Will Felix Hernandez Be the Latest to Steal AL MVP from Mike Trout?

Mike Trout is 23 years old. He's playing in just his third full big league season. He couldn't love the '80s, because he never knew them.

So it's probably unfair to say he's overdue for an MVP Award. You could make a case, though, that the Los Angeles Angels outfielder has been robbed of the honor.

In 2012 and again last season, Miguel Cabrera took home the prize. It's hard—no, make that impossible—to say the Detroit Tigers slugger wasn't deserving.

Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012 with a .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI. He followed that up with a .348 batting average, good for another batting title, plus 44 home runs and 137 RBI in 2013.

Yet Trout was arguably the more complete player each year.

He didn't match Miggy's Triple Crown stats in either 2012 (.326 AVG, 30 HR, 83 RBI) or 2013 (.323 AVG, 27 HR, 97 RBI). But he did other things better each season—like playing good-to-great defense and stealing 49 and 33 bases, respectively—and posted a higher WAR than Cabrera in 2012 (10.8 to 7.2) and 2013 (8.9 to 7.5).

Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto told Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com in 2012, "If there is a definition of the Most Valuable Player, I think Mike Trout's picture would be next to it."

That's not to claim that WAR (or stolen bases, or glove work) are the ultimate measure of a player. Or, again, that Cabrera didn't earn his trophies.

But Trout supporters have a legitimate gripe. Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan spelled it out last November after Cabrera's second win (Trout finished second both times):

My case for Trout has nothing to do with WAR. It has to do with tangible facts that modern metrics have helped teach us. Like, fielding does matter, and even if we cannot measure it with exact precision, some combination of scouting reports and metrics gives us an accurate hierarchy. And accordingly, position matters as well; a center fielder provides greater value than a third baseman, who is more important than a first baseman, and so on. Keeping track of every baserunning intricacy lets us know it wasn't just Trout's steals that dwarfed Cabrera's impact on the basepaths. Trout took an extra base on teammates' hits twice as often as Cabrera did, and those bases add up to runs.

OK, that's the past. In the here and now, Trout is again squarely in the MVP conversation. His .289 batting average entering play Monday doesn't jump out, but he's among the American League leaders in home runs (27) and RBI (86).

And he leads the AL with a 166 OPS+ (a stat that adjusts for a player's ballpark) and leads all of baseball with 257 total bases.

He's been, in other words, a total player. Yet—cue deja vu—it might not be enough.

Cabrera won't stand between Trout and an MVP this year; he's having another All-Star campaign, but his numbers are down across the board.

Felix Hernandez, on the other hand, might.

The Seattle Mariners ace surrendered two runs in five innings in his most recent start, a 4-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers. It ended an MLB record-setting streak of 16 starts with at least seven innings pitched and two runs or fewer allowed, per SportsCenter.

Even with that "hiccup," King Felix is enjoying a stellar season.

His 1.99 ERA and 0.87 WHIP pace the AL. And his 6.0 WAR is identical to Trout's.

The usual caveats about pitchers—they only contribute every five days, they already have their own award—apply. But pitchers have won the MVP before, most recently another Detroit Tiger, Justin Verlander in 2011.

Dave Cameron at FanGraphs thinks Hernandez has a convincing MVP case, even if he's not sure the dominant right-hander will win:

While Trout has been the endorsed candidate of the nerd crowd for the last few years, I'm guessing most of us are probably more interested in rewarding starting pitchers as MVPs than the BBWAA has historically been, and if the gap between Felix and Trout grows, we could be the ones arguing against Trout as MVP this year, with the voters giving him a trophy in a year where he's maybe not the most deserving candidate.

There are other names in the mix, like Hernandez's teammate, Robinson Cano, and Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox. Right now, though, Trout and Hernandez are the front-runners.

One edge Trout enjoys over seasons past? The Angels are winning.

The Halos finished in third place in the AL West in both 2012 and 2013. This year they're tied for the best record in baseball and sit percentage points ahead of the Oakland A's entering play Monday.

Whether they win the division or claim a hard-luck wild-card berth, the Angels will almost certainly be a part of the postseason picture.

Fair or not, MVP voters like a guy who plays for a winner. Trout does. Then again, so does Hernandez; if everything were settled today, the Mariners would also be in the playoffs.

Mike Trout is 23 years old. He's got time. The question is whether that time is now.

 

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

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Robinson Cano and Contending Mariners Proving to Be a Smash-Hit Success

Don't count out the Seattle Mariners.

Yes, the 66-55 M's are looking up at both the 71-49 Los Angeles Angels and 73-49 Oakland A's in the American League West. But in this era of the second wild card, third place can be good enough.

And, look at that, with a decisive 7-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Friday night, Seattle moved into playoff position.

If everything were settled today, the Mariners would be baseball's most unlikely October-bound team. (They currently have the AL's second wild-card spot and are a half-game up on the Tigers.)

They won Friday much the way they've won all season: behind solid pitching and Robinson Cano's bat. Cano, 31, signed with the Mariners in December for a 10-year, $240 million deal after playing his first nine years in the majors with the New York Yankees.

In plating six runs against sinkerballer Rick Porcello (five earned), the Mariners enjoyed a rare offensive outburst that included contributions up and down the lineup. 

Third baseman Kyle Seager and first baseman Logan Morrison each collected two hits and an RBI. So did Chris Taylor, a late-July call-up who has hit .385 in 18 games.

Seattle starter James Paxton went six innings, allowing just one earned run, and has now won all six of his big league decisions dating back to last year.

Center fielder Austin Jackson, who was traded to the Mariners in the three-team blockbuster that sent ace left-hander David Price to Detroit, got a nice ovation in his return to the Motor City (though he also went 0-for-5).

The star of the night, though, was Cano, who went 2-for-4, scored twice and yanked a solo shot over the right field wall.

The home run was just the 11th of the season for Cano. Still, he's hitting .330, second best in the majors behind Houston's Jose Altuve (.334), and living up to the massive contract that brought him from the Big Apple to the birthplace of Starbucks.

There was a little sour mixed in with the sweet: Cano exited the game in the eighth inning with a sore foot, per MLB.com's Matt Slovin.

It's always concerning to see a star player hobbled, but skipper Lloyd McClendon insisted it was a precautionary move. 

"He should be OK [Saturday]," McClendon told Slovin. "I just didn't want to take a chance. Hopefully, it doesn't swell."

If Cano does take the field Saturday, he'll face Price, the deadline acquisition who was supposed to push the Tigers into the American League's upper echelon. 

Instead, Detroit has floundered. The 65-55 Tigers currently trail the 67-54 Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, and now they're looking up at the Mariners, too.

"We're in it," Seager told Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune. "We feel really good about our chances down the stretch."

It's far too early to count out the Tigers, who could get rotation cogs Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez and closer Joakim Soria back this month, per MLB.com. And other teams, including the 63-60 Toronto Blue Jays and 61-59 Yankees, are hanging around in the wild-card chase.

But Seattle, a quiet contender all season, suddenly looks formidable. 

The Mariners need Cano at full health, no question. But he's not their only weapon. Consider the guy they'll send to the hill Saturday to counter Price: Felix Hernandez and his American League-leading 1.95 ERA.

Here's how ESPN's Jim Caple (h/t ABC News) summed up Seattle's surprising surge before Friday's game:

Here they are, with the best pitching in the majors, coming off an 8-1 homestand, 10 games above .500 and with a real chance to take some attention away from the Seahawks in October. They might be in third place in the AL West ... but baseball's best division could provide three postseason teams. 

The thought of the Mariners making the postseason for the first time since 2001's 116-46 team, and competing with the reigning Super Bowl champs for attention, would've sounded foolish to all but the most ardent believers a few months ago.

Now, it's looking like we'd all be foolish to count them out.

 

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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Has Trading Yoenis Cespedes Compromised MLB’s Top-Scoring Offense?

Acquiring Jon Lester—a veteran hurler forged in the postseason cruciblewas a decidedly good thing for the Oakland A's as they prepare to make a run at their first World Series in the Billy Beane era. The guy they gave up to get Lester, though, was pretty good, too.

Just as Lester has had an immediate positive impact on the A's, Yoenis Cespedes has made his presence felt with the Boston Red Sox.

Since arriving in Beantown, Cespedes has smacked a pair of game-winning home runs and collected eight RBI in just 11 games. And he's grabbed the attention of his new teammates, including Big Papi himself, David Ortiz.

"He’s one scary dude up there,” Ortiz told The Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo. “He’s got real big-time power. When he comes up there, pitchers are a little afraid."

Should the A's be afraid they let a two-time defending Home Run Derby champ and one of the most promising sluggers in the game slip away?

We're dealing with a tiny sample size, admittedly, but in the 14 contests the Athletics have played without Cespedes they've averaged 3.8 runs per game, down from about 5 runs per game while the powerful Cuban wore the Green and Gold.

They've gone 7-7 in that stretch, including a 7-3 loss to the streaking Kansas City Royals on Thursday. 

Time to panic? Hardly. At 73-48 entering play Friday, Oakland still owns the best record in baseball, plus a two-game advantage over the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West. And they've still scored more runs than any other team.

And, again, Lester has thrown as advertised, going 3-0 with a 2.49 ERA and 20 strikeouts in three starts, including a complete-game shutout. 

The reality, though, is that Lester only pitches every fifth day. In the other four games, what the A's essentially have is a swap of Cespedes for Jonny Gomes, the other player acquired in the deal with Boston.

Gomes, a former Athletic, has value. But he's no Cespedes—in eight games with Oakland, Gomes has yet to collect an extra-base hit.

When the deal was consummated, a lot of folks in the East Bay were surprised. Like the Oakland marketing department, which was preparing to give away Cespedes T-shirts emblazoned with his nickname, "La Potencia," meaning "power." (The shirts went out anyway, the same day Lester made his A's debut, per USA Today's Nick Schwartz.) 

“My mind is blown,” Oakland outfielder Josh Reddick told SFGate.com's Susan Slusser at the time. “I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would give up Cespy."

For Beane, it was a simple calculation. Get the best player available, and go for the ring. "It’s a zero-sum game, and in Jon Lester, you’re dealing with someone who is one of the best at his position in the game and has been for a long time," Beane told Slusser. "We couldn’t pass up the opportunity."

Cespedes has one year and $10.5 million remaining on his contract and could become a free agent as soon as 2016 if the Red Sox don't lock him up. So theoretically, the A's might bring him back.

That doesn't fit Oakland's small-market, "moneyball" mould, though. The A's, who have baseball's fourth-lowest payroll, per ESPN.com, aren't in the business of signing top-shelf free agents to hefty contracts. They buy low, and develop from within.

That means they almost certainly won't re-sign Lester, who is a free agent after this season and has said he'd "definitely" consider a return to Boston, according to ESPNBoston.com

If the A's win a championship with Lester, it'll be hard to call the deal a failure regardless of the future.

If they come up short, they may well find themselves missing the scary dude that got away.

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Predicting MLB’s 10 Postseason Teams with One-Quarter to Go

The Major League Baseball season is long. Long enough for peaks, valleys and more peaks. Long enough for the teams that started hot to get cold, and the teams that limped out of the gate to hit their stride.

Now, though, it gets real. With one-quarter of the schedule left, the final lap of this 162-game sprint, the picture is becoming clear. 

Oh, sure, there's still time for winning streaks, losing skids or key injuries to alter the postseason landscape. And several races seem destined to go down to the wire.

But we've reached the point where we can take stock of the contenders—assessing their health, recent performance and remaining schedules—and handicap the favorites.

So let's do just that.

Begin Slideshow

Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies Should Go Separate Ways After Latest Year-Ending Injury

When the Colorado Rockies signed Troy Tulowitzki through 2020, it seemed like a marriage built to last. It was a franchise player—and a franchise talentagreeing to stick it out with the only club he'd ever played for...'til retirement do them part.

"I'm really lucky," Tulowitzki told ESPN.com after inking the deal, which guaranteed him $157.75 million over 10 years, in 2010. "I can't wait to be here my entire career."

One thing he won't be is on the field again in 2014. 

The All-Star shortstop, it was announced today, per Thomas Harding of MLB.com, will undergo season-ending hip surgery, cutting short an MVP-caliber campaign.

Tulowitzki was leading the National League in batting average (.340), OBP (.432) and SLG (.603) and has been the cornerstone of an otherwise disappointing Rockies team. Now, they'll have to muddle through without him.

"I'm looking forward to getting back and playing the game I love," Tulowitzki told Harding after news of the surgery broke. "I will do everything I can to perform at a high level for the rest of my career."

The burning question: Will the rest of that career be spent in Colorado?

If the Rockies are honest with themselves, the answer should be no.

When Tulo plays, he's clearly one of the best hitters in the game. The rub, though, is the "when he plays" bit. 

Tulowitzki hasn't suited up for 150 games in a season since 2009, and in 2012 he managed just 47 contests before going down with a groin injury that required surgery. Last year, he was sidelined with a broken rib.

So we apply the dreaded "injury prone" label. Sometimes it's slapped on unfairly. For Tulowitzki, with each DL stint and trip under the knife, it looks more and more justified.

Fine. But how does that get us to the Rockies parting ways with their 29-year-old star and his massive contract?

First off, Tulo has expressed disappointment with the Rockies' struggles and hinted—in pretty strong language, as hints go—that he wouldn't mind a change of scenery.

His message at the trade deadline, according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, was: "I love it in Colorado. I'd like to be here. But if things [don't improve], and you can [trade] me to a winning situation, I'm OK with it."

Granted, a lot of guys on losing teams say they're open to a move. And Tulowitzki hardly issued a trade demand.

But combine his less-than-complete happiness with the Rockies' less-than-complete confidence in his ability to stay healthy and you've got the makings of...well, nothing good.

Imagine, for a moment, Tulowitzki working his way back from this most recent ailment then injuring himself again next year. How long before management, the fans and everyone else let their skepticism about his durability harden into outright dismissal?

Of course, none of this matters unless another team wants to make a deal. Certainly the Rockies would need a decent return, and any offseason trade partner would have to be willing to eat a healthy chunk of money.

Tulo's injury historycombined, perhaps, with his extreme road splits this season, which indicate a mile-high Coors Field bumpmight scare away potential suitors. 

Before the deadline, Sports Illustrated's Cliff Corcoran made the case for Tulowitzki staying put: 

Teams inquire about Tulowitzki regularly, of course, but the combination of the money left on his contract, that impending 30th birthday and his troubling injury history could keep suitors from offering the franchise-altering package it would take to pry the game’s best shortstop away from one of the game’s worst teams.

It could be argued, then, that every successive injury tightens the bonds that have shackled Tulowitzki to the Rockies.

Maybe. But if Tulo recovers from his latest malady and shows signs of his old self, it's not hard to imagine deep-pocketed clubs taking a long, hard look.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, baseball's two biggest spenders, may each be shopping for a shortstop—the Dodgers to replace free-agent-to-be Hanley Ramirez (himself injury prone) and the Yankees to fill their impending Jeter-sized hole.

It's all speculation at this point, naturally. And despite Tulo's fragility, surely many Rockies fans would hate to see him go.

Still, four years ago this looked like a marriage built to last. Now, the possibility of an amicable split is at least worth considering.

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Will Dodgers-Giants Rivalry Mean Something Huge for 1st Time in a Decade?

The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers don't need a tight race to hate each other. They barely need oxygen for that.

The dislike comes naturally for these two old, old rivals who cut the same path across the continent and have engaged in more fist-clenching, brow-wiping grudge matches than you could cram into a Web series, let alone an article.

That being said, a tight race doesn't hurt. Especially when it's been a while.

And it has been a while. Since 2005, the Giants and Dodgers have never been fewer than seven games apart when one team won the division. 

In other words, the rivalry has been mostly one-sided, though the winning side has fluctuated. We've seen the Dodgers make postseason runs. We've seen the Giants win World Series.

What we haven't seen since the George W. Bush administration is S.F. and L.A. locked in a good old-fashioned National League West battle.

Will 2014 buck the trend and reignite the rivalry? Maybe.

The Giants started the season on a tear and by June 7 had built a 9.5-game lead. Since then the Orange and Black have returned to earth in a big way—going a paltry 21-34—while the Dodgers (32-31 at the time) have recovered from an uneven start to pace the pack.

Entering play Wednesday, Los Angeles owned a six-game division lead over San Francisco. The Giants have lost five in a row—including a 3-2 extra-inning loss Tuesday to the Chicago White Sox—while the Dodgers have won three straight.

So it's easy to dismiss the rivalry for yet another year. But it isn't over yet.

The two clubs will meet six more times in September, meaning even if the Giants fail to make much headway in the next few weeks, they could still make a move. 

Right now, San Francisco leads the season series 7-6, though all of the Giants' wins against their SoCal nemesis came in the first half.

"Obviously it's something," skipper Don Mattingly told CBSSports.com's Janie McCauley after the Dodgers swept the Giants in late July. "That's all it is at that point because you have a lot of baseball to play. We're going to see these guys again. They're not going anywhere."

True enough. But if San Francisco wants to make the stretch run matter, it'll have to recapture that intangible something. That magic.

If it does, it'll be good for California fans, and good for the game's longest-running tete-a-tete.

Consider: The two franchises first locked horns in 1889 (during the Benjamin Harrison administration) when the New York Giants of the National League met the Brooklyn Bridegrooms of the American Association in a best-of-11 playoff matchup that technically predates the World Series. 

Since then the teams have met in countless fraught situations. They've shared a stadium-full of memorable moments.

They've followed each other across the country, from the Big Apple to the Golden State in 1957. And they've fostered the ultimate love-hate relationship.

 

The last respectable Giants-Dodgers race, though, came in 2004, when L.A. finished 93-69 and S.F. went 91-71. The scramble came down to the penultimate game, which the Dodgers won on a Steve Finley grand slam. 

Since then, the teams have taken turns basking in the limelight—particularly the Giants, who hoisted a Commissioner's Trophy in 2010 and 2012 but didn't face serious competition from the Dodgers during either run.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, made it to the NLCS in 2013 but never had to fret about the Giants, who finished a disappointing 76-86.

Now, with the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies all out if it, the division belongs to the Giants and Dodgers.

Or, more accurately, one of them.

That's a decidedly good thing, according to MLB.com's Richard Justice:

Baseball is better when the Dodgers and Giants are both good. They've been going at one another for around 120 years, and the games today have as much emotion and intensity as they did back in the days of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. They remain two of the sport's cornerstone franchises, both playing to packed houses, both occupying large places in the hearts and minds of their local citizens.

Oh, sure, one squad could slip in as a wild-card qualifier, rendering the winner-take-all narrative moot. But that comes with a one-game playoff, the mother of all crapshoots.

Clearly, the pressure is on to win the NL West outright—and, in the process, to squash a longtime rival.

The Giants and Dodgers don't need to be in a race to hate each other. For the rest of us, it'd be a lot cooler if they were.

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Has Clayton Kershaw Suddenly Jumped into Top 2014 NL MVP Candidates?

Clayton Kershaw can do it all. Witness his most recent start on August 10 against the National League Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers.

Sure, Kershaw's line was typically dominant: 8 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 6 SO, 2 BB. But his contributions extended beyond the mound.

As he so often does, the lanky left-hander took the Los Angeles Dodgers on his back, driving in a run, scoring another, picking a runner off first and turning an acrobatic catch-and-throw double play.

In other words, doing it all.

"It's fun to feel like a baseball player," Kershaw told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times after the 5-1 victory, which widened the Dodgers' division lead over the rival San Francisco Giants. "We get labeled as pitchers, so every once in a while, you get some dirt on your jersey, it gets fun."

It's also gotten Kershaw into the midst of the National League MVP chase.

He's only one name in a crowded field. But the opportunity is there for Kershaw—who already owns two Cy Young Awards—to bolster his trophy case.

Will he do it? Should he? Let's break it down.

 

The Case For Kershaw

Kershaw has been so unhittable for the past couple of months, it's easy to forget his season began on an inauspicious note. More specifically, the disabled list.

After recovering from a strained back muscle in early May and returning to action, Kershaw looked mostly like Kershaw. Then the calendar turned, and he looked like something else entirely. 

Entering play Tuesday, Kershaw boasts the best ERA (1.78) and WHIP (0.86) in all of baseball. He's averaging nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He's tossed five complete games, a feat that 28 other teams have failed to accomplish, per the Los Angeles Times' Bill Shaikin.

And his 5.9 WAR doesn't just lead all NL pitchers, it leads all NL players. Period.

The Dodgers have always penciled in a "W" before Kershaw takes the hill. These days, they're writing it in Sharpie.

As well they should: Los Angeles has won each of their ace's last 13 starts, and he's 11-0 in that stretch.

Valuable, no doubt. Extremely valuable. But most valuable?

 

The Case Against Kershaw

The argument against Kershaw is really more an argument against any pitcher winning MVP. 

Let's let Albert Pujols, himself a three-time winner, make the case, per Hernandez:

You don't see the players win the Cy Young. The Cy Young award is the MVP for the pitchers, and the MVP should be for the best player in the league...unless you don't have any players in the league who have had a decent year.

Certainly there are players having more than decent years. The Colorado Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki (.340 batting average, 1.035 OPS), the Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton (.292 batting average, 31 home runs, 82 RBI) and reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates (.311 batting average, 17 HR, 17 SB) all belong squarely in the conversation.

There are knocks against each. McCutchen and Tulowitzki are both battling injuries. Tulo's pedestrian road splits indicate a clear Coors Field bump. Stanton has racked up the strikeouts, whiffing 135 times in 514 plate appearances. And both Stanton and Tulowitzki play for clubs that almost certainly won't make the postseason, something voters frequently factor in.

Any of those guys, though, would be a worthy winner. And unlike Kershaw, they've been a part of the bulk of their teams' victories.

As good as Kershaw has been (and he's been plenty good), he simply can't contribute as consistently as his position-player peers while watching four out of every five games from the dugout.

 

The Verdict

Really, this comes down to a question of philosophy more than numbers: Should a pitcher ever win MVP?

If you say no—if you follow Pujols' rather convincing logic—then clearly you give it to someone else (probably Stanton if McCutchen and Tulo don't return to action soon). 

Voters, though, have said yes to pitchers before. Since the advent of the Cy Young in 1956, seven pitchers have won MVP. 

If the season ended today, Kershaw would have a lower ERA and WHIP than six of them. Only Bob Gibson in 1968 (1.12 ERA, 0.85 WHIP) posted better numbers.

That '68 season is widely regarded as "the year of the pitcher." So it's fitting that the game's top arm claimed the top prize.

You could make the same argument in 2014. In the post-steroid era, the hurler again rules. And right now, no hurler is ruling like Clayton Kershaw.

Nothing is settled yet; there's too much baseball left.

Right now, though, a pitcher looks like the clear and justified favorite for the NL MVP Award. Not just a pitcher—a player.

A player who can do it all.

 

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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Jon Lester Proving He’s Just What the Doctor Ordered for A’s

Clearly it's a cliche the Oakland A's understand: You can never have too much pitching. That's why, even after acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs, the A's went big at the deadline and dealt for Jon Lester.

The trade cost Oakland dearly. To acquire the playoff-tested southpaw from the Boston Red Sox and shore up a starting rotation that was already a strength, the A's sacrificed Yoenis Cespedes, one of the most promising sluggers in baseball.

Oakland will undoubtedly miss his bat, though as John Shea of SFGate.com notes, "Oakland's offense hadn't been in sync since before Yoenis Cespedes relocated to Boston, hitting .227 over 12 games entering Thursday."

Dealing Cespedes was a calculated gamble aimed at getting Oakland to the promised land and netting general manager Billy Beane his first championship in 17 seasons at the helm of the Green and Gold.

Beane has made no bones about his desire to hoist a Commissioner's Trophy after repeatedly and improbably guiding his small-market club to the brink.

As he told MLB.com's Richard Justice, the key is identifying when you have a squad capable of going all the way. And then?

"When you do, you go for it," Beane said.

He's going for it, and Lester is proof. 

Sure, Oakland also got former Athletic Jonny Gomes back from Boston. Giving up Cespedes, though, was huge.

This isn't some minor leaguer primed for potential greatness; this is a guy producing now, with a possibility for much more. A two-time Home Run Derby champ, for what it's worth.

Yet on Thursday night, Lester showed why he was worth the cost. Why he could well be Oakland's missing piece. Why he's precisely what the doctor ordered.

Through nine shutout innings in a 3-0 win over the Minnesota Twins, Lester was masterful. He carried a perfect game into the sixth and struck out eight, while allowing just three hits and two walks. It was the fourth shutout of his career.

"Lester was the story," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire told Mike Berardino of TwinCities.com. "We just couldn't score."

That follows a solid, if less spectacular, A's debut in which Lester allowed three earned runs in 6.2 innings in an 8-3 victory against the Kansas City Royals and left to a standing ovation from the appreciative Oakland faithful.

"To walk off to the ovation was great," Lester said, per USA Today (via The Associated Press). "It kind of makes you feel welcome."

"Kind of" will be an understatement if the A's (owners of baseball's best record as of Thursday) make the playoffs and Lester pitches like he can in October.

The veteran left-hander owns an impressive career 2.11 ERA in postseason play, per Baseball-Reference.com

Even more impressively, Lester posted a 0.59 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 15.1 innings pitched in the 2013 Fall Classic. Oh, and he won both games he started.

Overall, Lester is 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA in World Series starts.

That's the pedigree Beane wanted. So far, Lester has delivered.

Whether he'll help carry Oakland across the ultimate finish line remains to be seen. Maybe the deal will look like a bust in hindsight. As MLB.com's Justice argues, Beane couldn't care less:

Here's the thing you need to understand about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane: He simply does not care about next season. Or the one after that. That's the beauty of the man. That's the genius of him. Want to second guess him? Hey, have at it.

For now, Lester and the A's are proving the too-much-pitching cliche—and the instincts of their fearless GM—right.

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Giancarlo Stanton Can Steal 2014 NL MVP with Dominant Stretch Run

Giancarlo Stanton will win an MVP award. That's not a bold prediction; given his five-tool skill set and prodigious power, it'd be a surprise if the Miami Marlins outfielder didn't win one.

The question is whether he'll win one this year.

As of Wednesday, Stanton owned a .290/.390/.542 slash line to go along with a National League-leading 26 home runs and 74 RBI. 

Excellent numbers. But good enough?

For most of the season, the prohibitive front-runner has been Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies, who leads all of baseball with a .340 batting average, .432 OBP and 1.035 OPS.

Tulo also recently landed on the 15-day disabled list with a left hip flexor strain, per Nick Groke of The Denver Post. He's due to return soon, but even more damaging to his MVP chances could be the fact that he plays for a losing team.

Right or wrong, voters generally favor a guy who not only puts up numbers, but does so for a winning cause.

"Something needs to change," Tulowitzki told Groke of the Rockies' struggles. "Hopefully that comes fairly quickly. You can't force it. But at the same time, we're all frustrated with this year—especially me."

Does that sound like an MVP?

To be fair, Stanton also plays for a club that almost certainly isn't playoff bound. Entering play Thursday, the Marlins stood at 55-58, 6.5 games back in the NL East. The Rockies, meanwhile, were 45-68 and in dead last in the NL West.

The difference between a mediocre team and a bad one likely isn't enough to tip the scales. To win arguably the most coveted personal accolade in baseball, Stanton will have to get crazy hot down the stretch.

His performance Wednesday was inauspicious: 0-for-4 in a 7-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Speaking of the Pirates, they have a player by the name of Andrew McCutchen—the reigning NL MVP—who might also factor into the conversation. 

Like Tulo, McCutchen is nursing an injury. But he's posting numbers on par with his stratospheric 2013 season. Oh, and Pittsburgh is in the thick of the playoff race.

Or, if you listen to the Vegas oddsmakers, Stanton's stiffest competition comes from Southern California. Here's Craig Davis of South Florida's Sun Sentinel

Despite some struggles to make consistent contact over the past month, Giancarlo Stanton remains among the favorites for National League Most Valuable Player. Stanton is the second favorite at 7 to 4 in revised odds by Bovada online sports book (Bovada.lv), sandwiched between two Dodgers. L.A.’s dominant left-hander Clayton Kershaw is the favorite at 4 to 7, and outfielder Yasiel Puig is third at 10 to 1.

Coincidentally, Stanton played high school ball in SoCal. And maybe someday, when he's too rich for Miami's blood, he'll come home.

"[I get asked that] all the time," Stanton told Bill Shaikin of The Los Angeles Times when pressed about a possible return to L.A. "They're like, 'You need to come play for us.'"

For now, Stanton is a Marlin. And, as Davis notes, he's a Marlin who hit a flaccid .226 in July.

If he's going to charge to the front of the MVP race, the 24-year-old slugger will need to pick it up, to find his stroke, to make NL pitchers remember why he's the last man they want to face.

On July 30, the Marlins beat the Washington Nationals 3-0 to claw back to .500. After the win, Stanton was asked if the Fish were peaking at the right time.

"Towards the end is the best time,” he told The Miami Herald's Manny Navarro. “But we’re peaking at the right time to make this push to be significant.”

The same could be said about Stanton's MVP chances. Peak now, and keep peaking, and he could hoist the prize, whatever Miami's fortunes.

Falter, and his trophy case will sit empty a little longer.

 

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

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Will Buster Posey Return to MVP Form in the Clutch of NL Race?

Consider, for a moment, Buster Posey's career arc: National League Rookie of the Year, World Series ring, season-ending injury, NL MVP and another Wold Series ring. That's a lifetime of highs and lows—more than a lifetime for many—crammed into a scant four full seasons.

Now, Posey is in his fifth full MLB season and the San Francisco Giants need him more than ever.

Buster's having a decent year. Entering play Wednesday, he was hitting .286 with 13 home runs and 57 RBI. Not bad, especially for a catcher.

The Giants, though, aren't looking for decent or not bad. They're looking for exemplary. They're looking for an MVP.

In the midst of a tight NL West race with the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco is desperately looking for a spark.

All-Star right fielder Hunter Pence and a resurgent Pablo Sandoval have buoyed the offense. But with injuries to key contributors—Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan, Brandon Belt—the Giants' bats have faltered.

As of Tuesday, San Francisco's .243 team batting average ranked 11th in the National League, per ESPN.com, and its early power surge has sputtered out.

A patented Posey hot streak could go a long way toward curing the Giants' ills.

Remember, this is the kid who came up in 2010, started hot and mostly stayed hot. The kid who led the Orange and Black to their first championship in the San Francisco era and did it with a cherubic smile and aw-shucks demeanor that seemed too good to be true.

Except it wasn't. After suffering a horrific, ankle-shattering injury during a home-plate collision in 2011, Posey bounced back like few players in history by hitting .336 with 24 home runs, winning an MVP trophy and securing a second championship.

Maybe Posey set the bar too high. The accomplishments and accolades he accumulated before his 26th birthday rival those of any player in the history of the sport.

Which means a good season isn't good enough. The Giants, and baseball at large, expect greatness.

“I’m getting asked that a lot,” skipper Bruce Bochy said in April, after Posey limped to a 3-for-38 start, per Steve Corkran of Giants Extra. “I’ll keep saying the same thing: He’s human. These guys go through their bumps in the road. They’re going to have an occasional hiccup. That’s just the way this game is."

Here's how ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick sums it up:

It's unrealistic for any big league team to expect a single player to 'carry' the offense for weeks on end. That's especially true of catchers, who have to deal with the physical rigors of the position and the time and energy required in handling a pitching staff. But Posey, 27, has the talent and demeanor to multitask with the best of them. The Giants showed their faith in him when they signed him to a nine-year, $167 million extension in March 2013.

Crasnick's right that the catcher position takes its toll. It's the rare backstop who maintains his offensive prowess; that's what makes guys like Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza such anomalies.

He's also right that Posey has the skill to cement a place on that list. He's done too much in too short a time to be counted out.

A future move to first base, where Posey sees regular action, is a possibility, to save his legs and keep his bat in the lineup. For now, though, the Giants need Buster behind the dish and at the heart of their offense.

“I don’t care how talented you are, you’re going to go through it." Bochy told Corkran. "He’s going through his little thing right now but he’ll come out of it.”

And he has. Posey's numbers have gone from dreadful to perfectly respectable. Now, the Giants are hoping he'll make the next jump—to otherworldly.

If he does, San Francisco could have a shot at its third championship in five years. A dynasty in the making.

That may sound far-fetched, especially with former Giants ace Matt Cain out with season-ending surgery and the high-spending Dodgers leading the way.

Then again, far-fetched and Posey's career arc go hand in hand.

 

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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Would Dodgers-Angels October ‘Freeway Series’ Be Good for Baseball?

If it sounds like a scenario ripped straight from a Hollywood script, maybe that's fitting: the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels clashing in the World Series. Angeleno pitted against Angeleno. Tinseltown abuzz with October intrigue.

It's never happened before. In fact, in the last quarter-century, L.A.'s MLB clubs have made just two World Series appearances between them: the Dodgers in 1988 and the Angels in 2002.

Both teams emerged victorious, but they haven't squared off against each other.

As they meet for a four-game interleague interlude pregnant with playoff implications, it's as good a time as any to ask the question: Is this the year an all-SoCal Fall Classic finally happens? Could be.

Entering play Tuesday, the Dodgers, one season removed from a trip to the NLCS, held a 1.5-game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

The Angels, meanwhile, owned the second-best record in baseball after defeating the Dodgers 5-0 Monday night behind Garrett Richards and are nipping at the heels of the Oakland A's.

The playoffs are always a crapshoot. Right now, though, it seems at least plausible that the ultimate Freeway Series might materialize.

ESPN.com's Mark Saxon likes the odds. "Maybe this is the year the I-5 freeway becomes the traffic-clogged conduit for the Fall Classic?" Saxon opined. "The signs are as promising as ever." 

Certainly that would be good news for Southern California baseball fans. Would it be equally good for baseball?

Put another way: Do World Series featuring regional rivals command more attention and higher ratings? Does geographic proximity automatically equal intrigue?

Not necessarily.

In 1989, the Giants and A's met in the so-called Bay Bridge Series. The Loma Prieta earthquake provided most of the drama when it interrupted play, but ultimately viewers weren't enthralled as the A's cruised to an easy sweep.

The '89 Series drew a 29 share from Nielsen Media Research, per Baseball-Almanac.com, by far the lowest at the time since records began being kept in 1973.

The previous year, the A's played the Dodgers in the World Series, and the share, or percent of total TV viewers tuned to a specific program, was 39.

The following year, in 1990, when the Cincinnati Reds swept the A's, it jumped back to 36.

A decade later, the New York Yankees faced the New York Mets in an all-Big Apple affair.

Despite the perennial popularity of the Yankees, the underdog appeal of the Mets and the massive size of the market, the 2000 Subway Series drew a 21 share, down from 26 in '99 and '01 (both of those series also featured the Yankees).

Clearly, then, the mere fact that two clubs can bus between parks and share overlapping fanbases does not guarantee widespread interest.

Would a Freeway Series buck the trend? There are reasons to think it might.

First off, Los Angeles is a market unlike any other. Combine the populations of Los Angeles County, where the Dodgers play, and Orange County, where the Angels hang their halos, and you've got more than 13 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

If any place can rival New York for sheer number of eyeballs, it's L.A.

More importantly, though, a Dodgers-Angels World Series would showcase a handful of the game's most exciting talents.

You're saying you wouldn't tune in to watch Clayton Kershaw battle Mike Trout? Yasiel Puig bat-flipping against Jered Weaver?

Before the current series kicked off, MLB.com's Lyle Spencer asked Trout about Puig. As five-tool players, the two are often compared.

"The similar parts are we play hard and love the game," Trout said, adding, "He's a great talent, exciting to watch."

They both are. And then some.

L.A. is known for its stars, and right now its baseball teams are glistening brightly. Will they get a chance to shine under the brightest lights?

We're a few months and a lot of games away from answering that question. For now, it's simply fun to close your eyes and imagine the movie.

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Will Andrew McCutchen’s Injury Sink the Pirates’ Playoff Hopes?

There is a moment when a star player winces, or staggers or crumples in pain, and an entire fanbase holds its collective breath. Sometimes it's nothing, sometimes it's everything.

Unfortunately for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans, the injury suffered by MVP center fielder Andrew McCutchen doesn't sound like nothing. 

McCutchen's fateful wince came while taking a swing Sunday in the eighth inning of the Pirates' 3-2 extra-inning loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He clutched his left side as he hobbled up the first-base line (though in typical McCutchen fashion, the hack resulted in a sacrifice fly). Ultimately, he had to be helped off the field.

"I thought I was cramping," McCutchen later told Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I never really have had any problems in that area."

Looks like more than a cramp. Citing an unnamed source—the Pirates had yet to release any official word on McCutchen's status as of Monday night—the Post-Gazette's Ron Cook wrote that McCutchen is "expected" to be placed on the 15-day DL and "could be out at least three weeks or a month because of what appeared to be a serious oblique muscle injury."

Again, that's yet to be confirmed. If it is true, it'd spell big, possibly ship-sinking, trouble for the Pirates, who looked to be on course for the postseason.

McCutchen's value cannot be overstated. At the time of his injury, he owned a .311/.411/.536 slash line to go along with 17 home runs, 67 RBI and 17 stolen bases. If he wasn't the front-runner to win a second consecutive NL MVP award, he was squarely in the conversation.

Now, the Bucs are faced with the prospect of sailing on without their superstar for at least the foreseeable future. It won't be easy.

Entering play Tuesday Pittsburgh is locked in a tight three-way battle in the NL Central. Just 1.5 games separate the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and third-place Pirates, and the second-place Cardinals sit in the middle, one game off the pace.

All three teams could technically qualify for the postseason. But in this era of the one-game Wild Card play-in, it's all about winning the division and punching a guaranteed ticket to the first-round best-of-five series.

Last year Pittsburgh broke through, finishing 94-68 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1992. It won the Wild Card Game but lost, 3-2, in the division series to the Cardinals. 

This season was a chance to build on that success. To reclaim forgotten treasure.

It could still happen. Even if McCutchen does miss a month, he'd return in time for the stretch run. The trick will be for the Pirates to keep their heads above water in the meantime.

The Bucs do boast decent outfield depth. Josh Harrison (.304/.342/.497 with 10 HR) has been a revelation, and Starling Marte, who has experience in center field, is eligible to come off of the seven-day concussion DL on Tuesday, per Howard Burns of the Pittsburgh Business Times. 

Pittsburgh could also try to pull off a post-deadline desperation deal, as Tom Gatto of Sporting News speculated:

Will the Bucs try to acquire an outfield bat, such as the Phillies' Marlon Byrd, in a waiver trade? Byrd might be too expensive, both in terms of players and contract. [He] has an $8 million option for 2015 that he reportedly wants picked up if he's traded, plus an $8 million vesting option for 2016.

Let's be real, though. Without McCutchen, the Pirates simply aren't serious contenders. 

A little solace for the hand-wringing Pittsburgh faithful: McCutchen isn't injury-prone. He's played at least 154 games every season since 2010, the very definition of durable.

That can change in a hurry, but it may bode well for the MVP's chances of getting back sooner rather than later.

He'd better. Pirates fans can only hold their breath for so long.

 

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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What Matt Kemp Returning to Stardom Would Mean for Dodgers’ Title Hopes

The Los Angeles Dodgers were mostly quiet at the trade deadline, making one modest move but staying away from a blockbuster pickup.

Still, it's possible they could get a significant stretch-run contribution from a former National League MVP candidate and five-tool slugger.

Perhaps you've heard of him? He's a fellow by the name of Matt Kemp.

Kemp has struggled so mightily it's easy to forget what a beast he was—and not in some distant, sepia-toned past. This is a guy who was widely regarded as one of the best players in the game as recently as 2011.

That's the year he hit .324 with 39 home runs and 126 RBI but lost the NL MVP race to Milwaukee Brewer Ryan Braun. According to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com), Kemp has since said he thinks Braun should be stripped of the award due to his admitted use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Since that sensational season, the 29-year-old Kemp has battled injuries and inconsistency.

His low point came last year, when he managed just six home runs and 33 RBI in 73 games and missed the Dodgers' postseason run with a bum ankle.

Kemp summed it up at the time by telling the AP (h/t USA Today) his struggled were "like a bad nightmare."

Could this be the year he wakes up from that unpleasant dream?

Maybe. The 2014 campaign hasn't been a seamless one for Kemp. His numbers are still down precipitously from his otherworldly peak—he was batting .285 with 13 home runs entering play Monday. In May, Fox Sports West's Michael Martinez reported that he was grumbling about a lack of playing time.

Even when he's looked like his old self, which he has in spurts, the results haven't been there. CBSSports.com's Marty Gitlin summarizes that conundrum:

What is perplexing is that, according to Fangraphs.com, Kemp is hitting line drives and making contact at virtually the same rate as he did during his glory years. His plate discipline has actually improved. Yet he is simply not getting anywhere near the same results.

Lately, though, things have begun looking up—much like fans at Dodger Stadium have looked up to watch a barrage of recent Kemp home runs.

He hit one in Sunday's 7-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs, and he belted a pair of two-run shots in a July 29 8-4 win over the Atlanta Braves.

That outburst came on the brink of the trade deadline, with talk of a potential deal involving Kemp swirling.

“I’m not worried about any rumors,” he told the Long Beach Press-Telegram's Robert Morales. “I’m just worried about helping us win in any way.”

As it turns out, Kemp didn't need to worry. He followed up his July 29 performance with another home run and a walk-off single on July 30.

"The balls he’s starting to hit are reminiscent of the balls that he was hitting back in 2011,” catcher A.J. Ellis told the Los Angeles Times' Steve Dilbeck of his teammate's resurgence.

Then the 2014 deadline came and went, and Kemp remained a Dodger.

Now, with two critical months ahead and Los Angeles holding a 2.5-game lead over the archrival San Francisco Giants in the NL West, the question is whether Kemp can be the Dodger he used to be—the guy who flirted with MVP awards, murdered baseballs and terrified opposing pitchers.

If so, it would be an immeasurable boost for an offense that has been less fearsome than advertised.

Despite his well-documented struggles at the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, Yasiel Puig has turned in a solid sophomore effort. Others, howeverincluding Adrian Gonzalez (.264 AVG, 15 HR) and Hanley Ramirez (.276 AVG, 12 HR)have not provided the thump and consistent production the Dodgers expected.

Still, Los Angeles is well-positioned. With a terrific top of the rotation anchored by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the Dodgers could be a postseason force, though question marks remain in the bullpen.

Last year, they reached the National League Championship Series. This year, they've got visions of their first Fall Classic appearance in more than a quarter-century.

If they're going to get there, though, they'll need some extra firepower. It could come from any number of sources—the lineup is loaded with potential weapons. But if anyone is going to come charging back with a vengeance, shouldn't it be the guy they call "The Bison"?

The Dodgers were mostly quiet at the deadline. They're hoping Kemp is about to get loud.

 

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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Pressure Is on Robinson Cano to Live Up to Contract, Be Stretch-Run MVP

The Seattle Mariners made some noise at the trade deadline, acquiring Austin Jackson from the Detroit Tigers as part of the blockbuster three-team deal that sent David Price to the Motor City. But by far the most significant acquisition for the Mariners—the one that will determine whether they make the postseason for the first time in 13 years—happened over the winter: Robinson Cano.

Before the ink was dry on Cano's jaw-dropping 10-year, $240 million contract, expectations in the Pacific Northwest were already higher than the Space Needle. He was the cavalry, the superstar, the bat that would finally support the Mariners' superlative pitching staff.

The M's are having a surprising season; entering play Sunday they stood at 57-53, two games off the pace for the second Wild Card. Considering that Baseball Prospectus picked them to finish ahead of only the Houston Astros in the American League West, that's a modest coup. 

And Cano has been a big part of Seattle's success.

His .330 batting average is second-best in the AL. He made his sixth All-Star team. And he's anchored a lineup that, aside from third baseman and fellow All-Star Kyle Seager, has been pretty punchless, scoring the fewest runs in the AL, per ESPN.com

"I've said all along," skipper Lloyd McClendon told The New York Times' Michael Powell. "This club is challenged offensively."

That's exactly why the Mariners need Cano to be more than good. They need him to be spectacular. 

It'd help if he found his power stroke. The hits have been falling, but they haven't been leaving the yard.

Despite launching a three-run blast in Saturday's 6-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles, Cano has just eight home runs after hitting 25 or more in every season since 2009.

Part of that is moving from Yankee Stadium to Safeco Field, which ranks as one of the most extreme pitchers' parks in the game, according to ESPN.comBut Cano has actually hit as many home runs in Seattle as he has on the road. 

Noting that Cano's ground-ball rate has gone up significantly this year, FoxSports.com's Jeff Sullivan offered this take:

Right now [Cano is] a hitter with a lot of low line drives, enough to make him not a major cause for concern, yet enough to make one wonder. The most amazing thing about Cano has always been his stability. It's not clear now if he's changing, nor is it clear that would be for the best.

"I know my game," Cano told MLB.com's Tracy Ringolsby when asked about his lack of thump. "If I try to do too much, I'm going to cause problems. I have to take what I am given. I can't force things to be different." 

Certainly Cano can be valuable without the long ball. He's never been a true slugger, despite the robust home run totals. And it's unfair to say he's even close to part of the problem. Clearly he's the best hitter on the team, as advertised, and he's picked it clean on defense, posting the third-best fielding percentage among AL second basemen.

If the Mariners have visions of October, though, they're going to need their star—their quarter-billion-dollar manto go on a legitimate tear.

But here's the rub: He can't start pressing. If a player feels the weight of a team on his shoulders, it can make him stumble. 

McClendon is well aware of that risk. 

"We've had a couple conversations to remind him, 'Take your walks, don't try to force the issue,'" McClendon told Ringolsby. "We had one funk in Miami where he was going outside the zone, and he did it maybe one other time at home, but other than that, he's been great."

He added, "I've seen this guy hot. He's getting there."

For the M's to shock the baseball world and make a playoff push, he'll have to get there soon. And stay there.

 

All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.

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Jose Abreu Evolving from Home Run Freak Show to Next Great Triple Crown Threat

Jose Abreu can hit home runs. That much has been obvious from the moment he put on a big league uniform. But his talents, clearly, go well beyond the long ball.

Excitement has trailed the Cuban star since he inked a six-year, $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox last fall. But his reputation, by and large, was that of a single-tool slugger.

Two-thirds of the way through his rookie MLB season, Abreu is shattering expectations.

After going 3-for-3 in Friday night's 10-8 win over the Minnesota Twins, Abreu owns a .310 batting average to go along with 31 home runs and 84 RBI. The latter two stats lead the American League, meaning Abreu is suddenly a Triple Crown threat.

He'd have to hike his average, but that's not beyond the realm of possibility considering he's currently on a 21-game hitting streak and has hit safely in 39 of his last 40 games, per MLB.com's Scott Merkin.

To their credit, the White Sox saw more than dingers when they signed Abreu.

"He's the only player that I've seen work out and then play in a game that I wanted to give a standing ovation to," Chicago Executive Vice President Ken Williams told Merkin in October 2013. "One of the things that we did not want to entertain was a guy who was just one dimensional. This guy is a hitter."

Unfortunately for the White Sox, and Abreu, his talents are being squandered on a club that's mired under .500 and essentially out of the playoff picture.

But that's this year. Going forward, Chicago has its hands on a legitimate, franchise-defining player. A guy you build around. A guy who belongs in the conversation with Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera and the AL's other top-tier talents.

He's certainly the prohibitive front-runner for Rookie of the Year honors. What about MVP? Is he in the running there?

White Sox skipper Robin Ventura thinks so.

"He is one of the best players in the league. That's a fact," Ventura told Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune. "Whether people put him in it, I don't know, but I know he's up there with anybody that's running for it."

The most obvious comparison for Abreu is probably Cabrera, who has already ascended the Triple Crown mountain. 

Here's White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers on the two AL Central mashers, per Kane:

(Abreu is) not Miguel Cabrera, but he has a chance to be something like that. Every at-bat, every day, the way he works, that's how I imagine Miguel works. It seems like he has just as much power, and a similar kind of swing too. He can take balls in and drive them out to right-center. He doesn't seem to get fooled too often. He's a complete hitter.

Baseball is a game of adjustments. Just as Abreu has adjusted to big league pitching and carved out a reputation as one of the game's most exciting young hitters, so too will pitchers adjust to him. There will be slumps. There will be struggles.

For now, though, he's riding high. Hitting home runs, yes, but also doing much, much more.

Maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise. Here's Abreu himself, to Merkin last October:

So much has been said about my power and the home runs I hit, but more than hitting home runs, when I'm at the plate, my mindset is to make sure I do what's needed for the team, whatever is needed at that moment, whatever the team needs of me. That's my strategy of play. I'm not thinking of home runs more than anything, it's just delivering what I'm asked to do.

As he wraps up his first MLB campaign, he's unequivocally doing what's been asked—and then some.

All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

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David Price Pitched Like an Ace, but Was Traded as If He Wasn’t One

We've already explained why the Tampa Bay Rays needed to trade David Price. His value was sky-high, and the Rays—even after a good month of baseball—weren't close enough to switch out of sell mode. Plus, with aces like Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester fetching solid returns, imagine the haul of blue-chippers a stud like Price could net.

Which is what makes the deal the Rays just made—a three-team swap with the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners first reported by FoxSports.com's Ken Rosenthalsuch a head-scratcher.

Price has made four All-Star teams. He's won a Cy Young. And he's currently leading the majors in strikeouts. He is, as ever, an ace's ace.

But he wasn't traded like one.

Here are the details of the deal, first outlined by Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, Mike Salk of 710 ESPN and Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune: The Tigers get Price, the Mariners get centerfielder Austin Jackson from Detroit and the Rays get pitcher Drew Smyly and minor league shortstop Willy Adames from Detroit and infielder Nick Franklin from Seattle.

The Tigers immediately get one of the most fearsome rotations in baseball, keeping pace with the Oakland A's, who have also been collecting arms. The Mariners get an outfield upgrade as they push for the playoffs.

And the Rays get...well. Not exactly nothing. But not the spoils many expected.

Smyly, a 25-year-old left-hander, moved from the Detroit bullpen into the rotation this year and has put up a 3.77 ERA and 1.30 WHIP with 87 strikeouts in 100.1 innings. 

Franklin, 23, has spent time at both second base and shortstop, and hit .294 with nine home runs for the Mariners' AAA affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. But he hit just .214 in 416 big league at-bats over the past two seasons, and was blocked by the signing of Robinson Cano.

Adames is the rawest of the bunch. Just 18 years old, he hit .269 with a .346 OBP in the Low Class A Midwest League. 

Certainly the Rays got some value. But did they get enough? Was this the franchise-changing deal that appeared inevitable?

Doesn't seem like it. Not compared to what the Red Sox got for Lestera budding star in Cespedesor what the Cubs got for Samardzija and Jason Hammela bushel of young talent, including shortstop Addison Russell, ranked the number three prospect in baseball by ESPN Insider's Keith Law (subscription required).

Or even compared to what the Rays have gotten in the past for their arms. When Tampa Bay traded James Shields to the Kansas City Royals in 2012, they netted then-prospects Jake Odorizzi and Wil Myers per ESPN.com (via the Associated Press)—arguably a better return than they just got for Price. 

And Shields is no Price.

Few pitchers are. Which begs the question: What happened? Did the Rays wait too long, holding Price too close to the deadline and losing leverage? Did general manager Andrew Friedman, generally regarded as a shrewd baseball mind, get bamboozled?

Or is there something we're missing?

"This was something that happened very quickly," Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski told FoxSports.com's Dave Hogg. "We had talked a little to Tampa about 10 days, but if you had asked me yesterday morning, I would have told you that there was about a zero percent chance that we would get David."

Apparently, zero percent can turn to 100 percent in a hurry. 

Yes, it's possible the players acquired by the Rays will blossom and help the club long term. Smyly, already delivering at the big league level, is under team control through 2018. That alone is something, since Price was almost guaranteed to walk away after next year for a massive free-agency payday.

And Franklin, also young and cost-controlled, could factor into the middle infield mix in the near future.

But surely this isn't how Rays fans envisioned Price exiting after six-plus stellar seasons. As they watch him pitch for a Tigers team that looks primed for a return to the World Series, thoughts of Willy Adames possibly contributing in 2019 may not be enough to ease the sting.

Here's how USA Today's Bob Nightengale summed up the deal shortly after its consummation:

Price lost what turned out to be his final start in Tampa Bay on Wednesday to the Milwaukee Brewers; he was dealt almost 24 hours afterward, for far less than the blockbuster offer it was assumed would be needed to acquire his services.

The Rays needed to trade Price. We stand by that. But they also needed to trade him like the ace he is, and the ace he'll surely be for Detroit as they push for October.

They didn't. And that sound you hear is a lot of folks in Tampa Bay scratching their heads.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

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Loser of Athletics-Angels Division Race Will Face Postseason Death Sentence

The second wild card was supposed to inject excitement into the MLB postseason race. And it has. More teams than ever are in the hunt, at least theoretically, which means more intrigue, more pressure-packed matchups and more fan enthusiasm.

This season, though, it's also set up a nightmare scenario for one of the American League's two best teams.

Entering play Thursday, the Oakland A's and Los Angeles Angels owned the best and second-best records in baseball, respectively. They'll face each other 10 more times in the season's final two months, which means this race will likely go down to the wire.

And the stakes couldn't be higher.

Barring a precipitous slide, both the A's and Angels will qualify for the postseason. Yet while one team would take the AL West crown and a guaranteed spot in the division series, the loser would face a one-game, do-or-die wild-card matchup.

If the season ended July 31, that game would be played between Los Angeles and the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays are certainly a formidable opponent (really, any team is scary in a one-game, anything-can-happen scenario).

But there's an even more ominous possibility.

Lurking on the edge of the wild-card picture is a third club from the loaded AL West—the Seattle Mariners and their ace in the hole, Felix Hernandez.

Imagine it. The A's and Angels go at it neck and neck through September, trading blows. Then, when the dust settles, the team that comes up short finds itself staring at none other than King Felix himself.

After 162 games of struggle and success, it'd all hinge on beating one of the toughest pitchers in the game.

The Angels and A's have aces of their own. Just as no one wants to see Hernandez in a win-or-go-home contest, no one wants to see Jered Weaver. Or Jeff Samardzija. Or Jon Lester, now that the A's have consummated a swap for the All-Star left-hander (along with outfielder Jonny Gomes), sending Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes to the Boston Red Sox, as first reported by WEEI.com's Alex Speier.

That's the point, though. For both teams involved, the wild-card matchup is the ultimate crapshoot—with everything on the line.

Fox Sports' Dave Cameron makes the case for how wide the gap has become between division winner and wild-card qualifier:

The reward for even winning the wild card used to be a best-of-five series that would likely result in at least two home playoff games, a nifty little reward for a team's fan base. Under the new system, however, the carrot at the end of the wild-card stick is just a single-game winner-take-all affair, with the loser only extending their season by one additional day.

Or what about this crazy scenario, posed by Angels catcher Chris Iannetta to Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times?

"One of us could take off and leave everyone else behind, or we could hang tight until the end," said Iannetta. "Who knows? Maybe we'll have a one-game playoff. It could be fun."

Fun is one way of putting it. In that case, the loser of the one-game division-deciding game would go on to the one-game wild-card play-in. Two games, two sudden-death gut checks.

Of course, it's all speculation at this point. With more than 50 games left to play, a lot can change: injuries, trades, unexpected hot (or cold) streaks. There are a host of variables that could alter the AL landscape in a hurry.

Right now, though, one thing's clear: The advent of the second wild card has endowed the division title with an importance it hasn't had since, well, the advent of the first wild card in 1994.

Count Angels skipper Mike Scioscia among the new format's defenders, even if it could end up costing his club.

"The primary focus of every team in baseball that is contending is to win your division," Scioscia told the Los Angeles Daily News' Robert Morales, "and I think that's a good thing.”

Certainly it's an exciting thing—and an intriguing thing.

But for one of the league's top teams, it might also be a heartbreaking thing.

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Not Trading David Price Would Be Foolish Sacrifice of Leverage

The Tampa Bay Rays just ripped off a nine-game winning streak. They're still under .500, but they're on the fringe of the American League playoff race. Another good month could put them in the thick of things.

So it might seem like the David Price question—to trade or not to trade?—is a difficult one.

It isn't.

As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, the Rays should absolutely, unequivocally deal their ace. If they don't, they'll regret it sooner than later.

Why? What makes this seemingly tough decision such a no-brainer? Let's break it down.

 

His Value Will Never Be Higher

With so many teams clinging to playoff hopes and so few willing to cash in their chips, this is truly a seller's market. The question with Price isn't who's interested, but rather who isn't?

Contending clubs that might be willing to mortgage the farm to land the stud left-hander include the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Dodgers, according to FoxSports.com's John Paul Morosi. (Peruse MLBTradeRumors.com and you'll find nearly everyone has been linked to the 28-year-old southpaw at one time or another.)

Price's stock is so high, in fact, that even non-contenders like the Chicago Cubs might be in the mix, Morosi adds.

Partly it's because he's just that good. Entering play Wednesday, the four-time All-Star owned a 3.08 ERA and 1.04 WHIP to go along with a major league-leading 183 strikeouts and 163.2 innings pitched.

But Price's value is buoyed by his contract status. With one more year of arbitration eligibility before he hits the open market, any team that acquired the 2012 Cy Young winner would be assured of keeping him for 2015 and possibly negotiating a long-term deal. 

There are other top-shelf starters on the block, including the Boston Red Sox's Jon Lester, but Price looks like the biggest prize.

That means the package of prospects the Rays could net—especially from a team like the Cardinals with a very deep system—could set them up for years to come.

 

Even With Him, The Rays' Chances Are Slim

To their credit, the Rays have turned what looked like a lost season into something approaching respectability. If they keep it up, it's not impossible to imagine them sneaking into the postseason. 

After that, who knows?

Let's get real, though. Tampa Bay is currently staring up at three teams—the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Oriolesin its own division. With the Detroit Tigers looking fearsome in the AL Central and the Oakland A's and Los Angeles Angels locked in an arms race in the AL West, the chances of the Rays making the playoffs, let alone making a deep run, are slim.

Price might make another 10 starts this year. Even if the Rays win them all, they'll still likely be sitting at home in October. 

While Jayson Stark of ESPN.com says the Rays are "open-minded" about moving Price and won't make the call until the eleventh hour, the New York Daily News' Bill Madden reports Price is "off the market because the Rays don't want to mess with their chemistry." 

If that's true, they're looking at the wrong formula.

 

He'll Be Gone After 2015 

If Tampa Bay keeps Price, his price tag will skyrocket in arbitration. Then he'll hit free agency and almost certainly walk away for a massive payday elsewhere (assuming he stays healthy, another X-factor that should nudge the Rays toward dealing now). 

There's simply no way the Rays—who outspend only the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros, per Deadspin's Barry Petchesky—will be able to outbid baseball's high rollers.

Rays fans who have cheered Price through six-and-a-half stellar seasons may not like it, but that's the reality for small-market teams.

Just look at the A's, the kings of spendthrift success. Oakland has dealt away a whole deck of aces over the past decade-plus, usually getting bushels of talent in return.

So the question becomes: is one final (expensive) season of Price worth more than the bounteous haul the Rays would get if they moved him now? Are Tampa Bay's short-term chances with Price better than their long-term chances with whatever shiny blue-chippers they could acquire?

Those are rhetorical questions, but let's answer them anyway: no and no. 

The clock is ticking. The deadline is looming. The stakes are high.

And the price, pardon the pun, is right. 

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Odrisamer Despaigne’s Funky Style Is Leaving Hitters Scratching Their Heads

There is no such thing as a comfortable at-bat against Odrisamer Despaigne. Between his high-kicking, torso-spinning delivery and dizzying litany of pitches, Despaigne is the very definition of befuddling.

And most of the hitters who've faced the San Diego Padres' rookie right-hander have indeed been befuddled.

Despaigne made his major league debut on June 23, tossing seven scoreless frames against the San Francisco Giants. He followed that up with four more quality starts, culminating in a near-historic gem July 20 against the New York Mets.

In that game, Despaigne came agonizingly close to throwing the first no-no in Padres history, recording 26 outs without surrendering a hit before Daniel Murphy slashed a double with two down in the ninth (the Pads wound up winning, 2-1).

In his last start, Despaigne looked mortal, giving up five runs on six hits to the Atlanta Braves in 3.2 innings. But that speed bump merely underscored how good he's been. And can be.

What's the secret to the 27-year-old Cuban's early success? Variety. Balance-disrupting, head-scratching variety.

"He's so unique," Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley told MLB.com's Corey Brock. "Right away, I could see it was going to be difficult for the opposition to study 12 different types of pitches."

Yes, you read that right. Twelve different pitches. Twelve different ways to fool a batter. Twelve different ways to get a swing-through, a jam shot, a weak ground ball.

It starts with the arm slot, which, Balsley explains, vacillates from high three-quarter to low three-quarter to sidearm. 

"He has a good feel for all of them," Balsley said. "It's very instinctive for him."

That could stem from experience. Despaigne may be an MLB rookie, but he's no baseball newbie. He made his debut with the Cuban Industriales in 2007, went on to play for the Cuban national team and defected in 2013 while playing in Europe, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com).  

He inked a modest minor league deal with the Padres in May, per MLBTradeRumors.com, and showed flashes. But it wasn't clear, at the time of his call-up, how effective he'd be.

"From our reports and listening to our minor league people ...there were stretches of really good pitching," San Diego skipper Bud Black told Brock. "Whether it was an inning, two innings or an at-bat, he couldn't put together a complete minor league game for whatever reason."

Under the bright big league lights, that's changed.

Now the necessary caveat: it's early still. Way early. There's no guarantee Despaigne's success will continue uninterrupted, or at all, as CBSSports.com's Matt Snyder argues:

He's new to all the hitters he has been facing and with such a deceptive delivery along with a mix of deceptive pitches, it's not difficult to see why he has had such great fortune thus far. More hitters will get looks at his stuff and familiarize themselves with him through video and advanced scouting reports and then it'll be up to Despaigne to prove he can adjust to the adjustments.

Despaigne doesn't overpower; his fastball tops out in the low 90s. And he pitches the bulk of his games in the pitcher's playground that is Petco Park. He could be due for a regression. MLB hitters, as Snyder points out, tend to adjust.

Then again, once upon a time, a Cuban hurler with a high leg kick, multiple arm angles and an abundant arsenal arrived on U.S. soil and started befuddling hitters. And he never really stopped over the course of a memorable nine-year big league career.

We're talking, as you've surely guessed, about Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who's been used frequently as a comp for Despaigne. ("Here's hoping Orlando Hernandez was somewhere near a television set," MLB.com's Phil Rogers wrote after Despaigne's near no-hitter.)

He's a long way from El Duque territory. He's a long way from a full season, in fact. For now, Despaigne needs to keep making hitters uncomfortable—and the rest will follow.

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Yasiel Puig Answers Doubters with Record-Setting 3-Triple Night

If Yasiel Puig is having a sophomore slump, it might be the best sophomore slump of all time.

There's been a lot of handwringing lately about the Los Angeles Dodgers' second-year outfielder. He's hit just one home run since June 1 and had a disastrous showing in the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game.

The swagger, suddenly, has turned to uncertainty.

So, naturally, the question on every Dodgers fan's lips became, what's wrong with Puig?

Not much, apparently.

Returning to the lineup Friday night after missing time with a hand injury, Puig went 4-for-5 with a record-setting three triples, leading the Dodgers to an 8-1 win over the division-leading San Francisco Giants.

With the victory, the Dodgers moved within 0.5 games of the Giants in the National League West. And with his performance at the plate, Puig went a long way toward silencing the doubters.

"When he's waiting on the ball and shooting the ball to right-center, he's at his best,” said Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly, per the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin's JP Hoornstra (via the Los Angeles Daily News). "Obviously, he stung the ball really well tonight. Looked patient at the plate, looked calm, looked quiet."

It's a funny thing. For all the focus heaped on Puig's power outage, his numbers have always looked solid. Even before Friday night's explosion, the 23-year-old Cuban owned a more-than-respectable .308/.398/.519 slash line.

As his countryman, Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A's, noted last year, power isn't central to Puig's game, per the Los Angeles Times' Bill Shaikin. "Not to be disrespectful to him at all, but I know him from Cuba," Cespedes told Shaikin. "He's not really a home run hitter."

Still, all the skills—the defense-testing speed, the superlative arm—that make Puig one of the most exciting five-tool players in the game have remained on display.

More than anything, Puig is a victim of his own success. With his bat-flipping antics and raw, unbridled potential, he's attracted as much attention (both positive and negative) as any young player in recent memory.

The expectations are sky-high—which means it takes a moon shot to clear them.

Puig didn't hit any moon shots Friday night at AT&T Park, but he did smack a trio of three-baggers. That's the most triples in a single game in Los Angeles Dodgers history and equals the franchise record set by Jimmy Sheckard in 1901, per CBSSports.com's Mike Axisa.

So, yeah. Pretty historic.

Also, pretty cathartic. Puig exerted his dominance, sure, but more importantly so did Los Angeles. Facing their hated rivals—the team that stands between them and a second straight division title—the Dodgers went nuts, banging out 15 hits.

They knocked around Tim Lincecum, on a career-reviving roll following his June 26 no-hitter against the San Diego Padres.

And they got a stellar start from Zack Greinke, who tossed seven shutout frames with 10 strikeouts (including a rare four-strikeout inning, just the fifth in Los Angeles Dodgers history, per MLB.com's Ken Gurnick).

Maybe best of all, they wrote another chapter in the storied history of the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, which looks like it'll be in full force this summer. That, as MLB.com's Richard Justice points out, is a good thing for all of us:

Baseball is better when the Dodgers and Giants are both good. They've been going at one another for around 120 years, and the games today have as much emotion and intensity as they did back in the days of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. They remain two of the sport's cornerstone franchises, both playing to packed houses, both occupying large places in the hearts and minds of their local citizens.

The undisputed star of the night, though, was Puig, who re-established himself as a game-changing offensive force and the unquestioned anchor of L.A.'s offense.

If this is what a sophomore slump looks like, the Dodgers better hope for more slumping.

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