Chicago White Sox

  • Streakin’: For the first time in recent memory, the White Sox are generating a buzz. The combination of half-priced tickets, a divisional battle, and pleasant summer whether combined to entice nearly 44,000 Chicagoans to U.S. Cellular Field on Monday, figures normally reserved for Opening Day, the Cubs series, and monster truck pulls (just kidding). Even after dropping the game to the Royals, the White Sox remain just three games out of first place, and the unbalanced schedule provides for plenty of opportunity to gain those back. Mayor Daley is said to be pleased with the developments, hopeful that a long baseball season, coupled with an expected 0-5 start by the Bears, will distract Chicago voters from realizing that the $600 million in renovations they’ve invested in Soldier Field have produced a facility that looks a lot like the Titanic–after it’s hit the iceberg. There’s not only an “I” in H-U-B-R-I-S, there’s also an eyesore.

    But enough with trivialities like architecture, city politics, and football. The White Sox have compiled a .941 OPS since the All-Star game was played at The Cell, the key amidst up-and-down pitching to a 13-5 record. Who has been doing the most damage? It’s not new acquisitions Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett, but exactly the guys who’d failed to meet expectations in the first half:

    OPS since All-Star Break
    Ordonez 1.302   
    Lee     1.145
    Konerko 1.076
    Olivo    .829
    Crede    .823
    Thomas   .815
    Alomar   .752
    Everett  .748
    Valentin .733

    Carlos Lee and Paul Konerko are both succeeding by being more aggressive at the plate–they’ve combined for just four walks since the break. In Lee’s case, the poor plate discipline is a sign that the hot streak could end just as fast as it started, but in Konerko’s, the aggression is welcome–always possessing good plate coverage, Konerko was getting himself in trouble early in the year by taking too many pitches for strikes. While the bats will cool, the Sox are a safe bet to have the best offense in the division for the balance of the season, just as they were projected to at the start of it.

  • Upcoming Schedule: Though the Sox might have the most talent in the Central, the schedule is another matter. The table below summarizes the schedules for the three A.L. Central contenders from Thursday through the end of the season. The winning percentages you see aren’t the usual, garden-variety kind, but instead taken from Clay Davenport’s adjusted standings page, which account for luck and prior strength of schedule, and ought to have the most predictive value for what to expect going-forward. Games that the three contenders play against one another are excluded.
    vs.         ChA      KC    Min   Adj W%
    New York     6       6     -     .618
    Boston       5       -     -     .610
    Oakland      3       -     -     .585
    Arizona      -       1     -     .547
    Anaheim      7       6     6     .535
    Baltimore    -       -     1     .472
    Texas        7       6     6     .458
    Cleveland    3       6     12    .442
    Tampa Bay    -       4     -     .435
    Detroit      3       8     10    .336
    Weighted   .523    .467   .431    

    Opponents are arranged from best to worst, which makes it clear just which teams are at an advantage. The White Sox’s schedule–which includes 14 games against the Yankees, Red Sox and A’s–is considerably more difficult than that of the Royals, and in turn is more difficult than that of the Twins, who have more than three weeks’ worth of games left against the Tigers and Indians. The differences are material, amounting to roughly a two-game disadvantage against the Royals and a three-game disadvantage against the Twins, if counterbalanced somewhat by the fact that the White Sox have the most off days from here on out. The Sox have every chance to win the division, but will have to continue to fire on all cylinders.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Subtraction By Complacence?: While it was a quiet trade deadline all around, the Cardinals’ inactivity was particularly surprising. Widely expected to pick up a pitcher or three, the Cardinals’ deadline dealing was limited to activating Miguel Cairo from the DL.

    Contrary to what you’ll read in the local papers, and what you’ll hear on Baseball Tonight, there’s no imperative for a team to make a move at the deadline. Walt Jocketty is smart enough to realize that deadline deals backfire as often as they succeed, and has done well in the past to ensure that he receives premium talent for ordinary prospects.

    But this was something of a special case. As we’ve seen all season, the Cardinals have as much star talent as anyone in the league. Their division rivals, the Astros and the Cubs, each have injury and performance concerns of their own. Adding even a league-average starter, or a B+ reliever, could have gone a long way toward improving their chance to reach the postseason.

    The irony is that the very thing that has undone the Cardinals all season also compromised their position at the trade deadline. While their lack of movement has generally been attributed to budget constraints, the Cardinals’ shortage of depth had more to do with their inability to close a deal. The team decided–rightly–that they didn’t want to open up another hole by moving J.D. Drew, but without that chip on the table, the Cards had very little to work with.

    While a panic move on Thursday might have only compounded their problems, the Cardinals need to make a concerted effort to rebuild their organizational depth in the off-season. That might include a willingness to gamble on minor-league free agents, and increased aggressiveness in international markets, two areas in which the Cards have been behind the curve in the past.

  • Star Performer: One of the men that Jocketty refused to deal was rookie pitcher Dan Haren. Good thing, too–besides Woody Williams, Haren might be the Cardinals’ best starter.

    Haren was liked more by scouts than by analysts prior to the start of the season. While his build and mechanics are points in his favor, none of his pitches are spectacular, and neither, after adjusting for his level of competition, were his strikeout rates. PECOTA gave him an unfavorable projection because he displayed some vulnerability to the long ball in the minor leagues.

    But thus far, Haren has kept the ball down just fine, with a GB/FB ratio of 1.15, and only two homers allowed to 138 big league batters faced. Haren’s greatest asset is his command, already better than major league average. As we’ve seen with Dontrelle Willis and Brandon Webb, it may be that pitchers with good control are the best bets to make a quick transition into major league effectiveness. While minor league pitchers who always throw as hard as they can are sometimes rewarded with high strikeout rates, conserving pitches and knowing when to let a guy put the ball in play is a sign of precocious maturity and pitching intelligence. As Dayn Perry has noted, outstanding major league pitchers don’t always have sparking minor league strikeout numbers or even great overall records; it’s early, but Haren may be one such example.

  • Upcoming Schedule: As in the case of its American League counterpart, the schedule may play a role in determining the ultimate winner of the N.L. Central. Here, using the technique established in the White Sox article above, is the strength of schedule for the remaining N.L. Central contenders from Thursday through the end of the season:
    vs.           StL     ChC     Hou     Adj W%
    Atlanta        3      -       -      .590
    Philadelphia   6      -       -      .581
    San Francisco  -      -       3      .559
    Florida        1      -       -      .552
    Arizona        3      3       -      .547
    Los Angeles    -      6       6      .484
    Montreal       -      3       3      .474
    Colorado       3      -       3      .464
    Pittsburgh     7      7       -      .451
    San Diego      -      1       6      .425
    Milwaukee      6      6       8      .407
    Cincinnati     6      6       6      .400
    New York       -      3       1      .371
    Subtotal     .481    .443    .444    

    While none of these teams is facing knockout competition–that’s the benefit of playing in a division with three weak sisters like the Pirates, Brewers, and Reds–the Cardinals have the toughest road ahead, playing nine games against the Braves and Phillies, as well as series against the pesky surf-and-turf combo of the Marlins and Diamondbacks. Mmm…rattlesnake.

Texas Rangers

  • Naming Nivar: With last week’s trade of Doug Glanville to the Chicago Cubs, the centerfield job was suddenly entrusted to a 23-year-old Dominican named Ramon Nivar. If you had never heard of Nivar, you can be forgiven, since only last summer he was Ramon A. Martinez, a second baseman spending his third year in the Florida State League. Let’s try to sort this story out.

    Ramon Martinez split the 2000 campaign between Savannah (SAL) and Charlotte (FSL), hitting an aggregate .301/.321/.377 in 81 games. He regressed significantly for Charlotte in 2001 (.241/.286/.295), before getting back on track last year in his third go-around (.305/.353/.403), in a brutal hitters’ league. He was the leadoff hitter for the league’s best team (scoring 98 runs in 114 games), showed great speed (39 steals) and was named the circuit’s best defensive second baseman by league managers, with just eight errors in 100 games at the keystone.

    Since he was 22 and still in the FSL, Baseball America cautiously named him the Rangers’ 22nd-best prospect. Baseball Prospectus 2003 had this to say about Martinez: “Unless he does something surprising, like break out at Frisco (the Rangers’ new Double-A affiliate) this year, you don’t need to keep track of him after all.” Well, he broke out.

    Last fall the Rangers began calling him Ramon Nivar (Nivar being his mother’s surname), allowing him, according to Peter Gammons, to go unselected in the Rule V draft. There may be some truth to Gammons’ theory: according to team officials, his name has always been Nivar-Gonzalez, so last fall’s switch was apparently just a clerical one.

    Beginning the 2003 campaign for the Frisco Roughriders, Nivar started and remained hot, hitting .347/.387/.464 in 79 games. With the Rangers’ glut of second-base prospects, he began playing center field in mid-June. According to a story in the Dallas Morning News, Ranger GM John Hart watched Frisco play a series in Round Rock, and saw Nivar make several diving catches in the outfield and run wild on the bases, highlighted by a straight steal of home. Hart returned with glowing reports for Texas pilot Buck Showalter.

    Nivar was promoted to Oklahoma City on July 2, and did not miss a beat: 337/.368/.472 in 23 games. He was the starting second baseman in the Futures Game on July 13, but played centerfield almost exclusively (19 games) for the Red Hawks. After a few short weeks in Triple-A, and 102 games above Single-A, Nivar is now playing centerfield in the major leagues.

    By all accounts, Nivar is an electric player. He is lightening fast on defense and on the bases, though perhaps a bit undisciplined in both areas. He does not take many walks–just 25 in the minors this season and 32 last season–but he also rarely strikes out. He has a quick bat, which enables him to hit pitches throughout (and outside of) the strike zone to all fields, though many of his hits are of the infield variety. He was a switch-hitter prior to this season, but (likely figuring that with a new name and new position, why not shoot the moon?) is strictly a right-handed batsman this year. He has also drawn rave reviews for his work ethic and his attitude.

    Nivar does not yet hit with enough sock to be an impact player, nor with enough patience to be a good leadoff hitter. Ranger fans looking for a long-term solution in center field can only hope that the strides he has made in the past 15 months are not the last ones he will make. With his team playing out the string, Nivar is a fun story to keep an eye on.