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 the AL & 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.