Actually got the chance to go to last nights game between Boston and New York. For all the hype, it looks an awful lot to me like the Chicago-Cleveland series is a matchup of two much better teams, and a very intriguing one because of the contrasting styles. Boston-New York will get all the attention here as well, at least for today.
The Red Sox were able to win 7-3 last night, by piling 18 people on base throughout the course of the game, seven by way of walks. Meanwhile, Tim Wakefield kept the Yankee bats silent, other than a three-run fourth inning, capped by a two run single by Robinson Cano that rolled through the infield at a torturously slow pace.
The wind had a major effect on the game, as it knocked down likely home run balls by Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter, and the newly acquired Doug Mirabelli. The wind wasn't strong enough to stop the crushing blow, however--a three run homer by David Ortiz into the Boston bullpen off former Sox reliever Mike Myers. This was the first, and only extra base hit of the night by either team. This seems like the time to go through the league a couple teams a time, to see where they stand.
A month into the season, and neither seems to be playing much like a championship contender. The Yankees have the second best run differential in baseball, behind only the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox have actually allowed more runs than they've scored. The likely conclusion from that is that the Yankees have actually outplayed Boston, by a fairly significant amount, and therefore are likely to continue to do so. There are other ways to look at it, though.
As far as the Yankees are concerned, they have a few players that are playing as well as they can play, completely blowing away any reasonable projections for them. Derek Jeter (.396/.505/.637) and Jason Giambi (.328/.542/.812) are the most notable cases. Neither are going to continue to hit like THAT. Also, Robinson Cano's .329 average is based almost entirely on singles--he has just six extra base hits. High batting averages based on a lot of singles tend to produce lots of fluctuation. Until Cano proves that he's a Tony Gwynn type, with a true nose for singles, I'm going to expect that number to drop significantly as well. Because he produces few walks or homers, Cano needs to hit around or above .300 to remain a productive player.
So who is going to pick up the slack? Two people who have been mentioned as underachieving so far this year are Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. Rodriguez has a low batting average (.261), but has maintained a high OBP, at .394, right about in line with where his recent career numbers have been. His power will jump a bit--expect his SLG at the end of the year to be closer to .575 than .466, but he hasn't been making outs at any higher rate than he his been in the past, therefore a jump in power isn't going to make that much of a difference. Jorge Posada's numbers are actually up from last year, so the Yankees should be happy if he can just maintain what he is doing, reversing a notable pattern of decline since his 2003 peak.
So that leaves two positions that have been underproducing for New York, with an opportunity to pick up any slack at all: LF and DH. LF Hideki Matsui has struggled mightily after signing a contract extension this offseason. .247/.327/.409 is not what anyone had in mind. According to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system, that's right around the 10th percentile of what should be expected from him. Why the dropoff? He hasn't hit a lick against lefthanded pitching so far this year. After doing quite well against lefties his first three years in the league, the bottom has fallen out this year hitting .194/.256/.222 against them. While 36 at-bats isn't a substantial sample size (particularly when weighted against the other 650 PA's in his career that say he CAN hit lefties), it does show us what the problem has been. As nice a story as his consecutive games streak is, a day off here or there against a tough lefty may do him some good.
As far as the DH position goes, Bernie Williams has had a nice career, and he's arguably been the most important player in the postseason for the Yankees, outside of Mariano Rivera. I'm not going to sit here and tell him that he should retire--if he enjoys playing baseball, and the Yankees will give him a couple million to do it, why should he retire? But his time as a productive baseball player are over. Mercifully moved out of centerfield three years after Peter Gammons himself called him the worst defensive CF in baseball, Bernie's bat has declined to the point where he'd have trouble holding a roster spot even if he ran like he did when he was 25.
So where does help come from? Clearly not within the organization--their bench of Stinnett, Cairo, Crosby and Phillips is likely the worst in baseball, for two reasons. The first being that none of them are young, the second being that none of them have that one single skill they excel at to make them a useful bench player. A good bench isn't necessarily made up of the best players, but the ones whose skills lineup in a way to do something the starter cannot. With that in mind, expect the Yankees to be on the lookout for a righty outfielder who can spell Matsui and DH from time to time. This team is only a couple injuries away from having a significant hole at the bottom of its superstar lineup.
Of course, the more important questions about the Yankees success revolve around their pitching, a problem that came to the forefront last night, when they allowed 18 Red Sox to reach base, while only striking out one batter. In a game against a division rival, they went to the quintet of Chien-Meng Wang, Aaron Small, Tanyon Sturtze, Mike Myers and Scott Proctor? Would a single one of these men make the White Sox roster? Considering that they're having trouble finding innings for Brandon McCarthy, described by some as a "tall Roy Oswalt," that seems pretty unlikely.
The Yankees rotation has actually been pretty good so far. Mike Mussina isn't likely to maintain a 2.31 ERA or continue to strikeout a person per inning, but even with a dropoff, this could be his chance to finally get that 20 win season. Going into free agency and turning 38 in December, that would likely get him paid well into his 40's. Randy Johnson's performance to this point can best be described as erratic. Fortunately for him, he's had a couple bad starts on days with minimal competition (see: Josh Towers). The real concern with Johnson is that his K-rate has fallen below 7.0 per nine innings, signalling continued decline. No pitcher lasts forever, and last season now looks like the start of a decline phase, rather than a simple off-year.
The rest of the rotation is going to be the key, clearly.
Shawn Chacon has pitched great a couple times, and been whacked around a couple times. If the wind is blowing in at Fenway again tonight, that's a good sign for him, as even if hangs a couple curves, it'll take some real power to get it out of the park. The concern with Chacon is that he simply doesn't strike out enough guys to be successful. He simply cannot continue to strike out 4.5 per 9 innings, as he did last year in both stops, and continue winning. So far this year, his K rate is up to a more reasonable 6.0, a number that he can win with if he keeps the walks down and the ball in the park.
Chien-Meng Wang's sophomore effort has been disappointing. Not to keep harping on the strikeout rates, but his was among the worst in baseball last year, which was strange considering that he can throw as hard as 93 with good sinking action. He's increased only from 3.6 to 4.1, while his walk rate has jumped from 2.5 to 3.6. If you're walking too many people, and striking out too few, your chances of success are between slim and none. Going forward this season, watch those numbers. If his K rate isn't above 5 by late July, expect him to have an ERA around 6.00. It's simply impossible to sustain success when you can't make batters miss. The bright side is that he's allowed only one home run in 35 innings. While most pitchers need a strikeout rate of at least 5.5-6.0 to succeed, the ability to keep the ball in the park gives him some leeway.
Finally, Jaret Wright. You know, a lot of people in baseball disagree on a lot of different things. However, one thing that just about everyone agreed on was that signing Jaret Wright to a 3-year, $21M contract was just really, really dumb. With an ERA of over 7, and nothing to indicate an ability to be any better, he's a strong candidate to be released when Carl Pavano gets healthy. If Pavano doesn't get healthy or return to form, expect the Yankees again to go outside the organization. Pitching is much harder to trade for that hitting in-season, though, so Pavano's health could be a key to the Yankees hopes.
As far as help within the organization, Aaron Small made his Yankee debut last night, and was roughed up. It's wise not to put stock in the fact the he pitched poorly on a cold night in Boston. It probably IS wise to put stock in the fact that he pitched poorly for five different teams from 1994-2004. Sean Henn, who was rocked in a cameo last year, has an ERA over 5.00 in his first three Triple A starts. He's not the answer, but there's a good chance he'd at least outperform Jaret Wright if/when they decide to give Wright the boot.
The good news is that they're in first place in the AL East. The bad news is that they've been outscored. Saved by their 5-2 record in one-run games, this is a team that's underachieved on the field, but overachieved in the standings relative to what they've achieved on the field, leaving them... exactly where they should be.
On the offensive side of the ball, there's been a major power outage. They're fifth from the bottom in team homers with only 27, and last in the division. David Ortiz has hit 11 of those 27 homers, meaning the rest of the team has combined for only 16 in over 900 PA's. A rate that puts them worse than every team in the league, other than the Royals. Ouch. The Red Sox are certainly doing their job getting on base, but the lack of pop has led to their leading the league in men left on base, while being only in the middle of the pack as far as scoring.
Is there a solution? Probably nothing that time won't cure. Manny hit all four of his homers on the recent nine game road trip, following one of the longest droughts of his career. Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, and Trot Nixon have all hit the ball well and gotten on base, but none have hit for the power they'd like to see. Jason Varitek struggled while fighting a glute injury, but is reportedly healthy now. Lowell, Nixon and Varitek are all likely to hit 20 homers if healthy, while Youkilis should add another 10-15.
Centerfield has been a soft spot for the team. After losing Coco Crisp on day five, they've sorted through Dustan Mohr, Adam Stern, Willie Harris and Wily Mo Pena. Pena offers tons of power, but can't handle the position defensively. Stern was stretched as an everyday player in the lineup, but is ready to play the position defensively at the major league level. Mohr and Harris are nice backups to have as long as your starters don't get hurt. Settling on Pena to play there for the next two weeks is the best option of the four. His strikeouts and defense are likely to annoy Boston fans, but not as much as his raw power will make them happy. It will never happen, but they may do well to try Nixon there. He doesn't have the speed he did five years ago, but he is still faster than Pena, and he's rated very highly defensively. There are two potential drawbacks. The first is the fact that Nixon's gotten more and more injury prone throughout the years. The second is that he's made up for his declining speed with increasing smarts in his defense. He takes good routes to balls, and positions himself very well. It's an open question as to whether he would be as productive at the different angles of center field. There's also the argument that, in Fenway Park, RF defense is just as important as CF. Either way, Nixon isn't moving.
The middle infield has been a sore spot. At 2B, Mark Loretta was responsible for the most exciting moment of the young season for the Red Sox, a two-run walkoff homer off Eddie Guardado on Patriot's Day. Overall though, the Red Sox planned on getting an on-base and doubles machine, not the paltry .217/.278/.243 numbers that he's produced. A Silver Slugger Award winner in the NL just two years ago, Loretta should bounce back. If not, Dustin Pedroia looms in Triple A. Rated by Baseball Prospectus as the #11 prospect this offseason, by 2007, he could very well bat second for many teams. The Sox would rather get him some PA's in Pawtucket, rather than start his service-time clock running, but he'll be up for good in September at the latest.
The SS problem may be harder to fix. Gonzalez was acquired both for his glove, and for the potential his power could return to the form of 2004 and earlier. The Sox took a chance on both parts of the underachieving left side of the 2005 Marlins infield. So far, Lowell has been a pleasant surprise, while Gonzalez has his so poorly (.186/.275/.243) that he's started losing playing time to Alex Cora. Pedroia was drafted as a SS, and has been playing there some in Pawtucket, since his return from the DL two weeks ago, but the Sox see his future at 2B. Beyond that, the pickings are slim, and there aren't likely to be a whole lot of great options out there at the trade deadline. If Gonzalez continues to struggle, trying to pry a guy like Jason Bartlett from the Twins could be one answer.
As far as the pitching staff goes, there's been a wide gap between the good and the bad.
For starters, Curt Schilling has been everything the Sox could've dreamed. He looked an awful lot like a guy who was finished last year, and in his first six starts of 2006, he's rebounded to the tune of 4-1, 2.88. The supporting peripheral numbers are there as well. A 40/7 strikeout to walk ratio in 40.2 innings signals that he is pitching in form. At this point, there's nothing to suggest anything less than an all-star appearance.
Trading Josh Beckett was the big move of the offseason, and he'd been the toast of the town until last Thursday's start against the Indians sent his ERA up more than two runs. Looking at the numbers as a whole though, there are worries. Most notably, his strikeouts are way down from his time with the Marlins, only 21 in 32 innings. There has been a lot of talk recently about how the gap between the American and National Leagues seems to be increasing, and Beckett may be a victim of that. He pitches against the Yankees tonight, and his control certainly will be on display, as the Yankees take more pitches than any team in baseball.
Tim Wakefield has only a 1-4 record, but has actually pitched very well. After last night performance, he has a solid 3.89 ERA, and he also has his personal caddie, Doug Mirabelli, back in town. There's not a whole lot to discuss with Wakefield. At the end of the season, chances are he'll have an ERA in the low fours, and double digit wins. He's a perfect mid-rotation starter, providing above average innings, at a reasonable cost, while likely being the lowest injury risk of any pitcher in baseball.
Matt Clement has not been so good. Following a rough second half last year, he's got an ERA over 6.00, and a walk rate of 4.6. He's likely to settle down and pitch better, but Boston has a notoriously short leash with its starters. The fact that Boston moved so hard to trade him in the offseason probably didn't help his confidence much. A guy with a reputation for inconsistency, at the Red Sox would almost welcome that now, in lieu of being consistently bad.
The #5 spot in the rotation has become quite an issue. After David Wells' injury, it's been held by Lenny Dinardo. While minor league numbers, and his time in the majors before this year told us that Dinardo was a good bet to become a solid starter, he certainly hasn't pitched like it. He has an ERA above 7.00, and only 8 K's along with 4 HR's in 18.1 innings so far. On a team that didn't have championship aspirations, he'd be allowed to stay in the rotation and work out the kinks. In Boston, he's a great bet to be traded. If a team has their eyes open, they could pick him up for next to nothing. Wells has been taking shots for his knee, but there is little optimism that he'll be able to come back (as well as rumblings that not everyone necessarily wants him back).
One advantage the Sox do have, however, is a great candidate to take the spot sitting on their own roster. Jonathan Papelbon has been among the best pitchers in the league this year, but the Red Sox desperately need a way to find him more innings. Whether it's by moving him to the starting rotation or by using him more creatively in the bullpen, the Sox would do well to find a way to get at least 120 innings out of him.
While the urge to keep him in the closer role is understandable, Keith Foulke's resurgence could make shifting Papelbon much easier. After a couple rough outings early, Foulke has an ERA in the high threes, along with a very nice 18/2 strikeout to walk number, in 17 innings. Between Foulke and Mike Timlin, the Sox have options.
If they do choose to keep Papelbon in the bullpen, their options for starters are limited. Abe Alvarez, is one. You may remember Alvarez as the pitcher who wears his cap towards the side, in order to correct for his legal blindness. After a strong Double A in 2004, Alvarez's strikeout rates have not carried on to Triple A. While his 2.17 ERA is inviting, much of that seems to be because Triple A hitters struggle with pitchers who change speeds and mix pitches well. The hitters that are able to deal with a guy like Alvarez become major leaguers--where they beat up on pitchers like Alvarez, who lack the strikeout pitch to put them away.
Jon Lester is considered the long term answer. He has a high ERA at Triple A, near 6.00, though it has been skewed by a couple rough outings. One positive is that he's striking out more than a batter per inning, carrying over from his time at Portland last year, where he led the Eastern League in strikeouts. The other positive is that he's 22 years old, in Triple A. The Red Sox will not rush him, but don't be surprised to see him get a chance after the All-Star break to establish himself in some role, much like Papelbon did last fall.