Improved by seven games over 2003 and moved up from fourth to third, but it’s a minor distinction when that means you finish 23 games out instead of 30. Still, just by playing through 2004 the Orioles generated potential for a vastly improved 2005. Time heals all wounds, including dumb contracts inherited from previous versions of the Peter Angelos Operating Software, the infamous corrupted version that wanted to sign players every winter. Not all-stars, not cost-effective high-OBP vets, just “players.” Though Angelos 5.0 supposedly eliminated the flaw in the AI, it remained for the damage to be worked off like Sunday’s buffet brunch. Marty Cordova, Omar Daal, Rafael Palmeiro (if his option is not picked up, and it shouldn’t be), and, glory hallelujah, David Segui come off the books.
Despite good-to-great seasons from Melvin Mora, Miguel Tejada, and Javy Lopez, and a career-establishing season from Brian Roberts, the offense remained light for this league. This is one of many teams that would benefit from signing Carlos Beltran, and a couple of power bats are needed. You’ll know the software hasn’t been fixed if they come up with Jermaine Dye and Tino Martinez. They should feel a new urgency about getting it right. After all, their every move is about to be contrasted with that of the new team in the District. GRADE: C
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Declined by three games in the first year of the reign of King Ozwaldo, but did lead the league in sacrifice bunts(?!). An undisciplined team, lacking in identity and the insight to find one. Even with injuries to the two biggest hitters, this club had power. The White Sox tied with the Yankees for the league lead in home runs, but gave up outs on the aforementioned bunts and also finished second in caught stealing with 51, despite swiping only 78 bases, a lousy 60% success rate. Once Frank Thomas passed away the team lacked a single player willing to take an above-average number of walks. Paul Konerko led the club with 69. The Yankees and the White Sox had the same batting average and the same slugging percentage, but New York, which led the league in walks, had a .020 advantage in on-base percentage and also gave up 39 fewer outs on caught stealings and bunts, allowing them to score 32 more runs. Given 30 more runs, the Sox would have won four games according to Uncle Pythagoras. That doesn’t sound like much of a return on 30 runs, but the pitching staff was that bad. Prospects come up, prospects go down, they don’t develop. The pitching acumen to overcome this may not exist within the organization. GRADE: C-
Improved by 12 games, nearly unseating the Twins at one point before the pitching proved unequal to the challenge… With Jhonny Peralta coming, parting company with Omar Vizquel was a no-brainer. Next comes the call on the overfed Bob Wickman, and a decision on whether they can move someone like Jody Gerut, Coco Crisp, or Matt Lawton for some pitching. With Grady Sizemore, someone gets squeezed out of the outfield, and it should be either the productive older guy or one of the two overrated youngsters. Not that there isn’t pitching on hand: turning Jake Westbrook into a winner is a major accomplishment given his less than dominant stuff, and some of the youngsters will take a step forward next year. The pen was a major disaster, and the Tribe will need to beware of Steve Phillips-Ed Wade disease, where you sign every mediocre middle reliever on the market and end up worse than you were before. GRADE: B+
Lost 90 games but it was a major accomplishment as the Tigers picked up a whopping 29 wins. Of the two return-to-respectability off-season signings, Ivan Rodriguez played with vigor in the first half and gave the Tigers some respectability. Rondell White played well initially, then slowly settled into the range of his usual numbers. After 11 years, it’s time to admit that it wasn’t injuries that derailed White’s career but prolonged exposure to Felipe Alou’s no-walk offense. The acquisition of Carlos Guillen for Ramon Santiago was pure genius. Omar Infante and Brandon Inge turned into useful major leaguers, if not definitive stalwarts of the future. Bonderman turned a huge corner. With a few millstones to sort through, like Alex Sanchez and Eric Munson, they still won’t contend next year, but at least things are heading in the right direction.
Alan Trammell did a good job of mixing parts this year, but employed a few too many one-run strategies, more than this team needed. Over 100 years into the modern game and most managers haven’t figured out what John McGraw knew in 1920, that the era of inside baseball is dead, no matter how poor your offense is. Other than in a sudden-death, ninth-inning situation, giving away outs just brings the end of the game closer. The average American Leaguer reached base 34% of the time last year, and grounded into a double-play in .022 of all at-bats. When you bunt, both percentages drop to close to zero. It’s not a fair trade off. GRADE: A-
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Declined by 25 wins from 2003, and the talk of Tony Pena as the new genius manager seems to have vanished, replaced by a renewed focus on more deserving figures like Dr. Alfred Kinsey (see T.C. Boyle’s new novel). It is difficult to reconcile this failed club with the one that signed Juan Gonzalez–it seems like 10 years ago. Fortunately, Juan Gone will be long gone, as only a mass cerebral hemorrhage will cause the Royals to pick up his option. Nor will the stopgap-miscast-as-star Joe Randa be coming back, at least not at his current price. Returning to Gonzalez for a moment, one of the great antibody-like aspects of the game is that players that might possibly reach Cooperstown but act as if they don’t care about earning their way to the Hall of Fame generally fall short of definitive qualifications, despite promising starts. Think of Dave Kingman, Jose Canseco. They peter out, sparing us painful debate, while the gamers, the Fisks and Musials, somehow they endure… Took fewer walks than any club except the Angels, caught stealing 48 times in 105 attempts. Again, there is no small ball, there are only small managers. Zack Greinke will be the first starter developed by this organization since Kevin Appier. Hitters are not educated in plate discipline. There is no reason to believe that the Royals can ever contend under current ownership. GRADE: F
You’ll hear a lot about the Moneyball philosophy failing the A’s, but organizational philosophy had nothing to do with the pitching staff doing a nosedive worthy of the Day the Music Died. Starters in September:
Hudson: 6 GS, 6.23 ERA
Redman: 6 GS, 5.29 ERA
Zito: 6 GS, 4.54 ERA
Mulder: 5 GS, 8.10 ERA
Harden: 5 GS, 5.52 ERA
Even then, the A’s came within one game of winning it. The root cause, the thing that made the biggest difference, wasn’t the weakness of the outfield, which was only sporadically productive, or the absence of Eric Chavez with a broken bone, although that certainly hurt. You have to go back before opening day, when Mark Ellis was lost for the season. PECOTA’s 60th-percentile projection for Ellis showed a VORP of 17.4, or 1.7 wins added. Given their weaknesses at other positions, the A’s needed Ellis to have a chance to reach this projection or exceed it, as he did in 2002. Instead, they got Marco Scutaro, VORP 12.6. Now add the huge defensive difference between the two players, and you easily surpass the slim margin by which the Angels won the West. GRADE: C+
And you thought it couldn’t get any worse. The M’s staved off the 100-loss season they so richly deserved by playing AL West spoiler in the last weeks, ruining Billy Beane’s entire winter. The team with the lowest slugging percentage in the American League, that hit 106 home runs fewer than the league leaders, needs a manager who has both insight into rebuilding and an understanding of offensive theory, like George Patton understood tank theory. Instead, repeated rumor has Don Baylor, Mr. Bunty, as a lead candidate for the job. Mr. Bunty no win in American League. Opponent DH homer while Mr. Bunty bunt.
(The previous few sentences were written while under the influence of Harry Belafonte’s “Belafonte at Carnegie Hall” CD. Day-o… Me say day-o… Baylor bunt and me wanna go ho-ome… And why aren’t more of Belafonte’s albums available on CD? The guy rocks. If Bill Bavasi can’t help the Mariners, maybe he can do something about this.)
The M’s made a number of puzzling decisions this year, going back to the free-agent season when they sacrificed their June draft to sign Raul Ibanez. They signed Scott Spiezio to a three-year contract (with an option for a fourth), traded for Quinton McCracken, traded Carlos Guillen and signed Rich Aurilia. Later, they refused to move Randy Winn at the trading deadline though they had acquired Jeremy Reed from the White Sox and also had Shin-Soo Choo (currently 10-for-22 in the Arizona Fall League) having an excellent season in the Texas League. As such, the outfield remains a happening place while the infield couldn’t have more vacancies than the Ambassador Hotel.. This is going to have to be dealt with in the future, and Winn, under contract through ’05, remains the roster’s best combination of marginally attractive talent/superfluous part.
That’s all in the future. As for ’04, the signings worked about as well as they were expected to, while the players who looked old in 2003 looked even older in 2004. The best thing that can be said about this year’s M’s is that with nothing left to lose they gave in to popular demand and promoted Bucky Jacobsen. They got a pretty decent return on him too. Let that be a lesson, GMs: sometimes the fans do know better. GRADE: F
TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS
In all of baseball, only the Royals struck out fewer batters than the Rays. They went through the year with one just pitcher who had the ability to keep the ball out of play, starting with Victor Zambrano and finishing with Scott Kazmir. As they were traded for each other, this left the matter roughly where it started. Not that Zambrano didn’t have huge flaws, not that acquiring Kazmir from the helpless, hapless Mets wasn’t a coup. It’s just that you would like to have a few more pitchers who can put the ball into the catcher’s mitt… Improved by 7.5 games despite posting numbers that were roughly identical to last year’s. Despite the arrival of B.J. Upton, the big breakthrough is nowhere near imminent. GRADE: D
Rangers batters at home: .285/.350/.486.
Rangers batters on the road: .246/.309/.428.
The Rangers ranked 12th in on-base percentage, ninth in walks taken. Ultimately this was too great a burden to allow them to reach October. They deployed a pitching staff that was actually very good compared to the usual dreary chuckers that assemble in Arlington. Despite 860 runs scored and 227 home runs, the real disappointment was the offense, which gorged itself on empty calories and died. In the first half, the Showalter’s show-offs batted .280/.340/.477 and scored 5.66 runs a game. The second-half performance by the pitchers was consistent with the first (4.46 ERA post-All-Star break, vs. 4.59 before in a solid year of progress under pitching coach Orel Hershiser), but the batters slid to .248/.316/.432, and just 4.91 runs a game. The Rangers outscored their opponents 373-366 during this period, and as you know from your Uncle Pythagoras, when your runs scored and runs allowed are about equal, you’re going to find yourself in the land of .500. Uncle P says the Rangers deserved a winning percentage of .509 after the break; in the event, they did a little better.
The reason for the team’s breakdown is very simple. Post-break the batting order was burdened with too many sub-.300 on-base percentages: Brian Jordan, .290. Rod Barajas, .261. Laynce Nix, .218. Gerald Laird, .154. This was crippling, like trying to drive on four flat tires. The Rangers were an impatient team all season long, but in the stretch they listed too many players who couldn’t reach first base if you handed them a billiard cue. If there’s no one on the team with a real willingness to take ball four, there’s no fallback position in a slump.
The best news for the Rangers going into the off-season is that Brian Jordan’s contract is up. The second-best news is that hitting coach Rudy Jamarillo is a highly regarded managerial candidate, at least insofar as the Mets and Alex Rodriguez are concerned. The team’s 2004 performance under his tutelage is not an endorsement. GRADE: B
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The classic 1982 break-up album “Shoot Out the Lights” by Richard and Linda Thompson has a track called “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed.” “They found some fingerprints right around her throat,” Thompson sings. “They didn’t find no killer and they didn’t find no note. Did she jump or was she pushed?” This roughly sums up a Blue Jays season that was unquestionably a failure but can be blamed on a devastating rash of injuries more than any glaring failure of design.
There were some undeniably good moves. In the off-season, Bobby Kielty and a player to be named were dealt to the Athletics in exchange for Ted Lilly. Kielty was a huge bust, while Lilly was terrific, VORP 44.6, which ranked 10th in the American League. Free-agent signing Terry Adams was dealt to the Red Sox for 24-year-old third baseman John Hattig, who posted a .299 EqA (.240 MjEqA) in the Eastern League; the potentially useful reliever Mike Nakamura was claimed off of Minnesotan waivers; Frank Menechino was acquired from the A’s and played well; and the catching problem was ameliorated with the acquisition of Gregg Zaun. The main negative transaction was the signing of Miguel Batista, who slipped to mediocre.
These would have been nice supplemental moves had there been a roster to supplement. Just about everyone got hurt, some badly. Dustin McGowan, the desperately needed top pitching prospect, missed most of the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Jason Arnold, another close-to-ready arm, was out for most of the season with shoulder problems. Outfield prospects John-Ford Griffin, Alexis Rios, and Gabe Gross were slow to hit. So much for the reinforcements for Frank Catalanotto, Vernon Wells, Orlando Hudson, and Roy Halladay, all of whom spent time on the shelf.
Rios eventually came up and played (.245 EqA) better than might have been expected given his performance at Triple-A (given his lack of power and plate judgment last year, Rios needs to improve those key skills, or learn to consistently hit .310 if he’s to be effective). David Bush, the last pitcher standing in the minors, was promoted on July 2 and made eight quality starts out of 16, including a shutout of the Yankees on Oct. 2. Gross spent a quarter of the season in the bigs and was terrible. Everyone else yielded by the farm was terrible–in 101 games, catcher Kevin Cash now has the unenviable career line .172/.222/.262–and the organization bottomed out, having nowhere else to turn. Next year should be better. GRADE: D