Jon Lester Starting to Look Like Ace for Chicago Cubs

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This past offseason was a busy one for the Chicago Cubs. They signed ace pitcher Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million contract, and they lured manager Joe Maddon to the North Side with a five-year, $25 million offer.

What followed was high expectations.

"I'm gonna be talking playoffs next year, I'll tell you that right now," Maddon told the Chicago Tribune in November. "I can't go to spring training and say anything else. You have to set your goals high, because if you don't set them high enough you might hit your mark, and that's not a good thing. We're gonna talk World Series this year, and I'm gonna believe it. It's in our future."

That was all fine and good, but then came opening night, when Lester could not get out of the fifth inning and surrendered eight hits and three runs. But that was just opening jitters though, right?

Not exactly.

Lester gave up 12 earned runs over his next three starts, and ended the month of April with an 0-2 record and a 6.23 ERA—not even close to resembling the steady stalwart of a pitcher that performed tremendously in Boston and Oakland.

One specific area that was exploited in Lester's first career National League start was his perceived inability to throw the ball the first base. At the start of this season, he went 66 consecutive games without making a pickoff attempt.

In the National League—where base stealing is a bit more prevalent—some thoughthe might have to change some of his tendencies if he wants to be successful.

But despite the early season woes, the Cubs stayed confident in their star pitcher. They said on multiple occasions that it was way too early to start worrying.

"I think the only good April I've ever had was last year," Lester told Carrie Muskat of MLB.com. "I'm usually not a fast starter. Usually I guess it's maybe mid-May, June where you get into that rhythm of every five days and arm strength has built up and it's started to warm up and everything falls into place."

Maddon was equally calm, downplaying Lester's lack of pickoffs to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe.

I think it's being a little overplayed right now, quite frankly. It's something that will get better. His work is very diligent, and I'd much prefer he worries more about getting his fastball where he wants and his cutter where he wants and all the normal pitching things. I'd prefer that would be his priority over the other thing. I don't want to make this an issue, because it's not for me at all.

I'm not sure if he heard this specific Maddon quote—or if he recently focused more on his fastball and cutter control—but whatever he did, it's starting to pay dividends.

He has won all three of his May starts with a 1.80 ERA in 20 innings pitched. He is starting to do what the leader of a pitching staff needs to. He is taking the ball every fifth day, pitching deep into games and giving his team a chance to win every time out.

It's hard to say how well one has to pitch to earn a $20 million paycheck, but if Lester continues to pitch like he has so far this May, the Cubs are certainly going to be happy with their investment.

Minor Changes Have Mets' Matt Harvey Pitching Like Cy-Young Caliber Ace

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About two weeks before the start of the 2015 MLB regular season, the New York Mets announced that pitcher Zack Wheeler had a torn UCL in his pitching elbow and would undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery.

There is someone within the organization who can relate to the 24-year-old starter. That person is Matt Harvey, who missed all of 2014 because of the same ever-feared Tommy John surgery.

And with the Wheeler injury confirmed, the Mets desperately needed Harvey to show no ill effects from his surgery and return to his 2013 form—when he went 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA and struck out 191 batters in 178.1 innings, was the National League starting pitcher in the All-Star Game and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting despite missing the final month of the season.

Through one month of the 2015 regular season, it looks like he has recovered nicely.

While six starts is a small sample size, it is impossible to ignore the success that Harvey has already enjoyed. He has won five of his six starts, averaged nearly a strikeout per inning pitched and maintained a stellar 2.72 ERA.

Most of that success can be attributed to Harvey's incredible talent and overpowering nature, but he has also made some adjustments that have allowed him to return from injury in peak form.

Arguably the most critical of those changes is his use of the curveball. In 2013, Harvey relied heavily on his slider as a breaking pitch to put hitters away, but he says he discovered his curve in spring training this year.

"I always threw sliders and I don't know where this curveball came from, so it's nice having that develop," Harvey told Mike Puma of the New York Post back in early March. "I don't know if I figured out something in my mechanics or it just magically appeared, but it's nice having that and it felt good out there."

Following that groundbreaking announcement, Owen Watson of FanGraphs wrote an article outlining the potential dominance that could follow Harvey if he stayed true and actually incorporated more curves into his arsenal.

Well, it has definitely been working so far.

Harvey has thrown more curveballs than sliders so far this year, per FanGraphs, but his refinement has not stopped there.

According to Brooks Baseball, he has also added a sinker to his repertoire. Interestingly enough, he threw the sinker sparingly when he made his major league debut toward the end of the 2012 season, but he did not throw any of them in his 2013 breakout campaign.

To this point in the 2015 season, Harvey has thrown sinkers on about 9 percent of his offerings, and that just adds another wrinkle that opposing hitters must think about when they are at the plate.

And don't forget about his changeup, which he throws with more velocity than some pitchers' fastball. At about 88 miles per hour, Harvey's changeup has deceptive downward movement that has the highest whiff percentage of any of his pitches this season, per Brooks Baseball.

Though it has only been two-plus seasons, Harvey's body of work is starting to impress a lot of people. One of those is a three-time Cy Young winner who pitched four seasons for the Mets toward the end of his career.

Pedro Martinez showered Harvey with compliments last December at the David Ortiz Celebrity Golf Classic.

Here is what Martinez answered when he was asked by Kevin Kernan of the New York Post how good Harvey can be:

[He's] as good as anyone in the game. He's got everything he needs. He's got toughness, he's got desire, he's got fire, he knows how to pitch, he is a competitor and he is smart. He has the entire package. Harvey is the biggest piece for that organization. I get excited when I watch him pitch.

Recently, Martinez dished out even more praise. In an interview promoting his new book, "Pedro," he said that Harvey can be better than he was.

"I think he has more talent than I do," Martinez said in the interview. "And he has better chances to do better than I did.

"I'm expecting Harvey to do the same thing," he said after he described some of the steps he took to becoming great. "To study the game, to study the atmosphere around him, to study mechanics, to study all those things to become the best he could be, and the best he could be could be better than I was."

Martinez is a respected member of the baseball community, so his remarks certainly have some merit. If he is correct, Harvey is only scratching the surface of his massive potential.

Multiple Cy Young awards are likely in Harvey's future if he can stay healthy. He is that good. And as for this season, he will undoubtedly be the ace of the staff of a Mets squad—currently leading the National League East by 3.5 games—that has its sights set on a playoff berth in 2015.

Why Baseball is Better Without the DH, National League Must Stay Strong

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A hotly contested topic in the baseball world in the past week (and for quite some time now) has been whether or not the National League should change its rules to institute the use of the designated hitter. The American League adopted the DH in 1973, yet the Senior Circuit has remained surprisingly resilient through the years.

However, National League owners may be under increased pressure to make a change.

The debate was jump-started when St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, one of the elite starting pitchers in the MLB, tore his Achilles tendon running out of the batter's box after putting the ball in play. The club announced that he would miss the rest of the season, which is a crippling blow to a St. Louis squad trying to advance to the NLCS for the fifth consecutive year.

Washington Nationals hurler Max Scherzer was the first to rally behind Wainwright's banner. He told Jon Heyman of CBS Sports that he would not be opposed to bringing the DH to the National League, saying that it would be a great way to increase scoring and make the game more entertaining.

"If you look at it from the macro side, who'd people rather see hit—Big Papi or me?" Scherzer said. "Who would people rather see, a real hitter hitting home runs or a pitcher swinging a wet newspaper? Both leagues need to be on the same set of rules."

This logic makes sense from Mad Max—having a designated hitter batting instead of a pitcher would make the game more fun to watch and ostensibly give the fans more bang for their buck. But his initial claims were met with a flurry of other opinions, and most weren't in agreement with his.

Madison Bumgarner was the first to publicly disagree. The San Francisco Giants left-hander also happens to be one of the best hitting pitchers in the league, and he was not afraid to come down hard on Scherzer.

This was his comment to Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News about the Wainwright injury and the possibility of the DH entering National League play:

"What if he got hurt pitching? Should we say he can't pitch anymore? I hate what happened to him. He works his butt off out there. But I don't think it was because he was hitting. What if he gets hurt getting out of his truck? You tell him not to drive anymore? That's the way the game has to be played. I appreciate both sides of the argument and I get it. But [ending pitcher plate appearances] isn't the way to go about [addressing] it."

That is an excellent point as well. It was an Achilles injury that Wainwright suffered. If that part of his body was going to tear, it could have been anywhere. He could just as easily have injured it pitching off the mound or covering first base as he did jogging out of the box.

One of Bumgarner's teammates, Jake Peavy, gave another reason why the designated hitter must stay away. He began by talking about a situation last year when Bumgarner hit against the Los Angeles Dodgers' Zack Greinke in the eighth inning. It was late in the season in a crucial situation, and manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to go to a pinch hitter and then a reliever.

"We have a distinct advantage because of what he can do at the plate," Peavy said, per Baggarly. "We'd take a ton of strategy out of our game. The bench player is so much more important a part of the game. Managers have their say in how the game is played out.

"As pitchers, it's about taking pride in batting and baserunning and getting a bunt down or putting it in play. If you do that better than the other pitcher, you've got an advantage."

For Scherzer, even his own general manager is not on his side. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo—who gave Scherzer a $210 million contract this offseason—went on record against the DH earlier this week.

Rizzo was very adamant on a Wednesday radio appearance he made on 106.7 The Fan that he will never favor the DH.

"I hate the DH. I always have hated the DH. I would hate to see the DH in the National League, and I love the National League brand of baseball. Now, I worked with the Chicago White Sox for years, and the Boston Red Sox for years in the American League, and I'm a much bigger fan of the National League style of play, with the pitcher pitching and all the strategy that that employs."

That's my favorite part of this whole argument. The phrase "the strategy it employs." Personally, that is one of the things I enjoy about the game of baseball. The managers competing in a chess match throughout the ballgame is arguably the most compelling thing about baseball and the main reason I like the National League better than the American League.

In the American League, the manager does not have nearly as many factors to worry about, most notably pinch hitting for the pitcher. To illustrate this, I'll introduce a common situation in baseball.

Let's say Team A is winning by two runs in the seventh inning and the pitcher is due up next with runners on first and second with one out. The manager has a tough decision on his hands: Does he leave the pitcher in the game to pitch another inning even though it likely means they won't tack on any runs that inning, or does he elect to use a pinch hitter in an attempt to add some cushion to the lead even though that move will result in leaning heavily on the bullpen to finish the game?

An American League manager is never faced with this dilemma. All he has to do is monitor the pitcher, and when he gets tired or ineffective, put in a reliever.

The Junior Circuit also does not incorporate nearly as many situational pitching changes or as much bunting as the National League does.

Now some fans don't really care much about some of the finer points of the game—they prefer to see guys hit the ball as far as they can in high-scoring games, and that is perfectly fine. They can stick with the American League, but the NL does not need to change its rulebook to satisfy those fans.

The final witness in this trial is someone who should know better than anyone. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has spent time in both leagues, and even though he has only been in Chicago for a few months, he has already adapted the National League style of play and is against bringing the DH to the NL.

"That's part of the game," Maddon said, via the Chicago Tribune, about Wainwright's injury. "That's the way it works. It's unfortunate. It stinks. I like the National League the way it sets. It's a really interesting baseball game."

Ultimately, it will be up to NL owners on whether or not they eventually adopt the DH. They might do it sometime in the future, but they don't need to. Their brand of baseball is more of a traditional style of play, and contrary to popular belief there are still some old-fashioned baseball fans out there who have the attention spans to watch an entire game even if substitutions and pitching changes are involved.

In my opinion, the game is much better with all nine fielders hitting for themselves. It forces players to be more well-rounded, and it makes it more interesting from a strategy standpoint. Also, it results in more intriguing scouting, as pitchers handy with the bat continue to become more and more rare. As the Giants do right now with Bumgarner, NL teams with pitchers who can hit have a tremendous advantage over their opponents, and that is nothing to sneeze at.

Either way, this is a very polarizing debate. Each side has its pros and cons, and baseball pundits, coaches and players are obviously not afraid to state their case.

Bumgarner, Peavy, Rizzo and Maddon are for the DH staying the heck away from the National League, and I wholeheartedly agree with their arguments.

Even with Rocky Departure in 2012 and Latest Drama, Josh Hamilton Can Help Texas Rangers

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The Los Angeles Angels made a somewhat surprising move on Friday evening, agreeing to send embattled outfielder Josh Hamilton to the Texas Rangers. The Angels will not get any players in return, sources told the Los Angeles Times, so the move was made basically just to get Hamilton off their hands and save a few dollars in the process.

But could this move be a potential steal for the Rangers?

Turn back the clock to October of 2012, and Josh Hamilton was coming off of an outstanding season in which he hit a career-high 43 home runs and drove in 128, made his fifth consecutive All Star appearance and finished fifth in the MVP voting.

That terrific campaign made him one of the prized free agents on the market in the offseason, and instead of re-signing with the Rangers, he opted to sign with the Angels on a five-year, $125 million contract.

But that wasn't the whole story.

Rangers' general manager Jon Daniels claimed that Hamilton's camp did not even give them a chance to match the Angels' offer.

"Our full expectation was that the phone call was going to be before he signed, certainly not after and giving us an idea," Daniels told ESPN.com.

And the saga still was not complete.

In February of 2013, after Hamilton had already ingratiated himself in Los Angeles, he had some pretty harsh words directed at the fans of his old ball club. This is what he said on a radio show via CBSDFW.com.

Texas, especially Dallas, has always been a football town. They're supportive, but they also got a little spoiled at the same time, pretty quickly. You think about three to four years ago [before the Rangers made it to the World Series]. It's like, come on man, are you happier there again?

While these comments are probably true and are ostensibly not meant to be hurtful, he still took a shot at the fans by calling them spoiled. Ranger fans likely won't forget about that.

Since leaving good ole Arlington for the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, Hamilton has struggled mightily. He hit only .255 with 31 home runs combined in his two seasons. His .739 OPS in 2013 was the lowest total of his career, and he could never put it together in his new home.

His Angel seemingly reached its lowest point in last year's American League Division Series, when he came back from injury to go hitless in 13 at bats. He was booed by his own fans, and it was just a horrible situation all around.

Then came rock bottom, in February of this year. Hamilton admitted that he had recently suffered a relapse that involved "at least coacine." That led to him meeting with the MLB about possible consequences.

However, an arbitrator ruled that Hamilton could not face penalties of any kind on the grounds that he did not violate his drug treatment program.

The Angels' ownership and front office did not like this ruling, and they publicly spoke out. It was unclear whether or not they even wanted Hamilton around anymore. That uncertainty is probably what led the Angels to shop Hamilton around the league, and the Rangers are the perfect landing spot.

First off, Hamilton resurrected his career in Arlington. He owns a home in the Dallas area, he knows the intricacies of the organization and his power would play well in Globe Life Park.

Next and maybe the most glaring is that the Ranger lineup is currently starving for power. Adrian Beltre and Robinson Chirinos each have two home runs on the year, which leads the team. After that, nine other players have hit one round-tripper, giving the team a grand total of 12 home runs in 18 games so far this season.

To put that total in perspective, Mariners' outfielder Nelson Cruz has already hit nine by himself. Only five other teams have hit fewer home runs than the Rangers, and four teams have more than doubled their long ball output.

Texas' current outfield consists of Leonys Martin in center, Shin-Shoo Choo in right and Ryan Rua, Jake Smolinski and Carlos Peguero all rotating in left. Martin and Choo are not doing a whole lot so far in 2015, but they are solid players. The addition of Hamilton—who will potentially play left field when the trade is finalized—will give the Rangers a decent outfield.

Think about it, even in 2013—when Hamilton was struggling and not living up to his contract— he still hit .250 with 21 home runs and 78 RBI. If he could match that production, it would certainly be welcomed by manager Jeff Banister.

If he can hit like that, his power numbers would surely improve playing his games in hitter-friendly Arlington as opposed to spacious Angel Stadium.

An argument could be made that the Rangers—already a left handed heavy lineup—do not need another lefty because it would make them too one dimensional. However, that could be a good thing considering that most of their opponents are right handed pitchers. According to Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News, of the starting pitchers in the American League not counting the Rangers' staff, 51 are right handed and 19 are southpaws.

With those numbers in mind, having too many lefties in the lineup is definitely better than having a ton of righties.

In addition to the production that Hamilton could add to the punchless lineup, the Rangers would also be getting his services at an outrageous discount. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, the Rangers will only have to pay about $15 million of the $83 million that Hamilton is owed through 2017.

For only $15 million over that many years, they are basically getting him for pennies on the dollar. Now, keep in mind that nobody knows what kind of player he will be. In addition to his battle with drugs and alcohol, Hamilton also had surgery on his right shoulder back on February 3.

Ultimately, having Hamilton on the roster is a risk in itself. But I think it is a risk well worth taking. The current Ranger team has no chance to go anywhere this year and maybe even in the future, so why not bring in a guy who has had terrific success before? Especially when they only have to pay him $15 million, it seems like it is a no-lose situation.

Even if Hamilton is a bust and can't engender the same numbers at the plate that he did in the past, the Rangers aren't out much.

But he can resurrect his career, again. He might not ever reach All Star caliber again in his career, but if he finds himself in the starting lineup in Texas, I think he could hit at least .250 with 25 or more home runs.

That kind of production cannot be frowned on, and if he somehow turns into a star again, the fans likely won't have a hard time forgiving him for his comments back in 2013.

Astros Outfielder George Springer Will Have Monster Year in 2015

George Springer wowed scouts and fans in his inaugural year in the big leagues, and he has a chance to become one of the best players in the league in the future.
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Houston Astros outfielder George Springer made his anticipated big league debut on April 17 last year. Springer, Houston's first-round pick (11th overall) in 2011, was thrown into the fire immediately and struggled a bit from the start.

He hit .182 with no home runs in the 14 games he played in April, but when the calendar flipped over to May, Springer seemed to get comfortable facing big league pitching and started to thrive.

He hit .294 with 10 home runs in May, then added six round trippers in June and four more in July before he missed the remainder of the season with a left quad injury.

Overall, it was a wild success for Springer in his rookie season. He showed off the light-tower power that made scouts drool from the time he was mashing balls in college at Connecticut, he displayed all five tools and he was just an exciting player to watch.

Coming into his sophomore season, expectations are even higher. A writer for the Astros' Fansided website, Climbing Tal's Hill, predicted recently that Springer would hit 37 home runs and finish ahead of Mike Trout in the 2015 AL MVP voting.

While that notion may be a bit far fetched, maybe it isn't impossible.

Springer dedicated the winter to getting stronger, which is hard to believe considering he looked to already have a chiseled frame last year. He reported to camp at 225 pounds, 10 pounds heavier than last year, and it's all solid muscle.

He detailed his training changes to Evan Drellich of The Houston Chronicle, explaining a new, intense workout program called JEKL. Springer already had a vicious swing last year that sent pitches deep into the seats, and he might have even more power this year with that added muscle.

He also said that his new routine and diet will help his body sustain the natural blows that occur over the course of the long season. If he can find a way to stay on the field for at least 150 games, the sky is the limit for Springer, who was ranked the 23rd-best prospect in baseball by MLB.com's 2013 Prospect Watch.

According to FanGraphs, Springer's 127 wRC+, a sabermetric that measures how many runs a player creates for his team, is well above the MLB average of 100. To put that 127 in perspective, Josh Donaldson and Adrian Gonzalez can be found very near that on the list of league leaders in that category.

Had Springer played a full season, he surely would have improved on his 20 home runs and 51 RBI. It is impossible to extrapolate his stats for the rest of the season due to the small sample size, but he may have topped the 30-home run club and would have had a shot at being the AL Rookie of the Year.

Which is why, coming into 2015, folks are so bullish of the 25-year-old outfielder.

The Astros are one year away from contending for an American League playoff spot, if not this season, and Springer is a huge reason why. He fits the mold of a Mike Trout- or Bryce Harper-type of player: big, fast, athletic, power hitter who effortlessly does everything on the field well.

Another thing that will help Springer drastically is the improving cast around him. With Jose Altuve coming off of a breakout 2014 season in which he got on base at a tremendous .377 clip, the emergence of Chris Carter as a legitimate home run threat and the additions of power hitters Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus, the Astros have a chance to become one of the most potent offensive units in the league.

With more runners getting on base in front of him and more sluggers offering protection behind him, Springer should see plenty of good pitches to hit. Expect him to have loads of opportunities to score runs as well as drive them in.

FanGraphs' Steamer projects Springer to hit .236 with 29 home runs and 79 RBI while scoring 77 runs. I think he should be able to maintain a higher batting average than that—he hit .300 in his minor league career—but his high strikeout totals are undoubtedly a source of worry.

He racked up 114 strikeouts in only 78 big league games in 2014, and he didn't show any signs of slowing down throughout the season.

But that's the way the MLB is transforming. Power hitters, or any hitters for that matter, are sacrificing strikeouts for homers.

If Springer decides to cut down his swing a little with two strikes and focus on putting the ball in play, his average should creep up.

Ultimately, whatever he decides to do, he is going to be an intimidating presence whenever he steps to the plate. He has unlimited talent and potential, and 2015 is his year to unleash on opposing pitchers.

Trout exploded in his second year in The Show, and Harper had a solid sophomore campaign as well. Springer had a more impressive first season than both of those aforementioned studs, so he should have no trouble amassing monster numbers.

I'm not as optimistic as Climbing Tal's Hill, but I think Springer will have a tremendous season. I predict him hitting around .250 with 30 home runs and 85 RBI.

He will be one of the most exciting players in the league in 2015, and he will be a key cog in the middle of a productive Astro lineup for years to come. And if he can cut down on his strikeout total, he may be a legitimate MVP candidate in the near future.

Can Justin Verlander Return to Form in 2015?

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Since 2011, when he won both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards, Justin Verlander has gotten progressively worse. His ERA has risen, his strikeout total has decreased and he has pitched fewer innings each year since then.

All of those factors culminated into a terrible 2014 season.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, his 88 ERA+, which takes the traditional ERA stat and adjusts it according to park factors, was the worst of his career, as was his 9.7 hits allowed per nine innings.

Verlander had core surgery before the 2014 season and, regardless of whether or not that injury was the cause, he hasn't been the same pitcher since.

His velocity has steadily decreased over the past three years and he has been trying to reinvent himself as a pitcher. In his prime, Verlander possessed one of the filthiest curveballs in the league. However, he doesn't throw that power curve as much anymore. He relied on his slider in 2014 more than he has throughout the rest of his career, according to FanGraphs.

Yet, it still appears as though Verlander has what it takes to return to being a dominant starter. He may not be an ace-caliber pitcher like he once was, but he can still be someone who can take the ball every fifth day, work deep into games and give his team a chance to win.

Arguably the biggest factor that Verlander will have to overcome is that he no longer possesses swing-and-miss stuff. In 2014, he recorded a career-low whiff percentage when throwing his fastball and slider, and near career lows with his changeup and curveball, as per Brooks Baseball.

But it's not as though Verlander is refusing to accept that he must improve. He made a concerted effort to bulk up over the offseason and he reported to spring training with 28 extra pounds of muscle on his 6'5" frame.

Going off comments he made to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, the hope appears to be that the extra muscle will allow him to use his legs more when he pitches. In one of Stark's most recent articles, Verlander outlined the way he felt last year:

I didn't feel weak last year. I didn't feel hurt in my core area. It just translated to [soreness in] my shoulder area. I wasn't using my legs. The power from my legs couldn't really translate through my core. So then I'm trying to create it through my shoulder, which is obviously a downhill slide from there.

From what we have seen so far in spring training, the results have been positive. After Verlander threw live batting practice for the first time last Sunday, manager Brad Ausmus said he definitely noticed a difference.

"That's the best I've seen Ver stuff-wise, off the mound, since I've gotten this job," Ausmus said to Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. "It was exactly what we wanted. He looked very good today."

However, successful outings in the preseason are not going to outweigh how bad Verlander was last year. He no longer has the arsenal of a dynamic ace, but he can rebound if he changes his pitching philosophy.

It might not be the "macho" thing to do, but Verlander needs to transform into more of a finesse pitcher. He will not be able to strike batters out like he used to with his current velocity, so incorporating more deception into his repertoire might be something for him to ponder.

In the past, Verlander could get away with throwing fastballs in the zone, because he threw too hard and his breaking pitchers were too nasty for the hitters to be able to capitalize when he made a mistake. But now his stuff isn't as overpowering, and if he continues to pitch like his old self he will likely continue to struggle.

B/R's MLB Lead Writer Zachary D. Rymer summed it up nicely in a recent article:

So, in a nutshell: Verlander was throwing way too many hittable fastballs in 2014 and exacerbating matters by throwing way too many hittable secondaries. He was giving hitters every excuse to sit fastball and making it too easy for them to adjust when they didn't get one.

Throwing too many hittable pitches is something that Verlander must change. The Tigers lost Max Scherzer to free agency, so an effective Verlander is vital to the Tigers' chances of winning their fifth consecutive AL Central crown.

It is very hard to bet against someone with such a productive track record like Verlander, but he is making it harder and harder to believe. However, if these spring training reports prove to be accurate, Verlander may very well return to being a terrific pitcher.

But expectations should be made with caution. He is not the same pitcher he once was, but if he changes his pitching style to keep hitters off-balance, he has the potential to be a borderline No. 2 starter.

And with a front end of the rotation consisting of David Price, a healthy Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers may have just enough pitching to keep them in games.


What to Expect from Brewers Outfielder Ryan Braun in 2015

Check out HC3's big expectations for Ryan Braun this upcoming season.
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Turn back the calendar only two years, and Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun was one of the premier hitters in all of baseball—if not the best.

From 2007 to 2012, Braun's first six MLB seasons, he averaged more than 33 home runs and 107 RBI. That kind of production is off the charts, and Braun was more than just a power hitter. He hit .313 over that span, didn't strike out a ton and reached 30 steals in two of those seasons.

However, Braun's reputation and stats plummeted when he vehemently denied using PEDs—only to admit to using them in August 2013. His confession earned Braun a suspension that forced him to miss the remainder of the 2013 season.

Then he ran into more trouble—this time physically. Braun was ailed by a nerve injury in his thumb in 2014, and his production slowly but surely worsened as the season wore on. Not only did the injury get progressively worse, but it also robbed the slugging 31-year-old outfielder of most of his power.

ESPN.com's Buster Olney published a column last July outlining just how much Braun's power decreased in 2014. The discoveries were mind-boggling.

Braun didn't pull the ball much last year, and a career-high 46.1 percent of his hits were to the opposite field. Also, Braun's batted balls traveled an average of 17 feet shorter than they did in 2013.

It is unknown whether the thumb is entirely to blame for these numbers, but it surely hampered him in some way.

So what are some realistic expectations for the former Miami Hurricanes third baseman in the upcoming season?

Most importantly, it's going to come down to whether he is completely healthy. Braun had a cryotherapy procedure done on his thumb over the offseason, which applied extreme cold in an attempt to freeze out the lingering nerve issues.

According to news coming out of the Brewers camp, per Fox Sports Wisconsin's John Pesetski, Braun is feeling great:

"So far it (the thumb) feels great. Everything so far has gone as well as I possibly could've hoped. I don't think I'll be limited or anything. I'll have to be conscious about how many extra swings I take. But aside from that, I'm able to do everything."

That is very encouraging news, and Braun did not shy away from portraying plenty of optimism.

"I feel good. I've always felt that as long as I'm healthy, success is inevitable," Braun told Fox Sports. "The better I play, the more I am going to help the team. I expect to go out there and be one of the best players in the league."

If he truly feels that he can return to being among the best pure hitters in baseball, it is definitely a possibility.

FanGraphs' Steamer projects Braun to hit .276 with 24 home runs and 78 RBI. While those numbers would be a slight improvement over 2014, they don't do him justice.

Braun is one of the best players in Major League Baseball when healthy, and he has what it takes to return to that prestigious group in 2015. If his thumb can stay healthy for the duration of the season, he will be an All-Star-caliber outfielder.

I am going to go out on a limb and predict that Braun will hit at least .285 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

He is still a premium talent, and his numbers will reflect his tremendous ability in 2015.

A Healthy Tanaka Can Lead Yankees to Postseason

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees have a ton of question marks heading into spring training. It will be the first time in a long time without Derek Jeter at shortstop. Alex Rodriguez will likely lead the league in publicity, but he may or may not hit. And there is no clear-cut choice to start at second base.

But the biggest concern might be ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.  The Yankees signed the Japanese star to a seven-year, $155 million contract last January, and even though he pitched wonderfully in his first 20 starts of big league action, a huge scare jolted the organization when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow in July.

After throwing his first bullpen this spring, a 21-pitch session at the Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa Bay, he said he feels better than ever.

"I actually feel a little bit better than last year," he told ESPN.com. "My overall body and health is better."

When healthy, Tanaka is an absolute beast. He is already one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, and he makes opposing hitters very uncomfortable by repeating his delivery and mixing his pitches with tremendous efficiency.

Last year, he used his fastball, splitter, slider and curveball with impeccable variety.  But the thing that makes him to most effective is his ability to repeat his delivery.  He threw his fastball 40.6 percent of the time and his splitter 25 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs. Those two pitches have about a five mph difference, and when the batter cannot tell what pitch is coming until it is out of the pitcher's hand, it is nearly impossible to hit.

But even if he comes back and pitches similarly to how he did last year, will the Yankees even be able to contend?+

On the surface, it looks like 2015 will be a bleak year for the Bronx Bombers. In Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA rankings, the Yankees are projected to finish fourth in the American League East with a record of 80-82. But they do have some talent on the roster, and manager Joe Girardi has shown he is willing to be creative if it will help the team win.

There is a chance the Yankees start the season with a six-man starting rotation.  Pitching coach Larry Rothschild hinted at that possibility to reporters last Wednesday, per Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News.

While it is definitely unorthodox, teams generally use five starting pitchers, and it actually makes a lot of sense for the Yankees because the rotation has a history of injury.

Tanaka is coming off of surgery, CC Sabathia is coming off of knee surgery, and Michael Pineda spent time on the disabled list last year with a strained back muscle

The Yankees acquired Nathan Eovaldi in the offseason in exchange for Martin Prado, and the hard-throwing righty should be ready to contribute immediately in the upcoming season. Adam Warren and Chris Capuano are two quality arms that would likely thrive out of the bullpen, but if management decides to go with a six-man rotation, one of those two would be the sixth starter and the other would be the club's main long reliever.

That rotation, although injury prone, has the potential to be among the league's best. Tanaka is an ace, Sabathia used to be an ace, and Pineda still has his better days ahead of him.

Sabathia has been brutally ineffective in the past two seasons, but one scout is confident that he has what it takes to resurrect his career going into his age-34 season. The scout, quoted in an article written by Andrew Marchand of ESPN.com, feels Sabathia is smart enough to be successful even though he doesn't have the dynamic arsenal he once did.

"When a guy gets into their 30s, they have to have a second career," the scout said. "I always felt CC could do that because he really knows how to pitch."

If Tanaka returns from injury fully healthy, Sabathia has a good season and Pineda builds on his excellent 2014 when he went 5-5 with a 1.89 ERA and a phenomenal 59-7 strikeout-to-walk rate, the Yankees will have one of the best starting rotations in the American League.

In the bullpen, things look bright as usual.  While former closer David Robertson opted to sign with the White Sox in the offseason, the Yankees were able to lure Andrew Miller to the Bronx.  Miller will pair with breakout star Dellin Betances to form one of the most formidable late-inning reliever duos in the MLB.

The offense, however, does not look nearly as promising as the pitching staff. 

The Yankees finished 13th out of 15 American League teams in runs scored last year, and the starting lineup is filled with players who are past their primes.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are both solid, speedy outfielders at the top of the order, but after that, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Chase Headley, Alex Rodriguez, Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew are either unproven or over the hill.

It's not entirely hopeless, though. 

Beltran is only one year removed from hitting .296 with 24 home runs in his age-35 season with the Cardinals. He is a good enough hitter to continue to produce even as he ages.

Teixeira struggled last year with a career-low .238 batting average on balls in play, according to Fangraphs. He was one of the best power hitters in the game as recently as 2012, and while he might never hit over .230 again in his career, he could easily hit 30 home runs in 2015.

Catcher Brian McCann faced big expectations when he signed with the Yankees last offseason. His powerful left-handed swing was supposed to result in huge home run totals in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, but he struggled mightily all season.  However, he told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News that he expects to have a huge bounce back in his sophomore season wearing pinstripes.

Third baseman Chase Headley is a steady third baseman, great defensively and a solid hitter, but he is not the type of player who can anchor a lineup. He is a nice complementary piece, but if he is forced to be the go-to guy in the middle of the order, the Yankees are in trouble.

And then there's Alex Rodriguez. He will undoubtedly command a huge crowd when he arrives at spring training, but if he can hit, nobody will care about his questionable past. Despite the fact that he has been arguably the most criticized player in sports for the past few years, he is still a gifted hitter. If he can get in a groove, he could have a decent season playing as the designated hitter.

Finally, Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew are good defenders but don't provide much with the bat. Rob Refsnyder may have a future at second base, but it is unclear whether or not he will have an opportunity to crack the big league club in 2015.

All in all, the roster does not look intimidating. The Yankees have the potential to be a good pitching team and a decent hitting team, especially if Tanaka comes back strong from surgery. He is the key.

If Girardi can count on Tanaka every fifth (or sixth) day to flummox the opposition with his filthy fastball-splitter mix, the Yankees will be in a good position. But if Tanaka shows some of the ill effects of elbow surgery and the Yanks are forced to rely on Sabathia and Pineda, it could be a long year.

The Yankees likely won't make the playoffs. They are just too old, and there are too many questions regarding the team.

But with the way the postseason now works, with two wild-card spots, anything can happen. Last year seemingly every team had a chance to make the playoffs until the final days of the regular season. The Yankees have a chance to be one of those teams, and a healthy Tanaka would drastically improve their chances.

And if the Yankees did find a way to qualify as a wild-card team, a healthy Tanaka would ideally pitch the one-game playoff in an attempt to take the team to the ALDS for the first time since 2012. 

No Reason Josh Donaldson Should Have Lost Arbitration

Josh Donaldson got ripped off in arbitration, and will play 2015 with a contract much too cheap for his talent.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Anthopoulos and the Toronto Blue Jays were very aggressive this offseason in trying to improve a team that finished third in the AL Central last year with a 83-79 record. 

Arguably the most important acquisition was third baseman Josh Donaldson, whom the Jays received in a surprising five-player deal last November.  Donaldson, a late bloomer who recorded monster seasons in each of the past two seasons, made only about $500,000 in 2014 with the Oakland Athletics.

While the A's were obviously getting his outstanding play at a ridiculous bargain, it was understandable because Donaldson was still within his first five seasons as a big league regular. 

But on Friday, Donaldson was absolutely shafted.  In his first time being eligible for arbitration, he lost to the team, according to the three arbitrators who heard his case, and will make $4.3 million in 2015 instead of the $5.75 million he would have earned had he won the case.

The most glaring reason that this is absurd is Donaldson's tremendous production in the past two seasons.  In that span, he hit .277 with 53 home runs, 191 RBI and a phenomenal 15.4 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com.  He finished in the top eight in the MVP voting in both seasons and plays terrific defense in addition to his hitting.

With numbers like that, there is no question he should be making way more than $4.3 million.  To be clear, $4.3 million is an obscenely large amount of money and is plenty for any human to live off, but in an age where teams are spending outrageous sums of money on players, Donaldson deserves much more.

Let's compare him to a few other players.  First, let's take Seattle Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, whose breakout 2014 season netted him a seven-year, $100 million contract.  Seager is a nice player, but he is nowhere near as skilled as Donaldson.

Donaldson recorded a higher WAR than Seager last year, and even though Seager is touted as a great fielding third baseman and won the Gold Glove award in 2014, Donaldson's defensive WAR was better than Seager's, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

I understand that Seager is younger and might have more long-term potential, but Donaldson is the better player now, and the two will make about the same amount of money in 2015.

It's easy to forget just how elite Donaldson has been.  Going by WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Donaldson has been the third-most valuable player in baseball since 2013, trailing only Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw.

Before you crucify me for using a stat like WAR, let me explain my logic.  I'm not necessarily saying that Donaldson is MLB's third-best player, but WAR at least takes everything into account and puts it into one number, making it easier to compare players.   

Like WAR or hate it, it has a mathematical basis, and it really likes Josh Donaldson.  And the fact that a trio of judges wouldn't side with him is mind-boggling.

Adrian Beltre, the Texas Rangers' third baseman, is thought of by most as the best all-around third baseman in the league.  He made $17 million in 2014.  Donaldson might not be as good as Beltre, but he isn't far behind.  As it stands, Beltre will make approximately four times what Donaldson will in 2015.

That is highway robbery if I've ever seen it, and the Blue Jays should be embarrassed for sticking it to their new acquisition.

Donaldson should hit at least 25 home runs with 90 RBI, playing home games in the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre and in the other AL East parks where plenty of runs are scored.  Fangraphs' The Steamer projects him at 26 homers and 81 RBI, but that is a bit pessimistic, especially hitting in a lineup with sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

The only downside to Donaldson is the fact that he is 29 years old and has only recorded two significant big league seasons.  However, that should not be held against him. 

ESPN.com's David Schoenfield wrote an article in early January about whether or not Donaldson can continue his success, and after taking statistics and past history into account, his conclusion was that Donaldson will have no trouble sustaining his productivity down the road.

I'm not sure what kind of arguments Donaldson's side brought up during arbitration, but there is no way he should have lost.  He is one of the top three third basemen in the league, and the fact that he wasn't awarded the $5.75 million he asked for is crazy.

Even if he had won the negotiation, he would still be underpaid in my opinion.

Ultimately, the Blue Jays are getting All-Star caliber production at third base very cheaply for 2015.  And Donaldson will fetch plenty of money when he reaches free agency, so it's not like he's completely out of luck.

But for now, Donaldson is going to be arguably the biggest bargain in all of baseball, and it is absolutely unbelievable that he lost his case.