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July 17, 2009

Prospectus Today

The Better Half

by Joe Sheehan

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Picking up where we left off yesterday, here's the top half a second-half preview that spins off of the pre-season rankings I published back in April.

#15: Florida Marlins (me: 797 RS, 792 RA; projected: 747 RS, 770 RA). The Marlins have found the extra 50 runs in the same place the Twins did last year, ranking fifth in the league in runs scored despite placing 11th in OBP, 10th in slugging, and ninth in stolen bases. They're hitting .247/.310/.385 with no one on base, .268/.344/.417 with runners on, and .263/.352/.412 with runners in scoring position. That's not quite as extreme as last year's Minnesotans, but it does help explain the discrepancy. Batting Emilio Bonifacio first or second every day is crippling them, and yet there's no sign that's going to change; Bonifacio is representative of a team that strikes out a ton without picking up walks along the way, leading to a low batting average and low OBP. If the Marlins are to stay in contention, it will be because the young rotation behind Josh Johnson continues to improve. Ricky Nolasco has been lights-out since coming back up from a brief demotion, and both Chris Volstad and Andrew Miller have shown some development. An overachieving bullpen worked very hard has been a critical component of their success, and if things go south in the second half, that may be the culprit. All things considered, this is the fourth-best team in the NL East, and the one most likely to slip to 77 wins.

#14: Cincinnati Reds (me: 752 RS, 743 RA; projected: 663 RS, 754 RA). I thought I was being conservative in my projection for the Reds offense-apparently not. The signing of Willy Taveras, at the time sold as the import of an offensive sparkplug, has been the undoing of a team that was already going to have trouble putting runners on base. Batting leadoff or second almost every day, Taveras has been outplayed by Emilio Bonifacio, posting a .244/.286/.296 line with just 16 walks in 320 PA. He's not the only culprit-the Reds are getting nothing from the left side of the infield and catcher-but he's the one who was signed to be part of the solution. Punting him for Drew Stubbs, right now, would make the Reds a game better, maybe two, in the second half. The main reason the Reds are hanging around .500 is a matchup bullpen that has enabled them to win 22 of 40 games decided by one or two runs. Barring some massive turnover in personnel, they should slip out of the race shortly. If Jay Bruce's wrist injury pushes them in that direction, it's a net positive for the team in the long term.

#13: Minnesota Twins (me: 748 RS, 735 RA; projected: 786 RS, 734 RA). The gap there is pretty much Joe Mauer hitting like Rogers Hornsby for half of a season. It's a mix of a great player entering his peak and some good fortune on fly balls and balls in play, both of which have shifted a bit in the last month or so. He's still the league MVP at this point, even having missed a month. This Twins' offense is better than last year's, even if it may fall short of last year's number of runs scored. Jason Kubel gives them a third big-time hitter, and Michael Cuddyer is having a strong season. They desperately need a middle infielder or another outfielder who can hit, as there are just too many games they start with five holes in the lineup. A bullpen that doesn't inspire confidence outside of Joe Nathan and Jose Mijares is a problem as well. The Adjusted Standings say they've been the best team in the AL Central so far, and that's with some very high home-run rates out of their staff of Brad Radke clones. I give them the edge in the Central down the stretch thanks to the strike-throwers and the best lineup core of the three contenders; it's a small edge, however, and it's a race that could well come down to which GM adds two or three wins at the trade deadline.

#12: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (me: 741 RS, 726 RA; projected: 868 RS, 808 RA). Vlad Guerrero, Howie Kendrick, and Gary Matthews Jr. all tanked, and the Angels still went into the break with the fourth-highest number of runs scored in all of baseball. Credit Tony Reagins with one of the winter's best steals, getting Bobby Abreu for $5 million, and thus adding a who leads the team in OBP, is third in games played, and is 19-for-22 on the bases. The Angels need every single run they get, because their vaunted pitching and defense is no more; injuries crippled the staff in the season's first month, and only Jered Weaver is anywhere near a good starting pitcher so far. Scot Shields finally gave out after years of great work, Jose Arredondo lost some command and was hit hard, and Justin Speier continued to underperform his contract, all of which left the bullpen a mess. There's a reason the Angels are in on Roy Halladay, although it's not clear that they have enough to acquire the Jays' right-hander. Benefiting as always from geography and structure, the Angels head into the second half as a comfortable favorite in the West, though perhaps for the last time. The newly-dangerous offense could well make them scary in a short series.

#11: Cleveland Indians (me: 847 RS, 822 RA; projected: 821 RS, 906 RA). One of the bigger misses-yes, there's a bigger one coming-the Indians' bullpen was once again a disaster. Rafael Perez allowed nearly a run per inning. Jensen Lewis allowed a homer every four frames. Kerry Wood walked nearly six men per nine and allowed six homers in just 30 IP. Rafael Betancourt pitched well-and got hurt. Matt Herges pitched well-and got released. The bullpen cost the Tribe many winnable games early, just as it did a year ago, and has buried them. It hasn't helped that the Indians have one good starter, Cliff Lee, and no one else with an ERA as a starter below 4.50. This is the third time in four seasons that the Indians have been one of the game's biggest disappointments, and I'm not sure how Eric Wedge hasn't been the scapegoat for that; the players have failed, but I'm not seeing him running the bullpen in a manner that would lead to success. Mark Shapiro has a very tough decision to make here, whether to start over from the bottom, trading Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez, or keep the core intact and try one more time in 2010. As an analyst, you start to wonder if the Indians are to you what, say, Reggie Abercrombie is to a scout-all tools, no production. When does the evaluation catch up with the results?

#10: Philadelphia Phillies (me: 819 RS, 774 RA; projected: 867 RS, 776 RA). It would be easy to say that the 50 missing runs are Raul Ibaņez, but really, he just cancels out the awful season Jimmy Rollins is having. No, the Phillies' terrific offense is the result of better than expected seasons by a lot of guys, less dramatic bumps than what Ibaņez has done, but the kind of upward ticks that add up to a lot of runs. Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Pedro Feliz, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth have all produced a little extra, and because of that, a good offense has been great. Once again, the Phillies have been exceptionally healthy, with only Ibaņez missing time. That's been their edge over the Mets the last two years, and if they win the East again, it will be their edge this time. Health, Will Carroll tells us, is a skill, and the Phillies seem to possess it, which means their best players have a greater impact on their fortunes than the best players on teams who have less durability. If it goes awry for the Phillies, it will be on the mound, where they've already had more go wrong this year than did all of last year, and they're reliant on some of the same question marks they've leaned on for 240 games. They're in an interesting spot-a legitimate title contender, but also young enough and with enough talent starting to come up that they could take a longer view and be the division favorite for a while.

#9: Tampa Bay Rays (me: 766 RS, 719 RA; projected: 866 RS, 728 RA). They're second in OBP, third in slugging, and famously are running like some team from the 1980s. All of this while getting very little from B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell at the plate, nothing from Matt Joyce and Dioner Navarro, and losing Akinori Iwamura to injury in May. Baseball is a very strange game. Whatever you think of Ben Zobrist, All-Star, you can't miss his 1012 OPS that includes a great walk rate and isolated power. Jason Bartlett is a more traditional fluke, a .280 hitter batting .350 for half a season. The offense needs to be this good for them to get past the Yankees or Red Sox, maybe even a bit better, and I'm not sure they can sustain quite this pace. There's some room to gain on the pitching side, where the lefties have been quite disappointing so far, and the bullpen a mess for most of the season. They play just five games against the Yankees and Red Sox-the only teams in baseball better than they are-from now until the end of August, so they could put a big run together.

#8: Chicago Cubs (me: 784 RS, 726 RA; projected: 669 RS, 665 RA). They've taken on some of the characteristics of recent White Sox teams, where all they can do is hit home runs. The Cubs are 14th in the NL in batting average, 15th in doubles, 16th in triples, 11th in walks, and 14th in steals. That's how you end up fourth in the league in homers and 15th in runs scored. Credit Lou Piniella for getting Alfonso Soriano out of the leadoff spot, which addresses some lineup dysfunction. Getting Aramis Ramirez back will be a huge boost over what Mike Fontenot and/or Aaron Miles were providing, and Jake Fox could be the OBP/doubles player that neither Kosuke Fukudome nor Milton Bradley have been. This is the best team in the NL Central, and still the favorite to three-peat barring a big pickup by the Cards or Brewers.

#7: Arizona Diamondbacks (me: 823 RS, 748 RA; projected: 719 RS, 790 RA). Even in a year in which some of the young hitters stepped forward-such as Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds-the D'backs' offense has been a disappointment because Chris Young, Chad Tracy, and Conor Jackson have failed. As a team, the Snakes have good secondary skills, but make so little contact that their team batting average gets eaten alive. They might have survived this with a healthy Brandon Webb, but not only have they missed their ace, but in his absence Yusmeiro Petit, Billy Buckner, and Bryan Augenstein combined to allow 70 runs in 79 innings over 16 starts; replacement-level pitching, indeed. As with the Indians, you start to wonder why a front office that does things the "right" way cranks out so many disappointing seasons.

#6: Oakland Athletics (me: 746 RS, 695 RA; projected: 680 RS, 755 RA). This one is pretty simple: there was an expectation that Jason Giambi, Matt Holliday, and Orlando Cabrera would provide so many extra runs over what they were replacing that it would vault the A's to a lofty perch. Instead, those three players have been various flavors of disappointing, and none of the holdovers could hit to begin with, so you have another lost year in Oakland. I was overly optimistic about the pitching as well; Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson have been perfectly acceptable in their rookie seasons, and expecting more was being blinded by green-tinted glasses. A healthy Joey Devine might have helped, although it's hard to argue that Andrew Bailey, who inherited his role, has hurt the team. Taking the long view, the A's, once criticized as a softball team, have a persistent problem putting anything like a major league offense on the field. Developmentally, they have to address that or be in line for a very long run of failure. Trading Matt Holliday for one major league-ready outfielder who can hit would be a good start.

#5: Atlanta Braves (me: 799 RS, 703 RA; projected: 687 RS, 698 RA). The outfield was even worse than expected, as Jeff Francoeur drove his career out off the bridge, no center fielder emerged (forcing the Nate McLouth trade) and Garret Anderson did exactly what he does. Declines from Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and Kelly Johnson could not have possibly come at a worse time. The current Braves team is as good as it's been for a while, with five good starters, a fantastic back of the bullpen, and a viable (if flawed) offense getting good production from randoms like Martin Prado and David Ross. The eventual addition of Tim Hudson will help as well. They're nothing like the fifth-best team in baseball, but because of the pitching staff, they're also a serious threat in the East to the Phillies and the Mets, and they remain my pick for the NL Wild Card. I'd feel better about this if they could make a trade for a left fielder-Jordan Schafer, never a prospect I've been enamored of, may have more value as trade bait than anything else at this point.

#4: Los Angeles Dodgers (me: 819 RS, 711 RA; projected: 816 RS, 622 RA). I've been writing a lot about scheduling this season, and I think you have to consider it when looking at the Dodgers' season. They opened with a month of games within the division, playing the lousy Padres and Diamondbacks, as well as the Rockies before they upgraded their defense, and the Giants before Pablo Sandoval gave them an offense. This gave them a big cushion when Manny Ramirez was suspended, and may have enabled them to suffer that blow with more grace than they could have had they been, oh, 16-13 at the time. Juan Pierre briefly played his best baseball in years as a fill-in, and now it's a foregone conclusion that the Dodgers will make the playoffs. I'm not convinced the run prevention is sustainable in the second half, as the Dodgers have gotten an awful lot of above-their-heads innings from Randy Wolf, Ramon Troncoso, Ronald Belisario, Guillermo Mota, and Jeff Weaver. There's going to be a reckoning, not one that endangers a post-season berth, but one that will require Joe Torre to shuffle his bullpen roles as the season goes on, and even rework them for the playoffs. Torre works best with a push-button pen, and the lack of one is the biggest concern the Dodgers face as they prepare for October.

#3: New York Mets (me: 812 RS, 712 RA; projected: 698 RS, 760 RA). The Mets are 21-27 without Jose Reyes, and 8-13 without Reyes and Carlos Beltran. As Ben Shpigel reported yesterday, they aren't terribly close to getting those guys back either, so while I've continued to tout this team as the favorite in the East, it's harder and harder to sustain that when they're playing without their best players into August. Jerry Manuel has burnt out his bullpen, the effects of which showed last night when the Mets squandered a quality start by Oliver Perez by allowing single runs in the seventh and eighth innings. The 2007 and 2008 Mets were victimized by late-season injuries to Billy Wagner that cost them games and, eventually, the division. The 2009 Mets are also succumbing to injuries. Their main rivals repeatedly have stayed healthy to beat them out. This, not anything about character, is the key storyline in the NL East over the past three years. What do the Phillies have, or know, or do, that the Mets do not?

#2: New York Yankees (me: 789 RS, 675 RA; projected: 911 RS, 801 RA). Clearly, I was wrong about how New Yankee Stadiun would play, a fact that accounts for much of the gap in the numbers. Run environment aside, the Yankees have been as good as expected, with the struggles of Chien-Ming Wang on the mound and Joe Girardi in running a bullpen canceled out by bounceback seasons from a number of regulars, even after accounting for the park. Alex Rodriguez is having the worst 950 OPS season in baseball history, a victim of the focus on batting average and counting stats. This isn't a park effect: the Yankees lead the AL with 373 walks drawn, which is why they'll be the AL Wild Card, and a dangerous one at that. Now, if they could just get the enormously talented pitching staff assigned to the correct jobs: Philip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain starting, David Robertson and Phil Coke setting up Brian Bruney, then Mariano Rivera; Alfredo Aceves going multiple innings in middle relief, and Brett Tomko fetching Gatorade and setting up fantasy football leagues.

#1: Boston Red Sox (me: 822 RS, 637 RA; projected: 856 RS, 700 RS). They've allowed more runs than expected by not getting their best pitchers to the line in the first half. John Smoltz and Clay Buchholz are up now, though, and with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester pitching exceptionally well, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Red Sox go on an extended run the rest of the way. This is the best team in baseball, which is the front for the best organization in baseball, and if they don't have the best record at any particular moment in time, remember that they play in the toughest grouping of teams in American professional sports. Winning the AL East might be more impressive than winning the Stanley Cup.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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