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July 20, 2008

Prospectus Today

Second-Half Preview, AL

by Joe Sheehan

The second half of the season kicked off Thursday night, so why is my second-half preview running on Sunday and Monday? Because I fell behind last week and never caught up-I wish I had a better reason for you.

It was a fantastic All-Star break, with plenty of great stories, memorable moments, and touching tributes. The character of baseball, though, is in the day-to-day regularity of the season, something that the break messes with. From now through the end of the September, we get back to that rhythm, and it's a beautiful thing.

A second-half preview usually invites the dilemma of whether to stick with your preseason picks, or change them based on the first 90 games of the year. To do the former invites charges of being stubborn, especially if, say, you were backing the Indians to win the AL Central or the Mariners to win the AL West. On the other hand, changing your horse at this point makes it look like you're trying to have a couple of shots at being right. The focus on end result-who was right?-isn't productive. The process, analyzing the teams' strengths and weaknesses, is much more important. Keep that in mind over the next 15 minutes.

So division by division, what are we going to see in the second half?

AL East

The Red Sox are the best organization in baseball, and they have the best team in baseball. Injuries have hit them hard this season, yet they're still in first place, thanks to the depth (especially in pitching) that they've created by strong drafting. They have adapted to the David Ortiz injury by creating a superior defensive outfield and getting Manny Ramirez off the field full time, so Ortiz's absence hasn't been quite as damaging as it might have been. The primary weakness is the bullpen, down a couple of notches from last season, as the big-three relievers haven't been quite as exceptional. Still, they should hold off the Rays and Yankees down the stretch.

Yes, that was a strange sentence to write. The Rays were baseball's darlings two weeks ago before a losing streak knocked them out of first place. They pitch fairly well and play very good defense, and they have the third-best team EqA in the league. They are not a fluke. Now, what we can't know for sure, but can guess at, is that their defense will probably not be as good in the second half. I don't have a baseball reason for that, so much as the idea that an improvement of the magnitude we've seen from the Rays' D is so great that we'll see regression before the year is out. The offense also has enough dead spots to create concern. I was not as optimistic as my BP colleagues at the start of the season, and I'll sustain that now; the Rays will slip back a bit and not make the playoffs.

The Yankees will be the beneficiaries of that. Even lacking Hideki Matsui-a huge blow to an offense already running below expectations-the Yankees should get improvements from Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, and will get more from Jorge Posada than they did in the first half. While a major trade is not likely, the Yankees would get bounce from a second-tier move like dealing for Brian Fuentes, Brian Giles, or Damaso Marte. Add in getting the rotation back together over the season's last two months, and there should be enough here for the Yankees to pass the Rays and take the wild card.

The Blue Jays, like all the AL East teams, are actually even better than they look. Every single AL East team is underperforming their third-order record, with the Jays having the biggest gap between actual and expected performance: six wins. The unbalanced schedule is killing every one of these teams; the Jays might well be one of the eight best teams in baseball, but the context in which they play hides that well. Still, Friday night's 2-1 loss was a microcosm of their season: a great start supported by six baserunners. This team is half contender, half Nationals.

The Orioles have played the best defense they have in years, especially in the outfield, where Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and anyone would be an above-average defensive unit. They don't score or pitch like a contender, so while they'll have a better season than expected, they're definitely the fifth-best team in the division, and managing expectations will be the big challenge for Andy MacPhail.

Player to watch: Adam Jones, Orioles
Avert your eyes: Aubrey Huff, Orioles
Pitcher to watch: A.J. Burnett, Blue Jays
Avert your eyes: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox

AL Central

The Tigers' lack of offense has been just as surprising as the Yankees', with both teams expected to put 950-run lineups on the field, and both buried in the middle of the AL in EqA. For the Yankees, the young players have failed; for the Tigers, it's been veterans such as Jacque Jones, Gary Sheffield, and Edgar Renteria. For all we heard about how much better the bullpen would be once Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney returned, the two have a 22/20 K/BB in 25 1/3 innings. The Tigers make small runs, but haven't put together the big one, and it's not clear whether they can do so without adding at least one bat.

The White Sox get a distinct lack of respect for a team that's led its division virtually all season, has a +70 run differential, leads the league in homers, and is second in ERA. They seem to have some of the same OBP issues they've had in other seasons, with five starters below .330, but the team mark is .337, good for sixth in the AL, and they hit for good power. Where I scratch my head is in looking at the pitching staff, which has posted the best K/BB in the league and has the fourth-fewest homers allowed. (That's a quirky number; through Saturday, half of the AL had allowed exactly 84, 85, or 86 homers, so you can be second or eighth on any given day.) They've gotten so much good work from John Danks and Gavin Floyd that it's the easy thing to predict regression, and collectively, Mark Buerhle, Jose Contreras, and Javier Vazquez will probably be as good as they've been so far. Look for the White Sox to take steps back, allowing more runs and scoring fewer.

The interesting case is the Twins, who have ridden a staff that doesn't walk people and an offense that has overperformed with runners in scoring position, to just shy of first place. As much as any team, they can upgrade over the next two weeks because they have so many massive holes in the lineup. It has never been the Twins' personality to do so, so while they probably will improve the rotation-by swapping out Livan Hernandez for Francisco Liriano-it won't be enough to make up for the decline in their offense down the stretch. They're the most imminent threat to the Sox, but not the most dangerous one unless they make a surprising trade.

The White Sox have a 7-game lead on the Tigers with 66 games to play. The Playoff Odds Report gives the Sox a 71.6 percent shot at the postseason, the Tigers 6.1 percent. I think that overstates the case, but in the face of that, it's hard to pick the Tigers to make a run and steal this thing. So I'm going to do it anyway, not because I hate the White Sox-frankly, Kenny Williams has become a top-six GM or so, and I think Ozzie Guillen is easily a top-ten manager-but because of the regression I see them having from some key performers. A two-week stretch starting Friday, in which they play the Tigers six times and the Twins four, will set the tone for the rest of the year.

Player to watch: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Avert your eyes: Marcus Thames, Tigers
Pitcher to watch: Francisco Liriano, Twins
Avert your eyes: Gavin Floyd, White Sox

AL West

Well, run differential be damned, the Angels are the best team in the division and the only one of the three good teams attempting to win it this year. The A's have punted two starting pitchers in two weeks, and will probably trade more talent before the deadline. They actually won't get that much worse-they have so much starting pitching depth that their run prevention will stay fairly good-but their offense is already so shaky that it won't be able to support the loss. The Rangers' offense has carried a wretched pitching staff thanks to huge years by random veterans; either those players, like Milton Bradley and Ramon Vazquez, will decline, or they'll be traded.

No, it's the Angels again, despite having some flaws-way too many expensive, declining outfielders, for one-who will win another AL West title. They'll be as dangerous as anyone in a short series, with one ace starter in John Lackey, two good ones behind him and a deep, hard-throwing bullpen. Barring the unexpected, they'll be able to rest their injury-prone roster extensively down the stretch, in the manner of the late-1990s Yankees. It's probably worth mentioning that the Angels and A's, who have largely dominated this division in this century, have derived at least some benefit from its size. A sport with both a six-team division and a four-team division has a structural integrity issue that probably needs to be addressed at some point.

I've been thinking about the Mariners a bit, so let me put this out there. If the "experts" say a team will win 90 games, you say they'll win 80, and they actually win 70, are you really that much more right than the "experts" were? I get that I was more accurate than the mainstream consensus, but unless you really thought they would collapse-and I know some people did-you didn't really make a smart call.

Player to watch: Chone Figgins, Angels
Avert your eyes: David Murphy, Rangers
Pitcher to watch: Gio Gonzalez, Athletics
Avert your eyes: Joe Saunders, Angels

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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