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July 13, 2007

Prospectus Today

AL, Second Half

by Joe Sheehan

The second half is underway. Let's loop around the leagues and take a look at what was and what will be, starting with the AL today:

AL East

Was: Boston Red Sox
Will Be: Boston Red Sox
Why: Even with a 10 ˝-game lead-10 after last night-there are reasons to think the Yankees can make a run at the Red Sox. They've got a great core of talent, their underlying indicators in the first half were better than their record, and their rotation is about two weeks away from being at peak strength. What they need most is a bat to play first base, and those can be had somewhat cheaply, even in a seller's market.

However, 10 games is 10 games, and the Red Sox have their own reasons to be optimistic. They've been pretty lousy up the middle, with Julio Lugo a disaster and Coco Crisp's great defense not quite making up for his lousy offense. Manny Ramirez hasn't played up to his standards, either. Daisuke Matsuzaka will be a bit better in the second half, and the fifth-starter slot should be upgraded, most likely internally.

If the lead was even a bit less, it would be tempting to pick the Yankees. The two teams play six games head-to-head down the stretch, providing ample opportunity for the Yankees to close the gap. However, the Red Sox, if perhaps not a 97-win team, aren't deficient enough to fall back in the other 70 contests. The hitters get on base (first in the AL), and the pitchers strike guys out (third), and those basic skills will keep them atop the division.

Aaaaaaand…: The Devil Rays will finish third.

AL Central

Was: Detroit Tigers
Will Be: Cleveland Indians
Why: It's nearly a coin flip between two good teams that have little separating them. They both score a ton of runs in support of average pitching staffs, they both have upgradeable holes-the Tigers first base and the bullpen, the Indians the outfield corners-and they are run by two sharp GMs, leaving neither an edge in the front office.

As I see it, the Tigers have caught a lot of breaks in the first half. They don't have any offensive depth at all, so they need to keep the regulars on the field as much as possible. With a roster filled with aging players with injury histories, they've been fortunate to have their starting lineup play as many games together as possible. Magglio Ordonez has played 84 games, Gary Sheffield 83, Carlos Guillen 78. I'm not sure those paces can or will be sustained in the second half, and any increase in playing time for the next guys on the depth chart hurts this team.

If I'm wrong and the Tigers stay healthy, they have a slight edge on the Indians because of what might be the deepest rotation east of the 57 freeway. Now that Andrew Miller has displaced Mike Maroth, the Tigers can expect to get quality outings every night. That, with a good offense supporting them, could render a shaky bullpen irrelevant.

Aaaaaaand…: This is the year Terry Ryan's inability to put his best team on the field in April costs the team a postseason spot. Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz: 17 starts, 115 innings, 5.87 ERA. It never had to be this way.

AL West

Was: Los Angeles Angels
Will Be: Los Angeles Angels
Why: For much the same reasons as the Red Sox, although the Angels don't have the Yankees chasing them. The Mariners are better than their preseason coverage, if not quite the 90-win team they played like in the first half. Their bullpen has been dominant, but I'm not quite convinced that George Sherrill and Eric O'Flaherty have another 60 innings of sub-2.00 ball in them, and the rotation needs that kind of support.

The A's…this is the worst A's team since Billy Beane took over. The A's are squandering a great year from their rotation, and it's because every veteran hitter they have is terrible, injured or both. Jason Kendall is the worst regular in the majors, Eric Chavez has continued to disappoint, and Mark Kotsay is alternately brutal and unavailable. Bobby Crosby has failed to develop at all, probaby due to the time he missed with injuries. This is a terrible offensive team; all it does is draw walks and hit a few home runs, and that may be the strangest sentence I've written in 12 years of doing this.

The Angels won't average five runs a game in the second half, because they won't hit .284. They shouldn't need to given the flawed teams chasing them and the quality of their pitching staff. There's some concern with the back end, as neither Ervin Santana nor Bartolo Colon have been effective, mostly due to major problems keeping the ball in the park. Both should be a bit better; even if they're not, they can go to a Joe Saunders or Chris Bootcheck to provide above-replacement-level starts. The Angels will hold on, comfortably.

Aaaaaaand…: The Rangers are still scheduled to play 162 games.

AL Wild Card

Was: Cleveland Indians
Will Be: New York Yankees
Why: Now that the rotation has stabilized, the Yankees should go on a run in the second half. The offense isn't what it was projected to be, as neither Robinson Cano nor Melky Cabrera have matched their 2006 performances, exacerbating the problem of declines from the older players on the roster. As mentioned, I suspect that the Tigers will run into some injury problems that nip away at their record, and while their rotation will keep them in the mix deep into the year, the Yankees should be able to edge them for the last playoff spot. Neither the Mariners nor the Twins have enough to stay in this race.

AL MVP

Was: Alex Rodriguez
Will Be: Alex Rodriguez, but the BBWAA picks Magglio Ordonez
Why: Rodriguez holds a slight statistical edge over Ordonez at the plate, and has returned to being a plus defensive player. He's more likely than Ordonez is to sustain his hitting in the second half, too. With that said, Ordonez is the better story, and AL MVP voters have an established pattern of voting for the better story.

AL Cy Young

Was: Dan Haren
Will Be: Johan Santana
Why: Santana has already closed most of the gap that existed between these two a month ago. He's the best pitcher in baseball, well on his way to another sub-3.00 ERA and the league lead in strikeouts. Since Haren is likely to see his ERA rise just as a matter of regression-and he doesn't get a whole lot of run support from the A's-he's not likely to either deserve the award nor steal it, Colon-like, from the deserving awardee.

AL Rookie of the Year

Was: Daisuke Matsuzaka
Will Be: Daisuke Matsuzaka
Why: Matsuzaka, despite being left off of the All-Star team and his being perceived as a minor disappointment, is the most productive rookie in the AL this year. With a very weak field around him-Jeremy Guthrie and Brendan Harris are next in line-he should have no problems waltzing to the award, even accounting for the writers who may not vote for an NPB veteran.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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