Every single Major League team now has 30 games under their belts, which gives us enough data to start surveying the MLB landscape looking for surprises and disappointments. Fans in Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have to be thrilled with their respective teams hot starts.
However, for fans in other cities things haven’t been as bright. The Toronto Blue Jays were handed the AL East by most pundits before the season even began and they’ve fallen flat on their face out of the gate, carrying a 10-21 record that only the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins are envious of. Things are also starting to get dicey in Anaheim, where the Angels have once again stumbled in the early weeks of the season. Their supposedly vaunted offense has yet to earn its pay, thanks to its middle of the pack ranking in the AL in runs scored, and L.A.’s pitching staff minus Jered Weaver has been a disaster.
They’re not the only cities that are getting anxious about their ball club’s slow start either. Fans in Philadelphia were hoping that a once-great pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee could rebound to carry the Phillies to the playoffs, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. The Dodgers were imagining themselves as the west coast Yankees with a budget to match. So far all that lavish spending has gotten them is 4th place and a struggling Matt Kemp.Even the handful of fans that attend Rays games have to feel a little nervous in the AL East watching their starting nine drop to 1-6 in games started by Cy Young winner David Price.
Wow! Is there any better way to kick off a season than with 12 exciting, competitive games? I don’t think so. From Bryce Harper’s pair of homers, to Kershaw putting the Dodgers on his back, Opening Day was full of big performances as well. These are my starting nine from Opening Day 2013:
1) Josh Reddick’s beard
It’s majestic. I mean just look at the thing. Can his eyes even make their way through that hairy forest to see the pitches opposing hurlers throw? Is he going for the Johnny Damon circa-2004 look? I’m not really sure but I know I like it.
2) Clayton Kershaw as a dual threat
In the best game of the day the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw dualed the Giants’ Matt Cain to a draw through 8 innings. Neither offense could muster much more than a bloop single or two as the starters combined to strikeout 15 batters. By the start of the 8th inning the game was handed over to the Giants’ bullpen and George Kontos with Clayton Kershaw scheduled to lead-off. In a bold move Dodgers’ manager Don Mattingly decided to leave Kershaw in the game, eschewing a pinch hitter, and boy did it pay off. Kershaw hit an absolute blast to centerfield some 400-odd feet away for his 1st career homer, sending Dodgers’ fans into a frenzy. Los Angeles added 3 more insurance runs in the inning but Clayton Kershaw didn’t need them as he pitched a perfect 9th to grab the 4-0 victory.
With the playoffs fast approaching, half of the teams in Major League Baseball are either looking at a playoff spot or still have fantasies of winning one. All that means is that we as fans have a smorgasbord of delicious games to watch between wanna-be playoff teams. Let’s take a look at the 3 best series of the weekend:
Perhaps no team did more to address their weakness than the Los Angeles Dodgers, who pre-deadline, had one of the worst offenses in baseball, ranking 26th in baseball in runs per game (3.92) and 2nd to last in home runs hit (63, one ahead of the last place Giants). They were able to fill some of their biggest holes as well, plugging up gaps in the infield with Hanley Ramirez, a 28-year-old 3rd baseman who’s only a 3 years removed from finishing 2nd in the National League in the MVP race, and outfield with Shane Victorino, a 31-year-old former All-Star centerfielder. Los Angeles, perhaps more than any other team, did more to help their playoff chances because these acquisitions have the potential to greatly improve LA’s offense.
With today’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of rival San Francisco, the Dodgers have relinquished sole possession of 1st place in the NL West for the 1st time since April 10th. The team has been slumping ever since Matt Kemp went back on the DL, going 11-14 since May 31st. The team has particularly struggled of late, losing 8 of their last 9. What’s even worse is that the San Francisco Giants have been able to make up 5 games in that amount of time, punctuating their mini-comeback with a 3-game sweep to tie for 1st. The Dodgers were outscored 13-0 by their rival from Northern California, the first time in the history of the franchise that they were shutout in a series of 3 games or more. So why, all of the sudden, is the outlook on LA’s dream season begun to turn cloudy? And can the Dodgers turn it around this season, or are they destined to drop behind San Francisco or maybe even Arizona, who’s only 4.5 games back of 1st?
Now that we’ve taken a look at the American League’s best, let’s take a look at the best the Senior Circuit has to offer.
Catcher- Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
Molina gets a slight edge over Buster Posey because he plays the position everyday, rather than playing half his games at 1st base. Molina has been excellent with the bat so far, hitting .316 with 4 homers and 15 RBI. He even has 2 stolen bases so far, half of his entire total from 2011. He has always been the finest of the catching Molina’s with his glove work, and now, in his age-29 season, the bat is starting to catch up.
1st base- Bryan LaHair, Chicago Cubs
LaHair has been given his 1st real shot in the big leagues at 29 and has not disappointed so far. In 20 games he has hit .390/.471/.780 with 5 homers and 14 RBI. Very few players are ever given their first crack at the Major Leagues at 29 and his early success has been one of baseball’s best stories so far. If LaHair could finish around .280 with 20+ homers, numbers that are very realistic, the Cubs will have gotten an absolute steal at 1st base.
Another surprise out of the NL Central has been the play of the Astros’ 2nd baseman. Altuve is very green at only 21 years of age, but has been smacking extra-base hits all over the field batting .360/.404/.547 with 11 XBH. The Astros have been surprisingly feisty so far, and Altuve is one of the major reasons why. His speed game is also excellent, having stolen 4 bases without being caught.
Shortstop- Starlin Castro, Chicago Cubs
The 2nd Cub to grace the list, Castro is a singles hitting machine. He led the National League in hits a year ago, and is already back to his old tricks, piling up 30 hits already. He’s added some new moves as well, and has already stolen 10 bases, which puts him on pace to smash his previous career high of 22. Troy Tulowitzki is also playing well, but I’m giving the nod to Castro.
3rd base- David Wright, New York Mets
Wright gets the nod over Pablo Sandoval and David Freese at the National League’s deepest position. Wright leads all of baseball in on-base percentage, at a stellar .494, and is hitting a robust .389. He has been enjoying the moved in fences at Citi Field, bombing 3 homers already, putting him on pace to beat last season’s measly 14. He is also walking more than he is striking out, which is always an excellent sign that a hitter is really locked in at the plate.
Outfield- Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers
Well, this one’s obvious. Kemp is leading everyone in everything, topping the National League in batting average, OPS, slugging, total bases, runs, hits, homeruns, and RBI. His defense in center has also been excellent, and his batting eye at the plate looks to be improved. He’s got an outside shot at hitting 60 homers, and a really long shot at hitting .400 for the season. This kind of production wins no-doubt-about-it MVPs.
Outside of Matt Kemp, there are plenty of deserving candidates, and Ryan Braun is my first. Braun had been having a somewhat slow start to his MVP defense until last nights 3 homer, 1 triple, 6 RBI outburst. He’s now all the way up to 3rd in OPS for National League outfielders, and also has 7 homers total. He’s also showing last seasons 33 steals weren’t a fluke, as Braun has swiped 3 bases in 4 attempts.
Outfield- Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies
Gonzalez snaps up the last of the available outfield spots, because of his all-around play. He’s 6th out of NL outfielders in OPS, 13th in steals, 8th in homers, and 4th in RBI. His batting line: .303/.376/.539 with 4 homers, 4 steals, and 18 RBI. Other deserving candidates include: Andrew McCutchen, Michael Bourne, Carlos Beltran, Jay Bruce, and Chris Young, who was having a monster season before hitting the DL. If Young comes back and plays as well as he had been, the All-Star spot is his.
Right-handed Pitcher- Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
The ace of the best pitching staff in baseball so far has lived up to all the hype. Strasburg has pitched 5 games, compiling 32 innings and has struck out 34 while allowing 6 walks, 22 hits, and only 4 runs, giving him an ERA of 1.13. Hitters have looked overmatched against his powerful fastball and wipeout curveball. Strasburg is a legitimate Cy Young candidate if his team doesn’t shut him down first.
For as dominant as Strasburg has been from the right side, Kershaw has been nearly as dominant from the left. He has a 1.78 ERA in 30.1 innings and has already struck out 28 batters to begin his Cy Young defense. His WHIP sits under 1.00 once again and he has only allowed 1 homer so far, which was his biggest weakness a season ago. If Strasburg is shut down, look for Kershaw to reap the rewards.
Relief Pitcher- Jonathan Paplebon, Philadelphia Phillies
Without the excellent rotation put together in Philly, the team would already be sunk. They spend a fortune for Paplebon to close the door on teams, and he has gotten the job done so far this year. Paplebon is striking out 1 batter per innings, has a tidy .90 WHIP, and a miniscule .90 ERA as well.
The National League West has been baseball wildest division over the past 5 seasons, with all 5 franchises making a playoff appearance. It’s the home to some of the biggest ballparks in baseball, and some of the lowest scoring teams in the league. 2012 will probably be no different so don’t be surprised if any of the 5 take the division crown.
The Diamondbacks were the turnaround team of 2011, winning 29 more games than in 2010, and completing the worst-to-first turnaround. They were able to push Milwaukee to 5 games in the Divisional playoff round before bowing out, and Arizona has the look of a contender again in 2012.
The Diamondbacks were easily the most balanced team in the NL West a year ago, finishing 10th in offense and 11th in run prevention in baseball. Arizona should once again be a balanced contender, with many of its players beginning to enter their primes.
The offense acquired a fresh face going into 2012, picking up Jason Kubel in the offseason. Kubel has been a fairly productive player throughout his 7 year career, with an average of .271/.335/.459 and 22 homers per year. A full year of 2011 USA Today Minor League Player of the Year Paul Goldschmidt should help as well. Goldschmidt is a classic 3-outcome player, with big power, big strikeouts, and a solid batting eye for drawing walks.
Those two will be joining franchise building block Justin Upton in the middle of the lineup. Upton is a true 5-tool talent, who possesses superb outfield range, a strong-arm, can steal bases, hits for power as well as average, and can even draw a walk. He hit .289/.369/.529 a year ago, and won a Silver Slugger for his 31 homers.
Another solid piece is centerfielder Chris Young, a 28-year-old, who hits for solid power, can steal 20+ bases, and is an excellent defensive centerfielder who could easily win a Gold Glove. Catcher Miguel Montero is also 28 and a better than average offensive player for his position. He posted a 121 OPS+ a year ago while hitting 18 dingers.
The rest of the offense is hit-or-miss, especially with shortstop Stephen Drew still out with an ankle injury from 2011. The below average Willie Bloomquist is penciled in to start at short on Opening Day, and Arizona has to hope Drew can get back quickly. He is a much greater offensive threat in addition to being much more skilled with the glove.
The pitching staff, particularly the bullpen took a huge step forward a year ago and was the key to Arizona’s turnaround. Ian Kennedy won 21 games and was one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball, posting a near elite 5.5 WAR. His strikeout rate for his career sits at around 8 per 9 innings, and Kennedy was able to cut his walks down by 15 from 2010, despite throwing 28 more innings. Kennedy was more aggressive pitching to hitters in 2011, and his approach paid off with a top-5 Cy Young finish. If his walk rate stays down he is a Cy candidate again in 2012.
In acquiring Trevor Cahill from Oakland, Arizona has given itself a fantastic chance at having a top-8 pitching staff in baseball. Cahill should benefit moving to the National League West, where most of the worst offenses in baseball reside. He is a sinkerball pitcher, who has generated grounders on 56% of ball put in play over the past 2 seasons. That is the 5th highest rate in baseball, and should help when pitching against the weak offenses of San Francisco and San Diego.
Daniel Hudson, Josh Collmenter, and Joe Saunders are all coming off of solid seasons as well. Arizona also has a potential top-of-the-rotation ace coming up through the minors in Trevor Bauer. Bauer has an unorthodox release, but is a fireball throwing pitcher who can pile up the strikeouts.
The bullpen, with closer JJ Putz, should be solid once again. Arizona was had the lowest bullpen ERA in the National League a year after finishing with a team bullpen ERA over 6.00. As long as they rank in the top-8 in baseball again Arizona will be fine.
The Diamondbacks have built a deep young team, much in the way the Texas Rangers have. They have capitalized on their good fortune through the draft, and have made savvy trades acquiring young talent, like Ian Kennedy and Trevor Cahill. Arizona will be tough to beat once again in 2012.
San Francisco Giants
The 2010 champs had a rough go of it in 2011, failing to make the playoffs. The big reason was the complete lack of offense. After putting together a league average offense in 2010 the wheels fell off the wagon in 2011, as the Giants finished 2nd to last in baseball in scoring. The pitching has finished in the top-2 in baseball the past 2 seasons and will probably finish near the top of baseball in 2012, so the Giants will only go as far as their offense can take them.
A big reason for the collapse of the offense in 2011 was the leg injury to Buster Posey. Posey was hurt when he improperly blocked the plate and left himself vulnerable to being hit. Scott Downs, the Marlins runner on the play, did nothing wrong, and had Posey taken proper positioning, by staying on his feet as catchers are taught, he would not have been injured. If Posey can rebound and hit near the .305/.357./.505 mark it would go a long way to helping the offense. A full year out of Pablo Sandoval would help as well. Sandoval mashed the ball when he was healthy in 2011, hitting for an elite 153 OPS+ and 23 homers.
The outfield will be different in 2012 as well, with the additions of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan. Cabrera had a career year in 2011, posting 4.2 WAR in for Kansas City. If he can put up about 3 wins of value San Fran will have a more useful outfielder than anyone else from 2011. If Pagan can hit better than Andres Torres abysmal .221 the Giants will see even more improvement. If the offense can finish around league average in runs scored San Francisco could play deep into October again. If they finish in the bottom-5, expect another year of .500 baseball, because the pitching staff will keep the team afloat.
Led by Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner, the Giants boast a truly fearsome 1-2-3 punch. Lincecum has led the National League in strikeouts 3 times in his 5-year career, baffling hitters with an array of sublime change-ups, curveballs, and fastballs. Despite his size, Timmy is a workhorse, having thrown at least 210 innings 4 years running. Cain, who just inked the biggest deal ever for a right-handed pitcher, is also a superb talent. He’s dependable (200+ innings in 5 straight seasons), keeps batters off the basepaths (WHIP under 1.1 two straight years), and strikes out more than 7 batters per 9. His lousy career record should be ignored, because he receives less run support than any other pitcher in the league.
The bullpen has been excellent in San Francisco for the past 3 seasons. Brian Wilson, for all his craziness, is a plus pitcher at the back of the bullpen. He had a bit of an off-year in 2011, posting an ERA north of 3.00, but has lights out stuff, having twice struck out more than 10 batters per 9. The rest of the bullpen is deep with solid arms Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt.
The pitching is once again going to be solid. Lincecum-Cain-Bumgarner are as good as any trio in the game. If the offense can scratch out enough 3-2 wins, San Francisco will head back to the playoffs. If the Giants can get sneak in they are dangerous, because no one will have a better chance to shut your offense down.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers haven’t even played a game yet in 2012 and the season is already a success, because Frank McCourt finally sold the team, and to Magic Johnson’s group. On the field, it will probably be another .500 season at best, because the team just doesn’t have enough talent, outside of Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. Despite having the Cy Young winner on the roster, LA still finished with the 5th worst staff in baseball, and on offense things weren’t much better. Even with a near 40-40 season out of Matt Kemp the Dodgers were still a middling offensive team, and things don’t look much better for 2012.
The good news is that Matt Kemp was signed through 2019 during the offseason, and immediately began talking about the possibility of a 50-50 season. Kemp has struggled some in the spring, striking out 20 times already, but he should be fine come Opening Day. Last year he was worth a league high 9.0 offensive WAR, the best in baseball. He finished with a 171 OPS+, also leading the league. A repeat performance in 2012 would probably guarantee him the MVP but still may not make the Dodgers competitive.
Andre Ethier is the one of the few Dodgers with All-Star potential, and is a career .291/.364/.479 hitter. He won his first Gold Glove last year, showing improvement in his defense, but the rest of his game suffered. Ethier’s power disappeared, as he hit 11 homers for his lowest total since his rookie season.
Dee Gordon is the only other player of note, and he appears to have a bright future at short. Gordon is a hard-working speedster who stole 24 bases in just over 50 games. He could be a 60-steal threat, which would lead the National League and could provide a good spark at the top of the Dodger offense. Gordon is still very raw at age 23, so there will be growing pains particularly on defense, but he has lots of talent.
The pitching staff has to improve this season if the Dodgers want to have any chance to compete. Kershaw is the ace and won the pitching Triple Crown in 2011, leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts to gather up his first Cy Young. He’s only 24 still and has the potential to dominate the National League for the next decade. The Dodgers are going to need to develop pitching around Kershaw, because nothing else currently stands out.
Chad Billingsley has shown some potential earlier in his career, but he has seen his strikeout rate drop in each of the past 3 seasons after posting a career high 9.0 in 2008. He had a rough 2011, due to a high batting average on balls in play, so he could be a nice candidate for a bounce back season, especially if his K rate returns. The rest of the rotation is abysmal and will probably prohibit the Dodgers from winning enough games to make the playoffs. Ted Lily is league average and on the downside of his career, and Aaron Harang has not done much in his many opportunities in Cincinnati.
The bullpen doesn’t look to be strong either, outside of Casey Jansen, who is an elite strikeout pitcher. The rest of the ‘pen is young and unproven, so some potential for surprise or disappointment is there.
The Dodgers just don’t look to be deep enough to really compete in a strong National League. Unless another player like James Loney makes a jump similar to the one Kemp made, LA is not going to make much noise.
The Rockies entered 2011 with expectations to compete with the playoffs and outside of the first month of the season, they were a disappointment. The team has decided to surround their young talented core of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez with plenty of aging veterans in 2012. Jamie Moyer, Todd Helton, Marco Scutaro, and Michael Cuddyer were all acquired by the Rockies. This type of thinking flies in the face of other turnaround teams like Arizona and Tampa, who used youth to get an advantage. It will be interesting to see if this experiment works, or if Colorado struggles to win 75 games again.
Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is easily the best player in baseball at his position. He has won two straight Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers, and the statistics back it up. He’s the only shortstop to hit 25+ homers and put up a 130+ OPS+ in the last 3 seasons. He is also a stellar defensive shortstop, despite his size. He has a strong arm, turns the double play with vigor, and has plenty of range. If Colorado competes for a playoff spot, Tulowitzki will have an MVP-type campaign.
Carlos Gomez is also a player with MVP aspirations. He finished 3rd in the MVP voting in 2010 posting a monster .336/.376/.598 slash with 34 homers and 117 RBIs. Last year he was still an excellent outfielder, posting a 126 OPS+ while increasing his walks. If he puts it all together, the Rockies middle-of-the-order will be tough to deal with.
Outside of CarGo and Tulo the Rockies are ancient. There next best hitter is probably either Michael Cuddyer (career .272/.343/.794) or Todd Helton, who is now 38 and in his 16th season. Helton was still able to hit over .300 in 2011, but his power is almost gone.
The pitching staff doesn’t look too pretty either, and the big news out of Spring Training is that 49-year-old Jaime Moyer will be the #2 starter. It will be Moyer’s 25th season in the big leagues, and he will probably throw around 150 innings with a 4.50-5.00 ERA. The Rockies will need youngsters Drew Pomeranz and Jhoulys Chacin to step up if they want to be competitive. Pomeranz was the best prospect received in the Ubaldo Jiminez trade and looks to have the makings of a solid top-to-middle of the rotation starter.
The Rockies are probably not going to compete for much in 2012, but in the wild NL West anything is possible. If the young pitching comes along quicker than expected, imagining the Rockies winning the division doesn’t seem so difficult. If Jaime Moyer is the #2 starter all year though, things will get a little bit rough.
San Diego Padres
The San Diego Padres have undergone some massive changes in the past 2 seasons, trading their best players, Adrian Gonzalez and Mat Latos, for prospects. The team is rebuilding on the fly and will have one of the younger rosters in baseball in 2012. The offense needs to improve if the Padres want to avoid the cellar again because they were 3rd worst in baseball in 2011. The pitching was solid last year, but it is difficult to tell if they are talented or just a product of PetCo Park, the toughest on hitters in the majors.
Edinson Volquez was one part of the Latos trade, and has been named the Opening Day starter. Volquez has not been a very productive pitcher since his breakout year in 2008, never once posting an ERA beneath 4.20. He has battled plenty of injury, but it is risky to have a pitcher with this poor of a track record and a walk rate over 5 per 9 to begin the season as the de-facto ace.
Cory Luebke is probably the best pitcher on the staff, and was a surprise a year ago, beginning in the bullpen before finishing the year by making 17 starts. His Ks per 9 was an elite 9.9 in over 139.2 innings last year, and if he can post a similar rate in 200 innings he has the makings of an ace. He also put up a very stellar WHIP, at 1.067. Some decline is expected with an increase in workload, but Luebke has the potential to be a good #2 starter.
The offense is very, very young outside of the double play combo of Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett. Both players are solid on defense, which is a plus in spacious PetCo, but aren’t much with the bat. Carlos Quentin was also traded for to provide some middle of the order pop, but he is already injured and has an extensive history of injury problems.
1st baseman Yonder Alonso was the real prize in the Latos trade. His bat has been rated very highly by scouts, but his glove work is considered subpar even for a 1st baseman. If he can hit around .280-.300 he is a solid Rookie of the Year candidate. He hit .330 in 98 plate appearances for Cincinnati last year, but was blocked at 1st by Joey Votto.
Cameron Maybin also showed why he was a highly rated minor leaguer a year ago, with a solid season. He stole 40 bases and showed an ability to get on base at an average rate, which is key for a speedy player. Maybin has the ability to hit .250 with his legs alone, so if he can just add .050 points with his bat he could be a .300 hitter.
The Padres could be a sneaky team out in the NL West. If no other team seizes control of the division and the Padres see big years out of some young players, they could surprise and steal the division. It will take good years from Volquez, Luebke, the bullpen, improvement on offense, and a healthy Carlos Quentin, but it is certainly possible.
San Francisco Giants
San Diego Padres
Los Angeles Dodgers
National League West MVP: Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks
National League West Cy Young: Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
I like the Diamondbacks to repeat as division champions. Arizona has a very balanced, young, and talented team. I just don’t think that San Francisco is going to score enough to steal the division, and I think that Barry Zito and the mystery 5th starter will be a problem. I don’t think that San Diego has quite enough to make noise, although it wouldn’t surprise me to see them win the division with something around 86-87 games if Arizona or San Francisco disappoints. I think Colorado will have to score a ton of runs to make up for a complete lack of pitching, and while the Moyer experience will be fun it won’t produce a lot of wins. Los Angeles is looking forward to the offseason when the new ownership can make some moves on the free agent market.