The Boston Red Sox stayed atop the American League East this weekend, taking two of three from the New York Yankees. The Sox are 60-40, still the best record in the American League. But in the midst of last night’s 8-7 win in extra innings, the questions about Boston’s starting pitching continue to linger. Does this team really have the arms to survive the next two months?
Clay Bucholz was the team’s ace for much of the first half. He went out with a neck injury. First he was supposed to be back just before the All-Star break. Then he was supposed to be back just after. Now it’s pushed back to mid-August and the pitcher is going to see Dr. James Andrews.
Red Sox fans, of which I’m one, have seen this movie with Bucholz before. The same sort of lingering questions followed him throughout 2011, a year in which he never did make it back. The organization has a penchant for secrecy, which I don’t begrudge them, but I can also say that I’m not surprised by this.
Nor do I think anyone should make a mid-August return by Bucholz any kind of certainty. Frankly, I’ll call it a 50-50 on whether he pitches again in 2013. Bucholz has an injury history and since I’m also a Redskins fan, I think my fellow travelers in Red Sox Nation need to treat Bucholz like he’s RG3—we know he’s extremely good, we don’t question his toughness for an instant, but we also see reality in front of us and accept that getting a full year in good health is asking for everything to go right.
Where then, does that leave Boston’s rotation? They rank 3rd in the American League in starters’ ERA, but that’s with a couple months work from Bucholz factored in, and also when Jon Lester was pitching well. The lefty has fallen off the pace badly. Here’s a look at the current Sox rotation…
Jon Lester (4.58 ERA, 20 starts): In spite of the good start, Lester’s numbers are extremely mediocre and that’s being kind. Furthermore, they’re alarmingly similar to last year, when he had a 4.82 ERA. He’s only 29 years old, so it’s not an age issue, but we’re reaching a point where just counting on him to return to his 2008-11 form might be wishful thinking itself.
Ryan Dempster (4.28 ERA, 20 starts): Dempster hasn’t had a really good year since 2008, when he won 17 games for the Chicago Cubs with a sub-3.00 ERA. Otherwise his ERAs have been in the high 3s in what was then a mostly weak-hitting NL Central, and Dempster was tattooed after getting traded to Texas last year. It’s fine if he’s your back-end guy, but not if you’re counting on him for more.
John Lackey (2.95 ERA, 17 starts): The man who was despised by Red Sox fans, myself included for two years, has pretty much saved the rotation. It’s not enough to say he’s found the form that made him one of the American League’s better pitchers with the Los Angeles Angels. Lackey has been even better that. His ERA is a career-low, in spite of the fact AL East parks’ are mostly hitter-friendly, while the AL West is the reverse.
The only concern, and it’s not a small one is this—how long do you expect a 34-year-old to keep performing at a career-best pace?
Felix Doubront (3.76 ERA, 17 starts): It’s Felix’s second year in the rotation at age 25. Last year’s 4.86 ERA in 29 starts for a bad team in a hitters’ park was a respectable breaking-in period. Doubront is definitely a steadying force at the back end of the rotation and maybe could get even better.
That’s an optimistic view of things, but if we’re going to allow that Lackey might slow down because of his age, we have to allow that Doubront can get better as he becomes more experienced. Whether either of these things will happen in the next two-plus months is the bigger question.
Brandon Workman: This is the current replacement for Bucholz and the man on the mound to open a four-game series with second-place Tampa Bay tonight. Workman threw 6 1/3 of no-hit ball in his first outing, but last year in the minors was a mix of starting and relief work for him. And in 2011, he had a 3.71 ERA in 26 starts at the Class A level. If he turns into an effective starter in the majors in 2013, it will be a minor miracle.
It’s easy to lose perspective on a team without context, so let’s do a brief run-through what the starting pitching looks like through the rest of the AL East. Here’s how the other four teams rank in starters’ ERA, within the American League…
Tampa Bay: 5th
NY Yanks: 6th
Let’s throw out the Blue Jays, since they’re 45-52 and not in sniffing distance of the playoffs. The Orioles obviously cannot continue to win at their current rate, but their ace, Wei-Yin Chen is now healthy. The Birds also added a decent back-end starter in Scott Feldman and seen both Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez come on.
Tampa Bay has survived in spite of tough first halves, including injuries, to David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. In the updated playoff predictions I made in TheSportsNotebook’s All-Star week MLB coverage, I took the Rays to win this division on the grounds that both would get better. We should note though, that both were hit hard in Toronto over the weekend even though the Rays still won both games.
And the Yankees’ relative good fortune in the pitching department is overlooked amidst their rash of injuries in the everyday lineup. The trio of C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettite have been mostly healthy and while Sabathia pitched poorly last night in the Fens, they’ve mostly been pretty good.
THE STATE OF THE RACE
So where does that leave Boston? If things continue at their current rate—Lester looking a middle-to-back end pitcher and no new acquisitions, the Red Sox are going to miss the playoffs entirely. It’s highly likely though, that they will add someone new and I think we’ll see an improved Lester. Just how good the acquisition is, and how improved Lester is will decide if they win the AL East or take a wild-card. I’m projecting the Red Sox as the second wild-card.
It’s a big week ahead in the AL East. After Boston and Tampa finish their four-game set, the Red Sox go to Baltimore, who is 3 ½ games back and in third place. The Rays then go to Yankee Stadium for the weekend. As of today, this division sweeps the wild-card spots.
It’s must-win time for the Yanks, who play four in Texas to start the week. New York is currently seven back in the division race and 3 ½ out in the wild-card push as they wait for Jeter and A-Rod.
We’re in the final week of play before the All-Star break in major league baseball, and TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage will be focused on an effort to capture each division race in a statistical snapshot. Today we begin with the AL East.
The format will be as follows: We’ll list where each team ranks, within the American League, in the following categories…
I’m including two separate stats for the bullpen, because, while I believe save percentage is the most important, the composite bullpen ERA reflects a team’s ability to keep a game close if the starter is chased early.
Then we’ll include a couple notable individual performances, be they good or bad, and from there offer some comments about what this all might mean going forward.
Boston Red Sox (54-36)
Runs Scored: 1st
Starting Pitching: 1st
Relief Pitching: 11th
Save Percentage: 17/31
Notable: John Lackey (2.80 ERA in 15 starts), David Ortiz (stat line of .399 OPB/.595 slugging and 61 RBIs)
Comments: I felt Lackey was the most notable on the pitching side, because his strong showing has been the key factor in enabling Boston to have the best starting pitching in the American League, in spite of a recent injury to Clay Bucholz and recent struggles by Jon Lester. While I expect Lackey to continue to pitch well, I’m sure few of my fellow Red Sox fans would disagree with the notion that a healthy Bucholz and revitalized Lester are absolutely essential to winning the AL East.
Baltimore Orioles (49-40)
Runs Scored: 4th
Starting Pitching: 12th
Relief Pitching: 7th
Save Percentage: 33/50
Notable: Chris Davis (33 home runs, 85 RBIs, .395 OBP), Jason Hammel (5.03 ERA)
Comments: The contrasting years of Davis and Hammel illustrate the Orioles well. They’re relying heavily on power hitting to overcome a lack of a consistent starting pitching. If this basic statistical outline holds up, the Orioles won’t—it’s too tough to outslug people for 162 games. But the flip side is that staff ace Wei-Yin Chen has been out since mid-May and he’s due back this week. The club also acquired Scott Feldman from the Cubs. There are good reasons to expect improved starting pitching in the second half. Just how much improved will settle this team’s ultimate fate.
Tampa Bay Rays (49-40)
Runs Scored: 5th
Starting Pitching: 9th
Relief Pitching: 8th
Save Percentage: 21/32
Notable: David Price (11 starts due to injury, 4.18 ERA), Evan Longoria (.366/.525 stat line, with 17 home runs)
Comments: We went into the Rays in-depth this past weekend, and briefly summarized, the problems Price has had—both injuries and not pitching well early—sum up a rotation that’s been surprisingly mediocre. But Price has been on since his return, and Longoria leads an equally surprising offense that’s kept the team afloat.
New York Yankees (48-40)
Runs Scored: 11th
Starting Pitching: 6th
Relief Pitching: 6th
Save Percentage: 31/35
Notable: David Adams (.190 batting average), Mariano Rivera (29/31 on save chances, 1.89 ERA)
Comments: I cited Adams as the notable offensive number to illustrate this point—regardless of what you think of Alex Rodriguez’ talent at this stage of his career, to suggest he will not be a substantial upgrade at third base is to not be paying attention. It’s hard to imagine an offense being this bad in the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium, so the returns of A-Rod and Jeter—both on rehab assignments right now—are badly needed. The team’s bullpen is just insanely good, and Rivera’s greatness is again underscored by the fact that when he blows a save—like yesterday against Baltimore—it’s literally national news.
Runs Scored: 8th
Starting Pitching: 14th
Relief Pitching: 1st
Save Percentage: 19/28
Notable: R.A Dickey (19 starts, 4.77 ERA), Casey Janssen (17/18 on save chances, 2.57 ERA)
Comments: Am I the only one who finds it ironic, that after all the resources Toronto poured into the everyday lineup and the rotation, that it’s the bullpen—built on the cheap—that’s the reason they still have a semblance of life left? Toronto opened the season as the betting line favorite to win the AL East. If you’re still a believer today, you can get 30-1 odds (no one else is higher than 5-1). More realistically, the Jays are just hoping for another hot run to get a wild-card shot.
THE VIEW FROM LAS VEGAS
I mentioned Toronto’s fall from favorite to also-ran. Boston’s 4 ½ game lead has made them a 5-6 favorite to win the division right now. That’s a logical betting number given the team’s lead, but given both the quality and quantity of the teams in hot pursuit, that’s a tough bet to make without at least getting even money. Gamblers didn’t believe in the Orioles at the start of the year, and while that’s changing a little bit, Baltimore still has the least respect among the contenders—they’re 5-1, while Tampa and New York are each 4-1.
TheSportsNotebook pickedthe Yankees to win the AL East at the start of the year, although at the time it was thought Jeter was coming back at the start of May. I also picked Tampa and Baltimore to complete a division sweep of the wild-card spots and I had all five teams finishing over .500. That’s all in play, although I’m going to revisit the picks next week as part of an All-Star week re-evaluation.
The American League East was seen as the most balanced of baseball’s six divisions when the season began, with no clear dominant team and no clear bad one. The question was whether someone would pull away in either direction in the early part of the season. After three weeks of play, both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays are, at the very least, having to play with some urgency. While the Red Sox, Yankees and Orioles are all off to good starts, the Jays & Rays are struggling. In today’s American League MLB coverage, TheSportsNotebook will examine why.
TORONTO LANGUISHES IN LAST
Toronto’s problems can be summed up thusly…
*They don’t get runners on base consistently.
*The starting pitching has been horrible.
*Some bad luck with injuries has hit them.
The Blue Jays are in the bottom third of the American League offensively and the main culprit is a team on-base percentage that’s 14th among 15 AL teams. It’s not that there are no signs of life—catcher J.P. Arencibia, rightfielder Jose Bautista and centerfielder Colby Rasmus are hitting home runs. The trio has combined to go deep 14 times, but none are getting on base with any regularity. Notable players like Edwin Encarcion, Melky Cabrera and Adam Lind are just having slow starts period.
Pitching was supposed to cure a lot of ills in Toronto, and maybe in time t will. But right now the ballyhooed acquisitions of R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson aren’t panning out. Johnson’s ERA near 7, Buehrle’s is 6.26 and Dickey, last year’s Cy Young winner, is at 4.30. I am not optimistic that Dickey will turn around—we’re talking about a 38-year-old pitcher who’s been moved from pitcher-friendly Citi Field in New York into an offense-heavy division in the AL East. Other starters include J.A. Happ and Brandon Morrow and they haven’t been any better.
Jose Reyes has been lost until June with a leg injury. Reyes was off to good start, with a .465 on-base percentage. That’s something that directly addresses the team’s biggest offensive problem and it’s done by a player who can be expected to play at a high level over the long haul. While his injury is not a shock, given Reyes’ fragile history, nor was it a foregone conclusion. The Jays can legitimately claim this kind of extended absence as a bad break.
Toronto was the betting-line favorite to win the AL East at the start of the season. If you were the many who believed in them, you will undoubtedly want to give Dickey, Buehrle, Johnson and a lot of those offensive pieces time to click. If I had been one of the believers, that’s certainly the tack I would take. But the Blue Jays were six games out of first coming into Sunday and already trailing all four division rivals. Toronto just began a 14-day stretch that has twelve games against the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox. Believer or not, I think we can all agree that urgency has come early north of the border.
THE PRICE ISN’T RIGHT IN TAMPA
Tampa Bay is only a half-game better than Toronto coming into Sunday, and their early-season issues can be boiled down to this…
*The offense has been predictably subpar
*The bullpen has been unexpectedly problematic.
*David Price has really unexpectedly been terrible.
The Rays are 11th in the American League in runs scored and I don’t know that anyone—including myself who believes in this team—is all that shocked. Evan Longoria is swinging the bat well, with a stat line of .362 on-base percentage/.500 slugging percentage. While Rays fans can reasonably expect Ben Zobrist to hit for more power and Matt Joyce to pick up the pace, they can also reasonably expect James Loney’s good start to soon dissipate.
Whether this team can move into the top half of the American League offensively likely depends on whether Desmond Jennings can become a true table-setter. After a disappointing 2012 campaign, Jennings is off to a slow start. Another possibility might be for the middle infield tandem of Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson to hit, something they have not done thus far.
Either way, no one doubts that Tampa Bay has to pitch at a very high level if they’re going to make the playoffs. That’s what makes Fernando Rodney’s start so concerning. After a 2012 campaign where he was nothing short of lights-out, Rodney has a 4.76 ERA and an early blown save. The pen as a whole has coughed up three saves thus far, and its 2-for-5 closing ratio is the worst in the American League.
Price joins Dickey as reigning Cy Young winners who are struggling out of the gate. Price has a 6.26 ERA in four starts. In this case though, I think the positives in the rotation outweigh the negatives—Alex Cobb is off to a good start, with a 2.53 ERA and Matt Moore has been dominant, with a 1.00 ERA in his three starts. Given the certainty that Price will start to pitch better, the continued growth of Cobb and Moore is a more significant development.
That’s why I expect Tampa Bay to turn it around and climb back up with the Red Sox/Yankees/Orioles trio in a season-long joust, with the question of the bullpen and the offense determining whether Tampa can ultimately get over the top. The Rays host the Yankees to start next week, including an appearance on ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball. That’s followed by winnable road series at Chicago, Kansas City and Colorado. As with Toronto, Tampa Bay has to approach these early games with some extra intensity.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
It was an emotional week in Boston, and the Red Sox delivered a magical moment to their city on Saturday. After a pregame ceremony honoring the victims of the Marathon bombing, Boston beat Kansas City with a three-run homer in the eighth by Daniel Nava. The leftfielder has now hit a grand slam on his first major league pitch (2010) and then jacked the game-winning blast in the first home game after a terrorist attack.
As a Boston fan, I’ve said any number of derogatory things about Yankee fans, and you can be assured that I often thought worse than I actually wrote. As such, I have to tip my cap to their absolute class in singing “Sweet Caroline” to honor Boston this week at Yankee Stadium. And if you see the highlights, the Yankee fans sang the song with real gusto. I’m sure as time goes by I’ll have to throw in some jabs at Yankee backers, but the class and dignity they showed this week will not be forgotten.
The American League Central remains packed, with Detroit unable to gain traction. In the American League West the dynamic has not fundamentally changed since last week, when we looked at yet another slow start for the Angels. It’s still Oakland and Texas with some early separation and Los Angeles—now 6-10—trying to find their footing.
The AL East race is still running close to a dead heat, with the New York Yankees holding a half-game lead on the Baltimore Orioles entering Wednesday night’s games. As part of a look at the landscape in this division race, we’re also going to include the Los Angeles Angels. Because it looks like the Angels’ place in the MLB playoff picture is trying to chase down the AL East runner-up for the second wild-card.
It looks like both Texas & Oakland are in out of the AL West. It looks like Detroit and Chicago will be winner-take-all in the AL Central, with the loser out of the wild-card race. Tampa Bay is slumping and looks finish. With the regular season set to conclude two weeks from tonight, there’s time for hot streaks or slumps to alter the dynamics of the race, but barring something major, the AL East has been paired to New York and Baltimore and LAA is the only team with a real shot at catching the runner-up.
NY Yanks: There’s hope in the Bronx that New York has finally started to stabilize, having won consecutive series over Boston and Tampa Bay and seen Andy Pettite pitch well this afternoon in his first start back from an ankle injury. The Yanks desperately need Pettite to be his old self, because C.C. Sabathia is struggling—a 5.40 ERA in three September starts, including poor outings in games against the Orioles and Rays were the team needed its stopper. Hiroki Kuroda also has a 5+ERA down the stretch.
The offense has been struggling with Mark Teixeira out (and not doing anything spectacular when he was in), and Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher really struggling in the season’s final month. The talk of this team’s fabled bench looks like New York media hype—Eric Chavez’s .484 slugging percentage is an asset, but everywhere else looks no better than any other team.
What New York does have going for them is a bullpen that leads the league in closing its save chances and is 6-for-6 in that department in September. Rafael Soriano ably stepped in for Mariano Rivera and has posted a 41-save/2.02 ERA season, with David Robertson sitting on a 2.98 ERA. There are some depth issues and a Robertson meltdown in a big game at Baltimore reminded everyone how this team would really miss Mariano in big situations. But the overall performance of the pen in the absence of the game’s greatest closer is a vindication to sabermetricians who felt the position was overrated. And when it comes to getting the bullpen lead, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano are the two position players acting like they know they’re in a fight for their lives, and while Joe Girardi has squeezed some decent starts out of Phil Hughes and David Phelps.
On balance though, this is a team that’s crawling to the finish line and beating Boston—which everyone is doing—and Tampa Bay—which over the last two nights has proven to be the only team that can’t beat Boston—doesn’t prove anything.
Baltimore: The Orioles have done almost a complete reversal in the way the win since the All-Star break. The overall season numbers tell you they are overly reliant on the home run ball—J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds have all hit 20-plus homers, but all needed improvement in the on-base percentage area. In the month of September, they all seemed to learn how to draw walks. Reynolds, Davis, Wieters, along with second baseman Robert Andino and new acquisition Nate McClouth all have OBPs that range from .365 to .441, more than enough to keep the runs churning. And a closer look at the stats tell you it’s not just a hitting streak—each player really is more patient at the plate and taking their walks. And this doesn’t even factor in how much Nick Markakis contributed, with an OBP over. 400 since the break before breaking his wrist a week and a half ago.
Buck Showalter continues to squeeze what he can out of the starting rotation, as Wei Yin-Chen appears to be wearing down. The Japanese import has turned in a good year, winning 16 games with a 3.98 ERA against a diet of AL East lineups, but that ERA is at 5.25 in September. The staff has been saved by the addition of veteran Joe Saunders—a 2.55 ERA in his last three starts and Chris Tillman. And the staff as a whole has been saved all year by a bullpen that’s somehow gotten even deeper in recent weeks. Showalter put struggling young starters Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter and Jake Arrieta in the pen and all three suddenly became unhittable. They are added to a relief corps that was already anchored by stellar work from Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson.
I’m half-expecting Showalter to just junk the traditional notion of the starter and have a few pitchers work a couple innings at a time. While that might be an exaggeration, the manager certainly has the depth to put his starters on a short, playoff-type leash the next two weeks.
LA Angels: The road won’t be easy, as the Angels are three games back of Baltimore, and the power has gone out in September, as Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo all have seen their slugging percentages drop sharply. Trout is still getting on base consistently, but Trumbo has been in a prolonged slump in all facets of his offense since the All-Star break. Pujols is hitting .226 with one home run in September. Mike Scoscia has gotten help from an unlikely source in shortstop Erick Aybar, who is slugging over. 500 in the season’s second half and Kendry Morales is also swinging the bat well.
LAA’s offensive problems put the pressure on a pitching staff that’s up and down and the starters have come through. Zack Greinke, after struggling right after his acquisition from Milwaukee, has really gotten locked in and the rest of the staff—Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana—have all dominated in September. This was the pitching rotation the baseball world feared and why as long as the Angels are breathing, their World Series chances will be taken seriously.
But when you’re trying to come from behind in a playoff race, you can’t cough up games and the Angels’ bullpen is the worst in the American League at closing out their save chances, and they’ve been consistently bad—whether we measure the entire season, the second half or just September. It’s a franchise that essentially is asking to have its heart ripped out.
THE REST OF THE WAY: Not only do the Angels have to play from behind, but they have the toughest schedule. The last two games of a home series with Texas are ahead, as is a visit to Dallas to play the Rangers. LAA will also host Chicago. New York’s only games against a contender are this weekend’s three-game home set with Oakland. Otherwise it’s Toronto, Minnesota and Boston on tap. The Orioles get six games against the dysfunctional Red Sox, four more against Toronto, although a closing series in Tampa could be a little hairy if the race is still close.
It’s going to take everything Mike Scoscia has to steal a playoff berth from either AL East foe. And as far as the AL East race itself goes, a lot hinges on the continued health of Pettite and the possible late September return of Baltimore ace Jason Hammel.
Everything was all set up for the Los Angeles Angels to make one final push in the MLB playoff race. The talented big-budget team with the enigmatic bullpen was on a roll and a four-game home series with wild-card leading Oakland was just the ticket to get themselves into the lead for one of the two spots in the first-ever American League wild-card game. But the Angels again seem intent on turning Michael Corleone’s quote from Godfather III on its head, in that every time we think they’re in, they pull themselves back out.
Oakland won its third straight game in this series, and sixth overall, as A.J. Griffin tossed eight shutout innings in leading the way to a 4-1 win. Los Angeles got its lone run in the ninth when Albert Pujols, 2-for-12 with two singles in the series coming into the inning, hit a solo home run. Pujols is apparently doing his best A-Rod impersonation in padding his stats when the game is decided. Meanwhile Oakland got hits from eight different players, including two from hot leadoff man Coco Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes homered for the second straight day. The Angels are now 3.5 games back of catching the AL East runner-up for the wild-card slot and throw Jered Weaver into today’s desperation matinee finale. As for Oakland, they are now five up for a wild-card slot and can focus their attention on division-leading Texas, who kept its three-game margin in beating Cleveland.
In the AL East, the Orioles and Yankees created a little space between themselves at Tampa. New York survived a 5-4 game in Boston thanks to some bounceback efforts. Curtis Granderson has awakened from a recent slump and hit two home runs. And the starting pitching, a big issue for New York right now, got some help from David Phelps who pitched 5 2/3 and gave up one run, before the bullpen made it interesting at the end. The Yanks overcame a three-hit night from Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalmacchia who tripled into the triangle (need we even say that the ball went to the deepest part of Fenway if noting that a catcher hit a triple) and homered in the ninth to cut the lead to one run.
Meanwhile the miracle Orioles beat Tampa 3-2. It’s not that Baltimore scored the winning run in the ninth that makes it all so magical. It’s that the Rays managed to lose a low-scoring game where they got nine hits, seven walks and a first-inning home run by B.J. Upton. One would think they’d trip their way into three or four runs. Apparently not, and Tampa now trails its AL East rivals by three games. Both AL East series conclude tonight, Rays-Orioles with a 12:30 PM ET matinee and the Yanks-Sox tonight.
Detroit has put themselves in a perfect position heading into tonight’s finale of their four-game series in Chicago. Their 8-6 win yesterday ensured at least a split on the road and Justin Verlander’s on the mound tonight. Everyone in the lineup hit, including Prince Fielder, who had been quiet in this series until his three-run jack in the fifth busted the game open. Miguel Cabrera and Austin Jackson each delivered three hits apiece. Detroit was cruising until Kevin Youkilis, who drove in four runs, hit a home run that was part of an eighth-inning rally and then Tiger closer Jose Valverede continued his usual routine of making closing a game far more interesting than it needs to be.
The American League has the primary focus this week at TheSportsNotebook with the Tigers-White Sox, Orioles-Rays and A’s-Angels all going down. Tomorrow we’re going to look more in depth at a National League wild-card race that, for the second straight year, is taking on an unbelievable storyline in September. With three teams, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh vying for the second wild-card, the possibility of a longshot seemed like…well, like a longshot. All three teams have slumped, including losses last night for each, the Brewers and Phillies are red-hot and suddenly the latter two teams are over .500 and within three games of a playoff berth. More on the National League race in this space tomorrow.
The AL East race is back to a dead heat after last night’s dramatic finish in Fenway Park. With Baltimore having beaten Tampa Bay 9-2, attention swung to the Yankees-Red Sox games, and when Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury broke a 3-3 tie in the ninth with an RBI single, the Yanks were back to even with the Orioles, with the Rays still hanging at two games back.
J.J. Hardy was the hero for Baltimore, as the shortstop delivered four hits, including a pair of home runs and five RBIs and the Birds chased Matt Moore early. Matt Wieters came up with three hits for Baltimore, including an RBI single that started the scoring and a two-run double that broke it open in the fifth. But the Orioles can’t escape the injury bug. After losing Nick Markakis for the season with a broken thumb over the weekend, they saw starting pitcher Jason Hammel leave after four innings last night with what appears to be recurring knee problem, one that already had him on the disabled list. Since his return, Hammel has pitched 10 total innings against the Yankees and Rays and only given up two runs. If he can’t make the four starts he’d be up for over the next 21 games, it’s a significant loss for Buck Showalter’s team.
But speaking of significant losses, it’s looking like now is about the time the Yankees are really starting to feel the absence of Mariano Rivera in the bullpen. Over the course of a long year, a good manager—which Joe Girardi is—can maneuver people around in the bullpen and find ways to close out games. We are, after all, talking about a closer’s role that boils down to getting three outs, maybe three times a week (at most). But in September the magnitude of those three outs increases and David Robertson hasn’t been up to it. He was hammered by Baltimore last Thursday night and beaten by Boston yesterday, each time taking the loss in a tie game. Do the Yankees lose these games if Rivera is on the mound? They probably at least get one win and maybe two.
In the AL Central, Detroit faced some early trouble in Chicago, trailing 2-0, when their stars came up big. Austin Jackson tied with a two-run homer in the fifth and two batters later, Miguel Cabrera went deep to give the Tigers a lead they would not relinquish. Doug Fister gave seven strong innings in the 5-3 win that ensures that even if they lose tonight, Detroit can still turn to Justin Verlander to salvage a split on Thursday. It’s also worth nothing that DeWayne Wise homered for the White Sox early. Wise, you may recall, was the player the Yankees let go to make room for Ichiro Suzuki. Since the trade, Wise’s on-base percentage and slugging percentage are .330/.486, while Ichiro is on .320/.419. New York didn’t give up much to get Suzuki, but what they had to clear out to make room for him is looking costly.
And in the AL West, Oakland continued to keep a two-game lead for the wild-card push, beating back the Angels 6-5 and ensuring they will win the road series that ends this afternoon. Brandon Moss homered for the second straight game, and Yoenis Cespedes went deep early on against journeyman starter Jerome Williams. The Angels are trying to ride Mike Trout and Tori Hunter, who combined for six hits at the top of the order, but Albert Pujols continues to struggle. He’s managed one single and zero walks in the first two games of this critical series. And the bullpen continues to let the Halos down. Trailing 4-3 in the ninth, Kevin Jepsen allowed two insurance runs to Oakland that proved crucial when his offense rallied in the bottom of the frame. Texas held its lead for first place, tagging Ubaldo Jiminez early and beating Cleveland 6-4, a game that was never really in doubt.
In the National League, the wild-card contenders continue to stumble to the finish line. Pittsburgh’s Kevin Correia gave up four runs early in a 6-4 loss to Cincinnati and at 72-69, the Pirates might not even end their odious 20-year streak without a winning season much less make the playoffs. Adam Wainwright was unable to handle San Diego’s offense, as the Cardinal starter gave up five runs in the fourth, with the Padres also winning 6-4. And the Dodgers couldn’t capitalize, as Ian Kennedy outdueled Clayton Kershaw in a 1-0 game that saw just nine combined hit, seven of them singles.
The stumbles of St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles have made a miracle finish possible and now that Philadelphia and Milwaukee have each made it back to the .500 level at 71-71 and are within four games, be assured thoughts of the playoffs aren’t far from anyone’s mind. Cliff Lee gets the ball for the Phils today, a reminder that a team with Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels can get as hot as anyone.
We’ve talked about the Baltimore Orioles more often than most media outlets here at TheSportsNotebook during the season. Not only is that a byproduct of my having lived in Charm City from 2008-11, but the fact that somebody needed to talk about the Orioles and at least examine why they were winning instead of casually assuming the winning would stop. Now the rest of the media is on the bandwagon, and they’ll get a lot of TV coverage for a four-game weekend series with the New York Yankees that started last night in dramatic fashion.
The elephant in the room for the Yankees right now is their starting pitching on any night that C.C. Sabathia or Hiroki Kuroda aren’t the listed pitcher and David Phelps was rocked off the mound quickly in Camden Yards. Then the moment everyone was waiting for happened—the Yankees rallied with five runs in the eighth inning to tie the game 6-6 against Pedro Strop, the incredibly talented relief pitchiner who looked exactly like a young kid tossed into a pennant race against Cano, Jeter, Ichiro & Co.
But a funny thing happened on the way to what seemed New York’s inevitable back-breaking win. The Birds crushed three home runs in the bottom of the inning, won anyway 10-6 and pulled back into first place. Now the AL East race is tied, the stage is set for the next three days and Tampa Bay is lurking two games back with a big series of their own at home against Texas.
New York has not won a series since late August, and that was against Cleveland. Phil Hughes, who’s got the talent, but also the consistency problem, gets the ball tonight to try and keep his team in first place. Freddy Garcia, the veteran at the other extreme of the spectrum goes on Sunday afternoon. Baltimore counters with steady Wei-Yin Chen, veteran Joe Saunders who’s fresh off taking a perfect game deep into a game at Toronto and then Zach Britton in the finale, who’s a more extreme version of Hughes, both good and bad.
There’s no mystery behind why the Yanks are slip-sliding in the standings and it’s because the starting pitching is hardly a matchup advantage, even against an Oriole staff that’s been questioned all year. Furthermore, Derek Jeter is the only hitter who seems to be locked in right now, while Baltimore is watching Nick Markakis swing a hot bat and Mark Reynolds on a massive tear that’s seen him hit 12 home runs in a month, including eight straight games and including a pair last night.
One team that has no pitching issues whatsoever is Tampa Bay, who is the most recent team to win a series against New York. The Rays are two back of the co-leaders and if they can win their home series with Texas, the Rays naturally stand to be within at least one game of whoemver loses the O’s-Yanks battle in the race for the wild-card. Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist are all hot and David Price is set to go Saturday, as he seeks some redemption for when the Rangers pounded him a week and a half ago down in Arlington.
The other showdown series this weekend is on the other coast and in the other league, where the Dodgers-Giants go at it in San Francisco. All the pressure is on Los Angeles here. They missed a chance to close the 4.5 game margin this week when they dropped two of three to San Diego while San Fran was doing the same to Arizona. The Dodgers are getting some good hitting from a new player, but it’s not any of the big names they got at the deadline or in the deal with Boston—it’s Luis Cruz, the shortstop who came up and has a .409 on-base percentage and .517 slugging percentage in the last month. Frisco is treading water a bit right now, but Buster Posey and Brandon Belt are both locked in at the plate and if they even pick up one win at home they’d still be in command of the division on Monday morning.
Other notable weekend action…
The Los Angeles Angels got what they needed this week. Not only did they sweep Oakland and move to within 2.5 games of their division rival for the last wild-card spot, but the Halos did it with great pitching from Zack Greinke and Dan Haren, and the lineup is producing up and down the order. Now they get a visit from Detroit, with each team just outside the playoff picture. The Tigers had a disappointing early week, losing a pair of one-run games to Cleveland and slipping a game back of Chicago in the AL Central. We’re at the point in the season where it’s not to much to think the Angels-Tigers games in Anaheim are elimination battles, at least far as the wild-card goes.
Detroit would still be in it to catch the White Sox, who won two of three from Minnesota and play Cleveland on the weekend—but the ChiSox loss to Minnesota came by an 18-9 score and that’s hardly comforting work from your pitching staff. Oakland goes to Seattle, hardly an easy series and the A’s two best hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes are both slumping.
Over in the National League, St. Louis plays host to Milwaukee. The Brewers are quietly playing good baseball and after sweeping Pittsburgh last weekend, would surely love even more to stick it to the division rivals who ousted them from last year’s NLCS. The Cards send Kyle Lohse to the hill tonight, but Adam Wainwright is not on the weekend docket, so a series win for the road underdog is within realistic reach. The Pirates get the Cubs at home and trail the race for the last wild-card by a game and a half.
Atlanta enjoyed a big week. Getting three of four from Colorado doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface, but it was set up to a disaster—the Braves only scored one run in each of the last two games, but Mike Minor and Tim Hudson stepped up on the mound and delivered 1-0 wins. While Atlanta is a distant 7.5 games back of Washington, they’ve opened up some breathing room for a wild-card berth, leading by five games and a soft schedule in September.
Washington, Cincinnati and Texas are the three teams that are rolling. We’ll debate the merits of shutting down Stephen Strasburg for October, but the Nats’ lead in the NL East is sufficient that it won’t matter before then. Cincy may have lost a series to Philadelphia this weekend, but are plus-eight in the Central and more focused on getting Joey Votto back in the swing of things for October. Texas isn’t quite as home free yet, with the lead over Oakland at 5.5 games, but the Rangers have won six straight series, including a pair of four-game sets mixed in there and they’re still holding a 4-5 game lead after this weekend in Tampa, they’ll have survived their toughest schedule run left.
The American League East has essentially hit the re-set button, with all five teams packed within three games of each other heading into Tuesday night’s games. You can make an argument that this favors the underdog teams—Baltimore, and to a lesser extent Toronto, as an underdog always benefits from shortening the game, or in this case the season by a couple months. You can argue that it works to Boston’s favor, who navigated an early season filled with wounds, both medial and self-inflicted. I don’t see how it works in New York’s favor, although they could certainly still win the division. The team I think really has to be pleased right now is the Tampa Bay Rays, who hold the narrow AL East lead and are well-poised to add to that as summer wears on and we start seeing some separation.
While Tampa Bay’s injuries aren’t as voluminous as Boston’s, there’s been no higher impact loss that the Rays losing Evan Longoria a month in and not getting him back until about two weeks from now. Before Yankee fans hit the roof and wonder about Mariano, I’m just talking about injured players who are going to return this year and therefore impact the race. Longoria’s talent alone speaks for itself, but further consider that Tampa Bay’s one weakness is consistent power hitting, so you not only remove a team’s best player when he goes to the disabled list, but the one whose absence is least able to be covered for.
Furthermore, Longoria’s not the only injury. Desmond Jennings, the promising left fielder who played so well after his callup midway through 2011 has also been out. Jennings is expected to return tonight when the team visits the Bronx. The young hitter hadn’t exploded out of the gate or anything, but with a .333 OBP was already respectable and one good hot streak away from being outstanding. Jennings is the table-setter Joe Maddon desperately needs for his offense.
Tampa Bay is therefore a team that lost its best table-setter and one of its only power hitters, who also happens to be one of the game’s best all-around talents and they’re still nominally in first place in a division on re-set. And it’s not because other everyday players stood up and filled the void—Carlos Pena has been awful, batting .201 and his eight home runs being about his only good at-bats of the year. Luke Scott has been a similar disappointment. Give credit to Matt Joyce, with his .400/.535 OBP/Slugging line for being the only bright spot the offense has had.
Where Maddon deserves tremendous credit is in the bullpen. The starting pitching has been solid, but everyone expected that. The pen was a weak area and Fernando Rodney has stabilized the back end by closing 17/18 save opportunities with a 1.03 ERA. That’s Cy Young-caliber stuff if he keeps this pace up. Where the manager comes in is that while the rest of the pen is above average individually, they have collective results that are dominant. The Rays rank third in the American League in save percentage, a stat that includes late inning spots when the setup team is still working to pave the way to Rodney. It tells us that Maddon is doing a yeoman’s job getting the right pitchers into the right spots and making the most of what he has. But at this point in his career, and that of this organization since 2008, why should we be surprised anymore? Tampa Bay has a tough schedule this week, with road games against the Yankees and Marlins, but between now and the end of July I’m looking for them to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the AL East.
And speaking of the rest of the AL East, here’s a brief check-in on the four other contenders…
Baltimore (30-24): We knew this time was coming for the Orioles. They’re in a funk, having lost four straight series, going 3-9 in the process. Every team has to come through this, but with Baltimore’s track record they’ve got everyone’s eyes upon them, looking to see if Buck Showalter’s team can take a punch. The biggest weakness the Birds have is the inability to get runners on base consistently. Other than Adam Jones, who’s having a monster year, only Nick Markakis is a really consistent OBP man, and he’s now on the DL to the end of June. That’s a lot of pressure on the pitching and the ability of Jones and J.J. Hardy to carry the offense with home runs.
NY Yankees (29-24): The Pinstripes are on a nice run right now, having won series against Kansas City, Oakland and Detroit sandwiched around losing two of three to thered-hot Los Angeles Angels. The wins aren’t against Murderer’s Row, but there is a consistency there that Joe Girardi has to like. What Girardi can’t like is how dependent his pitching is on Andy Pettite right now. The veteran lefty is doing well, with 3.49 ERA in four starts, but how long can he go. I think Pettite’s the baseball equivalent of New Jersey Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur. He’s an old warrior and he’s going to absolutely have some great moments. But there’s also going to be those share of times when age just simply becomes apparent.
Toronto (28-26): While the Jays swept Baltimore early last week, the other results suggest that’s more about the Oriole slump than anything Toronto is doing, as they’ve lost series to Tampa, Texas and Boston and now start a three-game set against a hot Chicago White Sox team over on the South Side. The bullpen is a massive problem—no team has a worse percentage in closing saves than the Blue Jays. Manager John Farrell is a good mind whose background is as a pitching coach. I think he’ll get something figured out, but this is a division with little room for error.
Boston (28-26): Speaking of figuring out the bullpen, the Red Sox are a team that has and they’ve figured a lot else out since the season hit its nadir in the first part of May when the record was 12-19. But if the Yankees should be concerned that Pettite’s role is too important, so too do the Sox need to be worried about the fact that right now their ace is Felix Doubront. At 6-2 and a 3.75 ERA in 11 starts, he leads the rotation in wins and ERA. If Pettite’s like Brodeur, I’ll analogize Doubront to Braden Holtby, the Washington Capitals’ goalie who had a magic run in the first round of the playoffs, but started to crack a little bit one round later. The Jon Lester-Josh Beckett-Clay Bucholz trio has to step it up and at least Bucholz and Beckett have shown signs of doing that.
The Toronto Blue Jays’ struggles last week can’t be considered unexpected—not when your schedule is six games against Tampa Bay & Texas, two teams you can make a credible argument are the top two in the American League. But each team has its own set of issues—the Rays are missing Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings from the lineup and the Rangers, as TheSportsNotebook noted in this past Saturday’s AL West report, had hit a bit of a sluggish stage. If you aspire to make the playoffs, like Toronto does, you shouldn’t be overmatched. But the Jays were, especially the pitching.
Blue Jay pitching finished with the worst ERA in the American League last week and there were few who could escape blame. 24-year-old Kyle Drabek was hammered by the Rangers, 21-year-old Henderson Alvarez only pitched 10.2 IP in two starts and gave up ten runs. Ricky Romero’s been mediocre in two of his last three outings, while the bullpen, with plenty of opportunity to work, surrendered 19 runs in 29 innings. The only silver lining we can find is that Drew Hutchison, the 21-year-old, who was rocked by Tampa, finally stopped the bleeding with a quality outing yesterday in a home win over Baltimore. Was this just a bad week against teams that are still pretty good, in spite of any current form misgivings, or is it a bigger problem.
I’ll give the bold answer—I don’t know. I certainly think Romero will get settled back down. He’s still 5-1 with a 3.86 ERA on the year, his outings weren’t horrible, just shaky and he’s got a good track record. Beyond that…well, you saw the ages listed next to Drabek, Hutchison and Alvarez. There’s a lot of reasons for manager John Farrell to be pleased with what he’s seen from them in the first two months, and also reason for fans to be concerned how many more bumps they’ll take on the learning curve. Normally I would be outright pessimistic, but Farrell’s background is as a pitching coach and he seems to have a good handle on this team over the past year-plus he’s been the skipper. I think his expertise cancels out the inexperience and gives the kids at least a puncher’s chance of winning the 87-88 games it will probably take to earn a wild-card game spot in the American League.
The bullpen doesn’t have the same youth problems, but it raises the question if you prefer veteran mediocrity to youthful talent, at least in the short term. Francisco Cordero failed in the closer’s spot, Sergio Santos got hurt and now Casey Janssen is in the ninth-inning role. The Jays are getting good work from Darren Oliver, but whether he can progress from being more than a situational pitcher and into someone who can just take the seventh or eighth inning and lock it down is doubtful. If Luis Perez keeps up his solid year, Toronto’s got a shot to survive. Otherwise, they have to give too many key outs to Carlos Villaneuva and a pitcher who couldn’t hack it with Milwaukee in the NL Central is not going to turn lights-out in the AL East.
A lot of questions and a lot of possibilities are out there for Toronto in this year’s AL East. The Jays are sitting at 25-24 in fourth place. They’re only four back of Baltimore/Tampa for the division lead…and only a ½ game up on Boston as we enter Tuesday’s play.
Around the rest of the division…
Tampa Bay (29-20): It was a solid week for the Rays, who won the aforementioned series with Toronto and also took two of three in Boston, primarily on the strength of their pitching. I called out Matt Moore yesterday on my podcast with Greg DePalma at PrimeSportsNetwork—more accurately I called out all of us who just assumed that his handful of sharp innings in 2011 meant he would seamlessly transition into an AL East rotation this year. Moore’s ERA was 5.71 on May 6, but we do have to note that the kid has lowered that number each of his last four starts. He’s still going to be very good, but we need to give him time to experience the growing pains.
Baltimore (29-20): The Orioles hit a bump in the road this week, dropping home series to Boston and to Kansas City, with Xavier Avery coming down to earth offensively and Matt Wieters staying mired in what’s now a two-week slump. Pitching-wise, Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter were hit hard. I’ve been high on Hunter, but this period between now and the All-Star break is important if he’s going to live up to his promise. Whatever the short-term holds in Baltimore, the long-term got a big boost with the signing of Adam Jones to a long-term contract extension and keeping him off the free-agent market this winter.
NY Yankees (26-22): A series sweep in Oakland capped off a good week for the Pinstripes, as they also took two of three from Kansas City. Mark Teixeira finally realized the season had begun, and went 11-for-21 with four home runs. It was a great week for the first baseman and I’m sure he’ll get on his usual summer hot streak, but is it fair to ask how much of a slow start one should put up with from a guy pulling in $20 mil per year, particularly when those slow starts get longer each season? The Yanks have reason to be pleased with the bullpen. Not because Rafael Soriano closed all three save chances. That’s not a huge surprise. What’s noteworthy is that Joe Girardi is getting good work from David Phelps, Cory Wade and Boone Logan, the depth areas that are most vulnerable after injuries to Mariano and David Robertson.
Boston (24-24): In a strange way the Red Sox split of six games last week against Baltimore and Tampa Bay was almost as a good a news as the hot streak we documented in last week’s AL East report. Why? Because the Red Sox have been hot or cold or all year. We knew they could get hot, we just didn’t know if they could stabilize when things weren’t falling their way. At least for one week against the division co-leaders, they did. Although I have to wonder how long Mike Aviles and his porous on-base percentages can continue to hit leadoff.
The Boston Red Sox are gaining steam in the American League East. The bottom dropped out 12 days ago and Josh Beckett was booed off the mound early, amid reports that he’d been golfing after being unable to pitch and then looking equally unable to pitch when he actually did take the mound against Cleveland. But after that game, the Sox won three in a row from the Indians, then took two from Seattle—including a shutout from Beckett. They split two with Tampa and finally won two of three in Philadelphia over the weekend, with the Sunday rubber match featuring Beckett outdueling Cliff Lee. The Sox are still in fifth place in the American League East and they’re still a game under .500. But they’re only one back of the New York Yankees for fourth in the Division Turned Upside Down and they’re doing with some unlikely heroes.
Will Middlebrooks and Danny Nava weren’t expected to be playing key roles—or any roles at all for that matter—in the everyday lineup, but injuries forced the organization’s hand. Middlebrooks, a highly touted prospect at third base came up when Kevin Youkilis went on the disabled list and in the month of May, Middlebrooks slugged .580, keyed by five home runs. His on-base percentages are low, at .306 for the month, making him the anti-Youkilis, but the veteran is expected back this week and as long as Middlebrooks is swinging a hot bat, Youkilis can be worked into the lineup slowly. Then there’s the case of Nava, who seems to have to beg for a shot and to be evaluated on the merits. His 2010 emergency call-up was electric when he swung at the first big-league pitch he saw and hit a grand slam. Nava played well the rest of that injury-riddled season in Fenway, but spent all of his last season in the minors. Again this season, injuries have piled up and Nava got a call. He’s got a .477 on-base percentage and .531 slugging in May. Maybe the front office should stop looking the gift horse in the month and keep him on the roster, even when Jacoby Ellsbury comes back at the end of June.
The other unlikely hero is the bullpen. After a disastrous April, including blowing a 9-0 lead to the Yankees over the course of two innings on national television, the relievers were the most unpopular people in New England since the Salem Witch Trials. But in May? The six relievers that Bobby Valentine most relies on—Alfredo Aceves, Scott Atchison, Clayton Mortensen, Vincent Padilla, Rich Hill and Andrew Miller—have worked 66 innings this month and the ERA is 0.95. Give Bobby V his due on this one. This isn’t as easy as it was last year for Terry Francona, who could just go to Daniel Bard in the eighth and Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth. Valentine doesn’t have that kind of raw talent to call on, but he’s getting pitchers into the right spots as the season goes along. The pen will not be a strength over the long haul, but at least it’s no longer a disaster area and is capable of enjoying hot run like they’ve had in May. I’m not a Valentine backer—as a Red Sox fan I curse him under my breath at least three times a day, more when a game is actually on. But let’s give credit where it’s deserved and the manager deserves a bow here.
One thing Boston has been this year is streaky—they’ve had a couple nice little bursts already in the young season, but have promptly followed it up by giving away the progress rapidly. A big week looms, with a three-game series in Baltimore and then three more at home with Tampa Bay.
Let’s now take a brief run through the rest of the AL East. You know since 1998 it’s been very easy to open any AL East discussion with the Sox & Yanks and then move on to everyone else. We’ll do the same here, but in the world of 2012, keep in mind that this time we’re going inverse order in the standings…
NY Yanks (21-20): Just how much Derek Jeter meant to the Yanks in the first several weeks of the season became apparent these last several games. The shortstop hit a slump, no one else picked up the slack, including Alex Rodriguez and to a lesser extent Mark Teixeira. With the exception of Andy Pettite’s publicized shutout of Cincinnati on Friday, the pitching was problematic, Thus the Yanks fell to fourth.
Toronto (23-19): We should all enjoy a week in the Big Apple the way Toronto did, sweeping a pair from the Yanks and then winning a series with the Mets over the weekend. The Jays got strong pitching outings from Kyle Drabek, Dew Hutchison and Ricky Romero, as the rotation continues to be well-balanced. Kelly Johnson is producing offensively. And the best news was that Jose Bautista awakened, hitting .308 with three home runs. If the big gun is ready to start firing, the Jays are going to be awfully good in the weeks and months ahead.
Tampa Bay (25-17): Tampa is still treading water and waiting for Evan Longoria to get back from the disabled list. The record is 7-9 since their high-water mark on May 4 and the offense ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored this past week. The culprits are Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, who not only were a combined 9-for-50, but every hit from these two power hitters was a single. So much for picking up for Longoria. The good news is that the third baseman, already projected for an early June return is said to be progressing ahead of schedule.
Baltimore (27-15): Yes, it’s early, but the Orioles have met a very stiff schedule challenge lately, including last week’s run where they split two-game sets with the Rays and Yanks and then won a weekend series in Washington. The bats did the job, especially over the weekend. Adam Jones hit .387 with four home runs and 22-year-old Xavier Avery got called up to replaced the injured Nolan Reimold and promptly went 10-for-28. Jones and Avery are the biggest reasons the lineup kept going while Matt Wieters went through a cold week.
With the first set of interleague games coming up in the baseball schedule this weekend and teams having at least 35 games under their belt, we’re a little more than 20 percent of the way through the schedule, so now is as good a time as any to have an early season evaluation session. TheSportsNotebook takes a concise look at what each team has done and what we might expect going forward.
This post focuses on the American League. Click here for the National League overview, and please also check the individual reports that were run yesterday, with an All-Star ballot put together for both theAL & NL.
Baltimore (23-14): The Orioles haven’t had a bullpen that was really effective since B.J. Ryan up and left for Toronto as a ridiculously overpaid free agent following the 2005 season. Ryan blew out his elbow, but the Orioles never recovered either. Until this season. With Jim Johnson having a fantastic season as a closer—and he has been a reliably consistent setup man for five years now and Buck Showalter fitting other pieces into place, you can no longer feel good if you’re down a run in Baltimore after six.
Offensively, Matt Wieters and Adam Jones are living up to their potential as the young breakout stars, while Wei-Yin Chen has been a boon to the pitching staff, including last night when he beat C.C. Sabathia in Camden Yards. Now the question is do the O’s keep it going? Well, they’re playing at a 101-win pace and I don’t think anyone expects that to keep going, nor do people expect them to win the AL East. But be a contender? If Nick Markakis can pick up his offense, along with J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds, that can help cushion when inevitable slumps come from the two young stars and Brian Matusz can continue his recover in the starting rotation, then yes, the Orioles can hang around.
Tampa Bay (23-14): With the injury to Mariano Rivera, the implosion of the Red Sox and the presumed fade of Baltimore, it’s the Rays who are the favorite to win this division and that’s appropriate. Like the Orioles, Tampa has put together a bullpen they has vastly outperformed expectations, with Fernando Rodney making the most of his opportunity at the back end.
The Rays are dealing with injuries right now, with Evan Longoria out for another 2-3 weeks and Desmond Jennings also on the DL. Offensively, they do a good job drawing walks, but need more guys who can hit—Carlos Pena’s .391 slugging percentage is the most obvious evidence of this problem. But at the end of the day, this rotation comes along to James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson—all having good years that are sustainable and if Matt Moore gets settled in as a rookie, the Rays will wear the rest of the AL East down.
NY Yankees (20-16): Not only is Rivera out for the year, but now replacement David Robertson has hit the disabled list. It was supposed to be bullpen depth combined with offense that bailed out a Yankee rotation that had serious problems behind Sabathia. But that depth is gone—even if Rafael Soriano stabilizes the ninth inning. The pitching problems have gotten worse, with the season-ending injury to Michael Pineda, the continued struggles of Phil Hughes and the demotion of Freddy Garcia. Even the offense, while hardly a problem at #3 in the American League scoring runs isn’t up to its usual standards. Mark Teixeira’s notorious April slumps have now extended into mid-May and Robinson Cano has yet to heat up. Derek Jeter’s been as valuable to the Yanks this season as ever, and the reason they’re still on a pace to win 90 games and would make the wild-card game if the season ended today. Still, it’s difficult to see this team, as presently constructed exceeding the 90-win level.
Toronto (19-18): It’s no surprise to see the Jays a little over .500, but if they don’t make the playoffs this year it’s a real missed opportunity, given the problems in New York and Boston, and given that Toronto is getting good starting pitching, with Brandon Morrow and Henderson Alvarez being excellent, and Ricky Romero doing his usual solid job. But they have got to get some guys hitting. Hot young prospects like Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia have to realize how much the team needs them to reach their potential. The same goes for Colby Rasmus, who’s been a disaster since coming over St. Louis (Note to self: If I ever again disagree with a future Hall of Fame manager like Tony LaRussa on a player, it’s a good bet that I’m the one who’s going to be proven wrong). Edwin Encarcion is the only one who’s hitting and Jose Bautista is getting the Bonds treatment and being pitched around. And Bautista’s not doing anything with the pitches he does get, batting only a buck-98. The moment is there for Toronto to step up into the playoffs and even compete for the AL East title, but these hitters have got to perform.
Boston (17-19): A recent mini-surge against the AL Central and Seattle has enabled Boston to keep themselves afloat, but the starting pitching is a big problem. Clay Bucholz has been an absolute disaster with an 8.31 ERA and the reality is that Bucholz may not make it back, at least this season. Remember, the kid broke a bone in his back last year. Even if it’s healed, how did that affect his mechanics or his comfort level at turning it loose? I’m not saying he’s done, but he might need more than spring training to get himself really comfortable again. The bullpen’s struggles are much better documented, although that’s gradually starting to stabilize—it’s hardly a team strength, but the complete chaos that ensued from the seventh inning on during April looks to be a thing of the past as Bobby Valentine settles on roles.
Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard have pitched reasonably well at the back end, but without Bucholz, with Josh Beckett being inconsistent and Jon Lester looking more like a middle-of-the-rotation guy, the Red Sox have not had the 1-2-3 punch at the top that was supposed to be the focal point of the season and I don’t take it for granted that any of that will come around at a level higher than it is right now. But know this—if it does, the Sox are still scoring runs like they did in the heyday, with only Texas being more proficient in the American League. And that’s with young players like Will Middlebrooks and Danny Nava stepping in for the wounded Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis.
Cleveland (20-16): Manny Acta’s pitching staff has to do a better job, and quickly, because even in a soft division, being 10th in the American League in ERA won’t cut it. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jiminez have ERAs over 5. The bullpen that gave such good depth a year ago has been shaky this time. And what’s worse for the Tribe is how much can you really count on summer improvements? Sure, Masterson will pitch better, but Jiminez has had three good months in the course of his career—the first part of 2010 when he dominated in Colorado. And even given Masterson the benefit of the doubt, we have to also factor in that Derek Lowe’s 2.05 ERA will inevitably rise. So where does the overall team improvement come from? The Indians were projected by Las Vegas as a 79-win team at the start of the season. They might lead the pack right now, but I don’t see a reason to think that long-term assessment is all that off. Especially when you have bats like third baseman Jack Hannahan’s also destined to cool off.
Detroit (18-18): I think the worst is past the Tigers for now. Doug Fister, their #2 starter is back from the disabled list and looked very good in his first two starts. Rookie Drew Smyly has been great, and even if he comes down to earth, something else that will come down is Max Scherzer’s ERA of 6.26. Then there’s some guy named Verlander who keeps getting the ball every fifth day. The bullpen’s still a concern, but no more than last year when they eventually pulled away from Cleveland. And on offense, after an early part of the schedule where Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson were the only ones that hit, we’ve started to see some gradual warming up for Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila. I smell a big run by the Tigers here between now and the All-Star break to open this division up.
ChiSox (17-20): If they can get some offensive help for Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, the White Sox can push over .500 and stay in contention. Dunn may strike out a lot, but his power and ability to draw walks has returned. Alejandra de Aza has stepped up with a good year the plate, and the .363 on-base percentage needs to continue, while other players in the lineup start getting batting averages over .200. If that happens, Jake Peavy’s pitching well again, in spite of Monday’s disaster against Detroit. And I would expect John Danks to come around. Why? Because I just gave up on Danks in my Fantasy League and cut him, meaning he’s about to get picked up by some other owner and rip off five straight wins. But seriously, he and Gavin Floyd could both get it going. Then Philip Humber just has to return to being the pitcher he was prior to his perfect game, which was a steady underrated arm who could stabilize a rotation. Since that historic day in Seattle in April, he’s just not pitched well. But if you’re looking for a team that could really give Detroit a run, the White Sox are a better bet than the Indians. I don’t necessarily believe in the SouthSiders, but the starting pitching potential at least gives them an upside.
Kansas City (15-20): This is another team not to go to sleep on. They overcame a horrific 0-10 homestand in early April, have steadied the ship and have Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Billy Butler all swinging good bats. Even with the loss of Joakim Soria, manager Ned Yost has put together a bullpen that can finish games. As usual, the issue is starting pitching. Danny Duffy had gotten off to a nice start and then hit the disabled list with an elbow problem. At least he’ll be back in a couple weeks. Luke Hochevar continues to disappoint, as does Jonathan Sanchez, who hit the DL himself. Within the everyday lineup, the Royals need first baseman Eric Hosmer to acclimate himself to big-league pitching as well as Moustakas on the other side of the infield has.
Minnesota (10-26): My early-season prediction that the Twins beating the Las Vegas number of 73.5 wins was the surest bet of March is looking like the single most foolish prediction I’ve made this year…and this in a year where I picked Long Beach State to reach the Final Four. Josh Willingham has been a quality pickup from Oakland, hitting for both power and average. Joe Mauer at least his ability to get on base back, if not his own power stroke. Denard Span’s had a pretty good year thus far. But Justin Morneau’s hurt, no one else is doing anything at all and other than recent call-up Scott Diamond, the pitching has been a complete disaster. Minnesota’s last in the AL in runs scored, last in ERA and they’ve made that formula work to a pace that will them at 45 wins by year’s end. It’s unfortunate for Ron Gardenhire, who’s done a good job here for a long time, but I’ll be surprised if he’s in the dugout for Opening Day next year (and as a Red Sox fan, positively furious if the Sox don’t call him).
Texas (23-14): There is absolutely nothing this team doesn’t do extremely well. You’ve heard about Josh Hamilton and he deserves to be the MVP if the season ended today. But let’s also single out for praise Elvis Andrus, the shortstop who wields a sharp glove and has a .398 on-base percentage to set the table for Hamilton. Or for Adrian Beltre, who’s slugging over .500. Or Mike Napoli’s who’s carving up pitchers for both average and power. Or for the bullpen, where Alexi Ogando is the best of a group that’s deep and has a revitalized Joe Nathan closing. And for the starting pitching, where Yu Darvish has met the burden of the hype and with a 2.84 ERA in a hitter’s park, looks like the ace this staff needs.
Oakland (19-18): The A’s playing a bit over .500 is a nice early story, but I find it hard to see where it lasts. While the pitching is #2 in the AL in ERA, Brandon McCarthy is the only one who really looks the part. Bartolo Colon is hitting that spot in the year where he should pull a hamstring and he’s been mediocre as it is. Tyson Ross is pitching poorly and the bullpen hasn’t settled on roles yet. Offensively, Josh Reddick has been the complete package in right field, and the A’s might reasonably expect more from Yoenis Cespedes in center and Seth Smith in left, but not enough to substantially move their #13 spot in the AL. Their preseason Vegas win projection was 71.5, and the current pace is for 83 wins. I can see Oakland’s pitching being good enough to beat that preseason Over/Under, but not to put this team over .500.
LA Angels (16-21): I don’t know if you knew this, but Albert Pujols only has one home run this year after a long drought into May. I also don’t know if you knew this, but the odds say he gets on a good hot streak some time soon. See the brilliant analysis we come up with here at TheSportsNotebook, in the mold of Stephen A. Smith? The Angels have started to slowly better baseball this month and in addition to Pujols, Dan Haren has struggled in the rotation with a 4.41 ERA. If you just get these two stars to return to previous levels, then LAA can get hot. And in spite of their struggles, if they can answer Texas’ hot start with 6-7 laser-hot weeks of their own, the AL West is back to being a coin flip and the Angels would shoot past other contenders for the wild-card spots. That’s what I expect to happen.
Seattle (16-22): King Felix and Jason Vargas have given the Mariners solid starting pitching at the top of the rotation and Hernandez can win another Cy Young Award this year. Third baseman Kyle Seagar is slugging .475, showing some nice pop and liberating M’s fans from watching Chone Figgins take the field anymore. Second baseman Dustin Ackley has started to hit after a slow start. Brandon League is a solid closer. But after that? Inconsistency in the starting pitching, instability in the bullpen and nothing on offense. The current pace is for 68 wins. I suppose I could see the number rising into the low 70s, but the Mariners are not about to surprise anyone.
MAY MULLIGANS: In my preseason picks, I had the Yankees, Tigers and Angels winning the divisions, with the Rangers-Jays for the wild-card game. I’m not throwing in the towel on the Angels just yet. We’ll revisit it at the All-Star break. The only area I’m taking a May Mulligan on is the AL East, where a combination of Rivera’s injury and Tampa’s own bullpen answering my concerns means I’m vaulting the Rays into the division winner slot, and dropping the Yanks to third, where they join the rival Red Sox in missing the playoffs. LAA’s still the pick to win the pennant and ultimately the World Series—don’t laugh, they’re closer to first place right now than the Cardinals were to the wild-card at the end of last August.
Now that Mariano Rivera is gone for the year what does this mean for the New York Yankees? With Rivera sidelined and the Boston Red Sox a self-imploding disaster, has the AL East completely flipped on its head? At the very least, is Tampa Bay now a top-heavy favorite? I’ve always thought the most important thing to focus on after a major injury is to keep the attention on the players who are still there. If you ask, can the Yanks win without Mariano, it implies an answer that goes one way. Asking whether they can win with Jeter, C.C., Cano, Granderson & Co., puts a different spin on it. That’s the spin that matters, so TheSportsNotebook takes a brief look at the post-Rivera Yankees and then the rest of the AL East…
*New York is not swinging the bats well right now, ranking 13th in the American League in runs scored over the past week, including just one run last night at home against the Rays’ fourth starter Jeff Niemann. Derek Jeter remains as hot as ever and Curtis Granderson is up to ten home runs on the year while still getting on base consistently. Robinson Cano seems to be waking up from a cold April and has gone 8-for-24. Nick Swisher is hitting But Mark Teixeira has not followed Cano and C.C. Sabathia in terms of putting April behind him and picking up the pace in May. Russell Martin is a big offensive liability at catcher. Raul Ibanez has enjoyed a little power surge in recent days, but the overall production isn’t good. Brett Gardner is on a rehab assignment in Triple A. Alex Rodriguez is having a decent offensive year, but the power numbers are middling at best and given his age and hip issues, there’s no guarantee he picks up the pace. So while the current team-wide slump won’t carry on at current levels, nor will Teixeira stay in the tank forever, any improvement from the first baseman will be offset when Jeter starts to come back to earth (and before Jeter fans flip out, the man went 14-of-29 last week. I don’t care how good a year he has, the numbers are going to come down. So chill out).
*Sabathia has, as usual, gotten settled in as the weather warms up and he has a big showdown tonight with Tampa’s David Price. Hiroki Kuroda has been better than I expected with a 3.75 ERA, a stat that could jump half a run and still be pretty decent in this ballpark and this division. After that’s a huge problem though. There’s no reason to think Phil Hughes is going to turn it around. Ian Nova’s ERA is over 5 after six starts. There’s reason to hope for better things here, but not the kind of track record that gives Joe Girardi reassurance that an uptick is inevitable. Girardi has given a couple starts to Notre Dame grad David Phelps, who has pitched well against the Royals and Rays, but been sharply limited in his workload to the point he hasn’t been allowed out of the fifth inning. Finally, Andy Pettite makes his return to the mound on Sunday against Seattle. Nova, Phelps and Pettite are who the season hinges on—and that’s given the team the benefit of the doubt on Kuroda the rest of the way. Yes, this is a huge problem.
*Now we come to the bullpen. David Robertson blew the save last night against Tampa Bay, turning a 1-0 lead into a 4-1 loss against Tampa and did it on national television. The question can be fairly asked if Robertson is someone whose psyche is better suited to be a supporting pitcher n the eighth, rather than the closer. We know Rafael Soriano has the psyche to close, but does he have the consistency Robertson’s shown over the last couple years? And most important, with Robertson and Soriano moving up one notch in the ladder, there’s now depth concerns in the bullpen. Even if the ninth inning stabilizes, the three automatic outs that Rivera was good for aren’t going to be easily replaced further up in the game.
If you look at this team, there’s enough frontline talent to compete and win, but the ceiling is around 90 wins and that’s presuming the starting pitching gets pieced together. But the problems are serious and I think it’s fair to say that the loss of Mariano at the very least make Tampa a prohibitive favorite.
Around the rest of the AL East…
Tampa Bay (20-11): Their hot streak came to an end over the weekend with consecutive losses at home to Oakland, but the one big concern about this team in March was how the bullpen would look. The relief corps combined last week to throw 21 innings and post a 2.14 ERA. If the pen is even adequate, the Rays win the division. At this level, they’ll be drinking champagne by August.
Baltimore (19-11): A friend of mine whose an Orioles fan looked at the combined 24-6 two-game thrashing the Rangers handed the Birds the last two nights and wondered if an inevitable descent was about to start. At this point, let’s not rush to bury Baltimore as fast as we elevated them—Texas is the best team in the American League and crushing the ball right now. Besides, with a home series against the Rays on the weekend and the Yanks coming in after that, this is just the beginning of a May testing phase. Shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Mark Reynolds have gotten their bats rolling in time for these next seven games against the contenders.
Toronto (17-14): The Jays are surviving the West, having gone 3-3 against the Angels and A’s. The road trip continues tonight, but it’s four games in Minnesota, which should be more manageable. Waiting at home are the Rays and Yanks next week. Jose Bautista might want to consider actually hitting by the time these AL East rivals come to the Rogers Centre.
Boston (12-18): Red Sox fans knew the bullpen would be a problem and the starting pitching’s 4-5 slots would be a concern. What wasn’t expected was that Clay Bucholz would be an unmitigated disaster and easily the worst pitcher on the staff on May 10. Add in that Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard are going through growing pains, Josh Beckett is playing golf at the same time he’s skipping starts for injuries, and all this team has is a genuinely good offense and 6-7 innings every fifth day from Jon Lester. Last place and the first losing season in Fenway since 1997 are very realistic.