17 April 2006

My Three Teams.

So the Red Sox are off to the 8-4 start, a game and a half ahead of Baltimore in first place, and have two of the only three three-game winners in the major leagues. Their closer leads the league in saves. They've stayed at .667 pace despite losing significant time from their starting CF, RF and 5th SP.

But there are some things that don't look great out of the gate, and most notably that is Manny Ramirez. Most of the time, and mention of his slow start is met with eye rolling and a knowing promise that he'll "put up his 35/ 120 like clockwork." This, of course, may be true. Manny is, in fact, a player prone to slumps- he has a handful a year, of varying lengths- just not too often to start the year, not this bad, and it's hard to recall one this long. He's hitting .214 with a .353 OBP and a .214 SLG- no HR, no XBH. He hasn't been unlucky, hasn't been driving pitches right at fielders. He's looked off balance, uncomfortable, and out of whack.

Of course, Manny started off rough last year, and turned it on eventually to rebound to just shy of his career norms. This is a good thing to keep in mind. The most curious thing about Manny Ramirez seems to be his career progression against LHP. To wit-

2002: .438/ .534/ .822/ 1.356
2003: .385/ .476/ .629/ 1.105
2004: .306/ .446/ .631/ 1.077
2005: .236/ .358/ .527/ 0.885
2006: .250/ .400/ .250/ 0.650

Obviously, it would be hard to call 2006's sample significant. Still- I'll be honest; I'm a little worried about Manny. Not so much yet that the thought of his dropping off the face of the earth has fully formed in my mind, but enough that I'm worried how many runs it will cost us before he warms up. My honest impression is that, at 34, we're seeing the start of the decline phase of Manny's career. This doesn't mean he'll Jim Rice out of nowhere all of a sudden, but it may mean that, for example, it will begin to take a lot longer for him to get the motor started in April, and that his rate numbers will slowly start to dip.

So while the offense is CERTAINLY sputtering- brutally (getting largely shut down in the last four games by Ted Lilly, Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro and Jarrod Washburn)- there are a couple things to remember- they're winning because, right now, their starting pitching has been largely dominant. Wakefield, Wells and Clement each have had a blowout start, but other than that, they've been dominant. The bullpen- especially Papelbon, Timlin, and Foulke- has looked nice and deep. The struggles too are with the lineup missing Nixon, Crisp, and a viable Ramirez. If even two of those things turn around, the team can get by on that.

One thing that seemed relatively certain in Spring Training was starting pitching depth. By my estimation, the Sox had approximately eight starters from which to draw- Beckett, Schilling, Wakefield, Clement, Arroyo, Papelbon, Wells and DiNardo. Since that time, Arroyo was traded, Papelbon was nailed to the bullpen, and Wells has come up injured. So, as optimistic as I was about Arroyo's trade, and as comfortable as I am with DiNardo as a starter, and as ecstatic as I am in Papelbon's current dominance (7.0 IP, 0.29 WHIP, .087 BAA, 0.00 ERA, 6 K, 0 BB), all of these things happening in confluence with Wells' injury has made it thin in the starting pitching ranks. This is definitely something to keep an eye on, for the simple fact that Wells will be out at least a month (with the knee injections) and as amazing as Schilling and Beckett have been (and I literally just knocked on wood), they're both injury risks, to varying degrees. My personal hope is that Foulke rounds back into a form totally dominating enough to enable the team to stretch Papelbon back out for the rotation. I feel fine with DiNardo as a 5th starter, but a) Papelbon would likely be even better, and b) this means we don't really have a long reliever.

It's been pretty interesting watching how adept Youkilis has been defensively at 1B. So much so that one wonders if they'll get to a comfort level with him defensively where they decide they can jettison Snow in favor of Choi, the stronger hitter off the bench. Worth noting. Not a very pressing concern, but Youkilis has been shockingly good there so far.

Prediction- Alex Gonzalez doesn't last past June 15th in the starting lineup.

Wily Mo has been really up and really down- he really does redefine the term "raw," doesn't he? His first three ABs, for example. Getting a pinch AB in game two in Texas, Wily Mo took the first pitch he saw the other way for an opposite field RBI 2B that absolutely leapt off his bat.

The next two ABs, April 8th in Baltimore against Bruce Chen, were absolute nightmares- 7 pitches, 6 swings and miss. This more or less continued in his next start against Josh Towers of Toronto, but the next night, against the lefty Gustavo Chacin, it seemed like Wily Mo calmed down a bit. Ever since that point, he's actually looked excellent- looking very patient, laying off the outside crap that is designed to get him swinging, going the other way. He has two BBs in 19 ABs, including a monster HR and a ground rule 2B to the triangle at Fenway that flat out rocketed off his bat. When Wily makes contact, it's hard to overstate how hard he's able to hit it. He looks much improved overall.

His defense? Yeah. Ahem. Yikes.

Speaking of defense- Josh Bard looks really bad handling that knuckler. It's a pretty thankless job, but he's got a lot of work to put in before he's dealing with it comfortably.

A couple things need to break right, and this team could be absolutely excellent. But- they could also crap out and miss the playoffs.

All that considered- I don't think I can overstate how awesome Beckett and Schilling have looked so far. I was reasonably optimistic about Schilling bouncing back this year, probably moreso than a lot of fans. But to say this start outshines even my most wild expectations is an understatement- just completely dominating. His velocity is back up, his command is there, and his splitter is really snapping. Schilling mentioned not feeling this healthy since "2002," which, while it seems a bit like athlete overconfidence, is definitely true. In 2003, Schilling had the freak broken hand and appendicitis, in 2004 he battled through the ankle issue with great success all season, and last year suffered the results. Barring some other unrelated injury, there's no reason to believe Schilling can't dominate along 2004's lines again this year.

8-4. I'll take it.

OK, watching a lot of Mets games this year, I have to get some things off my chest. Maybe I should just address Willie Randolph directly.

Willie. You want to score a lot of runs, and prevent a lot of them. Sometimes I wonder though.

First, stop with the Brian Bannister-as-5th-starter bullshit. Put Heilman in the rotation, and let Bannister work on his command as a long reliever. Then, shoot Darren Oliver and dump him in the East River. I mean, seriously- Darren Oliver? Jesus.

Second, at least consider the idea of not batting Jose Reyes leadoff. He does NOT get on base enough, especially relative to a number of his teammates, and his base stealing abilities can be better used lower in the lineup. More importantly, stop batting Paul Lo Duca second. Why you started doing this I have NO idea, but batting two of your worst OBP hitters one-two makes no goddamn sense.

Third. STOP BATTING YOUR BEST FUCKING HITTER FIFTH! STOP! STOP IT!! You want to get David Wright as many at bats as you can! Why not give this lineup a shot:

  1. Reyes, SS

  2. Beltran, CF

  3. Wright, 3B

  4. Delgado, 1B

  5. Nady, RF

  6. Floyd, LF

  7. Lo Duca, C
  8. Hernandez, 2B


Asking a modern manager to keep their young speedster out of the leadoff spot is a lot to ask, I understand. I'd probably let Beltran leadoff and hit Nady second, but that's not a huge difference. Hitting Wright is just shooting yourself in the foot.

Fourth, we know Minaya makes dumb trades sometimes. Getting rid of two quality innings eaters like Benson and Seo for Duaner Sanchez and Jorge Julio was very, very silly. Sanchez has been OK, but Jorge Julio has been an exaggerated version of what he's been for about three plus years now- absolute jack shit. So, I guess I'm just offering my condolences on that one. Not a lot you can do there.

In all seriousness though, this team isn't this good, but they're pretty damn good. The sooner they let Beltran hit in front of that dynamite Wright/ Delgado combo, the sooner they can stop worrying about preserving late inning 3 run leads, and can start smiling about coasting through 6 run late inning leads. The Matsui/ Anderson Hernandez issue will be a tough one just because Hernandez has been magnificent at 2B, but basically a second pitcher as a hitter in the 8 hole.

One thought- offering up Victor Diaz around mid-season could likely net a nice upgrade over Julio/ Bradford/ Oliver.

Also, lose the black hats. The nice blue ones Sunday are too perfect. Come on. Take it easy too with Pedro and that toe.

Finally- my NL team, Milwaukee. The Brewers have started the year 7-5, slotting in around with Houston, Cincinnati and Chicago in the Central.

There's good news in that Ben Sheets was able to come off the DL today. He was decent as a first start- only went 5 IP, and gave up 4 ER- but he struck out 6 and walked none.

Prince Fielder started the season 0-for-11 with 7 Ks, but has since gotten to .333 with a .412 OBP and his first HR of the season. JJ Hardy (286/ 308/ 449), Bill Hall (211/ 333/ 526), and Geoff Jenkins (286/ 333/ 449) have all gotten off to serviceable- if somewhat mediocre- starts. Coreky Koskie (346/ 433/ 462), Carlos Lee (295/ 415/ 682) and the aforementioned Fielder, however, have been excellent.

The Brewers have had a lot of trouble scoring runs, however. The rotation has been decent- Capuano and Ohka have been very good, but Doug Davis has battled wildness, and Dave Bush has struggled a bit early. The Brewers owe a lot in their early success to their bullpen, who have been dominant as they made those initial comeback wins, rattling off five wins to start the season. Since then they've lost two on the road to St. Louis, two on the road to New York, and one at home against Arizona. The Diamondbacks they should beat- but Capuano simply didn't have it that night. However, of the teams in the NL, the two that are most certainly better than Milwaukee are St. Louis and New York.

Getting Sheets fully healthy, a bit more out of Jenkins, a lot more out of Damian Miller and Brady Clark, and some more power from Rickie Weeks will really set them running. If Clark continues to founder, Nick Krynzel is an option in CF.

Looks like I am going to the Monday game at Shea after all- Pedro goes for career win #200 against rival Atlanta.

______________________________ |