28 May 2005

AL East Sum Up- So Far...

So after approximately 1/4 of the season gone by, I figured I'd take a look at the AL East race thus far, assess the contenders, and try to sort out what's been a totally convoluted mess up to this point.

As it sticks tonight, here are the AL East standings:

NEW YORK______3.5
TAMPA BAY_____12

Conventional banter around a lot of baseball circles has the Orioles fading and, ultimately, the division coming down to, once again, the Yankees and the Red Sox. While that certainly may be true- you can't really account for the health of any of these teams going forward- I really don't see how you can count Baltimore out. I really think this may be a three team race right down to the wire, and I'm not sure which team is the best of the three- and more importantly, which is the worst.

Let's look at Baltimore first. A lot of mention comes of their starting rotation which, I've been told, will come back down to earth and fail them miserably down the stretch, their all-world offense notwithstanding. Here's the problem with that line of thinking-

First, this assumes that a very good rotation will fail, and that their excellent bullpen is even a concern for an Oriole fan. The 2005 Orioles remind me of the 2002 Angels, but with a better rotation and a MUCH better offense. Here is the Baltimore rotation:

Rodrigo Lopez | RHP | 3-2, 4.41 ERA
Sidney Ponson | RHP | 5-3, 5.66 ERA
Daniel Cabrera | RHP | 4-3, 5.30 ERA
Eric Bedard | LHP | 5-1, 2.08 ERA
Bruce Chen | LHP | 5-2, 3.51 ERA

Sidney Ponson is, no doubt, a back-of-the-rotation starter at this point in his career. He's not striking out batters, he's walking too many, and is offering big holes for his offense to dig him out of early in games. That's the thing with this entire staff though- the offense is digging them out. Ponson is 5-3. At worst, he'll eat innings and keep the Orioles in 2 out of every three starts. Not bad for your 5th man.

Then there are Rodrigo Lopez and Bruce Chen- Lopez got off to a tremendous start, and has tailed off; Chen started strong and hasn't slowed down. Lopez is interesting- he's quietly become one of the more underrated pitchers in the league, and might well be the most consistent starter on the team for a second year running. His second season after a remarkable rookie year was a disappointment, but for a team in 2004 short of pitching, Mazzili inexplicably sent him to the bullpen to start the season- and he went on to be one of the most valuable pitchers on the staff (bested maybe only by BJ Ryan), performing his way back into the rotation and staying there. Lopez is routinely overlooked when considering the Oriole rotation, and this is probably a mistake- there's no reason to believe Lopez won't be a very solid 2/3 guy from here on out.

Ditto Chen. The line on Bruce Chen is that despite his inadequacies, his being a young LHP allows him to have an almost inexhaustible amount of new opportunities on different teams. In his career, at the age of 28, he has been on nine different teams. I'd argue, however, that his often long stretches of very strong performance also help give him chance upon chance. To wit:

2000 (ATL): 39.2 IP, 4-0, 2.50 ERA, 32 K
2000 (PHI): 94.1 IP, 3-4, 3.63 ERA, 80 K
2001 (NYM): 59.2 IP, 3-2, 4.68 ERA, 47 K
2001 (PHI): 86.1 IP, 4-5, 5.00 ERA, 79 K
2002 (CIN): 39.2 IP, 0-2, 4.31 ERA, 37 K
2004 (BAL): 47.2 IP, 2-1, 3.02 ERA, 32 K

Now, naturally, this is intermixed with some really poor performances, and these aren't, of course, overwhelming numbers. But at 28, with a strong start off a great year in 2004, it isn't a stretch to classify this as his prime year(s), and to not be surprised to see him put up ~175 IP with an ERA around 4- which naturally would keep Baltimore in a lot of games. His control has always been really strong, and he normally strikes out nearly a batter an inning. He's pretty well equipped for success in Baltimore.

Bedard and Cabrera are interesting cases as well. Bedard is a very highly touted LHP pitcher- it's worth noting that when trade speculation was rampant for Tim Hudson this past winter, Bedard was a candidate for bait, though it was noted that that would have been a steep price to pay. He recently went on the DL with a knee strain that doesn't look too serious. He strikes out around 8 per 9, his WHIP is 1.04, and he has great stuff. If he can maintain his success, he's the ace. Cabrera has looked alternately great and terrible in his starts, throwing 98+ with a good change- but his control has been an issue, and while he can look Pedro-esque one night, he'll look Shawn Estes-eque the next.

The thing is, these starters keep the thunderous offense in nearly every game, and the Baltimore bullpen- possibly one of the strongest in the majors- slams the door shut. BJ Ryan is, along with Francisco Rodriguez in Los Angeles, probably the best relief pitcher in the AL, striking out batters this year at 13.85/ 9IP rate. He rarely walks batters, almost never surrenders a HR, and is holding opponents to a 2.08 average. In a setup role, they have an excellent R/L two headed attack with Jorge Julio and Steve Kline, they have RH specialist Steve Reed, a pitcher that had ritual success in Colorado, making him a signing a lot of contending teams could have used. Kline's ERA is high, but he's K'ing batters at 10+ per 9, and that ERA should definitely come down as a result.

I could go into their offense, but you get it- they can mash. Miguel Tejada is the best SS in baseball, Melvin Mora is, while not on his OBP tear of a year ago, hitting the ball hard and at a very solid (and steadily improving) OPS of .869. Brian Roberts is turning his 50 2Bs from 2004 into HRs, taking pitches, blossoming as a player. Lopez- who'll miss a few weeks with a broken hand- has inexplicably continued his 2003 resurgence as one of the great hitting catchers in baseball. Add to that great complimentary players like BJ Surhoff, Luis Matos, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Larry Bigbie. Baltimore ain't (injuries aside) goin' nowhere.

New York is a tough team to judge. Obviously, they're not as bad as 11-19, but they're definitely not as good as their recent stretch suggests either. It's interesting- for a team like Baltimore that is on the rise, you see optimism in every great performance. But a team like New York, there's a tendency to be skeptical.

First of all, I'm going to be the first to wonder out loud if Randy Johnson is hurt. I have NEVER seen him throw as many breaking balls- bad ones, at that- as he did Friday night's game against Boston. His fastballs were often thrown hard inside off the plate as a "show me," and his sliders and splits were the ones he was working off of. Predictably, he got knocked around, but due to some serious baserunning gaffes by Boston, he wasn't terribly victimized. He also walked 5, the most he's walked in a long time.

But that said, even sore (or whatever he is), Johnson is a very good pitcher. Certainly not worth $28 million (Vazquez' salary + Unit salary), but the top of their rotation. Mike Mussina is, of course, start to start at this point. His fastball has lost a lot of tick, and when his knucklecurve isn't working, his control suffers. That said, he's started the year off well and is one of the Yankee rotation high points.

Carl Pavano is what he's always been- a slightly above league average pitcher. He only strikes out 5.5 per 9, gives up a lot of HR, and hasn't lasted very long in games. Of course, he's been great every few starts, but terrible in a few. Not that it matters to this discussion, but Carl Pavano at $10 mil is patently ridiculous. He's got a 4.18 ERA.

Jaret Wright, Chien-Ming Wang, and Kevin Brown are all dreck, and while any one of them can, on any given night, be propped up by a great offense or pitch a decent game, there should be no mistake that not one of them is a credit to a rotation. Wang will be trade bait come July 31 if Wright is back, and if Wright is back, the Yankee rotation gets worse. Jaret Wright was, without question, one of the dumbest big-ticket acquisitions of the last ten years.

It's tough too for the Yankees considering their utter lack of bench help, their porous defense for a team that hasn't been striking batters out, and the ridiculous logjam at 1B/ DH full of slow, near dead middle-agers that will continually bring the team down. They have no one at the major or minor league level to offer for significant upgrade, and they have Tony Womack- TONY WOMACK- as their starting LFer. An historically inept defense.

But then there are guys like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield, guys that keep the Yankees in every single game they're in. Their bullpen isn't great- Rivera is fine after a shakey start, and Gordon has improved, but faith in Tanyon Sturtze has bordered on Goebbels-like propoganda, Quantrill looks either fried or injured, and that's it. Buddy Groom, Mike Stanton? Nothing special.

The Yankees are currently the team that will largely make up the team that makes a run in the playoffs if they can get there, and as right now, they're very, very flawed. Of the three teams, the Yankees could easily be the worst, but in a spot, in a short burst, could annihilate either Boston or Baltimore. They'll be interesting to watch.

Boston is getting tougher and tougher to gauge. On the one hand, despite below-expectation performances from Ramirez, Ortiz, Renteria, Millar and Bellhorn, they're still an offensive force. Nixon, Varitek, Mueller and Damon have all been above-and-beyond, and though they've run into a spell of games where they're not cashing in RISP, that likely won't last. The offense for the Red Sox should be fine- Ramirez, it appears, has been particularly unlucky thus far: his walk rates, power and RC/27 have all been steady- but his BA, and his BABIP have been uncharacteristically low. While frustrating, that should change eventually, and if the other numbers hold, he should remain just as effective.

The problems for the Red Sox have been injuries and bullpen pitching- and, interestingly, schedule. The Red Sox have played, by far, the most road games in the MLB. Worth noting.

The real issue is the bullpen, one with the worst ERA in the AL. The rotation has been fine- even with Schilling's absence, Clement (still think he "can't pitch in Boston," lunkheads?), Arroyo, Wakefield and, recently, Wade Miller, have all been very good. Wells has been pretty uniformly awful, but showed signs of improvement his last start against Toronto. But between Francona leaning on the absolutely fried Alan Embree in favor of the very quality Matt Mantei, Keith Foulke's mechanics entirely deserting him, John Halama not being worth the paper he was printed on, and Mike Timlin as the only "regular" bright spot (Mantei's been thrown in mop up games so far, inexplicably), the bullpen, as I'd worried all along, has been a glaring weakness. Foulke will probably rebound- there's no reason to believe that at any point he will get his mechanics down and post a ~2.00 ERA from that point forward.

But as of right now, this bullpen is a hindrance as currently constructed. If the Red Sox are going to focus their effort on something in trade talks, it should be relief pitching, no question. Unfortunately, that may be at a premium come deadline time, and may require more talent than it's worth. For examples, see the lopsided LaTroy Hawkins for Jerome Williams and David Aardsma trade. Hawkins is very good- but Williams is a very, very promising young SP and Aardsma is a decent bullpen arm. But anyway...

My guy still tells me Boston is best team in the division. A lot of that will depend on when and how effectively Schilling comes back in the second half- his significant return would very probably be the difference. If he didn't come back strong, it wouldn't count Boston out, but it would mean that Wells would HAVE to return to form, and Miller would have to stay healthy and productive through the season. That might be a lot to ask.

Boston still has the best offense of the three, the best bench, probably the most balanced bullpen, and is right there with Baltimore defensively. They have the most to offer come trade time, they have a disproportionate amount of home games from here on in, and are certainly not as bad as they've played these last few series.

I expect Toronto to fade because they're not built on the long haul, and are still a ways away from contending- but I really love what I see from Alex Rios, Vernon Wells- though slumping- is a great all around player, Orlando Hudson is the best defensive 2B in baseball, and Roy Halladay/ Ted Lilly is a very good top of the rotation.

Tampa Bay is Tampa Bay- they're terrible. They'll be terrible until they fire Chuck LaMarr. End of story.

I can't picture a scenario under which Chicago does not win the Central- not because I think they're this good, but because- despite Minnesota's recent surge- they've definitely built up a lot of momentum going forward. Of course, they are prime collapse candidates, so maybe I should stop short of a guarantee. I'd never bet on an Ozzie Guillen/ Ken Williams run team under ANY circumstances, but it almost doesn't matter- whoever wins that division, after this start, will have a lot of wins, and the runner up won't be far behind (at this pace, at least).

The question becomes whether the team that does not win the East- Boston, Baltimore, or New York- can beat that runner-up's record. I of course, have no idea, but I don't see any new, significant reason not to stick with my original guess of Boston winning the division.

Should be fun though, regardless.

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