Monday, July 07, 2008

AL East: Down the Rabbit Hole

Tampa Bay Rays
When am I ever going to learn? I should never doubt Nate Silver's PECOTA system of projecting the future performance of players (and teams) ever again, lest I be made a fool of once again. This pre-season, PECOTA predicted that the Rays would win 89 games. I (and most others) thought that was preposterous. Maybe they could get a run of good luck and win 80 games. But 89 games? CONTENDERS? I laughed.
I'm not laughing anymore.
The Rays have the best record in baseball at 54-32, and in other news, east is west, the twain shall meet, and the Pope is Buddhist.
And this is no fluke, folks. After a 2007 season in which the Rays' defense was one of the worst ever recorded, and their pitching staff was miserable, they've made a truly miraculous turnaround. In 2007, the Rays allowed 5.83 R/G, with an ERA of 5.53. Both were dead last in the AL by half a run at least. Not only that, but their Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER, the percentage of balls in play converted to outs) was .650, the lowest mark in some 50 years. So you can see why I was skeptical of the 2008 Rays.
Well, those 2008 Rays have turned things around. They've allowed 3.95 R/G (cutting almost two full runs off their total) with a 3.59 ERA. Both marks are third in the AL. Not only that, but their DER is .714 . . . the best in the AL. This kind of shit just doesn't happen, folks. The Rays' improvement in DER alone is the best ever recorded, as far back as they track DER. We toss around "Miracle" a lot in sports, but if the Rays make the postseason, they will easily be one of the 5 most miraculous teams in MLB history. If they make it to or (God help us) WIN the World Series, it will be the biggest miracle in baseball history. The Miracle Braves of 1914 and the Miracle Mets of '69 will have to step aside and make room for the Miracle Rays of '08.
As for their offense? Last year they scored 4.83 R/G, about average. This year, they've scored 4.78 R/G. That's actually an improvement, as run production in the AL as a whole has dropped by nearly half a run this year, a pretty historic shift. (Scoring in the NL has dropped, too, but only about half as much.) So the Rays' offense is actually better this year. The big improvements are at third base, where Evan Longoria (281/351/529) has taken over from Ty Wigginton & co. and at catcher, where Dioner Navarro (318/370/435) has taken over from . . . himself (227/286/356)? Navarro may not really be as good as he looks this year, but just 24 years old and may turn out to be the good catching prospect the Yankees thought he was, many years and three trades ago.
The rest of the offense is proceeding as expected: B.J. Upton and Aki Iwamura are both doing fine. In fact, there are several spots in the lineup that will improve, if anything. Carl Crawford (285/331/410), Carlos Pena (225/335/424), and Jason Bartlett (256/299/293) are going to get a lot better before they get any worse. In fact, the only guy who's playing over his head is Eric Hinske, who's hitting 257/344/509. Really, there's no problems here. This is the 3rd-best offense in the league right now with the potential to be (gulp) the best.

There are more problems with pitching than with hitting, but even still, they're doing so well that it's nitpicking to point them out. Scott Kazmir has been great (2.63 ERA, 75 K in 72 IP), James Shields is looking good (3.70 ERA, 20:88 BB:K ratio in 109.1 IP), and trade acquisition Matt Garza has been sharp (3.47 ERA, although 58 K in 90.2 IP isn't very impressive). Even Edwin Jackson, the busted prospect who had (seemingly) run out of last chances, has come back to post a 4.08 ERA, although his 45:62 BB:K ratio is suspect. And even their worst starter, in terms of ERA, is Andy Sonnanstine (4.31 ERA, 108.2 IP). On some teams, he'd be the best starter. There's still a lot that could go wrong with so many unproven talents, but these kids are all good and all of them are playing well within their potential, even if it's shocking that they all got there this year.

The bullpen hasn't been great, but it's been a vast improvement over 2007's historically bad squad. The Rays spent good money on Troy Percival, and while he wasn't great, he was good enough (3.54 ERA, 30 K in 28 IP), although a recent injury has him out for a while. But Dan Wheeler (1.82 ERA) has transitioned admirably from setup man to closer. Behind him the team has gotten good, if not great, work from Trever Miller, J.P. Howell, Gary Glover, and Grant Balfour.

I can't believe I'm saying it, but it's true, and everyone agrees; this team can make the playoffs and it can win in the playoffs. Even if the Red Sox fight past them, they're an easy favorite for Wild Card.

Boston Red Sox

Those same Red Sox were recently embarrassed on a trip to Tampa that saw them go down quietly in a three-game sweep. The Red Sox aren't the juggernaut people (like me) expected them to be, especially without David Ortiz. But they're still the Red Sox, and it will take more than that to keep this team out of October baseball.
The Sox are scoring 4.99 R/G, second only to the Rangers in the AL. It's hard to complain, but they could be doing better than that. Few teams in baseball could survive the loss of a guy like David Ortiz, but lucky for them, the Sox are one of them. Even if Ortiz is gone and Jason Varitek has shriveled up like an overripe tomato (219/301/359, and he's going to the All-Star Game . . . don't get me started), there is still a lot of good happening here. J.D. Drew is having one of his few-and-far-between healthy and productive seasons, hitting 304/413/573. The infield is all mashing as expected, except for Julio Lugo (262/351/328) who may be displaced by Jed Lowrie (310/340/476 in 48 PAs) sometime soon. Manny isn't hitting quite like the old Manny (279/379/495), but he's still a quality guy; I know I've hedged my bets on this, but my feeling now is that we've seen the last of MVP Manny. And even if we haven't, the Sox shouldn't pick up his contract options unless they're high.
Pitching-wise, the Sox are more troubled. They're allowing 4.13 R/G, which is 6th in the AL (although their ERA+ of 112 is 4th). There's more room for improvement here. Granted, it's hard to complain when you have five starters with an ERA under 4.00. But it's a lot to expect Jon Lester, good though he is, to maintain a 3.21 ERA, and Daisuke Matsuzaka has been excellent (3.12 ERA), but it's the most laborious sort of excellence there is. The other four pitchers in the Sox rotation all average at least 6 IP per start. Matsuzaka averages 5.36, which is notably lower. Matsuzaka labors on the mound and can throw 20+ pitches in a quick inning. In the old days, the term "7-inning pitcher" was an insult. Well, nowadays a 5-inning pitcher is an insult, even if he's as good as Daisuke. It's great to hold off the opposition for 5 innings, but somebody has to pitch the other 4. And I should note that Daisuke has maintained his ERA despite walking 49 batters in those 75 innings, an unacceptable number. It's a miracle (and partially luck) that more of those walks don't end up scoring, and it helps explain where all those extra pitches are going.
The good news, though, is that the Sox have a backup plan. Clay Buchholz is cooling his heels in Triple-A, and it's likely that he'll be recalled to join the rotation soon. Rookie Justin Masterson has pitched well since he was called up, but he'll likely move to the bullpen once Buchholz comes back. This means that even if one of these guys does fall apart, the Sox will have a sixth starter in waiting.
The bullpen has been pretty good, with some exceptions. It comes as little surprise that Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez have reached the end of the line. But the Sox really need a better explanation for what's wrong with Manny Delcarmen (4.63 ERA despite good peripherals) and Craig Hansen (5.84 ERA due mainly to a lot of walks).

It's hard to imagine the Red Sox not making the playoffs, even if they can't pass the Rays. That makes them my mid-season pick for the Wild Card, I guess. I just can't see any of the other divisions producing anything to challenge them. The winner of the AL Central (Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit) will be the only one that doesn't fall apart down the stretch, and although Oakland is a strong 2nd place in the West, I just can't see them getting by with smoke and mirrors all season long.

New York Yankees

While I am surprised that the Yankees are just 46-42 at this point, I can't say that I'm totally shocked. I expected them to be better, but when you rely on a dangerous combination of an aging offense and a green-as-grass rotation, there's a lot of room for disappointment. And the Yankees have unfortunately seen more things go wrong than right.
Despite the resurgence of Jason Giambi (295/395/543) and his excellent retro-80's moustache, the Yankee offense has been disappointing. Sportswriters take note that the most disappointing Yankee has been Derek Jeter, who's hitting a pedestrian 282/345/387. And right next to him, Robinson Cano is struggling, hitting 249/287/361 for no apparent reason. Cano's young, and hopefully this will pass, but I'm afraid it's too late. The tattered remains of Morgan Ensberg, Shelley Duncan, and others have given the Yankees some of the worst production from the first base position in all of baseball. That's imply inexcusable, since they've had the same problem for nearly three years and still haven't solved it. The only thing keeping the infield from going down in flames is the ongoing excellence of Alex Rodriguez (320/407/596).
Worse news still for the Yanks is that two of their best hitters have been felled by injuries. Hideki Matsui (323/404/458) may be lost for the season, and Johnny Damon (319/387/470) recently went on the DL, and I don't know how long it will be until he comes back.
I'm sorry, but you need more than A-Rod, Giambi, Jorge Posada and Bobby Abreu to form a competitive lineup. And there are too many problems for the Yanks to solve them this year.

The same goes for the pitching staff. The Yanks are allowing 4.43 R/G, which is better than average, but not when you consider that they've lost their ace, Chien-Ming Wang, until September at least, and that their only other good starter, Joba Chamberlain, is suffering from the Daisuke blues that kick in around the 5th inning. Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte have done pretty well, but not well enough to fill in the gaps, and neither man is a safe bet to keep it up given their recent past.

"Wait 'til next year" may be devilspeak in the Bronx, but it's the unfortunate truth.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles have done fairly well this year; they're 44-42 and just a game back of the Yankees for 3rd place. But the worst thing they can do is to start thinking they're really this good. If they abandon their rebuilding plans just to chase some fantasy of contention, then they're really up a creek.
That's not to say that the Orioles haven't made progress. They have, on offense, defense, and pitching. Starting with the offense, the O's are scoring 4.67 R/G this year, which is actually above league average. And while their offense isn't exactly built for the long haul, it's not all smoke and mirrors either. Brian Roberts (295/373/493) and Nick Markakis (297/394/486) are for real. Luke Scott (265/339/498) has been pretty good as well. Adam Jones hasn't been that bad (282/322/398) and only stands to get much better. On the other hand, Aubrey Huff (281/344/523) power renaissance doesn't ring true. And while Kevin Millar is just a fair hitter (259/351/412) at first, at least he's consistent.
The big problems on offense didn't exactly take me by surprise, with the possible exception of struggling catcher Ramon Hernandez (246/288/385). I'm not at all surprised by the struggles of Jay Payton (240/282/368), Melvin Mora (234/304/396) or the shoddy, sub-replacement-level shortstops the O's have been trotting out.
It's an average offense, which is good if you're Baltimore. The problem is that if you project 3-5 years into the future, you've just got Markakis, Jones, and maybe Brian Roberts. They'll still be paying on bad contracts (such as Mora's) and don't have enough in the farm system to simply stay afloat. There are some temporary fixes and aging contributors that are making this year's lineup better-than-average, but management shouldn't delude themselves about the future of this offense. Neither should they seek the solution on the free agent market, as they've failed miserably to do so in the past.
The O's pitching isn't awful, which is a big step forward. They're allowing 4.66 R/G this year, a far sigh better than 2007's 5.36 (the improvement is only somewhat offset by the league-wide decline in offense). The best news is with the defense, which ranks 3rd in all of baseball with a .707 DER. And the bullpen has been turned around significantly. Despite losing closer Chris Ray for the season, the O's did well for themselves by acquiring George Sherrill from Seattle. Sherrill hasn't been brilliant (3.72 ERA, 22:41 BB:K ratio), but he's held up. Jim Johnson (1.88 ERA) has been excellent, although his peripherals don't support such a low ERA. The O's have also gotten good work from Dennis Sarfate, spot starter "Hey, Hey, Hey, It's" Matt Albers, and Lance Cormier. The bad news is that everyone I just mentioned is getting by with a dangerously high walk rate. In fact, only the Rangers have allowed more walks in the AL than Baltimore. So this good bullpen could just be a mirage of good luck once those walks come home to roost.
Which brings me to the rotation. They're walking people, too, just without that extra luck that keeps your ERA down. With the exception of Jeremy Guthrie (3.61 ERA, 36:80 BB:K ratio), the rest of the Orioles' starters have been disappointing. To be fair, though, Daniel Cabrera (4.34 ERA, 47 BB in 118.1 IP) has been much less disappointing than usual. He's lowered his walk rate dramatically, which would be grand if he hadn't also lowered his strikeout rate (just 66). Brian Burres and Garret Olson have been similarly bad with the walks (and lack of strikeouts) to back it up. Steve Trachsel (8.39 ERA) has been dreadful, and there's simply no excuse for handing him the ball anymore. Even if you are the Orioles.
Things are getting better in Baltimore. And there are a few young players on the way to help out. But it's not enough to stem the tide of sucktitude emanating from the city. Unless the Orioles find some way to build something for the future beyond Nick Markakis and Adam Jones, they're destined to become the new Devil Rays.
Toronto Blue Jays
They've got a great pitching staff, and credit goes to the front office for getting this group together. But just as much blame goes their way for their ongoing failure to assemble even a remotely competent offense. The Jays are 12th in the AL in R/G, at 4.09. They just can't make any progress, and they can no longer blame the Yankees and Red Sox for it. If the Devil Rays can contend in the AL East with 25% the money Toronto has to spend, somebody should be held responsible. And that responsibility rests with J.P. Ricciardi and his staff.
The Jays have made a concentrated effort to target easily projectable college hitters in the draft. These guys can be good picks, yes, but not exclusively. They're easy to project because they've already started to reach their peak, and it's not that high. They can certainly be useful parts (Adam Lind, Aaron Hill), but if that's the best drafting you've done after all these years, you've got a problem.
The Jays have shied away from big-money hitters on the market, which is a shame, since they can afford to sign them or trade for them. And they've made the poor decision to settle with the semi-stars they already have, offering them contract extensions rather than spending that money elsewhere. And while Vernon Wells and Alexis Rios are good players, they are not franchise players, and if you're building your team around them, you're screwed. And so are the Jays screwed, since they're stuck paying these guys exorbitant prices for a number of years.
The only decent hitter in the entire lineup this year has been Scott Rolen, who's hit 275/363/446. Too bad that Rolen's old and injury-prone. Alexis Rios (7 yrs, $70 mil.) is hitting 284/336/398 and is a career 287/338/445 hitter. (Cornerstone of a franchise -- or league-average right fielder?) Vernon Wells is hitting 280/321/447, which isn't too bad for a center fielder -- unless he's just entered the first year of a 7-year, $126 million contract. Both the Rios and Wells contracts are heavily back-loaded, by the way -- which means that unless they can trade them to some moron, they're going to be handcuffed paying nearly $30 million a year to barely above-average players through 2012. Wells, by the way, is a career 281/330/477 hitter who turns 30 in December. Whoopee.
The good news is the pitching staff. The starting rotation of Halladay-McGowan-Burnett-Litsch-Marcum is one of the best in the league. Although they would do well to trade Burnett while he's still upright. They've also gotten great work from their bullpen, which consists of big-name closer B.J. Ryan and a bunch of no-names that are, together, one of the best pens in the league. I'll give the Toronto front office credit where credit is due for locking up Halladay (who actually deserves a big-time contract) and creating a top-notch pitching staff out of a group of no-names that a lot of teams would have passed on.
But this franchise is going nowhere without an offense. This will be even more painfully obvious as Halladay and Ryan age, and the front office will be forced to produce a couple more ace pitchers on short notice. It wouldn't be such a problem if the team could hit, but it can't. And considering their track record, I wouldn't trust this group to assemble one.
Back soon with an update on baseball books and then -- the AL Central.

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