Saturday, September 01, 2007

State of the MLB Union . . . AL East

If I may ...
  • It looks like Cecil Cooper will stay on as Astros manager after this season, but the position of GM remains open for the moment. I have to say, if Astros owner Drayton McLane wanted to create some scapegoats by getting rid of Phil Garner and Tim Purpura, the move has backfired. Since the firings took place, McLane himself has been the one to get flamed in the media, and very few people are optimistic about the chances of the next GM to serve under the meddlesome McLane.
  • It's getting to be quite an exciting time for a baseball fan, as competitive balance rages on, especially in the NL, where nobody's sure of anything anymore. So hold on to your uniforms, and let's get started.
The AL East has been exciting, but as Rob Neyer pointed out today, it's an excitement that doesn't extend far beyond the northeast. Both the Red Sox and Yankees have really strong odds of making the postseason, so the only real drama is who wins the division and who wins the Wild Card. So unless you're a diehard fan of one of these teams, the excitement has to be tempered.
Still, there's a lot of good baseball to play, and there are still some very curious storylines to be played out in Baltimore, Toronto, and Tampa Bay.

Boston Red Sox (80-55)
My Prediction: 91-71
On Current Pace: 96-66

The Red Sox are doing better than I expected mainly because of the excellent work from their pitching staff. I expected Josh Beckett to suffer some more growing pains in Fenway, but instead he's pitched like the ace the Sox are paying him to be, posting a 3.29 ERA (after a 5.01 mark last year) with improved walk rates, strikeout rates, and home run rates. He's just been brilliant.
The #2 behind Beckett has been Daisuke Matsuzaka, who hasn't been legendary, but he's been darn good, managing a 3.88 ERA a staff-leading 176.1 IP with 174 K. Tim Wakefield (4.16 ERA) and Curt Schilling (4.02) have been strongly above-average. Julian Tavarez has been pretty bad (4.84 ERA in 21 starts), but the Sox have several young guys they can try out in the #5 slot. And besides, if your 1-4 is that good, even Julian Tavarez can't hurt you too badly.
The bullpen has been, if possible, even better. Jon Papelbon has been healthy and quite productive, sporting a 1.74 ERA and a 14:71 BB:K ratio in 46.2 IP. He's not the phenom he was last year, but he's still an elite closer. Plus, the Sox have a dominant setup man in Hideki Okajima, an under-the-radar Japanese free agent who's posted a 1.59 ERA and 53 K in 62.1 IP. Behind these two relief aces, the Sox have gotten good work from Mike Timlin, Manny Delcarmen, and Javier Lopez. They've also gotten above-average innings from Kyle Snyder, J.C. Romero, and Brendan Donnelly. There really isn't any bad news in the Sox bullpen, which is one of the reasons they stand a good chance of going all the way in '07.

The bad news is that the Sox offense isn't quite the Murderer's Row it used to be. The good news is that it's still pretty darn good. Both David Ortiz (319/429/576) and Manny Ramirez (292/385/495) have been good, but injuries have kept them from being the elite 3-4 combination they were in years past. Luckily, the slack has been picked up at the infield corners, where Kevin Youkilis (289/391/456) and Mike Lowell (323/377/506) have provided All-Star production and strong defense. Does anyone remember back when Mike Lowell was supposed to be the negative in the whole Josh Beckett trade? I don't.
Dustin Pedroia has received some Rookie of the Year consideration at second (315/388/435) and even catcher Jason Varitek has rediscovered his offensive game, hitting 263/365/416 so far.
But the Sox do have holes. The biggest is at shortstop, where Julio Lugo has stunned everyone by having the worst season of his career (238/295/347) by far. Coco Crisp still hasn't won himself the center field job (265/328/379 but with good defense), and J.D. Drew has been a pretty big disappointment (257/357/386), with his power mysteriously disappearing.
The Sox have taken some steps toward filling these holes. They've called up top prospect Jacoby Ellsbury, the center fielder of the future, and he's gotten off to a good start. They foisted strikeout king Wily Mo Pena off on the Nationals. So while there are some issues here, they're not fatal.

The Sox haven't won the AL East since 1995. While the Yankees put a scare into them with a 3-game sweep this past week, I still think the Sox will be able to hold them off and win the division. And with their roster, they stand a good chance of winning the pennant, no question.
New York Yankees (75-60)
My Prediction: 96-66
On Current Pace: 90-72

Even though their starting pitching has been shoddy, and the team has had to suffer through another year of "Torre-izing" the bullpen, they're still the favorites to win the Wild Card. This is because they've still got a devastating offense and some good young players you may have heard of.
The Yankees have scored 790 runs this season. That's a comfortable 1st place in all of baseball; the Tigers are second with 748. So it's fair to say that the blame cannot be laid at the feet of the lineup. Alex Rodriguez (305/414/632) is playing like an MVP, and Jorge Posada (330/413/532) is hitting like he's trying to make it to Cooperstown with one swing of the bat. That's not all: Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Robinson Cano, Bobby Abreu, and Melky Cabrera are all having fine seasons. Even DH Jason Giambi has hit well (260/357/474) when not nursing an injury. That's 8 positions in the lineup filled with either excellent or just very good players.
Then there's first base. Well, they say never to look a gift horse in the mouth, so maybe we shouldn't quibble about the awfulness of the 2007 Yankee first basemen. Here are the hitters who have earned most of the playing time at first this year for the Yankees:

Josh Phelps: 262/330/363
Andy Phillips: 286/323/368
Doug Mientkiewicz: 226/292/379

It should also be said that most of the Yankee backups have been dreadful. It's good that the regulars have all been solid, because Jose Molina, Wilson Betemit, Miguel Cairo, Kevin Thompson and (especially) Wil Nieves have been awful.
Pitching-wise, the Yanks' 4.51 team ERA ranks 8th in the AL. There's room for improvement here. The most egregious example would be Roger Clemens, who is being paid like an MVP, but is pitching like a LAIM (4.15 ERA in 15 starts). To be fair, the Yanks have gotten very good work from Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte, but the back end of the rotation has been bleeding runs. The first guy that comes to mind is Mike Mussina, who recently lost his spot in the rotation, thanks to a 5.53 ERA in his 23 starts. Mussina's stuff has been looking pretty poor, and he may be nearing the end of the line.
So the Bombers have Wang-Pettitte-Clemens, but who's after that? Mussina is out. Phillip Hughes is their best option, but he's put up a 5.35 ERA working around his injuries. Kei Igawa has been a nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions (6.79 ERA), but who can take his place? You can't fault the Yankees for trying; they've had 12 different pitchers start a game for them this season. And while that is usually cause for desperation, the truth is that the Yanks just need somebody to hold down the fort for the next four weeks. They know they're not going to get quality starts, they just need someone who can keep the game (reasonably) within reach, while their offense goes to work. It's a formula that's worked well so far, but I don't think it bodes well for the playoffs.

Yes, I think the Yankees will win the Wild Card. But I'm pessimistic about their chances in the postseason. If they can use a 3- or 4-man rotation, that will be a big help, obviously. And Joe Torre does seem to do a (somewhat) better job of handling his bullpen in October. But I think their pitching staff is still an easy touch, and I can't seem them winning the pennant this year.
Toronto Blue Jays (68-66)
My Prediction: 88-74
On Current Pace: 82-80

Nothing has really gone according to plan for Toronto, who have had to deal with injuries to A.J. Burnett (surprise), the always-prickly health of ace Roy Halladay (who has still pitched well) and the return to mediocrity suffered by cash cow Vernon Wells. If you had told me coming into the season that Matt Stairs would be the second-most valuable hitter on the team (and he is, according to VORP), I would have guessed that the Jays had fallen on hard times. And they have; it's just amazing they've been able to keep up a winning record.
That they have at all is a credit to Stairs (298/373/577), DH Frank Thomas (265/373/468), Halladay, and especially Alex Rios (309/365/519), who's been doing the hitting usually reserved for Wells. Troy Glaus has had a good season, but other than that, the only thing to brag about in their lineup has been the excellent defense of John McDonald (who is indeed excellent, but he's also hitting 254/278/328).

Pitching-wise, the only good news has been Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan. Marcum has the better ERA (3.62), but McGowan has a better strikeout rate and home run rate and seems to be regarded as the better prospect. Still a rotation of Halladay/Burnett/McGowan/Marcum sounds like a good starting point for 2007. And if all four guys are healthy, I'll eat my hat.
The Blue Jays are about to face a pretty serious reckoning, as their expensive forays into the trade and free agent markets have yet to break them out of the 80-win funk. And I don't think people will be so willing to just blame it on the division anymore. There will be accountability. And it's about time.
Baltimore Orioles (59-74)
My Prediction: 75-87
On Current Pace: 72-90

The Orioles won today, breaking their 9-game losing streak that saw them thoroughly embarassed around the league. Granted, the Orioles have been embarassing for nearly ten years now, but this time maybe it will result in some changes.
The Orioles are 9th in the AL in runs scored, and this is more the result of happy accidents that design. Yes, Brian Roberts, Miguel Tejada, and Nick Markakis have been good, but we expected that. No, what's interesting is that the club has gotten useful work from Kevin Millar, Corey Patterson, Melvin Mora, and Aubrey Huff. The trouble is that the only players here who will still be around when the team is winning are Markakis and maybe Roberts. And that's not such a bad thing; the club should be eager to sell high with guys like Millar, Huff and Mora if they at all can.
Now, to the Orioles pitching: the first thing I must say is that Erik Bedard is an excellent, excellent pitcher. His 221 strikeouts lead all of baseball, and he either has or soon will set the franchise record for K's in a season, which is impressive when you think about all the excellent pitchers the Orioles have had. Yes, Bedard is a stud and although he turns 29 next spring, still the franchise must see the need of holding onto him.
That was the good news. The bad news is that after Bedard, this staff is crap.
The O's have actually gotten decent production out of Jeremy Guthrie (3.62 ERA in 23 starts), but they should be cautious when drawing conclusions about this failed Indians farmhand. It turns out they were cautious about Steve Trachsel, just recently sending him to the Cubs. Trachsel wasn't doing anyone in Baltimore any good, so adios.
After that, the starting pitching has been poor, and the bullpen has been one of the least economically efficient staffs in baseball. Closer Chris Ray will be gone for more than a year with Tommy John surgery. And of the big free agent relievers the team signed this past offseason, only Jamie Walker has been decent. Chad Bradford has been about average, whereas Danys Baez has been a bomb (6.00 ERA in 48 games). The team has hit bottom when it comes to looking for pitching talent. I actually had to do a double-take when I noticed that Paul Shuey was pitching for the O's one evening. Shuey's been out of the majors since 2003, and the Orioles have been finding out why (9.82 ERA in 25 games).

Whatever hope the O's may have for the future is fleeting; their track record at turning hope into wins is abysmal. And as I've said before, only the existence of the Devil Rays has kept the modern Orioles from entering the pantheon of terrible baseball franchises.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays (55-80)
My Prediction: 69-93
On Current Pace: 66-96

I know I've said it before, but I swear, I keep thinking that one of these days the D-Rays are finally going to capitalize on all this young talent they have. You think I'd learn . . .
The Rays are actually 8th in the AL in runs scored, which isn't too bad, but is actually disappointing when you consider the talent they had coming into this season. Granted, a lot of it has been delayed in the minors (Longoria), and a lot of it has had a rude awakening at the major league level (Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes, Ben Zobrist). But there's still talent there; the problem is that this constant disappointment may never go away. The most valuable player (according to VORP) on the D-Rays this year has been Carlos Pena. And yes, Pena's had a fine season (270/386/572) and gets my vote for comeback player of the year, but he should not be the poster boy for the 2007 Devil Rays. B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, and super-bargain Akinori Iwamura are having good years, but the place-holders have failed their jobs and the young help hasn't come along like it was supposed to.
What about pitching? I've been hearing a lot about the pitchers the D-Rays are supposed to be bringing along; are any of them making an impact? Well, yes and no. The Rays are last in all of baseball in runs allowed, and they aren't even close to next-to-last. Part of this is due to a defense that might as well be carrying boxing gloves instead of fielding gloves; their .655 DER is not only last by a mile, it's reminiscent of baseball from another era -- you know, when gloves actually looked like gloves and there were 4 or 5 errors per game.
So their defense has made their pitching look much worse than it actually is. So how bad is it? In Fielding Independent Pitching (a stat like ERA that seeks to exclude the effects of defense on pitching performance), the Rays still rank last in the AL, but at least it's a close last.
Scott Kazmir and James Shields have carried the starting rotation as the only two guys capable of recording back-to-back outs. But even there, there's a strong feeling that Kazmir should be performing a lot better than he is based on his stuff and his strikeouts. His 3.74 ERA isn't bad, but you'd expect better from a guy with his stuff striking out more batters (194) than he has innings pitched (175.2).
But those are godsends compared to the likes of Edwin Jackson, Jae Seo, and Casey Fossum. The Rays did bring up one of their stud prospects, Andy Sonnanstine, but he's had shall we say a "difficult" time adjusting to the majors (6.38 ERA in 16 starts). The promise is there for the starting rotation; it just seems like every year they find 60 or 70 starts to give to the Casey Fossums of the world. Until that stops, this team will not contend.
As far as their bullpen goes . . . the less said the better. A lot was made early in the year about the renaissance undergone by journeyman pitcher-cum-Tampa Bay closer Al Reyes. But every intelligent analyst was standing up and screaming at their computer screens "SELL HIGH!" The Rays didn't, of course, and now Reyes has gone back to being the thoroughly normal relief pitcher he's always been. The crazy part? If not for Scott Dohmann and Grant Balfour (who've pitched well in limited duty), Reyes would still be the most valuable reliever on the team.

I think I've run out of jokes to make about the Devil Rays. Trouble is that they haven't run out of ways to make playing baseball look like a joke.

Stay tuned ...

1 comment:

Matsuzaka FAN said...

Go Matsuzaka!