- First-Half Review: At the 2003 All-Star Break, the Orioles find themselves staring at a 41-50 record, 15 games behind the Yankees, fourth place in the AL East. This is a pretty familiar place for the Orioles to be; for the last five years, their break records have been:
Yr W-L GB Place 2002 42-43 12 3 2001 40-47 11 3 2000 38-48 8.5 4 1999 36-51 16.5 5 1998 38-50 26.5 4 avg 39-48 15 4
Hey, they’re consistent…
A lot has gone right for the Orioles so far this season. The offense has been much better than expected (.266 EqA, 5th in the AL), and just about everyone has contributed. Of the 13 Orioles who have done the bulk of the hitting, only two have performed below their PECOTA expectations–and one of them, Gary Matthews, has long since gone to San Diego (the other is Tony Batista). On the other hand, six (Six!) have met or exceeded their 90th-percentile score:
Melvin Mora, expected (50% PECOTA EQA) .258, currently hitting .353 Luis Matos, expected .257, currently .319 Jerry Hairston, expected .256, currently .295 Jeff Conine, expected .260, currently .294 Brian Roberts, expected .237, currently .288 B.J. Surhoff, expected .238, currently .284
The pitching, on the other hand, has been a disaster. Sidney Ponson, the Aruban Knight, has had a breakout year, picking up 12 of the Orioles’ 41 wins (silly factoid: he has the highest percentage of his own team’s wins in the majors, at 29.3%). Everybody else in the rotation and pen has been, at best, disappointing– Rodrigo Lopez can blame injuries, Buddy Groom, maybe age–but the rest just aren’t all that good and never have been.
This will be the first Summer TradeFest for the Mike Flanagan/Jim Beattie tag team, and it will be interesting to see just what they do with it. At the start of the year, everyone assumed that Ponson would be a July trade. He still might be. The O’s have made some noise about signing him long-term, but Beattie was adamant that the Orioles are not going to pay top dollar for a pitcher with one stellar half-season. (To which the BP crew yells, “Hurrah!”)
Mora is a free agent after the season, 31 years old and having the half-season of his life. His trade value has never been higher, and (almost certainly) never will be so high again. Another point Beattie was adamant about was acquiring major-league talent for any major leaguers dealt, sort of missing the point that teams who are looking to add players right now are in contention and not too willing to give up a good major leaguer. Still, it is an attitude that should at least command top prospects, unlike the Thrifty fire sales of past years. Conine and Batista have also been the subject of trade talk; the sticking point with them is that they’re still under contract for 2004 (at about $5 million each).
Whatever trades are made or not made, the Orioles have a couple of players who might emerge from the minors this year. Jack Cust has rebounded from a slow start at Ottawa, and could easily step in at LF or DH if either of those positions should open up. Tim Raines has had a nice season, but he’s not outhitting Matos; if he comes up in September at all, it will be as a pinch-runner. On the pitching side, Eric DuBose and Matt Riley have been the Orioles’ best pitchers in the high minors; people have been waiting for Riley to come back for a long time.
In any event, the likelihood is that the Birds will maintain their spot in the ultra-consistent AL East, as they are taking a long, hard look at their sixth straight fourth-place finish.
- First-Half Offense, Grade B: The Rockies have scored 535 runs this year, just barely leading the National League (St. Louis has scored 533) and third in the majors behind Boston and Toronto. They are never going to win anything without leading the league in runs by a substantial margin. They’ve gotten above-average offense from only four of their eight positions–first base, third base, centerfield, and right field. Todd Helton has clearly established himself as the best first baseman in the league. Chris Stynes has turned third base into a slight positive for the Rockies. Preston Wilson has proven to be a tremendous acquisition in center field. Larry Walker continues to hit and get on base as long as he can stay healthy enough to play right field.
Jay Payton, the leftfielder, and Ronnie Belliard, the second baseman have provided acceptable levels of offense for the Rockies but may not be long-term answers. Belliard has yet to regain the power he showed in 2001, when he cranked 44 extra-base hits in about 400 times up. Already 30 years old, with a spotty performance record, Payton has a limited upside.
The most serious offensive problems have come at catcher and shortstop. If the Rockies were hoping Coors Field might help to wake up Charles Johnson‘s bat when they traded for him, they must be disappointed at this point. Backup Bobby Estalella has done little to challenge Johnson, while the Rockies disposed of their long-time catcher of the future Ben Petrick in a deal last week. At shortstop, the Rockies may still be hoping that Juan Uribe–who turns 24 next week–will establish some hitting credentials in the next few years, but the slick fielder hasn’t exactly shown any signs of that in the past year and a half.
- Starting Pitching, Grade C+: Having jettisoned Mike Hampton, the Rockies are trying to build a mostly homegrown rotation. The results have not proven to be a total disaster, and that is a good thing. The best news the rotation has had in years has been the 2003 performance of Shawn Chacon, who has been the first Rockie starter in recent memory to show signs of actual dominance at Coors Field. Jason Jennings, last year’s NL Rookie of the Year, has continued to pitch fairly well. Darren Oliver has also been surprisingly successful, but it is hard to believe that he will be able to continue his effectiveness at Coors in the second half.
The rest of the rotation has been unstable, with Aaron Cook, Scott Elarton, Denny Neagle, and Dennis Stark all making appearances in the first half. It will be up to Clint Hurdle to build an acceptable back-of-the-rotation in the second half.
- Bullpen, Grade B: Despite the spectacular flameouts of Todd Jones and Jose Jimenez, the bullpen has been a positive for the Rockies again this season. Brian Fuentes has been one of the best left-handed relievers in the league, Justin Speier has been solid, and sidearming righty Steve Reed has continued to dominate righties. Submarining lefty Javier Lopez has shown a lot of potential despite a rather bizarre home/road split.
- Second-Half Outlook: The Rockies are a .500 team that has sat on the periphery of the Wild Card race all season long. They are able to dominate at home but are unable to win on the road except against the weakest clubs in the majors. It seems unlikely that they will be able to make a run unless a number of other teams falter. They have 43 games left with over-.500 teams and only 22 games left with under-.500 teams, in addition to five more games on the road than at home. The Rockies may be able to call this season a success on its own terms, but they won’t be playing in October.
New York Mets
- What Was: The Steve Phillips Era. With the Mets on their way to a third straight disappointing season, general manager Phillips was fired on June 12. His continued pursuit of contention with an aging, expensive roster culminated in back-to-back last-place teams. Phillips was replaced on an interim basis by Jim Duquette, who was charged with the task of cleaning the veteran deadwood off the roster.
Old teams get injured, and the Mets suffered through major losses such as Mo Vaughn and Mike Piazza, who combined to miss more than 127 first-half games. Minor injuries hampered Roberto Alomar, Cliff Floyd, Al Leiter, and Mike Stanton, leaving the Mets
to occasionally field a team that looked like it should have Richard Pryor on the mound and Jerry
Orbach in the dugout.
The news wasn’t all bad. Jae Seo pitched well enough to be a fringe Rookie of the Year candidate. Jeromy Burnitz‘s huge comeback season made him attractive trade bait, and when they weren’t hurt, Floyd and Piazza hit very well. Catching prospect Justin Huber impressed observers in the low minors.
- What Is: A trade frenzy. Alomar and Burnitz are gone, dealt to the White Sox and Dodgers, respectively, for trade packages built around B-level prospects. Reports indicate Armando Benitez will likely be dealt before the Mets play their next game. Steve Trachsel and David Weathers are also likely to start August in different uniforms. The Mets aren’t picking up great prospects in their trades, but they’re cleaning house and adding depth to a top-heavy farm system. They’d benefit from trading the fruits of last winter’s labors, but the size of the commitments to Floyd, Stanton and Tom Glavine will make them hard to move.
Twenty-year-old Jose Reyes, considered the best prospect in the game by a number of sources, is playing shortstop on a regular basis. He looks overmatched so far, hitting .250/.257/.370 with just two walks in 100 at-bats. Optimists can point to the .232/.264/.408 line put up in 142 at-bats by another 20-year-old who was pretty darn good at 21, and pretty darn wealthy at 27. Aaron Heilman is in the rotation and has made two good starts and two other ones. Jason Phillips is hitting well, and has the potential to be a plus-value backup catcher along the lines of Todd Pratt.
- What Will Be: Last place. While the trades add depth to the system, they’ll expose the upper levels of the Mets’ minor leagues for what they are: thin. The Mets don’t have good young players to replace what they’re trading away, so they’ll finish in the NL East cellar again. Not since 1982-83 have the Mets have finished last in consecutive seasons.
For the first time since losing the World Series in 2000, though, there are positive steps being taken. Before you can build a winning team, you often have to tear down the structure of the losing one, and that’s what’s happening here. Jim Duquette is off to a good start in what is a job he’d like to keep. If he can make two or three more deals that stock the minors with bulk talent, he’ll have done well given the roster he’s inherited, and made a strong case that he should lose the “interim” modifier.
After those dark years of 1982 and 1983, the Mets embarked on a six-year run of contention that peaked with a World Championship in 1986. It’s quite likely that, 20 years later, they could be on a similar path.