Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sox Finally Crack .500

May is almost over, Memorial Day has come and gone, and for the first time in their rollercoaster season, the Boston Red Sox finally have a winning record attached to their name in the standings.

All I can say is this; it's about damn time.  Six times they had reached the .500 mark, only to lose the following game every single time.  Talk about frustrating.  That's like flipping a coin six times and getting six straight heads.  What are the odds?  One in 64.  Less than two percent.

Facing Justin Verlander, the odds weren't looking much better for their seventh attempt.  After all, we're talking about a guy who's probably the best pitcher on the planet, the 2011 American League MVP and Cy Young winner.   He'd dominated them on Opening Day, when he fired eight shutout innings before Jose Valverde's blown save spoiled what should have been his first victory in 2012. The Sox went with Daniel Bard, who came in with a losing record, a 1.56 WHIP, and more walks than strikeouts.  A future Hall of Famer versus a converted reliever whose days in Boston's starting rotation are numbered.  The advantage seemed to be in Detroit's favor.

This time around Verlander failed to bring his "A" Game.  After a 1-2-3 first inning he struggled, allowing ten hits and five earned runs, both season worsts, over the next five innings.  David Ortiz paced Boston's balanced hitting attack by stroking two doubles and a homer as he scored/drove in a pair of runs.  It was a true team effort, though, as every Boston starter not named Ryan Sweeney recorded at least one hit.  Meanwhile, Bard gritted through five and one-third frames of two-run ball, giving way to the bullpen after 94 pitches.  He'd been shaky early on, allowing eight men to reach base and surrendering solo home runs to Jhonny Peralta and Prince Fielder, so it made sense that Bobby Valentine had Rich Hill and Scott Atchison (both have been lights-out, by the way) complete the inning for him.  Journeymen Andrew Miller, Vicente Padilla and Alfredo Aceves proceeded to secure a 6-3 win for the Red Sox.  Luckily for Boston the Tigers disappointing offense continued to struggle, stranding ten men on the basepaths in all and going just one-for-eight with runners in scoring position.

This team, like last year's squad, took its sweet time rounding into form.  But it looks like they've finally turned the corner, as they have gone 13-5 since May 11th. 

Now that's more like it.

It's been a tumultous two months, but the Sox seem to be hitting their stride.  Yes, they're still toiling in last place in the AL East, but there are plenty of encouraging signs in every facet of the game.  The lineup ranks second in the American League in runs scored, hits, batting average, and total bases despite losing star outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford to injury (Dustin Pedroia may join them after jamming his thumb yesterday on a diving play that robbed Danny Worth of a base hit) while enduring prolonged slumps from heart of the order bats Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis.  That high level of production in the face of adversity is a reflection of the team's remarkable depth that wouldn't be possible without much needed contributions from Cody Ross, Mike Aviles, Jarrod SaltalamacchiaWill Middlebrooks, Daniel Nava, and the aforementioned Ryan Sweeney.  Josh Beckett, Golfgate aside, has pitched like an ace for much of the season even though his 4-4 record and 4.15 ERA suggest otherwise.  Young southpaw Felix Doubront is holding his own in his first season as a full-time starting pitcher, and Clay Buchholz's strong start against the Rays on Sunday is a step in the right direction.  The bullpen, despite lacking a true closer and setup man, has stabilized since suffering a nationally televised meltdown against the Yankees in April.  The defense boasts the best fielding percentage of all AL teams. 

Seeing as how they currently have a small army on the Disabled List, it seems obvious to me that once this team starts to get healthy, they're going to be a force to be reckoned with.  For now they're finally above .500, and I think they are there to stay.

Interesting side note; the Los Angeles Angels also cleared the .500 hurdle today, beating the Yankees 5 to 1.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Celtics/Heat Thoughts

 Tonight in Miami, the Celtics and Heat will do battle in a rematch of last spring's conference semifinals, when the hated Heat brushed aside the aging C's in five games on their way to an NBA Finals appearance.  Boston played Miami well for the most part, but Rajon Rondo, their sparkplug and most talented player, got injured.  Dwyane Wade and LeBron James always seemed to catch fire in the fourth quarter, putting their elderly rivals away with an impressive array of clutch shots.

 Miami has to be considered the favorite again this year, though some of the circumstances have changd.  Here's some food for thought in regards to the upcoming series:

-Luckily for Boston Miami will be without Chris Bosh.  Bosh, who performed basketball-related activities for the first time since leaving the court during Game 1 against Indiana, has been ruled out for tonight's tilt but could return at some point in the series.  Without him the Heat lack a legitimate frontcourt scoring option.  As long as he is sidelined, the C's have to take advantage of his absence. Interestingly, Bosh seems to have modeled his offensive game around Kevin Garnett's, since both inflict the majority of their damage from outside the key with their unblockable jump shots.  Sometimes it's nice to have long arms, even when you're not reaching for something on the top shelf.

-Speaking of the Big Ticket Celtics guards will have to keep feeding Garnett, who looks rejuvenated this postseason and is averaging 19.2 points and 10.8 boards while shooting over 50 percent from the floor.  Philadelphia did a good job of keeping him from posting up in the paint and forcing him to settle for outside jumpers and turnarounds, but KG's range extends to the three point line and his midrange game is top notch.  He needs to keep playing at a high level if Boston is going to compete in this series.

-Something about Mike Miller scares me.  Could it be the tattoos?  Perhaps the greasy mess of hair?  It's not his three point stroke, that's for sure.

-Any chance Rondo records multiple triple-doubles this series?

-As always the marquee matchup is between Paul Pierce and LBJ.  James is obviously the most talented player in the Association, but the "Truth" is a reliable crunch time scorer (unlike Bron Bron) who's a rugged warrior in his own right.  Both like to use their size and strength to barrel into the lane and attack the rim because they are outstanding finishers.  They have a deep repertoire of moves to score, but Pierce has a much smoother shot. Both pass well and play good defense, too.  As we saw in Game 7 of the 2008 conference semis, they can bring the best out of each other.

-Really missing Mark Jackson in the broadcast booth.  Breen and Jeff Van Gundy don't have the same chemistry without him.

-On defense Boston will sorely miss Avory Bradley, who had developed into the team's best perimeter defender since "Trick or Treat" Tony Allen but is done for the year.  That leaves Ray Allen to cover Wade, a very challenging assignment.  To his credit, Ray Ray looked good on defense during Game 7, staying with his man and contesting shots.  While he's made considerable improvements to that facet of his game since coming over from Seattle in 2007, I'd rate his D as average at best. Most of his value comes on the offensive end from his lethal three point shooting that spreads the floor and opens up lanes for Pierce and Rondo to drive. On the other hand, Wade is one of the game's premier shooting guards because he combines a hard-nose style of offense with good defense/ncredible shot blocking for his size.   He plays a physical brand of basketball and figures to wear Allen out when he's on offense.  On defense he won't give Allen much space, and will limit Ray to spot-up shooting and shots coming off screens. Allen's teammate will have to find him so he can make the most of these opportunities, because he's not going to be able to do much one-on-one against D-Wade.

-What the Celtics are really missing is an instant offense guy off the bench, somebody who can come in and just ignite the team with a couple quick threes.  Memories of Eddie House and Nate Robinson.

-Boston has the edge in coaching.  Erik Spoelstra's pretty bright and is better than most people give him credit for, but he's no Doc Rivers.  Doc has a great feel for this team and knows how to squeeze the most out of them.  He's earned their trust, and vice-versa.

Obviously I want the Celtics to win, but realistically I still think Miami is the better team, even without Bosh.  Had the Green polished off the Sixers in five games and gotten some much needed rest, this might be a different story.  But against the Heat they will probably run out of gas.

My Prediction: Heat in six

Monday, May 28, 2012

NBA Conference Semis Review

This time around I got all the teams correct, but failed to accurately predict how long any of the series would last.


Miami Heat vs Indiana Pacers
Prediction-Heat in five
Reality-Heat in six
I made this prediction after Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal strain, believing that the dynamic duo of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James would still be too much for the Pacers to overcome. Following Wade's meltdown in Game 3, they both played top notch basketball to close out Indiana. I desperately wanted Indy to pull out a win in this series, but they put up a pretty good fight.  They led in Games 1 and 4, and if they could have held on they would have shocked the world with a sweep of the hated Heat.  This series was one of the most heated and violent NBA showdowns in recent memory, and I don't believe Larry Bird was correct when he called his team "soft" (and then reminded the world that the word is spelled S-O-F-T.  Thanks Larry).  Nobody gave the Pacers much of a chance, but they didn't back down from the challenge.

Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers
Prediction-Celtics in six
Reality-Celtics in seven
As a Celtics fan, this series frustrated the hell out of me even though I expected it to last awhile.  Boston was plagued by inconsistency all series long, and Charles Barkley may have been on to something when he said they weren't taking the 76ers seriously.  This lack of respect was evident in Game 4, when they lost focus and blew an early 18 point lead as well as a chance to grab a 3-1 series lead.  That failure to step on Philadelphia's throat cost them several precious days of rest heading into their impending showdown with the much younger and more athletic Miami.  Until the fourth quarter of Game 7 it seemed that Boston couldn't hit three pointers if their lives depended on it, mainly because a banged up Ray Allen endured a horrendous shooting slump.  Their struggles from beyond the arc prevented them from spreading the floor, allowing Philly to clog the paint and limit Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass to midrange jumpers.  Give the Sixers, particularly Andre Iguodala (locked down Paul Pierce) credit for playing superb defense and taking the Celts to the wire.  Ultimately Boston's key advantages in coaching and playoff experience seemed to win out.  Doc Rivers rallied his troops when they needed a psychological boost, and Philly shot themselves in the foot time and time again by missing free throws and committing key turnovers.  Elton Brand was the only Sixers started who had played in a Game 7 before, and it showed.


San Antonio vs Clippers
Prediction-Spurs in six
Reality-Spurs in four
The Clips, coming off an exhausting seven game battle with the Grizzlies, were no match for the well-rested and more polished Spurs.  San Antonio is the hottest team in basketball right now, and unlike the Celtics they have a firm understanding of the importance of rest for an aging team.  I thought LA's athleticism and youth would give them the edge in some games, but Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were dinged up and didn't look like themselves.  San Antonio's incredible depth, coaching and execution overwhelmed the Clippers, who are still very young and raw.  With Tim Duncan's career winding down, you get the feeling that the Spurs sense this is their last chance to win a championship, and that they aren't going to let this opportunity pass them by.  Father Time will get the best of them some day, but for now they're probably the most dangerous playoff team out there.

Oklahoma City vs Lakers
Prediction-Thunder in seven
Reality-Thunder in five
I expected much more from the Kobe Bryant's Lakers, but it's becoming clear that their team, as currently constructed, is not championship material.  Mike Brown's not a great coach, and can't hold a candle to Phil Jackson.  The Bryant-Gasol relationship doesnt't work, and LA as a whole just don't have the depth to compensate for their age.  They desperately need a point guard; Ramon Sessions is an upgrade over Derek Fisher but still leaves a lot to be desired. Kobe played well but hoisted up too many contested jumpers and struggled in the fourth quarter; he is not the elite closer that many fans believe him to be.  At times he seems unwilling to facilitate, and his selfishness greatly hampers Andrew Bynum's effectiveness.  Meanwhile Pau Gasol looked timid on offense, passing up open shots and proving once again that for all his skills and finesse, his softness makes a complementary player instead of a superstar.  Kobe probably shouldn't have called him out like that, but what he said was 100 percent true.  It's going to be a long summer and tumultuous offseason in the wake of another disappointing playoff performance.

Adam Jones and the Orioles

Here we are, nearly two full months into the 2012 season and the lowly Baltimore Orioles, a once proud franchise turned perennial doormats of the AL East with their fourteen consecutive losing seasons, are in first place, locked in a tie with the pitching rich Tampa Bay Rays.  This is a team resh off a year in which they lost 93 games that failed to significantly improve itself in the offseason, thus entering the year without a shred of hope that it could compete with its division rivals. 

Yet somehow, someway they've posted a better record than the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and every other team in baseball not named the Texas Rangers or Los Angeles Dodgers.  Are you mentally prepared to live in a world where the Baltimore Orioles are the third best team in baseball?  Me neither. Up to this point they've managed to get by with plenty of home runs, a lockdown bullpen, and excellent play in close games/extra inning affairs to maintain a narrow lead atop the AL Beast for the past three weeks. It's been amusing to see the scrappy underdogs outplay their wealthier, more talented adversaries, but there's no way they can keep this up.  Not with the worst defense in baseball (but who would have known that using Chris DavisJ.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds to fill out three quarters of the infield could possibly be a bad idea?), a starting rotation full of number four and five starters, and a lineup that gets on base at a below average pace and leads the league in strikeouts.

They are this year's Pirates.  Remember when Pittsburgh was clinging to first place after the All-Star break last summer?  When they were the talk of baseball and everybody and their mother wanted to know how they kept winning?  They were getting by on smoke and mirrors, and when their good fortune ran dry they went tailspinning to the finish line with 90 losses and their 19th consecutive losing season since Barry Bonds skipped town following their 1992 NLDS collapse. 

Yeah, the Orioles are kind of like that; overachievers boosted by luck who will ultimately regress to the mean.  Let's see where they stand after their upcoming nine game road trip/reality check through the AL Beast with stops in Toronto, Tampa and Beantown.  I guarantee they won't be in first place by the end of it.  The other shoe will eventually drop for them, just as it did last summer for the Bucs.  Jason Hammel is not going to pace the Junior Circuit in wins and make a run at the Cy YoungJim Johnson is going to blow a save at some point (he's no Jose Valverde) and won't keep leading the majors in that category.  And Adam Jones, God as my witness, will not keep hitting like Matt Kemp.

Or can he?  Through Saturday's game, Jones is batting a robust .309/.351/.597 with 14 home runs and 31 RBI.  He's riding a career-best 17 game hitting streak, has appeared in all of the Orioles games, and if not for Josh Hamilton's sudden transformation into Babe Ruth he'd be one of the early season favorites in the MVP race.  If the O's can somehow sustain this hot streak and become the 2012 version of Boston's fabled Impossible Dream team, he'd be their Carl Yastrzemski.  Oh, and he just inked a six year, $85.5 million contract extension (the largest deal in the team's history) that will keep him in an Orioles uniform through 2018.

But can he keep it up?  Probably not, but there are signs he made improvements.  He's helped himself by being more selective at the plate, laying off more pitches outside the zone while taking more cuts at strikes.  While this approach isn't translating into more walks, it means he's hacking at better pitches to hit.  It also helps that for the third straight year he's cut down on his swinging strikes and improved his contact rate.  Most of his batted ball data is in line with his career norms, with a few key exceptions.  First and foremost, one out of every four fly balls he's hitting is leaving the yard, which is fluky given that career HR/FB percentage is just under fourteen. His infield hit rate, over fifteen percent, seems too high as well.  He's fast, but he's no Ichiro Suzuki.

Since he's 26, it's tempting to say this is the year he finally puts it all together and enjoys a monster season, like Kemp did a year ago.  But Jones is notoriously streaky, and his hot start is reminiscent of his mini-breakout three years ago.  In 2009, with a full season under his belt, he'd established himself as a building block along with Matt Wieters, who many believed to be the next Joe Mauer, but with power.  The talented tandem headlined a solid core of position players that already featured Aubrey Huff, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Melvin Mora, and Luke Scott.  Right out of the gate, Jones caught fire.  Through his first 43 games, Jones looked like a superstar in the making at the tender age of 23, in the same class as Kemp and Justin Upton.  He batted .360/.411/.634, and through May 29th had already scored 40 runs, knocked in 36 and totaled 25 extra base hits.  However, there were signs that his hot start was unsustainable, notably his .406 BABiP and unimpressive 37/12 K/BB rate.  He cooled off, the pitchers figured him out, and from that point forward, he posted a paltry .228/.291/.352 line, and mercifully missed all but one game in September with a sprained ankle.  He still made his first All-Star team and won a Gold Glove, but his horrible finish left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans.  Was this kid for real?  Or just a flash in the pan?

As it turned out, Jones developed into a solid two-way centerfielder, but is nothing close to a superstar.  Kemp was the same way until becoming the best all-around player in baseball last year.  It's interesting to compare the two because they're very similar ballplayers. They both pile up the strikeouts (Kemp whiffs more), don't walk much (Kemp draws more free passes), and disappoint in the field and on the basepaths given their off the charts speed/athleticism.  Both had shown flashes of their immense potential but seemed to be plateauing.  Just look at their career numbers through their first five seasons:

Adam Jones 2006-2011
624 G 2,237 AB 310 R 616 H 100 2B 18 3B 75 HR 294 RBI .275/.319/.437 10 bWAR

Matt Kemp 2006-2010
626 G 2,260 AB 349 R 645 H 107 2B 24 3B 89 HR 331 RBI .285/.336/.472 8.1 bWAR

Their career paths diverged at the age of 25, when most players are entering the prime years of their careers.  Kemp took a major step back in 2010, when he batted a career worst .249, struck out 170 times, was unsuccesful in 15 of his 34 stolen base attempts and was worth -1.4 bWAR, mostly because of his horrific -3.6 dWAR.  Meanwhile, Jones set personal bests in games played, home runs, RBI, steals, slugging percentage, OPS+, total bases, bWAR, and led the majors in sacrifice flies.

We all saw what happened with Kemp last year. when he turned in a vintage Vladimir Guerrero season worthy of an MVP trophy (I don't think I'll ever get over this, Ryan Braun).  I project Jones to finish near the 30 home runs, 90 RBI mark with a .290 average.  Not quite MVP numbers, but a step in the right direction nevertheless.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spurs/Thunder Preview

Well, that was disappointing.

The Western Conference semfinals presented a pair of great matchups--Lakers/Thunder and Spurs/Clippers--that seemingly had the potential to turn into seven game prizefights, but both Los Angeles teams combined managed to win just one game.  Fans hoping to see a Lakers/Clippers duel for the Western Conference title, basketball's equivalent of a "Subway Series," will have to wait until next year.

San Antonio, who swept the Utah Jazz in the first round and enjoyed more than a week of rest before the semis, rolled over the Clippers, who never had much of a chance with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin still banged up from their exhausting first round meeting with the Memphis Grizzlies.  The Clips couldn't contain the Spurs top ranked offense, which shot north of 50 percent for the series continued to pile up points--more than 100 per game--as they have all season long.  San Antonio also outrebounded and outpassed Los Angeles, dominating their younger opponents in just about every facet of the game.  Accordingly, LA lost the first three matches by an average of fourteen points and were clearly overmatched.  They recovered to put up a spirited fight in Game 4 at home before ultimately winding up on the wrong end of a 102-99 score.

For the San Antonio Spurs, it was just business as usual.  They have not lost since April 11th, when the Lakers handed them their 16th and final loss of the regular season.  They've won 29 of their previous 31 games (a sizzling .935 winning percentage), so in that regard there is no hotter team in basketball.  They're like a well-oiled machine; efficient and methodical. 

Meanwhile the Oklahoma City Thunder disposed of the "Slow Time" Lakers in five games with their victories coming by an average margain of twelve and a half points.  But aside from the series opener (a 29 point drubbing) and clincher (a 16 point blowout), the middle three games were all decided by a single possession and could have gone either way. Ironically OKC, the much less experienced team, overcame LA leads late in Games 2 and 4 by executing in the fourth quarter.  Luckily for them LA choked; Pau Gasol disappeared, Kobe Bryant didn't live up to his "clutch" reputation and the Lakers simply didn't make shots, hitting a measly 41.8 percent from the floor and 28.2 percent from beyond the arc (both figures were four percent below their regular season averages).  For the second year in a row, the Lakers exited the playoffs in the second round and will embark on another tumultuous offseason.

But they're history.  The Western Conference Finals begin on Sunday night, and there's no doubt that it's going to be a competitive, hard-fought series between the top two seeds in the west (akin to Ali-Frazier).  The aging Spurs dynasty, pursuing a fifth championship since 1999, is making a last stand of sorts while the up-and-coming Thunder are poised to begin their own run.  Both teams will be well-rested, and despite the age disparity they are big, versatile, well-coached, and fundamentally sound.  Tim Duncan was in top form during the Clippers series, averaging 21 points and 9 boards per game while connecting on more than 59 percent of his field goal attempts. It will be interesting to see if OKC's premier interior defenders Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka can keep him out of the paint.  There are other intriguing matchups in the backcourt, too. Point guards Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook play a similar style of basketball since both like to attack the rim because neither one possesses a great outside shot.  Unlike a Rajon Rondo or Steve Nash, their best asset is scoring, not distributing. Shooting guard James Harden has already earned comparisons to Manu Ginobili, and at a thin position the duo is among the game's best. 

OKC can't match San Antonio's incredible depth, coaching, chemistry, polish, or playoff experience, but in the end I think the Thunder's youth and superior talent (read Kevin Durant) will help them prevail.  One thing's for certain; San Antonio's winning streak will come to an end because there's no way they pull off a third sweep in a row.For what it's worth, the Spurs took the season series two games to one. 

My prediction: Thunder in seven.  And the Celtics are going to close out the Sixers tonight in Philly.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Leave Josh Beckett Alone

Beckett's taking more of a beating from fans and media than he is from opposing hitters
Josh Beckett, who I identified as one of the five most important Red Sox players heading into this season, has drawn the ire of many Red Sox fans for his arrogance, selfishness and off-the-field shenanigans.  Following what was arguably the best season of his career, during which he posted career bests in ERA, WHIP, H/9, and ERA+, that was marred by a subpar finish (he allowed six earned runs and took the loss against the lowly Baltimore Orioles in both of his final two starts as the sinking Red Sox were fighting for their playoffs lives) one would expect him to be on his best behavior.  You'd think he would be doing everything in his power to repair his damaged reputation, to get back in the fan's good graces, to prove that he learned his lesson from the historic collapse of 2011.  Instead, he's coming off as a huge jerk, and it seems that he couldn't care less about his deteriorating public image.

His PR nightmare has only been compounded by a subpar start...or has it?  People are under the false impression that Beckett hasn't pitched well so far, and a quick glance at his stats seem to confirm this. His 4-4 record (he's received a decision in each of his eight starts) screams pedestrian, and his 4.38 ERA is more than half a run above his 3.85 career mark. His velocity is down and his strikeout rate has dipped to 7.3/9, still solid but the lowest of his career by nearly a full batter.  As it stands his 1.6 HR/9 ratio would tie his 2006 rate, when he served up 36 gopher balls in his American League debut.  All troubling signs for a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 who's been very inconsistent throughout his career.

Truth be told, Beckett's been quite good.  He's thrown six quality starts in his eight appearances, and in such outings he's permitted ten earned runs in 42 and one-third innings (a sparkling 2,13 ERA).  Even more impressively, Beckett has been tagged for just two home runs and boasts a strong 35/12 K/BB rate.  For 75 percent of the season, he's been nothing short of spectacular, but his early season statistics have been skewed by two disastrous outings.  Detroit shelled him in his first outing of the season as Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Alex Avila blasted five home runs to lead the Tigers to a 10-0 blowout.  Many chalked his poor performance up to early season rust, and he put Boston fans at ease by finishing the month with four consecutive quality starts to end April.

 It also bears mentioning that he was the tough luck loser twice during that stretch, settling for the dreaded L next to his name in the box score despite quality starts. On April 18th at Fenway he turned in seven strong innings against the potent Texas Rangers, allowing three runs--two of which came on a Mike Napoli home run during the fourth inning. He walked just one one batter (Ian Kinsler) versus seven strikeouts, more or less matching Derek Holland but leaving on the wrong end of a 3-2 score. Franklin Morales relieved him and promptly blew up; after getting Elvis Andrus to fly out he allowed six consecutive batters to reach base and three runs to score. By the time Matt Albers came to the rescue and extinguished the fire with an inning ending double play, Texas had built a four run lead and put the game away. Boston managed to push one more run across the plate against Joe Nathan in the bottom of the ninth and had runners on the corners when Jarrod Saltalamacchia lined into a game-ending double play. Two starts later, on April 29th in Chicago, he was outdueled by Gavin Floyd. After allowing three runs (two scored on Adam Dunn's dinger) in the first, Beckett settled down and held the White Sox scoreless for the next six frames. He tossed 126 pitches, but had to give way to Scott Atchison when he loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh (Atchison neutralized the threat by retiring Alex Rios). But Boston's bats failed to back him up with run support, as they scratched just three hits and one run off the trio of Floyd, Addison Reed and Matt Thornton.

But that's when he got in trouble off the field.  He missed his next start with a lat strain and wasn't available to pitch during the 17 inning marathon against the Orioles on April 6th, a game Baltimore won when Bobby Valentine brought in Darnell McDonald to pitch after burning through seven relievers.  When he was questioned about why he didn't make an appearance in the extra-inning affair, he bluntly replied, "Nobody asked me to."  Fair enough, it's not his job, but isn't that the type of situation where you recognize the magnitude of the situation and step up when your team needs you?  Like when Tim Wakefield volunteered for mop-up duty during Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS so Terry Francona could save his bullpen?  Boston had just dropped four in a row and was in danger of getting swept by the Orioles at Fenway, so it would have been nice to salvage a hard-fought win before getting on a plane to Kansas City.

It was then revealed that Beckett had been playing golf two days before his missed start when he should have been resting.  His explanation was that "I spend my off days the way I want to spend them...My off day is my off day."  With the team still struggling his round of golf sparked plenty of controversy amongst the agitated Boston fan base.  Perhaps Beckett just needed a wake-up call, and he got one during his return at Fenway for the series opener with Cleveland on May 10th. The Indians battered Beckett for seven runs and chased him from the game in the third inning.  The Fenway Faithful, understandably disgusted with their All-Star pitcher, unleashed a torrent of boos from the grandstand as he handed the ball to Valentine and disappeared into the dugout.  Since then, he's been excellent.  Beckett blanked the light-hitting Mariners over seven innings in his next start (his 32nd birthday), then proceeded to fire seven and two-thirds of one-run ball in Philly on Sunday, getting the best of Cliff Lee to help Boston take the rubber game of their first interleague series.

As for Beckett's All I'll say is this; I don't care about what Mr. Beckett decides to do on his off days. He's 32 years old, a big boy. He can do whatever he wants, so long as he's not jeopardizing his healthy or performance in any way.  Let's face it; if 85 year old senior citizens can handle 18 rounds without pulling something, then I think a professional athlete doesn't have too much to worry about.  In all honesty I'd rather see him working on his golf swing, getting some exercise and blowing off some steam instead of hanging out with John Lackey and Jon Lester, sitting on his butt eating fried chicken, drinking beer and playing videogames in the clubhouse. 

He'll make his next start this Saturday night against Jeremy Hellickson and the Tampa Bay Rays.  Last time out against Tampa, on Friday the 13th back in April, he limited the Rays to five hits and one run in eight innings as the Sox crushed David Price.

Boston has another off day on Thursday, and I have a feeling Josh Beckett won't be playing golf.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Weird Year for Catchers

2012 has been a weird year for catchers.  What I mean by that is several established backstops have been nothing short of terrible, while relative no names have come out of nowhere and ranked among the best hitters at the position. A few big name backstops such as Yadier Molina, Buster Posey, Carlos Santana, and Matt Wieters have met or exceeded expectations, but for the most part it seems that everybody else has deviated wildly from their career norms.  Let's look at the overachievers, underachievers and the guys in between.

Pleasant surprises

J.P. Arencibia (.250/.285/.483)
More of the same from Arencibia; plenty of pop and strikeouts, with walks few and far between (sounds like Mark Trumbo).  But among AL catchers, only Wieters has more homers and A.J. Pierzynski is the only one with more runs batted in.  After an ice cold April Arencibia has caught fire in May along with Jose Bautista, bashing six of his seven home runs and posting a gaudy 1.083 OPS.  Enjoy it while it lasts, because it's only a matter of time before he endures another extended dry spell.

A.J. Ellis (.333/.460/.510)
He has a higher batting average than Andre Ethier and a better OBP than Matt Kemp.  Up until this year the 31 year-old was a backup catcher with about half a season of MLB experience under his belt, so he's making the most of the increased playing time.  His superb on base skills are nothing new, but you always have to be skeptical when a player dramatically improves in his early thirties.  Read: he'll fall back to Earth eventually.

Jonathan Lucroy (.330/.381/.496)
With most of Milwaukee's position players not named Ryan Braun or Corey Hart struggling, Lucroy's hot streak has been a pleasant surprise.  He's cut down on his strikeouts and despite not homering in May, he's batting a robust .377/.406/.525 for the month with hits in all but two games.  Now I can see why Matthew Berry likes him so much.

A.J. Pierzynski (.301/.338/.485)
He's hit .300 five times already in his career, so the nice batting average isn't a shocker.  But after averaging just nine home runs, 52 RBI, and a .397 SLG. over his past two seasons, it looked like his power was diminishing with age.  Now the 35 year-old is leading all AL backstops in ribbies.  Go figure.  For what it's worth, his career highs in the power categories are 18 big flies, 77 RBI and a .464 slugging, all of which are in range.

Carlos Ruiz (.358/.407/.600)
With Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on the shelf and Jimmy Rollins scuffling, Ruiz has picked up the slack for the fallen stars and then some.  He's leading all catchers in just about every category except for home runs, OBP steals and is on pace to smash his previous career highs.  Ruiz has always been overshadowed by his more talented teammates even though he's the only catcher in either league to receive MVP consideration in each of the past two seasons.  With fourteen hits in his past nine games, he's shown no signs of slowing down, but obviously he's not going to keep hitting like Mike Piazza for the rest of the year. 

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.283/.308/.566)
Was mediocre at best in his Boston debut, but looks much more comfortable this year and has been on fire since the end of April.  At age 27, is he finally developing into the player many projected him to be?  His game calling skills are still questionable, but one thing's for sure; he's hitting a heck of a lot better than Jason Varitek would be if he decided to hang on for another year.  Catchers tend to develop at a slower pace than other position players, but this is going to be Salty's long-anticipated breakout campaign.

In the middle--These guys aren't playing as well as they could be, but at least they've been productive:

Brian McCann (.260/.336/.433)
All three triple slash stats are well below his career rates, but with six home runs and 24 RBI he's supplying his typically strong power numbers from the heart of Atlanta's order.  He also has more walks than strikeouts at the moment, something he's never been able to maintain over the course of a full season.

Miguel Montero (.260/.358/.351)
The power dropoff is concerning (just two home runs after smashing 18 a year ago), but he's walking more than ever before and has knocked in a team best 21 runs.  The Diamondbacks lineup has been crippled by Chris Young's injury and Justin Upton's slow start, so Montero's timely hitting is especially valuable.  The home runs will start to come during the hot Arizona summer.

Mike Napoli (.244/.333/.457)
An obvious regression candidate following his insane .320/.414/.631 performance last year (fueled by a monster second half), his numbers have returned to their 2006-'10 levels for now.  He's still hitting for plenty of power, though, and should approach the 30 home runs he cranked out last year if he stays healthy.  His stats should only improve throughout the summer once he can start taking advantage of the Arlington heat.


Alex Avila (/218/.298/.382)
Avila's breakout last season helped him make the All-Star team, win a Silver Slugger and finish twelfth in the MVP race ahead of more established stars such as CC Sabathia, Josh Hamilton, and Mark Teixeira, and effectively turning Victor Martinez into a full-time DH.  This year he's regressed to his 2010 levels (so has Jhnonny Peralta), when he batted .228/.316/.340 in 104 games.  With V-Mart out for the season his playing time is secure, and I think he'll eventually find the middle ground.

John Buck (.186/.307/.351)
Aside from his pit stop in Toronto two years ago, when he slugged 20 home runs and made the All-Star team, Buck has always been supbar with the bat because of his low OBP figures and high strikeout totals.  But he's never been this bad.  Just put him on the long list of struggling Miami Marlins with Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison, Josh Johnson and Heath Bell.  He's walking more, but he'll be hard-pressed to post decent power numbers in Miami's new ballpark

Nick Hundley (.170/.234/.277)
Was one of the few bright spots for a punchless Padres lineup last year when the then 27 year-old broke out by batting .288/.347/.477, good for a 132 OPS+ in half a season's worth of games.  San Diego still can't buy a run, only now Hundley isn't hitting, either.  Not to be confused with teammate Chase Headley, one of the few Padres who can hit.

Russell Martin (.170/.320/.320)
Martin was solid in his Yankees debut last year, when he replaced Jorge Posada as the everyday catcher, made the All-Star team and enjoyed his best season since 2008.  Typically a strong starter who fades during the summer, Martin has been uncharacteristically abysmal in the early going.  Lucky for him, Jesus Montero is over 3,000 miles away in Seattle, so he doesn't have to worry about losing playing time.  With Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano off to slow starts, too, Martin hasn't had to take too much heat from the press.

Joe Mauer (.275/.383/.380)
Mauer's numbers look eerily similar to the .287/.360/.368 line he put up last year while battling bilateral leg weakness.  He has just one home run so far and has already bounced into a major league leading nine double plays.  Mauer Power's been a shell of his former self since signing that eight year, $184 million contract extension he before last season, a deal that only looks worse with each passing day.  I thought he'd bounce back this year, but it just hasn't happened.  His track record is too excellent to ignore, though, so I wouldn't be surprised if he turns it around soon.

Miguel Olivo (.210/.229/.346)
From 2006 through 2011 he averaged 17 home runs, 57 RBI and a .433 slugging percentage, pretty decent power figures for a catcher.  With just three homers and seven RBI he's not hitting this year, and newcomer Jesus Montero (whose OPS is nearly 600 points higher when he catches instead of DH'es), eleven years his junior, is cutting into his playing time. 

Geovany Soto (.161/.250/.301)
Many were hoping that the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year would continue his every-other-year trend with a strong 2012 following a down 2011, but instead he's gotten even worse.  The only positive sign is that he's cut way down on his strikeouts, but it looks like Soto and the Cubbies are headed for another disappointing season in the Windy City. 

Kurt Suzuki (.224/.258/.288)
After averaging 14 home runs per season over the past three years, Suzuki has yet to go yard in 2012.  He may be suffering from the Russell Martin effect that follows overuse, since he played in 148 games in 2008, followed by 147 in '09.  His numbers have fallen off steeply ever since, and it's possible that he's already worn down at the age of 28.  Then again the A's don't hit, so he fits right in.

Also worthy of consideration; Jose Molina, Rod Barajas, Chris Ianetta

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Slow Starts I'm Not Worried About (NL)

To see the American League edition, go here

Justin Upton (.234/.342/.359)
This slump dates back to September 11th of last year, after which the younger Upton ended the season in an 8-for-48 rut.  Following a sluggish start in 2012 he seemed to be pulling out of it as April drew to a close, but then proceeded to struggle throughout much of May.  He dealt with a sore left thumb early on, an ailment that may have caused him to alter his swing.  His .289 BABiP doesn't look too bad, but it's 45 points below his career rate even though he's managing a career best in line drive rate.  He's taking more walks and chasing fewer pitches outside the zone, encouraging signs for a maturing hitter, and has reached base in each of his last ten games.  June and July are his best months, so a hot streak should be just around the corner. In the meantime at least his running game's improved; with six steals in seven attempts after finishing last year with an unspectacular 70 percent success rate.  Not sure if he winds up with the awesome statistics he put up last year, but he's too talented to keep underperforming much longer. I'd still rather have him than his older brother, B.J. Upton.  Oh, and he's still only 24.

Aramis Ramirez (.218/.289/.366)
Give Ramirez a few more weeks and he'll be
just fine
After inking a three year, $36 million dollar contract with Milwaukee during the winter to replace Casey McGehee at third and help soften the blow of Prince Fielder's impending departure, Ramirez has been a major disappointment thus far.  He's typically a slow starter, as April and May are his two worst months by far in terms of OPS (.779 and .770, respectively--he's the NL version of David Ortiz).  Like most power hitters, he's at his best during the summer months of July and August.  So far he's been following a similar path to 2010, when he had three home runs and an even worse .167/.234/.268 line through the middle of May, then got red hot in July and finished the season with 25 bombs in just 124 games.  He's hitting fly balls at the exact same pace as last year and has fifteen extra base hits, but his HR/FB rate is a measly 3.9 percent.  Expect more of those doubles to start clearing the fences as the weather heats up.  It's reasonable to assume that he's been pressing after switching teams and signing a new contract, but in reality he's not swinging as often at pitches in the strike zone.  If anything, he needs to start being more aggressive.  I think a repeat of 2010 is in order; a batting average in the .250-.260 range but with the standard 20+ home runs and good RBI figures.  Besides, you should have been expecting some regression after he left Wrigley Field, where his OPS is 86 points higher than it is everywhere else.

Brandon Phillips (.252/.290/.358)
Phillips sat out a week of games in April to rest his ailing hamstrings (which have limited him to just one stolen base in the early going), and the time off may have prevented him from getting in a groove.  Everything in his batted ball data checks out except for a middling home run to fly ball ratio and a fluky 20 percent infield fly rate. He's always lacked plate discipline but has been much too aggressive, chasing nearly 41 percent of pitches off the plate to date.  In order to turn it around he will have to be more selective.  To his credit he's been better as of late, though, with a .318 batting average since May 7th.  I think he's miscast as a cleanup hitter (Jay Bruce is the guy) and would probably be better suited batting out of the two hole.  I don't expect him to repeat last year's numbers, but he's better than this.

Rickie Weeks (.159/.297/.297)
It's been a rough year for Weeks and the Brew Crew
The Brewers are really struggling right now, but none are sputtering more than their second baseman.  Weeks has always been a streaky hitter, but he's looked lost at the plate over the past month and a half.  The league leader in strikeouts is whiffing way too much, but in fairness we're talking about a guy who fanned 184 times in 2010, easily the best season of his injury-checkered career.  He's walking more than ever before so he's still getting on base.  Aside from the high strikeout totals it's clear that he's not hitting the ball hard when he does make contact; look no further than his career low line drive rate and inflated infield fly ball rate.  Even more troubling is the fact that he's enjoyed only one multi-hit game since April 8th.  Considering he's averaged 108 games played since 2005, I'm just glad that he's played in 37 of Milwaukee's 39 games.  If he stays healthy, the numbers will bounce back.  I just have a gut feeling.

Danny Espinosa (.209/.293/.309)
Like Weeks, Espinosa whiffs a ton; he's second in the league with just one fewer strikeout than Weeks.  It's no surprise, then, that he's prone to lengthy droughts.  Right now he's stumbling through a sophomore slump primarily because he's just not making enough contact.  When he does he's hitting more line drives and fewer pop ups, if you're a glass half full kind of guy.  Washington's offense is in shambles, so Espinosa has plenty of company when it comes to underpforming hitters wearing Nationals uniforms.  His OPS has jumped almost 100 points in the past ten days, so perhaps he's finally breaking out.  I don't see any reason why he can't threaten 20/20 like he did last year.

Slow Starts I'm Not Worried About (AL)

Today I take a look at five players in the Junior Circuit who have struggled in the early going, but are likely to turn it around.  I'm examining players who have hit rock bottom, not guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Robinson Cano, who still have solid numbers.  But these players either endured some terrible luck lately or have shown signs of breaking out.  So if you have them on your fantasy team, don't sell low since you've already weathered the worst and will miss out on their best.  Patience is a virtue, and you'll want to reap the rewards.

Jose Bautista (.207/.329/.443)
Many are worried that Bautista's sluggish start is a continuation of last year's second half, when his numbers slid to .257/.419/.477 after the All-Star Break.  But he was bound to regress after that MVP worthy first half.  He didn't have much lineup protection, either, and as the season wore on he didn't get many pitches to hit--his walk rate jumped and he paced the majors with 132 free passes.  In all likelihood the pitchers have figured him out to some degree, but I think he's still an elite hitter.  All of his batted ball data and plate discipline stats match those from last year,  but a .178 BABiP is killing him.  No, he's not going to bat .302 again, but with better luck he should wind up around the .260 mark he posted in 2010, his breakout campaign.  Joey Bats has powered up as of late, too, with five home runs in his past seven games.  I think he'll finish with typical Adam Dunn statistics, but with about half as many strikeouts.

Albert Pujols (.214/.248/.325)
After 11 excellent seasons in St. Louis,
Pujols has been frustrated in LA
Has endured what might be the most publicized and analyzed slump of all time.  Players typically go through an adjustment period after signing big free agent contracts and/or switching leagues, and in this regard the Machine is merely human.  For a while there he looked like David Ortiz circa spring, 2009, but with home runs in back-to-back games and a six game hitting streak he seems to be breaking out of his funk here.  I'm concerned that he's not taking any walks and chasing too many pitches out of the zone, so I guess he's been pressing and is just trying to swing his way out of it.  It's clear that he's no longer the best hitter in the game, but he's still a force with the bat in his hands.  Recall that he struggled up until Memorial Day last year before busting out and still managed a fifth place finish in the National League MVP race.  Nobody works harder than him, and it's only a matter of time before he figures it out.  Don't be surprised if he goes on a tear against his former NL opponents when interleague play starts this weekend. 

Mark Teixeira (.228/.283/.386)
Wait, is Mark Teixeira off to another slow start? Color me surprised. Every year people start worrying when he struggles early on, and every year (eight in a row now) he ends up with more than 30 home runs and 100 RBI.  For the record, his career OPS in April is a full 128 points below his next lowest mark which comes in--you guessed it--May.  In fact, his OPS keeps increasing through August, so at least wait until summer before pressing the panic button.  Sure, the days of hitting .300 are long gone, especially since he hits everything into the shift, which is compounded by the fact that he's been hitting too many grounders and not enough fly balls.  But he's striking out less frequently, his line drive rate looks good and his 10.2 HR/FB rate is well below his career 18 percent mark, so expect a few more fly balls to start clearing the fences once the weather heats up.  Before going 0-for-4 yesterday he'd been riding a six game hitting streak.  He's been dealing with a bronchial infection, so cut him some slack.  With that lineup and park, he's going to produce.

Eric Hosmer (.174/.237/.319)
Hosmer's been victimized by bad luck
The Royals are struggling, and Hosmer is no exception.  After finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting last year, the 22 year-old superstar in the making seems to be mired in a brutal sophomore slump.  Manager Ned Yost has been moving the youngster around in the lineup to try to get him going by batting him third, fourth, moving him down to sixth, and recently moving him up to the two hole.  The same thing happened last year Hosmer finally settled in as the cleanup hitter during the second half, so don't read too much into it.  No matter where he hits in the order, he's going to turn it around. Hosmer's striking out less, walking more, and swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, all signs that he's maturing as a hitter.  So why is he struggling?  Could be growing pains, but the more likely explanation is that he's getting burned by a .165 BABiP.  Hosmer won't provide the Joey Votto numbers everybody was hoping for during the preseason, but he won't tank and pull a Jason Heyward, either.  I see a repeat of last year's numbers, with a lower average but better power figures.

Alexei Ramirez (.209/.229/.268)
Is he going to pull an Alex Rios this year?  I don't think so.  Much like Teixeira, Ramirez is a perennial slow starter, with an April OPS that's 160 points below his next worst month (September).  He'll be fine.  There are warning signs with career worsts in walk and strikeout rate, but his contact rates are excellent. All of his batted ball splits look fine except for his anemic 2.3 HR/FB rate, which explains why he has just one home run so far and is bound to go up, especially since the Cell is such a homer friendly venue.  After a much needed day off earlier in the week to clear his head he's gone 5 for his last 17 (.294), so he may be poised for a hot streak.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Carlos Beltran's Forgotten Excellence

Beltran's been raking
Matt Kemp dominated the headlines during April, when his dozen dingers helped jumpstart the Dodgers to the best record in baseball.  Annointed by many as the best player in the game, the deserving 2011 NL MVP cooled off before landing on the disabled list with a strained left hammy.  By then he was old news, because the spotlight had swung to Josh Hamilton, the modern day Mickey Mantle who enjoyed his own monster April and is coming off a historic nine homer week for the top team in the American League.  Now everybody's talking about the potential for a triple crown season, the first since Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Impossible Dream Red Sox 45 years ago. 

As a result Carlos Beltran, off to his own remarkable start for the defending World Series champs, has gotten lost in the shuffle.  The talented centerfield tandem has overshadowed the former five-tool stud, who during his prime was every bit as good as Kemp and Hamilton are now.  The same night Josh Hamilton tee-ed off on Baltimore pitching, Beltran accounted for all six of the Cardinals' runs by taking Ian Kennedy deep twice in the first two innings, with a two-run shot in the first followed by a grand slam in the second.  Three days later he piled up 13 total bases against the Braves after recording a double, triple, and pair of big flies to fall a single short of the cycle.  On the back of those two remarkable performances he was named NL Player of the Week yesterday. In the process he vaulted over Kemp for the league lead in four-baggers, is now batting a robust .295/.403/.648 and has thrown his hat into the early season MVP discussion.

Beltran's surge has caught a lot of people off guard because as recently as last spring it seemed as though chronic knee injuries had derailed a once promising career, jeopardizing a body of work that looked Cooperstown worthy for much of the preceding decade.  Beltran had gone under the knife for knee surgery after missing half of the 2009 season, but when he returned to the field the following summer he was nothing more than a shell of his former self.  He sputtered through 64 lifeless games at the plate, lacked aggression on the basepaths, and saw his once stellar defense deteriorate.  Like Andruw Jones before him, he looked worn down and seemed incapable of staying on the field.  Angel Pagan took over in center, forcing Beltran to move over to right field where he could cover less ground and ease the strain on his legs.  The move paid off; after a strong first half last year, the cash-strapped Mets shipped him across the country to the offensively challenged San Francisco Giants, looking for a big bat to replace Buster Posey, for pitching prospect Zach Wheeler. The Giants ultimately faded down the stretch and missed the postseason, but Beltran finished the season strong in his new digs despite spending time on the DL in August. 

So coming off a strong rebound campaign in which he batted .300, whacked 67 extra base hits and posted a career best 155 OPS+ (in his contract year), Beltran was a fairly attractive free agent despite his age and recent injury history. Not as sexy as younger, flashier stars like Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, and Jose Reyes, but he'd proved he still had plenty left in the tank. The St. Louis Cardinals, desperate to fill the gaping hole in their lineup after Pujols signed on with the Angels, inked the switch-hitter to a two year, $26 million deal.  Not quite the 7 year, $119 million contract the New York Mets handed him prior to the 2005 season (can you tell he's a Scott Boras client?), but a sizable chunk of change nonetheless for somebody who'd averaged just 96 games played during the previous three seasons.

Many regarded the signing as a steal at the time.  It looks even better now that Beltran, who just turned 35 last month, started hitting when he stroked two hits on Opening Day and hasn't stopped.  Without the weight of a massive contract on his shoulders, the crushing expectation, and the intense New York fans/media assaulting his psyche on a daily basis, Beltran can finally relax and play baseball.  Don't forget that he originally came up with Kansas City and rose to stardom there, so in a sense his career has come full circle by returning to its Missouri roots.  He must be enjoying the more relaxing atmosphere of the Midwest because he's thriving at home, where his OPS (1.293) is more than 400 points higher than it is everywhere else.  Aside from a brutal 3-for-32 slump from April 21st to May 1st, the six time All-Star has been unstoppable.  More importantly, he's been a force in the heart of the order during Lance Berkman's DL stint and Matt Holliday's slow start.  No, he's not the Gold Glove caliber defender he once was, but at least his running game has returned to some degree. He already has five steals after swiping just seven bases in the past two years combined. 

The question is--can he keep it up?  For what it's worth, he traditionally performs better in the second half, when his OPS has been 48 points higher than his first half figure.  But then again, I'm pretty confident that Beltran has never been so red-hot in the early going.  Despite his remarkable numbers, one has to expect some regression in the future.  His 33 strikeouts in 34 games are a cause for concern, especially because his K rate--22.9 percent--is more than seven percent above his career average.  He's not a huge strikeout guy, so I don't think that trend will continue unless he's decided to "swing for the fences" more often and wants to trade contact for power.  There's some evidence in the numbers that his might be the case. His contact rate is under 80 percent, the lowest it's been since 2002--the first year FanGraphs started tracking such information--mostly because he's missing more of the pitches that he's chasing outside of the zone.  Meanwhile, he's hitting more balls in the air, with his fly ball rate (46.1 percent) up to its highest level since 2006, when he smacked 41 home runs, slugged .594 and finished fourth in the NL MVP race.  However, his home run per fly ball rate is currently at an unsustainable 31.7 percent (twice his career rate), meaning almost one of every three fly balls he hits is clearing the fences. Accordingly, his line drive rate is way down at 13.5 percent, the lowest it's ever been (which explains why he has only two doubles), so it seems logical that as the season progresses he'll start trading in some fly balls for line drives.  That translates to fewer homers, but more singles and doubles, so one would expect his slugging percentage to fall but his batting average to push north of .300.

Now that Berkman's back and Holliday is coming around, Beltran should continue to get good pitches to hit and keep producing at a high level for the division leading Cardinals.  With Yadier Molina, Rafael Furcal, David Freese, Allen Craig and Jon Jay, St. Louis boasts one of the deepest lineups in baseball.  Beltran had little help/protection the last few years in New York and San Fran, but now can take advantage of abundant opportunities to score and drive in runs, two things he's been doing since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1999.  I don't think he can duplicate his impressive 2006 season, but assuming he stays healthy enough to play around 140 games, I could see him approaching 30 home runs, 110 runs and the same number of RBI while batting close to .300 and stealing 15 bases.  Even though he's injury prone at this stage of his career and will probably find his way to the disabled list sooner or later, he should end up with numbers in the same neighborhood of what Lance Berkman provided for St. Louis in his Comeback Player of the Year season last year.

Not bad for a guy stuck with the "washed up" label 13 months ago.