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.
For the majority of the past four seasons the Yankees have had the luxury of putting a top notch defense on the field anchored by former Gold Glove award winners at almost every position. The fact remains that many of those players were a bit past their prime but for the most part the defense the Yankees have put on the field these past four years has been solid. They didn’t make many mistakes, they hit they cutoff man, and they generally played smart baseball.
Well, during the first five games of this young season, the 2013 Yankees have looked nothing like their predecessors. The infield defense has been sloppy, teams are going 1st-to-3rd on every outfield single, and I don’t think a single New York outfielder has hit a cutoff man to date. And I haven’t even touched the surface on the defense behind the plate, where both Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart appear to be overexposed in full-time duty. Let’s break down some of New York’s issues on defense:
Major League Baseball fans everywhere should be a bunch of happy campers today. We’ve been blessed by the Baseball Gods with a star-studded World Series match-up between the American League champion Detroit Tigers and the National League champion San Francisco Giants. There is MVP and Cy Young hardware all over the place in this series. We have the presumptive 2012 MVP winners in Miguel Cabrera and Buster Posey, seated to your left (although there are MVP arguments for other players, Mike Trout in particular). Over in that corner you have the 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander. Turn around and you can catch a glimpse of Barry Zito, the 2002 Cy Young winner. Just strolling in the door is Tim Lincecum, the winner of the 2008 and 2009 Cy Young awards in the National League. It’s ridiculous how many big names are in this series, and we haven’t even mentioned the perennial All-Star types like Prince Fielder and Matt Cain. Every single playoff series, except for the ALCS, has been remarkably balanced and has gone the distance this year, and with two evenly matched competitors set to take the diamond tonight, you can expect more evenly matched world-class baseball. Here’s some of what you should be keeping your eye on in the games to come.
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.
Before the 2012 season, nearly every baseball analyst, including yours truly, picked the Detroit Tigers to absolutely dominate what looked to be a weak division. Well half of that prediction has come true thus far, because the AL Central has indeed been the weakest division in baseball. In fact its been so bad its time to dust off the old nickname, the Comedy Central. Currently the slumping White Sox hold a slim half game lead over the win-a-game-lose-a-game Indians, and a 2.5 game lead over the struggling Tigers. If baseball abolished divisions and moved all teams into one league, no AL Central team would rank among the top 5 in the American League. So does anyone really want to win this thing? Let’s take a look to see which team has the best chance, starting with those White Sox.
- Yoenis Cespedes’ power. My oh my does he have plenty of it. Cespedes already has 3 homers in his first 4 games, and all of them have been moon shots. Each homer has been over 400 feet with the best of the bunch going for an absurd 462 feet. I think he has a legitimate chance to finish in the top-5 in homers in the American League and I hope that he gets a chance to hit in the Home Run Derby this year. Cespedes is already that much fun to watch.
- Motown’s Bash Brothers. Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera wasted no time this season before they went back to back, doing so in the 5th inning of their second game. The Tigers offense was humming all weekend against the Red Sox, rocking the Boston staff for more than 10 runs on Saturday and Sunday. Fielder and Cabrera also could threaten the record for most back-to-back homers in a season. The current record is 6 times and is held by 4 combos, Johnny Damon and Mark Teixiera in 2009, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in 2004, Magglio Ordonez and Frank Thomas in 2000, and Hank Greenberg and Rudy York in 1938.
- Joe Maddon’s Defensive Shifts. No manager in baseball uses shifts more, or with more success than Joe Maddon. In the series against the Yankees, Maddon shifted his defense more than he played them straight up. He even had Tampa shift against righties. Righties Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texiera (he’s a switch hitter, so Tampa shifted either way) both saw the shift move three fielders to the right, giving a massive hitting gap where the 2nd baseman normally is. Neither hitter could make Maddon pay. Curtis Granderson also lost multiple hits in the series to Maddon’s shifts. This is worth keeping an eye on, and I plan to write much more on this subject once there have been a few more games.
- Yoenis Cespedes’ defense in center. Yes, Cespedes makes it twice. He is that exciting. His defense leaves much to be desired however. In Saturday’s Mariners-A’s game, Ichiro came up to bat and hit a liner to straightaway center. Cespedes not only makes the mistake of taking one step in, he takes multiple steps in!!! Predictably, by the time Cespedes realizes his mistake, the ball is sailing over his head, allowing Ichiro an easy triple. Cespedes needs quite a bit of work on positioning and getting the proper jump in the outfield. Oakland would be wise to swap him and left-fielder Cocoa Crisp, who is excellent in center.
- Boston’s relief pitching. Ouch. Granted it was against Detroit, who look to have a killer lineup, but still ouch. The Sox bullpen allowed 10 earned runs in 11.1 innings of work and took 2 of the 3 losses. Nearly every pitcher, outside of Vincente Padilla’s stellar 4-inning performance Sunday, was abysmal. The Red Sox are really feeling the loss of Daniel Bard to the rotation and Andrew Bailey to injury. If the Red Sox can’t figure their bullpen out, no lead will be safe, and their playoff chances will go up in smoke. Starting pitchers Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz also struggled, each giving up 7 runs.
- New York, Boston, Minnesota, San Francisco, and Atlanta. It’s never fun to start the season with a sweep like all of these teams did. San Francisco, Atlanta, and the Yankees all have to be steamed in particular, losing to division rivals. Minnesota also has to feel pretty terrible right now, losing 3 straight to the hapless Orioles, getting shut down offensively in every game.
Yesterday saw quite a few excellent games on Opening Day Act 2. Let’s go over a couple of games between AL East and AL Central teams.
In Detroit, the battle between Justin Verlander and Jon Lester, the aces of the Tigers, and Red Sox, lived up to the hype. Verlander picked right up where he left off, allowing only 2 hits, walking 1, and striking out 7 in 8 scoreless innings. His dominance was fueled by his curveball, which was hellacious, and he struck out 6 of the 7 batters on the pitch. Lester was no slouch either, allowing only a solitary run in the 7th before being pulled.
But almost predictably the Red Sox bullpen imploded. With the injury to Andrew Bailey and the conversion of Daniel Bard to a starter, the relief corp in Boston is ridiculously thin. In 2 innings of work, 4 pitchers combined to give up 4 hits, 1 walk, striking out nobody, and allowing 2 runs. When Vincente Padilla is the first man out of the ‘pen in a 1-0 game in the 8th, that is not a good sign.
Jose Valverde, who was a lucky 49-49 in saves a year ago, was also abysmal. He threw 1 awful inning allowing both Red Sox runs on 3 hits, but it didn’t matter. The Red Sox pen would not allow itself to be victorious on this day, and Alfredo Aceves gave up the winning hit to Austin Jackson with the bases loaded in the 9th to send the Tiger fans home happy.
In the best game of the day, the Blue Jays and Indians played an Opening Day classic, a 7-4, 16-inning brawl won by Toronto. The game appeared to be a tidy 4-1 Indian win , mostly due to the spectacular pitching of Justin Masterson, who was a Jose Bautista solo shot away from a shutout. He struck out 10 and only allowed 3 base runners over the course of 8 innings. The 9th is when things got interesting however.
In the top of the 9th, Chris Perez, the nominal closer for Cleveland, came in and immediately made the game an interesting affair. In only 2/3s of an inning he walked 2, gave up 3 hits, and allowed 3 runs to score. At his best, Perez is a mediocre closer who has had only 1 truly good season, back in 2010. The rest of the Indian’s bullpen, particularly Tony Sipp, impressed, which is a good sign. If Cleveland reshuffles their bullpen, and makes another pitcher the closer, good things will happen.
With a potential win in reach, John Farrell, Toronto’s manager, immediately got creative with his defense. In the bottom of the 9th he moved his outfield around, and put Jose Bautista at first. Bautista played the position with grace, looking comfortable, and making a few plays. In addition to his positional versatility, Bautista also did what he does best: mash the ball and get on base. He was 3-4 with 2 walks, a homer, and 2 RBIs.
The longer the game went on, the more creative Farrell got with his defense. In the 12th inning, after Cleveland loaded the bases with 1 out, Farrell made a particularly ballsy call. He decided to sub in Omar Vizquel for leftfielder Eric Thames. Then he decided that instead of positioning Vizquel in the outfield, he would put him near the base at second, shifting the shortstop Escobar into the hole. It was the rarely used 5th infielder strategy, and boy oh boy, did it totally pay off.
On the very first pitch, Asdrubal Cabrera smacked a grounder right into the hole on the left side of the infield, exactly where Escobar had been positioned. Escobar rifled the ball to second, where Kelly Johnson made the turn to complete the double play. If not for Farrell’s heady managing the game would have been over then and there, a 5-4 win for the Tribe.
The game continued into the 16th inning when JP Arencibia came up to bat with 2 runners on. Arencibia had a 1-1 count when he thought he was given the sign to bunt. He failed miserably on his bunt attempt, and was left with a 2-strike count. The next pitch, he made Cleveland pay depositing a 3-run blast into the left field seats, giving Toronto the winning runs. “For some reason, I thought I got the bunt sign,” Arencibia said. “That got me in two strikes. Then I was just trying to hit the ball. I happened to hit it hard and got it out of the park.” Either way it was an exciting game and a great way to start the season.
-Prince Fielder got a base hit in his first career at-bat as a Tiger.
-Omar Vizquel was greeted warmly by the Indian fans every time his name was announced. He also played 1st base for the second time in his illustrious career, after technically entering the game as a leftfielder.
-Colby Rasmus made an excellent diving catch in centerfield in the 5th inning, but made a near fatal mistake in the 9th. On a potentially catchable ball, he got confused, and let it skip by for a double. The play at worst would have been a single and Rasmus looked like he could not decide between making a diving attempt or picking it up on one hop. Its more boom-or-bust play out of the former highly-touted prospect.