Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wait Til Next Year- Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have been one of the most consistent teams in the recent history of baseball, having played October baseball in 5 of the last 6 years. After going into 2010 with high hopes and expected to make a playoff run, they’re 64-68, needing a late push just to finish at or above .500.

The reason for the Angels’ struggles dates back to May 29th. Kendry Morales, the Halos’ first baseman who had placed 5th in AL MVP voting in 2009, hit a game-winning walk-off grand slam in the 10th inning of a 5-1 win against the Mariners. Morales jogged the bases and jumped on home plate, into the waiting arms of his jubilant teammates.

But instead of a moment for celebration, this became the beginning of the end in the Angels’ quest for a world championship in 2010. Morales’ ankle buckled as he hit the plate awkwardly, fracturing his left lower leg and costing him the season in one of the weirder freak injuries most sports fans have seen.

The Angels didn’t just lose a good hitter. They lost a team leader and by far the franchise’s best hitter. At the time of the injury, Morales led the team in average (.290), home runs (11) and RBIs (39). Morales was the single most valuable run producer in the Angels’ lineup, and losing him was a blow Los Angeles simply couldn’t come back from.

The Angels have scored 579 runs in 2010, good for 18th in MLB. At that pace, they’ll end up with 711 runs scored by the end of the season. In 2009, they scored 883 runs, second only to the Yankees. Morales’ absence has everything to do with this discrepancy.

In getting Morales back, the Angels will likely return to being one of the top run producing teams in baseball. So wait til next year, Angels fans, and expect to see a lot more Halos players crossing the plate. But you knew that already.

Check back tomorrow, when we’ll be looking at the New York Mets, another big-budget team whose results haven’t been in line with expectations.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Wait Til Next Year- Houston Astros

Much like Dayton Moore, Houston’s Ed Wade was largely seen as a General Manager who could not effectively grasp that his team was not a playoff contender and build for the future accordingly by trading veterans and obtaining prospects. Until 2010, Houston hadn’t received an interesting prospect in a trade for quite a while. That all changed when the team hit full sell mode in 2010, trading ace Roy Oswalt to the Phillies for a package of prospects and shipping off the last member of the feared “Killer B’s” trio in sending Lance Berkman to the Bronx.

In return, Houston received several intriguing prospects. Perhaps the most promising was a young hitter acquired for another minor leaguer. Wade decided to play what I like to call “prospect deathmatch” with Toronto’s Alex Anthopoulos, swapping Anthony Gose (acquired hours earlier from Philadelphia for Oswalt) for Blue Jays prospect Brett Wallace.

The Astros were Wallace’s 4th team in a year. Wallace was drafted by the Cardinals in 2008 out of ASU. In 2009, he was dealt to Oakland in their deadline deal for Matt Holliday. He was traded again that offseason, this time straight up for outfield prospect Michael Taylor. Finally, the Jays dealt Wallace to Houston as the Jays got Gose, whom they apparently had been targeting since they (unsuccessfully) attempted to bag him in the Roy Halladay deal.

Wallace, who celebrated his 24th birthday last Thursday, is a former third baseman whose future now seems firmly entrenched at first. He’s torn up the minors, logging an OPS of .957 in his first professional action between St. Louis’ single- and double-A clubs in 2008. Most recently Wallace posted a .868 OPS in AAA for Toronto before the trade. Though his results haven’t been quite as stellar in his short period since becoming Houston’s everyday first baseman, Wallace should continue his adjustment period and it won’t be a surprise if he’s unlocked the key to his being an effective big-league hitter by the end of 2010.

I can’t legally end this piece without mentioning Wallace’s opposite platoon splits (it’s in my contract. I swear.). As a lefty, conventional baseball wisdom would lead us to assume Wallace would be a more effective hitter against right-handed pitchers. In fact, the exact opposite is true. In 808 career minor league at-bats against right-handed pitchers, Wallace has managed a decent .831 OPS. However, in 329 AB’s against lefties, Wallace has raked to the tune of a ridiculous .416 OPS, with a .423 in AAA in 2010.

So wait til next year, ‘Stros fans. But as you do, recognize that Lance Berkman’s replacement may not simply be a decent fill-in, as Wallace certainly has the potential to outpace Berkman’s production sooner rather than later. Check back tomorrow, as we’ll be taking a look at an Anaheim Angels club whose promising season was lost as first baseman Kendry Morales broke his leg completing a grand slam trot back in May and the impact Morales’ return will have for the team in 2011.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Wait Til Next Year- Kansas City Royals

It was actually very hard for me to write this post, as for the first time in quite a while, Royals fans have several areas of the franchise they can be excited about. With a legitimate ace in Zach Greinke and young big-league hitters in Billy Butler and David DeJesus, there’s some talent in Kansas City. Prospects Mike Montgomery and Aaron Crow give the Royals some serious arms down on the farm. Hitters like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and 2010 draftee Christian Colon give the franchise hope that there are some bats in the pipeline. So instead of focusing on one aspect of this team, I think the best thing Kansas City fans can realize is that GM Dayton Moore finally has a process, and that process is (slowly but steadily) working.

I don’t think many people in baseball would classify Dayton Moore among the best GM’s in baseball. In fact, Moore can be found near or at the bottom of most pundits’ General Manager rankings. And to be sure, he’s made some bad acquisitions in the past. However, I’m going to play devil’s advocate a bit and give Moore a bit of credit for building a farm system that can help the team win in the near future.

Each of the Royals first draft picks overall since 2002 other than 2003 (Chris Lubanski, now in the Blue Jays organization) is still in the KC system. 2002 (Greinke) and 2004-‘06 (Butler, Alex Gordon, and Luke Hochevar) have all contributed to the big-league club. 2007-‘10 all appear in Kansas City’s top 10 prospects for 2010 (Moustakas, Hosmer, Crow, and Colon). This tells me that Kansas City is doing a fairly good job with player development, getting their top prospects through the system and to the big leagues while allowing them to remain effective by not rushing them through and being too aggressive with promotions. Expect Moustakas (21 years old, currently in AAA), Hosmer (20, AA), Crow (23, AA), and Colon (21, A+) to be big leaguers by 2012, with Moustakas and Crow possibly getting big league time as early as next season.

Moore has built a strong young core through shrewd drafting and development, and once these and other top prospects (Montgomery, catcher Wil Myers, and a stable of young hurlers) can reach the big leagues and assist Greinke and Butler, this team has the potential to contend a few short years down the road. Of course, this all depends on Moore’s ability to help himself by hold off on acquiring big leaguers who are simply not effective MLB players.

So wait ‘til next year, Kansas City, but keep in mind that a good process will produce success over the long run. Check back tomorrow, when I’ll be discussing the fruits of the Houston Astros’ decision to finally realize that rebuilding doesn’t happen without giving up big-league talent for prospects.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Wait Til Next Year- Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals have been one of the more steadily improving teams in baseball in the last few years. Since leaving Montreal, the franchise has gone from perennial cellar-dweller to a team with a real chance to make some waves in the NL East.

By now, you probably know that prize prospect Stephen Strasburg will be shut down for the balance of 2010 and may need Tommy John surgery. A full season of Strasburg alone (assuming his recovery goes well) should excite Nationals fans. However, Strasburg isn’t the only young arm returning to the Nationals for 2011. Fresh off his own Tommy John, Jordan Zimmerman made his first start of 2010 just two nights ago. Zimmerman and Strasburg will anchor the Nationals’ rotation for the foreseeable future.

The 24-year-old Zimmerman will play second fiddle to Strasburg, but is an outstanding young pitcher in his own right. Zimmerman began his career with the Nationals in 2007, putting up a 2.18 FIP in 49 low A innings. Promoted to high A for the start of 2008, Zimmerman didn’t stay long, putting up a 2.29 FIP in 27.1 innings and earning a promotion to double-A.

Zimmerman finally earned his shot with the big club in 2009, and though he had mixed returns, he pitched much better than his traditional metrics would suggest. Zimmerman’s ERA was a mediocre 4.63, but this was largely due to a .339 BABIP against. Zimmerman’s FIP was a stellar 3.59, and Nationals fans should expect an ERA closer to that range for the rest of 2010 as well as for the future. As he matures and learns more about pitching in the big leagues, it would not be a surprise to see Zimmerman improve statistically.

Zimmerman relies on a fastball-slider-curve combination, with a changeup every so often as a change of pace, to keep the ball on the ground and in the infield while striking out nearly a batter per inning. Zimmerman racked up 92 K’s in 91.1 innings last year, while posting a groundball rate of 43.5%. While the Nats might like to see him get a bit more groundball-heavy than he already is, Zimmerman will likely be effective as long as he can keep his GB/FB ratio in the 1.35 range, as it was in 2009. Strikeouts and groundballs is a long-accepted recipe for success in Major League Baseball, and Zimmerman will hope to achieve such success as a key cog in the Nationals’ starting rotation in the years to come.

So wait ‘til next year, Nats fans, but look forward to a stellar one-two punch in the starting rotation as you do. Check back tomorrow, when I’ll be attempting to work a minor miracle by giving Royals fans hope for the future.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Wait Til Next Year- Chicago Cubs

This one needs a bit of a disclaimer. The Cubs have the third highest payroll in the league, at nearly 147 million dollars. There is no way that a team should be able to turn 147 million dollars into anything other than at least a semi-competitive team. The Red Sox and their 163 million dollar payroll can be excused, as they play in the toughest division in baseball and have been decimated by injuries this season. The Cubs really don't have an excuse, except that they've agreed to pay exorbitant amounts of money to players that don't have a chance to provide the team any sort of surplus value (Mr. Soriano, I'm looking at you). This should tell you all you need to know. So while I'll present a reason for optimism for North Siders, I doubt they can win with Jim Hendry in the driver's seat.

But climb down off that ledge, Cubs fans. Your boys have been bad, but they haven't been 54-74 bad. Cubs pitching has allowed 632 runs, 6th worst in the league. However, looking at their underlying factors, Cubs pitchers with more than 50 innings pitched (excluding Ted Lilly, who is now a Dodger), have an average ERA-FIP of 0.35. This means that for the most critical parts of the Cubs' pitching staff, including the rotation and their best bullpen pitchers, their ERAs should be roughly a third of a run lower. Even better, dropping the inning requirement to 20 to include most of the Cubs' other bullpen arms brings the average ERA-xFIP up to 0.48, meaning that in a luck-neutral environment the Cubs would be allowing roughly one-half less run per game. Over their season so far, this half run of bad luck has been worth roughly 69 total runs allowed. Neutralizing the bad luck of Cubs pitching drops them down to roughly 563 runs, or a somewhat more respectable 19th in the league between the Blue Jays and Red Sox. 

Of course, luck in baseball can be a tricky thing. The Cubs could be equally unlucky next year, or they could allow fewer runs than their statistics would suggest they should. However, look for Cubs pitching to regress to a luck-neutral mean, which would be a huge improvement. Also, a reduced role for aging Aramis Ramirez could help. He hasn't been his normal mashing self this year, and after a career of having a roughly average glove at the hot corner, UZR now has Ramirez at -15.0 runs per 150 games. This is by far the worst mark of any 3rd baseman in the league, with Miguel Tejada coming in second-worst at -9.7/150 (kudos to Padres brass for recognizing this and playing Miggy at short for all but 3 games since he's come over, where he's been a much better defender)

So wait til next year, Cubs fans, and prepare for some much better results from your hurlers as you do. Check back tomorrow, when we'll look at the Nationals and try to ease their pain on a day that reports have come out that their prize arm may need Tommy John surgery.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Wait Til Next Year- Cleveland Indians

Cleveland needs a new favorite son after their old one hightailed it to glitzy Miami on an hourlong nationally televised special. The Indians, fortunately, have several players who will be Cleveland property for the next six years, at least, and have what it takes to make the city forget about the whole LeBron debacle.

Most baseball fans already know the first player I’m thinking of. Regular readers are well aware of my excitement about Buster Posey and what he means to the Giants’ organization. However, when we look back on 2010 five years from now, Posey may not even be the best catcher in his own rookie class. Carlos Santana made his debut on June 11, and though his short season was ended early by a left knee injury and subsequent surgery, he should be available for the start of Spring Training. There’s only so much one can learn about injuries in baseball without actually having access to team sources, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Indians decided to take a less aggressive path with Santana’s rehabilitation, making sure his knee is healed fully, as they’ve got nothing to play for in 2010 and the future of their organization rests largely on the knees (and bat) of Santana. A switch-hitter with loads of pop, Santana hit for an ISO of .281 in 246 AAA plate appearances before his call-up this year, after an ISO of .241 in 535 games at AA last year. Santana slugged .597 before his call-up this year, while getting on base at a high clip. Indians fans have a right to be excited about this kid, as switch-hitting bomb threats don’t show up very often, especially behind the plate. I’m not allowed to have a favorite Dodger, but unofficially mine is Casey Blake, because every time he comes to bat I get to remind myself that the Dodgers don’t have Santana, who was traded for Blake at the 2008 deadline.

The other potential franchise cornerstone for the Indians currently resides at the hot corner for the Indians AA affiliate. Lonnie Chisenhall may not sound familiar to you, but he’s been on prospect junkies’ watchlists for quite a while now. Chisenhall, 22, is a third baseman with a good glove and maybe the most enjoyable swing to watch in all of the minors. Maybe it’s just me, but when Chisenhall brings the bat through the zone, I can swear I hear angels singing. It’s that beautiful. Right now, he’s hitting a lot of doubles and a good smattering of home runs in double A. I’d expect some of that doubles power to turn into home run potential. Expect Chisenhall and his sweet-swinging ways to reach Cleveland within the next two years, and look for him to hit the ground running when he does. With an offensive game as fundamentally sound as his is, Chisenhall’s transition from top prospect to big-league regular shouldn’t take long.

Check back tomorrow, when we’ll be taking a look at the disappointing Chicago Cubs and a pitching staff that hasn’t quite gotten what it deserves.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wait Til Next Year- Seattle Mariners

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Seattle Mariners have been the biggest surprise in baseball this season. New GM Jack Zduriencik brought with his a flurry of acquisitions this offseason, and many pundits predicted Zduriencik’s aggressive wheeling and dealing could lead the M’s to the top of the AL West, with Ichiro, Felix Hernandez, and Cliff Lee appearing on the cover of ESPN's MLB preview. With a lineup focused on speed and run prevention to compliment a stacked starting rotation, the 2010 season looked like smooth sailing for the Mariners.

Instead, Seattle's ship has sunk, to the tune of a 49-76 record. Though pitching and defense has worked for other teams (the NL-best Padres come to mind), the Mariners’ formula seems to require a little more power. Selling at the deadline was hardly a decision for this team, and with Cliff Lee headed toward free agency, they were the proud owners of the undisputed most valuable trade chip on the market.

There were no shortage of offers for Lee. The Yankees reportedly presented a package headlined by top prospect Jesus Montero. The Twins tempted Zduriencik by offering Wilson Ramos and Aaron Hicks. However, Seattle finally accepted Jon Daniels’ offer, sending Lee to Texas for a package headlined by the Rangers’ top prospect Justin Smoak. Smoak, a 24-year-old switch-hitting first baseman, adds an immediate dose of power to the Mariners’ lineup.

While Smoak’s 2010 has been somewhat disappointing, Mariners fans will be glad to know that much of his poor line is due simply to his hard-hit balls finding gloves more often than one would expect. Smoak’s 2010 BABIP sits at .232, which becomes even more surprising considering his 22.6% line drive rate is 11th in the league. Smoak’s 26.5% K rate is a little higher than the Mariners might like to see, but fellow rookie Ike Davis sits just above him with a 27.5%(identical to Ryan Howard’s mark), and Prince Fielder is just below at 25.5%, so his K rate won’t necessarily prevent him from being successful. Also of note, Smoak walks more than either Howard or Davis. His 10 home runs in limited major league time this season give us an idea that he will be a power threat, but expect him to pair that power with an OBP significantly higher than the .288 he’s had in the majors this year.

Smoak’s minor league numbers give us a better idea of where he could end up as a hitter. He posted an Isolated Power of .240 with the Rangers before his callup, and since being sent back down by the Mariners has put up a .192. He’s raking in Triple A and his advanced stats give us no reason to expect that he can’t continue to do so in the majors next year.

Smoak’s 2010 may look unimpressive so far, but his underlying numbers reveal a middle-of-the-order bat ready to break out in 2011. Seattle fans should look for Smoak to continue hitting for power, with a gap-to-gap approach that will result in gaudy extra base hit totals and the potential for 15-25 home runs next year and possibly more in the 30+ range later in his career.

So wait til next year, Mariners fans, but expect next year to bring a little more pop in a potential breakout year for Justin Smoak. Check back tomorrow, when we’ll be taking a look at two Indians hitters with some serious upside- one already tearing up the majors, and another who’s not far behind.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wait Til Next Year- Arizona Diamondbacks

Like the rest of the teams we’ve gone over thus far, this hasn’t been a great year for the Diamondbacks. Their offense hasn’t been bad. They’ve scored 561 runs so far this season, good for sixth in the National League. However, their 679 runs allowed are the most of any team in all of baseball, so there’s certainly some room for improvement there.

And improve they will. Though the Diamondbacks lost Dan Haren through a deadline deal and Brandon Webb to a shoulder surgery and impending free agency, the Diamondbacks will still field a legitimate stud pitcher, even if he experiences growing pains. Jarrod Parker, sidelined by Tommy John surgery for all of 2010, will return to the mound for the Diamondbacks organization and, potentially, their major league club.

Parker was taken by the Snakes ninth overall in the 2007 MLB Draft. He started living up to expectations from the moment he took the mound as a professional, putting up a 3.44 ERA with 117 K’s in 117.2 innings in A ball as a 19 year old in 2008. Then, in 2009, Parker split time between A+ and AA, putting up a 3.14 with an 8.8 K/9. However, his season was cut short in July by an elbow injury. Doctors determined he would need Tommy John, and he went under the knife of Dr. James Andrews (who seems to get his hands on every injured arm, leg, or other body part of any player in the entire league) in October 2009. After missing all of 2010, he’s expected back for Spring Training in 2011.

And Parker will be excited to get back to doing the things that earned the diminutive (6’1”) righty Roy Oswalt comps throughout the minors. As a 22 year old in 2011, Parker will probably begin the season in AA or potentially AAA. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t stay long. The rebuilding DBacks will want to see what they’ve got in Parker and, assuming his rehab goes well, he could make the big club as a midseason callup. Ranked among the top 50 prospects in baseball by Baseball America in each of the last 3 years (most recently #36 pre-2010), Parker should come back strong and, with a successful rehab, will be back to dominating the minors much like he was before he went down with the injury. Diamondbacks fans should look for Parker to climb the ladder quickly and reach the big leagues before long. He could make an immediate impact on the Diamondbacks’ big-league club and the front office isn’t likely to ignore that possibility on a team as arm-starved as theirs is.

Check back tomorrow, when we’ll be looking at the near future of Jack Zduriencik’s Seattle Mariners, a sabermetrics-fueled squad that has been stymied by the lack of any sort of a power threat and the man who could help fix that.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Wait Til Next Year- Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles actually haven’t been that bad lately. Since hiring manager Buck Showalter, they’ve gone a very respectable 12-8. However, Showalter took over a team that was 32-73, so this obviously will not be the Orioles’ year.

That said, they’ve got a lot to look forward to in 2011. First of all, a full year under Showalter could be exactly what they need. After ranking 3rd-worst in run scoring for most of the year, the Orioles have been roughly league-average offensively since Showalter’s arrival. Showalter’s success hasn’t translated to the team’s pitching, where they’ve been one of the worst teams in baseball all year. However, help is on the way.

The Orioles have young pitching arriving to the big leagues in droves. Brian Matusz (23), Brad Bergesen (24), and Chris Tillman (22) were the first to make the bigs, in 2009. This year, Jake Arrieta was the next top pitching prospect to arrive. Zach Britton (22) is tearing up AAA and will likely get his first taste of big-league action by the end of this season. 2009 first-round draft pick Matt Hobgood (19) is still in A ball, but with his fantastic stuff he shouldn’t be far behind.

The Orioles also have promising young hitters in Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Josh Bell. The largest level of improvement, however, should be in the starting staff. The Orioles have laid the groundwork for a very good rotation and their promising young arms should start to have an impact on the big-league level in 2011 and beyond, turning a staff that has been the worst in the league to one that could potentially be very good in the near future.

Thanks for reading! Tomorrow, we’ll talk DBacks and take a look at a young core with a ton of power potential.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wait Til Next Year- Pittsburgh Pirates

Today, I’ll be starting a segment I’m calling “Wait Til Next Year.” I’m going to look at non-playoff teams for 2010 and find a reason their fans should have hope for 2011 and beyond. I’m going to start from the bottom, meaning today belongs to the Pittsburgh Pirates and their .328 winning percentage.

Despite having the worst record in baseball, the Pirates actually have a lot to be excited about going forward. The Pirates have 9 hitters with more than 200 at-bats this year. None of them have celebrated their 30th birthday.

Among these hitters, there’s even more good news, as the Pirates young players who will form their future core are all 25 or less. Pirates wOBA leaders:

Andrew McCutchen
Neil Walker
Pedro Alvarez
Jose Tabata

Possibly even more encouraging, each of these players is a rookie besides McCutchen, who is in his second year. There should be a lot of room for growth for this young Pirates core.

The Pirates have other bright spots that should give fans hope for the future. 2009 1st round pick Tony Sanchez has impressed in A+, and adding Andrew Lambo to the minor league ranks in the trade that sent Octavio Dotel to Los Angeles gives the team a few more bats to be excited about. Top pitching prospect Brad Lincoln has not impressed in his first taste of big-league action, but James McDonald has been lights-out since coming over in the Dotel trade, and 2010 2nd pick overall Jameson Taillon has been compared to Josh Beckett as one of the best high school pitchers to come out of the state of Texas.

However, the Pirates should be most excited about the hitting talent they already have in the big leagues. Very quietly, the Pirates have built a strong young core and it won’t be long before the rest of the NL Central is forced to take notice. So wait til next year, Pirates fans, but be excited about it. Neal Huntington’s great Buccaneer rebuild is nearly complete.

Check back tomorrow, when we’ll be discussing Buck Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Home Stretch- NL West

The San Diego Padres may be the most surprising team in baseball this season (though the Reds might have something to say about that statement). Perennial cellar-dwellers, the Padres have used a combination of strong (if a little lucky) young pitching, outstanding glovework, and a world-class bullpen to take 5-game division lead into the final month and a half of the season.

The San Francisco Giants are now the only team with a real chance at catching them. The Padres have to feel fairly comfortable, however, especially in light of the fact that the Padres are 9-2 against the Giants this season.

PECOTA has the Padres taking the division in 63% of simulations. The model currently gives the Giants a 36% chance to overtake the Padres and win the division, as well as a 18% chance at the Wild Card, meaning that San Francisco is hovering around a roughly 50% shot at October baseball, as they have been for much of the season.

These teams have seven remaining games with which to potentially swing the division race in their favor. First, the Padres will attempt to solidify their position in a four-game series at Petco from September 9th to the 12th. Then, this series could come down to the final day of the season as the teams play a 3-game set in San Francisco to close out the season from October 1st to the 3rd. Either series has the chance to define the fate of this race.

That’s not the only chance each team has had to shift the balance of this division race. Both teams were active during and after the trade deadline, making several additions they hope can win them the division. The Padres added Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Tejada, bats they hope can provide some help for Adrian Gonzalez in a light-hitting lineup. On deadline day, the Giants added two bullpen arms in righty Ramon Ramirez and lefty specialist Javier Lopez. Since the deadline, the Giants have acquired Mike Fontenot from the Cubs and Jose Guillen from the Royals. They are also reported to be interested in Brad Hawpe and Cody Ross at this time, so San Francisco may not be done adding bats.

I’m going to say the Padres go on to take this division, as much as it pains me. The Giants have been bad against their own division all season, and the Padres will take advantage of this down the stretch. The Giants’ only real chance to take the division is to win a large majority of their remaining games against the Pads, and they haven’t given me any sort of confidence that they have the ability to do that. That said, the Giants should be in the thick of the Wild Card race, along with other teams from every division in the NL. The abundance of close NL races means that this year’s September baseball should be as entertaining as any we’ve seen in years.

Check back tomorrow, when I'll be looking at teams whose 2010 outlook isn't quite as rosy (but for whom 2011 might be better).

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Home Stretch- NL Central

The birth of a rivalry is always fun to watch. That’s exactly what we’re seeing as the Cardinals and Reds push (both literally and figuratively) toward October.

Brandon Phillips, in an August 9th interview with the Dayton Daily News, had such choice words for the Cardinals as “I’d play against these guys with one leg,” “all they do is bitch and moan about everything,” “compared to the Cardinals, I love the Chicago Cubs,” and quite simply, “I hate the Cardinals.”

The next day, Phillips walked to the plate to take his first at-bat of the day and said something to Yadier Molina. Molina jawed back, and soon benches were cleared and players were pushing each other up against the backstop.

When the smoke cleared, Johnny Cueto was seen as the main perpetrator, presumably for being the third man in. He got a seven-game suspension, while managers Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker were each sentenced to two contests away from the dugout. Phillips, Molina, and Cardinals pitchers Chris Carpenter and Russ Springer all received undisclosed fines.

No one can be sure what Phillips was trying to do by issuing such inflammatory statements, but whatever his motives were, the plan backfired. The Cardinals swept the series and now find themselves just 2.5 back in a divisional race that has turned into a dogfight.

PECOTA gives the Reds a 79% chance to take the division, while the Reds win in the other 21% of simulations. The loser should be in the thick of the Wild Card race, but these teams will not want to settle for a Wild Card playoff berth.

These teams have just three remaining games, during a series in St. Louis from the 3rd to 5th of September. Expect the bad blood to boil over during this set and a lot of scoreboard-watching from both teams and their fans.

I’m going to say the Cardinals wind up winning this division. The top of their rotation, in Adam Wainwright and the aforementioned Carpenter, as well as rookie Jaime Garcia, will lead St. Louis to October baseball. It’ll be fun to watch, and if these teams disliked each other before, they now share Phillips’ sentiment of hatred.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Home Stretch- NL East

Like most races this year, the NL East has developed into a two-team contest. The Braves had been dominating the division for most of the season, but a strong month or so by the Phillies combined with a fairly weak July for the Braves has pulled the Phillies to within 2.5 games.

The Phillies have been walking wounded this year. Every key position player- be it Rollins, Victorino, Utley, or Polanco- has missed  significant time this season, and Ryan Howard is currently on the DL with a sprained ankle. With Howard seemingly coming increasingly close to being ready to return and the rest of the core returning to full strength, the Phillies could be on the verge of a serious playoff push.

The Braves are moving in the opposite direction, and at exactly the wrong time for the club’s playoff hopes. Caught in the midst of a dogfight for the division championship, the Braves also got the unfortunate news that Chipper Jones will miss the rest of the season (and potentially be forced to retire) with a knee injury. Though they are working on the finishing touches to bring in Derrek Lee from the Cubs as I write this post, Lee’s bat and clubhouse leadership will not replace what they’ve lost in Chipper, especially if Lee continues the subpar year he’s been having.

PECOTA gives the Braves a 65% chance to take the division. The Phillies take the other 35%, with a below one percent chance of October baseball distributed between the rest of the division. The Wild Card situation complicates this division slightly, as there are at least two teams in each division in the Senior Circuit with more than a one in ten chance of playing October baseball through a Wild Card win. That should make the NL’s race to the postseason as fun to watch any in the last decade.

To complicate things further, the Phillies and Braves will play six games in a two-week stretch to finish the season. First, they have a three game set in Philadelphia from September 20th to the 22nd. Then, all eyes will be on these teams as the Phillies travel to Atlanta to end the season with a three game October series from the 1st to the 3rd. If this division continues to stay close, this stretch will probably determine which NL East team will have a shot at the title.

I'm going to take the Braves in this one. Their pitching is as strong top-to-bottom as any team on the Senior Circuit, and I think that gets it done. It's going to a fun race to watch, however, and it seems quite likely to come down to that final series.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Home Stretch- AL West

The AL West is the only race in baseball that is well and truly over. In a great year for competitive baseball, every division has at least two teams with a better than one in five shot of taking the division. The AL West is the only exception, with Texas holding a 99.6% lock on the division title. To put it in perspective, the Mets, Marlins, Dodgers, and Blue Jays each have a better shot to make the playoffs than every other AL West team combined. I can tell you that none of those teams will be playing October baseball, and neither will the Mariners, A’s, or Angels.

So we’ll discuss Texas’ strange season for a bit. Despite being bankrupt at the time, the Rangers were more active than any other team in baseball at the trade deadline, gearing up for the playoffs by adding a true ace in Cliff Lee, a veteran catcher in Bengie Molina, and infielders Jorge Cantu and Christian Guzman. Jon Daniels used the fruits of an incredibly strong 2007 draft class to glean salary relief in each of these deals, acquiring not only players but the cash with which to pay them by trading away a portion of what most considered before the deadline to be one of the strongest minor league systems in the league. They also managed to do so without giving away the young pitching that continues to provide the bulk of their blue-chip prospects. First baseman Justin Smoak, who went to Seattle as the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade, is really the only true top prospect Daniels moved at the deadline.

The Rangers and their new ownership will look to a future flush with hard-throwing young pitchers. Neftali Feliz, Tanner Scheppers, Martin Perez, and Derek Holland all look to have what it takes to form the bulk of a fantastic rotation (unless the Rangers decide Feliz is better suited to stay in the bullpen, where he’s been lights-out this year as their closer). Rangers officials have also discussed keeping Cliff Lee around past this year, which would entrench the Rangers’ rotation as one of the best in the league for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the Rangers offense has been led by several more young stars. Josh Hamilton has been the most valuable player in baseball this year by WAR. Nelson Cruz, Michael Young, and Ian Kinsler have all been dinged up at times, but it hasn’t stopped them from putting up fantastic seasons so far.  Vladimir Guerrero has put up a bounce-back season after a very un-Vlad 2009, and Elvis Andrus has continued to develop into one of best leadoff men in the league.

With a stacked lineup and strong young pitching, along with a true ace in Cliff Lee, this team could be poised for a run deep into October, as well as a spot atop the AL West for the next few years.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Home Stretch- AL Central

This race was a lot more interesting when this month started. The White Sox, Twins, and Tigers had been neck and neck since the first day of the season. The Tigers, however, have firmly removed themselves from the race by going 6-9 since the beginning of August. Now 10 back, PECOTA gives the Tigers a half of a percent chance to make the playoffs this year. Sorry, Detroit fans. This isn’t your year.

This division is now up for grabs between the White Sox and Twins. Minnesota currently holds a three game lead, but this one’s going to come down to the wire. Unlike the AL East, there’s no consolation prize. Essentially, both teams know that they will win the division or start booking October tee times.

PECOTA gives the Twins a 75% chance to take the division. With what may be the best one-two punch in baseball of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and a fantastic staff led by Francisco Liriano and two of the most underrated pitchers in the league in Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey, the Twins will be a force to be reckoned with.

Don’t count the White Sox out, though. With a very solid top-to-bottom staff and one of the more balanced lineups in the league, PECOTA gives the remaining 24% postseason shot in this division to the Sox. Though they lack the true starpower of the Twins (they certainly don’t have a hitter as good as Mauer, or a pitcher as good as Liriano), there is hardly a weak link anywhere on this team. With a strong bullpen (though Bobby Jenks is their closer, I’d argue Matt Thornton and JJ Putz have both pitched better), this team’s balance could certainly bring them a division title.

I’m going to take the Twins. The heart of that lineup will take over and give them a chance to play deep into October. These teams will play six pivotal games, with a three game set at Target Field in Minnesota beginning today. They will play three more games on the South Side from the 14th to the 16th of September, and the results of that series could certainly determine the outcome of this division.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the AL West and take a look at the Texas Rangers, the only runaway division leader in the league this year. 

Also, a quick moment of silence for Bobby Thomson, who singlehandedly created what is almost certainly the single most electric moment in the history of the Giants franchise. RIP to a great man. He was 86.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Home Stretch- AL East

I know I’ve been a little Giant-centric for the past few days. For that I apologize. Sometimes I just can’t help myself. Anyway, I’m going to try to balance it out a bit. This blog is going to be about the Giants a lot of the time, sure. But I hope to write about your team at least once in a while, whichever team that is.

This is the first in a series I’m going to be running this week, taking a look at each of the divisional playoff races. I’m going to hold off on the Wild Card races (although we’ll talk about them in passing) until a little closer to the end of the season. We’ll go East coast-centric ESPN style, beginning with the AL East today and moving West, and then doing the same for the Senior Circuit.

The American League East has become a bit of a two-horse race. The Red Sox are six back, and although they’ll do their best to overcome that deficit, with the injuries they’ve had it’s going to be quite the uphill battle. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA postseason odds have them at an average win total of 90.8 games, with a 23.2% chance of making the playoffs. Most of that hinges on their overtaking one of the top two teams in the division to win the Wild Card. Though they could certainly do it with a hot September, I’m going to guess they don’t.

So that leaves the Yankees and Rays. The Yankees and their 72-45 record currently lead the Rays by two games. PECOTA sees them winning an average of 98.8 games in projections, taking the division slightly North of 75% of the time. Should they falter and fall behind the Rays, PECOTA gives them a 20.5% chance of being the AL Wild Card. They’re pretty much a lock.

The Rays are winning an average of 94.8 games in PECOTA’s projections. Their most likely playoff avenue is the Wild Card, which they have a 56.5% chance of taking. PECOTA gives them a 21% chance at overtaking the Bronx Bombers to win the division. I’m going to go against PECOTA on this one and take the Rays to overcome the gap. Mostly based on the depth of their pitching… I’m a huge Jeremy Hellickson fan and I think David Price and Evan Longoria lead the Rays to the division title.

The Rays and Yankees will play seven huge games in a 10-day stretch from the 13th to the 23rd of September. First, a 3-game set in Tampa from the 13th to the 15th. I’m guessing the division lead changes at some point during this series. Then, a 4-game series will follow under the lights of New Yankee Stadium from the 20th to the 23rd. I’m gonna say Tampa takes 3 of 4 and holds on to the lead from then on.

Though the losing team in this sweepstakes is likely to take the Wild Card, I’m guessing these clubs will have more than enough motivation to try and go for the win. The Wild Card team will almost certainly face the Texas Rangers. Not that Francisco Liriano is any slouch, but I’m pretty sure they’ll want to avoid opposing Cliff Lee twice in a five-game series if they can help it.

Your fun fact for the day is on the incredible reign of Buck “King Midas” Showalter. The Orioles have won 9 of 13 games since putting Showalter at the helm. If they continue on this pace, they will win a total of 71 games. If the rest of the season goes according to PECOTA predictions, they would still finish in last, 28 games back of the Yankees, and 13 games back from the Blue Jays, who would be the second worst team in the division. Simply put, they hadn’t been very good up to Showalter’s installation.  Winning every last game for the rest of the season would place them at 87 W’s, which PECOTA predicts would be 4th in the division.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the sprint to the finish between the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox in the AL Central. Thanks for reading! Also, if you haven't noticed, we now have a Twitter account, so subscribe and I'll let you know when I'm posting. Check the widget on the right side of the page or look for @saberbythebay on Twitter. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Great Expectations

Gerald Demp Posey III’s list of accomplishments reads like a string of Chuck Norris jokes. One of the most highly touted catchers to ever come out of the college ranks, Posey essentially won every award available to a college catcher at Florida State. This includes the Golden Spikes award, for the best college player in the nation. Posey would catch eight innings and then, if FSU was leading a close game, he would hit the mound and become the team’s closer. In one game, Posey actually played every position and, while mostly a publicity stunt, he can certainly hold his own at pretty much any position on the diamond (though I’d prefer he stay out of center). Posey has hit the ground running in 2010, and has put himself in the driver’s seat for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. There are certainly other qualified candidates, but between Heyward’s injury problems, Starlin Castro’s defense, and Strasburg’s and Stanton’s shorter times in the majors, Buster’s got as good a shot as any player in the league. I actually think Mike Leake could be a strong candidate, but is hurt by the fact that he came up in a year in which several potential superstars have made the bigs.  But that’s a topic for another day.

See if you can put a name to these numbers:


Line 1, as you probably guessed, is Buster. His hitting is fantastic for a rookie. Get that kind of production from a catcher, and you have to be ecstatic. A rookie catcher? Giants fans are, and should be, over the moon with this kid. He’s going to be a lineup fixture for the next 6+ years, at the least, and he’s already a stud.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you got Line 2, either. However, you may be surprised at the timeframe. That’s Joe Mauer’s third year in the league, when he really broke out (for the first time, at least. I’m inclined to think that last year’s power surge was largely an aberration. I’d be surprised to see him hit more than about 15 or 20 bombs, consistently, going forward). Of course, Posey’s numbers don’t quite stack up to Mauer’s, and Mauer will almost certainly be a better player over most of their careers. Line them up though, and the numbers speak for themselves. Posey’s not far off from the second-best year from the best catcher in the American League. Mauer, like Posey, is freakishly athletic. You don’t know much about me yet, but I interned for a baseball agency this summer. One of the agents I worked with once scouted Mauer and attempted to recruit him as a client. Apparently, Mauer was far and away the best basketball player he’d ever seen. Mauer’s bigger than Posey; at 6’5” he’s one of the taller catchers in the league, and that may prevent him from sticking behind the plate as he gets closer to his low to mid 30s, but he uses his large frame and lanky limbs to crank line drives at an incredible rate. His 24.9% line drive rate in 2006 helped him to a .364 BABIP, one of the main reasons I believe Posey can keep his BABIP, and consequently his average, as high as he has so far, as Posey is also a line drive machine. Hitting lefty will never hurt Mauer, either. Could Posey match Mauer’s production as early as next year? Well, probably not. But it’ll certainly be fun to watch him try.

I’d be impressed if you got Line 3, because it’s on the historical side. Johnny Bench may be the greatest to ever pop into a squat and start flashing fingers. That’s his first full year in the majors, back in 1968. Bench still didn’t really hit his stride until 1970, when he put up a 154 wRC+. However, it’s still quite a surprise to see Posey’s first full season outpacing Bench’s.

Line 4 is Willie Mays’ rookie year. OK, so I got a little tricky. I never said they had to be catchers. Mays, like Bench, took a little while to start putting up Hall of Fame numbers. Posey’s outhit Mays’ rookie year, by a pretty wide margin. Of course, Posey will not go down as the best player in Giants history. We can’t expect him to put up Mays-esque numbers, especially as a catcher, and comparing the two is obviously creating unrealistic expectations. It’s fun to look at, though.

Happy Timmy Day. Hopefully it goes a bit better than the last one. Check back tomorrow, when we'll be starting a series of six posts, and doing a bit better job of making this a baseball blog rather than a Giants one.

(I am obligated to comment on a fantastic 11-inning win by the Giants. Great game, and I don’t know that I’ve seen a more exciting, more palpably meaningful Giants victory in the last 5 years.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

This Man Is An Island

San Diego’s offense is more reliant on one player than nearly any I think I’ve ever seen. Adrian Gonzalez is a world-class hitter. I had hoped he would move to another team at the deadline, just so we could see what he could do without having to contend with the stingiest home park for offense in the league. It seemed like a virtual certainty that Gonzalez would move at the deadline before this season, his most likely destination being Boston. However, with San Diego in the hunt, he will stay in SoCal for another year, much to the chagrin of the rest of the NL West.

Gonzalez has been worth 27.7 runs above replacement level this year at the plate. He has- and this is not a typo- been more productive at the plate than the rest of the Padres at the plate combined this year, even if you discount players like Tony Gwynn, Jr., Jerry Hairston, and Everth Cabrera who have been below replacement level offensively in 2010. Once you factor in his excellent glove, it becomes quite simple to argue that Gonzalez is of the best and most underrated players in all of MLB.

The rest of San Diego’s bats are not quite up to the standard set by Gonzalez. The next best hitters by RAR- Chris Denorfia, Yorvit Torrealba, and Will Venable- reads more like an appearance list for a Yo-Yo convention than a murderer’s row in a playoff-caliber lineup. The Padres did improve their offense at the deadline, picking up Ryan Ludwick to add some protection for Gonzalez, but Gonzalez remains their only true slugger. However, as the Giants saw last night (and have been finding out all season), the Padres rely on their pitching and defense to keep the score low and hope their offense can scrape across just enough runs to make it work. So far, it has.

The Giants will again go with a young lefty tonight, as Madison Bumgarner will try to hold Gonzalez and his replacement-level teammates and give the Giants a chance to win the series on Sunday when Tim Lincecum takes the mound. During the last year, the public perception of Bumgarner has gone from top prospect to potential burnout back to excellent young ballplayer. 

The big southpaw’s main attraction as a prospect was a fantastic fastball. He threw hard and with a lot of movement, and dominated the low minors. However, at some point last year, Bumgarner seemed to experience a precipitous drop in fastball velocity. With developing but still mediocre secondary stuff, many thought that Bumgarner could never be an effective big leaguer without a fastball in the mid to upper 90s. However, Bumgarner has spent this season proving that this is not the case.

Bumgarner throws his fastball 58.6% of the time, so it’s still his go-to offering. However, he has displayed both a good slider (1.8 runs above average this season) and curve (worth 2.3 runs). He’s also been toying with a developing splitter and a changeup he uses just enough (7.8 percent of pitches this season) to keep hitters off balance and attempt to prevent them from sitting on his fastball. He’s also been much better this season at forcing hitters to hit his pitch, producing an above league average 30.5% O-Swing percentage this season, as compared to hitters swinging at only 18.6% of his pitches outside the zone last year (league average this year is 29%). As a big lefty with good secondary stuff and a crafty approach, Bumgarner seems to have a long career ahead of him in orange and black.

Thanks for reading! As always I appreciate your support and input. Check back tomorrow, when I’ll be comparing Buster Posey’s 2010 season to some other young catchers from the past and present to make a baseless and overly optimistic assessment of how good Buster can be.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The San Diego Padres Are Doing It With Smoke and Mirrors

The San Diego Padres are a good team. Let's get that out of the way. They roll into the Big Phone tonight for what is probably the Giants' biggest series in about 7 years. So I figured, if I'm going to start writing this blog, there's pretty much no better time to do it.

The Padres are a good defensive team. The best in the league, according to UZR. They've got good young pitching, led by Mat Latos and Clayton Richard. They've got one hell of a bullpen. And they're not as good as they've been playing.

Looking at their baseball card numbers, their starters have been fantastic. A closer look, however, reveals that they have been outperforming their underlying numbers by a mile.

Name                  ERA         xFIP        ERA-xFIP
Mat Latos           2.36          3.56            -1.2
Jon Garland        3.41          4.48           -1.07
Wade LeBlanc    3.51          4.58           -1.07
Clayton Richard  3.83          4.04            -0.21
Kevin Correia     4.86          4.23             0.63
Averages            3.60          4.18           -0.58

Latos, aided by a .245 BABIP (4th in the league) and an 84.2% strand rate (2nd), is not as good as he's looked. Simply put, his numbers are unsustainable. If there was ever a man who was in for a serious deal of regression, Latos is it. I wouldn't be surprised if his ERA was closer to  3.36 than 2.36 the rest of the way. Garland and LeBlanc have been similarly lucky, as evidenced by their xFIPs both being more than a point higher than their ERAs. Clayton Richard will be the Padres starter for game one of this pivotal series. Richard's statistics are probably luck-neutral, as his ERA-xFIP is only -0.21. The former Wolverine (Go Blue!) also has the benefit of one of the most pitcher-friendly home parks in the league as well as the aforementioned league-best defense lined up behind him. He might even be able to pitch a little better down the stretch. Kevin Correia's been unlucky, but as Giants fans are well aware, he's not that good anyway, even in a luck-neutral environment.

To counter Richard, the Giants will hand the ball to the young lefty, Jonathan Sanchez. Sanchez brings a 3.55 ERA into tonight's contest. An ERA-xFIP of 0.70 suggests that he has been lucky this season, but you don't simply luck into the 142 K's in 132 innings that Sanchez has put up this year. To borrow a line from Forrest Gump, Jonathan Sanchez is like a box of chocolates... you never know what you're going to get. One night he's throwing a no-hitter or striking out 10 in 8 innings. 5 days later, he's walking 7 and Santiago Casilla is warming up in the 5th. Let's hope tonight brings the former.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about the Padres lineup (hint: there's one guy to worry about, and his name rhymes with Schmadrian Schonschalez.) and the work of Madison Bumgarner, who can as of a few short weeks ago finally drink a beer to celebrate what we hope will be the Giants' second win in this pivotal three-game set. Until then, thanks for reading and stay classy (but not quite as lucky), San Diego!