The 2012 season is well underway and it hasn’t gone so well for a few of the franchises that were expected to compete for playoff spots. Boston, the Los Angeles Angels, Philadelphia, Arizona and Milwaukee have all struggled mightily so far. With at least 130 games remaining for all of these teams, there is plenty of time to turn it around. The real question is: can any of these teams do it? And who’s the most likely? Let’s take a look:
Arizona is reeling right now, losing 5 straight games to fall to 14-18, 6.5 games behind the Dodgers. The Diamondbacks aren’t at full strength right now, with Chris Young out, Justin Upton dealing with an ailing wrist, and Stephen Drew on the DL. Many of their issues can be related to injuries, because no team can survive losing 3 of their 5 most valuable position players. There are some other issues surfacing in Arizona however, and the Diamondbacks will have to get those corrected in order to get back above .500.
The biggest issue the D-backs have this season is a propensity to strikeout at the plate. Arizona has struck out more than any other team in baseball. The offense has plenty of power hitters, but teams that strikeout so often struggle to bring runs in, because they have so many unproductive outs in the lineup. Two seasons ago this was Arizona’s biggest issue causing a last place finish. Their improvement from worst-to-first was directly tied to making more contact at the plate. They rank just outside the top-10 offenses in baseball, and if they can cut their strikeouts and get their players back they will start scoring more runs.
Another big issue has been the pitching staff’s propensity to give up the longball. The Diamondbacks allow the most homeruns in the National League, and the Cardinals took full advantage over the last 3 games, pummeling 7 dingers in 3 games. Josh Collmenter has just been firebombed in his 21 innings allowing 6 homers and his replacement, Daniel Hudson, has been just as bad, allowing 5 in 18 innings. The Diamondbacks have a bevy of young starting pitching, Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer, just waiting for an opportunity and it would benefit Arizona to turn to them sooner rather than later.
I think the Diamondbacks have a very good chance of turning things around. They started slow a year ago, before having a great 2nd half, and once Arizona gets healthy I expect the same thing to happen again. Look for the Diamondbacks to compete with the Dodgers for divisional supremacy in the NL West.
The Red Sox entire pitching staff has been a complete disaster through the first 30 games of the season. The Boston offense ranks highly in most of the important offensive categories and they are averaging 5.4 runs per game, ranking 4th in baseball. Even with the injuries to Ellsbury, Crawford, and Youkilis the offense has continued to roll like a well-oiled machine. But just like a year ago, the pitching staff is betraying Boston’s hopes from top to bottom, leading to a troubling 12-18 start.
Only 2 pitchers out of the 10 most used on the team have an ERA under 4.20. And the only 2 are relievers Scott Atchison and Matt Albers, who have thrown a combined 34.2 innings. They give up home runs in bunches, allowing 39 so far, and only Kansas City and Cleveland have walked more hitters. No American League team has allowed more hits so far.
The biggest culprits are in the starting rotation. Clay Buchholz has been a disaster, posting a 9.09 ERA in 32.2 innings, while allowing a staggering 10 long balls. He has a WHIP above 2, which means that everyone is hitting what Buchholz is dealing. Josh Beckett has also been bad, giving up 7 homers in 32.1 innings and he may be headed to the DL.
We’ve already discussed the bullpen struggles of the Red Sox. While their performance has improved over the last couple of weeks, no one has appeared to be a shutdown reliever. Only closer Alfredo Aceves has an above average K/9 rate, so it’s no surprise the Sox relievers have been feasted on. This may be a transitional year in Fenway, with a new manager and front office just getting their feet wet. I don’t expect the Red Sox to make the playoffs because the division is just too tough. With upstarts Baltimore and Toronto joining the reigning division kings Tampa and New York, the AL East may be too crowded for the Red Sox this season.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Year 1 of the Albert Pujols era hasn’t quite gone as expected so far in Los Angeles. The artist formerly known as The Machine has yet to really do anything at all, batting .198/.235/.286. To put that in perspective think about this. Pujols has never had a season in which his batting average was as low as his slugging percentage currently is!!! He only has 1 homerun and 11 RBI, which is 3rd on the Angels roster, and his normally excellent base running has been anything but. He was caught again being too aggressive on the base paths by the Twins, the 5th time this season.
The Angels have plenty of struggles in the non-Pujols division as well, which is why they rank 3rd to last in the American Leauge in runs scored. Angels catchers have hit a combined .204 this season, with most of the at-bats being given to Chris Iannetta, who’s batting .197. Newly extended shortstop Erick Aybar is hitting .211 with no pop, only 4 extra-base hits in 109 at-bats. And we already covered their outfield situation, which has been somewhat remedied by removing Bobby Abreu.
The pitching staff is still excellent and has performed the way it was expected. Jered Weaver is making an early case for the Cy Young, going 5-0 in 50.2 innings, with 47 strikeouts, only 9 walks, 2 homers allowed, a WHIP of .789, and a no-hitter. The bullpen seems to be sorting itself out as well, with Mike Scioscia giving the higher leverage innings to his best relievers.
This team has plenty potential and has been playing better recently, winning 4 of there last 5. If Albert Pujols gets the offense back to the middle of the pack in the American League, the Angels pitching could navigate them back into the playoff chase. The AL West has only one real contender so far this season, and Los Angeles should be able to make that two by midsummer.
The Brewers have been in a real funk recently, dropping 6 of their last 8 games to fall into last place in the NL Central at 13-18. Injuries have decimated the infield, with shortstop Alex Gonzalez and 1st baseman Mat Gamel out for the year. Outside of Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy, who’s quickly becoming one of the best catchers in the National League, the rest of the offense has struggled. Nyjer Morgan has been almost unplayable hitting .192 with no extra-base hits in 73 at-bats. Rickie Weeks is hitting .164 with a boatload of strikeouts. Corey Hart is piling up the extra-base hits but that’s bout it, as he’s only hitting .231. Aramis Ramirez hasn’t been able to replace Prince Fielder’s production and the team has slipped to the middle of the NL in runs scored. And oh boy has the pitching been abysmal.
The Brewers rank 2nd to last in the NL in runs allowed giving up just about 5 runs a game. Zach Greinke has been excellent so far, striking out more than a batter per inning over the 43 he has thrown, while only allowing 1 homer and 10 walks. Shaun Marcum has also been solid, throwing for a 3.41 ERA with 8 strikeouts for every 9 innings. The rest of the rotation, Randy Wolf, Yovi Gallardo, and Chris Narveson have been hammered, all posting ERAs north of 5.00.
The bullpen, which was supposed to be a team strength, has been abysmal as well. John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez have struggled, allowing a total of 15 earned runs in 23 innings while walking 15. Axford will probably snap out of his funk, because he is striking out a ridiculous 15 batters per 9 innings, but Rodriguez’s struggles could be more telling. His velocity looks a couple of ticks slow, and he doesn’t seem to be engaged in the set-up role. It’s no secret he wants to be a closer again, but he took the money to stay in Milwaukee knowing this would be his role. He needs to start pitching better if he wants a shot at closing for someone next season. This team may not have the pieces this year to compete. As I mentioned yesterday, Ishikawa and Izturis just won’t get it done as everyday players at 1st and short. If Gallardo returns to normal, the rotation will be fine, and Milwaukee will have to hope that they can finish in the top-3 in the National League in runs allowed, because they aren’t going to be able to score enough to win too many 10-9 ball games. I don’t like Milwaukee’s chances too much, and they may have to wait for next year, when better health should arrive.
Much like Arizona and Milwaukee, the Phillies have been decimated by early injuries so far. Their best hitters, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have yet to play a single game, and the offense has suffered because of it. Philadelphia now ranks 19th in baseball in runs scored after a recent surge. Hunter Pence has been a handful for opposing pitchers, hitting 7 homers and 6 doubles while holding down the middle of the Philly lineup until Howard gets back. Juan Pierre and Carlos Ruiz have also stepped their games up, with each batting over .300. But the pitching hasn’t been as good as advertised and the bullpen has been awful, especially in this week’s sweep at the hands of the Mets.
The Phillies rank 11th in the National League in runs allowed so far, which is curious for a team that employs Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Jonathan Paplebon. While those 4 players have all been solid pitchers, rating well in ERA+, none have had their Cy Young caliber stuff so far. And the rest of the bullpen hasn’t helped matters, ranking as one of the worst in the National League. Kyle Kendrick has already been given 19.2 innings and has posted a 7.32 ERA. Jose Contreras, who has been solid for the past 2 seasons out of the bullpen, has an 8.59 ERA. And many of the lesser-used relievers have been worse.
Until the Phillies get back to full strength with Howard and Utley in the lineup, its difficult to say what this team’s ceiling is. The other teams in the National League East are much better this season, with usual bottom-feeders Washington and New York surging so far. The Phillies won’t be able to make the playoffs if Howard and Utley can’t come back in a timely fashion while providing their usual All-Star caliber performance. And the longer the season drags on without them, the longer Philadelphia’s playoff odds become.