Daily Dose: Pujols, Smoltz team up for win

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John Smoltz and Albert Pujols made for a nice combo Sunday, as Smoltz threw five scoreless innings in his Cardinals debut and Albert Pujols went deep to become just the eighth player in baseball history with 40 or more homers in at least five seasons before the age of 30. Who are the other seven? I’ll give you the answer after talking about Smoltz’s impressive return to the National League.
Smoltz flopped in Boston, going 2-5 with an ugly 8.32 ERA in eight starts, but a 33/9 K/BB ratio in 40 innings, average fastball velocity of 91 miles per hour, and plenty of break left on his hard slider suggested that he could still get major-league hitters out. Or at least that’s what I’ve been opining in this space for the past couple weeks. Not only did Smoltz get hitters out Sunday, he struck out nine of the 18 batters he faced.
He didn’t look as dominant as those strikeout totals suggest and left plenty of pitches out over the plate, but as Cardinals fan and Rotoworld news guru Drew Silva pointed out on Twitter during the game: “Smoltz has hung a few, but this is the NL and these are the Padres.” The good news for Smoltz is that he’s in the NL to stay and, while he doesn’t get to face the Padres every time, he does get to face the Nationals next.
While the answers to the trivia question are Alex Rodriguez, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Ralph Kiner, Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, and Juan Gonzalez here are some other notes from around baseball …


* This year has been a rough one for Aaron Harang, who has just one win since May despite hurling nine Quality Starts during that time and is now finished for the season after undergoing an emergency appendectomy Saturday night. Harang went 32-17 with a 3.75 ERA for the Reds between 2006 and 2007, but is 12-31 over 55 starts in the two seasons since then.
Based on his brutal 12-31 record you’d assume that Harang has been an absolute mess in those two years, but that’s hardly the case. He has a 4.52 ERA and 295/93 K/BB ratio in 347 innings over that span, which given neutral support from the Reds’ lineup and bullpen would leave him at something more like 21-22. He’s certainly not great, but Harang will be massively undervalued by anyone focused on his record.
* Scott Feldman continued his improbable run as one of the league’s top starters by shutting out the Rays for seven innings Sunday. With the victory Feldman improved to 13-4 with a 3.87 ERA and he racked up a career-high 11 strikeouts in the process. Prior to Sunday he hadn’t missed many bats, which along with mediocre control and just an average ground-ball rate equals success via plenty of smoke and mirrors.
AL Quick Hits: Fausto Carmona had eight strikeouts and one walk in seven innings of one-run ball Sunday to beat Felix Hernandez … Scott Downs (toe) is set to come off the disabled list Monday, but may not resume closing right away … Mark Buehrle gave up five runs in 5.1 innings Sunday and has just one Quality Start in six attempts since his perfect game … Trevor Bell was chased from his third career start in the second inning Sunday … Jarrod Saltalamacchia (arm) is slated to begin a rehab stint this week while eyeing a September 1 return … Michael Cuddyer homered twice in one inning Sunday while subbing for Justin Morneau (ear) … Brian Roberts reached base four times Sunday, including his MLB-leading 47th double … Jim Leyland said Sunday that the Tigers will limit 20-year-old rookie Rick Porcello’s workload down the stretch … Brett Tomko has won both starts since joining the A’s, but don’t count on the 36-year-old being anything but mediocre going forward.
NL Quick Hits: Tim Lincecum took a loss Sunday despite throwing a Quality Start at Coors Field … Scott Rolen returned from the disabled list by going 0-for-3 with two walks Sunday … Angel Pagan hit two homers Sunday, including an inside-the-parker that got stuck under the outfield padding at Citi Field … Bud Norris coughed up six runs and failed to make it out of the second inning Sunday … Thanks to Oliver Perez imploding Pedro Martinez picked up a win Sunday despite letting the Mets score four runs in five frames … Ryan Dempster allowed just an unearned run in seven innings Sunday and has a 4.03 ERA since returning from a broken toe … Ubaldo Jimenez stayed on a roll with eight innings of two-run ball Sunday, striking out nine in his 12th win … Alcides Escobar smacked his first career homer Sunday after going deep four times in 109 games at Triple-A … Vicente Padilla is scheduled to make his Dodgers debut Thursday at Coors Field … Matt Diaz missed the cycle by a homer Sunday and is 14-for-29 with three homers in his last nine games.

UPDATE: Donald Trump declines Nats offer to throw out the first pitch

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UPDATE: Welp, we wont’ get to see that:

Sad!

8:53 AM: It’s just gossip now, but Politico is hearing that Donald Trump is in talks to throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park on Opening Day. The Nats are not commenting. Neither are the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Florida State League, who no doubt feel slighted given that the president effectively is a local.

With the caveat that, on Opening Day, tickets are likely to be more expensive and thus you’re likely to have a lot more rich people and friends-of-the-owners in attendance, thereby ensuring a more conservative crowd, I’m struggling to imagine a situation in which Trump strolls on to a baseball field in a large American city and isn’t booed like crazy. He’s polling as low as 36% in some places. He’s not exactly Mr. Popular.

Oh well. I look forward to him three-bouncing one to Matt Wieters and then grabbing his phone and tweeting about how it was the best, most tremendous first pitch in baseball history. Or blaming Hillary Clinton for it in the event he admits that it was a bad pitch.

2017 Preview: Texas Rangers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Rangers somehow won the AL West last year despite not being super great at any one aspect of the game. There are stars here — Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Rougned Odor are all spiffy players — but the Rangers won the division by being greater than the sum of their parts. They scored a decent number of runs despite some bad collective peripheral numbers and they allowed more runs than anyone in the AL except the Twins and Athletics. Yet they had a great record in one-run games and outperformed their pythagorean record by a WHOLE lot. Luck shined brightly on the 2016 Rangers.

It’s hard to expect luck to hold in any instance, but that’s especially the case when there have been some pretty significant changes. Changes like the loss of Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond and Mitch Moreland. In their place: A full season, the Rangers hope, from Shin-Soo Choo, a converted-to-outfield Jurickson Profar and Mike Napoli. That may wash out OK, especially if Choo is healthy, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see some regression in two of those offensive slots.

Starting pitching is also a big question mark. Cole Hamels at the top is not a problem, obviously, and if Yu Darvish is healthy and durable the Rangers have an outstanding 1-2 punch. Martin Perez in the third spot presents promise, but he’s been exactly average so far in five major league seasons. The back end of the rotation has some real problems. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are hurt at the moment and even if healthy, Cashner seems to be a shell of his once-promising self. A.J. Griffin is looking to pitch in his first full season since 2013. If the Rangers are strong contenders all year it’s gonna be on the “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain” model, but I have no idea what rhymes with “Darvish” and that’s sort of a problem.

The bullpen is going to look a lot like it did last year. Sam Dyson will close, but manager Jeff Banister has shown in the past that he’s not a slave to keeping guys in any one role down there. Jeremy Jeffress will likely set up but he’s closed before. Some think Matt Bush or Keone Kela could close. We’ll see Tanner Scheppers and lefty Alex Claudio. Banister has a Manager of the Year Award on his mantle and while that often doesn’t mean anything, it usually suggests that a guy knows how to deal with his pen. Banister will do OK with what he has.

Really, though, the rotation is a concern, as is hoping that a 35-year-old Mike Napoli and a soon-to-be 38-year-old Adrian Beltre can continue to be the types of players who can form the offensive core of a playoff team. There’s talent and a track record here, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. For that reason, I suspect the Rangers will fall back a smidge this year, even if they’re a playoff contender.

Prediction: Second Place, American League West.