Another day, another wave of injuries. Such has been life for Major League Baseball this season. Three All-Star players, Jose Bautista, Joey Votto, and David Ortiz went down yesterday, and their injuries only further cloud what has become a murky playoff picture in the NL Central and AL Wild Card races. Let’s take a look at the options Cincinnati, Toronto, and Boston have in replacing a sizable amount of production in their respective lineups.
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
Fenway Park turned 100 yesterday and she decided to celebrate with 36 thousand of her closest friends. The Red Sox brought back more than 200 players from the franchise’s history, including recent legends like Pedro Martinez to older legends like Jim Rice and Oil Can Boyd. Other Red Sox legends brought back to Fenway included catching great Carlton Fisk, odd-ball pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and husky slugger Mo Vaughn. The coolest moment of the entire even was when 2004 World Series champions Pedro Martinez and Kevin Millar led the entire crowd in a toast to the legendary ballpark.
Once the ceremony was over the game was able to begin. Both the Yankees and Red Sox wore spectacular throwback uniforms. Boston’s included the old lettering on the chest of the uniform, white stir-up socks with a red stripe at the top, and plain white hats. New York’s uniforms were grey with the old NY symbol on the left side of the chest, a two-tone hat, and stir-up socks with 2 maroon stripes. This was the 1st time the Yankees have worn throwback jerseys since 1996, when they wore the jerseys for the New York Black Yankees of the Negro League.
The Yankees quickly jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a Dustin Pedroia error, which allowed Derek Jeter to reach base. Jeter would gain access to 2nd on a wild pitch and was later singled home by Alex Rodriguez. Jeter is having an excellent season so far, hitting .359/.373/.609 with 4 home runs and a league leading 23 hits. From this point on the game turned into a home run fest.
The Yankees went on to score 5 more runs, all courtesy of the long ball. Alex Rodriguez, Russell Martin, and Nick Swisher all went deep one time for the Yankees, all solo shots. Eric Chavez, who had an excellent game playing 3rd as well, blasted his first 2 dingers of the year as well. Both were solo shots and thanks to Ivan Nova’s great performance they were all the Yankees would need.
Nova went 6 innings, striking out 5, scattering 7 hits. He only allowed 2 runs, one on a controversial home run to David Ortiz. In the bottom of the 2nd inning Ortiz was just able to poke a homer over the Green Monster, but it was initially ruled a double. Bobby Valentine came out to argue the play, and after a video replay, Ortiz was awarded the homer. Nova would give up 1 more run on a double to Mike Aviles, but that was all the Red Sox could muster.
The Yankees bullpen, the best in baseball a year ago, was excellent over the last 3 innings. They allowed only 3 hits while striking out 5 to close the game out, sending the Fenway Faithful home disappointed.
The Boston offensive attack is really missing the bats of Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry. It was forced to start Jason Repko in center, Cody Ross in left, and Ryan Sweeney in right. Only Sweeney is off to a hot start, and the Red Sox need all the offense they can get, because their pitching staff figures to be mediocre at best. Right now the Red Sox pitching staff is ranked last in baseball in runs allowed. They have to improve on that standing if they want to be competitive, otherwise the 4-9 start will be more of a reality than a mirage.
The Yankees are also having some minor starting pitching issues, ranking 21st in baseball in runs allowed. The bullpen has been nearly as excellent as it was a year ago, but the starting pitching has been iffy. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia have both struggled to prevent runs. They could be replaced when Andy Pettitte is ready to be called up to the bigs and when Michael Pineda is ready to return from injury. The offense has been excellent so far ranking 4th in baseball, so if the Yankees rotation can improve, they will become a serious playoff contender.
Notes from Around the League:
-The Nationals starting rotation excelled again last night, shutting out Miami 2-0. Ross Detwiler, pitched 6 strong innings, striking out 7 while only allowing 3 hits and one walk. Washington’s rotation is ranked 4th in baseball and is full of hard-throwing players. The starting rotation ranks 1st in baseball in average fastball velocity, at 94.1 miles per hour. With such a hard-throwing rotation, the Nats can strikeout plenty of batters which is the most valuable skill to have in baseball. This team is not a mirage and needs to be taken seriously as contenders.
-The Braves are now 9-2 since stumbling out the gate, being swept by the Mets. The offense is rolling, leading baseball in runs scored with 84. Jason Heyward is mashing the baseball, hitting .340/.411/.580 with 2 doubles, triples, and homers. Heyward has now hit safely in 10 straight games, and is quickly establishing himself a potential MVP candidate.
–The Toronto Blue Jays turned their 1st triple play in 33 years last night in Kansas City, beating the Royals 4-3. In the 3rd innings Eric Hosmer came to the plate with runners on 1st and 2nd. He smashed a line drive straight to Adam Lind, who stepped on 1st getting Yuni Betancourt, and then fired down to 2nd to catch a straying Alex Gordon.