Where the Yankees stand in the AL East

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

Longoria will inflict damage on the AL East for years to come | Photo credit: Chris O'Meara/AP

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

Romero is trying to make Jays fans forget about Halladay | Photo credit: Mark Duncan/AP

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

We all hate him, but Youk has given the Yanks fits for years | Photo credit: Elise Amendola/AP

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

The Orioles young pitchers, including Brian Matusz, could make the AL East even tougher | Photo credit: Andy King/AP

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.

Romine & Laird keep on hitting as Trenton wins again

Jeremy Bleich will have surgery to repair his labrum. See you in 2011, maybe. Meanwhile, David Adams will miss at least 2-3 weeks with an ankle injury. He hurt it while breaking up a double play over the weekend.

Triple-A Scranton (6-3 in over Louisville)
Greg Golson, CF & Chad Huffman, 1B: both 1 for 5 – Golson drove in a run & K’ed … Huffman scored a run
Curtis Granderson, DH: 3 for 5, 2 RBI - the first hit came off a lefty … he attempted a stolen base, always a good sign … going to play CF tomorrow
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 0 for 4, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 SB
Jesus Montero, C: 2 for 4, 1 BB, 1 E (throwing) – threw the ball in CF on a SB attempt, allowing a run to score
Jon Weber, RF: 3 for 5, 1 R, 3 2B - four of his last five hits have been doubles
Reid Gorecki, LF: 1 for 4, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
Reegie Corona, 3B-2B: 2 for 3, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 BB
Romulo Sanchez: 5.1 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5 K, 9-2 GB/FB - 66 of 104 pitches were strikes (63.5%) … 43 K in 43.1 IP
Mark Melancon: 2.2 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 6-0 GB/FB – 30 of 45 pitches were strikes (66.7%)
Jon Albaladejo: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB – 11 of his 19 pitches were strikes (57.9%)

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Open Thread: A much needed day off

"Can we just go home now?" Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

I think us fans needed the day off as much as the players. Just gotta regroup, refocus, get our heads back in the game, and simplify things. Take it one at-bat a time, one pitch at a time, and get back to the basics. Hopefully the team follows suit and turns this little skid around. There’s still 118 games left to go.

Here’s your open thread for the night. There’s only four baseball games on the schedule, and one’s on ESPN: the Red Sox at the Rays (Clay Buchholz vs. Matt Garza Wade Davis) at 7:10pm ET. You’ve also got NHL and NBA playoff action (Flyers and Celtics each have a chance to advance to the finals with a win), but more importantly, the two hour series finale of 24 starts at 8pm ET. Jack has to die at the end, right?

Anyway, dhatever you choose, feel free to chat about it here.

2010 Draft: Klaw’s Mock Draft v1.0

Now that we’re two weeks away from the big event, ESPN’s Keith Law posted his first mock draft today. He has the Yankees taking Texas high school righty Tyrell Jenkins. “I’ve heard them legitimately linked to Michigan’s Ryan LaMarre in recent weeks,” said KLaw, “but their tie to Jenkins dates back to much earlier this spring, and he’s the kind of superior athlete with upside whom Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer favors.” MLB.com’s scouting report (with video!) says he’s been up to 95 with the fastball, but he’s very raw. Big arm to dream on, something the Yanks lack right now.

As for LaMarre, meh. He’s s freaky tooled up outfielder with no plate discipline and great stats in a bad conference. Not the first round, please.

How the Rangers bankruptcy situation might affect A-Rod

The Texas Rangers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this morning. It sounds like a big deal, and in some ways it is, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. Commissioner Bud Selig claims that the filing “assures an orderly process to expeditiously transfer Rangers ownership to the Greenberg-Ryan group,” referring to Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.

The thing with Chapter 11 is that while secured creditors — those with collateral to back their loans — usually get paid back, it’s unsecured creditors who face the risk of nonpayment. The Rangers owe Alex Rodriguez $24.9 million in deferred payments from the 10-year, $252 million contract he signed in the winter of 2000. Might A-Rod not realize the full amount of his deferred payment amount?

At Hardball Talk, Craig Calcaterra raises the issue. It’s a little journey, and I suggest starting with the 1:15 p.m. part at the bottom and work up. Craig notes that the Rangers can’t pay A-Rod the full amount without also paying their full debt to all unsecured creditors:

Since the Rangers filed for bankruptcy it means they don’t have enough money to pay all of their unsecureds at a 100% rate. That means that A-Rod should not get all the money he thought he’d get and all of the ugly union/team dynamics set forth below come into play.

A later update notes that, no, A-Rod probably won’t get stiffed on the $25 mil. He might see a delay in the process, but because this Chapter 11 filing acts as a precursor to a sale, not to help it restructure its debt. The Greenberg-Ryan group, then, will be responsible for the remainder of A-Rod’s deferred payments, as well as deferred payments to a number of current and former Rangers.

The important point here: bankruptcy law is boring and esoteric. Another point: I doubt anyone will cry for A-Rod if he did get stiffed, even if it amounted to more than 10 percent of the contract he signed.

A state-of-the-art stadium with no technology allowed

At CitiField, iPads are welcome, but the Yankees have banned this technology. (Photo by Amanda Rykoff)

For Bronx-bound patrons coming from work, Yankee Stadium security represents a unique challenge. In the days of 24-hour connectivity, many workers need to cart laptops back and forth from home, and few have the chance to make a pitstop on the way up to the ballpark. Yet, the Yankees have long banned laptops from the stadium, leaving fans with no choice but to pay the exorbitant bag-check rates at the bowling or Stan’s across the street.

According to the team’s vague security guidelines, the technology ban in a stadium equipped with state-of-the-art, well, everything extends beyond just personal computers. Included in the ban are “any other devices that may interfere with and/or distract any sports participant, other patron, audio or audio/visual telecast or recording of the game or any technology-related service provided in Yankee Stadium.” Based on recent reports, that ban now includes iPads as well.

This odd news broke when a woman on the IGN tech boards wrote about how security denied her iPad entrance into the stadium. Eventually, she was able to sneak it in, but fans were confused as to the ban. Maybe the Yankees don’t want to risk someone’s retransmitting the game from their seats. Maybe the Yankees are afraid that laptops will distract from the game experience or bring unwanted noise to the stadium. Yet, the team made a show of touting the way technologies would be able to interact with the new stadium.

The TSA, according to Mashable, doesn’t consider the iPad a laptop, but the Yanks have extended their security policies to encompass what could be personal wireless device. Yet, the inherent contradiction is laid bare when we realize that the entire stadium is one giant wireless network. The Yankees provide free wireless but do not allow the technology into the stadium to take advantage of it. They want Yankee Stadium to be state of the art but do not want people to take full advantage of it. As other parks allow iPads, laptops and similar devices in because they understand the way people commute and the inconvenience of not doing so, the Yankees are content to slam that door. What exactly is the point of that ban?

Link Dump: Girardi, Giambi, Russo, Catchers

Some links to check out while I try to get my finger to stop bleeding after cutting it open with a broken glass…

Joe Girardi interview at HBR

Katherine Bell of The Harvard Business Journal sat down for a chat with Yanks’ manager Joe Girardi recently, and it’s really one of the better interviews you’ll see. There aren’t any lay-up questions; they talked about his use of statistics, older players mentoring the younger players on the team, his divorce from the Marlins, steroids, all sorts of great stuff. It gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation.

Giambi gets hosed

He hasn’t been a Yankee for over a full year now, but Jason Giambi was always a favorite of mine, so I still keep tabs on him. Even during his down years from 2006-2008, he still put up a .386 OBP and a .262 ISO. Anyway, the Giambino invested seven figures into a social network/fashion retail website (really Big G?), but apparently got taken to the cleaners by a tech guy who delivered an inferior product. Giambi and his wife are now suing the guy for $3M, but I get the sense that the former Yank is the kind of guy that would rather have a few minutes alone with him in a locked room.

Mr. Russo makes it

The Wall Street Journal has been cranking out some great stuff recently, and today they have a feature on Kevin Russo. Apparently the scrappy (yay!) little utility player from Long Island didn’t even have the benefit of the doubt from his college coach at Baylor, who “was just pulling for him to catch a break.” Russo’s father was a Yankee fan before succumbing to cancer in 2007, so for him to be playing in that uniform is all the more special for him and his family. Great stuff, right there.

Overworking catchers

Over at FanGraphs, our own Joe Pawlikowski took a look at catchers who’ve been doing a lot of catching this season, and the possible effect it’ll have on their production. I bring this up because Frankie Cervelli just finished a stretch in which he started seven games in seven days, nine games in ten days, and 15 games in 20 days. Unsurprisingly, his OPS has dropped 64 points during that time, but of course he wasn’t going to maintain his torrid pace all season. Really, I’m thinking more about laying off him a little more now to prevent him from being completely worn out come August and September.

Jorge Posada‘s not young and has already dealt with three different injuries this year (two fluky, of course), so Girardi has to be prepared for a situation in which Cervelli starts the majority of games from here on out. Easing back on the gas now should have benefits later.