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August 8, 2012

The Lineup Card

7 Questions for the Stretch Drive

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Can Dodgers 2.0 Win the NL West?
Caught in a three-way race with the Diamondbacks and Giants, the Dodgers were aggressive at the trade deadline. With new ownership looking to revitalize the troubled franchise, GM Ned Colletti acquired Joe Blanton, Randy Choate, Brandon League, Hanley Ramirez, and Shane Victorino over an eight-day stretch.

Choate and League are cogs that add depth to a solid bullpen. Blanton may or may not represent an upgrade over the younger, less experienced Nathan Eovaldi, sent to Miami in the Ramirez trade.  Ramirez and Victorino could make a difference.

Still only 28, Ramirez has slipped from elite status. But when you're wasting at-bats on Dee Gordon and Juan Uribe, you don't need an elite player, you need someone who doesn't make outs all the time. Victorino, meanwhile, combines the offensive skills of Bobby Abreu with Tony Gwynn Jr.'s defense, making the latter two expendable and allowing the Dodgers to consolidate their roster.

Can Version 2.0 hold off the Giants, who added Jose Mijares, Hunter Pence, and Marco Scutaro for the stretch run? Or the Diamondbacks, who added, uh, Chris Johnson? Arizona boasts the division's best run differential. If the Snakes get anything out of Stephen Drew, Justin Upton, and Chris Young... if Ian Kennedy starts pitching like he did last year, then maybe, just maybe...

Whoever wins the NL West is likely to get stomped in the playoffs. But “likely” and “certain” are two different concepts. Give a team a chance, and sometimes unusual things happen. The Dodgers have enough talent, and they play in the right division. This could get interesting, especially come the season's final weekend, when the Dodgers head to San Francisco for three games. Long-time rivals? Playoff implications? This is why we watch the games. —Geoff Young

2. Can the Reds Keep Going?
The Reds entered Tuesday's play in first place in the National League Central and co-owners of the best record in the major leagues, tied with Washington at 66-43. That the Reds are leading their division is not a surprise. The Cardinals and Brewers both looked susceptible to falling coming into this season after facing each other in the NLCS last fall. Alas, the Brewers have raised the white flag on 2012 by trading right-hander Zack Greinke, though the Cardinals are on the rise after an up-and-down first two-thirds of the season.

That the Reds have the best record in the game is a surprise, though, and the question is whether they can keep it up. Going into Tuesday, Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report projected the Reds to finish just a shade ahead of the Nationals in wins, 95.4-95.3. CoolStandings.com, though, had the Nats finishing just ahead of the Reds at 96.9-96.7, while TeamRankings.com had the Reds barely in front of the Nationals, 95.0-94.5. Personally, I think they Reds will finish with the most wins. They have first baseman Joey Votto coming off the disabled list soon and a weak finishing schedule, including a healthy dose of the Cubs and Astros. As the great—and now bald—broadcaster Marty Brenneman would say, "This one belongs to the Reds." —John Perrotto

3. Are the Cardinals Really​ the Best Team in the NL?
Hey, you! Click on the "standings" button at the top of the page and take a look at the NL Central. We'll wait. Seriously, it's really interesting. Let's see if you can find it.

Did you notice that the St. Louis Cardinals have the best "advanced" win percentage in the division (and in the NL!)? I once defined "Pythagorean win percentage" as "A formula that tells you that despite the fact that some other team's players are jumping on top of each other after winning the World Series, your team was actually better. And we can prove it." As of the end of Monday's games, the Cardinals sit in third place in the NL Central, 2.5 games in back of the Pirates for the second wild-card spot, and six games behind the Reds for first place. According to Pythagorean expectations, the Cards should actually be up in the standings by six games, but the Reds and Pirates should have records about 6-8 games worse, while the Cards should have a record that is four games better.

We still don't know a lot about what drives teams to under- or over-perform their Pythagorean records, or even whether it's skill or luck that drives it. This un-answered question is key to that NL Central race. If it's mostly luck that drives Pythaogrean differentials, then the Cards may be poised to make a run to sneak into the playoffs. Again. —Russell Carleton

4. Is This a Successful Season for Pittsburgh?
Entering play Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 62-46, 3.5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds (who had the best record in baseball) and were firmly atop the wild-card standings for the second spot, only half-a-game behind Atlanta. In short, as of August 6, the 2012 Pirates are miles better than any of their last 19 straight losing seasons. It wouldn't be a stretch for some to say that this season has already been a success. But August isn't October, and there is still a lot of baseball to be played. Just ask the 2011 squad, who went 18-32 from this point on.

Now, this year's team isn't last year's team (Andrew McCutchen and A.J. Burnett can testify to that), but there's still no assurance that the club will finish anywhere near where they find themselves now. So, the question becomes, what will the Pirates and their fans consider a successful season? If the team finishes out of the wild card by a handful of games, will that be enough? Or is the postseason so well in sight that nothing less will do? What if the team does replicate its 2011 finish, playing 14 games under .500 to finish at 82-80? Will an end of the most dubious team record in North American sports make fans happy, no matter how it was achieved? I'm not a Pirates fan, so I can't say. I do know, however, that these are pretty good questions for Pirates to be asking themselves right now. —Larry Granillo

5. Will the Red Sox Ever​ Get Decent Pitching? 
The Red Sox sit in fourth place, a game under .500, and nine games behind the first-place Yankees. And yet, Boston is not out of the playoff race. If we learned anything from last season, we learned that teams aren't out of it until they are mathematically eliminated. And even then, in some cases, it's iffy. The Red Sox aren't in a good spot. But they're in a doable spot. They have assets to work with. They've scored the second-most runs in baseball and the most runs among teams that don't play in crazy Texas bandboxes. With an offense like that and a middle-of-the-pack defense (ranked 15th in Defensive Efficiency, and much closer to first than last), you'd think they might be doing better. But the Red Sox boast the 23rd-worst ERA in baseball. Well, not boast. That would be silly. Their rotation has posted a shockingly bad 4.79 ERA, and it's a rotation that features Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester. On name recognition alone, that team shouldn't be bottom five in the league, and yet name recognition is the only way they aren't bottom five.

There are two months left in the season. With the return of Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, among others, the offense should keep humming. All the Sox need is some average pitching. Average. Just Average. If they can get average (or, dare I say, slightly above?) over the next two months, there exists a real possibility the Red Sox could make a run at a wild-card spot. Can Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz put up an average ERA over two months? That may have sounded like a ridiculous question four months ago, but now it isn't. Now it's real, and the Red Sox' season rides on its answer. —Matthew Kory

6. Just What on God's Green Earth are the A's?
I'm writing this before the A's finish their game against the Angels on Tuesday, so all I can tell you about their place in the world is that, as of this moment, they are 58–51, a full game back of Detroit, a half game back of the Angels, and tied with the Orioles in the wild-card chase. Our playoff odds give the A's a 15.6 percent shot at October, a significant drop from recent from recent days and weeks as they've returned to their bad (or at least mediocre) old ways.

There is no doubt that the team thus far has played over its head. Accumulating 87 walk-off wins (tip o' the cap for research help to our newest member of the stats team, James Frey) has a tendency to inflate one's win total over one's actual performance level. In the American League, only the Orioles have a bigger positive gap between their third-order winning percentage and their real one. However, the team that accumulated that record is not entirely the team currently on the field. Chris Carter is finally up and walloping the ball. Brett Anderson could return from Tommy John surgery soon. Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily are in the rotation, not Graham Godfrey and Tyson Ross.

However, listing these players starts to feel like the raving of an optimist when you think about the team's recent roster upgrades. George Kottaras was added to help improve the catcher spot. George Kottaras! Pat Neshek is on the team, and he's not just a mop-up reliever. Pat Neshek! Hell, go back to the Brandon Inge acquisition for third base or Travis Blackley for the pitching staff. Brandon Inge! Travis Blackley! (Yes, Blackley's been weirdly and absurdly good, but that doesn't negate the point that Travis Blackley was considered an upgrade for the pitching staff earlier in the year.) That these players are reasonably seen as upgrades on the major-league roster says quite a bit about who was in those players' spots before them, and thus quite a bit about the actual quality of the A's team.

In answer to the question, then: I haven't the foggiest, and it's why the A's are one of the biggest wild cards in the wild-card race. —Jason Wojciechowski

7. What Can the Yankees Expect from Alex Rodriguez?
Each season, there is one very important week for the New York Yankees and the team's fans. After doing some major soul-searching, the question is broached: What's wrong with Mariano? But with Mariano Rivera sidelined by an ACL injury this season, the Bombers will have to make due with a different inquiry: When A-Rod returns from his broken fifth metacarpal, what kind of offense can they expect from their hot cornerman?

New York has been on the schneid since losing Rodriguez; they've gone 5-8 while giving regular reps to Eric Chavez and Jayson Nix. While neither has been a spectacular embarrassment at the dish since A-Rod's injury, neither will be mistaken for a middle-of-the-order hitter. The Yankees also must hold their breath when Chavez is on the field, hoping that his porcelain bones don't snap—or that he doesn't accidentally conk his own teammates in the noggin.

Hand injuries can be difficult, and with a conservative estimate of a six-week DL stint, Rodriguez might not return until mid-September. He probably won't be able to rehab in the minors, but the Yanks would doubtlessly like to get him some plate appearances before the postseason. Will Rodriguez be able to return and provide steady production, or will his pinkie hamper his offensive output? Not having A-Rod in the lineup could put a damper on New York's World Series aspirations, and while using Nix and Chavez in the short-term doesn't have significant repercussions for a team with a nine-game division lead, it could spell doom in a short series. —Stephani Bee

8 comments have been left for this article.

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