Saturday, September 08, 2007

State of the MLB Union . . . AL Central

  • The New York Daily News is reporting that Cardinals outfielder Rick Ankiel received a year's supply of HGH from Signature Pharmacy in Florida. This is part of a large-scale steroids/HGH bust involving doctors and pharmacists from New York to Florida. A number of other athletes have been implicated with the sketchy practices of Signature.
    I'm not going to have burst a blood vessel and call for blood tests, a la Buster Olney. I think Jayson Stark offered the most reasoned response to the Ankiel story. The most important thing to remember is that HGH was not prohibited at the time Ankiel received his shipments (circa 2004). MLB may try to find some way to slap Ankiel on the wrist, but without more evidence, there's no way any punishment would survive an appeal. Nor should it. Whatever we feel personally about the HGH story (and the related story concerning Troy Glaus), there is nothing yet to merit any punitive action by the MLB.
  • The Pirates have fired GM Dave Littlefield. In other news, word has finally been relayed to the captain of the Titanic that he has been relieved of his duties.
Cleveland Indians (81-60)
My Prediction: 94-68
On Current Pace: 93-69

The Indians have finally broken through and started playing the kind of baseball I always thought they were capable of. Coupled with the ongoing struggles of the Detroit Tigers, the Indians have 5-game lead in the division. With 21 games left, a 5-game lead is pretty safe.
The Indians haven't been dominant in any one aspect of the game. They're 5th in the AL in runs scored and 5th in team ERA. Put together, though, they've done a good job, and that's even considering that they've gotten poor work from some old favorites.
The Indians have scored 5 R/G despite the struggles of Travis Hafner (260/384/448), trade acquisition Josh Barfield (245/273/326) and outfield platoon players Trot Nixon (257/346/345) and David Dellucci (234/301/389).
Luckily for Cleveland, they've been able to fill some of the gaps. Asdrubal Cabrera, obtained from the Mariners in an absurdly lopsided deal for Eduardo Perez, has taken over from Barfield at second and how (317/367/476). In the outfield, Franklin Gutierrez has filled in well (270/323/500) as has trade acquisition Kenny Lofton (304/377/391). They've done a decent job of surrounding center field stud Grady Sizemore (272/380/460). That plus the production from the always-reliable Victor Martinez (304/373/506), as well as incumbent infielders Ryan Garko, Casey Blake, and Jhonny Peralta, has kept the Indians afloat despite the struggles of Hafner and the disappointing work of this year's free agent acquisitions.

Pitching-wise, the Indians have been blessed with a Cy Young-caliber season from ace C.C. Sabathia (3.24 ERA, 32:182 BB:K ratio. They've also been helped by the emergence of Fausto Carmona (3.27 ERA in 28 starts), but the Cleveland rotation has been shaky after that. Paul Byrd has been decent (4.34 ERA in 27 starts), and Jake Westbrook has as well (4.43 ERA in 120 IP), although expectations were much higher for Westbrook. The Indians have been desperate to fill the #5 spot, with both Jeremy Sowers and Cliff Lee struggling horribly.
The Cleveland bullpen hasn't been too bad, but they've been hamstrung by closer Joe Borowski, who has 40 saves by a 5.50 ERA, just in case you'd forgotten how irrelevant saves are. The rest of the 'pen hasn't been too shabby at all, but keeping Borowski at the end of ballgames is a pretty serious problem. The lack of a 5th starter will be basically irrelevant if/when the Indians make the postseason. But if they insist on giving their worst reliever the most important innings, that could hurt them indeed.
The Indians have basically tied up the Central, but their success in the postseason is no sure thing. If the season ended today, the Indians would face the Red Sox in the ALDS, and I seriously doubt they'd manage to get past Boston.

Detroit Tigers (76-65)
My Prediction: 90-72
On Current Pace: 87-75

The Tigers still have an outside shot at the AL Central and are still close in the Wild Card race, but it's looking more and more like they'll be missing the playoffs this year. It's unlikely that they'll pass Cleveland in the Central or the Yankees in the Wild Card. Stranger things have happened, but I just can't see the Tigers playing in October.

The blame for this can be set upon their pitching staff, which has been a dreadful disappointment following such a strong 2006. The Tigers, who were supposed to have one of the league's best pitching staffs, instead rank 9th in the AL in ERA at 4.61. In their ballpark, that's even worse than it looks.
What went wrong? Pitching, pitching, pitching. Justin Verlander (3.56 ERA, 159 K in 177 IP) is the only hurler to meet expectations. According to VORP, the 2nd-most valuable pitcher on the Tigers staff has been Chad Durbin, who's managed a 4.57 ERA in 34 games (18 starts) with the team, managing a poor 48:66 BB:K ratio in 124 IP.
What about all those other guys? Jeremy Bonderman has fallen off the face of the earth (4.73 ERA), Nate Robertson's stuff has finally caught up with him (4.95 ERA), and Kenny Rogers has been injured (he's back now, but it's much too late). Mike Maroth finally came off the DL, and pitched just as poorly as everyone should have expected before getting traded to St. Louis. Young Andrew Miller wasn't ready for the majors after all, and Jair Jurrjens looked good (3.60 ERA in 3 starts) before going down with injury. Other than Verlander, everything that could go wrong with the starting rotation has, and then some. I think we're getting a more realistic look at the Tigers, who weren't quite as good as they looked last year (nor, to be fair, are they as bad as they've looked this year).
What about the bullpen? They've missed Joel Zumaya, to be sure, although Zumaya hasn't looked as good since his return from the DL (3.86 ERA, 14:22 BB:K ratio in 25.2 IP). "Closer" Todd Jones has been forced, in Zumaya's absence, to actually pitch important innings, and he has, predictably, struggled (4.55 ERA in 57 games). The only really good work out of the 'pen has come from Bobby Seay, which is good news, but is also a statement on the state of the Tigers.

The silver lining is that the Tigers are a much better (and more well-rounded) offensive club than they were last year. Only the Yankees (827 runs) have outscored the Tigers this year (773), with the offense led by MVP candidate Magglio Ordonez (352/425/588). Curtis Granderson has taken a strong developmental step forward, hitting 296/352/545 and looking like one of the best leadoff hitters in the game at age 26 (although strikeouts are still a problem; 131 so far this season). The Tigers have also gotten the production they wanted from Gary Sheffield (277/382/492), Carlos Guillen (297/358/511) and a surprisingly good season from second baseman Placido Polanco (340/391/459). The offense is top-heavy, with the team having to survive with some pretty big holes in the lineup (left field, first base, and third base).

I would take exception with some of my fellow baseball analysts about the state of the Tigers and, specifically, the relative genius of GM Dave Dombrowski. I do believe that Dombrowski has done an admirable job of turning a hopeless franchise into a contender, but there are a lot of steps along the way that I would disagree with. The Ivan Rodriguez contract isn't paying off anymore, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt there, since it was that contract that helped convince players that the Tigers were trying. But the reliance of the pitching staff on guys like Mike Maroth and Todd Jones has hurt. And the worst part has been a commitment to everyday players that goes beyond any rationale (Sean Casey, Neifi Perez, Craig Monroe, Brandon Inge, Mike Hessman, and others). And this was not, for the most part, a GM settling for the best he could get; in many cases, Dombrowski went out of his way to either acquire of keep these players. And so he deserves a lot of credit for the success of the Tigers, but that does not mean that we can give him a full thumbs-up for his work as GM. A lot of the Tigers' problems have been due not to just to injuries, but also to the commission by Dombrowski and Leyland of some pretty serious errors in evaluation and analysis of their players. And they're just going to make that problem worse if they complete the long-rumored trade to acquire Pirates shortstop (and thoroughly useless hitter) Jack Wilson and his hideously bloated contract. The Pirates have already foisted one of their big mistakes on the Tigers (Sean Casey), and if they can send Jack Wilson north to Michigan, it will be two big errors by the Detroit front office. If I were the new Pirates GM, I'd tried to trade them Matt Morris just to see if three times is indeed the charm.

Minnesota Twins (69-72)
My Prediction: 93-69
On Current Pace: 79-83

Whoops. It looks like this is going to be one of my big missed forecasts of '07. But can you blame me? Even with Francisco Liriano out, the Twins still had the young arms to field a top-notch rotation. And while their offense wasn't anything special, they scraped by well enough in '06, didn't they?

Well, my first mistake was to assume that GM Terry Ryan would learn from his 2006 mistakes. In 2006, the Twins started a number of useless veterans at key positions before finally turning to the rookies, who were much cheaper and (usually) more productive. The Twins made the postseason. So you'd think that Terry Ryan wouldn't make the exact same mistake in 2007?
Well, you'd think . . .
Instead, Ryan pushed aside a great stable of young pitching talent and insisted on putting Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson in the rotation. This is a move that is so obviously a blunder that it takes you a while to digest it. To no one's surprise (except perhaps the Twins' executives) Ponson was dreadful, and Ortiz's hot start was just a mirage. The Twins still didn't have a dominant group backing up Johan Santana (3.15 ERA, 44:203 BB:K ratio in 194 IP), but they had a cheap bunch of good young pitchers who could use the major league experience to help the Twins in the future. Neither Scott Baker, Matt Garza, or Boof Bonser have been that great. But they had a much better chance of being good than hopeless and semi-expensive veterans such as Ortiz and Ponson. And what does it say about the Twins when they send good young pitchers to the minors to make room for washed-up humpties?
So even though Santana has been good, as has the bullpen, it's likely that the Twins would still be out of the playoff hunt. But you have to lay your best cards on the table, because you never know what will happen.

As for the offense, it has been predictably bad, even worse than last year's. The Twins are tied for 12th in scoring in the AL, in spite of the presence of Hunter, Mauer & Morneau in the lineup. The problem is that the Twins organization and/or Ron Gardenhire is still painfully ignorant of how to score runs. The Twins are still a woefully power-starved organization, and it seems that that is by design. The Twins have dozens of Jason Tyner-types in their organization, guys who can do a lot of little things but can't hit worth a damn or even man a defensively important position. Tyner, by the way, has hit 296/344/363 as the team's left fielder. It's hard to think of any team that would make Tyner their first choice for the role, unless their other 8 choices were dead.
I've already stated that the Twins weren't losing much in Luis Castillo (304/356/352), even though Alexi Casilla isn't hitting well at all. But still, the Twins knew coming into this season that they would be relying heavily on the likes of Lew Ford (123 PAs), Jeff Cirillo (174 PAs), Luis Rodriguez (135 PAs), Rondell White (94 PAs) and Nick Punto (474 PAs). These were, for the most part, not accidents or replacement players but guys who the Twins intended to spend the 2007 season as regulars. That alone is enough to cast a serious shadow over Terry Ryan's reputation as a great team-builder, and the whole organization bears responsibility of pursuing useless players and failing to provide better options from within.

So while I predicted the Twins would contend in 2007 as they had last year, I was wrong. But looking at the team that the Twins were sending onto the field in 2007, I shouldn't be that surprised; most of these hitters are playing exactly as one would have expected them to. Let's just hope that Terry Ryan doesn't make the same mistake twice --or, rather, three times -- in 2008.

Kansas City Royals (62-78)
My Prediction: 63-99
On Current Pace: 72-90

After years of wondering when it would happen, the Royals have taken a strong step forward in 2007. But it hasn't been thanks to their burgeoning young offense -- they're tied with the Twins for 12th in the AL in runs -- but rather to an unlikely pitching staff that's posted a 4.44 team ERA -- 8th in the AL. That may not sound too impressive, but the team had a 5.65 ERA this year, and if they can maintain their current mark, it would be the first time since 2001 their team ERA dropped below 5.00, and it would be the best team ERA since 1994.

But how much of this is for real? The two top pitchers on the team have been Brian Bannister and Gil Meche. Bannister, considered a 5th starter by many observers, has somehow emerged as the team's ace, posting a 3.16 ERA in 23 starts. But the problem is that his strikeout rate is pretty low: 71 Ks in 148.1 IP, much too low to sustain such a low ERA. Bannister has been stingy with the HR, allowing just 9 so far this year, which is in line with his previous work. But I think that the real Brian Bannister is the guy who played for the Mets last year -- 4.26 ERA in 38 IP. Move that to the AL Central, and you've got a decent starter, but something less than a star. I've certainly been wrong about this before (see Chien-Ming Wang), but I highly doubt that Bannister will pitch nearly as well again as he has this season. And that's something the Royals need to know.
The other guy here is Gil Meche, who came into town with much more fanfare. I was one of those who called the Meche deal a terrible mistake, but to be fair Meche has been pretty good so far in 2007: 3.82 ERA in 188.1 IP. The good news is that Meche's innings -- he's already set a career high -- suggest that he may well be able to sustain a heavy workload as staff ace.
The bad news, though, is that Meche shares Bannister's low strikeout numbers. (Only Texas is striking out fewer batters this season than the Royals, a bad omen) Meche isn't bad -- 132 K on 188.1 IP -- but those aren't the numbers of an ace, and that's what he's getting paid, is ace money. And if he and Bannister both slide back in 2008, it's another sign that the Royals probably won't be contending in the life of Meche's contract, making it an even bigger blunder.
Behind these two, the Royals have Zach Greinke, who has returned to the game after dealing with personal issues for some time. Greinke has more raw talent than either Bannister or Meche, but has been used primarily as a reliever this year. It's a good sign for the Royals, though, that Greinke has pitched quite well this year, posting a 3.87 ERA with a 27:86 BB:K ratio in 100 IP.
The back end of the Royals' rotation has been predictably wretched. Jorge de la Rosa (5.46 ERA) and Odalis Perez (5.57) have been the chief offenders. The Royals also tried Scott Elarton, but they luckily gave up on him after 9 starts and a 10.70 ERA.

By comparison, the Royal bullpen has been pretty good. With the trade of Octavio Dotel, the Royals installed Joakim Soria as closer, and Soria has responded quite well. The 23-year-old has a 2.56 ERA in 59.2 innings, striking out 63 against 18 walks and just 3 home runs. It's great for the Royals to find a cheap solution to an expensive problem, and the more they can do that the closer they'll be to contention.
Supporting Soria is Joel Peralta (3.73 ERA) and surprising veterans David Riske (2.29 ERA) and Jimmy Gobble (3.40 ERA). They've gotten decent work from some other guys as well. It's not the sign of a dominant 'pen in the future, but the presence of Soria alone is a step forward for this franchise.

As for the offense, it was supposed to be the saving grace for this mediocre club, but it's been a big disappointment. Alex Gordon, hailed as the second coming of George Brett, has been just fair, hitting 250/318/416. Ryan Shealy, expected to be a solid place-filler at first, has hit just 221/286/308. Worst of all has been Tony Pena, acquired as a creative solution to their shortstop problem, but while he's a defensive upgrade over Angel Berroa, he's hit just as poorly (257/275/336).
There have been some good developments, though. John Buck, whom I'd given up on as the "catcher of the future," has taken his offense up a level, hitting 231/321/468. Billy Butler didn't make the team out of spring training, but he's there now and is hitting 300/354/458. Mark Teahen has hit well (290/358/412), but his offense isn't as meaningful in right field.
The offense has also benefited from the work of Mark Grudzielanek, David DeJesus, Esteban German, and even Ross Gload. But while there are some talented young guys here, with Gordon especially due to improve next year, there are still enough holes to keep the Royals off everyone's lists of contenders in 2008 and probably 2009.

Chicago White Sox (61-81)
My Prediction: 88-74
On Current Pace: 70-92

Whoops. This is a franchise that needs a reality check. GM Kenny Williams, who's done some good work in the past, is still working on this team as if it's just going through a bump in the road on the way back to contention. Sorry, Kenny, but this is no bump; this is a mediocre team that's just going to get older, and there isn't enough young help to keep pace with Cleveland, Detroit, and Minnesota. The best thing would be to do some house-cleaning and move the players who aren't going to be helping you over the next year or two. And while Williams may end up doing that, I think he's got too much at stake to admit defeat and start a fire sale.
Or maybe he's just afraid of the Tazmanian Ozzie.

The Sox are last in the AL in runs scored. Wait -- let me say that again. The Sox are last in the AL in runs scored. You don't go from first to worst due to a bump in the road -- it's a sign of decline.
The Sox only two impact hitters have been Jim Thome (264/403/500) and Paul Konerko (262/354/491), both quite expensive and on the wrong side of 30. After that, it's depressing. A.J. Pierzynski has been his usual mediocre self (266/316/410), but Jermaine Dye has struggled terribly and put up some woeful offense (247/311/488), even with his good power. Dye is the sort of expensive guy that the Sox don't need, even if he does hit closer to his established levels.
After that, though, the problems are much worse. With the departure of Tadahito Iguchi, the Sox' middle infield has been a nightmare. Juan Uribe, shortstop and worst hitter on the team (219/272/360), has still amassed 476 plate appearances. After Dye and backup Rob Mackowiak, the outfield has been an unacceptable drain on the offense. Scott Podsednik, Darin Erstad, Ryan Sweeney, Luis Terrero, Pablo Ozuna, Jerry Owens, and others have all been below replacement level. Its unacceptable for any franchise with as much money as the Sox to field such a horrifically bad outfield.

Luckily for the Sox, part of their great starting rotation remains, although it' s just a shell of its former self. Mark Buehrle has found his old self and is pitching well enough (3.39 ERA in 28 starts) to justify the big contract extension he got this season. Unfortunately, Javier Vazquez is the only other starter who's been at least average (3.91 ERA in 27 starts). Jon Garland, AKA Trade Bait, has struggled, posting a 4.75 ERA. John Danks, acquired from the Rangers as the hope of the future, has had a thoroughly disappointing debut season (5.41 ERA, 7 K/9 IP). Jose Contreras has been so bad that I think we can safely assume that his days as a good pitcher are pretty much over.
Bobby Jenks has had a good season as closer, but the bullpen behind him has struggled.

It's time to move on and rebuild in Chicago. Williams leveraged a lot on the short-term when he traded for Thome and re-signed guys like Konerko, Contreras, and Garland. It was a bold move, but it didn't work. And now is the time to do it. The longer you wait, the uglier it will get.
And it's also time to wonder whether Ozzie Guillen is capable of managing a losing team.

We'll finish up with the AL West soon.

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