Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mid-week Musings Around the American League

So, there's a lot going on around the league, but I don't have a single topic that lends itself to a full column. So, for your enjoyment, here are stories from each team in the AL.

Boston - Andrew Miller Likely to be Called Up
Multiple sources (including the Boston Globe's Peter Abraham) are reporting that Andrew Miller will be called up from Pawtucket to take a role in the Red Sox starting rotation. Miller had his 4th straight excellent start last night against Charlotte, going 5.1 innings, giving up 5 hits, 1 run, striking out 10, and walking only 1. Four excellent starts doesn't necessarily mean Miller is "fixed," but walking only 3 in his past 25.1 IP is a huge step in the right direction. Convinced that either Miller is ready to help, or that there was a significant chance Miller would choose to opt out of his contract, the Sox appear to be pulling the trigger.

Interestingly, instead of replacing Tim Wakefield, the Sox will go with a six-man rotation for the time being. While this may be the best way to promote Miller while also give Wakefield a useful role, the danger is obviously that Beckett, Lester and Buchholz will be pitching less frequently. History shows that all three have pitched their best on five days (one extra) of rest, but Lester and Buchholz are worse (though with an insignificant sample size) given a sixth day. Therefore, the six man rotation may be sensible when the team is playing every day, but when off days are involved, the Red Sox should be skipping Miller or Wakefield.

New York - Derek Jeter Goes on DL - Yankees Break Out
Talk about the elephant in the room. One game is obviously an insignificant sample size, but if the Yankees offense is sparked by having Brett Gardner - who has a higher OBP, higher SLG, and is significantly faster than Jeter - batting leadoff, the Yankees get to have at least the fifth (sixth? seventh?) really really uncomfortable declining-superstar-who-helped-them-win-championships-but-is-no-longer that-good discussion. Because of his league-high ground ball rate, batting second would be the worst possible spot for Jeter (he'd probably hit into 35 double plays over a full season batting second behind a .340+ OBP guy), so where would they hit him? Sixth? Eighth? Fans who recall the end of Ozzie Smith's career in St. Louis (Smith and Tony LaRussa still will not speak) have a guideline about where this might be going.

Tampa Bay - James Shields Shuts Down Streaking Red Sox
In 2008, Shields appeared to be emerging as one of the best pitchers in the league, even somehow earning the nickname "Big Game James" before the Rays had ever even appeared in a playoff game. The past two years, though, Shields had regressed, with a 4.14 ERA in 2009 and a 5.18 ERA in a 2010 season where he led the AL in hits, home runs and earned runs allowed. His K/BB ratio had stayed excellent, but it's hard to have success allowing a home run once every 6 IP. With his HR rate back down to a sustainable level this year, Shields has a 2.60 ERA and will be hard to leave off of the All-Star Team.

Toronto - Kyle Drabek sent to AAA

The Blue Jays top prospect (and son of the former Cy Young Award Winner), has battled control problems all year. He bottomed out Sunday against the Red Sox, allowing 8 runs, 3 homers and 4 walks in only 4 IP. In three June starts, Drabek lasted only 10 innings, with a 15.30 ERA, .404/.509/.702 line against, with 10 walks and 6 strikeouts. Leading the AL with 52 walks and 10 wild pitches on the season, it's pretty clear what Drabek will be expected to work on.

Doesn't the sound of being sent to Las Vegas to work on control just sound like a bad idea?

Baltimore - Koji Uehara Could be Valuable Trade Bait
Since being converted to a reliever before the 2010 season, Uehara has a 2.69 ERA is 73 IP, with an extremely impressive 92 strikeouts to only 11 walks. With his contract expiring this year, the Orioles will be unlikely to resign him, and he could be a valuable piece for a contender down the stretch.

Buyer beware, though - Uehara has allowed 10 home runs since the start of last season, including 5 in only 29.2 IP this year. This would make me very leery of putting Uehara in a closer role. Still, in a setup role on a team having bullpen problems like Texas or Detroit, Uehara has obvious value.

Detroit - Alex Avila Helping Lead Charge Toward First Place
The Tigers took over sole possession of first place in the AL Central yesterday with a win over the Twins. Justin Verlander was (rightly) the story, bringing a no-hitter into the 7th and finishing with a 2-hit, 12-strikeout complete game shutout. Miguel Cabrera (if Jose Bautista hadn't turned into some sort of superhuman, he'd be the best hitter in the AL) has gotten the bulk of the attention, but 24-year old catcher Alex Avila has been fantastic, with a .296/.355/.545 batting line, including .347/.382/.592 in his last 14 games (in which the Tigers have gone 10-4).

Proving, once again, that the fan voters are often smarter than they receive credit for, Avila is 2nd among AL catchers in All Star voting. With leader Russell Martin potentially going on the disabled list, Avila may have a chance to move up.

Cleveland - Indians fall out of First Place, Possibly Because Everyone on their Team isn't Playing Well
That's only a slight exaggeration - it just seems that way. Asdrubal Cabrera, for example is doing quite well. Chris Perez has been arguably the best closer in the league, non-Rivera division. Justin Masterson, after starting off at 5-0, has failed to win any of his last 9 starts. In those nine starts though, he has a very respectable 3.69 ERA over 61 innings, with 43 K, 21 BB, and only 2 HR allowed.

Others are legitimately slumping though. After putting The Dunne Deal fan favorite Good Grady Sizemore on the DL on May 10, the Indians mistakenly activated arch-nemesis Evil Grady Sizemore, who has gone .200/.294/.333 since May 27th. Over the same time frame, Shin-Soo Choo has gone .183/.258/.217. Orlando Cabrera? .176/.192/.196. In his last three starts, Fausto Carmona has a 10.67 ERA. In Josh Tomlin's last four starts, he has a 8.61 ERA, raising his season from 2.41 to 4.14.

Choo is likely to improve, but Sizemore and Carmona have been enigmatic for years now, Cabrera may be finished, and a low-4's ERA seems to be about Tomlin's skill level until he starts allowing fewer home runs.

Overall, this was a team that was playing way over its head, and the law of averages has made itself felt in a hurry.

Chicago - Juan Pierre Should Not Hit Leadoff Anymore
I'm not going to call for a full out benching of the guy, because he can still play LF well (though his defensive stats show him as worse than last year, when he was excellent), and the White Sox aren't exactly busting at the seams with another LF ready to take his place. Still, the White Sox are 6th in the AL in OBP, 6th in SLG, and 9th in runs scored, largely because their batting order is, to say the least, inefficient. To make matters worse, Pierre leads the league with being caught stealing 9 times, against only 10 successful swipes. Adding those 9 outs on the basepaths to the 220 outs Pierre has at the plate, he's been the most prolific out-maker in baseball. Batting in front of Alexei Ramirez, Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin, the White Sox are doing themselves a disservice not having someone who can consistently get to first base, even if he doesn't stay there. The problem? There is no obvious candidate, unless you believe Brent Lillibridge is for real (I'm skeptical).

If Chicago ever got any consistency from Gordon Beckham, they could have their answer. Based on his career splits so far, he should have a huge second half, but this is the second year in a row Beckham has gotten off to a dreadful start.

Kansas City - Why Not Keep Jeff Francis?
Over at MLBTR, there was an article about what the Royals should do if they become sellers. The obvious response is that a 4th place team with the best farm system in baseball should DEFINITELY be sellers - if they can get sufficient value for veterans who aren't going to be there in 2013, they should definitely do so, even if it lowers their chance of making the playoffs in 2011 from 0.05% down to 0.01%.

One point was about Jeff Francis, who is due to be a free agent after the season and will not meet Type B status to gain the Royals compensation. The thought is that they should trade him, so that they don't lose him for nothing. If the Royals can get anything of value for him, they should probably do it, but there is a value in having an innings-eater type on a young team. He will keep the bullpen from becoming too taxed (he's gone at least 6 IP in all but 3 of 14 starts, which all came consecutively earlier this year), and can probably continue to be a league average pitcher when the team is ready to contend in a couple years. Since their pitching prospects are behind their hitters, and pitching is less projectable than hitting anyway.

Francis is probably good enough to be a 4 or 5 starter on a contender without hurting them too much - putting him in front of a better defense might take half a run off his ERA, since he has so many balls put in play against him. So if a team like St. Louis makes a reasonable offer, the Royals should probably take it. However, if they can't get value there is no harm in letting Francis become Kansas City's version of Bronson Arroyo, delivering acceptable but rarely excellent pitching while the rest of the team develops around him. Better than having Kyle Davies and Sean O'Sullivan start those games, at least.

Justin Morneau Placed on DL
There has been some talk about Morneau recently playing through a shoulder injury, despite the fact that both he, and the Twins have been terrible. Yesterday he was placed on the DL with a strained wright wrist.

I don't know if he hurt his wrist because he was attempting to play through the shoulder injury. I do know that him trying to play, and the Twins LETTING him play while he and the team were both performing so poorly, is really, really, really, really stupid. The Twins gained nothing by allowing to play, and if the the shoulder injury did alter his swing causing him to hurt his wrist (an injury that could have longer-term implications), the Twins have sacrificed long term good, despite having nothing to gain in the short term.

Despite some recent wins, the Twins stink. In order to not stink, they probably need Justin Morneau to be healthy (though they did well in the second half last year without him due to fine performances by Jason Kubel and especially Jim Thome). So why risk having Morneau get more hurt by letting him play through an injury that was clearly hurting his performance, and jeopardize their long term chances? The Twins have done some good things in the Ron Gardenhire era, but this whole situation gets a big fat F-.

Texas - Turning a Useful Setup Man into an Good Starter, Part Deux
My favorite trend in baseball the last two years has been the Rangers willingness to take first CJ Wilson, and now Alexi Ogando, and make them into starting pitchers. It's always disappointing to me when a good young starting pitcher is made into a reliever in order to fill a role, and ends up there for the rest of his career. It happened to Jonathan Papelbon and Jonathan Broxton, and both pitchers seem to be flaming out quickly. There's a pretty in depth study that needs to be done on how and why starting pitchers have longer careers than relievers - is it consistency of work, or the fact they focus more on developing new pitches making their career less likely to be derailed by a loss in velocity, or what, but most guys do not turn into Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman.

So, what will happen with Neftali Feliz? If nothing else, he's in an organization that could be willing to give him a chance to start. Despite getting hit hard last night (a BABIP correction was probably due anyway), Ogando is still in the top 10 in several categories - 7th in ERA (3rd in ERA+, Texas is a tough place to pitch, remember), 7th in BB/9, 9th in K/BB, 3rd in WHIP, 4th in H/9. CJ Wilson, last years conversion project, has made improvements to his strikeout and walk rates, making his chances for sustained success all the more likely. Feliz has better stuff than both those guys. Maybe I'm being selfish here, but I always feel a big gypped as a fan when someone who could potentially be excellent as a starter doesn't get tha chance. I'd hate to be sitting here in five years, talking about Feliz flaming out as a reliever and wondering what might have happened if he'd become a starter when he had the chance.

Seattle - Call up Ackley, Already
Seriously, this is getting silly. In the last two days, he's 5 for 9 with 2 walks and a double. Their top prospect is hitting .300/.418/.487 at AAA while they have the worst offense in the league. They score more than 3 runs about once a week. What's the delay? Even if he's Alfonso Soriano-level awful at 2B, he might be the best hitter on the Mariners, right now. Except for the fact he's not on the Mariners yet, he's in Tacoma. I'm not even a Mariner fan, and this is driving me bonkers.

Weaver and Haren are the best 1-2 Combo in the AL
By calcaulations, the Angels, as a team, have 18.6 WAR. Weaver and Haren have 6.2 of that. Both rank in the top 5 in just about every major category, and both are workhorses - barring some injury, this will be Weaver's third consecutive 200 IP season, and Haren's seventh. Two guys like that will make up for a lot of other holes - if the Angels can find a way to build their offense to even average levels, they'll be a serious contender again. At 3.74 R/G though, they're 12th in the AL in runs scored.

How patient will they be with Mike Trout? They have the worst hitting outfield in baseball, and Trout is raking at a .330/.434/.565 clip at AA Arkansas, with increased power. His speed makes him even more dangerous - he has 23 steals, and has scored in 50 of the 108 times he's been on base. I'd listen to an argument that Trout, not Bryce Harper (who is 14 months younger but two levels lower), is baseball's #1 prospect.

(Note: I just saw the news of Scott Kazmir likely being released. This deserves its own post, and will get one in the next couple of days).

Oakland - What Happens When Your Hitters Can't Hit and Pitchers Can't Stay Healthy
You make me look like an idiot, that's what. I picked the A's to win the division before the season, mostly because I liked their pitching. It turned out that their pitchers were as good as I'd hoped before getting hurt, but it didn't matter - I think 1999 Pedro Martinez would have ended up 12-14 for this team. Their offense is putrid. Abysmal. Deplorable. Pick up a thesaurus, any of these words will do. Unlike the Mariners and Angels, who have had some standout performers brought down by other players having horrendous season, the A's lineup has generally been bad across the board. They have one qualified hitter with an OBP over .330 (Conor Jackson, .335) and one with an SLG over .400 (Josh Willingham, .417).

Unless "guys who aren't good at hitting" is the resource that Billy Beane recognized as being undervalued by the market, something has gone awry with his Moneyball approach. Since 2004, Oakland has now made the playoffs exactly one time, and it's fair to question Beane's status as one of the better GMs in baseball. I don't doubt his intelligence, and I respect his willingness to think outside the box, but the results haven't been there for too long to continue giving him a free pass.

No comments: