Boston Red Sox

  • Biggest First-Half Surprise: Bill Mueller. Originally signed as a stopgap to give the Bosox flexibility to trade Shea Hillenbrand, Mueller hit like an MVP candidate the first half of the season, making the decision to move Hillenbrand that much easier. A career .286/.370/.399 hitter coming off a .262/.350/.393 season, the 32-year old Mueller is at .332/.405/.551 heading into the break, outhitting Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon, and everyone else on the team not named Ramirez (and he ain’t far behind Manny).
  • Biggest First-Half Disappointment: Derek Lowe. A legitimate Cy Young candidate last season, Lowe slumped to a below-league-average 5.35 RA, a decline masked by his 10-3 W-L record. The defense-independent view of pitching will be tempted to write this off as fluctuations in defense, and in fact his balls in play rate (batting average) is .307 this season, up sharply from a .235 line last year. But the percentage of batters faced whom Lowe walks is also up sharply–almost 50%–his HR allowed rate is up about 60%, and his strikeout rate is down 15%.

    The good news is that Lowe’s still an extreme ground ball pitcher, and he’s still throwing a comparable number of strikes to last year.

             2003   2002
    G/F      3.12   3.07 
    Strike%  62.1%  63.8% 
    BIPr     .307   .235 
    BB%      8.3%   5.6% 
    SO%      12.8%  14.9% 
    HR%      2.2%   1.4% 
  • Biggest First Half Strength: The offense. Much has already been written about the team’s historic offensive season. In fact, each of the 10 players with the most PA has a positive VORP, and all but Johnny Damon are above average for their positions (Damon is just below average for CF). Three of the Red Sox starters lead the AL in VORP for their position (Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, and Mueller), while Ramirez ranks second among left fielders behind only the alien-possessed Melvin Mora. Nixon is all but tied with Aubrey Huff for second among right fielders, behind Ichiro Suzuki. The first base tandem of David Ortiz and Kevin Millar, individually ranked 4th and 5th, would rank 2nd behind only Carlos Delgado at first one. Even at one of their weaker positions, Todd Walker has the fifth-highest VORP among AL second basemen.
  • Biggest First-Half Weakness: The bullpen, which has famously struggled all year, posting a 5.54 RA in the first half–third-worst in the majors. Only four teams have worse bullpen success ratios (saves+holds)/(saves+holds+blown saves) than the Red Sox’s 77.2%. Seven different Red Sox pitchers have recorded a save, more than any other team. Only four teams (Bosox, Cardinals, Padres, Tigers) have more than four different pitchers with saves, and two of them are in last place in their divisions.
  • Looking Ahead to the Second Half: The offense should be expected to drop off, as Mueller, Varitek, and Nixon regress toward their career lines. This could be partially offset by Jeremy Giambi, if he gets some playing time and can remember what he used to do with that big wooden stick last year. But it will be hard to upgrade the lineup–one of the disadvantages to a well-balanced lineup is that it’s hard to make a quick upgrade by plugging a hole, because there are none.

    The pitching staff is another story. While the focus will likely remain on the bullpen, Byung-Hyun Kim should stanch the bleeding, set up by the solid, if unspectacular pitching of Alan Embree and Mike Timlin, while allowing Brandon Lyon to pitch in a less scrutinized role than closer.

    However, the starting pitching may have been overlooked as a source of potential problems. With Kim in the pen, only Pedro Martinez has pitched substantially above league average this season. Tim Wakefield has been solidly average, but none of the other six pitchers who’ve started a game (including Triple-A banishees like Bruce Chen and Ryan Rupe) have posted league average RAs. Not only would adding another solid starter–perhaps the rumored Odalis Perez. After a blistering two months in Triple-A, the Red Sox have let Sanchez rot on the bench, amassing just 34 plate appearances since being called up. Not only does this have the potential to negatively affect his development, but it burns up valuable low-cost service time that could cost the Red Sox dearly a few years from now.

Cincinnati Reds

  • Biggest First-Half Surprise: A year ago Jose Guillen could be had for the price of a waiver wire claim and looked for all the world like a toolsy washout. His best year in the majors had been 2000, when he put up a .253/.320/.430 line for Tampa Bay. If he had been a slick-fielding middle infielder, that might have been enough to make him a worthwhile addition, but as a corner outfielder, it was sorely lacking.

    This year Guillen has produced numbers so far above his career highs to make you wonder which species of alien replaced him in the off-season. He’s put up an on-base percentage nearly 70 points above his career high and a slugging percentage almost 200 points above his career best. What the heck happened? It’s not that he has developed better plate discipline, given that he’s averaging one walk for every 18 plate appearances. Instead it’s based entirely on a huge rise in the number of singles and home runs he’s hit.

    The other important question is whether his performance will continue at the same level into the second half. This seems unlikely. Batting average tends to be extremely variable, and if he slides from his .337 average, the lack of walks is going to kill his OBP. If he can keep the newfound power, he’ll continue to have value.

  • Biggest First-Half Disappointment: The easy answer here would be to cite the starting rotation because it has been abysmal. (In fact the worst in the majors by Michael Wolverton’s Support Neutral Won-Loss stats.) However the rotation was looking like a weak spot at the start of the year, so disappointment may be too strong a word for the staff.

    Instead, the dubious distinction has to go to Felipe Lopez, who was given the chance to take over for long-time incumbent Barry Larkin at shortstop and failed miserably. His biggest offensive strength coming up through the minors was intriguing power for a middle infielder, but over the course of a third of a season he managed only 11 extra-base hits. Combined with a poor batting average, that left him with a slugging percentage under .300. Meanwhile Lopez’s defense was absolutely horrid, with numerous throwing errors making every ball hit to his position an adventure. The Reds finally gave up on him for now and sent him to Triple-A to try and sort things out.

  • Where Do We Go from Here?: The Reds need to take an honest look at their situation. It would be easy for them to say that they’re only 6 1/2 games out of first place and keep trying to contend. However the reality of the situation is that they are seven games under .500 at this point, with three teams ahead of them. That combination means they’re the longest of long shots to make the playoffs. The sensible approach would be to start thinking in terms of the future.

    One step they should take would be to start seeing what they can get in the trade market later this month. Guillen is signed to a cheap contract, which should make him attractive to a contender looking for an offensive boost–he should bring in something in the way of quality prospects. With the slick acquisition of D’Angelo Jimenez, the Reds have likely closed the door on Brandon Larson‘s opportunity with the team, but he could still bring something in trade too.

    The other thing the Reds should be doing is working the scouts heavily in preparation for this year’s off-season signing period. In particular the focus should be not so much on big-name acquisitions, but on potential steals they could find among minor league free agents or non-tendered players. The starting rotation struggles of this year’s Reds have been magnified by the fact that there is no one pitching particularly well at Louisville who could be called up to get a shot. Avoiding such a situation next year by capitalizing on the secondary talent market could be the difference between contention and mediocrity going forward.

San Diego Padres

  • Looking Backward, Looking Forward: the Padres wrapped up a nightmarish first half by getting swept in St. Louis, where they have less chance of winning a ball game than your average NBA superstar has of avoiding arrest this summer. The stories of the first half:
    • Phil Nevin‘s rehab starts have begun, and after looking like he’d be out all season earlier this year, he’ll probably be back with San Diego by early August. Nevin’s bat has certainly been missed by the Padres, who are putting up a .258 EQA as a team–good for ninth in the league. In his absence, Ramon Vazquez did an excellent imitation of a top-of-the-order hitter until an abdominal strain put him on the shelf, off-season pickups Rondell White and Mark Loretta turned in productive half-seasons, and rookie Xavier Nady had a couple of solid months to start the season. Oh, and Sean Burroughs has quietly developed into one of the top 10 third basemen in the majors.
    • With Jay Witasick, Kevin Walker, and closer Trevor Hoffman missing most or all of 2003, the bullpen has been seriously taxed. A quick look at the team Adjusted Runs Prevented for relievers defines the problem lack of bullpen depth and injuries have created–at a -39.6 ARP, the Padres are last in the league and almost 100 runs behind the MLB-leading Angels. It’s telling that none of the team’s three best relievers by ARP–Matt Herges, Rod Beck, and Scott Linebrink–were in the Padres’ plans at the start of spring training.
    • The rotation has been a major disappointment. As reported in the last edition, the pieces the Padres wanted to be working with are now in place, and nobody’s really pitching poorly enough to be banished from a .350 team–unless they’ll bring appropriate value in return, of course. But second-half strides by Brian Lawrence and Adam Eaton, continued improvement for Oliver Perez, and more consistent performance from Jake Peavy will set the tone for the off-season.

    The Padres are playing for the future. Things to look for in the second half:

    • Playing the trade market: Herges is already gone, but other than that, Kevin Towers and the San Diego front office have been making brave statements about keeping the team together due to their improved performance in June and July. That’s well and good, but even considering what White and Loretta have done so far this year, neither of them are irreplaceable, and if there’s a tasty prospect to be had, making a move might be the right thing to do. The Padres are reportedly insisting that any team interested in the two players take pitcher Kevin Jarvis‘ 2004 salary off their hands, and that money would come in handy in the free-agent market.
    • Don’t get goofy with the temps: Donaldo Mendez has been getting some good local press lately, which is reminiscent of the Deivi Cruz situation last year. The Manimal was allowed to leave, and Mendez–who has always been overrated; he’s about as essential or useful to this team as Juan Melo was–should be too the minute anyone expresses interest or Vazquez is healthy enough to hold down the shortstop job again.

      Catcher Gary Bennett proved he has his uses on a baseball diamond in St. Louis when he goaded Albert Pujols into punching him in the face, earning the Cardinals superstar a suspension. Unfortunately, that’s about all Bennett has been good for this year. The position is a prime candidate for an upgrade this off-season.

    • Keeping the heat on: Then again, even including the three-game sweep by St. Louis to enter the break, the Padres are coming off a 9-6 record in their last 15 games. If they can continue to play .600 ball through the end of the season, they’ll end up within shouting distance of .500. Heck, if they only had more games scheduled against the helpless Dodgers, the postseason dreams in San Diego might still be limping along. That’s not really something to play for inasmuch as it’s an accomplishment in a season that started off as badly as 2003 did for the club.
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