Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Morneau and the Future of First Base in Minnesota

I've been leading the 'trade Morneau for whatever you can get' bandwagon for the last 14 months, but today I'm reversing course 180 degrees. Not only do I hope the Twins hold onto him for the rest of this season, but I'd be in favor of re-signing him for next season as well.

The glaring and most obvious reason to re-sign Morneau is 'why not?' Neither of the Chris's (Parmelee and Colabello) have shown they deserve the first base spot in 2014 and there aren't any other options on the farm. Morneau is the best current option and, despite age, has the most upside. Furthermore, Mauer's inevitable switch from catching looks more and more distant by the day. First base is basically wide open for Morneau.

So what? Why pay a 32 year old with middling production (.267/.327/.436 for 2012-2013) $5 million or more? Most of the time I'd agree with you, I'd much rather see the money go towards an international free agent or perhaps a starting pitcher on the market. 

I think this case is different, I think Morneau might be closer to the all-star level of play we saw from 2006-2010. I know, I know, one month does not a good hitter make. BUT I have a larger argument than that! Morneau has had hot streaks before, take July and August of 2012 in which he hit for an .850 OPS or this May/June when he hit above .300. Why should his latest hot month be any different?

For one reason, in those months he was 'hot' in the sense that he had a pretty batting average but still lacked the power you would expect from a first baseman. Despite what you may have thought, Morneau never was a premier hitter but it's fair to expect 25 round-trippers per year and he's barely approached those modest expectations. This August, however, he's launched seven bombs in 88 plate appearances - a 57 home run pace. His seven homers are also a monthly high since July of 2009. And that's not all, he'd also be on pace for 49 doubles. All this while hitting .294 supported by a very sustainable .295 babip. 

It's impossible (and let's be honest, stupid) to say that he's going to be Chris Davis clone for the rest of the season. But the one major missing component from Morneau's game since his 2010 concussion has been his ability to hit for extra bases, as his batting averages have been above average and his defense is still something of an asset at first base. This season he's already just one XBH shy of his 2012 total in 62 fewer plate appearances. If Morneau's power surge is a harbinger of his power ability returning, he's a valuable middle of the order bat and could probably net some serious value in a trade next July ;)

Now the question is, how legit is the newly returned power stroke? Again, only time will tell, but it seems like he's hitting the ball hardly both subjectively (the feeling I get watching the games) and objectively - his 24.1% HR/FB is his highest in any month since July 2010 and four of his seven homers have been classified "Plenty" home runs by ESPN's home run tracker meaning they cleared the fence by more than 10 vertical feet (aka clear home runs). For me, these signs point to Morneau being a 5 HR/Month type of hitter or 30 HR/season. 

That is, if he continues to hit the way he's been hitting. Although he hasn't shown this kind of power since his concussion, his other primary foe (besides lack of power) is his inconsistency. So this is where the 'time will tell' argument comes into play. However, if he can ride this streak into the off-season it'll be a great sign for things to come. The final stretch of each season is often ignored by fans because it's difficult for a struggling player to really make a significant impact on his batting average, wOBA or whatever other metric you prefer. However, guys like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Melky Cabrera and plenty of others had their breakout seasons foreshadowed by strong finishes. Perhaps a strong finish from Morneau should be looked at no differently.

EDIT: I completely neglected an Option C: trade him and then re-sign him in the off-season. My worry here is that if he continues raking on a contender, his market will be much hotter this off-season. Rightly or wrongly the market will likely recognize a strong finish from Morneau on a team that is playing meaningful games, if the past is any indication.


What separates the disappointment of the 2012 Red Sox (69 wins) and the first-place 2013 Red Sox (94.5 win pace)?

It's hard to point to any one thing; their pitching has improved, as has the offense and defense. The improvement in the offense is, I think, the most interesting because it hasn't been a result of the superstars stepping up, necessarily:

D. Ortiz     2012 OPS: 1.026    2013 OPS: 0.985
D. Pedroia 2012 OPS: 0.797    2013 OPS: 0.770

Nevertheless, the team has clearly improved to the tune of about a half a run (4.53 runs per game to 5 in 2013). Some of the increase has resulted from better health and the play of Jacoby Ellsbury, however, a surprisingly large amount of the improvement is unaccounted for until you get to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who's sneakily developed into one of the best offensive catchers in baseball.

'Salty' has long been considered a potential masher behind the plate. He came up as the top prospect in the Braves deep farm system, topping out as the #1 ranked minor leaguer (BA) in 2007 - ahead of Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Yunel Escobar among others. That same year he headlined a trade package for Mark Teixeira. Within the next 12 months he was buried by fellow tradees Neftali Feliz, Harrison and Andrus in Texas and was left in a rotation that left him in AAA more often than not. That said, he didn't exactly dominate the PCL (a notorious hitters league) and spent much of his time on the DL.

Exactly three years later after constituting a large part of the Teixeira deal, Saltalamacchia was dealt to Boston for three decent but not impressive prospects. The Red Sox hoped he could inherit the catcher position from Jason Varitek smoothly, but he ended up falling relatively flat. Despite significant power (41 home runs) he didn't crack a .300 OBP in his first full two seasons as a Red Sock (2011-2012) and by all accounts was an average (at best) backstop defensively. The mediocre catching was/is basically expected, he's a big dude at 6'3" 245 lbs. The offense was basically underwhelming. For example, in 2012, he posted a .222/.288/.454 batting line. Needless to say - less than impressive.

In 2013, though, Salty has made a huge jump and is a big reason for Boston's improvement as a team. In a pretty much full-time role he's been great across the board .272/.341/.456 in near full-time work. Compare that to the average MLB player .261/.327/.414. And that includes all players; consider that Salty is significantly above this mark as a catcher. That's been marked improvement for Boston. And while it doesn't account for the entirety of their improvement it's a significant reason they're sitting atop the AL East.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Nothing Tonight!

I didn't write anything tonight because Liriano. I can't take my eyes off of it now and when I shut my eyes tonight it's all I'll see.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Week in Review Plus Other Stuff

Obviously, my toxic fandom is just what the Doctor ordered for my new "teams". Pittsburgh lost two out three games to both their division rival Cardinals and the Diamondbacks including a 15-5 blowout with their supposed ace on the mound and three losses in extra innings. Boston is 2-3 this week with a chance to each .500 on the week tonight against the Yankees, I'd wait to post this until after that game is over but it's not entirely likely it will finish until Monday. Lastly, Oakland managed to somehow lose a series to Houston (seriously) but bounced back to take two from Wild Card competitor Cleveland.

I'm not concerned about the Pirates or Red Sox, they're suffering minor bumps in the road that every team endures, but I am slightly concerned with Oakland. With Big Fat Bartolo Colon (that's actually on his birth certificate, no lie) tumbling onto the disabled list, they're going to have to count on Jarrod Parker to lead the rotation, which would be fine if Parker wasn't exactly average. In fact, of their remaining starters only Sonny Gray has been better than average and he's only logged 18 innings. Unlike in Gray's case, it's not a small sample size anomaly for Tommy Milone, AJ Griffin and Dan Straily; they've each made 20+ starts to establish themselves and haven't stood apart. As such the A's will continue grinding away at their bullpen for three or four innings a night and pray that Balfour and co. are still fresh in late September. The upshot of having such a decidedly average rotation isn't that Oakland will fade out of the WC race necessarily, but that the pressure on the offense, defense and bullpen is significantly amplified, reducing their margin of error to near zero.

Actually, I do have similar reservations about the Pirates offense but it's a degree of magnitude smaller. McCutchen alone makes the offense passable and along with the flawed but talented Neil Walker, Starlin Marte, Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin there isn't reason for concern yet. Speaking of the supporting cast, Andrew Lambo made his debut this week (I've written about him before). His first week looks bad (1 hit and 1 walk in 10 PAs) but he showed some impressive strike zone judgement seeing 4.2 pitches per plate appearance* and striking out just twice. His lone hit went for a double. I'm thinking he could actually be a key reinforcement for Pittsburgh both in the outfield and off the bench.

I'd like to quickly make some notes about the team's schedules going forward. Oakland's is particularly intriguing/worrisome, they face the Mariners next in a three game series that they'll have to win because after that it's Baltimore, Detroit, Tampa and Texas. After that they have a pretty easy rest of the schedule with seven games against the Twins and another Houston series. After the A's finish that difficult stretch (Bal, Det, etc.) they could be far enough out of it that they'll have a difficult time making up enough ground. So the next two weeks are crucial for the A's.

Pittsburgh's schedule from here on out is basically playing sub-.500 teams with a few series against Cincinnati and St. Louis and one against Texas. Clearly these will be crucial but for the most part the Pirates' schedule isn't much of a hurdle for the remainder. Boston actually does have a tough test ahead of them with 19 of their remaining 36 games against division rivals Tampa Bay, New York and Baltimore along with one series a piece with Detroit and the Dodgers.

We're getting to the point in the season where the schedule is actually a factor for most teams. Back in June it wasn't really a concern because it would basically average out for most teams. Now with about 35-40 games left, the matchups are significant and should be treated that way. Just another fun part of the stretch run.

*Pitches per plate appearance is a stat that will be gaining momentum in both saber and popular media circles in the next few seasons; I think. It seems to be one of those stats that many people ignore but are important to teams, smart teams. Gabe Kapler has talked on Keith Law's podcast about the metric completely unsolicited as a piece of data Boston presented him with often when he worked with their organization, for one example. I personally see it as one of those obvious 'no duh' type metrics that's somehow not really a large part of outsider analysts' discourse. Clearly, the more pitches a hitter sees, it's to his advantage: the pitcher tires, the hitter sees more of the pitcher's repertoire and walks are more common. There's a whole separate debate about whether or not more pitches is a positive, it'll slow down the game when all the Delmon Young level hackers are out of the league. But like a good Coen Brother's movie, the magic is in the build up. I should note that Lambo's 4.2 pitches per plate appearance would rank ninth in MLB, directly behind Joe Mauer and Jose Bautista. Not bad company.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Smoke and Mirrors

If I asked you last night who Pittsburgh's best starting pitcher is, there's a good chance you'd say Jeff Locke. Locke led the Pirates with a 2.43 ERA, behind only Clayton Kershaw and Matt Harvey for all pitchers. You'd be quite wrong.

A shiny ERA is easy to comprehend and an appealing way to quickly assess a pitcher. The metric does a good job of basically measuring what it says it will and isn't hiding behind any gory mathematics. Given this, Locke's ERA is very impressive, to be sure, but it doesn't take much digging to realize that it is headed for a correction the size of the subprime mortgage bubble.

According to DIPS theory (Defense Independent Pitching Statistics), a pitcher essentially can produce three outcomes and the rest of the play is independent of that work. These three outcomes are strikeouts, walks and batted ball type.

These three components come together to produce a predictive statistic called Fielding Independent Pitching or FIP. FIP has been proven to be more predictive of future ERA than ERA itself (if you care to check this, it's easily google-able). Knowing this much, a basic rule of thumb for superficial use of ERA and FIP could be that ERA tells a story about what happened and FIP predicts what will happen going forward.

For example, Pitcher A throws 6 innings and surrenders 3 hits and 4 walks while striking out 2 en route to allowing 2 runs, that pitcher's day would be better described by ERA but to say his true talent is that of a 3.00 ERA would lose a gambler many bets.

All that to say that what Jeff Locke has accomplished over his first 23 starts is significant. He's produced tons of value for his team and is a huge reason they're sitting atop the NL Central. According to FanGraphs he's been worth 4 wins if you simply use results.

All that also to say that Jeff Locke and his mediocre 3.74 FIP will not continue to produce at a level that rivals Matt Harvey. This stat is fueled by below average strikeout (6.64 k/9 or 17.8% of batters) and walk (4.37 BB/9 or 11.5% of batters) rates. Truthfully, I would argue his FIP may undersell just how mediocre Locke has been as it credits him with keeping fly balls in the park, which he hasn't demonstrated as a skill in the past and therefore is probably not sustainable given his skill set. Given this paradigm, Locke has only been worth 1.4 wins according to FanGraphs.

How is this disparity between ERA and FIP created? A large portion can be explained by babip; his, .256, sits well below the standard average, .300. Over the course of a season that's a difference of about 30 hits. It's been demonstrated time and again that it's nearly impossible for a pitcher to control his babip and therefore should be expected to regress to the mean, .300. The Pirates exceptional defensive positioning and general skill will likely depress his babip below the league average (the team babip is .274) sympathetically hedging Locke's regression to some degree.

Locke has been an okay pitcher but he's produced at exceptional levels in 2013. There's a distinction there that's evident if you've read this far and what he has been will be more predictive of what he will produce going forward.

The regression monster showed himself to Locke tonight in a game which he allowed 8 runs in 2.2 innings against the Diamondbacks. His ERA jumped to 2.90. In all likelihood it will continue to rise; and if there's any gamblers out there, I'd be happy to bet on it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

On the Pirates

Of the three contending teams chosen by yours truly to dedicate this space, one has ran away with my heart. Oakland is just too lacking in stars or stories and the Red Sox, well, they're from Boston. The Pirates are the team that has piqued my interest and inspired a fandom that nearly rivals my allegiance to my hometown Twins.

Pittsburgh feels like a 'team of destiny' to the extent that that's possible. They're a group of big name vets and journeymen, top prospect studs and barely on the radar rookies; all surrounding a superstar having an MVP season. Everyone is contributing at what seems like their max potential too, it's not like the Tigers who have been dragged to first place by a handful of all-stars.

They're pretty obviously typecast as David to St. Louis' and Cincinnati's Goliath in NL Central race; any conversation about them begins with their 20 year streak of losing seasons. Despite this being a manufactured storyline to some degree - hard to feel bad for Steelers/ Penguins fans and they are legitimately good - it certainly is easy to buy into.

My lone reservation about the organization is Clint Hurdle. Not many managers are more old-school than he is. At his direction the Pirates have 49 sacrifice hits already, good for the 5th most in baseball, and have issued 32 intentional walks, fourth in baseball. (Interestingly, the Reds blow everyone else away in this category giving free bases to 52 opponents).

One thing I will commend Hurdle on is his readiness to use extreme defensive shifts. The strategy, preached by former Baseball Prospectus writer and current Pirates front office member Dan Fox, is described in great detail here in a very informative article. The shift is a big reason the Pirates are the top defensive team in the National league and it's fruits can be observed in just about every game as a single up the middle is robbed by a perfectly position Clint Barmes or Neil Walker seemingly floating between the first baseman and right fielder.

There will be questionable moves made by Hurdle this year, but it's going to take more than that to take this team that seems to do everything else right out of contention. And I'll be rooting for them with the same gusto as I did with the 2002 Twins.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Day with Gray

If you're going to watch an A's game from here on out, make it a Sonny Gray game. He made his second career start today against the Astros and looked spectacular. Here's his line:

8 Innings 4 hits 1 walk 0 runs allowed and 9 strikeouts

Now, take that with a grain of salt as he was striking out Brandon Barnes and Marc Krauss twice each and his toughest competition was Jose Altuve (Read: The Astros are bad). Nevertheless, the Astros have scored 452 runs this season and the point is that zero of them have come of Sonny.

Anyway, Gray showed off why the A's made him their first round selection in 2011 today. He basically survives off two nasty offerings: fastball and a 12-6 curveball. Sonny's fastball sits between 91 and 95 mph. He keeps the ball down early in the count but can also dial it up with swing-and-miss high heat. I was also impressed by how well he maintained his velocity, hitting 94 mph multiple times in the 8th inning.

Sonny's fastball is certainly effective, but it's barely an appetizer to his wicked curveball. A quote from the visiting play-by-play broadcaster:

"Sonny Gray has a good curveball... That thing is nasty" - Bill Brown, Astros' TV Broadcaster

And right he is. It's a Zito-esque bender with a big sharp break right in front of the plate. More impressive still is his ability to throw it for strikes. Coming into tonight's matchup, the pitch only resulted in a ball 30% of the time. The other 70% consisted of 22% whiffs (nearing on Kershaw's slider type levels) and just 3% line drives. Extreme small sample warning here, but it's all we have and it's impressive enough for me to include here.

Here's where the million $$$ question comes in. Can he be a starter long term or is he best suited for the bullpen?

The big facts working against him are that he is basically a two-pitch pitcher, only 9 change ups in 146 total pitches before tonight, and his small stature, just 5'11" 180 lbs. Gray is obviously set on proving the skeptics wrong as he's stayed very healthy in his career to date and as his 118 pitch performance tonight showed, he has the potential to stick in the rotation.

Only time will tell, ultimately, but for now he's carved out a space in the A's rotation. It'll be interesting to see if Oakland has him on an innings limit as we near the playoffs. He's already about 15 innings short of his career high.

What is clear is that Sonny will be a crucial and much needed weapon in the A's pitching staff from here on out.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Day Three: Liriano

I've watched plenty of Francisco Liriano. I remember the anticipation of each of his starts his debut in 2005 and the electricity of each appearance in 2006. He was unhittable. Francisco was 'Fernando-mania' or that year's version of Matt Harvey. At least for me. I can't remember loving a player more than Francisco Liriano.

Franky would set up batters with a mid to high 90's fastball dancing on the edges of the strike-zone. But as soon as the hitters thought they timed up the fastball he'd pull the chain on a knee buckling change-up. As soon as the batter had two strikes on him, he had no chance. At that point, the slider was coming. It was the most devastating pitch I ever witnessed as a child. I would argue it was more unhittable than Johan Santana's legendary change-up.

As a 22 year-old rookie, Franky struck out 144 batters in 121 innings. Twenty more than Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander. He also walked just 32 batters, about half of Verlander's total. Regardless of how the Rookie of the Year vote ended up, Liriano was not only the most dominant inning-for-inning rookie, but the most dominant inning-for-inning pitcher in the league.

The Franky I knew and loved made his last start September 3rd, 2006. Naturally he pitched a couple scoreless, hitless innings with two strikeouts that day.

Soon after, my hero underwent Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2007 and returned for 76 innings of solid pitching in 2008. He clearly wasn't the same pitcher, however. Francisco sat in the low 90's with his fastball and his slider was merely okay.

That was pretty much the Liriano we saw in Minnesota up until 2012. His stuff was slightly above average and the command of his pitches was inconsistent at best. In that time period, Francisco pitched 695.1 innings. His slider and changeup were still dynamic enough to rack up 8.7 K/9 but his control was well below average allowing over four walks per game. Save for 2010 when he Francisco held his repertoire together long enough to post 3.62 ERA over 191 innings, Liriano was basically a mess. But he was always on the verge of putting it back together.

That brings us 2013. Francisco Liriano has joined the Pittsburgh Pirates and the National League and produced very well.  He's averaged over six innings per start, more than a strikeout an inning and a respectable 3.8 walks per nine innings. All that adds up to a 2.68 ERA, good for sixth in the National League.

Despite the elite-level results, Liriano is still the Francisco we saw in 2010 and not the Franky from 2006. His fastball/slider combo is above average but not devastating and can't get away with sub-par control. However, he has learned to be more economical in his approach as evidenced by his complete game using just 94 pitches tonight against the Cardinals. That lesson will serve him well and could extend his career as a very good number 2 or 3 starter and should make him a huge asset to the Pirates from here on out.

Unfortunately, we, the fans, lost Franky for good that day in 2006. But we have gained a mature Francisco, who's learned to work with stuff he still has in 2013.

This is as good as a comeback story as there is in Major League Baseball this season. Maybe I should say it's the evolution of pitcher, or the re-inventing of a pitcher. Anyway you put it, it's just good to watch Liriano back in the saddle again.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Day Two: Reinforcements

Every year teams in playoff contention will call upon some of their premier minor leaguers to fill a gap on their major league roster. More often than not, the moves are questioned by baseball analysts because the player might not be ready or might not be that good. Sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong. But when one of these reinforcements come up to the bigs and shine it's magical.

For example, last year, the Orioles called upon a newly 20 year old named Manny Machado on August 9th. Machado proved to be wizard at the hot corner and an upgrade over Wilson Betemit with the bat. He then went 1-3 with an RBI and more flashes of spectacular leather in the Wild Card game against the Texas Rangers. Young Manny fell short in the ALCS against the Yankees but did hit a home run in a 3-2 loss.

Going back two years, you have Matt Moore. Moore was summoned on September 14, just a couple weeks before the end of the regular season, but he made a huge difference. Moore pitched 3 spectacular games as the Rays snuck by the Red Sox by one game for the AL Wild Card (back when there was only one WC spot).

There's endless examples going back to K-Rod in 2002 and David Price in 2008. These young guns can electrify a team and make all the difference in a race that's decided by a couple games or a postseason series that's almost a coin flip. There are bound to be a couple of these stories in 2013 and our teams of interest have some interesting heroes waiting in the wings.

Boston Red Sox

Xander Bogaerts - Xander is widely considered one of the top prospects in baseball. More or less in the mold of for Boston prospect Hanley Ramirez, Bogaerts is a shortstop who can absolutely mash. He's hit .298/.389/.480 between AA and AAA this season and, oh yeah, he's 20. Boston's other options at third base are Will Middlebrooks (can't hit/walk) or Brock Holt (who?) so Xander is pretty clearly the best option available to manager John Farrell. Bogaerts is a shortstop by trade, but an iffy one who will fit better long term at third base, so the Sox shouldn't hesitate to use him there. In fact, he's been used at third for the first time in his career since his promotion to AAA, so Boston seems to be thinking the same thing.

Allen Webster - Webster seems like the classic fireballer out of the 'pen type of guy. He's a starting pitcher, so he could offer the Red Sox multiple innings of mid to high 90's fastballs when they need to shutdown an opponent. Think of him like Shelby Miller lite from 2012. Webster has already seen some game action but has had his opening in the rotation filled by Jake Peavy.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Andrew Lambo - Lambo was called up last weekend and will be available to make his major league debut tonight in St. Louis. Lambo has an opening in a right field platoon with righty Jose Tabata. Lambo is the minor league leader in home runs this season, so despite not being a highly lauded prospect like Bogaerts, he has every bit the chance to make a difference.

Jameson Taillon - The Pirates already called up top prospect Gerrit Cole to fill a void in their rotation, but it's possible another will open up with the shaky Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton holding down two of the slots. Taillon will likely be on an innings limit that will keep him to about 40 more from here on out. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw 20 of those come in AAA and then 20 more in the big leagues closer to September. That said, if any team doesn't need bullpen reinforcements, this is it. He might not be a great fit, but he's a great talent.

Oakland A's

Sonny Gray - With Tommy Milone's mid-season implosion, Sonny got the call about a month ago. He throws mid to high 90's with a low 90's sinker and plenty of off-speed junk. Translation: he has the deep arsenal to work in the rotation and the power to succeed in the bullpen.

Dan Otero - Otero's an interesting case in that he was never much of a prospect, is 28 and doesn't run his fastball much past 92 mph. But since he's been in the majors (debuted for the A's: June 14th) he's been extremely effective. In fact, he went his first 20.2 innings without walking a single batter. He has the pedigree of a control artist as well, one walk in 27.1 minor league innings. Despite pumping the strike zone, he doesn't seem to give up many meatballs. Otero allowed 0.4 HR/9 in his minor league career and has yet to allow one in the majors. I'm not sure what his secret is, but he'll certainly be a key piece in the back of the A's bullpen.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Day 1: Where We Begin

August 12

Oakland A's:
67-50. 1 GB of Texas for the AL West. Leading AL Wild Card race.

The A's were the only one of my trio to play today, so I thought we'd do a short 'Get to know em'

Lineup against lefty JA Happ

Chris Young, CF
Jed Lowrie, SS
Josh Donaldson, DH
Yoenis Cespedes, LF
Nate Freiman, 1B
Josh Reddick, RF
Alberto Callaspo, 3B
Stephen Vogt, C
Eric Sogard, 2B

-Chris Young led off today's match with a homer, but he's only playing because Coco Crisp jammed his wrist yesterday. Crisp had led off the  precious 37 games.

-Lowrie, Donaldson and Cespedes have occupied the middle of the order for the majority of the season and seem to be there for the long haul. Lowrie has split his time between the 2 and 3 slot depending on the handedness of the opposing pitcher. Same goes for righties Donaldson and Cespedes.

-Missing from this lineup are lefties with power Seth Smith (often DH) and Brandon Moss (1B) which shows that manager Bob Melvin seems to play to the platoon advantage. However, Melvin did pencil in lefty Vogt over right handed hitter Derek Norris at catcher. Something to keep an eye on.

-It's fairly evident that the lineup is lacking the same kind of pop we see with the Red Sox, but if Josh Reddick can ride his recent hot streak that may help ease the pain.

Starting today was Dan Straily. He's a young guy who's career is marked by his domination of the minors but merely decent 'stuff'. He relies primarily on a well-located fastball and slider but also mixes in the occasional changeup. Straily is likely to stay in the rotation for the balance of the season, based on the A's need for starters.

We also saw a couple of Oakland's better relievers in Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle because the game tied 1-1 until the top of the ninth. This is a deep bullpen.

The Pirates added Andrew Lambo to their roster over the weekend. He'll play tomorrow (Tuesday). Lambo's an interesting case as a prospect who took a long time to develop but might have finally figured it out. Lambo's hit 31 home runs between AA and AAA this season. For comparison, Twins uber-prospect Miguel Sano is getting huge recognition for hitting 29 in the same time frame. That said, it's an imperfect comparison because Lambo is 5 years Sano's senior. Nevertheless, Lambo adds some much needed pop to right field in Pittsburgh where Travis Snider and Jose Tabata have added none.

I'm not sure what I just wrote, or what this 'daily' business will evolve into. I hope it's less jotting down topical thoughts and more to do with the ups and downs of a playoff team.

Getting That Playoff Feel: Pennant Teams

Most of the content in these electronic pages are musings about my beloved Twins. But frankly, they're not an interesting team. It's easy for me, and I'm sure many other fans of struggling franchises, to forget how enthralling it is to plunge into the ups and downs of a pennant race. I vaguely recall some of these feelings from 2010, though they've been numbed by the seasons since.

As a remedy to my growing indifference, I'm going to start on a project here at Pitcher's Duel. I've picked 3 teams with interesting rosters and historic goals to follow in the months of August, September and October and plan to write about at least one of them each day. That's seven days a week. As a douchey athlete might proclaim on twitter: No Days Off.

I'll admit, this is as much an attempt to teach myself some discipline as it is to spark my (and hopefully your) interest in the dog days. That said, I won't be posting game recaps you can find anywhere on the internet. My hope is to bring in some analysis and my access to the greatest thing ever ( in order to search for something essential to the races; whether it be minor roster tweaks that make all the difference or unannounced hot streaks that shake up the entire baseball landscape.

There are so many riches to be mined in these months that it would be a shame to spend in wallowing along with Joe Mauer. However, unlike Mr. Mauer, we're not chained to a sinking ship. I've jumped off the titanic and grabbed a hold of an iceberg headed straight for October! (If you can make sense of that twisted metaphor, good on you). Without further ado, I introduce my teams for the remainder.

Pittsburgh Pirates (70-47)

The Pirates aren't hard to root for. They haven't won more than 80 games since my age was counted in months, not years (1992). That little factoid has been bantered about plenty over the past 14 months, but often ignored by those of us outside of Pittsburgh is the three seasons preceding in which a young Barry Bonds led them to the NLCS three consecutive years only to lose all three games (two in game 7) and eventually their biggest star in Bonds.

This season, the Pirates are a virtual lock to win 80+ games and good bet to make the post-season. With a 70-47 record, Pittsburgh is on pace for 97 wins and possess a small lead over St. Louis (3 games back) and Cincinnati (5 GB) in the NL Central. Although, with the addition of a second wild card team, that lead is a lot more comfortable than it might look: the next challenger for their playoff spot is Arizona at 59-57.

So Pittsburgh has put themselves in position to make the playoffs barring any all-time collapses. But how did they get here?

Pitching and defense. Basically, GM Neil Huntington's gamble on AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano came up snake-eyes as they both have been absolutely dominant, they're getting insane (and wholly unsustainable) work from Jeff Locke and shutdown work from a brilliant bullpen. Not to mention the mid-season infusion of former No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole firing 98 mph bullets in the middle of the rotation.

Going forward, it'll be Burnett, Liriano, Cole and pray for rain. Locke, of the 2.43 ERA, is bound to regress to his mediocre self, but should be able to show up and give his team a chance every fifth day, as should Charlie Morton. Wandy Rodriguez may return from a forearm injury in early September and could be an upgrade as a fourth starter entering the playoffs. In addition, highly regarded prospects Jameson Taillon and Stolmy Pimentel wait in the wings in AAA.

The defense has been anchored up the middle by an elite catcher and supplemented by good athletes filling out the rest of the diamond. Russell Martin has proven to be another worthy gamble from Huntington as he's continued to be top tier defensive catcher. Surrounding him are above average gloves like Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Starling Marte that have provided the pitching staff with an NL leading defensive efficiency of 0.726 (rate of balls in play converted to outs).

The offensive side of the ball is an accurate mirror of the defense: one star and then solid, above-average contributors. In this case, it's Andrew McCutchen. He's developed into a five-tool superstar since the beginning of 2012 hitting .313/.386/.507 and stealing 24 bases to just 6 times caught. Beyond McCutchen, Starling Marte and Neil Walker are setting the table nicely in the top two slots in the batting order and Pedro Alvarez is displaying his power potential with an NL leading 28 bombs so far. The bottom four in the lineup is the most serious weakness for the Pirates and should have been addressed at the trading deadline, ideally. With little help on the horizon, look for the Pirates to ship out for power hitting right fielder or first baseman through waivers.

Oakland Athletics (67-50)

Just another ragtag bunch of A's sneaking their way into the playoff picture. This time, it's harder to peg the source of their success. They've had decent starting pitching, good relief help and an unorthodox but not outstanding offense. Like the Pirates, much of their success has stemmed from an incredible ability to turn hits into outs.

Oakland's defensive efficiency sits at .730, making them the only unit better than Pittsburgh at preventing baserunners. Gold Glove candidates Eric Sogard (2B) and Josh Donaldson (3B) provide top-notch defense flanking their below average (arguably misplaced) shortstop, Jed Lowrie. Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick back them up to provide one of the premier defensive outfields in baseball - which is necessary in the spacious Coliseum (yes, that's the actually name).

I mentioned earlier that Oakland has an unorthodox offense. I don't mean they've invented a new way to score, but that they're getting great hitting from positions that normally lack any type of significant production, namely second base, shortstop and third base. Unfortunately for the A's, they haven't been able to produce at offense-first positions like first base, designated hitter and right field.

Although the A's pulled out a win in the top of the ninth today (Aug 12), the team will have to fight to remain in the playoff race amid competition from Baltimore, Cleveland and Kansas City (can't believe I just typed that). The struggle will be as much their own doing as that of the competition. Their rotation is falling apart (I'm sure I'll touch on this on a later day) and their stars of the first half, Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie and Coco Crisp, have slowed down considerably since July.

Boston Red Sox (71-49)

I know nobody enjoys rooting for Boston, but this is a legitimately fun team to watch. And they're doing it the old-fashioned way, not with this pitching and defense crap. They're mashing.

David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia are all hitting like stars they've been in the past. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes have provided some extra pop towards the end of the batting order. Stephen Drew and Shane Victorino have done the impossible and stayed healthy enough to contribute their own above-average production. This is as complete a lineup, top to bottom, as you'll see in baseball.

This offense shouldn't have surprised a single soul. What has surprised is the rotation. Despite an injured Clay Buchholz and ineffective Jon Lester, the rotation has been held together by Felix Doubront and, back from the dead, John Lackey. With Ryan Dempster and Lester behind those two, the rotation is serviceable enough to keep most games within reach of Papi and co. However, the addition of Jake Peavy is massive for this club. Now instead of running promising young arms Allen Webster and Brandon Workman out their to see if they can make it, they have a bona fide mid-rotation horse to count on every fifth day.

Another key factor for Boston is their bullpen. Like Oakland and Pittsburgh, it's been absolutely stellar. The only reason I focus a paragraph on it for Boston is because it's been unexpected. Koji Uehara has been among the best closers in baseball with Craig Breslow and Jiunichi Tazawa doing nice set up work. Unfortunately for Boston, they now have a DL's worth of equally talented pitchers: Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Miller and Matt Thornton. The depth of this 'pen could be a major factor in how the rest of the season shakes out and will be worth keeping an eye on.