The Red Sox have been among the most active teams in baseball at the 2012 Winter Meetings, filling roster spots all over the diamond with medium to high-priced editions. After dumping the contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford on the Dodgers this past August, Boston general manager Ben Cherington came to Nashville with money to burn. He wasted little time this offseason handing out rather generous contracts to back-up catcher David Ross and outfielder Jonny Gomes before the Thanksgiving turkey was even on the table and now it appears to be more of the same with the signings of catcher/1st baseman/DH Mike Napoli and outfielder Shane Victorino. Boston now has a glutton of decent but not great catching options, an overload of outfield/DH type, and a serious lack of pitching at the big league level. And the worst part of all for Red Sox fans? None of these moves will help Boston make the playoffs. Hell, this roster probably isn’t any better than the one Cherington tore apart at the 2012 trade deadline.
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.
With the calendar turning over to May baseball will truly begin to heat up. We’ve had some surprises and some disappointments, and the next month of baseball will do a lot to clear up a rather cloudy picture, particularly in the AL East. Baseball’s best division has lived up to its name once again this season, producing 5 teams playing quality baseball. The AL East already looks like it could produce 3 playoff teams this year, so let’s take a look at which team has the best odds, and which has an inside track to winning the division title.
Currently every team in the AL East is sitting at or above .500, with Tampa Bay holding a slight lead at 15-8. Baltimore has been surprisingly scrappy, dominating the Blue Jays 5-1 but struggling against the Yankees dropping all 4. The Yankees were swept to start the year in Tampa, but pummeled the Red Sox in Fenway. Boston has rebounded after another slow start, going 7-1 in their last 8 games, and Toronto has feasted on a weak schedule of AL Central teams. All of these clubs have struggled with pitching except for Baltimore, which has the 8th best staff in baseball. Everyone outside of Baltimore has been an offensive powerhouse, taking 4 of the top 8 spots in runs scored, with Boston leading the pack.
If Tampa’s offense remains this potent, they immediately become the new favorites in the AL East. The Rays have a legitimately excellent pitching staff and that fact will boar its way out as the season progresses. It’s their offense that was an issue a year ago, and so far that has been the team’s real strength. Evan Longoria hit .329/.433/.561 with 4 homes and 19 RBIs and is potential MVP candidate if Josh Hamilton cools down. Carlos Pena has been one of the best free agent signings in baseball so far hitting for a .900 OPS while playing excellent defense at 1st. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott each have 5 homers, giving the Rays a nice mix of power to go with the speed of Desmond Jennings, who has stolen 6 bases.
The starting pitching is in place for a 95-win campaign if the Rays can sort out the early bullpen issues. New closer Fernando Rodney has been excellent, but the rest of the pen has been leaky. Burke Badenhop and Joel Perralta both have more than 10 appearances and still have ERAs over 7.00. The Rays may need to use former starter Wade Davis in more high leverage situations if the rest of the pen doesn’t improve. Davis has been excellent, posting a sub-2.50 ERA in 11.2 innings so far in his first season in the bullpen. Tampa also just concluded the best series victory of any team this season, defeating the Rangers in 3 games in Arlington, no easy task. The Rays are already out to an early lead, and look to be a strong contender for a playoff spot, so I’d put their odds at:
40% division title/80% playoff spot
UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome.
Baltimore’s pitching staff has been their key to success so far, led by the impressive Jason Hammel. Hammel is 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings, striking out a solid 8.4 per 9. He throws a good fastball, plus slider, and a solid curve, so his success will probably continue to some degree. The other Japanese import, Wei-Yin Chen has also been pitching his socks off, posting a 2.22 ERA in 24 innings. Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have also been important to Baltimore’s success, with each hitting 6 big flies so far.
The bullpen has also done a stand-up job and has been the best in baseball, with a 2.03 ERA. Jim Johnson already has 7 saves while not allowing a run. Luis Ayala also hasn’t given up a single run in the 11 innings he has pitched, and Darren O’Day has only given up 1. However, the Orioles have struggled against the traditional powerhouses and more than likely the favorites will start to pummel Baltimore pitching, pushing the O’s back down to the cellar. Their odds:
0% division title/5% playoff spot
The New York Yankees pitching staff has been absolutely brutal so far, ranking 20th in baseball. The only reason that ranking isn’t any worse is because the Yankees bullpen has been excellent so far, ranking 3rd in baseball in ERA. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda have both shown signs of improvement after early struggles, so their problems are probably going to be short-lived. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, not so much. Garcia has already been demoted to the bullpen after being shelled for 19 earned runs in 13 innings with an astronomically bad WHIP of 2.195. David Phelps, who has saved the Yankees in long relief, gets a call-up to the rotation, where his lower 90s fastball and ability to command the strike zone should play nicely.
Phil Hughes’ stay in the rotation is also probably near its conclusion, because when you give up 5 homers in 16 innings it makes it tough to win ballgames. 40-year-old Andy Pettitte should be on his way with the next couple of weeks, and if he has anything left in the tank, it will be an improvement.
The offense has gone about business as usual, ranking 3rd in baseball in runs scored, averaging 5.45 a game. The Yankees are 1st in baseball in homers, led by Curtis Granderson’s 8, and currently have 3 hitters with an OPS above .950, led by Derek Jeter’s 1.012. The offense is always present in New York, its just a matter of how much pitching the Yankees have, and this year it should be enough to get to the playoffs. Their odds:
30% division title/75% playoff spot
The Toronto Blue Jays have been an interesting team this year. They are batting .239 as a team, yet the Jays rank 8th in baseball in runs scored. They don’t walk an outstanding number of times, nor do they steal a ton of bases, ranking near the middle of the league in both categories. They have also done all of this while Jose Bautista is slumping, hitting an abysmal .181/.320/.313, with only 3 homers. Edwin Encarnacion has been the team’s best hitter mashing for a 1.054 OPS with 8 home runs and 21 RBI, both top 3 in the American League.
The starting pitching has also been improved; with 4 starters currently ranking as better than league average, led by Kyle Drabek. Drabek has struck out 26 batters in 30 innings, an excellent rate for a starter, while posting a 2.44 ERA. He has some command issues, which could get him in trouble against the patient lineups throughout the division, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep his runs allowed down going forward. Toronto has a weak bullpen that is already dealing with injury problems, so the margin of error here is thin, but if Bautista starts producing, Toronto’s pitching won’t have to be so precise. Their odds:
15% division title/35% playoff spot
After all the early fires and panicking in Boston, the Red Sox are quietly on a nice 7-1 run. The offense has been mashing, and already leads baseball in runs scored. David Ortiz is hitting a bananas .405/.457/.726, turning the clock back to 2005. Cody Ross has stepped up big time with injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry, hitting a solid .257 with good power, slugging 5 early homers. If Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez get going, the Red Sox lineup will turn into a pitcher’s worst nightmare. The only problem is that the pitching staff gives nearly all of Boston’s runs back.
So far the Red Sox have had the worst staff in baseball. The bullpen has been the main problem, also ranking last in baseball in ERA. Not that the starters have been any better, as only Daniel Bard ranks much above league average. Beckett and Lester have been positively mediocre, posting mid-4.00 ERAs, and Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, posing a WHIP near 2.00 and an ERA above 8.00 in 29 innings. This kind of performance doomed the Red Sox a year ago, and it threatens to do so again. The current odds:
15% division title/30% playoff spot