After spending the better part of the past few seasons climbing baseball’s Mount Everest only to run out of steam just shy of the peak, the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers have decided enough is enough. Those 90-95 win seasons and deep playoff runs that don’t quite bear fruit will no longer be tolerated. The time to go for it is now, and no move quite emphasizes that mindset than the Prince Fielder–Ian Kinsler swap.
Yesterday it was announced that the Rangers had opened their wallets to sign Elvis Andrus to a $120 million dollar deal, which will keep the shortstop in Texas through 2022. The young All-Star will turn 25 this August which means the Rangers have locked up Andrus throughout the majority of his career. Is that the wisest move GM Jon Daniels could make, especially when you consider the fact that Texas has Jurickson Profar, a consensus top-5 prospect who also plays short, waiting in the wings?
How much does momentum matter on a baseball field? Can a team that enters the playoffs at its lowest point top one that’s been riding a hot streak for more than a month now? How much stock do you put into the notion that the team with the most talent eventually wins out? Does being a two-time defending champion with all the benefits of big game experience matter? Or can a team that’s seemingly been playing above its head continue to their magical ways? These are just a sampling of some of the storylines floating around a compelling winner-take-all contest between Texas and Baltimore to kick of the American League playoffs.
Earlier this week I took a look at the best pitching staff in baseball this season, the Tampa Bay Rays, and today I want to take a look at the team with the best, highest-scoring lineup in baseball, the Texas Rangers. Texas has outscored every team in baseball this season and the margin, quite frankly, isn’t even close. The New York Yankees homer-ific attack is 38 runs behind in 2nd place, and the National League’s best outfit, the Milwaukee Brewers, have scored 42 fewer runs.
Sit down and watch a couple Rangers games sometime over the next couple of weeks, and you can immediately note the biggest reason why: no team in baseball possesses more depth, one through nine, than Texas. Leading off with Ian Kinsler, on down through the destructive middle of the order featuring Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre among others, this team is stacked. Hell, they just called up top prospect Jurickson Profar, and all he’s done so far is hit .333 with a homer and a game-winning RBI in 3 games. Texas has an excellent mix of speed, power, on-base ability, and clutch hitting to outscore any club in baseball, so let’s run through it, 1 through 9.
The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
Now that April is in the books, and with All-Star voting already underway, it’s a good time to look at the American League’s best, by position, so far.
Catcher- Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles
The toughest position to choose from in either league, because of the excellent quality of play to date from Joe Mauer, who leads AL catchers in batting average and steals, AJ Pierzynski, who is hitting .309 with 4 homers, and Mike Napoli, who has crushed 7 homers already. I decided to go with Wieters, who plays behind the plate every game, unlike Mauer and Napoli, and who excels defensively, unlike Pierzynski. Wieters is hitting .279 with 6 homers and 15 RBI, helping Baltimore get off to a surprising start.
Konerko has been mashing the ball on the South Side, crushing for a .383/.444/.679 slash that puts him in the early MVP discussion. The slugging 1st baseman has also hit 5 homers, which put him over 400 for his career, and has driven in 15. He is the White Sox leader in the clubhouse, and has helped propel the team to a 2nd place start after the 1st month. This is one of the deepest positions in baseball, so we will see how long Paulie can hold on to the top spot.
2nd base- Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers
Kinsler has been the spark at the top of the Rangers finely tuned machine of an offense, leading baseball in runs scored with 24. He’s also hitting a robust .298 while blasting 5 homers out of the leadoff spot.
Shortstop- Derek Jeter, New York Yankees
This one isn’t even close, as Jeter is the only AL shortstop hitting above .300. He is currently off to one of the best starts to a season in his career, hitting .389 with 4 homers and 13 RBI out of the leadoff spot. He has also scored 16 runs and leads all of baseball in hits. He is also driving the ball to the outfield again, something he struggled with early last season.
3rd Base- Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Longoria injured his knee last night, attempting to steal 2nd, which has really put a damper on what was shaping up to be his finest professional season. Longoria has hit .349/.433/.561, spraying the ball to all fields and showing good power, with 4 homers to go with 19 ribbies. Hopefully he won’t have to miss more that a week or two, because he has some competition at 3rd with Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre.
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 and will probably cost the Rays a couple wins.
Outfield- Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers
Hamilton, along with Matt Kemp, has been playing in his own stratosphere early in 2012. He is hitting .395/.438/.744 and has compiled a major league leading 64 total bases in a scant 22 games. He also leads the American League in homeruns and RBI and may have a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown, if he can stay healthy.
Outfield- Josh Willingham, Minnesota Twins
Josh Willingham has arguably been the most valuable free agent pickup to date. He’s driving the ball to all fields, posting an outstanding .347/.447/.681 with 5 taters. He may not stay in Minnesota for long, because if the Twins don’t get their pitching sorted out, Willingham would bring back a big return from an outfield or slap hitting team around the deadline.
Outfield- Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles
Adam Jones has been the other driving force behind the Orioles offense so far, hitting .333 and driving in 12. He has shown an All-Star level mix of power and speed, slugging 6 homers and stealing 4 bases, while scoring 18 runs. Other candidates for this last spot include: Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Nolan Reimold, and Nick Swisher, who is having a career-best start to his season.
Designated Hitter- David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox
Ortiz is having quite the season so far in Boston leading baseball in batting average, at .405 and OPS at 1.184. He has buoyed the Red Sox with his steady demeanor and production, leading the team in RBI and homers.
Right-handed pitcher- Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox
What a comeback so far for Jake Peavy, who is currently 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA for the Sox. He’s already thrown 37 innings and has struck out a robust 33 while only walking 5 so far, for an excellent 6.6 K/BB. His WHIP of .690 leads baseball, as does his ERA+, which accounts for park factors and sits at an absurd 252. He will have some regression to the mean, but this is an excellent start for the righty.
The young 22-year-old was a blip on the radar before the season started, and a month later he leads all qualifying pitchers in ERA, at 1.23. He has only pitched 22 innings so far, but has struck out 22 while only allowing 1.182 base runners to reach per 9. He isn’t afraid to throw any pitch in any count and looks to be the real deal.
Relief pitcher- Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Johnson probably won’t occupy this spot for long, but right now he has a league leading 7 saves without allowing a run in any of his 8.2 innings pitched. Fernando Rodney has also been excellent, and apart from blowing an Opening Day save, Mariano Rivera has not allowed a run.
Yu Darvish had the best start of his young career last night against the Yankees, tossing 8.1 beautiful innings, striking out 10 batters in a 2-0 win. Darvish threw everything plus the kitchen sink at the Yankee batters, keeping them off-balance and uncomfortable and the plate. Darvish stayed around the plate all night, walking a season low 2 batters and scattering 7 hits. Yu got his run support on a leadoff homer by Ian Kinsler and a 3rd inning 2-out RBI single by Josh Hamilton, and he was able to make both runs stand up.
His location was excellent and his wide array of pitches baffled the Yankee hitters. Darvish also isn’t afraid of using any pitch in any count, striking out hitters on his splitter, his curveball, his slider, and fastball. If you look at his pitch breakdown he threw 42 fastballs, 20 sliders, 7 curveballs, 27, cutters, 9 splitters, and 14 2-seamed fastballs. Even when Darvish was missing with his pitches, he was down and outside of the strike zone, where no hitter can do any damage. Yu throws each of these pitches in a variety of locations and at a variety of speeds. Last night he was moving his fastball velocity up-and-down between 90 mph and 97. His performance was impressive and generated a lot of awkward swings out of the hitters.
Yu was also intelligently exploiting the left side of the plate against the Yankees, because home plate umpire Ted Barrett was giving both pitchers a large corner on the left side of the plate. This is intelligent pitching and made the Yankee at-bats even tougher, because they had to protect more of the plate.
The splitter he was using last night was thrown slightly differently than any splitter I’ve seen previously. Darvish left his ring finger knuckle high up on the baseball and then split his middle and index fingers around the seams. The pitch was thrown in the mid-80s with sharp downward break that fooled the Yankee hitters. In the 2nd inning of his start he retires Nick Swisher with the pitch, and boy is it a nasty one.
Darvish also showed a solid ability to get out of a jam. In the top of the 3rd the Yankees were able to get a rally going, loading the bases with nobody out after a pair of singles surrounding a walk. Darvish then kicked things up a notch, striking out Curtis Granderson and inducing an easy double play ball on weak contact by Alex Rodriguez. The best pitchers are able to limit the damage an offense can do when it gets runners on, and Darvish displayed this ability in spades last night.
In fact, the only Yankee hitters who had any good swings against Darvish were Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, who both doubled. Jeter is one of the 3 to 4 hottest hitters on the planet right now, with his average up to .416 after his 2-4 night, and Cano is-and-has been one of the best hitters in baseball for the past 3 seasons.
Darvish has now made 4 starts for the Rangers and has hardly disappointed. He has pitched 26 innings, compiling a 3-0 record while striking out 24 batters and posting a 2.42 ERA. He hasn’t allowed a homer and has gotten better in each of his starts, which is a scary thought for the league. His only issue has been his control walking 15 batters, 2nd most in baseball, but if his start against the Yankees is any indication, it won’t be an issue. If he can keep his early control problems in check, and display the command he had against New York, Darvish will be a solid contender to win the Cy Young.
Notes from Around the League:
-Chipper Jones turned 40 yesterday and celebrated with a bang, pounding a homer deep to right field in a 4-3 Atlanta win.
-Jeff Samardzija and Adam Wainwright met for the 2nd time this season and a pitcher’s duel ensued. Samardzija continued his excellent campaign, going 6.2 while striking out 9 and allowing no runs. Adam Wainwright also pitched well, going 6 innings, allowing 1 run and striking out 7. This was his best start of the season so far, and should be an encouraging sign for the Cardinals. As for the outcome of the game, Chicago was able to win in extras 3-2 on what should have been an error awarded to Tyler Greene, but was instead ruled a single for Alfonso Soriano.
-Tommy Milone also continued his excellent start to the season out in Oakland, throwing 8 innings of excellent baseball in a 2-0 win. He moves his record to 3-1 on the season after allowing only 3 hits while striking out 5 White Sox. His ERA on the season is now an even 2.00 and he is posting an elite 0.852 WHIP. He doesn’t strike out many hitters, but Milone does a good job keeping batters off balance at the plate while still pounding the strike zone.
-Josh Collmenter was bombed once again out in Arizona, this time by the struggling Phillies offense in a 8-5 loss. Collmenter has now allowed 20 earned runs and 30 base runners in 18.1 innings of work. He is a soft-tossing righty, who’s velocity usually sits around 86-88 with an average curveball and change-up, and now in his 2nd season, Collmenter’s stuff just doesn’t seem to be fooling batters anymore. He’s already leading baseball in homers allowed as well, having given up 6, and Arizona has plenty of talent in the minor leagues, with Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs destroying minor league batters, so its going to be interesting to see if the Diamondbacks make a rotation move sooner rather than later. Arizona would probably be able to add a couple wins to their overall total if they call up one of the young flamethrowers in the next few weeks, rather than let Collmenter’s soft tossing act continue to bomb for a couple more months.