Chicago White Sox

  • First-Half Studs: Only two White Sox regulars can reasonably be said to have exceeded expectations in the first half. Esteban Loaiza, the All-Star game starter, is the obvious one. Loaiza has always had good control, and has always done a reasonable job of keeping the ball in the park. Combine those traits with the club’s above-average defense, and some sort of improvement was possible. PECOTA liked him just as well, for example, as it did Tom Glavine.

    But nobody expected this. While there are some of the usual signs that Loaiza has been lucky–his component stats aren’t quite as good as his ERA, and his average allowed on balls in play rate is a little low–Loaiza’s strikeout rate is also much improved, and he’s keeping the ball on the ground. If he can pitch like a #2 starter for the balance of the season–say seven or eight more wins and an ERA in the mid-3s–he’ll have the chance to emerge the victor in a weak field of Cy Young candidates.

    Given what he accomplished earlier in his career, can Frank Thomas‘ resurgence be considered a surprise? PECOTA seems to think so: Thomas’ .320 EqA is just above his 90th percentile projection, suggesting fundamental improvement rather than some sort of sample size fluke. Although the batting average may drop a bit from here on out–Thomas strikes out more than he used to, and he certainly hasn’t gained any foot speed–the power is back, as is the swagger.

  • First-Half Duds: Paul Konerko, who seemed poised for a career year at age 27, has instead had the most disappointing season in the entire American League; even with a minor power surge in the past two weeks, he’s still posted just a .207 EqA. We’ve discussed his struggles before in this space, but to recap: Konerko is a 27-year-old playing in a 32-year-old’s body, and isn’t hitting in spite of seeing his pitches per plate appearances increase, which suggests that his struggles may have less to do with approach and more to do with a fundamental decline in ability.

    Some other White Sox stragglers, in declining order of worry going forward:

    • Billy Koch‘s walk rate and heavy usage last season made him a risky proposition; PECOTA figured about a one-in-four chance that his ERA would wind up at 5.00 or higher. Combine that with the loss of a couple of miles per hour on his fastball, and an inability to keep the ball on the ground–he’s giving up more flyballs and home runs than at any point in his career–and you’ve got one highly combustible pitcher. It might behoove the Sox to limit Koch’s innings from here on out, get him to shave that awful goatee thing, and try again next season. Then again, this wasn’t a great pitcher to begin with.
    • Carlos Lee is hitting about as well as you’d expect given that his walk rate has regressed after a second-half improvement in 2002. Walk rate improvements are often “sticky,” but they require positive reinforcements. Lee has been through two hitting coaches this season, neither of whom have done much to emphasize the importance of taking pitches, and the walks may not be coming back. Without them, he’s a league-average corner outfielder at best.
    • Joe Crede should be fine once he learns to take a few more pitches, but keep in mind that he’s already 25–the upside here is more Corey Koskie than Robin Ventura.
    • Mark Buehrle‘s season has been perceived as a disappointment, partly because he began compiling losses early and often, but his 4.10 ERA is squarely in the middle of the range that PECOTA projected. Buehrle is a smart pitcher who should continue to be an asset in the medium term, but going forward this isn’t a tremendous typology: the Tommy Johns are well outnumbered by the Jim Abbotts.
  • Key Question: When to pull the plug? Don’t tell Rany Jazayerli, but it’s not inconceivable that the AL Central could be won by a team with as few as 81 wins. More realistically, a reasonable target is in the 85-87-win range. Even that pedestrian figure, however, would require the Sox to play .600 ball from here on out, an iffy proposition at best.

    The Sox have some assets they can trade–Tom Gordon, possibly even Robby Alomar or Carl Everett–but the key name is Bartolo Colon, who even with a sub-par season could command a premium in a trade market that’s short on quality starting pitchers. The risk is that the Sox wait too long before punting the season, losing what opportunity they might have restock a farm system that has been plundered through trades.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Fore!: You’d be surprised just how many requests we get for a Pro Golf Prospectus. While that isn’t coming any time soon, we figured we’d indulge your Inner Mickelson by recapping the Cardinals’ first-half performance by means of an extended golf analogy.
    • Eagle. Albert Pujols, who may not be a better hitter than Barry Bonds, but deserves credit simply for forcing the question to be asked. Edgar Renteria, who provides a reminder that sometimes those breakout seasons really are a long time in coming. Jim Edmonds, who’s beginning to have one of those odd career paths that make him a darkhorse Hall-of-Fame candidate.
    • Birdie. Woody Williams, who has morphed from Mike Maddux to Greg Maddux within the course of the past three seasons.
    • Par. Scott Rolen, one of the game’s most overlooked stars. Cal Eldred, who, as much fun as we’ve had at his expense, deserves a purple heart for his persistence. J.D. Drew, who might get a team to bite in the trade market if they focus on his rate stats and not on his health issues.
    • Bogey. Matt Morris, who isn’t helping anyone when he’s out there at less than full strength. Steve Kline, whose problems are illustrative less of a decline in his skill set and more of the limitations of lefty specialists–only 37% of the batters that Kline has faced this season have been fellow southpaws.
    • Double Bogey. The bullpen. With the partial exceptions of Eldred and Kline, it’s the main reason that the Cardinals have compiled a 5-16 record in one-run games. The disabled list, which whether owing to bad luck, a poor training staff, or a little bit of both, has found plenty of victims on the Cardinal roster this season.

    What, you figured we’d prefer the Stapleton Scoring System?

  • Trade Rumors: It’s no secret that the Cardinals are in the market for pitching help, both in the bullpen and the starting rotation, with J.D. Drew being dangled as the primary piece of trade bait. While it’s tempting to conjure up scenarios in which the Cardinals wind up overpaying for talent, it’s also important to remember that Walt Jocketty has one of the best track records in the business in terms of making deadline deals. This is the man who fetched Rolen, Williams, and Mark McGwire at eminently reasonable prices, and watched as they put up great numbers down the stretch run.

    If the Cardinals are targeting a pitcher, the best candidates are those that keep the ball in play and on the ground, since the Cards’ superior defense gives them the opportunity to achieve greater success in St. Louis than they would just about anywhere else. Which potentially available pitchers might fit the bill?

    • Mike Maroth fits the profile well. He’s left-handed too, which means plenty of ground balls to Rolen and Renteria.
    • Cory Lidle‘s name has been bandied about a lot, and would also play into the Cardinals’ strengths. He’s been giving up home runs at an alarming rate in his last several starts, though, so the Cards need to scout him carefully and make sure that all his pitches are working for him.
    • Ismael Valdes could be had for a song, and is another pitcher whose performance is dramatically affected by his defense and park environment; Texas is about the worst place possible for him. He’s not really a groundballer, though.

    OK, this is a speculative exercise to begin with, so we can do a little bit better than those names.

    • Would Brian Lawrence be available? The Padres still have a fair number of young pitchers to sort through; the question is whether the team would rather have Drew going forward than, say, Xavier Nady.

      You’d like to see how Brad Penny would fare in an organization that’s a little bit more conscientious about protecting its arms, and he’s about to get expensive as he enters his arbitration seasons. Then again, the Marlins seem to think they have a shot at the wild card.

    • Kris Benson is a finesse pitcher at this point; the question is whether he’s a good one. A pitching coach that emphasized the value of using one’s pitches efficiently could do a lot to help him.

    None of these guys are staff aces, but notwithstanding the fact that there aren’t any aces on the trade market, it’s not clear that the Cardinals need to set their sights that high. Their defense should help to shave half a run off the ERA of the right kind of pitcher, and when the alternative is Jason Simontacchi, that’s a pretty big help.

Texas Rangers

  • Rebuilding: The Rangers continue to chug along the tracks of a long rebuilding project. At the controls are Buck Showalter, a manager with an iron fist and a history of getting a team ready to contend, and Grady Fuson, the player development guru who spent as much time answering questions about Moneyball as he has trying to find some pitching. The question going forward is how to dismantle the failed attempts at winning and to re-assemble a team around the base of Alex Rodriguez.

    To rebuild a minor-league system and reload for the next winning Rangers team, John Hart is tasked with taking expensive but established players and reaping young but talented prospects. In three successive trades, Hart turned veterans Carl Everett, Ugueth Urbina, and not-so-expensive or established Ryan Ludwick into 10 minor-leaguers with pedigrees that range from first overall pick (Adrian Gonzalez, 2000) to injured, but major league caliber (Ricardo Rodriguez) to the unknown, but better than what they had (the likely key to the White Sox deal, Anthony Webster.) As noted in detail in The Newberg Report, the Rangers got the most for Urbina–even with ample young corner infield talent already on board and Gonzalez’s wrist problems, he could still be flipped for more prospects.

    The Rangers continue to actively shop both Juan Gonzalez, who could have netted a couple prospects from Montreal had he not declined the deal, and Rafael Palmeiro. Both could bring back pitching, the key need for the Rangers. Gonzalez is rumored to be going everywhere but Manchester United while Palmeiro continues to be shopped.

  • Breakouts: Hank Blalock has blossomed into the player everyone thought he’d be in 2002. Mark Teixeira has hit the ground running, with the Rangers juggling “T-Rex” around the lineup to keep his bat in the lineup. He’s seen action at first, third, DH, and both corners while Blalock has been locked in at third since the start of the season. As Everett left, Laynce Nix made his first appearance for the Rangers and thus far, has been a little overmatched (-3.9 Value Over Replacement Player in just 25 PA). Still, few doubt his potential. Ramon Nivar (.317 MLEqA), Gerald Laird (.263 MLEqA), and Juan Senreiso (.260 MLEqA) are also highly regarded, but you’ll notice no mention of minor league pitching. To find someone who figures to help the Rangers, you’ll have to look way down the road, down to High-A Clinton.
  • Breakdowns: Injuries have taken their toll, causing the Rangers to operate without Juan Gonzalez, Jeff Zimmerman, Kevin Mench, and even Alex Rodriguez at various times. The most serious is Rodriguez, who is dealing with the continued effects of a cervical spine injury that will only show its full effects in A-Rod’s year-end stat line. Despite leading the Rangers in VORP at 37.3, Rodriguez remains on pace to finish well below the mean of his PECOTA projection.
  • Looking Beyond the Wreckage: The second half will be filled with the pitfalls of breaking inexperienced players into the lineup while not overtaxing the young talent and breaking whatever confidence they bring with them to the Texas summer. Teams led by Buck Showalter are disciplined, well-schooled in the fundamentals, and tend to be filled with players who are self-motivated. The Texas team of the future appears to be built in this same image–A-Rod is the prototype for a Showalter player. It has to be the hope of everyone in the Arlington front office that surrounding Rodriguez with players of similar type and style, if not talent, will result in something more successful than the fans of the Rangers have seen in seasons past.
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