Great Moments in GIF History: The 2012 Houston Astros

Thanks to Jeff Sullivan at Lookout Landing for sharing this priceless moment in baseball history.

Great news Mariners fans! This team is in your division next year!

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Fun with Photoshop: “I Lust for (Jack) Cust”

The Hunt for Reds in October: Is Cincinnati Ready to Join the Playoff Party?

Joey "the Canadian Crusher" Votto is the centerpiece of a talented Reds' lineup.

Despite having the endearingly clueless (unless of course you invested heavily in Mark Prior or Kerry Wood rookie cards) Dusty Baker at the helm, Cincinnati’s strong finish to last season convinced many that the Reds were ready to take a step forward and compete for the NL Central in 2010.  

The team went a combined 20-11 in September and October and enjoyed a strong season against their divisional rivals (46-34). Led by a stable of quality young arms and homegrown talent in the field, the Reds have been a chic pick by baseball pundits this Spring to sneak into the postseason. But, does the team have enough weapons to compete with St. Louis and Chicago and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000? Let’s take a closer look at everyone’s favorite Cinderella for 2010, starting with their pitching:   

Although phenom Aroldis Chapman probably won’t see significant major league action in 2010, the Reds still boast a strong starting rotation of established arms and up and coming stars—the team finished 7th in the NL with a 4.18 cumulative ERA last season. Veterans Bronson Arroyo (15-13, 3.84 ERA) and Aaron Harang (6-14, 4.21 ERA) mentor a terrific triumvirate of young arms consisting of Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez. All three have shown the potential to be staff aces but have struggled with inconsistency and injuries; they’ll need to step up this season if the Reds want to match the duo of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis.  

Johnny Cueto has all the makings of an ace, and the Reds need him to perform at a high level in 2010.

Cincinnati’s bullpen is rock solid, with All-Star closer Francisco Cordero (39 saves, 2.16 ERA) and specialists like the ageless Arthur Rhodes (1-1, 2.53 ERA) and Nick Masset (5-1, 2.37 ERA) ready to put the game on ice. If their relief corps can continue to perform at a high level and Volquez, Bailey and Cueto live up to their potential, the Reds should have the pitching to compete with just about anybody. Can their offense keep up?  

Calling Cincinnati’s 2009 lineup pedestrian would be an insult to pedestrians. Their anemic offense finished 15th in average, 11th in runs, 15th in OBP, 13th in slugging and 13th in OPS out of 16 NL teams, and was a major reason why the Reds were outscored by 50 runs last year. Their lineup certainly isn’t devoid of talent, but Cincinnati will need more production from top-to-bottom this year in order to support the starting rotation.  

A full season of Joey Votto (.322-25 HR-84 RBI’s in 469 AB’s) should help the offense, as will steady vets Brandon Phillips (.276-20-98-25 SB) and Scott Rolen (.305-11-67), but young players like Jay Bruce (.223-23-58) and Drew Stubbs (.267-8-15-10 SB) need to stay healthy and live up to their potential if Cincinnati is going to take a step forward in the National League. Question marks also remain at shortstop (rookie Drew Sutton), catcher (an aging Ramon Hernandez) and leftfield (some combination of Wladimir Balentien and Jonny Gomes); those three positions will go along way in determining the Reds’ success or failure.  

There’s a lot to like about Cincinnati heading into 2010. They have a solid young nucleus of pitchers and bats and have done an amazing job of creating quality major league players through their farm system. The Reds have burgeoning flamethrowers in Homer Bailey and Edison Volquez and potential MVP candidates in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, but they still need more time to develop and more firepower to compete with St. Louis and Chicago in the talented and balanced NL Central. Cincinnati has a chance to finish above the .500 mark for the first time in ten years, and should use the momentum heading into 2011, because it’s unlikely that the Reds will make the playoffs this season; not with the depth of their division.

Cinderella’s slipper doesn’t quite fit Cincinnati…at least not this year.

Noteworthy News: Wrapping Up the Latest Deals from Baseball’s Winter Meetings

The Rangers sent Kevin Millwood to Baltimore, then signed free-agent Rich Harden the next day.

 1) Texas Rangers trade Kevin Millwood and cash to Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Chris Ray: The Texas Rangers have been one of baseball’s busiest teams in the  offseason thus far, and they continued that trend by sending former Opening Day starter Millwood and $3 million dollars to the Baltimore Orioles for relievers Chris Ray and Ben Snyder. Millwood was solid in 2009, going 13-10 with a 3.67 ERA but the Rangers were looking to free up salary to sign free-agent Rich Harden (a deal which has since been completed). The 27-year-old Ray is a former closer who struggled to return from elbow surgery last season but has saved 33 games as recently as 2006. The deal gives Baltimore a proven veteran pitcher controlled through 2011 to mentor younger starters David Hernandez, Brian Matsuz and Chris Tillman. 

2) Boston Red Sox trade Mike Lowell and cash to Texas in exchange for catching prospect Max Ramirez: The Red Sox freed up third base for next season, possibly in order to sign Adrian Beltre, with today’s trade of Mike Lowell to Texas. The Rangers plan to use the injury-prone Lowell as a DH and first baseman (potentially a platoon partner with Chris Davis). Lowell, a major liability in the field due to hip problems, appeared in just 119 games last year but still hit .290 with 17 HR’s and 75 RBI’s. The Red Sox have also agreed to pay most of Lowell’s $12 million dollar salary for next season if the league approves the deal. In return Boston receives Max Ramirez, a 25-year-old catcher and former Atlanta Braves top prospect, who will likely serve as Victor Martinez’s backup unless the Red Sox decide to shift Martinez to first. 

The Astros hope Feliz's strong defense will help them return to the postseason.

 3) Houston Astros sign free-agent third baseman Pedro Feliz: Feliz spent the last two years as the primary third baseman for Philadelphia but with the Phillies acquisition of Placido Polanco, the 2008 World Series champion was left looking for work and Houston happily obliged. The Astros already have Geoff Blum manning the hot corner but would prefer to use his versatility all over the field rather than play him full-time at third. Feliz is a solid defender at third base but is starting to become a liability at the plate after hitting only .266 with 12 HR’s and 88 RBI’s last season. Already 34-years-old, Feliz doesn’t have much in the way of upside and won’t turn a team from pretender to contender, but is a solid if unspectacular pickup (1 year/$4.5 million) for a team on a budget like Houston. 

4) Pittsburgh Pirates sign free-agent shortstop Bobby Crosby: An underachieving team signing an underachieving player doesn’t sound like a traditional recipe for success, but so is life for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans. Crosby has been in steady decline since winning the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2004 and struggled last year with injuries and inconsistency (.223-6 HR’s-29 RBI’s). The Pirates hope that he can challenge Ronny Cedeno for shortstop and possibly recapture some of his past success, but at only $1 million for next year Pittsburgh isn’t taking that big of a gamble on him…what’s new in Steeltown? 

5) Atlanta Braves trade relief pitcher Rafael Soriano to Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for pitcher Jesse Chavez: One of the top right-handed relief pitchers in the National League last season, Tampa Bay acquired Soriano with the idea plugging him in as their full-time closer in 2010. While splitting the closer’s role with Mike Gonzalez in Atlanta last year, Soriano posted a 2.97 ERA and struck out 102 batters in only 75 innings. The Rays had a full-blown closer by committee bullpen in 2009, and if Soriano can stay healthy Tampa Bay will be one step closer to challenging the Yankees and Red Sox for AL East supremacy. The Braves decided to move Soriano after he accepted their arbritation offer which would have cost the team between $7 and $8 million dollars next season if they had kept him. In return, Atlanta acquires an average bullpen arm (Chavez went 1-4, 4.07 ERA in 2009) at a steeply discounted price. 

Randy Wolf snagged almost $30 million dollars from the Brewers. Is he worth it?

 6) Milwaukee Brewers sign free-agent pitcher Randy Wolf: Looking to add stability to their rotation behind ace Yovanni Gallardo, the Brewers have reached an agreement with Randy Wolf on a three-year, $29 million dollar contract. The left-handed Wolf was the Dodgers most consistent pitcher last season, winning 11 games to go along with 160 strikeouts and a 3.23 ERA. However, before last year Wolf only had two other seasons with an ERA below 4.00, and is moving from one of the league’s best pitcher’s parks to one of the worst. The Brewers desperately needed starting pitching, help, but it remains to be seen whether Wolf is the right choice long-term. 

7) Texas Rangers sign free-agent pitcher Rich Harden: The ultimate high-risk, high-reward player on the market, Harden is one of the game’s most dominating starting pitchers—when he’s healthy. The deal promises Harden $7.5 million next season with a club option of $11.5 million for 2011. Harden went 9-9 with a 4.09 ERA last year for the Cubs, striking out 171 batters in only 141 innings. Unfortunately, last season was just the third time in his seven-year career that Harden pitched more than 140 innings, and only once has he made more than 30 starts in a single year (2004). If he can stay off the disabled list this could be a major coup for the Rangers, if not, it’s just a very expensive mistake.

Ben Zobrist: Baseball’s Swiss Army Knife

Zobrist is ten feet all, weighs a ton, and breathes fire.

Zobrist is ten feet tall, weighs a ton, invented electricty and breathes fire.

Tampa Bay All-Star second baseman Ben Zobrist came into 2009 with little fanfare and even less chance of getting steady at-bats. After all, the Rays already had two solid middle-infielders in Jason Bartlett and Akinori Iwamura and an outfield that featured B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and the Gabes (Kapler and Gross) platooning in right-field. Zobrist had shown good pop in a limited trial during 2008 (12 HRs in 198 ABs), but the utility man didn’t figure to play more than a few times a week for the reigning AL champs.

Yet despite all these hurdles, Zobrist kept hitting whenever he got the chance, and as luck would have it the Gods of Baseball decided to give the former Astros farmhand a chance to shine. When Iwamura went down with a knee injury in late May, Zobrist became the Rays’ everyday second baseman and quickly proved that he had deserved a starting role all along; the legend of “Zorilla” was finally born.

The 28-year-old, who once got more recognition for his wife than his play on the field, is now one of the game’s rising stars and a favorite in fantasy baseball circles. Zobrist is capable of playing second and shortstop as well as any of the three outfield positions, making this jack-of-all-trades nearly indispensable to Tampa Bay. In addition to his versatility, Killer-Z also wields a mean stick at the dish.

Coming into the All-Star break Zobrist was hitting .297 with 17 HRs and 52 RBIs in only 246 ABs. The switch-hitter also shows a keen eye at the plate, drawing 49 walks against 55 Ks, leading to his robust .414 OBP. Zobrist has even developed as a base-stealer, swiping 11 bags while only getting caught three times. The pride of Eureka, Illinois is second in the league in SLG (.598), third in OBP and second in OPS (1.012). Is there anything on a baseball diamond this guy can’t do?

The grass is always greener on the other side, unless Zorilla has been there. In that case the grass is most likely soaked in blood and tears.

The grass is always greener on the other side, unless Zorilla has been there. In that case the grass is most likely soaked in blood and tears.

As the season progresses, this former 6th-round pick continues to develop into one of the best all-around talents in the game. The addition of Zobrist to the everyday lineup has reignited the Rays, helping them recover from a slow start and stay in contention in the brutal AL East. At 48-41, Tampa Bay is only 6 1/2 games back in the division and 3 1/2 games behind New York in the wild card race.

The Rays, already one of baseball’s deepest teams, continue to show that they have one of the best farm systems and scouting departments in the game today. Last year’s World Series runner-ups are even better this season with baseball’s biggest surprise leading the charge.

If Zobrist can prove that the first half of the season was no fluke and return the Rays to the post-season he will likely find himself in the AL MVP discussion at the end of the year. Not bad for a guy that once got traded for Aubrey Huff and came into the season with a career .222 average.

The Zorilla strikes again.