Archive for Other Teams
Yesterday’s off-day came at a convenient time. The Yankees just suffered their toughest week of the year, so getting a night away from their struggles is probably a good thing. They’ll pick things up tomorrow night in Minneapolis, starting with a tough assignment against the Twins and then hitting a stretch of schedule where they play just one team above .500 — and even the Blue Jays might be reeling by then. For now, though, let’s take a step back and see where the Yankees stand compared to their AL East peers.
1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays have come out of the gate quicker than any other team in the majors, and with a 32-13 record are on pace for a 115-win season. Whether they get there will be largely dependent on 1) how they fare against their tougher AL East opponents, and 2) whether they remain reasonably healthy for the rest of the season. For now, though, they remain the kings of the league.
Their ascension — or re-ascension — to the top of the AL East should come as little surprise. The Rays had a good team last year but caught a few unlucky breaks, likely making up for their incredibly lucky 2008. Once Scott Kazmir returned that May they used only five starting pitchers. Last year they only used seven, but Andy Sonnanstine lost his command and Scott Kazmir lost it in general. They’ve used only five starters this year, three of whom have an ERA under 3.00. James Shields is at 3.08. Wade Davis was at 3.35 before the Red Sox tore into him last night. They lead the AL in runs per game allowed by a significant margin.
On the other end, their offense has been killing the ball. Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford have been offensive juggernauts, posting wOBAs of .414 and .392. Ben Zobrist, despite his lack of power, still has a .385 OBP and a .375 wOBA. Like the Yanks, they’ve gotten production from unexpected players. John Jaso, called up to replace the injured Kelly Shoppach at catcher, currently sports a .446 wOBA, and Hank Blalock, recalled from AAA to replace Pat Burrell at DH, has opened his Rays career with a bang. They’re also seeing excellent production from former top prospect Reid Brignac.
On one side, the Rays will certainly lose some of that production. Jaso stands no chance of maintaining his .446 wOBA once he gains more playing time. He’ll be an upgrade over Dioner Navarro, which is all the Rays really need. Blalock might hit decently, but not .407 wOBA good. On the other end, though, both B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena have proven to be better than their current numbers suggest. If they recover it can help offset the effect of Jaso coming back to earth.
Where the Yanks have to be really concerned is with the Rays pitching. Shields and Garza have proven themselves as top performers, and David Price has started looking like a player worth of the top overall pick. Combine that with a second soid year from Jeff Niemann and they don’t need Wade Davis to be lights out. He might be, though, which will cause problems for every team in the AL East — hell, for every team in the majors. I’m not sure if the Rays are this good, but they’re good enough to finish the season with the league’s best record.
2nd Place: New York Yankees
Not that we need to harp on the Yankees, since we do that every day. We know the story: slumping and injured. The pitching, which dazzled early in the season, took a couple of rough turns through the rotation. After the Twins series, though, they hit a patch of lesser teams, during which they should get Granderson and Posada back. If the pitching gets back on track, the Yanks will do just fine from here on out.
3rd Place: Toronto Blue Jays
During the off-season, I wrote about no other non-Yanks team more often than the Blue Jays. They’re a fascination of sorts. J.P. Ricciardi never seemed to have a concrete plan in constructing his roster. I’m sure he did, but from afar it didn’t seem like a solid one that would propel the Jays to the front of the AL East. Instead it seemed like he was trying to make little gains every year, and that just won’t happen when the top two teams in the division spend a combined $350 million on payroll.
Like last year, though, it’s unlikely that the Jays are as good as their early season record indicates. They have received unprecedented production from a number of players, and we’re almost certain to see that drop off in the coming months. John Buck and Alex Gonzalez are notably playing above their heads. There is little, if any, chance that either finishes within 20 points of their current wOBA rates, .379 for Buck and .367 for Gonzalez. Their wOBA leader, Vernon Wells, could be for real, though. He has the talent to put up those numbers,
On the other end, though, they have a few underperforming players, Adam Lind chief among them. If he, Lyle Overbay, and Aaron Hill pick up the production they might compensate for the declines of Buck and Gonzalez. I doubt it will be enough to keep them third in the AL in runs per game, but they’ll likely remain above average.
Their pitching has been good, though sprinkled with poor performances. Shaun Marcum and Ricky Romero have both been excellent. They won’t make Toronto fans forget about Roy Halladay, but they’re doing a good job in his stead. Brett Cecil has made some strides this year, and his peripherals look far better than his 4.98 ERA. If Brandon Morrow can manage to stop walking hitters so frequently they could have a more than formidable top of the rotation. The pitching staff could actually be the reason they stay afloat this season and possibly finish above .500.
I never thought I’d type that last sentence before the season started. Shows how much I know.
4th Place: Boston Red Sox
A 25-21 record isn’t terrible for a team that lost two of its outfielders and its No. 1 pitcher for a while, but that’s not what matters right now for the Red Sox. They’re clearly a better team than their record reflects, but games in the bank are games in the bank. Then again, the 2009 Yankees were just one game better, 26-20, through 46 games, so the Sox certainly have a chance. In fact, they found themselves at the same place, six games over .500, a month later. In other words, it would be foolish to count out the Sox right now.
Despite the slow start, despite the focus on defense over offense this off-season, despite injuries to two of its starting outfielders, despite a terrible start for David Ortiz, and despite an equally slow start for Victor Martinez, the Red Sox still rank fourth in the AL in runs scored. Nos. 1 through 3 are all AL East foes. Run scoring has not been even a slight problem for the Sox. In fact, if their run prevention plan had not hit a few bumps in the road, they might be up there with the Rays right now.
Red Sox pitchers, before last night’s game, ranked 13th out of 14 AL teams in runs allowed. John Lackey has had a rough go in Boston so far, and Josh Beckett got off to a horrible start and is now on the DL with back problems. Daisuke Matsuzaka was on the DL to start the season and has been hot and cold since returning. Jon Lester gave up tons of runs in his first few starts, exacerbating the Sox’s woes, though he has more than gotten back on track in his past few. Add to that an effective Clay Buchholz and an unsurprisingly league average Tim Wakefield, and it’s a good rotation that has faced a few unexpected problems.
What scares me about the Sox is that few of their hitters are playing above their heads. A 1.071 OPS would represent a career year for Kevin Youkilis, but he’s still capable of achieving it. Victor Martinez will almost certainly improve on his numbers, too. In other words, the Sox could maintain their offensive production throughout the season. If Lackey turns it around and Beckett comes back fully healthy, well, the Sox could surge like the 2009 Yanks did. They have a long way to go with both the Yanks and the Rays out in front, but I wouldn’t count them out until the math says they’re eliminated.
5th Place: Baltimore Orioles
I didn’t think the Orioles were in for a 2008 Rays-type run, but I didn’t think they’d be this bad. Maybe that’s because I overestimated their young pitching. That’s not a long-term overestimation, though, but merely a short one. Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie have done an admirable job as the veterans on the staff, but all of their young pitchers — Brian Matusz, David Hernandez, and Brad Bergesen — have struggled in the first month and a half of the season. It also doesn’t help that they feature one of the league’s worst bullpens.
As of today, May 25, the Orioles are done. They’ve been done, really, most of the season. That’s not a completely bad thing, though. It affords them the patience necessary to deal with growing pains for Matusz and Bergesen. It also means they can take their time with their other top pitching prospect, Chris Tillman, who has had ups and downs in AAA this season. It might get frustrating when the bullpen blows wins for them, but maybe that will be part of their learning process.
It’s on offense that the Orioles have truly struggled. If not for Ty Wigginton’s unexpectedly insane level of hitting, a .407 wOBA, the Orioles might be in an even worse place right now. Miguel Tejada has been good at times, but on the hole hasn’t been anything special. Adam Jones is having a terrible time this season, as is Nolan Reimold, whom the Orioles recently optioned to AAA (perhaps to play more first base and take over for the horrible Garrett Atkins). Matt Wieters has not impressed with the bat, either. Nick Markakis remains the only other bright spot on the offense, and even he has faced some issues. His .123 ISO isn’t up to his career standard, though his .406 OBP represents an improvement in his discipline from last season.
The Orioles still have a strong group of young players and a good farm to back them up, but this just won’t be their year. With the Yanks, Rays, and Sox established, and the O’s and Jays on the rise, though, we could see quite a battle emerge in the AL East as soon as next year.
The Yanks and Rays have played just one series so far, but in it the Yankees took the lead in the season series 2-1. That might not sound important, knowing that they’ll play 15 more times before the end of the season. Yet any advantage is at least somewhat important in the 2010 AL East. The Yanks and Rays appear to be the best teams in baseball right now, so head-to-head matchups mean even more. Neither team can do anything about what the other does for the other 144 games of the year, but they can make a difference during those 18 included in the unbalanced schedule.
Thankfully, the Yankees have played the Rays well in the past few years. Last year, even though the Rays underperformed to an extent and essentially fell out of the division race in August, the Yankees went 11-7 against them, despite losing two out of three in a meaningless series to close the season. Even in 2008, when the Rays won the AL East with 97 wins and the Yanks missed the playoffs, the Yanks won 11 of their 18 match-ups. Going back further than that gets into Tampa Bay’s cellar dwelling days, though, strangely, the Yanks had a losing record against them in 2005.
The Yanks’ current 2-1 edge over the Rays means that they’ll continue leading the season series even if they split the next two games. That record will hold for a bit, as they don’t meet again until July 16th. The biggest battles will likely have to wait until September, when the Yankees travel to St. Petersburg for three games from the 13th through the 15th, and then the Rays come to the Stadium for four starting on the 20th. Those could be the final stand for either team’s claim to the AL East title. For now, the Yanks will just try to stay above water.
Thankfully, they open the series with a pitching advantage. Other than his meltdown at Fenway, A.J. Burnett has been fantastic this season. Even when he doesn’t have everything working, as he didn’t Friday evening against the Twins, he’s still able to scrape together quality starts. In only two starts, both against the Sox, has he failed to pitch into the seventh inning, which has been a boon to the bullpen. Last time around Burnett pitched seven innings and held the Rays to two runs.
The Yankees hit Wade Davis well in his season debut, turning 11 baserunners into four runs in six innings. Since then Davis has been a bit better, and now has his ERA down to 3.38. His peripherals, however, do not match up. His FIP sits at 4.94 and his xFIP is 4.96, so it appears that he’s gotten a bit lucky. That’s easy to verify with a look at his strikeout rate, 6.08 per nine, against his walk rate, 4.73 per nine. Davis has walked as few as two batters twice, but both times that came against Oakland, not the most patient team in the league. Unsurprisingly, he walked four batters, his season highs, against the Yankees and Red Sox.
Where the Yanks might find a real advantage is tomorrow night. While facing James Shields is never an easy task, this is more about the Rays offense than their pitching. Against left-handers this year the Rays have hit .229/.309/.360, while against righties they’re .266/.342/.424. Andy Pettitte, tomorrow night’s scheduled starter, missed the series against the Rays the first time, though CC Sabathia had his way with them. While Shields could hold the Yankees’ offense in check, Pettitte could match him pitch-for-pitch.
When two teams as good as the Yanks and the Rays meet, it’s tough to set expectations. As the last three games have reminded us, anything can happen when two good teams battle for nine innings. All the Yanks have to do, though, is win one of these. That will keep them above water against an important division foe until the next time the two meet.
Buried behind the big market clubs atop the AL East for past decade, the Blue Jays managed to win 256 games from 2006 to 2008 (.527 winning percentage) yet never finished closer than ten games back of the division winner. Longtime GM J.P. Ricciardi was fired after the team won just 75 games last season, and was replaced by his assistant Alex Anthopoulos. He’s launched the team into full rebuild mode, a process that won’t bear many fruits in 2010.
Usually when a team has a player under contract for the next five years at a cost of $98.5M, they would expect that player to be the face of the franchise and the centerpiece of their lineup. Instead, Vernon Wells represents a lesson in ill-advised contract extensions, as he’ll soak up approximately 25% of the team’s payroll going forward, assuming there’s no dramatic increase in the budget.
Since signing his deal in December of 2006, Wells has hit just .265-.317-.426 (.330 wOBA) with a -33.6 UZR (worst in the game among centerfielders), making him worth a total of 2.0 WAR. For comparison’s sake, Melky Cabrera has hit .267-.323-.385 (.315 wOBA) with a -8.4 UZR in center during the same three year stretch, making him worth 2.4 WAR. Toronto only paid him $7.5M during that time, so the big money doesn’t kick in until next year. Wells will pocket $12.5M in 2010 before earning $23M, $21M, $21M, and $21M from 2011 to 2014. Yikes.
The Jays aren’t going to get lucky like they did with Alex Rios, when they were able to unload the entire $60M+ left on his deal on the White Sox after they claimed him on waivers. The good news/bad news scenario is that Wells’ performance had improved as he got further away from the fractured left wrist he suffered in May of 2008, but the bad news is that he had surgery to repair cartilage damage in the same wrist this offseason. Toronto has to hope that’s nothing more a minor bump in the road, and he’ll be able to return to the four-plus win level of performance he showed from 2003 to 2006. As for a rebound in 2010, the Magic 8-Ball’s sources say no.
Luckily for Toronto, they do have a bonafide homegrown star in the middle of their lineup named Adam Lind. Freed from the shackles of inconsistent playing time once manager John Gibbons was fired in June of 2008, Lind was instantly installed into the lineup on an everyday basis when Cito Gaston took over. He hit a respectable .296-.329-.463 (.341 wOBA) after the managerial change in ’08, but Lind broke out and emerged as one of the most dominant offensive forces in the league last season. His .394 wOBA was eighth best in the AL, and his 35 homers placed fifth in the circuit. Although he provides zero defensive value and is likely to spend the majority of his time in Toronto at the DH position, Lind represents the Jays’ best offensive player since Carlos Delgado left town after the 2004 season, and he’s under team control for another four years.
His running mate during the 2009 season was second baseman Aaron Hill, who enjoyed a breakout of his own by posting a .357 wOBA and a team leading 36 homers, five more than any other full time second baseman in the game. His 12 “just enough” homers (according to Hit Tracker) represent a third of his total, and chances are that’ll even out a bit and he’ll send fewer balls over the fence in 2010. A lack of plate discipline (swung at 26.3% of the pitches he saw out of the zone last year) and a weakness against breaking balls don’t help his case either. Of course, getting further away from a concussion that caused him to miss most of the 2008 season surely helped his production, so maybe those 36 homers aren’t as fluky as they appear on the surface.
Promising youngster Travis Snider will be given another chance to stick with the big league club this year, though he’s had a poor spring and last year’s .327 wOBA in close to 300 plate appearances doesn’t inspire much confidence. He’s way too young to give up on at just 22-years-old, especially when the organization just watched how long it took everything to click for Lind. At least Snider offers some defensive value in right, with okay range and one of the strongest arms no one knows about.
First basemen Lyle Overbay will be counted on to provide some thump behind Hill and Lind, though his days of 40+ doubles and 20+ homers are a thing of he past. He’s a rock solid glove man with strong on-base skills. Edwin Encarnacion came over in the Scott Rolen deal at least year’s trade deadline, and his M.O. is the same as it’s always been: decent on-base ability, good power, and a hazard to those around him when he’s playing defense at the hot corner. Leftfielder Jose Bautista shouldn’t be a bad choice for the leadoff spot given his strong walk rate, but he’s so bad at hitting for average that it drags his OBP down. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez was brought in strictly for his glove, while new catcher John Buck will run into the occasional fastball out of the eighth spot in the order.
The wildcard in all this is 32-year-old minor league journeyman and former Yankee farmhand Randy Ruiz, who figures to see some more action this season after hitting .313-.385-.635 (.428 wOBA) during a late season callup in 2009. You probably remember him hitting a homer off the rightfield foul pole against the Yanks in his first big league game of the season before doing this the very next day. He obviously won’t maintain that pace over a full season, but his minor league line of .304-.378-.531 in over 4,600 plate appearances is pretty damn good, so it’s not like he can’t hit. If Ruiz proves to be a productive hitter for Gaston, you could see him steal time away from Overbay at first base, or force Lind into leftfield so he can DH.
It’s likely the Jays’ will summon top prospect Brett Wallace from the minor leagues at some point, perhaps after they unload Overbay to a contender at the trade deadline. The lefty swinger is a .305-.384-.475 hitter in the minors and projects to be a batting title contender with gap power down the road. He can fake it at third base but is destined to play first, where the Jays currently have a bit of a logjam.
Toronto’s offense was pretty good as a whole last year, posting a .337 wOBA that was the sixth best in the league last year. They’re going to miss the the .354 wOBA that Marco Scutaro brought to the table in 2009, but considering that he’s bested a .316 wOBA only one other time in his eight year big league career, they shouldn’t have counted on him to repeat that kind of performance if he was brought back anyway. Lind is an offensive star and Hill is one of the better offensive second baseman in the game even if his 36 homer power doesn’t stick, but beyond that you don’t have much more than a few complementary players and a pair of lottery tickets in Snider and Ruiz.
For the last decade, fans in Toronto were able to sit back and watch the masterful Roy Halladay go to work every five days. With durability that makes you think he could pitch year round if they let him, Halladay has put up a 3.13 ERA (3.28 FIP) since Opening Day 2002, the best in the American League. It’s even more impressive when you consider that he’s spent basically two full seasons (64 starts, 453.2 IP) facing the Yankees or Red Sox.
But Halladay’s gone now, traded to the two-time defending NL Champs during the offseason for what amounts to three Top 100 prospects and close to $10M in salary relief.
Taking Halladay’s place as the Opening Day start is Shaun Marcum, who threw exactly zero big league innings last year as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Prior to going under the knife, he posted a 3.77 ERA in 310.1 innings from 2007 to 2008, but his FIP told a different story at 4.59. The gap is in large part due to an inordinate number of stranded runners (76.9% in ’07, 80.2% in ’08), so expect his ERA to climb over four if those runners are left on base at the league average rate of 71% or so.
Backing him up in the number two spot will be Ricky Romero, who is probably better known among Blue Jays insiders as “the guy they drafted instead of Troy Tulowitzki.” The southpaw had a solid rookie season last year, making 29 starts and throwing 178 innings of 4.09 xFIP ball. With a rock solid 2.03 GB/FB rate, he’ll look to cut down on the walks (3.99 BB/9) and give up fewer homers (0.91 HR/9) to take that next step in his age-25 season.
After Marcum and Romero, it’s really anyone’s guess how the rest of the Jays’ rotation will shake out. The one thing there is not is a shortage of candidates for those 3-4-5 spots. I don’t have a good way of sorting this mess out, so let’s go through it alphabetically.
The youngster of the bunch, 2007 first rounder Brett Cecil is another example of a college reliever the Jays have successfully transitioned to the rotation (Marcum and current Brewer Dave Bush are examples). The former University of Maryland closer made 17 starts for Toronto last year, and even though his 4.68 xFIP is an eyesore, the 23-year-old lefty misses bats with a low-90′s fastball, a hard slider, and a devastating split-change hybrid. All he needs is experience, and that will come with the typical growing pains associated with pitchers his age.
Dana Eveland, the well traveled southpaw who was acquired from the A’s during the offseason, has been superb during Spring Training and is a favorite to land one of those three open rotation spots. The problem is that he hasn’t been very good at all in the last few years, with his high water mark coming the form of a 4.55 xFIP in 29 starts for the A’s in 2008. Long story short, he doesn’t miss enough bats (6.45 career K/9), walks too many guys (4.62 BB/9), and gives up too many homers (1.39 HR/9) to do the starting thing long-term. Even with a rock solid 50.1% groundball rate, the AL East doesn’t figure to be kind to Mr. Eveland.
The ace in hole of all this starting pitcher nonsense is Dustin McGowan, who missed the second half of 2008 and all of 2009 after having surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and frayed labrum in his throwing shoulder. He was outstanding during his 2007 breakout season, finally free from the constant front office meddling that saw him bounce back and forth between the rotation and bullpen for the better part of his minor league career and prime development years. McGowan posted a 3.89 xFIP in 27 starts that year, then followed it with a 4.32 mark in 19 starts the next year before the shoulder injury put him down for the count. Neither the team nor McGowan are in any rush to get him back to the big leagues, especially after he experienced a little soreness in his surgically repaired joint earlier in camp, so he’s going to start the season on the disabled list and slowly work his way back. Of all the pitchers in this post, McGowan is the only one that offers true front of the rotation potential.
Righty Brandon Morrow, who came over from Seattle in a deal for Michael Kay favorite Brandon League, has been limited in Spring Training because of a sore shoulder. The poor kid has been Joba Rules’d more than Joba, bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and starting rotation since being drafted in 2006. In 15 career big league starts he owns a 4.42 ERA (5.23 FIP), and his numbers are predictably better when working as a reliever. The feeling at the time he was drafted was that Morrow would probably end up in the bullpen long term because of poor command and the lack of consistent second pitch, but a team like Toronto has nothing to lose by seeing what he can do as a starter. Presumably they won’t jerk him around like he was in Seattle.
Swingman Brian Tallet stepped into the rotation last season to provide 25 awful starts (5.41 ERA, 4.59 FIP), and has continued to be pretty dreadful this spring. He might win a spot based on incumbency, but his nothing about his strikeout (6.72 K/9), walk (4.03 BB/9), homerun (1.12), or ground ball rates (36.3%) portend future success. Considering that he’s lefthanded, breathing, and scheduled to make $2M this season, I suspect he’ll stick around as a reliever once the rotation experiment fails.
One guy who took himself out of the running for a rotation spot is yet another lefty, the 23-year-old Marc Rzepczynski. After posting a 3.70 xFIP in eleven starts with the big boys last season, Rzepczynski tried a barehand a line drive two days ago and broke a finger on his throwing hand. He’ll spend the next six weeks on the disabled list. Kyle Drabek, the centerpiece of the Halladay deal, will start the year in the minors and is unlikely to see any big league action, no matter how tempting it will be for the front office to call him up as a way of justifying the trade.
It appears as though Eveland, Tallet, and Morrow will start the year in the rotation (not necessarily in that order), and I’m sure Gaston is thankful that he’s going to have a damn good bullpen to back them up.
Starting at the back-end, Jason Frasor returns to the closer’s role after picking up eleven saves last year and cutting his already strong walk rate down to just 2.50 BB/9. He’s posted xFIP’s under 3.83 in four of the last five years, and is one of the more unheralded relievers in the game. Former closer and current setup man Scott Downs is in the same boat, being one of the best relievers in the game that no one talks about. The lefty has lowered his xFIP every year since 2006, and hasn’t topped 3.89 since he was a starter in 2004. Free agent signing Kevin Gregg will get some high leverage work despite not being very good; his career best 4.16 xFIP came just last year, when he served up one big fly for every five or so innings pitched.
Beyond the big two and a half at the end game, changeup ace Shawn Camp has enjoy his greatest big league success since joining the Jays in 2008, with an xFIP under four in over 100 innings with the club. He can go multiple innings if needed. Righty Casey Janssen had a sexy 2.35 ERA in 72.2 relief innings in 2007, but his 4.54 xFIP tells a different story. He missed all of 2008 and part of 2009 after having surgery to repair a torn labrum, so he’s a bit of an known for this season. The rest of the bullpen will be filled out by guys like Jeremy Accardo, Josh Roenicke (another part of the Rolen deal), and Merkin Valdez, who all throw hard but battle command issues.
With no clear cut ace, Toronto’s pitching is very much an unknown going into the season. They have some very interesting young arms with more on the way, but there’s not enough here to compete in the unforgiving AL East. Barring some sort of miracle, the Jays are likely to finish in last place in the division for just the second time since 1997.
Over the course of this week, Joe and Mike are previewing the Yanks’ AL East competitors. I got in on the action last week when Alex Belth of Bronx Banter asked me to join him and Cliff Corcoran on his SportsNet NY web-only video series Bronx Banter Breakdown.
In the third and final installment that we recorded on Friday, we discuss the state of the AL East. Cliff thinks the Red Sox are the Majors’ most improved team this winter, but I’m more worried about a looming Tampa team featuring a pair of guys playing for contracts. Check out the video below.
For those who missed the two other installments, the first piece examined the Yankee pitching while the second looked at the team’s offense. Thanks to Alex and Cliff for having me on, and be sure to check out Bronx Banter.
Years of futility have helped the Orioles rebuild their team. While the fans have suffered through 12 straight losing seasons, the front office has used that to its advantage. High draft picks have led to a number of marquee players in the organization, many of whom will play a prominent role in 2010.
After appearing in the ALCS two years in a row, the Orioles finished below .500 in 1998. At 79-83 they had the 13th worst record in the league. They also lost a number of free agents, netting them six of the first 50 picks in the 1999 draft. Five were busts. The only one that panned out was No. 50, a shortstop named Brian Roberts. It took a while for him to develop, but he took over second bas full time in 2004, and broke out in 2005. Once the subject of myriad trade rumors, Roberts now appears entrenched in the organization. He begins a four-year, $40 million extension this season. Unfortunately for the Orioles it appears he’ll open the season on the DL, but once he returns he’ll slide into one of the top lineup spots and likely provide his usual production.
While the Orioles didn’t get much out of their first five picks of the 1999 draft, they took a key player in the sixth round. There they selected left-handed pitcher Erik Bedard. Heading into the 2002 season he was the No. 90 prospect in baseball, and answered by posting a 1.97 ERA at AA Bowie. He did face some injury issues, though, which kept him out for much of the 2003 season. By 2004 he was with the big league club for good. His value to the current lineup, though, came after the 2007 season. The Orioles, with Andy MacPhail at the helm, traded him to the Bill Bavasi-led Mariners for, among other minor leaguers, Adam Jones, George Sherrill, and Chris Tillman.
Jones, a supplemental first round pick by the Mariners in 2003, has shown improvement during his first two years in Baltimore. He came with high expectations as the No. 28 prospect in baseball heading into the 2007 season, and in 2008 he played full time for the Orioles. He wasn’t great, posting just a .313 wOBA, but his value was still in his potential. He came closer to fulfilling that last season, posting a .343 wOBA. UZR rates him as positive over those two seasons, though we’re still dealing with a small sample. If he stays healthy again in 2010 we could see big things from Jones atop the Orioles lineup.
With their No. 7 pick in the 2003 draft the Orioles selected Nick Markakis. He spent just three seasons in the minors, and played zero games at AAA, before breaking camp with the team in 2006. Markakis had a stellar 2008, posting a .389 wOBA, a 23-point improvement over 2007. That was mostly due to a spike in his walk rate, up to 14.2 percent. That dropped back down to 7.9 percent in 2009, though, and Markakis’s wOBA fell 40 points to .349. It was an all-around down year for him, as his ISO fell 25 points and his UZR ranked in the negatives for the first time in his career. It’s tough to keep down a hitter like Markakis, though. I expect him to rebound to somewhere around his 2008 production this season, holding down the middle of the Orioles lineup.
In the second round of the 2005 draft the Orioles selected outfielder Nolan Reimold, who raked his way through the minors. After mastering AA in 2007 and 2008 he moved onto AAA in 2009, where he posted a .530 wOBA. The Orioles saw it fit to call him up and give him 411 plate appearances, in which he posted an impressive .365 wOBA. Yet he won’t get the start in left this season, as he had a poor spring after undergoing surgery to repair his left Achilles tendon. While he’ll eventually take over, Felix Pie will get a shot at every day at-bats to start the season. He definitely showed improvement in 2009, and could become a valuable role player, or trade bait, for the Orioles down the road.
Matt Wieters was a more highly regarded prospect than Mike Moustakas, Josh Vitters, and Daniel Moskokos, all of whom went before him in the 2007 draft. But Wieters is a Scott Boras client, and the Royals, Cubs, and Pirates apparently didn’t want to pay his bonus demands. The Orioles took advantage. He didn’t sign in time to play in 2007, but he more than made up for it in 2008, posting a 445 wOBA in advanced-A and then a .472 wOBA in AA. That earned him the top spot in Baseball America’s Top 100 for 2009. The Orioles opened him in AAA but called him up after 163 PA, installing him as their primary catcher. He hit well, though he didn’t quite live up to the considerable hype surrounding him. Even so he posted a .330 wOBA. Watch for him to break out in a big way this season.
Sometimes players come back to you. The Orioles traded Miguel Tejada before the 2008 season, four years after they signed him to a six-year, $72 million contract. He finished out the final two years in Houston, where he hit well but seemingly dropped off defensively, especially last season. With no multiyear offers and no teams willing to play him at shortstop, he re-signed with the Orioles this off-season as their primary third baseman. A player the Orioles received in the Tejada trade, Luke Scott, figures to be the primary DH. He posted a .343 wOBA in his first year, followed by .355 last year. He’s a man without a position, though, because the Orioles’ outfield is filled with younger, more promising players.
First base presents an interesting situation for the O’s. They signed Garrett Atkins this winter, who has steadily declined since his .410 wOBA in 2006. That number fell to .368, then to .337, and finally to .291 last season. He played pretty poor defense at third, though with Tejada on board the Orioles moved him across the diamond. He might not last long as the starter, though. Michael Aubrey, whom the Orioles acquired from the Indians for a PTBNL last June, could make a case for playing time, perhaps acting as a platoon partner. The O’s could eventually turn to Brandon Snyder, their No. 6 prospect. After hitting very well throughout the minors he stumbled a bit at AAA, so he’ll get a chance to get up to speed there. There’s also a chance, though I’m not sure how great, that the O’s could call up their No. 2 prospect, third baseman Josh Bell, acquired from the Dodgers for George Sherrill, and move Tejada to first.
Any rebuilding team needs to stock up on high-tier pitching prospects. The success rate from them is pretty low, so having a number of these pitchers means a greater chance that one or two will pitch in the bigs eventually. The Orioles feature a nice blend of veterans and youngsters, and as the year progresses they could perhaps insert another prospect or two into the rotation.
Adding to the veteran presence atop the rotation, the Orioles traded for Kevin Millwood this off-season. They didn’t have illusions of him putting them over the top, of course. He was cheap, costing them just reliever Chris Ray and their Rule 5 pick, and he affords the Orioles more flexibility in developing their younger arms. For instance, with Millwood in the rotation the Orioles can afford to leave Chris Tillman in the minors to get a bit more seasoning. David Hernandez, who is a bit older and not as highly regarded a prospect, will take the final rotation spot. Again, the Orioles are lucky to have flexibility. I’ll save space here by pointing you to FanGraphs for more on the decision to start Hernandez in the rotation.
Jeremy Guthrie, formerly the staff ace, pitches behind Millwood this season. A 2002 first round pick by the Indians after being drafted in 1997 by the Mets and in 2001 by the Pirates, Guthrie did not live up to the hype in the minors. Out of options in 2007, the Indians waived him and the Orioles pounced. Guthrie rewarded them by improving his walk rate, which was the primary component in his revival. He posted ERAs of 3.70 and 3.63 during his first two years with the O’s, though those marks were out of line with his FIPs, 4.41 and 4.53. A spike in BABIP and fly ball rate led to more hits and home runs last season, and Guthrie’s ERA spiked to 5.04 against a 5.31 FIP. If he brings the ground balls back to his career level, though, he could see a bit of improvement in 2009, though I imagine he’ll be more around 4.50, as his FIPs from 2007 and 2008 indicated, rather than his mid-3s ERAs.
At my girlfriend’s sister’s rehearsal dinner last year I sat at a table with the bridesmaids and their dates. I didn’t know any of them, so I tried to work in a baseball conversation with the guy sitting next to me. Turns out he’s a huge Orioles fan and was impressed that I knew Brad Bergesen, who happened to be pitching that night against the Red Sox. (It was also the night that Joba dominated the A’s.) Bergesen, a fourth-round pick in 2004 and a high school teammate of Phil Hughes, came along slowly, but in 2008 he made great strides, leading to his call-up in 2009. A comebacker off the shin cut short his 2009 season, and a shoulder injury suffered while shooting a commercial caused a minor setback, but Bergesen has looked good this spring and will slot in behind Guthrie.
The Orioles shut down Brian Matusz in mid-September last year in order to keep him under his innings limit, which was apparently somewhere around 160. That also kept him under the 50 innings that would have erased his prospect status, so he checked in at No. 1 on the Orioles’ list this year. The No. 4 overall pick in 2008, Matusz signed late and missed the minor league season. His first full professional season, then, was 2009 and he cracked the Major League rotation. That should speak volumes about his potential. He features an above average fastball, curveball, and slider, and when an Orioles official said his changeup wasn’t up to par he made it the focus of his next start, throwing it more than 20 times. That’s a luxury he won’t have in the majors, though his above-average command of his other three pitches should help. The Orioles also laud his intelligence and intensity, which they think can help him top their rotation for years to come.
The name Mike Gonzalez might ring a bell for Yankees fans. During the 2006-2007 off-season it became clear that the Pirates would trade him, and rumors of a deal involving Melky Cabrera circulated. The Braves won out, though, sending Adam LaRoche to the Pirates and installing Gonzalez as their closer. That worked for 17 innings, after which Gonzalez underwent Tommy John surgery. He came back strong in 2008, minus a few too many home runs, and was even better in 2009. His walk rates in both seasons fell below his career average, and his strikeouts were above. Baltimore signed him to a two-year deal over the off-season, probably so he can actually hold down leads for the young pitchers. He might help out if the Orioles make a Rays-like run in 2011 as well.
The rest of the bullpen doesn’t appear strong at all. With Ray gone Jim Johnson will assume the primary setup role. He was excellent in 2008, throwing 68.2 innings and posting a 2.23 ERA and 3.38 FIP. That was completely unsustainable, though, as he allowed no home runs all year. That’s impressive, but most pitchers will allow home runs on about 10 percent of their fly balls. Johnson evened out and then some in 2009 with a 12.1 percent HR/FB. He does keep the ball on the ground and struck out 6.30 per nine innings. Behind him Mark Hendrickson will be the long man and Koji Uehara will slot in somewhere once he comes back from his hamstring issues. Matt Albers, Cla Meredith, and Alberto Castillo, among others, could get shots, but I don’t think the O’s are looking for the next big setup man among them.
Conclusion: Better than the Jays
The Orioles still have a way to go before they contend, though if they catch a few breaks they could make a run as early as 2011. After a dozen consecutive losing seasons, I’m sure their fan base can handle one more, especially with how this team is shaping up. They have two potential top of the rotation arms in the rotation to start the year and then have another who nearly cracked the Opening Day rotation. Beyond that their Nos. 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 prospects are all pitchers. If they head into next season with Matusz, Bergesen, and Tillman with one or two of those prospects in tow, we could see big things in 2011.
As for 2010, I’d say that unless something big goes wrong that the O’s will climb out of the AL East cellar and finish ahead of the Jays. I’ve done a lot of writing about the Jays this off-season, and while I do like their outlook, they’ve cleaned out the team for the time being. The Orioles have better hitting and better pitching in the current talent column, and really they have better future talent as well. The Jays are doing an admirable job in trying to correct J.P. Ricciardi’s mistakes, but with two financial powerhouses and two more well-run franchises residing in the same division they could find themselves in last place for a few years running. Hey, someone has to finish there.
Over the next few days we will preview the teams the Yankees will play most frequently in 2010. Yesterday we took a look at the Red Sox, and today we continue on with the other AL East powerhouse, the Tampa Bay Rays.
You might not have realized it, but the Rays had one of the game’s best offenses in 2009. They hit .263-.343-.439 on the season, and their .343 team wOBA ranked behind only the Yankees (.366), Red Sox (.352), and Angels (.346). The 803 total runs they pushed across the plate is probably a little light considering their strong peripherals, yet the lineup remains largely unchanged heading into the new season.
Tampa’s offense is built around a dynamic middle of the order. Third baseman Evan Longoria leads the charge as the three hole hitter, and his .380 wOBA from last season is especially remarkable when you consider that he was stuck in a brutal two month long slump that saw him hit .205-.311-.404 (.301 wOBA) from May 31st to July 31st. Longoria finished the year strong (.293-.373-.523, .372 wOBA) after the calendar flipped to August, and he’s not just going to be asked to anchor the lineup again, he’s going to be asked to do even more. At 24-years-old, he’s already a star and one of the most productive hitters in the game.
Backing up Longoria most of the time will be former Yankee farmhand Carlos Pena, who has enjoyed a career resurgence since joining Tampa prior to the 2007 season. He’s the definition of a three true outcomes player, as 48% of his plate appearances over the last three years have ended with a walk, a strikeout, or a homer. As he enters his age-32 season, the Rays are going to need just one more .250-.380-.550 season with 30+ homers out of Pena before he heads off into the world of free agency after the season.
Pat Burrell was signed last offseason to complement Longoria and Pena in the middle of Joe Maddon’s lineup, but it ended up being career utility player Ben Zobrist who stepped up and broke out in a big way. Always a patient hitter who hit for decent power in the minors (.318-.429-.459 career hitter in the bush leagues), the switch hitting Zobrist refined his swing prior to the season with Jaime Cevallos (a.k.a. The Swing Mechanic). The result was a huge breakout that saw him hit .297-.405-.543 with the third best wOBA (.408) in the AL. Not yet in his arbitration years, Zobrist will join Longoria to form what might be the division’s most productive hitting tandem over the next half-decade.
The table for that trio will be set by Carl Crawford, who is inarguably the greatest player in franchise history. He’s bested a .360 wOBA in three of the last four years (he was hampered by a hand injury the one year he fell short), and we’re all well aware of his stolen base exploits. At 28-years-old there’s no reason to expect a drop off. Heck, he might even be in store for a huge year considering he’s up for free agency next winter.
Burrell’s fall from grace came harder and faster than anyone expected (.304 wOBA after topping .374 the previous four years), and everyone assumes the worst for 2010. He was brought in to help balance out a lefty heavy lineup, which seemed like a fine idea considering he averaged a .415 wOBA against southpaws from 2005 to 2008, though he managed to hit just .202-.336-.252 (.278 wOBA) against lefties last season. Tampa actively looked for a replacement DH this offseason despite owing Pat The Bat $9M this season. It seems like a pretty safe bet that the Rays will get better production out of their designated hitter spot this year, whether it’s Burrell who provides it remains to be seen.
Shortstop Jason Bartlett is unlikely to repeat his .364 BABIP and thus his .389 wOBA from a year ago, and a fall back to his previously below average offensive levels would be a big hit. After breaking out with a .387 wOBA in 2007, B.J. Upton hasn’t been the same since hurting his shoulder in 2008, and bottomed out at a .310 wOBA last season. The range of what he’s capable of doing in 2010 is as wide as any player in the game – I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he wOBA’d .310 or .390. Dioner Navarro’s .258 wOBA has essentially been replaced by Kelly Shoppach, who can swing and miss with the best of ‘em, but will also provide league average offense from the catcher position.
The last spot in the lineup will most likely be filled by Sean Rodriguez, who came over in last summer’s Scott Kazmir trade. Coming into the camp, the idea was that he and Matt Joyce would battle it out for either the second base or rightfield job with Zobrist occupying the other spot, but Joyce’s sore elbow and Rodriguez’s molten hot spring (.439-.484-.860 in a team high 57 at-bats) all but assures him of being in the lineup come Opening Day. He won’t maintain his spring performance into the season, obviously, though replicating the departed Akinori Iwamura’s .338 wOBA seems likely.
The bench will feature former All Star Hank Blalock, who is just a year removed from consecutive seasons of .361 and .383 wOBA’s. He’ll backup Longoria, Pena, and get some starts at DH against righties. Fourth outfielder Gabe Kapler was ever so slightly above average with the bat last season, doing most of his damage against southpaws (.394 wOBA). Prospect list veteran Reid Brignac may be the club’s utility infielder, or it could fall into the lap of Elliot Johnson. Neither will contribute much with the stick.
Of course, doing damage with the bats is just half of Tampa’s offensive game. Once they reach base, they make lots and lots of stuff happen with their legs. Crawford (60), Upton (42), Bartlett (30), and Zobrist (17) stole more bases by themselves than any other team in the league last year, and are likely to run wild again. Longoria and Rodriguez are both capable of double digit steals as well. According to Baseball Prospectus’ EqBRR, the Rays also generated another five and a half runs for themselves in non-stolen base baserunning situations, among the best in the league. Tampa Bay’s offensive game extends far beyond the batter’s box.
While defense has taken baseball by storm as the new undervalued commodity, the Rays have been doing the catch the ball thing for years. Their 2007 squad was the worst defensive team in baseball that year, costing themselves 57.7 runs in the field, nearly ten runs behind the second worst team. That all changed in 2008 through a series of moves, including position changes (Upton to center, Iwamura to second), trades (Bartlett), and promotions (Longoria), and the end result was a team that saved 74.2 runs defensively, the best in the game. That 131.9 run (!!!) swing is the main reason the team went from 96 losses and 944 runs allowed in ’07 to 95 wins and 671 runs allowed in ’08.
Although not to the same extreme as the Mariners, Tampa’s defense remains their calling card. They saved 69.5 runs defensively last season, with Longoria and Crawford rated as the two best defensive players at their position over the last two years. Upton places second for his position despite his occasional lack of hustle. UZR hasn’t quite figured out first basemen, though Pena remains one of the game better defenders at the 3-position. Bartlett’s reputation as a defender greatly exceeds what the advanced metrics say, but he’s no worse than rock solid at short. That leaves second base and rightfield as the unknowns.
Zobrist led all big league position players with 8.6 WAR last season, thanks in part to beefy small sample size UZR’s. In 714 innings at second, he was +16. In 329.1 innings in right, he was +11.5. In 165.1 innings spent at all the other positions, he was -1.1. He’s unlikely to maintain those kinds of ratings as the number of defensive innings grows, but he, like Rodriguez, came up through the minors with a reputation of being no worse than a solid glove man. Even we assume league average defense from that pair, Tampa will again boast one of the games best defensive clubs.
Of course, run prevention starts on the mound, and the Rays have the game’s best young rotation. Jamie Shields is the old man of the bunch at 28, and he’s followed by Matt Garza (26), Jeff Niemann (27), David Price (24), and Wade Davis (24). Those five will combine to make about $9.5M in 2010, or what the Yankees will pay A.J. Burnett for the first four months of the season.
Unsurprisingly, Shields will be the team’s Opening Day starter for the third time in three years. The changeup artist has made at least 31 starts and logged at least 215 innings every year since 2007, keeping his xFIP consistently under four. Just ten pitchers in baseball have eclipsed Shields’ 12.8 total WAR over the last three years, and he’s as safe a bet as anyone to give his team 200 above average innings.
Number two starter Matt Garza isn’t as much of a known quantity as Shields, but he’s been pretty much everything the Rays could have hoped for since acquiring him prior to the 2008 season. He added more than two full strikeouts to his K/9 last season (8.38), and is in position to toss up one strikeout for every inning pitched in 2010. Garza’s xFIP went from 4.48 to 4.21 last season, and natural development should have him close to four-flat this season. Many starters hit their stride in their third full season, so Garza’s a prime breakout candidate.
Niemann, the fourth overall pick the year the Yankees drafted Phil Hughes, finally stuck in the big leagues after battling arm injuries and at time inconsistency in his minor league career. The 6-foot9, 260 pound monster posted a better than league average ERA, FIP, and xFIP in 30 starts last season, and should improve upon his modest 6.23 K/9 with more experience. Like Shields and Garza, he’s a safe bet to not just repeat last season’s performance, but improve on it.
Following his bullpen exploits in the 2008 postseason, Tampa sent Price to the minors to start 2009 so he could work on his changeup. Although he made 23 more than respectable big league starts last season (4.49 xFIP), he often ran high pitch counts that taxed the bullpen. That didn’t last for long though, as Price got on a roll and completed at least six innings in nine of his last eleven starts. Again, we have another guy likely to improve on last season’s performance just through natural development.
Despite a rather poor spring (12-10 K/BB in 15.1 innings), Davis will break camp as the team’s fifth starter, relegating the incumbent Andy Sonnanstine to bullpen duty. Baseball America ranked the hard throwing righty the 34th best prospect in the game coming into the season after six dazzling September starts that featured a 3.54 xFIP and a complete game shutout of the Orioles. Expectations are high for the long-term, but right now he just needs to be the team’s fifth starter. Sonnanstine, who may have been dealing with a case of World Series hangover when he posted a 5.42 ERA and a 4.85 xFIP last year, will be the de facto long man.
Even counting Sonnastine, the Rays enjoyed great health from their starters last season. Shields, Garza, and Niemann all made at least 30 starts, Price chipped in 23 after being called up in May, and Kazmir also gave the team 20 starts before being traded. Given the general injury risk involved with pitchers, it’s unlikely that they’ll go through the 2010 season needing just seven starters again. Then again, you could have said the same thing about the 2008 season when they used just six starters. Sonnanstine would likely be the first to move into the rotation should a spot starter be needed, but Tampa also has Jeremy Hellickson waiting in the minors as one of the game’s top pitching prospects. Righty Aneury Rodriguez, acquired from the Rockies for Jason Hammel, provides more solid depth as well.
The biggest move of the team’s offseason was actually a series of trades that landed the team a bonafide closer in Rafael Soriano. After burning through the old and ineffective (Troy Percival, Jason Isringhausen), Maddon went with a closer by committee approach that saw J.P. Howell getting the majority of the saves and save opportunities. Unfortunately, Howell is already on the shelf with a fatigued shoulder, weakening the setup crew. Soriano is a given at the end game, having used his high-90′s heat and devastating slider to pick up 27 saves and post a 2.99 xFIP in Atlanta last season. Getting the ball to him could prove to be a bit cumbersome.
Veteran Dan Wheeler is death to righties (3.40 xFIP) but gets tattooed by lefties (6.51), while former Yankee Randy Choate is the exact opposite (2.56 vs. LHB, 4.92 vs. RHB). Grant Balfour plays the role of good fastball, bad control reliever, and is more likely to repeat his 4.21 xFIP in 2009 than his 2.96 mark from 2008. Lance Cormier was a revelation in long relief last season, but Howell’s injury may press him into shorter, higher leveraged innings. Padres’ castoff Mike Ekstrom and Four-A’er Dale Thayer represent the replacement level up-and-down fodder. The wildcard is Joaquin Benoit, who signed a minor league deal after missing the 2008 season with shoulder surgery. During his last two healthy years, he struck out more than a batter an inning and kept his FIP close to three. It’s a good thing Tampa’s rotation is so strong and deep, because they’re going to need to soak up as many innings as possible to limit the amount of time the Balfours and Thayers and Cormiers of the world have to blow the lead before getting to Soriano.
The Rays have mastered the concept of player development and building from within, which is the only way they’re going to compete with the bullies of the AL East. You could make a pretty good rotation just out of the pitchers the Rays have traded away in the last two years (Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, Hammel, Mitch Talbot), and they have plenty more where that came from. With talk of a reduced payroll in 2011 and Pena, Crawford, Soriano, Burrell, and Balfour all set to become free agents after the season, this is probably the last hurrah for this Rays’ team as presently constructed. This current team is very, very good and could easily win 90 games and make a run at the division crowd, and don’t be surprised if they make a midseason move to get them over the hump.
Over the next four days we will preview the teams the Yankees will play most frequently in 2010. Kicking things off is the team they will face on Sunday night, the Boston Red Sox.
The Red Sox have quite a different look than they did in the mid- and late-00s. Gone are the days of the best 3-4 combination in baseball, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. Now Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis will assume those roles. They might not be as intimidating as their predecessors, but they’re both excellent hitters who will provide the bulk of the power in the Sox lineup.
Among all major league catchers last year, Victor Martinez ranked third in wOBA, behind Joe Mauer and Jorge Posada. That can be an outstanding advantage, but it’s not always the case for Martinez. Of his 672 plate appearances in 2009, just 366 game as a catcher, or 54.5 percent. Even after his move to the Sox he started just 31 of 53 games at catcher. He otherwise played first base, but that becomes more of a problem this season. Not only is Youkilis entrenched as the starter, but the Sox also have Adrian Beltre at third and Mike Lowell as the first guy to back up both positions. The Red Sox will apparently find out if Martinez can handle an entire season behind the plate.
Youkilis ranked fourth in wOBA among major league first basemen, finishing ahead of Mark Teixeira. Youkilis accomplishes this mostly with his plate discipline. His 13.1 walk rate led to a .413 OBP, besting Teixeira’s mark by .030. For Youkilis it was yet another improvement in his wOBA. Since becoming a full-time player in 2006 he’s seen improvement every year, going from .357 to .373 to .402 to .413. Combine that with quality defense — his 9.1UZR/150 over the past three seasons ranks best in baseball — and he becomes an all-around threat. He might not be Manny, but Youkilis is a perfectly capable cleanup hitter and first baseman for the Red Sox.
Jacoby Ellsbury will again hit in the leadoff spot, after posting a .355 OBP in 2009. Though he doesn’t have a lot of power, just a .114 ISO over the past two seasons, he gains an extra base out of many walks and singles. Last year he led the AL with 70 steals while getting caught only 12 times, a stellar 85.4 percent success rate. That means having a runner in scoring position more frequently for not only Pedroia, but also the middle of the order. Ellsbury has come close to 100 runs in each of the past two seasons, and could finally eclipse that mark in 2010.
Dustin Pedroia didn’t reproduce his 2008 MVP campaign in 2009, but he still turned in a quality season. His BABIP fell to .297, from around .330 in the previous two years. That put his average 30 points below his 2008 level, though he compensated by raising his walk rate by 3.5 percent. If he keeps up that walk rate and sees a rebound in his BABIP, he could be in for another killer season. In fact, if Ellsbury continues improving and Pedroia rebounds to near his 2008 levels, the middle of the Sox order will have plenty of opportunities to drive home runs. We’ve heard concerns about the Sox offense this off-season, but I just don’t see it. As I’ve laid out here, their top four hitters are all offensive weapons.
David Ortiz moved out of the No. 3 spot in the lineup last year, and it appears the move was permanent. He’ll bat fifth to start 2010, though that could change depending on how he hits. If he starts off as slow as he did last season he could drop even further, perhaps all the way to seventh. His value comes mostly from his power, the main aspect that recovered later in the year. From June 11 through the end of the season he hit .264/.356/.549, so his SLG more than doubled his BA. At 34 years old and after struggles in the past two seasons, it’s unlikely that Ortiz ever finds a .400 OBP again, but he can still help the team with his power.
The lineup becomes a question at this point. While Terry Francona knows the players who will fill the spots, he doesn’t know exactly how they’ll be arranged. J.D. Drew is probably the next best hitter in the lineup, but Francona wants to avoid batting lefties back to back. He’ll likely do that, though, since Drew is clearly a better hitter than Adrian Beltre or Mike Cameron. In fact, if Ortiz struggles Drew could find himself hitting fifth. After that Cameron and Beltre will hit in front of Marco Scutaro, the coveted wrap-around leadoff hitter. It’s unlikely that Scutaro reproduces his excellent 2009 campaign, but he’ll certainly present an upgrade over the smorgasbord of shortstops the Sox have trotted out over the past few years.
A fully recovered Mike Lowell could provide pop off the bench, hitting for Scutaro when the team needs a base hit. He could also pinch hit for Cameron in a situation where the team needs a base hit. Cameron gets on base at a decent clip and hits for power, but his batting average always sits around .250. With, say, the tying run on second Francona might be more comfortable with Lowell at the plate. There’s also the possibility that he pinch hits for Beltre, but that would signal that the latter isn’t getting the job done at the plate. In that case, Lowell might be making a bid to reclaim his place at third. I wouldn’t bank on it, though; the Sox signed Beltre primarily for defense, and by most accounts Lowell just isn’t up to speed in the field.
Like the Yankees, the Red Sox are trying to discard the notion of a fifth starter, instead employing a slew of ones, twos, and threes. In fact, their rotation looks a lot like the Yankees: three ones and twos on top (CC, A.J., and Javy vs. Beckett, Lester, and Lackey), a young but promising starter (Hughes vs. Buchholz) and an older but solid option at the back of the rotation (Wakefield vs. Pettitte). But just because they break down similarly does not mean that the talent and depth is equal.
Last season at this time, commentators lauded the Red Sox pitching depth. Not only did they have a solid starting five, but they also had Clay Buchholz in the minors and John Smoltz on his way to a June debut. Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed that plan, though, and the Sox scrambled for pitching most of the season. This year they’re in a slightly worse spot, though the top of their rotation is stronger wit the addition of John Lackey. He’ll join Josh Beckett and Jon Lester to form perhaps the best 1-2-3 in baseball.
Injuries are still where the Sox are vulnerable. It appears Josh Beckett’s yearly DL trips have been replaced by yearly bumps and bruises that keep him out of action for a little bit, but which have not necessitated DL trips. From 2002 through 2005 he missed a total of 222 days to the disabled list and another eight with a blister issue. He has spent just 50 days on the DL with the Red Sox, and missed just five days total in 2009. He’d help not only the team, but himself, with another injury free season. He’s a free agent come November, and will be among the most coveted pitchers on the market.
It appears that John Lackey won’t miss the beginning of his third straight season with arm troubles, but after missing 103 days over the past two seasons he still presents a risk. The Red Sox did insert language into his contract covering them in case he needs surgery on his elbow, but that concerns the future. There’s nothing the Sox can do if he gets injured now, and especially nothing they can do if he doesn’t need surgery. Still, he’s been strong in the past two years after recovering from his injuries. A repeat of last year would be an enormous gain for the Sox rotation.
Wakefield also presents injury concern. He missed 62 days last season, including 48 on the DL, with various back issues. He has spent time on the DL with back issues in each of the past three, and missed 57 days with a ribcage stress fracture in 2006. If he can get through April then Daisuke Matsuzaka might be ready to take his place in the rotation. But, again, Matsuzaka spent most of last year on the DL and has had issues in camp this year. He’ll be out for a month or so to start the 2010 season.
The Sox need not worry themselves with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Since returning from cancer treatment Lester hasn’t spent a day on the DL, nor has he missed a start because of injury. He started off slow last year, but if he pitches like he did from May 21 on last season — 156.1 IP, 2.48 ERA — he’ll again head the Red Sox rotation. Beckett might head it in name, but Lester could be the better performer. He should be a lesson applied to all young pitchers. After struggling with a high walk rate in the minor and his first two partial MLB seasons he turned it around in 2008, bringing his mark to below 3 BB/9. The Red Sox exercised patience, and it paid off.
Boof Bonser, Michael Bowden, and Junichi Tazawa represent the next pitchers in line for a starting shot, and none is all that inspiring. Tazawa has the highest ceiling of the trio and performed well last season after a rocky start to his MLB career. If one has to make double digit starts it shouldn’t be a huge problem. But if the Sox have to employ more than one, at once, then they could find trouble with the rotation. Considering their injury potential, they can’t be too happy about that. But with an already deep rotation, it’s tough to find quality depth.
The bullpen is still strong, with Hideki Okajima and Dan Bard setting up Jon Papelbon. Apparently Papelbon understands the issue with him throwing fastball every time and will mix in his splitter more this season. Other than that the Sox have questions in the bullpen, from Manny Delcarmen’s inconsistency to Bonser’a sbility to hold down the long man role. Ramon Ramirez shouldn’t be as much of a question mark, though his numbers did dip after an indefatigable start to last season. If Bard continues to improve he, along with Papelbon and Okajima, could create one of the top endgames in the league.
Adding it all up
Because they were bounced in the ALDS, and because the Yankees went on to win the World Series, I feel like the Sox have been undersold this winter. They approached the off-season with a plan, and a plan I think will work out well for them. The best offensive players on the market came at a high long-term cost, so the Red Sox decided to put their money into defense and pitching, a strategy that might help neutralize the better offenses in the league.
All around the diamond they feature plus defenders. Again, Youkilis ranks first among first basemen in UZR/150 over the past three years. Pedroia ranks fifth among second basemen (and only 0.1 behind No. 4), Scutaro ranks eighth among shortstops (with at least 2,000 innings), and Beltre ranks fifth among third basemen. They added a plus defender in Cameron to go with Drew’s plus defense. And, although UZR didn’t rate Ellsbury as a quality center fielder last season he still could be an asset in left.
If the Sox have a weakness this season it’s their injury vulnerability. One of their Opening Day starters is already on the DL, and his replacement, Wakefield, features a rough recent injury history. Beckett and Lackey have also spent a good deal of time on the DL in their careers, causing a bit more concern. Their depth isn’t good enough to adequately cover more than one injury at a time, meaning health is a huge key for them, more so, perhaps, than for most other teams. Commentators rave about their medical staff, though, so perhaps that will factor positively into their season.
One thing is for certain: do not sleep on the Sox. They have assembled a very strong team that will battle to the end with the Yankees and Rays for the AL East crown. If they catch the breaks that the Yanks did last season, they could certainly have a long playoff run in them.
New York Yankees
For the first time in over two years, the Yankees reached the top of the AL East standings. It started as a tie with the Red Sox on Wednesday. They lost the lead when the Sox won on Thursday, but retook the lead over the weekend. The Yanks currently sit a half game up on the Red Sox. While the standings on May 31 count for absolutely nothing in the long run, it’s a relief for Yanks fans to see their team back atop the standings, rather than ending May in third place as they’ve done for the past few years.
The offense put up monstrous numbers every other game for the Yanks, as they scored 11 on Monday, nine on Wednesday, and 10 on Saturday. They mixed those with three-run showings on Tuesday and Friday, and a four-run affair in Sunday’s walk-off loss to the Indians. The pitching turned in a solid week as well, with the only poor showing coming on Tuesday in the team’s 7-3 loss in Texas. Joba Chamberlain had a sub-par start, and after the Yankees tied the game the bullpen blew it open. While the bullpen remains a concern, the continued quality starts from the rotation helps keep the relievers’ exposure limited.
Once again, Mark Teixeira was the offensive player of the week. He put up a .357/.400/.786 line in the last seven days (1.186 OPS), smacking three homers and three doubles in 28 at bats. Alex Rodriguez did his part, posting a .417/.517/.542 line on the week. Surprisingly, he hit no home runs, but he did have three doubles and five walks to go along with just one strikeout. It seems like his defense (-27.8 UZR/150) will be the last thing to come around following surgery to fix a torn hip labrum.
On the pitching end, it was a mixed bag. Phil Hughes had a stellar start on Monday in Texas but his struggles in the third inning of Sunday’s start in Cleveland tainted that start. CC Sabathia had just one start, in which he was more than good enough to give the Yanks a W. A.J. Burnett lasted just six innings in his start, though they were of the scoreless variety, and came with seven strikeouts. Chien-Ming Wang, however, tossed five scoreless innings in relief. These innings have given the Yanks a bit more confidence in him. If he can return to the rotation and go back to throwing seven, eight quality innings per start he could give the Yanks a big boost.
Week’s record: 4-2
Season record: 29-21
Injuries: Melky Cabrera (shoulder, day to day)
This week: Mon @Cleveland; Tue – Thu TEXAS; Fri – Sun TAMPA BAY
Boston Red Sox – Surviving Grady
The Red Sox started the week three games out of first place, looking up at the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays had just won six out of their last eight games…then they came to Fenway. Tim Wakefield welcomed them with a dominating performance: eight innings giving up only five hits and one run – a homer to old pal Kevin Millar. Papelbon shut the door in the ninth, edging the Sox a game closer to the top. Wednesday night, the Beard of Wonder and Amazement returned to the line-up and had three of the Sox fifteen hits. Boston’s offense exploded, seemingly inspired by Big Papi’s first homer of the season. Jason Varitek had two dingers in the game (officially starting the “Captain is on the juice” talk), his second coming in the fifth – the first of four in that inning. Brad Penny pitched well, going six-and-two-thirds, before turning it over to the pen for mop-up. In the series finale, Jon Lester held the Jays down and the bats jumped on Toronto early, scoring three in the first. It would prove to be enough and the sweep was complete.
Friday night the abortion we call interleague play began as the Mets came to town. Johan Santana battled the Sox as Dice-K returned from the DL. The Dice-man was shaky, giving up four runs in just five innings. The floodgates were opened courtesy of Julio Lugo and his inability to turn a double play. The non-error led to two runs that never should have crossed the plate. Boston rallied in the bottom of the inning cutting the deficit to 4-3 but that was as close as they would come. Saturday night baseball in Fenway was outstanding…Josh Beckett was vintage, going eight strong and allowing just one unearned run. The stage was set for Papelbon in the ninth, but the ending didn’t go as written. Paps gave up an instant-replay-confirmed homer giving the Mets a 3-2 lead. Two stellar defensive plays in the bottom of the inning sealed the win. The Sox would take no chances in Sunday’s game, piling on 12 runs on 16 hits – including six doubles and a pair of three-run homers by Youk and Lowell.
The Blue Jays were swept by the Braves over the weekend, putting the Sox on top of the AL East by a half-game. The Red Sox start the week in Minnesota for four games, then head north-of-the-border to face the Jays next weekend.
Week’s record: 4-2
Season record: 26-18
This week: Mon – Thu @Minnesota; Fri – Sun @Toronto
Toronto Blue Jays – Blue Jays Daze
Any week that has Doc Halladay pitching twice is a week Jays fans look forward to for good reason. Doc didn’t disappoint while setting the tone against the Yankees against AJ, his old team mate and newest Blue Jay nemesis. Doc pitched a complete game gem against a somewhat diminished Yankee lineup that was missing Jeter, Swisher, and Posada, but still took care of business. He only needed 103 pitches to complete his outing. While Doc’s performance was to be expected, the fact that Burnett was booed every single time he threw a strike and jeered more than Arod surprised many of us. While it is true that Burnett became just another player chasing the money he supposedly deserves in New York, he deserves to be made aware that he sold out.
Back to the Jays week, I have to admit the Yankee pitching surprised me after the first game of the series. CC and Andy threw some very strong games supplemented by some stellar pen innings I had no idea the Yanks relievers could deliver. I expected the Jays hitters to have some struggles this season, but hoped they would come against other opponents. For the Jays, Richmond obviously looked shell shocked and definitely had no faith in his stuff for the first time this season. I’m not really sure why it happened, but I hope that he learns from the experience and works on his tenacity. His rough outing was followed by yet another surprising start by Tallet who held his own over 6 innings allowing only 2 runs. Either way, he wasn’t beating CC and the Jays hitters took the 2 games off, leaving Richmond and Tallet to fend for themselves.
As the weekend series versus the White Sox started, the Jays has hungry hitters on the prowl and did they delivered enough to sweep the weekend. Friday’s game had Bret Cecil throwing a great game to go along with 8 runs of support, resulting in Bret’s second win in a row. Lind and Bautista delivered the two required RBIs in the 8th inning on Saturday in support of Robert Ray, who lasted 8 innings with no earned runs. Scott Downs got the save and seems to have a good hold on the role. And finally the Jays supported their Doc with another 8 run effort led by none other than Aaron Hill. I’d like to advertise for Aaron for very good reason. As we begin to vote for the All-Star game, I would suggest that Aaron’s stats deserve to be compared to Utley’s and Kinsler’s to prove just how special he has been this season. I hope all voters will give him the thumbs up, he deserves it.
Week’s Record: 4-2
Season Record: 26-14
Injuries: Michael Barrett (Shoulder), Jesse Litsch (Right Forearm – cleared to resume throwing), Shaun Marcum (Elbow), Dustin McGowan (Labrum), Ricky Romero (Threw in AAA May 13th), Casey Janssen (made 3 starts in HiA Dunedin).
This Week: Mon CHICAGO; Tue-Thu @Boston; Fri-Sun @Atlanta