play left field. He signed a one-year, $1.6 million deal after a solid bounce-back year (.307 with 37 stolen bases) with the Phillies. Journeyman Justin Ruggiano looks like the smart bet in center field after a breakthrough season a year ago. The former Tampa Bay Ray hit .313 with 13 home runs in only 288 at-bats in his first season with the Marlins.
John Buck never could hit enough to justify that $6 million annual salary. Maybe, the Marlins figure, they will fare better with a platoon of young Rob Brantly, who came over from the Tigers in the Sanchez/Infante deal, and veteran backup Jeff Mathis. Brantly has a sweet lefty stroke and some pop. Unfortunately, Mathis is pretty much all mitt at this point. His combined OPS in eight big-league seasons is a putrid .570, and he doesn’t do much better against lefties than he does against righthanders. Mathis fractured his collarbone early in spring training, so youngster Kyle Skipworth could begin the season as Brantly’s backup.
Ruggiano will get some competition in center field from Gorkys Hernandez and even Chris Coghlan. Hernandez is out of options after enjoying a big winter season back home in Venezuela. Veteran reserve Greg Dobbs is an excellent safety net for those often-hobbled starters at the corner infield spots.
At the press conference to introduce new manager Mike Redmond, Marlins baseball czar Larry Beinfest admitted the organization had strayed from the Marlins Way — a term that he defined as “outperforming our challenges.” Exactly what challenges the Marlins still have now that they’re playing in a publicly funded, $515 million, retractable-roof ballpark was unclear. Redmond, a key backup on the 2003 World Series champions, has the right blend of personality and energy to get the most out of this young group. Even so, most expect a 100-loss season and a third straight year in the basement of the National League East.
Say this for the Marlins: They don’t do anything halfway. In the abstract, what they have attempted in churning nearly their entire roster since the middle of last season makes some sense. It’s probably the quickest way to return to consistent playoff contention and eventually end a nine-year playoff drought that now ranks as the fifth-longest in baseball. However, there’s that nagging little piece about $360 million in public money going toward a ballpark that was supposed to help them compete with richer clubs in more traditional baseball markets. The Marlins aren’t giving any of that money back, but they did find a way to offload more than $236 million in future contract obligations since the middle of last season. In the process, they just may have destroyed once and for all the fragile connection that had existed between South Florida and its twice-crowned baseball club.
Lineup LF Juan Pierre (L)
Veteran slugged just .190 against lefties, .405 against righties for the Phillies in 2012. 3B Placido Polanco (R)
Missed a combined 112 games the past two seasons with the Phillies, mostly due to back issues. RF Giancarlo Stanton (R)
Hit 494-foot homer at Coors Field last year, longest in the big leagues since 2009. Probably feels like the Lone Ranger in Miami now. C Rob Brantly (L)
Already owns big-league home runs off of Stephen Strasburg and reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. CF Justin Ruggiano (R)
Career .226 hitter in parts of three big-league seasons before shocking breakout with Marlins last year. 2B Donovan Solano (R)
Made just two errors in 58 games at second base after taking over for the traded Omar Infante. 1B Casey Kotchman (L)
His averaged dropped 77 points from 2011 to 2012, but he’s a stellar defender and capable off the bench once Logan Morrison is healthy. SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R)
Career OBP of .286 in 172 minor league games outside hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
Bench C Jeff Mathis (R)
Has a .198 batting average in nearly 1,600 career plate appearances in the majors. Makes his living with his defense and arm. A broken collarbone early in spring training has opened the door for Kyle Skipworth to start the season as the backup. 3B Greg Dobbs (L)
Started a combined 166 games the past two seasons for the Marlins. UT Chris Coghlan (L)
Former NL Rookie of the Year remains on the radar due to his versatility. 1B-OF Logan Morrison (L)
Reached base at .436 clip after the count ran full in 2012, with two hits, 15 walks in 39 plate appearances. Should be in the lineup at either first base or left field every day once his knee is sound.
Rotation RH Ricky Nolasco
Has posted an ERA lower than 4.48 just once in seven big-league seasons. RH Henderson Alvarez
Only two big leaguers (Clayton Richard and Rick Porcello) allowed more hits than Alvarez in 2012. RH Nate Eovaldi
Needs 5,613 more strikeouts to catch the only other big leaguer from Alvin (Texas) High School (Nolan Ryan). LH Wade LeBlanc
Turned in quality starts in just three of nine late-season opportunities. RH Kevin Slowey
Hasn’t pitched in majors since 2011, but was impressive in spring training.
Bullpen RH Steve Cishek (Closer)
Converted 14-of-15 save opportunities after replacing Heath Bell at midseason. RH Ryan Webb
Sinkerballer posted a nearly two-to-one groundball/flyball ratio (47-to-26) after Aug. 1. RH Jon Rauch
Has thrown at least 50 innings every year since 2006. LH Mike Dunn
Career walk rate is 5.7 per nine innings in parts of four big-league seasons. RH A.J. Ramos
Struck out 13 and allowed eight hits in 9.1 innings as a rookies last season. RH Chad Qualls
Veteran allowed 12 of 27 inherited runners to score while logging 52.1 innings for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Yankees. RH John Maine
Will serve as long relief man — and probably gets lots of work.
New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter will miss the April 1 season opener against Boston as he continues his recovery from offseason ankle surgery. Jeter is one of three starting Yankee infielders on the disabled list to start the season, as he joins third baseman Alex Rodriguez (offseason hip surgery) and first baseman Mark Teixeira (partially torn wrist tendon). These three alone will make more than $69 million in salary this year, which is more than the estimated Opening Day team payroll for the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the Yankees' AL East rivals.
Some suggestions on how you should approach certain injured players on draft day
Opening Day of the 2013 MLB season is right around the corner, but there are quite a few players who won’t be available to help your fantasy team from the outset. For some, their season debuts should only be delayed while others will be on the disabled list for a little longer. Here are some of the key hitters and pitchers who are dealing with injuries headed into Opening Day and how you should handle them during your draft.
New League, New Uniforms, New Manager, Old Results
The American League West is arguably the toughest division in baseball, which isn’t great news for an Astros team making its move into the division while trying to rebuild following the two worst seasons in franchise history. Coming off a club-record 107 losses in their final year in the National League in 2012 and 106 losses in 2011 — the Astros enter the AL with new uniforms, a new logo and a new manager in Bo Porter. The club is committed to staying the course of rebuilding through the draft and player development, which means playoff contention is likely years down the road. That’s especially true in the AL West, where the Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s are all built to contend, while the up-and-coming Mariners are no pushovers. Enter the Astros, who will play each of these teams 18 or 19 times while they try to give young players looks at several positions all over the diamond. Astros owner Jim Crane and general manager Jeff Luhnow, entering their second seasons with the club, are committed to youth and don’t plan to start spending major money in free agency until the team’s youngsters start coming of age. Baseball fans in Houston, who will get to see a different set of teams come through Minute Maid Park this year, can only hope the team grows up sooner than expected because life as the punching bag in the AL West won’t be fun.
The first three arms in the rotation are set, with righthanders Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell and Jordan Lyles. Norris will need to rebound following a 7–13 campaign in which he battled various injuries and went three months without getting a win. Harrell was one of the biggest bright spots for the Astros last year, coming out of nowhere to go 11–11 with a 3.76 ERA while making a team-high 32 starts as a rookie. He led the team in wins and innings pitched and went at least five innings in all but one of his starts. Lyles pitched all last year at 21 years old and struggled through a 5–12 season, though he threw a shutout in his final appearance. The Astros hope this is the year the promising youngster finally puts it all together and becomes a mainstay in the rotation. The final two spots in the rotation are up for grabs among a group of arms that includes lefthander Erik Bedard, a non-roster player, veteran Edgar Gonzalez and newcomers John Ely, Alex White and Philip Humber, who threw a perfect game with the White Sox in 2012. The odds are now that Humber and Bedard will break camp as starters.
The Astros’ youth shows in their bullpen, which was made up of fresh faces after Brandon Lyon and Brett Myers were traded last July. The team gave the closer job to Wilton Lopez to finish the season, but he was dealt to Colorado in December. Houston signed veteran Jose Veras — who will be on his sixth team in five seasons — to handle the closing duties, not that there figure to be too many chances to save games. The Astros also plan to give Josh Fields, taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft, a chance to pitch late in games too. Among those returning to the bullpen this year are righthanders Hector Ambriz and Rhiner Cruz and lefties Wesley Wright and Xavier Cedeno.
The middle of the infield, perhaps the Astros’ biggest area of strength last season, may now be only half full after the trade of shortstop Jed Lowrie. All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve returns for his second full season. Tyler Greene, who seemed to always be on the cusp of a breakout season with St. Louis, takes over at short. Altuve, the 5'5" dynamo, hit .290 with seven homers, 37 RBIs and 33 steals last year, getting plenty of time at the top of the lineup. At 22, he was the second-youngest member of the NL All-Star team after Bryce Harper and led the Astros with 147 games played, including 142 starts at second. Greene hit .246 in 39 games with Houston after managing just .218 in 77 games with the Cardinals. His speed is his greatest asset offensively. The two middle infielders will bat 1-2, perhaps even rotating until the offense finds a groove.
Brett Wallace got most of the time at first base last year following the July 4 trade of Carlos Lee and will enter the season as the favorite to hold onto the job this year. That’s assuming veteran Carlos Pena, who signed with the club in December, gets most of his at-bats at designated hitter. If Wallace can keep hitting for power, though, the position will be his. The Astros enter the season at third base with Matt Dominguez, who has a great glove and has hit well in a limited look. Then there’s Rule 5 pick-up Nate Freiman, who hit .298 with 31 doubles, 24 homers and 105 RBIs in 137 games with Double-A San Antonio (Padres) in 2012. Chris Carter, acquired from Oakland, is penciled in the outfield, but is more suited to first base. Stay tuned.
The competition for spots in the Astros outfield has been a free-for-all this spring. The only player assured of a spot somewhere in the outfield is Justin Maxwell, who slugged 18 homers and 53 RBIs last year as the club’s biggest power threat. Maxwell played all over the outfield a year ago, and where he winds up in 2013 may have more to do with which players lock down the other spots. J.D. Martinez will get another long look after a disappointing 2012 that saw his season end prematurely because of hand surgery. The Astros liked what they saw last year from Fernando Martinez, who along with Maxwell hit some of the longest homers in the majors. If his knees hold up, the former Mets top prospect could win a starting job, or at least platoon. Carter has impressed with his bat and will find his way into the lineup somewhere, most likely in left field, leaving the Martinezes to share right. Brandon Barnes proved he could play center field at a high level, though his bat remains a question mark.
Former first-round pick Jason Castro returned in 2012 after missing all of the previous season following ACL surgery and played well offensively. His knee forced him to the DL at one point, but he wound up hitting .257 with six homers and 29 RBIs, including a .281 average and five homers and 17 RBIs in his final 160 at-bats. Castro is the starter entering the season, but he’s going to have to improve his defense. He let too many balls scoot past him last year, which put his pitchers in tough spots. Castro has enough talent and smarts to be a solid everyday catcher.
Moving to the American League for 2013, the Astros were forced to find their first full-time designated hitter and wound up signing Pena to a one-year deal. He hit 19 home runs with 61 RBIs last year for Tampa Bay, but he doesn’t hit for much average anymore. Houston could also give Wallace some time at DH, but Pena figures to get most of the at-bats. The bench is thin with Marwin Gonzalez backing up in the middle of the infield and Carlos Corporan at catcher. Whichever player from the outfield mix of Fernando Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Barnes doesn’t win a starting job will likely be asked to come off the bench.
This will be the first season as manager for the 40-year-old Porter, who was hired after spending last year as the third base coach of the Nationals. He’s hired a diverse and experienced staff to help him along, but until the team puts better players on the field, it’s going to be challenging to deliver wins.
The Astros will be young and should play hard, but it’s difficult finding a scenario in which they won’t finish in the cellar of the AL West. They’re light years behind the veteran teams in Texas and Anaheim, and Oakland has proven it’s going to contend in the division for years. Perhaps the Astros can look at the A’s as hope that they can reach the playoffs sooner than expected, but they’re in the middle of a long-term rebuilding project and will continue to take lumps at the big-league level.
Lineup SS Tyler Greene (R)
Combined to hit .230 with the Cardinals and Astros last year and showed some good power numbers. 2B Jose Altuve (R)
Named team MVP after breakout season during which he hit .290 with seven homers, 33 steals and 37 RBIs. DH Carlos Pena (L)
The Astros signed him to be their first full-time DH with hopes he can hit for average again. LF Chris Carter (R)
Hit just .148 after Aug. 31 for the A’s last season, essentially forced to sit out the team’s late surge. Could be an adventure in the outfield. 1B Brett Wallace (L)
Finally began to show the power stroke the Astros wanted, hitting nine homers in 229 at-bats. CF Justin Maxwell (R)
Played in a career-high 124 games; led the team with 18 homers and was second with 53 RBIs. C Jason Castro (L)
Bounced back from injury that cost him 2011 season to hit .257, including .281 in his final 61 games. RF Fernando Martinez (L)
Martinez doesn’t run well anymore, but he showed last year he has plenty of power in his bat. 3B Matt Dominguez (R)
He’s a polished defensive player at the hot corner who showed promise with the bat to end last year.
Bench OF J.D. Martinez (R)
He couldn’t duplicate his promising half season of a year earlier, but still led team with 55 RBIs. He will platoon with Fernando Martinez in right field. C Carlos Corporan (S)
Veteran did a nice job with the Astros, hitting .269 in 78 at-bats with four homers and 13 RBIs. SS Marwin Gonzalez (S)
He’s about as good as they come defensively at short, but can his bat keep him in majors? OF Rick Ankiel (L)
The athletic outfielder will make at least two throws this season that you cannot believe you saw.
Rotation RH Bud Norris
The Astros’ “ace” is a combined 22–34 with a 4.41 ERA over the last three seasons. RH Lucas Harrell
Was named Astros Pitcher of the Year after going 11–11 with a 3.76 ERA in team-high 32 starts as a rookie. RH Jordan Lyles
As a 21-year-old in 2012, he set career highs in innings, starts, strikeouts, quality starts and wins in going 5–12. RH Philip Humber
Native Texan returns home to pitch for Astros after going 5–5 with a 6.44 ERA — and a perfect game — last year for White Sox. LH Erik Bedard
Was a no-so-inspiring 7-14 with a 5.01 ERA in 24 starts for Pittsburgh last season.
Bullpen RH Jose Veras (Closer)
5–4 with a 3.63 ERA in 72 games for Brewers in 2012, averaging 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. LH Wesley Wright
Appeared in a career-high 77 games last year, which led the club; held lefties to a .198 average. LH Xavier Cedeno
Lefty bounced between minors and majors, but didn’t allow a run in 16 of his final 17 games with the Astros. RH Hector Ambriz
Signed as a minor league free agent in June, he did nice work, appearing in 18 games for the Astros. RH Rhiner Cruz
He throws harder than just about anyone on the staff, but he needs to refine control from 2012 rookie season. RH Josh Fields
The No. 1 overall pick in Rule 5 draft, Fields went 4–3 with 2.01 ERA with 78 strikeouts in minors.