Only one franchise in baseball has managed to stumble their way through the past decade without having a single pitching staff rank in the top half of the league: the Kansas City Royals. The franchise was only able to rise above 20th once over the course of the last decade, finishing 16th in 2007 thanks to Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, and a surprisingly good bullpen that featured a 23-year-old Zach Greinke for most of the year. But that one year is just a blip on the radar and it’s not a very impressive blip at that.
That’s why GM Dayton Moore decided to go all in on pitching this offseason, overhauling the Royals’ rotation to the point that it’s unrecognizable now. Gone are the days of starting Luke Hochevar on Opening Day. Instead, Kansas City now has a viable front man at the top of their rotation in James Shields and a pretty solid quartet backing him up. Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, Wade Davis, and Luis Mendoza may not be the most recognizable names in the game, but they have been ruthlessly effective so far, carrying KC to the 5th best starter’s ERA in the Majors as well as the AL Central lead.
Whenever a team trades their best prospect and their best pitching prospect, the assumption is that they were just floored with an offer that they couldn’t refuse. After all, if Toronto’s #5, #6, and #10 prospects (according to Baseball America) could nab Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and John Buck, what could the consensus Minor League Player of the Year, Wil Myers, be worth? And what could Myers get you if you packaged him with other top prospects from one of the deepest, most talented minor league systems in baseball? It would have to be a killing, right? Like a David Price, or a Clayton Kershaw, or a Troy Tulowitzki plus more right? Well, if you were paying attention on Sunday evening, the Royals were able to turn Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard into James Shields, Wade Davis, and a player to be named later from the Rays. Quite frankly, that’s not exactly the most inspiring haul you could possibly get. In fact, I said as much a couple of weeks ago when rumors of a Wil Myers trade first surfaced. Here’s the basic gist of what I wrote:
“So unless the Rays want to trade David Price or Matt Moore straight up or the Mariners suddenly get the urge to deal King Felix away, the Royals need to stand pat. Those are the only types of players Dayton Moore should be looking for. No Jon Lesters, no James Shields types. While they are both good pitchers, they just won’t offer enough in return to justify trading away a potential future All-Star who’s going to be on a rookie deal.”
Well not much has changed in two weeks. I still believe Myers will turn into a perennial All-Star with multiple 30 homer seasons, and the only reason to trade that type of player away is if you can get a true #1 starter. And as much as I love James Shields, he isn’t a #1 starter. He might be the best #2 in baseball, but that’s not worth the haul Kansas City is giving up. Regardless of my own personal thoughts, one thing really stands out about this trade from Kansas City’s perspective: the franchise is all-in for 2013. There is no going back now. Kansas City’s front office must truly believe that the acquisition of Shields and Davis puts them in the running for the AL Central title, otherwise there is absolutely no reason to make this deal. Meanwhile, the Rays are the team looking past 2013, even though they won 90 games in last season, and you know what? They will probably be better off for it and that’s what makes this such a fascinating trade to break down.
One of the most commonly held notions going into the 2012-13 hot stove is that the Tampa Bay Rays, those gluttons of pitching, need to trade away at least one of their starters to pick up a nice middle-of-the-order type bat. A cursory look at Tampa’s stats from a year ago give credence to this idea.
Tampa Bay had the best team ERA in baseball. They piled up the most strikeouts in baseball. The Rays even had the lowest batting average against any staff in baseball. Basically general manager Andrew Friedman and company have stockpiled arms like the Americans and Soviets had during the Cold War. Meanwhile, the Rays offense struggled to produce even meager run totals, resembling something similar to the Eastern block of Europe during the 1950s, to stick with the Cold War theme. They struggled to hit consistently for power, they were abysmal at hitting for average, and in the run scoring department they ranked a meager 18th in baseball, trailing every one of their AL East rivals.
The solution appears to be simple on the surface. Trade a little bit of the enviable starting pitching depth for a little bit of premium offense. The Rays won’t miss one of their frontline starters too much with all their depth and with some more pop at the plate, a playoff appearance and maybe even a parade could be coming to St. Pete in a matter of no time. But it’s not that simple. The Rays could stand pat and decide to peruse the free agent market for offense, hoping to turn trash into treasure yet another time. And if they deal a pitcher, who goes, who stays, and what do they want in return?
It wasn’t so long ago in July, when the Tampa Bay Rays were sitting 10.5 games out of first place. They were a mire 47-45, slumping, and rumor had it that core players like James Shields and BJ Upton were on the trading block. GM Andrew Friedman, perhaps the finest GM in all of baseball, decided to hold onto his assets and see if the team had another 2nd half turnaround in it. Well, thanks to a red-hot Upton (.266/.316/.564, 14 HR, 37 RBI, 14 steals in 57 games) and the best pitching staff in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays look like one of the most dangerous teams in the American League heading toward the end of the season.
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