Friday, July 20, 2007

State of the Baseball Union: NL East

My apologies for neglecting the blog. I've been working too hard at the things that do pay me to spend enough time on my hobbies, which really is a shame. I know we're a bit past the halfway point and a week past the All-Star break, but it's never too late to look at the state of things. Let's see how the races are turning out, starting with the National League (stats and standings are as of Friday the 20th.

NL EAST

New York Mets
The Mets are 53-42 and in 1st place, 2.5 games ahead of Atlanta. The Mets are doing about as well as I expected; winning the division, but not as good as last year. But they're going about it the opposite way I expected. All of the noise right now is about the Mets going after a starting pitcher. And while they could use another warm body in the rotation, their pitching has been just fine so far this year. The Mets' 3.89 team ERA is second only to the amazin' Padres' 3.10 mark. So while it would be nice to find someone more reliable than Jorge Sosa for the #5 spot in the rotation (despite Sosa's 3.84 ERA so far), there's no need to panic and pick up a bad contract (Jose Contreras).

What the Mets do need to be concerned about is their hitting. Their 433 runs scored ranks 7th in the league and 4th in their own division. David Wright and Jose Reyes are doing great; everybody else has been pretty disappointing. Moises Alou has hit well (318/374/445), but has made just over 100 plate appearances. Carlos Beltran (258/340/468) and especially Carlos Delgado (251/319/448) have taken a big step back from their career form. And the team has put too much time into Shawn Green (278/328/424) and alleged All-Star Paul Lo Duca (270/316/360). They've gotten some good production out of some role players (Ruben Gotay, Ramon Castro, Damion Easley) as is their custom, but these guys can't be depended upon for the future. And they're balanced out by the poor work shown by Jose Valentin, Julio Franco, Lastings Milledge, Carlos Gomez, and others.
So if I were the Mets, I'd spend far more time trying to work out a deal for a spare corner outfielder (call the Cubs, they've got 80) or a second baseman. The team seems committed to Paul Lo Duca, so there's not much room for improvement there.
The good news is that the Mets pitching is good enough as is, and the offense (particularly Dos Carlos) should revert somewhat back to their previous form. But they're getting a good challenge from the Braves and may have to fend off the Phillies eventually. I think they'll make it into October, but I'd feel a lot safer if a) the team could solve its hitting problems, and b) the team actually realized that hitting is the problem.

Atlanta Braves
I picked the Braves to win 80 games and finish 4th in their division. Right now they're in 2nd and are on pace to win 86. The difference between the two is the difference between contending for the Wild Card and not. The Braves don't have great pitching or great hitting, but they've been doing good enough with both to get by. But I don't think they're much better than they are right now, and they're more likely to fade down the stretch than to get better.
Offensively, the most room for improvement is in Andruw Jones (220/321/437). Andruw's already started to bounce back from a horrible start that saw him hitting below the Mendoza line through June. He should hit more like the old Andruw in the second half, if only because Scott Boras will strangle him if he doesn't.
The Braves just aren't getting enough offense from their key offensive positions. The middle infield is golden, with both Edgar Renteria and Kelly Johhnson having good year, and catcher Brian McCann is doing well, if a little poorer than expected (269/324/462). Even Chipper Jones is still hitting like himself (337/430/587), injuries and age be damned. But their outfield is very weak. Flanking Andruw, the Braves have Jeff Francoeur in right. Francoeur is doing better than usual (291/330/426), but is a well-below-average right fielder in terms of offense. Luckily, Matt Diaz is picking up the slack in left, filling a big hole for the team with a 358/379/485 batting line. The problem is that when Diaz's batting average comes back to earth, he'll be a pretty average left fielder. And the Braves need someone else to be above-average, with Ryan Langerhans (068/192/091) flunking out and ending up in Washington.
First base has been a disaster for Atlanta. I thought they were crazy for starting Scott Thorman and -- for once, at least -- I was right, as Thorman has been truly wretched (212/253/382). The Braves have brought up catching prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia and put him at first. "Salty" has been better (278/331/414), but this longtime catcher doesn't hit like a first baseman and may never do so. The Braves could use a jolt of offense at first base, and I doubt that Julio Franco is it.
Pitching-wise, the team has similar problems; they're good, but far from great. The team needs to thank their lucky stars that Tim Hudson is pitching well again (3.24 ERA), and he joins John Smoltz and Chuck James to form a pretty good 1-3. But pretty good won't get them past L.A. in the Wild Card race, especially when they've had a terrible time filling in the #4 and #5 slots. Buddy Carlyle has done a good job as an emergency starter, but the pixie dust should be wearing of him eventually. Kyle Davies has been dreadful (5.76 ERA), making some wonder if he'll ever fulfill his promise as a prospect. The Braves called up prospect Jo-Jo Reyes to start, but his debut in the majors has thus far been pretty ugly (8.68 ERA in 2 starts).
The bullpen has been equally inconsistent, with Bob Wickman the best example. In betting terms, the Braves didn't know to stop while they were ahead, keeping Wickman in the closer's spot long after the sirens went off signalling imminent doom. Wickman's 4.36 ERA is terrible for a closer, and there's no sign that it's a fluke. With Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez pitching well, the Braves have room to take Wickman out of the closer's spot. Even then it may be too late, as Wickman's poor performance has lowered his trade value.
The Braves don't have the depth in their own system to make a significant improvement this year, so their best hope of getting better is through a trade. The problem is that the Braves have become more conservative when it comes to in-season trading, and they're only going to tighten the purse strings more with the change in ownership. They will probably look into some low-end acquisitions, but it's unlikely that they'll give up the money or prospects it would take to get an impact player like Adam Dunn or Mark Teixeira.
Therefore, I seriously doubt that the Braves will make the postseason. They're doing better than I expected, and 86 wins would be a good step forward, but that may not be enough to win the Wild card, even assuming that they can keep up the pace.

Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies have been pretty darn disappointing thus far. I don't blame Jimmy Rollins and his jinx. I don't even blame Ryan Howard for hitting slightly less than brilliant. The problem here has been correctly diagnosed: an injured, decrepit pitching staff. But the Phillies' offense is so good that it's hard to dismiss them as contenders for the Wild Card.
The Phillies offense is scoring 5.29 R/G. They're 1st in the NL by plenty; the Rockies are 2nd at 4.92. They've been just as good as advertised, and even better. Chase Utley (336/405/585) has been amazing, and if the Phillies manage to come back, he's a good bet for MVP. Jimmy Rollins (286/331/518) has been as good as ever, and Ryan Howard is back to his old self (263/387/584). They've also gotten a career year from Aaron Rowand (330/404/525) as well as solid work from Shane Victorino and Pat Burrell. They've gotten predictably poor work from third basemen Wes Helms and Abraham Nunez, but the rest of the order is strong enough (their production at catcher is acceptable) that their third base woes aren't such a big deal. The big deal is pitching.
With Jon Lieber and Freddy Garcia injured, not to mention possible starter Brett Myers and titular closer Tom Gordon, the Phillie pitching has been pretty poor. Cole Hamels (3.69 ERA, 32:129 BB:K ratio) has developed into the ace the Phillies need, but after that, it's very thin. The only other starter with a better-than-average run average is Kyle Kendrick, whose 4.40 ERA isn't really the sign of a #2 starter. Jamie Moyer has been durable, if below-average (4.99 ERA in 119 IP), but he too isn't a passable #2. The only other pitcher with multiple starts on the team is Adam Eaton, whose awfulness (5.98 ERA) came as a surprise to no one outside of the GM's office. There's not a lot of help at hand, since Hamels was their top pitching prospect by quite a bit. Myers should be back soon, and here's hoping the Phillies get their priorities straight and return him to the rotation, where he should at least eat some innings. If Tom Gordon can return in good health (fingers crossed), then there's another hole filled. The middle relief corps isn't all that bad, taped together though it may be. They're certainly not desperate enough to push the "in case of fire, call Jose Mesa" button, but they've brought in the man none the less (his 3.78 ERA is belied by a 6.48 RA -- run average. Jose is letting in a lot of other people's runs).
The Phillies are on the lookout for pitching help, and even in a bare market, they're looking at whomever they can. The problem is that they're in a really tough place; they just might be contenders, but is it worth giving up prospects and adding payroll for such a small window of opportunity? I don't think so, but that doesn't mean that the Phillies won't try. I wouldn't object to a half-season rental if it came cheap, but the Phillies don't need to add any long-term liabilities for such a small chance of reaching the postseason.
I think the Phillies will get better, but I don't think it will be enough to reach the postseason. My guess is they give the Braves a real fight for 2nd place, but fall short of first.
Florida Marlins
I predicted the Marlins would win 82 games. I then listed the pros and cons of making such a choice. My first statement under cons was that "their 2006 success is hard to repeat. All of their rookies were so good, and so many of them reached their potential in 2006, that's there's not a lot of room for upward expansion. In fact, it's more realistic to expect several guys to suffer setbacks. We've already seen it start among the young pitchers (Jason Johnson, Anibal Sanchez), and it's likely to cascade. The only sure thing is Miguel Cabrera's MVP Candidacy."
I was exactly right. If only I'd listened to myself, because I favored the pros and predicted the Marlins would improve upon their 2006. Right now they're in 4th place at 46-51, and that's probably where they'll end up.
I figured the Marlins would have a balanced, if mediocre, attack in 2007. On the contrary, they've been spectacularly unbalanced. Their offense is far, far beyond what I thought they were capable of. They're scoring 4.75 R/G in a big pitcher's park; the only teams ahead of them in R/G play in bandboxes: Philadelphia, Colorado, Cincinnati. I was right about Cabrera (328/401/603), although his rapidly expanding waistline will probably limit his time at third. But even if he does end up in the outfield, he still looks like the next Bobby Abreu, with the good chance of being even better.
The biggest surprise is shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who's hitting like an MVP (329/384/538). If his defense were better (-11 FRAA and counting), he would be an MVP candidate. Josh Willingham's doing well, Dan Uggla is still a productive hitter, and would you believe Aaron f'n Boone is hitting 286/388/423? Jeremy Hermida looks like he might be turning it around, Todd Linden is the actually valuable player that the Marlins got from the Giants, and first baseman Mike Jacobs is at least decent. Life is good for the Florida offense, especially considering it costs about as much as 5 starts from Roger Clemens.
I predicted that the Florida pitchers would take a step back. But their 5.15 RA/G is second-worst in the league to the Pirates. That's partly due to a weak defense, (.671 DER is worst in the NL), but you still can't sugarcoat a 4.56 ERA in a pitcher's park. Their strikeout rate is about average (6.6 K/G), but their walk rate is the worst in baseball (4.1 BB/G).
What happened here? Injuries to key players are partially to blame, but even the healthy ones haven't pitched very well. The only above-average starter on the entire team has been Sergio Mitre (2.82 ERA), and that won't last long. Scott Olsen was supposed to be one of the go-to guys, but he's sporting a 5.57 ERA and was recently suspended by the Marlins for yelling at a coach. Byung-Hyun Kim has shown that he can be mediocre at low altitudes (4.63 ERA), and the Fish have gotten so desperate they've actually called up 4-A mainstay Wes Obermueller (6.56 ERA in 18 games, 7 of them starts).
Injuries to Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Anibal Sanchez mean that the pitching staff isn't going to get any better. The only real hope for recovery is for Dontrelle Willis to start pitching like, well . . . Dontrelle Willis.
Here's a short look at Dontrelle Willis' career:
2003: 3.30 ERA, 160.2 IP, 58:142 BB:K ratio
2004: 4.02 ERA, 197 IP, 61:139 BB:K ratio
2005: 2.63 ERA, 236.1 IP, 55:170 BB:K ratio
2006: 3.87 ERA, 223.1 IP, 83:160 BB:K ratio
2007: 5.13 ERA, 121 IP, 55:84 BB:K ratio (he's also on pace to set a career high in HR allowed)
My point is that Dontrelle Willis just isn't as good as people think he is, and he's worryingly inconsistent. His career ERA right now is 3.65. Now, a guy with a career ERA like that who can also go 200+ innings and give you more than 150 strikeouts is certainly valuable, especially when he's just 25. But he's not one of the top 10 (or 15) pitchers in baseball, and if you pit him in an AL hitter's park, he might explode.
Dontrelle's public image has just never caught up with his dwindling performance. Dontrelle was a star in 2003, and he cashed in his great PR with a genuinely great 2005. But since then, no one's bothered to look at the big picture and wonder if Dontrelle is still maybe the wunderkind everyone thinks he is.
I'm probably exaggerating. Dontrelle's woeful 2007 has certainly lowered his trade value and has probably lowered his first big free agent contract by a few million. But Dontrelle is so exciting that I'm sure some GM out there will be willing to pay enough to get the imaginary Dontrelle (the superstar), even though he's actually getting the real Dontrelle (the star). And the difference between a star pitcher and a superstar pitcher is $10-20 million.
And returning from the detour, I think we can safely conclude that the Marlins are out of the 2007 postseason chase. While they might make another crazy Benitez-like trade, it's not likely that they'll acquire enough to make a big difference in their record.
Washington Nationals
Ha, ha! Sorry, I shouldn't gloat every time I'm right, because then I'll have to apologize every time I'm wrong. Which is a more frequent occurrence, so to speak.
But really; if the Nats had really started from the ground up in 2005, then they'd actually be starting to show signs of quality here. But while some of Jim Bowden's moves have been wise, he's never fully committed to rebuilding with the zeal that the Marlins have shown in years past. As a result, his team is only somewhat rebuilt. But, as several analysts have pointed out, the worst thing a baseball team can do is this half-ass rebuilding project where they try to have it both ways. The Royals and Pirates are shining examples of this in recent years. They try to make a few trades to regenerate a depleted farm system, but then they go out and sign a few useless free agents so they won't completely lose face with public. The result is worse than rebuilding or not rebuilding -- it's a decade of irrelevance.
The Nats haven't gone as far as the Royals or Pirates in terms of signing useless free agents; they learned from the Vinny Castilla/Cristian Guzman debacle. But they still haven't fully committed to selling off the big-league team and helping stock one of the worst farm systems in baseball. They have just such an opportunity right now, as the July 31 trade deadline looms.
Eyes will be on Jim Bowden, expecting him to avoid repeating the Alfonso Soriano blunder from last year (where Bowden tried to re-sign Soriano to a contract extension. Luckily for Bowden, Soriano didn't take him up on his self-destructive offer. Unfortunately, Bowden played hardball and bluffed himself into a corner, not trading Soriano and losing him to free agency with nothing but a draft pick in return). Rob Neyer commented that if Dmitri Young is still a Nat after July 31, Bowden should be fired. He's right; Young is the perfect example of buying low and selling high. It's a great system so long as you remember the part about selling. Other have set a more stringent standard for Bowden: anyone but Ryan Zimmerman should be available, and they should be shopped aggressively, none of this Soriano nonsense.
The truth is that the Nats are awful and will be awful for a while. It's up to Jim Bowden to determine how long that awfulness will last. Because if he's tempted to half-ass his rebuilding project, he might as well make friends with Dave Littlefield and the Pirates in the Land of Forgotten Franchises.
Just a note: I predicted the Nats would finish 68-94 this season. Right now, they're 40-56, on pace to finish . . . 68-94. It should be noted, though, that their Pythagorean record is 37-59, the worst in baseball. Yes, even worse than the Devil Rays (38-57). They're scoring 3.82 R/G, which might have been good in the 70's, but in 2007 it's the worst in all of baseball by a fair margin. The next-worst team is Arizona (4.07). They're 9th in the league in RA/G, at 4.96. That's not so terrible, even in a pitcher's park. But that mostly reflects their good defense. Their staff ERA is 4.73; only the Cardinals are worse (4.77), and if you consider ballparks, the Nats are probably worst of all.
The Nat's do have some consolation; their .417 winning percentage is higher than the approval ratings of both the President and Congress. When the baseball team has a higher approval rating than 2 of the 3 branches of government (and Dick Cheney), something ain't right.
Back soon with the Double-A Southern League -- er, the NL Central.

1 comment:

t ball said...

Welcome back. You're hitting the nail on the head with Dontrelle, overrated. The Marlins should have sold high on him over the offseason. The Braves need a pitcher and Teixiera -- don't think they'll be willing to part with what it would take to get both. The Nats are just confusing, if they don't sell high and trade Dmitri they're nuts.