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Mark Prior is back. Together with Derrek Lee‘s probable return next week, could this be enough to lead the Cubbies back into contention? Clear enough is that they’re not in the hunt right now: between a .436 third-order winning percentage and an NL Central jam-packed with teams that, despite mediocrity, are still performing better than the Cubs, there’s less than a half-percent chance that the playoffs will come to Wrigley. Only four teams–the Pirates, Orioles, Devil Rays, and (of course) Royals–have less hope by that metric.
What those other teams don’t have is a pair of bona fide All-Stars replacing what have been, at best, been replacement-level performances. Cubs starters have amassed an ERA of 5.26 this year; only the Phillies rotation has been worse. Prior will hope to improve on something even worse than that: the back of the rotation (everyone except for Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux, and Sean Marshall) has an ERA of 8.05, averaging just barely 4 1/3 innings per start.
If Prior can provide anything like his PECOTA projection of a 3.36 ERA and 6 2/3 IP per start, he’ll not only give the rotation an enormous boost, he’ll make the bullpen look better, too. While the Cubs pen has been one of the few strong points of the season, they’ve had to work for it: the rotation has thrown 386 innings–just over 5 1/3 per start–worst in the NL. Anything that results in more innings for Prior and fewer innings for the likes of Roberto Novoa and Glendon Rusch must be a good thing.
The Cubs’ All-Star reinforcements will be sure to put plenty of space between them and the Pirates, but it’s doubtful that it will push the Cubs into the race. While the third-order winning percentages of the teams standing in front of them–.497, .504, .447, .496–don’t look imposing, Chicago isn’t the only NL Central team getting a boost this week: I’ll see your Derrek Lee and Mark Prior and raise you Albert Pujols and Roger Clemens.
With Michael Barrett serving a ten-game suspension for fulfilling the fantasies of Giants fans everywhere, the Cubs face a stretch in which Henry Blanco‘s name could be on the lineup card every day. Blanco’s performance thus far suggests it might not be as bad as it sounds: he’s managed an EqA of .251 to go along with his typically positive defensive contribution.
More disturbing is that, rather than calling up a stopgap backstop like Geovany Soto, Dusty Baker is going backup-less. Well, “backup-less” is just another way of saying that Phil Nevin is on the roster, and has already made one appearance behind the plate. Blanco is 34 years old and hasn’t been anything like a full-time catcher since early 2004 when Joe Mauer was injured, so it seems far-fetched that he’ll start ten consecutive games. Perhaps we finally understand why Jim Hendry traded for Nevin: Dusty wanted a third catcher.
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The Detroit Tigers have surprised many with a torrid start to the season that has led them to a perch atop the American League Central. In retrospect, the Tigers were certainly a team to be feared. PECOTA was very friendly to the lineup, and expected a pretty balanced and powerful unit to form. The starting pitching included highly touted rookie Justin Verlander, as well as the seemingly ageless Kenny Rogers, the promising Jeremy Bonderman, and the improving Nate Robertson. The bullpen would be aided by another rookie, Joel Zumaya. They were expected to do well very defensively, with players like Brandon Inge and Carlos Guillen, as well as Ivan Rodriguez.
So far this year they have exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic by building on the strengths originally found in their Opening Day roster. Not only have the Tigers played well defensively, but they lead the league in Defensive Efficiency, coming in at .734; .011 ahead of the Padres. Only one of their positions comes in below average defensively, and that one is handled by Magglio Ordonez, one of the most potent offensive performers on the club.
This has helped to make the rotation that much more effective. There is enough depth in the starting pitching that losing Mike Maroth until September was shrugged off, and Maroth had a 3.56 ERA at the time. With Verlander showing the league why he was the #15 prospect on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 50 list, as well as Rogers proving he still has something left in the tank, the club has been able to stay ahead of the White Sox.
The lineup has lived up to expectations, too. Chris Shelton‘s ridiculously hot start propelled the Tigers to early success, but valuable seasons from a pair of healthy bats have kept the Tigers in the win column more often than not. Guillen has hit .293/.371/.492 at shortstop, while also contributing above average defense. Ordonez has hit .307/.355/.528 for the season and hit .320/.360/.573 in May when Shelton was cooling. Throw in the excellent performance of new DH Marcus Thames–.303/.378/.658 in 152 at-bats–as well as rookie Curtis Granderson‘s .285/.379/.485 line, and it is no wonder the Tigers are averaging more than five runs scored per game. Considering PECOTA pegged them for roughly 5.2 runs per game–and they are just over 5.1–it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have performed as well as they have.
What the Tigers needed to do in order to succeed was to beat up on their divisional opponents. They have done this, as they are 23-10 against Central teams, a slightly better record than the second place White Sox. They have only gone 8-8 against the powerful American League East, but the AL West and interleague opponents have not been able to slow their progress. If the rookies continue to play up to expectations as they have, and injuries do not hinder the team any further–they have already lost designated hitter Dmitri Young, as well as Maroth–the Tigers should still be in the race in October. None of the players outside of Marcus Thames really appears to be playing above his head; in fact, Craig Monroe and Placido Polanco are well below their expected level of performance. Regression may not be a serious factor for a team racing to the postseason for the first time in years, and that is a wonderful thing to hear if you’re a long suffering fan.