Thursday, May 23, 2013

Baseball’s Players and Failures at the Quarter Season Mark

American League East The “what the hell” story of the season so far has to be the play of the New York Yankees! At 28-18 Joe Girardi’s club leads the division and sports the second best record overall in the American League. Normally, this would not even be news but considering they’ve been missing since the start of the season, Derek Jeter (ankle), Curtis Granderson (who is now back), Mark Teixeira (wrist), Alex Rodriguez (hip), Francisco Cervelli (fractured hand) and now Andy Pettitte (left trap muscle) how have the Bronx Bombers been able to stay afloat? Girardi told the New York Post, “I think I take the approach ‘it is what it is,’ and we’ll find a way to get through the day.” Well the approach from the manager is always a start but you have to have players getting it done on the field and that’s exactly what’s taking place. For starters, Robinson Cano is having an MVP type of season so far. The 2nd baseman is hitting .289 with 13 homers and 33 RBI’s. He’s gotten plenty of help from newcomer Vernon Wells who many thought was washed up. Since coming over from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim he’s hitting .287 with 10 home runs and 24 RBI’s. The 34-year-old hit just 11 homers with 20 RBI’s all of last season! The two-some have shown the way to a line-up that usually sports three or four names per game you might have heard for the first time it seems. On the hill the surprise has been Hiroki Kuroda who’s already won six games and sports an ERA of 2.76. To no one’s surprise both C.C. Sabathia and Pettitte have also picked up four victories apiece. You have to think if the Bombers can keep this up until the regular troops return, the rest of the division could be in trouble after the all-star break. While the Yanks are the division’s over-achiever, the Toronto Blue Jays have experts scratching their heads? In the off-season the Jays acquired veteran pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle as well as outfielder Emilio Bonifacio, short-stop Jose Reyes and catcher John Buck all in one-deal from the salary dumping Miami Marlins. On the free-agent market, infielder Maicer Izturis and outfielder Melky Cabrera came along in separate signings. Then the Jays made one bigger move in a trade with the Mets for reigning N.L. CY Young ace R.A. Dickey, giving up Buck and others. Combine those names with currant Blue Jay stars Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Brett Lawrie; you have the pre-season division favorite by a long shot. Not so fast my friend! Toronto has struggled to a 19-27 record, good for last place in the division, dropping 9 games behind the Yankees already putting their post-season dreams on life-support less than two months into the season. While the Jays have three players (Encarnacion, Bautista and J.P. Arencibia) with double digit homers, overall as a team they rank 10th in team batting in the American League with a run differential of -43, second worst in the A.L. On the mound, Dickey is just 4-5 overall with a 4.50 ERA, while Johnson is on the disabled list(0-1, 6.86 ERA) and Buerhle struggles continue with a record of just 1-3 and an earned run average of 5.90. How dire is the Blue Jays situation even though there is still three-fourths of the season to play? To reach the 93 win total, which was good enough for one A.L. wild-card spot last season, the Jays would have to play about .650 baseball the rest of the way. That is nothing to tweet about, saying the least. American League Central The Central right now is a two-team affair between the favored Detroit Tigers and the Terry Francona led Cleveland Indians who lead by a half a game. We’ve seen this movie before however. Two seasons ago heading into late May, the Tribe led the Central by six games. They finished 15 games behind the first-place Tigers. Just about a year ago, the Indians led the Central by 21/2 games. They finished 20 back of the first place Tigers. So why should this marathon dance be any different? It’s all about Francona and the cast of characters he orchestrates. Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and utility man Ryan Raburn are all veterans of division race baseball and so far have shown the Cleveland youngsters how to handle pressure situations, even early in the season. The Indians had won 18 of their last 22 games before dropping their last two against whom else, the Tigers. The latest battle pushed the season series to 3-2 Detroit after the Indians had won two of three in Motown earlier in the year. The former Boston manager, who led the Sox to titles in 2004 and 2007, knows he’s playing with “house money” as the underdog in this race. His veteran leadership will keep the pressure off his team, as its Detroit with all the big names and payroll in the line-up and is the club that needs to respond after being swept in the World Series last year. The Tigers are the reigning American League champs and the favorite to capture the Central again with a powerful offense that hasn’t disappointed so far. Their run differential of +55 is by far the best in the A.L. and third to only the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds is all of baseball. But one big difference for Motown is on the mound as ace Justin Verlander has been far from dominant so far in 2013. At 5-4 he’s not the unbeatable presence he’s been the past two regular seasons. Max Scherzer however has taken his place. He’s 6-0 with a team leading 62.1 innings pitched and a solid 3.61 ERA, second behind 4-4 Anibal Sanchez. Throw in 5-1 Doug Fister into the rotation and this is where the Tigers definitely hold the advantage over the Indians. Their starting rotation right now is slightly better than the Indians but over the course of 162 should separate itself if Verlander rounds back into routine form. Francona will have to continue to push all the right bottoms to avoid the Tribe falling off for a third straight season. American League West In the west, Rangers manager Ron Washington is up to his old tricks again with the help of some solid off-season decisions by general manager Jon Daniels, at least so far. After ending last season losing the first American League Wild Card play-in game, the club decided over the winter to let Josh Hamilton and his 43 home runs and 128 RBI’s sign with division rival Anaheim. They also let slugging catcher Mike Napoli move on to Boston as a free agent. They then traded disgruntled all-time leader in games played and hits, third baseman Michael Young to the Phillies. Those moves haven’t hurt the Rangers a quarter of the way thru the season. Texas leads the west by 5.5 games over Oakland which is the largest gap of any first place team in baseball. They’ve achieved this lead with pitching depth. Despite Neftali Feliz, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando all on the disabled list, the Rangers simply keep on rolling behind ace Yu Darvish and its bull pen. Darvish is off to a 7-2 start with an ERA of 2.84. The Rangers have gotten great middle relief work from newcomers Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers while closer Joe Nathan hasn’t blown a save in 14 attempts. Texas lead all of the American League in team ERA at 3.48 despite having no complete games this season. Offensively the Rangers continue to slam with the best of them behind the usual suspects. Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre and Mitch Moreland all have double digit homers and have combined for 86 runs batted in. On the other end of this high performance story lies Hamilton’s new team the Angels. As of this writing after winning four straight, Los Angeles still remains 10.5 games back and is getting close to the point of no return as far as the division title is concerned. The biggest problem for Mike Scioscia’s club has been the absence of ace Jered Weaver. The right-hander, who has been on the disabled list since fracturing his elbow on April 7th, could return to the rotation next week against the So Cal rival Dodgers after a solid rehab start in Arizona this week. This will clearly help a rotation that is near the bottom of the league in ERA at 4.59, allowing 228 runs and who’s leader right now C.J. Wilson is sitting at 4-3 overall, despite eight quality starts. Offense is just as big of a culprit as the lack of starting pitching. The 7th highest payroll in the majors has brought the Halos only the eighth best offensive numbers in the A.L. Hamilton is hitting just .225 with 6 homers while Albert Pujols isn’t much better at .253 with 7 bombs. Mike Trout’s sudden outburst over the last week has given the Angels faithful hope as he’s hitting .297 and leading the team with 34 RBI’s. While catching Texas and Oakland for a shot at the division seem improbable, there is still time to make a wild-card run if the Angels play lights out the rest of the way. If they don’t Scioscia’s 13 seasons as the Halo’s manager, the longest tenure in baseball will most likely come to an end. National League East What more can you say about the Atlanta Braves then, wow! The ATL is the class of the division despite the Washington Nationals being the favorite to win the east. Home is where the heart is for the Braves and they love Turner Field. At 28-18 overall, 15 of those wins have come in front of the home faithful making their 15-5 home mark the best in the majors overall. Offense has been the overriding factor in the Braves early success. Atlanta’s +44 run differential, makes the Braves the only team in the division in the green in that category. There 4.5 game lead over the Nats can be placed upon the bat of off-season trade acquisition Justin Upton. With 14 homers, 28 RBI’s and 95 total bases, he would be the National League MVP if they voted today. He leads the Braves in all offensive categories on a team that is fifth overall in the N.L. offensively. On the hill they’re also fifth with a team ERA of 3.35 allowing a league low of 160 runs. Mike Minor has emerged as the ace with Craig Kimbrel 14 of 15 in save opportunities. It will be interesting however to see if the Braves can keep it up on the hill as serious injuries have put a dent in their bull pen. Jonny Venters is done for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery last Thursday and Eric O’Flaherty is also done for the season after tearing a ligament in his throwing elbow as well. With that news in mind the Nationals lurk in the shadows. This is despite their bullpen sporting an ERA of 4.21 which is 22nd overall in the majors. That comes as a surprise considering the Nats pen has only worked 126 innings which is only the 24th highest total in the majors overall. Washington’s starters led by Gio Gonzalez, Steven Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman who is 7-2 overall, have the sixth best ERA in the N.L. at 3.53. Don’t expect that reliever situation to go away soon with Ross Detwiler dealing with an oblique strain and Ryan Mattheus on the shelf after punching a locker and breaking his hand. Offensively beside Bryce Harper it’s been a struggle for Washington. They are 13th in the league in offense with just 159 runs scored. Their team batting average of .225 and OPS of .653 are at the bottom of the league. Lucky for Davey Johnson there is still plenty of time for their bats to wake up because that is the only way they will catch the offensive minded Braves. National League Central The Central seems to be the same old story year in and year out? The Cardinals and Reds battling for supremacy with the Pirates fighting hard before the eventual fade into sub .500 ball. At 30-16 St. Louis sports the best record in the majors with Cincinnati on their wings just 1.5 out. The Bucs start May 23rd two back but with signs the ship is already leaking. Pittsburgh has nowhere near the starting pitching of either the Cards or Reds, so to keep up, they’ll have to do if offensively. Well despite their small deficit in the division they’re offensive production is already well behind the other two. St. Louis sports a +59 run differential with the Reds right behind at +57. Pittsburgh however is at +21 already, so what’s going to happen further into the year when the Bucs pitching really slows down? The usual nose dive, which is going to make the race a two-teamer by the Central rivals. Right now the Pirates pitching is second best in the N.L. with a 3.27 ERA. Wandy Rodriguez leads the way a 5-2. The Bucs are 6-2 in their meetings with St. Louis and Cincy which explains their position in the division, but expect those match-ups to go the other way the further the season moves on. The Red Birds are the second highest team hitting for average behind only the Giants. Combine that with the balance of a 3.16 team ERA and it’s no wonder they sport the best record in the league. As a matter of fact the Reds are also right there at 3.31 in third place ERA wise behind both their Central division foes and that’s with number one starter Jonny Cueto finally back in action after missing six starts with a strained back muscle. Offensively, Cincinnati is actually in front of St. Louis in runs scored and OPS. While the Central is a three pony show a quarter of the way home, by the time August rolls around the teams fighting for the division crown will both wear the same color, red. National League West The story in the West is the story of the team that is under-achieving, that being the Los Angeles Dodgers. At 19-26 overall the boys in Blue find themselves six games back of the Giants, Diamondbacks and Rockies all sharing the division lead. It’s not so much the deficit that has Don Mattingly’s job on the line which seems like every day now, but how the 26 losses have occurred. Last week in Atlanta the Dodgers were swept by the Braves after leading late into each game as the bull pen collapsed three times. It seems every move Mattingly made it backfired. Those things can’t happen when your team sports the highest payroll in baseball at over 216-million dollars. While closer Brandon League, and relievers Kenley Jansen and Ronald Belisario are all to blame with their terrible play as of late the Dodgers bigger issue lay on offense. Despite having one of the league’s best team hitting averages, Los Angeles is second to last in the N.L. in front of only the Miami Marlins in hitting average with runners in scoring position. Sluggers Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are to blame, driving home just 17 and 15 runs respectively. The Dodgers run differential is a horrible -32 which is worst in the division. The only reason Mattingly probably hasn’t been giving the hook yet is because the Dodgers have been hit incredible hard with injuries. Number two pitcher Zach Greinke made just his second start since recovering from a broken collarbone. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez has played in just four games due to a broken thumb and now strained hamstring. Mark Ellis just returned to action off the disabled list from a strained quad muscle. So while the Dodgers slowly get their starters back in the line-up, the pressure on their manager has increased to the point where he called out Ethier, benching him for the series finale in Milwaukee which the Dodgers won 9-2 taking the series 2 out of 3, probably saving Mattingly’s job for the next week. The good news for the Dodgers is Kemp seems to be finally recovering from off-season shoulder surgery which has affected his hitting and power. Ramirez is due off the disabled list in two weeks and they only trail the leaders by six, while maintaining the best one, two, three starting pitcher combination in the division in Clayton Kershaw, Greinke and Hung Jin Ryu. While the Giants offensively might be the class of the division right now, they are far from the pitching power that won them World Series titles in 2010 and 2012. Ryan Vogelsong is out for most likely two months with a broken bone in his pitching hand and Madison Bumgarner is the only starter that has been overly consistent. Barry Zito has an ERA of 3.91 due to starting the season red hot, Tim Lincecum is at 4.70 and ace Matt Cain is worse at 5.12. With the Giants built for pitching and not hitting in AT&T Park if the pitching doesn’t work its way back to its previous high standards, San Francisco will fade. No one expects the Rockies to maintain their spot at the top with their rotation but their offense at Coors Field could keep them close while the Arizona Diamondbacks are for real. Kirk Gibson has molded his team into a hardnosed group that has decent starting pitching and sufficient offense. About the only for sure thing in the west is that nobody will run away with the division. Even the low-budget San Diego Padres are only 4.5 games out at this point in the season. Expect this race to involve all five teams into August which should make for some exciting fall baseball on the West Coast.
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