Atlanta Braves vs. Houston Astros Live Blog: Instant Reactions and Analysis

The Houston Astros defeat the Atlanta Braves by a score of 6-1.

The Astros benefited from a solid performance by Jarred Cosart, silencing the bats of the Braves all throughout the game. 

Mike Minor of the Braves struggled once again as he gave up five runs through six innings of work. The Braves look to right the ship in Philadelphia against a struggling Phillies team.

The Astros will welcome the Detroit Tigers, fresh off their series victory versus the Texas Rangers.

 

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Pittsburgh Pirates: Midseason Grading and Projections

There is no doubt that the Pittsburgh Pirates have failed to recapture the magic that propelled them to their first winning season and first playoff appearance in 20 years last year. We’re 78 games into the 2014 season and the team sits with a .500 winning percentage.

This time last year, the Pirates were 18 games over .500 and tied with St. Louis for the division lead.

Despite the differences in personnel and play between last year’s team and this year’s version, the Bucs aren’t necessarily destined to fall back in to their losing ways. They might be eight games behind first place Milwaukee, but the Pirates find themselves only 3.5 games out of the last National League Wild Card spot and have been playing much better ball lately.

The team is only several games away from reaching the halfway point of the 2014 season. How do the team’s offense and pitching rank compared to the rest of the league, and what do the Bucs have to do to improve their chances of making the playoffs?

Offense: B+

The addition of Gregory Polanco has injected some much-needed energy into a Pirates lineup that has been bopping the ball as of late. It’s indisputable that the team has one of the best outfields in all of baseball, one that will only get better as the summer progresses. The team will always have a chance with Polanco, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen manning the outfield.

That’s not to mention the very solid play of second baseman Neil Walker, who, despite sitting out the last two weeks after an appendectomy, is still very much a contender to make the All-Star team. Shortstop Jordy Mercer has been swinging a hot bat in the past month and Russell Martin has been consistent behind the plate again for the Pirates this year.

The team currently ranks ninth in the majors with a .258 average, according to MLB.com, and their 72 home runs rank 13th even without Pedro Alvarez crushing the ball like last year. The team also boasts a sizable speed advantage with their 53 stolen bases, which ranks eighth in the majors.

It’s a good feeling knowing the offense can always keep the team in games, a far cry from last year, when the onus to win games was always on starting pitching and the bullpen. As we’re about to see, unfortunately, the roles have reversed this season, as it’s the offense that now props up the pitching staff.

Pitching: C

It’s been a year of turmoil for the Pirates pitching staff both in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Injuries have plagued starters like Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, forcing the team to rely on minor leaguers like Brandon Cumpton, Vance Worley and Jeff Locke. It’s a testament to the organization’s depth that all three of those pitchers have performed admirably during their time as fill-ins.

However, it hasn’t been a smooth ride for the rest of the pitching staff. The team cut Wandy Rodriguez in May, Jason Grilli was removed last week as the team’s closer and the bullpen in general hasn’t been nearly as solid as it was last year.

The staff has gone from one of the best in the game to one of the shakiest in the league.

Statistics from MLB.com show the truth: The team’s 3.85 ERA ranks 18th in the majors, while their 583 strikeouts rank 21st. The starting rotation’s 21 wins are the third-least in the majors, too, while the bullpen’s 14 blown saves rank as the most in baseball.

Overall grade: B

Bleacher Report’s Joe Giglio gave the team a C+ grade, a fitting mark given the team’s .500 winning percentage is the epitome of average. However, the Pirates have a 27-18 record since May 6, the best in the National League, and the team seems to be trending upward.

Manager Clint Hurdle understands his offense is trending in the right direction, and said as much in an interview with MLB.com's Phil Rogers last week: "There's energy in the lineup. There's a different look at the top. There's more danger involved."

In that same interview, Hurdle relayed that he understands the pitching must get better for the team to have a shot at the playoffs. But he’s optimistic, if only for the fact that young pitchers from the minors have arrived to stabilize a rotation decimated by injury and a lack of productivity: 

It's been all about pitching. The reason for my optimism is that we've found a way to stabilize our rotation the last couple of weeks. Actually, our June has been very good off the mound. May got better, and April was hard for us all over the place. Each month, our pitching has incrementally gotten better.

The Pirates have spent the entire season struggling to maintain a .500 winning percentage, but all the pieces are in place offensively for this team to prop up a pitching staff that will soon get Cole and Liriano back from the disabled list.

The team is most definitely trending in the right direction and could again find itself in the thick of a playoff chase, especially if the front office makes some moves for additional pitching in the coming weeks.

Bleacher Report’s Ryan Gaule agrees that the team is right where it wants to be right now, only weeks away from heading in to the All-Star break: "They have the pieces needed to make a run at the playoffs again in 2014, and this season is still very young for a team full of promise and potential." 

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New York Mets 2014 Trade Deadline Shopping List

It feels as if the New York Mets are well out of contention, but the fact remains that as of June 26, they are only 5.5 games out of first place in the National League East. If they remain this close to a playoff spot, they would be crazy not to at least consider pursuing players who they feel could put them over the top.

The Mets have a number of holes, mostly on offense. Starting pitching is the team’s strength, and their bullpen has turned into a positive with young arms like Jeurys Familia, Vic Black and Jenrry Mejia closing out games. However, their offense is often pitiful, and they’ll need more production if they seriously want to contend.

It is arguable that the Mets should go in the other direction, trading their current assets like Daniel Murphy and Bartolo Colon for future assets. However, that is not the purpose of this article; I am looking solely at a shopping list of players that the Mets would pursue for the purpose of competing now, if they choose to go down that route.

This shopping list also lacks superstars. I’ve written previously about the Mets acquiring a star bat during the season such as Matt Kemp or Alex Gordon, but this list is dedicated to smaller—but not minuscule—moves that the Mets could fill to moderately improve their roster.

These options are meant to be realistic as well. Unless the Mets are getting a star-caliber player they expect to be a part of the team for a long time, they won’t trade Noah Syndergaard. The players listed below are far from perfect, but the Mets aren’t realistically getting a perfect player unless they trade Syndergaard.

 

Everth Cabrera

The San Diego Padres are not good, and with a new general manager on the horizon, they will be looking to deal their current assets for future assets.

Considering what the Padres have to offer, Everth Cabrera is the player that fits best on the Mets roster. He is having a poor season this year (.223/.261/.298), but that also means the Mets could acquire him for much less than his actual value.

As much as Ruben Tejada continues to play every day, he is not a viable starting shortstop for a playoff team. While Wilmer Flores has yet to prove it, I still believe he is an above-average major league hitter, but the Mets have yet to show faith in him—as evidenced by their recent demotion of him—and his defense will always be suspect as a shortstop.

Everth Cabrera would give Terry Collins the prototypical leadoff hitter he desires so badly. When on his game, Cabrera gets on base and steals bases with regularity while playing above-average defense.

His package is enticing, and with the Padres looking to unload their roster for the future, he could come at a reasonable price.

 

Alexei Ramirez

Alexei Ramirez is another shortstop who would significantly improve the Mets lineup.

He’s having a great season, hitting .297/.330/.418 with seven home runs and 13 stolen bases. The Mets—a team starved for offense—would be substantially better with that kind of production from the shortstop position

As the Chicago White Sox start falling further and further out of the playoff race—they’re currently last in the AL Central and 8.5 games out of first—the odds they trade Ramirez go up.

Trading for Ramirez would force the Mets to cough up some of their pitching prospects, but they could land him without giving up Noah Syndergaard.

Still, the Mets should only trade for Ramirez if they get closer to the division lead by the deadline and truly believe adding him would propel them to a playoff berth. If the Mets feel like Ramirez only makes them marginally better, they should hold off on adding a shortstop until the offseason.

 

Alex Rios

Alex Rios isn’t the power hitter he’s often billed as—he has only three home runs this season—but he is arguably the perfect hitter for Citi Field. He hits line drives and balls in the gap, and he is a good athlete.

This season, Rios is hitting .312/.345/.451. While he is usually around a .280 hitter, he would still be a major improvement for the Mets outfield over Chris Young or Eric Young Jr.

Like all the other options on this list, the Mets should only trade for Rios if it either doesn’t cost them heavily in prospects or if they feel that Rios is the missing piece that makes them a playoff team.

Rios is 33 and has a club option for 2015 at $13.5 million. After that, he either becomes an overpaid outfielder entering the latter half of his 30s or he isn’t worth having on the roster. Either way, he likely wouldn’t be with the Mets past 2015, so trading for him would exclusively be a short-term move.

 

All statistics courtesy Baseball-Reference.

All contract information courtesy Cot's Baseball Contracts.

Follow Sean on Twitter: @SCunninghamPG.

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New York Yankees 2014 Trade Deadline Shopping List

As the July 31 MLB trade deadline approaches, the New York Yankees are sure to have a list of players they covet who could improve their team.

The Bombers have several areas that need to be addressed, namely an injury-riddled rotation and a struggling lineup. Both are questions for which this team will try to find answers as the deadline draws near.

 

Starting Pitchers

The loss of Ivan Nova for the season was the first blow to the Yankees rotation. CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda followed suit with trips to the disabled list. Sabathia is out with knee inflammation, but his rehab is progressing, according to the YES Network's Lou DiPietro: 

Even once Sabathia returns, his reliability will remain a concern. After seeing his ERA balloon to 4.78 in 2013, Sabathia opened the 2014 season with a 3-4 record and a 5.28 ERA before being sidelined. His fastball has seen a major drop in velocity, leading to concerns as to just how much the former ace can bring to the table.

Pineda on the other hand has dealt with numerous setbacks, most recently right-shoulder inflammation. Pineda started the year with several brilliant performances, but after missing two straight seasons prior to 2014, these latest injuries make it hard to depend on the 25-year-old.

These three pitchers have been replaced by Vidal Nuno, David Phelps and Chase Whitley, but only Whitley has given the Yankees any consistency. With Whitley and Masahiro Tanaka the only pitchers the team can count on, it is imperative that New York adds a starter.

While fans may have their sights set on top-notch targets like David Price and Jeff Samardzija, Joel Sherman of the New York Post says such acquisitions are unlikely:

Indications are they cannot go to the top of the available-starter food chain. Tampa almost certainly would not trade David Price within the AL East. And outside executives say the Cubs must obtain a close-to-the-majors, high-end starting pitcher as the key piece of a trade for Jeff Samardzija and — without involving a third team — the Yanks cannot provide that element.   

With those two likely unattainable for New York, which other pitchers will they target?

 

Jason Hammel

Samardzija is not the only pitcher the Chicago Cubs are likely to move. Hammel is having a strong year: He is 6-5 with a 2.99 ERA and would be a far less costly alternative to the Cubs' ace.

Hammel also comes with little risk. After signing a one-year deal with Chicago in the offseason, Hammel will be a free agent once again this winter, meaning the Yankees could easily cut ties if he does not pan out in the Bronx. Considering Hammel has experience in the American League East, the Yankees should show interest in him.

 

Phillies to Put Three Starters on the Block?

Sitting in the cellar of the National League East, its appears that the Philadelphia Phillies will be big-time sellers at the deadline. Per Bob Brookover of The Philadelphia Inquirer, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. recently said that no Phillies' player is "untouchable." If that is the case, the Yankees will have their eyes on a few starting pitchers.

If New York is looking for a cost-efficient, back-end starter, Kyle Kendrick could be the answer. Yet with a 3-7 record and 4.20 ERA, there are bigger fish in the sea that is the Phillies' roster. 

The biggest fish would be Cole Hamels. As Brookover points out, trading Hamels would replenish a depleted farm system. With a 35-42 last-place record, the ace's talents are being wasted in Philly. This team is old and needs to rebuild, and trading Hamels could bring in some top-of-the-line prospects, like the Yankees' Gary Sanchez.

Hamels, who has a 2.76 ERA, is owed roughly $107.5 million through 2019. He is 30 years old and would be an asset in New York for years to come.

Of course, no set of deadline rumors would be complete without the Yankees showing interest in Cliff Lee. Due to Lee's current injury status, Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News believes he may come cheaper than he would under normal circumstances:

Lee’s injury issues — he’s been on the DL for the past month but hopes to return before the All-Star break — might make him the ultimate risk-reward candidate, as the Phillies could look to deal him for pennies on the dollar prospect-wise in order to save themselves a few billion actual pennies.

Given the Yankees’ decision to blow past the luxury tax threshold over the winter, adding Lee’s massive salary in an attempt to win again wouldn’t seem to be out of the question — especially if it didn’t cost them a bundle of top prospects to acquire him.

Lee is making $25 million this year and next with a $27.5 million club option for 2016, but like Hamels, he is better than anyone in the Yankee rotation not named Tanaka.

 

Bronson Arroyo

Another pitcher with AL East experience, Arroyo is also a name the Yankees should look at. 

The lowly Arizona Diamondbacks are likely to move some players come July 31, and if Arroyo is healthy he could be one of them. He is currently on the DL with right-elbow tendinitis. If he is back in time to show he is healthy, the D-Backs would be smart to try and unload him and the two-year, $23.5 million contract he just signed.

While he may be hurt at the moment, Arroyo has been nothing but dependable in his career. Prior to this year he had pitched at least 200 innings in eight of nine previous seasons. He is not an overpowering pitcher but brings a workhorse attitude and veteran experience.

He was 7-4 with a 4.08 ERA before going down with the injury.

 

Padres Having a Fire Sale?

Already disappointing, the San Diego Padres' season took a turn for the worse when they fired GM Josh Byrnes. Logically, a fire sale is next in line, one that could offer the Yankees two more rotation options.

The first is one the Yankees are already familiar with: Ian Kennedy.

Kennedy is not the same pitcher who was labeled a bust after failing to hold down a spot in the Yankees' rotation between 2008 and 2009. Since leaving New York in the three-team deal that netted the Bombers Curtis Granderson, Kennedy has established himself as a big league starter.

In his five years removed from the Bronx, Kennedy is 58-49 with a 4.00 ERA and has made at least 31 starts in the four years prior to 2014.

The other pitcher is Padres ace Andrew Cashner. With the team out of contention, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal wrote before the Byrnes firing that dealing Cashner could drastically change the starting pitching market and yield the Padres a significant return:

Cashner, 27, is under club control for 2½ more seasons, or one more season than the most coveted pitchers on the trade market, Cubs righty Jeff Samardzija and Rays lefty David Price.

By one measure, Cashner is even better than Samardzija and Price; his 2.06 ERA since last Aug. 1 is the lowest in the majors, according to STATS LLC. While Cashner recently missed three weeks with right elbow soreness, he has pitched well in three starts since coming off the disabled list.

Since that piece was released Cashner has been placed on the 15-day DL with shoulder soreness. Like Arroyo and Lee, there may not be much time prior to the deadline for Cashner to prove he is healthy.

 

The Lineup

Despite the loss of Robinson Cano, the Yankees' lineup on paper appeared to be just fine after bringing Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Jacoby Ellsbury aboard for the 2014 campaign.

Instead, the Yankees' offense is a mess as June comes to a close. The Yankees are 25th in run differential, 21st in homers, 20th in runs driven in, 19th in runs scored and 17th in slugging. With the names in this lineup, the Yankees need to have a better offensive output, but several players are not performing as expected.

McCann is batting .223. Beltran is at .218. Starting second baseman Brian Roberts is hitting .240. Alfonso Soriano looks lost at the plate and is sitting at .231.

Mark Teixeira leads the team with 14 home runs, 39 RBI and a .829 OPS but is only hitting .241. Brett Gardner, Ellsbury, Derek Jeter and rookie Yangervis Solarte are the only other hitters who can make a case for respectable numbers. Simply put, this lineup needs some new blood.

Roberts and Soriano would be the easiest for the Bombers to bench given the yearly and financial commitments they have made to other players. That means New York should be looking at an infielder who can play second or an outfielder.

 

Philly Shopping Outfielders as Well

John Mayberry Jr. and Domonic Brown, a pair of outfielders, are two more Phillies likely to find themselves on the block.

Brown, once thought to be Philadelphia's next superstar, has gone back to being a mediocre big league ballplayer following what many hoped was a breakthrough 2013 season in which he hit 27 home runs. Instead, he holds a .217 average, .593 OPS and has just five homers 75 games into the 2014 season.

A change of scenery could really help Brown, but at what cost? The Phillies were looking for a substantial return for the 26-year-old this past winter, according to ESPN's Jayson Stark:

It is unclear what the Phillies would be looking for at this point in time. One upside to Brown is that he is under team control through 2017, but he has not shown enough promise to warrant the return the Phillies were asking for in December.

Mayberry Jr. on the other hand has very similar stats to Brown and would take less of a toll on the Yankees' farm system than his teammate. He also has experience at first base and would be able to give the Yankees a real backup at the position, something they have not had all season.

Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly reported that the Yankees were in fact scouting Mayberry Jr. last week.

 

Nick Franklin

Franklin, a middle-infield prospect who is considered MLB-ready, is sure to be a hot commodity come the trade deadline. The question is whether or not the Seattle Mariners are willing to let him go. Currently in third place in the AL West with a 42-36 record, the M's are in contention and will likely require an impact player as well as a prospect or two in return for Franklin.

Franklin was ranked as the 79th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America heading into the 2013 season. He hit 12 homers in 102 major league games last year but has only seen limited time in the bigs this year.

 

Seth Smith

Smith is another player likely to move in San Diego's fire sale.

On a team that includes Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin, it is Smith who is leading the offense. He is having a career year, batting .290 with 17 doubles, eight homers and a .913 OPS. Swinging from the left side of the plate, Smith would be a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch. He is a free agent at the end of the year and will be dealt for cheap come July 31. 

 

D-Backs Infielders Up for Grabs?

With the Diamondbacks playing far below expectations, Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic reported that the team will in fact look to be sellers based on what GM Kevin Towers had to say:

Based on the last couple of years of being a .500 club and this year with the injuries we have and our record, we have to look at being more open-minded of moving some contracts and some veteran players for younger players.

With that in mind, the Yankees should be showing a strong interest not only in Arroyo, as previously mentioned, but in Aaron Hill and Martin Prado as well.

Hill, the D-Backs' second baseman, would be a huge offensive upgrade over Roberts. His six home runs are modest, but the 40 runs he has driven in would lead the Yankees. In addition, Hill has 16 doubles, and his .251 average is better than the majority of New York's hitters.

In comparison, Prado is a pure contact hitter. He is having a down year, batting .271, but he is a .291 career hitter. He has some pop, as he hit at least 10 homers in each of the previous five seasons. An asset in the lineup, Prado also provides tremendous value in the field. Aside from second base, Prado can also play at third and in the outfield. 

 

Conclusion

Every name here, as well as others, should already be on the Yankees' radar. Some of these teams may decide that a few of these guys are not even available come the deadline, but the Yanks should have these names written down on their big board regardless.

The Bombers have holes in the rotation and lineup that need to be filled if this team is to be taken seriously come the playoffs, so expect their war room to be a busy one this July. Either way, it will be an interesting month for the Yankees and the rest of Major League Baseball.  

 

Who do you want the Yanks to pick up?

All stats were obtained via Baseball-Reference and are accurate as of the end of play on June 25, 2014.

Follow me on Twitter @GPhillips2727 to talk New York Yankees and Major League Baseball.

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Bob Gibson Had Nowhere to Go but Down—But Only Because MLB Lowered the Mound

Fifth in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.

Returning to the 1969 NL MVP race (see my Rusty Staub article for more), we see a shining example of voter fickleness. Bob Gibson was coming off one of the epochal pitching campaigns in baseball annals: a 22-9 season, with an ERA of 1.12—by far the lowest in the live-ball era—13 shutouts and 268 strikeouts, all league bests.

For six weeks during the summer, The Pitcher in the Year of the Pitcher proved literally unbeatable, spearheading the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals to another pennant despite a dearth of hitting.

For this, Gibson copped a unanimous Cy Young Award and easily outpaced Pete Rose for the National League MVP.

But 1968 was the five-year culmination of the Second Dead Ball Era, in which pitching had become too dominant. After the season, the Lords of Baseball tightened the strike zone and lowered the mound. Hitting rebounded significantly, ending the days of herculean pitching feats, such as Gibson’s season-long dominance, Don Drysdale’s 58 consecutive scoreless innings and Denny McLain’s 31 victories.

Yet even with the restoration of offense in 1969, Gibson’s Cardinals managed to outscore only the expansion clubs in Montreal and San Diego. Not even the acquisition of Joe Torre, who drove in 101 runs, could propel an attack that was without a .300 hitter and swatted the fewest home runs in the NL.

Despite the worst run support this side of expansion, Bob Gibson crafted another terrific season. Leading the majors with 28 complete games, he racked up a 20-13 record on a 2.18 ERA, coming within a few whiskers of topping the NL in both ERA and strikeouts.

Yet at MVP time, Gibson inexplicably tied for 30th, with a mere two voting points. (Juan Marichal, who arguably enjoyed an even better season than Gibson, hardly finished higher.) Despite St. Louis boasting the lowest team ERA, the Cards—thanks to a pop-gun offense—had limped to a disappointing fourth-place finish, with only 87 wins. (Although St. Louis got as close as a distant second in mid-August, the Cardinals essentially dogfought the Pittsburgh Pirates for third place most of the season.)  

Voters clearly were put off by two things: St. Louis’ failure to contend for the NL East crown—of 36 players to receive an MVP vote, Gibson and Torre were the only Cardinals—and, more crucially, Gibson’s “drop-off” in dominance.

In a season in which the average run total per team increased by 100 from the previous year, Gibson’s performance, in context, is not far removed from his 1968 masterpiece. Given the radical changes to the mound and strike zone, there was no way to replicate what he’d accomplished the season before.

However, considering that Gibson was left entirely off the ballot of either 22 or 23 of the 24 voters (depending on whether his vote total was gained from a single ninth-place vote or a pair of 10th-place votes—that information is not available), there can be no doubt that voters regarded Gibson’s 1969 season—with its “ballooning” of ERA to a fat 2.18 (still a robust 64 percent better than league average) and decline of 13 shutouts to only four—as a disappointment.

Certainly, with the outstanding performances of Willie McCovey, Tom Seaver, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Ron Santo and several others, Gibson did not warrant placing in the upper reaches of the MVP vote. But for all intents and purposes, to be utterly ignored while, for example, Maury Wills finished 11th (his Los Angeles Dodgers—for whom he had played only 104 games—had, like St. Louis, finished in fourth place) well illustrates the more-than-occasional narrowness of baseball writers’ thinking.

Of course, WAR did not exist in 1969, but to illustrate how dismissive voters were of Bob Gibson, his whopping 11.3 WAR far outdistanced the rest of the league (and, indeed, topped both leagues). In fact, Gibson’s 1969 WAR nearly equaled that of the season before, when he won the MVP handily.

In contrast, gallant Ernie Banks, whose Chicago Cubs had held first place from Opening Day until faltering in mid-September and who, himself, ran out of gas over the season’s final month, placed 12th in the 1969 MVP vote despite a WAR of −0.7 and an on-base percentage of just .309.    

The following season, Gibson rightfully placed high in the MVP vote (fourth) despite St. Louis again finishing in fourth place, once again 13 games out. True, Gibson led the NL in wins, with 23, and took home a near-unanimous Cy Young Award. However, his ERA, relative to the league, wasn’t nearly as strong as the season before.

And when one considers that, in that 1970 season, Bob Gibson and the rest of the St. Louis pitching staff benefited from far better run support than in 1969—the Cardinals scoring 13 runs above league average rather than 63 runs below it, thanks in large part to Dick Allen and José Cardenal on board and Joe Torre approaching his zenith—Gibson’s virtual absence from the 1969 MVP vote becomes all the more ludicrous. 

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Why We May Finally Be Witnessing a Changing of the Guard in AL Central

With three straight division titles, resulting in a pair of ALCS trips sandwiched around an AL pennant, the Detroit Tigers have been the class of the American League Central division for some time now.

Entering the 2014 season, expectations were high for the team once again, and rightfully so with a roster as talented as any in the league, even after some offseason retooling.

They remain atop the standings here at the midway point of the season, but it appears as though the rest of the division has started to close the gap.

Could we finally be witnessing a changing of the guard in what has been a Detroit-dominated division for the past three years?

At this point last season, the Tigers had an identical 42-32 record and the exact same four-game lead in the division, albeit over the Cleveland Indians. When all was said and done, they wound up winning the AL Central title by just one game, as the Indians used a late-season push to reach the playoffs themselves as a wild-card team.

So what's different this time around that could signify the end of the Tigers' divisional dominance? It starts with a look at their roster.

Last season, their starting rotation was very much in the conversation as being the best in all of baseball. They led the AL with a 3.44 starter's ERA, and the foursome of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister was as good as any in baseball.

Fast forward to this year, and though the team sits a respectable fifth in the AL in starter's ERA at 3.81, they have not been nearly as dominant as a group.

Fister was moved to the Washington Nationals in the offseason, but his absence has not been the issue, with Drew Smyly stepping into the rotation and posting a 3.53 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 12 starts. Those are respectable numbers, to be sure.

The reigning AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez has been brilliant once again, pitching to a 2.64 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in his first 13 starts. The trouble starts with the vaunted duo of Scherzer and Verlander.

After winning AL Cy Young honors last year, Scherzer has seen his ERA (2.90 to 3.71), WHIP (0.970 to 1.256) and BAA (.198 to .251) all jump considerably. Is he still a plus arm? Sure, but he has not been one of the best pitchers in the game this year.

Then there is Verlander, who is set to make $140 million over the next five seasons. After an up-and-down 2013 season, he capped things off with a terrific postseason and looked poised for a bounce-back year when he threw 20 scoreless innings during spring training.

Instead, he has a 4.82 ERA and 1.51 WHIP with just nine quality starts in 16 games. He looked sharp his last time out, allowing five hits and two runs (one earned) in seven innings, but he is no longer a guy who can carry a rotation.

B/R's MLB Lead Writer Jason Catania wrote an article a few days ago breaking down whether or not Verlander's days as an MLB ace are over, and it's worth a look if you have not read it yet. It would appear that the transition from overpowering hitters in his prime to being a savvy veteran pitcher has not gone as smoothly as hoped for the former AL MVP.

Offensively, the Tigers are a very different team this year following the Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler trade during the offseason. With Fielder out for the season and Kinsler playing to a 3.4 WAR (eighth in AL) there is no question the Tigers won that deal. And with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez both putting up terrific numbers on top of Kinsler's production, the team has a dangerous offense once again.

However, Martinez is set to hit free agency at the end of the season along with veteran outfielder Torii Hunter. The following offseason, it is a trio of key pieces in Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson and Alex Avila that could be headed to free agency.

What the team does with those guys will certainly hinge on the future of the aforementioned Max Scherzer, who turned down a huge six-year, $144 million extension offer this past winter and could still very well be headed elsewhere when the season is over.

Even with his numbers dropping off from where they were last year, he still figures to easily top $100 million as the top arm on the market, and he could very well receive a contact that exceeds the amount money he turned down in the offseason.

The Tigers have some solid young arms in the system, with Robbie Ray getting his feet wet already this year and the future looking incredibly bright for guys like Jake Thompson and Jonathon Crawford. Losing Scherzer would be a huge blow, though, and it could set the franchise back.

Finally, there is the bullpen, a group that is tied with the worst ERA in baseball at 4.75 and has converted just 21 of 29 save chances. Veteran closer Joe Nathan has been shaky at best in a roller coaster of a season so far, and outside of the Joba Chamberlain-Al Alburquerque duo, the team has really had no one they can truly rely on.

For what it's worth, GM Dave Dombrowski says the team is not looking for a closer, according to Tony Paul of the Detroit News.

"Well, we do not need a closer at this point, so we would not look for that. We may need a little bit of help in the bullpen, maybe middle relief," said Dombrowski. "But we’re not looking for that closer, and that gives you a very comfortable feeling."

The Tigers could certainly be active at the trade deadline, but it's this coming offseason that will shape the future of the franchise. That being said, the rest of the AL Central pack has closed the gap, regardless, and things don't figure to get any easier moving forward.

The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox remain at the bottom of the division, but both represent franchises on the rise, as each possesses good young talent with room to add on to rosters that have already begun to undergo the rebuilding process.

The Cleveland Indians have seemingly taken a step back from where they were at last year, but they have enough talent to be right back in the thick of things with a few minor additions. Big decisions lie ahead for them as well, though, with key pieces in Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera set to hit free agency this winter.

The real team to watch in 2014 and beyond is the Kansas City Royals, who recently overtook the Tigers for first place in the AL Central on the heels of a 10-game winning streak. Granted, they have lost six of seven since, but if anyone is going to challenge the Tigers for the division title in 2014, it will be them.

It's been a slow rebuilding process for a team that has not seen playoff baseball since they won the 1985 World Series, but the Royals have finally begun to see the fruits of their labor. After a strong finish to the 2013 season left them still contending for a wild-card spot into September, manager Ned Yost feels the team is better prepared for a second-half push this time around.

"I feel like the experience that they had last year, when they went through it last year, I don't think that they knew that they could get out of it," Yost told Dick Kaegel of MLB.com. "This year they've been through it before, and they know they can get out of it. There's a lot more confidence this time now than there was this time last year."

Workhorse starter James Shields is a free agent at the end of the season, and Billy Butler has an option year in 2015 before he hits free agency as well. But for their most part, the Royals' good, young core figures to be around for a while.

Budding stars Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer are leading the offensive charge this season alongside Alex Gordon, but it is the pitching staff that has been the team's biggest strength by far in 2014.

The loss of Ervin Santana in free agency initially looked like a major blow, but the signing of Jason Vargas has gone a long way in offsetting his departure.

Flame-throwing rookie Yordano Ventura has shown flashes of ace potential and done a nice job holding down his rotation spot, but it's the move of Danny Duffy from the bullpen to the No. 5 starter spot that has really solidified things.

Behind them is a bullpen that led the AL with a 2.55 ERA last year and looks strong once again with the one-two punch of Wade Davis and Greg Holland having All-Star-caliber seasons.

Pitching wins championships, and as long as they can stay healthy and continue hitting at a league-average level, the Royals won't be going away any time soon.

The Detroit Tigers are still the most talented team in the AL Central, and they may very well go on to win their fourth straight division title this season. That being said, however, it would appear that their hold on division supremacy is tenuous at best looking to the future, and this season may very well represent a changing of the guard.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Breaking Down All 30 MLB Teams’ Trade Shopping List at Midseason

Six weeks until the MLB July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Six weeks for teams to get their shopping lists in order.

That's not a lot of time.

What would each team's shopping list look like, though? What areas do clubs that will be unloading talent need to address? Conversely, is there more than one area that a contending team needs to shore up in order to make a deep run in the postseason?

The answers to these questions and many more (not really) await in the following slides.

In an effort for succinctness, we will keep the shopping lists to a minimum. Yes, it's true that some MLB rosters have several areas that need attention, but we will focus on two areas per team

To be clear, there will be no trade proposals. The point here is to look at what areas each general manager will want to address at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. 

Begin Slideshow

Projecting the Top 15 Potentially Available MLB Trade Targets in July

Last year's trade deadline was more like a "dudline" (get it?). Few teams were willing to sell, and even fewer big names changed jerseys. Here's hoping there will be more action between now and July 31 this time around.

In 2013, the top chips that were flipped were a batch of underwhelming right-handers: Matt Garza (Chicago Cubs to Texas Rangers), Jake Peavy (Chicago White Sox to Boston Red Sox), Ricky Nolasco (Miami Marlins to Los Angeles Dodgers) and Ian Kennedy (Arizona Diamondbacks to San Diego Padres).

On the position player side, Alfonso Soriano turned out to be a productive bat for the New York Yankees after they acquired him from the Cubs, but again, that was hardly anybody's idea of a blockbuster.

This year, though, there may well be a few blockbusters, at least if the early rumor mill and speculation chain is to be believed. Then again, given the parity in Major League Baseball this season—only a handful of teams are clearly out of the playoff picture as the three-month mark approaches—as well as the recent addition of a second wild-card spot in each league, clubs are less likely to hang the "seller" sign.

Still, with the deadline only slightly more than a month away, here's a rundown of the 15 biggest names who could be on the block, for one reason or another, and who potentially—although not necessarily—could be moved before the July 31 trade deadline.

 

Statistics are accurate through June 24 and come from MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

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MLB Rumors: The Loudest International Signing Period Chatter

The 2014-15 international signing period, a widely expanding portal for MLB teams to replenish their farm systems with young talent, will officially begin on Wednesday.

Once the door opens, expect numerous international prospects to quickly ink agreements with MLB franchises, many of which will not be frugal with their bonus pool allotment. Although each team is assigned a certain spending amount, a few teams will steamroll the mark and accept the penalties.

Last year, the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers opened their wallets. Expect the same this year from the American League East, where some top spenders will look to strike big on young ballplayers mostly hailing from Latin America.

While U.S. prospects entering though the amateur draft must at least complete high school, the rules are looser outside of the country, allowing clubs to sign foreign 16-year-olds and patiently cultivate them in the minors.

Verbal agreements are reportedly in place, but nothing is certain until teams can make them official starting July 2. Let's take a look at the buzz brewing while waiting for the international signing period to commence.

Begin Slideshow

Bleacher Report’s Full 2014 Midseason MLB Awards

The 2014 Major League Baseball season is (more or less) at the halfway point. Having already taken a look at some super-interesting statistical happenings, we shall now pursue another midseason activity: handing out awards.

We'll obviously be including the big onesRookies of the Year, Cy Youngs, MVPs, etc.—as a midseason awards show just wouldn't be complete without them. But in the interests of due diligence, science and good, old-fashioned fun for the whole family, we have some other awards to hand out too.

Better strap yourselves in. We have a lot of awards to get to.

And remember, there's no arguing the selections unless you feel like it.

Begin Slideshow

MLB Rumors: Analyzing All the Latest Whispers, News and Speculation

Buckle up, baseball fans.

With the halfway mark of the 2014 season approaching, it's time for contenders to take the next step on the road to postseason contention. Over the next six weeks, the 2014 MLB All-Star Game will take center stage, followed by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Between now and then, the fate of October could be determined.

From legitimate news reports to unfounded speculation, it's imperative for fans to determine which rumors to grasp onto as the season careens into the second half.

As conjecture flies, Bleacher Report is here to unearth the best rumors, dissect the ramifications and bring perspective to the season thus far.

Here is what you need to know about the latest banter surrounding the game right now.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com anFanGraphs and are accurate entering play on June 26. All contract figures are courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts at Baseball Prospectus, and roster projections are via MLB Depth Charts.

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Boring Roy dared to become a World Cup cavalier – and he suffered the consequences

With England sometimes, you just can’t win. 

Roy Hodgson at the World Cup in Brazil. Photo: Getty
As England manager, you just can't win. Photo: Getty

With England, there is always a meta-narrative. The team plays in the knowledge that it has not won a trophy since the 1966 World Cup final in England and in the awareness of the post-mortem that will inevitably follow a defeat. Nothing it does is judged on its own merits but everything as part of a wider history: the team of the present pays for the failures of the teams of the past.

If a club side lost two games narrowly against very good sides – Italy reached the final of the last European Championship; Uruguay are the South American champions – it would move on without too much fuss. England will not play another World Cup game for four years (assuming they qualify for Russia in 2018).

That’s why far too much is read into World Cup matches, nonsensically so, for surely nobody believes that Costa Rica offer a model for England to follow? Nor does this team have much to do with the one that so underperformed in South Africa four years ago, let alone the sides that failed even to qualify for the World Cup in 1974 and 1978: yet it becomes another chapter in the saga of failure.

Certain statistics make this campaign look terrible. From kick-off to elimination, England’s World Cup lasted five days, 19 hours and 49 minutes. Nobody would pretend this was a triumph, or that England played well or were somehow cheated, whether by refereeing or outrageous luck. At the same time, it wasn’t as bad as all that. Because of a difficult draw, an early exit was a possibility and in the defeats to Italy and Uruguay England created many chances.

Research by the former Norway (and Wimbledon) manager Egil Olsen has shown that in about three-quarters of games the side creating more chances wins; to that extent, as José Mourinho noted, England “didn’t have the football gods on their side”.

They lost those vital first two games because of a combination of a lack of composure in front of goal and a couple of moments of inconceivably sloppy defending. The header Steven Gerrard missed to allow Luis Suárez in to score the winner for Uruguay was as basic as they come – and yet it was remarkably similar to Matthew Upson’s gaffe in the World Cup against Germany in South Africa four years ago. These were freakish, inexplicable things, the sorts of errors Upson and Gerrard wouldn’t make half a dozen times in a career. As Roy Hodgson said, “Things happen in football.”

In the banality of the phrase lies a profound truth. Not everything is controllable; there’s not always somebody to blame. But that doesn’t suit the national mood, particularly not when there are 48 years of failure to explain. At least this time there seems to be a reluctance to take the traditional way out and find a scapegoat: Hodgson will be kept on until 2016 and the next European Championship in France. Instead, there is a search for wider forces rooted in economics and English culture. The contributory factors are legion: there is never just one cause.

That there is only about a tenth the number of qualified coaches in England there is in Spain, for instance, can’t help, and at least in part explains the apparent technical deficiencies of the English game. The destruction of school sports and the ongoing sale of playing fields have had an impact. The Premier League – and the way club football is structured towards servicing its greed – is certainly deleterious. That the bigger clubs sign so many talented young English players and then, rather than taking the time and making the effort to develop and integrate them, prefer to buy off-the-shelf exotica, must hamper their progress. Daniel Sturridge was 23 when he left Chelsea for Liverpool in January 2013 but had made just 47 Premier League starts.

But much still comes down to luck. The Dutch have been the darlings of this tournament so far, winning all three group games and beating the defending champions, Spain, 5-1. Yet two years ago they lost all three group games at the Euros. They settled on their formation only a few weeks before the tournament when the key midfielder Kevin Strootman was ruled out with an injury. Whatever else their performances are, they are not a victory for long-term planning. Things happen in football.

If Hodgson erred, it was probably in exposing the back four by not offering them sufficient cover in midfield. Gerrard and Jordan Henderson had fine seasons for Liverpool but tended to play in a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1. Although Gerrard has adapted his game as he has got older, he is not a natural anchor and that was exposed – ruthlessly and deliberately so by Uruguay, as their manager, Óscar Tabárez, made clear.

Hodgson had played with an extra midfielder in the 1-0 friendly win over Denmark in March but the stodginess of that performance led to calls for a more attacking approach. Hodgson, perceived as conservative, was perhaps conscious that the only other candidate for the job when he was appointed in 2012 was Harry Redknapp, who is regarded as being far more attacking. It seems conceivable that Hodgson got caught up in the meta-narrative of the post-mortem: he knew it would be crueller if he played up to the stereotype of Boring Roy and so opted for a more cavalier approach.

In that regard, the key moment of England’s World Cup campaign perhaps came in Kyiv, after England had produced a superb defensive display to draw 0-0 against Ukraine, maintaining the top spot in the group and making themselves firm fav­ourites to qualify automatically. Hodgson bounded into the post-match press conference, clearly expecting the tone to be congratulatory; instead, he was faced with a barrage of questions about why England had been so dull. With England sometimes, you just can’t win. 

The student fight for all university staff to be paid a living wage

I believe it’s important that students uphold the employment standards that we would want to see for ourselves.

Students back the UCU marking boycott. Image: Vimeo
Students back the UCU marking boycott. Image: Vimeo

This academic year, there has been a resurgence in student protests on campuses across the country. One key demand – voiced at the “cops off campus” protest in London in December 2013 and in a series of occupations – has been for all university staff to be paid a living wage, currently set at £8.80 an hour in London and £7.65 elsewhere. As a final-year student, about to enter the workplace, I believe it’s important that students uphold the employment standards that we would want to see for ourselves.

The voices of students and staff are being ignored while tuition fees continue to rise and courses are closing. Last year, for example, 24 universities shut down all specialist language degrees.

Some of the lowest-paid university staff are on zero-hours contracts and earn the minimum wage of £6.31 an hour. At the same time, a survey of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading research universities, revealed that its vice-chancellors got an 8 per cent pay rise in 2012-2013, receiving an average of £318,500 last year (once pension payments are taken into consideration).

At the University of Birmingham, where I study, it took two occupations, two injunctions against students, five disciplinaries, five suspensions, several picket lines and a handful of court hearings before the university’s senior management grudgingly agreed that the living wage would be paid to all staff from August this year.

Despite this success, university staff have had a 13 per cent cut in pay in real terms since 2009. A marking boycott that was due to begin on 6 May was called off when staff were offered a 2 per cent pay rise for the next academic year. It had been organised by the University and College Union (UCU), which had initially demanded at least a 3.6 per cent rise from employers. The Times reported that some universities had warned staff that their pay would be docked by 100 per cent if they participated in the marking boycott. This could help explain why 84 per cent of UCU members voted to call off the boycott and accept a smaller increase, even though the 2 per cent pay rise will still leave staff wages declining in real terms.

It is important that staff know their students support them in their fight for fair pay. In true millennial fashion, students took to the internet to back the boycott. A YouTube clip called “UK Students Back UCU Marking Boycott” was circulated on Twitter under the hashtag #IBackTheBoycott. In the video, students outline the wider impact of wage disparity in higher education, including an increase in the gender pay gap and the extra strain placed on PhD students, which can lead to mental-health problems.

The living wage and a 2 per cent pay rise for staff are steps in the right direction but they are not enough. Students’ education will suffer if they are taught by overworked and underpaid staff. A few missed lectures or delays in getting essay marks back is a small price to pay.

I wear my egg-and-bacon tie with pride – MCC membership is my last link to civilisation

My politics may place me firmly on the left of Labour, but confess to owning an MCC tie and people start looking at you in a whole new light.

Full English: the MCC's chief executive (centre) and others at Lords 2011. Photo: Getty
Full English: the MCC's chief executive (centre) and others at Lords 2011. Photo: Getty

As I write these words, England have declared on 575 for nine and Joe Root, the Yorkshireman who became old enough to vote only on the second-last day of 2008, has scored an unbeaten double century at Lord’s. I should have been there, but I have to file this column.

At which point I have a confession to make. I shall do so in a roundabout way. Imagine, if you will, the scene. It is Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in Chiswick, many, many years ago, and an American woman is entering the final stages of labour. Outside in the corridor, her husband clips the end off his third Partagás in a row and, pausing only to give a passing hospital porter a thrashing with his malacca cane, considers his options should the resulting issue be a boy. He has only one firm idea: that he should be a member of Marylebone Cricket Club.

Cut to many years later. That child, now grown to full estate, his marriage and finances in ruins, living in circumstances only two phone calls away from utter destitution, awaits an envelope. It is March; to save money, he has turned off the heating in the Hovel he lives in. Wrapped in several layers of ancient jumpers and moth-eaten scarves, he reads an out-of-date copy of Metro by the light of a guttering candle, which he also uses to heat up the tin of Heinz lentil soup that constitutes his daily meal. He’d burn the piles of review copies of books that surround him in the grate if he were not living in a smoke-free zone of London.

Downstairs, the letter box clatters and he runs down as fast as his joints, now nearly completely seized up by lumbago, will let him. His hands, warmed only partly by his fingerless gloves, tremble as he picks the brown buff envelope from the floor. Most buff envelopes are harbingers of doom, but not this one. He has already checked the franking mark, palpated it, and felt the tell-tale resistance in one corner. It’s here! His last link to civilisation, to the life that was his birthright. His breath condenses in the freezing air as he sobs his gratitude. His new MCC membership card has arrived.

You know, you don’t get a lot of sympathy in some circles when you let on you’re an MCC member. I have a feeling that even coming up with the above, a slightly exaggerated version of the truth (MCC passes are actually posted in April), isn’t going to stop me from getting a certain amount of flak from sections of this magazine’s readership. My politics may place me firmly on the left of the Labour Party, but confess to owning an egg-and-bacon tie and people start looking at you in a whole new light. Which is funny, because it’s like a mirror image of what happens when you sit down in the smoking enclosure in front of the Pavilion at Lord’s with a copy of the Guardian and the latest New Statesman.

“Goodness me,” one of the adjacent members will say. “Is that the old Staggers? I didn’t realise it was still going.” They may then ask if they can have a look. I watch as he flicks through its pages. A slight empurpling of the features may follow.

“Do you really read this?”

“It gets worse,” I say. “I write for it.”

By the afternoon, after a few drinks have been taken, the mood tends to mellow, and once or twice I have even elicited a vague promise from my neighbour to give this magazine another go, because it’s much more fun than it was in 1923, which was when he last saw a copy.

But I do not care too much, because, as I have got older, I seem to love the game more and more, and in particular the long form of the game, with its easy pace, its relative courtliness; the very sound of it and the look of the whites against the green. Also, you can’t see the sponsors’ logos from where I sit; and, as I refuse to pay for Sky TV, and couldn’t afford it even if I wanted to, this is the only way I can get to see live cricket. For a yearly outlay considerably less than that for a satellite or cable subscription, I can stroll into Lord’s for any game I like without buying a ticket. Last year, after a particularly glorious day, during which all cares, and there have been plenty of these, had disappeared, I found my eyes brimming with tears of happiness and gratitude. This is not an exaggeration.

“Do your colleagues ever give you stick for being an MCC member?” I was asked the other day.

“Sometimes,” I say. “But I tell them to go **** themselves.”

Gianluca Vialli’s wisdom, Swiss cheese hats and desperately missing Gazza

Hunter Davies’s The Fan column. 

For the laffs: Gazza back in 1989. Photo: Getty
For the laffs: Gazza back in 1989. Photo: Getty

So how did I feel after that Italy game? Disappointed? Nah, not at all. Can’t be disappointed when our expectations were so low that even white van drivers had given up flying tatty flags. In the days of the Golden Generation – what a laugh that was – we were all endlessly disappointed, conned by our own naive hopes, which, despite ourselves, were beginning to creep back upon us. Until that Italy game.

Angry? Nope. I gave up being angry about England ages ago during those endless games where they did something really stupid – gave the ball away, fell over, back-passed to the opposition, threw the ball into their own net, sent vital penalties over the grandstand. Against Italy, in fact, they didn’t make too many crass mistakes. And a lot of good it did them.

Sad, that’s all I feel, really. Sad. I look at my little pit, where I had hoped to be buried deep for the next four weeks, cheering on the lads into the semis, well, the quarters, OK surely out of the group stage, and I think oh no, there we’ve gone again.

So why did Italy win? The great Gianluca Vialli, awfully well-brought-up chap, once Chelsea manager, wrote in his 2006 book The Italian Job that Italians play with their head and the English with their heart. Which is pretty true, or used to be. More recently he went all philosophical and said the difference was down to history. The Italians have been invaded endlessly over the centuries and so developed a defensive mentality. The English for centuries have been great conquerors, used to going out and attacking, becoming gung-ho warriors. Pretty smart, but really not correct any longer. England’s strength today is in counterattacking, rather than up and at ’em.

They didn’t get stuffed by Italy, and could easily have drawn. Sterling was a delight. Sturridge did well. Rooney was poor, and it is becoming clearer all the time that no one rates him in Europe, while Wilshere is totally overrated. But apart from those two, our lads did their best.

So, what was the difference? The Italians are cleverer, both individually and as a team. We took dumb free-kicks and half-witted corners. That’s it, really. They thought about it, winning in their heads. Vialli was right.

Which leads to the question: what happened to Dr Peters, that ace psychiatrist Roy hired to sort them out? Fallen on his water bottle like Gary Lewin, the poor physio who ended up injured and has had to come home?

****

And where was Dave? Angela turned up to see Germany hammer Portugal but no sign of Cameron so far. I sense Angela really is a football fan, unlike Dave, though I will have nothing said against him. He has just sent me a signed photograph – after three requests. I now have an autograph or letter of every PM back to Walpole.

Angela Merkel looked neat in her red jacket and bobbed hair – and I realised where Joachim Löw, the German manager, got his inspiration. For years I have assumed he bought his black wig from a Beatles souvenir shop on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg – but studying Angela up close, I could see she is his model. Of course it’s a wig. No one of his age has hair that black.

The players’ hair has been a disappointment. Nothing truly stupid so far, except Raul Meireles with his monster bushy beard and Mohican. The crowd, though, has shown imagination with its silly clothes. During Switzerland-Ecuador we got a close-up of three fans wearing what looked like mortar boards with holes in. I rushed to the telly, frightening all the sheep outside the window, hoping for another close-up. When it came I realised their hats were in the shape of yellow cheese with holes in. Now is that called Emmental, or Gruyère? I missed the Swiss winning goal, trying to work it out – and also wondering why the Swiss see cheese as their national symbol when we usually think of cuckoo clocks. I suppose they are harder to make into hats.

****

“QUICK!” I shouted to my wife. “THEY’RE LINING UP.”

It’s the only bit she watches, loves to see their little faces as they sing or mouth the national anthems.

She waited a bit longer than usual, as it was England, and asked what the referee was carrying in the little canister around his waist. “Is it a gun?” No, I said, try again. “Tear gas?” No, pet, you just have one more guess. “Water?” Good try, but no goldfish.

I explained it was shaving soap, or some sort of spray-on white paint, which disappears in 30 seconds, to mark the grass where the defenders must stand at free-kicks and not move forward behind the ref’s back, which players all over the world have always done.

It must be hellish awkward carrying it, and dangerous. Presumably it is some sort of aerosol, which could easily explode in the heat. I’m waiting for the first ref to drop it – then we’ll see what happens. Probably clear the ground.

In 1995, when Gazza was playing for Glasgow Rangers, the ref dropped his cards during a match at Ibrox. Gazza picked up the yellow card and, instead of handing it back, struck a ref-like pose, holding it up in the air and booking the referee. The crowd loved it. The ref didn’t think it was funny. Gave Gazza a yellow card.

I wish Gazza was there now. Not just for his skills. With this new canister, when it gets dropped, I can just see Gazza picking it up and going round spraying lines all over the shop.

Oh, how we could do with Gazza at this sad time. We need some football brains. And some laffs . . .

Naughty parents, supermarket schooling and Angelina Jolie’s campaigning

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Dame Angelina: Jolie delivers her speech at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, London 13 June. Photo: Getty
Dame Angelina: Jolie delivers her speech at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, London 13 June. Photo: Getty

One would like to think that no government will act on the latest proposal from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief schools inspector, that head teachers should have the power to fine “bad parents” who fail to attend parents’ evenings, read to their children or ensure that homework is completed. The fines would fall most heavily on single-parent families and on those in which both adults struggle for an adequate household income from low-wage jobs involving unsocial hours.

But adoption of Wilshaw’s idea would be consistent with the government’s policy of blaming the poor for their plight and generally making their lives a misery. They are, if we believe Michael Gove and other ministers, letting us all down. Thanks to their bad parenting, Britain is slipping down international league tables of educational performance, stunting our potential for economic growth and allowing Asian tigers to forge ahead.

 

Background check

Wilshaw’s comments came as part of a Times series on the “schools revolution”. The series is extended propaganda for Gove, the paper’s former columnist, who, as we are constantly reminded, has a picture of Lenin in his office. His mission is to use education to smash the class system. If state schools do as he tells them – teach lots of facts, make kids do their homework, stamp out “discovery learning” – economic deprivation in childhood will no longer prevent social mobility.

This claim is now made so often that it is worth repeating what the evidence tells us. Schools can indeed make a significant difference to children from all backgrounds. So can other things, such as genes, peer groups and parenting styles. But any study of large numbers of children shows that the single greatest influence on attainment is socio-economic background. Britain, like the US, has high levels of economic inequality. Both countries also have high inequality in educational performance. The two are connected.

The claim that deprivation need not be a barrier to success, while half-true, allows Gove and other Tories to justify doing next to nothing about entrenched poverty and inequality.

 

Inside the basket case

The Times series also includes an interview with Dominic Cummings, Gove’s faithful friend and former adviser, who has acquired a reputation for outspoken eccentricity. On this occasion, he describes David Cameron as bumbling “from one shambles to another”, the Education Department as “a basket case” and Nick Clegg as “a goner”. Yet Cummings has a certain intellectual rigour. He says: “You’ve got to move the [school] system from being a cottage industry to companies that deliver excellence at scale. Supermarkets . . . work because they get very high performance out of mediocre people.”

In other words, whatever Gove intends, the ultimate outcome of his “reforms” won’t be lots of self-governing schools run by little platoons of parents, teachers and social entrepreneurs. It will be schools handed over to a few big private corporations, offering standardised education and squeezing out local suppliers. That’s what’s right for “mediocre people”.

 

War on war

The American actor Angelina Jolie (aka Lara Croft, tomb raider) has been made a dame not because she’s “the world’s most beautiful woman” (all media), nor because our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is apparently besotted with her, but because she campaigns against “sexual violence” in war zones. I do not wish to belittle her work. Rape is deplorable and so is war. Most people agree – except perhaps Tony Blair, though I suppose even he would draw a line at rape. The euphemism “sexual violence” is revealing. A rape-free war is about as much an oxymoron as a non-violent war. Throughout history, soldiers have committed rape. Shouldn’t Jolie simply campaign against war, or against arms sales, even if that annoys important people such as Hague?

 

Parents’ penalty

If England make an early exit from the World Cup, as could well happen after their defeat to Italy, it will be disappointing. Football is among the few sports in which the national team is genuinely national (contrast this with cricket, in which South Africans, West Indians, Australians and so on routinely play for England) and nobody can accuse the players of enjoying a private-school education (same contrast). But if our working-class lads can’t keep up with the foreign competition at the World Cup in Brazil and elsewhere, Gove and Wilshaw must surely act. Shouldn’t parents be fined for reclining in deckchairs instead of playing beach football with their children?

After Lincecum No-Hitter, Are Padres Officially Worst Offense in a Generation?

After throwing a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres for the second time in as many seasons on Wednesday, it's safe to say Tim Lincecum likes facing the Friars.

Then again, these days, so does everyone else.

Even before they were stymied yet again by Lincecum—almost exactly a year after he twirled a no-no in San Diego—the Padres couldn't hit water if they stumbled off a Carnival cruise liner.

Entering play Wednesday, the Padres were dead last—30th out of 30—in batting average (.216), on-base percentage (.275), slugging percentage (.340) and runs scored (238).

Four regulars—Chase Headley, Carlos Quentin, Will Venable and Yasmani Grandal—are hitting below the Mendoza Line, while Seth Smith leads the team in home runs and RBI—with eight and 24, respectively.

Despite a pitching staff that ranks among the top 10 in ERA and opponents' batting average, San Diego is 34-45, 12.5 games out in the National League West.

"Obviously, when you're not scoring runs consistently it makes it tough to really get anything going," skipper Bud Black told NBC San Diego.

"It will come," Black added. "There will be a time when we start swinging the bats, the runs will come, the pitching will start clicking and you'll see those consecutive wins."

If it does come, general manager Josh Byrnes won't be around to see it. On June 22, San Diego axed Byrnes, who was hired in October 2011, saying in a statement that "expectations have not been reached," per MLB.com.

That's one way of putting it. Another is that the Padres are on pace for a historically feckless offensive performance.

The worst in a generation? Could be.

San Diego's stiffest competition, if you want to call it that, might come from the recent past: The 2013 Miami Marlins also finished dead last in virtually every major offensive category. Their collective batting average (.231) and OBP (.293) were a tick better than those of the 2014 Padres, though their slugging percentage (.335) was a tad worse.

The Seattle Mariners, another recent contender for the futility crown, put up back-to-back punchless seasons in 2010 (.236 AVG, .298 OBP, .339 SLG) and 2011 (.233 AVG, .292 OBP, .348 SLG).

It's tough to compare numbers much further back than that, as we begin to tread into the steroid years, but park- and era-adjusted sabermetrics stats such as wRC+ (see FanGraphs for an explanation) place the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks, 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers and 2001 Montreal Expos among the lightest-hitting clubs of the 21st century.

Speaking of adjustments: Petco Park is, admittedly, one of the most pitcher-friendly yards in baseball. Doesn't that at least partially explain San Diego's struggles?

Maybe. But get this: The Padres are hitting .213 on the road compared to a "robust" .218 at home, and they've hit nearly as many home runs (26) in spacious Petco as they have away from it (29).

All right, that's a lot of numbers. To truly appreciate how dreadful these Padres have been at the plate, though—to fully grasp their utter haplessness—you've got to watch them in action.

Wednesday versus Lincecum was a microcosmic case study.

Not to take anything away from Timmy—his command was good and his off-speed stuff was working—but against a Padres team that flailed at changeups, missed a few mistakes, hit almost nothing hard and pounded pitch after pitch into the dirt, he looked like the Cy Young Award winner of old.

Yet even after his no-hitter, Lincecum's ERA stood at 4.42. No doubt it'd be a good deal lower if he could pitch against San Diego every five days.

There's still a lot of season left. Guys such as Venable and Quentin—solid contributors last season—could rebound and elevate the Padres from terrible to merely mediocre. Before Linceum's gem, the Padres scored 13 runs in two games—and won both—against the first-place San Francisco Giants.

Heck, San Diego could even rip off a winning streak, as Black predicted. Stranger things have happened. If it does happen, it'd be a fitting tribute to Mr. Padre himself, Tony Gwynn, whose otherworldly stroke the team could desperately use right now.

If things continue like this, though, the Padres will go down in history in the worst way possible—as the team everyone wanted to face.

 

All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com or Baseball-Reference.com except where noted.

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Paper Speaker is Feather-Light But Offers Heavyweight Sound

Paper Speaker1

 

Get ready for some sweet sounds the next time you step into a room and see this. No, that’s not a paper fan or some flimsy-looking decor. That’s actually the Phonon Kamome and it’s a speaker made from paper. It’s shaped in the form of a feather and the cool part is that it’s feather light too, weighing in at only 129 grams.

So how does it work? The Phonon Kamome uses micro vibrations technology between the paper to generate sound. It’s connected to an amplifier with an output connection, which you can use to hook the speaker up to your MP3 player or phone/

Paper Speaker

 

 

You can find more information here.

VIA [ Damn Geeky ]

The post Paper Speaker is Feather-Light But Offers Heavyweight Sound appeared first on OhGizmo!.

Breaking Down the Dodgers’ Most Likely Trade Partners

It took two-and-a-half months, but the star-studded Los Angeles Dodgers have finally gained some traction.

The Boys in Blue, still in search of a winning streak longer than three games, are suddenly nipping at the heels of the scuffling San Francisco Giants thanks in large part to the dominance of Clayton Kershaw.

The talent on the roster is more than capable of continuing the recent trend, but the team doesn't have much room for error with July fast approaching.

The Giants can't play much worse than they have over the past two weeks. It will be up to the Dodgers to keep pace as their rival to the north inevitably gets back on track.

The trade deadline is less than six weeks away. While a lot can change between now and the end of July, general manager Ned Colletti may want to start thinking about potential deals as his team heads into the home stretch.

Here are the three most likely trade partners for the Dodgers based on team needs and opportunity:

 

1. Kansas City Royals

3B Juan Uribe and RHP Chris Perez for RHP Wade Davis

It's no secret that the Dodgers' bullpen has been a weakness of the team so far this season. Free-agent additions Brian Wilson, Chris Perez and Paul Maholm have been major disappointments, all with ERAs over 5.00. Even closer Kenley Jansen has struggled to keep his ERA below 4.00.

Manager Don Mattingly must be growing tired of calling down to the bullpen only to get the same result—shakiness at best.

One potential trade that might solve this problem would be to send Perez and third baseman Juan Uribe to the Kansas City Royals. In exchange, the Dodgers would receive one of baseball's best relievers in Wade Davis.

The 28-year-old right-hander is third among relievers in strikeouts with 54 and has compiled a stellar 1.34 ERA over 33 innings pitched.

Los Angeles is in desperate need of some bullpen reliability, and Davis fits the bill.

On the other hand, the Royals are in desperate need of some offense from the third base position. Fourth-year man Mike Moustakas has been a huge disappointment for the past year and a half, hitting just .233 last season and .182 so far in 2014.

Even if the Royals remain patient and hold off on completely aborting the Moustakas experiment, Uribe could be a key veteran presence in Kansas City with the ability to platoon at third base or as the designated hitter.

The Dodgers would then be able to slide the defensively challenged Hanley Ramirez to third base and promote Cuban defector Alex Guerrero, who is nearing a return from ear-reattachment surgery, per Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com.

 

2. Boston Red Sox

OF Matt Kemp and RHP Chris Perez for LHP Andrew Miller and RHP Anthony Ranaudo

The Dodgers and Red Sox have a recent history of making big trades, and there might be more in store this year.

Boston has fallen on hard times since winning last season's World Series. Entering Thursday, the Red Sox (35-43) are eight games behind Toronto in the AL East. Their .242 team batting average ranks 23rd in baseball.

Needless to say, they could use some offensive help, and Matt Kemp might be their guy.

The 2011 MVP runner-up is finally finding his groove at the plate after missing most of the past two seasons due to injury. He's batting .316 in June, and his 13 RBI this month account for nearly half of his 2014 total. In other words, Kemp's stock is the highest it has been all season.

Even if Kemp doesn't reach the numbers he put up three years ago, he's still the best offensive weapon among the Red Sox's current outfield corps of Daniel Nava, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Jonny Gomes.

In return, the Dodgers would again receive bullpen assistance. Left-hander Andrew Miller has struck out 48 batters and walked just nine over 30 innings of work. A former starter, Miller also has the capability to be a long reliever. The Dodgers' Maholm (5.04 ERA) has failed miserably at the long-man job so far this season and would likely be released following this trade.

Ranaudo (7-4, 2.58 ERA at Triple-A) could be ready to take over Perez's position in the Dodgers bullpen if this trade goes through. He is also a candidate to become a starter in the future. With Josh Beckett and Dan Haren set to become free agents after this season, Ranaudo's versatility could be very intriguing to the Dodgers.

 

3. Tampa Bay Rays

Joc Pederson and Zach Lee for David Price

How close are the Dodgers to assembling arguably the greatest starting rotation in history? Well, closer than one might think.

The last-place Tampa Bay Rays will most likely be sellers this July, and David Price is expected to be the main offering, according to Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com.

While most teams around baseball would love to acquire the talented lefty's services, only a few clubs can actually afford the former first overall pick.

That's because Price, set to become a free agent after the 2015 season, is going to command a massive new contract (he will remain under Tampa Bay control as an arbitration-eligible player next season).

Price's upcoming deal is expected to pay him north of $150 million, based on the similar paychecks Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez recently received.

The steep price tag, no pun intended, is why the deep-pocketed Dodgers have been suggested as a top suitor for the 28-year-old.

Although Price has gone just 6-7 with a 3.63 ERA in 17 starts this season, he leads all of baseball with 144 strikeouts. Even more impressive are the 14 walks. If Price manages to keep it up, that 10.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio would be the highest ever.

But in order to acquire Price, the Dodgers will probably have to part with two of their top prospects in Joc Pederson and Zach Lee.

Pederson, who ranks second in the Pacific Coast League with a 1.005 OPS, is about as major league-ready as a Triple-A player can get. He was almost promoted last June, but the Dodgers opted to go with Yasiel Puig instead.

Pederson is a player who can contribute immediately for the Rays if traded. Current Tampa Bay outfielders Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez have underwhelmed while playing out their one-year contracts this season.

Right-handed pitcher Lee, the Dodgers' first-round pick in 2010, gave up six runs in four innings during his start this week at Triple-A. His record now stands at 6-8 with a 4.86 ERA.

The opportunity for a mega-rotation in Los Angeles is tantalizingly within reach. The question for the Dodgers and Colletti becomes whether or not to risk mortgaging the team's future for a player like Price.

 

All stats courtesy of ESPN.com, unless otherwise noted.

 


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Matt Kemp Rediscovering His MVP Form with Blistering June

It's easy to forget now, but Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp was once considered one of the of the best players in the world. On the path to a second-place finish in the 2011 NL MVP vote, the then-26-year-old star helped make the Dodgers a relevant team.

Three years later, Los Angeles doesn't need Kemp to put it on the map, as stars like Yasiel Puig and Clayton Kershaw have eclipsed him in the organization's hierarchy. Yet, if the team is going to reach its goals of winning a World Series championship and competing on a yearly basis, a revival from Kemp is imperative.

Entering play on June 6, the former NL All-Star owned a ghastly .238/.291/.398 slash line, making him one of the least productive outfielders in the majors. Combined with a dip in range in center field, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was alternating the $160 million man between left field and the bench.

Since that moment, Kemp has been reborn. Over his last 19 games, including Wednesday evening's one-run victory over the Kansas City Royals, Kemp has posted a .358/.429/.627 line. Those robust numbers were buoyed by a second-inning home run against Royals starter James Shields, tying the game that Los Angeles would go on to win.

Although it's hard to say that Kemp is all the way back to his 2011 form or if his athleticism will ever fully recover from leg and shoulder injuries, there's little disputing how good his bat has been over the last three weeks. 

On June 13, Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times referenced the impact of the ball off Kemp's bat sounding like his best days of 2011. That sound has remained, giving credence to a hot streak that could mean much more at Chavez Ravine.

For the season, Kemp's 124 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) now ranks just below the 20 best outfielders in baseball, and ahead of fellow stars Ryan Braun and Adam Jones. With a .345 wOBA (weighted on-base average), Kemp has been a more productive hitter than Shin-Soo Choo, among others. 

Of course, everything Kemp does will be compared to his magical 2011 campaign. By slugging 39 home runs, stealing 40 bases and scoring 115 runs, baseball's best all-around player posted an 8.2 WAR and earned an eight-year contract. As the following chart shows, Kemp joined a very select group of center fielders to provide that type of value before their age-27 seasons. 

Recently, Kemp was asked to compare how he felt at the plate during that magical year to this current run of hot hitting, per Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

“Well, I was locked in,” Kemp said. “Body-wise, I was feeling all the way 100 percent. You know, it’s just a different year. Every year is different. Everybody’s got stuff they’ve gotta deal with and mine the past years have been injuries I’ve had to overcome and it’s getting better and better every day.”

If Kemp continues to hit better every day, it will benefit the Dodgers in both the short and long term.

First and most importantly, a continued revival from Kemp can help the Dodgers catch the San Francisco Giants atop the NL West, zoom into October and get back to the World Series for the first time since the 1988 season.

Moving forward, production from Kemp can help the Dodgers alleviate an outfield logjam. With Puig entrenched as the player to build around and Andre Ethier (.304 OBP, guaranteed $56 million from 2015-2017) and Carl Crawford (.293 OBP, guaranteed $62.25 million from 2015-2017) both sporting unmovable contracts, a future trade involving Kemp could commence if general manager Ned Colletti chooses to explore that route.

While Kemp's speed and defensive ability have failed to return to pre-injury form, his power is enough to give Los Angeles' lineup an important dynamic. During the aforementioned hot streak, Kemp has powered 10 extra-base hits, leading to a .627 slugging percentage since June 6.  

To put that number into perspective, Kemp's recent mark is better than the season rate for any hitter not named Troy Tulowitzki. This hot streak has been better than the power surge Mike Trout and Jose Abreu have shown since Opening Day.

Much like any declaration made in mid-April, it's worth nothing that Kemp's streak is a small sample size in the grand scheme of a long season. Furthermore, the three-week stretch highlight was cherry-picked for reference, ignoring an unproductive and confounding April and May.

That's fair, but so is putting Kemp's career in perspective. This hot streak isn't simply a blip on the radar for a fringe major league player; instead, it's a revival from a player who once profiled as the next big thing in the sport.

The potential for a 40-homer, 40-steal, Gold Glove season is long gone, but Kemp's bat looks alive. With that, there's hope in Hollywood.

 

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphs and ESPN unless otherwise noted.

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