Three days late, 30 teams, 300 storylines, 3000 words (and counting)…
(And now, two parts. NL Sunday)
Boston Red Sox: Hanging on to first place thanks to one of the best offenses in the game (493 runs, .281 EqA) and the work of the front end of the staff, including rookie closer Jonathan Papelbon. Offseason deals for outfielders Wily Mo Pena and Coco Crisp have produced little value, as both players missed significant time to injuries. Bounceback years from Trot Nixon and Mike Lowell have covered that problem nicely. The Sox accumulate depth as well as any team in the game, and because of that have few obvious holes that need mending; the middle of the bullpen looks much improved of late with Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen. One more effective starting pitcher couldn’t hurt, but that won’t make or break the Sox; what will are Papelbon’s continued effectiveness and the ability of an old lineup to sustain its performance down the stretch. Their edge in depth makes them a small favorite over the Yankees.
New York Yankees: Unlike in past seasons, the Yankees find themselves the underachievers in the East, behind in the actual standings but with a better run differential and third-order record than the Sox. It’s fair to wonder how good this team might be if they had Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield contributing to the third-best offense in baseball. Without those guys, this roster is only 11 or so men deep, with the other 14 spots filled by waiver bait, Quadruple-A players and a seemingly endless parade of pitchers with nothing. Getting lucky with Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small last season has led to trying to do so this year with those two again, which predictably failed. Now, it’s on to Sidney Ponson. In fairness to Brian Cashman, trying to get lucky again is a better idea than dealing away a Philip Hughes or a Jose Tabata, players he seems determined to keep. If it costs them one division title in a year when lots of things go wrong, it’s a small price to pay for keeping the futures of those two players.
Toronto Blue Jays: Quietly hanging around as the third team in a two-team race for one spot, as the AL Central loser is a prohibitive favorite for the wild card. Despite all the money they’ve spent and the presence of the best reliever and second-best starter in the league, their pitching has been a disappointment. Having the second-best offense in the game has kept them going; everyone on the roster except Russ Adams is meeting or exceeding expectations, with huge years by all five outfielders-all have at least a 900 OPS-driving the bus. At that, they’ve scored 45 fewer runs than expected, so the output could be even better. For them to pass the two teams in front of them, it will have to be. It’s hard to see Eric Hinske, Reed Johnson, Gregg Zaun, et al sustaining their career years. A solid third is still the most likely result.
Baltimore Orioles: Stuck in the mud for another year, not good enough to contend, not bad enough to draft very high and start over. Even if Leo Mazzone were a miracle worker-and we do see another Mazzone-class bullpen here-there would still be the problem of a offense consisting of far too many slow right-handed hitters with middling everything. There’s no reason to expect the Orioles to be relevant in this division until at least 2009. They don’t even have much of value to deal down the stretch; the idea that Rodrigo Lopez or Jeff Conine is marketable is just funny.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: I would be surprised if the Devil Rays played less than .500 ball from here on out, or maybe .480 when you consider their schedule. The additions of Jae Seo and Dioner Navarro, essentially for free, are worth 3-4 wins by themselves, and the bullpen has been improving by fits and starts. August will bring B.J. Upton and September Delmon Young, and for one month, D-Rays fans will get a glimpse of a very bright future. Until then, converting the remaining veterans, like Julio Lugo, into prospects is the plan.
Detroit Tigers: It’s time to stop being skeptical, although the sloppy one-run wins over the Royals the last few nights aren’t helping my view. The Tigers still look like last year’s White Sox, right down to the potential for a midseason slump if the top of the lineup hits an OBP rut (as the Sox did last year during Scott Podsednik‘s injury). There’s no bench here, and the playing time racked up by older players with injury histories is a concern. The Tigers need fresh legs to keep their defense-the key to their success so far-playing well. I don’t expect them to hold off the White Sox, but it would take a massive collapse for them to miss the postseason. Dealing for Bobby Abreu would change their outlook more than any other team’s. Well, except the Phillies.
Chicago White Sox: They’re better than they were last year, but some of that is peak performances by guys like Joe Crede and A.J. Pierzynski and Jermaine Dye, particularly high batting averages. Can they keep scoring six runs a game if those three guys lose 25-40 points of BA apiece? A much stronger bench than last year’s team had has helped. All the runs have come in handy: Sox pitchers are giving up about 10% more homers than they did last year, and the team defense, still good, isn’t one of the all-time greats like last year. The core talent is better than the Tigers’, and will push them back to the top of the division and into the postseason.
Minnesota Twins: What if? That’s the question you have to ask when you consider that the Twins are 31-16 since May 19, the day that Francisco Liriano made his first start. What if the Twins hadn’t wasted so many outs and innings on Tony Batista and Juan Castro and Kyle Lohse? Would they be closer than a dozen games out of first, or in position to pressure the White Sox and Tigers for the wild card? As it stands, they’re arguably the fourth-best team in the league, fifth-best in baseball, and will have to keep playing .660 ball just to have a shot at October. Twenty-two of their last 74 games are against the Tigers and White Sox-including six in a row starting the 24th-so they do control their destiny.
Cleveland Indians: By far the biggest gap between actual and third-order record belongs to the Indians, who have been 10 games worse than projected. It’s the difference between contention and playing out the string for them. This should have been a consolidation year, anyway, as their bullpen was bound to slip-and has, dramatically-while young players such as Jhonny Peralta and Cliff Lee regressed a bit. The core is still very good, and soon to be supplemented by Andy Marte and Ryan Garko. Mark Shapiro can help the process by converting Aaron Boone, Casey Blake and others into value over the next few weeks. Don’t be surprised if they finish very strong again.
Kansas City Royals: They’ve been playing out the string since the middle of 2003, and aren’t likely to threaten .500 for at least two more seasons. Dayton Moore has a massive challenge ahead of him, not just with personnel, but in squeezing money out of David Glass when up-front investment becomes a necessity. Everyone but David DeJesus should be expendable, but not in an effort to get Alex Gordon or Billy Butler up in September. The Royals have to manage their careers so that they get the young hitters’ best seasons.
Oakland A’s: If you believe in “statements,” the A’s going into Boston and taking two to start the second half should qualify as one. Still, they won’t be able to sustain success until they start scoring more runs. We can talk all we want about the importance of walks and power, but you don’t win divisions by batting .245, not in this era. They desperately need Eric Chavez back in the lineup, because even at less than 100% he’s better than Antonio Perez or Marco Scutaro, two members of what has been a weak A’s bench. Similarly, Rich Harden is so much better than his replacements that his return would make a huge difference. As Will Carroll would point out, health is a skill, and it’s one the 2006 A’s don’t seem to have. I’ll stick with them to hold on, but remember that they went into the break last in the division in the third-order standings, and they’ve still been outscored on the season.
Texas Rangers: Even after Thursday’s explosion, the Rangers are on pace for their fewest homers and lowest slugging percentage in years. Their offense has been built on a high batting average and balance: only Rod Barajas has a sub-.750 OPS, and he’s a decent hitter for a catcher. With their nominal stars not producing, the Rangers have been reliant on surprises like Gary Matthews Jr. and Mark DeRosa to keep things clicking. As those two return to earth, Mark Teixeira, Brad Wilkerson and Hank Blalock will have to return to their norms. The pitching staff is a simple operation: starters that don’t get blown out and a no-name bullpen that holds on. The staff’s extremely low home-run rate (82 in 794 innings) is the key figure to watch; if the pitchers sustain that, the Rangers can steal the division.
Anaheim Angels: Lost in the admiration of their recent pitching surge is that they’ve become a very short staff. Whereas the Angels could usually count on some random arms to contribute to the bullpen, only Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez have pitched well this year. Bartolo Colon‘s return has been heralded, but his peripherals have been odd since his return: 14 strikeouts and three walks in 29 1/3 innings. He’s not a safe bet just yet. Even with those caveats, the Angels are going to be a very good run prevention team over the next 10 weeks. It’s just a matter of whether they can score enough to make that relevant. That’s not likely without a major acquisition; in fact, the offense may get worse if Darin Erstad returns and cuts into Juan Rivera‘s playing time. As bright as the Angels’ future is, it’s probably worth it for Bill Stoneman to make do with the current personnel and stay focused on 2007.
Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez, Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre have been disappointments, and this is still a .500 team hanging around a division race. That’s about as good a scenario as Ms fans could have hoped for this year. The hope is that those three players improve in the second half and lead a charge to 88 wins or so, which might be enough in the West. The rotation is stable if unspectacular-the Mariners may use just five starters for the second time in four seasons-and the team is very hard to beat late thanks to Rafael Soriano and J.J. Putz. As with the Angels, though, there’s just not enough reason to believe they’ll score enough to stay in the race.