Keep up with the latest news, notes and developments with Fungoes, a daily journal for all things baseball that will last all season long.
NL East: Dishing out the hardware
It's been something of an odd season for the NL East, which features four teams that have disappointed and one (guess which) that has wildly exceeded expectations. Still, the division's chock full of players who have turned in excellent -- and in the cases of a few hitters, historic -- years. Were the NL East a league unto itself, and I its benevolent president-for-life, here's how I'd distribute the postseason hardware.
MVP: David Wright, Mets 3B
I recently expounded upon Wright's merits, and nothing has changed. Unless, of course, the Mets miss the playoffs. Then the trophy will have to go to J-Roll, who also joined the 30-30 club for the first time this season.
Odds he'll win the NL-wide award: 3-2.
Also considered: Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Hanley Ramirez, Chipper Jones.
Cy Young: Cole Hamels, Phillies SP
This has really not been a banner year for NL East hurlers, and the real award's a lock to head out west to Jake Peavy in San Diego. Hamels (14-5, 3.54 ERA) takes divisional honors by default, for being the one bright spot in the Phillies' rotation -- even though he recently missed a month.
Odds he'll win the NL-wide award: 40-1.
Also considered: John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Oliver Perez.
Rookie of the Year: Peter Moylan, Braves RP
I bemoaned the unusual lack of quality rookies in the division back in April, and that dearth continued all season. One rookie (Matt Chico) ended up qualifying for the ERA title, and no one's eligible for the batting title. The East's top home run-hitting rookie -- Carlos "Chooch" Ruiz -- has slugged 18% as many bombs (6) as has Ryan Braun (33). So the award goes to Moylan, the bespectacled Aussie with the 1.82 ERA, at whom I believe the Braves should take a hard look as their closer next spring.
Odds he'll win the NL-wide award: 5,000-1.
Also considered: Ruiz, Kyle Kendrick, Yunel Escobar, Matt Lindstrom.
Manager of the Year: Manny Acta
An absolute no-doubter. Acta's worked wonders with the Nats, who have somehow gotten better as the season has gone along -- they're currently riding a four-game winning streak, and are on pace to finish with 73 wins, at least a dozen more than anyone expected of them. Acta has to be in the conversation for the NL-wide award (I think the NL West trio of Clint Hurdle, Bud Black and Bob Melvin might split that vote, especially after Black inadvertently tore the ACL of his own player this week), and one has to wonder whether the Mets think about their former third-base coach and wonder what might have been. In SI's Baseball Preview I wrote, "The Nationals will be hard-pressed to equal last year's win total of 71." Whoops.
Odds he'll win the NL-wide award: 3-1.
Also considered: Charlie Manuel.
Executive of the Year: John Schuerholz
Sure (Schuer?), Schuerholz's many trade deadline moves didn't work -- but not one of them appears to be a misstep, especially not the acquisition of Mark Teixeira, who has 54 RBIs in 51 games since coming over from Texas and could be the Braves' first baseman for years to come. I'm not blaming Schuerholz for failing to pick up the one asset that will keep the Braves out of the postseason -- an asset that was simply not available on the market: a quality starting pitcher.
Odds he'll win the MLB-wide award: 200-1
Also considered: Jim Bowden.
-- How bad a collapse would it constitute if the Mets fail to make the postseason? The second worst EVER, writes Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus.
-- Even so, the Phillies' mathematical odds of making the playoffs still significantly less than 50/50.
-- As Joe Capozzi of the Palm Beach Post writes, the Marlins may now have "the most overqualified bullpen coach in baseball history."
-- Talking Chop unearths one stat Scott Boras will likely use to get Andruw Jones an inevitably massive free-agent deal.
-- The Nats are so hot right now that they're winning even with their closer doing this in the bullpen.
Labels: NL East
NL East: The Fight for Fourth
The Mets last week learned the hard way that their battle with the Phillies isn't the only race currently underway within the NL East.
True, the Washington Nationals, at 68-84, today stand 16.5 games behind New York in the division. But as the Nats demonstrated in taking games on Monday and Tuesday from the playoffs-hungry Mets, they're doing anything but giving up. In fact, should the Nats, who were expected to field one of the worst teams in MLB history this season, manage to finish atop the Marlins in the standings -– and they're currently enjoying a three-game cushion on Florida -– 2006 will have to be viewed an unqualified success in Washington.
In SI's MLB preview issue back in March, I wrote, "The tenor of Washington's spring was a mix of optimism and realism -– the optimism born, in part, or the reality that the club is widely anticipated to be the worst in the majors and can only exceed expectations." When I spent some time in the Nats' clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon, I found that none of that optimism had diminished -– but that it's now born of the reality that the Nats can be sure that they're on the track to respectability, especially with a new ballpark set to open next spring and with the quick ramping up of a formerly-barren farm system that suddenly boasts both legitimate prospects and legitimate scouting talent.
(Meanwhile, the Marlins, who were a Nationals-esque surprise last season, and who were, at 31-31, a .500 ballclub on June 8, appear to have completely lost their way -– they're 34-56 since then, and with no new stadium on the horizon their time in South Florida appears to be growing short).
In the cramped, fragrant confines of RFK Stadium's visitors' clubhouse on Tuesday, where the Mets were hunkered down and trying to figure out a way to beat the Nats (they would go on to lose again that evening, 9-8), I discovered nothing but admiration for the Nats' accomplishments this season. "They don't have the marquee names -– they might not have the Jose Reyeses and the Carlos Beltrans -– but they have good solid players that can get the job done," said probable NL MVP David Wright, who is close friends with fellow Virginian third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
Said Mets GM Omar Minaya, "I was with [the Nationals' franchise] when they were the Expos. We always tried to finish in first place, and then if we couldn't our goal was to finish at .500 -– but it's still a successful year [for them] not to play in last place."
The Mets attributed much of the Nats' success to manager Manny Acta, who spent the previous two years as third base coach in New York and whose work my colleague John Donovan recently analyzed on SI.com.
"I knew he was going to be a huge addition over there, and I think he's instilled into their minds that, Hey, although everybody else expects us to be at the bottom of the totem poll, we're not going to have that mindset," said Wright. "I think guys are feeding off Manny's energy and his beliefs. I think he's one of the best young minds in the game."
Added Minaya: "They're feisty, they play hard. It's a credit to Manny that they're doing all this. That's how I expect a Manny Acta team to play."
When the Phillies looked at their schedule before the season, they must have jumped for joy when they saw that six of their final nine games of the season would come against the Nationals. After seeing how well the Nats play the spoiler role, one doubts the Phils are currently as enthused. "When they're not playing us, I'm rooting for them," said Wright on Tuesday, with more than a little self-interest. "It definitely would be a nice springboard into next year if they can finish on a positive note."
Labels: NL East
NL East: D-Train Derailed
It's always a fun exercise to look back at one's fantasy draft and see how one did six months later -- as I did earlier this week with my effort with our impolitely mocked SI mock draft. Prince in the 10th round, Griffey in the 21st? Big money! (That's 74 homers and counting from those two). Josh Barfield in the 11th, Anibal Sanchez in the 16th, Jorge Cantu in the 17th and Mark Prior in the 20th? Whammy.
The one selection that really burns me, however, is the fellow I chose in the eighth round: Dontrelle Willis. At the time I wrote, "I considered Scott Kazmir, but D-Train's just more fun -- and far less injury-prone. Also, for the little it's worth, he excels in odd-numbered years (36-16 and 2.90 ERA in '03 and '05, 22-23 and 3.94 ERA in '04 and '06)." Well, perhaps I should have gone for a little less fun, a little less meaningless statistical modeling, and a little more Kazmir. Because -- and the numbers are pretty shocking -- Dontrelle Willis has this year been one of the worst pitchers in baseball.
This is a guy whom as recently as the '06 trading deadline I felt the Mets should have mortgaged the future (in the form of prospects Lastings Milledge and Mike Pelfrey) to acquire. And who knows -- had New York had last year's version of Willis (3.87 ERA) on board, perhaps they would have had enough pitching to get them past the not-exactly-mighty 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. We haven't been hearing much about his struggles, because we don't hear about much at all that happens baseball-wise in South Florida, but here are Willis' 2007 stats:
By any metric -- have you see the dude's ERA+? Egads! -- Willis has had an unspeakably awful year. What happened? Willis insists he's healthy ("I'm fine ... it's life," is all he's had to say on that subject), but has inexplicably had trouble controlling his fastball this year. Jimmy Rollins, a boyhood acquaintance of Willis from their days in Oakland, believes he's simply depressed from years of toil in Miami: "Just going out with nothing to play for ... you lose your zip and some of your concentration," said J-Roll -- who has expressed his desire to see Willis in Philly next season -- to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The worst-ase scenario for Willis is that the league has finally figured out that high leg kick delivery, much in the way they eventually figured out Hideo Nomo's twisting style and many others with funky approaches. However, I don't think that's the case -- Willis' stuff is too good for that, and he's had too many years of success. I'm inclined to believe Rollins' explanation -- for an energetic guy like Willis, who thrives on buzz and excitement, five years in Dolphin Stadium must be soul-deadening indeed.
It may well take a change of scenery -- to Philly or elsewhere -- for the D-Train to once again start chugging along.
Labels: NL East
NL East: The Wright Choice for MVP
I won a hotly contested race for seventh grade student council vice president thanks not only to a bogus promise to install a soda machine in the cafeteria, but to a campaign slogan which at that point in my life was the cleverest thing I’d ever thought up (and remains so, some of my readers would argue). “The Reiter choice is the right choice!” my supporters chanted, Donna Martin Graduates-style, as they carried me through the halls. Or so I prefer to remember.
The point of all this is, if David Wright wants to borrow my winning slogan for his NL MVP candidacy, I’ll gladly let him have it, even though there’s something tautological about "The Wright choice is the right choice." At this point we know that the league’s MVP will come from the NL East. It's a mortal lock; no fewer than five of the top ten vote-getters—in Wright, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Fungoes fave Hanley Ramirez -- should come from the offensively-loaded division (and I would also throw Jose Reyes and Chipper Jones, who is quietly second in the NL with a 1.003 OPS, into the mix). But even J-Roll, who still has a good chance to finish the season hitting .300 with 30 home runs, 30 steals, 200 hits, 100 RBI, 40 doubles, 20 triples, and 140 runs scored and was the subject of this colorful profile by Michael Bamberger in this week’s SI (love the detail that he uses Ryan Howard’s bat when facing off-speed pitchers), has done less for his team when it matters most than Mr. Wright.
In a second half in which the Mets struggled with a multitude of slumps and injuries, Wright elevated his game and is the biggest reason why New York has been able to hold off the surging Phillies, whom they currently lead by five games even though they were swept in a four-game series in Philly last week. Since the All-Star break, Wright has an NL-best .359 average; the second best OPS in the NL (1.057), better than Albert Pujols; 12 stolen bases, more than noted speedsters Dave Roberts, Willie Taveras and Brandon Phillips; 40 RBI, more than Adam Dunn and Miguel Cabrera; and 45 runs scored, second behind only the (mostly) leadoff-hitting Rollins and three more than his teammate Reyes.
As much as Rollins has done, Wright projects to finish with an average that’s 20 points higher, an OBP that’s more than 60 points higher, six more homers, 10 more RBI, and -- most surprisingly -- two more steals. Plus he’s doing it surrounded by a lineup that this season has been weaker than Rollins’.
I don’t mean to take anything away from what J-Roll has accomplished in 2007. He’s had a historic season, and has been a consistent force on a team that, like the Mets, has seen more than its share of slumps (Howard early on) and injuries (Utley, Shane Victorino). At this point, however, the MVP race comes down to this (and say it with me now): the Wright choice is the right choice.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Moan of the Braves
“This record keeps playing,” lamented John Smoltz on Tuesday night after the Braves dropped a 4-3 decision to the Marlins in 11 innings. “It seems like we can’t find a way to win a baseball game.”
I still believe that G.M. John Schuerholz did all the right things at the July 31 trade deadline in acquiring Octavio Dotel, Ron Mahay. Royce Ring and, of course, Mark Teixeira. Teixeira has been even better than advertised, with 10 home runs and 32 RBI (with an outstanding 1.080 OPS, second best in the NL this month) since his arrival – and he’s helped the Braves rank second in the league with 159 runs scored (5.89 per game) in August. While Dotel’s on the DL and Ring’s in Triple-A Richmond, Mahay leads the team with 15 August appearances and his 1.72 ERA has contributed mightily to the ‘pen’s 3.16 ERA in the month, third best in the NL.
However, what’s doomed the Braves since the deadline – and they’re 13-14 in August and now stand five games behind the Mets in the NL East and five out of the Wild Card – has been the one area which Schuerholz could not address at the deadline: the starting staff. It appears as if Schuerholz looked at the pitiable group of starters available and decided that none would be of help to him – and he was probably right, as none of the starters who ended up being dealt has done much: Kyle Lohse has one win in five starts for the Phillies; Matt Morris has a 4.65 ERA and a 1.516 WHIP for the Pirates. And the starter whom Schuerholz traded for Dotel, Kyle Davies, has been even worse (1-3, 7.48 ERA, 1.892 WHIP).
Schuerholz hoped that his suddenly stacked relief corps would take the burden off the starters – but the starters, apart from Smoltz and Tim Hudson, have been too dreadful for the bullpen’s stellar work to have any effect. The rotation has a 5.33 ERA this month – 13th in the NL and 25th overall – and has featured Lance Cormier (5.18 ERA in August), Buddy Carlyle (6.75), Jo-Jo Reyes (8.49) and the now-injured Chuck James (8.59).
Schuerholz should not be blamed for the Braves’ dog days struggles; he did the best he could to try to get this team to win, and win now. However, if the Braves fail to make the playoffs – a scenario that becomes more likely with each passing day, as the record spins ‘round and ‘round – the onus will fall squarely on the back end of their rotation.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Linked In
Just the links this week, as I dig out from a flurry of reader responses impugning Hanley Ramirez's defense:
Labels: NL East
NL East: Shortstop debate revisited
The best shortstop in baseball currently resides in the NL East. The only question at this point is: Which shortstop is it?
This season I've discoursed extensively on the division's glut of talent at the position. At the end of April I wrote a feature in SI on the troika of Hanley Ramirez, >Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins; at the end of May I looked at the reasons behind Rollins' month-long slump, from which he quickly broke out; and July brought a lambasting of Tony La Russa for leaving Ramirez and Rollins off the NL All-Star team. (I'm not quite sure why more than a month later I still hold an L.C.-on-Heidi-type grudge against La Russa for that, but I do).
I'm not apologizing, nor do I feel I've exhausted the topic. With all due respect to Derek Jeter -– and the Yankee Captain needs more respect about as much as he needs more winsome girlfriends -– the top four shortstops in the majors this season are all NL Easters, in Ramirez, Reyes, Rollins, and Edgar Renteria, who, lest you've forgotten during his stint on the DL with a sprained ankle, is hitting .336 with an .879 OPS, both career highs. (A fifth NL East shortstop, Washington's Cristian Guzman, was hitting .329 and appeared to be on his way to breaking out when a torn ligament in his left thumb ended his season on June 24).
For all his talents, though, Renteria does not quite possess the all-around chops of the others, so he finishes a very respectable fourth. Now, the stats for each of the top three so far this season, and their projected final numbers:
Jose Reyes, Mets
Current: .306 BA, .378 OBP, .459 SLG, 26 2B, 11 3B, 9 HR, 47 RBI, 86 R, 56 SB
Projected: .306 BA, .378 OBP, .459 SLG, 36 2B, 15 3B, 12 HR, 65 RBI, 119 R, 78 SB
Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
Current: .341 BA, .393 OBP, .574 SLG, 34 2B, 5 3B, 21 HR, 59 RBI, 90 R, 37 SB
Projected: .341 BA, .393 OBP, .574 SLG, 47 2B, 7 3B, 29 HR, 82 RBI, 126 R, 52 SB
Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
Current: .290 BA, .342 OBP, .523 SLG, 27 2B, 15 3B, 21 HR, 69 RBI, 100 R, 22 SB
Projected: .290 BA, .342 OBP, .523 SLG, 37 2B, 21 3B, 29 HR, 96 RBI, 138 R, 30 SB
A few things must be noted here. First, Rollins and Ramirez have this year spent significant time hitting third in the order, not leadoff -– 18 percent of Rollins' at-bats and 36 percent of Ramirez's have come in the three-hole -– while Reyes has taken every one of his hacks at the top of the order. Second, both Rollins and Ramirez play in offenses that are more productive than Reyes', Rollins especially so. However, it's hard make any conclusion after examining the numbers other than that Reyes now significantly trails Ramirez as the NL East's best shortstop -– and may be behind Rollins as well.
That fact might come as some surprise to some of the baseball men I interviewed for that SI shortstops piece, including Nats GM Jim Bowden, who said, "I love Hanley Ramirez, I love Jimmy Rollins, but Jose Reyes is the guy I would pick of the three ... He has the highest upside." And it might surprise you, unless you're one of the several hundred people who usually watch Marlins games. But check out the name at the top of the list on Baseball Prospectus' current VORP leaderboard, not just for shortstops, but for all positions.
Yes, BP's numbers say, Hanley Ramirez is now more irreplaceable than even Alex Rodriguez. Reyes' and Rollins' VORPs rank 16th and 23rd, respectively, as the BP algorithm appears to give equal weight to Reyes' unmatched disruptive ability on the basepaths and the run-generating prowess of Rollins, who has become a certifiable power hitter despite standing 5'8" -– that is, a single inch taller than David Eckstein.
In Ramirez's case, however, we're looking at one of the finest offensive seasons ever put together by a major league shortstop. His .967 OPS would be the 16th-best for a shortstop in MLB history; his 47 projected doubles would tie for 11th; his 83 extra base hits would tie for eighth (the only shortstops to hit more are Rodriguez, Robin Yount, Nomar Garciaparra, and Cal Ripken); his 52 steals would tie for 26th. Sure, his defense is questionable -– his 16 errors are the NL's second most, and his .791 zone rating is the league's worst -– but he's only in his second season, and that facet of his game should improve with experience.
In April, Bowden said of the deal that in essence brought Ramirez to Florida for Josh Beckett, "I think it was a great trade for both franchises. The Red Sox got an ace for the top of their rotation -– but they paid a big price." Even as Beckett excels in Boston this season, the Red Sox must be watching Julio Lugo flounder and wonder what might have been.
After all, they had the young man who is not just the finest shortstop in baseball, but possibly the game's best player, in their clutches, and they sent him away.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Viva La Revolucion
Paul Lo Duca spent half an hour last Sunday convincing manager Willie Randolph that his strained hamstring, which had caused him to miss the previous six games, felt well enough to catch Tom Glavine's latest attempt at 300 wins. Randolph finally relented, and Lo Duca was behind the plate for the entirety of Glavine's milestone. I must wonder, however, if Randolph's reticence stemmed from something more than concern for Lo Duca's health. Consider the stats lines for the Mets' top two backstops this season:
Paul Lo Duca: .266 avg., .308 OBP, 5 HR, 32 RBI, 19 XBH, 36 R
Ramon Castro: .290 avg., .333 OBP, 9 HR, 27 RBI, 15 XBH, 19 R
Then consider that the 31-year-old Castro has put up those numbers in 37 percent of the number of Lo Duca's at-bats -- 124 to 334. Lo Duca is on track for 528 at-bats this year; were Castro to see that many, he projects out to hit 38 home runs with 115 RBI. Lo Duca, meanwhile, is on pace for 8 and 51.
This is quite clearly something of a specious exercise for a number of reasons, not least of which is that as a backup catcher Castro gets plenty of rest and usually plays when the odds are stacked in his favor. In his ninth season, Castro has already set a career high in homers, and he's never hit better than .244 in a year in which he's had more than 100 plate appearances. It's unreasonable to think that Castro's power numbers would equal those of an in-his-prime Mike Piazza (whose stats at age 31 -- 38 HR, 113 RBI -- were almost identical to those I've just projected for Castro). But the fact that Castro would have a meaty leg up on Lo Duca if he performed at even half of his current pace over a full season is certainly food for thought.
Castro has some knocks against him, the most significant being that he's gunned down a pathetic two of 25 base-stealers this year, for an .080 success rate -- tied for the worst in baseball among players who've had more than eight chances. (A digression, as I peruse the leaderboard: Is it really possible that Jason Kendall, who threw out around 20 percent of base-stealers as an Athletic this year, has nailed none of the 24 gentlemen who have tried to steal off him since he became a Cub? Is ivy Kendall's Kryptonite or something?) Plus, Lo Duca's a clubhouse leader -- his puckish "Captain Red Ass" alter ego led to a mildly controversial SI cover last July -- and he's Brooklyn-born, to boot.
Still, Lo Duca's not exactly Pudge Rodriguez circa 2001 when it comes to stopping potential base-swipers -– his .266 success rate is firmly middle-of-the-pack -- and his offensive decline overshadows whatever defensive advantage he may hold over Castro. While it's doubtful that Castro will unseat Lo Duca this season -- although he probably should -- Lo Duca will become a free agent come autumn and Castro (who's also in his walk year) has done more than enough with his bat to give himself a real shot at becoming the catcher the Mets re-sign to start in 2008. Lo Duca's desperation to catch Glavine's 300th win may have resulted from the knowledge that his career in New York likely won't include many more highlights. I say: Viva La Revolucion.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Gradin' the Tradin'
Before Tuesday's trading deadline, the NL East was even busier than Lindsay Lohan's now-discarded alcohol-detecting anklet on a weeknight. Well, three-fifths of the division was busier; the Nationals (13 games back) seemed happy to accept their fate and wait for that new ballpark next year, and the Marlins (10 games back) seemed happy to accept their fate and wait for, I don't know, the Messiah? The division's three powers, however, were involved in many of the deadline's biggest moves—with rather different results.
So Salty wasn't exactly freed in the way his legion of supporters in Atlanta (and what I like to imagine to be a legion of supporters who read the Fungoes blog) would have hoped. Even so, GM John Schuerholz must be commended for his deadline efforts. What Schuerholz's moves tell me is this: He believes that this team can win the World Series, this year. He realizes that the window is closing, as his best two players are a 40-year-old John Smoltz and a 35-year-old Chipper Jones, and he was determined to give them the extra support to make a run at the second championship that has eluded him and them for so long. So he sacrificed his organization's second-best (Andrus), third-best (Harrison), 14th-best (Jones) and 18th-best (Feliz) prospects, according to Baseball America, to acquire a top-five first baseman, a strikeout-throwing eighth-inning reliever, and two quality bullpen lefties, when he had none. Schuerholz is going for it all, and he's going for it now -- and any Braves fan's got to love it, and any fan of the Braves‚ opponents has got to respect (and fear) the effort.
Mets Acquired 2B Luis Castillo from Twins for C Drew Butera and OF Dustin Martin.
Omar Minaya proved far less willing than Schuerholz to part with his top prospects (including outfielders Lastings Milledge and Carlos Gomez) for relief help in the form of Washington's dependable closer Chad Cordero, so the Mets' only deadline bounty is a new second baseman whose best days are well behind him, and who, I would argue, doesn't even represent much of an upgrade over Ruben Gotay. Minaya's said to be enamored with the triumverate of switch-hitters he now has atop the lineup -- Jose Reyes, Castillo, and Carlos Beltran.
However, what good is a switch-hitter if he can't really hit? Castillo currently boasts a .302 batting average, but he has no power (only 14 extra base hits, and zero home runs) and nowhere near the speed he used to (nine steals, after swiping 48 five years ago). In half the at-bats, Gotay has three fewer extra-base hits and a .350 average. Defensively, Castillo's .819 zone rating doesn't put him in the majors' top 10 -- and Gotay's just behind him, at .809. The name Brian Roberts (who might be the baseball's second best two-bagger behind Chase Utley) was being bandied about, and while we can't know how active talks between the Mets and Orioles actually were, it seems to me that Roberts would be worth a boatload of prospects and would have made a real difference in the Mets' fortunes. As it is, it's almost as if they didn't do anything at all.
Phillies GM Pat Gillick acquired a few useful pieces. He acted quickly and prudently in picking up Iguchi after Utley went down with a broken hand—even though Iguchi was hitting only .251 with Chicago, something's clearly rotten in the South Side this season and the change of scenery seems to have already done him good (he's at .467 so far in Philadelphia). We all know how desperately the Phillies need starting pitching, and this was obviously not a good year to trade for help in that arena at the deadline. Even so, Lohse has proven that he can be successful in the National League (don't forget that he was one of the NL's top starters in April (2.88 ERA) before falling dramatically back to earth thereafter. As it is, his current 4.58 mark, while unspectacular, is better than all the Phils, besides Cole Hamels, who have made more than 9 starts. Mateo represents a low-risk gamble.
Labels: NL East
NL East: King Cole
I was planning to write this blog entry about how Antonio Alfonseca's success as the Phillies' closer was being accomplished with smoke and mirrors, about how the club ought to immediately reinstall Tom Gordon (who's allowed one total base runner in his three post-DL appearances) in the role at least until Brett Myers returns from a strained right shoulder, which could happen as early as tomorrow. Yes, I was going to write, the big-bellied Alfonseca has managed eight saves and is something of a fan favorite in Philly, but he's striking out a miniscule 3.08 batters per nine innings (the second-worst current closer in the category, Detroit¹s Todd Jones, manages 4.89), he walks more batters than he fans (the only closer who does that), and he has a closer-worst WHIP (1.66) and batting average against (.312). That his ERA is only 4.26, I planned to contend, is something of a miracle.
Then, last night, the Washington Nationals of all teams (!) caught up with El Pulpo, scoring three earned runs off of him to take a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth without breaking a sweat. While the Phils' offense bailed Alfonseca out by tying the game in the bottom of the inning and winning it in the 14th, it became clear that some combination of Gordon and Myers will be closing games from here on in, at least until they both get hurt again S so, around 11 PM last night, a blog asserting that such a change should be made became pointless.
Instead, I'll write about the man who was robbed of his 12th win by Alfonseca's collapse, the pitcher whom I would choose first overall were I lucky enough to have the opportunity to select any in the National League to head my rotation for the next decade or so: the Phillies' 23-year-old southpaw ace, Cole Hamels.
With my sincere apologies to Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Brad Penny, and a few others, I believe that Hamels, in just his first full season in the majors, has emerged as the NL's most talented starter. Despite making half his starts in a ballpark that would make pitchers with lesser constitutions nauseous (Citizens Bank Park is this season the easiest place in baseball in which to hit a home run), Hamels' ERA ranks in the league's Top 20 and he's actually been better at home (3.42) than on the road (3.84). Part of the reason why he's so valuable to the Phillies is that opponents can't hit homers if they can't hit the ball, period and Hamels is three behind Aaron Harang for the NL strikeout lead. Even more important is that he seems to avoiding hitting the wall in the manner of so many young pitchers come mid-summer (see Justin Verlander last season); he's got a 2.67 ERA in four July starts.
Hamels' precocious stamina stems in part from the fact that he possesses the work ethic of a pitcher 10 years his senior. I was talking to him several weeks ago about his involved, self-driven daily routine: "On a gameday I normally get here around 2 P.M., which give me two hours to do shoulders, back, abs, what I need to do or myself. Probably four or five guys get here that early," he said. Reliever Geoff Geary, who was then Hamels' locker mate, interjected. "This guy's unbelievable," Geary said sincerely. "I've never seen anyone work like he does."
That ethic has overwhelmed any concerns about Hamels' character that were raised as a result of a few youthful indiscretions, including a bar fight in Clearwater, Florida that left him with a broken pitching hand two winters ago. Indeed, in person, Hamels comes across as more mellow surfer than adrenaline-crazed brawler, more John From Cincinnati than Deadwood.
He expresses what appears to be a genuine sense of humility. "Because of the types of pitches I have in my repertoire, I know that I can strike guys out, and it's fun," he says. "But even so, I'm surprised as any that I'm around the top of the leaderboard, because some of the names on that list, I'm in disbelief that I'm at their level. I used to watch [Jake] Peavy, he's phenomenal, he was just starting in San Diego when I was still [in high school] there. John Smoltz, [former Phillies teammate] Randy Wolf. There's a bunch of guys that can just blow people away."
Hamels is also unfazed when asked if any batter owns him, a question that might make other young aces indignant. "Miguel Cabrera," he says quickly. "I think he's batting .800 off me [actually .750]. From what I've seen, I think he probably has the best hand-eye coordination in the game, besides Barry Bonds. Just the way he can stay back on a ball that's either 94 or 80, he¹s still able to wait for it."
Seriously, though, being humble only gets one so far: the biggest reason why I'd pick Hamels going forward is because he long ago mastered a dominating strikeout pitch his changeup. Remember, Johan Santana, who is widely agreed to possess baseball's best change, didn't even begin to get the hang of the pitch until he was Hamels' age, when he was sent down to Triple-A Edmonton to work with guru Bobby Cuellar. Hamels has been throwing a circle change since his high school coach, Mark Furtak, taught it to him at age 14.
I'm not suggesting that Hamels has nothing to work on; even though we'll cut him some slack due to his home park, he still allows way too many home runs (an NL-high 22), a tendency that causes him to get lit up once in awhile he's allowed five earned runs in a game three times this season. However, when push comes to shove, I'm still on the Cole Patrol.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Catching up with Mo
Four years later, the man who remains the face of the overspending, underperforming pre-Minayan New York Mets is in many ways even more upset about the abrupt end of his career than is the legion of long-suffering Shea-goers.
For a story that appeared in SI’s recent “Where Are They Now” issue, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Mo Vaughn . Vaughn could write a primer on how an athlete ought to live his life once the cheering stops; he’s the antithesis of Everybody’s All-American. Shortly after he realized in 2003 that the arthritis and chronic pain in his left knee would never again allow him to play baseball effectively -- let alone at an MVP level -- he turned his full attention to Omni NY, the company (which he formed with his former lawyer, Eugene Schneur) under whose auspices he rehabilitates and manages long-neglected low-income housing developments.
Business is booming: Vaughn’s company already owns 10 developments containing thousands of apartments, and provides clean, secure housing for residents desperately in need of it while, yes, making a profit. And they have plans to expand rapidly, to places such as Las Vegas, Miami and Massachusetts. However, all that hard-earned and socially-conscious success doesn’t mean that Vaughn has completely moved on from his days on the diamond.
“I grew up 40 miles north of New York City, in Norwalk, Connecticut, and I came to the Mets -- back to my hometown -- to win a World Series,” Vaughn, who was traded to New York in December 2001 for Kevin Appier, told me as we drove in his new black Range Rover from one of his developments in Yonkers to another in the Bronx. “All of a sudden, it doesn’t work out like that. As great as what I’m doing now is, I don’t think it’ll ever be like baseball -- but like I’ve always said, you have to know when to get out.”
Although Vaughn, who looks as if he’s gained not an ounce of fat nor lost an ounce of muscle since his playing days, says that he remains in regular contact with former teammates and opponents (including Garrett Anderson, Cliff Floyd, David Ortiz and Frank Thomas), he hasn’t been able to bring himself to attend a game since his retirement. “I haven’t come up with a way to go just yet, I think I would miss it too much,” he explains. “I watch [the Mets] on TV, but I haven’t actually been to a ballpark. I don’t think I’m ready to do that yet, but I might go to the playoffs at Shea this year.”
Vaughn bristles at the notion that he might feel guilty about earning so much money while he sat on the bench (some $34 million in `03 and `04, according to baseball-reference.com, when he totaled 79 at-bats and three homers). "You can’t take away from me what I did do," he says. At the same time, he's surprisingly honest in assessing his place in baseball history. He admits, “I think Albert Belle should have won MVP” in 1995, when Vaughn nipped the Indians' slugger by one first-place vote. "Fifty home runs, 50 doubles. Maybe I was a little bit nicer."
Here’s his equally realistic view of his chances of election to the Hall of Fame, for which he’ll become eligible in 2009: "Never make it."
While fans in Flushing, with those elephantine memories of theirs, may never fully get past the fact that Vaughn hit only 29 homers and drove in less than 100 runs in an ephemeral Mets career for which it only seems as if the team’s still paying, it might come as some solace to know that Vaughn’s just as devastated about how things turned out as they are -- and that he’s now contributing to their community in ways that are likely deeper and longer-lasting.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Midseason Grades
Were the National League East a high school English class, it would drive its teacher batty. It would feature a bunch of students who have all the talent in the world, but appear to be satisfied to sit in the back row, passing notes and goofing off, and turn in Cliffs Notes-driven papers that are perfectly fine, but uninspired. Then it would feature the dunce who, even though he tries so gosh darn hard, still writes book reports that includes major revelations such as, “Holden Caulfield ain’t the mellowest dude around” and “Edmond Dantes is best known for inspiring a mighty delicious-tasting sandwich.”
How do you assign grades to a class like that? Well, you take out your massive "B" rubber stamp, ink it up five times, and head out to drown your frustrations (and maybe chat up that cute hippie art instructor) at teachers’ happy hour. Next semester, you pray, will be better.
New York Mets
Record: 48-39, 1st place
Runs Scored: 394 (10th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 371 (5th in NL)
What went wrong: The one aspect of the team about which no one worried during the off-season -- its offensive firepower -- has proven surprisingly troublesome. That at the All-Star break a club that features Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado and finished a 15-9 April ranked third in the majors in runs scored (132) now stands in baseball’s bottom third in the category must be considered a significant disappointment. Much of the problem stems from middle of the order’s continued inability to drive in runners in scoring position; as a team the Mets are hitting only .252 (seventh lowest in baseball) in such situations, and are even worse (.223) with men in scoring position and two outs.
What went right: One aspect of the team about which everyone worried during the off-season -- its Pedro-less pitching staff -- has proven surprisingly capable. The Mets rank fifth in the majors in both starters’ ERA (4.05) and overall staff ERA (3.91). John Maine, who rightly should have pitched in last night’s All Star Game, has emerged as a true ace: his 2.71 ERA is fourth in the NL, and he’s been consistent, with 13 quality starts in 17 outings. Pitching guru Rick Peterson has also worked his mojo with Oliver Perez (7-6, 3.14) and Jorge Sosa (7-3, 3.92), and even with wily vets like El Duque (4-4, 3.22) and Tom Glavine (7-6, 4.36). The bullpen, headed by All-Star Billy Wagner and middlemen Pedro Feliciano and Joe Smith, has been extremely efficient.
What’s next: Despite a 14-19 mark since June 1, even a Mets team that continues to underachieve offensively should have enough to take the NL East. However, their hitters should eventually progress to their career means with runners in scoring position, and the return from the DL of Moises Alou (and the possible promotion of injured prospect Lastings Milledge) will also boost them offensively. And of course, around the end of August, a certain jheri curl should once again be gracing the mound at Shea. Despite their first half struggles, Willie Randolph’s group remains the division’s favorite.
Record: 47-42, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 409 (6th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 408 (8th in NL)
What went wrong: The Braves have yet to come up with a suitable rotational replacement for Mike Hampton, who went down for the season in spring training. In 11 starts, the combination of Mark Redman, Anthony Lerew, Jo Jo Reyes, and Lance Cormier has gone 0-8, and none has an ERA under 7.70. Buddy Carlyle (3-2, 4.50 ERA) has been solid of late -- but now John Smoltz is on the DL with inflammation in his pitching shoulder, and they’re once again in need of another starter who won’t ensure an automatic L. In any event, fourth starter Kyle Davies (4-7, 5.50) hasn’t exactly been setting the league aflame. Meanwhile, Andruw Jones, despite being in a contract year, ranks fifth in the majors with 87 strikeouts and is hitting .211.
What went right: Last season’s major trouble spot -- the bullpen -- has been rectified in a big way. While Braves relievers compiled a 4.39 ERA and blew 29 saves in 2006, this year they’re at 3.69 (6th in the NL) and have blown only seven. Even though import Mike Gonzalez is out for the season and underwent Tommy John surgery, fellow newcomer Rafael Soriano has picked up the slack with a miniscule 0.83 WHIP, and Australia native Peter Moylan has been equally excellent (2.12 ERA). Braves hitters have been as good in the clutch as their Mets counterparts have been bad: They’re hitting .280 with runners in scoring position, second best in the NL, led by Edgar Renteria (.355 in such situations) and Jeff Francoeur (.340).
What’s next: An MRI on Smoltz’s shoulder last Friday showed no structural damage -- although it remains to be seen how quickly his 40-year-old joint will recover. The Braves’ fortunes seem to be tied to that of their ace. If he returns soon, Atlanta should remain in the thick of the Wild Card race (they’re currently two games behind the Dodgers). If he doesn’t, despite the outstanding years being compiled by Chipper Jones, Renteria, Francoeur, Kelly Johnson, and several others, it seems unlikely there will be any Tomahawk Chopping come October.
Record: 44-44, 3rd place
Runs Scored: 456 (1st in NL)
Runs Allowed: 463 (16th in NL)
What went wrong: Take a look at that “Runs Allowed” total and guess: the Phillies, quite simply, have the worst pitching in the National League. Apart from young Cole Hamels, their starters have been awful (the rotation’s ERA is nearly 5.00), and the staff, bedeviled by the bandbox that is Citizens Bank Park, has allowed a stunning 118 home runs (a dozen more than the team has hit).
What went right: Take a look at that “Runs Scored” total and guess: the Phillies, quite simply, have the best offense in the National League. Midseason MVP candidate Chase Utley (.325, 15 HR, 68 RBI), Ryan Howard (21 HR, 67 RBI), Jimmy Rollins (16 HR, 53 RBI, 15 SB) and Aaron Rowand (.310, 11 HR, 43 RBI) could have all made the All-Star Game (Utley and Rowand were selected), and role players such Greg Dobbs and rookie catcher Carlos Ruiz have made fine contributions.
What’s next: You might expect a team that scores 5.18 runs per game and allows 5.26 runs per game to be just around .500 … and you’d be right. Their offense cannot score enough runs to make up for their underachieving pitchers, and with Freddy Garcia apparently out for the season with a shoulder injury, and with the likelihood that few quality arms will be available at the trade deadline, that doesn’t appear as if it will change. Even the one storyline that makes the Phils worth following -- when the franchise will become the first in pro sports to reach 10,000 losses -- is soon to exhaust itself: they’re only one away. I’m guessing it will happen on Sunday evening, when Jamie Moyer – who’s actually Philly’s second best starter -- faces the Cardinals.
Record: 42-47, 4th place
Runs Scored: 424 (4th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 457 (15th in NL)
What went wrong: The Marlins are giving games away with their shoddy fielding. Their 73 errors lead the National League, and the infield has been particularly bad: third baseman Miguel Cabrera and shortstop Hanley Ramirez lead the NL in errors at their positions, with 13 and 16 respectively, and Dan Uggla has demonstrated Britney Spears-like range at second. All those booted balls explain why the staff ranks five spots higher in the NL in ERA (10th – 4.55) than in runs allowed. Despite an odd lack of run support, former Cub Sergio Mitre (3-4, 2.85 ERA in 15 starts) has been the rotation’s lone bright spot; ace Dontrelle Willis has struggled to a 7-7 record with a 4.72 ERA, and things just get worse from there.
What went right: Want to know why Cabrera, Ramirez and Uggla remain will continue to comprise the majority of the Marlins’ starting infield, no matter how many fielding miscues they make? It’s because they all knock the seams off the ball with their bats. Cabrera is on pace to hit .324 with 33 homers and 113 RBI; Ramirez has a .926 OPS from the leadoff spot and is second in the NL in runs scored (70); and Uggla ranks third in the league in runs (67), and may become the first player to hit 60 doubles since 1936. Left fielder Josh Willingham gives the Marlins four players in the NL’s top 41 in OPS
What’s next: With starter Josh Johnson, who allowed only two combined earned runs in his third and fourth starts after returning from an irritated ulnar nerve on June 18, back on the DL, the Marlins are in a similar boat as the Phillies: they can’t hit enough to compensate for their uneven pitching (and, in their case, their shaky glovework). Were Johnson healthy, they might have been able to challenge the Braves for the Wild Card -- after all, he went 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA last season. Without him, they’re sunk.
Record: 36-52, 5th place
Runs Scored: 326 (16th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 434 (11th in NL)
What went wrong: As anticipated by everyone, the Nats aren’t really very good at anything. Spring training’s Great Starting Pitcher Derby hasn’t resulted in much, and scads of injuries haven’t helped: only one of the nine men who have started games for the Nats thus far, Matt Chico, currently qualifies for the ERA title (and his 4.39 ain’t winning the thing), and the rotation as a whole has a 5.21 ERA and an MLB-worst 260 strikeouts. Only two hitters who have played more than 45 games are batting above .259, and the team has hit seven fewer home runs (54) than baseball’s second most powerless club, Kansas City. Washington’s one of two teams with an OPS below .700, and, at .678, they’re not even that close.
What went right: Four months ago, Dmitri Young was wallowing in Nats minor league camp in Viera, Florida, considered by the team to be too overweight to compete for the first base job with the likes of Larry Broadway (who is currently hitting .204 for Triple-A Columbus). Last night, Young played in the All-Star Game after a first half in which he hit .339 -- third-best in the NL. Young’s performance, along with that of Ryan Church (who’s on pace for 45 doubles) and Ryan Zimmerman (who after a miserable start is on pace for 26 homers and 83 RBI), is a big reason why the Nats have scored the few runs than they have and are not currently baseball’s worst team (that would be the 34-53 Devil Rays). An even bigger reason might be the performance of the bullpen. Despite being terribly overworked (a majors-high 321.1 IP), the unit has a sub-4.00 ERA, thanks mostly to the fine work of Jesus Colome, Saul Rivera, Jon Rauch, and closer Chad Cordero.
What’s next: The big question for Nats fans: Can their club stay beneath the century mark in losses? They’re currently on track for 96. That modest achievement could create some goodwill as the team opens its new ballpark next spring -- which is, I suspect, where most Washingtonians are already gazing.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Short Stopped
This season the National League East features four All-Star shortstops. Unfortunately, it appears that only one of them -- Jose Reyes -- will play in Tuesday's All-Star Game in San Francisco.
Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins, Florida's Hanley Ramirez, and Atlanta's Edgar Renteria were all snubbed by manager Tony La Russa when he put together his portion of the NL team's reserve roster. Renteria's having a season on par with that of the American League's starter, Derek Jeter, but in an NL shortstop pool as deep and talented as this year’s, he never really had a shot at making the team despite hitting .321 with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs, so we can cut him out of the discussion from the start.
I firmly believe, however, that La Russa made a terrible error -- bordering on the absurd -- in omitting both Rollins and Ramirez after the Fan and Player Ballots were complete. In fact, I would argue that both men deserve to be on the team over the fine shortstop that the players chose to back up Reyes at short, Milwaukee's J.J. Hardy.
Hardy's having a career year, hitting .283 with 18 home runs, 52 RBIs and an .856 OPS -- even if he's managed only three homers and driven in just six runs since June 1. But Rollins and Ramirez hold the top two spots in the league in runs scored, with 69 and 66, respectively, while Hardy has managed 48. Despite the fact that both Rollins and Ramirez most often bat leadoff, Rollins has only three fewer home runs than Hardy and two fewer RBIs, and Ramirez tops Hardy in OPS by more than 30 points (.889 to .856) and in batting average by nearly 40 (.320 to .283).
Then there's the matter of speed: both Ramirez (25 steals) and Rollins (15) have literally infinity times more stolen bases than Hardy, who has totaled zero. Ramirez and Rollins are two of the very best, most disruptive offensive forces in the game today; Hardy's a guy who had a hot two months.
Even though the players made his situation a bit more difficult by selecting Hardy as Reyes' first backup, La Russa could (and should) have easily carried Hardy, Rollins and Ramirez on the team. It's almost inexplicable that La Russa chose Aaron Rowand -- a player from Rollins' own club -- as a seventh outfielder over Rollins as a third shortstop, or that he picked Freddy Sanchez, whose main credential seems to be that he led the NL in batting average last season, as a third third baseman over Ramirez. (And if La Russa was looking for a player to represent the Pirates, he should have gone with starting pitchers Tom Gorzelanny or Ian Snell over the ridiculous three closers he ended up choosing, bringing the staff's total up to six.).
A manager selecting his All-Star Game reserve roster should start with a group of core players who absolutely must be included, position and other considerations be damned. That La Russa failed to select Rollins or Ramirez, or, for that matter, San Diego's Chris Young, who leads the league in ERA (2.00) but will be forced to try to win the fan vote to make the "Final Vote" as the 25th man, might speak to why the Cardinals are 38-43 in the NL Central this season.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Salt in the Wound
Jarrod Saltalamacchia remains best known for making William Van Landingham, Todd Hollandsworth, Tim Spooneybarger and 11 others eat his 14-lettered dust when the Braves summoned him from Double-A Mississippi on May 2, his 22nd birthday. In the seven weeks since, however, baseball's answer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh has assaulted far more than the tongues of neophytes who attempt to pronounce his last name. After 68 at-bats, Salty's hitting .324 with an OPS of .841, with 2 home runs and 8 RBI.
So far, the only team that's been able to consistently stop Saltalamacchia has been his own. Atlanta is presently the second-worst organization after Minnesota in which to be a hot, young catching prospect; just like Joe Mauer, 23-year-old rising star Brian McCann isn't going anywhere soon. But the Braves, unlike the Twins, don't have a reigning MVP manning the position to which an athletic catcher has traditionally best been able to switch: first base.
Current starter Scott Thorman may rank fourth among Canadians with 30 RBI (after Justin Morneau, Jason Bay and Russell Martin), but he's only 12th among NL first basemen, and his .718 OPS is 15th among NL 1B's with more than 120 at-bats. While Thorman, who's hitting .235 overall, is basically a rookie himself (he had 128 at-bats last season), he has yet to demonstrate the type of run production the Braves need from the first base position. His defense alone hasn't been nearly good enough to merit keeping him in the everyday lineup.
Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz have proven themselves willing to gamble that a player will be able to pick up a new position in order to get his bat in the mix. They've had great success so far this year with outfielder-turned-second-baseman Kelly Johnson, whose talents have been mentioned before in this space and who continues to play above-average defense. And, they have begun experimenting with putting Saltalamacchia next to Johnson on the right side of the infield. He started there on back-to-back nights last week, against two of baseball's best lefties in Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia, and made it through both games without an error.
The thinking seems to be that the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia will play first against southpaws, and will otherwise spell McCann behind the plate once a week or so. Thorman has indeed been terrible against lefthanders, against whom he's hitting .189 with no homers and 3 RBI in 53 at bats, while Saltalamacchia has hit .324 with 2 homers and 4 RBI in 34 similar at bats. But it's not as if Thorman has been giving righthanders bad dreams -- he's at .262 with a sub-.300 OBP against them, while Salty's at .303/.395.
Unless Saltalamacchia's first base defense proves to be a complete disaster (and it might) his bat's too good for him to remain a backup catcher and lefties-only first sacker. He should, in the next few weeks, work his way into the lineup nearly every day, even with McCann a mainstay behind the plate.
As for Thorman? Well, Cox sure could use a fifth starter...
The NL East Fungoes will feature a guest blogger next week, as I'll be off in Croatia researching the ancestry of baseball's most famous Croat-descended player, Mr. Roger Eugene Maras (you might know him as Roger Maris) -- although Adriatic beaches may also be involved. Anyone know of a good spot to catch the Nats/Pirates series in Dubrovnik?
Labels: NL East
NL East: A Mets' mess?
Perhaps Mets fans should start keeping their thumb-worn copies of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy next to their televisions, as a constant reminder of Douglas Adams' famous mantra: DON'T PANIC.
Just as the crosstown Yanks have awakened from a slumber that consumed their first two months of the season, June is shaping up to be a mensis horribilis for Flushing's finest. They've lost 10 of 12 this month, dropping all four series they've played so far -- and they appear to be struggling in all facets of the game simultaneously.
After an April in which they ranked third in the majors in runs (132, or 5.5/game), third in OPS (.809) and first in ERA (2.96), in June the Mets through yesterday stood 25th in runs (37, or 3.4/game), 25th in OPS (.667), and 26th in ERA (5.05).
The nadir, they must hope, came Tuesday night, when Dodgers starter Hong-Chi Kuo -- he of the one career previous hit -- slugged a mammoth blast off John Maine (which was, in fact, L.A.'s third homer in three Maine pitches), and flipped his bat away, Manny-style, as if he was disgusted that Maine would deign to throw him -- Hong-Chi Kuo! -- such junk.
Here's the thing, though, Mets fans: Your boys remain in great shape. Despite their struggles, they still have a two game lead in the tough NL East, and at 36-28 are one game off of having the best record in the league. They also remain the most talented and well-rounded team in the NL.
The staff is still, by-and-large, performing well. Remove the back-to-back stinkers Tom Glavine and Oliver Perez threw last weekend against the Tigers, who are the hottest offensive team in the league right now, and the club's June ERA would stand at 3.55. A rejuvenated El Duque (2.38 ERA on the season, 3.09 in June) has been pitching like he's a lad of 46 again. Maine, despite getting KO'd (or is it Kuo'd?) on Tuesday night, allowed only two earned runs in each of his two previous June starts; and Jorge Sosa's been the best of the bunch recently, surrendering just one earned run in earning the Mets' only two June wins before suffering through a pair of bad innings against the Dodgers last night.
The even-better news for Mets pitchers is that by late summer, Sosa may be spearheading the team's relief corps; all that Pedro Martinez, who threw 50 pitches off the mound in Port St. Lucie on Tuesday, will be asked to do when he returns is pitch like the best fourth starter in the NL, which shouldn't be a terribly difficult task.
The Mets' offensive woes have been slightly more pernicious. It must be noted that through yesterday the outfield combination of Carlos Gomez, Ben Johnson, Endy Chavez and David Newhan (who have hit three homers between them in 2007), had twice as many June at-bats as did the Opening Day starting trio of Carlos Beltran, Shawn Green and Moises Alou. (For more on Alou's possible return, see the links below). But the Mets' real bugaboo -- and this has been a season-long issue -- has been their situational hitting. As a team, New York is hitting only .250 with runners in scoring position, and the worst offenders have been the sluggers the Mets count on most to get those big hits: David Wright (.217 with RISP), Carlos Delgado (.197), and Beltran (.237).
That the Mets still rank 12th in runs scored overall with their three RBI leaders struggling so badly with men on second and/or third speaks to just how talented an offensive ball club they actually are. It would be foolish to think that that talented triumverate will continue to scuffle so badly in the clutch; after all, in the previous three seasons combined Wright hit .325 with RISP, Delgado .296 and Beltran .293.
Manager Willie Randolph, stoic in both the best and worst of times, is aware that all he has to do is wait for his three giants, and his team at large, to wake up. They've got too much talent not to. "It's what I know about winning baseball and the season, it ebbs and flows," Randolph said the other day.
Right now, the Mets' fortunes are at a definite ebb. Before you know it, they'll be flowing once more.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Nationals Celebration
It's official: we can no longer rely upon the Washington Nationals as a go-to punch line here at the Fungoes blog.
Four Wednesdays ago, the Nats stood at 9-25 after suffering their eighth straight loss, putting them on pace to go 43-119, and seemed certain to fulfill the destiny predicted for them by experts everywhere as one of history's most putrid teams. But a funny thing has happened since then: they've started to play competitive baseball. The Nats won 14 of 21 immediately after that eight game slide, and are now 24-35. Yes, they're still on track to lose 96 games, but suddenly they're not baseball's worst team (that would be the Rangers, at 21-37). Nor are they baseball's second-worst team, nor even the third-worst (the Royals and Reds are both 22-38).
There are still certain things that the Nats' collection of journeymen and cast-offs can't do: they can't score (28th in runs); they can't make contact (28th in batting average); they can't hit for power (28th in extra base hits); they can't field (6th highest error total); they can't find good starting pitching (26th in starters' ERA, 29th in starters' wins). But here are four reasons why the Nats might not reach the century-mark in losses after all.
1. The Bullpen
Thanks to an unsettled and injury-plagued starting staff, Washington's bullpen has thrown more innings (305.2) than any other—and they've been more than up to the task, ranking tenth in ERA (3.84) and fourth in wins (10). One reason for their success is that they expected to be overworked. "It's something we dealt with last year too," closer Chad Cordero told me during spring training. "We had a couple spans last year where the bullpen had to come in the third or fourth inning a couple games in a row. We're used to it." Jesus Colome, who was released by the Devil Rays last April, has been a revelation in middle relief: after a team-high 30 appearances, he boasts a 2.37 ERA, and his win total of four exceed that of any Nats starter.
Want to know why lightening-fast leadoff man Felipe Lopez, who stole 44 bases last season, has swiped only six this year? It's because the Nats have become the most conservative group in Washington outside the American Enterprise Institute: they've attempted only 27 steals all year, second fewest in baseball. "I don't want to start doing a bunch of crazy stuff or be running all over the place, so people say I'm aggressive, but in the end I'm hurting myself," new manager Manny Acta said in spring training. "We have to run the bases better—we were first in caught stealing last year, and those are things that don't help you." With runs at a premium, Acta's Nats are gambling themselves out of innings no longer—and that cautious, station-to-station style has helped them go 12-8 in one-run games.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's a known quantity, and leads the team in RBI even after a slow start. But the big news is that 28-year-old Ryan Church (.271, 6 HR, 27 RBI) finally seems to have put things together: I was shocked the other day in Philadelphia to look up at the NL doubles leaders they posted on the scoreboard and see Church's name at number four, sandwiched between Matt Holliday and Derek Lee.
4. Diamonds in the rough
One team's trash is apparently the Nats' treasure. Ronnie Belliard and Tony Batista have been surprisingly serviceable in Washington, but Dmitri Young, who ran (or ate?) himself out of Detroit last September, has been the real find. He's seventh in the NL in OBP (.379) and eighth in batting (.319), thanks in large measure to a June in which he hit .397. When (and if) regular first bagger Nick Johnson finally returns from a broken right femur, the Nats might have to deal with a situation to which they can't be accustomed: a glut of talent at a single position.
"They have a good team," said a straight-faced Jamie Moyer the other day. "To me, even when they weren't playing well in the beginning of the season, they were no pushover." For the 2006 Washington Nationals, not being a pushover is an achievement in itself.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Hall of Famers?
For all of the preternaturally talented hitters who reside in the National League East, the division contains only one who, based on numbers alone, can right now start making notes for his Hall of Fame induction speech. No other division, according to baseball-reference.com's Hall of Fame Monitor, boasts fewer than three: the NL West has five (Barry Bonds, Todd Helton, Nomar Garciaparra, Omar Vizquel, and Jeff Kent); the AL East has four (Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Frank Thomas and Manny Ramirez), as does the AL West (Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro); and the AL Central (Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and Jim Thome) and the NL Central (Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols and Craig Biggio) feature three apiece. In the NL East, though, only Braves slugger Chipper Jones makes the cut.
Of course, the NL East features at least a half-dozen hitters (including Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Ryan Howard, and even Brian McCann and Ryan Zimmerman) who could, should they continue to rake at their current pace for another decade or so, end up in Cooperstown; but in most of those cases, it's way too early -– even laughably early -– for that sort of thinking.
With all due respect to Moises Alou, only two of the division's veteran hitters currently stand right on the cusp of Hall of Fame stature: Andruw Jones of the Braves and Carlos Delgado of the Mets. Here's a rundown of the candidacies of each, as well as my prediction as to which will make it and which won't:
Andruw Jones, 30 years old
Career stats: 12 seasons, .265 avg., 350 HR, 1057 RBI, .345 OBP
I recently lost a bet with a friend about Jones's career home run total; I put him at just under 300. In fact, he's somewhat quietly been one of the more consistent power hitters in baseball for the past nine seasons, hitting 29 bombs or more in eight of those. His batting average will hurt him with voters, as will the fact that he's had only one truly dominant season (2005, when he hit 51 homers, drove in 128 runs, and finished second in the MVP voting). That he's been regarded as the best center fielder in baseball for a decade will surely help.
Carlos Delgado, 35 years old
Career stats: 15 seasons, .281 avg., 414 HR, 1319 RBI, .388 OBP
Delgado's hit 30 homers or more in 10 straight seasons, but he's never hit more than 44, and even after his two-dinger day on Tuesday is on pace for only 23 this year. For all his consistency, he's made only two All-Star games (2000 and 2003, when he finished second in the AL MVP voting). His defense can charitably be described as average at best.
Verdict: While both rank with the best sluggers of their generation, Jones will likely be the one to reach the Hall. Jones had both the skill and good fortune to become a big leaguer at 19, giving him a significant head start on Delgado, who didn't play on a full-time basis until he was 24. While Delgado should easily reach 500 home runs, that number won't ensure automatic induction into the Hall by the time he retires. Jones, at his current pace, could reach 500 by the time he's 34, and has a real shot at 600 or more. Combine that power with his defensive excellence, and Jones should soon rank with his teammate Chipper as a Cooperstown shoo-in.
• Even better than Delgado's two homers in Tuesday's 12 inning Mets/Giants thriller? Everyone's favorite ESPN sideline reporter worked the game -– at least, whoever made this video thinks it was better.
• The big problem with the Nats plan to add "one or two free agents in the $5 million to $7 million range" next season is that free agents who cost that much are rarely any good, writes Chris Needham at Capitol Punishment.
• Fun interview by our boys at Baseball Prospectus with old Marlins manager "Trader" Jack McKeon.
• Talking Chop has a rundown of the web presences of various Brave players –- the most interesting part being that Pete Orr actually has a regularly-updated fan site.
• The Phillies will apparently give anyone a shot in their attempt to address their pitching woes.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Can Jimmy Get Rollin'?
Twenty-seven days ago, on April 27, Jimmy Rollins blasted his NL-leading ninth home run in the bottom of the eighth inning off Marlins' reliever Taylor Tankersley. After that swing of the bat, which came in the season's 22nd game, the Phillies shortstop was hitting .289 with an OPS 1.016 to go with 23 runs scored and 17 RBIs. J-Roll, quite simply, was rolling.
I happen to have been in the Phillies clubhouse on April 27, hours before that ninth homer, and Rollins attributed his hot start to changes he made in his diet over the offseason. "I went from eating white rice to brown rice," he explained, "and my portions were a lot smaller. I ate more fish and chicken, rather than beef -- and I love beef." Rollins said that in the past he's begun the season weighing between 178 and 185 pounds, but wouldn't really hit his stride until he'd whittled himself down to between 170 and 173. "If I get outside of that, my stomach gets in the way, my legs feel heavy," he said. "Right now I'm 172, and I feel great."
I doubt that Rollins has since then been loading up his rice-cooker with the white stuff, or been making daily trips down to Geno's Steaks, but since that day, something has changed. Rollins remains stuck on nine homers -- he's driven in only 10 more runs, scored 12, and, after a 1 for 6 performance last night, his average has dipped to .265. What happened?
It now seems clear that the Phillies panicked after their rough start and began to hope that Rollins -- who had never hit more than 14 homers in a season before last year's 25 -- had suddenly become the slugger that his April indicated. In fact, on May 9, the day after Ryan Howard was hobbled by a strained quadriceps, Rollins, who had taken 1,339 of his 1,366 at-bats the previous two seasons from the leadoff spot, became their regular three-hole hitter. The results speak for themselves. Rollins is now 10 of 52 (.192), with one extra-base hit (a double) when batting third.
While Rollins' struggles began before he was shifted down the lineup, he may have just been naturally regressing to the mean. As fine a hitter as he is, he wasn't going to hit 50 homers (in fact, I can't name a 172-pounder who's come close). That regression been exacerbated by his new position in the batting order. At the time of the switch, Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel explained, "I liked his bat there. Ryan's not playing. [Rollins] can go right in that three-hole." Manuel's intimation that Rollins' bat could in some way replace Howard's gets to the heart of the problem. While the homers were nice, Rollins' game is to get on base, to go from first to third, to make his teammates' jobs easier by disrupting opposing pitchers‚ rhythms, and, most importantly, to score runs. He's ranked in baseball's top seven run-scorers in each of the past three seasons, the only player besides Albert Pujols to have done so. Suddenly, though, the Phillies are expecting him not to just score runs, but to produce them. It's not working.
The irony in all this is that the Phillies have been playing slightly better baseball since Rollins began to scuffle: they were 10-12 through April 27, and 13-11 since then. But while Aaron Rowand is hitting .327 with a .398 OBP overall, he's at .263 and .293 as the new regular leadoff man, and Rollins is struggling even worse in the three-hole.
Now that Howard seems as if he'll return any day (he hit a three-run bomb yesterday with Class A Lakewood), the Phillies would be wise to let Rollins roll once again where he can maximize his contributions. In an NL East that features what are likely the two best teams in the league in the Mets and the Braves, the Phillies' only hope for a playoff berth may rest with once again allowing Rollins to do what he does best: bat leadoff.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Interleague Daze
Interleague play's just a day away! Are you psyched? Are you sitting on your couch, eagerly watching the seconds tick away on the Studio 60-style countdown clock you've installed above your TV, checking and rechecking your DVR to make sure it's set to record every glorious minute of action that will occur when the team you support faces -– get this -– a team that you do not support that doesn't even play in the same league?
If the prospect of watching Byung-Hyun Kim (1-2, 10.50 ERA) and the Marlins clash with Edwin Jackson (0-5, 6.82) and the Devil Rays -– in an intrastate rivalry game, no less! -– doesn't exactly fill you with Ralphie-on-Christmas-Morning anticipation, you're not alone. This week, Braves star Chipper Jones took the commissioner's office to task for the current interleague structure, in which teams must play their often tenuously defined "rivals" six times a season. Now, Chipper's not the most beloved guy in baseball -- in fact, he tied for eighth in a poll that appears in this week's SI asking 464 major leaguers to name the "least friendly" player in the game -– but I doubt any player would disagree with his point here. "I don't think there's any question it's not fair, but I don't think major league baseball is concerned with fair," he told reporters. "If you play the top teams in the American League and everybody else doesn't, it's pretty unfair."
It is indeed unfair that the Braves must play half a dozen games against the mighty Red Sox (the Braves, you see, used to call Boston home ... until 1953), and that the Mets will play a six-pack against the usually-mighty Yankees, while the Phillies get the Blue Jays and Royals.
The Braves, in fact, will play the Red Sox (6), Indians (3), and Tigers (3), who, unfortunately for them, currently boast the top three records in the AL. Think that brutal schedule might impact them in their NL East and Wild Card races?
Even worse than the inequity, though, is this: Interleague play, now in its eleventh season, has lost its juice. In New York this week, Yankees fans aren't buzzing about this weekend's showdown with the Mets in Flushing; they're talking about Monday, when the Sox come into town for a three-game set that will go a long way towards making or breaking the Yanks' season. The Mets are also looking to Monday, when they'll travel to Atlanta to face the Braves, whom they're leading by half a game atop the NL East standings.
Interleague play has become little more than an oddity -– one that produces more dud matchups (Rockies-Orioles, anyone?) than intriguing ones. If baseball is serious about keeping the tradition alive, so that fans can continue to watch stars from the other league whom they might not normally get a chance to see (which I believe is less of an issue than it once was, in these heady days of mlb.tv, the Extra Innings package and our multitude of Internets) it should really commit to the format and schedule each team to play a three game set against every team from their opposing league, and vice versa. This would still leave 123 in-league games for NL teams, and 117 for AL teams, and would ensure that no fan base misses out on the far greater joy of making the playoffs because their team had to face Big Papi six times while their divisional competition got to tee off on Tomo Ohka.
Even better, Bud Selig's office should realize that while the interleague experiment was fresh and fun for awhile, those days are over; it should seriously consider abandoning the idea all together. Because the inconvenient truth for Major League Baseball is that the current iteration of interleague play has become worse than unfair. It's become boring.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Mets Fans to Duquette -- All is Forgiven
July 30, 2004 is a date that will likely always live in infamy for Mets fans.
It was on that day that the MLB transaction log read as follows: "NEW YORK METS - Traded LHP Scott Kazmir and RHP Jose Diaz to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for RHP Victor Zambrano and RHP Bartolome Fortunato."
Zambrano, of course, did worse than scuffle as a Met; he went 10-14, and ended his career in New York by sprinting off the mound after tearing up his elbow last May 6. He’s now a long reliever and spot starter for the Blue Jays, for whom he currently boasts an ERA near 11.00.
The 23-year-old lefthanded dynamo that is Scott Kazmir, meanwhile, has lived up to his considerable promise in his short big league career; he’s struck out more than a batter an inning (416 K’s in 407.2 IP), made the All-Star Game last year, and has given every indication that he’ll be an ace for the next decade, at the least.
I don’t need to remind Mets fans of any of these facts; they’re still so distraught by the trade, which effectively ended Jim Duquette’s tenure as the team’s GM and ushered in the Omar Minaya era, that some of them spend their valuable time producing work such as this.
Shea goers may never get over the Kazmir deal, but their rancor should be assuaged by the knowledge that their team currently features a young phenom who, so far in 2007, has been superior in every way to Tampa Bay’s diminutive flamethrower. His name is John Maine.
Maine, 25, is already the second-best player in the history of the major leagues to share his name with that of a U.S. state (sleep with one eye open, Claudell Washington). More importantly, he’s quickly established himself as a genuine ace, for a team that desperately needs one. The Mets have not lost in Maine’s seven starts in 2007, and equally crucially for Mets fans’ peace of mind, he’s currently topping Kazmir in most major pitching categories, including ERA (1.79 to 3.71); strikeouts (41 to 38); WHIP (1.07 to 1.31); batting average against (.188 to .244). Maine has dominated on a more consistent basis than Kazmir -– he’s yet to allow more than three earned runs in a start, whereas Kazmir allowed a combined nine in his first two outings of the year. And he’s demonstrated less of a propensity to give up the long ball -– just three, to Kazmir’s seven.
At a sturdy 6’4", 205 pounds, Maine should also in the long-term be able to better avoid the injury concerns that have bedeviled Kazmir, who’s listed at 6 feet but appears shorter in person, and relies on a high impact pitching delivery. Kazmir made only five starts after the All-Star break last year thanks to a sore shoulder; he was still recovering last fall while Maine was making his stunning breakout in the post-season, in which he allowed a total of four earned runs against the Dodgers and Cardinals.
Of course, there’s little reason why the Mets shouldn’t currently feature both Maine and Kazmir at the top of their rotation. Duquette can always be blamed for that. Still, it’s worth pointing out that the deal that made Maine a Met last January -– he was traded for the underachieving former No. 1 draft pick Kris Benson, who’s currently out for the season due to a torn rotator cuff -– was made with the Orioles. And who at the time was three months into his new job as the Orioles’ V.P. of Baseball Operations? None other than Jim Duquette.
Perhaps the Mets have something for which to thank Duquette after all.
• Nats fans, things may be getting worse: Your team now features Tony Batista, a player about whom the Distinguished Senators blog observes, "He has skinny little Tyrannosaurus Rex arms, which is even weirder looking what with his gut and ass having a perpetual protrusion contest below them."
• Jimmy Rollins, who is two off the NL home run lead, was shifted from first to third in the batting order.
• The Marlins continue to insist that the injured Jorge Julio, who was part of the Maine-for-Benson trade to the Mets last January, is their closer, despite the fact that rookie fill-in Henry Owens currently has an ERA that is more than twelve ticks lower.
• If your local team has an off day, you’ve long been able to get your baseball fix by watching the Braves on TBS. Not for long.
• For some reason, most of the Mets, including David Wright and Shawn Green, decided to shave their heads. Is it just me, or does Green look something like Ridley from Alien 3?
Labels: NL East
NL East: The Braves' 10,000-to-1 Leading Man
"If someone gives you 10,000-to-1 odds on anything, you take it," advised Kevin from The Office a few weeks ago. "If John Mellencamp ever wins an Oscar, I am going to be a very rich dude."
If a month and a half ago Vegas were to have set odds on which NL East leadoff hitter would be tops in OPS through May 2, the list might have looked something like this: Jose Reyes, 3:2. Jimmy Rollins, 2:1. Hanley Ramirez, 3:1 ... Kelly Johnson, 10,000:1.
On my first of a few days in Braves camp in March, Johnson, an outfielder trying to learn to play second base, took a liner straight to the sternum during batting practice; then, a half an hour later, GM John Schuerholz gave him this vote of confidence: "At second base it’ll either be Kelly Johnson or Martin Prado," he said. "Or maybe Yunel Escobar. Or maybe Pete Orr." After that, I might have been reluctant to lay even a buck down on Johnson’s odds.
This, perhaps, is why I will likely never be a very rich dude.
After a mediocre spring in which he hit .268, Johnson, in his first full big league season, ranks sixth in the NL in OPS (1.057), and is nicely sandwiched on the leaderboard between Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Beltran. Reyes is ninth (1.006), Ramirez 12th (.982), and Rollins 13th (.980). Johnson’s pop (5 HR) and ability to get on base (25 walks) has been just as crucial to the Braves’ second-ranked run scoring offense as have been Jeff Francoeur’s 25 RBIs and Chipper Jones’ NL-leading 10 homers.
"He might not have the speed of some leadoff hitters, but he’ll work the count and do what he has to do to get on base, with a little power," Tom Glavine told me yesterday. "At the beginning of the season, before we knew what he can do, we could mentally skip over him and focus on the heart of the order. Now you’ve got to think about Kelly Johnson before you start thinking about Chipper and Andruw and the rest of those guys."
Johnson has also played a more-than-solid second base: he’s got only one error, and his .930 zone rating (which measures the percentage of balls fielded by a player in his typical defensive zone) actually leads the majors at his position.
Johnson may not continue his 36 home run pace -- 15 seems more likely -- but he should continue to get on base, and Prado, currently in Triple A Richmond, likely won’t be loading up the car for the trip to Atlanta any time soon.
The lesson in all this, I suppose? Always listen to Kevin from The Office.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Where are the Rookies?
The 2007 National League Rookie of the Year will not hail from the NL East.
This thought occurred to me as I sat in the Dolphin Stadium press box on Tuesday night, watching the Braves flambé rookie Marlins starter Rick Vanden Hurk for six earned runs on four hits and four walks in his one and only inning of work. (I bet you didn't know -- and probably don't care to -- that Vanden Hurk is just the fifth Dutchman to play in the majors, after Bert Blyleven and the immortal Win Remmerswaal, Rikkert Faneyte, and Robert Eenhoorn.) The Marlins sent the vicious Henricius (Vanden Hurk's full first name) all the way down to Double-A Carolina immediately after the game, although one wonders if they entertained thoughts of shipping him back to Eindhoven.
In recent years, the NL East has produced bumper crop after bumper crop of rooks. Last season, thanks in large measure to the Marlins, more than 58 percent (7 of 12) of the NL ROY vote-getters came from the division, including the top four finishers in Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Dan Uggla and Josh Johnson. Philadelphia's Ryan Howard won the award in 2005, with Jeff Francoeur finishing third; Dontrelle Willis took it in 2003; then-Brave Rafael Furcal won in 2000.
This spring, however, the field lies fallow. In a poll that appears in this week's SI in which 229 National League players were asked to predict who will win this year's ROY award, the top NL East vote getter was Mike Pelfrey at 4 percent -- and the ballyhooed Mets prospect has been mediocre in his three starts, currently sporting a 7.90 ERA after the Rockies creamed him yesterday.
Several players who have not before played a full season (including Braves second baseman Kelly Johnson, Mets starter John Maine and Nats starter Shawn Hill) have impressed in their first regular gigs, but they don't technically qualify as rookies. And while I expect a few first-years starters, including Pelfrey and Washington's Matt Chico, to move up the list in the next few months, none of them have so far done anything special. Here, then, is a thin rookie class's top five to this point, in descending order:
5. Matt Lindstrom, Marlins RHP
Lindstrom took the loss in Tuesday's game because Braves starter Mark Redman turned in a performance as bad as Vanden Hurk's and allowed four first inning runs of his own to tie the score (Lindstrom allowed only one run, the tie-breaker), but he's been a key component of the most overworked bullpen in the majors. The hard-throwing 6-4 righty has a sub-three ERA and is striking out more than a batter an inning. He still must work on his control (6 BB in 9+ IP).
4. Henry Owens, Marlins RHP
On Wednesday Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez continue to refuse to officially name Owens as his closer, but didn't deny it when reporters asked if it can be assumed that he is. (I was tempted to ask Fredi to cough or blink twice if it's true that Owens will receive the next save opportunity, but refrained). He's got a save and a WHIP under 1.30, but a team-worst K rate (3.09 per 9 innings); there aren't many clubs that can say that about their closer, and for good reason.
3. Alejandro de Aza, Marlins CF
Surprise, another rookie Marlin! De Aza started his career with an eight game hitting streak—then he sprained his ankle in his ninth game and hasn't played since. Still, he's a speedster hitting .303 who should regain his starting role and No. 8 hitting spot from Alfredo Amezaga when he returns. This year, that's good enough for third place.
2. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies C
Philadelphia signed free agent Rod Barajas from Texas to catch for them, but Ruiz, in his ninth year with the organization, has 50 at bats and a .300 average to Barajas's 22 and .189. The 28-year-old Panamanian has thrown out just three of 16 basestealers, but has allowed only one passed ball. Ruiz could solidify his hold on the job if Barajas continues to struggle with the bat.
1. Joe Smith, Mets RP
The "common name, uncommon game" joke has already been used by scores of New York writers, but it's appropriate. Smith, who a year ago was pitching for Wright State, pitched 32.2 innings in Single and Double A before making the big club this spring. Check out his line so far: 1-0, 10.0 IP, 10 K, 1.00 WHIP, 0 ER. Project those numbers out, and the NL East may have itself another Rookie of the Year after all.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Have Bat, Will Travel
Three guesses as to which team currently leads the majors in OPS. (Yes, I'm aware this is an NL East blog, so the cleverest of my readers might have already given themselves a one in five shot. Humor me.) The mighty Yankees? Nope. The powerful Indians? Negative. The suddenly loaded Devil Rays? Try again.
The answer, surprisingly, is your 2007 Florida Marlins. The Marlins' team OPS is an MLB-best .808, and they also ranked first in batting average until they managed only three hits (while allowing 17) against the then-second place Mets last night.
Last season, Marlins hitters finished 16th in OPS (.768) and 20th in batting average (.264). What explains the team's sudden early-season offensive surge? Here are five factors. 1. Miguel Cabrera's leap into superstardom: Cabrera has shown signs that he's ready to become a perennial Pujols-ian MVP candidate. While he's unquestionably been a star for three years now (averaging .318, 31 homers, and 114 RBI over that span), in 2007 he's on pace for career highs in homers (46), RBI (150), and OPS (1.083). And Florida lives or dies by Cabrera's bat. He's hitting .550 in Marlins wins and .194 in losses, and has driven in at least at least one run in every victory. Did I mention that he only turned 24 yesterday?
2. Hanley Ramirez's selectivity: Ramirez has so far demonstrated that he views sophomore slumps in the same way that blue-haired Floridians view late dinners and fast driving. The 2006 NL Rookie of the Year has shown a newfound discipline at the plate: while his strikeout to walk ratio was 2.29:1 last year, this season he's walked five times and struck out only six. He's also hitting .372 with a .449 OBP (last year he finished at .292 and .353). If he continues to get on base at anything approaching that clip, and works through a sore hamstring, he could steal 70 bases.
3. The supporting cast's maturation: First baseman Mike Jacobs was the preseason pick of many to win last year's NL ROY but hit .262; so far in '07 he's upped his average by 51 points (to .313) and his OPS by 144 (to .942). Every regular starter except catcher Miguel Olivo and second baseman Dan Uggla has an OBP above .320, and the team's tied for the major-league lead with 54 extra-base hits (including seven from Jacobs and six each from Uggla and outfielder Josh Willingham).
4. The weather: While most of the rest of baseball's hitters have had to struggle with snow, rain and cold, the Marlins have played only three games north of Atlanta -– and only one of those was played in temperatures chillier than 72 degrees. And, of course, those three games came against ...
5. The Washington Nationals: Florida's hitting stats are still a bit inflated from their opening series against the lowly Nats, in which the team scored 25 runs and amassed 35 hits. But they've also faced Tim Hudson, Roy Oswalt and, last night, an inspired John Maine. Can the Marlins continue to mash at their current pace? Likely not. But they should rank as a top-10 offensive team when all is said and done; and, in a relatively tame NL, that should be enough to keep them in the Wild Card chase all season long.
If they're hitting so well, why are the Marlins only 6-8? Much of the blame falls on one man. The Adventures of Jorge Julio sounds like it could be a Garcia Marquez novel; unfortunately for Florida, Julio's adventures been all too real. His ERA stands at 19.06 after he allowed six runs (five earned) and five hits in one inning against the Astros on Tuesday. Now he's on the DL with a "strained calf." Sounds like he's headed for more than a little solitude.
Labels: NL East
NL East: Storm cloud in Braves' sunny start
When I sat down with Braves GM John Schuerholz a month ago in his Disney World spring training office, it took him fewer than 60 seconds to mention his projected No. 3 starter as central to Atlanta's fortunes in 2007. "Pitching is always the key issue for me," he said, "and inside that story is the rehabilitation of Mike Hampton. If he can regain his spot in our rotation as a solid three starter behind [John] Smoltz and [Tim] Hudson, everything else will take care of itself."
At the time, the 34-year-old appeared to be recovering well from the Tommy John surgery he underwent two Septembers ago, and while Schuerholz couldn't expect to have at his disposal the Hampton of '99 (when he went 22-4 with a 2.90 ERA for Houston and finished second in the Cy Young voting to Randy Johnson), he knew he wouldn't be saddled with the Hampton of '02 (7-15, 6.15 ERA with Colorado) either. The Braves modestly hoped that Hampton would continue to do what he did in 2003 and '04, when he combined for a 32-20 record with a 3.96 ERA, and would provide a steady, veteran, left-handed bridge to the youngsters in the bottom of the rotation. "We think Mike's going to be fine," Schuerholz told me. "I'm not Nostradamus here, but I think he'll be back near the start of the season and almost at full form."
Schuerholz may be many things -- the architect of 14 straight division titles, a possible future member of the Hall of Fame -- but prophet he is indeed not. A few days after our meeting, Hampton strained an oblique taking batting practice; a month later, he discovered he had a torn tendon in his pitching elbow. The result was that the Braves were left not with the Hampton of '99, or '02, or '03 to '05, but with the Hampton of '06 -- that is, the one unable pitch for them.
The Braves have been forced to replace Hampton with another veteran lefty, Mark Redman -- who had a 5.71 ERA last year in Kansas City, and is so far responsible for Atlanta's only loss, allowing five earned runs to the Mets last Friday. The good news, of course, is that Atlanta's an MLB-best 7-1, thanks largely to the team's other four starters (Smoltz, Hudson, Chuck James, and Kyle Davies), who have allowed only nine earned runs in 43 2/3 innings thus far. That quartet should be enough to keep the team in contention all year. (I have them nipping the Phillies for the NL Wild Card). The bad news is that the Braves now have a question mark starting every fifth day. If Redman continues to scuffle, I'd expect to see Lance Cormier take his place. In all likelihood, however, Schuerholz has some unexpected work to do.
Labels: NL East
NL East: A Wicked Googly
Hello from London, where last night the streets near Leicester Square were lined with fans peering through pub windows to catch the latest bats n' balls action -– of the cricket variety, of course. Despite losing a nail-biter to Sri Lanka in Antigua yesterday, England, behind captain Michael Vaughan, slugger Kevin Pietersen and fan favorite Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff, remains barely alive in the Cricket World Cup, which is very unfortunately more than can be said for Pakistan's coach Bob Woolmer and this young India fan.
When I was a youngster living in England in the mid-80s, the only way for an American boy to follow the exploits of the Mattinglys and Strawberrys closer to his heart was to scurry downstairs as the sun rose each morning and pray that the kind editors of the many British dailies had deigned to publish tiny 8-point box scores in the back pages of their sports sections.
These days, thanks to the magic of the Internets, the task is far easier; and ironically, it's easiest of all for fans of the Washington Nationals. Although the team fielded an Opening Day lineup that many think might rank among the worst in decades, the Nationals' blogosphere ranks as baseball's best, which can be attributed to two primary factors. First, D.C.'s a blog-mad town, the most famous examples being Wonkette and the salacious and now-defunct Washingtonienne. Second, the art of blogging thrives more on the ridiculous than the sublime -– and there's been a healthy dose of the former in the Nats' short history, and promises to be a good deal more in 2007.
The Nats' brass views its fans' chatter -– even the incessant (and deserved) "whinging," to use a favorite British-ism -– as nothing but a positive. "We want them to be talking about the Nationals all day, all night, at breakfast, at lunch, at dinner, after dinner," G.M. Jim Bowden told me in Florida this spring. "We want them to blog, we want them to read the Internet ... We want the fans to be part of us rebuilding this franchise. Stick with us in the tough times, and that way you really enjoy the great times that are coming." Sticking with the scuffling team are committed blogs that number in the dozens; the best include Federal Baseball, The Curly W, Ball-Wonk, District of Baseball, Nats 320, and Nationals Farm Authority.
The class of the so-called 'Natosphere,' however, is Capitol Punishment, authored by Capitol Hill worker Chris Needham, a die-hard Nats fan and blogger savant who posts several times a day. More often than not, his posts are of the tough love variety, such as his "StanSpeak" series in which he parses the public pronouncements of Nats president Stan Kasten. Needham was stunned -– and slightly afraid -– when he opened his inbox after he'd written a particularly colorful StanSpeak installment in early February to discover an e-mail from the former overseer of the Atlanta Braves' dynasty himself. All Kasten wanted to do, the Washington Post reports, was to express his love for Capitol Punishment; he later had Needham call him and inquired as to why Needham hadn't renewed his partial season-ticket plan.
Needham's still at it this spring: In an opening day post called "... At Least It's Baseball," he writes, "Screw you to Kasten/Aramark/Whoever for 1) raising beer prices 2) eliminating the one place that had cheap beer in the park." Kasten never had to deal with this in his heady days in Atlanta; one imagines him reaching for the phone and entering "Needham" into his speed-dial.
Until next week, when I'm back on American soil ...
Labels: NL East
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)