Thursday, August 30, 2012

25 Bold(ish) Predictions for the Rest of the Season

With September just around the corner, it's time for some late season predictions.  I don't necessarily believe all of these will happen, but there exists the possibility that they could happen.  A few months from now I'll check back and see how these turned out. Enjoy, and feel free to check out my 2011 edition and the follow-up.

1. Mike Trout will not win the AL MVP award
I can see the wheels falling off in September for the 21 year-old, much as they did for Alex Rodriguez when he was the same age back in 1996.  Miguel Cabrera and his monster power numbers will play the role of Juan Gonzalez, while teammate Albert Pujols will steal some votes the same way Ken Griffey Jr. did. 

2. Houston wins fewer than 50 games this year
The struggling 'Stros already have 40, but have won just eight times in the past two months.  That's right, their record since June 28th is an impossibly bad 8-47!  Houston, we have one of the worst teams in baseball history.  Hey, at least Jose Altuve is playing well.

3. Baltimore is going to finally hit the skids
All summer long I've waited for the Orioles' to crumble like last year's Pirates.  It hasn't happened...yet.  Starting tomorrow night, they play 26 of their final 32 regular season games against their AL East rivals. Have fun.

4. Hanley Ramirez reaches 30 home runs for the first time since 2008
HanRam's overall numbers are still disappointing, but his bat has caught fire since he landed in LA  more than a month ago.  After blasting seven home runs in his previous thirteen games, raising his season homer total to 22, I like his chances of slugging eight more dingers over the next five weeks.

5. Justin Verlander repeats as AL Cy Young champion.
Only four pitchers--Denny McLain, Jim Palmer, Roger Clemens (twice) and Pedro Martinez--have ever won consecutive Cy Young awards in the American League since the award's inception in 1956.  Verlander will have stiff competition from Jered Weaver, Chris Sale, David Price, and the currently unhittable Felix Hernandez, but I believe Detroit's ace will reel off a dominant September.  I could see him winning all of his starts from here on out.

6. The Red Sox avoid their first losing season since 1997
All Boston has to do is go 19-12 from this point forward (appropriate given that 100-year old Fenway Park opened in 1912).  That seems like a tall order for a roster gutted by injuries and one of the biggest trades/salary dumps of all time, but there have still been encouraging signs (aside from Pedro Ciriaco's spirited play).  Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are coming around, Jon Lester is pitching like an ace again and Andrew Bailey should get the closer role back after Alfredo Aceves' latest meltdown.  Besides, I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that a "team" that has underachieved all season long (their pythagorean record is five games over .500) could start playing up to its ability.  Even if they don't, it's not like this September could possibly be any worse than last year's, right?  Don't answer that.

7. Josh Beckett (5-12, 5.21 ERA) is going to turn his season around with the Dodgers
After moving out of Fenway and the AL Beast to a pitching-friendly venue in the weaker league, what's not to like?  For what it's worth, his career ERA against NL opponents is nearly a full run better than it is against American League competition.

8. Bryce Harper goes 20/20
The 19 year-old needs six four-baggers and seven thefts to hit 20 in both categories, no easy feat given that he has just six and five, respectively, since June 29th.  If he hadn't spent most of April in AAA he'd be a shoe-in for those figures, but the late start and summer slump have depressed his overall numbers.  Not even a blazing finish will be enough to overtake Wade Miley and Todd Frazier in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

9. Josh Hamilton bats .300
His average hasn't been that high since July 18th, but at .292 entering play today the .306 career hitter is well within reach of his third .300 campaign in five years.  If he stays healthy, I think he's going to get hot in September.

10. Buster Posey knocks in 100 runs
The 2010 NL Rookie of the Year needs 20 more ribbies to become the first NL catcher since Javy Lopez in 2003 to amass 100 RBI in a single season. 

11. Nobody on the Houston Astros finishes with 15 home runs
Jed Lowrie (14), Justin Maxwell (12) and J.D. Martinez (11) are all close, and even with with Lowrie expecting to play again this season I don't think any of them gets to 15.

12. Joe Mauer gets traded
The Twins placed the face of their franchise on revocable trade waivers.  He's still owed $23 million per season over the next six years, and until last weekend contracts of those proportions seemed unmovable.  But after Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford shipped out of Boston, anything is possible.  Mauer, a former MVP and three time batting champ, should draw interest from somebody.

13. Adam Dunn won't break Mark Reynolds single season strikeout record
The chase is on; Dunn has whiffed 186 times to date and is 40 Ks away from making baseball history.  Considering that the White Sox still have 33 games left on their slate, and that Dunn fans approximately 1.5 times per game, he's on track to to accrue around 235 strikeouts, give or take.  But if Chicago can wrap up the division early, Robin Ventura figures to give the Big Donkey some much needed rest down the stretch, especially since Dunn has sat out just one game all season.  On a somewhat related note, I'm going to say his .206 batting average stays above the Mendoza line even though September is traditionally the worst month of his career (DH'ing should help keep him fresh).

14.  David Ortiz will not play again in 2012
No need to rush his recovery from an Achilles injury that's limited him to one game played since July 16th.

15. Nobody in the NL will strike out more than 200 times
A National League batter (Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs are the culprits) has whiffed at least 200 time in each of the past four seasons, and in 2007 Ryan Howard fell one short.  The streak of futility ends this year, mainly because Reynolds switched leagues and Stubbs spent time on the DL.  Danny Espinosa's 150 Ks top the Senior Circuit.

16. Both Los Angeles teams make the playoffs
Currently leading the second wild card by one game over Los Angeles, St. Louis won't be able to fend off the hard-charging Dodgers down the stretch.  The Redbirds can hit with the best of them, but I don't think their starting pitching is going to hold up.  I'm especially skeptical about Kyle Lohse (notorious first half pitcher), Jaime Garcia (fresh off the DL), Jake Westbrook (overachieving) and Lance Lynn's replacement, Joe Kelly (rookie).  Basically every member of the rotation not named Adam Wainwright, who could wear down towards the end of his first season back from Tommy John surgery.  As for the Angels, they are simply too talented not to make the playoffs.  Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, C.J Wilson, and Ervin Santana will all hit their stride in September, while Albert Pujols continues to mash and Mark Trumbo emerges from his August swoon.

17. Detroit will catch Chicago in the AL Central
Since falling six games below .500 on June 6th, the Tigers have heated up (44-29) with the weather and played well all summer long.  They look like the formidable team everybody throught they'd be during the preseason.   Plus the last thirteen games of their schedule couldn't be any softer, with four alternating series against the terrible Twins and Royals to close out the season.

18. Eric Hosmer (.240/.310/.369) will get hot
A sophomore slump has besieged the future Joey Votto, but Hosmer is simply too good of a hitter to keep this up for another month.  I'm emboldened by the fact that he's batting .340/.396/.511 since August 14th.

19.  The Reds will win 100 games and have the best record in baseball
Hard to believe the same roster (sans Mat Latos and Ryan Ludwick) finished four games below .500 a year go.  Cincy's bullpen is incredible, their starting rotation has stayed healthy and the lineup has continued to produce with Votto sidelined.  A few weeks ago I was all in on the Nationals, but they've gone 8-7 since and will miss Stephen Strasburg when he's inevitably shut down.

20. The Braves blow their postseason berth, again
Just like last year, Atlanta has had a stranglehold on the wild card all season long, but will once again be done in by their shoddy starting pitching.  Outside of Tim Hudson, the rotation has lacked consistency.  Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm's combined success in August is unsustainable, and when/if they regress the Braves are doomed.  I called/jinxed their meltdown at the beginning of August last year, so let's see if lightning strikes the same spot twice.

23. Ichiro Suzuki leads AL position players in games played for the third year in a row
Despite the fact that he turns 39 years young in October, Ichiro has remained an Iron Man into the twilight of his career.  His hitting has picked up a bit since joining the Yankees, and I expect Joe Girardi will keep finding ways to get Suzuki into games (defensive replacement, pinch-runner, etc.) even on days when the latter doesn't see his name in the starting lineup.

24. 23 year-old Madison Bumgarner finishes higher than rotation-mate Matt Cain on the NL Cy Young ballot

It's amazing how similar their numbers are right now; their stat lines are essentially interchangeable:

Cain-13 wins, 2.82 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 182 IP, 164 Ks, 2 CG, 4.56 K/BB
Bum.-14 wins, 2.93 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 178 IP, 165 Ks, 2 CG, 4.58 K/BB

Both have issued 36 walks, surrendered 19 home runs, and sport identical 1.8 BB/9 rates.  Last year Cain finished eighth in the voting while Bumgarner finished 11th, tied with teammate Ryan Vogelsong.  All three were behind Tim Lincecum (sixth), who would have to put together a scoreless innings streak on par with Don Drysdale/Orel Hershiser just to receive consideration.

25. Chipper Jones will draw a walk in the last at-bat of his career
Sorry, no Ted Williams-esque finale for Atlanta's 40 year-old third baseman.  But walks are valuable, too.  Jones should know; he's drawn nearly 1,500 of them throughout his illustrious career.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Santanas Struggling

2012 has not been kind to the three (unrelated) Santanas playing in the major leagues this season.

Johan Santana (6-9, 4.85 ERA)
Through the season's first half, the two-time Cy Young winner was building a compelling for NL Comeback Player of the Year honors.  After missing all of 2011 he was pitching like an ace again; through the end of June he had a 2.76 ERA, 93 Ks in 98 innings and limited opponents to a meager .207 batting average.  But then fatigue caught up with him and his once promising season took a turn for the worse.  In his five starts--all losses--since the calendar flipped to July, he allowed at least six earned runs each time out and failed to pitch beyond the fifth inning.  Over that span the southpaw allowed 33 earned runs in just 19 innings pitched (15.63 ERA).  If you go back even further, looking at the ten starts he's made since hurling the first no-hitter in Mets franchise history on June 1st, he has been battered to the tune of .327/.377/.587 while serving up 13 home runs.

Santana started the season strong, but wilted during
the summer months and will not pitch again in 2012
His struggles can be partially explained by simple regression to the mean; .259 BABiP in those first eleven starts, .357 since (despite almost no change in batted ball data) as more hits started falling in.  He's also been a bit unlucky with a 68.8 LOB% (league average is around 72) and 11.7% HR/FB rate, his worst mark since his final season with the Twins five years ago.  His 4.08 FIP, 4.02 xFIP and 3.86 SIERA are all significantly lower than his ugly 4.85 ERA.  Health has been an issue for the 33 year-old as well.  The four time All-Star spent three weeks on the DL in late July/early August with a right ankle sprain/shoulder weakness.  Made just two starts when he returned, getting hammered each time out.  He clearly wasn't right, and last week the Mets shut him down for the season with lower back inflammation.  On the bright side, his two shutouts still lead the National League, though he's tied with Clayton Kershaw, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Adam Wainwright, and teammate R.A. Dickey.  In order to preserve his arm for next season Santana will delay his throwing program six weeks this winter. 

Carlos Santana (.241/.361/.399)
Big things were expected of Cleveland's 26 year-old backstop after he slugged 27 home runs, drew 97 walks and posted a .218 ISO in his first full season last year.  Some even believed that with continued growth the switch-hitter had the potential to be the best offensive catcher this year, better than Joe Mauer, Mike Napoli, Brian McCann, Matt Wieters, Miguel Montero, Buster Posey, and all the rest.  Instead, he seems to have taken a step back in the power department and has been a major disappointment, especially in the first half. Look no further than June, when he failed to go yard and drove in just five runs over 20 games.  In fact, he he didn't hit a single bomb from May 16th through July 17th, a power outage that lasted one-third of the season.  He hit rock bottom in early July, but has picked it up in the second half.  His power has returned with 17 extra base hits and he's driving in runs. He has also posted a stellar .906 OPS and 27/22 BB/K ratio since the All-Star Break.  Overall he's walking more, striking out less, and hitting more line drives than he did a year ago, all signs of a maturing hitter.  I believe a big season in 2013, his age 27 season, is looming on the horizon.  Projecting a 30 home run season seems overly optimistic given that he likely won't even reach 20 this year (currently has 13), but I wouldn't say it's out of the question.
Santana's power is down, but his plate discipline remains excellent
Ervin Santana (7-11, 5.45 ERA)
2012 has been rough on Big Erv, who lost his first six starts of the year and hasn't really recovered.   I detailed his struggles when the Angels landed Zack Greinke nearly a month ago, but it looks as through he's starting to turn it around a bit.  Since bottoming out on July 21st after Texas tagged him for eight hits and six earned runs in one and two-thirds innings, he skipped a turn in the rotation when Dan Haren returned from the DL and has pitched much better lately.  Santana managed to lower his ERA in each of the six starts since and has limited opponents to a paltry .199 batting average over that stretch.  Still, one month-long stretch of success can't wipe away an entire season's worth of struggles (unless that month happens to be October, of course).  He's been wildly inconsistent all year--just look at his monthly splits:

Santana's rollercoaster season fits perfectly with his
up and down career
April-6.16 ERA 1.50 WHIP 5.6 K/9, allowed a dozen home runs in his first four starts

May--3.69 ERA 1.21 WHIP 7.6 K/9, ten strikeouts on 5/4, one on 5/9 and nine on 5/15

June--5.85 ERA 1.24 WHIP 5.8 K/9, tossed a shutout after getting bombed for seven earned runs in each of his previous two starts

July--12.21 ERA 2.29 WHIP 3.2 K/9, failed to make it out of the second inning in two starts and had more walks (six) than strikeouts (five)

August-3.58 ERA 0.98 WHIP 6.1 K/9, best month yet!

It's not hard to see why Santana is having the worst season of his career based on ERA+ (69) and bWAR (-1.6). His career worst 6.1 K/9 is down nearly a full batter from last season, he's tenth in the league in walks and he's already served up 31 gopher balls this year (only Baltimore's Tommy Hunter, with 32, has allowed more, and Santana has yet to go more than two starts in a row without surrendering a four-bagger).  That, combined with a career worst 1.89 K/BB ratio and a less than fortunate 67.5 strand rate, is not exactly a recipe for success. No wonder he ranks third among AL hurlers in most earned runs allowed (behind Ricky Romero and Ubaldo Jimenez) or tied for third in losses (behind Jimenez and Luke Hochevar).  Still, his 1.33 WHIP isn't horrendous, and his 4.60 xFIP indicates he's been a little unlucky.  His next start is September 1st against the light-hitting Seattle Mariners, so his recent hot streak should continue.

But how will he pitch in September?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Ortiz On DL Again

After spending five weeks on the Disabled List from mid-July through last week, David Ortiz is back on the shelf with another Achilles injury.

That didn't take long.  But then again, it's just been that kind of year for the Red Sox.  As soon as the team got Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury back after the All-Star Break, Ortiz limped off the field July 16th, missed more than a month, and then played one measly game before getting hurt again.  And I should probably mention that in the 35 games without their cleanup hitter, Boston went 13-22 as their record plunged seven games below .500. The eight time All-Star reinjured his Achilles running out a double in his return last Friday night.  But at least Big Papi made the most of his one game by going 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI in Boston's 4-3 win over the Royals. 

Ortiz will receive treatment this week and says he hopes to play again sometime this season.  Don't bother.  Just take it slow and focus on rehabbing/preparing for 2013.  After all, what's the point of rushing through recovery to make it back for games that aren't going to matter?  Why risk further injury playing out the string in a meaningless September?  The Red Sox aren't going to make the playoffs, not after unloading Josh Beckett, Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers.  I know he's motivated because he's in a contract year and is seeking a multiyear deal, but it's not like he has anything to prove.  Even at the age of 36 he's still the league's premier DH and arguably its best hitter; his .611 SLG and 1.026 OPS are tops in the Junior Circuit.  He should cash out now, quit while he's ahead, because it's almost impossible to hit much better than that.  Besides, I'm sure Ben Cherington will be able to send some of that freed up $260 million Big Papi's way.  Isn't that what it's there for?

Ryan Kalish has been recalled from Pawtucket and will fill the vacant roster spot.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Red Sox Reshape Roster

Nearly five months into one of the most dysfunctional, frustrating and turbulent seasons in recent Red Sox memory, the organization is going in a new direction. Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford three of the team's biggest stars and most expensive players, are gone, taking a third of the team's 173 million dollar payroll with them. The overpaid trio was shipped out of Boston yesterday, jettisoned to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They, along with Nick Punto and eleven million dollars, netted five players (James Loney, prospects Ivan De Jesus Jr. and Alan Webster, plus two players to be named later--rumored to be Rubby De La Rosa and Jerry Sands) along with some much needed financial relief. In one fell swoop, Boston's front office pulled off the biggest firesale the Old Towne Team has seen since Harry Frazee dismantled his deadball era dynasty 90 years ago.

But with the team sputtering--seven games below .500, nine and a half games out of the second wild card and sporting a worse record than the Seattle freaking Mariners--it was evident that some sort of sweeping change was necessary to get them back on track. For the third year in a row, Boston will miss the playoffs, something that hasn't happened since 2000-2002 ( gives them a 0.6 percent chance of reaching the postseason, and even those odds seem too generous). The team is headed towards its first losing season since 1997. They've gone 67-87 since last September 1st. It's hard to believe that at the same time a year ago, the "best team ever" was gunning for 100 wins and a World Series title.

But the Red Sox are expected to contend every year, so obviously this level of mediocrity is unacceptable. Boston, a city that cherishes baseball as much as it loves clam chowder and the legend of Paul Revere, will not tolerate losing seasons as long as it continues to pay the most expensive ticket prices in the sport. Red Sox Nation is impatient (and has every right to be after waiting 86 years between World Series) I give all the credit in the world to Boston GM Ben Cherington for getting creative and orchestrating such a groundbreaking trade to change the face of the franchise.  He deserves a pat on the back for trying to retool the team on the fly.  He could have easily blamed this lost season on a crippling combination of slumps and injuries, sat on his hands for the rest of the summer and taken his chances with the same team next year, perhaps with a new field manager in tow. Instead, he recognized the team was going nowhere because Theo Epstein's spending sprees tied up much of his financial resources. The bloated payroll, much of it dedicated to injured/ineffective players such as Beckett, Crawford, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, was working against them. It choked Cherington, limiting him to making minor moves and preventing him from pursuing players and deals that could actually make an impact (last winter he was unable to re-sign Jonathan Papelbon or court free agents such as Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson, and Mark Buehrle). So he took a cue from the Philadelphia Phillies, who were mired in the exact same situation as the Red Sox--massive payroll, devastated by injuries, treading water.  After re-signing Cole Hamels they unloaded Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino at the trade deadline.  Four weeks later, Boston followed suit.

By all accounts this blockbuster trade is a great move for the Red Sox and a big win for Cherington, who hasn't been able to do anything right since stepping in for Theo Epstein last October. After all, his recent track record is littered with duds; he hired Bobby Valentine, traded Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney, dealt Jed Lowrie for Mark Melancon, sent Marco Scutaro to Colorado, swapped Kevin Youkilis for a couple of nobodies, and stood pat the trade deadline instead of shaking things up when Boston still had a chance to make the playoffs. Cherington's moves only spilled gasoline into a raging inferno, adding to the team's myriad problems instead of solving them. But he just gave himself and his team a clean slate, and if this move works out for him, we might remember him as the man who cleaned up Theo Epstein's expensive mess with one big broom. In a way, this move feels like a much larger version of his predecessor's pivotal Nomar Garciaparra trade in 2004, a bold midseason deal that dumped an unhappy, underperforming star player to the NL for fifty cents on the dollar but ultimately worked because it greatly improved clubhouse chemistry and addressed the team's needs. In the end, the degree to which this deal suceeds depends on who Cherington is able to acquire with all the payroll he just freed up.

And that's why I support the move; because it will save the team more than $260 million in player salaries (not including Dice-K, who's coming off the books in a few months as well) over the next five years. After that kind of salary dump, you'd think the team had changed its name to the "Boston Mets." But with a much more flexible payroll, Cherington will have sufficient funds to re-sign David Ortiz and Cody Ross, potentially woo Jacoby Ellsbury away from free agency (an unlikely scenario considering Scott Boras represents him, but at least the Sox could lay down an appetizing offer and then try to trade him if he's not interested). He can go after starting pitchers like Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster and James Shields, or perhaps try to land a Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn or Shane Victorino. Cherington has stressed the need to be disciplined and smart about how he will allocate his new spending money, indicating that he won't get carried away with reckless splurging as Epstein did during the latter half of his tenure (i.e. throwing money at free agents just for the sake of spending money/making a splash). In a nutshell, he intends to spend his allowance wisely, an approach that should prevent this sort of thing from happening again in the near future.

And it's not like the Red Sox are blowing up their team Florida Marlins style. Much has been made about how the trade is like pressing a reset button, but that implies the team is starting over from starting over from scratch like the Houston Astros. In reality, they still have a great core of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Daniel Bard, all of whom are in their primes. With a restocked farm system and the right moves to complement this nucleus, the Red Sox could contend as soon as next year. No need to undergo a full blown rebuilding process when the roster still has plenty of big league talent to build around. With some more starting pitching depth and another outfield bat, they're going to be a dangerous team in 2013.

Still, I hate to lose a hitter of Gonzalez's caliber, especially since offense is at such a premium these days. He was worth the investment. But at the same time, I realize he had to be sacrificed in order to get LA to take Beckett and Crawford off our hands. Gonzo was a perfect fit for Fenway with his gap-to-gap hitting style and ability to take advantage of the Green Monster with his opposite field power. A-Gone had the potential to put together a Hall of Fame career as the team's best everyday first baseman since Mo Vaughn. He's a class act, a true professional who plays hard, quietly goes about his business and keeps his mouth shut.  Lord knows the Red Sox could use more players like him. It was a joy watching him hit everyday, and the Sox are going to miss his presence in the middle of their order. Luckily I was fortunate enough to see his last game with Boston in person, even though he ended his Red Sox career (and that game) by whiffing on three consecutive pitches with the tying run on base.

Even though I'm not a big fan of trading proven big league talent for prospects, I think the Sox got a pretty promising package in return:

James Loney
Once a top prospect and first round draft pick who batted a robust .331/.387/.538 as a 23 year-old rookie in 2007, Loney hasn't come close to matching those numbers in any of the five seasons since. The power he displayed never developed, either, as he's failed to swat more than thirteen homers in any subsequent season. Given the promise he displayed early on, his regression into an average player at best can be regarded as hugely disappointing. He's 28, in the prime of his career, and instead he's having the worst season of his career, batting just .254/.302/.344 with only four home runs and 33 RBI. That kind of production suggests he's a glove first shortstop, when in reality he's splitting time at first with Juan Rivera. Loney will be a free agent this winter, and unless he regroups over the next six weeks I doubt he'll stay in Boston beyond that. Fenway could help revitalize his career, but he looks so lost at the plate that it doesn't matter where he hits.

Jerry Sands
The slugging 24 year-old first baseman has posted monster numbers (.566 SLG, .943 OPS) in the minor leagues but that success hasn't followed him into the Show, where he's batted just .244/.325/.376 with four home runs in 70 career games. He's not Adrian Gonzalez and probably never will be, but has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone at first base for years to come. The 6'4", 225 pound righthanded power hitter has the same build as Ryan Lavarnaway and should enjoy taking aim at the Green Monster.

Ivan De Jesus Jr.
Not sure what the Sox plan on doing with a light-hitting second baseman, given that they already have one of the game's top keystones in Dustin Pedroia. They could hold on to him in case Pedroia gets hurt, but he probably has more value as trade bait.

Alan Webster
A highly regarded sinkerball pitcher, the 22 year-old has stalled out in AA and will likely need another year or two of seasoning before he's ready for the big leagues. He is the only player in the deal without any MLB experience.

Rubby De La Rosa
The 23 year-old pitching prospect looks fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, as his mid-90s velocity has returned. Has dominant stuff, but needs to harness his command in order to become an effective starting pitcher at the big league level.

As for the Dodgers, it's been a busy summer for them and their GM NEd Coletti, who added some punch to a top-heavy lineup by trading for Victorino and Hanley Ramirez prior to the July 31st deadline. Gonzalez gives them another offensive weapon, as will Crawford when he returns, and Beckett bolsters the starting rotation. Now that the dust has settled, you could make the case that the Dodgers' roster now features the best player (2011 NL MVP runner-up Matt Kemp), first baseman(Gonzalez, as long as Joey Votto is out), shortstop (Ramirez), starting pitcher (2011 NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw) and closer (Kenley Jansen) in baseball.

Here are their four newest additions:

Josh Beckett
Nobody needed a change of scenery more than Beckett, presently the most hated athlete wearing a Boston uniform. His attitude, arrogance and abysmal performance, along with unhealthy dietary habits and leisurely rounds of golf, caused the city to sour on him. He had to go. His behavior over the past year has erased any memory of his postseason dominance during the team's 2007 World Series championship run, which is really too bad. The 2007 ALCS MVP could have had a Luis Tiant/Curt Schilling type of legacy here as the October warrior who always saved his best for the games that mattered the most. Instead, his legacy is drinking beer and eating fried chicked with Jon Lester and John Lackey while the Red Sox folded. He squandered any chance he had at redemption by submitting one of his worst seasons to date and hasn't shown any signs of turning it around with just one win in his previous thirteen starts. The 32 year-old's velocity is down and he could be entering the decline phase of his career. Even so, he should show marked improvement against weaker NL competition (hey, I mean if A.J. Burnett can pitch like a Cy Young candidate...). His timing couldn't be better for the Dodgers, since Chad Billingsley was just placed on the disabled list yesterday with inflammation in his right elbow. Beckett's nightmare season (5-11, 5.23 ERA) is far from over, but with a strong finish to the year--perhaps capped by some vintage Beckett postseason performances--he can salvage something positive to build on for the next two years of his contract. He makes his Dodger debut tomorrow against the Rockies at Coors Field. Good luck with that.

Carl Crawford
With Crawford joining All-Stars Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, all three of whom are signed through 2017, the Dodgers now feature the best outfield in baseball for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately Crawford is done for the year after going under the knife (Tommy John surgery) earlier in the week, and thus cannot contribute to the Dodgers' stretch run as they try to nudge past the now Melky Cabrera-less San Francisco Giants. His brief stint in Beantown was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster; he missed more games (163) than he played (161) and was terrible when he showed up, batting a woeful .260/.292/.419 and providing 0.3 bWAR. You got the sense that Crawford was never really comfortable here, that he was too thin-skinned to handle the claustrophobic atmosphere of the fishbowl that is Boston sports. Throw in the added pressure to live up to his gargantuan seven year, $142 million deal and it's not too hard to see why he didn't suceed with the Bosox. It's also important to remember that Crawford didn't want to play for Boston in the first place; the other LA team topped his list of preferred destinations when he hit the free agent market two years ago, but the Red Sox offered more money and the Halos wound up absorbing an even worse contract by trading for Vernon Wells (a lose-lose if I've ever seen one). Needless to say, he should be much happier in the city of Angels, a more laid back environment--like Tampa Bay--that gives him the opportunity to start from scratch whenever he returns next season. I think he'll make the most of it; his style is tailor-made for the National League, and his speed will be on full display in the spacious ballparks of the NL West. Presumably Mattingly will bat him at the top of the order again (after hitting seventh for much of his tenure in Boston), where he can set the table for Kemp, Gonzo, Ethier and HanRam. I'm betting he has several productive years in front of him because he still has all the physical tools. I've said it before and I'll say it again; if he stays healthy, he's going to put up big numbers.

Adrian Gonzalez
A massive upgrade over Loney. The native Californian leaves the friendly confines of Fenway Park and returns to the NL West, where he established himself as one of the game's top hitters with the San Diego Padres by averaging 32 home runs, 100 RBI and a 141 OPS+ from 2006-'10 despite calling PetCo Park home. Since then shoulder problems have diminished his home run pop somewhat, but he's still one of the best pure hitters in the game. A-Gone is in the midst of a torrid second half, as he's batted .333 with ten dingers and 44 RBI in 38 games since the All-Star Break. It looks like his power has returned, so expect him to keep raking while Don Mattingly installs him as the new cleanup hitter.  Perhaps as a harbinger of good things to come, Gonzalez belted a three-run homer in his first at-bat with the Dodgers.

Nick Punto
A solid bench guy to have because he's so versatile, a utilityman with a solid glove who can be plugged in at second, third or short. The California native can't hit worth a lick, but has value as a defensive replacement or a pinch runner in the late innings. As far as throw-ins go, you could do worse. With the way players are getting injured these days, bench depth is becoming more important than ever before.

In the wake of their disastrous 2011 season marred by financial turmoil off the field, the new-look Dodgers are all in, willing to do whatever it takes to win. Like Boston, LA hasn't appeared in the postseason since 2009 and is itching to get back. Just two games out of first place in the NL West, they're poised to make a September run that would dethrone the Giants. But that's not going to be easy the way Matt Cain (2.83 ERA), Madison Bumgarner (2.93 ERA) , Ryan Vogelsong (2.90 ERA) and Tim Lincecum (3.10 ERA in the second half) are pitching, backed by Buster Posey's MVP worthy season. The offense suffered a big blow after losing Melky Cabrera for the rest of the season, but they have enough bats to keep scoring runs in his absence. Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval have all picked up the slack, and Hunter Pence is going to snap out of his funk eventually. This divisional race will likely go down to the wire and could be decided by the three game series between the two that marks the season's finish line. Coolstandings gives San Fran a 62.2 percent chance of winning the division, nearly twice as likely to capture the flag as Los Angeles (31.7 percent). In the end, San Francisco's formidable starting rotation will probably be too much to overcome, so the Dodgers may have to settle for one of the wild cards. They're neck and neck with the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals for the second one, just a half game back. The Redbirds have a loaded lineup (Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Rafael Furcal, David Freese), too, but I'm not convinced their pitching will hold up in September.  Lance Lynn, Kyle Lohse, and Jake Westbrook have overachieved lately and could be due for some regression.

I have to believe the Dodgers will find a way to make the playoffs. They're too talented not to, but a lot of it hinges on Beckett and Ted Lilly stablizing the rotation by pitching well down the stretch. Coletti's wheeling and dealing has assembled a veritable juggernaut. He's put the pieces in place, and if they play the way they're supposed to, this team is going to be tough to beat.

Then again, you could have said the same thing about the Red Sox not too long ago.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Supporting Crawford's Call

Little more than a month after it began, Carl Crawford's season has ended
Carl Crawford's season is over.

Boston's much maligned leftfielder will undergo Tommy John surgery on Thursday, an operation he should have had performed more than a month ago.  It's been another tough season for Crawford, who underwent wrist surgery last winter, started the season on the 60 Day DL and suffered multiple setbacks throughout his rehab, including the torn ligament in his elbow that requires the aforementioned procedure.  By the time he finally returned to action on July 16th, the season was already half over.  But to his credit, he came back and tried to help his underachieving team salvage something out of their lost season.  He didn't quit on them, even though he's bailing out with nearly a quarter of the season left to play.  He tried to spark a second half push.  He tried to earn some of his 19.5 million dollar salary.   It's not his fault Boston continued to slip in the standings.

Now, if the Sox had made a second half surge like they were supposed to, I think Crawford would suck it up and keep on trotting out there everyday.  He's a hard-working competitor who wants to help the team win. I'm sure he'd also like to redeem himself and restore his reputation as one of the best all-around players in the game. He's a sensitive guy, too; he cares what people think and knows what kind of backlash he'd have to endure if he pulled a Manny Ramirez stunt like that.  New England would crucify him if he shut it down while the team was still battling for a postseason berth (merciless booing, scathing newspaper articles, nasty phone calls to sports radio--the works). And while Boston isn't clinically dead just yet, they're bleeding out on the operating table. Let's be realistic here; no matter what Bobby Valentine says, the Boston Red Sox are not going to play October baseball this season ( supports me, giving the Sox a measly 4.3 percent chance of making the playoffs).  Even with the second wild card in play, it's not gonna happen, not given plethora of injuries and slumps that have ravaged their key players:

Andrew Bailey-hurt
Daniel Bard-slumped, demoted
Josh Beckett-hurt and slumped
Clay Buchholz-hurt
Adrian Gonzalez-slumped
John Lackey-hurt
Jon Lester-slumped
Daisuke Matsuzaka-hurt
Mark Melancon-slumped, demoted
Will Middlebrooks-hurt
David Ortiz-hurt
Dustin Pedroia-hurt and slumped
Cody Ross-hurt
Ryan Sweeney-hurt
Kevin Youkilis-hurt, slumped, traded

You could fill out an All-Star roster with all that talent.  It' absurd how one team could become so snake-bitten.  All year long, we waited patiently for this team to get healthy and get on a roll. Optimists promised a second half run that would vault the team into contention and erase the disappointing first half.  Instead, Boston has been even worse since the All-Star Break; they were 43-43 with a +43 run differential before it but are just 16-20 with a -9 run differential since.  They've wilted during the dog days of summer, just as they faded down the stretch a year ago.  This team has flat-out stunk for almost a full calendar year now; they've gone 66-83 since September 1st, 2011.  Not to mention that they haven't been to the postseason since 2009, or  won a playoff game since 2008. Seven games out of the second wild card with 40 to play, I can't see them putting it together.  They're done.  Toast.  Finished (really hoping this reverse jinx works).

So with the Red Sox dead in the water, it just doesn't make sense for Crawford to play out the string, to put keep playing through the pain for five weeks of meaningless baseball.  Why bother?  What's the point?  It's not worth jeopardizing his future with the possibility that he might injure himself even further (and with the way things are going for the Sox this year, he'd probably blow out a hamstring running down the first base line or suffer a broken wrist from an errant fastball).  It's not worth him waiting until October to have a surgery he needed yesterday and miss even more time next year.  The risk outweighs the reward, and with investments of this magnitude, it's always better to err on the side of caution.  The choice is clear, and if I were Crawford, I would have gone under the knife weeks ago.  I'm not taking any chances with my body, regardless of what they write in the Globe and say on WEEI?  I'm not a doctor, but if you need surgery, you should probably have it sooner rather than later.  And the sooner he gets it, the sooner he can start rehabbing and preparing for next season.  He's making the right call.

Even though he'll end the season with just 31 games played (roughly one-fifth of a season), Crawford provided enough of a snapshot for us to believe he will return to form next year.  At the plate he looked much more comfortable than he did last season, when he was clearly pressing and trying to live up to his new contract (same goes for Jayson Werth, Adam Dunn, Curtis Granderson, etc.).  He eliminated his glaring platoon splits and hit the ball with authority to all fields. Granted, his 2012 statistics are a small sample, but If you project them over the course of 155 games he'd put together a typical Carl Crawford season.  He would have scored 115 runs, slugged 50 doubles, legged out ten triples, blasted 15 homers, driven in 95 and swiped 25 bases.  Those are damn good numbers, especially in baseball's new pitching-dominated context.  As long as the four time All-Star is healthy next year, he's going to put up the numbers.  I have no doubt in my mind about that.  He might never again be the player he was in Tampa Bay, but if he can be 80-90 percent of that guy, I'd take that in a heartbeat.  Wouldn't you?

He proved his skills are still intact, but  at the end of the day it always boils down to health.  Since joining the Red Sox, the once-durable Crawford who could be counted on to play 150 games a year has morphed into a walking medical bill.  After two seasons in a Red Sox uniform, Crawford will have spent more games on the bench (163) than he did on the field (161), all the while draining millions of dollars from Boston's bloated payroll.  But the benefit of getting the surgery over with is that he can limit the amount of playing time he'll lose (if any) next year.  For position players, it typically takes anywhere from seven to nine months to recover from the procedure. Barring any major setbacks, Crawford could be good to go by Opening Day, 2013.  Then he can get back to the business of not making the franchise feel like they flushed $142 million down the toilet.  Perhaps he could even pull an Ellsbury and take home AL Comeback Player of the Year honors.  I'd still like to see him be more aggressive on the basepaths, but at least he ran more frequently than he did last year and went a perfect 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts.  30 is a good baseline for him.  He still needs to show more patience, too, as his 22/3 K/BB rate and .306 OBP are both brutal. I know he's never been a very selective hitter, but he chased a career high 38.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone.  His plate discipline must improve, particularly as he ages and loses bat speed.

I'm looking forward to having a healthy Crawford in 2013, if everything goes according to plan.  But if this season has taught Red Sox fans anything, it's that things rarely do.

Monday, August 20, 2012

19 Inning Marathon Notes

Yesterday the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, battling for second place in the NL Central with just one game separating them in the standings, squared off in what evolved into a thrilling 19 inning marathon.  Pittsburgh came out on top, 6-3, when they finally broke through against Barrett Browning in the top of the 19th, plating three runs a Pedro Alvarez solo shot and a two-run single by Andrew McCutchen

Here are some notes and factoids from the game:
  • David Freese and Michael McKenry both endured 0-for-8 performances.  Going 0-for-4 is bad enough; imagine doing it twice in the same game!  Tough day at the office for McKenry, who whiffed twice, bounced into a double play and caught all 19 innings.  I'm willing to bet his legs feel a little sore today. 
  • Matt Holliday didn't fare much better, as he took an 0-for-7.
  • Both teams finished the game with one error apiece. Each blunder was committed by the starting pitchers Jeff Karstens and Jaime Garcia.
  • Speaking of Garcia, he deserves a pat on the back.  Making his first start since straining his shoulder on June 5th, he delivered an outstanding performance.  He went eight innings, allowed just five hits and two runs (both unearned) and punched out ten Pirates with nary a walk.  Not a trace of rust following the 64 game layoff.
  • The man Garcia replaced in the Cardinals starting rotation, Joe Kelly, made his first relief appearance of the season but it might as well count as another start; the rookie through 87 pitches in five and two-thirds innings before Mike Matheny replaced him with Mark Rzepczynski in the top of the 17th after Kelly plunked Barmes to load the bases with two outs. 
  • Kudos to the Bucs bullpen for firing a dozen innings of one-run ball.
  • Both teams stranded 13 runners on the basepaths.
  • Managers Clint Hurdle and Mike Matheny both used eight pitchers, with Matheny utilizing his entire seven-man relief corps.
  • Both teams hit one sacrifice fly (Harrison for Pittsburgh, Tony Cruz for St. Louis).
  • Both pitching staffs uncorked one wild pitch (Kelly and Joel Hanrahan).
  • Alvarez's timely home run, his 23rd tater of the season, was the only long ball of the entire three game series.  Fittingly, Alvarez also was the recipient of the game's lone intentional walk.
  • NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen led all hitters with three RBI and four strikeouts
  • NL MVP candidate Carlos Beltran swiped three bases, accounting for all three thefts in the game.  Jose Tabata tried twice but failed both times.  Beltran also produced his team's lone extra base hit with his two-run double in the fourth inning.
  • Seven Pirates--Tabata, McCutchen, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Travis Snider, Clint Barmes, and Garrett Jones--enjoyed multi-hit performances with two hits apiece and accounted for all but two of their team's base knocks.  By comparison, a quartet of Redbirds recorded at least two hits; Beltran, Jon Jay (the only player with three hits), Allen Craig, and Yadier Molina.  They accounted for all but two of their team's base knocks as well.
  • There were 34 total strikeouts in the game; Pittsburgh fanned 19 times and St. Louis whiffed 15.
  • Remarkably, the Pirates defense did not turn a single double play.  St. Louis fielded three twin-killings.
  • Wandy Roriguez earned the win, his first W since joining the Bucs a week before the trading deadline. Way-Rod had been scheduled to start tonight against Edinson Volquez, but instead came out of the 'pen and contributed two scoreless frames in his first relief appearance since October 1st, 2006.
  • The Pirates hadn't won a road game that lasted this long since defeating San Diego in 19 innings on August 25th, 1979.  The good news for Pirates fans is the '79 squad, which featured Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, and Bert Blyleven, went on to win the World Series that fall.  Many players participating in yesterday's game hadn't been born yet, and Pittsbrugh hasn't won a championship since.
  • In related news, Pittsburgh won their second season series in St. Louis, something the former hasn't done since 1992 (which also happens to be the last time the franchise finished above .500).
  • The game lasted six hours and seven minutes, the longest of the season.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dunn Enters 400 Home Run Club

Yesterday Kansasy City pummeled Jake Peavy and the first place Chicago White Sox, 9-4.  But the story of the day was Adam Dunn, who swatted the 400th home run of his career and 35th of the season when he launched a two-run tater off Royals reliever Tim Collins, clearing the bleachers in left-center and scoring Kevin Youkilis in the process. With that eighth inning blast he became the third player to join the 400 HR club this season, following Boston's David Ortiz (July 4th at Oakland) and teammate Paul Konerko (April 25th, also at Oakland).  Both Konerko and Ortiz were 36 and already in their 16th season when they reached the benchmark, so it's going to be tough for them to get to the magic 500 mark. I don't think either one makes it, but because the duo has remained so productive and healthy into their mid-thirties it's still too soon to rule them out.  Dunn, on the other hand, is just 32 and in his twelfth big league campaign. As long as he continues to avoid major injuries (for a big guy he's surprisingly durable, having averaged 158 games played from 2004-'10 and has missed just one game thus far in 2012) and doesn't revert back to the historically awful player he was in 2011, he has a great chance to do it.  Especially now that he plays half his games at the homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field and is entrenched as the team's primary Designated Hitter.  For what it's worth, three of the top five players most similar to him through the same age (according to baseball-reference) finished much closer to 600 homers; Reggie Jackson (563), Harmon Killebrew (573) and the still active Jim Thome (611 and counting).

Dunn's dinger marks the first time in baseball history that teammates have hit their 400th career home run in the same season.  It was fitting, then, that Konerko, who also happens to protect Dunn in the batting order, went yard in the game, too.  The first baseman drove in Dunn, who had doubled, when the former drilled a two-run shot of his own off starter Bruce Chen to put Chicago on the board in the sixth inning.  Konerko now has 20 bombs in 13 of the past 14 years, and in the one year he failed to smack 20--2003--he just missed with 18.  

Dunn became the 50th player in major league history with at least 400 career home runs, and it's going to be quite a while before the club expands any further.  Nobody else is close to enough to reach 400 this year or next.  Only four players have as many as 350, and the first three are all 36 years old:
  1. Alfonso Soriano, sitting on 362, is still 38 away.  He doesn't seem likely to get there in 2013, but since he's under contract for two more years and can still crush 20 homers per season he should join the club in 2014 if he stays healthy.
  2. Lance Berkman is 40 shy of the milestone, but since 2006 his home run numbers have fallen off each year except for 2011, when he belted 31 circuit clouts on his way to winning NL Comeback Player of the Year honors.  Injuries have kept him from playing all but 28 games this season, and it's doubtful he will be able to bounce back to the form he displayed last year.
  3. Carlos Lee has 44 to go, but his home run totals have decreased every year since he set a career high with 37 long balls in 2006.  This year El Caballo's power has vanished altogether, as he has gone deep just seven times in 2012.
  4. 39 year-old Todd Helton needs 46, and will probably retire when his contract expires after next season.  Age and injuries have limited the Toddfather to just twelve home runs per season since 2006, and at this stage in his career he's not going to approach 400.
Dunn is currently leading the majors in home runs, walks (86) and strikeouts (172).