Tag:Craig Kimbrel
Posted on: April 26, 2011 10:21 pm
 

Which closers are succeeding?

StreetBy Evan Brunell

What position in baseball has the worst job security?

Has to be closers, right? Tuesday, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said that Jonathan Broxton had lost his grip on the job. While manager Don Mattingly later disputed that, it's clear that Broxton is on extremely thin ice. Joe Nathan, Matt Thornton, Fernando Rodney and Ryan Franklin have already lost their jobs while John Axford, Brian Fuentes, Joakim Soria and Brian Wilson have their hands full trying to reduce their ERA.

But enough about flailing closers, how about acknowledging the ones off to tremendous starts so far?

Entering Wednesday's games, Huston Street led all of baseball with eight saves against a scant 1.88 ERA for the surging Rockies. Street has 157 career saves already, although he hasn't been a full-time closer the entirety of his seven-season career. The 27-year-old has been a bit lucky to start the year, but his talent is for real.

Meanwhile, the ageless Mariano Rivera tops the AL leaderboard with seven saves, although his ERA currently would mark his highest since 2007. This is a 2.53 ERA we're talking about here. 

In Atlanta, Craig Kimbrel has ran away with the job after opening up in a presumed platoon with Johnny Venters. Kimbrel's ERA is a spotless 0.96, and he's also struck out 13.5 batters per nine. Surprisingly that isn't even the highest for a closer as New York's Francisco Rodriguez has struck out a staggering 13 in 7.2 innings. Joining Kimbrel with ERA's under 1.00 is San Diego's Heath Bell with a 0.90 mark and five saves. Bell figures to be a hot commodity on the trade market this summer, although it's no guarantee San Diego will move him.

Tied with Kimbrel for six saves include Pittsburgh's Joel Hanrahan, Cleveland's Chris Perez, Florida's Leo Nunez and Oakland's Brian Fuentes. Of those, only Fuentes doesn't have a firm hold on the job, as his history indicates he's not an elite closer. That's reflected in his 4.06 ERA on the year thus far and should lose his job once Andrew Bailey returns and proves ready to assume his role.

Two other closers in Jose Contreras and Neftali Feliz with strong starts to the season only recently hit the disabled list. Of the other strong starters, Kyle Farnsworth for Tampa Bay jumps out. Here's a pitcher who's always had tremendous stuff but has been a basketcase. He seems to have become a new pitcher over the last couple years, though, and he's certainly enjoying life as a Ray with five saves and a 1.23 ERA. Still, it feels as if he's due for a blowup any time now.

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Posted on: April 20, 2011 1:05 pm
Edited on: April 20, 2011 1:43 pm
 

Closer watch: Franklin, Nathan, Thornton out

By C. Trent Rosecrans

John AxfordAs we're getting deeper into the first month of the season, some of the "small sample size" arguments are losing their luster and managers are getting itchy. There's no position in baseball that causes more consternation than the closer's spot -- and few are easier to change. 

On Tuesday, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said Ryan Franklin was out as his closer, joining Ozzie Guillen and Ron Gardenhire in making changes in closers already this season, a common April occurance.

Here's a look at where all the closers in baseball stand at this moment:

Out -- Ryan Franklin (Cardinals), Joe Nathan (Twins), Matt Thornton (White Sox).

We won't know who the replacement for Franklin is until it comes to a save situation (Matt Snyder took a look at who may get the call -- and I'll agree that Mitchell Boggs gets the first shot) and even then, we'll have to have a few save situations until we get there.

Matt Capps has taken over for Nathan, who is not back 100 percent from Tommy John surgery, in Minnesota.

Thornton may get the call if the White Sox get in a save situation, but Ozzie Guillen has no confidence in anybody in his bullpen and has said he just doesn't have a closer.

Hanging by a thread -- John Axford (Brewers), Sean Burnett (Nationals), Kevin Gregg (Orioles).

Axford (pictured) started his season off by blowing a save in Cincinnati and added another Monday night. He's struggled with his command this season, but the Brewers don't have too many better options.

The Nationals have gone from no closer, to Burnett back to no set closer. After Burnett blew a save on Friday, Drew Storen closed with two innings on Sunday against the Brewers. The two are expected to share the job, but Burnett's not "out" because he's still half in.

Hand wringing -- Jonathan Broxton (Dodgers), Joakim Soria (Royals), Francisco Rodriguez (Mets).

These are three marquee names, but there's plenty of worry surrounding the trio.

Soria has struggled and has a 5.59 ERA, blowing one save, while Broxton hasn't blown a save, but has given up plenty of runs. He has an ERA of 6.14 and his manager's vote of confidence.

K-Rod, well, he's got plenty of issues, including a contract with a vesting option that the Mets aren't really interested in seeing him meet. That said, it's not like he's getting a lot of chances to close out Met victories for the team with the National League's worst record.

Nobody's perfect --  Brian Fuentes (Athletics), Carlos Marmol (Cubs), Jon Rauch (Blue Jays).

Rauch has been good, converting all three of his saves this season, but the return of Frank Francisco complicates things for him in Toronto.

Solid -- Mariano Rivera (Yankees), Heath Bell (Padres), Neftali Feliz (Rangers), Huston Street (Rockies), Joel Hanrahan (Pirates), Leo Nunez (Marlins), Chris Perez (Indians), Brian Wilson (Giants), Craig Kimbrel (Braves), J.J. Putz (Diamondbacks), Jose Contreras (Phillies), Jose Valverde (Tigers).

Sure, Rivera blew a save last night. I think Joe Girardi may give him another shot.

If a save falls in a forrest -- Francisco Cordero (Reds), Jonathan Papelbon (Red Sox), Brandon Lyon (Astros), Brandon League (Marienrs), Kyle Farnsworth (Rays), Jordan Walden (Angels).

If the rest of the closers are in a "small sample size" argument right now, these guys have a "tiny sample size."

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Posted on: April 7, 2011 10:15 am
Edited on: April 7, 2011 10:17 am
 

Pepper: Concussion concern

Yunel Escobar
By C. Trent Rosecrans

Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar may be the test case for Major League Baseball's new concussion guidelines after leaving Wednesday night's game against the A's following a collision with Oakland third baseman Adam LaRoche.

Escobar stayed in the game after he ran into LaRoche's knee on a head-first slide into third following a fifth-inning triple. After fielding his position in the sixth, Escobar was taken out of the game because of dizziness. He was taken to a hospital for testing and stayed overnight.

Escobar convinced manager John Farrell to keep him in the game after the incident and even wanted to stay after his half-inning in the field. Still, he was at shortstop jumping up and down and shaking his head.

Farrell said the team was waiting to see how he reacted and didn't like what they saw. Diagnosing a concussion is difficult, especially when an athlete is conditioned to play through pain, so managers need to be more proactive when a head injury occurs. Farrell acted and luckily it wasn't too late.

It won't be a surprise if Escobar is the first player to wind up on the seven-day DL for concussions. MLB has stepped up to the plate in giving teams ways to properly treat concussions, now it's time for the teams to follow through and use them. [Globe and Mail]

IS TODAY THE DAY? -- Can the Red Sox actually win a game? CBSSports.com senior writer Danny Knobler joins Lauren Shehadi to discuss it.

FIRST PITCH WORTH SEEING -- The White Sox's home opener today and throwing out the first pitch will be Minnie Minoso. Minoso is anywhere from 85-91 and one of the great ambassadors of baseball. We used Baseball-Reference.com's player oracle linking franchise legends to current players and I swear a good third of them that I did included Minoso, who played his first big-league game in 1949 and his last in 1980 (although, he did manage just five games after 1964, appearing in three games in 1976 and two in 1980 in a  publicity stunt). [Chicago Tribune]

LA RUSSA UPSET -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has found an easy scapegoat for his team's 2-4 start, the media. You'll never lose in a public opinion poll when you place yourself against the fourth estate. Baseball's king of deflection is at it early this season. [St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

GOOD SOLDIER -- Mariners second baseman Jack Wilson said he was in agreement with manager Eric Wedge's decision to pull him after two errors on Wednesday. The question is, with his contract up at the end of the season, could Wilson be traded away before the season ends to a team that needs a shortstop (St. Louis, Milwaukee, Houston?), especially with Dustin Ackley waiting to take over at second base. [Seattle Times]

BOO AWAY -- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel understands why fans booed Cole Hamels on Tuesday -- it is Philly after all. [Philly.com]

CAREER NUMBERS -- Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman have been in the National League Central long enough to have played nearly a season's worth of games against each team. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold breaks down Pujols' and Berkman's 'seasons' against NL Central opponents. The conclusion? Those two are pretty good -- and the Reds don't want to see either. Pujols' best numbers -- .372/.456/.695 with 45 HR and 134 RBI in 157 games -- are against the Pirates, and the Reds are in second place (159 games, 43 HR, 133 RBI, .356/.440/.656). Berkman's best are against the Reds, hitting 49 HR, 137 RBI and .318/.438/.678 in 152 games against Cincinnati.

SMALL BALL -- For just the second time in the nine-year history of Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, there were two straight games without a homer on Tuesday and Wednesday. The only other time that happened was Aug. 6-7, 2005 against the Marlins. That hasn't hurt the Reds, who scored 20 runs in those two games. The Reds have scored 43 runs through the first five games, the second-best mark in their history. In 1976, Cincinnati had 44 runs through five games. That team, of course, repeated as World Series champions. The team is also 5-0 for the fifth time in history -- twice winning the World Series after such a start (1919, 1990).

JUDGE ME NOT BY MY SIZE -- The Royals' Tim Collins and the Braves' Craig Kimbrel are proving you don't need to be tall to throw hard. [MLB.com]

RATINGS UP -- The Nationals' TV ratings for their opening series against the Braves were up nearly 100 percent. [D.C. Sports Bog]

CABRERA HITS 250 -- Miguel Cabrera hit his 250th career home run on Wednesday and Tiger manager Jim Leyland said he was sure his slugger would have "250 more." It seems likely if Cabrera stays on the field. [MLive.com]

SIPP STEPS UP -- Tony Sipp has emerged as the Indians' setup man. [Akron Beacon Journal]

OPENING DAY -- Today's opening day for the minor leagues. The game to watch is in Rome, Ga., where Bryce Harper will make his professional debut for the Class A Hagerstown Suns. [Rome News-Tribune]

HALL OF FAME PIG -- Ryne Sandberg, the new manager of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs is comfortable in his new job with the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate. [Allentown Morning-Call]

RALLY CAP -- The Altoona Curve is the first professional team to feature a reversible cap with a design in the lining to make a rally cap. The inside features a lining depicting the team's "rally mascot" Al Tuna. It's a pair of googly eyes, representing the head of the fish mascot. [MiLB.com]

MAKE IT A DOUBLE -- The Red Sox are getting closer to being able to selling mixed drinks at Fenway Park after reaching an agreement with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and other interest groups. This comes just in time, as the Red Sox are winless. [Boston Globe]

TEIXEIRA LAUNCHES DREAM TEAM -- Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira donated $1 million to the Harlem RBI program. [MLB..com]

SHEPARD DIES -- Larry Shepard, the former Pirates manager and pitching coach for the Big Red Machine, died on Tuesday. He was 92. Shepard managed the Pirates in 1968 and 1969 and was the Reds' pitching coach from 1970-78. He also served as the pitching coach for the Phillies and Giants. [Associated Press]

RETURN TO MONTREAL -- The Blue Jays are considering playing exhibition games in Montreal and other Canadian cities. [MLB.com]

A REAL CLASSIC -- "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" will be preserved at the Library of Congress along with 24 other recordings chosen for their cultural significance. [Associated Press]

10 YEARS OF PNC -- One of the best ballparks in Major League Baseball turns 10 this year, as the Pirates start their home opener on a roll, winner of their first two series. Even 10 years old, the $270 million stadium is still one of the best in baseball, even if its tenants haven't been. [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review]

MLB.COM Q&A -- The boss over at MLB.com talks about technology and baseball [All Things Digital]

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Posted on: April 5, 2011 12:03 am
 

3 up, 3 down for 4/4: Hip hip Jorge!



By Matt Snyder


3 UP

Jorge Posada, Yankees. The former catcher seems to be enjoying himself as a designated hitter. He went deep twice Sunday and then hit his third home run of the season in his first at-bat Monday night. That's a two-day total of three home runs and six RBI in eight at-bats. With a slugging percentage of over .800 and his OPS a robust 1.188, he's off to a good start.

Craig Kimbrel, Braves. Carlos Marmol's K/9 record set last season might be seriously challenged already. Kimbrel struck out all three batters he faced en route to his second save of the season Monday in Milwaukee. He has only seen six batters all year, retired all six, and struck out five of them. That means that in his young major-league career, he has punched out 45 of the 94 batters he has faced. In just 22 2/3 innings, he's struck out 17.9 hitters per nine innings. Marmol's record last season was 16.0. And if you aren't impressed with the numbers or wanna cry small sample size, watch Kimbrel pitch. His stuff is insane.

Alfonso Soriano, Cubs. He's only collected four hits this season, but all four have been game-changers. He had a game-tying RBI single Saturday, a go-ahead home run late Sunday and two big knocks Monday in a Cubs victory. He tied the game with a solo home run in the third and then later singled in an insurance run. Considering Marmol was coming off a blown save and would be throwing his third straight game -- not to mention his penchant for walks -- the insurance was much needed for comfort. Soriano is the poster-child for Wrigley Field boobirds due to his contract, but if he keeps getting big knocks like this, some of that may go away -- at least temporarily.

3 DOWN

Rick Porcello, Tigers. The youngster is looking for a bounce-back campaign after a huge step-back year in 2010. He didn't get off to a good start Monday. The Orioles had little trouble knocking him around the park, as he surrendered nine hits and five earned runs in five innings. A three-run home run by Brian Roberts ultimately did Porcello in, but he simply got hit too hard. Four of the nine hits were of the extra-base variety.

Takashi Saito, Brewers. With the Brewers clinging to a one-run lead and looking to avoid a four-game losing streak to start the season, Saito allowed both Martin Prado and Dan Uggla to take him yard in the eighth. Considering the issues the Brewers have already seen from John Axford, this can't feel nice ... even if there are 158 games left on the schedule.

Albert Pujols, Cardinals. Here's a name you won't find here often. Pujols did score a run after drawing his first walk of the season Monday, but he was held hitless for the third time in four games in this young season. He grounded out to third three times Monday and is now 2-16 (.125 average) with a .176 on-base percentage. I will most certainly not be among those doing so, but it's conceivable to see people start questioning if he's distracted by the contract situation if the swoon continues. Mark my words, someone will do it. And then he'll explode with a seven-homer week.

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Posted on: April 2, 2011 4:13 pm
 

Sticking to tradition, Kimbrel wins closer role

By Evan Brunell

KimbrelOn opening day, the Braves led the Nationals 2-0 heading into the eighth inning. With three right-handers slated to come up followed by two lefties with a righty sandwiched in between, it seemed obvious that Craig Kimbrel would handle the eighth with Johnny Venters closing the door in the ninth.

Except the exact opposite happened, leaving many wondering what had happened to the two-headed closer combination Atlanta was planning on using.

Fredi Gonzalez clarified the situation Saturday, leaving no doubt that Kimbrel is the closer of record without outright saying it.

“Talking to Roger [McDowell] on the way to the game [Thursday], he said, ‘Let’s just go with Kimbrel,’” Gonzalez told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We decided, let’s give the kid a chance. For me, they both have good stuff and can get guys out from both sides.”

Kimbrel was long considered the favorite to emerge as closer, so this is no surprise. While any team would love to have Venters at the end of the game, the Braves seem to really have something special in Kimbrel, who whiffed a staggering 40 batters last season in just 20 2/3 innings. However, the 22-year-old won't be the full-time closer as Gonzalez plans to work Venters into some tight games.

“If we get in a situation where we’ve used Kimbrel a couple of games in a row -- I don’t foresee using either of those guys more than two days in a row, first thing in April,” Gonzalez said. “So hopefully you get today and tomorrow [against the Nationals] with Kimbrel, say, then give Johnny Milwaukee [on Monday] and give Kimbrel a day [to rest].”

Gonzalez said he does not believe in relievers being used more than two days in a row in April, especially younger guys. That opens the door for Venters to be the junior member of the co-closer role, although it would not be surprising to see Kimbrel morph into a more traditional closer as the season wears on.

It's tough to blame Gonzalez for going with Kimbrel, but it continues to be unfortunate how many teams continue to hem themselves into a closer. There is no other statistic in baseball that created such a seismic shift in the game than saves. Closers as we know them today are solely because of the save statistic that was created, not necessarily because it's the right way to deploy relievers. Atlanta seemed to have a prime opportunity to bust the closer mold, especially with two elite, young relievers pitching with opposite hands that could be deployed in more strategic situations.

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Posted on: April 1, 2011 11:13 am
Edited on: April 1, 2011 2:13 pm
 

Kimbrel already Braves' closer?

By Matt Snyder

Heading into the season, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez tried to make it clear there was no set closer for his ballclub. If you want to read anything into the Braves' opening day victory over the Nationals, however, it would appear Craig Kimbrel is the primary, with Venters as the eighth-inning guy.

Jonny Venters, who is left-handed, was beckoned in the eighth inning to face Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. All three of those hitters are righties. Meanwhile, Kimbrel, a right-hander, pitched the ninth, squaring off against Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel -- two of whom are left-handed.

Both were outstanding. Venters needed only seven pitches to get through the Nats' top three hitters, including their two best. Kimbrel showed how nasty his stuff can be, missing bats and fooling hitters, striking out two and coaxing a fly out.

Now, being that this was only one game, we're required to say there's no reason to think this will happen every single time the Braves in the same situation. But the fact remains that Gonzalez didn't play matchups at all. He isn't stupid. He saw the batters coming up and used Venters in the eighth and Kimbrel in the ninth, ignoring the matchups completely.

The only thing Gonzalez would say about his bullpen after the game was that it was "oustanding" and several other derivatives thereof. There was no discussion specifically of naming a closer or why he didn't play the matchups, but the writing could very well be on the wall.

Both excelled in their respective roles. Crash Davis taught us to never eff with a winning streak. The basic jist? Stick with what works, and it worked pretty well for the Braves' bullpen Thursday. There's a good chance the Venters/Kimbrel order was a harbinger of things to come -- a pretty ominous one for opposing hitters.

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Posted on: March 29, 2011 5:02 pm
Edited on: April 18, 2011 11:51 am
 

Top 20 things to expect from 2011 season

Jeter

By Evan Brunell

The 2011 season is slated to start Thursday, and with it comes no shortage of storylines to watch. Last year brought the advent of Stephen Strasburg, yet another Cliff Lee trade, and of course, the Giants being crowned champions. What's on deck?

1. East Coast hype

An all-too easy criticism of mainstream media or any sports journalist is the dreaded "East Coast bias" label. However, this season, most of the intriguing teams and races will come from both the AL and NL East.

In the senior circuit, the Phillies have a vaunted rotation, but injuries to Domonic Brown and Chase Utley have left the door ajar for the Braves to sneak in. Many seem to be overlooking Atlanta, but the club won 91 games and will add Dan Uggla to the lineup while improving production out of left field. The Marlins, meanwhile, have a strong rotation and enough offensive potential loaded in their young players that they can't be discounted. Add in the mess that is the Mets along with some nice storylines in Washington (Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Jayson Werth to name three), and there's plenty of topics to go around.

Likewise, in the league with the DH, the Red Sox were the darlings of the offseason after importing Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, while adding Bobby Jenks to the bullpen, and appear to be the team to beat, as Yankees GM Brian Cashman has admitted. But you can't count out New York, and Cashman has a quality club ready to push for the division. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, underwent quite a remake but can't be counted out, as this is a club that could crack 90 wins with only a smidgen of luck. The Jays are fresh off a surprising year and have Jose Bautista to draw national interest, while the Orioles are hopeful the middling veterans imported will push the team toward the .500 barrier.

That's not to say that other teams don't have compelling storylines, but the concentration of quality and ease of finding compelling storylines for each team means that the East Coast will dominate the news.

2. Breaking records

It will be a banner year for three players set to hit significant milestones, and there are plenty of other players nearing milestones that, while not Hall of Fame caliber, will put emphasis on the productive careers they have had.

Rounding the Bases

Perhaps the most revered milestone for a hitter to reach, 3,000 hits will come into play for Derek Jeter, who is just 74 hits away. He will probably reach the mark in late May or early June, depending on if he's the .270 batting average Jeter of 2010 or the .314-average Jeter of his career.

Jeter isn't the only Yankee poised for a milestone, however. Mariano Rivera is closing in on 600 saves, as he currently has 559. Given that the major-league record for saves is 601 by Trevor Hoffman, Rivera could also make it to the top of the mountain. That said, Mo will need a good year to reach 600 saves as he has not cracked the 40-save barrier in four out of the past five years.

Ivan Rodriguez is also close to 3,000 hits, needing 183. However, given he has not reached that mark since 1999, you can bet I-Rod will need until at least 2012 to reach the milestone. Heck, depending on how much he plays and produces, he may need until 2013, even though that is quite unlikely.

Jim Thome is 11 home runs away from becoming the eighth member of the 600-club. Paul Konerko needs 35 homers to reach 400, while Adam Dunn (354) and David Ortiz (349) would need big seasons to hit the 400 mark.

Closing in on 2,000 hits are Carlos Lee (1,967), Orlando Cabrera (1,948), Scott Rolen (1,944), Jason Giambi (1,914), Albert Pujols (1,900), Adrian Beltre (1,889), Luis Castillo (1,889), Konerko (1,861), Michael Young (1,848), Derrek Lee (1,843), Juan Pierre (1,842), Andruw Jones (1,840) and Placido Polanco (1,836).

3. A new labor agreement

Baseball's collective bargaining agreement is due to expire after the season, but both baseball and the players union are already beginning work on coming to an accord. In a year where the NFL has locked out its players and the NBA appears headed down that path, it's important for baseball to work together with players and come to an agreement in short order.

Fortunately, after years of rancor, both sides have a harmonious working relationship and it should not be difficult to come to an arrangement even with sensitive topics such as revenue sharing and draft slotting among what will be discussed. The last agreement was finalized and announced on Oct. 25, 2006, so any announcement may not come until the conclusion of the playoffs.

However, recent word comes from the Boston Globe that any hint of a work stoppage would be a shocker, even with delicate issues such as revamping the revenue-sharing agreement. Also on deck is adding wild cards, an international draft and draft slotting.

4. Giants doing just fine

There are a lot of people wondering if the Giants can possibly repeat their World Series run of last year, doing so with a suboptimal offense and squeaking into the playoffs by the skin of their nose.

However, the offense should be much improved with Buster Posey behind the dish for a full year, Aaron Rowand squarely on the bench and Miguel Tejada replacing Edgar Renteria. While Tejada may have his issues, especially on defense, he should be able to improve on what Renteria gave the Giants last season. In addition, prospect Brandon Belt should be in the majors by June at the latest and will add another dimension to the club.

The rotation is one of concern, even if it's ridiculously deep given how young everyone is sans Barry Zito and the load they shouldered last year to win a ring. Fortunately, the Giants are cognizant of this and plan to give starters a lighter load to start the year. Plus, even if one or two starting pitchers fall flat on their face, there's still plenty of quality starters. One concern is the depth behind the front five, which is extremely thin.

5. Yankees trade for starting pitcher

There's simply no way the Yankees don't strike for a starting pitcher this season, but it may not be Francisco Liriano. The lefty is the hot name in trade circles and while Liriano still stands a good chance of being dealt, it probably won't be until after the year.

But the Yankees need help now. They had enough trouble filling the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation, so imagine what the depth behind them is like once injuries strike -- and they will. Fortunately for the Yankees, they have a solid farm system and a top prospect in Jesus Montero they can dangle for the right pitcher.

Even if the right pitcher doesn't come along to whisk Montero away, there will be no shortage of candidates as the year goes on for the Yankees to grab. What bears watching is who they grab. While acquiring a No. 4 starter would certainly deepen the rotation, it's more important for New York to get a frontline pitcher. Does anyone feel confident with A.J. Burnett following CC Sabathia in the playoffs? Didn't think so, and it would be presumptuous to project Phil Hughes' emergence into that pitcher even if the talent is there.

6. Strasburg recovering from Tommy John surgery

StrasburgStrasburg underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow on September 9, and recovery from such surgeries these days tends to take 9-12 months. Edinson Volquez returned to the majors 11 months after such a surgery. While the Nationals may play it cautious, Strasburg is right on schedule, and given his tremendous work ethic and young age, should have no problem meeting the conservative 12-month estimate.

That means Strasmas could be back just in time to close the season out, where he'll certainly dominate headlines once more. Strasburg would certainly need minor-league rehab starts first, but his timeline should assure him of the ability to get into games before the minor-league regular season ends in early September. Given the club will have expanded to 40 players at that point and will likely be out of the division race, it won't be difficult to get Strasburg back on the roster and in a major-league game.

Could the Nationals play it conservative and hold him back until 2012? Sure, it all depends how Strasburg progresses. But even if they hold him back, Strasburg certainly would play Winterball to get his footing under him. Most pitchers returning from T.J. surgery tend to struggle with command upon return, and the only way to address that is to get on a mound and pitch.

7. Bonds, Rocket dominate headlines

BondsThe trial of Barry Bonds has already started, but is still ongoing. It should be wrapped up before long, but that doesn't mean that Bonds will exit the headlines -- whatever the ruling on Bonds' perjury trial, it will have long-lasting ramifications on the game.

If Bonds is found guilty, many ink will be spilled on how this cements Bonds' exclusion from the Hall of Fame, plus articles on how Bonds is finally getting his comeuppance.

In addition, Roger Clemens will be put on high alert, given the Rocket will be undergoing his own perjury trial in the summer. If Bonds is found innocent, there will be a hot debate once more on whether to vote Bonds into the Hall. You will find those writers who believe that, despite the acquittal of Bonds, he knowingly abused steroids. There will be those who concede that while Bonds likely knew exactly what was going on, the law has deemed him innocent, and thus should be elected. And of course, a broad spectrum of opinions therein.

The Clemens trial, meanwhile, will dominate headlines even more than Bonds given the salacious details that have leaked out about Clemens' career, plus the off-putting way in how Clemens has fought the rumors he used steroids.

Much like the Bonds trial, the verdict will spark debate amid wide-ranging opinions. If both are convicted, there will be those who consider the steroid mess closed thanks to triumphing over perhaps the best hitter and pitcher of the steroid era. If both are innocent, it may open the door for those to wonder openly if they are not truly innocent, that the problem may lie with the system itself if it allows Bonds and Clemens to walk free.

Either way, the Bonds and Clemens trial will spark plenty of discussion that will last for years as they attempt to get into the Hall of Fame.

8. Questioning if Mets stay solvent

WilponsThe Mets are hoping to close a deal to bring in a new investor by the close of July. While it is not yet known what percentage of the team these investors will hold, it is expected to be in the 20-25 percent range, although the Wilpons are focused on acquiring a certain price over selling a certain percentage.

Why? 

They need the money. The Mets have debt to pay off, a $1 billion lawsuit staring them in the face (thanks, Irving Picard) and a ticking clock in which to stay solvent. If the Mets aren't able to bring in a new investor by that time, they will likely need a loan from MLB. At that point commissioner Bud Selig would likely have free rein to do what he wants with the Mets, including telling the Wilpons to sell the entire club.

That's incredibly unlikely, especially since the Wilpons (Jeff pictured on the left, Fred right) and Selig have a long, good relationship, but it bears mentioning.

Most investors are requesting majority control of the Mets -- which won't happen, unless the Wilpons' hands are forced -- or right of first refusal if the Wilpons eventually have to cough up the team. This should be an acceptable compromise to the Wilpons, who need to worry about money more than they do any possible future owner of the club.

9. New wave of prospects arriving

At the beginning of March, CBS Sports revealed its top 100 prospects, and along with the list came information on which prospects could make an impact this season.

Topping the list was No. 3 prospect Domonic Brown, who was expected to start in right field for the Phillies and attempt to replace Werth. Unfortunately, the team is now left scrambling after Brown fractured the hamate bone in his hand. He shouldn't be out terribly long, but may struggle with his power stroke upon returning. Philly may have to wait until 2012 to extract real value from the kid.

Meanwhile. No. 6's Jeremy Hellickson will open the season as a member of Tampa Bay's rotation and could easily replace the statistics Matt Garza tossed up. He's that good, that ready for the major leagues and has to be considered the front-runner for the AL Rookie of the Year award.

A fellow pitcher in Kyle Drabek (No. 16) appears on the verge of cracking Toronto's rotation after a successful late-season stint with the Blue Jays. Across the border in Ohio, Aroldis Chapman (No. 9) is readying for a full year in the bullpen and could wrest the closer's job away from Francisco Cordero by year's end.

The prospects keep on coming, as the Braves boast three in No. 19's Freddie Freeman, No. 29 Mike Minor and No. 85 Craig Kimbrel. Freeman should provide a steady presence at first base even if he lacks high-end ceiling. Minor figures to open the year in Triple-A, but should make an appearance before long and have a nice career in the middle of the rotation. Kimbrel is considered by many to be the Braves closer of the future.

There are plenty of other projected starters who will infuse baseball with youth, such as No. 33's Chris Sale, who will relieve for the White Sox; No. 66's Matt Dominguez who is on pace to play third for Florida -- ditto the same for No. 96's Brent Morel for the White Sox; No. 71's J.P. Arencibia is readying for a season as Toronto's backstop; No. 86's Danny Espinosa rocketing through two years of the minors to open the year as the starting second baseman for Washington; and No. 95 Jake McGee's apparent future as Tampa Bay's closer. You also can't discount No. 18 Brandon Belt, who could easily take home the NL Rookie of the Year honors provided he logs enough time for the Giants. Starting pitchers Zach Britton (No. 14, Orioles), Simon Castro (No. 52, Padres) and Kyle Gibson (No. 37, Twins) are on the verge of the bigs as well.

10. Philly thankful Blanton stayed

When the Phillies signed Cliff Lee, the consensus was that Philadelphia would trade Joe Blanton. After all, who needs a No. 5 starter due $17 miliion over the next two years when you have Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels?

Philly couldn't find a fit, however, and will now head into the season with Blanton on the roster. This is a good thing. Just because Blanton is the No. 5 starter doesn't mean he doesn't hold value, and being able to trot Blanton out against the back of the rotation for other teams will give Philadelphia an edge -- one it needs after losing Brown and Chase Utley.

Will Blanton stay with the team for the remainder of the year? Who can say, but even trading Blanton in July for pieces Philly knows it needs for a World Series run -- and to teams who will be increasingly desperate for pitchers once injuries and attrition hit -- is far more valuable than any deal of Blanton in January would have accomplished.

11. Firings

There's no question some managers and GMs will be shown the door in 2011. But who?

Skippers on the hot seat are covered here, so let's take a look at some GMs that could get the axe.

CollettiNed Colletti, Dodgers: Granted, Colletti has been hamstrung by the financial woes of owner Frank McCourt, but Colletti hasn't exactly done a good job with what he's been given. He appears to have learned from his mistakes in signing disasters like Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones and giving away Carlos Santana, but he also hasn't improved the team significantly. This team is simply muddling along, and Colletti looks like the classic "change for change's sake" for McCourt to try to improve morale. Of course, nothing will improve morale more than McCourt taking a hike.

Jim Hendry, Cubs: Hendry has been an up-and-down GM with the Cubs. While he made a bold gamble in trading for Garza and the Cubs may be a mild sleeper, if the team missteps yet again it's difficult to fathom the Ricketts family holding still. Hendry is a holdover from the previous ownership regime and is signed through 2012, but that wouldn't give the ownership pause in firing him. If the Cubs slip, Hendry is highly likely to be given his walking papers, especially since he stuck his neck out by hiring Mike Quade.

Tony Reagins, Angels: Reagins has done nothing but take steps back since taking over for Bill Stoneman, all the more curious given Stoneman was promoted and oversees Reagins. But the moves Reagins has made, such as (obviously) Vernon Wells are head scratching. Similar moves for Scott Kazmir and insisting on playing Jeff Mathis have followed. Manager Mike Scioscia loves Mathis, but it's up to Reagins to tell Scioscia no and take Mathis away if need be. Unfortunately, this team looks lined up to disappoint again and hover around .500. Will that fly for a second consecutive year in L.A.? Doubt it, and Scioscia won't be the first candidate on the chopping block.

Ed Wade, Astros: It's possible Wade could be on the chopping block in his third season with Houston. The Astros are widely expected to slide back and simply aren't successful at the major- or minor-league level when it comes tom talent. That may speak more to the owner than GM, but the owner doesn't get fired. Also, McLane is thought to be interested in selling the team and is reportedly close to selling to Jim Crane, who previously attempted to buy Houston and lost out on the Rangers last season. Should that happen, new ownership would absolutely want to bring in its own leader.

Jack Zduriencik, Mariners: Jack Z's leash is likely long enough to give him at least one more year, but in Year 3, the Mariners simply don't seem to have improved from his tenure. Yes, they surprised many in 2009, and part of it was probably flukish, but Zduriencik took a historically anemic lineup from 2010 and added ... Jack Cust. If he can get a strong season from Justin Smoak and impressive debuts from Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda, he should be safe.

12. Surprise teams

It happens every year. There's always that one team that takes a big step forward and contends for the postseason. Last year was especially notable in this regard, with the Reds, Padres, Giants and Blue Jays all performing better than expected. The one team to keep an eye on for 2011 is Colorado.

The Rockies finished with 83 wins last year, which is a surprise given the talent. Everyone knows the name Ubaldo Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki (pictured) and Carlos Gonzalez, but the rest of the team aren't scrubs either. Colorado has been in the national consciousness the last few years given its Rocktober run in 2007 and another postseason appearance in 2009, but it hasn't been able to sustain that excellence.

TulowitzkiThat could be changing now that Gonzalez has fully matured into a middle-of-the-order hitter and have built out a rotation that should keep Colorado in the game. The Rockies are counting a bit on production from Ian Stewart at third and Chris Iannetta at catcher, but when you look at this team, it's a playoff-caliber club that should challenge the Giants in the NL West.

Unlike Colorado, however, there will also be those teams that crash and burn despite expectations. San Diego is widely expected to slide back, but expectations have also been adjusted due to trading Adrian Gonzalez. The one team that may not be able to live up to its billing is the Brewers.

Like Colorado, the star players are obvious -- Zack Greinke and Prince Fielder are the star names, but Ryan Braun and Shaun Marcum are no lightweights, either. The one area of concern in Milwaukee is the utter lack of depth which will end up a real problem if and when injuries strike. Look at what's happened to the rotation -- without Greinke to start the season, the club is going to have to trot out what will effectively be slop in the No. 5 spot. There's similar stories on offense with little help ready to step in and a complete punting of shortstop defense and center field offense.

The Brewers should finish .500, but they are a popular pick to win the World Series and it's difficult to envision them even making the playoffs unless everything goes right. The odds of that happening are as slim as Greinke accepting a trade back to the Royals.

13. Suffering in K.C ... plus optimism

"The day is darkest before dawn," or so goes the saying. That's certainly true in Kansas City, which will throw out a team capable of losing 100 games. But boasting the game's best farm system in a very long time is just the salve to ease the pain Royals fans will enjoy  watching Luke Hochevar function as the team's "ace."

The Royals have pared payroll, knowing it's pointless to try to pretend they can contend, plus the necessity to keep certain positions open for prospects that are nearing the majors. While Alcides Escobar will start the season in the majors, that won't be enough to excite the masses until the first wave of prospects hit, with Mike Moustakas likely to join the club in June or July.

Fans are going to have to sit through Jeff Francoeur flailing at pitches, Alex Gordon trying desperately to reverse his "bust" label and Jason Kendall struggling to take corporeal form ... but the picture only gets rosier, starting with 2012 where it's possible three of the most heralded prospects could break the year with the club, then an additional three hitting the majors at some point over the summer.

While watching the Royals, at least in the outset, will be an exercise in futility, by September, they may become the hot team to watch for the baseball fanatic.

14. Pirates finish last -- or will they?

The Pirates are poised to register their 19th consecutive losing season, but there is some optimism in Pittsburgh. The first wave of position player prospects have hit, and the club can point to Andrew McCutchen in center field, Jose Tabata in left, Neil Walker at second and Pedro Alvarez at third as reasons to be optimistic with the offense. There are some other intriguing pieces down on the farm offensively that could make an impact such as catcher Tony Sanchez, and with a strong year, outfielder Starling Marte could be knocking on the door.

The club is also building solid pitching depth, with Rudy Owens and Bryan Morris perhaps making their big-league debuts this season, although the cream of the crop in Jameson Taillon (the No. 2 overall pick behind Harper in last season's draft) and Stetson Allie are further away. While the team waits for Taillon and Allie, however, it could pluck Gerrit Cole with the No. 1 pick in June. Cole has been called by some as the "next Stephen Strasburg." Lofty expectations to be sure, but if Cole is picked and advances quickly, the Pirates could start doing some damage in several years.

In 2011, finishing under .500 is a virtual certainty. But will the Bucs finish in last place? It's possible they could pull out a fourth-place finish. It all depends how well the rotation performs and Alvarez, Tabata and Walker all adjust to a full year in the majors. The Astros may just have enough solid major-league talent to grab a fourth-place finish, but that's in doubt. Hey, any type of progress will be welcome in Pittsburgh.

15. Wild (card) about the postseason?

There seems to be overwhelming momentum toward expanding the playoffs with another wild card likely being added to the fray to battle the other wild-card winner in a best-of-3 series. That means that for the first time since 1995, the postseason would take on an entirely different complexion.

In 2010, the Yankees would have taken on the Chicago White Sox, while the Braves would have had to stave off the San Diego Padres, who lost the division by one game to the Giants.

The year prior, the Red Sox would battle the Rangers, giving the national audience a hint of what was to come in Texas while the NL would have pitted Colorado against the division-rival Giants. Assuming two wild cards can't come out of the same division, the Marlins would have drawn the honor.

Sounds like fun, right? Except that there would be no Game 163s anymore, so knock out the epic Tigers/Twins battle for the division in 2009. Likewise, the Rockies and Padres would never have played Game 163 in 2007.

Should the second wild card be added to the game, an NFL-style tiebreaker will most likely be used to determine outcomes when two teams tie for the wild card or division. On one hand, that's a bit disappointing, because Game 163s are tremendous fun. But on the other hand, that fun would simply be extended to the new wild-card playoff format and happen every year instead of having to wait for the occasional Game 163 scenario to roll around.

Either way, it would be a shocker if there wasn't a new playoff system in place for 2012.

And here's five more things that could happen this season ... 

Ramirez1. In the first game between the Red Sox and Rays, Manny Ramirez forgets he's on the Tampa Bay squad and runs on the field with the Red Sox to begin the game. He asks Crawford what he's doing in left field and why they are wearing opposite uniforms. Crawford tries to explain the situation, but ManRam simply shrugs and heads into the Green Monster.

2. Ozzie Guillen surprisingly releases a book about Jenks (remember when he said he could "write a book on the kid" in the offseason?), full of salacious details about Jenks' time in Chicago, including the revelation that Jenks ate a middle reliever during one game. In his first game against the White Sox in 2011, an enraged Jenks throws at the head of the first two batters, hitting them before Guillen comes out on the field to complain. Jenks then beans Guillen and the two brawl on the field, which leads to a multi-million dollar match between the two in UFC in which Jenks, who hired Mike Tyson as trainer, attempts to bite Guillen's ear off.

3. During one particularly heated Cincinnati-St. Louis matchup, the benches clear, and Johnny Gomes comes face to face with Adam Wainwright. Without a word exchanged, Gomes promptly delivers a crane kick to Waino. "First learn stand, then learn fly," Dusty Baker sagely observes.

4. Joe Maddon, who is already known for using uncommon words, takes things to a whole new level. Witness this quote: "David Price can unequivocally bung. How dexterous is the swain? He's as recherché as Sandy Koufax in his diurnal course." Good luck deciphering that.

5. Pujols announces the team he has chosen to sign with during the last homestand of the season -- against the Cubs on Sept. 25. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the bases loaded, down three runs with a full count and the division title in the balance for the Cardinals, Pujols watches strike three right down the middle. As the crowd groans, Pujols rips open his jersey, revealing a Cubs home jersey underneath and dropkicks Tony La Russa as the announcers scream "NOOOOOOO!" And fade to black.

OK, so these five things won't happen, but one can dream. The rest you can expect.

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Posted on: March 19, 2011 12:08 pm
 

Braves looking at duo of closers

By Matt Snyder

Having two guys capable of closing games instead of one -- or none -- is a nice problem to have. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez believes he has that problem, and he's not going to solve it.

"In a perfect world, you'd like to name one guy," Gonzalez said. "But I can't sit here and tell you May 15 is going to be the day or June 20. Maybe we'll go the whole way with it. It's not a bad thing. It really isn't." (MLB.com )

He's speaking of choosing between right-hander Craig Kimbrel and left-hander Jonny Venters. He noted that he might determine which guy to use in the ninth based upon rest or matchups.

Venters, 25, was stellar last season as a rookie. He had a sparkling 1.95 ERA in 83 innings, striking out 93 hitters. Control was a slight issue, as he walked 39 guys, but he still found ways to prevent those baserunners from scoring. He did grab one save, but was used in a setup role in front of Billy Wagner.

Kimbrel, 22, was thought to be the closer of the future for the Braves, and he still might be. He was nearly untouchable last season in his brief taste of the majors. He had a 0.44 ERA in 20 2/3 innings, striking out a whopping 40 hitters.

This spring, Venters has been better. He's thrown eight shutout innings and only allowed four baserunners. Kimbrel has a 4.91 ERA, though he has struck out 10 in 7 1/3 innings.

You can just see teams that have had trouble filling the closer role shaking their collective heads with a "must be nice" thought in their heads. From Rafael Soriano to Billy Wagner to a pair of young flame-throwers -- one from each side -- is a pretty nice mix.

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