Keep up with the latest news, notes and developments with Fungoes, a daily journal for all things baseball that will last all season long.
AL Central: End-of-Year Awards
With the Indians having locked up the division days ago and the Tigers clinging to the most tenuous mathematical probability for the wild card -- their elimination number is one -- 'tis the season for end-of-year awards.
Division's Most Valuable Player: Magglio Ordoñez. Though the Tigers fell off the pace down the stretch, it was through no fault of Ordoñez, who is hitting .358 with 27 homers and 133 RBIs. He'll likely win the batting title and finish second only to A-Rod in RBIs. And he stayed consistent while Gary Sheffield was alternately streaky and hurt, Craig Monroe was terrible, and the two corner infielders, Sean Casey and Brandon Inge, both have sub-.400 slugging percentages.
Finishing at a very close second is Cleveland catcher Victor Martinez. He's the only Indian with at least 100 RBIs (he's got 107), a .300 average (he's an even .300) and a .500 slugging percentage (he's at .505), and he's tied with Grady Sizemore for most home runs (24). And he's done all that while playing 117 of his 143 games at catcher.
Division's Least Valuable Player(s): It's a tie! When comparing the lack of merits on the hitting resumes of Minnesota's Nick Punto and Kansas City's Tony Pena, I just couldn't come to a decision about who hurt their team more this season. Punto has managed to play 145 games with 458 at bats ... and not even reach 100 hits! He's stuck on 97 for now, good for a .212 average. Well, he must at least have a lot of walks to justify that playing time, right? Wrong again! He's walked only 54 times, so his on-base percentage is a piddly .293. And with just 22 extra-base hits, he slugs only .273. Somehow, he's expected to start again next year.
Pena, meanwhile, reaches base even less frequently. In 146 games and 490 ABs, he has more hits than Punto, with 126, but has walked only 10 times, which is just one walk fewer than teammate Reggie Sanders accumulated in 122 fewer games. That means, at first glance, we can only confirm that Pena has taken 40 pitches this year. He has a .257/.275/.335 split for average/on-base/slugging.
Division's Cy Young: C.C. Sabathia. An 18-7 record, 3.19 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 205 strikeouts in 234 innings of being Cleveland's never-miss-a-start, superstar ace all speak for themselves. Sure, Detroit's Justin Verlander and Minnesota's Johan Santana both had outstanding seasons, with Verlander even throwing a no-hitter, but Sabathia led the Indians to a runaway division title while mentoring young Fausto Carmona, too.
Division's Mike Maroth: Cliff Lee. The award, so named for Maroth's 2003 season in which he posted a robust 9-21 record with a 5.73 ERA, goes to Lee, who is 5-8 with a 6.40 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. He not only lost his spot in the rotation but also was demoted to the minor leagues -- hard to do after going 46-24 the last three seasons. (For the record, Maroth, who was traded to St. Louis in June for the ubiquitous player to be named later, is 0-5 with a 10.93 ERA and 2.35 WHIP in 37 innings for the Cardinals.) I must apologize to Sidney Ponson, as he'd have been a shoo-in for this award had Minnesota not cut the cord when it did. Jose Contreras, John Danks, Todd Wellemeyer, Ramon Ortiz and Joe Borowski all receive honorable mention. OK, I'm kidding on Borowski. Mostly.
Division's Rookie of the Year: Brian Bannister. This was the toughest award to give, as so many players were very close, but not for the expected reason. Looking at the list of AL Central prospects in the preseason read like a roster of some of baseball's best: Bannister, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Luke Hovechar, Matt Garza, Alexi Casilla, Andrew Miller, Josh Fields, Aaron Laffey and Jensen Lewis, among others who conceivably could make an impact on the 2007 MLB season. Sadly, none, sans Bannister, quite lived up to the unrealistic hype in Year 1. But Bannister has pitched very well (12-9, 3.61) for a team 21 games under .500.
Division's Disappointment of the Year: Gil Meche's lack of run support. Meche, Fungoes' unabashed favorite AL Central player, has a 3.69 ERA and 1.29 WHIP but is just 9-13 with the Royals' lineup failing to support him.
Manager of the Year: Eric Wedge. This one was unanimous. OK, they're all unanimous because I'm the only one voting, but I raised both my hands for Wedge. He led the Indians to the division title despite fielding an overall less talented team than Detroit, and Wedge did it despite several ups and downs, including a subpar year from Travis Hafner.
Best surprise: Carmona. But I've already written about him, oh, 6,287,948 times this season. And the close runner-up is the Indians' bullpen, led by Rafael Betancourt (5-1, 1.41 ERA, 0.76 WHIP) and Rafael Perez (1-1, 1.69, 0.90).
Worst surprise: Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome. Apparently the fountain of youth is running a little low. The three are 31, 33 and 36 years old, respectively, and figured to be due for a small decline in which they didn't duplicate their cumulative 2006 production of .306, 121 HR and 342 RBIs. In 2007, however, with six games to play, the heart of Chicago's order has combined for only .260, 88 HR and 249 RBIs.
Breakout Player of the Year: Curtis Granderson. He has produced only the third 20-20-20-20 season in major league history (doubles-triples-homers-steals) and did so with style, humor and a wardrobe from Wal-Mart. Check out colleague Albert Chen's great feature on him in last week's magazine.
Best Season by a Guy with Too Many Letters in His Last Name: Mark Grudzielanek. He edged out A.J. Pierzynski.
Best Season by a Player with Repeating Initials: Placido Polanco. Honorable mention to Brian Bannister, Billy Butler and Jair Jurrjens. Dishonorable mention to Mike MacDougal and Boof Bonser.
Worst Cameo by a 40-something Player: Jose Mesa. Forget that he pitched for Detroit this season? Tigers fans don't, despite his not having appeared for them since May -- a 12.34 ERA in 11.2 innings is hard to repress. Dishonorable mention to Roberto Hernandez.
Best Quote: Casey Blake. After his 26-game hitting streak was broken in June, he had this to say about Joe DiMaggio's 56-game record: "I didn't want to break the record. People would have been wondering 20 or 30 years down the road, 'Who is Casey Blake?' You want the big name in that spot. It's better if I leave DiMaggio's record alone. That's a record that should be broken by somebody people have heard of."
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Status Report
Ever see that movie Sliding Doors? Nah, me neither.
But from what I remember of seeing the coming attractions, the premise was great. Gwyneth Paltrow lives parallel lives with two vastly different outcomes, separated by a seemingly mundane, everyday activity -- making or missing a certain subway car.
Well, after Cleveland's extra-inning walkoff win over Detroit last night, extending the Indians' lead to cutting to 5.5 games -- and cutting their magic number to seven -- the division can be called by everyone and not just over-eager bloggers.
So the history books might remember the Tribe running away with the division down the stretch, but I think the American League Central could just as easily have gone in a very different direction. I know I cite Baseball Prospectus' postseason odds pretty regularly. Obviously, predicting the future, especially over a long baseball season, is a very inexact science, but BP's odds are a good gauge of realistic expectations.
To wit, the Indians were at their lowest on April 19, the day Joe Borowski blew a four-run lead in the ninth to the Yankees on Alex Rodriguez's walkoff grand slam. Oh, the carnage.
What, to me, might have been more important about that day -- after all, Borowski's a veteran who has a knack for bouncing back from horrifying performances -- is that Fausto Carmona, in his second start of the season, made a quality start, holding the Yankees to two runs in six innings. As I detailed earlier this year, Carmona entered the season as very damaged goods. A few bad outings, such as the six runs he allowed in 4.1 innings to the White Sox in his debut, could have ruined the confidence of the temperamental, young pitcher for good.
Instead, Carmona battled in that game through a few a dicey situations. In the first inning, with two on and one out, he struck out A-Rod and induced a groundout from Giambi. In the third, with one run already in and a runner on with one out, Carmona again struck out A-Rod and then got Giambi to fly out.
Suppose A-Rod homered in either the first or third innings, rather than saving his heroics for the ninth. Sure, it'd still have been one loss for Cleveland either way, but the Tribe might not have even given Carmona any more chances this season to prove his worth. That start proved to be the first of eight consecutive quality starts for Fausto. Hence, my Sliding Doors analogy. Now Carmona sports a 17-8 record with 3.07 ERA. As John Donovan points out, since the All-Star break, C.C. Sabathia and Carmona "have allowed a combined 158 hits in 188 innings pitched and together have a butt-kicking 2.44 ERA"
For the visual learners in the group (you know who you are), BP also provides this neat color graph showing the fluctuating playoff expectations of the AL Central teams.
It may be harder to pinpoint a Sliding Doors experience for the other teams in the division, but none of the teams is where, at the beginning of the season, I'd predicted they'd be at this point in the season.
Where they are: Celebrating Jim Thome's 500th home run (a walkoff) like it were the World Series. Chicago has been so bad and so far out of the playoff race for so long, that they have little else to cheer. Despite the disappointing year, the ChiSox extended manager Ozzie Guillen through 2012.
Where I thought they'd be: Out of the postseason race, yes, but just barely. Sure, the main sluggers in that lineup are old, but who could have predicted this much of a decline? I expected Josh Fields to be up with the big club and learning left field, to accommodate a lineup with him and Joe Crede, but that's about all I had right. No one could have anticipated such an historically bad bullpen.
Where they are: An unexpected also-ran. Firmly entrenched in third place for the most of the year, never too far out of but never really in the pennant race either, the Twins never quite the lineup production they needed. Joe Mauer missing some 40 games with injury certainly didn't help, but Nick Punto's .262 on-base percentage at a corner infield position probably hurts more. If it seems like I've belabored Punto's offensive struggles a lot this year, then you're right, but it's not without good reason: I pegged him for a late-round fantasy sleeper, and he has endlessly disappointed me on a personal level. That said, manager Rod Gardenhire still favors him as the starting second baseman next year.
Where I thought they'd be: In possession of Terry Ryan as their general manager and fighting to the last day of the season to slip into the playoffs, likely as the wild card. The Ryan news was a shocker to everyone -- but not quite as shocking as Twins CEO Jim Pohlad thinking Minnesota might be better off without him.
Where they are: In second place, staring at an insurmountable divisional deficit. Trailing New York by 3.5 games in the wild card isn't a fun prospect either. They heeded my challenge from last week, rolling off five straight wins, but it doesn't help if the Yankees continue to play like they'll never lose again. Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney couldn't replicate last year's bullpen magic, Jeremy Bonderman got hurt down the stretch and Kenny Rogers couldn't stay healthy all season long.
Where I thought they'd be: I thought there might be an AL pennant hangover for the Tigers and that they'd have finished in fourth place, though in record fashion. So little seemed to separate the top four teams in the division, and I certainly never saw Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffied and Placido Polanco having quite the seasons they did to keep them in the race.
Where they are: Only a half-game behind Chicago for fourth place. And the two are playing each other this week, with banishment to last place at stake. They have an anemic offense in which catcher John Buck leads with 18 HR. Alex Gordon leads the team in RBIs ... but with only 59, tied with Emil Brown. That's not very good. Brian Bannister is a leading candidate (along with Boston's Dustin Pedroia and Hideki Okajima) for AL Rookie of the Year.
Where I thought they'd be: Even farther back in last place. I knew they'd have a Rookie of the Year candidate, but like everyone else I thought it'd be Gordon and or even Billy Butler, not Bannister. The way the Royals splurged on Meche, they need to do the same on a veteran hitter or two for next year, if they want to make more progress for next year.
With Thome hitting that magical 500 milestone -- historically a ticket into the Hall of Fame -- baseball writers are beginning to ask, Does Thome's career merit induction? Tom Verducci says Thome will need more than 500 homers, as his career has lacked any stretch of true dominance. ESPN's Rob Neyer says he'll need 600 home runs.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Let's Play Nine
"Nine Full Innings."
That's the inscription inside the rings celebrating Detroit's 2006 American League pennant, and with 144 games played the Tigers are exactly 8/9 of the way through 2007. Headed into today's day-night doubleheader with the Texas Rangers, they're entering the ninth inning of their season with a 78-66 record. At six games back, the AL Central looks unlikely, but they trail the Yankees by 3.5 games, making the wild card still a possibility -- if they can mount a considerable rally.
For last night, at least, the Tigers seem up to the challenge of playing the full nine innings. Trailing the Blue Jays 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth, with Toronto ace Roy Halladay on the mound, a comeback seemed improbable, especially after Timo Perez's double play wiped out a leadoff single from Mike Rabelo.
Considering Detroit's recent swing of bad luck -- likely shutting down Jeremy Bonderman for the season and even losing Pudge Rodriguez and Joel Zumaya earlier in the game to dizziness and a lost finger nail, respectively -- no betting man would have put money on the Tigers at that juncture of the game.
And certainly Baseball Prospectus hasn't been betting on Detroit to make the postseason. Looking at the right-most column (the percentage chance of the Tigers making the postseason), you can see that they peaked at 93.5 percent likelihood back on July 20, when they were 57-36 and the Indians were two games back. But entering last night, Detroit had dipped below a 15 percent chance.
But the Tigers played nine full innings. Sean Casey and Brandon Inge contributed two-out singles off Halladay, chasing him out of the game in favor of closer Casey Janssen. After Inge scooted to second on defensive indifference, Curtis Granderson laced a two-RBI single. Placido Polanco singled and Gary Sheffield walked. Suddenly it was bases loaded for Magglio Ordoñez, and he did not disappoint, knocking home the game-tying and -- winning runs on a two-RBI single of his own. John Lowe of the Detroit Free-Press immediately dubbed it Detroit's signature win of the season.
Alex Rodriguez's monstrous season has pretty much eliminated Ordoñez and everybody else from MVP contention -- splits of .318/.424/.672 with 52 HR and 140 RBIs will blow just about everybody away -- but Magglio has continued to churn out an impressive season. He's not just leading the majors with a .359 average (and second in RBIs with 128), but he's also leading the majors in average with runners in scoring position: hitting at a staggering .422 clip.
If the Tigers miss the playoffs, it won't be for lack of a few exceptional seasons. Beyond Magglio, there's also been the historic season of Curtis Granderson, who joined Willie Mays and Frank "Wildfire" Schulte as the only players to have a 20-20-20-20 season, compiling a score of doubles, triples, homers and stolen bases. And Placido Polanco, besides his errorless streak of 147 games, is still batting .345.
But, save Justin Verlander (16-5, 3.56 ERA), you can't even begin to toss around the phrase "exceptional season" near any of Detroit's pitchers. Kenny Rogers and wunderkinds Fernando Rodney and Zumaya have been various combinations of middling and injured, while Bonderman and Nate Robertson have been decidedly mediocre.
While last night's win was spectacular for Detroit, keeping the team within 3.5 games of New York, rather than falling to 4.5 back, there's still significant ground to cover.
Except for Detroit's three games with Texas now, both the Yankees and Tigers have only divisional games remaining. Though the AL Central has disappointed this season, it's still stronger than the East, meaning the schedule favors the Yankees.
Time for the Tigers to play the ninth.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: All Hail The Tribe
May I introduce to you the 2007 American League Central division champion Cleveland Indians?
While others always preface the following comment with "I hate to say ...," I'm not going to follow suit. I love to say "I told you so."
Just so we're all clear: Yes, I am aware that there are 25 games left in the season and, no, the Tigers are not going to catch the Indians. The magic number is 20, and it's a mere formality at this point.
Why am I so confident? Because my name's not Mark Shapiro or Eric Wedge or any of the players. It's easier for an armchair blogger to make bold predictions. That said, we are undoubtedly dealing with a team of some destiny when Cleveland beats Johan Santana for the fifth this year. Wait, that bears repeating in its own paragraph:
THE INDIANS ARE 5-0 AGAINST JOHAN SANTANA.
Sorry, I'll stop shouting now. But that's an historically bad record for one season, especially for a two-time Cy Young winner. Sure, Santana is "only" 14-11 this year but his ERA is still 3.15. He's made six starts against the Tribe, receiving a no decision once, and actually had decent numbers: Cleveland is batting .242 with a .288 on-base percentage. Those are neither dominant nor terrible numbers. That's why Ryan Garko, who did homer Monday, remains quick to point out that he'd still rather avoid Santana whenever possible:
"It's never a fun at-bat," Garko said to MLB.com. "We see the schedule coming up and roll our eyes like, 'Here he comes again.' But I think we're starting to pick up his changeup a little bit better. We're not swinging at his changeup in the dirt."
Sixteen games ago, Detroit and Cleveland were tied atop the standings. The Tigers, however, have gone 6-10 in that stretch while Cleveland has posted a 12-4 mark, including an eight-game winning streak, to build the current 6-game divisional lead. Cleveland has certainly not enjoyed exceptional pitching over the past two weeks. Over the course of the win streak, the Indians allowed at least three runs in every win, save one. But only twice did they not score at least six runs, winning those two games 4-3 and 5-3.
The offense -- which was spectacular in the first half, scoring the second-most runs in the AL -- has been merely consistent in the second half. The run-scoring pace has trailed off, as Cleveland is now just fifth in the league. What's remarkable is how much the Tribe have done with Travis Hafner playing below his standards. I still think he'll be worth every penny of the large contract extension he received this season; after all, he does still get on base, drawing 86 walks so far, and his presence still affects the rest of the lineup. An off-year or not, he's still The Pronk.
Around him, Grady Sizemore continues to develop into a star, but his numbers (.277/.386/.470 with 23 HR and 70 RBI) aren't quite there yet. The real boon for the Indians has been the steady bat of the underappreciated Victor Martinez (.303/.373/.506, 21 HR, 97 RBI), a solid bounce-back year from Jhonny Peralta (.271/.335/.427, 18 HR, 65 RBI) and better-than-expected years from Casey Blake and Garko, with other spot contributions from a host of other players (really? Asdrubal Cabrera? Really?). Just not so much from Trot Nixon these days, says Terry Pluto, who in his first week back as a columnist at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer wonders why Nixon ever starts these days.
And the pitching is more than good enough. The Tribe have a bonafide ace in C.C. Sabathia, a revelation of a No. 2 starter in Fausto Carmona and a pair of veterans, Paul Byrd and Jake Westbrook, who are more than capable. Byrd's been solid all season, peaking with a 7-1 record in his last eight decisions. Westbrook -- a pitiful 1-6 with a 6.20 ERA as of July 23 -- is somewhat miraculously 4-2 in last six decisions, lowering his ERA by 1.42 during that span. (Is it a coincidence that Westbrook started surging about the time he became commissioner of an RBI Baseball tournament? Um, yes.)
And Cliff Lee? Well, he's still pretty terrible. In his first relief outing, he yielded two hits, a walk and a run in one inning.
But the Indians aren't really going to rely on Lee in the bullpen. Who needs him when you have Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez? My primary reason for picking the Indians to win the division at the All-Star break was their superior -- or at least healthier -- bullpen. As long as those two keep churning out scoreless appearance after scoreless appearance, and Joe Borowski doesn't get any worse (it'd be hard to do), Cleveland should be fine.
Incidentally, I really enjoyed this note on JoBo (scroll down halfway), about he could become the first pitcher to record 45 saves with a 5-plus ERA. It's always an adventure, but games still seem to be getting saved.
Have I made a hasty proclamation to crown the Indians? Of course I have. But it's not a wrong one.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Just The Links
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Jenks' brush with history
With the fans at U.S. Cellular standing and chanting "Bob-by! Bob-by! Bob-by! Bob-by!" White Sox closer Bobby Jenks took the hill hoping to nail down a save to preserve a 4-3 win over the Royals.
But let's be honest, the South Siders had long since stopped caring about a win that would move the ChiSox out of the AL Central cellar and back into a fourth-place tie with Kansas City. The fans were there to see history, and Jenks needed to retire just one hitter, Joey Gathright, to set a major-league mark by recording 42 consecutive batters, dating back to July 17.
Jenks nearly lost it on the second pitch, as Gathright laced a line drive down the left-field line. It landed a mere foot foul, leading the oft-obnoxious Hawk Harrelson to cry "mercy!" On the very next pitch, Jenks unleashed a 96 mph fastball, high and tight, as Gathright tumbled to the dirt.
And in just two pitches, the magic of Jenks' streak was demonstrated. Had that liner been one foot to the right or had that fastball been six inches more inside, Gathright would be standing on first base. As many fluky ways as there are to reach base -- from bloop base hit to error to catcher's interference -- to retire 41 in a row as Jenks had done, which is roughly a game and a half of perfection, is inconceivable.
Sure enough, after a few foul balls, Jenks shook off a slider and threw a hanging curve, which Gathright grounded through the left side of the infield for a single (cue Hawk: "Dadgummit!"). Just like that, Jim Barr -- co-holder of the record from his time with the Giants in 1972 -- could rest a little easier, his name still etched in the history books.
Jenks settled down to get his 34th save, in itself an impressive number considering Chicago only has 55 wins, and he finally broke his media silence after the game. Not wanting to be distracted by incessant queries about the streak, he self-imposed a gag order, and frankly, I don't blame him for having done so. Jenks told reporters after the game that he "messed up" on that curve, explaining, "I was so amped up facing him that I got out of control a little bit."
For the record, Gathright didn't know he was almost the historic batter, claiming he thought Jenks already had the record.
(Oh yeah, a worthless footnote from the game: the White Sox broke an eight-game losing streak with the win. But no one really cares.)
I'll still remember Jenks more as the tall, fat reliever Ozzie Guillen signaled for in the 2005 World Series, but this was an historic streak. Jenks' performance places him in great company among the top five pitching performances of the season, four of which have been completed by members of the AL Central.
Yankee fans, always prone to nauseating hype, will likely protest that all seven innings of Joba Chamberlain's career ought to make this list, and Phillies fans will only acknowledge the following as secondary to Cole Hamels' bullpen sessions, but I stand by my list.
Top Five Pitching Performances of 2007:
1. Brandon Webb's consecutive scoreless innings streak. At 42 innings and counting, the Diamondbacks' ace has thrown three consecutive complete-game shutouts, which follow two straight starts of seven shutout innings. No one else in the majors has three total shutouts, much less three consecutive. Webb hasn't allowed a run -- earned or otherwise -- since July 20.
2. Justin Verlander's no-hitter. On June 12, Verlander fired 112 pitches for the season's second no-hitter against Milwaukee, whiffing 12, walking four and compiling an 11:4 groundout-to-flyout ratio. With 100-plus fastballs in the ninth and breaking pitches with unholy movement, Verlander could have thrown another complete game without allowing a hit that night.
3. Mark Buehrle's no-hitter. Back on April 18, the southpaw threw the year's first no-no against Texas, needing only 106 pitches to strike out eight, walk one and have a 11:7 groundball-to-flyball ratio. Always efficient and pitching to contact, Buehrle was obviously unhittable in his no-hitter, but he's one spot behind Verlander for having less dominating stuff.
4. Jenks (see above). As great as 41 consecutive outs is, considering the aforementioned pitfalls of fluke base runners, Jenks still benefited of never getting more than three outs in any one appearance. He was always well-rested, wasn't pitching in a pennant race and didn't have to face any team's entire lineup, much less worry about hitters making adjustments between at bats. I don't mean to slight the man, as it's still ranked fourth on this list, but I thought I'd clarify why it's not higher.
5. Johan Santana's 17-strikeout, eight-inning masterpiece on Sunday. Any other week I'd be writing about Santana's gem in Minnesota's 1-0 win over Texas, except I did write about him last week. Instead I'll defer to the Star-Tribune's Joe Christiansen, and I'll only add that this game was mildly reminiscent of Pedro Martinez's 17-strikeout, one-hitter against the Yankees.
Honorable Mention: Curt Schilling's 8 2/3 innings of no-hit ball against Oakland on June 7 and Erik Bedard's 15-strikeout, complete-game shutout of the Royals on July 7.
Arugments about the order? Think I missed something? Fire away in the comment box below ...
The Tigers' bullpen gets a boost with the return of Joel Zumaya in time for tonight's home game against division-leading Cleveland. The Indians lead the Central by 1.5 games and have 14-game winner Fausto Carmona starting in the opener of a three-game series.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Who's Now? Not the Twins
Does, um, anyone want to win this division?
The Indians and Tigers are tied atop the AL Central with 65-53 records, but neither has the luxury of falling back on a wild-card lead should they fail to win the division, as both New York and Seattle are now two games up. Cleveland seems to be falling apart, after failing a big test and getting swept at home by the Yankees this weekend. And Detroit, with 14 consecutive games against sub-.500 teams, went 5-9 and are just 8-17 in its last 25 and are reeling as they enter tonight's start of a two-game set with Cleveland.
Sounds like time for the annual second-half Twins surge, right?
Not this year. They've lost seven of eight and are still kicking around at the edge of contention, seven games behind the co-leaders, but seemingly disinterested in charging forward. Not fully out of it, not quite in it. And that's exactly Johan Santana's problem.
Sorry I'm a little late on this -– it'll teach me to go on even a small vacation during the season -– but Minnesota's two-time Cy Young winner expressed his unhappiness with Twins management after Luis Castillo was dealt at the trade deadline for two low-level prospects. The move saved Minnesota $2 million in payroll and hurt the team's (outside) chances at contending this season, leading Santana to rant about the move and general manager Terry Ryan's philosophy.
Santana said a lot of things, ranging from "That's why we're never going to go beyond where we've gone" to "I respect all the decisions they make, but I won't say that they're right all the time" and "from seeing that we're not even trying from the top to the bottom -– I don't think it's a good sign."
Amidst all the ace's critical words of Twins management -– "these guys upstairs," as Santana put it -– none was more troubling than this: "They protect their young players. They protect their organization, their roots, everything. But I guess I won't be a part of it. A lot of guys don't feel like they can be part of it, and they have to move on."
It comes as no surprise that Santana likely won't return to Minnesota after his contract expires at the end of 2008. For many it's a foregone conclusion that Santana will be pitching the 2009 home opener in either the new Yankee Stadium or the Mets' new Citifield, rather than sticking around Minneapolis for the 2010 opening of the Twins' new downtown stadium.
But these comments seemed well-considered and almost well-rehearsed, almost like Santana's been waiting to deliver these lines, to build a body of evidence for why he's unlikely to accept a hometown discount to stay with the Twins.
What's curious about Ryan's dealings -– and where Santana likely makes a good point -– is why the Twins aren't more eager to compete now. I understand that they don't have the payroll to make a big splash. Santana's contract alone was likely going to be worth the value of the franchise before plans were finalized on a new park.
But I also understand that in Santana, Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer that the Twins have arguably have the four best players at their position in the AL. It's hard to find a better core of players to build around. They locked up Mauer with a four-year contract before season started, and Morneau isn't eligible for free agency until 2011. Yet Nathan and Santana have contracts set to expire at the end of 2008, and Torii Hunter will walk at the end of this year. Why go halfway? Maybe the Twins think Alexi Casilla can step right in for Luis Castillo at second, but if you're going to be a seller at the deadline, why not also move Hunter since he's likely to skip town at the end of the year for free?
Twins management seems perfectly willing to hold onto a few big names that will keep the team competitive and draw fans to the park, but they seem wholly uninterested in taking the plunge to really make a run at a title. On one hand they have star power; on the other hand Nick Punto (.208 /.301 /.271) is still their everyday third baseman, they haven't found a power upgrade for corner outfielder Jason Kubel (.248/.307/.405) and Carlos Silva is still a major part of their rotation.
Talk about mixed signals. It's like trying to date a girl who can't make up her mind whether she's interested or not. You'll have a great time, I don't know, say, three times out of nine (i.e. at bats by Hunter, Mauer and Morneau); twice you'll have a fun, nothing-special kind of date with the girl (i.e. Michael Cuddyer and Castillo/Casilla); and on the rest of your dates the girl will show almost no interest in getting on base whatsoever (Punto, Kubel, Jason Tyner/Lew Ford and Jeff Cirillo). It's a maddening existence, to be sure.
Though it's a sound business strategy to always be in contention without ever mortgaging the future to acquire a big name at the expense of prospects, it's not necessarily the most sound baseball strategy if you're targeting a World Series title. Sure, the Twins keep churning out quality young players, but at the pace they're working, they'll never have enough overlap among those players in their prime, especially considering the occasional injury or two (ahem, Francisco Liriano). Frankly, we might not be having this conversation if Liriano were still in the rotation, but every team has its share of bad luck.
As always, it's hard to argue with a team that's won the division four of the last five years, even if only once in that stretch have they advanced beyond the first round and never have they reached the World Series. But it is easy to argue with a team seemingly willing to let the game's best pitcher walk away disgruntled.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Low tide
It's not quite time to panic, but if you're a Tigers fan, it's probably worth elevating your alert level to orange, for several reasons.
A 2-9 record in their last 11 games. Second place in the AL Central. Disabled list stints for Kenny Rogers, Andrew Miller and Joel Zumaya. A season-ending stimulant suspension for Neifi Perez. A four-game (and counting) absence of Gary Sheffield, who seems to have alternating shoulder woes. A manager admitting that his team is in "chaos".
And, most troubling of all, a scant half-game lead for the wild card.
This was to be the year of the AL Central. With four expected contenders for the division title and with the Yankees' horrible start, the Central seemed poised to be a major player in the postseason. It seemed especially the case once the Indians and Tigers emerged as frontrunners and weren't going to fall victim to the unbalanced schedule, losing too many games in the division while teams like the Angels and Red Sox beat up on weaker division opponents. But now, the Yankees have hit their stride and are finally playing like what you'd expect from a roughly $200 million payroll, so the Tigers certainly can't bank on a collapse in the Bronx.
The Tigers are in the midst of a very important stretch. It's odd to call games against Tampa Bay and Oakland "must wins," but Detroit needs to regain its stride against these two sub-.500 teams before it plays the worst stretch that schedule makers have ever perpetrated on a team. The Tigers got off to a good start with a seventh-inning comeback win last night, and have seven more games against the Devil Rays and Athletics in which they need to keep pace.
Then, the Tigers' next four series go like this: Indians-Yankees-Indians-Yankees. That's right, Detroit plays 13 consecutive games against Cleveland and New York. No wonder Jim Leyland is talking about being ready for the ship to sink.
Last year was somewhat of a fairy tale for the Tigers. If they want an encore, it's got to start now.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: The RBI Baseball king
CLEVELAND -- Few people look more comfortable or content than Josh Barfield. Sitting on a plush couch in the Cleveland clubhouse with a movie on and a rain delay outside, the young second baseman is as relaxed as can be. Glaciers seem spry by comparison.
Until, that is, there's talk of RBI Baseball.
At my very mention of the 8-bit Nintendo game from 1987 -- and the Indians' recent 16-player, double-elimination tournament -- Barfield hops off the couch and approaches with a wide grin on his face.
"I've always got time to talk about my championship," he says with a laugh.
Only he's not kidding about his enthusiasm. A few weeks ago the Indians took their RBI Baseball obsession to the next level in the form of the tournament, with Jake Westbrook serving as de facto commissioner.
"I'm probably the worst player ever, but I still wanted to be involved with it," says the righty starting pitcher, who didn't play but kept meticulous brackets. "I just like to scream and yell at people."
The only ground rule: the AL and NL All-Star teams were off-limits, leaving Boston, California, Detroit, Houston, Minnesota, New York (Mets), San Francisco and St. Louis up for grabs.
RBI Baseball was made 20 years ago and, surprisingly, there are still two active players in Roger Clemens and Julio Franco. But, for perspective, there are just as many current managers (Phil Garner and Willie Randolph), far more Hall of Famers (13 in all, from Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson to Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn) and plenty of other odd occupations, as detailed at Gantry's RBI Baseball page.
Westbrook and a few others players collaborated to seed the Indians' field of 13 players and three clubhouse employees, with eventual champ Barfield seeded only seventh.
"He's new to the team, and we hadn't really seen him play," says Westbrook. "He ended up rolling right through it undefeated."
But it wasn't quite so easy. Barfield, with Detroit as his go-to team, won all four games by one run, winning decisions of 2-1, 3-2, 3-2 and 3-2, with the final score a victory over Victor Martinez for the championship.
"Yeah, you make one mistake and someone can hit one out of the stadium," says Barfield, admitting to sweaty palms on the old school NES controller. "Victor's real good and I had to beat him twice. C.C. [Sabathia]'s good and I never like playing him. It got intense, but I found a way to advance."
The game of the tournament was between V-Mart (Minnesota) and Sabathia (Detroit) to emerge from the loser's bracket and challenge Barfield for the title. A costly error by Sabathia's shortstop, Alan Trammel, in the 15th inning paved the way for a 2-1 Martinez victory.
"He had runners on first and second," Sabathia recalls in no small amount of pain. "It was a ground ball to short, and he made an error. The next hitter got an RBI, but that would have been an inning-ending double play."
With the first tournament over, naturally the Indians reseeded the field -- Barfield, V-Mart and Sabathia as the top three seeds -- and have begun again.
Of course, his Indians teammates should have done a better job scouting Barfield in the first place. He's no run-of-the-mill gamer. In the offseason, he participated in the so-called Professional Baseball Gaming League, started by Johnny Damon, in which 15 pro ballplayers competitively play "Project Gotham Racing" in the offseason. Red Sox minor league reliever Craig Hansen won the inaugural championship.
"That was a lot of fun," Barfield says. "We played a couple matches a week online. And then we had the finals Super Bowl week down in Miami."
In the meantime, however, the Indians are plenty satisfied sticking to Tengen's late '80s masterpiece, RBI Baseball, rather than those fancy new games with their superior graphics and features.
"It's strange," says Westbrook. "It's one of those things where you've got all these new games out, the Wii and Playstation and stuff like that, but I guess [RBI Baseball is] just our generation's game."
Adds Sabathia: "It's the best game ever. It's easy to play. It's got all the guys in there with real names."
Well, most of their real names. The system allows for only six letters per name, so there's a bit of shortening, like Calvin Schiraldi's name being squished to "Schrld" and Brett Saberhagen's to "Sbrhgn." After all, vowels are just suggestions, right?
There was no official trophy awarded to Cleveland's winner, but Barfield has made due with own makeshift prize.
"Bragging rights," he says. "I signed the bracket and put it above my locker so everyone will see it when they walk in."
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Wait till next year
Ozzie Guillen is channeling Ricky Bobby. And that's definitely not a good thing for White Sox fans.
When asked if he was surprised Chicago was tied with Kansas City for last in the division, Guillen gave an answer very reminiscent of Ricky Bobby's motto, "If you're not first, you"re last."
The White Sox manager said:
"Not really. Especially when we left for spring training we thought we had a pretty good ballclub. This is not an excuse, but if you don't finish first, it doesn't matter.
For starters, second place in the AL Central -- particularly this year -- means a very good shot at the wild card. As recently as 2003 and 2004, wild card winners Florida and Boston emerged from the wild card to win the World Series. But apparently that's not enough hope for Guillen, who sounds only concerned with the 2008 amateur draft.
Of course, with a 43-55 record and 14.5-game deficit even in the wild card standings, it's no surprise that Chicago won’t make the postseason this year -- Baseball Prospectus gives them a .00585 percent chance -- and that several White Sox are being actively shopped (even if G.M. Kenny Williams is holding his cards close to the vest).
Their starting pitching has been pretty good, particularly Mark Buerhle, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez who, at the ages of 28, 27 and 30, respectively, should continue to have several more productive seasons. But of their Opening Day starters, only Joe Crede (29) and Juan Uribe (27) were under the age of 30. Crede was batting .216 before undergoing back surgery -- making room for 24-year old prospect Josh Fields at third base -- and Uribe is batting a cool .222. With Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye having down seasons and not getting any younger, this is not a lineup to build around for the future.
With the trading deadline approaching and Guillen conceding that he's not surprised the White Sox have faltered, it's definitely time for Williams to listen to any and all offers, move the veterans for young players and hope for the best in next year's draft -- Guillen's already planning for it.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: 'Joel Zumala'
I am at odds with President Bush.
On a number of issues, frankly, but none more pertinent to an AL Central blog than this: the President predicts the Tigers to win the division.
Part of Bush's reasoning, you see, is that the Tigers have great young pitching and will benefit from the impending return of the "flamethrower Zumala" -- that's Joel Zumaya, if you're scoring at home. He should be back in mid-August after having finger surgery, and the same goes for Fernando Rodney, who joined Zumaya to form a dynamic seventh and eighth inning relief corps in front of Todd Jones last season.
As I wrote last week, my divisional pick is Cleveland, in large part because I think they have a sturdier bullpen. The return of Rodney and Zumaya will be significant for the Tigers, though neither has approached his success from last season. And a lot of that success was predicated on durability a year ago. Zumaya had a 1.94 ERA in 83.1 innings in 2006; he sports a 3.63 ERA through his first 17.1 innings this season. Rodney is 1-5 with a 5.40 ERA in 28.1 innings so far; he was 7-4 and 3.52 in 71.2 innings last year.
What may ultimately tip the balance in the Tigers' favor, however, is the ability to buy relief at a price far greater than a pack of Rolaids.
Let me channel Speed for a moment ... Pop quiz, hotshot: Who has the lowest payroll in the AL Central?
According to these figures presented by the USA Today, the answer is not Kansas City. It's the Indians, who at $61.7 million have the 23rd highest (and, conversely, 8th lowest) payroll in the majors. The Royals are one slot ahead of them, spending $67.1 million in salaries.
Detroit, meanwhile, clocks in at $95.2 million, second to Chicago's largely unproductive $108.7 million in the AL Central rankings. That type of payroll offers the Tigers a flexibility the Indians don't have as we enter the final fortnight before the July 31 trading deadline.
As the Detroit Free-Press reports, the Tigers have their eyes on a top reliever to bolster the 'pen, possibly targeting someone as high-profile as Eric Gagne of the Rangers or Brad Lidge of the Astros. The Indians, meanwhile, are relegated to inquiring about a lower-tier option like Texas's Akinori Otsuka, but he's had tightness in his right forearm and probably won't be dealt.
While the Tigers can afford to add a more proven and, thus, higher-priced arm, the Indians will need to find help from within. Namely, the answer may well be Jensen Lewis, who made his major-league debut last night. He allowed no hits in a scoreless 1.1 innings, though he did walk three batters. His promise comes from his track record in Double and Triple A since May 1: a 0.68 ERA in 40 innings, with a .177 batting average against.
It's development from within, trading primarily for prospects and locking up future stars early that has worked well for Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. Just as he extended Grady Sizemore with a seven-year, $31.5 million contract (including a club option year) before his star centerfielder was even arbitration-eligible, Shapiro made a smart move in giving Travis Hafner a four-year, $57 million deal last week. The contract gives Hafner a hefty mid-season raise and foregoes next year's club option at a discount price, but it's good faith negotiating from Shapiro to keep his star happy and -- more importantly -- keep his star in Cleveland. Similarly, it was also shrewd to tie up manager Eric Wedge, popular among the players, earlier this week.
Clearly, the Tigers don't approach the free-spending ways of a New York or Boston. Still, they were able to trade for a veteran like Sean Casey at last year's deadline, they dealt young pitching for Gary Sheffield in the offseason and they can afford to acquire a Gagne or Lidge this summer -- those are moves the Indians can't (or won't) make. And for proof that Cleveland's more frugal strategy can work, just look under Twins, Minnesota for divisional results.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Midseason Grades
With four preseason contenders (sorry, Kansas City), the American League Central was set to be baseball's most competitive division. In just the past two years, Chicago had won a World Series, Detroit had reached a World Series, Minnesota had won the division and Cleveland was one unfortunate late-season collapse away from the postseason.
But, as the story goes, a funny thing happened on the way to the All-Star break: Minnesota's been middling, and Chicago's been catastrophic.
That leaves a two-horse race down the stretch. Cleveland trails by a game in the standings, though two in the loss column. The Indians hold the head-to-head lead at 6-4 but won the first five meetings before Detroit went on its seven-game, mid-June winning streak and seemed to find its groove.
The Lake Erie neighbors have the AL's top run-scoring offenses, but both rank in the bottom half of the league in runs allowed, not to mention the game's two shakiest closers.
The Tigers would appear to hold advantages in starting pitching and lineup depth, but the Indians, for now, have a better bullpen in front of Joe Borowski than the Tigers do in front of Todd Jones. Still, no lead will be safe.
This scribe's prediction: Cleveland edges out Detroit by two games in the division, though the Tigers snare the wild card.
Record: 52-34, 1st place
Runs Scored: 512 (1st in AL)
Runs Allowed: 407 (T-8th in AL)
What went wrong: Not much, save the bullpen. Joel Zumaya remains on the DL recovering from finger surgery, Fernando Rodney is 1-5 with a 5.40 ERA and Todd Jones is, well, Todd Jones. That means he's effective (22 of 26 save chances) despite being scary (1-4, 5.20 ERA, 1.57 WHIP). Ivan Rodriguez has walked only five times in 301 plate appearances. Gary Sheffield had a horrible start -- a .193 BA and .265 SLG in his first 23 games -- but that's a distant memory, as he rebounded very well and might have been the biggest All-Star snub. He's up to a .303 BA, .410 OBP, .560 SLG, 21 HR, 58 RBI and even a team-leading 12 SB.
What went right: A three-game sweep of the Red Sox, who sport the majors' best record, means the Tigers entered the All-Star Game on a five-game winning streak and in first place of the division. Detroit has scored 512 runs this season, the most in MLB by 41 (over the Indians). Magglio Ordoñez is the first-half AL MVP, with preposterous numbers: .367/.446/.604, 35 2B, 13 HR, 70 RBI. Kenny Rogers has been dominant in all three starts he's made since beginning the season on the DL -- he's 3-0 with an ERA (1.04) almost as small as his tiny WHIP (0.98). He joins Justin Verlander (10-3, 3.14 ERA) and Jeremy Bonderman (9-1, 3.48) -- with supplemental help from Andrew Miller and Nate Robertson -- to form the most post-season ready starting rotation.
What's next: It'll be a dogfight with Cleveland in the second half, with the runner-up likely taking the wild card. The Tribe took six of ten from the Tigers in the first half, but they still have nine more meetings to go. Detroit begins with a tricky seven-game road trip to Seattle and Minnesota. As for its grade, the bullpen is still a question mark, and I'll try to resist that grade-school teacher temptation of weighing improvement too much over the whole body of work.
Record: 52-36, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 471 (2nd in AL)
Runs Allowed: 414 (10th in AL)
What went wrong: Jeremy Sowers and Jake Westbrook have made 21 starts, going 2-10 with a 6.65 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 109.2 innings. Third base prospect Andy Marte is batting just .180 in 50 at bats. And that horrible early-season snow storm forced the Indians to play three home games in Milwaukee.
What went right: For a team that crashed and burned despite high hopes last year (78-84, fourth place in the Central), it's hard to find fault with Cleveland's place in the standings: not just second in the division, but first in the wild card by 1.5 games over Seattle. The most pleasant surprise of the first half -- anywhere in the division -- is Fausto Carmona. After suffering one of the worst weeks in baseball history last season as a reliever, Carmona has been terrific as a starter: 10-4, 3.85 ERA and a 2.77 ground ball-fly ball ratio. He and C.C. Sabathia have been a great one-two punch. Though Trot Nixon has provided next-to-no pop (.335 SLG, 3 HR, 26 RBI), the three-headed combo of Ben Francisco, Franklin Gutierrez and Jason Michales are doing a more than ample job of holding down left field and supporting Nixon in right. Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez continue to rake, with Travis Hafner a little off his normal pace, and still the Indians have an AL-best 109 homers. For now, Joe Borowski continues to defy logic, saving 25 of 27 opportunities despite a 5.35 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. And that Rafael Betancourt, he's really, really good.
What's next: Continue chasing the Tigers. Cleveland starts with six home games against divisional doormats Kansas City and Chicago and follows that up with four at Texas, so it gives the Indians a chance for a fast second-half start. They still have eight games with the Tigers and, should, the wild-card standings hold, circle Sept. 25-27 on your calendar. The Indians will be playing four games in three days in Seattle, with one of those games originally having been slated for Cleveland before the aforementioned April snow.
Minnesota Twins Record: 45-43, 3rd place Runs Scored: 436 (6th in AL) Runs Allowed: 399 (5th in AL)
What went wrong: Jason Kubel (.250 BA/.302 OBP) and Nick Punto (.211/.313) are still everyday starters. Scott Baker, Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Kevin Slowey have made a combined 33 starts with a combined 5.82 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. Carlos Silva hasn't been a whole lot better (6-10, 4.58 ERA, 1.40 WHIP). Joe Mauer has missed 32 games. And they've been unlucky. Based on the Twins' Pythagorean winning percentage, they should be 48-40, trailing Cleveland only by a game.
What went right: Torii Hunter and Justin Morneau have been nothing short of spectacular, steadying that otherwise inconsistent offense. Their top six relievers, per innings pitched, all have sub-4.00 ERAs led by closer Joe Nathan (2.17 in 37.1 IP), Pat Neshek (1.70 in 42.1) and Matt Guerrier (1.70 in 53.0). Johan is Johan. (Quick aside: Santana was the AL's seventh-inning reliever last night. How amazing is that?) Oh, and just for the heck of it, Minnesota has the best fielding percentage in the league.
What's next: A second-half team, Minnesota could make a surge and reach the playoffs, even if Baseball Prospectus only gives that a 6 percent likelihood. Chasing both Cleveland and Detroit in the division and also Seattle in the wild card race might be too much.
Chicago White Sox
Record: 39-47, 4th place
Runs Scored: 354 (14th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 420 (11th in AL)
What went wrong: Not much. Easily the division's biggest disappointment, the White Sox have scored not just the fewest runs in the AL but in all of the majors. General manager Kenny Williams threatened a fire sale. Jermaine Dye's batting .214 (.271 OBP). Jim Thome has missed 25 games. Scott Podsednik missed more than two months. Joe Crede batted .216 (.258 OBP) in 47 games before undergoing season-ending back surgery. Jose Contreras is 5-10 with a 5.19 ERA. As a team, the Sox are batting .241 with a .314 OBP. Ouch. Chicago has a 7-12 record in one-run games -- the only Central team not at .500 or better -- and only avoided a failing grade thanks to a 10-5 stretch entering the break. Making matters worse, the Cubs are suddenly playing a lot better and no longer share half the city's negative headlines.
What went right: Mark Buerhle threw a no-hitter and signed a four-year contract extension. Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez are working on solid seasons, and Bobby Jenks, the club's lone All-Star, has been decent. And that's about it.
What's next: Thirteen games out of first place -- and 12 out of the wild card -- playoff hopes are on life support, so Williams is at a critical juncture: blow the team and get younger at the trade deadline and try to keep the core together for one more fun next year?
Kansas City Royals
Record: 38-50, 5th place
Runs Scored: 402 (11th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 437 (12th in AL)
What went wrong: It's hard to fault any one or two players on a team void of exceptional talents. Compile a roster of mediocrity and get mediocrity in return. Über-rookie Alex Gordon batted .327 in June -- but it's the only month he's been above a .200 average. K.C. has saves in 24 of their 38 wins -- but have blown 12 chances. The Royals have also been decimated by injuries.
What went right: The Royals are in last place but only 15 games out of first and two out of fourth; they were nine out of fourth and 27.5 out of first at this point last year. They have an AL-leading 28 triples. Joakim Soria has emerged as a reliable reliever. Gil Meche was an All-Star, and not quite so flagrantly because of the rule requiring a representative from each team. The $55 million man hasn't had much run support, thus explaining his 5-6 record, but his ERA (3.54) and WHIP (1.30) are solid, though a little short of spectacular. Catcher John Buck, with 15, has more than twice as many home run as his teammates, but his average (.245) and RBIs (29) are not as sparkling.
And let's not forget the the seventh-innings stretch song derby. In narrowing the competition to a final four, the fans wisely weeded out overplayed tunes like Cotton-Eyed Joe"and Sweet Caroline and are now choosing among Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, ABBA's Dancing Queen and two songs called Kansas City -- one by The Beatles and one by Wilbert Harrison. My vote's still with Cash.
What's next: More playing time for the kids. Keep giving Gordon and Billy Butler at bats, hold major-league auditions for any prospect who seems deserving and make it a goal not to finish last, as they have the last four seasons.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: The Big Borowski
That's about the time I'm guessing it took Chicago's Alex Cintron to tag up and score from third on a meaningless sacrifice fly in the ninth inning of the White Sox-Indians season opener.
And those are the only four seconds Joe Borowski has sported an ERA of less than 5.00 this season.
In that first appearance of the season, the Big Borowski allowed the first two runners to reach, leading to Gustavo Molina's sac fly. From the time the ball nestled in the glove of left fielder David Delucci to the moment Cintron crossed home plate, Cleveland's closer had a sparkling 0.00 earned-run average.
Since then, scientific notation has almost been needed to track his ERA. It was over 10.00 for a week in April, though he notched saves in all three of his opportunities during that time. It wasn't lowered below 6.00 until June 28, though that came on the heels of 10 straight converted saves. It's now 5.68, with Borowski recently pitching four straight days and tallying three saves and a win.
Though his ERA and WHIP (1.55) are both second-worst (to Todd Jones) among the 18 closers who have at least 15 saves, Borowski's 24 saves are tied for third-best in the majors and match Cleveland's save output from all of 2006. He's only blown two all season (but a third he lost after entering with a lead of more than three runs).
Not bad for the team's fourth-best reliever.
While Borowski has largely succeeded in the closer's primary role of not losing ballgames for the Indians, manager Eric Wedge should consider thinking outside the classic roles of his bullpen. In Aaron Fultz and Rafael Perez, Cleveland has two exceptional lefties, and in Rafael Betancourt has been a remarkably reliable setup man. In 33 outings and 35.2 innings, Betancourt has yet to allow more than one run in any appearance (1.26 ERA) and has yielded only three walks and one home run this season.
But as the folks at IndiansInk.net point out, Wedge is often too rigid about how he uses his relievers. Betancourt is his generally only his eighth-inning reliever, and that nearly cost Cleveland last night. Granted, Borowski was unavailable, Fultz is on the disabled list and Wedge wanted to use Betancourt as late in the game as possible, but the Devil Rays trailed only by one run with the bases loaded and just one out. Though Perez bailed out Wedge, it seemed like a natural time for Betancourt and his steady control.
The Big Borowski insists that he's in great shape and will hold up this season, but he is 36 years old. It's hard to argue with Cleveland's success this season -- entering tonight's series opener in Detroit, the Indians sport a five-game winning and a two-game divisional lead -- but Wedge might be best served being a little more flexible with how he uses his 'pen.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: A three-team race
The Tigers roared through interleague play, winning eight of their last nine to take first place in the American League Central.
The Indians struggled mightily against the National League, losing a series to always woeful Washington and to suddenly woeful Atlanta.
The White Sox have lost 22 of 28, with general manager Kenny Williams promising that "change is going to happen," insinuating that a fire sale is imminent.
And the Royals still have that vote for a seventh-inning stretch song.
All kidding about Kansas City aside -- it does boast both Arthur Bryant's and Gates barbecue, after all -- it's the Twins, plodding along in third place with a 5-5 record in their last 10, who are the division's most interesting team.
Minnesota has certainly not been devoid of headlines. Reigning MVP first baseman Justin Morneau violently collided with Marlins catcher Miguel Olivo on Saturday. Morneau suffered a bruised lung, spat out blood and spent three days in a Florida hospital. Don't worry, though, he reportedly could play by Thursday.
Manager Ron Gardenhire offered catcher Joe Mauer a reprieve from playing behind the plate in the hot Florida sun to fill in for Morneau at first. Mauer's fantastic response? "Uhhhh. Uh, I'd rather catch." So he did. And then hit two home runs.
The timing is a little peculiar, but Mauer even gained ink in the New York Times this week, just a perspective piece of how Mauer could have played quarterback at Florida State and could be entering his second season of the NFL right now.
Then there's the not-so-little matter of Johan Santana. The familiar refrain this spring of "What's wrong with Johan" was sung all month. A traditionally slow starter to the season, he's 20-16 in his career in April and May but, entering this season, was a blistering 16-4 with a 2.76 ERA in June. Whispers of problems grew louder when he lost his first two starts of the month and received a no decision in his third, even though he yielded a very respectable seven earned runs in 20 innings during that stretch. The problem, you see, is that he wasn't dominating.
His last two starts, however, squelched that crazy talk. Santana needed just 92 pitches and one strikeout to toss a complete-game shutout over the Mets and then pitched another gem (6 IP, 1 ER, 8 K) against Florida. He also pounded a pair of extra-base hits in those wins.
Here's the bottom line: As noted Minnesota blogger Aaron Gleeman pointed out yesterday at the end of this post, the Twins were 38-35 record through 73 games -- the exact same record they were at the same juncture of last season. The difference is the play at the top: Minnesota is now only 6.5 games behind division leader Detroit, rather than the 11 games they trailed a season ago. The Twins lost last night to fall to 38-36 but remain only 6.5 back.
Because of that, the Twins need to think long and hard about Torii Hunter. Though I understand that "on pace" are famous last words, Minnesota's center fielder is on pace for the best offensive season of his career, with a .306 BA, .353 OBP, 15 HR and 57 RBIs and still seven games until the season’s midpoint.
In his contract year and likely to play elsewhere after the season, Hunter could command a huge premium at the trading deadline. And while the Twins have done well in the past trading more established players for young talent – most famously, the preposterous 2003 trade of A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser -- they'd be best served holding onto Hunter. As the Star-Tribune's Joe Christiansen argues, this is the time to get miserly owner Carl Pohlad to dip into his considerable savings and splurge on an extension for Hunter.
After all, Santana is dominating again and Minnesota is within striking distance of the top with half a season to play -- the Twins are right where they want to be.
(And, before I go for this week, I'd be remiss not to weigh-in on the eternal debate: 1. Arthur Bryant's. 2. Gates.)
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Roots of Verlander's stardom
I don't like you either, Justin Verlander.
It was bad enough when Mark Buerhle threw the season's first no-hitter on a Wednesday night, but Verlander had the audacity to toss his on a Tuesday. Though this may seem like a trivial matter to most folks, spectacular feats by White Sox and Tigers on Tuesday and Wednesday nights are personal affronts to a man who writes a weekly AL Central blog published Tuesday afternoons. Don't they understand the news cycle I'm working with?
My timeliness already ruined, I decided to turn back the clock even farther than last week and focus on what happened years ago in Goochland, Va. I caught up with Verlander's old AAU catcher, Mike Vranian, who caught Detroit's young gun throughout his teenage years and who now marvels at how far Verlander has come.
"Of all the kids on the team, he was not the one you'd expect to go far," says Vranian, now in medical school. "He had the body and he definitely had the velocity, but he threw a 55-foot curve ball. He could rarely get it over the plate."
Though its Verlander's velocity that still gets most of the attention -- and rightfully so for someone who hit 101 mph in the ninth inning -- his offspeed pitches stole the show last week, prompting Milwaukee's Corey Hart to call his curve and change "plus-plus."
As erratic as that curve used to be, it's not a complete surprise to Vranian that Verlander has harnessed its sharp break.
"[Verlander] was probably the hardest worker on the team," says Vranian. "He was always throwing long toss, and one of our coaches was an instructor at the Richmond Baseball Academy, so he took a lot of lessons with him."
Verlander learned quickly, too. Despite an ill-timed battle with strep throat during his senior year of high school that cost him strength, velocity and a high draft pick, he starred at Old Dominion University and later became the No. 2 overall pick of the 2004 MLB draft. Through it all, however, Verlander's delivery hasn't changed.
"His motion looks the exact same," says Vranian. "He still looks like the exact same guy I caught. He was always about 6'4" but seeing him in that Detroit uniform -- it's pretty surreal to see him pitching on TV."
Verlander's current catcher makes boasts like this one -- "He's got the stuff to be the best pitcher in the game," Ivan Rodriguez said -- even if it's old AAU catcher taking the credit.
"Whenever baseball comes up, I'm always asking, 'Have you heard of Justin Verlander? Yeah, I was his catcher,'" says Vranian, before adding with a laugh, "I'm claiming about two-thirds of his major league potential."
Back to the matter at hand: Fans can go to Royals.com and vote for a seventh-inning song, choosing among classic titles like "The Limbo," "Kansas City," "Sweet Caroline," "Come On Eileen," "Ring of Fire," "Cotton Eyed Joe" and "Dancing Queen." Though "The Limbo" would be fitting, as the Royals are always finding new ways to go lower and lower, my vote's for "Ring of Fire" -- you just can't go wrong with Johnny Cash and there's some good singalong potential.
But can't we find a better catalog of songs? "Sweet Caroline" is already a Boston trademark in the middle of the eighth (and has already been shamelessly ripped off by the Mets), and the Yankees already stake claim to "Cotton Eyed Joe." One thing's for sure, though: Don't follow this misguided advice from Chuck Woodling and write in "YMCA." Haven't we all suffered enough, Chuck?
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Don't leave it to the fans
If I were named baseball commissioner, there is one order of business that I'd attend to on my very first day, before breakfast, before my morning cup of coffee, before I even rolled out of bed:
I would scrap fan voting for the All-Star game.
This is America, land of democracy, and undoubtedly multiple Founding Fathers just rolled around in their graves despite having no clue who Magglio Ordoñez is, what an All-Star Game is or what a baseball looks like. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for enfranchising people when it comes to political elections, but for votes that are really important -- like baseball All-Star games -- we need a new system.
If all the All-Star game is intended to be is an opportunity for fans to see their favorite players on the field together, then I suppose the current balloting system works. But if we truly wanted to reward on-field performance, with the year's best players, then the fans are clueless.
Deserving players have always been left out of the starting lineup for more popular names -- usually for players who don pinstripes or red socks everyday -- and this year's voting for the American League starters is no exception. The updated vote tallies are due out early this evening, and we can only hope a few errors have been corrected.
Why this tragedy means so much to the Fungoes is that two AL Central players (and two Tigers, even) are the most blatant victims. Ordoñez is leading the league in average (.367), doubles (30), extra-base hits (43) and OPS (1.108) and ranks second in RBIs (56) and on-base percentage (.439), yet if the voting were to end today, he wouldn't be an All-Star starter. He's currently fifth in voting (394,892) and, though he keeps good company with Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Torii Hunter all ahead of him, Ordoñez is easily having the best season of the bunch.
With apologies to Alex Rodriguez, Ordoñez is the clubhouse leader for AL MVP, and he can't best a sub-par performance from Manny Ramirez? I enjoy Manny's eccentricities as much as anyone, and the man is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he is not one of the three best outfielders in the league this year and doesn't deserve most of the 600,463 votes he has. A .291 average with eight homers and 33 RBIs just won't cut it.
There's an even more egregious offense taking place in the second-base voting. Robinson Cano is leading? Seriously? Who is voting for this man? Most Yankee fans are down on his play this year, yet, judging by his AL-leading 389,265 votes, they still appear to be punching his chad on the ballot. They have all seemingly forgetten Cano's numbers this year: a .269 average, three homers and 29 RBIs. They don't seem to mind that Placido Polanco has a batting average (.348) that's 40 points higher than Cano's on-base percentage (.308) but trails Cano by more than 8,000 votes. Polanco has 85 hits through Detroit's 62 games, which has him on pace for 222 for the season, and he’s been a vital part of that offense. Hitting in the two-hole, he's part of the reason Ordoñez and Gary Sheffield have combined for 99 RBIs (Polanco has scored 44 runs).
That said, while Detroit fans seem oblivious to the plights of Polanco and Ordoñez, they're stuffing the ballot box for leading vote-getter Ivan Rodriguez, who ought to be no higher than third in the catcher standings. But Pudge is a bigger star than, say, Victor Martinez (.325, 12 HR, 54 RBIs) or Jorge Posada (.358, 7, 40), both of whom are having better years than Rodriguez (.298, 6, 34), and so, Pudge is undoubtedly the beneficiary of votes from other fan bases. In fact, it's very likely most Boston fans don't want to see Posada behind the plate for the All-Star game and can't justify voting for Jason Varitek, so Pudge seems like a decent alternative.
Now, I open it up to you -- any other voting injustices in the early AL results? Who else from the Central deserves a starting nod?
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Garza's dilemma
Matt Garza should be mad.
The Twins' top pitching prospect, a first-round pick in 2005 and USA Today's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2006, rose from Single-A ball to the majors all in one season. He was dominant in the minors -- a combined 14-4 with 154 strikeouts and a 1.99 ERA in 135 2/3 innings -- and admittedly less so in the majors (3-6, 5.76), but this spring he's been wasting away in Triple-A while Minnesota gave seven starts to Sidney Ponson, stuck with Ramon Ortiz in the rotation a few weeks too long, and still trot Carlos Silva out to the mound every fifth day.
It's no wonder Garza voiced his frustration last week. The big league club is in third place, a scant one game over .500 and six games back in the division. And there he was, holed up in Rochester, N.Y.
What's the delay, Minnesota? At least the Twins called up another promising prospect in '05 second-round pick Kevin Slowey to take Ortiz's spot in the rotation, if it was a bit curious that they bypassed Garza for a pitcher who hadn't even had a cup of coffee in the majors (though Slowey is leading the International League in ERA at 1.54). I guess that's the price of insubordination.
Or maybe it's simply another a key component of the Twins' long-ranging plans. Johan Santana was brought along his slowly when he was in his early 20s. Though he was pitching for the parent club, he was only a part-time starter and most-of-the-time reliever. And Francisco Liriano, at the age of 24, is out all season with Tommy John surgery. Patience, they say, is a virtue and in the case of general manager Terry Ryan, it's also a discipline he seems to have mastered.
Of course, no matter why Garza isn't on the 25-man roster, what was troubling about his recent comments -- and where he stepped a little over the line -- was his criticism of the advice he's received from the Twins. Garza hasn't exhibited the same brilliance he did in the minors last year, going 3-5 with a 3.19 ERA in 11 starts so far in 2007, and he made the mistake of blaming the organization for urging him to throw too many offspeed pitches.
The right-handed power pitcher even went so far as to say, "I'm not sleeping well at night because I'm trying to be something I'm not." He pointed to his strong spring stats (1.50 ERA in 12 innings) as proof he can be successful against major-league competition, citing a fatigued arm for his mediocrity with the Twins last September, and asked that he be allowed to pitch the way the fireballer has always pitched: less deception, more speed.
Twins fans should be heartened that their blue chipper is champing at the bit. After Garza's public criticism, and with the Twins recently having won eight of nine games, I understand their reluctance in promoting him, but they can't wait too long before allowing him to supplant either Silva or Scott Baker in the rotation for the stretch run.
Garza is the future ace of the Twins, and his competitive spirit is commendable. It would help his development to log some innings now, several slots behind über-ace Santana, before his imminent departure in free agency after 2008. The time for Garza is soon.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Instant Carmona
Today, we start with a flashback, and I caution those of you with weak stomachs to look away, as we revisit some horrible rookie carnage.
July 30, 2006: In a 3-3 eighth inning gridlock with the Mariners, Cleveland calls on 22-year old Fausto Carmona to face Richie Sexson with a man on. Having proven himself a reliable reliever, with 11 consecutive scoreless appearances, Carmona seems like a logical choice, and he promptly strikes out Sexson.
Then Carmona goes back out for the top of the ninth. Coincidentally, he would leave the game just before Sexson returned to the batter’s box, as the eight interceding hitters had inflicted enough damage: three hits, two walks, four runs (all earned) and an eventual loss for Carmona.
July 31, 2006: In Boston, the Indians sport an 8-6 lead entering the home half of the ninth. With Alex Cora, Kevin Youkilis and Mark Loretta due up, it seemed like a relatively harmless way for Carmona to notch his first big-league save and regain some confidence. Well, Cora singled, Youkilis walked, Loretta popped up and then David Ortiz strode to the plate and did what Big Papi does best -- walkoff home run.
Aug. 2, 2006: It’s the series finale with the Red Sox, and this time Cleveland takes a one-run lead into the ninth. Eric Wedge goes to the bullpen and, yes, it’s our poor protagonist, Mr. Carmona. This time the young right-hander starts with two strikeouts, quickly retiring Wily Mo Pena and Coco Crisp.
Sure, he hits Doug Mirabelli with a pitch, but Carmona seems to be in command. He’ll settle down, right? Oops, well he hit Alex Gonzalez as well. No big deal, he just needs to get Youkilis. Oh wait, he walked him to load the bases. At least Carmona got Loretta out two nights before, so ... nevermind, he just gave up a two-run double off the Monster. Game over. Carmona has now lost in three straight appearances, including two blown saves.
Aug. 5, 2006: The third time’s always the charm, right? Taking a 3-2 lead into the ninth, Wedge sends Carmona to the hill. It’s obvious where this one’s going. A single-strikeout-force out sequence brings Ivan Rodriguez to the plate with one on and two out. Wait for it, wait for it ... and, yep, a walk-off homer -- Carmona has now lost in four straight appearances, including three blown saves.
How Carmona had any even a shred of confidence left after what I presume to be the worst week of his baseball life, I will never know. Smartly, Wedge didn’t pitch him again until five days later when the Indians had a 14-2 lead. Carmona pitched two scoreless innings then but was still very shaky the rest of the season. He returned to the rotation for four starts, actually throwing well in three of them but he’d still finish the year 1-10 with a 5.42 ERA, 1.59 WHIP and those three blown saves in his only opportunities.
Yet the native of Santo Domingo, D.R., has done the unthinkable. Living a normal life free of shell shock would have been miraculous in itself, but Carmona has become Cleveland’s most reliable pitcher and is the surprising answer to the trivia question, What Cleveland Indians starter has gone at least six innings and allowed no more than three earned runs in each of his last eight starts?
C.C. Sabathia has been terrific this season but lasted only five innings against Seattle two starts ago and yielded six runs at Oakland on May 11. Paul Byrd has been great -- 5-1 with a 3.81 ERA -- but he’s given up at least four runs twice in his last three outings. And save your breath before even suggesting Jeremy Sowers (1-4, 6.29), Jake Westbrook (1-2, 7.90) or Cliff Lee (2-2, 5.86).
Cleveland’s had three reliable starters in its first-place start, and the best of the bunch has been Carmona. His strikeouts numbers are down from last year -- 3.32 K/9 this year, 6.99 K/9 in 2006 -- but that’s a sign of him not over-throwing and challenging hitters more, as his BB/9 has improved, from 3.74 to 2.45.
Of course, for now the only statistic of Carmona’s the Indians care about is his wins: six and counting.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Old Foes
Forget the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals, the real battle between Cleveland and Detroit will happen on the baseball diamond. The two are separated by a mere half-game in the American League Central and will play each other seven times in 10 days, starting with three this weekend in Detroit and finishing with four next weekend in Cleveland.
While the Cavaliers-Pistons series will undoubtedly be a defensive struggle, if Game 1's 79-76 score is any indication, the Indians and Tigers sport the league's two best scoring offenses (both are averaging 5.5 runs per contest, with the Indians edging out the Tigers at the second decimal place).
Best of all, both teams' rotations are lined up to feature their best starters (of late) this weekend, headlined by the middle contest: Nate Robertson vs. Paul Byrd, Justin Verlander vs. C.C. Sabathia and Mike Maroth vs. Fausto Carmona. And Jeremy Bonderman may well return from the DL in time to pitch Friday, making the series even juicier.
Perhaps this is the start of a new twist in the division. As Tigers beat writer Danny Knobler points out, these two franchisers arerarely good in the same season. The highlight:
"The Tigers and Indians have been playing for 107 years now. Just twice -- in 1908 and 1940 -- has there been a pennant race where one of the teams won it and the other finished second (with the Tigers winning both times).
There's more. Only twice in all those years have both the Tigers and Indians finished with 90 or more wins (that would be 1908 and 1950). And just in case you think it's because they've both been bad, only once in all that time (in 2003) have the Tigers and Indians both lost 90 games in the same year."
Just think back to the last two seasons: while the Tigers were a woeful 71-91 in 2005, the Indians should have made the postseason. They held a 1.5-game lead for the wild card at the close of play on Sept. 24 before losing six of its last seven and falling out of the postseason. Still, they finished 93-69.
In 2006, Cleveland was a hip preseason pick but struggled to a 78-84 mark, while Detroit emerged out of nowhere to go 95-67 and reach the World Series. Of course, the Tigers had their own late-season collapse, losing their last five -- and the division -- and settling for the wild card.
This season, however, Cleveland and Detroit are winning the all-important one-run games (Indians are 8-4; Tigers 10-6) and they're winning divisional games (Indians 9-2, Tigers 12-7).
Just a three-hour drive -- or a swim across Lake Erie -- apart, a rejuvenated Indians-Tigers rivalry would make for a great divisional race.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: The Hitless Wonders
When there's as much media competition as there is in the Chicago market, it's not uncommon for baseball beat reporters to find a unique angle to set their story apart. So when the Tribune, Sun-Times and Daily Herald all key in on the White Sox hitting woes on the same day, well, that's telling you how bad things are on the South Side.
I guess an 11-1 loss to the Royals will do that to you.
The Sox mustered only three hits, and it wasn't even at the hands of the estimable Gil Meche, who threw seven scoreless innings last night in Oakland to lower his ERA to 1.91. Don't forget, the Fungoes have been on the Meche bandwagon since Opening Day. Even with Jon Heyman on board, there's still plenty of room.
In no small part because of that decisive defeat, the White Sox have scored fewer runs (131) than any American League team including, yes, the lowly Royals (149), prompting manager Ozzie Guillen to tell reporters, "Without throwing anyone under the bus, it's time to get better at-bats. It's a shame, and it's a little embarrassing."
Wait, did the ever-quotable Guillen say he won't throw anyone under the bus??? Maybe that's an even better example of how bad things are for the Sox sluggers -- their manager isn't his normal flippant self and seems genuinely concerned. I would be, too, if my team was batting .220, with a sub-.300 on-base percentage, a paltry 82 extra-base hits and an incomprehensibly low .659 OPS.
Of course, it should be noted that Rob Mackowiak threw himself under the bus over the weekend. Referring to his .188 batting average, lowest among regular players, he said, "It's very frustrating. You don't like yourself very much."
Still, Chicago has somehow managed a winning record of 18-16 despite scoring just 3.9 runs per game. That's obviously because of the pitching staff. Jose Contreras, Mark Buerhle, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez all sport ERAs under 4.00, with fifth starter Jon Danks not too far behind at 4.33. Haven't we seen this before? Two years ago, with Freddy Garcia in place of Vazquez, the Sox rode their starting pitchers to a World Series championship. Toss in reliable closer Bobby Jenks and the suddenly dominant setup man David Aardsma (1.31 ERA and 26 K in 20.2 IP), and the Sox have a staff that'll keep them in every game.
The reinforcements are coming: Jim Thome is rehabbing in Triple-A and Scott Podsednik claims he's "getting close." In the meantime, the questions du jour: Are Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, Joe Crede and Tadahito Iguchi getting close to hitting above .210? Or is GM Kenny Williams getting close to finding help elsewhere? That pitching staff deserves better.
Chicago has won six of its past eight, taking series from the Angels, Twins and Royals, but the team never scored more than six runs in that stretch and never allowed more than four runs in any of those wins. Excuse their two lopsided losses -- to the Royals on Sunday and 12-5 to the Indians on Opening Day -- and the Sox have yielded only 119 runs in their other 32 games. That's 3.7 runs allowed per game, which is both exceptional and necessary when, to repeat myself, they're only scoring 3.9 runs per game.
I have no doubt that the Sox lineup will come around, and tonight might be a good time to start with the potent Yankees offense in town for a three-game home set.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Big Boppers Hit the Skids
Memo to Travis Hafner: Demand a trade. Now.
This is no slight to the first-place Indians -- just my genuine concern for Haf's health and hitting. You see, strange things have been happening to many of the AL Central's marquee sluggers.
Save Hafner, Torii Hunter and Magglio Ordoñez, it's been a rough spell for the big bats of the Midwest:
Chicago's Paul Konerko is hitting .196 with more strikeouts (27) than hits (21).
Teammate Jermaine Dye is sporting a .219 average with a similar strikeout (28) to hits (21) ratio.
Sure, Jim Thome tallied 17 hits and five homers in his first 50 at bats -- and then went on the disabled list with a rib cage injury.
Minnesota's Justin Morneau has been mediocre when measured by his MVP standards: .267 average, six homers, 17 RBIs. And he's suffering through bouts of inconsistency -- a 12-game homerless streak earlier, now working on a similar seven-gamer -- and has just about locked himself in the film room. But take heed, Twins fans, Monreau was batting .208 on this date last year, leading someone (ahem, my brother) to make one of the most disastrous fantasy keeper league trades in recorded history: Morneau for Tim Hudson, vintage 2006. Don't worry, my bro also threw in Preston Wilson. Ouch.
Joe Mauer batted .353 in his first 28 games -- and then went on the disabled list with a left quad strain.
Cleanup hitter Michael Cuddyer got off to a fairly respectable start (.284, 2 HR, 19) -- and then missed all weekend with a bruised back.
Cleveland's Grady Sizemore enjoyed one of the best three-game starts in recent memory (6-14 with three HRs) -- and has hit just .229 since with only two more round-trippers.
Victor Martinez is hitting .333 with 24 RBIs -- but did his own stint on the DL with a quadriceps strain.
Detroit's Gary Sheffield, as detailed in this space last week, was hitting .193 with one homer entering last week's Baltimore series. (He’s 6-18 with three HRs since.)
Pudge Rodriguez has drawn just one walk in 116 plate appearances and is sporting a .267 on-base percentage.
All-world prospect Alex Gordon is the closest the Royals have to a "marquee" bat, and he's been horrible: .175, 2 HR, 5 RBIs in 97 at bats.
The well-documented cold weather that rocked the Northeast and Midwest in April may well be to blame; offensive numbers are down across the majors, and guys are obviously tighter and more injury-prone in the chill.
Maybe Hafner's North Dakota heritage helped him battle the cold through April. But now he needs to worry: he left April with a .338 average, which has dropped 40 points in May's first week. (Maybe he should take pointers from teammate Trot Nixon, who raised his batting average 67 points in 48 hours thanks to an 8-10 weekend.)
Hafner still managed a great start and finish to this past week (that's a Tuesday to Tuesday week, mind you, based on this blog's schedule), though he did go 1-17 in-between. He hit a homer Tuesday, and in the eleventh inning last Wednesday Hafner defeated Toronto's exaggerated shift by chopping a double down the third-base line to score David Delucci from first -- it's about the softest game-winning double you can ever find, but somewhere "Wee Willie Keeler" is smiling as Hafner indeed "hit 'em where they ain't."
There was no doubt, however, about his ninth career grand slam yesterday.
But consider yourself warned, Mr. Hafner -- run away while you still can.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Has Sheffield Awoken?
Oh, Daniel Cabrera, what have you done? You may have awoken a sleeping Tiger.
Entering Monday night's game, Gary Sheffield had gone four for his last eight but was still slugging (.265) more than 30 points below his career batting average (.296). Then Cabrera had the audacity to plunk him. Granted, Cabrera's control has always been in question -- lifetime 5.4 walks/9 innings and five walks by the third inning last night -- but the fastball that got away may have significant consequences for the rest of the American League Central.
Somehow, Sheffield managed to play 23 games this year with just four extra base hits, which happened to be 17 fewer than former teammate Alex Rodriguez and the same number as current teammate and part-time player Marcus Thames had in just 29 at-bats. Sheff's just-published autobiography is titled Inside Power, and that was about the only power he had put on display this season.
Until he got mad at Cabrera, that is. Two innings later after getting beaned, Sheffield deposited a 408-foot home run into Comerica Park's left-field stands. The homer broke a tie in what proved to be an 8-4 Detroit victory, and he admired it for a good, long while before trotting around the bases.
The Tigers have somehow managed a 14-11 record, good for second place in the Central, despite performances from Sheffield, Craig Monroe (.193/.244/.325), Brandon Inge (.150/.242/.313) and Sean Casey (.192/.259/.244) that could make even the toughest general manager cry. The bullpen has been shaky, with losing records and uncharacteristically high ERAs from typically reliable relievers Fernando Rodney (1-4, 5.40) and Joel Zumaya (0-1, 4.11). But great starting pitching and hot hitting from the rest of the lineup, especially Magglio Ordóñez and the .356 hitter currently impersonating Plácido Polanco, have kept the Tigers in contention during the early going.
The Tigers started off slowly but have now posted consecutive wins, one in a Johan Santana start and one featuring previously-absent power from Sheffield. That's certainly better news to Detroit residents than finding out that the Lions drafting yet another first-round wide receiver.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Don't Forget the Twins
Who is Alexi Casilla?
It's an honest question. At 11-8, the Twins are tied for first in the AL Central, they've won their division four of the past five years and I still can't keep track of everybody.
Looking at Minnesota's 2004 roster –- the third of its four NL Central championships this decade –- feels like being in a time warp. Of the 10 players with the most at-bats that year, only Torii Hunter remains. So you can understand why, while watching Monday night's Twins-Indians tilt, I thought the announcers had made a mistake when they said that the Twins' speedy second baseman with the game-tying two-RBI double was Casilla. Seriously, they've had Luis Castillo two years and they can't get his name right?
Instead, the gaffe was mine. Casilla is simply next in the long line of Twins prospects. Minnesota track record of developing players is phenomenal, the unfortunate release of David Ortiz notwithstanding.
This is where playing in a small market is actually beneficial for the Twins -– they only need to worry about internal expectations. Unlike, say, the Yankees, who find themselves extraordinarily short-handed despite having baseball's biggest payroll. While Phil Hughes is rushed into the rotation Thursday night, Scott Proctor continues his pursuit of Cal Ripken's consecutive games streak (OK, slight exaggeration, but he did appear in 12 of New York's first 17 games), Andy Pettitte is applying for dual citizenship as a starter and reliever and the Jeff Karstens/Chase Wright era has produced a 10.22 ERA.
By contrast, The Twins lost ace-in-training Francisco Liriano for the season and still have the luxury of letting top prospect Matt Garza develop in Triple-A.
Clearly, Minnesota needs to put Sidney Ponson's pitching career to sleep. The man hasn't had a sub-5.00 ERA since 2003 and is off to a horrible start (1-2, 9.39 ERA, 2.28 WHIP). Do you think the pressure cooker of a New York or Boston could allow an every-fifth-day disaster like Ponson to remain in the rotation? No chance. Just last season he lasted a mere five appearances for the Yankees. Yet in Minneapolis, there was no outburst, just GM Terry Ryan telling reporters, "We're getting close to the point where we need to see more progress." Keep in mind that allowing only one earned run per inning would be progress at this point.
Of course, keeping the abundance of talent –- hope you like pinstripes, Johan Santana -– will be difficult, but flying under the radar seems to suit the Twins just fine. SI, for instance, picked them to finish fourth in their division. They've hit four fewer home runs than Alex Rodriguez, but they run well (perfect on their first 19 stolen base attempts), field cleanly (fourth in the majors in fielding percentage) and close games very well (arguably the best bullpen with Joe Nathan being set up by Pat Neshek and Juan Rincon).
As long as Carlos Silva doesn't try to sneak high fastballs by anyone -– Victor Martinez nearly poked a hole in the Metrodome roof last night with one such offering -– then the Twins ought to have as good a chance as anyone down the stretch, even in a division where two other teams have represented the AL in the last two World Series.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Left Out
South Side Sox presents these numbers without comment:
I, of course, do feel compelled to make a few comments. And chief among them is, "The White Sox can't hit left-handed pitching."
Those numbers reflect the last 14 starts by Minnesota's Johan Santana and the last seven starts by Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia against Chicago -– including a 3-0 record in 2007. And, just to clarify, that is indeed a 16-2 record with 20 quality starts. Admittedly, Santana is the best pitcher in baseball, and Sabathia is one of the league's few other bona fide aces, but Chicago's poor hitting numbers aren't confined just to these two premier lefty hurlers.
Thanks to the batter vs. pitcher stats made available by mlb.com, we can see that the ChiSox have had inordinate struggles against all lefties. In 2006 their left-handed hitters hit a woeful .149 against all of Detroit's southpaws (13-of-87) with one home run and two RBIs. That includes a .074 clip in five Kenny Rogers starts and a .194 average in four Nate Robertson starts. Again, those are above-average pitchers, but that's the daily reality when you play in the AL Central, a division I think has the best concentration of lefty starters in baseball. But, rejoice White Sox fans, at least the South Siders teed off on poor ol' Cliff Lee in their 49 at-bats his six starts for Cleveland -– a .224 average! Break out the Silver Sluggers!
Actually, never mind -- the rest of the league's lefties hit .276 against Lee.
It should be noted that Chicago's righties fared so sufficiently well against Robertson and Lee that the two managed just a combined 2-5 against the White Sox last year. (Rogers, however, was 3-1 with a 0.82 ERA.) But the White Sox, who last year featured three regular lefty bats in A.J. Pierzynski, Scott Podsednik and Jim Thome, added another lefty-swinging starter in Darin Erstad and retain supersub -– and lefty stick -– Rob Mackowiak.
In other words, right-handed outfielder Brian Anderson has now managed to hurt the Sox offense whether he's in the lineup -– he batted .225 in 365 at-bats last year -– or on the bench; his demotion to the bench this year means more lefty vs. lefty ABs.
"What happened to B.A., that's his fault," the ever-quotable Ozzie Guillen told Chicago reporters this week. "We gave him the opportunity last year."
It may be Anderson's fault, but it's Chicago's problem. On paper, having four left-handed hitters sounds like good balance, but it's not a lineup made for the AL Central. The Indians and Tigers both have three lefty starters; the Royals have two and the Twins, in the absence of injured Francisco Liriano, have only Santana.
Eight of the White Sox' first 11 games have been against division rivals, and they've sputtered out to a 5-6 record with an AL-low 38 runs despite the resurgence of Podsednik, who is batting .303. Four games have been against lefties -– the three wins by Sabathia and Santana -– and one start by Jeremy Sowers. The White Sox beat the Indians 4-3 in that game but needed a walk-off hit batsman to do so after scratching Sowers for just one hit and two runs in six innings.
Obviously the season is in its infancy and heavy hitters Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko will awake from extended hibernation to provide some potent pop and hide some of Chicago's deficiencies in the lineup. But the question for the White Sox isn't when their proven sluggers will come around, it's who's going to help hit lefty pitching? Right now Anderson and Pablo Ozuna are their best big-league options.
How soon can Josh Fields get to the South Side? And can he play the outfield?
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: At Home on the Road?
For Milwaukee fans who have longed for the return of the designated hitter, receiving this week's Angels "at" Indians series is like Christmas, replete with the forecast of snow and the gift of American League baseball.
For fans of Major League, it's a thrilling reunion of the Indians with Milwaukee, where the movie's baseball scenes were filmed.
For everyone else, it's just a horror show. The Indians are robbed of three games of normal gate receipts; their players are robbed of three nights of home-field advantage; and the Angels' are robbed of three days of sightseeing in Cleveland. (OK, so not everyone is suffering equally. Plus, the Angels hadn't even left Los Angeles when the venue change was announced.)
It's really just the fine folks of Cleveland who have had it rough. Because Friday night's contest against Seattle was halted a strike short of an official game, the Indians will now be playing their "home" opener in Milwaukee.
"This is the weirdest of the weird," said Bob DiBiasio, Indians vice president of public relations.
This is coming from a man who witnessed the oddity of Sept. 25, 2000, when the Indians hosted the White Sox in the afternoon and the Twins that same night. But this April snowstorm wiped out a single game Friday and then three straight days of attempted doubleheaders. It also wiped out a level playing field in fantasy leagues with weekly head-to-head matchups; if you own stars like Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Ichiro or Felix Hernandez, I hope someone talked you down from that ledge.
With Major League Baseball facilitating the discussion, the Angels and Indians worked to find an alternate site for their three-game series -– night games today and tomorrow and a matinee on Thursday -– when Jacobs Field was deemed unplayable. Anaheim, Houston and Milwaukee emerged as viable options. The Indians were willing to play the games in the Angels' digs in sunny SoCal and even offered to count them as Cleveland home dates, rather than swap home series (the two are scheduled to play in L.A. May 8-10 and Sept. 6-9), but future travel itineraries and competitive advantage concerns negated that possibility.
"Milwaukee is more desirable because we go to Boston on Friday, and there's a jump there in time," said Angels V.P. of communications Tim Mead. "It gets the players more acclimated to the schedule. On a neutral site it takes away the concern that someone had three additional games at home. It satisfies and alleviates concerns and integrity issues."
As it is already, the Red Sox moved up their normal Patriots' Day start on Monday from 11 a.m. to 10, which certainly can't help any West Coast team plagued by lingering jet lag.
With a seven-hour drive looming -– in inclement weather, no less -– the Indians don't expect many of their fans to make the trip to Milwaukee. Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark appeared to be available and only four hours from Cleveland, but that apparently was not discussed (Miller and Minute Maid parks both have retractable roofs). Cincy's daily high temperatures are expected to be in the 50s all week, so why not make it a series of day games and at least play in-state? For the $10 general admission tickets being sold for the series, I'd bet a good number of Clevelanders would skip work and make the trip.
Instead, we have this. Tucked in the press release announcing the return of AL baseball to Milwaukee was this telling statement: "Seating will be limited to the Field and (if needed) Loge Levels only."
In other words, "your voice might echo in the dome and, for the first time ever, Milwaukee might resemble Tampa Bay."
Even Bob Uecker ought to be able to get a good seat for this series.
If you're expecting such a meager crowd anyway, why limit yourself to other major league stadiums? Minor league and college parks, however, were not considered.
The best field seats at Miller Park normally cost $42 a pop, meaning for the next three days Milwaukee fans can sit in the same section for less than a quarter of the price with the fringe benefit of not having to watch the Brewers. How revenue from these games will be divided between the Brewers and Indians has not yet been decided, but Cleveland seems unconcerned with that at this point.
"The primary, immediate objective is to get our guys on the field and competing," DiBiasio said.
What a week this has been for the Indians, who started by taking two games on the road in Chicago only for the weekend to spurn unmitigated disaster. As God Hates Cleveland Sports points out about Friday night, Paul Byrd's near five inning no-hitter and the Indians' near victory don't count while Victor Martinez's strained quad does count, likely with a trip to the disabled list. Also, if anything could stop Sizemore's blistering hot start (6-14 with home runs in all three games), it's probably a blizzard.
In other words, if God were charged with hating Cleveland sports, I'd hate to be His defense attorney.
Labels: AL Central
AL Central: Meche's Revenge
Gil Meche is underpaid.
In one start -– excuse me, one masterpiece -– the 55 Million Dollar Man quickly quieted skeptics who thought him vastly overcompensated. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, as he still might be, but Meche almost effortlessly shut down the vaunted Red Sox lineup, yielding just one run in 7 1/3 innings and striking out six.
Perhaps more importantly, he left to a standing ovation from the 41,257 fans at Kauffman Stadium. Officially, that's 101.2 percent of capacity. Shy of anything commemorating the 1985 World Series, what other recent reason have Royals fans had to get excited? Plus, Boston fans are known for traveling well -– they averaged the second-most fans per road game in 2006 -– but the Kauffman crowd seemed overwhelmingly full of the local faithful, creating a rare homefield advantage.
It's one thing to pin the hopes of a downtrodden franchise on a core of prospects as promising as Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Luke Hochevar, but it's another thing to do it while losing 100 or more games for three straight years (and counting). Attendance has declined in K.C. each of those years, and that's not a coincidence.
That's why new Royals general manager Dayton Moore was wise to up his team's payroll to $60 million this offseason; though paltry compared to Opening Day victim Boston, it is a club record and that is a sign of progress. Meche, who at the time of his signing had only one career win for each of $1 million he was to receive from the Royals (perhaps that's why he wears jersey No. 55), is unproven as an ace but has room to grow at 28. And, though the intense focus on his contract might have suggested otherwise, he was not the Royals' only acquisition -- they also added closer Octavio Dotel, setup man David Riske, catcher Jason LaRue, outfielder Ross Gload and shortstop Tony Pena Jr.
None of those players are true difference-makers -– and Dotel already might be DL-bound with an oblique injury -– but it's a cast of role players who will keep the team competitive in a challenging division, especially when supported by Gordon, baseball's top prospect, and first baseman Ryan Shealy, who could thrive in a full-time role. It won't be long before Butler, the 20-year-old hitting phenom, is summoned from Omaha despite his defensive deficiencies; he won a batting title in Double-A Wichita last year and hit .419 in his 31 at-bats in big-league camp this spring.
Around the AL Central yesterday, Johan Santana struggled in a Twins win; the Tigers raised their AL pennant but lost; and the Indians pounded Jose Contreras and the White Sox; but it was the Royals who were the talk of the division.
Kansas City improved its roster from top to bottom, which admittedly wasn't hard for a club with a majors-worst -214 run differential last season. Meche gained headlines for signing a seemingly ludicrous contact this winter, but at least it provided some notoriety for an attention-starved team. That's a step in the right direction toward relevancy.
And that's why Meche is the current leader for the title of offseason's biggest bargain.
Labels: AL Central
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)