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Friday, July 19, 2013

MLB – Halfway Point – American League

Yesterday we talked about the National League through the All-Star break. Today, the players take the field again and start off the second half of the season. Here is The Daily Hat Trick’s take on the American League. The pre-season comments are in black with the one quarter point marks in blue, and the halfway point comments in green.

A.L. East

Boston Red Sox

This is another team full of aging stars that have not made any power-brokering moves since last season. Their biggest addition was by subtraction, firing last year’s comic-tragic Manager, Bobby Valentine. It would be in the best interests of the Red Sox to have completely cleaned house after last season were money not an object. But it is.

47-33 (1st place) - So far, I whiffed on the BoSox. These guys are tearing the cover off of the ball. Designated hitter David "Big Papi" Ortiz (.319, 16 HR, 57 RBI) looks like he has discovered the Fountain of Youth. Starting pitcher Clay Buchholtz (9-0, 1.71 ERA, 81 Ks) is making a bid for the American League Cy Young. Let's give John Farrell, in his first year as Red Sox manager, some credit. He's got these players performing up to their potential and has the distractions, for now, swept out of the clubhouse.

(58-39, 1st place) - Give Manager John Farrell his credit. Whatever he is doing, with the same personalities that imploded the team last year under Bobby Valentine, is working. The Red Sox are in first place, where many Sox fans think they have belonged for the last three years. The BoSox have two softer spots in their armor: 

1) Jon Lester (8-6, 4.58 ERA, 103 Ks) – he’s the ace pitcher; he needs to be more ace like. I think he relies too much on the strikeout pitch and it will catch up to him later into the season. Still, he’s the best game manager in the rotation. 

2) Middle relief – The Red Sox have had to make a ton of tweeks and adjustments on the bridge from the starting pitcher to the setup man. Among a number of injuries, closer Joel Harahan’s (0-1, 9.82 ERA, 4 SV) trip to the 60 day DL has sent the team scrambling to find an identity for its bullpen. Koji Uehara (2-0, 1.70 ERA, 8 SV, 60 Ks, 42.1 IP) appears to be the new established closer and the remaining relief roles look like they are in place. But this is an area that will require constant monitoring by Farrell.

Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa is a really tough team to count out under any circumstances. This is one of the best run organizations and best managed teams in the majors. The pitching staff is locked and loaded as usual with 2012 American League Cy Young winner David Price leading the rotation. This was a team that did not have a lot of collective pop in its bats last season. The loss of centerfielder B.J. Upton to the Atlanta Braves via free agency and the lack of a comparably serviceable replacement place more pressure on a pitching staff that was among the best in the American League last season and still failed to make the playoffs.

(41-38, 4th place) - They are right in the thick of the race in the American League. There's nothing new about that. They're living off of hitting instead of pitching. That's new and it's not good for the Rays.

The Rays walk too many batters and give up too many extra base hits to win the division. They are above .500 because they have been mowing other batters down with a bullpen that throws nothing but flames. That won't last all the way through September and into October and this team's goal should be nothing short of the postseason. Reigning American League Cy Young winner David Price (1-4, 5.24 ERA) has been hampered by a triceps injury all year. He is expected to return soon (last game played May 15) and a healthy Price can't return soon enough. 

(55-41, 2nd place) – The Rays are the hottest team in the American League and are closing in quickly on the Red Sox. The Rays are hitting the ball as well as they ever have under Manager Joe Maddon. The starting pitching is catching up and now the Rays, playing the way they have in July, look bulletproof. Ace starting pitcher David Price’s return to the rotation is just what the doctor ordered. All three starts since his return have been quality starts.

The southpaw Vanderbilt alum is 2-1 with 1.08 ERA since his return. In spite of striking out almost nightly, third baseman Evan Longoria (.278, 18 HR, 52 RBI) is the standout among a variety of offensive threats in the Rays’ lineup, demonstrating just why he is their star position player. The Rays are coming!

Baltimore Orioles

The O’s are not going to sneak up on anyone this season. Whether you are waiting for them to bring it or not, Buck Showalter’s team is going to be ready for battle every night. My concern with this team is starting pitching. Beyond ace Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.43 ERA) I am not instilled with an abundance of confidence in the starters. The bullpen is going to have to carry the pitching staff, much like last season.

The Orioles are a team that lives by power hitting and dies by power hitting. A healthy centerfielder Adam Jones (.287 avg., 32 HR, 82 RBI in 2012) and first baseman Chris Davis (.270 avg., 33 HR, 85 RBI in 2012) should keep a steady supply of game breaking power in the Orioles lineup. I really like what Showalter has been building up in Baltimore over the last several years.  

(43-36, 2nd place) - First baseman Chris Davis (.330, 28 HR, 73 RBI) has gone beast mode. If his regular season ended today, he would have a very impressive contribution...VERY impressive. He isn't even halfway finished yet. He and Adam Jones (.297, 15 HR, 55 RBI) have helped make up for anemic starting pitching. Starting pitcher Jason Hammel (7-4, 5.09 ERA) absolutely must pick his game up and revert to last year's form if the Orioles expect to mount a serious challenge in the American League this year.

(53-43, 3rd place) – The O’s are tearing the cover off of the ball. This is a team that reached the playoffs last season without a dominant pitching staff and that continues to be the case this season. 

The key? Strong, smart, durable starting pitching. The Achilles heel? Their ace starting pitcher. Jason Hammel (7-6, 5.24 ERA) is at the top of the Orioles’ rotation because he is a seasoned, experienced game manager. He has been feast or famine all season long. In addition, I don’t know if the O’s bullpen has what it takes to keep this team in contention in this division through September. Still, the Orioles are in any close game with first baseman Chris Davis (.317, 37 HR, 93 RBI, 1.109 OPS) hitting the ball the way he has been.

New York Yankees

It’s going to be a L..O..N..G summer in Gotham. The Bronx Bombers were already aging and raised concern about their ability to compete in October last season. Most of those late thirty-something players are on the payroll in 2013. The long-in-the-tooth Yankees’ opening day Disabled List looks like its All-Star Game delegation from a few years ago. 

Future Hall-of-Fame shortstop Derek Jeter is out. All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeria is out. Starting pitcher Phil Hughes is out. All-Star Curtis Granderson, the Yankee’s biggest power hitting threat, is out. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez is on the 60 day disabled list and may be out for the season.
It looks like the Yankees postseason hopes are out.   

(42-35, 2nd place) - In spite of their second place standing, there is plenty of time for an implosion in the Bronx. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez appears to be rearing his ugly head again, possibly just in time for the post All-Star break run. In spite of General Manger Brian Cashman telling A-Rod to, "Shut the fuck up," (which is hysterical because Rodriguez is not listening) that is really the least of the Yankees' worries. All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeira will now miss the entire season with his wrist injury. Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, and Kevin Youkilis have all yet to take a swing in 2013.

Yankees pitching has gotten them through the season so far. But it is like a house of cards. They can strike people out, but they let too many people on base. Phil Hughes (3-6, 5.09 ERA) has "gone Phil Hughes" again this year, being an unpredictable black hole in the starting rotation. Case-in-point: Hughes pitched seven scoreless innings against the (offensively impotent) Seattle Mariners earlier this month. How did he follow it up? He got rocked against the Oakland Athletics, being yanked in the 5th inning, and was torched like a medieval heretic against the Dodgers in his last start. I don't expect the Yankees to last long in the East race unless their injured players return and quickly start hitting the ball well.

(51-44, 4th place) – This team has too many injuries and is trying to plug its fingers in too many holes to pull ahead in the East. Shortstop Derek Jeter (.250, 0 HR, 1 RBI) is back on the D.L. with a quad injury. The pickings have gotten so slim in Gotham that the Yanks are looking forward to the return of Alex Rodriguez (career – .300, 647 HR, 1950 RBI) at third base next week. They’ve fought the good fight, but stick a fork in ‘em; they’re done.

Toronto Blue Jays

Blue Jays Fan has cause for optimism for the first time in over a decade. The Jays have had potent bats for the last couple of years. They got potent-er. They also made an acquisition in 2012 National League Cy Young Award winning knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey that might give the pitching staff the push they need to win games that they would lose a year ago.

In addition to Dickey, Toronto picked up starter Josh Johnson (3.15 career ERA) and 2011 N.L. batting champion shortstop Jose Reyes in the Miami Marlins’ fire sale from last season. They also rolled the dice and signed last year’s troubled National League batting leader, Melky Cabrera (.346 avg., 11 HR, 60 RBI in 2012).

(39-38, 5th place) - For a while, I thought I'd have to eat my words, but the Jays caught fire in June with an 11 game winning streak and vaulted themselves right back into the picture. The difference? Their pitching staff has done a complete 180 in June. Any day now, coveted free agent acquisition R.A. Dickey (7-8, 4.72 ERA, 78 Ks) is going to join the pitching resurgence and the Jays will make the A.L. East race really interesting. 

(45-49, 5th place) – It their starting pitching could rise to any occasion for a sustained period of time, this team could be in contention. It hasn’t happened through half of the season. I don’t expect anything to change down the stretch.

He's baaaa-aaack! 1
A.L. Central

Detroit Tigers

A year ago the Tigers got off to the most uninspired start for a team with stratospheric expectations. The Tigers managed to catch the Chicago White Sox in the final days of the season to win the Central and eventually won the American League pennant. The expectations are higher this season – win the whole thing.

This team isn’t rebuilding; it’s reloading. This team has all of its key parts from last season, but added a nice part in right field: Torii Hunter (.313 avg., 16 HR, 92 RBI in 2012). The 37 year old, if healthy, could give Motown the extra inches that it fell short of a World Series Championship last year.

(42-34, 1st place) - Just hand the Central Division title to them now. I've often lived to regret those words, but unless they are swallowed by the injury bug, nobody is going to catch them, though I give credit to the Cleveland Indians for giving chase. 

The Tigers are hitting the ball as if real life were a video game. You probably know all about 2012 A.L. MVP Miguel Cabrera (.370, 22 HR, 78 RBI) and Prince Fielder (.281, 12 HR, 60 RBI), but Anibal Sanchez (6-5, 2.76 ERA, 101 Ks) has been carrying the Tigers rotation as much as Justin Verlander (8-5, 3.90 ERA, 110 ERA). Rick Porcello (4-5, 5.27 ERA) needs to step his game up for the Tigers to pull away and clinch home field throughout the American League playoffs. Still, (so far) it looks like another ticket to October will be punched in Motown.

(52-42, 1st place) – They have yet to run away with the division, but I think it is just a matter of time. Miguel Cabrera (.365, 3o HR, 95 RBI) is having as good a year as his American League M.V.P. campaign from last year and Max Scherzer (13-1, 3.19 ERA, 152 Ks), in spite of being a starting pitcher who only plays every five days, is in the conversation for M.V.P. as well as the A.L. Cy Young. As long as this team stays healthy, I don’t think anyone will catch them and stay ahead for any sustained period of time.

Cleveland Indians

I could never write off new manager Terry “Tito” Francona, but he has a tall task ahead of him. The Tribe added speedy former Atlanta Braves centerfielder Michael Bourn (.274 avg., 42 SB in 2012), former Yankees first baseman Nick Swisher (.272, 24 HR, 93 RBI in 2012), and a former Oriole, DH Mark Reynolds (181 career HRs in 6 years of service) – key lineup upgrades. The problem is that very little was done to upgrade an underachieving pitching staff that was never in sync as a unit and struggled badly in the bullpen. This is a long term rebuilding project for Tito.

(40-37, 2nd place) - Tito Francona is the man. The two time World Series winning manager with the Boston Red Sox is a case study in why managing matters. Cleveland went from hapless to happening with a few lineup sensible lineup adjustments a major self esteem adjustment. Still, like last year, Cleveland is putting too much pressure on its bullpen. They give up too many home runs and if I had a daughter whose legs were as open as the Indians' power alleys, she'd be grounded.

(51-44, 2nd place) – Terry Francona should be in the discussion for american League Manager of the Year. He has made silk from a sow’s ear in Cleveland. The key? Discipline, discipline, discipline! The Tribe is in the top four in the American League in on-base percentage, walks, stolen base percentage, and RBIs. They play what I would call “big small-ball”. Players who are quietly smart with the stick, like right fielder Ryan Rayburn (.267, 10 HR, 28 RBI, .908 OPS) have brought them this far. 

Starting pitching has got to find a way to carry them the rest of the way if they have any chance of reaching the playoffs. Their bullpen is not lights out and their starters are fourth from last in the A.L. in innings pitched. The bottom of the rotation needs to pick it up if this season is to have a fairy tale conclusion in September.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals haven’t been to the playoffs since their World Series winning season of 1985 but some baseball writers have speculated that the hex could come to an end, this October. The Royals had a couple of hot flashes last year and had a ray of postseason hope before the All-Star break. Their starting rotation, however, could have had a post All-Star highlight reel accompanied by Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life (Back to Reality)”.

The Royals stepped up to the plate by beefing up the mound.  Stealing “Big Game” James Shields (15-10, 3.52 ERA, 223 Ks in 2012) from the Tampa Bay Rays was a colossal step in the right direction. The Royals added longtime Angels pitcher Ervin Santana, who had an off year in 2012 but has proven he can be dominant. Mid-season acquisition from 2012, Jeremy Guthrie (5-3, 3.16 ERA in 14 GS with the Royals in 2012) is third in the rotation, followed by another Rays defection in Wade Davis (3-0, 2.43 ERA, 87 Ks in 70.1 IP in 2012). Davis is being promoted from the bullpen, where he spent 2012, back to the starting rotation, where he was in prior years of his career.

The Royals pitching staff has a very high upside and a bevy of veteran experience. Royals fan may get his coveted Back to the Future experience, going back to 1985, and having the Royals in the postseason.

(36-39, 3rd place) - I can say that the Royals do not completely suck this year. The pitching is there. This team needs to learn how to win. This means learning how to bring their runners home, which means not hitting into as many double plays as they do. This means greater plate discipline and that comes with the hard knocks of experience. Still, I like the slow, but deliberate direction in which the Royals are headed.

(46-49, 3rd place) – In spite of a five game losing streak heading into the All-Star break, the Royals are progressing through their rebuilding process, but they aren’t there yet.  This team needs to add more power to its lineup and their young, relatively inexperienced bullpen needs more consistency. Still, this team is going in the right direction. Watch out…next year.

Minnesota Twins

C’mon man. C’mon. Adding Vance Worley (6-9, 4.20 ERA, 107 Ks in 133 IP) to the starting rotation as an ace was this team's big splash in the offseason. I hope he made a splash in his checking account, because there won’t be one (as in rings) in his jewelry box.

(34-40, 4th place) - The Twins deserve some credit for not being in last place and not being completely hopeless by the All-Star break. If their pitching didn't evoke side-splitting laughter I could even be duped into thinking they had a prayer this year. This just in: keeping the ball inside of the park is great; keeping it in the park while your opponent circles the bases is not.

(39-53, 4th place) – This team has a chance every night their pitching staff shows up. I have a chance to get a date with Megan Fox if I ever meet her. Any questions?

Chicago White Sox

This team used its power in the lineup to come very close to snagging the Central away from the Tigers, who were anointed by many as division winners at the start of 2012. The addition of third baseman Jeff Keppinger (.325 avg., .806 OPS in 2012) should help offset some of the loss of longtime catcher A.J. Pierzynski’s bat (Rangers - FA).

My concern with this team is the back end of the starting rotation. The Sox made an addition by subtraction when Phillp Humber went to the future A.L. West cellar dwelling Astros in the offseason. I don’t see any significant upgrades to the rotation while other teams stockpiled in the pitching arms race in the Central.

(32-42, 5th place) - Here's a haiku. Ahem....

Batters cannot hit
Starters are not made of steel
Bullpen is pure trash

(37-55, 5th place) – This is a case study of how the whole is not necessarily equal to the sum of its parts. This team has talent throughout the roster and there is no excuse for its abominable performance in the first half of the year. Expect this team to get blown to pieces and spread among the other MLB teams before the trade deadline. Expect Robin Ventura’s managing career in Chicago to be blown to pieces by year’s end.

If you aren't familiar with Max Scherzer yet, you'd better recognize! 2

A.L. West

Oakland Athletics

I hope they enjoyed their one moment in time, reaching the playoffs for the first time in six years. They cannot pitch their way to another division title, not in this division, without some kind of pop in the batting order and it just isn’t there. The A’s saving grace was that it could crank out a longball when needed. I don’t even recognize any of the new names in the field for the A’s. Their 2013 Moneyball looks like it is filled with loose change.

(46-34, 1st place) - Yet another prima facia example that Major League Baseball is all about pitching. Chicks dig the long ball. Managers dig the breaking ball. The biggest difference between last year, a Cinderella season, and this year? The A's have some mashers in their lineup. Yoenis Cespedes (.225, 15 HR, 41 RBIs) is emerging into a poor man's Adam Dunn as is first baseman Brandon Moss (.239, 14 HR, 40 RBI). The way this team is structured - with solid starters who don't overwork the bullpen, they are going to be a real problem for opponents late in the season and in the playoffs should they reach the playoffs.

(56-39, 1st place) – The pitching has been in place since last year.  The bats are getting stronger and hotter. The A’s are going to be a problem for their American League rivals for years to come. This just in: Moneyball Works. 

That’s how guys like 40-year-old starting pitcher Bartolo Colon (12-3, 2.70 ERA, $3 million 2013 salary), third baseman Josh Donaldson (.310, 16 HR, 61 RBI, $492,500 2013 salary), and first baseman Brandon Moss (.228, 16 HR, 44 RBI, $1.6 million 2013 salary) can coexist on the same roster in a smaller market like Oakland.  With the decline of the American League’s Evil Empire in New York, the league is up for grabs and anything short of the American League Championship Series is a disappointment for the A’s.

Texas Rangers

Last year’s late season collapse may have marked the beginning of the end of the Rangers’ dominance in the American League. Picking up catcher A.J. Pierzynski (.278, 27 HR, 77 RBI) is not enough to offset the losses of Mike Napoli and Michael Young, from both leadership and production standpoints. The pitching staff is still very solid with no weak links in ace Derek Holland, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, and Alexi Ogando. The middle relief is quality and closer Joe Nathan is as good as he ever was. The Rangers may very well reach the postseason and it is not inconceivable that they could win the West. But I do not see a pennant in this team’s immediate future.

(45-33, 1st place) - Rumors of their death are greatly exaggerated. I have a greater respect for Rangers manager Ron Washington every year. He laid an egg in the 2012 American League Wild Card Game against the Orioles, and he appears determined to never be in that position again. They lost Josh Hamilton (within the division, no less), and lost Michael Young, which just hurts from a leadership standpoint. Still, the Rangers are in first place and it is from a total team effort. Stay tuned on these guys. Big props to closer Joe Nathan (1-0, 1.62 ERA, 26 SV) and the bullpen....

(54-41, 2nd place) – Ron Washington is another viable candidate for manager of the year. Their starting rotation has been decimated by injuries and yet they keep on truckin’. There is relief in sight as Yu Darvish (8-4, 3.02 ERA, 157 Ks, shoulder injury), Alexi Ogando (4-2, 2.93 ERA, shoulder injury), and Colby Lewis (6-6, 3.43 ERA in 2012, forearm injury) – all on the Disabled List – have all commenced with their minor league rehab assignments. Expect this division race to come down to the final week of the season barring further injuries to key players.

Los Angeles Angels

This team fell short of lofty expectations last year, in spite of picking up future Hall of Fame first baseman Albert Pujols and the rapid rises of 2012 A.L. Rookie of the Year centerfielder Mike Trout and young gun designated hitter Mark Trumbo (.268 avg., 32 HR, 95 RBI in 2012). The addition of former American League Most Valuable Player Josh Hamilton should give Manager Mike Scioscia all of the ammunition he needs to run away with the West.

(35-43, 3rd place) - Until their bullpen shows up, they are Major League Baseball's greatest tax write off. 

(44-49, 3rd place) – The media may lay a chunk of the blame for the Angels’ colossal underachievement at the feet of designated hitter Albert Pujols (.249, 15 HR, 57 RBI) and right fielder Josh Hamilton (.224, 14 HR, 39 RBI), but don’t believe the hype. Pujols and Hamilton have underperformed relative to their careers, but they are productive enough, particularly in hitting for power, to help the team win games. As a whole, the batting order is just fine. 

The relief pitching is a giant black hole in the Angels’ roster. The Angels’ bullpen has given up the fifth most walks in the majors and has had the third fewest save opportunities of any bullpen in the American League. Their bullpen is in the lower half of nearly every statistical category. This team is finished for this year.

Seattle Mariners

Good, but not great pitchers (except for former A.L. Cy Young winner “King” Felix Hernandez) plus batters who might be challenged for their starting spots on some AAA rosters equals another mediocre (at best) season.

(34-45, 4th place) - This team has taken big steps backwards. They had solid pitching with awful batting. Now they have bad batting with mildly above average pitching. This should lead to completely disgusted and disappointed fans. Their bullpen has become the "steak pen" because they've gone up in flames.

(43-52, 4th place) – Their batting has not been nearly as horrible and laugh-inducing as it has been the previous three years. That’s something….

Houston Astros

Astros 2013 payroll: $25 million. Alex Rodriguez’s 2013 salary: $29 million.
Any questions?

(30-49, 5th place) - They have a real chance to not lose 100 games.Good for them! (smh)

(33-61, 5th place) – I can’t think of one good thing to say about this team. At least they provide 25 high paying jobs to the economy. Of course if you combine the salaries of everyone on the roster, you could pay A-Rod’s salary for a year. I think they would be more interesting if they did.

Albert Pujols and his wife, Deidre, during happier times in St. Louis. Pujols: ♫ "It ain't my fault!" ♪

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